Thursday, October 24, 2013

Free & Low Cost Training Help

Mary Alverson (formerly Harwelik), certified trainer of Enlightened Canine Consulting, RPB Director and head of our Training & Behavior Department, is available on the RPB Forum Monday through Friday for help with behavioral and training issues/questions.

This service is free - just sign up to the forum (free and easy) and post your questions/concerns on the Training & Behavior board (you are also free to participate on any part of the forum! It is a great little community full of supportive, breed-savvy people).

Mary has been working with Pit Bulls for approximately 18 years. She has been training dogs and studying behavior for longer. She is certified through the CCPDT and her specialty is Pit Bulls and behavior. You can be sure you are getting accurate, real-world advice and help from Mary, someone who has made Pit Bulls her life for close to 2 decades. Mary uses only positive reinforcement, and modern/scientific training techniques. If you are confused about all the advice you can find online or in books, let Mary steer you in the right direction.

Pit Bull School is the program offered through RPB that offers this free service as well as low cost classes, phone consultations and in-home training and behavioral help. Classes and in-home services will resume in 2014 in NJ, but for now take advantage of the free forum service. If you are looking for something a little more and would like to schedule a private phone or email consultation with Mary, please email her: realpitbull@gmail.com

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Do Pit Bulls Have a Propensity for Dog-Directed Aggression?

**Please note this article is written by a behavior specialist who has spent most of her time working with Pit Bulls since 1994. When speaking about "Pit Bulls", the author is referring to American Pit Bull Terriers, or rescued dogs believed to be American Pit Bull Terriers.

There is a trend today in rescue, shelter work, and advocacy to call a wide variety of breeds and mixes "pit bulls" as slang; the term "pit bull" when used as slang, means absolutely nothing: it can refer to almost any short haired, blocky dog. When used in such a manner, this term is used as a label for a group of dogs comprised of what amounts to nothing more than a random sampling of the species - NOT a specific breed or even breed mix. When dogs are grouped like this, NO generalizations can be made except in terms of basic, nonspecific species behavior. When one is speaking about a purebred breed of dog, however, breed generalizations absolutely can be made - it is when speaking about a specific breed of dog that discussions about dog-directed aggression can be had, for example as in this blog post.

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The one million dollar question - are Pit Bulls more prone to showing dog-directed aggression than other breeds? Is this a question that can even be answered?

This is a topic that gets debated with considerable ferocity, not just by people involved in the breed in a positive capacity, but also amongst groups and leaders who seek to ban the Pit Bull. It is a delicate topic, if only because of the anti-Pit Bull political climate, but one that must be broached and begs a moderate stance.

There are 400+ breeds. There are many types of aggression - fear, predatory (which really belongs in its own category as it is not true aggression), "dominance" (I prefer the term 'conflict aggression'), territorial, dog-directed, human-directed, idiopathic (i.e. of unknown origin), etc. There is "normal" aggression (all dogs can potentially be aggressive, and aggression is a normal and natural survival trait), and pathological aggression that is out of context and exaggerated. Also, aggression that appears in one breed may be considered pathological while that same sort of aggression appearing in another breed may be considered typical or expected. Case in point: some tendency for dog-directed aggression in Pit Bulls is not considered a fault per se, but in Goldens it is an extremely undesirable trait. As a comparison, wary, guarding-type behaviors are desired in some breeds yet in Pit Bulls would be considered huge faults in temperament.

Really, it's pretty difficult - if not impossible - to verify the validity of a statement like "This breed is 'more or less' aggressive than ALL OTHER BREEDS". There are just too many variables. We don't have "aggression genes" pinpointed yet (so we cannot simply do a genetic test), and there have been no exhaustive studies done on aggression and its manifestation within various breeds. And science has pretty much come to the conclusion that behavior is an inextricable combination of nature and environmental learning. For a complex notion like aggression (which is not a single behavior but a suite of behaviors), there are no simple answers.

