Dog Trainer Wars

January 5, 2017

husky attacksIf you’re not a dog trainer, you might not be aware of the divisiveness in the dog training world. (Hint: Think of our current political climate.) If you are a trainer, you no doubt know all too well what I’m talking about. This is nothing new and, sadly, this is not the first time I’ve written about it. The Training Wars have been going on for many decades, and are showing no sign of letting up.

The core issues in the ongoing debates revolve around training tools and methods. On one side, there are those who call themselves “positive trainers” and on the other, those who may term themselves “balanced trainers.” “Positive” refers to the use of positive reinforcement to teach and maintain skills, often in the form of treats, although sometimes toys and other reinforcers are used. Positive trainers use various training tools, but often eschew e-collars (a.k.a. shock collars) and many do not use choke chains or prong (a.k.a. pinch) collars. The focus is on teaching the dog what is expected, and then rewarding successful behavior. Those who call themselves “balanced trainers” may also use treats and positive reinforcement to train, or use alternate reinforcers such as praise, but are generally more willing to use punishment to enforce behaviors. Now, here’s where it gets tricky; that doesn’t mean positive trainers never use any form of punishment, or that the punishment used by balanced trainers is harsh physical punishment. Since “punishment” is defined as anything that lessens the likelihood of the behavior repeating, punishment can range from a verbal “No!” to a harsh jerk on a choke chain, and so on. The problem is, those stereotypes are invoked whenever the Training Wars commence.

Positive trainers are often painted as ineffectual, overly lax, “cookie-slinging weenies” who are afraid to even say, “No” when a dog does something wrong. On the other hand, I’ve seen Balanced trainers portrayed as shock collar-wielding monsters who don’t even teach a behavior before resorting to punishment. Neither of those caricatures is typically accurate, except perhaps at the far ends of the spectrum. I have seen trainers use treats prolifically but fail to teach rules and boundaries effectively. I’ve also seen trainers teach dogs not to take food off a table by using a shock collar, when a simple “leave it” would have sufficed. But again, most trainers fall somewhere in the middle. Most would agree that ridiculously harsh methods like helicoptering or hanging a dog have no place in dog training. Beyond that, it helps no one to sling mud when the bottom line is that most trainers are in it because we love and want to help dogs.

I recently saw a conversation on Facebook—that hotbed of civility—where training tools were being discussed. “Discussed” is a nice word for it. The post showed an image of various training tools, and inferred that all trainers should understand how all training tools worked. Well, you can imagine the riot that incited! Much dog-poo-slinging ensued. The thing is, I agree, for the most part. Although I would never put an e-collar on a dog, I do want to know that there are multiple settings and warning beeps and such, so that I can have an intelligent conversation about it if the topic comes up, rather than assuming that the trainer who uses it is someone who slaps a collar on a dog, presses a button, and causes a dog to shriek in pain. Again, it’s not a tool I would ever use or recommend, but being informed does not equal condoning.

At a seminar I taught a while back, the hosts pulled me aside beforehand and whispered that a few people had signed up that I might not want there. They weren’t sure what to do. Should they let them in? I asked what the problem was, and they said the registrants were from a local “balanced trainers” group. I couldn’t understand what the problem was. After all, they’d paid to be there, so they must have at least somewhat of an open mind–unless there was a bag of tomatoes I’d missed. Who knows, I might change someone’s mind about something, or at least plant a seed. Or, maybe something they said might cause me to understand a bit more about a different view. The point is, just like politics, if we have knee-jerk reactions when others have different policies than we do, and simply demonize them without making any effort to understand, the climate is never going to change. Have you ever seen someone change their mind about a training method or tool because they were being berated or bullied? Me, either. But I have seen trainers gradually change their methods by being shown the success of other ways, or because someone was willing to talk with them without speaking down to them, and they were willing to listen. At the very least, we can agree to disagree.

Look, we all have our own beliefs. Training methods are a hot-button topic because we love dogs and don’t want to see them suffer. We also don’t want to see training be ineffectual, which can also cause problems. But just as a country being divided doesn’t help its citizens and in fact hurts them, the Great Divide in dog training does the same to dogs. It’s not that we all need to use the same tools and methods; that’s never going to happen. But the vitriol, name-calling and general animosity seriously need to stop. It’s enough, already. Discussions can be had with open minds and, at the very least, with a lot more respect. Yes, even on the faceless internet. The divide in dog training is, in a way, a microcosm of the larger world, and both worlds could use a lot more tolerance and understanding right about now.
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You can find my books, seminar DVDs and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com. And you can check out my artwork at http://www.photomagicalart.com.


