Art & Standards | My Response to an Anxiety Protocol

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I recently read a post on a dog trainer group I belong to on Facebook. The post contained a written explanation and a video outlining a ”Protocol” for dealing with dogs with anxiety.

The post was quite lengthy, but I will try to summarize it here:

  1. Teach the dog the basics of Place command.
  2. Once the dog understands that staying on the place will be rewarded, and attempting to leave before granted permission will be corrected, then make sure you find an object for them to ”place” on that is deliberately uncomfortable, and too small for the dog to lay normally on. (Suggested objects are milk crates and recycle bins.)
  3. Make them stay on this object for at least seven hours at a time.

This process is repeated every day throughout the first week of the training program. He recommends this practice not only for the most extreme cases, but for virtually every dog he trains.

His theory is that the dog eventually has to learn to cope with being uncomfortable, and has to self-sooth and learns to relax. The protocol is titled “Teaching the dog the art of doing nothing.”

What was most alarming to me were the comments below the post from other members of the group: “awesome stuff man,” “Great job, I can’t wait to use this,” “brilliant!” Over 40 comments of this nature were posted.

My heart sank.

There was not a single comment, which questioned the nature of this protocol. I felt compelled to speak up, but I did not want to start an argument on Facebook, and this particular group has rules about criticism.

I decided to send a private message to the owner of the group. Although his original comments were in support of the protocol, he began to understand my concerns. I was pleased when he posted a comment publicly questioning some elements of the protocol. He encouraged me to join the conversation, but I wanted to sleep on it in order to choose my words carefully. The next morning I posted a response on the thread:

“I would encourage you all to look again at the protocol outlined in this post. And to reflect deeply and authentically about what kind of dog trainer you want to be, and why you got into this business. I am sincerely saddened, not only by the original post, but also by the response to it, and what it says about the future of this craft.”

I am not saying this protocol won’t work; I have not tried it, nor will I. However, while “working” may be necessary, it is not sufficient to qualify something as “good” dog training.

If the standard by which you measure your self as a dog trainer is simply “Did it work?” then the result will be nothing more than a factory turned out product, rather than the work of a master craftsman.

As a matter of fact, I am quite confident that this process will yield a result that may resemble the desired effect (reduction of anxiety), especially to the untrained eye.  However, I am also quite confident that what is being seen is not actually the rehabilitation of anxiety, but something quite different and quite undesirable. That something is called Learned Helplessness.

Learned Helplessness: a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.*

 Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation.

What is worse is that learned helplessness theory goes on to argue that as a result of these negative expectations, other consequences may accompany the inability or unwillingness to act, including low self-esteem, chronic failure, sadness, and physical illness, and has been known to lead to clinical depression and other forms of mental illness.**

Simply analyze the protocol: Fido is made to stay on an object. The object is deliberately uncomfortable (as per the guidelines of the protocol); the object also must be small enough that in order to lay down the dog has to curl up in a tight ball.  If they leave the object, they are corrected with either a prong collar or an electronic collar. There is not enough room for them to stretch their limbs, if they sleep too deeply they are at risk of falling off.  No matter what they do, they are uncomfortable, and they have to bear it for 7 hours.

Let me stop here and make my opinion very clear. This borders on animal abuse, it is a form a torture, and it is morally reprehensible. There is no “art” in this.

I also want to address a common counter to my argument. Some may state that if you were to put the dog in a crate for seven hours, as often is done out of necessity and concern for the dog safety, it would be equally as bad. I disagree with this statement for a number of reasons. Let us put aside for a moment the fact that the vast majority of dogs in our training programs learn to relax in their crates within the first day simply by virtue of the normal training protocols that they receive. So, assuming that the dog is not relaxing in it’s crate let’s take a look at this argument:

