Category Archives: Dog behaviour

Piano exams and the science of dog training

File:Piano practice hands.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

When I was a child I was encouraged to take the obligatory (in my dad’s world, anyway ) piano lessons. I was duly coached and learned on the upright piano that sat in the spare room. It was quite old, and the ivories were a bit stained. I can remember what some looked like. The D above middle C was yellow. The E was white with some dark speckles. I practiced. Not a lot, but enough presumably for it to be declared that I was competent enough to take my Grade One piano exam.  The lowest level of exam. The basic, easy-peasy entry level exam.

I failed it. I still remember the experience. Instead of being in the spare room at home, with comfortably familiar keys on that old upright piano, with my piano teacher sitting beside me offering kind support and  feedback,  I was sat in glorious isolation at a shiny grand piano, sitting on a strange piano stool that felt weird, all the keys beautifully white (and very confusingly!) identical. I was high up on a stage. On the floor of the hall (Balham Town Hall) were some strangers sitting at a table watching me. The JUDGES.

To this day I have no idea how good or bad I was, and no recollection of what my father or my music teacher thought of my performance, but since I failed it I’m guessing I wasn’t being marked down as a future Chopin or Rachmaninov.  I never took another piano exam in my life and mostly stopped playing although I did love to tinker on it from time to time when no one was around.

So here’s the dog training lesson I (many years later with the wisdom of hindsight and adulthood) took from that experience. It doesn’t matter how well you (or the dog) ‘know’ something – if you don’t generalise that learning, habituate to an environment and don’t practice it under varying conditions the learning WILL almost certainly fail at some point. If you know that skill inside out, have it so familiar to you so you can almost do it on your sleep, it may stand up to more challenging conditions, but all too often, for various reasons, we put that learning under too much pressure too soon and so it becomes vulnerable to failure. As a little girl I was put on a stage, with an unfamiliar piano, being watched by complete strangers, under test conditions, being expected to reproduce ‘Study in D minor’ by Thomas Dunhill, without any of those factors having been taken into account first. Had I but known it, I was doomed before I even set foot in that hall.  

I hadn’t forgotten the piece of music I had practiced for the exam. I could still play it when I got home (and could for years afterwards). But at Balham Town Hall, on that day, I couldn’t. I wasn’t being stubborn, or ‘difficult’. I wasn’t playing it badly to spite anyone. I wasn’t “choosing” not to do as I was asked. I wasn’t being disobedient. I simply hadn’t been prepared for the conditions I was being expected to perform under. I was totally undertrained. My brain couldn’t handle all the different stimuli being thrown at me,

When people take their ‘trained’ dog to a dog show, to compete in perhaps obedience, or the breed ring, or agility, consider what are often common excuses they give for their dog messing up. He’s “stubborn”, or he “knows it really, he’s just being difficult”. He doesn’t like shows. He’s a bit ‘off’ today. He…anything and everything other than he was simply not prepared or trained well enough to ‘perform’ those behaviours, under the conditions he was confronted with.  

So when your dog loses concentration, doesn’t do as he is told, messes up – consider – have you prepared him well enough? Before blaming him, check you have completed your part of the job of training by preparing him for those conditions. I often wonder what path my musical career might have taken me on, had I smashed Study in D minor at Balham Town Hall on that day instead of the ignomious defeat it became.

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Are you a mugger or a bank manager?

I don’t know many owners who haven’t been faced with the loss of a sock to a “naughty” puppy, or watched in despair as a cushion or a pair of knickers have disappeared at speed up the garden, or collected in the pup’s bed.  But it’s never just socks and knickers – its Barbie dolls, tea towels, flower pots, slippers…all can fall prey to the quick eye of an opportunistic pup! The first time a puppy “steals” something is when they find out if you are a mugger…or a bank manager.

Muggers

Muggers come up to you, assert themselves, and take what you have. Without a by your leave. No warning. Sometimes they threaten you first. They put on an ugly face. “Give me your phone!” “Give me your money!” They might even physically attack you. So the next time you are out and carrying your bag or your phone, you are going to be on your guard. Ready to protect yourself should anyone try to do the same thing again.  Depending on your temperament, your state of stress or just because there’s an R in the month, you might become very aggressive if anyone should try to steal anything off you another time.  That some muggers are more subtle – they might even smile and try to engage you in conversation, lull you into a false sense of security before taking your money – just makes you more suspicious of the mugger looking like a Greek bearing gifts. That he is just trying to trick you, rather than assault you, as he takes what you have is not always a great comfort.

