Shaping Beautiful Relationships

Photo by Alicia Jones on Unsplash

Photo by Alicia Jones on Unsplash

We've been writing ad nauseam about our journey to create shared frames with our clients. You can read about why we are doing this shared frame thing and even how to go about doing it yourself.

In this post, we wanted to explore shaping as it applies to our client relationships.

Most trainers are familiar with shaping: building a behaviour through successful approximations. It involves breaking a behaviour down into a series of its smallest, incremental steps. And then marking and rewarding our subject for any successful approximation towards any of these steps.

But what happens when we apply this powerful concept to our clients? Our co-workers? Our loved ones?

It was a few weeks into building a shared frame with our clients, what we call our third frame, that we realized we were using shaping.

By coming to a place where we can respect and understand one another, we begin to hold back our judgement and expectations. And we are better able to reinforce the amazing things (approximations) our clients are doing and trying for the first time. 

It isn't realistic to expect our clients to be completely on board with our philosophy or our approach by the end of one or even a few sessions. Instead, we can watch for all the little steps they are taking as approximations towards a happier place. 

Hard questions are now an opportunity for reinforcement. They show that our client is stopping to consider the ramifications of whatever it is they are asking about.

A client that has a tendency to speak harshly and in a commanding tone to their dog, which so many of us were trained to do, might suddenly have a harness on their dog when we arrive, and you can darn well bet we are going to notice and reinforce this.

It's not possible to shape every client relationship. We get that. But we've come to realize that much more is possible than we ever imagined and that our behaviour and attitude matters.

As experts, our judgement and tone carry weight. It is super easy for us to use this social pressure to introduce a punisher to our clients. And if there is one thing that will destroy shaping, it is an aversive stimulus. 

Students that participate in shaping have a noticeable excitement and joy around training. We want the same for our clients.

And by paying attention and reinforcing the steps our clients are making, and the smaller the better, all of us can shape better relationships for all involved. And that feels super awesome.

Creating Frames for Behaviour Change

Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

Being able to create a shared frame with a client may be the single greatest indicator of our ability to assist a family and their dog. Let us explain.

As a species, we expend a lot of time and effort interacting with people who cannot hear us. Hello, Internet. If the frame with which the other person sees the world is alien to the one we are using, then we won't be able to effectively communicate, even if we want the same thing or use the same words. 

 

"In these two models children are not required to take responsibility for themselves or for others. No amount of discussion about treats being reinforcers and clicker training being science-based will help. In the Strict Father Metaphor treats are not just a sign of weakness, they are immoral."

- Alexandra Kurland, You Don't Understand Me (PDF)

 

We see this playing out every day in the dog training world. How many of us have felt challenged and pulled out the AVSAB position statement on punishment hoping that it would sway a family member?  Or how many times have we tried to respond to the "treats as bribes" question?

Nine times out of ten, our arguments do nothing but entrench the other individual in their opposing viewpoint.

Frames define how we find value in the world. They provide for our status and role in society as well as define the processes by which to achieve safety and reward. To challenge someone's frame is to challenge their identity, their safety, their path to success, and even their status in the community. Which is why we speak of frames as having defences. They cannot be undermined by such flimsy things as facts, studies or expert opinions.

Frames aren't bad things, necessarily. Our frames work to shield us from things that would cause us pain (loss of status, identity and value in the world) and create a world view where all of our behaviours, irrational or otherwise, make sense.

Lakoff is one of the sources we would recommend for exploring frames and metaphor and how they fundamentally wire our brains from a very early age.

But to get to the gist of the matter, Alexandra Kurland has a great piece that explains Lakoff's work from the perspective of a force-free horse trainer and the polarization we saw in the last US election.

 

"Not surprisingly, the approach you tend to favor as an adult grows out of your very early family experiences. As these other examples have shown, your first experiences in life created metaphoric links in your brain. Long before you were ever aware of national governments, you were aware of the authority of your parents."

"In the Strict Father model the father is the head of the family."

