Am I a Wimp for Caring About My Dog’s Emotions?

Maybe it’s my upbringing, but I always flinch a little bit at the use of the language of emotions when talking about training. So even though my relationships with my dogs are primary and important, I hesitate to talk about “bonds” or “trust.”  It sounds so…I don’t know…California. (I can say that because I’m from there.)

The thing is that most of the people who are out there talking about magical energy and bonds and leadership and trust and all those other things we can’t describe concretely are doing dogs (and competent positive reinforcement trainers) a real disservice. Because emotions—the dogs’ emotions—do have a place in training. We can’t see them, but we can often see their results. Emotions and internal states have a place in behavior analysis because they drive observable behavior.

So considering a dog’s emotional state is not the sign of a wimpy cookie pusher, you know, those mythical trainers who train with fairy farts and rainbows and whose dogs knock over grandma and run into traffic. Considering a dog’s emotions is the sign of a thoughtful and prudent trainer. Because not all emotions are tender and sweet. Of course we want our dogs to have joyful and fulfilling lives. But there’s another reason to concern ourselves with dogs’ emotional states. They are predators with mouths full of teeth. Many of them are powerful enough to kill a human. Any of them with half their teeth can do damage.

An animal with those types of weapons front and center can be dangerous, even deadly when afraid. That’s an emotion we definitely need to notice.

It’s Not All About Flowers and Rainbows

The emotions we need to pay attention to in our dogs go beyond joy and happiness. They also include anger, fear, and anxiety.  We should care about whether a dog is upset, both for the dog’s sake, but also because upset dogs may hurt people. Upset dogs can be dangerous to us, to our human friends and family, and to the guy on the street. If your dog is demonstrating any of these intense emotions and the heightened arousal of the sympathetic nervous system that goes with them, the dog could be dangerous. I don’t necessarily mean as a character trait; I mean at that moment. Dogs are animals, and except for people who have been seriously bitten by dogs, most of us don’t know or can’t keep in mind what they can do to us.

If a dog is hiding or giving you a hard stare, it’s not a good time to get out your clicker and treats and work on “sit pretty” or “roll over.” Neither is it a good time to get out a choke collar and practice competition heeling, for that matter. But more on that later.

What Is It Time For?

The respected trainer Jean Donaldson says that the first question we should ask ourselves when beginning to work with a dog is, “Is the dog upset?”

If the dog is upset, we work on that first. For most of us, this means finding and hiring a qualified, positive-reinforcement based trainer. Then “working on it” may include leaving off behavior training for a few days or weeks. It can mean limiting ourselves to only indirect and non-demanding interactions if the dog is brand new to her situation and scared. It can include activities designed to help the dog feel secure in a new environment. It can include desensitization and counterconditioning: techniques designed to ameliorate and remove fears.  It can include gentle, easy training games when the dog is ready. It can include psychotropic drugs for dogs who can’t get out of a state of heightened anxiety without that help.

Doing these things is not coddling the dog. Such a plan is both empathetic and practical. A wise use of desensitization, counterconditioning, and positive reinforcement training can help an animal become happy and comfortable in the world. It’s a win/win because it’s also safer for the human.

Suppressing Emotions

There’s another way to look at it, of course. We could ignore what we know about physiology and the central nervous system. We could buy into a bunch of discounted theories about why dogs do what they do. And we could use punishment-based methods to suppress the hell out of the dog’s behaviors. If you carry a big enough stick, you can usually hurt the dog into submission when it is exhibiting reactive or aggressive behaviors. But given that most such behavior is born from fear, punishing a fearful dog for aggressive or threatening behaviors is a very bad idea.  Punishment based methods have been shown to correlate with increased aggression from the dog .

An infamous TV personality who purports to train dogs has a video in which he aggressively approaches a dog who is minding her own business and eating. He bullies, prods, harasses, and corners her until she bites him. He then exclaims, “I didn’t see that coming!” Leaving aside the fact that getting dogs to aggress appears to be one of the goals of the show, let’s pretend like his goal really is to train the dog. In that case, he would have done well to observe the dog’s behavior with the goal of detecting her emotions and building that information into a training plan.

A Modest Example

Here’s an old photo of my beloved rat terrier, Cricket, with a chew toy. Her body language and eyes are saying, “If you try to take this away from me, I will likely bite you.” At that time I didn’t know how to change a dog’s emotional response to mitigate resource guarding. I just mostly avoided the issue. (I did know the risks of getting into an object custody battle with a terrier, even a very small one.)

Cricket, a small black, brown, and white terrier, is chewing on a rawhide toy with her body hunched around protecting it and giving a warning look. Her emotions are probably those of anxiety about the item being taken away.

I could’ve made a moral issue of it. The dog “shouldn’t” guard things against me because I’m the boss. I could have battled Cricket for her chew toys and gotten bitten and hit her for biting me. I could have made her submission my goal. Then I could have done that with subsequent dogs.

I didn’t. Instead, now I teach my dogs that if I walk by them when they have something of high value, I will toss them something great in addition to their main prize. This is not about sticking my hands in their food, taking their stuff away, or even “trading,” at least in the beginning. The first few dozen times, all I do is give them something. After a while, I will occasionally “borrow” their item, then give it back with interest (something great). Then if that time comes when I need to take something away for real, they will get the best thing I have with me in return. And since the taking away only happens a very small percentage of the time, they stay relaxed about it.

I did this as a prophylactic measure with my next three dogs after Cricket.

I don’t want to imply that it is always that easy or that resource guarding isn’t serious. I was lucky with my dogs that I didn’t have a hard case. I just did some work on the front end and it was effective. It can be a different story with a dog who is already guarding or is genetically inclined to do so. Again, that’s a situation where it is imperative to call in a trainer.

Here’s a photo of Zani chewing on a beef tendon in my office. Pretty different from the Cricket photo. Does she look worried that I’m is going to take it away, even though I’m standing right over her? Nope! But paradoxically, I could do so with little upset on her part.

Zani, a black and tan small hound mix, lies on the floor on her side, chewing on a beef tendon

Changing our dogs’ emotional response to things that could upset them is not about rainbows and fairies. It’s not about indulgence or coddling. It’s a pragmatic approach that is the only road to a win/win situation. The dogs were afraid or worried, and now they’re not. We all have less stress, and they are much safer to be around.

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Aggression, Dog body language, Fear, Resource guarding, Stress Signals, Training philosophy | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Helping Your Dogs Get Ready for Fireworks

Canada Day and U.S. Independence day are both coming up. I’ve updated my fireworks preparation page with some new tips on keeping dogs as safe and calm as possible. Check it out and make your preparations!

You can access the page below. Feel free to share!

6 Ways to Prepare your Dog for Fireworks

Summer cheese 2

© 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Preventing Dog Reactivity with a Barrier

My back door opens onto an elevated wooden porch. There are ten steps down to the yard. The top of the steps provides a view into the neighbor’s yard, which can be a very interesting place. Clara runs there when anything might be happening, primed to react. In the picture above she is watching a guest dog at the neighbor’s house. You can see that that’s not a friendly look, right? Tight commissures (corners of the mouth) with the muscles bunched and pushing forward. Direct gaze with a fairly hard eye. Stiff neck with weight pushing forward. And yes, she’s foaming at the mouth, probably from barking.

