Friday, March 17, 2017

Only fools rush in...or face the consequences.

As many of you know, part of the work I do is responding to cases where police officers use deadly force against pets. Some cases are clearly justified, and some...not so much. Often my involvement revolves around one of two focus points: reactive assessment of what has already happened, or proactive training and advice towards preventing future negative incidents.

Looking at these two main topics, there is an underlying theme: Change. We need to effect change across practices in the policing system that affect interactions between police officers and domestic pets. It's not that the system is somehow inherently flawed: instead, we have deficits in practices that need to be brought up to date, recognizing changing expectations. We, within the Law Enforcement community, need to recognize the need for change in our interactions with animals, and we need to accept that change.

One of the basic principles of human behavior is that desires lead to beliefs, and beliefs lead to action. Some critics have deeply held beliefs that conflict with our own. Sometimes those beliefs conflict with scientific and legal principles. But people tend to base their opinions on belief rather than on fact. Changing belief is hard. If we want to meaningfully change actions, our accepted practices, we need to change the beliefs that drive them. To do that we need to accept that belief has to adapt over time to drive our actions and to allow us to adapt to changing expectations.

The belief that a police officer must complete his/her mission, no matter what, is deeply ingrained. We start down a path of action, and we tend to continue on that path, even when the situation changes mid-stride. Inertia is the tendency for an object in motion to remain in motion. When we, as officers, set out to do our job we can get completion inertia. We tend to get blindered, focused on completing the mission now. But we have to learn to ask: is this particular matter so important that it must be done now? Can we accomplish our mission with a little more compassion and a little less inertia?

Sometimes the completion inertia mindset is justified. When a violent bad guy needs to be arrested, the officer cannot, should not, just walk away if there is resistance. A central duty of a police officer is to catch bad guys and try and keep them from harming the good guys. Done deal.

The law reflects this. Statutes particularly state that a police officer has no duty to retreat when confronted with resistance. The word "NO" doesn't really enter into the police mindset when it comes from other than the officer themselves.

Once upon a not so distant past, resistance of any sort precipitated predictable force. One of the basic lessons I learned as a rookie Patrolman: the level of resistance given precipitated a directly proportional ass beating. Resist arrest mildly and get bounced around. Spit on an officer and risk a good thrashing. Hurt an officer and you would inevitably go to jail by way of the hospital.  Shoot an officer, fatally or not, and you better have funeral plans.

But in dealing with animals and animal encounters, we may have to step back to move forward. Animals, domestic pets, don’t understand that we have a mission to complete. They have their own mission, and those missions may conflict. Officers may fail to recognize that these animals are not “resisting” their actions, but that they are behaving in predictable ways based on their perception of the world. We need to learn to be able to shift in mid-stream to recognize those conflicts and avoid them, rather than letting inertia carry us forward, blindly, meeting force with force.

The base criteria used to justify action is what the officer believed at the time of the deployment of force. Officers state that they believed they were at risk of death or severe bodily injury. They believed that they had no option other than deadly force.

Recently there was a human shooting during a drug arrest/foot pursuit, and the body camera clearly showed the fleeing suspect turn, gun in hand and point the gun directly at the pursuing officer. That was a clean, sadly unavoidable shooting. No one can expect a police officer to get killed or wounded by a violent, armed suspect. The desire of the officer is to go home safely, the belief (reasonable here) is that the officer’s life is in immediate jeopardy, and the action in this case was to use reasonable and understandable force.

The stated belief of imminent death is regularly invoked in use of force incidents involving dogs. The officer says that he or she was “afraid for their life” and seem to expect that their belief makes everything that happens allowable. Their belief tells them that facing a dog is the same as facing a human with a gun. They see, they claim, no option other than deadly force. They believe that they “don’t have time” or they don’t believe that the tools available will work.  They fail to accurately assess options.

But belief is often unqualified, supported by feelings rather than facts. Objectively, an officer’s belief in the availability of options, or lack thereof, and in the efficacy of other tools, may be as flawed as any other belief. Unqualified belief can conflict badly with both facts and the realities of the law. One fact, for instance, is that no officer has been killed in the line of duty by dog attack since 1936. That fatality, and the four others documented in US history before that, were due to infection or rabies, not mauling injuries.

Under the law, belief has to be reasonable, based on the training and experience of the person acting. Assessment of a situation needs to be grounded in facts, in competent training, in the understanding of what options really exist, and an understanding of how to readily put those options into action. Yet officers equate the level of threat presented by dogs to that of guns, which kill hundreds of officers yearly. Belief equates two very different risk situations. The belief that these threats are equal is not based on fact.

Reasonability, under the law, is based on what a "well trained" officer is expected to know and do. When it comes to animal issues, Police Departments are falling down in this training. Yes, a few states now mandate canine encounter training. I was part of developing and implementing the program now set by the California Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. Chicago Humane built a similar program a few years ago. Colorado has a training program.

Through the National Sheriffs' Association and the National Coalition on Violence Against Animals, a team I am proud to be part of is trying to develop a nationwide training curriculum based on solid behavioral science and providing officers knowledge and tools to increase their safety, and the safety of pets.

