Teeterphobics Anonymous: How Widget Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the ‘Bang!’

Way back when I first got Widget, I took her to a great puppy playgroup once a week.  This particular group happened to be frequented by a lot of Seriously Serious agility folks and their new “he’s gonna be my MACH dog!” puppies, so along with the standard playgroupy socialization things, we also did a little bit of stuff designed to expose our dogs to some stuff they might encounter in agility.

THIS IS WHERE WE LEARN TO EAT OUR FRIENDS!!

Dim room + maniac puppies = blurry photos

Even as a baby, Widget was an alarmingly fearless little animal who was willing to try everything. Would she run through the baby play tunnel we put out? Obviously! Would she walk across the elevated board (just a piece of wood held up by a couple stacks of books)? Of course, and then for good measure, she would tug while standing on it.  Stack of blocks to knock over (to simulate the sounds the equipment makes)? Fun! Running through a jump standard? Sure, why not?

And then one day, the lady who ran our class was like, “Hey, let’s try out some baby teeter stuff!” and pulled out her wobble board (a piece of wood with a halved tennis ball glued to the bottom: it tips, but only slightly, and is just designed to expose a dog to the feeling of the ground moving a little).  All the other puppies happily pounced on the board, rolled around, played tug while standing on it and otherwise behaved like model pre-agility pups. Widget walked over, put a paw on it, and when it wiggled, she gave me huge whale eyes, ran over to the corner of the room and refused to engage for the rest of the class. “Is she….sick?”, my instructor asked. “Um, maybe?”, I responded. It was so out of character for her to be scared of anything that ‘sick’ seemed like the most logical reason.  But a couple of weeks later, we tried again: same thing. And then a couple of weeks after that, we tried getting the puppies up on the fancy moving exam table (the class was held at a vet’s office, and they had a cool exam table on an elevator platform so it could be raised and lowered at will). Again, Widget was not having it. She was very adamant that a) the ground is not supposed to move, WTF! and b) Widgets do not like to feel like they are out of control. “You better watch out–you’re going to have a teeterphobe on your hands!” said one of my classmates, who was no doubt envisioning Widget running against her pup three years down the line and feeling a little gleeful about it.  At that point, I did what was, in retrospect, probably the smartest thing I could have done: I backed off doing teeter stuff completely. For the next eight or so months, Widget and I worked on a bunch of other pre-agility skills, but the closest we came to doing teeter stuff was doing some basic contact training. This was not easy: I am a problem-solver type, and what I really, really wanted to do was to build all kinds of different wobble boards and do some crazy thing where Widget ate all her meals off the boards and had to stand on the board before we went outside and and and…..Luckily, for once in my life, I did not succumb to my crazy, and so for several months, I just pretended that the teeter did not exist and would never be a factor in our lives.

And then, about a month ago, I decided to start reintroducing The Dreaded Teeter. Widget has gotten a lot more physically confident since our puppy class; we’ve also done a ton of shaping, and a TON of 101 Things To Do With A Box and its variants.  One of the things I do with her all the time is set a novel object out and reward her for interacting with it in different ways: basically, anytime I bring anything even vaguely durable in the house (cans of tomatoes, new brooms, boxes of mail), I put it down on the ground and click/treat Widget for figuring out new ways to interact with it.  I warn you that this kind of creates a monster: these days, any time I have anything new within Widget’s sight line, she is like, “WHAT IS THAT CAN I STAND ON IT CAN I BITE IT CAN I GO IN A CIRCLE AROUND IT, YAY FUN GIVE ME TREATS!” However, it also creates a puppy who is brave around new objects and whose first instinct is to try to engage with new things rather than shying away from them. This is a very useful thing for a jack-of-all-trades sport puppy: if they’re presented with a treiball ball or a lure-coursing lure or an unfamiliar agility obstacle, they’re pretty likely to go over and see what’s cookin’, rather than shying away from it. Just as a backup, I put the “go over and look at that new thing; you will probably get some treats out of it” behavior on cue (Widge’s is ‘go check it out!’) So between all those things, I felt hopeful that we could get some teeter back in our lives without it becoming Big Scary again.  However, I still went (and am still going!) very very very slowly. Here are a few things that we did/are still doing; hopefully, the combination of these things will result in a dog who, in a few months, thinks the teeter is the best thing since sliced bread.

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Fun things to do with a training platform and your dog!

In June I wrote about how to make your own training platform for your dog.  So now, what can you do with it?!  This post is information cobbled together from various classes I have taken, both online and with my local dog training club.  Platforms are small, and playing around with them is a great rainy day activity – and also an excellent training tool.  Whether you are headed towards freestyle, obedience, rally, or just want to have fun and build confidence - there is a way to enjoy platform training with your dog.  I promise, she will enjoy it just as much as you do!

Platform training did wonders for my low confidence girl, Perri.  Perri deep thinks everything that we work on together and used to shut down if she felt even the slightest bit overwhelmed.  Perri is a dog who taught me that short and positive training sessions are best.  Especially with something completely new to a dog, it is best to limit your sessions to only a few minutes at a time.  You (and your dog!) may want to keep going – but it is best to let it all sink in.  This holds true with platform training.  Train for a minute or two at a time and then take a break.  There is no rush, this is all fun!

[Note - I use a clicker to train my dogs.  For convenience, I will be using the world "click" throughout this post to indicate when I would mark and reward a behavior, but of course a marker word or alternate noise can be substituted.  You will see that I use a marker word with my corgi Ein, since he is afraid of the clicker noise.]

1. Feet On…
You gotta start somewhere!  The first step is getting your dog onto the platform – and I suggest using a platform long enough for your dog to comfortably stand on to start with.  Begin by clicking any interaction with the platform – even if it is just a slight head turn towards it.  It won’t be long before your dog figures out that the platform is where the food is.  Progress from a head turn to looking at the platform, paw on the platform, two paws on the platform (your dog will more than likely start with the front paws!) and finally, rear paws on the platform (that can be the hardest part!)  Don’t help him with pointing or verbal commands or luring, let the dog figure it out.  He will, I promise!  Depending on how experienced your dog is with shaping, things may progress more quickly.  But not to worry!  Teaching a dog to put all four feet onto a platform is a great way to help him learn about shaping and using his body.
[Video Example: See Ein learning about putting four feet on the platform]

2. … And Lovin’ It!
Once you have your dog reliably stepping on the platform with all four feet, it’s time to make things even more fun!  I click as soon as all four feet are on the platform and then throw another treat so that the dog has to run off of the platform to get it.  If your dog knows that she gets a treat for putting all four feet on her platform, she will more than likely be racing back to you to get all four feet back onto it!  This builds value into the platform and makes it a place that your dog really wants to be!  My own dogs find their platforms so valuable and rewarding that they even try to step on the platform as I pick it up off the ground!

3. Desired Position
Since platforms can be used as a foundation for freestyle or obedience positions, you can start to think of how you might like to use your platform to work towards any goals that you may have.  I want my dog to come to the platform and sit.  After treat throws, and when my dog would return to the platform, I would only click my dog for sitting. (this is after a very solid foundation of rewards and commitment to the platform!)  The treat throwing game continues, only now I expect that when my dog comes to the platform, she will automatically sit!

