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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Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Ebook Available!

My ebook on canine cognitive dysfunction and dementia is now available on Amazon Kindle.

Click the photo or the link below to preview and purchase the book!

Remember Me 3d

Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

List price is $9.99 and it is also available as a free loan for people who 1) have Amazon Prime; and 2) have an actual Kindle device (the hardware kind, not an app on another platform).

I hope some of you will review the book on Amazon, especially if you like it! (Hey, I’m human.) But as with my blog posts, I’ll respond to suggestions and constructive criticism. One great thing about an ebook is that you can update it. I’m already planning the next release!

And yes, it will be available later in other formats and eventually as a physical book. I’m taking it step by step.

Feel free to share this post and the ebook info far and wide.

Thank you so much to all the people who have helped and encouraged me with this project, and all my blog readers. You helped me believe I could actually do this.

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Loving the Vacuum Cleaner


Dogs and vacuum

Here’s a little video I made of my dogs’ response to the vacuum cleaner. Hurray for classical conditioning! As soon as any dog comes into my home, I start pairing any potentially scary sounds of human life with great stuff. Two of my dogs weren’t scared of the vacuum in the first place, and taking this action greatly decreased the chance that they ever will be. (Sound sensitivity can appear as dogs mature.)

Zani, my smallest dog, is potentially sensitive to quite a few noises, but we have turned her attitude around on most of them with desensitization and counterconditioning. It worked great with the vacuum.

Vacuums can be a double whammy for some dogs, who are also sensitive to the motion. You can work on that separately if that is the case.

I joke about my dogs getting underfoot in the video. If that were a problem, I could convert the sound of the vacuum cleaner (since they all think it’s a good thing already) to being a cue to go on their mats, or I could just verbally cue them to do so when necessary.

In the future I’ll be posting some videos of the process; this is just to show what a little proactive training can do.

In the meantime you can check out my page on desensitization/counterconditioning resources, and also my Pinterest board that has carefully vetted videos of the processes and results of DS/CC.


Link to the video for email subscribers.

Also, Maureen Backman of Mutt About Town just published a great post about treating noise phobias with DS/CC, and it includes three videos showing methods and progress: “Noise Phobia in Dogs: Coping Skills Are Key.”

I’m counting down to my book launch! Still don’t have an exact date, but I’m getting pretty close to having one. Sign up on my other website, Dog Dementia: Help and Support, to get notification and a discounted copy on the first day.


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My Book Is Coming!

I think my book will be out in November!

Did anybody miss me? My posts here have been dwindling over the last few months, but not because I have lost interest in writing about dogs. I have been busy finishing my book on dementia in dogs: “Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.”

Book: Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

I am self-publishing, and the book will be released on Kindle first, sometime in November. It will be sold at a discount for a one-day preview, and if you want to get one of those discounted copies, please sign up on the mailing list on my website about cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

Dog Dementia: Help and Support

Many thanks to my Facebook friends who helped me brainstorm the title, including Susan Nilson who came up with the winner.

Once I get the book published, I hope to be back posting more here. I have dozens of partially written posts and, as excited as I am to get my book out, I’d love to be writing more about training again!

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Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats

I am all about efficiency. You could also say I’m lazy. Also, my freezer is usually stuffed full.

So rather than freeze whole filled food toys for three dogs, I use several gadgets that let me freeze things separately. Then I can put frozen dog treats (of all sorts–just look!) into food toys for a quick treat for the dogs that they can enjoy for a few minutes.

Custom Freezer Trays

Kong puts out a product called “Easy Freeze Dog Treats Kit” that includes a plastic freezer tray. It makes Kong-stuffer shaped treats. Their kit includes a treat mix you can use, but once you have a tray, the genie is out of the bottle. They don’t market this product heavily. I think it’s because it costs only a few dollars, but it frees you from buying their premade products (crackers and paste) for a quick filler.

Kong easy freeze tray with peanut butter yogurt filling

Kong Easy Freeze Tray with peanut butter and yogurt mixture

The above picture is the “X-Large” tray. The frozen pieces fit large Kongs as well.

Black Kong with frozen treats

Frozen treats from Kong mold

Stay tuned for an explanation of those funky looking treats.

There is a smaller size Kong tray that is rather hard to get ahold of. Here’s what you can use instead.

Silicone Molds

You don’t even have to buy molds from Kong. There are now food-grade silicone molds that are used for soapmaking, candy making, custom ices cubes, and yeah, dog treats! Just search on “silicone molds” and you’ll get there.

You can find practically every shape and size you ever dreamed of. Here’s one that has a nice shape for small food toys.

Silicone mold in shape of dog bones for making frozen dog treats

Here it is with vanilla yogurt filling.

Silicone mold in shape of dog bones with vanilla yogurt filling

And here are the cute little frozen treats.

Frozen vanilla yogurt dog treats for Kongs

These go nicely in small and puppy Kongs.

Ice Cube Trays

Of course you can use standard plastic ice cube trays too. You’ll have to experiment to see how much filling you should put in the cavities so you can fit the treats into your own toys.

What Kinds of Fillings?

Here’s the cool part. You can freeze just about anything in them that’s safe for dogs to eat.

