What’s in your toolbox? (part 2)

Last month (remember my intention to post every other week? HA!) I wrote about using the basic tools you and your dog already have at your disposal, this week I want to discuss specialty tools – the things we teach our dogs that we never would have taught if we didn’t need to.

Some dogs get get through life easy-peasy with the basics they learn in a group class while others have more, greater or just different needs. The people who live with these dogs are often the ones who call professional trainers to help: they can’t figure out how cope with particular challenging scenarios with their dog. Sometimes the answer is as simple as creating a new and functional cue to circumvent the issue completely.

Here are a few real life examples:

Bear, a puppy I worked with a few months ago who would regularly growl if one of his family members tried to move him off the couch with physical prompting (a nudge, gentle push, etc). While he had more generalized handling sensitivities that we dealt with, for this particular situation we taught him an “off” cue, which meant, “get yourself off the couch and onto the floor”. It worked beautifully.

Lilly the Goldendoodle who played keep-away when it was time to go for a walk needed to learn a “get dressed” cue that prompted her to voluntarily place her face and head through her harness.

Tomlin and Winston, canine brothers-from-another-mother who would rush the front door and explode with barks when visitors arrived. For them we worked on a stationing cue: where they would “go to [their] couch!” when prompted verbally, or, with the eventual goal of being cued by the doorbell.

…but obviously this post finds its foundation with Kit. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Kit necessitated me training a bunch of stuff that I’d never needed before. Here are a few:

  • “Back it up” to reverse him out of my personal space bubble, especially when tying my shoes (this is almost certainly followed by a sit-stay).
  • “Easy” to slow his pace down on walks, not to reduce leash tension but to anchor him back into his body when he would get hyper-aroused.
  • “Couch” to station him on a piece of furniture & keep him out of the way (and from giving Shine dirty looks) when I’m preparing the dogs’ meals.

These are clearly solution oriented cues: used to address specific problems or scenarios. None of these are taught in your standard group training class, but as you can see they are wildly practical.

How how do you know if there’s a specialty cue out there to help you resolve one of your doggy dilemmas?

It’s worth noting that cue-based training is not typically effective on it’s own for addressing behavior concerns that involve a dog’s emotions. By that I mean if the dog is doing something you find undesirable because she is scared, anxious, or otherwise upset, you will (as in the case of Bear mentioned above) almost certainly need to develop a behavior modification plan that focuses on the dog’s emotional state, not just the external expression of it. A specialty cue may be a support, but it is almost never the solution.

Let’s try a quick visualization exercise: think about the issue you’re having–again, try to think about one that does not center on an emotional reaction–now back up, what is the scenario, your mind set, the dog’s location, yourlocation, maybe even your intention immediately before the problem occurs? Is there something you can think of that you could ask the dog to do, in this moment before the dog does That Thing that would prevent it from happening?

Let’s break down some of the above examples:

Kit’s Back it Up

The scene: Human is about to bend down to put on/tie laces of shoes
Dog’s undesirable response: Leaping forward to lick human’s face
Solution: PRIOR TO bending down, dog is prompted to back up away from the person, sit, and stay

Bear’s Off

The scene: Human wants to move the dog off the couch (to sit down, adjust position, etc)
Dog’s undesirable response: Growling when dog feels hand pressure applied to body
Solution: PRIOR TO attempting to move physically, dog is verbally prompted to jump off the couch

Lilly’s Get Dressed

The scene: Human moves towards dog, harness in hand to put harness on the dog
Dog’s undesirable response: Moving away from the human & harness
Solution: PRIOR TO attempting to walking towards the dog, the human prompts the dog to place her head through the harness

You see how it works? The real key is the “PRIOR TO” part – we’re not looking for a fix once the dog has started doing That Thing, we want to know what we can do to avoid that behavior completely.

Of course, it’s important to note that all of these specialty tools have to be honed PRIOR TO (there it is again!) actually using them in the situation. To go back to our tool box analogy, you wouldn’t try to use a saw that hadn’t been searrated yet or a drill bit that was blunt on the end: you need to have your tools fully formed before putting them to work.

