Friday, July 5, 2013

When SPARCS fly, people learn

SPARCS, The Society for Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science

It is common knowledge among those who are in the trenches applying techniques to change challenging dogs, that when many trainers are in a room together the one thing they'll agree on is to disagree.

When scientists get together the same thing happens.  All might agree on many things, but because of their individual experiences, experiments and research also have different ideas, different opinions, ways of approaching things and varying hypothesis.

The world is filled with different opinions and that's what makes life interesting. That's what makes life progressive as new and brilliant ideas unfold. The SPARCS 2013 conference held in Redmond, Washington, brought together eight of the most brilliant minds in canine science. Being asked to volunteer, I count myself as one of the very lucky ones who attended this first SPARCS conference under Prescott Breeden and Patty Howard of Pawsitive Packleader, Seattle, and thank them for it was a pleasure to see the operation from the back end as well as absorb learning front and center.

Patty Howard, Pawsitive Packleader SPARCS creator along with Prescott Breeden (not shown)

The first thing people wanted to know post-conference was what did I learn? 

What I learned was where I put my focus, and my individual focus was like a laser beam pointed at the wisdoms and scientific nuggets found in the behavioral talks. Talks on emotions and stress in dogs interested me, but what I found was I learned a lot more than this from other talks.

It was interesting to note the fact that science has not really pinpointed exactly where the dog derived or when it came on the scene to be tamed by humans. I also learned the difference between domestication and taming and saw behavioral research and comparisons done with village dogs. The one image I cannot remove from my head is the eating habits of the village dogs who aren't fed but have to fend for themselves. Following babies around as they eliminate and eating it was described as a balance to keeping the villages clean, so the dogs serve a valuable purpose. Still it does make one pause.

What were some standouts?

One of my favorite quotes of the conference was by Ray Coppinger in day one's end of day panel discussion. He said,

Ray Coppinger
Professor emeritus of Biology, Hampshire College, MA     
"It's totally unfair to dogs" to use pack hierarchy in training, says Ray Coppinger. "Including methods like the alpha roll. First, we don't even fully understand pack behavior in wolves, and second, dogs are not wolves and are behaviorally very different. And there is no evidence that dogs descended from wolves anyway!" From the panel discussion at SPARCS 2013 International Conference on Dog Behavior

My thought was bah-da-bing!

Michael W. Fox, DVM

My ears perked up when Michael W. Fox talked about a study with heart rate and the potential effect of touch.  Heartbeats in a dog (recorded with a biotelemeter) showed how petting, stroking, grooming etc. slows the heart to a slower rate than when sitting and during contact. Heart rate will go down with physical contact, and oxytocin will go up.

Along those same lines, Clive Wynne talked about "Why your dog loves you so". He did a study correlating the amount of oxytocin released is dependent on how much eye contact a human can make with their dog.  Cortisol was measured in these studies through a saliva test.

Dr. Marc Bekoff
Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder

I loved it when the comment came up that instead of using the word train to describe what we do with dogs, that instead use the word teach. We are teaching our dogs. This was pointed out by Marc Bekoff in his talk "Beastly passions and compassionate conservation".

Adam Miklosi's talk on problem-solving behavior was fascinating. He used a Byrne and Bates (2008) (human) cognition as a hypthesis generating tool.  He stated that "problem-solving behavior reflects changes (decisions) in the animal behavior when it responds to regular states and conditions of its environment."  This interests me, intrigues me even, because this is one of the behaviors my Canine Emotional Detox (CED) strives to uncover, how does a dog solve a problem?

Miklosi demonstrated with a problem solving task called, disappearing objects.

The purpose was object performance to test the dog's ability to follow the movement in case of discontinuous visual perception (Gagnon and Dumas 1992). There were three experiments.

The first simply hiding the object and returning to the dog to see if they were visually watching where the item was hidden. Then they were sent to where five boxes were visible.

The second experiment was an A not B error with a 2-step sequential visible hiding process and the third experiment had a ball on a string and a hidden human provided motion by pulling the ball behind one of the five boxes, no person present.

First was an ostensive-communicative experiment, second a noncommunicative and third a nonsocial experiment.