What is feasible and reasonable, however, is to look at a single breed you're familiar with, and compare it to other dogs you've come across. The Pit Bull, for instance, a breed I am very familiar with and have studied since 1994. Also, as a certified dog trainer, and someone who is just plain obsessed with all things dog (especially dog behavior), I've had lots of opportunity for and actively sought to do hands-on work with a variety of breeds and have gone out of my way to observe and study behavior.

What I've observed in the breed is a high tendency to exhibit dog-directed aggression. Notice I say 'tendency to exhibit' - I am not calling the breed 'dog-aggressive', as I do not think there is such a thing as a 'dog-aggressive breed'. Dogs are not born with aggressive behavior - they learn it.

I can't prove percentage-wise or point to a study that shows that Pit Bulls exhibit a higher rate of dog-directed aggression than all other breeds (although I do believe that they exhibit a higher rate than many other breeds). This is a breed, after all, that was carefully selectively bred specifically for dog on dog combat. This is a point that cannot be ignored. Relatively few breeds were bred specifically for the unnatural purpose of fighting and doing damage to members of their own kind. To believe for a moment that your average German Shepherd (bred for herding/police work) or Golden Retriever (bred for retrieving during hunts) will exhibit the same propensity for exhibiting dog-directed aggression than the average Pit Bull will, is naïve at best and really downright dangerous at worst.

Pit Bulls often exhibit arousal around other dogs, overexcitedly seeking to interact and play with others. Their play is rough and dogs of other breeds often are overwhelmed by the play behavior of Pit Bulls. This rough play can easily escalate to the point where someone's pushed to the point of over-arousal or bitten too hard or is misinterpreted, hence a fight breaking out.

It is specifically because of a propensity for dog-directed aggression that Pit Bulls are not the breed for the average dog owner. Just as many mastiff and livestock guarding breeds were bred for a high degree of wariness towards humans and a strong tendency to exhibit aggression towards humans that are not part of their own family unit are ill-advisedly owned by the typical person in search of a dog, so is the Pit Bull very often an incorrect choice.

The irony is that Pit Bulls are an extremely human friendly breed, and any aggression towards humans is viewed as a major flaw. In fact, during the creation of this breed, there was a strong tendency to cull (eliminate from the gene pool) any dogs that exhibited human aggression. This tendency continues today, and in fact any breeder that produces "guard" or "protection" Pit Bulls or Pit Bulls with any propensity towards human aggression is shunned by the fancy at large and looked down upon.

In this society where dogs are increasingly viewed as "protectors" of home and family or as cuddly objects that are akin to live stuffed animals and expected to get along with every animal that crosses their paths, the Pit Bull is left stuck in a misunderstood middle.

When kept by a person with the wherewithal for proper management, this breed can excel at many tasks despite any propensity for dog-aggression. And this propensity can be managed and handled so as to never cause any trouble for guardian, dog or other dogs. It is mismanagement that is an increasing problem and a huge factor contributing to the large number of Pit Bull (and all dog) attacks on other members of their own species that are regularly appearing in papers across the country.

It is imperative that any person involved in rescue and placement of Pit Bulls understand the intricacies of Pit Bull behavior, particularly that of dog-aggression, so they may choose the appropriate homes and properly educate new guardians. This involves recognizing the varying degrees of dog-directed aggressive behavior that can show up in the breed, precursor behaviors, and triggers. By no means are all Pit Bulls going to show dog-directed aggression to any significant degree. Each dog needs to be evaluated as an individual while respect is also given to breed traits and tendencies as well.

Is the declaration, "Pit Bulls are dog-aggressive!" going to make the anti-Pit Bull legislators' jobs easier? There is no easy answer to this debate. But reality-based education of guardians who are ultimately responsible for the breed's future is sorely needed. No matter how often the chant of "Pit Bulls are no more dog-aggressive than any other breed!" is yelled from the rooftops, if irresponsible or naïve guardians are allowing their dogs to attack, injure and kill other dogs/animals, the chant will fall on deaf ears and the breed will continue to face outlaw status.

