training methods

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single combat

At the risk of alienating colleagues on both sides of The Great (and Largely Imaginary) Divide, here are some brief and unapologetically provocative thoughts on the recent adventures of our industry’s most over-exposed personalities.

I briefly considered naming this piece, Two Things I Am Having Trouble Getting Excited Over, but feared that wouldn’t be catchy enough. And really, the number one priority of any top-tier trainer has got to be maximizing eyeballs, am I right?

Cesar Millan

Let’s talk about the pig episode first. For anyone currently living under a rock: first, let me congratulate you on acquiring some truly enviable real estate; second, feel free to find the video on Youtube or rely on my description. It shows a TV entertainer and self-styled aggression guru performing an ill-conceived and poorly executed stunt involving some pigs and a dog with a history of attacking them. A pig gets bitten. There is some blood, and some squealing.

Is it hard to watch? That’s subjective, but I would have to say no, not compared to a hundred other things I’m forced to watch, like Donald Trump making a sickeningly plausible run for president.

Is it animal cruelty? I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve read the California statute and would call that a stretch. It seems pretty obvious that the injury to the pig, while stupid and unnecessary, was the unintended result of more than one serious miscalculation, not of malice or even insensitivity. The real crime was National Geographic legitimizing this nonsense by packaging it as cutting-edge behavior work.

Speaking of errors of judgement, it’s been apparent for some time that the balanced training community, in so far as one exists, may have made its own regrettable miscalculation in hitching its wagon to Millan’s star. Designating the charismatic savant originally marketed as the Dog Whisperer as balanced training’s patron saint and prime-time champion has arguably spawned a generation of trainers focused on branding and showmanship ahead of knowledge or technique. 

Should Millan be forced off the air? I’d rather people simply stopped watching, but if the consequence of this particular bout of ineptitude happened to be the end of Cesar 911 or even the end of an already lengthy career, I could certainly live with that. Because as much as I find the outrage over this specific incident somewhat misplaced, Millan remains someone I cannot bring myself to defend. He bought into his own myth on the ground floor, and the rest is history.

That said, let’s not pretend it’s really about the pig. Last time I checked, there was a whole show on TV about killing pigs, not to mention the genuine atrocity that is modern factory farming. The disconnect between the standards of welfare we insist on for our pets and those we quietly tolerate for our food animals, even when they are the same animal, is infinitely more unnerving than the worst things Millan has ever done. And I will add that the worst things Millan has ever done do not compare with the things truly abusive trainers do on a regular basis.

victoria stilwell

On to Victoria Stilwell and the bite she incurred while filming police dogs in action for her latest television project. Video of this event is unlikely to surface, but based on the scant information available, it is apparent that Stilwell was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s unclear if there was handler error or not, if there was error on the part of Stilwell or not, if the dog was well-trained or poorly so. It’s also unclear who was actually responsible for orchestrating events or for keeping Stilwell and others safe.

Stilwell’s first public move after sustaining the bite was to blame the dog’s handler, an accusation she has since stepped back. To my mind, adopting the guise of a dog training expert in such a context signals a measure of personal culpability, but falls short of explaining the public fit of schadenfreude incited by this all-around inglorious incident.

To wrap one’s head around that, one would need to remember that Stilwell has made a career of capitalizing on our industry’s political divisiveness, and has not been at all shy about vilifying whole classes of trainers as lazy and abusive based on no less scant information. And one would need to remember that like Cesar Millan, she was never a real dog trainer prior to being cast as one on TV.

So, the conspicuous murmuring that karma was at work as much as the Malinois who tagged her, while certainly unkind and admittedly unprofessional, is also really easy to understand. In other words, it’s not actually about the pig. It’s about the longstanding and entirely righteous resentment many career trainers feel at having been publicly chastised by an actress who never walked in their totally unsexy shoes.

the take away

Neither of these events can reasonably be taken as an indictment of any existing training method. In the first case, there was no identifiable method; in the second, no training was occurring. If either speaks to anything, it’s to the collective folly of our adopting a pair of non-trainers as the champions of our competing methodologies.

