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.