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Dog Training and the Toxic Triple Whammy, Part 2

Posted on March 14, 2016 at 11:56 PM Comments comments ()

Imagine that you have a condition that is jeopardizing your health, your relationships with those you love, possibly your very life.  There are, thank heavens, treatments available.  Untold thousands, probably millions, of laboratory and research animals, from rats to pigeons to cats to dogs to chimps to college students, have given their tiny alls for decades to discover exactly how these treatments work.  From all this research, two basic treatment options have been developed:  Pill A and Pill B.

Both pills have things in common.  To be truly effective, they have to be administered correctly, at the right time in the right amounts.  If taken in the wrong dosage, taken inconsistently or taken at the wrong times, neither works very well.  They also don’t work very well if other factors—like poor lifestyle choices that contribute to the condition—aren’t addressed: if you continue to gorge on pizza, get drunk and drive into trees, don’t blame the pills for not working.  So neither one is magic or foolproof—it’s not like they’re wondrous cure-alls that allow us to keep eating the same junk while transforming into the young and beautiful with no effort.  Both of the pills require a commitment to follow a plan and keep following it until the results are obtained. 

But there are differences, too.  Pill A actually tastes nice, makes you feel better and has no known harmful side-effects.  This is true even if the plan isn’t executed perfectly--the results won’t be as good, but no damage will be done by the pill itself. 

Pill B, on the other hand, tastes horrible, can leave you feeling anxious or stressed, and has a whole slew of well-documented and potentially nasty side effects.  It can also be less forgiving of error—getting the treatment plan wrong may result in loads of those nasty side effects and none of the benefits.

Effectiveness?  In virtually every objectively conducted side-by-side comparison, Pill A has about a 90% success rate.  Pill B has—about a 90% success rate.  Pill A usually has a very slight edge for effectiveness and speed, but not enough to be significant.  So, they both work about equally well when administered correctly.  Oh, and they cost about the same and take roughly the same amount of time to produce results.

So:  Pill A, tastes nice, makes you feel good, no bad side-effects, 90% success rate.  Pill B, tastes awful, can make you feel lousy, potentially bad side effects, 90% success rate.  The choice should be clear and obvious:  you’re going to want Pill A, hands down.

But it turns out, you may not.  First, Pill A—though as thoroughly tested as B and as old—came to the market later and seems “new.”  Lots of folks don’t trust “new.”  If they grew up on Pill B, have always taken Pill B, they’re family always used Pill B, a good friend uses Pill B—they’re all going to want you to take Pill B.  It’s familiar, and—hey, it works.  If it works, it can’t be all that bad, can it?  (Especially if you escaped the side-effects.)  It works.  It’s familiar.  It’s trusted.  That newfangled Pill A sounds good, but how do we know it really works?

Absented a truly trusted expert, we all tend to take our information from friends, family and familiarity.  Mere science, with the thousands if not millions of research subjects tested in obsessive detail for decades, if rarely good enough for us:  it’s too remote, theoretical.  Better to listen to Aunt Millie, who used Pill B to rousing success.

Familiarity aside, there may be another problem:  it has to do with the condition you have.  It can show up looking like you’re being stubborn, lazy, deliberately disobedient.  You lack discipline and self-control.  Yes, you might need the help of a pill, but what you really need to do is just Buck Up, Grow Up and Learn Your Manners.

If the perception of your condition is that it’s a failing on your part (or your parents, surely they are to blame)—you’ve been too coddled and have no work ethic, respect or moral fiber and you need to shape up—wouldn’t a Tough Love approach make more sense?  Not to mention, your condition makes you behave in annoying and obnoxious ways that even you don’t like about yourself.   Spoil the child, spare the rod; no pain, no gain; drastic problems call for drastic measures.  If you really want to make something of yourself, you need to work hard and sweat for it.  Handing you a pill that tastes like candy, makes you joyous and can’t hurt you—how the heck could you possibly learn to be tough, disciplined and self-controlled from that? 

We’re a diverse culture with a long history that embraces many points of view, but hanging over many of us like a sword of Damocles’ are old puritan-type values, the core of which (in pop sensibilities) seems to be that anything fun must be sinful, and if it’s pleasurable it can’t be good for us.   Real virtues are attained by suppressing our base animal instincts, sacrificing what we want for a higher order of being.   Few children particularly care for “obedience” but we all need to have it drummed into us, for our own good.  That getting what we want and having fun can lead to Virtue--things like discipline, self-control and obedience—may make sense to the Hedonist on our right shoulder, but to the Puritan on our left should, It Doth Not Compute.

From the view of ye olde puritan meme, bad/sinful needs to be corrected—it’s a moral imperative.   So when we perceive ourselves or our behavior as bad (wrong, weak, dominant, your hot button word of choice), or the people around us and their behavior as bad, or the dogs around us and their behavior as bad—what to do about bad?  Traditionally, we punish bad.  We’ve always punished bad.  Bad deserves to be punished.  And if we’re in the control/authority position, we not only feel entitled to punish, we feel obligated to punish.

Surely a child who is being a brat or a dog that’s growling at kids or pigs or whatever needs an attitude adjustment, or to be taught a lesson, not gobs and gobs of yummy candy or chicken delivered in a timely fashion for flashes of nicer behavior.  The fact that the gobs of candy or chicken are likely to achieve nice behavior more quickly—or at least as quickly—with less stress and far less danger of future side effects may be true—if our goal is only to fix the behavior.  But that may not be our only goal.  We may also, openly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously, need it to feel right.  If satisfying our need to be in control, to be authorities, to uphold a morally virtuous order or just uphold a pattern familiar from our own dysfunctional childhoods lurks in our cultural abyss, maximum efficiency with minimal harm to the animal may be less important than getting our own cognitive dissonances resolved.

And so we may continue to vote for Pill B (positive punishment) with all its downsides and dangers instead of Pill A (positive reinforcement.)  Not because punishment works better (we’ll claim it does, but the evidence is against us), not because it’s faster, cheaper, or more efficient (it’s not), but because—it makes us feel virtuous.  Even if or even because it tastes nasty, makes us anxious and could be dangerous.  We have a long tradition of thinking that stuff that hurts us now or makes us uncomfortable now will lead to all kinds of rewards later.  Not to mention all the brownie points we gain with the authority figures who told us that in the first place.

Of course whether we choose the sweetness of Pill A or the bitterness of Pill B is entirely up to us—we’re human, and maybe we really can’t feel cured unless we feel like we’ve paid our dues.  But when it comes to making that choice for another being, opting for bitter over sweet because it makes us feel virtuous seems a little dodgy.  I am not, for example, trying to teach my dog Tinker that if she doesn’t waste her money on shiny objects now, she’ll reap the benefits of a college education later.  Nor—however much we might like the behavior itself—is there any particular moral virtue in being able to hold a long down-stay that’s enhanced by swallowing a bitter pill:  there’s no reason why a down-stay that Tinker enjoys holding is inferior to one that she doesn’t.   I’m teaching motor-muscle movements to a creature designed to hunt squirrels, not lofty philosophical life lessons to youngsters who can grasp ethics.

And—this is the real bugaboo—a down-stay taught with pleasure is in no way less reliable than one taught with pain.  We feel strongly that it should be—after all, what if Tinker “decides” that she doesn’t want to anymore.   Of course this can happen, but ignores two critical facts.

First, if I’ve done an excellent job as a trainer using pleasure, she’s likely to be successful at least 90% of the time, because the brain’s dopamine reward system is an outrageously powerful thing.  We hear “pleasure” as something warm, fuzzy, weak, trivial, instead of the deeply-rooted survival imperative that it is.  Animals will die for pleasure, and kill for pleasure, and fly thousands and thousands of miles to meet a mate for pleasure.  Tinker’s about as likely to ignore it as I am to turn down a slice of pizza anytime soon.  Maybe using a different word would help—not pleasure vs. pain but something like passion vs. pain.  Passion, not fuzzy, weak or trivial, is a brute-force of nature that can move mountains—or motivate down-stays.  Powerful stuff, no fooling, and if you don’t believe me, consider:

A behavior motivated by positive reinforcement won’t be powerful enough to stand up when things get hard…
A behavior motivated by deep, genuine passion won’t be powerful enough to stand up when things get hard…  Hmmm.

Second, if I’ve done an excellent job as a trainer using pain or fear, the dog is likely to be successful… at least 90% of the time.  But not 100%; never 100%.  There’s still a chance the dog will get confused, make a mistake or “decide” an opportunity to chase the squirrel is worth the risk of the pain.  If we’re motivated enough, pain and fear can be overcome.  If we’re passionate enough about something, or more afraid of something else, we will damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead.  We know this; we’ve all done it.

The passion/pain system isn’t designed to make guarantees:  it’s designed to give animals the best odds of survival in an ever-changing world of opportunity and danger.  It’s meant to give critters behavioral adaptations, not robotics.  Promises of 100% should go with a discount bridge for sale in a desert.  If nothing else, dog trainers are human and they make mistakes that can drop a dog out of the behavior 100%.

And now we come to what I’m going to call the Toxic Triple Whammy.  It’s so familiar in other contexts (read the news) that it’s scary, and heart-breaking.

Start with a Logical Fallacy:
I/he/she must have (insert need or desire)
I/he/she will (die, never be loved, insert horrible thing)
Add the Only One Syndrome:  Only I/he/she/it can (give the desired thing to avoid the dire outcome:  Only I can save you, only he loves me, only she understands him, only you can give me X…)  Sprinkle with protestations of love and good intentions.
Top off with a dose of cultural puritanism:  I/you/he/she are doing something bad and deserve to be punished.
Does any of this sound like the basis for a healthy relationship?
The Toxic Triple Whammy is a mindset just loaded with the potential for abuse of all kinds.  You must have me or die, no one else will ever love you and there’s something wrong with you that I’m entitled to fix (for your own good because I love you and only I can save you) is a nightmare scenario worthy of a horror movie.  It’s probably been the plot of more than one creepy thriller.  Of course the danger is, if you believe it, you’ll eat any amount of crummy relationship crap that I care to dish out--and if the deserving of punishment garbage sneaks in, I will dish out with the best of them.  After all, I love you.  I’m the Only One who can save you.  What other choice is there?
If I as a dog trainer lay this trip on your dog and you buy into it, I now have license to abuse with impunity and am above reproach and criticism.  After all, I love dogs. (This is probably true but has zero to do with my training skill.)  I’m the only one who really understands them.  (I myself can name a dozen trainers who are so top-notch at this I would cry to have their skills.)  I’m the only one who can save them.  (Actually, if my method is any good, everyone knows it, it’s repeatable and predictable, and there are dozens if not hundreds of competent practitioners who can do it, too.)  They’ll die without me, and I can justify any degree of crummy training practices.  (Why can’t I save them using best practices?  Don’t I know how?)  It’s for the dog’s own good.  (False dichotomy again; I could use best practices for the dog’s own good.)  Especially if it’s a really, really bad dog—only punishment can save them.  (How about getting a second opinion from one of the top-notch folks above?  They routinely resolve the same cases without punishment.)
It’s hard to think critically from a place of fear and desperation.  People get there with their dogs, and it leaves them vulnerable to nonsense ranging from silly to dangerous to just plain mean. 
Meanwhile, those thousands and possibly millions of lab animals are hopping up and down, waving their tiny lever-pressing paws trying to get our full attention.  They and their legions will tell you:  there’s more than one way to train a rat.  They know.  They deserve to be listened to. 

Science is your dog’s friend.

Dog Training and the Toxic Triple Whammy, Part 1

Posted on March 14, 2016 at 11:46 PM Comments comments ()
Oh!  My heart is broken, another crushing blow to me and my geek tendencies… :)
The recent hoo-has involving a celebrity TV dog trainer, a pig, a dog and a whole bunch of folks in the dog training community made me think (well, so did what I ate for lunch, but y’know.)  To the incident itself, I have nothing helpful to add to the debate.  But there are some lessons in it that go beyond that I think are worth talking about.

I thought I had an answer:  Critical thinking skills!  You bet, what the world needs now is critical thinking skills!  If I could teach those, I could save the people, the pigs and the little dog, too.  So I hopped online and did a bit of research.  And I found this lovely paper, “Critical Thinking:  Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” by Daniel T. Willingham that broke my little geek heart.

It seems, according to the data looked at in this paper, that critical thinking skills are devilish hard to teach—because they aren’t really “skills.”  Critical thinking isn’t like riding a bicycle, something you learn once and don’t forget.  It’s not about memorizing rules and then following them.  It’s more complicated than that, because being able to think critically About Something—and it’s always About Something--requires at least a bit of a knowledge base, the more accurate and deeper the better.  It would be hard, for example, for me to think critically about fine wine, skiing or physics, subjects I know nothing about.  I would be much better—and more critical—if the topics were grill cheese sandwiches, sword fighting and birdwatching, arenas of knowledge I’ve visited.  Without some amount of information, maybe even some factual facts, I haven’t got enough foundation to critically evaluate much beyond I feel, I like, I believe, or—perilous ground—I like, believe or trust the source.  Absent a fund of knowledge to draw on, I’m left with an emotional response to the “expert” or the all-too human tendency to cherry-pick my sources according to my own biases and self-image.  I might ask around, demand some evidence or fact check—but I might not.  In the broad information ocean, I might not even know how to find who to ask, a good source of proof or facts.

Given this, hopping up and down and exhorting pet owners, etc., to “Think critically!” isn’t going to accomplish much.  Far better minds than I—entire groups of brilliant minds—have designed entire programs to promote critical thinking in youngsters, and it seems that they haven’t worked very well at all.  Unless those lessons are grounded in the About Something part—real, accurate information to give us the means to judge for ourselves—appeals to Think Critically can take on a paranoid gloom.  It ends up sounding like “Trust no one!  Believe nothing!”  Or worse, it ends up sounding like “You’re stupid and you’re wrong.”  Which may or may not be true, but is rarely productive.

I know this, but me being me, I can’t help wanting to offer something to think about.  Two things, actually.

First, I want to talk about love.  I have loved, albeit sometimes quietly and in my own eccentric way, this planet we live on.  I have marveled at the Earth, the creatures that dwell with us, the sunsets over the beaches I grew up on, the stars over desert skies on bitter cold nights, the extraordinary moments found in mangrove swamps and reefs and surf.   With a deep and abiding passion since I was very tiny, I have loved the Earth.  Always and forever.

I still don’t get to say it’s flat and expect huzzahs. 

People who love dogs truly, madly and deeply can be utterly mistaken about the “shape” of dogs. They can say and do truly silly or dumb things, can be irresponsible pet owners, can be—intentionally or unintentionally—mean, scary, hurtful or just plain wrong.  They can be terrible trainers.  They can do great things to help 100 dogs and awful things to “help” another 99.  Being a nice person and really loving something doesn’t = right.  Or factually accurate.  Or well informed.  The world is full of wonderful, decent, well-intended people who are wrong all over the map.  The proof of objective fact is never in the wonderful, decent or well-intended—or lack thereof.  It’s in the fact.

Dog trainers can argue over “methods” until the critters come home.  Logical fallacies are logical fallacies no matter who says them, or how nice a person they are, or how loving and well-intended they have been.  More to the point, the condition of the animal is the condition of the animal:  it is what it is, regardless of what we say about it.