The neighbors are retired and have a large family with three generations of offspring. Their home is the meeting place for the whole family. They put up their grandkids frequently, and often dog-sit over a weekend or holiday. The most frequent canine visitor is a big, affable goldendoodle. Affable or not, all three of my dogs get up in arms about him, but especially Clara. The other two sound the alarm, then go about their business. But Clara is offended by him and has a hard time letting go. 

There are also cats from another house that come into that yard. Luckily Clara can watch them with relative calm. She doesn’t get fixated. Zani gets overly excited, though. And there is a huge tree that is a squirrel hangout, and sometimes there’s a cats and squirrels show.

The myrtles have to be four to five feet above the fence to function as a barrier. So we have a way to go….

I have known for a while that having this reactivity platform was not good for Clara. So last year I planted some native bushes that grow very tall (wax myrtles) at the critical area of the fence. My plan was that they would eventually create a visual barrier and block that perfect view from the top of the steps. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it through when I bought the bushes. They were expensive, so I bought the two-foot young bushes instead of the eight-foot ultra-pricey ones. Uh, so that means they may block the view in about three years, probably more like five. I also didn’t think about how slowly they would grow at first. They are planted in a shady channel between the house and the fence. They’ll only get as much sun as they need after they get significantly taller. 

You can tell from both of the pictures above that Clara is aroused. She is developing a habit–hell, I’ll be honest. She has already developed a habit of charging out the door when released and taking her stance at the top of the steps to see what she can get excited about. She does this just about every time she goes out the back door. (Much of the rest of the time she charges down the steps to see what she can get excited about at the bottom of the yard.)

Much as I want my dog to have an interesting life, I have learned that this is not the way to go about it. Dogs can pick up habits of over-arousal so fast. Looking for things to get upset about is interesting, perhaps. Wholesome, no. Do I really want Clara to develop such an aggressive response to “strange dog”?  Do I want her to practice territorial aggression? It’s a repeat of what Summer and Cricket used to do indoors when they could look out a big window and bark at the pedestrians and animals on the street in front of my house. I fixed that with window film. 

Prompted to Action

My neighbors have been dog-sitting a new dog, a male shih tzu mix. He seems like a nice fellow to me but that doesn’t matter to Clara. She is quite upset about him. I was chatting with the neighbors yesterday and they mentioned that he would be staying for three weeks. Oh-oh. We usually cope with the presence of the doodle by staying inside a lot. I don’t want to do that for three weeks.

I decided that even a temporary barrier would be helpful. So I got out some cardboard and my staple gun and ran the cardboard up the side of the steps. I stapled it to the railing. 

The cardboard barrier that blocks the dogs' view into the neighbors' yard is surprisingly effective

The hastily applied cardboard barrier

This flimsy, makeshift barrier has made a big difference. I should have done something like it years ago. 

I do feel a little mean.

Staring into the neighbor’s yard isn’t working out so well

Really not working anymore

Really mean.

Nah, not really. Because this afternoon Clara was able to play ball with me and play in her pool while the shih tzu guy was out in his yard. She ran to the fence a few times and got a sniff and perhaps a glimpse, but not enough to prompt the fixation. Not being able to stand and watch his every move made a world of difference.

Breaking the Behavior Pattern

I’m not posting this as some kind of exemplary do-it-yourself project. The barrier is flimsy. It’s cardboard. It rains here in the summer, so it will probably last only about as long as the neighbor dog is here. I need a more permanent solution. If I make it out of plywood I need to fit it to the stair steps so that the dogs can’t get their heads caught, which is one thing that has prevented me from trying before. 

But I’m posting this temporary fix because it was a simple, easy thing to do and it is instantly making things better for my dogs. All it took was ten minutes of work. 

Shouldn’t I Be Training Them?

Sure! And this is the kind of training I do all the time. They are all expert at recalling away from distractions. They interrupt themselves and come to me even when I don’t call them. (I give them very good stuff for that behavior!)  Here’s a quick example of both. In this case all three dogs are checking out what a resident neighbor dog is up to. Clara and Zani interrupt themselves to run to me. Summer waits to be called, then comes as well. 

But in the case of the visiting neighbor dog, Clara’s ability to view him from the platform created a perfect antecedent for fixation and arousal. I needed a little management help. The barrier did the trick.

I offer my dogs attention, fun, and the invitation to do a bit of ad hoc training when we are in the yard. But I need to be able to get their attention. And now I can again.

Addendum: Some FaceBook friends have suggested products that they use successfully in similar circumstances. You can search on garden cloth, landscaping cloth, and a specific brand name product called Alion Privacy Screen. All of these look much nicer than my cardboard and are more durable. Thanks for the crowdsourcing Carolyn, Katie, and Sue.   

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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The Opposite of Force

Clara's pool provides enrichment she can choose when she wants

Clara playing by herself in her pool

I think I’ve figured something out. 

I continue to see the concept of choice bandied about the positive reinforcement-based training world. It can be a code word for a setup that includes negative reinforcement. “I’m going to do something physically unfamiliar or unpleasant to you and you have the choice of staying here and getting a piece of food or leaving and being relieved from whatever it is I’m doing.” I’ve suggested that this is not a laudable kind of choice; as trainers we can use our skills and take our time so that the dog doesn’t want to leave in the first place. 

It can also refer to human-centric preference tests, many of which are subject to extreme bias.

But here’s my new realization. I think we have grabbed hard onto the concept of choice because it seems like the opposite of force.

  • Instead of pushing the dog’s butt down into a sit, I don’t. The dog now has a choice.
  • Instead of restraining the dog for nail trims, I don’t. The dog now has a choice.
  • Instead of pulling the dog away from the fire hydrant by his leash and collar, I let him sniff, or I give a cue for another behavior that I will strongly reinforce. He has a choice.

But there is a semantic mismatch here. Force and choice are not opposites.

Force has to do with our actions. In force-based training a human might push, pull, loom over, shock, scare, or drag a dog to get or stop behavior. Those are all concrete, describable actions. The human performs them.

Choice has to do with an internal state of the dog. We conject about it. We pat ourselves on the back for “giving him a choice.” But “making a choice” is not an observable behavior; it’s an internal event. We see the behavior that follows it.   

Not only that, but whatever internal state that might exist when we explicitly “give the dog a choice” may also exist when we are not doing this. It doesn’t depend on us. We don’t have to be the center of the “choice universe” for dogs.

Shock collar trainers often say the dog has a choice, and they are correct. The dog, once it understands the system, can “choose” to endure the pain or can “choose” to perform the behavior that turns the painful stimulus off. 

I’m not equating positive reinforcement based training with shock training. I’m pointing out that the presence or absence of choice is not the difference between them. 

The Opposite of Force

So if force refers to a human behavior, what is the opposite? We can’t say “not using force.” That’s a dead man behavior. What human behavior/s are the opposite of using force on an animal?

Force on our part limits and constrains the animal’s choices, besides often causing pain or fear. Therefore:

I’m going to suggest that in a practical way, the opposite of using force is to proactively remove physical barriers (when safe) and provide lots of simultaneous opportunities for positive reinforcement and enrichment. 

Blanche Axton leaves exercise items out because her dogs like to climb on them. In other words, for enrichment!

This is an undramatic thing for us to do. It means noticing what our dogs like and providing opportunities for them to do it. It means being flexible enough to work around them if a dog suddenly discovers something fun that was not part of our plan. It means not demanding a dog’s attention when she is happily doing something that doesn’t involve us.

