Why Labeling Your Pet Does Not Solve Problems

(This is one of my past Hyde Park Living columns)

My whole fascination for the study of behavior science was founded over 12 years ago on an international list started by Dr. Susan Friedman (a psychology professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the use of Applied Behavior Analysis with companion animals). Having that knowledge and support helped me to transform my Timneh African Grey, Barnaby, from an incessant screamer into a bird who talks human to me all day. And it has so changed my relationship with all of my pets.

Now I am paying it forward by helping other animal caregivers to have that same success . One way I am doing that is by returning to that same list. This time around, however, I am training to be a list leader teaching others about Applied Behavior Analysis and its relevance in setting themselves and their pets up for success (and continuing to learn by the awesome mentors on the team).

Our very first lesson of the series is about constructs or labels vs actual behavior. It is a very important distinction when it comes to solving behavior issues in the most positive, least intrusive way.

Have you ever described your pet as stubborn, dominant, spoiled, or jealous?  Those words are referred to in behavior science as constructs or labels. They describe what people ‘think’ their pet IS but here is the problem – as a trainer, I have absolutely no idea what it is your pet is ‘doing’ to cause you to see him as stubborn, dominant, spoiled or jealous. What set of behaviors I may picture in my mind may be very different from what set of behaviors that animal is actually ‘doing’.  I can help you strategize positive ways of solving a problem of your dog jumping on guests or a bird destroying furniture but I can’t help you strategize solutions for a jealous pet.

quote from Rise Van FleetDr. Risë VanFleet (internationally renowned for her work in the fields of play therapy, Filial therapy, and animal assisted play therapy) described some additional problems with labeling   (VanFleet, R., Jan/Feb 2012, “That Lazy Owner! That Lazy Dog! The Pitfalls of Labeling our Clients”. The APDT Chronicle of the Dog.)

“When an owner comes in and says, ‘My dog is being dominant. He is deliberately trying to rule me,’ that person is using labeling as well as another cognitive distortion (mind reading) not to mention the application of inaccurate pack theory. These cognitive distortions lead to exaggerated frustration and anger,” she wrote.

Why is labeling a cognitive distortion? She gave three reasons:

1.   People – and pets – behave differently in different situations. Risë gave as an example a dentist who might call some patients ‘noncompliant’ because they don’t floss their teeth but does that mean that the patients are always noncompliant? Most people do brush their teeth.

2.  If we apply labels to people or dogs, we stop learning about them. “We have, in essence, fooled ourselves into thinking that we have figured them out,” she said, ”The dog who is labeled ‘aggressive’ begins to be seen through that particular lens, and the anxiety or medical problem beneath the behavior might go undetected.”  This is HUGE. A label stands in our way of seeking valuable information we need to understand what is going on with the animal and in the environment that is affecting the actual behavior.

3.  Labeling brings with it a problem of interpretation. How one person interprets ‘anxious’ may be very different from how someone else would. Risë also pointed out that labels have a way of becoming more rigid with time.

So, what is a better option than using labels to explain behavior?

Well, begin by asking yourself, “What does that label ‘look like in terms of actual, observable behavior? Under what conditions does the behavior occur? What is the immediate outcome the behavior produces for the animal?”

The answer will help us determine clearly defined behavior change targets, antecedent predictors that set the behavior in motion, and quote on labeling behavior by Lisa Desatnikconsequences that maintain or strengthen the behavior.

Maybe your bird chews on furniture when your bird is activity deprived and has access to the furniture. Or maybe your dog bumps your leg when you are sitting on the couch watching tv and ignoring him. Okay…now we can work on a behavior modification plan!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Training An Animal Is Like Filming A Silent Movie

Suzanne Clothier, well respected for her holistic Relationship Centered Training™ approach to dogs and the people that love them, brought up an excellent point in her recent newsletter.

In the days before modern movies, when film makers relied solely on motion pictures to convey their messages without sound, viewers realized, words were not necessary to convey story lines. Audiences got it. Charlie Chaplan movies were resoundingly impactful without color or script.

Now think about how this relates to training your pet who does not speak the human language. Your clarity in conveying signals and criteria for the behavior you want your pet to learn is absolutely key in his/her ability to understand your lesson plan.

In her newsletter, Suzanne talks about how she often asks handlers to try dog training quote by Suzanne Clothierthe ‘Silent Movie Experiment’. She asks them to video themselves with their dog in a training session where their dog has been frustrating or difficult to control. Then, with the sound turned off, to show that video to a friend and ask them what they see. What are the very specific approximations you are looking for to reinforce in your animal’s behavior? How quick and deliberate are you in giving the reinforcement after the behavior? What is the final goal of your training session?

You may be very surprised by the feedback you hear.

Like Charlie Chaplin audiences, our pets rely on our actions to understand what we are teaching.

“Clarity counts, and it begins with explicit, deliberately given signals that let the dog know what you do and do not want. If your signals and rules aren’t clear in your silent movie, chances are very good that your dog will be confused,” Suzanne wrote.

