Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up?

Thank you to Randi Rossman for discussing the scholarly work about antecedents with me. All mistakes are my own. 

I recently found myself in a situation that dogs are in a lot of the time, and it was a revelation.

So here’s the deal. I use a Mac laptop at work when I do bookkeeping tasks. I also own a Mac laptop and use it at home (and other locations).

The one at work has a 13″ screen. My home computer has a 15″ screen. The work laptop is older and has an older operating system.

On my work computer, to scroll down, I move my fingers down the trackpad. On my home one, it’s the opposite. To scroll down, I move my fingers up the trackpad. The software folks reversed it in one of the operating system updates.

I’ve been using these two computers long enough that I switch back and forth fluently. I rarely make a mistake using the trackpad. I perform the correct behavior without conscious deliberation. I had to actually test one of the computers to be able to write down which way the trackpad works on each one. I can’t remember unless I am actually doing it.

Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up? Closeup of a black and rust colored dog next to a laptop keyboard

I haven’t taught Zani how to scroll using the trackpad yet


So if I perform two opposite behaviors for the same outcome, what is telling me the difference?

“Antecedent” is the term for stimuli and situations that set the stage for a behavior. They include cues (discriminative stimuli), motivating operations, and in some classification systems, setting events.

These things can combine in quite complex ways and I am not going to undertake to untangle them in this post. However, we can explore the factors that may play into my performing one behavior vs. another. In other words, how do I know which way to move my fingers on the trackpad?  Something in the environment is cuing me to do so. What is it?

The obvious candidate is that I am working on two different computers. I mentioned that the computer at work is smaller. I use a smaller set of programs on it, although none of them is unique to that computer. E.g., I use QuickBooks to keep the books at the office but also use it on my home computer to keep my own business books.

The two computers have different desktop pictures. Slightly different power cables. The computers have two different operating systems, which is the reason I have to perform different behaviors in the first place. But those operating systems don’t create much of a visual difference on screen.

Anything else? There are not auditory or olfactory differences that I am aware of. There may be kinesthetic ones, but if so, they are small, and I can’t name them.

In both cases, the visual information on the screen is one of the immediate antecedents. What I see informs me that I can move my fingers to view the rest of the document. It looks about the same on both computers. Still, if you had asked me what it was that told me which way to move my fingers to move to scroll down, I would have told you that it was using a different computer.

I would have been wrong.

What’s the Mystery Antecedent?

I long ago passed through the annoying period where I had to learn which behavior to do on which computer. During that time I was making repeated mistakes. After that, something gelled and I rarely thought about it anymore. But recently, the mystery part of the antecedent revealed itself.

When I take my home laptop to work, I usually station myself at a certain table. But the other day, I put my personal laptop where I usually put the work laptop. Guess what happened when I needed to scroll down?

You got it. I performed the behavior that would have worked if I were using my work laptop. The incorrect behavior for the computer I was using.

So the essential thing that tells me to move my fingers up or down to scroll on the laptop is not a physical characteristic of the computer. It’s an element of the wider environment. It’s where I sit.

Location, location, location.


Sue Ailsby, in her book Training Levels: Steps to Success, Vol. 1, writes about a time she gave her a dog a cue she thought she knew and received a blank look in return. Sue writes:

I was THREE FEET from where I always ask her for this behaviour, holding a dish which was empty instead of full, and I was facing north instead of east. She wasn’t “blowing me off” or “giving me the paw.” She truly had no idea what I was asking her for. Those three little tiny differences changed what she saw so much that the behaviour seemed completely different to her. –Training Levels: Steps to Success, Vol. 1, page 226

It is brutally common for us not to know what the antecedents are for a behavior we are teaching our dogs. We think we know, and we are wrong a lot of the time. We think the crucial antecedent is the verbal cue, but it may be the environmental setting plus the fact that we are saying something—anything. It might be that the dog is performing the next behavior in a pattern that we as trainers have been performing for years without realizing it. In many cases, the salient antecedent is our own body language that precedes or accompanies the verbal cue.

