Monday, May 26, 2014

Shooting Dog Photos

In a bit of a departure from my regular dog training article, this entry is going to discuss the rewarding but difficult process of shooting photos of dogs, so if you just want to look at cute pictures of dogs and aren't as interested in the photography, you can click a photo and then just go through the photos as a slideshow. If you're interested in taking better pictures of your dog, though, then read on!
Over the last few months, I've turned my lens on other people's dogs at different dog events at Paws 'N Effect. Having had so much practice on our own dogs and on wildlife for the past few years, I figured I could make some nice shots for people. After a few months of working out the kinks and giving the photos away for free, I created a photo store and started offering different photo products.
But I didn't make this entry to plug the store, since I don't imagine anybody would buy these photos except the owners of the dogs themselves. Mostly, I wanted to share some photography that I'm really proud of and to talk about the challenges presented by this kind of work.

All the photos in this entry come from a two-hour period on Memorial Day at a "Dogs Just Want to Have Fun" event.

First of all, indoor lighting isn't typically action-friendly. You may have noticed how hard it is to get a crisp, sharp photo of an indoor subject without a flash, and if you use a flash on a dog, you tend to get really bad red eye—though in dogs, "red eye" tends to be "insane demonic green flashlight beast eye."

So I'm working with without any complex lighting equipment. That means light is my biggest difficulty. Without going into the technical details too deeply, I'm essentially constrained by two things: shutter speed and light.

Shutter speed is a measurement of how long my camera's sensor is exposed to the image. I want it to be fast, since dogs are constantly moving. A fast shutter speed will capture motion crisply. A slower one will work for a still subject, but will create a blur if the subject is moving.

But, while a fast shutter speed is desirable, it means that light doesn't have as much time to bounce off the subject and hit the camera's sensor. That means that if I just crank my shutter speed up really high, my image will come out dark and underexposed.

And, the more light that hits the sensor, the richer and more vibrant the image can be. Photos that don't have quite enough light tend to have a problem called "noise," even if they're not underexposed and dark.

There are many other factors involved, but that's the basic compromise I'm faced with: if my shutter is too slow, the dog will be blurry, but if it's too fast, the photo won't be as saturated and have the rich gradations of light and color I want, particularly when shooting dogs which always have fascinating coat color and texture.

And there isn't much that's more difficult in dog photography than shooting a black dog in mediocre lighting. That's why I went over by a window at the training center and stood with the light coming over my shoulder to get this shot. My camera and lens combo simply does not pull in enough light to take a nice photo of a black dog under the fluorescent lights of the training center.

If you've noticed that photos of your black dog leave him as a black hole in your photo, your problem is that not enough light has bounced off him and made it to your camera's sensor. In order to get the shine of his coat, you need a ton of light. Sometimes that means the background gets overexposed, but the dog will come out better, which is what's important.

Beyond lighting, another issue is trying to capture an expression that speaks to the personality of the dog. Without knowing the dog, that's not always so easy, but thanks to the digital format, I can snap a relatively high number of exposures in a row to try to get a bunch of different expressions.
I find that when dogs look at their handlers, I often get great stuff. There are looks of focus, happiness, and even adoration when a dog connects with her human, and they can make for some great stuff.
You also tend to get a somewhat better profile of a dog by getting down toward their level. Shooting down toward them from slightly above their head height can work nicely, as can shooting from even with their head, but shooting from way above is a challenge unless the dog has cocked his head all the way up himself.

Some of its luck, too. Millie here was in between scratching her neck and looking back at her mom, and I got lucky. Millie is also about six inches high, so I'm actually crouched almost down to the ground for this shot, even though it's angled from slightly above her.
Some other great shots happen when the dog is looking at the camera, so I'm not above borrowing a treat from the owner or making a whole series of ridiculous sounds to get an inquisitive, head-on look from a dog.

Again, this is a very small dog, so I'm crouched very, very low so I'm only shooting from a little higher than her head.
For this shot of this Corgi, I'm actually almost lying down in the grass from about 40 feet away with a zoom lens.

I figured I'd end the entry with one good action shot of puppies playing. Even though there wasn't direct sun on the grass, there was enough ambient light that I could get my shutter even faster to really freeze their action while still having relatively rich colors. Still, you can see the black regions aren't as rich as detailed as some of the other shots.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Reader Question: What should a kid do if the parents hit the dog?