The experiment outcome showed how the dog's mind operates and allowed understanding the dog's world from their perspective.  This was one of my favorite parts of the SPARCS weekend.

"The natural place of existence for dogs is the anthropogenic environment created by humans" Adam Miklosi

Can you tell, I live for this stuff?

As you are starting to realize by now, there was a lot of learning and information packed into the SPARCS conference and something for everyone.

One of the speakers, Alexandra Horowitz talked about the dog's point of view and was nice enough to autograph her book for me "Inside of a Dog". Of course, she had no choice as I planted myself between her and the doorway, but I digress.  She talked about attribution of emotions. Emotions have been talked about as early as Darwin in his book "Expression of the Emotions". Grieving, being proud, happy, embarrassed, disgusted were some of the attributions to dogs.

Darwin said "There can, I think, be no doubt that a dog feels shame."

Horowitz set out to test this hypothesis in 2009 with an experimental examination of the context for appearance of guilty looking behavior, like an averted gaze.

The simple premise was dog owners would show their dog a treat and ask them to leave it. Then they would leave. If the dog ate the treat, they were to act disgusted and maybe say "what did you do?" and if they didn't, they were to praise their dog.  But could the dog owners tell guilt, if they didn't know if the treat was eaten or not?

Horowitz's experiments are to really understand the dog's point of view.

Why do experiments? "The reason we do experiments is because we don't know the answer and you have to be prepared to be wrong," says Clive Wynn.

What would I like to see more of in 2014?

There was some reference to application, but in 2014 I'd like to see the hard science mixed with those who work in the application of scientific research. This year there was a new concept titled "Do as I do", an application theory, but those who work with dogs daily in a teaching capacity often have differing viewpoints and ways of approaching the scientific research.

SPARCS 2013 held June 28th through the 30th contained a wealth of information, networking and conversation hard to capture in one blog. One thing is for sure, it is just another day in the life of this behavior trainer.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Games - mentally stimulating brain games for dogs

Mental stimulation is important in a dog's daily life. Today as I was gathering more ideas for my own and client dogs I ran across a fun and new activity with a ball most people will already have in the toybox.

Leopold's Crate: Fun Activity for Dogs who like to Disembowel their Stuffed Animal Toys. Thanks to Leopold's owner, a brilliant idea is born and one that doesn't cost a lot of money, nor take a lot of time to resurrect.  Here are a few photos depicting the activity.


Add this to your dog's activity, of course, varying it with many other homemade or on the market intelligence toys.  Keep you dogs mind active, and you will get better focus, participation, and less reactivity. Activities should challenge all the senses of a canine.  This satisfies foraging, taste, visual, scenting.

One of the elements of the Canine Emotional Detox: Stress Release for the Challenging Dog is mentally stimulating activities.  There is a reason for each activity in the CED, to evaluate how a dog solves a problem or doesn't, how they may relate to their environment and respond in real life circumstances giving insight to individualized behavior modification programs.  The cover to my book is done as far as illustration and font for title and subtitle, and now it will go to be colorized. Over the next eight weeks I'll be working fervently to complete this book.

It's all just another day in the life of a behavior trainer.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A passion for challenging cases

Yesterday, my 23 month old, Valor and I spent the day at a RallyO/Freestyle Element dog show, leaving the house at 5 a.m. We returned at 5 p.m. I challenge myself when I do shows with my dogs, I also do Treibball and Nosework with my dogs and one is titled in RallyO.  I've also done conformation, herding, obedience, tracking and search and rescue, and each I've taken away pieces to use with the challenging dog cases that are my passion.

Passion often leads to excellence and I have to say working with challenging dogs is quite different than "showing in the ring".  Although precision is important for both, they are different in type.  I have to say I much prefer my job and passion for challenging cases over show ring escapades. However, I also believe it is important to do both for those of us who work with challenging dogs. The protocols are quite different and what you learn in one area, you may be able to apply to another.

Yesterday perfection was not our goal. My goal for Valor was that he could handle a small show venue - the sights, sounds, distractions. It was my goal to implement the steps of the CED (Canine Emotional Detox) in a show atmosphere - relax - mentally stimulating activity - relax - physical stimulation - mentally stimulating activity - relax - (and ultimately show).  It was all going very well.  We did crate games, Ttouch, a wrap and impulse control exercises.  Valor was so happy up until about 1 p.m. Distraction overload occurred.

