Monday, November 28, 2011

Don't Say "No!"

I recently got a question from a student of mine asking me how I feel about using the word No! to correct dogs. So I dug into the archives (yes, I have archives, tons of them), and found these two stories that, I think, explain my position on No!” pretty well. Just to be clear, though, I sometimes refer to No! as the “N word” of dog training. 

So don't use it! Below, youll find two of my reasons why...

Ahhh, that's more like it...

“Do You Know How Much Energy That Would Take?” 

Mack, a Jack Russell terrier, used to go nuts whenever the phone rang, barking and running around, basically driving his owner crazy.  

Macks owner who was going through a difficult divorce thought the best way to solve the problem was to correct the dog, shouting, “No, Mack!  Quiet!” over and over until he finally stopped.  Stopped, that is, until the next time the phone rang. (Mack was no dummy; hed picked up on what was going on his owners life and knew that when the phone rang it usually meant that she was about to go into a deep funk, and would be talking on the phone for hours, either with her attorney, her friends, or her soon-to-be ex-husband.)

Some trainers might have suggested putting Mack in an extended down/stay. Others might have told her to keep his leash on and make a good hard leash correction whenever the phone rang, or to use a shake can to scare him; all designed to correct the behavior through fear and dominance. Positive trainers would probably have recommended giving Mack a time out," or using a replacement behavior like hand targeting. With some dogs these methods may have been temporarily effective, just as yelling at him had been (sort of). But their only lasting effects would have been putting the owner in conflict with her dog. And, over time, guess who usually wins those conflicts?

To me, the fact that Mack showed so much energy when the phone rang was a good thing. My goal was to use that energy to create an almost Pavlovian response: the ringing phone would be a signal for Mack to find a toy, take it to his crate, and chew on it happily while his owner took her call.  (She’d already taught Mack that when he wants to chew something he has to do it inside his crate.)  

So I told the owner that every time the phone rang, instead of correcting him by yelling “No!” or “Quiet!” she should jump up off the couch and praise him very enthusiastically, then grab one of his toys, tease him with it, and run away, encouraging him to chase her.  

Once his energy was fully focused on the toy, and not the phone, she could give him the toy, tell him to take it to his crate. Then she could finally sit down and take her call.  

Of course she thought I was nuts. “Do you know how much energy that would take?”

I reminded her that she’d been expending a lot more energy saying “No!” without getting the results she wanted, and promised her that if she followed my instructions to the letter, Mack would stop barking at the phone in a matter of two weeks.  

“But I shouldn’t praise him for barking, should I?  I mean, isn’t that only going to reinforce the bad behavior?”

“In this case we’re using praise to make Mack feel emotionally connected to you. That way you’ll be able to change his emotional state from resistance into a willingness to obey. You can’t very well create that kind of emotional state by yelling at him.”  

You see, every time Mack's owner corrected him she put herself in conflict with his feelings, forcing him to either keep barking at her until she was in tune with what he was already feeling or to give up.  And Jack Russells are not bred to give up.  By praising him she would be able to remove the conflict and open the flow.  Then and only then could Mack feel that they shared a common purpose and begin to look to her for a signal as to what to do next.

She reluctantly did as I suggested, thinking I was completely insane the whole time, and guess what?  She didn’t even need to do the exercise for two weeks. With just three days of acting like a complete idiot, she was able to create such a dramatic change in Mack’s behavior that she was able to stop doing the exercise completely. Whenever the phone rang Mack would bark briefly, but as soon as his owner told him to find a toy, and hed  do so, take it into his crate, and chew away on it, thinking the whole thing was his idea all along.

Understanding the dog's underlying emotional state — along with replacing the "N" word with a happy, playful voice and attitude — was the key to resolving Mack's problem. 

However ... I need to make the following disclaimer very clear. This situation was solved fairly easily because a) I was there, controlling the emotional tone for Mack and his owner, and b) Mack had been raised by his owner from the time he was a very young pup.

