In the last three posts, we’ve been thinking about regulation.
Regulation is a term that is more and more frequently used by dog trainers these days. However, without a shared understanding of what regulation is, many dog trainers are just using it to mean the dog can follow rules and be calm.
Regulation is so much more than that.
Regulation means the way in which we modulate our physiological reactions. For instance, that might mean how quickly we calm down after a shock or something exciting. A way we might see this in dogs is how long it takes them to relax again after a loud noise. Where dogs can’t modulate their physiological reactions, we might see them taking an extremely long time to recover from sudden noises like fireworks, or being unable to dial it down a notch in play.
Regulation also means how we modulate our emotional reactions, learning to cope with frustration, to channel our anger or excitement. We might see this in dogs if they choose to go and busy themselves with something else if they can’t do what they want. Where dogs are less able to modulate their emotional responses, we might see them engaging in intense behaviour or engaging in noisy or disruptive behaviour if they can’t have their needs met instantly.
It means how we modulate our behaviour according to the context. For instance, we learn that we can run outside but we are supposed to walk inside. We might see this in dogs if they choose to walk on lead rather than trotting or running. Where dogs are less able to modulate their behavioural responses, we might see them choosing much more intense behaviours than are required, such as biting if they can’t escape quite minor restraint.
Many dog trainers think that regulation is an internal process for dogs, rather than something that is social. Social regulation is an important part of being a social species. We learn because others help us shape ourbehaviour.
The arbitrary categorisation of physiology, emotion, individual behaviour and social behaviour can also be unhelpful. They are intertwined and often difficult to separate.
For instance, if my dog snatches a toy out of my hand when we’re playing, she is not moderating her physiological, emotional, behavioural or social response appropriately. To try and separate them from each other is like trying to separate the whites from the yolk when you’ve cooked an omelette.
We also need to remember that regulation is a developmental process.
Dogs aren’t born knowing how to manage their responses.
It’s also an interactive process, meaning that we learn through the support of others, not through some magical and astonishing appearance of these skills at some developmental milestone.
These skills are taught to children by parents, peers, other adults, by society and also shaped by cultural expectations. Just as an example, some American guests I had a few years ago were amazed by how quiet French children are in restaurants and how well they waited patiently at the buffet table. We forget things like noise levels are cultural constructs. Back in the UK, it takes me a while to adjust to how noisy British people are.
Because we forget how important social interactions and parenting are on the development of these skills in our own species, we sometimes run the risk of forgetting how important it is to scaffold and support our dogs in acquiring the ability to self-regulate. Sadly, we often overestimate how good puppies should be at regulating their physiology, their emotions, their behaviour and their social interactions. House training and coping alone are just two simple, basic activities where many guardians expect more of 10-week-old puppies than they are cognitively or physiologically capable of.
The same is true, though, of our adult dogs.
Just as an example, my girl Lidy finds sheep enormously challenging to be around. It’s my job as a guardian to help her learn to manage her own behaviour.
Unfortunately, some trainers who dislike coercion see support for regulation as an imposed structure. It’s important to remember that co-regulation is an essential step in developing the ability to do it ourselves.
Understanding co-regulation is actually an important step in working with dogs whose behaviour is sometimes less appropriate than required in the cultures we live in.
Co-regulation, where we vary the level of support we offer to our dogs to help them choose the appropriate response, is not some simple one-size-fits-all support. It happens when we share responsibility for regulating emotions and behaviour.
This support has layers and levels.
If you don’t understand these layers and levels as a trainer, you’ll not know, for instance, when you need to mark and move in BAT 2.0, or when you need Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games. You’ll not know when you just need to set up the right situation for the dog or when you need to offer a much more rigorous layer of support.
Understanding the layers of co-regulation helps me on a daily basis.
For instance, Lidy often struggles with all moving stimuli and any novelty. This morning she struggled to cope with a dropped tissue on our walk, for example. It took her a good two minutes of processing to make sense of it.
As her guardian, I need to know when she is going to really struggle. For instance, a horse and rider went past us less than 2m away the other day. That is too huge a trigger and at too close proximity for me to expect her to keep her cool.
I also need to know when to let her process things and when I need to help her move on. She struggles a great deal with impulse control and, as a shepherd dog, she’s had a lot of selection of behaviour to work in partnership with a shepherd. Some types of dog are more in tune with human behaviour and more responsive to human cues.
I would say that often, Lidy would make the worst possible choice, if given the choice.