Leftovers. How about some pasta? (Hold the onions and garlic.) Keep the tops of the treats entirely flat, or they will be difficult to insert into the toys. You’d be surprised how hard they are to insert if they are just a little bit lumpy. You can do a two-part freeze with things like this. I don’t have a photo, but after the ones in the photo below froze, I poured some broth over them and put them back in the freezer. It made them nice and smooth. I did the same for the treats pictured with the black Kong above. I don’t remember what was in the bottom half, but after they were frozen, I put more liquid on top, along with a chunk of a cookie.

Kong easy freeze tray with pasta filling

Frozen pasta treats

And here’s the best thing. Now you have something easy to do with all those leftover dog treat crumbs.

Plate with crumbs

Treat crumbs…

These are big “crumbs” from some specially made dog cookies that I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to break into training treats. I did use some for treats, but I got tired of dealing with the non-uniform shapes. So I soaked the rest in water in a bowl in the refrigerator.

Bowl with crumbs

Add water and soak…

Edit: I removed a reference and photo of adding another leftover food. Barbara Korry DVM cautioned me in the comments that it could be dangerously salty for some small dogs. Bad idea on my part. Thanks Dr. Korry.

Here’s how they looked after freezing.

Easy freeze frozen Kong tray with cookie crumb treats

Frozen crumb treats

Putting the Treats in the Kong (and Giving them to Dogs)

In case you want to see it done, here is a very short movie that includes inserting the frozen treats into the Kong.

These do not take nearly as long to eat as an entire, frozen-solid Kong, but for dogs who lick them (rather than crunching the whole Kong in their mouths), they still take 5-10 minutes. You can also put a few loose treats of another sort in the Kong first, so they are blocked at first by the frozen treat.

Doubling Up

A reader asked whether one could put two of the frozen treats in at once. I didn’t think so, but I tried it and it worked! You need to put them in one at a time, with the small end pointing down to the small end of the Kong. Get the first one all the way in. Then insert the second one such that the flat faces will face each other. I was able to do this with two full-sized treats. Again, this probably wouldn’t work if they were at all bumpy.

Kong with two fillings

Kong with two frozen fillings

Do you freeze stuff for your dogs? Just this week I also made a batch from some leftover scalloped potatoes, and another from the copious crumbs from the bottom of a package of dehydrated raw dog treats.

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Accidental Punishment

The various outcomes of our shaping sessions, punishment notwithstanding

Can you guess which dog got accidentally punished during a shaping session?

I charged straight into a positive punishment scenario by accident recently.

I’ve been somewhat in the training doldrums lately, probably because I am putting so much energy into finishing my book. I have several training activities that I fall back on when I don’t have much energy. They are fairly unchallenging for me (read: I can’t mess them up too badly) but still fun for the dogs. Even those have been hard to do lately.

But the other day I had some time and energy and decided to play a shaping game with each dog. We don’t shape that often, but they all enjoy it, and it gives their minds a good challenge.

Two of the dogs, Summer and Zani, used to have a default backing up behavior that they would offer in excess whenever I set up shaping games. This was my fault: my shaping setup resembled my backing up setup too much. They had similar setting factors, if you want to get technical about it.  I managed to get the dogs unstuck a while back with some carefully arranged object interaction sessions. (It’s easier to get the idea to go forward instead of backward if there is something to go forward **to**.)

So I decided to set up an object interaction session again. I set out a target stick, a plastic lidded box, and a laundry basket with a plastic dumbbell in it. I put the plastic box on top of one of their mats so it wouldn’t skid around.  I had an idea of a behavior for each dog, but was also willing to decide on the fly if someone did something unexpected.

Clara’s Shaping Session

Clara’s session was easy. The dumbbell in the laundry basket was for her: she loves to pick things up. I stood about 15 feet from the array of objects and it took Clara only a few clicks/treats to get over there. I stayed at a distance. This helps the dogs learn that the reinforcement zone is not always right on me, and also sets me up to practice my treat tossing.

It didn’t take much to get Clara over to the basket and looking in. The basket wanted to skid on the floor so I did go over there and brace it, at which time Clara was happy to put her two front feet in. Then I shaped her into picking up the dumbbell. This is normally very easy, but it was a slight challenge with her front end in the basket and back end out. A good time was had by all.

Summer’s Shaping Session

Summer is my super-duper shaper, which is interesting since she is my crossover dog. Crossover dogs are often reluctant to offer behaviors, but what can I say? Summer got over it. And turned out to be a creative genius when it came to thinking up stuff to do. But this session didn’t require a virtuoso performance. I shaped her to go to the target stick, which I had put behind the other stuff. She still got to it in a minimum of clicks. I needed to make more of a challenge, so I put the stick in the laundry basket with the dumbbell. She needed to hop in the basket to nudge the stick, and that she did. She’s great about getting in things.

Zani’s Shaping Session: Punishment Happened!

You knew it would be Zani, right? My easy dog/problem child.