4. Value Building for Front and Heel Positions
For you Obedience/Rally/Freestyle people, the platform can be used to build value and understanding into proper Heel (right or left) and Front positions.  If you want to work on Front position, stand at the front of the platform with your toes about 4-6 inches away from the end.*  If you have built a strong foundation of commitment to the platform (and a default sit), your dog will run to the platform and sit in front of you!  For Heel position, arrange yourself to the right or left of the platform’s end depending on which side you want your dog to be on.  For Left Heel you will stand to the right of the platform so that your dog’s front legs will be in line with yours.  The dog knows and loves the platform and you can use that to your advantage to teach a dog to come and find Front or Heel position in relation to your body!
*I suggest 4-6 inches away from the platform for Front position because dogs don’t care for being crowded.  If you stand directly in front of the platform, you will likely have a dog who wants to sit back further on the platform away from that spatial pressure.  You can build up their commitment and comfort level and then move closer in time.

Perri at Front (Left) and Perri at Heel (Right)

5. Calm Focus
This is a good one for fidgety dogs.  When my Molly gets on the platform it is hard for her to hold still! She is excited, her tail is wagging and she likes to do everything under the sun to get the “click” as soon as possible.  I will use heel position to explain this.  The dog is sitting on the end of their platform, in heel position in relation to your body.  Click when the dog looks at you.  Build on that and start trying for some duration.  The end goal is to have your dog be still and calmly looking at you for a length of time that you will build upon.  With busybody dogs, don’t push your luck!  You want to click your dog for looking at you and holding focus.  It is fun to see just how long you can get, and it also continues to build value into heel and front position!

6. Switching it Around
This is one of Perri’s favorite games and it is a good one for building body awareness, confidence or just having fun.  I start by standing at the end of the platform.  Click the dog for all four feet on and facing you.  Now…step to the other end of the platform and wait and see what happens!  The end goal is for your dog to turn around and reorient herself to face you at the other end.  Be patient, let her figure it out.  When your dog is a master at this, the challenge can be increased by using a shorter platform, or by being strict that the dog needs to not move any feet off of the platform on her turnaround.   Go at your dog’s pace and have fun!
[Video Example: Ein (has never done this before!) shows us how to have fun with this game!]

7. Platform Hopping
The only thing more fun than a platform is two (or three!) platforms!  To start, lay two platforms side by side with some space in between them and stand in front of one.  Click your dog for all four feet on and then move to the opposite platform!  As with the game above, wait and see what happens and give your dog time to think!  Depending on your dog, first click for any interest in the opposite platform (head turns, looking, just one foot on.) and build on that.   As soon as your dog gets to the one you are at, c/t and move to another!  This is a great game to play to work towards some rally signs such as the “Side Step Right” , freestyle moves or body awareness.  The better your dog gets, you can add more and more platforms on the floor.
[Video Example: Perri demonstrates moving from platform to platform!]

8. Sit-to-Stand
Moving from a sitting position into a standing position with some repetition is a good strengthening exercise for dogs.  When they kick their rear legs out into the stand rather than stepping forward into the position, it is even more beneficial. (not to mention the body awareness benefits.)  A platform can be a great aid to the dog when they are learning this type of stand, because it gives their body one specific place to be and eliminates the option of stepping forward into the stand.

Stand in front of the platform with your dog sitting in front of you.  A food lure can be used, but I have not had a lot of luck with that when teaching my own dogs.  They either pop off the platform and walk into the stand or they lay down.  But with some dogs it can have exact desired effect: their front feet stay on the platform, and as they reach for the food, they kick their rear legs out.  With my dogs I waited for any sort of hind end lifting or weight shift forward into the front end (with front paws still staying still as possible!) and clicked that.  From there you can build on the dog keeping her front feet still, but lifting her rear end with her actual rear feet (as opposed to stepping forward and just pulling the rear end along with her, she has to think about moving her entire body!)
[Video Example: Perri demonstrates Sit-to-Stand work, with a little silliness mixed in!
So I hope that is enough to keep you busy with your platform for a while!  Platform training is fun and addictive as well as confidence building.  If you are interested in learning even more, check out Michele Pouliot’s DVD “Stepping Up to Platform Training.”  (you can rent this from Bow Wow Flix.)

Who you gonna call?: Finding care for your dog when you travel

Different people lead different lives. Some are homebodies and rarely spend a night away from home, and others are jetsetters who travel for weeks out of the year. No matter your lifestyle, if you have a dog then at some point you are probably going to need to find someone to take care of him/her for you when you travel away from home. Be it for one night or one month, finding someone to watch your precious pooch can be a difficult, stressful, and expensive endeavor, especially when you have a dog with special needs.

Luckily, there are a number of options you might consider, each with their pros and cons. No one option will work best for everyone, so carefully consider your needs and your dog’s needs before making a decision.

Option: A Friend Indeed

One of the easiest and most affordable options is to leave your dog with a friend or family member. This is a great idea if your dog already knows this person and is comfortable around them (and any other pets in the household). It’s also really affordable, ranging in cost from “No worries, you can return the favor someday” or “One pint of Chunky Monkey ice cream” to an agreed-upon daily rate – it’s up to you and your friend.

It’s not all up-sides, though. This option doesn’t work so well if you’ve just moved to a new area and haven’t made any new dog friends — or, hell, lived in the same area for decades and don’t have any dog-savvy friends. It also doesn’t work if you have a dog with special needs who won’t do well in this situation. For example, I have a bunch of dog-savvy friends, but they all have their own dogs, so their homes are not a good place for my dog-reactive monsters darlings. It’s also not an option if your friends aren’t available at the time you need them, like peak travel times around the holidays.

Option: In-Home Pet Sitter

If you don’t want to send your dogs off to a kennel or someone else’s home, you might consider hiring an in-home pet sitter. This could be someone who drops by a few times a day for bathroom breaks, meals and exercise periods, or someone who actually lives in your home while you’re away. Depending on who you hire and what arrangement you make with them, this can range from mildly expensive to really expensive. Pet-sitting services I’ve seen have charged about $15-$20 per visit and I (personally) would want at least three visits a day for my dogs, so that’s probably approaching or exceeding the cost of boarding them at a kennel. The benefit is that they could be in their own home, sleeping in their own beds, and not in the often-stressful environment of a kennel full of other dogs.

Again, the downsides. This is not a great option if you have a dog who is very protective of his home. If your dog won’t be happy with a stranger coming in to give him meals and let him outside, you will need to consider other options. There’s also the trust factor: how comfortable are you with handing your keys over to the pet sitter? If you’re able to hire a friend or a professional you trust, this might be a non-issue for you, but if you feel uncomfortable with the idea of someone coming into your home when you’re not there, this probably isn’t the right choice for you.

Option: Professional Boarding Services

Best Friends in Tyngsboro, MA, offers boarding including one-on-one playtimes or group play, indoor and climate-controlled two-room “suites,” and is staffed 24/7 by experienced employees. | Picture from website, http://www.bestfriendspetcare.com/tyngsboro-ma/

A third option is to make use of a professional boarding kennel. These businesses take many forms, from very small home-style businesses to larger and more professional organizations. Boarding kennels may be attached to veterinary clinics, run by breeders or other dog professionals who have set up kennels on their properties, or be dedicated free-standing businesses.

Professional kennels may vary in quality of service, so it’s important to do your research before leaving your dog in their care. Get to know the staff and make sure you learn about their policies and procedures, for example, how they will handle any veterinary emergencies, the knowledge and skill-levels of the kennel staff, and their sanitation procedures. If your dog has special needs, make sure the kennel staff are aware and agree to follow your instructions for keeping your dog safe. For example, when I board Cerberus, I make sure to tell the staff that he is not okay with other dogs and to instruct them to keep him out of any playgroups and, if possible, kennel him away from other dogs. I do this every time, even though kennel staff at past boarding businesses have told me he’s a perfect gentleman when I’m not around!

