Stay connected.

Earlier posts by category


The downside of luring a fearful dog

Here's another counterintuitive idea, one I've taken a long time and many mistakes (some quite recent) to appreciate. I'm generally a big fan of "free shaping," a training method that marks and rewards successive approximations of a desired behavior (or, at its freest, a behavior that the dog invents). Free shaping requires patience, but it can really "light up" a dog, as it engages her initiative, intelligence, and pleasure in learning. That said, I haven't been a purist in this regard; I'll often resort (and encourage my students to resort) to the use of food lures to jump start behaviors when time and/or patience are at a premium. (To begin to teach "down" from a sit, for instance, it's common to take a good, smelly treat and use it to draw a dog's nose down, then out along the floor in an L-motion.)

I'd like to take these shortcuts less often, but I haven't known them to be harmful or problematic in most run-of-the-mill training situations, as long as the lure is faded quickly and the dog kept mentally active. (Too much luring can lead to a kind of "passenger seat" phenomenon - have you ever been driven somewhere three or more times with nothing on your mind but the passing scenery and the fun you'll have when you arrive at your destination, then gotten lost when you had to drive there yourself? The same thing often happens with a dog whose focus is totally consumed by a moving treat.)

As harmless as luring generally is with a confident dog learning basic behaviors, it can backfire badly when used to encourage a fearful dog to "overcome" its fear, and I've become convinced that we should avoid it whenever possible.

The reasoning behind luring a fearful dog collapses the logic of classical conditioning (developing habits of association) with the logic of operant conditioning (developing habits of behavior). If I use the scent and sight of something delicious to draw a fearful dog toward me, my hope is that the dog will not only learn to approach what it fears (me), but also that I'll become less scary as I become more strongly associated with good stuff. In theory, this approach seems like it could be doubly powerful, but in practice it can create serious, even dangerous difficulties.

When luring a confident and physically sound dog in order to sketch out a new behavior, I'm not asking the dog to overcome anything but his ignorance of what he needs to do to get the treat he wants. Imagine instead that the dog were badly arthritic and I tried to lure him to do something physically painful. It wouldn't be surprising if the dog simply balked. Imagine that I offered a series of progressively more tempting treats, until I found the one that "worked" (a bit of steak, say), that is, the one that allowed me to override the dog's strong instinct toward self-preservation. I would not have used "force" as it's commonly understood, but it's doubtful that the dog would now be more likely to perform the desired behavior. And multiple repetitions of this "bargain" could well create an association between steak and pain.

A dog riddled by pain and a dog riddled by fear share an especially strong need for autonomy; their great vulnerability naturally heightens their desire to be in control of themselves and their immediate surroundings. For a fearful dog, distance (between the dog and the object of her fear) is often the most critical variable determining her relative sense of comfort, and giving her control of that variable is often the most effective way to boost her confidence, especially if control itself is paired with other good stuff, and the feared object is the source (or the predictor) of that good stuff.

How to do this? One of the simplest and most effective methods I've found for ameliorating a dog's fear of humans is the "Treat and Retreat" exercise developed by Suzanne Clothier and Ian Dunbar. I should say "exercises," since trainers have invented many variations on the theme, but the principle remains the same: rather than luring the dog toward you (by offering the treat ahead of time and using it to draw the dog in), you reward any independent choice by the dog to approach (even the tiniest and most hesitant) with both a food treat and increased distance. My favorite way of doing this is to mark (with a quiet "yes") a dog's approach (or a lean forward, or even an inkling of interest) and toss the treat past her (gently and underhand). She has already established the distance at which she feels just safe enough; when she goes for the treat, the pressure of my frightening presence is relieved (though she may be reluctant to turn her back on me). Having moved further away, she is then set up to move back toward me to her original safe distance, a choice I'll mark and reward again in the same way.

As she comes to understand that she's in full control of the distance between us, and as she comes to think of me as a treat (and security!) dispensing machine, she'll draw closer at her own pace. And I will never have put her in the bind of choosing between nourishment and safety.



This dreamboat is Chauncy, my current pal at the Oregon Humane Society. Would you believe that the photo doesn't really do him justice? This gray but balmy morning, I had him out on the path behind OHS: a lovely, steep descent to an honest to goodness duck pond (with honest to goodness ducks!). Our initial walks there were sweaty, staccato affairs, with Chauncy rarely managing more than two steps on a loose leash between forward lunges (his) and dead stops (mine) for the first three loops of five we'd make before returning up the hill. But he caught on very quickly to the fact that a click may mean chicken-liver deliciousness in his kennel and forward motion out of it. (Some trainers prefer to keep the clicker-food association pure, but to my mind what's critical is that the click should always predict some powerful primary reinforcement. If I'm in a situation where a dog cares less about a high value food treat than he does about moving toward a squirrel or shrub or flying disc -- or away from a scary human, lawn mower, or dog -- I have a clear indication as to which is the strongest available reinforcer, and I'll use it to back up the promise I make with the clicker. In that way, I maintain the power of the click both to reinforce and to inform.) He's made great progress toward good leash manners, so I'm not getting nearly as much of a workout, but we both get to enjoy the blooming spring. (Ah, fickle Portland skies! The wind just kicked up and started slinging hail against my window.)

