Animals in our lives: A philosophical investigation of the science of companion animals

I am terribly pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching Philosophy 271: Animals in our Lives, a new course offered by the Philosophy Department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

This class is a philosophical analysis of contemporary scientific research on companion animal (mostly canine) cognition, emotion, and training.

The students and I will explore:

  • how this scientific research is embedded in contemporary culture,
  • the practical influences on, and impacts of, this research, and
  • the role of values and ethics in the creation and use of this new scientific knowledge.

I’ll keep you posted as I develop and implement this course. I am So. Excited.

Phil 271 Animals in our lives

Who’s got four paws and a CKC Novice Rally Obedience Title?

THIS GUY!

12

 

We arrived early and got a good spot in the corner. This is where we hung out between runs, and where Milo rested while I walked the courses and chatted with the other hoomins.

boy's home

Milo, chilling out between runs.

 

Can you believe that he earned all this bling? I might have to make a quilt or something.bling c

 

And here is my angel from heaven barely resisting tearing off this his ribbons.

bling a

I am very proud of my boy! ❤

 

Life with a recovering reactive dog​: Part two

Note: This is part two of a two-part post. Click here to read part one.

Now.

A couple of months ago I signed Milo and me up for a research project investigating canine fear and aggression in veterinary settings. I jumped into this survey eagerly, sure that Milo’s jackassery would provide them with some interesting data. They wanted to know about dogs acting out, and boy could tell them about a dog acting out.

I don’t think I was ever so pleased to be so disappointed about an experiment.  You see, the survey questions all had a time index.


What sorts of fear behaviour did Milo exhibit at his last vet visit? None.

During that visit did he show any aggressive behaviours when:

  • Getting weighed? No.
  • Touched? No.
  • Vaccinated? No.
  • Having his ears examined? No.
  • Having blood drawn? No.
  • Having his temperature taken? OK, Yes. He growled at the vet tech when she tried to stick a thermometer up his bum. Fair enough. We didn’t get a temperature that day.

If those questions were about my worst vet visit or any vet visit three years ago, the answers would have been different. When I sat down to take this survey, I was ready to give those three-year-old answers. But, in the last three years Milo, and I, have changed. He’s a more confident dog. I’m a calmer person. And we’re a stronger team.

I caught myself living in the past again when Milo and I were camping at Killbear Provincial Park. Our campsite was beside what must have been an intergenerational, extended family camping trip. There were at least seven children under the age of five, they yelled a lot, and all of them, except the newborn, seemed to think that running while yelling was the thing to do.

Screaming creatures darting around—the kind of game that Milo was always keen to join, except that he weighed more than any three of those kids combined. I steeled myself for a couple of days of barking and a complaint from the Park Office.

Would you like to know what happened?

Nothing.

Milo started staring at one of the kids, and I told him to knock it off and that we don’t bark at silly things. He knocked it off and did not bark at the silly things. There were a bunch of people with dogs at that campground. And every single dog that walked by reacted to those children more than Milo did, every single one.

People came by my site and complimented Milo on being such a good boy.

One person even told me that I was “lucky” to have such a good dog. I let that one slide on by.

I will always be careful and respect the fact that Milo is a formidable animal. We’ve done a tremendous amount of work together over the years, developed a fantastic relationship, and things got better.

I love him to distraction. I just have to remember to love the dog he is right now.

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Life with a recovering reactive dog​: Part one

Note: This is the first half of a two-part post.

Then.

The damn snow was dragging at my feet, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it to my car before I started to cry. Milo and I were not at our finest on that winter day more than three years ago. Fifteen dog-handler teams had arranged themselves in a big circle on a snowy country field, and we were taking turns walking our dogs around the group. The idea was to keep your dog paying attention to you, and not to the other dogs or people or bunnies in attendance. The accomplished teams heeled with quiet precision around the field. But most of us newbies kept our dog’s focus with a steady stream of happy chatter. We could have used food treats for this, but it is hard to hand out treats when wearing mittens and it was cold enough that mittens were mandatory.

Milo and I were doing fine until another male gave him a glance that asked: “Wanna dance?” Milo looked back: “Sure, let’s go.” And off came the gloves. The other dog snarled. Milo lunged. My feet broke through the crust on the snow, and I was stuck.

