Guests: Leslie McDevitt & Lindsay Wood Brown
Leslie McDevitt, MLA, CDBC, CPDT-KA, is the author of the internationally popular Control Unleashed series of books and DVDs. Her books have been translated into many languages; people all over the world have learned how to use her science-based and empowering methods to help companion, performance, and working dogs learn how to function optimally without stress in very challenging environments. If you have a dog that worries about stuff—other dogs, people, noises, the unexpected—Leslie has many fun counter-conditioning games just for you. Leslie is a popular conference speaker and is especially proud to be a presenter at ClickerExpo and a consultant for the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.
Lindsay Wood Brown is a board-certified Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB) with a master’s degree in Animal Behavior and I just love her. Did I just make this awkward? Oh well. With a stacked professional portfolio, Lindsay has a long history of leadership and building high-functioning teams within animal shelters, is no stranger to teaching workshops and also serves as a faculty member for Karen Pryor Academy and Clicker Expo.
In this episode we discuss:
- What is arousal?
- How does arousal show up in our training?
- How does arousal affect both people and dogs?
- How arousal affects reinforcers.
- Discussing “eating as behavior” and how to build functional food drive with a dog that won’t eat.
This podcast is supported by: Control Unleashed Over the Top Workshop
This workshop will teach you how to help your dogs modulate their arousal level to find the perfect balance of excited and relaxed that they need to succeed in sport and life. Join us on May 27th and 28th in Julian, NC, watch the live stream from your location, or watch on-demand at any time!
Lindsay: [00:00:00] Figuring out what is actually inherently reinforcing for Sonnet, because food I had screwed all up. But chasing me? That was really reinforcing for him. So he’d look up at the squirrel, I’d say “yes,” he’d orient, I’d take off running.
Hannah: And he would bring you down like a gazelle.
Hey there, fellow training nerds. You’re listening to Drinking From The Toilet. And I’m your host, Hannah Branigan: teacher, trainer, podcaster, and author of the book Awesome Obedience and its companion, Awesome Obedience: The Field Guide, which you can get either or both anytime you like from clickertraining.com.
So this week I am bringing you a very special episode with two [00:01:00] very popular guests – Leslie McDevitt and Lindsay Wood Brown – and a conversation about arousal, which is a very popular topic. So we got together to jam on this topic specifically. Well, it’s one we talk about together all the time anyways. Please reference episode number 69 on arousal with Lindsay. But specifically because we wanted to tell you all about a workshop that we’re giving together at the end of this month, which is the month of May, 2023. This is really a cool project. I’m excited about this. We’ve been talking about it for a while and we finally figured out how to make it happen.
So this is a workshop that’s going to be held simultaneously live and in person as well as virtually. And the whole thing is focusing on helping your dogs modulate their arousal level, finding that perfect balance of excited and relaxed so you can be focused and control, but also like awake and fast with low latency and enthusiasm, all the things that [00:02:00] we want and need to be successful in sport and in life. How do you adjust that thermostat?
And this is a very much a group effort. There’s a bunch of us that are all descending on the small town of Julian, North Carolina. We have Dr. Sophie Liu, Lindsay Wood Brown, myself, of course, Leslie McDevitt, Julie Daniels and Adam Skandarani.
We’re gonna cover everything from the neuroscience behind arousal regulation all the way into the most practical ways to actually teach and work with arousal in your everyday training. So all the skills that we’re gonna teach, we’re gonna be presenting in both sports contexts and also more generally, so that hopefully you have the tools that you need to understand how to support your over the top dog in whatever context arousal comes up for you.[00:03:00]
So how the whole thing is gonna work: this is a live workshop. It is in North Carolina, so not too far from where I am. We do have 10 working dog and handler teams. I think that’s already full and chosen. And what we’re planning to do is we’re gonna have some presentations with Q&As and then also training sessions with the working teams. So you’ll be able to talk about the theory, ask questions, and then see it in action with a lot of different kinds of dogs and handlers, which I really like for getting a full understanding of how to apply a particular technique or concept.
This is all happening May 27th and 28th Eastern time starting at like nine o’clock in the morning. Because of course it is a dog activity, so we have to start early in the morning. (Could be worse, could be tracking.) And you’ll be able to attend live and in person if you would like and then there’s also a live stream and on demand version, which are [00:04:00] being hosted through Clean Run. So that means you can again, show up in person, hang out with us, we would love that. You can catch the live stream so you can watch along with us in real time if your schedule allows that. And you’ll be able to watch the recordings in the Learning Center on the Clean Run website at at any time. You have lifetime access to those recordings. And yes, you can get CEUs for attendance.
For the specific guests that we have today hanging out with us on this episode, you probably already recognize Leslie McDevitt’s name. Of course, if you’ve been following the podcast for a while, she’s been on multiple episodes. We love to hang out and talk. And at least at the time of this recording, she is not mad at me! And Leslie, just so you know, I’m also not mad at you right now. We’ll update later.
So we talk all the time. Her books Control Unleashed and her more recent books and her videos have influenced a lot of us that train in that positive reinforcement and particularly [00:05:00] in the sports world. They kinda changed how we think about things like arousal. Her books teach very science-based and empowering methods that help companion, performance and working dogs learn how to function optimally and manage stress in very challenging environments.
And then we’re also hanging out with Lindsay Wood Brown. Again, you’ll remember her from several other episodes. She’s a board certified Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB) with a master’s degree in animal behavior and I just love her. She’s a really good friend. She’s also really influenced both my teaching and my training. I hope I haven’t made this awkward for her (I probably have), but Lindsay, I’m not mad at you. I hope you’re not mad at me. So she’s got a just truly stacked professional portfolio and a long history of leadership and building high functioning teams, primarily within an animal shelter environment. She’s also no stranger to teaching workshops and also serves as a faculty member for Karen Pryor Academy and Clicker Expo.
So from here, that’s enough lead up. [00:06:00] Let’s jump into our conversation and let’s talk about arousal.
Hannah: Alright. We’re here to talk about arousal in general, and I thought it might be interesting to start with a general conversation around “what is arousal, how do we define it, how does it show up,” like maybe we can talk some about how it shows up in our own personal training, if that works for y’all?
