eileenanddogs

Category: Stress Signals

Shut Down Dogs, Part 1

Shut Down Dogs, Part 1

I recently wrote a post about the phrase “calm submissive” as promulgated by Cesar Millan.

I said that the phrase (actually Cesar) was misguided and confused. Not to mention wrong.

For Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” means, “I can do stuff to this dog and it won’t react.” It is equivalent to what we would call “shut down.”

And we can easily see what that portends for most dogs. “Calm submissive” is emphatically not about teaching a dog to relax or be calm. So today I am going to talk about the real state that many dogs are in when they seem to go really quiet: shut down.

A Group Delusion?

One of the things that repeatedly surprises me is when I see the “big-name” force trainers Continue reading “Shut Down Dogs, Part 1”

Calm Submissive

Calm Submissive

According to the well known TV personality (I won’t call him a trainer) Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” is a very desirable state for your dog to be in.

A small dog is lying on her right side in the dirt. Her legs, belly, and face are tan. She is black elsewhere. Her legs are stretched out in front of her and her head is on the ground. At first glance she looks relaxed, but her front legs are actually stiff and one is being held off the ground.
Is Zani calm? Check out her left front leg before you decide.**

OK, I don’t even want to begin to address the word submissive. So far I’m just thinking about “calm.”

Here is a dictionary definition:

Free from excitement or passion; tranquil.

A black dog with tan on her face and front legs is seen to be sitting. She is looking down.
Zani shut down

My friend Diana and I were discussing seeing the difference between a shut-down dog and a calm dog. I have some video footage, soon to be published, of Zani in a shut-down state. (It was long ago and she had been rude to little Cricket, who snarked at her. For whatever reason, that time it upset Zani greatly. She shut down and tuned the world out for about half an hour afterwards.) Diana said it would be great to contrast the shut down state with photos or video of Zani when she is calm, so as to help demonstrate the difference.

So I started thinking how I would film Zani being “calm.”

First of all, I realized calm is not a behavior. It is an emotional state, but it can sometimes be observed by physiological signs. I would say they include:

  • slow to moderate heart rate
  • slow to moderate breathing
  • relaxed muscles or muscles being used smoothly
  • lack of signs of arousal or excitement

I tried to list positive signs first, but it is easiest to see calm as a lack, yes? Like the definition: free from excitement. In a dog we might notice:

  • lack of barking
  • lack of panting
  • lack of excitement
  • lack of trembling
  • lack of running around
  • lack of jumping on people or chewing the furniture
  • …ad infinitum.

Calm as Contrast

I’ve also realized that in English, “calm” is frequently used as a contrast word. What picture does the following sentence bring to mind?

Henry calmly got out his wallet and removed his driver’s license.

What did you visualize? I bet 9 out of 10 people visualized Henry being stopped by a police officer. The word “calm” in such a sentence would be emphasizing that Henry is cool under pressure, and/or innocent of any law breaking.

Did anybody visualize Henry lying on a couch, watching TV and drinking beer, reaching idly into his wallet to take a look at his license or show it to his girlfriend?  <<crickets chirping>>

Yet even if Henry were a really coolheaded guy, he would probably be much more calm in that situation than when being confronted by a police officer.

The more I think about it, the more examples I can think of where “calm” is used to in a situation where there is something exciting or stressful going on. “Julie was calm in the face of danger.” “David is calm under pressure.” We even say that dogs give “calming signals.” They are generally stress indicators.  Calm is usually noted as a (desirable) reaction to something stressful. Whereas the word relaxed, though related, describes a physical/mental state only and doesn’t necessarily imply as much about the surrounding environment. So it’s kind of hard to photograph “calm.” It’s comparative.

a sable colored dog and a smaller, black and tan dog are on the top step of a porch. They are both looking to the left. The sable dog's commissure is pushed a little forward. The smaller dog is just looking.
Zani and Summer look at a cat

Here’s a “calm by contrast” photo. Summer and Zani are looking at a cat. Summer is starting an agonistic pucker of her mouth and is standing up. Zani, by contrast, is sitting. She is watching attentively but not braced as readily for action. She is more calm than Summer. But is she “calm”? Maybe about as “calm” as Henry was when taking his driver’s license out for the cop.

Calmness in Dogs

At first I couldn’t decide whether to say Zani is calm most of the time or never. In a dog as well adjusted as she is, one tends to take a certain amount of calmness for granted.

