Tag Archives: pit bull

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Recently, I have read some things that I’ve found a bit upsetting, and have been trying to remind myself that this mission we are on is a marathon and not a sprint. Here, I am talking specifically about our mission regarding making reward-based training the norm. We are making headway, though, as a “movement”, and individually as trainers, and I see evidence of that daily, from the client who tells me he kicked his dog in frustration and really doesn’t want to be “that person”, to the one who knows what she is doing isn’t working. I hold on to those moments of recognition in which someone realizes they want to be better and do better and sometimes, that’s enough. Sometimes, though, the other stuff seems louder and more insurmountable. There’s a lot of throwing crap at the wall to see what sticks, a lot of “experts”, a lot of defensiveness- it’s basically the Wild West for dogs out there. And by out there, I mean the internet. We all turn to the internet for answers and it’s a fantastic resource. The problem is there’s no one fact-checking a lot of stuff and so people fall prey to false information, critical thinking falls to the wayside and myths persevere. Here’s a few examples:

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– A post in a Facebook group aimed at sharing information amongst reward-based trainers and members of the public interested in learning about the methods used, wherein someone stated that they wanted to punish their dog for countersurfing. Uninterested in learning how to teach the dog to do something else, or manage the situation (or perhaps simply looking for an opportunity for a fight. Because, internet.), this individual erupted into name-calling. I had left this group before and promptly did so again. I try to limit my exposure to ugly.

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– A picture that went around and around and around of a baby kissing a dog wearing bunny ears, where the dog was clearly uncomfortable. I was about to write an entire blog post on that one, but, thankfully, Eileen Anderson took care of that for me and did so beautifully.

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With your puppy facing you, sit on the floor and hold it using both hands just behind the front legs. Now, hold it away at arm’s length and look directly into its eyes. If the dog struggles, make a growling sound and hold it with a strong grip until it stops.
Again, sitting on the floor, cradle the puppy with one hand under its head and the other supporting its back. The dog will be on its back with its feet in the air and its belly exposed to you — a position of submission. If the dog struggles, use the same animal growls you used in step 1, making certain not let go until the dog stops struggling and relaxes

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Wait. What? Are we still living in the 70’s? Have we learned nothing? Growling in a puppy’s face? With a strong grip? Forcing a puppy into submission? Sometimes, I really want to yell “Stop the Ride!” because the lack of knowledge, the holding on to old ideas for dear life and the wanton manner in which all of this gets spread is absolutely crazy-making. In her book, The Other End of the Leash, which I loved, though I don’t agree with all of it, Patricia McConnell notes that the main author of How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend from The Monks of New Skete, which inspired millions to perform alpha rollovers deeply regretted giving this advice. Progress.

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And yet…there really is hope. Because the comments on that post in the Facebook group were by and large thoughtful responses to a common problem, there are people like Eileen who deconstruct something in a respectful and well-thought out way and PetMD did retract the piece. And I meet clients like the one I mentioned above and this website has hundreds of thousands of views and our articles have a ton of shares. So do lots of others like it. There is mounting evidence that people are beginning to get it. Dogs have needs- emotional needs, mental needs, behavioral needs, physical needs and we are the ones who can meet them and force is not the way to do it. Left to their own devices, dogs will countersurf, they may bite that child (and it won’t be out of nowhere), they may take over your household (but it won’t be because they think they are alpha, it’ll be because you didn’t teach them what you want them to do *instead* of that other, more natural, thing like scavenging for scraps wherever they can find them, even if that means hopping up onto your beloved granite countertops) and they will certainly not have their needs met, not the least of which is a feeling of safety.

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Dogs are not props. They aren’t robots. They are a domesticated species that we take responsibility for when we bring them into our homes. Because of this, they are reliant on us. We would serve them well to remember this. And if you find yourself frustrated and behaving in ways that you don’t like in response to your dog, take a deep breath, call a professional, tap into those critical thinking skills (it really is a skill!), get over the idea of the sprint and commit to the marathon. Your dog does not have deep-seated resentments or plans for a massive takeover. He’s not laying awake at night plotting how he can make your life miserable. I promise. Become mindful of your own behavior and how it impacts your dog.

The ASPCA’s Stance On BSL

ASPCA on Breed-Specific Legislation

Dog attacks can be a real and serious problem in communities across the country, but addressing dangerous and potentially dangerous dogs can be a confusing and touchy issue. Breed-specific legislation (BSL) is the blanket term for laws that either regulate or ban certain dog breeds in an effort to decrease dog attacks on humans and other animals. However, the problem of dangerous dogs will not be remedied by the “quick fix” of breed-specific laws—or, as they should truly be called, breed-discriminatory laws.

