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My daughter was invited to the circus last week by a classmate celebrating her 7th birthday. The circus comes regularly to a very nearby venue, but I’d successfully avoided it up to this point. The kids all enjoyed themselves, of course, and were especially excited to see real live elephants and tigers. I remember my own awe as a child being exposed to such creatures.

To say I felt conflicted would be an understatement, especially while watching the lions and tigers perform. It’s hard to know exactly how much of such an act is scripted versus accidental. But a number of those big cats looked genuinely pissed, and the third time one of the females balked at a cue and then ran at the trainer, it did not look choreographed.

Likely all part of the show on some level, but is that even any better?

My three-year-old son pretty much summed up the absurdity of the evening when he exclaimed quizzically, “Look, it’s tigers on stools!”

Why yes, my son. This is how men demonstrate their physical prowess and mental superiority over other living creatures–by making them sit on stools.

Or, in the case of the majestic killer whale, by housing them in fishbowls and training them to splash tourists.

The maiden post to this blog was in response to the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World’s Orlando park. It was the third death associated with the bull orca Tilikum, known to tourists as Shamu.

That post was flip in some respects, but the business of keeping killer whales for fun and profit is not. It does speak directly to my problem with gauging the humaneness of a training program purely according to which learning quadrants happen to dominate. And sadly, it speaks to the power of money to distort our judgement.

I think it’s well established that a higher percentage of clicker-trained killer whales actually kill their trainers than do dogs trained by any method. I do not mean that as an indictment of clicker-training.  I mean it as a challenge to the dual myths that A) killer whales are a model of reliable behavior compared to dogs, and B) their handling is a model of humane training.

What we do to killer whales is an atrocity without moral justification, in my opinion. They suffer lives of abject deprivation, void of any genuine opportunities to self-reward. They are prisoners of our selfish desire to engage with an intelligent species that wants little to do with us, absent our trapping and keeping them like lab rats.

Positive reinforcement based operant conditioning has proven utility both within and without the confining walls of zoos and amusement parks. I don’t deny that. I deny the legitimacy of extending the analogy between dogs and killer whales to the point of suggesting the best tools for engaging the latter must also be the best choice for training the former. And to the extent I personally find the level of management involved in captive marine mammal training to be abusive, I think there is some danger associated with modeling dog training practices after that example.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

[The following was written for Animal Behavior College in response to a request for an article on balanced training.]

I’m not big on labels, especially empty ones. Tags like positive or balanced don’t signify much, in my opinion, beyond the public image a trainer wishes to project. These are marketing terms, not definable training methods. Yet all of dogdom seems to have settled into the opinion that every trainer is either one or the other.

The more serious trainers I get to know from both sides of the supposed divide, the more I reject this idea. But if pressed, I do identify as balanced, and will continue to do so going forward, regardless how the scales of positive and negative or punishment and reinforcement truly fall within my programs. Balanced may not go a long way toward conveying what I do, but it’s not inaccurate, and I like to think it evokes something of what I actually mean when I use it to describe myself and my colleagues.

To my mind, balanced trainers are by and large pragmatic. We approach tools and methods sensibly, unfettered by politics or ideology. We do what works, within an ethical framework involving fair expectations, clear communication, and respect for the dog in front of us. This may mean building a foundation of understanding and enthusiasm via positive reinforcement, then layering instructional corrections overtop to enhance reliability and steadiness under distraction. It may mean choosing negative reinforcement or positive punishment first, if so doing resolves a problem safely and efficiently. In all cases, it means remaining flexible, reading the dog at every turn, and keeping all options on the table.

Balanced training is unapologetically results oriented. Results matter, both to the client rightly expecting some deliverables, and to the dog, whose quality of life may ultimately depend a great deal more on whether his owner may walk him confidently in public or take him hiking off-leash, than on which quadrants of operant conditioning happened to land the dog such opportunities. Good results also represent the most reliable indicator that a given method is sound, which is not to say ends justify means. Means, particularly highly aversive or costly ones, are justified by the knowledge and experience that they represent the optimal path toward a good result, not the mere hope of achieving one. Being results oriented is not about being a cowboy. It is about being open to both new and traditional tools and methods as long as they have practical utility, and being prepared to do some amount of internal calculus before settling on the best approach.

Photo courtesy of Lionheart K9

Balanced trainers acknowledge that the deliberate inclusion of aversives within a training program is neither inhumane nor unscientific. Our commitment to canine welfare and fostering healthy relationships between dogs and people does not inhibit us from taking ownership of those aversives we employ. We focus our energies on applying them productively and responsibly, whether via electronic collar or head halter, with maximum efficiency and minimal risk. Denying their legitimate (and largely unavoidable) role in training and behavior modification both constrains trainers unnecessarily and inhibits frank discussion of how more socially acceptable tools and protocols actually work.