The best friend of the Pit Bull are guardians who are educated about their breed of choice and therefore capable handlers who keep their dogs out of trouble and out of the crosshairs of those who would ban the breed.

--Mary L. Harwelik, Certified Pet Dog Trainer; behavior & Pit Bull specialist; Founder & Director of The Real Pit Bull, Inc.

Friday, June 28, 2013

“Ok, so what the heck is a ‘pit bull’”?

The tons of written material out there – most of it new – pertaining to defining “pit bull” is extremely confusing and even misinformed in many cases. In this post we’ll try to sort through the mess and get to the bottom of the term Pit Bull, explain what RPB means when we say "Pit Bull", and hopefully steer you towards the correct usage of this breed nickname.

Let’s get this first fact out of the way. The ONLY BREED ever known to have the words Pit Bull as part of its official, recognized breed name is the AMERICAN PIT BULL TERRIER (APBT), which was officially named in 1898 by the United Kennel Club. The term ‘pit bull’ comes from this breed’s official, registry-recognized name. That’s a fact; it’s indisputable.

The Real Pit Bull, Inc. (RPB) was founded circa 1997, as a breed education source for the American Pit Bull Terrier. The reason the name The Real Pit Bull was chosen was to reference the REAL - not the media-hyped up, false version of the "monster" - Pit Bull, the truth about it, not the fictitious version. We've always been breed-specific, educating on breed-specific traits. Eventually we grew and morphed into a breed-focused rescue. Breed rescues focus on purebred or believed-to-be-purebred dogs of their focused-on breed. Hence, at RPB, we focus ONLY on American PIT BULL Terriers.

RPB only uses the term Pit Bull when we are referencing the American Pit Bull Terrier, or dogs of unknown ancestry we believe to be APBTs. Makes sense, right? It’s the ONLY breed with the words PIT BULL in its name. Let’s compare this use of a nickname to another breed. How about the Rottweiler? Although the dogs are officially recognized with the breed name ROTTWEILER, they are often called Rotts or Rotties for short. We can do the same thing with Doberman Pinschers. Officially known as Doberman Pinschers, they are often called Dobes, referencing the purebred, specific breed of dog, by a very distinct nickname that obviously can only apply to the Doberman Pinscher.

(How many nicknames pertaining to other breeds can you come up with? Do you use any of these breed nicknames to reference breeds/dogs OTHER than the official breed?)

But I’ve read a lot of breed specific legislation [BSL], and the laws as written always state “pit bull” as meaning these three dog breeds: the American Pit Bull Terrier [APBT], the American Staffordshire Terrier [AST], and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier [SBT] – so obviously “pit bull” can be used to reference more than one breed….right?” Well, not really. First of all, it is best not to follow the lead of people who support and write legislation meant to ban our dogs based on the notion that they are inherently vicious man-eaters. If we took the word of breed specific legislation, we’d also have to concede that Pit Bulls are vicious, unsafe companions, that shouldn’t be kept in our communities. But the inclusion of three specifically-named dog breeds in BSL has more to do with the similar history of these dogs and confusion generated by breed registries.

Get to know your breed history, and speak with experts involved with their breed of choice, talk to breed clubs. Don't look to the media, and be careful believing what you read on websites that often simply parrot each other (instead of having been authored by people actually involved with the breed(s) they are speaking on or having done real research).

The American Pit Bull Terrier and American Staffordshire Terrier were the same exact breed with the same exact history until 1936 when the American Kennel Club recognized the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) but changed its name to Staffordshire Terrier (later on adding the prefix American). In fact, up until very recently, any American Staffordshire Terrier (AST) could also be registered as an American Pit Bull Terrier with the United Kennel Club and can still be registered as such with the American Dog Breeders Association. Whether or not you consider the APBT and the AST to be the same breed at this point all comes down to what your definition of “breed” is and whether or not you consider the AST to be significantly different from the American Pit Bull Terrier at this point due to selective breeding. Obviously, if you consider the AST to be a separate breed from the APBT, the ADBA disagrees with you – and so do we. RPB considers the APBT and the AST to be THE SAME BREED. You can really call either a Pit Bull and not be wrong. Read all about APBT (and AST) here. It’s convoluted, but this is the reason BSL names American Pit Bull Terriers and American Staffordshire Terriers specifically and separately – they are the same dogs, known under different names based on the registry they are connected with.

