Thursday, February 25, 2016

Learned helpless: PLEASE DON'T KILL ME!

I’m certain you have seen it - the dog that immediately cowers in front of anyone and anything. He seems to be calling out “I’m pitiful-pet me!” This is often accompanied by urinating a little and behavior that, in a human, we would see as clear groveling. Many people see this and think “Oh my, he is such a submissive dog!” and assume that this poor beast is going to be easy to deal with.

Others see this as a dog that lacks spine and they get forceful, trying to “toughen up” this pup.

Both sets of responses are wrong.

Sure, the dog is giving signals that add up to the picture that in some heads screams “submissive”. If the groveling got any worse we would be embarrassed. These postures are associated with dog to dog signaling that one dog has surrendered to another dog. Some trainers tell us that this is a good thing, and that we have successfully become the “alpha” in the relationship, that we have accomplished something good, something our relationship should be based on.

Me? I say look to science, and science says “WHOA! NOT QUITE!”

Science tells us that this may not be “submission” (and that is a whole ‘nother discussion), but something very different. There is a term for this. It’s called LEARNED HELPLESSNESS.

We see it in people. Victims of domestic violence, child abuse,  sexual abuse. This behavior may be a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A dog acting this way does not mean we have achieved training success.

Human victims can learn that no matter what they do they can’t win. They will be beaten down and hurt. As a result of this repeated beating down, they learn to give up before things escalate to try and minimize the damage. They suffer and quit to survive. Dogs can do the same.

How does this happen in dogs? Fantasy fiction novelist Elizabeth Bear, in a little different context, put it succinctly. “If you really want to screw up an animal, sometimes reward it and sometimes punish it for the same behavior. Or keep increasing what it has to do to get a reward. You get real basket cases that way!

A dog that, when approached, immediately rolls over, exposes his belly, urinates, and whimpers may not be saying “Hi there! You are the boss and I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!”. Nope. That dog is more likely saying “There is no point in defending myself from you, big scary thing—just kill me now!”

The most common factor I have seen in animals that show learned helplessness is fear caused by force. Force that was applied excessively, inconsistently, and with poor timing. It is true that scientists have shown that punishment “works”. After all, an animal that experiences pain and violence after they do something will try and stop the pain. If that pain is closely linked with a specific circumstance of action the animal will learn to avoid that particular set of circumstances, and may learn to generalize and associate the pain with similar situations. This creates problems as they travel down this road.

First off, why do we want an animal performing a behavior out of fear of pain? Do we need to "prove" something? I don’t want that relationship with my own dogs. Having a dog look over their shoulder all of the time waiting for pain is not the way I want my dog to view me, or our relationship. A dog acting from fear, if given the opportunity, may finally decide she has had enough and head for the hills. To reliably avoid pain they simply avoid the entire surrounding environment. That makes sense from their point of view.

Also sensible to them may be a “last stand” to either survive or die. This is seen in humans with victims who finally, after years of abuse, react massively toward the abuser. Dogs don’t usually have guns, so in a dog’s case this may be with a bite. If their abuser or “trainer” has responded to lower level warnings and attempts at defense with more force and more fear, then the bite may be serious and, to those on the outside, out of proportion to the perceived provocation.

For trainers, even those who are not using force or fear, part of the equation are the twin issues of timing and consistency. Timing in dogs is critical. Dogs associate good or bad with the actions that occurred immediately before the good or bad thing happened. If punishment is presented, the administration of the aversive, the punisher, has to be dead on with the unwanted behavior to be effective and clear. If Fred the Beagle, for instance, poops on the floor at 10 am, but the owner punishes him at 12:30 when he gets home from the store, Fred is getting an unclear message. He is more likely to associate the punishment with whatever he did just before the punishment. So if Dad called him over and then punished him for pooping on the floor, poor Fred the Beagle is confused: was he punished for coming to Dad? What was the whole deal about the poop? What poop?

Consistency is the other twin, the flip to timing’s flop. For instance: this morning you are in your sweats before you get dressed, take Fred out for his walk, and love him as he jumps up and plays with you. Forty five minutes later though, after showering and getting dressed for work, Fred gets smacked for doing the same exact thing. Fred’s fashion sense is limited: he may not see your sweats and your work clothes as that different. Context seems the same to Fred, so now he has been rewarded and punished for the same behavior.

