Tuesday, June 17, 2014


"Our children spend their days being passively instructed, and made to sit still and take tests—often against their will. We call this imprisonment schooling, yet wonder why kids become bored and misbehave. Even outside of school children today seldom play and explore without adult supervision, and are afforded few opportunities to control their own lives. The result: anxious, unfocused children who see schooling—and life—as a series of hoops to struggle through."

"...free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their lives, solve problems, get along with peers, and become emotionally resilient. This capacity to learn through play evolved long ago, in hunter-gatherer bands where children acquired the skills of the culture through their own initiatives. And these instincts still operate remarkably well today, as studies at alternative, democratically administered schools show. When children are in charge of their own education, they learn better—and at lower cost than the traditional model of coercive schooling."

This is the model that I and the trainers and apprentices at Seize The Leash are following. That the lack of play, the lack of enrichment, creates a dog with no joy in life and no emotional attachment to their humans. That those methods that force and compel the dog to perform based on avoidance, where the joy of life is completely separate from any "schooling", and even those activities that should be joyful are still constrained with the need to avoid, create a ghost of a dog with no will, no self control and very little confidence.

We strive to give a dog many opportunities to control their own destinies and their everyday lives based on rules and boundaries that must be in place for safety and the needs of their living companions. Every lesson our dogs learn is based on choice; their choice to do or not to do, to seek reinforcement and enrichment by way of learning the rules, learning the jobs and behaviors we consider important for living in our world.

We do not seek errorless learning, but try hard to avoid creating frustration and shutdown behaviors in the dogs we teach and live with. We strive to create joy in living, joy in being with us, and joy in their own ability to think, to do, to play, to learn and to work.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Counting Threads

When a dog is experiencing high levels of stress and there is no escape route from that which is causing the stress the most effective method of calming the dog is movement. "Flight" as a response to stress and fear is the most common response in mammals. If you can get a dog moving away from that which he is adversely responding to, you end up with a calmer dog.

Do an experiment first before playing this game with your dog. Think of an incident that really stressed you or something that truly frightens you and feel which sets of muscles in your body respond. Generally it's your neck, shoulders, hands and mouth. For a dog it's the mouth, neck, shoulders, hips and spine. The mouth in case the dog needs to bite, the spine because it's the communication pathway to the legs and feet, and the rest to facilitate movement.

The game is all about movement.

Step one: Designate something as the "thing" that is scary. Make sure at first it's not really something your dog is afraid of. A tree stump works great.

Step two: With your dog on a leash move away from the scary thing. Walk anywhere from 5 to 10 feet away from the "thing".

Step three: Stop, but don't stop moving. Move in small circles and start pointing things out to your dog on the ground - leaves, rocks, dirt clumps, flowers - whatever is there, tiny to tall as long as it's on the ground. Babble at your dog while you're doing this "what's that", "look, a snail", anything, just keep talking.

Step four: While pointing things out start moving back towards the "thing" very slowly watching your dog for any signs of recognition that it "sees" the "thing". When you see this recognition, repeat step one. The signs could be a head turn away, licking the lips, sneezing, the ears flatten, the brow wrinkles, and since the thing in this case isn't scary you're going to see interest instead of anxiousness - a tail wag, moving forward or just a glance and a look away.

Step five: Continue the cycle of step one to four until there is no more response to the "thing".
This game also works when your dog starts "acting out" from boredom either on a walk, hiking or just hanging out while you are on your cell phone, reading your kindle or talking to your neighbor. Take two minutes to go "count some threads" and you'll have a happier dog who is more willing to hang out with you doing almost nothing.

Flip the Fish - Self Control Game

In human psychology, impulse control refers to people's ability to delay gratification or resist their immediate desires, impulses or temptations. In short, impulse control means self-control or self-restraint. Babies have no impulse control, but they learn it from their parents and environment as they develop.

Dogs are similar to babies. They have no idea that they can't have things they want right when they want them and can't do everything they want right when they feel the urge. Most dogs need to learn to control or inhibit their behavior. With small puppies, it's relatively easy for us to prevent undesirable behaviors-like chewing furniture or running off in pursuit of a nice scent-simply by picking them up. But as they grow larger and become more independent, it's difficult to prevent their inappropriate behavior if they haven't been taught to control their impulses.

