Does Ignoring Bad Behavior Really Work?

Not usually and not by itself. And contrary to popular belief, “ignoring” behavior doesn’t play a huge part in positive reinforcement-based training. There is a lot of confusion about it, so I’m going to have a go at clarifying a bit.

Have you seen this asserted in discourse? That “positive trainers just ignore bad behavior”? It’s a natural misunderstanding in a world that still tends to equate training with punishment. If you assume that a positive reinforcement-based trainer never does anything to diminish behavior, ignoring is all you’ve got left. So the statement can result from an honest misunderstanding, or it can be a rhetorical tool used to make positive reinforcement-base training look silly.

But it’s incorrect. Ignoring undesired behavior is not a major standalone tool in the R+ toolbox. Actually, we try to prevent undesired behavior from happening in the first place and we interrupt it if it starts. (Do people really think anyone would stand by while a bouncy dog knocks over grandma?) Behavior that gets rehearsed becomes stronger, so letting it go on without interruption runs counter to our purposes. Let’s say you walk into the house on Monday and the dog jumps up. You walk into the house on Tuesday and the dog jumps up. You walk into the house on Wednesday and the dog jumps up. What do we think the dog is going to do on Thursday when you walk through the door? 

However, sometimes we deliberately ignore behavior as part of a training plan. We do it in a controlled way in combination with reinforcing a different behavior. I’ll talk about that too. There are some perils there because ignoring is harder to do than it sounds. But it’s pretty safe to say that “ignoring” is rarely used by itself, stereotypes notwithstanding.


Ignoring Flynn in

4 Reasons Ignoring Undesired Behavior Doesn’t Often Work By Itself

  1. Removing our attention from a behavior in the hopes that it will go away makes the assumption that attention is the sole reinforcer of the behavior. That’s often not the case. Jumping up is the classic example. Some trainers tell you to just ignore the dog when he jumps on you. The problem with lots of dogs is that they enjoy the physical sensation of jumping on you, whatever your response or non-response may be. With these dogs, you can even turn around, as is sometimes recommended, and they will gladly jump on the back of you instead. Also, some dogs (and these two groups can definitely overlap) are simply over aroused. Such a puny attempt at modifying a behavior born of overexcitement won’t get you far.
  2. If the behavior is maintained by attention, we usually can’t hold out long enough when we try to ignore it. Let’s say your dog barks at you to get to sit on your lap on the couch. You always eventually cave. One day you decide you have had enough. You are tired of the barking and never going to cave again. Can you do it? Even after your dog is clearly confused and has his feelings hurt because he has been trying to get your attention for 45 minutes?  He just wants to sit on your lap, after all, and you both enjoy that! If you last 46 minutes and then cave–you haven’t won. Those 46 minutes work against you because you have just taught your dog to be more persistent. And even if you do outlast your dog and don’t cave…how about other members of the household? Can they do it? Forever? Finally, how is this fair to your dog? He is doing the very behavior that gained him access to your lap before. And now, with no warning, it doesn’t work.
  3. We think we are ignoring but there is bootleg reinforcement. This is kind of an offshoot of #1. The undesired behavior may not be self-reinforcing but there’s an uncontrolled reinforcer available. Let’s say I’m working on “stay” with my dog. She breaks her stay and wanders up to me while I studiously ignore her. Meanwhile, she comes and gives my new shoes a good sniff all over. How handy that I am ignoring her! She has just been reinforced with new, interesting smells for leaving her stay.
  4. Ignoring by itself gives no guidance about what behavior is desirable. When we change behavior, we need to teach a new behavior to take the place of the old one. If we leave that up to the animal, we may end up with one that was more problematic than the original. So rather than relying on ignoring what we don’t like, it is more effective and generally more humane to teach a different behavior separately and help the dog practice first. When we seek to eliminate a behavior that we see as a problem, we are intervening in something that was functional to the animal. To be fair, we guide the animal to the new behavior, and make sure it pays as high or higher in reinforcement (euphemistically speaking) as the original.

Ignoring behavior

The Difficulties When We Do Need to Ignore

Number 4 above implied that sometimes we might ignore one behavior when we are reinforcing another. That’s when ignoring undesirable behavior will help our progress. But we are still not out of the woods. Ignoring is tricky.

Most of us are confused about what “ignoring” is.  Even when we do need to ignore a behavior as part of a training plan, it can be devilishly hard. When we are talking about behaviors that are driven in part by attention, almost any little scrap of attention will do. Dogs read us so well.  If a dog is jumping on you and lands a scratch, you might yelp. That’s not ignoring. If a pushy puppy is about to bother your older dog while you pay attention to him, you might push the pup away. That is not ignoring either, and she might even interpret it as an invitation to play.  Even looking at the dog can help maintain behavior. A trainer friend shared the following with me:

Almost all my owners with dogs who demand attention can’t stop looking at the dog. They may be able to stop talking, but it’s very hard to stop looking. What works for me is to give them a visual target.  I have them look at me or look at something like a magazine.

At the point where she encourages “ignoring,” she has already helped the owner teach the dog some alternative behaviors that get heavily reinforced. Ignoring the old, demanding behaviors is part of a plan. But it still takes a conscious effort to get it right!

Failing to Reinforce is Not the Same as Ignoring

Just a note: when we are teaching a new behavior and do not reinforce an attempt by the dog that fails to meet criteria, that is not the same as ignoring. In most cases, our attention is still fully on the dog. Yes, our attention can be mildly reinforcing, but its power is dwarfed by the reinforcer we are using for correct responses. Attention plus food or play is much stronger than just plain attention, which is why we use food and play to train in the first place.

When Ignoring Is a Good Thing

Some dogs come into our households so fearful that ignoring them can be humane and beneficial. It does go against our every instinct. If we have adopted a dog from the woods, a puppy mill, hoarder, or abuse situation, we want to shower him with love to make up for past hardships or abuses. But if the dog is not accustomed to human attention or is traumatized, this is not generally a good solution. Ignoring can be humane and actually engender trust. Please see my posts, “Sink or Swim: 8 Ways You Might Be Flooding Your Dog,”  “Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe,” and the attendant photo gallery, “My Dog’s Safe Place.

I used to have a little feral-born cat named Arabella. She loved my other cats and was comfortable with me, but hid when anyone else came to the house. Then my sister Gail, whom Arabella had never met before, came to help me when I had surgery. Within 24 hours, Arabella came out of hiding and was acting like her normal self. She hopped up on the bed to see me or sit with the other cats even while Gail was right there. I remarked on it, and Gail said she simply never made eye contact with Arabella. After that, I noticed Gail reliably turning her head and looking the other direction when Arabella was around.

The process of helping an animal feel safe is more involved when you have a new, traumatized animal in your house. But removing the pressure of your attention can be helpful in many cases.

All right, back to ignoring as an attempted training method. Does anyone want to tell any embarrassing stories about behaviors they tried to eradicate by ignoring? Or any successes wherein ignoring was part of a well-planned, humane, and effective training plan?

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Photo copyright Marge Rogers 2016. Thank you to Marge, Alanna Lowry, and Flynn for the photo!

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My Dog Isn’t Food Motivated…Or Is She?


Lab and bowl

Anyone who has taught a group training class, anyone who has given behavioral consults, and everyone who has spent any time on dog training discussion groups has probably heard this lament more than once:

“My dog is just not food motivated.”

The glib retort to that is, “Sure she is, or she’d be dead.” True, but that’s not much help for the person who is struggling to train a dog using positive reinforcement and who has hit a roadblock. Especially with the term “not food motivated” being used so frequently and casually by dog people.

This movie shows why virtually every dog is food motivated. The rest of the post talks about the disconnect that allows us to believe our dogs won’t work for food, lists some reasons the dog and trainer might be having problems, and has a suggestion about what to do about it. I suggest you watch the movie first.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

A False Dichotomy and a True One

There are two dichotomies going on here, a false one and a true one.

