May 2021 Training Challenge: Overt vs. Covert behavior

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Happy spring! I have no idea how we’re already in May, but here we are. And with the new month comes a new training challenge. Here’s the challenge for May:

 

Describe 1 construct or label using overt behavior

 

Okay. What the heck did I just say? This training challenge requires a bit of a vocabulary lesson. Now, y’all know I try to not be super vocab-heavy or technical in these blog posts, but this is one where the technical terms end up being the easiest way to communicate this concept. I promise to make it as painless as possible! Let’s dive in. 

 

Overt vs. Covert Behavior

Overt behavior refers to observable, measurable behavior. Examples of this include:

  • The person took three steps to the right
  • The hawk is flying at 20 mph
  • The dog’s ears turned back and are sitting low against the skull
  • The cat jumped onto the counter

There’s no arguing whether these behaviors are or are not true because we can see them and measure them. 

Covert behavior refers to internal thoughts, feelings, motivations, and intentions. And a construct is our interpretation of those covert behaviors. If you want to think of covert behavior and constructs as the same thing for now, go for it. The technical differences between those two aren’t as relevant for our level of discussion. Examples of this include:

  • The dog is mad that I left him alone and that’s why he pees when I’m gone
  • The dog is anxious when I leave him alone and that’s why he pees when I’m gone
  • The dog doesn’t know to not potty inside and that’s why he pees when I’m gone
  • The dog is trying to claim his territory when other dogs pass by the house and that’s why he pees when I’m gone

As you can see, there’s a whole lot of debate as to whether these behaviors are or are not true. Here we have the exact same overt behavior- urinating when left home alone- but I’ve heard all of the above as constructs people have created to explain that particular behavior. 

Here’s the thing with covert behavior and constructs: we’ll never know if they’re accurate. Heck, we’re even terrible at guessing the covert behavior of our fellow humans, with whom we speak the same language! How can we assume that we’re better at guessing the covert behavior of another species that doesn’t speak the same language? 

One more vocab word to throw into this mix: labels. A label is something we use to describe someone. For example, we could say a pet is:

  • Stubborn
  • Fearful
  • Aggressive
  • Anxious
  • Sweet

All of those are labels. 

 

Why does all of this matter?

All of this matters for a few different reasons:

 

The words we use shape our judgment, and ultimately can shape how we feel about our pets

Let’s say we have a dog who sometimes lies down in the middle of a walk and cannot be coaxed to get up for several minutes at a time. 

Overt behavior: lies down while on a walk for several minutes

Constructs and labels I’ve heard people use to describe this behavior:

  • Stubborn
  • Too hot to walk
  • Scared
  • Watching everything; attentive or focused on their surroundings
  • Getting old and joints might hurt

Now, how do you think the person who thinks their dog is stubborn feels about them vs. the person who thinks their dog is getting old with ouchy joints feels about them? My guess is those two people have a pretty different relationship with their pets and feel very differently about this particular behavior. 

 

Our judgment shapes our decisions, for better or worse

Let’s continue with the previous example. Each of those people would likely choose a different path to change that behavior. This might look like:

  • Stubborn: force them to walk
  • Too hot to walk: manage by walking in the morning when it’s cool
  • Scared: seek help from a behavior professional
  • Watching everything; attentive or focused: train a watch me or attention cue
  • Getting old and joints might hurt: speak with their vet about pain management options

One behavior, 5 different options for treatment based on our assumptions about what’s happening. But, and I can’t stress this enough:

 

We don’t know if our assumptions about covert behavior are accurate.

 

That means that we can’t make training decisions based on covert behavior, constructs, or labels. While we might be right in our assumptions, we can end up doing more harm than good if we’re wrong. For example, if the person thinks their dog is stubborn but actually they’re too hot to walk or in pain, forcing them to walk could end up seriously injuring them. Assumptions do not make for effective decisions; observing overt behavior makes for effective decisions. 

