Posts filed under ‘dog training’

Chuck’s day off

Yesterday was Meet Your Meat  day.

Chucky, Mark and I visited the farm where most of the meat we’ll eat next year is being raised. When your food is raised by close friends on a small farm, socializing with the creatures that will go into your freezer is considered proper etiquette.

The chickens were only vaguely interesting to the boys. Chuck runs loose with our little flock every day and after two years of living with chickens in his back yard my husband takes them for granted now too. Chuck did get a small chance to show off his chicken herding skills because it was time to move the tractor the rangers were in and considering the fact that these chickens had never seen a dog before, he did a pretty good job.

The pigs were a much more interesting experience. Chuck’s initial reaction to them was a very practical and deliberate cautiousness. The boy’s come a long way from the dog who went bug-eyed and pancaked himself into the ground every time he encountered something new. Because these Berkshire hogs are omnivores who are at least eight times his size, I thought that his reaction to them demonstrated an excellent degree of common sense.

Chuck at left, is sitting quietly and politely avoiding direct eye contact. The pig, on the other hand, was whoring for attention. (Pet me! Brush me! Feed me! MAKE MORE MUD FOR ME TO WALLOW IN!) And really, since there is a one in three chance that I will eat this specific pig, I kinda felt obliged to give it up for him.

After pigs and chickens we went on to meet the steers. Chip and Dale are British White cattle, a beautiful, docile, ancient breed that fattens up well on pasture. The boys stood calmly and politely as we walked up to greet them.

I kept Chuck on a leash at first, he’d never met any cattle and I wasn’t sure how the steers would react.

As you can see, the first meeting went well.

And so did the second. Still on leash, but with his handler at a distance. Note the relaxed, happy smile.

It wasn’t long ’till we progressed to dropping the leash and letting everybody hang out together.

From the cow pasture we moved on to the creek. Chuck’s never been swimming. He loves playing in a spray of water and he’s been very good about baths, but between his orthopedic problems and mine, I haven’t had a chance to take the boy to a swimming hole.

Deep water can be intimidating to a dog, but as it turned it, Chuck didn’t need much encouragement to go in. I walked across the creek and called him. After a bit of hesitation the boy launched himself across. And once he figured out that it was wonderfully wet and it wasn’t going to kill him — the boy absolutely adored being in the water.

Chuck’s first foray into the creek. Note the panicked leap and wild eyes.

Shortly after, a relaxed, happy boy calmly and repeatedly swims out to fetch sticks.  And then just swims around on his own for the hell of it.

He had an excellent day off.

July 5, 2011 at 1:29 pm 4 comments

Cesar’s Rules – a ‘must read’ review

My friend Alison Lever recently wrote a wonderfully detailed and perceptive review of Cesar Millan’s latest book, Cesar’s Rules over on infopet. Go, read the whole thing now.

Alison discusses Cesar’s philosophy on living with dogs, his evolution as a trainer and compares popular behaviorism with Cesar’s dog psychology. Her observations on life with dogs in a small Spanish village provide an insightful bridge between Millan’s rural Mexican roots and the experiences of American dog owners.

I was especially struck by her discussion on the importance of touch in our relationships with dogs. In my puppy and beginning classes I spend much of my time teaching people how to use touch and other aspects of body language effectively. This is something I feel that I’ve always known and I’m sure that (like Cesar) I picked these skills up during summers spent on my grandparent’s farm when I was a young child.

Dogs on that Iowa farm didn’t have much formal training, but they had good manners and they understood what was expected of them. Even though they rarely, if ever, came in the house, they existed as fully integrated – and fulfilled – members of the extended family, like many of the dogs in Alison’s village in Spain.

The current fashion of treating dogs like voters (independent agents whose behavior should only be manipulated by indirect methods) strikes me as insulting to dogs and to their human owners. So when Ian Dunbar is quoted as saying that “Most human hands cannot be trusted,” I can’t help but wonder if the man hides some kind of dark secret.

Dogs are brilliant social creatures not just capable of tolerating, but rather thriving on, a full range of social input. And, with only rare exceptions, people aren’t mindless violent brutes. We all make mistakes in handling dogs – but those mistakes are an unavoidable and valuable part of life.

