Sunday, September 16, 2012

Reading Dogs: The Dog Whisperer and Canine Body Language


There is already a fantastic review by trainer Nicole Wilde about the season finale episode of The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan.  She is a professional and an expert with many years of experience, and she does a great job discussing the clip below.

In short, a dog who has displayed food-guarding behaviors repeatedly gives Cesar non-verbal signals that she is afraid by his intimidating, crowding, violent approach.  When she snaps at his invasion of her bowl, Milan punches her in the neck.  He continues invading her space (away from her food bowl) even as she backs away and displays several appeasement signals.  Finally, he reaches around and touches the top of her muzzle.  Milan crossed her the dog's line, and she bites his hand.  After the bite, he corners the dog and continues intimidating her as she displays even more appeasement signals.

Milan claims that the bite came "out of nowhere", but even a total neophyte like myself could easily identify many places in the video where the dog quite politely asked Milan to please back off.

Given the great resources about appeasement signals in dogs (Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas and Canine Body Language by Brenda Aloff plus even our old friend Charles Darwin in his 1872 book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals), why is Cesar Milan SO BAD at reading the body language of dogs?

There has already been so much written on how terrible Cesear Milan and his "methods" are for dogs by people who are far more qualified to write on the subject than I am.  But I will add my voice to the chorus.  The thing that really gets me after watching the clip of last night's episode and the entirety of last week's episode on Hulu is how little Milan really knows about dogs.  It's pretty astounding.

Last week's episode was called "Anger Management".  In this episode, Milan misreads just about everything that the dogs (a recent Pit Bull rescue and two older Boston Terrier rescues) are trying to tell him.  He punches a flooded and extremely frightened Boston Terrier in the throat.  He tells the camera that the Pit Bull is being "dominant" and "wants to kill" when it is giving extremely clear appeasement signals, including doing an exaggerated "puppy wiggle".  These dogs were afraid.  To be sure, they needed major behavioral interventions for their issues, but those interventions did not need to be violent and intimidating, or based on bogus diagnoses of "aggression."

In last week's episode, Milan states that no person will ever get bitten by a dog if the person is putting out the correct "energy."  In this week's episode, he was seriously mauled.

I can not believe that National Geographic is continuing to put profit over animal welfare.  They were asked before the show began airing in 2004 to please not air the show by a top veterinarian and certified applied animal behaviorist, Andrew Luescher, DVM, Ph.D, DACVB.  

The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan is so disgusting and so extreme and contains so much flagrant animal cruelty.  It really makes me sick to think about how many dogs will ultimately be abandoned or euthanized (or forced to live out the rest of their lives in fear) after being exposed to this bunk philosophy of "dominance" and these horrifying "methods."

Monday, September 3, 2012

Free-shaping behaviors -- Paw and Nose Targeting to Ring a Bell

I had today off work, so as part of our other training drills I quickly taught my dog how to ring a little office bell using free-shaping.  Most of my training so far has been a combination of free-shaping and luring, so I wanted to work a little more on keeping my dog thinking and creative by giving him a chance to try out different things (like pawing at the side of the bell) until he got the right answer and his reward.

To train my dog to ring the bell, I just put the bell in front of him waited.  He squirmed around for about thirty seconds trying to figure out what I wanted, but it only took a few moments before he rang the bell with his paw.  I gave him a click and a treat, and he was happy to keep repeating his performance to get more hot dog pieces.  I rewarded him for targeting the bell with his nose, right paw, and left paw.  As you can see in the little video I recorded while I was waiting for the veggie meatballs to defrost, he was happy to offer both nose and paw targeting approaches to ringing the bell!

Free-shaping the bell ringing using this approach was way faster and easier than other approaches I have seen on You Tube.  The other approaches make use of successive approximation, where the dog is taught the behavior in tiny steps, each getting closer to the final desired behavior.  For example, one video teaches this behavior in the following steps: teach the dog to nose-target a piece of tape on a spoon, teach the dog to nose target a piece of tape on a bell, continue rewarding the dog for targeting the tape on the bell as you gradually make the tape smaller, then reward the dog for targeting the bell itself.  I personally would never have the patience for all that crap.

It took me longer to get through the check-out at Staples to buy the bell than it took me to train the trick.  While there are many complex behaviors that are probably much easier to teach through luring or successive approximation (or a combination of techniques), ringing the bell was super easy, quick, and fun to free-shape.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

How's that Clicker working for you?

