Lately I've been hearing a lot of hype about a training technique called "pressure and release". These seemingly innocuous words actually describe two quadrants of operant conditioning. Animals (including us) learn through consequence. The consequence of one's actions, determine the probability of that action being repeated.
Positive Reinforcement (+R) is the addition of something the dog finds reinforcing (often food), as a consequence of behavior. For example, if my dog is walking on a loose leash and I reinforce his behavior with food - he is likely to walk on a loose leash more frequently.
Negative Punishment (-P) is the removal (or withholding) of something the dog finds reinforcing to reduce the likelihood of a behavior occurring. If my dog is pulling, and I stop walking - eliminating forward motion - he is likely to stop pulling in order to receive the reinforcement of forward motion.
This is where the whole pressure (+P) and release (-R) technique comes in to play. You see, those words are actually describing the use of Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement.
But what does that actually mean?
Positive punishment is the addition of something that is unpleasant (aversive) for the dog, in order to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring. Using the same example as above, if my dog were pulling on leash and I gave a "correction" using a collar (flat collar, martingale collar, slip lead, choke, prong or e-collar), the dog would stop pulling.
Following this train of thought, once the dog has received the "correction" (+P), he is likely to stop pulling in order to avoid future "corrections" (-R).
When trainers advertise their pressure and release technique, they're actually telling you that they will be applying Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement to your dog. Remember, in order for +P and -R to actually work, the dog MUST find the "pressure" to be aversive. This means that trainer is going to apply something that scares or hurts your dog. Many trainers are using deceptive language to describe their methods in order to hide this truth from dog owners.
I will always be completely transparent with my clients, because my methods are humane and effective. As a trainer who adheres to the Humane Hierarchy (LIMA) I use a combination of classical conditioning and operant conditioning, however the use of Positive Punishment (+P) and Negative Reinforcement (-R) are last resorts. I know how to use those tools, but I don't have to in order to change behavior - even with extreme aggression towards animals and people.
The bottom line is this - do some research before you buy! What is going to happen to your dog if they get it right? What is going to happen if they get it wrong? What tools will your trainer be using? If you're not comfortable, follow your gut and find a fabulous force free trainer. A great resource for local dog owners is the Vermont Professional Dog Trainers Network.
Consent is defined as permission, approval, agreement; to be in harmony. As human beings we have the expectation that our consent will be asked for before physical interactions with others.
Traditional dog training methods are based in the assumption that an animal must do as we say. If they won't do it on their own, they can be compelled to through force, pain or fear. These forceful methods can be damaging to our relationships with our pets.
In both of the above pictures you can see a dog being "alpha rolled", pinned on their back and forced to show "submission" to their handler. These outdated training methods completely ignore the autonomy of the animal. They're often used in cases where an animal is considered stubborn, dominant, or aggressive. You will always get back what you put in. Aggressive training creates aggressive responses.
Some instances of force are much subtler. Many people don't recognize that they've taken choice out of the equation for their pet. It's easier to do this than we realize.
In both of the above pictures, the dog is displaying clear discomfort. The dogs don't want to be touched in that way, but can't escape. It's likely that neither person is aware of how uncomfortable they're making the dog. They're not forcing the dog to be touched out of malice, but rather lack of understanding.
As animal trainers, it's our job to translate what the animals entrusted to us are saying. We then need to educate, educate, educate so that pet parents can also learn to "speak dog".
Then the question remains, if animals were better understood, would they be listened to? Would their handlers still expect them to tolerate unsavory physical attention? And here is where consent counts!
When an animal goes to the vet, routine medical procedures are sometimes forced on the animal using physical restraint. The veterinary team will ask us, the human beings, for permission to proceed with a medical procedure on our pet. Who is asking the animal? How would you feel if your nurse held you down while the phlebotomist drew your blood?
How do we begin to obtain consent from our pets? We can start by teaching the behavior we want, and reinforcing the heck out of it. Below you will find a video of a dog getting it's blood drawn without physical restraint. Instead the dog is choosing to rest his chin in his owners hand while his blood is drawn.
I frequently work with small breed dogs who have fearful, sometimes aggressive, behaviors around body handling. Why is that so? We often pick up and move these little guys, dress them in sweaters and jackets, and pass them from one person's arms to another. These are subtle forms of force, that we don't recognize until it's pointed out to us. Below we have a beautiful video from Chirag Patel and Domesticated Manners which perfectly illustrates this point.
