Archive for December 2016

Dog Training – the basics are not rocket science

December 12, 2016

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Being deeply knowledgeable on one subject narrows one’s focus and increases confidence, but it also blurs dissenting views until they are no longer visible, thereby transforming data collection into bias confirmation and morphing self-deception into self-assurance-  Michael Shermer (American science writer and founder of the Sceptics Society)

Along with others far more experienced than me, I have been writing about the importance of training dogs properly for many years because the evidence is that proper socialisation and training, if implemented, would reduce the incidence of dog bites dramatically. But there is no doubt that we have not been shouting loud enough.  Those who may appear to be very knowledgeable about canine psychology and behaviour sometimes deliberately distort, misapply or simply misunderstand its implications and, furthermore, are prepared to swallow misleading and disingenuous ideas from those who are perceived to be leaders or researchers in the field.  Training a dog to become what the Kennel Club has established as a ‘good citizen’ becomes secondary to the application of fancy theories.  I am sorry that this article may be teaching you about sucking eggs but I would ask that you try to spread the word among your friends in dogs who may not be so experienced.

I opened a magazine last week which is published by specialists in canine and animal care to find that their training adviser was peddling (among other inaccurate and biased information) a totally pointless and useless technique in answer to a question about a dog which had got into the habit of biting ankles.  This lady apparently holds a BSc (Hons) in canine behaviour and training and is also a full member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the Pet Professional Guild: she should know better.  Someone has brainwashed her or she is completely self-deluded.  The first sentence works and is accurate when she says ‘nipping and play biting are a natural part of the puppy’s development’ but it is all down downhill from there.  She is partly right in that she says you need to distract the puppy and it is from this point that she shows a serious misinterpretation of canine psychology.

Most puppies and dogs not specifically bred to be aggressive want to please.  They are sensitive to humans (once again I advocate the excellent book, Genius Dogs by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods – an excellent Christmas present for anyone who has not read it) and quickly respond to treats, tickles and cuddles.  Incidentally, recent research indicates that most dogs, in fact, prefer tickles and cuddles to treats so you might remember that over the Christmas and New Year period when the temptation to give your dog is a little extra is most difficult to overcome.  That aside what this lady next says is ‘you need to channel your puppy’s behaviour into an alternative activity such playing with a toys’.  Think about it: the puppy is nipping an ankle, chewing an electric cable or barking for no reason – all perfectly natural and, for the dog, pleasurable behaviours.  What is this lady suggesting?  Provide an alternatively ‘more pleasurable’ activity.  Given the way that dogs learn the puppy’s response is quite naturally, ‘If I nip, chew or bark or do anything else that my owner does not want, I get attention, I get to play, I get rewarded – let’s do it some more!’

If the owner has consulted a trainer who takes this approach which, of course, does not work, they explain that this is a really difficult problem which only somebody with a BSc (Hons) degree and membership of posh organisations can solve.  It is good business: the trainer gets more one-to-one training sessions for their ‘usual fee’.

This lady goes on to suggest that the way to discourage unwanted behaviour is to adopt a ‘zero tolerance approach’.  This sounds good but involves not reacting in any way to the unwanted behaviour: she says, ‘Do not develop or shout of flap ankles but stop playing and withdraw attention for a few seconds’,  i.e allow the dog to continue the unwanted behaviour which, of course, it will do because it is natural and it enjoys it.  She goes on to say, ‘If your puppy continues, try to keep calm, move away slowly and the split-second she is calm offer the toy and resume the game’.  I am not suggesting that this approach cannot work but it is time-consuming (perhaps deliberately – see the sentence regarding ‘fees’ above) and is certainly the hard way.

Positive Reinforcement is the right way to train dogs

Now the principle of what is called positive reinforcement is perfectly sound and, in fact, this is the way all dogs should be taught to do things.  If you watch the great trainers such as Mary Ray, who uses positive reinforcement to give their dog instructions via quiet commands, subtle movements and clicks of their fingers, you can quickly appreciate the immense flexibility of the canine mind and a dog’s ability to remember and demonstrate a long string of commands under immense stress from music, lights and audience.  These building blocks of behaviour are carefully constructed by providing the dog with enjoyable things to do and rewarding and reinforcing the activity effectively.

But positive reinforcement is irrelevant if you want to train a dog not to do something.  The opposite of positive reinforcement, as I am sure you will know, is ‘negative’ reinforcement.  Highfalutin’, ivory tower trainers and canine behaviourists will be able to explain to you what happens in a dogs mind when they are pursuing a pleasurable activity and although that is interesting in itself, the practical processes and techniques of good canine citizenship are not rocket science.  And it is not about cruelty, pack discipline, alpha roles and the like but about common sense and providing a less pleasurable experience when a dog is doing something you do not want it to do.  Please emphasise to anyone with whom you come into contact and is trying to train their puppy, that any negative reinforcement has to be at the time the behaviour is being exhibited: there is no point otherwise for the dog will simply remember that you are providing a non-pleasurable experience for no reason.  The result will be suspicion, caution and distrust.

