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

Friday, March 11, 2016

Training methods, collateral damage and don't summon what you can't banish.

In the last 24 hours international interest has focused on a well known trainer and methods they use because of needless injury to an animal by a dog with a history of violence toward livestock.

This reminded me of something written by Warren Ellis (the Englishman, not the Australian), a writer of comics, totally inappropriate fiction, and someone who examines large questions of where the future is (and why we aren’t there yet-or are we?). A statement he made struck a chord that is now resonating:

“Don’t summon anything you can’t banish."

That absolutely fits here. As dog owners and trainers we apply our ideas, our methods, to problems that we see. We can become blind to damage, deliberate or unintentional, that we cause in our wake because we are focused on “helping the dog”.  We see the symptoms directly in our headlights, but sometimes we lose track of the side of the road, the bits and pieces of collateral damage that collect in our wake. We summon, if you will, demons that we don’t intend to call up.

This happens privately and publicly, sometimes with huge secondary effects.

The current public case involves a dog that has already killed more than one other animal. This poor dog is reacting to livestock in a dangerous manner, and is a legitimate threat to other animals. 

The apparent intent of the demonstration of methods and accompanying video was to show a “cure”, the establishment of safe, calm, controlled behavior by the dog toward livestock. Unfortunately, as with the some plans (and especially those trying to solve the world’s problems in a television show that runs thirty minutes interspersed with commercials), the situation rapidly went south. The dog came into the environment with the livestock and was already showing tension and arousal. First exposure of the dog and livestock was, thankfully, on lead but was in close proximity. Rapidly the dog was taken off the lead in the pen with the other animals. On the video one can see that the dog is still tense and aroused, compliant, but not relaxed. No one noticed the cues and warnings the dog was sending. Confidence in the apparent compliance overtook caution, and of course it only took a second for the dog and the situation to spin out of control. It then devolved to a series of actions that some wags have set to the "Bennie Hill" theme, but more importantly, at least one animal was hurt and the dog in question was made to "submit", not taken out of the situation to start again after more practice and redirection.

That is the first warning here. Compliance, if based on fear of consequences, is not acceptance. Compliance while aroused is not relaxed and calm. Compliance when highly aroused while restrained is a tornado barely contained.

The goal of responsible and effective behavior modification is not compliance. The goal is to replace the problem behavior with acceptance and relaxed control. We reduce the arousal reaction to a stimulus while redirecting the former behavior to a more accepting and relaxed behavior, setting the dog up to succeed. This takes time. There is no pill or magic here.

There are different methods of modifying unwanted behavior, and practices have evolved with animals much like they have over time for people. One older strategy is called flooding. This means, for instance, we take a person who is terrified of bugs and put them in a situation where they are surrounded and overwhelmed by bugs. Bugs everywhere! The therapist directs them and, although overwhelmed at first, the therapist shows the patient that they are not being hurt and, hopefully, the person learns that the bugs aren’t hurting them. Hopefully.

That is not done with humans much anymore because 1) the treatment is very stressful and 2) it doesn’t always work. Sometimes it makes thing worse. With animals, evidence suggests this is even less likely to succeed because the animal cannot be “talked down”. Instead, the animal goes into survival (fight or flight) mode and, if it cannot do either, shuts down and figures “just kill me!”. (See Learned Helplessness: PLEASE DON'T KILL ME!). In the terms of our introductory quote, we have “summoned” an even worse problem than we started with. The collateral damage of flooding is the well being of the patient needing treatment.

Another strategy practiced by some involves punishment. This involves introducing the patient to the cause of discomfort, or target of aggression or violence, and then punishing the undesired behavior. It goes something like this. Bring the dog close to the thing that sets off the behavior. Punish them for the current behavior. Push them closer and keep punishing. With luck, eventually the dog gets close and gives up, fearful of the consequences of showing the former aggressive behavior.


This is, to me, cruel and dangerous. This stresses the dog to the extreme. He/she is placed in a fight or flight situation and we punish them for trying to do either. They can’t run away, and they can’t fight. The adrenaline, tension, stress, and desire to act in a manner that makes sense for survival build and have no where to go. To override this the punishment must be severe enough for that individual dog that he/she fears the punishment enough to comply. Not relax: comply.

Compliance, in my mind, doesn’t solve the problem. In a situation where the motivation to perform the behavior overcomes fear of punishment, the behavior is likely to come screaming back. We have not banished it-we have just postponed it. When it does come screaming back it may be worse than it started. All that pent up fear and tension breaks loose. We have summoned a demon and don’t have a spell to put it back in its bottle.

