Sunday, November 30, 2008

Conflict Training, 101

I got a request this week for help from a woman with three dogs: a Rottweiler, a female Malinois, and a beagle. The behavioral problem was that the Malinois had developed a fixation with eating the Rotti’s feces. I asked a number of questions about the past history, the type of training, exercise levels, etc., and there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary that could be causing this behavior. My suspicion was (and is) that the dog’s prey drive wasn’t getting enough of a workout. The owner had done some drive training, but in my view, it wasn’t precise enough for this dog (or maybe for this breed). Also, part of my suspicion is that the dog was acting out to reflect something she felt was lacking in her relationship with the owner. The owner had also been given the suggestion of using an electronic collar, but was hesitant about it.

Conflict Training, 101
The way I see it all canine behavior—whether learned or instinctive, normal or abnormal—is done in an attempt to reduce or release some kind of internal tension. When you think about it, even breathing is a matter of tension and release. When too much tension builds up inside a dog’s system, that’s when we tend to see abnormal behaviors.

The normal way for a dog to reduce tension is through some activity related to the prey drive. From the wolf model, we can see that wolves are an anomaly in the natural world. They’re one of only three types of mammals that routinely hunt animals that are larger and more dangerous than themselves: canines, homo sapiens & orcas All three originally hunted large prey by working cooperatively, though humans later developed weapons, so we no longer need to hunt in groups.

The bottom line is that a wolf’s social instincts are based on their need to hunt large prey. For instance, wolves who settle near a garbage dump dont really form packs. They have looser social arrangements. It also turns out that coyotes—whom it was thought for years did not form packs—actually do, but only when they need to hunt large prey.

(I’m getting to the point, trust me.)

Bison, elk, moose, etc. have horns and hooves. It’s very dangerous for an individual wolf to hunt one of these large animals, so they also evolved strategies like scavenging, hunting small prey, and will even at times eat vegetation. The survival instinct sort of dictates that they not put themselves in harm’s way by hunting large prey unless they are absolutely driven to do it.

This is where Nature becomes a clever taskmaster. If she wants wolves to hunt large prey she has to design a strong enough motivation for them to leave the safety of the den and foray into the path of those hooves and horns. And the basic underlying mechanism for motivating wolves to hunt large prey is a build-up internal tension or stress. When the pack gets hungry enough, the prey drive starts to kick in. Once it’s strong enough to override the need for safety, the wolves are driven to hunt. That’s not entirely accurate, though, because it doesn’t reflect the wolf’s actual experience or point of view. What these animals are really driven to do is to simply get rid of their tension. Think of the way a male dog goes after a female in heat. If you look at it from this angle you can see that he’s not interested in mating per se, he’s really only interested in getting rid of the overwhelming levels of tension and stress he’s feeling. The higher the stress levels, the more driven he is to complete his “task.”

Another factor for wolves in particular (and dogs to a lesser extent) is that at every step in the predatory sequence—the search, the eye stalk, the chase, the grab bite and kill bite—a wolf's body produces endorphins, providing internal rewards for each behavior phase of the sequence.

So in nature (and no matter how domesticated they are, dogs are still a part of nature), the ultimate release of stress comes through acting on the prey drive with no (or very few) inhibitions. And the primary reason stress builds up in the first place is because the animals are inhibited about acting on the prey drive because doing so is dangerous.

So when I hear of a dog like your Malinois, whose behavior is outside the normal range (and coprophragia is normal in puppies, but not in a two-year old), I automatically see it as being related in some way to a blocked flow—an inhibition—of the dog’s prey drive.

So how do we fix it?

I don’t like to use punishment in cases like this, because in order for it to successfully override an instinctive, compulsive, or habitual behavior, it has to be so strong and so severe, that you run the risk of making the dog shut down in other ways. True, an electric shock can accomplish that goal, and may do so safely in some cases. But even if it were to work, there’s a downside to it, which is that the nervous system runs on electricity, and one of the last things you want to do is download more electric energy into a dog whose nervous system may already be overloaded.

