Thursday, 27 August 2015

Dominance.. again. What it is, what it ain't.

Before I start this, its worth keeping in mind the phrase 'A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing'...

Never does that apply more when it comes to discussing dominance and dogs, and dog training and dog behaviour!

So first of all let me be clear about some of the following terms:

Context - a set of circumstances or facts surrounding a specific event or situation.

In discussing dominance, we need to know about the environmental context, and the social context.

In other words, WHERE it happened/happens, and WHO was involved.

Resource - something valuable to the involved parties.

So here we mean toys, food, water, attention from a person, access to a choice sleeping position.

So what is dominance - well that depends on who you are, whether you are discussing in a purely scientific context, or a more general context. Here are some definitions of 'dominance' or 'dominating' or 'domineering', some of them are in fact incorrect but are in common use.

Dominant - the winner of a competition, the strongest, the fastest, the top of the heap, the boss, someone who controls others actions

Domineering - behaviour displayed by someone that controls the actions of others

Dominating - the act of controlling others or taking over a situation, conversation or other social interaction

Dominance - power or influence over others, suppressing others

SO now lets look at dogs. For a long time a large section of the dog owning public has believed a number of things that aren't quite true.. or are even entirely false.

Here's one.

Dogs want to become dominant over their owners.

Here's another.

Dogs fight for dominance over each other/over humans.

Thats just not true, looking at the dog - human social context first, dogs have no concept of DESIRE to dominate human beings for the sake of then being the dominant party.

Looking at the social context of dog to dog interactions again, dogs do not want to dominate other dogs so that they are then 'top dog'.

This is why people will tell you, 'it doesn't exist'.. what they mean is, the DESIRE to become dominant, does not exist.

And that is true.

BUT... dominance does exist.

Every person or dog, who has their actions controlled by a dog - so the person who's dog growls when they try to sit on the sofa, so they sit on the floor instead, the person who's dog yells at them till they take it for a walk... the person who has a dog who won't let the other dog play with a particular toy...

In all these situations a dog is dominating another dog, or a person....

But here's the crucial point... this dominance is the OUTCOME of a social interaction and usually, is specific to a particular environment as well.

It is not something the dog set out to achieve for its own sake. The dog did not think 'ah ha, I shall control my owners actions, by refusing to allow him to sit on the sofa I shall achieve dominance over him and thus I shall raise my social status'.

Nope. What happened was the dog liked lying on the sofa, the dog learned that growling at the person meant he could stay on the sofa, maybe he learned that the person approaching the sofa was scary so growl, oh they go away, that works, repeat it.. hey I get to stay on the sofa, excellent.

This outcome however, does end up domineering the humans life, but it IS NOT because the dog desired to control the humans life, its because he wanted to stay on the sofa.

The same applies to the dog who won't let the other dog he lives with, get the ball. He has not a single care about being dominant, having any kind of social status, what he cares about, is the ball. He likes the ball, he values it highly, and he has via trial and error, figured out that he can prevent the other dog from having the ball by displaying certain behaviours.

So, why is this important and why do so many trainers and behaviourists tell you dominance doesnt exist.

Well, several reasons - and back to my 'a little bit of knowledge is dangerous'...

Because there is this misconception that dogs WANT to become dominant, and because unfortunately so many shysters and TV shmucks like to blame every behaviour they see on 'dominance', the word has become poisoned. We don't want to use this word because its real meaning is lost, because sadly a huge number of people use it wrongly, we don't want to be mixed up with that.

I don't need to tell you that your dogs inappropriate behaviour is dominating your life .. you know that! I don't want you to hear me talk about dominance, then hear some bumhole on the TV talking about it and think we are discussing the same thing, because we sure as shit ain't!

The major point is, dominance is really nothing to worry about, its not relevant, I don't need to discuss it with you when I come to your house to assess your dog, you don't need to know about it.

In the same way that you can appreciate the blue skies on a sunny day without knowing that the molecules in the air scatter blue light more than they do red light and so the sky appears blue... or you can watch TV without needing to understand how electricity works or how digital signals are transmitted or how an LCD actually turns that digital signal into a picture...

