Thursday, April 26, 2012

I'm no Karen Pryor, apparently. (shocking.)

Meet Charlie Daniels.

Charlie is a fiddler crab I acquired at the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants conference, an event where I had no expectation of meeting my next pet, much less a take-home crustacean.

Our task was to begin to train our crabs to ring a bell, replicating Karen-Pryor-awesomeness, which had been replicated by our instructor Lily Strassberg.  Meaning, it is possible.  But I found my inner Pryor a bit lacking that day.  Which made the fact that the the actual Karen Pryor was there watching us into a humbling experience.

We started with a setup that is just a hair more structured than any training I've done recently... including a notebook (what on earth is THAT for?)  I was in awe of Lily not just because she had gotten the crab to ring the bell, and because she stuck to her guns when she was discouraged from taking on crab training as a project - but because of her lovely but naive faith in all of us that we might actually make proper use of the tools she so painstakingly laid out for us.

So of course I jumped in and figured - shaping!  Tiny steps!  Let's do this!

Then I realized the tiny steps included:
1) get crab to stop freaking out. 
2) figure out how to deliver "treats" (icky) to crab (also kinda icky.)

Addressing #2 first - Crabs are not too keen on you shoving stuff into center-of-mass of all of their odd, writhing, mandible parts.  They would prefer, please, for you to hand them their worms into their little tiny left claw.  (There are some lessons here about thoughtful reward delivery.)  Which means getting the tweezers past the GIANT right claw the crab is waving at you to get you to please GO AWAY.  Rah!  I am CRAB!

Leading me to address #1 - Apparently the tweezers one needs to use to deliver teeny shrimp and worms to a crab might also be seen by said crab as a big shiny threatening claw. (Note to self - pick female crab next time.)  A non-threatening, slow approach with the tweezers from the side had somewhat better results.  I even (I kid you not) thought, maybe I can try a little BAT here - and reward the crab staying calm with the retreat of the tweezers for a few moments.  Since he wasn't getting the food in the early tries, I needed something, so maybe functional crab rewards?  Well, not sure if it was Crab BAT or just habituation, but it did start working.  Charlie Daniels stopped waving his fiddle around for a few moments at a time, and developed a taste for the disgusting stuff I was dishing out.

So, in an hour, I managed - and this is written down in my little notebook - to have better and better success with treat delivery to the little claw, and also, occasionally with the crab shoving it into his mouth - which prompted a big "YAY!" from me each time.  Fearful, freaky crabs can't learn bell-ringing, and eating is a good sign in any creature indicating that it's safe enough to do some behavior other than fight (wild claw waving) or flight (zooming around sideways.)  I actually thought it was pretty neat how much I was able to learn about a completely new species in just an hour, by observing and pausing to consider what I was seeing.  (Some pretty good lessons there too.)  Thanks Lily!

Crustacean Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning anyone?

More of the saga of Charlie Daniels to follow..........

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Using "Cesar's Way" to fight Cesar?

I just read an article about a group of trainers who will be protesting Cesar Millan's upcoming live shows in Ohio.  The reader comments on this article contained the usual stuff about these trainers being cream puffs that let their dogs walk all over them, that it is just an envious attempt to selfishly promote their own businesses, or that they are simply wrong.  This from a wide array of "credentialed TV-watchers."

The trainers will peacefully hand out other (better) information to show-goers.  Below are links to what I'm sure are the handouts that will be handed out at the Millan protest.  So you can read for yourself.

They don't say you can "never" correct your dog, by the way.  They are written by board-certified canine behavior experts who are worth listening to - The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.  And they don't have a place for the protesters' business cards.

I think this group of protesting trainers is on the right track, simply providing independent educational information to refute "Cesar's Way" - informing show-goers so that they might make their own, more informed choices.  I hope upon hope that none become embroiled in arguments, or lodge their own personal attacks back at Millan - because this, in fact, would BE "Cesar's Way."  Using bullying tactics is HIS way, and I cringe when fellow trainers bully clients and each other about training methods.

Actual photo of two dog trainers discussing a prong collar.

