Saturday, April 28, 2018

Is the reluctance in using positive reinforcement in dog training linked to the fear of vulnerablilty?

My colleagues and I talk a lot about our industry and those related to it, especially the dog training industry. That’s because with our interactions with dogs are deeply impacted by the way that others interact with them—and that the dog training industry is unregulated. Despite certifications available through organizations like Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers as a start, some trainers don't seek professional training, certification and ongoing education. I’ve talked before about how rough handling, punishment-based dog training and ill-conceived pet products impact my fellow pet sitters and everyone else around the dog that they’re being used on. Sometimes, these have consequences that are unthinkable. It's sad to think that as a pet sitter, given even one of the certifications I've got I out-qualify some professional dog trainers out there.  

Whether we have a pet or not, we hear a lot about dogs that have been poorly socialized, have had a cloudy history or have suffered abuse. I’ll venture to say that we all know of a family with a dog that has separation anxiety, others that have fear-based issues, aggression or anything in between. I know several. Having a knack for understanding how to communicate with them, I’ve several in my care, and we’ve great relationships. Trust is the bass for that. Given the fact that trust and communication are touted so much in relationships between humans (though not so easy facilitated), it’s no surprise that it’s been a healthy boon in our interactions with dogs. This is the core of positive-reinforcement training, and something my work is firmly rooted in. I know that’s true for a lot of other people, too. In fact, most of the interactions that I and other folks have with dogs and their handlers are good. I’m happy about that, given how unfavorably I’ve seen some of them go.

I’ll note that I can always spot an individual that uses training (if at all) and interaction methods that rely on dominance and fear or if a handler is clearly just clueless. The humans may not tell me, but a dog’s body language doesn’t lie. That’s a heart wrenching thing to observe.  I’ve learned to be pretty savvy about diffusing situations for the dog’s sake as well as any human close by and advocating for the dog (and in turn for the humans).

It’s fair to say that in my own view, one that I share with so many others who adhere to ethical and science-based training and interaction concepts, that each of us has not only a responsibility to the animals that have been entrusted to us by clients, The Universe or otherwise, but to the well-being and safety of other humans and animals.

So, why isn’t everyone doing it?

That’s a very good question—one that I've been mulling around—and something that Zazie Todd, PhD explores in a new paper, titled ‘Barriers to the Adoption of Humane Training Methods’ out this month. She detailed a few interesting ideas in a companion piece “Why Don’t More People Use Positive Reinforcement?’, on Companion Animal Psychology.

I’ll assert that, as Todd does, it’s likely that it’s complicated, just as we humans are.

It’s true, that having a smooth flow of communication with dogs takes time, effort, and as is the case with other humans, it’s not the one we’re communicating with -- it’s usually us --  that’s not doing so effectively. But the difference between communicating with dogs and other humans is the language barrier: we need to speak ‘dog’. That requires us to be fully present, clear, precise in our timing, and to be aware of our body language as well as our pet’s. We need to be patient, to stop, back up, start again. Being conscious of how we’re feeling physically and mentally when we’re engaging with our dogs is key, and that goes for our dogs, too: are they distracted or uncomfortable? And, just how does that affect our training time and everyday interactions?

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course, but my goodness, it all seems like such work, compared to methods that rely on fear, punishment, dominance, the notion of living in a pack, or aversives, or so it seems. The fact is that once one understands how to use humane training methods they understand it isn’t work: it’s simply a shift in thinking about how to communicate. The rest comes easily.  

There are a lot of other reasons why the humane methods, though the norm these days, still don’t resonate with some families and even trainers. Todd skillfully points those out, but I feel a lot of it comes down to the perceived barriers of those that aren’t on board, especially because it calls on us as humans to step it up and take stock of how lazy we can be about communication and relationship-building. 

But something else has been gnawing at me: I kind of wonder how much of it has to do with the sense of vulnerability that dogs inherently bring out in us. (Thanks, oxytocin!)

As a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, I’ve studied how grief and loss are often tainted by shame and fear—and how vulnerability comes with the territory of loss and connection.  That’s not always a comfortable feeling, vulnerability. It’s not a far leap then to consider how one, in an effort to maybe tamp down their natural vulnerability in interacting day after day with their dog during training to go with a methodology that is the polar opposite: to try and mold a dog, like a lump of clay by using fear, pain even punishment, rather than honoring the living, breathing being that they are and building a trust relationship. I wonder the same about those hired by families to train dogs... what is their relationship with vulnerability? 

What I find it hard to ignore is that humane training methods by their very nature require us to tap into our vulnerability and be open to it; those that are antiquated rely on punishment, fear and pain, squashing any any sense of being vulnerable. Going the humane route—being vulnerable—forges the human-animal bond and preserves it. It teaches the pet to be resilient and to cope with difficult situations with more finesse. These methods promote choice and autonomy for the pet, and they hold us humans accountable. Most importantly, they bolster the well-being and safety of not only the humans and animals that engage in interactions that are up close and personal, but every human and animal that they are in proximity of.