DISCLAIMER: I would be very reluctant to use these techniques with some shelter dogs, particularly those who have spent time living on the streets and who, therefore, may not have the same social impulses or ability to detect playfulness that is second nature to most pet dogs.  I do not recommend activating the prey drive in such dogs, except under the direct supervision of a seasoned professional.

“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”
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Friday, April 15, 2011

Lexi & Melissa in Frank Sinatra Park

This post is an extension of my latest for

Lexi & Melissa in Hoboken

In Unified Dog Theory XIV: The Importance of Understanding Attraction and Resistance, which was posted earlier today at, I discuss the properties of attraction and resistance, and their importance in understanding how and why dogs do the things they do. If you've read that article, feel free to skip the paragraphs in blue. If you haven't, you'll need to read them now to be up to speed on what happened with Lexi and Melissa in Frank Sinatra Park.

For those who haven't read some of my previous articles in this series, I've defined the 4 Quadrants of Drive Training as Attraction & Resistance, and Tension & Release. I've already discussed the last two in some detail. Here I'll be discussing attraction and resistance.
First of all, everything in the universe is geared toward seeking out connections with some other facet of existence. From sub-atomic particles on up to the need some of us feel to log on to Facebook each morning, the entire universe is about making connections. The underlying theme of how these connections get made - whether it's the way sodium and chlorine atoms hook up to produce salt, how a bloodhound sniffs a criminal's trail, or how two people find each other across a crowded room - it's about physical, chemical, magnetic, or emotional attraction.

Things can't form connections without experiencing some form of attraction.

In canine behavior, it's pretty easy to see a dog's feeling of attraction manifest itself when he pulls on the leash to get to another dog, or when he chases a squirrel, or jumps up on a person he likes.

The flip side of attraction - which could be either magnetic repulsion or emotional resistance - isn't as clear cut, but can be seen vividly in the difference between the way a dog pulls toward an object of attraction along a straight line as opposed to taking a more circular approach. In my view, the curvature indicates that the dog's feeling of attraction has met some form of resistance, either internal or external. In fact if the resistance is strong enough, the dog won't dog even look at it or acknowledge the so-called object of attraction.

Biologists talk about approach and avoidance, which are behaviors. Attraction and resistance are emotional states. A dog can sometimes be seen approaching someone while having very strong feelings of resistance toward that person, i.e., approaching very slowly, with the head and tail hung low. A dog can also have a strong attraction for something and hold perfectly still, not approaching it at all (this is usually called stalking).

One of the rules I follow in training is that when using games like fetch or tug to elicit an obedience behavior, you should always quit before the dog starts to get tired or bored. This is very important because what starts out as a pleasurable learning experience can quickly become the opposite, which will result in slower response time, and may even devolve into a general lack of interest in listening or obeying at all.
How can you tell when the dog is starting to get tired or bored?

I recommend studying Turid Rugaas's "calming signals" - a dog's behavioral postures and micro-expressions - which I've discussed previously, and which Rugaas sees as being produced with the conscious intent to communicate to another dog or person.

Since dogs produce these behaviors when people and other dogs can't see them, I tend to think of them as "tells," the kind of postures and micro-expressions poker players read when in their oppononents when trying to determine whether they're bluffing. In my experience, canine tells can be successfully used to determine whether a dog is feeling more resistance than attraction in any given situation.

So one way to determine when a dog is getting tired or bored with a game goes back to the difference between a straight line and a curve. If Fido chases the ball ten times, and brings it directly back each time, in a straight line, it means he's still emotionally invested. If, on the eleventh throw, he begins to come back in a more curved fashion - no matter how subtle the difference - his interest has started to wane, his heart is no longer in the game, and it's time to take a break.

Of course, we could interpret this behavior in any number of ways. The dog is simply tired. The dog's sense of smell is starting to override his joy in playing, etc. But I think it's extremely helpful to be able to interpret canine behavior through the lens of attraction and resistance.