Very loud and comfortable CLICKER!
The natural gas company is doing work in the neighborhood for the next few weeks, and my dog is terrified by the commotion.  I was clicking and treating him for counter-conditioning against all the beeping and rattling and loud noises from the many giant trucks going up and down all the streets surrounding our home.  One of the workers stopped me and asked, "Hey, how's that clicker working for you?"  And of course, I told him that it is amazing.  He then went on to tell me that his son is just starting out as a clicker training instructor at Petsmart.  I told the man that he should be very, very proud of his son for teaching people positive ways of communicating with their animals.

Considering that so many young men in Chicago are violently training dogs to attack people and other dogs (or not training their dogs at all), this guy is really going against the grain.  There is so much misinformation out there, and even much older people with full access to the very best information have not incorporated science-based methods into their dog training.

Here is a great Kiko Pup video that explains what clicker training is, why it works, and how to do it:

Sometimes I feel like a total crazy lady when I am out on the street, but when it really comes down to it, I am so proud to be clicker training my dog!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dominance and Pack Hierarchy in Dogs

Canaan Dog: A pariah dog turned lovely family pet!
Last night, I decided to go to the volunteer orientation for my local no-kill animal shelter.  I need to get out of the house more, and I ended most of my volunteer projects last year due to the overwhelming time commitments of my job.  Things have calmed down more at work, so I thought I'd try volunteering with animals instead of people this time.

The orientation started out great.  The orientation leader, a volunteer herself, was an adorable and funny middle-aged woman who was very obviously committed to animal welfare.  And then things took a turn for the worst.  She started explaining that the reason dogs fight is related to their need to sort out the pack hierarchy so that one of the dogs can become alpha over the other.  Oh jeez.  She continued that this is related to dogs' ancient past as wolves.  Oh jeez.  I tried and tried to keep my mouth shut, but finally I HAD to speak up.

There were so many things wrong with her claims about the social behavior of dogs.  And having a scientifically incorrect belief isn't necessarily harmful on its own, but these concepts about dominance and pack structure are a slippery slope towards something very dangerous to dogs.

Believing in these incorrect ideas about dog behavior means that when your dog does something you don't like (or that isn't compatible with polite coexistence with humans) that the dog is trying to dominate you or become "alpha" over you.  Thus, you will need to employ behavior modification methods that take into account your dog's desire to dominate you.  Bye-bye, freeze dried liver.  Hello, shock collar.

The truth is that dogs do not live in hierarchical packs, either in our homes or in the wild when they live semi-feral as village dogs.  In fact, wolves also do not live in hierarchical packs in the wild.  This belief is based on outdated and incorrect research from the 1940s-1970s about unrelated wolves living in stressed conditions in captivity in a zoo.  Furthermore, dogs are not wolves.  Wolf research was incorrectly applied to dogs.  These misconceptions were popularized by old school dog training authors like the Monks of New Skete to justify their use of pain and intimidation on their dogs.

It saddens me that a shelter committed to a no-kill philosophy would be training its volunteers and adoption counselors in out-dated, debunked, and unscientific ideas about dog behavior.  I strongly believe that these ideas are dangerous, and lead directly to the abandonment and euthanization of many, many dogs.

I complied a list of some internet resources about "Dominance" and pack hierarchy in dogs, listed below.  This list is not at all exhaustive.  There are probably hundreds of articles, blog entries, and position statements online from scientists and reputable trainers available online that debunk the idea of dominance and pack hierarchy in dogs.

Resources about Dominance/Pack Theory

I found  chapters 1-3 of the excellent book, "Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet," by the anthrozoologist Dr. John Bradshaw to be exceptionally helpful to my understanding of the scientific research on dog behavior and evolution.  Less informative (but cute and funny) is his interview with Stephen Colbert.

Research about Wolves:
Video of world-renowned wolf researcher Dave Mech talking about his own error in the labeling of "alpha" wolves in his research in the 1970s.

The original scientific study of captive wolf pack structure by Rudolph Schenkel published in 1947 that was later (incorrectly) applied to dogs by Konrad Lorenz and the Monks of New Skete.

Research about Dogs:
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior position statement on Dominance Theory.

Article by Pat Miller, "De-Bunking the "Alpha Dog" Theory"

Article by Dr. Ian Dunbar, "Misconceptions of the Mythical Alpha Dog", originally published in 1990.

Article by Jean Donaldson, "Are Dogs Pack Animals?"