So, what’s in your dog’s toolbox? Probably a sit and a down–our hammer and screwdriver–but is there an empty slot where some specialty tool needs to go? Maybe it’s a chainsaw, maybe it’s bolt cutters, or perhaps a pipe wrench. There’s no end to the cues and tricks you can dream up to find creative solutions to suit your and your dog’s needs, but the responsibility to discover that missing tool, to train it, and then, ( most importantly!) to remember to use it, is in your hands.

What’s in your toolbox? (part 1)

At some point in your life you probably bought your first tool, probably a hammer or a screwdriver. It was likely shortly after you moved out of your parents’ home and you realized you needed a tool to perform a particular task: put a nail in the wall, put together some DIY assembly furniture, something simple that you needed a simple tool to complete. Depending on your needs, over the years you more likely than not have assembled a whole tool box with a variety of tools for all your different needs. Some you may use frequently, others only rarely, but on those occasions you are so so glad to have that specialized tool (for me it’s the specialty drill bits for ceramic and tile).

When we first bring home a dog, if they don’t already know “sit”, that’s likely the first thing we teach them. That’s our hammer: the most basic tool in our training toolbox. We can use sit in a whole mess of different ways that create behaviors or behavior chains that we like or use it to stop other behaviors that we don’t. It’s simple, it’s useful, and easy to teach, but just as it’s highly unlikely that you’ll go through life only needing a hammer, you gotta add more tools to your dog’s repertoire.

In group training classes most dogs are taught to respond to sit, down, stay, come, leave-it, and maybe one or two other things. The thing that isn’t always taught is how and when to use them. Some applications are obvious (dog loose on the street? use your recall!) but so so often we don’t use the tools that we have spent so much time and energy crafting at the times that they could be really useful.

I regularly tell a story in my group classes about Kisa, my first dog, and how she reminded my why cue-based training is really really valuable. The super short version is that I was able to use her “stay” to keep her from getting mud all over a carpet. It was a lightbulb moment for me because I really hadn’t used a ton of her training in real life scenarios up to that point. Some, yes, but never in a way that I really saw what the outcome of the situation would have been if I didn’t have a particular behavior on cue. That moment to me really solidified why most “regular” dog owners (as opposed to dog sport & activity people) should really train their dogs – it’s not for the sake of having a dog who has been through multiple training classes, it’s to give the dog and the person the hammer, screwdriver, drill, wrench, and staple gun that they’ll need to get through life together peacefully.

Here are a short list of common cue-tools, and how we can use them. This is SO SO far from an exhaustive list, but it’s a start to get your brain going so that when you’re doing life with your dog, you remember to reach into your toolbox and use the tools that you have invested in… don’t let them rust!

Name recognition (to the dog: “Make eye contact with me”):

  • To ensure you have your dog’s attention prior to giving another cue
  • To orient your dog towards you when on a walk (rather than pulling the leash)
  • To provide a quick, easy to reinforce behavior when your dog is frustrated

Sit (to the dog: “Put your put on the ground, duration optional”)

  • Preemptively to curtail jumping during greeting
  • To create a pause before entering exiting doorways
  • To create momentary stillness on the scale at the vet’s office

Stay (to the dog: “hold your current position”)

  • To maintain a sit or a down while you open the front door
  • To keep your dog in place while you walk away from your sandwich for a moment
  • To keep a Malamute with huge and muddy paws outside while you grab a towel for her feet

Finding Balance

A dear friend who also self-described as my “favorite troublemaker” recently wanted to hear my thoughts on “balanced training.” I thought that was a little bit hilarious because she knows perfectly well how I feel about punishment-based training, generally speaking (and yes, I know that so-called balanced training isn’t just based on punishment, but it does feature consistently and/or often). But in light of some recent conversations and internal philosophical musings, I’ve decided to expound my views. This post is far from the be-all-end-all of my thoughts on balanced training or punishment in general, but it’s a start. If there are particular parts of this you, dear reader, would like to discuss, I am happy to engage in a respectful, compassionate dialogue. If you just want to hear more about what I think, I can certainly elaborate on anything, too.