I believe that the growing fashion of “hand’s off” philosophy is having a terrible effect on dogs in the US today. Some trainer friends and I have been commiserating about how difficult it is to get our clients to commit to going beyond very basic management and bribing to deal with problem dog behavior. As the idea that “human hands can’t be trusted” gains traction, our society is losing the ability to use our bodies effectively to communicate with dogs (and also with each other). These skills are most effective when we learn them intrinsically, as a part of our culture (see the writings of Edward Hall for more on this), and I am deeply concerned that if we continue down this road it will be difficult, if not impossible, to turn back.

Based on Alison’s review, even though I’m not one of Millan’s fans (or detractors) I’ve added this book to my ‘must read’ list.

May 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm 7 comments

Leashes kill – again

Flexi-type leads are attractive largely because they lure dog owners into a false idea of freedom. They encourage dog walkers to substitute the easy out of physical attachment for mindful attention and training.

In a sadly overdue step to make dog walkers safer, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that extension leashes will be outlawed on San Jose park trails after a dog walker was recently killed when she became entangled in a long leash (I suspect this was a fully extended Flexi type lead), fell and hit her head.

I’ve said it before and [sigh] I’m sure I’ll feel compelled to say it again – while any kind of leash presents some risk, extension type leashes like the uberpopular Flexi-lead present a terrible hidden danger to dogs and dog owners across America every day.

Throw away the attention substitute leash and put the time needed in to train your dog to come reliably when called, ignore distractions on command and walk politely at your side. Your dog will love the attention and you’ll love the results.

March 29, 2011 at 9:11 am 16 comments

Personal Coach

If you looked at this photo and guessed that the Chuckster is not thrilled about being dressed up in a blond wig and forced to hold a sequined rose in his mouth you’d be right. The boy’s pinched expression and somewhat whale-eyed glare clearly express annoyance and stress.

If I’d been foolish enough to try this with the boy in the first months he was here, I’d have been in stitches. Literally. Today it just took a few seconds of firm, gentle insistence to get him to agree to it.

Why do I insist on torturing a dog who was seized as part of an animal cruelty conviction?

I do it because if I let Charlie take the easy no-stress route and stay in the deeply dysfunctional place he inhabited when he first came here, he’d still be a miserable, lonely, filthy, unsocialized little wretch. You see, the problem with comfort zones is that they’re such nice, safe, warm comfortable places that if we’re never pushed out of them, we just settle in and stay there. And when we’re allowed to indulge in that kind of intrinsically rewarding avoidance behavior our comfort zones don’t shrink – they get bigger.

Because of a severe lack of early socialization, when I first met him there were a lot more things that Charlie feared or otherwise didn’t like than things he liked (or was even willing to put up with). The boy had also inadvertently learned that he could use his evil, evil teeth to make things he didn’t like go away. When faced with any kind of new or even mildly stressful situation his default reaction was a screaming, spitting, biting tantrum. So it was my job to regularly, fairly – and yes, sometimes forcefully – push Charlie out of his comfort zone so he could develop the coping skills he hadn’t had a chance to acquire in the first months of life.

Basically, I need to act as his personal trainer. It was my job to design a safe and effective mental exercise program to help this dog reach his potential. And I couldn’t always be his buddy when I did it. A good personal trainer must be prepared to push her clients relentlessly.

A lot of people will try to convince you that incorporating any stress or aversiveness in handling or training a dog will make him vicious, fearful and/or neurotic. These people are wrong. Working with dogs like Charlie has convinced me that the idea that we should only share ‘positive’ interactions with our dogs is a deeply flawed one.

Despite what the main stream media tells you, stress is not an inherently negative or unnatural thing. Stress is a natural – and necessary – part of every life (seriously, even plant life).  Stress drives evolution, it builds strength and it even enhances some forms of learning. Because stress is absolutely essential to life, the key to dealing with it successfully doesn’t lie in avoiding or ignoring it, it’s found in developing the strength to cope with it.