More widely, however, existing training is mostly somewhere between inadequate and embarrassing. Officers are not being given the tools that they need to move from ungrounded belief to solid assessment of options.

Establishing solid training is the first step in reducing these incidents and improving the ability of officers to respond reasonably. Training needs to be widespread and frequent. Lessons need to be taught and integrated into policy, and repeated until they become part of the fabric of an officer’s regular thought process.

Another part of integrating necessary change comes from the top. Administrations of Departments must recognize that policy must not only be present, but respected. Departments must show a willingness to enforce policy evenly, fairly, and most of all consistently. A department that has a policy that is regularly ignored without consequence effectively has no policy at all.

Lastly, Departments must recognize that there is a potential for error, and that it is essential to acknowledge error when it occurs. In Law Enforcement, we don’t like that, because for such a long time we have been caught up in another belief: the belief that we are always right.

We need to work harder to achieve change, from inside and out. We need to change our practices, and our beliefs. We need to recognize that our actions have to be moderated by control and recognition of mission versus responsibility. We need to accept that we may be wrong, and correct those things that are wrong. We need to accept change in practice and belief so that an encounter with a pet doesn't become, as a song says, another sacrifice on the altar of "always right".

Friday, March 10, 2017

Fear vs Targeted Aggression: Can we tell the difference?

It has been said that we, humans, are born as fear based creatures craving attention. I believe that the same idea applies to dogs.

Dealing with fearful dogs is a pretty regular task for me in my work. I spent time with 54 dogs seized from a hoarder that had never seen sun, or felt grass below their feet. I work with bite dogs that have responded to a sudden frightening experience by using the only tools they have: their teeth. Some of my clients are dogs that are overwhelmed by life with humans and need to learn trust.

                                          Frightened dog dumped by morons...

For both species, fear is a survival strategy. If a dog sees something it fears, the smart (long term for survival) is to avoid that scary thing. Given room, the smartest thing is to run away. Conflict with an unknown entity or situation is not necessarily productive when you are trying to survive long enough to continue your species.

A dog’s fear doesn’t have to be “justified” in human terms. Fear is a response to a perceived threat, and that threat may be real - or not.  Perception of threat by a dog to a particular, or general, situation can be a presence (a ‘plus’ situation), or an absence (a ‘minus’), of something. For instance, the minus may be lack of socialization or a nurturing environment, or a plus reaction may be a reaction to a prior, direct experience.

Abuse is one of those direct experiences that can set a dog up for fear. As Ryoko Tomomori, author of “Mignon’s Tomomori-san in the Animal World.” writes: “There was one skittish dog who would flee in desperation when anyone put out their hand. It seems he’s been badly beaten. I wanted him to understand that the human hand isn’t a weapon, it’s a good thing. He was getting old, and I wanted him to regain trust in humans while living out his remaining years.”

Blaming negative behavior on fear or “abuse” is, sometimes, an easy out that allows owners to avoid responsibility for their dogs’ actions. Claiming a dog is showing fear based aggressive behavior quickly moves us to “oh, you poor thing” and away from accepting responsibility for our own actions, or lack thereof.

But fear is not the only reason that dogs show negative behavior. We have cases wherein a dog acts out, deliberately engaging a target (canine or human), and yet there are those who try to excuse the behavior as being fear motivated. Fear is real, but so is bad behavior when it is really an honestly aggressive dog showing offensive (in the sports sense) behavior that has never been adequately addressed by their owner.

Let’s look at an example. A particular dog can, at times, walk past other animals if they are ignoring him/her. The owner notes that the client dog reacts strongly to other dogs if those dogs bark, or even focus, on the client. Assumptions are made that our client is “fearful”, and is responding to other dogs because they are afraid and simply “defending” themselves.

But our client is walking along a street and another dog barks from the safety of its own yard. Our client lunges hard enough to break loose from the person walking the dog and closes the gap to the other dog, and fully engaging the target dog. A fight of course breaks out and someone gets bitten.

But did a fight break out? Is this canine social aggression? Is this a fear based defensive behavior?

A fight, or what we look at as social aggression, is defined by Ádám Miklósi as “…ritualized behavioural units which evolved for signaling the inner state and physical potential of the contester, and does not aim at causing damage in the other.” (Miklósi, 2007). In this case, contact was not a social dispute: the initially barking dog was secure in its own yard. The attacking dog was at a distance, initially managed by its owner.

Is this fear based behavior? Let’s look at both dogs. The dog in its yard was accompanied by an owner, and was restrained by a tether. When that dog saw a strange dog approaching, it may have responded from fear. A fearful dog may show threatening behaviors to secure space from a frightening stimulus. According to Dr. Suzanne Hetts, “Threatening behaviors (are) designed to intimidate, repel, or warn another individual to stay away. These behaviors are not meant to result in harm.” (Hetts, 1999). Further, Dr. Hetts says about threatening behaviors “Their goal is to warn other individuals to stop what they are doing.” Thus threatening behaviors, such as barking or growling, are intended to communicate a dog’s desire to stay separate, to avoid contact.

