Does your dog love food more than they love you?

Did my headline get your attention? Before you ponder your dog’s devotion to you, let me say straight away that it poses an unfair question. It is unfair because a) it’s the type of headline that blatantly aims to trigger an emotional response and b) it’s unanswerable.

“How confident are you that the information is accurate?”

The purpose of a headline is to pique the reader’s interest and encourage them to read an article. Unfortunately, all too often, a headline can become a standalone source of information. As you browse your social media or the daily news, a headline catches your attention but you might not have enough time or interest to read further. Even if you do, maybe you only read the first paragraph or you quickly scan the article trying to extract the gist of the story. And if you actually do read the whole thing: How confident are you that the information you take away from it is accurate?

Here is a recent headline: “Dogs Prefer Tummy Tickles To Treats According To Science”. Note the addition “According To Science”. That should give us confidence that the information is correct, right? The thing is: This headline isn’t any more valuable than mine. It presents a lure to draw the reader in and nothing more. This wouldn’t be so concerning if everyone understood that – unless a headline describes an irrefutable fact such as “Federer wins Australian Open” – it rarely tells the whole story and it can even be misleading. Not that this is necessarily the intention of the author. It is simply the way headlines are created in order to compete for the attention of readers. Sure we can blame individual authors or the media as a whole, but it may be more helpful if we relied on ourselves to read beyond the headlines.

“The results cannot possibly justify a blanket statement such as ‘dogs prefer praise over food’”

As it turns out, there was indeed a recent study* that tested the neural responses (specifically, the activation of the ventral striatum, a brain structure that indicates the experience or expectation of something pleasurable) in 15 dogs when they were presented with either a promise of receiving food or a promise of social contact with their primary guardian. But the study is a little more complicated than simply giving dogs a choice between food and praise. And the results cannot possibly justify a blanket statement such as “dogs prefer praise over food”.

The current research into the emotions of domestic dogs through “awake canine neuroimaging” is extremely fascinating and I’m sure it will add to our understanding of the unique human-canine bond. But we are not doing our dogs – and ourselves – a favour, if we hastily draw conclusions from an experiment that tests the neural response of dogs to specific stimuli under very specific conditions and then hail this as a significant contribution to the practical application of dog training. A common problem with translating scientific studies for the public is the misinterpretation of the study results and this has certainly been the case here.

The possible practical value of the study (and hopefully more studies with larger sample sizes to follow) is the detection of differences in individual dogs and dog breeds in regards to their tendency for strong social bonding to humans. Those differences may help with the selection of dogs for certain tasks such as assistance and therapy dogs. Dogs who showed higher ventral caudate activation in the experiment when expecting social contact instead of food are possibly more suitable for jobs that involve close cooperation and bonding with humans. However, to conclude that praise would have a better or equal effect on the willingness and performance of dogs when we teach them skills or try to create positive emotional responses is not warranted.

“It is the history of reinforcement that determines a dog’s future behaviour. Make sure that history is stacked in your favour by using memorable, high value rewards.”

What a dog wants is influenced by many factors that continuously modify their current mental, emotional and physical state. The dog’s saturation with food, play, exercise and social contact is what largely decides the efficacy of a chosen reward or motivator at any given time.

In the neural response experiment the dog is alone in an environment away from the home they share with their human(s). In a typical training environment on the other hand a dog is either with their human or another person they are comfortable with (reward-based training wouldn’t work if the dog didn’t want to be there in the first place). The dog’s social needs are likely already met. In that scenario the trainer has to find out what the dog wants most at the moment. A motivator has to be potent enough to trump (apologies for using that word – it makes me cringe too) anything else that might be going on in the dog’s internal and external environment.

In a previous study**, which tested the responses of dogs (and hand-reared wolves) to food versus social interaction in a more realistic training setting, the results clearly indicated a preference for food over praise or petting. Even shelter dogs – who were deprived of human contact and could therefore be expected to experience social contact as highly reinforcing – responded better with food.

Before expecting your dog to perform behaviours for you “for free”, think about all the competing factors. Yes, your dog may waddle over to you for a belly rub when hanging out at home. But good luck consistently calling your dog away from their dog friends at the park or a possum in a tree with no other promise than that of a belly rub or praise.
It is the history of reinforcement that determines a dog’s future behaviour. Make sure that history is stacked in your favour by using memorable, high value rewards.

“Social contact is a dog’s right, not a reward. Social bonding between dog and human is the best foundation to successfully teach your dog skills.”

Hopefully your dog gets plenty of belly rubs from you anyway. Rather than using social contact as a reward for behaviour, it should form the basis for cooperation. Social contact is a dog’s right, not a reward. Social bonding between dog and human is the best foundation to successfully teach your dog skills. A happy and cooperative dog is more likely to show enthusiasm during training. You can control this enthusiasm – and hence the learning outcome – through potent motivators.

 
Headlines that dismiss the value of food in dog training are concerning because they pander to some people’s expectations that dogs should perform behaviours simply because of their devotion to us. They fuel the idea that using treats in training is a bad thing, that it “corrupts” dogs and that it negatively affects the dog-human bond. Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be highly detrimental if dog lovers avoided or abandoned food rewards in training due to the erroneous belief that praise or petting are suitable replacements. In fact, food rewards should be encouraged more and their value highlighted at every opportunity. No matter if you teach your dog a specific skill, modify a problem behaviour or want to help your fearful and anxious dog to feel better, dish out those tasty morsels, so your dog receives the best motivation and has the best chance to succeed in life.

 
 

REFERENCES

* Peter F. Cook, Ashley Prichard, Mark Spivak, and Gregory S. Berns.
Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food.
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access first published online August 12, 2016 doi:10.1093/scan/nsw102

** Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. L.(2012). Relative Efficacy of Human Social Interaction and Food as Reinforcers for Domestic Dogs and Hand-Reared Wolves. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 98, 105-129

Train for success, not with stress

Undoubtedly the most common word directed at domestic companion dogs is “no”. There is no other more ubiquitous response to a wide range of perceived dog “misbehaviours”. But in most cases “no” is not a punishment – meaning, by definition, it does not make the unwanted behaviour less likely to occur in the future. “No” often serves as a temporary interrupter, only for the dog to engage in the same behaviour again shortly after or when you are not around. You may then resort to more drastic measures until your verbal or physical responses to your dog’s behaviour become indeed punishing to them and stop the behaviour, at least in some contexts.
Why does dog training still rely so much on punishment – in particular of the aversive kind – and why is this a problem?

