Tuesday 17 June 2014

"I Know It Sounds Awful But...." ... Evaluating Advice!

I heard that statement last week, well I read it, on Facebook obviously, thats where we all read things these days, apart from those of us who still read books, who ARE you people... erm, I digress (and actually I read books too)...

To give you the context, someone was asking advice on their resource guarding spaniel, he was growling over his food or a bone or something yummy when the owner tried to touch him, they wanted to know what to do to resolve this problem.

"I know it sounds awful but..."

And yep, the following advice WAS awful, the poster advised that each time the dog growled, they should grab the dogs head and force it to the floor and hold it there, saying NO whilst they did so. Apparently they did this with their own dog and it worked, therefore they felt qualified to advise this course of action to others.

Heres the thing - if YOU think a piece of advice involves something that sounds awful - IT PROBABLY IS!That little voice saying 'hey, wait.. that doesn't sound so nice', you want to listen to that, thats there for a reason!

But lets back-track a bit here, this person was advised to do this by someone she thought was a trustworthy authority on the subject - namely a spaniel rescue organisation.

It is not unreasonable to think that someone from an organisation specialising in rescuing your breed, would know how to address training and behavioural problems. The thing is, often they don't know!

Just as it may surprise you to realise many many vets do not know much about dog behaviour and training, nor do many rescues, or dog walkers, and hell... there are even people advertising their training services who don't know their ass from their elbow!

But she said it worked! So thats surely ok yeah?

Well... no. Because when it comes to training or resolving behaviour problems, 'it worked' is just not good enough.

We need to know WHY it worked - otherwise I could advertise myself as a trainer who can cure all problems, then go around curing them by shooting the dogs dead. Extreme, yes, but hell I'd be honestly offering a 100% guarantee that your dog would NEVER: get on the couch, bark at strangers, chase stock, wee indoors, steal food, run away, bite the postman....

So it would work but you wouldn't want that method to be used would you - so you have to agree then, that 'the method works' is actually not good enough for you, because of 'why' - it works because the dog is dead. Dead dogs can't misbehave!

But that's stupid, no one's suggesting shooting the dog.


No, that's called hyperbole, an extreme example that is in fact pretty ridiculous, to prove a point. Do you think it's acceptable if the method works because the dog is scared of you? If the dog fears being hit or grabbed? If the dog is so scared of you he dare not do ANYTHING at all that might get you mad at him?

I think most of us would agree, we do not want our dogs to be scared of us, or to fear our actions. But a few might disagree...

I don't mind if he is a bit scared of me, because THIS behaviour is dangerous and has to stop.

Ok, no one is disagreeing that things like aggression around food need to stop, but the seriousness of a behavioural problem does not increase justification for using methods that work by causing fear or pain.

There is a common idea that serious problems, particularly problems involving aggressive behaviours, require harsh methods to fix them.

This could not be further from the truth, really!

All unwanted behaviour requires you to work out why it is happening, and address the root cause of the problem, very often it is fear. Problems involving aggressive behaviour almost always mean fear is the root cause. Do you think treating fear by causing MORE fear is a good idea? Really?

But that lady said she used it with her dog and her dog is fine now and isn't scared of her...

She might well have said that, and it might even be true - but dogs are really context specific about their learning. That means that, to use a human example, if a human learned like a dog learns, say to change their car tyre, and they learned this on their driveway as most people do.

They would NOT know how to change their car tyre in the garage, or on the road side, or on the hard shoulder, or when Uncle Bob was there, or in Tesco's carpark with the kids yelling and bawling...

Because all of those are different contexts, and dogs have to experience something in LOTS of different contexts before it is learned.

So how does that apply to Fluffy the Spaniel who 'learned' not to growl when her owner touched her when she was eating?

What the owner did was to pin Fluffy down by her head and say NO in a firm voice and hold her down whenever she growled over food. This always happened in the owner's kitchen, it always happened at meal times and it always happened when just the owner was present.

Thats a very specific context - what do you think might happen if Fluffy had a bone that she found, in the park, and a toddler wandered over to stroke her?

Has Fluffy REALLY learned that she must not growl at people near her food, or has she learned that it does not end well if she growls at her owner in the kitchen in her own home over her own food bowl.

There is an exception to the rule though - dogs CAN learn certain lessons, and generalise them to apply to all situations very very quickly.
That time is when fear is involved, when they feel as if their own safety is threatened - that's not some sort of weird magic, it's the way we all learn about danger, to stay alive!

SO the reality is that Fluffy MAY have learned not to growl at her owner in the context of a meal in her own kitchen, because in her mind the danger is her owner will do something horrid.

Fluffy might ALSO have learned that now it isn't just food in her own kitchen she must be careful around, now she's learned that whenever she has ANYTHING tasty or valuable to her, ANYONE approaching her ANYWHERE is a threat.

So, do we think there is now a high risk of Fluffy turning around in the park, with her bone, and biting that toddler?

You bet your life there is!

