Being Open-Minded About Training

Has anyone ever accused you of being “closed-minded” because you base your training on positive reinforcement?

It’s pretty common. Some people come right out and say it. Others imply it by going on about their own open-mindedness. Here is a typical comment in that vein from a discussion group. The topic was solving a specific behavior problem.

I am not here for confrontation but I am against “one size fits all.” I go with what gets the best results. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and every dog is different. I stick to the techniques that help my dog but I’m open-minded and always open to learn.

This can sound attractive and reasonable, especially if you grew up in California in the 1970s as I did. I grew up in a culture that valued open-mindedness and I was explicitly taught it as part of a moral code. “Don’t be critical.” “Learn about other people and other ways of doing things.” “Don’t judge.” (See the photo at the bottom of this post for my 1970s credentials.)

I may have added some nuance to that value over the years, especially the “don’t judge” part. I came to believe that being open-minded didn’t mean automatically accepting every thought and idea that came my way.  Because questioning statements and beliefs, especially your own, is open-minded too.

Ad Hominem

The first thing to realize about the quote above is that it is an ad hominem response. It’s all about the personal qualities of the writer and by implication, those who might argue against her. Even with all that nice language about being open to learning and everyone being entitled to an opinion. Did you notice something? It doesn’t address the behavior problem or a training method to solve it. Whoosh! Now we are talking about who’s open-minded and who’s not.

Implying that your opponent is closed-minded is an ad hominem attack and an attempt to silence. The writer can say all day long that she’s not there to be confrontational. I believe she truly may not want an argument–she’s doing her best to squelch one before it starts! The appeal to open-mindedness, when successful, can pre-empt any argument that comes against one. And it can be effective. What do you say to someone who ignores the substance of what you say and dismisses you as closed-minded? I’ll get to that below.

What Is Open-Mindedness Really?

OK, the next part is where some might say, “Don’t be so open-minded your brain falls out.” Except that is also ad hominem. It implies that there are limits to open-mindedness as a virtue, but it doesn’t specify them. It’s just a return insult. We can do better than that.

The thing is, being open-minded doesn’t mean you can’t make judgments. It means being willing to consider all the evidence. Here are some definitions:

Having or showing a mind receptive to new ideas or arguments.


Willing to consider different ideas or opinions.

Oxford Dictionaries:

Willing to consider new ideas; unprejudiced.

None of these implies that open-mindedness means avoiding coming to conclusions about evidence. None precludes judging something to be harmful or unnecessary.

Crossing Over

For many people, it required an extremely open mind to come to understand how positive reinforcement-based training worked and learn to see dog body language.1)Others never adopted force methods, and I want to throw in a “Good job!” to them.


Meme openmindedness

Being open-minded means being open to learning about cognitive fallacies and cultural programming. Being open-minded means being willing to examine one’s own assumptions. It means being willing to open one’s perceptions to see fallout and to leave old methods behind. It means living with the cognitive/emotional dissonance that precedes changing one’s beliefs. It means being open to the possibility that something formerly taken for granted is false.

Being open-minded about the possibility that we were wrong about how best to train our dogs is hard and can hurt.

A friend who made some painful realizations when crossing over from training with aversives wrote this:

I think a big part of allowing yourself to believe there might be a better way of doing things is coming to terms with the fact that you aren’t doing things the best way already. I think that’s a stickler for a lot of people. People are trying to do the best for their dogs, and it’s hard to acknowledge that they might actually be doing the dog harm.

Why This Post?

I’ve got two reasons. First, I want to offer a possible response to being accused of closed-mindedness.

Most of us who spend any time in Internet discussion groups have come to recognize an ad hominem retort. Something like, “Why would I listen to you? Your videos suck!” is an obvious personal attack and irrelevant to a discussion about ideas or methods (even if the videos do suck). A remark like that could also get the writer thrown out of a lot of groups that have a zero-tolerance policy for personal attacks. But a quote like I opened with at the beginning of this post would rarely get flagged as inappropriate. It usually passes under the radar when a writer claims open-mindedness and implies that her opponents in argument lack that quality. I think this is because open-mindedness seems relevant to discussion. It is a seductive argument. We don’t realize that since it’s a character trait, throwing it in it leads attention away from the actual argument.