There have been some major shifts in dog training culture over the past several decades. On the upside, there’s been a great surge of interest and innovation, along with a new emphasis on ethical standards and humane methods. On the downside, it has become highly politicized, and lousy with specious claims driven by competition over market share. Balanced trainers recognize their work as existing on a continuum with what dog men have been doing for centuries, not as a departure so radical as to deny their influence and contributions to our field. Even if our approach bears little outward resemblance to the training of old, we refuse to reject traditional tools based on popular trends, and balk at the arrogant dismissal of generations of skilled and accomplished trainers as backward thinking relics.

In the end, it’s a matter of devotion to craft ahead of devotion to methodology.

Does every trainer currently advertising himself as balanced conform to my private definition? No, but I think it holds true for the balanced trainers I know best and attempt to model myself after, including a number who do not identify as such.

Whether positive trainers will mainly sympathize with or feel excluded by the above, I cannot guess. But I invite them to rethink the utility of defining ourselves according to terms that are ultimately more divisive than descriptive, and to help move our industry away from empty labels and toward an honest discussion of what we really do and why.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

Check out this old footage from a dog training club in the Netherlands. I’m guessing it’s close to a hundred years old. By the way, there are three Bouviers in it.

Steve White presented this video at the APDT conference last week. It’s by a UK trainer, Chirag Patel of Domesticated Manners, whose Youtube channel is definitely worth visiting. Here’s a lovely demonstration of how he teaches a Drop cue. It’s very similar in some ways to how I introduce my Leave It command, although those exercises include the additional goal of reorientation and movement away from the item.

I really like how Patel uses his hands to help the dog find the food from the very beginning, and find the narration very thorough and instructive. I also like that he included a handling mistake in the final cut, explaining what he did wrong and demonstrating a corrected approach immediately afterward.

I am a balanced trainer. I use a wide range of tools and approaches as I see fit, and have no moral or ethical qualms with using punishment skillfully and responsibly to meet training goals. I view dog training pragmatically, as a matter of choosing the optimal path for each dog/client team, respectful of individual needs and preferences, but not bound up in specious notions of self-perfection or personal growth.

I do not see dog training as a contest between me and the dog, and have come to bitterly resent the appropriation of the term “balanced” by trainers whose attitude toward dogs is essentially combative.

Forcing unnecessary confrontations is no more “balanced” than a head halter is “positive”. It’s also nothing like genuine leadership, which involves inspiring trust and respect, providing guidance when needed, setting fair boundaries, and creating stability.

Nowhere is this more important than in the context of working with aggression, yet one still hears trainers refer to gloving up and doing battle in such cases, as if resolving aggression issues was simply a matter of going mano a mano.

I tend to attribute this mindset to the combined influence of dog training as television drama, our natural fascination with aggression and its traditional role as a professional proving ground, and the old school myth that one need bring aggression out in order to address it.

Of course, most balanced trainers are not actively looking for a fight. But some are clearly a little too eager to prove they can win a confrontation, or maybe just too comfortable in that arena to bother avoiding one. I would have to put Cesar Milan in the latter category, as his obvious confidence in his physical prowess seems to tempt him into triggering aggression fairly casually.  And in balanced trainer circles, one frequently encounters those who seem to be courting aggression unnecessarily, and, in some cases, suffering the consequences.

Now, for the record, I’m not suggesting that every trainer who’s ever been bitten was asking for it.

I’ve been bitten a number of times, once trying to get a tennis ball away from a
bull mastiff at a dog park before she swallowed it, once breaking up a fight,
once leashing up a kennel-crazy dogo-mix, once in the leg (redirected
aggression), and once because I reflexively reached for the collar of an
aggressive Rottweiler in a moment of confusion (he’d just gotten loose from
another handler). Those were all legit bites requiring medical attention. The
last one was probably four years ago. But none occurred in a training context.

The only time I’ve been bitten while training a dog was around two years ago, when I was nipped by a year-old cattle dog with zero bite inhibition. (Before anyone starts an argument over the meaning of bite inhibition, let me note that this cattle dog was not protesting anything, just executing a Touch command.) I honestly don’t remember if I needed a band aid, but I know I didn’t take it personally.

Again, good trainers can occasionally get bitten in the course of training. But good trainers are damn careful. They not only aren’t looking for a fight, but know how to avoid stumbling into one. As to how that’s accomplished, there are clearly more ways than one. I can only speak for myself, and don’t consider myself an expert, despite a reasonably good track record.

