How to avoid totally ruining your dog’s recall (coming when called)

The Disaster

It’s a beautiful day and a couple and their two dogs are walking across a wide open field at a popular off-lead park. Gradually one of the dogs strays off, apparently following an irresistible scent near the trees. When the people finally notice that their dog has gone missing, the man shouts the dog’s name. The dog immediately lifts his head, briefly looks around to locate the source of the sound and, as the man shouts a second time, promptly runs back to his people.
dog coming back
When I witnessed this scene the other day I was impressed. Despite being distracted and quite far away, the dog responded instantly to his person’s voice and quickly returned. In my book this was a “perfect” recall (coming when called). However, as I watched the dog return to his family things did not unfold as I expected. Instead of praising and rewarding the dog for his stellar performance, the man immediately commanded the dog into a sit, grabbed his muzzle and gave him a stern talking to. Now, I have seen worse being done to a dog for so-called “disobedience” but I was very disappointed by the man’s reaction. Apparently he was completely oblivious to the missed opportunity and the potential damage he had just done. What was going on here?

The Analysis

The answer may be found in the nature of the human mind and in particular its capacity to ponder the perceptions, thoughts, feelings and intentions of others. Known as Theory of Mind, this mechanism allows humans to attribute mental states to other people as well as themselves. It plays an important role in social interactions as it allows us to understand, predict and feel for others, but also to manipulate, judge and deceive others. Unfortunately we also routinely believe that we know what non-human animals think or feel and this is when Theory of Mind becomes a liability.

Here is what Daniel Povinelli, a prominent chimpanzee researcher, has to say about the ‘distorted’ human view of animal minds:

“Faced with the overwhelming similarity in the spontaneous, everyday behaviour of humans and chimpanzees, how can someone like me – someone who has dedicated his life to studying these remarkable animals – entertain the possibility that their minds are, in profound respects, radically different from our own? How can I challenge the received wisdom of Darwin – confirmed by my own initial impressions – that the mental life of chimpanzees is best compared to that of a human child?
Actually it’s easy: I have learned to have more respect for them than that. I have come to see that we distort their true nature by conceiving of their minds as smaller, duller, less talkative versions of our own. Casting aside these insidious assumptions has been difficult, but it has allowed me to see more clearly that the human mind is not the gold standard against which other minds must be judged. For me it has also illuminated the possibility of creating a science that is less contaminated by our deeply anthropocentric intuitions about the nature of minds.”

If even science is “contaminated” with anthropocentrism, as Povinelli puts it, then maybe it’s not so surprising that most people treat their dogs like human children who need to learn “obedience”. Without necessarily subscribing to the idea that the minds of chimpanzees and other animals are radically different, I think Povinelli points to an important problem not just in animal research but in the wider public, namely the perception of animal minds as lesser versions of the human mind. Humans have a long history of viewing animals as less refined and less intelligent life forms while considering themselves as the “crown of evolution”. Fortunately we are seeing a shift away from this sense of supremacy and towards a better understanding that non-human animals are not less developed but simply different compared to humans. Each species has their own distinct features, optimized for the environment they naturally live in, and their behaviour and abilities only make sense when viewed in that context.

So, going back to the scene at the park, what can be said about the man’s behaviour towards his dog and what are the potential ramifications?

By scolding the dog after calling him back the man demonstrated

  • an inappropriate application of Theory of Mind and moral judgement – he seemingly made assumptions about the dog’s thoughts and intentions, i.e. the man obviously believed the dog made a conscious decision to follow a scent instead of following his people despite knowing it was the wrong thing to do;
  • anthropomorphism – he treated the dog like one would a disobedient child and attempted to lecture the dog about his apparent wrongdoing;
  • a lack of understanding of the principles of animal learning, specifically the behaviour-consequence contingency which states that consequences affect the probability of the preceding behaviour to occur in the future, i.e. negative consequences make the preceding behaviour less likely to happen in the future and positive consequences make it more likely.

Trying not to fall into the same trap of assuming to know what the dog was thinking, here is my take on what the experience might have been like for the dog:

The dog picks up a scent and follows it. This is perfectly normal dog behaviour without which his wild ancestors would not have survived. To assume that the dog would ponder the consequences of his actions other than hoping to find something of interest is without foundation. Once on the trail the dog continues undisturbed since neither do his people pay attention nor does the dog seem to be aware of the separation from his family.

