eileenanddogs

Category: Stress Signals

Is That “Smiling” Dog Happy?

Is That “Smiling” Dog Happy?

Maybe, but maybe not!

We humans tend to get warm and fuzzy feelings when we see dogs “smile.”

It’s true that some dogs’ mouths open in a cute smile when they are relaxed and happy. But a dog with his mouth open could alternatively be panting from pain, stress, or fear.

Can we tell the difference?

The following pairs of photos show my dogs stressed (left column) and relaxed (right column). The dogs have their mouths open in all the photos.

The usual disclaimers apply. When you run across someone’s still photo with no context, you can’t fairly make assumptions. It might have been taken during the millisecond in which a dog changed his expression. It could be misleading for a dozen other reasons. Videos are better, but we still miss context and may lack knowledge about the particular dog. But in this case I can vouch for the emotional states of my dogs, and I believe they are accurately represented by the photos with recognizable indicators.

Mind the Mouth

What all these photos have in common is a common “tell” regarding the dog’s emotional state. Look at the corners of the dogs’ mouths, also known as the commissures. In all cases, they are drawn back and stretched tight in the “stress” photos. In most of those photos you can also see the muscles bunched up in that area.

The photos have other indicators of the dogs’ emotional states as well. For instance, three of the stress photos have what is called a “spatulate” tongue, also usually connected with stress. The dogs’ eyes are markedly different between the stressed and relaxed photos as well.*

 

 

 

I hope these comparison photos can help some folks figure out their own dogs’ facial expressions, and maybe overcome our wiring–which is very difficult–to assume that an open mouth means a happy dog. Please share this blog post wherever it might be useful. The photos may also be used for educational purposes if credit is given. I’d appreciate it if you would drop me a line through the sidebar contact telling me about the use.

You can see labeled versions of the “Clara stressed” photos (and many more) in my post Dog Facial Expressions: Stress. You also might be interested in my Dog Body Language Posts and Videos page.

Many thanks to Julie Hecht at Dog Spies for giving me the idea for this post. 

*Patricia Tirrell points out that the dogs’ brows are furrowed in most of the “stressed” photos as well.

Related Post

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Fear?

What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Fear?

Summer is afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other booms and squeaks
Summer has gotten less afraid of thunder

Note: I have retitled this blog to change the word phobia to fear. This reflects that Summer was never diagnosed with a phobia, so I shouldn’t have used that word. Unfortunately, I can’t change the wording on the video.

Is it weird to write a post saying that something really shouldn’t have worked, but look, it kind of did? Is it irresponsible even? I keep wondering why I feel the need to explain all the strikes I had against me for this project. I certainly want to be responsible and not give people false hopes that if they try something they will have great success. But at the same time, I want to show something that did help my dogs.

Continue reading “What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Fear?”

Thresholds: The Movie

Thresholds: The Movie

Summer, a sable colored dog is lying down on a step with a toy in front of her. Her eyes are wide and her ears  very far back and in motion. She is reacting to a noise and looks extremely fearful. She is at the threshold of a fear response.
Summer at the instant she reaches threshold of fear

I have made a movie about thresholds in dog training. It gives a quick overview of the work that I presented in my webinar for the Pet Professional Guild. (Click here for a complete script of the video; or expand the audio (only) transcript below the video.)

The threshold webinar is still available as a recording ($10 members/$20 non-members of PPG) and I encourage anyone who is interested in thresholds to view it.

Also, I have previously published a blog post on the topic: Thresholds in Dog Training: How Many?

If you are a visual learner, the movie will probably be helpful. I spend a lot of time explaining the diagrams, and have an animation of what happens to the thresholds as we train.  The movie also has video examples of dogs and stimuli over the thresholds. (Plus it has a threshold of hearing test! How cool is that?**)

Threshold Movie Script

[Dogs barking]

>>EILEEN ANDERSON:

Have you ever heard a dog trainer use the term “over threshold” and wondered what it meant?

A threshold is the point or level at which something begins or changes. That’s the standard dictionary definition. But the interesting thing is that there are actually three physiological and psychological thresholds that are important when we are training our animals.

The first threshold we need to know about is the sensory threshold as defined in psychology. Here’s a definition: “The faintest detectable stimulus, of any given type, is the absolute threshold for that type of stimulus.” Have you ever heard the term, “threshold of hearing?” Right now during this slide I am playing a high frequency hum. Can you hear it? If not, it is under your threshold of hearing for that frequency. If you can hear it, it is over the threshold.

The sensory threshold is involved when our dogs are able to see, hear, or smell something new in their environment.

Another threshold is the threshold of reactivity or fear. This is the one people usually mean when they say their dog is over threshold. The most general definition of this threshold is the point at which the sympathetic nervous system responds when the animal is afraid. This causes chemical changes in the body and overt behaviors usually falling into the categories of fight, flight, or freeze.

Dogs who are aggressing are generally over the threshold of fear. Here are two other examples of dogs over that threshold.

[vet clinic noises]

>>EILEEN:

She’s panting, but it’s not hot.

She’s hyper vigilant.

Trying to escape, or hide.

And trembling.

This dog is practically paralyzed with fear.

But there’s one more threshold, and it’s located behaviorally between the other two. If one threshold is where the dog sees something, and another is where the dog freaks out about it, what’s in between?

The point at which the thing becomes aversive, where the dog starts to be uncomfortable with it.  This could be called the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Here is an example of a dog in a situation where a stimulus is over the threshold of aversiveness. In other words, she is stressed about something in her environment, but so far she is holding it together.