I have a set of YouTube movies and posts about why dogs might perform the “wrong” behavior for a given cue. (Actually, it’s usually that they are performing the right behavior for a cue that they have noticed and we haven’t.) In one of the movies, I show my dog Zani performing the “go around” behavior. She is to trot out and circle an object and come back. I usually use a tall object such as a floor lamp for her to go around when we practice. I use the verbal cue “Come by” to get her to circle clockwise around it. It appears for all the world that she is responding to my verbal cue when she performs the behavior.

Then, in the movie, I switch out the lamp for a shallow plastic lidded box. I say, “Come by.” Zani trots up to the box, but instead of circling it, she gives it a tentative nose target, and then mounts it with her front legs.

Zani is trying to earn her treat. She’s not being hardheaded and certainly not stupid. She’s not ignoring me. It’s just that my saying, “Come by” was not the real cue in the first place. Not the whole cue, anyway. A crucial part was the tall vertical object, in this case, the lamp. When I took that away, I took away part of the information that told her what behavior we were working on.  When I put a box there instead, I was changing the antecedent, and she offered behaviors that are usually reinforced in the presence of the box instead.

This kind of stuff happens all the time in dog training.  Location, as in my computer scrolling issue, is huge. If I usually ask my dog for a sit in the kitchen and a down in the front room, it will take extra effort for the dog to do a down in the kitchen and to sit in the front room. Then there are surfaces. The same dog I mentioned, Zani, dislikes lying down on my concrete floor most of the time. (This seems to be pretty common with small, shorthaired dogs.) Over the years, I have waffled between wanting to improve her response and feeling like it was mean and unnecessary. I’ve been inconsistent. The result is that she will lie down on concrete, but she will not usually do it the first time I say the cue. She’ll try sitting first. And even this is not stubbornness. She shaped my behavior and I let it happen. I rarely ask her for a down on concrete. So concrete, instead, has become part of the antecedent for sit.

Small black dog leaping in front of a woman holding a plastic bowl. The bowl is part of the antecedent for the behavior.

What’s the cue? My saying “Boing!” or holding out the container with the ball in it?

Zani’s jump in the above photo was an offered behavior I put on cue because it was cute, lively, and fun for her. We always do it at the same place and time: when we are playing ball and I have the special ball container. When I say, “Boing!” she jumps. (Sometimes she jumps without my saying it–that should give us a hint right there.) But I have complete confidence that if I walked up to her in the house sometime without the ball container and said, “Boing!” I would get a completely blank look and no jump.

Changing the Behavioral Response

When I had my home computer in my workspace in my office the other day, changing the scrolling behavior was not easy. This is a lesson for us as dog trainers as well. I had this screaming locational cue telling me to do one behavior, and I had to repeatedly override it with my conscious mind. It was tough! I kept reverting. And I have no doubt that the next time I take my computer to work I will have to learn it all over again.

So let’s have some empathy for our dogs. Even though I consciously knew what was going on, I still couldn’t fix my behavior by turning a switch in my head. I had to learn and practice the new association. This happens to our dogs way more often than we even know.

How about you? It’s hard to catch a human situation where the antecedent is not what we thought it was. I lucked into mine. I’d love to hear some others. (Dog examples are OK, too!)

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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The Joy of Training With Food

Thank you to Debbie Jacobs, who pointed out that many training videos do not include the moment the trainer feeds her dog, and that we need to see that. 

Training your dog with food is not only effective. It’s also fun. Do it for a while and your dog may start preferring his training sessions to his meals, even if it’s the same food. You will learn things too, and will enjoy seeing your dog get enthusiastic and attentive.

People who are new to it can profit from seeing what training with food looks like, so I’ve put together a video. I am most definitely an amateur, but I don’t mind showing my imperfect training. I’m not trying to model the perfect use of food delivery–I don’t have that level of skill. But I can give people an idea of what a high rate of reinforcement looks like and let them see what a good time the dogs are having. Hopefully, it will help people who are newer to the game than I am.

It seems to be human nature to be a little cheap with the food at first, so this is another reason for the video. I’m showing high rates of reinforcement in the clips. Most people are surprised at first by how much food we use. But if you are going to do it, do it right. Using a high rate of reinforcement makes it fun, helps keep your dog’s interest, and builds a strong behavior.