Something to think about.

8-25 silent movie

 

Petting A Dog – The Consent To Pet Test

If you share your life with a dog, then you no doubt understand the magical affect of petting him. There has even been research to show the benefits to humans from being close to and touching pets.

The thing is that, while your dog no doubt loves you very much there are some times where a human touch just makes him uncomfortable. It could be that you are touching him in a place he does not like, or at a time when he is already feeling stressed. Maybe he is in a place where he feels crowded and unable to escape. For both bite prevention and overall strengthening your relationship with your dog, it’s important to know how to read his body language, how he indicates when he is stressed, and how he consents to being petted. Teaching your dog to enjoy being petted using positive reinforcement is also very important.

As much as I love our family dog, Sam, and as much as I know he enjoys being around me (I know this because he follows me around, runs to greet me when I arrive and jumps on my lap when I sit on the couch), there are still some times when petting him makes him uncomfortable. (Hugging does too but that is another topic.)

How do I know he is uncomfortable? Here are some of the signs I look for:

He looks away, backs away or walks away
He ducks his head away from my hand when my hand is outstretched
He may lean his body away from me
Hey may yawn or lick his lips
He may scratch himself or lift a paw
His muscles may be tense around his face

And if I did not understand dog body language and therefore did not listen to what he was trying to communicate, then he may resort to a growl. AND if I still did stop what I was doing when he growled, his last resort would be to bite me.

It’s important to stop and note that dogs do not bite without cause. They bite because their other means of communicating non-aggressively simply did not work for them to get a person or another dog or animal to back off. And, unfortunately, once they have learned that biting gets the trigger to back off, they will do that more often and not even try to communicate non-aggressively first.

That is why an important part of bite prevention is learning how dogs communicate. I have a document with some common forms of dog body language at this link.

Here is a video of what can happen if you do not allow the dog to communicate non-aggressively with body language.

So, how do you know if your dog DOES enjoy being petted ‘at that moment’? These are some signs to look for:

The dog will initiate coming into your space
The dog will have loose facial and body muscles
The dog will flop down in front of you
The dog will have an open, relaxed mouth
If you stop, the dog will solicit more scratches

Watch Sam and me in this video and note his body language. Do you think he is telling me he enjoys what I am doing or does he want me to stop?

Grisha Stewart has this 5 second rule for petting:

Wait for your dog to come to you.
Scratch the part that is closest to you first.
Pet for no more than 5 seconds. Stop and wait for the dog to ask for more.
Keep switching between petting and stopping.
If you are done but your dog isn’t, give a verbal cue or hand signal before stopping and do not continue after that point.
When in doubt, back off.

Here is a link to a video from Doggone Safe of which I am a member, on teaching your dog to enjoy being petted by children.

My Challenge To Pet Owners

My challenge to you:

Instead of being annoyed at your pet’s unwanted behavior, and punishing it. Pay attention to catch your pet in the act of wanted behavior, and reinforce heavily.  Focus on making the wanted behavior easier and more valuable.

And guess which behavior you’ll see more of?

Challenge to pet owners

 

Generalization And Discrimination In Dog And Other Pet Training

A dog who jumped at the sound of a heavy box falling to the floor can become frightened by other sudden noises down the road. A dog who has had many different positive interactions with children will come togeneralization and discrimination in dog training learn that the presence of kids means good things happen.

Scientifically, that phenomenon is called stimulus generalization. Generalization is the tendency for learned behavior to occur in the presence of stimulus that is similar but not identical to the learned stimulus. (Stimulus is defined as events that have a measurable effect on behavior.)

As humans, we’re pretty great at generalization. A child who was bitten by a bird may become afraid of all birds. When we learn how to tie a shoe, we can tie any shoe we wear. If we were given a hefty fine by a police officer in a car with its lights flashing, we will probably flinch next time a police car with lights flashing is behind us.

Discrimination on the other hand is the tendency for a learned behavior to occur in one situation, but not in others. A child may be afraid of a dog when in an enclosed yard but not on a playground. A child may scream when he falls only in the presence of one of his parents.

How does this relate to training?

As for generalization to aversive stimulus, it’s important to recognize that fears can generalize. A dog who was scared by a mailman can later on develop fearful responses to policemen, or other uniformed men. It is important to teach your dog a new, positive association with its initial fear elicitor as soon as possible.

On the flip side,  it is important to keep in mind that to build fluency in a behavior skills, teaching your pet to generalize the behavior in a variety of environments is a step you don’t want to miss.  And, with the exception of aversives, dogs are great discriminators. (No, teaching him to stay off of a couch in the family room does not mean he understands to stay off of the couch in the fancy living room.)

However, there is a lot more than just changing the environment to keep in mind.

Here are just a few tips:

Practice asking for the behavior in different positions to you. You may want to ask your dog to sit when you are in front of him or behind him; or when you are sitting, standing, or running; when you next to your pet or five feet away (adding distance very slowly only when you are still having success).

