Fooled by the Foobler? A Review

If you have a small dog with little experience with food toys and who is not prone to chewing hard plastic, the new toy called the Foobler might be the very thing for him.

If you have a larger dog, a determined dog, one who thrives on chewing hard plastic, or most important, a dog who has a lot of experience with food toys, I have some cautions about the product.

That’s right. I’m recommending the Foobler for dogs who are new to food toys, and not for those who are experienced with them. You’ll see why below.

How it Works

The Foobler food toy is a plastic sphere. The photo shows the sphere with the lid taken off. Six separate food compartments are arranged in a circle.

Inside the Foobler

The Foobler is a food puzzle toy with six separate compartments inside a hard plastic sphere with a lid. It has a removable battery pack. The batteries power a timer that can be set for several different intervals ranging from 15 to 90 minutes, a motor to change the active compartment, and a mechanical bell. It is weighted to make it wobble,  and kibble falls out of a hole when the toy is rolled around. It’s a very easy toy; it need only be rolled, and kibble comes out rapidly until the current chamber is empty. (There are plans to add a method to adjust the difficulty; I’m not sure whether this is present on the models currently shipping or not.)

The idea is that the dog’s fun gets spread throughout the day because only one chamber is open at a time, and the timer determines when the next one becomes available.

The Foobler was invented by three engineers and produced with a Kickstarter campaign. I was delighted to support the campaign and got my Foobler early on. I think it’s really cool that these guys figured out a niche in the market and put their heads together and came up with a nice design.

I like the design, and I like how the food compartment and the battery pack are separate. It’s washable. It is kinesthetically pleasing to open and close; the lids close with a nice snap.

I introduced the Foobler to all three of my dogs, and as a result I have some cautions to share. Besides the danger of being damaged through chewing, the Foobler may be generally frustrating for many toy-savvy dogs.

What’s the Problem?

The problem with the Foobler for experienced dogs is the “unexplained” down time. Every other food toy the dog plays with likely reinforces persistence. As long as the dog can smell and hear food in the toy, she can generally continue to get it out. It may get more difficult as it empties, and the dog may have to vary her behavior more, but she can generally get all the food and know when she is done. For instance, I have seen Summer roll around her Tricky Treat Ball for 10 minutes to get that one last piece of kibble. After she gets it out, she stops. The lack of rattling tells her the toy is empty.

Where's the food?

Where’s the food?

However, the Foobler gives out mixed signals. After the dog has emptied the current compartment, and the next compartment won’t become available until the time interval has passed (up to 90 minutes), the dog can still smell food in the toy and it still rattles when the toy is rolled around. For every other kibble toy she’s ever experienced, these are cues that playing with the toy will be reinforced. However, with the Foobler, when the current chamber empties, the behaviors that she has been performing to get the food suddenly do not work without any clue from the toy.1)It may be possible for some dogs to learn to detect the sound or smell difference when no kibble is available in the current compartment. But that would take a while.

Using the terms of behavior analysis, there is a discriminative stimulus to indicate when food is available: the little bell. But there is no stimulus delta, no signal that food will be unavailable for a while when the current compartment is empty. With no straightforward way of communicating that to the dog, we are putting the dog’s behaviors into extinction. This can be quite frustrating for the dog and dangerous to the toy.

It’s important to acknowledge that in almost all cases, the amount of time that food is available is very small compared to the down time. Because the Foobler I have ejects food so easily, and because my dogs eat small amounts of kibble, they were all able to empty each compartment in 2-3 minutes.

Similar Toys

Despite the claims by Foobler that theirs is the first puzzle toy to spread the food out over the day, there was at least one previous toy that did that, and it didn’t have the problem that the Foobler has. There used to be a Kong dispenser that would eject up to four stuffed Kongs on a set schedule throughout a dog’s day.  It was similar in that food periodically became available, then unavailable throughout the day. But the beginning and end of the food availability were salient to the dog. 1) Kong bounced down from the counter: there was food. 2) Dog cleaned out the Kong: no more food till the next one bounced down.

How the Foobler Could Be Improved

There is a “training mode” for the Foobler, which can be implemented by holding down the power button. It causes the bell to ring and the chamber to switch. I used this to teach my dogs about the bell signaling food availability. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is telling the dog that she needs to stop working at the toy for a while (again, up to 90 minutes!). Adding a sensor that could detect when a chamber was empty and provide a signal for that would certainly be ideal, but unrealistic.

I would suggest instead that the Foobler include a 5-minute interval on its timer. This would create an interim state between the manual training mode and the shortest interval currently available, 15 minutes. This would be especially helpful for small dogs who can empty out their portion quickly, and they are arguably the best candidates to use the toy safely.

Oh, another caution: the Foobler stays on when it is powered up in training mode. So be sure to turn it off when you are done, or it will keep advancing and ringing its bell at the next interval. If it does so and no kibble becomes available, this will work to undo the salience of the bell = food relationship you were carefully building up.

 One Pass and Two Failures

Summer staring at the Foobler

Of my three dogs, only Summer is a candidate to enjoy the Foobler. She was fascinated and made no move to chew it. After I teach her about the “down time,” the Foobler may be good for her.

However, there is a very quiet little motor noise when it powers up and shifts to the next compartment. It’s a bit scary to Summer. (You can see her response in the movie.) But I think since it is mild, the fact that it signals food availability will quickly correct the problem.

Clara carrying Foobler

Clara can pick up the Foobler even though her jaws don’t fit all the way around it

Clara adores chewing hard plastic, and had immediate plans to destroy the Foobler. The present food compartment wasn’t even completely empty before she managed to pick the toy up and carry it to her staging area. No matter how much training, supervision, and management I might do, it would never be safe to leave it with her unattended for any period of time.

The Foobler is not recommended for dogs who can get their jaws around it, a very good caution. But note that even though Clara is not big enough to do that, the toy is still not safe for her. I have absolutely no doubt that she could break into this toy. The photo below shows where she would start.

Here's where my dogs would start chewing

Here’s where my dogs would start chewing

Little Zani also decided very early on that chewing was called for. She is only 19 pounds but was able to get her jaws around some indentations. She couldn’t lift it,  but I’m not willing to wait to find out whether she can break into it. She is a genius at that type of thing.

Even if the Foobler were not vulnerable to being damaged, I would not feel comfortable just setting the timer and leaving it down for a dog to figure out. Some people might think this is overly solicitous on my part. Perhaps it is.  But food toys are supposed to be fun. I don’t find it fair to let my dogs go through long periods of frustration and extinction because of the huge reinforcement history for persistence with food toys I have built up. My dogs get plenty of practice with frustration just living with a human; I don’t see a benefit in deliberately allowing repeated periods of pure extinction until they figure out how a toy works.

Link to the movie for email subscribers. 

Naive Dogs

Again, this toy could work very well with many inexperienced dogs. Dogs who are new to food toys lack the persistence that experienced dogs have. The fact that they are likely to give up more easily actually will work in their favor. And the bell will probably attract them back to the toy again after very few repetitions.

Who else has tried the Foobler?  Did you do anything in particular to help your dogs learn about the down time?

Many thanks to Kiki Yablon and Mary Hunter, who discussed the behavioral effects of the Foobler with me when I was working on an article for BARKS from the Guild that included a section about it.

This review was not solicited. I paid for my Foobler through the Kickstarter campaign, received it, studied my dogs’ reactions to it, and wrote this review.

Related Article

When Food Toys “Fail”: in BARKS from the Guild, Autumn 2014, page 21

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  • Which dogs are likely to enjoy the Foobler?

References   [ + ]

1. It may be possible for some dogs to learn to detect the sound or smell difference when no kibble is available in the current compartment. But that would take a while.
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The Dangers of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever for Dogs

Many thanks to jarah’s mom for researching RMSF and answering my questions and generally getting me out of a confused state. Thanks also to Lori S. and Judith B. for their support and info, and to the many other helpful friends and well-wishers.  