We know these things about training dogs (we hold these truths to be self-evident?):
  • "Kind" is not the enemy of "effective."
  • When dogs are guided and rewarded for choosing the right behavior, they are more enthusiastic and motivated about that behavior than if they were forced into it.
  • Dogs tend to meet force with force, and naturally push back when pushed upon (in humans, we might call this "defensive" behavior in response to judgment.)
  • The dog that has not yet learned more appropriate behavior is not "bad" or spiteful - it is the trainer's responsibility to educate the dog.
  • Encouraging alternate positive behavior is more effective than using punishment to suppress unwanted behavior.
There are a growing number of dog trainers and enthusiasts who are using the above guidelines to help share kind, science-based training methods with clients and fellow trainers.  We're having civil, adult discussions about how we choose training methods.  We're listening to trainers and clients who have other views, so they we can "First understand, then seek to be understood."  (Good heavens, I think maybe the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People should be covered in trainer education and certification programs...)

And it seems it's starting to work.  The Dog Whisperer show has been relegated to NatGeo Wild, while Victoria Stilwell is growing in popularity.  There are more and more trainers using positive methods.  Alternative "no-pull" equipment is readily available in pet stores, and the front attach harness is something I'm seeing more often than choke chains.  More and more people have heard of clicker training, and more people are using it.

You GO Ohio trainers.  With your education and all that. 

I can hear the Whispering getting quieter...

Monday, January 30, 2012

Two blogs diverged in the woods...

...and I, well I'm taking both, and they're both "less traveled by" at this point.

As dog training and behavior has moved from hobby to serious career path, it seems a little re-organization of my life is in order.

Presenting TrainingDogMa - one little way of not boring my family and non-dog friends (though this is a small group) to tears with my ramblings on dog training and behavior.  It needs a little sprucing up, but at least it has its own identity...

If you'd also enjoy news and adventures of the Withun family, there's The Days of Wine and WetColdNoses.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Integrity: a response to Drayton Michaels

Yesterday, I read this blog post by Drayton Michaels:

It contained quite a bit of critique of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) for not taking a tough enough stance on enforcing the use of positive, science-based, humane training methods among its members.  Around paragraph #432 (kidding, but it IS long) I started really thinking about Drayton's message, and what points I agreed and disagreed with.  I too am disheartened when "the trainer down the road" uses heavy-handed methods like choking, alpha rolls, and shock on a dog-reactive dog, and I later see that same dog and owner as a client - and need to deal with the havoc that trainer's methods have made of the situation.  And sometimes it's nice to hear someone forego the sugar-coating and just speak from their heart (and speak, and speak, and  Of course, Drayton's chosen tone will likely only strengthen the resolve of anyone in disagreement. 

So what do I want, from fellow trainers, and from professional organizations?

As I was composing some comments, it dawned on me that a common theme in my collection of thoughts is INTEGRITY.

Our perspectives are shaped by our experiences of course...

While not his main point, the author seems to convey that EVERY dog trainer should have skill and knowledge for EVERY situation, referencing behavior modification, taking detailed behavioral histories, and a long list of things the APDT should require before allowing a person to be a member.
From a dog trainer, what I really want is INTEGRITY.  If a trainer only dispenses advice they are qualified to give, and can identify and refer other problems to qualified trainers or behavior consultants – well, I think that’s not only adequate, but more reasonable to achieve.  If we as a community focused on this one thing, made this one of our core cultural values, if we regarded saying “I am not qualified for this” as a badge of honor rather than meeting it with scorn, and if we developed better and more cooperative networks of trainers in our communities – well not only would we be better off, but our clients and their dogs would be too.  Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant are two different roles; a person can be both, but if we required all dog trainers to be both, we would lose many wonderful dog trainers who have no interest in being everything a dog owner could ever need in one package.  (And, just putting myself in someone else’s shoes -  if it were me, I’d be more likely to refer cases and ask questions if my local expert didn’t call me a “cookie tossing hack.”  Just sayin’.)

From a professional organization I want INTEGRITY.  I have to say this about APDT – I don’t see them professing to be something they are not.  They provide good information to pet owners about choosing a trainer, and they are very clear about what their various levels of membership mean – and do not mean.  They offer information to pet owners about more stringent memberships and certifications conferred by other organizations.  Their position statements are easy to find by both members and dog owners.  They have a good track record of continuously improving their educational offerings and services to members.  It’s not everything, but it’s something, and I think they accomplish the things they claim to do with a reasonable degree of success.