The dog hears his person’s voice and immediately responds to it, looking slightly confused as if woken from a slumber. He then runs to his family as soon as he spots them in the open field. Maybe whatever had drawn his attention previously was not that appealing after all. Or maybe he was worried because he didn’t know where his family was. Maybe he had previously been trained successfully to come when called or maybe a bit of everything contributed to his quick response – who knows.

Although the dog seems at first happy to run back to his family, his body language changes as he gets closer. On approach he lowers his tail and assumes a slightly cowering posture suggesting he is uncomfortable or even afraid. He stands still as the man holds him by the muzzle and talks to him. Afterwards the dog continues for a short while with tail low before returning to normal.

At any stage the dog seems to directly respond to the current events in his environment: the scent that causes him to change path, the voice that makes him pay attention, the sight of his family which makes him happily run to them, his person’s threatening body language which makes him cower. There is no reason to believe, and no research to support it, that the dog understood that following the scent was somehow ‘wrong’ and that he will refrain from doing so in the future because his human got angry. In fact, according to everything we know about animal learning today, the dog will most likely associate approaching his person with a negative experience and avoid that person in the future in a similar context (assuming the dog experienced the muzzle grab and ‘lecture’ he received as punishing which – judging by the dog’s body language – seemed to be the case). I’m quite sure this is not what the man intended.

The Solution

The only way to prevent such disasters is through knowledge and awareness. By actively keeping one’s own mind in check whenever the temptation arises to make assumptions about the thoughts and intentions of another species, solutions to real or perceived problems could become a lot easier and – most importantly – a lot more humane.

So, here is what a correct application of animal learning principles looks like when teaching your dog the recall:

Call your dog (happy voice)

  • your dog comes to you –> reward your dog like there is no tomorrow
  • your dog doesn’t come:
    • try again when your dog is less distracted
    • try again when your dog is closer to you
    • try again when your dog is hungry

Watch Cozmo, the Maremma, demonstrate a rockstar recall:

 

RESOURCES

Daniel John Povinelli, Behind the ape’s appearance: escaping anthropocentrism in the study of other minds. Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Winter 2004, Vol. 133, No 1, Pages 29 – 41.

Daniel John Povinelli, Behind the ape’s appearance: escaping anthropocentrism in the study of other minds.

 

 

 

The Slow Dog Training Revolution – Part 2

person with dog at beach

Previously I wrote about the importance of taking a slow approach when deciding on training methods for our dogs and finding professional help. I also suggested that dog training can, and should, be more than just another task to tick off the to-do list. There are some parallels that we can draw with the process of raising children, with the significant difference that the kids (usually) move out at some stage. By contrast, our dogs’ dependency on us is complete and for life. It follows that our decisions are of vital importance to the quality of their life and indeed their survival. Clearly something that requires a fair bit of thought and smart choices!

Let’s look at some of the aspects of dog training that can make all the difference in the world we share.

Training for all (TFA1)

Sometimes we don’t know what our dogs’ lives were like before they come into ours. Sometimes we don’t know anything about their breeder or even their breed. Sometimes we choose a dog that doesn’t fit our lifestyle. Sometimes we just end up with a dog.

While ideally the process of getting a dog in the first place should be just as thoughtful as training and living with a dog, the reality is often quite different. But choosing a dog is not the topic of this article. Once the dog is in our home, it doesn’t matter anymore how they got there. It is now up to us to give them the best possible training and a happy life. It also doesn’t matter if the dog is young or old, large or small, a Shepherd or a Retriever, a carefully designed Groodle, Schnoodle or Cavoodle or the product of an unscheduled romance. It doesn’t matter if the dog has only one leg or is deaf or blind. Training benefits every dog and vastly increases their chances in life.

We all know that prevention is better than cure. But of course we also frequently ignore this wisdom as my dentist was fortunate enough to find out recently. Like my dentist I’m in a profession which is largely involved in remedial action. Dog trainers are too often called when problems already exist rather than being engaged early on. Without training most dogs cannot fully take part in their people’s lives or be a valued member of their family. Their unrefined behaviours may condemn them to spend too much time alone or subject them to impatient or even harsh treatment from their people. But neglecting our dogs’ mental and emotional health can be just as costly as neglecting their physical health. It not only affects our hip pocket but is likely to cause our dogs – and potentially us – considerable grief. Rather than waiting for things to go wrong, training our dogs should be as much standard as educating our children, and ourselves. So here it is again. Repeat after me: Prevention is better than cure.

