Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Problem with Confinement

Belief as Reality

We construct the canine’s reality with our thoughts and beliefs. And as we impose it upon him, we will be unaware that our concepts are not natural, innate or providential. We are not born with them; they are not given. They are learned and fabricated as we go through our lives.

The problem is that much of what we come to believe and to think of as knowledge is flawed, incomplete, and may be just plain wrong; even our memories can deceive us. Our belief system doesn’t differentiate or judge, it simply accepts as truth what we feed it. We have long forgotten the sources of our beliefs and “knowledge” and in many cases, we never bothered to test the accuracy of the underlying theories that formed them. We are completely unaware of most of our deeply held beliefs. They are not only the product of a lifetime of conditioning, they are the sum total of our long-forgotten decisions, declarations and proclamations. They are the evolution of what we as groups, societies and cultures have collectively agreed to.

Many have heard the story of a mother who trimmed her pot-roasts into square shapes before putting them into the oven. When her daughter asked why she did this, she couldn’t say. She did know that her mother had always done the same. When she was asked why she trimmed pot roasts this way, she said that she had to do that to fit them into the only roasting pan she had at the time – a square pan.

An Unexamined Practice

We seldom ever question the ideas, beliefs, or “knowledge” that forms the basis of our most routine canine-care and keeping practices. We just do them. We do them because others do them so they seem normal and right. If we were to seriously question what’s really behind them, we might realize that we don’t have any idea why we do some of the things we do. We might find that we do them for the sake of convenience. We may uncover a long list of other ideas and beliefs that seem to justify doing them. This is a good first step, because if we don’t question why we do what we do to dogs, we won’t ever ask ourselves…How does what we do affect the dog?

Let’s explore a practice that we appear to believe in, one that has become so commonplace in this country that few of us would ever question its suitability. And let’s look at it from the standpoint of how it does affect the dog. In this and subsequent articles, we will examine the effects of confinement which is usually attended by social isolation and forced repose or understimulation. We’ll try to get at the root of what we believe about the practice and then learn a little about its impact on canine minds and bodies, particularly those that are developing.


Confinement is the physical containment of a dog’s body within a crate, kennel, or small room or area. The dog’s movements and liberties are restricted, often severely so. Behavioral opportunities are narrowed to a functional minimum. Depending upon the location of the confinement unit and the circumstances, social access and sensory input are also significantly reduced.

Every year, millions of infant canines enter homes that are empty for many hours each week day. They will spend this time confined and alone. Some will spend their nights confined as well. This is a fairly new practice; one that became popular when dogs transitioned from the outdoors to spend their lives inside our homes.

When asked, people report that they confine dogs and puppies for safety reasons because there are many things inside a home that can be dangerous, particularly to a teething, exploring infant. They say that they crate them to prevent damage to their furnishings and belongings and to keep them from urinating and defecating in the home. Some believe that a small crate is similar to a dog’s den and that dogs and puppies actually feel more safe and comfortable inside of one. And many agree that because everyone else seems to do it that it must be the right thing to do. So we generally believe that confinement is best for the animal and best for us and our belongings. This tends to settle the matter in our minds, to such a degree that we don’t consider that confinement has a big down-side.

Effects that can last a Lifetime

Neural organization, emotional stability, physical development and learning ability are compromised in puppies who are denied environmental access, social contact, and opportunities to play, explore and develop. Confined puppies lack opportunities to establish a full range of behavioral repertoires and their behavioral flexibility, motivation and control diminish. They are unable to develop general perceptual frameworks into which novel stimuli might be assimilated. They can not relax or positively express themselves. They are easily provoked and alarmed. When released from confinement, puppies demonstrate hyper-stimulation, increased motor activity, shifting emotional responses and easy frustration and distractibility. They disassociate with stimuli in the environment, fail to make social contact and demonstrate extremely impaired coping ability. Confined puppies are generally less socially active, and less assertive. They develop cognitive impairments, become slow learners and demonstrate poor problem-solving abilities.

As they get older, these canines demonstrate a diminished ability to cope with stressful situations and become neophobic, overacting emotionally when they encounter novel situations. They often develop lifelong fearfulness, becoming rigidly inhibited and/or offensively aggressive. They seek safety and become psychologically dependent upon and addicted to a particular person. The affects of confinement endure for some time after the restricting circumstances have ended and they can last a lifetime.

Confinement causes fear and panic and exposure to persistent or frequent stress states has been shown to result in sensory processing disorders. It impairs stress-coping ability, and leads to maladjusted behavior responses to aversive or conflict-inducing situations. The stress hormone cortisol can alter hippocampal functions, affecting short-term memory. It inhibits vascular function, blood flow and oxygen and disrupts the function of the hormone/neurotransmitter dopamine. It can affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis – a major part of the neuroendocrine system that controls reactions to stress and regulates the immune system and many other body functions. Many canines who experience these emotional, physical and developmental maladjustments are not successful in a home and their problems are almost never related to the root cause.

We Did Not Know

For the best chance of maturing into successful, well-adjusted and confident individuals and family members, puppies must be provided with near-constant access to a responsible care-giver. As they move through important developmental stages, they can be exposed to a variety of environments, objects, people and experiences. They can be acclimated to the sensory stimuli that occur in and around the environment in which they live and will be taken. They can be provided with canine interactions that will teach them how to be a social animal and how to communicate. The care-giver can manage the puppy’s day, mixing periods of play, exploration and education with periods of rest.

