SNAPSHOTS FROM PROFESSIONAL ANIMAL BEHAVIOR ASSOCIATES’ (PABA) CONFERENCE

Last weekend I attended the PABA (these are the same people who invented the gentle leader) conference in Guelph, this blog is a bit overdue, one should always write when the ideas are fresh in your head. I am jotting down here the snapshots that were memorable to me instead of trying to provide a comprehensive summary. The line of speakers was fantastic, and considering that the conference was so close and was very reasonably priced, I would say that this is going to be a must for me in the future.

Meghan Herron is a PhD and veterinary behaviorist from Ohio, she presented the results from her 2009 study on how aversive vs. non-aversive training methods affect dogs with behavior problems (Herron ME et al., 2009, Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci 117:47). The aversive methods involving a direct physical confrontation included methods like ‘alpha roll’, leash corrections, shock collars or knee in the chest for jumping, amongst other things. The list of aversives was long, people are very innovative when they have to think of punishment methods! Aversive methods without a direct confrontation included things like yelling ‘no’, water pistols and the ‘sssschht’ famous from television dog training. Non-aversive training methods were reward-based methods involving food rewards, clicker training or ‘asking your dog to sit for everything’, for example. The study was based on 140 surveys. The results unequivocally showed ( I feel like I’m writing a science paper here apart from the fact I would never dare to use the word unequivocally in my own papers!) that dogs trained with aversive methods were much more likely to show an aggressive response. Alpha rolls, leash corrections, choke/pinch collars were at the top of the list in eliciting an aggressive response. Of course we positive trainers see what we want to see in these studies. But as Meghan Herron emphasized: canine aggression is a result of fear, self-defence or an underlying anxiety disorder, it has nothing to do with social dominance! Using dominance based training is not only stressful but it can be very dangerous for everyone involved.

And this brings me to Pat Miller’s talk on how to treat those Reactive Rovers. Pat Miller is the author of many excellent dog training books ( I actually still need to read them, I must confess!)and a distinguished dog trainer very actively involved in rescue work. She talked about different methods to treat reactivity issues in dogs. What is reactivity? It is a response to normal stimuli with and abnormal level of intensity. What are the causes of reactive/aggressive behaviors? There can be several reasons: stress, lack of socialization, bad experiences, high arousal activities, barrier frustration (dogs cannot get to greet other dogs because of a barrier). We also have to remember that behavior is always a combination of genetics and the environment, some dogs are just born to react to stimuli at an intensified level. Why does it seem that reactivity is more common now than in the past? Again the reasons can be many but one interesting explanation that was new to me was puppy mill dogs.  The pregnant mother has to live under stressful conditions, therefore her cortisol levels are chronically elevated. The puppies acquire these high cortisol levels from their mothers. Because of all the excess cortisol their ability to shut down the stress signal is impaired, the cortisol levels remain elevated and the puppies are just always stressed (Meghan Herron also talked about this).

Pat Miller uses two approaches to treat the Reactive Rovers. One is the classical counter-conditioning procedure, you create a conditioned emotional response (CER) to the sight another dog. The other dog makes chicken happen, as she says. She showed the set-up of her classes and stressed the fact that always play it safe, it is very important to keep the reactive dogs under threshold at all times. Good dog training would never make television! She said that a lot of dogs come to her countryside camp from New York City, and even when they return back to the busy urban environment their behavior has been changed to a calmer response when they see other dogs. The other approach that Pat Miller has used for aggression treatment is Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT) as outlined by Kelly Snider and Dr. Jesus Rosalez-Ruiz (University of Texas). CAT is based on negative reinforcement: when the reactive dog shows calm behavior the aversive other dog goes away. I am sure this technique works well in the right hands but it is out of my comfort zone.

The amazing clicker trainer, certified animal behaviorist Kathy Sdao was also at PABA, I heard her for the first time at Clicker Expo. What can you say, she is a phenomenal speaker! One of her topics was Nothing In Life Is Free (NILIF). If you rigorously adopt the NILIF approach with your dogs it means that every single thing that your dog wants you control, and the dog has to perform something in exchange for that. It sounds good, and this is what good dog training is all about: we as trainers want to be in charge of the consequences, they are our tools to modify our dogs’ behavior. But wait a minute! Can you give your dog a belly rub while watching TV; after all he was growling at the neighbour’s cat today?! Now my dog has bitten the mailman, wasn’t it all because of the fact that I gave him a lot of attention yesterday while I was typing at my computer?! This is all nonsense, NILIF does not prevent unwanted behavior in another context. Adopting this approach is just a more gentle form of physical dominance and has got nothing to do with training the dog what to do instead. Kathy shared a dramatic example from her dolphin training days: she saw another trainer to cover up a pool with a dolphin it. When she went over all agitated and worried about the dolphin, the other trainer just replied: well, the dolphin didn’t do what I asked him to do, so I am denying him his right to oxygen. What do we learn from this? Instead of focusing on a strict NILIF approach with your dog, plant good behaviors in your dog’s curriculum.

While writing this my dog is telling me that I need to start reinforcing behaviors that I want (instead of him chewing on my pant legs), so I will finish off with two short notes. Veterinary behaviorist Andrew Luescher gave two good talks covering all the basic things about what one needs to know about psychological needs of dogs. He wrote a petition to National Geographic advising them against airing a popular TV show, as we know he was pretty much ignored. Karen Pryor, the spokeswoman for clicker training, gave a wonderful talk on Creativity of the Animal Mind, it was great to see how beluga whales were shaped to blow air bubbles in water. And last but certainly not least, the cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz has done a lot of research on anthropomorphisms that we humans assign for our dogs (see the next blog for her GUILT study). A curiosity that stuck to my mind was that in the Middle Ages people thought that animals knew when they had done something wrong, therefore they would arrange trials e.g. for pigs. Are we better or worse off now than we were back then? If only animals could talk our language:

The year is 1494, and one bad piggy was ordered to pay for its behavior and tried in court.  What was the pig’s crime?  It had “entered a house and disfigured a child’s face, wherepon the child departed this life.”  Jehan Levoisier, presiding judge, declared “that the said porker, now detained as a prisoner and confined in the abbey, shall be by the master of high works hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood near and adjoinant to the gallows and place of execution.”
Putting animals on trial was nothing extraordinary during the Middle Ages.  Even insects had their day in court and animals were represented by lawyers and afforded the same rights and responsibilities as humans.

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