I was working with a student of mine named Melissa last week. She’s learning how to produce a good, rock-solid stay with various dogs. We were in Frank Sinatra park in Hoboken, NJ, with a dog named Lexi (shiba inu mix, about 35 lbs.), and I immediately saw a problem: when Melissa began doing the first stay exercise (the "step-away" stay), Lexi held his position very well, but couldn't look at her. This is one of Lexi’s tells. He was physically obeying the command, but at the same time, his heart wasn’t in it. He was feeling resistance.

So I suggested we stop working on the stay, and instead we did an exercise designed to build Lexi’s feelings of attraction toward Melissa. In briefest terms, I held Lexi’s leash and had Melissa walk away, about fifty feet or so, and hide behind a tree.

Lexi was now very interested in Melissa. After a while, he became riveted on her, and started whining, and pulling on his leash. When these feelings were at their peak, I released him, Melissa called him, using a high, happy voice, and ran away, encouraging Lexi to chase her.

He raced toward her with all his might, in a straight line. But then, for some reason, the old resistance showed up again, and his path curved toward a tree, which he immediately peed on. Interestingly, Lexi’s biggest behavioral problem at home is urinating inside the house, which he only does when he’s left alone. When I saw him do that I realized why he'd been peeing on the carpet when left home alone. All the love he felt for his owners, all the feelings that had been trapped inside him, had to flow out, and the only he felt he was able to connect to them when they were gone, was to pee on the carpet.

Melissa re-interpreted it this way (which I think is pretty brilliant):

"Lexi feels an immense void inside. And in order to connect this energy, he pees. And he pees in the part of the house that has an emotional charge to it, the living room where the family hangs out, where the family plays and laughs. It's also possible he likes the carpet, how it makes him feel, because he likes to rub his body on it. But I think it also has his owner's scent and their vibration, a family vibration."

Another way of putting it is, when Lexi's owners leave him alone, he feels their absence deeply. This produces high levels of anxiety, perhaps even panic, which carries with it a physical feeling of pressure, and perhaps even trembling. He has learned that the way to get rid of these uncomfortable physical feelings is to release the tension they produce through emptying his bladder. (Some dogs with separation anxiety release tension through their throats, by barking, others release it by chewing on the carpet or furniture, and still others may find release by digging at the carpet, or scratching frantically at the front door.)

At any rate, once I’d seen that Lexi had trouble relating to Melissa with total abandon (no resistance), even in mid-chase, I suggested we bring him back to where we’d started, come down to Lexi’s level and just lie on the grass, and start doing some very gentle teasing and pushing games, the kind puppies do to initiate play with a littermate. We even nuzzled his body with our faces

We did this for a while, and then Melissa, sensing Lexi's desire to play, asked if she should take Lexi's favorite toy, Mr. Foxy, out of her bag, to see if he'd play tug outdoors, which he'd never done before.

I said sure, then took the toy and teased Lexi with it, dancing it around his face, then pulling it away to pique his interest, i.e., build up his attraction for it. And after about 30 seconds of this – for the first time ever – Lexi began to play tug outdoors, first with me, then with Melissa.

Will learning to play tug-of-war outdoors with his owners, cure Lexi’s separation anxiety? It couldn't hurt. There's a lot of stuff that Lexi feels, under the surface. So it's going to take some time to make him feel safe enough to let go of those feelings. But playing tug with Mr. Foxy in Frank Sinatra park that chilly Sunday was a pretty good start.

Natural Dog Training in New York City

PS: I saw Lexi again last Sunday. I was sitting on a bench at the entrance to the park. As soon as he saw me he got very happy. Melissa released his leash, knowing he would come directly toward me. He did, but halfway to me he started feeling the old resistance. 

So I got "small," hunched my shoulders together, ducked my head, made myself as small as possible, considering how big I must seem to the little guy. Then I spoke to him in a high, silly voice, and his trajectory toward me returned to its previous happy straight line.