Distractions piled one over the other can suddenly hit the fan - very much like working with a challenging dog.  The realization is that sometimes the dog won't show outward signs, but the influx of distractions affects them internally, nonetheless.  Valor was really handling it all very well - his first show atmosphere of this type - until a client who'd come to watch us, pulled up a chair in our space.  Valor was visibly distressed and wouldn't take treats.  After spending a very few minutes allowing him to take in this environmental adjustment, I simply removed him and we went to the truck, his safe zone.  I allowed him to rest distraction free for 30 minutes.  We came back in, after I had rearranged the environment and asked the client/friend to avert eyes, not talk directly to him at that moment.  He revived slowly, but surely, and was able to take treats again. He took them from a person showing next to us and then a trail up to my client/friend.  Then I took him to the middle of the room.  He was stressed, worried looking backwards (over his shoulder), then tense muscles, lip licking.  So we walked around a bit.

The bottom line for me was, I would not show him in that state of stress.  I needed to end this on success, just as I would expect a client to do who had a major reaction from their dog.

We were headed for the showring at 230 p.m. I'd already informed the stewards I may not be showing, if Valor's stress levels didn't come down.  So I tested him a bit outside the ring - and since the ring equals good things happening, he was showing an eagerness to go with me.  Making a few improvs, and doing some displacement sniffing - we went through the signs - not perfectly, but slowly and focusing more on being together and relaxing than showing off and getting claps or a high score.  We had fun and mid-way through the course Valor was engaged and had forgotten why he was distressed.

This was the first time we showed without a lead and Valor, returned quickly to me. It was good to show in a "match atmosphere" first for us to see what he could handle.  The biggest thing was we ended on success and Valor slept all the way home and then when we got home. He had a huge walk at 530 a.m. the next day.

Stress enters our dog's lives when we least expect it. Knowing what to do and how to help them adjust is the key to keeping stress chemicals at manageable levels and to show them you are keeping them safe so they build a trust and confidence and a sort of acceptance that distractions will be there and will occur.  Had Valor not been able to recover, I would not have shown him and we would have found another way to end on success.

For me, I'd much rather work challenging case loads, than be in a show ring, but it stretches me and it gives my dog a job over working with challenging cases themselves.  So it is, in an odd way, a reprieve and a learning ground.

I learned a lot about Valor yesterday and myself.  And the information learned from a show is information to take back to clients.  Just another day in the life of a behavior trainer/consultant.

Friday, May 24, 2013


Valor is just starting to hit the show circuit. My very first goal for him is that all show experiences are successful and we will be spending 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Fife, WA at a dog show for RallyO/Element Freestyle.  We aren't entered in a titling event, but will be doing Pre-Novice twice during the day.

In between we will walk around, sit and do things by the optimal clock.  So we will arrive and eat breakfast there, set up a crate and play crate games. We'll sit and relax in the crate and then come out on a mat. We'll walk around and c/t for the right behaviors at the or in the show environment.

I will click and treat for sound, or things that fall, or dogs that are close or people rushing around.  Everything will be kept at successful, optimal levels.

Then we'll take an outdoor break and alone time in the safe zone of the truck.  Next comes grooming, ttouch, and obstacle work to prep  for our showing.  We'll do some warm-ups and then it will be very boring until we reach the show ring, where all the fun and happy stuff flows.

After our show time we'll have another one hour rest period to absorb the good information.  Then I will start the process over from the top. In between we'll do intelligence toys for mentally stimulating activity, crate games and target games.

Photos will flow in tomorrow's blog and some observations, as well as how we did with all of the above.

Shows can be very stressful for dogs and distraction overload.

Wish us luck!! It's just another day in the life of a behavior trainer!

Keeping up and learning new things

The terv trio. From left - Valor, Chancellor in back, Kody to right.

