Dental Treatment By Tug
I have just spent a happy weekend enjoying my chosen sport – heelwork to music. Quite a luxury weekend off but no time away from dogs or training.
Most of my business is spent in a wide variety of aspect of behaviour analysis, adjustment, modification and plain repetition – training. This has taken much of my free time since I was 19 years old to secure a good understanding of the underlying science. In them days there was not a lot of accessible science that I could understand, but exposure to trainers in many other fields, such as my colleagues joining me for a quick Caribbean cruise: Ken, Alex and Jesus have broaden my horizons considerably.
Ken Ramirez is from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He trains about 120 staff as trainers of a variety of over 30 different species, including dogs, and enjoys an extensive conference and consulting circuit all over the world. Alex Kurland is a clicker trainer of horses and pioneers the way forward in a environment fairly hostile towards positive training. Jesus is our academic inspiration, Associate Professor of Behaviour Analysis at North Texas University. He takes a great delight in sharing our philosophy and can provide the scientific answers that (most of the time) I can get a grasp on. This understanding, sharing and generalisation of our knowledge and techniques grows our education – and subsequently well being of the animals we love.
We share many of the common problems that arise from training with all species: communication & reinforcement. Neither Ken or Alex use punishment on animals that are somewhere over the other side of the pool or field, or animals that can punish trainers in an impressive way. Their animals are never subjected to the protocols we often take for granted in sports-dog training. You cannot “wind up” a sea-lion to get a “more drivey” performance. Much of their training time is spent developing a relationship of trust and respect that evolves from a truly positive experience for their animals. The type of trust that means you can perform a scan on a pregnant Beluga without capture, box-load a fearful horse without force. They are masters are getting results that inspire through their elegance, understanding, and thoughtfulness.
And, yes, they need to get performance quality behaviours, often several times a day. Ever been to Sea World? Ken has worked with a team of divers and dolphins that performed a 22 minute routine with no food reinforcers. Neither did they require their teeth being wrenched out of their head by tugging.
Dogs are not helicopters
If we look at how they kill their prey it would vary from a quick shake to break the neck in the case of rats and small critters. A sharp side-to-side shake. Natural for terriers. If no more rats are presenting themselves, then the dog would move on to skinning techniques. For larger prey there is the grip to hold whilst the pack drag down the larger animal. For collies in particular they are designed to nip and nag, not maintain a continuous hold or shake. Our gundogs are extremely poor at grip. The jaw that is functional to carry will have a strong neck, but not a strong bite.
Much of the tug training protocols evolved from the bite work training for GSDs and their cousins to build arousal and strengthen the bite action. There is often an accompanying slapping or pinching to the body. This is a reflex designed for increased grip when hoofed prey to use their legs to strike against the body of their predator.
Building tug training with eye rattling aggressive techniques serves very little purpose for a performance dog. The dog is not designed to take this level of structural abuse, neither are your arms, hands, shoulders or neck. Continual wrenching of the dog’s head up and down will cause serious damage to their neck, tear ligaments and certainly not provide a good muscle structure that enables a balanced carriage in a dressage type of performance. Ever noticed your arms ache? Think what may be happening to your dog’s neck, back, jaw muscles, shoulders.
Ever seen your dogs playing together with this type of action? They may make short shakes but they certainly would not bounce their opponent up and down again and again.
Secondly our dogs are not designed to function in this high level of arousal. You may certainly function well with a level of arousal but if this goes too high, your ability to make decisions will be impaired, your ability to remember simple functions will reduce and you will become fatigued very quickly. Sound familiar? Just being around people preparing to enter a competition in a state of arousal and you will hear their voices go up a pitch, getting flustered is common, forgetting the routine seems normal and not remembering where the exit of the ring is seen repeatedly. You can smell the arousal anxiety in the people! Small wonder the dogs cannot recognise our behaviour under these conditions.
