Buzzkill

February 8, 2010 at 8:09 pm 25 comments

I teach dog obedience classes and it’s harder work than you might think. One of the most difficult tasks I have to deal with is convincing my two legged students that dog obedience classes shouldn’t be run like some kind of over-glorified romp through the dog park.

I have rules. And I am (apparently) a rather annoying stickler about making my students follow them. I don’t allow the dogs to play with, or even sniff, each other during class. I don’t let humans talk to each other or fuss with anyone else’s dog. Your attention has to be focused on your dog and my instructions, and your dog’s attention should be focused on you.

A lot of my students complain about this, but – about three weeks after the start of each beginning class (the one where it is the biggest problem) the same people remark that their dogs behave a lot better in class than they do at home. They’re confused about this because a class full of strangers should be a lot more distracting than working at home, shouldn’t it?

Maybe not.

And maybe those annoying, buzzkill rules are a big part of the reason why Fifi has a flawless sit-stay in class but gives her owner the middle paw at home.

The focused attention I require humans and dogs to maintain on each other explains part of it. But there may be more to is than that. Over at The Frontal Cortex Jonah Lehrer writes:

For the most part, self-control is seen as an individual trait, a measure of personal discipline. If you lack self-control, then it’s your own fault, a character flaw built into the brain.

However, according to a new study by Michelle vanDellen, a psychologist at the University of Georgia, self-control contains a large social component; the ability to resist temptation is contagious. The paper consists of five clever studies, each of which demonstrates the influence of our peer group on our self-control decisions. For instance, in one study 71 undergraduates watched a stranger exert self-control by choosing a carrot instead of a cookie, while others watched people eat the cookie instead of the carrot. That’s all that happened: the volunteers had no other interaction with the eaters. Nevertheless, the performance of the subjects was significantly altered on a subsequent test of self-control. People who watched the carrot-eaters had more discipline than those who watched the cookie-eaters.

So hanging out with people (and dogs) who are exhibiting good self-control can make you calmer and more focused too. Unfortunately, the opposite appears to be true as well – so letting Fifi run amok with a pack of crazy four-legged friends at the dog park may not be a good idea if she’s got self-control issues to work out.

VanDellen thinks that part of the reason self-control is contagious is that when we see those around us exhibit good (or bad) self-control, unconscious thoughts about behaving the same way are brought to active parts of our brains. Mirror neurons, visuomotor neurons that fire both when an animal performs an action and when it observes another animal engaging in a similar action may have a strong role in the process.

I wonder if this is part of the reason why most of our foster dogs seem to almost miraculously shed off many of their behavior problems shortly after they arrive. Self-control is something I work with a lot in my own dogs and life here usually runs on a calm, even keel.

Thanks to Michelle vanDellen, not only do I have one more reason to stick with those annoying buzzkill rules in my classes – I’m also going to put together some homework materials to encourage my students to create their own so they can encourage a calm and balanced environment at home.

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Entry filed under: behavior science, dog training, dogs. Tags: .

For Every Action Third Party?

25 Comments Add your own

  • 1. YesBiscuit  |  February 9, 2010 at 7:38 am

    Careful, you’re treading dangerously close to Cesar Millan territory which will of course unleash the fury!

  • 2. SmartDogs  |  February 9, 2010 at 9:54 am

  • 3. Jean  |  February 9, 2010 at 9:57 am

    I love that animation. 🙂

  • 4. Wild Dingo  |  February 9, 2010 at 11:03 am

    It’s funny. I train in a class setting with those same rules (a little relaxed on the people talking tho) and I train individually with a personal trainer. My dogs do BETTER at home. I think it’s not so much the focus at class or the calm environment as it has to do with consistency. A dog shoudl be able to remain in a down, sit, until handler tells him otherwise whether at home, in class or even, heaven forbid, a dog park.