"The [father] is the legitimate authority and his authority is
not to be challenged. . . Obedience to the [father] is seen as
correct behavior in the [child]. It is upheld through a system of reward and punishment. Bad behavior from the [father] is always punished and good behavior is rewarded.

 

Kurland's piece is worth reading because it lays out the challenges so many of us trainers face when we enter a household that uses a frame very distinct from our own.

So many of us in the force-free training world are using a "nurturing parent" frame and so many of our frustrating client interactions are the result of our meeting someone with a "strict father" frame. The sad part is that we often want the same things - safety and security for our loved ones, but we both use different means to achieve these goals, and struggle to effectively communicate with each other.

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Creating a Shared Frame

So how do we go about creating a shared frame?

As dog coaches, we have an easy entry point: we can use our shared love for the client's furry friend. They clearly care or they wouldn't have reached out to us. But that's not to say they won't find what we say, and how we say it, total mumbo-jumbo. 

As silly as it sounds, creating a shared frame starts with a simple conviction to humanize our clients. And while we certainly haven't mastered this skill, we were surprised at how quickly we were able to create stronger relationships, not to mention the results we are seeing with each client. It creates a cascade of reinforcers that motivates us to continue.

Here are some things we do to help ensure we are building a third frame.

  • Ask our client about the issues they are having, as one would expect. But once we get a sense of their concerns, we move on to a few key questions:
    • What relationship goals do you have for you and your dog?
    • Take us back to when you first got <dog's name>. What were your hopes? Why was getting a dog important for you and your family?
    • What does an ideal day look like for you and your dog?
  • Use tools and an approach that help us humanize the person in front of us:
    • Session sheets and handouts that clearly identify the stressors for the human, not just the dog.
    • Measure our program's progress against their relationship goals.
  • Pay close attention to the language and metaphors that they are using.
  • Honour our client's limits.

Explore stories of the little furry friend first arriving. Why did they first decide to bring a dog into their home? Logical reasons are fine, but we want to know what their dreams were and what an ideal day looks and feels like. The time we spend uncovering these details is time spent building a common frame.

Keep digging until we can actually feel empathy for the people sitting across from us. That's when we know we have a shared frame.

Start paying closer attention to the language they use. Language and metaphor define the edges of their frame and give us clues on where we can build a shared frame. They allow us to speak a more common language and build trust.

And last, but not least, always honour your client's limits, even if it makes the protocol and program you are recommending more challenging than normal. We once had a client that took a few weeks before they were comfortable initiating a key procedure. In the past, we would have pushed. Instead, we built inroads and became allies until such time as we could all practice the behaviour modification protocol with joy.

We know we are in the third frame when our behaviour begins to change:

  • We find ourselves pausing to take a breath before reacting to a statement or question that previously would have caused us distress or to rant. This gives us time to remember that they are doing the best they can to help their dog.
  • We frame what we say within the context of our client's stressors and goals. The language we use has become more fluid.
  • We spend a lot more time giving positive feedback and encouragement to the client.
  • We let some of our higher-priority things go while we work on the behaviours that are more pressing for our client and their shared relationship with their furry friend.
  • We stop always trying to be right and stay focused on why we are there.

Tenuous New Ground

Our efforts at Wildflower to create a shared frame with our clients is challenged weekly. That lovely new training client that waits until we are about to walk out the door before lifting up a shock collar to ask if they should use this thing that their neighbour gave them. Or someone that continues to ask about dominance and their need to be seen as the alpha of the pack.

Creating a shared frame is not about stepping away from our values. It is just the opposite. It is creating a space where we are able to listen and understand the other. And from there, become someone they can safely ask questions of. And if we do it well, we can reach them with our answers because we understand where we are aligned.

The woman who asked about the shock collar surprised us and so we began to lecture until we remembered our frame and that we both adore her little dude. And we could feel and relate to her stress and desperation. Being evicted was not an option for her. And so we can be kind and understand what she is really asking. We can answer with compassion and offer her a follow-up sooner than we had previously agreed, while commending her for not using the shock collar and for asking us about it.