Here’s a sample response to such an accusation.

  • A: You are closed-minded; there are lots of good methods out there. Every dog is different.
  • B: There certainly are a lot of methods, so let’s talk about them. We can do that better without bringing in individual character traits.

The idea is to politely turn away from character judgments and return to the original discussion. I would not repeat the term “open-minded” or “closed-minded” back. Leave those behind. Whatever you do, don’t get sucked into an, “I’m more open-minded than you are” contest.

I don’t fool myself that Person A is going to get persuaded to open her mind to the things we might want her to. Not from this one discussion. For crossover trainers, our own journeys can tell us that. That kind of change can be terrifically hard. We need to remember how it was for us and have empathy for that. But the argument is not pointless. Remember that the lurkers, the folks in the background who may be on the fence, are always there watching. They will respond to the things we say about positive reinforcement training, to our coolness in the face of unfair criticism, and to our patience.

And that brings me to the second reason for this post. Professional trainers who practice positive reinforcement-based methods are beleaguered. I watch it happening to you. You are still a minority in the training world. Time and time again you have to pick up the pieces after a force-based method has hurt a dog. You deal with both dogs and people who are hurting, confused, and sometimes desperate. You often suffer from compassion fatigue. And then you get on Facebook for a little R&R and there is someone telling you how closed-minded you are.

This is my shout-out to you. Those insults that people hurl are wrong. You are not only open-minded: you are also willing to review the evidence and make decisions. You educate yourselves. You are willing to admit your mistakes. You advocate for the dogs.

Thank you.

My 1970s California Credentials

Offering my credentials as a California child of the 70s, with my dad, Norman, and sister Gail.

Offering my credentials as a California child of the 70s, with my dad, Norman, and sister Gail.

Shout-out to reader Neil Joinson who politely pointed out that the preferred term is “closed-minded” rather than “close-minded.” I have edited the article and graphic accordingly. Thanks, Neil!

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© Eileen Anderson 2016

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Others never adopted force methods, and I want to throw in a “Good job!” to them.
Posted in Critical Thinking, Training philosophy | Tagged , | 25 Comments

Are You Really Performing Classical Counterconditioning?

What do the following training descriptions have in common?

  • “My dog’s afraid of strangers. But when she stops barking and makes eye contact with me, I give her a treat.”
  • “I hold her foot. Then I give her a treat after I clip each toenail, as long as she stays in place and doesn’t pull her foot away.”
  • “When we have guests, I wait for him to show some calm behavior like stretching, breathing more deeply, or lying down. Then I give him a treat.”
  • “We play LAT (Look At That). I say ‘Look at the dog’ and she does. I mark, then give her a treat.”1)Leslie McDevitt first described the Look at That game under that name in her book Control Unleashed. She also includes a classical conditioning protocol by the name of Open Bar/Closed Bar in the book.
  • “When the cyclists go by, I cue my dog to sit, then I treat.”

These are all training methods designed to help a dog cope with something uncomfortable, undesired, or scary. But they are not classical conditioning.

These five descriptions are all operant methods. How can we tell? It’s because the food is given as a consequence of a behavior.  In each case, a certain behavior is required before the dog is given the food morsel. There is a contingency. If the training is successful, the trainer reinforces the behaviors of making eye contact, staying still, stretching, breathing deeply, lying down, looking at a trigger, or sitting.

Each of these follows the operant model:

  • an antecedent (usually the trigger appearing);
  • a behavior as specified above;
  • and a consequence (food).

The goal is for the dog to learn to perform these specified behaviors instead of being reactive or tense. Any of these could be a successful method, especially if the dog’s unease is not extreme.

Classical conditioning involves a different type of learning.

The Real Thing: Classical Conditioning

First, a little about respondent behaviors. Respondent (involuntary) behaviors include reflexes like the following:

  • blinking when a puff of air is directed at the eye;
  • sneezing because of a bright light or an irritant in the sinuses; or
  • salivating at the sight or smell of food.

