Trick Training Bloopers

Zani cross paws

Zani and I succeeded quickly with the “cross your paws” trick

I decided a while back to teach my dogs to cross their paws as a trick. I followed the instructions on one of Emily Larlham’s excellent videos: Dog Tricks Tutorial: Cross Your Paws. But I didn’t end up making the neat, quick progression shown in the movie when I tried it with my dog Summer.

I think that besides my rather clumsy training, it is just not a very natural behavior for her. I used a target, and when I finally got the behavior (sometimes), it took a long time before she would repeat it consistently. That’s very unlike most other training experiences I’ve had with her. That created a vicious circle, since one of my weaknesses as a trainer is that I am slow to raise criteria. So between the two of us we stayed at interim behaviors way too long.

One of our problems was that she kept creeping forward. Emily’s dogs stay tidily in their down position and daintily move only their paws. (And actually, so did my Zani, to whom I taught this behavior much more quickly). But Summer was perennially creeping forward or hurling herself after her moving paw and heaving sideways.

Another favorite of hers was to correctly cross her paw over, then instantly remove the bottom paw and scoot one body width to the side. I reinforced that one way too much as well. My reasoning: Well, she is crossing her paw!

I’ve said before that I had an epiphany about my dogs’ behaviors being a “map of reinforcement.” These outtakes show that in a microcosm. All these behaviors that Summer covers–and she is really good at variety–have gotten reinforced somewhere and somehow. You will see her target various parts of my body: my hand, foot, and leg. That’s because at some point I decided that if she was using the correct paw and reaching over the other one, it was OK if she targeted me a couple of times instead of the little coaster I was using. BIG mistake on my part. You’ll also see her enthusiastically whack with the wrong foot (that was not recently reinforced, but certainly has been before), and do a lot of general foot movement. You’ll even see her “give up” and put her head down on her paws. But as despondent as that looks, that’s actually an offered behavior as well.

All the outtakes make for an amusing video (except that being targeted with extended nails hurts) but there’s a lesson here. If you don’t raise criteria fast enough and instead reinforce all these approximation behaviors too often, this is the kind of thing you get. I’m working on a couple posts about the Matching Law, but suffice it to say at this point that dwelling on intermediate steps and reinforcing approximate behaviors a lot means those behaviors are going to stick around. It will take that much longer to clean them out of the final behavior.

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

No Reinforcement?

This video doesn’t show me reinforcing Summer. That’s because I edited together a bunch of “mistakes” that I had finally stopped reinforcing. But don’t worry. My rate of reinforcement was generally very high. And when you think about it, that makes sense. It was high, and directed inappropriately a lot of the time. She wouldn’t be trying all this stuff otherwise.

I have tons of footage of her doing it right and getting food reinforcers. But it made for a more entertaining video when I included only the bloopers.

Training Hint

If you use a target for this behavior, it may be hard to fade. The dog is concentrating on hitting the target; the tactile sensation of crossing the paws (which is really what we want) is overshadowed. My friend Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs suggests using a lightweight target (like a piece of paper) and actually putting it on the dog’s paw (the one that will end up on the bottom). Clever!

What about the rest of you who trained this trick? What method did you use? How did the progression go?

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Using a Training Plan to Retrain Summer’s “Target” This is another example of my having reinforced a bunch of approximations and sloppy versions of a behavior. But then I cleaned it up.

Welcome/Bloopers. My very first blog post with my original blooper video.

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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My other website: Dog Dementia: Help and Support

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The Dog Decides

“The dog decides what is reinforcing.” Positive reinforcement trainers frequently say that to their human students.  What they mean is that people can easily be mistaken about whether something constitutes reinforcement. For instance, we may think praising or petting our dogs are reinforcers, but if they do not cause behavior to increase or maintain, they are not.

Dogs don’t sit down and make cognitive “decisions” about reinforcers; that’s just a semantic shortcut. But their subsequent behavior is what tells us whether something is a reinforcer or not. If you give your dog a piece of chicken each time she sits and she sits more, yep, that chicken is reinforcing. If instead you give her a few gentle taps on the head when she sits and she doesn’t sit more, or only sits a little more, then that tap is not a reinforcer, or is a very weak one. She might even sit less, in which case the head tap is punishing.

It’s not only newbies who need this reminder. It’s very easy to get it stuck in one’s head that something ought to be a good reinforcer. Sometimes it takes a while for our powers of observation to kick in and tell us, for example, that no, popcorn is just not reinforcing for this particular dog.

The way we tell whether something is reinforcing is to look for an increase in the relevant behavior.

Dogs Summer and Clara have determined that broccoli is not reinforcing and might be aversive.

It’s pretty obvious that broccoli stems are not potential reinforcers for either of these dogs

The Dog Decides Whether “Special” Collars are Aversive

Some trainers who use aversive methods, particularly prong and shock collars, are starting to use a similar phrase with the result of further muddying the waters about aversives. Just to be sure, let’s review the meaning of aversive stimuli, or aversives.

Paul Chance, in Learning and Behavior, 7th edition, defines aversives as:

Stimuli the animal would avoid, given the option.

"The Dog Decides." Photo shows a brown dog being sprayed with water from a garden hose. Her mouth is open, tail is up, and she is very happy.

A spray of water would not be aversive for Summer

That’s a straightforward definition. But I have now started to read remarks from trainers who use prong and shock collars seeking to defend their use by saying that “the dog defines what is aversive.”


That is true. But the implication that such collars can work without being aversive is dead wrong.