First and foremost the crate can be large enough that a dog can lay naturally and with her joints and limbs not cramped, and made to be comfortable so that although the dog maybe anxious, they have the ability to get comfortable, truly comfortable. The discomfort a dog perceives if they are anxious in a crate is subjective, not objective, it is mental not physical. If the dog is in a crate, it is still an autonomous being. Furthermore, when the dog is in a crate, any movement that may come as an expression of their anxiety is not met with the threat of punishment (if you have ever been anxious, then you may know that sometimes you need to stretch and “shake it off”). The discomfort that a dog perceives if they are perched on a milk crate or recycle bin that is too small for them is objective. No change of their mental state, or decision they make will relieve that discomfort. In the protocol outlined above the dog’s autonomy is being removed completely.  In this protocol regardless of what they do, and what choices they make, they are going to be uncomfortable (if you do not believe me, try curling up in a ball for 7 hours, without the ability to stretch your limbs, on a hard object that you barely fit on, knowing all along in the back of your mind that if you try move you will be punished.)

Perhaps it is a matter of opinion, but I do believe that anxiety with autonomy is better then learned helplessness.  But again, this entire argument becomes irrelevant when we consider that the anxiety in the crate can be resolved reliably in more compassionate ways. Even if it requires a momentary correction or “interrupter” it would be far more humane than 7 hours of torture day after day.

Furthermore, this protocol is not being advised for only the most extreme of cases. On the contrary it is being promoted as a go to protocol for any and all dogs who show anxiety upon entering his board and train. As somebody who owns a training facility I can tell you that the vast majority of dogs who enter a boarding situation for the first time we’ll display a certain degree of anxiety. This is understandable, as the dog does not know where he is, what is going on, or where his family went. In most cases this anxiety will go away as the dog settles into his new environment, without the need for such drastic measures.

Some people may like this protocol because it is simple, and it does not require a high level of skill or experience to be able to replicate the results. But good dog training is an art and rehabilitating anxiety in a way that is compassionate and cooperative requires skill and intuition, and cannot always be broken down into a step-by-step set of instructions, no more then replicating a work of art by Michelangelo can be done with paint by numbers.

Whether this actually works is questionable, and depends on how we define “working”. Undoubtedly the end result will be something that is easier for the human to live with than an anxious and reactive dog. But, is the dog truly in a better place? Are they relaxed, or depressed? Have we accomplished real rehabilitation? Or simply systematic suppression and a dampening of the dog’s spirit? These are questions that need to be asked.

* Nolen, J.L. “Learned helplessness”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved January 14, 2014.

** Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman. ISBN 0-7167-2328-X.

Functional Obedience and the Development of Character.

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“…Thorough obedience training does more than assure a dog’s response to his master’s command; capacities for learning and emotional stability could be increased and integrated as permanent qualities of character.”
-William Koehler, 1962

For many years, I chose to leave the behavior of sit-stay out of my basic obedience programs, and give preference to teaching the dog to stay in either a down position, or on a dog bed.  This is not to say that I did not teach sit, or that I did not teach stay.  I simply did not find that it was important to teach the dog to hold a sit position for a duration of time independently of his human.

When questioned about this, I held fast to two primary points of reasoning:

  1. It is not functionally necessary. The rationale behind this trajectory of thought is that I have already taught the dog to stay in a “place” command (on a dog bed), and I have already taught the dog to stay in a down position.  With these two positions, I can control my dog and expect them to stay put in virtually any circumstance that I can imagine. So, why would I need a third ”Stay” position?  Additionally, I cannot fathom a scenario where it would be necessary for my dog to stay where he is, at a distance from me, and it be absolutely imperative that he is sitting up rather than lying down.
  2. When I observe dogs behaving naturally, I rarely see them holding a sit position while they are in a passive state of mind. In fact, what I see is quite the opposite; dogs holding sit positions are most often in an active state of mind, or in anticipation of an action. To illustrate my point by way of example, you can often observe a dog watching a squirrel up in a tree or running along the top of a fence, while holding a sit position anxiously awaiting the possibility that the squirrel might come within reach. Similarly, you may be watching in amusement as two dogs are roughhousing or playing, when suddenly one of them stops to eliminate. The second dog often sits while waiting for his playmate to finish up and return to the game.
    Generally, when I ask my dog to stay where he is, what I desire is not only that he physically remains stationary, but also that he becomes calm and passive, not anxiously awaiting his release so that he can explode into a fury of excitement. The down and place commands more readily lend themselves to this relaxed state of mind. Thus, if my goal is to create calmness, they are preferred.