    When i first got my foster GSD mix, he was a loon and i thought releasing pent up energy at the dog park was a good idea. HA! training was the best thing for him. we don’t go to dog parks much anymore. when we do go, we run obedience for both my dogs, in the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the visit and let socialization happen in between. I give them 50-50 obedience and play time. i found my GSD mix is so much happier hanging around me anyway at dog parks. Whereas my sibe…sigh… well, sibes are sibes and she’s so sweet she never gets into trouble.

    My GSD mix dog stays down when there are 10 dogs running amok and several of them coming over to him to sniff him and tease him into play. i laugh because i know those dogs will pay a hefty wrestling romp tax (harmless) when he’s released. (believe me, by then i choose a calmer time to release him, minutes after the sniffers have gone so not to train him to get up and wrestle immediately but to get up calmly and go play.)

    but maybe these people have problems at home because they are not behaving the same way they are in school. they don’t have you barking out orders (not to sound mean, but ya, my trainers bark orders…i love it)… and they aren’t being the middle man and following them. instead…they let them get away with anything because the home seems a safe environment and so what if the dog doesn’t sit or down when i tell him? he’s not hurting anyone. but the point is, sit means sit. down means down. you don’t know HOW handy these things come when moving furniture, mopping floors or having guest over (ok, guest visits are still one of my harder training areas. as my dogs LOVE people, but bottom line is i enforce the command.) the consistency in home and anywhere else is what will save the dog ultimately.

  • 5. Holly  |  February 9, 2010 at 11:18 am

    I remember a thread on a list once, that asked if you allow “free time” in class. I answered no, my students are paying for 60 minutes of instruction and that’s not much of a window if you have 6 students. It’s only 10 minutes per student. There is no time for free play AND I want the dogs to pay attention to their handlers, learn to ignore other dogs.

    Holy Moly was I the Bad Guy. What? How are dogs supposed to learn to interact?! Puppies can’t be so focused! I want my dog to have a chance to play with other dogs!

    My reply? Don’t come to my class. My class is for good manners, not play group.

  • 6. SmartDogs  |  February 9, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Dingo – I think you’re right and that the truth lies in a mix of both. In an earlier draft of this post I got into the focused attention thing – but then it got long and rambling.

    I do see a disturbing number of clients who have a lot of intense, hyperactive energy themselves – and their dogs usually seem to be stressed out about it. They’re not living in a healthy mental environment and they know it.

    Holly – I give them pretty much the same answer. Though in puppy classes (16 weeks and under) we do start out with a structured puppy play time that’s run somewhat like Ian Dunbar’s program. PS Checked out your site and loved the photos.

  • 7. Kari  |  February 9, 2010 at 11:37 am

    I would never have the patience to teach dog classes

  • 8. Mike  |  February 9, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    I don’t know. I totally see keeping on task during class, but saying “hi” and no more before class never seemed that bad of an idea. I see your argument, and too much discipline is definitely better than not enough in this area, but letting the dogs come out of the car and get some of the excitement of a new place and people out of them beforehand seemed to me as though it would help.

    At least, with my akita, she *never* got to the point in our dog class where she was done wanting to go investigate the other dogs and ready to start training. She’s almost completely obedient at home, but the distraction of having so many other interesting dogs in the room made any sort of treat we could come up with completely unworthy of attention. The trainer had us stand about ten-twenty feet away from the next nearest dog and wait for the dog to calm down and get bored with the new place before we started training. My dog *never* gets bored with a new place – just standing and watching all the other dogs is more rewarding to her than practically anything. So, get her to stop tugging? Sure, eventually. But even getting her to look at the person training her waving a treat or toy in front of her face? Good luck.

    And this from a dog who does recall, sit, down, stand, roll over, fetch, and stay nearly perfectly at home or in our yard. So… we haven’t gone back for more lessons, and I’m just trying to introduce her to things that are slightly distracting a little bit at a time, instead of dog classes, which are incredibly distracting all of the time. I don’t know if letting her get basic introductions out of the way would have helped… but from our experience at dog parks, it might have…

  • 9. Pooch Professor  |  February 9, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    My classes always started with 20 minutes of supervised “playtime.” (Actually, this was before class, and was not mandatory; it did not bleed into the 60 minutes of class).