In general terms what I might do in this type of situation is put the dog in conflict between something that she wants to do vs. obeying my command. In Natural Dog Training we call this “conflict training.” You dont necessarily have to use the Rotti’s poop to do it, as long as it’s some activity that your Malinois has the same or a similar level of attraction to. Once she’s developed an ability or skill-set to give up one attachment in favor of obeying you, others will start to naturally fall into place.

Something similar that comes to mind, which illustrates this approach, is a compulsive behavior my own dog had years ago of digging in sand boxes. He particularly liked to “bury” his favorite toy—an empty soda or Poland Spring water bottle—in the sand. Conflict training is basically what I sued to cure him of his compulsive digging. (Now that I think about it, he used to love to eat wino shit in Central Park, too; but after I did the sandbox exercise with him, it was much easier to call him away from that unappetizing habit; and calling him away—followed by a game of chasecured him of his coprophragia, so it might very well work for you!)

Heres what I did:

I put him on a long leash, in a down stay near a sand box and put a soda bottle close to him, but off to the side a little, at an indirect angle to him. Then I walked away, backwards, facing him directly the whole time, holding the end of the leash. Then when I got to the end of the leash, I called him to me: “Okay, Freddie, come!” If he went for the bottle instead of running to me, I ran over and without saying anything used the leash to put him back into his original position, using short, fairly hard pops on the collar*, acting as if we were both in a dangerous situation the whole time. Then, once he and the bottle were back in the original position, I reminded him, “Stay!” and did it all again. *(You have to be careful that the pops don’t cause him to lose focus on you; they should actually motivate him to work harder with you.)

Once we got to the point that he ran straight back to me on command, instead of going for the bottle, I rewarded him with another bottle I had hidden in my training vest, though I didn’t just give it to him: I made him chase me around first for about 15 secs., then I threw it for him to chase on his own. (I had put a small amount of water inside so I could throw it farther than if it had been empty.) It also helped that his other favorite activity was decap”itating those bottles. So even though he had an impulse to take the bottle back to the sand box and bury it, all I had to do was say, “Take the cap off!” and he would settle down with the bottle and take the cap off with his teeth.

He was a Dalmatian, so it took a while before he “got” the “point” of the game. And I had to do it with him holding the stay at various places around and even inside the sandbox so he could cross-contextualize it. Once he got it, he actually “locked-in” to me. And I only had to re-acquaint him with the exercise once the next day after that first session. He never showed any interest in digging again. (And as I mentioned before, it was instrumental in stopping him from eating human feces in the park.)

Going back to what I said up top, my point is that digging is actually one way a dog has of sublimating his prey drive, meaning he’s expressing it in some way that doesn’t involve chasing and biting a prey object. Freddie had inhibitions about chasing and biting in play. Now your dog doesn’t seem to have the same inhibitions that Freddie did, but my suspicion is that she must have some issues, because scavenging and eating feces are also ways a dog has of circumventing and only partially satisfying their prey drive. In my scenario, once Freddie’s inhibitions were resolved he no longer had a need to dig in sandboxes or eat feces.

Another approach I’d take with your dog is I would hand feed her all her meals outdoors, using what’s called the “pushing exercise.” I’ve posted a link just below. One thing I didn’t describe in the sandbox exercise was the fact that I had taught Freddie to jump up on me on command, and that was part of the “chase me” game I played with him when he obeyed the recall. Jumping up basically causes a dog to plug a lot of her energy into you. It overcomes some of those natural inhibitions dogs have about seeing us as “prey” in the same way they see a Frisbee or another dog they like to play with as something to chase. The pushing exercise accomplishes the same goal as jumping up but without some of the drawbacks. So print out the article found in the link below and follow the instructions carefully. It will increase your dog’s levels of social attraction to you, which will increase the reliability of her recall, and might even reduce some of her need to eat feces in the first place.

The Pushing Exercise (pdf)

Doing the “eyes” exercise (below) may also help. You may have already taught it to her as “watch me,” but I think this version has a wrinkle or two that makes it stronger. Basically dogs alternately see us—or I should say they feel, us on a knee-jerk level—as either prey and predator. The more prey-like we become, the more interested in obeying us they are. However, to some extent, the more predator-like we are the more that increases their obedience skills too. The difference is that in the first case the dogs obey us willingly, because it makes them feel good, it makes them feel connected to us in the strongest way possible. But the more predator-like we are, the more their obedience is based on fear. (This is why dominance training works; it’s also why dominance trainers think dogs see them as the “pack leader,” when they actually sees the trainer the way a wolf sees a moose who suddenly turns and brandishes his antlers.)

