Sunday, 1 June 2014

I'm migrating to my webpage powered blog.  Most, if not all, posts here will be revamped, and republished there; I'll keep old ones here, but some are pretty raw, especially the first few.  They will be more polished and flow better once republished. 

Time to use that University education for something!

by Scott Nygren

Saturday, 15 March 2014

A shift in thoughts

Recently some things have been happening in the dog training world.  The tide has slowly been turning over the last 50 years away from either misunderstood harsh methods, or from  misunderstood science.  Quebec is the latest jurisdiction to ban the use of both electronic (stim, e-collar, 'tap' collar etc) collars as well as prong (pinch etc) collars.  Use of these devices on a dog, in training or otherwise, can result in a $600 fine.

Germany has also banned the use of shock collars as well as some other countries; and yet others are also considering a ban on them.  The City of Toronto in Canada bans them in public parks - although most people that use the parks in Toronto do not know this.

The United Shutzhund Clubs of America ban the use of these devices in or on the grounds where competitions are being held.  (although it does seem that they are still allowed to be used otherwise).

More than one country has banned the use of the methods used in the Dog Whisperer TV program as well.  The man himself may want to do good for dogs but the methods used in the program are what outraged numerous groups.

The FCI (FEDERATION CYNOLOGIQUE INTERNATIONALE) the overarching body for all National Kennel Clubs in the world, bans the use of prong collars during competition (again, they cannot be on the grounds of competition).  They are currently also suggesting that a ban on users of these devices before after or during competitions be enacted.

So why would are these bodies and governments trying to enact bans on these devices?  Perhaps lobbying by those of us that disagree with them has started a trend, but I would like to think that our politicians have actually looked at the science behind the arguments and seen the reality.  Aversives such as these are not only unnecessary, they cause a welfare problem for a lot of animals that they are used on.

I can hear the disagreements and ranting already.  "You can't tell me what methods to use to train my dog!"  Yet I (the public/province/country) can tell you what to use or not use against your children... or your spouse.

"They only stop the dog from XXX they don't hurt them."  At the very least, they are a strong annoyance, or they wouldn't work.  The science backs this up.  If something decreases a behaviour, then we are either adding something or taking something away (positive punishment or negative punishment).  There HAS to be some mechanism that the dog either finds aversive (need to avoid - not safe) or aggravating (you took something safe away!) for punishment to work in these two cases.  So if just the sound or a prong or choke chain is all that the dog reacts to, then they don't need to wear the collar.

The classic Straw Man "if we don't use these methods the dog will be destroyed!".  Science proves that DS/CC (desensitization and counter-conditioning) are what we need.  If I'm scared of clowns, and every time one comes near me someone zaps me with a tazer to keep me from punching it's lights out I'm going to start getting even more jittery every time I see clowns because I'm going to expect a possible zap.  Electrocuting me is not the answer; therapy to work on helping me deal with the emotions behind the evil clowns is.

Step by step the world is starting to understand the value of a healthy emotional life of the animals we keep in our midst.  Hopefully it will happen with more frequency.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

I know the soap is what works, but I still want hot water to kill the germs....

I was doing dishes today, and something occurred to me that there is a lot of Cognitive Dissonance in the world.  This came about when I was thinking as the hot water ran out while I was washing the dishes (our building has two large hot water tanks and if one runs dry - takes a while for the other tank to kick over it's water).  Hot water is not needed to kill off most of  the bacteria that might be on the dishes... soap is.  I'm a trained Biologist (mostly working with... yes, bacteria).  We didn't toss things directly in the autoclave, we washed them out first THEN steam heated the crap out of them to kill off spores and any residual bacteria or spores that might still be stubbornly hanging on in some little corner under a protective piece of agar we might have missed.

Cognitive dissonance is holding two contrary beliefs that are, once you examine them, incompatible.  In the dog training world, some of these views, when they're examined, are glaring.

"If I don't use these methods, the dog will be put to sleep."  (when talking about using aversive techniques to keep the dog from performing behaviours - ie. they're using only Operant Conditioning).  Technically this is a straw man argument; but for those that do understand Pavlovian conditioning, Cognitive Dissonance is at play as well.  Why?  If you understand what Pavlovian conditioning is, then you understand that adding unpleasant stimuli when an animal is already stressed, has potential side effects -making the reaction to the initial stimulus worse or changes the reaction to a new stimulus or object (person) instead.