Leslie: The people or the dogs?
Hannah: I mean, that’s actually a really good point because that’s relevant–
Leslie: If it’s like a stress type thing and you’re upregulated, it certainly shows up in your training. Just thinking about it.
Lindsay: If I have any sort of agenda in my training – if I get in front of Sonnet and I’ve got some agenda – there is some level of arousal that I come into that training session with and he is much more likely to [00:07:00] not engage. That’s hard.
Leslie: Interesting. What behaviors– Like, what does it look like when you feel like that, when you’re interacting with him? (I feel like I’m on NPR somehow?)
Lindsay: Agreed. Sonnet, he’s two now and he’s been a pretty significant challenge and also this wonderful thing in my life. But when I first got him, there were these kind of behavior things that were unexpected. Then there were some expected ones, right? And if I looked at some of the unexpected ones, they were those high arousal behaviors, screaming at the sight of another dog, refusing to eat. Not unexpected, right? Right, right. Icelandic sheep dog.
I think the piece that was unexpected for me [00:08:00] was not just refusal to eat in those high arousal conditions, but lack of interest in food overall. If I didn’t have really strong feelings around labeling him as “not food motivated,” I would’ve labeled him as “not food motivated.”
So I have this new puppy and I’m excited to teach everything and train all of the things that I’ve wished to do and play with over the past few years that I haven’t had a dog. And I would get out my treats and start a training session and I was “I’m gonna work on transport, like I’m gonna practice all of these exciting things” and I think my stance, having the food, all of it, he just was not interested.
Leslie: That is so frustrating because I’ve been going through that too. [00:09:00] So I know personally how frustrating that is. Like, I have other tools to use, but that’s my favorite one!
Lindsay: That one is really important to me and I’m really excited to do it and I wanna teach you all of the things. And I have an agenda. If it’s clear to him that I have some agenda, he’s out. Now we’ve made huge progress, but this was what it looked like for those first few months.
Leslie: Interesting. Do you find it, either of you, that if you’re filming something, that makes it worse? Because the only time I feel like I have an agenda in my training is when – and this is usually the only time that I’m training, ironically – is that I have to make a video for something and I’m like, “Alright dogs, come over here. I’m [00:10:00] making this webinar. I just need to catch this.” And I’m already in like a mood because I don’t like doing that. And they’re like, “Dude?”
Hannah: Oh yeah, the camera, setting up to record– Now if I’m just recording a training session for my own purposes, not so much anymore. But if I am recording a video with the intent to capture or show something specifically, then that definitely affects it. And certainly doing any kind of live demo or training on Zoom is absolutely introducing an additional layer of something performance related has a lot in common with any performance: teaching, public speaking, being at a dog show, teaching a [00:11:00] seminar.
Leslie: I was just thinking about that. I was thinking that when I’m at a dog show, there’s still still some element with me of like a sense of humor. I’m like, “This is ridiculous. I’m so nervous and I can’t believe that I’m–” But when I’m doing a video like for a webinar or something, I’m in a really different mindset. It always starts with me going, “I thought I was gonna be training dogs for a living and being outside all the time and working with animals and now I’m just at my computer.” It starts with that and only gets worse as I’m making the webinar. I don’t have that much of a sense of humor. Which is one of one of the ways that I deal with arousal from stress and things like that, you know? There’s just nothing funny about it. So.
Hannah: Maybe we should back up. Does anybody have a [00:12:00] working definition of arousal?
Leslie: Lindsay does. What is it?
Hannah: I didn’t wanna make eye contact, but–
Lindsay: I mean, I just have to spit something out. I don’t have a great definition, but I would say it’s that level of activation or alertness that an animal displays, right? It’s made up of all of these things, these physiological responses and behaviors that we see, and I think we just lump it all in there and we call it arousal.
Lindsay: That’s not really a good working definition, but that was just what–
Leslie: No, it makes sense to me. I mean, like, functionally, what we need to understand about it in order to recognize the behavioral manifestations of it so that we’re not like, “my dog is this and that,” and like labeling them [00:13:00] certain things. We can take a step back and go, “oh, at least there’s some kind of arousal. What’s the antecedent to that? How are we gonna support them so they can regulate it?”
So that’s helpful even if we don’t understand deeper than that, like “What is actually happening? What is activated, what chemicals are these, right?” I don’t know, as far as labeling things go, to say like, “Well, that’s arousal.” At I think it gives people an idea of like, “There’s something happening behind the scenes here,” you know? Gotta address more than just what the animal’s doing. Like something is making these things happen that’s causing this behavior.
Lindsay: The physiological pieces that are happening in there, I don’t know what they all are. The behaviors that I observe and this dog look like [00:14:00] this, you know? Behaviors I observe my dog may look a little bit different. But I think typically there’s some topography that we all tend to label as high arousal. If I think of the shelter dogs, it’s the kind of vertical behavior, right? They’re at the kennel front and they’re jumping, they’re barking, it’s all of those noisy pieces. I think they often will not take food. That’s what we see in the short term–
Hannah: I agree, of course, but also like I have a border collie laying on my feet right now and it can look both exactly the same and then it can also look totally different. I’ve had a similar experience with my [00:15:00] Belgians and I’m thinking of Spark in particular where, for her, it almost comes like full circle like the snake eating its tail, like the more stiller-er she is, the closer we are to the leaping and the screaming. And Fig is very much like that, where like the more excited– Oh, I’m having a hard time not just swapping out a different label that’s the same thing.
So one of the challenges that I have when I’m trying to talk about a training plan and kind of – this is gonna be a long journey, but if you stick with me, I hope to bring the plane into land with as many metaphors as possible – is that we say, “well, why is he barking? Because he’s aroused.” But that can’t be a cause, right? Like that’s, that [00:16:00] might be a description, but it can’t be a cause. But there is definitely something in there that I need to account for, right?
Now part of it has to be described in terms of observable behaviors, because that’s all I have in the field, right? Like when I’m looking at a dog and I’ve got my toy or my treats or whatever, all I’ve got is like looking at him and what I can see and if he’s pointed at me, maybe I can see things that like we– I think probably have the most overlap in terms like pupil dilation and stuff, but only if he’s pointed at me and I’m quite close.