What about the Staffordshire Bull Terrier (SBT)? Although the SBT is a breed separate and apart from the APBT and AST, they are very closely related and come from the same original bull-and-terrier crosses that the APBT and AST come from. The flow of history and breed creation just took the SBT along a similar albeit separate path. The SBT was recognized as a breed by the AKC in 1975. You can read about SBT history and see how similar their history is to that of the APBT and AST here at the AKC website.

APBT and AST people often call their dogs “Pit Bulls” for short (although some AST folks do balk at that term, or consider, at this point, the APBT and AST to be very similar but separate breeds), but SBT people are very definite about the fact that their dogs are NOT Pit Bulls and are not to be called such. A quote from the Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club of America, on its rescue page, very adamantly states the following: "The Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club of America ("SBTCA") assists with the rescue and rehoming of pure bred English Staffordshire Bull Terriers. Unfortunately this is not the place for Pit Bull Rescue…." Clearly distinguishing the SBT from the Pit Bull – noting they are separate breeds – the SBTC does not extend rescue help to Pit Bulls. And why would they? They are a club that is dedicated to the SBT. (As an aside, many so-called “pit bull rescues” on the other hand, include SBTs in their list of “pit bull breeds” that they rescue – these are usually rescues that pay no mind to distinguishing one breed from another and use the BSL-defined “pit bull” as their reference point for what dogs they do and do not pull into their rescue.) It should be noted that SBTs are very rare, and almost never involved in any attacks whatsoever. It’s almost a formality that they are tossed under the BSL bus along with APBTs and ASTs, simply by virtue of their closely-related history and look.

BSL in addition to listing the APBT, AST and SBT separately will also often include a phrase like, “…and any dog with similar characteristics to any of the above breeds”. It’s clear why BSL is worded like this, isn’t it? Since many dogs may not actually come with papers and pedigree proving what breed they are or are not, BSL attempts to cover all bases by including dogs that MAY be Pit Bulls by virtue of the fact that they look like Pit Bulls. It doesn’t mean they ARE Pit Bulls, it just means that they share some physical attributes, so they better be targeted “just in case”. The onus would be on the accused’s human to prove the dog is NOT actually a “pit bull” (APBT, AST, SBT) as defined by BSL. If the owner COULD prove that the dog is NOT a “pit bull” as defined by BSL, the dog would be exempt – doesn’t matter WHAT the dog looks like at that point, just so long as it is proven it’s not a “pit bull”. So you see, it’s not really about “any short, stocky dog with a big head being a ‘pit bull’ ” it’s about making sure any BSL-defined "pit bulls" fall under the jurisdiction of BSL, and if that means some OTHER breeds/mixes get targeted in the process, so be it.

Just because PIT BULL is used in a certain way, to make sure all bases are covered and due to the fact that certain breeds are very closely related – almost indistinguishably so – doesn’t mean that the term has no meaning, that "pit bull" is “no such breed” and that it doesn’t actually refer to a very specific breed of dog.

BSL also targets OTHER breeds. Breeds like American Bulldogs, Dogo Argentino, or Cane Corso may be specifically named in BSL. That does not make these breeds Pit Bulls, it makes them breeds targeted by legislation meant to ban or restrict them.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The cost of doing business with the wrong trainer.

Because of Cesar Millan's affinity for Pit Bulls and supposed Pit Bull "expertise" a lot of our fellow Pit Bull fanatics seem to gravitate towards him. Not just gravitate towards him, but emulate him. Indeed, over the past several years, we've seen a lot of new "pit bull trainers" pop up seemingly mimicking Millan and trying to follow his recipe for success. We do occasionally post on this blog reminders that Cesar Millan's methods are highly controversial and nearly universally derided by animal behavior professionals (i.e. those with actual field degrees) and ethologists, and warn people away from Millan as well as anyone using similar aversive and dangerous techniques.

