How We Feed Our Dogs Can Make Them Smarter

 

Michael Baugh KPA-CTP CDBC CPDT-KSA

Feeding our dogs from enrichment toys, toys that dispense food, can actually make them smarter. It definitely seems to make them happy. Puzzling out the food inspires activity and thought. A lot of trainers liken it to the skills a scavenging dog or a hunting dog would need in order to eat the food they’d found or killed. Other trainers, me included, have noticed that it helps our dogs focus, activating their brains in a way boring bowl feeding simply doesn’t.

Food-Toy-BW (1)It turns out we’re probably right. Animals (and human animals) who successfully learn challenging skills are more likely to be successful at subsequent challenging skills. In other words, succeeding at hard stuff makes us better at doing more hard stuff.

The research actually dates back to the late 1970s. I came across it in Angela Duckworth’s great book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She cites the research of Dr. Robert Eisenberger from the University of Houston. He showed that rats that mastered a complicated task to earn food pellets, pressing a lever multiple times, we able to master subsequent complicated tasks (like running a maze) more easily. In fact they learned new tasks with more vigor and endurance. He ran related studies with children and college students in the 1980s with similar results. Eisenberger called the process Learned Industriousness. 

Are our dogs learning to be more industrious because we feed them from food-dispensing toys? I think so. The task-based eating process is similar to what Eisenberger used, teaching the animal to work for the food.  It also aligns with what many clicker trainers have observed. Dogs who learn tasks seem to learn how to learn. As they come to understand the process, the learning seems to come faster.

Almost all of my clients report that Mat Work, teaching their dog to lie on a mat, helps the dog become more focused. Mat Work is fairly complicated because it challenges the dog to figure out what do do with the mat (lie down on it) on his own. We don’t provide instructions, only feedback via clicks and treats. It’s a puzzle for the dog to solve. When we set it up properly and provide honest and clear reinforcement the dog figures it out, usually pretty quickly. It’s a hard skill that sets our dog up for more learning – for mastering other hard skills. In the clear light of Eisenberger’s research, all this seems to make more sense now. For a great primer on how Mat Work works, read Fired Up Frantic and Freaked Out by Laura Van Arendonk Baugh (no relation).

How do we teach our dogs learned industriousness? Let’s start with the toys. There are lots of great food-dispensing toys on the market. For beginners I recommend the Bob-A-Lot (pictured above). It’s perfect for feeding dry food. I’m also a big fan of the KONG Classic, which truly is a classic. Both are available online and at local retailers.

Michael Baugh KPA-CTP CDBC CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in helping dogs with aggression and fearful behavior

How Dog Training Makes us Better Humans

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I come to this work with few, if any, ulterior motives. I’m certainly not being manipulative, nor am I conducting any mad scientist experiments (benevolent or otherwise). I will admit, though, a bit of warm satisfaction when I see what dog training does to people.

Yes, even on the face of it, training our dogs helps us a great deal. It’s no secret. This is a human endeavor. We benefit as much as our dogs. Reinforcement based (think non-coercive) training helps dogs make better decisions. It helps them behave better. In turn, the dog stays in his home, lives longer, and seems more joyful. Humans? Well it’s a big relief when the bad dog goes good. Win-win all around. Everyone’s happier.

But, in my experience some other things are happening too. I’ve noticed a trend over these 16+ years in dog training. When a human being starts thinking about his dog differently, when he uses smiles and praise and food in training, when he sets aside his anger and force and restraint, something happens. There’s a change, not just in the dog. It’s a human change, sometimes subtle, but no less real.

This is what I’ve noticed:

IMG_0861We speak less and listen more. Of course when we think of listening to our dogs, what we really mean is we watch them. Folks who’ve learned how to communicate with and teach their dogs using force-free methods do this a bit differently, though. We really watch our dogs, with soft attentive eyes, like we’re looking at a brilliant painting, or watching a fascinating film for the fist time. All of the stories we tell on our dogs, all the commands and admonitions, they all fall silent. We change. Not so much the dog, but the human, we change. We stop looking for error and evil and we start seeking out our dog’s goodness, his correctness, and his best moments of simply being.