So I had intended the plastic box for her. She’s done quite a bit of perch work and enjoys it. No big deal. We messed around a bit: she investigated the target stick and the laundry basket. Finally she noticed the box. She was directly facing me, with the box between us, and put her two front feet up on it. Yay! Click, toss the treat. Then she got on again! Ditto. On the third time, I had a sudden thought to treat in position rather than tossing the treat to reset her. So as she was placing her feet on the box, I charged right over there straight at her. She’s my pressure sensitive dog. She backed off the box in shock and scooted backwards, though she did collect the treat I had hastily thrown.

I retreated back to my area, but would she approach the box again? Nooooo. So I quickly went back to rewarding other behaviors. About 15 treats later, she was willing to go to the box again. I didn’t charge at her. It took about 5 more treats to get her putting her feet on the box.

Wanta Play Behavior Analysis?

Four quadrants of operant conditioning

Four processes of operant conditioning

OK, here we go. We could do at least two different analyses, because not only did a behavior decrease with positive punishment, but a behavior increased/maintained as a result of my aversive high speed approach too! I’ll leave that one as an exercise for interested commenters. Let’s go over the punishment.

We always start with the behavior that changed. What was it? Zani putting her feet on the box. Increase or decrease? Decrease. Can we identify why? Pretty sure it was my running full tilt at her. Why did she put her feet on the box in the first place? We were having a shaping session and there was a box there. So the ABC looks like this:

  • A. Antecedent: There’s a lidded box on the floor
  • B. Behavior: Zani puts her two front feet on top of the box
  • C. Consequence: Eileen abruptly runs straight at her
  • Prediction: Zani putting her feet on the box will decrease

Did the behavior decrease? Oh yeah it did! Zani loves to get on things and has been reinforced plenty for it. She had just gotten in the groove of offering “box” behaviors but stopped offering them after I charged at her and didn’t interact with the box again for quite a while. That’s a decrease. There was also a decrease in her behavior in general. She got tentative and ever so slightly shut down after my barging into her space.

Why is it called “positive” punishment? Remember that positive and negative in operant learning terminology refer to whether a stimulus is added or taken away. In this case Eileen charging at Zani was an added stimulus.

So How Bad Was It?

Positive punishment is the learning process that we pretty much try to avoid at all costs. So how hard should I be knocking my head against the wall?

As usual, we ask the dog, and we do this by observing her response. Did we see side effects? Referring to the list on my post “7 Effects of Punishment,” we probably got small doses of # 1, avoidance, and #4, apathy. It remains to be seen whether we will see any avoidance of me outside of training, but I could easily see her getting sensitized about my approaching her. During the session I saw a decrease in behavior from her in general, which could fit under #4. Luckily, this was only over a brief period. Zani started offering behaviors again, and then was getting back on the box willingly (i.e., no pressure from me) within about two minutes. Susan Friedman points out that when an animal has a large reinforcement history and “trust account,” the animal can typically handle life’s little unpleasantnesses well. So this probably wasn’t a horrendous tragedy.

On the other hand, I have worked very hard to pair my approaching and entering Zani’s space with good stuff since she is sensitive to body pressure. We play games where I invite her to enter my own space as well, especially when I am standing up directly facing her. That’s just hard for her, polite little dog that she is. So chalking up another “Eileen is a boorish clod and she scares me sometimes” experience was not ideal. Even just that one time may set us back just a bit in the work I do to make her comfortable with me. In other words, there is a good chance that there is some fallout of the avoidance type, though it may be subtle.

The side effects of punishment listed are generally overt behaviors. There’s also the basic issue that it can scare or hurt an animal. Whatever the animal’s behavioral response, that’s not a good thing.

So how to think about this? I don’t think being alarmist is helpful. Yes, I punished my dog, but it’s over and done with and wasn’t a tragedy (even from Zani’s point of view, I’m pretty sure, which is the one that counts). But neither do I think this is the kind of thing to brush off.  It set us back just a little bit. Zani might be a little extra wary with me in certain situations for a while. I’ll have to work that much harder to make approaching her in various ways into a happy thing.

Accidentally running up in my dog’s face is not something most people would design as a deliberate punishment. People who do use positive punishment in training would probably be amused that I am even classifying it as such. But one of my points is that even such a benign-sounding action can have fallout. Why use punishment to decrease one behavior when it will simultaneously create problems with others? You are left always trying to fill a leaky jug.

And Zani, though sensitive, has a pretty solid temperament and is used to my ways. What if I had been working with a fearful dog or even one who was new to me? A mishap like this could have meant a setback of days or weeks.

Anyone want to share their own accidents? I’m not asking for true confessions about deliberate aversive use. Plenty of us have those in our histories. Let’s talk about that another time. I’m more interested in the boo-boos. I bet I’m not the only one….

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Sink or Swim: 8 Ways You Might Be Flooding Your Dog

Frightened white and cream colored dog under table

Photo credit Yee Tong Loh on Flickr (see license below)

Thank you to Marge Rogers, Debbie Jacobs, and Randi Rossman for discussions regarding this post. The point of view expressed and any mistakes are solely my own.

The journey of becoming a positive reinforcement-based trainer sometimes seems like an endless stream of goodbyes to methods I once used. Goodbye prong collar (yes, I used one). Goodbye collar pops. Goodbye pretending to eat out of my dog’s bowl before she did. (Yep!) Goodbye forcing my dog’s butt down if she didn’t sit. Goodbye making my dog back up by walking into her space. Goodbye waiting out my dog endlessly while she got frustrated, trying and trying a behavior that once gained her a goodie.