First, I don’t generally use muzzles in training contexts. I own a bunch and use them occasionally while socializing an aggressive dog. I’m not saying it’s wrong to use muzzles while training, just saying I don’t. They interfere with the dog’s demonstration of natural body language, and cause most to feel nervous and/or compromised, potentially inhibiting normal behavior. They can also embolden the handler to take greater risks, as with pushing a dog too close to–or over–threshold. As a friend who worked as a motorcycle messenger once expounded, “I ride a lot more carefully when not wearing a helmet.” Personally, I don’t find helmets to be an issue. But a muzzle is a game changer, and it’s a game I don’t care to play.

Now I will employ a second line, either in conjunction with a second handler, or a tethered to a wall or post. That’s kept me safe in cases where I suspected the dog might come up the leash. And at least in the colder months, I’ve been known to strategically don my trusty pair of Carhartt overalls, just in case.

I don’t train aggressive dogs on psychotropic meds, and I don’t train aggressive
dogs I can’t read, or feel genuinely uncomfortable with. In at least two cases,
that’s meant instructing the client without handling the dog myself at all. In
one case, it meant referring the client out. That dog should probably have been
euthanized (and maybe has been).

I’m not suggesting I read all dogs with ease, by the way, only that I happen to be able to read most of the ones that present to me as clients. There are frankly certain breeds I see so infrequently, that I would hesitate to work with a genuinely aggressive one. (Akitas come to mind.) Bully breeds, on the other hand, are my bread and butter, so I’ve had a lot more practice reading them (and they’re just easier, too, I suspect).

Mostly, I train the dog at whatever pace he needs, in order to keep him
fundamentally on board with the project. That means keeping a sharp eye on the
threshold for a bite at any given moment, and maintaining a keen awareness of
the dog’s overall stress level. Sometimes, it means breaking lessons down into
very tiny steps, so as not to risk confusion or frustration. Sometimes (not
often) it means backing out of an exercise as gracefully as possible, and
revisiting it more carefully or intelligently just a little later on.

I still remember one session with a two-year-old American bulldog mix, newly enrolled in a board/train program. He’d been impressively responsive to a number of introductory exercises, seemed quite enthusiastic, and took the occasional correction totally in stride…until I decided to review his down command. He visibly tensed and braced himself. I went slowly, knowing I had unwittingly trespassed onto precarious ground. I’d given the cue, and felt obliged to enforce it. But just as he averted his gaze in the manner of a dog preparing to bite, I made the call to abort the exercise, returning briefly to something less stressful and ending on a high note, rather than a trip to the emergency room.

Not so long after that, I found myself listening to a young enthusiastic trainer explaining how she’d been bitten in the course of demonstrating an exercise with a client dog. She’d gotten herself into an intractable situation in the course of enforcing a command, and wound up the story with the words, “But you know, you can’t back down. You gotta win, right?”

Sure, if you call that winning.

I acknowledge skillful training can include conflict between dog and handler. But I’m against courting such conflicts
(whether intentionally or carelessly) or rushing headlong into them.

Training should be a collaboration, not between equals, but between parties that
share mutual respect. Sometimes, I think that respect is expressed by a trainer
backing off, and coming back with a better strategy, rather than coming back
with more gear.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

Following the assessment, a trainer should have some sense as to how a number of factors may be contributing to the reactive dog’s behavior. I tend to think of these factors in terms of three key areas:

  • Baseline response to trigger (absent other factors)
  • Dynamic between dog and handler (relationship/history)
  • Skill deficit (dog and handler)

Each area relates to one dimension of a comprehensive training strategy. Of course, there are some cases where only one or two of the above factors are truly in play, but those are rare in my experience. Most reactive dogs I encounter can benefit from all three areas being addressed, at least to some extent.

So, my training program will involve various measures of the following:

  • Socialization (when feasible), desensitization, counter-conditioning
  • Leadership and management coaching
  • Formal obedience (including handling instruction)

There is some overlap among them, too. Basic leash handling instruction, for example, relates to leadership, management, and obedience. Using food in proximity to a known trigger, may both reward compliance with a cue and have a counter-conditioning effect.

My immediate goal when beginning work with a reactive dog client, is to give him or her a way to handle the dog more productively in those real-life situations that are impossible to avoid, give them some exercises for building their dog’s attentiveness, responsiveness, and overall skill-level in the mean-time, and teach them some basic principles regarding what promotes leash reactivity versus what promotes better behavior.

