Tag Archives: pet training

Darkest before the Dawn

One of the trickiest issues in dog training is how to get rid of bad habits — behaviors the dog has been doing for a while.  Most of the time, it isn’t that difficult to isolate the problem or plan a strategy to deal with it.  That’s usually pretty simple.  Not EASY, but not complicated.  What makes the whole process more than a lot of owners can deal with is that dogs don’t give up on bad habits without a fight.

Say Butch is used to family members slipping him tidbits at the dinner table.  The family decides that he’s getting too fat and agree to stop “table treating.”  But Butch doesn’t get the memo.  So, he tries what’s always worked in the past.

He’s had the family well-trained and usually, the ole sad-puppy eyes does the trick.  The family holds out against this.  Rather than give up, Butch just moves to DEFCON 2 — nudging elbows.  Still the family, reminding each other, manage to ignore him.  By now, 5-10 minutes has gone by and Butch is going to pull out all the stops.  He barks, and paws at elbows.  The barks get louder and the pace of the pawing picks up!  It’s annoying and because they’re feeling guilty anyway, somebody gives in and slips him a goodie.  And in doing that, they’ve made sure that Butch will do more and for longer at the next meal.

What the family doesn’t realize is that the “ramping up” of Butch’s demands is a signal that he was close to giving up.  The psychological term is EXTINCTION BURST.  Things get worse before they get better; it’s always darkest before the dawn of new behavior.  This happens with humans, too.  The 2-year-old’s tantrum gets louder and louder and louder, but if he’s ignored, he’ll hit a wall where it’s just not worth the trouble and the tantrum will quickly taper off.

Unfortunately, “giving in” — a very natural thing to do as the Extinction Burst is never pleasant to endure — is the worst thing we can do.  In fact, it teaches the dog (or 2-year-old) that he just has to keep going LONGER and LOUDER to get what he wants.  If we aren’t 100% consistent with ignoring the bad behavior, we just reinforce it even more.

“Oh come on,” I hear you say, “Isn’t 95% good enough?”  Well, the way our brains work, no it isn’t!  Psychologists have done studies that prove INTERMITTENT reward is the strongest goad to continuing behavior.  Think of all those folks in casinos putting money into slot machines.  It’s not because they ALWAYS get a payback.  No, it’s BECAUSE the next time MIGHT be the time they hit the JACKPOT!

I’m not saying that ignoring is the solution for every behavior problem.  I’m not even saying that it will always work in my doggie and toddler examples above. There are a lot of other factors.  Is the extinction burst behavior dangerous to anyone?  Is the perp winding himself up into an emotional fugue where the behavior passes beyond his conscious control?  So, it’s best to consult a professional to help evaluate the situation and create a treatment plan.

My point is that dealing with established behaviors is going to involve an INCREASE in that behavior and only by steadfastly working through the darkness  — with no faltering — will we be able to bring better behavior to light.

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What Does the DOG Think She’s Guarding?

Many of us own dogs that display protective behaviors.  Guarding is a biological imperative — something built right into a dog’s DNA. In the wild, canids that kept control of territory and its resources were better fed and had more surviving puppies than their laid-back neighbors.  Those puppies would also be territorial, and pass the trait on to the next generation, and so on.

Wild canids began hanging around human settlements in order to root through our garbage — food that didn’t require hunting and couldn’t fight back.  They would raise a ruckus in protecting their new “territory” from other scavengers — including strange humans.  Scientists are of the opinion that the first selective breeding our ancestors performed on dogs was to keep the ones that barked loudest and so alerted them when danger threatened the campsite!  (One explanation of why dogs bark so much more than wolves and other wild canids.) Add to that how many breeds have since been developed specifically for guarding — of sheep, cattle, homes, junkyards — and it’s not surprising when our companion dogs display these “protective” behaviors.

