Why I’m Not a “Force Free” Trainer

Force free. It sounds great, doesn’t it? Of course dog training should be force free! Yet when a recent client asked if I was a force free trainer, I said I wasn’t. My client was taken aback, as many of my blog readers probably are. Let me explain.

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I have several issues with the idea of labeling the training that Paws Abilities offers as “force free.” My biggest problem with the label is that it says nothing about what we actually do. Focusing on negatives like this is one of the biggest advertising gimmicks of all time. “No corn, wheat, or soy!” the dog food package proclaims. Yet, reading the label shows that there’s enough barley, rice, and oatmeal in the food that dogs who have issues with carbs are still going to react negatively. “Sugar free – No Sugar Crash!” the 5-hour Energy drink shouts, saying nothing about how your body might react to the caffeine crash later in the day.

Focus on negatives like this is meant to make you think poorly of competitor’s products or services. When you see the label that says “no by-products” on the dog food package, you start thinking that maybe by-products are bad for your dog, and wondering why other dog food companies would use them. When you see “force free” on a dog trainer’s website, your mental image of a trainer shoving or jerking a dog around makes you feel relieved that at least this trainer doesn’t do that.

What the focus on negatives doesn’t tell you is what the trainer actually does. While I don’t use or recommend choke, prong, or electronic collars, that doesn’t tell you a single thing about what I will do to your dog. Can I solve the behavioral issues you’re experiencing with your pet? How quickly and effectively will I do so? These are probably the bigger questions on your mind, and knowing what tools I do or don’t use isn’t going to tell you a whole hell of a lot about how effective I am. There are good and bad trainers of all training methodologies, and more has to do with the trainer’s experience than with the methods they use.

Which brings me to the second reason I don’t consider myself or my other instructors force free. The dog decides what “force” means, and we can’t always know that until we try a given training intervention. Is it considered forceful to stand on a dog’s leash so that he has enough leash to comfortably sit, stand, or lie down, but not enough to jump up on a stranger? Is it forceful to use body blocks to keep my dog from lunging at a passing bike? Is it forceful to fit a dog with a Gentle Leader or front-attach harness so that when he pulls on his leash he ends up facing his handler? I can’t tell you, and neither can anyone else. Each of these training methods is one that I frequently use, and each of them produces different results for different dogs. For some dogs, these methods might be considered forceful. A soft dog who’s very sensitive to spacial pressure might be really uncomfortable when her handler body blocks her, for example. For that dog, we may have to adjust the handler’s technique (perhaps having her handler lean towards her instead of actually stepping in front of her, for example). But we can’t know until we look at the dog’s response.

I’ve watched as a friend’s dog was happily and quickly recalled using low-level shocks from an electronic collar. While the tool isn’t one I use or recommend, in this dog’s case I didn’t see any body language that told me that the dog was uncomfortable or stressed by the use of force. Rather, the dog understood what the sensation on his neck meant, knew how to turn it off, and had a great relationship with his handler. I didn’t consider the interaction forceful and was not uncomfortable with anything I observed, even though the training tool was not one that I typically like seeing used.

On the other hand, I’ve watched a trainer shape a dog to “bang” the teeter totter using a clicker and treats at a seminar and felt highly uncomfortable. The dog was on a leash but was not being physically guided in any way. Still, she couldn’t go more than 6′ away from the teeter totter, and was clearly uncomfortable with the amount of pressure placed on her by the trainer. The dog’s body was low and she was licking her lips and turning her head away from the trainer. Even though I often use clickers and treats to train dogs, I was very uncomfortable with the interaction and didn’t feel like the dog was enjoying the training or building a good relationship with the well-known presenter at all.

The force free training movement would have you believe that the first trainer is evil because of her use of an e-collar, while the second trainer is good because she was using a clicker and treats. However, I bet if we asked the two dogs which was happier with the training they were experiencing, we’d get very different answers. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to start using an e-collar anytime soon (I’m not), or that I don’t think clickers and treats are good training tools (I do). But we have to ask the dog, and the mark of a good trainer has a lot less to do about what tools are in their repertoire as it does with how they modify their techniques based on the animal in front of them. Dogs are individuals, and cookie-cutter techniques don’t work any better for them than they do for the owners at the other end of the leash. The more dogs a trainer has worked with, the better that trainer will be able to change his or her methods to suit the individual that they’re working with at the moment – and the happier and less stressed the dog will be with the training.