There will be clients that aren’t right and that we need to walk away from. It’s happened and it will happen again. These are the hardest because these are people who clearly love their dog but come from a very different world of command and control, punishment and obedience. The fact that they are reaching out to us shows that they are looking for another way in at least one area of their life. And we hate to fail them. We will do a lot to find common ground for a conversation, but our values will never budge.

One quick aside. We can't enter a shared frame without being willing to learn and change, ourselves. This may be the scariest part of this work. We expect our clients to be open to learning, but upon reflection, we had to ask if we were using a double standard. There were certainly times that we expected from them what we often weren't willing to grant. 

So is all this work to create a shared frame worth it?

We measure the impact of our behaviour modification program with a survey of five baseline questions. Clients that participate are surveyed the day after our first session, at two weeks, a month, three months and nine months.

Creating shared frames with our clients has been the single greatest thing we have ever implemented. Participation, which we define as practicing the protocols we recommend, has skyrocketed, as has our clients' confidence in themselves and their dogs. And not surprisingly, their dog’s issues are improving across the board. And from the business point of view, our Net Promoter Score has climbed over 10 points and is now in the 90s. 

Even the very first time we tried, we left the household and actually gave each other a high five. It was one of the most positive and reinforcing sessions we had ever had. 

Changing our frame has also led to us to change the protocols we use, but more on that at a later date.

Remembering the Humans

Photo by Seth Macey on Unsplash

Photo by Seth Macey on Unsplash

At Wildflower, we believe in giving animals agency in the protocols we use, a way for them to signify that they are okay to proceed. The company was founded around this one ideal. And while we could say that we have always listened and tried to be kind, we did not apply this same level of agency to our client interactions.

In fact, we had been taught not to. The paradigm of the training and behaviour modification world is one of compliance, ten page pre-consultation forms, command and control and clients being punished for not following procedure.

There is no individual to blame, it is simply a pressure that all trainers feel. It can be seen in the horrible gossiping about clients in Facebook trainer groups or the ridiculous hoops that new clients are made to jump through in order to be deemed worthy.

And it is spurred on by the complexity of human-human communication as compared to the clarity and joy most of us find when working and communicating with other representatives of the animal kingdom.

It rears its head when we read in a form that an owner is contemplating giving a cherished dog away. 

It is in the questions of whether or not they have to use food or about the cost of our services.

Bullshit. It is us.

Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.
— Lakoff, Johnson, Metaphors we live by, University of Chicago Press

The parent concerned with the welfare of their children and their friends is 1000% sane and understandable.

Having to carry around bags of slimy treats in the hot sun is indeed inconvenient and understandable to question.

And frankly, I'm in the industry and I can't understand 95% of the fee schedules of most behavioural programs.

The things being said by our clients are not the problem. It is our assumptions and emotional reactions that we must start examining. 

And I want to be very clear here. We are as guilty as anyone in the paradigms we had adopted and were unknowingly using.

And changing this has not been easy. It's been one of the hardest things we have ever undertaken, but also the most rewarding. We now work hard to create a shared frame with every potential client.

Creating a shared frame with our clients is about stepping forward and meeting them halfway. It's about entering an alien world that feels less safe than our own. And sometimes it's about leaving significant parts of our worldview behind.

It's not about abandoning our beliefs, it's about creating a place where we can truly connect with another human. Only then can we both understand and communicate. Only then can we be compassionate and loosen the filters by which we see and react in the world.

It's about ensuring that the science and philosophy of what we do with dogs is also applied to the humans.

Making Pill Time Fun!

There are few things more frustrating than chasing our dog around with a pill or trying to find the soggy mass they've spit out three times in a row.

Or buying bag after bag of pill pockets which our dog quickly recognizes on first smell as an evil trick.

In this video, Sean shares his fun and inexpensive way to get our dogs to enjoy taking pills.

The key is in the delivery. First, we have to make pill time super fun and exciting.

  1. Our dog gets a super yummy treat
  2. Then they start on the one hiding the pill
  3. Only to see there is yet another treat. How long will that be there? Quick! Swallow and get it!

And even if your dog isn't currently taking pills, practice giving three treats in rapid succession. One day your future self will look back and thank you!