Territoriality can also cause threatening behaviors. After all, the whole idea of territoriality is to “…repel, or warn another individual to stay away.” Protection of territory or resources is rational and expected. Territorial behavior can also be based on fear of the other animal, trying to put up a big front to keep the other dog away. Barking by the tethered dog, then, makes sense.

The dog that targeted and deliberately closed with the tethered dog? That is much more of a problem.

A dog that responds to the sight or sound of another dog is typically termed “reactive”. That is, the dog gives an unreasonable response to a normal behavior or situation. Desensitization is usually the first avenue of attack in fixing this behavior.

Desensitization does not always work. Some dogs have to be managed, despite training, to ensure that they do not get into trouble. This can involve physical management, including making sure the animal is restrained by a healthy and able handler if out, and perhaps through the use of a muzzle for safety, both of the dog and of others.

Owners that fail to recognize the consequences of managing a dog with problems face other, bigger problems. Liability for their dog attacking another animal or person is the least. I have seen a case where one owner’s dogs were extremely reactive towards a neighbor’s dog. This owner was warned not to move both of their dogs past the neighbor’s property at the same time since they were a small person trying to manage two large, muscular dogs. One morning this owner got in a hurry and disregarded the management need. We will never know what happened exactly, but the opposing dogs connected and the owner died a horrible death.

Back to the case at hand: the outcome of the incident was injury to dog and human. The dog that targeted, lunged towards, closed the gap to directly engage the other, tethered dog was not afraid. That dog was on the offense, more like a guided missile (or muscle) than a shrinking violet trying to escape a scary thing. Defensive fear and offensive targeting are two very different things.  Owners and trainers must recognize that reactivity and fear may be related, but offensive targeting is a serious problem that must be aggressively managed before, during, and even well after behavioral modification work.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Who we are, and who we are not.

As trainers and behavior consultants we try to be everything to everyone. If they have an animal, and they reach out for help - or even show interest - we try to be that resource. Obedience, house training, barking, puppy socialization, aggression and biting; we want to do it all.

In some ways we can. We CAN be a voice for reducing stress and negative consequences by being based firmly in in the world of positive reinforcement. We CAN press for humane and kind treatment of all pets. We CAN strive to teach personal responsibility to owners, and inform them as to the standards their pet should expect.

But we cannot do everything. There are things we are: and things we are not.

There is nothing wrong with recognizing your space, your niche. I, for one, do not do protection dog training. I worked around our police Canine Unit, and I learned from observing them. I respect Canine handlers and trainers. They have a tough and complex job: to teach a highly selected dog a series of extremely challenging behaviors, and to maintain absolute control over those dogs while respecting their limits. If a police Canine is deployed towards a subject, and the subject suddenly surrenders, that dog has to be stopped in place. Immediately. Despite the dog's sincere desire to "bite bad guy". That sort of control and training is extremely difficult, and is is just not my "cuppa" as my English friends would say.

Others are best with puppies. They take little balls of potential and fur and teeth and turn them into well socialized, well behaved, bullet-proof pups that can handle anything that comes their way, while keeping their puppy sense of wonder and natural positive outlook. This is a special kind of magic to me.

Some of us work on specialized topics. Competition obedience. Agility. Field work.

In my case I work with difficult dogs and aggression. Sometimes that is aggression that has literally gone off the scale and resulted in a human death.

That doesn't make me any better, or more talented than anyone else. That is just the niche that I have fallen into.

That is not a niche that many need, or even want, to join. It is not for everyone.

And that is the point of this. There should not be a contest between trainers to do it all, or to be the baddest, or deal with the most difficult dogs, or...whatever. Each trainer, each instructor, each Rescue person, each shelter worker, should find where they can be most effective.

We need to avoid the trap of trying to be everything to all dogs, all people. I read a lot outside of the dog world, and business author Seth Godin has a great take that applies to dog training:

"We think we’re designing and selling to everyone, but that doesn’t match reality. It makes no sense at all to dumb down your best work to appeal to the longtime bystander, because the bystander isn’t interested. And it certainly makes no sense to try to convert your biggest critics, because they’ve got a lot at stake in their role of being your critic."

We need to avoid "dumbing down" our best skills to meet the needs of everyone. We need to do our best work where we are best. I would be wasting my time, and my potential clients' time, trying to take on training a dog-human team in freestyle dancing (and my wife and girls would back this up - the idea of me dancing should cause fear and trepidation). That is not my space.

I do slightly disagree, in our field, with one thing Godin says. We CAN try to convert our critics, and in some cases we must at least try because we are talking about humane and kind treatment of our canine friends. It is essential to try and teach relationships based on mutual trust and respect, not dominance and fear. But even then we need to remember: many of our most vocal critics have a vested interest in being our critics. Their existence is sometimes based on and grounded in proving us wrong. They have a lot at stake. But more on change, belief, and resistance to change in another blog.