So that’s not that helpful. And then I try to describe, you know, “Oh, well, if they’re barking.” Well, I feel like probably most dogs that are barking would also have other things going on that we would throw in that arousal bucket. Probably most [00:17:00] dogs that are like feet off the floor in any way are probably also gonna have other things going on that we would throw in that bucket.
But also like a totally still staring at a squirrel sticky border collie sticky behavior? So like Rugby my border terrier can come out of his crate clacking like a malinois under really specific circumstances, which is why I blame myself because I am fairly confident I have done this. Depending on the day, sometimes I have regrets and other times I’m fine with it. But in general, if the dog I’m working with is pulling my clothes off, probably there’s other things going on. So it’s like trying to isolate like one thing isn’t sufficient, and then it also doesn’t necessarily tell me what to do, right?
So, [00:18:00] and this is kind of tough and I think I’m gonna mostly stick to how we talk– When I’m talking about arousal, I’m mostly thinking of it in the way that we are mostly using it in dog training circles. Because I do think it’s used differently in a more like neurophysiology/neuroscience field kind of way, like the action potentials and things.
But for our purposes– And I don’t even remember where we started and I should probably stop talking in a second; I should have stopped talking a minute or three minutes ago, but– I’ve got two things and then I’m gonna mute myself and let you take over, okay.
One category that I think ties in here is the behaviors that we tag with “arousal” that we don’t like. They’re problem behaviors for our [00:19:00] purposes, at least in this context. Leaping at the front of a door, throwing your body at the front door of your house or the door to your kennel, biting your handler in the ring, tearing your handler’s clothes.
Leslie: Not being able to eat around other dogs that smell really good.
Hannah: Yeah. AKC does not like that. So there’s that. Asterisk: is it the arousal or is it the barking that’s the problem? Okay. We can come back to that. Maybe.
But then there’s also where it might be a problem– or, ohhh, now I have a third parenthesis here. Okay. But I’m not gonna, I’m gonna stick to the two that I originally described.
And then there’s the scenario where you’re trying to train a behavior that you do want and then something happens to that behavior under conditions that we are labeling or tagging with “arousal.” And [00:20:00] I can give you an example cause I have one of those right now that I am working through – hopefully, hopefully working through, think we’ve established a trajectory at this point [fingers crossed tone of voice] – where… Well now I may as well:
So with Figment we’ve been working on his retrieve recently and his formal retrieve. So he has several different versions of very useful play retrieves for Frisbee and balls and things like that. But when I bring a dumbbell in and I need that more control, I want like all of the speed out to get it, a clean pickup and a lot of speed back and then a controlled and precise sit and hold in front of me.
We lose that last part.
Or rather, it’s one or the other. So if I’m doing it indoors and things are like, the whole situation’s very controlled and there’s not a lot of speed associated with it, pretty happy with the [00:21:00] hold that he gives me, he’ll give me good duration, he’s very still, and the sit is there. So like that’s coming along really nicely.
But as soon as I add a throw, some running and some speed, he’s now leaping out, flinging himself on the dumbbell, galumphs back and then flings the thing in the air and plays with it like a 40 pound cat, cracks me in the kneecaps with it. So… that won’t work. It’s not meeting my needs. So we’re trying to isolate some pieces of that and making some progress on it.
But it was just so funny to me because I’ve seen it a hundred thousand times in other people’s dogs and then there’s something else when it’s your dog doing it to your shins in your own yard [00:22:00] and you’re like, “God, I gotta fix this.” But it is very state-dependent in a way. So what do you think?
Lindsay: Didn’t you have a third one?
Leslie: It was in parentheses. We still wanna hear it.
Hannah: So the parentheses… fine. It was kind of the opposite, where I have a dog that’s too flat, right? And I was actually thinking about that when Lindsay first started talking and then we went a different direction with it.
But like, I’ll have two versions of crappy training sessions. (Well, no, I have many. I have many more. But two that come in here!) One is where I come in and I’m too worked up to begin with for whatever reason. It may be because I’m doing it like with people watching me and there’s like some other contingencies in play. But it could also be that I’m just coming into it [00:23:00] when things unrelated to the training session have me already kind of a little extra for whatever reason. And that’s usually not gonna be our best training session under those circumstances. Treats are gonna get dropped. Fine motor skills go out the window. Timing. Cues become odd.
And then the other side usually comes up in the scenario where I feel like I should be training and I am supposed to be training but I’m kind of tired and I’m not really fully engaged with the session. And again, I tend to do really crappy training under those circumstances.
But I think we encounter that in sports probably more so where we want a lot of the stuff that comes in the bucket with arousal, but maybe not everything in the bucket. [00:24:00]
Leslie: Right. A controlled form. Now, can we teach those behaviors without the arousal or not?
Lindsay: Yeah. Can you raise the conditions?
Leslie: There’s a dog, there’s a ridgeback– I’m actually taking my Belgian to an obedience class right now. There’s a ridgeback in the class that just understands everything, I think already has a CD, but she’s just like slow and her tail’s kinda down, but every so often she just – I don’t know, finds something to smile about. She starts to trot and she looks so adorable, and then that kind of fades off and she’s like morose again. And she does everything technically nicely, but she just looks like Eeyore except for these moments and then she’s trotting and she looks so adorable. And I’m always like, “See, [00:25:00] I would go back and reteach all the behaviors, but with the bounciness.”
And so that’s why I said what I said. I was thinking about her specifically. I just want that bounciness in there. I don’t wanna see a sad obedience routine. Like I don’t care that she’s in the right position. I want the bounce back!
Hannah: I always think of Patty Ruzzo’s “ears up and eyes bright.”
Leslie: So you could go– You could work on that by trying to just kind of amp up, which I think is what sport people go to. But you could also could just like say “click for bounce,” so you could work inside out or outside in to get the same result.
Hannah: I [00:26:00] would actually wonder if that is the same result though.
Leslie: Okay. So tell us more.