    It was a huge help to me, to the dogs, and to the students. I ran the “play” sessions like a tight ship, modeling off Dick Russell’s Large Field Socialization (though mine was small area socialization).

    Once class began, dogs were expected to stand, sit, or lie at the owner’s side; no visiting, sniffing, or chatting.

    I totally understand if trainers don’t want to do that, or maybe don’t have the means to. You need to have enough room, and your human students need to be able to follow directions, and the dogs need to not be jerks to other dogs.

    It’s all about flow, and takes a knowing eye to make sure it stays congenial.

    But I swore by it. It gave me a great chance to educate owners about what overarousal looked like, what “good” play was, and what it wasn’t.

    And the students were able to pay better attention to me in class because they weren’t having to control their dogs as much because, yes, they were tired. (Cop-out?)

    After week 2, it was a moot point: the self-control exercises we started on Week 1 were working well, and the dogs were calm during class anyway.

    I think it depends on a lot of factors, but self-control is the best gift one can give to a dog–and its owner.

  • 10. SmartDogs  |  February 9, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    I just don’t have time. I’m usually booked up with private clients before and after class – and I’ve usually got one or two students that need extra help before or after class and I absolutely don’t trust the beginners out there alone!

    As I said in another comment, I do run play time in puppy class and in my intermediate and advanced classes we often take a break together after class. By then, it’s a much different story.

    How big an area do you do your ‘small field’ in, if you don’t mind me asking?

  • 11. Viatecio  |  February 10, 2010 at 10:25 am

    I’ve never run a class before…but I do completely understand about being the Big Bad Meanie when it comes to making my dog pay attention to me. Just because we are outside at the park doesn’t mean she has to run up and harrass every dog, even if the dog is approaching us to begin with: sit means you PLANT your bum bum, and come means NOW, not in 5 seconds. I’ve gotten some dirty looks by being the Big Bad Meanie who demands obedience (and no one seems to see that part where I reward with heaps of praise and a toy), and one woman even tried to get me to admit that I get a “powertrip” from “yanking the dog’s chain.” It actually kind of stings when I have to correct my dog…the whole “it hurts me more than it hurts you” thing, since I KNOW my dog can sit/down/come/heel and KNOWS how to do it…but she just chose not to and got the consequence.

    As for running classes, I can say how I’d theoretically do things, but never having done it, I’d rather not venture there yet. I’ve been to too many classes where the dogs are ring-smart (perfect obedience in the ring, middle finger to the handler outside the ring), and it’s just as frustrating to watch as it probably is to have to work with those people! I’m more comfortable doing one-on-one where everyone can get individualized instruction, and maybe adding classes later as distractions and helping dogs to work around each other.

  • 12. Linda Kaim  |  February 10, 2010 at 11:08 am

    I no longer offer group classes, after holding them for 17 years in the same location, I thought it was time to give them up.

    I ran anywhere from one to 8 group classes per week at three different locations. Space determined if there were any ‘socializing” between class participants. At one location, it was exclusively for aggressive dogs, so there were no opportunities before, during or after class considering my goal was to get these dogs to tolerate the presence of other dogs without going off like volcanoes.

    I had little time for trying to corral anywhere up to 25 participants in an indoor class setting, even if it was a 60 by 100 foot riding ring, the tiny 35 by 50 foot pole barn or the four acre fenced lot at the shelter.

    The rules were simple and direct. Keep your eye on your own dog, maintain a safe distance between animals and you are responsible for the actions of your dog, so stay on your toes.

    I don’t think it was particularly “mean” or anti social, considering that at least half of the dogs were there specifically because of dog aggression. Puppy classes were directed in play only after class, no socializing during class and contact was mitigated through exercises for self control only, for any age group or degree of behavioral difficulty.