Some people talk like using food and building a good relationship are mutually exclusive. But the opposite is true. Have you ever heard a new mom say, “I don’t want to nurse my baby because I don’t want her to associate me with food and comfort. I want her to love me for me!”? Has your grandmother ever said, “I was going to make you some cookies but I didn’t want that to get in the way of our relationship”? Being the magical source of all sorts of good food for your dogs doesn’t hurt your relationship at all. Likewise, your dog’s being a source of comfort when the human world is harsh for you doesn’t cheapen your love for her.

I know, I know. The analogies with the new mom and grandmother are flawed. Those are classical associations and in the case of our dogs, we are talking about training with food. Making food contingent on behavior. Please give me a pass on that for now; I’ll address it in a future post. Besides, the net effect of using lots of food gets you the classical association anyway.

Why Train at All?

Poster: "Don't let anyone tell you that working on good mechanical skills is making yoerself (or your dog) into a robot. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love.When I first started training my dog (Summer was the first) it was because of behavior problems. Then I found out we both enjoyed it. So we kept on. My next purpose for training was to compete. We competed and titled in obedience, rally obedience, and our favorite, agility.

Zani needed minimal training to fit into my household. She is the proverbial “easy” dog. But she turned out to be a natural agility dog so we did a lot of that. Clara did need training to fit into the household, and even more help to be comfortable in the world.

Today, with my dogs at ages 11, 8, and 5, we don’t have any big problems getting along at home. I’ve trained them alternative behaviors to things that just don’t work well in human environments. Things like peeing on any available absorbent surface, chewing anything attractive, and hurling themselves at me. In turn, they’ve taught me their preferences and the way they like to do things.

What’s the main reason we train now? Because it enriches my dogs’ lives and it’s fun for all of us. Training with food and working together to problem-solve help create a great bond, and it’s a game the dogs can never lose. We all learn so much! I train things like tricks, agility behaviors, and safety behaviors. For instance, right now I am working on everyone’s “down at a distance” using a hand signal. Oh, and handling! Any money I can put in that particular bank means less stressful vet visits for my dear girls.

What Training with Food Looks Like

I compiled a short video that comprises six clips where I am training with food. A lot of food. Each behavior gets at least one treat. Sometimes I use a second behavior (such as a hand target) as a release and I treat for that too. In some cases when I am capturing a behavior for the first time, or working a little duration, I am giving multiple, “rapid-fired” treats. So in that case, one behavior gets many treats!

You will see me both tossing treats to “re-set” the dog for the next behavior and treating in position. Almost all the videos are “headless trainer” vids, but that’s OK with me. I want you to be able to see the dog performing behaviors and eating.

By the way, I am using kibble in most of the clips, but if you are new to this, you should definitely use something more exciting. Be generous. My dogs will work happily for kibble now because over years they have come to love the games. And they don’t always get kibble. They also get things like chicken breast, roast, moist dog food roll, canned cat food, dehydrated raw food, and other exciting stuff.

A small black and tan dog is delicately accepting a treat from a woman's hand while training with food.

I appreciate Zani’s gentleness when I hand her a treat!

The behaviors in the movie are, in order:

  • Zani crossing her paws in response to a hand signal cue. On the latter reps, I am giving her multiple treats while she stays in position.
  • Clara working on one of her rehabilitation exercises for hind end strength. In the video, I am feeding in position. I’m giving lots of treats because she is doing duration and this is a hard behavior. After this session, I started treating after the behavior, since it’s a bit awkward for her to eat when she is stretched up vertically.
  • Summer doing a nose-to-hand target. This was after I had cleaned up the results of sloppy training on my part. My rate of reinforcement in these clips was 27 reps per minute. (Not all repetitions are shown.) That’s 27 cues, 27 behaviors, and 27 food reinforcers per minute. Pretty good for me. I’m not usually that fast, and of course, there are tons of variables. (One thing speeding things up is that Summer rarely chews small pieces of food!) If you’d like to see an exercise for rate of reinforcement and speedy treat delivery, check out this video from Yvette Van Veen. 
  • An old video of Zani drilling what I call “Level One Breakfast” from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. In this case, we were practicing sits, downs, and hand targets.
  • Summer filing down her front toenails on a scratch board. If you want to learn about this and other ways to make nail trimming a pleasant experience for your dog, visit the Facebook group Nail Maintenance for Dogs.
  • Clara’s very first try at “two on, two off” agility behavior on an elevated board. (Note: many people teach this with a nose target on the ground but I don’t include that. I don’t plan to do agility with her and was just experimenting. ) When she gets in the correct position, I don’t mark, but just start feeding, feeding, and feeding in position.