 

Our assumptions cloud our observations

I see people on a daily basis who are struggling to reconcile seemingly incompatible thoughts, theories, assumptions, etc. that they have about their pets. The most common I hear is reconciling the “sweet” label with a dog who is biting people. This usually comes in the form of the following statement:

 

They’re so sweet 95% of the time but it’s just that 5% we’re worried about

 

It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around how a pet who is sweet can also bite someone; sweet individuals don’t hurt others. When I see this happen we usually have a discussion that we’re the ones setting up that false dichotomy; their pet can still be very sweet with them but also fearful and biting other people. They’re not mutually exclusive behaviors. 

Sometimes, though, I see people struggling with that more than others. In those situations, I often see where folks will hold fast to a label or construct that they have about their pet and it makes it so they cannot see overt behavior that contradicts that label. 

For example, I’ve worked with a few clients who had leash reactive dogs and would even bite other dogs in some situations. The dog was showing clear signs of stress around members of their own species and even though we went through all the typical spiels about anxiety-related behaviors, they still believed that their dog truly enjoyed other dogs because they had a dog friend as a puppy. They couldn’t see the stress signals I was pointing out to them because that contradicted who they thought their dog was. Needless to say, those folks made much slower progress than their counterparts until we reached the point where they were able to see with their eyes, not their ideas. 

 

Hold up. Don’t you use labels and constructs all the time?

Yep! I do. Even though we shouldn’t make training decisions based on constructs or labels, they’re really helpful for communicating as long as all involved parties are defining those words the same way. For example, if I had to describe leash reactivity as barking, lunging, growling, and air snapping at the end of a leash when a dog is near another dog every time I talked to a client, we’d never get anything done. Instead, I tell my client, “this behavior that you’re describing I’m going to call leash reactivity.” That way we can communicate more efficiently and be on the same page as to what we’re defining as leash reactivity. 

 

But, what about the anxiety label you use? Isn’t that an assumption?

Right again! Those of you who have done an initial consultation with me might remember that when I describe your pet’s behavior as an anxiety-based behavior, I’ll actually say it’s a behavior based in anxiety, stress, fear, however it helps you to think of it. The next sentence is usually something along the lines of, “Those are all technically different, but for our purposes, I’ll use those phrases interchangeably because we can treat them all the same way and that’s really what I’m more interested in.”

Those are, however, all still labels or constructs. The reason I feel comfortable using those to make behavior decisions is because of body language. There has been enough study on body language, and studies are still coming out, that we can make an accurate enough guess as to broad strokes of covert behavior– like excitement and fear. So really those behavior decisions are happening based on body language and other behavior observations (overt behavior), and we attribute those body language signals to different constructs or labels. 

 

Back to the training challenge

Alright, I think we’ve detoured from this month’s training challenge enough for it to now make sense. 

Your task for this month is to take 1 construct or label that you have for your pet and describe it using only overt behaviors. Here’s an example:

Construct: Zorro likes his new tank setup

Overt behavior: Zorro is spending more time basking, less time trying to escape, and less time performing repetitive swimming behaviors in his new tank setup than his old one. 

If you’re feeling extra ambitious for this challenge, you can then turn that overt behavior into a different construct or label so you can see how easy it is for folks to create different explanations for the same behavior, like this:

New construct: Zorro has realized that I have finally outsmarted him when it comes to him escaping and he’s given up. I’m finally smarter than my turtle. 

Turtle resting on artificial grass on a green wooden platform. He is behind plexiglass and there's a black lamp behind him.
What I describe as Zorro enjoying his new tank setup

Now what?

  • Choose a construct or label. 
  • Think about what your pet is actually doing when you use that construct or label. What do you see with your eyes? 
  • Share your results with us on Facebook or Instagram @petharmonytraining
  • If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, we have a video training on overt vs. covert behavior in our Beginning Behavior Modification course

 

Happy training!

Allie

 

P.S. We have something BIG in the works to help even more pets and their people. Stay tuned for an announcement later this month!

April Training Challenge: Drop It

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Happy kind of spring! We have another fun training challenge this month:

 

Teach a “drop it” cue during play

 

Playtime can very often double as training time. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive! 

Before we get into some examples of how to do this, let’s have a brief chat about what I mean by “drop it”.

 

“Drop It”: The Behavior

When I say “drop it”, I mean the specific behavior of removing an item from your mouth. I like to have specific cues that mean specific behaviors to limit confusion with a pet as much as possible. 