It all took a very long heartbeat. Friends swooped in to take care of Milo, and I clambered out of my hole. Everything was OK, except for my blood pressure and my pride. This was life with a reactive dog. It just took a wrong look. He didn’t fight. I saw to it that Milo never got into a fight. But both of us were bundles of stress.

Milo and I retreated to an adjacent field where we could cool down. We played a bit, did some obedience, and practised calmly watching those other dogs from a distance. I’d been working on Milo’s reactivity for a while already, but this exercise was a bit too much and a bit too soon.

What put me in tears that afternoon wasn’t just Milo’s reaction, it was the supportive kindness of the people around us. We were training with the Kitchener-Waterloo German Shepherd Club. These people know GSDs, and many of them went through similar challenges with their pups.

After a few minutes on our own, the club president came over to check on Milo and me.

“We’re going to work on recalls now, do you and Milo want to join us?”

“Really? Seriously?”

“Sure, we’re all paying attention. It will be fine.”

It was more than fine. Milo was perfect. I left him with another handler at one end of the field, ran about 30 metres away, and called him. They released him, and he was in flight, skidding into a beautiful sit in front of me. Folks cheered.

As we were packing up for the afternoon, one by one, people came up to me. They said things like:

  • “It gets better.”
  • “He’s a beautiful dog.”
  • “I’ve been there, and I know it’s hard.”
  • “Good for you for working so hard with him.”
  • “Half a dozen dogs here used to react like that, and look at them now.”

I needed this support and encouragement, but darn it, I was at the end of my rope, and I knew this kindness was going to make me cry. I just wanted to get to my car before I lost it.

IMG_0126I was in an all-positive obedience class at the time, and someone there asked me if Milo was abused as a pup. That question took the wind right out of my sails. I adopted him at eight weeks, and his ‘abuse’ was patience, loving-kindness, and outrageously expensive grain-free food.

When Milo and I went on walks, I took to telling people that I was rehabilitating him. The phrase turned many frowns to smiles. After all, rehabilitating rescue dogs was god’s work. It was not a lie. I was rehabilitating him. I didn’t tell them he was a rescue; I just didn’t tell them he wasn’t.

Milo and I worked hard to get his reactivity under control. We went on weekly pack walks with the German Shepherd Club, I learned about counter-conditioning and desensitisation, and I worked on keeping control of my own emotions. I had to be calm to help him be calm–this it turned out, was the most difficult part of the whole procedure. I started working on obedience and scent detection with him. These sports taught him self-control and were something positive, fun that we could excel at together. Both of our confidence soared. He is a smart and biddable dog and was always a joy to work with, in isolation.

Things were slowly getting better, but they weren’t where I needed them to be until a fellow German Shepherd Club member and friend recommended that I take Milo to the trainer who helped her reactive dog. Finally, I found a trainer who understood Milo. It sounds simple, but she taught me not to permit Milo to be, what I have come to call, a jackass. We didn’t do anything dramatic or mean; I just learned to hold him to a set of high standards and how to properly handle such a big, strong, and strong-willed dog.

This whole process took about two years. Milo is a different dog now, but sometimes I forget how far we’ve come.

IMG_5095

Click here for the rest of our story and to see where we are at now.

Fitness and flourishing: The benefits of attending to your dog’s mental health

They say that a tired dog is a good dog and, generally, they’re right. This is a little bit concerning because although this summer with its camping and hiking and swimming has been good for both of us, Milo is getting physically fitter than I am. Each day the gap between what I can do to tire him out and what it takes to tire him out gets a little bit wider.

tired dog

Milo and I have been camping for 11 weeks now. He started out strong and is getting stronger–swimming more days than not, playing a vigorous game of fetch on most days, and hiking almost every day. He’s a great big muscle with outstanding endurance.

I’m sure I’m much fitter now than I was at the beginning of this trip too. First of all, Milo never hikes alone. Many hikes have the word “lookout” in their name. I guess people like a view, and you need high ground for that sort of thing. So, lots of this summer’s hikes involved an uphill trek. I grew up in a part of Canada that’s so flat that people say you can watch your dog run away for three days. As a result, whenever I put on any vertical metres it feels like a serious (and somewhat exotic) workout. It seems like I’ve been walking uphill all summer, and I’ve noticed that it takes more to get me huffing and puffing than it used to.

