eileenanddogs

Category: Human and dog misunderstandings

Guess What! That Dog Video Is Probably Fake!

Guess What! That Dog Video Is Probably Fake!

Text: Fake Dog Videos Often 1) Have an altered sound track; 2) Are short and heavily edited; 3) Make you go, "Awwww"; 4) Don't show everything

Most of us are beguiled by videos where dogs appear to be doing something very human or beyond what we usually consider to be their intelligence level. Creators of fake dog videos exploit this tendency to get clicks. They make it appear that the dog is doing something he is not, or attribute some pretend, human-centric motivation or interest. And there are people who are willing to alter videos or create mashups so one of these things appears to be happening.

Continue reading “Guess What! That Dog Video Is Probably Fake!”
Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?

Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?

Black dog with tail held high
Zani’s tail is up, and you’ll see in the video below that it is wagging. Does she look friendly and happy?

Why do dogs wag their tails? The prevailing view is that they do so when they feel happy and friendly. Many do, but dogs also wag their tails in other situations. So the answer to the title question is no. Dogs wagging their tails are not always expressing friendliness or joy. Not by a long shot.

Continue reading “Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?”
It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

This is the short version of this post. Here is the longer version.

Some dog trainers who use tools such as shock, prong, or choke collars, or startle the dog with thrown objects or loud noises, claim that these things are done only for the purpose of “getting the dog’s attention.” They may further insist that the dog is not hurt, bothered, or scared.

Others, while well meaning, use a special sound or a “No!” to get their dogs to stop doing something. Not the worst thing in the world, but these people will try to argue you to the ground, insisting that the noise or word is “neutral.” They’ll say that it doesn’t carry any aversive effect, that it “just gets the dog’s attention.”

If only! This sounds like the Holy Grail of dog training. It’s the Magical Attention Signal! It can get your dog’s attention, get him to do something, or stop doing something, all rolled into one. You don’t have to use those pesky treats or toys, and it certainly doesn’t hurt or bother the dog!

Gosh, who wouldn’t want that? Life would be so easy with the Magical Attention Signal!

Unfortunately, the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

I have another version of this post in which I analyze the possibilities of the so-called Magical Attention Signal using learning theory. Feel free to check it out. Or read forward and get the story through some straightforward analogies.

Glumph

Imagine that you and I don’t share a common language or culture. But a friend in common has dropped you off to stay at my house for an afternoon.

You are looking around the house. You come into the bedroom and start looking through my jewelry box. I look up and casually say, “Glumph.” In my language, that means, “Please don’t bother my stuff; why don’t you go look around in the next room.” But you don’t know that. It was just a nonsense sound to you, so you keep looking through the jewelry. “Glumph” perhaps got your attention for a moment, but nothing else happened. It was a neutral stimulus. Now here’s where it gets interesting. What happens next?

Scenario 1: The “Neutral” Attention Signal

So what if nothing else happens besides my saying, “Glumph” every so often? If the jewelry (or my mail, or my wallet) is interesting, “Glumph” will not get your attention. In fact, the more I say it (staying in a neutral tone), the more it becomes part of the background. You habituate to it, and it loses even the tiny bit of attention-getting power it may have had at the beginning through novelty.

Outcome: “Glumph” is a neutral stimulus and doesn’t work to get attention.

Scenario 2: The Raised Voice

This is one of the likelier scenarios. After my first statement of “Glumph,” I say it again, but this time I raise my voice. I really need to interrupt you from going through my things! This time you are startled and you stop. Oops, the host is mad!

“Glumph” is now more effective. But how is it operating? It is interrupting you either because it is intrinsically startling, or because you know that yelling humans are more likely to harm you.

Outcome: “Glumph” is an interrupter operating through fear or threats.

Scenario 3: Taking Action

This is the most common scenario in dog training. What do I do after I say “Glumph,” conversationally to you, and you don’t stop what you are doing? I yell “Glumph,” I jump up, and physically stop you from going through my jewelry. I might do this a number of ways. Even though I’m upset, I might take you very gently away from my jewelry. Or I could do something less gentle. I could grab your hands or whack them. I could close the lid on your fingers. I could yell in your face. I could push you away. I could hit you.

So what does “Glumph” mean now? You will likely pay attention the next time I say or yell it. Because it means at the very least (the gentle scenario) you are going to lose access to the thing you are enjoying. But most likely you will have learned that my yelling “Glumph!” is a precursor to something unpleasant happening to you.

“Glumph” has become a punishment marker, and can operate as a threat.

A neutral stimulus by itself has no power, and the dog will habituate to it. If a word or noise works reliably to stop behaviors, it is not a neutral stimulus. It doesn’t just “get the dog’s attention” in a neutral way. It works because it is either intrinsically unpleasant or predicts unpleasantness.

Outcome: “Glumph” scares the dog or predicts something painful, scary, or otherwise unpleasant.

But Wait: There are Positive Interrupters!

Yes, thank goodness. There is a positive reinforcement based method for getting your dog to stop doing stuff. You can condition a positive interrupter.

Here’s a video by Emily Larlham that shows how to train a positive interrupter. Here’s a post about how I conditioned yelling at my dogs to be a positive thing for them—and it ended up having a similar effect.