The road to nowhere.

A firm “NO!” can interrupt your dog’s behaviour and reward you with immediate positive feedback: The dog stops doing whatever you didn’t approve of. This instant illusion of success may tempt you to believe that firm “NOs” are indeed a good strategy to control your dog. Here is the problem:

  • If your dog was merely startled by your exclamation, they are likely to re-engage in the unwanted behaviour.
  • Your verbal reprimand was not punishing at all or not punishing enough for your dog. The motivation to engage in the behaviour has not changed and your “NO” has not created a strong enough negative experience for the dog to stop engaging in the behaviour.

  • If your “NO!” was harsh enough, your dog may no longer engage in the behaviour in your presence.
  • The important part here is “in your presence”. The motivation to engage in the behaviour is still there, but your dog has learned that you turn into a scary person when they do the behaviour in your presence. As a result, your dog will only engage in the behaviour when you are not around.

  • If your frequent use of “NO!” is truly terrifying (and possibly the predictor of worse punishment to come), your dog may no longer engage in behaviour.
  • In this case, your dog has given up. Your dog may no longer willingly engage in any behaviour. The risk of punishment has eclipsed your dog’s active, playful and happy outlook on life. You have effectively “punished the dog out of your dog”. The constant thwarting of your dog’s drives and desires has rendered your dog helpless, depressed and shut down. This is a significant mental health issue.

Neither outcome is desirable. You will either have to keep yelling “NO” every time your dog “misbehaves” or you make your dog afraid of you – or both. Instead of coming up with a solution you resort to being reactive and negative. This is neither good for you nor your dog.

Setting your dog up to fail.

It may sound like a better strategy to punish your dog for unwanted behaviour and at the same time offer your dog an alternative behaviour to engage in.  But is it?

Many years ago I got lost in a remote part of the Australian wilderness on a cold and foggy winter’s day. After wading through a waist deep body of water my path was blocked by yet another expanse of wetland. Thinking I had taken a wrong turn, I backtracked and launched a new attempt only to arrive back at the same place every time. I was going in circles. In a moment of panic I decided to head off in the direction of a large swamp, believing it would take me out of the maze. Of course, chances are I would never have been heard of again, if I hadn’t quickly come to my senses.

Panic is not a good decision maker. Neither is distress. You may believe you offer your dog options with one path leading towards safety and the others towards punishment, but what does your dog experience? How can you hope – based on your human logic – that your dog will choose your preferred option?
Dog training that focuses on delivering bad consequences for unwanted behaviour relies on two possible justifications:

  • It expects dogs to make smart decisions about their course of action as if they could intellectually understand that they are faced with options and that only one of those options leads to a positive outcome.
  • This idea is anthropomorphic: All evidence suggests that dogs cannot possible make decisions based on what we call logic or foresight. Your dog simply engages in whatever behaviours come naturally (which generally are the ones we don’t like and therefore punish). It simply does not (it biologically cannot!) “occur” to a dog that you are punishing them so that they chose a different course of action.

  • It teaches dogs through repeated experience that only one course of action results in something good (or at least nothing bad) and all the other options result in something bad.
  • The second scenario – that a dog learns by repeatedly heading down the road to punishment and, if they are lucky, occasionally stumble across the safe option –  is the more logical one but it is disturbing. This approach has no trouble of potentially causing significant distress to the dog, even if the dog has no way of knowing that their behaviour leads to punishment. It also ignores the paralysing effect of fear and distress on learning and decision making.
    The dog is set up to fail so the trainer can successfully punish. Is this not a rather mean – and possibly even cruel – way to teach a dog (or anyone for that matter)?

Helping your dog to win.

Wouldn’t it be much better if you showed your dog how they can succeed from the start? This is easily achieved by first teaching your dog behaviours that you approve of. If these behaviours are incompatible with the behaviours you don’t like, bingo! Whenever the dog engages in an unwanted behaviour, e.g. jumping up on a visitor, ask them to do an alternative behaviour, e.g. go fetch a toy. The trigger that originally caused the dog to choose the unwanted behaviour can now become the trigger to do the alternative behaviour, e.g. visitor comes through the door –> go fetch a toy.

If you have thoroughly taught your dog alternative behaviours with high value rewards and in small enough steps and this is either not sufficient or simply not practical to extinguish an unwanted behaviour, there is one form of punishment that does not risk your dog becoming distraught*: Well-executed time-outs. Losing access to something rewarding can be a very effective penalty if used correctly and consistently. You either remove the dog from the action or you remove yourself for a set time. The time-out should never be accompanied by harsh physical handling or verbal reprimands; otherwise you are entering risky territory again. The only punishment is supposed to be the loss of whatever the dog wants at that moment.

Make smart decisions for the benefit of your dog’s welfare and happiness, your relationship with your dog and your own peace of mind. Help your dog get it right rather than set them up to fail. Don’t let your dog wander into a swamp.

 

 

* Fearful or anxious dogs may “panic” when put in time-outs, in which case this form of punishment is not recommended. Also, if your dog is easily frustrated, you might have to proceed in smaller steps and make sure your dog can “win” often before bringing time-outs into the mix.

Dogs can train us to live better

On our path from hunter-gatherer to modern human we have lost something rather important. It’s a bit ironic since everything we have gained – housing and heating, food security, career opportunities and global connectivity – should be proof that our quality of life is phenomenally better than that of our forebears.  But what many of us have lost or will lose at some stage in their life is a sense of happiness.

Anxiety and depression are widespread in modern societies as we worry about financial wealth and personal relationships. Our brains are constantly busy figuring out how to improve our lives according to the standards our societies dictate. We live and work predominantly indoors, eat food we don’t know where and how it was produced and exercise in indoor gyms, if at all. We take pills because our bodies don’t get enough sunlight and our minds never stop wanting and worrying.

It is bad enough that we have created a world where so many humans are set up to “fail” but we went even further than that: We dragged other species into this mess, in particular our domestic dogs.  Because they share their lives so closely with us, we have assimilated them into the modern human collective. It wasn’t intentional of course, just like we didn’t intentionally make our own lives so stressful. It just happened.