But actually, living with Zani around the house, I would rarely call her demeanor “calm.” She’s either asleep, or she is active. When she’s interacting with the other dogs or me she is alert, in the game,  responsive, high energy, even wired. And it was pretty telling that I couldn’t find many pictures or videos in which she looks “calm.”

We Glupling Trainers tend to work on calmness with dogs for whom overstimulated emotional states are a problem. In other words, it’s for their benefit at least as much as it is for ours. My dog Summer is reactive. My dog Clara is feral and also easily overaroused. These dogs need help being calm. So we practice things like Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol and straight relaxation, as in this video I made with Clara.

I’ve always been sure Zani, like any dog, would benefit from those exercises, but frankly, it hasn’t been high on my list. That is, until I recorded a bunch of footage of the dogs doing crate and mat exercises this morning. From watching the recordings, I saw that I have probably underestimated the stress in Zani’s life. Up till now, I haven’t worked on calm with her because she is a trouble-free dog for me. I’m feeling a bit like a self-centered jerk after watching that footage. Some dogs are amazing for putting up with us at all. She is very sensitive. But that’s a topic for my next installment.

Here are the “calmest” pics I could find of Zani, but in the ones where she is cocking her head, she is working me for a treat. She tends to snap to attention when I get the camera out.

Cesar is Confused

Isn’t that a nice way to put it?

Cesar often calls dogs “relaxed” or “calm submissive” when they are motionless but frightened out of their wits, as indicated by trembling, stiffness, rolling eyes, or the release of urine. You can see him do that in this video analysis of “Showdown with Holly,” if you can stomach it. At 3:19, he says, “See the relaxation.” I think he says that basically because Holly is lying down. It’s clear when the camera turns her way that Holly is far from relaxed. But Cesar is not famous for his ability to read dog body language.

For Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” means, “I can do stuff to this dog and it won’t react.” It is equivalent to what we would call “shut down.”

In contrast, the most important state for my dogs to be in, at any time, is “happy.” After that, I value alert, responsive, cooperative. Excited some of the time, calm when appropriate.

As I write this, Zani is sprawled at my feet in the position I call “flounder,” as in the very first photo at the top. She’s lying flat on her side with her head down. Is she calm? No. She is completely alert, offering that funny behavior, trying to get me to give her a treat. And that’s perfectly OK with me. For now. But I need to observe and analyze just how much of the time she is “working.” Maybe I, too, have been  guilty of assuming that a dog that doesn’t bother me is “calm” a lot more often than she really is.

I really thank Diana for her part in helping me to see this.

How about you? Can you define “calm”? How would you take a picture of it? Have you observed or filmed your dogs being calm?

Thanks for viewing! Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** A note about the first picture. This is not an appeasement display. But neither is Zani relaxed. She is offering that behavior because she thought it up and I have reinforced it. You can see that she is holding her right front leg stiffly out from her body. Her eyes are staring straight ahead and not soft. She is working for a treat.

Dogs Who Are Eating Can Still Be Stressed

Dogs Who Are Eating Can Still Be Stressed

People often say that a way to tell whether your dog is “over threshold” is whether she will eat or not. While this can be a strong indicator, it’s not true 100% of the time.

A head shot of a tan dog with a black muzzle. Her eyes are brown and pupils are dilated. Her ears are pinned back. There are muscle ridges in her forehead. The skin along her jaws is drawn tight. She looks very, very stressed.
Clara is stressed and over threshold

First let’s go over what people generally mean by “over threshold.” In dog (and other animal) training, “over threshold” Continue reading “Dogs Who Are Eating Can Still Be Stressed”

The Look of Fear

The Look of Fear

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 is afraid

What happened to little Zani while I was at work one day? Summer was in the crate. Cricket was in the other room. But something had gotten Zani very very worried, and she took a long time to recover.

I have already written about and published many pictures of my feral dog Clara when she was frightened and stressed at the vet’s office.

Now I’m sharing what Zani looks like when she is frightened. Continue reading “The Look of Fear”

Yes, You May Comfort Your Dog!

Yes, You May Comfort Your Dog!

Summer is afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other booms and squeaks
Summer is afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other loud noises

Just a quick reminder for the upcoming fourth of July holiday in the U.S. with the attendant loud booming noises.

  1. Behaviors can be reinforced.
  2. Emotions can’t.
  3. Fear is an emotion.
  4. If you comfort your fearful dog, it doesn’t somehow “reinforce” the fear and make them more scared next time.

But don’t take my word for it.