Not working for you? Reach out to yourteam@wildflowerdog.ca and we can send you some follow-up tips or ideas!

 

Launching Our New Video Series

I would rather have cookies in my jacket pockets than a chain around my dog’s neck.
— Pat Miller, The Power of Positive Dog Training

It's been a long journey, but we are super happy to be able to launch the first of our new protocol videos below.

Please note that all of our protocols are designed to be used only after a consultation with a certified behaviour consultant.

The Wildflower CC&D Protocol

This is level one of our Counter Conditioning and Desensitization (CC&D) protocol. Research shows that a high rate of trigger presentation done in small bursts and followed by short breaks is the most effective way to create an emotional association in any mammal. This protocol enables you to maintain this high rate of trigger presentation and also helps to break contact with the stressor so as to help your dog stay well under threshold.

At it's core, CC&D is about turning a previously stressful stimulus into a reliable predictor of a new emotional state. We are using super high value food to generate the emotional state we wish to associate with the presented stressor.

We owe this technique to Pat Miller.

Link to video on YouTube.

Excuse the Mess

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Renovation is messy. And part of us wants to just hide all the mess, but we feel it is far more important to be transparent about what we are working on.

At Wildflower, we built our business around the idea that we will always push ourselves to find a more compassionate approach. And that has led to some pretty significant changes over the past few weeks. 

In short, we have doubled down on our commitment to our human clients. They are at the centre of everything we do, but re-iterating this commitment gave us a more focused lens with which we look at the world and our business.

And a few things surfaced that made us realize we had to change things up.

Our survey system, an innovation we are quite proud of, suddenly came into question. As many of our clients know, we check in on a pre-defined schedule with a few key questions to understand the impact and effectiveness of our programs and how things are proceeding from their perspective.

But we now realize there were a couple fundamental flaws: the system recorded responses in a way that we could only review if we logged in to check on them. This led to some clients leaving us with requests for assistance that we weren't seeing for days, or worse, for more than a week.

The questions were also biased; they were designed around fixing a problem and as a result focused almost entirely on the dog, not the human.

So we are in the midst of completely overhauling our survey system and the long-term study at the foundation of it. The new system notifies us immediately with the individual survey results while also integrating those results into our Customer Relationship Management system. So now, all of our staff can see the goals and program notes, past emails and, starting today, the ability to see the survey results and any corresponding concerns that have been raised. 

The new survey you will be seeing.

The new survey you will be seeing.

In addition, we have completely overhauled our Behaviour Modification packages.

The new program includes more follow-up sessions but also has a more streamlined sign-up process and is now built entirely around the relationship goals of our human clients. We found ourselves spending too much time lecturing and focusing on how to fix a behavioural problem and not enough answering the question, "What does a good day look like for you and your dog?"

Our clients come to us because they adore their dog and want to have a positive and rewarding relationship together. And while our tools were effective at changing the dog's behaviour, by focusing on the problem and not the desired relationship outcome, we saw that we were too easily failing our client's expectations.

This change to the program has also led to an overhaul of the materials we use and even how we behave in our in-home sessions. It's too early to report on what the results of all this are, but we can say that the feedback from clients experiencing the new program has been overwhelming. And that feels amazing.

We owe a lot of this to a conversation on the frames with which we see the world led by Alexanda Kurland at the Training Thoughtfully conference in Milwaukee. She urged us to explore our frame of reference and to learn how to build a shared frame with those we work and interact with in the world.

Our shared frame lies in the relationship our clients yearn for with their canine friends. Their dog's fear, anxiety and subsequent aggression impacts this relationship, not to mention the safety and emotional well-being of everyone interacting with the dog.

The answer is not to lecture Mom and Dad. They are already at their wits end. They are scared, frustrated and/or concerned. They are looking for an ally and someone who can meet them where they are.

And that is why we created Wildflower Dog, to be that ally.

Trading Places

Photo by Mike Burke on Unsplash

Photo by Mike Burke on Unsplash

We recently attended the Training Thoughtfully conference in Milwaukee where a host of behaviour consultants (across species) came together to explore how we can be even more thoughtful in our positive-reinforcement work. Part of this was changing the lens we use. So for a few minutes I stopped being the trainer and became the dog.

