Behavioural Inhibition

February 28, 2017

One of the most enjoyable things about training with positive reinforcement is that as soon as the dogs sense that a training session is about to start, a kind of buzz happens.  They can be fast asleep or lolling about in the sun, or just sitting gazing out at the garden, but as soon as they hear me getting my gear together (and they hear it – no matter how quiet I am), all of them are standing at the door, tails wagging and eyes bright.  This is because they just love training – training is not a chore it is a game we play together.  It gives them an opportunity to have a conversation with their trainer, to problem solve, to earn reinforcement.

Using positive reinforcement with a bridging stimulus has another advantage.  It gives the dog freedom to experiment with behaviours.  This is a trait that is not present in any dog that shows signs of Behavioural Inhibition.  There is nothing sadder than a dog that is so anxious about doing the wrong thing that it ends up doing as little as possible.  It becomes so inhibited that teaching it anything outside its experience is really difficult and time-consuming.

Some features of a behaviourally inhibited or shut-down dog would be a resistance to trying anything new or foreign to its experience.  A 14 week old puppy that has been positively trained from the get-go will have absolutely no problem rapidly offering behaviours such as climbing on to a raised object, offering position changes voluntarily, readily taking food rewards, making eye contact and so on.  The inhibited dog will, on the other hand, even when lured on to a raised object, will, after many, many sessions be very hesitant to try it and will often start the session simply sitting or standing and doing as little as possible.  This same dog will take many, many sessions of luring the down before offering the position, and even then will lower itself cautiously without making eye contact as though not sure what the consequences will be.

It is possible to make things better for these sad little dogs.

  • Identify the situation that tends to activate behavioural inhibition and avoid that situation. Change the environment.  If the dog is unhappy in the area that you train, move somewhere else where the dog is more comfortable.
  • Identify anything that the dog will participate in willingly. And gradually use this participation to ease the dog into working more confidently towards goals that you have set.
  • Observe the dog closely and avoid anything that causes the dog to shut down. Once the dog becomes more confident these things can gradually be reintroduced.

Exercise LOTS of patience.  Even a hint of frustration or irritation will lead to a shut-down dog.  End the session immediately you start becoming frustrated.


The Case of the “Stubborn” Dog

June 22, 2016

Have you ever been in a situation where your dog, for no apparent reason, stops doing a behaviour that he or she has been doing really well in the past?  Is your dog being stubborn?  Is he trying to “dominate” you?  Has he forgotten his training?  Or does the answer originate with you, the handler?

When you require your dog to perform a task the sequence is to give the dog a CUE which is followed by the BEHAVIOUR which you asked for followed by a CONSEQUENCE.  A cue is the “green light” that tells the dog it’s time to do a behaviour. A cue can be anything that the animal can perceive: verbal, visual, environmental, a scent, a sound, or a touch. A cue can be trained—the word “down” is a common verbal cue that means “lie down on the ground.”  Or, a cue can simply be learned from association—when I open the lid of the treat jar in no time I am surrounded by dogs with sad, starving dog faces so I will give them a biscuit.

As Karen Pryor describes in her book, “Reaching the Animal Mind”, a poisoned cue occurs when a dog associates unpleasant things with a cue. Because of these unpleasant associations, the dog will either hesitate to perform the behaviour or not do it at all. We humans think of unpleasant as a reprimand or scolding, or painful, like a jerk on a check chain. But what we think is unpleasant and what the dog thinks is unpleasant are often different. A slight tug on the leash, pulling on our dog’s collar, leaning over the dog, or even a pat on the head, can all be unpleasant – for the dog.

Poisoned cues are more common than you think and are often the culprit when a dog is thought to be stubborn.

In the following scenario, a dog who was previously coming when called in response to the cue “Come” and a treat, for no apparent reason stopped responding to the cue, and when called ignored the handler, avoiding eye contact and sniffing the grass.  In this case the “Come” cue had been inadvertently paired with a scolding.  The “Come” cue had been “poisoned”.

In another scenario, a dog who had been delivering a toy very nicely to the handler’s outstretched hand for no apparent reason started dropping it at the handler’s feet.  What the handler had been doing was to “reward” the dog for delivery by patting it on the head which the dog didn’t enjoy.  So he started dropping the dummy thus avoiding the pat on the head.  The outstretched hand which was the cue for delivery was poisoned by the pat on the head.

Person-patting-dog-animal-rights-5325327-400-264

So, before you label your dog as being stubborn, look at yourself and your behavior.  You might be inadvertently poisoning your cues.

