Sunday, 11 December 2016

Evaluating a New Method... do NOT try before you buy!

Ooh It's Shiny and New... must be great!

From time to time you hear of 'new' methods and techniques within dog training - for the most part these things are not really new, but repackaged and rebranded, but some are and if the concept is new to YOU, you'll need a way of evaluating it without just trying it out on your dog.

So how do you do that - there isn't an easy answer and if you are a new dog owner or you are at the beginning of your journey towards becoming a trainer or behaviourist, it can be even harder.

I have discussed before 'my' idea of the 'cost/benefit analysis'.. of course that isn't really MY idea, I didn't invent that process but just applied it to dog training methods, as others may well have done before me.

First of all, look at whether the method IS new or is something old, rebranded, tweaked, adapted or changed.

It may be that thats a good thing, or it could be a bad thing or it may actually mean nothing at all, but it might tell you something about the person promoting it, and that might be useful information.

So here's some methods much promoted and marketed by Cesar Millan - the alpha roll, the slip lead high up the neck and jerked hard, the use of prong and shock collars - but these are not new methods, they were used before Millan by the likes of Most, Koehler and the Monks of New Skete!

What about this, the Back-Pack or Rucksack Walk, a concept devised by Steve Mann - as far as I can see, this IS new, even if the concepts of mindfulness and calm engagement are not new, putting them together in that format is.

What about the force free, 'about turn' method of teaching a dog to walk on a loose leash - where you use a harness and line and you prevent the dog from self-rewarding by performing an about turn with a single warning, and reinforce the correct behaviour by rewarding with food, and with forward movement..

It's still not new, in fact its adapted from what Koehler was doing, just with the heavy harsh correction removed - the basic principle that the dog only gets what he wants when he walks beside you is the same, the basic idea that the dog needs to learn to pay attention to you and that its HIS job to do this not YOUR job to keep reminding or telling him, both those concepts were what Koehler was using... it's just that we now know you don't need to surprise a dog by yanking him off his feet by his neck to do this!

So the point of all this is - don't be swayed by things that claim to be shiny and new, maybe they are, maybe they are not, it really doesn't matter, it might well just be a sales gimmick!

The person recommending it is my idol/is super sexy/is an asshat...

Forget the name behind the method - I don't care and much more importantly your dog does not care if you think the sun shines out of the sexy trainers pert little bottom, or if you think he or she smells of wee... Not relevant, and you can be sucked into doing things that actually are not ok because you've put the person before the method, or equally you can chuck out with the dishwater an excellent concept or idea, because you don't like the personality behind it.

They ain't training your dog - you are.

The ONLY time I would put any consideration into WHO is promoting a method, is when you are wanting more information about it and you are  not allowed to access it, or you are told you don't understand or some other weaselly way of denying information, on a method otherwise being promoted and advised to members of the public.

This is the case with the Parelli's for example - you are welcome to buy the DVD and follow their method, do as they say... but you are NOT welcome to ask questions about the science behind their methods, particularly you are not welcome to ask critical questions or offer differing opinions.

If someone is promoting something, but you are not allowed to examine that method in detail, if you are not for example, allowed to ask about the inherent risks... thats when I would suggest you take a look at the persons behaviour a little further and consider that perhaps the animal welfare is NOT their priority, and raking in cash is, and people who ask the sticky questions might reveal something that damages that money making capacity.

I am not for a second saying that trainers or behaviourists should give you, for free, a weekends course in resource guarding or a 3 day seminar on dog - to - human aggression... everyone has to earn a living - but if someones method or technique is safe and sensible they should have no issue with you asking questions about it - if they do then the odds are, they have something to hide.

So go on then.. analyse a method...

Ok so, the latest method I have read about is designed to deal with leash reactivity, and is called Turn and Face, and is promoted/written about and I assume concieved by Denise Mcleod.

I took the time out to read her book a couple of days ago following some discussion on the method on Facebook and viewing some of the videos of it in action.

The method is, in brief, that you set up the reactive dog with stooge dogs, and as the dog goes to react you firmly grab his collar putting pressure on the back of the neck and bring him around and in so that his face ends up against your legs/crotch (depending on relative height of dog and handler).

The claim is that this stops the reaction, and allows the dog to calm down and over time breaks the habit of reacting in this way and allows the dog to choose to not react in this way.

The other claimed benefits of this method are that it works very quickly in just a few repetitions, which reduces the stress reactive dogs suffer from

The author goes to great lengths at the end of her book to outline that this method works 80 to 90% of the time, but also goes to great lengths to explain it isn't suitable for all dogs who are reactive, it shouldn't be done with dogs who will redirect aggression onto the handler, it should be done in a controlled environment with stooge dogs who will not react, it should not be done with dogs under a certain size... there is a long list of where this should not be done and dogs it should not be done with.

