But I’ve Seen Stressed-Out Dogs During Positive Reinforcement Training Too!

Thank you to Jennifer Titus of CARE for Reactive Dogs for editorial advice. All errors and awkward moments are mine alone.

Citing “stressed-out R+ dogs” in an argument is an old chestnut that comes around regularly. The writer usually describes a training session he or she witnessed where a dog being trained with positive reinforcement was exhibiting fear or stress. The goal of sharing this description generally seems to be to blur the real differences between training that is based on positive reinforcement (R+) and training that is based on escape, avoidance, and punishment. Sometimes it is a feeble attempt to argue with the ranking of methods in assessments such as the Humane Hierarchy.

Cherry-picking a moment out of any dog’s life to support a general point about methods is tempting but is not effective argument.

Summer over the threshold of stimulus aversivness

My dog Summer showing stress during an R+ training session. What can we therefore conclude about the learning process called positive reinforcement? 

The “Stressed-Out” R+ Dog

So let’s consider the stressed-out dog in positive reinforcement training. What are some possible causes of stress in an R+ training session?

When using positive reinforcement, some metrics we use to assess the skill of the trainer and the effectiveness of the training are timing, criteria, and rate (or sometimes magnitude) of reinforcement. Let’s start our analysis there.

Bad timing can cause the dog some stress through lack of clarity. The trainer is marking and rewarding some incorrect behaviors while sometimes failing to reinforce some correct ones. If she cleans up her act and stops reinforcing the wrong stuff, the dog will go through an extinction process. Depending on the trainer’s skill, this can be stressful.

Raising criteria too fast means a higher failure rate. This can also cause some frustration. So while this is in an R+ training environment, what you have when you raise criteria too fast and the dog doesn’t do anything reinforceable is, again, an extinction problem.

If the rate of reinforcement is too low, you can actually put the desired behavior on extinction. So you may get a confused dog who starts throwing behaviors out of frustration, or a dog who will wander off and do something else more reinforcing, given the choice to do so.

Another stressor can be the use of negative punishment when the dog hasn’t learned the behavior. If the dog isn’t clear on how it can earn the reinforcer, it is frustrating to have it taken away contingently as it tries other things.

Note that none of the above errors is likely to hurt, scare, or startle the dog.

Two more types of stressors possible in an R+ training session are pressure of some type, and an accidental, momentary aversive. These two can indeed hurt, scare, or startle the dog, but are not linked to the positive reinforcement learning process.

  • What I’m calling pressure could consist of anything in the environment, setup, or even mannerisms of the trainer that the dog would like to escape from. Is something too loud? Is someone pressuring the dog with his or her body? Is the dog being kept too close to something she is scared of? This type of problem comes from the unwitting inclusion of an aversive stimulus.
  • Likewise, accidents happen, as they can in any training. A trainer might step on her dog’s tail during a stay, but again, this is an aversive accident, not an integral part of R+ training.

So our causes of stress are probably either technical mistakes on the trainer’s part or the presence of an unplanned or unrecognized aversive stimulus.  Are these problems unique to positive reinforcement training? Absolutely not. They can happen in training based on aversives just as easily.

A Fair Comparison

Let’s compare apples with apples. Rather than focusing on the stressors in faulty positive reinforcement training, lets compare the net effect on the dog of R+ training vs. aversive-based training–with both done poorly. There is certainly no shortage of sloppy training done with aversive methods. I can find such a video on YouTube within a couple of minutes, and  the trainer is often touting it as a success story.

So what happens to a dog being trained with escape/avoidance and punishment when the problems and errors I described above are present? Not only is the dog startled, hurt, intimidated, or at least irritated by the training itself, she will also be subjected to the additional stress resulting from trainer errors. Or she may experience aversives in addition to the ones the trainer is purposely using.

Here’s what it could look like.

  • Bad timing: Imagine popping a dog’s collar when she is heeling perfectly, in addition to popping her when she makes an error.
  • Changing criteria too fast: Imagine using duration shock to teach a dog to jump off a platform immediately after using it to teach her to jump on it.
  • Unplanned aversive stimulus: Imagine teaching stays using your hands to force a sound-sensitive dog to hold her position while a delivery truck with a no muffler drives by.

Those make the possible stressors in R+ training look rather like small potatoes, don’t they?

A Real-Life Example of the Results of R+ Training with Errors

I will be the guinea pig. I have a video of my own training that demonstrates many of the stressors I listed above.

In this popular video of mine that demonstrates lumping, I raise criteria too fast for Zani. She gets visibly frustrated. You can see it around 2:25 in particular. She plants herself in front of me in a sit and makes what I call the “terrier frustration noise.” A sharp exhale through her nose. I don’t blame her.

In addition to the training errors that are the subject of the video, there are more. I often mark late. I mark and reinforce improper behaviors, both when she targets my bare hand instead of the tape, or does a “drive-by” and doesn’t connect at all.

My rate of reinforcement is not bad, but there are a couple of times when Zani is going through extinction, trying other behaviors, where I might have interrupted her sooner, or marked something approaching the right behavior.

My reinforcement placement is not thoughtful. I am generally tossing the treat in order to reset Zani, but think how much faster she could have gotten to the wall if I had treated in that direction instead of away from it?

Another criterion issue is my poor choice of tape color. Gray, even metallic, is not a good contrast on a tan/yellow wall. Zani probably couldn’t see it well.

Interestingly, there is a subtle aversive stimulus in the session as well, and I think we can see the effects of it on Zani’s actions.  The tape on the wall is in a tight area.  I think her reluctance to enter that small area (in other words, an aversive setup) is one of the reasons she targets the desk multiple times instead of going for the tape. She is extremely pressure sensitive and I am asking her to go by me into a tight little space. She tries to avoid it.

So in one video, we have many of the problems I listed above.

Link to the Lumping video for email subscribers.

But even with the errors in the training and the slightly aversive setup, Zani hung in there with me and was wagging her tail in the last section. She successfully learned the behavior I was teaching and got 24 tasty food treats in the three minutes of training time shown. Not a bad rate at all, considering that there were two dry spells and also that she was spending a fair amount of time chasing down treats.

So here is a thought experiment. Imagine that instead of what you saw in the video, I used aversive methods to get the targeting behavior from Zani. You can imagine a combination of physical manipulation and body pressure, or a shock collar. No food in the picture. (If you are imagining Zani falling to pieces, that’s about right.) Now add to that multiple errors of timing and criteria, and an unwise setup that creates a tight space. How is Zani doing now?

That is a much fairer comparison of the results of different training methods.

The Proper Rejoinder

Evoking the scenario of the stressed-out R+ dog in argument invites the following response:

It’s a good thing the dog was being trained with positive reinforcement then. Adding training errors and aversive situations to any protocol can cause stress. Think how much worse it would have been if the dog were being deliberately trained with aversives to start off with!