You can deal with behavioural problems, you can live happily with your dogs, without knowing how dominance actually occurs.

All you really need to know, is this:

Dominance does not CAUSE behaviour, dominance is the possible OUTCOME of behaviour.

So when you hear that a dog pulls on the lead because he is dominant - no. When you are told that your dog barks at you when you tell him off, because he is dominant - nope. When you see on TV some pillock explaining that a dog is shitting on the carpet, weeing up the walls, raiding the garbage can, humping his toys, growling at the kids, running away from home, killing squirrels in the yard, guarding his food bowl from you, stealing items and guarding those from you.... because he is dominant.

The answer is no, none of those things are caused by dominance. To say something is 'caused by dominance' is like saying 'smell the colour 9'... it actually doesn't make sense.

So when we tell you to forget dominance, you really can do so, just do it - because even though all those behaviours above and many many more MAY WELL dominate your lives...

We can fix them without once thinking about our dogs as being dominant, or domineering, because they don't WANT to be. They just want to chase the ball, lie on the sofa, eat their own meal in peace.

So, now I hear you saying ok, but what about with other dogs, how about when my dog is stealing other dogs balls in the park.

Your dog may well be dominant over another dog in a particular context, over a particular resource.

Fluffy may not allow Fido to have that ball, Rover may not want Spot to sit next to him on the sofa.

As long as the dogs themselves understand these rules and can get along, thats fine, its not a problem, frankly, its none of your business don't interfere, keep your clumsy human nose out of things. 

If Fluffy is the dominant dog when it comes to Fido and the ball, as long as Fido doesn't give two shits, thats fine.  If Rover is the dominant dog when it comes to Spot and the sofa, and Spot couldn't give a flying fuck, thats also fine.

It's totally irrelevant to you. Its also totally irrelevant to any other context and any other social grouping. The fact that Fluffy is dominant over Fido when it comes to the ball, in your house, has NO bearing whatsoever on whether Fluffy is dominant over Rover in the field.

The fact that Rover is dominant over Spot when it comes to the sofa has NO bearing whatsoever on whether he is dominant over Charlie at Nana's house.

These situations are determined by behaviour, they are driven by the desire to win the resource, and of course, the desire not to be involved in conflict, because its not just about 'who is strong enough to take what they want' its ALSO about 'who is diplomatic enough to quit rather than start a fight'.

In all these situations where you could identify a dominant dog, keep in mind that the OTHER dog chose to back down.

Problems can of course occur, when two dogs want the same resource, both are well matched and value it highly and are willing to fight over it.

But even here, DOMINANCE is not the problem, the desire for a limited resource, and the inability to resolve who wins it IS the problem.

This situation is generally not that common UNLESS the dogs in question have particularly poor skills at communicating with one another! Generally speaking, dogs who communicate well, will back down, will find a way of diffusing the situation.

More commonly I see dogs who are in fact highly anxious, that are described as 'dominant' who are not at ALL dominant.. but ARE constantly fighting to guard, or keep control of resources that they fear they will lose.

These dogs are not attempting to take over the world to gain social status, they are not attempting to control others so that they achieve some grand high poohbah prize of a Chufty Badge and a We Am De Best hat...

These dogs are highly anxious and stressed and just want to feel secure and safe!

So lets put this one to bed for good shall we? Dominance is not your concern, unless its with a fully consenting adult of the same species as you, a can of squirty cream and some handcuffs!


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

STOP focusing on the behaviour... think about the DOG...

I feel compelled to write this down as I have today seen several examples of what I am about to discuss, via the life-invading ever present Facebook of course.

So yeah, STOP focusing on behaviour - dog owners, pet parents, dog minders.. whoever you are.

Look away from that unwanted behaviour for a second, we aren't going to forget it entirely, no, but the first, most important, crucial element here is NOT that turd on the floor, its NOT that irritating barking, it is NOT that chasing of livestock or escaping the fence or humping Nanna's leg...

Its also not the expensive of the carpet cleaner, its not the irritation of your neighbours and its even not the scratches down Nanna's leg.

The FIRST thing you should consider here, is the dog.