Hannah: Well, I’m just thinking– So earlier in my journey, let’s say when I had a dog that seemed flat, flatter than I wanted in training, what I learned and replicated was to jolly them up. Right? Get out the tug toy, smack the tug toy on the ground, poke the dog, push them around, get ’em excited, get ’em biting the toy and then go do the thing.
Leslie: Mm-hmm. Yeah. This is what we have all learned.
Hannah: With the dogs that I did that with, what would often happen is I would get a better session in the moment, but usually [00:27:00] not reliably better over time. And in fact, trying that made more than one dog avoid me in the situations where I was trying to jolly them up or it just wouldn’t work. Like I was having to increase the dose of cocaine every time to try to get the same outcome, but not always.
Leslie: There’s pressure on you too, to do that.
Hannah: Oh yeah.
Leslie: Versus just isolate what you like and click it and reinforce it.
Hannah: I felt like I started getting different and I would venture to say more reliable results when I flipped around to like what you were just saying: effectively “get something but then reward with the reward procedure that had those higher energy pieces to it, like the dog moves first [00:28:00] in some way.” That’s how I’ve explained it to students and teams. If the dog initiates it in some way so I’m not like, “Oh, my dog is showing like mild avoidance of me or not-so-mild avoidance of me? Let me become way more intense in his direction! And the only way he can get me to just chill out is to bite my toy!”
And I have thought of that from a kinda more of a classical respondent kind of formula where previously I was feeding the dog and then ringing the bell. And I mean, I guess sometimes the dog was still drooling at the time that I rang the bell and I called it successful? [00:29:00] But now I’m a little– I try to ring the bell and then feed the dog, even if I have to ring it really, really quietly at first.
There’s room for a lot of nuance too.
Leslie: There is. I’m thinking about dressage horses right now and how ridiculous it would be to tell a dressage trainer, like, “Oh, just your horse needs to be more excited! Go run it around and whatever!”
Hannah: We do that! We call it a lunge line! But it’s usually not to get them more excited.
Leslie: But it’s to tire them out!
So let’s look at the other side of that coin, which is the dogs that are not flat. Because a lot of [00:30:00] sport people have been told to jolly those dogs up too when what we’re labeling as “arousal” right now is causing distraction and inability to perform how we want them to or whatever. And I still have had a lot of friends be told the same advice that you were told for a dog that was being flat, “get them tugging,” all that stuff, to sort of make the person more interesting or whatever for focus reasons. But a dog that’s already past that point– I feel like it’s this Bandaid situation where they may focus on you for like a period of time, but they’re not learning the performance behaviors that you want with the focus that you want over the long term.
And also I’ve seen it go terribly wrong, like if there’s other dogs [00:31:00] around. I was in a situation once where a trainer was telling somebody to tug with their dog because the dog wanted to watch other dogs run. And the dog did tug, so then the trainer was like, “See, that’s all you need to do!” And then as soon as that dog – which was a big German shepherd – dropped her tug toy, she saw my friend’s border collie running and she just went after her. Because you’re not addressing anything in that moment. I mean, redirection is important, but it shouldn’t be your only go-to.
Lindsay: You’re using that high arousal reinforcer though, right? That tug toy. But that dog is already super amped up.
Hannah: But there’s something to, if you have to substitute a function, having reinforcers that are closer together is usually more effective than… [00:32:00] In my experience – and you guys chime in here – but in my experience, trying to take like the other side of what I have tried to do from that is, “Well, I’ll teach this dog to lie on a mat and eat food and do a down stay in the presence of this running dog.” And that is also a terrible disaster most of the time. And everyone ends up in tears. And by everyone, I mean me.
Leslie: So you can’t teach these things in the moment, right? So if you know you have a dog with an issue and you use the tug because you’re in that moment and you need to address now, and that’s the state that they’re in and you need like a reinforcer that’s similar to what they’re already doing and all that? That’s one thing. But then you wanna make a note, “Oh, here’s some conditions that cause these behaviors” so that you can [00:33:00] go back and set them up with what I think of as questions.
It doesn’t have to be on a mat eating food necessarily, but I would still ask some questions. Like, okay, so we’ll just look at eating food for now: “Can you eat a treat while this dog is standing at this distance, maybe behind a barrier, whatever setup, you know? Can you do that while they are walking? Can you do it while they’re walking faster? Can you do it while they’re walking even faster than that? Can you do it if you’re walking while they’re walking?”
Hannah: I think of that as shaping. And I think there’s also a place for shaping– Like there’s the shaping in the manipulation of the A, the antecedent, and then there’s shaping of the behavior. [00:34:00]
And I’m thinking about all of my herding dogs, German Shepherds and Belgians, which are the breeds I have probably the most experience with of anything. Often a down-stay is like step 16 of like to harder behaviors. And so “Can I get you moving in some sort of rhythmic, predictable patterned kinda way” usually.
Leslie: Yeah, no, I don’t do stays.
Hannah: No, I know that. I know that. But I didn’t realize that– I don’t know. That was one thing I had to come to because like, my first dog was a hound and for him a down-stay or a sit-stay at heel wasn’t that big a deal. But holy crap, trying to make Stormy my first terv do a down-stay under those conditions – even like the LaCroix of arousing [00:35:00] conditions was hard for her and I didn’t realize that and I dug a lot of holes. Whereas something like moving from one mat to another, back and forth–
Leslie: Right, get the movement in there!
Hannah: –was totally different than the “frenetic, spinning, spiraling, screaming head popping off her neck” set of behaviors that we were trying to move away from. That was an easier– That was her walking meditation, right?
Leslie: It is! It’s like walking meditation. It’s like a structured movement. And for dogs that don’t wanna be still, it’s actually okay. You can shape it towards being more still for longer if you need that.
Hannah: And that it was in the middle that that I found your book and was like, “Well, I’ll try this, whatever.”
Leslie: So you had Stormy when you found it? This is the first [00:36:00] Stormy story that I’m hearing. I met Gambit and I didn’t–
Hannah: No, because I was trying to do down on a mat, relax on a mat with her and she was just becoming more explosive.
