No, not Laura's CARDA mission-ready SAR dog. (Moe's half-uncle, as it happens.)
Not Douglas' top-ranked schutzhund dog.
The other one.
Jenna is an alumna of NESR. She's now nearly eleven years old, which is not all that old for an English shepherd, and was about two when they adopted her. She's their oldest dog, and also the one with seniority. The two working dogs came later, and were both acquired from good breeders as young puppies.
Jenna is, well ... not the brightest bulb on the ES family tree.
In and of itself, comparing unfavorably to a bag o' hammers in the ganglia department is not a deficiency when your job requirements are "family pet." I had a cat for seventeen years who was frightfully dim -- but also calm, good-natured, fearless and kind-hearted. He was a tremendous pet. Not clever enough to get into much trouble, and got along with everyone. No, that's not the problem.
In addition to not learning very well or retaining what she does manage to learn, Jenna is
Jenna-logic in action.
Laura and Douglas had Jenna for a two years before she stopped machine-gun barking at Douglas at random intervals when he entered a room where she was, stood up, or otherwise ceased being a nonentity.
They are both pretty darned accomplished trainers; nothing they tried -- and this is one case where everything is a roughly accurate descriptor of what they tried -- had any effect on Jenna's outbursts.
I went to visit Laura and Douglas in 2004 -- we live on opposite ends of the country -- and got a disclaimer. Jenna will bark at you every time she sees you, even if you just leave the room and come back 30 seconds later, and she'll keep barking for several minutes every time.
And that was exactly what happened. For a week, I was a new and frightening ogre every time Jenna saw me or I moved around. And I don't think she approached me for attention once, though she is not an unsocial dog.
Jenna is not in any way dangerous. She wouldn't bite anyone. But she won't shut up and sit down, either. She is reactive, and her reactivity persists.
It does get wearisome. Pip had come with me to California, and she started to get pretty impatient about Jenna mouthing off at her Momma. Pip does not suffer fools.
As trying as Jenna's hysterics are for her owners, for their friends, for delivery persons, for the other dogs -- imagine how trying it is to be Jenna. The brain spins, starts the bark, and then the bark powers the continued whirling of the brain. A feedback loop. No way to live.
A year later I came back. This time I had Pip, and Mel, and Ken. Who is a Dude, therefore the sort of terrifying human that Jenna absolutely knows will most likely kill her in the morning.
We pulled into the driveway, the whole freakin' entourage. Rikki and Laura were outside. Inside the house (the door was open), Jenna commenced her signature hysterics.
Laura told her to be quiet in a normal tone of voice, pressed a button on a hand-held remote, and held it for a few seconds.
All was quiet.
That was the first miracle. Stopped the maladaptive, neurotic conduct before it got started. No more five minute barking jags.
A few minutes later, the second miracle. Jenna came outside and greeted us. Like a normal dog.
I should have been completely mystified, awestruck, well and truly smacked in the gob.
But as pleased and genuinely impressed as I was, I wasn't shocked. I'd seen the Magic Dog Brain work before. Laura and I had each been doing some experimenting with a new(ish) technology, and more or less independently discovered its unlooked-for power in the year between visits.
The gizmo is an electronic dog training collar that includes a "pager" feature.
Instead of (actually, in addition to) providing a light tickling electric stimulation -- or an eye-popping static shock at high levels -- the collar can be made to vibrate, much like a cell phone that is silenced.
It is not in any way painful or even unpleasant.
The collar manufacturers had incorporated this feature as a "neutral stimulus" -- one that the trainer could use for a variety of purposes, including a silent recall from a distance, a silent "look back" signal, a conditioned reinforcer or reward signal, or any command or commands one chose to attach to the sensation or different patterned sensations.
The collars are a godsend for the training and safe management of deaf dogs.
But here's the mystery. The vibration, which is neither painful nor pleasant, is emphatically not neutral when experienced by a dog in a non-neutral context.
What this means in practical terms is that the vibration is an astonishingly effective way of interrupting negative social behavior without also aborting the entire interaction.
Because the vibration is very intrusive, but never painful, it seems to get through to dogs who have lost their wits (to an extent, see below) without risking a strong negative reaction from the dog, as can happen at the level of a conventional electronic collar needed to overcome an excited dog's internal noise.
In other words, crank an electronic collar high enough to get the attention of a dog who is already over the top in some way, you run the risk of scaring the bejimmies out of him, or eliciting an aggressive reaction, or escalating aggression that is merely incipient. Or the dog's surprised yip, twitch, or jump may cause an untoward reaction in other dogs near him. Use the collar at the low "tickling" levels that can be so useful for teaching a dog who has his faculties, and a dog who is already pumping adrenaline simply cannot feel it. (I don't mean that metaphorically; I believe that the excited mind and primed-for-action body are literally insensate to such a small touch.)
While Laura and Douglas had been reprogramming Jenna, I'd been exploring the use of the buzzer as social inhibitor with my teammate Craig, who had been frustrated by his young SAR dog's incipient jackass behavior at both team training and in the park. Friday would appear to be soliciting a senior dog with "active submission" -- lots of chop licking and "groveling." What she was really doing was relentlessly provoking the higher-ranked animal, and searching out weaknesses for later or immediate reference. Social climbing aggression with what she imagined was plausible deniability.
