Monday, March 16, 2009

Jenna's Brain

So, our friends Laura and Douglas have this dog.

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.

Cute, huh?

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 somewhat neurotic crazy as a sack of squirrels. A lot of things scare her a little bit. When she's a little bit scared, she commences barking. Loud, witless, pointless, can't-be-reasoned-with barking. The fact that she now hears barking is incontrovertible evidence that the scary thing is a terrible threat. What to do, what to do ... I know! Bark!

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.


  1. Wow - that's a pretty amazing story about a pretty useful tool. Our dog Guinness was a lot like Jenna - the behaviorist we consulted described exactly the same loop going on in his brain..."I'm barking, so there must be something to be afraid of, so I'll bark at it!"

    She recommended a citronella bark collar, and it worked in the same way I think the buzzer would have worked. It interrupted the behavior before it could become a loop, creating, as you say "space for something else". It's good food for training thought. Fortunately, our current puppy isn't nearly so reactive.

    I'm really enjoying your blog, and look forward to more stories of Spike the Free Range Puppy.

  2. Hi Shannon --

    I've used a bark collar for the same sort of thing when the situation warrants it. What I like about the buzzer collar with a hand-held remote is that it is good for many kinds of social testing and misbehavior, and it does not fire off for normal or sanctioned barking.

    For example, with Spike, I don't want to shut him up -- I want to shortstop his experiments with acting fearful.

    I do like to give some updates on foster dogs I have here, but I sometimes withhold a lot of detail. Keep in mind that these dogs are meant to go on to new identities with new families. I don't want something I say about one of them on the interwebz to follow him for the rest of his new life.

  3. Wow, Heather, this is great news. Douglas helped me with Kitchi's recall as we border a sheep ranch that shoots dogs and she loved to run, run, run. He did mention that it could help Max's barking but I had forgotten. Max thinks I cannot do anything without his help and barks incessantly when I leave him in the barn or he is worried about me. He also barks at strangers, chasing birds and when he is very happy and I don't want to interfere with that. I will contact Douglas for the fine points but this will be wonderful since I already have the Dogtra 200 but did not know about the "page"

    Ann CAssidy
    Bodega, CA

  4. The only real issue we have had with our almost six year old rough collie that I am at a loss as to how to address is barking fits (high-pitched Timmy's fallen down the well barks that carry for a couple of blocks) either when we both leave the house, or either of leave him in the car when we've gone somewhere.

    He's fine once we're out of sight and isn't destructive,so my impression is that it's not separation anxiety.

    We've joked that he does it because he doesn't want the "herd" to be separated, but still, even if that's true...

    I believe that this may be at least partly the result of the positive training advice I got when he was a puppy to "ignore the behavior you don't want" and so now, here we are. More likely, from what CM the DW says, doing nothing meant the behavior was approved.

    How in the heck do you reward a dog for not doing something when you're physically not there?

    We tried the treat-filled Kong to distract him before we left and that worked. Once. The second time it triggered him on sight. He's not stupid.

    Do you think this collar would work? He certainly meets the first criteria you mention.

    I've tried everything I can think of to break the jag, but he just flips into another space where I can't reach him. I can see it in his eyes.

    Needless to say, this isn't fun for him and I'd love for him to be able to just stay relaxed when we leave him. As I say, he's ok once we're gone. It's the leaving that seems to be the trigger, so matter how calm and matter of fact we are.

    I've recently put a bed on the floor of the car, I get him in a calm state before we leave and in a down stay on leash behind the seats (Eurovan camper) to try to head off the jag, but since what he wants is to see out the window, all this seems to only be increasing the anxiety, at least for now.

    I think stopping it before it stops is the solution and maybe this collar is the way to do that. What do you think?

  5. Susan --

    Your dog might be a better candidate for a conventional bark-triggered collar.

    I suspect that IF the buzzer collar (or a conventional e-collar) quieted him down when you were leaving, he'd just transfer his tantrum to just after you drive out of range or earshot. The kong story certainly suggest that strong possibility. You might see if you could borrow one, rather than take a $200 gamble.

    Also, this particular kind of hysteria is different from the social foolishness I've successfully used the buzzer collar for. He may go too far over the top to respond, too quickly.

    I prefer the electronic stimulation to the citronella/noxious fumes bark collars -- because, believe it or not, they are more humane. The shock is gone as soon as the bark is -- very communicative, provides good contrast -- but the spray stink lingers long after the dog stops yapping. And citronella on the eyes and mucus membranes is painful.

    Fitting a bark collar can be tricky with a very hairy dog, and sometimes you have to clip a little bit (don't shave bare!) to make contact.

    I like the Dogtra YS series collars, as they are easy to adjust the levels, and I've not known one to fire "unjustly."

    In the case of your dog, you are just looking to correct the barking itself when you leave. IME, stop the barking jag, you most often stop the emotion that accompanies it.

    Use it at home first, and be ready to mess with the levels until you get it right.

    If it makes you feel any better, the "Timmy down the well, rusty ice pick jabbed in my ear" kind of bark is the #1 complaint I hear from collie owners. It apparently IS self-rewarding to these guys, whatever the cause of the shriek. What I often see is dogs who are barking a fairly normal amount, at normal volumes, for normal reasons -- but the pitch is so kidney-liquifying, the owners (and neighbors) cannot take it.

    My German shepherd hits the same pitch, and it drives me to the Mountains of Madness.

    And uber-manly Moe has a squeal he uses when he's especially happy about greeting someone that can turn skull bone into powder.

