Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Adjusting Problem Behavior

If your dog could talk, he would tell you what motivates him to do just about anything. If you could provide that motivation, he would be your adoring fan and do whatever you want. If you pay attention and learn to read your dog's body language you could figure out what your dog is interested in. The things that we cal...l ‘distractions’ or 'triggers' are actually powerful training rewards.

Here are some things your dog may already be doing:

  • He pulls as hard as he can on the leash to get to the squirrel in the tree ahead or the cat in the bushes.

  • He barks furiously to chase the mailman off who he perceives as an intruder.

  • He lunges, growls and snarls at people or other dogs. What he wants is for them to move back and give him more space.

  • He pulls as hard as he can on the leash, scratches at the door or howls to beat the band, to get to those people he loves.

  • He jumps up all over you and your visitors to get you to notice and pay attention to him.


Your dog knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. At some point in his life, he tried a whole variety of things to get what he wanted, and he stuck with the behaviors that worked the best. He wouldn’t do it for long if it didn’t work. Unfortunately, the ways that are working for him right now are annoying, and sometimes dangerous, to you. I think we can all agree that if our dogs used a different behavior in the above scenerios, we’d be thrilled.

For example:

  • He looks at the squirel, then looks at you for direction / permission, when he sees the squirrel in the tree ahead.

  • He goes and lies down in his place when the mailman comes.

  • He turns his back to get away from those scary people.

  • He walks quietly and calmly to get to those people he loves.

  • He sits at your feet to get you to notice him.


In the above set of behaviors, possible distractions / triggers would be:

  • Dog sees or smells a squirrel, cat, chipmunk, whatever

  • Dog hears the mailman on the porch

  • Unknown person approaches, looking at the dog

  • Known person approaches, looking at the dog

  • You turn the key in the door knob


Let's start with the scenario of a total stranger approaching your dog who is reactive to the approach of strangers. You can’t have a stranger come over to pet the dog. That trigger is too sensitive. So you set it up so they are 30 feet away, or 100, or whatever it takes for the dog to look and say, ‘no big deal, I can just turn my head or sniff the ground and pretend it's not there.’

The next trigger is a person approaching from 25 feet away, or the person at 30 feet talking, or the person at 30 feet reaching toward the dog. Gradually, though, you move the trigger closer and closer. You never want to push the dog into being overly stressed, and if you see it starting to happen, give your dog what he wants and get out of there.

In addition to giving the dog what he wants (moving away from the stranger), we give him something else to do besides lunge, snarl and growl. If you could adjust the behavior to whatever you wanted, what would it look like? Be specific, not just ‘I want a good dog,’ but behaviors, like sniffing the ground, turning his head, leaning in for a scratch, blinking calmly, etc. We've learned various behaviors over the last 6 weeks - targeting, focus, watch me, back up, etc. Which of these behaviors would work best as an alternative in this scenario for you?

Once you've figured that out, it’s simply a matter of:

  1. Giving the dog a small version of the trigger

  2. Move away if the dog reacts adversely

  3. Watch for, or elicit, the behavior you want

  4. Give the dog what he wants.


In our example above, that could look like:

  1. Owner and dog walk 15 feet toward a cooperative ’stranger’.

  2. Calling the dog and going 30 feet away if you get any reactive behavior and start over at the new distance.

  3. Dog blinks, sniffs the ground, or otherwise relaxes or looks friendly.

  4. Walk back to where you started, or have the stranger walk away, and repeat until you and your dog are virtually in the strangers pocket.


In this case creating distance between themselves and the Scary Monster is the reward.

With a squirrel and a pulling dog, it might be:

  1. A good friend stands with a stuffed toy, sprayed with wonderful smelly stuff, at the end of the block.

  2. Stop and be a tree or turn the dog away from the toy if she pulls hard.

  3. Dog looks at you or remains close enough to you to not pull, starts sniffing the ground around you with a slack leash or otherwise lets the leash go slack.

  4. You walk toward the friend and the stuffed toy in increments.


Eventually, you can do this with a bouncing tennis ball or a squirrel in a tree, but start smaller so that your dog has a higher chance of success. More successes = more learning, because dogs learn more from success than failure. Staying well below you dog’s Reactive Threshold is extremely critical if you are using this methodology for aggression and/or fear. When in doubt, happily distract your dog and walk away to regroup.

The greatest part of all of this is that it’s easy to maintain the training once you’re done. With the mailman, in fact, you don’t have to lift a finger, because the mailman always leaves. Your dog never has to learn that it’s not his calm behavior that’s making the mailman leave.

We’re constantly asking dogs to do what we want them to do, and expect them to work for whatever we give them, like attention, petting, food, or toys. Those things are great, and I use them all the time, especially in classes. They are also great for pre-training the dog on the skills they need before you switch to doing behavior adjustment, or even together with behavior adjustment.

