Monthly Archives: August 2012

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Mike Delgaudio

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”  ~James D. Miles

How Learning About Dolphin Training Can Make You a Better Dog Trainer

Last week, I spent 9-12 hours a day at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois. Over the course of 5 days, the class I was in covered the contents of a 500-page animal training textbook and observed training sessions with many different species of animals, including penguins, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, hawks, owls, a black and white tegu, an aracari, and beluga whales.

Dolphin trainers at Shedd interact with the mother and baby in a husbandry training session.

About half of my class of 25 students was comprised of professional dog trainers, with the other half being exotic animal trainers from various zoos across the country. We also had some international students from Germany, Australia, and Canada. The classmate on my left, Tracy, worked right at Shedd and the classmate on my right, Allison, worked with large carnivores (tigers, African painted dogs, lions, etc), gibbons, and baboons.

It makes sense that zoo trainers would attend this course. However, why were so many dog trainers present? The fact is, learning how to train dolphins, sharks, komodo dragons, and monkeys can make you a better dog trainer.

We’ve said it before: the laws of learning are just that, laws. They apply to every species, dogs and humans included. The proper application of positive reinforcement is just as likely not to work as gravity.

Zoo animals are trained nearly exclusively with positive reinforcement. It would be stupid and dangerous (not to mention potentially life-threatening) to attempt to train a sea lion with collar corrections. Zoo trainers don’t even say no to their animals, as doing so may lead to frustration and frustration could be deadly if taken out on the trainer. These are large, powerful wild animals, and the trainers who work with them respect that.

In spite of keeping their training usage confined nearly entirely to one quadrant of the operant conditioning grid, zoo trainers are able to shape remarkable behaviors in their animals. Animals are trained for such behaviors as voluntary blood sampling, where the animal offers a leg, neck, or flipper on cue, then holds still while the veterinarian inserts a needle to draw blood. This behavior is done with no restraint, and the animal is free to leave at any time. We saw hawks hold still for talon trims and sea lions open their mouths to get their teeth brushed.

In addition to useful husbandry behaviors, these animals learn many other things. Fun and crowd-pleasing tricks such as porpoising (jumping in and out of the water while swimming), waving hello, and dance moves are taught to the animals for mental enrichment. They also learn to target, so that trainers can move them from one area to another without the use of force or baiting. Large groups of animals can be worked together by having each animal go to his or her own individual target, preventing aggression in a highly-charged feeding situation.

The relationship the trainers build with the animals is every bit as important to their success as their skilled use of training principles. Our instructor, Director of Training and Behavior Ken Ramirez, emphasized time and again that good animal training is a combination of relationship and technical skill. Both are important, and while training is still possible without a relationship, it may take longer and be less effective than if the trainer has taken the time to get to know his or her subject.

The trainers at Shedd spend time playing with and just observing the animals, getting to know their likes and dislikes. A new baby dolphin was present for several of our training sessions. At only 90 days old, this baby was still nursing and not yet ready to eat fish, meaning that he was still too little to formally train. However, he was still assigned a trainer at every training session, who played with and observed him, getting to know him and letting him begin to build a bond with his trainers right from the start. He will already have a great foundation of trust when he is ready to begin formal training.

All of these principles apply to our pet dogs just as much as they apply to elephants and wallabies. There is no need to ever frighten or hurt your dog in the name of training. Complex, reliable behaviors can be trained quickly and easily using positive reinforcement and environmental manipulation. The more you can get to know and respect your dog as an individual, the more he will learn to trust you and look to you for guidance. Just because we can get away with harsh techniques with our domestic dogs doesn’t make this okay. The proof that your dog can be trained for any behavior using just a clicker and treats is out there.

In the following weeks, we’ll discuss more of the basic and advanced training principles covered during this course, as well as the practical applications of these techniques.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Mr. DTB

Punishment is like a nuclear bomb, if the explosion doesn’t get you the fallout will.

– Steve White

Case Study: The Importance of a Team

(Thank you to Nicole W. for sharing Shanoa’s story in today’s blog.)

Shanoa’s story starts the day I brought her home from the breeder. She was 17 weeks old and I was thrilled to have an older puppy who would already be on her way to becoming potty trained and well-socialized. I thought I had done my research and picked a good breeder, but I had a lot to learn.

I should have realized something was wrong on the car ride home, when she curled up into a tight ball on the backseat and didn’t move or make a peep. However, she was my first dog and I didn’t know. I figured out pretty quickly, though, that I didn’t have a normal puppy. She was terrified of everything. She’d sit down and shiver with fear when we tried to take her on walks. She had diarrhea all the time because she was so nervous.

We knew we needed help, so we asked our friends with dogs for trainer recommendations. We got her into obedience class, level one, and also enrolled her in a local “boot camp.” She went to boot camp during the work day five days a week for a month. We asked the trainer not to worry about obedience commands, but just to help us catch her up on socialization. We even made some pretty good progress.