When we begin giving our dog choices, and start asking them for permission, we empower them. Empowerment creates confidence, decreasing the likelihood of behavior problems. Animal training should consist of a conversation, not a monologue. It's our job to listen to what the dog is saying, and make changes to the environment in order to change the behavior.
For example, I have a dog who growls when he's reached for. Every time he growls I pull my hand away. The more that the growling works, stopping me from grabbing the dog, the more he will growl in the future. How can I change this pattern?
Instead of reaching for him, I could teach my dog that coming to me and touching my hand is highly reinforcing. If every time he comes to me, and chooses to touch me, he gets a piece of hot dog, my dog will soon choose to touch me rather than growl. The more a behavior is reinforced (think hot dogs), the more an animal will perform that behavior.
The art and science, of animal training is ever evolving. It's our job to make sure that the animals in our care are not only enjoying the training process, but actively participating in it.
I've lost count of how many times I've been out walking, hiking, or running with my dogs, and a strange dog has come bounding up to us with no owner in sight. Sometimes we encounter dogs whose owners come running to us from the distance shouting, “Don't worry, he's friendly!”
I could easily turn this post in to a rant about irresponsible owners. However, there are plenty of articles out there on that topic. What I'm going to do instead is share with you ways to keep you and your dogs safe in these situations.
The first order of business is to figure out of the approaching dog is friend or foe.
When assessing a dog's body language we look at them from nose to tail. Each body part can play a key role in communication. Important areas to pay attention to are the tail, the ears, the mouth and the eyes. As a general rule, the more tense any of those body parts are the more uncomfortable a dog is.
Let's take a little test. Look at the following pictures one at a time before checking at the answer's below.
Can you see the differences in the body language between picture 1 and picture 2?
1) Fisher on the far right is play bowing to the other dogs. This is a friendly invitation to play. The other dogs are mid action, but still look relaxed.
When looking at dog to dog interactions we want to see wiggly body motions, floppy tongues and wagging tails. Good dog to dog play begins and ends naturally, with breaks being taken by the dogs all on their own.
2) Fisher, the dog on the left is lying down and licking the other dogs face. The dog on the right is stiff, with a high tail.
That high tail and rigid body are hallmarks of an uncomfortable dog. These dogs will often freeze in that posture, their next move determined by the other dog. That's why Fisher laid down and began licking his face, both appeasement gestures. This is the dog's way of saying “It's cool man, please don't hurt me.”
What can you do with this information when an off leash dog approaches?
This blog post was originally published with our friends at The Adventure Dog Blog. Check out their website for awesome information about hiking and traveling with your dogs!
I'm excited to have a guest post from The Adventure Dog Blog where my friend Danielle Lindblom shares great hiking tips for you and your dogs.
Class of ’97 Trail
This was my go-to hiking trail when living in Vermont. My Border Collie Mica, a puppy at the time, prompted me to seek places where he could get some good exercise and I could enjoy the great outdoors. This spot is perfect for both! There is something magical about the landscape as you explore the different trail surfaces; wonder is just around the corner.
Parking at the trailhead is easy to miss, so be sure to follow these directions to make sure you find it. There is only space enough for 3 – 4 vehicles, but there has never been more than one parked there when I have visited. It’s on grass, so be sure to watch for treacherous mud during the springtime. You might not be able to get your car back out! What’s great about this trailhead, though, is your ability to get right to it.
Want a map? Click here.
The first stretch of this trail passes between two cattle pastures. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see the unique breeds grazing here. Be sure to keep your dog on leash so that they aren’t tempted to bother the livestock! Also be aware that the fence is electric and may or may not be live. Best to stick to the wide path and enjoy the stunning views of the pastures and tall grass.
It’s less than half a mile until you reach the edge of the woods. Here, the trail winds through pine trees, and the pine needles are soft underfoot. The trail surface does include many tree roots and other natural obstacles, so watch your step! Again, it’s a good idea to keep your dog on leash through this section because there are places where barbed wire is hidden in the underbrush near the trail. It’s always quiet and peaceful beneath these trees, though. An excellent place for reflection in nature.
After a short hike, you’ll break through the trees to a large, open field. You can call it quits here, one mile from the trailhead, or you can complete a large loop through the woods nearby and come back across the field. I vote the longer trail!
Not many people take the path to the right up into the woods, but it’s worth the trek! You can feel like a true adventurer when you reach the brief, steep incline in the trail. It’s a diverse landscape and a real pleasure to hike. You won’t see many hikers or trail runners on this section; we usually had it all to ourselves.