If you’re going to leave your dog at a kennel, make sure to take some of the comforts of home. Take some bedding and blankets for his run and make sure you package up enough of his food and leave feeding instructions for the kennel staff. Make sure they have a phone number to reach you and your dog’s vet in case of emergencies, and grant them permission to get medical care for your dog if they can’t get in touch with you. When I travel for long periods and might be difficult to contact (e.g., a three-week trip to Australia), I will sometimes leave my credit card and pet insurance information with the kennel so that they can take care of any veterinary expenses that arise. Find out if the kennel has any way of sending you updates on your dog while you’re traveling – some kennels have Facebook pages or streaming video websites where you can see photos or videos of your pet’s stay.

Boarding kennels can be a tough situation for dogs, especially those who are anxious or shy. They are likely to be in the same area as other dogs, and those other dogs are likely to be stressed, too. They will be fed and handled by strangers. If your dog is very sensitive to these stressors, in-home care might be a better option for you. If your dog is a more borderline case, tending to get a little bit stressed but not terribly so, you may want to consider some calming supplements to help him deal with the boarding kennel environment. If your dog isn’t too bothered by all the commotion, though, a clean, well-staffed, professional boarding kennel can offer peace of mind when you have to leave your dog alone.

Whichever option you choose, it could be a tough adjustment for your dog to be away from you – or not. Some dogs don’t seem to mind being left at all and practically haul their owners into the kennel building. Others hate being left and take days to recover once their owners return. Be patient and understand that it can take some time for stress hormones to leave your dog’s body. He may be exhausted from all the excitement or try pushing his boundaries with his behavior, because he surely got away with some naughtiness while you weren’t around to enforce the rules! When you return from your time away from home, give your dog some time and space to recuperate before picking back up with any rigorous training or stressful activities.

Safe travels!

Five Tips for Life with a Fearful Dog

Living with a severely fearful dog is not easy.

It’s emotionally draining to look at this dog that you love so much and wonder, day after day, why he’s cursed to live in terror of the entire world. It’s easy to feel guilty that you’re not doing enough to help, or that you must be doing something wrong if your dog isn’t “fixed” yet. It’s embarrassing and frustrating when your dog reacts in public, and it’s humiliating when strangers wonder aloud what horrible thing you must have done to “make” your dog so frightened. It can be a huge financial drain to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on trainers and behaviorists and calming aids.

In short, it sucks.

I know. I’ve been there. I remember the years of despair when I never thought Pongu would be able to walk down the street comfortably, let alone function in a training center, let alone learn anything, let alone compete. Or win.

I was wrong, of course. Eventually he did it, and he continues to amaze me with his progress. He isn’t “fixed,” but he’s better. We can do things today that I never dreamed would be possible for Pongu. But it wasn’t quick getting there, and it wasn’t easy, and a million times along the way I thought I’d completely lose my mind.

Where we are today — after four years of slow and steady work.

Today I want to talk about some of the coping strategies I used to keep myself going through those dark years of despondency. I’m not going to talk about what I did to push Pongu along (except incidentally). This post is about how you motivate the other end of the leash.

Because that’s important too. You have to keep faith. You have to hold hope. If you give up, your dog has no chance at all.

So here’s how I did it.

1. Remember the Good

There will be moments of joy amid the sorrows and frustrations. Pick them out. Take pictures of your dog being happy. Make videos of your dog succeeding (see #3 below). Record your good times on a blog, post them on Facebook, share them with a support group (see #4).

Recognize those happy moments, cherish them, and preserve them for the future, so that you can look back on them when you really, really need a reminder that your dog can be successful, that you have done some things right, and that it’s not all bad.

Think of this as like making jam for the winter. Your moments of happiness are like summer fruit: glorious, magical, and perishable. You have to save them, or else you won’t have anything to get you through the cold dark nights when it seems like nothing is ever going to be warm again. The good times will come back, if you can get through the tough stretch… but sometimes you need to draw on those stockpiled reservoirs of happiness to push yourself through. Make sure you have lots of them.

2. Record Your Progress

Keep a training journal. Record what you’re doing by way of training and behavioral rehab, where your dog is in her progress, and what your results have been. You can do this as a blog, on paper in a notebook, whatever works. Format is unimportant.

There are at least three major reasons why this matters: (1) it will serve as a tangible reminder that you are making progress over the long term, even if it doesn’t always feel like that day-to-day; (2) it keeps you honest and accountable about how much work you’re really putting in; and (3) it gives you concrete goals to aim for, work towards, and check off as accomplished.

It helps a lot to give yourself small, clearly delineated goals like “in three weeks, I want my dog to be able to walk past a coffeeshop sidewalk sign within 10 feet without freaking out,” as opposed to big ill-defined amorphous goals like “I want my dog to stop being afraid.” You can accomplish the first one. Make a plan, stick to it, work on it every day, and you’ll get there. And then you’ll be proud and happy, because you achieved a concrete benchmark in helping your dog cope with the world (and you can record this for use as encouragement if you need it later).

You can’t achieve the huge amorphous ill-defined goals. As soon as you get close to them, they slide away again, because they don’t have any hard-and-fast benchmarks anchoring them to the ground. They’re just mirages, and chasing them will lead you straight into the swamps of despair. Don’t fall for it. Set real goals, and journal them.

3. Train with Joy

Learn how to clicker train, get good at it, and do it all the time with your fearful dog. If your dog is afraid of a clicker (as Pongu was at first — he’d spit out treats and flee the room in terror when he heard the click, even when I used a relatively quiet clicker and stuffed it inside a balled-up sock to further muffle the noise), use a marker word like “yes!” instead.

Train tricks. Train fun things. Train just eye contact, or small head movements in your direction, or staying in the same room as you and the clicker, if that’s where your dog needs to begin. Don’t train for competition, at least not at first — it’s too easy to put excessive pressure on your dog, even if you don’t mean to, and it’s also way too easy to get discouraged when your scaredy dog has trouble performing like all the awesome purpose-bred dogs with Seriously Serious handlers that you might see in those venues.

For now, the goal is to establish a history of joy in training, so just put all that competition stuff on the shelf when you’re working rehab. Maybe you’ll get to it later (in which case all the trick training will be super useful as foundational background, trust me; Pongu learned how to do a sequence of six weaves in five days with zero prior exposure, because he had a very very strong background in clicker shaping by the time we got around to dabbling in agility), maybe you won’t. For now it doesn’t matter, so don’t worry about it.

What you should be doing is teaching your dog that learning is fun, that you are fun, and that you will help him find ways to interact with potentially scary things in a secure, controlled, structured way that makes him feel safe and confident.

I taught Pongu to hunt for Easter eggs because the eggs made a slight clattering noise when he dropped them in the basket. That noise scared him at first, but the game was so much fun that he eventually decided it was worth it. Then I hid the eggs inside cardboard boxes and under toys and around things that moved, raising the difficulty very gradually and very slowly so that he could interact with the obstacles at his own pace, depending on his own comfort level, always with Pongu controlling the decision of whether or not it was worth approaching Obstacle X to get his egg. If it was too hard and he chose not to do it, no big deal — it wasn’t like I needed him to fetch eggs for anything. But if he did choose to do it, then I made sure that he knew he was the Very Most Wonderful Dog in the World and extremely brave and I was very, very happy with him.