The real illogic of the comment in the title is that in most examples described it’s the addition of aversive stimuli that creates stress. Blaming stress that results from the accidental inclusion of aversive stimuli on the process of positive reinforcement training is not only illogical; it’s a cheap shot.

Conclusions from Examples

Drawing conclusions from examples is tricky, and can easily lead to the logical fallacy of “missing the point.”

A couple of the valid conclusions that can be drawn from the “stressed-out R+ dog” scenario are that some positive reinforcement trainers lack mechanical or observational skills, and that it is possible for other learning processes besides positive reinforcement to be going on when we are trying to train with R+.

What the scenario doesn’t support is the idea that there is some unknown dark side intrinsic to positive reinforcement training, or that there are characteristics of training methods that are immune to analysis through learning theory, or that stressors from lack of skill happen only in R+ training, or that training based on the use of aversive stimuli can make for a happier dog.

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Bootleg Reinforcement

-Many thanks to Debbie Jacobs, Randi Rossman, and Dr. Susan Friedman for making suggestions about the movies. Any errors are, of course, my own.

A sand colored dog with a black tail and muzzle is in a play bow position, sniffing a person's boots.

Clara excitedly sniffing my boot. Really!

Did you know that there is interesting name for that thing that messes up our best-laid training plans sometimes?

Bootleg Reinforcement: Reinforcement that is not part of, and tends to undermine, an intervention.–scienceofbehavior.com

The term “bootleg” does not mean there is anything wrong or second-rate about the reinforcement. On the contrary, it is usually something very potent. (See the bottom of the post for the historical usage of the term.) “Bootleg” is a value judgment, but it’s from our standpoint, not the standpoint of the one getting reinforced. It means that this particular reinforcement is what is messing up our plans and behavioral interventions. Something else is competing with–and winning against–our training plan.

Bootleg reinforcement is often involved in situations that are cited to “prove” that positive reinforcement training doesn’t work. For example, some dogs keep jumping on people even if they are reinforced for “four on the floor” and the jumped-upon humans turn their backs and ignore them when they jump.  Removing the human attention doesn’t work. Sometimes this happens because it is intrinsically reinforcing for the dog to jump or body slam. People can turn their backs on the dog all they want, but there is bootleg reinforcement maintaining the behavior as long as the dog enjoys jumping and bodily contact. In this case, positive reinforcement is working great! Just not the reinforcer we’re trying to use.

When a dog gets access to a bootleg reinforcer, they can get reinforced for exactly the thing you are trying to get them to stop doing. Some common bootleg reinforcers are:

  • Food on the counter.
  • Scraps in the trashcan.
  • Food the dog can grab if she runs away from you on the agility field and back to your setup area.
  • All manner of critters on the agility field.
  • Rat trails along the walls of an indoor agility course (this happened to me and my dog once).
  • Books on the bookshelf available to chew.
  • Buried cat poop that the dog can dig up.
  • Neighbor dog available to fence fight (there are bootleg negative reinforcers, now that I think of it).
  • Whatever happens to be reinforcing about barking (either positively or negatively reinforcing).
  • Whatever the dogs gets access to when she pulls on leash. And that leads to…

Odors

The example in the movies below involves the bootleg reinforcer of odor. It is a little uncommon as an indoor bootleg reinforcer, but very common outdoors on leash walks. If you are walking your dog and she succeeds in dragging you over so she can sniff an interesting smell, what has happened? Just as surely as if someone had given her a treat, she has just received positive reinforcement for pulling on leash. Access to odor is a great reinforcer for most dogs, and it’s a hard one to control. Heck, half the time we don’t even know the odor is there! Odor is a classic bootleg reinforcer for dogs outdoors, but I’m here to tell you it can be potent indoors as well.

Clara, my formerly feral dog, is extremely curious. Except regarding those pesky things called humans, she is extremely neophilic, that is, she is fascinated with and drawn to anything new. She notices when I wear new shoes or clothes. She loves to explore. She strives to check out anything new that I bring into the house, and I mean anything. Her primary way of checking things out is by sniffing.

Clara sniffing

Copping a drive-by sniff

So here’s where the problem with that comes in. I have written about my dogs’ mat behavior at the back door previously in What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? Recently I had a little struggle with that again. In some situations, even though I had been well reinforced for it many times, Clara would not get on her mat, but would wander up and start to sniff me all over. Because I was standing by the door, I had nowhere to go and she could get a sniff before I could do anything about it. (I suspect another common characteristic of bootleg reinforcement is how frustrating it can be to witness!)

I realized that this behavior would be a great one to show to explain bootleg reinforcement, and that I could also share how I addressed the behavior problem it created.

The Movies

Below are the two movies I made to illustrate bootleg reinforcement. Part 1 is about the definition of the term and has a short example. Part 2 shows the application and results of a behavioral intervention to prevent the bootleg reinforcement in the given example. That intervention may be completely unexpected one for many of you.

I have written quite a bit about Dr. Susan Friedman and the Humane Hierarchy before (see an image of the Humane Hierarchy here).  I think the interesting end of the Hierarchy is the “most humane” end; the end that lists behavioral interventions that are less intrusive to the animal than positive reinforcement.

I can honestly say that had I not been introduced to the Humane Hierarchy and antecedent arrangements, I would not have known to take this step that ended up being an incredible win/win for me and for Clara. When it first worked out and I saw the video, I got tears in my eyes.

The standard advice for a competing reinforcer situation, such as the choice to “get on the mat for a cookie” vs. “take a sniff and get some novel odor,” would be to raise the value of the reinforcement for the desired behavior, and start over and practice in easier situations. Positive reinforcement trainers, especially relatively inexperienced ones like me, get in that situation all the time. Oops, we didn’t reinforce richly enough. Need to start over. And it generally works. We don’t think of positive reinforcement as a particularly intrusive solution, but often we do it as a substitute for the animal’s first choice of behavior. And the desire for that behavior has no reason to fade.

So–what if we could make the competing reinforcer non-competing? What if we could make the bootleg reinforcer legal? This won’t work with behaviors that are never acceptable, like eating cat poop or knocking over toddlers, but sniffing? Why not try it?

When addressing a problem behavior, Dr. Friedman suggests exploring ways that the animal can have what it wants when possible. Following that lead, and examining the Humane Hierarchy, I took the step of making the bootleg reinforcer legal after all. And as Dr. Friedman describes it, Clara ended up getting super-sized reinforcement. Clara was then happily able to perform the behavior that I needed in order for our lives to go smoothly.

If I had followed the standard advice, even though it involved positive reinforcement training, Clara would have had less enrichment in her life and fewer choices. Thank you once again, Dr. Friedman!

Link to Bootleg Reinforcement Movie Part 1.

 

Link to Bootleg Reinforcement Movie Part 2.

I bet there are some great examples of bootleg reinforcement out there. Care to share?