It happened on the second night when we sat down to play the ABACAB or PORTAL game.

There are three roles: the teacher has a clicker, reward trinkets and a bunch of objects that can be manipulated, the learner (the dog, horse or human), and an observer. A key part of the game is that we can't talk, just like when we are working with a learner from another species. 

I thought this would be a novel but boring way to test the mechanics of the teacher. Oh was I in for a surprise. 

Our horses bring us to our truth. He needed her to do more than give him carrots. The treats in your pocket are not a substitute for love and appreciation. They are an expression of that love.
— Alexandra Kurland

As trainers, we are taught that consistency matters, to the point that everything magical is stripped from the experience. We are told, "Focus on the mechanics." And we idolize those who have crazy mechanical skills. "She is a machine!" 

And sure, consistency matters, but only as defined by our learner. Let's pause there. We know that reinforcement is defined by our learner. If they find it aversive, it's not a reward.

It's the same thing with consistency.

I didn't care if my teacher needed a second to reset the task. Or even if she changed up the task we were working on. I didn't care if her click was slightly off-timed. Within limits of competency, these things were not what I found myself tracking.

Instead, it was the quality of my teacher's attention. She had this way of delivering my trinket. Her attention would focus on me. Her face would light up. And she would place it in my hand in a way that said it was a cherished item. I felt special. I felt like I had done something truly wonderful.

And then she would get distracted, as we all do. She had to configure the next task or quickly determine how to help me, her learner. And so her attention would drift and I could feel that something was missing. The treat delivery mechanic was the same, but her attention was elsewhere and the task felt less rewarding. And in response, my attention and full participation felt less warranted. 

Our attention adds a valence on top of the reinforcer being used and it can have a positive or negative charge.

Now, I was lucky in that I had an amazing teacher who had played this game before. And these moments were brief. But it made me start to reframe so many things we see in the homes of our clients, and in my own home. 

Training is far more than the mechanics. Training can be a joyful and connecting moment for everyone involved. And the way to achieve this is to be more fully present. If we aren't laughing or feeling joy, how do we expect our learner to be feeling?

This game also showed me firsthand just how easy it is to create a moment of confusion for our learner and the unbelievable cost attached.

My teacher had me successfully moving items under a napkin and into a cup on a visual cue. And then she upped the ante by placing a large, metal water jug onto the table. I began experimenting with what I thought she might be looking for. Everything I tried resulted in no click. No reward. 

The moment of slight frustration that I experienced meant so much more to me than I ever would have predicted. I'm in a situation so alien to me. I can't ask her what the bleep she wants. 

Mistakes aren't bad in training. They are information for the learner. This was not the first time she had raised the criteria. I had been puzzled and made mistakes earlier in the game, but this quickly became different. I couldn't figure out what she wanted and I had no way to tell her that. So I started to guess.

But when I had no choice but to start guessing, my frustration bloomed. And it turns out this is not something I handle well, like many learners.

My teacher took the jug off the table and I could feel myself relaxing. She is an amazing teacher. She realized we had hit an impasse so she took us back to earlier tasks I had done successfully. And so I began to advance. I was starting to get a handle on what my teacher was asking me for when my teacher put that water jug back on the table.

I'm going to be 90 and on my deathbed and there had better not be a stainless steel water jug in the room. I never want to see that water jug again.

As soon as that water jug hit the table, I didn't want to play the game anymore. I'm not exaggerating. There was no denying this emotional response. And we laughed after because she realized it as well. The whole room did. We had quite a group gathered around us, including the amazing Alexandra Kurland and Kay Lawrence. 

My teacher quickly changed gears and actually took the jug and set it behind her under a different table. She rocks. She was sending me a clear signal that this jug would not be a part of our game anymore.

And so my performance and enjoyment bounced back. But only because my teacher recognized she needed a different approach.

And here's the kicker. 

This conditioning was still present the next day. I entered the conference room and found myself tensing up and scanning the room for those evil little water jugs. I was actually relieved to find they were not present.