But those aren’t all the goodbyes. There’s a whole n’other set of them having to do with something called flooding.

Flooding is a technique that is aimed at reducing a human or animal’s fears. (Besides being a behavior modification method it can also be done by accident.) It is an exposure protocol. It consists of keeping the animal in the proximity of something it is afraid of but can’t harm it, for a duration of time without the possibility of escape.

Thomas Stampfl invented the protocol of flooding as a psychotherapeutic technique for humans in 1967, although Freud and Breuer described something similar in the 19th century. 1)Freud, Sigmund, and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria (London: Hogarth, 1895). It can be effective, and is still sometimes used, although there have been ethical concerns about it all along. But humans can give consent, and can choose this method in full knowledge and understanding of what is going to happen. Dogs can’t.

Skip down to “How Does This Apply to Our Lives with Dogs?” if you don’t want to read about animal experiments involving shock.

Something similar to flooding was performed on animals in the 1950s under a different name. At that time researchers were looking for a way to cause animals to “unlearn” a conditioned fear. Here’s how it worked. They taught some dogs that a certain tone predicted an electrical shock to the floor of the cage. But there was a way for the dogs to jump to another area of the cage where there was no shock. So the dogs learned to jump to the other side of the cage when the tone was played. In the next phase, the scientists kept periodically playing the tone, but it was not followed by shock. But the dogs didn’t know that. They jumped to the other side of the cage when they heard the tone, and kept on doing so for many repetitions. This is one way that scientists learned that avoidance behavior can be very, very persistent.2)Domjan, Michael, The Principles of Learning and Behavior (Wadsworth Publishing, Belmont, CA, 2014): 280-81.

In further experiments, this time with rats, they taught the animals that the tone predicted the shock, letting them learn to jump to the other side when the tone sounded. Then when the shock was discontinued they prevented the animals from jumping to the other side. This is called response blocking or behavior blocking. They prevented the avoidance behavior by inserting a barrier to prevent access to the “safe” side of the cage. So the rats were subjected to the tone that had come to predict a shock (but didn’t anymore) and had no way out.

The result was that the rats’ escape response extinguished much more quickly. The association of shock and tone was broken.3)Schiff, Robert, Nelson Smith, and James Prochaska, “Extinction of avoidance in rats as a function of duration and number of blocked trials,” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology (81: 2, 1972): 356. Note that during the response blocking period the rats were not being exposed to the actual aversive stimulus (shock), but to the conditioned stimulus (tone).

How Does This Apply to Our Lives with Dogs?

When flooding is described in casual conversation, it is usually something like the following.

What if I were deathly afraid of spiders and you locked me in a room full of them and didn’t let me out?

That describes flooding perfectly. But because the image is a bit fantastical, I think we don’t always relate flooding to the mundane things that happen to our dogs, sadly with some regularity. Debbie Jacobs of points out:

Almost anything that someone does to a scared dog that involves a leash or confinement could constitute flooding.

People who foster, purchase, or adopt an extremely fearful dog usually need to confine him to a house and yard for his safety. Just think about it. If he is fearful of people, in a much more mundane way he is in the room full of spiders 24/7 and can’t get out.

Puppies and fearful dogs seem to be the ones who are most often flooded through deliberate training techniques. Here are some of the common training suggestions that we should probably think twice about.