Back when I was a kid, there was a game called Flip the Fish.  It involved a kiddie pool, buckets and plastic fish.  We pretended we were bears and flipped the fish out of the pool trying to get them into the buckets.  Since I grew up with dogs and cats all around, the dogs would always get into the game with us trying to catch the fish before they ended up in the bucket.  The dogs learned fast that once the fish was in the bucket it was “safe”.

Over the years, I’ve used this game (and many others) in many forms to teach self-control both to dogs and kids.  It’s much like Mouse In A Hole except the excitement level is very high.

A form of this game that I use now is with radio controlled cars and creatures.  Especially with the snake avoidance class. 

Get some cheap RC cars and you can get snakes as well.  The purpose of the game with the cars is to get the car from point A to point B without getting caught by the dog.  The dog has to learn that points A & B are safety zones.  You must be quick because you really don’t want the dog to actually capture the car/animal. The safe zones are always behind a bush or tree or rock.  The places where snakes are usually found.

Change your safe zones often until you are sure your dog understands that anything hiding in a bush or rock is “safe”.



Friday, June 13, 2014

How to create games that teach a behavior

How to create games that teach a behavior.

Step 1: Thoroughly examine the behavior you want to teach.

What is the last action the dog does; what is the first; determine all the different actions the dog would do from start to finish.

For example: teaching a dog to skateboard.

I’m using a skateboard here mostly because it’s not an easy behavior to teach due to the movement of the board and because Micah taught it to himself with very little input from me. I had the pleasure of watching a dog who knows how to think and how to create and figure it out for himself.
1.       Notice the skateboard
2.       Examine the skate board (silly thing you say, but what I've noticed every time Micah gets on the skateboard he has to sniff it first. It may be a really quick drive by type sniff, but he does it every time)
3.       Put a paw on the board
4.       Put another paw on the board.
5.       Put a third paw on the board
6.       Put the fourth paw on the board (again, with Micah I notice he puts all four up, then takes one or two down to paddle)
7.       Change posture to face forward
8.       Change posture to lean forward
9.       Put one, maybe two feet down and push.
Those are the major steps.

Step 2: Examine the different actions involved in the behavior and look for differences and similarities.

The reason for looking for differences and similarities is that you may be able to lump actions together into a single game, or you’ll need to create a game for each action.  Sometimes you may even need to break an action down into even smaller pieces.
Taking our example of teaching a dog to skateboard, what we see with 3, 4, 5 and 6 are what appear to be similar actions – put a paw on the board.  But if you look at it closer, what is actually happening is that you are “adding” paws, not just putting a single paw on the board in each step.  It’s usually fairly straight forward for a dog to put the two front paws up on a platform with little difficulty, the problems start with the rear paws.  Many dogs do not understand that they can move their rear paws independently and some don’t even realize they have rear paws and legs.  The rear often just follows along and the dog often looks clumsy when maneuvering around obstacles.
So, we’ve examined our actions and realize that our dog may have difficulty with one or more steps.  You could create more than one game for the difficult actions so that the dog learns about that action from different viewpoints or you could break those actions down farther and create two or three games to facilitate the dog’s learning curve.
It’s better to have more games than less with the understanding that in many cases, the dog figures out the final game without having to do all the intermediate games.  Many of the games necessary for teaching a behavior may also not be necessary because the actions were learned as part of other behaviors and just need a refresher or associating a specific game with a new piece of equipment, obstacle or environment.
Micah learned to skateboard in less than 10 minutes.  He already understood about platforms, had decent rear end awareness, wasn’t afraid of moving objects and really, just had to realize that 1) at least one foot needed to be down to push, and 2) that this object could move while he was on it in a different manner then a teeter.  I did nothing.

Step 3: Look for already created and tested games that can teach any of the steps in your target behavior.