I'm telling you, understanding how dogs feel and express attraction and resistance is very important. In fact it may be one of the most important aspects of dog training.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Reply to Patricia McConnell

This is a reply to Patricia McConnell's critique of one of my articles.

Patricia McConnell with One of Her Border Collies
Thank you, Dr. McConnell, for mentioning my blog article here. Oscar Wilde said that the only thing worse than people talking about you, is people not talking about you. Still, I stand by what I wrote. And I’d have to say that some of the people commenting here have actually proved my point for me.

It might help to know that the rationale behind my “Unified Dog Theory” series at is a, perhaps vain, attempt to help end the divisiveness in the training world, but also based on a very real need to help educate dog owners and trainers that there aren’t just two philosophical or methodological choices — dominance and positive reinforcement — there’s a third form of dog training, one that’s used to train working dogs: police dogs, herding dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, etc. It’s been modified for use with pet dogs by former police dog trainer, Kevin Behan, who learned his trade from his father, Jack Behan, a famous figure of the 1950s and 60s (and probably the first famous dog trainer in America). As Kevin grew as a trainer he disagreed with his father’s reliance on dominance, and set out on his own to find a training method for police work that wasn’t abusive, and formulated a training program in his 1st book, Natural Dog Training.

So there are really 3 common forms of dog training: dominance, +R, and drive training (in general) and Natural Dog Training (in particular).

One of your readers mentioned Sigmund Freud, and seemed to be scratching her head over why his name comes up in my articles. There’s actually a sound, scientific reason for it. That’s because the basic principles of drive training are more consonant with Freud’s pleasure principle than with Skinner’s experimental outgrowth of the pleasure principle, positive reinforcement. One of the ways Freud defined pleasure was as the release of internal tension. This is a physiological phenomenon, measurable in real time. On the other hand, positive reinforcement is only measurable after the fact through statistical analyses. Theres no real physiological basis for it. It isn’t an actual object, marker or event; it’s a function of statistics. (Plus, most behavioral scientists will tell you that there’s no real way to determine if a behavior was learned through positive or negative reinforcement.)

Personally, I’ll go with actual physiological realities (Freud) over statistical probabilities (Skinner) any day.

Another reason for writing this series, is to bring the wolf model — the real one, not the one that’s been proven invalid by modern research — back into play.

Formal obedience training got its start (by Max von Stephanitz in the early 1900s), in part, as a way of imitating the predatory motor patterns of wild wolves. This bit of history is missing from both the dominance and the +R views of training. And it’s very important, in terms of this current discussion, because juvenile wolves don’t begin hunting until they’re well into adolescence. That’s why I wrote in my article: 

This is the model that has been set in place by Nature, and has worked for millions of years. Why change it now? Why force puppies to pay attention and ‘learn,’ when Nature is telling them to jump around, bite, play, get distracted, and amuse the heck out of their owners?

The other problem is that it’s long been believed that a dog (or puppy) has to be calm in order to learn; dogs can’t learn when they’re highly stimulated. I’ve found that the exact opposite is true. I think it’s best to teach obedience skills as part of an active, high-energy game, where you stimulate the dog’s urge to bite, focus it on a toy, and teach him that he gets to win the toy by obeying your commands. It’s not a good idea to do this with puppies because once they get wound up it’s for them to wind down.

The more actively the dog’s whole organism is involved — his emotions, his kinetic energy, his instincts, and his brain — the better and faster he’ll learn. This is something, that frankly, you can’t do with young puppies because they only have 3 play settings: Off, Play Hard, and Play Way Too Hard.

It’s time we re-think the whole idea of puppy obedience classes, and perhaps set them up more as owner orientation classes, where the owners can watch their puppies play while the instructor explains a few simple training techniques for teaching their pup’s basic manners, but does so through the spoken and written word, without using the pup to demonstrate the process. That way the owners can learn two important things: how to teach their pup manners, at home, on their own time, and how much fun it is to watch puppies play together.