[Neighborhood noises: siren in distance, children talking, birds, a sudden thump]

>>EILEEN:

She repeatedly licks her lips and looks behind her.

She’s responding to my cues, but she’s worried about the noises.

In my webinar on thresholds in dog training, I made diagrams of these thresholds, and discussed where each of our common training protocols falls among the thresholds. Here is a summary of those diagrams.

The black line represents distance from or intensity of the stimulus.

All three of the protocols discussed here take place over the threshold of stimulus perception, since the animal has to perceive the stimulus to learn about it.

The combination of desensitization and counterconditioning is correctly practiced under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Protocols that use negative reinforcement straddle the threshold of stimulus aversiveness. The animal is exposed to the stimulus at an aversive level, and escape from the aversive level of the stimulus is used as a negative reinforcer for appropriate behaviors.

The closest proximity to the aversive stimulus may be more or less than I show here; the important point is that negative reinforcement protocols have to cross the threshold of stimulus aversiveness to work.

Flooding takes place at or above the threshold of fear.

The thresholds aren’t always spaced out nicely. For example, if the threshold of perception and the threshold of aversiveness are very close together in space, a trainer using desensitization/counter conditioning would probably not use distance as the initial way to keep the stimulus non-aversive. The trainer would probably use a different form of the stimulus first. This configuration of the thresholds is probably common with wild animals.

Likewise, if the threshold of stimulus aversiveness and the threshold of fear are very close together, a negative reinforcement protocol would be very difficult to perform without risking flooding.

Finally, the thresholds move because of environmental factors, the animal’s stamina and psychological state, and of course as we train. This is what we hope will happen as we train.

For more information on thresholds, please see the links to my webinar and blog in the video description. Thanks for watching!


Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Surprising Progress on Thunderstorm phobia
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”  
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** For the auditory people, musicians, and nerds among us (I’m all three): I used an iPhone app to generate a high frequency sinusoid (15.5 kHz) and recorded it for the movie. I used an oscilloscope app to make sure that the sound was playing during that part of the movie, through my own computer anyway. It’s just below my threshold of hearing. Younger people can probably hear it, if their computer speakers can generate it.

7 Common Dog Training Errors: More Cautionary Tales

7 Common Dog Training Errors: More Cautionary Tales

I have to admit that I likely have a fair number of readers who look forward to reading about my mistakes. But hey, I asked for it, from the very first day of the blog.

My previous post on common dog training errors was very popular and I’m very happy to see it still making the rounds! So here are seven more, five of which I have personally made in spades.

(1) Too much freedom too soon 

The person who should be ashamed is me!
The one who should be ashamed about this is me!

Boy, this is an easy mistake to make. I bet a large percentage of problem behaviors and damaged property (and so-called “dog-shaming” photos) can be linked to this one simple error. Lots of times our hearts overrule our heads. Let’s say you just got a rescue dog. You feel very badly about his history. You work part-time  and you plan to crate him when you go to work. Only problem: he hates the crate. You can’t stand putting him in it the first day you go to work. The idea breaks your heart. He’s sleepy anyway when you get ready to go, so you just leave him loose in the house. You come home to poop in the corner, a chewed carpet, and some overturned plants. What a bad dog! No, he’s just a dog who hasn’t been taught the house rules yet. (Jean Donaldson’s book The Culture Clash explains this heartbreaking misunderstanding about dogs in an unforgettable way. It will change how you look at your patient, long-suffering dog forever.)

When I first got Summer, I had never had a puppy or an active adolescent dog before. I didn’t realize you couldn’t give dogs cardboard to chew on, then expect them to know not to chew up the books that were in a bookcase at floor level. I learned on the fly how to limit Summer’s opportunities to self-reinforce inappropriately, but with my two subsequent dogs I doled out freedom much more carefully from the get-go.

(This is not a how-to post, but in the case of the dog hating the crate, if you have to go somewhere before you have conditioned your dog to love a crate, most would recommend you use an exercise pen to enclose a safe space for him, or gate off the room of the house that is easiest to clear of tempting but forbidden items. And of course, leave him plenty of permissible activities, such as stuffed food toys.)

(2) Value of reinforcement too low

Last time I talked about rate of reinforcement, but what about the value? What if you ask  your dog to run a complete agility course for some kibble?  Or when she finally works up to 30 minutes quiet in the crate, you give her one piece of carrot? Or maybe you are trying not to use food at all, trying to get good results from your dog merely from praise or pats on the head (which are actually punishing for many dogs). No matter how frequently you praise, that just isn’t going to cut it with most dogs.

Chunks of dark meat chicken on a plate, round disks of dog food roll, a ziplock bag with pieces of dog food roll
Yummy stuff!

Food, especially good food, not only motivates your dog, it makes the communication in training crystal clear. When your dog gets a great treat repeatedly for the behavior you want, it makes it very clear to her that this is what pays off. There is no muddy water. If your dog is not responding eagerly in training sessions, check not only your rate of reinforcement, but the quality of it.

I have written about my own experience with Summer, who was highly distracted by her environment and just not really into the work we did. My food reinforcers, though high value, were cut in too small pieces.  Once I rectified that, the nice chunky new treats passed value to training in general and we got over the hump. She is now a training junkie and works eagerly for kibble.

I might also mention, once more, that what is yummy is defined by the dog. I was going to make a photo contrasting chunks of meat with something lower value. I thought of using bread, then remembered that my dog Summer will do anything for white bread. It pays to know these things!

(3) Over-using negative punishment

Negative punishment is defined as follows: Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often. It often takes the form of a penalty or time-out.