There is a clip floating around the internet showing Cesar Millan strangling a dog named Shadow that he repeatedly provokes into aggression. The clip is difficult to watch and at the end shows an exhausted, nearly asphyxiated animal laying on the ground. It's actually pretty horrific and that anyone could see this and still be a fan of Millan speaks to the problem of what we deem acceptable/normal in dog training due to the complete lack of regulation in the dog training field (no degrees, training, or certification is required to call oneself a "dog trainer").

We just stumbled across a couple of good blog articles that we'd like to share with our readers. The first is talking about the incident in which Millan strangles Shadow, posted on Psychology Today, and you can read that here. The second is not Millan-specific but talks about stress in dog training, how it can hamper learning, and also mentions a case in which a dog was subjected to a technique like the one Shadow experienced and received permanent serious physical damage to the point that the dog had to be euthanized. That second blog can be found here.

It's important for dog parents to take some time to learn about behavior and learning before launching into any training endeavor. Researching the person you are receiving instruction from is important, and please remember just because someone calls themselves an expert on TV or in real life, doesn't mean they know what they are doing. For the sake of the dogs, we cannot stress enough the importance of working with ONLY qualified, dog-friendly trainers, veterinary behaviorists, or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists. Your dog's physical, emotional and behavioral health is at stake.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Our Favorite Dog Books - Pt. 2: Training Book Must-Haves

Basic training and how-dogs-learn books are must-haves for every dog person's library. There is no shortage of fantastic, do-it-yourself, at-home training books available now that explain modern, effective dog training and behavior modification. Here are some books on the "basics" that we just love. These books have each inspired in some way our own training philosophy and program at The Real Pit Bull. They are great for beginners as well as those who have experience.

Dig in and enjoy!

One of the original and best books on what "positive dog training" is all about, this is the book that will help clear up a lot of questions and misconceptions about positive dog training. It's not about bribing or begging or being lenient - it's about applying science to teach your dog how to behave and do what you want. This is a great introduction to what it means to train dogs in a modern, humane way. POWER OF POSITIVE DOG TRAINING, 2ND EDITION

The ORIGINAL Dog Whisperer, Paul Owens, is the author of this fantastic book that details how to create an amazing relationship with your dog built on trust, understanding, and the use of positive reinforcement. If you are after a deep connection with your dog and not just into the idea of getting him to obey empty "commands", this book is for you. THE DOG WHISPERER, 2ND EDITION

Pam Dennison's excellent book on positive dog training is a great foundation-and-beyond read for anyone new or even already schooled in positive dog training. Detailed, fun to read, and written with a keen understanding of how to shape behavior using positive reinforcement, this book is one that should not be passed up. COMPLETE IDIOTS GUIDE TO POSITIVE DOG TRAINING - 3RD EDITION

What is "clicker training"? How is it applied to teach dogs? This little book is a great introduction to clicker training, which is the method we use at RPB to teach dogs and modify behavior. Karen Pryor, the author, is THE authority on clicker training and the source for all things "clicker". CLICKER TRAINING FOR DOGS

This handy book is filled with "recipes" for teaching your dog a variety of behaviors using the clicker. It's a great reference book and easy to use, written in a step-by-step style. CLICKING WITH YOUR DOG - STEP-BY-STEP IN PICTURES

Just about any question you've ever had about clicker training can be found in this book. It fills in all the little blanks to help make you the best clicker trainer you can be. Unsure about how to wean off the clicker? The answer's here! Want to build duration (teach your dog to sit longer, stay put for a while, etc)? Find out how, here! Don't know how to get your dog to follow a cue each and every time, whether you have a clicker or not? The answer's in this book! Reference-style and well-indexed to help you find what you are looking for fast and easy. CLICK FOR JOY! - QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS FROM CLICKER TRAINERS AND THEIR DOGS

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Clicker training takes over the world!