"Using treats is bribing the dog."  Yet when push comes to shove, a lot of the same people claiming this still use things that the dog wants to train in the R+ (positive reinforcement) quadrant of training.  Using one type of motivator the dog wants while ignoring another, is dissonant.  The reward used for reinforcement only matters in how much the animal wants that reward; if the animal works harder for certain rewards, why not use them to your advantage?  Two of my dogs would happily work for a tug toy or to chase a ball; one of them could not care less about those motivators but works his butt of for a piece of kibble. 

"I only use only Positive Reinforcement" - meaning that they would like to use just treats and things the dog likes.  I can't see how this is would actually work, unless the dog did nothing but offer behaviours that were not annoying to the trainer/owner.  In theory possible but I think that would take a trainer and a dog both of incredible skill and tolerance for low rates of reinforcement.  A lot of the time, people who do claim this, also use some levels of P- (negative punishment) in the form of time outs;  Either dissonance or misrepresentation.

"Dogs are pack animals and require a structure with an alpha."  This thought makes me chuckle a lot.  If we think about it (and I've written about it before) the statement is dissonant.  Alpha here means the boss; the one who is in charge.  Until my dog learns to drive, earn money, buy groceries and ration out my time, food, entertainment etc I won't worry about, and I don't think anyone else should worry about, a dog wanting to be "dominant".  Dominance displays, resource guarding might be different matters, but this doesn't mean that the dog is in charge.  They're trying to give you information at that point - our job is trying to figure out what they're trying to say and either teach them something better, or show them that behaviour is unacceptable.  For those that are familiar with current science (and even old science) the "alpha" mythology is just that; a myth - at least as portrayed in popular culture.  The Alphas were meant to be a statement of mother and father. The dissonance comes from thinking small pieces of the dogs behaviour repertoire mean that the dog is trying to rule the house.  Here is a little video to help with this.

At times we over analyze dogs.  Yes, there are times as trainers and owners we want to know what our dogs are thinking.  Let us be honest though.  I don't know about you, but I can't even figure out what my wife is thinking a lot of the time.  I know that looking at dogs, I can't figure out what they're really thinking - that's a black box that I might never understand.  BUT, I know what works for them.  I know how to manipulate their behaviour.  They might be thinking that I'm the best thing on the planet, or they might be planning on taking over the world.  But does that matter?  Not really.  They might be laying at my feet right now to keep themselves warm all burrowed up in a pile, or they might be waiting to pounce, just in case I foolishly drop a piece of food on the floor so they can gobble it up as an offering from a subservient whelp.  Either way... Learning theory still holds for them; they do what works; they respond to safe/dangerous.  My job one way or the other, is to use that to whatever advantage I might have.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Deconstruction III (Postive doesn't mean permissive or passive)

"Oh, you're a positive trainer, that means you only have one set of tools to deal with multiple situations..."

There are a lot of myths about Force  Free, Positive trainers out there, mostly spread by those that refuse to understand the science.  It's not even all from the "other" side of training, some of it comes from other Positive trainers.

My Definition of Force Free:

1) Use of scientifically sound and proven techniques that work on ALL animals capable of learning (ie. almost anything with a nervous system).

2) Of those techniques, only those that do not cause pain, fear or other harm to the animal

3) Letting the animal know what it's done right and what it's done wrong after it understands what works in the first place.  We all make mistakes once in a while; we have to face some consequences for it.

4) Management is a key stone in the foundation as are Operant conditioning and Classical Conditioning.

5) People might need to improve skill, but we're all able to use simple, non-harmful techniques.

6) Consequences do not have to be painful or fearful.

7) No one can guarantee that any behaviour can be completely and forever removed from the repertoire of an animal; no one can guarantee that an animal will respond 100% of the time.

8) As a  Trainer (or coach) working with people.  Yes, People, not just dogs.  If we can't get through to the people, we can't get through to the dog.

So what does it all mean?

First and foremost I would call it an ethical choice.  I'm not saying those that use are using force or intimidation are not ethical themselves, but they're making a choice in the manner of their training.  I don't want to show people outdated and potentially dangerous (for the dogs and sometimes people) methods that could result in making matters worse.  Yes, there is a broad number of ways to deal with a situation; we should be looking for the most humane way to accomplish that goal.  Sometimes the fastest fix is not always the best; fixing a problem takes time. 