When a trainer describes their methods, first and foremost I want INTEGRITY.  I don’t want to hear about the “static tickle” of a shock collar, but I also don’t want to hear about your “100% Positive” dog training, either – neither of these adequately informs the client about the trainer’s chosen methods, and neither is helping the dog owner truly understand dog training.  Of course, it can be hard to describe your methods honestly, at least in a concise way, since no one agrees what positive is, but we should try to be as accurate as we can.
Which leads me to my last comment:  I think the problem with having an Association of “Positive” Professional Dog Trainers is defining “positive” in a way that enough people agree with, to form a sustainable volume of membership. 
The spectrum of commonly used training methods is quite a rainbow from choking and alpha rolls, to shock, to traditional leash pops, to a spray of water, to scolding, to a mat on the couch that beeps loudly and scares the dog when the dog steps on it, to tucking a dog gently into a sit and time-outs and penalty yards.  Any attempt to divide the vast spectrum of methods into “positive” and “not positive” immediately splits trainers into two camps - Too Little and Too Much - and the trainers are then focused more on their differences than their similarities.  I wonder sometimes if some of the positive training groups that have started, might possibly not be able to get enough traction due to just how far along the spectrum they are.  Uniting less members means an organization has less power to make any impact at all.  It’s hard to tell where the “perfect” balance would be, where the restrictions on methodology would still allow for a large enough supporting membership to make the organization large enough to forward the goals of the professionals in its membership.
Do I wish the ADPT could wave a magic wand, and help the dog training community evolve more quickly?  Sure.  Do I wish there was an alternative nationwide association or professional designation with the same size and offerings that the APDT has, that could accurately capture exactly *my* definition of “positive” and promote my own professional standards?  Sure.  But whenever you unite a large group, there is some element of compromise needed, and the APDT helps me to be better at what I do, which I why I am a member.  To some degree, I think we’ll all have to settle for making our own culture change, with our communities, by volunteering in ways that advance our profession, and with the dog and person in front of us.
Any maybe, just maybe, an APDT webinar on how to use science-based and kind methods to deal with dog-dog reactivity is just what "the trainer down the road," or a potential protege', needs to choose a new path.
Ann Withun, BS, CPDT-KA

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Losing Touch, and Trying to Regain It

some disjointed ramblings on nature, dogs, and the side effects of positive cultural change

On a blog I follow, the question was posed: "Are dogs behaving worse now than before?"  Which of course begs a few questions, like how long ago is 'before,' what dogs are you talking about, and what kind of behavior is "worse?" 

But to be honest, here's my reply: Yes, I think the average dog-on-the-street's behavior has gotten worse on average over just the past few years.  That a lot of averaging, but still.  Basic and Intermediate classes are increasingly challenging, with one or more bark-lungers, constant barkers, or just several that have no self control at all.  But I'm going to try to convince you how in some ways, this is a good thing.

The author of a recent article which was the subject of the blog goes on to propose that - get this - dogs are behaving worse nowadays because people are starting to train them at a young age.  (Really?!)  He goes on to make all kinds of wild comparisons to things akin to forcing kindergarteners to learn algebra or face consequences.  Which is different or course, because we must always remember that dogs are not children - in this case because they have no capacity for math.  But in some ways the same because if you put pressure on any student to learn something they are incapable of doing, it could certainly affect the learner's interest in future learning, among other things. 

But the keystone isn't the subject matter, it's the method!  Frankly, I think if a little kid were introduced to algebra in a positive, motivational, non-punitive way, and some of it sank in, well kudos to the teacher.  But that's just it, isn't it?  I agree, if you're shocking or choking your dog into submission, it does make it even worse to apply these techniques to a puppy... but when training is a fun game, for kids or for dogs, there is no age limit.  A good instrctor using positive reinforcement training adjusts the training goals and criteria in order to work in small steps.  They ensure that the student has a large percentage of success on one step, before moving on to the next step.  Voila!  Teach anything you want, to anyone, because the learner drives the pace of the training. 

You can even teach a young and crazy border collie, who you've had for a very short time, to paint.  Over the span of three days of joyous learning.  If only you can accept the teeny steps forward that she offers on days 1 and 2 that seem like they will never turn into painting, until it magically happens on day 3.  I think this painting thing is a remarkably good model for learning to teach, and maybe elementary school teachers should come to Dog Scout Camp.

But back to the unruly dogs.  Here are my observations:
  • Less optimistic than the points that will follow... I think people are increasingly losing touch with the natural world.