Shock and prong collars work via positive punishment and negative reinforcement. They can be used to punish unwanted behavior (positive punishment). They can also be used to coerce desirable behavior (negative reinforcement). If you need a brush-up on this terminology, check out my post: Operant Learning Illustrated by Examples. To counter some of the common BS about aversive use, you can also check this post out: It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

So yes indeed. The dog decides what is aversive. And just as with reinforcement, the way we determine whether something is aversive is to see if it changed behavior, in this case via positive punishment or negative reinforcement.

If the dog “decides” that a shock or prong collar is not aversive, that collar will not work to change behavior. It’s as simple as that.

Why Bother with These Definitions?

People write about this stuff a lot on Internet articles, comment sections, and discussion groups. I read a fair amount of it. I have a drive to clarify things and an urge to get people using a common terminology. I personally learn a lot by writing about it. I also want to persuade people, in an up-front and honest way, to consider and perform more humane training.

I’m aware of the research that says that even rational arguments can backfire and make people more entrenched in their beliefs. I frequently consider whether I should even write these pieces. But the people who are dedicated to using aversive tools are not my audience. The thousands reading on the sidelines going, “Hmmmm” are.

I get positive feedback from those people. I also get lots of positive feedback from trainers who use my articles to help explain concepts to their students who are learning about positive reinforcement-based training in real life. That feedback, knowing that my articles are useful in the sense that I intend them, is positive reinforcement for me. So I continue.

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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Join Me on DogRead!

I am privileged to have been invited to be a featured author on the Yahoo group DogRead, the original cyber book club. I’ll be answering questions about my book, Remember Me: Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, from January 16th through 31st.

Come join us! If you aren’t already a member of DogRead, you can request membership at its Yahoo Groups homepage: Dog-Related online Book Club w/Authors.

Remember Me 3dI’ve set a 10% discount on my book in all markets worldwide from today until January 26, 2016. You can purchase it here: Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

We’ll also be discussing canine cognitive dysfunction in general, but remember: CCD is a medical problem. No one can diagnose a dog over the internet, especially me. In my book I advise people in 27 different places to check with their vets! But we can talk about how best to live with our senior dogs, how to enrich their lives, and we can give each other moral support about the inevitable hard questions that arise.

Hope to see you in the DogRead group! Thank you so much to DogRead for inviting me, and to Dogwise for sponsoring the group.

Eileen Anderson and Cricket, a rat terrier with canine cognitive dysfunction

My dear rat terrier Cricket had cognitive dysfunction but had a good life to the very end

More About My Book


Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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Pet Blogger Challenge 2016


Thank you to Go Pet Friendly for the Pet Blogger Challenge. This is the second time I’ve participated. I did the Challenge in 2013 when I had only been blogging for about 6 months. Now that it’s been 3 1/2 years, I feel like doing it again!

I look forward to learning about some blogs that are new to me through this challenge, and perhaps reaching some new readers in my little corner of the dog training world.

Join the Pet Blogger Challenge Jan 9th, 10th and 11th

1. How long have you been blogging? And, for anyone who is visiting for the first time, please give a quick description of the subject of your blog. I started blogging in July 2012, so I have been at it for 3 1/2 years now. My blog is about living with and training dogs, with an emphasis on sharing my experience as a serious amateur positive reinforcement trainer. I love writing about learning theory and spreading the word that we don’t have to hurt or scare our dogs to train them.

2. What is the one thing that you accomplished during 2015, either on your blog or because of it, that made you most proud? That’s easy. I finished my book on Canine Cognitive Dysfunction and got the Kindle version out! Writing and especially publishing the book is a direct result of my experience as a blogger. I have gained confidence in my ability to put my ideas out in public and cope with the very large and sometimes critical audience on the internet. Much of that confidence is a result of interaction with my lovely, loyal readers. Thank you all!

3. Which of your blog posts was your favorite this year and why? My favorite was probably “But It Worked for MY Dog!” I think it’s so important for people to realize that promoting an idiosyncratic or aversive training method is not good practice.

4. A common theme from last year’s challenge was that many of us wanted to increase the size of our audiences. Whether or not we intend to monetize our blogs, it seems we’d all like to reach more people. It feels good to know that we’re connecting with others, sharing a laugh or supporting a cause, and it’s motivating to see those numbers grow! What is one thing you’ve done in the past year that has brought more traffic to your blog? I am curating on Pinterest, and I’ve started to see the beginnings of a nice little referral source. Pinterest works well for me because the boards break things into topics so nicely, and I like having an organized place to stash my stuff for my own benefit as well.

5. Which of your blog posts got the most traffic this year? Why do you think it was so popular?  The post in 2015 that got the most views was “Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture.” I think it was popular because 1) the positive reinforcement training community is full of people who are trying to get the message out about the potential dangers of certain kinds of interactions between kids and dogs; and 2) I didn’t single out any particular individual or story. The post was not controversial in that it didn’t criticize any individual, beyond the use of a still from a public domain video.

6. What is one blog that you read religiously – other than your own – and what makes you such a devoted reader?  How about three? Dog Charming by Sonya Bevan, Awesome Dogs by Yvette Van Veen, and Fearful Dogs Blog by Debbie Jacobs. I love Sonya Bevan’s writing because she is so gentle and empathetic with dogs without being smug about it. Very understated, yet clear with her message. I fell in love with Yvette Van Veen’s writing a year or two back when she wrote a stunner of a blog about shock and doggedly, tirelessly, and logically answered every commenter who tried to argue with her. For weeks. And Debbie Jacobs has a genius for metaphor and humor and gets the right messages out about fearful dogs in ways that dog owners can understand and implement.