When I started learning how to train dogs at the East Bay SPCA in Oakland back in the early aughts, I was trained not only how to use a clicker and deliver treats at the appropriate time, but also how to use a choke chain. We didn’t actually put them on the dogs, we placed them on a chain link fence so we could practice “pop corrections” without actually inflicting pain or discomfort on a real dog. I never in fact used a choke chain while I worked there, but it was part of my education because I was told that I needed to learn how to use all the tools. All the tools. This was at a time when shock and so-called “e collars” were not nearly as popular or prevalent in the training world, at least not for pet dogs. The philosophy that that we worked under, at that shelter, at that time, was, we use what works for the dog.

There was one dog from my time there who seemed to be fairly uncontrollable–a large fluffy German Shepard mix named Pellinore. After trying standard treat-based training methods the decision was made by leadership to try a pinch collar on him to reduce his jumpy/mouthy behaviors to the point where he would be considered “adoptable”. He wore that for a very brief period of time before he was transitioned to a head collar, but the fact remained that we, the training staff at an animal shelter, placed a dog on a punishment device intentionally.

In hindsight I feel that the reason a pinch collar was chosen and utilized was because the skill level and education of the handlers and decision makers, myself included, was not nearly where it should have been to create a force-free plan for this dog at that time. Everyone was doing the best they could with what they had, and no one had any ill intent. The dog certainly was not irreparably harmed (to my knowledge) by the use of this tool, and he ended up in a wonderful home with a family who loved him very much and renamed him “Wookie”. From my perspective now, with well over a decade of education and hands-on experience behind me, it wasn’t the right choice to use that pinch collar, but it was something that probably would have been used by a “balanced trainer”. Now I think we could have done him better.

Folks who call themselves balanced trainers, to the best of my understanding, are trainers who utilize a combination of punishment techniques as well as reinforcements. Things that fall into the punishment category include corrections with choke, pinch, slip, or similar collars, verbal reprimands, and/or shocks from electronic collars. Those aversives, used to reduce undesirable behaviors are “balanced” by the use of various reinforcers such as treats, praise, play, access to toys, and so on, which are used to increase the likelihood of desired behaviors.

The deep dark dirty secret of behavior and behaviorism is that punishment works. There have been studies upon studies upon studies on all kinds of species, including human children, that show that punishing behaviors through use of applying aversive stimuli is an effective method for behavioral change, and often a fairly fast one (though it should be noted that speed of efficacy is typically based on severity of the aversive; i.e. level of pain or fear [of pain] inflicted). There are of course caveats to this – you can google “punishment doesn’t work” and read a plethora of articles on the ineffectiveness of punishment in dog training, criminal justice systems, classrooms, and so on. That said, there are also plenty of other studies as well as endless anecdotal reports from dog owners, professional trainers, not to mention the sales data for electronic collars and invisible fences that speak otherwise.

Let’s take it as a fact that some types and applications of punishment do in fact work to train a dog to do or not do a variety of things. If this is the case, why on earth are so many dog trainers and behaviorists opposed to using effective methods, even just sometimes?

In short, because there’s a better way.

Let’s say you have two options in front of you to modify your dog’s external behavior (what he is doing with his body):

One option is shorter in duration, but would certainly cause your dog stress, fear, discomfort and/or pain, and would very likely do nothing at all to modify his internal processes (emotional responses, state of physiological stress) for the better; it may even make it worse. There is little time, effort, or energy lost for the person.

The other option is slower, requires significant accommodation for the dog, but is most certainly not going to cause pain, and if any stress or fear elicited it is minimal to the point of not causing a pronounced behavioral (external) response. The aim of this option is to specifically change the dog’s internal processes to reduce unpleasant emotions and maintain physiological stasis while achieving the desired behavioral result. It requires more time, patience, energy, and commitment from the human.

Both these methods work, but the big difference to me isn’t simply how they work, but who they are working for. Option one (punishment, obvi) works for the human. There’s no major impact on the person’s life, they don’t have to change much at all, and they will see (external) results in a reasonable period of time. It should however be pretty damn obvious that this method is basically crap for the dog, as it becomes up to them to learn what’s desired of them, or else.