I have, in my nearly 14 years as a shelter professional, seen hundreds of—very often weeping—pet owners needing to surrender their dogs.  The dog they bring me can be filthy, matted, flea-ridden, unvaccinated, untrained, under-socialized, terrified, morbidly obese or otherwise in wretched condition, physically or emotionally.  To a man or woman, these folks will tell me how much they love the dog.   The little old cat hoarder who keeps 40 semi-feral, ill and starving cats in a single-wide mobile will cry passionately “I love them!  I’m saving them!”  The self-proclaimed “rescue” group will passionately set out to “rescue” every dog in sight… and lock them in filthy cages in a garage without food or water for hours at a time in the name of save and rescue.  A trainer will scare the snot out of a dog or use physical pain in the name of “rehabilitation,” pat themselves on the back and say they “saved” the dog from euthanasia, and anyhow they really love dogs, they are “rescuing” dogs and look how many they’ve helped…

It took me years (and lots of work on controlling my temper) to realize that all these folks are telling me the truth:  they really do love dogs.  Madly, deeply.  They are trying to save them.  Their intentions are nothing but good.  They are sincere and honest in how they feel.  The problem isn’t in how they feel.  It’s how they act

When lots of very good, intelligent people—and there are lots of them, and they aren’t mean or stupid, they just aren’t—commit the same mistakes over and over, it suggests a problem that runs deeper than “mean” or “stupid” or “ignorant.”  If we all do it—and we all can do it in our own ways—it suggests a human problem, a core bias, a glitch in the spin of our brains.  In the case of our well-intended “rescuers” or “trainers,” it looks like they’ve fallen heavily into the clutches of a common Logical Fallacy.

It’s called Either/Or and can show up like this:

The dog kills chickens
Either the dog is trained to stop killing chickens
The Dog must be shot dead
There’s a litter of abandoned kittens in a box
Either I take the kittens home and raise them myself (in the trailer with 40 other cats)
They will all die
The obvious trouble here is that the road from premise to conclusion doesn’t allow for multiple solutions, like: don’t have chickens, build a better fence, find the dog a good home without chickens; take the kittens to a shelter, or find someone else willing to help with them.  It’s black-and-white thinking that leaps from A to Z without visiting B,C, D, etc.  Another common way it shows up:
The dog needs to be rescued.
The dog is better off living in a filthy cage without food or water for a while
Being euthanized
The dog has a behavior that is putting her at risk for losing her home.
The dog is better off if I use pain and fear to train the behavior out of her
Losing her home
The obvious snarl here is that the dire dreadfulness of the outcome (euthanasia, loss of home) actually doesn’t make the option presented necessary.  How about keeping the rescued dog in a nice clean kennel, with plenty of food, water and opportunities to play and exercise?  How about using a gentler (but equally effective) way to train the dog?  But, no:  the possibility of dire outcomes is used to justify crummy practices.  Meanwhile, much ado is made about Love and Good Intentions. 
What I think I see in this kind of black-and-white thinking (and oh boy, would I love a real sociologist to have a go at the dog training/animal rescue field) is a curious common thread:  the ONLY ONE syndrome.  I am the Only One who can save the dog, the kittens, the day.  Only I cares, knows, feels, loves enough, has the right magic method, etc.  If I am the Only One willing to take the mission on, the fact that I don’t actually have the resources, knowledge, expertise and so forth to accomplish the “save” without using crummy practices is moot—I am the Only One, so it’s my way or Death.  My crummy practices are beyond criticism since the alternative is so awful.
And that brings me to my second musing in Part 2.

I Can’t vs. I Don’t Know How

Posted on November 23, 2015 at 12:51 PM Comments comments ()
Good morning!  It’s a beautiful, cold clear day in Mt. Shasta, and I’ve been thinking.  (I do that sometimes.)  Here’s my thought for the day:
When it comes to struggles, whether in dog training or “real life,” there’s a difference between saying It can’t be done vs. I can’t do it vs. I don’t know HOW.
There are things that truly can’t be done:  I can’t teach Tinker to fly like a bird (she doesn’t have wings) and I can’t fly like a bird myself without the aid of technology.  There are real and genuine limitations to what can be anatomically achieved.  Some people do have truly unrealistic expectations of their pets—or themselves, or the world around them.  Most of us are pretty good, though, and spotting the not-so-subtle difference between “My dog can’t learn to do algebra” and “My dog can’t learn to come when called reliably.”  In theory, one of these is genuinely impossible and the other one isn’t. 
I can’t do it” also has some validity.  We’re all unique individuals with different abilities and anatomies, and so are our dogs.  Though there are many tall, athletic people who can slam-dunk a basketball on a regulation court without a ladder, I am not one of them.  I’m not running a 4-minute mile anytime soon, either.  Tinker will probably never be the fastest dog in the agility ring (though she’s likely to be, pound-for-pound, among the most powerful.)  We have limitations, of course.  Except… there’s a catch there, too.
If something isn’t out of the realm of theoretical possibility, a good quick test is:  how sincerely and how hard have we tried?   Plenty of us pop off with various forms of  It can’t be done without having made the slightest effort to… train the dog, change our eating habits, make an effort to exercise more or take any of the steps necessary to achieve the so-called Can’t.  We’ve assumed the door is locked without even testing the knob.
If we look closely at I can’t do it (even if other people can) often what we find is—I can’t do it THAT WAY.  If there was a ticking time bomb and the only way to disarm it and save the world was to slam dunk a basketball, give me a ladder or a cherry picker and I’ve got it.  Obviously, that won’t work in a pro basketball game—it’s against the rules—but in real life with a dog in the home, if you can’t do it (that way) there’s almost always another way, or many ways, to achieve the same result.  Finding a way that’s a good fit for you and your dog is the trick:  maybe you can’t do it (or don’t want to do it) like Joe-- but you can do it like Bill or Mary or Jill.
Which comes to the last:  we can’t do anything if we don’t know HOW.  We have to know HOW.   If we don’t know HOW, we have to learn HOW.  HOW is the series of specific, concrete actions we need to DO to achieve our goals.
I hear too much can’t in dog training.  My dog can’t X, I can’t Y, dogs can’t really learn behavior G with method Z...  Curiously—though not surprisingly—most of that can’t is coming from people who simply and truly don’t know HOW.
No one likes to look stupid or ill-informed.  It’s all too human for us to blurt out, “Oh!  I can’t do that!”  or  “No way, that can’t work!”  when what’s really true is—I haven’t got an snowball’s idea in heck how to do that, or how to do it with that method—I wouldn’t even know where to start.  I always did it like THIS and if THIS doesn’t work, it’s all I know so I can’t.
And therein rests the problem, of course.  Can’t is a slamming door, the end of a road before the journey has even started.  Can’t = No.  No action, no trying, no effort, no change.  No learning.
Instead of saying Can’t in all its flavors, I’d like to suggest that we rephrase it.  Try saying instead, “I’d like my dog (myself, my world) to do X and I don’t know how to get there.”
Saying I don’t know HOW is two things: 
1)  An honest acknowledgement of where we are right now:  whatever we are doing isn’t working and we feel stuck. 
2)  An opportunity to ask powerful questions.  Questions like:
            If I don’t know how, what do I need to learn?
            Is there another way this can be done?
            Does someone else know how?
            Who can teach me?
I see many wonderful dog owners who get themselves stuck.  They want the dog to learn to do X, or to learn to stop doing Y.  They try a few things—the things they did with their last dogs, the things they already know.   But their current dog isn’t like their last dogs, and somehow, for some reason, the good old ways aren’t working.
The old adage where there’s a will, there’s a way is a good one.  If we surrender to Can’t, we won’t act.  We won’t keep trying, seek new information or consider other possibilities. 
If, on the other hand, we consider Maybe I don’t know HOW?  we have a wealth of possible actions spread before us.  Getting more information, trying something new, exploring who does know and what they know and how we can use it in our own training… loads of things to do that get us out of stuck and back on the road to successful training. 
Have a beautiful day with your dog. 

Help! My Dog Doesn’t Respect Me… (Part 3)

Posted on July 31, 2015 at 11:33 PM Comments comments ()
Imagine this—my favorite analogy:  we decide we’re going to take up ballet dancing and we go to the studio for our first lesson.   When we walk in the door, how long does it take us to figure out Who’s the Boss?  For most of us, it’ll take about 30 seconds to recognize that Madam Tutu is the dance instructor, and since she’s highly acclaimed and looks fabulous in her leotard, we’ll be brimming with Respect for her.  Hooray, it took us 30-60 seconds to arrive at Leadership and Respect.
How long will it take us to learn how to dance?
Madam Tutu can spend the class fussing about us calling her by her honorific, curtseying to her correctly and applauding when she twirls her toes.  Or she can teach us ballet.  If you’re like me and your dog is like my dog, you really don’t care about being honored and applauded—you want your dog to learn Dance Steps for Real Life.  How to hold a Sit-Stay when guests arrive, Come when called, get his nose out of the kitty litter box, keep her paws off the kitchen counter and go Lie Down calmly when asked.  Walk on a leash without pulling, let the neighbor’s dog go by without barking, hold still while nails are trimmed and fetch means bring the ball back.  These are not theoretical concepts.  These are movements.
We know, and know very well, how to teach these behavior-movements without needing pain, fear or punishment.   But we have to be honest—it’s not like in the commercials.  Good behaviors don’t magically appear fully cooked in the oven without effort.  Like learning ballet steps, it takes time, practice and effort to get them good, reliable and right.
As we line up at the barre in Madam Tutu’s dance class, what’s going to matter most to our success as students isn’t whether we’re clear that she’s The Boss (we are) or how deeply we respect her (we already do.)  What’s going to matter the most is whether or not Madam Tutu is a good teacher.  If she is, here’s what she’s likely to do:
1.  She’s going to give us her undivided attention during class.  As a good teacher, Madam Tutu wouldn’t dream of trying to teach us fancy footwork while she’s answering the phone, doing her bills or dealing with a service guy coming to fix the busted air conditioner.   If she was multitasking during class, we’d be left dangling without instruction, get frustrated, resentful or bored.   Yet, too many pet owners try to teach their pups and dogs “on the fly.”  The time to teach new behaviors isn’t when the guests are arriving at the house, you’re trying to make dinner or you’re texting your buddies.  That approach usually looks like a train wreck of yelling, “No!  Stop!  Don’t!”  that teaches the dog very little—neither one of you can focus.  If you want to teach your dog effectively, set aside a few minutes each day to give the dog your undivided training attention.

2.  Madam Tutu will assess each student as an individual. A lean and athletic 20 year old may be able to work a lot harder than a slightly over-weight 50-something.  One student may have a bad knee, or feet that turn in at an awkward angle for ballet steps.  Another may have no rhythm or be musically challenged.  One student may be brimming with enthusiasm and eager to try the hardest moves; another may be painfully shy and so worried about getting things right that tears flow at even the mildest criticism.  Body type, overall health and fitness, prior experience and personality will all influence how these students learn best, and if Madam Tutu is a good instructor, she’ll be sensitive to the needs, immediate and long-term, of each pupil.  She’ll also have different approaches up her leotard to present the lesson in the ways most suited to the individual student.  Likewise, every dog is different, and before you start training, you should honestly assess your dog’s physical, mental and emotional abilities on that day.  Dogs that aren’t feeling well, are injured, had a traumatic experience on the morning walk, are prone to be timid or haven’t had enough exercise lately and are amped up may not be in the best state to learn.  Always address those issues first, before starting a training session, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