The false dichotomy is on the human side.  When I first heard someone say, “We are training our dogs all the time,” I thought it was rhetorical. Yes, certainly, everything about our lives with our dogs has an impact on them. Blah blah blah. I didn’t realize at the time that it was literally true. Behavior is lawful. Behaviors that bring about nice things or allow one to escape from unpleasant things get repeated. Behaviors that bring on nasty things or result in good things going away diminish. (Here’s a refresher course and movie on operant learning and its terminology if you need it.) All interactions our dogs have with us are subject to these principles.

However, the kind of learning our dogs do in the continuous background of our lives is often invisible to us. So is our role in that learning. We humans tend to see “training” as a completely separate activity from everyday life. We see it as getting a handful of food and taking the dog into a specific environment, sometimes even away from home, and trying to teach her to do stuff we want when we want it.

We might be taking a class or trying a method we saw on a YouTube video or even doing something we read in a book, but this is how we envision “training.” And if our dog doesn’t accept food in those environments we tend to conclude that she is not “food motivated,” meaning she won’t perform behaviors for food. But even the most particular, anxious, or shy dog learns and performs behaviors for food, as I show in the movie.  “Real life” vs. “training” is a false dichotomy in this sense. The dog is performing behaviors for food if she eats at all. So what’s the difference?

There is a real dichotomy on the dog’s side.  If the dog will not perform behaviors for food in a training session but will in normal life, there is clearly a difference for the dog.  It’s just not the one we think it is. The issue is not about the abstraction of “training.” It’s something else, and it’s our job to figure out what.

The following are some of the reasons a dog might appear not to be “food motivated” in a training session.

  1. The dog is scared
  2. The dog is excited
  3. The dog is sick or in pain
  4. The dog is distracted by the environment
  5. The owner is accidentally intimidating the dog
  6. The owner is asking for too much at once
  7. There is something the dog wants more than food at the moment
  8. The dog doesn’t like the particular food being offered
  9. The dog is full
  10. The dog is free fed or overfed

Some of these overlap, and some are more likely than others to crop up only during a training session, but you get the picture.

Starving the Dog is Not the Solution

The last three points above relate to the dog’s hunger and interest in the food. So the obvious shortcut is to get the dog good and hungry, right? Positive reinforcement based trainers often get accused of starving their dogs for good performance by people who either truly don’t understand how training with food works or are promoting training with aversive tools. (Alternatively we get accused of having fat dogs. Just can’t win!) But starving the dog to get her to perform for food is against the principles of humane training and is completely unnecessary.

Most trainers will recommend stopping free feeding (i.e., leaving an abundance of food out all day). Controlling portions helps you ensure the dog is getting the right calories and nutrition when some of it goes for training, and there are several other advantages. But there is no need to for the dog to go hungry. At least one study indicates that dogs perform better on a task when they have been fed breakfast! I typically train my dogs after giving them all or part of a meal.

A good trainer can help you make a transition to training with food if you are having problems.

Toys and Other Fun

Wait, wait–I didn’t say that you couldn’t use any other reinforcers! Toys and play are great reinforcers for many dogs, and in many situations can be used efficiently to teach, refine, and maintain behaviors. I know there are some dogs who will refuse food when their favorite toy or game is available because I have one. Clara is in love with a particular type of ball. When the opportunity to play with her ball is around, she will refuse food or even literally drop the food out of her mouth. But she is still “food motivated.”

I’m also aware of the notorious border collies herding and other working types who would rather do their job than eat. See numbers 4 and 7 above and keep in mind that even these dogs must perform behaviors for food.

Toys and life rewards are fantastic, and all of us would do well to develop a whole palette of reinforcers for our dogs. But most modern trainers train at least some behaviors for which food is the ideal reinforcer. One example is teaching the dog to relax on a mat. Reinforcing with food sets the stage for more calm behavior than a vigorous game of tug.

Those Perplexing Outliers

Many of my trainer friends have had a dog or two who were challenging to motivate with food, and the situations really required their expertise. I know these dogs exist, but I’m not talking about them. This post is meant for the folks who are just starting to train with food and have come up against this block. More likely than not, your dogs have one of the issues listed above.

What To Do About Problems With Food

So, you want to start this positive reinforcement training stuff but your dog won’t take food? Your best move is to hire a qualified positive reinforcement based trainer. Here are a couple of articles on how to screen for one, and a link to the Pet Professional Guild’s directory.

When speaking to a potential trainer, you can add one more question to those suggested in the articles above. You can ask, “How do you deal with a dog who won’t work for food?” (You have permission to use that phrase in this one context.) Prospective trainers should respond in a way that shows they are clearly familiar with reasons that could be happening, and that they understand this is an important issue even if other reinforcers are available to use. If a trainer says you don’t need to use food to train, this is generally a big red flag. Few knowledgeable trainers would offhandedly rule out such a powerful, efficient, and easy-to-use reinforcer.  Even if you are talking to a world expert in training dogs with play, she will know that a dog presenting the problem of refusing food may need some extra help.

I would love to hear from folks who had–and solved–some issues regarding using food for training. Below are some relevant posts that tell my own story.

Related Posts

This post was inspired by the writings of Jean Donaldson about the use of food, specifically, this cartoon on the Academy for Dog Trainers’ blog: Projecting to the Dog. I thank her for her permission to spin this post and movie off from it. That doesn’t imply that she endorses everything I say here; all inaccuracies are my own.

For other articles from Companion Animal Psychology’s #Train4Rewards Blog Party, click the box.

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Photo licensed from CanStock Photo.

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Getting Your Dog Grounded (Don’t)

People have speculated that one reason some dogs are afraid of thunderstorms is that they can sense the buildup of static electricity. That may or may not be true, but some quite unsafe conclusions have been drawn from that idea.

The theory that static electricity is part of what bothers storm-phobic dogs has been investigated in one study that I know of by Nicole Cottam and Nicholas Dodman 1)Cottam, Nicole, and Nicholas H. Dodman. “Comparison of the effectiveness of a purported anti-static cape (the Storm Defender®) vs. a placebo cape in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia as assessed by owners’ reports.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 119.1 (2009): 78-84.. The response of dogs wearing an antistatic cape called the Storm Defender® was compared to that of dogs wearing a cape without the anti-static material.

No significant difference was found between the responses of the dogs to the antistatic cape and the plain cape. This is only one study and we can’t say that the lack of evidence  “disproves” the static electricity theory–either that dogs are bothered by it during storms or that such a cape can ameliorate it. But there was a chance of showing evidence to support those things, and that evidence didn’t show up.

Going to Ground

Whether or not dogs respond in a special way to static electricity, the discussion about it often triggers a common assumption that might put dogs in danger.

It’s frequently pointed out that many dogs hide in the bathroom next to plumbing. Some people claim that this is because the plumbing can be made of metal and connected to ground. The idea is that being close to a path to ground has some kind of soothing effect. 2)I had a talk with my “science advisor” about the claims about being grounded and we agree that there are big problems with this idea from a basic physics standpoint. But I’m saving that topic for a subsequent post.

I don’t know whether dogs who hide in bathrooms are “seeking ground” or just finding an enclosed, dark place to hide. But being next to metal plumbing or any path to ground is not a good place to be when lightning is nearby.

Here is an excerpt from the U.S. Government instructions for safety during lightning:

Avoid contact with corded phones and devices including those plugged into electric for recharging.  Cordless and wireless phones not connected to wall outlets are OK to use.

Avoid contact with electrical equipment or cords. Unplug appliances and other electrical items such as computers and turn off air conditioners. Power surges from lightning can cause serious damage.

Avoid contact with plumbing. Do not wash your hands, do not take a shower, do not wash dishes, and do not do laundry. Plumbing and bathroom fixtures can conduct electricity.

Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.

Do not lie on concrete floors and do not lean against concrete walls.