Poppy believes there are muggers about!! Think how we tuck bags under our arms or put our hands protectively around our possessions if we believe someone might want to ‘steal’ them. Poppy used to show extreme aggression towards anyone approaching her when she had any article.

Bank Managers

But there are some people who we go looking for to give our money to. It used to be bank managers. I guess the world has changed since I first came up with this analogy. Who sees bank managers any more? Their image isn’t all that great either nowadays, but back in the day they loved giving you interest on the money you deposited with them. The principle remains the same. IF it’s in our interests to give away our money, we will give it up willingly and happily. These days we go online to find people to take it from us. If we learn to believe the person saying ‘Give me your money!’ is not only going to keep it safe, they will give you interest, and then give back your original investment, we will willingly hand it over. We actively go looking for them. Once we’ve learned to trust the person we are very unlikely to bite them, or run away from them, when they approach us asking for our money.

The main difference between those 2 scenarios is a very basic one. In the first you had no choice. Someone else was literally forcing a decision on you. And were clearly planning on permanently depriving you of your property. They were probably scary as well. The latter – giving your money to someone willingly, was entirely your choice. The bank – in order to manipulate you into making that choice freely and willingly, understands it has to make the transaction both appealing and non-threatening. 

So which would you rather be with your dog when he has something he shouldn’t? A mugger or a bank manager? It’s too late to stop him taking the things you value if he already has it (that’s a different training issue entirely) so there’s no point telling him off for that, so if you want to come out well from the situation you created (by leaving things lying around), then you need to consider how important it is that your dog views you as a bank manager rather than a mugger.  

 

 “Please sir, can I have some more? “ An optimistic dog who believes it pays off to take even really difficult articles to mum in order to earn ‘interest’!


Future proofing

  • Don’t get aggressive with your pup or adult dog over articles he has picked up just because they are ‘yours’ not his – don’t be a mugger sometimes, and bank manager at others. Guess which articles he is less likely to want to give up in the future? He already has the article; he cannot understand how he came by it in the first place matters to you, however cross you get. In a dog’s world, if he has something, it’s his.  He can’t understand that you are angry because it’s fluffy loveliness cost you £100 from John Lewis rather than a fiver from Pets At Home.
  • Once you have hold of the article – even if it’s just a hand holding it at the same time as the pup  –  give your dog ‘interest’ (in the form of at least one treat, maybe more) while you hold it before giving it back
  • 99% of the time you give back the article once the pup has eaten the treat –you need to do this with ALL articles – his toys, chews, unimportant articles of yours (e.g. socks). The only ones you don’t give back are the ones that are dangerous for him or things that REALLY matter to you (e.g. £50 notes!).  If you really want to be clever about it, you can give higher rates of interest for giving you things he shoudn’t have so he is more likely to give them up than want to keep them. Imagine how fast you would want to put your £500 into a bank account that offered 10% interest, instead of the usual £1.3%. Just be careful that he isn’t so clever that he learns to ‘find’ that £500 in order to trade it in!

In effect you want to teach your pup to want to bring things to you. That some things earn even more interest (like Barbie or £50 notes) and you are always up for trading things in for something better. That it can mean your dog randomly finds objects to bring to you in order to get something from you is a bonus IMO. If it matters to you that your dog doesn’t put his teeth on some things, don’t let him have access to them. Manage things better. But if from the first day his little paw crosses your threshold he learns that you are a lovely, generous bank manager wanting to give him interest and not a nasty, thieving mugger wanting to permanently deprive him of his treasured possessions, the chances of him being an aggressive ‘resource guarder’ as he matures are dramatically reduced. . So which are you going to choose to be for your pup? A bank manager or a mugger?

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Mrs Oblivious

I was out walking my dog yesterday. On lead. Urban streets. She’s a friendly, well behaved dog. She didn’t spot the dog about 60 yards away the other side of the road, but I did. I stopped. THAT other dog had not only spotted my dog at that distance, she was rigid, right out on the end of her lead, owner in tow. The dog’s expression was hard, her whole body was tense and it said ‘Don’t you come near me! I’ll have you if we get any closer!’  The owner, on her phone, seemed blissfully unaware. Mrs Oblivious. By now my dog had noticed them and was looking in their direction, tail waving, interested, and friendly, if a wee bit unsure. Mrs Oblivious didn’t notice me making sure my dog made a good decision to break off looking at her dog, to turn and move away behind me as I moved calmly into a gateway to be as far away from them as I could be.

Owner and dog, pulling against each other, the other side of the road, managed to get past me and my dog. I could see her dog’s body relax a bit as they got past and off they went on their not-so merry way.