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.

I tweet about dog training once or twice a day on Twitter, and the following was recently tweeted at me:

A dog's trust in us deserves a special kind of care and gentleness in training.
Rather than just tweeting back, I felt like the subject needed its own full-sized article, because it's an issue that I never considered before and a really important one.

I think the first thing I need to say—and this is really important—is that it's not your fault if your parents hit your dog. Your tweet doesn't say whether it's the more mainstream kind of hitting, like the poking or cuffing you see some old-fashioned trainers do, or a kind of full-force hitting we'd consider truly abusive. Both aren't good ways to train a dog, but the second situation is much more serious and dangerous.

Either way, though, the child in a family isn't responsible for controlling or changing the actions of the adults. I'm going to offer some advice here about some things you can try, because I can tell this is really important to you and I admire the fact that you want to take some action, but you have to remember that this isn't your fault and you can't necessarily change it.

The first thing you can do is show your parents that essentially all of the highly respected professional organizations of dog trainers, dog scientists, vets, and behaviorists agree that physical punishment is ineffective. They don't have to take your word for it.

  • They can read this position statement by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior that says in part, "AVSAB’s position is that punishment...should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems. This is due to the potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals."
  • The AVSAB also has a position statement on dominance-based training that includes this statement: "In fact, a recent study of dogs (Herron et al. 2008) found that confrontational techniques such as hitting or kicking the dog for undesirable behavior...frequently elicited an aggressive response from the dog."
  • They can read what the Association of Professional Dog Trainers has to say about Dominance and Dog Training, which includes this statement: "The APDT's position is that physical or psychological intimidation hinders effective training and damages the relationship between humans and dogs."
  • Though I hardly carry the authoritative clout of those organizations, they can also read my article on the evidence that physical punishment can actually result in increased aggressive behavior, particularly towards family members, especially children.

If you can train an intense herding dog to literally jump through hoops without
hitting him, you can certainly train a dog through basic obedience without it.
Hopefully, they'll be swayed by the fact that these highly-respected professional organizations of experts have such strong statements about the side effects of using physical force to punish a dog. Maybe your folks grew up in an era and a place in which hitting dogs was more acceptable and normal, but we know more now. Lots of us trained differently ten or twenty years ago and have followed the research to newer, more effective techniques.

My guess is that your parents want to do right by your dog and they feel this is just how you train. But my hope is that you can show them these resources and they'll learn that there are much more effective ways to train a dog that don't carry the potential side effects of aggression.

I also noticed that your tweet says that they think training positive "takes too long," but I would make the point that dog-friendly training is actually a lot faster and more reliable than hitting a dog. In fact, your tweet is kind of proof that the hitting isn't working, since your parents are still having to do it. If it worked, they'd do it once or twice and then move on, right?

So not only is it potentially dangerous, but it's also an ineffective way to change the behaviors you don't like. Physical force lacks the clarity of teaching and rewarding a dog, and punishment doesn't create as long lasting behavior as positive reinforcement does.

I'm not sure what problem behavior is leading your parents to hit your dog, but hopefully there's already an article on it here in the dog training section of Puppy Tao (problem behavior articles are down towards the bottom of the page). If there isn't, tweet at me again with some more details, and I'll write one. If you can't convince your parents to try a gentler way to train the dog, maybe you can work on the behavior yourself to try to improve it.

Regardless of the outcomes, remember most of all that this isn't your fault and it's not your job to solve it. As a kid, there are some strategies you can employ to try to change your parents' behavior a little and to train the dog yourself, but at the end of the day, the adults are responsible for what goes on in the house and the kid simply doesn't have the power to change everything, even if the kid is right and the parents are wrong. A couple of decades ago, it was a lot more normal to hit dogs as part of their training, and your parents may simply be in that mindset. We've learned a lot since then, though, so hopefully they can do some reading on faster, more reliable, more dog-friendly ways to teach a dog and make him a safe, happy companion.

Give your dog a treat and a ten-minute training session for me. And keep up the good work!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Reader Question: What do you do when a dog willfully disobeys?