By now we should have realised though how assessing dog behaviour by human values and aspirations can only lead to drama. Their hunter-scavengers brains are geared towards an immediate-return value system similar to the workings of our ancient hunter-gatherer brains (which still lurk underneath our complex modern ‘circuitry’). Dogs don’t plan for the future, they don’t scheme or analyse and they don’t worry about things like money or power. When your dog stands on your feet while you are chopping food in the kitchen, it’s for the simple reason that they have learned to associate the smell of food or you being in the kitchen with being fed. To describe this behaviour as controlling, dominant or even manipulative shows just how much we believe our dogs think like we do.

How much better would life be – for us and our dogs – if we turned this around and thought a bit more like our dogs think? To not worry about the possibility of losing stuff or never having enough but to enjoy the here and now; to not try to control everything or everyone in our lives but to seek out what or who can add happiness to our lives; to not make assumptions about what other people – let alone animals – think or intend to do but to respond to what they actually do.

When we spend time with our dogs, we have the chance to forget about our daily worries and commitments for a little while. On a walk we could take in the sights, sounds and smells like our dogs do instead of dwelling on real or imagined problems or communicating with our mobile phones. Playing games with our dogs allows us to be silly and spontaneous but also to show teamwork. We can watch our dogs and try to understand the world a little better from their view. We can find a connection at a level that we both share: The joys of being here right now and being able to capture and value a moment with whatever senses we have.

Easier said than done, right? Modern human existence can be complicated, to say the least, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, trapped or powerless. We can have the best intentions but then life throws another brick at us or depression sucks us into a black hole. Or maybe we are simply too busy to even realise what’s missing from our life.  We pack our days with work and social activities, rush from here to there in order to feel a sense of achievement and suddenly middle age smacks us in the face and announces the passing of time. And no matter how much we think we have achieved, nothing can replace the time lost living.

Our dogs can help. They can teach us how to treasure moments that give us so much but don’t cost anything. Like the smell of rain or the taste of the sea or the feeling of sand under our feet. Instead of adding another stressor to our lives by trying to wield total control over our dogs and obsess about their obedience and docile behaviour, we can allow ourselves to be infected by their careless and opportunistic nature and gain some much needed relief from being a 21st century human.

Time for a walk.

 

 

Dog training: Respectable profession or weedy business?

If you have ventured a little further into the world of dog training, beyond watching the occasional TV show or asking your vet for advice, you are probably aware that there are differing views on the methods used.  This can give the unfortunate impression that dog training is akin to removing stains from your clothes or killing weeds in your garden rather than a profession like plumbing or dentistry.

If you have unwanted plants in your garden, you may choose to spend a Sunday afternoon pulling them out by hand while enjoying the sunshine and the birds and the rich smell of healthy soil. You could also prevent or smother weeds with pieces of carpet or plastic sheets or annihilate them with vinegar, baking soda or vodka (yes, I agree there is a much better use for vodka, especially after you have discovered that the toxic carpet chemicals have leached into your formerly healthy soil). Maybe you are more the strategic type who sends ground covering plants to the front line to fend off an invasion by unwelcome visitors? Or maybe you attack the perceived enemy with poison, either selectively or agent-orange-style. Lastly, you might have your own secret recipe and think everyone else is an idiot. All those methods seem perfectly valid. Are they equally valuable? You decide.

 
Actually, thinking of it … this does sound a lot like the current state of the dog training industry.

On the other hand, dog training is a field of teaching & behaviour modification. It deals with the behaviour of sentient beings and therefore must be governed by the scientific principles of animal learning, animal welfare laws and ethical considerations. A practitioner in this field cannot simply focus on an outcome. They need to have the education, integrity and skills required to deliver the best solution available in regards to short and long term effects on dogs and humans.

Well, that’s the theory at least. The problem is: No one enforces this. Industries are not very good at regulating themselves and with the lives of dogs and potentially humans at stake maybe self-regulation shouldn’t even be considered a viable option.

Sadly, the ones thwarting the quality and progress of the industry are not just indifferent government authorities and trainers with outdated philosophies and techniques. Sometimes accidental sabotage comes from the ranks of trainers striving for a more humane approach in dog training. This is because good intentions alone are not good enough. We need good education, clear thinking, excellent skills and an ethical code of conduct. Without it we will continue to see blogs, articles and websites that are lacking in accuracy, appropriate language and valuable information and only add to the confusion of the dog loving public.

Imagine you have just started to get a grasp on how dogs learn via classical and operant conditioning. You understand that counter-conditioning is a form of classical conditioning and describes a process in which an animal’s emotion towards someone or something is changed from negative to positive (or vice versa). Then you are told by a professional trainer that counter-conditioning doesn’t always work. Um, isn’t that like saying that growing vegetables doesn’t work? No doubt, attempts at counter-conditioning can fail just like trying to grow vegetables can fail. But we wouldn’t dismiss the fact that vegetables grow just because we stuffed it up. If a dog’s emotion doesn’t change during a program, then it is not because counter-conditioning didn’t work, it’s because counter-conditioning didn’t happen. The logical course of action is to take a good look at the behaviour modification plan, adjust it where necessary and make sure one is aware of the common pitfalls.

The principle of animal learning that seems to come under most frequent attack though is positive reinforcement: Allegedly it doesn’t work with some dogs or certain types of dogs or certain types of behaviour. Just like counter-conditioning, positive reinforcement describes a process and an outcome. Positive reinforcement has occurred when an individual engages in the relevant behaviour more often than they did before because they have been repeatedly rewarded for the behaviour. It happens all the time in all sorts of animals and there is absolutely no doubt that it works.

Does positive reinforcement alone change every behaviour we don’t like in a dog? Of course not. Solutions are frequently a mixture of management, reinforcement and punishment. The form of punishment used by modern reward-based trainers however is never harmful to the dog. It works by withholding or removing something the dog wants and a skilled practitioner will use this technique prudently. Unless you think that learning should be scary or distressing for the subject and you are willing to risk unwelcome side effects, you want to stay clear of using physical and/or psychological force to change a dog’s behaviour.

To give the impression that a fundamental principle of animal learning is just another “method” that may or may not work in a specific case supports the idea that dog training is an open playing field for anyone who wants to have a go at it. It ignores the importance of a solid scientific basis for behaviour modification and it allows hacks and quacks to cheapen the dog training industry.