How many of my own training sessions with my dog had created an unwanted negative emotional response? And what of our clients? 

Every teacher can learn so much by experiencing their methods. It is so eye opening to experience the joy of clicker training as a learner, and to witness the nuances that truly matter. And also to better understand how these tools can be used to build the relationships that we yearn for. 

P.S. This will come as a surprise to no one but me, but I'm told that I am a hyperactive lab with a bit of a competitive streak.

 

Finding My Beginner's Mind

I’ve been reading Pema Chodron’s book, The Places That Scare You. Before even getting into the heart of the book, I was blown away by a single sentence in the prologue.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.
— Zen master Suzuki Roshi

It’s been on my mind ever since, haunting me. I’ve been wondering what does this mean? And why is it resonating so strongly with me right now?

I’m also obsessively exploring the idea of agency within the context of dog training. I’ve been wondering how agency might play a role in a dog’s life. How is behaviour impacted if dogs are offered more access to choices in their lives?

I found this summary of agency I quite like in the book Psychological Agency, Theory, Practice, and Culture: 

When we come to understand ourselves as agents of the world, it becomes possible for us to imagine making different choices and to relate to others and to act in different ways.
— Robert Frie (Editor), 2008

And then it happened. A beginner’s mind moment showed up in my life in a glaringly obvious way.  

I had just read a brilliantly insightful piece written by Seattle dog and primate trainer Cristine Dahl and founder of Northwest School of Canine Studies. Cristine suggests we should try taking our dogs out for a walk with zero concern for kilometres logged, number of balls tossed or frisbees thrown. To disregard the need for polite walks or heels cued and offered. But rather, to just be with our dogs.

She asks us to offer our dogs the freedom to choose how the walk will go. Our dogs might walk quickly, leaving us to pick up the pace. Or our dogs might choose to slow down and spend several minutes sniffing a blade of grass or investigating a snail meandering across the sidewalk. Whatever they choose (safety issues notwithstanding) it’s totally up to them.

We are letting our dogs determine the cadence, geographic location, terrain, etc. Our job is simply to observe and learn about our dogs - to pay attention to them without judgement. To show up in their lives in order to build a stronger connection with our dogs. Or to use Cristine’s language, to show our dogs regard. It’s that simple and beautiful.

I strongly recommend reading her article to get the full gist and perhaps give it a try yourself.

I took Cristine up on her challenge and went out into the world prepared to show my dogs regard, although my smug expert’s mind was sure I was already doing this. After all, I’m a successful and well-educated positive reinforcement trainer who doesn’t use force.

That’s when my beginner's mind moments began to appear.

  • I observed Charlie showing signs of stress when I wasn’t leading her around the neighbourhood. I wasn’t cueing her and she seemed perplexed at first and then her behaviour intensified. She just stared at me intently, panting and then barking. For half the walk we were just two lost souls looking at each other. I had to recongnize that I hadn’t really offered her much agency when on leash up to this point, so when given a bit of freedom she didn’t appear to know what to do with it.

  • I also realized Charles isn't a huge fan of bees. Or at least not this particular one. A big furry bumble was buzzing away on a leaf about a foot from where Charles was standing. She looked at it with a furrowed brow and then proceeded to walk as far away from it as she could. Who knew? I had no idea.

  • Charlie has arthritis in her back end and I thought I was being super conscious of her need for a slower pace especially when we’re walking on hard surfaces. Nope. When Charles is left to determine the pace of the walk, she chooses half the speed I normally walk with her and my other dog, Tyson.

  • Tys also shocked me. I’ve always known the guy is a big sniffer. What I didn't realize is that he will sometimes choose to stick his head in a flowerbed and totally let other dogs pass on by. All without showing any of his typical signs of aggression when on leash. I think I’ve been alerting him to dogs by flipping into training mode and forcing his attention back onto me and the other dogs when perhaps he just wanted to mind his own damn business.

This next bit is hard to write. I’m supposed to be an expert, after all. But I have to stop and remember we are all on this journey together and sometimes I need to let my beginner’s mind show me what the expert in me can’t see.