Dog Training by Osmosis

December 27, 2016

Lazing on couch

Dog Training by Osmosis

This morning, as I was making my breakfast smoothie, Bodhi and Sierra were hyper-attentive as usual. Why, you might wonder, were they so focused? Are they invested in making sure I get enough fruits and veggies? No. They’re making sure they get their fruits and veggies, or at least the slices of banana and cucumber that they know I’ll share with them. Since those two items go into the smoothie at different times, the dogs are pretty much sitting there for the duration. At some point, though, I’ll turn to them and say, “That’s it for dogs!” They then give sad little doggie sighs and pad away to lie down and wait for the next exciting event of the day.

The phrase, “That’s it for dogs!” isn’t something I ever taught my dogs. But they’re both smart, and have learned through hearing the phrase many times that it’s always followed by a big fat nothing. It’s not a phrase that had to be formally trained. One definition of osmosis is “the subtle or gradual absorption or mingling.” And so I think of this type of non-formal, lifestyle training as Training by Osmosis.

Here’s another example: In the early mornings, my husband and I take the dogs out for exercise. We do this separately, since my husband takes one dog to a local park where they can run together and I, the non-runner, take the other dog to a different park where we can hike. We switch off dogs, and it works out nicely for everyone. We live in a rural area on a small hillside away from the road, and sometimes we let the dogs run to the cars before having their leashes put on. Both dogs will typically run to the closer car. But if it’s my day with Sierra and I say, “Sierra, the other one,” she’ll immediately turn and race toward the other car. Did I ever teach her what other means? No. It’s something she picked up, probably from a combination of watching my body language and where I was looking, and repeatedly seeing me walk toward the other car after uttering that phrase.

Formal training in obedience commands is a great thing to teach. But dogs are learning all the time, for better or worse. (You put away the dog cookies on that low shelf with the broken door? Lesson learned in record time!) Right now, as I stand at the computer typing, Sierra is sitting and staring at me. It’s almost time for the dogs to be fed. I’ve just told her, “It’s early,” and so she’s walked out of the room. This is another phrase she and Bodhi have learned through osmosis—as the definition goes, subtle, gradual absorption. It’s fascinating to think about how much more dogs understand than what we give them credit for. They’re masters of observation and excellent learners, particularly when there’s something in it for them. What have your dogs learned by osmosis?
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You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more at www.nicolewilde.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter, and see my artwork at www.photomagicalart.com.

 

 


Can You Reinforce a Dog’s Emotional State?

November 18, 2016

woman with dog

I recently received an email asking whether I had any books that addressed how to help a dog who was grieving. Since I don’t, I searched online to find an article that might be of help. What I found surprised me. Although there was solid advice, one of the recommendations in almost every article was to be careful so as not to inadvertently “reward the behavior” by giving the dog attention. Really? Hmm.Let’s see. As it happens, my best girlfriend’s mother just passed away. I will be spending the day with her today. I expect she will be sad, and that we will discuss things, and that I will comfort her, because that is what friends do. Now, of course dogs are not people and we can’t comfort them with words, but the emotions of loss and grief are the same, to whatever extent and however they are experienced by animals and people. Why in the world would we not comfort a grieving dog?

Although rewarding a dog with attention can reinforce a behavior, it does not reinforce an emotion. This reminds me of the persistent myth about reinforcing fear. Time after time I have read articles and books that warn that when a dog is afraid, the best thing to do is ignore him so as not to “reinforce the fear.” Although presenting a nervous demeanor yourself while giving your dog attention could cause him to be more nervous, sitting calmly with him and stroking him is certainly not going to cause him to become fearful more often. What it might well do is actually comfort him.

It is wonderful that we have so much advice readily available at our fingertips. But even when an “expert” advises you to do something you feel in your gut is simply not right when it comes to the emotional life of your dog, heed that instinct. You know your dog best, and rewarding with attention does not make you a reinforcer of emotion. It makes you a kind, compassionate person.


If Looks Could Kill

November 7, 2016

bully stick 3 smallerIn my canine body language seminars, I explain that a hard stare is never a good thing, whether in dogs or on a New York subway. (Trust me, I grew up in New York—It never leads to anything good.)  The problem is the emotion linked to it. A hard stare is instantly understood by dogs on the receiving end as a warning. A threat. It’s the movie trailer for the feature “If Looks Could Kill.” Depending on how the other dog responds, a stare may be met with submission, or it could trigger aggression.