On November 6, 2014 my dear dog Clara got a blood work result that very strongly indicated that she had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a serious, potentially fatal tick-borne disease that affects people, dogs and some other animals in North, Central, and South America. Clara had been showing symptoms for quite some time.

Clara is probably not in danger for her life at this point, and most people wouldn’t even be able to tell that she is sick. Although she is on a strong course of antibiotics, some effects of the infection remain. Time will tell whether she will recover completely. I’m sharing the story of her diagnosis in case it will help others. This disease can be difficult to diagnose, and a timely diagnosis can save a life in some cases.

A tan dog with a black muzzle and tail is on a chaise longue. It's sunny and she is looking straight into the camera

Clara catching some rays. She looks serious but is wagging her tail.


In September 2014, I started to notice that Clara was getting increasingly stiff and weak in her hind end. This worsened, and by early November when she was finally diagnosed, she had also gotten prone to trembling, not only when she was cold or excited, but sometimes for no apparent reason, even while asleep.

Thinking back, for as long as several months before this, she had run and jumped less when playing with Zani and had less stamina for playing ball. I didn’t mention it in the post, but you can see in the video in “How My Dogs Play” that Clara typically waits in the corner while Zani runs around the yard (previously, she would have run after her every time). Clara also lies down a lot in the play session, which is very polite and self-handicapping of her, but also could have been because she was tired.

She also had a rash on her chest, abdomen and legs in October 2014, which may or may not have been connected.

I made the movie below to chronicle her symptoms, but held back for some time on publishing it. I wanted to be as sure as possible that her diagnosis was correct and that there wasn’t an additional problem or other reason for her symptoms.

The symptoms of tick-borne diseases vary greatly and also can be confused with many other diseases and conditions. (There are quite a few of these diseases, the most well known of which is probably Lyme disease. I included some links in the Resources section at the bottom of this post that list all the types, for humans and dogs.)

So before the blood work to test for tick-borne and parasitic diseases was done, the following tests were performed:

  • extensive range of motion testing on hips and back legs (excellent!)
  • hip, pelvis, and back let X-rays (clear!)
  • complete blood count including to test for muscle enzymes related to soft tissue damage. The muscle enzymes were fine, but the CBC showed a lowered platelet count, which is a typical symptom of tick-borne diseases.

The lack of other diagnoses plus the low platelet count made tick-borne diseases the next most likely candidate for Clara’s symptoms. She was put on antibiotics and more blood was drawn so she could be tested for tick-borne and parasitic diseases.

The subsequent blood work returned a Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever titer of greater than or equal to 1:1024, the highest result possible at that lab.  This high reading indicated that Clara had a large number of antibodies to the Rickettsia rickettsii bacteria and had been fighting the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever infection for a while, probably weeks or months.

This movie is a bit hard to watch.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Mechanism of the Disease

The Rickettsia rickettsii bacteria are introduced into the dog or other animal from the bite of a tick that has been attached for 5-20 hours.1)Comer, K. M. “Rocky Mountain spotted fever.” The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice 21.1 (1991): 27-44. (This is a very good reason to perform daily tick checks if your dog has been in areas where ticks are present.) The bacteria have been found to be transmitted by at least four tick species, but the most common are the American dog tick (what probably bit Clara) and the Rocky Mountain wood tick.

Tick hemolymph cells infected with Rickettsia rickettsii

Tick hemolymph cells infected with Rickettsia rickettsii. Public domain image from the US Centers for Disease Control.

The bacteria are nasty. They immediately spread throughout the body via the blood and lymphatic systems and invade the cells of the endothelium, the cells in the lining of the blood and lymphatic vessels. They multiply there and move into the smooth muscle tissue. 2)Harrus, S., et al. “Rickettsiales.” Pathogenesis of Bacterial Infections in Animals, Third Edition (2004): 425-444. Since this is happening all over the body, the presenting symptoms can vary. Many different organs can be damaged or fail. The dog often bleeds from the nose or other locations.  There are the joint and muscle problems. There can be gangrene in the extremities as the tissue dies. Dogs can have inflammation of the eyes, shortness of breath if the lungs are affected, have seizures or other nervous system symptoms, or can die suddenly of a heart attack. The kidneys can fail.

It most often affects dogs under four years old (Clara is 3 1/2). The response can range from no apparent problems at all, where the dog is infected but remains asymptomatic and lives a normal life, to death in a matter of days.

One dog study reported a mortality rate of 4%3)Comer, K. M. “Rocky Mountain spotted fever.” The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice 21.1 (1991): 27-44., but there doesn’t seem to be much information in general on that topic. The rate is probably higher. In studies where dogs were injected with large quantity of the bacteria (sorry to even think about or mention this), mortality was 100% when the disease was untreated.4)Keenan, K. P., et al. “Studies on the pathogenesis of Rickettsia rickettsii in the dog: clinical and clinicopathologic changes of experimental infection.” American journal of veterinary research 38.6 (1977): 851-856.  In humans, RMSF is fatal in 20-25% of untreated cases and for 5-10% of treated ones.5)Bakken, Johan S., et al. “Diagnosis and management of tickborne rickettsial diseases: Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichioses, and anaplasmosis—United States.” MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 55 (2006): 1.


Clara is now on her second three-week round of Doxycycline, which luckily does not appear to upset her stomach. She obviously felt better in a metabolic sense after two days on the antibiotic; she was perkier and had more energy, and has stayed that way. But the stiffness has been much slower to change. I’ve been keeping a video record and I think she is finally improving, though. I have to remind myself that progress won’t necessarily be linear.

The Future

I feel a little weird for publishing this movie and blog, like I’m exaggerating the seriousness of Clara’s illness. But I’m not. Although the trembling has lessened, she still has periods of weakness and/or stiffness and is clearly fatigued after she exerts herself. I’m still trying to get my head around it all. I go from thinking she will be tragically affected for the rest of her life, to thinking there isn’t much to it and I’m overreacting. There’s still a flavor of “this can’t be happening…” But I’m also counting our blessings.

I’m almost afraid to ask for others’ experiences, because I’m sure there are some sad ones out there. But I think education about RMSF and the other tick-borne diseases is valuable and important. So please share if you are willing.


Lists of tick-borne diseases.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in Humans

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in Dogs

Tick Safety

  • Do whatever you can to prevent tick exposure in the first place.
  • Check your dog thoroughly after possible exposures.
  • Remove any attached ticks quickly.
  • Get your dog to the vet if she has a fever or any of the symptoms listed here: Symptoms of Tick-Borne Diseases.
  • Oh yes, and be careful for yourself and human loved ones as well. There are cases of dog and humans simultaneously getting the disease because of concentrations of infected ticks in the same area.6)Paddock, Christopher D., et al. “Short report: concurrent Rocky Mountain spotted fever in a dog and its owner.” The American journal of tropical medicine and hygiene 66.2 (2002): 197-199. 7)Elchos, Brigid N., and Jerome Goddard. “Implications of presumptive fatal Rocky Mountain spotted fever in two dogs and their owner.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 223.10 (2003): 1450-1452. If you are in the U.S., check the incidence map in this article to see how prevalent it is in your state. RMSF is not found outside the Americas, but there are other related spotted fevers found in most parts of the globe.