So even if you believe that we don't always have to be nice to our dogs, that sometimes it's justified to be nasty - ask yourself, do you believe it's sensible to use a method that creates a higher risk or an even worse problem than the original?

I suppose IF the only way of teaching a dog something were to use the nasty method, maybe it would be justified...

I bet you are going to say it isn't the only way...

You are spot on - there are MUCH more effective, safe and kind methods you can use, for even the most scary sounding situations.

Let's look at Fluffy again, she's growling when her owner tries to touch her as she is eating food. Why? Because she is eating her food, who wants to be messed with then! Also because food is highly valuable to dogs (it's highly valuable to us too, just go try stealing something from even a loved ones plate and you'll see!), they naturally want to protect it, and themselves whilst eating it.

Aggressive behaviour whilst eating is actually NOT an abnormal behaviour, it is a perfectly normal one - when you understand that a growl (or the preceeding body language, freezing, staring, lip curling, making a toothy-face) IS just a communication "hey, back off buddy this is my food here, I don't like you being so close! " and NOT some sort of personal insult, you'll realise that growling over food is not nearly such a big deal as long as everyone around the dog can respect their space and leave them alone.

Of course it is also a sign that your dog is anxious about you being near his food, and if you don't at the very least manage it so that he never has to eat around people, it could become a bigger problem.

This is NOT because the dog is 'bad' or 'aggressive', it's because he already has this fear of losing his food in his mind, he could easily misinterpret totally innocent actions by people, particularly by children, which would make his fear worse.

So, now we understand why - first of all manage it so it can't get worse - feed him in a room on his own, pop the bowl down, call him in, walk away. Simple.

Now we have to change his ideas about what it means when someone is near him, and he eats. Currently, he is worried, we need to make him happy!

For dogs, actions speak far louder than words - keep this in mind. If you go and try to take his food bowl even if you want to put something else in it  he is going to ONLY see that you are taking his bowl, this is a bloody brilliant way to get yourself bitten, and make a food aggression problem worse!

So, what can we do? We can't put more food in whilst he is eating, because dogs can't count, he won't realise that there is more in there.

We have to wait until he is done - so give him most of his dinner, walk away, when you think he's on his last mouthful, come back, SLOWLY and when you are five feet away or so (further if he is uncomfortable at this distance) you THROW the remaining pieces of kibble at his bowl (if you feed meat then use a few biscuits or bits of cheese). Ideally they land in his bowl but it's not the end of the world if you can't throw for shit, the point is you came near, but not TOO near, and he got MORE FOOD (he might not be able to count, but he sure as heck knows the difference between 'food all gone' and 'woo, more food').

DO this every few days, don't do it every day, you want him to WANT this to happen, doing it every day could cause more stress than anything else.

You need to be looking for his body language to change as you approach, you want a soft, wiggly happy looking dog who is looking at you like 'hey, is there more food?'.

Keep tossing those bits into the bowl, go slowly and don't rush in, you are building up trust here and you can't force anyone to trust you, you have to earn it!

IF you take this slowly, at his pace, and you use a decent treat or yummy food you will see that over the course of a week or two, he starts to relax and begins to WANT you to approach to put the food in his bowl.

That's what we wanted, from there you can build it up to ask him to back off his food bowl whilst you put more in, or touch him if you need to - but do keep in mind, these things are NOT necessary to do whilst he is eating, so don't take the piss and mess him around. Even if you bring more food, no one likes to be messed about with whilst eating.

The same methods apply if your dog has a juicy bone or other chewy treat - approach at a distance that is safe, throw MORE FOOD to him. It will take longer with a really high value thing like a bone because unless you throw more bones, what he has is worth more than what you are offering - but the same principle applies, your approach does NOT result in anything horrid, only NICE things.

Now, this version of Fluffy expects people to give more food when he has food - what do we think THIS Fluffy will do when he finds a bone in the park and a toddler wobbles up to him?

Even though it is out of context, he has no reason to fear that he will lose his bone, if his owners have done a good job in getting other people to reward him around food, and have practiced rewarding him when he has bones too, there's a really good chance that Fluffy will expect food, then see that the toddler has no food and ignore them, because they are irrelevant!

Most likely, if Fluffy isn't too keen around kids, the chances are he's going to pick up that bone and move away!

Doesn't that seem a better than the risk that Fluffy would bite the child? I think so!

So - when you are asking advice from people, evaluate it carefully! If it starts with 'this sounds awful but' then the chances are it IS awful. If it sounds as if it involves doing something unpleasant to the dog, the chances are it's likely to create a worse problem, or involve risk - after all, what do we think Fluffy's owners would have done if instead of accepting being pinned down and shouted at, she'd snapped and bitten the owners hand? How would that improve the situation for anyone?

For any advice you read or hear, ask yourself 'is this the most effective, SAFE and KIND way to deal with the problem, or does this method carry a hidden cost I won't want to pay, such as my dog biting me, my dog being scared of me, my dog developing a more serious problem'.

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