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Posts Tagged ‘aversives’

Almost a year after Alex (the world famous African Grey parrot) died, Patricia McConnell wrote an article for Bark magazine (March/April 2008 No. 47, pg. 46-49) about what dogs understand. Can dogs understand concepts such as smaller vs. bigger? Can our dogs understand that the words we say to them can represent objects and actions?

The article was amazing as usual, but it wasn’t any of these questions that stuck with me. It was the end of one particular paragraph where she describes Alex’s first trip to the vet. Alex had to stay at the vet alone and as Irene Pepperberg (renowned scientist and Alex’s human) was leaving him, he said to her quietly “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.” Can anything be more heart wrenching?

Reading the story still gives me goose bumps. I always hate seeing Special Dark confused or afraid of anything. I always wonder in particular about what rescue dogs in particular think about certain situations when they’ve just gone to their new homes. The first time Special Dark went to the vet was the day after we adopted him (believe me, this was only because it was absolutely necessary!), and among other things he was feeling, I wondered if he thought this family was done with him too.

There are many times when I’m gushing over Special Dark, talking to him for long periods of time about how I adore him. I know that while I’m doing this he’s looking at me wondering what I want, scanning for words he already knows (sit, down, stay, walk, treat, etc). A prime example of this is when I’m gathering my things to get ready to go out. When I talk to him during these times, I see a mixture of anticipation and confusion as he listens for me to say “come on” or “you’re staying.” He’s searching for the words that have contextual meaning to him in a sea of the “useless” extraneous human words that have no immediate consequence: “I love you, you’re the cutest, aw, look how little you are.” All the words that I, as a human, feel so good saying to him all the while he’s patiently waiting for the punch line! (That’s not to say that these words are all meaningless all the time, I have been known to float a treat just for cuteness!)

You might be wondering what this overly sentimental post has to do with training, here it is: Whether or not dogs feel love, empathy, sorrow or even whether they might offer the above words as an appeasement signal to a human if they could (all topics for another blog), two things are certain:

  1. Dogs experience fear.
  2. Clear communication is essential to any dog-human relationship.

 Dogs can be fearful of other dogs, food bowls, people, wheelchairs, substrates, thunder, etc. The list is endless. Dogs, like every other living thing on the planet, are afraid of pain (think fight or flight). Animals have to be afraid of pain, or the threat of pain, to live long enough to pass on their genetic information.

Aversive training methods suggest to your dog that fear, pain or death could be a consequence of a behavior.  Shock collars, prong collars, choke collars, alpha rolls or pinning dogs down all result in fear and pain. I’ve often had people tell me that these things “don’t hurt.”  I once spoke to the owner of a chihuahua who was wearing a shock collar because he pulled on his leash and he barked too much. They told me that their trainer explained to them that the if the dog shakes and yelps, the collar is working properly. If there is no shaking or yelping, the voltage needs to be increased. The justification for the use of these tools is always “don’t worry, they’re painless.” I ask them, if it’s not through fear or pain, how or why do these items work? They have no answer for me. I can tell them that positive reinforcement methods work because the dog is excited to earn a treat, he is using his mind to solve a puzzle and his solution will result in a yummy bit of food, a toy or a walk, etc., and a wrong answer doesn’t result in fear or pain. When the dog is wearing a prong collar and the collar is popped and then released, is the dog excited about anything? What results will his compliance produce for him?

This is one reason why effective, clear communication between you and your dog is so important to master. It’s hard enough communicating with members of our own species (think about how many misunderstandings or confusing conversations you have had this week)! Now we have to figure out what our dogs are trying to communicate to us and our poor dogs get to try to figure out what we’re trying to communicate to them!

It’s important to learn what they are trying to communicate to us, so we can effectively communicate with them. It’s not important just for training, but to avoid “misunderstandings.” Knowing when your dog is overwhelmed will help you avoid a dog bite to yourself, friends, or strangers. It will help you prevent behavioral concerns from becoming serious. Know the signs of stress or fear. Realize that a closed mouth; dilated pupils; an unmoving body; a yawn; rapid lip-licking can be signs of stress. There are many others too. When people would have you believe that your dog is “calm, submissive,” know that in reality, your dog is fearful and has likely shut-down. 

Being aware of what you are communicating to your dog verbally, as well as with your body language, is also essential. Did you now that simply by leaning over to yell, you are conveying that you are out of control and you might kill him? Your dog now has to wonder which of these times that you’ve lost control you’ll finally carry out that threat! Even though that’s not at all the message you intended to convey, it is the message your dog receives.

It’s the same when you give a verbal cue. When you say “sit,” is it really the word your dog is responding too? Or is it the way your hand moved? Do you always lift an eyebrow or take a step closer to your dog when you say “sit?” For a fabulous discussion on this topic, see Erica Young’s blog on the Dog Star Daily website http://www.dogstardaily.com/blogs/antecedent-intervention.

Likewise, when you say “no,” what does that mean to your dog? If someone says “no” to you right now, what in the world does that mean? Does it give you any information besides possibly getting your attention?

Here’s a really common example: you’re walking down the street and your dog starts veering off to say hello to the dog passing you. You say “no!” “No” what exactly? No, don’t look at that dog, no don’t veer to the right, no don’t turn your head? How should the dog know which one you mean? Tell him what you want from him instead. How about “leave it” or “let’s go?”  Or teach him to look up at you every time he sees a dog until you signal to him to approach the other dog. You could teach him something like “say hello” so when he hears that cue, he knows it’s okay to say hello, when he doesn’t hear it he keeps walking along or looks up at you.

Communicate to your dog when you do like something, not just when you don’t. Reward her for sitting politely while strangers pet her, especially if you didn’t even ask her to!

When I left Special Dark at the vet that day, I could see that he was fearful. I wish I could have communicated to him somehow that we would be back for him. I wish that he could understand what all the procedures and shots are and that no one would ever hurt him on purpose. I try to think about Alex’s experience, and Special’s experience and do my best in the situations that I can control to ensure that there is no fear, no confusion. There are actually very few times when we don’t have control over the messages we are communicating to our dogs. And there are a myriad of things we can do to keep them from being fearful or stressed (including during trips to the vet!). The most important, basic and easy of these is to train and communicate with them in such a way that we are clear about what behaviors we like, to teach them behaviors we would like in place of ones we don’t, and make sure they don’t ever experience the fear that if they perform the wrong behavior, they might be subjected to pain. It’s that easy. You’ll have that well behaved dog you’re seeking, your bond will be stronger, and your dog will be happy.

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