Sunday, 14 August 2016

Getting Sneaky - when you can't stop something happening.. change what it means!

So I am inspired to write this because yet again, I am helping someone who through no fault of their own, is stuck in a situation they cannot control.

This happens and over the years I have lost count of the number of people who live with others who handle and train their dogs in a way the actual owner really doesn't want them too but for a variety of reasons, they cannot prevent it.

Most commonly its because the people doing the 'bad stuff' are family members - and if it's hard to train people, its a MILLION times harder to change the behaviour of family members!

So what follows is NOT perfect - I know this, you know this - but we don't live in an ideal world where someone can just up and leave and take their dog to a nice place, or wave a magic wand and stop their Mum or their Sister from doing whatever to the dog.

Here are some ideas for limiting the damage if you are stuck in a situation where people insist on using punishment based methods and you want to use positive reinforcement.

The first thing to know is that dogs are quite capable of figuring out that one person acts one way, and another person or persons act another way - as long as all the persons are consistent in the way they act.

TO put it bluntly, if you are always nice, rewarding, safe and kind, but your brother is consistently a dick - a dog will figure this out.

That said, if a dog is being trained two different ways, that IS going to slow down progress no matter how smart your dog is - thats unavoidable but hopefully some of the ideas that follow will help.

Situation 1 - Joe has a dog that barks at stuff, Joe knows his dog is a bit anxious and barks when startled or to try and make the scary sounds/sights go away. Joe wants to stop the barking in a kind way.

Cynthia just doesn't like the barking and figures using a bottle of water sprayed in the dogs face will stop it - she tries it and it does .. for a limited time, and then the dog barks again and she repeats it. She thinks this is fine.

Joe doesn't like this and nor does the dog.

If we can't change Cynthias behaviour here, and we can't magically stop Joe barking in one training session... what CAN we do?

Well we could make the spray bottle no longer be an aversive!

We could make the spray bottle a 'positive interrupter' - right now, it stops the dog barking for a minute or two because it startles him and he doesn't like it.

But if he LIKED it, and he thought it meant 'hey, you might get a treat now, or maybe the chance to do something that earns a treat'... he would ALSO stop barking, because it still interrupts him, but it tells him something GOOD is coming, which starts to make him associate the thing he was barking with, with the opportunity to get something good.

Now this is basically classical conditioning but it won't work as fast as just giving the dog a treat each time he hears a sound, because we have put an extra step in the way.

That is still ok - its not perfect, but its the best option right now.

So Joe takes his dog off to his room or out somewhere quiet, and he has the spray bottle with water in it, and he has a big pouch full of SUPER good treats.

Depending on how worried his dog is about the bottle he MAY start by just showing the dog the bottle and immediately giving a high value treat.

Then when the dog starts to show him the 'yay, treats' face on seeing the bottle, Joe sprays a bit of water into his own hand, AWAY from the dogs face, and gives a treat (or even several).

When Joe's dog associates the sight of the spray bottle AND the sound of it being sprayed with brilliant treats, Joe can move to hte next step, which is a few drops of water touching the dog - this may need to be from Joe's fingers rather than the bottle directly but thats ok - now drops of water with the bottle in sight, = fabulous treats.

Work through these stages slowly, at a pace the dog can handle, and ALWAYS leave him wanting more, we want him to be like 'aww shucks.. ' when you put the bottle and treats away!

The next step is to go through some of these stages around the house in different rooms - pick times when no ones home or people are busy elsewhere, its important they DONT know what you are doing here.

This teaches the dog that the spray bottle, the water, the sound, still means treats no matter WHERE it happens.

The NEXT step is to teach the dog that sometimes the bottle means treats.. and sometimes it means 'now I'll ask you to sit, and you get a treat' or 'now I'll ask for a paw.. and you'll get a treat'. So the bottle means 'a treat OR the opportunity to earn one is coming'.

This step is important as if you have a family who want to punish the dog for barking, you can't just give the dog a treat without having asked him to do something for it -you'll just get into a row, so lets avoid that row.