For now, remember that we don't have to be spread all over the map. In my view, we can stand on certain central principles while specializing in what we do best. We can work within our special niche and do our best there while recognizing our own limits.

Those who know me know that I love the writing of author Neil Gaiman. His works range from thoughtful fantasy to, well...Neil Gaiman. But Neil is a font of wisdom, sometimes in surprising ways. Recently, greeting the New Year, Neil said the following:

“Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time you spent waiting to begin.”

Time. Make your time matter. With our dogs, time is the most precious thing we can give them. Our time, sharing our lives, being part of our everyday, no matter how boring and predictable.

Don't waste your talents or time. Don't try to be everything to everyone. Be the right person for someone.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Demon possessed dogs vs. Behavioral Science.

Warren Ellis once said "Don't summon anything that you can't banish." He was referring to demons of various types, mostly supernatural, but summoning demons of any sort can be a real problem. In the usual stories they cause massive problems, and they don't want to go away.

Despite our advanced technological society, the idea of blaming demonic possession (maybe not literally, but the principle is there) and magical answers to problems exist in our modern world. They even intrude into the world of dog training. Some people seem to see the issues they are having with their animals' behaviors to be akin to demons, and they search for magical answers.

That can be understandable. Dogs with serious behavior problems can seem to be nearly demonic, and we seem to summon more than our fair share of vexing problems through our own action or inaction.

Psychology has a term for expecting results from unrelated action to cause change. That term is "magical thinking". Technically, magical thinking is the "fallacious attribution of causal relationships between actions and events" (Wikipedia) and occurs both in anthropology and psychology. Baseball players do it all the time: rubbing the ball exactly six times before windup on the mound, for instance.

Many people look for behavior problems to have "magical" solutions. Clients are looking for the right incantation, the right potion, the right amulet to cure their pet's behavior ills. A magic leash, an electronic collar, a pill, an answer that requires no effort. One step, one quick wave of the magic wand by a trainer and Voila! the problem is gone!

Dog trainers are sometimes just as bad. They look to action totally unrelated to the motivations, drives, and emotional state of a dog to make significant change. They also misinterpret a dog's reaction to a certain action to make it appear that a particular result is achieved, rather than properly assessing the effect-and then they are surprised when the dog's response is not predictable, at least under their explanation.

The late scientist Carl Sagan wrote a book in 1995 titled Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The book dealt with science overall in the world, and no, Sagan did not believe that the world was haunted by demons. Sagan saw science as a light, a guide, to investigating and understanding our world and leading us towards a better way of seeing. We as scientific trainers and behavior consultants can look at dog training and use the same candle of science to lead us out of the dark, musty corridors of magical thinking when it comes to our dogs.

The science of behavior analysis tells us that there are describable, quantifiable components to any complex behavior such as "aggression". Observation and analysis tells us, for instance, that dogs typically don't "just snap" and go into full attack. Instead, there are triggers that precipitate certain actions. There are steps and signals-even if they proceed more quickly that we appreciate. Body position, muscle tension, narrowing and focus of the eyes, tension of the lips and/or exposure of teeth: these are all part of what is called "just snapping". The problem is that many do not recognize the signals, and instead look at the dog as "possessed" and somehow evil and unpredictable.

Let's look at the contrast between magical thinking and scientific analysis.

Examples of Magic vs. Science  in dog training.

Magic: My dog's behavior is stubbornness or evil and I just need to apply force and violence to change it.

Science: Behavior is understood and correctable by knowing what your dog needs and how he/she sees the world.

Magic: I will "feel the energy" from my dog. (Try explaining this one with a straight face in Court).

Science: I will learn the body language and signaling my dog uses to communicate.

Magic: I will use trainer X's special techniques or "system" to quickly, guaranteed, fix my problem.

Science: I will use methods such as positive reinforcement, verified by experiment and observation, in a clear and quantifiable way to patiently achieve the behavior change that I want. I will also understand that my dog is a sentient being and may make good-or bad-decisions.

Magic: I will "dominate" my dog and teach them their place.

Science: I will communicate clear boundaries for my dog in a way they understand and be consistent and fair in my expectations.

Magic: I will exercise dominion over my dog and he/she will follow me unquestionably.

Science: I will understand my dog's needs and drives and work with my dog to achieve a partnership. with that approach we will have a deeper, cooperative relationship.

Magic: My dog doesn't need treats or praise to get results: they just "know" what they are supposed to do.

Science: Dogs learn from clear example, guidance, and repetition. Reinforcement causes the particular behavior to be more likely to recur, and the dog learns more quickly and reliably.

When I evaluate a dog, particularly a bite case, and especially when that dog has severely injured or killed a human, I have to use the principles of behavior analysis and close, informed observation, to develop a picture of that animal. Trust me: I am not looking for "energy" levels or possession. This dog had proven they have the ability to do lots of damage, and thinking that my "energy" is going to keep me safe is simply foolish. What keeps me safe is a combination of planned moves, clear communication with the dog in terms they understand, building trust, recognizing early warning signals, observing closely-and a healthy dose of Kevlar.