The idea that either ever represented the pinnacle of our profession has always been a pretense, and neither has frankly been a good ambassador. If Millan permanently distorted the concept of balanced training into a faith-based bravado-fueled affair reminiscent of rattlesnake handling, then Stilwell surely planted the enduring suspicion that positive reinforcement trainer was synonymous with poser. 

For the record, I hope that Stilwell recovers swiftly, that Millan retires quietly, and that neither ever headlines another dog trainer conference. Meanwhile, I hope the rest of us can tear our eyes from the spectacle long enough to realize we have a great deal more in common with one another than with either of them.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2016.

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Originally published in IACP Safe Hands Journal, Spring 2015.

Behavior seems to be the hot trend. From leash reactivity to separation anxiety to resource guarding and other aggression issues, trainers are confronting behavior problems right and left. But what is behavior work and behavior consulting, compared to traditional training? Who is qualified to do it, and what does it involve?

Whether one is forced to handle behavior cases by necessity, or eager to market oneself as a behavior specialist, it pays to be informed of current and emerging professional standards, and to familiarize oneself with the essential elements of a responsible approach.

Keeping up with industry jargon can be challenging, so here’s a basic behavior glossary:

behavior: anything an animal does, often in response to a situation or stimulus.

behaviorism: the theory that behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings, and that disorders are best treated by altering behavior patterns.

behavior modification: the use of empirically demonstrated behavior change techniques to increase or decrease the frequency of behaviors, including positive and negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment, and extinction.

animal behaviorist: someone with a graduate degree in a related field (like zoology, ethology, biology, or psychology) and post-graduate certification. He or she may be certified by the Animal Behavior Society as an Applied Animal Behaviorist or CAAB.

board certified veterinary behaviorist: a veterinarian who is certified in the specialty of Veterinary Behavior.  Board-certified specialists are known as diplomates or DACVBs.

behavior consultant: a professional working with animals to solve behavioral problems. Behavior consultants may or may not be degreed or certified, but should pursue extensive and ongoing education in animal behavior and training. Recognized certifications include CDBC and CBCC-KA, awarded respectively by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.

Bottom line, if you don’t sport a PhD or a DACVB, best not call yourself a behaviorist. Nonetheless, it’s wholly advisable to pursue a broad education in canine behavior and to highlight your qualifications as a behavior consultant.

So, what should a behavior consultant bring to the table, and how do successful consultants approach real cases?

Assessing Problems

Every case should begin with some manner of assessment, the accuracy of which will depend largely on history taking and observation skills. A good history teases fact from fiction. “My dog often barks at men that approach us,” is useful data. “My dog hates men!” is unhelpful speculation. Keen observation is equally critical. If concern exists over behavior around a new baby, one should be prepared to recognize subtle signs of stress, avoidance, or predation.

The consultant should also be ready to identify if basic needs are being met. Adequate diet, exercise, and medical attention should be prerequisites to any training or behavior modification program.

A Structured Approach

The solution to every behavior problem, regardless of intensity or complexity, will involve some combination of the following three components. Their relative priority may vary from case to case, but all deserve serious consideration. A truly comprehensive solution will typically involve all three.

Environmental Management: Limiting Unwanted Behavior Through Environmental Controls.

Managing exposure to environmental triggers is often a critical first step in changing behavior. All behavior is functional on some level, including problem behavior. Whether the goal is winning attention, persuading a stranger to retreat, or defending a resource, dogs will generally do what works.

By limiting opportunities to engage in unwanted behavior through environmental management, we prevent those behaviors from being reinforced, as happens each time they work as expected. This breaks the cycle of unwanted behavior and opens the door for teaching your dog what to do instead.

Good management will immediately reduce stress and/or conflict, without being unnecessarily intrusive. The need for management should decrease over time, as alternate behaviors are consistently reinforced.

Obedience Skills: Teaching Alternate or Incompatible Behaviors

Many common behavior problems are essentially “default” behaviors, things dogs do naturally in the absence of being taught otherwise. Teaching and reinforcing incompatible behaviors is frequently key to the long-term solution of behavior problems.

This requires considering what one wants the dog to do and focusing on training those behaviors, ahead of focusing on what one wants the dog to stop doing. Practical alternative behaviors may include basic obedience skills, or any other skill the dog might fairly be expected to master under moderate to high levels of distraction. For example, a dog that lunges at other dogs on the street might be trained to heel, while a dog that jumps on visitors might be taught to sit for attention.