And at the end of the trick, I had a video that I could record and keep for myself as an encouraging reminder of success and happiness. Because trick training isn’t just for the dog. It’s for you, too.

4. Find Support

You will need friends on this journey. You’ll need the support of people who have been there and know exactly what you’re enduring.

Joy shared is amplified. Grief shared is diluted. If you try to hold everything within yourself, you’ll burn out so much faster, and that’s no good for you or your dog. But if you can find friends who are willing to listen in your moments of need, and celebrate your successes with you, and share their own successes when you might not have any of your own to give you heart, you’ll have strength when you need it most.

There are several good online resources for support groups: the Shy K9s Yahoo list, the Fearful Dogs group on Facebook, and others.

There may also be real-world options, depending on your area. If you’re active in a local training club, or working with a well-established local trainer who has a broad client list, ask around: there may be established groups and classes for owners of fearful dogs, or you might be able to put together a list of contacts who’d be interested in joining one if you started it yourself.

If you can, try to establish contacts in both worlds. You’ll need them: both the worldwide reach and 24/7 access of online support groups when you find yourself up at 2 am wondering why in god’s name your dog is screaming at radioactive spider ghosts, and the close, tangible comfort of real-life friends who have met your dog and know you in the real world and can get together to commiserate or celebrate over coffee or cocktails.

5. Be Patient

…with your dog, of course, but also with yourself.

You’re going to make mistakes. Everybody does. I still do, constantly, and at this point in the game I’m ostensibly supposed to have a vague idea what I’m doing (ha!).

Don’t beat yourself up about it. A certain amount of self-doubt is healthy and commendable, but don’t let yourself get too mired in regret. Learn what you can when things go wrong, ask your dog for forgiveness, and move on.

Be patient, too, in understanding that rehabilitating a seriously fearful dog is a long, slow, gradual process. It is hard. It is a journey of months and years, not days or weeks. This is normal.

For a very long time, I wondered what I was doing wrong for Pongu to need so much time to function in the world. I looked for magic bullets that would take out his terrors in one shot. I would read glowing testimonials from people who said that shock collars and prongs magically cured their dogs overnight, and I thought “that doesn’t seem right, but maybe I’m missing something?”

I was, but it wasn’t what I thought. Here’s what I was missing: that a lot of people have different definitions of “fearful dog” than I do, and that a lot of people have different definitions of “cured.” The words we were using didn’t mean the same things. When I dug deeper, mostly what I found was that their dogs weren’t anywhere near as severe as Pongu was (not even in the same galaxy, sometimes), and that what they considered a “cured” dog was not at all what I wanted my dog to be, or what I wanted from our life together.

It turned out that I wasn’t making any (big) mistakes. I wasn’t going down the wrong road. I didn’t know this for sure at the time — I had to just keep going, mostly on blind faith, following my own moral compass and the guidance of mentors whose values and judgment I trusted — but it turned out to be true: there wasn’t anything wrong with what I was doing. It’s just that it takes a really long time, even if you’re doing everything right.

Promises of instant transformations are not only false, but harmful on multiple levels: first, because they often induce well-meaning people to do things that are really not helpful and may be awful to their dogs; second, because they cause people to doubt themselves unnecessarily during a process that’s already difficult and emotionally fraught. Switching course midstream can be terribly detrimental to your dog’s confidence. If you’re seeing signs of progress (even small ones! even slow ones!), then you’re on the right track. If you aren’t seeing a miracle transformation overnight, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. It just means that you have a dog who needs more time.

There is no magic bullet. There is no quick fix. If there’s one thing I want people to take from this post, it’s that you have to be patient. With yourself, with your dog.

In truth, the journey never ends. If you have a severely fearful dog, this struggle will go on for your dog’s entire life.

But it can get easier. It can get happier, and brighter, and filled with more sunlight than stormclouds.

You can get to a place where you win.

Team Unruly Gives: Strut Your Mutt

 

hey tu

strut your muttSince the very early days of TU, we’ve been having conversations in our Secret TU Authors Chatcave about the idea of harnessing our collective internet power and doing something charitable for the larger community of dogs out there. And recently, we decided to stop talking about it and actually do it! This year, we’ve decided to hook up with Strut Your Mutt, a nationwide fundraiser held by Best Friends Animal Society.  The fundraiser includes in-person events in twelve different cities (fyi: Austin, Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Kanab, UT where the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is): those in-person events will involve a dog-friendly 5K and a big party with booths and music and contests and activities and pet adoptions and general funtimes. If you don’t live in one of those twelve cities, there’s also an online component where you can raise money for the Sanctuary team in Kanab.

If you participate at an in-person event, all of the funds you raise will go to local rescue. If you donate to the sanctuary team, all the funds it raises will be divided between the sanctuary in Kanab and the shelters and rescue groups that are network partners with Best Friends; there’s at least one network partner in each of the 50 US states, so if you donate and you live in the US, you can be sure that some of your money is going to support the animals in your neck of the woods, while also funding the work that Best Friends does.

Best Friends, incidentally, is a pretty terrific organization. The sanctuary in Kanab (which is a huge and gorgeous place) operates as a shelter-of-last-resort; what that means is that they take in really difficult dogs from local shelters that don’t have the resources to work with them and make them adoptable. This frees up space in local shelters for local dogs who can be easily rehomed. It also gives the ‘difficult dogs’ a chance to get what they need. If they need specialized medical care, they get it; if they need help with behavioral issues, there’s a staff of great, all positive reinforcement trainers who work with them for as long as they need; if their circumstances are such that they can’t really be adopted out, they have a beautiful, safe, enriched environment where they can live out their lives in peace, and otherwise, they’re usually adopted after being brought back to health. The sanctuary has also been involved in several high-profile cases; they took 22 of the most challenging dogs from the Michael Vick dogfighting case, they were first responders in Hurricane Katrina, helping rescue animals who’d been left behind, they’ve had rescue efforts in war-torn areas, have taken in dogs from big hoarding busts and puppy mills, etc etc etc.  They also do similarly awesome work with other animals–cats, horses, pigs, parrots, rabbits, etc.–but this is a dogblog, so that’s where we’re focusing today.

Best Friends also runs a bunch of different national initiatives; they have a pit bull project staffed by several terrific lawyers who are dedicated to combating BSL in the courts. They’ve also got a great anti-puppy mill initiative that’s made big strides in getting legislation passed to prohibit large-scale commercial breeding operations. They’ve partnered with the municipal shelter systems in New York, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City with the goal of getting all of those cities to No Kill status in the next five years. And on top of all that, they partner with local shelters and rescues, both financially and by offering training and materials (and also by taking in individual challenging dogs).

In short, they’re the kind of group that Team Unruly, with our collective soft spots for rescue and bully breeds (and our collective hate-on for puppy mills) can really get behind.  We are really excited for the opportunity to use TU for some good.

So, how can you help? There’s a couple of ways!

1) Participate locally!