Respondent behaviors follow a two-part model: Stimulus/response. In general, respondent behaviors can’t be reinforced or punished. Most of them aren’t under our control. (There are some exceptions.) Think about it this way: if you got praised or got a chocolate chip every time you got goose bumps (cutis anserina), would that happen more? Nope. Goose bumps are a response to a specific stimulus, usually cold or something that causes a strong emotion. Every respondent behavior likewise has a stimulus or stimuli that will cause it to occur.

Classical conditioning is a name for a procedure where we “attach” the respondent behavior to a new stimulus.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it thusly:

A learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired; a response that is at first elicited by the second stimulus is eventually elicited by the first stimulus alone.

We can cause respondent behaviors to occur in response to a new stimulus by pairing them as described above. Pavlov’s dogs are the standard example. They were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a buzzer that meant the food was coming. The buzzer (first stimulus) reliably predicted the appearance of the food (second stimulus).

Hazel licks her chops when she sees the nail file

Hazel licks her chops when she sees the nail file

In dog training, we use classical conditioning to change the dog’s physiological and emotional response to a stimulus. For example, if a dog is afraid of the sound of delivery trucks we can consistently feed the dog roast chicken after the sound. The dog’s attitude towards delivery trucks will likely change. It will go from fear to, “Yay, chicken is coming!” The truck sound itself will come to trigger the body’s preparation to ingest food and the happy feelings that can accompany that. The happy feelings and behaviors are why we do this. We aren’t trying to teach the dog to want to eat delivery trucks. We are attaching a positive conditioned emotional response (CER+) to something that was formerly scary.

So how is it different from the five examples at the beginning of the post? Here are two examples that outline the basic process of classical conditioning done correctly.

Classical Conditioning: Two Examples

  • “After my dog sees the bicyclist, I wait just a moment, then start feeding her. As long as the bicycle is passing by, I keep feeding. Then I stop feeding a moment after the bicycle disappears from sight.”
  • “My washing machine makes a certain beep if the load get unbalanced. Whenever it beeps and my dog hears it, I give her a treat right afterward.”

Notice that nowhere in those two descriptions is there any mention of a required behavior. Trigger happens; dog gets food. We are so accustomed to asking for a behavior that this can seem quite foreign at first. There are other important issues involving the mechanics of the process, such as timing, that I haven’t described above. Someone who described their training with the phrases above could still be making mistakes in the training. But those are the bare bones descriptions that generally mean that the method is classical, not operant.

Three dogs group around a woman with a vacuum. The dogs have learned to associate the vacuum with good things through classical counterconditioning.

My dogs associate the vacuum cleaner with great stuff

Operant behaviors can change as a result of classical counterconditioning. Former behaviors that were prompted by the fear can extinguish when the dog is happily anticipating food. The dog will likely stop panting, pacing, and barking at the delivery truck if we condition him that truck noises predict chicken. Instead, he’ll be salivating, wagging his tail, and looking for the chicken source.

Classical Conditioning vs. Classical Counterconditioning

“Classical conditioning” is a general term. But we generally use the term “counterconditioning” when we know that the dog already has a fear response to the trigger. We aren’t starting from neutrality; we are attempting to “counter” a negative emotional response. In that case, we usually include desensitization as part of our method as well. That’s beyond the scope of this post.

But I do have other posts and videos with examples of both classical conditioning and counterconditioning/desensitization.  Check out the following. The first two entries are about classical conditioning and the third and four entries are about counterconditioning/desensitization.

“Pavlov On Your Shoulder”

Bob Bailey says that whenever we are training, Pavlov is sitting on one shoulder and Skinner is on the other. As one grows in importance, the other shrinks. What this means is that even while we are teaching a dog with operant conditioning (Skinner), classical conditioning (Pavlov) is going on. If you train with food and toys and other fun, the dog usually gains a positive emotional response to you, the activities you do together, and even the place where you typically train.

The converse is also true. When we do classical conditioning and pair food with a stimulus, we can quickly start to reinforce related operant behaviors. For example, when the dog comes to expect the food after a stimulus, he will start to turn to or approach the source of the food, usually the trainer. Those orienting behaviors occur in between the stimulus and the food, so they get reinforced.

