Monday, July 2, 2018

Top 5 Reasons Using Food can be a PROBLEM in dog training

As promised, Front Range K9 head trainer Jen Pearson, MSW, MSc has countered my previous blog, "5 reasons you SHOULD train with food" .  

So, here we go:

As a pet dog owner, the idea of reward-based training is likely very appealing to you – after all, you love your dog and want her to be happy! When we see a dog with laser focus and attentiveness to her handler, it looks awesome, right? She takes her treat eagerly and may even offer other behaviors in the hopes of keeping the game going. What could possibly be wrong with a training system that does that?

            If we, the motivational trainers, would be brutally honest with ourselves (and with you, our clients!), there are in fact several problems that have the potential to seriously impact the human-canine relationship when food is involved. Here are my top five concerns about utilizing food in training:

1. Food = Love

           

The first thing that comes to mind is how rewarding with food takes over a relationship – it’s not just during “training” time, but motivational trainers rely on having food stuffed in pockets, baggies or pouches every moment we’re with the dog. “Reward behaviors you want to see again” is a solid learning principle, but in reality we’re shoveling cookies at our dogs for the most basic of responses and feeling guilty if we have to just pat them when they sat next to us because we ran out of treats. Healthy relationships aren’t about tit-for-tat, transactions, or a “what’s in it for me” attitude.





2. Food can be addictive


There are serious mental health problems associated with addictions, as well as eating
disorders. Have you ever suffered from an addiction, or known someone who has? It is a profoundly unhealthy state of being… for any species. And yet, motivational trainers are carefully and deliberately making dogs actually addicted to training. Just like with gaming patterns – whether online, lottery or in casinos – in the earliest stages and lowest levels, we reward every attempt. Then we start to reward only for really good attempts, until eventually it’s more random. Our dogs have become like the person at the slot machine, continuously pulling that lever thinking, “Next time! I’ll get my payoff next time!” Some dogs (and people!) can get addicted to food, and paired with a reward schedule designed to create addiction, and I have to wonder how ethical it is to try to turn my canine friend into an addict hoping for his next fix.

3. “Happy” vs functional


To most people, training-addicted dogs look “happy” to do their task – they’re very focused, intense, and bouncy. But are we mistaking desire, excitement and pleasure for happiness? Addiction creates desire for sure, and there is certainly excitement in anticipating the “fix.” There’s no that doubt addicts feel pleasure when they get their drug of choice. But are they fundamentally happy? Or are they living in a constant feedback loop of seeking and acquiring? 


Both children and dogs of today seem to need instant gratification in order to feel “happy.” But good parenting doesn’t mean you try to make your kids (2- or 4-legged!) happy all the time! In fact, doing that would actually make you a pretty poor parent. In the end, the job of a parent – and a dog trainer – is to produce functional members of society. If we try to protect them from any stress, and never teach them how to handle situations where they don’t get what their way, we haven’t done our job.







4. That moment when…


Motivational training depends upon our dogs wanting what we offer them – there’s no way around that. If it’s food, our dog has to be hungry (or addicted). But even addicts get their fill, and there are moments when they may not want their drug. When those moments occur during an emergency, like a loose dog in traffic, we’re in trouble… and so are our dogs. Every rewards-based trainer, if they are honest, knows that sinking feeling in your gut when you watch a dog make the choice to refuse their reward – whether because they’re under too much stress, or because there’s something more interesting out in the world (squirrel!). And biology insists that such moments will occur – there are times when eating simply isn’t appealing, no matter how many repetitions you’ve done!



5. Time fixes everything


In short, it doesn’t. And when we allow ourselves to recognize that simple life truth, a major tenant of “positive only” training collapses. Our dogs aren’t robots, and trying to program them as such – the “you just need to practice more and they will do it out of habit” mentality – doesn’t respect the dog’s nature as a thinking, feeling being with the ability to make choices, both wise and poor ones!
You know what I’ve realized really does work? Showing the dog the whole picture:
·       If you make Choice A, the consequence will be X.
·       If you make Choice B, the consequence is Y.
·       Sometimes consequences are pleasant, and Choice A is something I like… so X is something you like.
·       But other times, the consequence (Y) is unpleasant because I need you not to make Choice B again.
It’s unreasonable and unfair to ask people to live with their dogs’ poor behavior choices for months or years, if there is a clearer, more efficient way to get the message across. It seems to me a much more well-rounded education for our dogs.