.....well, we think it would be amazing if it was the predominate method used to teach dogs, anyway. And RPB does its part to promote clicker training as a humane, effective method for teaching dogs new behaviors. It is our method of choice, what we use in our classes, and all of our foster dogs are clicker trained before being placed into new homes. One of our goals is to create a wide network of clicker-trained Pit Bulls - we call them Click Bulls ;-) - and Pit Bull parents who spread the word that positive, gentle training WORKS on even our big, burly, butchy dogs. Not only is clicker training a kind, progressive training method, it is also a new way of relating to the world at large. It fosters an attitude of patience, positivity and respect, as well as cultivates communication between species. It's truly a lovely way of interacting with and training your dog and has the power to positively impact our human world as well.

Clicker training: let's break it down! It starts with a small plastic "clicker". The clicker makes a fun sound that the dog learns to associate with food. In a very short time (usually only a few sessions of 5 minutes) the dog learns that "CLICK!" means "TREAT". (Training treats are small, pea-sized healthy and delicious foods that cannot be resisted. Bits of boiled chicken or liver, cheese, many natural dog training snacks that are on the market, baby carrots, Cheerios, anything the dog loves and is willing to accept as "pay".)

CLICK = TREAT

Once the dog begins to anticipate that a click means a treat is on the way, it's time to start teaching some new behaviors!

There are two ways to use the clicker to teach dogs behaviors - 1) the dog is "set-up" for success. We create an environment where the behavior is likely to occur (i.e. a quiet room with minimal distractions) and wait for the dog to perform the behavior or some approximation of that behavior. For instance, let's say we want to teach the dog to SIT. If we are hanging out in a boring room, where nothing interesting is going on, we can wait for the dog to get bored and say, "Hey, what gives?! Let's do something!" and happens to SIT. Once the dog SITS, we click and treat (toss the treat so the dog gets up, and then wait for the dog to sit again - watch how fast that dog is sitting like crazy waiting for clicks and treats!)

IMPORTANT! CLICK first ALWAYS, then offer the treat!

Concept: Click = GOOD JOB, that's RIGHT! and Treat = PAYDAY!

The second way to use the clicker, is to use your body to gently guide the dog into position. A food lure in your hand is the most common, efficient way of using your body to get the behavior to happen. A small piece of food, held in your hand, lured over the dog's head (close to his nose) so he sits, followed immediately by a CLICK then treat, is one way to teach a SIT with the clicker.

After the dog "gets" what he's supposed to be doing (i.e. SIT = ka-CHING! payday!) you can start cuing the behavior - saying the word SIT, THEN clicking and treating. The next steps involve working on the behavior in various locations, teaching the dog that he won't get paid after EVERY single performance of the behavior, but that he WILL always at some point get paid, then weaning the dog off the clicker.

Clicker training gives you a way of efficiently communicating with your dog. Once your dog knows what the clicker means ("Good job!") you can effectively use it to "talk" to him. It is also a hands-off method. We can teach complex behaviors without ever having touched the dog!

People might be surprised at how fast clicker-trained dogs learn, how eager they are, and how much fun they seem to have while engaged in training sessions. One reason clicker-trained dogs pick up new behaviors so fast may be explained by the relationship between the click and the oldest part of the brain, the amygdala. From ClickerTraining.com,"Research in neurophysiology has identified the kinds of stimuli—bright lights, sudden sharp sounds—that reach the amygdala first, before reaching the cortex or thinking part of the brain. The click is that kind of stimulus. Other research, on conditioned fear responses in humans, shows that these also are established via the amygdala, and are characterized by a pattern of very rapid learning, often on a single trial, long-term retention, and a big surge of concomitant emotions. The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a cover story surveying this research in 1999."