Never believe you know everything. No one does. As a behavior consultant/trainer, I want to keep learning new material, keep up with all the force free techniques out there and I want to stretch my learning by improving my technique through various competition sports.  Currently I'm taking a Theriogenology course through Unviersity of Minnestoa.

Each venue is vastly different from herding to RallyO to studying of various classwork. The skills teachings are different and yet some can spill over into behavior training.  Understand when to use what is critical business, especially when working with challenging individuals.  Behavior is my passion in all its forms.

It would be my hope that I never assume anything, never stop learning, and never stop teaching what I learn.

It is important to understand that each of my dogs learns differently and also that time affects the way they learn, how they see the world-at-large.  My Chancellor loves using his nose, so he is doing Nosework and we will be heading into our scent work (birch) in July.  He has performance anxiety, and seizures which affect his cognitive abilities, so I make sure he is working at his optimal level, NOT someone's perceived optimal level.

My Kody Bear gets bored very easily, so short sessions are best for him and he seems to really enjoy Treibball. He has his RN but has made it clear he is not liking RallyO.  Trying him in RallyO/Freestyle Element made it clear we'll continue in Treibball, Frisbee - I call him my silly heart.  He likes the "fun stuff".  Knowing this about him keeps his stress levels low. Also, knowing he loves therapy work, working with children, working with alzheimer's patients, working with unruly teens, and working with people in general, he is exposed to lots of people.  He likes to interact - people or dogs.  He doesn't like working with irratic individuals or people laying in beds, so I limit his exposure.

Valor will probably do anything, and wholeheartedly, that we do together. He likes being with me and whatever I'm doing, he thinks he should do. Right now we are focusing on RallyO/Freestyle Element and getting our details in order for performance.  Valor is very much like me - he learns the hard stuff quickly and easily, and yet a simple bow is taking a lot of time to learn - it is stretching me to figure out creative ways to teach this - what should be a simple and quick teaching.  Valor is good with people and dogs and other critters.

Making my dogs a part of my day - penciling in appointments WITH them - keeps them sharp and hones my skills also.  When working with challenging dogs it is imperative to understand what the client goes through on a daily basis and assume nothing.

Just another day in the life of a behavior trainer.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Learning in dogs

This is ZsaZsa learning to distinguish between sizes. She had a 100% success rate in this size recognition activity after many trials.

How dogs learn, process and retain information is fascinating to this behavior consultant/trainer.  It absorbs my day and fills my nightly dreams.  So I'd like to take a look today at learning in general.  What I don't want to talk about is the robotic, don't move unless I say so, and painful disguises of tools labeled as learning through punishment. I am not interested in the shut down dog, or the non-creative dog, or the dog who wishes they were somewhere else with displacement signals and head turns. I am talking about the willing participant, however, the dog who can't wait to get to work. Let's talk about real learning, and about dogs who have a insatiable desire to work, who absorb like sponges even into later years, and who in body language express the joy of learning. These dogs are creative, they think, they comply because they want to, not because they have to and they know without doubt the right behaviors expected of them. They look at hands as applause and reward and faces as smiles and encouragement.

Learning is defined as "a relatively permanent change in behavior that occurs as a result of prior experience." The experience for a dog can be force free or forced. Force free means "free" or "free of pain devices" or "+R" or "rewarding what the dog is doing RIGHT".  It instills "willing compliance".

A dog learns by association and consequence. They learn to do what works. They learn by modeling their pet guardian or other dogs.

In my behavior training day and working with clients, learning involves change, changing behavior, changing individuals, even changing lives.  It involves transformation and positive solutions. What is often hard to swallow for trainers is that this learning could happen earlier with consistency and commitment, and yet many clients wait until something really bad has occurred before they seek help. Learning is a process and in order to be retained and considered successful, results-oriented, progress has to outweigh regress.  Change has to be relatively permanent.

Learning is simply reflected in behavior. It is always unbelievable to me to see pain devices touted as learning when a dog simply complies to avoid the pain. Complying is rewarded. Since learning is reflected in behavior, if the behavior is still there, learning, true learning hasn't taken place. A dog might appear to be learning, but because of the lack of motivated willingness, may not exhibit changed behavior without the pain device being used. Behavior caused by physical corrections does not constitute learning.  Learning is more complicated and the systematic results far outweigh the alternatives.