That animals learn via classical conditioning (by forming associations) and operant conditioning (through reinforcement and punishment) – in addition to a simpler form of learning called “habituation” – is solid science. Whatever a trainer does to successfully change the behaviour of a dog, whatever solution they come up with, whatever name they give it, they will always utilize one or more of those fundamental principles of animal learning, even if they are unaware of it.

When we have professional trainers who are committed to humane training but have muddled thinking or are careless with their language, we have little hope of elevating the dog training profession to a valuable and respectable field of expertise and many people will miss out on reliable access to quality training for their dogs. It has to be in everybody’s interest to assist with creating a better standard in dog training.

If you are looking for help with your dog: Would you prefer to take advice from someone who has gone through a proper educational process, can prove their competence and clearly explains to you their methods, intended outcomes and possible side effects? Or do you trust a person simply because they are convincing or charming?

If you are a professional dog trainer: Are you proud of being a highly skilled practitioner with expertise in the relevant scientific disciplines and a commitment to employ the most up-to-date training methods to deliver a service that is in the best interests of your human and canine clients? Or are you in the weed killing business?

 

Dogs and kids and the challenge of parenthood

The other day I was exposed to the soundtrack of a distressing scene on a neighbouring property. A young boy went into a rage. Not that I expect great impulse control from kids (see my last post), but this sounded worse than your average juvenile temper tantrum. It seemed the boy had been pushed over by the family dog, who I believe is a smallish dog of the “oodle” kind. In his anger the boy kept screaming abuse at his dog at the top of his voice and then smashed one of the dog’s toys to the ground in an apparent act of revenge. To escalate the situation, the boy’s father, who had been present throughout the event, threatened to destroy one of the boy’s toys in response (and it sounded like he actually did). It was a strange course of action in my mind. Wouldn’t it be more intuitive to calm the boy down and explain that the dog meant no harm; that dogs jump up because that’s what dogs do when they play or are excited about something; that dogs don’t understand what effect their exuberance may have or why falling over would be such a big deal anyway? But then, does every parent actually know this?

It’s everyone’s business

I know that some people regard it as their private business how they raise their kids or what they do with their dogs. But society has an obvious interest not only in preventing child and animal abuse but also in raising “wholesome” children and having sociable and friendly dogs. Child education and dog training are both areas of significant responsibility. The people in charge have the power to influence an individual’s path through life and their future behaviour with ramifications not just for the individual themselves but the community they live in. This power means it is vital that parents are aware of the potential consequences of what they teach their children as well as their dogs. And the only way to become aware and knowledgeable is education.

Just like having owned dogs – even many dogs – doesn’t make one a capable dog trainer, having children doesn’t make one an expert in child education. Experience isn’t always a positive thing. When the same mistakes or bad habits are repeated over and over because the teacher isn’t educating themselves, we have a problem. Because it is a problem – for all of us – when children grow up to believe that violence – verbal or physical – is an appropriate way to communicate, when they become self-centred adults with no regard for the needs, desires and feelings of others including non-human animals and when they lack the confidence to continuously learn and improve themselves and ask for help if they need to.

Everyone needs to be safe

Parents who are in charge of young kids and dogs have a number one priority: To keep everyone safe. As is evident from countless internet videos, photos and the odd news report this isn’t working so well. It seems there is a widespread lack of understanding as to what counts as appropriate interaction between kids and dogs and this keeps putting them at risk. Signs that the dog is uncomfortable and might be on the cusp of sliding into self-defence mode are not just ignored but apparently not even detected. This is generally worrying in regards to the dog’s welfare but it also poses a risk for the child’s and potentially the dog’s physical safety.

If a dog’s signs of discomfort are persistently ignored, it should come as no surprise if the interaction ends in a bite. This is a dog’s equivalent to yelling or pushing someone away because they feel besieged, threatened or frightened. The naive belief that a dog would not hurt their own family, especially children, is rooted in the romantic folklore surrounding the “perfect family dog” who does everything they are told, protects the family from bad people and apparently puts up with whatever harassment or abuse they are subjected to because they are loyal and somehow “know their family don’t mean them harm”.

Young children often do not understand that their actions might be annoying, painful or frightening for the dog. And unfortunately some children seem to have difficulty with showing kindness to animals. If parents detect the signs early they may be able to help their children develop better social behaviour and empathy and protect their animals from harm. In any case, showing children how to safely behave around dogs and teaching them to look after rather than teasing or scaring animals, is essential to ensure everyone’s safety.

To complement this, dogs have to learn the relevant skills to successfully negotiate life in a human society. Dogs cannot understand that their behaviour, such as jumping up or nipping can be a nuisance or even dangerous, especially to children. Impulse control exercises with lots of positive reinforcement and including the dog in family activities will help the dog to adjust their behaviour. Additionally, constant supervision of kids and dogs is a must until a child is old and mature enough to appropriately interact with dogs.

Clearly, parents have a lot on their plate. How can they succeed?

The answer is actually quite simple: By listening to the experts. No one can be expected to keep up to date with everything these days. There is simply too much information around. While many parents understand nowadays that physical or psychological punishment will not turn their children into successful adults, there seems to be very little understanding about the consequences of using punitive methods on their dogs and allowing their children to bully their dogs. Many of the common ideas about dog behaviour and training are just as outdated as military-style child education that relied on corporal punishment and mindless obedience. Of course, not everyone subjected to it ends up “damaged” but why risk it and what fun is there in life if we either dish out or receive violence, in whatever form?

We need parents to become truly savvy in dog behaviour, for the sake of their dogs, their kids and the community. Hopefully many present and future parents have been raised by their parents to be confident enough to learn continuously and to ask for help.  Maybe then the following generations will grow up with a better understanding of dogs and other animals and we can continue to move towards a kinder and safer society.

The importance of keeping a cool head in dog training

As a child I threw the occasional temper tantrum. Today I have a vague idea how frustrated my parents must have been when one of their offspring suddenly turned from a shy, freckled and stub-nosed little girl into a screaming, purple-faced, missile-launching monster. Yes, I had a habit of throwing things, whatever happened to be closest. One day my red-hot rage almost killed one of our birds. After violently kicking the air, my slipper detached itself from my foot and made a beeline for the birdcage, causing it to topple off the window sill and – fortunately – come to a stop on the back of a sofa.  Our poor little tiger finch was wildly flapping his wings in an attempt to stay airborne throughout the ordeal and kept complaining loudly for quite a while afterwards. As the disaster unfolded my rage evaporated into cold sweat. The realisation that my anger could have actually killed someone shocked me. It might have been “just a bird” to most people, but I have treasured – and tried to protect – the life of every critter I have came across since I can remember (aside from the occasional mosquito where, I have to admit, my anger management tends to fail me). In case this incident doesn’t convince you that I had an anger problem, I also once hurled a rock at my sister while she had her back turned.