The brain’s stress coping mechanisms are a lot like muscles, you’ve got to use ’em or you’ll lose ’em. So in a direct analogy to resistance training, we can use mental training to increase an animal’s ability to deal with stress. The basis of this training consists of a program of controlled exposure to moderately stressful things that increases a dog’s ability to cope with stress. This is strikingly similar to the goal of resistance training which, according to the American Sports Medicine Institute, is to “gradually and progressively overload the musculoskeletal system so it gets stronger.”

If your dog needs a bit of personal coaching follow these rules:

  • When possible give the dog some choice in how to approach the stressful situation. Don’t put the dog on a leash and drag him toward it. Instead, set up a situation where making some approach to the object results in a reward or a release of pressure and then show him how to earn it.
  • If the dog has completely and absolutely made up his mind that he cannot approach that particular scary thing, don’t quit and reward his refusal, just move on to an easier thing.
  • Keep the dog’s mind and body active during the exercise. Idle paws are the devil’s tools! If your dog is not fully engaged in the exercise those extra mental resources will be shuttled to stress responses and they’ll work against you.
  • Increase the difficulty in steps. Watch the dog. His response will tell you how big to make those steps.
  • Give the dog a short break to shake off the stress after each step. If he has a hard time shaking it off, make the next step smaller or easier. If he rebounds immediately, make it bigger or more difficult.
  • Work in small bits at first. Increase time as your dog increases his mental resources.
  • The last bit of the work you do will be the piece that the dog will remember most clearly, so it is very important to end the work on a successful note. Even if this is only a small success.
  • Don’t overdo it. Once the dog’s confidence is aroused – end the session and give him a break to process what he just learned. This should be a time for calm, quiet reflection not rambunctious play.
  • It is important to realize that if you are working with a genetically shy dog or one who had severe deficits in early socialization – you will need to continue these kinds of mental strength training exercises for the rest of your dog’s life. Maintenance training will be much less difficult and time-consuming than your initial training program, but your dog has to use these skills or he will lose them.

In my experience, when done well, this kind of program will result in geometric rather than arithmetic progress. So while you will probably need to begin by taking tiny steps you should begin to see significant changes as your dog’s resources are built up. Be aware of this and don’t fall into the rut of walking in baby steps throughout your training program.

After many months of regular structured mental resistance training young Charlie has progressed beyond baby steps and significantly increased his ability to cope with stress. He’s gone from a dog who pitched a major fit any time a new person came into our house to a dog who, with just a bit of help, now likes to hop into visitors’ laps to cuddle.

Note the big, relaxed smile. Chuck is really happy to be in Nancy's lap.

Pushing Charlie out of his comfort zone wasn’t always fun, and in the beginning it was very stressful for both of us. But every day he gets stronger. The boy still needs a bit more work, but this crazy, bitey little dog is learning to roll with life’s punches. And more importantly he’s also beginning to recognize the rewards that go along with those skills.

February 20, 2011 at 11:52 pm 7 comments

A Lesson

One of Charlie’s remaining quirks is a continued profound fascination with, and sometimes irrational fear of, reflections and other shiny or sparkly things.

One of the ways this manifests is in his unswerving conviction that his reflection is some kind of unspeakably evil thing.

Early this morning I was having a cup of coffee and catching up on a bit of reading when Charlie caught sight of an evil thing in the glass front of the fireplace.

Charlie was transfixed by his reflection. He went stiff-legged and bug-eyed. He piloerected from the front of his forehead to the tip of his half-raised tail. He started growling softly but quickly escalated to an eerily accurate imitation of the demon Pazuzu.

I looked down at Audie, who was lying at my feet. Audie met my gaze with the kind of deep look that conveys an entire conversation. He got up, trotted across the room and picked up Charlie’s favorite stuffed toy. He carried it over to his irrational, ranting buddy and playbowed. Charlie woke from his trance, went soft, wagged his tail at Audie and the two of them moved away to play tug games together.

Audie (whose play was rooted more from of a sense of duty than real enthusiasm) quickly tired of the game and returned to his spot at my feet. Unfortunately once he was no longer distracted by the game, it didn’t take Charlie long to discover that the unspeakable evil had returned to the fireplace and he continued his tirade.