Jennifer Pearson, MSW, MSc is head trainer at Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO.  She can be reached at www.k9counselor.com

Keep in mind, this blog and the one just before it were part of a challenge for two long time dog trainers, Jen Pearson and Jen Hime, to argue the side of the point that is actually counter to our training instincts.  We both enjoy the discussions this topic has sparked, as well as expanding our training comfort zones!


Sunday, June 17, 2018

5 Reasons you SHOULD train with food

Most of my dog training clients know that I prefer to train WITHOUT the use of food as a reward for most dogs.  


That doesn't mean food is a bad thing in training.  

In fact, there are a lot of instances where food is very helpful!  But as a 'non-foodie' trainer, treating a dog is not the first thing I reach for in my dog training toolbox.

So, since we've welcomed Jennifer Pearson, MSW, MSc to our team, and she's got a long background in the correct use of food in training, I decided to issue a challenge:

I'm sharing the following article that I've put together on the MERITS OF TRAINING WITH FOOD, and Jennifer Pearson is writing a counter article - on the downsides of using food in training.

More than anything, this is an exercise for the 2 lead trainers at Front Range K9 Academy to stretch our brains and our belief system boundaries by presenting and arguing for a view that is actually the exact opposite of our own natural training instincts...

So without further adieu, here are 5 reasons why you SHOULD train with food:


 1. Clarity

If your timing & delivery of food is correct, and you’re careful to use your treat as a reward and not a bribe* – then there are not many ways to be more precise and clear about the EXACT behavior you liked, than to train with food.

If your dog is food motivated and understands marker training, then shaping very specific behaviors is comparatively easy when using food in training.  

This is because the combination of using a marker or ‘bridge’ at the moment the behavior occurs, followed by the food treat you’ve paired with the marker allows the dog to know exactly which behavior you liked and are rewarding.

It’s a little bit like taking a snapshot of the behavior, showing it to your dog, and saying, “See this perfect sit?  That’s the behavior this cookie if for.”

(*TIP:  a bribe comes before a behavior...a reward comes after a behavior!)


2. Food is a great way to tell what frame of mind a dog is in.

If you have a dog who is normally very food motivated, and he won’t eat when you’re in new places, or if he’s overexcited, or afraid (like at the vet’s office) – then you should realize he’s either too distracted or too stressed to eat, let alone learn much. 


It’s normal for a dog’s food drive to drop when he’s under too much pressure.  

Think of it like this:  If you’re driving to work on a sunny day, on your normal route, and traffic is light…you probably have no problem drinking your coffee and maybe snacking on a banana along the way.

BUT, if you’re in a strange town, in a rental car, at night, in a blizzard, and you can’t find your hotel – you’re probably not feeling like eating!

The same thing happens for most dogs; if the pressure of excitement or stress is too high, they lose their appetites. 

So, if you’re working on something new or tough with your dog, remember that your dog’s level of food drive is one way to tell just how stressed he is.

3.  Stress-Reduction

Tying into the idea above about stress-gauging and eating:  

If your dog is a bit stressed, but is able to eat, the act of eating can stimulate a dopamine release in your dog’s brain –  and these ‘pleasure chemicals’ can influence the activity you’re doing in a positive way.

This technique is commonly used when we’re trying to change a dog’s mind about a stressful situation or object.

By example, if a dog is afraid of motorcycles, we find out how far away we have to be from motorcycles for the dog to be able to take a treat.  From that point - called a threshold - we can gradually desensitize the dog anytime he sees a motorcycle and stays relaxed enough to take the treat from that distance.  Eventually, the dog will begin to see the motorcycle and look for the food reward – making a positive association with motorcycles and food. 

The next step is to very gradually reduce the distance between the dog and the motorcycle, using food to keep the dog in a positive frame of mind.

By using food in this way, we can actually change a dog's brain chemistry - and their behavior about stressful events or objects in their worlds.

4. Using food can speed up the process of training.

As pointed out above, when used correctly, food can greatly improve your dog’s understanding of what you want, as well as increase dopamine in the system – giving the dog pleasure and increasing his desire to work for more food.

