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The Listen Dog Blog

Welcome to the Listen Dog Blog!

 

I'll be keeping it up-to-date with regular catch-ups on what I've been up to, plenty of original articles on obedience training and behavioural best practice, plus top tips and ideas you can work on at home with your own four-legged friend!

 

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By listendogtraining, Jan 1 2017 11:00AM

A dramatic shift of opinion has occurred in the world of dog training over the last 50 years; Burch and Bailey note that in the 1930s and 1940s, most trainers believed that animals needed to be ‘broken’ in order to work properly, whereas today’s trainers for the most part advocate an entirely opposing ideology of positivity and reward.


These dog trainers of the ‘old-school’ variety were firm advocators of training by punishing undesirable behaviour, arguing that your dog will obey you if he fears the consequence of disobeying you. However, the modern approach to dog training today has taken a massive shift towards more positive methods, promoting the achievement of success by encouraging and rewarding the right behaviour, as opposed to punishing the wrong behaviour.


Science too seems to support this theory, as we now know that dogs are more likely to learn a selected behaviour successfully, if they are forming a positive association during training. Thanks to the hippocampus (an important part of the limbic system, involved in learning, emotions, and the formation of memories), using positive stimulation to develop desirable behaviour means that lessons are linked to favourable emotions, and are therefore more properly fixed in the dog’s brain. For example, every time you give your dog a command, if the behaviour you are commanding him to perform contradicts the behaviour his instincts are compelling him towards, your dog has a decision to make. By offering a reward that your dog considers more valuable than the natural reward he may receive by following his instinct, you are creating a positive association in the dog’s mind with fulfilling said command. By associating a positive emotion to the dog’s memory of this command, you are more likely to cement it in the dog’s mind, and find it successful in practise. So if the particular lesson is an exercise in recall, you could reward your dog for responding to your call with a piece of ham or chicken – a valuable reward in the eyes of a dog, especially if you dog is food-motivated. If this is repeated often enough to create a strong positive association in the dog’s memory, then the dog is much more likely to return to you even when his instincts tell him to do otherwise – if he sees a cat he’d like to chase, for example!


As a result of such modern science, most contemporary dog trainers now advocate the exclusive use of positive methods, such as food rewards, conditioned reinforcers (such as clickers), and the whole-hearted exclusion of all aversive punishers.


Evidence that positive punishment can have an undesirable effect is even evident in the canine world; Erik Wilsson’s aforementioned study at The Swedish Dog Training Centre looked at the social interaction between mothers and puppies, and noted that the evolving behaviour exhibited by mothers as their puppies grew from 3 weeks of age to 8 weeks of age was capable of having a permanent effect on the minds of those puppies. He noted that some mothers were much more severe with their aggressive altering of their relationship with their puppies from a ‘care-dependency’ relationship to one of ‘dominance-submission’ as they grew, and that this had a direct bearing on how that puppy would ultimately behave with people. For example, when trying to wean their puppies, some mothers were much more aggressive than others, and would continue to punish them even after they withdrew from her. Wilsson said that the social bonds within these litters were weaker than those within litters where mothers had been more benign, and that these puppies ended up less socially gregarious with people; they were less likely to approach even a passive human, and when tested playing ‘fetch’, they were less likely to perform than the other puppies.


So, whilst learning the art of dominance submission through maternal punishment is critical for every puppy (so that s/he may grow up to become well-mannered and able to properly socialise with others of his species) it has become evident that a mother who applies too much positive punishment can actually have a very inhibitive effect on her puppies’ future personalities, and interactions. Puppies may grow up overly anxious, less willing to socialise, and less willing to interact in training exercises and play activities.


In this case, the more punishment received (above the critical threshold), the worse off the dogs ended up. But does this mean we must rule out punishment altogether? Perhaps not – perhaps it means taking a more measured approach – which professionals in the area of canine behaviour management are far better equipped to do than Joe Public. Most agree that dogs need limitations and boundaries in order to become well-balanced – this does not mean they should be hit, shocked or hurt for choosing to disobey a known command, or performing an unwanted behaviour – but in some instances a firm verbal reprimand may be put to good use.