What’s that, you say? You happen to live in Austin, Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, St. Louis, or Kanab? That is terrific! That means that you and your dog can sign up, raise money from your friends and family online (just like you might if you were running a charity marathon or doing Jump Rope For Heart or something like that), go to the event and have a blast.  What you’ll need to do is to go to the main page, click on your region and then register for an account. From there, it is easy: it’ll set you up with a fundraising page and give you good tools to raise as much money as possible.  Then you go to the event, you and your dog have a blast and you feel great about all the money you raised.  If you do this, there’s an entry fee (which, again, is all donated to your local rescue groups); it’s different in every area, but it’s usually right around $30, and you get a sweet T-shirt out of it. Please note: if your business or organization wants to enter as a team and fundraise together, you can do that as well!

2) Donate online!

What’s that you say? You don’t live near any of these cities/can’t go to the event/live somewhere where the event’s already taken place (San Francisco, you early birds, I’m looking at you!) No problem! You can let your fingers do the walking and support the Dogtown team at the sanctuary. By doing this, you can feel good that your donation will reach even further geographically than it would if you participated locally (as, again, it’ll be split between the sanctuary animals and the network partner shelters/rescues.)

If you’d like to donate online, here’s what you do:

1) Go to this page and click on ‘Support Me’. Note: when you click on this page, it’ll say ‘Kelsey Cowger’ on the top. That is I, your humble author: I am playing and fundraising for the Dogtown team at the sanctuary, and so donations sent to that page go directly to the sanctuary team.  I initially had planned to set up a Team Unruly-specific fundraiser page (as distinct from a me-identified fundraising page).  However, I very excitedly brought this idea to the Strut Your Mutt legal team and found out that a) there are different tax liability rules for corporations and individuals, and b) even though TU is just a dumb little blog that doesn’t make any money, by the fairly strict standards of Best Friends’ fundraising, we would probably still count as a corporation, which would mean that WE would have to submit paperwork demonstrating our tax-exempt 501/c status, and since we are just a dumb little blog that doesn’t make any money, we do not have any kind of a tax status. So the long and short of it is that the nice people at Strut Your Mutt advised me to–and I am quoting here–”have all your….internet friends…..donate to an individual page instead.” So instead of creating a fake, audit-bait Mr. Team Q. Unruly profile…..I just used my own name. So that’s what’s going on there!  You can see how the Dogtown Team is doing overall here and how we’re doing compared to other teams in the sanctuary (right now, we are losing to cats!! The horror!!)

2) In the comments section on the fundraising page, please write that you’re a TU reader! This way, we can keep track of who’s donating, which means that a) we can thank you personally and b) we can….

….Sweeten the pot!

If you donate any amount of money and indicate that you’re a TU reader, on September 27th, the day of Strut Your Mutt in Kanab, we will do a random drawing and one lucky donator (and their dog) will win a sweet basket of swag from the Best Friends gift shop.  This will include a whole bunch of stuff that I have not yet picked out, but will certainly involve an awesome T-shirt, some presents for your dog, probably some crazy fancy coffee and a bunch of other cool things.

If you participate locally instead of donating online, that is also awesome, and you are also eligible for said swag basket. But! The catch is that you’ve got to raise some money–no fair just going to the party! If you raise $50 or more, please email either a link to your fundraising profile or a screenshot of the total amount you raised to teamunrulyblog@gmail.com by 11:59 on September 26th, 2014. That’ll get your name in the drawing!

We’re really excited to raise some money for Best Friends to support the work they do, and all of us here want to thank you in advance for your participation and donations.  Making a difference feels terrific!

[nitty-gritty details: all donations to Best Friends are fully tax-deductible. Here's an FAQ about the work Best Friends does. Here's a page called "Where the Money Goes", which shows you the amount BFAS spends on programing, salaries, fundraising, etc. and where it comes from. If you're REALLY interested, the complete financial details are linked on that page as well. It's a Top Rated charity on Charity Watch (by the American Institute of Philanthropy) and rated five stars on the GuideStar Nonprofit Report.]

Say Goodbye to Old Dog Blues

I have had my dog Ein since he was four months old.  He is nine years and four months old now.  If you are reading this blog you must be no stranger to the ways that dogs lodge themselves into our daily routines, our hearts and souls.  The ways that they grow with us, the ways that they change us and the ways that they support us as we go through life.  Ein is no exception.  Ein was a bundle of anxiety when I got him and I was in college and stressed out about life.  I always loved animals and nature but I was never what you would call an “active person.”  Ein changed all of that.  We started exploring the local county park and the rest is a tale I have told before.  Hiking trails were a place that we could escape life together, and we did.  What started with casual 30 minute strolls led us to the mountains jutting up around the local wild river.  We would stay there for hours swimming, hiking and gazing out over every new place that we explored.  And so it has been for years.  Six feet, two heartbeats.  Paradise.   Peace.

Until the middle of April this year.  Perri and Molly tornado’d into Ein and he started limping on his front leg.  It would not go away.  We went to the vet and tried medication but the limp persisted.  When the vet examined Ein she asked me if he had any problems with his hips.  I was surprised.  Of course not.  We took x-rays.  Ein’s hips took my breath away.  To say they are dysplastic and arthritic is an understatement.  And it did not just happen overnight.  And if that was not enough, the vet showed me the bone spurs growing in his spine.  Rear leg paralysis is a possibility if that condition persists.  I was gutted.  I started Ein on joint supplements, pain medication and some at-home PT exercises to help strengthen his rear legs.  The front leg limp would go away, and come back again.  I could see his right rear leg, his most dysplastic hip, being held stiffly and never with weight on it.  I had to cancel an agility trial and a rally trial that I had been looking forwards to participating in with Ein.  Long hikes were certainly out of the question.  I felt like everything that we loved to do together was over.

A few months later in June, Ein and I attended our annual Corgi Group picnic.   The corgi picnic is one of the highlights of my year, every year.  There is the hot dog bobbing contest, there is the musical hoops contest, there is the silent auction of doggie and corgi items, there are baby pools for wading in, agility equipment to play on and there is lots of food and lots of corgis!  Ein and I never do the hot dog contest, because he has always been afraid to nose into the water for the hot dogs.  And the competition is stiff!  We have never stood a chance.  Musical hoops was always our game.  It is like musical chairs, except that everyone walks around a ring of hula hoops and when the music stops, you get your dog to sit in a hoop.   For Ein, who has always been good at heeling and auto-sitting when I stop walking, this game was a cakewalk!  We have won it probably four times.

This year Ein had a hard time getting his rear end into the baby pool.  He woke up limping on his front leg and stiff in his rear, so I didn’t think musical hoops was something that we should be doing.  All those years of going to our picnic and enjoying those two things above all else, and suddenly his hip dysplasia is sticking its ugly face in there, reminding me that my dog is not who he used to be.

I went back over to Ein’s x-pen by myself and really felt like crying.  It might seem stupid to some.  But nine years of this dog, nine years of my little badass that nothing could stop.  My little scrapper who was picking fights with german shepherds at the dog park “just yesterday.”  And suddenly he is old.  I was still figuring out how to deal with that.  My dog who could hike 12 miles over a boulder field is having trouble stepping into a baby pool.  Through some twist of fate my x-pen was next to a corgi and owner that I have seen coming to the picnic every year that I have been going.  Except this year, her dog’s entire rear end was paralyzed because of degenerative myelopathy, a condition common in corgis.  He was her agility dog.  I have always noticed corgis on wheels, corgis in strollers, or corgis who were half lame at the picnic.  But not until this year, when my own dog was going lame, did I become hyper aware of what causes these wonderful dogs to be confined to a wheel cart or a stroller.