As you continue on the loop, you’ll have great views of the Middlebury College campus. You can even take a peek at their extensive community garden or rest for a spell on the hillside. Mica and I would sometimes play a round of ChuckIt in the big field, and I don’t think he has ever been happier.
I hope you check out this trail or other sections of the Middlebury Area Land Trust’s Trail Around Middlebury. Close to town, yet far enough away that it feels like you’re in the wilderness, this is one of my favorite spots to hike and enjoy nature with my dog. Learn more about the Trail Around Middlebury here.
BIO: Danielle Lindblom is a Minnesota resident and former Vermonter who loves exploring the great outdoors with her two Border Collies, Mica and River. The Adventure Dog Blog is a source for inspiring adventure destination ideas, detailed local trail guides, and dog training tips. Her goal is to inspire others to get outside with their dogs! Check out The Adventure Dog Blog on Facebook and Instagram for inspiring photos and travel tips.
The thing about dogs is that when you get frustrated, there isn't a pause button. You can't just turn them off when you decide to do something else. When we don't like a dog's behavior, instead of just expecting them to "stop right now!" we need to teach them an alternate behavior.
How can you deal with nuisance behavior effectively at home? With these 4 simple steps:
#1 - Stop and think for a minute. What would you like your dog to do instead?
#2 - Take the time to train that behavior. For example if you want to teach your dog to greet people politely instead of jump up, first you need to teach him to sit.
#3 - Stop reinforcing the nuisance behavior. If when your dog jumps up you push him off (or engage with him at all), he's going to think you're playing a game. He will continue to jump in order to earn your attention. Much like with small children, any attention can be good attention for Fido.
#4 - Reinforce the desired behavior. When Fido sits on his rump, instead of jumping up, he has earned a treat for sure! Pay your dog for his good work with food, and he'll pay you back with good behavior.
It sounds simple because it is! The big keys to success in any training, but especially with nuisance behaviors, are patience and consistency. Every time your dog performs the behavior you wish to eliminate you have to ignore it. Every time your dog offers the behavior you DO want, reinforce-reinforce-reinforce. Remember it's not a race. Keep pace with their learning speed, and you'll cross the finish line together.
When I meet a client for the first time one of the most common things I hear when a dog doesn't perform up to the owner's expectations is, "But he knows it!". This could be in reference to walking on leash politely, sit-stay, leave it or any other behavior we're asking for.
I understand how frustrating it can be for pet parents when they've practiced over and over in their living room, but their dog can't perform the same behavior in a new space. However, my response to them is always the same. Your dog doesn't actually know it.
I'm going to let you all in on a little secret about how dogs learn. They don't generalize well. According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary to generalize is to apply (something specific, such as a theory or rule) to larger group. In other words, your dog doesn't know he can perform the same behavior in a variety of environments until we show him he can!
In order to help your dog generalize a behavior you need to do the following things:
1) Increase your criteria constantly. You may start with your dog sitting directly in front of you with no distractions, but you need to move towards your dog sitting several feet from you while a ball bounces by. There are lots of small incremental changes you can make to your criteria between point A and point B. You don't have to rush or push your dog too far.
2) Introduce the behavior in many different environments. Begin by teaching a behavior in a low distraction environment like your living room. Once your dog has it down, move out to your front yard. Then ask for the behavior while on a walk. Take your dog to new places and practice the behavior in each one.
A few tips for daily training and generalization:
1) Make sure that your dog's paycheck is equal to the amount of work you're asking for. You may be able to use plain kibble in your house, but the more distracting an environment is the higher value your food should be. When I train outdoors I use yummy training treats. When I bring my dog's out to the farmers market, I have hot dogs or string cheese.
2) Keep training sessions short. Remember being in school and laying your head on the desk by the end of the day? Your dog, like you, will learn better in many short training sessions versus one long session.
3) Lower your criteria in new environments. Expect that Fido won't be able to hold a 30 second sit while new people are walking past on Church Street. Instead ask for a nice calm 5 second sit, and reward generously. Slowly increase your criteria up to that great 30 second sit over the course of several outings.
4) Focus and impulse control are key. If your dog can't focus on you with distractions, you're doing to have difficulty helping her to generalize behaviors to new environments. Before working on anything else, practice essential focus and impulse control skills, like eye contact and leave it.
Your dog may not know it yet, but with consistence and practice they will!
Dogs are more than just pets, they're family. The most important thing you can do is develop a great relationship with your dog. This relationship is the foundation upon which any training you do with your dog must stand. In order to have a solid foundation to build on with your dog, it is essential you come from a place of trust and mutual respect. How does one do this? The answers are simple: structure, enrichment, kindness, and patience.