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References   [ + ]

1. Comer, K. M. “Rocky Mountain spotted fever.” The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice 21.1 (1991): 27-44.
2. Harrus, S., et al. “Rickettsiales.” Pathogenesis of Bacterial Infections in Animals, Third Edition (2004): 425-444.
3. Comer, K. M. “Rocky Mountain spotted fever.” The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice 21.1 (1991): 27-44.
4. Keenan, K. P., et al. “Studies on the pathogenesis of Rickettsia rickettsii in the dog: clinical and clinicopathologic changes of experimental infection.” American journal of veterinary research 38.6 (1977): 851-856.
5. Bakken, Johan S., et al. “Diagnosis and management of tickborne rickettsial diseases: Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichioses, and anaplasmosis—United States.” MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 55 (2006): 1.
6. Paddock, Christopher D., et al. “Short report: concurrent Rocky Mountain spotted fever in a dog and its owner.” The American journal of tropical medicine and hygiene 66.2 (2002): 197-199.
7. Elchos, Brigid N., and Jerome Goddard. “Implications of presumptive fatal Rocky Mountain spotted fever in two dogs and their owner.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 223.10 (2003): 1450-1452.
Posted in Dog illness | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Ground Scratching: Why Does My Dog Do It?

Summer scratching

Why do some dogs scratch with their paws after they eliminate?

I recently read a discussion on Facebook about the meaning of this dog behavior. Some people’s speculations about the reasons for the behavior included:

  • Avoiding something or another behavior (displacement)
  • Expressing anxiety
  • Expressing boredom
  • Relieving stress
  • Expressing frustration
  • Calming oneself
  • Calming another dog
  • Expressing enjoyment of a previous activity
  • Being stressed
  • Expressing high arousal
  • Marking (territorial)
  • Marking by scent
  • Marking visually

Note that all but the last three of these have to do with an emotion or internal state.

I was interested in particular in the conjecture that the behavior was linked to some kind of stress. My dog Summer is a “scratcher” and she does it with what I observe to be exuberance and satisfaction. (You’ll see in the movie.) Interestingly, she doesn’t scratch only after eliminating. She will also scratch where there are scents of another dog’s elimination. Summer also lifts her leg to mark with urine. More on that later.

What Does the Literature Say?

Dirt scratching, or scraping, has been studied by ethologists. These are mostly observational studies, where numbers of canids were observed performing various elimination, sniffing, and marking behaviors. The behaviors are counted and the surrounding circumstances recorded. Dr. Marc Bekoff points out that it hasn’t been studied all that much in dogs though, compared to the study of other animals.1)Bekoff, Marc. “The Significance of Ethological Studies: Playing and Peeing.”Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2014. 59-75.  He and others are gradually filling in the blanks, however.

Here are some of the functions for ground scratching that ethologists have proposed:

  • Dispersing scent from the dog’s urine or feces2)Peters, R.P., Mech, D., 1975. “Scent-marking in wolves.” Am. Sci. 63, 628–637.3)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.4)Bekoff, M., Wells, M.C., 1986. “Social ecology and behavior of coyotes.” Adv. Stud. Behav. 16, 251–338.5)Sprague, Randall H., and Joseph J. Anisko. “Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle.” Behaviour (1973): 257-267.
  • Dispersing scent from glands in the dog’s paws6)Peters, R.P., Mech, D., 1975. “Scent-marking in wolves.” Am. Sci. 63, 628–637.7)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.8)Bekoff, M., Wells, M.C., 1986. “Social ecology and behavior of coyotes.” Adv. Stud. Behav. 16, 251–338.9)Sprague, Randall H., and Joseph J. Anisko. “Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle.” Behaviour (1973): 257-267.10)Petak, Irena. “Patterns of carnivores’ communication and potential significance for domestic dogs.” Periodicum biologorum 112.2 (2010): 127-132.
  • A visual demonstration in real time, in the presence of other dogs11)Kleiman, D., Eisenberg, J.F., 1973. “Comparisons of canid and felid social systems from an evolutionary perspective.” Anim. Behav. 21, 637–659.12)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.13)Petak, Irena. “Patterns of carnivores’ communication and potential significance for domestic dogs.” Periodicum biologorum 112.2 (2010): 127-132.
  • A visual demonstration in the form of leaving marks on the ground14)Kleiman, D., Eisenberg, J.F., 1973. “Comparisons of canid and felid social systems from an evolutionary perspective.” Anim. Behav. 21, 637–659.15)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.16)Sprague, Randall H., and Joseph J. Anisko. “Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle.” Behaviour (1973): 257-267.

Note that none of these hypotheses is linked to an internal emotion, although one source did note that ground scratching was seen more often “when the individual was aggressively aroused.”17)Petak, Irena. “Patterns of carnivores’ communication and potential significance for domestic dogs.” Periodicum biologorum 112.2 (2010): 127-132. The main discussion revolves around function, and even then, the conclusions are very circumspect. Dirt scratching may be communication to other dogs, but speculations by ethologists about the content of that communication are still very conservative.

This is a valuable reminder to me that as much as we would love to, we can never know exactly what is going on in our dogs’ minds.

What’s the Smelly Feet Thing About?

One of the hypotheses for the function of the behavior is that glands on the dogs’ paws may give off a scent, and that scratching may deposit and disperse it. What are these glands? Most sources mention sweat glands.

“…paw pads in dogs are one of the few locations that contain eccrine sweat glands. In dogs, apocrine glands are the major type of sweat gland, and the distribution of eccrine sweat glands is limited to the footpads and nose.”  18)Miller, William Howard, et al. Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology 7: Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2013.

However, there are other glands that may be involved:

“…It has been suggested that the scratching action itself may leave scent in the environment produced by either interdigital glands, sweat glands on the foot pads, or sebaceous glands in the fur between the toes.” 19)Serpell, James, ed. The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

From what I read in the literature, there has not yet been a definitive finding about whether scent from the paws is involved, and if so, from which source.

Male vs. Female Behaviors

Summer scratching 2Two studies by Marc Bekoff showed that approximately the same percentages of male and female dogs performed ground scratching (about 10%), but also that the males who ground scratched did so much more frequently than the females. 20)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848. 21)Bekoff, Marc. “Scent marking by free-ranging domestic dogs: Olfactory and visual components.” Biology of Behavior, 4, 123-139. Another study showed that among females, those who were spayed were more likely to scratch than those who were intact and not in estrous. (Females in estrous were not included in the study.) 22)Wirant, Sharon Cudd, and Betty McGuire. “Urinary behavior of female domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): influence of reproductive status, location, and age.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 85.3 (2004): 335-348.

The same study also found that females four or more years old directed the majority of their urinations at objects in the environment (marked) and directed more of their urinations when walked off their home area than when walked within their home area. Both of these are true for Summer.

Raised leg urination such as many male dogs perform has also been theorized to have the function of visual display, since it is sometimes performed without urination.23)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.24)Cafazzo, Simona, Eugenia Natoli, and Paola Valsecchi. “Scent‐Marking Behaviour in a Pack of Free‐Ranging Domestic Dogs.” Ethology 118.10 (2012): 955-966. Male dogs have also been observed to raise their legs more frequently to urinate when in the presence of another dog.25)Bekoff, Marc. “The Significance of Ethological Studies: Playing and Peeing.”Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2014. 59-75. Some female dogs raise their legs as well, including Summer.

So What Does Summer Do?

The movie shows Summer enthusiastically scratching the ground in several different situations:

  1. After squatting to pee;
  2. After raising her leg to pee;
  3. Immediately after entering an area with interesting smells and without eliminating at all; and
  4. After smelling another dog’s droppings (also without eliminating).

If Summer’s behavior is functional, and not some kind of twisted evolutionary leftover, it may support the “dispersing odor from the paws” hypothesis. See what you think.

Link to the movie about ground scratching for email subscribers. 

Function vs. Emotional State

I’m not an ethologist; I’m a pet owner. So while I’m fascinated with the possible function of the behavior of scratching, I’m also interested in my dog’s emotional state when she does it. And I’d simply say she is enjoying performing a natural doggie activity. The prompts for her behavior seem to be scents, nothing more complex than that.