3.  Madam Tutu will have age and level-appropriate expectations.  She won’t expect her beginning students to perform at the same level as the advanced class that’s ready to tackle Swan Lake.  She won’t take the same approach or demand the same behaviors with children as she will with adults.  Children have shorter attention spans and can only focus for so long; they’re still “learning how to learn,” developing a work ethic and their motor muscle coordination isn’t fully developed.  Beginning adult learners are used to being highly competent—and highly rewarded--in their own areas of expertise and may be quickly frustrated when asked to try something that doesn’t come naturally to them.  Experienced adult learners often come with pre-existing baggage—years of rehearsing and practicing movements that they’ll fall back on as defaults and find difficult to change. 
Likewise, puppies aren’t fully developed in brains or bodies, have short attention spans, and may not have the emotional maturity to maintain focus in demanding or difficult situations.  Adult dogs that aren’t used to training may be out of learning practice, or not get the point; they may also have baggage that needs to be worked through before the new desired behavior becomes the new default.  Expecting puppies to perform “big dog” behaviors or adult dogs with years of practice doing unwanted behaviors to get instantly perfect is setting everyone up for failure.
These first three teaching points will be covered before Madam Tutu even opens her mouth to teach us our first step:  she’ll be ready with her undivided attention, she’ll have considered the abilities of her students and she’ll know what she can likely expect based on our age, previous experience and current level.  As she starts the lesson, she will, if she’s a good instructor, focus on the following points:
1.  She’ll make the dance experience safe and fun.  Madam Tutu really wants us to appreciate the joy of ballet, she wants us to improve as dancers, and to do that—we have to come back to class.  Learning ballet takes time.  If she scares the snot out of us with her autocratic manner, makes us feel stupid, frustrates us by trying to get us to do moves we’re not capable of doing yet, she’ll sour us on the whole dance experience.  Instead of being eager to get to her class, keen to learn and excited by our progress, we’ll quit and take up snowboarding or something.  What sets really good teachers apart is their ability to engage us in the process of our own learning.
Here, it’s quite different for our dogs—we have a choice about attending Madam Tutu’s class, and if we hate her or her approach makes us hate ballet, we can quit.  Our dogs aren’t always given a choice, and if they’re frightened of the class, hate the choke chain and aren’t inspired by the trainer, they can’t just leave.  They still quit, though:  they’re not going to have the optimal learning experience and they’ll check out mentally if not physically.
We don’t always have choices in life, not us, not our dogs—but as your dog’s guardian and advocate and teacher, this is one you can make on their behalf.  Our kids don’t have a choice about going to school, either, but just because they don’t have a choice doesn’t mean we have to tolerate bad teaching.  If your child goes to a school where they get bullied, the teacher is incompetent and your child’s grades suffer for it, you’d look for a better school, a better teacher and a better learning experience.  The choice may not be between School and No School; the choice can be between a school and learning experience that your child enjoys and is eager to participate in and a misery where they are forced, grudgingly, to learn and soured on the learning experience as a result.
With dogs, this is observable and measurable:  simply look at how they respond to the sight of the training tools, the instructor, the training location.  Owners report to me that their dogs quickly learn what night is class night, and are waiting eagerly at the door when it’s time to go.  I had only to pull out a clicker to set Fox alight with joy.  The mere sight of a platform or target stick can bring Tinker running.   It sounds so obvious that it’s silly, but it’s much easier to teach critters that are eager to learn than it is to teach critters that are distressed or don’t like the learning experience.
2.  She’ll communicate clearly in a way we can understand.  If Madam Tutu has been in ballet for any length of time, chances are she knows lots of fancy French terms for different positions and steps.  If she’s a good instructor, though, she won’t hurl them at our heads and expect us to know what the heck a la quatrième derrière means.  She will, patiently and carefully, introduce the moves one at a time.  She’ll probably model each one so we can see it, and then break down her instructions to baby steps:  lift the left leg.  A little bit higher, good.  Now, point the toe this way… lovely!  She won’t leap ahead until she’s certain we’ve achieved success with each individual instruction.   If we get confused and mistake quatrième derrière for quatrième devant, she won’t get upset or start worrying that we’re trying to be dominant.  She’ll slow down and go over it again.  She’ll understand that she’s trying to teach us some pretty complicated and unnatural moves, and if we don’t get them immediately, she won’t have a meltdown and start screaming at us in French.
Dogs aren’t just beginning ballet students—they’re a whole different species.  We’re often trying to teach them some pretty (for them) complicated and entirely unnatural behaviors, like ignoring food and squirrels and not exuberantly greeting people they’re thrilled to see.   Dog brains and human brains are just similar enough emotionally to fool us into thinking we’re on the same wavelength—but how they receive and process information is a totally different story.  Just as French makes perfect sense to Madam Tutu but none to us, telling our dogs to do behaviors they haven’t learned yet in an abstract verbal language that is meaningless to them is like howling a la quatrième derrière at the moon and hoping an elegant dance will appear.  Dogs need information presented at their level, broken down into bits and pieces they can process, and they need it to be clear and in generous amounts. 
3.  She’ll keep her students motivated. This is related to her first concern—keeping her students feeling safe and happy—but she also wants them to work.  Good instructors know how to get the best performance out of their students, how to encourage and inspire effort and how to reward it so that it continues to increase and improve.  Madam Tutu, as a good instructor, will have a keen eye for even tiny improvements and she’ll mark them immediately—yes, yes, much better!  That’s right, toes like that!  Good, good lift!  She’ll also be sensitive to how much and what kind of motivators her students prefer—a bold youngster might appreciate enthusiastic applause, while a shy person might prefer a quiet, “I was very impressed by your improvement, I can tell that you’ve been practicing,” in private after class.
Unlike our ballet students, who are presumably already interested in ballet or they wouldn’t be there, our dogs don’t sign themselves up for obedience classes.  They don’t always get the point of behaviors we’d prefer, like staying out of the tasty trash and leaving those pesky squirrels alone.  Some of them, like my Tinker, come with “hard-wired” behaviors installed by selective breeding that have them seriously inclined to do certain behaviors and ignore all else while doing them.  It’s up to us as good dog instructors to find ways to make our preferred behaviors meaningful to our dogs, to set it up so that our preferred behaviors lead to the dog’s preferred behaviors in some way or another.  If we’re really slick, our preferred behavior will become the dog’s preferred behaviors, because they’ll be associated with loads of pleasure, success and squirts of happy endorphins. 
There’s tons of science about exactly how this works, and why it works.  (Jean Donaldson’s classic dog training book The Culture Clash is an excellent place to start.)  The point here is, good instructors are good motivators.
4.  Madam Tutu knows exactly what steps she wants to teach and how to teach them.  Before she can teach us a pirouette or an Arabesque, she has to know exactly what they look like.  How else can she tell, and tell us, if we’re getting right or not?  She not only knows exactly what each step looks like, she probably has a well-thought out progression (from easiest to hardest) of each core move necessary to achieve the end result, and a progression for each series of steps.  If she’s been in the business for a long time, she may know by heart the exact arm position required of each dancer in the Dance of the Sugar Plums, and be able to spot an errant Sugar Plum elbow from the back of the dance hall.  In any case, she’s not making it up as she goes along:  she has a plan.
Her plan doesn’t include simply bellowing at us, “All right, everyone, dance The Nutcracker!
In my experience, this key point more than any other is the undoing of many a pet owner and their dog.  Pet owners know that they want the dog to “do something”—or very often, not do something.  But exactly what it looks like, they’re not entirely clear.  
I suspect this is part of the appeal of notions about “respect” or “dominance” or “leadership”—we hope, if we can just hit on the right emotion, attitude or energy, the dog will start popping out perfect behaviors like the fully cooked casseroles that appear by magic in commercials.  This relieves us all of the pressure to become clear about exactly the movement we want, what it looks like and then figure out how to teach it.  Not to mention putting in the real work and practice it takes to get there.  Maybe dogs can be taught “respect”—but I can’t teach it unless I know exactly what someone means by it.  What does “respect” look like?    
Behavior is movement.  Dog training, like ballet, is a skill:  like ballet, there’s technique to it—body mechanics and movements.  I have rarely met the dog owner who didn’t want their dog to hold a Sit-Stay when visitors come in the door—what most of them are missing is knowing how to teach such a thing.  Unlike Madam Tutu, pet owners often don’t have a clear plan in mind.  They don’t have years of experience using an excellent set of tried-and-true exercises, including the progressions for each step, with many different students of different levels and personalities.  So pet owners often end up getting frustrated and resort to the equivalent of bellowing, “Fido, dance The Nutcracker!  Quick, The Nutcracker!  No, no, stop, I said, The Nutcracker!
I can respect Madam Tutu until I am blue in the face, but I cannot dance The Nutcracker until I’ve learned to dance.  Your dog probably adores you like crazy (and if there is such a thing as “respect” in a dog’s brain, thinks you’re pretty awesome), but if they can’t figure out what you want, what they’re supposed to do—how they’re supposed to move—they can’t dance with you.
I don’t know if it’s possible to earn your dog’s “respect” (the brain thing, hmmm) but we can all become better teachers with better behaved dogs.  If you want to get your dog on your page, these are the points I would focus on:
1.  Give your dog your undivided attention during training sessions 
2.  Assess your dog as an individual on that day
3.  Have age and level-appropriate expectations
4.  Make the training experience safe and fun 
5.  Learn how to communicate clearly in a way your dog understands   
6.  Learn what motivates your dog and how to keep your dog motivated during training   
7.  Have a clear plan--know exactly what behavior you want to train and exactly what exercises you want to use to train it    

Help! My Dog Doesn’t Respect Me… (Part 2)

Posted on July 26, 2015 at 12:06 AM Comments comments ()
In the first part of this blog, we ended with wondering where oh where do pet owners come up with a notion of “respect,” a word they normally don’t use when discussing dog behavior concerns.   And in my experience, the choice of words isn’t theirs at all.
Almost always, it turns out that they were just talking to an old school dog trainer they met.  Or neighbor who is a dog “expert.”  Or they read a book or saw something on TV.  It comes from somewhere other than their own direct experience with their dog, and now they’re worried about it.  Their dog doesn’t respect them, oh dear.  Clearly—as they’ve now been told—that’s the cause of all their problems with the dog not listening, being hyper or dominant.  And clearly the solution is—at least, they’ve been told—they must make their dog respect them.  Or earn their dogs’ respect.  If they could just do that, all problems would be solved.
There are two things about this that haunt me.
The first is a memory, long long ago in a galaxy far far away, of sitting in a theater at UCLA in film school learning how to “read” commercials.  There is a formula, and once you’ve been taught to see it, it’s pretty transparently funny.  It goes like this:
Step 1 (you have a problem whether you know it or not and/or there’s something wrong with you): Mopey family sitting around dining table, giving Mom deep looks of misery.  Dinner is boring and it’s her fault/she’s a bad mom. 
Step 2 (we have the answer you need):  Introduce product. 
Step 3 (here’s how it works):  Shot from inside the oven reveals completed casserole and Mom’s happy face in the oven door. 
Step 4 (emotional payoff):  Happy family at the dinner table forking down gobs of the stuff with huge smiles.  Mom is loved again, huzzah!
Please note that in Step 3, a few things were left out.  Like, getting dressed, finding the car keys, driving through traffic to the market, circling for 20 minutes to find a parking space, getting in the store, finding the box and forking over hard earned cash to buy the product.  Then going home and mixing it up, not to mention the 40 minutes at 350.  No, in commercials the product takes no visible effort to obtain, costs nothing and involves no work.   It magically appears fully cooked, with zero effort, in the oven, to the giddy delight of all.
If we map this on to our doggy respect issues, it goes like this:
Step 1 (you have a problem whether you know it or not and/or there’s something wrong with you): Wise dog expert of some variety tells you gravely that your dog’s bad behavior is caused by lack of “respect.”  Like Mom with the boring dinner, it’s implied that it’s your fault and/or you’re a bad pet owner. 
Step 2 (we have the answer you need):  Introduce product—Make Your Dog Respect You.
Step 3 (here’s how it works):  Wise dog expert may parade his/her “respectful” dog around to show you what the cooked casserole is supposed to look like, or, not having the dog handy, swear on some holy relic and mention their years and years of vast experience and deep love of dogs.   I must remind everyone here that our old sailor who still insists the world is flat had a lifetime of experience and deeply loved the sea. 
Step 4 (emotional payoff):  You dash off with a mad boost of confidence to go Make Your Dog Respect You.
What’s missing in Step 3 is—as with Mom and her casserole—the actual operations involved in creating the finished product.  Because if the actual operations were discussed in detail, it would become abundantly clear that what’s being sold isn’t Respect.  It’s Punishment. 
The operations required in the typical Make Your Dog Respect You product will generally include some kind of collar unpleasant to the dog (choke, prong or shock), often some hands-on (rolling, pinning, scruff shaking) and possibly some weird noises (hissing, yelling, shaking a can of pennies) meant to startle or frighten.  Since dogs, from all anatomical evidence, lack the giganto prefrontal cortex necessary to house a concept like respect, we can pretty much bet that what’s really being worked on in the dog’s brain are the Fear Circuits.
I have objections to that, but for this blog, my stronger objection is that pet owners are also being worked on—and the ploy is aimed at their Fear Circuits.
It’s old hat in marketing—if I want to sell something to men, I’m going to park my buzz words around notions of power, respect, control and sex appeal.  If I’m pitching to women, it’s going to be about safety, being loved and bonding.  So if I’m pitching punishment to the Mister, I’m going to talk a lot about your dog needs to respect you, you need to be the one in control, you need to show the dog your power.   The implication will be that unless you buy into the Make Your Dog Respect You product, you’ll lose manhood points—it’s not just the dog that won’t respect you.  For the Missus, I’m going to pitch punishment as all about safety—golly, you wouldn’t want Fido to get hit by a car because he doesn’t respect you, what if you can’t control him around the kids, and anyhow, Fido will love you more if he respects you, too, because he really wants rules and boundaries and leadership to feel safe himself.  Here the implication will be that if you don’t buy into the Make Your Dog Respect You product, you’re putting everyone in jeopardy by “spoiling” the dog too much, and you’ll lose “good mom” points.
What makes this sell viable is that I’m probably not a scum bucket salesperson—I’m deeply sincere.  I’m a passionate old salt genuinely worried that you’re going to fall off the edge of the earth or get eaten by dragons.  Because if I’m pitching this stuff, I probably didn’t examine the most recent science, the data or the evidence carefully and thoughtfully—I simply borrowed the pitch from what someone told me, received wisdom, tradition, unexamined.   It’s not like the old sailor who loves the sea and deeply believes that the earth is flat actually sailed forth to test his beliefs.  If he had, he would have circumnavigated the globe.
These blatant appeals to those deepest of fears—for a man, that his dog’s “lack of respect” is a reflection of his lack of manhood; for a woman, that the dog’s “lack of respect” is a reflection of lack of love--set off my film school-taught warning bells.  Like the casserole commercial, it seems ridiculous when you dice it fine—but anyone in marketing can tell you, it still works. 
And that’s the second thing that haunts me, the familiarity of historical and cultural baggage, like Ghosts of ideas past.  By now it should be clear that if the operations being proposed are all about force and punishment, the “Respect” being talked about isn’t a feeling of deep admiration arising in real brain circuitry in real dogs.  It’s not the warm and fuzzy side of respect.  To me, it sounds and plays out more like the Respect in a Culture of Honor sense, the respect aka fear.  It’s the lawless frontier, no one is looking after your best interests but you.  If you let your neighbor steal some apples from your orchard—if you show any sign of weakness or laziness in defending what’s rightfully yours--the next thing you know he’ll take your goats.  Then your cows, your money, your land and your wife.  What protects you and your property is your reputation as a Real Man who will deliver swift and immediate reprisals on any sign of trespass.  You need Respect.  You demand Respect.  Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile. 
Cultures of Honor were and in some places still are very strong; without full cultural context, they can look (to our modern eyes in modern times) darned silly, criminal, wasteful.   Two teenagers shoot each other over a pair of sneakers, or because, “He looked at me funny.”  It seems too trivial for words, let alone gunfire, but the germ in the middle of it is Respect in the Culture of Honor sense.  If you let a guy “disrespect” you with a look, next thing, he’s stealing your sneakers (a symbol of your wealth and status); if he gets away with that, next it’ll be your car, your TV, your place in the neighborhood.  In this age-old context, loss of Respect (Dignity, Honor, Face, Status—pick your culture) boils down to the loss of personal safety, resources and reproductive success.  That’s the fear, anyway.  It used to be (and in some places still is) a rough reality of life.
In that framework, where your very survival depends on getting and maintaining Respect, you’re entitled to use Punishment if that’s what it takes.  You’re protecting your reputation and hence your land, cattle, etc., especially from those of perceived lesser rank (historically, that’d be various peasants, wives, children and most certainly all lowly critters.)  Heck, you’re practically obligated to use it:  if your “inferiors” don’t Respect you—if you let them walk all over you—the entire social order will come to some hideous end because of your weakness.   If we let our (peasants, crew, slaves, wives, children) “get away” with things, we’re not just going to lose everything we have, we’re undermining the natural order of the universe. 
Good marketing is always aimed at engaging our emotions—Fear and Desire especially—not our critical thinking skills.  Watched critically, commercials are a riot of blatant appeals to fear, lust, status.  Buying the product is rarely about the virtues of the product—it’s about how much cooler, sexier, happier we will be if we get it.  Our families will love us, we’ll be perceived as smarter and more beautiful, we’ll win the envy and regard of all our neighbors.  We’ll have, by golly, more Respect.   Yours for $19.95, and the shipping is absolutely free.
Now, I am not a fan of training dogs with pain and fear, so there’s no doubt about my bias.  What makes me squirm, though, is that haunting familiarity of ghosts of cultures past, where Respect was an entitlement of the Powerful and the rest of us got punished “for our own good.”  That’s not about dog behavior.  That’s not about good dog training, or good solid science.  It’s about sales, in this case, the selling of an idea to justify the use of force.  And I suspect this makes me particularly uncomfortable because within my lifetime, it wasn’t dogs we were talking about.  It was women, children, poor people, people of color.  It was us.
And cultural baggage aside, it’s a danged weird way to approach training a dog effectively.
Here’s a simple test:  on one side, place the latest popular Concept (Respect, Energy, Dominance, Leadership, etc.)  On the other side, place the Operations actually being used (yanks choke chain, gives a cookie, plays fetch, pets, yells at, zaps with a shock collar, praises).  Now, subtract one side.
If we only present the Concepts, with no Operations, what happens to the dog’s behavior?  (Picture our Wise Dog Expert standing on the other side of the yard radiating Respect, Energy, Dominance, Leadership, etc. as hard as he/she can.)
If we only present the Operations, with no Concepts, what happens to the dog’s behavior?  (Picture our Wise Dog Expert actively engaging the dog with well-timed signals and clear use of rewards and/or punishments and nary a conceptual thought in their head.)
One of these sides will get the dog trained.  The other may (or may not) sound cool and sell tickets.   But by itself, it achieves nothing.   Neither I nor any trainer—pet owner or pro-- needs a concept like Respect or Leadership or whatever to train a dog, or a cat, or a whale.  We need a clear picture of the behavior we want, a plan and some goodies (that give the animal pleasure) or baddies (that evoke fear, distress or discomfort) to motivate the animal with.  (Goodies preferred, of course.)  That’s all we need.  Really.
And on that, I give my final tip in this part:  in the simplest sense, behavior is movement.  I haven’t got a clue how to teach a dog to “respect” me like a feeling or concept, but I can certainly teach a dog to move in ways I like and consider respectful.   In Part 3, we’ll look at how.