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter (CPPS) and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Dog bite prevention faces one unseen but powerful barrier

Dog Bite Prevention Week encompasses a lot of topics regarding unfavorable interactions that result in dog bites, and one has been rolling around my head the past couple of days.

I've had *one* incident occur in all of my years as a professional, and it was very dicey because even though it was through no shortsightedness on my part, I still bore the inherent responsibilty of a lot of things as a result. It was my ethical and personal responsibilty to ensure that the individual was tended to medically, that emotionally, they were okay and that they had proof that my charge was fully vaccinated. It was not fun to contact my client and tell them what had occured.

It was a valuable lesson for me in that sometimes, no matter how much you advocate for a dog in your care (please don't approach, he's isn't comfortable with that), no matter how you try to explain that you're advocating for yourself and the other human (please don't try to pet him, he's not good at handling himself), regardless of you pointing out that the other person shouldn't stick their hand through a fence to pet a dog who is overly stimulated despite the handler’s protestations (which is what happened in this incident), some folks will still do it. I try to dodge situations like that on a daily basis when I’m with my canine charges, and yes, it can be frustrating.

My bigger problem is that I hear and see a lot of shaming from colleagues and others who work with animals. I find the practice unsavory, though I get why it happens: when you're a professional or a savvy family member who understands the ins and outs of canine and feline behavior, you see things through a very defined, clear lens. You see perhaps a less-idealistic view, one that's at times completely obstructed for those who don't have the experience and knowledge. And so the shaming begins, sometimes out of smugness, maybe out of frustration. Shaming that is directed at those who want to interact with other people’s dogs, and those who want others to interact with their dogs. Who can blame them?? For goodness’ sake, dogs are pleasant to touch, and known to be playful and happy. The bring out the best in us, they draw out fond memories from our past and break down proverbial barriers that we put up and break the ice in social situations. They’re a social lubricant of sorts, a drug even.

As a dog bite safety educator (a distinction earned through Doggone Safe), I have a lot of conversations with folks of all ages and backgrounds about how to foster safe interactions with their canine friends, and we talk about how they can help their dogs navigate challenging situations better. But often, I can tell that when they hear me, I’m sounding a lot like the teacher on a Peanuts cartoon. This is especially true when a dog is standing right in front of them. And the other day, it occurred to me why that might be. I don’t think I’m having a hard time articulating what I am trying to say, nor do I think what I’m saying is hard to understand. It could have something -- at least in part -- to do with our biology.

Applied ethologist and dog behavior consultant Kim Brophey pointed out in her rather powerful TED Talk ‘The Problem With Treating a Dog Like a Pet’, when we see a dog, we get a hit of oxytocin -- the feel-good hormone.  But that wasn’t the only profound thing she talked about. There was plenty more.

I’m all too familiar with oxytocin and how it helps us mammals. But what Brophy helped me to understand better is that it’s a little tough for us to behave rationally, to think about what a dog really wants or what they can reasonably handle in social situations, when we’re feeling that rush of oxytocin. Our brains can become as hijacked by that love hormone, which is a dangerous thing when we’re interacting with a dog who has been communicating to us that the unit of their brain and body is feeling equally hijacked by fear and anxiety by what we’re doing and they are running out of ways to safely convey that they aren’t comfortable with a situation we’ve put them in.

While it’s certainly not an excuse, but an explanation (though there are surely other factors involved), I suspect that is what really happened on the day with that interaction between my charge and his neighbor at the fence, and what happens during many interactions that I see on a regular basis.

The good news is that because we have the bigger brain, autonomy and the knowledge of what’s happening, we can get in the habit of regulating ourselves and stop and think about how our own behavior is affecting the dogs. We can learn to recognize the body language, the calming/appeasement signals that dogs are tossing around like confetti when we put them in a situation they might not be equipped to handle or are at their threshold. But we have to get a handle on our inherent addiction to oxytocin first.

I know that going forward, I’ll be a lot more cognizant of the notion that the person who so desparately wants to get up close and personal with my charges on any given day might be overwhelmed by a rush of oxytocin and not thinking as clearly as they would like to. An unexpected hit of that love drug is something that I think a lot of people could use a lot more of these days. Given that, I feel confident that my go-to tactic for dissuading others from interacting with a canine charge and I while we’re out on adventure will be effective, but in the kindest, most thoughtful way possible. I detail how I do that here. After all, it’s my job as a Fear Free Certified Professional–pet sitter to not only to provide the very best care to my charges, but to be a good steward of exemplifying, modeling and teaching in safe interactions between pets and humans.

With over 20 years of experience in pet care and 8 years focused on animal hospice, Lorrie Shaw is a
 Certified Fear Free Professional–pet sitter, and
 CXO of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC. She is currently in the midst of an Internship with Animal Hospice Group in their Animal Hospice Palliative Care Practitioner certification program. She can be found at