  6. I used a traditional bark collar many years ago on a Setter I had briefly. We rented then, had neighbors on all sides, and it was important to keep the dogs relatively quiet. I don't know if there was some interference or what but it appeared to me the thing would go off sometimes when the dog was quiet. That was problem 1. Problem 2 was that it wasn't sensitive to the constant, loud (IMO) whining the dog would do so I still had a noisy dog.
    I am so happy to learn about this new "pager" setting! Not that it would have applied to the Setter, but I would love to try it on a dog I have right now who seems to be a social ne'er-do-well. Thanks for posting about it.

  7. Your description of the aggressive groveling was spot on. I knew it wasn't true submission and I've often observed it in dogs with the most innate drive toward dominance. But it wasn't until I read your description that it really clicked to me as "testing" behavior. Thank you!

    I know (although not well) Laura and Douglas--but I'm east coast and have only seen them at a few events.


  8. Being one of those people who is constantly misplacing my keys, cell phone, IPod, pager - what chance do I have finding the remote to the collar when my beloved but highly reactive Cattle Dog goes off at the front door? Is it possible to use this idea with something that is not hanging around the dog's neck? I do not want to use a "shake can" as my other, well behaved, ACD is very noise sensitive. Is there a collar that comes with more than one remote? (Using the theory that I couldn't possibly lose ALL of them?).

    Anne Goldsmith

  9. I wish you were close enough that I could get you to evaluate Mal for me. CU has helped but not entirely eliminated his barkign ("HI! HI! HI! OMG I'M A COLLIE AND THIS WORLD IS SO MADE OF AWESOME! HEY! LISTEN TO ME! AREN'T I COOL?") but I wonder if this might do the trick. Citronella collar worked somewhat but made ME wheezy.

  10. Heather-this was a great post. My lab mix Kasey isn't a barker general, neither out in the back yard or inside at the window, even when he's riled up with someone at the door, he doesn't usually bark.


    When we go to a social place like PetSmart or the Doggie Gym and he's on leash and either the other dogs aren't or they are but he isn't supposed to be greeting them. Then it's BARK non stop, with what I take to be stressed body language. I've tried diverting him with the "look at me" and treat, but obviously when he's stressed he's could care less about food. Running him around for a while seems to work. But do you think the vibrating collar would be for this kind of situation?

  11. My dog was going hard-of-hearing, so I used the buzzer for a different function: no matter where he was, as long as he was within eyesight of us, when he felt the buzz he would turn and RUN to us as a "Come" alternative. It was actually very easy to teach with him already having a good recall, plus I had the low stim if he didn't obey the first time.

    I admit to not having much skill with the e-collars, but that is what I used mine's put away now since my dog was PTS and I'm waiting for a chance to go work with a pro to learn how to use it properly. But in regards to the buzzer, I saw more potential for a command alternative than I did a corrective action and it worked well. I still prefer traditional training collars for any corrections for misbehavior, but hey if the shoe fits you, wear it! (And plus I've never had a problem barker to work with, so I admit inexperience with that.)

  12. hmm great post. I train deaf dogs with vibe collars. Inside it's easy to distract a deaf dog by tossing a stuffed toy or tapping the floor. Once outside on a long lead it's close to impossible to reach them without a vibe collar. I really do wish that someone would make one so the user doesn't hit the STIM button at the wrong time. These aren't cheap but a few come with a lifetime warranty.

  13. With the Dogtra models, one simply turns the stim dial to zero, and even if you accidentally squeeze the button, nothing happens.

    If you really don't trust yourself, you could pull the knob off and glue the thing at zero.

    I want to stress again that this interrupt/redirect tool and technique is NOT for "barkers."

    It is for dogs who are misbehaving socially, particularly dogs who are experimenting with fearful behavior and certain kinds of low-level status testing or aggressive testing. It just so happens that in two cases I mentioned, the fearfulness was manifested with barking jags.

    You can sit there and buzz an industrial barker who has gotten rolling until the batteries cry uncle, and that dog will continue industrial barking and show no signs that he notices the buzzing.

  14. Hi Heather,

    I just wanted to mention that the aggressively submissive behavior you described is used by wolves all the time, in a variety of situations. One way I have seen it used is to control other animals who are higher ranking but doing something the lower wolf detests (for what ever reason). It can be a way to "get your way" while still maintaining pack order. It can also be testing as you said.

    I am going to try the pager mode on a "brain damaged" BC mix I have who always barks at my husband. I hope it works.

    Terry Jenkins

  15. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I adopted my APBT, Violet, a year ago, when she was 10months old. Her background, what little I know of it, was similar to Spike's. And like Spike, she adores other dogs (not so much new places) and is fearful of people. When I first brought her home, she was so terrified of me I couldn't she would urinate and deficate on herself if I came too near. She never fear bit or displayed any aggression, but her chronic terror was horrible. I persisted, carrying all 50 pounds of her to obedience classes, hoisting her into my SUV to take her out into the world, even to the drugstore to fill a prescription. I participated in uber nerdy dog socialization nights, and take her to grad school with me at night.

    I literally dragged her everywhere until she started to come out of her shell. Now she is a shining example of the bully breed: loyal, smart, goofy, and deeply sweet. But! Only around people she knows well. Her progress has plataued.

    Being an APBT, she's not much of a barker, but I suspect she has the "fear loop" thing going on, and I want to interrupt it. For example, friends come over for dinner, and she cowers in her crate all night--afraid of the fact that she's afraid. I'm hoping this collar will let me "catch" her at the moment she starts to freak, when her ears and tail go down, her eyes get round, and she starts to slink away.

  16. See, Heather, this is what I'm thinking about for Barky, er, Maddy. Something to tap her shoulder to get her to remember that the whole terrified barking process doesn't need to go on indefinitely.


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