Category Archives: Basic Training

The Problems with Remote Collars

There are many different training methods out there, and each has its pros and cons. Today, I want to talk specifically about the use of remote collars (also known as shock collars or e-collars).

Photo by Tate Viehmann

Photo by Tate Viehmann

Today’s remote collars are a far cry from early versions. Many brands now have a very wide range of shocks (called “stimulations” by collar users), which can range from virtually unnoticeable to intensely painful. “Good” remote collar trainers use the collars primarily as negative reinforcement. What that means is that the dog learns to comply immediately in order to turn off a painful, uncomfortable, or annoying sensation. While this is a far cry from the early days of remote collar use, when dogs were hurt at high levels for noncompliance (a training technique called positive punishment, for you geeks out there), it’s still not a pleasant way to learn.

So, how would someone use a remote collar? Let’s use a recall (come when called) as an example. The trainer would start by asking the dog which level of stimulation was the right one. This is done by putting the collar on the dog and, starting at one, increasing the level until the dog displays a change in behavior. This level is then the one used for initial training, although the trainer may adjust the level up or down depending on a variety of factors. The dog should not be displaying significant signs of pain or distress at this level (no yelping, head shaking, or fight/flight reactions).

Once the “appropriate” level of shock is determined, the trainer will teach the dog to turn off the shock. This can be done in a variety of ways, but usually involves repeated stimulations (tapping the remote over and over rapidly) until the dog moves towards the handler, at which point the shocks stop. The dog learns that his or her behavior can make the sensation stop.

While remote collar training can certainly be effective (if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t still be around), it is not a technique that I recommend. So, what are the common problems with remote collar use?

My biggest concern with the use of these collars is that, used according to modern training directions, there is no way for the dog to avoid shock entirely. The first “tap” of the collar is given simultaneously with the command. While the dog can quickly turn off the sensation by complying, there is no time or way for the dog to entirely avoid all shocks. The dog is only able to avoid future shocks, not the initial one. This necessarily sets up a stressful learning experience.

But what if the collar isn’t used simultaneously with the command? What if, instead, the trainer only begins tapping the remote after the dog has had a few seconds to respond? While this training method would avoid the above issue, it creates other problems. Don’t forget, Pavlov is always on your shoulder! If the recall command is repeatedly followed by an uncomfortable or unpleasant stimulus, you will quickly condition your dog to feel dread when you call. This process is called classical conditioning, and it’s powerful stuff. We call cues that are associated with icky things like this “poisoned” cues, and research shows that changing the association with a poisoned cue is a very long-term, difficult process. Once your dog has associated a word with something unpleasant, they will always have that memory in the back of their mind when they heard the poisoned cue in the future, even if future repetitions of the cue have only been associated with nice things. By the way, this same process happens if you use a warning tone or vibration before (and eventually even in place of) the stimulation.

Speaking of emotions, my second concern has to do with the quadrant of learning theory that remote collar users employ: negative reinforcement. In negative reinforcement, the dog learns to do something in order to stop an unpleasant thing. The primary emotion associated with negative reinforcement is that of relief. People feel this too! Consider doing your taxes, shoveling the driveway after a big snowstorm, or loading the dishwasher. The biggest reward for completing these tasks is the sensation of relief when you’re done. The tasks are not enjoyable in and of themselves, but you feel better when they’re completed because you’ve removed the pressure of the need to act that’s been looming over you.

Compare this to the emotion that positive reinforcement causes: joy! Which would you rather have your dog feel when you call him? When trained with positive reinforcement, the recall cue becomes a tiny reward in and of itself. Dogs feel a little jolt of happiness when you call, because they’ve associated the recall over and over with very pleasant things happening. Dogs who are trained with negative reinforcement, such as remote collars, feel a strong compulsion to move towards you when you call them, followed by a feeling of relief once they are in motion towards you. That’s not the same, and it’s not what I want our relationship to be based on. That’s not to say that dogs trained with remote collars can’t have lovely relationships with their owners – they can! In fact, training of any sort will begin to build a relationship, regardless of methods used. But my opinion is that positive reinforcement works the very fastest and best to build strong, lasting relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.

Finally, remote collars can cause fear or aggression issues. This comes back to that classical conditioning we talked about before. If you repeatedly use the collar to call your dog away from people or other dogs, for example, your dog may come to associate the uncomfortable sensation with what he sees when the collar is activated (dogs or people) rather than with his behavior. If he’s looking at another dog every time he hears the warning beep or gets “tapped,” he’s going to come to associate other dogs with this, and his behavior towards other dogs is likely to change. In fact, this is such a common situation that the AVSAB has released a position statement warning about these risks, and advising that e-collars are never used in dogs who have any history of fearful or aggressive behavior.