Ironically, although hard stares are easily interpreted by most dogs, they are often misunderstood or missed completely by people. I was walking Sierra on leash along a park trail one day when I spied a woman walking a bull mastiff. I’d seen the dog before, and knew he could be reactive with other dogs. The trail was narrow and, to her credit, the woman moved the mastiff off the trail and had him sit so we could pass. I thanked her. But as we passed, Sierra turned her head, looked at the dog, and glared. That was it! The mastiff dragged the woman toward us, intent on dismantling Sierra piece by piece. I got between them, the woman got control of her dog, and no one was hurt. She walked off without a word, but I would bet she thought her dog was at fault. After all, Sierra and I were just passing by when her dog lunged at my poor dog, right? Wrong. Sierra’s hard stare started it all.

Many times when two dogs are fighting in the home, the owner believes one dog is causing the fights, when it’s really the other dog who is delivering the hard stares that start the episodes. You really can’t blame owners; unlike a wagging tail or a growl, a hard eye is not something we’re taught to look for. In the best case scenarios, a trainer is called who explains that it’s actually the other dog who is causing the issues, and teaches the client to be observant for this bit of body language. Hard stares are missed constantly at dog parks as well. Sadly, I’ve seen many instances where the dog who reacts to the hard stare is the one who gets punished.

Still, a hard stare is not necessarily a bad thing. Just like a growl, it serves as a warning. If heeded, it can stop an aggressive incident before it begins. For example, one dog has a bowl of food. Another dog walks over. The first dog gives a hard stare. The second dog, fully aware of what that means in the Language of Dog, backs off. Aggressive incident averted. Although hard stares are often accompanied by other telling body language such as a stiff, still body and possibly a growl, they are often missed. Hard stares are one of those subtle, sometimes fleeting pieces of canine body language that every owner should know.
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You can find my books and seminar DVDs at http://www.nicolewilde.com, and my art
   at http://www.photomagicalart.com.


We Are Our Choices

October 18, 2016

iStock Lab with woman.On the road today, I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It said, “Trump. Clinton. We are our choices.” This struck me, not only because it wasn’t the typical declaration for one candidate or the other, but because of the meaning. Whichever candidate we support, we generally support their policies and what they stand for. But beyond that, our choice of candidate says something about us as well. We identify more with that person’s personality and characteristics—they are more like us. Okay, not in every way, and don’t worry, this is not to be a discussion of politics. But what that bumper sticker did make me think about is dog training.

What does “We are our choices” have to do with training and behavior? A lot. Just as in politics, it’s well known that there are two major schools of thought. The more traditional school is more focused on strict obedience, and leans more heavily on compulsion and corrections. Tools that are used may include choke chains, pinch collars, and shock collars. The more positive reinforcement oriented school focuses on how dogs think and learn, employs rewards such as treats, and eschews the formerly mentioned tools in favor of head halters, clickers, and more. Of course, this is an oversimplification. There are trainers in either school who are so much toward the extreme end of the curve that they give other trainers in that camp a bad name. And any tool can be used more or less harshly.

Still, we are our choices. I choose cooperation over coercion in training. I am a peaceful, loving, patient person (okay, except in L.A. traffic), and I bring that into my training. I treat my clients with the same respect and patience that I do my four-footed students. I have noticed over the years a trend: the way trainers treat dogs has a direct correlation with the way they treat people. Sure, there are some trainers who are harsher with dogs and kinder with people, but I’ve seen an awful lot more trainers who are harsh in their training methods be condescending, short-tempered, and overly authoritarian with their clients. Likewise, I’ve seen trainers who are kind, patient, and respectful toward dogs be the same way with owners. It makes sense, as it’s the way you see the behavior of those around you and how you react to it.

Regardless of where you fall on the training spectrum, what tools you use, and how you use them, your choices do say a lot about you. And so it’s true in politics, dog training, and life in general: We are our choices. Let’s try to make good ones.

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Can a Confident Dog Help a Fearful One?

October 3, 2016

confident-dog-fearful-dog-blog
Misty is a six-month-old Bichon who has been with her family since the age of seven weeks. On walks, Misty seems to be afraid of everything. She lags on leash, practically hiding behind whoever is walking her, and constantly scans the environment for potential trouble.

Buddy is a two-year-old Shepherd mix. By all accounts, he’s a great family dog; that is, until a stranger comes to visit. When the visitor first enters the home, Buddy barks and alternates between lunging toward the person and backing away as if to say, “You big scary thing, don’t make me come over there!” In short, Buddy is uncomfortable around new people, and wishes they’d just leave.

Misty and Buddy, although two very different dogs, have something in common: they’re fearful in certain situations. While it would be wonderful if we could explain to them that there’s nothing to be afraid of, we can’t. (Well, we try, but dogs are pretty much just hearing that Peanuts cartoon wah-wah-WAH-wah.) But what if we could show them instead? The easiest way to do that is by employing the help of a confident, dog-friendly dog.