While all of this is good, you must be careful not to use the food as a bribe, but only as a reward; and must understand that in many (most?) cases, dogs working for food will almost always need you to continue to use food in training.

While speeding up the training process may seem like a positive thing, just recognize that there are no shortcuts in training.  

Also, folks on the opposite end of the training spectrum might also point out that using electronic collars also speeds up training!

All of this leads us down the rabbit hole of debate regarding training methods in general - a discussion for another day.

5. Using food can give YOUR brain a break.

If you’ve done much training at all, you know there are different levels of connection with your dog at different times.  

Sometimes he’s totally focused on you; others, he’s more interested in the birds, the wind, the dog across the street, or just not really in the mood to train…

The same is true for US, as humans.  Sometimes, we know we just need to get through 20 minutes or so of training homework to keep our dogs on track, but we’re tired!  It’s been a long day at work, dinner needs to be made, the human kids need help with their homework, and you feel a migraine coming on….

If you’re too tired, too busy, not focused, or just not feeling connected to your dog at the moment, food can be a great way to tell your dog you liked what they did, without having to engage with them further.  It’s certainly a way to ‘pay’ your dog for a job well done, when you’re just not up to connecting to him with praise, play, or affection.

While this use of food does work and can be used occasionally, I wouldn’t recommend it as a regular technique.  

After all, the dog & human emotional bond is an exceptionally strong one – it’s probably at least partly why you have a dog – so in the end, I am still in favor of using that bond to reward the dog more often than using a tidbit.

Whew!  There you have it - 5 reasons food can be good in training...

A good reminder for those of us who 'never' want to use food:  It DOES have a place in good dog training!

Stay tuned for the flip side of the coin in Jennifer Pearson's upcoming article on the downsides of using food in training.

Jennifer Hime is the owner and training director of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO.  You can find her at k9counselor.com

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Mental Gymnastics - Thinking for Ourselves in the "Information Age"

I recently received an article from concerned relatives, regarding the dangers of feeding a raw diet to pets.  


As most of our Front Range K9 Academy clients know, many of our trainers (including me) feed a natural, balanced, raw diet to our pets.

At first, upon reading the article, I was angry.  Very angry.

I hear fellow raw feeders bemoaning the fact that their veterinarians, or family members, or friends argue with them against a raw diet, for a number of reasons.

But I thought - having been in the professional pet industry for 28 years, having a partner who is a veterinarian (who supports raw feeding), and just being my amazing, wonderful self - I thought I was immune to this nonsense.

Then, I started doing what I love to do best - mounting a counter argument.




I felt I needed to write the following response.  So, this is not a blog about raw pet food.  Nor about dog training.  But instead, it's a post about considering the source of information coming at each of us - at light speed - every hour of every day.  

Until we learn that all information is owned by someone....until we learn to consider where information comes from and who is profiting from that information, we will be unable to decipher what is good information, and what is not.

The article I received was the answer to a question about raw feeding.  The answer was provided by the famous (infamous?) Dr. Oz.  While I won't go into the many, many concerns by medical industry professionals about the validity of Dr. Oz's credibility in general, receiving the article did give me something to really think about.  (Despite the fact that the article's author gives no links, footnotes, or other annotation regarding the validity of information stated as fact...I will try not to make the same mistake here.)

No - I gave no consideration to the article's content, which was basically an alarmist response to the 'dangers' of feeding a raw pet diet due to contamination by bacteria, including Salmonella, E. Coli, and Listeria.

My initial response in reading the article was, "Of course bacteria are present - it's raw meat!"  



But being the intelligent, educated person that I am, I use the same precautions when preparing my dogs' meals as I do when handling raw meat in preparation for my human family's meals.

Hand washing, cleaning utensils and dishes, and prep. areas with hot water and detergent, are of course vital - regardless of whom the meal is being prepared for.


So it wasn't Dr. Oz's fear mongering that affected me, but instead the idea that we, as a society, continue to be taken in by almost anything we see or hear - in print or on the screens - be they television or computer screens.

In a world where we are literally battered with information in the form of words and pictures nearly every waking minute, it can be hard to decipher good information from bad.