But the thing is, the people who have conditioned a positive interrupter will tell you so. They can tell you the systematic process they went through to create it. They created it before they ever used it, not in the middle of difficult situations. They will emphatically not claim that their cue is a “neutral, attention-getting stimulus.” They know better. They implemented positive reinforcement.

 

No Magical Attention Signal

If someone says that Tool or Method A, B, or C is designed to “get the dog’s attention,” ask what happens next. Once they get the dog’s attention, how do they actually get the dog to do something or stop doing something? Also, ask them what happens if the first implementation of the tool fails to get the dog’s attention.

Many promoters of aversive methods in dog training don’t want to say that they hurt or scare or startle or nag or bully dogs. And our mythology about dogs is so strong that most of us want to believe them. Hence, the lure of the magic signal that works all by itself, with no other consequences. I hope this post will bolster your “nonsense detector.” Behavior is driven by consequences. If no change in consequences occurs, there is no reason for a behavior to change.

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.
Attention in the backyard, achieved with positive reinforcement

 

Copyright 2017, 2018 Eileen Anderson

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Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up?

Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up?

Thank you to Randi Rossman for discussing the scholarly work about antecedents with me. All mistakes are my own. 

I recently found myself in a situation that dogs are in a lot of the time, and it was a revelation.

So here’s the deal. I use a Mac laptop at work when I do bookkeeping tasks. I also own a Mac laptop and use it at home (and other locations).

The one at work has a 13″ screen. My home computer has a 15″ screen. The work laptop is older and has an older operating system.

On my work computer, to scroll down, I move my fingers down the trackpad. On my home one, it’s the opposite. To scroll down, I move my fingers up the trackpad. The software folks reversed it in one of the operating system updates.

I’ve been using these two computers long enough that I switch back and forth fluently. I rarely make a mistake using the trackpad. I perform the correct behavior without conscious deliberation. I had to actually test one of the computers to be able to write down which way the trackpad works on each one. I can’t remember unless I am actually doing it.

Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up? Closeup of a black and rust colored dog next to a laptop keyboard
I haven’t taught Zani how to scroll using the trackpad yet

Antecedents

So if I perform two opposite behaviors for the same outcome, what is telling me the difference?

“Antecedent” is the term for stimuli and situations that set the stage for a behavior. They include cues (discriminative stimuli), motivating operations, and in some classification systems, setting events.

These things can combine in quite complex ways and I am not going to undertake to untangle them in this post. However, we can explore the factors that may play into my performing one behavior vs. another. In other words, how do I know which way to move my fingers on the trackpad?  Something in the environment is cueing me to do so. What is it?

The obvious candidate is that I am working on two different computers. I mentioned that the computer at work is smaller. I use a smaller set of programs on it, although none of them is unique to that computer. E.g., I use QuickBooks to keep the books at the office but also use it on my home computer to keep my own business books.

The two computers have different desktop pictures. Slightly different power cables. The computers have two different operating systems, which is the reason I have to perform different behaviors in the first place. But those operating systems don’t create much of a visual difference on screen.

Anything else? I’m not aware of any auditory or olfactory cues. There may be kinesthetic ones, but if so, they are small, and I can’t name them.

In both cases, the visual information on the screen is one of the immediate antecedents. What I see informs me that I can move my fingers to view the rest of the document. It looks about the same on both computers. Still, if you had asked me what it was that told me which way to move my fingers to move to scroll down, I would have told you that it was using a different computer.

I would have been wrong.

What’s the Mystery Antecedent?

I long ago passed through the annoying period where I had to learn which behavior to do on which computer. During that time I was making repeated mistakes. After that, something gelled and I rarely thought about it anymore. But recently, the mystery part of the antecedent revealed itself.

When I take my home laptop to work, I usually station myself at a certain table. But the other day, I put my personal laptop where I usually put the work laptop. Guess what happened when I needed to scroll down?

You got it. I performed the behavior that would have worked if I were using my work laptop. The incorrect behavior for the computer I was using.

So the essential thing that tells me to move my fingers up or down to scroll on the laptop is not a physical characteristic of the computer. It’s an element of the wider environment. It’s where I sit.

Location, location, location.

Dogs

Sue Ailsby, in her book Training Levels: Steps to Success, Vol. 1, writes about a time she gave her a dog a cue she thought she knew and received a blank look in return. Sue writes:

I was THREE FEET from where I always ask her for this behaviour, holding a dish which was empty instead of full, and I was facing north instead of east. She wasn’t “blowing me off” or “giving me the paw.” She truly had no idea what I was asking her for. Those three little tiny differences changed what she saw so much that the behaviour seemed completely different to her. –Training Levels: Steps to Success, Vol. 1, page 226

It is brutally common for us not to know what the antecedents are for a behavior we are teaching our dogs. We think we know, and we are wrong a lot of the time. We think the crucial antecedent is the verbal cue, but it may be the environmental setting plus the fact that we are saying something—anything. It might be that the dog is performing the next behavior in a pattern that we as trainers have been performing for years without realizing it. In many cases, the salient antecedent is our own body language that precedes or accompanies the verbal cue.