The Eyes Have It

If I were you, I’d wait a few weeks of doing these two exercises before attempting the conflict training. Remember, I had already done the jumping up with Freddie.

One thing that will give you a clue as to how this is going to help is that after you do the pushing exercise, you may find that your doggie plays tug- of-war with a lot more energy and focus; she’ll probably bite and pull a lot harder than she did before. You can also integrate the pushing dynamic into your games of tug, which will up the ante considerably. And always remember, the key to reducing tension in the canine species comes primarily through chasing and biting.

Sorry for the lengthy reply. I hope this helps!

LCK
"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

10 comments:

boywunder said...

Hey Lee, I always love your detailed explanations of things. It really helps us all understand the "why" instead of just the "what".

And you're so right about how the pushing exercise will increase the intensity of playing tug. I had been working with a trainer before I hooked up with you who also believed in playing tug to help relieve tension, though her reasons were a little different. And she didn't prescribe letting the dog win. Anyway, Roxy would play tug for a little bit, but only reach what I would describe as a medium level of intensity, after which she would seem to feel a little better, but still didn't seem to get that big release of tension. But once I started doing the pushing exercise with her, her commitment to playing tug intensified dramatically. Now she gets SO into the game. And when she's done killing whatever tug toy she has, her tension visibly drops and she becomes much more relaxed. I'm still working with her to play tug with me at that high level out in areas that aren't familiar to her, but it will come with time. I have to be careful with her because she can get easily overstimulated. Maybe you could write a post about how to control an overly stimulated dog? Hint hint:)

I did have a question regarding the conflict training you did with Freddie. Mainly this part of your post:

"If he went for the bottle instead of running to me, I ran over and without saying anything used the leash to put him back into his original position, using short, fairly hard pops on the collar*, acting as if we were both in a dangerous situation the whole time."

Are the leash pops you were using similar to or the same as the "hidden pops" exercise? Meaning, should the hand that's doing the pops be hidden from view, or is it ok for the leash hand to be visible? Just wondering since in the hidden pops exercise the hand that is giving the pops is hidden from the dog's view.

I'm interested in hearing and learning more about the conflict training, as this part of NDT is still an unexplored area and mystery to me.

Great post as always:)

Sang.

Lee Charles Kelley, said...

The way I look at it, the hidden pops should be long done before you do the conflict training exercises. That's because in Kevin's program the "heel" precedes the "stay." And what I call the "chase-me-with-hidden-pops" is part of training the "heel."

But to answer your question: once you've done the "chase-me-with-hidden-pops" properly -- meaning that the pops INCREASE your dog's drive and attraction to you -- any and all pops on the collar from then on (except the hardest, most truly punitive kind) have a different meaning to the dog.

LCK

PS: You'll know if you're doing the hidden pops correctly through looking at your dog's facial expressions and body language. If you pop her too hard, or if you haven't built her drive high enough before doing the exercise, her ears will go back, she'll lose focus on you, and her shoulders will go down slightly. If you see that happening, you either need to ease up on the stimulation or else build her drive to a higher level before trying it again.

summerinbrooklyn said...

YAY! New post!

Love "Chase me with Hidden pops"... I still use it on occasion to work the formal heel. I slipped into using more food, but I started noticing her focus beginning to slide, and Tyril did too. So we put the prong back on her, and at the start of the Heel exercise, I would give her a tiny little pop as i said Heel! and it really worked to getting her slide back into high drive as we were heeling. Popping as we made right about turns and right turns helped keep her in drive too.

One question, sometimes she gets so riled up with the exercise that she wants to bite my left arm. I think it's somewhat cute, but in competition that would lose me some points. Also she can get quite vocal (growling, short staccato barks) when she's in drive in the heel. Again, more areas where I can lose points. Do you have any suggestions on how to convert that drive that's being manifested into the biting/barking/growling and channel into just the act of heeling itself? I don't want to punish her or say no, but even as i praise her when she does it, she doesn't stop the behavior even with praise.

