Category: Enrichment

No Stalking while Walking!

No Stalking while Walking!

A white dog with reddish brown ears and ticking is standing on grass and alertly watching something off camera
Lewis watching a man in the neighborhood move his trash can

I’ve been walking two to three dogs every day since April 2021. One of my goals is to give them the most fun and freedom possible within the constraints of walking on leash in a suburban neighborhood. I have a post in the works about the ways I work on these goals. But in the meantime, I’m sharing this fun contrast in the behavior of three dogs.

I minimize the control I put on walks with the dogs. They are on leash, but I give them all the freedom I safely can. I have very few “rules.” There are many paths through the streets of my quiet neighborhood, and they get to choose. I live at the end of a T intersection, so even at the beginning, there are three directions to go. I don’t have a rule forbidding backtracking, which makes for walks that are foreign to a goal-oriented human. One of my dogs (Lewis) sometimes takes “walks” that don’t even go anywhere and seem chaotic to this human. We often spend a lot of time with him doing power sniffing in my front yard in the flowerbeds. That’s his choice, so that’s fine.

A white dog with reddish brown ears and ticking is sitting in a street next to a driveway looking at something off camera.
We stayed here for about five minutes while Lewis watched a rabbit

A friend recently asked me what rules I do have. Keep in mind we walk in the suburbs, and the dogs are on six-foot leashes. I said 1) a dog can’t go over six feet into someone’s yard; 2) no staying out in the middle of the street for too long; 3) If there is a car parked on the street, we walk around it on the outside (the street side) together rather than walking in someone’s yard; and 4) the dog needs to follow my lead when I have to intervene, say, if a car is coming or we need to avoid something.

But I forgot one rule. The fifth rule is no stalking: no turning to follow other walkers at a close distance after they pass us. The funny thing is that all three of the dogs I walk with want to stalk, but for three different reasons.

Clara

Clara is curious. Even though she was formerly feral, and her human social circle is four persons big, she is curious about people. Just not in an affiliative or sociable way. She’s interested in the same way she might be attracted to an inanimate object with a novel smell. Plus people move, so that makes them more interesting! But not as…people.

When we were playing catch-up socialization at the shopping mall when she was young, she got comfortable enough that she wanted to follow passersby so she could get a good whiff. You can see it in the video at the above link. I let her do it sometimes in that locale, since stalking was less obvious with lots of people milling around. But if you are walking on a suburban street and someone passes you, they will notice if you instantly turn around and follow them. So I don’t let her do it immediately, although if she still wants to when they are a socially acceptable distance away, I let her follow or at least watch.

Lewis

Lewis is often aroused on his walks. He is reactive, but in an excited Tarzan manner. People and dogs thrill him. He might give off a bark or two when he sees a person, but if they beckon, he will be all over them. Literally all over them if I don’t intervene. We don’t interact with most people we see. There are three whom we stop and say hello to. But for those others who move on—nothing would make him happier than to follow them, see what they’re up to, and catch up and jump on them.

Choo Choo

Choo Choo is my friend and partner’s chihuahua mix. She had a rough start in life and has many fears. Over several years, she has learned to go for walks. She enjoys it and has become very courageous about new things and exploring on a microscale. Her behavior is an interesting mixture. When she sees people, she appears quite calm about them (except she hackles up). But as soon as they pass, she wants to follow and (possibly) catch up to them. Her philosophy is that the best defense is surveillance, and her experience is that coming up from behind is the safest. Since most people don’t enjoy being stalked by a small, intense dog, I don’t allow this! But we do stop and watch.

The Function of Following

I think it’s interesting that all three dogs want to follow the walkers who go by, but for completely different reasons:

  • Clara: non-affiliative curiosity
  • Lewis: reactive sociability
  • Choo Choo: fear

Their behaviors look different, too. Clara’s is calm and neutral; she is interested but not passionately so. You may see her sniffing the air. Lewis is excited and may strain to catch up. He might let out a yip or two. Choo Choo is hackled up and also intent on moving forward, but for the opposite reason.