If you are using “leave it” for both behaviors of not putting something in your mouth and removing something from your mouth and it’s working, keep doing it. I’m not here to fix things that aren’t broken. However, if your pet is struggling to learn that the same thing means two different behaviors, then I suggest having one cue for each. Remember: just because we understand the concept of synonyms does not mean our pets do. 

Another reminder: our pets don’t speak human language. You need to teach your pet what the “drop it” cue means before it’s going to reliably work. Fairly often someone will tell me that their pet does not drop something when asked to. And, almost just as often, I’m met with blank looks when I ask them how they taught that behavior. Stubborn quite often means they were never taught how to do it in the first place. 

And, one last note: this behavior needs to be reinforced just like all others if you’d like to see it continue. If the only time you’re using “drop it” is to ask your pet to give up something amazing for nothing in return or only at the end of a play session, they’re going to discontinue following that cue pretty quickly. Like all behaviors, it needs to be worth it to the individual performing it.

 

“Drop It” with Fetch

There are a few variations that usually work for teaching this cue while playing fetch. 

Option 1: 2-Toy Fetch

  1. Grab two identical (if possible) toys that your pet likes playing fetch with.
  2. Throw one toy.
  3. When your pet brings Toy 1 back, make a big fuss over Toy 2. Make it seem like the most fun toy that’s ever existed. 
  4. When your pet drops Toy 1, immediately throw Toy 2. The hope is that throwing Toy 2 (continuing the game) reinforces the drop it, not any other behavior– like sit. We’ll only know if this is effective for this pet if they continue dropping the toy moving forward. 
  5. Pick up Toy 1 while they’re chasing after Toy 2.
  6. When your pet brings Toy 2 back, make a big fuss over Toy 1. 
  7. When your pet drops Toy 2, immediately throw Toy 1. 
  8. Repeat until your pet reliably drops the toy. Pay attention to the cues that they are going to drop the toy. Some will chew it a few times then drop, others it’s based on proximity to you, others it could be a change in head position.  
  9. Add in your “drop it” verbal cue right before they drop it. If you’ve successfully completed Step 8 you should be able to tell when they’re going to drop it and say your cue before the behavior happens. Reinforce by tossing the other toy, like before. Repeat until, in this context, your pet reliably drops the toy on cue.
  10. If you want to add some other behavior between the drop it and toss, now’s the time. 

 

Option 2: Using Treats

  1. Grab a toy or two that your pet likes playing fetch with
  2. Throw the toy
  3. When your pet brings the toy back, show them a treat (luring) and say “drop it”. 
  4. When your pet drops the toy, give them the treat, then pick up the toy. If you’re having trouble with your pet grabbing the toy again when you’re reaching for it then toss the treat instead of handing it to them so they’re busy while you’re picking it up. 
  5. Because you’ve already rewarded the “drop it” behavior, you can ask for a sit or anything else you’d like before throwing the toy again. 
  6. Repeat the above steps 5 times. 
  7. The next time your pet brings the toy back, say “drop it” without showing them the treat. If they do, awesome! Hand or toss them the treat. If they don’t, repeat the above steps. 
  8. You can either slowly phase out the treat and just have the continuation of the game be the reinforcement (if it is, actually and indeed, reinforcing enough) or you can keep the treat in the game long-term. There’s no harm in that. 

 

“Drop It” With Tug

Let’s get one question that I hear frequently out of the way: does tug cause aggression? The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is that there have been one or two studies looking at tug and aggression and they did not show that there was a significant correlation between the two. Now, two studies are not a lot and there could absolutely be more research done on this and that’s something we should keep in mind. Anecdotally, I frequently play tug with dogs who are considered “aggressive” and still have all my limbs (even the resource guarders!)

The way to teach “drop it” with tug is exactly how you would do it with fetch, just with tugging instead of throwing. I recommend playing for just a few seconds at a time (10-15 seconds). This can often make it easier for them to drop it because they’re not fully in the throes of tugging. 

 

Now What?

  • Choose your game and toys. 
  • Get to playin’! If you’re using treats, you may need to experiment with the type of treat to get the perfect value of “worth dropping the toy for” vs. “not too exciting that play stops”.
  • Share your progress with us @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram

 

Happy training!