I still get it wrong sometimes. Everyone will. I yelp loudly when a puppy nips me, then watch as that puppy shrinks away and realize that I’ve been too forceful. Next time I’ll need to make less noise. I clap my hands and cheer, offering a tug toy as the dog I’m working with gets into heel position, then feel my heart sink as the dog lags behind me. Next time I’ll need to praise and pet quietly, handing the dog a small piece of hot dog. I back an excited adolescent dog away from the dog he’s lunging and barking at, and watch as he continues to carry on. Next time I’ll need to body block him with a quick verbal “I don’t THINK so,” and be ready to reward him when he quiets down. The important thing in each interaction is that I modify my response to the dog to better work for that individual animal.

I’m not force free. I make mistakes in how I handle dogs. But I strive to be fair, kind, and respectful. I’m not force free. But I am helpful, effective, and a trainer who prefers reward-based methods. And doesn’t that tell you a lot more than focusing on what I’m not?

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

 

Photo by Matt

Photo by Matt

I talk to him when I’m lonesome like
and I’m sure he understands.
When he looks at me so attentively,
and gently licks my hands;
then he rubs his nose on my tailored clothes,
but I never say naught thereat.
For the good lord knows I can buy more clothes,
but never a friend like that.

– W. Dayton Wedgefarth

 

Overzealous Greetings (and Other Tales of Toddlers and Puppies)

The other day as I was grocery shopping, a toddler ran up to me and hugged me. I smiled and put an arm on his shoulder as his mother rushed up. “I’m so sorry!” She exclaimed. “He really loves to meet people.” I assured her that it was not a problem and spoke briefly with the outgoing little boy before heading on my way.

Later that same day, my foster puppy was accompanying me on a shopping trip at the local pet supply store. As we were¬†ambling along¬†the treat aisle, a large Husky came around the corner of the aisle on a flexi leash. My foster pup jumped on his head, and the Husky stood still with a soft, relaxed body while the squirmy pup wriggled around him in joy. I apologized to the dog’s owner as I calmed and corralled the excited puppy. “No worries!” she exclaimed. “Thor wouldn’t tolerate that behavior from an adult dog, but he really likes puppies.” We chatted for a few moments longer, and the dogs politely sniffed noses as we walked away, my foster much calmer and more polite after a few clicks and treats for appropriate behavior around his new friend.

Photo by Max Collins

Photo by Max Collins

Dogs aren’t all that different from us, if you think about it. I thought the excited greeting from a toddler was adorable. If an adult tried the same thing though, I wouldn’t react so kindly. In fact, if a strange man ran up and grabbed me in a bear hug, I’d likely respond quite violently in defense even though I’m not typically a confrontational or violent person.

Dogs also react differently to puppies, adolescents, and adult dogs. Most dogs are quite tolerant of rude and clumsy greetings from puppies. They understand that the puppies are still learning and aren’t all that polished. Just as we understand that toddlers are still learning social behavior, well socialized adult dogs generally forgive social blunders in pups.

The problem develops when puppies never learn appropriate social skills. Adult dogs who greet inappropriately (by rushing and jumping on other dogs, for example) become the canine equivalents of a forty year old man racing up to grope my breasts. It’s just not okay, and other dogs are likely to react aggressively even if they’re generally quite friendly and easygoing with other dogs.

A large part of the blame for such boorish social behavior in dogs lies at their owner’s feet. Just as responsible parents teach their children appropriate social behavior (for example, the toddler’s mother apologized for his rushing up at the grocery store and helped him to practice greeting me more appropriately by instructing him to wave and say “hi”), responsible dog owners can teach their charges to be polite around other dogs. Socializing your dog appropriately helps him grow into a model citizen of canine society.

So, how do I guide my foster dogs through appropriate interactions? First of all, I focus on teaching them to greet other dogs calmly. If puppies squeal and lunge in excitement every time they see a new dog, they grow into adult dogs who rush up to other dogs or react explosively on leash at the sight of each new dog. This isn’t a healthy social reaction, and preventing this behavior from developing is much easier and faster than fixing it once it’s become a habit. The solution is simple: I only let calm puppies greet other dogs. If my puppy is excited about the other dog, we move further away and do a few simple obedience behaviors until the puppy’s calmed down, at which point he’s rewarded for his calm behavior by earning permission to say “hi.” If my puppy absolutely can’t calm down, we may switch to the Watch the World game for a few minutes to get him in a better mindset. Just as parents of excitable toddlers may hold onto their children’s hands and instruct them on waving instead of hugging, gently guiding your puppy in social niceties will help him learn the best way to behave. Furthermore, since most puppies really enjoy meeting other dogs, they learn quickly that civilized behavior is the fastest path to gain access to their new friends.