If the people going by had wanted to interact, they would have stopped. So in all cases, I prevent the behavior. Unfortunately, it’s socially unacceptable. But if I were trying to modify it by training, I would need to know the function.

For Clara, there is no way to improve the situation with training at this point. Even though she will walk up to a stranger and accept a cookie, she does it as a trained behavior. She is polite and cooperative, but doesn’t want to be friends. So letting her trail people to sniff them can’t end well. Either they will be weirded out, or they may turn around to be friendly, and she’d rather not interact. In most situations, you can’t say to a stranger, “Hey, could you stand still with your hands to your sides and look at that lamppost while my dog sniffs you?” So I manage her behavior. The best I can do with passing people is let her turn around and sniff as they leave (but not follow them) and try to provide her with other interesting things to sniff and investigate.

For Lewis, we are working on his excitement, but not methodically. As he makes more friends, perhaps he won’t want to stalk people so much. With his existing friends, we practice not losing his mind (four on the floor and no jumping or pawing). And when people who aren’t his buddies (yet) pass us by, he gets to watch and sniff (but not follow) like Clara.

A white dog with reddish brown ears and ticking is standing in the street and watching two people and two dogs walking away in the distance on the
Lewis watching a group of two people and two dogs from a polite distance

For Choo Choo, we are working gradually on her fear. We do ad hoc counterconditioning when we are unavoidably close to people, and that has made her much more comfortable over time. She is also very decisive about turning away from anything she doesn’t like the looks or sound of. But I think it will always be important for her to monitor people we have passed, and she won’t want to stop tailing them. She doesn’t get to do the tailing, but as with the other dogs, we at least turn around and watch the people leave.

The Popularity of Stalking

I’ve learned that plenty of other dogs want to follow passersby!

If you walk your dogs on leash, do they want to stalk people or dogs who have passed? What do you observe as the function? Do you ever let them?

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

How Do I Get My Dog Into the Pool?

How Do I Get My Dog Into the Pool?

A white hound dog with brown on his face and ears is standing, smiling next to a kid's above-ground swimming pool

In a place with sweltering summers, a way to cool off an active dog like Lewis is a must! And it’s a bonus if he can have fun doing it. So I got a doggie swimming pool. They have improved a lot since I got one for Clara about 10 years ago. I got a moderately large one for Lewis, not thinking about the challenges that might present for him.  

He was unwilling to jump into it at first, so I’m going to share the systematic way I introduced him to the pool.

There were some indicators that Lewis would eventually have a blast in it. He is an all-weather dog. He was entranced by snow last winter. He runs around without inhibition in the rain, even deliberately splashing in puddles. I guessed he’d figure out ways to enjoy the pool, and I got a big one because Clara enjoys water, too.

I knew he might not trust the whole endeavor right away, so for his first introduction to the pool, I took what I felt was middle ground. I chose a hot day (antecedent arrangement). I put the pool in a sunny area so the water would warm up a little and filled it only partway full. I threw a couple of his toys in there that would float. I got in there myself and beckoned him.

No go. No way in hell was he going to hop over the 12-inch wall into the pale blue unknown. I learned as we went along that his caution was more about the enclosing wall than the water inside.

So, on to Plan B. I would work out a sequence of graduated exposures. The goal was for Lewis to feel happy and confident about jumping into the pool, first empty and then with water in it. I needed to create a series of desensitizing activities that weren’t scary for him. And we got there! Here’s how we did it.

Note: this method was for introduction to a kid’s above-ground pool only. If you need to teach your dog to swim in a built-in pool, check out “How to Teach Your Dog to Swim” on the Karen Pryor Clicker Training site.

Desensitizing to Jumping into the Swimming Pool

Lewis is curious and bold but was reluctant to get into this new object in his environment, water or no. It was a little too weird, and the walls were too high for him to step over in a way he felt safe. I could have angled the wall down somewhat and started that way, with me shaping him to step into the pool space. But that could have proved awkward as we proceeded. And I wanted to address the problem at its root and teach him that if I present an object for him to interact with, it’s safe and an opportunity to have fun.