Jo the pug loved her cat buddy and opportunities to play were welcome

That last one—not demanding the dog’s attention—can be hard. My rat terrier, Cricket, slept in the bed snuggled up to me her whole life, even after she had advanced dementia. During this time, young Clara slept in a crate right next to my bed. Summer slept in a crate on the bed. (She had been aggressive to Cricket in the past.) Zani was free to be where she wanted, which was usually somewhere on the bed. 

After Cricket died, I did away with the crate on the bed and put no constraints on where Summer and Zani slept. I decided not to let Clara out of her crate at night right away. She had always slept there with no apparent frustration. I wanted to give the other dogs a chance to develop new routines. They had seniority. I assumed they would sleep with me.

Summer chooses to sleep in an open crate next to my bed. She can make this choice because I have provided multiple places to sleep. 

But they didn’t. Neither Summer nor Zani slept on the bed with me for several months after Cricket died. I missed Cricket and was lonely. A couple of nights I closed the bedroom door with the dogs inside just to have some company, but I felt bad. That was against my beliefs. 

So you could say that after Cricket died I “gave the dogs choices.” But let’s operationalize that. What I actually did was to remove barriers (keep the baby gate and other doors open, remove and open up Summer’s crate) and make sure there were lots of comfortable sleeping places all over the house. 

Finally, I let Clara out. She got on the bed with me and never looked back. The other dogs eventually came back and have their own quirky sleeping habits.

Two other examples:

  1. I leave my back door or doggie door open when I’m home and the weather allows. The dogs can come and go. I have to put some limits on this because of safety and social concerns (neighbors) but I do it when I can. You can say I “give them a choice.” But what I am doing is leaving a door open and thus providing simultaneous access to multiple forms of reinforcement and enrichment.  
  2. Clara prefers to drink fresh, running water, an apparent carryover from her feral days.  When we have been out and I pour some water from a plastic bottle into a bowl, she likes to drink out of the stream as I pour. If I stop because there is an inch of water already in the bowl, she’ll lap a couple of times, then bump my hand with the bottle until I pour again. This is a pushy behavior but no harm done. I always arrange it so Clara can drink out of the bottle if she wants. I didn’t have to teach her this. I just had to pay attention.

The Fine Line

All this choice talk causes me to worry on behalf of people who are new to training and maybe even new to having a dog as a family member.  Giving a dog too much freedom too soon is such an easy mistake and we may be encouraging it in the wrong places. My dogs would love to be underfoot when I cook in the kitchen and wait for me to drop a crumb, but it’s not safe. Hence I have trained them to stay on mats. They would love to run around snatching items from visitors, but I have taught them alternatives. They would love to chew up my furniture and hey—peeing feels good wherever you do it. But I have taught them to chew their own stuff and to pee outside.

Training dogs to live with us involves limiting choices, especially at the beginning. There is no way around that. I think the way to mitigate it is to give them as many opportunities for reinforcement and enrichment we can within the confines we set. There are more limits with puppies or dogs new to our household; we can relax them as the dogs mature, habituate, and learn through training how to thrive in a human household. 

Even though it limited her choices in the short term, one of the best things I ever did for my household and for Clara was to keep her crated at night as a youngster. I was consistent. Letting her be unconfined at night before she was house trained and before she had learned to leave my stuff alone would have created many problems. The tippy situation with the older dogs would have made it dangerous. And letting her out before she was ready would have broken both our hearts (permit me that small anthropomorphism) when I was later forced to crate her again for another long period.

Providing Enrichment

So you can train your dog “yes and no” (although it’s much trickier than most methods allow for). You can set up husbandry methods planned around the dog leaving periodically, and call that “giving the dog choices.” Or you could, much less dramatically, observe what your dog likes throughout his life and give him opportunities to do it. You could provide multiple concurrent sources of enrichment. You could notice when he expresses a preference in his own way and honor it when you can. You could practice self-control on your own desires to influence your dog to pay attention to you or stay with you when it is not necessary.

Force is something humans do to dogs. Setting up an enriching life and training with positive reinforcement are the opposites of that. Those are the behaviors we humans can do so our dogs can make choices. 

Text and photo of Clara copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

Photos with pugs and the pugcat copyright 2017 Blanche Axton. Thank you, Blanche!




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Posted in Choice, Enrichment, Training philosophy | Tagged | 14 Comments

Are You SURE Your Dog Prefers That Food Toy?

It just occurred to me that it is super easy to make assumptions about how much our dogs prefer a particular food toy, or even whether they really enjoy them that much. 

Don’t yell at me. To be clear: I use food toys for my dogs every single day. I think they can be enriching and that they are ethical things to use. 

But food toys present us with a funny little problem. The laws of behavior get in the way of something we might like to know. How can we tell which toys our dogs like best? Or whether they like them at all?  

Resource guard much, Clara?

Classical Associations

Most of this post is about operant behavior, but here’s a quick run across the classical domain. Any event or object that predicts food can prompt an animal’s responses to food if the pairing is consistent. My dogs salivate when I open the silverware drawer at a certain time in our morning routine. It’s because I then grab a spoon before administering pills embedded in peanut butter. The dogs weren’t born with that response. The silverware drawer meant nothing until it came to predict peanut butter. Here’s another example: one of my dogs salivates when another dog barks. (Really!) And we frequently see the signs of the positive conditioned emotional responses that go along with the body’s preparation for of food. For instance, most hungry dogs will perform excited behaviors in anticipation of their food bowl or toy. 

Clara thinks that empty food toy still has potential 

Filled food toys predict food perfectly.  If a dog is healthy, has a normal appetite, and can get food out of a particular toy, she’ll likely be delighted to see it. But that excitement is not a pure love for the toy itself. We can’t easily separate the toy from the food the dog gets out of it. 

Preference Tests and the Matching Law

So if it’s hard to tell what part of a dog’s excitement about a food toy is about the food itself, then it’s also hard to tell which toy a dog might prefer over another.  

Can we use a preference test to determine a favorite food toy? I’ve written recently about them and how easily we can mess things up when we try to determine our dogs’ preferences. There are several types of tests, and some are more appropriate for testing dogs’ preferences than just putting an item in each hand and waiting to see what happens.

The most basic preference test is a “free operant observation” test. In this type of test, the animal or person has access to several potential reinforcers over a period of time.  An observer tracks the amount of time the participant interacts with each item. This method removes a lot of the problems that can give us false results.

But food toys have food in them. If a hungry dog is put in a room with three different food toys he is familiar with and that contain the same kind of food, he will make choices roughly according to the matching law. He will most likely gravitate toward the toy he can get the food out of the fastest first. As that one empties and the rate gets slower, he will likely switch to another toy. (Most toys yield food faster when they are full.) It’s unlikely that a dog will be making any kind of choice other than “what will get me the most calories the fastest right now” if the toys are equally familiar.

This would also apply if one toy held much higher value food than another. Usually more preferred food has more calories. (Not always, but usually.) So the matching law would still be in effect if the dog took five minutes to ingest a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter before taking one minute to eat a similar mass of low-calorie kibble that had less than one fifth of the calories.  

I suspect the treats in Zip’s pickle toy are pretty high value!

Un-Fun Toys

Two toys came out a couple of years ago that were marketed heavily. They looked great. Both were stationary and were challenging because of their shapes. They didn’t require much creativity or skill, just persistence. (I’m purposely not naming them here. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them and I don’t want to single them out as “bad” in some way.)