Thats right, that goofy furry guy down there, him, or her of course - THATS your first consideration, THATS your priority (yes it is, I don't care if you have kids, elderly rellies, if the second coming of Christ is your godson.. the DOG is the priority right now)...

Look at the dog.

The dog is performing these behaviours, these behaviours did not manifest themselves alone, without the presence of a dog (if you have turds on your carpet and you have NO DOG then you HAVE got some serious issues that I am not qualified to deal with, move along please!)

Are you looking at the dog yet?

That furry dude has needs - he has inherited behavioural traits and desires, he has instincts. He also has some cognitive ability and he has emotions that are not dissimilar to your own.

He feels stressed, he feels relief, he feels hunger, thirst, pain and discomfort. He feels fear and anxiety as well as joy, he feels rage and he feels desire. Your dog can panic, and he can lust...

So whilst he won't have all the same reasonings for those emotions as we would, because he can't understand the concept of an over due mortgage payment causing panic, and he can't equate a bonus in a paypacket with joy, the basic, simple emotions are the same.

Ask yourself then, WHY did this emotional furry dude DO the behaviour you don't like?

He's not complex enough for the reason to be 'because he hates you' or 'because he wants to pay you back for leaving him home alone' or 'because he wants to take over the world' so you can rule those ideas RIGHT out, straight away.

If you focus on the DOG, and you ask why something happened, and how can we CHANGE things so that something doesnt happen any more... we can address most problems really pretty easily.

Why did the dog shit on the floor?

Because he needed to shit urgently? Because he didn't know where he should shit? Because he's scared to shit in the place you want him to shit? Because he got a sudden fright and effectively, shit himself? Because he couldn't GET to where he would have preferred to shit? Because you have inadvertently taught him to shit on the floor?

Loads of potential reasons there, you know not one of them is because 'he is a dirty bastard and wants to make you suffer'...

So how might we address this whilst thinking about the DOG rather than the behaviour as the priority.

Well when the DOG is the priority, that has to rule out all the methods that might be harmful to the dog - so lets take a guess that rubbing his face in this shit won't be an option, and probably shouting at him when you find the shit isn't an option. Those methods don't put the dogs needs as a priority, they put YOUR needs to feel like you are righting a wrong, in first place.

Here's a big newsflash - a dog has ABSOLUTELY, ZERO NEED to know he did something that you consider 'wrong'.

He does not need this, he will never need this and, you will never teach him this, in a million years. He is not capable of learning 'wrong' from you.

For sure he can learn ' this person is sometimes angry and scary' and he can learn 'never do THAT thing in the sight of THIS person'... but he has not learned that this action is 'wrong'.

Learning that certain actions are inherently wrong is a HUMAN thing, its a social construct and it changes from country to country and culture to culture. I can't really be bothered to list them but its safe to say there are things you can do in the UK that would be RUDE in Latvia, things you might find are considered polite in the USA but are shockingly, unspeakably wrong in China.

So stop wasting your time and confusing your dog, hes never going to learn it and attempting to teach it will frustrate you, and damage your relationship with your dog.

So, theres absolutely no need to try and impart the idea or knowledge to your dog, that he has done something humans consider to be wrong or bad.

What do you do then - well back to putting the DOG first, before the behaviour.

Your dog shit on the floor, did you teach him to shit outside?

Its a lot easier to teach a dog, and build a habit, that 'we always shit outside on this grass' and you do that by preventing any other option, and pairing the correct action with a high value reward.

We do this with children, its not hard - star charts and sweeties for sitting on the potty and making doodoo, nappies off and dust sheets down and a potty in every room to avoid the unwanted behaviour of 'shitting in our pants'.

We do not potty train children by just taking off the nappy and letting them run around and GUESS where the toilet is, and then when they make a mistake, rub their noses in it or drag them to it, point and shout BAD BOY...

If you did potty train a child like that, I am calling Child Protection/Social Services...

What if you taught your dog the wrong place to toilet, lets say you accidentally taught him to go on soft padded surfaces, ie, puppy pads.. and NOW you realise those pads are SO similar to carpet. oops your dog thinks thats the right place to go.