I look for signals and behaviors that let me try and assess possible causes based on understanding canine behavior. I look for sensitivity to particular action. I look for pain response. I look for conditioned responses to certain cues.

Then I take this observed behavior, describe and quantify it, and present it in my behavioral report. I identify specific actions and reactions, and am able to document those behaviors with exact description and usually a video record that I can show and narrate. This makes the case clear, and aids prosecution - or exoneration - based on specific, understandable, scientifically based analysis. Put a case in front of a judge and jury and try to counter an observable quantity with vague terms like vicious, mean, evil, or "bad energy" and see the difference. I have yet to see any expert in court show "bad energy". They simply don't make a "bad energy meter". I will take your "bad energy" and raise it two sets of DNA analysis and a bite mark comparison and win every time.

In training and less severe cases, scientifically based methods have a number of advantages over magical thinking. First, they work. All the time. They are understandable, and do not require a "shaman" or special person to make changes in undesirable behavior. The methods can be reproduced, no matter the breed or personality of the dog, and no matter who is administering the training. Science based methods are predictable. Unlike magical methods, we can assess the effect on the dog clearly and avoid or eliminate those methods that cause pain, discomfort, confusion, or negative reactions. We can be kind and humane applying these methods, and we can analyze where problems are without leaping off into the fog of myth and belief. After all, magic requires belief. Science doesn't care if you believe in it or not-it just is.

Science based methods are not cold and impersonal. Science gives us better understanding of our dogs and their language. It helps us understand more deeply. It helps us communicate clearly. It helps us guide our dogs with compassion and kindness in a way they understand.

So try science. Science doesn't substitute numbers for emotion. Science is instead a process and a way to build positive and lasting relationships between us and our companions, a candle to light our way. Light a candle every chance you can and help beat back the darkness of harmful myths and irrational belief. And stop summoning problems with chants and incantations that make no sense.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Long time gone...but renewed perspective.

To start off, you don't want to hear excuses about why this has taken so long to get back to. Changes in status, work, and other commitments are only interesting when the subject is a celebrity, which I am not. See TMZ for those who are.

To start, yes, I have seen the video attributed to the filming of the new dog movie. Yes, I have real concerns. I am not going to rant on here, with the limited information I have, but I will point a couple things out.

1) The dog obviously doesn't want to go into the water. Yes, he (she?) may love water, may love swimming, may have been in four or five times before - but he is done. He doesn't want to go back in. Is he tired? Frightened? Is he just over the fact that movies shoot the same scene repeatedly until you hate it? I've been on sets, both in front of the camera and in the production viewing booth. I don't know how actors can stand the repeated do overs. And I know enough to realize that a director just can't stand to live with a single take, no matter how perfect.

2) The dog in the water is swept up against a wall (padded, but still a wall) in roiling, chaotic water. He goes under. Now yes, there are divers there, but I would have been terrified - and that is me, a human, who could have at least understood that the divers were there to help me and that they really didn't want me to drown. The dog had neither of those advantages. He/she was simply terrified of dying.

Animals in movies are typically fine. But for a risky shot like this, did we really need to live action shoot it? If we can have hobbits and blue aliens and all the rest of the CGI universes, why couldn't they have done a CGI German Shepherd in a fake river? Was the shot worth the risk?

Why did the trainer agree? Don't know. Everyone on the set was there to do one thing: make a movie. Beyond that everything is up in the air.That is no excuse to treat an animal badly: but that is why close supervision by knowledgeable, well trained people is essential in these situations.

Back to training, aggression, and the cases I take: there have been a number of serious and fatal attacks. I have been involved in some of these directly. None of them are at the point where I can speak directly, as litigation and prosecution have their own rules. I can say a few general things though.

First off, dogs treated with kindness and gentleness are rarely involved in a serious bite situation. They may react out of fear, or pain, but they tend to have great reserves of control and inhibition. Remember that even a well treated, kindly raised and humanely trained dog may resort to just being a dog, given the circumstances. Dogs have a limited range of ways to react with and effect change in the world around them. If dog-appropriate signaling is not working, they may have to effectively raise their voices. Sometimes that raising of the voice must be done quickly. Thus, sometimes even the best dog might give a snap or a quick bite. That doesn't necessarily mean that they are acting badly, or that they are vicious or mean or any of the other things we saddle them with. They are dogs. Period. Not people in furry coats. Dogs.

We have a responsibility to not only treat them well and kindly, but to understand when they are speaking to us, and when we have failed on our end of the communication process. As A.A. Milne had the wise and wonderful Piglet say: “Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem.”

People not listening often gets me involved in other cases too. A looming issue is the training of police officers regarding safe encounters with pets. The point of training is two fold: keep the officer safe, and keep the pet safe. There are many alternatives to lethal force available to officers. Getting solid, practical information out to them, and having the officers and their Departments incorporate this information into policies and practices is an essential task that faces us. I usually get called in when an encounter has gone horribly wrong. I often, but not always, find that there was a lack in either decision making or training and policy. Sometimes, however, things go the only way they can. I don't ask anyone to get bitten or injured. Officers have the unquestioned responsibility to protect themselves and the public. No officer that I know wants to shoot a pet. Yet there are improvements in the overall process we can make to improve safety for everyone. My goal is to work to find a way to let everyone go home safely at the end of the day.

