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Sarah Kalnajs was in town this past weekend giving a two day seminar on identifying the stress signals dogs display as precursors to possible aggressive behaviour and conducting risk assessments on dogs in home environments. In no particular order, here are some things:

Sarah is a clear, energetic, fun speaker who passed along a huge amount of information and managed to keep the audience's attention despite the long stretches after lunch, sitting in a dark room, watching projected videos. I would've been asleep in five minutes if I'd been listening to anyone less captivating especially after those three pieces of cheesecake. Oink.

She handed out bags of "rewards", mentioned her possible urinary tract infection, passed around a dog toy which resembled a pink dildo and smelled like vanilla, kept commenting on how polite Canadians were, got people to dance to Bieber, and made half the room cry with her story about euthanasia or maybe it was the whole room - I don't know because my vision suddenly went blurry.

There were a couple of women who chattered throughout the seminar, whispering between the two of them loud enough so that everyone around them had to concentrate a little harder to listen to Sarah. One of the women brought a dog with her. The dog was very well behaved but being a dog, it got restless every once in a while and every time it made the slightest noise its owner would tell it to be quiet.

When it's raining really hard out, the ceiling in the Commonwealth Ballroom at the Don Valley Parkway Hotel leaks.

Judging by attendance, 99% of the people involved in dog rescue are women.

The best leash is a hands free leash, one that wraps around the hips. Several reasons: your joints don't get repetitive stress injuries; less pulling on the leash from the human results in less counter-pulling by the dog; with the leash wrapped around your center of gravity, it's very difficult for even the largest dogs to pull you anywhere if you are well grounded (eg. not standing on ice); dogs seem to heel better when the owner's arms are relaxed as opposed to holding the other end of the leash; convenient for when you'd like both hands free. Sarah sold her own version of this type of leash and it looked like the pile she brought with her sold out pretty quickly. You can always make your own or buy something similar.

The crux of Sarah's seminar was about aggression signals and risk assessment and she passed on a loads of information with accompanying video examples. I wish I could write an outline on the seminar but it would be like trying to do a single post on human psychology. Aside from listing details, what I got out of the seminar was that dog behaviour is not easily reducible, not easily quantified and not easily studied. Dog behaviours, like human behaviours, are complicated and must always be taken in context with their situation and their other concurrent behaviours. A human crying might indicate extreme sadness or extreme happiness. It can't be determined until the context is known. Similarly, a dog rolling on its back, in one case, may be asking for a belly scratch but in another case may be displaying submissive behaviour and asking an intrusive person or animal to please back off. Sarah discussed various ways to determine which was which and it was always based on putting the behaviour in context.

Stress leads to arousal which leads to fear and aggression issues. Nothing is 100% guaranteed but one way to test if a dog is stressed is to offer it a high value treat and see if it will eat it. If it doesn't or is unusually slow to accept it, it's stressed. Another way to check in with the dog's stress level is to ask it do a sit or shake a paw. Sit and shake are the two most well known commands for dogs.

It's very difficult to work on improving a dog's behaviour when it is stressed.

Sarah's assessments deal with practical risk. She asks the question, is this dog's behaviour acceptable in its particular environment. This means that a small dog biting someone's feet with shoes on is not ranked as bad as a big dog biting someone's arm. This means that an easily stressed dog in a calm environment is not ranked as bad an easily stressed dog in a volatile environment. She takes everything in context so everything is relative and there is no simple pass or fail. Well, not usually. Unless the recommendation is euthanasia in which case that would obviously be a fail.

Yes, Sarah does sometimes recommend euthanasia. I didn't ask for stats. She herself has a license to euthanize because she's decided that if she's going to recommend euthanizing a dog then she must be willing to do it herself, if the situation demands it. She believes that any behaviourists who recommend euthanasia should be ready to it themselves so they know and feel the full impact of their decisions.

It's amazing what you can teach a dog - almost everything necessary - only by using rewards.