7. What resources do you rely on to enhance your technical, writing, photography, social media, or other skills that improve your blog? I’m a techie so I use lots of WordPress plugins and do things like convert popular posts into pages and use canonical tags to send the reader from one to the other while avoiding duplicate content demerits from Google. I read about SEO all the time and title and tag my posts very carefully. I draw the line at seeding in too many keywords–I don’t go beyond what will serve the text. I purposely write on learning theory topics where I can likely shoot to the top of the search engine results. For example, here’s the Google search for What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? I have positions 1, 2, and 8.

8. What is the best piece of advice you can offer other bloggers? Don’t start off with product promotion and sponsorship. You will never escape. It will mold your attitude, your writing and affect the tons of tiny decisions you make as a writer. Start writing because you have something to say. Sure, you can monetize without compromise, but take a long view. Build your voice and your audience first. Do that well and you will have a loyal following.

9. What is your vision for your blog in 2016? Do you have specific goals? I am going to be “booking a blog,” that is, putting together some similarly themed posts into a book. So I’ll be writing some posts specifically to fill in the blanks. (The topic is a secret for now!) Other than that, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. I enjoy it so much.

10. You have the attention of the pet blogging community – is there one blogging challenge you’d like help with, or one aspect of your blog that you’d like input on? I would love to talk to other people who host their own WordPress sites and talk about our favorite plugins. Am I a nerd or what?

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Credit for 2016 graphic: Freebie from Canstock Photo. Thanks!

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The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

This is a followup to my previous post, “Not All ‘Choices’ Are Equal.”

“Choice” has become such a warm fuzzy buzzword that I hesitate to use it anymore. Yet it stands to reason that animals in our care benefit from being able to make choices and act on their environments. In this post I will try to go beyond the reflexive “Yay, choice is good!” response and apply some questions. Are all choices good? How much choice can we really give our dogs? What does it look like when we do? Is there a down side?

As I wrote in my previous post about choice, a lot of writing on this topic involves choices that are vague or not well described, or are not free choices at all. For instance, giving the dog the choice to leave a training session (when there are few other interesting activities in the room) is technically a forced choice, although it is essential to humane training.1)Giving the dog the choice to leave when there are other fun things to do is a free choice, but one that many–not all–trainers avoid offering. Think of the standard instructions for training a puppy or new dog. “Limit distractions.” I think we are well past the era where we should be awarding brownie points for letting the dog leave. That’s basic decency, good training, and necessary feedback for the trainer.

Even shock trainers and others who use negative reinforcement can legitimately use the language of choice. Many talk about the dog having the power and the choice to avoid the aversive when performing correctly. Yes indeed. For instance, a dog can choose to take action to avoid shock, as far as it understands how to do so, or it can suffer. If the dog understands the system (debatable at times), it does have a choice. I don’t see how giving this kind of choice is laudable, though.

My goal with choice is to give my dogs choices between multiple nice things. In other words, I want to offer free choices involving positive reinforcement and allow the dogs to exercise choice whenever safely possible. Deciding when that is feasible is a challenge, because there is a down side, as I’ll discuss later.

Training Limits Choice

Going through the trash is a choice I generally prevent my dogs from making

In this photo, Summer and Clara are exercising choices I usually prevent

Before I get into listing the small ways I have figured out to offer my dogs choices, here’s a caution. When we train dogs to live in our households, that training consists of limiting and heavily influencing choices. As my teacher often says, much of her job consists of teaching dogs not to be dogs. Dogs have a whole palette of natural doggie behaviors that range from inconvenient to gross to dangerous–to us or to them. So make no mistake: training and behavior modification involve limiting choices. Even management involves removal of choices. When I put my small kitchen garbage can inside a latched cabinet under the sink, I am removing the dogs’ choice to knock over the can and go through the trash, which every one of them would dearly enjoy.

Interestingly, errorless learning (aka reduced error teaching), believed to be extra humane because it involves very little extinction and hence less learner frustration, is the most limiting of choice of all. We just can’t say that more choice is always good for our companion animals. The situation is much more complex than that.

We must also beware of appeals to the naturalistic fallacy. If someone announces that letting dogs make choices and do what comes naturally will solve all sorts of problems, beware. When left to their own devices, dogs can make really bad choices. Both downright dangerous ones and ones that are incompatible with life with humans. They are predators with mouths full of teeth and the mental faculties of, perhaps, human toddlers and they don’t usually arrive house trained. Most will eat cat poop and roll in dead things. Many have greeting behaviors so over-the-top they could injure humans. They aren’t born understanding the difference between their chew toys and our precious heirlooms. So yes, we curtail their choices so they can live with us according to our standards. Many of us in turn try to give them back as many fun activities and choices as we can.

The following examples of giving my dogs choices are rather non-dramatic, but all took some thought on my part and a certain “letting go” of control. One of my goals is to show how some of these choices can be in opposition to what we normally consider good training practices.

Offering Pleasant Choices

One of the easiest ways to give my dogs multiple pleasant choices in real life is to take them out into the back yard on a nice day. Perhaps this is obvious, but bear with me. There are several activities they all enjoy, and some natural variety in enrichment that I can’t offer them indoors. (Note that the yard has a privacy fence, so both the choices of leaving and of seeing outside the fence have been removed.) They can sniff, dig, eat grass, roll in things, watch birds, occasionally chase critters, bask in the sun, play in water, play with each other, “help” me garden, play a game with me, come check in with me for a quick treat, or just hang out.

That’s what happens in our unstructured time. I got to wondering what it would be like if I gave them more choices in our structured play or training. I was able to experiment with this because they are all adults, cooperative, and we have strong bonds. Raising a puppy is all about establishing that bond and yes, limiting choices. If we are thoughtful about it, we can set choices up for puppies too, but that would look a bit different from what I am about to describe.