Pulling the treat away when Zani moves out of a sit
Pulling the treat away when Zani moves out of a sit

The thing about negative punishment is that it meshes so perfectly with positive reinforcement sometimes. Too perfectly. It’s an easy default method. You start to hand the dog a cookie for staying in position. The dog starts to move out of position to get it, you pull the cookie back. You walk into the room where the puppy is in the crate. She starts to cry when she sees you. Oops! You turn on your heel and walk away. Or how about this one? You are teaching your dog the cups game, where she figure out which cup has the treat under it, then indicate that somehow. She guesses wrong and indicates the wrong cup. You immediately pull both the cups away.

These are all terrifically easy, and often effective ways to train. In all cases there is a penalty for the incorrect behavior, and it is the disappearance of the goodie the dog was  on the cusp of earning.

It surprises some people that negative punishment is at the same level on the Humane Hierarchy as extinction and negative reinforcement. Most trainers are more “OK” with negative punishment than negative reinforcement, but I think Dr. Friedman is telling us that we need to look at each case individually.

Negative punishment is punishment. It suppresses behavior. It can be unpleasant for the learner. It can directly inhibit them from trying stuff. Two of my dogs, Zani and Clara,  tend to shut down very fast if I pull an item away from them because they have taken the wrong action, as in the cups game example above.

I treat my own over-use of negative punishment as a symptom. When I find myself using it or being tempted a lot, I ask myself what it is that I have not sufficiently trained. If my dog is pulling out of position to get a cookie, there were probably holes in our stay practice. If the puppy regularly whines in the crate, I have lumped somewhere.

I’m not sure if this is an error in the same category as the others. It’s more of a value judgment. Negative punishment is still much more humane than some alternatives. But I invite you to look beyond it, whenever you find yourself or your students using it a lot.

(4) Treating in a sub-optimal position or manner

Pulling Cricket out of position for her treat
Pulling Cricket out of position for her treat

Well, there could be a whole treatise here. I am a former expert at this. You can see in this movie about Cricket in her Prime, from the very first scene, that I built into her training a little leap up for the treat in almost all behaviors. Partly because she was small, and partly because she was so intense, and entirely because I didn’t know any better. In the picture to the right, even though I had already clicked, how much better would it have been to treat her down on her mat rather than letting her jump up into the air? The position of your treat delivery can help train the behavior.

Then there’s the difference between throwing, dropping, or handing over treats. Throwing treats is very exciting and fun for lots of dogs. In certain situations it’s perfect for setting up another iteration of what you are practicing and buys you some time. So would you want to do that every time you click your dog for another increment of relaxation if that’s what you were practicing? Probably not. On the other hand, if your dog is slower than you’d like on some rapid-fire behavior, throwing treats for her to chase can amp things up.

And yes, I get the irony between the picture of my deliberately pulling Cricket out of her sit for a treat, and the picture of my pulling the treat away from Zani when she breaks position. Same picture. Hmm, I wonder how Zani learned to break position in the first place…

(5) Making training sessions look like “training” and not real life

Guilty, guilty, guilty. That’s me. This one is similar to “Failure to generalize,” in the last post but it’s more, um general. When you fail to generalize a behavior, a dog knows how to do it in one location or situation, but not another. So once your dog knows “sit” in all sorts of places and situations, is there something more you should do? You bet. Did you have your treat pouch on during all of those sessions? Or have your clicker and a pocketful of treats? Did you cut up the treats just beforehand? In other words, is everything about the situation screaming, “This is a training session?” Then good luck getting Fluffy to sit the first time your best friend comes over and you are having coffee at the kitchen table. It’s not just the possible lack of treats. It’s a completely different situation for your dog.

So first, the food. Your dog needs to learn that she might get a food treat even if she hasn’t seen all the signs of “training session.” One way to do this is to cache little covered containers of treats out of your dogs’  reach around the house and even the yard or your walk route. Casually, outside of a session, ask your dog for a sit. (Start off in the less challenging situation, of course.) Voila: out comes something really good from a jar on top of the bookcase! You can pull treats out of the sky!

Think about what else indicates to your dog that you are about to train? Do you gather up some props? Get your clicker? Put the other dog in a crate? Take your phone out of your pocket? Believe me, whatever the habits are, your dog knows them. So prepare to surprise your dog. Just like with any other training, start simple and raise your criteria. One of the main reasons most people train their dogs is to make them easier to live with. This won’t happen unless you integrate their training into real life.

(6) Clicking or marking without treating

I still see questions about this. “When can I stop treating for every click?” The answer is, “Never.” Although there are a few rarer training systems where one click does not equal one treat, if you are a beginner, forget about them for now. The clicker (or verbal marker if you use that instead) gets its power from being a perfect predictor of good things to come.

Now, it’s perfectly OK to fade the use of the clicker over time. You don’t have to click or mark every single time your dog does what you cue.  And over time, with skill, you can use food less and life rewards more. But if you click, give a treat, unless you just clicked something totally disastrous. One missed pairing out of 100 click/treats will not ruin the meaning of the clicker.* But just remember the look on your dog’s face when you don’t give them the promised treat, and do your best not to make that mistake again. Because clicking the wrong thing was your mistake, not your dog’s.

(7) Too long a delay between the behavior and the consequence: assuming the dog makes a connection when they can’t

I once read on a dog chat forum some comments by a man who was fervently defending punishing a dog when he got home and found out that the dog had done some misdeed–perhaps an elimination problem or the dog tore something up. He was incredulous that anyone would question his punishment; he said, “But dogs have great memories!”

Yes, they certainly do. His dog probably remembered peeing in the corner or how good that shoe tasted. But how exactly is the punishment supposed to be connected to that deed from hours earlier? The dog has performed hundreds of behaviors since then. Showing the dog the pee or the shoe does not connect their earlier action to whatever punishment is being doled out.