When we do speak, our words flow from kindness. What else can we say? When we start noticing our dogs differently, we speak better of them. They are two human behaviors naturally and inextricably connected. See goodness of being; speak the same. And, we smile. We are touched and we touch; we praise; we celebrate our dogs with food and play and quiet moments. We connect at a level that seems sometimes hard to explain to others.

And, then we cross the line. This is the part so many of us never saw coming. We learn how to be and how to act with our dogs. Our dogs learn in turn how to be and how to act with us. They reflect the lesson back and teach us and before long, so often, the lesson spills over. I’ve seen it happen first hand. It’s real – inexplicable maybe – undeniable nonetheless. We start treating each other differently. So much in the habit of seeking and supporting goodness, celebrating the actions we love from the beings we love, we start doing it more. With each other. We cross the line. We watch each other with soft attentive eyes. We speak to each other from a place of kindness. It’s God’s work or Dog’s work. Backwards and forwards, it is what it is.

IMG_0816 (1)I’ve left people’s homes too many times with butterflies in my gut and an impish (smug?) smile on my face for it to be mere coincidence. Dogs on the line, we trainers know all about them. Families on the line, we talk too little about them I think. I’m not being manipulative, no indeed. But once the door is opened, it’s hard to shut. See for the first time how reinforcement changes not only your dog’s behavior, but also how you feel about your dog, and you won’t soon forget it. See how it helps create long-lasting nurturing relationships with your fellow humans, with the people you love, and it’s nothing less than life changing. How could it not be?

I’ve seen it happen, witnessed it first hand to many times for it to be my imagination. In and out for a few sessions, job well-done, thank you very much, call me if you need more help. But don’t think I didn’t see it – the child and parent smiling and working together, the man in love with his wife more so now because she loves his dog, the family listening – taking turns – encouraging each other – just like they do with the dog.

I’m no mad scientist. In fact, I take no credit. It’s like I tell my clients. I just have some information. You get to make all the decisions. This is all you.

Michael teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in helping families with fearful and aggressive dogs.

Is Love Enough?

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA

For those of us who know dogs, really know them, the love comes easily.  And for those involved in the hard and difficult work of rescue and sheltering, there is no shortage of love.  It’s what fuels us, what keeps us going day after day.  It’s what sees us through the anguish and the tears to get out once again and rescue and shelter some more.  Love is the thing.  But is it enough?

Psychiatrist Aaron Beck was writing about human relationships when he jumped to the answer.  His book from the late 80’s was called Love is Never Enough.  His idea was for people, especially couples, to use the tools of cognitive therapy to improve their lives together.  Listen.  Separate out feelings (at least don’t jump to feelings first). Be mindful.  Love was not enough.  It never was.  We had to think as well.

What would Aaron Beck say about those of us who rescue and shelter dogs?  Do we love too much?  Does our love ricochet us into darker emotions, sadness, anger, hate, and despair? Does it paralyze us; keep us from acting at all because the problem of abandoned and suffering dogs is just too big?  That was my story up until recently. Is love not only “never enough,” but is it also sometimes what gets in the way of doing the work?  I won’t speculate on what Dr. Beck would say.

Here is what we do know, the sad facts:

  • Too many dogs are abandoned or born into homelessness. In Houston the numbers are huge.
  • These dogs suffer from health issues ranging from mange to broken bodies to heartworms.  Most rescue groups raise funds for the proper medical treatment for all of the animals in their care.
  • Nearly every one of these dogs also suffers from behavior problems ranging from poor manners to extreme fear of humans to aggression toward humans or other dogs.  Very few rescue groups provide professionally structured behavior care for any of their animals.

That last point interests me the most.  Here’s why.  89.7% of dogs end up in shelters in the first place because of behavior problems (Wells and Hepper 2000).  My colleague, Carolyn Grob, presented this bit of data and more at a recent Project Rusty Seminar in Houston (more about Project Rusty in a moment).  So, we know going into this that at least 89% of dogs in rescue and shelters are there because of behavior problems.  We know it like we know they have mange or a broken leg or heartworms.