I started to make a point of observing times when my dogs wanted to choose something that was outside our normal rule structure for training or play. Here are some examples and their pros and cons.

Scavenging Treats

Zani is a born scavenger and extremely persistent. One day during a training session a treat rolled under the couch where she might have been able to get it. I have trained her to work under that type of distraction. Instead I waited while she went for it. Going after scavenge-able treats is a fascinating challenge and a lot of fun for her. So I let her do it, being aware that I was allowing her to make a withdrawal from her “training focus” account. It’s a big account, and I can build it back up again.  I can’t say that her focus improved afterwards, which would be a fun “happily ever after.” It was just a interlude in the session, one that she chose to take and I permitted. Caution: This would not be advisable for dogs in many situations, such as service dogs in training, or any dog with whom you are struggling with focus.

Choosing the Bed Instead of the Bath Mat

I reinforce my dogs for lying on a mat in the bathroom while I shower in order to get them accustomed to the noises and actions of water running. Clara ate quite a few of her meals from a food toy in the bathroom during her early years.

After Cricket died and Clara got access to the bedroom and was allowed on the bed, she started to spend lots of her free time there. Interestingly, she would choose to go lie on the bed while I showered instead of hanging out in the bathroom for some guaranteed treats. I could have summoned Clara to the bathroom and closed her in with me for more “practice” being next to the shower, but instead I loosened up the system to see what would happen.

The other dogs shifted around. Zani (food hound extraordinaire) took up position on the bath mat while I showered. Summer, who likes her personal space but also wanted the treats, would lie down just outside the bathroom door. I reinforced both of these actions. Clara would go to the bedroom and lie on the bed. I did not reinforce that. (I’m not generally going to give a dog a treat for getting on the bed!) She came to understand very quickly that there were no treats available for that choice. Yet she stuck with it. She valued the comfort more than a few pieces of kibble.

Keeping the Ball

As I’ve written before, Clara loves to play ball and we play the “two ball game” where she fetches one into a container while I throw another. But Clara doesn’t always have a lot of stamina. Her energy level went down when she was sick with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and also she overheats easily so we go easy at it, especially in the summertime.

Nonetheless, I would get annoyed when I would throw the ball three times, she would fetch it back, then on the fourth time she would run to me but just stand there holding the ball and not release it. There I was standing there doing nothing, getting irritated. We were supposed to be playing ball.

Then I thought, “This game is for her and she is making a choice. She is clear on how the system works: release the ball and I will throw the other one. If she chooses not to, how can I adjust my own behavior to honor that and not get frustrated?”

So I started working in my yard while we played ball. Whenever Clara brought me one ball and released it, I would throw the other. If she went off and played by herself, I kept working. If she came to me and didn’t release the ball, I kept working. Lo and behold, Clara loved this! She would take a little break, then come back to play some more. I got wise and set up her little pool to give her another choice, and she also would run get in the pool with her ball for a while. Sometimes Zani would choose to join and I would throw the second ball for her. Clara got to choose the pace of her game and what components went into it. I wished I hadn’t been so goal driven about it before. This was quite pleasant for everyone!

The video shows the relaxed game we ended up with when I let Clara and Zani set the pace and choose their moves.  There is nothing dramatic to see in this video, and that’s kind of the point. But it took me some consideration to figure out that this could work.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Keeping the Tug Toy

I also tried the choice thing with Zani. Zani loves to tug, but I used to have a bit of a problem with her playing keep-away and running off to play or chew by herself. I limited her choices in the usual ways recommended by the great sportsdog trainers. “Make yourself so enticing that playing with you is more fun.” “Put the dog or the toy on a leash.” “Set yourself up so you are placed naturally where the dog will tend to take the toy.” “Leave if the dog decides to play without you.” All these are methods designed to strongly influence the dog’s choice. What worked the best for me was the first one–to be more fun.

Zani started bringing the toy back to play most of the time, but not always. I got to wondering, “What would it harm to let Zani go ahead and play with that toy by herself a little bit? We are not preparing for a competition. She can’t lose it in my small yard.”

So I tried it the next time we were practicing agility sequences. About every third or fourth time I would purposely throw the toy way beyond my position and cheerlead Zani as she ran around with it. She obviously loved the feeling of that toy in her mouth and loved having possession of it. And after a couple of zooms around the yard, she would usually bring it back to tug again.  Caution: This practice would not generally be advisable if you were working with a puppy who didn’t know how to play with a person and whose sole goal in life was keep-away. You don’t want to add to the “run away” account. Instead, you could develop the play relationship first, and then perhaps loosen up a bit later. And seriously, limit the pup’s choices for a while with one of the methods I mentioned above.

The Dog Might Create a New Game

Offering dogs free choice can have interesting results. One night a few months ago I decided to offer all the dogs a session on the nail board. They scratch their nails down and earn treats for that. They all enjoy it.

Clara with ballWe had just come in from outside and Clara was holding her rubber ball. This is a rare privilege. I can’t let her have it very long because she chews it up. (Yep, another forbidden choice!) She was lying quietly with her ball, not chewing yet because she was still winded from playing. I let each of the other dogs do the nail board first while Clara rested with her ball.

I then asked Clara if she wanted to do the nail board. She came over, still holding her ball. This was a quandary for her. She didn’t want to put the ball down, and didn’t know how to do her nails while holding it. She stood around for a while, then put the ball at the top of the angled board, and released it so it rolled down. Then she ran and got it. (This was yet another version of her “Gravity Game.”)