Chauncy hasn't been out "on the floor" for a few weeks, owing to some separation anxiety and the consequent difficulties he's had staying calm when people walk by or enter and leave his kennel. But there, too, he's much improved. When I work with him back in Dog Isolation (which sounds like harsh punishment for miscreants but is in fact a lower-stimulus, lower-stress environment for sensitive types like Chauncy), I often do a modified version of Dr. Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol, rewarding him for remaining in a down while I do various distracting and potentially anxiety-producing things like stepping away from him, rattling the kennel latch, turning my back, or waving my arms. The reward is twofold: I return to him (the "functional reward" for a dog with separation distress) and I give him a food treat (a "bonus reward" but also an aid to calming when not overwhelmingly delicious). He used to give desperate "hugs" when I left his kennel, but he's now able to keep all four feet on the floor and sometimes even to hold a sit when I go.

In the early, bouncy days, I tried the same thing with Chauncy that had worked with Loretta: rubbing his chest or shoulder for a few seconds, then clicking and treating him if he remained in a sit. It's an easy way to build the reinforcing power of touch, and in Chauncy's case it had the lovely unintended consequence of prompting him to gaze oh so soulfully into my eyes. If I wanted to put this behavior on cue, I'd call it "adopt me now!" but its spontaneity is a big part of its charm.


Nothing is something

I've found this to be one of the most counterintuitive concepts in training, but also one of the most useful: the absence of  behavior is a behavior (sometimes it's actually a whole set of behaviors), which means that it can be effectively captured and shaped. This is an especially valuable perspective in training excitable, reactive, hyperalert dogs. We can take advantage of the fact that outward physical states mirror internal feeling states, and vice-versa: just as you can give your mood a boost by placing a pencil between your teeth (thereby drawing your mouth into a smile), so can you help your dog find calm by marking and rewarding the visible signs of that invisible feeling.

If you were training a dog to sit, you might not give much focused thought to the question of what "sit" looks like unless your unconscious expectations were disappointed, and the picture in your mind (e.g. upright, alert, eyes on you, butt settled, back legs neatly folded) conflicted with what your dog actually gave you (e.g. slumped posture or levitating butt, attention roaming, one or both back legs akimbo). Similarly, you might have a vague sense of what "calm" looks like, but if you want to train it as a behavior, specificity is your great friend. Some of the picture's details will be particular to your desires, your dog's idiosyncracies, and the circumstances of the moment, while others will appear on many a canvas. But this is an instance when you'd be wise to let your dog guide the brush.

Take a couple of days to observe all the varied ways that your dog expresses a sense of relaxation. Some will involve the whole body (e.g. the "shameless hussy" pose demonstrated by Barley above**), others will appear as small shifts in the position of the ears or the muscles around the eyes (e.g. Pazzo's "dreamboat" gaze). Take particular note of what your dog does at the moment that he or she "switches off." If your dog has alerted to something (or spun into action), watch for the first signs that he is settling again. What happens physically when your dog loosens her focus and becomes persuaded that there's nothing she needs to do and nowhere she needs to be but here with you, enjoying a suspended moment of peace?

Maybe your dog has yet to be persuaded that peace is an option. Maybe you have trouble believing it yourself. (I know I sometimes do.) No matter. Start where you are. Even if your dog now operates within a narrow band of the relaxation spectrum (the bit that spans "wired" to "berserk"), you'll always find some variation. If you regularly reward any "power down" behaviors you see, they'll become more frequent, and eventually the band of available light will widen.

This may sound nuts to any of you with tightly wound dogs, but if you meditate, invite your dog to join you. The first few times I tried this with Pazzo, the results were predictably disastrous, but I persevered until we acquired the shared habit of quietly breathing together for a few minutes in the morning (post-breakfast and post-walk, or I'd really be pushing my luck). Even if things disintegrate from there for him or for me, we get a temporary toehold on nothing, and that's something.

A note: Marking and rewarding calm - especially when you're trying to sustain calm that's already established - can often best be done with verbal markers and relatively low value treats like ordinary kibble, or secondary reinforcers like praise and touch, since unusually tasty treats are naturally stimulating, and mechanical markers become strongly conditioned to heighten excitement and sharpen focus.

**Despite the gravitational disadvantage of a deep, heavy ribcage, Kili taught herself to imitate Barley's hussy pose when she saw that it led almost invariably to belly rubs. It was not in the beginning a relaxing posture for her - she wobbled and worked hard with her tail to keep from tipping over - but after a few months, she got the hang of it, and she now loves to loll regardless of whether belly rubs are on offer.