Common Dog Training Suggestions that Can Comprise Flooding

  1. Feeding a fearful dog all her meals by hand. If you are ever in a discussion about how to help a dog overcome its fears of humans, someone is going to suggest this. It sounds attractive, doesn’t it? It’s a bit of work but it should be pleasant for both parties concerned, right? Wrong. We see it as demonstrating that we are nice and have the dog’s welfare at heart. But she may see it as being forced to be closer to the human than she is comfortable with in order to eat, in other words to survive. It is slightly possible that the outcome will be that the dog learns that people are not scary after all. But it is completely a gamble. The other possible outcome is that she becomes more sensitized to people and remains as scared, or gets even more scared. (With a non-fearful dog, feeding by hand can often build a nice bond between human and dog.)
  2. Staying in a fearful dog’s space. This is related to #1. When you can’t even get close to a fearful dog, some people will recommend that you stay in her space for long durations. Sit nearby while she (tries to) eat, or even just sit in a corner of the dog’s room for hours each day reading a book. We see this as “proving” to the dog that we will do no harm. The dog may see it as a scary situation from which she can’t escape.
  3. Passing the puppy. “Pass the Puppy” is an exercise that is common in puppy classes. All the humans sit in a circle, and on a given cue, pass their puppy to the person next to them. The puppy has no choice in the matter, and is either in forced proximity on the floor next to the person, or in that person’s lap, being forced to interact. When the cue is given again, the puppies are passed again, away from their owners. Each owner in the circle handles each puppy before she arrives back “home.”  A gregarious puppy who is interested in and comfortable with people might think this is fine. But for a shy puppy, this can be a nightmare. Again, it might work sometimes to wear down that fear. But there’s no guarantee. You might end up with a puppy that is more scared of people, and less trusting of its owner, than it was at the beginning of class.
  4. Going to a dog park for socialization. Dog parks are fraught with peril for many reasons. There may be inattentive owners who are socializing or using their phones. There is the issue of potentially aggressive dogs. Some parks allow all sizes of dogs together and endanger smaller or weaker dogs. But even if all these problems were solved, there is still the fact that a young or shy dog may not be ready for the overwhelming activity in a dog park. It’s a big cage, and there is no escape under the dog’s own power. (Dog parks are also specifically unsafe for young puppies because of transmissible diseases.)
  5. Going to a big pet supply store for socialization. Same problems as the dog park, but this time you have slick floors, lots of noise, overly-interested strangers and perhaps forced interactions with them, and other pets popping up from around corners, often not well controlled.
  6. Having strangers feed treats. This is also an extremely common recommendation for both pups and shy adult dogs. You are advised to take the dog out in public, find a willing stranger, and urge the dog to go up to the stranger so the stranger can give her a treat. This is another method kind of like “pass the puppy” that just feels right to us. All warm and fuzzy, and certainly the dog will come to like strangers because of the food, right? Not if she is nervous about people in the first place. Sometimes this method falls short of flooding, but is still not that great for the dog (or safe for the human!). If the treats are really good or the dog very hungry, the dog may well approach the stranger to get the food while still being very scared. This is often played out by the dog stretching forward, leaving her back end in the next county. This practice can even result in the human getting threatened or bitten, or the dog trying to take flight, when she “realizes” how close she is to the scary human and abruptly takes action.
  7. Not letting a scared dog leave an agility or obedience ring. I’m surprised this still happens, but I have seen it personally. There are some dogs who develop such bad associations with performance events that their main goal once they get inside the competition area is to get out. Unfortunately, even if the dog’s body language is screaming “fear,” this can be interpreted as an obedience issue. The dog is being “bad” and must be forced to behave. I have been a helper at a competition and had to block such a dog from running through the ring exit. I hated myself for being a party to the flooding, but of course it was not safe simply to let the dog out (alone) either. The kindly move for the owner would be to listen to the dog’s fears and help him leave. I have seen people try to salvage their doomed competition run while the dog is pressing against the people minding the gate.
  8. Over-exposing to noise. I wish I could say that this is not done anymore, but there is a horrifying and fairly recent video on YouTube of a so-called trainer doing forced noise exposure with a group of dogs. The dogs are all on leash with their owners. Firecrackers are set off, very close. The dogs are held in place, and you can see that most of them are scared to death. In addition to being prevented from escaping, some of them are actually punished for reacting. Even if the situation is not as dramatic as fireworks going off in dogs’ faces, it is easy to overwhelm them with scary sounds. Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Lisa Radosta in this interview by Steve Dale describes a hopefully fictitious situation where someone takes a puppy right up to a train track to “experience” a train. So easy to do, such a bad idea. (She also explains how to properly expose puppies using desensitization and counterconditioning.)

Why Do We Do This?

I think there are two main reasons why flooding techniques can be popular. The first, in the cases of #1 and #3 above, is that some of them seem warm and fuzzy to us, the humans. It’s so easy for the dog’s anxious response not to get through to us. We are providing him with food from our very own hands! He is learning that people are nice! What’s not to like? (Plenty, says the scared dog.)

The second reason is the “face your fears” mentality. In this mindset (demonstrated most clearly in #7 and #8 above), the humans may realize that the experience is unpleasant for the dog, but they just figure the dog needs to get over it. The dog needs to “face its fears,” and long-term exposure seems to be the way to do it.  This method has a long history in both child rearing and dog training. I’d love to see it drain out of existence.

What to Do Instead

I talk about this in many other posts. But to borrow the language of Debbie Jacobs again:

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe. (See my post Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe.)
  2. Use counterconditioning and desensitization to change the dog’s emotional response to things he fears. (See my page Desensitization and Counterconditioning Resources.)
  3. Teach the dog behaviors using positive reinforcement. (This whole blog is about that, but see Video Examples for Teachers.)

Other Resources on Flooding

Photo Credits

Link to dog under table photo | License to photo

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Freud, Sigmund, and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria (London: Hogarth, 1895).
2. Domjan, Michael, The Principles of Learning and Behavior (Wadsworth Publishing, Belmont, CA, 2014): 280-81.
3. Schiff, Robert, Nelson Smith, and James Prochaska, “Extinction of avoidance in rats as a function of duration and number of blocked trials,” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology (81: 2, 1972): 356.
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You Don’t Have to Go Through the Door Before Your Dog!


You Don't Have To Go Through The Door Before Your Dog

When Annie Phenix of Phenix Dogs recently mentioned to me that the “door myth” is still alive and well, I got to wondering what that actually would look like. The advice to always precede your dog through the door is propagated by those who think the key to having a well-behaved dog is to be a good “pack leader.”  They also say to always eat before your dog. I had a guy recommend that after seeing one of my YouTube videos. How inconvenient is that? What a hassle!

Instead, you can actually train your dog behaviors that keep her safe and that fit into your human life.