There are many games already out there on the Internet, in books and on DVD.  There are also many variations of the more well-known games like “go to place”.  As you are looking, keep in mind that even though a game seems to be specific for another behavior, games can have multiple uses.  For instance in the classes I teach each has 48 games (8 weeks of 6 games each).  Many of those games are repeated in several classes. Crate Games, “It’s Yer Choice” and 1-2-3-Break from Susan Garrett’s Ruff Luv book are in every single class.  These three games teach self-control and the ability to think through arousal.  1-2-3-Break and Crate Games also teach an awesome stay. “It’s Yer Choice” expanded can resolve counter surfing, eating poop and stealing popsicles from toddlers.
So for our example of teaching a dog to skateboard we could use any version of targeting for steps 1 through 6 and 9.  There are several games from the agility world for teaching stopped contacts that we could use for getting the dog to put all four paws on the board.  We could utilize other forms of platforms to teach the fundamentals of “paws up”, what to do on a platform and how to use one.  “Look At That” from Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed could be used for step 1. My “What’s That” Game for step 2. My “Dig it” or “Tap Tap” games for step 9.
The most important part of looking for already created games is to make sure they can flow into the games that will follow them and from the games that precede them.  “Look At That” flows right into “What’s That” and What’s That flows into any variation of “Touch That” (targeting) which then could potentially flow into “Tap Tap” for the paddling once all four feet have made contact with the board.  All five of those games are in reality just variations of targeting with eyes, nose, and toes.
If your dog already knows the games you select, and most of the steps for your new behavior have been covered with known games, as with Micah and his skateboard, teaching the new behavior is a breeze. But if you are new to training, or new to structured game training, you will have to teach each game.

Step 4: Create a game

“Dog training should be a TWO way flow of information. We don’t lure dogs with treats or physically manipulate them to the place where we want them to be; We create challenges, in the form of games with obvious solutions, then we sit back and watch them make their choices.”  Susan Garrett
This is actually the easy part, but there are a couple of rules about structured games that should be followed.
1.       Remember that a game does not control the dog or the human.  The human controls the environment so that the game is easily apparent to another human and the dog, and the dog makes choices based on that environment.
2.       Reinforcement is given for choices, choices that lead to the behavior the game is designed for.  There should, ideally, be only two choices in any game a) do it and b) do something else. Reinforcement is only give when the dog chooses “a”.
3.       There is no correction, punishment, redirection or other “handling” by the human necessary to play the game.  If you’ve designed the game so that you are constantly feeling like you need to “help” your dog, then the games has a) too many choices and needs to be split into smaller games or b) you have not sufficiently set up the environment so that the “do it” choice and the “do something else” choices are clear or c) the proper foundation games have not been played.
4.       Each game should take no more than 3 minutes for the dog to become 80% proficient at playing.  The original choice should not take more than a minute for your dog to figure out, any longer than that means you should probably split the game.
Now comes the creation part.
1.       Pick one of the behaviors that doesn’t already have a game. In this case we’ll pick “face forward”.
2.       Decide where your starting point is and what the end point should be.  For “face forward” the starting point would be either looking down at the feet, at you or at one side.  The end point would be facing forward without the feet leaving the board.
3.       Figure out what the environment would have to look like to encourage the dog to go from the starting point to the end point. With “face forward” it would have to be something to encourage the dog to face forward, but keep her in place on the board.  There are a couple of things that could be done here.  If your dog had some self-control and understood a release word, you could put a toy a foot or so in front of the board and wait for your dog to look at it.  Then release and reward with the toy.  If your dog doesn’t have a lot of self-control or doesn’t understand a release word yet, you could ask for a hand target or just wait til your dog looks forward and then reward.
Remember that you are only manipulating the environment.  Luring with a treat is manipulating the dog.  The example I gave for “face forward” creates a static behavior.  The dog stands still and looks forward.  But our final behavior is going to be a dog who is moving forward on a skateboard.  The static behavior would work, which is why I include “lean forward” as the next step, but you could also combine the two with a simple run up to the board, get on the board, briefly stop and then run off in a straight line.  This would encourage the dog to move with the skateboard once you’ve taken any anchors off.
As you can see, there are only three steps here.  The game should never be complicated; it should be a simple start, end.