Summer is a primal sort of dog. Her breeding is so mixed that she resembles a village dog in all but her double coat. She has a strong prey drive and scavenger drive. And although our bond is strong and she loves doing things with me, her natural inclinations are very, very dog-y. In many ways she is more “wild” than my feral-born dog, Clara, who appears to have a wealth of “I like to partner with a human” genes. Go figure.

In any case, Summer seems to love scratching the dirt. You could say she gets a real kick out of it.

How about your dogs? Males, females? When do they do it? What is their demeanor when doing so? Do tell!

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Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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References   [ + ]

1, 25. Bekoff, Marc. “The Significance of Ethological Studies: Playing and Peeing.”Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2014. 59-75.
2, 6. Peters, R.P., Mech, D., 1975. “Scent-marking in wolves.” Am. Sci. 63, 628–637.
3, 7, 12, 15, 23. Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.
4, 8. Bekoff, M., Wells, M.C., 1986. “Social ecology and behavior of coyotes.” Adv. Stud. Behav. 16, 251–338.
5, 9, 16. Sprague, Randall H., and Joseph J. Anisko. “Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle.” Behaviour (1973): 257-267.
10, 13, 17. Petak, Irena. “Patterns of carnivores’ communication and potential significance for domestic dogs.” Periodicum biologorum 112.2 (2010): 127-132.
11, 14. Kleiman, D., Eisenberg, J.F., 1973. “Comparisons of canid and felid social systems from an evolutionary perspective.” Anim. Behav. 21, 637–659.
18. Miller, William Howard, et al. Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology 7: Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2013.
19. Serpell, James, ed. The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
20. Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.
21. Bekoff, Marc. “Scent marking by free-ranging domestic dogs: Olfactory and visual components.” Biology of Behavior, 4, 123-139.
22. Wirant, Sharon Cudd, and Betty McGuire. “Urinary behavior of female domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): influence of reproductive status, location, and age.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 85.3 (2004): 335-348.
24. Cafazzo, Simona, Eugenia Natoli, and Paola Valsecchi. “Scent‐Marking Behaviour in a Pack of Free‐Ranging Domestic Dogs.” Ethology 118.10 (2012): 955-966.
Posted in Dog behavior, Dog body language | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

How My Dogs Play

A medium sized tan dog with a black muzzle and tail stands, looking at another dog. the other dog is smaller, mostly black with rust color on her legs and head, and is doing a play bow.

Here’s an “Almost Wordless Wednesday” for you. Just a short movie showing Clara and Zani playing.

Even wholesome dog playing can be scary to people who aren’t familiar with it. Dogs growl, snarl, and mouth each other so fast and hard that you are sure they are doing damage. But many dogs, sometimes the most unlikely pairs, work out ways to play that are pretty safe and fun for both parties concerned.

In this clip you will see hackles raised (Clara), lots of snarling and screaming (Zani), and lots of so-called displacement behaviors from both dogs (look-aways, lip licks, ground sniffing). Yet what I see in the main is wholesome and fun play. I show some of the things I like about it in the movie: Clara’s self-handicapping, how they take breaks and vary their play, and how they negotiate the end of play and bleed off any built up tension. (Try to see when one of them first decides it’s time to quit. I’ll give my opinion in the comments if anyone wants to discuss.)

Throughout the clip, my third dog, Summer, is sitting quietly in front of me. I have trained her to do that instead of being the Fun Police, and intervening aggressively in the other dogs’ play. She got a treat right after the clip ended.



Link to the movie for email subscribers. 

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“Testing Through” the Levels

The whole post in three words: Don’t do it. Start at the beginning.

I’ve mentioned before that I use Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels as a guide for training my dogs. The Levels comprise an organized method for teaching your dog. The behaviors are designed to build on each other and generalize as part of the process. They are carefully laid out, and the books suggest specific ways to teach each behavior without being doctrinaire about it. The method is great for new trainers, because the trainer builds skills through the process as well.

I am not the best example of a Levels trainer because I frequently dash off-course and train something else, but with each new dog I do use the Levels for my foundation, and they are always going on in the background. Right now all three of my dogs are working some Level 3 behaviors and we are still cleaning up some in Level 2.

I’ve been on the Training Levels Yahoo group since 2008. Just before discovering the Levels, I had been putting together my own prioritized list of behaviors to teach (with competitive agility as a big focus but also plenty of polite pet behaviors). I had been patching together some Susan Garrett and Leslie McDevitt and things from other sources. So when I discovered the Levels, I was in a quandary. I am a dedicated do-it-yourselfer and am constitutionally hesitant to take “someone else’s” structure and follow it. And I wanted something focused specifically on agility. But I also had enough sense to vaguely realize that Sue Ailsby might know a tiny bit more about how to put together a dog training curriculum than I did. (That’s sarcasm. Sue’s credentials are awesome.)

Adopting the Levels

So, after some generous guidance from Lynn Shrove, with whom I struck up an email relationship and who was very generous with her time, I decided to use the Levels for my training structure.

In an email conversation I described to Lynn how I was going through the lists of behaviors in the Levels to see where I should start with my dog, since she already knew a lot of them.

Anyone who is a dedicated Levels trainer is smirking right now.

Here’s how the conversation went.

Eileen: I’ve made a check-off sheet and am going through and testing Summer through the early behaviors in the Levels so I know what Level she is already at and where to start.

Lynn: (politely) You should think about starting at the beginning.

Eileen: But Summer knows that stuff already! She has titles in obedience and agility! She can do a two-minute sit/stay with distractions. She’s good at heeling. She got her Novice obedience title in three straight trials.

Lynn: (politely) Still, I really suggest you start at the beginning. The Levels are about learning how to teach your dog and they all fit together.

Eileen: But I’ve already been training her for two years! I don’t need to backtrack.

Lynn: (patiently) What would it hurt, though, to retrain according to Sue’s methods? You will probably pick up some stuff that you didn’t know was missing.

Eileen: (grudgingly and several days later) OK, I am starting from the beginning.

Lynn: Great! Let me know if you want to share training videos.

Eileen: (a few weeks later) Oh now I know why you told me to start at the beginning. Thank you!

Perhaps I wasn’t that gracious at the end, and perhaps it was more like months, but I’m pretty sure I did tell Lynn that she was right. Because she was.

Zani Demos a Level 1 Sit

Zani Demos a Level 1 Sit

Why to Start at the Beginning

Most humans hate to backtrack, or do anything that even feels like backtracking. Also, we are usually proud to have taught our dogs anything. Finally, we are impatient. We want to get to the new, fun stuff. So it’s perfectly natural that we should see a list of behaviors, think, “Oh great, my dog already knows some of those,” and decide to start somewhere in the middle, determining what she already knows by a quick test.

Here are some of the reasons why that is a really bad idea with the Training Levels.