Implementing clear rules from day one will set you on the right path. Dogs are very black and white in their initial training. If Fido can jump up on you when you get home from work, that means he can jump up on people whenever he's excited. Figure out what you would like your dog to do, ask for that behavior consistently, and reinforce it any time it occurs with food, praise, play and affection.
After providing boundaries for your dog, you have to provide them with tools for success. Training, proper veterinary care, great nutrition and exercise are just a few ways to meet this need. An often neglected tool is environmental enrichment. Puzzle games, food dispensing toys, snuffle mats, and scent games are just a few ways to keep your dog occupied while you're busy and to help tire out their mind.
Positive reinforcement based training creates strong communication skills in both dog and owner. Using a marker, like a clicker, bridges the gap between the human and canine languages. By training your dog with these science based methods, you create positive associations that will last their whole lives. A good rule of thumb when training is if you wouldn't want it done to you, don't do it to your dog. When selecting a trainer make sure to ask these important questions: 1) What will happen to my dog if he gets it right? 2) What will happen to my dog if he gets it wrong?
Finally, dogs aren't robots and neither are we, the road to perfect is a long one. You may make a mistake following his potty schedule, and puppy has an accident on your rug. Fido may be really excited to meet new people, and can't help but jump up. These things happen to everyone. Building a strong and positive relationship with your dog will help you to overcome any obstacle thrown your way. Take a deep breath and start over, you have the rest of your dogs life to make it to perfect.
I can't believe it's February 2016! The end of 2015 really got away form me, as did the beginning of the new year. We've finally begun managing Toby's Cushing's Disease. Fisher and I are almost finished with our therapy dog certification. I attended the Pet Professional Guild Educational Summit in Florida. In the middle of all that were my wonderful clients.
These are just a few of the fantastic dogs I got to work with in 2015. It was a year full of challenges, personal growth, new relationships and raising my own puppy. Thank you to all of my wonderful clients and supporters, without you A Click Away wouldn't exist. Here's hoping 2016 is even more fabulous! Happy New Years from my family to yours.
As both a veterinary technician and a dog trainer I have often heard from leading experts how integral ruling out medical conditions is in treating behavior issues. In all of my cases involving sudden behavior changes, aggression or anxiety, my first recommendation is a full physical exam and possible diagnostics by a veterinarian.
Pain, vision or hearing changes, thyroid and other hormone related conditions can all contribute to behavior. I will say that in most cases I have personally dealt with, there hasn't been an underlying medical condition causing the behavior I've been called in to evaluate.
Recently however, the mind body connection has hit me where I live. Toby, my wonderful husky mix, started exhibiting changes in his behavior about 2 months ago. He has a history of separation anxiety, which was treated with a combination of behavior modification and medication. He has been able to stay home on his own safely for many years and has been weaned off his Prozac successfully for the last year.
Suddenly my calm and happy dog was restless, unable to settle and had become more vocal. He was becoming grumpy with other dogs and had begun barking at my co-workers through his kennel. I began utilizing some relaxation exercises that had helped him in the past, but they didn't ease his symptoms. I made an appointment with our veterinarian during which he received a thorough physical exam. The vet was unable to find any abnormalities. We ran a full blood chemistry including a complete blood cell count, organ profiles, a heart worm and tick born disease screening test and a thyroid test. All of his test results cam back normal.
Over the course of the following weeks Toby began to drink and urinate more than usual. He was hungry all the time, going so far as to steal food off the counters. He was often panting, even when laying down calmly. I once again brought him in to the vet. We took x-rays of his chest and abdomen which were completely normal, aside from pre-existing hip dysplasia and mild spondolosis (age related changes to the spine). A urinalysis and stool sample both came back normal as well.
Toby was placed on a combination of Trazadone and Prozac, which had little to no effect on him. I knew in my gut something was wrong with my dog. I asked my veterinarian if there were any other diagnostics we could run. We took his blood pressure to check for hypertension - he was totally normal. Finally we ran an ACTH stimulation test to check for Chushing's Disease. Toby's symptoms didn't totally fit with the diagnosis, but it was worth checking out.
Yesterday we found out that Toby does indeed have Cushing's Disease. There are two different types of Cushing's, pituitary dependent and adrenal dependent. Pituitary dependent Cushing's is caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland. These tumors are inoperable and the treatment is life long medication. Adrenal dependent Cushing's is caused by cancerous tumor growth of the adrenal glands. Treatment for adrenal dependent Cushing's is surgical excision of the adrenal gland.