For people who do not recognize (or care?) that dogs experience emotions, including fear, joy, frustration, and anxiety as well as experience stress and all it’s physiological consequences in ways shockingly similar to humans, for those people I can see how they justify the use of positive punishment* methods in fairly pedestrian situations: jumping on guests, barking at delivery personnel, pulling towards other dogs on leash, and so on. And I can also see “balanced” trainers feeling okay with using punishment knowing that they would still be doling out the praise and/or treats for tasks accomplished well.

But let’s look at option two:

Option two has little negative impact on the dog, but requires comparatively quite a bit from the human. The responsibility for behavioral change is in the hands of the person to make sure that the dog is set up to learn without stress (which, for the record inhibits learning – you can Google that one yourself). In many cases this method requires huge shifts in how we live and work with our dogs, and therefor requires the pet parent to be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of their dog’s well-being.

That’s asking a lot, but I don’t think it’s asking too much. If you think that sounds like too much, let’s read the descriptions of the two options again, but replace the word “dog” with “child”.

One option is shorter in duration, but would certainly cause your child stress, fear, discomfort and/or pain, and would very likely do nothing at all to modify his or her internal processes (emotional responses, state of physiological stress) for the better; it may even make it worse. There is little time, effort, or energy lost for the parent.
The other option is slower, requires significant accommodation for the child, but is most certainly not going to cause pain, and if any stress or fear elicited it is minimal to the point of not causing a pronounced behavioral (external) response. The aim of this option is to specifically change the child’s internal processes to reduce unpleasant emotions and maintain physiological stasis. It requires more time, patience, energy,, and commitment from the parent
.

Suddenly seems a little more obvious which method to choose, doesn’t it?

No, dogs are not children, but there are a lot of clear parallels, the most relevant being: adult humans are responsible for looking out for both children and dogs’ mental, physical and emotional well being and best interests as they cannot sufficiently advocate or care for themselves.

For the most part, people now agree that you can raise children without hitting or yelling at them, but for some reason, a large number of folks still think you “need” pain or fear to train dogs. That’s just one of the many falsehoods that trainers who emphasize punishment in their protocols are holding on to: it justifies their methods. In addition to the “punishment = good” (or at least “useful” or “necessary”) half for the story, there are also misconceptions spread about what positive reinforcement training is, allows for, and both how and why it works.**

The claim is made by many self described balanced trainers that positive reinforcement (R+) or force-free dog trainers believe in “never saying ‘no'” or let problematic behaviors go ignored without interruption. This is far from actuate. Most, if not all, R+ trainer use some methods of punishment, some of the time, because technically just turning your back on a jumping dog can be a punishment, or using a head collar for an anti-pulling walking device.

For the most part, well educated and skilled R+ trainers follow what’s known as The Humane Hierarchy when working to resolve training or behavior concerns. The Humane Hierarchy is A Big Deal, and it’s awesome. It is a road map to addressing issues by starting with the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) methods, and as one method is exhausted, then move on to the next least intrusive/minimally aversive method. The Hierarchy places the animals’ well-being front and center because, again, they can’t advocate for themselves, so we have to take their welfare not only into account, but make it the most relevant thing in a training plan, right up there with efficacy.

You can see from looking at the graphic below that use of positive punishment (adding an aversive consequence) is on the list of options, but as a last resort. That means, if you’ve tried and exhaused everything else and your options are now re-homing/euthanizing the dog or using a punishment based method, maybe it’s worth trying.

The problem arises with the phrase “tried everything else”, because most of the time “everything else” hasn’t been tried, or at least has not been correctly/sufficiently/appropriately to say that method is exhausted.

Most balanced trainers do not follow the Humane Hierarchy roadmap or operate under the guidelines of LIMA. Maybe there are some who do, but when LIMA & the HH are in place, you almost never get to the point to need positive punishment because all those other methods work, and work well. The use of positive punishment is reserved for seriously extenuating circumstances, not because it’s easier for the human to press a button or jerk a leash than modify their own behavior, because, again, we are our dogs’ only advocates: it is our responsibility to care for them: physically, mentally, emotionally. They can’t do that for themselves.