Allie

 

February 2021 Training Challenge: Nose to Hand Target

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Happy February! This month’s training challenge is with our upcoming webinar, Pandemic Puppies: Finding Harmony in the Future in mind. We wanted to include something that is helpful to the pets we’ll be talking about later this month in the webinar, but is also helpful for all pets and easy enough to include in a training challenge. So, here it is:

 

Teach or proof a nose to hand target

 

Ellen has a great video on what a nose to hand target is, how to teach it, and what it can be used for. Check it out here:

 

 

What is it?

A nose to hand target is when your pet touches their nose to your hand. We often just refer to this as “hand targeting” but I wanted to include the specificity here to make it known that an animal can target different parts of their body to different things. For example, one of the coolest applications I’ve seen is a hyena who was taught to target their neck to the bars of a crate so their caregivers could take jugular blood samples easily and in a way that wasn’t scary to the hyena. 

 

Why it’s useful

Ellen goes into a lot of cool ways that you can use a nose to hand target in her video. Here are some of my favorite ways that I’ve used a nose to hand target:

  • Teaching a more precise recall (come when called). You can get the pet into exactly the location and even orientation you’re looking for with a target which isn’t possible with a generic recall. 
  • Relocation. Want your dog to get out of the way? Hand target. Want your cat to jump off the counter? Hand target. Emily used a beak to spoon target for one of her birds who would try to bite hands coming into his enclosure to feed him. He was happy to move away to the spoon so that anyone who watched him could care for him safely!
  • Jump to hand target. I use this with those jumpy dogs who just need to get those one or two jumps in before they can sit and be calm. I talk more about this in this blog post about how the Water Principle in hapkido applies to our pets.  
  • Harness training. I worked with a cat years ago, Milo, who was comfortable with wearing a harness but wasn’t as keen about it going over his head. We taught him to put his own head through the harness with a DIY target stick (a pom pom attached to a chopstick). 
  • Hand shyness. While this isn’t always the most appropriate approach to hand shyness and you should absolutely work with a professional before trying this on your own, it can be an effective way to help pets who are uncomfortable with hands. My favorite example is Castiel, who was very uncomfortable with hands and eventually learned to target new people’s hands as the final step in his greeting protocol. 
  • Exercise. I worked with a pup who had hind-end mobility issues. His caregivers were concerned about how they would provide him with the physical exercise he needs. We decided to teach him a nose to hand target and would ask him to walk just a step or two at a time to touch the hand. This was plenty of exercise for him! Now, I ask Oso to run across the house and jump up to a hand target to get extra winter exercise. 
  • Tricks. There are so many tricks that can be taught using a nose to hand target (or other targeting behavior)! Spin, jump, bow, figure 8s, and more. 

And, the last reason I find this a useful behavior, is because it’s usually an easy behavior to teach. There are absolutely pets who say otherwise, but on the whole I see the majority of folks having quick success with this. Not only is it an easy behavior to teach, but I find that it’s often easier to perform than some of the more common tricks, like sit. There are plenty of times I’ve seen a dog who’s too distracted to sit, but not too distracted to perform a hand target. 

 

How to teach a nose to hand target

The simplest option is to extend your hand a couple of inches away from your pet’s nose, wait for them to investigate, then mark and treat from your opposite hand when you feel their nose or even whiskers in the beginning. Ellen does a great job of showing different ways to teach this in the video above. 

Note: if you have a pet who’s uncomfortable with hands near their face, work with a behavior consultant on how to safely teach this behavior. There are more options available than what we can get into in a generic post or video!

 

Who should learn a nose to hand target?

Almost every pet can benefit from this– including all species! A hand target specifically may not be appropriate for all pets, in which case you can use something else for them to target to. 

 

Now what?

  • Go forth and teach a nose to hand target!
  • Does your pet already know this behavior? Your training challenge is to then proof or strengthen this behavior. Check out the below videos on how to do that:
  • Share pics and videos of you working on a hand target with your pet! Email us at [email protected] or connect with us on Facebook or Instagram @petharmonytraining

 

Happy training!

Allie