In The House of Dog – To Everything, There is a Season

For everything, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven – Book of Ecclesiastes 3:1

Fall is my absolutely favorite season. Besides having my two favorite holidays, it has some of my favorite colors. I feel like the days are just the right length. I like cool, crisp mornings. I like falling leaves. I’m not afraid to say that I like pumpkin spice. I like Fall. It’s a season of change.

Not everyone likes change, though. My wife, for instance, absolutely despises even the slightest change to just about anything. She is the ultimate creature of habit. As a trainer, I wouldn’t say I like change so much as I recognize the need for it. If your dog is biting people, that probably needs to change. If your terrier is chasing squirrels at the park, that probably won’t change (we can talk about that another time). Change is necessary for life. Evolution is necessary change for survival. If an animal cannot adapt to changes within it’s environment, it will become extinct. Change happens whether we like it or not.

Why am I talking about change? Well, this is going to be one of those rare blogs where I don’t talk about behavior. I want to talk about changes in my approach, both in how I am training dogs and how I am conducting classes.

Let’s talk about the changes in the training first, since that is going to be a shorter conversation ironically enough. As a trainer who specializes in behavior, I have to consider which training methods work best for the dogs I am working with. The first big change is that I will no longer be teaching “Sit”. Now, before you ask why, the answer is very simple: within the dog world, sitting is usually a behavior displayed when a dog is feeling uncomfortable. From a training point of view, “Sit” is a next to useless cue. “Down” is always preferable for big dogs, and is more comfortable for dogs in general. So, I will no longer be teaching “Sit”.

The next big change in my training methods is using the functional reinforcer more often. What is the functional reinforcer you ask? It is exactly what it sounds like. An example of a functional reinforcer would be a dog growling at you and you taking a few steps back. Now, you ask “Why would you do that? I want him to stop growling at people to begin with!” The reason we are going to acknowledge and use the functional reinforcer is that it keeps the dog in a calmer state of mind, and gives a clearer definition of the dogs threshold and tolerance for the trigger. A dog under a severe amount of stress can’t learn, and since that is what you are paying me for, that is what we are going to accomplish. This may mean using more visual barriers, shorter bursts in training or keeping a higher threshold for a longer period. But it will help, trust me!

The next big changes I want to cover in how I will be conducting my classes. After some observations of both owners and dogs, I’ve determined that this change needs to happen.

For puppy and obedience classes, there will be two sessions a week, each session being closer to 30 minutes with a 3-4 days between sessions. I’ve decided on this course because I feel like many owners need a little extra help. I feel like I’ve been spending a lot of time on the phone or texting lately; and while I have absolutely no problem with answering questions, I want to make sure that owners are getting the information they need the first time if possible. So, instead of being five 45 minute sessions, there will be ten 20-30 minute session depending on the class and what we are covering. The prices of the classes will change a little, to reflect how often I will be working with you. I feel like this method is going to help owners immensely.

For Concerned Canines classes, we will be doing a similar change. Depending on what we are working on, we will meeting 2-3 times a week, for 25-30 minutes. If we are working on dog reactivity, we may be meeting only twice a week, or the third session that week might include decoys or have some obedience work. Also with Concerned Canines classes, there will be less of a focus on obedience work and more free shaping work. While the class will have less structure, it will be more effective in the long run for modifying the behavior. Finally Concerned Canines classes, I will advising that we work together for longer periods. In extreme cases, owners need to be prepared to work together for several months. The reasoning behind this is that simply you can’t schedule a behavior change. Everyone recovers from stressful and frightening things differently, at different paces. Dogs are no different.

I want to take a moment and express how much I appreciate all of you, friends, family and clients for supporting my business. For the most part, my business has grown very quickly and I couldn’t have done that without the support and patronage of everyone! It means the world to me! Thank you so much!

Happy Tails everyone!

-Ben

In The House of Dog – A Fable of Anthropomorphizing, Pt. 2

55 Quotes on Overcoming Fear — Productive and Free

If you haven’t read the blog post proceeding this, then please do so!