The Humane Hierarchy places methodology on a scale to be balanced against the animal’s emotional and physical well-being, which gets the most weight, always.†

There will be times that circumstances are extenuating, or certain methods not accessible. For example: if we have a dog who continues to escape his yard, scaling over even a 7′ solid wooden fence, and the possible repercussions of those escapes include getting hit by a car or killing a neighbor’s cat, would it be okay to put in an invisible fence? What are the other options? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the dog is receiving age-appropriate exercise and enrichment, a tie out or runner have been tried in the past but the dog has managed to get dangerously tangled, and it is unrealistic for the dog to be attended/babysat every time he’s in the yard†† for what would likely be the duration of the learning process, which removes most of the training options. If it boiled down to getting rid of the dog or using an invisible fence, which would you choose?

Is it better for the dog to be sent to a shelter (to potentially be euthanized for untreatable escape behavior) or placed with another family who will still have to deal with this problem (it’s not like changing homes will make the fence jumping behavior magically go away), or for him to stay with the family that knows him and loves him, but to experience the discomfort/pain of an electric shock as many times as it takes for him to learn the boundaries of his yard? Knowing that invisible fences are not guarantees and many dogs push through the shock to get to the outside world, is it worth trying?

In this case, IF we have made it though all those other options on the Hierarchy and eliminated them as either “tried correctly and completely” or “not available”, then I say, give the invisible fence a shot.

After saying that I still maintain that I am a force-free and R+ trainer, because this is the only option left on the scale that balances against the dog’s physical and emotional well-being as training with a shock collar in my opinion is in this case preferable to death.

You see what I did there? I’m still advocating for the dog’s welfare.

This is an extreme hypothetical case, but not too unrealistic. It is one of the rare, rare times when all other options have truly been exhausted in one way or another and we’re left at that last turn-off on the Hierarchy map before we hit the dead end.

Most training and behavior concerns don’t have to go all the way to that last turn off. A well educated and proficient R+ trainer can get satisfactory resolution out of nearly every issue prior to hitting that positive punishment turn-off, and we choose to do so because it’s fairest to the dog. It might take more work, commitment, and ownership of the issue from the person, but you know who’s job it is to care for that animal? The person.

Let’s sing it from the rooftops: we are our dogs’ advocates. With that fact clear as a bell, we are doing a disservice to our voiceless animals to cause stress, pain, or fear when there is another option available, and that other option is, with only very rare exceptions, always available.

So, balanced training?

I’m happy balancing the dog’s very real needs with an effective training plan, and so far use of positive punishment hasn’t needed to come into the conversation.



*Positive here does NOT mean “good” it means that the punishment is added, as in: when the dog behaves undesirably, an aversive consequence (shock, pinch, etc) is added/applied: Dog barks + electric shock = less barking. For more on the terminology of operant conditioning, check this info-graphic out.

**I want to make clear here that I do not believe that the trainers who espouse these views are inherently bad people or intentionally spreading untruths. I think, that similar to my history at the East Bay SPCA way back when (they have changed since then!), they are truly doing what the think is best given the tools and education they have.

†I would love, more than anything to reclaim the term “balanced training” to mean that all training methods used are placed on this scale – that any trainer who calls themselves “balanced” is implying that they are weighing everything they chose to do against what’s best for and fair to the dog. Not gonna happen, but a girl can dream!

†† If you’re having a hard time imagining why it would be impossible or unrealistic to stay out with the dog every time he needs to use the yard, imagine a single parent with one or more kids under the age of 10. The dog can not reasonably command 100% of that person’s attention every time he needs to potty.

Moving with (problem) dogs + identifying emotions + putting on your oxygen mask

I missed posting on my every-other-week schedule the Thursday before last. I thought I might be able to squeeze one in, but there was just too much going on to sit down and write.

