E241: Sharon Carroll - "Training the Atypical Dog"

Sharon and I chat about what it means to train an atypical dog — what it looks like, and how these dogs end up that way.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Sharon Carroll here with me to talk about training the atypical dog.

Hi Sharon, welcome back to the podcast!

Sharon Carroll: Hello Melissa. Thank you for having me again.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, do you want to refresh everybody's memory, share a little bit about yourself, your current crew?

Sharon Carroll: Sure. I work as a behavior consultant with horses and dogs, mainly dogs, mainly with atypical dogs, dogs with significant aggression issues, or fear issues, anxiety issues. I'm registered with IAABC as a behavior consultant in horses and dogs, and as a professional dog trainer with CCPTD.

My dogs include, at the moment, a 14-year-old Papillion, a 4-year-old apricot Standard Poodle, a 2-year-old silver Standard Poodle, and a nearly 6-month-old blue Standard Poodle, who is very cute

Melissa Breau: We've got you on the schedule to do a webinar double -header next week on training the atypical dog, and I thought it'd be a great topic to talk about here on the podcast. To start us off, how are you defining what's atypical versus typical in this case?

Sharon Carroll: There is no hard definition. In this webinar, what I'm including is all dogs that have some atypical way of processing information or responding to information, so dogs with known psychopathologies. I think I talk about a dozen canine psychopathologies in the webinar, but the list is growing all the time.

Certainly there are things like generalized anxiety, canine sensory processing sensitivity, an ADHD-like disorder, canine PTSD, those types of things that clearly affect the way the dog processes the world around them and how they respond to the world around them.

But also included in here is any dog that responds to problems in an atypical way, or responds to situations or environments in an atypical way. Everything is on a continuum. It doesn't have to be a dog with a known issue. It's a dog that we're finding struggles maybe to learn in the usual way. We may be finding that it's something to do with the way they're processing information, or the way that they respond to that information.

Melissa Breau: What got you interested in this?

Sharon Carroll: My academic work — I probably didn't say it in the beginning; I'm currently doing a Ph.D. in veterinary pharmacology, and a lot of that is focused around animals that have behavioral pathologies. And so my interest comes from that area, where we really are looking at how the difference between animal behavioral pathologies and human psychopathologies, and looking where there's links.

It's obviously not as simple as, "My dog licks its feet all the time, hence that's like people that wash their hands all the time; it must be a compulsive disorder." It's never that simplistic. So anyone who questions whether animals have psychopathologies — it's not that we're making those really slim links. We're looking at emotional foundations and genetic basis and behavioral and neurochemical phenotypic similarities and brain structure abnormalities.

If we look at the neuroimaging of a dog that has a certain set of behavioral pathologies, we look at the same sort of behavioral pathologies in a human, we look at that neuroimaging, and we start to see some actual structural abnormalities that look the same. Underlying mechanisms of the behavior, response to medication, time of onset — there's a whole range of things that we're looking at. That's my area of study and that's what I love, so obviously that brings me to looking at really atypical animals.

But then on top of that, as often happens to people when they get a bit of a passion topic, I got a unique dog. I got a dog that was different to all the dogs that came before it.

I've been working as a professional animal trainer for thirty years on all breeds of dogs and all mixes, big, small. I've always had multiple dogs, up to seven dogs at a time, neutered dogs, intact dog, dogs with a huge desire to work, dogs with less desire to work. I had the shelter dogs, the dogs with big fear issues and big aggression issues, and I'd resolved them all.

And then along comes a dog that you go, "Guess what. I thought I knew all this stuff. I thought that I could solve lots of things, and then I realized that there's actually dogs out there that are very unique, that actually do have issues that are not necessarily going to be fixed with the usual training or even really good training. We certainly have to apply different training techniques to those dogs. So it made me look at these atypical dogs and what's creating these types of dogs and these types of issues.

Melissa Breau: What are some signs? Let's say we're working with a dog. What are some signs that they fit in that atypical learner category versus maybe the dog is struggling with something?

Sharon Carroll: Obviously we are looking at they're struggling to learn, but we always we always have to separate that out. Is that the fault of the facilitator, is it the trainer that's got the issue there, or is there something more?

Frustration tends to be something we look at a lot. So instead of frustration leading to thoughtful attempts to find a solution, where the efforts are focused around the problem that they're trying to solve, instead you get this crazy, excessive increase in behaviors – barking, whining — just trying behaviors out there, guessing with no thought, just performing behaviors that are completely unrelated to the task — the mouthiness, the redirected aggression, ignoring your cues as they escalate in arousal, and then obviously the high-energy displacement behaviors and things like that.