As with environmental management, one should generally seek methods that are minimally intrusive. Strategies focused on suppressing behavior are avoided when other effective solutions exist. Good obedience training also helps build relationship and communication, the benefits of which extend far beyond specific behavior goals.

Classical Conditioning: Counter Conditioning and Desensitization

To avoid the need for eternal management and also help the dog on a psychological level, it’s sensible to invest in conditioning a better emotional/physiological response to known triggers.

Classical conditioning, or respondent learning, involves altering reflexive emotional and physiological responses, either by repeatedly pairing relevant stimuli with something pleasant or valuable, or through careful exposure that gradually desensitizes the animal over time. An example might involve pairing proximity to children with cooked chicken or gradually acclimating a dog to children via regular exposure at a safe distance.

The result is a decrease in the perceived need to behave aggressively, fearfully, etc. This can dramatically increase the likelihood of the dog making good decisions on its own in unexpected situations, even when guidance is lacking or management breaks down.

In limited cases, one may choose to condition an avoidance response through pairing a stimulus with something aversive. Snake avoidance training would be one example, as would be pairing an aversive with attempts to ingest something dangerous like rocks or tennis balls.

LIMA Principles

Even with a sturdy framework in place (our three problem solving components), designing a humane and effective program that is both comprehensive and individualized can be daunting. Given the many options that exist, it’s useful to have some guiding principles for choosing the best strategy.

Understanding LIMA principles and their practical application is considered a basic competency within the field of behavior consulting.

LIMA requires that trainers and behavior consultants use the “least intrusive, minimally aversive technique likely to succeed in achieving a training objective with minimal risk of producing adverse side effects.” [1] In practice, this means achieving results while minimizing cost to the learner and risk to any involved.

Following LIMA guidelines has additional advantages, beyond minimizing risk. They focus the trainer on respecting his subject and maintaining learner control, promote clarity in problem solving, and prevent abuse.

To be clear, LIMA does not dictate a positive reinforcement only approach. It does challenge the trainer to think outside the box of merely suppressing unwanted behavior, and to develop the skills to address behavior problems without undue reliance on deprivation, pressure, or punishment.

Emptying the Closet

Solving serious behavior problems, especially those involving aggression, should not be left to intuition, attributed to mystical factors, or performed impromptu while narrating into a camera. Success is rarely a function of charisma or the product of daredevilry, any more than effective obedience training ever has been.

Behavior may be the new black, but rest assured, no need to to flock to the runways or pay exorbitant sums for those head-turning logos. While trend seekers gawk at outrageous collections, others are quietly organizing their closets, editing their wardrobes, and shopping strategically.

A rational and responsible approach to behavior may not draw looks on the street, but it also never goes out of style. 

1. [Steven Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Vol 3]

 

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The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers finally released its new position statement on electronic training collars. The announcement was made without fanfare in the latest issue of its online newsletter, which cited the adoption of the new policy during the CCPDT’s May board meeting:

The Board of Directors adopted the Electronic Training Collar position statement presented by the Electronic Training Collar Task Force. This position statement will outline the CCPDT view for the use of electronic training collars in dog training. A formal release of the newly adopted position statement was made at the end of June.

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The new policy statement leads with a nod to tolerance, acknowledging the existence of diverse methods and “certificant profiles”, and flatly stating that electronic collar use is not forbidden.

Conflicting prescriptions follow, however, including the suggestion that negative reinforcement protocols should be exhausted before considering the use of an electronic collar, the chief utility of which may be in applying negative reinforcement specifically.

While I appreciate the CCPDT’s decision not to ban electronic collar use among its certificants, the bulk of their policy statement, titled Electronic Collars and the Humane Hierarchy, seems based on a misunderstanding of where remote collars actually fit within that framework.

 

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Electronic collars are arguably one of the best tools available for administering timely negative reinforcement, yet they are stubbornly treated as a tool of last resort for unstated reasons, as if their application were somehow beyond the pale of either that quadrant of operant conditioning or the associated tier in the Humane Hierarchy.