The alternative to unwanted behaviour must be less pleasurable

So when a dog or puppy is exhibiting unwanted behaviour: going too close to the edge of a cliff, beginning to nibble at an electric cable or nipping someone’s ankles, the response has to be something that he or she finds less pleasurable than the activity.  In the nest, the puppy’s dam will give a low growl to stop unwanted behaviour and if it continues will give a sharp nip to the offender.  It learns quickly and stops the behaviour.  As a human you can give a very loud, sharp ‘No’, clap your hands or even give the low ‘growl’ yourself.  All three work equally well.

Another unwanted behaviour is when a puppy or dog jumps up at you or a guest in welcome.  The natural reflex is to give the dog a stroke and say how pleased you are to see him.  This rewards the behaviour so your dog is encouraged to do it: and the more it does it the more the behaviour becomes habitual and the more difficult it is to stop it.  But you can stop it: each time it happens just move one foot forward and place your toe gently on one of its back feet.  You do not have to hurt the dog: you are not punishing it – it is simply to put him off balance so that he drops back onto his four paws.  Then you stroke and praise him so that a new habit is established: that is of coming up to you to say ‘hello’ and waiting for you to drop down and give him a stroke.

Why can’t these simple processes be understood by otherwise intelligent people?  Perhaps one qualification to be a dog trainer or canine behaviourist is that they should have actually bred a litter so they have had a chance to observe the way in which the dam disciplines her puppies.

Some better ideas but still a nod to self-deception

The lady in question is a little more sensible regarding the problem of fireworks.  I am personally against chemical intervention using drugs (or what are disingenuous called ‘calming remedies’) because I think training which allows the dog to be assured and self-confident is a better alternative, but there is a place under some special circumstances for drug-related therapies under the careful and understanding supervision of an experienced veterinary surgeon.

But she also throws in the idea of ‘homoeopathic’ remedies and I find this disturbing.  Currently, all the research tells us that homeopathy does not have any scientific basis although taking into account the placebo effect which can be beneficial for many humans; the concept is not entirely relevant.  But it is entirely irrelevant for dogs as they have only a very limited sense of non-stimulated anticipation.  They can and are certainly affected by ‘tender loving care’ when they are ill, upset or anxious and this is by far the best approach: dosing with an unproven (and I almost certainly expensive) medication can make no difference at all.

KC Membership Consultation – initial thoughts

December 4, 2016

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

The primary function of democracy is not to ensure that people get what they want: it is to ensure that they accept what they get.  And they are much like less likely to accept it if they feel their interests are not well represented – Jeremy O’Grady, Editor of UK magazine, The Week

I have had it on the highest authority that over the last few years, whenever the Kennel Club has spoken to focus groups or carried out surveys, the number of times the issue of widening the membership has been raised is minimal. I have to accept that this is the KC’s experience and despite my own writings and those of other columnists over many years, it may be there really is no appetite among grassroots canine activity enthusiasts to challenge the status quo.  But I would make two points.

The first is that the vast majority, the 1,250 or so members of the KC are not only seen as being separate and distant from the real world inhabited by most of those involved in showing, agility and the rest but are perceived to have perhaps inadvertently, placed psychological barriers against application in addition to the complications and time involved – not to mention the costs.  For most there is little point in even discussing the issue.

The second is that it is a matter of principle: in the 21st Century any organisation which aspires to be representative should actually be representative.  It is true that many members hold influential positions within the world of dogs, many give freely of their time and contribute a great deal financially but the fact that their enthusiasm and hard work keeps the boat afloat is not in itself enough.

Trawling through the back issues of Our Dogs as I sometimes do, this is a thread that has been running through edition after in edition for decades.  And I am the first to accept and celebrate that much has been done in the 50 years in which I have been involved in dogs.  Clarges Street can be proud of the impact which it has made in improving the health and welfare of dogs and much other canine related reforms and innovations.  For me, although there are always matters of opinion as to the best way forward for the promotion of pedigree dogs and in maintaining their popularity, the one real elephant within our world has always been the elitism which, rightly or wrongly, deliberately or otherwise, emanates from Clarges Street.  This is not personal: individual members do not see themselves as elitist but the perception persists that although there is a great deal of welcome transparency the KC remains a ‘club’ which is little different to the other much less visible cabals which exist at so many levels throughout our world.