I wonder how often that dog had been forced to walk past or close to another dog it didn’t want to? I wonder how many dogs had been on the receiving end of that threatening glare and tension? All my experience told me that dog was not wanting to be friends. I have worked with enough dogs that are aggressive towards other dogs to know the difference between the ones that mean business, and the ones that don’t. This one meant business.  I didn’t want her to get any closer that’s for sure!

It’s baffling how some people don’t see how damaging it can be to ignore what their dog is telling them and want to force them into situations the dog is so obviously deeply unhappy about.  More worryingly though, is how potentially dangerous it can be. The lead only needed to break, or be pulled out of the owner’s hand, for that dog to be running across the road and reach my dog.

Try this analogy for size…

You are a passenger in a car driving along a motorway. Of necessity, you put your trust in the driver to get you home safely since he is in charge of which direction you go, and what speed you travel at.

A few hundred yards ahead of you see some blue flashing lights. Small, insignificant lights to start with, but enough to put you on alert because you have, unfortunately, been involved in a crash before, so you know it can end badly. You tense. You can feel your foot anticipating the need to push on the brake pedal. Your hands clench slightly. Your heart-rate has gone up a tad. You want to be sure the driver has seen them. ‘Whoa! Slow down a bit! I think there’s something wrong up ahead!’ Nothing happens. He is oblivious to what you are saying, whistling along to the music on the radio, not paying much attention to the road, or you. Your alarm increases as he keeps driving inexorably closer to what to you is looking like a major hazard. Stressville!! Panic is kicking in. He squeezes past the pile-up without incident. Just. But it’s a close call and you feel you were just a whisker away from death!  Still blissfully unaware or uncaring that your heart rate has rocketed, or you were trembling in fear, he carries on. Still whistling along with the radio. That you have just experienced the very real stress and tangible fear that can arise from the anticipation of disaster, and a near miss, seems not to concern him one iota.  Related image

If you knew you could trust him to never to crash the car, and knew his judgement was always spot on, maybe you would panic less, but you know from past experience you can’t always trust him, or other drivers, to exercise good judgement.

This is exactly what some people, like Mrs Oblivious, do every day when they take their dogs out. Hanging on to the lead, supposed to be in control, as they move unerringly towards a potentially dangerous situation, paying little or no attention to what is going on. Blissfully unaware of the stress and anxiety he or she is causing their dog.  When your dog says ‘whoah!’ you really ought to notice and heed that early warning.   Slow down. Take a good look before carrying on. You may even need to stop. Your dog might be wrong about the risks in getting too close to that other dog across the road, but she may well be right. She may well be better at reading other dogs than you are, and may be a better judge of the situation. She may be paying more attention than you! Her experience and history could well be that she knows she can’t trust the judgement of a human holding the other end of the lead. She might well have learned, as this dog seems to have, that pulling towards other dogs, looking fierce and in a threatening way, is an effective way to make sure other dogs back off. Getting in with a preemptive attack isn’t unusual in a dog that is forced into close encounters by an unwitting owner.

As for Mrs Oblivious? Well, fingers crossed she doesn’t find out the hard way just what her dog is telling her. She was like that driver, blissfully unaware of what was going on, so completely oblivious to the risks she was taking. I hope I don’t meet them again. Scary.

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Observe more, interfere less

So your dog is worried by other dogs…?
I mean worried. Not terrified. Just that he’s uncomfortable around dogs he doesn’t know. He’s not kicking off every time he sees, or even meets, another dog out on walks and he’s never bitten, although you fear he might snap at another dog if he were pushed too far.

Distractions
Well, there’s no doubt distracting a dog with food treats, or playing a game with them (if they are willing to do either), can be a useful tactic to make sure your dog chooses to engage with you, rather than bother about the other dog. Giving your dog a job to do, like agility, or obedience exercises, which takes their focus off other dogs when they are around will serve much the same purpose.

Avoiding and escaping
It’s also going to help your dog feel more comfortable, and safe, if they know you are going to move away from other dogs as soon as you see them, so the subject is never broached. Diving into the shrubbery, ducking behind cars or going for 5am walks so the stress of even seeing other dogs at a distance is avoided – yep, all part of the package of advice to make life with the reactive dog easier.

Carried out correctly, with good timing, distracting and avoiding have their place in managing the worried, reactive dog.

But allowing your dog to learn how to predict whether other dogs are safe, or unsafe, and have the power to change how you behave around other dogs, is a skill distracting and avoiding interferes with. Sometimes we need to interfere less, and interfere differently. If our dogs never get to meet or see other dogs, how can they learn how to engage with them? That doesn’t mean we should just “let the dogs get on with it”. Or allow them to “sort it out for themselves”. Despite being recommended by a lot of trainers, this approach can go horribly wrong. It’s just not worth the risk. It’s not fair on any dog and is very likely to make many dogs far worse. So here’s something else you can do to help. Help your dog learn to observe dogs from a safe distance. Then consider if closer encounters, progressed carefully, under safely managed conditions are appropriate.