    I started to change my business plan when I noticed a trend in class participation as a social hour for owners and decided that I needed to lower my standards to meet a changing demographic; something I was not willing to do. My other option was to stop offering classes and go exclusively to a private client base and residency training only.

    It lessened the demands on the owners, something most of them wanted anyway.

    Three years later I still get about a dozen calls a month for groups and puppy classes, although I had not actively advertised them for that same time frame.

    I will probably do a few in the spring, if it should ever grace the Mid Atlantic again.

    I plan on limiting numbers, and maintain the same type of focus I required from my past students. They will be there to learn, and I will be there to teach.

  • 13. SmartDogs  |  February 10, 2010 at 11:13 am

    I’m also very liberal about the dogs I allow in class. I don’t remember the last time I held a class beyond puppy level that didn’t include at least one highly reactive dog – usually more. Until their owners reach the intermediate (openish) or advanced (utilityish) level – they aren’t ready for the kind of responsibility that offleash dogs interacting together involves.

    Sadly – a large number of my clients are there for social as much as educational reasons. Hence the buzzkill…

  • 14. Viatecio  |  February 10, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Linda – I like your phrasing on “lowering your standards.”

    I saw plenty of this in the last group class I attended, which was therapy dog training.

    The instructor told us that the standards for the test were very loose to begin with, but I’ll eat a shoe if half of those dogs passed.

    Part of the problem was that the instructor wasn’t willing to say “Buckle down and MAKE your dog behave.” Admittedly, the other part was the owners who couldn’t see that luring and treaty goodness could only go so far. They were all loving dogs though, great personalities and I’m sure someone who needed a therapy dog wouldn’t care about half the obedience stuff in the test…but the standards are there for a reason. A therapy dog is also, for the most part, a Canine Good Citizen, and maybe I’m a wet blanket here, but these dogs should be held to a VERY high standard.

  • 15. Pooch Professor  |  February 10, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Janeen, I did it in a fenced enclosure that was about 30X50, I guess. Usually about 10 dogs at a time. I didn’t allow humping or pestering. I did allow pits and other bull breeds AFTER I’d seen them in cass at least once, and only if the owners were “on it” mentally. I never had any problems in 10 years.

    Unfortunately, I don’t do it anymore. The shelter I work for and did classes for abruptly ended the entire training program in November, no warning. I had been teaching classes for 10 years with great results and they were always full.

    So now I just do in-home privates, and train the shelter dogs pre-adoption.

    I totally get the time thing. I never allowed my students to be in the enclosure until I was there. And sometimes I got hung up in the previous class.

  • 16. Pooch Professor  |  February 10, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    The instructor told us that the standards for the test were very loose to begin with, but I’ll eat a shoe if half of those dogs passed.

    I spoke today with a woman from a local church who wants me to do an educational program for them. As I was doing some web research on their program, I came across a notice that a local trainer (former big box) would be teaching a CGC class there soon. I looked him up and would LOVE to go be part of that class, just to see how many of those students can pass the CGC. His site lists him as a clickertrainer and “totally positive.”

    The problem is that the class costs $100, and I can’t afford to spend that right now for something I do not need. My dogs are already CGC grads, so there’s not even that angle.

    But I’m dying to see how he will teach a super-puller to walk loosely on leash enough to pass the exam (never mind “heel”–that’s so cruel!!) without a harness, GL, or other device.