  1. The Levels emphasize generalization. In many obedience schools, and just by natural inclination, we teach our dogs to do a behavior in one environment and do it the same each time. If my dog can sit in the kitchen when I am holding her food bowl in my hand (facing north), I may figure she “knows sit.” Or if she can sit in a line of dogs for one minute in an obedience ring (admittedly a challenge), I figure she can “do a sit stay.” Notice that in the conversation above I defended my dog’s knowledge of behaviors by citing her titles. This is very common when coming from that training background, but in truth, being able to perform a series of behaviors in an obedience ring has little or nothing to do with being able to do them in “real life.” Different skills entirely. My dog didn’t really “know” a sit-stay. All one has to do to test this claim is to put the dog or oneself in an odd or different position or with new distractions and ask for the same thing. I did this later. I have a series of movies about this in the blog post: Dogs Notice Everything. Check it out. When you start the Levels from the beginning, generalizing becomes second nature, and that’s a good thing.
  2. If you are new to clicker or marker training, you need to practice on the easier stuff more than your dog does! And Sue gives explicit instructions about this.
  3. Behaviors taught with aversives, even mild ones like pushing the dog’s butt down into a sit, are **not the same** as those same behaviors taught with positive reinforcement. They carry with them a burden of pressure and even fear. The Levels are taught with joy. And yes, behaviors taught that way can become reliable (the Levels are great at that too). If you have used aversives, or trained the behaviors “for praise,” or “without treats,” you especially need to start over. You may even need to change your cue words, since they probably have baggage from the “old way.” I changed the phrase I used for “leave it” because I originally taught it by saying “leave it” and pulling (honestly, jerking) my dog away from a treat on the floor, without any clue ahead of time what I wanted her to do. And here’s a whole post about a cue I changed much later in my dog’s life when I finally came to see the baggage it carried: “Replacing a Poisoned Cue.”
  4. Sue knows more than you do. In short, the problem is that you don’t know what it is that you don’t know. I can’t tell you what that is. But I can practically guarantee that unless you are a professional trainer yourself, there is something in those early instructions that will be a revelation to you. Probably a lot of “somethings.”

Real Life Example of Levels Generalization

Here is a movie I made back in 2010 of my then new dog Zani sitting on cue in the 15 different situations that Sue suggested in the “old” Training Levels, Level 1. There are plenty of warts in this training including consistently late clicks, but the cool thing is that even so, Zani could and did learn to sit on cue!

 Link to “Zani: Level 1 Sit” for email subscribers.

And remember, that was just Level 1 out of 7 in the old Levels.

Now take a look at the list for Level 1 Sit from the New Levels. The list is a little shorter now, but actually more challenging.

  1. Dog sits with the leash off.
  2. Dog sits in a different part of training room, facing a different way, with the leash off.
  3. Dog sits with a hand signal only.
  4. Dog sits with a hand signal in a different room.
  5. Dog sits with the leash on.
  6. Dog sits with the leash on with you sitting down, if you originally taught it standing up, or vice versa. If you’ve done it both ways already, you can kneel or hang off the edge of your bed.
  7. The dog sits by an open door (an inside door).
  8. The dog sits: during a TV commercial, when you open the oven door, when the doorbell rings, when you’re on the phone, when you’re putting on your coat, when you’re brushing your teeth, while you’re peeling carrots, while you’re putting on her leash and collar.

That’s part of what you miss if you skip Level 1 because your dog “knows sit.”

Oh, and one more thing about “testing.” If you go around testing your dog’s sit in lots of different situations in one morning, that doesn’t give you an accurate picture. Dogs will tend to repeat the last thing they got reinforced for when they are unsure. If you go to 40 different places in your house in sequence and ask for sits, well, you’ll probably get sits. That’s why when testing behaviors, Sue specifies to do it “out of the blue.” Meaning outside the context of a training session and without having recently worked on or asked for the behavior.

So there’s another reason. If you start in the middle, you may not even know how to properly test the behaviors. Take it from this inveterate skipper-arounder. Start at the beginning.


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I’d Like to Thank the Academy

I got wonderful news earlier this week: I was nominated for and won an award from The Academy for Dog Trainers.

The Academy has yearly awards that are mostly in-house, but this year they decided to include a category for work done outside the Academy.

I was awarded the first “The Academy Applauds” award for my work here on

I am so honored.  Thank you, thank you, and thank you again!

Below is the letter from the Academy. I have also put a permanent graphic in the sidebar of the blog. And I’ll include a photo of my “statue” when I get it!

Academy award

Back Atcha

Thank you to the following:

  • Jean Donaldson and the students of the Academy (not just for this award, but for the work you do and what you stand for)
  • All blog readers
  • All blog commenters
  • Everyone who has shared a post
  • Everyone who has subscribed to the blog or Liked the Facebook page
  • Everyone who has provided a graphic or photo
  • Everyone who has made a video for me
  • Everyone who has pointed out little errors
  • Everyone who has pointed out big errors, privately or publicly
  • Everyone who has helped me with drafts of blogs and movies
  • The serious learning theory mavens–at all levels–who help me tackle the hard questions
  • Folks who have given me an idea for a blog, whether they knew it or not
  • Folks who have said, “Attagirl!”
  • Folks who have disagreed constructively
  • People who translated a post into another language or subtitled a movie
  • Pet owners who have decided to venture forth and take those first few steps with a clicker and treats
  • Pet owners who have realized they needed in-person help and hired a positive reinforcement based trainer or vet behaviorist
  • My training “other half,” who seems to think everything I think
  • All you pro trainers out there on the front lines
  • People who provide and manage quality, free Internet resources and keep their eyes on the prize: helping dogs and their owners over all else
  • The Pet Professional Guild
  • My friends and family
  • And of course… dogs!

This recognition is some of the best R+ ever. I’ll prove it by writing more!

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I have received one other “official” recognition previously: a post of mine was featured on WordPress’ “Freshly Pressed.” This was “But We Don’t Give Our Kids a Cookie Every Time They Tie Their Shoes!”

If you want to read my reasons for blogging, check out this “interview”: “2013 Pet Blogger Challenge.”


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P.S. Thank you!

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What Dog Training Really Taught Me

Have you ever had an epiphany? Wherein all of a sudden some information you had been turning over and over in your mind fell into place and created an entire new picture? It has happened to me a handful of times in my life, and in each case the result was that I changed some basic beliefs.

Trainers who have switched to positive-reinforcement based training from more aversive-inclusive methods often refer to that process as “crossing over.” I have written about crossing over in many bits and pieces over the years,  plus in a couple of longer articles (I’ve linked them the bottom of this post).

For me, crossing over brought an epiphany. I have always wanted to explain it and to share it far and wide. The other day I had a realization that just might help me explain it better. You could almost say I had an epiphany about my epiphany!

A Changed Outlook

The epiphany I had when crossing over to positive reinforcement-based training was about far more than training. It changed my outlook on life. It was like a bunch of  building blocks got knocked down, then magically fell into place into a new and better pattern.

The epiphany was about learning. Not only about how dogs learn, but also about how we all learn. It wasn’t that I was suddenly dedicated to the least invasive methods possible, though I was. It wasn’t some kind of promise never to give a correction again, though I certainly had and have no plans to. It really wasn’t about what kind of trainer I was planning to be.

It was that I suddenly “got” reinforcement. I got that the behaviors I saw my dogs do: desirable and undesirable; cued by me or not; in competition settings, at home, or on a walk: these behaviors were happening because the dogs got something they wanted through doing them. (I would add now that it also could have been because the dogs avoided something undesirable, but that wasn’t part of my epiphany.)

If my dogs were repeating a behavior, I was either reinforcing it, or allowing it to be reinforced.

When my dogs did something I didn’t like, they weren’t challenging my authority. They weren’t giving me the paw. It probably wasn’t “coming out of the blue.” They did it because it worked.

I could suddenly visualize a sort of map of my house with sketches of my dogs (and me!) in different areas, color coded for the frequency of the behaviors. I realized that behavior is a map of reinforcement.

So actually, the epiphany was about the science.

But my very next realization was about ethics. How could it be fair for me to punish a behavior if it was there because it was getting reinforced, or worse, because I myself had reinforced it? And how could I now overlook the fact that inconsistency on my part (read: variable reinforcement) was keeping the unwanted behaviors alive so effectively? This was all on me.

If the dog is doing something because it gets reinforced, doesn’t it make more sense, and isn’t it more fair, to work to remove the reinforcement first, rather than jump into punishment mode? If you jump into punishment without identifying the reinforcers, that means that part of the time the dog gets reinforced, and part of the time she gets punished, for the same thing!  Plus as long as the reinforcement is there, you will never get rid of the behavior unless you are willing to escalate the level of the punishment massively, and perhaps not even then.