The next time she came back she also released the ball onto the board. I marked with a “yes” and gave her some kibble. Then she ran and got the ball and did it again. This was more fun for her than scratching her nails so we continued to do this for a while. Then she took her ball and went and lay down again. She knew she could continue earning kibble, but chose to stop and enjoy her ball instead. And I was fine with doing her nails another day.

The Price of Choice

As I said, these are non-dramatic examples. But most had to be carefully considered. There are some well-known, successful trainers out there who work more free choice into their training. But for us mere mortals it can mean playing with fire. Giving dogs multiple simultaneous choices for positive reinforcement invokes the Matching Law. If squirrels are always reinforcing, and working with you is sometimes reinforcing, which is the dog statistically more likely to choose?

I think that’s why people tend to highlight their forced choices instead. Yes, my dog can leave the training session! Yes, I let my dog avoid the scary thing! These are not choices between positive reinforcement opportunities. They are highly stacked decks with generally predictable results. But free choices, choices where multiple options offer positive reinforcement, are tricky.

Training involves a process of limiting choices. I believe we need to be honest about the strictures we put around our dogs’ lives. And allowing too many choices about important behaviors can undo training. That balance is not as simple as it might seem.

I am very interested in the choices you folks offer your dogs, how you do it, and whether you find that there is a price to pay. Please comment!

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

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1. Giving the dog the choice to leave when there are other fun things to do is a free choice, but one that many–not all–trainers avoid offering. Think of the standard instructions for training a puppy or new dog. “Limit distractions.”
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My Dogs Don’t Know Sit!

What if your dog’s cue for a behavior is not what you think it is? Can you be sure–absolutely sure–that the dog really understands what you want?

That’s another place where punishment based training can really go awry. How often are dogs punished for failing to perform when they just don’t understand? I think it’s much more often than most people realize.

My dogs are pretty good at sitting. But their cue for sit and stay is not what I intended it to be. Luckily I figured that out. I know exactly where the problem came from and how to fix it, should I decide to. And perhaps by sharing, I’ll help some others who might be in the same boat.


The Three D’s

Dog trainers often talk about the “three D’s” in training: duration, distance, and distraction. Each of these represents a set of challenges for the dog.

When working up a stationary behavior such as a sit/stay (or even a moving behavior such as walking on leash, but let’s limit the discussion to stationary behaviors for now), you need to gradually work up the length of time the dog can do it. That’s what we call duration.

But even if your dog can hold a sit/stay for 60 seconds while you are standing right there that doesn’t automatically mean she can do it if you park yourself 10 feet away. That’s distance. Distance needs to be specifically and gradually taught. It’s a challenge for several reasons. Principal among them is that for most of their early training, dogs learn that the reinforcement usually happens right there on your person or close by. They will tend to follow you when you move away.

And even if your dog can hold her stay while you quietly stand 10 feet away from her there is still another aspect of challenge. That’s distraction. Can she stay if you drop your treat bag? If another dog in the family trots by? If you go sit in a chair (surprisingly hard, since dogs often associate that with the session being over)? If the doorbell rings? If her best friend comes in the room? If you toss her favorite toy in her direction? You get the picture.

Most trainers train the three D’s in roughly the order above. Get a little duration first before introducing the other challenges. Then train distance, then distraction. (Distance is just a particular kind of distraction, anyway.) But what happens if you jump straight to the other challenges early on? You’ll see in the movie.

My Achilles Heel: Duration!

When teaching the very beginnings of duration, one usually silently counts seconds. There are different protocols for going about this, but the idea is to gradually lengthen the amount of time the dog stays in position without being released. With behaviors like holding a dumbbell, you usually have to start with increments of 10ths of a second to get that first bit of duration. With sits and downs, the dog can generally already perform the behavior for a second, maybe two, so you start there and work up.

I get terribly bored just standing there teaching duration, so my most common error as a trainer is starting to move around too soon. What has happened as a result is that my moving away has become part of the cue for “stay.” Oh-oh. If I don’t move, they don’t believe me. You can see that in the video.

Here’s how long each dog lasts on her sit/stay when I just stand in front of her.

  • Clara: 4 seconds until she breaks position to nudge my hand, and 4 more until she stands up.
  • Summer: 1 second until she goes into a down.
  • Zani: 1 second until she goes up into “sit pretty,” another 2 seconds until she goes into a down.

That’s pretty embarrassing. But also note in the video that when I move away immediately after giving the cue, they can hold their sits successfully through duration, distance, and distractions.  They can all last several minutes when I do that, with distractions including tug toys dropped in their vicinity, my walking around or actually leaving the room, and all manner of food placed out to tempt them. Again, their cue to stay is my movement much more than my verbal cue.

Edit, 2/9/16: In the movie, I dubbed in the word “Fail” when each dog broke her stay, to mark how fast that happened. A viewer’s comment caused me to realize it sounds like I’m using a No Reward Marker. I wasn’t. It’s only in the voiceover, not from the training session. And in case it’s not clear: the failure is never theirs. It’s mine.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

What Did They Do Instead of Staying in a Sit?

Each dog switched to a behavior that had been recently and heavily reinforced. Summer went into a down on the rug. She had a tactile cue (soft surface under the butt) to perform her mat behavior.  Zani tried “sit pretty,” which we have been working on in that very place, before Cue giving pawtrying a down as well. Clara tried a stand, which we have also been working on in that area of the house.

It’s a beautiful example of the dogs’ reinforcement history taking over when they are unsure.  I didn’t give what to them has become the “real” cue for a sit/stay: for me to move away and start doing random things and providing distractions. So each dog gave up but each tried something different: what has most recently been reinforced in that context.