The end result was that while I enjoyed the picnic, it was a bittersweet day for me.  I enjoyed being my normal shutterbug self and taking 84 photos of all the picnic-goers (Click here to see the Flickr Album).  I enjoyed the food.  I enjoyed spending a day out with Ein.  But I allowed his mortality to make me feel sad.  I became worried that he may likely have degenerative myelopathy as well.  A friend of mine who recently lost her beloved doberman at only 7 years old to osteosarcoma told me that she regrets missing out on her dog’s “old dog years.”  That I would regret it if I continue to mourn Ein before he was even gone.  And she was right.

I am a busybody going in a million directions with training, agility trials, therapy visits and hey! also a full time job.  I felt I had no time for Ein.  But a lot of that had been because Ein’s recent grouping of diagnoses made me feel so sad that every time I looked at him, it was all that I could think about.  I allowed myself to shut down on him, because I was so overwhelmed by the shock and pain of my dog growing old.

No more.  It had to stop.

Kelsey sent me an Ein-sized exercise peanut and it had been sitting around for a week or two.  Since I decided to stop moping, I inflated it and we got to work and Ein had so much fun.  It is a new game, and it can be an every day thing.  So what if we are doing it to strengthen his wrecked hips.  He is having fun, and so I am having fun.

I must embrace this time.  I must enjoy it.  The last dog that I had pass away was 9 years old when he died.  He was fine one day and died overnight.  No warning, no old dog years.  He was just gone one morning when I woke up, he died in his sleep.  No exercise peanuts, no supplements, no cozy orthopedic dog beds and shorter walks.  He was just gone.  I haven’t lost Ein to cancer, or a heart failure, or a tragic accident – I still have him.  He is still here and happy and he is still my boy, and just because his body is starting to deteriorate doesn’t mean that we can’t find new ways to enjoy our relationship.

I bought him a lifejacket.  Swimming his fantastic exercise for the hips.  The dog is working his joints in the water, but there isn’t any impact.  Ein has always loved swimming for his ball, but he tires easily and starts sinking into the water and coughing.  I have always chuckled a little over doggie life jackets.  My dogs can swim just fine, they don’t need that stuff.   I used to think the same thing about training classes though, and look at me now.  When I watched my dog be able to swim out after his tennis balls for … I don’t even know how long, I lost track of time, I regretted not doing this sooner!

And if Ein can’t be the musical hoops champion every year at the Corgi Picnic anymore, we are going to have to start training towards being the hot dog bobbing champions!  I think that he will be a fast learner.

It has been since that picnic in June that I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and Ein.  We have worked harder on our PT together, we have been taking short walks together, I have been making time to take him swimming and the supplements and medication are doing their job.  I have committed myself to enjoying this part of our life, whatever that may mean.  We went camping in late July and I did something that I was afraid to do since April.  I took Ein on a swim and a semi-long hike around the lake where we were camping.  Just the two of us.  He stayed sound.  He was amazing.  He was happy.  And so was I.

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Stop worrying. Let’s hike!

Behavior 101: The four quadrants of reinforcement and punishment

Behavior controls all that we do, yet I find that most people don’t have a solid understanding of exactly how it governs our lives, or the lives of the animals which share our world. Knowledge of the laws of behavior can help you manipulate the environment in such a way as to elicit the behaviors you want to see and make them maintain. It doesn’t matter if your ‘subject’ is a dog, a person, an elephant, a dolphin, or a pigeon, behavior is behavior, and the laws of behavior apply to all. I trained dogs long before I went to school for behavior, so I always find it easier to think of behavior in terms of dogs first, but that’s more difficult for some people, and they need human examples first. Because of this, I’ve tried to include both dog and human examples, so you can visualize whichever is easier for you to understand.

All behavior is controlled through the environment, even our own. What causes a behavior to maintain, increase, decrease, disappear, or change, all depends on what happens immediately after that behavior occurs. We call this the consequence. I’m sure we’re familiar with this idea from childhood. When Mom would scream at us, “If you continue to do that you will suffer the consequences!!” (Right? It couldn’t have just been my mom.) Behavior occurs for several different reasons as well, but before getting ahead of ourselves, let’s learn, or review, the basic terms used in the science of applied behavior and see how these fit into our life.

Most people who have dabbled in any sort of dog training are aware of the basic principles of reinforcement and punishment, although not everyone gets the definitions correct. Positive/Negative Reinforcement and Positive/Negative Punishment are the most commonly tossed around terms I hear in dog training communities, so we’ll start there.

Homer Simpson knows the four quadrants!

Reinforcement is a stimulus change, immediately after the behavior, which causes the future rate of that behavior to increase. Punishment is the opposite- that’s when the stimulus change that happens after the behavior causes the behavior to decrease. The positive and negative on the front of that word just means that you are either adding or removing the stimuli from the situation.

So when you hear ‘positive reinforcement’ that means you added a stimulus (typically referred to as a reinforcer) and the rate of the behavior went up. How do we know that it went up? Well, ALL behavior analysts take data on the rate of behaviors they’re training or trying to change. Without data, it’s not applied behavior analysis. But, of course, not all trainers are behavior analysts, so they usually go with- does the dog sit more frequently when asked? Does it seem to be learning what I’m teaching? Is the dog becoming more reliable or responding quicker or seem to understand what you’re asking? Anecdotal observation probably says yes. When teaching a new puppy to sit, you probably give food or toy rewards immediately following the dog’s completion of the behavior. Through this the dog learns that sitting when they hear the “Sit” means they will be rewarded. The “sit” becomes a discriminative stimulus (an Sd), but we’ll get into that later.

What about negative reinforcement? Almost sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? Well, negative means you’re removing a stimulus (or preventing one), and reinforcement means that behavior is going to increase. Suppose your child doesn’t like broccoli. You set a plate down in front of them and it has broccoli on it. They see the broccoli and scream and cry. The parent removes the broccoli from the plate to stop the crying. The child’s screaming has been negatively reinforced- the screaming caused the removal of the stimulus, and this means that in the future, the odds that the kid will scream when presented with something they don’t like will increase. (Removing the broccoli is also negatively reinforced for the parent. They remove the broccoli and the god-awful wailing from their child stops. In the future, they’ll probably get rid of that broccoli faster, the get their kid to hush, or prevent the behavior altogether, by not placing broccoli on the plate). Preventing a consequence can also be negatively reinforced. If you burn yourself on a hot pan while getting it out of the oven, you’ll probably remember to put on an oven mitt the next time you go to grab a hot pan out. By preventing the burn, the rate of your oven-mitt-wearing behavior will most likely increase. Even though you’re not directly experiencing the painful stimulus every time, you’re still removing (negative) that painful sensation preemptively, by putting on that oven mitt.

Biting dogs are usually inadvertently negatively reinforced. Something might be causing them pain, such as a person roughly handling them. The dog bites, the person will generally stop whatever they were doing, and the pain to the dog stops. This is also negative reinforcement. Don’t be fooled by the reinforcement part of the word. I hear a lot of trainers say they ‘only train with reinforcement.’ Well, shock collars are quite often used as negative reinforcement, and I’m sure most people saying they are reinforcement trainers don’t mean it that way! If the dog if being taught to force-retrieve, often a shock collar is placed on the dog. The shock is triggered, and a dumbbell is forced into the dog’s mouth. As soon as the dumbbell is in the mouth, the shock stops. The dog learns that to remove (negative) the pain, he must pick up the dumbbell, and the rate of picking up the dumbbell goes up (reinforcement).