I’m including this section about the interplay of two learning modes because some people use the “Pavlov on the shoulder” comment to claim that the operant training I described in the five comments is classical after all. They will say that all training has elements of classical conditioning, since associations are being made. This part is true. But while both processes are usually going on at the same time, our methodology targets one or the other. The methods are different. Understanding the differences can help us be more effective trainers.

Operant Counterconditioning

I hate to tell you this. Just to make things a bit fuzzier, there is a term called “operant counterconditioning.” It’s not used that often. But it’s the reason I have been specifying “classical” conditioning and counterconditioning all through this post. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin defined operant counterconditioning as follows:

Operant counterconditioning is when you train an alternate, incompatible behavior. For instance, if a dog lunges and barks every time he sees other dogs across the street, you can train the aggressive dog to watch you and go through other obedience exercises when he sees dogs. —Rapid Reversal of Fear and Aggression in Dogs and Cats, Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

Some of my five “not classical conditioning” examples above could qualify as operant counterconditioning.

Why Does It Matter?

I realize that not everybody is a nomenclature nut like I am. But if we want to learn about different techniques, know their strengths and weaknesses, practice them, and discuss them, we need to know the correct concepts and terminology. I have seen dozens of people say that they were performing classical counterconditioning when they were using an operant method. I’ve mixed up the two myself. That usually indicates more than an accidental terminology problem. It usually means that the person really doesn’t understand what classical counterconditioning is.


These short movies show fun examples of conditioned responses. When we perform classical conditioning, we look for the moment where the dog starts anticipating the food after the new stimulus. In the first movie below, Zani gives a clear, “Where’s my food??” look when I pause with the food delivery after touching her back with a plastic syringe.

In the second movie, Hazel goes beyond the double take. She’s wagging her tail but she also licks her chops (a sign of salivation) when she notices the nail file.

Has anybody else’s dog gotten as far as actually salivating as a result of classical conditioning?

Link to Zani’s counterconditioning movie for email subscribers.

Link to Hazel’s classical conditioning movie for email subscribers.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Thank you to Lori Nanan of Your Pit Bull and You and the wonderful Hazel for allowing me to use the cool movie and photo.

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Leslie McDevitt first described the Look at That game under that name in her book Control Unleashed. She also includes a classical conditioning protocol by the name of Open Bar/Closed Bar in the book.
Posted in Behavior analysis, Classical conditioning, Desensitization and Counterconditioning | 28 Comments

Rescue Me! (Part 1)

If your dog wanted to jump into your lap or hide behind you when another dog was bugging her, would you let her do so? If you did, would you be reinforcing fear?

Friends and Playmates

My dogs Zani and Clara have been playing ever since the day in 2011 when Clara arrived so unexpectedly. Clara was about 10 or 11 weeks old and weighed 12 pounds. Zani was three years old and 18 pounds. Both were and are dog-friendly and good communicators.

Zani played hard with baby Clara, chewing on her neck, knocking her over, and restarting play over and over. Clara was both game and good-natured. She still is. Which is a good thing, because now Clara weighs 44 pounds, more than twice as much as Zani.

Clara and Zani

Clara and Zani, back when they were better matched in size

Back in those days, my teacher advised me to interrupt them frequently so they would learn to take breaks and so I could call them out of play. I did so, and taking a breather started to come naturally in their play. Over the years they have developed their own play style. It encompasses several different activities with mini-breaks between them. And to this day they will respond quickly if I call them, no matter how intense their game is.

They play well together, even with the size difference. Clara self-handicaps, lying down and rolling over and letting Zani chew on her. She can run much faster then Zani, but she never runs and tackles her or mows her down. If she is chasing Zani and catches up with her, she veers off in another direction or circles around her. That way Zani can leap on her instead.

Clara often comes out of it with her neck fur all wet from Zani’s mouthing. But she never sets a tooth on Zani. Nevertheless, I always supervise when they play.


Clara grew up, but she and Zani are still buddies

The Only Problem

The only blemish on this idyllic-sounding situation is that Clara doesn’t always take “No” for an answer when Zani doesn’t want to play.

I’ve mentioned they are both good communicators. Zani has a selection of behaviors she performs when she doesn’t want to play that even I can read. But Clara doesn’t always respond in kind. So when Zani stops, breaks eye contact, turns away, sniffs the ground, and digs in a favorite dirt hole–sometimes Clara will politely turn away. But she also might come roaring right into Zani’s face trying to play some more. That’s when the size difference is a problem.