As Shanoa got closer to maturity, she started to exhibit some behaviors that concerned us. She was fearful of people. She had been going to the dog park pretty regularly, but started to have some issues with other dogs. At this point, she’d earned her CGC and “passed” obedience classes all the way through advanced. But she wasn’t normal.

The trainers that we’d been working with used a combination of luring and correction. When we started having escalating problems, we called in the trainer for a home consult. After watching Shanoa be “corrected” with an electronic collar turned to the highest level while simultaneously receiving a correction with her pinch collar, I knew we couldn’t do this anymore. It wasn’t working, and I couldn’t watch my dog be corrected like that any more.

I consider myself extremely fortunate because I stumbled upon Leslie McDevitt’s book, “Control Unleashed.” Even better, I found a trainer locally who was using that program. We had an evaluation with Robin and enrolled in her “Reactive Dog” class immediately.

We worked with Robin for about six months before we even considered medication, but we just weren’t making the kind of progress I wanted. I finally consulted with my regular vet, and Shanoa was put on Prozac. We saw some improvement, and continued in classes on that medication for about a year. Then we sort of hit a wall with training.

Shanoa had improved, but she still was very far from normal. She was hard to live with. She was exhausting. At this point, our trainer, Robin, had moved out of state and we enrolled in Sara’s “Growl” class, which also followed the Control Unleashed program. We worked with Sara and Crystal for several weeks, and both of them really encouraged me to work with Dr. Duxbury, a board certified veterinary behaviorist at the University of Minnesota. My own vet encouraged me to do the same. I was reluctant. The initial cost was pretty high, and I was worried that things were as good as they’d ever get. I was skeptical that seeing Dr. Duxbury would make much of a difference.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I wish that I had started working with Dr. Duxbury years ago. Under her guidance we tried several medications and found a combination that works well. In the last couple of months, Shanoa’s become a pretty pleasant dog to live with. She’s spending more time relaxed in the house, without having to “patrol” and without constant barking episodes. Even when she does bark at something (and she is a Doberman after all!), she stops fairly quickly and goes back to relaxing, instead of whining and pacing for up to ten minutes.

We’re seeing progress on walks, too. We’re able to pass people and other dogs on the street without a complete freak-out. Most of all, she’s happy. She’s the most relaxed and happy I’ve ever seen her.

Is there still a long way to go? Of course. Medication hasn’t been a magical fix. But finding the right medication, or combination of meds, was a delicate and complicated task. Medication has been the key that unlocked Shanoa’s ability to learn and improve, rather than continue her patterns of reactivity. My regular vet, as much as I adore her, didn’t have the level of expertise to figure out the correct combination.

Seeing Dr. Duxbury and working with her has been amazing. Not only is she a great vet, but she’s been part of a great support system that’s been so critical to our success. Being able to email her or call her with concerns, talking through different training ideas, and sharing successes is really important.

Working with great trainers is another critical component. Without Sara and Crystal, and Robin before them, I would not have been able to work with Shanoa. I needed a class environment to practice, and I needed another pair of eyes, or two, seeing what was going on with Shanoa. I needed people who were willing to help me evaluate different training methods, and to be creative when something isn’t working.

For the first time in a very long time, I’m optimistic about my dog’s future. My husband and I recently were able to take Shanoa and our other dog on a walk together for the first time in many months. My husband has not wanted to walk with Shanoa because of her extreme reactivity, but he was willing to give it a try since we’ve been seeing such nice progress.

It was a beautiful, quiet evening, late at night, and we didn’t expect to see anyone while we walked. We started down one of the trails near our house that runs behind several homes. There’s very little room beside the trail to move away, and I would not have taken it if it hadn’t been so late at night. But I didn’t expect trouble, so we went. A little ways in, a dog burst out of the house, barking and snarling at both of my dogs. He raced back and forth down the fence line barking at us. We were less than three feet from him and there was no way to get any additional distance. To my surprise, Shanoa simply looked at him, barking and frothing only a few feet away, glanced at me to ask “is it okay?”, and continued walking calmly down the path while he raced next to us, barking the whole time. I was incredibly proud. The rest of the walk was equally uneventful, and I couldn’t have asked for a nicer time with my dogs.

For us, the three-pronged approach has been the key to our success. We needed the right medication and vet care, from an expert in the field of behavior (Dr. Duxbury). We needed the right trainers, with the right methods who really, really know their stuff (Sara and Crystal at Paws Abilities, using Control Unleashed and BAT). And we needed a support system to keep me from giving up on the bad days, and to rejoice with me on the good days (all of the above, plus a great network online on the CU Yahoo Group and elsewhere). We wouldn’t be where we are today without any of these. Shanoa and I are incredibly grateful, and lucky. Getting the right help, the right team, is how success happens.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“We humans are in such a strange position–we are still animals whose  behavior reflects that of our ancestors, yet we are unique–unlike any  other animal on earth. Our distinctiveness separates us and makes it  easy to forget where we come from. Perhaps dogs help us remember the  depth of our roots, reminding us–the animals at the other end of the  leash–that we may be special, but we are not alone. No wonder we call  them our best friends.”

-Patricia McConnell