Step 5: Discover what the reinforcers for this behavior could be. By definition, reinforcers both depend on behaviors and sustain them.

Remember that all games must have a consequence and for our purposes because we are trying to teach new behaviors or increase already known behaviors, those consequences need to be positive.
Things that seem like rewards sometimes aren’t: what matters is that the behavior is learned or increased, not the intention of the teacher.  If a “reward” has no effect on a behavior, then it’s not a reinforcer.
Even with these short games, you can run into boredom. “Boredom” indicates a lack of reinforcers, not a lack of stimulation.   Boredom can happen even with high value reinforcement especially of the food variety.  Satiation can occur and then your liver or cheese is no longer reinforcing.   So always have more then one TYPE of reinforcement, not just more than one flavor of food.
You must also take into consideration the behavior you are teaching.  If your behavior is a moving behavior, your reinforcers should be of the same type – chasing toys, your hand or food. If a static behavior, then tug or leaping targets would make great reinforcement – anything that keeps the dog relatively still but doesn’t create satiation or boredom.
When choosing things to be reinforcers, you best choice are those things and activities that your dog already enjoys.  Chasing squirrels may be a great choice as it is highly reinforcing, but it is impractical.  However, chasing a “squirrel” at the end of a flirt pole is highly rewarding and highly practical.  So just as in the creationg of games, think outside the box with your rewards and reinforcement.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

More positive then positive.

Talking to a potential client today and I realized that structured game training is actually more "positive" then positive reinforcement training. 

I’ve been saying for a while that I am a Human Hierarchy trainer.  Force free doesn’t really define what I do, or even what positive reinforcement based trainers to.  Force is everywhere, force is a part of life, you can’t escape it. Per the humane hierarchy you strive to use the least invasive least aversive methods first.  Per the human hierarchy, positive reinforcement is not the first choice because even can be stressful.

So basically, I'm even more positive then R+ trainers.

With structured games, I'm manipulating the environment (#1 and 2 on the hierarchy), not the dog.  I don't make getting reinforcement contingent on the dog guessing on how to get a click which can be stressful and frustrating.  With a game, the path to reinforcement is clear and defined so there is minimal stress.

Here is a good analysis of the Humane Hierarchy. http://eileenanddogs.com/2013/05/21/the-humane-hierarchy-1/

I base my training on Dr Susan Friedman’s analysis here http://behaviorworks.org/files/articles/What's%20Wrong%20with%20this%20Picture.pdf  which includes this:

“The lack of a standard to help us select behavior reduction procedures is a crucial matter. Without such a standard, we are likely to intervene on the basis of effectiveness alone, without due consideration of humaneness. To be maximally humane, our interventions should be as unintrusive for the learner as possible and still be effective. Carter and Wheeler define intrusiveness according to two important criteria: 1) the level of social acceptability of an intervention, and 2) the degree to which the learner maintains control while the intervention is in effect.”

In my original forays into positive reinforcement based training, the first thing I was introduced to was the clicker. I got pretty good at training some intricate behaviors with it, but I didn’t like the franticness that it seemed to create in the dogs I worked with.  I was told over and over to “break it down”  “click the smallest movements”.  What I saw with the dogs was “I don’t know which movement it was, so I’ll just throw a bunch of movements out there and see which one gets a click”.  I see this quite often in the videos on YouTube, even from the more well-known clicker trainers that everyone refers you to.

Then I found just plain marker training along with some antecedent manipulation.  With this combination, the dogs were calmer, but seemed to learn just as fast and sometimes faster.  I used marker training, without the need to break behaviors down into teeny tiny steps for years with success in basic obedience through reactive and aggressive dog rehab. 

A few years back, Susan Garrett introduced the first Recaller Online Classes.  This opened up a whole new world of training method for me.  Somewhere along the way I figured out how to make my own games and the world expended exponentially. Structured games became our way of life and not a day goes by that each of the dogs plays a teaching game and takes one more step toward a final behavior.  Many times they get the final behavior long before all the games are played in that series.