 


GIVE YOUR DOG THE GIFT OF A FUTURE

March 6, 2016

One of my clients has been looking for a dog. Her needs were fairly specific as she is an active 78 year old and her husband 84. They have had dogs all their lives up to now and miss having a dog around so would love to give a dog a home. But she was very clear in terms of her requirements:

  • She didn’t want a puppy and would rather have an adult dog.
  • The dog needed to be one who was looking for a new home, either because the owners couldn’t keep him any longer, for whatever reason, or because he was a Rescue.
  • He needed to have good manners around people as my client’s husband was frail and would not be able to handle a lively, excitable dog.
  • He needed to be cat friendly.
  • He needed to be calm around her grandchildren.
  • As she loved walking, he would need to be able to walk with her without pulling.
  • She would love a Labrador Retriever as they had had this breed in the past.

Ah, you might say, that is a tall order, and I would agree with you as the first two dogs we looked at were for two very different reasons, totally unsuitable. They had very little self control, very poor manners around people, and had had no basic good manners training. Their connection with people also left a lot to be desired. They were very typical of dogs that had been acquired as puppies, given attention when they were cute and cuddly and as they got older and more boisterous, were banished to a life out of doors with minimal contact with their humans.

We eventually found a dog who looked as though he was the right dog. He was calm and friendly when we arrived to meet him. Although he had very little formal training he was very much part of the family with his owner taking him out for regular walks, spending time playing fetch games (at which the dog excelled). He was very good with children although as they didn’t have a cat we couldn’t assess his behaviour around cats. I felt that this was a problem that could be addressed because of his generally calm behaviour. With this dog the characteristic that impressed me the most was the connection he had with his humans.

This connection can only be achieved if the owner spends some time bonding with the dog in terms of activities that they do together. This dog is one that would fit in with my clients.

cutcaster-photo-100095892-Farm-Girl-Relaxing-with-her-Dog

Circumstances change and I hesitate to judge people who need to re-home a dog because of unexpected or unplanned for changes in their lifestyle. There are often things going on in their lives that we know nothing about. But if these same people had taken the trouble to make sure their dog was socialized, had some basic training and had a connection with humans, then this would be their gift to their dog. It does not take much time to train your dog to be a good citizen, and just in case you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to put your dog up for adoption at least by doing this you will be ensuring that his future is secure.


Fear of Loud Noises and Thunderstorms

January 10, 2015

This last month we have experienced both a series of severe thunderstorms and the annual big bang of New Year celebrations. Normally we humans take these events in our stride but very often our dogs do not and become extremely fearful and even panic when they hear or feel a thunderstorm approaching or the whoosh and bang of firecrackers. We are sometimes told not to give our fearful dog any attention or sympathy or we will be rewarding the fearful behaviour and in so doing cause the dog to become more fearful. But ignoring the dog under these conditions does not help the dog at all.

We can only increase behaviour by rewarding it if there is rational thought involved. If a dog is in a state of fear he might shiver or tremble, hide, pant and drool. He might tuck his tail and might show the whites of his eyes. He might also panic and try and get away from the loud noise or the thunderstorm by running away. These are all symptoms of fear or anxiety and are the body’s instinctive response to a feared stimulus. When the dog is in this state of fear he is in pure reaction mode, incapable of rational thought. Learning can only take place if the dog is not in a state of fear. In other words, is capable of rational thought.

Learning is the process whereby we increase the frequency and intensity of behaviour by providing a consequence that is rewarding. But if I console and pet my fearful dog during a thunderstorm my goal is to replace the anxiety or distress with that of being calmer not to teach it to be more anxious or distressed. My objective is to change the emotion, not the behaviour. If petting and consoling my dog was rewarding the fear then the fearful behaviour should increase in frequency and intensity. The panting and drooling should actually get worse. In fact, within five or ten minutes and with the storm raging outside, my previously frantic dog falls asleep.

Fearful dog hiding 2

Not all dogs respond this way to physical contact during a storm or fireworks but there are other ways to counter-condition the fearful response. Some dogs calm down more if given a safe, dark corner or cupboard to hide in, surrounded by favourite toys. Playing music or the radio also helps to mute the sound of the thunder. Closing curtains blocks out the flashes of lightning.

These are such simple, uncomplicated ways to keep your dogs safe. And if a little more attention was paid to their welfare the various rescue organisations would not be inundated at this time of the year with traumatised and damaged animals.