Same deal, prevent the error, provide the correct place to go, reward the correct action. Not hard, just requires some management and vigilance on your part.

We are now thinking about the DOG here - what does the dog know, what does he understand, what mistake has occurred and wrong thing learned, what will motivate him to repeat the action we DO want.

So way back near the start of this rant I said the dog takes priority over everything when you are solving a behaviour problem, the DOG is more important than Nanna's scratched legs or the ruined carpet.

I stand by that - you will not fix a behaviour problem by freaking out about Nanna's legs - yes that shouldn't occur, but no it does not justify an aversive methodology.

If we prioritise the dog, if we focus on MANAGING the dog so it can't happen, and in understanding WHY it happened, what motivated the dog, what produced that behaviour, we can address the behaviour in the right way and stop it happening again... which in the end is GREAT for Nanna, surely!

Trainers - this is why owners do things that are aversive and are, with the benefit of greater knowledge, horrible.

It is almost always NOT because the owner WANTS to be horrid to their dog, it is because in focusing on the awfulness or scaryness or expense of the unwanted behaviour, they FORGET the dog in the equation.

And that is very easy to do, when you have Nanna bleeding in the hallway and you have shit on the expensive new rug or you have neighbours threatening to call the authorities becuse your dog barks.. its SO easy to forget the dog and focus only on the behaviour.

Be sympathetic, YOU may know why the methods chosen are abhorrent to you but the owner is JUST trying to solve the problem and has prioritised the wrong thing.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Dogs and Kids - it's just a cute pic/video, right?

I am prompted to write this as a response to all the parents who also own dogs, particularly those posting pictures and videos on Facebook and on Youtube, of their dogs and their kids being 'cute' together.

Here's a statistic for you - 77% of children bitten by dogs, will be bitten by a dog who is a family dog, or a dog belonging to close friends/relatives - in other words, your child is MORE likely to be bitten by a dog you and they are familiar with.

Why is that?

Well when we live with a dog or we are really familiar with a dog, we forget they are a dog, we relax, we want to see the cute stuff, and we let slip from our minds that our dog, even the smallest of them, is a thinking, feeling individual who has a language our children don't understand and most of us are just guessing at.

Check out these two previous blogs on the subject:


In the first blog, the little boy Blake was raised to think it was acceptable to 'pop on the nose' a dog that approached him, he was raised to feel completely confident about approaching dogs with food, approaching dogs who were eating, and to hit dogs...

He was ALLOWED to sit on dogs, hit them, ride them like ponies - are we SURPRISED he ended up being bitten?

In the second blog really watch that video clip - if you do nothing else, watch the clip and see if YOU can pinpoint WHEN that lovely labrador says 'I don't want to play with this baby'... its actually a long long time before he takes any further action and in my opinion he looks to his owner for help several times before he gets any and she NEVER really realises how uncomfortable he actually is about the babies behaviour.

Dogs and kids can have an awesome time, but those two blogs show you how things go wrong and how subtle dog body language is at first, when our dogs are talking to us, before they start shouting!

So, whats safe and whats not safe?

Don't - allow your child to sit on, hit, pull, kick, stand on, your dog.
Don't - allow your child to get in the dogs bed when he is in it.
Don't - allow your child to approach a dog who is eating a chew toy, bone or his meal.
Don't - allow your child to get in a dogs face, put their arms around his neck, or put their face in his face.
Don't - allow your child to tell off or discipline or correct your dog.

Do - encourage your child to respect your dog and understand he has feeling and emotions too.
Do - encourage your child to think about your dogs needs and desires - teach them to play with the dog in ta way the dog likes, such as throwing a ball.
Do - encourage your child to invite the dog to them for fuss and attention, and to respect if the dog does not wish to come over.
Do - involve your child (age appropriately) with care such as grooming and training and in measuring out or preparing food.
Do - encourage your child to come to you and tell you about the dog if the dog has something, even if that item belongs to the child.

For parents - never leave your child unsupervised with a dog, never expect your dog to tolerate unpleasant or unfair handling by a child, NEVER EVER punish your dog for walking away, or for warning that a childs behaviour is making them feel uncomfortable.