Copper pipes in the ceiling for a cast-iron second-floor bathtub –Wikimedia Commons

Thinking it Through

We want to be the farthest possible away from where lightning may strike and from the most direct paths to ground. Most people know that you shouldn’t take cover under a tree during a lightning storm. Lightning often will strike at the highest place in an area, and being right next to or touching a tree that gets struck means you will probably take some of the punch. You can think of it that way in your house. Places where electricity is likely to travel–walls with lots of electrical wiring or iron rebar, devices that are connected to that wiring (like corded phones), and places with metal plumbing fixtures possibly attached to metal pipes–are like the tree. They are places to avoid, not seek out.

Making Choices

The risk of being struck by lightning is so low that it is a metaphor for an extremely uncommon occurrence. But given a choice, I generally won’t hang out in the bathroom during thunderstorms, nor would I allow my dogs to do so. Take a look again at those copper pipes and the metal tub in the photo above.

But there’s one exception. I live in an area where there are tornados, and the one room in my house that has no exterior walls (said to be safest during high winds) is a bathroom. So during an active tornado warning for my area, the dogs and I troop to the bathroom. Since tornadic storms also usually have thunder and lightning, in that particular situation we are trading one risk for another. But I’m working on getting a better tornado shelter.

Some structures may have lightning protection systems in place. Some homes have most of their plumbing made from PVC, which certainly doesn’t conduct like copper. How about your house? Can you figure where the safest place is?

Regarding comments: Please note that this blog is not about whether or not dogs have special senses about static electricity or about why individual dogs might react certain ways during storms. Because of time constraints on my part, I am asking people to refrain from sending comments with anecdotes about dogs and storms. Let’s stick to storm safety and save the other topics for future posts.

Other Resources

The following links are from sources I find reputable. The articles are not peer-reviewed research, but the advice to stay away from plumbing is standard and backed by science. You can find accounts of indoor lightning strikes in medical literature if you care to search.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Thanks to Ingrid Bock for bringing this issue to my attention, and to my “science advisor” for letting me run this article by her.

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Cottam, Nicole, and Nicholas H. Dodman. “Comparison of the effectiveness of a purported anti-static cape (the Storm Defender®) vs. a placebo cape in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia as assessed by owners’ reports.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 119.1 (2009): 78-84.
2. I had a talk with my “science advisor” about the claims about being grounded and we agree that there are big problems with this idea from a basic physics standpoint. But I’m saving that topic for a subsequent post.
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6 Common Dog Training Errors

oops written on a yellow road traffic sign. There are so many dog training error s to fix!

Some of my most popular posts are about common training errors. It seems that I have an infinite supply, and I’m willing to use myself as a naughty example. New errors keep popping into my consciousness (and my training) all the time.

In this post I’m going to focus on two main categories of errors: problems with criteria, and problems with food handling. Can you identify with any of these?

Criteria Training Errors

  • For Marge Rogers, it wasn't hard to teach Rounder the concept of sitting pretty. But building up that core strength took careful work!

    For Marge Rogers, it wasn’t hard to teach Rounder the concept of sitting pretty. But building up that core strength took careful work!

    Raising criteria too quickly. I’ve talked about lumping a fair amount in this blog. Lumping can happen when you are trying to teach a dog a skill gradually, usually in successive approximations. When you lump, instead of building the skill gradually, you skip ahead and leave the dog back in the dust somewhere. You take too big a leap. It is super easy to do. Remember, we have the steps outlined in our heads, but the dogs don’t. But there’s another way to lump as well. Perhaps you have split the task up into appropriate slices, and the dog guesses them correctly, but you simply go too fast for the dog to learn the appropriate physical skills. One example of this is when your dog is learning something involves strength or dexterity. We often say that we are not really teaching behaviors; the dogs already know how to do them. Most dogs can already sit and lie down; when we talk about “training” those it means, with a few exceptions, that we are teaching them to do them when we ask them to. However, sometimes we really do teach skills. For instance, some of my service dog trainer friends teach their dogs a special retrieve using their front teeth to pick up tiny, delicate items. Picking up a credit card that is flat on the floor or an earring that has sunk into the carpet are not just behaviors, they are skills.  There is safety involved for the dog and the item and a ton of dexterity required. Such things need many repetitions. Even if the next step in the process is easy to make obvious to the dog, the dog needs experience at the current level before continuing. As a more common example, any behaviors that involve strength training need this kind of care as well.

  • Raising criteria too slowly. I hate to tell you this, but raising criteria too slowly can be as much of a problem as raising them too quickly. You would think you could solve the problems of lumping by splitting all tasks into tiny sections and taking your time and doing lots and lots of reps. Wouldn’t that be great? Unfortunately, the Matching Law can bite you in the butt if you do that. If you build up a huge reinforcement history for approximations or incomplete behaviors they will stick around. Check out my post on what it took to rehab Summer’s target behavior after I had reinforced all sorts of half-hearted versions. And from Dr. Jennifer Cattet’s excellent article on the Matching Law:

    “While shaping, the longer we stay on intermediate behaviors, the more we strengthen those behaviors over the target behavior. If we try to get each step perfectly before moving to the next one, instead of moving on quickly, we make all those steps stronger and therefore more likely to be repeated. We often believe that shaping a behavior ultimately makes it stronger. If we apply matching law however, this simply doesn’t hold true. In shaping, it can take 20-40 clicks (or more) to get the target behavior. During the training session, we’re likely to have clicked the dog more often for intermediate behaviors than for the target behavior.”

    I think it stinks that even being slow and careful and taking our time can have a down side, but there we have it.

  • Not holding to criteria. It really isn’t fair that there should be so many problems with criteria. But here’s the final one for today. Let’s say you’ve trained up a nice behavior. Your dog has the physical skills and the understanding. But life intervenes and you let your criteria for the behavior loosen up. Since many of the things we ask dogs to do are counter to their natural behaviors (that’s why we are training them in the first place), the dogs will be more than happy to lapse back.  Every time you are in a hurry and let your dogs skip the sit at the back door before going out; every time you don’t wait for your dog to be seated politely before putting down his dinner; every time you let your dog pull you to the car, even though you practice loose leash walking in your front yard all the time–guess what you are doing? Shooting yourself in the foot, that’s what. You are not holding to criteria, and you are letting your dog get bootleg reinforcement for the very behavior that you have worked and worked to modify.

Food Delivery Training Errors

Here are just a few of the common mistakes we can make with food.

  • Starting your food delivery before marking the behavior; i.e., treating before clicking.  I write a fair amount about cues, and try to pay attention to what the real cues for my dogs’ behaviors are.  I have written about that in several posts including this one: 16 Behavioral Cues I Didn’t Train (But Are Still for Real). But guess what? Sometimes our markers are not what we think they are either. If you use a clicker, a spoken word, or a mouth click as a marker, you can have very good timing but still introduce an error of mechanics if you start to move your food delivery hand before or at the same time you click. Do that enough times, and your marker becomes your hand moving toward the pocket or treat bag rather than the sound you intended. Just think: it is utterly consistent. It’s got a 1 to 1 correspondence with food appearing. So watch out!  This is an example of overshadowing. (Yvette Van Veen recently wrote a great article (Part 1 of 2, I believe) about that.)  Now, a clicker in particular is a unique enough sound that it would probably be difficult to completely overshadow. It’s still understandable as a marker. So what’s the harm? Clicker, hand movement–both predict food, right? One problem is timing. If your timing with the clicker is perfect but the dog is paying attention to the visual of your hand movement, he is not getting the clear signal that you think you are sending. What if sometimes you move your hand after the click, sometimes at the same time, sometimes even before? Who knows what you are actually marking with your hand movement? Even worse, if hand movement towards the food becomes the marker/bridging stimulus–well, you’d better not do it casually, right? We take great pains not to click without treating. We want the click to be a trustworthy predictor of a reinforcer. But if the real marker is the hand movement, we are probably marking things all the time without even knowing it. I know that sometimes when working without a marker (or so I intend) I reach for my food and change my mind. That can be frustrating and confusing to the dog.
  • Always keeping food in the same spot on your person. Dogs know when we have food and when we don’t. If you load up your left front pocket like I do when you get ready for a training session or strap on your treat pouch, the dog says, “Yay! We are going to train and I can win some tasty food.” So what about the rest of the time when you need your dog to do something? Have you set things up so that the presence of food in that pocket or pouch is part of the antecedent for the behaviors you ask for? If so, then having no food present means the cue for the behavior is not complete. It’s not that the dog is lazy or being tricky. You have built a pattern that predicts reinforcement, and then you have broken the pattern. Luckily there is a straightforward way to fix it. Instead of delivering from your pocket or treat pouch, deliver from other random places. Deliver from a covered container that is sitting on your bookshelf. Or another by your back door. Or something that you have secreted in the back yard. Now, don’t go around filling up the containers just before your training session. The point is that they are there all the time and fade into the background. Your dog learns that you can give her something great even when you have not a speck of food on your person. Sue Ailsby builds the process of gradually teaching the dog that the food can come from anywhere into her Training Levels if you want to see it spelled out. Most pro trainers can coach you on making the transition as well. Just don’t go cold turkey! It needs to be gradual, since we are often adding a delay between the behavior and the reinforcer. That has to be done carefully or the relationship between the two will break.
  • A brown dog is sitting attentively in front of a woman wearing bluejeans, a blue tee shirt, and a hat. the dog is staring at the woman's left hand as she reaches into her pocket. Letting staring at the food get reinforced is a training error.