The main thing – there is no stress, no frantic guessing, and no hoping for the right movement.  The dogs calmly, but enthusiastically, do as asked, move through our little corner of the world with ease and understanding.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Merchants of Fear - Part I

Merchants of Fear

We’re all afraid of something. Spiders, snakes, fire, cockroaches, things that go bump in the night. Fear is an emotion that many times is vital to our survival.  Fear can also be brought to us and perpetuated by others and made to look as though THIS fear or THAT one is necessary so that something else won’t happen. Fear is used by many to mold public policy, induce you to spend money or agree that others should spend your money.

Today, fear entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are moral crusaders who genuinely believe that the very fabric of society is threatened by evil forces or at least their corner of it. At the other end of the spectrum are the salespeople and manufacturers in the market of fear.

There are those who could be called “merchants of fear.” These are people who want a situation, circumstance, or environment to look very, very disturbing. These merchants of fear usually gain some sort of advantage if their area of expertise is made to look more threatening. Ideas of this kind are found in the society to a marked degree. It isn’t just the newspaper reporter or the politician; individuals here and there also engage upon this.

Examples in the world of dog training are rampant.  TV celebrities, well known trainers and others say about dogs, “Look! It’s dangerous. Look! It’s out of control. Look! It has teeth. Look! It’s dominating you.” They not only report the most threatening behaviors of dogs, but also sensationalize them, making them worse than they are and villainizing the dogs for being dogs. The survival of these trainers are tied to the fear that your dogs are spiraling out of control, into the “red zone” where only some form of pain, fear or intimidation can turn that dog into your pet again.

These fear merchants have lots of allies among businesses with vested interests.

Recently, on Facebook, a video has been going viral.  This video is about the type of marketing done with food products.  It’s a shocking video even when you know what actually happens in factory farms.  The video is about how, even given the exact pictures of the environment your food animals are living in, the words used, the viewpoint from which the picture is taken and the emotions it all produces in you, helps them sell you on the idea that all is well and buy our product. Here is the video.

The speaker in the video says “This is systemized cruelty on a massive scale, and we only get away with it because everyone is prepared to look the other way".  The speaker in this video is actually an actress named Kate Miles, but the facts about produce and its marketing are 100% real. The audience is also real, and thus the looks of disgust are totally real too.

The truth of the matter is that in the dog training world, this type of marketing is used daily as a counter to the fear merchants who induce you to think about how dangerous dogs are.  The fear merchants tell you that if you don’t become the “pack leader” or the “alpha” and prove it every minute of the day in every circumstance with your dog that he will take over the leadership.  The picture you are presented is of teeth and blood and chaos if you can’t be the leader. 

The marketing of the devices and tools that these trainers use play on your sense of safety and the ability to enjoy your dog and live the dream of owning man’s best friend.  “Is your dog controlling your life? Does it steal food from the counter, nuisance bark, pull you on walks, or ignore you when called at home or in the hunting field?”  Remote E collar training is one of the most effective ways to get your dog to do what you want, whether that means corrective negative behavior or performing in complex roles like as a service dog or in dog shows.”

It is not to the advantage of those who get their income from the sale of fear to promote products that reduce that fear.  Even those teaching the use of the shock collar are aware of the degree of fear needed to sell their products and services.

“Before I begin, let me say that if you decide to use one I recommend that you not refer to it as a "shock collar." The very name sends some people into paroxysms of fear. "How can you be soooooo cruel to shock your dog!!!"  Call it instead a remote training collar or even an electronic collar. Yes, I know its a euphemism but it may also help you think about it another way. There's an old H. L. Mencken story about language influencing the way we think and act that's too long for here.”

Another common remark about the severity of the shock collar is to equate it to getting a static shock. “BTW, before we get too deeply into this topic and everyone starts calling the Humane Society on me, let me explain what the stimulation is like. If you have ever dragged your shoes across a carpet and then reached for a doorknob and gotten a shock you have received the same sort of stimulation as comes from the Ecollars.” 

I don’t know about anyone else, but I go far out of my way to avoid static shocks! They hurt!