Why do they merit special consideration, versus other less modern or sophisticated tools meant to do the same? Why should certified trainers, presumably well qualified to make responsible choices, be discouraged from even contemplating their use, while other aversive tools are freely discussed and liberally applied. Why are there no policy statements regarding head halters, no-pull harnesses, or citronella collars?

Was it just politics that drove the formation of the Electronic Training Collar Task Force, or are there magical thinkers within the CCPDT who consider electronic training equipment inherently witchy– a beast that defies logical assessment and whose effects may not conform to natural laws? Either way, the result seems confused.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2014.

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Yesterday, the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers revealed the electronic collar survey it spent the whole summer developing.

It boasts a total of 16 questions, mainly geared toward gauging opinions on electronic collar training.

A brief letter accompanying the survey described its purpose thusly:

The board of directors is in the process of reviewing the Dog Training and Behavior Practices Policy and investigating a motion prohibiting the use of Electronic Training Collars by our certificants.

In an effort to develop a stronger position on this sensitive topic, the CCPDT has issued a survey, and will be holding a call for supplementary materials through October 20, 2013.

Measuring Perceptions v. Measuring Facts

The push to develop a “stronger position” on electronic collars apparently came together at the CCPDT’s May Board meeting, spurring the creation of a task force chaired by Vice President Shawn Smith and announced in the July 1st issue of CCPDT’s newsletter.

One might ask how an uncontrolled, anonymous survey will effect the policies of an organization nominally committed to science-based practices.

Or why more legitimate steps to gather information about current electronic collar equipment and training practices are not being taken.

Of course, the CCPDT is not merely soliciting random anonymous opinions. They are also looking at science, including all available literature on electronic collar training.

And that would be entirely sufficient if the goal of the task force were to determine whether graduate students should be allowed to use electronic training collars in pursuit of their behavior science degrees.

But that’s not the question under consideration.

It’s whether certified professional trainers should be allowed to use them, which would seem to call for an investigation of how certified professional trainers do use them (or at least might, if they weren’t continually discouraged from educating themselves beyond the most politically correct tools and quadrants).

Why has there been no call for case studies over the several months since it was decided that the CCPDT should “develop a stronger position” on electronic collars?

If the goal is to assess whether, or under what circumstances, pro trainers are using these tools humanely and effectively, you need to examine their methods and results, not just those of a tiny handful of graduate students.

Like it or not, the entire known body of scientific literature on electronic collar training is meager in volume, myopic in scope, and mainly outdated. In addition, most studies have inarguable (and widely acknowledged) methodological weaknesses.

Science begins with observation, not opinion polls. If the CCPDT intends its policies to have any weight or legitimacy beyond that faction of trainers who want electronic collars banned no matter what, it needs to make a good-faith effort to collect relevant information on current electronic collar protocols and practices.

Instead, we see the CCPDT focusing its energies on measuring perceptions.

So, in the context of developing a stronger position on electronic collars, does ”stronger” mean better informed or simply more radical?

Take the survey and decide for yourself.

NOTE: The below survey is intended exclusively for dog training and behavior professionals. If you do not work professionally with dogs, either as a trainer or behavior consultant, please do not take the survey.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/CCPDT_ETC_Survey

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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When Worlds Collide
A CLICKER??

 

Not making this up. It’s a remote electronic collar with a clicker built in.

It’s the latest addition to Dogtra’s iQ Pet line, which includes the iQ Remote Trainer and the iQ No Bark collar.

iQ CliQ

Madness, I know. Or is it?

I’m in favor of anything that breaks down barriers between nominally opposing methodologies, and like the idea of giving pet owners a tool with which to lay a positive foundation before beginning remote collar work.

Dogtra also asked me to contribute training advice to be included in the product manual and online, a great opportunity but also a challenge, given space constraints.

On the one hand, the chance to influence how pet owners use this product was impossible to refuse. On the other, condensing nominally thorough introductions to clicker work and remote collar training into a pair of very brief articles meant to constitute a simple and cohesive system of training– well, my head did actually explode at one point.

Happily, I was able to reach out to a few trainers I trust for editorial support (pretty key, as I’m not well known for my brevity). You know who you are and I owe you one.

So, what did I consider the most critical information for someone purchasing this equipment? You’ll have to buy an iQ CliQ to find out!

Kidding.

You’ll be able to find the CliQ manual online once the product is officially released.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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