In my opinion therefore this method is already starting out 'dodgy' - it can only be applied in very specific circumstances, in dogs who are actually reactive out of habit and frustration and not aggression.

It is my experience that whilst there are a lot of frustrated reactive dogs out there, many dogs are reactive out of fear and pain and if the majority of pet dog owners were capable of deducing that, I would probably be out of a job!

So lets run the cost/benefit analysis.

Claimed benefits:

Works quickly.
Calms the dog
Ends reactivity

Potential costs:

Involves physical force to the dogs neck - risk of injury.
Could result in dog redirecting onto owner - risk of injury to owner.
Could result in dog becoming more fearful rather than less fearful if dog suffers pain or fear and associates this with the trigger
May not work.

The method requires that:

Owner has access to controlled environment.
Owner has access to suitable stooge dogs.
Owner is capable of assessing their own dogs behaviour and temperament as suitable for this method.
Dog be comfortable with being handled but NOT pre-conditioned to sudden collar grabs as the 'startle' effect is necessary for the method to work.
Dog not actually be aggressive.
Dog be suitable size/weight comparable to owner.
Owner be physically capable of grabbing dog and swinging it round and forcing it into their legs AND holding it there.
Dog is 'set up' to fail and flooded, repeatedly, in the days immediately following use of the method.
Method NOT recommended (by author) to be used in public initially due to 'how it looks' and the requirement for a controlled environment.

For me to use a method,  I need that method to be high on benefits and low on risk, AND that method needs to be practical and either applicable to most dogs or adaptable to all.

I also need to be sure that of the available methods applicable to the dog I am working with, this is the least invasive and least aversive, so I need to look at the alternatives.

What are the alternatives to 'Turn and Face'...

Well the first that springs to mind is Counter Conditioning and Desensitization - whereby I pair the sight of the trigger whilst the dog is under threshold, with high value rewards, typically food, and I keep exposure to a minimum duration/maximum distance.

What are the benefits to that:

Dogs emotional reaction to trigger is changed
Reactivity ceases
Bond with owner improves
Dog is kept under threshold so general stress is reduced

What might the costs be:

Might take a while depending on available environment to work in
Might not work.

What does this method require:

Access to a suitable environment to work in or ability to adapt method to environment available.
Understanding of dogs threshold
Understanding what rewards the dog values most highly

You should note here that I have carried out this analysis working on the assumption that the method in each case is being done correctly.

It should really go without saying that if you apply a method incorrectly, the analysis does not work - if you are attempting counter conditioning for example, and you put the dog over threshold then you aren't actually doing counter conditioning, you are flooding your dog!

So going back to the comparisons of those two methods it should be very clear that using Turn and Face has a lot of potential risks to a small handful of potential benefits, and CC/DS has very few risks to a lot of potential benefits.

NOW finally, lets look at which of these methods is kind/humane/fluffy/nice etc etc...

CC/DS requires that the dogs stress levels be kept low by avoiding the dog going over threshold. This requires the owner to consider the dogs day to day life on a holistic level, which can only be a good thing!
CC/DS works by changing the dogs emotional reaction to the trigger, and this further down the line then gives the owner the opportunity to teach/train/allow the dog to choose alternative behaviours as appropriate when they see that trigger.

Turn and Face requires that the dog be subjected to the trigger over threshold, the dog HAS to react for the method to be applied, so this increases stress.
Turn and Face risks that the dog or handler could be hurt - imagine if the owner has assessed wrongly and the dog redirects into a male owners crotch... ouch!  Imagine if the dog actually has a soft tissue injury or a spinal injury to the neck and the owner grabs and puts pressure on the dogs neck - ouch!
Turn and Face requires that the dog be startled by being grabbed and turned - that has to increase stress.
It is likely that if and when Turn and Face works, it does so by causing the dog to 'shut down' ie to experience learned helplessness, because the dog is experiencing high stress, an aversive, and then being trapped and unable to escape - pretty classic recipe for learned helplessness.

Really the short version of this is, Turn and Face MIGHT be something you would do in an emergency if you were say, trapped in a location where you couldn't get the space your dog needed and you would rather risk a bite to the crotch or leg than your dog making contact with someone else or their dog.

I might do that, but then, I also might yoik my dog out of the path of oncoming traffic by his left testicle - doesn't mean I'd base a training method around that!

It is not a method I would ever risk applying to my dogs or the dogs I work with, because the risks are too high, the benefits are insufficient and not guaranteed and the specifics about who, where and when are just too much to make it practical.

The bottom line is, there are alternatives (theres also LAT, BAT, CAT and multitudinous variations upon these) which vary in their difficulty and risk level but as far as I am aware, ALL are less risky than Turn and Face.