Article by Dr. Patricia McConnell, "Alpha Scmalpha"

Article by Dr. Patricia McConnell, "Down with Dominance"

Article by Karen Pryor, "Debunking Dominance"

New York Times article by Mark Derr, "A Pack of Lies"

Article by Dr. Sophia Yin "The Dominance Controversy"

Monday, August 6, 2012

Why I am not using a Thundershirt.

Photo I stole of an Australian Cattle Dog wearing a Thundershirt
Non-professionals frequently suggest that I try a Thundershirt on my shy/cautious, sound-reactive and neophobic dog.  While I don't at all think that Thundershirts or the other anxiety-wraps are outright harmful to dogs, I do think that they are like a pacifier rather than a solution to the problem.  The concept of the anxiety compression wrap is based on good science.  But while compression tools may temporarily soothe the fearful animal, they do not relieve the fear long-term. There is a better way to work with shy/cautious/reactive dogs to help them truly overcome their fears.

While I discussed my own use of operant conditioning to help my dog overcome his fears in my review of McConnell's pamphlet The Cautious Canine, I thought that I'd revisit the subject since it's been about a month and a half of challenging work with my dog.  First, a story about Thundershirts.

I used to go to a hair salon in my neighborhood that has a salon dog.  The poor beagle-mix was clearly terrified of all of the loud sounds, the bustle of strange people, and the bad behavior of the staff and clients.  People were constantly lunging at the dog to pet him.  He was picked up and hugged by staff members, put up on the counters for additional harassment, and had treats shoved into his mouth.  The poor dog might have been placated by the Thundershirt he was wearing, but he looked extremely distressed to me.

I tried to talk to the owner of the dog (who also owned the salon) about her dog.  She said that she took the dog to some kind of "dog whisperer person" who cost her $80 and, "all he did" was to tell her to give the dog treats when he was afraid.  It is possible that this dog trainer was not a very talented teacher and didn't do a good job explaining the principles of counter-conditioning to this dog owner.  My guess is that his valuable information flew in one ear and went out the other, and she didn't follow-through with his counter-conditioning homework.  Much easier to just throw the dog in a $40 dog shirt, and continue on her merry way (without considering the fact that many dogs would be quite distressed in a hair salon environment).

This is the problem with the Thundershirt.  It is a quick-fix that doesn't actually FIX anything. So if using operant counter-conditioning is so great, how is it working for me?

Our program of counter-conditioning has been very hard work.  My dog is afraid of so many things, and I need to work on associating all of the things that freak him out with something positive (freeze-dried liver, lamb lung, cheese).  We need to be consistent and diligent about being ready with our clicker and reward, since any time we run into something that might distress him is an opportunity for growth and learning.  I also need to be very observant of my dog's stress level, since it's completely counter-productive to both him (and me and my boyfriend) to push the dog out of his comfort zone.  Pushing him too far just causes my dog to shut down, and we all wind up frustrated, exhausted, and discouraged.

Counter-conditioning is science!  It really works.  But it is not a quick-fix or miracle cure.  You can't buy it at a store for $40 or pay someone $80 to come to your house for one session to fix your dog for you.  It's a slow process, it requires careful thought, observation, and planning.  THAT SAID, it has been so rewarding to help my dog truly overcome his fears by creating positive associations in his brain.  He will probably always be a cautious dog, but we are making great progress on our journey to happy city living.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Puppy Training

My dog when he was only 5 days old!
We consciously chose an adult dog rather than a puppy because we knew that we were absolutely not ready for the around-the-clock care and guidance that a puppy requires.  It turns out that adopting an adolescent dog who has had no formal obedience training or house manners has its own challenges. Still, I personally know not very much about what goes into raising a puppy... other than that Dr. Ian Dunbar will tell you exactly how to do it using humane, science-based methods.  [Note: he has made large amounts of his writing available for free online.]

There is one other important thing I know.  It is never necessary or appropriate to intimidate ("dominate") or physically harm a puppy, first because it is inhumane and second because puppies can't learn effectively from using aversives/positive punishment.