The thing about removing reinforcement is that it requires us to change our behavior, sometimes in some big ways. No wonder we resist the idea.

Poster shows a dog stretching out, pulling a leash taut, in order to sniff a fire hydrant. Text says, "All problem behaviors are reinforced. Somewhere...somehow.

Image credit: Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs. Please see full credit and sharing info at the bottom of the post.

One of Many Examples

This reinforcement/punishment combo is very common and easy to fall into, because of ignorance about how learning works, but also because of the unwillingness of humans to change their own behavior even when they might know better. It becomes the norm in many dogs’ lives. Here is but one example.

It is a standard recommendation in traditional obedience training that when your dog pulls out of position and tightens the leash, you give a “correction” in the form of a quick jerk on the leash. This translated to the dog’s collar and from there to the neck. This is a movement that humans quickly get very good at. And even if the dog is wearing a flat nylon or leather collar (i.e., not a prong or choke collar), getting a correction has got to be at least jarring, and probably in many cases painful. The most extreme form could cause injury.

But many say this is necessary. We are told anything from “you need to be the boss” to “that’s the only way the dog will learn what not to do.”

OK, so that’s half of the story. Now forget about the corrections and the rhetoric for a moment and visualize this. You are walking along with your dog on leash.  The dog sees her best buddy and pulls you in that direction. Or you are walking along with your dog and there is evidently something just out of reach that smells wonderful, because your dog changes her course and goes over to smell it, tightening the leash momentarily on the way. Or you have just let your dog out of the car, on leash, and while you get your gear, she is walking the circumference that the leash allows, sniffing around and exploring, and tugging a little when there is something good just out of reach.

Now let’s think how positive reinforcement works. The dog does a behavior, receives something she really likes, and the behavior increases in the future. That means that in the case of each of those three examples, pulling on the leash (the behavior) probably got reinforced (access to the goodies). The dog pulled and got something she wanted. It’s as if she pulled on leash and you handed her a treat. She will likely pull again.

Keep in mind you are also probably having training sessions where you hand her a treat for the opposite behavior: staying by your side. And jerking on her for pulling. Again, the situation for the dog is that the same behavior gets reinforced sometimes and punished sometimes.

Dogs are good discriminators, so they can learn after a while which are the situations in which you are more likely to let them pull vs. when they will get the collar pop. This is one reason you will see plenty of dogs trained in competitive obedience who drag their owners to the training building (and again I will confess that I have been in this group).

But it’s just not fair. So many dogs live in this chaotic and ever-changing combination of punishment and reinforcement, yet we are encouraged to believe that the problems that arise are because we haven’t “taught them their place.”

Are We Just Robots, Then?

There are still a good many people who have a gut-level rejection of behaviorism, even when applied to animals. When presented with my epiphany, or particularly my vision of the “map of reinforcement,” some may have a negative response. It’s reductionist, they might say. It seems to represent our animals and ourselves as little machines, we don’t live in Skinner boxes, its too specific or not specific enough, it leaves out emotions, not everything fits in “quadrants,” ad infinitum.

For what it’s worth, everything I have learned in my very beginner-level studies of behavior analysis has showed me what amazing creatures our dogs are, what amazing creatures we are, and how varied and subtle the processes of learning can be. How do we interact with our environment? What effects do environmental stimuli have on us? It’s more like a wonderful, fractal dance than the cold, clinical image many people still have in their minds.

(Besides, it’s the new, sexy field of neuroscience that is presenting evidence that humans may not have free will, not the applied behaviorists!)

The tiny bit of the great field of behavior analysis that I have learned has taught me how to enhance my dogs’ happiness and fun in the world, and taught me to at least start to play fair.


Anybody feel like sharing a story about behaviors that you have (or have been tempted to) both reinforce and punish? Or any behaviors that continue even though you can’t figure out what the reinforcer is?

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Thank you Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs for the graphic. It is an Awesome Dogs Shareable! It may be shared following these guidelines.

Note: My text in the graphic strongly resembles a sentence in Jean Donaldson’s Culture Clash, page 158: “If a certain behavior is occurring in the first place, it is, by definition, being reinforced somewhere, somehow….” This was not deliberate on my part. I love that book and it’s possible that that sentence sank into my psyche, or it could be a coincidence.  Anyway, a nod to Jean Donaldson for saying it first and best! 

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  • What if you are reinforcing and punishing the same behavior by your dog?
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How to Make Extinction Not Stink

[In operant learning], extinction means withholding the consequences that reinforce a behavior.  –Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, Fifth Edition, 2003

Extinction not stink

This post is Part 2 (a year later!) of But Isn’t it Punishment to Withhold the Treat?

In that post I discussed the common error of arguing that withholding a treat from a dog in a training session (or other time) comprises punishment. On the contrary, when nothing is contingently added or taken away but behavior decreases, the process at work is extinction, not punishment.

But that is not to say that extinction is automatically better. In Dr. Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy for behavioral intervention (see graphic below), extinction by itself is at the same level as negative punishment and negative reinforcement. They are roughly at the same level of (un)desirability, and the level of unpleasantness of any particular technique would depend on the circumstance and individual animal. Dr. Friedman makes a point to say that these three are not ranked in any particular order of overall undesirability.

Extinction is often overlooked when considering or analyzing methods. People often mix it up with negative punishment. It’s a bit of an oddball learning process since it applies to both operant learning and respondent conditioning. In operant learning it is sometimes jokingly called the “fifth quadrant.” The important thing to me is that its unpleasant effects can vary wildly, from practically nil to complete misery.

Dr. Susan Friedman's Humane Hierarchy: From bottom to top: Health, Nutrition, and Physical Setting; Antecedent Arrangements; Positive Reinforcement; Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors; Extinction, Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment; Positive Punishment.

Dr. Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy

Extinction can be very, very frustrating. Here you are with these behaviors that you have been performing for such a long time that they are habitual, and all of a sudden they don’t work anymore! But there are ways to use extinction in combination with other processes to make it much less hard on the learner. And in fact, if we look at the Humane Hierarchy a little more closely we will see that extinction is actually lurking in another of the levels, partnering with something much nicer.

Let’s explore this by way of a thought experiment.

keysExtinction Scenario #1. You get your car out of the shop after a tune-up. You buy a pint of your very favorite ice cream, or other perishable treat. You realize you need one more thing from the store, so you lock the car and go back in. When you come back out, you try to unlock your car with a remote. It doesn’t work! You press the remote again and again. You press it harder. You aim it differently. No go. Then you try unlocking the door with the key. That doesn’t work either! You jiggle and jiggle the key, and try the different doors. Nothing works. You bang on the car doors. You can’t get into the car using the methods that you have always used. You are starting to cuss now. Your ice cream is melting. You finally yell at the car and it opens!

You drive back to the repair shop and ask the guy what the heck he did to your car. He said your car doors now work by voice control. Apparently he thought that sending you off to find that out on your own would be the best way to teach you.

Two questions. 1) Was that learning process fun? 2) What are your feelings towards the mechanic?

That is a description of the process of extinction. A behavior that has previously been reinforced is no longer reinforced. In this case it was actually two behaviors: opening the car with the remote and opening it with the key. Both used to be reinforced by your gaining entry to the car. Both stopped working with no warning. Stinky!

Three characteristics of extinction are the extinction burst, an increased variability of behavior, and aggression. We got all three.  When your normal methods for opening the car door didn’t work, there was a big burst of behavior from you as you tried stuff. You unconsciously started adding variety in how you performed the behaviors. And you started doing everything a little harder and banging on stuff. None of that was fun for you.

Now let’s try a different version of the scenario.

Scenario #2 When you first go to the mechanic, he tells you about a new option to have your car respond to voice commands, including that if you opt for the upgrade, in some cases the old methods will not work. You decide that it sounds good.*  Your mechanic takes 10 minutes to go over the voice commands that you will use with your car, including that you practice unlocking it with your voice.