So, continuing our discussion about anthropomorphism and it’s role within the world of dog training: I want to tackle the other side of this conversation, what emotions do dogs feel and what can we attribute to them?

I want to start with a story. I was working with a rescue, and they presented a dog that would “act calm” until he got close to someone and lunged. At first glance, it looked like overstimulation, just getting too excited and then displaying an aggressive behavior. This is called redirected aggression and is fairly common. But this case was different. After seeing the dog a few times, I determined that he was reacting fearfully to people, who he often met when he was well over threshold. The rescue told me that this dog was “sneaky” and believed he was trying to be mean and deceptive with his behavior. Going back through the training history with the rescue, I was able to determine that what they had taught the dog was to skip his bite indicators, since the rescue wasn’t acknowledging them. The dog learned that no matter how many warnings he gave, they would be ignored. So he took it to the next logical step and began lunging. When he lunged at someone, the handler would quickly rush the dog away, therefore giving the dog what he wanted. Of course, they didn’t want to believe me, especially when I said we needed to teach him how to use his indicators again. The rescue pushed back, saying that I couldn’t be right, that he was being intentionally deceptive. I tried explaining to them that they were anthropomorphizing the dog, attributing human motivations to the dogs actions, and that they should focus on the behavior instead. Needless to say, I stopped working with them.

What’s the moral of this story? Anthropomorphism, in the wrong context, can lead to disastrous things. While anthropomorphism can help us in dog training, it can hinder us. In this second part of the discussion, I want to discuss what emotions dogs feel, how we can use anthropomorphism to help us understand how dogs feel, and why we should be careful when using it.

Fear is perhaps the one thing that every animal feels. Almost every animal has a predator or a threat and feels fear. Fear is a very useful emotion, from a biological sense, as it leads to self preservation. If the gazelle wasn’t afraid of the lion, there wouldn’t be many gazelles left in the world. Fear is the great unifying emotion. Everyone understands fear. And from a dog training perspective, fear can be a great way to help you find common ground with your dog.

When I consult on a fear case, I will try to help owner find common ground with their dogs fears. Many people have a fear of snake or spiders, or something else that is ultimately misunderstood; and suddenly fear of that big dog walking down the sidewalk, or the strange man jogging down the street becomes something that the owner can relate to. Also, the fear was once a desirable trait in dogs. Thousands of years ago, when we had other predators to fear, we needed an alarm system. Dogs, with their superior hearing and sense of smell, were excellent warning against bears, wolves, tigers, other tribes. That trait remained useful for millenia, and it’s only been within the last few decades that a growling or barking dog became undesirable.

Dogs experience a range of emotions. Fear of the unknown, but also joy or happiness when playing, sadness when they lose a friend or family member, interest or apprehension. Alexandra Horowitz has written volumes on canine emotions, and I highly encourage you read to her work. Dogs definitely have emotions, but they do not have human motivations. What’s the difference?

Let’s talk about being stubborn. I’m sure many of you will be surprised to know that I am, in fact, stubborn. Quit laughing, Jennifer. I can be VERY stubborn. It’s a family trait. And I don’t mean determined or dogged, not knowing when to quit. I can be petty, and will just not do something if I’m in the wrong frame of mind. For example, if I feel like Jennifer asks me to do something with an attitude, I will purposefully ignore. I’ll make snide remarks, sulk, whatever. That is a very human thing. I know what she wants me to do, and I’m choosing not to do that.

I’ve yet to meet a dog that was stubborn, truly stubborn. Dogs don’t possess that kind of cognition or drive to be stubborn. They either understand what you want them to do, or they don’t. Or they feel safe doing what you want them to do, or they don’t. They are incapable of being stubborn.

They are also incapable of true deception. What do I mean by that? For example, when two dogs play, there will be “deception”. A dog will feint a dive, act “surprised”, etc. That’s because play has both a biological and social function. The biological function of play is to mimic fighting or hunting, strength the muscles, develop the reflexes, and so forth. Play serves a social function to build up bonds with other members of the family or pack, etc. During play, as in hunting and fighting, there will be what we would call deception.