A strategy that I prefer is progressive desensitization. There is no fear or punishment here. We introduce the dog to the trigger at whatever distance we need to get only the smallest reaction. A locked on look. A glance and quick tension.  I don’t wait for the dog to bark or lunge or struggle. I interrupt at the very first opportunity. I then redirect the dog to an incompatible, calm and secure behavior. I tend to go for a quiet sit with the dog looking at me. Once we get that calm focus, I reinforce the calm behavior, starting with a treat or positive attention (COME TO THE QUIET SIDE: WE HAVE COOKIES!).

And then…instead of pushing forward, the dog and I retreat. We walk away. We return to things the dog can successfully do. The dog gets to relax and move away from the trigger. The dog’s system gets to return to normal baseline instead of building arousal hormones. Nothing bad happens, and the alternate behavior produces calming neurotransmitters in our pup's brain. Overload short circuited.

A few seconds or minutes later, whatever is needed, we re-approach and repeat. Minor reaction, redirection, reinforcement and withdrawal. Arousal is kept low. No one gets into flight or fight.

This is time consuming and not flashy. This is not good TV. We may only be able to do a couple short sessions per day. But we set the dog up to succeed and capture that success.

In a similar livestock situation, I would have had the dog come to the controlled situation many times, all on lead, with slow progress outside the pen. The dog would not have been allowed in the pen at all until we had many, many positive outcomes. I would wait for the dog to voluntarily lie down outside the pen, with the livestock doing their little livestock things, without showing any interest. All this would be on lead.

Then we would have progressed into the pen, still on lead. First time would have been short: walk into the pen, walk past the animals one time, walk out and reward. Maybe only once that day, depending on the reaction of the dog. Later we do it again-short, sweet, and positive. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

We take little steps. If the dog has any close calls on lead, we back up and work reinforcing success, back to where things start to get tense.

Obviously this is really crappy TV. No one is going to be entertained by multiple repeats of little successes, a few pets and treats, and a long period of time with no drama. Drama is what sells TV. If we do things right, there is no drama.

By taking the long way around, we do important things. We set the dog up to succeed. We reduce, not increase, stress. We show the dog the needlessness of the former behavior. And we don’t stress the livestock. No summoning of a demon that we have to somehow banish. No eye of newt or any other weird ingredients, no spells or scrolls - or fear - needed. Patience and understanding and redirection. There is no collateral damage. Everyone stays safe.

Is this infallible? Nope. Nothing in life is. Sometimes, despite patience and compassion and great technique, our efforts are not enough. Some animals have more baggage than we even understand. In some cases medication, under the care of a Veterinary Behaviorist, is needed. Other times, despite our best, the only answer is compassionate and humane management.

I can’t say for certain exactly what happened during this entertainment production. We have only seen the edited footage that the production company thought was entertaining and acceptable. There may have been far more taking place. But the practices we have been shown are less entertainment than they are indications of poor choices-or at least poor practices. In this case is seems that two basic principles were disregarded: don’t make things worse and be aware of collateral damage. 

As we go forward and this case develops, let’s not wait for the outcome to learn a vital lesson: Take care not to cause damage, even when your intentions are noble, and don’t summon what you can’t banish.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Do you and your dog resonate?

Humans and dogs give and take. Sometimes this giving and taking is in sync, it is resonant. The two parties, you and your dog, are part of a moving, fluid giving and taking. You move, act, feel together. Neither of you is really leading the walk or activity, but you both get where you are going. Neither of you is making conscious decisions-the resulting arrival is cooperative and seemingly the natural consequence of just being.

Dissonance is just the opposite. You zig when you dog zags. You stop and he goes. You don't quite get in step, and despite a lot of effort, you never get anywhere.

In dogs, dissonance builds walls. Walls between them and other dogs, between them and humans, between the self that they show and the self they wish to be. Aggression and fear are symptoms of dissonance.

Dogs are social creatures, and for the most part they want positive input and social connection with both other dogs and with humans. After all, with a history of somewhere over 15,000 years together, there are social ties that keep them from avoiding us, even when perhaps they should. The desire for constructive, positive social contact can help balance whatever dissonance has driven them into building a wall between themselves and the “outside” world.

 Developing a relationship with a dog, particularly a dog that has built a wall of aggression or fear, means I have to build resonance. I have to establish a reciprocal interaction with the dog. Working with a seriously aggressive or fearful dog takes clear and complex give and take. I have to safely let the dog know that I am not a threat, and not a danger. I also have to let them know, without frightening or “dominating” them, that they cannot make me go away. They cannot frighten me. The worst they will get from me is a removal of my attention.