I realized I wasn’t showing my dogs the regard they deserved.

I’ve been marching Tys and Charles around my neighbourhood on leash with little regard for their needs and wants. I sincerely thought that because I had trained my dogs to walk nicely on leash using non-aversive methods, that I had satisfied the kind of walk they wanted. In my expert’s mind, I had done enough. And here’s the other thing I realized, training without regard for our dogs isn’t much different than old school traditional methods where the human commands the dog to do X and the dog is expected to respond with Y. Translation: human micro-manages their dog’s life.

I’m not using force to train, but I’m uncovering this part of me that is still steeped in the human-runs-the-show mentality. This realization has been difficult, yet hugely important for my growth as a dog parent, a dog trainer and a human in this world.  

My expert’s mind believed I had been showing my dogs regard. In my attempt to unravel agency, my beginner’s mind revealed itself and challenged me to become more observant, more patient and more curious about the dogs I’ve been entrusted to help along their journey. And perhaps most importantly to show MY beginner’s mind some regard.

 

Learning to Listen to Bella

Bella is an amazing and beloved little dachshund. Her Mom had come to us because of Bella's fear and anxiety around strange men and other dogs. And sure enough, our entering their house resulted in whale eye, tongue flicks, hard mouth, barking and lunging, and cowering.

Our initial session with Bella and her Mom ended with showing them how to begin using Counter Conditioning and Desensitization (CC&D) with men and other dogs in the neighborhood.

But the point of this story is not the protocols we used. It's how we stopped a protocol (twice) to listen to what Bella was telling us and the unexpected breakthroughs we started to see as a result.

 
Even though everything we knew said that the grassy knoll was way too close to the sidewalk, we wanted to see what Bella was trying to tell us.

It was a rare and sunny spring day when Cara and I returned for our follow-up session with Bella. We were quite impressed with the improvements we were seeing and opted to move onto a simplified BAT protocol.

In a nutshell: Mom takes a step forward and sees if Bella wants to walk with her. If so, they approach a stressor (me) and then Mom stops at a safe distance, allowing Bella to sniff, stare and gather information. The moment Bella turns to look at Mom, her Mom marks the behaviour and they turn and run away from the stressful Sean’ster.

We began with Mom and Bella 30 feet away from Sean, but Bella wasn't having any of it. She didn't want to take a single step closer. Mom couldn’t help herself. She began to tug Bella forward. They had to practice, after all, and the two professionals were watching. But we asked Mom to just turn and walk away. And boom, Bella was MORE than happy to walk away from the strange man.

Bella was asking for more space, not less. Once they were about 50 feet away, Bella happily participated in the simplified BAT protocol, marching forward most confidently to stare at the strange man on the sidewalk (me).

Things were going stellar. Bella and Mom were marching up and down the walkway in front of their house. It was a hot day, but the trees and buildings kept us in the shade and cool. Bella had started at over 50 feet but now was happily trotting up to about ten feet away from me before turning and running away with Mom.

We decided to change locations and show Bella and her Mom how to do the BAT protocol from behind their house where the driveway intersected a somewhat busy street. We walked to the area and Mom set Bella down.

Only, Bella wasn't having any of it. She would only advance and it became quite apparent that she wanted to approach the grassy knoll beside the sidewalk.

So we listened. 

Even though everything we knew said that the grassy knoll was way too close to the sidewalk, we wanted to see what Bella was trying to tell us.. So we waited for a gap in the traffic and let her scramble onto the three feet of sun and grass beside the sidewalk.

At which point, Bella curled up and laid down happily.

Her Mom laughed and said that one of Bella’s favourite things in the world is sitting in the grass in the direct sun. They would often spend part of their walks like this.

And so we trusted our gut. This was Bella’s happy place. And so we switched back to CC&D. Every time Bella turned to look at an approaching dog or man, her Mom made wonderful food happen.

Bella had already surpassed our expectations earlier, but now we could only stare in wonder. This little dog didn't even blink at dogs and men passing just five feet away.