Or we can see a dog that instead of having those thoughtful attempts to solve the problem and then finding rapid resolution of frustration because they solved the problem, we can instead get the opposite. We get these dogs that have this complete reduction of behaviors, so that they appear to just quit and walk away, lie down, stare vacantly, move really slowly, completely freeze or stall, reject food, and then those low-energy displacement behaviors.

Obviously we see those things anyway. We see those things in training all the time, but we see mild versions of that. We see dogs that get a little bit frustrated and they throw out some excess behaviors, and we see dogs that get a little bit frustrated and they reduce their behaviors a bit.

But this is when we see these sort of things and we feel it's completely disproportionate to the challenge. We've put them in a training scenario where they should be experiencing a small amount of frustration, and they're carrying on as though the world has ended. Or we're putting them in an environmental situation where maybe they're twenty or thirty meters from a person and we're asking them to do a position change and they just can't because of that spatial pressure at twenty or thirty meters.

So we're looking at those dogs that are doing behaviors that we still might see in a typical dog, but it just seems like the response is really disproportionate.

Melissa Breau: The response is disproportionate. How do we know it's not just that we didn't proof it, or we didn't practice it under distraction, or we didn't build the behavior to a fluent enough state?

Sharon Carroll: That's a super-important point, and honestly, commonly, that's the case, especially as different dogs need different approaches anyway. If you've always had the same types of dogs and suddenly get a dog that's a little bit different, you'll think there's something really wrong.

I see these people will come to me and say, "My dog can't learn, my dog has a learning difficulty," and when we really break it down, there's just been a flaw in the training. There's a training gap that's been missed. So initially we need to make sure, "Does the dog actually know the behavior, or does it just need more practice?"

Potentially that dog is just a dog that does need more practice than all their dogs previously. Maybe their other dogs learned the behavior in ten sessions and this dog hasn't, and they think there's a problem, but maybe it's just going to take a little longer.

Sometimes it's because the dog is in a testing phase. That's an evolutionary concept. What happens is, as we learn a behavior, we get to the point where we believe it to be correct. The dog thinks they've connected the dots, but then they have to work out, "Is there an easier way to still get the reinforcement? Is there a less energy-expensive way to reach the reinforcement?" And that's a normal process. It can look like they've learned something, and then they can almost look like they haven't learned it, but they're just going through that testing phase and then they learn it again.

Well, if you're very new to training and haven't seen that happen, you might thing your dog's got a learning problem because they don't seem to retain that learning. But if you keep pushing on and keep that clarity there and keep your criteria there, the dog will come out at the other end perfectly fine.

It can be that people are progressing too fast and that's causing some confusion, or they're going too slow, and now you've got extinction required, which can be a problem for some dogs. It could be that they're not splitting enough. It could be that the dog is struggling with doing a known behavior in a new environment.

Again, if you're not familiar with that process, you'll think there's a problem, but of course we all know that our dogs, when we go out, some more than others, are going to need additional acclimation, or they're going to need very gradual increases in the environment intensity.

It can be a function of arousal. It can be that our dog is just struggling to perform the behavior under that level of arousal and we need to work on that. We need to proof that. Or it could be a function of variation in the setup, or variation in reward availability, or the overall picture.

All of those things have to be taken into account. You can't straightaway jump to the idea that our dog has a learning problem because we haven't been able to teach them the task that we're trying to teach them. We need to look at all those things.

So I would say at that point it's usually a matter of going and getting help. Talk to other trainers. Talk to behavior experts. See if someone else has a different take on it. Look for other methods. We do that all the time anyway, and honestly, that's the solution, even with these atypical dogs. We're just using different methods, so go looking for other methods.

We do need to take into account, as you say, that it could well be that this is just a missed piece of learning, and this is not a dog that's got an issue processing or responding. They just need it explained slightly differently.

Melissa Breau: Taking all that into account, what do we know, for those dogs that really are atypical learners, what makes them that way? Why would one dog fit into that category?

Sharon Carroll: Usually it's going to come down to a genetic component. Genetics combined with exposure to varying risk factors is usually what's going to happen. More and more, I absolutely believe that genetics is a primary component in almost all of these cases.

If the dog has no genetic predisposition to issues, honestly, you can go a ways with some pretty ordinary training and still have a good outcome. Most dogs out there are pretty resilient. You can get some things wrong and can take some detours along the way, and they're going to just deal with it and they're going to be fine.