I looked for a video of the “going through the door first” thing though because it actually sounds darn inconvenient. I did find a couple of videos of people slamming doors in dogs’ faces to teach them not to go out until released, but I didn’t find a video showing the final behavior of the human marching through the door first, victoriously dominant.

Why It’s Silly

Dogs do what works. Their behavior is driven by consequences. When they perform behaviors that bother us (any behavior actually), those behaviors are being reinforced somehow. Somewhere there is a consequence. Removing that consequence and helping the dog build acceptable alternative behaviors through positive reinforcement can change undesirable behaviors.  The door business is silly because it has no direct relationship to the bulk of dog behaviors that bother us. Going through the door first will have no effect on, say, the dog digging holes in your garden or chewing the furniture. Though repeatedly slamming a door in a dog’s face could certainly make her wary of you.

My Dogs’ Door Behaviors

Using training methods from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels (Door Zen), and a concept I first read in Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed (the dog reorienting to the handler after crossing any threshold), I’ve trained my dogs to wait nicely at any door, go out when released, and immediately turn back to me for further instructions (and generally a treat). If for any reason I need to go out first, my dogs simply sit and stay where I’ve asked them to. But for me, the mechanics of holding a leash and opening and closing a door generally work out better when we are both going out if I send the dog through first.

Addendum 9/4/15 A few comments about the post have prompted me to clarify a little.

  1. I don’t mean that anybody’s dog **has** to go out first.
  2. There are some situations where it may not be **safe** for your dog to go first.
  3. The point is to teach the dog behaviors that help you both be safe and suit your situation. You get to choose these for yourself rather than taking them out of a rulebook.

Link to the dog door manners video for email subscribers.

In the video, you will see that all the dogs take a look around after going through the door and reorienting to me. That’s fine with me; only fair, don’t you think? Interestingly, Summer in particular has always been very vigilant and a bit of a worrywart. If she didn’t have something to do after going out the door, she would just stand there and scan until we got moving. It’s very good for her to have something else to do besides that.

Teaching Door Manners

This is not a tutorial post; I’m going to leave that to the experts, since these behaviors are so important. Here is a very thorough video by Emily Larlham on teaching safe door behavior. She doesn’t teach a reorientation after going through the door per se, but takes many steps to ensure that the dog is not crazy with anticipation when going through the door. Check out especially her thoughtful treat placement that directs the dog’s attention in a helpful way in each scenario.

Door Manners: Dog Training–Emily Larlham

Do you teach your dogs door manners? How do you do it and what are they?

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How To Train Your Dog to Stand Using Capturing

Clara, a tan dog with a black muzzle and tail, stands with her hind legs slightly stretched back. She is standing in front of a wooden fence and gazing into the distance.

Pretty Clara at 7 months old in an untrained stand

When people consider how to teach a dog to stand, they usually envision the action of standing up. They focus on getting the dog up on their feet from a sit or a down. But that’s the hard way to start, especially since by the time most people get to training stand, they have reinforced the dog a billion times for sitting or lying down. But most dogs also stand, right? Unless a dog is very old or has a physical problem, she probably stands frequently. We don’t have to start by reinforcing the transition from sitting to standing. We can start by giving her treats while she is already standing! It’s a great way to jump-start a nice stand on cue.

I learned this method from Sue Ailsby, and if you want to see a video of her doing it, here is the link: Stand Duration and Examination.

But if you want to see how well it can work for a much less experienced person, check out my video below.

Methods for Training Stand

The positive reinforcement-based method one sees most often in “how-to” videos about stand is easy but has a real problem. It’s a luring method. It consists of holding a treat in front of a sitting dog’s nose and pulling it forward until the dog stands up and takes a step or two to catch up with the treat.

Most dogs will do this, but the problem is that you are teaching the dog to walk forward, not to stay in position and stand. This is extremely undesirable if you are teaching competition behaviors. Even if you are just teaching it for fun, or teaching it as part of a physical rehab program, like I am, having the dog move forward every time can be a nuisance. Another problem that comes along is that you can easily reward motion, so that’s what you get. It’s often not clear to the dog when to stop moving. You get “the creep.”

What obedience people like, and so do I, is the so-called kickback stand. Kickback means the front feet stay put and the rear feet kind of snap out and into position. It’s very cool and snappy looking. See more on that below.

The kickback stand can be started by luring, but it’s a little tricky. Sue Ailsby describes the process, and it consists of moving the treat backwards along the dog’s jaw line until she can’t reach it without standing up. You can read about it in the old Training Levels online. It’s about 3/4 of the way down this page: Training Level TWO.

Agility great Susan Garrett teaches a stand with hand targeting, and it’s quite fun. It’s a little more active than some people might want, though: Train Your Dog to Stand On Cue!

You can also shape a stand, or capture one. I love capturing behavior, and it turns out that it’s easy to capture a stand, as long as you capture the right thing. Just capture “standing around” first, not “standing up.” That’s what my video covers.

Check out the sequential stills of Clara’s “kickback” stand in progress and see that her two front feet stay planted, and her head stays very close to the same position. Can you tell that luring her head forward would not have gotten the same behavior?