These were my reasons for not teaching the sit-stay, and I was certain that my logic was sound. Luckily for me, I discovered that I was wrong (I say luckily, because I am always delighted to discover a way in which I can improve my skills as a dog trainer).

My mistake was in only considering the value of the behavior in relation to its tangible function. This flaw in logic would be akin to me stating that the painting, which hangs on my wall, is unimportant because the wall itself is already painted and the painting adds nothing to the wall’s structural integrity. What I have failed to acknowledge is that filling ones home with art adds not only to the character of the home itself, but also to a sense of well-being while there. The entire feel of the space changes by virtue of the art and its placement.

Likewise, my assessment of the value of sit-stay was flawed because I only took into account its tangible functional value, while neglecting to investigate the potential value it may have of establishing qualities of character.

What I have come to realize, is that holding a sit-stay without fidgeting and without lying down is not only physically demanding for the dog, but requires a level of attentiveness and self-discipline that characterizes a well mannered companion. It is an exercise which I relate to the image of a soldier standing at attention. Compared to a down-stay where the dog can relax and her mind can wander, the sit-stay requires that she stay focused on the task at hand and possess an unwavering commitment to the act of sitting.

I find the exercise to be equally beneficial for the fidgety and impulsive dog as it is for the lazy and lackadaisical dog. While I may not use the sit stay behavior itself functionally in my day-to-day routines, the regular practice of this exercise develops and adjusts the dog’s character in such ways that generalize, and seep in to virtually everything else we may do together throughout the day. In this way it becomes highly functional.

Virtually all aspects of training a dog, when properly executed, should serve to develop and maintain a component of the dog’s character. Poorly done training, that is undisciplined, may teach a dog to respond to command, but will leave something to be desired. That something, while less tangible, is at the heart of what most dog owners want and need. It is the essence of what makes a trustworthy companion.

When setting out to train your dog or the dogs of others, keep in mind the words quoted above from the great Bill Koehler. Responsiveness to command is undoubtedly a desirable thing; but there is no greater satisfaction than realizing you have developed a dog with a sound mind and a noble heart.

– Tyler Muto

Mush!

I came across this video several years ago and was so impressed with the level of communication and control that is shown. I didn’t at the time know who the man in the video was:

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The footage is of Heini Winter, a world class sled dog racer from Germany, out exercising his 16 dogs. As impressive as this is, it is not  too uncommon among professional mushers. Still, it’s one of my favorite videos to watch.

I do want to note the long thin pole that Heini is holding, and using to direct the dogs. For anyone that has seen my work socializing large groups of dogs, you will know that I use a very similar long flexible sick. Having the ability to extend your reach is invaluable when managing a large group.

-Tyler Muto

Who’s To Blame?

When I was in college, I used to play a lot of billiards. It was never for money, always just for fun, and therefore we used to joke around a lot.  Every now and then when one of my friends was trying to sink a particularly difficult shot, I would stand behind the pocket that I knew he was aiming for and do something silly to try and distract him. Sometimes I would be successful, and he would miss, resulting in a dirty look from him, and a maniacal laugh from me.

I recently heard a great quote,

“If the shooter misses the mark, it’s not the target’s fault.”

In the above circumstance, clearly it’s neither shooter’s fault nor the target’s fault but really the fault lies with the bearded guy standing behind the pocket making odd faces, and ridiculous dances.

I do however; want to take a moment to discuss how this quote may relate to dog training. Training dogs is in its essence an act of one species attempting to communicate to another species in a language in which only one of them is fluent. Of course this point in itself can be debated, as good dog trainers try to utilize movement and body language that the dog can inherently understand. However for the moment let’s assume that what we’re referring to are verbal commands of which the dog has no previous or innate knowledge.

In such a situation, the human being can also be referred to as the speaker and as such as the “shooter”. The dog may also be referred to as the listener, or as such the “target” of the communication/speech.

“If the shooter misses the mark, it’s not the target’s fault.”