Link to my video for email subscribers.

The one thing missing from the above video is a magnitude reinforcer: a large extended reinforcement period. That’s a great consequence for something the dog put real effort into. I do them mainly after agility runs, or when my dogs do something unexpectedly impressive in real life. That happened just the other day when I cued Zani to drop a stinky dead snake and come to me…and she did! Sadly, there was no camera running while I thanked her and showered her with all the goodies I had.

Luckily, my friend Marge Rogers has a great video of Rounder, her Rhodesian Ridgeback, practicing his Reliable Recall (from Leslie Nelson’s great DVD). Note in particular what is happening at 0:54 – 1:02. After she successfully calls him away from a yummy plate of food, he gets a constant stream of fabulous food and praise. If you don’t think 8 seconds is a long time for that–try it sometime!

Link to Marge’s video for email subscribers.

Other Reinforcers

Of course, there are other fabulous reinforcers. I use tugging, playing ball, sniffing, personal play, find-it games, and playing in water with my dogs. All these are great relationship builders too. I talk to and praise my dogs all the time, and have successfully used praise to shape behaviors with them. But you know what? Praise would be completely empty if we didn’t have a bond already. It only gains value after we are connected.

So Don’t Forget the Food!

Training with food builds your bond with your dog. It’s not mechanistic or objectifying. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love, and so is using a great reinforcer. These will help you communicate clearly with your dog. And the observation skills you will gain as you improve as a trainer will help you learn what your dog is saying to you!

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

This post includes discussion of animal experimentation from the 1950s and 1960s using shock. It is unpleasant to contemplate. But to me, it makes it even worse that the knowledge gained by those studies is not widely known. Studying that literature gives one a window on how punishment works. I hope you will read on.

The studies I cite are all included in current learning theory textbooks, and my descriptions are in accord with the textbooks’ conclusions. The results are different from the common assumptions about punishment. 

Graph shows typical response to mild-to-moderate punishment. X axis represents sessions over time. Y axis is the suppression ratio. There is a drop in the behavior immediately after the aversive is applied, but the behavior gradually returns to its former level.

This is a typical response to mild-to-moderate punishment. The X-axis represents sessions over time. The Y-axis is the average suppression ratio. The shape of the graph roughly correlates to  the frequency of the behavior.

I’ve written a lot about making humane choices in training and about the fallout that accompanies aversive methods. But there are other problems with the use of aversives besides the immediate fact of hurting, scaring, or bothering your dog. It turns out that using positive punishment is tricky.

In the term positive punishment, positive doesn’t mean “good” or “upbeat.” In learning theory usage it means the type of punishment in which something is added and a behavior decreases. The added thing is something the animal wants to avoid. If every time your dog sat you shocked her, played a painfully loud noise, or threw something at her, your dog would likely not sit as often.  Those things I mentioned would act as “aversive stimuli.” If the dog sat less after that, then punishment would have occurred.

There is another type of punishment called negative punishment. It consists of removing something the dog wants when they do something undesirable. I’m not discussing that type of punishment in this post. For the rest of the post, when I refer to punishment, I am referring to positive punishment.

The Punishment Callus

Some trainers and behavior professionals warn about something called the punishment callus. A punishment callus is not a physical callus. It is one name for the way that animals (including humans) can develop a tolerance for an aversive stimulus. When that tolerance is developed, that stimulus does not decrease behavior. It is not an effective punisher. The animal has become desensitized to punishment.

This is not just a piece of folklore. It has been demonstrated repeatedly in studies, and it happens way more often than we realize in real life. I’m going to describe some of the research.

Reinforcement First

The first thing that happens in most punishment experiments is that the animal is taught a behavior using positive reinforcement. The pigeon learns to peck a disk to get some grain. The rat learns to press a lever or run down a chute to get food. There will be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of repetitions. Then, after the behavior is strong, the researchers introduce punishment. This is usually in the form of shock. The shock is generally contingent on the animal touching the food or performing the behavior that gets access to the food.