To get him to trust that it was OK to jump in and out, we worked on three foundation skills:

  • getting into things
  • getting onto things
  • jumping over something
A white hound dog with brown on his face and ears is running around a jump made of PVC as a woman dressed in blue and purple watches
Lewis avoiding a jump

I split each of these into a series of behaviors. I combined desensitization with operant conditioning. The desensitization part was the very gradual exposures (you’ll see the list below). The operant conditioning was my encouraging Lewis, using positive reinforcement, to interact with the objects.

 If he had been afraid of these objects in themselves, I would have leaned more toward a classical approach, but I didn’t need to. The pool had already been in his environment for a few days and he had never been scared of it. Jumping in was the challenge.

I had seen him be similarly reluctant with other objects. Here is a video showing his baseline response—avoidance—when invited to jump over or get in some objects, including the swimming pool.

Rather than trying to shape him to get into one thing, as I did with the tray in the “avoidance” video above, I gathered a series of objects with varied characteristics for him to get on, over, or in. I positively reinforced these behaviors to extend his palette of behaviors and build happy associations with the objects and activities. I took things slowly enough that he was hardly ever reluctant to try something I set up. After getting on a couple of platforms and a flat box, he stepped right into the tray he had been avoiding earlier.

Desensitization Order

This is the order of the activities. I never lured him onto or into anything with food or toys; I used a little targeting but mostly waited for him to get the idea and get in on his own, then I reinforced generously.

A white hound dog with brown on his face and ears is sitting in a shallow, tray-like box
This is the box he wouldn’t set foot in
  • Step onto a 2″ elevated platform. (The platforms are important later.)
  • Jump onto a 12″ elevated platform (a Klimb). He already knew how to do this, loved this platform, and was used to stationing there.
  • Step onto a mat (also something he already knew to do).
  • Step onto a piece of cardboard on the floor while I anchor it (no sliding!).
  • Step into a large, shallow plastic tray (this was a big step, even with a tray with very shallow sides).
  • Step into a shallow cardboard box with two flaps ripped off.
  • Step into a cardboard box with all flaps intact.
  • Step into other cardboard boxes.
  • Jump over an agility jump set at 2″. This was another object he walked by multiple times every day but was reluctant to interact with when I asked him to.
  • Jump onto a 12″ platform while it is placed next to and abutting the pool.
  • Jump onto a 12″ platform while it is placed inside the pool (no water).
  • Jump from the 12″ platform onto the 2″ platform in the pool.
  • Jump down from one of these into the pool.
  • Jump directly into the (dry) pool.
  • Repeat a selection of the last three few with water in the pool, and perhaps Eileen in the pool as well.
  • Jump directly into the pool with water in it.

First Steps with the Platforms, Boxes, and Jump

Here’s a video showing the foundation work we did with most of the listed objects. Yes, he really got right into the plastic tray when I asked him to, even though he wouldn’t do that earlier when I tried to shape the behavior.

Applying The Activities to the Pool

Then I brought all the items outside and got him into and on them again. I added the swimming pool to the mix, with no water in it.

I put the 12″ platform next to the pool and had him get on a bunch of times. Then I put it inside the pool, pressed right up to the edge. He jumped on with no hesitation! We practiced that, then I put also the lower platform into the pool. Soon he had jumped down onto the platform and was also comfortable jumping down into the pool itself and exploring it.

I’m proud of thinking of using the platform. It’s hard to split out gradations of getting into an above-ground pool. You are either in or out of it. There are no stairs. But raising the bottom changed the nature of the jump from “into the unknown” to “onto the familiar platform.”

A white hound dog with brown on his face and ears is standing inside a kid's swimming pool that is not assembled and has no water in it
Lewis in the dry, crumpled pool

He was now comfortable jumping into and out of the dry pool. I took a hiatus of about a week when the weather cooled off. But during that time, the pool was on my porch, empty. He jumped in there regularly for fun and to see if something interesting had blown in. And of course, I gave him a little treat or two.

