Happy? Excited?

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I’ve been watching dogs for a long time now.  I think observation is crucial for anyone who wants to work with canine behavioral issues.  Some dogs I’ve watched only briefly while others I have watched since they were born.  My yellow lab, Peck, was born into my waiting hands and I’ve been watching him ever since that moment.

One of the things that still intrigues me is the line between happiness and excitement.  Sometimes they look like the same emotion.  Other times there are well marked boundaries between them.

 An example of excitement for Peck would be when he sees me getting our stuff together for a walk.  His excitement is obvious, but there’s also a good measure of happiness thrown in too.

Another example that shows more happiness and less excitement would be when Peck approaches me for some petting.  Like most labs, he enjoys a good butt-scratch.  At these times his happiness is obvious but there isn’t the same wild excitement about him as there is when he’s anticipating a walk or a hunt or a training session.

Immediately after feeding is another time when my dogs show a good measure of happiness, wagging their tails, rubbing against my legs, licking my hands and face if I let them.  We could just call this submissive, food-seeking behavior, but I think it’s more a show of happiness in the form of gratitude.  Some of you may dismiss this notion as a gross anthropomorphism.  Maybe.

The reason I’m going on about the difference between happiness and excitement is because I see so many people who don’t seem to recognize any difference between these 2 emotions.  I’m sure you’ve seen it too.  One of the most common cases I see is when a person pets a dog roughly in a clear attempt to elicit an excited response from the dog.  Kids are great at this, especially young boys.  I often see young boys roughhousing with a dog and it’s easy to see they are both excited, but are they both really enjoying it?  Is this happiness?

Excitement and the hormones it releases also bear with them a measure of stress.  Hormone-fueled stress can have detrimental effects on humans and dogs alike.  It simply isn’t possible to avoid stress entirely, nor is it desirable.  On the other hand (paw), it can serve to make us better guardians and deepen our relationship with our dogs if we approach the dichotomy of excitement / happiness with a sharpened awareness rather than allowing things to “just happen”.

I’ve learned a lot just by trying to see the difference between happiness and excitement in my dogs.  Some of the stuff I’ve learned has made me a better handler and guardian.  Honestly, I’m not absolutely certain there is a clearly defined difference between happiness and excitement.  Maybe it’s kind of like comparing apples to apples.  But I know that looking for a difference increases my awareness and that has to be a good thing.

Try it!

Happy New Year!

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Among the 40,000 new laws that go into effect today is the new Tethering Law that takes effect in Illinois.   While some people see this kind of legislation as a win for the dogs; I see it as one more area of life where common sense is no longer necessary as the govt. steps in to regulate our relationships with our pets.

I don’t see how this law will really help dogs.  Responsible dog owners already know that tethering or chaining is a dangerous practice to be avoided whenever possible.  No amount of legislation will help uncaring or negligent dog owners to see the light.  This law simply legitimizes a hazardous and neglectful practice.  The new law regulates the length and weight of the chain or tether.  It’s kind of like having rules for how hard you can beat your dog.

Have I ever tethered a dog before?  Yes.  Often, while camping, I have placed a dog on a tether to be sure he or she didn’t run off into the woods while I was cooking or attending to other chores that took my attention away from the dog.  Obviously, this is a different situation than the person who leaves a dog on a chain all day while they are at work.  The use of a chain or tether as a primary means of containment for a dog is an outmoded and dangerous practice.  Statistics show that chained dogs are responsible for an inordinate number of dog bites.  All things being equal, a dog is far more likely to bite or exhibit other aggressive behavior if he is left on a chain.  Tethering, over time, can lead to behavioral changes and psychological damage to the dog.  At its worst, chaining also causes terrible physical damage to the captive dog.

So perhaps we should entirely outlaw the use of chains and tethers?  Nope.  That won’t work either.  The legislation of commonsense does nothing for animals, but worsens their plight by shifting the burden of common sense from the dog’s guardian to the government.  Do we really want to rely on government to dictate what is and is not “common sense”?

If we allow our government to decide how long a tether should be, how long will it take before we allow our govt. to decide that it is illegal to leave a dog in a car?  Wait a sec… that’s already illegal in some places.  So now, I am unable to take Fido with me to the store if I live in one of those places.  My dogs LOVE to ride with me in the truck, even if it means waiting for a half hour while I shop or do an errand.  Would I leave them in a hot vehicle on a hot day?  Of course not!  Fortunately I am blessed with enough common sense to make good decisions about my dogs.