Something else to consider is that unlike us animals’ brains have a larger amygdala and a smaller cerebral cortex than humans. Since the amygdala modulates emotion and the cortex governs rational thought, we can assume that animals feel emotions on a much more intense scale than we do. They are also not able to process rational thought in the same way that we do. It follows then that rational thought, which is suppressed in humans by the neurochemicals that are released during fearful episodes, is completely shut off in animals. (Lindsay, 2000)


Fearful puppies

October 21, 2014

In my previous post the sentiments expressed were that “dogs are a blank canvas” and that the dog’s personality could be shaped by how the puppy was raised.  However much we would like to believe this as it would make our lives as trainers much easier, it is not entirely true. Nurturing is all very well, but what about the hand Nature plays in the outcome.    In other words what factors went into making up the personality or temperament of the pup before it was born, during its neonatal phase of development and during its critical period of development.  Ongoing research is showing that it is actually neither one or the other, but rather an interplay of genetics and environment working together to determine how your pup turns out.

I sometimes come across dogs who have very fearful, anxious or shy personalities. There is often some improvement with a programme of desensitization and counter-conditioning, but in many cases the general skittishness continues, particularly when confronted with a novel event or strange environment. Rescue dogs often display this type of personality and because often nothing is known of the dog’s history, early abuse is often blamed. There might be a history of abuse, but fearfulness in dogs is more complex than that.

Fearful posture

Fearful posture – notably crouching and leaning back, ears back, tail tucked.

With all animals fear is necessary as a self-defence mechanism. The fearful, cautious puppy will often out-survive his bolder, more confident brother and so live to produce offspring who tend to be cautious. There is therefore huge selective pressure on the evolution of fear. Knowing this, and furthermore realising that there are a number of ways that a pup can become fearful or anxious, believing that abuse is the only reason for the dog or puppy’s fearful behaviour is questionable.

  • Genetics: There is ample evidence that animals (rodents, dogs, humans) can inherit a fearful, anxious disposition from its parent or parents.
  • Prenatal Environment: A stressed pregnant female will often give birth to pups with little or no resilience to stress.
  • Maternal Behaviour: There have been suggestions that the dam’s fearful behaviour will have an effect on the pups’ behaviour. No one knows for sure what the mechanisms are of this. It couldn’t have been genetics but it could possibly have been some nutritional component in the dam’s milk, social learning, or just being around a stressed mother.
  • Early Environment: If the pups’ early environment is impoverished in terms of lack of social contact with humans or other animals or experiences, the result will often be a fearful and anxious young adult.

With a rescue puppy that exhibits fearful behaviour, the best we can do is to make sure there is a comprehensive programme of socialization before the puppy is 16 weeks and continued exposure throughout the dog’s life. If a purebred dog is desired make sure that the puppy’s dam does not exhibit fearful behaviour by visiting her prior to whelping. Be aware that if she is genetically fearful puppies raised by her will be influenced by her genes, by any stress she experiences during her pregnancy and by being reared by a fearful dam.

For myself my ideal pet/companion puppy is one who is “middle of the road”. The one extreme would be a puppy who is fearful of everything novel in spite of extensive, careful socialization. The other extreme would be the crazy, fearless pup that dashes headlong into every novel situation, often at great risk to himself physically. My ideal would rather be a pup that approaches each novel situation or person with a certain amount of caution until he or she ascertains that there is no threat to his wellbeing.

Coppinger & Coppinger. Dogs: A new understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution. (University of Chicago Press 2002).

Jean Donaldson. Oh Behave!: Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker. (Dogwise Publishing 2008).

 


My Unruly Dog!

July 21, 2014

I often get phone calls from dog owners who are at their wit’s end because of their dog’s unruly behaviour. This unruly behaviour is very often normal behaviour in doggy terms, but unacceptable in human society. Dogs jump up to greet; dogs are opportunists and will steal food whenever they can; will dig in the flower beds on a hot day; will escape if gates and doors are left open.

So when I ask these distraught owners how they’d like their dogs to behave these are the answers I often get.

“I want my dog to stop jumping on me when I arrive home”.

“I want my dog to stop digging in my flower beds”.

“I want my dog to stop running out of the gate when it’s open”.