In order for learning to occur, the experience of learning must be reinforced. If reinforcement is not there, eventually the the behavior will reappear.  A high rate of reinforcement accelerates learning.  Learning occurs throughout the dog's life and is not confined to a six weeks basic manner's course.  A pet guardian's role as their dog's educator is to provide for that learning on a daily basis, meeting the dog's needs, creating an appropriately enriched environment, and a positive and systematic learning experience.

The theories of learning are classical conditioning, operant conditioning, cognitive theory and social learning theory.

CLASSICAL CONDITIONING. A physical event (setting events as James O'Heare describes it in his Aggression In Dogs book) - termed stimulus - that DOES NOT elicit a specific response acquires the capacity to elicit that response as a result of repeated PAIRING with a stimulus that elicits a reaction.  This type of learning is common in dog training/behavior and plays an important role in reactions such as fear, sound sensitivities and environmental challenges, dog dog reactivity, and human reactivity.

Skinner felt that classical conditioning explains only respondent (reflexive) behaviors, the involuntary responses elicited by a stimulus. Skinner felt most behavior affects, or operates, on the environment. In classical conditioning the phrase "change the environment, change the dog" might apply.  The dog starts to associate certain stimuli which elicits certain behavior.  If I pick up a clicker and treat bag, the dog knows we are going to do something fun, even if that is serious learning because the clicker and treat bag have come to be associated with working. If I pick up a leash and that leash is only used for walks, it comes to be associated with walking and the dog's behavior shows excitement.

OPERANT CONDITIONING. (instrumental conditioning) - Behavior produces certain consequences determining how one "operates in an environment". If actions have rewarding effects, then they are more likely to be repeated in the future.  If an action creates an unpleasant effect, the dog is less likely to repeat them in the future.  The associations are what differ in those last two explanations. For me, as a force free behavior trainer, I want actions to have a rewarding effect, and to be repeated. Showing my dog what is RIGHT versus punishing for what they are doing WRONG is the differentiation.

COGNITIVE THEORY OF LEARNING. Learning is a cognitive process. Learned responses depend on the meaning applied to the stimulus. Developing a thinking dog entails creating an individual that can piece together a puzzle then respond to a stimulus.  Teaching a dog to make good decisions through behavior modification is what I strive for in a systematic behavior modification process. Expectations and being able to influence a dog's behavior are cognitive concepts.

SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY (observational learning). This emphasizes learning by observation. The observation of trainer, other dogs. We all know the adult dog with learning deficits who watches a savvy teacher dog and absorbs knowledge on how to respond in social interactions or the dog who fetches a ball after watching another dog repeatedly fetch a ball.  Action leads to interaction, observation leads to repetition of a behavior.  A behavior trainer can shape the dog's behavior by systematically reinforcing each successive step that moves the dog closer to the DESIRED response. For instance, if a dog has typically been latent, say 1 minute, to a cue of come when called, sniffing or peeing before responding, and then is latent only 20 seconds, the trainer reinforces that improvement.

These are new times and knowing and experiencing learning theories is becoming increasingly important. Applying it to force free technique creates a learning experience for the dog. Learning is enhanced, retained and longer lasting, because it changes behavior. So for me donning a clicker, filling a treat bag, and making sure my body language is encouraging and rewarding to my dog is the relationship I want to create. I want to create a creative learning environment where my dogs feel safe, trust me and the process and gain confidence in well-being and happiness is visible body language. Nothing else is acceptable to me.

Working with the most challenging dogs, those no one else wants to work with, it makes sense that learning just becomes another day in the life of this behavior trainer's client dogs, my own dogs and educating/teaching becomes a positive and rewarding lifestyle and simply just another day in the life of a behavior trainer.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

2013 Blog Post #2 - Force Free and Meaning It


Cleo, bully pup, attacking two dogs before seven months old. She doesn't get along with other dogs?

One of my favorite things about the dog/behavior training and consulting business is the role we get to play in so many of the special moments in our client's lives. The moments when their challenging dog changes. My husband always asks me who I made cry today. There is some truth to that,  but I certainly didn't make them cry, but what they witnessed did. Change is an emotional event and when a result is so visible it gets an emotional response from the canine's owner, that is a priceless moment.