So I am dismayed and saddened by all of the crazy advice out there.  Here are some examples of "how to train a 9 week old puppy to stop nipping" from a Welsh Corgi message board:
  • As tough as it may be with something that cute, you guys must be the "pack" leaders or else Lil [Dog's Name] might turn into Big Napolean (lol).
  • We tried grabbling and closing his snout when he nipped and said NO BITE! and that sometimes worked. Our trainer/breeder would bite him back. Now we pinch him in the cheek when he does it.
  • Try using a squirt bottle, we bought a purple squirt bottle that we keep full of water, when ever (Dog's Name) gets into trouble we give her a squirt or two on the snout and a firm "NO" and that usually ends the behavior. 
  • Squirting works for many dogs, even those who like swimming. I would suggest trying that, or filling a can with coins and giving it a shake to produce a loud noise. 
  • I started using painless punishment, for example water squirting, or to teach him not to hoover up food that falls off my kitchen table i 'accidentally' dropped slices of lemon a few dozen times. Now he knows not to pounce on things when they fall, he wait for my command if it's safe to eat.
Sheesh.  Squirting your puppy in the face?  Biting your puppy back?  Grabbing his muzzle and yelling into his face?  Pinching the puppy's cheek?  This is some pretty alarming advice for strangers to be giving a first-time puppy owner looking for a little training guidance.

There is a new dog in my neighborhood, and it breaks my heart to see her.  Last night, a gorgeous 4-month-old-ish German Shepherd Dog puppy emerged with her owner from one of the fancy new-construction homes on our block.  The puppy was wearing a prong collar and a hard cage muzzle.  I wanted to approach the owner of the dog so badly and to talk to her about her dog, but what would I say?  "Hello, I'm no expert, but I believe you are setting your dog up to be on the fast track to be euthanized.  Who are you working with for your puppy's behavioral issues?"

Just like I don't approach some of my other neighbors who allow their children to hit each other with bats and to rip the siding off their rental home, it is probably best not to tell the owner of the German Shepherd Dog how to raise her puppy.  But when I no longer see the puppy walking around our neighborhood, I will have a very good idea about what happened and why.

What a shame that, because of lack of information (and the dissemination of quite harmful misinformation) this poor puppy and so many others must live full of pain, fear, and suffering when they could be joyful companions.

Here's an inspiring message from Patricia McConnell from a Fall article in Bark Magazine:

"Sometimes a sheep will face off with a dog: head to head, eye to eye, just inches between them. She will put her head down so far that her nose is almost touching the dog’s muzzle, and then feint forward. Insecure dogs panic and charge, causing the sheep to scatter like deer or, worse, to fight the dog in a nasty contest between sharp teeth and an anvil-like scull.  In sheepherding circles, we call that a “wreck,” because rarely does any good come of it. But the best dogs, the great dogs, stand motionless, never flicking an ear or withdrawing an inch. It may take one second or it may take 20, but eventually, the ewe will sense the dog’s commitment, and turn her nose, twitch her ears and back away.

These dogs are models for those of us enmeshed in the controversies surrounding how best to raise and train our four-legged best friends. Those who believe that dogs deserve to be treated with respect and understanding need to stand firm, quiet and confident in our commitment. If I were queen and could change one thing right now in the dog world, it would be to give people the confidence they need to be open-minded and not over-reactive to challenges, while standing strong for what they believe is right.

Like great sheepdogs, those of us who believe in knowledge and respect need to be calm but confident, patient but resolute. One by one, day by day, the naysayers of the training world will turn their heads and find their way into the fold."

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hugging Dogs and Internet Photography

Found Photo of Lady Hugging her Distressed Dog (from Tumblr)
I've noticed something lately that is really disturbing me.  People taking photos of themselves hugging their dogs for social media sites.  There is even an entire Tumblr blog dedicated to photos of people hugging their dogs.  What is not at all surprising to me is that many of the dogs in these social media photos look extremely distressed because it is very threatening and distressing to a dog to be hugged.  They don't enjoy it, period.  Some dogs may tolerate hugging, but they all find it stressful.

The dog in the photo above is displaying a tongue-flicking distress signal (see: Turid Rugass, On Talking Terms with Dogs) and you can see the whites of his eyes (see: Patricia McConnell, For the Love of a Dog) .  The hug is upsetting him, but the owner of the dog proceeded for the benefit of everyone on her facebook page.  The photo above appears to have been taken by an accomplice, but there are far more really creepy myspace-esque self-portraits like this one floating around:
Found Photo of Lady Hugging her Distressed Dog (from Tumblr)
For a detailed discussion of why dogs don't like being hugged, see this great article by Barry McDonald.  For a detailed discussion of why people can't stop themselves from hugging their dogs, see The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell. 

In the meantime, I wish everyone would stop hugging their dogs... or at least stop taking photos of themselves doing it and posting them all over the internet.  For your benefit, more photos of miserable-looking dogs with happy-looking people:
Distressed Dog being Hugged (from Tumblr)
Distressed Dog being Hugged (from Tumblr)

Distressed Dog being Hugged (from Tumblr)

Distressed Dog being Hugged (from Tumblr)