But if they've got a significant underlying genetic issue, especially if it's been combined with some risk factors to intensify the issue, or to develop the issue in some cases, the it really doesn't matter how amazing a trainer you are. It may still not be a great outcome, or it certainly may be a lesser outcome.

The genetics are just so critical here to these types of issues. Usually what that really comes down to, what's really happening, is there's usually an issue with either the behavioral activation system, so the responsiveness to incentive, such as cues for reward, so that system that regulates approach behavior, or there's going to be a problem with the behavioral inhibition system. That's the system that's responsive to cues for punishment or frustration or novelty or uncertainty. It causes ceasing or inhibition of behavior, so it brings about that avoidance behavior.

So if we've got a dog that's highly sensitive to reward, we can run into trouble. It seems like that would be a great thing, but sometimes they're so sensitive to reward, and cues of reward, that they can't even function well enough to give the behavior to access the reward. The cue for the reward and the reward is so critical for them that they're not functioning well.

If that reward is you and the toys you have and the food you have, that's one thing, but what if that reward is something else? What if it's vehicles driving by, what if it's any number … what if it's other dogs, other people? We've got a problem at that point with impulsivity.

But alternatively, and probably the bigger cases I see, are those sensitive to punishment cases. When we say punishment in this term, like the term that's used from the psychology perspective, that term has nothing to do with using tools or aversives. This is about how the dog feels about frustration and confusion and novelty. They may respond more negatively to punishment, meaning feeling uncomfortable, and they may have more attention to those cues of punishment, and so they show more avoidance behavior because they don't want to feel that way. They're very vulnerable to those negative emotions of fear and anxiety.

With those dogs, if they feel like the training session is going to make them feel a little uncomfortable, or they're going to get a little bit frustrated or get a bit confused, they just go to avoidance straight away. They don't even want to participate. They see you set up for the training session and they're avoiding.

So the sensitivity to reward, sensitivity to punishment, are the two big things, but of course all of this is driven by genetics. If we have mixes in that, it can be difficult. If we have a dog that's highly sensitive to reward but also highly sensitive to punishment, now we're going to have some conflict issues. If we have a dog that's really low sensitivity to reward, they really aren't driven by reward, they don't have those feelings of wanting to access reward, that's going to make our training really hard, especially if we have that same dog also being highly sensitive to punishment. They don't want the reward, and they really want to avoid being frustrated or confused, so that can make it incredibly difficult for us.

Impulsivity issues are associated with the activation system, anxiety associated with that inhibition system, and that concern over potential confusion or frustration is going to put them off wanting to train.

Melissa Breau: When we've identified we have a dog that may be an atypical learner, or the dog we're working with is showing some of these signs, how do we take that information and adapt our training? How do we need to work with these dogs differently than we would a different dog?

Sharon Carroll: It's going to really heavily depend on the behaviors being exhibited, obviously. We may have to change things like the methods we use for handling errors.

Some of those common methods would include things like withholding reinforcement. That's your most typical — operant training: the dog performs the behavior correctly, we've reinforced that behavior, and we reward the dog. They perform it incorrectly, we withhold that reinforcement. That's not going to work for some dogs, and it's certainly going to get very messy at some point later, when we start to go to our variable schedule of reinforcement, if we've used that method as part of the handling of errors.

We can use things like resetting. We can use no-reward markers. We can use verbal cue at the moment of errors, so that's slightly different, so if no reward marker's sort of end of exercise, it's like, "Yes, that was right," "No, that was wrong." Verbal cues at moment of error is literally the moment that it's happening, where we're giving them some sort of update cue to let them know that they made an error.

Or we could go down the road of no highlighting of errors, not even letting them know that they made a mistake. Instead we put the onus on us completely to make those setups so good that the dog consistently enough performs the behavior the way we'd like it, so that we get enough habit in there that the dog ends up performing the behavior the way we want.

So we might be looking at things like that.

Our method of handling errors might have to change. Our clarity — some of these dogs have no room for imagination, no rom for frustration or confusion at all. That can be hard, because we rely a little bit on that in a lot of training strategies. A lot of training strategies require the dog to push themselves and to use imagination and to deal with significant frustration, and in this case we may have a dog that's just not going to do that.

I would preface this with saying we still do need to challenge these dogs. We can't protect dogs from … we can't have zero frustration because you just can't progress that way, but we may have to have incredibly minimal frustration so they can have success, so they can build some resilience. But those frustration thresholds may be far smaller than they are with the average dog.