Is it the same form of deception as lying to someone? No, it’s not. What’s the difference? Boy, is that a philosophical question. One could argue that a human lying to another human, at least within the context that the person lying is not doing so to save their life or health, is not performing the behavior because it fills a function. A wolf chasing a deer, feigning right to drive the deer to the wolf waiting to the left, fills a function. It deceived the deer in order to eat. Do you understand the difference?

It is helpful to explain to an owner, using things the owner is afraid of or the owner enjoys, to help the owner understand the dogs reactions. But anthropomorphism should stop there. There are arguments that anthropomorphism allows us to feel sympathy for other creatures, but I personally disagree with that idea. I don’t think that I need to relate to an animals pain or fear to understand that it is in pain or afraid.

Remember the dog I was talking about earlier? I want to talk about what I would do if I had a chance to continue working with him, with a rescue that was willing to put the time into him. First of all, we needed to teach him to use his bite indicators again. Since the dog often didn’t vocalize until he was over threshold, we would need to use body language to judge his emotional state. Whenever he was approached, if we saw tense body language, hard eyes, tight lips, I would want to stop and walk away a little. Why do I want to walk away? I want to keep the dog from biting, and body language is a bite indicator, which is what I want. I’m using the functional reinforcer of the behavior (walking away) to reinforce this behavior. Eventually, over time, the dog would learn how to slowly use his bite indicators again. Also, I would need to teach the dog how to investigate something scary in a calm fashion. Most rescues will just beeline a dog straight into a scary situation. But dogs often do not approach in a direct fashion when investigating something. They often take a circular, indirect pattern in their approach, taking the time to sniff and watch whatever it is they are investigating. In other words, I’d have to teach this dog how to be a dog again. That’s a long journey.

Wrapping up, I’m not against anthropomorphism, as long as it’s used in the right context. Finding common ground with your dog by thinking about something that frightens you is useful, helping you understand the amount of fear your dog is experiencing. Believing that your dog is being deceptive, spiteful, or stubborn is incorrect.

I hope you enjoyed these two posts, and feel free to ask any questions!

Happy Tails!

-Ben

In The House of Dog – A Fable About Anthropomorphizing

Anthropomorphism –

an·thro·po·mor·phism/ˌanTHrəpəˈmôrfizəm/Learn to pronouncenounnoun: anthropomorphism

  1. the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.

One of my favorite books as a child was The Outcast of Redwall by Brian Jacques. One of a dozen or so books in a fantasy series that featured anthropomorphic animals and their struggles. There were badger lords, mouse knights, rat bandits, and weasel cutthroats. For kids, one of the appeals of the books is how clearly it defines some of the characters. You could always trust a mouse to be honest, if cowardly. A badger was always brave, an otter playful, and a fox to be dishonest. Rarely did the author ever challenge those roles, because that wasn’t the point of the books. The point of the books was to tell a story, usually with a moral. Given the target audience, the characters needed to be a little two dimensional.

Why am I talking about anthropomorphism? I guess I’ve been having this conversation a lot lately. It’s human nature to anthropomorphize. A car that won’t start right away is being temperamental. Your hair is “acting up” when you can’t style it the way you want. We are assigning human motivations to inanimate objects.

We also do that to animals. We tell ourselves that a mule is stubborn, a cat is mean, a chicken is dumb, and my personal favorite: my dog knows he/she shouldn’t do that. I love that phrase (not really…)

Why do we anthropomorphize? Because it helps us, as humans, understand or reason with something that we don’t inherently understand. It is similar to how ancient humans would attribute natural phenomena that they didn’t understand to the workings of the gods. Anthropomorphizing is natural to humans. By putting the subject on a human level, or attributing human motivations and goals to it, we feel like we understand it better.

But that’s where the problem comes in: it doesn’t work. But WHY doesn’t it work? I’m going to keep my explanation within the scope of dog training and animal behavior, in hopes to keep as simple and on point as I can.