It's amazing what you won't be able to teach a dog - almost nothing, nothing good anyway - using positive punishment (eg. hitting, choking, shocking). This, however, does not preclude setting boundaries and saying "No". You don't want to end up with a spoiled brat.

Sarah didn't say that positive punishment techniques never work but usually the punishment has to be extreme (ie. scare the crap out of the dog) and then there's the risk of other undesirable behaviours resulting from the experience. Why would anyone want to take that kind of chance with their pet? Sarah referred to the training of bomb sniffing dogs in the U.S. military and how nearly half of them fail due to fear induced stresses (and are thus subsequently euthanized).

When we try to force a dominance based social model on dogs, we are trying to mirror dogs' behaviours to our own. Interactions are much more hierarchy based and more rigid and prevalent in human groups than in dog groups. Dogs, in a free roaming situation, don't form permanent packs and alpha roles constantly change. See this post by Ian Dunbar.

Like most people, the thought of spending a whole weekend indoors listening to lectures is not that appealing a prospect but in this case, I was glad to be proven wrong. If you get a chance, check her out the next time Sarah's in Toronto.

6 Comments to “Sarah Kalnajs on stress signals”

  1. Sarah didn't say that positive punishment techniques never work but usually the punishment has to be extreme (ie. scare the crap out of the dog)


    and then there's the risk of other undesirable behaviours resulting from the experience. Why would anyone want to take that kind of chance with their pet?

    Alarmist manipulative emotional blackmail bullshit

    Sarah referred to the training of bomb sniffing dogs in the U.S. military and how nearly half of them fail due to fear induced stresses

    Completely made-up bullshit.

    (and are thus subsequently euthanized).

    Utterly, completely fabricated bullshit.

    Just sayin.

  2. Linda says:

    In my limited experience, punishing a dog never produces great results for training other than making the dog scared of me.


    Question: Can we train dogs to a high degree of reliability without the use of aversives? If yes, how is that achieved? If no, then which aversives are best used and why?

    Answer: Absolutely. [First, note that understanding dog behavior in light of social dominance does not have to necessarily involve using aversive stimulation.] Aversive stimulation tends to suppress behaviors and not just the discrete behaviors you are attempting to punish but also all behaviors. Using aversive stimulation is fraught with insidious consequences and these can only interfere with training. Remember, ‘aversive’ refers to stimulation that you act to escape and/or avoid. That means it is unpleasant. Just think about your own experience. Do you think people making things unpleasant for you really promotes an environment in which you work to your highest potential? It may indeed reduce a particular behavior but there will be other effects won't there? We know in the work world that managing by fear is not the best way to get the best out of your employees and the same goes for dogs. If you realize that reinforcers (pleasant things) drive behaviors, and you control those (as opposed to unpleasant things, which we simply learn to work around) then you are on the right track. If you want a behavior, make it worth their while, and if you want someone to like you, make interacting with you pleasant, not unpleasant. If you don't like a behavior, make some other behavior in its place more worth their while, while making the problem behavior less effective. Aversives result in aggression, emotionality, disempowerment and other difficult to predict problems. This cannot influence your training positively.

    Since I raised the “management” analogy as a means to encourage empathy and understanding, I also recommend that you avoid simply replacing the word dominance with “leadership” or other similar terms because these all imply the same over-under, win-lose relationship and they are all unnecessary. Just focus on training the dog. We encourage and discourage specific behaviors in people we deal with (equals or even bosses) every day. This is not necessarily dominance or leadership. Want a behavior? Make it worth their while. If you don’t like a behavior, make a different behavior pay off better and make that behavior less likely. There is no need to invoke notions of dominance or leadership or terms that mean the same thing but are intended to avoid the dominance connotation. Many people feel that we really need this notion. I don’t see why. Just train the dog.

  3. Positive Reinforcement Training: PART ONE

    Thank you very much for the kind words. We did have some fun didn't we?

    For anyone reading, the UTI comment was a joke brought on by the results of the copious amounts of water imbibed!