With all that said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using food or positive reinforcement in training pet dogs. Behan himself writes about the value of these things in his 1st book, something which caused a little conflict with some of the K-9 trainers he worked with over the years. But I also think it’s important to take a look at what Ian Dunbar has been writing about on his blog recently. 

“Laboratory study has revealed a variety of reinforcement schedules. Puppy training has revealed that most of these are notorious[ly] ineffective, or impossible to administer … Wake up! Puppy training has taught us that most of this stuff doesn’t work too well.”

Dunbar also says that one of the worst things you can do is reward a dog every time he obeys. Yet Bob Bailey, perhaps the most knowledgeable animal trainer we have at least when it comes to operant conditioning says that a dog should be rewarded every single time he obeys.

Like me, Bailey has also been somewhat critical of the +R movement, particularly the tendency some within it have to isolate themselves from the dog training community at large. Last year, after someone gave him a link to one of my blog articles, Bailey sent out a newsletter in response. In it he wrote, “The‘clicker training community’ has insulated itself from much of the public and from trainers not embracing the ‘purist’ methods … How many have heard me say, ‘Beware of he or she who claims [to have] The Truth?’”

Some people have closed their minds, but believe it or not, Cesar Millan sometimes gets things right, and some well-known figures in the +R world sometimes get things wrong. The truth is, dog training is as much of an art as it is a science. In fact, it may be more of an art than a science. We all gravitate towards what feels right to us. 

My “Unified Dog Theory” is an attempt to give people who are unaware of the scientific principles behind drive training, or don’t know how to utilize it with their dogs, some simple tools to start them on their way.

Hopefully, it will start the ball rolling toward bringing all dog trainers together rather than setting up opposing camps and sniping at one another. (And I’ve been as guilty of that in the past as anyone.)

Thanks again for mentioning my article.

Lee Charles Kelley
Life Is an Adventure — Where Will Your Dog Take You?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Unified Dog Theory IX: Language, Representational Thinking, and Object Relations in Dogs


There are three interesting studies in the news right now.

The first is about Chaser, a border collie who's been rigorously trained to remember the names of all 1022 of her toys, and can differentiate between the verbs "to nose," "to paw," and "to take." She learned to do this in a series of 4-hour sessions, taking place over a period of three years, using a ball as a reward for making a successful match between a word and a toy, or a word and an action.

Some in the media, and even in the scientific community, have touted Chaser's abilities as evidence that she has a rudimentary capacity to understand human language, and that her linguistic abilities are on a par with those of a 3-year old child.

Most animals -- dogs and humans included -- process salient features of their environments by making internal representations of them. This is pretty simple stuff. We look at an object but our eyes don't really see it, they just provide raw sensory data, which is translated by the visual circuitry in our brains into a representation, or mental image, of that object. Dogs are clearly able to do this, otherwise they wouldn't be able to dream or catch Frisbees (or, perhaps, dream of catching Frisbees).

However, when get into the realm of what words "mean," we're entering the territory of representations of representations. This means that for Chaser's abilities to rise to the level of a 3-year old child's linguistic skills, she would have to be able to understand words in a more abstract fashion, not just as verbal cues. (She would also have to be able to use words herself, do so in novel and inventive ways, and differentiate between nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, etc., and use them with a fair amount of grammatical precision.)

Chaser's basic ability to respond to verbal cues, relative to her prey drive (toys are prey objects, after all), isn't unusual. Dogs, like wolves, are social predators, so they're constantly reading us for social cues. They do this so casually and so often that many times we're unaware of what's going on. So, to me, what's most interesting about Chaser isn't that she can respond to auditory cues, but the staggering number of them she apparently has stored in her memory banks. (Tellingly, her owners can't remember the names of all her toys; they have to rely on a written list!)

Meanwhile, another study, this one from UCSD, suggests that babies differentiate between words that relate to pictures of objects and those that don't in much the same way that adults do.

