Posts made in January 2012

Safety First: A Guiding Principle in Animal Training

Regarding the quest to further deepen the bond between companion animals and the people who love them, there are a few basic principles which I always teach to my clients and students. Through a thorough understanding of the exact meaning of these three simple principles, almost any animal can be taught to do, or not do, almost anything.

The first principle is: safety first. That is for you, AND the animal. With horses that makes the most intuitive sense. If you want to accomplish a task with the animal, but the horse is becoming stressed or tense, or you are, then safety does become a concern and a serious reconsideration of the current tactic needs to occur. I find that often just taking a short break from the situation and giving it some thought often helps people to figure out what things they could do just a little differently to help decrease stress around the exercise and have a better chance of success.

One example is, trying to get your horse to step across a puddle of water. If the animal gets so stressed over you leading them towards something frightening that they begin to side step all about and possibly injure you, stop asking for this behavior immediately! A common misconception is that stopping now allows the animal to ‘win’. First of all, safety is more important than ANY lesson, and second, the animal cannot learn anything in that degree of high mental stress, so isn’t learning anything, not even that he/she can ‘win’. Would you learn anything if your teachers in school frightened you so badly that you were trying to run away from them? All you think about is your own security, and certainly not any learning anything of value, except that you can’t trust your teacher. True learning can only occur in a situation where the all involved are calm and relaxed.

So how do you overcome this then? The lesson has to be broken down into smaller, less frightening segments. No matter how ridiculous you may think it is, animals don’t lie. With few exceptions, they don’t have the mental capacity for such things. If the horse or dog or cat seems frightened of something, then they most likely really are frightened of that thing, and it’s your job as the trainer and mammal with the bigger brain to present the material in a less scary manner. Instead of asking for a step across a puddle of water, ask for a step across wet ground, and reward, reward, reward, until the animal looks for the wet ground and wants to get in it because the reward for doing so is so good, and they are having so much fun.

How does this relate to other animals? Dogs need to have potentially dangerous behaviors corrected for their own safety, such as not bolting out the door into traffic, or having such severe separation anxiety that they injure themselves when you leave. Cats also need to be protected from such things as the the behavior of other animals towards them, like dogs chasing them around the house and causing anxiety and stress. And smaller mammals and birds need to of course be protected from any stress’s which can lead to safety issues.

So first determine if the behavior is something that needs to be corrected. Is it a safety concern for other people or animals? If so, then it needs to be high priority for a behavior change. The first step, like so many things in life, is acknowledging there is a problem. Then make the commitment to find a solution to the problem. There are as many ways to solve behavior problems as there are people and animals, finding the right one just takes first acknowledging there is a problem that needs correcting, and then applying the other behavior principles until the solution is discovered. On that note, I am Dr. Q, and the rest, is up to you!

The Easiest, Simplest Way to Change ANY Behavior, Right Now!

Just weeks after getting his new adorable standard poodle puppy, Dave found himself facing divorce and moving out of his home and into an apartment. I had met the puppy a couple of times to get him up to date on his vaccines and dewormings, and found him to be very shy, sweet, and a little insecure.

Dave called one day to say that he had had an unnerving experience last night where, when he was out walking with the now adolescent dog, he gently kicked a ball across a field, and the action so startled the pup that he cried out in fear, tore the leash out of Dave’s hand, bolted across a busy parking lot, and was only contained when the leash caught on a car tire.
I asked about other behavior concerns, and Dave explained that the pup would sometimes also behave similarly, but not as severe, to some strange dogs, but not all.

Dave asked a local dog trainer about the behavior, and she advised him that the puppy was expressing his dominance over the other dogs.

I disagree, although I also have the luxury of knowing them personally through their vet visits. I feel there are two key players at work here:

  1. The puppy has not yet been castrated and at about 6 months old is beginning to have some significant hormonal changes
  2. The puppy is very insecure and far from dominant. Shortly after being separated from his mother, he was just beginning to integrate into a new family, and then was removed yet again from a house with a yard into an apartment with his primary caregiver himself feeling highly distraught and abandoned.
I advised Dave to
  1. Schedule castration surgery as soon as possible
  2. Address the safety concern of eliminating the puppy being able to run away (SAFETY FIRST)
  3. Begin to work daily on confidence building exercises (ANIMALS DON’T LIE, HE IS REALLY AFRAID), all the while avoiding giving the puppy as little negative feedback as possible and focusing on all positive interactions with new situations and dogs
  4. Obtain and use on a daily basis the Bach’s Remedy for anxiety and oversensitivity Agrimony and Aspen.