    My reaching for my left pocket is an excellent predictor of reinforcement. See how Summer is even sitting a little crooked to get a better view?

    Reinforcing the dog for looking at the food. I have created one very intent food-staring dog, and a couple of others with a fairly strong habit. If you use a marker, what happens immediately after you mark? Usually the dog orients toward the food. So think about it: that food-looking behavior is getting ultra reinforced by immediately preceding the primary reinforcer. So isn’t it natural that this behavior would bleed into other parts of the training session? In the past I have worked on a process to decouple Summer’s eyes from my pocket. Here’s my movie about that: Default Eye Contact Before Cues. Unfortunately I have not been consistent. But my efforts have paid off somewhat. My friend Marge Rogers solves this problem by building eye contact from the dog into every possible behavior. It works beautifully if you have the self-discipline to do it. And that brings us back to criteria, doesn’t it?

A Philosophy of Errors

I write about my mistakes because I’m in a unique position to do that, being a behavior nerd and training aficionado but not a pro trainer. I get lots of feedback from people saying that they learn a lot from those posts and enjoy them. I just want to add here, though, that while it’s human to be inconsistent, it is not great from the dog’s point of view. We should be honest, even forgiving about our own errors, but we don’t need to get too comfortable with them. Even if we don’t punish the dog for errors that we bring about ourselves, being inconsistent about what behaviors are being reinforced does bring behavioral extinction into the picture, which is known to be frustrating.

So you can look for some future posts from me where I will perform some training problem solving, and one criterion of the challenge will be how to maintain my own  changed behavior. Because to change our dogs’ behavior, we have to change our own. That’s how it works, and it’s only fair.

Which of these errors, if any, are familiar to you?

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Photo of Rounder the buff ridgeback courtesy of Marge Rogers of Rewarded Behavior Continues. Love and miss you, sweet boy.

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A Gift from My Mother and the Pillbugs

Marilyn and Cricket

My mother Marilyn and Cricket in 2009

My mother had Alzheimer’s. She passed away in 2012.

I was a loved and indulged child and my mother and I were very close. I had the usual adolescent fallings out, and a rather less usual falling out when I was an adult, and I didn’t see her for many years. When we were reunited, I believe she was already losing some cognition due to dementia, but we felt like family again, and remained so until the end of her life, even though quite early in the illness she stopped being able to remember my name or call me her daughter. Those things didn’t matter. We were completely comfortable with each other and could laugh and enjoy things the same way we had earlier in our lives.


When she still had enough cognitive ability to send me things in the mail, my mother would send me California pomegranates in the fall. She sometimes bought them and some she picked herself off a bush in her neighborhood. She knew they were one of my very favorite things.

When I was a kid, our next-door neighbors had a giant pomegranate bush. I got spoiled. There were more pomegranates than any five families could eat and I had carte blanche to forage as often as I liked. They were giant, got perfectly ripe and split open, and my best friend and I spent many happy hours eating pomegranate seeds (outdoors, because of the mess) until our hands and faces were magenta with the juice.

As an adult, no longer living in California, I have been very disappointed in the pomegranates that make it to the stores here. They are rarely ripe.

But back in about 2005, I accidentally grew a pomegranate bush. And some years later, I actually got a pomegranate off of it. Here is the story of my pomegranate bush. It starts with a hot pepper plant.

The Chiltepin


Beautiful chiltepin peppers Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the mid 1990s, in what I would call the early days of the Internet, I belonged to an email discussion group called Chile-Heads. It was for gardeners and cooks: anyone who enjoyed growing and cooking with hot peppers. From time to time people would offer seeds, and one year I got some from a guy in Corpus Christi, Texas. As I recall I traded some seeds from some extra tasty chile anchos I had grown. He called his peppers “petins” and I believe they were a variant of the chiltepin. The peppers are very small and round and are quite hot. I came to love those plants and would grow a couple every year. (They are perennials in parts of Texas, but the winters are too cold where I live.)

One year the bush had gotten so magnificent that I decided to try to overwinter it. I dug it up in mid-autumn, before a freeze could get it, and put it in the biggest pot I could manage to tote around. It lived in my guest room for the winter. I successfully did this several years in a row with the same plant, which started looking like a little tree. I would plant it in the garden again every summer.

I know I was doing this as far back as 1998, because when my sister came to visit that year I remember her mentioning how much she enjoyed staying in the guest room with the giant friendly pepper bush.

Then This Happened

Here’s how I described, in a letter to my mother, the next thing that happened.


I grew a pomegranate bush by accident. I had this enormous chile pepper plant called a petin that I would pot up in a huge pot and bring in the house every winter. Along with the garden soil would come some pillbugs. They live on rotting matter, and over the course of the winter, living in a potted plant, they would run out of stuff to eat. I would see them patrolling round and round the edge of the pot in the morning, seeming rather desperate. So I started to feed them. (I have always liked pillbugs, and I certainly don’t want to see any wildlife starve because I have interfered in their lives.) I would give them peelings and old stuff from the refrigerator. They were thrilled and would chomp it all up as soon as it got a little old.

Once I let one of the pomegranates you sent me go partly bad, so I put the fermented seeds in the pot for the pillbugs. They dutifully ate the pulp. I wonder if they got tipsy? But they left the actual seeds, and some little volunteer pomegranate plants appeared in the pot with the pepper plant. I took care of one of the plants and finally planted it out. The picture shows how big it was last year. It’s lots bigger now. They are not technically supposed to survive here because of the hard freezes in winter. But it has survived 2 or 3 winters so I guess it is going to make it OK.

I miss getting pomegranates from you. It’s hard to get ripe ones here. But my bush had several blossoms this year and I am hoping for some fruit next year.

So that dates my pomegranate bush back to 2004 or 2005. It is now 11 or 12 years old.

I should mention that I love pillbugs. They are also known as sowbugs, wood lice, armadillo bugs, and roly polys. Did you know that they are not insects, but crustaceans? I think they are fascinating. They look cool, don’t hurt anybody, and they clean up the trash. Here’s a photo of some in my garden. I’m not embedding because I imagine they are gross to some people. Not me!

I never knew whether to expect fruit from the bush. I didn’t even know if it would be fertile. If the seed had been from a grocery store fruit, it could have been some sort of hybrid. Gardeners hope for everything though, so it was always in the back of my mind. As I said in the letter to my mom, I got some blooms early on, but nothing came of them. This happened for 8 years or so, and I had given up hope. But in 2013, when I was idly looking at the bush with an eye to trimming it, I found two baby pomegranates on it! I went ahead and trimmed the bush and idiotically managed to trim off one of the branches with a pomegranate. Aaaaaagh!

But one survived, and come November, it was one of the best things I ever ate.


