Monthly Archives: November 2011

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“Humankind. Be both.”  -Unknown

Behavior Modification Part 1: In the Jungle

Here’s one of the top questions we get asked during private training consults: “How long will it take for my dog’s behavior issue to resolve?”

Behavior problems are frustrating and difficult. There are no magic cures. However, through training and management, they can be resolved.

It’s helpful to understand a little bit about the physiology of learning when trying to understand why our dogs can take so long to “rehabilitate” in the case of a behavior problem.

Learning creates physical changes in the brain. These changes are semi-permanent, but new learning can “override” previous learning.

One good analagy is to think of the brain as a rainforest (thanks to Dr. Karen Overall for this idea).

When you learn something, you are creating a path through the rainforest, beating back all the brush as you go. The more you practice the new skill or behavior you’ve learned, the more times you travel down that same path. At first, the path is very overgrown and it takes real effort to walk along it. This is the acquisition part of a new behavior. Once you’ve practiced that behavior over and over again (traveled down that path over and over again), it becomes easier. You don’t have to expend as much energy to reach your destination (perform that behavior).

This is why learning new skills tires our dogs out so much. Thinking is hard work! It can be very difficult to form a new path and usually requires multiple repetitions.

Why does this matter for our dogs? Once you’ve learned a behavior, that neural pathway becomes very strong. That path is very easy to go down.

The problem with replacing a well-established behavior with a new behavior is that you’re providing the dog with a choice of two paths. On the one hand, they can go down that familiar path that’s so easy to travel (the old behavior). On the other, they can try to whack their way through the rainforest and form a new pathway.

If you were given a choice of going somewhere quickly on either the interstate or on a deer trail through the forest, which would you choose? Your dog’s behavior problem, whether it’s  barking, marking, digging, lunging at other dogs, guarding his food, fear of strangers, or anything else, is like the interstate – it’s a wide, easy to travel path that’s familiar and easy to travel down.

At some point in learning, our behaviors even become somewhat automatic and are no longer under conscious control (think about the first time you learned to drive a stick shift VS doing it after you’ve driven one for years – many of those behaviors have become automatic). If your dog has been practicing the problem behavior for months or even years, he may no longer even be conscious of doing it.

So, how can we change behavior if the old neural pathways are so firmly established?

We need to make it worth the dog’s while to invest in opening a new path, and we need to prevent the dog from going down that old path.

In the case of a behavior that’s motivated by anxiety, we may also need to treat the underlying cause (usually by altering the brain chemistry with medication, which can only be prescribed by a licensed veterinarian). Just like a path through the rainforest, over time the old pathway is going to become a little overgrown and harder to travel down as the dog stops using it. At the same time, the new pathway will become easier and easier to go down until it’s become the path of choice, and the one the dog travels down automatically. That’s not to say the dog might not ever wander down the old path again – it will always be there (this is where spontaneous recovery of previous behaviors can come in to play). We just need to make it the less accessible option.

Later this week we’ll talk more about behavior modification. In the meantime, we want to hear from you! What questions do you have about behavior mod? Have you ever dealt with a serious behavior problem? How did you resolve it? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

Train the Dog, Not the Story

Working as a trainer and a dog rescuer, I’ve seen and heard about some awful things that have been done to dogs. Some of them, which I won’t mention here, will haunt me forever. We hear about horrible abuse often, and it never fails to grip our hearts. However, there’s an equally dark side to the story of dog abuse or neglect that is rarely mentioned.

Here’s the problem: once a dog becomes adopted, they begin the healing process. However, that process can only go as far as the new owner allows it to.

There’s no denying that horrible past experiences can influence a dog (or a person, for that matter) for the rest of his life. We understand from advances in neurological development that early experiences have a profound effect on the physical development of the brain. Impoverished environments during early development will result in a brain that does not develop normal neural connections and a body that does not process stress hormones normally (this is why socialization, including early puppy classes, is so important). Furthermore, new research hints that dogs and other animals can likely develop a form of PTSD with many of the exact same symptoms that humans suffering from the condition report.

All that said, improvement is almost always possible. A dog who spent his first 5 years in a tiny cage in a dark barn at some puppy mill may never be as much of a well-adjusted pet as he would have been if he’d had a better start. However, that’s not to say he can’t make great strides towards becoming more comfortable, or even have a very high quality of life in a new home. With advances in behavior modification, medication, and environmental manipulation, we can now treat anxiety or aggression issues that would have been a death sentence years ago.

There’s one thing that holds many of these dogs back, and it may surprise you.

It’s not their past.

It’s not their physical abnormalities.

It’s not even their owner’s level of competence at training.

It’s their story.

These two dogs came from a horrible situation. Instead of focusing on that, we can focus on them as individuals and let healing begin.

As far as we know, dogs don’t tell stories to themselves. However, people do. We do it all the time, and many adopters of dogs from bad situations do it to such an extent as to sabotage their dog’s progress.

Here’s the thing: your dog does not spend every minute of every day remembering the horrible thing that happened to him. He’s trying to move on. He is in a good place now. You need to move on too.