Finally, on another hot day, I put the pool back into the yard with the 12″ platform inside. I put water in it, not even an inch, just enough to create some puddles on the bottom. He happily jumped onto the platform, then from there into the pool, then started jumping straight into the pool from outside of it. Win!

The next time, I put about 2″ of water in it. In the video, the 12″ platform was in the pool, and in the first part, I was sitting on it. Then I got out. He made a game of running around the yard and jumping into the pool.

Why Bother with All This?

A white hound dog with brown on his face and ears is standing inside a kid's above-ground swimming pool

I can hear some of you chortling out there. You just picked up your young dog and plopped him into the pool and everything worked out fine. Or maybe you even threw him in the water to learn to swim. But even if your dog likes water now, those are not good methods.

As with all uses of aversives, there is a risk of fallout. Maybe your dog was lucky and came out unscathed and learned to love water. Many dogs wouldn’t. Besides being unkind in the moment, you risked traumatizing your dog. And it takes significantly longer to address the fear that typically results from that than it does to go slow at the beginning.

Speaking of “slow”—my method wasn’t slow. It took much, much more time to write up this post and edit the movies than to do the training. There were less than 15 minutes of training, and that included the fun play at the end. That’s 15 minutes to give my dog something that will enrich him for the rest of his life.

Will Lewis Love It?

I’ve achieved my primary goal. Lewis is comfortable jumping into and out of the pool, including with water in it. This will be enormously helpful in the hot Arkansas summer. He and I often have play sessions outdoors in the evening, but even after the sun goes down, the humidity keeps it very hot. So it’s actually a safety measure to be able to get him into the pool.

I don’t know whether he will end up being a water dog. Will he seek out the pool and play in the water? We’ll see. My initial belief was that he would. But I have noticed things as we go along.

He is fussy about his feet being wet. He doesn’t like it when his toys are wet. He will hesitate and almost refuse to pick up his Jolly Ball (favorite toy ever) if it has been in the pool and the rope is wet. Even though he’ll jump into the pool now as part of his circuit around the yard, he does it only when I am sitting there. The game he created is basically running around the yard with me as a focal point. This is a variant of games we play all the time; I just happen to be at or in the pool.

So I’ve yet to find out whether the pool will be just a helpful way to cool off, or the center of more fun activities for him.

I’m publishing this now, without knowing the outcome for Lewis, because I know other people are working on the same problem. I hope this post helps some others form their own plan.

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

Related Post

Tearribles Review: Neither a Chew Toy nor a Tug Toy

Tearribles Review: Neither a Chew Toy nor a Tug Toy

There are thousands of people searching for that perfect stuffed toy: the one their dog will love playing with and which will last longer than a couple of days.

The Tearrible sounds like that toy, but for us, it wasn’t. It’s a toy meant to be played with in one limited way—a way a dog might or might not enjoy. Surely there are dogs for whom this would be a great toy. But be sure to understand how the toy actually works before you assume your dog is one of them.

Continue reading “Tearribles Review: Neither a Chew Toy nor a Tug Toy”
Is That Enrichment Toy Enriching? Not So Much.

Is That Enrichment Toy Enriching? Not So Much.

I bought my own LickiMat and this is an independent, unsolicited review. 

Here I go again, trying to figure out whether a food toy is fun, neutral, or a drag. This time it’s an Industripet LickiMat Buddy, a rubber mat with texture that you can spread food on. The texture makes it a challenge for the dog to lick all the food off.

I bought one of these mats, and immediately had to ask my trainer friend Marge how you use these without the dog just carrying it off and chewing on it. She said people cut them to size to fit into a pan. Aha!

Continue reading “Is That Enrichment Toy Enriching? Not So Much.”
The Opposite of Force

The Opposite of Force

Clara's pool provides enrichment she can choose when she wants
Clara playing by herself in her pool

I think I’ve figured something out.