As a result, I want to put together a long term, detailed and wide ranging study of officer involved pet shootings. I am planning on applying to the University of Florida Veterinary Forensics program to be one of their first PhD students and to study this issue closely. We think we know why these happen, but no one has done a deep study of the many cases that happen, including whether the physical evidence and the reports given match. Neither has anyone looked at the cases where officers didn't use deadly force. What is the difference in the circumstances? Is it training? Compassion? Availability of tools? Is it the officer's background and experience?

These are deeply important questions that need to be answered. Yes, there have been general studies done getting the 50,000 foot view. The Department of Justice COPS section has been involved and recognizes the importance of this. The National Sheriff's Association has started as an advocate for training and change, particularly as contained in the National Coalition on Violence Against Animals. But we need to drill deeper, ask more questions of officers and owners, and look at the issue in detail to find out what the real problem is, and how we can establish truly effective training and practices.

So keep an eye this way as my vision for this study proceeds. I want to look at cases and evidence, interview shooters and non-shooters alike, look at the legal cases that have been litigated, and dig deep. Owners, officers, trainers, and Departments must all take responsibility for cases where these encounters go wrong. I want to develop a clear road map to find an answer.

And if anyone out there knows a source to fund this project, please let me know. There will be a zillion hours of interviews I am sure. There will be (in my plan) on-line surveys and data collection across the tens of thousands of officers and incidents. I will have to go to crime scenes, access evidence, and build a model of how this happens. There is also frankly tuition for the program. Conducting such a study under the oversight and within the ethical boundaries of a University is the only way that I can see making the study effective, fair, and credible. Universities have clear rules as to peer review and reliability of data. With my Masters Degree from the University of Florida Veterinary Forensics program, I think that UF is likely a good home for this.

I won't stop my work on human fatality investigations. Those rare cases still demand full attention of Law Enforcement, Animal Services, and the forensic and animal welfare communities. I am not abandoning that. I see, honestly, that the two fields intersect. Where they intersect is safety for people and animals, based on the understanding of behavior, and grounded in solid forensic investigation.

Please stay with me on this journey. I want to make a difference for people and for animals, and this is one way we can do it.

Monday, May 16, 2016


I just returned from a trip outside the “contiguous 50” to assist on a Federal investigation. I had not been to this location before, and there is a language difference, so the world temporarily took on a sense of “almost but not quite completely different”.

Being different can be a very good thing. Stepping out of our regular comfort zone can help us see a little clearer, a little better. We notice things that we usually gloss over.

For instance, a fast food sign. I pass a Burger King sign hundreds of times a week at home. But seeing a Burger King sign with the words "Desayuno" and “Servio Carro” in big letters was slightly jarring. Yes, I knew it was just breakfast: but it was enough of a curve ball that it caught my eye.

According to Adam Steltzner, in his book The Right Kind of Crazy, “If you are an experienced practitioner in a field, you can get stuck in the rut of the past, in the way it should work, or the way it worked before.”

As trainers and behavior changers we do get in ruts. The ruts almost have to develop-after all, habits are what keep us safe. We have a complete suite of habits that we use day in, day out, habits that work with our client animals and that we don’t even think about. These habits are frankly what make us seem like magic to clients: those things we do automatically, that we have done so many times, things that are almost reflexes.

But automatic isn’t necessarily good. Easy, yes. Good, not so much.

The thing is, once we get into a rut we only see the rut around us. We stop looking, observing closely. When a client explains that they have X problem, we already have a picture in our minds of what the solution is. The same thing has worked a bazillion times before: of course it will work this time.

And then reality comes in once in a while and smacks us. We make the same old assumption, set into the same rut - and it bites us, sometimes literally. We are complacent and we miss key indicators. We do a disservice to our clients, the dog, and ourselves.

Back when we were beginners we had a smaller experience base. Everything was new then. Sure, we had a certain amount of practice, but we were still building our base of reference and we paid attention a great deal. Our outlook was fresh. We may have been on a mission to be disruptive, to find a new way of doing an old task, and we looked at everything with new eyes.  As Steltzner puts it, we had Beginners’ Mind.

“Beginners’ Mind, the eyes of fresh naivety, let you ask very potentially disruptive questions, because you’re not invested in the way it has been done in the past.”

This is a Buddhist concept, Beginners’ Mind. Traditionally it is called “Shoshin”. It is the innocent and receptive state of perception that makes no prejudgement. Shoshin sees the world just as it is, no more and no less. There is no reference to past experience, since there is none. The person is a beginner and everything is new.

A Beginner is surprised by everything. A Beginner is open to everything. Nothing is off the table, nothing is established. Everything is an option. Everything is possible.

I have said before that a good trainer has a big toolbox, with lots of methods and tools inside. A really good trainer can meet a new situation and make progress where others are stuck. A trainer with many tools can be out at the edge, doing new things, because they are not limited by old attitudes and old methods.