Hence, I stay ready to intervene when Clara is being a butt. However, if I am a little late in my intervention, Zani has figured out a method of her own. She runs and jumps into my lap. I let her stay there until Clara has calmed down enough and stopped trying to force Zani to play with her. You can see that in the movie.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

What Does This Remind You Of?

I just described a situation in which Zani is uncomfortable. She runs to me to get away from Clara when she is a bully. I want to compare it to another scenario I believe is similar. First, here’s the bully one.

The Bully/Irritation Scenario (#1)

  • Zani is uncomfortable with something Clara is doing
  • Zani runs and jumps up in my lap
  • She is safe from (out of reach of) Clara

How does that compare with the following? (Hint: they both involve escape from something unpleasant.)

The Fear Scenario (#2)

  • There is a thunderstorm and it scares my dog
  • She runs to me and jumps in my lap
  • Her fear often lessens somewhat

I bet that in Scenario #1, most people would let their little dogs jump in their laps to get away from pushy bigger dogs. But there is a sizable group of people who have trouble with letting the dog into their lap in Scenario #2. It’s because they are wary of “reinforcing fear.”

Reinforcing Fear

Many eminent people have written about the fact that you can’t reinforce fear. Fear is a set of respondent behaviors that occur when the sympathetic nervous system ramps up in response to a threat. These respondent behaviors, including the emotion of fear, are not subject to operant conditioning. But the idea of reinforcing fear is “sticky” and hard to get rid of. (Here is my article about it.)

The “reinforcing fear” rationale goes something like this.

Let’s say the dog is afraid of something that we think she shouldn’t be. We think if we comfort her, we are somehow strengthening her misguided idea that there is something to be afraid of. Or that we are creating a little wimp by not forcing her to “face her fear.” Instead, we think we should use some method (usually involving deliberate forced exposure to the scary thing, or flooding) to “show her” that there is nothing scary.

Flooding is considered inhumane in animal training and is extremely easy to do. It can masquerade as benign-sounding activities like hand-feeding the dog or giving her a hug.  At its most extreme, it engenders learned helplessness. There is also a large risk of the fear worsening: the animal can get sensitized rather than desensitized. When we say, “Sink or swim,” plenty of dogs sink.

But unfortunately, the ideas about “facing fears” have some cultural power behind them. They are easy to fall into because we don’t tend to take dogs’ fears seriously.  Sometimes we don’t even know what the fear is about. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop us from making assumptions about how to get rid of it.

Comparing the Two Situations

I think you can see where I’m going here. Most of us would not hesitate to help our dogs get away from a bully dog, a stinging insect, a rainstorm, or a human yelling at them over the fence. But let that threat get a little less concrete, and our empathy and willingness to help can get fogged over with other concerns. Why?

I’ve made a comparison table of the characteristics of these two scenarios. Let’s see if it’s a valid comparison and if we can account for our differences in attitude.

Dog is bothered by something.Dog is strongly afraid of something.
Humans can see the problem.Humans may not see the reason for the dog's fear.
We agree that avoidance is a reasonable response. It's not only useful, but clearly necessary.Dog's fearful response seems over the top.
Dog may try to fix the problem on her own.Dog appears helpless.
Dog isn't showing fear, just avoidance/irritation.Dog is showing fear.
Our intervention clearly helps.Our intervention may or may not help and we may not be able to tell if it does.

I think perhaps we respond differently in the annoyance scenario because the threat is concrete and visible and our intervention can be clearly helpful.

For instance, we probably agree that Zani shouldn’t have to deal with bullying on her own if she can’t do so effectively.  She generally has already told Clara five ways from Sunday that she doesn’t want to play, but it’s not working. Her avoidance is a reasonable response and is much better than escalating into snarls or a fight. Taking cover with me is an effective interruption of Clara’s behavior.

But in the fear situation, the dog may be exhibiting some extremely panicked behaviors. We aren’t sure how helpful we can be even if we try. We may not even know where the fear is coming from. Or if we do we have a value judgment about it. How silly of the dog to be petrified of a quiet peeping noise!