So if that’s reinforcement, then how does punishment come into play? Positive punishment is the style of punishment and correction that is most hotly debated in dog training forums. Again- positive, we’re adding something to the equation. And punishment means the rate of that behavior is going to go down. Say we’re walking down the street and our dog is pulling. We pop the dog hard with a leash and give what is commonly referred to as a leash and collar correction. This is positive punishment. Adding a chain collar or pinch collar to the mix doesn’t change anything other than the intensity to the dog. We’ll talk about intensity later. Shock collars are, of course, also used as a form of positive punishment. A dog barks and receives a shock, and his rate of barking goes down. This is positive punishment.

By now you may be able to guess what the fourth quadrant, negative punishment, would look like. Once again, it’s negative, so we’re taking (or preventing) something from the organism and the rate of behavior will go down. Say you have a dog with a terrible jumping problem. If you are petting your dog, and he jumps up, and then you withdraw the attention and walk away, and the dog learns that jumping up ceases the flow of attention, you are using negative punishment. You’re removing the attention, and the rate of jumping up goes down. Ever get grounded as a teenager (or ground your own children?). This is also negative punishment. You’re removing privileges and the teenager is question will stop what ever caused them to get grounded, or at least, be less likely to do that in the future. Say an off-color joke at work and get suspended without pay (or even fired)? Negative punishment.

Now some of you parents may have learned the hard way: “But wait! I tried this on my own kids, and it didn’t work!!” If the behaviors do not go up or down depending on what type of reinforcement or punishment that you’re using, then you’re simply not punishing or reinforcing that behavior. And here we reach the crux of a problem that it is difficult for people to understand or sometimes they never think of this to begin with. If the behaviors are not going up or down, then you’re not using a reinforcer or a punisher. In the case of the grounded teenager- if the rate of the behavior doesn’t go down (and I don’t mean cease completely in one application, behavior very often doesn’t work that way, unless the reinforcer or punisher is extremely powerful) then whatever your using is not a reinforcer, or the one maintaining the behavior is stronger.

My primary line of work is with children and adults with autism, downs syndrome, prader-willi, fragile-x, mental retardation, and other severe intellectual disabilities who exhibit some of the most extreme behavior, and many of these individuals exhibit extreme aggression, or self-injurious behavior (SIB). I’ve been bitten more severely by a 7 year old boy than I ever have by a dog. And on more then one occasion. (And that’s saying something because I had my top lip nearly bit off by a dog once. On accident).  In many cases I’ve seen individuals with SIB that bite themselves so hard they draw blood, and they do it repeatedly. Or hit themselves in the chin so hard they fracture their jaw. I worked with one boy who would slam his fingers in the kitchen cabinet drawers and jump up into the air before throwing himself down onto the tile floor on his knees, causing his kneecaps to have hairline fractures in them. Wouldn’t they be positively punishing themselves and then automatically stop the behavior? There’s the infliction of pain, which could be a punisher, but the rate of behavior doesn’t go down? Why not? Well, the answer is actually very simple, and one most people don’t think about. To these individuals, pain is not a punisher. Or whatever they are receiving after engaging in these behaviors is a more powerful reinforcement.

The number one rule of using these four quadrants applied to behavior you are working with is that just because it’s a reinforcer or punisher to you, doesn’t mean it is to the individual you are working with!! In the examples above, just because the behavior elicits pain in you, doesn’t mean it will elicit pain in the individual, or in many cases, your pain tolerance may be vastly different from the pain tolerance of someone with special needs. In many of the cases I mentioned above, the behavior functioned for access to desirable items. We’ll talk about function in a later installment, but for a quick down and dirty lesson in function I’ll say this. All behavior serves a function. Finding out that function is key to altering the behavior. In a majority of the individuals I mentioned, when they would engage in these severe self-injurious behaviors, their caretakers would often run around, even turn their homes upside down, trying to find out what the individual wanted. One older woman with a severe intellectual disability I worked with in a group home, would bite herself until she bled, and would continue until someone brought her McDonald’s French fries. The boy who slammed his fingers in the cabinets? When he did this, his parents would run around the house presenting things to him until they figured out what he wanted. They were inadvertently reinforcing the slamming behavior by giving him reinforcers when he did this behavior.

Commonly I see these applications used incorrectly with training dogs. Many people assume food treats will be a great reinforcer for training dogs. And usually, yes, it is. But you can never assume that because something is a reinforcer for one dog, or even a majority of dogs, that it will be a reinforcer for the dog you are presently working with. My female German Shepherd, Tiki, is a great example of this. She likes food…ish. She’ll eat her dinner, albeit it slowly (compared to the other three who are scarfers at dinner time). She could care less about food treats. She enjoys them, when I hand her a treat, she’ll often take it from me (after first sniffing it suspiciously) then take it somewhere in the house, where she’ll put it down, lick it a few times, and then it’s hit or miss whether she’ll eat it, or leave it for the other 3 to find later. Food is just not a powerful reinforcer for her. Training her with food wouldn’t get me anywhere quickly. What is a reinforcer for her? Praise. She loves to be praised in that roughed up way that involves vigorous rubbing, high-pitched voices, and butt scratches. She’ll do anything for it. I never need to carry food with me when we’re training. But my male German Shepherd? Forget it. He could care less about your silly, puny praise. You’d better have some delicious hot dogs or meatballs, or you’re not getting any decent progress with him. The yellow Labrador in our house would prefer to have a neon sign above her head that states, “Will Work For Fetch.” Our little guide dog puppy? She’ll work for plain old kibble. Doesn’t matter that she had a bowlful that morning, or will get another bowlful that night. If I offered kibble to my male shepherd in exchange for completing a behavior, there’s a very strong chance he wouldn’t do it again the next time. He’s actually taken the kibble and spat it out at my feet before. Definitely not a good reinforcer for him.

Definitely a punisher for me, especially if I found this say… in my bed? I’d have to have a long look at my life choices to ensure this wouldn’t happen again. For your dog though… I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it’s probably a reinforcer for him or her. It’s all a matter of perspective!

In people, and in dogs too, reinforcers can and will change daily or even by the minute. Know what is actually reinforcing to the individual you are working with, not what you think is reinforcing or has been effective as a reinforcer with others. It’s usually most helpful to have access to a variety of high-quality reinforcers. The more you present one reinforcer, the closer you get to satiation. This is where a reinforcer looses its value due to repeated presentation. In essence, the person or dog you’re working with gets tired of it. The best way to combat that is to deny them access to it for a time. This will result in deprivation; the reinforcer is more powerful because they haven’t had access to it in awhile. Many people do this without realizing it. Does your dog have a favorite toy that they only get to play with while you are training? By not allowing them to have constant access to it, you’re creating deprivation between training sessions. Sometimes deprivation can turn mediocre reinforcers into slightly more powerful ones. My male German Shepherd that I said wouldn’t work for kibble? If it’s late in the evening and he hasn’t eaten dinner yet, I can often motivate him to track for a bowl of dinner at the end of the track. He hasn’t had kibble in a while, and his tummy is most likely getting rumbly. An entire bowl of food is also quite a bit more than just a few pieces of kibble, and the quantity of the kibble increases its motivating factor, also known as MO. We’ll talk about that later, too. Seasoned trainers know this is considered a ‘jackpot’ reward, even if it is not a very highly motivating reinforcer. I usually place a few meatballs or a hot dog or two in there as well, just to ensure that the reward has been worth the effort to him.