My teacher bought one of them, and after a while said that she thought it wasn’t fun for the dogs. All it did was slow down their eating. I bought it from her to see if my dogs liked it. I came to the same conclusion after a while. I donated it to a breed-specific rescue for a breed prone to bloat. The manager said they got plenty of dogs who just needed to slow their eating down a bit, and this was perfect. 

But honestly, my dogs never acted disappointed or thwarted by these toys. They wagged their tails and did the suppertime happy dance just like they did with every other food toy I gave them. It was just my educated guess that the toys weren’t as fun because there was no movement. There was no particular behavior required beyond doing a lot of persistent licking to get the kibble out. That made the meal last longer, but there was no challenge, no skills, no problem solving involved.

I guessed that my dogs would prefer toys that involve movement, since they prefer that in general. But it was only a guess.

Ethics sidebar: If my dogs’ normal habit is to eat as fast as possible, is it ethical to use food toys to slow them down?  My glib answer is that anything that relieves boredom, that is stimulating, that brings some interest to their lives in our house and yard, is a good thing. That’s the major idea behind food toys.  I’m looking at the whole picture when I make the decision to use one. But would the dogs agree? Hmmm. 


This is the place where someone will bring up contrafreeloading. Contrafreeloading is an observed phenomenon where an animal will choose to work for food rather than eat food that is available without work. Does this prove that food toys are good in themselves? Not necessarily. There is some evidence of contrafreeloading in several species, but it’s not as common a phenomenon as many think. There are both learning theory and ethological hypotheses for the function of the behavior. You can check out the abstracts of the review articles below if you want to know more. The important thing to keep in mind is that it appears to happen a lot less often than eating the easily accessible food. In other words, animals that do contrafreeload don’t always do it or even mostly do it. So I don’t think it’s fair to use contrafreeloading to support a claim that food toys are always and automatically better for our dogs.

(You can do a test. Split your dog’s meal between an open bowl and a food toy and put them next to each other in your dog’s eating area. Release the dog. What does she eat first? Try it both when she is extra hungry and when she is rather full. Is her behavior different?)

Two Winners and a Runner-Up

Possibly the best foot toy ever

When wondering about how to tell whether my dogs prefer a certain food toy, two examples come to mind. One is that over the course of my life with my dogs, I have taught them to search for food. I started small, using boxes as in a canine nosework class. I built the searching behavior and the dogs got so skilled that I could hide food anywhere in my house and each one could find it (even if I had the same food. Then we expanded the search to the back yard and developed their skills outdoors. Nowadays I have to make very difficult hides—elevated or placed under something—unless I want them to run straight to it. They are all skilled. What they search for is a folded up piece of a cardboard paper towel roll with about 7-10 pieces of kibble in it. 

Their body language—all three of them—is that of thrill and delight. They love sniffing out their food. They can’t wait for their turns. But the reward is relatively low value. Their excitement seems out of proportion to the food alone. Sometimes one of my dogs will leave a piece of kibble or two in a regular food toy. “Meh, not worth it.” Never in the yard. They will search every piece, then cruise the yard again after the other dogs’ turns just to make sure. I can safely say that there is fun in this activity above and beyond actual eating.

And like most R+ trainers, I can say the same about training. My dogs love the combination of interacting with me, learning things, and getting food. Again, their demeanors tell me that there is fun in this activity beyond the food. Although they get excited for meals, they get thrilled at training sessions. 

Another candidate for a fun food toy

And here’s the runner-up. I have a tentative candidate for another favored food toy. It’s one that is comparatively easy, but involves that searching behavior that seems to be so fun. It’s the Snuffle Mat. Here’s a link to the Snuffle Mat I purchased, from Your Mannerly Mutt, a store owned by a positive reinforcement based trainer. You can also make your own. 

I rotate our one Snuffle Mat among my three dogs as an alternative food toy. And I’ve noticed that when I prepare to put it down for another dog, Summer will leave her own area where she usually waits for her food to come and watch the mat. She may jostle the other dog (atypical for her) to get closer. It’s clearly attractive. She normally ignores the other dogs’ food toys. This appears to be a favorite. But playing devil’s advocate to my own argument (a.k.a. falsifying), I could propose that it’s because it’s a big visual target. Or that it appears more “open” with the food more accessible like a big bowl. Either of those could be the reason. But it also could be true that the foraging behavior required makes it a more fun toy.

I think I need to buy at least one more. I’m sure my dogs think that more tests are in order.

Anybody else have observations about whether your dogs might prefer one food toy over another? Can you rule out matching law factors? Do you have a way to quantify or at least describe the behavioral difference?

Resources on Contra-Freeloading

Inglis, I. R., Forkman, B., & Lazarus, J. (1997). Free food or earned food? A review and fuzzy model of contrafreeloading. Animal Behaviour, 53(6), 1171-1191.

Osborne, S. R. (1977). The free food (contrafreeloading) phenomenon: A review and analysis. Learning & Behavior, 5(3), 221-235.

Photo of Portuguese Water Dog Zip copyright 2017 Marge Rogers.

Text and all other photos copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson.

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Posted in Classical conditioning, Enrichment, Food toys, Reinforcement | Tagged , , | 19 Comments

Tossing Cookies: Delivering Treats and Toys in Dog Training

One thing I notice about experienced trainers is how well they can deliver food to dogs. Usually their hand motions are both fast and quiet, and the food goes just where they intend. This may sound like a minor issue, but it’s not. The mechanics of training are the key to successful, efficient training and a non-frustrated dog.

The way we deliver food in training needs to further our goals. There are times when we want to quietly hand the food to the dog or drop it on the floor or a mat under the dog’s chin. Sometimes we want to throw the treat away from the dog for the dog to chase. We may do this to build excitement or to put the dog into a good position to start the next repetition. Sometimes, especially in real life situations, we just need to toss a treat accurately to the dog while she is holding a position. Missing the target in this case can ramp up the dog, pull her out of position, or even start a scuffle in a multiple dog household.

This “leave-it” scene required an accurate throw from me. I needed the kibble to pass in front of the dogs but I didn’t want to make it too hard by hitting them with it. (One piece landed touching Clara’s foot. Good girl, Clara!)

I practice treat tossing. I’m not a pro and you can tell, but my practice does pay off. Here are some of the exercises I do. 


Unless I am intentionally building excitement, I strive for a calm, accurate throw that goes straight to the dog without any fuss.

I create my setup with some way to measure distance. Hallways are good for this, and they also limit how far the treats can go astray. Then I throw treats in sets of 5 or 10. I use the system described by Jean Donaldson and others to determine when to raise or lower criteria or keep practicing at the same difficulty level. For a set of 5 throws, that means I raise criteria if 4 or 5 are correct, I stay at the same level if 3 are correct, and drop criteria if only 1 or 2 are correct. 

Here is a blog post by Yaletown Dog Training describing Jean Donaldson’s system, which is called Push, Drop, Stick. But remember: I am using it for my own behavior. In my practice exercises, there is no dog present.

The Plain Toss with Increasing Distance: Both Hands

This is what my actual target area looks like. “Bulls-eye!” says Summer.

Target for tosses: a Snuffle mat in a box

To practice the plain toss without a dog, I put a Snuffle mat inside a small, shallow cardboard box. The Snuffle mat serves two purposes: it prevents the treats from bouncing all over the room and it provides good auditory contrast. Treats land on the mat silently, but they click on the floor when I miss the mat. Using the mat also thrills my dogs, who watch from the sidelines. One lucky dog gets to clean up after my session as part of her dinner.