This kind of thing happens all the time. Frequently we don’t actually know what the cue is for the dog. And in the absence of that special cue, they revert to guessing and expressing their reinforcement history.  It is often a reason people think their dogs are “giving them the paw.” That’s very sad, since what the dog is doing is trying to get it right in the face of unclear instruction.

Contributing Factors

Besides the fact that the cue for my dogs to stay in a sit is for me to put them in sit and immediately leave (and I didn’t do it), there are a handful of other reasons for their failure to sit. As I mentioned, reinforcement history contributes. A lack of confidence in verbal cues in general (because I don’t always work hard enough on cue recognition and stimulus control with them) is another. The fact that I generally encourage them to offer behaviors is yet another; they have nothing to lose from guessing. And finally, though I hate to mention this, I don’t use a “stay” cue. I’m not a good example of that practice, which can work perfectly well when one is clear about the cue to begin with! But adding in a “stay” could probably make up for some of my other frailties as a trainer.

Can They Really Not Do It?

Of course they can hold a sit/stay with me standing right there. I’ve mentioned before that I do a lot of my training following Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. One of the early steps of sit/stay (Level 2 Sit) is to work up to 60 seconds when you are standing in front of the dog. All of my dogs have performed that stay many times, starting early on in our training relationship. But in the course of life, I don’t use that behavior much. I don’t ask my dogs to sit for long periods, especially with me standing right there. I use down much more often, so the sit/stay breaks down.

Summer Zani sit stay

But it takes only a few minutes to get that sit/stay duration back if I want it. Even in the course of filming the above “failures,” the dogs started working up their duration again. I could have a minute long sit/stay from every one of them after a couple of training sessions. But honestly, I’ll probably let it lapse again.

In case you would like to see a lovely “real life” sit/stay, here is Zani doing a short agility run (in which we won first place, I might add). Being parked in front of a jump standard is another clear cue for her to hold a sit/stay.

The Map of Reinforcement

I’ve mentioned my concept of the “map of reinforcement,” something I started to see once I learned and really internalized that behavior was driven by consequences. I wrote about this at length in my post, “What Dog Training Really Taught Me.” What the dogs tried instead of sitting and staying showed a map of what had been reinforced. And here’s something related: my dogs’ behavior is also map of my behavior. Yep. Whenever all three of my dogs have the same “failure,” it’s a pretty sure bet that it is something that I am consistently doing. An experienced trainer could look at the movie and know exactly what I did when training to cause my dogs to break their stays as they did. I know what I did, too. The fact that I don’t always fix stuff like that is perhaps why I’m a writer and not a dog trainer!

Care to share situations where you found out that the cue for the dog was not the cue you thought you were giving? And has anybody else done this particular silliness with duration behaviors?

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Copyright 2015 Eileen Anderson

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Books in Review: Eileen’s Essentials

A brown dog appears to be reading a book on learning theory by Paul Chance. Books keyword

This book is on the list!

Since this is a gifting season for many folks, I thought I would share the books I own that are almost never on my bookshelves. By that I mean the books that are next to my computer or open on the kitchen table or mixed up in the bed covers. The books you see me quoting here. The books I open up when I need to solve a problem or I need a high quality reference.

I could easily name 20 more dog books that I dearly love and highly recommend. Maybe I’ll do that next year. But these are the ones I need the most.

The following are not affiliate links. I chose the author’s website for the link if the book was available there, next, Dogwise, if the book was available there, and Amazon for the rest. Most are available several other places.

  • Learning & Behavior by Paul Chance. I have the fifth edition from 2003 because the current edition (seventh, 2013) is pretty expensive. I write about learning theory so I need a source for definitions and references. Can’t do better than Dr. Chance.
  • The Essentials of Conditioning and Learning by Michael Domjan. OK. Dr. Chance above will tell you lots about operant behavior. Then get this one for respondent behavior. It’s got stuff I have never seen anywhere else. It’s great if you want to learn the ins and outs of both Pavlovian conditioning and operant learning.
  • Coercion and Its Fallout by Murray Sidman.  Dr. Sidman is the go-to behavior analyst on the topics of negative reinforcement and punishment and has hundreds of papers dating from the 1950s. This book is in lay language and is a bit frustrating in that it lacks references, but given his credentials it has almost become a primary reference itself. If you haven’t read much about aversives from a learning theory or societal standpoint, this book will knock you over. It will take you a while to recover.
  • Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats by Karen Overall. It’s phenomenal that we can buy a book with this much information in it at such a reasonable price. It is about behavior problems from a medical standpoint. The intended audience for this book is probably vets. It is highly technical yet quite readable.
  • Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs by Malena DeMartini-Price. This book is fairly new but already a classic. If you are a trainer you’ve probably already heard of it. But people who foster, people who work with shelter dogs, and pet owners with separation anxiety dogs all need this book.
  • Agility Right from the Start by Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh. This may surprise some people since I don’t write about agility much. But I love agility. This extremely down to earth book does just what it says it does: lays the fundamentals and goes from there. Wonderful, magical book. Good as a reference in that it has a solution for almost every typical agility problem. But even better because I’m pretty sure if you followed their plan from the beginning you wouldn’t have many problems!
  • A Guide to Living With & Training a Fearful Dog by Debbie Jacobs. Another classic. I wish I could gift a copy of this book to every single person who has a fearful dog. We could change the world that way.
  • The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson. Here is the One. Book. I. Would. Like. Every. Dog. Owner. To. Read.
  • Dog Food Logic by Linda P. Case. I’ve already raved about this book in a full-length review but I can’t leave it out here. I consult it frequently. I think nutrition for dogs is a more at-risk field even than training. With training there is no credentialing system. With nutrition there are credentials but they don’t seem to matter to people. People just hang out a shingle anyway. Listen to Linda. She has the expertise and she is objective. Plus she’s fun to read.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This book on cognitive biases is invaluable to me as a writer. I have actually made myself a list of the biases he covers and review them at times. It’s a brilliant book. None of us is immune, unfortunately. We can only work at it.
  • Training Levels: Steps to Success by Sue Ailsby. Of all the training books I have read, this one is the most practical. It builds generalization and proofing into every step. Plus following instructions written by Sue is like having your favorite auntie coach you. If your auntie is wicked smart and, well, a little wicked.
  • Beyond the Brain by Louise Barrett. This one is new and I have to be honest in that I haven’t even finished it! But it fits my criterion because I keep pulling it out for some incredible examples of advanced behavior from organisms with very little brainpower. It gives you a whole new outlook on how behavior can develop.