I’m fortunate to be in a position where my career allows me to travel the country and work with many dog trainers from various walks of life. In doing so I get to utilize my powers of observation quite a bit. All too often I see humans give a command, and a dog attempt compliance however making an incorrect choice. The result of which is the human delivering a correction.

The key element in this scenario is that the dog was trying. He wasn’t being disobedient; he was attempting to do what his handler wanted. He misunderstood the requirements, he didn’t understand. The communication did not land as it was intended, the shooter missed the mark.

It may be worthwhile to take a moment at this point to define some terminology. Namely the word ”correction”.  I will be the first to admit, that in different contexts, I often mean different things by this word. So for the sake of this discussion, when I say correction, what I mean is something that is significantly aversive to the dog. Something beyond a mild communication that informs the dog of an error. I mean rather, something of the significance that it could have an adverse effect on the dog’s attitude. This can be different for different dogs. For many dogs a sharp snap on a leash and training collar is enough to make them feel that they have transgressed, for other dogs such as my dog Lobo, a stern ”No” has a more significant emotional impact, than any physical correction that I could offer.

In my opinion, when training dogs the responsibility falls on the human’s shoulders to make sure that the dog understands what is being said, and when that fails to be the case, to be sensitive enough to recognize that it is our job to change something about our own behavior in order help the dog along. In other words, is the speaker’s responsibility to communicate clearly and effectively, if the listener does not understand, it’s not their fault.

I do believe that there is a time and a place for such corrections when training dogs to be responsible members of our society. I do not believe that in the context of obedience training, particularly when the dog is attempting to comply even though they’re making an incorrect choice, that such corrections are warranted. This is not to say, that a dog should not be told that they have made a mistake. And it is not to say, that a mild amount of pressure could not be put on the dog to guide them into the correct choice. But there is a significant difference between mild pressure that simply communicates, motivates and guides, and the type of correction that causes an individual to feel that they are in trouble or that they have transgressed in any serious way. In most cases I find it beneficial to praise the dog for their good efforts, before re-attempting the exercise while this time making an adjustment to the way I deliver my communication.

I would be willing to bet, that if many individuals pause for a moment when they were struggling with their dog, they would often see that the dog’s mistakes were the result of a failure in communication. In other words, the shooter missed the mark.

Before you curse the target, re-adjust your aim.

-Tyler Muto

“Loving” A Dog To Death – Guest Blog

This post was written by my friend and fellow dog training Ted Efthymiadis. The original can be seen by clicking here

“Loving” A Dog To Death

I’m seeing a disturbing trend in the pet dog world. Something I never thought I would see. I truly wish I did not have to write this blog post. Unfortunately I can no longer sit back and watch what it happening without voicing my concerns, and doing what I can to prevent injuries and deaths to dogs and people. This information may seem over-the-top and dramatic, but it’s what I see in my line of work every week.

4Tyler Muto is a dog trainer located in Buffalo New York, who is a friend of mine. In my opinion he is one of the best dog trainers in North America at rehabilitating reactive and aggressive dogs. He is someone I have looked up to for many years in the dog training world. His business is absolutely thriving, he has five full-time dog trainers working for him, does plenty of boarding and grooming, and does seminars around the country. Recently while on a radio show, he described something very negative that is happening to dogs in his area. Several local animal shelters in his area have taken measures to try and hurt his business.

I’m not worried about his business as he’s extremely busy and amazing at what he does. I am however worried about the local dogs in his area that need homes. Several shelters in his area have taken it upon themselves, to not allow dogs to be adopted if they think the dogs will be trained by Tyler and his company when they are put into a home.

Now to me this is wrong on so many different levels it blows my mind. The most alarming part of this is that they have actually taken it one step further. They are no longer allowing dogs to be adopted into homes if they think that the dogs will go to see a veterinarian that refers business to Tyler.

Upon hearing this information I was not really shocked because realistically it happens here in Nova Scotia every day. Not to mention in every major city in North America.

The dog training world is so massively divided that any type of pressure or correction in training a dog it is absolutely seen as abusive. Dogs are denied homes across North America because they could potentially see a trainer that may or may not utilize correction in his or her’s dog training program. Considering we have far too many dogs in NY and NS sitting in shelters and rescue organizations including foster homes who need homes, this seems to be a very negative thing for the dogs who need homes.