I have a set of YouTube movies and posts about why dogs might perform the “wrong” behavior for a given cue. (Actually, it’s usually that they are performing the right behavior for a cue that they have noticed and we haven’t.) In one of the movies, I show my dog Zani performing the “go around” behavior. She is to trot out and circle an object and come back. I usually use a tall object such as a floor lamp for her to go around when we practice. I use the verbal cue “Come by” to get her to circle clockwise around it. It appears for all the world that she is responding to my verbal cue when she performs the behavior.

Then, in the movie, I switch out the lamp for a shallow plastic lidded box. I say, “Come by.” Zani trots up to the box, but instead of circling it, she gives it a tentative nose target and then mounts it with her front legs.

Zani is trying to earn her treat. She’s not being hardheaded and certainly not stupid. She’s not ignoring me. It’s just that my saying, “Come by” was not the real cue in the first place. Not the whole cue, anyway. A crucial part was the tall vertical object, in this case, the lamp. When I took that away, I took away part of the information that told her what behavior we were working on.  When I put a box there instead, I was changing the antecedent, and she offered behaviors that are usually reinforced in the presence of the box instead.

This kind of stuff happens all the time in dog training.  Location, as in my computer scrolling issue, is huge. If I usually ask my dog for a sit in the kitchen and a down in the front room, it will take extra effort for the dog to do a down in the kitchen and to sit in the front room. Then there are surfaces. The same dog I mentioned, Zani, dislikes lying down on my concrete floor most of the time. (This seems to be pretty common with small, shorthaired dogs.) Over the years, I have waffled between wanting to improve her response and feeling like it was mean and unnecessary. I’ve been inconsistent. The result is that she will lie down on concrete, but she will not usually do it the first time I say the cue. She’ll try sitting first. And even this is not stubbornness. She shaped my behavior and I let it happen. I rarely ask her for a down on concrete. So concrete, instead, has become part of the antecedent for sit.

Small black dog leaping in front of a woman holding a plastic bowl. The bowl is part of the antecedent for the behavior.
What’s the cue? My saying “Boing!” or holding out the container with the ball in it?

Zani’s jump in the above photo was an offered behavior I put on cue because it was cute, lively, and fun for her. We always do it at the same place and time: when we are playing ball and I have the special ball container. When I say, “Boing!” she jumps. (Sometimes she jumps without my saying it–that should give us a hint right there.) But I have complete confidence that if I walked up to her in the house sometime without the ball container and said, “Boing!” I would get a completely blank look and no jump.

Changing the Behavioral Response

When I had my home computer in my workspace in my office the other day, changing the scrolling behavior was not easy. This is a lesson for us as dog trainers as well. I had this screaming locational cue telling me to do one behavior, and I had to repeatedly override it with my conscious mind. It was tough! I kept reverting. And I have no doubt that the next time I take my computer to work I will have to learn it all over again.

So let’s have some empathy for our dogs. Even though I consciously knew what was going on, I still couldn’t fix my behavior by turning a switch in my head. I had to learn and practice the new association. This happens to our dogs way more often than we even know.

How about you? It’s hard to catch a human situation where the antecedent is not what we thought it was. I lucked into mine. I’d love to hear some others. (Dog examples are OK, too!)

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture…

Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture…

Dog and baby
Source: YouTube Creative Commons

First things first. I didn’t write this with you in mind. Let’s not make this about your dog or your parental decisions.

But there’s a problem with sharing that “cute” dog and baby picture. The problem is bigger than your individual situation, your family.

The problem is that posting a picture such as the one above sets an example and feeds a dangerous myth. A myth so dangerous that people die because of it. Children, especially, are hurt, and sometimes die because of it.

The myth is that good dogs, family dogs, your dogs–don’t bite. The myth says that dogs who live with us, dogs who like our kids, dogs who have always been “tolerant”–will stay that way, no matter what we or the kids do to them. The myth also says that dogs are supposed to take whatever kids dish out.

OK–remember–we don’t have to be talking about your dog. But when you post a picture of anybody’s dog with a very young child draped over him, hugging him, riding him, pulling his tongue, tail, or whiskers, or just plain sitting too close to him, and you “Like” it or include an approving comment, you feed the myth. The myth that gets some people’s kids terribly hurt or killed, and dogs euthanized.

Dogs are animals. They can move with lightning speed if they feel the need to. If you are six feet away taking the picture and the dog has his face right up next to your baby…you can’t get there near fast enough. Even if you are sitting right next to your child, the dog can still move faster than you.

A dog doesn’t have to be “vicious” or “mean” to bite. Sometimes all it takes is for him to be startled. Very young children, with their erratic movements, lack of fine motor skills, and exploratory natures, can stress out the most tolerant of dogs. It’s not fair to subject dogs to that. It’s not wise, either. Having a dog’s face, with that mouthful of teeth, up close to an infant’s head is an enormous risk. It’s not something to show off on social media.

Real Life Examples

A lot of people out there believed the myth until they learned otherwise. The hard way. The tragic way. Here are some real quotes from real people–mostly parents–from real news stories about dogs seriously biting children. The quotes took about 15 minutes of web searching to find. I promise–they are real.