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Who Is Impacted by Breed-Specific Laws?

Regulated breeds typically comprise the “pit bull” class of dogs, including American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and English Bull Terriers. In some areas, regulated breeds also include a variety of other dogs like American Bulldogs, Rottweilers, Mastiffs, Dalmatians, Chow Chows, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers or any mix of these breeds—and dogs who simply resemble these breeds.

Many states, including New York, Texas and Illinois, favor laws that identify, track and regulate dangerous dogs individually—regardless of breed—and prohibit BSL. However, more than 700 U.S. cities have enacted breed-specific laws.

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Are Breed-Specific Laws Effective?

There is no evidence that breed-specific laws make communities safer for people or companion animals. Following a thorough study of human fatalities resulting from dog bites, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decided to strongly oppose BSL. The CDC cited, among other problems, the inaccuracy of dog bite data and the difficulty in identifying dog breeds (especially true of mixed-breed dogs). Breed-specific laws are also costly and difficult to enforce.

What Are the Consequences of Breed-Specific Laws?

BSL carries a host of negative and wholly unintended consequences:

Dogs Suffer. Rather than give up beloved pets, owners of highly regulated or banned breeds often attempt to avoid detection by restricting their dogs’ outdoor exercise and socialization—forgoing licensing, microchipping and proper veterinary care, and avoiding spay/neuter surgery and essential vaccinations. Such actions can have a negative impact on both the mental and physical health of these dogs.

In addition, breed-specific laws can create a climate where it is nearly impossible for residents to adopt and live with such a breed—virtually ensuring destruction of otherwise adoptable dogs by shelters and humane societies.

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Owners Suffer. Responsible owners of entirely friendly, properly supervised and well-socialized dogs who happen to fall within the regulated breed are required to comply with local breed bans and regulations. This can lead to housing issues, legal fees or even relinquishment of the animal.
Public Safety Suffers. Breed-specific laws have a tendency to compromise rather than enhance public safety. When animal control resources are used to regulate or ban a certain breed, the focus is shifted away from effective enforcement of laws that have the best chances of making communities safer: dog license laws, leash laws, anti-animal fighting laws, anti-tethering laws, laws facilitating spaying and neutering and laws that require all owners to control their dogs, regardless of breed. Additionally, guardians of banned breeds may be deterred from seeking routine veterinary care, which can lead to outbreaks of rabies and other diseases that endanger communities.

Breed-specific laws may also have the unintended consequence of encouraging irresponsible dog ownership. As certain breeds are regulated, individuals who exploit aggression in dogs are likely to turn to other, unregulated breeds. Conversely “outlaws” may be attracted to the “outlaw” status of certain breeds. The rise of pit bull ownership among gang members in the late 1980s coincided with the first round of breed-specific legislation.

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What Are the Alternatives to Breed-Specific Laws?

There is no convincing data to indicate that breed-specific legislation has succeeded anywhere to date.

The CDC has noted that many other factors beyond breed may affect a dog’s tendency toward aggression—things such as heredity, sex, early experience, reproductive status, socialization and training. Conversely, studies can be referenced that point to clear, positive effects of carefully crafted breed-neutral laws. A breed-neutral approach may include the following:

1. Enhanced enforcement of dog license laws
2. Increased availability to low-cost sterilization (spay/neuter) services
3. Dangerous dog laws that are breed-neutral and focus on the behavior of the individual guardian and dog
4. Graduated penalties and options for dogs deemed dangerous
5. Laws that hold dog guardians financially accountable for failure to adhere to animal control laws
6. Laws that hold dog guardians civilly and criminally liable for unjustified injuries or damage caused by their dogs
7. Laws that prohibit chaining, tethering and unreasonable confinement, coupled with enhanced enforcement of animal cruelty and animal fighting laws
8. Community-based approaches to resolving reckless guardian/dangerous dog questions that encompass all stakeholders, available dog bite data and recommended realistic and enforceable policies

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The Way Animals Learn is not Breed-Specific

*This is a repost of an article originally written for StubbyDog in August, 2013.*

Ever heard that a penny dropped from the Empire State Building will kill someone if it lands on his or her head? Or that Albert Einstein failed Math? Or that bats are blind? What about the claim that pit bull dogs (and other “strong” breeds) can’t be trained using positive reinforcement? That they require harsher methods to be “brought into line”?