But they too have to be aware of the ruts in the road. They have to make sure that they keep a fresh outlook. Cool tools are useless if you still see things in one certain way every time.

Steltzner relates Beginners’ Mind and innovation: “ If you’re at the edge of what’s possible, if you are in an innovative field or you’re trying to develop change, how it was done before may be a poor indication of how it should be done in the future.”

Many problems appear similar, and the “good old way” does work most of the time. That’s why it has held on so long. In most cases we can muddle through by repeating the same old strokes.

But then a case comes along and surprises us. Those old tools are dull, rusty, and ineffective. The problem doesn’t fit the “good old way”.

We have a choice to make. We can keep our old mindset and practice the same old methods, and fail, or we can choose to be surprised more often. We can jump out of the rut, look back into our own Beginners’ Mind, and stay fresh.

Photographer and Explorer Naoki Ishikawa put it like this:

“People who believe they know everything tend to lose any chance to be surprised. I don’t want to think like that. I want to fulfill my life (as a photographer) by staying loose and open to change - and to treasure the ability to always be surprised.”

As a trainer, an investigator, and a person I want to be open to surprise, and not just when things go wrong. I want to be surprised a little by every animal I come across, every situation that I meet. I want to try and recover my Beginners’ Mind and see each situation freshly. Yes, I will then dig back into my toolbox, but I may use an old tool in a new way. Or I may look for a new tool. Either way I want to stay surprised. That keeps me awake and alive.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Force, prisons, and training. Salvation or perpetuation of the status quo?

I have been watching the developing stories from California about the incident where Cesar Milan seems to have placed an animal aggressive dog and pigs in close proximity without adequate safety measures. The situation is predictably, and avoidably, stressful for both animals. Public reaction has been a roller coaster ride. The American Humane Association and tons of trainers have spoken out against the incident, and tons of loyal fans have responded just as energetically.

I wrote a piece about my method of how I would handle a similar situation. And my piece is just that: my way. Not Cesar's. Maybe not yours.

I want to make one issue clear:  I am NOT the "anti-Cesar".  I am not trying to be. There are plenty who have taken on that mantle, some for honorable reasons and some, probably, less so.

I have nothing personal against Mr. Milan. We have met briefly once and he was personable and pleasant. His public presentation was very well done and entertaining.

He has, for better or worse, gotten lots of people passionate about interacting with their pets. That isn't all bad.

Where we differ are three basic points: educational background, personal style, and the use of science-based methods. We also differ evolutionarily, if I can use that term in this context. I have changed over the years. I have learned from behavioral science, adapted my methods, sharpened my eye and my skills, and looked beyond "the way we've always done it" to new horizons. Professionally I don't feel that Mr. Milan has.

To illustrate I want to comment on another piece of footage from his celebratory 100th episode. The footage link is here.

Please watch if you can starting around the 10:00 mark as Mr. Milan begins working with a prison dog training program. Then come back…

OK. This is nice footage of a program in a prison where inmates are helping save dogs' lives by training them for adoption. Those who know me know that I am deeply involved in a similar program called TAILS (Training Animals and Inmates in Life Skills) here in North Florida. Such programs are literal life savers, for dogs and humans.

Prison is a tough place to be. Life isn't easy and comfy (and isn't supposed to be). A culture of violence, intimidation, and fear is common in many such institutions. Survival may be dependent on being the "alpha" in the cell block.

But besides serving to secure those who simply can’t function on the outside, the purpose of prison is supposed to be providing 1) clear consequences for bad choices, and more importantly 2) teaching people to change and make better choices. Inmates are intended to learn compassion and empathy for others instead of learning to be someone out of Mad Max.

The training methods Mr. Milan espouses are based on the negative culture that already exists in prison: impose your will, through intimidation, on someone weaker than you. That is what we should be eliminating among the inmate population. That is what got the inmates there in the first place. And that is not what we should be teaching inmates as a strategy for success. Instead, we must replace fear and intimidation with positive reinforcement and instructive guidance. We need to show the inmates the value of being a caring, positive role model rather than how to be a better bully. They have had enough bullying. It is time for them to learn a new way of life.

Dogs treated as respected companions, and the methods of science-based dog training, can teach that new way of life. I don’t mean leap into the trap of unbridled permissiveness: that doesn’t work. Inmates, dogs, and indeed most of us, thrive in an environment where there are clear, fair limits.  The limits become self imposed and internalized within a positively based structure instead of being forced upon us. We, and dogs, learn which behaviors provide positive outcomes over the short and the long term. Training dogs with positively based methods teaches inmates to set limits without violence, and to be compassionate and empathetic without preaching. They can experience how these methods work, and how the dogs can bond with them without judgement.

Take a close look at this video and we will break down what is happening versus what needs to happen.

The prison segment starts at about 07:50 in the episode. They are at a Womens' correctional institute out west. The segment is cited as an excerpt from Episode 41 of the show.