Now I could do better with exactly that now than at that time. But she was becoming more explosive and got to the point where she was barking while on her mat in a down. I was like, “Well, this is terrible. This is the opposite of the right direction!” But she could go from her crate to a mat, back to her crate, back to a mat, back to her crate, back to a mat. And she would fall into this like rhythmic kind of loop movement. And her mouth would close and her eyes would like get back in her skull. And then I could have her down on the mat for a little bit.
Leslie: Right. You could a little bit, go back in to a pattern that they’re okay with, that they can do and are okay with.[00:37:00]
Hannah: Yeah. And that was without– At that point, there wasn’t a lot of strategy to it. It was just like banging around in the dark and like, “At least right now she’s not barking at me. So let’s try to do that again!”
Leslie: I get very stressed out with barking. I’m very auditory defensive. I don’t like it. I feel like I’m under pressure or something and I don’t like it. It doesn’t work well for me.
Hannah: No, it’s very aversive for me. Particularly that kind of barking. That high-pitched, frustrated – well, now I know what was frustrated – barking is really hard for me to work with, but yeah.
Leslie: Yes. I like working with it now because I know that I can stop it.
Hannah: Now that I have like a sense of like, “These [00:38:00] are some of the knobs and switches that we could adjust. I don’t know exactly which ones for this particular dog, but I’m confident that I’ll be able to work through– like here’s three things I could try first. One of these is likely to do something. Now I have the information. I know where to go.”
Leslie: Yeah. And you know what? That’s the theme of our weekend that we’re gonna be doing together. We’re gonna be doing a weekend about working with arousal and arousal regulation, and it’s what you just said: giving people more knobs and switches that they can use. Right? It’s a knobs and switches kind of weekend.
Because we have worked with this for a lot of years and there are things that you can do and it’s like systematic. You can feel like you have a plan, a systematic plan, that can be adjusted for each dog. We have things that we know help so that you don’t have to feel like, [00:39:00] “Well, it’s either tugging or a down-stay.” There’s all kinds of things in between those two states that you can use.
Hannah: Yeah. No, I think that’s the shaping. I think of it very much as application of shaping skills, right? The like, “what’s the easiest for this dog? Is it going from movement towards stillness? Or is it starting from stillness and going towards movement? And then what are the things in the environment?”
That’s one of the big pieces. I think you do a really good job– actually, both of you. Lindsay – I’m pointing at her square on my screen like anyone has any idea what I’m doing?
Lindsay, both of you do a really good job of describing and breaking down the conditions and I think that gets skipped a lot. I think when we get locked into talking about a arousal as a [00:40:00] thing, we can easily end up trying to have a conversation about it in the abstract and I think that’s where we get derailed.
Leslie: That makes sense! Because it’s not just one thing, right? There’s internal conditions that are boiling around there.
Hannah: I think about that a lot. Yes.
Leslie: There’s the interaction of all these things. I mean, we can say, “Oh, it’s arousal,” because that’s an easy way to describe an issue. But yeah, there’s so much going on. That’s why I do love hearing from the neuroscience-y people. It just gives you a perspective, you know?
Lindsay: All of the different conditions. Right? Like with Sonnet, one of the things that was hard for me was he felt so different from shelter dogs who were displaying what I would’ve labeled “over aroused behavior and not eating.” Sonnet was not eating unless he was a [00:41:00] little bit amped up. Right? And that was interesting and that I think kind of threw me for a little bit of a loop. And he’s a breed that has a tendency to bark when he’s amped. “You’re not eating but you will sometimes take food if there’s a squirrel in the tree… so how do I…”
Hannah: So how do I squirrel, right?
Lindsay: So how do I get you eating? Because actually that was really the only behavior I cared about for quite a while and is still probably the primary behavior that I really– is eating behavior. He could not eat in super high arousal conditions. The sight of another dog was, I would say, one of unpleasant valence and high arousal, but the squirrel in the treetop, he’ll eat.
So I [00:42:00] made an inference that there seems to be some level of pleasant valance. Like he seems to be feeling good. How do I get you eating in these different conditions, but I also really don’t want that barking behavior that you are highly likely to do. And like, how do I deal with this? I was concerned that I was going to get eating behavior with the squirrel in the treetop and also get barking behavior. And how do I get in that loop soon enough, early enough, right? Where I’ve got the conditions of the squirrels and the treetop and you are oriented towards the squirrel, but you have not yet started barking.
Lindsay: How do I reinforce that orienting, are you with me? But I can’t like– Reinforcing it with food may or may not work. Reinforcing it with something of a higher kind of [00:43:00] arousal topography like chase will work, but I really need you eating. But shit, I can’t have you barking! Am I making sense? Like it was–
Hannah: No, you are making sense! Like you just described all of my training problems. Like all of it! Like with Fig– So first, Fig, totally similar patterns. If I like just get him out of a crate or we’re just like in the living room and I could hand him a piece of ham and he would be like, “What? No.” He might even at this point take it from me out of politeness and just like have it in his mouth, like play with lips and then he’ll like put it on the ground and rugby will be like, “Well–”
But then yes, if there’s something very exciting like a ceiling fan, also the eating goes away, but it’s finding that sweet spot, right?
But for my sports [00:44:00] training, I want all of the sharpness and speed and the “ears up, eyes bright,” low latency, I want all of that picture and I want him to STFU. It’s really hard.
Or in the case of the retrieve where something’s in his mouth and he doesn’t often bark with something in his– God, knock on wood. Now I’ve jinxed myself. But I want all of the speed out to the dumbbell without flinging it at my kneecaps. So it’s trying to slice out, “I want this behavior out of the bucket. Can I like filter this out? And what adjustments exactly do I need to make to get that particular section of that Venn diagram?”
Lindsay: Yeah. How do I arrange the conditions just so and I’ve titrated everything just perfectly and I have the right reinforcer at the right moment?
Leslie: Good luck! [00:45:00] I am wondering what would happen if you took yourself out of that picture. Does he have a behavior where he puts the dumbbell in something like a box or something like that?
Hannah: We do have retrieved to basket. It’s also there. The flinging is equally there. So it’s not just me. And he actually plays with himself in this exact manner in the yard with his basketball carcass. That’s like his favorite hobby outside of staring at the cat. He throws it up in the air to himself and then he pounces on it and he’ll shake it and he throws it to himself again.