I continue to see the concept of choice bandied about the positive reinforcement-based training world. It can be a code word for a setup that includes negative reinforcement. “I’m going to do something physically unfamiliar or unpleasant to you and you have the choice of staying here and getting a piece of food or leaving and being relieved from whatever it is I’m doing.” I’ve suggested that this is not a laudable kind of choice; as trainers we can use our skills and take our time so that the dog doesn’t want to leave in the first place.

It can also refer to human-centric preference tests, many of which are subject to extreme bias.

But here’s my new realization. Continue reading “The Opposite of Force”

Are You SURE Your Dog Prefers That Food Toy?

Are You SURE Your Dog Prefers That Food Toy?

It just occurred to me that it is super easy to make assumptions about how much our dogs prefer a particular food toy, or even whether they really enjoy them that much.

Don’t yell at me. To be clear: I use food toys for my dogs every single day. I think they can be enriching and that they are ethical things to use.

But food toys present us with a funny little problem. The laws of behavior get in the way of something we might like to know. How can we tell which toys our dogs like best? Or whether they like them at all?

Continue reading “Are You SURE Your Dog Prefers That Food Toy?”
The Joy of Training With Food

The Joy of Training With Food

Thank you to Debbie Jacobs, who pointed out that many training videos do not include the important moment when the trainer feeds her dog. We need to see more of that. 

Training your dog with food is not only effective. It’s also fun. Do it for a while and your dog may prefer his training sessions to his meals, even if it’s the same food. You will learn things too, and will enjoy seeing your dog get enthusiastic and attentive.

People who are new to it can profit from seeing what training with food looks like, so I’ve put together a video. I am most definitely an amateur, but I don’t mind showing my imperfect training. I’m not trying to model the perfect use of food delivery—I don’t have that level of skill. But I can give people an idea of what a high rate of reinforcement looks like. I can let them see what a good time the dogs are having. Hopefully, it will help people who are newer to the game than I am.

It seems to be human nature to be a little cheap with the food at first. That’s another reason for the video. I’m showing high rates of reinforcement in the clips. Most people are surprised at first by how much food positive reinforcement-based trainers use. But if you are going to do it, do it right. Using a high rate of reinforcement makes it fun, helps keep your dog’s interest, and builds a strong behavior.

Some people imply using food and building a good relationship are mutually exclusive. But the opposite is true. Have you ever heard a new mom say, “I don’t want to nurse my baby because I don’t want her to associate me with food and comfort. I want her to love me for me!”? Has your grandmother ever said, “I was going to make you some cookies, but I didn’t want them to get in the way of our relationship”? Being the magical source of all sorts of good food for your dogs doesn’t hurt your relationship at all. Likewise, finding your dog a source of comfort when the human world is harsh doesn’t cheapen your love for her.

I know, I know. The analogies with the new mom and grandmother are flawed. Those are classical associations and in the case of our dogs, we are talking about training with food. Making food contingent on behavior. Please give me a pass on that for now. The net effect of using lots of food gets you the classical association anyway.

Why Train at All?

Poster: "Don't let anyone tell you that working on good mechanical skills is making yoerself (or your dog) into a robot. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love.When I first started training my dog (Summer was the first) it was because of behavior problems. Then I found out we both enjoyed it. So we kept on. My next purpose for training was to compete. We competed and titled in obedience, rally obedience, and our favorite, agility.

Zani needed minimal training to fit into my household. She is the proverbial “easy” dog. But she turned out to be a natural agility dog, so we did a lot of that. Clara did need training to fit into the household, and even more to be comfortable in the world.

Today, with my dogs at ages 11, 8, and 5, we don’t have any big problems getting along at home. I’ve trained them alternatives to behaviors that don’t work well in human environments. Things like peeing on any available absorbent surface, chewing anything attractive, and hurling themselves at me. In turn, they’ve taught me their preferences and the ways they like to do things.

What’s the main reason we train now? Because it enriches my dogs’ lives and it’s fun for all of us. Training with food and working together to problem-solve help create a great bond. And training with positive reinforcement is a game the dogs can never lose. We all learn so much! I train things like tricks, agility behaviors, and safety behaviors. For instance, right now I am working on everyone’s “down at a distance” using a hand signal. Oh, and husbandry! Any money I can put in that particular bank means less stressful vet visits for my dear girls.