My one prize pomegranate

Inspiration and Failure

Naturally, being a gardener, I decided to read up on pomegranates again and maximize my chances of getting fruit the next year. I pruned when it said to. I fed what it said to, when it said to. And I got NO blooms on the plant in 2014. Zero, nada. I was very ticked off. I didn’t pamper it the next year and again, got no blooms. It even entered my mind to take out the bush. It’s not all that handsome. But I didn’t really entertain that thought seriously. How could I, with its connection to my mom? There’s even that mother/daughter thing in mythology with Persephone and the pomegranate seeds. So of course I kept the bush.

This Year

So now it’s 2016 and I have taken a few sideways glances at the bush throughout the spring. Nothing doing. I have thought frustrated, slightly wicked thoughts about the pomegranate bush. I’m still miffed that it tantalized me that one year.

Then, two days ago, I saw two blooms opening! I took a good look and counted about 10 more, but some could be male blooms only. The male blooms pollinate, but don’t fruit. So now I am checking every day and cross pollinating the hermaphroditic blooms (yes, that’s really the term) by hand as they open. (A friend of mine used to call that having sex with her plants.)

I have big plans for my 5 – 10 pomegranates this year. I shall baby those fruit and build them little slings and do whatever it takes to keep them safe. If I harvest some fruit, I’ll do as my sister suggests and share some seeds with the pillbug colony. It’s only fair.

But even if I get no fruit, the bush will stay, of course. My mom sent me the seeds. And the pillbugs helped them grow.

pomegranate blossom hermaphrodite pollen

Blossom from my pomegranate bush

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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Fear, Predation, and Resource Guarding


A couple of weeks ago I published a post: “Body Language Study: Fear and What Else?”. It featured the short video clip embedded below. (You can watch the video now if you didn’t already.) In the post I solicited comments about Summer’s behavior. I noted that I saw fear and caution and something else, and asked folks what all they saw.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

I got a great response, with people seeing both the stuff I was angling for, and also a whole other category of behavior that I had not noticed.


What I saw but didn’t mention, and was trying to find out whether others saw it, was predation. Plenty of other people did.  Deena Lavine, Melinda Schneider, Meghan Smith,  and Susan Hatzen all mentioned prey drive in the comments, and others did on Facebook.

I wasn’t sure how obvious it would be to those who haven’t seen Summer’s behavior over time. She is a serious predator. And she has a special interest in reptiles, including turtles, toads, and snakes.

What was notable to me in the interaction in the video was that she kept re-approaching the area where the reptile was. Fear often results in distance-increasing or escape behavior. This is often flight, although a cornered animal will sometimes freeze or attack a threat in self-preservation. (Dr. Susan Friedman classifies this type of attack as escape behavior as well, because the goal is to remove the threat.) In the clip, Summer was obviously nervous about the lizard that she sensed in the hose reel area, but she was also exhibiting distance-decreasing behavior repeatedly. She had ample opportunity to get away from the reptile. Instead, she returned again and again.

I noted the most basic of analyses: she kept moving her body, carefully, back towards the hose reel and what was hiding inside it. Then she would jump back when she thought the “thing” might be interested in having a go at her.


Slender glass lizard

I think she thought the lizard was a snake. It certainly looked like one–glass lizards have no legs. Perhaps it smelled like one too, because before she ever seemed to get a good look at it, she was exhibiting the same behavior she does when she thinks there is a snake present.

I have witnessed it plenty of times before. When she thinks there is a snake in the grass, she will approach with great care, ready to jump backwards at a second’s notice. She obviously learned the hard way that snakes strike, but with snakes as well she still keeps returning. When she used to go to doggie day care, they told me that she had cornered a large snake once. I have never seen her do that at home and would actively intervene if I did.  But I have seen that cautious approach when she thinks there is something hidden in the grass. She does something similar with stinging insects, which she also has a hard time leaving alone. She really wants to kill them, though she has been stung in the attempt before.

Some viewers mentioned that Summer was curious, and I absolutely agree with that. But I’ll go a step further, both from her behavior and what I know of her history. She wanted to investigate and kill the lizard.

If you’d like to see Summer’s reptile obsession, check out the video “Summer and the Turtle,” where she tries to bite and claw her way through a chain length fence to get a terrapin on the other side.  Or this blog post: Summer’s Turtle Diary, which features a video where she digs her way under two fences over the course of several days in order to get to a terrapin on the other side. (Sorry about the terminology mashup. I regularly misuse the word turtle to mean shelled reptiles on land, but technically what I am discussing are terrapins. Turtles are aquatic.)

Resource Guarding

What I missed in my original examination of the video, but agree absolutely was there, now that others have mentioned it, was resource guarding. When Summer grabs the Styrofoam container and lifts it out and backs up, she is not trying to get away from the reptile. Nor was she doing what a human might do: moving something and backing up to see the results. Upon consideration, I think she pretty clearly believes she has the reptile in the Styrofoam, and is likely trying to get the whole thing away from Clara, the other dog. (If I leave the snake theory aside for a moment, she may even think the Styrofoam-with-reptile-odor-inside is a new and weird type of turtle!)

Many people mentioned the angle of her body with regard to Clara, and the direction of her glance. She thinks she has the prize and is getting it away. She didn’t know there was a hole in the bottom of the container.

Ellen Barry asked in the comments whether my dogs regularly guard things from each other. Oh yeah! They do, but generally at a very low level. It is what I would classify as normal resource guarding, and they work things out without violence. My movie  “Resource Guarding in Slow Motion” shows many such interactions between my dogs. In most interactions between those Clara and Summer, Clara keeps or wins the access to the resource. But she knows when to back off.  Clara acts like a big lug a lot of the time but her sense of dog social cues is very finely tuned. In the last interaction in the resource guarding movie she wisely allows Summer to keep a toy with only a small but significant glance from Summer, and she generally stays well away when Summer is guarding a reptile or other varmint. I think she knows Summer is willing to go well beyond a dirty look to keep such a thing. Clara, with all her pushy behavior, is actually quite a peaceable dog.

Summer, not so much. Below is an old photo of her giving Cricket a very hard look–while pushing into her space–for coming too close while Summer is after a turtle. This is from the Summer and the Turtle video I mentioned above, at 0:30. See that very dirty look?

A sable dog is curved towards and looking directly at a small, black and white rat terrier. The sable dog is resource guarding a turtle. The look is direct and unfriendly.

Summer says, “My turtle!”













Clara can read that type of look very well. So when Summer said, “MY critter,” Clara wisely stayed away. Ironic that she was the one who got the closeup of the lizard. (And she startled too, did you see!)  But lucky for the lizard that it was Clara!

Summer in typical predator mode

Summer in typical predator mode

Thank you to everyone who viewed and commented on the video. I’m so glad that others are interested in this stuff. Oh, and to Meghan, who noticed Summer’s low tail set in the video. Yes, I noticed that too and it was definitely atypical. Usually Summer’s tail is curled up over her back like a husky’s when she is aroused and going after something. My best theory is that the fear and caution were keeping it down in the lizard interaction.

More comments are welcome! What do you see? What have we missed?

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Dog body language, Fear, Predation, Resource guarding | 4 Comments

Body Language Study: Fear and What Else?

Dog body language study starring Summer

I had my camera running at just the right time this week. I just love this clip of Summer interacting with…wildlife. Nobody got hurt. But I should add that it was rather foolish of me to allow this interaction at all. You never know what might be living in the detritus under your hose reel–but the dogs knew there was something.

So….comments are open and let’s hear your speculations about what is going on with Summer! She is fearful and jumpy, but what else? Do your best to base your comments on observations of specific actions.

I’ll participate in a limited way in the comments (no spoilers from me!) then publish a followup blog with my own observations and a bit of history. Enjoy!

Link to the video for email subscribers.

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Dog body language, Fear | 28 Comments

Opposition Reflex: What Is It Really?

A white dog is wearing an orange harness with a leash attached. The leash is taut, and being pulled ahead. The dog is braced and throwing his weight backwards. Many would call this an example of the opposition reflex

Thank you to Debbie Jacobs and Randi Rossman who made suggestions about this. All conclusions and any errors are my own. 