It seems to me that people who support government control of every aspect of our lives simply don’t believe that they or their peers have as much common sense as the govt.  It boggles my mind that they can maintain this kind of blind faith in our corrupt, bloated, controlling nanny state.

Before you write me off as just another wild eyed, anti-government whack job, I challenge you to name one aspect of your life that is not already controlled or regulated by govt. in some way.

How’s that working out for us as a nation?

Slack Leads, People!

Diesel Dawg Update!

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I’ve had Diesel here at the kennel since Nov.1 and we have been actively training for about 2 weeks.  In our last update I mentioned that we were working on extending Diesel’s  SIT.  You’ll recall that I don’t usually teach STAY.  So SIT is a big deal because it replaces STAY. 

Diesel has made excellent progress since our last update!  I can now put him in a SIT and turn my back and walk away, at least 30 paces, then walk in a circle around him.  He remains seated more than 9 out of 10 times. 

When a behavior is learned to this extent we can begin replacing our fixed ratio of one click/treat (c/t) per each successful behavior with a more variable schedule that focuses the c/t on the best examples of the behavior.  Our target is to progress to an average of 3:1.  That means that on average Diesel will get a click and treat for about every third successful Sit.  If we’re having a good session I try to extend distance and time.  If the session is less focused and his mind is wandering, I try not to push the boundaries.  This way we set him up for success.

All the while we have been working parallel on his Recall.  About half the time when I put him in a SIT, instead of me returning to click and treat, I call him to me for his c/t.  We’re getting good results with this approach. 

Now we’re trying to get him to return to the HEEL position.  We’re making progress with this, but there is plenty of room for improvement.  We’ve started working on HEEL using a technique called Differential Reinforcement of Other behavior or DRO for short.  This technique is also called “Shaping the Absence”.  I’ll try to explain this in another post.

Until then, best wishes and Slack Leads to all of you!

Sometimes Extinction Is A Good Thing!

Behavioral science is full of screwy, confusing terminology.  “Positive reinforcement” isn’t necessarily good. “Negative reinforcement” gets a bad rap partly because of the word, “negative”.  “Negative” and “extinction” can actually be good things.

In the highly derivative and somewhat esoteric language of behavioral science, “extinction” means the withholding of reinforcement (reward) for a previously learned behavior.  Let’s look at a typical example.

Fido, a little Shih Tsu, has developed a habit of whining and jumping up on your legs when he wants attention.  This is previously learned behavior.  Guess who taught it to him?  Yes, that would be you.  Now your friendly neighborhood behaviorist (dog trainer) tells you to ignore Fido when he jumps on you and that will cause the behavior to stop.  This is what we call behavioral extinction.  The behavior (jumping) will eventually go “extinct” when the reward (your attention) is no longer reinforcing the behavior.

 As a trainer, this is a very familiar scenario to me.  It’s also one of my biggest challenges because people find that when they stop rewarding a behavior, the behavior actually INCREASES!!!  In our example, you have stopped rewarding Fido’s jumping.  Each time he jumps, you turn away from him and completely ignore him as long as he has his little paws on your legs.  The problem is that you find he is now getting really frantic and jumping and whining and pawing even more.  You then decide that “extinction” is just a crock of behaviorist crapola and you surrender to your dog’s frantic attention-getting strategy.

What actually happened in the preceding paragraph is called an “extinction burst”.  It is extremely common and quite predictable in most cases.  Fido’s attention getting strategy is suddenly not working, so he tries even harder to get your attention, leaping, whining, barking, etc. until you finally give in and pick him up just to get the noise to stop.

Too bad.  By picking him up you just made the problem even worse.  And you were so close to the goal line too!  You see, typically an extinction burst marks the beginning of behavioral change within the brain.  If you can get through 3 or 4 of these kinds of burst-episodes, that’s all it normally takes for Fido to give up the jumping behavior because he understands that it just doesn’t work anymore.

Once you have successfully modified this undesired behavior, you can give Fido a new behavior by rewarding a SIT with your attention and affection.

Still think “extinction” is behaviorist crapola?  How long would you continue to go to work if they stopped paying you?  How frantic would you be to get the pay that you had already earned?  When it was obvious that your place of work was not going to pay, would you keep getting up at 6:00 AM every morning and going to the same office demanding your paycheck?  Probably not.  At some point even the most dogged (pun intended) of us would give up and try something else.

So… what undesirable behaviors are you currently reinforcing and how would you go about bringing them to extinction?