The first problem with anthropomorphism is that it makes an assumption about why a behavior is occurring. When a dog pees on it’s owners bed, the owner usually assumes that it was done out of spite. “Oh, the dog was mad because…” and fills in the rest. Some trainers will tell you the same thing, which we’ll address in a minute. The owner has made an assumption about WHY the dog did what it did.

The Hierarchy of Needs by Linda Michaels can help guide trainers and owners when dealing with behavior problems.

In the case of inappropriate elimination, the first question we have to ask is if the dog is healthy. Is there a medical problem or condition that is causing the incontinence? Diabetes, UTIs, bladder infections, kidney failure, all of these can cause incontinence. These need to be ruled out first. Once they are ruled out, we move on and ask the next question: Are the dog’s needs being met?

Now, this is where most owners have a problem. They see a full food bowl, clean water, and a comfy bed by the couch as meeting the needs of the dog. While all of these things are great, dogs often need more than a roof over their head and food in their belly. High energy, working breeds require a lot of physical and mental stimulation. A half hour walk around the block while you scroll through Facebook isn’t going to cut it. So the next question we ask is what kind of enrichment is provided for the dog? What is their exercise routine like? What is the amount of owner involvement with the dog on a daily basis?

Once we’ve answered those questions, we usually have the information we need to move forward with behavior modification. But let’s say that we are on top of providing our dog the proper enrichment and exercise, we finally look at the behavior as a behavior problem. Then we consider the dog’s previous training, is the dog truly potty trained?

Feeling overwhelmed? Imagine what your dog is going through. There is no evidence that shows that dogs have a concept of “being stubborn”. Stubbornness implies that the dog fully understands your intentions and is choosing to do the opposite instead. Your spouse, your kids, your in-laws, yeah they might be stubborn. But your dog? The science doesn’t support it.

So, what do we do? Just what I said, we focus on what the behavior is and systematically eliminate the causes of the behavior. Every behavior, from peeing on the rug to lunging at people when on walks, can be understood and modified if we follow this process. As an owner, I understand that it is easier to simply say “That dog is mean” or “this dog is stubborn”, and my favorite “but he knows he shouldn’t do that!” Does he? Does he really? Or is he doing what he has been conditioned to do, even if that wasn’t what you intended? I understand that owners want results, but this is a process and it takes time.

Some “trainers” (and I’m using this word lightly here) will tell you just that: your dog is being stubborn. They’ll say lots of things about establishing dominance, and being an alpha, and other things that will either get your testosterone pumping or living in fear that Fido is going to murder you in your sleep. Then, they’ll bring in a pinch collar, or shock collar, or sometimes a good old leather strap. And they will choke, zap, or whip the dog into submission. Sometimes the problem goes away. Want to know why? Because the dog has developed learned helplessness (look it up) and is in a worst state than before. Again, the science doesn’t back up these “training” methods.

So, before you start projecting things onto your dog; before you starting saying they are stubborn, or sneaky, or whatever, keep in mind that you are most likely anthropomorphizing your dog and their behavior. You’re making an assumption, and remember what they say about when you assume? You incorrectly identify what is driving the undesirable behavior and will not be able to effectively modify it. What did you think I was going to say?

Happy Tails everyone!

-Ben

In The House of Dog – Shadow of a Doubt

When In Doubt, Don’t. -Benjamin Franklin

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd. -Voltaire

It’s been a while since I’ve made a blog post. I don’t know if you noticed, but 2020 has been a little crazy. I mean, last week was March and I can’t remember what day it is. Some of you know that my wife had some minor surgery (she’s fine!) but we’ve had our plates full.

But besides the pandemic plaguing my life, I’ve been plagued by something else this year: Doubt. Which brings me to another quote:

Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.