After some introductory walking about, Cesar is talks with an inmate who's dog is “shutting down” and won't walk with her. Cesar says “If this dog shuts down, the best thing to do is put the leash all the way on the top and pull up! Once you are up what happens is the two front legs start moving forward.”

Look at this statement. The short of it is, “if your dog has “shut down” through fear or distrust or whatever cause, just pull them up by the leash and dangle them until they have to put their legs down and walk.

This may be Cesar’s Way, and there are certainly trainers who do this. This is not my way. I would prefer to gain the dog’s trust, use rewards or lures, and show them that they can move forward without negative consequences. Then mark and reinforce the movement. Make training fun! Let the dog have a good time! Forward movement is a reinforcer for a dog - as long as the dog isn’t terrified. Show them that they can move with confidence and a sense of adventure. What we see here is not establishing a leader. It is avoiding being strung up.

We move along to the case of Bendi, a Chow mix that is supposedly one of the worst dogs in the program. The narrator says that Bendi has aggression problems, and that “He gets especially aggressive when his toenails are cut.”

Toenail sensitivity is very common. After all, cut a little too close a single time and it hurts. Dogs aren’t stupid-they learn what hurts. This is a situation where basic conditioning is the easy way: reach for the paw, dog doesn’t react, dog gets treat. Touch paw, dog allows touch without negative reactions, dog gets treat. Pick up paw, dog gets treat. And on it goes - lather, rinse, repeat - until you are touching the dogs paw with the clippers, dog is calm, dog gets three treats! We clip one nail successfully: big jackpot, dog gets to get up and run amok, chase the ball; its party time!

And then later, or the next day, we start over. If we hit a snag, we stop, let the situation calm, repeat a lower level of conduct that we can reward, and quit for the day. Start over tomorrow at a little less challenging level.

No, this isn’t quick and makes terrible TV. But no one gets bitten, and we establish trust without using violence.

Now let’s dissect Cesar’s Way. At. 10:12, as Cesar presses Bendi down on his side, Bendi yelps, tries to get up, and then rapidly snaps several times at Cesar’s hands. Cesar and the dog then get into a quick wrestling match, with Cesar forcing the dog down.

At 10:18, Cesar has forced Bendi down on his back. While restraining Bendi, Cesar says “…right now I am just calming him down.” Yet there is no marker for the instant that Bendi gives the first indications of relaxing. Instead, Bendi has no guidance and stays aroused and tense. Cesar has already been bitten and asks for a napkin. We are less than three minutes into the session and we already have resistance, fear, and blood. The narrator’s voice over adds the drama: “The attack happens in an instant. In less than three seconds, Bendi has bitten Cesar three times.” This is somehow good?

We proceed a bit and at 10:45 Cesar has Bendi held down and is telling the handler “You can’t let her go. If you do and she wins she becomes more powerful.” More powerful than what? A bigger bully? Is this a video game where you amass “power units” or something?

Cesar then has the handler start to trim the nails of this restrained, fearful dog. Bendi snaps again, eyes wide in fear, teeth fully exposed and lips retracted and tense. Cesar doesn’t guide behavior-he holds Bendi down and gives his trademark negative marker of “psssst!”. When Bendi stops snapping and gives an opportunity to verbally reinforce with a positive marker, there is no response from Cesar. Instead he presses on to the second nail.

With this nail, when Bendi doesn’t snap because he is restrained, Cesar gives the same negative “pssst!” marker. Bend wrinkles his nose, but holds himself back - and gets nothing positive to let him know that not biting is good. Same reaction for restraint as for biting. Bendi is now confused, and confusion adds to stress.

We then segue (thankfully) to friendly groups walking and the episode goes on to how “rewarding” this experience was for Cesar.

I am sure it was. Working with prison animal programs is greatly rewarding. The programs profoundly affect the lives of humans and animals that may not otherwise get a second chance. The effects ripple outwards farther than we think: one person becomes the model for family and friends, and then their families and friends, and soon we have a wave of second chances washing across a wider population than we can touch individually. Inmates in prison often come from homes and situations that do not reward or encourage compassion and caring. These programs change that. My work has opened my eyes in new ways. The feeling of seeing someone teaching a dog to succeed and learning themselves that they too have the potential is amazing. Where I once sent people in, I can now help them get out and not return.

Prison programs succeed because of compassion, not because of force or intimidation. They are the antithesis of violence.

The difference is visible when you walk into a dorm or residential block that houses inmate/dog teams. The rest of the institution may be a jungle: their block is an oasis. Fear may surround the clearing, but here the atmosphere is calm. Teams work together to solve problems rather than gangs looking for turf.

Cesar’s methods flat out miss the mark. Instead, fear is a constant companion. Muggings happen daily. Pup wonders if today is another day their “trainer” places them into the “just kill me” helplessness that is touted as “calm submission”.

For all of you who may be involved in a prison program, or a program sited at a rehab facility or treatment unit, or any other place where humans and dogs are cooperatively healing each other: please eliminate the violence. What happens inside translates outside. Kill the cycle. Stop the intimidation. No more violence