In spite of the increase in media attention to "Fake News," it seems we're still unsure of how to interpret the messages coming at us.


This hits home for me not only as a raw feeder, but as a dog trainer.  There is a major split going on in the professional dog training community regarding methods, tools, and techniques - with each side having valid arguments.  But instead of working together for the good of the public, the dogs, and our industry, we have been reduced to mudslinging and hurling emotion-laden, often unsubstantiated claims at each other.

The same is true in the pet food world, with big business going to the mattresses to keep commercial pet food bringing in the big bucks. 

As more and more owners are turning to raw pet foods, either purchasing through small companies, or by making their own, the big commercial pet food industry is swinging for the fences - pouring big bucks into sponsorship and 'research' and as much media attention as they can get - that will back their claims that raw feeding is dangerous for pets and humans.  Of course they will argue this point - they don't want to lose profits! 


If you doubt this, check out the yearly financial statements for the 3 companies that own/produce the majority of all dog food brands.

They are grossing $61 billion a year:  Nestle' Purina brought in a not-to-shabby $11 billion in 2015; Colgate-Palmolive was at $15.2 billion for 2017; and the largest of them all, Procter & Gamble/Mars, made $35 billion in 2017.  This information is readily available as public record.

What does this have to do with Dr. Oz's article? 


Well, I did just a bit more research into the good doctor and his corporate sponsorship.  Sure enough, guess who I found?  Direct corporate links to his 'trusted' sponsors include L'Oreal (owned by the Nestle' corporation), and Head & Shoulders (owned by Proctor & Gamble/Mars Corporation - yes, the company that made $35 billion in pet food profits last year.)

What is missing from Dr. Oz's article is the other side of the argument - that commercially processed/sold pet food is just as risky for the very same bacteria found in raw dog foods. 

As recently as January 2018, yet another recall was issued for commercial dog food - with Listeria found in the food - and the source of the bacteria?  Human grade green beans!  You can read more about it the Food Safety News.

In 2012, the American Veterinary Medical Association updated its online information regarding Salmonella found in commercial dog food, stating in the article that, "No pet food is immune from the possibility of Salmonella contamination."  The entire page can be found here.

The research above took me less than an hour to complete.  But how many of us take even a small portion of our day to question what we read online & in print, or hear on the news?

I would challenge each of us - regardless of what subject matter we're thinking of - to consider the source of the information we are receiving.  

In particular, is the information being presented in a way that is designed to provoke some emotion in us?  (The Dr. Oz article is clearly aimed at causing fear.)

Big business spends billions a year on public relations and advertising aimed at tickling our emotions.  When we act from our feelings instead of our common sense, they've hooked us - and we'll spend, spend, spend with them.

And secondly, I would urge every person to ask themselves, "Who might profit from spreading this information?"  Remember, in our current example, Dr. Oz gets sponsorship from the very companies producing commercial dog food - a source that stands to lose a lot of money if consumers abandon their products.

On the flip side, I can't imagine that my small, corner butcher is out to take over the world by selling me raw meaty bones, organs, and other products I feed my pets.


In the end, I know my family members were only expressing concern for my own safety.  And I appreciate that love and concern - whether the claims for concern are legitimate or not.

Food for thought.

Jennifer Hime is the owner and training director of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO.  She can be reached through her website, at www.k9counselor.com.












Thursday, June 1, 2017

I am a 'cross over' trainer - twice over!

In dog training circles - perhaps more now than ever in history - there is a debate raging.  The easiest way to boil down this debate is to say it's between the 'pure positive' (PP) trainers, and the 'balanced' trainers (BT).

Image result for tyrant
The PP's would have you believe that it's actually a life and death fight between humane treatment and training methods Vs. cruelty, compulsion and general depravity exercised by the BT's, who spend all of their time yelling, screaming, hitting, kicking, and shocking dogs.







Image result for hippieThe BT's would have you believe that all PP's are a bunch of new-age, mamby-pamby hippies, who wouldn't know sound dog training if it came up and bit them in the tushy.








This argument about method, techniques, and equipment has led to legislation, and regulation, and everything in-between - across the globe.

But this post isn't going to address the arguments above.

What???  Why not?  

Well, because I'll save that for another day.  (And trust me, it's coming...)