What Training with Food Looks Like

I compiled a short video that comprises six training clips using food. A lot of food. Each behavior gets at least one treat. Sometimes I use a second behavior (such as a hand target) as a release and I treat for the second behavior too. In some cases when I am capturing a behavior for the first time, or working a little duration, I am giving multiple, “rapid-fired” treats. So in that case, one behavior gets many treats! Sometimes I’ll toss treats to “re-set” the dog for the next behavior and sometimes I’ll treat in position.

Almost all the videos are “headless trainer” vids, but that’s OK with me. I want you to see the dog performing behaviors and eating.

I am using kibble in most of the clips, but if you are new to this, use something more exciting. Be generous. My dogs will work happily for kibble now because over the years they have come to love the games. And they don’t always get kibble. They also get things like chicken breast, roast, moist dog food roll, canned cat food, dehydrated raw food, and other exciting stuff.

A small black and tan dog is delicately accepting a treat from a woman's hand while training with food.
I appreciate Zani’s gentleness when I hand her a treat!

The behaviors in the movie are, in order:

  • Zani crossing her paws in response to a hand signal cue. On the latter reps, I am giving her more than one treat while she stays in position.
  • Clara working on one of her rehabilitation exercises for hind end strength. I am feeding in position. I’m giving lots of treats because we are just starting to add duration to this difficult behavior. After this session, I started treating after the behavior, since it’s a bit awkward for her to eat when she is stretched up vertically.
  • Summer targeting my hand with her nose. This was after I had cleaned up the results of my previous sloppy training. My rate of reinforcement in these clips was 27 reps per minute. (Not all repetitions are shown.) That’s 27 cues, 27 behaviors, and 27 food reinforcers per minute. Pretty good for me. I’m not usually that fast, and of course, there are tons of variables. (One is that Summer rarely chews small pieces of food! That helps with the speedy delivery.) If you’d like to see an exercise for rate of reinforcement and speedy treat delivery, check out this video from Yvette Van Veen. 
  • An old video of Zani drilling what I call “Level One Breakfast” from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. We were practicing sits, downs, and hand targets.
  • Summer filing down her front toenails on a scratch board. If you want to learn about this and other ways to make nail trimming a pleasant experience for your dog, visit the Facebook group Nail Maintenance for Dogs.
  • Clara’s very first try at “two on, two off” agility behavior on an elevated board. (Note: many people teach this with a nose target on the ground, but I don’t include that. I don’t plan to do agility with her and was just experimenting.) When she gets in the correct position, I don’t mark, but just start feeding, feeding, and feeding in position.

The one thing missing from the above video is a magnitude reinforcer: a large extended reinforcement period. Magnitude reinforcement is a great consequence for something the dog put genuine effort into. I give them mainly after agility runs, or when my dogs do something unexpectedly impressive in real life. The latter happened just the other day when I cued Zani to drop a stinky dead snake and come to me…and she did! Sadly, there was no camera running while I thanked her and showered her with all the goodies I had.

Luckily, my friend Marge Rogers has a great video of Rounder, her Rhodesian Ridgeback, practicing his Reliable Recall (from Leslie Nelson’s great DVD). Note in particular what is happening at 0:54 – 1:02. After she successfully calls him away from a yummy plate of food, he gets a constant stream of fabulous food and praise. If you don’t think eight seconds is a long time for food and praise, try it sometime!

Other Reinforcers

Using food doesn’t mean I neglect other fabulous reinforcers. I use tugging, playing ball, sniffing, personal play, find-it games, and playing in water with my dogs. All these are great relationship builders, too. I talk to and praise my dogs all the time, and have even used praise to shape behaviors with them. But you know what? Praise would be empty if we didn’t have a bond already. Praise gains value only after we are connected.

So Don’t Forget the Food!

Training with food builds your bond with your dog. It’s not mechanistic or objectifying. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love, and so is using a great reinforcer. These will help you communicate with your dog. And the observation skills you will gain as you improve as a trainer will help you learn what your dog is saying to you!