Most of us can’t help being gratified when our house-dog defends us from people and other dogs.  Folks proudly talk about how Fluffy is “so very protective of me!”  They realize that it’s not always desirable behavior, but they can’t help feeling touched and delighted when Fluffy takes on the world to keep his owner safe.

It’s not only the big, bad dog breeds who do this!  Pint-sized pooches are some of the most protective; challenging anyone who approaches when they are on their owner’s lap, not letting someone sit next to the owner on the sofa, chasing off another dog the owner is trying to pet!  Dogs will often display defending-type behavior when “Dad” wants to hug and kiss “Mom.”   Many times Dad gets nipped in the behind as Fluffy tries to discourage him.  Mom complains as loudly as Dad in these situations, but there’s that inevitable flattered feeling that the dog loves her so much!

I do not have any doubt that our dogs love us.  They value us and we are precious in their sight.  However, in these sorts of situations, the dog probably isn’t defending us because they are afraid for our safety.  It’s far more likely that they are obeying that ancient biological imperative and guarding their territory.  It’s true, humbling as it may seem, that we and especially our ATTENTION is a resource on par with Fluffy’s favorite bone.  Our attention is actually the most precious commodity in a dog’s eyes, which is why withholding it is so effective in training!

You’ll often hear owners talk about how “jealous” Fluffy is.  This is a little closer description to why Fluffy is warning off everyone else.  Fluffy is possessive, but it’s not prompted by affection! Fluffy wants all the good things that he gets when you pay attention to him and isn’t willing to share!

I believe that dogs are capable of and often do exhibit unconditional love to their owners — but it doesn’t prompt them into displays of jealousy or guarding behavior.  When Fluffy acts like that I’m reminded of Daffy Duck  in the Warner Bros. cartoons, chanting, “Mine!  Mine!  Mine! Mine!” over some trinket he’s trying to keep away from Bugs Bunny!  As much as it might prick my self-esteem, I have to admit that my dog sees me as a somewhat glorified squeaky toy — her personal property.  However, acknowledging that makes it much easier for me to deal with the undesirable behavior!  I don’t feel like I’m rejecting my dog’s love — only reminding her of just who owns whom, here!

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Become Partly a Dog

become partly a dog

We do seem to try to make our dogs into little people, don’t we? So, many times I hear (out of my mouth, if not someone else’s) “You know you’re not supposed to do that!” But why should the dog automatically know? Dogs have different values than we do! They have different ways of interacting, and doggie etiquette is sometimes very far apart from human manners.

One of the widest gulfs comes in the matter of “counter surfing” — or “coffee/kitchen/dining-room table” surfing. It’s the same thing to a dog. In the human mind, we “know” that the food on those areas belongs to us and expect the dog to know it, too — and respect that. But a dog’s DNA is programmed differntly; food is food and belongs to whoever is THERE.

In dog society, the “big dog” (i.e. leader) gets first dibs on all the good stuff, especially food. When the big dog is finished, s/he walks away. That means the food is up for grabs, and everyone else can squabble over it. Can you see how our dogs misunderstand our body language? We get up and leave a plate of yummy stuff on the coffee table while we go back into the kitchen to get a drink, and are surpised when WHAM, it’s gone by the time we get back! To a dog, the human was finished and signaled that the food was available to anybody who wanted it by going away!

We say, “Oh, she knew she shouldn’t do that — she was eating as fast as she could, and look how guilty she looks!” Okay, she was probably eating fast because it’s good stuff that she doesn’t get very often. That guilty look is probably the result of the dog thinking something like, “my crazy human has yelled at me in the past for doing this, even though she’s saying it’s OK, so I’m cringing a bit in anticipation of some loud noise coming!”

Well, this entry has gone in a different direction than I originally planned when I posted that picture. What I was planning to say was more on the order of — why do we want to teach our dogs to be human with all our hang-ups and neuroses? Wouldn’t it be better for them and US, if we could borrow some of a dog’s live-for-today and enjoy-what-comes-to-the-fullest philosophy? I’m going to try!

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January 11, 2013 · 5:02 pm