I was in Crewe this weekend to present a talk on Free Will Teaching at Rixton Dog School in Warrington. We started with looking at what free will teaching is and it’s four stages – Subliminal, Shaping, Active, Partnership, then moving on to the basics of FWT techniques to teach our animals.
When we can teach understanding and awareness, we can then teach our animals real choice and decision making about how they manage themselves in daily life, what activities they do, and also to know how to regulate their emotional minds, and when to rest and relax to keep their minds and bodies healthy and strong.
There are so many misconceptions and myths about how much dogs and horses can learn, that teaching is often kept at a basic level, when in fact they can learn so much more. I have worked like this for years and my own, and clients, dogs and horses show the amazing achievements that can be reached by teaching without preconceived limitations.
The day finished with some lively and interesting discussions about applying FWT to problems and to further teach the companions we live with.
Everyone attending was really welcoming, supportive and interested in how I work, it was a real pleasure to teach and engage people to show what heights our companion animals can reach when we allow them to reach their full potential.
I’m doing another free will teaching workshop in Wimborne in April, with more dates added later in the year. Please do get in touch if you’d like me to put one on in your area.
The animals we work and live with do not know the dangers of our human world, yet we often expect them to behave as if they are fully aware of such things. We expect them to give us an appropriate behaviour for the circumstances they find themselves in, often without thought for the fact that animals are a different species and so will have different instincts and behaviour to those we want them to express. A human behaviour trait is to try harder if the first time we ask doesn’t work. You ask your dog or horse to do something, and they don’t comply with your request. One of the first instinctual responses you have is irritation, and so repeat your request in a stronger manner. Our first choice is often to apply more pressure, in the form of force and coercion. It’s all downhill from there, as you employ increasing pressure to make the other party do what you want. Again, a human trait, that you must not back down, you must show strength or you will be considered weak, and whoever you were trying to tell what to do will then be in charge of you. This piece of advice is often given to horse and dog owners, with the label of dominance. However, dominance is a human concept, inappropriately applied to how we interact with animals.
The best piece of advice to give to people regarding this, is to forget you heard it, stop thinking you must do what someone else says you should, and instead, start using common sense and genuine care for the animals you are with.
You do not need to make your animal feel scared or unhappy.
You do not need to follow rank reduction programmes, or dominance theory.
You do not need to continue until the animal does what you want.
You do not need to listen to advice that you should not let your animal get away with anything, they must obey at all times.
You do not need to listen to advice that you should withhold love, affection and comforts as your animal will come to expect them, and think he is in charge.
Some of my clients actually sigh with relief when I tell them this.
It is said that doing everything before your dog will show him you are dominant and the alpha. You must eat first, go through doors first, etc. IT WILL NOT.
Your dog will just get hungrier whilst you eat, usually resulting in attempts to secure some of your food! Your dog does not understand that whoever goes through a door first is considered to be the most important – he just wants to get out in the garden.
That continuing to force your horse until he gives a behaviour will show him you are in charge and dominant. IT WILL NOT. Your horse will become increasingly anxious and learn that you are a source of pain, and to be avoided.
If you don’t show him who is boss he will run rings round you. HE WILL NOT.
Allowing an animal to do something different to what you have asked, or choose what he wants to do will lead to chaos. IT WILL NOT. A lack of teaching will lead to chaos, plain and simple.
There is a better way, and that is teaching with positive methods, giving a choice, and using positive reinforcement for the best conditions for learning, improving confidence and self awareness. This in turn gives, safety, reliability, and contentment.
When I am with animals, I am not the alpha, leader, or in charge. I am part of our group, whether that is me and my two horses, me and my dog, or another scenario. We each have strengths, preferences, things we enjoy, and whoever is best for the task at hand is the one the rest of the group is guided by. A true partnership is about giving all members of the group the ability and freedom to express themselves and choose what they do or don’t do, as long as everyone is kept safe.
So how do we achieve this?
I am their teacher, helping them understand how to interpret this human world they live in.
As they learn, I become their guide, suggesting a good course of action.
As they become aware, they become my guide; I go along with their choice as long as it isn’t dangerous, or completely wrong for the situation we are in.
As our relationship of trust, understanding, and awareness develops, we each contribute to what we do that day, and how we solve any difficulties along the way.