Help! My Dog Doesn’t Respect Me… (Part 1)

Posted on July 25, 2015 at 1:54 PM Comments comments ()
Well, there really isn’t any nice way to say it.  The chances are extremely good that—oh, no, it’s true!  Your dog has no respect for you at all.  If it’s any consolation, I’m fairly persuaded my dog Tinker hasn’t got a shred of respect for me--zero, zip, none.  My cats almost certainly don’t, at least not in any way that I can tell.  I can’t be entirely positive, of course, but I’d lay good money on it.  Depending, of course, on what we mean by respect.
When I Google the word, this is the sort of definition that pops up (heavily edited for brevity):
re·spect (rəˈspekt/noun): a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.
verb:  admire (someone or something) deeply, as a result of their abilities, qualities, or achievements.
This sounds innocuous enough, I reckon, suggesting that our pups and dogs ought to be looking up to us for our hopefully amazing abilities, qualities or achievements.  Except… Let’s assume that we as pet owners actually have those amazing abilities, qualities or achievements to look up to—we’ll just grant us that for the sake of argument.   That still leaves us with two sticky wickets. 
First, our dogs have to have a feeling of “deep admiration.”  Second, that feeling presumably leads to behaviors that are different or better than the behaviors they would have if they didn’t have “deep admiration” for us.  
Hmmm.  Here’s where being a “science-based” trainer becomes an entertaining exercise in critical thinking.  It’s okay to assert something, but then there’s got to be testing.  And evidence.  And proof.  If we are making an assertion that dogs have a feeling of “deep admiration” (or anything else), then by golly, let’s get into dem brains and find out where that feeling of “deep admiration” occurs (which part of the brain), the neurotransmitters and chemicals involved, the physiological changes and processes that take place.   Feelings of deep admiration (or anything else) are not based on air, or smoke and mirrors.  If some dogs have “respect” and some dogs don’t, we need to be able to tell the difference.  A real difference.  Because “feelings”—or more properly, emotions—are very much not smoke-and-mirrors.  
As the work of Jaak Panksepp and many other neurobiologists have shown in both human and non-animals, emotions aren’t ephemeral “thought processes,” but very real and specific (though complex) physiological responses that occur in very real and specific parts of the brain—parts shared in common by many animals.  Fear is a good example:  we can evoke a strong fear response in a critter by tweaking an electrode inserted in one part of the brain and get zero fear response in animals if those parts of the brain are damaged or blocked by drugs.  It’s anatomical.  It’s chemical.  It’s not conceptual.
What’s tricky here is remembering that we—human beings—do have a concept of respect.  We have in our brains giganto prefrontal cortexes that support exceptional capacities for conceptual thinking.  The concepts are conceptual, but the actual physical brain anatomy that allows us to form them is very, very real. Our dogs don’t share that anatomy.  If a concept of “respect” dwells in that highly developed portion of our brains, that’s not a portion of the brain found in our dogs.  In that case, we can’t get no respect because the dogs ain’t got no anatomy to produce it.   And this isn’t theoretical.  In the age of amazing advances in neuroscience, it’s testable.
So here’s my first nifty tip for training success (and good critical thinking.)  Behavior and anatomy are inextricably linked.   If someone wants to make a claim about a biological process (feeling, emotion, behavior, etc.)—show me the anatomy, baby.  No anatomy, no can do.  Tinker cannot fly without wings; my cats cannot breathe underwater without gills; I cannot see ultraviolet light with unassisted human eyes.  Anatomy rules and limits behavior possibilities, including what we can think and how we can feel. 
If respect is an emotion found in parts of the brain that we and dogs share, and not a concept formed in parts of the brain that only we have, we should be able to locate the physiological processes in the shared brain areas.  We should see these processes in “respectful” animals and not see them in “unrespectful” animals.   There should be neurotransmitters, hormones, proteins in action, parts of the brain lighting up during fMRI scans.  In short, we should be able to find “respect circuits” in a dog’s brain, just like we find “fear circuits,”  “joy circuits” and “rage circuits.”  Anatomy and anatomical processes don’t have to be a subject for debate, opinion or someone’s appealing marketing meme.  We really do have livers and leg bones and we can find and measure them.  If dogs have “deep feelings of admiration,” let’s find and measure the anatomy that generates them.  Until then…
This isn’t a trivial point—far from.  The recent advances in neuroscience and the rise of dogs as a sexy research subject has, in the last decade, resulted in an explosion of studies, dog cognition groups, working dog centers.  Lots of extremely talented researchers and scientists are at work exploring all kinds of thrilling questions.  We’re now reaching the point where we really can start having interesting and intelligent conversations about what’s going on inside the head of a dog—how they process information, how they view their world, what lights their brains up.  In casual terms, we can begin to have sensible, evidence-based discussions about how they “think” and “feel.”  This is a huge step forward in the field of animal behavior, not just for the fascinating things we are learning, but for the implications it will have in making us more effective as pet owners and trainers.  It also has profound implications for animal welfare, allowing us to become much better guardians and advocates because we have real facts—real data—to base our efforts on.  Very exciting stuff that deserves our close and careful attention.
But it’s hard to give it our close and careful attention if we cling to old ideas, or lump the old (utterly untested and probably wrong) ideas in with the new.  We’re human, though, so very human, which means when we make stunning discoveries that change our world-view—that the earth is round, tiny microbes can cause disease and antibiotics can cure them—we still have to go through several years of transition.  New ideas don’t always sit well with old sailors warning us about falling off the edge of the earth or encountering dragons, or with crusty village apothecaries wanting to treat us with leaches and bloodletting.
Which leads me to our second sticky wicket—if dogs do have some (yet unresearched) brain process that we could call “respect,” it presumably will lead to respectful behaviors.  Most especially, such respect should lead to good behaviors, the kinds of behaviors we like.  The logic seems to be, “If your dog respects you, he will DO or NOT DO behaviors x, y and z.”  Automatically.  All out of “respect.”  And here I must make a confession about something I find both peculiar and very telling.
In over ten years of behavior consulting with the public at the shelter, and in my private practice, the number of folks who have had complaints about their dogs’ “respect” or lack thereof have been very few indeed.  Pet owners with dog behavior problems do have real concerns, but they use a different, more direct language.  In all, the vast majority of their concerns lump into three broad categories. 

1. Their dog doesn’t listen to them.  (Doesn’t do behaviors they want them to do, like come when called, or stop doing unwanted behaviors, like jumping up.) 
2. Their dog is “hyper.”  (Has more energy than they expected or appreciate, or issues with impulsiveness or attention-seeking.) 
3. Their dog is “Alpha” or “dominant.” (Which usually means not getting along with other dogs, and almost always, the dog is fearful.)
The word “respect” doesn’t come out of their mouths.
So where oh where does this entirely unsupported, unproven and untested notion of “respect” come from?  In Part Two, we’ll find out!