Clara stand 1

Clara stand 2

Clara stand 3

Capturing a Stand

So here’s how I did it. The video includes my very first session. I had never taught this to Clara before.

Catch your dog standing still. Start to rapid-fire treats into her mouth. You can click or not. I used a mouth click. If the dog moves any foot out of position, stop. As soon as she stands still again, start up the rapid fire.

I did two short sessions of this over two days, heavily reinforcing Clara for standing still. Immediately following the second session, I stopped treating and waited. You can also see this on the video. Since stand had stopped paying off, she offered a sit. Still I waited, just looking at her. “What, no treat for sitting?” asked Clara. “I guess I’ll try the thing I recently got 50 treats for.” And she stood up. Rapid-fire treats recommenced.

So that’s how we started getting the action of standing up, after Clara had already gotten lots of reinforcement for duration standing.

If your dog is less accustomed to taking the initiative in training sessions and offering behavior, this process may not go so quickly. But as my teacher says, dogs notice exactly where they were and what they were doing when they got a treat. If you treat your dog enough in a standing position, then move her out of that position, she’ll eventually move into it again.

After we did this a few times, I started cuing Clara to sit and gave her one little treat when she did. That made it clear to her that that was the starting position, and made it easy for us to alternate back and forth between sit and stand. Then when she stood up, I gave her multiple treats.

The way I got the kickback stand was to have her standing right in front of me. She had nowhere to go but backwards. If Clara weren’t comfortable being that close to me, I would have chosen another way. For instance, I could have used a front foot target, as Marge Rogers does in this video. (She’s teaching sit, but it’s the same concept: keep the front feet locked down.)

Finally, after Clara had several days of practice, I cued her to lie down instead of sit, then waited. (This part is not shown on the video.) She moved into a sit. No treat, and I cued her to lie down again. A couple of these, and she figured I wanted her to move into a stand from lying down, without an intermediate sit. Also not shown in the video is generalizing the stand to different positions, such as when she’s at my side.

Note: A kickback stand is a physical skill. It can take a while, especially for dogs who lack rear end strength or awareness. Their first attempts are not likely to be pretty. My dogs worked it out over time without any additional intervention from me (I taught Zani a kickback stand as well). It may be different for your dogs, and you may need some advice from a trainer. My focus in this video and blog is to show you how to get started by reinforcing a dog for standing still. Where you go with it is up to you!

Link to the stand capturing video for email subscribers.

My purpose in teaching Clara to stand on cue is that we are working on some rear end strengthening rehab work (under the supervision of a qualified vet) in the wake of her bout with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Standing repeatedly from a sit or down is one of those exercises, and so is a duration stand while I manipulate her legs. I have recorded all her exercise sessions and hope to put them together into a blog in the future.

In the meantime, I hope this method of Sue Ailsby’s is fun and helpful for some other folks.

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Teaching a Dog to Back Up


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But It Worked for My Dog!!

Worked for who?

Who did it work for, again?

What happens when someone shares a “success” story about training with aversives? Here’s my response to a commenter who did so on one of my previous posts.

A Parable

Once there was a woman named Reva who had a serious health condition that needed intervention. Her intexagog was inflamed and could rupture any day. Reva looked up intexagog specialists in the phone book. She found Dr. Bleppo, who had an ad that was both slick and reassuring, and picked him. She made an appointment. He was a likable guy and radiated competence. He said sure, he could fix her intexagog right up and she would be fine again.

Reva scheduled surgery. It seemed to go well. Her intexagog was fine, she was out of pain, and resumed her normal life. She started having mood swings, but didn’t put that together with the surgery. She thought maybe she had always experienced those and just didn’t remember correctly.

Whenever the subject of intexagogitis came up in discussion Reva always recommended the doctor who had operated on her. She heard some murmurings that maybe there were problems with his methods. She always responded, “But my operation was a great success!” Her friend Hector started having trouble with his intexagog, and she gave Dr. Bleppo a glowing reference. Hector contacted Dr. Bleppo on her recommendation.

But a few months after the surgery Reva found out from another specialist that the method Dr. Bleppo had used had an 80% rate of undesirable side effects. These had been well documented for years and the evidence the new doctor gave her was very strong. The side effects ranged greatly in intensity, from things like occasional tingling in the fingers to depression to damage of other body organs to death. They could appear immediately after the surgery or years later, especially if one maintained the after-surgery protocol Dr. Bleppo had recommended. The doctor hadn’t told her of any of this on the front end, just assured her of his experience and told her he could make her well again.

Even though Reva was one of the lucky ones–at this point she had only the mood changes to deal with–she felt betrayed. And now she knew that she might experience some of the other side effects later. She considered filing a complaint with the medical board, since Dr. Bleppo had acted wrongly in not informing her of these side effects and risks, or telling her of alternatives.

Hector had also gotten surgery from Dr. Bleppo, so Reva told him what she had learned. He reacted with hostility when she told him this news. He hadn’t experienced any side effects (yet). Hector continued to talk about what a wonderful, dedicated surgeon Dr. Bleppo was to all who would listen, and would bring up his own successful surgery as proof.