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Addendum: History of the Term “Bootleg”

Illegally manufactured or sold alcohol. From Online Etymology Dictionary:

bootleg (n.) Look up bootleg at Dictionary.com“leg of a boot,” 1630s, from boot (n.1) + leg (n.). As an adjective in reference to illegal liquor, 1889, American English slang, from the trick of concealing a flask of liquor down the leg of a high boot. Before that the bootleg was the place to secret (sic) knives and pistols.

Bootleg items

Bootleg items courtesy of the Cleveland Police Museum, via Wikimedia Commons (click photo for license)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Release Me!

Three dogs waitingHey! It turns out I have some bragging rights I haven’t collected on. So here goes.

Back in Spring 2013, I wrote two posts about practical issues with multiple dogs that were both quite popular.

A Secret for Training Two Dogs delineated a trick I learned about how to train one dog to wait quietly, unconfined, while another is actively trained.

The Right Word: Reducing Errors in Verbal Cue Discrimination is related to the first, in that it described how I taught my dogs their unique cues for individual releases. If you train more than one dog, and they are waiting quietly as mentioned above, you need to be able to tell one that it is her turn, right? And the others need to ignore that cue and wait for their own. I taught the individual release cues following the guidelines of errorless learning (which I refer to as reduced error learning, following the terminology lead of Dr. Susan Friedman).

Both of the above posts had movies attached with real life training.

At the end of the movie about teaching individual release cues, I was still working with the dogs one at a time, but I promised to show more as we improved. By this time,  almost two years later, I use these cues virtually every day.

It seems that stays, boundary training, and releases are trendy “show-off” exercises right now. So I’m going to show off a little, but I also want to direct people to the idea of using positive reinforcement to train these very useful behaviors.

As it happened, I taught the releases with almost pure positive reinforcement. There was a tiny bit of extinction, for when the dogs made wrong guesses, but I minimized that as well.

In today’s video I am showing the end behavior as I use it in my house. If you want to see how I trained it, click on the blog names above.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Link to my YouTube playlist: Helpful Behaviors for Households with Multiple Dogs

I would love to see a proliferation of positive reinforcement based videos of individual releases and boundary training with happy dogs. Anybody else up for it?

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Please Go Away: Dog Body Language Study

They really do get along! Honest!

They really do get along! Honest!

One of the things I am very grateful for in my life with dogs is that my current three get along. They don’t adore each other, but two of them, Clara and Zani, actually play together and are comfortable in each other’s space bubbles. Zani helped “bring up” Clara, even though Clara got pretty obnoxious pretty fast as a pup. And both of them manage to get along with Summer, who would really prefer to be the only dog in the world. Or at least the only female. But thank goodness they don’t hate each other.

I’ve written before that Summer is bothered by rowdy play and used to go on the attack when she thought Zani and Clara were being a bit too chaotic. I taught Summer something else to do rather than charge in snarling and snapping. I’ve shown some other clips and stills of Summer and Clara in particular vying over resources, but doing it without physical contact or a fight.

But before I ever had Clara, during Zani’s first several months in the household, Summer and Zani played almost constantly. So Summer does know how to play. I’ve always kept a close eye when she did, since her play often has a little edge to it.

Nowadays, every once in a while Summer seems to invite the others to play, or something. Usually she play-bows to Zani, then follows it up very quickly with an attempt to hump her. Often Zani will come leap in my lap when Summer tries that. Sometimes Clara gets between Summer and Zani. Typically, Clara and Zani both get visibly anxious when Summer initiates…whatever it is she initiates.

The Movie

In today’s movie, it didn’t play out quite like that, but I think it’s very interesting. Summer appeared to invite the others to play, and they weren’t having any of it. Zani wasn’t nervous enough to flee, and instead was quite assertive. Clara was her usual blunt self. But even though the other two ganged up on her, Summer remained remarkably calm and unbothered.

The most interesting thing to me was Zani’s extensive nosing of Summer’s ear and mouth, followed by Clara doing something similar. Some people who have seen the movie have speculated that Summer might have something medically wrong that the others were picking up on. But I can say with near certainty that the nosing was not curiosity of any sort (and that there’s nothing wrong with Summer’s mouth or ears). Zani’s automatic, normal response to either of the other dogs coming to get attention from me is to stick her nose persistently into private places–butts, ears, or mouths usually. She can almost always get Summer to move away by doing that. And if you look at Clara’s behavior carefully, she is doing a whole lot more poking with her nose than sniffing.

It’s easy to feel bad for Summer watching this. The other two are so obviously telling her to get lost. But my read on it was that Summer was relaxed about the whole thing. Her initial invitations were, for her, loose and friendly looking. During the whole of the intrusive nosing, she stood there wagging her tail (a nice wag–slow and wide, at three quarters-mast). She had fleeting looks of concern, but mostly her mouth was loose and to me she looked quite pleased with herself. Also–Clara left the scene first. (Clara and Summer headed for two different water bowls for a drink at the end.) I score it Summer: 1; Clara and Zani: 0. Nice try, girls!

Link to the video for email subscribers.

A Note on Behavioral Function

Performing behavior analysis in situations other than training helps me understand things better. Perhaps it does for some of you, too. So I’ll bolster my hypothesis with a tiny bit of it.

The reason I think that Zani’s sniffing/nosing behavior was saying, “Go away” to Summer, is that I have seen it perform that function dozens of times. The usual behavior analysis goes like this:

  • Setting: Summer is standing near me and I am petting her and/or talking to her; Zani is close by
  • Antecedent: Zani sticks her nose in Summer’s butt or ear and presses it there for a duration of time
  • Behavior: Summer moves away
  • Consequence: Pressure from Zani’s nose is escaped
  • Prediction: Summer’s moving away when Zani’s nose is pressed into her will increase or maintain.

This is a negative reinforcement scenario. My dogs are all experts on using pressure on each other (and on me). But the interesting thing is that the prediction didn’t come true.

This time, Summer didn’t move away, even when Clara joined in with the pressure as well. So I’ll have to keep an eye on the behavior patterns in the future. Was this a rare aberration for Summer? Or is she getting desensitized to Zani’s nosiness? And if so, will Zani develop a new tactic? Zani is an expert communicator, and as the smallest dog in the household develops some interesting ways to get what she wants. I’ll report back if something interesting comes of this.

Clara and Zani on day bed

Clara and Zani are comfortable in each other’s space. Summer, not so much.

Do you have a dog who does something non-violent (but obnoxious) to get another dog to move away?

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Coping with In-Home Construction with Dogs

Summer with HammerLife intervenes in our most careful, gradual training programs sometimes. I’ve got a dog that was born feral and a recovering reactive dog, both of whom I work with on their issues, including that I take regular lessons from a very talented trainer. Clara, the formerly feral dog, has made great strides in her ability to be comfortable around humans other than those on her very short list. She was still a wild puppy through almost all of her socialization window. I have done lots of DS/CC as well as positive reinforcement-based training with her over the last three years, and she now does well in many environments that would be challenging for almost any dog. And my mildly reactive dog Summer has been making great progress lately, mostly with an operant approach. But Clara in particular has very little experience with strangers in the house.