It’s my job to help her learn to make better choices. At the same time, understanding the following four layers of co-regulatory actions can really help.
Often, dog trainers and guardians think of distraction as a time when no learning is occurring. I know I’ve certainly advised guardians not to use training as distraction.
We might worry, for instance, that our dogs aren’t processing the environment if we’re occupying them with cues and keeping their attention on us. There’s a very strong movement in dog training to let dogs process the environment. Give them more time to process, the argument goes, and they’ll make the appropriate behavioural response.
The only problem is that real-life dogs aren’t always like that.
Giving dogs time to process is great when they’ve got a short behavioural history, where there’s space, where there’s sufficient distance, when you’re working with an independent dog and when the guardian has historically been putting dogs in over their head.
In fact, these trainers are suggesting you use a much more cognitively complex layer of co-regulation: reappraisal.
Many of the dogs I work with need more support than simple opportunities for reappraisal. They may have a long history of explosive behaviour that has worked perfectly to keep others away. They may be a dog who actually needs instruction and support.
Also, even if your dog is making better decisions when reappraising, there may be times when you need to distract even so. Like if you turn a blind corner and there’s a horse 2m from you. Expecting a dog to coolly reappraise in those circumstances is to overestimate a dog’s cognitive skills to voluntarily inhibit their responses, kind of like expecting us just to be able to stop hiccups simply by calming ourselves down. You know, sometimes I can do that with my hiccups. Other times I need to intervene. It’s the same with dogs.
Dogs ARE learning when distracted. They may be learning to focus their attention on other things. This morning, Lidy voluntarily offered her focus to me when we were right next to a field of nervous lambs and adolescent starey sheep. Distraction is a very underrated skill!
For instance, we may choose to distract ourselves if we’re anxious. I remember one time being away from my epileptic dog and having left him with my dad; I couldn’t get hold of my dad and I was in a mad panic worrying what had happened. I think I called him 50-odd times! What helped me manage my anxiety? Deliberately choosing to go and sit with a group of people and chat with them. Taking our minds off things is a crucial skill. It’s one I learned… with a clinical psychologist to help me manage my anxiety!
How many times with toddlers do we help them cope with excitement by helping them distract themselves? How many times do we help them switch focus?
What we pay attention to is not arbitrary. When we can regulate ourselves, we can have that extreme focus. It’s part of what top athletes learn. Imagine going out on to a football pitch and being upset by everything the opposition jeered?
But these skills are taught. They don’t magically just happen. Try teaching primary school on a snow day if you don’t believe me.
So as guardians, we need to help our dogs learn to re-focus on other stuff. We need to help them learn what to pay attention to, and how to shift their attention when required. We need to scaffold this process, so that we pass the baton for who controls their attention from us to them. We also need to know that at some times, it’s useful for us to pick up that baton to help them out.
Instead of thinking of distraction as some kind of avoidance of learning, we need to see it as a key coping skill that needs scaffolding through to independence. Asking for behaviour and focus on us rather than on vehicles, wildlife, livestock, strangers or unfamiliar dogs can be one way that we teach dogs to shift their attention. We can also help dogs learn how to do this voluntarily without cues or prompts.
If we play games like Find it! or Pattern Games like Ping Pong, it can also encourage dogs to disengage and refocus.
Some dog trainers see these as avoiding the trigger for behaviour. We might do better if we reframe it and think of behaviours like these as ones that help dogs learn to disengage and re-focus their attention.
Just as a caution, the more you expect a dog to do to distract them (like turn away or move away), the harder it can be. Amy Cook’s ‘Treat Hand’ or ‘Magnet Hand’ where she lures the dog with a handful of high quality food, is one example of a fairly undemanding behaviour that doesn’t ask much of the dog.
The harder the distraction behaviour we ask is, the harder it will be for the dog.
This is especially true if the behaviour we are asking for has a high level of demand. If the dog has to coordinate their body, override their instincts, move their attention away and also refocus on something else, that demands an awful lot of cognitive power. Ask something simple in easier circumstances and watch your ability to shift your dog’s attention increase exponentially.
Remember also that behaviours are habits: practice makes perfect.
The more practice you have at distracting your dog, the easier it will become.
Many training programmes to help dogs cope with things they come across involve reappraisal. Grisha Stewart’s BAT 2.0 is largely reappraisal with some support through marking behaviour and moving when appropriate. Leslie McDevitt’s Look At That and LATTE are reappraisal AND attention shifting. This is partly why I love it so much. As with so much in Leslie’s Control Unleashed, it works on a gazillion levels and every single one of them turns out to reflect some core skill.
