An Open Letter to Dog Trainers:

After 8 years of watching the results of shelters and animal control I knew what dog owners needed. You can’t have people hand you their dog and not figure it out after ten or fifteen thousand. Yes, they lie on exit questionnaires. That should be assumed. They say what they can to get themselves off the moral hook. As they are new to the process of giving up a dog the use trite, non-justifications – they’re moving, The dog digs holes. It jumps the fence. All may be true – but the questionnaire readers swallow the lies and discount the truth. That is because they haven’t received 10,000 dogs from people. They extract the data and then twist it to their own purpose.
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Puppy Mile Markers: By Request

Johnson_Bayou_road_signJustin Wilson, the famous Cajun comedian, tells a story about a city slicker who finds himself lost in a small Louisiana town. The man stops a small child and asks “Hey, child, if I take this road, where I gonna be at?” To which the boy answers, “It breaks my heart to tell you, mister, but, me, — I don’t know.” After asking about each of the roads in view, and getting the same answer, the man disgustedly comments, “Kid, you don’t know a darned thing!.” To which the child replies, “Maybe so, but I ain’t lost.”.

Like the city slicker in unfamiliar territory, many puppy owners find themselves in the position of being helplessly lost. By contrast, their puppies are like the child who has no idea of the outside world, but yet, “ain’t lost.” Finding the right training road for you and your puppy is similar to navigating to a known destination – it is a wise idea to know how to get there, before you start your trip. Continue reading

A Big ‘Day in the Life’: Dog Catcher Normal.

 The Big Day: Caution, this is the Real World. If you are squeamish you might want to skip it.
One morning I was doing euthanasia just like every other morning. The night before a 125 pound St. Bernard X Pit Bull was brought in by his owner along with a 14 week old puppy of similar breeding. The adult dog was intact. The owner handled him rather gingerly and gave as a reason for surrendering the dog that he couldn’t control him. Not a big deal. The next morning, however, I decided that we didn’t need either one of them to be adopted. If that sounds cold, it is. For the last three years working in shelters I was killing about a ton of animals a month, personally. I was purely objective about which dogs I killed, when. Continue reading

The Problem with Teaching ‘Other’ Behaviors:

I taught my Cattle Dog, Petey, to ‘roll over’ about two and a half years ago to please my wife. Both of us got tired of it, especially me – it competes with a preferred behavior of turning around to face an opposing direction. The other day, while working on turn around, Petey threw in a ‘roll over’. Why is that important? Because I have not reinforced that behavior for over two years, since he was a pup.Why is that important? BecausToyChargee it demonstrates a very important point. Teaching a competing behavior does not remove an existing behavior. You are merely adding to the dog’s repertoire. A simple miscue can instantly bring the behavior back, full strength. If you rely on teaching an ‘alternate’ behavior to suppress something you never want to see again, you run the risk of getting it when you least expect it. Continue reading

Keeping the Sucker in the Game: A Poker Lesson for Dog Trainers

dogsTo create a behavior with positive reinforcement there must be a minimum pay-off to keep the animal working. No matter what else you do, you must always remember to pay attention to the dog’s willingness to work. If you do that, you will have great latitude in how you run the process. For instance, many trainers attempt to always create “clear communication” so the dog learns in the least number of repetitions and is never confused. This goes back to B.F. Skinner’s only suggestion for creating behaviors – successive approximation. The idea is that you give tiny bits of information from repetition to repetition and the animal eventually gets to more complex behavior. That is like playing solitaire rather than Poker.
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“What Science Says”

coke-vending-machine-47815It is quite popular for animal trainers to claim that they use “scientific” methods. They also like to use the word “evidence-based” which implies that a higher standard of proof was used to find knowledge. Hogwash. It’s actually a cheap attempt to elevate their status and shut up the competition. Nothing more, nothing less. If you doubt the sweeping range of my accusation, let’s look at the real evidence – evidence that would stand up in a criminal court of law. Continue reading

Aversive Control: A biological and evolutionary perspective. Part 3

MousetrapNow that we’ve laid out the foundation for the topic it’s time to talk about specifics. First and foremost I have to clear up a widely held fantasy. Training is not the only situation where your dog might experience some fear inspiring or painful events. People who predict dire consequences from using aversive control in training seem ignorant of this fact. Scary and often painful events are part of life. Dogs are built to deal with it. Some of those events change a dog’s behavior and sometimes – like a vet performing a terrifying and/or painful procedure – they simply have to bite the bullet.
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Contrast: The Secret to Changing Behaviors Effectively – Pt. 1

At any given time in a dog’s life there exists a readiness to be influenced by the environment. The dog’s senses are designed to monitor every waking moment for changes or anomalies. This means more than you think. It is not simply novelty that triggers focus. It is more than that. Any deviation at all is noticed. Deviation itself creates novelty. That can include the absence of some normally occurring thing, an odd combination of objects or sequences that are individually long-standing associations.
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