Ready or not, though, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I needed some work done on my house that would necessitate the long-term presence of workmen.

Usually when I have someone working in the house for an hour or two, I stash all the dogs in the bedroom with stuffed food toys in their crates. I turn up some loud music to mask some of the sound and we get through it. They do fine for a few hours.

However, this time the workers needed access to almost the whole house, including our major hangouts. And the project was days, not hours.

How We Coped

First, Summer and Zani got to go on a field trip every day. They went to work with our dear friend. They thought it was great. They got in the swing of things by the second or third day and were very cute when I would take them out front to wait for their “ride.” They were so excited when our friend pulled up.

Clara and I took up residence in the study, a small bedroom that was one of the few places the workmen didn’t need access to. This room was completely familiar to her, and a place where she would typically snooze while I worked at the computer.1)It’s not a great idea to go hang out in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place when you are already interrupting your dog’s routine. Going to the special room can become the predictor that scary stuff is going to happen. If you must use a new place, then it’s good to practice a few days before the actual event and mix things up a bit. We had a door we could close, but the room was right on the hall that the men had to walk up and down all day. I left it open the first few times so Clara could see what was going on (not sure whether that was a good idea, but she did great), then closed it for the rest of the time. I kept Clara on a harness, dragging a leash, because I am a worrywart about the possibility of doors and gates being left open when there are people coming and going.

I made a couple of really good frozen Kongs for Clara every day. I included high value stuff like some bits of chicken in each one. The men were there way too long each day for Clara to be able to eat the whole time, but I would give her a Kong when they first got here, and then another sometime in the afternoon when things were busiest. I used dog food roll for treats in the interim, and some spray cheese when things got tough. I cut down her other meals accordingly, but she always got a decent breakfast. No point in facing a stressful situation on an empty stomach!

Luckily, Clara is not sound phobic. Nobody likes booms, sawing, or machinery noises, but beyond the startle/annoyance factor, she doesn’t mind them much. It is all about the strange people for her. So her main triggers were the human noises: hearing the guys talk to each other or to me, or hearing them come in the door or walk around, especially right by us down the hall.

Oh yeah, and she wasn’t really fond of it when an electrician had to go in the attic and was obviously walking on the beams right above us. She looked at me like, “You have got to be kidding me!!”

Here is a printable list of our coping strategies: Helping Dogs Cope with Construction

Clara asleep during construction

Clara asleep during construction

The Order of Events

Even though it meant that I might get a small barking outburst from her, every day I made sure Clara saw and/or heard the guys coming in before we went into our room and she got her Kong. I wanted to make sure that the prediction went the right direction. Guys coming in the house should predict a great treat. I didn’t want being given a Kong to predict that something scary was about to happen.

After a couple of days Clara learned the sound of one guy’s truck, and would run to the door, ready to bark, when he got there. Instead I would lead her straight into our hideout, and once inside she would turn to me for her Kong.

Throughout the day, whenever there was a triggering event, be it a man’s shout, a door slam, or a startling noise, I generally gave her a treat. I say generally because I had to limit it somewhat. It was just too long a time to be completely consistent, or even Clara would have gotten sick from all the food. So even as she was generalizing, looking to me for treats with every sound, I had to deliver them less frequently. I did my best to save the good stuff for the more dramatic moments, like the predictable time at the end of the day when the last workman would come knock on the study door and give me an update.

One other thing I was careful about–I tend to get hypervigilant when I am expecting visitors. I look out the window at every little sound; I go look out the door, etc. I do this whether I am expecting my favorite people in the world or someone I would rather not see. I just get very anticipatory. I actively fought this behavior on my part this week because I did not want my peering out the window and door to become a predictor for the dogs of invasion by workmen. So I was purposely less vigilant and more discreet when I did take a peek.  I’m pretty sure I prevented that particular connection from being made.

Counterconditioning without Desensitization–                                 No Wait, it’s Management

Following triggers with treats is classical conditioning or counterconditioning–if one can be consistent, if one’s timing is good, and if the dog is in shape to take the treats. But I have to say that because of the long periods of time involved and my lack of control of the process, this wasn’t a training situation, it was management. There were simply too many events every day. My goal was to keep from hold our own and prevent backsliding, and I achieved that.

And there was zero desensitization involved. When we have control over triggers, we can start them at a non-aversive level and gradually increase the proximity or amplitude of the trigger when the animal is ready. (If you add a goodie after each exposure you get the magic combination of desensitization and counterconditioning.) But most real-life situations don’t work like that. I don’t have the means or the time to hire a guy to come impersonate a workman for a month, first just driving up to my house, then walking to my front door, then coming in, then talking to me, then making gradually more noise, etc. All of that would have to be carefully coordinated so as not to be an aversive exposure, include only a limited number of reps per day, and require exquisite timing on my part. Ain’t happening.

So at best, we had management and a bit of counterconditioning. Clara did learn that having workmen in the house predicted Kongs and spray cheese, so I guess I can say that we did build a classical association!

Summer

Summer offering eye contact again

Summer continues to do really well with her triggers and did fantastic the couple of times she had to be around the construction. One day the workmen stayed late and she “came home from work” about an hour before they left. All three dogs came in the study with me, and Summer did phenomenally well, not reacting to the workman talking on his cell phone, whistling, or walking up and down the hall. You’ll see in the video–she looks quite relaxed. (As opposed to Clara, who is looking pretty worn out–it was her seventh hour of commotion, as opposed to Summer’s first!)

Getting the Connection

You can see in the video at least one Positive Conditioned Emotional Response (CER+), where Clara’s tail starts to wag after the man walks by us. You can also see a good handful of “expectant” responses from both Clara and Summer when they hear something. No tail wags or obvious drooling, but the “where’s my treat?” look. This is not all the way to a complete CER+, but think how much nicer it is for the dog than barking, lunging, and panicking.

Link to the video for email subscribers

Did I miss any tips? I can always add to my list. Here’s the link one more time:

Helping Dogs Cope with Construction

Other Posts on Helping Dogs Cope with Hard Stuff

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Notes   [ + ]

1. It’s not a great idea to go hang out in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place when you are already interrupting your dog’s routine. Going to the special room can become the predictor that scary stuff is going to happen. If you must use a new place, then it’s good to practice a few days before the actual event and mix things up a bit.
Posted in Classical conditioning, Differential Reinforcement, Management | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Shaping Without a Clicker

no markerMost trainers agree that if there is one thing that the tool called a clicker is useful for in particular, it is for shaping behavior. Shaping consists of marking and reinforcing successive approximations towards a goal behavior. When shaping, the trainer can find herself needing to mark very small or quick movements indeed, sometimes just a weight shift or a breath. When that is the case, the behavior is usually long over by the time one can get food or a toy to the animal.