With these replies, I now know what the owner doesn’t want the dog to do. However, what the owner has not told me is what she’d like the dog to do instead. This is the information that enables us to deal with the unruly behaviour – not by punishment or giving up and putting the dog up for adoption, but by working out some sort of training programme to address the issues. Once we know what we want the dog to do instead of the unruly and undisciplined behaviour we can start to counter condition an alternative behaviour that is incompatible with the behaviour that we don’t like.

These are some examples of a discussion I had with one of my clients recently.

Example 1:

What the dog does: She is disobedient and does not listen to instruction

What you’d like the dog to do: Respond to my cues to “Sit” “Down” and “Stay”, etc. etc. by doing what I ask.

Possible Solution: Decide what exactly you’d like her to do and then teach her the required behaviours with positive reinforcement.

Cartoon dog sitting

Example 2:

What the dog does: She jumps at meal times and sometimes knocks the bowl out of my hand.

What you’d like the dog to do: Sit and wait until I put the bowl down and tell her she can eat.

Possible Solution: Teach her to practice self control around her food bowl by not letting her have it until she sits and waits. She needs to learn that you will only put the bowl down for her to eat when she is calm. Start by teaching her this game. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipT5k1gaXhc

Indi Self Control compr

Example 3:

What the dog does:   She runs out of the gate when we arrive home and sometimes takes off to attack the next door pup! She follows the male Jack Russell Terrier, Alfie, so that if Alfie runs out of the driveway gate when we arrive home to bark at the neighbour’s dog, she follows.

What you’d like the dog to do: Stay inside the gate when it opens and not run after Alfie.

Possible Solution: Teach her to go to a specific place inside your property and near the gate and stay there while the gate opens and closes. Teach Alfie to do the same. Contrary to popular opinion, Jack Russells can be trained! You might also like to take the time to teach her that it’s more fun being with you than being with Alfie!

Dash waiting at gate

With some thought, planning and patience any bad behaviour can be turned around. Everyone can have a dog that is well-behaved if you think and act positively.


Accidental or Unintentional Cues

June 10, 2014

Remembering that dogs are experts at learning sequences and picking up on the most subtle signals from us we often become frustrated when dogs who we thought knew the verbal cue for a behaviour simply looked at us in that way dogs have when they simply do not understand what we’re asking them to do.

Probably the most common unintentional cue is the hand signal for “Sit”. Because this is the position of the hand when luring the sit it automatically becomes the hand signal. Even if you say “Sit” when giving the hand signal the dog is so focussed on the hand signal that the verbal cue becomes diluted and most times if you take away the hand signal the dog will not respond to the verbal cue but simply looks puzzled, until the hand comes out.

Hand signals for sit

Having a hand signal to cue behaviour is often desirable but it is definitely advantageous to have both. It is a simple matter to teach the dog the verbal cue. All you have to do is to say the word “Sit” BEFORE the hand signal and then gradually fade the hand signal. With repetition your dog will learn to sit immediately he hears the word “Sit” and, if silence is what you require, he will also sit when he sees your hand signal.

Lying down is another behaviour where it is necessary to modify visual cues in order to teach the dog the verbal cue. Because we often either bend over the dog or crouch next to him when luring him into position this large body movement also becomes a signal. So it is not only the hand signal you have to fade, but also the bending or crouch.

Another unintentional signal I saw in class the other day was the handler stepping towards the dog in order to give him the signal for sit. Sometimes as an instructor one is so interested in watching the dog that what the handler does sometimes goes unnoticed. I only realised what was happening when I used the handler’s dog to demonstrate building duration for the sit and when I asked the dog to “Sit” which I normally do with my hands at my sides he looked at me blankly. I tried again, but with no response except the blank look. That’s when I realised that he actually did not know the cue for “Sit”, even though he appeared to be very fluent with that particular behaviour.

When I asked the handler to demonstrate the sit for me I saw that the dog, instead of responding to the verbal cue, was actually responding to the visual cue of the handler stepping towards him, even though she was saying “Sit” as she did so. In fact, when I asked her to simply step towards the dog without saying the word “Sit”, he immediately dropped into position.

After a couple of trials of preceding the step with the verbal cue and then fading the step, the dog was sitting enthusiastically to the word “Sit” with the handler staying in position.

What this brought home to me was that as instructors we overlook some of the most obvious reasons for non compliance from the dog, not because we are careless but because even though we are looking, we do not always see… It is also clear that incorporating these signals into our communication with the dog they become so ingrained that we do not even realise we are doing them. This is why even the most experienced handlers will benefit from the fresh eyes of a coach – or video camera.

 

 


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