Saying Hello and the Need for Empathy

Posted on February 1, 2015 at 2:32 AM Comments comments ()
Imagine you are walking down the street, minding your own business and enjoying a leisurely stroll in peace and quiet.  Around the corner comes a parent walking their small (or not so small) child by the hand.  Suddenly, the child breaks free and comes rushing at you, waving a knife and yelling, “&^%#* you, go away!  %$#@&!  Get away, you %$#&*@!”  The parent shrugs, smiling as he or she says, “Oh, don’t worry, he doesn’t mean it.  He just does that at first, he’ll calm down.”
Of course, it’s nice to know that Junior isn’t likely to actually stab us while he’s hurling curses at our heads.  But none of us would think there wasn’t something very wrong—seriously wrong—with this picture.  Maybe the kid has his reasons—very good reasons.  Maybe he’s got issues, or was recently attacked by another kid, or he’s afraid of people wearing hats.  Maybe he never will stab anyone, ever.  None of that really helps.
The problem is, as greetings go, waving a knife and cussing isn’t friendly or even neutral.  It’s emotionally charged.  And emotionally charged greetings tend to elicit emotionally charged responses in the animal receiving them.  Which means by the time Mum or Pop have explained that Junior doesn’t really mean it and wouldn’t really do it, it’s far, far too late.  I’ve seen a knife, been cussed at and my heart is already racing.  Now I’m upset and I’m ready to fight back, no matter what excuses come out of the parent’s mouth.  I’m an animal with a Fight/Flight System, too, and one that will readily over-ride rational thought to protect myself from a perceived threat.  This is not, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
If we map this on to dogs… oh dear. 
As a professional trainer and a pet owner, I’m amazed at how much we have made a mess of this—in both directions.  On-leash reactivity—dogs that get overly excited, bark or lunge when they see another dog on leash—is one of the most common behavior problems that I and many trainers hear about.  And yet, I really wish we heard more about it.  If Dogs Greeting Badly is bad enough, maybe worse are the pet parents who believe:
1)  “Oh, well, Feisty is like that,” and since Feisty doesn’t actually stab anyone, it’s okay (especially if Feisty is a small-breed dog)
2)  gentle, well-mannered Sadie should tolerate that kind of crud from every dog she meets, because “good dogs” suck it up and ignore the knife and the cussing like Saint Lassie on a cracker
Alas, both of these views get me downright crazy, because with them we’re missing something.  Seriously missing something important.  And in a word, it’s Empathy.
Dogs are emotional animals.  They share with us and other higher mammals primary emotions like fear, anger, frustration and joy.  And as we learn more and more about our brains and emotional circuitry, one thing is becoming increasingly obvious:  an event doesn’t have to cause us physical injury to do real damage.  Traumatic events that result in great fear can do very real harm.  Fear, anxiety and other kinds of acute or chronic stress messes with our brain chemistry, derails healthy brain function and just plain hurts.  This is true for our dogs as well.
And dogs, like us, come in a wide variety and range of temperaments, abilities and social skills:  they are all individuals.  One of the hotter trends in canine research right now has to do with the notion of personality in dogs, and though researchers are still challenged by how to describe and capture the essences, pretty much everyone agrees that there are essences to capture.  Dogs vary greatly in traits like boldness/shyness (our introversion or extroversion), resilience and sensitivity, even optimism and pessimism.   So, as with people, one dog’s Traumatic Event may be another dog’s So What? and neither dog is a bad dog.   In behavior, the fairest comparisons we can find are either statistical or functional:  we can say if the response is typical/average (in the fat of the bell curve) and we can say something about if the response works—if it’s adaptive in the animal’s best interests and quality of life.  Judgments about “good/bad” or “right/wrong” don’t tend to get us anywhere helpful, especially when it comes to emotions. 
So here we are with Feisty nutting up on the end of a leash, barking and snarling while another dog walks by with her owner.   Let’s say Feisty’s owners let their snarling dervish drag them over because Feisty is always like that and anyhow he never bites, he’ll calm down.  Here’s what we know so far:
1.  Feisty is emotionally upset (calm, relaxed, happy dogs don’t bark, snarl and lunge)
2.  Feisty is sending emotionally charged social signals to the other dog (bark, snarl and lunge are neither friendly not polite)
3.  Feisty is rehearsing being upset and sending charged social signals (practice makes perfect)
4.  Feisty’s behavior is being reinforced (We know that because he keeps doing it:  behavior that’s rewarded increases in frequency, duration and intensity)
He’s always done it doesn’t make it healthy or normal.  He never bites doesn’t mean that what he does never hurts—if he’s scaring the snot out of other dogs and their owners, he can be doing real, lasting damage.  And to top it off, I seriously doubt that Feisty’s owners like or prefer the behavior—back to that in a moment.
Now, let’s consider the other dog—let’s say Sadie--walking by getting barked and snarled at—or worse, having the cussing or posturing dog rushing up in her personal space.  And here, we’re playing Russian Roulette with both dogs.
The whole point of greeting between social animals is negotiating consent to engage and enter space.  How much greeting and how much negotiating goes on depends on a host of factors:  familiarity, social conventions or rituals, desire to make social contact, skill and individual preferences among them.   If we—or the dogs—already know each other very well, greetings may be minimized to a fast swipe and cut to the chase-- “Hi!  You won’t believe what happened at work!” for humans and almost immediate play (or polite ignore) between dogs. 
If we’re less familiar or complete strangers to each other, we’ll probably go more slowly.  We see each other.  We nod or wave.  We say the right polite noises, shake hands, comment on the weather.  All the while, we’re assessing each other with three core questions in mind:  1) Are you safe? 2) Do you have anything I like or want?  3) Are you/am I willing to consent to this interaction?  The harder those questions are to answer, the longer we’ll take to negotiate—if it’s worth it to us.  If we’re not much interested in a hot date or deep conversation, the person seems a little sketchy or high maintenance, we’ll bail out at the earliest polite opportunity:  they may have something we like or want, but they may be dangerous or getting it is going to be too much work.  And we always reserve the right to withdraw our consent (most of us do try to be polite) if things go sour or slide toward places where we feel unsafe or not interested.
This is dogs all over, which brings us back to Feisty exploding at the end of his leash and Sadie walking by with her owner.   If the two dogs are brought into contact, Sadie—faced with an upset dog sending unfriendly social signals—is forced to make some pretty complicated social assessments very quickly:
A.  Is Feisty’s display for real—a real threat that she needs to take seriously?  (Are you safe?)
B.  Does she have any reason to want to interact with this dog? (Anything here I like or want?)
C.  What does she have to do to get out of this situation?  (How do I withdraw consent?)
Sadie’s decision challenge isn’t that easy, and if Feisty is suddenly in her face, it’s really not easy.  She’s startled or rushed.  She’s trapped on the end of her own leash and can’t get space.  Nothing about Feisty is immediately friendly or appealing, she doesn’t have any way of understanding the human assurances that Feisty always does that and he never bites, and if she’s like many mature adult dogs, the motivating desires that might counter-balance the safety/danger issues—the puppy urge to play or make new doggy friends--are long gone:  Feisty has nothing she wants.   Depending on Sadie’s age, confidence, skill, socialization, experience and personality, she may or may not have the ability to make the needed assessments, or make them that quickly--as with us, age, skill and experience matters.  If she’s a green, naïve or shy dog without a ton of socialization and experience dealing with the Feistys of the world, she may very well take his display seriously.  After all, he looks plenty aggressive to her.
Are here begins our doggy Russian Roulette:  All Sadies are not alike.  Even “Sadies” of the same breed, age, gender and experience are not alike.   I don’t know why we struggle with this so much, since we certainly know better about ourselves:  not every person of pick-your-stereotype is like that.  Worse, although any individual Sadie has a personality and history her owners recognize as “like her,” Sadie is a higher mammal with feelings and she can have a rotten day when she’s simply “not herself.”  And how she behaves will change with age and experience—things she tolerated or put up with in her puppyhood or adolescence may not go unanswered when she’s a fully mature and more confident dog. 
So in Feisty’s on-leash misadventures, he may encounter some or all of these Sadies:
1)  Confident, relaxed, experienced and highly sociable Sadie:  Oh boy, another exploding Feisty, bring him on, maybe he’ll chill out and be good for a play session after he gets a sniff.  (She’s safe and might even enjoy the encounter.)
2)  Confident, experienced and not-particularly-sociable but polite Sadie:  Oh crud, another @#$%&^ Feisty, let him sniff me quick so I can get back to chasing my ball. (She’s safe but won’t enjoy the encounter and if she runs into too many Feistys, her tolerance may wear thin.)
3)  Confident, experienced and not inclined to be polite Sadie:  Feisty has three seconds to sniff my bum and get over it before I take his fool head off.  (She will be safe for the allotted three seconds and she’s not enjoying that… after that, Feisty better cool it or else.)
4)  Confused, unskilled or for any reason inclined to take Feisty’s emotionally charged greeting seriously Sadie (super confident version):  I do believe that Feisty is challenging me to a duel.  Come closer, darling.  Sniff me.  Make my day.  (She will stand tall, look stiff as a board and then nail his sorry behind.  She may enjoy that part of it.)
5)  …For any reason inclined to take Feisty’s emotionally charged greeting seriously and get reactive herself Sadie:  OMG, what the heck is he saying?  Huh?  You talkin’ to me?  You talkin’ to me like that?  (By now, both dogs are lunging at each other at the ends of their leashes, so hopefully the owners won’t let them greet at all.)
6)  …For any reason inclined to take Feisty’s emotionally charged greeting seriously Sadie (shy version):  Oh no oh no he’s going to attack!  Help Help!  Maybe if I just shut my eyes and stay still he’ll go awaaaay… (Safe for the moment but fear is toxic and cumulative—leading to next.)
7)  …For any reason inclined to take Feisty’s emotionally charged greeting seriously Sadie (defensive version):  Oh no oh no he’s going to attack!  Help Help!  Get away or I’ll bite you… (She would love to run away, but she’s trapped on her leash and feels forced to growl, snap or bite him to get space.)
There are more Sadies in the Russian Roulette of dog greetings:  the point is, the longer and more frequently Feisty is allowed to act out or rush up with overly-charged emotional greetings, the more likely he will encounter some of the riskier ones.  Spin the cylinder often enough and the hammer will fall:  Feisty will rush up on the wrong Sadie, or a wonderful-until-now Sadie having an off day.  If he’s lucky, Sadie will pull her toothy punches and there won’t be any or much physical damage.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be damage, to one or both dogs and one or both owners.  Fear is toxic and cumulative, for dogs and people. 
The flip side of this is also true:  the more Feistys Sadie has to endure, the greater the odds that she’ll become more fearful, more sensitive, more inclined to take offense.   If nothing else, she’ll become older and like many dogs, less tolerant of the drama of poor social displays.  The more of these encounters she has to weather, the higher the odds that one day, she’ll have had enough already.  The weird part of this is, for some reason, an alarming number of pet owners blame Sadie for giving it back, including Sadie’s own loving and responsible owners.  Like somewhere it is written that Good dogs always take crap.  Feisty’s owners are often shocked and outraged because—sometimes after years of getting away with this greeting nonsense—another dog finally took exception.  Sadie’s owners wring their hands because their gentle Sadie is suddenly “aggressive.”  And here’s where we all need our Empathy Hats on—for everyone, dog and human.
Feisty’s owners aren’t necessarily bad, irresponsible pet parents—not at all.  They have a dog with a difficult issue for them.  They’ve learned to live with it, ignore it or be in denial about it because they don’t knowhow to fix it.  They may not even know that it can be fixed, or at least vastly improved.  They’ve resigned themselves and they’ve made up a soothing story to console themselves—usually some version of dogs like Feisty (breed, size, background, he’s a rescue, was attacked as a puppy, the list goes on) are just like that.  They’ve dialed down their Empathy Meter and no longer take Feisty’s emotions seriously.  After all, he never bites—it’s harmless, right?
Meanwhile, Sadie’s owners feel like they have a really good dog that suddenly snapped or attacked “out of nowhere” and they’re shocked and hurt.  And Sadie is a really good dog—so good that they’ve gone to sleep at their own Empathy Switch and stopped considering that maybe, just maybe, Sadie doesn’t want or like to have to deal with Feistys snarling in her face.  Any more than you or I want to deal with emotionally charged people yelling curses at us day in and day out.  Those of us who have jobs that require us to deal with difficult people on a regular basis better have—if our employers are smart—specialty training, plenty of management support and loads of compensation for doing it graciously.  If we don’t, you bet one day we snap, quit or storm off the job.  We burn out.  Good Sadies burn out too if their owners leave them dangling at the end of a leash with no specialty training, managerial support or compensation. 
And that’s really important to understand:  getting to Say Hello to Feisty isn’t compensation for Sadie.  Yes, many dogs enjoy greeting unfamiliar dogs—but plenty of them don’t.  And that’s assuming the other dog is friendly, or at least polite, and Feisty isn’t.  For shy, sensitive, often intelligent and emotionally tender dogs, getting to meet Feisty is a flat-out nightmare, not a joy.  Why would Sadie want to Say Hi to a dog that’s barking and lunging at her with bug eyes and hackles up?   Like, are we all thrilled to have to deal with a cussing customer with an attitude?
What Feisty needs is his owner’s help.  He needs to stop practicing high risk behaviors like barking, lunging or charging at other dogs and learn how to relax, ignore or be calm around other dogs.  Whether he ever bites or not, physically injures another dog or not, he’s going to scare some and some quite badly, and that’s a rotten thing to do to another dog that has feelings, too.  And sooner or later, he’s going to hit a Sadie that’s going to hit him back—and some Sadies can hit really, really hard.  Lastly, he’s not barking, lunging and carrying on because he feels good:  most likely he’s frightened, upset and socially confused, and his quality of life is suffering for it.  We don’t measure human suffering by how violent a person gets:  we understand that someone can be deeply unhappy, deeply frustrated, lonely, anxious or depressed without taking up murder or going postal.  Dogs shouldn’t have to bite to get us to notice their distress.  Empathy, please.
Sadie needs her owner’s help, too.  She deserves to be both respected and protected:  to never be forced to deal with Feisty without her own consent.  If she is put in that unfortunate position with no possibility of escape, we will all hope that she has the skill and understanding to pull her punches and do little or no damage.  But she’s an emotional creature, she has good days and bad days, days when her hips hurt, days when she’s nervous about an approaching storm, when another dog jumped her last week, and when it’s just one darned Feisty too many for her to cope with.  I’m sure if she could she would join us in feeling deep compassion for Feisty’s baggage—but it’s his baggage, not hers, and she shouldn’t have to be the victim of it.  If she isn’t a genuine fan of the Feistys of the Dog World, be her advocate. Give her an acceptable way to withdraw her consent if she doesn’t want to greet, like moving away, getting behind you or gazing deeply into your eyes with her “Please get me out of here” look.  Then, get her out of there.  She won’t have to snap or growl or bite if you hear her and act on her behalf.  Empathy.  Please.
Like many human children, confident puppies and adolescent dogs are often so eager to make social connections and play that they’ll rush in without a single thought about safety or consent.  It doesn’t seem to occur to them (until they’ve had a few learning experiences) that there are mean or grumpy people/dogs out there—animals that aren’t safe and might hurt them or that aren’t interested and don’t want to play. As with our human children, it’s up to us to step in and both protect and negotiate the best interests not only of our pups, but of everyone:  letting our boisterous puppy flatten a timid old Toy breed or bully a shyer pup with non-consenting “play” is no more acceptable than letting our wild teenager knock over Mrs. Wilson on crutches or dump paint over a younger child’s head.  Healthy social interactions and play are fun and consensual for both parties; if it’s not, stop it.  Don’t let your puppy or dog practice it, and don’t let your puppy or dog be a victim of it.
For shy puppies or socially sensitive dogs, protect them at all costs.  Exposing your good dog to a gang of “thugs” at a local dog park or over-bearing greetings from random dogs on walks is no more productive than sending your honor student to hang out with the wrong crowd or allowing your teenage daughter to be propositioned by random men.  Your shy, sensitive dog won’t learn anything you want him to learn from dogs with worse social skills.  Select play mates carefully:  gentle, friendly, socially polished dogs that can charm your dog, boost his confidence and teach him how much fun being with another dog can be.  Shy dogs need kind and patient canine mentors to blossom, special friends they can trust and count on.
Please teach your puppies and adolescents to look to you and wait for permission before greeting other dogs you meet on leash walks.  That way, you and the other owner can decide if you want your dogs to greet at all before the dogs are hurling at each other’s heads.  Having your dog learn that she has to exercise self-control, listen to you and calm down before she’s allowed to Say Hello will help take the emotional charge out of greetings and reduce the odds of unfortunate incidents.  If all owners would do that, there would be far fewer Feistys and Sadie wouldn’t have to snap at them. 
If another owner doesn’t want their dog to meet yours, please respect their wishes and give them space.  Yes, we know all dogs love me and my dog is friendly; maybe we have our reasons or maybe we’re just awful people.  No matter:  we declinedconsent, just like you asked if you could join us at our family picnic table and we said, no, thanks.  Most people wouldn’t dream of continuing to insist on a seat at the table, so I’m not sure why being asked to keep our dogs under control and out of another dog’s face is so danged hard for pet owners to swallow, but we can all remember this:  healthy social interaction is always consensual.  If someone, for any or no reason, declines to consent for themselves or their dogs, no means no isn’t rocket science.   It won’t hurt you or your dog to wave cheerfully and pass on by; it may get someone hurt if you don’t.
Consider the Golden Dog Rule: do not let your dog do unto other dogs what you would not want their dogs to do unto yours.  And no, small dogs are not exempt.  If you do not want my 65 lb. built-like-a-linebacker Catahoula mix to have a go at your tiny dachshund/Chihuahua mix, do not allow your little dog to have a go at her.   Many dogs don’t seem to have a good grasp of relative size; most of them are aces at self-defense and Tit-for-Tat.
Lastly, please don’t think that your dog has to meet every dog they see or love every dog they meet to have a rich and fulfilled life.  Some dogs, like some people, are social butterflies and are thrilled to go to parties and make new friends.  Most dogs, though, are like us:  the older they get, the more they enjoy the quiet predictability of familiar, compatible friends, quiet conversation over a glass of wine with a good buddy they know instead of wild nights at the dog park bar.  For those dogs, and shy or socially sensitive dogs, quality is more important than quantity, and less is definitely more.
There are wonderful books, programs and training exercises that can do much to improve Feisty’s public presentation, making him, if not a charming social butterfly, a polite dog that can keep his cool and let the dogs walk on.  Love is a powerful four letter word; for these dogs, though, help is a stronger one. 

Making Your Voice—and Your Money—Count: Some Tips from an Animal Welfare Professional