If you are already in a situation where the dog in your life is confined or crated during the work week, see if you are willing to imagine some alternatives to that arrangement. Perhaps you can utilize a canine day-care facility. Maybe an acquaintance who is home during the day lives with a dog who would enjoy some stimulation from a visiting companion. Maybe a friend, family member or dog-walking service can be arranged to provide the dog with a mid-day outing. Perhaps you can begin to work at home or take the dog to your workplace.

If you are away from your home during the work week and are contemplating bringing a puppy into your life, perhaps you will reconsider your choice until you have found some alternatives to physical confinement.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Allowing the Dog to Produce Something Good

The dog saw the bird fly into the greenhouse. He followed. The bird flew against the top and the sides of the glass and then back and forth. She was unable to find her way back out; she appeared to panic. Her wings beat wildly and feathers floated down as the dog watched. He was vibrating with excitement. Eventually exhausted, the bird fell to the ground and the dog grabbed her just as the man entered the greenhouse. The man was disturbed at the sight; he didn't want the dog to kill the bird. He asked the dog to “drop it.” He did not. With every muscle fiber tight and twitching, the dog stood clutching the bird in his mouth. The man asked him to “give it.” He did not. He asked him to “leave it” and he did not. Finally, the man spotted a colander sitting on the potting bench. He grabbed it and thrust it forward. He asked the dog to “put.” The dog took a couple steps toward the man and with his tail wagging furiously, he placed the bird into the colander.

The dog in the story is my canine partner Jack. He gave up the bird for the opportunity to do his most favorite activity – "put." Jack created the “put” behavior in a single education session and because of the way that it was reinforced he came to put any object he could handle “inside,” “up,” “down” and wherever directed.

This is how it all happened. Jack was shown a box and was encouraged to play a game in which any new behavior he created with it earned him a mark (click) and a reinforcer. Jack looked inside the box, he touched it with his nose and then with his paw, he jumped over it, went around it and created several more novel interactions with the box. Eventually, he spotted his favorite toy a distance away and went to get it. In the spirit of the game, I marked and reinforced that. He immediately picked up the toy again and moved toward me; he was marked and reinforced. At this point, I realized the opportunity that lay before us. I threw the toy off a short distance and put the box between Jack and I. He picked up the toy and made a few steps toward me and the box. I got so excited that I nearly threw the whole bag of treats. On the next toss, Jack had figured out that the game involved the box. He took careful steps closer and closer to the box and I marked and reinforced him with an excited celebration. On the next toss, he walked right up to the box with the toy in his mouth. As I hoped, when he was marked, the toy fell into the box. A bonanza of chicken liver pieces rained into Jack's experience. My normally squeally voice went into hyper mimi-mouse mode. We played and tugged and jumped around like clowns. On the next trial, Jack walked right up to the box with the toy and I simply waited. All time stood still. Jack stood there. I could almost see him thinking, and then he dropped the toy into the box. The “put” game was on and before the day was over, he had put everything he could find and everything I gave him into that box.

For a dog whose education revolves around learning opportunity, learning becomes a skill that is practiced and perfected. When he is given the opportunity to create behavior in an atmosphere where there are no wrong answers, he will. And when he does create a behavior that earns him the equivalent of a big-money jackpot, he’ll not only remember it, he’ll repeat it with happy excitement.

French philosopher Rene’ Descartes (1596-1650) reasoned that dogs did not think, that all the things which dogs are taught to perform are only expressions of their fear, hope and joy and as such, could be performed without any thought. The reliance upon prompting and cueing to solicit behavior produces a dog who is an agreeable model for Descartes unthinking machine. By attempting to put learning into the dog, we limit her potential for intellectual accomplishment. We deny her the opportunity to think and to produce something good on her own. Do we do this because at some level, we believe that she really can’t think and that she can’t create worthwhile behaviors or responses to our interactions and our shared experience? When we really examine what's at the root of some of our patterns of thought, action and reaction, we often find concepts that are so opposed to our true nature and intent that we are shocked to find that we harbor them.

When we prompt a dog and she doesn’t immediately respond, we feel compelled to take action. We literally give her no opportunity to create a response before we have prompted again, intervened physically or changed course. The need to do something is so strong and so impulsive that the only aspect of canine education most people find challenging is that of suspending themselves and just observing the dog. Why can’t she be given the time she needs to think things through and come up with a response? She may be just ready to offer an inclination toward action that we squash with our own reaction.

I ask my dog-partnered students to make an agreement with themselves that they will follow each cue or prompt with the purposeful suspension of their thoughts and actions, placing their full and complete attention on the dog. I ask them to notice everything they can about the dog’s mental and emotional state, as expressed through the body. Notice if she displays hesitancy or excitement. Watch for even the slightest movement and be ready to immediately let her know if that movement is going in the direction you want it to go. If it isn’t, happily move on to another exercise. Most of all, I ask them to intend to learn from these raw and genuine experiences. Learn how to improve the dog’s chances of success. Learn how to turn the education game into an opportunity to have unrestrained fun and excitement. Learn how to allow the dog to think and create on her own.