If the wheel came off my car, I would hope that the mechanic didn't suggest a bit of duct tape to fix the problem.  We live in a time where we expect everything to be fixed right away.  Dogs are complex critters and need time and effort.  If something feels like it's to good to be true, chances are it is.

With the increase in dog ownership in the last few years (I've heard it's doubled in the last 10-20 years) it's not hard to imagine that there has been a thirst for knowledge - most of which seems to be coming from Reality TV.  I don't believe that the "Real Housewives of..." represent real housewives... anywhere - or any time period for that matter; and I don't believe other things should be taken as useful tips and hints (even though those programs say "don't try this at home", sadly, many people do).  Our dogs deserve people that understand the scientific foundations of the techniques that are being used on them; as custodians of animals that cannot verbally tell us, our responsibility is to know as well.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Deconstruction II (Tearing down misleading words)

Some of the things that get under a lot of Positive/Force Free Trainers skins is the buzz words that Balanced/Energy/Dominance-Alpha based trainers use as euphemisms.  At this point, I wouldn't mind if they came right out and said what they were really using to control a dogs behaviour; in fact, I would welcome it.  Why?  Because people would begin to understand what these methods really do to their dogs, and the possible side effects they could create.  Since they aren't about to tell the general public what they really mean, I will be happy to educate the public for them.

Various methods are used; I'll talk about the science behind them later (where there is a case for science, and not misunderstanding of science or out right fabrication and spreading of myths), first though, there needs to be some explanation of the words.  Balance.  Most of the time, when I read this, then read the descriptions that follow, there is usually some method of force, intimidation or pain involved (usually for "correction").  It might be wrapped up in words like leash corrections, stern or loud voice, or pinning the dog to the ground (alpha rolling).  I haven't come across any site or explanation that describes the techniques as not using some sort of physical or mental force; if there is, AND they don't use prong, choke or eCollars, I'd like to see it and find out what they do and dissect the method happily in an intelligent debate.  Energy, is usually used to mean that the person has some mystical connection with the dogs mental/emotional state; usually this is in conjunction with the three collar types mentioned above.  You cannot use Energy to train a dog; you can use psychology, but not mystical mumbo jumbo; I can't even make an argument for this because it's so vague and unprovable it defies logic.  Dominance/Alpha.  This is used based on a complete misinterpretation of the science involving wolves; the original author of the papers now wishes he hadn't used the terms, as what he meant, was Alpha = Parent; Beta = older pups (usually around 2yrs); Omega = youngest cubs.  So just as a Parent human is dominant over their child (they hold all the resources) so is an Alpha.  It's a family structure, not some anthropological mockup of dog societies.  Again, with this false theory, there is a lot of force, intimidation and fear inducement in the training.  Not only is it assigning human values to dogs, but forcing dogs into situations that would be considered potentially lethal situations in the real world (the only time a wolf in a fight alpha rolls another wolf is with intent to kill!)

So if all the above is smoke and mirrors, what are they using?  Some of it was mentioned.  If we look at leash pops, prong ("pinch") collars, eCollars, choke and slip collars (nylon chokes) they all have a basis in either discomfort (at best) or pain (at worst) (ie. Positive Punishment in Operant Conditioning terms) or after sustained use and then discontinuing use after the dog does the "right" behaviour - relief (Negative  Reinforcement).  They say that you need excellent timing for these devices to work and that they shouldn't be used by those not proficient in them; yet if you have excellent timing, you don't need them in the first place! (to paraphrase Ian Dunbar).  That is the scientific methodology they use, whether they describe it as such or not.  Alpha rolls and other dominating maneuvers are merely some form of the above as well.  Will the dog learn the correct behaviour that is  being targeted?  Possibly, yes, I will admit they might (it's the nature of learning theory) but they may also develop a negative emotional connection with the technique, the person using the technique, or perhaps with people in general.  Why?  The thing that those that use Balance don't either understand, or ignore, is that Classical Conditioning (Pavlov's research performed over a 100 years ago and well established) is always at work.