  • 17. Mongo  |  February 11, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Interesting…..
    Being somewhat battle scarred and paranoid, the dogs that came to me as adults and new puppies were treated carefully-
    Socilization was only with appropriate WELL KNOWN and trusted dogs offleash (in a fenced yard).
    Leash training was very different-
    In our house the leash is the symbol of the magic bubble- no dog in training or pup is allowed to have its space invaded while on the leash. The leash is used as a trust building exercise- re The ONLY thing the dog needs to concern itself with is its owner- But its the owner that must prove themself worthy.
    Strangers, other dogs, passing children are treated the same as noisy garbage trucks or other weird distractions- Nothing to be concerned about when working (or out with your human).
    The hardest part is being the one holding the leash-
    “No, you cannot pet the dog” and body blocking strangers dogs before they lunge toward yours.
    Eventually when the dog is mature and relaxed, you will see when he would truly like to politely say “Hi” and allow it.
    I believe that is why tethering and NILIF can have such good results- not the dominantion mindset of “SIT!” before a doorway but instead giving the the dog a priority (like not getting tripped over- lol) and consequently a goal and reward….and self control.
    Its always interesting to me when owners expect some poor dog to excercise self control in an enviroment where the human will allow rude behavior to the dog (from dogs OR humans) for fear of seeming “rude”. The saddest result is when a desperate dog does react- and not with good humor.

    just my .02

  • 18. EmilyS  |  February 11, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    pooch professor: have you really never employed “red light green light” to the super-pulling dog? It’s pretty tried/true. Assuming you have the patience.

  • 19. H. Houlahan  |  February 11, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Mongo, I like the way you conceptualize the leash work. I’ma gonna steal that terminology.

    It’s a little bit like the way I explain the formal recall as a sacred contract between the owner and the dog. That seems to help my students.

    As far as whether a given curriculum can get dogs past CGC or a therapy certification, well, it depends on the examiner, doesn’t it?

    When I took Sophia for hers, and she passed clean, I was appalled at the other dogs I saw being passed. They were all students of the examiner. We needed the cert as a prerequisite for a SAR cert; otherwise I would have refused it in disgust.

    She also wasn’t administering the standard test — dumbing it down.

  • 20. SmartDogs  |  February 11, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    This utterly fries my ass.

    I do CGC testing and examine therapy dog teams. And many, if not most, of those I test are my own clients. Hey – I live in a small town and people don’t like to travel.

    As many of you know I can be a real bitch – and, if anything, I tend to be harder on my own students than on outsiders who come in for testing. I don’t remember the last time I ran a session and didn’t flunk one (i.e. tell them to come in to retest). In my eyes, the CGC is a pretty well-defined test. It’s laid out in a pretty explicit if-then format.

    And – the behaviors required to pass are so basic – it staggers the mind that s/he/it had to dumb it down.

  • 21. Pooch Professor  |  February 11, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    pooch professor: have you really never employed “red light green light” to the super-pulling dog? It’s pretty tried/true.

    Yes, I actually have (simply to get loose leash, not an actual “heel”). It works on some dogs, if there are no distractions, and the owner is very consistent.

    Assuming you have the patience.

    Therein lies the rub, huh? It is quite time-consuming, and most pet dog owners won’t simply not walk their dogs during the days/weeks it takes to perfect it.

    I prefer methods and tools that allow the owner to still walk the dog while training is happening, and get results quickly so that the owner is empowered to do the work.

    I’m not saying it’s impossible to train dogs without training collars. I’m just wondering if it can be done well, in a class setting, in 6 weeks, using “pure positive” (which is a misnomer because it does not exist).

  • 22. Linda Kaim  |  February 12, 2010 at 10:28 am

    I no longer offer CGC testing. I allowed my certification to lapse and have no interest in renewing it. I do provide training for people interested in pursuing CGC testing for Therapy work or otherwise and am always questioned about why I no longer offer the test.

    I will not test my own students. If I lived in a remote area as does this blogger, then perhaps I would after a sufficient amount of time has passes so the dog in front of me would be more a product of the work provided by the owner than as a test for completion as many people in this area do.

    I am not comfortable with the folks in this area who provide the training and offer the CGC as a ‘bonus’ for taking their course, as I see a great many of these same dogs being passed off as Service/Assistant dogs or Therapy dogs with their CGC’s.