I usually set up in the hallway and mark off feet in pencil on my baseboards. I start at 4 feet from the target and increase distance as I meet criteria. Currently I need to practice the toss at 6 feet, as you’ll see in the movie. Interestingly, my left hand is more accurate than my right, although I am right-handed. It probably gets more practice since I generally keep treats in my left hand pocket.

Grounders with Increasing Distance: Both Hands

Target for grounders: the stuffed dinosaur acts as a backstop

The other thing I practice is throwing grounders. Often it’s helpful to be able to roll a treat to a dog. This can actually be harder than tossing, since one has less control when a treat bounces across the floor. 

When I practice grounders, I put down a bath mat and my target area is the front of the mat. I put a soft object about a foot back on the mat to serve as a backstop. A successful throw either stops right at the mat or rolls onto the front of the mat. It’s OK if it stops on its own or bounces gently back from the backstop. If the treat bounces hard and ends up in front of the mat by more than an inch or two, that’s a failure. In real life it could tempt the dog to leave the mat. It’s also a failure if the treat goes too far to the side and misses the mat, or if I throw it too hard and it bounces over the toy.


Here’s my movie that shows the above two exercises. 

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Here are some other exercises to consider that I didn’t show in the movie. 

Tossing So the Dog Will Run After the Treat

Throwing the treat straight to the dog is actually a miss in this scenario. For instance, when I train a dog to back up or drop in the middle of a recall, I want the zone of reinforcement to be in back of the dog. Remote treat dispensers are good for this. But if I throw the treat, I usually want it to go over or around the dog so the dog doesn’t try to leap to get it. 

The challenge in this arrangement is not to throw the treat too far, or if I’m in my house, not to throw it under the furniture.

Throwing a Mix of Items of Different Sizes, Weights, and Other Characteristics

Items of different weights, mass, and shape respond differently when you throw them. Sometimes to challenge myself I’ll toss a mixture of different items in a practice session. I will set up with a box as for a plain toss, but toss the different objects in turn. I usually don’t try to increase distance. I find a distance where I can meet criteria more than 50% of the time and rotate through the objects.

Agility Throws

We throw things in agility, too, but this topic really needs a whole post of its own. In brief: I use a thrown item at the end of every sequence except when I reinforce in position on contact obstacles. I want the dogs thinking “forward” almost all the time. I can throw a toy for Zani or a ball for Clara, but I’ve stayed with throwing food for Summer. There are all sorts of fancy food-holding toys for this, but I just use a small plastic, food-safe container with a screw-on lid. All the dogs have learned to love running after this container. It always has high value food in it.

In this photo, which I like even though I am headless, I am throwing one of Summer’s favorite things: a chunk of white bread. I had gone to an Italian restaurant the night before. In the photo I have already marked for correct execution of the weaves, and she is looking ahead where she knows her treat will land.

A decent throw from a headless trainer

A Note About So-Called Self-Reinforcement

In the past, I’ve messed around with the idea of reinforcing myself when practicing. I would administer chocolate chips when I met criteria. That made the game fun. But most behavior analysts say that technically you can’t reinforce your own behavior in this way. For example, in my case, the chocolate chips were under my own control and I could have one anytime. The contingency depended only on my self-control or lightning fast assessment rather than an externality. Even though I set up criteria, my own mind was making the decisions about meeting them, so part of the process of reinforcement that is generally external to the organism was internal.

Also, since I was already motivated to improve my treat tossing, I was already getting reinforced by improving my performance.

It wasn’t possible to determine whether the chocolate had a reinforcing effect. There is evidence that behavior can improve due to something like my chocolate chip procedure, but the commonly accepted term is “self-administered consequences” not reinforcement. Here are some resources on that.

Catania, A. C. (1975). The myth of self-reinforcement. Behaviorism, 3(2), 192-199.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. P. 499-500.

Kazdin, A. E. (2012). Behavior modification in applied settings. Waveland Press. P. 463-492, chapter on Self Control and Self-Administered Interventions.

Watson, D., & Tharp, R. (2013). Self-directed behavior: Self-modification for personal adjustment. Nelson Education. 

Other Treat Tossing Practice Resources

The only other free online resource I found about tossing treats was from Pam Johnson: Treat Toss Game: Accuracy. She includes using a clicker and treat bag (i.e. more of the reinforcement process than I do) and tosses accurately into a small bowl after clicking.

If anyone knows of other resources or would like to describe personal methods for practicing, please comment! 

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2017


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Posted in Dog training hints, Food reinforcers, Treats | Tagged | 13 Comments

I Failed to Falsify—Twice! (Falsifiability Part 2)

Graffiti on a brick building that says, "False"

Photo credit carnagenyc: see bottom of page

I want to share just how tricky this falsification stuff can be. In the last few weeks I’ve received two comments from readers that pushed me to rethink some things I’ve written. They were both presented very constructively, offering some ideas in the spirit of good dialogue and the search for truth. They included fascinating questions that were a bit technical and they got my attention. This post may be overly nerdy for some readers. But it has given me great pleasure to learn from my generous commenters and write about I’ve figured out so far.

Both of the comments were about falsifiability, and related to these two posts:

  1. Do You Dogs REALLY Want to Come In? In this post, I pointed out that my dog Zani was more likely to stay in the yard when I cued her to come in using a questioning tone. I stated that the reason was that the reinforcer involved was lower value, not because she intrinsically understood that I was offering a choice.
  2.  Falsifiability or Falsehood in Dog Training? (Part 1). In this post I explained the concept of falsifiability. I claimed that if we are truly following the science, then we should be able to explain what would falsify the tenets of learning theory that we study and use to train. In other words, we should understand the science behind what we do so well that we could state what it would take to prove it wrong.

 Both of the comments are in the comment sections for the falsifiability blog.

That Damn Diagram

The original (faulty) diagram

The first comment was about a diagram I had created. In the falsifiability blog, I showed a diagram of different responses one might get if one asked dog trainers how their methods could be falsified or disproved. I had a good time creating it, especially when including all the evasive or incoherent answers one might get. But the joke was on me. As commenter “A” pointed out, the one answer I gave as “correct” was incorrect. And it was supposed to be the crux of the diagram. Here’s how it went. 

The question was, 

As a science-based trainer, how would you falsify your methods?

The answer I offered as “correct” was, 

For learning theory in general, there would need to be multiple replicated studies that were deemed by experts to be robust enough to be considered strong evidence and included in learning theory and cognition textbooks.

The same would be true on a smaller scale for individual techniques.

Do you see the problem? I didn’t falsify anything. I didn’t even put forth anything to falsify. I just described where one might look and described the nature of evidence that could add evidence for or against…some stuff…involving learning theory.

I have updated the answer on the graphic on the original post. Now it reads:

Some findings that could falsify important aspects of learning theory would be multiple, well controlled, replicated studies that found things such as the following:

Behaviors followed contingently by an appetitive stimulus do not increase or maintain (given no other consequences or factors attributable to antecedents).

Behaviors that are followed contingently by the removal of an appetitive stimulus do not tend to decrease (same disclaimer).

Painful aversive stimuli that are used to punish or negatively reinforce behaviors have no fallout, and have the result of influencing an animal to be more confident, enthusiastic about training, and less fearful.

This is a better response because it explains how to falsify specific tenets of learning theory upon which we rely for our training.  