    One clarification / correction is needed: My comment about the use of positive punishers in training (positive in a mathematical sense,not a good vs. bad sense) was not to say that any positive punisher must be extreme to be of any use. In fact, many so called "balanced" trainers fault those who are considered "Positive Reinforcement Trainers" for being all about cookies and NEVER saying no which is not at all an accurate representation.

    If you're looking for a dog trainer, and you're confused by all of the controversy, hopefully this short piece will help you.

    Positive Reinforcement Trainers / Dog Friendly Dog Trainers / Clicker Trainers / Science Based Trainers - those are a few of the phrases commonly used to describe the group of trainers who promote dog training through the use of a thorough understanding of the science of learning theory. They use both classical and operant conditioning techniques to train dogs and while food is used in training, when done properly, reinforcement training is about just that - REINFORCEMENT, and not, as some would put forth BRIBERY.

    Keep in mind that POSITIVE DOES NOT EQUAL PERMISSIVE (thanks Susan Garrett) and the trainers in this category DO IN FACT use punishers in training, including some positive punishers. The distinction is that their preference in training is whenever possible to use Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment (the removal of something the dog wants in order to decrease the frequency of a behavior) and when necessary use the tools of Positive Punishment (the addition of something unpleasant to the dog that will reduce the frequency of a behavior) and Negative Reinforcement.

    Positive trainers fully understand that there must be consequences in learning but see no need for those consequences to be harsh physical punishers in order to have a wonderfully trained and well mannered family (or performance) pet. While they may sometimes opt to use Positive Punishment as a tool, their choice would be perhaps clapping their hands and making a noise or moving just a bit into the dog's space.

    My personal rule is this: If you wouldn't do it to a pre-verbal child, then please don't do it to your dog. Why? Because your dog doesn't have the cognitive capability of understanding what you are doing any more than your pre-verbal child would understand that his drawing on the kitchen wall produced a sound spanking.

    I am a crossover trainer. This means that many years ago (goodness how time flies), I used the metal collars, holding a dog on the ground, forcing them to "face their fears" etc.

    Was I able to train dogs that way? Yes... BUT - The dogs didn't get excited about training and many became fearful of the collar, the leash, the car, dog class (the list goes on and on). You CAN train a dog through force and intimidation but mostly you are training them what NOT to do with a good dose of "be afraid of the person on the other end of the leash".

    It is true that some dogs are much more sensitive to the use of the quite harsh physical methods than others, but the point I learned...the reason I switched training methods and did not look back?


    In other words, if you can get a wonderfully trained and well behaved dog using positive reinforcement and negative punishment methods, why on earth would you want to use a technique that at best the dog wouldn't exactly love and at worst could create more problems than you started with?

  4. Positive Reinforcement Training: PART TWO

    Reinforcement trainers avoid the use of metal training collars, shock collars and physical manipulation methods (alpha rolls and the like) that have been shown in an impressive quantity of scientific research and literature to have no meaning or merit in dog training. (See David Mech, take a glance through "Coercion and It's Fallout by Murray Sidman or Google Scholar search studies of the use of shock collars on dogs to learn more about this).

    To state it plainly, both experience and science have shown us that it is erroneous to think that by rolling a dog over on their back we are "showing them we are dominant" and they will then change their behavior. It simply isn't true.

    There is a very large difference between an offered behavior and a FORCED behavior. One can not force an emotional state on another mammal by placing them in a physical position. Clients who comes to my office having done this to their dog report the same things:

    2. THEIR DOG BECAME VERY FRIGHTENED of them and shut down.

    What didn't happen as a result? LEARNING

    Continued in next post...

  5. Positive Reinforcement Training: PART THREE

    Is it possible that an experienced trainer using those methods might get different results than those clients arriving at my office in droves by nature of having better timing or knowing when to back off by having a good understanding of canine body language? Of course. But that's the point. If the tool you use to train has the capacity to do harm in the hands of the non-expert, then it should not ever be advocated for use by the non-expert!