Audie and I had another silent conversation and, being a dog with a strong sense of duty, he trotted over to the horrid little dog at fireplace again.  Eschewing the toy, this time Audie put on his best bendy, prancy, head-rolling, come-hither body language and successfully flirted Charlie’s attention away from the abomination in the window.

The ploy worked and the boys wrestled a bit. They got distracted by a squirrel on the deck and Audie laid at my feet again.

And once Charlie’s attention was free to roam on its own – it made a bee-line for the same ugly, obsessive place.

I could tell Audie had moved from dutiful to annoyed because this time he didn’t even look at me. He just got up, snatched a dirty sock off the floor, marched over the fireplace and stepped between Charlie and the object of his obsession in a coldly calculating way. Audie blocked the fireplace and stared at Charlie in obvious contempt until Charlie quit ululating and averted his gaze. Audie returned to my feet, spat out the sock and sighed in a distinctly annoyed way – but instead of relaxing he remained alert.

In the mean time Charlie had hopped up onto the couch to sulk. He averted his gaze from Audie’s direction (and mine) and fixed it on a blank spot on the wall, apparently trying to stare a hole through it. He remained like this, hunkered down, ears pinned back, glaring at the epic unfairness of it all until the sound of the UPS truck broke his rumination.

All the dogs ran to the door, but we’ve worked on this. They barked a bit, then sat quietly and attentively near the door while the driver dropped off two boxes and three dog treats before he rang the bell and walked away. They were antsy, but stayed generally sitting until I picked up the boxes – and the treats – and rewarded their good behavior.

The three dogs drifted around me for a while in a soft, curving, happy mass. Glad to be together, pleased to have been given an unexpected treat and proud to have earned it. Sadly, the serenity didn’t last long. And when the joy of the moment had passed, each of the dogs wandered off to pursue his own interests. Unfortunately Charlie’s interest went immediately back to staring down his demon.

Audie had settled on one of the dog beds to work on a bone. He tried to ignore the shrieking abomination across the room, he really did. But the utter wrongness of it could not be denied. And it could not be allowed to continue.

Audie dropped the bone, narrowed his eyes, laid back his ears and darted across the room. He’d given up on asking Charlie to agree to stop his annoying, unbalanced behavior. He would make it happen.

Audie delivered a swift muzzle punch to Charlie’s left flank. The impact threw Charlie off balance and instantly pulled his attention away from the monster in the fireplace. He spun around and yelped more, I think, in surprise than in pain. He took one look at Audie’s intensely annoyed expression and dropped to grovel softly – and quietly – at his feet. Audie stalked around Charlie to block him once more from the fireplace and Charlie got up and slunk away to the kitchen.

Audie stood claiming the fireplace until he was sure Charlie wasn’t going to return. Then he resumed his preferred position at my feet.

A while after Charlie banished himself to the kitchen to process events I took the dogs outside for a break. Charlie and Audie romped together as if nothing had happened. Charlie didn’t express any fear or mistrust of Audie. And Audie showed no trace of resentment or unwarranted bossiness toward Charlie. (And Zip was as haughty and aloof as she’s ever been.)

Life in my dogs’ world went on much as it always has with only one notable exception. This happened more than seven hours ago – and Charlie hasn’t so much as looked at the fireplace since.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere…

November 15, 2010 at 5:51 pm 9 comments

Best. Gundog Retrieve. Ever.

Today, in celebration of the opening day of the Minnesota gun deer hunting season we bring you this gem via Outdoor Life:

Displaying the kind of obsessive focus and drive that can turn this popular breed into the Pet From Hell – a labrador retriever named Ramsay successfully retrieved his 14-year old owner’s first antlered deer. Across a lake. In January. Read the whole thing here.

Unfortunately it’s illegal to use a dog to track deer (even injured deer) in Minnesota. Dog owners can be fined up to $500 if their dog kills an animal – and a dog can be shot by police or conservation officers if it is caught chasing deer.

November 6, 2010 at 7:15 am 4 comments

Dog training as gaming

Several different recent online alerts pointed me to this video from game theorist Tom Chatfield. Take a few minutes to watch his presentation and then let’s talk about how dog training is like gaming.

