Many years ago, I printed a flyer. At that time, the name of my dog center was "L’impronta", and it was pretty much just the lawn in front of my house. The flyer read: "Pulls on the leash?" "Doesn't come back on recall?" "Jumps on you?" It's time to educate your dog! An educated dog is a happy dog.
It wasn't a bad flyer, and also the idea of an educated dog, means a dog that it is not a problem for the owner, for the society and not even for itself, it seemed fantastic to me.
This was back when people started to use non-coercive methods, and to me it seemed like a great idea working positively, with food.
Since then, a lot has changed.
I HAVE A MUCH MORE CRITICAL VIEW ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE MEAN BY "EDUCATION" OF DOGS. ESPECIALLY, WHEN BEHIND THIS WORD THERE ARE HIDDEN PROCESSES, AND THEIR ONLY GOAL IS TO MEET THE EXPECTATIONS AND NEEDS OF THE DOG OWNER.
Let’s call "development of cognitive-emotional capability to self-control and calm" an exercise in which the dog must be lying on a mat, and you can claim it is something different, something that prevents problems for the owner. An exercise that relies solely on physical control and renunciation, without any consideration for the dog as an individual.
At least my flyer was more honest in stating the objectives. Do you have a problem with your dog? I will solve it! I am able to extinguish, replace, and change the unwanted behavior.
SO THAT’S THE SUBJECT OF THIS ARTICLE: HOW TO REMOVE UNWANTED BEHAVIORS.
Extinguish the behavior. To extinguish a certain type of behavior, it's important to understand what benefit the dog has from that specific behavior. A behavior ceases if the dog doesn't get anything good from that behavior. For example: the dog has learned to sit in order to get some food. We stop giving it food every time it sits. The dog will continue to sit (dogs suffer from chronic optimism and misplaced trust), but we can say that we have tried.
Giving the behavior a signal. The idea seems great itself. I connect the behavior to a cue, I reinforce when the dog exhibits the behavior under signal, and I don’t reinforce if the dog does it on its own initiative. The dog sits, I say, “SIT”. I say, “SIT” and the dog sits. If the dog sits, I give it a treat. If the dog sits without me having said, “SIT”, I don’t give it any treat. However, the dog has realized that it must sit if we have a treat in our hand and we bend our head forward. And the dog continues to do so even if we force ourselves not to tell it “good dog” every time it sits (because, underneath it all, we like a lot that it sits).
Reinforcing an incompatible behavior. This is a first class procedure. You ignore the unwanted behavior, and choose another one, being careful about what you choose, and you reinforce (you pay with food, attention, play ...), only the other behavior. Instead of giving treats to the dog because it is sitting, we will give treats to the dog because it lies down. So lie down instead of sitting down, and we feel like heroes who save the Earth from a meteor. Powerful. Actually, at first, the dog tries to sit, and then it lies down. Or the dog lies down only if we make a gesture with our hand. However, the important thing is that the dog lies down.
Counter-conditioning. This word is very popular among behaviorist veterinaries and people who rehabilitates dogs without using coercion. In counter-conditioning, the unwanted behavior is connected with something negative. The dog has experienced nausea in the car, and now it doesn't want to get in the car anymore. In counter-conditioning, low levels of aversive stimuli are connected to very high levels of reinforcement. Therefore, car turned off and stopped; when the dog comes closer, we give it food. Car = food. No nausea. Bad nausea. Food, good. This is the idea, more or less.
Desensitization. This is constantly confused with counter-conditioning. There must have been sensitization, in order to have desensitization. The dog hears a noise, it gets alarmed. The dog hears the same noise again (e.g. “click” from a clicker), it gets scared. The dog is now in the process of sensitization (the intensity of the response of fear increases). If you connect the noise to some food, this will be counter-conditioning. However, if you ask someone to move a hundred meters away, wrap the clicker in a scarf of Merino Wool and hold it in his pocket, and then when the click comes the dog don’t even turn its ear, you are desensitizing that dog. Minimal stimulus intensity that does not cause the fear reaction. Then you gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus. Maybe it works with pigeons, I don't know. With dogs, in my experience, it only works if the dog is not afraid of that stimulus. Plus only if the dog lives in a bubble impenetrable to real life.
People use these procedures, sometimes with success (the dog doesn't have much choice), but success only means that the unwanted behavior decreases or is no longer shown.
YET IT IS NOT MUCH DIFFERENT FROM THE USE OF COERCION, WHERE THE GOAL IS TO FORCE THE DOG INTO AN ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOR OR INHIBIT ITS UNWANTED BEHAVIOR.
There is no violence. Not physical, at least.
Rather, violence is to ignore completely what brought the dog to exhibit that behavior. It is unwanted, and this is enough to make us to decide to remove it, to change it.
I cannot remember exactly when it happened, but I started thinking about unwelcome behaviors as a useful information for understanding the emotional state of the dog and its motivations (its perception of the physical and social world).
Instead of thinking "I have to change this behavior," I started thinking, "this behavior helps me understand this dog".
And everything changed.
I no longer had any rush to get rid of unwanted behaviors.
I have had no fear of not being able to change the behavior of the dog. Fear of not being able to change an unwelcome behavior.
I get to sit and watch the dog as a spectator, and not act as the protagonist.
I look at the dog, I observe its behavior, and I observe in detail in what contexts it is exhibited. This is the realm of what is visible. After observation and analysis, I enter the realm of what is invisible. I try to find the causes. Behavior, emotional state and motivations, causes.
"UNWELCOME" BEHAVIOR IS A USEFUL TOOL FOR UNDERSTANDING DOGS.
This is so true that I greet unwelcome behavior as friends.
Unwanted behaviors open a window to the inner world of the dog, tell me who the dog is, how it sees the world, what it needs, how it feels...
Therefore, I don't feel any urgency to get rid of unwanted behaviors. I leave them where they are, and I observe how they change along the way to help the dog. That is what I call "Working at the problem outside the problem".
I do not desensitize, sometimes I counter-condition, but certainly not in a mechanical way, I do not extinguish, I do not control reinforcements, I do not connect behavior to signals, I do not reinforce incompatible behavior. None of this, in my opinion, helps the dog. None of this gives the dog owner any tools to help his dog, to understand his dog, to accept the dog in its complexity and wonderful ability to feel emotions, wishes, fears, in its need to feel safe, to communicate, and to control its own life.
"Unwelcome" behaviors are useful information for understanding your dog.
Try to repeat it. Try to think of it. It will make a huge difference.
Text Alexa Capra
Photos Daniele Robotti
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