A true statement, and one that reminds us to always treat our dogs with compassion and understanding, regardless of what they may do or how they behave. This caused me to think of my puppy, Wolfie, who is going through his teenager stage. It is not easy to remain calm and composed when dealing with the resulting behaviours, but how people deal with this difficult period makes a huge difference to how your puppy’s personality develops as he becomes an adult.
Wolfie is 5&¾ months old and his hormones kicked in about 4 weeks ago. Living with any teenage puppy is difficult, and there are a few more considerations when your puppy is a giant breed. Wolfie is an Irish Wolfhound, weighs about 45kg and is the size of an adult German Shepherd. He still has a lot of growing to do.
Puppies are often very boisterous when they play, biting and growling, racing around, pouncing, and trying to engage with anything and everything, in a very happy and excited manner, flopping to the floor when they are worn out. When your puppy becomes a teenager, his arousal and frustration levels go up, and his tolerance level goes down. This results in the same type of play, but with a different emotional state, due to hormones and changes in his brain chemistry. He is restless, unsatisfied, and doesn’t know what to do with himself. Play is not so pleasurable, he gets frustrated, and as he tries harder to resolve these emotions, he tips into mania. This is not a balanced state of mind, nor is it one that can be easily distracted or calmed.
When Wolfie has a hormone surge, I am the obvious target for venting that frustration as the only moving object to interact with. He’ll use toys or branches of the trees as a means of getting it out his system and calming down when on his own, but not when I am about. Normal behaviour for a puppy going through the teenage period, but strategies need to be put in place to help him calm down. The emotions he is experiencing mean that he tries harder to achieve some relief, but gets ever more frustrated when that doesn’t happen. Your puppy is not enjoying this, he is trying to reach resolution, and that may mean an increased drive to interact with you, resulting in reverting to puppy biting behaviour, but without the restraint that he had when he was younger. It looks like he is intentionally trying to bite you, and this is when the relationship can break down. There is also an increased chance of injury, more so when the puppy in question is a giant breed.
This period is one that we often find the most difficult to cope with. Our puppy who has been taught how to behave calmly, not eat the furniture, or bite us, has lost the plot, and is once again doing all those things. Worse, he’s bigger, stronger, and far more intent on this manic behaviour than ever before.
It is important to understand that your puppy is not in control of himself when he behaves like this, he is not intentionally trying to bite you or destroy the furniture, although it seems that way. It is also difficult to control your own emotional response to his behaviour. We get frustrated and upset, asking ourselves why would he do that if he loves us? Why would he try to bite those who care for him, look after him and love him? It undermines our trust in our puppy, and may cause us to behave in a way that is not optimum for either of us. But, using force to handle the situation can put you both in danger, and the outcome is never good.
What should we do? Remember the quote at the start of this piece. How will your puppy feel if you meet his perceived aggressively challenging behaviour with aggressive behaviour of your own? What will his eyes say, when he looks at you? It’s hard-wired into all of us to respond to the things we perceive as a threat. Retaliation by striking out at our puppy when he is coming at us with his teeth, intending to bite, is a reaction that can happen before we have had time to process what we are doing, and that your puppy is not a threat, rather he has no idea what he is doing.
Instead, we must suspend our emotional response and approach this with the compassion and understanding it deserves. Our puppy is at the mercy of hormones and emotions, and what he really needs from us is calm behaviour and kind strategies, based in positive methods, that enable him to get through this difficult stage as easily as is possible. Approaching things in this way ensures that the trust between you and your puppy remains intact, strengthens, and develops. It results in you both have a better relationship and understanding of each other, a true partnership, and bond that cannot be broken.
Deciding what to do first is not always easy, so today’s post is about prioritising. Life remains hectic here, and there is always so much to do. Updating readers is a really good way of looking at what you have on the go, and what needs to be done, when.
So, in no particular order, this is where I am at the moment.
Charlie and Star have just moved into their winter field after we’ve had some new fencing put up. They are very happy, and are spending all their time out there – I don’t think they’ve been in the barn for more than a drink. Training has taken a back seat, but I have a list of things that I want to teach them next.
My first book, A Tale of Two Horses, has gone to the printers, hooray! The last few weeks have been spent on final proof reading, adjustments and index writing, with not much time for anything else. Now this has finished, there is nothing more to do on the actual book, the next tasks will be marketing and promoting it.