Leslie: Oh, that’s so cute.
Hannah: It’s very cute. And in the yard, I don’t care. So that’s fine. But that’s actually where I– This is not ready for prime time, but something I’m exploring is the idea that, “well, this is actually [00:46:00] how he likes to play with things, one of the ways he likes to play with things. So, can I use this behavior that he is already doing to reinforce holding the dumbbell for just a little bit longer and just a little bit longer? So can I give him something that’s more fun to fling on cue and under stimulus control?” So that’s what I’ve been working on is cultivating the flinging behavior with a soft rubber toy that, one, doesn’t hurt my knees as much if he gets me with it and I think is more inviting than the dumbbell itself. So that’s what I’m playing with, like just at the beginning stages. Because I had to do a lot of brainstorming and then trying to figure out what object and how to work with that and now I’m getting that on cue. That’s what I’m gonna see. Maybe I’ll be able report back in a [00:47:00] few weeks or months.
Leslie: Interesting. I’m gonna want an update on that.
Hannah: Fingers crossed. It’ll be fun if it works.
Leslie: Yeah, it’ll be fun. It’ll be fun and adorable.
My main thing I’ve been working on teaching eating as a behavior to my puppy, little schipperke mix puppy, because he reads a certain stage of adolescence and just lost interest in food, like you were talking about with Sonnet. No negative valence about dogs, loves dogs, but was just so interested in them that he just didn’t– just kind of “No, thank you. I’d much rather–”
And it’s like some dogs like that, if they just can’t have access to the other dog – say they’re at the training building or whatever – they’ll be like, “Well, I’d [00:48:00] prefer that, but I don’t have access to it, so I think I’ll eat.” But he would just lie down facing the door. Like if there were dogs in the parking lot of the training building and I had him in the lobby of the training building offering him anything, he would just lie down at facing the door and just, “I wonder who might be in the parking lot.”
And so I really had to start at square one and teach him eating is a behavior – which is a phrase I got from you, Lindsay and I love that. And I made eating contingent on doing lots of things. It was very hard. But I did manage to shape him to eat in order for me to let him out of the crate in the car in the parking lot of the building, because that was a place where he was just a thousand percent in that sticky state of just wanting to come out. And then I had to fight with myself internally about, “but I could just use the functional [00:49:00] reward.” But the thing is, letting him out was not gonna stop the sticky state.
Hannah: No. And I think zero training minutes are ever wasted cultivating your reinforcement behaviors. Plus with a baby dog, working on the food eating behaviors, your food-based reinforcement procedures, that’s an huge investment.
Lindsay: Yeah. I’ve spent two years now.
Leslie: Yeah. I spent so much time that I made a webinar about it.
Hannah: No, I think you can never go wrong–
You can, but I think that’s the same thing as like in a training session, like, “Oh, well, I know Fig would take a toy and so I could today swap to using the toy for this training session.” And if I did that one time, it is probably fine. That would [00:50:00] just be a choice. There would be a training choice that I made in the moment. But if I do that many times, over time, I’m definitely not making my job any easier. And I’m actually making it harder because now I’ve established a dynamic that can get problematic.
So I really– And the more weird dogs that the universe brings to me, and weird in different ways, the more I’m like, “Oh, I really should, as much as I had my agenda for this training session and what I wanted to work on was heeling, it is really in my best interest to shelve the heeling for the moment and work on this reinforcement problem.”
Leslie: Yeah. No, I think it’s really important.
And the other thing is like– For most dogs, I teach them to turn around in the doorway of the training building. [00:51:00] I kind of shape it into a start button so that they can tell you like, “Walk in with me,” you know? Because there’s always dogs, other things happening on the other side of those doors. But I couldn’t worry about teaching a turn around in that space because he couldn’t even eat in that space.
But luckily, outside of that space, I had already done a lot of counterconditioning to being picked up and eat when you’ve been picked up. So he didn’t want my kids to pick him up, so they’re only allowed to pick him up if we did it with a cue and food. So he had learned to eat from being picked up and then being put down. And it’s possible he learned to eat in order to be put down by my kids. That’s possible.
Hannah: I love that.
Leslie: So I was like, “Okay, no amount of luring, begging, crying is gonna turn this dog’s head around.”
Hannah: Did you try threats?
Leslie: I tried all the threats. [00:52:00] I picked him up and he can eat in the doorway with the door open if he’s picked up. So I started from that point. And now like I wait for him to look at me before I pick him up so there’s like an attention start buttony thing. The looking at me at the door of the training building causes me to pick him up, he eats, I put him down, I feed him a second time when he is down. And if he does that, then I run into the rest of the building with him.
Hannah: No, that’s perfect! You made a little container to have a moving point of success. I love that!
Leslie: Yeah. And so there is the functional– there’s the constructive stuff happening because I am taking him in there. Like he and I have the same goal. I wanna take him in there. Yes. I can take him in there under the conditions that he’s giving me. Like he can’t be in a class if I can’t use the reinforcement [00:53:00] that is available. And taking him to sniff another dog’s ass is not available. Not all dogs are into that, you know?
But I was able to teach him sort of the way that you teach a puppy to like switch between toys and food and stuff like that. It was like, “Okay, you can sniff with this dog, now you’re gonna eat, now you can sniff a little bit more, now you’re gonna eat.” So now being around dogs means you’re gonna be eating a lot food. And so he can interact and then stop and then eat. And there’s a lot of social facilitation going on where the other dog wants to eat so he can do what the other dog is doing. But he couldn’t do it without a lot of steps, you know? And he couldn’t do it at the building.
We were talking about the external factors and figuring them out earlier in this conversation. So I had the same dogs he saw at the building, I invited them over and he learned to eat [00:54:00] with them here and then we would go over there.
But I had this lofty goal of like, “I’ll teach him that seeing a dog is contingent on eating and therefore he will have a treat and then see the dog.” And of course, he wasn’t capable of doing that, and so I had to just chuck that plan out the window and have him “play and then eat” enough times that I could just kind of make it, “Well, now that we’ve played and eaten a number of times, maybe I can trick you into doing it first.” So I was able eventually to make playing contingent on eating first, but it took a lot of finesse and thinking. It took a lot of thinking.