Instead of using force, punishment, and risking the utter confusion of a dog that may lead down the bumpy road to learning they can never do anything right, how about we try another idea? Let’s show our dogs what we want, mark those desirable behaviors, and then reinforce them. Instead of teaching learned helplessness, how about we teach learned confidence?

In my years competing with field dogs, I saw plenty of animals that had developed highly trained learned helplessness. When the handler sent them out they constantly looked back, head down and tail tucked, waiting for the zap of electricity that told them WRONG! When they came into a new environment, with novel challenges, they were a sorry sight to see. Fear dripped off them, and although they followed directions, there was no joy in Mudville. They had no confidence of their own and no confidence in their handler.

Somehow I accidentally learned a different (I think better) way. My dogs needed to be secure, confident, and able to make choices. This took a lot of training and repetition and patience and holding back from assessing the trainee as stupid or obtuse, but my dogs finally taught me. I learned the lessons from them. They resisted learning helplessness and I learned to be consistent, clear, and that fear bred only more fear. I owe that lesson to my dogs, and I own that lesson now.

For others, I can simply let my experience be a guide, a suggestion. Learned helplessness and canine PTSD are not the marks of a submissive dog. They are not goals to achieve. They are signs of a dogs that has been pushed too far, too often, with the wrong methods, and is simply trying not to be killed. Please, don’t put your dogs in that space. Instead of imprisoning them in fear, teach them confidence and the ability to make choices. Give them the keys to success. Then sit back and enjoy the ride.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Predicting/preventing the future.

 I love to look outside the four walls of dog training and behavior to see what else is happening in the world. I was listening to a podcast that featured an interview with Marina Abramovic, a performance artist, and she made the following comment that really caught my ear:

"One of the artist's jobs is to go to see what (the) future could look like and prevent it…or ask (the) right questions. We don't always have answers but we have to try, to give some possibilities for people to experience anon."

Let’s see if we can apply this idea to dog training as it is right now, and use it to sketch out what our training could become.

Our current strategies are focussed on setting a foundation of manners and hoping nothing really ever goes wrong.  We teach basics like sit and come, and then, well, we kind of stand back and hope. We hope the client does a little more work. We hope that the client doesn’t let the work that we have already done fall by the wayside. We hope nothing serious ever happens.

But when the future doesn’t arrive as hoped, we are called on to fix the unexpected future. We respond and react. Despite outreach and talks about prevention we are trapped waiting until something breaks, and then we try to patch it.

I want to suggest another path. Morag Myerscough, a designer in the UK, said in a presentation to the British Design Council: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Do you hear an echo here? Doesn’t this sound akin to Marina Abramovic? The future doesn’t just have to happen. Abramovic asks designers to prevent the future, and Myerscough places the onus upon us to invent the future. Neither one takes the position that the future happens to us: we happen to the future.

With this mindset, instead of waiting passively for the future to happen, we take the responsibility to design our future, and the futures of our clients. We become active.

Although these statements come from the fields of art and design, we can translate the concepts to dog training and behavior. With our canine companions this means we take the initiative to build and direct positive, desirable behavior and habits instead of waiting and hoping that bad behavior doesn’t arise. We are not forcing square George into a round Fido box. Instead, we develop an environment that fosters the squareness that is George and sets George up to be the best George he can be. We recognize George’s abilities and strengths and we invent George’s future. Instead of trying to prevent the bad, we create the good and reliable.

How do we do this? First, we learn and recognize our individual clients and their strengths and potential weaknesses. We plan our training and stress those areas where we know, after a bazillion dogs, problems are going to come up. We know they are going to chew. We know they will pee on the floor. We know they will bark. We know that lots of dogs will dash for the door given half a chance. And we know that, under certain circumstances, even the most forgiving dog will likely bite you or your child. After all, they are dogs.

Plan your training to be proactive and, honestly, creative. Introduce things like skateboards, and running screaming kids, and high value food bowls, into your basic classes. With close supervision-and plentiful ability to provide positive feedback the moment the dog succeeds-provide exposure to potential problem situations. Ease your clients, two and four legged, down challenging paths while you are there as a steady, calming guide. This might require extending your training protocol a little bit, and might just make your hour to dollar return a tiny bit lower by extending the hours in a series of sessions, but look at the long term benefits. Your clients will be less likely to call in a panic-or, even worse, run to a shelter (or worse) and dump their buddy when the ugly possibility of a challenge appears. Do your best to bulletproof your clients. I know that many of you already do this, but look at your program and see how much else you can incorporate.