Leave it to the Bard to say something with so much power. Maybe it was just exhaustion, or perhaps anxiety, but I’ve been racked with doubt over the last few months. I think it is, in no small part, hitting a wall with a certain case. This case not only forced me back to the proverbial drawing board but forced to reconsider my methods down to their very core. Doubt also came in while I was taking a class for one of my certifications. While I loved the class and found it incredibly informative and eye-opening, it also caused me to doubt my skills. Only recently have I begun to realize that to be successful at this, I would have to openly acknowledge my faults and recognize my shortcomings as opportunities. In this field, we are learning more every day and that I should remember that I will not always succeed, but that doesn’t mean I should stop.

Doubt is the greatest hurdle I face as a trainer, but not just in myself. You’d be surprised how many successful trainers are wracked with insecurities. I see a lot of doubt in owners, even over the smallest of things. I’ve seen some owners lose confidence over something so small as clicking a second or two late. As cheesy as it sounds, success isn’t a result but a state of mind. The first step to success is recognizing failure. By simply recognizing it, you have a greater chance of achieving the results you desire.

I feel like by writing this down, and sharing this with you, that it somehow feels like I’m making excuses for myself. I know that’s not the case, despite what my anxiety wants me to think. And it’s not the case for you either. Modifying a behavior isn’t easy, no matter what that behavior is.

So, I will endeavor to not let my doubts prevent me from doing my best, not only for myself but for you as well.

I hope you all are well!

In The House of Dog – True Mastery

51 Lao Tzu Quotes, Sayings, and Words of Wisdom

What does it mean to master something? Truly master something? What would a master say to someone who hasn’t mastered their skill?

It seems like lately, I’ve been dealing with a lot of doubt in owners. I’m not sure why. It could be the pandemic stressing people out, or the election, or any number of things really. This year has been a test of our collective and individual wills.

Many of the owners of who I work with seem to be struggling more than usual. I am having to give pep talks a lot more frequently. Owners are having set backs, struggling with mastering skills and techniques, getting discouraged. And that’s okay and here’s why:

Training and modification, on any kind, takes time.

Let that sink in. Training and modification takes time. The skills that I am teaching you took me a long time to master, and even now, I am still learning, developing, and rethinking what I know. To me, mastery doesn’t mean that I can stop learning or stop practicing, it means that I have learned that time is the greatest teacher, and patience is the classroom.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Doctors don’t master medicine, they practice it. Athletes do not master a sport, they practice. They don’t stop learning. Dog trainers, true dog trainers, are the same way. We do not master our craft, we are mastering it. Actively mastering it. There are no master dog trainers, there are trainers that are pursuing their goals and constantly honing their skills and expanding their knowledge.

So what do owners do? You do what you can. I’m going to say that again, so you understand exactly I am saying: YOU DO WHAT YOU CAN. You aren’t a trainer. You don’t always have the time to train. And while I try to recommend ways to work this into your schedule, that doesn’t always work.

Do not get disheartened. You have something that I don’t: constant exposure to your dog. I am not here to fix the problem right away. I am here to give you the tools so that you can keep working with your dog when I’m not there. Remember, you are the one living with your dog, not me. You have all the time in the world, literally the rest of your dogs life, to get this right. And as long as you keep trying, keep working, remain patient and persistent, then you will see progress.

Keep up the good work everyone! We’ll get through this. You and your dog will get through this. And I’ll be here to help you along every step of the way.

Happy Tails everyone!

-Ben

In The House of Dog – A Season of Change

This will always be one of my favorite pictures of Phillip.

My favorite seasons are Fall and Spring. I prefer Summer to Winter, simply because I like warm and long days to cold and short. But I love Fall and Spring. Fall has my two favorite holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving, and I love the colors. I love Spring because it brings an end to Winter. I love the explosion of life, the brilliancy of colors, the warm and pleasant days. But Spring and Fall are seasons of change.

In ancient cultures, there were many holidays and celebrations associated with Spring. Ideas and concepts of rebirth and change are intertwined with Springtime. This reflects nature itself, as plants bloom, animals that gave birth over winter begin to bring their young out into the world, snow melts and rivers run strong. It is a time of change.