Modern computer games offer a stunningly wide range of carefully designed rewards. They also provide us with some really fascinating, and incredibly strong, tools to measure exactly what kinds of things people find rewarding.

Games keep us engaged largely through masterfully designed schedules of variable reinforcement. And game designers don’t just vary the timing of rewards, the value of the rewards varies greatly and smart game designers also offer different kinds of rewards including abstract things like karma and experience.

To keep our attention, a game can’t just offer rewards, it also has to offer some aspect of risk. We only stay fully engaged in a game when there is a real risk that losses (or aversives) will occur along with rewards.

Based on his work, Chatfield has come up with seven different ways that well-designed games reward our brains. His list bears a striking resemblance to the ways that I think a well-designed training program rewards our dogs’ brains.

  1. Complex games give us a way to measure our progress.  When we play a game we want to feel like we’re getting somewhere. That we’re accomplishing something. And a good game gives us a way (or better yet, several ways) to measure that. This innate need to feel that one is making progress is one of the reasons why it’s important to break a training exercise down into discrete steps and give your dog meaningful input at each one of those steps rather than just at the end of a task.
  2. A game provides players with an array of different long- and short-term goals. Making progress on smaller goals helps maintain our motivation as we work to achieving the big ones. Small successes help prevent burn-out and frustration. This is something that people commonly lose track of when they work with dogs. Humans appear to be unique in our obsession with forward thinking and planning ahead. In advanced training as well as in day-to-day life, there are times when we’re focused on a complex and/or distant end goal that our dogs simply aren’t capable of seeing. This can be a source of much interspecies miscommunication – and frustration. And it’s another reason why it’s important to break training work up into a series of discrete steps that make sense to your dog.
  3. A well-designed game rewards effort along with skill. This is another place where we commonly create confusion in our dogs. There’s a big difference between making a sincere effort that puts you into the wrong place and deliberate defiance or misbehavior. As I commonly remind my clients, being wrong is not the same as being bad – and the two absolutely should not be dealt with in the same kinds of ways.
  4. A game needs to provide players with timely, frequent and clear feedback. Do I need to clarify how this ties into dog training? I hope not. (Although this idea does tie in nicely with my recent post on goals, learning and the emotional regulation of behavior).
  5. It is vitally important that a game includes some element of surprise to bring excitement into play. Many trainers focus on the importance of surprise in using jackpot rewards to maintain a dog’s interest. While jackpots can be valuable, we also need to incorporate suprise in a less obvious way- through the use of contrast.  Contrast allows us to give the dog a way to compare one thing to another in a way that is simple for him to figure out. Contrast is an enormously valuable tool because it lets us tell the dog whether he should focus on sameness or difference in a given situation.  It can also help show a dog which features he needs to focus on and which he can safely ignore.  This is vitally important in most complex problem solving exercises.
  6. A game provides players with windows of enhanced attention. This state of enhanced attention or being completely involved in an activity simply for its own sake is sometimes referred to as flow. When you’re in the flow state you engage all of your physical and emotional resources to act and learn. Flow is important in play because it’s a very strongly intrinsically rewarding state of mind. I believe that humans and other animals have a natural play drive because the flow in play is intrinsically rewarding. A good training exercise should provide you and your dog with these ‘windows of enhanced attention’ – and leave you both wanting more.
  7. Games are interactive. Team-mates and opponents play a vital part in games. Dogs and humans are social creatures and competition and collaboration are often more rewarding to us than cash or treats. I see this in Audie who works mostly just for the reward of interacting with me. I rarely use treats or toys when I work with him because praise, petting and the opportunity to collaborate meaningfully with me are what the boy lives for. Though he also seems to love the competitive rush he gets from chasing (and sometimes catching) squirrels and other prey.

I thought it was interesting that while Chatfield brought up the importance of risk and loss in creating a good game he left that idea off the list. We seem to be developing such a strong (and in many cases, irrational) distaste for fear, stress and other kinds of aversives in today’s world that many people seem not to be capable of seeing the important and necessary part they play in our lives. Without yin there is no yang. If we could erase all aversives from life – joy would disappear too.