For example, in the recent Maryland Canine Emotional Detox, May 17, 18 and 19th, 2013 there were two emotional moments that elicited happy tears from dog owners. The moment a human fearful dog completely relaxed and started to ask for attention and rewards from workshop participants. The moment a very active, dog reactive and resource guarder achieved full, deep, REM relaxation. There have been many such moments over the years from the lady who hadn't touched her dog for two years and in one force free session we were both able to touch and pet this dog, a GSD mix on a prong.  The prong is history, the improvement of the relationship and bond is the present.  What about the moment a fearful dog comes out of its shell to show bursts of confidence or the day a small Shih tzu mix stops biting his owners and starts to be the dog they knew he would become. There are many such stories from extreme cases to mild.  As trainers we know, the transformations or transitions from one stage of behavior to the next  - whether in a well-created session or in a real life context -and those are great moments. A moment the dog and owner stretch, grow and start to change all in the name of force free training.

There is much work to do and there are many comments to overcome. Comments such as force free trainers don't work with extreme behavior. Comments by trainers using pain devices simply become irrelevant, as we get it, we know what force free means, what it does and how the most challenging cases respond to it.  To say things like "I use whatever the dog needs at the time," simply means one will use aversive techniques and for lack of a better expression, where knowledge ends, aversion begins. These are the semantics of aversive and balanced trainers, as they use a clicker alongside a shock collar. The joy of being truly force free, is knowledge and the knowing that you will have many more tools to take you well beyond ever having to use pain devices. That is reassuring and life changing. It speaks volumes to the owners and canines who see those changes. The difference is between reinforcing the RIGHT behavior versus punishing the WRONG behavior.  That is the difference in one sentence. If you aren't doing the first, you are doing the latter.

What does force free mean? It means no shock, no pain, no choke, no fear, no physical force, no physical molding, no compulsion-based methods to train or care for a pet as described by As a founding member of this organization and a steering committee member, this is the way I and those I work with, my colleagues, my friends, my clients, take very seriously.  Why? We see it in action every day.  We see it making big differences in lives of those who need it most daily.

The only question that remains to be answered is which way will you choose to go? If force free, then truly amazing transformations will occur.  Working with challenging dogs and getting results force free is just another day in the life of this behavior trainer. Commitment is not just a word for clients. It is a word for those seriously using force free methodologies.

Would you work with a dog with an eight bite history? Force free is changing lives. Posing for a quick photo on a woods walk is Duncan in the middle. Behavior extreme fear of people carrying objects or going through doorways. Today, bites no more, no reason to do so.

2013 Post #1 - Maryland Canine Emotional Detox Workshop

Day in the life has been inconsistent, but will accelerate my posts - a Day In The Life of a Behavior Trainer can certainly get BUSY!!!

Over the past two years, I've been gathering case studies, up to 165 now, on my Canine Emotional Detox and am busily working on the first edition book.  It is a right combination of pieces to solving the puzzle in working with challenging canines of all types.  It is meant to come before behavior modification and skills applications to release harmful stress chemicals. You can view photos of this workshop at my Facebook biz page.  Great people, great successes and a lot of learning.  The golden nugget to a CED is the Final Analysis, which becomes the document for the behavior modification program.

If you are a trainer working force free with challenging dogs, you may wish to join the FB group "Force Free Trainers - Solving the Aggression Puzzle".

These two projects have kept me very busy in addition to my private sessions schedule - which is usually all challenging dogs, all day.

Treibball workshop, demonstration and puppy classes, as well as Fearful Dog and Reactive Dog classes have also been at the forefront.

Working with my own dogs is always a priority - and providing them the mental stimulation, physical stimulation, physical exercise and relaxation they need is important to me.  Chancellor has been working on Nosework and loves it with a passion. Valor is working in RallyO/Freestyle Element and has his first show May 25th - we are working in pre-novice right now and picking out the details before titling.  Kody Bear is working hard on Treibball at an Intermediate level.

A lot on my plate and just a Day in the life of a behavior trainer/consultant.