German shepherd sitting on a rock looking out over a deep blue bay

Milo at Lookout Point.

There are other ways my daily activity has increased. For one thing, Milo and I travelled across the country which means I’ve hitched and unhitched my trailer many many times. Setting up the trailer involves deploying five, yes five, jacks, and none of them is electric. I’m getting some serious pipes.

Playing with Milo provides a good workout as well. When we play tug, there are times when I am yanking on my end of the toy as hard as I can. He is strong enough to pull me over, and I have to pull back. It is fun and exhausting and we’ve been doing lots of it this summer.

Except for my Fitbit saying that my resting heart rate is nine beats a minute lower than it was at the beginning of the trip, I don’t have a way to measure my increased fitness. But I know I feel good, and that is better than numbers.

However, even though I feel great, I get tired before Milo does, every single time we play or hike or swim. We are often a tired person and a slightly winded dog duo. This has not turned out to be a problem though because although it is true that a tired dog is a good dog, a mentally fit dog is a good dog too.

I’ve been thinking about physical fitness in terms of how much exercise it takes to make me and Milo tired, but fitness also includes mental fitness, or psychological well-being, or mental health, or whatever you want to call it. This summer our mental fitness has been improving in step with our physical fitness, and that helps him be a good dog and helps me be a good person.

 

German Shepherd laying on a grey rock.

Milo’s the good dog.

 

In addition to getting more exercise, we’ve been eating good food, spending time in nature, enjoying long hours of restful sleep, and experiencing very little stress. Milo has a guardian who is more centred, and I have a dog who is calmer. It seems like neither of us is sweating the small stuff as much as we used to.

For example, the last people who used the campsite we’re in right now left a week’s worth of stinky trash and recycling in the fire pit. That is the sort of thing that used to make me fume. But this time I just thought “some people make it easier to leave the place better than I found it than others.” It only took about 90 seconds to clean it up, and now I’m enjoying a campfire. Milo is laying on the ground beside the picnic table I’m using as a desk.  He’s keeping tabs on the neighbours, and paying attention to dogs walking by in a way that’s alert but relaxed. In other words, he’s being a German Shepherd Dog.

It’s not that he’s too tired to get in trouble, it’s that he is physically and mentally fit. His needs are being met and his life is full enough for him to enjoy being good–good in the sense of being well behaved, and good in the sense of flourishing.

This trip with Milo has helped make my life full enough to enjoy being good too!

Found distractions: Proofing for our upcoming Rally Obedience Trial

Milo and my first Rally Obedience Trial is fast approaching. We’ve been training daily and can do all the exercises with cheerful and brisk focus. Our biggest challenge will be distractions around the ring during the trial.

German shepherd dog heeling beside a woman in blue jeans between a coop full of chickens and another dogLuckily the universe provided us with an outstanding set of distractions for practice. And by ‘the universe,’ I mean my brother and sister-in-law’s farm. Milo has a strong prey drive and a history of dog reactivity. So, we spent a week performing Rally exercises using Louis the Dog an obstacle and the chicken coop as a backdrop. By the end of the week, Milo could heel around the dog while the chickens were flapping and clucking toward their dinner.  Good boy!

Of course, something could still knock us off our game during the trial, but it is good to know that we worked hard and did our best to be ready.

German shepherd dog jumping in the air to catch a treat. He is almost vertical and is taller than the jeans wearing woman holding his leash

Milo’s reward for all that work was to jump for a piece of chicken…

“My method is scientific” 4: Science, goodness, and goals

brown cartoon dog, standing on hind legs, with a surprised expressionI bet if a person gave their puppy an excruciating correction every time he laid a foot on the carpet, they could train that dog to stay off the rug in a heartbeat. But, I wouldn’t train a puppy that way. And even if I found a hundred scientific papers demonstrating the success of this method I still would not use it, nor would I recommend it to anyone else. I think it’s wrong. It goes against my values.

Often, when we latch onto the ‘scientificness’ of a training method, we’re trying to justify and recommend its use. Why should you use this method? It must be good. Science says so!