When we help dogs to reappraise threat, especially when we do so without requiring them to do anything, we help them learn that things are not so threatening. Sometimes, we just watch and reflect.
Lidy did that this morning with that naughty dropped tissue. I swear she stared at it for about two minutes. I just let her take it in and work out for herself that it is not a threat (or anything else). She was just working out what it was. As a guardian, my role is to distinguish between things she may need help refocusing her attention away from at times (like starey sheep) and things where she simply needs to reappraise (like dropped litter, or sheep eating or resting). I don’t always get that right. However, I don’t leave the deciding to her because she doesn’t have the skills yet.
Where dogs have highly impulsive behaviours or they are predatory in nature, reappraisal generally does not go too well. I mean, looking at a pheasant for a long time will usually just end in a reappraisal that, yes, that would be FUN to chase. Reappraisal is not a particularly useful strategy in that case. This is where we need to consider other layers of support. The same is true with most forms of chasing or excitement behaviours. It generally leads to frustration, because the dog can’t have their needs met.
Where reappraisal is really useful is where there isn’t any threat. For instance, that tissue was no threat at all. If your dog misidentifies inanimate objects as a threat, reappraisal can be really useful. Giving dogs time to think about stuff where it poses no risk or threat at all can be a great way for dogs to learn the skills they need to decide whether things are a threat or not.
Reappraisal is also particularly useful with superstitious behaviour, where the dog thinks (or, at least, the behaviour thinks) that what they do makes something else happen. For instance, if a dog who is barking and lunging thinks this behaviour keeps strangers and unfamiliar dogs away, when in fact, they’re just passers-by who would have gone away anyway, reappraisal is a very useful skill.
Marking and reinforcing self-chosen behaviours
Most behaviour works on an intake-output pathway. The individual senses something and then the central nervous system passes that information on to various motor systems and muscles to act upon it.
You know. Oh, crap! Tiger! Stand still, play dead or run? And the body prepares us for the course of action we’re about to take.
Distraction works on the sensory perception stage. Can you take your attention away from the thing?
Reappraisal works on the cognitive processing stage. Can you make better sense of the thing?
Marking and reinforcing self-chosen behaviours works on the motor stage. It is one of two strategies we can use that help the dog move to independent regulation without any of our support. Can you behave differently in response to the thing?
Marking simply means signalling to the dog that they have done something at that moment that, in your opinion, was socially appropriate. The mark may be a word like ‘good’ or something like a clicker. It also serves a way of letting the dog know that something reinforcing will arrive.
A reinforcer is something that makes the behaviour more likely in the future. They’re not the same as a reward, which has no effect on the behaviour itself. Rewards can be great, but it’s only a reinforcer if it makes the behaviour more likely in the future.
As an example, we might mark and reinforce looking away. You’ll know this if you’ve done ‘mark and move’ where you immediately acknowledge the behaviour you like, and then move away or move on. The potential reinforcer is moving away, which is often what many fearful or reactive dogs want.
If you do the engage-disengage game or Suzanne Clothier’s Treat and Retreat, you are also reinforcing behaviours you want to see, like engaging, and then using the place that the food is delivered to encourage disengaging.
We should remember that these are not cued or prompted. That’s to say we don’t ask the dog to do anything. We don’t encourage them. We don’t move them away with a lead.
We’re simply noticing what they do that we’d like more of, and we’re strengthening that behaviour, making it more likely in the future.
Kathy Sdao’s wonderful SMART 50 can also work really well here too.
An example of how I used this during the week was with the close encounter with the horse; I marked Lidy’s good choices and I fed her copiously. She chose the behaviour, to look and not react, and I let her know that this was great.
There’s a certain view that this is the pinnacle of enlightened dog training but we need to remember that we are in fact reinforcing alternative choices and we are extinguishing the dog’s preferred behaviour. It is only our very human view that the behaviour the dog chooses is ‘better’ or ‘more appropriate’.
It’s our decision that this is better, and that is loaded with bias and snobbery if we think that it’s ‘best’ if we shape our preferred versions of what the dog chooses to do. Just because we aren’t telling the dog ‘move’ or we aren’t telling them ‘leave it’ or ‘heel’ or any other thing doesn’t make it some virtuous and holy improvement on training where behaviours are taught and cued.