The researchers used MEG (which measures magnetic fields in the brain) and fMRI to estimate brain activity in 12 to 18-month old infants when they were shown pictures of familiar objects then heard words that were either a match or a mismatch to the name of the object. (Interestingly one of the tests involved showing the infants a picture of a ball followed by the word ball, versus a picture of a ball followed by the word dog.)

The brains of the infants lit up in certain areas when the word matched the picture. And the same parts of the brain lit up when human adults were given the same tests. Plus, these parts of the brain weren't those normally associated with language, such as the Broca's and Wernicke's areas. In fact, a much older part of the brain -- the cerebellum, which controls attention, and motor skills -- also lit up.

The third study may seem totally unrelated, but I think it can tell us something about how Chaser learned the names of so many toys, and also why matching words to objects seems to involve the cerebellum in human infants and adults.

Researchers at Princeton tested two groups of students for their ability to retain printed information based on how difficult the font (or typeface) was to read. One group was given a homework assignment printed with either a Comic Sans or Bodoni/Italic font, printed at 60% grayscale, while a second group was given the same assignment printed with the easy-to-read Arial font, printed in pure black.

The first group did substantially better on retention.

The researchers write, "It is not the difficulty, per se, that leads to [learning] improvements but rather the fact that the intervention engages processes that support learning."

What might those processes be?

The researchers say that "pinning down the precise mechanism [is] quite challenging." But in a recent blog article here, I wrote about dopamine circuits in the brain, and how they're not really "reward circuits," as they're often referred to, but attentional pathways. And that what they seem to reward is paying attention to changing patterns in the environment.

From that article: We're now discovering that the real purpose of dopamine is to help motivate us to gather new information about the outside world quickly and efficiently. In fact dopamine is released during negative experiences as well as positive ones. (The puppy who gets his nose scratched by the cat doesn't need further lessons to reinforce the "no-chasing-the-cat" rule; he learns that instantaneously, with a single swipe of the cat's paw.) This adds further importance to the idea that learning is not as much about pairing behaviors with their consequences as it is about paying close attention to salient changes in our environment: the bigger the changes, the more dopamine is released.

Could pattern recognition explain Chaser's amazing abilities?

I think so. Chaser is a border collie. (So was Ricoh, who knew the names of over 200 objects.) And border collies aren't bred for their linguistic abilities but for their herding skills. In other words, language is not a prerequisite for herding sheep but pattern recognition (which is an evolutionary pre-cursor to logic and language) is.

I said earlier that in the study done on how infants discriminate between word/object pairs that match and those that don't, one of the areas in the brain that lit up was the cerebellum, which is operational during motor control as well as during attentional tasks. And if dopamine is designed to make us pay attention to changing patterns in our environment, then it makes sense that the cerebellum -- which controls attention -- might also be involved in the cognitive process of finding words and objects that match up, and ignoring those that don't. This would also explain why the college students who had to expend more energy recognizing the patterns in their homework printouts retained the information better than those whose homework was easier to read.

I also said that dog owners are often unaware of how easily and how often dogs read our social cues (i.e., pick up on our patterns).

Years ago, when my dog Freddie and I would go on long walks in Central Park during off-leash hours, and he would do his business (#2), if I got distracted I would sometimes be unable to find where he'd left his "present," which would leave me perplexed and frustrated.

Fred, meanwhile, would usually be off sniffing around, or looking for other dogs to meet or squirrels to stalk. Sometimes, as I stopped and looked around, baggie in hand, I would say, "Freddie, where did you do your business?" And for some reason, one I can't exactly figure out, he would almost invariably stop what he was doing, come back over to the spot, and sniff his own poop, something he never did on his own.

I didn't train Fred to do this. He learned it on his own. There were no external rewards (though I did thank him). And perhaps more importantly, he didn't look at me or reference me; he never gave any outward signal that he "understood" my words. In fact, if anything it seemed to me that this was all his "idea," not mine. And yet he almost always went back to his spot and sniffed it.

So, is Fred's behavior an example of a capacity to understand human language, a facility for pattern recognition, or something else entirely?

I'll let you decide.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"
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