    People should NOT be able to walk into a pet store and walk out with a remote controlled shock collar to place on their dog's neck shocking the animal each time they "misbehave". Many times the damage of this type of, hmmm, I can't even call it INTERACTION then, is so severe that the dog must be euthanized. Also, we need to call it what it is. It is a collar that uses an electric shock as an aversive to the dog. It bothers me greatly that some put "gentler" names on these devices calling them "e sitm" or even "training collars". I've never had to disguise the term "liver treat" after all!

    A final comment on the shock collar, anticipating the typical response by it's advocates, is the following...

    "Well the dog is only shocked once or twice and then it's ONLY a beep".

    Remember Pavlov's dog everyone? The dog that began salivating at the sound of the bell since it came to predict food? That is an example of classical conditioning and it is exactly what happens with the shock and the beep.
    To Pavlov's dog, the bell BECAME the food in the dog's mind. The bell produced the same physiological reaction in the dog as the food. In the use of shock collars and shock fences, the BEEP becomes the SHOCK. The dog experiences the same physiological reaction to the beep as they did to the shock. They become one and the same and THAT IS WHY IT WORKS! (That is, until the dog is sufficiently motivated to break through to follow a deer or rabbit and then too fearful to return as they'd have to endure the shock to enter back in to their own yard.)

    For those that say the shock isn't painful? Look, if it wasn't painful, it wouldn't work. Is it the most painful thing ever experienced? No. But how many of you would be willing to put it on a three year old and try it out? Enough said.

    Am I biased towards this type of training? Absolutely! Proudly so! Am I passionate about this subject? Certainly! Do I hope that others will take time to learn about these issues and cross over as I did? I very much do.

    At the same time, I believe firmly that everyone who works with dogs, LOVES DOGS. I don't think any trainer of any method is clasping their hands thinking...."hmmm, how can I hurt a dog next". All I'm saying now, all I've ever said is this:

    If there is a way to train your dog JUST AS WELL IF NOT BETTER and without the risk of any fear, without physical discomfort and without the potential of fallout (such as the development of behavior problems from training)...


    In other words, if you can get a wonderfully trained and well behaved dog using positive reinforcement and negative punishment methods, why on earth would you want to use a technique that at best the dog wouldn't exactly love and at worst could create more problems than you started with?

  6. Fred says:

    Hi Sara, thanks for the excellent clarification.

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A request

The reason for this blog is to help get specific dogs adopted from TAS but equally important is to try to normalize the idea of shelter dogs being just as good and just as desirable as any other dogs including those which are regularly merchandised by backyard breeders, puppy millers and those few remaining pet store owners who still feel a need to sell live animals. The single greatest stigma shelter animals still face is the belief that shelter animals are substandard animals. Anyone who has had enough experience with shelter animals knows this is untrue but the general public hasn't had the same experiences you've had. They see a nice dog photo in a glossy magazine and too many of them would never think of associating that dog with a dog from a shelter. After all, no one abandons perfectly good dogs, right? Unfortunately, as we all know, perfectly good dogs are abandoned all the time.

The public still too often associates shelter dogs with images of beat up, sick, dirty, severely traumatized animals and while we definitely sometimes see victims such as these, they are certainly not the majority and, regardless, even the most abused animals can very often be saved and made whole again.

Pound Dogs sometimes discusses the sad histories some of the dogs have suffered. For the most part, though, it tries to present the dogs not as victims but as great potential family members. The goal is to raise the profiles of animals in adoption centers so that a potential pet owner sees them as the best choice, not just as the charity choice.

So, here's the favour I'm asking. Whenever you see a dog picture on these pages you think is decent enough, I'd like you to consider sharing it on Facebook or any other social media sites you're using (I know many of you do this already and thank you for that). And when you share it, please mention that the dog in the photo is a shelter dog like so many other shelter dogs waiting for a home. If we can get even five percent of the pet buying public to see shelter dogs differently, to see how beautiful they are and how wonderful they are, and to consider shelter dogs as their first choice for a new family member, we can end the suffering of homeless pets in this country.