Falsifying the Hidden Assumption

The next reader’s comment is more complex, but incredibly instructive. In the falsifiability blog, I offered some rough evidence of what could falsify my previous claim that my dog responded more frequently to the cue that was tied to a higher magnitude reinforcer. I didn’t go into detail, but I offered some names in the scholarship world where a person could find research on the topic, then I wrote:    

The hypothesis could be falsified if this body of research was overturned with the results of new, replicated studies that showed no correlation between the animal’s response and the quality of the reinforcer, or an inverse correlation.

I think I did OK with this. But my commenter detected an assumption that was buried deeper in my thought processes. I had also written the following major point in the post:

When we want a dog to respond reliably to a cue, we use high value reinforcers on a dense schedule.  We also limit access to reinforcers for the behaviors we don’t want. So what would we do if we want the animal to have a more of a choice? The opposite! We would use a weak-ish reinforcer ourselves so as not to stack the deck in our direction.

Three disks on the ground with arrows on them. Can we falsify this whole "choice" thing?

Choices again!—Photo credit Derek Bruff: see bottom of page

My commenter wrote the following, which includes a great question:

Skinner would not, of course, agree that you have given your dog any more of an option by using a lower-value reinforcer on a CR [Ed: continuous reinforcement] schedule, but I suspect you have good reasons to use and hold on to the term. I guess the succinct way of asking this is—Why do you think your dog is “choosing” to come in or stay out, rather than just exhibiting a weaker but no less determined behavior? What sort of evidence would you need to falsify this part of the hypothesis? And, if you do think she is choosing in the low value recall case, why would you say your dog is NOT choosing, or has less choice in, responding to her RRR [Ed: highly reinforced recall] cue, rather than just saying she chooses the high value reinforcer more often, but just as freely?

Bingo. She got me. I can’t amass evidence for my claim that offering lower value reinforcers gave my dog more choice, nor can I falsify it. The act of making a choice is an unobservable process. We see only the behaviors that result from the choice (if there is one).

When we discuss “choice”:

  • We need to say what we mean by the term;
  • We need to know a lot about the cognitive abilities of dogs (do they think of it as “choice”?); and
  • We even need to consider freedom of the will. As in, do any of us—of any species—have “choice”? The neuroscientists are saying “not likely” to that question these days. (Which I think is funny because it’s the radical behaviorists who always get accused of thinking of organisms as robots.) 

To put it another way, if I have a cue to which a dog responds 95% of the time and a cue to which a dog responds 50% of the time, she is “making a choice” in both situations—or in neither. I don’t know which it is. But my commenter pointed very succinctly that I can’t claim that I am giving my dog more of a choice by offering one type of reinforcer instead of another. I can say only that the odds of her performing the behavior are probably changing. To repeat what my commenter said, “she chooses the high value reinforcer more often, but just as freely.”

Ironically, I wrote that post partly as a gripe against making unfalsifiable claims about dogs’ understanding of language. But I jumped right into the unfalsifiability trap myself. 

Am I Going To Quit Offering the Lower Value Treat for Going in the House?

Hell, no! I can’t say what’s going on in my dog’s head. I can’t claim that I am “giving her more choices.” But I can operationalize what I am doing when I offer that reinforcer. I am putting more opportunities for reinforcement in her environment. I am offering enrichment. And I think we can agree that that’s a good thing without bringing the mysteries of choice into the discussion.

Related Posts

Photo Credits
Photo of “FALSE” graffiti by carnagenyc via Flickr and under this license.
Photo of arrows by Derek Bruff via Flickr and under this license.

Text and diagram graphic copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Choice, Critical Thinking, Research, Terminology | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want: 9 Ways Preference Testing Can Go Wrong

Two hands offering different treats to a dog in an attempt at a preference test

What’s your favorite color?
Do you prefer pie or ice cream?
Which shirt do you like better: the striped one or the solid green one?

Most of us have been asked our preferences since we were children. Sometimes we are being asked to make a choice: if we choose the striped shirt we won’t be wearing the green one also. If we are asked to choose enough times, our preferences often become clear.

With the best intentions, many of us are attempting to determine our dogs’ preferences by trying to offer them choices. There are quite a few articles out there in the dog training world that include instructions on how to do that.

Most say that we are supposed to hold a different item in each hand (usually toys or two different foods), and see which one the dog “chooses.” Or we may have items on two plates on the floor. Whichever item the dog doesn’t move toward or otherwise express an interest in, we take away. In the literature, this is called a “paired stimulus preference assessment.” 

We are told we that if we do this procedure several times, we can learn his preference. 

Wellll….not necessarily.

There are quite a few assumptions in that scenario. We assume that the dog understands choice: that he gets to pick one thing and the other will go away. (Why are we such control freaks that we so often couple choice-making with taking something away? It’s not always necessary.) We assume that the item the dog goes to first or indicates in some way is preferred. 

The problem is that we can’t assume these things. There is a whole sub-branch of learning theory called “preference assessment.” There are different methods and protocols because it is usually not as simple as offering two things in different hands, especially to a non-verbal creature such as a dog. 

Here are nine reasons why the “which hand do you want?” process may not work to determine preference in a dog.  After the list, I’ll cover some other kinds of preference tests with examples from a good site. Finally, I’ll give some hints for performing the paired stimulus test more effectively if you want to stick to that one.

Potential Problems With the Paired Stimulus Preference Test

“Neither of the options is acceptable.”

  1. Sidedness. Many dogs have a preferred side. (This is called a directional bias.) When scientists in labs work on choice problems, they usually run some pre-tests about biases. They’ll remove from the trials the animals that consistently go to the item on a particular side. 
  2. Handler body language. Our dogs look at us for physical cues. If we stand there with treats, many will think that we are asking them for behavior, rather than asking what they want. It looks like a training session! So they may try to figure out what behavior will be reinforced. They’ll follow our body language: our hands,  our leaning, our gaze. Then they’ll interact in some way with the object that we appear to be indicating. 
  3. Handler bias. If the dog’s actions are not clear to us, our human brains are usually all too happy to step into the void with an interpretation. This will be subject to the normal sets of biases that humans have. 
  4. Previous reinforcement history of targeting. Our dogs may have a greater reinforcement history for targeting one of our hands over the other. It might kick right in when we put our hands out. If I hold out both of my hands, either empty or while holding small objects, my dogs will generally target my right hand, no matter what’s in it. That’s because I have taught them a hand target and I do it far more with my right hand than with my left. 
  5. Previous reinforcement history of leave-it. This is the corollary of the targeting issue. With some dogs it will be hard to get them to take either item—from hands or even from plates on the floor. This can happen if we have taught a very strong “leave-it.” By the time we have convinced them that it’s OK to take the object, we may have moved around the room or gestured. This can affect the dog’s “choice.”
  6. Visual presentation. There are several ways that the visual presentation can affect the outcome. One is that dogs see colors differently from how we do. Another is that many dogs will regularly take the larger item. And of course, some dogs’ vision may be impaired on one side or the other. 
  7. Noticing the wrong characteristic. When it comes to toys, all three of my dogs will generally be more interested in a new toy than a familiar one. That in itself is a good thing to know: novelty is a big draw. But if I want to know their preferences beyond that, I have to account for novelty. Either all of the items should be novel or none of them.  This is one of many factors we have to control for when we give paired choices. There are studies on preference that assess previous factors (establishing operations) that can affect the choice.
  8. Different sensory abilities of dogs and humans. This is related to #7. Our dogs may actually be affected by some stimulus we are unaware of. Maybe the hand that has the better treat has some leftover odor from a cleaning product. Eww. Better go for the other one…
  9. Reinforcement history that builds through the exercise. This is a common point of confusion. If we offer some items to our dog intending to give him a choice, he may perform a behavior involving us or the item. Then the behavior gets reinforced by his getting the item. If we do this repeatedly, we build up a reinforcement history for whatever behavior the dog is doing. For instance, it could be targeting the right hand or running to the closest plate. Building that reinforcement history interferes with the goal of getting an untainted preference from the dog. (This problem is inherent in some choice exercises as well. For example, if a dog is reinforced heavily for a certain stationing behavior for husbandry and is allowed to take a break, we can’t determine that when the dog comes back he is “choosing” for the husbandry to continue. He is performing a heavily reinforced behavior. We can’t know how the dog perceives the exercise.)

