High-performance agility with force-free methods: meet Canine Nation’s Eric Brad

Interview with agility dog handler, radio personality and author Eric Brad
By Laure-Anne Visele, out November 2013
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About Eric Brad

Meet Eric: dog agility trainer-cum-podcaster-cum-author who dedicates pen and microphone to spreading his message of logic and rationality through the dog training world.

Eric and Tiramisu

Eric is based on Vancouver Island (Canada), where he lives with his wife, Petra, and their dogs Rizzo and Tiramisu.

Eric and I have a lot in common: dual careers in IT and dogs, a science-based blog on dog behaviour, and a passion for logic and science.

About the interview

L-A: Your dog career has piqued my interest, so I had to give you a turn on the hot seat!

I have been chatting with a series of unique dog pros so my readers can peak behind the scenes of working with dogs. As my blog aims at challenging misconceptions about dogs, it’s always good to speak to fellow science-based people.

EB: That’s an aim we share!

About the cross-over story

L-A: Let’s start with your cross-over story [when a person switches from force-based to force-free dog training methods]. The process is always fascinating.

EB: I wrote about it in perhaps more poetic prose in my very first post in Life as a human [a progressive human interest magazine].

We had trained our first dogs, two collies and a Groenendael, with more traditional force-based methods. They were probably bored out of their minds. They acted out some, and nipped a few guests, but, by and large, they were quite good-natured.

And then we had Vince – a Tervuren. If he was misbehaving, he wouldn’t stop when we’d ask him. He would give us the cold stare when we tapped him on the snout, instead of the ‘I am sorry look’ we were expecting. And it kept escalating, until we were doing scruff shakes and alpha rolls [disciplining the dog by rolling him over onto its back and pinning it down. A technique popular with pack theory trainers, and laced with dangerous consequences. An all-round bad idea.]

Vince

He had also started to growl us away from his bowl when he was eating [resource guarding]. It got so bad at some point that we couldn’t get within 10 feet of his bowl. After a week of that, my wife said “I can’t do this any more. We either return him to the breeder or we re-home him.”

I called the agility instructor my wife had been working with and he said: “Read Jean Donaldson’s Culture Clash“.

L-A: Wow, you got lucky!

EB: Yes! With my IT background, Culture Clash appealed to my sense of logic and reasoning.

It completely reset my view of dog behaviour, and it drove me into reading more on learning theory:

  • Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog”;
  • Pamela Reid’s “Excel-Erated Learning”;
  • Bailey’s and Burch’s “How dogs learn”; and
  • etc.

We immediately began applying the “Nothing in Life is For Free” program [The dog doesn’t get food, attention, affection unless it has ‘earned’ it by behaving politely or performing to expectations. The technique is falling out of favour with purely positive trainers, but proponents argue that it brings consistency and predictability to the dog’s life.]. We quickly modified the technique. It tends to be a little proscribed and a little too much on the negative punishment side for us [negative punishment = you don’t give the dog a reward he has come to expect, unless he stops ‘misbehaving’].

Vince passed away three years ago and, right up to the moment he died, we never completely repaired the trust between us. It must have been quite traumatic for him when he was small: he would still occasionally go into defensive postures with me. And I had to deal with that knowing what I know now. So he taught us many lessons – not always positive.

Shortly after the change of course with Vince, we got our Tiramisu as a pup. Tiramisu is my little science experiment! We have raised her from scratch with clicker training and behaviour science.

Tiramisu and Eric

By the time she was six months old, she mastered thirty different trained behaviours. Seeing just what you could accomplish by educating your dog instead of reacting to ‘inappropriate behaviour’ really reinforced behaviour science for me. Her achievements opened me up to possibilities I wouldn’t ever have had dreamed of. It has reset my thinking on what dogs are capable of.

About writing

L-A: And when you gained all these insights, you started sharing them on your blog.

As a fellow blogger, I struggle to keep my posts short and catchy. Readers don’t have time for large chunks of text and big words, so it’s a balancing act between keeping it compelling without oversimplifying the science. What are your writing demons?

EB: I am trying to move away from the cheerleading stuff. The articles that seem to get the most traction are the ones backhanding traditional trainers (Like: “Selling snake oil…” and “Blunt force trauma canine reality“.) But I want to talk about what’s right about science-based training, not what’s wrong with other approaches.

L-A: I hear you: now I write a controversial title to draw people in, and then hopefully get some subtle points in there.

EB: Yes! I’ve been quite diabolical, creating a title that sounds like the article is about something else. For example,“All the dogs you can manage” sounds like it talks of multi-dog households, but it’s really Yodaism for “All the dogs – You can manage”, meaning “Every dog can be managed”.