If we want to give our dogs an emotional association with the performance venue it needs to be one of security and comfort. Then they will be able to perform as they “do at home”.
Musicians, dancers, acrobats, athletes perform when relaxed, properly conditioned and comfortable. Sure they are motivated, but that is not the same as aroused. It is easy to mistake arousal for “he’s enjoying it”. When the muscles are tight or tense the performance will not flow. It is about conditioning good physical and mental technique.
Arousal does not equate with reinforcement. In fact over-arousal can put the dog in such a state they make more errors, particularly of the vocal type. It can drive levels of anxiety higher, if you saw this in a person you would call it “getting flustered”. Stamping your foot and telling them “for goodness sake calm down”. How does that work for you then?
Arousal does not equate with motivated. Being motivated is not the same as being excited. It is often about really tight focus, clear understanding of what needs to be done to achieve an end goal.
What we are seeking is a reinforcer that we can use in the competition environment where food is not allowed. Anticipation of a strong reinforcer is reinforcing in itself. It needs a long history of practice so that when a particular series of events happen the dog can recognise the forthcoming reinforcer. This is your mental conditioning.
Pool-side at the Shedd Aquarium you will see the trainers using many, many different reinforcers. It is not just fish, fish and more fish. See the Belugas laugh when a bottled water is sprayed over their faces, they think a tongue scratch is worth jumping hoops for. Neither of these events are naturally occurring reinforcers but the trainers spend a lot of time building them to be additional reinforcers. They are paired with reinforcers that are natural over and over again until they become reinforcers in themselves, and importantly the association with the natural reinforcer is regularly refreshed.
We like to touch our dogs. For many of us this is a primary reason for living with dogs. There is a pleasant sensation felt on the palms of our hands when stroking fur. But can we presume this is equally pleasurable for our dogs? Maybe not, we need to learn how to share the enjoyment so that we equally get pleasure from it, not one at the discomfort of the other. Touch comes in many forms and the dog will try to tell you what they like and do not like. Do they seek more when your pause? Do they “shake off” your touch to realign their coat?
The definition of a reinforcer is something that makes the likelihood of the behaviour repeating or getting stronger. Even food can stop being reinforcing when you are full, or feeling sick with anxiety. What is reinforcing is decided by the recipient, not the deliverer. We can never say “oh but he enjoys it”. A dog may “enjoy” wearing an uncomfortable head collar, but if it predicts an opportunity to go out and about they will get excited when they see it – for the outing, not the wearing of the equipment.
In the days before play and food were introduced as our rewards we used our voices to let the dogs know we were happy – which is not necessarily a reinforcer (OK, good for you, you’re happy, I’m not) and physical touch to incentivise the dog to continue the behaviour. Hmm. I don’t remember it being a particularly inspiring protocol. Quite bland often and not clear communication.
The usual protocol was to scold what you don’t like and praise what you do. But this made a enormous error is assuming that the dog knew what we did not like, was motivated to avoid it and perform what we did like. Hah! That gap in understanding is wide enough for four London double deck buses
That protocol may work for some motorists – punishment for speeding, but does it incentivise careful driving?
We can use many, many different types of games with our dogs that are based on a positive, interesting, stimulating and reinforcing experience. This neither needs food or jaw wrenching. Watch the disc dogs – for them it’s about chase, watch the gundogs – for them it is about carry, watch the collies – for them it is about control of movement. By using their natural reinforcers we open up a whole Games R Us store of fun and reinforcement. Watch your dogs play with each other – what do they like to do? What do they repeat again and again? Sharing a toy and running side by side? Flirting and teasing with a toy?
Play with your dog, enjoy your dog, make sure it is safe for your dog and they are comfortable. Build your performer both physically and mentally. This is a sport for our ego and enjoyment, we need to ensure it is not at a cost to our dogs. A “fried” or confused dog is not a happy dog.
As for wrapping a yucky tug around your neck … doesn’t it stink?