I sincerely hope that with the publication of the recent article in the December 2016 Kennel Gazette members will allow this perception to finally be put to one side.  The new proposals, which are based very much on what I and other commentators have been saying for many years, are to be commended and I sincerely hope they will be accepted by the membership when a formal proposal is put forward as a future Annual or Special General Meeting.

A different perspective

Having said that, may I ask you to consider an equally valid but slightly different perspective on these proposals?

The suggestion of Town and Country membership (I think these are terms which are more usual and certainly more egalitarian than ‘full’ and ‘general’), and household membership are sensible but minor: the key proposal is that all members will be equal in paying £60 a year (£50 if paid by Direct Debit) for membership of the Kennel Club with full voting rights for Country members after a three-year period.  Some many feel that this delay is unnecessary but it is not uncommon: for instance, a similar sensible protectionist principle is embedded in the Rules for Southern Counties Canine Association for exactly the same reason that it is being suggested by the Kennel Club i.e. because anyone can join the Association without being proposed and seconded.

Others may suggest that the fee is on the high side (and I would agree) but the amount is irrelevant: it is the principle that is important.  Country members,  understandably, will not receive some of the ‘perks’ of Town members but as all have voting rights and the differences are entirely a matter of financial contribution to separate external services, the move towards acceptable democracy will have been made.

There are other minor distinctions between Town and Country members but they pale into insignificance besides the suggestion that Country members may apply for membership rather than to need a proposer and seconder and that they would not need to undergo the current inspection which some see as an unnecessary and somewhat dated practice which harks back to the 19th century.

Value for money

Those who wish to take advantage of the facilities which are available in London will be expected to pay an additional £100 for that privilege.  While I have always felt that the £150 total membership fee is far too high this has never been anything to do with ‘value for money’: the facilities, the restaurant and the services provided for members are exceptional and having been a member of London clubs and visited many others, I can assure you that the vast majority are far more expensive.  No, for me, it has always been about the cost of the vote for those who are not members but are nevertheless entitled to have their direct ‘say’ should they so wish.  Although there are many ways in which grassroots participants can have their say through the canine press, through the KC Breed Liaison Councils, the Question Times and writing direct to the Chairman, the voting process, although all too often flawed, is fundamental to democratic societies and institutions.

The hurdle of ‘approval’ by the Board would remain and although I do not think this is necessary and I understand the reasoning, I would argue that this should be a formality (I am afraid this is not the case at present).  There are already rules in place to rescind membership should that be necessary on grounds of criminal conviction or misbehaviour within the world of dogs: it does not seem reasonable to make an assumption that people will not behave well and therefore retain barriers to membership.  Surely in this day and age we should be assuming that people will behave well: it would be much more sensible to make it easier demand a resignation or injection if it can be shown that the member disregarded the rules or behaved inappropriately.

Finally, the press release suggested that these proposals will attract great deal of feedback.  It will be interesting to see whether the assurances that I have been given over the years that the grassroots are not actually that much interested or even care about becoming members of the KC.  However, of one thing I am sure: there are likely to be approximately 1,250 people with a great deal to say.

RSPCA effectively challenges Breed Specific Legislation

December 3, 2016

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Any committee is only as good as the most knowledgeable, determined and vigorous person on it. There must be somebody who provides the flame – Lady Bird Johnson

It was interesting to see on a recent Facebook page somebody bemoaning the fact that the ‘same old, same old’ subjects kept being recycled without anyone coming to a conclusion.  I am afraid it is the way of the world but it is not surprising because although any particular problem may seem simple, there can be many thousands of opinions as to how it might be solved – and with a complex problem the ‘solutions’ are close to infinite.  It is a reflection of the unique DNA which each of us carries: even people who are generally of ‘the same mind’ will often differ.  This is why we had tribal gatherings, senates, assemblies, moots, convocations and the like in the past and why we have committee meetings now.  My views on committees are well known (a smaller the better – and a committee of one is best) but I concede that conclusions based on my view are less likely to be acceptable to the majority (even though, again in my view, they are likely to be right!) than those which are the result of a broad-based (hopefully sensible) groups which recognises or represents a wider view.

It is why, since John Major introduced the concept in the early 1990s, governments insist that legislation should be based on ‘evidential need’ rather than because any government or Minister thinks that it is ‘a good idea’.  Part of the reason for this concept was that there were several instances (the Dangerous Dogs Act being one of them) where legislation had been introduced without sufficient forethought: a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to public and media demands after a series of serious dog biting incidents.  It is also the reason why there is now a requirement for government departments to review any legislation introduced after a five-year period with a public consultation to see whether it has been effective.

Those of us who were around at the time remember that the DDA actually had the support of most of the animal care related charities and lobby groups and it is an excellent example of the law of unintended consequences for it was quickly realised by everybody (outside government circles) that it was a car crash piece of legislation which cost a fortune to implement, did not achieve its objectives and increased stress on everyone involved from the dogs themselves, the owners of many perfectly well-behaved dogs, the police, local authorities and those charities whose veterinary surgeons were increasingly forced to put dogs down for no good reason.

