Wednesday, March 16, 2011

We've tried that and it didn't work

This is an article that I wrote for one of my bird forums.  Not about show dogs particularly, but about changing behavior in animals in general.

I am writing this post because I come across this statement both on internet forums and in real life as a behavior consultant.

Many times when people complain about problem behaviors in their animals (regardless of species) and are given advice they respond that "they have tried that and it didn't work". It is important to keep in mind that in order for our animals behavior to change we have to change our own behavior. As a species, we tend to blame the issues on someone else. The bird is being (insert any label here) hormonal, dominant, mean, jealous, stubborn, etc. when the fact is that the behavior has simply been reinforced (consequences) and the stage has been set for the bird to do it (antecedents). As owners we can control and change antecedents and consequences. In other words, the behavior is sandwiched between two things that change behavior, both of which we can control.

When people tell me that they tried something already and it "didn't work", I don't usually have to look far to see why it didn't work. While not every solution will work for every animal, learning theory doesn't change from individual to individual or even from species to species. Learning theory remains the same across the board. Functional analysis (antecedent-behavior-consequence) remains the same across the board. So, it isn't that it simply doesn't work for that animal, it usually means that there is a problem with how it's being executed.

How a behavior modification or training plan is executed is important. The skill of the trainer comes into play here. For some things, the timing is critical and if it's not right the bird will be confused and may be reinforced or punished for the wrong thing. For instance, let's say that a person asks their bird to step up and the bird bites the owner's hand, which causes the owner to pull their hand away. The bird was probably reinforced for biting. The owner is upset so then asks the bird to step up onto a stick which the bird does and then puts the bird in a time out to negatively punish the behavior. What message could the bird be getting? Probably that biting makes hands go away when he doesn't want to step up and that he got timed out in his cage for stepping up on the stick. It is important and critical even to look at what happens just before (antecedent) and just after (consequence) a behavior to determine if and how it can be modified.

Another problem with owner's execution is with extinction. We know that any behavior that is not reinforced will go away or go extinct. There are some exceptions like if the behavior is a response to stress. If a bird is screaming because he is not getting enough attention, exercise or enrichment then that screaming will not likely go away from ignoring the bird. In this case, the screaming is a symptom of being ignored and is a sign of stress. But, in cases where the bird's needs are met and the bird is screaming for attention ignoring the bird will cause the screaming to go extinct or go away. This is one where people constantly say "we tried ignoring him and it didn't work". The fact is, while they may have tried ignoring the bird, they simply didn't do it long enough. If the bird has learned that screaming brings the outcome of attention, any attention, the bird will keep screaming. Once the owner starts to ignore the screaming to extinguish the behavior, the bird will have an extinction burst which is when the behavior gets worse before it gets better. Many times it is during the extinction burst that the owner caves because the screaming gets worse and they can't cope with it which only cements the behavior even further. The bird has now been taught that if they just keep pushing and persisting, the desired outcome will eventually happen.

When a behavior has a strong reinforcement history meaning that the animal has practiced doing something and then getting the desired outcome for a long time, the behavior will be more resistant to extinction.

In the case of screaming, another thing that happens is that the owner "thinks" they are ignoring the behavior, but they aren't. Birds (and dogs) are very good at reading our body language and some of our body language can unintentionally reinforce behavior. I once had clients who had an American Bulldog who would bark at their back door and they said they couldn't get her to stop. She was a big, goofy funny dog and just looking at her made you smile. I asked them if they ever laughed while she did it, they said "yes, all the time". Bingo! When a bird is screaming for attention and the owner is attempting to ignore it, there are a million things the owner could do to reinforce it including, but certainly not limited to flinching, covering their ears, looking in the direction of the cage, turning up the TV, etc, etc. So, keep in mind that the animal, not us, get to decide what is reinforcing and you may have to look at other things going on.

The fact is, extinction can take some time. A bird who has been screaming for attention for 2 years is not going to miraculously stop after 10 minutes of being ignored because there is too much reinforcement history that has supported the behavior. The bottom line is, it takes time. I am not saying it's not frustrating, I wouldn't want to try and ignore a screaming bird for 2 hours, but I didn't make the rules, science did. It isn't always fun, but it IS the way it is.