They neglect it because they are only focused solely on the behaviour, not the emotion.  If you change the emotion, you will change the behaviour.  The behaviour is there for a reason, it works to accomplish the goal the dog wants.  Eliminating the behaviour may work, but the emotional state will stay the same; so the chance of recurrence is ever present, not diminished or extinguished.  Change the emotion and the need for the behaviour will no longer be valid; the dog may perform the behaviour out of habit and work it's emotions back up, but that is a management issue that doesn't require the use of force, just compassion and empathy.  You don't need to correct a behaviour that is fueled by negative emotions; you need to fix the emotions first.  Blaming a hungry thief for stealing bread and locking them up doesn't make the hunger go away.

This for me is still a messaging and communication issue leading the public with false advertising.  No one can guarantee the behaviour of another organism.  You can adjust the odds in your favour, but you can't make it a sure thing.  The public has the right to know that there are people out there that claim one thing, but do something completely different.  Reality TV has done nothing to help in this regard.  Dog Training is fighting against outdated and erroneous messages coming off TV, the internet and filtered through friends and family who suddenly know what's best for your dog.  The public needs, no, DESERVES Consumer Rights protection.  They acquire a pet that will be with them for up to 15 years or more and ask someone to come and train the dog (an animal with a not so distant past of being a predator with sharp teeth) without telling them how they plan on motivating the dog or what methods they are really using.  Trainers be honest in the way you train dogs; don't flower it up with language that doesn't mean anything or is false.  Owners be as harsh in your questions to your trainers as you need to be until you get an answer you understand; if they continue to make you ill at ease or if it is something you would not do to a child, you have the right to walk away.

Suggested reading:

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Deconstruction (part 1) - Critical thinking

Last time I wrote about making plans.  It occurs to me, after, or before, you make plans, or set sail on a ship, you must figure out the method you will use to accomplish your goals.  Will you use traditional Post and Beam; modern construction framing, or go all out and make a concrete; sail, steam or catamaran?

There are numerous ways to train dogs in the world today.  A lot of them are basically the same, some are as different as night and day.  I've talked about some of it before; others have talked about it.  There is a lot of weasel wording in dog training.  First and formost people need to be aware that there is, as I've said in the past and I will keep saying until enough people stand up and demand their rights as consumers, THERE ARE NO REGULATIONS IN DOG TRAINING.  Anyone can hang up a shingle and say "I'm a dog trainer; I've been training dogs for XX years; I'm an expert; I know dog behaviour; I know dog body language; I understand dog psychology...."  There are only a few areas in dog training that are currently regulated.  That small list includes Veterinary Behaviorists who work on very special cases and are usually referred to by more reputable dog trainers (Trainers who admit that they are out of their league or comfort level when dealing with a case and understand the dog needs more assistance).

We should talk about the biggest myths out there openly, and plainly.  To understand the root cause of them, and to establish them as outright myths.  There is a lack of critical thinking in Dog Training, which leads to blind acceptance of methods that are either unneeded, outdated, and/or just dangerous.

I've heard well educated people say "Science has their theories, but I know xxx works, I've done it myself!"  The fact is that Science Theories are well ordered, usually very simple concepts that have been proven over, and over, and over until all the extraneous non-useful, false or unverifiable information is rejected.  We cannot accept the Theory of Gravity, Germ Theory, Quantum Theory, Evolutionary Theory and reject Learning Theory because it is discomforting to the way we think.  Learning Theory, is a theory, because it has been proven over and over again on numerous animals (kingdom Animalia).  

If someone is using a technique to change an animals behaviour and deny they are using Learning Theory, or that they have developed a technique outside the boundaries of these Theories, they are either unaware of the Theory or purposefully promoting falsehoods.  The question then becomes of us, as dog owners in general, do we want someone who has either no understanding of the science behind their techniques or is lying to you.  Would you trust a doctor with this level of education or duplicity?  As a species, probably through society, we have a tendency, if someone calls themselves an expert or professional, to take them at their word and not question anything they say!  (how many times have you watched your money walk away because an expert said you needed something, but you were not sure and found out later you didn't need what they were pushing?)

A good dog trainer will happily take questions; and if they can't answer them right away, they will probably be more than happy to find out the answer!  Why?  Because just as much as you, they want to know the truth.  If they give an answer that doesn't seem well thought out, utterly ridiculous, or makes you uneasy - question them more.  If the answer is not immediate and makes logical sense without a lot more thought involved to parse the language, it is likely that they are not in understanding of the Science behind their technology.