There you have it! I have several other posts almost ready and will get back up to speed after my webinar on canine cognitive dysfunction hosted by the Pet Professional Guild on Monday, December 14th. Those old music habits kick in and I’ve been rehearsing in all my free time. Come if you can!

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

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Webinar: Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Has your dog been diagnosed with canine cognitive dysfunction?  Do you want tips about living with and caring for a frail or cognitively declining dog?

Join me in my webinar on canine cognitive dysfunction and dog dementia through the Pet Professional Guild on Monday, December 14, at 1:00 PM U.S. Eastern Standard Time.


My rat terrier Cricket standing with her head under a chair

I’ll be covering the definition and prevalence of the disease (much more prevalent than most of us knew!), common symptoms (including on video), the treatments that show promise, and questions to ask your vet. I’ll also discuss the commonalities with human Alzheimer’s, and most important, how to keep a dog with dementia safe and enriched. I’ll include the subjects of euthanasia and quality of life. Euthanasia seems to be an even more difficult decision for owners of dogs with dementia than with a dog with most other infirmities.

Even though the behavioral symptoms that arise with cognitive dysfunction mostly can’t be modified with training, I’ll talk about how trainers can help their clients with dogs afflicted with this condition.

There will be resources galore for further information including product descriptions, information about communities, and assessment and decision-making tools. Plus, the webinar will be recorded, and all participants will receive the URL for access. This is a great option if you can’t come at the scheduled time.


Cricket with advanced cognitive dysfunction late in her life

Hope to see you there!

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction: What Dog Trainers and Owners Need to Know

This webinar covers general information from dog owner and trainer’s point of view. It should not take the place of a vet visit. If your older dog is exhibiting symptoms, please make a vet appointment now.

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Clara Says, “I Love New Stuff!”

Three dogs on rug

The rug is the cool new hangout. Thanks, Summer, for pulling the quilt askew for the photo!

I made the video featured in this post for the sole purpose of recording how cute Clara is when I bring something new into the house. She is thrilled with novelty. But as usual, there was more to observe.

I bought a small rug to put in the den so the dogs don’t always have to be either on the concrete or on their individual mats, which are strong cues for certain behaviors. I wanted a little training space that had a better surface. (The last time I bought a rug was in 2011. Less than a month later I got an unexpected puppy, so that rug didn’t last very long. I must admit I hope that doesn’t happen again!)

Here’s a short summary of the dogs’ responses when I brought in the new rug and unwrapped it.


Clara lived up to my expectations. She was utterly delighted and charming. She nudged and bounced at me in her excitement and her tail never stopped as she checked things out thoroughly and attended my progress. Even though new people will never be her favorite thing, new anything else…you bet! In my book about living with a dog with dementia, I mention the enrichment possibilities of letting a dog sniff things you bring into the house. Clara is the one who taught me this, since she’s so obvious about it, but all my dogs enjoy it in their ways.


Summer was perfectly herself. The main issue for her wasn’t the new rug. It was the other dogs’ response to it. She dislikes any kind of high-energy behavior from them. She was content though to watch from her perch, removed from the fuss. Once the rug was down and the other dogs calmer, she happily jumped down and got on it.


Now this is interesting. Watch Zani in the movie and try to assess her attitude. Is she nervous? Scared? Her tail is down most of the time, at times almost pressed between her legs. Something I have learned over time is that Zani’s tail hangs low, and sometimes presses down, at times when it doesn’t necessarily indicate anxiety. Most stills of Zani I could take from this video would include body language that we associate with an unhappy dog. But Zani is interested and is not poised for flight. She moves around normally. The only part where I see her a bit worried is a momentary flinch around 1:09 when I lift the cardboard tube out of the rug.

I was first clued into this interesting behavior from Zani a few years back when someone posted in response to my Beginner Kongs movie. He said Zani was not a good example of a dog enjoying a food toy because she looked scared. It’s right at the beginning of that movie in case you want to check it out. He had a point–she is not the typical picture of enjoyment. At the time I theorized that hers was an anxious response to the camera. Only over time have I observed that she tucks her tail in several situations where she is not upset. These include while manipulating a food toy, when digging–a favorite activity–and frequently when exploring and sniffing. I have videos of these and one day will make a compilation. My working hypothesis is that it indicates a certain type of concentration. Just another step in my ongoing project of reading dogs better.


Link to the video for email subscribers. 

I would love to know if any of the rest of you observe anything similar to Zani’s behavior in your dogs. In the meantime, enjoy watching Clara!

