Mindful Dog Training – Showing Up

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA

I once wrote that I fell in love with my dog, Juno, while we were practicing “stay.” We were across the room from each other at a busy training class. She was a good 20-feet away, but we were so very close, watching each other intently, fully in the moment. It was magical and I’ll never forget it.

Humanistic Psychologist Carl Rogers said this presence, this connection, is key to all healing and learning relationships. It’s not just about physically being there, going to class, pulling out the clicker and treat bag and doing the session. Instead, it’s about making genuine contact. Rogers (who didn’t have dogs) referred to it as psychological contact.  Some trainers say it’s like being in sync or in the zone with their dog. For me it’s about showing up in a very real and committed way. Stop, step away from the rest of the world, make eye contact and share a moment (or several moments) with your dog.

DSC00626For those of us who are clicker trainers, this sweet spot of connectedness is very accessible. So much of how we teach our dogs is about noticing them, what they are doing, how they are moving, even what they are looking at. We have to step away from the cacophony of everyday life to experience this. How else could we adequately capture and shape behavior? We’re providing feedback to our dog who, quite literally, is figuring out a training puzzle. We’d better show up, pay attention, be present. This is communication at its best, both actors fully aware (dare I say mindful), and in contact – psychological contact. How cool that so often not a single word is spoken.

These intense learning moments are a great and necessary joy. But, for me, they are not enough. The days are busy and the outside forces on our lives are relentless. We get into our routines and the work of training can sometimes feel done. We get swept up in jobs and traffic and email and the comings and goings of friends – let’s meet here – so good to see you – we must do this more often. We feed the dogs, take them out, maybe for a walk while we check social media on our phones. They seem fine, these easy-going noble creatures. The dogs are fine. So patient. So forgiving. But it’s not enough – not for them – not for us either.

Have you every felt a rush of joy when you look directly at your dog and see him looking back? Does the room seem to quiet down? Does your breathing slow a bit? These moments actually cause a release of the hormone Oxytocin. The love we feel is physical – measurable. Our dogs have oxytocin too and it’s a two way street, this hormone induced warm-fuzzy feeling. I can feel it when I train, but that’s not the only time. Oxytocin helps us bond with each other, other humans, and apparently with our dogs too. By all accounts, it’s good for us. It keeps us sane and psychologically connected. But, once the training ebbs and eventually fades away, how to we recreate these important moments, and the powerful  feelings of wholeness and relationship that come with them?

Stop, just for a moment or two. Step off and away from the world.

Every day (usually several times a day) I get on the floor with my dogs. It’s easy and I like easy. I put the phone away, leave the TV off, and set human conversation aside. Stella and Stewie and I just hang out. We show up and hang out. Sometimes Stella brings me a ball. More often now she sidles up for some petting while Stewie cuddles in my lap. We stay this way for as long as we can, with a nod to Dr. Rogers, while we soak in all that our shared biochemistry is designed to provide.

It’s amazing and good for us and I can’t get enough. Stewie and I play. Stella tugs and retrieves. Sometimes the dogs and I swim together. We all act silly together. So, Maybe it’s my age or the fact that so much of my life is about dogs, but these moments give me pause (and paws). I’ll look at Stella or Stewie and think to myself I don’t ever want to forget this. This is what life with dogs should be about. Stop and step into what is happening, what you are feeling, and seeing and experiencing – right now.

That’s the way it was in the big training room in Kirkwood, Missouri all those years ago. Just me and a golden retriever named Juno a couple dozen steps away. This moment. That dog. Everything else slipping loose just for a moment, maybe two. Never forgetting. Even now, I remember it so well.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in dogs with behavior related to fearfulness, including aggressive behavior.


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The Allure of Punishment

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I’ll start with a bold statement of my opinion. It is normal for us humans to feel compelled to punish our dogs when they do something we don’t like. Normal. Punishment, by definition, makes the behavior stop – even if only for a short while. When our dog’s annoying or upsetting behavior stops – our behavior, by definition, is reinforced. “Effective punishment reinforces the punisher, who is therefore more likely to punish again in the future, even when antecedent arrangements and positive reinforcement would be equally, or more, effective.” (Friedman, 2010).

We punish, or attempt to punish, all the time. And we aim our vitriol all over the place, not just at our dogs. A guy tries to cut us off in traffic and we honk or we flip him off or both. If he stops we are reinforced. We may feel better even if he doesn’t. Our dog barks – we yell – he stops. Our behavior is reinforced. Dog pulls – yank collar – he slows. You see where this is going.

We get hooked on punishment. In some cases we can’t even think about how to influence behavior any other way. And as Dr. Susan Friedman (2010) notes, punishment doesn’t help us teach our dog what we want him to do. Stop barking. Stop pulling. Okay, but now what? What do we want the dog to do?

Houston-dog-Stella-KitchenAdd to that, our actions may only punish the dog’s misbehavior in the moment or in a certain context. The effect is fleeting. The dog may stop pulling for a moment or two and then resume (same with barking or… name your doggie crime). That often leads to chronic yelling, leash yanking, or worse. Our attempts to punish increase in frequency and intensity, true testament that they are not having any lasting effect. Before long it’s simply indiscriminate abuse.