Wolfie our Irish Wolfhound puppy continues to take up a good chunk of time each day. He’s now five and a half months old, his hormones have kicked in, and he is a teenager! He needs lots of time, patience and teaching to get through this difficult period. He is doing really well and mostly we have a calm and balanced puppy, who only occasionally loses the plot.
Puppy classes are busy, there was a quiet start to the year, but things have got a lot busier. I have three foundation courses on the go at the moment, all at different stages.
I’m part way through a series of articles on aggression for Kennel & Cattery magazine, which I am really enjoying writing.
I have also started my next book, which is about bringing up a puppy – as you can imagine Wolfie is providing me with lots of material for this, and reminding me of things I had forgotten. The last time we had a puppy was ten and a half years ago, with Indie our Great Dane.
I’m currently taking the writing101 course with WordPress, and am exploring different types of writing, as well as posting to this blog. I have some ideas about short stories, which is a new direction for me, as my writing is usually factual or technical pieces on animal behaviour and training.
Added to these things, I run my behavioural business and see clients, I teach art once a week, I try to keep up with facebook and twitter, and look after the house and farm, when hubby is at work!
On to prioritizing all these activities.
Wolfie remains my first priority. He is at such an important stage, and it would be very detrimental to his development and growing up to be a well balanced adult if I do not take the time to teach him.
The next consideration is what is important at this stage of his life? Where do I concentrate my teaching? Without a doubt, the most important thing to teach now is how to calm down his mind when he is over the top. Impulse control, self restraint and managing arousal levels in the brain is essential at this stage in his life. It will help mange this difficult period, and will teach him how to be in control of his emotional mind, not be swept along by it. Essentially, it will set him up to be a well balanced adult, who can manage his emotions, and his behaviour is guided primarily by his thinking brain, not his emotional brain.
Charlie and Star are at the stage where they will benefit from me teaching them more, but there is not an essential time-frame, or specific things that must be done now. They will enjoy my company, and we will continue to develop our relationship if I can spend some regular time with them, even if it is only in short sessions. They enjoy learning, and keeping it going, even when you only have limited time, is well worth it. We often think that there is no point if we don’t have enough time, but a little teaching when you can, soon builds up, and things are learnt without so much expectation to achieve them, which can be a benefit, depending on how your horse learns.
I’m really excited about writing my next book, and showing people how to bring up a puppy to be a perfect adult. There are so many dilemma’s as to what to do when dealing with puppy and adolescent behaviours, how to approach things to you don’t create future problems, what to teach and when, socialisation, and how to get through that very challenging teenager period. As Wolfie is providing me with inspiration and a huge amount of material to write about as we go through these things ourselves, I want to write this book as we experience life together.
Charlie and Star, and writing this book, are the next priorities after Wolfie.
Clients book in as they need to, so everything fits in around work.
Articles have deadlines, and so they temporarily take priority as necessary.
Social media, and promoting the business all have to be maintained, but there is nothing specific that I need to prioritize at them moment.
Whether you are juggling lots of activities, or don’t know what you should teach or develop next with your horse or dog, writing it down, noting time-scales for activities or specific behaviours, and going through the options, helps clarify what you do next and provides a way forward.
Adding something the animal will work for to strengthen (increase the frequency of) a behaviour.
It looks fairly straight forward, what’s the big deal?
Every being has a motivational system, so why would you not tap into that and make life easy for yourself? You can make training difficult if you like, but why would you, when there is a much more effective and easily understood way. The natural motivations for food, comfort, play and affection are already in place in the animals, you don’t need to teach them. I know that my dog will come to me if I have a bit of sausage in my hand. I know my horse will follow me if I have a carrot in my hand. This is easy. It uses built-in behaviours and emotional drives to great effect. And crucially? It is all positive reinforcement. Which means the dog or horse is very likely to want to do it again.
When you think about the various training methods and what to use, think of these sayings;
Don’t fix something if it isn’t broken.
Why reinvent the wheel?
Keeping things simple, straightforward and making the most of things that are already in place can be more effective than trying to invent it all yourself, and makes life easier.