“Fido” was super cuddly, the nicest dog you would ever imagine, and never once snapped … never growled, nothing. He never, never, never went after a person. I’m just in disbelief. –2015

In an apparently unprovoked attack, a 3-year-old child was bitten by a pet dog on Saturday… The girl was playing with the 2-year-old dog just before noon when she was bitten on the top and back of the head.–2015

She said the bite was out of the blue. “Mary” has known and played with the dog for years.–2014

I stood in the kitchen with my friend and her dog and my little girl. It was completely out of the blue, he jumped at my girl and tried to headbutt her to put her to the floor.–2015

I don’t really know what happened. It was right behind me. My dog just went for her. They are like best buddies. I don’t know what happened.–2014

He said the dog had no previous biting incidents, which is why he didn’t think anything of turning his back while his daughter went to play with the dog.–2014

The dogs had given no prior indication of behaving in this way, it was an attack out of the blue.–2015

What I didn’t include in the above quotes are the clues that were often just a few sentences away in the news story. The bites don’t usually come without warning, if one only knows how to read the signs. Perhaps the dog just got back from the vet after getting some shots. Maybe there’s a brand new dog in the household. Perhaps it is mentioned in passing that the dog doesn’t really like his tail pulled (but the child was allowed to do it anyway). Maybe the dog has growled in the past, and the owners duly punished him for it. (That’s a bad idea, by the way.)

Shooting Down the Myth

Maybe I can’t persuade you that your dog has the potential to do animal things. Maybe you simply can’t believe that your dog could get fed up one day and bite (probably after several warning signs that you might miss). Perhaps you’ve got the single most tolerant dog in the world. Can I persuade you not to share those pictures anyway? Your own or anybody else’s? Sharing them feeds the myth. If you share, you are implicitly condoning dangerous practices. You are encouraging others to let their kids get too close to their dogs and let them do uncomfortable things to the dogs for the sake of the myth, the romantic noble dog meme, that 15 minutes of Facebook fame.

There’s nothing new in what I’ve written here. (For instance, check out the second and third articles listed below.) Trainers and behaviorists cringe whenever they see photos like the one going around right now because probably this very week they have seen several very nice family dogs who bit a child “out of the blue.” The parents were loving and well intentioned, but they grew up with the myth, and they still see social media saturated with it.

Let’s stop it now. Please don’t post or repost that picture. Please don’t take that picture. Please don’t let your child and dog interact that way.

Do learn about dog body language. Do keep your children and dog safe. Do check out the resources below on how to do that. Most of them have multiple, excellent articles on the subject.

Help educate people about safe practices with dogs and children. You can share the materials below instead of sharing that photo. Thank you!

Resources

4/8/15 Addendum: Some people have been concerned about sharing **this** post because of the photo. Great point! I really debated whether to include one, but finally did because I felt I needed an example of what I’m talking about. I hope the narrative I have written sheds a different light on this type of photo. Please do share the blog post if you are moved to do so.

© Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure

You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure

A small black and rust hound is standing several feet from a human (we see only lower half of human), looking up at her
Too close for comfort?

So you are standing at a party, or in your office, or on your front lawn. Someone you know only vaguely walks up to you. He walks up very close, face to face, close enough that you can see up his nose and smell his breath. He starts a conversation. What do you do?

What you desperately want to do is step back! You may or may not do it, depending on the social situation or a host of other reasons. But when someone we don’t know well enters our personal space bubble, it can be very uncomfortable.

Everyone has his or her own bubble. In addition to individual preferences it is also dependent on age, gender, and culture. So I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that dogs vary in their sense of personal space as well.

How sensitive is your dog to this kind of pressure? How big is his or her space bubble?

What Kind Of Pressure?

I talk about body pressure a fair amount, so I thought it was time to define and demonstrate it for those who may not be familiar with the concept.

There are different kinds of pressure, of course. Humans have non-concrete types of pressure. Pressure from our jobs, from societal expectations. From owing money.

Dogs seem to experience pressure from expectations as well. We can certainly stress them out easily enough when we train with poor technique, even with positive reinforcement. And of course they respond to physical pressure, touching or pushing, either by yielding to it or with an opposition reflex.

But when I talk about “body pressure,” it is pressure from proximity and body language. Not touching, but the nearness (and body language) of another person or dog.

You can check out Zani’s delicate response to pressure from another dog here.

Pressure from Humans

So it’s not only what we do (get close) but how we do it. Standing and staring straight at one’s dog is very different from brushing by them in the hallway, even though you might be closer in the hallway scenario.

Some of the common ways that dogs feel pressure from us include:

  • When we stand facing them straight on
  • When we look at them directly
  • When we stand tall or lean over them, especially for small dogs
  • When we reach out with our hands
  • When we walk into their space

I do have a very pressure sensitive dog: little Zani. And I also have a very non-sensitive dog (Clara).  In the video I show what their differing responses to proximity to my body look like.

Is Sensitivity to Pressure a Problem?

It can be. Most of us tend to misunderstand or disregard dogs’ body language. You can find thousands of videos on YouTube of dogs who are desperately indicating that they would prefer that the humans back off, while the humans actually talk about how happy the dogs are.

