Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Metaphors Are Meta-Phantastic!

I've noticed that I'm a big fan of metaphors when I'm talking to my clients.  I really believe that almost everything our dogs do, or the ways we can deal with our dogs, has some real equivalent in the human world.

The best way to lock in our dogs' behaviors is to put them on a "variable reinforcement schedule" (or vR+ in science lingo) - make our rewards for their behavior come at random times and in random amounts.   
Metaphor: Vegas, baby!  Gambling is fun (and oftentimes even addictive) precisely because you might win at any time, and the amounts can be different each time.  And when you think about the behavior that is being locked in - "give us your money" - you can see just how powerfully vR+ works on us.  Getting your dog to Sit on command should be a cinch, comparatively.

Often, a good indicator if you're pushing your dog too hard, or if they're feeling stressed by a situation, is if they start nipping your fingers hard when they take food from you.

Metaphor: Horror movies.  Ever notice that when the protagonist is being chased by the killer and they're trying to get into their car or home, they always have trouble getting that key into the slot because their hands are shaking too much?  When we're stressed, we lose control over our fine motor functions. Dogs are the same way.  Normally, a dog has probably more control over its mouth and teeth than we have over our fingers, so if they're losing their normally gentle touch, they could probably use a break for a while.

It's a common issue for people who've recently rescued a new dog.  For the first few weeks, the dog is perfect - quiet, respectful, well behaved.  And then, after 2-4 weeks, it starts growling or nipping at people if they come near its toys, or it starts lunging at other dogs on walks, or starts chewing up the furniture.  But it was so good!  What happened?

Metaphor: Transfering to a new high school.  Ever moved and had to enter a new school when you were a kid?  At first, you don't know who's who or what the rules - explicit or unspoken - are.  So you keep your head down and try not to draw too much attention.  But after a bit, you start to figure out who the cool kids are, the different cliques, which teachers will let you slide and which are hard cases.  And then you can start to let your personality show; crack some jokes in class, show off at recess, start making friends.  Or,negatively, start picking on kids you see as easy marks or disrespecting the teachers.

The same goes for dogs.  Those first few weeks in your home, your new dog is unsure about how you will react.  Do you have rules you are stubborn and consistent about?  Do you care if the dog is being good or do you just ignore it?  And so, after a few weeks, your dog starts to feel more confident about its place in the home, and it's "true" personality will start to come out.  The good news is that you can use those first few weeks as a blessing and reinforce the heck out of all that good behavior, so that when your dog starts feeling free to behave as it likes, it will want to keep acting like a good dog.  Take that good behavior for granted at your peril!)

How is that dogs that start off so super-excited and manic about wanting to play with other dogs that they lunge and lunge against their leash can become extremely aggressive towards other dogs over time?  How did "I love other dogs SO MUCH!!!" turn into "I'll kill you!"?

Metaphor: Lakers Championships.  When the Lakers win a championship and the fans rush out of Staples Center here in L.A., they're all in an incredibly good mood.  They're cheering and yelling, they're high fiving and chest-bumping, "Wooo!  F#%& Yeah!"  And then what do they do?  They get into fist fights and set cars on fire.  Because too much adrenaline and uncontrolled energy has to go somewhere.  And whether it's people or dogs, getting too worked up without any self control is a recipe for violence.  When your dog lets itself get so manic about wanting to play with other dogs and then is continually brought up short by the leash, it gets frustrated.  And if it hasn't learned good impulse control to deal with that frustration, all that energy and frustration turns into negative emotions and aggression - just like a bunch of drunk Laker fans getting into fights with each other. (I stay off the streets after a championship lets out, if you can't tell).

What it all comes down to is that with just a little change in perspective, it's easy to see that humans and dogs are much more alike than we are different.  And more than just helping us to empathize with our dogs, knowing this helps us understand ourselves better, too.  So go chew on a bully stick and mull on that for a while.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"Corrections" aren't.

I've got a bone to pick with the word "correction."  I was listening to a trainer instruct someone on the proper use of a Gentle Leader head halter yesterday.  She told the owner that every time the owner subconsciously pulled tight on the leash, it was giving the dog a correction.  Now, in her mind and in common dog-trainer parlance, she was correct.  She meant that every time the owner pulled on the leash, she was giving the dog an adversive - that she was applying an unpleasant experience to the dog that would probably confuse the dog or make it dislike the halter.  Or perhaps she could have said that she was applying a punishment, which in behaviorism-lingo means a consequence that makes a behavior less likely to reoccur.

The problem is that the average owner isn't a trainer, and "correction" doesn't sound like a very negative term.  Which is the very reason the term came into use in the first place.  Back in the days of jerk-the-chain punishments when a dog did something wrong (days that are still with us), trainers knew that if they told their clients "jerk the leash to punish the dog for pulling" it would sound overly harsh to people who loved their dogs and just wanted them to walk nicely.  So they invented a euphemism, "correction".  "Give the dog a correction by jerking the leash when it pulls."

And it worked.  Most of us don't want to punish our dogs.  But "correction" is downright positive!  If you're kid spells a word wrong, and you give him a correction, i.e. show him how it is actually spelled, then you've helped him out!  And that's just what we want for our dogs, right?

Sure, except that, in dog training, a correction doesn't show the dog the right answer.  It just tells him what he did wrong.  Rather than telling your child the correct way to spell a word, it would be as if you just snapped, "Wrong!" each time they misspelled a word.  Which do you believe would be the more likely result, that your child became more motivated to improve their spelling, or that they would become sullen and not want to try anymore?  The second, certainly, because punishment dampens enthusiasm, and punishment without even pointing out the correct response doesn't just dampen enthusiasm, it kills it.

