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.