To permanently stop your dog from being annoying or becoming scared, notice what they get out of doing it, and use the reward they are already working for to pay for good behavior. Otherwise, we are just using second-rate rewards. The dog already has a great reward figured out in each situation, get the dog to accept an alternative.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What is a Canine Behavior Specialist/Consultant

With the advent of National Geographic's "The Dog Whisperer" and Animal Planet's "It's Me Or The Dog" there has been an increasing number of people setting themselves up as canine behaviorists, dog psychologists, dog behavior consultants and a host of other titles.

Some of those attracted to behavioral work have been obedience trainers, viewing behavior modification as a logical extension of their original work. Hopefully, however, they will have come to realize that good behavioral work involves much more than just the ability to train a dog to do set tasks.

The others set themselves up as behavioral counselors, but in truth possess little experience of dealing with people or dogs - other then their own and maybe a relative or friend's dog. Similarly they will have little scientific knowledge of both canine behavior and human psychology, and the thought of even reading a scientific book on animal behavior sends them into a tizzy. Most have no clue that there are many dogs whose behavior problems are an actually physical problems or chronic pain that manifests as a behavior problem but really needs a veterinarian to fix.

Knowledge and qualifications

To be a good canine behaviourist, it is not enough, by any means, just to like dogs, or to feel you have a gift for working with them, on the basis of simply owning and/or knowing a few you got along well with or having watched the various dog training and behavior shows on TV. You must possess a sound grasp of the science of how dogs fundamentally 'tick' as a species, physically, psychologically and in terms of their basic social behaviour.

You must also be well aquainted with many different dog breeds, and their specific genetic quirks, while still respecting how dogs can vary as individuals. You must be conscious of the multitude of different factors, from early rearing, environment and diet, to specific facets of genetic inheritance that may influence the way any dog behaves. Much of the above knowledge can only be acquired through suitable study and practical 'hands on' experience, usually over many years.

You must have excellent communication skills - not just with dogs, but also with people. Most of your work will involve dealing with dog owners and other dog care takers. How well a behaviourist can work with an owner, in terms of correctly identifying the source of the problem they have with their dog, and then developing and explaining the best possible solution for it, is often the key to his or her professional success, or lack of it!

It's one thing to be able to gain enough trust from a dog you are working with to be able to walk it correctly, but it's another thing to teach the dog's owner(s) how to do the same. As a behaviorist, you must understand that approximately 80% of a dog's behavior problems were created by the owner and be able to communicate that without alienating that owner.

Continuing Education

A good behaviourist is one who is constantly prepared to challenge or question his or her own way of working with dogs. Effective behaviourists never close their minds to the possibility of doing something better, more enlightened, or more humane, when it comes to the training of dogs, or management of their behaviour.Learning for a good canine behaviourist should never stop. Going on courses, reading and studying, networking with others in your field, and learning about allied subjects will all help you with your behavioural work.

Mentally challenging

Canine behavioral work can be quite stressful, as well as mentally and emotionally challenging. A behaviorist often deals with highly troubled dogs and/or owners in a considerable state of distress. Desperate owners may also ring you at antisocial times expecting sympathy and help. Not everyone who loves dogs will find this professional responsibility easy to handle.

A behaviorist needs to be a very patient person, both with dogs and their owners alike, and not be quick to panic when faced with a particularly agitated or aggressive dog. You will also need a good level of personal confidence, in order to step into any troubled human/canine situation and attempt to find the most appropriate solution.

What we do

The services of a canine behaviorist go beyond that of a basic dog trainer. Behaviorists take a scientific approach to understanding the causes, functions, development, and evolution of canine behavior. Since many behavior problems are complex, behaviorists conduct in-depth evaluations of a pet’s history, environmental factors and specific behaviors to develop a treatment plan.

One of the first steps a trainer or behaviorist addressing behavior problems must do in working with a new client is taking a detailed behavioral history. It is impossible to plan a course of treatment without knowing what exactly the problem is and what is triggering your dog's reactions.

The second thing is to take your problem-pet to your veterinarian for a complete physical examination. Take along a fresh stool sample for a parasite check. My records of more than 2,000 cases show that more than 20% of dogs with behavior problems who had not been checked in more than 6 months also had a health problem. There is no use wasting money on a behavior problem when there may be a contributing health factor.

The behaviorist you choose will want to observe your dogs’ interactions between each other and your interactions with your dog. She will likely ask you how frequent these incidents are occurring, and if you note any “triggers” for the your dogs' reactions. Are the incidents increasing, or decreasing in frequency as time passes? Do the incidents seem to occur around specific people, objects, treasured toys or food sources? And many more questions of this sort.