Observation
At a nice safe distance, when your dog sees another dog and alerts to it, with a slight lift of the head, ears and tail perhaps beginning to lift, eyes focusing on the other dog, you should draw calmly to a halt. Relaxed. Standing still(ish). Not frozen. The rabbit in headlights look is not wanted. On a loose, long lead, watching and waiting. Saying nothing. Doing nothing except observing your dog. You want to see your dog observing the other dog, not just looking or glancing at him, and then looking back at you. We want to see (as far is possible) your dog’s behaviour as if there was no owner attached to the lead. We don’t want to see actions taught by the owner. Food may need to be kept in pockets; toys away somewhere else. The dog should not be pestering the handler for food. If there was a safe way to do this offlead, we’d do it offlead, but it rarely is.

What you are looking for is for your dog to DE-arouse. To make the decision that the other dog, at that moment in time, in that place, is OK. To see him drop and or turn his head, relax his body. His tail to lower. You are looking for changes in millimetres. In some dogs that can be really hard to see. Others, it is very obvious. What happens as a consequence should be to your dog’s advantage. You can either drop some food on the ground or you could make the decision to move away from the other dog and/or go on your way in a different direction. Or do both. You haven’t interfered, except to respond to what your dog has shown he needs to have happen. That when he said to the handler ‘whoah! Dog up ahead! Let’s stop and see what’s what before going on!’ and then followed by ‘Oh – it’s OK. I can see we’re safe’ you noticed, and acted on that information.

But what if….
But if instead of relaxing, and his arousal levels increase, rather than decrease, he is heading towards a point of no-return, and you know in the next second he is going to kick off, that needs interrupting. Promptly. The window of opportunity to do this is limited. So if your dog stands up higher on his toes, even by a millimetre, his tail and ears come up higher, his body tenses still more, that’s when you do need to interfere. Just a little. If your dog is relatively calm (and being calm enough may need preparatory work), it should only need the handler to take a backwards step and movement, or just light touch with a finger somewhere on his body to have him glance to see what is happening behind him, and so interrupting that inevitable build up to kicking off.

Festina lente
If those subtle signals don’t work immediately, then your dog is already too aroused to behave appropriately, and the likelihood he is going to kick off is high. Not what is wanted! So cut your losses and move AWAY. Create distance. Fairly rapidly, but not in a rushed or panicky way. You don’t want the dog to believe there really is a reason to panic or run away. That cool, relaxed ‘Let’s Go!’ strategy may need teaching to the dog first, away from other dogs. Next time avoid being so close that an escape is needed.

Over time, with repetition, your dog will learn he can STOP you taking him closer to other dogs until he has them sussed out, knowing you aren’t going to make him go closer than he is comfortable with. It should also start to enable less antagonistic communication. As the dogs observe each other it gives them the opportunity to exchange the more subtle, gentle signalling that dogs are so good at if they have the opportunity and stress and over-arousal are taken out of the picture. You, and your dog, will also learn to be quicker at making decisions about other dogs, because you are both going to get practice at doing it. You DO need to practice it too. Just doing it once or twice won’t hack it.

So observe more, and interfere less whenever you can.

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Spot the difference

A dog in one of my classes has been something of a barker around other dogs. Not confident around strange dogs, but nothing major. In the hall on his own, happy to work, happy to play.

In the hall with just one other dog – a well behaved, under control, and being kept calm dog – you would not have known the first dog was worried except for a few moments when he looked across and considered barking, but was interrupted so he didn’t escalate to it.

But he did not want to play tuggie this time. Very avoiding of it.
So he was moved out of the hall into the lobby. Still didn’t want to play initially, but was willing to fairly quickly.

An excellent example of a sensitivity we absolutely need to notice – and be aware of when we expect things of our dog we ‘believe’ they know and understand. If a dog won’t eat treats (or is grabby taking treats – which this dog also was), or play, or relax in one environment when he does do those things in a different environment (the other dog made this hall a ‘different’ environment) then there is something happening we should be noticing.

If the dog is discriminating in this way you should immediately be asking yourself ‘why?’. And you probably need to do something about it.

In this case the ONLY change (apart from the passing of time – about half an hour – so not significant I’d say) was the presence of this other dog.

What you DO about it is entirely different issue of course and a subject for another day 🙂

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