Is there something about this situation that pushes us into wanting to try a sink or swim approach?

We may be left in the strange position of helping our dogs when there are minor irritations they need assistance with, but leaving them on their own if they are scared to death about something. Does that make sense?

Turn It Around One More Time

One last thing: Let’s apply the “don’t reinforce the fear” rationale to the Zani and Clara situation since I do indeed let Zani escape to me. Do you think that when I let Zani jump into my lap to get away from Clara, I’m “reinforcing” her feeling that Clara is being bothersome? If I would just refuse to let her jump in my lap and say something jolly, would she “get over” her desire to escape Clara?

I really hope no one answers “yes” to these questions. Zani’s escape from Clara is a response to Clara’s behavior, not to mine. I can’t make Clara any less annoying by refusing to help Zani escape. Nor can I force a dog to get over her fear by refusing to remove her from the scary situation.

By the way, with another dog and another situation I might indeed pause before intervening if the dog were in the process of developing coping skills. I’m not saying we need to completely protect our dogs from all challenging situations. But Zani already has such skills. She is simply overpowered in the situation I describe, so I help her out.

Most of us are willing to help our dogs escape minor irritations like a biting insect, getting wet in the rain, or the obnoxious behavior of another dog. But because of concerns about reinforcing fear, we may be unwilling to intervene when they're truly frightened of something. Does that make sense?

Reinforcing a Behavior

Some of you have noticed by now that in both scenarios, there is a probably a behavior being reinforced: the dog coming to me. Yes, we may have a natural negative reinforcement scenario going on. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we explore the ethics of that part of the situation.

In the meantime, what do you think of my comparison? Did I miss something? Is it off the mark? I have debated publishing this since it is perhaps a stretch. Tell me what you think.

Then again, maybe I wrote this whole post so I could publish the old footage of Zani knocking baby Clara over….

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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  • If your dog needs to get out of a tight situation, do you help? If you do, is that reinforcing...
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Using Annoying or Scary Sounds for Dog Training

Let’s pretend you saw an ad for a new dog training product. It read something like this:

Introducing the Noise-Aided Obedience Device (NOD)! Never have trouble with your dog again. When you jerk or flap the lead attached to your dog’s collar or harness to punish him or to force him into the correct position, the device adds a noise that makes the leash jerking or flapping extra unpleasant. You can get instant compliance! That is, for some dogs. Some won’t be bothered by the noise or will get used to it. Some noise-sensitive dogs will be so traumatized you may never get them out from under the bed again. But for the majority of dogs, the “NOD” makes the leash correction just a bit worse. And for you as the trainer it feels great! You are actually DOING something about your dog’s naughty behavior.

Add an auditory aversive to the physical one! Buy the NOD (along with my DVD and special gear) today!

Actual Products on the Market

The ad is fake but unfortunately, the products are real. A reader introduced me to two different products that operate as I described above. Both attach to or are part of the dog’s gear. These are mechanical, not electronic. (There are electronic devices that work similarly as well.) One makes a zipping noise and one rings like a bell. They make these noises when the handler shakes, pulls, or jerks the leash. But the creators of these products don’t describe them the way I did above. Instead, they use words and phrases like the following:

  • Gentle method
  • Sound-based training
  • Gets the dog’s attention
  • Strengthens your dog’s concentration abilities
  • Technologically superior
  • Helps dogs understand cause and effect
  • Kind training method
  • Helps the dog focus
  • Helps you guide your dog to the correct position
  • Dog learns to pay attention to you
  • Enables communication with the dog
  • Hastens the learning process

The soft marketing language for both products strongly implies that there is something intrinsic to the sound that causes the dog to become obedient. It supposedly allows some kind of special communication between the owner and dog. Also, they don’t explain exactly what you do to operate the product. This neatly skirts the real consequences being used: the trainer is performing actions that cause physical pressure, commotion, and noise. When these devices work, they work by helping to annoy, startle, or scare the dog into compliance.