Millions of dogs in the USA and Canada are killed every year because of lack of space in shelters. When did we as a society become so against correction, that we will allow dogs to live in a small enclosure, or killed, rather than to be trained by qualified professional trainers who are more than able to fix these dogs behavioural problems and aggression issues. I see nothing other than ego in people making decisions like this based on emotion.

I have people calling me wanting to sign up to training whether it be obedience training, aggression rehab, or puppy training, and when I ask where they are adopting a dog from, I have to tell them that unfortunately you cannot work with me because some shelters will deny your application will be denied.

Again I have no issue with this affecting Tyler’s business or even my own business. Do what they wish to effect our business, but both Tyler and I are very passionate about helping dogs, and especially dogs with behavioural issues or aggressive issues. Considering rehabilitate more reactive and aggressive dogs than anyone else in Nova Scotia, you would think that these policy makers would be making it easier, not harder if they honestly had the dogs best interest at heart.

It’s really very sickening that dogs are sitting in shelters at this very moment, denied adoption because of ones choice in Veterinarians, or dog trainers. Ego is a terrible thing when it overtakes a person who holds power to make change for dogs. Tyler and I have hundreds of amazing life changing testimonials and videos to prove how we positively change dogs lives everyday. Not to mentions thousands of happy clients and dogs. My stomach is seriously sick.

societyRecently a friend of mine called me from a local shelter and wanted to set up some puppy training because they were adopting a puppy and the shelter makes it mandatory for some dogs to have training by an approved (pure positive only) trainer. Unfortunately I had to tell them not to use my name as I am not in the good books with that shelter without reason. They were incredibly furious over the situation reluctantly signed up to another trainers program because of intimidation. They almost did not adopt the puppy because they were outraged. What makes that situation so disturbing is that my puppy programs are food/marker training based programs. The situation gets more interesting, as several of the employees and staff of that shelter are my clients who have not told management for fear of being let go.

Several months ago I had a lady and her husband come into my facility for an evaluation. As the lady was walking down my driveway her dog was so bad on the leash she actually pulled the lady over upon entering my facility and she fell on her hands and knees and dropped the leash. After her husband lovingly helped to pick her up it was brought to my attention that she was five months pregnant. I asked the couple when they had last walked the dog, they replied “months ago, the last time I walked her she pulled the leash out of my hand, attacked another dog and in the process pulled me down to the ground.” Realizing the severity of the situation I asked her how she would feel about using a prong collar on her dog. If you’re not familiar with the prong collar is a collar that mimics the bite of a mother dog and can be an amazing tool for dogs with pulling issues. She told me that she works at a local shelter and she would not be willing to use a prong collar on her dog for any reason because she was concerned about what the other staff would say. I asked her if she had tried other techniques or tools. She told me that she had tried many other tools with very limited results. She told me she was not willing to use a gentle leader on her dog because she felt that her dog did not like walking with it on. I asked her if she would be willing to give me five minutes of her time with the dog. She and her husband were reluctant to allow me to use a pinch collar on their dog. They agreed. Within five minutes I was able to walk their dog with two fingers on the leash and no pulling issues. (With no corrections by the way.) I handed the leash over to the husband first and he remarked how amazingly effective the tool was, how the dog was still happy and how the dog was not being hurt in the process. The wife was next she was also able to walk the dog without an issue. She was less enthusiastic. Upon returning to the facility I suggested using this tool for leash walking because I was concerned about the safety of the unborn baby that she was carrying. I asked her a very pointed question. ” Was your dog harmed in the last five minutes that we did the leash walking with the pinch collar? ” She said “no”. I asked her why she was reluctant if that was the case. Her honesty astounded me. She was reluctant because for two reasons: 1: She didn’t want the other shelter staff to find out. 2: She thought a normal buckle collar would be the most loving tool to use for walking her dog. I looked both of them in the eyes and told them that they were putting the life of their unborn child in jeopardy because of their egos. They walked out of my facility never to be heard from again.