For those who are unable to distinguish between what is ok, and what is ‘too much,’ the safest advice would be to rule out punishment altogether, in order to avoid the erroneous application of punishment, and the disastrous effects of such an error. Burch and Bailey confirm that caution regarding the use of punishment is critical – as it can result in aggression, extreme shyness, extreme fear, and more. Perhaps advising the general public against punishment in its entirety is simply the easiest way to guard against its erroneous use. If a dog owner angrily hits a dog for urinating on the rug, then this is physical abuse, as opposed to the systematic and planned use of punishment.


In broad terms, unwanted behaviours can be ignored, in favour of lavishly praising the juxtaposing desired behaviour when it occurs, or they might, by some trainers, be calmly corrected in a planned and controlled manner, especially when all other punishment-free approaches have been thoroughly applied – any form of punishment that causes unnecessary pain or distress, is just abuse.


Most owners do not want to see their puppy or dog in pain, distress or any other form of suffering – so if the use of positive-only methods mean that more owners will seek out, stick to, and even excel at training schedules they are introduced to by professionals, then that can only be a good thing!


However, whilst our knowledge of dogs’ minds and behaviours improves, it is interesting that we are choosing to entirely exclude a form of canine behaviour and critical communication that is massively present – and crucial - amongst the canine species. Why is it that we are choosing not to apply the use of positive punishment, when it is so extremely evident as a form of communication/training amongst dogs themselves?


Bruce Fogle highlights that during the socialisation period of a puppy, the mother-pup relationship between a bitch and her offspring evolves to one of dominance-submission – and referencing a study carried out by Erik Wilsson at The Swedish Dog Training Centre, Fogle highlights that ‘inhibited bites’, ‘growls’, and ‘mouth threats’ were all amongst the behaviours used by mothers to redefine their relationship with their puppies as they grew older. So if dogs use positive punishment as a form of interaction/communication within their own relationships, why don’t we?


One argument put against the use of positive punishment is the viewpoint of some that as a species, we may be cohabiting with dogs, but we are not dogs, and our dogs know that we are not dogs. So to attempt to mimic them is not the right thing to do. Cesar Milan’s controversial ‘mimicking’ of the mother bitch’s corrective snap (delivered to a dog with his hand) is one such example, and is frowned upon by many as an unnecessary physical punishment.


However, if one were to argue that we should not be mimicking dogs, then the only solution is to behave and communicate simply as a human. Do we use punishment within our species? Of course we do. If you were to behave disobediently at school you might be punished by having to write 100 lines; it’s an aversive punishment used to decrease the frequency of a student’s unwanted behaviour. We punish criminals with prison, or community service, and we might punish children with extra chores if they have been naughty. The world would be a very different place if our only response to crime was to ignore it entirely! So, to play devil’s advocate, a supporter of the use of punishment might argue that if dogs use it amongst dogs, and humans use it amongst humans... then it is somewhat confusing that the dog-human relationship must be managed entirely without it.


The reason the reaction to the use of punishment in today’s society is now so strong, is likely a direct result of the abhorrent and extreme punishing techniques known to have be used in old-school training methods. Old-school trainers -particularly those working in the military- believed, at the time, that dogs must experience consequences for negative behaviour, rather than being lavished with food rewards for good behaviour, alleging this to be a better way to produce reliable obedience, since these dogs were depended upon to keep their handlers alive and safe in serious situations. Unfortunately for the dogs being trained at the time, some barbaric forms of punishment – like prong collars, electric shocking, hitting, choking and shaking – were commonplace. As a result of the entirely justified modern outcry against such awful forms of punishment, it would seem that ALL forms of punishment have now been grouped under the same umbrella term, and thrown out alongside. (Although ironically, even people who claim to use ONLY positive methods can still be seen to shout a stern ‘NO!’ when their dog misbehaves, or yank angrily at the lead when their dog starts barking at the nearest cat.)


I think a balanced conclusion should be that when it comes to any form of behaviour modification or training, positive reinforcement should always be the first port of call – and there’s plenty of research to testify to that effect. Elly Hiby published a paper in 2004 after comparing the relative effects of reward and punishment, concluding that the dogs trained using rewards became more obedient, whereas those trained using punishment displayed an increase in bad behaviours. In 2008, another study was published further supporting Hiby’s findings, which stated that positive reinforcement led to lesser displays of fear and attention-seeking behaviours, whilst dogs trained using punishment were showing increased aggression in comparison.