The reason I’m disclosing this rather embarrassing personal history is that impulse control is a big deal in dog training. Although we usually have the dog in mind when we talk about impulse control, what I want to focus on here is our own mental and emotional stability. It matters, not so much in relation to if and how dogs may “pick up on” our internal emotional states, but rather what it is we do when we get emotional and how it can sabotage our training attempts.

Setting the bar where the dog can reach

Anger is an emotion that can cause significant damage. I have to assume that not everyone experiences the kind of rage that I described above, but I’m sure we all have experienced anger in some form. Some people may find it relatively easy to channel their emotions appropriately, for others it may take years to learn self-control while still others either see no need to do anything about it or are simply overwhelmed by their anger.

While expressing anger towards another human can sometimes be justified and even useful, being angry with a dog belongs firmly into the “makes-no-sense-whatsoever” category. Of course we can feel angry about something the dog did, such as chewing up the remote control, but to hold the dog responsible and therefore direct our anger towards them is irrational, anthropomorphic and simply unfair.

Even worse is losing one’s cool when training a dog. How well and how fast a dog learns is a function of their genetics, their experiences, their relationship with us and how good a trainer we are. If the dog doesn’t “get it”, there’s no point accusing them of stubbornness or stupidity. If the dog doesn’t learn, it is due to our failure of taking all parameters into account and training the dog in a way that enables them to learn.

From “boom!” to bust in an instant – don’t risk it

When we get angry with our dogs, it is often because we don’t feel in control of their behaviour. Because anger interferes with rational thinking we are likely to target the dog rather than considering why we lack control or if controlling every aspect of our dog’s life is even necessary. Out of anger we may yell at the dog – or worse – and then probably feel guilty afterwards. Unfortunately, even a short outburst and even if it is redirected at something other than the dog – let’s say we slam a door – can potentially instil fear in the dog and make future training more difficult. Depending on the dog’s sensitivity, it may take weeks or months to regain the dog’s trust if our tantrum was scary enough for them.

There is nothing worse than having a cowering dog with tail tucked slinking around you every time you want to do a little training exercise. It’s annoying. It’s sad. And it gets in the way of efficient and successful training.

Having a submissive, fearful dog can become a serious challenge as the results of fearfulness are often far-reaching and may affect areas the dog had been perfectly fine with before. We also know that fearfulness and anxiety have the potential to cause long term physical health issues which may become costly and make the dog feel even more miserable.

For dog’s sake – breathe, think, have a plan

So it really is important to pay attention to our anger and how we express it in front of our dogs. Because it can take so little to damage the relationship, it is best if we have our own impulses under control and walk away if we feel overwhelmed.

One part of the process is an awareness of all those dog-related myths that persist in our society which cause us to blame dogs for simply being dogs. And the other part is to steer our own thinking away from those automatic thought patterns. If we teach ourselves to immediately assess what we have missed every time the dog “messes up”, we can preempt irrational feelings and spontaneous reactions based on anger. Maybe we should have put the remote control out of reach. Maybe we didn’t teach the dog in small enough increments so they could succeed. Maybe we put them in a situation they just couldn’t handle.

Having a clear idea what we expect from our dogs, a plan how we get there and management options until the dog is ready (or for situations that cannot be addressed with training) will help us keep a cool head and not blow up when things get difficult. It may need a little practise to get there but it is absolutely necessary if we want good behaviour from our dogs and enjoy their happy and carefree attitude which is, after all, what makes our lives so much better.

 

 

Hands-off dog training beats physical manipulation

While on a beautiful early morning dog walk the other day my relaxed mood suddenly evaporated when a man pushed his little dog. Although I only saw the event out of the corner of my eye, the result was plain to see. The dog recoiled from her human’s hand with ears flattened and tail tucked away under her belly. Unfortunately it didn’t seem to be a problem for her human who insisted his dog had an attitude and simply “didn’t like it” when he “told her off”.  But it is a problem. What the little dog displayed was fear, nothing else, and it is something that is neither needed nor should it be wanted in modern dog training. The push might not have been hard and it is very possible the man did not intend to cause fear in his dog, at least not of the lasting kind. But the person’s motivation and the dog’s response are, sadly, very common.

Every push is one step closer to disaster

The push was a result of the dog jumping up at people – a very normal and understandable behaviour, especially in small dogs who find themselves far away from people’s faces. All the dog demonstrated was friendly greeting behaviour but what she eventually got in return – from the person she should trust the most – was physical assault. If repeated often enough with significant force or if done once with outright violence, pushing the dog away may indeed stop her from jumping up at people in the future but it’s usually not the only consequence. When the little dog responded with avoidance to her human’s outstretched hand shortly after the push, one problematic result was already visible. She had learned that bad things come from the hands of her human – a disaster in any human-canine relationship. This can easily generalize to create fear of all human hands, including those of a child who may innocently approach the dog one day and force the dog into self-defence mode. Not a good situation and entirely avoidable.

Yanking and pulling means loss of control

This past week I was also unlucky enough to witness several incidents of “yanking and pulling” by people walking their dogs.  This manifests itself either in form of having constant pressure on the lead and frequently dragging the dog away from something or as intermittent violent jerking on the lead which sometimes can pull a dog off their feet. Either way, it’s bad. If the experience is unpleasant for the dog – which in most cases it would be – the dog is likely to develop negative associations with their handler and whatever else they happen to be aware of at that moment – another dog, a pedestrian, a cyclist, children playing, etc. Again, this is usually not what is intended. A person pulling on their dog’s lead is trying to gain control. They are trying to keep the dog away from others or want the dog to walk nicely by their side. But pulling and yanking are not methods of gaining effective and lasting control. The dog’s impulse to rush towards other dogs, people or interesting smells remains unchanged but is thwarted or suppressed by their humans forceful manhandling. The result is frustration and possibly aggression which can be directed at anything in the dog’s vicinity. And if the dog lunges towards other dogs because they already suffer from fear-aggression, adding more unpleasant experiences by yanking the dog will only increase their negative emotions and make things worse. Yanking on a dog’s lead is a crude and dangerous method. It shows a lack of understanding or – worse – a disregard of dog behaviour and animal learning principles and therefore a lack of control by the handler.

