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Aversives from a Dog's Eye View

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

I’m a trainer who practices Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA). This is an outlook supported by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) along with a number of other well thought of training organizations. I’m studying for my CPDT-KA (Certified Pet Dog Trainer Knowledge Assessed) certification. It’s a test that I am certain I’m ready for, but, seeing as it costs a sizable amount of money to take the test, I want to triple check. As such, I got their entire recommended reading list for pennies from used book sites and I’m working my way through them.

There are some books that I thumb through often, cross-referencing, loaning to clients and peers. Some of these new books likely will sit on a shelf for a long time until someone wanting to take the CPDT exam wants to borrow them. Ian Dunbar, Leslie McDevitt, Patricia McConnell are all geniuses and they’re brilliant writers that make the training and learning concepts easy. There are others, all of them extremely intelligent, that I find dry, boring, or incomplete.

No that you’re past all those acronyms, the main point I have come to realize is that it is extremely common to look at the world from a human’s eye-view rather than a dog’s. This is something trainers routinely warn their students about, but are still naturally going to be prone to and fall into the same trap. I also feel that at times, concepts like not using aversives are applied rather incompletely and arbitrarily.

Most recently, I was reading a book by a very famous trainer, one whose techniques I use for reactivity, and yet I found the suggests for what is aversive and what isn’t surprising.

- The trainer suggested using Bitter Apple spray on things you don’t want chewed to make those things taste unpleasant, but specified not to spray it in the dog’s mouth.

- It said to use a long line to train recall but to not use leash pressure or to reel the dog in if they don’t respond but was fine with, when recalling two dogs, to only treat the one that gets back to you fastest.

- When a dog jumps up, it’s fine to step on the leash (letting the dog bump against the end of it) but not to use the leash to bump the dog off if they jump up.

- Instead of “No” the book professed that you should use “Try again” or “Oops”. Never mind the fact that all three of those are no reward markers, “No” apparently just sounds more icky.

- When it came to release word suggests the book included; “That’ll do” (mostly used for herding breeds” but not the much more common “Break”. I would guess because of its association and common use by working dog trainers.

None of that is a cohesive philosophy. There are going to be holes in any trainer’s philosophy, but I’m not impressed that holes that wide made themselves into published format. Just because something seems aversive to us doesn’t make it aversive to the dog.

The training facility I worked at for four years was what is known as a balanced training facility. It made use of all tools (yes, prong collars, e-collars, and such) depending on a variety of circumstances including the owner, individual dog, past history, and more. And while there was some I didn’t agree with and much I don’t use personally with my own dogs or present client dogs, it was a very different perspective for me to see than compared to trainers who only use all positive, force free, R+, or one of the many other terms that falls under LIMA. I think this has, perhaps, given me a unique perspective on aversives compared to many of the people whose books I’m reading.

When I was learning to teach scent detection, my teacher said something that resonated with me and has very much changed the way I look at dog training. In scent detection, when you are hiding odor, it is extremely common in people new to the sport to always hide the odor far from the entry point to the search area when they are trying to make a difficult search. So if you enter the room in the far right corner of the room, they will place the hide in the opposite diagonal corner of the room. If you are searching a row of containers, they will place the hide in the furthest container. The problems with this is two-fold: 1) you teach the dog to come into a search area and immediately seek out the furthest corner away and 2) this isn’t actually necessarily more difficult for the dog than other hide locations and in fact can be relatively straight-forward for the dog because you get a clear odor-cone. Conversely, many many dogs struggle with hides that are placed close to the beginning of the search area because the odor pools in odd ways or because they come in so excited that they just plain miss the hide. Most people would think a hide right at the start is super easy, but that is not the case for the dog. And so I learned ‘just because it seems hard to the humans, doesn’t make it hard for the dog.’

As I said, that concept changed my entire way of thinking about dog training. If I could make a mistake on something that seems so obvious (further = harder) then what else am I failing to look at from my dog’s perspective. And that’s when I came to look at aversives from a new perspective.