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats

Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats

I am all about efficiency. You could also say I’m lazy. Also, my freezer is usually stuffed full.

So rather than freeze whole filled food toys for three dogs, I use several gadgets that let me freeze things separately. Then I can put frozen dog treats (of all sorts—just look!) into food toys for a quick treat for the dogs that they can enjoy for a few minutes.

Continue reading “Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats”
Flavors: Ideas for Ultra High Value Treats

Flavors: Ideas for Ultra High Value Treats

A plate of spaghetti with a red colored meat sauce and a pile of grated cheese on top
Spaghetti Bolognese as a training treat? Is that even possible? See below!

OK, I’m going to break the ultimate taboo here and talk about giving so-called “people food” to dogs. [1]Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to … Continue reading

Most of us who do positive reinforcement training and counterconditioning are already accustomed to giving our dogs some pretty special, high value stuff at times. Tuna, ham, Gorgonzola cheese; most anything fragrant and full of calories has been tried at one time or another.

But these types of foods have something in common, and that is that most consist of one basic flavor.

Continue reading “Flavors: Ideas for Ultra High Value Treats”

Notes

Notes
1 Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.
My Dogs Are Not in Charge

My Dogs Are Not in Charge

As a Humane Hierarchy trainer, it is part of my value system to help my dogs get what they want, within the confines of our mutual comfort and safety. It’s important for me to give them choices and let them operate on their environment. To have an enriched existence not overcontrolled by me.

Until I read this brilliant post, “Threshold Roulette or Choice,” by Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs, I would have said with little thought that more control and choices for pet dogs are always better. But Yvette is way ahead of me. There’s a big fat exception to that. So if you have time only to read one post today, go read hers. It is show stopping. I’m just riffing off of it. But here is the learning that she triggered.

Is Putting the Dog in Control a Good Thing?

I think most of us who are dedicated to avoiding force in training would put a high value on freedom, choices, and the ability for our dogs to have control over their environments. So where’s the problem?

There are two problems that I perceive.

  1. As magical as dogs are, with their fascinating intelligences, we are the ones with the bigger brains and with the majority culture. We protect them, care for them, and make decisions for them to the best of our abilities. In so many situations, the one who knows more (the human) needs to be making the major decisions. Yvette made this point beautifully in her post.
  2. This one is more insidious. It’s not a problem with putting them in control, per se. It’s just the observation that even when we think we are putting them in control, most often we are not. Their choices are limited inside the structures that we create and we are feeding the illusion of giving them control. Refusal or inability to acknowledge the power differential provides a mask for doing abominable things to dogs and still claiming that “they are in charge.”

Exploring the Idea

Hypothetical situation: If giving my dogs as much control as possible is a good thing, does that mean that they should be able to eat what and when they want? I love for my dogs to enjoy life and have lots of pleasures. So is more food, tastier food, or more available food better?

I could do this:

I could put out for my dogs an ever-refilling bowl of pork cracklings and another of peanut butter cookies and perhaps some chicken to round things out. They would LOVE that.

But the problems that would cause include:

  • obesity;
  • pancreatitis;
  • bloat;
  • other digestive problems;
  • aggression and possible likely injuries from inter-household resource guarding;
  • danger from vermin or predators if this were set up outside;
  • and more.

My dogs would find this very cool
My dogs would find this very cool

I’ve described this in extremes to get a point across. Setting up situations where their free choice would have ruinous consequences is not humane. Even just giving them free access to kibble at all times has problems. I used to free feed. I stopped when my 60 lb dog gave my 15 lb dog a warning bite to the neck as they squabbled over the feeder while I wasn’t home. (A neighbor saw.) They were both overweight, and also I had a rat problem that went on for years after that.

I rarely use the term “dog guardian,” but it is a accurate description nonetheless. We make decisions on our dogs’ behalf all the time. We protect them. They will always be dependent on us, and living in a world that is at least partly foreign.