In addition to teaching my puppy polite greetings, I also provide him with lots of opportunities to play and interact off leash with a variety of other dogs. Just as a parent will allow their child to converse with a variety of other kids, teenagers, and adults, letting my puppy socialize with others of his species keeps the doggy language skills he learned with his littermates sharp while also polishing away any rough bits. The bigger the variety of ages and sizes of dogs that I can safely introduce my puppy to during this time, the better. Ideally, I like to arrange 3-4 play dates a week for my puppy with known dogs. We avoid dog parks and other situations with dogs of unknown health and behavioral status for obvious reasons. Just as I wouldn’t bring a toddler to a frat party, I know my puppy’s not developmentally ready for the crowd of adolescents at most dog parks. And of course, I want to wait until my puppy’s vaccines are on board before going around other dogs who may be carrying potentially fatal diseases such as parvo or distemper, just as many parents are now avoiding crowded attractions like Disneyland until their children’s vaccines are current.

If you’re raising a puppy, remember that socializing him is more than just introducing him to others and waiting for him to figure things out on his own. Just as you would school a toddler on appropriate interactions with new people, it’s important to provide your puppy with lots of feedback on how to best get along in our world. Well-socialized adults of all species understand how to communicate with one another, including respecting one another’s space and using culturally-appropriate greetings.

Does your dog greet others appropriately? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Jeremy Vandel

Photo by Jeremy Vandel

“Obesity in dogs is one of the biggest problems. But do you think the dog food companies want to talk about that?”

– Dr. Ray Coppinger

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Weeks Four through Seven (and Adoption!)

Recently we covered formerly fearful puppy Chowder’s second and third week at our house. At the end of this time period, Chowder was beginning to warm up to us if we moved slowly and allowed him to come to us. He occasionally enjoyed stroking and was learning the routines of our home. His skin issues had cleared up, and he finally got to meet Layla.

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At this point, we began taking Chowder to regular puppy play sessions at our local humane society. He was initially overwhelmed, but within five minutes began to respond playfully to the other puppies’ advances. By our third puppy play session, Chowder was zooming around the room, happily engaging with all of the other puppies. He loved playtime!

I also enrolled Chowder in a Puppy Kindergarten class taught by another local trainer. While I was a bit disappointed in the four-week-long class, which primarily consisted of the puppy owners sitting in a circle on the floor, holding our puppies still and listening to the instructor lecture, I was proud of how Chowder did. His ability to focus and engage with us improved each week, and he was also able to settle quickly when held on my lap. He enjoyed meeting all of the other puppies in class when he was finally allowed to interact off-leash on week three, and handled the chaotic off-leash environment (by far the craziest playtime he’d yet encountered!) without getting overly aroused himself. He continued to be cautious about the instructor and the other people in class, but would investigate if given a bit of time.

Working his charm with my students.

Working his charm with my students.

In the classes I taught, Chowder began to really come out of his shell. My students deserve all of the credit for this. Everyone was so kind about tossing or handing treats to Chowder, and he began to sit right in front of his ex-pen instead of hanging back by his crate, charming everyone who approached him. He offered sits and high fives to all of his favorite people, and also began to accept petting from his new friends.

In nose work class, Chowder was no longer worried about putting his head in boxes and instead started trotting around the whole room like he owned it, checking out each new box or item in turn. Different students volunteered their time to be his “date” in class each week, and I’m incredibly grateful to Laura, Stan, Jeff, Sara, Aaron, and Sue for the Friday evenings they gave up to spend with little Chowder. He even became brave enough to “break out” of his pen one night, visiting all of the dogs in their crates before he was corralled. What a change in just a few weeks!

At home, Chowder began the process of potty training. While he had been pretty reliable about hitting his potty pads (or potty-pad-like objects, such as rugs) from the start, we were glad when he was finally comfortable enough on leash to be taken outside. His early days as an outdoor puppy definitely cemented his potty preferences, and he was a rock star about going to the bathroom as soon as he was taken outside.