Some of these things can work out over time. But even in the best-case scenario, the paired stimulus preference assessment will need to be performed many times. 

ABA Preference Testing

Broccoli is not a preference

Raw broccoli is not acceptable.

Luckily, there are procedures that address problems like those I’ve listed.  The applied behavior analysts who work with children use preference tests to help determine what foods and items will be effective reinforcers for individuals. Some of these tests can carry over nicely into dog training.

An informative article from Vanderbilt University lists five different methods for preference assessment.

  • Multiple Stimulus without Replacement (MSWO) Preference Assessments
  • Multiple Stimulus with Replacement (MSW) Preference Assessments
  • Paired Stimulus Preference Assessments
  • Single Stimulus Preference Assessments
  • Free Operant Observations

Each method has a secondary linked article with a video example of the method.

One factor that is considered when choosing a method is whether the child can understand the verbal instructions. (You will hear the analyst saying things like, “Just pick one. You can play with a different one later.) Another is whether the child is likely to get violent if a toy is taken away as part of the test. The first methods above, including the paired stimulus preference assessment, do seem to rely on the child’s understanding of verbal instructions. 

However, the last two in the list are observational exercises. In the single stimulus preference assessment, the child is given access to one item while the analyst observes. The analyst records the amount of time the child plays with the item, and will later do so with other items and compare the data. In free operant observations, many toys and items are available at once. The observer records the amount of time the child plays with each toy or engages in other activities. The authors note that an advantage of free operant observation is that the analyst may observe activities that adults might not have thought of as possible reinforcers. 

Single stimulus and free operant observations are not as flashy as a paired stimulus tests, but they also avoid most of the problems I list above. And when we live with our animals we can perform these observations frequently. Most of us can already name a few of our dogs’ favorite foods, or what he especially likes in a toy. Then there are those surprise moments. I’ll never forget when I unwrapped a rubber tug toy Marge Rogers sent and offered it to each dog in turn. Summer wasn’t interested. Clara tugged politely, then looked for a treat. And Zani went berserk over it. It’s still probably her favorite thing to tug. 

If You Want To Do the Paired Stimulus Preference Test

Look at each of my nine points above and think how you would mitigate that. Because of possible directional bias, be sure to offer the same two items in different positions at for different trials. Do you discover then that your dog always takes the one on the right side? For body language:  What happens if you stare at or lean toward an item? Can you try for as neutral body language as possible? Here are a few more tips for doing the paired stimulus test if you are serious about getting good results. I gleaned most of the tips from the above articles.

  • Plan to do it a lot. It’s unlikely that you can do it once and determine your dog’s preference, or even that the dog will understand you are asking him to choose.
  • Start with pairs of items for which you know the outcome—a clear favorite and a dud. For instance, I can predict that my dogs would choose a bite of pork chop over a sprig of broccoli (see above photo). If the dog takes the broccoli, we can deduce that the dog is not expressing a preference. (But conversely, we can’t assume that the dog is expressing a preference if he takes the bite of pork chop. We have to do more tests.) Anyway, do plenty of trials where you are pretty sure of the outcome. You can study your dog’s responses, and your dog may overcome some of the reinforcement history problems I mention above. 
  • Do a “round robin” format. If you have six items, pair each of the six with each of the others for an iteration. Then at another time, do it again but reverse the sides on which you offer the items.
  • Track your results! This is too much data to keep in your head.
  • Remember to include which sides you offer things on in your reporting.
  • Do lots of repetitions over time. Tastes change. 

Good for you for wanting to know what your dog loves best!

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

Photo of Ni Kokoro Omeshi Yakata Chanoyu, “Meesh,” the Japanese Chin, Copyright 2017 Blanche Axton


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Posted in Behavior analysis, Choice, Research | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

How I Helped My Dog Love the Sound of Velcro

small black dog Zani gazes at a Lotus Ball toy with Velcro enclosures

Velcro, a type of fastener with two different fabric surfaces that adhere to each other, typically makes a loud ripping noise when pulled apart. Some dog harnesses, coats, medical supplies, and other gear use Velcro closures. 

This ripping sound can be aversive. Some sound phobic dogs are triggered the first time they hear it. And some dogs who are OK with most sounds may find it unpleasant when Velcro is unfastened close to their ears. 

I recently “inoculated” my dog Zani against fear of the Velcro ripping sound. Zani has a few minor sensitivities to sounds that are different from the Velcro sound (and are well controlled with meds and training). But she just plain dislikes sudden loud noises. So I wasn’t dealing with a pre-existing fear of Velcro on her part, but she didn’t love it either. I thought it would be nice if she could. So I set up a nice classical association: Velcro would predict great things. 

With some care, this toy could also be used as part of a desensitization and counterconditioning program to help a dog who is already afraid of the Velcro sound. But what I’m showing here is a plan for a dog who is not afraid of it, just finds it a bit unpleasant. For more information on desensitization and counterconditioning, check out my DS/CC resource page. 

A Convenient Toy: The Lotus Ball

Clean Run, the publisher and agility supplies vendor, produces and sells a treat-holding toy called the Lotus Ball. It consists of three sections that pull apart, with a space in the middle for a treat. The sections seal together with tough Velcro. I ordered one of these last year when I was trying a variety of toys. It instantly occurred to me that it would be great for classically conditioning a dog to the sound of Velcro. 

Lotus Balls Treat-Dispensing Pull-Apart Toys (US store)    
Link to info about international dealers for Clean Run
(These are not affiliate links. I never receive a kickback for products I mention here, and I don’t do solicited or sponsored reviews.)

Lotus Ball treat dispensing toy with Velcro closures

Lotus ball Velcroed shut

The Lotus Ball can be pulled apart by the dog or by the trainer. We did it both ways in my little training plan.  

The toy is perfect for conditioning. If you always fill it with food before the dog opens it, there will be a one to one correspondence between the Velcro ripping sound and the goodie. The sound becomes a perfect predictor of good stuff. In setting up the plan, I saw my job mainly as controlling the distance so I didn’t start right up close to Zani’s ears. I also took the normal precautions so as not to accidentally reverse the relationship. I didn’t want my messing around with the food to predict an unpleasant sound instead of the proper association of sound predicting food.

Note: In the movie I show most, but not all the steps we took. I was unable to film a few repetitions I did in other parts of the house.

Caution: This movie is full of Velcro noises! If they scare your dog, or if you want to start with a clean slate and condition him, watch the movie out of his earshot.

Link to the movie for email subscribers,

The Plan

Goal: Make the sound of ripping Velcro have good associations for Zani, even when it’s close to her ears.