These seemingly-unrelated contentions all have one thing in common: They’re myths. Baseless fallacies. Dreamed up by some person, for one reason or another, to describe a phenomenon that he or she didn’t fully understand. And, as it happens, these claims are not merely unfounded, but there is remarkable evidence to the contrary.

The truth is that pit bulls are, above anything else, dogs. The truth is that all dogs (and all animals, for that matter) learn the same way. The truth is that we can effectively train dogs, of all breeds, without hurting or scaring them. The truth is that all dogs learn via consequences and associations. And the truth is that (given the right motivation), these consequences and associations needn’t be painful or frightening. And if they needn’t be, they shouldn’t be.

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The foundation of animal learning is actually pretty simple: Animals learn via consequences and associations. But how do we apply these theories in real-world settings, when a squirrel or an enticing smell is far more interesting to our dogs than we are? The answer is just as simple: we find the right motivation, and adjust criteria accordingly. So, let’s break this down.

Learning via Consequences

The techie term for this type of learning is operant conditioning. Dogs learn by the immediate consequences of their actions. In their view, there are good consequences and bad consequences, and they’re constantly trying to start or keep the good stuff, and avoid or end the bad stuff.

Those of us who elect to train without force or fear leverage the good stuff, i.e. rewards. We reward the dog for performing behaviors that we’d like to see more of (aka positive reinforcement) and remove rewards for behaviors we’d like to see less of (aka negative punishment).

Dogs repeat behaviors that are reinforced; they learn, remarkably quickly, that’s how they get the good stuff. If the dog sits, he gets a cookie. If he walks on a loose leash, he gets to continue moving forward. If he comes when we call him out of play at the dog park, he gets to go back and romp around with his buddies. It’s important to remember that this law still applies regardless of our intent in changing the dog’s behavior. So for example, if the dog jumps to greet us when we come home at the end of the day, and we pet him and tell him how much we’ve missed him, we are rewarding jumping. Similarly, if we leave our dinner on the countertop, and the dog gets a hold of it, counter-surfing has been reinforced, and we’re likely to see more of it. Dogs do what works for them.

In the same way, dogs cease behaviors that are punished; they learn that those behaviors terminate the good stuff. If the dog jumps to greet, he is ignored. If he pulls on-leash, he can no longer move forward. If he mouths us when he’s over-excited during play, he gets a time-out. With repetition and consistency, the dog learns that unwanted behaviors don’t work for him, and he offers those behaviors less and less.

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Training that incorporates the reward and reward-removal methods discussed above yields behaviors that are more reliable than those achieved through traditional methods, which focus heavily on the “bad stuff.” Apart from simply not having the stomach to knowingly inflict pain on or instill fear in a dog, I choose reward-based methods because they don’t have the same negative side effects (exacerbating reactivity, aggression, learned helplessness, etc.) as traditional methods. When we incorporate bad stuff into our training repertoire, we run the risk of creating negative associations with any number of things. Actually, let’s talk more associations.

Learning via Associations

The techie term for this type of learning is classical conditioning. Remember Pavlov’s dog? He learned that the sound of a bell meant that food was coming, and eventually, the bell elicited the same response (salivating) as the food itself. The dog made an association: Bell predicts food. Pavlov is always on our shoulder, in all of our interactions with our dogs.

What does your dog do when you pull out his leash? Chances are, he perks up, or wags his tail, or does a little happy dance. He has learned that the leash predicts a walk. What about when you open the pantry and rattle his favorite bag of treats? He probably runs up to you and gazes into your eyes expectantly. He has learned that this action predict treats.

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But associations can be negative, too. How does your dog react when you break out the nail clippers? If you’ve taken the time to properly condition him to grooming, he may respond happily, but many dogs become fearful at the mere sight of nail clippers. They have learned that they predict restraint, or other scary stuff—like you accidently clipping past what doesn’t hurt.

It’s important to make a distinction between behaviors (like sitting, staying, jumping, or demand barking), which animals use to produce consequences; and displays of emotions (like wagging tails, twirling in delight when you come home at the end of the day, growling or baring teeth), which are responses to various stimuli. The key difference is the dog’s ability to influence outcomes. Most dogs will happily sit for a cookie; they use the behavior of sitting to produce desired consequences. But what about a dog that bolts to the front door every time the doorbell rings? He does so because he’s learned that the doorbell predicts visitors. He can’t influence the outcome of visitors arriving, but he anticipates their arrival when the doorbell tips him off.