Paul's family are outdoorsy folks from northern Michigan who have always had dogs, always had their dogs accompany them camping and fishing, etc, and always had dogs who were reasonably well-behaved, happy, well-adjusted dogs.  Oh, there are grand stories of dog misbehavior, for sure.  But these tales were the exception in otherwise harmonious dog-human relationships.  And I'll bet not one of these people ever spent one millisecond considering Dog Training Methods. They were, and are, naturals. They strike a balance between letting dogs be dogs, and setting clear boundaries for their behavior. They are able, without an instructor for an interpreter, to communicate with dogs. They read dog body language without knowing they have this skill. This, I believe, is because they grew up surrounded by the natural world, and maintained a lifelong connection with it.  Also important is that their dogs also were not so far removed from the natural world as "city dogs" are. 

I claim that the same things that are producing some very bad parenting, are producing dogs and kids who are paridoxically BOTH over-indulged and over-punished (this is not a word I'm sure, but you know what I mean.) People set no boundaries, and then punish kids and dogs for crossing them. People don't really bother to communicate, at least not the part of communication that involves seeing if and how your message was received, and listening to the messages you're getting in return. People think a dog wagging his tail is always friendly, because they heard it on TV or something, even if the rest of the dog's body is clearly communicating a wide array of dog curse words. 

In some ways, teaching a dog training class involves reconnecting people to a small piece of the natural world.  Which may be part of why people like having dogs, this re-connection to a part of us we've lost.  And might be part of the reason I enjoy teaching dog training class.

But here are some BETTER reasons you might see more unruly dogs out and about:

  • People, not just crazy dog training people, are increasingly considering their dogs to be family members, and wanting them to accompany them to all kinds of places.  Creating a side effect to this wonderful trend, these same people have not necessarily embraced "training" as something that is important for their dog.  And they may suffer from the same lack of personal responsibility sickness that much of society is ill from.  Oh well.  Society walks forward in baby steps.
  • People are increasingly aware that dog behavior can be changed through training.  Here, I've got to give a RARE shout-out to the Dog Whisperer (what?!) - because though I generally wholeheartedly disagree with his methods, the show brings this important factoid into people's homes: you can do something about your dog's issues, and you might need a competent professional with knowledge and experience (i.e. not CM...) to help you.  And so they come to class.  Which is good.
  • Less people are content to respond to a dog's issues with 1) take him to the pound, 2) put him to sleep, 3) chain him out back/never let him leave the house.  They love their dogs anyway.  They care for their dogs more than they care for strangers on the street who might look down their nose at them for their dog's behavior.  Maybe the dog's capacity for unconditional love is starting to rub off on us, a little.
  • More people are giving second chances to shelter and rescue dogs whose previous owners left them "go to seed" without any early training.  Here is the biggest contradiction to the article in question: early training is the CURE, not the CAUSE.  But these kind folks haven't missed the boat, because they are generally very motivated to put some effort into re-training these dogs, by attending a class with them.  And it WORKS.  And all of a sudden, they're the best behaved dog in the neighborhood.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Habits 4-6 {it's all connected, post #2}

For Pete's sake, it's habits 4 through 6 now, in a dog training blog.

Habit #4 - Think Win/Win  (Work to find that 3rd solution that really is a win for everyone, instead of everyone, or one person, just compromising.  With this attitude, no one has to compromise, and everyone can really buy into the solution, since it's actually better than what either "side" brought to the table.)

Habit #5 - Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood  (I think/hope this one is self-explanatory.  You can communicate more effectively when you really get where the other is coming from, not just the words, but the intentions, passions, and motivation behind their words and actions.)

Habit #6 - Synergize  (This is working in a way that ensures the results are the very best efforts the team has to offer, truly valuing and leveraging everyone's strengths and diverse ideas and perspectives.  To synergize, you must set up an environment where everyone is bringing everything they've got to the table, leaving no talents unutilized.)

After the first three habits focusing on ourselves, these are the three of the seven habits that teach us how to interact with others in a way that makes our collaboration more than the sum of its parts, better than what we each could achieve with only our own efforts/ideas/talents.