Word cloud

Misleading marketing language for a device that makes a noise when the leash is flapped or jerked

No Free Lunch

This type of product marketing, common in the dog training world, masks the actual consequences used to attempt to change dogs’ behavior. The focus is on the “special” sound. This draws attention away from the leash jerking or flapping and the commotion close to the dog’s ears. Even though the noises are probably unpleasant for most dogs, they are not necessarily the main source of discomfort. And make no mistake: it is discomfort that is driving the behavior change. The sound isn’t magically making the dog feel great for correct choices.

Even though it is a favorite marketing claim, a neutral stimulus can’t be used (without conditioning) to change a dog’s behavior. Here’s a previous post on that: “It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!” To change behavior you generally need either an appetitive stimulus (for example, food) or an aversive stimulus (for example, shock). You can also use stimuli that have been conditioned to predict these things. An example of a typical predictor of an appetitive stimulus would be a clicker.  An example of a predictor of an aversive stimulus would be the warning beep used on some shock collars.

The odd thing is that the noises these particular products make do not fit neatly into a category. The sounds and sensations they make may be intrinsically aversive or not, depending on the dog. The one thing that is certain is that they are not used as predictors. Thus, the claims about their special communication functions are off the mark.

The noise happens at the same time as the leash motion. Not before. The sounds can’t be used as warnings. They are about as communicative as throwing sand at someone you are already yelling at.

Turn Off the Sound

It can be hard to find a video that shows the methods. Makers of these types of products generally display “before and after” type videos. To see the device in action, you often need to buy a DVD. But if you look hard enough, you can usually find a couple of short examples of the actual process.

If you have a question about such a product, try to find a video of it in use. (If you can’t find one, that tells you something as well.)  If you do find such a video, watch with the sound turned off. In general, that will show you the actions and actual consequences being used to train the dog. Watch the body language of the dog as well, and heed the edits. It’s pretty common to edit or switch the camera angle immediately after a “correction” is made so the dog’s response is not visible.


IMG_3331I’ve written before about trainer Jean Donaldson’s idea of encouraging dog owners to ask for transparency from prospective trainers. My fabricated “ad” above was an example of what transparency could look like regarding one of these sound annoyance devices. To continue in that vein, here is how an honest trainer who used such a device might answer Ms. Donaldson’s questions.

  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right? I will stop the annoying movements and sounds. Sometimes I will also praise her, and in some cases I will give her food.
  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it wrong? I will flap or jerk the leash, and my product will additionally make a noise close to her head.
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose? Yes. Leash walking and other behaviors can be taught using food, toys, play, or other things the dog likes and wants. These are less invasive since there is little chance of scaring or hurting the dog. That type of training is generally enjoyable for the dog when done well. I should also note that using an irritating stimulus such as my product can cause redirected aggression towards the handler, i.e., the dog could bite you.  Also, the use of my product could be permanently damaging to a sound-sensitive dog. Finally, the responses to sound by individual dogs vary. So some dogs will habituate to the noise and stop responding.

The above answers depend on very basic behavior analysis and what we know about the negative effects of aversive use. If you actually ask these questions and get non-specific answers about communication and focus and getting the dog’s attention instead, that should tell you what you need to know.

The devices I saw were not magically communicative or innovative in any way. It’s sad that such things are still being marketed and that their producers do not describe how they really work.

A big thanks to Vicky Carne, publisher of Dog Coach Videos, who brought these types of products to my attention.

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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Posted in Negative Reinforcement, Punishment | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Spray With Caution!

When Kate LaSala told me about her dog’s experience with spray cheese, I knew I needed to share it. I mention spray cheese a lot, as a high value and easy-to-use food reinforcer for my dogs.  So it’s only right that I share this caution as well. I have had a few mishaps with cans of cheese with my two more sensitive dogs, but nothing like what Kate and BooBoo went through. No one can predict when something like that might happen, though, and the effects can be far-reaching. Kate and I both advise caution.–Eileen

Guest post by Kate LaSala, CTC


Kate and BooBoo

I see a lot of people using spray cheese in a can, or even whipped cream, as a quick, easy-to-dispense treat. It’s convenient, no mess and no smell until you spray it (so no tipping off your dog with stinky food that she’s about to get something good–so important when you’re training!)