Then and only then will the behaviorist begin working with you and your dog.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Beyond Patience

Over and over again, the necessity of patience is emphasized in dog training literature. "Be patient with your dog." "Do not expect overnight results when dealing with a difficult dog." "Maintain your cool when dealing with your dog." The presence of patience is preached as the ultimate virtue for anyone training a dog. No one providing dog training guidance overlooks the value of patience.

Patience is not necessarily an attribute possessed by all dog owners. As a result, the impatient owner may often delve into his bag of intimidating dirty tricks when things do not go according to plan. Too often, unfortunately, dog owners are not really aware of the length of time they should expect successful training to take. With a realistic outlook regarding what is ahead, an owner is less likely to find himself or herself feeling agitated or impatient.

But what is patience really? When I'm teaching a behavior group class, I could easily lose my patience with some of the owners that I have to deal with. For instance, right now I have one lady who insists on chatting up all the other students, giving them her version of what should be happening and totally ignoring her dog. I have another student who refuses to keep track of what her dog is doing and lets it roam around on an 8 foot lead.

What do I do with these two? I can't get mad. That would undermine everything the students who are doing well and paying attention have accomplished over the last 6 weeks of this class. I have to realize that there are always going to be people who need a reality adjustment, those who need constant encouragement and those who will work for the benefit of themselves and their dogs. Then I work around the slackers and talkers, gently inviting them into the group at various intervals and using them as examples when teaching new things. This way, not only do I not have to have patience, I don't get upset.

Because of the successes, the dogs that are slowly getting less and less reactive and the owners who show that they really care, I’m in a great mood and very energized, so much so that I often take whichever of my dogs came with me to class for another walk. I hardly notice the drive or traffic on the way home. I can’t stop thinking about the successes of the class, the smiles on the owner's faces and the terrific patience and kindness towards their dogs.

Patience is a necessary virtue when it comes to dog training whether you’re teaching a dog to come when called, working to help a dog overcome a fear, or trying to quiet the bark fest that ensues when the doorbell rings. Depending on the dog’s training history (or lack thereof); history of reinforcement for a “problem” behavior; and how easy or hard it is to motivate the dog, carrying a training plan through from start to finish sometimes takes a L-O-N-G time. How long is always difficult to say. That depends a great deal on the patience, diligence and consistency of the owners.

Impatience arises in large part from unrealistic expectations about dogs and the learning process. People expect dogs to nail new skills immediately and to execute those skills perfectly under any and all circumstances. If you’ve ever taken salsa dancing lessons, learned to speak another language, or to play a musical instrument, you know what I mean. You don’t learn all at once, you learn in stages – how to do easy steps, then increasingly harder ones, how to put them together into whole dance routines, and how to perform them fluidly and gracefully.

True patience is not about waiting. It's about working toward a realistic goal, a goal that is attainable and doing those things necessary to reach that goal.

Patience is not about too little, or too much. It is not about working slowly, or working faster – it is not about taking more time or taking less time. It's about enjoying what you're doing in the moment, taking things one step at a time and celebrating when each step is achieved. Patience is about letting our perceptions be fully open to the moment and not constantly looking at what "could" be but what "is" and what you can do about the reality of things. It means being completely and totally honest with yourself about the fact that you’re upset with what is happening. You’re not suppressing anything—patience has nothing to do with suppression. In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself.

To help you get there, here is my recipe:

1. Accept that your dog is doing exactly what he understands to do. This means, if he’s doing something different than you expect, he's probably confused. Check his understanding of what you want and return to modeling the behavior so he gets it.

2. Accept that your dog is trying his hardest, and if he isn’t doing things the way you’d like them done, realize that you need to assist him. He is not being stubborn or defiant.

3. Ask yourself, “How can I help him understand what I want?” And then make things easier until you find out where he is confused. Reward his best choices and you will get better ones in the future.

4. Try to figure out why you are in such a hurry for your dog to change something or learn something new. Change the time of training if it's a time crunch you're under. Change the place of training if there are just too many "human" distractions and you are constantly having to pull your own attention away from things.

5. Pinpoint the triggers that often make you lose your patience. In the long run, developing patience requires a change in your attitude about life. In order to do that you need to find out what triggers your inpatience. For me it's when someone is just not paying attention, whether in group class or individually. There is always someone who seems to be lost in la-la land or can't stop talking long enough to hear anything.

6. Remind yourself that things take time. People who are impatient are people who insist on getting things done now and don't like to waste time. However, some things just can't be rushed. Think about your happiest memories. Chances are, they were instances when your patience paid off, like when you worked steadily towards a goal that wasn't immediately gratifying, or took a little extra time to spend leisurely with a loved one. Would you have those memories if you had been impatient? Probably not. Almost anything really good in life takes time and dedication, and if you're impatient, you're more likely to give up on relationships, goals, and other things that are important to you. Good things may not always come to those who wait, but most good things that do come don't come right away.

Do those six things and I bet you’ll be “beyond patience” in no time!