Consequences for behavior need to be very close in time to the behavior for behavior change to occur, and not just for dogs. A behavior analyst named Kennon Lattal has been the go-to guy since the 1970s for studying the effect of time delays and intervening events between behaviors and  reinforcers for people and all sorts of animals. In one famous experiment he tried for 40 days (one hour a day)  to shape a pigeon to peck a disk while delaying reinforcement for each behavior for 10 seconds. The pigeon never got there. When he changed the time delay to one second, the bird learned in 15-20 minutes.  (Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, Fifth Edition, 2003, p. 160)

So, actually two lessons about treat timing here: when you are training, deliver those treats (or tennis balls, or whatever) as quickly and efficiently as you can. And in day to day life with your dog, don’t assume that if you give them a goodie or a talking to, that they can associate it with something they did 5 minutes or 5 hours ago.

Any of these strike home with you? Care to share? I can’t be the only one making these mistakes, can I?

This post is part of a series:

Coming Up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

*There are eminent people who say you shouldn’t fail to treat even in this situation, even once.

Is My Dog a Drama Queen?

Is My Dog a Drama Queen?

“My dog is such a drama queen!”

“My dog is so manipulative, she overreacts to everything!”

“That dog is not really afraid, she’s just being a diva.”

Have you heard any of these?

A few months back, I posted the following picture on a Facebook group for comments. Continue reading “Is My Dog a Drama Queen?”

The Right Words, Revealed

The Right Words, Revealed

Last week I published four “deceptive” photos in  A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words, But Are They the Right Ones? As promised, here are explanations and context for the photos.

#1 Zani doing “Whale Eye”

Zani whale eye
Zani whale eye. Is she stressed or fearful?

Below is the photo in context (it’s #3 of the 4). Zani had been looking at me, turned her head to look at something, and when she turned back to me, her eyes moved first. Sometimes “whale eye” just means the dog turned her head or her eyes alone. Click on a photo for a larger view.

Reader Diana had nailed it in the comments last week, by the way. Here are the “right words”:

Zani’s head, body and tail are all in alignment and tail is out. The whale eye results from looking without turning her whole body. Eyebrows are lifted but eyelids lack tension and pupils are not dilated. Ears lifted at base. Mouth is closed but not tightly.

Also note that in the two photos published here in which Zani is looking back at me (in the direction of the camera), her eyes and the muscles around them are very soft.

Here, for contrast, is a photo of Zani with whale eye when she is afraid. This picture is also featured in my post, “The Look of Fear,” where Zani’s fear response is discussed in detail. You can see whole clusters of fearful body language in the photos in that post, as opposed to the photo above that shows “whale eye” on an otherwise calm dog.

A small black and tan/rust dog is crouched on a green and brown couch. She is leaning away from something (not visible) to her right and looking back in that direction. You can see the whites of her eyes. She looks scared.
Zani scared

#2 Summer looking slightly crazed

Summer stiff still
Summer: Is it a seizure?

This, of course, is not a seizure but a play photo. The uncropped version is below, along with a couple of others from the play session. It is from Zani’s first month in the household, and Summer and Zani played almost constantly in those early times. Summer’s play always has an edge to it, to my eyes, but I supervised very closely, and Zani kept going back for more. Summer and Zani have never had a fight.

Here is the photo uncropped, and two other stills from the video. Click on them for larger versions.

#3 Clara doing “whale eye”

Clara whale eye
Is Clara stressed?

Clara was in her crate in the car. She looked forward to see what I was doing, and couldn’t turn her head far enough. You can see how her neck is pushing on the bars, and her nose is in the very corner of the crate. She would have had to stand up to turn her head farther, and apparently didn’t think it was worth it. She is generally very relaxed in her car crate and sleeps much of the time.

#4 Pride being “naughty”

Pride Naughty
Pride posing #1

This, of course, is a highly trained behavior. Pride didn’t even lift his leg to pee in real life. The reason I include it is how his face looks in the photo. The set of his mouth and his narrowed eye with a tiny bit of white showing make him look, anthropomorphically speaking, rather sneaky or crafty. (Keep in mind that “guilty” looks are generally appeasement signs in dogs, and do not correlate with misdeeds.)  And this isn’t even a guilty look, just a combination of circumstances.

Marge Rogers, who trained the behavior and took the photos, says it was luck and just one of those moments in time. Directly below is another photo from the session from comparison. In that photo you can see that Pride is clearly watching Marge and the camera attentively. I think perhaps both photos demonstrate the awesome eye contact Marge gets from her dogs.

Pride #2
Pride Posing #2

In case you didn’t notice last time, Marge sets up these photos for her wonderful Rhodesian Ridgeback Rescue Christmas cards

So that’s “the rest of the story.” Thanks for reading!

Coming up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Oh No, I Broke my Dog!
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words…But Are They the Right Ones?

A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words…But Are They the Right Ones?

Here are four photos that are probably not as they seem. I’m telling you that up front. This isn’t a trick.

The shutter speed of a typical digital (or analog) camera is far less than a second. Especially if your dog is in motion, that fraction of a second might look terrible. How many pictures of yourself do you have with your eyes half closed and you look like a zombie? (Oh, is it just me?) But all you were doing was blinking. Camera angle and lighting can do strange things as well.

There is a lesson here, and it is this: We can’t judge definitively from a still photo. We can use them to learn to observe, but because it is only a fraction of a second, our interpretations, even if based on excellent observations, could be completely wrong. We can come to much better conclusions from a video, but even then, if we don’t know context, I think being conservative in our assumptions is a wise move.