The best thing you can do for a rescued dog with a horrible past is to look to the future. Celebrate his progress. Celebrate where he is now. Celebrate the fact that he will never again have to endure hunger, cold, unsanitary conditions, or physical abuse.

Instead of seeing the story, see the dog. Provide rules and structure. Provide a set routine. Provide training.

There’s a lot of evidence that genetic potential has a large influence on a dog’s ability to make progress. You won’t know what your dog can achieve until you try. Listen to him, stay within his limits, and do not put him in situations where he struggles. Learn to read him, and work closely with a professional. Put his best interests first. Stop making excuses. If you find yourself apologizing for poor behavior using your dog’s story as an excuse, stop! Look to the dog you have in front of you right now. Read the page in front of you at this moment, not ancient history that happened weeks, months, or years ago.

Your dog’s story didn’t end when you rescued him. It’s still being written, and you’re one of the authors. Write a great ending to his tale.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“Training is the path between what we have and what we want.”

- Bob Bailey

Training Saves Lives

We at Paws Abilities are committed to helping people enjoy their dogs for life. We love dogs and we love seeing people enjoy their dogs.

Consider these facts:

  • The average dog has 3 homes before his first birthday.
  • In every major study done on the cause of death in dogs 3 years of age or under, behavior issues are one of the top 3 causes of euthanasia.
  • 90% of dogs surrendered to shelters have received no formal training (4% have received training, 6% are unknown)

Training saves lives.

This sweet Lab came to the Rochester Animal Shelter as a stray. He's eager to learn and loves food and toys.

My Laptop Is Not a Chew Toy: Dealing With Inappropriate Chewing

Is your dog chewing up your stuff? Help is on the way!

Chewing is normal dog behavior. Most people don’t mind it if their dog chews on his toys, but don’t want him to chew up their socks, underwear, or furniture. If your dog is chewing on inappropriate objects, the first thing you need to do is to ask yourself whether you’re providing appropriate alternatives.

Make sure to provide plenty of appropriate chew toys that your dog enjoys. Kongs, Nylabones, knuckle bones, and hollow sterilized beef bones are all acceptable choices. Hollow toys that can be stuffed with your dog’s food, peanut butter, or other treats, are especially enticing.

You should have one chew toy available in each room of the house where your dog is allowed. If your dog feels the urge to chew, he should be able to look around and immediately spot an appropriate chew toy. If he can’t find a toy, he’s much more likely to settle for one of your shoes! Don’t expect your dog to go all the way across the house to his toy basket: the toy should be right in front of him as soon as he needs it.

Next, make sure that you are rewarding your dog for chewing on his own toys. If you get all excited and chase him down as soon as he grabs one of your socks, then ignore him when he chews on his own toys, guess which option he’s going to choose next time he’s bored? Make sure that you make more of a fuss over him for playing with his own toys than you do when he gets into stuff he shouldn’t. Keep anything you don’t want him to chew on put away, or spray it with Bitter Apple spray to make it taste icky.

If your dog does get ahold of something he’s not supposed to have, don’t make a big deal over it. Chasing him all over will make him think it’s a big game, and punishing him may cause guarding or aggression issues later on. Trade him a small piece of kibble or one of his own toys for the stolen item, then resolve to do a better job keeping things picked up or be more diligent about using Bitter Apples spray in the future.

Most dogs take to chew toy training quite quickly, as long as you’re consistant and provide plenty of acceptable alternatives. If your dog continues to steal things or if you have any problems with possessiveness or aggression when your dog gets into something that he shouldn’t have, don’t hesitate to contact us for further help!

What’s the worst thing your dog has ever chewed up? Share your chewing stories in the comments below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

The holidays are quickly approaching, are you ready?

We can help!

Join us at Rochester Feed and Country Store from 6-7pm on Thursday November 17th for a free educational seminar.

Sara will provide you with the ultimate holiday survival guide to keep you in the mood for the festivities.

We’ll talk about:
- Company coming? Here’s how to help your dog behave!
- Quick exercise options for an over-booked schedule.
- Common holiday hazards and how to avoid them.
- Easy ways to include your dog in holiday festivities.

presented by Sara Reusche, CVT, CPDT-KA

Thursday, November 17th, 6:00-7:00pm
at Rochester Feed and Country Store

This is a free event, however, donations will be collected to support the MN/Midwest Pug Rescue.

Please share this event and plan to attend yourself – your dog will thank you! RSVP on our Facebook event page.

Why Certification Matters

Two of Paws Abilities’ instructors, Julia and Linda, and one assistant, Katie, recently earned their dog training certifications through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Congratulations, ladies!

They join Sara, Shalise, Sarala, Lindsay, and Sandy from Paws Abilities (as well as other local trainers Cris and Karen from Canine Trainers and Aditi of Urbane Animal Behavior). Three other Paws Abilities instructors, Shelly, Crystal, and Rick, are still accruing training hours towards their own certification.

So, what does certification mean, and why does it matter?

The first thing to know about certification is that there are many dog training certifications out there, but not all are created equal. Many schools offer certificates to students who pay for and complete their programs. If your trainer says that she or he is certified, it’s important to check where the certification came from. Unless it comes from an independent testing agency, I would recommend caution. The CCPDT is the only organization at this time offering a standardized test that is both psychometrically sound and independent of any course of study.