Dear Puppy Tao, 
I take my 4-year-old boxer, Bella, on a walk every day. I keep her on a short leash, and she is usually good about walking at my side. However, sometimes if she is nervous or overly alert, she will begin to pull. Usually, I will react with a quick tug on the leash to remind her that she's not supposed to be pulling. If she continues to pull, I say "No. Sit." Then I wait for her sit before we continue.  
My method obviously doesn't work, because she's four years old and I still have not been able to break her of it... I also worry about making her sit too often, because she has joint problems. But she KNOWS where she is supposed to walk, she is just very strong-willed.
So, when a dog KNOWS where she is supposed to be and is happy being there most of the time, but willfully chooses to disobey commands and disregard rewards, what should I do? 
At Wit's (and Leash's) End 

Kingston is a large, strong dog with a lot of drive, so his handler can't manhandle
him into position or physically compel him to stop very easily. Instead, she works
really hard to build a connection with him, and then she practices in lots of
different situations so his attention holds up in the face of major distractions.
Dear At Wit's (and Leash's) End,

First off, I'd change your focus from teaching her not to pull, which isn't working, to teaching her where you want her by building and maintaining a strong connection with her. That shift in mindset alone will help a great deal.

Second, when I see noncompliance like you describe, I try not to frame it in "she knows but she chooses not to" terms. That puts the onus on the dog rather than on the human, and I'm not sure it's all that accurate. I'd say "she knows it when she's not distracted, but she either lacks the motivation, the self control, or both to do the behavior when she's distracted." That's more accurate and puts the onus squarely on the human to solve the issue, rather than punishing the dog for it. In Bella's case, it sounds like her leash behavior isn't really strong enough to handle the context of a high level of distractions.

Sometimes we have handlers work entirely without a leash so they learn to
use their attention and voice instead of force to connect with their dogs.
What you're doing now is punishing the pulling with the intent of making it go away. A leash correction constitutes positive punishment in behavioral terminology, because you are adding (positive) something the dog doesn't like with the intent of reducing the undesired behavior (punishment). Second, stopping your motion is what's called a negative punishment, because you are taking away (negative) something the dog likes with the intent of reducing the undesired behavior (punishment).

While punishment can reduce undesired behavior, it's not going to do so as quickly and reliably as rewarding an alternative behavior, and punishment carries the potential for side effects. Plus, in a scenario like this, the dog might respond to the punishment in many situations but not end up with a behavior that's reliable enough to hold up to serious distractions, which is what you're describing. Even the gentler negative punishment of simply stopping the forward motion, while it does work with some dogs, can sometimes end up teaching the dog simply to run out to the end of the leash and choke herself for a while.

Abby is very young and distractible, so her handler focuses on rewarding her for
connecting with him. Her handler is doing a great job of getting the food out of
her face, and he only uses it as a reward for what he likes, rather than bribing her.
So instead of punishing the pulling, I'd change the dynamic entirely and teach her to connect with you, even when she's overstimulated. If you're walking along and you lose your connection with her, try walking backwards excitedly in a different direction so you can make eye contact, clap your hands, shuffle your feet, and talk to her. That makes you much more worthwhile to stay connected with with. And while I would not lure her with food in order to get the attention, I certainly would use food to reward her once you do have her attention (i.e., don't put it in her face, but rather keep it in your pocket or a closed hand until you get some attention, and then reward her with the food).

When you get the hang of it, the dog isn't pulling at all, but you're taking an active role in maintaining that connection with her, and then you can pivot and walk forwards together again with her by your side, delivering rewards to her right at your side where you want her (again, with the food not in her face until it's time to actually feed it to her). There's a lot more on this loose leash walking method here.

With practice around gradually increasing distractions, you should be changing direction and backing up less and less. However, if you do end up in a bad situation, you always have the option to try to back up and reconnect with your dog by using eye contact, your voice, and your motion, just so you can get away from whatever is causing the problem.

Good luck!

Full disclosure: reader questions are edited for clarity, concision, and anonymity. They are always based heavily on the real text of a question somebody has asked me and the real text of my response, but I mess around quite a bit with the text in order to make a good post out of it. Also, pretty much nobody actually signs their questions with a goofy Dear Abby style name, so those are made up by me.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Why We Reward Choice Instead of Using Force

There's a common thing that you see with some novice dog trainers and also a certain kind of experienced person who maybe hasn't read a dog training book in a decade or so. When they are teaching a dog to sit, or when a dog who theoretically knows sit but does not obey the command, they push down on her rear end.