Your relationship with your dog is Critical; your dog deserves you to be critical in your thinking.  Critical thinking is the first step to deconstructing and then understanding false claims and undeserved methods.

More to come.

Suggested viewing :

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Build a House, have a plan; Go to war, have a plan; train a dog? wing it....???

The welfare of numerous animals is at stake.

A lot of people set out plans for their life.  They set out plans for a home before they build it (or leave it to the architect and the contractor).  Governments (usually) set out grand objectives for the military, which sets out realistic, day to day plans and strategies for a war.  We plan a LOT.  We practice a LOT.  I don't know of any one nuclear scientist ever found in a reactor that doesn't know the difference between a proton and a neutron (ok, save your jibes, Homer Simpson doesn't count!).  Lawyers make plans and contracts for clients.  Carpenters follow plans to build houses.  Sports teams have plans; nearly everyone who works as a professional has some sort of plan.  We have plans either before we get into a career (education) or after we get into a career (mostly more education).  To make a car, a company needs a plan.  To make a cake, you need a plan! (a recipe).  Yes, you can make a cake or other food after you've had some practice (ah... there we go practice!).  So, why do we assume that we can train a dog, without a plan?

A lot of people do, and they get by.  But (in Canada) at least 40 000 animals a year would disagree that those plans work; mostly because they've paid the ultimate price.  Not always right away, but perhaps after some time.  What do our future companions deserve?  Are they disposable, or potentially disposable?  I don't think so, and a lot of other people wouldn't think so either.   They cost more than an iPhone if they come from a reputable breeder (sometimes even if they don't come from one!).  We can replace a mechanical or electronic device if we screw it up or drop it on the floor and cause it to cease functioning in the way we like.  What happens when we the same happens to an animal?  They get returned or some worse sentence.

What can we do?  We can plan.  I would suggest planning everything well in advance.  What will the dog/cat/gerbil/hamster/pig/sloth/boyfriend need?  Physical requirements; mental requirements; medical requirements etc.  Where will the animal get these requirements?  Who will provide them, and when?  Who will pay for them, and how?  What behaviours do the dog/cat/etc come with that we might want to enhance; and what do they come with that we will not find appealing?  All these things should be thought out before hand.  Once you know what you need, you can work on, you guessed it, the plan!

The plan should be easy for you to follow.  Break it down into steps.  When we learn algebra in school, we are not provided an equation the first day of kindergarten and told to solve it!  We need to learn the basics, and we need to learn them well.  If we can't add simple numbers together, we won't be able to add variables together either.  Throw in Trigonometry and you have a whole new kettle of fish.  Other than acronyms, can you remember what Sin, Cosine and Tangent mean?  We can't go from 1+1 to solve the rate of speed of an object falling from a building of height X given a rate of acceleration of 9.8m/s/s over night.  Break it into small steps, make it easy.

Small steps mean that you and the dog (I'll use dog from now on) can accomplish goals and landmarks.  If the goal is to hard, you break it into smaller chunks so that it's manageable and you progress to the point you want to get to.  Ah, the goal!  The end behaviour.  With small steps, you achieve small goals toward the end - the goal.  Broken up into tiny pieces, things become easier for everyone to understand; learning happens faster (and probably bonding).  Both you and the dog get a flood of happy feelings.  As you get more skilled, you try more difficult things; perhaps your goal changes, what then?

If an athlete says they want to compete in a marathon, they run every day, maybe twice a day.  They run long distances, they partake in a half marathon when they're ready, maybe two or three.  Once they're ready, they tackle the end goal.  Mission accomplished... now however, they want to beat their own best time.  So they train harder, get help, perhaps a coach.  They manage their goal.   Now they want to be in the top 10!  Even more training, a diet regime, more coaches etc.  But each time they don't just wing it; they set out a goal.  Some maybe set the goal in their head, but the fastest most productive people will put the goal down on paper and try to figure out what steps they need to accomplish it.

Encourage everyone who wants an animal to understand what it entails to have an animal.  What needs an animal has, and what things that the animal will require (food, training etc).  The welfare (and possible survival) of the animal is at stake.