Posted on January 19, 2015 at 3:10 AM Comments comments ()
If you’re like a lot of people—and you’re reading this blog—you love animals.  Or at least, animals of your species of choice, be it dogs, cats, horses or exotics.  You want to do right by your own pets, and also by pets everywhere.  You want to see well-run animal control services that keep communities safe, help stray or abandoned critters and maintain humane, caring facilities.  You want to help rescue homeless, abused or neglected pets.  Maybe you’d like to donate to some worthy cause.  When you do, here are five tips for making an effective difference in the lives of our companion animals.
1.  Lead by example.  Your local animal shelter—whether a government agency, private 501(c)3 animal welfare group or private rescue—is overwhelmed, under-staffed and under-funded.   At the humane society where I work, one third of all dogs brought to us don’t need to be there.  They’re not homeless, neglected or abused; they’re Buddy and Daisy who went for a wander without their collar and tags on.  They’re owned—happily owned—and beloved pets.  They should be home.  But we have to spend a ridiculous amount of time, energy and resources trying to reunite them with an (often frantic) owner because the dogs got out of the yard nekkid.  A functional flat-buckle collar costs a few bucks; an engraved tag a few more.  If your dog is “dressed,” your neighbors and Good Samaritans will call you directly instead of involving the hassle of law enforcement or a trip to the pound.  For less than $20 bucks, your dog has a much higher chance of getting home safe, you don’t have to pay impound fees or fines, and I can spend my day working with the dogs that really, really do need my help:  homeless pets that need new homes.  So be part of the solution instead of part of the problem:  collar and tags, period.
2.  License your dogs.  Not only do the revenues from licensing support vital animal control services, licensing gives pet owners political credibility when they want changes to their animal control system.  A Board of Supervisors or City Council is far more likely to attend to animal issues if they know that they have 1000 licensed dog owners in their community rather than 22.  If everyone in the community blows off licensing, it sends a message:  pet owners don’t care that much about being responsible.  And if they don’t care that much, why should local government make it a priority?  Possibly the best model we have for effective animal control/welfare services comes from Calgary, Alberta CA—the Calgary Model.  Core to their success is an over 90% compliance with licensing.  It works.  It sends the right message.  It’s the responsible thing to do.  So, in keeping with the spirit of #1… license your dogs.  Just do it.
3.  Look before you donate. Anyone—and oh boy have I seen some doozies in the anyone category—can throw together a website or Facebook page, post some Pitiful Animal Pictures, tell you how much they loooove animals and ask for your money.  Anyone can call themselves a “rescue” or a “sanctuary.”  Really.  They don’t need a stamp of approval from some national group, they don’t need accreditation, they don’t need to know one end of a dog from the other and until the Health Department or Animal Control gets called, they can beg money on their sites and “rescue” away.  These individuals can range from the expert and honest to the well-intended and incompetent to outright animal hoarders keeping animals in appalling conditions.  Telling them apart based on Facebook, a website or even meeting them at an Adoption Event is virtually impossible.  They will all say they love animals and you know what—they do!  They really do.  Being around animals makes them all feel warm and fuzzy, releases oxytocin and puts stars in their eyes.  Even the outright hoarders love their animals. 
Alas, love is not a good indicator of proper care, knowledge or expertise If love was all that mattered, I’d be tearing up the Ladies Golf Tour instead of sending golf balls in awful directions.  Seriously—I love golf.  I also suck at it, so before you hit my GoFundMe button for a new set of clubs, you might want to take a closer look at my swing. 
So, how to tell where to put your hard-earned donation?  My best suggestion is—if you want to donate locally, and I hope you do—go look.  If the group has a facility, go visit.  If the rescue keeps their animals at a particular location, ask to come for a visit.  For private rescues and small, entirely volunteer operated groups, you will need to make an appointment—most likely you will be going to someone’s private property and many of them work regular jobs.  And you may have to do a little persuading, because not everyone who loves animals likes people, and they can be keeping excellent care of the critters and still be grouchy about visiting humans.  And, of course, you won’t be welcome if you seem weird or dangerous. 
All that said, you are offering to donate your money to support the care of the animals.  Please go see how the animals are actually being cared for.  If you like what you see, give them your donation.  If you don’t, don’t.  If they won’t let you see, donate elsewhere.
What to look for or ask:
How many animals do you see?  Are there two “rescue dogs” mixed in with ten personal pets and the food you plan to donate will be eaten by which…?  How long have the individual animals been there?   Where are they kept?  How many people work or volunteer there, and are there enough of people to give all of the animals quality attention, including socialization, training, exercise and play opportunities?   What vaccinations and veterinary care do they receive?
Ask if they keep statistics, and what those statistics are.  Any well-run group, regardless of type, should keep accurate records of every single animal that comes into their care:  when it came, from where and where it went or what happened to it.  They should be able to tell you, “We’ve taken in a total 14 dogs so far this year, 9 have been adopted, 2 are in private foster for medical/behavior rehab and we have these 3 up for adoption now…”   
What you should worry about:  “We’ve taken in 35, we’ve adopted 2 and we have to take 10 more next week or they’ll all die die die…!”  A group that is chronically and seriously exceeding their realistic capacity to provide humane care to their current residents and hasn’t demonstrated in cold hard numbers the ability to adopt out the animals they take in is heading into disaster.  That’s a group that’s trying to save all dog everywhere while keeping the ones they already have in substandard, stressful conditions right now
Any well-run animal rescue will be keenly aware of the Five Freedoms of animal welfare and be striving to the limits of their resources to meet them on a daily basis for each and every animal in their care.
The Five Freedoms:
1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst - by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
2. Freedom from Discomfort - by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease - by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior - by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind.
5. Freedom from Fear and Distress - by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
As in any field, there are likeable people who are very passionate about what they do, who have been doing it a very long time--and who aren’t actually that good at it.  Quality care of animals isn’t about being likeable, passionate or wanting to do good—it’s about the quality of care provided to the animals.  So… look at the animals, not the website or the people.  Look before you donate.
4.  Don’t be misled by the label “No-Kill.”  The stereotypical “crazy cat lady” who has 60 cats in her trailer can call herself a “No-Kill” rescue—she wouldn’t dream of euthanizing any of her kitties.  They’re all having kittens or may be dying slowly of awful diseases, but she wouldn’t kill them.  Yikes.
The fact that a group touts themselves as “No-Kill” isn’t any indication of genuine caring or quality; the fact that an open-admission animal control facility has to perform euthanasia doesn’t make them uncaring or wretched.   Some “no-kill” groups obtain their animals from “kill” facilities by taking all the young, cute, highly adoptable dogs and leaving behind the sick, old, difficult and dangerous to their fates.  This is actually a collaboration that can work very well, insuring that all the healthy adoptable pets do get homes by divide-and-conquer with the best use of resources.  But it only works if we’re honest and transparent:  if my Love-A-Dog Rescue takes all your “pound’s” cute sweet dogs and leaves you nothing but Cujos, thinking Love-A-Dog is superior to The Pound is flat garbage. 
Between networking with “No-Kills,” collaborating with rescues and running their own adoptions programs, many “pounds” achieve remarkable save rates.  The fact that they can’t for various practical and technical reasons promote themselves as “No-Kill” doesn’t mean they aren’t doing great work.
To evaluate any group’s true performance, get the numbers:  1) their resources/budget, 2) their statistics—number of animal intakes and what the outcomes were and 3) the total population/service area they’re expected to take care of.  Bottom line is the bottom line—we get what we pay for.  If an animal control agency is given no budget, no staff, and asked to provide services for thousands of animals yearly, they need help and more resources, not criticism.  If the budget and resources are sound, the live release rate should reflect it—if it doesn’t, then yes, management or policies do need to be addressed.   But regardless of the terminology used, a solid live release rate is good no matter what the group is called.  Don’t be misled by the label “No-Kill.” 
5.  Forget love, talk votes. If you have a need or occasion to get political for animals—to speak, for example, to local authorities like your City Council about changes you’d like to see, the Righteous Soapbox of Compassion might be the wrong platform to stand on.  I hate to say it, but not everyone loves dogs like we do.  Not everyone cares like we do.  Your City Council probably really doesn’t want to hear about how much you love dogs or how and why we should be kind to animals.  Because, honestly, everyone has an agenda and they’ve already heard from the people who love trees, love birds, love roses, love books, love… and the reverse, the people who hate the danged trees, pooing birds, thorny roses and controversial books.  Going that route is a sure recipe for debate and somebody will certainly trump your concerns about the dogs with bigger ticket items like crime or kids.  My recommendation is—short, sweet and clear not about how you feel, but what you plan to do.  It goes something like this:
Me:  Hi, City Council, I’m a responsible pet owner, my dog is licensed, spayed and vaccinated.   As a responsible pet owner, I’m concerned about __________.  I’d like to know your position/what you plan to do.  I need to know, first, what I can do to help be part of the solution and second, what your individual position is so I’ll know who to vote for and tell all my dog-loving friends and family to vote for in the next election.
Council Member:  grumble grumble about budget, economy, crime and kids
Me:  Oh golly, I know times are hard and how difficult it is to allocate resources… I just need to know where you stand so I can allocate my voting resources to the thing I care about the most.
Council Member:  grumble grumble about making danged dogs more important than people
Me:  Oh fiddle-dee-dee, it’s not really about dogs, you know?  It’s about me and how I feel and how I vote.  I’ve lived here for ___ years and I believe our fine city should be committed to excellence in all areas—golly, if we can’t manage a pound, how could we possibly manage crime, kids or the rose bushes?  If I can’t rely on you to find a better solution for the city’s puppies and kittens, I’m not sure you’re the right person to vote for to tackle crime and kids.  So you see, it isn’t about dogs, it’s about people and excellence in job performance and city services…
The point is, you may not be able to persuade anyone in government to love dogs like we do—or to see the moral, ethical or other concerns that we see--and trying to bring them around to that is probably a trap.  What you can easily persuade them of is that you are a person with a vote who will vote your convictions if your concerns are not addressed—and your concerns are not just “dogs” but what the issue has to say about their competency and commitment to excellence.  Forget love, talk votes will put your concerns in the political language that matters most to them.