Keep that in mind in those times that you do use a punishment, however mild, with your dog.  All of us do at one time or another.  Sometimes it's even necessary, or even the best way to deal with a situation.  But any time you do, it is vitally necessary that you immediately show your dog what the correct answer is.  If your dog pulls and you end up jerking the leash out of frustration or old habit, at the very least lure or entice your dog into a proper position and then reward them for being there.  "That was wrong.  This is right." 

Let's build enthusiasm, not kill it.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Krypto Chronicles: Two Months!

Krypto just turned 16 weeks old, which means we've had him for two whole months!  Wow, time flies!

For a while there, I was a little worried that we hadn't gotten a proper Boxer.  Krypto was very easy going and mellow for the first month.  But now, trust me, he's all Boxer.  When he gets excited, gravity has a tenuous hold on him at best.  I can already see the "pogo-ing" in his future that is the hallmark of the happy Boxer.

First, the bad news. Housetraining is still an ongoing project.  The truth is that Molly and I both get lazy and don't keep an eye on him as much as we should.  We have taught him to use the doggie door and he is fairly good about letting himself out, but we need to be better about making sure that he uses it!  As it is, we have an accident about every three days or so.  This is my promise to you, my vast uncountable legions of readers: I. Will. Do. Better. 

(A note on doggie doors.  There's a totally valid school of thought that says that if you train your dog to use a doggie door, you never really know if they're actually housetrained; i.e., if they don't have access to the doggie door, will they still know not to potty inside?  And while that is perfectly logical and maybe even true, I've realized that I've had three previous dogs that all were raised with access to the doggie door and all of them were absolutely reliably house trained.  So, I started training without letting Krypto use the doggie door, but now I've decided to go with personal experience and play the odds.  I'll let you know how it works out.)

The good news is everything else.  Krypto walks quite excellently on a leash.  His only difficult times are if we're walking him and Derby at the same time and Derby gets ahead, he'll often want to pull to get to her.  Which creates an interesting dynamic in that each time he pulls, I stop, so Derby gets farther ahead.  But it works out because eventually Derby gets so far ahead that he stops trying to pull - at which point I reward him by jogging quickly up to Derby.

He sits politely before meeting people and dogs.  (Well, sometimes I have to tell him a few times, but he catches on quickly.)  He rarely jumps on people (a big achievement for any Boxer owner).  He's got his basic obedience down nicely with Touch, Down and his Emergency Recall ("Crime!").  I've just now gotten around to teaching him Stay.  Check back in a week or two to see how he's coming along.  (Like I said in my previous blog post, I've been a little lax on the obedience training just because I know that I can start it at any point.)

After his great experience at the skate park, every time he sees a skateboard, he wants to jump on it, now.  So I went and bought him his own skateboard.  Getting him to push it along and jump on it is no problem.  Now I need to figure out how to get him to keep three paws on the board while pushing with the fourth paw.  Not quite sure how I'm going to approach that...

My friends at Hollywood Paws tell me that there's often studio work for a well trained white Boxer, so I've started teaching him to hit a mark on cue. He's ready for his close up, Mr. DeMille!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Three Kinds of Training

Raising Krypto (my now-four-months old Boxer) these last two months has made me start thinking that "training" comes in three general flavors in these early stages: Socialization, Manners and Obedience.

1.  Socialization
This is the most important - almost all important - if you have a very young puppy (less than 16 months old).  I firmly believe that nearly all the difference between an easy-to-own dog and a frustration-machine is created in the first 3-4 months of life and how much socialization the puppy is exposed to.  Puppies that get a chance to see the world, people and other dogs in all their infinite variations, always in a positive, non-forced way will grow up to be happy, confident dogs.   Dogs that are fearful, aggressive, cowering, anxious... these are nearly always dogs that missed out on proper socialization, and oftentimes the damage is so great that it cannot be erased, only minimized.

2.  Manners
This is the rest of creating an "easy" dog (the part that the "nearly all the difference" in the previous paragraph didn't cover).  Manners refers to what you teach your dog to do without being asked.  When your dog jumps on you and you instantly turn your back on him, so that he learns that jumping will not get him attention, that is Manners. When you notice your dog pick up a proper toy on his own and you get happy and play with him for a few seconds, so that he starts to gravitate towards toys and not your shoes, that is Manners.  In neither case did you need to tell your dog "Off" or "Get a toy"; you're teaching him to do these things automatically.

3.  Obedience
Obedience is having your dog do what you tell him to do.  The irony of Obedience is that is what most owners primarily focus on and ask for, but is actually the least important part of what they actually want!

Good socialization and good manners is really all that is needed to create a dog that most owners would love to have.  Imagine a dog that is happy to meet strangers and dogs, doesn't rush forward or leap up but rather is relaxed and gentle; that plays with its toys and never chews on clothing or the furniture; that is housetrained; that waits politely to be invited before jumping on the couch to snuggle; that walks calmly on the leash.  Sounds like heaven, right?  All of that is socialization and manners.  At no point did I talk about the dog knowing how to Sit, or Down, or do a Roll Over or Go to Sleep, or really doing anything at all because you asked it to.  The perfect dog for 99% of owners is just one that acts polite without being told.

Truth be told, I haven't actually put that much work in Krypto's obedience.  Partly because I've been a bit lazy/busy, but also because I know that I can do obedience anytime.  I can (and have) taken a 11 year old dog and teach it to Sit and Get Ready and Touch.  But good manners are harder to teach later on, and socialization can be much, much harder (or nearly impossible in some extreme cases).