Friends with Layla!

Friends with Layla!

With his growing reliability about not having accidents indoors and his successful introduction to Layla, Chowder began to be allowed more freedom in our home. Surprisingly, he and Layla actually became great buddies! While Layla rarely plays with other dogs, she began to solicit play on a daily basis from Chowder and the two dogs interacted very nicely together. I’ll be honest: this almost convinced me to keep Chowder. While I’ve successfully fostered over 100 dogs, Chowder came very close to being my fourth foster “failure” and staying with us forever. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that I wasn’t the best home with him. While I felt that he could be happy with me, I also had concerns that he wasn’t physically a good candidate for the high-level obedience and agility dog I wanted in my next pet. The last thing that I wanted to do was to put him in a situation that he wouldn’t be equipped to handle, risking injury. I knew that there was a better home out there for him where he would be an amazing buddy for a lucky family or individual, and resisted my urge to keep him.

And Chowder was definitely well on his way to becoming a wonderful pet. He handled his neuter surgery well, but later had to return when his incision opened up and became slightly infected. While he was frightened returning to the facility, he handled the examination well and also handled the daily cleaning of his surgery site at home wonderfully. Peanut butter helped! We were relieved when the daily discomfort caused by cleaning his surgical site failed to halt his forward socialization progress.

When a colleague of mine contacted me about Chowder, I was delighted to hear of his interest. His family already had two other dogs, which was one of our adoption requirements as Chowder continued to feel the most comfortable if he had a brave canine companion to look to for guidance. While we had initially looked for a home with older or no children for our special foster puppy, we decided to do a meet and greet with this family even though they had two young children.

Chowder snuggles with his new "sister," Muriel.

Chowder snuggles with his new “sister,” Muriel.

Chowder exceeded everyone’s expectations and quickly became comfortable with the two kids, and after a successful meet and greet with the family’s dogs, he officially became a member of their family. I cried when he left – equal parts happiness for him, pride in how far he’d come, and sadness to say goodbye. The photos and updates from his new family have made it all worthwhile. From feral dog to beloved family pet, Chowder is one of the sweetest success stories I’ve been honored to be a part of. His new family understands his special needs and will continue to support him as he grows up, and I’m very glad he’s their forever dog.

Have you ever fostered or adopted a fearful puppy? How did Chowder’s progress compare to your charge’s experiences? Please share in the comment section below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Bruce McKay

Photo by Bruce McKay

“Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better.”

- Albert Einstein

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Weeks Two and Three

Last week, we covered formerly feral puppy Chowder’s first week in our home. By the end of the first week, Chowder was snuggling with us in the evening and enjoying regular play sessions with our dog Trout. He would still run away when approached and flinch if we reached towards him. His crate was his safe haven, and he ran to it whenever he needed a bit of space – a behavior that made it easy to move him from one location to another without having to handle him, as we could carry the crate with Chowder inside wherever we needed him to go. Chowder would still freeze if handled or held, but he was beginning to cautiously investigate his world.

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When Chowder first arrived at our home, we’d noticed some odd hairless spots on his legs and feet, and over the next few days these lesions began to crack and bleed. Soon new spots appeared, and a trip to the vet was in order. When I arrived at the vet clinic, the tech attempted to take Chowder into the back room. I firmly but politely refused, and instead stayed present for the entire skin scraping procedure, feeding Chowder bits of hot dog and cheese. He wasn’t able to eat while being restrained as he was too scared, but quickly returned to munching on bits of treat after the procedure was finished. We played some sniffing games where I scattered treats on his bedding for him to find, and these increased his comfort level and confidence noticeably.

This vet visit brought up an important point about fearful dogs. You are your dog’s advocate. It’s always okay to stand up for what’s best for your individual dog. I knew that had the vet tech taken Chowder to the back room, she would have reached into his crate to pull him out (gently, because she was a kind person who loved animals, but still in a way that would frighten Chowder). While he would comply with this, it would break the compact we’d formed with him where his crate was his safe, private place and no one would ever remove him from it. Since Chowder wasn’t likely to come out of his crate on his own and we needed to handle him, we instead took his plastic crate apart and removed the top half of the crate. While still stressful, this allowed Chowder to remain safely planted on his dog bed with four walls around him, and minimized the amount of handling he had to endure.