Next week Toby will be getting an ultrasound of his adrenal glands so that we can determine which type of Cushing's he has and begin treatment. In the mean time we're weaning him off of the Trazadone and Prozac. He is currently laying at my feet panting heavily thanks to this new disease process.
Toby's story is a perfect example of why it's essential to have your dog evaluated for medical conditions when dealing with behavior changes. Toby's behavior could never have been modified with training or medication because it's root cause was physical in nature. Had we not sought the advice of our veterinarian, his disease would have continued to progress causing further physical harm. You know your pet better than anyone, trust your gut and don't stop seeking answers even if it feels like you've hit a dead end - the answer is out there.
I am saddened by Toby's serious medical condition, but so happy that we caught it early. My wife and I will do everything in our power to keep him happy and healthy. This special boy has been our loyal friend, my exceptional demo dog, and has helped to heal the hearts of many anxious and aggressive dogs. Toby is irreplaceable, and we will never stop fighting for him.
This time of year is called thunder storm season in vet hospitals across the country. Every year there is an influx of behavior related veterinary visits. Symptoms of thunder storm phobia include: pacing, panting, drooling, shaking, cowering, hiding and sometimes destruction in the home from dogs trying to escape the storm.
What are some causes of thunder storm phobia?
Changes in the barometric pressure can alert dogs to oncoming storms hours ahead of arrival.
The thunder itself is not only loud, but it's also unpredictable.
Thunder causes vibrations which our dogs can feel more acutely than we can.
The combination of environmental changes, and the sometimes deafening noise can paint a very scary picture for any dog.
What can we do to help?
First and foremost I want to start by saying that you can not reinforce a feeling, only a behavior. This means that you will not teach your dog to be afraid by offering it physical or verbal comfort. If being pet or spoken to in a soft voice helps reduce your dog's symptoms of anxiety, then by all means comfort them.
Ignoring the behaviors caused by fear will not resolve the issue. Your dog will still be anxious, and the behaviors caused by the anxiety may get worse over time. Correcting or punishing your dog while they are fearful will only create a rebound effect. Your dog will associate the correction with the thunder NOT with her behavior. This makes the thunder even scarier!
Giving your dog a safe place to wait out the storm can be incredibly helpful. Some dogs will try to hide in a closet, under furniture or in the bath tub. My childhood dog, Nora, had significant noise related fear. She was always chose to lay in her crate when the noise (thunder, fireworks and gun shots) was overwhelming to her. A crate can be a vital management tool for fear, but only if it's already a safe space for your dog.
My first recommendation in helping to alleviate thunder storm phobia is the use of a ThunderShirt. Wearing a ThunderShirt can help your dog to feel secure. The constant gentle pressure of the shirt is similar to swaddling an infant. Ideally, the shirt should be put on prior to the arrival of the storm or at the first sign of anxiety.
Secondly, if your dog's anxiety leads to destructive behaviors like digging, chewing, or jumping through windows, a visit to the vet is in order. There are several different kinds of behavior modifying medications that can significantly reduce your dog's symptoms.
There are many herbal remedies that are available to help with anxiety. They can be used in addition to, or in place of, a prescription medication. Rescue Remedy, VT Pet Naturals Calming Chews and VetriScience Composure are just a few supplements that are available. Consult with your veterinarian before adding a supplement on top of prescribed medication.
In order to help your dog permanently overcome thunder storm phobia it's important to follow a behavior modification plan.
First order of business is the desensitization of your dog to the sound of thunder. This can be achieved by utilizing an audio recording of thunder. You can buy a CD, look up a video on YouTube or try Sound Snap. Start by playing the recording at a very low volume while hand feeding your dog high value food, like cheese or hot dogs. As your dog is able to remain calm with the noise, slowly increase the volume.
Hand in hand with desensitization comes counter conditioning. We want to show your dog that he can exhibit relaxed behavior in an anxiety provoking situation, in this case thunder. Dr. Karen Overall's protocol for relaxation is a great tool to use in conjunction with mat work. Neither the relaxation protocol or the mat work should be utilized in a high stress situation until the exercises have been introduced successfully without stressful stimuli (ex: thunder, fireworks).
I highly recommend consulting with a qualified positive trainer to help set you and your dog on the right path. With patience and a well thought out plan, thunder storm phobia can be manged successfully.
Emily Lewis is a professional dog trainer and veterinary technician. She lives in Vermont with her three rescue dogs, tuxedo cat, corn snake, crested geckos and Russian tortoise.