The ultimate goal is that Cynthia sprays the dog for barking, and then Joe asks him to sit and gives him a treat for sitting - Cynthia does NOT know that now, the dog thinks the spray bottle is GOOD or that Joe has reinforced this idea by asking for a simple behaviour and rewarding it.

The dog stops barking because hey, its fun spray bottle time.. so Cynthia is happy that it works - and whilst this is annoying that she will think it works, it does at least mean she's not going to use a harsher punishment in future!

You can apply EXACTLY the same process to all the startle type punishments or interruptors people tend to use, for example, clapping, shouting, throwing a can full of pebbles or pennies, grabbing the dog by the collar even..

If you work with the dog to teach him that all of these things actually mean he's going to get something good maybe now, maybe in a minute, maybe after doing something else...

Then you dramatically limit the damage that the 'punishments' people are giving can actually do.

Here's how I would desensitize to a collar grab (something I think all dogs should learn anyway to be safe in case someone DOES grab their collar).

1 - Touch your dog on the neck or shoulder near to his collar but not actually on his collar yet (particularly if he currently thinks thats a BAD thing)... you can use a clicker if you like or just say 'yes!' in a happy clear tone, and reward him.

Repeat this step a few times - remember to end the session BEFORE he has had enough so he always wants more.

2 - Touch your dog on the neck or shoulder but now slide your hand toward his collar - mark with yes or a click, give the reward.

At this point, I would start not just feeding the reward by hand, but tossing the treat so he has to get up and get it, and then come back to you to continue the session.

The reason for this is, if your dog is reluctant to come back over to you to continue the session, thats a clear indicator he is not happy about this and that you need to go back down to an easier level - important that you don't push your dog too fast and it can sometimes be hard, so this really helps.

3 - Presuming your dog is now happy for you to touch, slide, mark and toss his treat, he goes and gets it and comes right back for the next go, move to touching his actual collar for a second before you mark and reward.

4 - Now we want to introduce sliding the hand under the collar for a second - same as the previous steps!

5 - Now we want to actually put a little bit of pressure on the collar. At this stage I would work for quite a few sessions on including just one or two 'pressure on collar' events, with lots of 'just sliding hand under' attempts, so that you are not just making it harder and harder each time. Its also good to ensure you are also doing short sessions on other tricks, games or behaviours, so that he gets a break.

6 - Now we start introducing actually tugging the collar a bit - and here I would start to make the slides and gentle pressure attempts be worth a different value of reward to the tugs - so a tug on the collar earns him a big ole lump of cheese (or whatever his $20 reward is) but a slide or touch earns him just a bit of kibble (or whatever his $5 reward is).

This way you are setting him up to WANT his collar tugged, cos BOY thats good!

All these sessions (and the ones that come after, tugging harder, tugging suddenly etc) should be no more than 5 minutes long, sometimes a lot less even, so they are EASY to fit into an ad break, or 5 minutes up in your room, which is really useful if you live in a busy household where its hard to get space away from people!

It can be VERY demoralising and even heartbreaking to want to train your dog with kindness and positive reinforcement, when other people want to use punishment and fear.

Do not let it get you down, do not EVER feel like your 5 minute sessions here and there are not worth doing - they ARE worth doing.

Asides from giving your dog the ability to cope and tolerate stuff htat is otherwise unpleasant for him, you will also find that YOUR bond and YOUR working relationship with the dog improves, to the point where he is always going to come to you, listen to you, comply with you - and the more that happens the easier he is to keep safe from other people.

So if you are someone trapped in this situation - don't despair - this stuff really does work - I had to desensitize one of my dogs to a friends really loud voice and tendancy to bend down suddenly and GRAB him for a really rough cuddle - we worked on this and he now LOVES a cuddle and he can cope with the surprise element to it, and the booming voice -  sure it would be nice if i could just get my friend to quit acting like that but for various reasons, I can't, so this is the next best option!

Make yourself a list of the things that happen that you might be able to limit but you can't stop entirely, and work out ways to teach your dog that these things are in fact a predictor of something GOOD instead of something bad.

As ever, positive training works best when we focus on what we CAN do, and not on what we can't, or what we don't want.

And hang in there - I know its tough. :)

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