Take Dr. Patricia McConnell’s: You Can’t Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms

Or Suzanne Clothier’s: Calming the Fearful Dog

And this post by Tena Parker has both information on fear and also some other great safety and preparation tips: Fearful Fourth of July

Everybody’s dog is different. Maybe your dog profits from just hanging out with you. Or maybe you make her more nervous and she’d rather get in a crate. If she isn’t too scared to eat, maybe she would like a food toy. You can judge what helps the most.

At my house, whenever possible during fireworks or thunder, we all troop to the bedroom. Summer gets on the bed with me and cuddles. I give everybody spray cheese every time it booms. Clara and Zani consequently LOVE thunderstorms. And Summer feels better being near me and profits from the routine.

Thanks for reading! You can go cuddle your dog! (And keep your gates locked and your dogs’ identification items on.)

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

But It’s Unhealthy to Protect Your Dog from All Stress!

But It’s Unhealthy to Protect Your Dog from All Stress!

Not all training sessions are stressful
Not all training sessions are stressful

“But it’s unhealthy to protect your dog from everything! If you do that, it’s just like overprotecting your child. They won’t be able to cope with the real world!”

This is another one of the criticisms one often reads about force-free training. It is generally presented by someone advocating the use of aversives in training. They’ve found another reason to say training with pain is necessary. They can say it’s all for the future good of the dog!

What is Stress?

The question of stress is one that I have given some careful consideration to. Stress has many definitions, but here are a few pertinent ones:

“A physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”–Merriam-Webster online

“The non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”–Hans Selye, 1936, the Hungarian endocrinologist who coined the word.

(Selye also coined the word eustress: “Stress that is healthy or gives you a sense of fulfillment.”)

Is Stress OK At All?

Clearly stress is a serious deal, but maybe not all bad. I believe:

  • little stress can be beneficial to learning; and
  • the optimal amount of stress for learning varies inversely with the difficulty of the task.

How to Use this Information About Stress

If little bit of stress can sometimes be a good thing, how on earth would you do that in a humane way? In the first place, not with positive punishment or negative reinforcement. That means not by hurting, scaring, or pressuring your dog if they make a mistake or to get them to do the “right” thing.

Introducing aversives into training as a way of preparing the student for the real world doesn’t make sense. That’s like deciding, “I want my kids to be able to cope with the real world, so I’m going to pinch them whenever they make a mistake doing their math homework.” 

Huh? I really hope that’s not the type of world you’re planning for your child or dog. As strange as our world may be, that’s not something that happens very often. (Plus, way to go! Isn’t your kid going to just LOVE math now!) Much more often, if your daughter grows up to use math in her job, the difficulty will come if she has to do it while 1) the person in the next cube in her office is playing music; 2) her boss just fussed at her; or 3) she has a sick kid at home.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Those are real life stressors.

In psych experiments, stress is induced in humans in a variety of ways, but generally by exposing the humans to something stressful before or during the actual work of the experiment that is not contingent on their performance of a task. It may be social pressure, a self control exercise, or something like a cold pressor test, where a person is asked to leave his or her arm immersed in extremely cold water as long as they can stand it. (There are certainly experiments with all sorts of animals and humans where various unpleasant or painful things are used for punishment, and we would do well to heed the outcome of those experiments. My point here is that you don’t need contingent aversives to raise a person or animal’s stress level.)

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 8.56.53 PM
Summer attentive and involved in leash practice

So if a little stress could be OK, can we get any ideas about how to fit it into a humane training structure? You bet!

Summer stress on porch
Summer stressed and distracted in same session

Enter Mr. Skinner and his cohorts. Contrary to his popular image as someone overly cerebral in a white lab coat who trained animals in a completely sterile environment, Skinner was also passionately interested in human education. Preparation for real world situations was a cornerstone of his methods.

Skinner believed that an animal or human did not have to make mistakes to learn the correct behavior or answer. I haven’t gotten to the original Skinnerian source yet, but this has been borne out in subsequent research. (Here’s one of several articles: “The Implicit Benefits of Training Without Errors“)

This brings up so called “errorless learning” again, since making errors is generally considered to cause stress, even when teaching with positive reinforcement. During Skinner’s time there was much discussion about whether stress was necessary or beneficial to learning.