I’ve been thinking about change. Change isn’t easy for people, and definitely not for dogs. There has been so much change this year. It’s hard to accept some of the changes we’ve seen this year.

As a trainer, I’ve taken some time to reflect on how I’ve changed, not just this year but in general. Changes in how I teach, how I present information but also changes in my views and techniques. I want to reflect on that and why it’s important.

First of all, I’ve been working with an apprentice, and a lot of you have met her. I’ve mentioned this before, but teaching her has been beneficial to me. She asks questions that owners don’t think to ask, and given the time we spend together, asks follow-up questions and provides me with her views and opinions. This has been beneficial to me because it has taught me how to better explain novel concepts to people. On top of that, she has helped me find gaps in my knowledge and motivated me to fill in those gaps. I can’t fully explain how beneficial teaching her has been for me.

I’m also thinking about the techniques I’m using. I’m working on a new one that I started last night, and it got me to thinking about how I try to keep up-to-date with methods and trying new methods. I am trying to get out of my comfort zone and look for new and more effective techniques, updating ones I currently employ, keeping myself sharp. That is always difficult. Looking for faults in how you do your job is never easy, and I’m no different than anyone else.

Finally, I’m changing how I view things. My point of view on things is shifting. I remember reading an article by a trainer that, like me, specializes in aggression counter-conditioning. I remember that she asked the question: Are we normalizing behaviors that we shouldn’t? That question has stuck with me for a while, and while I don’t have an answer yet, I do have some observations on it. When I first started out as a trainer, I believed that there wasn’t a behavior that couldn’t be modified. That is, of course, incorrect. There are many behaviors that cannot be modified. As I learned more, I held the view that there are some behaviors that can be modified, and some that can’t and we should learn to live with that.

Take prey drive for example, this is an intrinsic behavior that is stronger in some dogs than in others. Flynn, my terrier mix, has a strong prey drive. Through training, I have been able to modify his prey drive to a degree. But while he no longer chases cats or squirrels, he still has a problem with raccoons. So, as a trainer, what do I do about this? Modifying the behavior, specifically with raccoons, is unlikely. I can’t control when the raccoons are in the yard, and for their part, they are getting better about avoiding the yard when we go out. Is the behavior harmful? Not really. The raccoons usually has a pretty good head start, and since Flynn can’t climb trees, I don’t usually have to worry about him catching one. Flynn also displays a good situational awareness when chasing them, avoiding trees and obstacles, and he stops once he loses sight of them. The few times we have encountered them on leash, he has been content to bark at them. So, the answer is no, I will not modify the behavior, even if I felt like I could.

Let’s talk about his dog reactivity. Flynn has never been seriously hurt by another dog. I tried socialization, play groups and the like, as a puppy but he never showed much interest in interacting with other dogs outside of our home. When my in-laws visit, and bring their dogs, he coexists with them relatively peacefully. But outside of the home, he doesn’t care for them. If a dog approaches him, especially if they are larger and more active, he will bark at them. If I let him get close, he usually calms down, checks out the other dog, and leaves them alone. When it comes to working with clients, this is actually a useful behavior, because he provides a good distraction for other dogs. As an owner, it can be annoying and I once considered it embarrassing. Although now, four years later, I’ve come to accept that Flynn is just an asocial dog. He prefers the company of people to other dogs, and my company to anyone else. As a trainer, I’ve elected to not worry about training this out of him. I accept my dog for who he is, because the behavior is harmless.

It took me a while to come to this realization, and I still struggle with it at times. Things change. I hope as owners, I communicate that to you in our classes. Whether we are trying to keep your puppy from pooping in the house or keep your dog from attacking others while walking, change will happen. Sometimes that change is simply being aware of your dogs behavior or we are changing you and your dogs behavior through conditioning, things will change. How much they change isn’t up to me, that’s between you and the dog. And if things don’t change, or don’t change right away, don’t worry. We’ll keep working. Persisting is a kind of change all on its own.

I hope you all enjoy the rest of Spring and Summer! Hopefully, this year will get better!

Happy Tails!

-Ben