I would like to add - I would have liked to add videos of Turn and Face to this blog however, the author has blocked me from Facebook and refuses to answer any of the points I have raised about the method and addresses any constructive critiscism or attempts at discussion by deleting posts, blocking people and denouncing them as trolls.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

It's Not About You.... It's About What You Do... PART TWO...

It's Not About You...

It doesn't matter if what you are doing is absolutely fucking awesome, or absolutely dreadful - in dog training it really is not and should not be, about you.

If it's about you, there's a problem - because when it's about you theres a bloody big risk that it's no longer about the dog, or the client.

Heres what that priority list needs to look like:

A bunch of other fucking stuff.

Right now theres a lot of cool stuff happening in the positive, reward based, open minded, caring sharing dog training world.

Oh yes - there's trick training, theres back-pack walks, there's 'do as I do' and there's snuffle mats and sprinkles and doggy zen and mooching vs walking and there's bite prevention and theres teaching kids to interact appropriately with dogs..

There is a veritable fuck-ton of good stuff going on, its awesome, its lovely, there is something there for you no matter what dog you have and what your goals or needs are.

But there's also one hell of a lot of ego flying around, there's trainers with 'celeb' status, trainers who are about to have 'celeb' status theres trainers who used to have 'celeb' status and don't any more - theres organisations who promised a lot and delivered substantially less, theres organisations that actually didn't do what it said on the tin and new ones popping up and brilliant ones doing their thing...

It's a big old melting pot right now and whilst theres some grumbly unpleasant shit under the surface  I WOULD like to focus on the positives.

Theres more good than there is bad, I do believe that - and more importantly, the 'bad' that there is is just human shit, it's going to go away, it will all come out in the wash and it doesn't really matter.

But there is one thing that is starting to become worrying, and this is why all this ego and celeb status shit is a problem.

We all like and follow one another on facebook and if you are a 'name' you've probably got a FB list that is full or nearly full, you probably have a friend list that 95% of which, you do not know - I am not a 'name' and the latter applies to me!

When you like or follow someone, whether you intend it or not you are giving some kudos to what they do, you are saying 'I endorse this'.

You MIGHT just be friends with that person because you've no clue what they do, or you are keeping an eye on what they are up to - but in all honesty, the short hand is, friend on facebook, liked on facebook = endorsement from you.

When you put THIS together with the laudable and positive action of NOT talking about negative stuff..

You end up with bad shit happening and no fucker saying a word.

Whats that saying about that scenario?

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
We have GOT to stick our heads over the parapet - it is a fine line, it ABSOLUTELY is, and this is not and it never should be about people.. as I say, it is NOT about you...

It's About What You Do...

If a method of teaching a dog involves physical force, involves startling the dog, is a quick fix method that carries huge risk, where a much lower risk method could be used.

I will say so. And you should too.

If you are the owner or founder of an organisation, this applies even more!

This nicey nicey lets all be positive and lovely - sure when it comes to talking to people, dealing with clients, handling dogs - yes...

But when it comes to ignoring abuse and welfare risks - no. Hell no.

Now I am of course NOT talking about attacking people and I am not talking about just being a shit-weasel, pointing out flaws with no real back-up, no alternatives, no science behind what you are saying.

Not at all, thats never useful, its as un-useful as the reverse, saying somethings shiny and wonderful and lovely without explaining WHY it is and how it works.

So when you see someone doing something you believe is wrong, what are YOU going to do? Because its every bit as much about what YOU do about it, as it is about what someone is doing in the first place!

Personally, for me, I will be speaking out.

If I believe a method is wrong, it will be because that method is risky, it is dangerous to the dog, the handler, to the public or all three.

It will be because that method does not pass my cost/benefit analysis - the potential benefits do not outweigh the potential risk.

And it will be because there are safer, more efficient, less stressful, less risky alternatives available that are practical and kind.

But I won't just say that something is wrong.

I'll be sure to make it clear WHY.. what those potential risks are.

I'll be sure to make it clear what the ALTERNATIVES are, and how to adapt those alternative methods to suit your situation and your skill level and your dog.

I'll be sure to make it clear how to manage your dog so that during the training or rehab process, your dog is not stressed or upset.

My remit when training or modifying dog behaviour is like medics, to first, do no harm.

I believe as positive trainers though our remit is broader than that, I think we should speak out when we see harm being done, and try to prevent others doing harm.

We should always attempt to educate, but if someone is not interested in learning, that should not stop us in ensuring that the safe, sensible advice is available, so that people can make an educated choice as to what to do - and that, as negative as it might appear, needs to include speaking out against harmful methods, because the average dog owner is NOT in a position to assess the risks and dangers for themselves, that is why we are the experts and they are the clients.