And there are other problems, especially when it comes to how fear and pain in the name of training can affect our dog. Studies dating back decades point to the emotional damage fear and pain have on the dog being punished. The data is clear, not only as it relates to dogs but other species including human children. The use of physical violence as a means of training correlates with anxiety related behavior in dogs (Hiby et al., 2004). Specifically there is a relationship between physical punishment and aggression in dogs (Hsu and Sun, 2010). In many cases using confrontational training techniques can elicit an immediate aggressive response from the dog, putting the human in danger (Herron, Shofer, Riesner, 2009).

But, we still do it. Our punishing behavior is reinforced. No matter that the effects are temporary. They are immediate and we get hooked. Sometimes, nothing beats a quick fix for a human. The cost to the dog takes a back seat to convenience. There are still trainers who sell it, teach it, and never look back. In many places, not to mention TV and the Internet, that’s the norm. Punish. Jerk. Pinch. Hit. Shock. Do what it takes to assert your will and assume dominance. If you care to be more euphemistic, give a correction. It’s all the same to the dog, and the flaws and side effects remain nonetheless.

So what are we, the punishment addicted, to do? Admit to the problem? Make amends? Begin behaving differently? I’m not being cheeky. The answer to all is, “yes.”

The Science of behavior change is unambiguous. It points us clearly and unashamedly in the direction of positive reinforcement training. Like the old and outdated ways, it too yields quick results. But the effects are lasting. Positive reinforcement is also the communication tool we are looking for to teach our dogs what we want them to do. There are no unanswered questions. Instead of barking, come here – lie down – relax. Instead of pulling – walk here – keep an eye on me. And, the side effects? They are nothing short of delightful – joy, enthusiasm, and an eagerness in our dogs for learning.

As the cliché goes, it’s up to us. We can learn. We can get hooked on today’s training methods and leave yesterday’s in the dust. We can take on the burden, a light one at that, of learning some new skills. We can take the burden off our dogs. The allure of positive reinforcement training: seeing our dogs behave better, thrive, and succeed. That, too, can be very reinforcing.

Michael is a dog trainer and behavior consultant. He specializes in fearful and aggressive dog behavior in Houston, TX

Correcting Unwanted Behavior with Positive Reinforcement

 

Michael Baugh KPA-CTP CDBC CPDT-KSA

It seems like a contradiction. How do we eliminate our dog’s misbehavior with positive reinforcement?

The first step is to focus on what you want your dog to do rather than on what you don’t want him to do. This approach works with all misbehavior, but let’s look at one example in particular: the dog who menaces visitors with barking and growling. We know the problem, but let’s not focus on it. Instead let’s ask ourselves what we’d like to see the dog do when visitors come over instead of barking and growling. Quietly lying in his crate might be a good alternative. Great. Let’s use positive reinforcement training (clicker training, perhaps) to teach the dog to go lie in his crate when guests arrive. The misbehavior is eliminated (replaced actually), and we used positive reinforcement to do it.

Old-fashioned trainers will balk at this idea. Why? Dr. Susan Friedman, professor of psychology at Utah State University, says it’s simply “the perennial gap between research and practice.” Trainers, even some on TV, focus heavily on the dog’s misbehavior. They’re constrained by ever-forceful practices aimed at suppressing what they don’t want the dog to do. Here’s the disconnect. Behavior scientists have known for decades that punishment (intimation in the name of training) has its limitations and side effects. Dogs subjected to these methods often withdraw from social interaction, have suppressed responses to training cues, escalate their aggressive responses, or develop generalized fear (Friedman, 2001). Too many trainers have simply failed to keep up with the research.

But what about safety? If we don’t focus on the problem, in this example aggressive behavior, aren’t we putting people at risk of being bitten? Foregoing archaic methods does not mean we are being gratuitous or precarious in our training. Instead, at every step, we block our dog’s access to repeating the unwanted behavior. In the example at hand, we avoid surprise visitors while we build up the behavior of lying in the crate. As needed, we’d use a leash, baby gate, or other barrier to protect visitors while we refine the fluency of the crate-lying behavior. As we progress, we add other pro-active behaviors related to teaching our dog calm confidence when visitors are present. We’re safe and we’re smart about what and how we are teaching our dog.

And there’s a bonus with all this. Just as harsh training has its deleterious side effects (sometimes called “fall out”), positive reinforcement training has it’s emotional benefits. Dogs who are trained with praise, smiles, and well-timed food treats (again, think clicker training) are generally more engaged socially, respond with vigor to training, and respond more reliably with reduced aggression. This is where research and training practices merge.

As always, real behavior change in our dogs starts with human behavior change. We learn and choose modern training methods. We focus on behavior solutions rather than getting mired in behavior problems. We take responsibility for our dogs’ learning, and we take on an advocacy role for them as a result. We step out from under the burden of having to be a master. We step up to the experience of being a companion and a teacher.

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA helps families with aggressive dogs in Houston, TX.

The Facts About Punishment, Susan Friedman PhD 2001

Functional Assessment: Hypothesizing Predictors and Purposes of Problem Behavior to Improve Behavior-Change Plans, Susan Friedman PhD 2009