I try to introduce a topic from a perspective that people haven’t considered before.

L-A: You are also writing a series of books.

EB: Yes, I am working on the third one.

Each book groups my blog posts by theme so the topics can be read in a logical flow, rather than chronologically as they were written:

  1. “Dogs: as they are” talks of physiology and ethology. It showcases what animal we’re dealing with and what dogs’ natural tendencies are;
  2. “Teaching dogs: effective learning” focuses on how to communicate with dogs to get the best results; and
  3. The book I am writing now focuses on the human-dog relationship and on our emotional response to each other. It’s about what happens when things go off the rails. It’s about the dynamics behind that.

There will probably be five more after that!

[They are available at Dogwise.]

Eric sees “Dogs, as they are”

L-A: I have read your first one with great pleasure [“Dogs as they are” is reviewed here.] The series could become a classic piece of work.

EB: Your lips to God’s ears!

But the truth is, I am not doing it for fame and fortune. I feel I’ve contributed something if just one person’s life became easier as a result of reading my work.

Someone came up to me the other day and thanked me profusely for my articles on hypothyroidism [hypothyroidism = shortage in the production of thyroid hormones, affecting the sufferer’s behaviour in more severe cases.]

About physical conditions and behaviour

L-A: About hypothyroidism, well done on your dog qualifying in the runs after a long period of ill health. You must be relieved!

EB: Yes. She was diagnosed about 18 months ago. At the time, we thought we’d never play and show agility again. But sure enough, she’s come back!

From one day to the next she started acting alert, nervous, or worried. She would shut down immediately and want off the agility course if she heard a sudden sound, for example.

We initially had her tested for T4 concentrations – the classic test for hypothyroidism – and the test came back negative. She also wasn’t displaying any of the classic signs: dull coat, lethargy and weight gain. So our vet concluded that it probably wasn’t the thyroid.

We insisted that the blood pannel got sent to Dr. Jean Dodds’ Hemopet lab in the States. The results showed Tiramisu’s T3 concentrations were drastically low. As T3 clears the cortisol [the ‘stress hormone’] from the system and as cortisol inhibits serotonin binding [serotonin = biological correlate for a sense of well-being], our dog was physically unable to experience a feeling of well-being. She was in a constant state of stress! So we got her on the recommended dose of thyroid supplements and we saw changes in only two days!

I learnt a lot from Dr Jean Dodds’ book “Canine Thyroid Epidemic.“ It covers not only physical symptoms, but also behavioural ones. The book warns that classic symptoms [dull coat, lethargy and weight gain] only occur when hormone concentration is already down to 30-40%!

Early diagnosis is difficult, as the early behavioural signs mimic other behavioural problems. Yet, we elected not to treat this as a behaviour problem from day one. We could have used desensitization and counterconditioning  but, as she wasn’t clearing cortisol from her system, this would have made her worse.

[Note: the hypothyroidism diagnosis continues to be controversial in the veterinary-behaviourist communities. Please contact a specialist for advice if you suspect your dog is a sufferer.]

That period reinforced our standard operating procedure in the face of a sudden behaviour change: go and see the vet immediately and find the physical cause.

L-A: Good advice, but difficult to apply here in the Netherlands for three reasons:

  1. Vets can get irritated at specialist trainers’ presumption that they know what specific physiological tests are relevant for each case;
  2. Many local vets still recommend dominance and obedience in the face of 99% of behaviour problems; and
  3. Blood tests can be prohibitively expensive for most dog owners here.

EB: We have the same response in Canada. The vet just went: “She looks fine. Why do you want a blood panel?” When we insisted, we got the “OK, but-you’re-just-throwing-your-money-away” eye roll. When the results came back, suddenly, we were very smart dog owners.

We need to be advocates for our dogs. If you know something’s wrong, use the internet, or books, or whatever you can to get the vet on board. And only when you’ve eliminated every possible physical thing do you address it as a behaviour problem.

Here’s another example: a friend’s dog started to perform poorly in agility and started to get ratty with other dogs. It took A YEAR AND A HALF to find a hairline fracture on the dog’s front leg! It was living in constant pain but, being a Tervuren, it wouldn’t limp or whine. So it came out as aggression towards other dogs. So the owner took the dog off agility for a year to let it heal up. Now all the behaviour problems have disappeared.

L-A: It’s scary how much luck we sometimes need to stumble across a physical diagnosis underlying a behaviour problem.