The pack and I moved houses at the end of February: it was a fairly sudden & VERY fast move that left all of us reeling and out of sorts for a bit. It was a really tough few weeks with a ton of adrenaline and cortisol pumping into everyone’s system, not just from the change in routine and acclimating to a new environment, but from the constant workmen that were working on the exterior of the old house (painter and landscapers), and then having to cope with the moving company and multiple visits from the AT&T techs to setup internet service at the new place.

It was a lot.

All this BUSY might not be a huge deal for some dogs, but when you have a pack of sensitive-anxious (Shine), fearful-anxious (Stormy), and hyper-aroused-anxious (Kit) dogs, a lot of strangers, stimulation, and general disruption to the routine, well… things get a little bit sticky.

Did I mention that my dogs are anxious?

They are.

What got us through was a lot of stuff to chew on (especially stuffed bones), soft instrumental music playing in the background to create a buffer from outside noises, early morning walks, some herbal/natural calming supplements, and me doing everything I could to practice self-awareness & self-care in the midst of all the needs and anxieties of the dogs… and there was one day that those last two things saved us from a likey meltdown.

Shortly before moving day I was (still!) trying to pack, and Stormy wouldn’t stop barking because she was so upset by the landscapers in the front yard. She had already finished or disengaged from all the chew items available and we didn’t have another room that she could go into that would calm her down. All I could do was draw the blinds, spray some “Peace & Calming” essential oils in the air, put on some Tibetan singing bowls on YouTube, and take deep breaths.

Despite all that, I found myself getting legit angry about her barking. I knew there was nothing to be angry about, I knew that the barking was caused by fear, stress, and anxiety, and that she was just doing what her body told her to do given its emotional and chemical state at the time.
But.

But I was so, so on edge, so stressed by what I was dealing with in that moment, that I was becoming angry at her.

I took some time to dig deep and realized that what I was really feeling was helpless. My poor, poor dog felt like the world was coming down around her and I had already done everything I could think of to soothe her, but she was still upset AF and expressing it in a way that grated on my nerves.

I couldn’t help her, I couldn’t save her from the outside world or her own brain in that moment, and my frustration, irritation, and complete powerlessness had started to tip over into something more intense, so I did the only thing that I could think of: I took myself for a walk.*

I left the house to walk in the sunshine for about 30 minutes listening to the latest episode of Tara Brach’s podcast, and it was medicinal. I had half an hour without barking, workmen, moving boxes or obligations. It was the world’s shortest vacation, but it was what I needed, and–indirectly–it was what my dogs needed.

They didn’t need a mom who was a hair’s breath from snapping at them. They didn’t need my frustration to come seeping through my voice when I spoke to them. They didn’t need me to loose my cool because the y were expressing fear and stress the only way their little doggie selves knew how.

What they did need was a mom who knew to put on her oxygen mask first.

When I got back, things hadn’t settled in the house, but they had settled in my brain, and that was enough. I could continue doing what I could for the dogs, given the very real limitations we all faced, with a little (or a lot) more grace and empathy than I otherwise might have.

Those of us with special needs dogs know a very unique kind of frustration with them. It’s the kind of frustration where you get so upset but know that you’re upset about something that can’t be resolved in that moment. That you don’t have a way to fix things so that you feel better and your dog feels better. You know that yelling won’t help, and sometimes there aren’t enough biscuits in the world to settle your dog. When your well of resources has run dry and you have done all that you can, sometimes the only thing left to do is to take care of yourself, and that’s probably what your dog needs, anyway.


We’ve been in the new house for a little over 2 weeks now. The food bowls are in their permanent locations, the new wakeup and bedtime routines are established, and we’ve learned which houses in the neighborhood have barking dogs in their yards. We’re settling in, getting closer to fully unpacked, and enjoying the new space.

More than the space, though, I’m really enjoying and am consciously grateful for these dogs with all they bring to the table, good and bad. They are difficult, they are challenging, they are humbling, and they are my greatest teachers.

*if you’re wondering why I didn’t take the dogs for a walk with me, the answer is that t wouldn’t have a been a de-stressing experience for any of us, but that’s a post for another day.