So, keep in mind that if a behavior modification plan feels like it isn't working, you may need to adjust how you are doing things. You may need to wait longer. You may need to adjust how you are putting the plan into action. You may need modify the consequences or adjust the antecedent, but you will get there.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

How much does your trainer's breed matter?

Sometimes I get calls from potential clients who are either not in my working area or who have a dog with issues that I am not currently taking on that I need to refer to another behavior consultant.  When I offer a referral I am told that they only want to work with me because I have Dachshunds.  They are worried about working with a trainer who doesn't have Dachshunds and feel that I will be a better match for them because of my expertise with the breed.  So, the question is, is it better to work with a trainer that lives with your particular breed?  My answer is, not necessarily.

I have lived with and competed with a wide variety of breeds.  I have consulted and trained many more than that.  I don't believe that simply because a trainer lives with a certain breed that they are necessarily the best match as a consultant.  First of all, dogs are dogs before they are Border Collies or Rottweilers or Yorkies or any other breed and all of their behavior is canine behavior.  If a trainer understands canine behavior and is skilled in modifying behavior and the are a good match for you personality wise, then why does it matter if they live with the same breed as you?  There are always exceptions and all dogs are individuals, but as a trainer I know the common breed characteristics of most breeds.  I also know that the similarities in the breeds within a specific group.  In other words, herding breeds are more likely to be like other herding breeds, than say toy breeds.  And, toy breeds are more likely to be like other toy breeds, than say, working breeds.  I do believe it is important that a trainer have a general understanding of the different groups and of their general traits, but I don't think that they have to have lived with that breed to be qualified to successfully work with that breed.  This doesn't mean that it isn't fun to work with someone who has your breed.  It can be fun to exchange stories and know that you share a love for a particular breed in common, but that might be as beneficial as it is.  The most important thing is whether or not the trainer is skilled at training dogs and modifying behavior.

When I make the decision to refer a client to another consultant what I am going to look at in deciding who to refer to is that particular consultants expertise in the specific behavior problem that client is having with their dog.  In other words, someone could have owned, bred and lived with German Shepherds for 30 years, but if they are not experienced in dealing with separation anxiety cases, I am not going to refer clients with dogs who have separation anxiety to them even if they have a German Shepherd.  The trainer or consultant needs to be experienced, knowledgeable and skilled at working on that particular behavior problem in order to be able to help the client. Having extensive knowledge of a breed will not help you work through a behavior issue that you are not equipped to handle.

I suppose the only real advantage to living with a breed and having a huge amount of interaction with that breed is that, in a way, you become very skilled at reading their body language easily.  Some dogs are easier to read than others and living with a breed can make you very sensitive to how they communicate.  Once I had another trainer ask me about Pekingese as she was about to work with one and knows that I live with one and have fostered many others.  Since it was an aggression issue I let her know that because the way a Peke is constructed it can be challenging to read some of their more subtle body language signals.  She hadn't thought of that and so it was helpful to her to have that insight.  She then went on to work with the dog with no problems.  Other trainers and owners of specific breeds have been able to offer that type of insight to me as well.  It isn't that the information was necessary to help the client, just helpful to file in the back of your mind.

So, when is a trainer or consultant not a good match when it comes to the breed you have?  My main answer would be if the trainer has any negative biases about that particular breed.  If a trainer absolutely cannot stand a particular breed and finds nothing redeemable about them, that is probably not someone I want to work with my dog.  Another issue that I have is with trainers who make say things like, "all Labs love to eat", or "Greyhounds can never be allowed off leash", or "Beagles can never learn a good recall".  Even though a generalized comment may be accurate much of the time, they are dangerous blanket statements because there are always exceptions to the "rules".  There ARE Labs that aren't foody.  There ARE Greyhounds that do fine off leash.  There ARE Beagles who come when called.  There are no absolutes.  I want to know that a trainer is aware and knowledgeable but I don't want a trainer to go in there with a bunch of preconceived notions about a dog that they have never even met.  There are many true generalizations but a good trainer or behavior consultant looks at the dog as an individual.  As Dr. Susan Friedman would say, "They are all a study of one". 