Are you talking to me?

In a recent review of a new book on parenting2, the author was quoted as follows: “You can tell your kids until you’re blue in the face,’Don’t take drugs, don’t drink, don’t have sex with the wrong people’ but you actually have to tell them why, and how they can have a more meaningful life.” With some modification this statement could easily appear in a modern dog training manual. We can tell our dogs to stop jumping up, pulling on leash or barking until we’re blue in the face. But we actually have to change their motivation and teach them alternative behaviours to get what they want.

Communicating efficiently with our dogs is not possible unless we learn how they communicate first. We are a species of many words. Dogs use body language. We rely heavily on eyesight. Dogs are guided by their noses. We have foresight, hindsight and insight. Dogs are impulsive and opportunistic. An appreciation of how our dogs experience and negotiate their environment is not just essential for a successful partnership, it’s also incredibly fascinating.

Simply knowing about canine senses and behaviours isn’t quite enough though. I won’t suggest you get down on all fours and sniff around your house with your eyes closed (not such a bad idea actually) but what we really need is to build compassion out of academic knowledge. Truly understanding our dogs’ world requires imagination (“how would I feel if that air freshener smelled a hundred thousand times more intense?”), observation (“did that dog just freeze when the child hugged him?”) and practice, i.e. awareness of how our dogs may experience various situations needs to become second nature.

We will never know what our dogs feel or think, but we can use our mental capabilities to develop awareness and change our point of view. We can evaluate the effects our behaviours have on our dogs and we can change those behaviours to be non-threatening, less confusing and more informative for canine minds.

Training fast and slow

Once we have obtained the necessary knowledge and gained an insight into our dogs’ lives we are ready to dive into the nuts and bolts of dog training. What exactly are we going to teach our dogs and how do we go about it?

The number one goal should be to equip our dogs for life in human society. What generally turns dogs from cuddly puppies into adult pariahs is lack of impulse control. Teaching our dogs not to jump on, run at or grab anything they fancy is usually essential for a harmonious relationship and could be considered basic education. Beyond that, we can teach our dogs all sorts of things. Any training, as long as it is safe and enjoyable for the dog, is good for them, just like learning new skills is good for us.

Ideally we want the essential behaviours to be installed without much delay, as soon as the dog joins our household. With proper planning we can often quickly teach new skills at home – the time investment can be as little as a few minutes per day – and then practise and refine those skills in more challenging contexts. Every dog has a vested interest in the consequences of their actions, so they are just as eager to cut to the chase as we are. They want to figure out how to turn good things (food, play, companionship) on just as much as we want to turn bad behaviour off. However, if the speed of learning is our prime parameter, we risk being sloppy and may switch focus back from teaching skills to merely suppressing behaviours. And with it comes a whole cascade of messed up emotions and undesirable behaviours. This is how we end up on the potentially very slow road to modify behaviour problems.

Keeping a cool head is essential if we want our dogs to succeed in our homes. If we get angry or feel exhausted because our dogs are behaving “badly” (for example the dog barks a lot in the yard) we need to put measures in place to give us a reprieve. By not giving the dog the opportunity to engage in the troublesome behaviour (for example, by keeping the dog in the house at times when there is too much stimulation outside), we keep our sanity and don’t take our frustration out on our dogs. I need to stress that taking measures for managing problematic behaviour does not include putting citronella collars on a pair of Border Collies who bark all day in the yard out of boredom while their people are at work or anything of that category. At best it’s thoughtless, at worst it’s heartless. Punishing dogs for our failure to keep up their required mental and physical exercise cannot possibly be an option, ever. Once we have control of a situation with good management, we can then start thinking about a long term solution that works for both us and our dogs.