Snake Avoidance

One of areas of dog training that is almost exclusively under the purview of those who use shock collars is in training your dog to avoid snakes and other dangerous critters.  Two years ago I started researching snake bites in dogs, what alternatives there were to shock collars (none) and the history of the use of the shock collar in this training. What I found were Merchants Of Fear; especially here in Arizona.

They create an atmosphere of fear of your dog dying from snake bite.  They tell you that there are 16 species of rattlesnake in Arizona to watch out for.  They fight with tooth and nail against “cookie trainers” and “positive reinforcement” by showing pictures of dogs with swelled heads or IV’s of fluids designed to save a life saying that these incidents are caused because the owners of these dogs went to the “so called behaviorists”.

These trainers claim to get 100% effective compliance from the dogs they shock while telling you that if you don’t bring your dog to them, they will die a horrible death or that you will have to spend 1000’s of dollars on anti-venom to save your dog.

Never once do they tell you HOW they are going to do this, what the effect is on your dog at the time of the shock, what the fallout of using these methods can be, and that 100% is a far cry from the actual success rate.  Never once do they site actual statistics of snake bites and their effects, where snake bites generally occur and what percentage of those bitten actually die.  When presented with actual data, they return to trying to produce fear in their prospective clients and the public at large.  The media goes right along with this.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Must Be The Only Dog

More and more lately I'm seeing posts on Facebook, ads on Craig's List and emails in my inbox about dogs who are in rescue, need a foster or adopter now for various reasons or they will either be in boarding or taken back to the pound or put to sleep.  In 90% of these ads it is said that the dog has had training with  trainers and loves humans, but just can't be with another dog.  No cats are included in these ads as well and many times no children. 

It seems to me that there is something really wrong here.  Shouldn't a dog who has gone through training - usually board and train - a specific type of socialization, and behavior modification, be ready to be a dog?  To live with other dogs?  I can see the no children because of size considerations in many of them, I can also see the point in no cats as it's usually the cat's fears that cause the issues.  But shouldn't a dog who has been through this type of program be able to live with other dogs? 

I follow the posts about the various dogs that hit the E-List for behavior issues, agonizing over every one of them because I know that if I had the facilities, the energy and physical attributes I had 10 years ago, I could help these dogs.  But alas, that isn't the case. So I resort to hoping that the behavior issues are only due to the stress of being in the shelter and not something carried over from a prior life.

But, what I see are these dogs, who have issues with other dogs, put into a board and train situation for a month or two, sometimes more, and come out the other end still not able to live with other dogs.  Why?  Isn't that supposed to be what they are in training to fix? What are they learning?

It doesn't take that much time to bring a dog back to it's natural balance, it's social nature.  One month of concentrated behavior training, and in the worst cases, two maybe three, and the dog should have let go of it's fears, learned how to communicate with it's own kind, and be able to be social in most circumstances.  Even with a dedicated foster taking the same dog to group classes that deal in reactivity and aggression and actually doing the assigned homework can "cure" most of these dogs in 8 weeks. Why is this not happening?

This is a lament more then a rant.  I want so badly to be able to help these dogs.  I know I can do it, I've done it way too many times in the past and am still doing it with dedicated owners and even some fosters in the allotted 8 week time period.  The dogs I work with are just as fearful, just as dedicated to eating anything that scares it, just as "red zone" as the ones in these ads. I work with dogs with fight and bite histories that would curl your hair in seconds. I work with dogs who are so out of balance that they even want to kill the fake dogs I use to assist in their rehabilitation.  They are so out of tune with reality due to their fear, they really do think the fake dogs are real.

But I've never been good with raising money for situations like this.  And so I have to sit on the sidelines and hope that someone younger, someone with a similar education and understanding of ethics, biology, physiology, evolution, behavior analysis, ethology and compassion will come along and do what I no longer can.  I am forced to sit on the sidelines and watch while someone with a prong collar, a shock collar and no true education can claim to fix behavior issues and fail.  And listen to the people who think these trainers are wonderful because the dogs can now sit, down, stay, heel, come and walk around in circles ignoring other dogs for fear of getting whipped.