Thanks for giving us a great informative new post! Love that.

Lee Charles Kelley, said...

I would say that the biting is a result of a strong attraction (magnetism) while the vocalizing is an expression of nervous tension (electrical energy). She's also trying to "tell" you something. (What that is, I don't know.)

Remember, when she stayed with me I got to see her behavioral idiosyncrasies up close, and I said I thought that even though she's a bit tightly wound, she's also a very sensitive doggie. So it might also help to do more "chase me," "hup!" and "dance with me," and less hidden pops.

In other words, more magnetism, less electricity.

LCK

Actually, the "chase me" will probably create more of a likelihood that she'll grip your arm while heeling, so while I might still do that, I would also probably give her some leash corrections whenever her teeth stray onto your arm. You have to be very fluid about it, and you can't pop her too hard; it should be just enough to damper the energy a little, but not hard enough to make her lose interest in chasing you.

Another way to work on this would be to do very short "chase me" sessions using a ball or tug toy as the focal point, and quickly end each go-through with a game of tug. Then gradually increase the length of the game, but then turn it into a "game" of off-lead "Heel!" And follow that with a ball throw or a game of tug, whichever she prefers. If she's still too bitey during the off-lead heel, go back to doing it on lead with the leash corrections to inhibit her from biting during the heel. The idea is to let her know that she can't bite while heeling, but that she'll get a big old payoff once she's finished.

I hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

PS: You'll know if you're doing the hidden pops correctly through looking at your dog's facial expressions and body language. If you pop her too hard, or if you haven't built her drive high enough before doing the exercise, her ears will go back, she'll lose focus on you, and her shoulders will go down slightly. If you see that happening, you either need to ease up on the stimulation or else build her drive to a higher level before trying it again.

December 1, 2008 6:21 AM

That's enough of a description to avoid using a choke collar on a dog and it demonstrates that a choke collar should only be used on a highly traiend dog as a "polishing tool." And at that the choke should only be used for the noise not for the "pop" or as you all like to call it "shock" on the dog.

Lee Charles Kelley, said...

I wouldn't recommend using a choke collar for this exercise. In fact I don't like using choke collars at all. A flat, buckle collar would be my choice.

Secondly, you're sort of right that this is not a beginner's exercise. In my view the optimal form of dog training takes place in three stages:

1) Here's a Game Called Sit (or Heel, etc.

This is the introductory phase, where everything should be positive. No corrections allowed.

2) Here Are the Rules of the Game

You narrow the behavior so that the dog is only rewarded for sitting on command when he's sitting facing you, both front paws are on the ground, etc., etc.

3) The Rules Always Apply

This is where you can start applying physical corrections, but ONLY when the dog is highly stimulated first. When a dog is in a high drive state he's able to quickly transform the negative experience of a physical correction into a positive one. In other words, what might normally cause the dog to stop "working" actually causes him to work harder and to enjoy the experience.

To me the problem with most +R trainers is that they never get to that third level; they expect the dog to get there without any corrections (which may happen with some dogs, but not all). The problem with most dominance and Koehler trainers is that they tend to start the dog out at that third level, without first giving him the requisite, high drive, playful context, which enables him to turn the energy of a pop on the collar into a stimulus to work/play harder rather than as something that causes him to shut down.

LCK

summerinbrooklyn said...

Ahh. That's a great idea Lee. I will definitely try that! I actually don't mind the biting NOW when it's winter, lol, but she did get a bit riled up the other night during a heel free, and poked a hole in my puffy coat... My arm actually ached a little that night...

In the past two weeks, I've tried letting her really get her yayas out in the park off lead. I take her to the quiet areas by the water, and she really likes running in the wooded paths. I dart around and let her run pell mell back and forth zipping by me, and at a point, I call out, OK READY?!?!?! and she spins on a dime, runs straight into me and pounces on me with a forceful Hup. I have found that this exercise really resonates with her, and after a few sessions of this, she's automatically very responsive to me on the rest of the walk, and playful as well. Perhaps this is one way to let her unwind her tightly-woundedness.

I was interested in hearing your thoughts on this...