This distinction may seem trivial, but in reality, it’s gargantuan. Have you ever heard that you shouldn’t pat your dog when he’s fearful? That it will “reinforce” his fear? Or that you should never feed your dog when he’s barking and lunging at other dogs, as you’d be rewarding “bad” behaviors? Actually, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

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Imagine that you have a deathly fear of spiders. And while you’re out on a leisurely stroll, a giant, hairy spider lands right in front you. You scream in fear, run in circles, and cause a huge scene. But what if someone handed you a hundred dollar bill in the midst of your panic? And what if this happened ten times throughout the course of your walk? Do you think that, by eleventh time, you might be a wee bit less fearful the next time you see a spider? You absolutely would. In fact, you might even learn to enjoy seeing them, since they predict hundreds.

But what if each time you saw a spider, someone strangled you, forced you to sit on the ground, and yelled at you? By the eleventh encounter, do you think you’d feel any better about spiders? Absolutely not. In fact, you’d probably become more fearful of them, since they predict abuse. This sounds barbaric, but it’s precisely what we do to our dogs every time we “correct” them for reacting towards other dogs, or skateboards, or old ladies with canes. In our attempts to teach them that barking and lunging is unacceptable, we’re proving them right. We’re telling them that there is a reason to be upset.

Emotional responses cannot be “reinforced.” They can be modified, however, for better or for worse. In the world of dog training, we’re (hopefully) trying to replace negative associations with positive associations, so that our dogs are no longer motivated to react. We do this by teaching them that fear-evoking stimuli predict good things.

Motivation

But learning cannot happen without motivation. As noted above, there are four ways to motivate dogs. They will work to avoid and/or terminate bad stuff (leash jerks, electric shock, squirts from a water bottle, etc.) or to continue and/or initiate good stuff (food, play, access to comfortable resting places, etc.). Luckily, we don’t need to exploit the bad stuff to motivate dogs. They, like all properly functioning animals, are motivated by food. They wouldn’t be alive otherwise.

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“But my dog has no interest in food when there are distractions!” To be 100% honest, I cringe every time I hear this from one of my students (even though I used to say the same exact thing). The reality is that something else in the environment is more motivating than our food rewards. This is where value comes into play.

Let’s revisit our spider example. What if every time you saw a spider, someone offered you a dollar bill? Would that be potent enough to change your deep-seated fear of spiders? Probably not. That doesn’t mean that you’re not motivated by money; it means that a dollar isn’t valuable enough to trump your fear.

The doggie equivalent of a dollar bill might be a piece of kibble or a dried food treat. That might be valuable enough to get some sits or down-stays in your living room, but in a high-distraction environment, it probably won’t cut it. So that’s when we break out the good stuff—the doggie equivalent of a hundred dollar bill. This might be tiny bits of boiled chicken, steak, or tripe. For dogs with strong prey drive, it might be a game of tug. It might also mean that we need to create distance, or lessen the intensity of the distraction. Going back to the spider example, a twenty dollar bill might get the job done if the spider were twenty feet away. When training, always consider what competing motivators you’re up against, and make adjustments accordingly.

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But What about Pit Bulls?

So we’ve managed to boil down the basic principles behind animal learning without once using the word “pit bull.” And that’s kind of the point. Pit bulls are just dogs. They, like all other breeds, are motivated by rewards. In fact, they’re a pleasure to train with the “good stuff.” Generally speaking, positive reinforcement trainers love them. Of course there are exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of pit bulls I’ve worked with are highly food-motivated, driven, clever and delighted to work for rewards. And when it comes time to do demonstrations in the all-breed classes I teach, I invariably scan the room for pit bulls to use. They make me look good.

The Killer Dog Myth

By the 1980s, the companion history of the pit bull was forgotten, and the myth of the dangerous fighting dog took hold. It is uncertain exactly why this decade saw the pit bull suddenly rise to a new, less pleasant sort of fame, but many trace the entire trend to a single, ultra-sensationalistic Sports Illustrated cover article.

Whatever the reasons for the sudden infamy, the unwanted publicity not only caused problems for the vast majority of well-behaved pits, but actually encouraged unscrupulous individuals to deliberately purchase and breed pit bulls and similar looking dogs for nefarious purposes.

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