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Dog Body Language Posts and Videos


Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2o15

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How I Work With Deaf Dogs (Guest Post by Blanche Axton)

Blanche Axton describes her common-sense approach to training deaf dogs and why she doesn’t use vibration collars.

white bulldog

Spanky was a foster for Speaking of Dogs (see URL in bio below). He had been left in a shelter and was young–a couple of years old. He had clearly been pretty humanely handled. Likely deaf from birth, he was a smart and eager boy.

I grew up with deaf dogs and have fostered many. While I haven’t always had a deaf dog in my home, I’ve had quite a few over the years and consider myself pretty good with them. I’m no expert, but I’m not a rank amateur either. So here are some of my thoughts on working with deaf dogs and why I don’t use vibration collars.

Why No Vibration Collars?

  • First, I’ve never seen the need. This is, far and away, the biggest reason I don’t use them. I haven’t needed to. They didn’t exist when I had my first deaf dog so we had to use other methods.
  • I see too many dogs for whom the vibration is an aversive. Let’s be clear, I know they can be used well and conditioned appropriately, but it’s not an easy skill to acquire, requires a fair bit of knowledge about how dogs make associations (often ones we didn’t intend) and requires very good timing.
  • There is an increasingly popular belief that deaf dogs must be trained to be safely off leash and have 100% recall. I have two issues with that. One, even my sighted and hearing dogs are NEVER off leash where they could get away from me and be lost; and two, no dog has 100% recall. It’s a lofty goal and one I strive for, but all dogs have 100% recall until they don’t….and that’s usually a tragedy.
  • I mostly have had small dogs and most vibration collars are bulky and awkward (at least they were the last time I looked at them). And they have to fit tightly…..and I don’t like tight collars on my dogs. I like to condition dogs to having my hands in and around their collars and I don’t want anything to interfere with that….so I haven’t used anything on their necks that could ever be a negative for them.

What To Do Instead?

Annabelle came as a foster for Pugalug Pug Rescue. She was 14 and a half. Family had had her for her whole life but the owners were older. One had passed away and the other was going into a retirement home and she couldn't go. She was likely deaf from age.

Annabelle came as a foster for Pugalug Pug Rescue. She was 14 and a half. The family had had her for her whole life but were older folks. One had passed away and the other was going into a retirement home and she couldn’t go. She was likely deaf from age.

So….what do I do about deaf dogs? I mostly train them the same way I train my hearing dogs….lots and lots and lots of working on “watch me” and “touch”. I mark and reward HEAVILY for offered check-ins. My marker for deaf dogs is a thumbs up. I also train for check-ins.

I train “touch” early and often….and my hand down, palm out, is the signal for touch and often becomes my recall signal…for hearing and deaf alike. Hand goes down, palm out and the dog comes and touches….and I mark and reward. I mark as the dog moves towards me so they begin to associate the movement to me as the ‘right’ thing to do and I pay heavily when they get to me. I also make sure I have hold of their collar before I reinforce so we don’t get dine and dash—another reason I avoid using collars that could impact negatively on the dog’s perception of my hands near their collar or the collar.

Deaf dogs are never off leash in any unfenced area. If we are in an open area, then they are on a long line. Hopefully, I have worked enough on voluntary check-ins that I can get one offered and I can mark and pay it. I also use a very minor (think light pull and release) leash tug as a distance signal to look back at me. I do this so the dog isn’t startled, and I make sure we have some history with gentle leash pressure being a signal to turn back to me. BUT that follows weeks and weeks of working on offered check-ins.

shih tzu

Theo also ended up at the shelter and also was a foster for Speaking of Dogs, but came to me at age 11 with a grade 5 heart murmur, deaf and only one eye. I adopted him since I knew his adoptability was low. Very sweet old shih tzu.

One of the biggest issues I see with deaf dogs is an exaggerated startle response so I strive to counter condition anything that is already startling (waking a dog up, suddenly showing up by them, some kinds of touches, etc) and I strive NOT to add anything that will cause a startle response. I move slowly and deliberately both literally and figuratively with deaf dogs. I want my movements and my actions to be, if not predictable, interesting and non-threatening. While I think working remotely can work and can be done effectively, I prefer not to do this….I prefer a more hands-on approach. My hands are the delivery method of all things good. They signal food, play, toys, fun.

I’ve never entirely understood why training deaf dogs has been seen as some uniquely difficult or complex skill. It really is no different from training a hearing dog with hand signals. I start all my dogs, hearing or not, with hand signals. And I’m already very quiet with my dogs when we are training (you wouldn’t know that watching any videos I post, but without a camera on me, I’m very quiet). Can you mess up training a deaf dog? Sure. Can it have bigger fallout than with a hearing dog? Probably. But it’s not necessarily a hard thing to do. It requires thought, attention to detail and a knowledge of body language, how dogs learn and striving for positive associations, but that’s pretty much my goal and method with any dog in my care.

About Blanche

Blanche Axton has been involved with dogs her whole life–from the Dalmatians her family raised and showed to working with canine rescue as an adult. Over the years, she has trained some of her dogs in agility, tracking, herding and therapy work. She volunteered as a therapy dog evaluator with Therapeutic Paws of Canada for several years. Blanche currently coordinates Pugalug Pug Rescue, fosters pugs and sits on the Board of Directors. She also fosters for an all breed rescue called Speaking of Dogs. She teaches Basic Obedience, Leash skills, Recall and Recreational Agility at DogGone Right. She is an advocate for appropriate nutrition for dogs, positive focused training and the importance of understanding canine behaviour and communication. She currently shares her home with pugs, a Japanese chin and one ginger cat.

Photo credits:

Thanks Blanche! –Eileen

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