But, aren’t remote collars necessary in some situations? What about if your dog lives near a busy road or has a history of chasing livestock? Aren’t e-collars more reliable than positive reinforcement alone? This is one of the most common excuses I hear for using remote collars. Luckily, this question has been studied, and the results were quite conclusive. Positive reinforcement training works every bit as well as remote collar methods in teaching a reliable recall, even for dogs who have a history of chasing livestock. Furthermore, dogs trained with positive reinforcement methods showed fewer signs of stress, such as yawning and tense muscles, and had lower salivary cortisol levels three months later upon visiting the training center. If you feel that you need to use a remote collar to achieve a reliable recall, you likely need a better trainer and better management tools, not a remote collar.

Ultimately, I believe that remote collars are a step up from previous compulsive methods of training dogs, such as using a long leash attached to a slip or pinch collar. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the best method out there, or even a good method, and before using one I would strongly advise you to do your research. Reward-based methods work, even with strong, hard-headed, and highly predatory dogs. In fact, they work really well for all animals, with fewer potential side effects. They can work for you, too.

Training Your Dog to Ride an Elevator

The first time that Layla ever rode an elevator was also the last time she rode one. She panicked as soon as the elevator moved, plastering herself to the floor, and shook in abject terror. She refused to eat her favorite treats. As soon as the door opened, she startled at the beep and lunged out of the elevator. She took hours to calm down, pacing and panting. She also jumped at any beeping noise for weeks after (she would later develop a phobia about beeping noises after being trapped in my house for hours with a fire alarm chirping its low battery warning, and I always wondered whether this earlier experience with beeps had primed her to develop a full-fledged phobia with the additional traumatic exposure… but that’s a story for another day).

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Pan practices waiting for the elevator at a parking garage.

After this experience, we got a lot of stair climbing in. With patient work during low-traffic times at Clicker Expo one year, Layla got to the point where she could comfortably walk in and out of the elevator on a loose leash and could take food while standing in the elevator, but since it wasn’t an environment we encountered frequently I chose to just manage her fear and work on other things instead. It was easy enough to request rooms on the lower floors of any hotel we stayed at, and climbing a flight or two of steps never hurt anyone.

After Layla’s experience, I started thinking about dogs and elevators. They go into a room. A door closes. The floor moves – a very odd experience for a dog! Then the door opens and they’re in an entirely new place. For dogs like Layla, who have a strong need to make sense of their world through rigid rule structures and hypervigilant scanning, this set-up has all of the variables of a nightmare.

The good news is that most dogs can be comfortably introduced to riding in elevators! Just like any other sort of socialization, this is most easily done while puppies are still under 4 months of age, but even older dogs can learn to feel safe and happy riding in an elevator.

I usually start this process at parking ramps during off-peak hours. Choose times where there will still be a handful people around (for obvious security concerns), but don’t choose a time when there will be lots of people wanting to use the elevator. If someone arrives and wants to use the elevator you’re working with, give it up for them and wait for the next elevator.

Begin by going in and out of the elevator multiple times. Some dogs are weirded out by walking over the little space at the door. Practice your dog’s loose-leash and focus skills while you do this, clicking and treating for moving with and paying attention to you. Remember that you may eventually be stepping into an elevator full of people (some of whom may not be comfortable with dogs), so it’s important that your dog have the skills to follow your direction.

Once your dog can comfortably walk onto and off of the elevator, begin accustoming him or her to the automatic doors. Close the doors, feed your dog, open the doors, and walk off the elevator. Repeat a few times until your dog feels comfortable.

If all is going well, you may want to do a bit of play! Bring out a tug toy and have a game with your dog right in the elevator, or love your dog up if they prefer physical affection to toy play. We want them a little excited and very happy for the next step… movement!

Most dogs do better going up than down. I know some people who feel the same way, as they report that going down always feels like they are falling. So, start with a journey up one floor. Start feeding your dog as the elevator begins to move up, and stop feeding when the elevator stops. Then practice your loose leash skills as you walk off the elevator. If that went well, go down the stairs of the parking garage to the level you just came from, and do a few more trips up. If your dog seemed a little nervous, do some more quick in-and-outs with the elevator before you add in another trip between floors.

Once your dog is happy and comfortable going up in the elevator, it’s time to practice down. Go up one floor, then go back down to the floor your started at. Remember to feed your dog when the elevator is moving, and stop feeding when the movement stops. Continue to reward for focus and polite leash manners.