A clicker or other marker can form a “bridge” between the behavior and the reinforcer, letting the animal know more precisely what behavior we are attempting to reinforce.

The other day I was in a discussion, a common one online, about whether a clicker or a marker word is better for training in general. (Guess what–I have a blog post coming out about that soon!) Someone said that in any case, a clicker was necessary when shaping. I said that it wasn’t. The discussion went a different direction after that, so I decided to demonstrate here what I mean.1)This idea is not original to me. I originally read it years ago on the Yahoo group ClickerSolutions, but I don’t remember the author. I’m sorry that I can’t make a proper attribution.

Everybody who thinks they are about to see three shaping clips with the trainer using some other kind of marker–think again. In these three movies I shape three different dogs to do three different behaviors with no marker at all. No deliberate one anyway.

In two out of the three clips, the dog is working at a slight distance from me, so in that case my motion to throw the treat becomes a marker when they see it. In fact, at one point (in a video not shown here) I did the equivalent of clicking and not treating: I wound up to throw but held back. I saw Summer notice that, bless her heart, but she soldiered right on when she saw that I wasn’t going to throw.

Doubtless the dogs picked up on other behaviors of mine that mean, “Food coming!” But that happens when we use a deliberate marker as well.

Benefits

Why even try such an odd thing?

It’s a learning opportunity, and quite an interesting one. When you take away the marker, what you have left to work with is placement and speed of treat delivery–things that skilled trainer seek to optimize anyway. I would encourage any trainer to try it as an exercise. One of the challenges when working at a distance and throwing treats is whether you can successfully anticipate the animal’s movement and start your throw so that the treat arrives right as she does the behavior. It’s a gamble. Either you wait and the treat arrives late, or don’t wait and risk a “false positive” throw when they didn’t do what you wanted after all. (For instance in Clara’s video, at 2:36 and 2:54, I accidentally reward a weight shift when her paw ends up not moving, well after I should have finished rewarding weight shifts.)

I noticed that I started watching the dogs’ bodies with the intent of predicting when they would make a certain movement. This is a valuable habit for marker training–something I should be doing in any case. But taking away the marker forced me to improve. I learned some things that I think I will retain about how my dogs balance their bodies and how to predict their movements.

If you want to watch only one movie, watch Clara’s. It was the biggest challenge and the most interesting.

Zani’s Task: Nose Target a Piece of Tape on the Wall

This is a known behavior for Zani, and in a known place, but she still had to figure out where to go within our working area, and then to notice and respond to the tape. I deliberately handicapped myself (in addition to not using a marker) by sitting at a distance from the tape.

Link to Zani’s video for email subscribers.

Summer’s Task: Paws Up on a Chair

Again, this is a known behavior. But we have never practiced it without me standing right there, so the distance was new. Also the towel I put on the chair changed the look of the situation. In an earlier session with Zani, not shown here, I had really screwed up my setting factors. I tried to shape Zani into paws up position on the chair, and actually did succeed, but it took a while because of the following drawbacks:

  • The treats (kibble) that I tossed onto the chair bounced off Every. Single. Time.
  • A good portion of the treats that I tossed on the floor rolled under the desk.

So when I tried it with Summer I placed a towel to pad the chair seat a bit and also to block the most direct path under the desk. I also switched to cheese, which is less prone to ricochet. (Lucky Summer!)

I stayed seated until she got the paws up part, but I did jump up at the end to treat Summer in position when she made it up there.

Summer is my crossover dog, but also the most inventive of my three. Be sure to catch her signature shaping move, a kind of sashay while tossing her head. The best one is at 0:59.

Link to Summer’s video for email subscribers.

Clara’s Task: Left Paw Lift

Clara shapingI am really proud of this one. With the other two behaviors shown, a critic could say that just by loading treats over into the area where the target behavior was, I was almost luring the dog  (even though we often do that when shaping with a marker as well). So for Clara, I deliberately picked a behavior I had never trained before that didn’t involve going to a location. This was completely new for Clara, as was the actual behavior, the paw lift (on a side designated ahead of time by me). Also, I’ve never shaped this kind of body movement with her before.

The thing I really like about both shaping and capturing is when the target behavior becomes more frequent and more exaggerated, seemingly even before the dog “knows” what she is doing. You can see Clara’s left paw movement get more frequent and more pronounced starting at about 2:00 in the video. (Yes, and you can see me miss reinforcing some really good ones.) It’s pretty amazing how fast she got it considering that there was a varying time lag between her foot movement and the treat.

Link to Clara’s video for email subscribers.

Clara Makes Choices

You’ll see in Clara’s video that she is slow to get started and also leaves the session twice for a few seconds. There were a couple of reasons for this. When I do nose work in the house with my dogs, I get them to stay out of sight and then release them into the target area. I don’t have a verbal cue for it yet (my bad). So when I released Clara to enter the area, it’s pretty clear she thought that’s what we were doing. It was exacerbated by the fact that I had been using homemade chicken brownies and mozzarella cheese earlier, but I was down to using small kibble at this point. So I don’t blame her for taking a few sniffs around to make sure she wasn’t supposed to be hunting something down.

Do I mind that my dog wandered off in the middle of a session? At first I did–dammit, I was recording! But then I reminded myself that she has that choice. Clara had already had a few sessions and eaten quite a few different types of treats, so the value of the current reinforcement was low, especially considering the difficulty of the task. I have tons of value built with working with me already and she’s normally a very focused worker, so her leaving was not worrisome, as it might have been with a different dog. (Also, the sniffing was clearly with a purpose; Clara was not leaving on account of any stress.)

Often when people talk about giving their dogs choices it centers on the choice to leave something that might be aversive, such as getting their nails trimmed, or seeing one of their triggers. That’s a given for most positive reinforcement based trainers, and my dogs have that choice as much as I can possibly provide it. (Exceptions being things like vet visits, but I strive to make those as non-aversive as possible.)

But in this case, Clara was choosing between two positively reinforcing activities: a shaping session and sniffing around and possibly finding a high value treat. It makes me happy that she and I have such a great relationship that I can give her this choice.

And hey, she came back and NAILED it!

So here’s a challenge if you are interested. If your dog is already shaping-savvy, try shaping without a marker. (If you typically use a clicker or other marker for everything, you might want to experiment with leaving it out while doing something a little easier than shaping at first.) And let us know how it goes. You can even tape your mouth shut. I did for our first sessions!

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Notes   [ + ]

1. This idea is not original to me. I originally read it years ago on the Yahoo group ClickerSolutions, but I don’t remember the author. I’m sorry that I can’t make a proper attribution.
Posted in Clicker | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Dog Interrupted: The Value of Reorientation

A sable dog is sitting on the grass outside, gazing up at the photographer with a calm expression

Summer reports in

Recently I published, “Miracles Can Happen: Summer’s Good Behavior Generalizes.” This post was about my surprise that Summer started reporting to me for a treat when the big neighbor dog was around, instead of getting herself all fired up running up and down the fence.