When you stop off to go to the store and return to your car, if you are like 99% of the human race, that huge reinforcement history for using your remote or keys during your whole driving career kicks in and you initially try to use one of these to open your car. But the practice of the new behavior is fresh in your mind, so as soon as the remote doesn’t work, you remember to give the voice command. Your car unlocks!

But old habits die hard. You will probably be hitting that remote or trying your keys for quite some time, each time you approach your car. The old behaviors will diminish slowly as their reinforcement histories fade into the past and the practice of the new successful behavior overshadows them. However, there will be comparatively little frustration. You are never in the dark about what behavior will actually work. You’ll probably perform the old behavior once, go “oops!” and immediately use your voice without wasting much time.

Not so bad!

What About Dog Training?

Here are the dog training corollaries to Scenario #1 and #2 above.

Let’s say you want to address the following behavior problem: When you get out your dog’s leash, your dog gets excited and runs around getting all aroused, barking and jumping on things.

Scenario #1 You have never trained your dog to do anything, but you’ve had enough of the overexcitement. So you decide you aren’t going out that door until your dog sits calmly for you to put the leash on. So you take your dog into the front room and pick up the leash. Dog runs around. You just stand there. Dog jumps on you and on the furniture. Runs around and barks. This goes on for about 5, maybe 10 minutes. Finally your dog wears out and sits down and looks at you. You take one step towards him, holding the leash out to attach it. He gets all worked up again and you have to wait out another few minutes of excited activity. This happens over and over.

From your dog’s point of view, the rules have changed. All that previous barking and running around have been reinforced by getting to go outside. Many people frankly don’t have the stamina to outwait a dog in this situation, and will finally break down and take the dog out anyway, which worsens the problem (by finally reinforcing the behavior they’ve made it more persistent). If you do succeed and the dog calms down in 20 minutes on that first day, it may take a bit less the next day. But since this is completely new to your dog and you are asking so much of him when he is already wildly excited, it will take a while, and be a frustrating process for him

Cricket sit at attentionScenario #2 You have trained your dog to sit in all sorts of situations and for all sorts of reinforcers. He sits for his supper. He sits to go outside. He sits to greet people. He sits at the agility start line. He can hold a sit stay while you run around and play tug with another dog. So when you decide to teach him to sit calmly to put the leash on, you first practice some sits for treats in a random room of your house. Then you do the same in the room where you keep the leash. Then you pick up the dog’s leash and look at him expectantly. If he starts running around you wait. When he makes contact again you give him the expectant look. He will likely sit pretty soon. Treat!! He may jump up again when you approach him, but he is already learning.

This fits a pattern he is familiar with: sit and something good happens. You can use treats to reinforce those sits in this new situation so he doesn’t have to wait so long for the ultimate reinforcement, going out. You practice in small steps until you can put the dog’s leash on while he sits calmly. Depending on the dog and what you have trained, you may be able to take him straight out the door calmly that first day, or you may practice a few more days just putting the leash on and off before you go out the door.

Defining the Difference

Take a look at Dr. Friedman’s diagram again. See the area just below “Extinction, Negative Reinforcement, and Negative Punishment”? It is called “Differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors.” Guess what? That one corresponds exactly with both of the Scenarios #2 above. Dr. Friedman’s definition is, “Differential reinforcement is any procedure that combines extinction and reinforcement to change the frequency of a target behavior.”

Instead of being gobsmacked by the normal behavior not working anymore, the learners, dog and human, are given a big fat clue about what is going to work to get what they want. That clue is the positive reinforcement of an alternative behavior.

Extinction is part of all differential reinforcement training methods. Those methods are on a more humane rung of the hierarchy because the animal is given immediate opportunities for positive reinforcement. This can be done either by reinforcing successive approximations (shaping), or by separate practice of the desired behavior before it is evoked in the situation where the undesired behavior is likely.

So when someone says to you, “Neener neener neener, you use punishment when you withhold a treat,” say, “No, that’s extinction.” Then if they say, “Neener neener neener, you use extinction and that’s mean,” say “I use it in combination with differential positive reinforcement.” And make sure you do!

Be the mechanic who shows his client ahead of time what is going to work, instead of the one who sends him off with no clue.

* The car thing is a deliberately ridiculous scenario. Obviously, to cause a car’s keys and remote not to work would be horribly dangerous, and hardly anyone would consent to that even if it allowed one access to a new feature like voice commands.

Related Posts and Pages

But Isn’t It Punishment if You Withhold the Treat? (Extinction Part 1)

R+ Misconceptions

I never got to the issue of “ignoring” in these extinction posts. So I guess there is going to be a Part 3.


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The Secret to Filling a Food Tube


Two Coghlan's food tubes used for dog training. They are clear plastic with black caps and a white clamp at the bottom. The one on the left has a white filling (Neufchatel cheese, milk, and peanut butter) and the one on the right has a brown filling: canned cat food.

Yummy goodness for dogs. Recipes below.


A food tube (aka squeeze tube) is a vehicle for delivering soft, tasty food straight into your dog’s mouth. Food tubes are great for general dog training when high value treats are needed.  They are also invaluable for doing desensitization/counterconditioning for dogs with fear issues.

There is a trick for using food tubes successfully, and just as with the non-crumbly treat recipe, I’m going to tell you right up front. I wish someone had told me, because the first time I ever tried a food tube, it didn’t work for us and I didn’t try it again for more than a year.

The secret to good use of a food tube is to get the filling just the right consistency. If it is too solid or dry, like ground up roasted white meat chicken without much moisture, it won’t extrude correctly. Likewise if it’s lumpy. If it’s too liquid-y, like chicken baby food or plain yogurt, it drips out when you are not trying to feed your dog and makes a mess.

So what you do is either buy something that is already the right consistency, or mix and match different filling types to achieve that in a do-it-yourself way.

The rest of the post covers what you can buy and what you can make, and has a few other tips for successful use.

The Easiest Way

Here is the very easiest way to use a food tube for successful high value treat delivery:

  1. Buy a couple of Coghlan’s squeeze tubes from REI or Amazon. (Trainer Randi Rossman recommends these tubes, which are similar but have a larger opening. The discussion in this blog is geared towards the Coghlan tubes since they are what I have used and can make recommendations about.)
  2. Go to a pet food or grocery store and buy a can of pureed style dog or cat food. Or for raw feeders, get finely ground meat.
  3. Put the lid on the tube, turn the tube upside down, and spoon the food in. If there is separate juice in the canned food, save it for something else.
  4. Squeeze the air out, fold over the bottom, and close with the included clamp.
  5. Take off the lid and offer a squirt to your dog when he does something right. You will become a god in his eyes. (And he’ll soon learn how to get the goodness efficiently into his mouth!)

Mixing It Yourself

Zani food tube

Zani loves the white meat chicken & baby food mixture

Again, it’s all about the consistency. In the series of pictures above: the “too thick” one was 8 oz of baked white meat chicken, chopped fine in a food processor. The “too thin” one was 2.5 oz of Gerber chicken baby food straight out of the jar. The Goldilocks version was simply those two things combined in that proportion.

So that gives you the idea. In most cases, if you use 3 – 4 parts of something thick cut with 1 part of something thinner, you’ll probably hit the sweet spot. Here are some suggestions to choose from. Be mindful of the fat content whenever you give your dog rich stuff. Some of these adapt very well to low fat though.