Have you heard the term “opposition reflex” used in dog training? It’s used pretty often. But recently I got to wondering whether the opposition reflex was really a reflex. (Quick answer: “No.” Shortest blog post I’ve ever written.)

Would you like to hear the story anyway?

First, some context. I gathered the following quotes about the “opposition reflex” from a selection of dog training articles.

  • The dog’s opposition reflex [is the] instinctive reaction to push against a push.
  • Dogs have a natural resistance to pressure called the opposition reflex.
  • If dogs are pulled in one direction, they will automatically pull in the other direction.
  • The opposition reflex is your dog’s natural instinct to resist pressure.

Wow. Instinctive! Natural! Automatic! But then I started looking for the term “opposition reflex” in lists of actual reflexes. I looked in biology, physiology, and learning theory textbooks. I looked in scholarly articles.

Results: nothing.

Virtually all mentions of the so-called “opposition reflex” are in lay articles about dog and horse training. So where did this term come from and why do we use it? It’s not in the textbooks.


We have Pavlov to thank for part of the confusion about the opposition reflex. Interesting, since he was a physiologist. Pavlov came up with the term “freedom reflex” for the escape behaviors of a dog who strongly resisted the harness he used in his laboratory. He generalized it to all organisms. (It turns out that Pavlov liked to call all sorts of things reflexes. That is a whole other discussion.)

Most scholars agree that Pavlov grossly over generalized from the actions of the dog, and was mistaken in calling what was essentially resistance to coercion as a reflex. As one of his critics states:

There is of course no reflex of freedom, although it is easy to see resistance to coercion in animals and humans. Herding cats is nearly impossible, and it is equally hard to keep male dogs from sniffing females in heat. Wild horses resist taming, and most animals cannot be domesticated at all. Human beings fiercely resist unwanted control. But struggling against coercion is not a reflex — it is nothing like a simple atom of behaviour. –Baars, Bernard. “IP Pavlov and the freedom reflex.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 10, no. 11 (2003): 19-40.

But decades after Pavlov, trainers grabbed onto the concept of the freedom or opposition reflex. Mentions start to appear in the mid 1990s in training literature, first applied to horses, then to dogs, as far as I could tell. Some authors connected the two terms, as in this article: “Opposition Reflex in Horses.” It’s pretty clear that what many people refer to now as the opposition reflex is a direct descendent of Pavlov’s freedom reflex. The problem? It never was a reflex and it’s still not a reflex.

What Is a Reflex?

Reflexes are involuntary, discrete, and consistent behaviors. As Baars mentions in the quote above, they can be thought of as “atoms of behavior.”

A reflex is an automatic response to nerve stimulation. –Alters, Sandra. Biology: understanding life. Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2000.

Some examples of reflexes in dogs are:

  • the scratch reflex (dog’s leg kicks when you scratch them on certain parts of the body);
  • the palpebral reflex (dog blinks when the skin below the corner of the eye is tapped);
  • the pupillary light reflex (the pupil of the dog’s eye contracts when a bright light is shined on it);
  • the withdrawal reflex (dog pulls foot away when toe is pinched);
  • and many more, including at least 10 other reflexes having to do with stimulation and response of parts of a dogs legs.

These are immediate, involuntary responses.

Pavlov’s so-called freedom reflex consists of much more varied behavior, sometimes chains of behaviors, which comprise methods of escape. These behaviors vary to the extreme by species and individuals. A large, gentle animal might just walk away if you tried to restrain it without any special equipment. But anyone who has ever tried to handle feral kittens knows that their methods of trying to escape are typically painful and actually dangerous (because of the possibility of infection from scratches and bites) to humans.

What are typical situations in which an animal might exhibit these compensatory or escape behaviors?

  1. The animal is trying to get to something and is being restrained
  2. The animal is trying to get away from something and is being restrained
  3. The opposite can also occur: the animal is being forced to move and is resisting, as when a trainer tries to force a sit by pushing the dog’s butt down.
  4. The animal has been knocked off balance and is trying to regain equilibrium.

(I’m omitting situations where the animal has been trained to create or maintain pressure, such as a roping horse who can hold a cowboy’s line taut, or all sorts of animals that pull sleds or carts.)

Do you see the pattern here? In all cases, the animal is resisting force, confinement, or physical discomfort. When we use the phrase “opposition reflex,” we are often neatly sidestepping the fact that we are trying to get the animal to do something it doesn’t want to do. It’s a shortcut, a label that unfortunately encourages us to leave out our agency in the matter.

When Is This Discussed in Dog Training?

The so-called opposition reflex is generally brought up in discussions about leash walking, molding behaviors, and play.

Leash Walking

Countless writers highlight a dog’s supposed opposition reflex when discussing why a dog won’t yield to leash pressure, but instead, might pull the other way. Reducing the reasons a dog might not yield to leash pressure, or will take action to create it, to an “opposition reflex” is simply applying a label. It gives us no insight into the situation. Many writers grab onto the phrase without considering the many sources and reasons for this behavior:

  • First and foremost, most dogs naturally travel much faster than we do. They want to get moving. There is a natural disconnect in our locomotion speeds. This creates a taut leash as our slowness holds them back.
  • They are trying to get to something interesting, and we are passively or actively slowing them down. Again, this creates a taut leash.
  • We are trying to get them away from something interesting, and they want to stay there. This time we are actively creating the taut leash.
  • They are frightened and trying to get away from us, the leash, or something else they perceive as threatening.

Positive reinforcement-based trainers try to avoid these situations anyway. We don’t want to drag our dogs around. To me, it seems much more helpful to understand that the dog is wanting to go at a different speed or to a different location than to reduce it to “opposition reflex.” The “opposition” part can make them sound downright contrary, instead of being creatures with their own agency and interests. On the other hand, the “reflex” part obscures that their behavior may be a visible indication of what they want or intend. Reflex sounds like they pull because they can’t help it, not because they are motivated by something.

Training by Molding Behaviors

The second place you read about the “opposition reflex” is in discussions of molding as a training technique. This is not a method that positive reinforcement-based trainers use, but it bears mentioning because people who do use it bring up the opposition reflex. It’s found in the old “push the dog’s butt down to teach him to sit” method. If you’ve ever tried it, you’ve probably experienced what people call the opposition reflex. It is an instant resistance by the dog to being pushed. It’s very common. It’s resistance to being thrown off balance and/or coerced. But again, labeling it “opposition” can even make it sound like this resistance is naughty or defiant.

Play and Restrained Recalls

A final situation in which people discuss the opposition reflex is in activities that involve drive and enthusiasm. For instance, some agility trainers use what are called “restrained recalls.” A partner restrains the dog while the handler calls her. The dog’s struggle to escape can result in a faster recall when she is released.

Note that the latter situation matches my description #1 above: the dog is trying to get to something and is being restrained. If you have a play history with your dog, this can be fun for the dog. But it’s pretty obvious it’s not a reflex–they are trying to get to something.

Here’s an example where I am restraining my dog in a training/play situation. Check out 0:26 in the video.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

I contend that Summer’s pushing against my hands as I pull her backwards is not a reflex. We’re seeing a dog who wants to run forward and get to the garden hose.

What’s the Problem With the Phrase?

I think we should question our use of the phrase “opposition reflex” because:

  • It’s a label–it can stand for dozens of different behaviors.
  • The behaviors it is used to describe are generally not reflexes.
  • It discourages us from analyzing and asking why the behavior is being performed. (E.g., the leashed dog simply wants to go faster.)
  • It discourages us from looking at our role in setting the stage for the behavior.
  • It discourages us from determining the consequences that are driving the behavior.
  • It sounds automatic, non volitional.
  • It also sounds negative. Opposition sounds like defiance.
  • It promotes confusion about respondent and operant behaviors.

I don’t think the term is going away anytime soon. But I hope we can get better at actually observing and describing behavior and understanding its causes and consequences. If we did that, this term would be left behind.