IF your dog is warning by freezing, lip curling, growling or air snapping at your child or at you, call in a professional, prevent the situation getting worse by safely managing the dog and child, DO NOT PUNISH THE BEHAVIOUR, AVOID IT HAPPENING IN THE FIRST PLACE, until the professional can get there.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Labels - does it really do what it say's on the tin?

Under the surface of the dog training industry, across the world really, there is a bubbling, seething discord going on.

The labels we use to define our selves, or that others use to define us... are causing some problems!

Why do we need labels - well.. some would say we don't need them, and I think that would be a lovely place to live indeed.

If the simple term 'dog trainer' (ooh... is that a label)... in fact meant, automatically and without any further explanation:

"Person who teaches you to train your dog in the most effective and least harmful way possible"...

Well if it meant that I wouldn't be writing this blog!

To date there are the following labels I have come across - some I identify with, some I don't..

Behaviourist, behaviour consultant, force free trainer, positive reinforcement trainer, purely positive trainer, dog trainer, balanced trainer, progressive reinforcement trainer, positive correction trainer......

The list probably goes on and on and on.

Why do all these terms exist? Well, all these people are trying to make it clear what they do, or in some cases, don't do, in terms of training or behaviour work, with dogs.

They are not trying to convey this to other trainers though, they are trying to convey this to the general, non-dog-geek public, who may hire them.

So it seems pretty sensible to me, to try and find a term that sums up what you do, quickly and in a way thats easily accessible and understood by the public.

But thats not really what is happening.

Starting with the ones I actually identify with...

Positive reinforcement trainer - this is a person who uses positive reinforcement, though you may not know what that is, it sounds ok. It doesn't tell you what else they use or what they don't use.

Force free trainer - this is a person who does not use force to train your dog. It doesn't tell you what they do do though and what do you classify as 'force' exactly, are you aware of how force is commonly used in training as if you are not, this may not be particularly appealing or relevant to you.

Purely positive  - as far as I am aware this is someone who claims only to use positive reinforcement, HOWEVER I have in fact never come across one of these people who actually exists as a working trainer. I have come across idealistic people who think this is what they do with their own dogs, and far more commonly I have come across these as theoretical people who appear to exist only in the minds of those who want to justify something or things THEY do that are perhaps not so nice...

This is a really misleading term as a ;purely positive' trainer in terms of learning theory quadrants, would therefore potentially use positive punishment too... and thats not what those who claim they exist, claim they do... so I am going to discount this one as I don't think they are actually real!

Progressive reinforcement trainer - these do exist, but do you know what that actually means? I like and admire the person who came up with this term and she is a really excellent trainer but honestly, I struggle to quantify what that means too so I don't expect anyone else to get it.

Balanced trainer - now that sounds nice?  We all need a bit of balance in our lives, but a balanced trainer is in fact someone who uses positive punishments AND positive rewards... so they might use a choke or a prong collar on your dog and hurt him or cause fear, but they will also give him some treats if he does something good too... sounds ok but its not actually how the science works. But I digress!

Behaviour consultant/behaviourist - now this SHOULD mean someone who is focusing on your dogs behaviour and how to alter it, which may or may not involve some training, they should know HOW your dog thinks and solves problems and reacts emotionally, and how to change that, and how to manage things safely... but in the UK at least, anyone can call themselves this (and in fact any of the above terms) and you have little way of knowing if their knowledge of dog behaviour came out of a cracker, or was verified by an accredited and up to date professional body.

So... thats where we are, there are all these people and they will all tell you they can train your dog, or teach you to train your dog....

But how do YOU know they are going to do it in a way thats kind, effective, SAFE... despite all these labels, you still don't really know!

I happen to like 'force free' - as a generic cover for what I do.. yeah, most people get that 'force' isnt very nice, so doing something without force is probably better.

It is not perfect though and I will be the first to admit that.

So to begin with, 'Force Free' tells you that I do not use force when I am training or modifying behaviour.