Chowder’s skin scraping was negative, so he returned to the vet clinic a few days later for a second visit so that he could be seen by a veterinarian. This time he remembered the sniffing games he had played before and cautiously came out of his crate on his own to search for treats which I scattered all over the floor. We repeated the skin scraping, which was again negative, and also ruled out most strains of ringworm by looking at his skin under a woods lamp. Since he wasn’t itchy but his lesions were getting worse, the vet decided to start him on an antibiotic to see whether the spots might be caused by a bacterial infection. Luckily, this turned out to be the case, and the swollen spots on Chowder’s legs and feet stopped bleeding and became less inflamed. By the time the course of antibiotics was over, Chowder was growing new fur over the spots and looked much better!

During the next couple weeks, Chowder continued to accompany me to training classes three times a week, where helpful students tossed him treats. My nose work students were especially kind, and a different student stayed after their own dog’s class each week to take Chowder through the last of the three nose work classes I taught on Friday evenings. Nose work is one of the best confidence builders for shy and fearful dogs. On the first week of his class, Chowder was reluctant to move more than a couple steps away from his safe spot near his crate and was too worried to put his head into a cardboard box in order to eat treats. We placed the boxes near his safe spot and put food on the outside of them, and Chowder sniffed his way over to eat the chunks of chicken and hot dog. By the second week, he was able to eat treats out of shallow boxes, and we started to see him perk up as soon as the boxes were in sight.

I noticed that, while Chowder was making strides in bravery, he continued to have a very difficult time recovering after something startled him. This was a problem, because at this point in his limited experience with people, everything startled him. If someone reached towards him too quickly or a noise spooked him, Chowder often hid and remained jumpy for hours. He would stop taking treats and shut down.

I consulted with a veterinarian friend of mine, and she agreed that the potential risks of using anxiety medication for Chowder were much lower than the risks to his developing brain and body from such constant stress. She recommended that we try a very small dosage of a common anxiety medication, alprazolam, which I already had on hand for one of my own dogs and which has been safely used in human children.

The results were beyond our wildest dreams. While the drug didn’t make Chowder brave, it did help him recover quickly (within 2-5 minutes, instead of hours) from startling events. After making sure he reacted well to it at home in a quiet environment, we used two doses of the drug: once while he was in an ex-pen during a training class and once when I brought him to a friend’s home for game night. After just these two doses, I noticed that Chowder’s ability to recover from stressors even without the medication was greatly improved. Because he’d had success in these situations, he had learned that he could handle them. We discontinued the medication, and he has continued to make lovely progress without it. While my veterinarian friend was quick to point out that these results aren’t typical, she also theorized that perhaps because the medication was used so early in Chowder’s behavioral modification and before he’d had many scary experiences, it was much more successful than it may have been had we waited months or even years to try it, as many people do. Just as doctors often recommend taking pain meds at the first sign of discomfort after surgery in order to keep on top of the pain, getting on top of Chowder’s anxiety and offering him help right away made a big difference in preventing his fear and anxiety from spiraling.

Along with all of these successes out in the world, Chowder also had a very exciting thing happen at home: he finally got to meet Layla. Because Layla is dog aggressive, we waited for two weeks before the two dogs met without a baby gate between them. The meeting went well, and the two dogs were able to hang out in close proximity without fireworks. We didn’t yet allow them to interact beyond casual sniffs as they passed by each other and made sure that there weren’t any valuable resources (such as knuckle bones) that Layla might guard. Chowder’s body language with Layla was beautiful – respectful and friendly without being fearful. On the few occasions when Layla felt uncomfortable and snarked at him, Chowder responded appropriately by backing off but was not frightened. His dog skills really were suburb for a tiny puppy!

At the end of his third week with us, Chowder had developed the ability to calm down and recover quickly if something scared him. He continued to learn new things (“high five” was his favorite trick!) and explore his environment. He had also made several dog friends and eaten treats from over fifty people. He was learning that we would respect his choices and that he could investigate his world when he was ready to do so. Even more importantly, Chowder was learning that he had the power to influence the behavior of those around him. If he moved away, people would back off and give him space. If he sat, people would hand him treats. His confidence was growing every bit as fast as his body (which doubled in size in the space of three weeks, from seven to fifteen pounds).

Have you ever brought home a fearful puppy? What did you do to socialize your new charge and build his or her confidence? What would you do differently if you could do it all over again? Please comment with your tips, tricks, and stories!