When your pet is reliably doing the behavior when cued, practice having other people give your pet his cue.

Practice by gradually increasing distractions (only increasing criteria when you are still having success).

Here is some additional good news about spending the time teaching your pet to generalize: Once he has learned to generalize a few behaviors, he will start to generalize other behaviors too with much greater ease.

Some Of The Reasons I Don’t Like ‘NO’ In Pet Training

5-15 NO

 

Some of the reasons I don’t like using the word ‘NO’ in training:

It doesn’t teach your pet what you’d like for him to do instead.

It can create apathy, fear, anxiety, aggression.

Your pet will associate you with that aversive consequence.

You may simply be teaching your pet not to do the behavior in front of you that you wish to stop.

It does nothing to foster a love of learning.

Instead of saying ‘NO’, practice finding those teaching moments when your pet is doing behaviors that you like…and tell him ‘YES.’

 

Clicker Training Basics

What I love about clicker training is that it is all about empowering animals to make brilliant decisions (at least by our standards) by teaching them exactly what behavior will earn them a valued reinforcer. Initially the animal learns to associate positive outcomes by associating treats, clicker trainingtug time, or whatever other behavior strengthener you use with the sound of the clicker (classical conditioning), and then the animal learns to intentionally repeat a behavior in order to get that positive outcome (operant conditioning).

Why is that important?

Operant conditioning creates purposeful, lasting behavior. It builds confidence in the animal who has total control over his decision as to what behavior to do (we just make the RIGHT decision easy to make by making the behavior’s consequence valuable), and it fosters a love of learning.

Benefits to using the clicker are many: it accurately marks the correct behavior; it allows for distance and flexibility in delivering the reward (it isn’t easy to hand your dog a treat the very instant it does something but it is easy to click to mark the behavior – and then have a delay in getting the treat); it can divert your dog (or other pet) from focusing on the food so as to focus on the behavior instead.

So how do you use the clicker?

Well, first, you need to build that association between the clicker and good things (we’ll use treats as our example). In a quiet area, press the clicker and immediately offer a treat. Repeat about ten times and test its fluency by clicking when your dog isn’t paying attention. If he suddenly looks at you, you know you are ready to begin. Note that because of the accuracy for which it marks behavior, your timing is critical. If you are even three seconds off, you could be unintentionally marking (and teaching) the wrong behavior. It’s always a good idea to practice beforehand.

Now, when you want to train a behavior follow three simple steps – get the behavior, mark the behavior, reinforce the behavior. You can use the clicker when shaping behaviors (please click here for my post on shaping) by marking each small step the animal makes toward the final behavior. You can use the clicker to capture behaviors by seeing your dog do something naturally, then clicking and offering the treat.

Teaching AND learning can be so much fun. It’s up to you.

Dog Training – My ‘Go To Your Bed’ Game

When it comes to building brilliance in behaviors, building the FUN factor into your lesson plans for dog training creates an enthusiastic student who loves to learn. Here is an example with my family dog, Sam. I am working on teaching him to go to his bed on cue and then coming to me when released, and I am giving values to those behaviors with positive reinforcement training.

My Challenge To Dog & Other Pet Owners

quote about dog training

Why is it that I tend to see magical, upbeat energy in pet caregivers when teaching their dog tricks; but when they are teaching their dog behaviors like sit, stay and loose leash walking, they are serious because their dog needs to comply? I want to issue a challenge for pet caregivers everywhere…

To think about every behavior as a trick.

After all, behavior is behavior. And you’ll be amazed at the difference in your student’s focus and ability.

Game Day – Teaching Your Dog Polite Greeting Skills

When you think about playing games, you think about having fun. And when you have fun, you want to keep playing. I’d say that makes for a perfect set up to teach pets skills. If you think about your dog training in this way, you will naturally start focusing on putting the joy in learning.

This dog training game is about working on teaching your dog polite greeting skills while on a leash.Teaching Your Dog Polite Greeting On Leash, In A Game

The All Four’s Saying Hi Game

This game is about building amazing value to your dog for keeping all four feet on the floor. You begin with your dog on a leash and a bag of high value treats (preferably in your pocket or in a treat bag tied to your waist). As person two comes closer and your dog gets excited, you will click and treat. Person two will approach as long as your dog continues to keep all four paws on the floor and you will continue to reinforce your dog by clicking, then treating. The next step is for person two to get to your dog and bend down to greet him *if* your dog keeps all four paws on the ground.  Your dog will get a double reinforcer by receiving click, then high value treats from you and calm pets from person two. If at any time your dog jumps, the game ends. PERIOD. Person two calmly walks away and person one stops being a treat dispenser. Wait a few seconds and then try again.

Some notes: A key to success – your need to start focusing on All 4s the moment someone starts approaching. Try to keep your dog’s leash loose and use high value treats to get your dog to keep his feet on the floor.

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