Small black and rust colored hound dog is sitting on a woman's lap with her head leaning up against her, eyes closed
Actually, Zani really does like being close sometimes

Zani is extremely pressure sensitive, as a lot of hounds seem to be. She is what people call a “soft dog.” She bounces back pretty well in most cases, though. Considering the problems of most dogs in this world, be they hungry, neglected, or abused, I would say that Zani has a pretty good life with me. However, from her point of view I am severely lacking. I am an insensitive clod. So I do work on exercises to make her more comfortable.

When a dog is uncomfortable with something, there are a couple of ways to address that discomfort. One is by using desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC). In this situation, to do that I would pair being close to me with great stuff, non-contingent on what she was doing. We have done some of that with handling, and also with a fear she had of my elliptical trainer.

If a dog is only mildly uncomfortable with something, one can take an approach where the dog is more active. This is sometimes called operant counter-conditioning, or differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior. The game I show in the video where I am dropping a treat when Zani crosses a line on the floor, coming close to me, is such an activity. She was comfortable with the distance I set when I was turned to the side. I had envisioned slowly turning towards her, then decreasing the distance between the line and me. But as is clear in the video, Zani told me there was a huge difference in body pressure when I started turning towards her.

I could have adjusted the distance and continued with that plan. But instead I decided to do a combination of DS/CC and some operant games that isolate just one part of the body pressure at a time.  I will report back about our progress in the future.

Working on relaxed body handling
Working on relaxed body handling

Who else has a pressure sensitive dog? Have you worked on it at all?

Related Post

Does Your Dog REALLY Want to Be Petted?

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

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.

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Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

An updated version of this post.

Zani head tilt
Zani keeps her eyes on me a large part of the time

Some dog trainers who use tools such as shock, prong, or slip collars, or startle the dog with thrown objects or loud noises, claim that these things are done only to “get the dog’s attention.” They may further insist that the dog is not hurt, bothered, or scared.

This sounds like the Holy Grail of dog training. It’s the Magical Attention Signal! It can get your dog’s attention, get him to do something, or stop doing something, all rolled into one. You don’t have to use those pesky treats or toys, and it certainly doesn’t hurt or bother the dog!

Gosh, who wouldn’t want that? Life would be so easy with the Magical Attention Signal!

Unfortunately,  the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

Nonsense Clue #1

We almost never want only our dog’s attention.

Let’s say that your Magical Attention Signal is tossing a lightweight coaster towards your dog. Your dog doesn’t particularly care about coasters. (Folks with disc-crazy dogs, hang on, I’ll get to you.) So you toss the coaster and the dog looks up. Yay, success! You’ve got the dog’s attention. Mission accomplished!

Um, no. Of course we don’t want only the dog’s attention. When we want their attention, it’s for a reason. The reason is almost always one of two things: to get them to do something or stop doing something. Getting their attention is only the bare beginning.

Nonsense Clue #2

Non-predictive stimuli are subject to habituation.

Habituation: A decrease in response following repeated exposure to a non-threatening stimulus.–Klein, Thorne: (2006) Biological Psychology

Virtually all of us have experienced habituation to something that was initially novel. Let’s say you move to a new house. It’s barely within earshot of an elevated train or metro track. When you first move in, you notice the sound of the train regularly: maybe a whistle, or just the rumble.

Elevated trainAt first it gets your attention. However, it gradually sinks in that there are no relevant consequences to that sound for you. The train schedule doesn’t affect vehicle or pedestrian traffic in any way. You don’t have to arrange your day around it. None of your loved ones ride it or work for the railroad. The noise is faint and there aren’t any noxious fumes. It doesn’t predict danger. In fact the train noise doesn’t predict anything for you, good or bad.

So what happens to the stimulus of train noise?  Habituation. You stop noticing it. It fades into the background. Our minds sift through stuff all the time to determine predictors of good and bad consequences. Things to seek and things to avoid. Low-intensity stimuli with no consequences fall to the bottom of the priority stack.*

Animals, including dogs, do this sifting too. Some dogs are noticeably good at it, like my Clara, who often knows my behavior patterns better than I do. And when you think about it, loads of the stuff we humans do has some kind of predictive value to our dogs. Turning on the TV. Getting dressed. Opening the refrigerator. Sighing. Even pulling down a book from the bookshelf.

I had a hard time thinking of a regularly occurring non-predictive stimulus in my life with my dogs, but here’s one. For my own dogs, the automatic switching on and off the the central heating and air means nothing. They hear it intermittently all day long, but it is just background noise to them. If the temperature weren’t well controlled, or if one of them was extremely hot- or cold-natured, she might start to notice and take the opportunity to go lie next to the air vent. Then the sound of the heat and air clicking on would become predictive, and start rising up in the stack of “things to notice.”

So the upshot is that if we want our dogs to keep responding to a stimulus, it generally has to be quite strong in itself, or have a consequence. Good or bad, your choice. But not neutral.

What Really Happens?

So how might our thrown coaster stimulus work? We have determined that if it were non-predictive, it probably wouldn’t continue to get the dog’s attention. So if it works consistently to get the dog’s attention, what’s going on?