As your dog becomes more comfortable with the elevator, you can begin to take longer trips between floors. You can also start practicing elevator manners with other people or pets. I find it easiest to put my dog on the inside (between the wall of the elevator and my side) so that I can prevent him from wiggling over to anyone else, and also so that I can protect him from any person or animal who may hurt or scare him. Remember that it is always your responsibility to keep your dog calm and under control in elevators, and that confined spaces can cause stress (in people and animals!). It’s always okay to get off the elevator if something makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps the car is getting crowded and you know tight spaces make your dog nervous, or someone just got on with a frantic, barking dog trying to wiggle out of their grasp. Just leave, and wait for the next car. It may take you an extra minute or two to get where you’re going, but in the long run your dog’s comfort and safety are worth it.

When you’re a small-town lady from rural Minnesota, elevators may not be a big problem. They weren’t for Layla and me. However, having a dog who is comfortable riding in elevators can literally open doors. Being able to bring your dog to hotels and have her greet the elevator happily, getting the better apartment lease because your dog doesn’t mind the elevator (and you love the view), taking your dog shopping at dog-friendly locations because she can ride the elevator in the parking garage or stores, doing therapy dog visits at hospitals and nursing homes to brighten up the residents’ days… the more comfortable your dog is with elevators, the more places he can enjoy. And while doing a few extra flights of stairs never hurt anyone, wouldn’t it be nice to sometimes take the elevator instead?

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

bigadventure

If I had known…
Oh, if I had known.
You could have had double dinners (and finished Trout’s uneaten kibble too). We would have gone on so many more walks, just the two of us, with lamb lung and all the time to sniff you wanted. There would have been no more diet, and so many more tacos. Cheese, too… you had such a special fondness for cheese. We would play find the squeaky ball all over the house, and I would laugh and clap while you taunted me with the ball. We would snuggle longer in the mornings, under the covers, and I would whisper how I loved and loved you to the rhythmic thump of your tail. I would look into your eyes and tell you how forever special you were, my best and brightest dog. My Layla.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

rally2

“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You — only you — will have stars that laugh!

“And then he laughed again.

“And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure . . . And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you…”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

I thought I heard you tonight. The sweet thunk, thunk of your tail drumming as I walked up the stairs from my office.
For a moment, I forgot.
I smiled.
I looked for you on the couch where you weren’t supposed to sleep. That was one of your favorite places.
The blankets so empty, but my heart full of your memory
and threatening to burst from my chest with the pain of my love and gratitude.
Thunk.
Thunk.
Nothing but my heartbeat, and the shadow of your soft eyes in my memories.
Thunk.
Thunk.
These moments when I can almost Feel you.

laylalap

On Losing Layla

“She was gone, and all that was left was the space you’d grown around her, like a tree that grows around a fence. For a long time, it remained hollow.” – Nicole Krauss

ARCHX Layla, BA with honors, Birch ORT, CGC, RL1X2, RL2X, RL3, RLV
October 2005-November 27th, 2015

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On Thanksgiving morning of 2015, Layla was naughty. She had been eyeing the beef bone in the puppy’s crate for days, and when his crate door was left open she seized the opportunity. She stole the bone and spent a couple of hours chewing on it contentedly. That afternoon, we noticed that she was a bit lethargic. She didn’t want to go on a walk. Then she started refusing food, something she’d never done before. She didn’t even want her favorite treats, cheese or peanut butter. She collapsed, and we rushed her to the vet. She fought so very hard under the care of a skilled veterinary team, but the hemangiosarcoma that had been silently setting up shop in her body was too much. She died shortly after midnight on November 27th, lying in my arms as I told her everything I had the words to say.

It’s taken me awhile to write this post, as I don’t really have the words to tell Layla’s story. She was my once-in-a-lifetime dog, and the time I had with her has forever changed everything for me, both personally and professionally. In her book “Heart Dog,” Roxanne Hawn describes the special bond that some people and dogs can form as “pathological attachment,” and I think there’s no better description. There was always that little nugget of not-quite-healthy to the relationship that Layla and I had with one another, a codependency that was mutual and deep. I have never been looked at by another living being the way I was looked at by Layla, and while she accepted a handful of “her” people into her life, the truth was that she always wanted to be with me more than anything else. I have cried every day since her loss, and I accept that this level of sadness is a healthy response to such a sudden and devastating change in my life.

Rather than focusing on Layla’s death, I try to focus on her life. Through my stories about living with her, she helped so many students and readers enjoy better lives with their dogs. She’ll continue to do so.

Layla and I had a special ritual every night, after everyone else in our house had gone to bed. She had some muscular issues that made her sore, so I would meet her in the kitchen and pull two or three bags of dog treats out of the cupboard. She would choose which treats she wanted that night, then we’d go into the living room with a handful of treats to do her physical therapy exercises and stretches. After her stretches and snack, she’d snuggle on my lap, her head in the crook between my neck and shoulder. I’d bury my face in her sweet neck. Our breathing would gradually come in sync. She’d sigh deeply (and often fall asleep), and I’d hold her. We’d sit like that for five or ten minutes, just Being together. I’d tell her I loved her, every single night, before we both went to bed.