The short version is, it worked. Friday did not stop being a social climber (later, when she matured and her social environment changed, she fell very smoothly into an alpha bitch/enforcer role), but she stopped being a pill. Craig used the collar for a number of months to remind her when she was starting to posture, allowing her to mature past this phase of adolescent testing without developing bad habits or getting into fights.
Over the next year, I started using the buzzer function of the collar on a number of dogs who were displaying social misbehavior, including mild aggression, territorial displays, neurotic learned "fear" behavior.
And so did a bunch of other trainers. Stories started coming in of similar results with this "neutral" stimulus that is not neutral, that is very disrupting to the dog who is misbehaving socially, that has almost no nuance (one cannot adjust the level of vibration on most collars, in contrast to the very nuanced adjustments one can make on a high-end collar's "shock" or electrical stimulus), that has no basis in natural canine behavior, no inherent "meaning" to a dog, yet seems to acquire meaning from the situation and the dog's own intentions.
I do not know why it works. I don't even have a developed speculation about why it works. It doesn't fit anyone's "quadrants," and it doesn't work quite the same as a conventional trainer's correction, either. I do know that it works a lot of the time, on a lot of dogs, for a lot of troublesome social habits and experiments that proved impossible to correct by other means.
When does it work?
• On about 80% of the dogs I've tried it on.
• Best on dogs of "sensitive" and reactive breeds that are not physically stoic -- such as herding breeds. Less well or not at all on "bully" types, hounds, and Labradorks. But mileage varies, and the individual temperament is, as always, more important than the breed.
• For social misbehavior such as territorial/defensive barking, pushiness, posturing with other dogs. This includes canine experiments with "fear" and "aggression" that are not really either of those things -- yet.
• When deployed with proper timing for both initiation and duration. No tool or technique works if the trainer doesn't have reasonable timing. The buzzer should reach the dog at the very beginning of whatever action it is the trainer wants to stop. The trainer must be able to distinguish the need for a brief tap vs. several seconds of buzzing.
When does it not work?
• On dogs that are truly terrified and/or truly committed to aggression. In the former case, the buzzing can trigger or exacerbate flight, and in the latter case, it appears to have no effect.
• When overused so it becomes part of the dog's background noise.
• For basic obedience. It does not work as a conventional "correction."
Now, about the definition of "work."
For Jenna -- genuinely reactive temperament, older dog with established habits, extremely poor learner -- the buzzer collar may prove to be a lifetime management device. While she may not need to wear it all the time, she will probably be using it in certain circumstances forever. And this is okay. It helps her to have a more normal life, and helps her owners enjoy her. It works.
For about a week, I used mine on Spike. Different case.
So, about Spike. He had a pretty rough start in life. May not have been handled at all for his first seven or eight weeks of life. Certainly never saw a new human. He was hungry, he was cold, he was parasitized. Then he spent a couple weeks living in a horse trailer. Then he was bounced around from overnight foster to foster to abortive adoptive home back to overnight foster to my place.
This is no way to raise a puppy. The result has been a pup who is hand-shy, shy of strangers, and has a learned response of witless hysterical barking at strangers -- and at Ken when he gets up and moves around or comes home. This is annoying now, and will be intolerable later. He is about 20% really scared and concerned, and about 80% experimenting with being a jerk.
Our goal here has been to show Spike that human beings are safe and very reliable, give him a routine, encourage boldness. Because he shows us in other ways that his basic genetic temperament is bold.
So I put the buzzer collar on him (I used a Dogtra 200 NCP for him; it's a reasonably priced model that is great for the little guys and works on the big guys too.)
Buzzed him when he barked at Ken.
Took a couple of days, but the barking essentially stopped. Yesterday I noticed him following Ken around outside while we did chores. He still believes, at times, that Ken will most likely eat him in the morning, but having given up the barking jags, he now has mental space to do something else. He even asked to come up into Ken's lap on the sofa yesterday.
Took him to SAR training. Spike has been coming to SAR training every weekend, for the socialization and to experience new places. (He likes new places, and new dogs. Not afraid of them at all.)
At this training, there were three new men he'd never met, plus other people in the park coming and going.
I buzzered him whenever he started a barking jag. This gave space for something else. By the end of the day, he was playing fetch with pine cones and his new buddies.
The buzzer collar has been off for a week now; no more barking jags. If he starts experimenting with barking again, or falls back to it under higher stresses, I'll put the collar back on and keep interrupting him. Maybe this will never happen. (Spike barks a lot for normal reasons too -- he's just a naturally vocal little guy. We don't correct the normal barking in play or when the other dogs are also barking, and we correct cheeky barking for attention or at the cat in ordinary ways. The buzzer is reserved for maladaptive social experiments in infant hysterics.)
In Spike's case -- good genetic temperament overlaid with no socialization and considerable traumatic disruption, caught very young -- the buzzer collar will likely prove a very short-term bridge tool. This also works. It's my favorite kind of works, because my highest goal is always a nekkid, sane, happy, trained dog.
In no case have I seen behavioral fallout from the buzzer collar, even in cases where it was not a satisfactory tool to implement a solution. Like nutraceuticals, it helps a lot of the time, and is apparently free of side-effects.