The obvious limit to giving dogs freedom and control over their lives and environment is safety. The considerations are both immediate (protection from mishap and injury) and long-term (keeping them healthy).

So just as we wouldn’t overfeed our dogs, we need to consider that putting some other bounds on the choices and control they have may be a good thing.

Enrichment

Many of us who love our dogs is enrich their lives by arranging challenges that allow them to express instinctive or naturally expressed behaviors. Instead of free-feeding, many of us use some of their food to train. We arrange for them to forage for some of it. Or we freeze or melt some into food toys.

Some days I choose this for them
But some days I choose this for them

These things we set up are enriching and even empowering to our dogs. You bet! And within the structure of the games we set up, they do get to make choices and exert control. Not to mention develop some skills that express their natural aptitudes.

But we set up the structure. We don’t ask the dog if she’d rather snack on kibble from a never ending bowl all day or hone her extraction skills with a frozen Kong. We can’t ask her. We make decisions for her based on our observation, knowledge, and best guesses. And we keep in mind the concepts that she cannot. Perhaps she would have chosen the big pot o’ kibble, but we know that eating out of a Kong will assuage some boredom and give her something to chew on for a little longer. So we make the latter choice for her. And we take away her choice of an easy meal for that day.

Who’s In Charge?

I am.

I think the attraction of the idea of “putting the dog in control” is partly a rebound from the practice of punishment and valuing dominance, and in that sense is partly a good thing. At its best, it is an ethical imperative to make up for the strictures that domestication puts on their lives. However, “putting the dog in control” has the same unthinking attraction that the label on food of “all-natural” has for many of us. We like to think that our animals are expressing themselves in unfettered ways. It feels good and wholesome to many of us.

But denying the control we have and need to have is a dangerous slope. We cannot in good conscience turn away from the facts that we are the ones with the big brains, we are the ones who have the keys to the cabinet, we put on and take off the leashes, and we make health decisions. We spay and neuter our dogs or do not allow them to breed (how natural is that?). And people are free in many countries to strap on shock collars and hold the remote and hurt their dogs.

Many people say jokingly or not-so-jokingly that their dogs are always in charge. Sure, they shape our behavior. Certainly those of us who care for pets dutifully feel like we are their servants at times. But you know, I try not to even joke along those lines. It’s part of the cultural fog about learning and behavior to ignore the power that we have when we control the reinforcers and punishers and set the contingencies. I have read more than one shock trainer claim, in all seriousness, that the dog is in control of the training process. They mistake the fact that the dog can learn how to behave to turn off the shock with the dog being in charge. Really? Did the dog go pick out the shock collar, put it on, hand the human the remote and order him to start pressing the button or else? If the dog is in charge, in what way exactly does he hold sway over the human that would be even nearly equivalent to the humans’ power of holding the shock remote?

Recently protocols that include negative reinforcement have become popular among some trainers who consider themselves part of the force free community. Some practitioners (not all) make similar claims about the subject dog being in control or in charge of the process. This is what Yvette discusses so eloquently. But, as she points out, the dog did not participate in the decision making that arrived at that training session. She didn’t set up the rules. She might have preferred not to participate in that whole situation entirely. (And Yvette’s major point: that letting the dog make the decisions in a potentially explosive situation is a bad idea anyway.)

As in any situation involving operant learning, including with positive reinforcement, the dog learns behaviors according to a rule structure set up by the humans. She is not in control except in responding to the situation that we set up.  We don’t need to unthinkingly attach ourselves to this idea of the dog being in control because it sounds warm and fuzzy. Certainly sometimes the safer and more humane choice is for the human to make the decisions in the dog’s best interest.

Feral dog Clara at the mall
Formerly feral dog Clara at the mall

One of the things I do in this blog is to attempt to clarify misapprehensions about the learning processes, to the best of my ability. Sometimes they are things I read, sometimes they are my own errors in reasoning. I like to explore my own value system and discuss ethical choices. So I really appreciate that Yvette has widened my comprehension with her post. I’m still thinking about what she wrote.

Coming up:

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