With that said, take a look!

Zani whale eye
Zani in the grass

The above photo of Zani is a video still. She looks–at least–concerned. So-called whale eye is often an indicator of fear. In my followup post (next week) I will show the surrounding frames of the video. Feel free to discuss in the comments. What other body language indicators can you see and what might they indicate?

Summer stiff still
Summer on the bed

This photo of Summer on the bed is also a video still and it is cropped. I used to use it as an avatar on social media until a friend told me it looked like Summer was having a seizure. She wasn’t, but you know, it actually does look that way. In my next post, I’ll show the photo uncropped, and some other stills from the video. Care to speculate?

Clara whale eye
Clara in the car

This is a photo I snapped of Clara in her crate in the car. Why might this whale eye not indicate stress?

Pride Naughty
Pride at Christmas

And finally, this incredible shot that my friend Marge took for her “Naughty or nice?” Rhodesian Ridgeback Rescue Christmas card. How did she get this photo and why does Pride look so crafty?  The photo has had some color and lighting adjustment and some cleanup, but Pride’s face and body have not been altered.

Photos remain incredible learning opportunities. And as we are learning body language, they are one of our main tools. For example, I have made available this complete set of labelled photos of poor Clara when she was extremely stressed out. I can vouch for them. She was stressed out of her mind and there are multiple signs of that in the photos. Perhaps in general, the more indicators you see in a photo that there is stress or any particular emotional state, the more likely it may be true. (I’m thinking that one over.) But with a still photo, it can’t be a guarantee.

What do you think?

Coming up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Oh No, I Broke my Dog!
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Shut Down Dogs (Part 2)

Shut Down Dogs (Part 2)

Cane corso rolled
The video from which this still is taken says that this dog has “submitted and become relaxed”

This is Part 2 of a two-part series.

In Shut Down Dogs, Part 1 I talked about the fact that people appear to believe and say that a shut down dog is relaxed or calm since it is motionless. In that post I included a video of my own dog Zani after she had been scared by an air snap from my rat terrier.

In this post I am putting my money where my mouth is. I have put together a compilation of clips from many published movies in which dogs are either motionless or moving in very guarded, unnatural ways. In most of the examples of motionless dogs in the movie, the narrator says that they are “relaxed.” They are far from it, and it takes no advanced knowledge of dog body language to tell.

In the clips of dogs demonstrating very guarded, unnatural motion, no one is saying that they are “relaxed,” but in all cases they are from videos that are supposedly showcasing successful training. Their behavior is obviously thought to be desirable. The dogs just happen to be scared and intimidated out of their minds.

Most of us learned in elementary school that animals both in the wild and domesticated may become motionless and freeze to hide and protect themselves. People, too! We have seen the careful movements of animals who are scared. So we actually should know better than to confuse stillness with relaxation across the board. But our cultural mythology about dogs–which I must say I have not been immune to–trumps that. It is like the Emperor’s New Clothes. So many things we take for granted about dogs are obviously wrong once we learn to actually perceive the dog in front of us. And when we learn just a little bit of science, we can start to see through even more misconceptions.

The video is pretty unpleasant, but I hope it communicates. Please feel free to distribute far and wide if you think it is helpful.

Note: You may see ads on this video (alone among all of my videos). That’s because the owner of one of the clips I included under Fair Use made a copyright claim to YouTube. He is allowing the video to stay available with his clip in it, but gets the revenue if the ads are clicked on. Those few pennies he might get are worth it to me to keep this educational video available and intact. But of course I hope you don’t click on the ads. 

Link to “Shut Down Dogs” video for email subscribers.

Shock trained dog "Coming to Heel"
Aversively trained dog “Coming to Heel”

Dogs in Motion

A special note about the dogs that are shown in motion. At least two of the three clips show shock trained dogs, and I suspect the third does too.

Although some breeds deal with it better, including those who are bred specifically to stand up to high use of aversives in training, there is often a certain look to dogs who have been trained with shock.

These dogs move with extremely inhibited movement, as if they are afraid of getting one toe out of place. They do not wag their tails (they usually tuck them). They hunch their bodies and keep their heads down. They are apathetic and guarded. But their movements can be quite jerky, as you will see in the video of the German Shepherds. When cued to get up from lying down they move as if shot out of a cannon, then pack themselves around their trainer and slow back down. (It’s pretty easy to guess how that was trained.)

Also, and this has been remarked upon by others, in two of the clips when the dogs lie down on cue, they do so in slow motion, very carefully, as if every muscle and joint is hurt by the movement. You can see this in the clip with the German Shepherd Dogs and the last clip with the white dog.

Shelter Dog Photos

I did not put clips of these dogs into the video, because in these cases the humans involved correctly and sympathetically identified that the dogs were extremely stressed. I am including the pictures here as more good examples of shut down dogs. They are all traumatized by the shelter environment and probably experiences from before they entered the shelter. (All three of these dogs are said to have recovered and were adopted.)

Each dog is avoiding eye contact and has a body posture which is avoidant and drawn in on itself. The papillon and lab both have visibly roached backs and tails tucked close to their bodies. All three dogs were unresponsive or avoidant of  human touch in the videos.

Relaxation

light tan dog with a black tail and muzzle lying on her right side, relaxed, on a navy blue mat
Sometimes I find it hard to believe I actually taught my dog to do this!

So if watching the “Shut Down Dogs” video is like taking some bad-tasting medicine, don’t worry, you get a treat afterwards!

I have also compiled a video of dogs in various stages of relaxation, and most importantly, who are being taught to relax using positive reinforcement and classical conditioning.