Instead, as the owner and training director of Front Range K9 Academy, I thought it might be interesting for some of our clients to hear how it was we came to train the way we do - right now, in 2017 - at our facility.

You see, among dog trainers there is a label for trainers like me.  I am a 'cross over' trainer.  That term is generally applied to someone who used to be on one side of the BT vs. PP argument, and switched sides.

Image result for republican vs. democratIt's sort of like a Republican changing over to being a Democrat...or vice versa.  And believe me, crossing over in dog training can be just as politically charged as changing one's voting affiliation...

And I know this because I am a cross-over trainer....twice over!

The following is excerpted from a message I posted on a discussion board of the APDT (Association of Professional Dog Trainers), an organization I am currently a member of:

I am a 'cross-over' trainer.

For 17 years, I trained in a 'traditional style,' using all 4 quadrants, with most of my emphasis on positive and negative reinforcement, along with yes - positive punishment.  I had little use for negative punishment most of the time.  

Please Note:  I do not say that I trained with a 'compulsion-based' method.  I have yet to meet a trainer who uses compulsion as a primary motivator - and I have had many old-school mentors in the working dog world, including some strictly Koehler Method mentors.  So I find it puzzling when a trainer who has 'crossed over' to pure positive reinforcement training claims that they used to train primarily with compulsion.  I'm not doubting that that's out there, but I haven't seen it.  And I've been around awhile.

But I digress...

...I followed a "you do it right, things are great and you earn praise, play, freedom, etc.; you do it wrong, I will correct you and show you the right way again so you can have the entire road map to success" philosophy. 

Image result for parrot training imageAt the beginning of my 17th year, I brought on an apprentice [Lisa Lucero, now of Dog Dynamix, in Arvada CO] with an exotic bird training background and learned more from her than I ever taught her.  Her marker training skills were amazing due to the work she'd done in birds for so long, and also due to her just being a very animal-intuitive person.

I was mesmerized by the power of training first with food rewards, then toys, play, and eventually even offering bite work as a reward for drivey, working dogs.  I read everything I could get my hands on; watched videos, honed my skills - and most importantly, incorporated this new-found (to me) miracle into my classes.  I learned about using Grisha Stewart's BAT training.  I learned about LAT and mat work and everything in between. 

And lo and behold, I even learned how to 'get ears' in the show ring from my own
Polli finishing her Rally Novice title.
'pouty-faced' breed: whippets.  I went so far as to marker train an uber-pouty whippet to do a very specific head-tilt & 'look at me' exercise after each position-change in Rally.  And while she steadily plodded her way through the stations in true sighthound fashion, her soulful eye contact up to me after each exercise, as if to say "Did I do it right, mama?" absolutely charmed the judges into blue ribbons, high scores, and propelling her to the 2nd highest scoring whippet in Rally Novice in the U.S. in 2010.  I was in heaven.

I could easily have been labeled a zealot; a 'born-again' marker trainer.  Hallelujah!

For those of you still reading, and nodding your heads smugly in approval...slow down.  Hold your horses.  Slow your roll.

Something else was happening along the way on this journey.  The more I used food and/or toy rewards for dogs - and the more drive-building I did, the less correcting of inappropriate behavior I did, as well.

I was embracing - albeit subconsciously, perhaps - the 'pure positive' or 'force free' habit of just trying to ignore undesirable behaviors...it just felt like so much FUN to be mostly rewarding during training, as opposed to correcting!  

But my clients' dogs and my own dogs were paying a subtle price for that.  Read on, to find out more.

The whippets - enjoying a family meal on the deck.
You see, I am not only a trainer, but also a breeder.  At times, I have lived with as many as 8 to 12 intact dogs and bitches (no kennel situation here - my dogs are all house dogs).  

As I got deeper and deeper into my journey towards 'all positive' training, the trained behaviors of my own dogs were absolutely fantastic on the field, in the rings, and even in class.  But life at home was something different.

Eight years into doing primarily positive-reinforcement training only, I realized one day that I could draw a very clear line through my personal whippets - a line I had convinced myself was 'older, mature dogs' vs. 'younger, immature dogs;'  a line that actually delineated between dogs who'd been trained traditionally, with both rewards and corrections, vs. dogs who'd been trained with primarily positive reinforcement and drive-building techniques.   