There was an Alaskan Malamute puppy at my old facility. His owner brought him to our weekly Puppy Party (for dogs under 16 weeks to experience other puppy socialization in play-style appropriate groups). This Malamute puppy was among the worst players I’ve seen, and I’ve seen, no joke, thousands of dogs play together. He would pin other dogs from a young age, mouth with a very hard mouth, grab dog’s necks and pull them. There were times when we brought in an adult dog who could handle the play better and there were times when we split the play groups much further than we usually would have. At 8 weeks this behavior was something we were looking to curb early and as he got older it quickly became, to my eyes, dangerous. I kept having flashbacks to a Malamute puppy who’d come through our program who had a similar play-style at that age and people kept ignoring the warning signs. That dog ended up with a Level 4 bite on another dog.

Typically at that facility when a puppy got overly rowdy, nippy, or pushy the procedure was: step in between the puppies to interrupt play, redirect with food or verbally, if this failed then a brief squirt with a spray bottle paired with “no” and praising the puppy with “Good Off” as soon as the puppy redirected their attention elsewhere. We’d then ‘consent test’ to puppy to see if the puppy’s playmate wanted to go back and play or if they needed a break.

This was the procedure that was followed with this Malamute puppy (who was going to be a very big dog judging by his size as a puppy). The owner told the trainers that we was training his puppy using all positive methods, so he didn’t want us to squirt his puppy. A reasonable request in most cases, but one that was harder to follow with his very pushy puppy. The owner instead went around and every time his puppy started to hang on to another puppy’s neck he would go and gently scoop his puppy up and move him to another area of the play-space. Within a few sessions, the Malamute puppy started to duck his head, dodge his owner’s hands, grab on harder to his playmates. Any attempts to redirect with food were ignored because mouthing his playmates was far more rewarding. The owner was confused as to why his puppy seemed so reluctant and avoidant when his owner reached for him. After all, he was using gentle methods of redirection, why did his dog not like it?

What his owner had done was teach his pup that picking him up or leading him away meant that the fun was ending. That was extremely aversive to the puppy and handling the puppy on a day-to-day basis became an increasing challenge for the owner. Handling became an aversive. Additionally, this method had another drawback- the Malamute never learned how to disengage by himself. Instead, he learned that he could play as hard and as long as he wanted and that his owner would intervene instead of the puppy learning how to stop on his own.

We ended up asking the owner to not come back after a few weeks (long before the age cap), something we rarely did, because the situation wasn’t tenable in that hectic environment and his dog needed more controlled, one-on-one exposure before adding the excitement of other dogs.

In that case, in that environment, a squirt bottle once would have been far less aversive to the dog than picking him up.

So, what about some other examples? I worked with sighthounds on a relatively regular basis at my old job. Very often people would come to us seeking recall help. With sighthounds, any long line work (dog is on a 20’+ leash) can be difficult and sometimes dangerous. If they get going too quickly they could snag the line, tangle, and easily break a leg. This is a possible danger with any dog on a long line, but it’s a bigger issue with sighthounds. The frequent problem is that the dogs’ recall was excellent in a small yard where the dog knew they could easily be caught, but they couldn’t be safely worked on a long line, and any larger fenced field would take forever for them to be able to catch their dog (because once the dog saw they could really stretch their legs and open up, suddenly they didn’t feel like coming back).

Often for these dogs, trainers would recommend starting a low-level stimulation e-collar protocol. (example here and here). In short: the dog was conditioned to low level stimulation (think TENS machine level stimulation) in a positive manner (paired with food often). That stimulation was then paired with a known cue “Puppy, Come Here”. The idea was that the low level stim became a tap on the shoulder from a distance. As soon as the dog turns and commits to coming back, the tapping ceased. The idea was to tactilely communicate with the dog from a distance, to be the little angel on the dog’s shoulder reminding them that there was more to life than running.

Through these means I saw so many sighthounds and running breeds (GSP, Vizsla, etc) who had been confined to leash walking or small yards suddenly have huge fenced acreage available to them. Their entire world opened up before them. And I can honestly tell you, without exception, every single owner had a better relationship with their dog after that training. Running is what many breeds are biologically meant to do, they won’t find anything more fulfilling (a post for another time) and denying your dog that is unfortunate. Not being free to stretch their legs is far more aversive to those dogs than low level stimulation ever will be.

I posit that training should always start from the dog’s perspective, not from what we think the dog should want.

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