On ‘misbehaviour’

EB: It’s not luck. When our dog’s behaviour changed suddenly, we used a process of elimination to find the physical cause. Dogs don’t misbehave because it’s intrinsically reinforcing to misbehave. There has to be a reason.

L-A: Dogs often do ‘misbehave’ because it’s intrinsically reinforcing. Of course what constitutes ‘misbehaving’ is in the eye of the beholder, but animals – including humans – are driven to act to gain the most rewarding outcome in any given situation.

EB: Sure, there has to be some reinforcing property of behaviour for a dog to perform it.

This lady had a rat terrier mix who wouldn’t come back when she called it [see my article on the recall to teach your dog to come back to you.] She would get angrier and angrier. I asked her: “Based on your physical demeanour and tone of voice, would you come to you right now?” So she re-taught the recall gradually by reinforcing every successful recall. Two weeks later, the problem was mainly resolved.

Ken Ramirez – head trainer at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium – called this ‘the balance of reinforcement’. He set up a scale summing up the punishing and reinforcing properties of a behaviour. To get the animal to behave in the way you want, you have to add things to the reinforcement side.

L-A: That’s a nice model. It is less black-and-white than the Skinner quadrant. It introduces the notion of trade-offs and gradations.

EB: I frequently talk of “competing reinforcers” in agility. If you’re practicing in a barn with horse manure , it’s like Disneyland for a rat terrier. So you need to be more interesting than horse poo. Bring their favourite treat and give it frequently: make it roast beef or ham or cheese. Make it easier for them to get cheese than to indulge in the horse poo.

L-A: That’s what I tell my clients too – Only my problem is rabbit poo. Ah, dogs, those scatological specialists… – “Make unwanted behaviour boring and hard-work, and make desired behaviour rewarding and easy.”

EB: Focus plays a part too. We teach our agility students to re-engage the dog when he is distracted with three behaviours so simple the dogs can’t believe they’re being rewarded for it: nose touch, look at me and sit. This draws the dog’s focus back to you and beats yanking the leash and saying ‘no’, which only makes it unpleasant.

And we can’t control what a dog will find rewarding. Rizzo, our youngest dog, enjoys tracking so much he didn’t want to stop to get rewarded. He just wanted to keep tracking! Tiramisu gets rewarded by… variety. If I ask her to do the same thing too many times, she gets bored. So I need to throw random cues at her for known behaviours during training. When she has done what I cued, she’ll happily go back to the new behaviour we were working on.

L-A: She was born for free-shaping [allowing the dog to offer spontaneous behaviour and reinforcing the ones you like!]

EB: Big time. I have something of a problem with her because if I don’t find something to mark quickly, she will offer a flurry of the usual behaviours and then I’ll get the paw: spin, zoom, bow, back up,… Then it’s: “Screw you, I am off.” I have five seconds to figure out how to help her or she’s done.

But I am always thinking of competing reinforcers. People take their dogs to a dog park with all these interesting smells. Then they expect the dog to come to them immediately. Why?

L-A: People tell me “Because my dog should listen out of respect.” I am unsure dogs have the cognitive ability to grasp, and act upon, an abstract notion like respect.

EB: Jaak Panksepp’s research [pioneer in the field of affective neuroscience, and discoverer of the hilarious lab rat tickle] supports claims that they lack this ability.

Besides, even if dogs could grasp respect, how would they have grasped what we humans consider respectful? [Interesting question opening up the theme of domestication and co-evolution with humans. Research into why dogs are one of the few animals to understand human pointing gestures explore the subject. A search for “Hare and Tomasello” in Google Scholar will suck you down the old intellectual rabbit hole on this topic.]

Even among humans, the same behaviour (i.e. looking in the eyes) can be interpreted as friendly by most Westerners, and disrespectful by some native Canadian tribes. [Eric’s point is this: If miscommunication arises between individuals of the same species, imagine the potential for it between different species.]

About agility

EB: So, as a Belgian, you must know Belgian shepherds?

L-A: I have lived with a Tervuren and a Groenendael, actually. But they were too much like Ferraris for me. My heart goes to lethargic dogs, the kind you have to regularly poke to make sure they’re still alive.

EB: My two Groenendaels are sprawled out like rugs right now. Belgians can switch it on or off. But as soon as you say we’re going for a walk they’re 100 miles an hour.

Eric and Rizzo in full sprawl mode

L-A: So how did you start agility?

EB: My wife thought that agility might help Vince with his behaviour problems. She thought it would let him blow off some steam. We didn’t realize agility and behaviour problems had nothing to do with each other. But we continued with agility even after we had turned our training around.