A lot of things are coming together for Summer right now. Summer is the first dog I ever seriously trained and also my crossover dog. We have been through a lot together. But I had to put some of her training on hold when Clara came into my life. With three dogs and one of me, there is sometimes a kind of triage that goes on.1)Also, to be fair to myself, it was only after working with Clara that some of Summer’s needs became clearer to me. Clara’s issues were an emergency when she came to me, and remained that way for more than a year. While Summer is anxious and has some behavior problems, she has always been comfortable enough in her skin to get enrichment from being out in the world, and is adoptable in the case of something happening to me. That was not true for Clara. With her feral background Clara had and still has a very short list of people with whom she could be comfortable.

But Clara’s training has been coming along beautifully and I feel that I can finally breathe a little again. In the meantime, Summer has learned to come to me when the other dogs play and also when most other exciting things happen. When she comes she gets a treat, and we will usually hang out and do a little training, or she can just earn some periodic kibble for lying down quietly.

After seeing the movie in the earlier post, a reader wanted to know whether the behavior was robust enough that Summer would seek me out even when I was out of sight. That is what the movie is about, and the answer is yes. Take a look.

**NOTE** In the one of the outdoor clips, there is a moving shadow that looks like I am gesticulating with my hand. In another something comes momentarily on camera, and Summer flinches away as she comes to me. Both of those are actually Clara’s tail wagging. I have taught Clara a very strong Down cue that I use to limit her interference with the other dogs’ business, but I didn’t try to do it while wielding the camera.

Summer’s practice at self-interruption has allowed her to halt in the middle of her own barking and come find me in a different part of the house.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

How Did We Get There?

I would much have preferred working with classical counterconditioning with Summer from the beginning, especially with her fears of trucks and loud engine noises. That means pairing the appearance of a trigger with great things happening, no matter what Summer is doing. There is no behavioral requirement for the dog. Done correctly, conterconditioning can change the dog’s emotional response to a trigger, rather than just teaching them coping methods.2)An astute reader pointed out that what I am doing with Summer can be classified as operant counterconditioning. It too can eventually lead to the fears diminishing or disappearing, and Summer’s fears have definitely diminished. But it is a more indirect route and not my preferred one for an anxious dog. However, the operant work has still helped Summer enormously, and the behaviors she has learned are handy in a multitude of situations, not only having to do with fear.

That’s why I am sharing here a couple of things I have taught Summer that have built her ability to self-interrupt. Even with a non-fearful dog, these things can come in very handy. Every dog, sometime in its life, is going to encounter situations that are so novel or exciting that she has a hard time keeping ahold of herself. The following two behaviors are ones that just about anybody can practice with their dog, except for with the very most fearful dogs.

1) Capture and shape attention. To start off with this, anytime your dog turns or looks in your direction, mark and treat. You can start in the house. Then if you have a yard, you can do this when your dog is calmly going about her doggy business, doing things such as sniffing around, digging, or interacting with another dog. Your dog doesn’t have to completely stop doing what she is doing and gaze at you, not at first. You are capturing mini-behaviors, and over time, shaping her attention to you. She only needs to lift her eyes, turn her head, or take a step in your direction. Anything that is closer to coming to you or looking at you than what she was doing before.

Also, it’s fine if it is “accidental.” For example, let’s say she took a step in your direction while walking around. She wasn’t really coming to you but that doesn’t matter. Capture and reinforce it often enough and it will increase. You can shape it gradually into a recall (if she is not next to you) or eye contact (if she’s right there). Reinforce all these little things and soon you will become a regular focus of her attention.

This is a basic technique of most positive reinforcement trainers and one that can pay off bigime.

2) Alternate periods of arousal with periods of relaxation.  The most common way to do this is to teach your dog to relax on a mat, then intersperse an active game with the mat work. Lots of trainers have versions of this, some with special names for the exercise. But it amounts to about the same thing: helping the dog practice moving from excitement to relaxation and back. For just two examples: Sue Ailsby has this method in the Training Levels, Level 2 Relax. Leslie McDevitt calls it the “off-switch game” in Control Unleashed. Here are a couple of video examples:

Coming Around Full Circle

I am actually doing counterconditioning now with Summer. In a way, we have been working backwards. First I taught her an alternative behavior to getting excited and barking and running around (come check in with me). She is able to do it earlier and earlier and in more and more exciting events. But I’m now going for the whole banana with her, and hope to take the “scare” out of these triggers entirely, starting with trucks.

Since I have seen that her reactivity to mail and delivery trucks has lessened quite a bit through our operant work, I am hopeful that I can take her even farther with counterconditioning. I had always felt that we couldn’t do much about it since I am not always home when the trucks go by,3)One of the guidelines for most effective counterconditioning is that every single appearance of the trigger is paired with something great. and I can’t do a controlled exposure through desensitization. The trucks come when they will.  But I am hopeful that by being very consistent when I am home, and perhaps working a bit with recordings,4)There are a number of things that make using recordings tricky, and I’ll be writing about them in future posts. I can chip away a bit more at her fear.

Has anybody else gone “backwards” like this and taught an alternative behavior through positive reinforcement first, then done counterconditioning? Or does anybody want to share success stories using either method?

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Also, to be fair to myself, it was only after working with Clara that some of Summer’s needs became clearer to me.
2. An astute reader pointed out that what I am doing with Summer can be classified as operant counterconditioning. It too can eventually lead to the fears diminishing or disappearing, and Summer’s fears have definitely diminished. But it is a more indirect route and not my preferred one for an anxious dog.
3. One of the guidelines for most effective counterconditioning is that every single appearance of the trigger is paired with something great.
4. There are a number of things that make using recordings tricky, and I’ll be writing about them in future posts.
Posted in Differential Reinforcement, Reactivity | Tagged , | 16 Comments

What is Summer Saying? Observing a Bark

Summer mid bark keepWhen I filmed Summer barking using the slow motion function of my video camera, I was mostly curious in an analytical sort of way. What could I see when I slowed everything down?

I didn’t realize that I would find the footage so touching.

Slow motion filming is helpful because dog body language is so very fast. A dozen things can happen while we are just trying to process one. Much of it is so fleeting that we never see it at all.

Summer has a very expressive face, and she’s a worrywart. When you see her two little barks in slow motion, the extent of her anxiety is clear.

In day-to-day life with dogs, this is the kind of behavior that can be annoying. You are trying to read, watch TV, or go to bed, and the dog starts fussing because, for instance, the neighbor dropped a board on his back porch. You almost feel like the dog is doing it to annoy you.

But seeing something like this makes things very clear. No, she’s not a princess. No, she isn’t attention mongering. She’s just worried.