By listendogtraining, Dec 30 2016 07:00PM

‘Classical conditioning’ – otherwise known as ‘Respondent conditioning’ was discovered and observed by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist who was studying digestion in dogs at the time. He noticed that the dogs would salivate before they were fed, and investigated the idea that perhaps the dogs were associating the lab assistants who fed them (or even the sound of the door opening) with the immediate presentation of food, and so tested this theory by ringing a bell just before the dogs were fed. He presented the sound of the bell immediately prior to the food, several times, before going on to present the sound of the bell alone. He discovered that, after this exercise, the dogs still responded by salivating, even though food was not present.


This type of response can be described as unconditioned or reflexive – the dogs cannot help but salivate when food is presented, it is a natural physical response that they do not decide upon. In classical conditioning therefore, an unconditioned stimulus (food) elicits an unconditioned response (salivation). It is a natural reaction. The sound of the bell began as an entirely neutral stimulus which elicited no response, but eventually became conditioned (by its association with the arrival of food) that it ended up causing the once unconditioned (but now conditioned) response of salivation. And it is this process of conditioning which is described as ‘Classical conditioning’.


Whereas the unconditioned responses that form the basis of Classical conditioning have a biological basis related to survival – i.e. reflexive actions of the glands – Operant conditioning, in contrast, involves the muscles of the dog which control his voluntary actions, such as sitting, running, and barking.


Operant conditioning was the work of B.F. Skinner, who wanted to take Pavlov’s findings (and the work of another scientist, Lee Thorndike) on to the next level, and explore how behaviour could be influenced by reward. It is the work of Skinner which now forms the basis for what we traditionally refer to as ‘dog training’ – teaching a dog to respond to verbal commands such as ‘sit,’ ‘stay,’ etc. Skinner discovered that dogs learn faster when the desired behaviour is consistently rewarded – so if every time a dog responds to a certain cue by ‘sitting’ he is then given a treat, he will eventually learn to sit on command, by realising that this select behaviour is being rewarded, and voluntarily deciding to perform said behaviour. In stark contrast, the responses elicited through classical conditioning are not voluntarily decided upon by the dog, but brought about as mere reflex reactions, which are elicited on cue simply because this chosen cue was so frequently paired with the original, natural stimulus.


So to conclude, operant conditioning conditions voluntary responses decided upon by the dog, whereas classical conditioning conditions the involuntary, biological reflexes. To this end, it is operant conditioning that we apply in order to train assistance dogs, trick dogs and general obedience… whereas it is classical conditioning that we apply to help with socialisation, fear-rehabilitation, and the overcoming or prevention of any other problem behaviours that are a direct result of how the dog feels.




By listendogtraining, Nov 10 2016 12:11PM

The hippocampus is described as the most important part of the limbic system, because it is responsible for emotions and memory, and plays a dramatic role in the capability of a dog to be taught and trained.


For example, dog trainers of the ‘old-school’ variety were firm advocators of training by punishing undesirable behaviour – your dog will obey you if he fears the consequence of disobeying you. However, the modern approach to dog training today has taken a massive shift towards more positive methods, achieving success by encouraging and rewarding the right behaviour, as opposed to punishing the wrong behaviour.


Thanks to the hippocampus, using positive stimulation to develop desirable behaviour means that lessons are linked to favourable emotions, and are therefore more properly fixed in the dog’s brain. For example, every time you give your dog a command, if the behaviour you are commanding him to perform contradicts the behaviour his instincts are compelling him towards, your dog has a decision to make. By offering a reward that your dog considers more valuable than the natural reward he may receive by following his instinct, you are creating a positive association in the dog’s mind with fulfilling said command. By associating a positive emotion to the dog’s memory of this command, you are more likely to cement it in the dog’s mind, and find it successful in practise. So if the particular lesson is an exercise in recall, you could reward your dog for responding to your call with a piece of ham or chicken – a valuable reward in the eyes of a dog, especially if you dog is food-motivated. If this is repeated often enough to create a strong positive association in the dog’s memory, then the dog is much more likely to return to you even when his instincts tell him to do otherwise – if he sees a cat he’d like to chase, for example!


So if you want your dog to really remember something, hijack the way his mind deals with committing information to memory, and ensure he’s feeling good during training. The easiest way? Ditch the punishments and dole out the rewards!





By listendogtraining, Nov 10 2016 10:54AM

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself repeatedly talking to clients about the importance of using ridiculously strong-smelling treats in training and rehabilitation exercises, so I thought I’d go into a little detail on the matter here, in case anyone else could use a little help that only a handful of freshly cooked sausage will achieve!