Forced socialisation risks “anti-socialisation”

No better than forcefully yanking a dog away from another dog or person is to drag a dog closer to these targets. This type of manhandling is generally with good intentions since the handler apparently hopes to improve their dog’s social skills. Sadly, the opposite is more likely to happen. Being forced to endure the proximity of something that makes the dog afraid or even just uncomfortable is bound to increase those emotions and can lead to aggression if the dog feels the need for self-defence. A variation of this type of “forced socialisation” is to pick the dog up and hold them close to other dogs or people. Imagine how a dog must feel being in this helpless position, their human’s hands firmly clasped around their body, feet off the ground and with no way of escaping.  It is at the very least unpleasant but for sensitive or fearful dogs it can be a nightmare. The risk of “flooding” the dog with negative emotions and sensitize them even further is extremely high, yet the humans putting their dogs in these difficult situations see no problem with it.
 

The reason that manhandling dogs is still so common is due to the history of dog training, the focus on dominance, the misinterpretation of dog behaviour and the sometimes desperate desire of dog guardians to be in control. Often this need for control is reactive. Rather than planning ahead and teaching a dog necessary skills step-by-step and with modern, reward-based and force-free methods, many guardians respond to situations spontaneously and emotionally. They may get angry with their dog or be embarrassed when others witness their dog’s “bad” behaviour. But putting an untrained dog into situations they can’t handle is extremely unfair to the dog and puts unnecessary stress on dog and handler. It’s a recipe for disaster.  The only way to get consistent and reliable “good” behaviour from your dog is by rewarding the dog for small steps towards the end goal and setting them up for success. This means putting your dog in a position where they are able and willing to pay attention to you – no distractions, no fear, rewards that are motivating for your dog – and gradually moving up in difficulty. This is no different to a person learning a complex skill. You don’t put a child in front of a piano for the first time and then smack them over the head if they are unable to play Beethoven. But that is exactly the level of “performance” that seems to be expected from dogs. Underlying these expectations is a tendency to interpret dog behaviour in human terms and as being rooted in “attitude”. If a dog behaves “badly”, it is easier to blame it on the dog’s character (stubborn, dominant, stupid, silly) than to accept one’s own fault of not considering or understanding what motivates dogs. Training a dog is work. Pushing and pulling them around is often easier.

Do your dog and yourself a favour and take “the long road” to train your dog. It may be faster than you think but most importantly you are far more likely to reach your goals. Be smart and learn from reward-based, force-free dog training professionals, be patient and have fun. It’s a high return investment and it carries zero risk.

 

RESOURCES

Reward Based Training by AVA (Australian Veterinary Association), PDF
The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals by AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior), PDF

Voice control in dog training: Master your own voice.

We rarely think about the sound of our own voice and many of us are unpleasantly surprised the first time we hear it. But, given how important verbal communication is for our species, it pays to understand how we use our voice and how it is received by others. Our dogs are often at the receiving end of our verbal outpour, but how do you evaluate the effect it has on your dog? Not only can a dog not talk back, they also process the information quite differently to humans.

Common problems when talking to your dog are related to using cues that your dog hasn’t learned yet, repeating cues too many times, getting the timing wrong, giving the wrong or no feedback or generally talking too much. But apart from missing valuable information or becoming “white noise” for your dog, your voice can become an even more serious problem when it inadvertently slips into a “commanding” or even angry voice. If you want your dog to truly listen to you, it is worthwhile to pay attention not just to what you say and when, but also how you say it.

Aggressive voices create negative emotions

It is remarkably easy to raise one’s voice or change one’s tone without planning it and without calculating the effect it may have on others. It happens when our brain spontaneously responds to emotions such as anger or fear. Before we get the chance to consciously think about an appropriate response, the words have already been uttered. While the words themselves may not mean much to a dog, the tone can trigger a flood of negative emotions. It has been shown that verbal aggression by parents can have similar detrimental effects on children as physical abuse1, and this even when the parents are otherwise loving and supportive. Although the loudness and aggressive tone may only be partially relevant in human-human communication (next to the actual content), it is nevertheless a potential source of distress for the recipient as well as anyone listening. Of course an occasional incident of parents losing their cool is not automatically damaging to a child’s emotional health. At least with older kids, it is generally possible to have a talk about it afterwards and explain why you lost the plot.

But how confusing and potentially frightening must it be for a dog, an animal who is not capable of explaining human behaviour, if the person they are attached to (you) becomes aggressive, verbally or otherwise? Even if they do link your aggression to their own behaviour and subsequently avoid that behaviour in future – at least in front of you! – , the potential emotional fallout cannot be ignored. The realisation that “yelling – like spanking – does not teach the child anything about how to behave appropriately”1, applies just as much to dogs. A raised voice does not teach your dog what you want them to do. It simply leaves your dog with a negative emotional memory. Especially if raising your voice is a frequent occurrence, those memories will most likely affect your dog’s emotional well-being, their future behaviour and the relationship they have with you. And not for the better.

Take control of your voice

Using your voice carefully when talking to your dog is about self-awareness and self-discipline. This will be easier if you have a clear goal of how you want your dog to behave, what it takes to teach the behaviour and an understanding of exactly what your dog has learned so far. If your dog engages in an unwanted behaviour or doesn’t listen to you, making anthropomorphic assumptions about your dog’s motivation is not helpful. For example, if you believe your dog is recalcitrant, disobedient or dominant, you are likely to experience negative emotions and therefore more likely to respond in an emotional manner such as using a raised or harsh tone of voice. Instead, think in simple terms about your dog’s skill level (i.e. their level of training) and their most likely motivation such as wanting access to food, toys or play or wanting to avoid an unpleasant situation. Then go back to school with your dog2, repeat the exercises, practise under distractions and provide outstanding motivation in form of tasty food or other high value rewards. Raising your voice or using a more “serious” tone cannot replace training. It only risks that your voice tips over from being a communication tool to becoming a punisher.