At first glance, this seems weird, not to mention wildly unfair. Why would they be starting off a punishment study with reinforcement? Then why would they punish the same behavior?

Think about it a little and it makes sense. You can’t use punishment if you don’t have a behavior to punish. Reinforcement is what makes behaviors robust. You can’t measure the effects of unpleasant stimuli on a behavior unless you have a strong, consistent behavior to begin with.

In some studies, they cease the reinforcement after the punishment starts. In others, the reinforcement continues. In these experiments, the animals and birds get shocked for trying to get their food in the same way they learned to get it through many repetitions of positive reinforcement.

But this is not at all unique to lab experiments. A hard lesson here is that we do the same thing when we set out to punish a behavior. Animals behave because they get something of value (or are able to escape something icky). The behavior that the dog is performing that annoys us is there because it has been reinforced. It didn’t just appear out of the blue. So if we start to punish it, the animal is going to go through the same experience that the lab animals did. “Wait! This used to get me good stuff. Now something bad happens!” And punishment and reinforcement may happen together in real life, just as in some of the studies.

How We Imagine Punishment to Work

I think most of us have an image of punishment that goes something like this:

The dog has developed a behavior we find annoying. Let’s say he’s knocking over the trash can and going through the trash. The next time Fido does that, we catch him in the act. We sternly tell him, “No! Bad dog!” Or we hit him or throw something.(I hope it’s obvious I’m not recommending this.) The next time he does it, we do the same thing. In our minds, we have addressed the problem. In our mental image, the dog doesn’t do it anymore.

But. It. Doesn’t. Work. That. Way.

Real life and science agree in this. It’s much harder than that to get rid of a reinforced behavior.

Punishment Intensity

Many studies show that the effectiveness of a punishing stimulus correlates to its intensity (Boe and Church 1967).   The higher the intensity, the more the behavior decreases. Very high-intensity punishment correlates to long-term suppression.

Skinner was one of the first to discover that low-intensity punishment was ineffective. He taught rats to press a bar to get food. Then he discontinued the food and started to slap the rats’ paws when they pressed the bar. For about a day, the rats whose paws got slapped pressed the bar less than a control group. Then they caught up. Even though they were getting slapped, they pressed the bar just as often as the control rats (Skinner 1938). Other early punishment studies also used mild punishment, and for a while, it was assumed that all effects of punishment were very temporary (Skinner 1953). This was determined to be incorrect in later studies with higher intensity aversives.

Dog owners who try to use low-level punishment are faced with an immediate problem. Ironically, the problem is born out of a desire to be kind. Many people do not feel comfortable doing anything to hurt or startle their dogs, but these are the methods they have been told to use. So they figure that they should start with a very low-intensity action. They’ll yell just loud enough to get the dog to stop. They’ll jerk the dog’s collar just enough to interrupt the pulling on leash. They’ll set the shock collar to the lowest setting.

But if a behavior is valuable enough to a dog (i.e., it gets reliably reinforced), a mild punishment will barely put a dent in it. It may interrupt the behavior at the moment and suppress it for a short time, and people are fooled into thinking it will continue to be effective. But it almost certainly won’t.

So the next thing the humans do when the dog performs the behavior is to raise the level of the punishment a bit. They yell louder, jerk harder, or turn up the dial on the shock collar.

Lather, rinse, repeat. If this pattern continues, the humans are successfully desensitizing their dogs to punishment. The desensitization can continue up to extremely high levels of punishment. That is the punishment callus, and it has been excruciatingly well documented in the literature.

Miller’s Rats

In one study (Miller 1960), hungry rats were trained to run down a walled alleyway to get a moist pellet of food at the other end. The rats repeated this behavior many times as they got acclimated to the setup. Each rat’s speed of running down the alley was recorded as they gained fluency. The behavior of running down the alley was reinforced by access to food. This continued (without punishment) until the rats were determined to have reached their maximum speed.