Thick Things 

  • Pureed cooked meat
  • Pureed boiled liver
  • Pureed liverwurst
  • Cream cheese (regular, low fat, or non-fat)
  • Neufchatel cheese
  • Pureed cooked rice or oatmeal
  • Smashed banana
  • Mashed potatoes

Thin Things

  • Low salt broth
  • Yogurt
  • Apple sauce
  • Milk
  • Baby food
  • Pureed veggies (baby food or homemade)

Can Go Either Way

  • Peanut butter
  • Mashed sweet potatoes
  • Canned tripe (but every once in a while there is a piece of…something…that doesn’t want to go through the hole). That stuff is crack for dogs, though.
  • Canned pumpkin
  • Small curd cottage cheese


(These are things you can add to something that is too drippy. See Micha’s filling method below.)

  • Oat or rice flour
  • Guar gum
  • Tapioca flour


  • Test the mixture at the temperature at which you will be using it. Most will be softer at room temperature, more solid when refrigerated.
  • Test the consistency by taking off the lid and pointing the end down. If filling drips out without squeezing, it’s too thin.
  • Avoid canned foods that say “chunky,” “stew,” “homestyle,” or “flakes.”
  • If canned food is too moist, let it drain in a strainer–Randi Rossman.


(Thank you to members of the Facebook Fearful Dogs Group for fillings suggestions and others throughout this post!)

  • Canned dog or cat food: pureed or mousse style. Examples: Wellness 95% canned food; Newman’s Own Organic Dog Food (Debbie Jacobs of says this one cuts nicely with canned pumpkin); Friskies pâté style canned cat food.
  • Honest Kitchen dehydrated dog food (rehydrated of course!).
  • Food tube heather edgar

    Heather’s dogs are crazy about this liverwurst!

    Heather Edgar of Caninesteins says: “The hands-down favourite of all of my dogs is liverwurst. If you wanted to dilute it down because it’s both high calorie and a bit thick, it could be pureed with a baby food veg or cooked pureed vegetables–the easiest is probably using jarred baby food sweet potato.” 

  • Alex Bliss starts with pureed baby food and adds chicken breast, a tin of sardines, or tuna. She says that low fat soft cheese is also very popular with her dogs as a base for other flavors.
  • You can use pure peanut butter at room temperature, but oh, the calories! You’d better have a big dog or a very special occasion!
  • Ground raw meat for the raw feeders!
  • Deb Manheim CPDT-KA, CDBC of Happy Tails Family Dog Training purees the special diet of one of her dogs: baked North Atlantic cod and rice congee with vegetables. If you home cook for your dog already, this could be a very straightforward solution.
  • Micha Michlewicz starts with a protein or fruit, perhaps some veggies, and then oat or rice flour as a binder. She too mentions that you can blend up your dog’s meals and make a paste for the tube.
  • Dr. Jenny LeMoine suggests boiled chicken breasts, thinned down with the broth, and some yogurt mixed in as an optional treat.
  • The tube on the left in the large photo at the top of the post has: 4 oz Neufchatel cheese, 1/2 oz peanut butter, and 1 oz skim milk. The one on the right has commercial cat food!
Crack for dogs.

Tripe: crack for dogs.

Other Tubes: Commercial or Do It Yourself

I really like the tubes like Coghlan’s with a screw top and clamp because they are so resistant to leaks and mess. I have used the same two tubes in agility for years and used them hard. I throw them ahead of my dogs and have never once had a leak or explosion. That being said, here are some alternatives. Readers, if you know of other tubes, let me know and I’ll add them.

  • PawGear Treat Toob
  • Evriholder Dressing to Go
  • Used mustard or other condiment squeeze container. Denise Donnelly Zomisky has experimented with this: she says you need to play around with the texture of the filling.
  • A sandwich bag, sealed, with a lower corner cut off –suggested by a Fearful Dogs member
  • Re-used toothpaste tube–Anna Jane Grossman explains how in a Huffington Post article
  • Organic baby food in a pouch–a couple of people suggested this!
  • Here’s another food that’s already in a tube: Carly Loveless points out that in Norway you can buy flavored cream cheese in a tube. How cool is that? And bacon sounds like a nice flavor for a homemade version as well.

What do you put in your food tube?

Link to the silly movie for email subscribers.

Related Posts

The Secret to Quick, Non-Crumbly Homemade Dog Treats

How to Give Your Dog a Pill: Several Methods (including with a food tube)


Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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I Will Teach You What I Want You To Know: Puppy Lesson Six

You are not born with the skills to be successful in my world. It’s up to me to teach you.–Marge Rogers’ pledge to her puppy, Zip

In case you hadn’t noticed, all these “puppy lessons” are lessons for the trainer as much or more than for the puppy. But Lesson Six most of all.  In this lesson, Marge makes a pledge to Zip: She will remember that it is up to her to teach him what he needs to know and how to act in order to be happy in our strange human world.

It’s not a question of “obedience.” It’s more like someone explaining to a dear friend how best to get along in foreign country.

So much of our normal approach to dog training is that of solving “problem behaviors” that bother us (usually after they have gotten established). Nine times out of ten (that’s a made up statistic, but I bet it’s true), the problem behaviors are just regular old “out of the box” dog behaviors that don’t fit well in our human world. You know, chewing stuff up, stealing food, jumping on people, digging holes, barking too much, nipping at fingers. These things aren’t evil. They usually just aren’t convenient for us. But throw in the mythology of dominance, where we are told that dogs are continually challenging our authority, and these natural dog behaviors can cause a dog to lose its home or its life.

What you will see in this movie is the opposite of that. The most important word in the movie is “teach.” Thoughtful, preemptive teaching such as Marge is doing is a win/win for human and dog. Puppy learns a palette of fun, acceptable behaviors via positive reinforcement. He develops skills for even more fun and learning with Marge. He develops good associations to the world through careful exposures. Marge gets a lovely, well behaved dog and Zip gets a big, big world to play in.

Marge promises Zip: "I will do my best to help you be confident and happy."

Marge promises Zip: “I will do my best to help you be confident and happy.”

Marge points out in the movie that puppies are not born with the skills to get along perfectly in the human world. And it’s actually worse than that: they are born with behaviors that are actively troublesome to us. For instance, “See food. Eat food,” as Marge puts it. The counter surfing dog is not challenging our authority. He is doing what comes naturally: scarfing up whatever is available. And once he finds something up there, it will be tough teaching him never to go there again. It will make little sense to his doggie brain. It’s not about authority, it’s about availability. How much better would it be to teach him never to go there in the first place? Never get that first sweet reinforcer for counter or table surfing.

Hence, Marge will teach Zip habits that are incompatible with inappropriate scavenging. Marge used to have much bigger dogs (mastiffs, then ridgebacks) and I was going to tease her and say she finally got a dog who couldn’t reach the counter, but I can hear Sue Ailsby laughing at me. Porties are said to be incorrigible counter dogs. But Marge is a match for that. As you’ll see in the movie, she has her special “magnetic mat” in the kitchen door that has thwarted many a potential food thief.

Whose Benefit?

My favorite part of the movie is when Marge has Zip in her lap for administering eye medication and getting a toenail trim. She prioritized handling (building positive associations with classical conditioning) and has a pup who is all squishy in her lap: relaxed and trusting. She has the benefit of being able to do some tricky husbandry behaviors with a cooperative puppy. But Zip is the big winner here. He doesn’t fear the grooming table, the clippers, the medication bottle, or Marge’s hands, for that matter.

My heart still gets all mooshy when I see people doing training that doesn’t have human preferences as the sole prompt. This whole movie is dedicated to Zip’s welfare every bit as much as Marge’s convenience. The more things our dogs are comfortable with, the more skills our dogs have, the wider their worlds can be.


Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Let’s Train!

Marge’s summary to Zip after the six Life Lessons (so far!):

These are my life lessons for you, my sweet puppy. And for me too. Now, let’s train!

Related Posts

Life Lessons for My Puppy (a blog page with all the puppy lessons)

Other Good Stuff

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Marge’s Channel on YouTube: Subscribe!

Marge’s FaceBook business page: Rewarded Behavior Continues



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