Here is a very interesting quote from “B.F. Skinner: A Reappraisal,” by Marc Richelle:

Skinner […] insisted on building the required behavior with as few errors as possible, the ideal being errorless learning. This was subject to debate among the first generation of specialists, some of them arguing, on the contrary, that errors have some virtues and that in any case they can never be completely eliminated in practice. One must admit that a natural life environment does not provide many occasions for errorless learning, and that education should prepare for real life, which implies some tolerance of failure and frustration. (bold added)

Skinner didn’t even consider the use of punishment in teaching. He said, in “The Technology of Teaching, A Review Lecture” (1965):

“Teaching is the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement under which students learn.”

and

“…aversive control is the most shameful of irrelevancies.”

Punishment is not considered. So when he says that education should prepare students for tolerance of failure and frustration, how did he mean to do that?  By making the learning process more challenging to the student. And there are at least two ways to do that:

  1. By deliberately making the presentation of the material itself faster or more challenging; and
  2. By allowing the learning to take place in progressively more difficult and distracting environments.

I submit that in training our dogs, it takes no special effort to expose them to environmental stressors. They happen all the time! It does take an effort to make sure that the challenges we give our dogs are gradual and fair.  Noise, activity from other dogs, riding in the car, being left alone, meeting strangers, uncertainty in a routine, extremes of temperature, being boxed in or confined, being on leash, being in a new environment, and dozens of other things can all cause stress in your dog, especially if she has not been prepared for it. People ask their dogs to perform in these situations frequently.

Don’t you think there is much more danger of overdoing it than underdoing it?

Zani stress sniffing in her leash practice session
Zani stress sniffing in her leash practice session

Real Life Example

Here’s an example video of something that sounds pretty benign: I was practicing leash, Zen (self control), and attention exercises with my dogs Zani and Summer on my front porch. There was quite a bit going on. In the video you can see Zani give a little flurry of stress signals when a dog barks loudly. She works at paying attention and recovers nicely. Summer was also working hard to pay attention but the situation was more difficult for her. They both got practice dealing with a stressful distraction, but I think Zani’s was just at the right level, and Summer’s was a little too tough for her. See what you think.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

By the way, we practiced the next day, and Summer handled some similar distractions with less apparent stress. The video on my post about my dogs working for kibble has  some of the footage of Summer from the next day. (The footage of Zani in that video is mostly the same as that in the video above in this post.)

Most of us do need to teach our dogs to be able to pay attention in challenging environments, just like we ourselves need to learn that. Think of all the times you had to learn something or perform a task where perhaps there was lots of noise. Or you had a sore toe. Or you just had a fight with a loved one. We ask our dogs to the the doggie equivalents of those frequently and we often don’t even know it!

The argument that you need to use aversives in training in order to teach your dog coping skills is a completely empty one.

Are you conscious of what makes your dogs stress out? Have you been able to teach them to cope? I’d love to hear about it.

Thanks for reading!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2013                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Est-ce que votre chien veut VRAIMENT être caressé ?

Est-ce que votre chien veut VRAIMENT être caressé ?

Picture of a small black and tan dog leaning away and giving "whale eye," where a small crescent of white shows at the edge of her eyes, as a person reaches out to pet her.
Zani dit NON.

Pour mes visiteurs français.

Est-ce que votre chien veut VRAIMENT être caressé ? (lien)

En anglais

Merci à Stéphanie Michenaud et Nathalie Perret du Cray de Balade Ton Chien pour leur aide.

Note to all my international readers and viewers: I will be happy to make more translations of this movie, if you want to help.  Thanks to Stéphanie and Nathalie, if anyone wants to volunteer to translate, I can send a text document that has all the English from the movie, with spaces left for translation. It takes me only a couple of hours to change the text in the movie, and I can usually do it within a week or two of receiving the translation, depending on what else is in the queue. Hoping to get some takers!

And of course if you want to translate any other movie or post I would be flattered and will work with you on that.

Thanks for watching!

Merci d’avoir regardé !

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2013

Dog Facial Expressions: Stress

Dog Facial Expressions: Stress

Clara: Relaxed vs Stressed
Clara: Relaxed vs Stressed

From 2013.

Poor Clara had her yearly vet visit this past week. She is my feral dog, and although I have two socialization sessions with her every week and she is making great progress, I have not worked with her at the vet. Going to the vet is graduate school, and she’s just to 7th grade or so.

So what do you do when you have to put your dog in a situation for which they are not ready to be comfortable? What I did was take lots of food for distractions and get through it as fast as possible.

For Clara, getting shots or other procedures that cause a bit of pain is not the problem. Being in a building with other people and dogs in close proximity, and being handled and restrained by strangers is. This is by far the most frightened she has ever been at the vet’s, probably because Continue reading “Dog Facial Expressions: Stress”

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