Clicker-trained dogs are enthusiastic and willing participants in training because they are given choices (which creates a fast-learning environment as opposed to FORCING behavior), set-up to succeed in training, and provided with LOTS of positive feedback. They know immediately when they are doing something "right", provided with quick "pay" for a job well done, and allowed the opportunity to use their brains. Clicker training isn't about forcing dogs into position (where us humans do the work) or jerking them into compliance (imagine if YOUR boss taught you new tasks at work by pushing you around the office hallways all day, or smacking your hands with a ruler when you typed incorrect information). It's all about working WITH your dog, in a team capacity. You are both exploring, interacting, learning about each other. People who clicker train seem to get as attached to the clicker as the dogs do! It is an enjoyable, positive thing to do with your dog.

Clicker training uses positive reinforcement to teach new behaviors, fix behavior problems, and simply communicate with your dog. It fosters an attitude of trust between participants - there is no fear or intimidation involved in this sort of training. It focuses on the positive, what's RIGHT, instead of what's "wrong". This eliminates frustration and resentment, and "acting out" behavior. What would happen in our daily lives if we focused on catching each other doing something right? How about focusing on the good in the world each day, thanking the Universe for what you've been gifted with, instead of wasting emotional energy on what you hate about your life? The whole idea of clicker training is that by focusing on what's RIGHT, we get more of it; the "wrong" gets pushed out by default.

Before we end this post, let's talk a moment about methods that perpetuate the myth that Pit Bulls are "tough, aggressive, hard-headed, unresponsive to kindness/positivity and difficult to control": those that utilize prong or choke collars, physical punishment, and electric shock. Pit Bulls are intelligent, gentle, emotional dogs that do oh-so-well with training methods that are respectful of them as feeling, sentient creatures. Clicker training gives them the opportunity to learn and perform behaviors without threat or coercion. It is a respectful, KIND method of training that doesn't hurt the dog OR the image of the breed - it showcases just how intelligent and EASY to control Pit Bulls are. Harsh methods that rely on pain to train showcase only the unwillingness of the trainer to expand his or her mind and extend compassion to a weaker creature that is at the mercy of the human at the end of the leash.

This post is only a very basic introduction to clicker training. Although this method of training is remarkably simple, it has endless applications and this post should be seen as only a brief glimpse into the world of clicker training. A gateway into that world is Karen Pryor's ClickerTraining.com. Karen Pryor is the pioneer of clicker training and her site is THE source to begin your journey into clicker training. Please go have a look around her site!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

No pinching or poking - saying no to prong collars.

There are lots of great reasons to avoid use of prong (aka 'pinch') collars. There are just as many reasons offered up from those who insist on using them. The bottom line is, if someone is married to the idea of prong use and has experienced success with one, it will be very difficult to convince that person to stop using one and move onto something more dog-friendly. Humans are not immune to the laws of learning and the reinforcement one receives from successful application of a prong can be very powerful and drive continued use, even after valid intellectual arguments are presented.

I'd like to talk about my transition away from prongs - a collar I had a lot of success using for a while.

I'll preface this blog by stating that I as a professional trainer specializing in Pit Bulls and aggression have not used prong collars in many years. My tools of choice are flat buckle collars, martingale collars, front-connect harnesses and as a last resort, head collars like the Gentle Leader. The Real Pit Bull uses these same tools on all of our foster dogs and in our classes. RPB never ever uses prong collars.

There was a time in my dog training adventures when I transitioned from choke collars to prong collars. They were "more humane", or so I thought. Hey, at least they weren't a tool with the word "choke" in the name. The trainers who introduced me to this collar would call it "power steering", because so many dogs would almost instantly stop pulling on leash with just a few little wrist-flicks from their handlers, following along easily and becoming almost magically well-behaved. It was pretty easy to control dogs with these scary-looking but supposedly-harmless collars.

It didn't take long before I started questioning WHY prong collars worked - or DIDN'T work, as the case may be. Especially when I ran into trouble with my personal dog - a 70 lbs AmStaff who developed extreme dog-directed aggression. Not only did prong collar "corrections" (jerks on the leash) not seem to help his behavioral problems, my dog seemed to be getting progressively worse. He'd see a dog, freak out, I'd jerk the leash, and he'd double his efforts to get at the other dog. This went on for ages. What was the problem, here?