Have you heard the phrase in more contexts that I have listed? Have you ever seen a true reflex mentioned when discussing the opposition reflex?


Wow, opposition in the trenches. (I’m going to avoid the obvious joke there.)

First, yes, I’m aware of the term thigmotaxis. I know it is mentioned in Steven Lindsay’s book with regard to the opposition reflex. He uses the word “reflex” in many different senses in the book. Also, in Volume 3, he rescinds his recommendation of the term thigmotaxis for response to leash pressure, and returns to using opposition reflex. It’s pretty clear that his original citing of thigmotaxis was an educated opinion. He changed his mind.

Positive thigmotaxis (turning **toward** touch or pressure) is known in neonate puppies. Other than that I haven’t seen it listed as present in dogs.

To anyone who wants to claim that the opposition reflex in dogs is a true reflex/respondent behavior/thigmotaxis, the burden of proof is on you. I have already tried and failed. You may succeed, then I’ll retract appropriate statements and amend my post. To provide evidence you will need to do the following:

  1. Cite a source listing the “opposition reflex” as a true reflex from a canine anatomy/physiology, neurology, or other veterinary textbook.
  2. Show that near 100% of neurologically healthy dogs demonstrate it in the same way.
  3. Show the body part that can receive the stimulus and nerve group involved.
  4. Show that the same physiological response is consistent.
  5. Show that it can’t be punished or reinforced (though it could be attached to a new stimulus).

As I mentioned, I have already tried and failed to find these things. Please let me know if you find them.

Photo Credit: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Vishneveckiy

Text copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Terminology, Training philosophy | Tagged , , | 70 Comments

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? But We Live in NJ!

Kate and BooBoo

Kate and BooBoo

Guest post by Kate LaSala, CTC

It’s the start of tick season here in the Northeast and I’ve been reflecting on last year’s tick season and how we almost lost our sweet BooBoo. So in the interest of raising awareness and saving lives, I share with you our story.

It was a beautiful Sunday in April 2015, one of the first nice days of the spring. My husband and I decided to take our two rescues, Mr. Barbo and BooBoo, for a hike and before we headed to bed that night, we did our standard post-hiking tick check and everyone checked out clean.

The next day we let the dogs out and as they chased the squirrels, BooBoo’s rear legs slipped and she fell. Did she trip on the pool cover? Maybe her hip dysplasia was acting up after our hike? I wasn’t really sure but she wiped out and then just kept going.

By dinnertime she was non-weight bearing on her right rear leg and I immediately worried she had an ACL injury from her earlier slip. I knew that non-weight bearing was a classic symptom so I put an afterhours call into our vet and immediately started her on some Rimadyl.

Over the next five days she improved and regressed. We brought her to the vet to rule out an ACL injury and our vet suggested we could re-run a Lyme test, even though she had just had one two months ago and even though we use Vectra 3D monthly.  We declined the test and suspected it was an injury from the slip that was causing her limp.

Our first red flag that we were dealing with something else came Saturday evening when she was curled up on the couch and whimpered as she adjusted herself.  We left a message for the vet saying we would need an appointment first thing after the weekend because the Rimadyl wasn’t working.

But, that plan changed Sunday morning when we woke up and she wasn’t in bed with us. We found her on the floor, lethargic and reluctant to move. She wouldn’t eat, not even her favorite treat and her temperature was well over 105. We rushed her to our local emergency facility, calling ahead so they were prepared to receive her. When temperatures are that high, the chance of a seizure is a real risk.


BooBoo in the hospital

We arrived at the ER and they immediately started cooling her.   We explained the weeklong history since our hike and they suggested a Lyme test, as our vet originally did.  So we did the in office “snap test” but it came back negative. Despite the negative results, she was symptomatic of a tick disease and they suggested a full antibodies panel and PCR test for all the tick illnesses. We started Doxycycline right away and ran bloodwork and everything came back normal.  The tick panel would take several business days for results but if it were a tick disease, the Doxy should start to knock it out.  They admitted her for IV antibiotics and fluids to stabilize her and then said we could take her home.  After midnight, they called, said her temperature had been stable since 10PM and we could take her home with oral Doxy and Tramadol for pain.

We followed-up with our regular vet on Monday and she agreed with the ER’s diagnosis. BooBoo was on the meds, still lethargic and not eating well but her temperature seemed to be controlled.

But then Tuesday evening her temperature spiked back over 104 again and we rushed back to the ER where they admitted her again, this time for several days. We consulted with the internal medicine specialist to discuss the all possibilities from cancer to autoimmune issues to tumors and other super scary things since the Doxy didn’t seem to be working. We ran additional diagnostics including ultrasound and x-rays and she got the all clear. No cancer. No tumors.  All of her organs were the right size and everything looked perfect. A glimmer of good news in a sea of uncertainty. But her fever was still fluctuating and they were struggling to keep her stable.  The 5 doctors now on her team were all brainstorming to figure out what was causing our sweet Boo to be so sick.

Later in the week, the antibodies results returned a “high positive” for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. I was thrilled to know what we were dealing with but I was baffled. We hadn’t been in that area of the country, so how did she get it? But then I learned that despite its name, only 5% of the cases were actually from that region1. As I researched, she fit much of the epidemiology. RMSF is called “the great imitator” because clinical signs are often vague and symptoms are often confused with other infections but high fever, joint and muscle pains are usually observed within 3 days of exposure. And with delayed diagnosis and treatment, within days the effect on the central nervous and vascular systems can be devastating including death within a very short period of time. I was beginning to realize how close we were to losing her.

So with the RMSF on the radar, the vets changed the drug regimen within 24 hours she stabilized and we were able to bring her home Friday.  The bad news was the PCR test came back negative, which meant either she had been a carrier of RMSF for a long time and it was a red herring that was throwing off what we should actually be treating or that the DNA wasn’t in her bloodstream because it had attached to things like cell or artery walls. Since RMSF typically attacks the vascular system the latter option was a possibility, but we had no way to be sure.

We stayed the course and remained vigilant for any additional symptoms and completed the prescribed 3 weeks of medication. She progressed little by little but never got to 100% by the time the drugs ran out. She was still reluctant to jump up and was still very tentative on the stairs.

So what now? Retesting the tick panel at this point wouldn’t give us any new information. We could do additional diagnostics like joint taps to rule out things like autoimmune polyarthropathy but doing invasive procedures like that brings its own risks. Would she now be lame forever?

We opted to started her on Prednisone to see if her mobility improved. After 2 days of Prednisone, she had mobility improvement but also was experiencing the known side-effects of steroids – increase appetite (not really bad for her at this point) and increased thirst/urination. We continued the Prednisone for months, dropping the dose as advised but noticed that even though we were dropping her dosage, her need to urinate very frequently wasn’t subsiding. This caused our vet to begin to worry about liver, kidney and diabetes risks. We ran additional bloodwork and now her liver values were dangerously high. We continued to step down the Prednisone as quickly as we safely could and added in Denamarin, to help support her liver.

It would take over six months after her diagnosis to completely step her down off the medications before her liver values returned to normal and she got a clean bill of health.

Black dog BooBoo, survivor of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, joyfully running on a bridge

BooBoo feeling good again

So here we are, a year later at the beginning of a new tick season. She’s healthy and happy but is a changed dog and we’ve made changes as a result of this experience. We still hike – our dogs love it and even through almost life ending experience, I wouldn’t want to keep them from that joy. After all my research on RMSF and the recent Powassan virus, I discovered that some of these tick-borne diseases only take a few hours to be transmitted and that is truly frightening to me. Unlike Lyme, where the tick needs to be attached for 24-48 hours to transmit the disease, RMSF can be transmitted in as little as 5 hours.  This means hiking a full day and not checking for ticks until before bed will no longer do.  We now do a mid-hike tick check every 2 hours if we’re out for a long day in the woods.

As I reflect back on this ordeal, I’ve got several important takeaways that I’d like to share.