The limbic system is the most primitive part of the dog’s brain, and is responsible for experiencing and expressing emotions, which can directly affect behaviour. It controls memory function, and is responsible for the way in which the dog perceives the world around him, and his own relationship to it.


The limbic system is made up of the amygdale (where aggression and fear are generated) the hypothalamus (which controls the release of hormones) the hippocampus (important for memory function) and parts of the cerebral cortex (where behaviour is organised) as well as other structures.

There is a direct link between the limbic system and the autonomic nervous system, which means that physical behaviours can be caused by emotions , e.g. a dog’s hunger and thirst is suppressed when he feels sad, which can result in many dogs not eating when they are left home alone, only to consume their food and resume drinking when their owners return. When there is any conflict in a dog’s mind over which course of action to take – because what he wants to do and what he has been instructed to do, differ – then this conflict is dealt with in the limbic system.


In terms of encouraging a dog to obey our instructions, even in times of conflicting desires, we must attempt to override this system, by either increasing the reward he gets for obeying our command, and making it greater than the reward he might naturally receive if he disobeyed (catching that cat he’s just spotted, for example) or by punishing his decision to ignore our command. If however, the reward you offer is of a lesser value to the dog than what it is currently doing, it is the limbic system that is responsible for your command being ignored.


How Does Smelly Food Help?


So important is a dog’s sense of smell, that a large part of its brain is devoted solely to the analysis of odours – the olfactory bulb. A dog has two olfactory bulbs, each weighing around 60 grams, which is four times as heavy as human olfactory bulbs. Pair this with the fact that the human brain is ten times bigger than that of a dog, and it becomes evident that the canine brain has 40 times the amount of its brain dedicated to smell alone, than we humans do.


The olfactory system is so incredibly important, as it means that a dog’s sense of smell bypasses their usual decision-making process entirely, and is linked directly to memory and emotion. As such, behaviourists can exploit this to help dogs very quickly overcome certain problems.


For example, engaging a dog’s nose with a smelly treat at the right moment can help to create a positive association where there was previously a negative one, helping to override the dog’s usual reaction to a chosen stimulus, which may previously have caused problems such as anxiety or aggression. So a dog that is anxious in the company of other dogs, children, or the vacuum cleaner, for example, can be taught to react positively if the reward is SMELLY enough. (Put the dry biscuits down and get out the cooked sausages!)


In stark contrast, a dog’s sense of taste is actually not that impressive; dogs have around 1700 tastebuds, whereas we humans have around 9000. It makes sense then, that when it comes to eating, the taste of the food is actually not the overriding factor when it comes to whether your dog is going to eat it or not, and is by no means as influential a factor to a dog as it is to a human. Smell is in fact believed to be the most important factor to a dog, followed by the texture of the food, and finally, how it tastes. So like I said – put those dry biscuits down, and get some juicy meat in the oven! The smellier the better when it comes to helping your dog commit a new skill to memory, or overriding a negative association and forming a shiny new positive one.




By listendogtraining, Nov 9 2016 02:55PM

We’ve all been there (honestly, I have too!): you’re all set to transform Fido into the next trick dog extraordinaire, clicker in hand, bait bag at the ready... you begin engaging your dog, and what happens? He stares at you blankly like you’ve left the building entirely.


‘What is this human prancing about for? What does she expect me to do? And why is she waving that bit of cheese about? If only she knew how ridiculous she looked...’


No matter how hard you try and lure the dog to even partially attempt the manoeuvre you have in mind, he is having absolutely none of it.


‘I’ll just sit and wait this little episode out. I feel like she wants to give me the cheese... if I’m patient enough normality will return, and I’ll eat it and leave!’


Some dogs are what we call ‘biddable’. Typically, dogs bred to work closely alongside humans, like Labrador Retrievers (hunting companions) or Border Collies (shepherding dogs) are incredibly biddable when it comes to obedience and trick-training, because they possess an extreme compatibility with mankind; they have been bred specifically for how well they take instruction and how enthusiastic they are to do our bidding!