Unless we are eager enough and can afford the time to learn everything about dog training ourselves, getting competent help is usually the way to go. However, hiring a dog trainer or sending our dogs off to a “board & train” does not absolve us from the task of integrating our dogs into our lives. The expertise on how to train a dog and some of the actual training may well be delivered by a qualified professional, but it is our continued behaviour and lifestyle that ultimately determines our dogs’ success or failure in the long run. If we do not get involved in our dogs’ training, we may not just lose out on the thrill of seeing our dogs win, we may lose our dogs altogether. So, let’s get serious about training our dogs for life and have some fun.

 

RESOURCES

1 I borrowed this from an important initiative to improve human quality of life: “Education for All” (EFA) is a global movement by UNESCO to provide quality basic education for all children. Let’s have a movement to provide basic training to all domestic dogs!

2 Stark, J 2014, Taming teen troubles, The Sunday Age, 31 August, p. 6. (Book review: Fuller, A 2014, Tricky Teens: How to create a great relationship with your teenager without going crazy!, Finch Publishing, Sydney).

Crosspaws Dog Training Information

 

The Slow Dog Training Revolution

About 25 years ago, somewhere in Italy, an idea took hold that would grow into a global movement: The “slow food revolution”. It started as an attempt to counter our ever increasing fast food, fast paced and unmindful lifestyles. It promoted “real food” – locally and ethically produced food and wine that was to be savoured slowly and consciously rather than gobbled up in a hurry to fill the stomach. What may be less known is that the initiative also targeted the potential risks of thoughtless consumerism after a greedy businessman poisoned hundreds of unsuspecting people with cheap diluted wine.

Our society’s hunger for fast and cheap products and services has resulted not just in a loss of conscious and mindful living, but also in potential risks to people from unscrupulous businesses.

I think it might be time for a “slow dog training revolution”. Rather than being just another chore, training our dogs can be an enjoyable and enlightening activity. It offers a unique opportunity to learn up close how another species experiences the world. It teaches us new things, opens our minds and ultimately brings us closer to our dogs. Taking a slow approach also means we become more aware of our own actions and behaviours and how they affect our dogs. It helps us to make smarter choices when deciding on training methods, getting professional help and allowing others to interact with our dogs.

What exactly is dog training?

First we need to understand what dog training really is. Dog training is the teaching of one or more new skills to a dog. It is a step by step process towards a specific training goal. It can also apply to the modification of existing behaviour which may require an even more incremental process, especially if the behaviour is controlled by underlying fear or anxiety.

Acquiring a new skill or changing one’s behaviour is rarely compatible with expectations of fast results or instant gratification. Just like humans, dogs need time to learn new things or to overcome their fears and phobias. Furthermore, many skills we want them to learn are either not in their natural repertoire or even go against their natural instincts. Without an understanding just how difficult it can be for our dogs to comply with our requests, we risk wasting our time, losing our temper and harming our dogs. Thoughtfulness is the first essential step in state-of-the-art dog training.

Apart from time and patience, good dog training requires knowledge, self-discipline and good observational skills from the human teacher and motivation and confidence from the canine student.

When time is running out, patience is running thin

Unfortunately when our dog’s behaviour turns into a problem we quickly feel stressed or under pressure. Maybe the dog is destroying the house or the neighbours have started to complain. The problem needs to be fixed – now. That sense of urgency can easily lead to hasty decisions, leave us vulnerable to dodgy advice and risk our dogs’ wellbeing. We might hand our dogs over to “boot camp” without enquiring exactly what will be done to them. We may take advice from a person who calls themselves “dog trainer” or “dog behaviourist” without checking their qualifications and methods of training. We get roped in by clever marketing or a trainer’s air of authority. This is how we and our dogs get hurt. The dog training industry has no shortage of misleading claims and promises of quick fixes and guaranteed solutions without any mention of the potential risks and side effects. The result may well be a change in the dog’s behaviour, but at what cost? And with the real fallout not always being obvious until much later, we are left with no one to blame but ourselves.

The path to safe and efficient dog training

Long gone are the days when people were intimidated by authority. These days we are more informed and educated than ever before. We ask questions, we demand explanations, we want to see evidence. Even the most time-pressed person has an interest in getting the best value for their money, but it does require some effort. Before we can evaluate a particular service we need to understand what to look for, how to interpret marketing language and what questions to ask. Without knowledge we remain at the mercy of salesmen. But, how to find the right knowledge? The amount of available information, vastly increased by the internet, is almost paralysing. Where to begin?