There are four relevant possibilities:

  1. Yay!
    Yay!

    Having a coaster suddenly land nearby could be intrinsically desirable to the dog. Maybe you have a loopy goofy retriever and he loves having something thrown near him, even if it’s just a coaster. He probably grabs it and plays with it. However, it may have failed as an attention-getting device. He’s playing with the toy, not looking up at you. And if you threw it when he was doing something you didn’t like, you would have accidentally reinforced the bad behavior. “Yay! I got a toy when I barked at Grandma!” (This can happen when people try to interrupt or punish with squirt bottles. Some dogs think being squirted is wonderful.)

  2. Startled boxer
    Yipes!

    It could be intrinsically aversive to the dog. I would wager that this is the case for many dogs, especially at first. Something flying through the air, appearing suddenly close and making a noise could startle them. Some dogs would habituate to it, and some might never do so. If they didn’t habituate, this could work as a way of getting your dog to pay attention to you. There’s a big drawback though:  that startled, fearful response would likely become associated with you. You become the scary person who throws stuff.

  3. It could predict something desirable for the dog.

    Good stuff coming!
    Good stuff coming!

    Maybe your dog is not turned on by coasters. But what if, every time you tossed the coaster, you then threw a treat or a toy? The dog would quickly learn that the coaster toss predicted great stuff (in the same way that clickers are typically used). If you were to toss the coaster a number of times, pairing it with good stuff, after the dog learned to the association you could use it to interrupt undesirable behavior. This is the principle of the “positive interrupter.” But you don’t have to throw anything. If you are close enough to toss a coaster, a simple noise or word would do. And it’s pretty clear that the promoters of the Magical Attention Signal are not using it this way.

  4. Oh oh!
    Oh oh!

    It could predict something aversive for the dog. Like Cesar Millan’s “Tsst!,” it could predict a kick or a jab in the neck. Or something less dramatic, like being yelled at or handled roughly. This might not have been the trainer’s or owner’s intent from the start. But if the startling effect of the thrown coaster wears off (version #2), a stronger consequence will need to be added. Then the thrown coaster would become either a punishment marker (“Fido, you are about to get it”) or a threat (“Fido–hop to it or you are going to get it”). This is also how most shock collar training works. When a trainer brags that he uses only an extremely low, non-aversive level, that is because the dog has already been taught that the shock can easily be escalated if he doesn’t comply. Otherwise we are left only with the Magical Attention Signal.**

By the way, #4 illustrates the concept of the “punishment callus.” One of the paradoxical problems with using an aversive is that most people want to start out light. But if you try that on strongly entrenched dog behaviors like barking, digging, or jumping up, the behavior may well prove to be too strong. Then you will be in the position of having to escalate. And often the dog’s ability to tolerate the aversive will escalate right alongside.

No Magical Attention Signal

Many promoters of aversive tools to use in dog training don’t want to say that they ever hurt or scare or startle or nag or bully dogs. And our mythology about dogs is so strong that most of us want to believe them. Hence, the lure of the magic signal that works all by itself, with no other consequences. I hope this post will bolster your “nonsense detector.” Behavior is driven by consequences. If no change in consequences occurs, there is no reason for a behavior to change.

If someone says that Tool A, B, or C is designed to “get the dog’s attention,” ask them what happens next. Once they get the dog’s attention, how do they actually get the dog to do something or stop doing something? Also ask them what happens if the “painless” tool fails to get the dog’s attention.

The Magical Attention Signal is not going give any lasting help on its own. Learning theory and common sense (if only we could apply it when we think about dogs!) tell us that behavior has consequences. We take actions for a reason. We act to get stuff we want. To avoid stuff we don’t like. All creatures with a brain stem, and more primitive creatures as well, from what I hear, do this.

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.
Rapt attention in the back yard

But the good news: if you keep conscious control of the reinforcers in your life with your dogs, use those reinforcers to strengthen behaviors you like, teach alternatives to behaviors that you don’t, you will have a head start on getting great attention from your dog.

All photos except the one of my dog Zani and the one with my three dogs are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The boxer photo was cropped.

* This is a simplification of habituation. The extent of habituation depends on several characteristics of the stimulus and organism. Here is a review article: Rankin, et al. [2009.] Habituation Revisited: An Updated and Revised Description of the Behavioral Characteristics of Habituation. Neurobiol Learn Mem. Sep 2009; 92(2): 135–138.

**We could also add, looking at the four quadrants, that the thrown coaster could predict the cessation of something aversive, or the removal of something good.  But I think these are pretty unlikely usages.

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Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

“Respect” Is SO Last Year

“Respect” Is SO Last Year

Shhh, don’t tell anyone!!

I don’t know for sure, but I kind of think my dogs don’t “respect” me. But that’s OK.  Dogs probably don’t do “respect” anyway. It’s a human concept, and it depends on human cognition and social mores. When people say their dog respects them, it is usually a euphemism. It means that through their actions they have caused the dog to be intimidated or afraid.  Wary, at the very least. I think that’s how “respect” generally translates into animal behavior. One can usually see it in the “respectful” dogs’ demeanors.

I don’t bother with respect. I don’t even think about it anymore except when other people bring it up. But I would venture to say that my dogs rely on me. They look to me for guidance in new situations. They enjoy the structure I put to our lives. And I hope they trust me. That’s what leadership looks like at my house.