I’m glad I have been able to start working with Summer again. I’m afraid her anxiety took a back seat during Clara’s first couple of years in the household, since Summer could function in the world and had people and dog friends, and Clara had only me. Now that Clara is doing so well, the pendulum can swing back. I have been working on some of Summer’s triggers at home and already seeing progress. I’ll be writing about that some more soon.

In the meantime, you can check out how expressive two little barks can be.

 

Link to the video for email subscribers.

What do you see when your dog barks? Does it vary?

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Dog body language posts and videos

 

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Miracles Can Happen: Summer’s Good Behavior Generalizes

I have written before about Summer’s tendency to be the “fun police” and aggress when my other two dogs are playing rowdily. I taught her to come to me instead and get reinforced for sitting quietly.

This has become a strong behavior, and I don’t have to cue it. The cue is the other dogs’ playing. She responds consistently by coming to me. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened recently, but I was.

This week my neighbors have a visiting dog who spends a lot of time on their back porch. Harley is a large, apparently good-natured golden doodle with a very deep bark. He doesn’t like being in the back yard by himself and barks to be let in and also alarm barks when he hears things in the neighborhood.

This is very exciting for my dogs: a big, noisy dog next door. Luckily for us, Harley is not too interested in coming over by our fence, so there are few actual fence fights. But even so, my dogs can get over aroused and are quite interested in running up and down the back porch steps to alternately get a glimpse or a sniff of him, sniffing along the fence, and generally marching around with their hackles up.

Except Summer.

That’s right. Summer, my reactive dog, has decided she would rather come and sit in front of me and get treats.

Summer on porch

Brava, Summer! But what made you think of it?

What’s the Cue?

I’ve written quite a bit about how dogs tend to discriminate rather than generalize. They notice things that are out of the ordinary and don’t generalize the same way humans do. So, for example, even a dog who is very friendly to women and most men might bark at the first man she sees with a beard or a hat.

So I was curious: What was the prompt for Summer’s nice response when Harley came around? What was this situation similar to?

Here are some possibilities. I have done the following things with Summer over the years:

  1. Treated her in many situations for orientation to me in challenging situations: eye contact, checking in, and the like (positive reinforcement);
  2. Treated her for “sudden environmental changes” like scary noises, including strange dogs barking (classical conditioning);
  3. Treated her for coming to me when the other two dogs were being rowdy (positive reinforcement with an initial element of classical conditioning: dogs playing means food rains down); and
  4. Treated her in the house for coming to me when one of the other two dogs was barking (positive reinforcement). This is a new one. She started coming to me on her own for that, so it was probably a generalization of one of the others.

Wow, after looking at that list I’ve decided it’s not all the surprising that she decided to come to me when the neighbor dog was out there riling everybody else up. But I’ll continue with my speculation.

The most obvious candidate is the noisy, aroused behavior of the other dogs. When Harley was there, they ran around and barked, which was moderately similar to what they do when the play. But any of the other things on the list could have helped, too. (That’s one of the magical things about doing lots of behavioral interventions with your dog. Synergy.)

So I did what any curious person would do. I took Summer outside by herself when Harley was out in the next-door yard to see what would happen without the other dogs there.

Link to the movie for email subscribers

Spoilers

In case you are unable to watch the movie for any reason, I have put a description in a footnote below. 1)In the movie, I show Summer’s trained response of coming to me to sit when the other dogs play. Then I show her doing the same thing when the neighbor dog is there and my other two dogs are running around excitedly. Then I show taking her outside by herself. Although she knows the neighbor dog is there (he’s been barking and the whole world can hear it), she reorients to me as soon as we go out the back door. I give her some treats and release her to go down the stairs, but she comes right back to me. I encourage her to go down into the yard. (This is not an unnecessary thing to do. She does have to pee.)  After she goes down she sniffs along the fence and gets a little excited and whines. I call to her (not her “official” recall cue, just conversationally) and she immediately comes back up with me on the porch. She gets briefly “stuck” looking in Harley’s direction from the top of the steps, but self-interrupts and comes to me again. I show a final clip of all three dogs. Summer again reorients to me and gets treats. She does stand at the top of the stairs, looking in Harley’s direction, starts to get fixated and aroused, but then interrupts herself again. (Yay!)  Zani comes to check in with me as well. So did Clara, but I didn’t include that part.

What’s the Bottom Line?

I think the “main” cue for Summer’s coming to me was my other dogs running around excitedly. Summer did need a little help when she was outside by herself. She got a little “stuck” down in the yard when on her own. However, she instantly responded when I encouraged her to come back up. That part shows the effect of all the practice she has had in interrupting herself from potentially sticky situations. That practice played a big part in her ability to “shake it off.”

This is Not Counterconditioning

Just a word here about desensitization/counterconditioning. Regular readers will probably know that DS/CC is my go-to method for situations that are scary for my dogs.  But what you see in that movie is neither DS/CC nor the results of it. Instead I am reinforcing Summer for performing behaviors other than reactive or aggressive ones. It is an operant protocol. It is not aimed at changing her emotional response to a difficult situation, although over time that may happen as a side effect.

The reason I am not doing DS/CC is that Harley is a visitor and not often around, so this situation is pretty rare. And when he is here, I have no control over his activities and thus no control over Summer’s exposure to him. It would be difficult to impossible to do the true graduated exposures of desensitization.  If he were around a lot I would probably do some straight-up counterconditioning without desensitization, starting out by passing out treats whenever he barked like I did for Clara with Summer’s barking.

Summer nervous

Summer looking worried about something behind her

One clue that this is not DS/CC is Summer’s demeanor, which is anxious at times. This is still much better than running around in a panic, and is not uncommon to see in an operant protocol. But to have a dog looking like this in a DS/CC session for more than a fleeting moment would indicate a failure, as she is over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Other Good Behavior

I hope it goes without saying that I keep this excited, over aroused behavior of my dogs to a minimum. It can’t be completely avoided, since they do have to go into the yard to potty, but I can generally go with them and encourage the right things. My presence alone puts a damper on the over-the-top behavior, and I reinforce things like coming away from the fence, doing anything other than reacting to the other dog, and of course eliminating.

The cumulative result is that all three of my dogs will come away from the presence of Harley with just a casual word from me. Under normal conditions, when I am ready to go into the house, I call them in conversationally. I say something like, “Let’s go in, girls.”  (I don’t use their individual recall cues for this.) I reinforce my “suggestion” with kibble when they come, and they almost always come running instantly. It was great to learn that they would come even with Harley around.

Their reinforcement history also has the effect of lowering their arousal and engagement in general. They are easily interrupted, and they frequently interrupt themselves to check in with me. They just don’t get as stuck in arousal mode as they would without this intervention. This is a wonderful trait in general, and it all came about because I first generously reinforced attention to me in exciting situations with high value treats, then maintained the habit by carrying kibble in my pocket in the back yard, and passing it around generously for behaviors I liked.