So where does these styles of behavior control fit in? As a positive trainer, of course, I urge people to use positive techniques and never to resort to positive punishment. When working with people, ethically, you have to start with positive reinforcement techniques. And in most cases, this is more then enough to alter the behaviors. But there are times when it’s not enough, or the behavior is too severe, or too dangerous. There are times when we must resort to positive punishment to alter dangerous behavior in individuals with intellectual disabilities. As a master’s level, board certified behavior analyst, I am one of the few allowed to use positive punishment in practice with people, but only after everything else has been exhaustively tried and met with no success. I definitely do not take that responsibility lightly, and only do so in the most extreme cases. My own plans must go to be reviewed by an ethics committee, be peer-reviewed by other behavior analysts, and then often a Ph.D.-level behavior analyst also looks them over. Positive punishment is a serious thing, with serious implications and side effects that must be weighed and considered. It is generally only used when there is an immediate danger to life and limb, or when nothing else has worked (and we must present data, graphs, plans, and detailed information about what has been tried and what hasn’t worked). I can only wish that as much care would be taken when trainers insist on using positive punishment with dogs, as often a behavioral review would show that positive reinforcement, discrimination training, interval ratios and other correct manipulation of behavior analytic principles either hadn’t even been tried, or were used incorrectly. I feel very strongly that if a master’s level board certified behavior analyst (a board exam which carries a 42% fail rate for first time exam takers, and a 74% fail rate for subsequent attempts) must use caution, be peer reviewed, and be overseen by an ethics committee prior to using a positive punishment intervention in which they’ve been trained and certified to use, why would a layman, no matter how much experience you have, feel that it is something they should use as a first-line style of training.

So go forth with your new knowledge, and try to identify how these four quadrants maintain your own behavior in your daily life. Forget your keys and can’t start your car? Negative reinforcement for remembering your keys. Put a dollar in the vending machine and receive a snack? Positive reinforcement! Having a bad day and snap at your co-workers, resulting them leaving you alone? Positive punishment for them, negative reinforcement for you. Everything we do throughout the day in controlled by the environment around us and the rules of behavior. Next time we’ll talk about extinction, discriminative stimuli, s-deltas, motivating operations, functions, various styles of reinforcement, and more! So be sure to come back!

 

Interested in becoming a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA)? Check out www.bacb.com for more information

Book Review: Little Boy Blue, by Kim Kavin

For pretty much the entire time I’ve been involved with rescue, I’ve focused primarily on dogs that landed in Philadelphia after coming up from a variety of Southern states: Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and so on. I won’t bore you with the reasons that I made that decision (at least not in today’s post; they’re posted over here if you really want to take a peek), but because of this background, I perked up immediately when TU’s Danielle told me about Kim Kavin’s book Little Boy Blue.

There are quite a few books out there covering various rescue-related topics, but as far as I’m aware, this is the first that focuses specifically on the phenomenon of Southern dogs traveling up the East Coast (mainly, but not exclusively, along I-95) to rescue organizations in well-heeled Northern cities and suburbs. So, naturally, I had to grab a copy as soon as I heard about it. What would someone write about this curious little corner of the rescue world, I wondered? How does this scene look to outside eyes?

Blue’s story opens in 2010, when the author decided to adopt a puppy and found, to her surprise, that the puppy listed on Petfinder as local to New Jersey was actually located in North Carolina. She went through with the adoption, picked Blue up from a transporter, and later found herself curious about her puppy’s origins. How such a sweet, friendly, stable puppy could find himself in a kill shelter was a mystery, as were the hairless spots and scars along Blue’s face and body. So, being a journalist, Kavin went investigating — and those investigations turned into this book.

The first couple of chapters, I’ll admit, caused me to wince inwardly a few times. After years of dealing with totally detached-from-reality “darling angel furbaby” types in the rescue world, I’ve developed a severe allergy to even the teeny tiniest little whiff of people sentimentalizing their pets, and I get even twitchier when those sentimental descriptions are paired with a casual admission that one of those pets was habitually fitted with a shock collar for an invisible fence to keep the dog “safe” from chasing deer (oy). Thus, at the outset, I had some reservations about just how clear-eyed and accurate this book was going to be, because those intro chapters didn’t give me tremendously high hopes.

But as the book went on, and Kavin dug deeper into the issues of poverty and comparative wealth across different regions, variations in cultural attitudes toward dog care and the value of mixed-breed dogs, conflicting imperatives in the shelter and rescue world, and the struggles that face everyone who attempts to reconcile those complex and multi-faceted problems, I found my respect for the author steadily increasing. Page by page, my appreciation for her work grew greater.

In particular, I thought her discussion of one particular foster home was illuminating. One of the people in the rescue network that handled Blue was a woman named Annie Turner, and the conditions in which she kept her foster dogs are described as about a cat’s hair shy of hoarding.

Having encountered a couple of similar characters myself, I felt that the book did a great job talking about the practical and ethical difficulties of navigating through such a complicated situation: clearly that foster home is not the greatest, but is leaving dogs to die in a gassing shelter any better? What can an outsider do to fix that situation, when calling in the authorities means returning the dogs to the same high-kill shelter they just escaped from, and calling in big national charities (as the author discovered when she tried to enlist HSUS for help) accomplishes absolutely no good on the ground?

There aren’t any easy answers to that question, or to many of the others that the author and the people she interviews grapple with in this book. While there’s no question that the South-to-North “underground railroad” of dogs has saved thousands of canine (and feline!) lives, and made thousands of adoptive homes very happy, it’s not without its drawbacks.

There is little to no oversight of those small, fragmented rescue networks, and few people to turn to when things go wrong. At several points, Kavin underscores just how much the entire system runs on trusting every person to make every correct choice along the way. When they get things wrong, the mass movement of adoptable pets does contribute to the spread of disease. It arguably does take homes from locally adoptable pets (although my view is that it doesn’t take nearly as many homes as opponents seem to think, since there is limited overlap in the types of dogs available through each source). I am glad that Kavin touched on those issues, and discussed some of them at length, in her book.

Also, on a personal note, it was nifty to see a few people that I know through the rescue world making cameos as characters in the book. The majority of my foster dogs have come up from North Carolina, especially Robeson, Sampson, and Person Counties, and lots of the rescue volunteers and shelter employees from those areas make appearances in these pages. They deserve some recognition for their tireless work, and I was glad to see Kavin shining a spotlight on their efforts.

By the time I got to the end of the book, my initial doubts had been laid to rest, and I’d switched to being a fan. Sure, there are a couple of teeny little things I might be inclined to nitpick… but for that to be the worst criticism I can level against a book that confronts so many hot-button issues is a pretty good recommendation, I think.

Overall, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants a fuller understanding of the South-to-North transport and rescue scene — anyone who has adopted or considered adopting one of these dogs, anyone who’s thought about fostering for one of those rescues, and anyone who’s just curious about why this network developed and how it works (and occasionally malfunctions). It’s not uncommon for me to run across people who indignantly demand to know why we’re “importing more dogs” when there are still dogs dying by the hundreds in ACCT annually, and I can think of few better arguments than pointing them to Little Boy Blue.

This book might not convince you that transport-based rescues are a good thing. But it will surely do a good job of laying out why they exist, what their goals are, and why a whole lot of people support them. It’s also honest about some of the pitfalls and drawbacks of the system. And for that reason, I think it is a really valuable addition to the literature on shelter dogs and rescues in the United States.