Trust me when I say we were watching carefully and there to step in if Bella showed any signs of stress or increased anxiety. But she didn't. She just sat and did some of the most wonderful CC&D we have yet seen the pair do.

The real Bella in her happy place!

The real Bella in her happy place!

And this is where we had to step away and think about what we had learned.

Cara has been pushing me to re-evaluate everything we do with an eye towards agency. And today was no exception. We had stopped to listen to what Bella was telling us and then adjusted to support what she needed.

The environment plays a significant role in any behaviour modification (or even training) work. From the Establishing Condition to PREPAREDNESS, the other stimuli involved in a session can significantly hinder or (accelerate) the work you are trying to accomplish.

Put more simply, there are things that will make it easier for your dog and there are things that will make it much harder. And it's only by listening to your dog that you can start to determine what these are. And with dogs, listening means watching and paying attention.

Bella had a CC&D session that even amazed her Mom. She happily sat there while men with carts went by and only a fast moving skateboarder on the street caused even a mild glance from her.

Bella was not only in her happy place, she had chosen to sit here. We just decided to listen and give her a chance to make this choice.

Now that’s not to say that we would have continued to sit there and do CC&D if we saw signs of increasing anxiety or stress in her. But it means that we were willing to modify our program to include her wishes. And with some pretty epic results, we might add.

[top image source: Creative Commons Licensed image from rp_photo on Flickr. Bottom image used with permission from her amazing Mom.]

Say No to Household Fascism

photo courtesy of Andrew Branch

photo courtesy of Andrew Branch

Let's be clear. Most of our clients aren't interested in creating a totalitarian regime over their canine companions. They choose to work with Wildflower because they want to help their dog become a positive and valuable part of their family. And we believe each person within a home has as a unique and individualized relationship to their dog. 

And yet, a week doesn't go by that we don't come across some confusion about "double standards" or whether a single set of rules for their dog is necessary.

I want to unpack this. Let's look at how rules exist in households:

  • Parents are allowed to do things the children aren't, like drink liquor and watch late night TV.
  • Babies are allowed to do things the teenager in the house isn't, like puke on the furniture and throw her food at the dinner table.
  • And grandpa is allowed to do things with his bodily functions that nobody else would ever dare try in the house.

We live in a complex, social web where different rules apply to different people, based on their role, age and their relationship with us. But even these rules aren't applied consistently in every situation.

This is because rules that regulate our behaviour depend entirely on context. And we learn quickly what rules apply to what situations. Figuring this out is a normal part of growing up in any household, community or society.

For example, I wouldn't DARE eat ice cream straight from the container if Mom was home. But Dad didn't care so much. In fact, I'm pretty sure he taught me how to use my spoon to carve out the edge bits without damaging the container.

But touching Dad's tools was a hanging offence. Whereas, if just Mom was home, she seemed relieved if I spent the afternoon outside playing with Dad's tools in the forest (and invariably leaving them in a random trail of rusting metal.)

I could pester my sister endlessly until she agreed to give me the remote control. Not so much when Dad or Mom were nearby. And I don't think Grandma even knew what a remote control or a computer was, so I had total control over the world when grandma came over to watch us for the evening.

Social rules and norms are always contextual. Even in our homes.

It's not about everyone treating your puppy exactly the same. It's about recognizing the relationships involved and helping your little friend to find his loving place in your growing family.  

It's okay if Rover is allowed to sleep on one person's bed but not another's. It's also perfectly acceptable that Mom allows the dog up on her lap for snuggles, but Grandpa prefers to teach a sit and wait.

If there was a place for a consistent set of hard rules, it would be around the training methodology you all agree to use, such as positive reinforcement and force-free methods. Having Mom and Little Sara both using rewards while Grandpa is using aversives, like hitting the dog with a rolled up newspaper, does not always end in a good place for you, your family or your dog.

But short of that, it is totally okay and normal to develop a set of guidelines that are contextual to the individuals and the situations. Rover will learn quickly not to beg at the table and to meet Jimmy in his room to devour all the yucky bits that Jimmy snuck into his socks. My dog certainly did.