I would love to hear other stories of good behavior generalizing. Got any?

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Notes   [ + ]

1. In the movie, I show Summer’s trained response of coming to me to sit when the other dogs play. Then I show her doing the same thing when the neighbor dog is there and my other two dogs are running around excitedly. Then I show taking her outside by herself. Although she knows the neighbor dog is there (he’s been barking and the whole world can hear it), she reorients to me as soon as we go out the back door. I give her some treats and release her to go down the stairs, but she comes right back to me. I encourage her to go down into the yard. (This is not an unnecessary thing to do. She does have to pee.)  After she goes down she sniffs along the fence and gets a little excited and whines. I call to her (not her “official” recall cue, just conversationally) and she immediately comes back up with me on the porch. She gets briefly “stuck” looking in Harley’s direction from the top of the steps, but self-interrupts and comes to me again. I show a final clip of all three dogs. Summer again reorients to me and gets treats. She does stand at the top of the stairs, looking in Harley’s direction, starts to get fixated and aroused, but then interrupts herself again. (Yay!)  Zani comes to check in with me as well. So did Clara, but I didn’t include that part.
Posted in Reactivity | Tagged , | 20 Comments

Flavors: Ideas for Ultra High Value Treats

 

A plate of spaghetti with a red colored meat sauce and a pile of grated cheese on top

Spaghetti Bolognese as a training treat? Is that even possible? See below!

OK, I’m going to break the ultimate taboo here and talk about giving so-called “people food” to dogs. 1)Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.

Most of us who do positive reinforcement training and counterconditioning are already accustomed to giving our dogs some pretty special, high value stuff at times. Tuna, ham, Gorgonzola cheese; most anything fragrant and full of calories has been tried at one time or another.

But these types of foods have something in common, and that is that most consist of one basic flavor.

A friend who doesn’t actually train her dogs, but gives them small amounts of interesting food out of love and as enrichment, caused me to notice how much dogs appear to enjoy complex odors and flavors.

My friend read a quote similar to this one about dogs’ olfactory powers: “We smell ‘vegetable soup,’ but a dog smells each individual ingredient.” 2)In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well. Author and scientist Alexandra Horowitz writes:

Dogs have more genes committed to coding olfactory cells, more cells, and more kinds of cells, able to detect more kinds of smells….their sense of smell may be millions of times more sensitive than ours.–Alexandra Horowitz, “Inside of a Dog,” 2010

My friend subsequently started making sure that her dogs regularly got–along with the smells–some tastes of safe, home cooked foods that were complex and seasoned. Just because she figured they would like it. She was right. They love it. She calls it “flavors” and all her dogs line up for their special tastes of interesting food, and look forward to a bite in their dinner bowls.  And note: her dogs can all proficiently suck up spaghetti à la “Lady and the Tramp.”

Smell vs. Taste

Even though they have those amazing noses, dogs have a lot fewer taste buds than we do. They probably can’t discriminate tastes nearly as well. But that’s no reason to limit their food to “simple” tastes like we often do, even when looking for high value treats. The smell of complex foods is likely rewarding in itself, and I find it hard to believe, after seeing what complex foods dogs often seem to like, that the smell doesn’t enrich the eating experience.

I remember one day at an agility practice when one of the people brought spice cookies for the humans. The dogs, with my Summer leading the way, went nuts over the odor of those cookies and when offered some bites gobbled them down like ambrosia. Summer has had cookies (intended for humans) before. Mostly simple things like vanilla wafers and shortbread.  The smells and tastes of butter, sugar, and vanilla are not unknown to her. But add in the clove and nutmeg and cinnamon in spice cookies and it was clearly a whole different experience.

Cautions

OK, before my suggestions, here are the cautions. Use common sense about foods that are toxic to dogs. Here is a list:  Foods That Are Hazardous to Dogs.

Also, be careful about foods with high fat content because of the risk of pancreatitis, plus of course all those calories. Highly processed foods full of sugar or white flour (see the fast food entries below) are probably best kept to small quantities as well. They can’t be any better for dogs than they are for us…. And on the other hand beware of artificially sweetened foods, which may have Xylitol, extremely toxic to dogs (thanks to reader Jane for this reminder).

Finally, with regard to using these kinds of treats for counterconditioning: I generally avoid making suggestions about things that “work for some dogs.” It is tempting when working with fearful dogs to try every trendy thing that comes along, without buckling down to do the actual conditioning and training which has been shown to help. So I don’t usually say, “It can’t hurt to try.” It can hurt to spend time on things that aren’t likely to work. But I don’t believe widening the search for foods that our dogs love falls into that bucket. It’s part of the basics of training and conditioning to find something the dog goes crazy for.

Practicality

So OK, that plate of spaghetti looks great, and it’s not too onion-y, but how could one use something like that as a training treat?

Remember food tubes? If spaghetti with meat sauce turned my dog on like nothing else, I would be putting it in a blender and dishing it out with a food tube. But there are quite a few “people foods” that lend themselves more easily to training.

A pile of plain tortellini on a green plate.

Plain tortellini are popular with dogs and fairly  practical

Things You Can Cut Into Pieces

  • Cheese or meat tortellini or ravioli, boiled plain
  • Commercial or homemade meatballs
  • Meatloaf
  • Grilled cheese sandwich
  • Whole wheat waffle with cranberries (NOT raisins)
  • Fast food hamburger or cheeseburger with bun (hold the onion, mustard, and pickle). The buns are very soft–just rip off small bites with both meat and bread
  • Fast food breakfast sandwich
  • Pizza
  • Pumpkin or spice bread  (no chocolate chips)

Things to Blend and Put in a Food Tube 

Some of these may take some finesse with the food processor, especially those with  potatoes. They can get gluey. Most of these require the addition of some liquid.

  • Spaghetti with meat sauce
  • Barbecue meat
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Omelettes
  • Hash brown casserole
  • Lasagne
  • Many soups, stews, and casseroles

A Little More Common Sense

OK, before the healthy food posse comes after me, please note that I am not recommending that anyone change their dog’s diet to include these foods in quantity. Just a bite now and then for enrichment, for a very special training treat, or for counterconditioning. And I wanted to give the people who do lots of counterconditioning some ideas for things they may not have used yet.

Also, there are plenty of non-junky home cooked foods. The sky is the limit!

My Summer will do anything for any sort of bread or baked goods. What interesting things does your dog like?

A brown dog is exiting a set of weave poles, with her eyes on a piece of white bread that her handler is throwing ahead

Summer weaving for plain white bread (with the headless agility handler)

 Related Posts

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Photo Credits

Spaghetti image

By Manfred&Barbara Aulbach (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0 ) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html )], via Wikimedia Commons

Tortellini image

By cyclonebill (Tortellini med valnøddeolie og sort peber) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.
2. In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well.
Posted in Dog training hints, Enrichment, Treats | Tagged | 36 Comments