I, like many of you, thought spray cheese was the perfect treat for training. When I was training BooBoo to stay on her kitchen mat (to keep from being under my feet when I’m cooking), I decided spray cheese was going to be my go-to reward. I could keep it in the cabinet by the mat and she loved cheese. So we set out on our training plan and for months we were moving along splendidly. She was happily going to her mat, then I’d open the cabinet where the spray cheese was and bend down to squirt some for her to lick. Everything was perfect, until about 1000 trials in when I went to reward her and “POP…POOF”–an air bubble in the can popped right in her face. She immediately recoiled and ran off to hide upstairs, as far away from the kitchen as possible. I was horrified and instinctively grabbed my treat bag filled with chicken and went to comfort and feed her. I needed to undo this. I managed to coax her out of hiding and we sat and cuddled for a while as I fed her. I thought to myself, “It’s OK. She’ll recover. She was just spooked because it surprised her. She’s got lots of padding after months of working on the mat and with the cheese. It will be OK.”

After a while of sitting, I happy-talked her downstairs and she stopped dead in her tracks at the edge of the kitchen, staring at the mat. So I tossed some yummy treats for her on it. She wanted nothing to do with it. She was clearly still afraid. My heart sank.

I tossed her some treats where she was and she gobbled them up. I decided to just let things be for the time being and hoped that overnight she’d sleep it off and by morning she’d be all recovered.

But the next morning, she still refused to come into the kitchen. She sat on the threshold but wouldn’t enter. I let her be, occasionally tossing her treats. At one point, not really thinking, I went to the cabinet–the same cabinet that housed the spray cheese–and as soon as I reached for it, Boo took off again to hide. It was very clear to me now that she had developed a very strong fear (negative conditioned emotional response or -CER) to the kitchen and the cabinet, all because of ONE spray cheese air bubble. My heart sank again. Suddenly the gravity of it hit me, and the concept that neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux had surmised was in my brain: fear is the easiest thing to condition in animals and the hardest thing to resolve. Months of positive reinforcement training had just been completely undone by one bad experience.

Now we weren’t even just back to square one–we were back farther than that, because now BooBoo had a fear response. I wasn’t training something she was neutral to and that was going to take a lot more work.

So, for the next several months I worked on a DS/CC plan to get BooBoo to be happy on her kitchen mat and not show any fear of the kitchen, the mat, or the cabinet where the spray cheese USED to live. (Needless to say, that was tossed immediately and I’m never buying it again!)

I’m happy to report that after a few months of working at her pace, building positive associations and keeping her under threshold at all times, that I was able to get her peacefully relaxing back on her kitchen mat.


Spray cheese presented on a finger

The safer way to present spray cheese

So I’ve got two important takeaways. Always remember how easy fear is to install and how hard it is to untrain. One bad experience can set you back months of work, even if the dog had nothing but positive experiences in that time. And, if you still want to use spray cheese (or anything in a pressurized can), I would recommend squirting it onto your finger or letting it dangle from the can before presenting it into your dog’s face/mouth. Food squeeze tubes like these are a great alternative without the pressurized, potentially scary part.

And, just so you can see, here’s a picture of BooBoo happily on her kitchen mat. I love happy endings.

Lovely black dog BooBoo is on her mat and no longer scared of the kitchen area

BooBoo, happy on her mat in the kitchen again

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. Also, see Kate’s other post on this blog: “Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? But We Live in NJ!” 

Copyright Kate LaSala 2016

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Posted in Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Fear, Food reinforcers, Guest post | Tagged | 19 Comments

Getting Ready for Fireworks and Scary Noises

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

© Eileen Anderson 2016

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Posted in Fear, Management | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

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-based 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, in spite of the stereotypes.


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. Jumping up is a natural and common behavior for dogs. Using ignoring as a puny attempt at discouraging it usually 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 seek to 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 should guide the animal to a new behavior. And we must 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

Sometimes we make a training plan that includes reinforcing another behavior to replace the one we don’t like. In that case, we will try to set things up so that the original behavior doesn’t happen. But sometimes it does happen, and that’s when ignoring it can 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. She also teaches the owner how to ignore effectively. 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, a hoarder, or an 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 consistently turning her head and looking the other direction when Arabella was around.

The process of helping an animal feel safe is a challenge when the animal is traumatized. 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?

Related Posts

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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