Dog Trainers

The world of dog training is rife with Dr. Bleppos. We don’t have a regulatory board to go to if they don’t inform us of the possible consequences of their actions, nor if they ruin our dogs with harsh methods. Most of us will move on to another trainer, but we may still not have the necessary information to assess trainers.

Training that depends on aversive methods such as prong or shock collars, intimidation, throwing things, loud noises or sprays of water or more noxious substances, personal pressure, or flooding (not letting the dog escape from a scary, painful, or uncomfortable situation) has risks. The possible fallout from these methods has been known and studied for decades and on many species. My posts 7 Effects of Punishment and Fallout from the Use of Aversives delineate the types of problems that commonly accompany the use of aversives. The latter post includes references to research. But the Trainer Bleppos either don’t know about the problems, they dis the science, or they actively keep this information from their clients.

Dog Owners

The world of dog training is also full of Hectors. Many of us have been Hector at some point. When dog owners make a financial and emotional investment in something, we want it to work. Generally, if there is any way possible to see it as working, we will do so. So the Hectors of the dog training world predictably pipe up in any discussion that is critical of aversive methods and give the example of their dog being fine.

Some dogs may be fine, or close to it. Someone with more ability to read dog body language than the person posting would likely see the behavioral responses to the use of aversives, but they might be subtle and the commenter can’t see them. Plus many dogs are very resilient and forgiving of humans. We have bred them to be.

So I can never say to a commenter who relates a punishment success story that her individual experience is wrong and her dog is not fine. Sometimes I will suspect that the commenter lacks the knowledge for a comparative assessment, or the punitive methods used might have been at a low level or she might have a robust dog. But it is not good argument to deny someone’s experience.

What I can say, and am saying now, is that sharing such an experience does not prove the method’s safety and is very damaging. Behind the one dog who seems OK are strewn many dogs who may not recover from damage due to punitive training. I know that sounds overly dramatic, but most of the positive reinforcement based trainers I know go around picking up the pieces for those dogs and their owners. So holding up the token survivor is sadly misleading.


There are some common misunderstandings whenever I bring up the problems with aversive use. I want to address a few before the comments start rolling in, grin. Whenever someone submits a comment on my blog supporting or recommending the use of aversives, I counter it. This is not because I am completely pure in my training, nor because I think aversives don’t work, nor because I think dogs should live completely sheltered lives. It’s because aversive success stories give people permission and encouragement to use aversives. Many people are searching for this permission. I’m not going to provide it here.

On the other hand, I don’t think people should hide such usage. I’m in favor of honesty, and honesty includes delineating the drawbacks and risks of aversive use, especially when describing an apparent success. If something is noxious enough to prompt avoidance, it’s probably noxious enough to create side effects. I addressed this in my last post, Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement, with an example of what might happen when one uses a mildly aversive stimulus repeatedly in a training scenario.

Example: My Own Aversive Use

Here’s an example of how I talk about the implementation of an aversive. As part of loose leash training, I taught all of my dogs to yield to leash pressure with a combination of negative and positive reinforcement. I pulled gently on the leash, and when they responded by lessening the pressure (moving towards the tension), I marked and rewarded with food. The first reinforcer was the lessening of the pressure, and the second was the food. Leash pressure is aversive, and using it to train employs negative reinforcement.

Now, having a dog that will yield to gentle pressure is very handy. And teaching it is not usually likely to prompt a whole lot of redirected aggression or other dramatic side effects (with most dogs). Certainly not as problematical as something that hurts or pinches or applies heavy pressure. But when I look back on the videos I took, I can tell that it was just not fun for my dogs in the way most of our other training was, even though good food treats were involved.  This exercise put a damper on their enjoyment of training, and possibly a damper on their relationship with me. Why let that happen if I don’t have to?

So if someone were to recommend that protocol, what about the people reading about it who have dogs who would suffer more from such an exercise, dogs who perhaps don’t have the huge positive reinforcement history with their owners that mine do? What about the fearful dogs who are just now getting used to being handled at all and are sensitive to proximity? There is possible fallout, even with such a mild aversive. So you will never see me tout its success or urge others to try it. Instead, if asked about my own experience, I’ll urge caution and describe the drawbacks.

Not every positive reinforcement method is right for every dog either, of course. And some include aversives accidentally in the way they are applied. Still, that is different from systematically and repeatedly using an unpleasant stimulus to get or suppress behavior.

To My Commenter

I’m glad your dog did OK after you used a trainer from a national franchise. I can tell he is a beloved family member and you care for him very much. I have a suggestion: there are at least two trainers in your area who use positive reinforcement based methods and have pledged never to hurt dogs in the name of training. They can be found by searching for trainers at your location on this list:  Membership list of the Pet Professional Guild. Both of them offer fun classes like agility and clicker training. Take your dog to such a class, just for fun. See how he likes it. Hopefully it will be a new and enjoyable experience for both of you.

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Graphic credit: The sad dog cartoon is free clipart from Thanks! (By the way, I know the caption is improper grammar. Keep in mind that it’s a dog talking, grin.)

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Posted in Behavior analysis, Escape/Avoidance, Negative Reinforcement, Punishment | Tagged , , | 28 Comments