We’ve got a variety of techniques going on. With Clara I used marking for stillness (since I had already messed up and marked too quickly for relaxed behaviors and got a dog who flailed around). In the photo above, she is less relaxed than she is in the clip in the movie, but I still claim bragging rights. (You can still see some slight, telltale wrinkles in her forehead.) She can get to that state faster and faster these days, and in more stimulating environments.  With Summer I marked for progressively more relaxed behaviors. It worked well because she is lower energy. I also did Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol with Summer.

Sarah Owings used Nan Arthur’s Relax on a Mat method from Chill Out Fido: How to Calm Your Dog. Marge Rogers used several techniques, and demonstrates the On/Off Switch Game from Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed. Elizabeth Smith demonstrates settle on cue (after exciting activity) from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. Tena Parker describes the method that got her an amazingly relaxed dog at a noisy agility trial and many other chaotic environments in the article: Help, My Dog is Wild!

A word about classical conditioning and Dr. Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation. (The link is to an old version of the Protocol that is somewhat out of date but it gives the idea. The newest version can be found in her new book.) Rather than specifically reinforcing relaxed behaviors, the Relaxation Protocol only asks of the dog that she perform a down, and the trainer does progressively more active and potentially arousing things in prescribed orders. Walking around, trotting, clapping hands, backing up, going through a door, ringing a doorbell, saying hello to someone (imaginary), etc. After each action, the dog gets a treat. What it teaches the dog is that when she is on her mat, whatever happens out in the world doesn’t matter. She doesn’t have to respond to it. She can zone out and not worry. After the dog “gets” the basics of the protocol, you can start working in many other events and actions to let the dog know that they are also “no big deal.”

I’m pointing this out because you can see something interesting in the video. In the short clip I clap my hands, give Summer a treat, then jog in place, then give her a treat. She flops down on the mat after each treat, but the interesting thing is that each time I finish my activity, her ears pop up, anticipating her treat. She knows from oodles of repetitions that the treats depend on my actions, not hers. That’s the result of classical conditioning. Each weird action on my part predicts something good.

Summer is moderately relaxed on the front porch
Summer is moderately relaxed on the front porch

I have also reinforced relaxed behaviors with Summer. I’m sharing the photo on the left to show a step towards relaxation in a more stimulating environment than our front room. She is not as relaxed as she can get, however, given that she is on the front porch with a view of the street, a very exciting place for her, her level of calmness is coming along nicely.

If you want to see even more stills of relaxed dogs, check out the cute ridgebacks in Shut Down Dogs, Part 1.

Link to the “Relaxed Dogs” video for email subscribers.

Conclusion

I will be accused of cherry picking videos with particularly miserable dogs. That’s not what I was looking for. There are plenty of those, let me tell you. The point of this post is to show that a certain segment of the population finds the behavior of shut down and forcibly restrained dogs desirable (and makes up stories about them being relaxed). That was my criterion: videos demonstrating that people have illusions about certain behavior (or lack of behavior) from dogs.

Videos of intimidated, apathetic, or frozen dogs are dead easy to find. People post them on YouTube to show off their training skills, to “educate,” or in some cases, to let their friends laugh at their dogs.

I think they perfectly demonstrate what Dr. Jennifer Cattet describes in her thoughtful piece “When is Controlling Our Dog Too Controlling?” A demonstration of the desire to control, not such a great thing to start with, gone completely amok. When the dogs are controlled down to the level where there is no spark of life left in them.

In contrast, what you see in the section on teaching dogs to relax are dog owners who are training a behavior for the benefit of their dogs. Sure, it helps the owners, too, but it directly makes for a dog who is more comfortable in this world of ours. I believe it is a big hearted thing to do.

I hope this comparison of shut down intimidated dogs and relaxed dogs was helpful. Anyone want to share more relaxation techniques?

Coming up:

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Another Look at a Fearful Dog

Another Look at a Fearful Dog

A small black and tan dog sits in a woman's lap. The dog's ears are back, her mouth is tight, her brow is very tight. She looks, and is, extremely afraid.
Zani is petrified

Little Zani is not sound sensitive in general. She thinks thunderstorms and fireworks are great, since they predict spray cheese at our house. Things like vacuums and generators she is good with. And she hears various beeps, dings, and various other sounds from my computer and phone all day without any apparent adverse response.

So why she is petrified of the quiet chirp of a low battery from the smoke alarm I do not know. I do know that when she does get scared of something, it can take her quite a while to bounce back, as I described and showed  in The Look of Fear.

I am finally learning to change all the smoke alarm batteries on a schedule (Summer doesn’t much like that noise either, but doesn’t get in quite such a panic), but every once in a while one goes low anyway. Since I rarely know which alarm it is, I remove all the alarms in that part of the house and get them outside quickly. I usually take them to my office on the next work day and test and replace the batteries well away from home.

The footage of the video was taken about 20 minutes after the little “chirp.” Zani was still in full panic. This is one of the few times she wants to be in my lap, and she is insistent about it. Of course that is fine with me. I had already been sitting in front of my computer, so I turned on the webcam to get a minute of footage. This didn’t make her situation more difficult for her in any way; we just continued to sit there.

A small black and tan dog sits in a woman's lap. The dog's ears are back, the corners of her mouth are pulled back, her brow is very tight, and her mouth is open and her tongue is hanging out a bit. She is extremely afraid, but since her mouth is open from panting, some people might think she is "smiling."
This is not a “smiling” dog

 

It is hard to see, but she was trembling violently. You can see the panting, which is purely from stress. It was not warm in the house, and she only pants in the hottest of weather, and then only briefly. She doesn’t particularly enjoy petting at the best of times, so I just let her sit in my lap and lean on me, and spoke to her now and then.