To become a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a person must have 300 hours of training experience and provide letters of reference from a veterinarian, client, and colleague. She or he must also pass a standardized test with questions on ethology, learning theory, business practices & ethics, equipment, instruction skills, and animal husbandry. Once certified, that person needs to recertify every 3 years with a minimum of 36 continuing education credits, which are earned through further study at animal behavior conferences, webinars, seminars, and/or university classes.

Certification is very important and shows that a trainer is a professional who is dedicated to continuing education. However, it should not be the only thing a potential client assesses when deciding whether to work with a trainer. Hands-on experience, a dedication to humane methods, and a compatible personality are equally important.

In future posts, we’ll explore other things to look for in a trainer as well as red flags to avoid. In the meantime, please share in the comments below how you chose your dog’s trainer. Was certification important to you, and what other things did you consider? We look forward to hearing from you!

Level Up: What Dog Trainers Can Learn From Mafia Wars

Zynga is a company that produces online games such as Farmville, Mafia Wars, Café World, and Cityville for social media and mobile devices. People are subject to the same laws of learning as animals, and the producers of these games understand behavior very well. Good dog trainers also understand the laws of learning and behavior, and a good trainer could model their training program after Zynga’s games and be quite successful.

So, what does Zynga do well, and how can you use the same concepts to train your dog?

First of all, every Zynga game starts off very easy. Players are rewarded for nearly every click of the mouse with positive feedback (praise), points, leveling up, or coins. In the beginning stages, just a few minutes of play can result in a player moving up several levels. This feeling of accomplishment is highly rewarding to most people. Furthermore, Zynga helps the new player be successful by prompting him or her to engage in certain actions.

Similarly, we should always make it easy for our dogs to “win” when they are learning a new behavior. In the beginning stages of teaching a new behavior, the dog should be rewarded every time they are successful, and the trainer should be doing everything possible to make the environment conducive to learning.

Once the player understands the basic structure of the game, Zynga fades the prompts. By this time, continued prompts would just become annoying rather than helpful.

With dog training, it’s important to fade any prompts as soon as the dog is starting to get an idea of what they should do. If a lure or target was used to jump-start the behavior, the trainer should stop using it after 3-5 successful repetitions so the dog doesn’t become reliant on it. Once the dog has demonstrated the correct behavior a few times, the environment should be changed slightly so that the dog learns to respond in a variety of situations. For example, after a dog has sat in front of the owner a few times, the owner could change their own position by sitting, kneeling, or lying down, or change the orientation of their body so that the dog sits beside or behind them rather than in front.

Zynga also understands how to use a variety of rewards. In Zynga games, the player can earn various “rewards” for different behaviors. These rewards could be points, which accumulate in a meter. Once the meter fills up, the player moves up to the next level. Certain parts of the game are unlocked at each level. The player can also earn “coins,” which can be used to “purchase” different items for the game.

In dog training, it is equally important to use a variety of rewards. Trainers who rely solely on treats may find that their dog will only work for food. Trainers who also use toys, play, praise, and real-life rewards such as the opportunity to chase a squirrel, the chance to sniff an interesting area of grass, or permission to play with other dogs will get much more reliable behavior long-term.

Lastly, Zynga uses a variable schedule of reinforcement and continues to challenge the player. A game that never got any harder would quickly become boring. Zynga understands this, and increases the difficulty with each level. All Zynga games also utilize jackpots, where the player is suddenly rewarded for completing a challenge with an extra-large reward, such as a larger-than-normal amount of coins or points, or a special item.

Good dog trainers also continue to challenge their dogs and vary their rewards unpredictably. Behaviors become stronger when the subject is always guessing about whether “this time” will pay off big. Consider how long you would press buttons at a slot machine versus a soda machine if nothing came out the first time you tried the button. We understand that the slot machine may not pay off every time we use it, but there’s always hope that “next time” will be the time we’ll hit it big. With a  soda machine, we know that if it doesn’t dispense a soda the first time we push the button, it’s not likely to do so if we try again.

Dogs who earn the same reward every time they perform a behavior will quickly give up if rewards stop coming. However, if your dog never knows which reward they’ll earn next time, they’re willing to keep trying much longer. A skilled trainer uses jackpots such as a larger quantity of treats, an especially long game of chase, or the chance to run off-leash in the woods. These occasional jackpots will strengthen behavior, since the dog will always wonder if next time he responds to his trainer might be the time he earns another jackpot.

Zynga games quickly build strong behaviors. Players find themselves clicking the mouse in various targeted ways many times for a single reward. Likewise, a skilled trainer can build strong behaviors in her dog, culminating in a dog who will work for a long time for no reward because he’s
come to enjoy the game. Your dog may not care about having the toughest mob, the neatest café, or the biggest farm, but he does care about having fun with you and playing the clicker game. Use this to your advantage to Level Up your dog’s training skills.

ETA: want more? Check out this great post on how dog training is like Angry Birds!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

This picture is making the rounds on Facebook right now, and it made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt. I hope you enjoyed it too. Have a wonderful Wednesday!