We may need to move our shaping at a different speed. It's interesting, in horses, for a long while, horses that had stereotypic behavior, repetitive behavior — horses have a lot of repetitive behaviors, things like cribbing, where they chew on their stall, or they actually suck air that will pull their neck muscles as they're latching onto a stall, or they can do very specific things like weaving, where they're weight-shifting — so these really specific behaviors, for a long while it was considered that horses with stereotypic behaviors had learning difficulty, because all the surveys suggested that these horses learn slower, so people had trouble training them.

But then, when they dug a little deeper, they worked out that professional riders found that these horses learn quicker than the average, but the amateur riders found them very hard to train. And when they really teased out what was happening, it's because their ability for extinction learning was very poor. Once they learned something, it was very hard to go down the road of retraining that.

Well, if you're a professional trainer, you don't make too many mistakes, you don't take too many detours, so these horses were able to succeed very well. But with an amateur trainer, they kept having these little detours where they were making little errors and then wanting to go down a different path. They had the horse a bit too low, then they had it a bit too high, those horses weren't dealing with that. So the amateur trainers found these horses to be very difficult to train.

We know that some animals have maybe the ability to learn very fast, but their extinction learning may be difficult. If we find that in dogs, that means we need to shape fast. Waiting too long while we're shaping, we might have difficulty with these dogs and they may appear to have a learning problem, where it could just be due to our shaping or our clarity.

We might have to consider variations in memory. Some dogs rely very heavily on memory to compensate for other deficits, whereas other dogs don't have strong memories, so we might have to make changes for that.

Another one would be allowing for tactile issues. A lot about training again relies on physically wanting to restrain our dog, or do a collar grab, or hold our dog, or even 20:35 rewarding people want to grab their dog and hug them. There tends to be this idea that if the dog doesn't like that, that's okay; we can just desensitize to it. It will be a fear issue and we can desensitize to it. But it's not always a fear issue. It can just be a genuine tactile sensitivity, an irritation, and that dog is not going to desensitize to being restrained or having collar grabs. They're always going to be uncomfortable with that, so we might have to make changes in those ways.

And being acutely aware of overtraining with these dogs, because sometimes it's mentally exhausting for them to do something that another dog would find very easy. So we have to be acutely aware that we're not overtraining these dogs with just a small session even. So there's all sorts of things.

Controlling handler emotion would be another big one. Many dogs are very resilient to handler emotion. Sometimes handlers are way over the top with how excited they are when the dog does something really well. Sometimes they get frustrated when it's not going so well.

And again, most dogs are going to deal with that completely fine, but some dogs that is going to put a lot of pressure on them. They're really not going to enjoy it, and that's going to change their feelings about future training sessions, so we worry about those sorts of things.

The main thing to think about is that these dogs are not going to bounce back as readily, these atypical dogs. So we often prioritize emotions over everything else. We're probably going to be more often focusing on classical conditioning than we would with a more typical dog.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk u through some of the sports and behaviors for those sports that you'll be talking about in the webinar? Maybe talk us through an example or two of what we are talking about when we are applying this.

Sharon Carroll: The first webinar, Part 1 — they're standalone webinars, so you can attend Part 1 or Part 2 or both; they fit nicely together, but they definitely are separate — Part 1, there's a lot about understanding more about the atypical dog. Not a lot of specific exercises; more the sorts of things we were talking about, what sorts of things can we vary, and what are the sorts of things we do to help out those atypical dogs.

Part 2, yes, we're talking about specific behaviors. We talk about generic issues, things like disconnecting and dogs that just disconnect, look away from you right at the start line and things like that. Dogs that leave training, literally leave the session, either to run off and do zoomies or visit the ring cue or to actually take off and dive back up to their friend or dive back to their crate.

We talk about dogs that miss cues or require repeated cues. We talk about inaccuracy, when we struggle with accuracy with the dogs. And then when we're looking at sport-specific exercises, we're looking at stays and retrieves and retrieving incorrect articles and weave poles and scent indications and dogs that arc instead of going in a straight line on recalls or retrieves.

Issues with contacts, issues with dogs that are ground bound. In other words, they can do a retrieve over a high jump perfectly fine, the can jump the broad jump perfectly fine at home, but in a more stressful setting they're walking through the broad jump, or they're stopping in front of it, or they're going around the high jump with their dumbbell, or just stopping in front of the high jump, because as the anxiety goes up, the ability to get off the ground decreases. So we look at those sorts of things.

I would say here that I want to make clear to everyone: I am not an expert in all the sports. In fact, I'm not really an expert in any of the sports. There are some amazing FDSA instructors that specialize in different sports, and some of them specialize in multiple sports. I'm not one of those people.