  1. Know your dog inside and out.  Know how to take your dog’s temperature and pulse. Just like people, dog temperatures vary and knowing what is normal for your dog could help you spot an early warning sign.  Know your dog’s normal vitals (body temperature, average resting pulse), appetite pattern, coat texture and sleeping   habits.
  2. Be your dog’s advocate. Don’t just wait it out to see if it gets better on its own, as tempting as it might be.  Time is of the essence.  Seek out care right away and be your dog’s advocate.  Don’t wait for organ failure or hemorrhaging – it very well might be too late to treat at that point. Be proactive in the care your dog gets.
  3. Pet insurance.  We purchased insurance soon after adoption so there would be no excluded pre-existing conditions. Having the peace of mind knowing that everything would be covered allowed us to focus on BooBoo and do whatever the doctors recommended and not have the financial strain as a deciding factor in her medical care.  Yes, the monthly premium is a lot but insurance is exactly for cases like this. We received 100% reimbursement of over $6500 in vet bills (minus our $100 deductible.)
  4. Topical treatments.  Although we are generally holistic, we do apply a monthly topical tick preventative.  When I approached the manufacturer about how she could be infected with being on preventative every month, even through the winter, they stated it’s only 97% effective in repelling.  So some ticks will get through.  I suspect we never found the tick that infected Boo because it bit her and then the Vectra killed it, and the tick fell off before we did our evening check.  We still use the topical but now also supplement with an essential oil spray. Also, having proof of purchase of tick preventative was necessary for our insurance claims to be paid 100%.
  5. Have a regular vet.  As tempting as it is to bounce around to low cost clinics for vaccines, this reinforced how it’s far more important to have a solid relationship with a regular vet, who sees your pet at least once annually, whether they are sick or not. We have an amazing vet and we trust her implicitly. When ER vets were throwing out all sorts of tests and things they could do, we relied on our regular vet’s advice and knowledge of the history of our dog to help us decide a course of treatment. Our regular vet worked in tandem with the ER staff and the specialists, reviewing all the lab reports and treatment plans.  They sent her daily updates and reports. It’s easy to be overwhelmed when your pet is in medical crisis and having a regular vet as an ally helps you make decisions and not feel like the ER vets might be taking advantage of your compromised state.
  6. Have an ER vet. You never want to need to use it, but in an emergency you don’t want to lose precious minutes looking up who your closest ER facility is.       Know where they are, know how to get there and have the phone number programmed in your phone so you can call them on your way so they’re ready to take you in for a real emergency. In our case, getting Boo’s temperature down was critical to saving her life and preventing a seizure. The hospital knowing we were on our way gave them advance warning to prepare a room for her so there was no delay when we arrived.

I am forever grateful to the medical team that saved our girl but I know our quick action also played a part. Many dogs do not get diagnosed with RMSF until it is too late to save them – until they are hemorrhaging or some other equally awful symptom appears. It wasn’t her time but it easily could have been if I hadn’t taken her temperature or if the ER vets hadn’t started her on drugs at that moment. There are so many things that could have altered our outcome. Our sweet Boo came to us as a feral dog from Kentucky and is now a certified therapy dog and I like to think the world needed her around for a while longer. I hope that others hearing our RMSF story will bring awareness to tick-borne illnesses and help people notice the symptoms early on to help save lives.

For now, we will keep hiking but checking for nasty ticks often and cuddling as much as possible to enjoy every moment that we have left together.

For more information, please check these RMSF resources

JAVMA, Vol 221, No. 10, November 15, 2002
Companion Animal Parasite Council
Merck Veterinary Manual

Kate LaSala, CTC is an honors graduate of The Academy for Dog Trainers and owns  Rescued By Training in Central NJ. She is also a certified AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Evaluator and trainer for the NJ Chapter of Pets for Vets.  She shares her home with her husband John and their two rescue dogs, Mr. Barbo and BooBoo. Kate and BooBoo are a certified therapy dog team, visiting nursing and rehabilitation homes locally. Follow her on Facebook for training tips and helpful information.

Copyright 2016 Kate LaSala

Related Post from Eileen

My dog Clara also had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Here is her story and a video showing her symptoms:

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Introducing a Puppy and a Sound Sensitive Dog: Preparation Pays Off

Last month I posted to show how Marge Rogers introduced a friendly but possibly overenthusiastic dog to a very small puppy. But what if the challenge were a little different? What if your resident dog were both fearful of new dogs and sound sensitive?Young puppies are not exactly quiet!

My friend Kelly Viscosi has stepped forward to share how she prepared Dennis, her 9-year-old vizsla, to meet Saya, the new vizsla puppy. But actually, the story starts long before they meet, because Kelly did a ton of very clever preparation with Dennis.

Here are her words.

When we were expecting a puppy last summer, I asked the breeder to send me audio of the puppies crying and whining at their loudest (which happened to be right before breakfast time for them). She video taped it with her smart phone and sent it to me.

Dennis and stuffed dogFirst I classically conditioned Dennis to just the sound of the crying puppies. Once I was getting a good positive conditioned emotional response to this, then I set up a stuffed dog in a crate, placing a small, wireless speaker under the stuffed dog. At random times throughout the day, I would play the audio and treats would rain from the sky right in front of the crate with the stuffed puppy.

Dennis and stuffed dog 2Before long, Dennis would just choose to park himself in front of the crate, waiting for the “puppy” to cry. From here, I also began putting the stuffed puppy in an ex-pen (also with wireless speaker under stuffed puppy). We repeated the same thing: puppy cries, treats rain down. This worked very well to prepare Dennis, who is sound sensitive AND fearful of dogs outside the family.

When we brought the real puppy home a month later, he was very well prepared for all the extra noise his baby sister made. She would cry/bark, and it sounded just like the stuffed puppy had, because he had been listening to his sister and her littermates for several weeks now. I still tossed treats to Dennis every time his sister cried or whined, and he would park himself a few feet away from the ex-pen, waiting for her to cry so he could get treats. 

Yes, he gained some weight during this time, but it was well worth it because he had a positive association and we just reduced his calories a couple months later

Classical Conditioning Done Well

I just have to editorialize about this, to elaborate a bit on all the things that Kelly did right.

  • She got a recording of the exact sounds that Dennis would be exposed to.
  • She used classical conditioning: she played a few seconds of the crying, then rained the treats down. Notice that she did not just leave an audio recording going. She played a short segment and followed it with treats.
  • She played the noise (and followed it with treats) at random times throughout the day. She made it clear that the noise, and the noise alone, predicted the special treats.
  • She then made a further association: she made the sound source appear to be the stuffed dog. Even though Dennis doubtless knew that this was not a real dog, it gave a focal point for the sound and a visual that was similar to what he would later see with the real puppy.
  • She did the “noisy puppy” show in two different locations, the crate and the ex-pen.
  • She didn’t skimp on the quality of the the treats.

This work she did made a huge difference for Dennis. He could have been miserable from the noise and the new stranger. But with Kelly’s careful preparation, the arrival of the puppy meant enrichment opportunities for him. How cool is that?

Dennis and Saya

But Wait–There’s More!

Here’s some other great training Kelly did before the pup came. She set up a group mat exercise for Dennis, the future puppy, and Trixie, her other senior dog. She used the faithful stuffed dog as a stand-in for the puppy. Again, Dennis surely knew this was not a puppy. But the exercise helped create a routine. He learned that the object on the adjacent mat getting a treat predicted his getting a treat. Learning the routine was another thing that helped him adjust faster to the real dog when she came. (Kelly mentioned that Trixie, the black and tan senior dog, was gregarious and happy with other dogs, so this exercise was just a bonus for her.)


One of my favorite things in life is seeing the imaginative and thoughtful things that people all over the world do to make their dogs’ lives better. I hope Kelly’s work with Dennis plants some seeds of ideas out there for others who are preparing resident dogs for a newcomer.

Care to share? I bet there are some other great stories out there.

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All photos, the movie, and quotes from Kelly: Copyright Kelly Viscosi 2016

Eileen’s commentary: Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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