How do I know it wasn't an age line?  Because some of the dogs in the second group (the positive-reinforcement only group) were over 6!  And had been raised and trained by me since birth.  Yet - their impulse control was non-existent; and their their ability to handle stressful situations or pressure of any sort was sorely lacking.    

(Talk to any breeder about 'pressure' when there are females in season around and multiple intact males.  Impulse control, problem-solving, and the ability to work through stress are vital during these times - just as those skills are vital at many times during a dog's lifetime.)

What was going on here?  Was I breeding mentally unsound dogs?  I don't think so.  I owned and had trained most of the parents of the dogs in the 'pain in my tush' second group...

So, I decided to try a little experiment.  I re-visited a more balanced training approach - with each and every one of those dogs.  I introduced corrections for training skills, as well as every-day behavior requirements that I knew they knew, but chose not to execute well or quickly.  I continued to use positive reinforcement to teach new behaviors, and also to reward and continue reinforcement of known behaviors.  But I went back to telling my dogs that sometimes, they didn't have a choice in things.  

At the time (nearly 2 years ago), I had a 16 week old female pup with a very assertive personality.  She'd begun her training on strictly-positive marker work in preparation for the conformation ring.  However, I introduced her to the same balanced approach her sire had been trained on years before (her mom was in my 'pain in the tush' group, and was being re-trained right along with her daughter!)  

And something new happened.  That young pup, who I had been well on the way to labeling "stubborn, reserved, overly-assertive and independent, etc." suddenly was affectionate, engaged, intelligent, and steady.   

And what's more, life with a gaggle of whippets became pleasant and manageable again.  My dogs responded - and responded well - to the information they were getting:   "You do it right, things are great;  you do it wrong, there is a consequence."  They didn't melt.  They didn't suddenly turn into quivery masses.  In fact, in several cases of relatively bashful, sensitive dogs, they grew more confident and relaxed.

I re-introduced my clients to all 4 quadrants of learning, as well - and after 8 years of working primarily one quadrant only, I was suddenly reminded of just how important clarity of communication is in dog training.  Clients who had failed previously trying an all-positive approach (sometimes with me, sometimes with other trainers) thanked me for giving them permission to tell their dogs "Nope! Not Ok!" when they needed it.   

Does that mean that I go to pressure-based, punishment- or compulsion-driven techniques as my first choice with my own or client dogs?  Of course not.  Does it mean I have to take dogs out behind the woodshed to get them to behave?  Of course not!  Nor do any other of the balanced trainers I proudly call colleagues. 

And the facts remain:  Dogs can and do respond to all 4 quadrants of learning.  Dogs can and do use pressure and positive punishment with each other.  

And perhaps most importantly:  The terms 'pressure' and 'positive punishment' do not have to equal abuse.  Even more - some experience of pressure and consequences prepares a dog to handle the pressure and consequences that are part of real life.

What all of this boils down to is that I am a 'cross-over' trainer.  Twice over.  I crossed over from traditional training into 'pure positive' training, and two years ago, I crossed back.  I have learned so much in my journey; and it saddens and frustrates me to see the tone taken by so many pure positive trainers - that any way other than theirs is the wrong way to train dogs.   

I didn't write this to get into an argument about pure positive training vs. balanced training.  Nor do I want to convert anyone to my way of training.  Nor do I want to regulate the way others train.  I just wanted to share my own journey; to shed a slightly different light on the concept of 'crossing over.'  

Anytime we learn something new, I think it's a good thing - when you stop learning, it's time to stop training.  But just because we learned something new, does not automatically mean that older knowledge and experience no longer has value.

I know that the divide between the pure positive and balanced training camps is growing, and I also know it is human nature to seek out support for one's own viewpoint.  So ...it's fine...we can all go running about, citing articles and studies that support our own argument or agenda 'til the cows come home.  

But I'd rather be out training dogs.

So there you have it, folks...in a not-too-brief nutshell:  how we came to train the way we train at Front Range K9.  For anyone still reading and awake, thanks for taking the time to let me babble on about this topic, as it's been on my mind lately!

Jennifer Hime is the owner and training director of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO.  She can be reached through her website, at www.k9counselor.com.