General Approach: Use the Lotus Ball, then other items with Velcro, to countercondition Zani to the sound of ripping Velcro. Let the sound predict yummy treats. Graduate the exposure by controlling the distance, starting far enough away so that the sound is not loud or startling. Then move gradually closer.

My Steps:

  1. I chose freeze-dried lamb lung as the treat. It needed to be high value but dry so it didn’t goop up the Lotus Ball. Other candidates could be dehydrated raw food, beef jerky, or homemade treats that aren’t too moist. I didn’t use lamb lung for anything else during this time.
  2. Whenever I needed to load the treats into the ball, I snuck to the back of the house where Zani couldn’t hear it. (The Velcro is really loud!) I needed a pure association between noise -> treat, so I didn’t want her hearing that sound any other time. 
  3. Over the course of a couple of days, I left the loaded ball sitting on a high counter and a few other places around the house where the dogs couldn’t get it. My goal was to be sure that I didn’t get reverse conditioning. I wanted to teach Zani that smelling lamb lung didn’t predict anything, nor did seeing the ball, nor did the rattle of the bag of lamb lung. The association would go in one direction only: the Velcro noise would predict the treats.   
  4. Now came the training. I got the loaded Lotus Ball and set up a barrier between Zani and me. I stayed a few feet away from her. 
  5. I grabbed the Lotus Ball and opened it as I approached, letting her hear the Velcro from a distance. (That’s what the barrier was for; to keep her from coming up too close too soon.)
  6. I held the Lotus Ball out to Zani and let her eat the treats out of it.
  7. I repeated this process a few times over a couple days, but got closer to Zani each time when opening the Lotus Ball.  I did this twice a day at most, and at separate times. I was careful about my predictors. For example, I only used the gate a few times. 
  8. I also made sure to continue to have the loaded Lotus Ball out at other times when not doing any training.
  9. I varied the location. I have a kitchen counter my dogs can’t reach, and I could do repetitions from there when Zani was able to be closer. I also have a tall dresser in my bedroom where I could put the ball. I could open the ball high up before I got to the dog. I stopped using the barriers and the distance when Zani was eagerly trying to get to the ball when she heard the noise. 
  10. Because I made opening the ball the only predictor of that particular yummy treat, Zani was soon running to me when she heard it. I let this happen organically, just making sure she didn’t get too close to the sound too soon.  
  11. I also carried the ball around a few times and let her see and smell it without the noise (and without getting the treat). This was another way of teaching her: no noise, no treat. 
  12. After Zani was used to the noise, I also let her play with the ball herself, ripping it open on her own.

These are the steps I followed for my individual dog. Many dogs would need to go more slowly. Some might do better playing with the ball by themselves first. But you can get the general idea. Also, what these steps above achieved was “love for Lotus Ball Velcro.” The association needed to be generalized to other Velcro sounds, but that turned out to be pretty easy for us. 


Lotus Ball treat dispensing toy with Velcro closures

Lotus Ball opened up

I hunted the house for items with Velcro and I performed the process again. I used some strips of Velcro that weren’t attached to anything, an Ace bandage, and one of my jackets. None of them was as loud as the Lotus Ball, so I didn’t have to take as many steps. I paired the noises these items made with treats, just as I had the ball. Zani generalized the Velcro noise quickly.  

Finally, I did it with Zani’s coat, which Velcros all the way up the back. I practiced as before, holding the coat, starting with a bit of distance. I worked closer, getting the coat closer to her head, then finally putting it on her and ripping it open to take it off. I was ready with the high value food. 

If you follow a similar plan, you’ll be prepared ahead of time if your dog ever needs to wear a coat or a bandage or an Elizabethan collar. The Velcro will be a plus, not a problem. At some point you can start to vary the treats, but be sure it’s something good when your dog actually has to wear Velcro. And if that happens only rarely, you can maintain the Velcro Wonderfulness association by bringing out the Lotus Ball to play with now and then. 

Eileen and small black dog Zani playing with a dog coat that has a Velcro closure

Coats with Velcro can be fun to play with, too!

Finally, don’t be surprised if your dog comes running from another part of the house if you unfasten some Velcro for an unrelated reason. Give her a goodie if you have it! I was wearing an ankle brace during this process and I had to sneak around to put it on and take it off, or else pay up!

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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  • Using a Lotus Ball toy to condition a #dog to the sound of Velcro. #dogtraining
Posted in Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Review, Sound phobias, Training plan | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Peanut Butter Dog Treats With No Sticking! Another Silicone Pan Recipe

Pyramid style silicone pan with baked peanut butter dog treats

Sorry I’m not filling my pans as neatly as I did before! That part got old.

I posted in January about making hundreds of small treats at a time in a silicone pan. I had no idea how lucky I was that I hit on a recipe that worked so well the first time. You can check out that chicken-based recipe and some details about the pan in this post. It seems that you need to have enough binding ingredients in these recipes or things get…sticky.

Ever since then I have been trying on and off to develop a recipe for peanut butter dog treats for the silicone pan. So far they have all stuck a bit. On one of them I actually had to push the treats out individually (500+ of them) which pretty much defeated the purpose of using the pan. I meant using the pan is fun, but the original idea was to save time by avoiding cutting things up.

Several people suggested using peanut butter powder instead of regular peanut butter to un-sticky the recipe. That worked great on the first try. It’s generally lower fat than the recipes with real peanut butter, too. 

ceramic dish of small peanut butter dog treats

This is about a half of a pan’s worth, i.e., a quarter of the recipe


Non-Sticking Silicone Pan Peanut Butter Dog Treats

2 eggs, beaten
2 Tablespoons oil (I used canola)
1/2 cup peanut butter powder (I used “PBfit” brand. Its ingredients are peanuts, coconut palm sugar, and salt.) DO NOT USE ANY PRODUCT WITH THE SWEETENER XYLITOL. IT IS TOXIC TO DOGS.
1/2 cup white flour
1/2 cup tapioca flour
1/2 cup water

Mix well. You want it smooth. Put about half the batter in the middle of the pan and spread it outwards. It takes less batter than you think. I don’t bother to fill every single hole in the pan anymore, i.e., not the outer rows, because of the time it takes. My apologies to the compulsive types! I do like the look of a neatly filled pan, but the time isn’t worth it to me. But feel free!

Bake at 350 degrees F for 12 minutes, or until the individual treats are still soft but starting to draw away from the sides of the pan.

Let cool a little and stretch the pan in both directions to loosen the treats.  I show the stretching in the video. Dump them out. Peanut butter dog treats!

And like the treats made with the chicken recipe I posted previously, these work perfectly in the Manners Minder/Treat and Train using the insert with the 3/4″ holes.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Continued Experimentation

I am honored to be writing to an international audience here, and I promise I am not deliberately trying to use obscure ingredients. The peanut butter powder is available and not too expensive here in the U.S., but I’ve been told that is not the case elsewhere. So I’ll keep trying to get another peanut-based recipe that dumps out of the pan nicely. I am starting to suspect that the problem isn’t the peanut butter anyway. I think it’s the canned pumpkin (which itself is hard to get in many places).

The only one of these weird ingredients I’m attached to is the tapioca flour. It makes the difference between crumbles in your pocket and nice discrete little treats.

If anybody has a tried-and-true recipe for fish-based treats that pop out of the mold well, feel free to post it in the comments. I’ve got a friend looking for that, and my first version was a little difficult to work with. 

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Dog training hints, Food reinforcers, Treats | Tagged , , , , , , , | 16 Comments