Good night, sweet Layla. I love and love you.

Good Dogs Wear Muzzles Too

We were walking our dogs outside a rally obedience trial several years ago when my friend froze. “Watch out!” she said sharply, “There’s a muzzled dog across the parking lot!” I looked, and sure enough someone was walking their dog in a comfortably fitted basket muzzle. The dog was on a loose leash with soft, relaxed body language, intent on his owner. I chuckled and went back to watching my own dog. “I don’t know why you’re worried,” I said, “That’s the one dog at this show that I’m the least concerned about.”

Layla wears her basket muzzle if she's going to be off leash around unfamiliar dogs.

Layla wears her basket muzzle if she’s going to be off leash around unfamiliar dogs.

Our societal perception of muzzles is shifting, but the prejudice is still present in many communities. The thought is that only “bad” dogs wear muzzles, and if a dog is wearing a muzzle he or she must be a mean animal with horrible owners.

I’m here to tell you that this perception is antiquated and untrue. Great dogs wear muzzles all the time, and there are many wonderful reasons for teaching your dog to be happy and comfortable in a basket muzzle. The Greyhound community has had this right for years and years, and I can only hope that the rest of us will catch up soon.

Conditioning your dog to wear a muzzle is a fairly straightforward process, and is something that I recommend all dog owners put the time into. The chances are good that your dog will need to wear a muzzle at some point in his life, and having him react happily to the appearance of the muzzle is a great way to ensure that you’re not adding stress to what may already be a difficult time in the case of an accident or injury that requires painful veterinary treatment.

layla_trout_dp

So, why might your dog wear a muzzle?

Safety of your dog: some dogs engage in behaviors such as pica (eating inedible items, such as gravel or sticks) or coprophagia (eating feces) which could be dangerous to their health. While a muzzle may not entirely stop your dog from engaging in these behaviors, it can definitely slow him down and allow you the necessary time to intervene. Muzzles can also be helpful for scroungy dogs on special diets.

Safety of others: if your dog has a history of snapping or biting at people or other dogs, the muzzle can serve as a part of a comprehensive management plan to improve community safety. Even if your dog doesn’t have this history, if the stakes are high (for example, introducing two dogs of very different sizes or introducing a newly adopted dog with an unknown history to children for the first time), a muzzle should be considered.

A visual “keep back” signal: along those same lines, a muzzle can also deter unwanted interaction. Layla walked in a comfortable basket muzzle for a couple years, not because I felt that she was likely to bite someone, but rather because the appearance of the muzzle served to keep unfamiliar people from approaching to pet her, which made her uncomfortable. It also served as a great visual signal for people walking their dogs that Layla may not appreciate being rushed by their “friendly” but unmannered pet. She loved the space her muzzle created for her!

Owner comfort level: muzzles can also help the opposite end of the leash. If you tend to get tense or worried in social situations with your dog, muzzling your pet may help you relax. Remember that dogs are highly empathetic, and tense owners are one of the best ways to create tense dogs. This can become a horrible spiral – the owner tenses up when their dog approaches someone, the dog becomes stressed due to the owner’s behavior, the dog snarks, and the owner’s worst fears are confirmed, setting them up to become even more stressed during the next interaction. While a muzzle should never be used as an excuse to put a dog in a situation you know the dog can’t handle, knowing that your dog can’t cause damage may help you to remain calm in situations that your dog would otherwise rock.

Legal requirements: if you travel with your dog, there may be locations that require the use of a muzzle if your dog is to be permitted in public areas or on public transportation. A dog who is comfortable in his muzzle may find doors opening up for him!

Dog sports: some sports require muzzles, and in other sports muzzles may be an option. Layla, for example, wears her basket muzzle when she lure courses. While she has always coursed alone rather than in a group, she has a history of grabbing the lure at the end of the course and snapping the line. This is frustrating and time consuming for those hosting the event to remedy, so Layla now wears her basket muzzle to course so that we have a brief window of time to catch her at the finish line before she can grab the lure and snap the line with a terrier head shake.

layla_muzzleDog’s comfort level: because muzzle conditioning is done using reward-based methods, dogs come to love their muzzles. This can have a wonderful “bleed-over” effect, where the dog feels happier and safer wearing his muzzle because it’s always been associated with good things. The power of this emotional response can be incredible when introducing dogs into potentially stressful situations. Simply placing your dog’s muzzle on before a new situation may help to color that entire situation as safe and positive.

Whatever your reasons for muzzle training your dog, I encourage you to consider this useful tool as part of your dog’s comprehensive care plan. As for the dog at the rally trial? He continued to be happy and relaxed all day, and I complimented his owner on her dog’s lovely demeanor. Good dogs wear muzzles too.