Lindsay: Yes. Yeah, I hear that. I feel like with Sonnet, it took a lot of thinking for me to figure out how to get him to eat. Because he wouldn’t eat in the presence of other dogs, even those that he played with [00:55:00] regularly, right? So I had to figure out “what are those conditions in which he will take food?”
And this is a dog that he was just not all that interested in food anyway. He didn’t rush to his food bowl at mealtime. He’s just not an eater. There was a level of inappetence really that I would– some other things there happening.
But when I did a lot of thinking and then kind of focused on “what are those conditions in which he does eat,” I just did the thing I never thought I would do. I left food in his food bowl so I could start to attend to “When do you go to that food bowl?” Right? And one of the times that he would was after he’d been outdoors chasing squirrels: he’d come inside and go straight to the food bowl. When my daughters come home from school, he greets them and goes straight to the food bowl.
Leslie: That’s interesting!
Lindsay: Really fascinating. And so [00:56:00] that’s what I did first and it was so hard because– That’s not what I did first, that’s what I did after a great–
Hannah: After the first three things you tried failed. Yeah.
Lindsay: Right! After trying to offer food and offer food and offer food. Until I was at the point where like, I was starting to poison food. Like I truly was–
Leslie: Yes! You’re doing this.
Lindsay: It was a horrible feeling, right? Absolutely. You know, my outstretched hand to my puppy was being met with like look-aways. Like my hand even then going into the treat bag was becoming aversive. I had this dog in this like negative reinforcement contingency and I was a freaking mess, you know? He just wants to escape anytime I reached into a treat bag! Like that feels awful for a positive reinforcement trainer when you have a new puppy! [00:57:00]
The first thing I did was all the wrong things, but then once I got my shit together a little bit and started looking at it from the perspective of, I don’t know, a behaviorist or something?
Leslie: Something that I’m supposed to be!
Hannah: And that’s the hardest when it’s your own dog! It is so hard.
It’s very easy for me to tell like Leslie and you that, “You know, any training session, even though you meant to do something else but you just spent it trying to get your dog to take a treat, that’s still a good training session.” That applies to both of you.
Hannah: Not easy for me to internalize. I have to constantly remind myself, like “[deep, long-suffering sigh] Reinforcement drive behavior and investing in your reinforcement procedures is never a bad investment…”
Lindsay: Well it’s a two year investment for me at this point and you know–
But it’s interesting how we find [00:58:00] those conditions in which the dog will eat. So your little troublefox is eating when you scoop him up, when you collect. And you utilize that as a condition to get that eating behavior. And with my little troublefox, it was, “we’re outdoors and there might be cardinals in the treetops. Some days there may be squirrels.” And figuring out what is actually inherently reinforcing for Sonnet, because food I had screwed all up, but chasing me, that was really reinforcing for him. So I used the, he’d look up at the squirrel, I’d say yes, he’d orient, I’d take off running.
Hannah: Nice. And he would bring you down like a gazelle.
Lindsay: And then I’d offer food and he was likely to eat then. And then I’d run again and reinforce the eating with the–
Leslie: That’s a nice little pattern! I love it.
Lindsay: And that how I got that little squirt [00:59:00] eating. It was great. And then I had to figure out where to go from there to get eating in some sort of a training dialogue.
But it was that, how do you find the conditions in which they will eat and how do you reinforce eating if food isn’t currently a reinforcer, how do you reinforce it so that you are conditioning–
Leslie: So the behavior of eating leads is something that is reinforcing until it gets smooshed together. Eat and play or eat and run.
Leslie: And if you do a pattern game where the treat is on the ground, they eat it and look up at you and then that causes you to do something, so like the behavior of eating – it doesn’t even have to be orienting at you, it can just be the eating part – and makes you run and et cetera.
Lindsay: Yes. I think the first– Once I got some eating behavior established, then I was able [01:00:00] to play with some of the reinforcement procedures. And the ones that I used, it’s from the two of you. I was able to get him eating indoors using the things that I had learned from each of you. I’ve got video of my five-year-old doing 1, 2, 3 outdoors and it’s not a terrific 1, 2, 3, because she’s five. But he’s engaged and it was really beneficial. And then I got eating indoors, Hannah, by using an exercise that I learned from you. I was able to actually attach the click as a cue to eating indoors by he looked up at me, I would click and then I’d toss the treat a little bit behind. He’d get it. I’d click the return and just get that nice little loop there and getting something indoors was a big deal, like a huge success. Because he is less likely to eat inside.
Hannah: Interesting! [01:01:00]
Lindsay: So yeah. But it was the two of you that I–
Leslie: I love this so much and you were in my mind about “eating is just a behavior,” just to get that behavior with him, you know?
But I love this conversation because people are still going to, “oh, he’s not quote unquote food motivated? Well, you just haven’t tried the right snack.” Or something like that. You could drive yourself effing crazy with this stuff. For him and for Sonnet I’m sure it wasn’t about what we were feeding them. And there is a certain level of, going back to arousal, there’s internal conditions happening that make them not want to eat. And if we wanna like contact those internal conditions and change them around, getting them eating is one way to do it because it changes their mindset or whatever!
Hannah: Yeah. I think a lot about like moving [01:02:00] from conditions– A lot of times when we’re talking about cues, we’re talking about conditions, we’re talking about things that we’re perceiving in the outside world as part of the environment. But I forget who it was. May have been Jo Lang. I can’t remember. Somebody said something. It was probably not related to this in any way, but just the way my brain does random association games on me at times. I finally caught onto the idea that, “Oh, the internal environment is part of the environment,” right? Interception and proprioception are just as much part of– are stimuli in the exact same way that a light coming on or a hand signal are stimuli, or another dog running. And so the physical sensations–
And I know this from my personal experience, like because I’ve struggled with panic attacks at times in my life. [01:03:00] And what my brain decided to grab from that was the sensation of my heart rate. And so then other things that would make my heart rate go up, like carrying heavy box upstairs, I would all of a sudden be like, “oh man, I think I’m feeling anxious. Why? What are you feeling anxious about? Like what brain? This is dumb. Cut it out! Geez!”