About a year ago I was walking in a local park with my dogs off leash. I met a lady with a young golden retriever puppy who was nine months old at the time. As we were walking down the path together with our dogs she ran towards her dog and started yelling “no no no no no!” She got a hold of her dog and pulled something out of her dog’s mouth. She then let her dog go off leash once again as she began to tell me about some of the troubles she was having with this dog. At nine months of age this dog had already had two very dangerous surgeries to extract large objects from the dogs stomach. Each surgery cost her $3000. I suggested to her that she prevent this from happening again or utilize some training to stop her dog from eating objects while on walks. Unfortunately she shrugged off the advice like she knew better than me. Her next comment absolutely astounded me. ” It only happens once every few months” She said. I told her that I was not in anyway concerned over the fact that she already paid $6000 to get objects taken out of her dog stomach. I was however concerned that her dog could have died in the process because such surgeries are extremely dangerous and anytime a dog is put under the knife it has a chance of not waking up. Again she shrugged off the information like she knew better than me. She said she was not interested in putting the time into training, so I suggested that she keep her dog on a leash so that that would not happen again. Again she brushed off my advice.

The above stories may seem a little extreme. Unfortunately as I reflect, I have countless stories just like these. People are deciding that the freedom of a dog to do whatever it wants is more beneficial than the safety of a dog’s life or a persons life. This is not a reflection on the Pure Positive trainers.

Please don’t see it as an attack on them because it absolutely is not. It is however a wake up call for those people unwilling to restrict the freedom of a dog to save it’s life. The safety of an unborn child Is being put in jeopardy because of a parents ego. And dogs are sitting in shelters without homes this Christmas because potential adopters could potentially use a trainer or veterinarian that a person in a position of power does not agree with. May someone reading this blog advocate for family safety, a dogs safety and the dogs waiting for homes across North America.

Lessons In Dogmanship From The World Of Real Estate

“My husband always wanted them to feel comfortable in their home,” the woman on the phone told me, “so they have no rules, they basically run the house.”

This came right after she told me that of her two dogs, one is fearful of virtually everything, and has bitten visitors to the property, and both are peeing and pooping in the house.

“Letting them do whatever they want,” I proceeded, “Is just about the worst plan for helping them feel comfortable and secure.”

There was a silence on the other end of the line, so I decided to regale her as I so often do, with a story from my own life:

I am currently house shopping for my first home. It was cool and exciting for about the first week, and now it is just frustrating and annoying.

My wife and I met with a buyer’s agent early in the process since we have no idea what we are looking at when viewing homes.  The agent’s name is Jim Hoffman, and he said to us right away “I am going to be very critical of the houses we look at, you are going to hear my opinion whether you like it or not.”

The truth is, at first I didn’t like it. It bothered me. Every house I liked, Jim would shoot down, pointing out all the flaws and potential resale problems. But as time went on, I grew more and more comfortable with Jim.

See, I hired Jim to be my leader, my guide through the jungle of real estate; and I want the kind of leader that will slap the poison berry out of my hand before I eat it, even if it stings a little. That is exactly what Jim is doing.

Recently he went out of town, and I had to view a few homes with a different agent. This woman was new, and not quite as critical as Jim. She was very nice, agreed with everything I said, and genuinely wanted to make me happy. We viewed a few homes that had some flaws, yet she happily pointed out the positive features of the houses. She clearly wanted me to feel good about the process and the houses we were viewing, and she spent very little time addressing the problems with the houses that might make me uncomfortable. I saw a home with her that I really liked, but I felt unsure. I had a sense of anxiety and insecurity about making an offer. It was decision time, a critical moment, and I needed a leader that I could count on.

The fact is that Jim didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, he told me what I needed to hear, and because of that I felt safe under his watch. When he got back in town, he took me back to the house to look at it with me. He gave his approving nod. We are making an offer today.

If you want to help your dog feel stable, safe, and secure, it’s important to share both appeasing affection, and consistent discipline. This is what animals, including humans, look for in a leader. Good leadership makes us feel secure and relieves anxiety.

If you live in the Buffalo New York area, and want a real estate agent who won’t lead you astray. Check out Jim Hoffman at JamesHouseHoffman.com

-Tyler Muto

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