Well, we already know that dog training is the teaching of skills. This allows us to weed out any trainers whose methods sound like magic tricks or some form of secret business. Animal learning is a science. It’s not a matter of opinion or the dominion of people who believe they have special gifts. Animal learning deals with classical and operant (instrumental) conditioning, reinforcement and punishment. The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) has an informative brochure on this which provides anyone who cares about their dog with a good understanding of the basics for dog training.

When trying to find a suitable dog trainer we may then enter something like “positive dog training” into our search engines. Unfortunately the phrase is as unreliable as the “organic” or “free range” labels on various food products. Anyone can claim that they are using “positive” methods. It doesn’t mean anything. When “positive reinforcement dog training” started to take off, many businesses jumped on the bandwagon and adjusted their marketing. But did they also change their methods?

A possible first step when screening a trainer could be to look for a formal qualification. I doubt anyone would send their children to a school where teachers are not suitably qualified. Or how about hiring a psychiatrist who doesn’t have a degree? Those professions have clear regulations for qualification, but sadly this is not the case with dog trainers. Even the term “behaviourist” is not legally protected. Asking lots of questions may help but only if one knows what questions to ask. Here is where relevant professional organisations can give a hand, such as the “American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour“. AVSAB has a very useful info sheet on how to choose a dog trainer which is essential reading for anyone looking for help with their dog.

With a proper understanding of what dog training is and how it affects our dogs – both short term and long term – we are able to take better control of outcomes. By investing some time in our dogs’ training we can all benefit – dogs, humans and the community. Well behaved and happy dogs are not just less likely to become depressed, aggressive and end up in shelters; they are simply easier to live with and can add a great deal of happiness to our lives. Apart from playing, cuddling and exercising with our dogs, training them can be another enjoyable activity if we allow it to be. All it takes it to slow down a little, so we can make the best choices for us and our dogs.

 

RESOURCES

Crosspaws: About Slow Dog Training

Reward Based Training – link to ‘AVA’ info sheet, PDF
How to Chose a Dog Trainer – link to ‘AVSAB’ info sheet, PDF
The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals – link to ‘AVSAB’ position statement, PDF

 

Why Sausage Rolls are Better than Alpha Rolls

Humans are smart, right? Not only are we capable of impressive mental gymnastics because of those uniquely complex brains of ours, we also understand more and more exactly how our brains work. We have come a long way in finding out what we share with and what sets us apart from other animals’ brains. This is how we know that dogs think differently from us.

Dogs are smart too. But their mental capacities and brain functions have evolved to accommodate a different lifestyle to ours. When training our dogs we need to keep this is mind. Unfortunately, neither the still popular “alpha dog” techniques, which are supposed to teach your dog that you’re ‘the boss’, nor expecting our dogs to be moral creatures and do things out of the goodness of their hearts are considering the true nature of the dog. Not very smart on our part.

happy-dog-positive-dog-training-methods

Good teachers know and respect their students

Understanding a dog’s intelligence and behaviour is essential if we want to find the best approach to living with and training our dogs. It is more scientific, more efficient and ultimately more humane than many current dog training methods. A dog’s behaviour is firmly based in the evolutionary history of the species which equips each individual with the necessary toolbox for survival and reproduction. Intelligence then could be described as possessing the complete toolbox and being able to use these tools to one’s advantage. This can differ significantly between dog breeds. Artificial selection by humans has enhanced certain traits in dogs while neglecting or sacrificing others and we did so purely with our own agenda in mind. Now we are left with a large variety of abilities and temperaments in our modern dog breeds (not to speak of the myriad of genetic diseases and malformed bodies).

When we talk about a dog’s intelligence, we usually refer to her ability to respond to us humans, for example how quickly can this dog learn a specific command or solve a task set by a human mind. While we can see the relevance for a dog to respond to human commands, they do not have the capability to ponder the long term consequences of their actions. A dog does not know what her future might hold if humans do not approve of her. The dog’s genetic legacy is that of a hunter-scavenger who survived and prospered by locating and killing prey, fending off competitors, escaping injury and finding mates. This is far removed from the life we force upon our dogs today when almost everything we ask of them goes against their natural instincts. If they can’t cope, it’s certainly not their fault.

fearful-dog-confrontational-dog-training-methods

What does this mean for modern dog training? Firstly, the recognition that dogs instinctively do what is right for them – and not what is right for us – and that this is a perfectly normal result of their genetic makeup can help us understand our dogs better. Secondly, by knowing what is normal dog and breed specific behaviour we can use this knowledge to our advantage and train them better. And thirdly, by refraining from judging our dogs’ intelligence by criteria that only we find relevant, we can appreciate our dogs better.