I have at times referred to this process as “push-pull”. The germ of it began when, years ago, I saw Monty Roberts at an early exhibition working with horses. He had/has a technique that he called “join up”. In his world, “join-up” was a process by which he drove the subject horse away from him by using body position and motion to appear threatening. He then changed his position and motion in a way that the horse interpreted as soliciting contact. By alternately appearing as a potential threat, followed by welcoming the horse, the horse appeared to become more accepting of Roberts. Finally the horse, who started the demonstration shying away from Roberts but was unable to flee due to the round pen they were in, appeared to develop a relationship with Roberts that let him approach, interact, and guide the horse.

My reaction to this was two fold. First, it dawned on me (slow that I am) that dogs, like horses, have clear and usable language, but that the language is based on body position and visual cues, not verbalization. Second, although horses are prey and dogs are opportunistic predators and scavengers, in both cases social contact can be used to develop a relationship. Relationships did, of course, already exist: but in both cases, trainers of old used force and fear and physical punishment to develop relationships based on dominance and submission. Both schools of trainers made the trainees subservient, too often complying because they feared the consequences of non-compliance.

Roberts seemed to be more involved in developing trust. Although this was not 100% benign (he did “send away” the horses first) he sent the horse a message that said “I am not going away-you have to deal with me. When you do I will make it worth your while.”

That made sense. Run away from me and nothing good happens. Be my friend and not only do you get my positive attention, but other good things happen. Yeah. That sounded good.

But as I said, horses and dogs do have differences. Horses are herd animals that want to be part of a social group. They will accept humans as part of that, but ultimately they are prey, and are always just a little worried that they will be lunch. Dogs, on the other hand, can function as predators. They have teeth: they are packing. Even the smallest of them can pull their blades and try and shred something that is scary enough. And when scary enough kicks in, social niceties go goodbye. Stress kicks in, higher learning goes out the window. Frankly, if you are dealing with an 80 pound dog in full predatory or defense mode, I don’t care how big you are: he/she will kick your butt. You are gonna bleed, and you are getting serious damage.

So the idea of trying to apply force, even at the merely social level that Roberts operated, wasn’t the total answer with dogs. A dog wants social contact, but is not a herd animal. If they are safe, or feel like they need room to feel safe, pushing them away is just silly. They can do just fine without you. They are not living a life worried about being lunch.

After all the centuries among us two leggers, dogs do want social contact. And we have COOKIES. That is a key we can use to unlock behavior we want. Positive social contact is not achieved by force. You can’t threaten anything into loving you. After all, we talked about learned helplessness last time, and we discussed how it doesn’t lead to a positive relationship. It leads to dependency, more fear, and less trust.

Over time I refined my interactions and observed-a lot. One thing I learned was that a fearful dog, or a dog that seemed to be aggressive, was often receptive if they were helped to see that their old behavior (fear or aggression) was not effective. Showing that behavior didn’t cause any pain or discomfort, but it didn’t succeed. Whatever they were afraid of, whatever they were protecting themselves against, didn’t have to be a threat. It could be neutral, or it could actually be friendly, especially if it was a human.

That process of give and take, the back and forth of signals, mutually understood and accepted, that is what develops resonance between me and a dog. We begin to operate in concert. No, our “energies” do not somehow become synchronized. (Let’s see someone show up in court and show their “energy detector”. Or publish it in a peer reviewed journal. Not going to happen.). But there is resonance, a give and take that becomes a habit. This is similar tot he resonance that develops between long time friends, or life partners, those people that finish each others’ sentences. The quiet moments of communication that two people share without even talking. This is what I aim for when interacting with a dog that ha problems. This is how I can, at times, deal with dogs that others can’t. This is the most rewarding of things that happen in a training or therapeutic situation, the connection, even for a short time, where trust exists and movement and intention become connected.

I’m not special in doing this. I have seen it in other trainers, the good ones. We all have the ability to establish resonance, especially with our own pets. The animals that we spend day in and day out with, the animals that share our lives, we can and should develop resonance with them.

Is this whispering? Is there some secret language that only the select can speak, that only the particularly gifted can parse and comprehend, passed secretly from generation to generation?No. There is no whispering. When a dog and I exchange information, when we share, it is all right out there. Anyone can learn to speak dog, and anyone can learn to receive the messages sent. To do so we need to do one thing above all else: listen. The character of Piglet in the Winnie the Pooh stories said it once: “Lots of people talk to animals: very few listen.” We need to listen, to observe, to connect.

Is it magic? No. There is no magic. Unless of course you consider two organisms working collectively in a positive, mutually respectful and resonant way to be magical. That I can buy-yes, the collective development of trust, seeing that light come on behind their eyes, feeling the connection and seeing a once fearful or aggressive dog drop their defenses, cross that once uncrossable gulf and let you in-that is magic.