Two Things We Need to Know About Our Dog’s Performance (and Ours), Part II

Posted on November 22, 2014 at 3:26 AM Comments comments ()
In the first part of this blog topic, I talked about how stress can impact both our performance and that of our dogs—with an underlying point in mind.  And that point was:  expecting better performances from our dogs than we could achieve with comparable training under similar circumstances is expecting way too much. 
Dogs are outstanding at being dogs, certainly: Tinker is aces at chewing bones, chasing raccoons and sniffing poo.  If the performances we wanted from our dogs were entirely up their natural alleys, we’d all have obedience champs.  But most of what we want them to do is not that:  we’d rather they did weird humany-type things like ignore food on a table, walk exactly at our sides like a couple holding hands and leave off chasing squirrels because they love us.  We want, in short, them to behave like civilized sort of folk dialed into our human lifestyles:  performances every bit as peculiar to them as dressing fashionably, speaking eight languages and dashing off algebraic equations are to me.   And just as I could, possibly, with sufficient education and training, become a fashionista, learn French and figure out the square root of something (x)a – (b), many dogs, thanks to thousands of years of domestication, can manage to meet our odd demands remarkably well.
But there has to be that sufficient education and training.  And the higher and more challenging the demands, the more they need of it.  Which leads me to my second, potentially painful point about performance—and expectations.
If you have a dog and you’re keen to teach the dog Behavior X, it makes perfectly good sense to look to someone who has taught many dogs to do Behavior X.  In fact, it looks even more fabulous to Go Big:  not just someone who has taught dogs Behavior X, but someone who has won trophies and ribbons for teaching dogs Behavior X.  Wait—let’s Go Bigger—let’s, by gum, go to the top of the mountain—the trainer/handlers who have won National or World Championships with dogs doing Behavior X.   Because golly, anyone who is among the elite of performance stars must surely know what it takes to get there. 
If you want to learn how to act, who better than Meryl Streep?  For golf, Tiger Woods.  For training a dog, the latest and greatest in world champion protection, obedience or agility dog trainers.  And if Ms. Streep achieved success using the Emotional Chameleon Method of Acting, surely we can’t go wrong adopting EC Method.   If Mr. Woods became the number one in golf by using Y Brand Golf Clubs and the Secret Tiger Swing Technique, that must be the ticket to golf success.  So naturally if Olag the exotic dog trainer from Bulgaria won his World Championship Schutzhund title with his Magic Bulgarian Police Dog Method, we should all run out and buy his DVDs and emulate the Magic Bulgarian Police Dog Method with our pooches at home.  Makes sense, right?
The appeal is obvious, even intuitive, and has just enough truth in it to get us into trouble.
Here’s the part that is true:  if we want to get better at something, we can and should take advantage of our very wonderful experts in all fields.  Whether it’s improving our cooking, our money management skills or our ability to get Fido to perform better around the house or in a doggy sport, there are people out there who can really help us.  Finding role models and emulating them is an excellent path to skill development.  Being inspired by the heroes and champions in our favorite performance activities is—well, inspiring.  There are a few “catches,” though.
I have no doubt that if I took a series of master acting classes from Ms. Streep, I would be a better actor for it.  I would likely make improvements in that performance craft, maybe get more in touch with my Inner Emotional Chameleon.  So, no doubt, have the thousands of hopeful young actors who have followed her career and attempted to emulate her.  What is immediately striking, though, is this:  not a single one of them has ever become Meryl Streep. 
They may have become much improved actors, they may have even gone on to great accomplishments in their own rights, but they don’t have what Ms. Streep has and never will, however great they become and however many Oscars they rack up on their own mantels.  Because, simply, there is only one Meryl Streep.  And her greatest performances were singularities--precious rarities, by definition.  The Oscar for Best Performance by a Leading Actress isn’t given out like candy--it’s one a year.  And what made her great performances great had very, very little to do with her acting method and very much to do with her acting talent
Among other things.  An Oscar-winning performance in a major motion picture isn’t just about an acting method, or acting talent—it’s a collaborative effort involving the right script, the right director, a damned good editor, composer, lighting director, marketing and boatloads of money.  It can also come down to some other amazing Oscar-worthy actress not having a particularly juicy part that year playing a beloved historical figure with a photogenic disease and a glorious death scene. 
It turns out, in short, that learning Meryl Streep’s acting method isn’t likely to get me, or those thousands of young hopefuls, an Oscar any time soon.   I also have to have some things comparable to Ms. Streep’s talent, Ms. Streep’s cheekbones, Ms. Streep’s writer, director and agent—and, I would venture, her years of experience honing her craft and a formidable professional work ethic. 
Still, I would expect my imaginary acting lessons with Ms. Streep would be helpful to me as an actor:  given that I’m starting at, say, a 2 out of 10 on the Act-O-Meter, I might learn enough to achieve a 4 or 5 or even a 6.  When it comes to my hypothetical golf lessons with Tiger Woods, though, I think we would have more of a problem.
The problem is:  Tiger’s too good and unless he’s a brilliant instructor as well as a golfer, he may not know how to come down as far as he would need to.  Which would be, oh, around a .5 on the Golf-O-Meter.  I have swung a golf club before; sometimes the ball goes somewhere vaguely promising.  I know the difference between a Driver and a Putter.  I haven’t actually hit anyone with my backstroke, though I would advise Mr. Woods to keep a safe distance.  But for all practical purposes, I’m not ready for Tiger, and golf—unlike acting—is a physical skill that simply can’t be faked.  I can fake acting—that’s rather the point.  I can’t fake a golf swing.  And at my level, to learn the first fundamentals of a proper golf swing, I’d probably be infinitely better off with the lovely pro at our local golf resort, who is used to working with rank beginners like me.  I might, if I won the lotto, quit my job, and took up golf with an all-consuming passion, eventually become good enough to benefit from my lessons with Mr. Woods.  Or, I might not.  Probably not.
I can certainly become a better golfer, possibly even a reasonably proficient recreational golfer; a professional level golfer, no.  If I had started when I was tiny following Mama or Papa around the club (which is how most pros get started), I would have had the 10-15 years of practice perfecting my swing by the time I reached the age to compete in college.  If I was a naturally talented athlete with loads of practice in another stick/ball hand-eye coordination sport—baseball, hockey, tennis—I might have been able to switch to golf in my teens and still have enough years to get enough swing practice in.  Now, even with Mr. Woods’ brand of golf clubs (wildly outside of my price range, I’m sure) and instruction in the Secret Tiger Swing Technique, I still couldn’t get there—my days of athletic prime are a decade or two behind me, and I simply haven’t got enough physically fit years left to practice the Secret Tiger Swing.  Not long enough to get really good at it.
And as with Ms. Streep, what makes Tiger Woods Tiger Woods isn’t a method.  It’s having the talent, the athletic prowess, the drive, the ambition and the work ethic it takes to live, eat, drink and breathe golf for years from a very young age.  It’s having the right coaches, the chances to play the right tournaments, get sponsors, a good manager, etc.  It’s avoiding injuries (sadly, he hasn’t been able to for much of his later career.)  And sometimes, winning a Major Tournament, like winning an Oscar, comes down not to hitting the clutch hole-in-one but to the opponent missing a crucial putt at exactly the wrong time.
World-class athletes, like world-class actors, are unique, rarities by definition:  plenty of young golfers have Tiger’s clubs, Tiger’s outfits and try to copy Tiger’s swing.  They don’t necessarily have Tiger’s talent:  method isn’t enough.  In fact, what Tiger Woods brought to the next generation of golfers had precious little to do with method or swing technique:  what the new kids on the golf block learned most from his example was to treat themselves like athletes—go to the gym, work out, get in shape and stay in shape.
Which leads me, at last, to Olag the exotic dog trainer from Bulgaria with his World Championship title and his Magic Bulgarian Police Dog Method.  Or it might be Bessie the latest agility guru and her RUN! Method or Flo the amazing long-time obedience goddess with her HEEL! Method or Serena the lovely Freestyle champ with her PARTNERS method or… pick your doggy sport or behavior issue, there will be experts—the elite of the elite who consistently and reliably reach the pinnacles of their games.  They are amazing trainers, every darned one of them, and they have the titles and trophies to prove it. 
What they don’t have—what none of us has—is the slightest useful shred of scientific research or evidence to support (or deny) that they reached their successes because of a method.
And here it gets murky.  What, exactly, is meant by a method?   We could say that Clicker Training, Lure/Reward Training, Choke-Chain Training or Shock Collar Training are all methods—but that’s clearly not fine enough.  Lots of people—millions of people—use one or more of those methods, just like thousands of actors are emulating Meryl Streep and thousands more copying Tiger Woods’ golf swing.  Only a handful of them are doing it well enough to win world championships or elite titles.   If simply adopting the right magic method were the key to competition and training success, everyone should be winning.  Clearly not.
So it looks like the method itself isn’t the point: it’s how excellently and precisely the method is being executed.  And this boils down to:  what is the trainer doing?  Not sayingDoing.  And therein lies a whole other kettle of fishies.
Elite competition dog trainers, like athletes in all sports, are a diverse bunch who achieved their success on the Many Roads to the Mountain.  Some of them actually do have Ph.D.’s in animal behavior or the like; some of them are outstanding communicators with dogs but not so much with fellow human beings.  Some of them are entirely aware and fluent in why what they’re doing works; some of them merely know that it works and that’s good enough for them.  So some of them will say things that are absolutely astute and accurate to the science of animal behavior:  what they say really is a reflection of what they do.  Some of them will talk mystical mush or weird faux ethology that may refer to dogs on another planet somewhere, but not this one here:  what they say is miles and miles away from what they actually do.  But it may be entirely irrelevant in either case.
I could memorize every word Meryl Streep ever said about acting or every word Tiger Woods ever said about golf.  It will get me no closer to her talent or his golf swing.  There may—or may not—be kernels of wisdom I can glean, provided I can find a way to translate them from theory to practice.  There might be other equally accomplished actresses, though, who believe the secret to their success is making sure they drink enough orange juice and always have a blue feather on the set; there may be other almost equally accomplished golfers who attribute their winning ways to not washing their socks on Sundays and keeping a lucky rabbit’s foot in their golf bag.  Performers—even elite performers—can be extremely stressed in their rarefied air, and extreme stress can lead to the wackiest sorts of magical, superstitious thinking.  These folks—we often refer to them as Naturals—are brilliant performers who really haven’t got a clue how they do what they do.  Their actions are fabulous but the action bone isn’t connected to the thinking bone.  They can make outstanding competitors but often lousy coaches:  what they really do is intuitive, even unconscious, and not something they can explain.
In dog training, this often shows up as the followers of the elite competition gurus doing the equivalent of drinking lots of orange juice, waving blue feathers, not washing their socks and keeping a rabbit’s foot handy.  The rabbit’s foot might have some merit as a motivator in a pinch; the rest, of course, is rubbish.  Using our dog training guru’s exact cue words, brand of leash or preferred line of tug toys likely won’t hurt, any more than wearing Tiger Woods’ brand of golf shirts will cause harm.  I’m sure the cues, the toys and the shirts are all excellent, first quality choices.  They just may have little or nothing to do with the skills actually at stake:  wearing Tiger’s line of shirts will not improve my golf swing.  It may provide a bit of a placebo effect:  more confidence, inspiration, feeling better about myself as a golfer.  These things do count in the mental aspects of performance and in my athletic sporting days, I loved my little quirks and rituals.  But these superstitious grace notes, however endearing, aren’t the cause of performance success.  There’s a lot more to it than that.
And if we ask:  “What are the elite trainers doing when they train?”  I hate to say, it still may not help us.  Olag, Bessie, Flo, and Serena have years and years of experience getting ridiculously good at their methods, whatever they may be.  Olag has spent literally thousands of hours practicing the Magic Bulgarian DPM—he’s a 10 at it.  Bessie and Flo and Serena have also paid serious dues in terms of practice hours and hard work to get their 10’s in RUN!, HEEL! And PARTNERS!  Buying their DVDs and adopting their “methods” might get us on a path to taking our 2’s or 5’s or 6’s up a few notches, but there’s an excellent chance that what’s really going to count in that improvement is simply the practice, dues and hard work part of the equation.   Being a 2 or 3 on the Magic Bulgarian PD Method-O-Meter is no more going to win us a World Title than what we’ve been doing already.  Winning World Titles comes from becoming a 10 on some Method-O-Meter, whatever the method may be.  It comes from achieving real excellence and mastery.
It doesn’t come from picking a shiny new hot method and continuing all our sloppy old training habits.   The pitfall is, we’re a 3 at Method A, we get frustrated that we’re not “winning” (whatever that is for us) so we look for a new method.  Method B, because it is new, reinvigorates our training.  We work harder for a while, get up to a 4 on the B-O-Meter, until we get frustrated, so we swap to Method C.  Since we’re actually not as good (technically) at C as we were at B, we’ll slip back to a 3—but it’s new so we work harder and maybe get to our 4 again… until we get bored and frustrated and start “method” shopping again.  If we’re not careful, we end up being wonderfully mediocre at a dozen methods and not truly good at any of them.    
In the end, there is no method born that can cover up poor fundamentals, not in any performance sport and certainly not in dog training.   Getting from a 3 or a 6 or an 8 to a 10 takes hours of practice, payment of dues and putting in the effort it takes to reach true excellence.  And, obviously, getting from a 3 to a 10 takes more hours, dues and work than getting from an 8 to a 10—we have much farther to go.  The old saw that the journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step is true.  The adjunct to the saw ought to be that we can’t walk that thousand miles if we keep hiking off in all directions looking for shortcuts.
Paying patient attention to perfecting our fundamentals, striving for quality in technique and execution, taking care with the details, practicing and working hard are all keys to achieving excellence in performance.  Unfortunately, if you’re like me, words like patience, fundamentals, technique, details, practice and hard work aren’t always as alluring as guaranteed, immediate results, and so easy a child could do it.  I would prefer my 5-star gourmet dinner to come in a can I can heat on the stove, you bet I would.   Reality is so darned annoying at times.
But Reality is Our Friend—and can be our dogs’ Very Best Friend--if we embrace it.  Olag, Bessie, Flo, and Serena train their competition dogs every day, three times a day, in rigorously planned sessions.  Olag and Bessie, bless them, both use a motivational technique to improve drive in their dogs that involves hideous amounts of dashing--suddenly bursting into excited sprints and then whirling their (Malinois and Border collie, respectively) around at the end of a tug toy.  Reality:  I am old enough to be Olag’s mother and my dog outweighs Bessie’s by thirty pounds:  I can dash and tug only so much.  Lots of the exercises Flo uses are very effective and work like a charm; others, though, require patience and attention to detail that bore me silly, never mind my dog.  Serena’s Freestyle exercises are amazing and great fun, but the one where her Papillion jumps up and rebounds off her thigh doesn’t look like a good idea with my linebacker of a dog.
So in the end, unless I find a training guru who is very much like me (only better) and who has a dog very much like mine (only better), I’m going to have to pick-and-choose from all the wonderful methods, exercises and techniques spread out before me.  If I can only train once a day, find dashing problematic and can’t get Tinker interested in tennis balls, I’m going to have to adapt the Magic Bulgarian Police Dog Method or whatever to what Tinker and I can actually do without crashing into walls or wrenching my back.  And it just may be that the pieces of Olag’s program that I select as doable aren’t the pieces that led to his World Championship success.  It even may be that what led to Olag’s success has less to do with Olag—and his Method—than it appears.
It may be that Olag--in addition to his years of experience, thrice daily training sessions, ability to dash, excellent timing, true passion and dedication, a work ethic that won’t quit,  athletic body of an Olympic sprinter and opportunity to devote himself full-time to nothing but training, training and more training—has something else that you and I probably don’t have.
Olag has a purpose-bred dog from champion lines that was specifically bred for his sport.  So does Bessie.  Both of their sports require the highest levels of canine drive and athleticism, among other things.  Flo’s sport is less exacting athletically but requires precision, biddability and trainability; likely she, too, will have a breeding of choice.  Only Serena—in Freestyle, a relatively new sport where the competition isn’t yet as cut-throat and value is placed on artistry, inventiveness and creativity—is likely to be less fussy, since in theory she can take what a dog has and make it beautiful in its own right.  That’s one of the charms of Freestyle.  Though even for her, a three-legged Basset Hound or a dog with bad hips is probably out.
That having the right dog matters, and matters hugely, is obvious but somehow frequently over-looked in the unending quest for the Magic Performance Method.  Starting a new puppy and training it up to world-class level is an enormous investment of time and energy; top competitors aren’t going to gamble that investment on dogs of unknown quality regardless of their method.   People who compete at top levels or who need dogs for particular important jobs (leading the blind, search and rescue, police dog work) don’t just go out and snag any ole litter of random puppies in a box in front of a store.  They select very thoughtfully and carefully (and often obsessively) from lines of top breeders or they breed their own specialty lines to get, as much as they can control for it, exactly the physical and behavioral traits their sports require:  sound conformation, size, speed, quickness, courage, biddability, trainability, intelligence, nose and drive drive drive.
Because they know--the difference the right dog makes is simple.
It’s the difference between Ms. Streep taking me, with my measly starting 2 on the Act-O-Meter, and turning me into the next Oscar winner—versus taking an ambitious and extremely talented young actor who comes to her with an already established 7.   Or between poor Mr. Woods attempting to do something with my .5 pathetic golf swing vs. the game of a hot college golfer who already is a 6 or 7 or 8.  Give a seriously talented coach a seriously talented performer and amazing things can happen.  Give them me and the gap between 2 and 10 or .5 and 10 may be too wide for any method, however brilliant, to overcome.
We never like to hear this, in any form.  Our culture is steeped in a mythos of frogs turning into princes, Rocky winning the boxing match, the unlikely David slaying Goliath.  We love our underdog stories—the firm belief that anything is possible if we work hard enough, have enough faith and wish upon the right stars.  And I’d be the last person to deny it, because I love those stories too.  Of course miracles happen.  Sometimes. 
But the math is a little scary.  According to one good source that crunches a bunch of statistics, only 1 in 16,000 high school athletes go on to play professionally.*  At the end of the day, there are only so many teams in so many leagues with so many positions to fill:  not thousands.  Hundreds.  In dog agility, to pick one sport, there are only so many leagues holding so many trials—only one dog in each height of each class will finish first.  Getting titles is one thing:  in most doggy sports, the dog/handler team has to earn enough qualifying scores for that, and anyone (with the right dog) who is reasonably skilled, committed and puts in the effort has a shot at that.  Becoming a National or World Champion is another formula.  Elite world-class handler/dog teams, like in professional sports, are measured in a few hundreds, perhaps, not thousands.  Olag and Bessie are famous in their sports not because they are many but because they are so very few:  there’s only one spot for number one and it’s one.
What saddens me about this is how “method” gets unduly emphasized with little regard for the rest of the package.  This shows up in endless debates about “method” on Facebook or other social media groups, with the primary hot point being the use of punishment in dog training.  Inevitably, when the debate gets heated, somebody will trot out, “Nobody ever won the Muckety-Muck Dog World Title without using corrections.  Olag uses corrections.”
Olag, as we’ve already seen, does a heck of a lot more than that.  The proof is that most of the folks he beat in winning the title (and there are far more that lost than won) also use corrections and they didn’t win.  Winning a sporting event, especially at elite levels, is simply never a one-trick pony with everything riding on “method.”  Winning an elite event is always a Perfect Storm.  A talented handler has a talented dog, uses a solid, scientifically sound training system that fits the dog/handler team, prepares endlessly, practices their hearts out, gets to the trial and puts it all together.  They have a great day.  The handler avoids making any dire mistakes; the dog doesn’t make any dire mistakes.  They don’t get sick or injured at exactly the wrong time; another elite contender does twist an ankle just before the match.  It doesn’t rain—or it does and Olag’s dog loves working in the rain.  They’re showing under a judge that happens to like their style (yes, it matters) and the judge doesn’t mess up any calls (it can happen.)  All of Olag’s—or Bessie’s or Flo’s or Serena’s--hard work and experience, all of the dog’s talent and training, come together for a few magic moments and they give the world-class Winning Performance.
Perfect Storms are beautiful, swirls of all that talent, all that preparation, all that hard work, meeting just a bit of luck and the right circumstances and timing.  They can’t happen without the front end:  the talent, the preparation, the work—the 10 on the Train-O-Meter.  But there are marvelous Hall of Fame worthy golfers who didn’t win nearly as many golf tournaments as they should have simply because they had the misfortune to be playing their prime in the Age of Tiger.  There are beautiful actresses who gave heart-stopping performances who didn’t win their Oscar because they were nominated in a Meryl Streep year.  That little bit of luck, that dash of timing, a single tiny slip—it all matters.
And for every ambitious, talented child who rises through the ranks of the sand lot to the Big Show (the 1 out of 16,000) there are thousands and thousands of kids in Little Leagues and Pee Wee Leagues who leave the field in tears of shame and frustration.  The coach yelled at them; their parents yelled at them.  They dropped the ball or struck out.  They tried—they played their tiny hearts out—but they didn’t quite have the needed skill, the extra time to practice, a tip from a mentor that would have helped.  They weren’t as tall as the other kid, or as strong or coordinated.  They were on the team—and in sports there is always one on that end, too—that lost.  Many of these kids come away from the experience soured forever on sports, or with rotten memories of their parents, or with a terrible message installed in their heads at a fragile time:  I’m not good enough.  If the only thing that counts is Being Number One, only one in the field will count.  The rest are losers.
Most of us know better.  We know that sports for kids should be about things other than winning.  The competition should be a celebration of effort, of improvement, teamwork, building character and learning to do our very best and be gracious regardless of the result.  We—most of us—take a very dim view of tyrannical “stage parents” who bully and punish their tiny tots through all manner of performance weirdness—fashion shows and beauty pageants for 6 year olds, all the junior sports, school musicals and talent shows.   We—most of us—frown on parents and coaches who get so wrapped up in “winning” that they project their own frustrated egos and power trips into a game that should be fun and make the kids miserable for it.  And most of us would be seriously upset to find out that Coach took little Jimmy behind the barn and took a belt to his behind for missing a curve ball in the sixth inning.
I think we should consider this for our dogs, too.  For every one of Olag’s dogs that win a world title, there are thousands more competing in canine sports with no choice and no voice.  Those of us who own them—most of us without Olag’s talent, Olag’s dog, his experience or ridiculous work ethic—are amateurs in minor leagues.  And a 5 on the Train-O-Meter using Olag’s Magic Method is likely no more winning than a 5 using any other method, because 5’s are 5’s, not tens.  Merely adding permission to punish because “Olag does it and he wins world titles” isn’t going to boost our sand lot skills to Major Leagues. 
It is likely to send a whole lot of dog kids home in tears.
For those of us who enjoy performing in local theater or recreational sports, looking up to heroes like Meryl or Tiger or Olag doesn’t mean that we have to play the same game with the same values.  We don’t.  We’re not in it for Oscars or Majors or World Titles.  We’re in it for something else, something I find very beautiful.
The word amateur comes from the Latin amator—a lover.   We do it because we love it.  We participate in doggy sports because we love our dogs and want to do something together with them.  We know—most of us—that dog training and competition should be a celebration of effort, of improvement, teamwork, building character and learning to do our very best and be gracious regardless of the result.  We should also know and be proud and confident in this:  winning is only one measure of success. 
Another is Joy. 
Sure, I’d love to win a title or competition with Tinker.  I just have additional criteria for what counts as winning.  Because I am an amateur, because a World Title isn’t on the table, because I still have about 899 miles on the road of a 1000 miles to reach expertise in my method of choice.  I made a deal with my dog:  not at your expense.  Never at your expense.   If I can’t get a performance from Tinker that’s joyful, it doesn’t meet my criteria.  Because for me, joy is a measure of consent.  
So I’m not Olag, nor Bessie or Flo or Serena.  Maybe I’m not as strong, or fast, or patient, or graceful.  Maybe I’m not as experienced, organized or precise.  Maybe I will be one day--striving for excellence is part of the fun for me.  Until then, though, to copy their “methods” without copying the things that make their “methods” work is to stick a Rolls Royce hood ornament on my aging van and hope it’ll fix the engine.   It’s orange juice, blue feathers and unwashed socks:  magical thinking.
And it’s wrong.  Not because they are wrong—they aren’t the least bit wrong for them.  It’s wrong for me because their methods don’t always include my criteria:  that victory for us—for me and Tinker as a team--isn’t about putting winning first.  It’s about putting joyful, willing performance first.  It’s about a kid who leaves the sand lot beaming because she caught one ball, even if she muffed two and struck out twice.  It’s about the twinkle in the eye that says, this is fun, let’s play again.  It’s about, if I can’t train this with joy, I need to get better as a trainer.
It’s okay to put joy first.  It’s okay to play for love.   It’s okay to admit we will never win an elite world title with our dogs using our “methods.”  Neither will hundreds of people using Olag’s.  Methods are only direction; excellence is a 1000 miles of steps with no short cuts.  It’s not a trip everyone cares to make, and that’s okay, too.  If our goal is a part in the local theater’s production of Annie, a few strokes off our golf score or a better behaved pet dog around the house, Meryl, Tiger and Olag may be the very best at going 1000 miles but plenty of talented, experienced folks can get us the 89 miles we really need for success.  That doesn’t make us losers, less than the elite or less serious about achieving real excellence in those 89 miles.
It makes us lovers on a field of play that is every bit as valid as World Championships, only smaller and defined by victories more personal.
Of course, we can all drink more orange juice, borrow a blue feather from a movie set and get a super cool Tiger Woods golf shirt… who knows how far we might go?
(*From High School to Pro – How Many Will Go? Copyright 2006, Georgia Career Information Center, Georgia State University and its licensors.)