A new RSPCA report sums up the position perfectly

The reason these thoughts have come into my mind is the recent publication by the RSPCA which reviews the Dangerous Dogs Act and the two subsequent, minor amendments.  Entitled ‘Breed Specific Legislation – a Dog’s Dinner’, the 30 page report sets out the history, the effectiveness (in this case ‘non-effectiveness’), and proposes a number of solutions and recommendations.  The UK legislation was a world first and the concept was soon followed by other countries although, as the report points out, it has been reversed by three European countries and many US administrations simply because it does not work and is extremely costly.  The introduction says: ‘25 years on, the RSPCA now believes it is paramount that the UK government launch an enquiry into the effectiveness of BSL, assess other options to improve human safety and welfare and ultimately repeal the breed specific part of the legislation.’  Having sat on several committees over the last 20 years trying to persuade successive governments to do exactly that there is no doubt in my mind that this sums up the situation perfectly.

Unfortunately, although the RSPCA says it would like to thank everyone who contributes to an assisted in this report there is no list of the names of committee that put it together: a shame because I personally would like to thank them and especially the person that provided the ‘flame’ in the quote from Lady Bird Johnson.  This is a report which, if you will forgive the pun, has a real ‘bite’ and includes an extraordinary two pages of detailed references which show quite clearly how much work has gone into it and that it is, indeed, evidence-based.  The wording of the conclusion could hardly be bettered: ‘The RSPCA strongly believes that the evidence presented in this report clearly shows that BSL has been ineffective in achieving its goals of protecting public safety and reducing the number of prohibiting types of dogs.  Since its introduction in 1991 a significant proportion of dogs involved in fatal incidents are not those prohibited by law and hospital admissions due to dog bites have increased substantially in the past decade despite the provisions.’

This is not for a moment to say that just repealing the Dangerous Dogs Act and its subsequent amendments is the answer.  It needs doing and it needs doing soon but it should also provide an opportunity to focus on implementing effective regulation and education to ensure that biting incidents reduce rather than increase them.  This is important because the whole objective of the DDA was to reduce the incidence of dog bites and an initial assessment of the act five years after it was introduced found that there had been ‘no significant reduction in dog bites’ and in fact, in the period between 2009 in 2015 the total number of hospital admission episodes for dog ‘bites and strikes’ increased from just under 6,000 to just over 7,000 each year.   As far as those who have died as a result of dog related incidents (there were 30 in all) two thirds involved dogs of breeds or types not prohibited.

A specific breed is not a good predicator of risk

Danny Mills, one of Europe’s foremost researchers into canine behaviour says in the report:  ‘Not only is a specific breed not a good predictor of risk, I would also argue that the promotion of breed as a risk through legislation like this may even be counter-productive as it gives the impression some breeds are completely safe and we know that the vast majority bites from come from breeds not listed’.  He continues: ‘We need responsible owners and responsible behaviour around dogs… This is a complex problem with social as well as biological dimensions which need to be considered if we really want to address the risk posed by dogs or people attracted to certain types of dogs.  From a biological perspective, until we have a validated genetic test, I would say solutions like BSL are themselves dangerous, because they might give a false sense of security and thus increase the risk’.  He goes on to indicate that a number of countries and regions outside the UK are now retracting such legislation in recognition of this.

Of course, whenever there is a media storm around an incident people begin to report dogs that they consider are of a ‘Pit Bull’ type and the number of seizures each year since 2006 has gone from almost none to over 1,500: each costs many thousands of pounds to progress.  The report highlights the number of dogs which are killed for no good reason and discusses the particularly difficult problem of puppies which may or may not grow up to fulfil the ‘definition’ of a banned breed.

The report draws our attention to the ways in which this problem has been tackled in other countries particularly in Canada and Australia and proposes ten recommendations with which not all will agree but nevertheless suggest possible solutions. One of these is that there should be a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of the several resources which are designed to help people and children stay safe around dogs.  This is a matter on which I have touched on many occasions.  Charities, lobby groups and non-governmental organisations such as the Kennel Club do much good work but they seldom work together because they are more interested in protecting their ‘brand’ they are in getting the message out.  This includes the RSPCA of course but I am hoping that as it becomes more influential, the Canine and Feline Sector Group which represents most of those organisations (including the RSPCA) will be able to resolve this sort of problem.

I congratulate the RSPCA which so far, under its new CEO, is focusing on its true objectives.  The subject of this report is one of them and it is well worth reading.  You can find it quickly by searching for RSPCA BSL dogs dinner.