A really great game is addictive (though not always in a good way). Really great dog training should be addictive too, so if you and your dog haven’t become addicted to the work you’re doing, take a few tips from game theorists and get lost in the flow.

November 4, 2010 at 5:31 pm 10 comments

Can it feel good to feel bad?

We assume that, given the choice, a sane and healthy person will always prefer feeling good over feeling bad – but recent studies indicate that sometimes we may actually  seek to feel unpleasant emotions.

Do normal, healthy people ever really want to feel angry, frightened or sad?

Before you answer that question, keep in mind that you can want something either consciously or unconsciously. In other words, you may seek to feel a specific emotion whether you realize it or not.

Historically, most research on emotion has focused on how people (and other animals) modify their feelings, not why they do it. Maya Tamir bucked this trend in a 2009 study, What Do People Want to Feel and Why? Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation  where she wrote:

People want to maximize immediate pleasure. Therefore, they want to feel pleasant emotions and avoid unpleasant ones. The emphasis on short-term pleasure has dominated research on emotion regulation. However, people also want to maximize utility. Therefore, they may also want to feel emotions that are useful (not merely pleasurable) and avoid harmful ones. The approach that views emotion regulation as instrumental proposes that what people want to feel depends on both pleasure and utility. When immediate benefits (i.e., immediate pleasure) outweigh long-term benefits (i.e., delayed pleasure derived from successful goal pursuit), people should prefer pleasant emotions. When long-term benefits outweigh immediate ones, people should prefer useful emotions.

If this is true, when we’re in pursuit of a short-term goal we should just unconsciously seek to do the thing that makes us feel good in the moment. But when we’re chasing a goal that represents delayed reward we should seek the emotional state that is best suited to achieving that goal, even if it is an unpleasant emotion.

Tamir decided that situations where it would be most adaptive for people to seek to feel unpleasant emotions would provide the strongest test of her theory, because in these cases the immediate reward offered by pleasure would diametrically oppose the negative emotion favored by utility. She decided to test whether it was adaptive to feel angry when pursuing confrontational goals. Participants were asked to engage in anger-inducing activities before they played a confrontational game. Tamir found that this group who did this performed measurably better at the game than a control group who did not. She also observed that engaging in the same anger-inducing activities did not enhance participants’ performance in a separate nonconfrontational game.

After she found that anger could help a person achieve a confrontational goal she conducted a second test to find out whether people would seek to feel angry when they were told that they were preparing to engage in confrontational activities. Even though most participants stated that they expected anger-inducing activities to be unpleasant, they still actively preferred to engage in them when they were told that they were going to participate  in the confrontational game. Participants did not seek to engage in the same anger-inducing activities when they were told that they’d participate in a nonconfrontational game.

Feelings of fear should enhance performance in escape and avoidance activities, so another group of participants were told they’d be playing a computer game where their goal would be to avoid various threats. These subjects preferred to engage in fear-inducing activities before playing, and according to Tamir, “the more participants expected an activity to make them afraid, the more they wanted to engage in it before playing the threatening game.”

Though others have stated that negative emotions are the only ones that drive behavior, Tamir proposed that happiness should make us feel more cooperative. She tested this by telling some participants that they’d be engaging in negotiation activities with collaborative goals. These subjects displayed a marked preference to engage in  happiness-inducing activities before negotiating.

Tamir’s results are fascinating but we don’t (and can’t) always consciously choose how we want to feel because feelings related to expectations operate largely within unconscious mental processes. So how do we know which emotion will be the most useful in helping us achieve a given goal? Tamir thinks that we learn this with experience and she implies that context is important in this type of learning.

No one knows exactly how emotion affects behavior. The most widely accepted view is that emotion directly causes behavior, but some recent studies have proposed that rather than triggering behavior directly, conscious and unconscious emotions drive behavior through positive and negative feedback loops.