I'm a behavior specialist. My experience is with atypical dogs. I work with many people in many sports, and in many working-type situations with their dogs. Those guys are experts in their sports. But I come in to solve problems because they're having issues because the dog is struggling to learn.

I look at the behavior side of it. I look at ways we can change things. But I'm relying on people to know their sport really well and to know that side of things. So even though I talk about things like scent indication, I talk about things like contacts and weave poles, I am not professing to be an expert in these things.

But I've worked with a lot of people in those particular activities where we've had great success — dogs that previously went very slow, that always were very inconsistent in weave poles, or would stall or slow down or have trouble, dogs that would stall way ahead of contacts and things like that. So even though I don't do agility and such, I can help people understand exactly why those things are happening.

You also asked me to look at an example. I guess one example would be retrieves. I think one of the things people maybe don't realize enough is that many sensitive dogs will relinquish an article at any sign of challenge. That's just what they're meant to do. They don't want to hold on to a bone in front of another dog. They don't want to take a toy and hold on to it in front of another dog. As soon as another dog looks at them, they spit the toy, they spit the bone. That's what they do.

And yet we're telling them, "We'd like you to pick up this thing," and we're standing there, staring at them. We're a potential challenge. The judge is standing there, staring at them. So they pick up the dumbbell, they turn around and they're, "This person is staring at me," and they just spit the dumbbell because so stressed that they see this person — "Do you want the dumbbell? Here, you can have it. I don't want it."

Or they run out to get the dumbbell and there's a dog in the ring going past, and they're like, "Do you want the dumbbell? Maybe you want it. I won't take it." They're so sensitive to not wanting to challenge anyone. And picking up an article, or holding an article, is a challenge. It's something that's very hard for many sensitive dogs.

So we talk about retrieves, we talk about those aspects, and talk about how we can help those dogs overcome those sorts of issues. But mainly we try to get people to recognize that things like the dog not going and picking up the article in a busy environment is not a choice. It's not the dog deciding to not do an exercise that it knows how to do. So just going and pointing to it and telling it to pick it up and bring it back is not really appropriate in a lot of these cases. This dog is really struggling with that pressure, and so we have to be more sensitive often to those sorts of things, and there are ways we can work on those with the dog.

But really also recognizing that speed in lots of cases with the retrieves, with the recalls, with the weave poles. Speed is associated with confidence, and it's rarely a decision. So making speed a criteria for reinforcement will usually dig a deep hole for yourself with a sensitive dog.

If you decide you're only going to reinforce when they perform at the correct speed, you're just going to make that dog really concerned about why it's not receiving the reinforcement, because it's not really a choice on its part to slow. That's a physical thing that's happening to the dog. We influence speed by motivation and setup, not through removing reinforcement for not going fast enough.

So those are the sorts of things we'll be talking about.

Melissa Breau: Interesting. It's good stuff. Anything else that listeners should know about the webinars to help them decide if they're interested and if they want to sign up for next week?

Sharon Carroll: I guess just knowing that there are two webinars, they're following one another, they're both on the same topic, but Part 1 is … I wouldn't say more theory, because there's a lot of genuine information in there that will help you get out and work with your dog in a different way, but we don't look at specific exercises in Part 1.

In Part 2 there's a little bit of theory to start it off, because obviously some people haven't attended Part 1, but it's a different piece of theory. So if you're really into the theory, you're going to want that part anyway from Part 2 as well, but then we do go on and talk about those more generic issues, like the disconnecting and the leaving, as well a those sport-specific issues.

So I think anyone who is interested in learning more about atypical dogs, or trainers who may have students with dogs that seem to be struggling, I think these webinars are going to be interesting to quite a few people. Even if you don't think you've got an atypical dog, but you're struggling with one of those types of exercises that we're talking about, it's still probably worth turning up to Part 2 and just seeing if there's some tips in there that might be useful to you.

Melissa Breau: I have one last question. If you were to drill all of this down into one key piece of information or one key takeaway that you want people to walk away with or understand, what would that be?

Sharon Carroll: I think it's that there are differences in the way individual dogs perceive and process information, and this influences the way they learn, as well as their response to training and the environment. And it's all on a continuum.

We probably know that already, and we deal with lots of dogs that are somewhere on that continuum, but some of these dogs are really at one end of that spectrum, and so they really are processing that information differently. They really are perceiving it differently, and it really will influence the way they learn, and it really does influence how we train them.

Melissa Breau: Good place to leave things off. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Sharon.

Sharon Carroll: Thank you so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. Don't miss it!

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

E243: Laura VanArendonk Baugh - Behavior Chains
The Development of Fear

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