Respect and authority are irrelevant when one of us naturally has the greater cognitive skills, the keys to the cabinets, cars, and house, and the opposable thumbs. Why should humans be worried about having the respect of a creature that is dependent on us?

What if, instead, we humans used our big brains to figure out ways for dogs and humans to both get lots of what they want, and have an enriching life together? What if, instead of focusing on respect, we could get an animal that was joyfully cooperative?

Eileen is seated on a short stool and Clara is lying on the floor. They are looking into each other's eyes. There are some training props on the floor.
Clara and Eileen having fun training. Clara is learning to put something in a container.

If you’d like to see dogs trained without concern for establishing any kind of authority over them, with the goals of building practical life skills and having the training experience be the most fun possible for all participants, take a look at today’s video. It is called, “Imagine…”

It’s not perfect, but that’s part of the point. It shows what a B-level amateur trainer with mediocre mechanical skills and difficulties raising criteria can accomplish in a multiple dog household. (Of course with the help of some great teachers, in real life and online.)

So for those of you who are ready to consider a much more fun and less stressful way to interact with your dogs, dare to dream. For those of you who already know the secret: enjoy!

More Information

Some of the clips came from how-to or demo videos I have published. They are:

A Secret for Training Two Dogs Step by step instructions for training multiple dogs, with video examples. The secret is to realize that the harder job belongs to the dog that is “waiting,” not the active dog.

Get Out Of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior  How I taught Clara to perform a default down whenever I bent over, instead of mugging my face.

Teaching a Dog to Back Up without Using Body Pressure  A brief post and video tutorial using the method where a dog goes into a channel between objects and you mark when it backs out. I made this movie after watching the truly awful methods commonly used for teaching dogs to back up, and because I was unable to find another video demonstrating this particular low stress method to jump-start shaping backing up.

7 Great Reasons For Flirt Pole Play Discusses the ground rules for flirt pole play and some of its many benefits.

The Right Word Work on verbal cue discrimination, using the principles of reduced error learning.  The goal is separate release words for my three dogs, a very handy skill. 

What Dog Training Really Taught Me is also relevant: how I figured out that I was being unfair to my dogs before I started to understand behavior science.

And check out this lovely blog post that is related in spirit to what I am showing here: “What If” by Lori Nanan over at Your Pit Bull and You. Can you believe it? Pit bulls don’t need to be dominated either!

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson 

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

When I first published this piece in 2014, I had no idea of the firestorm it would create. I thought (and still think) it was a pretty mild critique. It’s an analysis of what Bark Busters’ own written materials say about their training philosophy. They weren’t pleased, though. But it’s still here, and draws a fair amount of traffic. I’ve edited it for clarity and hope it is helpful. —Eileen Anderson, September 2019

A friend recently shared a flyer from Bark Busters, a franchise dog training business. It is called “Barking: The Facts” and can be seen at this link. 

The flyer made me interested so I set out to investigate the methods of this franchise.

The main pages on the Bark Busters website have wording that appeals to the many people who want to get their dogs to behave without hurting or scaring them. Some of the phrases are: 

  • “Positive relationship”
  • “Lasting emotional bond”
  • “Communicate effectively”
  • “Consistency and natural techniques”
  • “Reinforce and strengthen the bond”
  • “Develop pleasant, obedient nature”
  • “Happy lifelong buddy”

But is this consistent with the training methods they use? If we look harder, there are some red flags:

  • “Pack leader”
  • “Transform a problem dog…often in only a matter of hours”
  • “All without treats or the need for harsh punishment”

Hmm, the analyses on how to judge dog trainers by their own business descriptions show that we actually have quite a bit to worry about here.

  • Pack leader is an indicator that most problems will be addressed by rank reduction, usually by the use of harsh aversives. In this kind of “hammer” mindset, even normal puppy annoyances are often treated like nails.
  • Any bragging about short training times with magical transformations is also a big warning. It generally indicates suppression and punishment as well. Trainers who are educated in behavior science know there are many factors out of their control when working with a dog and her family. They don’t make guarantees of magical transformations. They know that success is affected by the dog’s history and the client’s buy-in. This kind of guarantee is almost always made by trainers who will suppress the dog’s behavior through pressure and startling techniques, if not outright painful punishment. This can have the appearance of immediate success, especially in a first visit when the trainer has novelty on his side. Methods for suppressing behavior are conceptually familiar to most of us since we live in a punishment-based culture. They can show immediate, although temporary, results.
  • Without treats? Oh-oh. Food is the main primary reinforcer we have at our disposal. If there are no food or toys in use, behavior change depends on the use of aversives. Don’t get distracted by the red herring of “praise.” Sure, some dogs like praise. Most won’t work nearly as hard for it as they will for a hot dog, though. The focus on praise masks what methods are actually changing behavior: aversive ones. (See the photo below.)
  • Finally, “no harsh punishment” leaves “moderate punishment” on the table. And of course the company is the one defining what constitutes “harsh” punishment. The dog’s opinion might be different.