My long-term goal is to build a dog/owner team that

  • Experiences substantively less stress in the face of triggers
  • Enjoys a healthy, balanced relationship involving clear communication
  • Has the skill necessary to cope with a wide array of real-life situations, including compliance with basic cues under stress or distraction

In other words, I want the dog to have a more relaxed and/or positive (not always the same thing or equally desirable) emotional response to any former triggers, but also want the owner to have enough influence over the dog (via their relationship and their obedience practice) that he or she need not depend on the dog exercising good judgement on its own in every case. Instead, the dog should be prepared to defer to his owner’s judgement when required, reflecting his owner’s attitude rather than acting on his own.

NOTE: The IAABC Facebook Chat on Leash Reactivity starts at 1PM Eastern Time (12PM Chicago). Please join me via IAABC’s FB page.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

Since proposing Leash Aggression as a chat topic to IAABC, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I think about it. And I’ve been doing my best to organize my thoughts into easy-to-type bits.

As an urban trainer, I assess and address leash reactivity on a regular basis, and over the years my opinions and strategies have evolved with experience, including many successes, a few notable failures, and all the cases that will forever live somewhere in between.

First order of business is the assessment, which varies from case to case depending on time and logistics, but should always include some determination of what contexts tend to trigger aggression/reactivity, as well as some evaluation of the relative influence of various factors.

Context includes location, identity of handler, relationship to handler, identity of trigger, proximity and behavior of trigger, handling methods and equipment, and stimulation level prior to reaction.

Depending on one’s history taking procedure, one may be able to determine all or most of the above without actually meeting the dog, and may focus one’s face-to-face time more exclusively on the nuances and relative significance of each individual element.

In the interview, the trainer should stay alert to home brewed analysis offered as fact. Statements like, “My dog hates men,” or “He’s just fearful/protective/dominant,” may or may not bear some relation to reality. When I interview clients, I try to steer them toward the objective delivery of useful data. I offer prompts like, “Tell me what you saw,” and “Describe what that looked like,” and ask follow-up questions such as “Does your dog react this way to [fill in the blank] consistently or randomly?”

After collecting background information, it’s time to look at each factor and identify the most important.  Suppose a dog presents with a history of aggression toward men when handled by his female owner on walks in their neighborhood. Possible factors might include

  1. The dog’s “baseline” attitude toward men (absent other factors)
  2. The owner’s attitude toward men
  3. Proximity and behavior of trigger (men) in relation to dog or owner
  4. The dog’s relationship to owner
  5. The owner’s handling habits/methods (including tools used)
  6. Location (dog’s perceived territory?)
  7. Dog’s arousal level/lack of self-control
  8. Dog’s temperament

The business of determining which factors are most relevant is fairly straightforward, but require some amount of flexibility and resources. I mainly conduct evaluations at my training facility, which allows me to assess the dog on neutral territory, potentially away from the owner, thereby isolating the presumed trigger and providing total control over its proximity and behavior.

One thing I’m normally adamant about, is not deliberately generating the reactive behavior, either in the context of my initial consultation or maybe ever. This has to do both with my role as a behavior consultant and trainer, as well as my experience dealing with reactive dogs. It’s been my experience that most dogs may be adequately assessed sub-threshold, and that it’s most productive, particularly in the beginning, to keep them that way. Mainly, I think one needs to be clear going in, as to whether the goal is to see “how bad” versus “how trainable” is the dog. Because the two are sometimes incompatible.

NOTE: I happened to choose aggression toward men as my example, although I expect the upcoming chat to focus mainly on dog-dog reactivity. The same principles of assessment apply either way.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

Please join me Tuesday afternoon on IAABC’s Facebook page, for a one-hour chat on the topic of leash aggression and reactivity. I’ll be sharing what I know, or at least what I’m capable of typing in an hour, about assessing and addressing this category of behavior problem. Questions welcome, along with any input from fellow trainers.

IAABC FB chats are open to dog owners and professionals. The more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.

If at all possible, I’ll post a few introductory thoughts on the topic here a day or two ahead, just to get the ball rolling. Along with practicing typing with two hands.

After about two hours of driving, the four teams on our sled dog outing made a pit stop at the Granite hot springs. Although there was enough snow on the trail to accommodate this final run of the season, it was clear the dogs would have preferred cooler temperatures.

Here are some pics of the sled dogs at rest.

This was the view a few minutes after setting out from the kennel.

Our lead pair, both female.

I think that’s the Hobart River down there, but don’t quote me.

Flapjack, one of the breakfast foods litter.


spot-check: to sample or investigate quickly or at random

My Thought Exactly

"There's facts about dogs, and there's opinions about them. The dogs have the facts, and the humans have the opinions." --J. Allen Boone

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© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ruth Crisler and Spot Check with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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