Ben said...

Sorry for the late comment, trying to catch up on the posts!

Is there a way to do this exercise without using leash pops?

What would you do as an alternative if an owner, like myself, does not want a leash popped on their dog's neck? I don't use collar leashes on Indy, and I'm not comfortable "correcting" him using one. That being the case-- what else would work?

What I'm not understanding is this: The dog is originally "shocked" by being forcibly removed from the highly attractive object. You're abruptly cutting off an energy release for the dog with no immediate outlet.

What do the leash pops specifically accomplish here?

Isn't the dog already learning that the bottles laying around are NOT a successful outlet? And that only the ones you provide are?

The reason I bring this up is because I went through this when training Indy to recall from fence fighting. If he ran up to the fence to snarl and bark with the neighbor's dogs-- I would run up without saying anything, guide him away using his body harness, and give him a toy or a stick to play with (mixed in with a bit of chasing me).

It may have taken a bit, but I can stop him dead in his tracks, very reliably, if he runs towards the fence now.

So to sum up-- do you consider the leash pops to an essential element of the exercise? If so, why? And how would you deal with a client that is not comfortable leash popping their dog?

Thanks again for all the posts, Lee-- NDT enthusiasts need our own forum!

Lee Charles Kelley, said...

ben wrote: "Is there a way to do this exercise without using leash pops? I don't use collar leashes on Indy, and I'm not comfortable 'correcting' him using one. That being the case-- what else would work?"

It wouldn't be a problem to use the same technique with a harness rather than a collar. But the pops on the leash aren't supposed to be hard enough to hurt or scare the dog. They're essentially a way of dampering his electrical/survival energy just enough to keep him feeling connected to and focused on you. It essentially heightens the experience for the dog; so it's NOT used as a correction in the traditional sense.

"What I'm not understanding is this: The dog is originally 'shocked' by being forcibly removed from the highly attractive object. You're abruptly cutting off an energy release for the dog with no immediate outlet."

Right, sort of. What you're really doing is you're kind of creating a problem for the dog to solve. So in a sense while you're a part of the problem ("What do I do with my energy?") you're also, eventually, the solution ("You plug it into me!")

"What do the leash pops specifically accomplish here? Isn't the dog already learning that the bottles laying around are NOT a successful outlet? And that only the ones you provide are?"

Yes, but that's just a side issue.

But now that you bring this part of the exercise into clearer focus I just realized something that I hadn't remembered "teaching" Freddie until just now, which was to never pick up a bottle on his own; he had to get my "permission" first. So even though the goal of this exercise was to keep him from digging in the sand, afterwards, when we were out on all our walks together and he found a bottle on the street (I used to walk him off leash, so he might be 30 - 50 feet ahead of me), he would stop and look back at me. He would never pick up a bottle on his own.

This was important because in NYC many cab drivers will pee in an empty water or Gatorade bottle and then throw it into the gutter instead of the trash (or better yet, the trunk of their car). So I was glad that Freddie learned to get my permission before picking up bottles in his mouth, because I definitely didn't want him picking up any that were full of yellow "water!"

"I went through this when training Indy to recall from fence fighting. If he ran up to the fence to snarl and bark with the neighbor's dogs-- I would run up without saying anything, guide him away using his body harness, and give him a toy or a stick to play with (mixed in with a bit of chasing me)."

That's okay except that I would rather use pops on the leash than grabbing the dog OR his harness. That's because with the leash "correction" you're a) not using as much physical force (you're not dragging him away from the fence, you're just redirecting him) and b) you're not invading his psychic space.

However, considering the context in which you chose to do this, meaning that Indy was already in the middle of and committed to a very wildly energetic manifestation of the unwanted behavior, you NEEDED to use force to move him away from the fence. Mere words or even trying to lure him away with treats wouldn't have made any impression on him.

In other words you sort of skipped ahead to the end rather than starting with baby steps. So in that scenario you actually DO need to use more force, and the leash corrections would have HAD to have been hard enough to break through the mental fog Indy was already in. That's why you start with Conflict Training 101, not 202, etc. What you were doing was more at the graduate school level.

LCK

Ben said...

That makes sense-- thank you for the clarification!