Just as French children are certainly more quiet in restaurants than British or US children because that will have been reinforced, or noisy behaviour punished, does not mean it’s somehow intrinsically ‘good’. No doubt some British or US people would find the quiet disturbing and coercive, just as some French might find noisy children wild and uncontrolled.
When we identify what we think of as socially appropriate behaviours, we shouldn’t think that taught and cued behaviours are any less coercive than ones we’re building without cues.
In any case, where snobby and saintly trainers have shared their work, they’re invariably using gestures or even their own body weight or posture to cue the dog’s response, like if I begin to move away and Lidy feels the lead pressure alter slightly or senses me move.
Cuing and reinforcing taught behaviours
The fourth skill we use when helping our dogs learn how to regulate is teaching them a taught skill separately and then cuing that behaviour. This can be really useful for dogs that get ‘stuck’ and need a bit of prompting.
As I said earlier, we shouldn’t be snobby about this and see it as inferior to the dog seeming to make their own choice (which is simply one we’ve decided, in our infinite wisdom is superior to whatever they were doing).
A cue might be a verbal cue, like ‘move away’ or ‘watch me’, or even ‘Find it!’
A cue can also be things like the movement of the lead or our own movement away.
It can also be something we do.
For instance, I sometimes lob a treat over Lidy’s head so it skitters on the floor. Though I don’t say anything, this cues her to break her gaze, to look to the floor and do something else like use her nose to sniff a treat out.
The delivery of the reinforcer itself (for walking and looking, not lunging) is a cue for her to break her gaze and disengage.
This little prompt encourages her to do another behaviour.
Sometimes these behaviours can be taught separately, like a u-turn or a hand touch, and then we can prompt the dog to engage with us in return for rewards which may then strengthen the behaviour.
In practice, guardians who are supporting their dog’s emotional wellbeing will use a blend of all four support mechanisms. We will do so in a way that is appropriate for that individual dog in that individual environment.
There will be times when I appreciate how difficult the situation is for my dog. Lidy struggles to cope with cats, especially those who run. If I see a cat, I will use our training history to distract her and help her focus on something else. That might be me or it might be something else. For instance, I could cue a ‘watch!’ or a ‘follow me!’ or a ‘u-turn’. If I scatter food and cue her to find it, then I am helping her focus on something else.
There will be times when I give her time to reappraise, as I did this morning with a man and his dog. They were moving away from us and far enough away that I was sure she could cope. I also gave her time (!) to reappraise the clearly out-of-place tissue.
At other times, I shape behaviours I’ve decided are appropriate, like disengaging and walking on. Sometimes I do this with praise and sometimes food. I did that this morning as we walked past the starey adolescent sheep. They were static as they appraised us, so I knew that if she did not appear to be a threat, they would remain still or even go back to eating. I used praise and food to keep her from staring back and kept her moving forward without pulling.
There will also be times when I cue those behaviours. For instance, when we went past the gambolling lambs in the first field this morning, I told her to ‘find it!’ when she got a bit stuck, and directed her to do other things. In reality, this is also distraction too.
Knowing our dogs and when they need what level of support is the most important thing. As you can see, I did not talk about my other dog Heston who needs none of these things, even with the starey sheep. He looked. He disengaged. He’s regulating his own reactions and behaviour without my support. Though he loves chasing wildlife, he not only knows the rules about chasing livestock but he also doesn’t pay them any mind. He does not even pay attention to them. It is as if they are not there. I don’t know if Lidy will ever live without at least some support, but it’s not important. She depends on me to help her out when her behaviour would be dangerous or destructive, let alone socially inappropriate.
That’s what I’m here for, so she can lean on me.
Whenever we’re talking about regulation, it is so important that we do not forget the role of co-regulation. It is the behaviour of a supportive social group, not the imposition of an autocratic dictator. We also need to consider that regulation itself is not an individual thing. For social species, it is a a social thing. It’s not a sign of weakness that we sometimes need support for our own emotions and behaviours. It is a sign that we are a social species. That’s all.
Let’s not forget that dogs are a social species too, and that we are part of their support network. Also, let’s not assume that regulation just happens. It doesn’t. It’s our responsibility to help our dogs become more self-sufficient when it comes to regulation. It’s not the sign of a poor guardian or a poor trainer if the dog needs more support and guidance; it is the sign of guardians and trainers helping their dogs learn for themselves.
Thanks for reading! If you’re a dog trainer and you’re looking for ways to help your clients co-regulate (because they’ll need it too!) then my book will help to give you ideas.
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