In an article published in Personality and Social Psychology Review in 2007, Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, C. Nathan DeWall and Liqing Zhang state that:

Conscious emotion commands attention and stimulates analysis, learning, and adaptation, often occurring in the aftermath of behavior and its outcomes. It may occasionally have a direct effect on behavior (for good or ill), but directly driving behavior is not its main function. Automatic affective responses can preserve the lessons and information from previous emotional experiences. The combination of previous emotional outcomes and current affect also contributes to making people start anticipating emotional outcomes — and to choose their actions according to the emotions they expect will ensue.

They go on to state that if positive and negative feedback loops are important in the emotional regulation of behavior, the anticipation of an emotion may be more important than the actual emotion. When we feel the way we expected to feel about an event our past learning is reinforced by the correlation. When we don’t feel the way we expected to, the emotional contrast causes us to update our mental database. If this is true, emotional expectations play a vital part of the learning process.

Baumeister et al.’s ideas on the role of our expectation of emotions in learning ties in well with Tamir’s theory of emotional priming. If we seek an unpleasant emotional state like anger or fear with the expectation that it will help us achieve a delayed goal, we may either be rewarded by a feeling of success when we achieve the goal or punished by the feeling of frustration when we don’t. While most of this expecting, comparing, rewarding and punishing goes on underneath our conscious intellectual radar, it still plays a key role in learning.

If emotional expectancies play a foundational role in how we perceive and understand the world, experiencing unpleasant emotions is a vital – and unavoidable – part of learning. It’s not just good to feel bad, it is absolutely and completely necessary to.

With the best of intentions, people often seek to protect their children, pets and other loved ones from any experience associated with negative emotions. We should, perhaps, reassess our goals in this area. If “negative” emotions are vital in controlling how complex animals (like people and dogs) achieve our goals, these “negative” emotions aren’t just necessary and adaptive – they are also (at least in some cases), the emotions that we prefer to feel in a given situation.

This is new, cutting edge, work so it may or may not hold up under further scrutiny, but it is certainly food for thought.

October 24, 2010 at 4:53 pm 6 comments

More than a mouthful

Today’s StarTribune reports on a Twin Cities dog who’s definitely got a grip.

Rose is a border collie / lab mix who was adopted from a local shelter and then given to Ed Watson.

Like many high-energy mutts, this five-year-old Labrador retriever/border collie mix loves a good game of Frisbee. Unlike the rest, she can catch and hold onto up to seven tossed discs — thrown separately — without dropping a one.

Rose’s unique talent was born of her obsession to hold on to her favorite toys. Watson noticed that the dog not only wanted to hold on to a Frisbee she had but that she could catch another without dropping it.

“She doesn’t like to let go when she’s got a lot of them,” Watson said, recalling that the first time she was able to keep her jaws clamped around seven Frisbees, she refused to drop them for a re-throw and hopped into the car with all seven still in her mouth. “I like to think she knew what she’d accomplished.”

Watson isn’t an experienced trainer of dogs – Rose is his first. But he works as a personal trainer so I suspect that he’s got a lot of personal focus and that he’s found that some his coaching skills work well on dogs. So well that Rose will appear in the 2011 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.

Go to this link for an excellent set of photos featuring Rose at work.

October 3, 2010 at 6:46 pm Leave a comment

Cesar Millan is not a dog trainer

Cesar Millan is the most loved – and the most hated – dog trainer in the world today. Adored by millions of fans, Millan is also vilified by many dog trainers.

Right, wrong or indifferent – I find it amusing that such volumes of hatereude* are launched against a man who doesn’t even describe himself as a dog trainer.

But if Cesar Millan isn’t a dog trainer – what is he?

I think that Cesar Millan is a self-help guru very much in the mold of his mentor Tony Robbins. The Dog Whisperer acknowledges that Robbins has been a strong influence on his life, and in his books the he talks about how he uses self-help techniques like visualization, scripting and inner dialogs to help his human clients change their behavior.

While he provides some basic how-to advice on dog training I find it ironic that his handling methods, which I suspect Millan does not see as the primary focus of either his philosophy or his television series, are the stimulus that elicits most of the wrath directed at the man from dog trainers. Cesar says that he trains people, and indeed, The Dog Whisperer spends a lot more time talking about changing human behavior than he does about training dogs.