Connecting the dots is pretty easy.  If we help the dogs in our care learn better behavior, we increase the chance that their adoption will be successful and lasting.  We justify the time and expense involved the same way we justify medical treatment. Adopters don’t want a mangy dog. Guess what? They don’t want a rude freaked out dog either.

So, let’s get back to the love.  Won’t love and a little time heal most behavior issues, like fear and aggression? The short answer is no. In fact, with many dogs the problems just get worse. Can’t a dog learn to trust humans again? Yes, of course. But love and time are not enough, not really, not ever. And let’s not even talk about the jumping and leash pulling and other crazy hyper goofy behavior. Add some well-intentioned love and that unruliness can turn into downright rude-dog stuff. But, I digress.

What would Beck say? I’m not sure, but I have an idea. What if we step back from a moment and give this behavior thing some thought?  We won’t stop loving. We’ll just starting thinking a bit.  Let’s be mindful about training and behavior.  There’s a process to treating medical issues right? There has to be a process for helping dogs act better and feel better around their new humans. (Of course there is, said the trainer).

In fact, there’s a time-honored and well-tested process for teaching animals how to act and feel better. It boils down to showing the dogs in our care that their behavior (their actions) matter.  Good things happen when they behave a certain way (the way we like). Nothing much good happens when they don’t.  Because we’re using rewards (reinforcement) like food and play, we’re also teaching the dogs that we humans are safe, nice in fact.  We won’t get bogged down in the technical terms like Learning Theory and Classical Conditioning. We can just think of it like this. We teach the dogs what works for them in our crazy human world – and at the same time we teach them that we’re not all that crazy after all. Humans are pretty darn good it turns out.

The process is not hard. It can be fun once we get the hang of it. But, it’s not magic either. We have to show up, and we have to put in some effort.  Get the dog out of the crate, into a space where we can interact with him one-on-one, and let’s start training.  It’s like taking the dog to the vet for medical care, equally important, but with less hassle.  Forget Aaron Beck for a moment.  Here’s what trainer educator Ken Ramirez from The Shed Aquarium says: Training isn’t a luxury.  It’s an essential part of daily animal care.

“Wait a minute”, you might say, “I’m not a trainer.” Well, that’s where Project Rusty comes in.  That’s the group I mentioned a little bit ago. Project Rusty is a nonprofit organization in Houston with a mission to teach shelter staff and rescue volunteers how to be trainers. The truth is, you are already teaching the dogs in your care every day.  Every waking minute they are learning, not just from you but also from your family, the cat, the bird, and of course from the other dogs in your home. The question isn’t whether or not they’re being trained (they are).  The question is are they learning the stuff we want them to learn. Probably not.

Let’s change that. In the months and years ahead Project Rusty will be rolling out programs to help shelters and rescue groups better care for the behavioral health of their dogs. We’ve actually already started with interactive seminars. The next step will be more intensive learning programs for rescue groups, some of which are already in development. There will also be online resources for staff, volunteers and the general public. If behavior is the problem, then we will be the solution.  All of us.  Together.

So where’s the love? I can only speak for myself on this one. I love my dogs. I love some of my client’s dogs too, and most came from shelters and rescue groups. I write about love and compassion and hope and all the soft stuff. I’m that guy. Is love enough? Maybe not.  But, maybe that’s also not the right question.  Maybe the question is how do we love these dogs?  What is the thing?  What is the stuff of love? For me it’s the moment I look at a dog and understand and know in my heart and in my brain that she understands too. It’s communication, clichéd as that sounds. It’s learning and teaching and blurring the lines between the two. Who’s training whom?

Love is a verb.

When I’m training with my dog I am loving my dog. It’s in my actions, and hers too I think.  Teaching is loving.  Learning and teaching more is loving more. And, if that’s so then loving is the thing, loving thoughtfully with our actions.  It’s what we do, mindfully and wholeheartedly?  Can we ever really get enough?

Michael will be leading an interactive presentation about this topic on May 4th in Houston.  Visit his Houston Dog Training Events page for more information.