So don’t be surprised at the tools this franchise teaches people to use. They aren’t tools that help create a lasting emotional bond with a happy lifelong buddy after all. Airhorns, spray bottles, penny cans, and special bags with chains in them to throw. Bark Busters also teaches a special growly way to yell at one’s dog, using the word “Bah!”. This is another red flag, the idea that a particular word or sound has some intrinsic magical power to communicate. 

Note: the round things are not disc toys

The items in the photo above were all collected by a trainer friend who was called to help families who had previously hired Bark Busters.

The disc-shaped things (throwing bags) and the spray bottle have Bark Busters’ logo on them and appear to be provided by the company. The air horns were purchased by Bark Busters’ clients on the advice of Bark Busters’ trainers, and the penny cans were created by the clients on their advice. 

The preceding was a little overview of what we can glean about their methods. But what I’m most interested in is the mixture of information and mythology about barking in the flyer.  

Bark Busters’ Flyer about Barking

The flyer starts out all right, saying that barking can be a sign the dog is stressed. But then in the first bullet point, it says that dogs who bark at “birds, dogs, people, falling leaves, or clouds” are “nuisance barkers.” How very sad for the dogs who are scared of any of those things and are barking out of fear. Especially given the tools above, whose main functions are to startle and scare.

You can be pretty sure that a company bragging about using no treats does not use desensitization/counter conditioning as a training technique. This is the established and most widely accepted treatment for fear in dogs.

There is an interesting subtext to the flyer. It is the idea that dogs can come to distinguish and alert you to true threats to your family. You just have to get rid of the “nuisance” barking first. The flyer includes the following:

As they reach maturity, most dogs will naturally protect their owners when needed and where necessary…

Why, oh why can’t they join the 21st century and learn about dog behavior?

So when the problem behaviors have been removed, you supposedly have a dog who will guard your family. It doesn’t explain how the dog, if he has been punished for barking, will magically know that in a stranger danger situation (and only then), he should bark.

The idea that all dogs can intuitively recognize a threatening human dies hard. I have no doubt there are some dogs who can perceive a real threat from a human. They are way more perceptive than we are in so many ways. And of course, some breeds have been selectively bred for protection.

But that probably isn’t true for Susie the noisy sheltie or Boomer the baying beagle. And any undersocialized dog (and there are tons of them) is going to see threats everywhere. Undersocialized dogs may be as likely to attack a toddler, a man with a beard and hat, or somebody on crutches as they are someone who is threatening actual violence. It’s scary that Bark Busters is promulgating the idea that we should leave it to dogs to decide when aggression might be acceptable.

This is quite amazing, the idea that your dog can learn to be quiet all the time except when a criminal comes to your home. All by your throwing stuff and yelling when he barks.

Another problem is the inclusion of “demand barking,” in the list of problems. Bark Busters fails to point out that demand barking is maintained by the humans who reinforce it. It’s a problem we usually create, whether we know it or not. Dogs do what works. One of the first things I successfully trained my rat terrier Cricket was to stop barking for her meals. After I learned some basics about behavior science, I stopped reinforcing the barking (which was being reinforced by her whole meal!) and started reinforcing her for being quiet. I, a novice trainer, did this in a few sessions over a week’s time. No more demand barking after four years of it. But the idea that we humans need to change our behavior doesn’t fit into the rank reduction model. The result is especially sad. As long as humans don’t become aware of the ways they reinforce barking, the dog will likely receive reinforcement and punishment alternately for the same behavior.

The Biggest Myth

But the biggest myth is the idea that the training methods Bark Busters focus on are benign ones. They are not benign. Using some basic premises about behavior science, one can state some of the likely effects of this casual use of aversives.

If you startle your dog with a throw chain, an air horn, a penny can, or by yelling, “Bah!” as Bark Busters instructs:

  • Your dog may become scared of you;
  • Or (more) scared of the thing they were barking at in the first place;
  • Or scared of the area in which this happened;
  • Or scared of some other random thing that was present when scary things started to happen.
  • Your dog may shut down in general, as you suppress behaviors without teaching alternatives.
  • Your dog may redirect aggression, i.e. bite you or another vulnerable member of your household: a child, a cat, another dog.
  • Your dog may develop a “punishment callus.” This is common. Since very few people really want to hurt or startle their dogs, people usually start out lightly when they use an aversive method. The result is that the aversive must be escalated over time to get the same result. You will eventually reach a limit, either with what you can physically do, or what you are emotionally willing to do, to scare or hurt your dog. Then what? I do have to wonder how many times those throw bags have been thrown at the dogs instead of near them,  no matter what the instructions are.

References on fallout from aversives. 

Oh, and by the way, it’s not just the dog who can get ill effects. If the actions you take successfully interrupt the barking (note that I didn’t say solve it; just interrupt it momentarily):

  • You will be reinforced for using aversives, becoming more likely to do so again;
  • You will likely increase the severity of the interruption as time passes (see above about the punishment callus). Barking is a natural dog behavior and difficult to suppress successfully.

Our best friends deserve better than this.

Note: This post is based on what Bark Busters say about themselves in their promotional materials. You can view the flyer and website yourself. It’s about the tools they promote, and includes information (based on principles of behavior science) about the general, known effects of such tools. I haven’t directly experienced training from Bark Busters and make no claim that I have. 

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Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

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Cape Town, South Africa