Then there are those who are not so ‘biddable.’ I don’t want to shoe-box any dog by its breed, because each and every dog is an individual in its own right, but if we take breeds like hounds and terriers as an example, I can more easily demonstrate what I mean. These dogs have been bred to think more independently; to make decisions for themselves and work towards the best outcome regardless of human intervention or instruction. A terrier would be a very poor ratting dog if he waited for his human to instruct him to capture each rodent, and likewise a hound wouldn’t have a very high success rate if he had to hang around for a human to direct him. We rely on these breeds to do their work independently – to follow their own noses and pounce on prey when they deem it fit to – for optimum success in these fields.


So being a less biddable dog is by no means indicative of a dog being less intelligent – far from it, rather that a dog is less acquiescent; they are less inclined to do what you are asking of them, quite simply because they didn’t think of it themselves.


So How Do We Get These Dogs Excited About Trick Training?


A lot of tricks can taught to a biddable dog using ‘lure and reward.’ If your dog is not interested in the lure however, this method falls flat on its face pretty sharpish. So let’s switch tactics and explore a training method called ‘free shaping.’


Hunting for the behaviour that will make the clicker ‘click’ and the human drop the cheese can be the biggest reward available to an independent-minded canine; an exciting process can be far more important to these dogs than an actual goal. Think about how excited children get during an Easter egg hunt, even when the prize is only a small chocolate egg or two: nothing that spectacular, and nothing the kids haven’t had before. But in the context of a ‘hunt’ suddenly those little prizes become a whole lot more exciting – more so than if they were simply handed over to the children at the beginning of the day with no fuss whatsoever. Well it’s the same for dogs who are on the ‘hunt’ for that magical behaviour that makes the human drop the cheese!


If you teach your dog using free shaping, he will become animated, excited and ambitious; a dog who is used to free-shaping will throw out all manner of behaviours when a piece of cheese comes into play, hoping each time to hit on the correct one and release the treat, but enjoying the entire process of trying, and learning. Free shaping can turn even the most scatterbrained dog into a training maniac!


What Is Free Shaping?


Free shaping is the art of building a desired behaviour by rewarding approximations of that behaviour, and gradually holding out for closer and closer approximations, until you hit the jackpot.


Let’s take fetching an object to a human as an example: I want to train my dog to fetch me my slippers. To begin with, I’ll sit in the room with the dog, a clicker, some treats and my slippers... and I’ll do nothing. I’m looking for any behaviour at all that would be the tiniest approximation of him fetching my slippers – and I’m going to let him work this out for himself. The first rewardable move would probably be for him to look at the slippers, or point his head away from me, and in their general direction. As soon as he does (no matter how long it takes) I would immediately click and treat. (Clickers are a fantastic tool for free-shaping, as they enable you to mark the precise moment/behaviour that you wish to reward). After a while, the dog may do this again (probably by accident at this stage) and I would immediately click-treat again. After a while, the light-bulb moment occurs, as the dog realises looking at the slippers gets him a treat. So he offers this behaviour repeatedly. Now you hold out for a closer approximation: I want him to look at them and take a step towards them. Click-treat. Once this behaviour is offered repeatedly, I’m going to hold out for more once again. I want him to look at them, walk towards them and nudge them with his muzzle.


You see how it works? You do not lure your dog to perform a behaviour; he must work it out entirely for himself based on experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. All of a sudden, the thrill of the chase is more fun than eating the cheese! And the more you often you do this, the more you’ll find yourself with a dog who is thinking, experimenting, throwing out behaviours, and working things out in his brain. If you put in the time and effort to create excitement in your dog’s mind for the learning process itself, you’ll find yourself working with a highly focussed, highly engaged friend who is as enthusiastic about trick-training as you are!


Try This Free Shaping Exercise:


Step 1. Place a shoebox lid on the floor, and reward ANY interaction with it. Do not lure him, just reward ANYTHING he does with the lid – look at it, paw it, bite it. We are teaching the dog that exploration, and action earns him rewards... doing nothing earns him nothing! We are teaching him to think. (If it helps, you can throw the treat in the lid after the click to give him a clue that this is a ‘hot’ area! You can also put your hands behind your back if your dog is just obsessing over the treats.


Step 2. Choose a behaviour, and shape it (e.g ‘pick up the box lid’). Break that behaviour down into frames (e.g. 1. Dog looks away from me; 2. Dog looks at box; 3. Dog takes a step towards box; 4. Dog lowers muzzle towards box; 5. Dog opens mouth, etc.) and reward each behaviour. Reward each tiny frame at least 3 or 4 times, before you hold out for more – do not allow the dog to fail too much or he will become frustrated/discouraged.





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