As a teeny puppy, Jax learned to volunteer a sit with terrific focus.
First, let's remember that we're not actually teaching dogs to sit. Dogs are perfectly capable of sitting without the intervention of a professional; what we're teaching them is to reliably volunteer a sit in response to a cue. The cue in this case is the word "sit," a hand signal, or both. And in order to do that, we have to get the dog to understand that the cue means we want the behavior, and then we have to make it rewarding for the dog to execute the behavior so she wants to do it again in the future.

So if you give the cue and then physically force the dog into complying with it, it may look exactly like you've just gotten a sit, but since the dog hasn't volunteered it, you've taught her very little, no matter how gently you push her rear down. And indeed, since the natural reaction from a dog in this situation is to push back, you may not end up being all that gentle. Lastly, pushing down hard on a dog's hips, especially when she's young, may risk injury.

The fact is that forcing her into position not only fails to teach the dog to sit, it may also teach your dog something entirely different and entirely undesirable: that when you say "sit" you're going to grab her and push on her. This method has two common results: a stressed out dog who doesn't learn to sit at all but starts showing signs of stress, or a dog who sits because she's figured out that if she doesn't, the unpleasant sensation of being grabbed and pushed isn't far behind. You may end up with a dog who sits on command, but your likelihood of a dog who is happy and reliable about it are a lot lower than if you rewarded a choice.

You can teach a dog she has to obey because if she doesn't, you'll do something unpleasant, but that's not a great foundation for a strong bond with your dog, and it doesn't lead to truly reliable behavior. For example, I've noticed that dogs whose owners resort to force often have trouble using the skill at a distance. If your dog sits in order to avoid having you grab him or push on him, it can be very difficult to get that dog to volunteer or hold a sit once you're more than an arm's length away.

Phoebe was rescued by a gentle owner who focuses on rewarding good choices.
Plus, even though many dogs will become compliant when forced, some will start to develop anxiety around people and may even develop reactivity and aggression because they don't trust the humans around them. The less force you use, the lower the risk of reactivity, but why risk it at all?

This same principle applies to all kinds of skills. If you want your dog to learn to sit back up from a down, don't pull her up with the leash. You can lure with food, you can clap your hands, you can gesture, you can use your voice, you can get creative. If you subscribe to a concept called "free shaping" (more on that another day), you wait for your dog to spontaneously offer a behavior and then mark and reward it. There are all kinds of great ways to teach a dog to sit up from a down, but the common element in the successful ones is that you get the dog to voluntarily change her body position and then you reward the behavior.

By the same token, if you want your dog to walk by your side, steering her there with the leash doesn't teach her where you want her. It just teaches her that you'll pull her by the neck without giving clear instructions. The more successful, gentler methods involve rewarding the dog when she makes the choice to walk in the loose leash zone by your side.

In all of these examples, you're looking for an opportunity to reward a choice, which means the dog is more likely to make that choice again in the future. I can speak from experience that the handlers I see who reward a dog's good choices are the handlers who get faster results and more reliable behavior. And even with trainers who are somewhat old-fashioned in teaching some skills, the skills they get better results on are the skills they've taught and reinforced by catching the dog's good choice and rewarding it.

At a recent seminar with Ian Dunbar, this puppy worked off-leash in a room full 
with 43 other dogs. The owner's challenge was to create a rewarding connection 
with her pup using no force at all.
So the next time you find yourself pushing or pulling your dog into position in some way, put the leash on your own neck and give it a yank to remind yourself that you're not teaching fairly or productively.

When teaching and proofing behaviors, use your hands only for delivering rewards like petting, play, and treats, not for prodding, pulling, or poking. If you find yourself using the leash to steer, catch yourself and remember that you're only really teaching your dog if the tension is completely off and the leash makes a nice J shape. In fact, if you're in a safe environment, take off the leash entirely! That will put the onus on you to communicate with your dog using your body language, your voice, and your previous training. Just don't use an angry or stern voice: that's force too.

Dogs trained with low or no force methods tend to progress faster in basic skills like loose leash, sits, downs, stays, recall, etc., and they become more reliable because they learn how to work with their handlers to make good things happen. They also look happier doing it, and their handlers are happier because they're not choking or scolding their dogs. It's a lot more fun to train if you're essentially playing with your dog rather than punishing his failures—which are probably actually the human's failures anyway, but more on that another day.