Dog training can be as simple as ABC – no need for Alpha

A dog’s world view is primarily shaped by experiences in the form of “if A happens, then B happens”. If your friendly neighbour regularly gives your dog a sausage, the dog will make a connection: neighbour means tasty food, i.e. “neighbour = good stuff”. The same rule can be applied to the dog’s own behaviour. If – let’s say every time your dog jumps up at you – you throw him on his back and pin him down in an attempt to perform an “alpha roll”, your dog will learn that jumping up results in being rolled over. What happens next is entirely dependent on how your dog experienced the event: was it scary or was it fun? If it was scary, chances are the behaviour of jumping up will decrease, which means the behaviour was punished. If the dog enjoyed being thrown on his back – maybe because he perceived it as play – the behaviour of jumping up will likely increase. The behaviour was rewarded and hence reinforced. What will likely not happen is that the dog becomes more obedient because he somehow realizes that his human is dominant over him.

Social status and dominance hierarchies are human concepts. While we can observe behaviour that we label ‘dominant’ or ‘submissive’ in many other animals, this is quite different from our human understanding of social status today. In modern human society the term ‘dominance’ has been largely disconnected from the original purpose of gaining or retaining essential resources. Although social status can be related to socio-economic status, humans also tend to consider social status as a goal in itself. Honour and self-worth come to mind. Judging by everything we know today, there is no evidence that dogs use so-called ‘dominant’ displays in any other way than to obtain or defend valuable resources. Dogs don’t fight for something as abstract as status or glory. They don’t spend their days contemplating their relationships with other individuals and think of ways to become more dominant over them. Even if they did have a grasp of how their lives fit in with ours, they would probably quickly realize that we control all of their resources. It’s a needless worry that there may be a status contest between dogs and humans.

At the very least then, alpha rolling your dog or using other confrontational methods in an attempt to establish yourself as the dominant ‘pack leader’ could be considered a waste of time and energy. In reality, however, it’s worse. For most dogs being subjected to any sort of violent and threatening behaviour is a scary experience. It creates fear and avoidance of the person who subjected them to the experience. It can also cause fear and phobias of certain contexts and situations and it can trigger a whole range of other problem behaviours including aggression.

By sticking to the simple “if A, then B” principle, we don’t need to fish for complex explanations for our dogs’ behaviour. By actively avoiding intentional or accidental anthropomorphising (there it is –the ugly word!) and the projection of human values and abstract concepts onto a different species we are off to a better start in our relationship with dogs. We have the power to modify our dogs’ behaviour without frightening them, simply by focussing on how behaviour is triggered and how it is either reinforced or discouraged.

Life is better with wine and sausages

Using reward-based training methods is safe and humane as it carries none of the risks mentioned above. Rewards can be whatever your dog fancies, but food is by far the most convenient reinforcer. There is nothing wrong with using food. It doesn’t ‘corrupt’ a dog, just as accepting a nice bottle of wine for helping a friend move house doesn’t corrupt you. You would have helped anyway, right? But what if your friend moves house every six months? When does it become too much effort for you to keep doing it out of the goodness of your heart? Yet this is what we generally ask of our dogs, creatures who do not possess our moral values and ethical codes. We expect them to do things that they would never do voluntarily, whenever we want, and we expect them to do it for free!

Is it really too much to ask that our dogs be rewarded for doing what we want? Why deny our dogs – or ourselves – the good things in life? Force-free dog training methods based on positive reinforcement strengthen the bond with our dogs instead of making them fearful. As a consequence they are more likely to comply with what we ask of them in the future and less prone to develop behaviour problems. Happy, well-behaved dogs make happy people. It’s a win-win situation.

 

RESOURCES

Dog Training Methods – link to resources at www.crosspaws.com.au
Status as a Valued Resource in Humans – link to ‘Social Psychology Quarterly’ article, PDF