And here's an interesting look at a "problem" dog behavior - a dog learning to open doors and gates - from another blog:

 "This is the very kind of creative ingenuity that enabled dogs to survive and thrive around hazardous human activities for the hundreds of years before we began to contain and control them. This is the dog’s default program. Why would we want to snuff it out and exchange it for the dutiful compliance of a measly few orders—what we call “commands”—we actually take the time to teach a dog? Who would want to trade an animal with such incredible potential for one who won’t or can’t do anything unless and until he his told or allowed? "

[Here's the link if you'd like to read the whole thing:]

The title of the blog's entry is:

"Trading Possibility for Control."

Wow.  That to me hammers it home.  This is what we do so often in the workplace.  Just insert "employee" for "dog" in the excerpt above.  We require compliance, but unwittingly buy it at the cost of creativity and enthusiasm.  We forget habits 4-6, because they require us to honor the other person's (dog's) perspective, and communicate with them in a meaningful way.  And that's hard a lot of the time.  We make mistakes, and it's not pretty, it's not smooth.  We need to make an investment in the other person (dog); to lay the groundwork of a strong relationship that can sustain minor miscommunications and keep on rolling.  We need to truly accept and honor the other's perspective.  So I think sometimes we learn to AVOID any kind of real collaboration.  We inadvertently squash creativity and passion, because we either don't know how to channel it, or don't want to do the "extra" work it takes to turn it into a finished, collaborative product.  I think we've all seen workplaces, and dog training classes/events, that have employees/dogs who are acting like mindless automatons, who if they take initiative to do anything on their own it's mostly centered around keeping a low profile so as not to draw fire. 

I agree that every team needs a strong leader, who takes responsibility for developing and leveraging the members' talents, charts the team's course, and makes final decisions.  But the fact is, if you truly commit to the kinds of actions and attitudes described by Covey in habits 4-6, you GET compliance.  Willingly.  To an often-better plan everyone genuinely buys into.  Enthusiastically.  Person or dog.

I say, trade your control for Possibility! 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Habit #1 {it's all connected, post #1}

Lately I've been noticing common themes that keep coming up in my life.  These ideas keep arriving on my doorstep, refusing to be ignored.  They will try to work their way into my life any way they can, through work, hobbies, books, friends, whatever's handy.

The fact that the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People relates directly to my choice of dog training methods is freaking me out a little.  At the same time, it's reassuring that right is right.

Theme #1:    Don't spend any time on things you have no control over.  That leaves a surprising amount of surplus time and energy to spend on things you can influence.  Spend more time on THAT.


"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."  - the "Serenity Prayer"


“’Look how he abused me and beat me, how he threw me down and robbed me.’ Abandon such thoughts and live in love.” – Dhammapada: Choices

“Look to your own faults, what you have done or left undone. Overlook the faults of others.” -Dhammapada: Flowers


The Circle of Concern includes everything you care about.
The Circle of Influence includes only those things that you can influence / control.

"Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence, working on things they can do something about. The nature of their energy is positive, enlarging and magnifying, causing their Circle of Influence to increase.

Reactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Concern. They focus on the weakness of other people, problems in the environment, and circumstances over which they have no control. The negative energy generated by that focus, combined with neglect in areas the could do something about, causes their Circle of Influence to shrink."  -  Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

In dog training, I start with myself, and how my behavior influences the dog's.  I can completely control my own actions, so spending time on that is very worthwhile.

Product DetailsProduct Details
Of all of those ideas that seem to be collecting around me in pools, this one is everywhere. I would not be surprised to see it on a billboard today on my way home from work. Which would be appropriate, since this is one place I could work on this idea - while driving. What a waste to feel even brief anger at a discourteous driver. To spend one fraction of an emotion on someone I will never meet, to accomplish nothing at all. And "spending" it is. I really think that expending mental and emotional energy on another driver actually depletes my resources.  Certainly, all the nerdy brain science books I've been reading would support that - it takes energy and a mix of all kinds of brain chemicals to produce and process all that frustration.  Resources I could spend being kind, or empathizing, or being appreciative, or something productive.

So I'm going to try to let things go - anything at all that I have no control over.  I've never really been so awful at this I think, not usually stewing over things, but better is better.  So far I like it, just the absence of even those brief moments of seething frustration.  I had always thought of some of this activity as "venting" in some kind of productive way, but just letting it go feels much better.  Venting is tiring.  I actually think it will be energizing, saving up all that consternation to be applied to something else. Or so the world is shouting.