The most clear sign of stress for me is the extreme rictus of the corners of her mouth (commissures). Even though we tend to associate the open mouth of a panting dog with a “smile,” the stretched commissures (and ears pulled back) tell otherwise.

Link to video for email subscribers.

I labeled some of the basic signs of stress, but there are many others. What all do you see?

After about half an hour I decided to see if I could distract Zani. She went outside with the other dogs, but quickly wanted back in again. She was able to respond to a cue to get on her mat, and a few bites of one of her favorite foods (commercial turkey meatballs) brought her back to herself and ended the panting and trembling, although she still wanted in my lap. I let her sit with me some more, and you can see some of the fatigue leftover from the fear response.

A small black and tan dog is lying in a woman's lap, with her head hanging over the woman's arm. The dog's eyes are closed or she is gazing downward.  She is exhausted.
The aftermath: Zani worn out from stress

We had one more hurdle, and that was going to bed that evening, since she had been in the bedroom when she heard the smoke alarm. But she came in of her own accord, staying close to me, then planted herself on my lap in the bed. By morning she was acting normally.

I plan to perform desensitization and counter conditioning to help her over this fear, but it will be very tricky. Since that noise is quiet anyway, it will be a real challenge to find a way to start with it quiet and/or far away enough that it doesn’t trigger the fear. I may vary the pitch and start with a lower frequency beep that doesn’t fall into the “scary chirp” classification. I know I can’t completely prevent these chirps from happening, and sound sensitivity generally gets worse over time. So I am very motivated to help little Zani with this.

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8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales

8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales

As the great trainer Bob Bailey says, training is simple but not easy. The principles are very simple and straightforward, but actually applying them in practice can be very difficult.

I’ve mentioned many times that I am not a professional trainer. But I hang out with some phenomenal ones. Plus, I am a student of life and tend to do lots of observation of myself and others. (What, you had noticed?)  And I don’t mind sharing my own errors if it can help somebody along.

Here are eight of the top booboos in dog training. All of which I have done myself, and many of them on camera! (And guess what, I have 15-20 more! You can expect more posts on this if people enjoy this one.)

And by the way, these are errors made by trainers who are using the most humane methods they know and can learn. The list would be much different if it addressed mistakes made by trainers who make heavy use of aversives. I don’t want to write that list right now!

What Can Go Wrong?

(1) Allowing the dog to rehearse the behavior you’re trying to eliminate. One of my trainer friends says this is the #1 problem she runs into with her clients. A client will say, “I bought my dog a bed for his crate and he chewed it. I bought him another one and he chewed it. I bought him another one and he chewed that one, too. I’ve bought him five beds and he’s chewed them all.”  That dog is getting really skilled at chewing beds, and has found a way to occupy himself in his crate.

If a dog has a problem behavior, it’s because that behavior has been reinforced. (Chewing is fun for dogs!) Usually not deliberately by us, but reinforced nonetheless. So we don’t tend to “count” it in our minds. But it’s just as if we had given the dog a cookie every time he chewed the bed, or jumped on the couch or whatever. But if we want to teach them to do something different, we also need to prevent those fun rehearsals of the “wrong” behavior and stop that reinforcement.

Desirable door behavior
Desirable door behavior

For example, you want to train your dog not to crowd up to the back door and rush out when you open it. That behavior is reinforced every time she does it if you immediately let her outside. When you start to teach polite door manners, you doubtless start the training with an “easier” door. You practice with an interior door, and work on the behavior  you want. You reinforce with food.

Undesirable door behavior
Undesirable door behavior–see the linked video–>

But in the meantime, every time you take your dog into the back yard to potty, she continues to crowd up to the back door and rush out when you open it. Getting outside is obviously a potent reinforcer and nothing has happened to stop that. To get the new behavior in place at the back door, you will have to prevent your dog from practicing the old one. That can be a challenge without using aversives, but can be done. With three dogs, our back door behavior is a work in progress, but those bad habits do on occasion get reinforced. And reinforcement “on occasion” is enough to keep them alive and well.

The classic example of rehearsed behaviors and conflicting reinforcers is walking on a loose leash. If you let your dog pull you, using the same gear you use when trying to teach loose leash, that behavior gets reinforced every time that pulling gets the dog where he wants to go, just as purely as if you had given him a cookie for it. That’s why trainers always tell you to cease walking the dog or at least use completely different gear if you must walk the dog, if you are simultaneously trying to teach leash manners. You are shooting yourself in the foot otherwise.

(2) Lumping. Lumping means failing to break the behavior you are trying to teach into small enough steps. For instance, you are teaching your dog to get on a mat and lie down. Your dog is beginning to understand your cue. You stand right next to the mat and give the cue. Dog lies down. You stand two feet away from the mat and give the cue. The dog goes to the mat and lies down. You put the mat in the corner of the room, go back to the center of the room with your dog, and give the cue. Your dog says, “Huh?” Lots of misunderstandings between humans and dogs could be ameliorated if we just took enough baby steps when teaching a behavior. Here is a post about lumping, with a video starring my dog Zani, who lets her disapproval of my behavior be known.

Small black and tan colored hound looking at her trainer with her mouth open. There is a piece of tape on the wall behind her.
Zani says, “Quit that lumping!”
Zani can sit on a crate
Sitting on a crate was Zani’s idea

(3) Neglecting to generalize cued behaviors. Dogs are great discriminators. They notice every little thing in the environment. It’s all pertinent to them. They are not as good as we are at generalizing. And it is very very hard for us to get that through our human heads.