For me, agility has been like a science experiment. I wanted to know what would happen if I applied this behaviour science stuff to it. I didn’t care whether I got championships or not.

We started following classes in a local group but some of the things we were being taught were out of synch with what we knew about learning theory. In the end, we kind of got asked to leave! We were asking too many questions… The funny thing is that, after that, other people approached us. People who were also asked to leave similar groups. We called ourselves ‘The Scallywaggs” because we’d been kicked out of every decent agility class on Vancouver Island! We formed a training group without an instructor: we called it peer coaching.

Scallywaggs: Vince and Eric

My wife also started the ‘puppy pirates’ classes because some people asked her to train their puppies when they saw the performance of my wife’s dogs and their relationship with her.

We use clicker training, and we make sure that the animal is not set up for failure. If the dog misses a jump, keep going and fix it next time. Don’t give the dog any indication that they’ve done something incorrect. So don’t punish your dog for making the effort, pay him for making the effort.

When you hit a snag, we always say “Be a splitter, not a lumper.” Good trainers break it down and fix it.

L-A: I have the feeling that the dog’s welfare comes second to performance in many dog sports. Is that justified in your experience?

EB: There’s a problem, absolutely.

This is a typical practice in agility: handlers put themselves in the way of the dog at the last moment to stop it in its tracks and redirect it. I call this ‘projectile agility.’ The dog just ricochets through the whole sequence.

Tiramisu clearing a jump

With agility we are engaging the dog’s predatory instinct. So I am convinced that blocking them is frustrating and aversive. And I definitely see signs of stress in the dogs as it happens. As Patricia McConnell said in “For the love of a dog” [Reviewed here]: “Once you see that stuff, you can’t unsee it.” So I have a lot of difficulty watching some handlers go about agility in that way.

This last-minute blocking makes it impossible for the dog to predict the next move. Imagine that you’re driving and your passenger only tells you where to turn at the last moment. You’d either stop cooperating, or you’d slow down. So either people are shutting their dogs down or they’re slowing them down. Either way there is no emphasis on what the dog is learning.

To us the goal is not to ‘get’ the dog to go over the jump. We want the dog to ‘choose’ to go over the jump! We even slow our students down on the agility course to make sure the dog is really making the decision because it knows it will be paid for it instead of just being carried away by their handler’s momentum.

Here’s a video illustrating that choice (Rizzo was about 16 months old then).

And that blocking technique doesn’t just bring about emotional stress either. Many dogs end up with cruciate ligament injuries as they have to twist themselves mid-air to correct their course and therefore land awkwardly. I wonder if people realize their dog won’t even be able to play three years down the line. I think some realize and don’t even mind, thinking: “I’ll just get another dog.”

That said, there are a few handlers whom I enjoy watching very much. It’s not like we’re the only ones who’ve worked this out. They are dancing with their dog and enjoying every moment. I hope that more people will come to the same conclusion.

L-A: And how is your dog doing in agility?

EB: She has just gotten her second and third championship titles! She completed thirteen runs in one weekend with flying colours. But the championships are secondary to me. What counts is that she was happy, comfortable and full of fun again after her health issues. She gave us barking and playful behaviour, showing she loved agility again.

L-A: Would you say that – like-for-like – you get better agility performance using science-based methods?

EB: Well, I am in the game for personal best. So when I finish a run I just look at my time and whether I qualified, not anybody else’s results. We have won Agility Association of Canada and the North American Dog Agility Council championship titles without doing all that other stuff. So I know that I can get to the same level of performance they do, but with a happy dog.

And our dogs (my wife’s, my mother-in-law’s and the other Scallywaggs’) continue to run fast and happy even as they age, when we often see traditionally handled dogs retiring early and the handler just ‘getting a new one’.

L-A: ‘Getting a new one’… That is what makes me uncomfortable with dog sports. Objectifying the dog for the sake of performance.

EB: To us, it’s about the dogs. We do agility because we have Belgians. We don’t have Belgians so we can do agility.

Tiramisu loves agility: I can see the smile on her face. I can see it in her eyes. She’s a nine year old dog that’s still running more than six yards a second. That tells you she really wants it.

This is a video of Tiramisu in  August 2013:

Podcast

L-A: So tell me about the podcast: Canine Nation.

EB: A friend of mine loves to read my articles but never finds the time. She suggested I create a podcast so she could listen to them in the car. So I started reading the articles so people can listen to the podcast wherever convenient. I’ve been doing this three years.

We’ve had 20,000 downloads now. That’s about 3,000 a month. It’s worked out really well!

Contact Eric

 

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