Dogs learn by observation. And they most certainly learn things from each other, both good and bad. One dog, by example, can help to potty train a new dog. A dog with separation anxiety can, unfortunately, demonstrate to another dog that it’s worrisome for the owners to be gone. Since dogs observe and learn from each other, we might as well put that to good use. You might be lucky enough to have a second dog in the home who is confident. If not, think about who you know that has a confident dog who likes other dogs and people. In Misty’s case, maybe you could phone a friend and ask if she’d like to take the dogs out for a walk together. In Buddy’s case, invite the friend to bring her dog over. If your dog doesn’t know her, she can serve as the visitor. If Buddy already knows her, invite another friend to come by once the friend and her dog have settled in for at least 15 minutes.

Now imagine the new scenarios. Misty and her friend are being walked down the street together. The confident dog is happy and outgoing. Misty, normally nervous and insecure, is less so with her friend there to back her up and to show her the world isn’t such a scary place. At home, Buddy notices how his friend reacts in a friendly way to the person Buddy found frightening, and considers that maybe the person isn’t so bad after all. With careful, controlled repetition of these scenarios, Misty and Buddy will begin to gain confidence, and will eventually learn to be more confident on their own.

In my full-day seminar Working with Fearful Dogs, I show a video of a cocker spaniel named Buster. Buster has multiple fear issues, including meeting new people. In the clip, the female cocker who lives with him is secluded in another room. I work with Buster on hand targeting. He’s willing to work with me because I have super yummy treats, but his body language clearly broadcasts that he is afraid to get too close, and he simply can’t relax. After a few minutes, we let the female cocker out to join us. Viola! There is an Instant transformation as Buster, along with the other dog, jumps all over me, tail wagging, body wiggly, clearly unafraid. It’s an amazing turnaround, and demonstrates so clearly how much having a confident dog present can help a fearful one.

Does this plan work for each and every dog? Of course not. Nothing is 100% effective with every dog. But as a trainer with many years of experience, I can tell you that it does absolutely help many dogs. Think about ways you can use a confident dog to help your fearful one.

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You can find all of my books, seminar DVDs, seminar schedule and blog at http://www.nicolewilde.com, and my photography/art at http://www.nicolewildephotography.com

 


Don’t Assume My Dog is Friendly!

July 12, 2016

Grin
It happened again. I was walking along a park trail with Bodhi, enjoying the 6 a.m. calm. That the park is largely empty at that hour is something I really enjoy. But suddenly, a man walking 3 dogs appeared, headed toward us on the path. As there was plenty of room to move over, that’s exactly what we did in hopes of avoiding them.

Upon spying us, the two cocker spaniels continued to prance along with their cockers-don’t-care attitudes, while the Lab mix acted as though Bodhi was a long lost relative who owed him money. In his over-the-top enthusiasm, the dog pulled free of the man’s grip. Flexi leash banging along behind him, he began to run toward us. Now, Bodhi is not an aggressive dog, but when I adopted him from the shelter five years ago, he was very dog reactive. I worked long and hard to teach him alternatives to lunging and barking at other dogs, and he does very well now. He’s still insecure around other dogs (which is what the behavior was really about), but now when he sees them he voluntarily places himself by my side and looks at me for further instructions. Great, right? Sure. Until despite our best efforts, another dog rushes up to Bodhi or otherwise invades his space. Then, depending on how worried he is, all bets are off and violence could ensue.

As the Lab headed toward us I called to the man, “Please grab your dog!”
“Oh,” he replied, “Don’t worry. He’s friendly!”
“Mine might not be!” I called back.
The man looked surprised, and finally managed to get the dog back on leash.

Unfortunately, this is far from a rare occurrence. I wonder, if I were walking a 200-pound black mastiff with glowing yellow eyes, how many dogs would end up wafting our way on clouds of intended friendliness. I remember when Mojo, my soul dog who passed in 2008, was alive. Walking my very tall, handsome 120-pound, mostly-black, German shepherd-Rottweiler-Malamute-wolf mix down the street, people would often cross to get out of our path, even though Mojo was not at all aggressive towards people. I do not, however, remember dogs flying toward us and people telling us not to worry.

In this particular case, the dog pulled the leash out of the man’s hand. Mistakes happen. But more frequently, it’s a case of someone walking a dog off leash and ignorantly assuming everything will be fine. And to clarify, I’m talking here about areas where dogs are meant by law to be leashed. It’s irresponsible to put your dog in the way of potential harm by assuming that other dogs are friendly, even if they look as though they are. You wouldn’t let your child run up to every stranger you pass. Why would you possibly let your dog do the same? Do everyone a favor and don’t assume my dog—or any other dog you pass—is friendly. It’s the truly friendly thing to do.
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For my books, DVDs and seminar schedule please visit http://www.nicolewilde.com.


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