A shock mechanism was then initiated so the rats’ feet would get shocked when they touched the moist food. The rats were divided into two groups. They were referred to as the Gradual group and the Sudden group, indicating the way the shock was introduced. The Gradual group started with a shock of 125 Volts, which caused virtually no change in behavior. The shock was raised in each subsequent session. The rats’ speed slowed down somewhat each time the shock was raised. Then it recovered and leveled off as they got accustomed to the new intensity. The shock was raised through nine increments up to 335 Volts.

The rats in the Sudden group didn’t experience the gradual shocks. Their first introduction to the shock was at 335 Volts. Their movement down the alley slowed drastically. Often they would not touch the food.

In the last 140 trials (5 trials each for 28 rats total) the results were telling. Out of 70 trials at 335 Volts for the rats in the Gradual group, only 3 trials resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food. In the Sudden group at the same voltage, 43 trials, more than half, resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food.

To repeat: These two groups of rats responded differently to shocks of the same high voltage due to how the shock was introduced.

Now take careful note of the differences in their behavior:

The [subjects] in the Gradual group flinched and sometimes squealed but remained at the goal and continued to eat. Those in the Sudden group seemed much more disturbed, lurching violently back, running away and crouching a distance from the goal (Miller 1960).

There’s the clincher. At 335 Volts, some rats were still approaching the food and eating while getting shocked. In other words, those behaviors were not effectively punished. For the other rats, the behaviors were definitely punished–and the rats were traumatized.

So there you have it. Two of the most common outcomes of using punishment are:

  • a spiral of ever-increasing punishment intensity that the animal learns to tolerate; or
  • a shut-down animal.

This information has been available for 50 years. Yet aversive techniques are still casually recommended to pet owners with no education in learning theory, no exposure to the mechanical skills involved, and most important, no clue of the harm to the animal.

Punishment meme

The Resilience of Behavior

One of the things I finally “got” about punishment as I studied the graphs in these studies is that complete cessation of a behavior is rare. Again, our mental image of the results of punishment is incorrect. In the Miller experiment, the traumatized rats in the Sudden group did sometimes approach and eat the food despite intense punishment. The rats in the Gradual group consistently did so.

The rats in the Gradual group correspond to dogs who are trained with gradually increasing punishment. They acclimate and the behavior continues. They get a punishment callus. The rats in the Sudden group probably resemble the heavily punished dogs I describe in my post Shut-Down Dogs, Part 2. 

One more thing about the graphs. When punishment is initiated or taken to a higher level, there is an immediate drop-off of behavior. It’s usually of short duration. The rate of behavior generally rises back up again.  This is what I modeled in the diagram above. You can see a bunch of these graphs in the Azrin study linked below.

Increasing the punishment intensity seems to have the same general effect as the initial addition of punishment. In both instances, the new punishment intensity produces a large suppression at the moment of changeover, with substantial recovery after continued exposure to this new intensity. Only at severe intensities of punishment has further increase failed to produce an abrupt decrease in responding (Azrin 1960).

One of the tragedies of this pattern in dog training is that the drop-off causes the human to believe the punishment is working. The human’s act of raising the level of the punishment is reinforced.

The deliberate use of positive punishment as a training method is already ruled out of consideration for most positive reinforcement-based trainers. This is because of humane concerns and its known fallout. But I believe it is also important for us to know how difficult it would be to use effectively and that it does not work the way most of us imagine it to. We can see desensitization to punishment all around us once we learn of its existence.  My takeaway from the studies is how vastly superior and straightforward it is to build behavior in our pets than to try to squash it down.

Note: Please don’t quote this article to claim “punishment doesn’t work.” High-intensity punishment does work. But it has unacceptable side effects that are destructive of our dogs’ happiness and wellbeing, not to mention their bonds with us.


Azrin, Nathan H. (1960). Effects of punishment intensity during variable‐interval reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 3(2), 123-142.

Boe, E. E., & Church, R. M. (1967). Permanent effects of punishment during extinction. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63(3), 486-492.

Miller, Neal E. (1960). Learning resistance to pain and fear: Effects of overlearning, exposure, and rewarded exposure in context. Journal of Experimental Psychology 60(3), 137-145.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Appleton-Century. New York.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Simon and Schuster.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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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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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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Posted in Behavior analysis, Dog training hints | Tagged , , , | 38 Comments