Note:  For anyone who wants a marvelous look at how true mastery and excellence is achieved in sports and other endeavors, I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s outstanding book The Outliers.

Two Things We Need to Know About Our Dog’s Performance (and Ours), Part I

Posted on November 2, 2014 at 11:09 AM Comments comments ()
I admit it: I am a Behavior Geek.  My idea of a wildly exciting night is curling up with my cats, my dog, a glass of warm milk and a DVD of the latest dog training seminar from some brilliant expert in the field.  These wonderful seminars and amazing experts keep me fresh, learning, in touch with all the cutting edge stuff.  They also make me think.  About dogs, dog training and us.  Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about performance.
My handy (and rather old) New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second College Edition offers this definition:
per·formvt.1. To act on so as to accomplish or bring to completion; execute; do, as a task, process, etc. 2. To carry out; meet the requirements of; fulfill (a promise, command, etc.) 3. To give a performance of; render or enact (a piece of music, a dramatic role, etc.)
We ask dogs to perform all the time.  We ask them to perform behaviors like Sit, Down, Come and Stay.  Dogs in various canine sports are expected to give athletic or “artistic” performances that “meet the requirements” of the sport.  As pet owners and trainers, we also have to perform lots of behaviors related to teaching the dog to do the things we want or partnering them in their sport.   And in general, the better we are in the performance of our teaching tasks, the better the dog will perform in their learning tasks.  Like, duh.  We know this and have known this for a very long time.
So it’s always amazing to me to watch these amazing DVDs and realize how very much we—pet-owner and trainers—struggle with even the basics of good teaching and training.
In workshop formats, owner-handler-trainers can bring their dogs with them to practice the skills they learn under the eyes and guidance of a Renowned Expert.   The folks attending are mostly canine sports enthusiasts, serious training junkies, high-level amateur competitors or professional trainers like me.  They are passionate and committed.  They are often skilled and educated dog people.  Their dogs are also pretty amazing, as we’d expect from that level of handler-trainers:  they have lots of previous experience in training and performance, and the coping skills to manage the less-than-ideal workshop environments.  Of course, no one really expects the dogs to learn much in the challenging workshop setting—the demonstrations and exercises are mostly for the attendees to get hands-on practice.   These attendees have gathered around the Renowned Expert to soak up more knowledge and improve their training skills precisely because they are advanced handler-trainers—and highly motivated to become even more advanced. 
So here we are:  a group of experienced, dedicated and skilled handler-trainers, a group of experienced, well-trained dogs and our Renowned Expert.  “Sally” comes up to learn the new exercise with her utterly gorgeous (Golden, Malinois, Australian Shepherd, rescue dog) in front of the group with the Renowned Expert to guide her.  Sally is lovely, a wonderful handler and an extremely generous person to step up and allow all of us to learn from her.  What happens next is almost inevitable:  Sally freezes like a deer in the headlights and proceeds to do just about everything wrong.
She drops her treats.  She clutches the leash, tries to power steer her dog into position, either fails to reinforce her dog’s good behavior or starts delivering a steady stream of random-for-nothing treats in a desperate attempt to hold her dog’s attention.  She can’t follow the simplest verbal instructions from our Renowned Expert, “Keep your hand out of your bait bag until after the click,” “Turn a little more to the right,”  “Loosen up the leash,” “Mark that!  Reward that!”  Sally nods her head and her hand goes into the bait bag, she never moves her feet, the leash remains in a death grip and the treats never make it to the dog.  The Renowned Expert—and bless her heart, she’s a renowned expert for a reason—gently and patiently tries to coach Sally through the moves, but it’s fairly hopeless.  Sally’s mind and spirit are willing but the body isn’t cooperating: the required motor muscle movements just aren’t there.  She can’t perform
The performance challenges Sally faces are perfectly hideous, of course.  She’s getting on a stage in front of a group—a perfect recipe for brain-lock right there.  Worse, there is a sizable professional camera rig aimed right at her—she’s being filmed.  Because she’s a wonderful dog handler-trainer, she’s keenly aware that 1) the environment isn’t ideal for her dog and she’s anxious about his response and 2) she’s deeply, stupidly in love with her dog (if she’s like me) and wants desperately for everyone to see how amazing he really is.  She is putting more pressure on herself to do well, to showcase the amazing animal she’s worked with so very much and so very hard.  Finally, she’s most likely at the Renowned Expert’s seminar in the first place because the Renowned Expert is someone she admires, and she wouldn’t be human if, on some level, she didn’t crave approval or have a desire to impress.   Add to all this the purely physical challenges of having to multitask in a new environment—handle the dog, execute her training moves, keep the right position for the camera, pay a fraction of attention to another attendee’s dog that’s sitting in the front row making stink eye at her dog and listen to the Renowned Expert at the same time.  In front of a group of her peers.  With the camera rolling. 
In a nutshell:  Sally is stressed.  Stressed with a capital “S.”  And one of the things that happens when we human beings are stressed is—we automatically revert to our most familiar, most practiced and most tried-and-true motor muscle patterns.   No creature in their right mind would “decide” that a highly stressful situation is the perfect time and place to invent or try out a brand-new behavior we’ve never done before.  When the heat is on, reach for the fire extinguisher you know will work, not a fancy new gizmo you’ve never tested before.
So there’s our Renowned Expert trying to coach Sally through a brand-new training protocol; there’s highly stressed Sally clutching desperately to the comfort-food motor patterns she’s always done successfully—or successfully enough—before.   What would help Sally the most would be to be able to “surrender” to and follow the Expert’s verbal directions exactly—to take those verbal instructions and instantly translate them into meaningful physical actions.  But that, it turns out, is a skill-set of its own. 
Simply being able to take the verbal instructions and translate them into meaningful physical actions is a learned behavior.  And it isn’t by any means universally learned:  it takes some specialty training.   The military is famous for it: the whole point of Boot Camp is to take a bunch of young rowdies and teach them to automatically, reflexively obey orders without hesitation or thought while seriously scary and dangerous things are going Boom! all around them.  (Which may explain the expectations in certain old schools of dog training—the military handlers all learned the drill of unquestioning obedience to verbal commands no matter what before they ever applied the same thinking to their dogs—but that’s another post, perhaps.)
Sally, alas, was not a Marine before she got hooked on dog training, but there’s still hope.  There are a couple of civilian contexts where that kind of skill-set is commonly acquired.  In--you guessed it!—arenas of performance like athletics and the performing arts.   Athletes learn during endless practice to translate a coach’s verbal instructions into concrete changes in how they move their bodies.  Actors, singers and dancers learn how to adjust their physical movements to meet the director’s requirements, to execute a step correctly, hit a note or deliver a line.  In many of these arenas, the performers learn to do it together as a team or a troupe, to develop a seamless give-and-take of cues, to multitask on their feet by maintaining their own individual performance criteria while at the same time adjusting for the movements of the people around them.  Getting it to all come together is a careful, often structured process of:  each individual learns each fundamental move or skill separately, then learns how to put the fundamentals together into an action or sequence, then starts combining them into more complex behaviors, then adds in the rest of the company a bit at a time.  After many many hours of practice, practice, practice, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse the behaviors become ingrained in the motor memory.  Team-mates and cast members can communicate massive amounts of information with a flick of an eye.  The coach on the sidelines can change the entire flow of the game with a quickly shouted, “Thirty-two right!”  Only then—finally—do we have a fair shot at getting a properly executed football game, Swan Lake or Hamlet.
We still may not get it, though.  It’s one thing to be able to execute all the right moves in the familiar warm-and-fuzzy setting of practice or rehearsal; doing it in the Super Bowl or on Broadway is another story.  Once again, we’re adding stress to the mix—an ingredient that seriously messes with our minds and our ability to perform.  We will likely never know how many truly astounding athletes or artists with world-class talent never had careers because of performance anxieties and stage fright, but there have been a lot.  Many very fine athletes and artists struggle their entire careers with performance demons—some of them are driven clean off the stage.  They have the talent, the drive, the work-ethic, the skills—everything.  But they just can’t take the stress.
Of course, not everyone responds to stress the same way—and not everyone finds the same things stressful.  Some performers feel so entirely at home on the field, court or stage that it simply doesn’t occur in their world as stressful.  Others experience stress as a magic juice that amps them up and puts them in a state of heightened performance.  Still others feel sick-to-their-stomach horrible while waiting in the wings, but as soon as they step out and the curtain goes up, they’re able to channel those pre-performance jitters into more positive energy.  However they do it, people who are highly successful performers do it.  They do it consistently.  They find ways to cope with stress, or to exploit stress to their performance advantage.  If they don’t—if they “choke” under pressure or fall apart when in the spotlight—they tend not to last as performers very long.
Which brings me back to “Sally,” the workshop and the Renowned Expert.  Sally—and most workshop attendees struggle every bit as much as Sally—is a lovely dog trainer-handler who, depending on her unique personally history, may or may not have any background in sports or the performing arts.   Being able to follow instructions while in the midst of a highly stressful situation—to take the verbal instructions and translate them into meaningful physical actions—may not be a skill she has worked on.  Being on a stage in front of a group may be a novel experience for her.  She’s probably rehearsed her dog’s Front & Finish hundreds of times, but keeping herself correctly oriented for a camera not at all.   And the workshop setting is nothing like the warm-and-fuzzy familiarity of the classes and practices at her training club, or even the familiar stress of a dog sports competition.  For one thing, because she is a good handler, Sally knows better than to toss brand-new moves at her dog in a competition run—they’re thoroughly rehearsed before she tries the tune out on Broadway.  Yet there she is, trying to learn a brand-new move herself in a super-charged goldfish bowl with everyone watching her. 
What becomes obvious in watching video of “Sally” and everyone like Sally (that would be most human beings) is—our big fancy cognitive brains don’t come to our rescue when we’re stressed.  Our big fancy cognitive brains may understand “Switch the leash to your right hand and feed in position with your left,” but it doesn’t seem to help.  The leash stays in a death grip in the left hand and the treats go wherever.  It’s so very common, there ought to be a Shakespearean quote about it somewhere:
Alas, to every trainer’s day shall fall
That stress makes goofballs of us all…
You know where I’m going with this next, of course.  I’ve been talking about us—Us!—with our big fancy cognitive brains, our exceptional capacity for learning via abstract verbal language, our amazing ability to visualize our desired future outcomes and prepare—at least mentally—for the required performance in advance.   Us!—and our own performances falling apart.
Our poor dogs.  Bless their hearts, they don’t have our big fancy cognitive brains.  They don’t have our capacity for learning via abstract verbal language.  They can’t look out on an agility course, read the numbers on the cones, develop a mental picture in advance and visualize the run they’re supposed to make.  They can only look to us, here and now, for the cues and signals we give them:  this is what I want you to do.  We expect them to unquestioningly, unthinkingly obey our cues—to take our verbal instructions and translate them into meaningful physical actions—immediately,all the time, every time.  But we can’t do that ourselves most of the time.  Dang.

So many things we should think about, and be more thoughtful about in our training...
If our cues are wonky—if we’re unclear, inconsistent, late, sloppy, distracted, not paying attention or just plain not giving our dogs enough useful information—well, the Team can’t perform “Thirty-two right!” if they don’t get the message clearly and in time to respond.
If our dogs are stressed out—and oh boy, are they stressed out sometimes—they may “hear” us but they’re going to do what we do:  they’re going to revert under pressure to their most familiar, most practiced and most tried-and-true motor muscle patterns.    Stress—whether because something is scary or exciting or just unfamiliar—does the same thing to dogs as it does to us:  makes it difficult or impossible for them to follow even simple instructions.   Not because they don’t “know” how to Sit, but because the part of the brain that knows it is overwhelmed by signals from another, more emotional part of the brain that hasn’t got a clue.  Like Sally “knows” perfectly well what, “Keep your hand out of your bait bag…” means.  She can’t do it, though, not when she’s stressed, and neither can her dog. 
Our dogs can’t perform on “Broadway” if they haven’t been prepared for it.  We need to remember that exposure isn’t remotely the same as rehearsal and practice:  simply having 100 visitors come over to the house or walking by 100 dogs on leash isn’t going to teach the dog the performance we want.  Rehearsal and practice mean the dog is carefully coached to Sit for each of those 100 guests, or guided to keep a nice, loose-leash heel position while paying attention to us as the other dogs go by.  And as we place better, faster, harder and more complicated performance demands on our dogs, we need remember to include a plan to reduce the (often inevitable) Stress and increase the (often desperately needed) Cope.
Our dogs can’t perform behaviors they don’t know or haven’t learned.  Imagine yourself at a party with someone shoving you toward the karaoke machine and pressuring you to have a go at Over the Rainbow.  Of course you “know” Over the Rainbow—you’ve seen the movie often enough, right?  You might, if you’re a ham or an exceptionally good sport and the scenario is only mildly to moderately stressful to you, have a shot at a successful performance.  Provided, of course, that you do know Over the Rainbow.  And how to sing, or close enough.  It can be done.
If, on the other hand, I ask you to have a go at one of my favorite songs, the love duet between the Vixen and the Fox in Leos Janacek’s darling opera The Cunning Little Vixen—in the original Czechoslovakian, please—you will very likely hit a wall.  It’s very possible that you won’t know the tune I’m asking for:  you’ve never heard it before in your life and you won’t have a clue what I want.  If you have heard it once or twice, unless you’re a trained opera singer, you know Czechoslovakian and you have studied the score—you won’t be able to give a successful performance, you simply won’t.   You won’t know how.
Sometimes we ask our dogs to sing songs they really do know.  But we ask at parties, before we’ve taught the dog to 1) enjoy and be relaxed at parties--without performance demands, 2) enjoy and be relaxed performing easy, familiar songs at parties and/or 3) cope with performance stress or anxiety at parties.   We forget that dogs are like us:  just because they can sing it in the shower doesn’t mean they’re ready for Broadway.
Sometimes, though, we ask our dogs to sing complicated songs in a foreign language that they’re not remotely ready to perform:  they don’t know what we’re asking, or how to do what we’re asking.  Here, I think we forget that dogs aren’t like us:  we think something is as easy as Over the Rainbow when it’s really an unfamiliar Czechoslovakian aria to our dogs.
Too much Stress and not enough Cope is a wrecking ball to good learning and good performance, for us and for dogs.   And I think we underestimate how stressed our dogs are, how much we’re asking them to do in situations that they find difficult, confusing or even frightening.  Like us, dogs are individuals with unique combinations of personality, learning and performance ability:  we all have our Stress-O-Meters dialed to different set-points.   Just because one dog can do it, or ten dogs can do it, or our last dog of the same breed could do it, doesn’t mean the individual dog in front of us right now can do it.   Some people love singing karaoke at parties.  Some would rather have a root canal.  One dog’s party is another dog’s stress, just like us.  
So the next time your dog’s performance falls apart—whether it’s a competition run or sitting politely for guests at home or walking by another dog on the street--remember The Sally Rule of Performance:   
If it can make the handler/trainer fall apart, it can make the dog fall apart.
(Part Two—Soon to come!)