Glorious gal pals

Lovely LorettaAs a volunteer at the Oregon Humane Society, I mainly work as a "Pet Pal." All of us pals commit to one or more dogs for the duration of their stay at OHS - usually dogs who arrive with behavioral issues that compromise their ability to find new homes (in many cases, these are the issues that prompted their former owners to give them up). Our focus is on training, with an eye toward adoptability, but that training can take many forms depending on the specific needs of the dog. (Or cat - OHS has cat pals as well!)

My two current pals, Loretta and Selkye, could hardly have been more different when I first met them in January. Loretta is a typically exuberant American Staffordshire Terrier mix, a sweet-natured girl with all kinds of good intentions but a few deficits in self-control. She's lived outside on a chain for most of her life, so her appetite for companionship hasn't been tempered by many social graces, though she already had a nice sit on cue when she came to the shelter. She loves food, touch, and play enough that they easily overexcite her; most of our work together has been oriented toward increasing her tolerance for frustration, rewarding patience and self-control with the treats, rubs, and games she craves. I love to see her hold her sit as I unlatch and open the kennel door that she would have tried to barrel through just a few weeks ago, or to see her make the choice not to bounce toward my face when I lean down to give her chest a scratch.

Silly SelkyeSelkye was at the opposite end of the exuberance spectrum when we first became acquainted: hiding much of the time at the back of her kennel with her tail tucked as far underneath her as it would go. I counted it a major victory at my first session with her when she let me rub her shoulders and chest after I'd spent about a half hour making myself small on the floor of her kennel and encouraging every voluntary approach with Hansel & Gretel trails of treats (which I guess made me the witch in the gingerbread house). She's made quite a turnaround in the weeks since, though I can only take a small fraction of the credit, as she's become a favorite among volunteers and staff alike. I'm sure her popularity is boosted by her eerie beauty - her name suits her perfectly, as she strongly resembles the shape shifting selkies of Scottish and Irish mythology. But it turns out that when this Selkye sheds her shyness, she becomes an enchantingly silly and affectionate pup. She'll toss her own tennis ball and bound goofily after it, then nuzzle my knees while I scratch beneath her ears. Men still make her nervous, but she gets braver by the day.

The fact that these two have grown so much closer (toward a happy middle ground) in their attitude and behavior is testament to the power of the canine mind to develop positive new habits when presented with positive new consequences. It's also testament to their (and our) good fortune in our local shelter. As chaotic and stressful as any shelter environment inevitably is for the resident animals, everyone at OHS goes to remarkable lengths to try to ensure that the long-timers become more rather than less comfortable during their stay there. That said, the sooner these sweet girls find homes, the sooner they'll be a daily joy to some lucky human(s)!

Tuesday, March 20 update: Loretta was adopted Saturday and Selkye yesterday! I don't doubt that they'll plant themselves as firmly in their new families' hearts as they have in all of ours. You go, girls!


Force of habit


At its most effective, training is primarily about the creation of new habits, habits of association and habits of behavior. In some cases, we're trying to create a small piece of order where disorder currently reigns; in others, we're unhappy with established order and would like to build something more pleasing in its place. The second instance is the "old dogs, new tricks" challenge (though it could apply to a five-month-old puppy or a five-year-old child). For obvious reasons, this invariably requires more time and focused attention than if we start from a state of relative innocence and pliability. (I'm setting aside for now the question of native limits, only looking to discern the behavioral laws that govern the "free ground" where we can play and change.) If ingrained habits were easily dismantled, they wouldn't have so much potential to support us.


Habit enlists the power of inertia, for good or ill. However much the fact may offend our vanity as reasoning creatures, the vast majority of our habits "are created" without our conscious intent. As for humans, so for other animals. The unconscious mind is tenacious and indefatigable (sleep is for sissies!) in its quest to make just enough comparative sense of incoming stimuli to determine how we should act in order to get what we want and avoid what we don't. (How is this like or unlike a situation I've seen five or five thousand times before?) What it lacks in nuance it more than makes up in speed and confidence. If the unconscious mind has lit upon a strategy it really likes -- and likes more every time it repeats it, familiarity in this case breeding affection -- the conscious mind is generally left to mop up after the fact. (Oh, I totally meant to do that, and here are twenty reasons why...) Or to boast about its superior refinement and sophistication. Indeed, in the case of humans, the conscious mind sometimes seems as tireless in the task of self-glorification as the unconscious mind is in the humbler but more critical task of self-maintenance.

We might have a great deal more success in creating new habits and dismantling old ones if we had more respect for the unconscious mind, if we treated it with the courtesy and forbearance that elders should always command from the young. That upstart frontal cortex flatters itself that it knows what's best, but it can't get anything done on its own. It needs the collaboration of older and more resilient structures. It can only lead -- if it leads at all -- by encouraging consensus. Consciously adopted habits are one form that consensus can take.