If a dog knows “sit” when in the kitchen facing east, she may not know it while standing on the piano bench in your front room facing north. And she almost definitely won’t know it if you lie down on the floor next to her or stand on your head before giving the cue. All along you thought she was responding to your verbal cue, but she actually was responding to the fact that she was standing in the kitchen facing east, and you have a clicker and treats, and you said a word (which turns out that it probably could have been any word). All of that was actually her cue. I have several movies showing dogs who respond incorrectly to a cue because of the human failure (um, mine) to help them generalize.

And here’s my moment to plug Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. The Training Levels are the best training program I have ever seen to build generalization into every step.

(4) And that leads to…not knowing what the dog’s cue actually is. It may not be what we think it is.  They are generally paying attention to our body language and props way more than we think. Almost all of us (border collie owners excepted, grin), think that our dogs understand verbal cues better than they actually do. I have lots of experience with this, having been blessed with two dogs who are probably less proficient than average at verbal cues. I have yet to teach them, despite many repetitions, some simple word discriminations that some breeds and individual dogs seem to pick up very fast. To really know whether your dog understands a verbal cue or not, you need not only to practice generalization, but get yourself out of the picture for the final exam. I have a fairly embarrassing post and video where I was trying to test my dog’s knowledge of the difference between her “crate” and “mat” cue. I didn’t realize until I saw the film that I was still cuing her with my body.

(5) Trying to train when dog is too stressed. Just about anybody who has gone to a dog training club has either done this or seen this. The dog is trying to take in this noisy, chaotic environment full of other people and dogs. Even if the dog is not scared of strange people or dogs, the noise and chaos make everything difficult. This is where it pays to know and observe your dog, and do some homework on dog body language.

It's not hard to tell if Clara is too stressed to train
It’s not hard to tell if Clara is too stressed to train

Here are some posts, photos, and videos of mine showing a stressed dog, a fearful dog, my own shut down dog, and some other shut down dogs. While some dogs can respond while stressed or fearful, a good teacher will help you work with your dog to get her comfortable in the environment before ever starting to teach “behaviors.” Most would agree that learning to be comfortable in a difficult environment is a more important lesson than learning to sit on cue. And it will really pay off in the long run.

(6) Not being aware of the dog’s responses. This is a more general version of #5. Once one starts learning about dog body language, it can be a revelation to watch videos of one’s own training sessions. You may learn that you are making your dog nervous when you ruffle his fur. Or that he ducks strongly away when you reach down to pat his head. You may learn that you are leaning far to much into your dog’s face. You may learn that you are unwittingly doing something to jazz up your dog when you are trying to teach a relaxed, duration behavior. Or like me, you may learn that your dogs are way more sound sensitive than you thought. (I had the camera on behind my back when I recorded this video.)

(7) Using a verbal cue too soon. I mean, we want to do it at the very beginning, and that’s exactly what not to do! It seems to be almost innate for us to assume that dogs do or “should” understand our own native human language. If you grew up in the “say ‘sit’ and push the dog’s butt down” generation, it is hard to imagine anything else. But remember, the word “sit” is a cue. It is a green light that says, “if you sit now, reinforcement is available.” But attaching that cue to the behavior is a latter step, not the first step. Chanting “Sit, sit, sit,” does not instruct your dog what to do. And doing the butt push move means that the first thing that Sit means is “Mom is about to push my butt down.”

The better way of looking at it, as Sue Ailsby describes it, is that we say to the dog, “That thing you are doing–we’re going to call it ‘Sit,’ OK?”

The first step is to get the dog sitting repeatedly. You can lure, capture, or shape. But it’s a good idea to keep your lip zipped and don’t let that cue come out. Some people say you shouldn’t use the cue until you are willing to be $100 that the dog will sit.

Here is a little video I made of Clara as a puppy. This is the very first time I had used a verbal cue for “down.” I had already gotten predictable and repeated downs by arranging the environment that way. Do you see how startled she is the first time I use it? It’s only the second verbal cue she has been exposed to. As far as she’s concerned, I have interrupted the game we were playing.

(Watching the video today makes me realize I know her better now. According to #6–watching the dog’s responses–I might have ended earlier. Her tail is wagging with a rather low carriage and she is working very hard for a wee one. She was more stressed than I would like.)

(8) Rate of reinforcement too low. “Rate of reinforcement” means the number of reinforcers per unit of time, for instance, per minute. When teaching a new behavior, and particularly to a dog who is new to training, it is desirable for the RoR to be very high. Dogs who know you have treats and are playing a training game but can’t figure out the rules of the game tend to get frustrated, lose interest, or even wander off. It is our job as trainers to arrange the teaching so that the pupil can have a high success rate and therefore a high rate of reinforcement.

Here’s a video of some behavior drills I did with three of my dogs. The highest rate of of reinforcement was in Zani’s first session: 12 treats in 43 seconds. That’s a treat about every 3.5 seconds, or 17 treats per minute. All of the other sessions shown came to a treat about every 5 seconds, which would be 12 treats per minute. Many of the behaviors had a little duration on purpose, so that’s not bad. I checked the video of puppy Clara I linked to in #7 above, and I delivered a treat about every 5 seconds in that one as well.

By the way, I made this list of booboos before I realized that I had examples of so many of them! How about you? Have any suggestions for my next post on this? Bonus points if you’ll step forward and show an example!

Other Resources

Here are a few other articles on common errors. I got a few ideas from them, but most of the above were from my own head and some trainer friends’ heads.

This post is part of a series:

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