Castrating him will eliminate the hormonal part of the equation and help balance his personality (think insecure adolescent boy). For the bolting I recommend he be walked on a 20’ training lead, secured with a snap to Dave’s waist, so that when they are out Dave’s hands can be free for training and rewards, but the puppy is secure if something should startle him. This will also be confidence building in itself because the puppy will feel like he is loose land will encourage him to think more and make his own decisions, without risk of danger. For confidence building, I recommend teaching the puppy and practicing something new for 10-20 minutes once or twice a day. This can be obedience such as sit-down-come-stay-stand, or tricks (whatever cute thing he already does, just pair it consistently with a name “sit pretty!” and a reward), and/or exercise activities like fetch, agility, Frisbee, or fly ball. On those times when the puppy meets and greets a new dog calmly, make a big fuss over him. For flower essence remedies, I always give suggestions but recommend the primary caregiver choose the final remedy based on what they feel is right as they know the animal best.

Remember to set him up for success, and reward him for doing the right things. With consistency and praise, the puppy will grow strong, confident, and secure in himself, and all the other negative behaviors will just disappear. That which is not reinforced will tend to fade away, while that which is focused on will be repeated!

The Only 3 Rules You Need to Know to Train ANY Animal to do ANYTHING

You look to your veterinarian for such things as to ensure that you pet is healthy, up to date on vaccines, and likely to live a long life. People don’t usually think of their vet first with behavior or training concerns, or to ensure that their pets behavior is likely to contribute to along, productive life. But the truth is many behavior issues need to be addressed from a medical perspective, and conversely, behavior greatly contributes to the health and longevity of your companion animal. From everything as obvious as not bolting into traffic, to more subtle such as ulcers or urinary tract infections caused by housing stress, health and behavior are intricately intertwined. For those animal caretakers who are committed to maximizing the health, as well as the emotional bond, between themselves and the animals they love, then a truly ‘wholistic’ approach is the one that makes the most sense, and the one for which DrQ is here to help.

Dr. Questen (aka DrQ), is a compassionate veterinarian with more than 20 years of experience helping clients with their companion dogs, cats, horses, and fish. Her approach is holistic in more ways than one, not only is she a certified animal acupuncturist and experienced in natural remedies, but she also has a passion for the SCIENCE of animal behavior, and longs to dispel some of the the many behavior and training myths and misconceptions out there which drive a wedge between the joyful relationship so many clients could have with their animals.

Although the relationship we have with animals is slightly different depending upon the species, the basic premise is the same, a sense of cooperation, and benevolent leadership, is much preferable and scientifically more successful than one based on dominance and control. It’s the same principles that dolphin trainers use, and all professionals who have studied the science of animal behavior.
So no matter if you have an English jumper who is spooky over rails, or a poodle lap dog that barks at the mail man, both of those behaviors could affect the animals health, and both of these need to be addressed from a medical perspective first. Once the physical has been determined to not be contributing to the problem, then the science of behavior takes over, and you have one person to turn to who can you guide you through it all, with knowledge and caring.

DrQ’s three simple principles for effective animal training:

  1. Safety first
  2. Ask politely; reward appropriately
  3. If after 3 asks you don’t get what you hoped for, stop, take a deep breath, smile, and ask for something easy. Then start over at step one.

If these steps don’t make sense, or you have tried them and they don’t seem to work, then it’s time for the help of a qualified positive reinforcement oriented trainer, or better yet a consult with DrQ.

Follow these 3 simple steps and teach almost any animal to do almost anything,  which will ultimately lead to a deeper bond, less stress and anxiety, and a longer life for both you and the animals in your care.
I’m DrQ, here to help you, and your animals live healthier and happier, longer!