A good training exercise for testing or practising how much control you have over your own voice is “leave it”. Ideally you start this exercise with food in your hand rather than on the floor but let’s just skip ahead to the part where you are likely to be more challenged. When you place food on the floor, you have to be ready to quickly cover it or snatch it away if the dog dives for it. If the dog is faster than you and “wins” (gets to the food before you have given the OK), your training will suffer a serious setback. Your dog will learn that she can beat you at this game.

Here is the scenario:

  • You place the food on the floor between you and your dog and give the “leave it” cue.
  • You are in a state of alert because you need to move quickly if your dog flinches.
  • Your dog flinches.
  • “LEAVE IT!!”

Oops. Your verbal outburst has most likely stopped your dog dead in her tracks. But it wasn’t the cue (“leave it”) that stopped her. It was your tone. You could have yelled anything and she would have stopped all the same. The plan was to quickly cover the food with your hand if your dog moved but your voice was faster. Your emotional response has ruined your training plan2.

While this is not necessarily a traumatic event for your dog or a roadblock to your training success (although it can be), it shows how easily we can trip up. Trying to control your dog with verbal or physical force – no matter how subtle that may be – is an emotional response, either driven by the current context or by the relationship you have with your dog. Teaching your dog skills with knowledge, patience and practise on the other hand is a strategy based on rational decisions. One that will pay off and give you the control you want without causing distress for you or your dog.

 

RESOURCES

1 Yelling Doesn’t Help, May Harm Adolescents, Pitt-Led Study Finds, University of Pittsburgh

2 To teach your dog reliable skills, get yourself a good book, join a good dog training school or hire a qualified professional. If you train your dog with a plan, your chances of success are greatly increased.
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How to help your dog enjoy vet visits

Does your dog get nervous when you take the familiar route to your veterinarian or dig their heels in when you try to get them into the waiting room? Have you noticed trembling, lip licking, excessive panting and drooling, avoidance of eye contact, tense body or even aggressive behaviour when your dog is subjected to veterinary handling and procedures? Your dog is not alone. Many dogs and other companion animals are less than impressed with vet visits. Some animals show only mild signs of anxiety when faced with the vet while others go into outright panic mode. It’s bad for your dog and it doesn’t have to be that way. Low stress handling and changing your dog’s negative emotions through ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’ are methods which are becoming increasingly popular and for good reason. The potential to make life easier for your dog, yourself and veterinary staff is significant.

Signs of anxiety

What’s the problem?

If your dog suffers from fear and anxiety, it negatively affects their behaviour and can have serious implications for their health. Many behaviour problems in dogs are in fact related to fearfulness, anxiety and phobias. Apart from feeling miserable, your dog is also more likely to react aggressively if they deem necessary. Unless your dog’s fears are addressed, chances are they’ll become worse.

Manhandling animals at vet clinics has been an unfortunate but long-standing reality. Often it is considered necessary to get a certain procedure done. What may happen as a result is increased difficulty to restrain and treat your dog every time they need to see the vet. Instead of aiding with the examination, overpowering your dog may become even more of a struggle and more frightening for your dog and examination results may be compromised because of your dog’s distressed physiological state. Overall, the experience is not pleasant for anyone involved.

What can I do to help my dog?

First of all, your dog’s trust in you is paramount. It is the basis for a healthy relationship which enables you to train your dog efficiently and live with them in harmony. This is why it is best to be honest with your dog. If you do have to subject your dog to a procedure they will not enjoy, do not trick them into believing they are safe. It is better to show your dog what you are about to do – and even use a word or phrase as a heads-up (“here it comes”, “proceeeedure”) – than ambush them. For example, present the bottle with the ear drops and let your dog smell it before you administer it (if your dog runs off at the smell or the presentation of the bottle, you know where to start with your ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’ program! – see below).

Ideally you start practising body handling and procedures when your dog is still a puppy since this is by far the best time to influence how your dog feels about things. But even if your dog is older, they can learn to willingly tolerate and even enjoy going to the vet. If your dog is not already fearful, the procedure is straight forward “conditioning”. Your dog learns that specific situations – e.g. entering the vet’s waiting room, being on the exam table, being poked and prodded etc. – predict good things, usually in the form of extremely tasty treats.

If your dog already has negative emotions towards body handling and veterinary procedures, you need to approach the conditioning process with more caution. The first goal is to make your dog feel safe in situations that have made them feel afraid before. To achieve this, the exposure to the situation has to be at a much reduced level compared to the final, real-life procedure. For example, instead of dragging your dog into the waiting room, you start walking up and down the street outside the vet office, then briefly pop into the waiting room and leave again straight away, etc. This is the ‘desensitisation’ part.

Much better results are generally achieved with the combination of “desensitisation and counter-conditioning”. Counter-conditioning means to change a particular emotion to be the opposite, usually to change a negative emotion into a positive one. With this technique, the change in emotions will normally happen faster and you will end up with a happier dog. Your dog has not only lost their fear but may even look forward to previously dreaded situations.

How do conditioning, desensitisation and counter-conditioning work?

  1. Conditioning

    Conditioning (also referred to as “classical conditioning”) creates an association in your dog’s brain between two events. What we are specifically interested in here is the creation of a positive emotional response to vet visits and everything that may include. Conditioning happens all the time, not just to our dogs but to us as well. The results of conditioning are evident when your dog starts jumping around when the door bell rings (visitors!), or when you jump into action when your dog makes retching noises (she’s going to vomit on the carpet!).Conditioning your dog to enjoy vet visits requires exposure to a variety of experiences such as various types of handling, use of instruments and machinery, smells, locations, etc. Usually, the final procedure has to be broken down into smaller components during practice to avoid overwhelming, and potentially scaring, the dog. For example, if you want your dog to be perfectly fine with having ear drops applied, practise handling their ear separately from presenting the bottle with the ear drops before bringing the two elements together. Insert as many steps as necessary (depending on what your dog will accept) until you reach the final goal. First practise the handling at home, then at your vet’s.

    For example, your first step when conditioning ear handling could be a simple ear touch:

    Person touches dog's ear, then gives a treat
    Briefly touch your dog’s ear and then give a treat. The order of events is important.

    If you repeat this often enough your dog learns that having their ear touched means they get tasty food. Work your way up in level of difficulty until your dog is perfectly fine when you lift their ear.

    For more detailed information see Vet Visits by Crosspaws.