And I think that Millan’s mentor, life coach Tony Robbins, might have profited (pun very much intended) from studying Millan’s television success. While National Geographic’s Dog Whisperer series has hurtled Millan to the forefront of an expanding financial empire, NBC recently canceled Robbins’ reality series “Breakthrough” after one of the most disappointing debuts in recent television history.

While I knew that Millan was a student of Robbins’ program I had not thought much about the link between the two of them until I ran across a webcast of the first episode of Robbins’ series online the other day. In the first minutes of the episode I was immediately struck by how similar Robbins’ mannerisms and speech patterns were to those you’d see on an early episode of The Dog Whisperer. It was like watching an amped up Whisperer who had decided to leave the dogs at home. The resemblance was so strong I expected Robbins to say “tchzzzt” and poke his clients in the shoulder to redirect their attention when they balked at following his suggestions.

Both shows are built on a similar formula:

Troubled family narrates a touching story of heartbreak and tribulation;

Charming, successful, trendy, macho guru interviews family in a way that inspires them to acknowledge their part in creating and/or maintaining the  dysfunction in their lives;

Guru aggressively pushes individual family members well outside their comfort zones to elicit breakthrough experiences;

Individual family members then have touching on-screen epiphanies that we are led to believe will lead to life changing transformation; and

The show ends with guru providing a compelling step-by-step narrative on how his system transformed their lives and why it can transform yours too.

Sure the formula varies a bit from episode to episode – but writing for television is a bit like making soup. If you’ve got a good a basic recipe you can play with proportions and ingredients and still get very good results. And for psuedo-televangelical series like these, the most important ingredient is the guru’s ability to be credible, inspiring and motivational.

“Breakthrough” starts with a close up shot of a very macho looking Robbins saying: “I’m gonna make you do stuff you don’t wanna do, I’m gonna make you face stuff you don’t want to face.” And this idea of pushing people (and dogs) far outside their comfort zones to achieve a “breakthrough” epiphany is one of the main tools used by both men to change their clients’ behavior.

Why? Well, in episode one Robbins says:

“How do you breakthrough whatever unconscious concept we have about what’s possible? All a breakthrough is is a moment in time when you get an insight or you see a truth or you have an experience that once it happens the veil disappears and you just take back control of your life, not just today, but long term. And we’re looking for ways to trigger people to have those breakthroughs.”

The aggressive push to epiphany is probably one of main reasons that Millan’s series has been so successful (it’s also the basis for a lot of the criticism directed at the man), because watching his human and canine clients cope with these physically and emotionally stressful situations is interesting to watch.

Robbins’ show featured dramatic scenes where he pushed people out of their comfort zones though the methods he used were a lot bigger in scale (and budget) than Millan’s.

Both men are skilled at creating powerful positive experiences for their clients. And while these experiences may provide intense emotional highs for their clients and, at least in Millan’s case, they also sell well as entertainment, I’m not convinced that they lead to effective long-term change in most cases.

In light of these similarities, why has Cesar’s show been phenomenally successful and Robbins’ a dismal failure? First, the Dog Whisperer has a much easier job. Dogs accept change far more readily than people do, so Millan’s job lies largely in getting dog owners to accept their place in the problem and take a few, usually relatively simple steps, to effect the needed change.

Another important difference is that Millan offers his clients concrete bits of training advice along with those trademark Dog Whisperer truisms while Robbins just focused on a few abstract motivational platitudes. Another important factor was that, at least in my opinion, Robbins’ show came across as more infomercial than tutorial.

Robbins’ “helping families in crisis in only 30 days” focus on a quickie fix seems to be a perfect fit for today’s drive-through mentality so I understand why network executives gambled on “Breakthrough”. But I think that the show failed because while people may buy into the idea that a few whiz-bang tricks may fix their dogs’ problem behavior, at least at some deep level they’re aware that quick-fix pop psychology methods won’t cure their own issues.

My advice to Tony Robbins, should he get another shot at a television series: tone it down, take it slower and give your most valuable advice away on the show. Millan tells fans all of his training secrets in the DW series – and they line up in droves to pay for more.

*Hatereude – pleasure derived from the hatred of a shared enemy.

August 30, 2010 at 9:55 am 12 comments

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