After some trial and error, I tossed that stupid prong collar away, never to pick it up again. I discovered the Gentle Leader headcollar, then gradually weaned my dog off that collar and onto a front connect harness and martingale collar. My dog was MUCH happier. Who wouldn't be? Who likes prongs poking into their neck, amirite? The damage was already done, however: the time spent in a prong collar had only made my poor dog's behavioral issues worse and it would be a long road to undo that damage.

The success I had with the newer, humane training tools convinced me - and I'll never, ever go back to prong collars, not for my own dogs, not for clients' dogs, and not for RPB dogs.

Why?

Let's just look at the design of the prong collar for starters. WHAT is it designed to do?

Prong collars are made up of a series of interlocking links, with little blunt-edged prongs facing and laying up against the dog's neck when the collar is placed on the animal. When tightened, those prongs push into the dog's neck and towards each other causing a "pinching" action. The prongs don't actually puncture the dog's skin, but they DO cause discomfort at the very least, and pain at worst. Even when used correctly, prong collars are DESIGNED TO CAUSE DISCOMFORT - that is how they work and how they get a dog to "stop" doing whatever behavior you'd like them to stop doing (usually pulling).

(Ever have a trainer tell you that screech the dog makes when hitting the end of a leash on a prong collar for the first time was just the dog being "startled"? Uh huh. Right - the dog's just "startled". And to those who insist on denying the fact that prong collars work because they are aversive - i.e. uncomfortbale or painful - I only wish you'd have someone put a prong collar on your neck and without saying a word, guide you around on a leash. See if you follow because the collar feels like a soft, pleasureable massage you'd like more of, or instead is causing discomfort you're trying to avoid/get away from by following.)

Behaviorally, these collars can cause all sorts of problems. Here're the three biggies to worry about:

  • Dog parents can become highly dependent on the prong collar, with the dog ONLY behaving while wearing one (dog gets collar-wise)
  • They can cause heightened arousal and aggression
  • They can cause unintentional negative associations in the dog's mind (i.e. "Other dog = painful neck = other dog causes neck pain so I must work even HARDER [more aggressively] to get that scary dog away!")

    Pat Miller, a noted trainer, lecturer and author, has this to say about the use of prong and other aversive collars and resultant behavior problems: "Choke chains, prong collars and shock collars utilize mild to severe punishment, called ‘corrections’ by trainers who use them, to let the dog know when she has done something wrong. I don`t recommend their use. Punishment can be difficult to administer effectively- timing and severity of the correction are critical to effective punishment training - and even when done properly there is a high risk of unintended and undesirable side effects, including aggression..."

    In addition to behavioral issues, there is evidence that prong collars can cause physical problems for dogs, as well.

    Dr. Peter Dobias has this to say about prong collar usage: "For years, I have observed the relationships between [the use of prong collars] and the neck injuries and health of dogs. I have learned that if the flow of energy in the neck is interrupted or restricted, a whole array of problems may arise including lameness, skin issues, allergies, lung and heart problems, digestive issues, ear and eye conditions, thyroid gland dysfunctions to name a few. I also suspect that the patients that have severe energy flow congestion in the neck area have a higher cancer rates."

    So prong collars can make behavior problems they supposedly remedy even worse. And maybe even cause health issues. This is when being used correctly. Many people will say, "Ok, sure, but they've always worked GREAT for me, and my dog is wonderful on a prong! And he's totally fine!" Well, I cannot force anyone to stop using prong collars. I can hope dog parents give them up and switch to more dog-friendly tools that were NOT designed to cause discomfort. But that is just a hope. What I CAN do is present some reasons why I personally, as a professional, and why RPB, do not use them. I've found way more reason to NOT use them, then to use them. Here's hoping you will too!

    In another blog entry, I'll talk about the tools RPB uses in its classes and on its foster dogs. There are plenty of alternatives to prong collars; tools that when used properly along with positive reinforcement training and behavior modification, can make a real difference in your dog's life, as well as yours. ~Mary Director - RPB