Note this when I am training or as part of a behaviour modification plan'.... because there are times when I am working with my dogs, your dogs, whoevers dogs, when I may have to do something that is NOT a part of the training plan, that is not a training or behaviour modification technique, its a safety technique, its a 'don't be bitten, run over or dead' technique.

So whilst I am a force free trainer... hell YES I will pull a dog out of the road by whatever appendage I can grab applying whatever force is necessary to stop that dog being a flat-dog.

Of COURSE I will grab a dog in a dog fight by his tail and his scruff and hoik him out of it using plenty of force.

But pulling a dog out of a road or out of a fight are not training, they are not part of behaviour modification plans, I will not tell you to fix your dogs behaviour or train him a new behaviour, by doing those things (or many others)...  those are not training situations, those are emergencies.

You may think it is silly to have to spell that out, but there are some folk, and categorically, these are without exception, people who are proponents of training methods and behaviour modification methods that DO use force, who like to stir the pot, and throw in ridiculous scenarios and suggest that we cannot be force free trainers, and that the ideology of force free training is impossible and we are all kidding ourselves OR of course, that we WOULD stand by and watch a dog get itself killed because we can't use force.

Stop being dickheads people, seriously!

Force free training is about far more though than just 'not using force' - its about opening your bloody mind and seeing a way round a problem using your brain, rather than your brawn.

I am, as a force free trainer, highly unlikely to have to do either of the things I set out above, because part of force free training means I wouldn't BE working that car chasing dog so close to traffic before he was ready, so the chances of an accident are much reduced.

I would not BE working that dog aggressive dog so close to other dogs that the opportunity to have a fight would not occur, so I would not have to use force to split up a fight that won't happen!

I have thought outside the box, I have used the massive brain I have evolved, and figured out a way to fix the problems without just hitting things with sticks until they do my bidding or bite my arm off!

A trainer who really, should be top of his game, and very clearly has a serious chip on his shoulder, recently posted that we have to make dogs do things that they won't like from time to time and by that reasoning, he posits that we MUST therefore, force them.

And if you follow his logic, we must all use force and there are no force free trainers...

He suggests that we force a dog to wear a collar and lead - actually I pair the sight, feel, sounds and sensation of being restrained with high value food rewards, working gradually always remaining below the dogs threshold so the dog WANTS to wear the collar, wear the lead, follow me around, so he feels a tug on his lead adn thinks YAY that means goodies!

No force there, a shit load of clever human brain manipulating the less clever canine brain, YES of course... but no force.

He suggests that we force a dog to follow us - he might, I don't - I teach my dog that following me is really fun to do, from such a young age that not following me has really  not occurred to him. With older dogs I manage their environments so its not an issue, until they learn to want to be with me - so we drive to secure places where they don't need to be on a lead, and we teach, again, below threshold and build a bond so they do want to be with me and it becomes a non-issue. No force there then either.

He says that because we have to take our dogs to the vets or have them ride in the car, we must therefore use force to achieve this but again as the examples above... no, we don't - we can take the time to set our dogs up to want to do what we need to do in almost every situation.

The one time we cant is the emergencies life throws at us, and for sure, we will sometimes need to do something a dog won't like then.

But what Mr Force-Is-Necessary fails to realise, is when we GIVE dogs choice where possible, when we set them up so that they make the right choices and they enjoy doing so...

We also build in a HUGE degree of tolerance for the times we have to take total control and say 'nope, sorry this has to happen' - we don't damage the relationship.

And of course, we are still a force free trainer even if we have had to carry a screaming dog with a broken leg into a car and take him to the vets and hold him down on the table, because when did you last pick up a dog in an emergency and think AH, THIS IS A TRAINING SITUATION RIGHT HERE...

So maybe our labels are not good enough, maybe we need better ones, maybe it would be fucking peachy as anything to live in a world where we don't need any labels at all... I would like that.

But as long as there are people who think that because in rare, non training situation emergencies, we HAVE to use force, it is okay to use force whenever, wherever, as part of a training protocol, then I will feel the very REAL need to find a label for myself that distances me from them.

I do not want people to think 'dog trainer = forces dogs to do things they don't want to do'.