But yeah, so like that sensation of my heart going, that’s definitely a piece of it. Right? And then of course you get a feedback loop of, “Well, my heart rate is up so I must be anxious now. I’m anxious about my heart rate being high. And so the best thing I should do is like, sit down and really think about it, really think about my heart rate, really pay attention to it until it’s all I could do.” Which is why like my early attempts of meditation didn’t work really well, because paying attention to my breath was the worst for me in that [01:04:00] moment!
But it has to be similar for dogs. Like, we don’t even necessarily need to go all the way down to a cellular level to have something we can work with here. If your heart rate going up, your respiratory rate going up, muscle tension is giving you sensory feedback. And if it’s sensory input, it can be a cue.
Leslie: I mean, that’s what self-regulation is about! Yourself is cuing yourself that you need some supportive behavior.
Hannah: The heart rate is helpful for me, things like heart rate and respiratory rate are helpful because we can quantify that in a way. When I was working on myself, it was like, “Okay, I’m gonna get my heart rate up to 80 and then I’m gonna bring it back down and I’m gonna get my heart rate up to 100 and I’m gonna bring it back down and then 120 and then [01:05:00] 130.” Until I was able to separate like my thinking behaviors from that cue and, you know, “be more normal” air quotes.
But I think about that with the dogs, because sometimes it’s like, “Well, how do you know that he’s really aroused? We don’t, I don’t know, but I know how the physiology of aerobic metabolism works and so if his muscles are moving a lot, his heart rate has to be going up because he has to be able to profuse those muscles or pass out.” And so that’s one of the ways I can approximate arousal for the purposes of–
Leslie: And think of how hard it would be if you are in that state– When I’m in that state, when I used to have panic attacks, I needed pace. [01:06:00] I needed to walk. I’m a very hyper-motor person. And so to tell me to do a down-stay and also if I’m stressed I don’t have an appetite. To tell me to do a down-stay and eat would not have helped me either.
Lindsay: It’s like someone’s telling you to “calm down.” Right. Calm down. I’m gonna calm down right now.
Leslie: But taking a walk to a bench and sitting on each bench on the trail, that I can do.
Lindsay: Yeah. And the food piece that you were just saying, those times in my life when I’ve been highly stressed, right? Like there’s some level of like duress, right? Real distress. I can’t eat. So I can understand.
Hannah: It’s interesting, like if [01:07:00] we can figure out– I’m totally digging Lindsay’s observing for when her dog did eat. Lord, I didn’t think to do that. But now I’m gonna try it next time. Hopefully there isn’t a next time, but next time.
Lindsay: It took me a while too!
Leslie: I love that you saw that when the– Because when the kids come home from school, that’s like this crazy transitional energy time, right? It’s so interesting that that’s– Like most dogs would go get a toy or something if they needed to redirect themselves. So it’s really interesting that that’s when he was like “And now I want a snack.”
Hannah: I also like an afterschool snack.
Leslie: An afterschool snack!
Lindsay: It was really fascinating.
Hannah: Yeah. No, that is so cool. Because it’s very much like we find, “What are the conditions where you can do the thing, however impractical,” and then “How can I incrementally move those, like [01:08:00] add additional conditions so they can inch that closer to something that is practical,” right?
Lindsay: And get away from–
Leslie: I enjoy thinking about– Those are the puzzles that I like to…
Hannah: Oh for sure.
Lindsay: But I had to get away from like not just “what are the conditions in which you’re gonna take food from my hand,” because I had gone down the road of screwing that one up pretty good.
Hannah: Chasing his face around in space to like, “if you just get it, if you just taste it, it’s delicious.
Lindsay: Will you eat it now? Will you eat it now? Like how about, what about this way? Like it’s just my hand, like everything about me gentle and sweet! But it was, “when does he choose to eat?” And that’s why I kept food in the food bowl, which was a little hard for me because I felt like I’m not supposed to leave food in a food bowl.
Hannah: Cardinal rule. Cardinal rule of dog training. What are you gonna do next? Let him sleep in bed with you?
Lindsay: [01:09:00] But all of that stuff, you’re doing it and you’re like, “What? I’m an animal trainer. I’m not supposed to leave food in the bowl!” or whatever. You have to kind of toss some of those things off because it was about when does he choose to eat.
Hannah: Right? And you get to a certain point where it’s like, “What do I have to lose?” Like he’s not– may as well try– I tried the normal things, so those didn’t work. Let’s try the off the wall things that are like totally against the law and I will be ostracized from the training community.
Lindsay: Yeah. There were a few others I did that felt against the law, you know? When Sonnet was feeling particularly good, playful, I would now call them like bids for attention I guess, he would hop his two front feet up on a counter, right? And I was like, “Um, I’m sure I shouldn’t reinforce this because of course I don’t wish to have a counters surfing puppy, however I can tell that this is likely one of those times where [01:10:00] he is going to take food. So how do I repurpose some of these things that could be problem behaviors and change them into [inaudible] is going to eat so I get more eating behaviors.”
Leslie: I love it.
Lindsay: Yeah, some of those cardinal rules felt kind of like I was–
Leslie: No, that’s–
Lindsay: And I don’t have a counter surfing puppy now or two year old.
Hannah: So far. They ain’t over yet, Lindsay,
Lindsay: You never know what I might mess up next.
Hannah: This gonna be something totally, totally unexpected that you did not see coming. That’s exactly right.
Leslie: Well, I’m looking forward to doing more of this stuff on our Over The Top Weekend that we’ll be doing that I’m now plugging, talking [01:11:00] more about this stuff and we’ll be working with dogs too. I’ve already chosen– I have chosen the ten working dogs, Hannah. Chosen specifically for their needs of working on arousal regulation, so it’s gonna be fun.
Hannah: I can’t wait. I’m looking forward. It’s gonna be very, very geeky.
Leslie: This gonna be very geeky.
Lindsay: I’m definitely looking forward to an Over The Top Weekend.
Lindsay: I need one.
Leslie: We all need one.
Hannah: Over the top and under the table.
Leslie: Yes. That is with nachos. With nachos. Yes. Yes.
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