    You cannot swing a Gentle Leader in my GROCERY STORE without finding one of these ‘wonders’, licking the dairy aisle products, lifting their legs in the cereal aisle and being a nuisance at the deli.

    Bad thing is, they sour the experience on a whole ‘nother level for those painfully few of us (in this area anyway) who are actually providing a service to a community in preparing our dogs and our clients’ dogs for a life in service, or just in public as well-behaved members of a human world.

    To dumb down a test that is so oversimplified to begin with is cowardice on behalf of the instructor, and absolutely craven on behalf of the administering body that passes these animals off as even remotely trained.

    Back to the group class component, I discourage owners from taking the test from their instructors and to seek third party input for a more honest assessment.

    The opposite side of that coin is I know FOR A FACT at least two ‘trainers’ who will not certify ANYONE but their own client’s dogs, and at least 2 or possibly 3 more that I suspect of the same practices.

    How is this beneficial???

  • 23. SmartDogs  |  February 12, 2010 at 10:43 am

    As a person who has several chronic and orthopedic problems but isn’t legally disabled – and who has a dog trained to (a) behave politely in public and (b) do a dozen or more tasks for me – I am disgusted by the fake service dogs I see out in public. As per the law, Audie only helps me at home. So tell me – what vital tasks do the quivering, pan-phobic pocket puppy clutched to his clueless, grinning “mommy’s” chest perform? Massage her ego? Protect from complaints about his incessant barking when she leaves him behind? Prevent the pee stains he’ll leave on her rug if he’s left unattended?

    I get a disturbing number of requests for CGC testing and therapy dog evaluations from able-bodied pet owners who think that passing the test will magically turn their dog into a service animal and give them carte blanche to take him everywhere with them. Consequently I do a lot of stern lecturing and bubble popping. I also let them know that in a small town I will find them and I will turn them in. And, of course, I refuse to test/evaluate them.

    I think that, like far too many other things in our world today, the CGC is being used more as a revenue-generating mechanism (for trainerettes and the AKC) than for its original, intended consequence.

  • 24. Mongo  |  February 12, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    ” I’m also going to put together some homework materials to encourage my students to create their own so they can encourage a calm and balanced environment at home.”

    LOL Maybe by comparing human interactions and dog interactions?
    IF the students believe humans are only truly having fun if they are running, screaming and shoving each other, then trying to convince them that such behavior is NOT how dogs express pleasure may be a tough sell.

    BTW- My observation of the therapy dog accredidation is different- I have seen several cases where a well meaning novice puppy buyer intended to put the title on the dog because they believed it was the pinnacle TITLE of well behaved dogs- and believe that “classic obedience” is not only harsh and unnecessary, but beyond THEIR skill level as a trainer. And while their intentions are good, they were also totally naive to the true realities of actually visiting hospitals, nursing homes, etc. (They imagine retirement centers and day cares- not actually dealing with the impared or the time and personal expense ).
    just my .02

  • 25. Viatecio  |  February 12, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    The family dog’s TDI tag and ID card just arrived in the mail today.

    It is not a sign that she is finished her training, not by a long shot.

    Her handler is more than ready and only has to oil some rusty spots in order to fall back into the groove of weekly visits to the local hospital. Her handler, by the way, is not me, but I do hope to become certified one of these days.

    Mal and her handler need to learn to work as a team and watch for fine cues that come from neither obedience nor drill work. The training classroom is nothing like the hospital, so there will be a learning curve there too. Who needs a pinnacle title? Who cares, is my question? The pinnacle is the relationship and the teamwork, and I’m sure we all know how to go about getting that! On the off hand, I do wish I was able to get the pass/fail rate of the class, which was indeed tested by the instructor, who is a golden breeder herself…

    While I’ve not seen any fake “service” dogs around here in public, I could rant for a long time on the disservice these idiots do for the true service animals…the concept is utterly sickening. Kudos to Audie for being a good help when you need him!

    Mongo I too love your leash-training words of wisdom.

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