The bottom line is, a good dog trainer or behavior consultant is knowledgeable about different breeds but is highly skilled in reading body language, building or modifying behavior, communicating with the client and producing results.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Puppies in Conformation Class

Yes!  It's true!  I do allow young puppies in my conformation classes, in fact, I encourage it.  Because the methods that I use for training show dogs (and all dogs actually) are positive reinforcement methods young puppies do great and are welcome to attend.  Young puppies (2 to 5 months) are like little sponges, open and ready for new information and learning opportunities.  This is, in my opinion, the best time to get your puppies started on their conformation ring training.  One of the most difficult times to start training a dog is during adolescence, so waiting until a dog is old enough to show (6 month) is not the best time to start your training.  It makes much more sense to start young so that when they enter adolescence they are already well on their way and have several behaviors under their belt.  It just makes sense to start early!

I realize that some people have concerns about exposing their puppies to diseases but most classes require vaccination records making a dog training class in a reputable facility a fairly low risk environment.  For me, personally, I have no problem taking my puppies to low risk areas once they have been started on their vaccinations.  If I am being honest, I am much more concerned with my puppy having many positive, early learning and socialization opportunities than I am with them contracting a disease.  The behavioral risk of keeping them inside and not socializing them well is too high and I am not willing to take that risk.  Waiting until a dog is 4 months old to start the socialization and training process simply does not give you enough time to properly socialize and expose them.  So, be safe and be smart, but socialize them well!

Whenever I have young puppies in my conformation classes I am always careful to make a few things clear to my clients.  First, the goal is not that the puppy do everything perfectly like a well trained adult show dog.  The goal is that the puppy have fun and enjoy himself.  I recently watched a very disturbing You Tube video where someone demonstrated how to train a puppy to be a show dog in under a minute.  It was really awful to watch this cheerful puppy be strong armed into position, and forced to stand completely still while he panicked and struggled to escape.  Eventually, he stopped struggling and stood there... with his ears and tail down and the spark gone from his eyes.  Poor guy.  This is, in my opinion, the absolute worst way to train a puppy.  This puppies first conformation experience was scary, uncomfortable, aversive and something he wanted to escape.  Always remember that however an animal learns something lives with that behavior forever.  In other words, if show ring training is trained using positive reinforcement and keeping it light and fun for the puppy, then those behaviors will always have that emotional state attached to them.  On the flip side, if the show ring behaviors are trained with force, corrections and punishment, that emotional state, dread, discomfort or fear will be associated with those behaviors.  The fact is, if you want your puppy to grow up to be a dog that enjoys showing, he needs to be taught to enjoy shows as a puppy.

I always want to make it clear with my clients is that they have a right at any time to give the puppy a break or end the training once they feel the puppy has had enough.  We never want to overdo  it.  When it's done well, the training should leave the puppy wanting more.  So, it's important that we stop if the puppy starts to show signs of tiring out, getting stressed or looking bored.  Show training should be fun, fun, fun!

Puppies need to be trained on comfortable, non-aversive, dog friendly equipment.  I am not a fan of metal choke collars in general, but they are never a good choice for a young puppy just learning the ropes. 

It is important to make sure that puppies in conformation class feel safe and secure.  If the class is very loud or full of many rowdy dogs, it may be better for the puppy to be off to the side, simply watching and chewing on a bully stick.  People may think that this is a waste of time but it's not because as the puppy is sitting on the owner's lap, munching on a tasty chewer he is actually being conditioned that being around a bunch of dogs in a strange environment is a good, safe and relaxing thing.  This is invaluable conditioning to a show dog and a great way to ease a puppy into training.

If you haven't already done so, consider finding a positive reinforcement conformation class to take your puppy to.  When it's done well and the puppy is kept safe and having a good time, it can be a wonderful thing to do for your puppy.

Note:  Before taking your puppy to a conformation class be sure to observe a class and make sure that the instructor is a positive reinforcement trainer.  Please never allow anyone to jerk, drag, force or intimidate your puppy in any way.  You are responsible for keeping your puppy safe and you have a right to say "no".