  2. Desensitisation and Counter-Conditioning

    Desensitisation is the reduction of a negative emotional response. A negative emotion such as fear may have been installed in the dog’s brain via conditioning by frightening or unpleasant consequences following a certain trigger (e.g. car rides predict vet visits, vet visits predict pain). When using desensitisation the animal’s emotion is gradually neutralized by incremental exposure to the trigger but without ever presenting negative consequences (e.g. lots of car rides which don’t end at the vet, vet visits without examinations).Generally, it is more powerful to not just neutralise the trigger but to follow it up with something the dog really loves, such as tasty food. If this is done repeatedly until the dog shows a positive rather than negative response to the original trigger, the dog is said to have been counter-conditioned.

    The combination of desensitisation and counter-conditioning is low risk (desensitisation means the dog is never pushed over their fear threshold, so the fear doesn’t get worse) and provides the best outcome for the dog (a positive response to the previously negatively charged trigger rather than merely absence of fear).

What about my veterinarian?

Your veterinarian has an interest in giving the best possible service to their clients, so you should expect them to be more than willing to assist you and your dog. For example, ask if you could visit regularly with your dog during quiet times of the day and simply hang out in the waiting room or an empty exam room to desensitise and counter-condition your dog. Most vet staff will also be happy to stop by and give your dog a treat. If you are concerned about your vet’s handling of your dog, bring up the topic of ‘low stress handling’ techniques (see links below) and see how they respond. If your vet is dismissive of your attempts to help your dog through desensitisation and counter-conditioning or your concern about their handling of your dog, I suggest you vote with your feet. You and your dog deserve better.

 

RESOURCES

For more details on how to condition, desensitise and counter-condition your dog to veterinary procedures, see:
Vet Visits, Crosspaws

Low stress handling resources:
Implementing Low-Stress Handling in Your Practice, Ohio State University
The physiologic effects of fear, by Dr Valarie V. Tynes
Less Stressful Veterinary Visits, The Whole Dog Journal: Review of Dr Sophia Yin’s teachings on low stress handling

The story of a backyard dog

Strictly speaking, the dog in this story didn’t live in a backyard. He lived in the dark and narrow space between an old weatherboard house and the neighbour’s fence. He went to sleep in his kennel at one end of the run and to the toilet at the other. There was no grass and nothing to look at but the sky.

When I first saw this dog, he was looking at me through the window. I was about to rent a small room in an old weatherboard house and my landlady immediately assured me the dog “wouldn’t be any trouble”. Two of the other students who lived there were scared of the dog and the third didn’t care. The dog was never taken out and it seemed his only social contact was feeding time when someone would toss a bowl of food into his prison. Maybe he had been part of the family once but when life changed for his people he was no longer included. Maybe he lost a large and grassy backyard when his family built their new double-storey home behind the weatherboard house. Maybe he was banished from family activities when the first baby arrived. Plans to re-home him were soon forgotten and he became invisible. Stashed away behind the weatherboard instead of his family’s new house, he was out of sight, largely unnoticed by the students who lived there over the years. Without his occasional deep and husky bark it would have been easy to forget he even existed.

It was obvious that my landlady had no attachment to the dog. To her he was a deterrent for would-be burglars, nothing more. My landlord however seemed to have some feelings for the dog and maybe even a tad of guilt. I really wanted to believe that the man once loved and cared for his dog. It simply made me feel better to imagine the dog had seen better days, but staying on friendly terms with my landlord also made it easier for me to help the dog. My request to take him for walks was accepted without hesitation and so began his new life.

It didn’t start well. In my naive urge to set this dog free, I forgot to consider what years in solitary confinement can do to an individual. I put him on a lead, walked him a kilometre or so down the road to a creek which ran through large expanses of green grass and lush vegetation and let him off. Before I could blink the dog was running back to the road and heading for home, or so I hoped. I chased after him up a hill and towards a busy intersection where I prepared myself for the worst. When I finally arrived at the house, my heart was pounding from the exercise and the worry that he might never have made it home. To top it off – when I did discover him back in his kennel – I made a rookie mistake by getting angry with him. I was angry that he gave me such a fright. I was angry that he apparently didn’t appreciate my help. I was angry that he spoiled my feel good story. Today I’m angry with myself for having been so selfish and ignorant.

It was fortunate the dog didn’t suffer from serious anxiety as I could have easily made matters worse. Although I knew that anxiety and depression were real illnesses, I still had a hard time to accept that both could not be overcome with sheer willpower. Probably even more so through personal experience in my family, I saw it as a weakness if someone could not control their negative thoughts and emotions. And as if it wasn’t bad enough to expect humans with anxiety disorders to “face their fears” or “get over it”, I thought dogs – animals who aren’t even capable of analysing their fear and anxiety – should handle their problems the same way! This attitude is still very common these days and, sadly, it often leads to increased anxiety levels and a lower quality of life for our companion dogs.

As it turned out, the dog I was trying to help with my less-than-perfect approach had no deep-seated emotional issues and very quickly started to enjoy his newfound freedom. Over the following months we became best friends. Every day when I returned home and entered my room, he was waiting for me at the window. We went for daily walks together and sometimes hung out on the property when no one else was around. As often as possible I took him to the creek where we ran around together and sat in the grass. At night we would chat through the window before bedtime. Then I had to go away.

My first departure was only temporary but leaving the dog alone for three weeks, to fall back into isolation and despair, was unthinkable. If I ever had any ill feelings towards my landlord for neglecting his dog, it didn’t matter anymore after what happened next. My suggestion to board the dog with friends of mine during my absence was only the beginning. My landlord not only agreed but was also open for me to find a permanent home for his dog. Not long after my return I moved out of the shared house. The dog went to live with my friends before we found him a forever home where he became a member of a loving family, had another dog to play with and quickly claimed a comfy beanbag as his favourite place to sleep. I missed him but I knew he was happy. And that was all that mattered.

From the day I met this dog I knew I needed to find a solution. I could not leave him there to spend the rest of his life in a prison with nothing to do and no one for company. Yet so many dogs live exactly like that. Here, amidst us, scattered around the neighbourhoods are neglected, lonely dogs sitting in barren backyards, waiting for something to happen. Some of them have already entered a state of hopelessness and depression. They are “institutionalised”. But, as you can see from this story, it is never too late to help a dog in need and give them their life back. And no matter how long they have been neglected, they don’t even hold a grudge. I sometimes wonder if we deserve them at all.