Stop reacting. Invent the future. Carve a new path.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Police shootings, emotional damages, and the value of our companions.

I am looking forward to the progress of this trial in Michigan, encouraged by the ruling so far. US District Court Judge Gershwin Drain has ruled that the owners of a dog named Clohe, shot in Flint, can recover emotional suffering damages in their Federal Court fight.

Clohe was a 15 year old mixed breed dog. Flint and other Law Enforcement Officers were attempting to serve a the wrong address. Clohe, who lived next door to the target address, emerged from her doggie door to see what was happening in her neighbor's yard and was shot in the face by police.

So dear Clohe, 15 years old, in her own yard, minding her own business, was shot by police looking for a fugitive in the wrong house.

In the past the value of a companion pet has been established as the cost of going to the pound and just "replacing" the dog. This has, in the past, ignored the suffering of the owners and the value of the years of companionship and memories as if they could just be "replaced".

In the case of Criscuolo v. Moses Lake Washington we got a first start at building value for a companion animal beyond "replacement" or "market value". This has continued with our decision in Branson v. Commerce City, CO where another Chloe was shot and the settlement was $262,500.00. Hopefully this trend will continue, placing adequate value on Clohe in Michigan that recognizes the emotional stress these incidents place on owners and the true value of the years of memories and companionship that constitute our bond with our companion animals. I know personally that dogs I have had have been far more than competitors or "property". There were days where my furry buddy was essential to getting through challenges that I faced.

It is time we recognized legally these bonds and values. This case in Michigan will hopefully help keep the momentum.

Here is a section of the article from Great Lakes Echo, by Eric Freeman, posted by Capital News Service on February 3rd, 2016. The full original can be accessed on the web HERE.

Owner can sue for emotional damages over shot dog

February 3, 2016

By Eric Freedman

Capital News Service

The owners of a dog shot and seriously wounded by a Michigan Corrections Department investigator can sue the state for emotional distress and mental anguish damages under federal civil rights law, a judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain rejected the state’s argument that the owners, Erica Moreno and Katti Putman, would be entitled only to economic damages if they prove that the investigator acted unconstitutionally.

The investigator, Ronald Hughes, several state troopers and a Flint police officer on a multiagency team went to the wrong house in Flint while searching for a fugitive in June 2014, according to court documents. They had an arrest warrant for the fugitive.
Hughes mistakenly went into the backyard of the fugitive’s next-door neighbors, where he saw 58-pound Clohe, a 15-year-old pit bull mix, coming out the door and shot her in the face, the decision said.

Clohe is “a friendly family dog who gets along with her neighbors and never has attacked or bitten anyone,” the suit contends.

Trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 16 in federal court in Detroit.

In his decision, Drain said, “Clohe lost a portion of her tongue and a tooth and endured three surgeries to repair damage suffered as a result.”

The state denies any wrongdoing and counters that Hughes shot the dog in self-defense.

The internal affairs division of the Corrections Department reviewed the incident but the results of the inquiry are confidential, according to department public information officer Chris Gautz.

Clohe’s owners, Erica Moreno and Katti Putnam, filed a civil rights suit, claiming Hughes violated the 4th Amendment constitutional guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Shooting Clohe was an illegal “seizure” of their dog, the suit contends. “In sum, Hughes went to the wrong house to execute an arrest warrant and shot the dog without any reasonable basis for doing so.

Shooting the dog “was objectively unreasonable because Clohe was not barking or making any threatening gesture towards Hughes,” it said.

The attorney general’s office asked Drain to disallow so-called “noneconomic damages” and limit any jury award to the difference between what Clohe is worth now and what she would have been worth if she hadn’t been shot.

Christopher Olson, a Royal Oak lawyer representing Moreno and Putnam, said the state argued that it’s a property damage case but, in fact, it’s a constitutional violation case.

Emotional distress damages “naturally flow in any case in which a cop shoots your dog in the face,” Olson said. “Most people who’ve ever owned a dog treat it as a family member.”

Rejecting the state’s argument, Drain noted that courts recognize that some people “think of dogs solely in terms of an emotional relationship, rather than a property relationship” and that “the bond between a dog owner and his pet can be strong and enduring.”

Drain said, “Prohibiting recovery for emotional damages stemming from the loss of, or harm to, an animal caused by a constitutional violation would conflict with the compensatory and deterrence aims” of federal civil rights law."

Drain also ruled that the jury can award Moreno and Putman punitive damages if they prove at trial that Hughes acted unconstitutionally.