It doesn’t make any sense to use aversion and force, as you have to teach these things. Yes, I know animals also have motivational systems for avoidance, but not as humans apply it. That is learned the hard way by the horse, through repetitive means until the horse complies. To make matters worse, it is not clear to the horse what the correct response should be, until he happens to stumble onto it. It is all very ambiguous, inefficient, and ethically wrong.
Give your horse an enjoyable motivation to do what is being taught and he will learn quickly. Not only that, what he has learnt will be reliable, and transferable to many other situations. This is very different to getting him to do something by giving him the motivation to avoid something else. This is also transferable to different situations, but who wants a horse that is conditioned to avoidance? Horses are quite good at this without any additional reinforcement from us! If this is his default strategy, this is what he will do in any new situation that he finds he doesn’t want to be in, and that makes it very hard for you to achieve a different response and outcome.
So what will motivate a horse to do something, rather than avoid something?
What will motivate a dog to do something, rather than avoid something?
Every horse or dog may have different likes and dislikes, so what have you found that works? Please leave a comment, I’ll discuss this in the next post.
When I am working with any species of animal, I will work to balance instincts and responses. Reinforcing innate drives and motivations will make them stronger. This is not always a good thing. It is, if you are working them and need to develop that drive, but if you think about it, you develop a specific aspect and application of it, you don’t just reinforce it as a whole, or the animal is likely to perform it whenever he wants to, regardless of whether it is the right application or not. You want to reinforce the motivation when in the correct context, not generally. It’s about putting it on cue so that you don’t get it when it’s inappropriate. That cue may be anything, it could be a voice cue or visual cue from you, or it could be cued to an environment, particular place, or specific circumstances.
A racehorse will race when he is on the racetrack. A sight hound will chase when he sees small animals moving. If that drive is reinforced without any focus, how difficult is it going to be to interrupt it? Very difficult. The behaviour is self rewarding, and the more it is practised, the stronger it becomes. If that behaviour is tempered with training so the horse or dog can interrupt it, is taught where to perform it and where it is not safe to do so, then you can balance those motivations. If left unchecked, the behaviour will not be a balanced part of the personality, but an overriding trait that will be difficult to counter. It is not much fun if your racehorse thinks that a canter always turns into an all out race, and every long stretch is for running as fast as possible. That does not make for a safe or enjoyable experience. Neither will you enjoy walking your dog if he chases off after everything in sight, and you have to continually go and find him.
Teaching impulse control is a very important part of learning, and invaluable for being safe around any animal. This means that the racehorse can interrupt his instinct to run, and the sight hound can interrupt his instinct to chase, making both animals safer and more reliable. It also means that humans have the ability to keep him, and those around him, safe. The only way to achieve this level of safety, and control of the situation and the animal’s behaviour is if the horse or dog does it himself. You are not, and never will be in control of his mind.
There is no denying it, if your horse has taken it upon himself to race, you are going to have a hard time trying to stop him on your own. And by on your own, I mean without any input from the horse. Yes, you could use all your aids with increasing force, try to turn him so that he has to stop or run into something, but this should be an emergency situation, not a normal part of your interactions. It is not safe, has a created negative associations for the horse and the behaviour is not likely to change if it is regularly repeated. Besides, any horse is far stronger than the strongest human, so there is every chance that he will be sufficiently motivated to ignore whatever force you use to try to stop him. What options do you have if you are on a horse that is immune to all you do? One. And that is to teach him to manage his own behaviour, have awareness, and learn lots of exercises and routines that you can then employ to diffuse the situation safely.
The same applies to your sight hound. Off lead, this is imperative, as there is no chance of running after him and regaining control of the situation, he’ll be gone, and your two human legs will not keep up! On lead, it may seem as though you have control, but how many people have their arm pulled off every time their dog sees something and decides to chase? His chase is cut short, but only at the expense of your arm and his neck if wearing a collar, or body if on a harness.
Control is something you perceive you have over animals, but in reality, you do not. You cannot control their thoughts, instincts, motivations, or actions. You can shape, balance and guide these things, and the best way to do this is through positive reinforcement. The result is that they will find what you teach them enjoyable, which means they will be happy, even eager to repeat these behaviours. And that is what will give you the confidence to know you can successfully and reliably manage your horse or dog, whatever situation you both find yourself in.