What kind of ‘good’ are we talking about?

The connection between science and goodness is complicated. While we’ve used scientific knowledge to cure disease, improve public health, and build bridges, we’ve also used it to build bombs and torture people.

When we’re talking about the scientific goodness of a dog training method, we’re not talking about moral goodness. Rather, we’re talking about practical goodness or effectiveness. Practical goodness or effectiveness demands the question, “Good at what?” In this sense, a person can be a good doctor or a good torturer (or a good dog trainer). It just means that whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it well. This kind of goodness is relative to a set of goals.

By praising a training method for being scientific, we’re justifying it, or recommending it, because there is scientific evidence demonstrating that it meets a set of training goals better than alternative methods.

This doesn’t say anything about what your training goals should be. That is up to you.

What kind of goals are we talking about?

Generally, we want our dogs to be happy and perform their jobs well. But, there is a wide range of specific goals we could pick. Here are just a few ways our goals can vary:

Goals vary with respect to projects

Is someone working on rehabilitating a rescue dog, or training a lap dog, a protection dog, or a guide dog? They’ll definitely teach these dogs different behaviours and might teach these behaviours using different methods. Teaching a good strong bite isn’t a goal of most people training lap dogs. Specific goals depend on the projects a person and their dog are working on.

Goals can vary in terms of mastery: reliability and precision

Trainers can have different goals about the level of mastery their dog needs to attain.

When someone asks a pet dog to heel, they usually want it to walk in the general vicinity of their left side. In an obedience competition a dog that gets a step ahead or behind the handler, or drifts away from parallel to the direction the handler’s facing, loses points. In some cases, precision is more important than others.

Or, imagine teaching a dog ‘out.’ ‘Out’ means drop whatever is in your mouth. When a pet dog hears “out” it usually means “drop that ball.” When a police dog hears “out” it can mean “let go of that person.” In some cases, reliability is more important than others.

Teaching new behaviour is different from extinguishing an entrenched, self-rewarding behaviour

Milo doesn’t really care if he is standing or sitting. I used marker training to teach him to sit on command. It went like this:

Carla: “Milo, sit.”
Milo sits.
Carla: “YES!” Gives Milo a cookie.

Milo learned an easy way to get cookies. Sometimes he walks up and offers a sit and an intent gaze. He’s clearly saying, “Hey lady, I’m sitting here, and I’m short on cookies.”

On the other hand, I had to teach Milo not to chase bikes. He has huge prey drive, which means that, to him, chasing is its own reward. When he chases, he is giving himself his favourite cookie, a cookie better than prime rib.

Teaching Milo to sit and teaching him not to chase are two very different goals that required different methods.

But, aren’t some methods effective at achieving a bunch of different goals?

Yep. Lots of people successfully train agility dogs, protection sport dogs, and pet dogs using clicker training (aka marker training). Clicker training is all the rage. I use this method with Milo whenever I can.

But, funnily enough, there isn’t as much scientific evidence demonstrating clicker training’s effectiveness when applied to dog training in general, or to specific training goals in particular, as you might think. There is scientific theory showing that we expect it to work, but not direct scientific evidence showing that it does with dogs. The evidence that it works in a wide range (but not all) situations doesn’t come from scientists, as much as it comes from expert trainers with a track record of practical success.

 

The bottom line


Just because scientific evidence shows that a method meets one set of training goals, it doesn’t mean that it must meet a different set of training goals.  

And, even if scientific evidence shows that a training method meets a set of goals, a person can decide not to use, or recommend it, if it conflicts with their values.

You can’t decide what the scientific evidence is, but you must decide on your goals and values.


 

Note: In these posts on scientific dog training, I’m setting a high standard for calling a dog training method scientific. I’ll explain why in my fifth “My method is scientific” post, “Responsible use of science.”

  1. “My method is scientific” 1: “That’s right, I said ‘SCIENTIFIC’!”
  2. “My method is scientific” 2: What does this even mean?
  3. “My method is scientific” 3: The trouble with clicker training
  4. “My Method is scientific” 4: Science, goodness, and goals
  5. “My method is scientific” 5: Responsible use of science