Chump Change, small potatoes, nickel and dime:

I love the English language. My mother had serious disabilities from a dubious back surgery for a couple of years. I was a very active 3 ½ year old little boy. She was stuck with bed-rest and couldn’t even go down the steps into our backyard. (The little Demon with his first dog, Rusty. A contemporary photo)  I rustynmewould taunt her as she stood on the steps and demanded that I come in the house. What’s a mother to do? Teach the little demon how to read. She would lie in bed and hold the book for me as we went from one word to the other. I loved looking at words and finding their secrets. I am the proud owner of a 1908 unabridged Webster’s, leather bound library dictionary, well worn. I still read it.

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Commands and Signals Revisited:

Ivan Pavlov, the great Russian physiologist, said that in order to survive, animals must have a way to identify beneficial and harmful events before they actually occur. More simply, he said that if a dog had to wait for the claws of a bear to sink into his flesh before he reacted to the threat, there would be no dogs. Likewise, if animals could not learn that thunder in the distance preceded a flash flood or that the snap of a twig preceded a succulent deer, they would be unable to avoid harmful events or take advantage of available entrees. If these examples sound far to simplistic for great science, think again. Sometimes the very best scientific information helps us build secure foundations for more complex knowledge. In the case of Ivan Pavlov, the diligence of his work pays off big-time for anyone interested in the most fundamental of dog training skills.

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Abuse or Not Abuse, That is the Question:

About 15 years ago, I spoke at a conference of one of the largest dog training professional organizations. I gave a demonstration of how to safely and quickly stop food aggression. My demonstrator for the event was a five-year-old German Shepherd – not just any German Shepherd. This dog was a FEMA certified search dog. Her problem was that as she grew older, she started attacking any dog that came near while there was food present – which in most cases was another search dog.

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Gradual Desensitization and Counter Conditioning: Too little, too late

Author: Gary Wilkes
From a presentation at the Central Veterinary Conference, San Diego 2010

In the world of modern behavior therapy, there are two popular mainstays – gradual desensitization and counter conditioning. If a dog is terrified of thunderstorms, one plays back a sound recording of thunder at very low volume and “desensitizes” the dog to the thunder over a long period of time. Counter Conditioning refers to replacing a currently objectionable behavior with an acceptable behavior. Though widely used and recommended, these tools have very limited ability to control unacceptable companion animal behavior.

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Operant Modalities: Alternatives to Psychotropic drugs – Presentation for CVC, Washington DC By Gary Wilkes

One aspect of veterinary behavioral therapy is the use of psychotropic drugs to control behavior. To set the context for my comments, I am not a veterinarian. I do not claim any direct working knowledge of these drugs – but I routinely work with animals that do. Note: This presentation is not about abandoning or curtailing the use of chemical therapy for treating behavior problems. Diagnosis and treatment with psychotropic drugs is often a needed component for a dog’s sustained mental health. The goal of this presentation is to offer a different perspective and potential solutions that dovetail standard medical diagnosis and treatment.

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Political Correctness and actually caring about the fate of dogs.

Imagine your dog becomes epileptic. Your vet says that you have to record each seizure, how long it lasts and some general details. How long will you do this? If you are Sandy Duxberry, you’ll do it 24/7 for two years until Gypsy is seizing constantly. Your life is a shambles from lack of sleep, the pain of watching your dog go through writhing, mindless seizures and spending 80% of your waking time taking care of your dog. That is one end of the spectrum.

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Secondary Reinforcers: Primary Blather

In the language of modern dog training a clicker is a “secondary reinforcer.” Sorry, but the term “secondary reinforcer” is simply eight syllables of blather. Why? Because reinforcers must, by definition, strengthen a behavior connected to them. That isn’t what happens when you click a clicker (or say the word, “NO”) and then not provide the tangible event that is supposed to follow. I can prove it. No, I have proven it – at MIT no less. You can prove it too, in the privacy of your own home. No lab coats, no rat or pigeon cages needed. Just you, a clicker and a hungry dog.

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Broom-Whacking 101

The most commonly used tool for changing a pet’s behavior is punishment. When a dog chews the couch, eliminates in the house or barks excessively, our first thought is to create an unpleasant consequence for Fido’s actions. Despite our common leaning toward aversive solutions for bad behavior, it might surprise you to know that few people know the first thing about it. This ignorance is responsible for the fact that punishment rarely works as planned.

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Behavior Analysis Analyzed:

Behavior Analysis Analyzed
Gary Wilkes
Arizona State University (Presented as a course handout when I was an associate professor at the Morrison School of Agri-Business at ASU, teaching pre-vet students.)

Within the study of psychology are several sub-disciplines that focus on animal behavior. One of these fields is called behavior analysis. Unlike ethology, the study of how animals behave in their natural habitat, behavior analysis deals primarily with the way behavior is changed by the environment. This field is also called the experimental analysis of behavior. Behavior analysis began in the early 1900’s through the work of scientists such as Edward Thorndike, John Watson and B.F. Skinner. As a foundational cadre they developed terms and concepts to create a discipline that would form a science of behavior. Their original terminology and perspective of behavior analysis has remained the dominant jargon of this and other related fields. When we use terms such as “reinforcement” to describe the strengthening of a behavior, we are using terms coined by those original researchers. Continue reading

Never Bite the Tail that Wags You:

If you look in theBull-Terrier-Puppy veterinary literature, you will find reports of Bull Terriers who destructively bite their own tails. These dogs are so persistent that they often do enough damage to require removal of the tail. The odd thing about this disorder is that removing the tail may not stop the behavior. Some dogs continue to bite at the place where a tail should be. In veterinary circles, this behavior is considered neurological, in origin. In common terms this type of behavior is usually labeled “nutso”. Continue reading