Desensitization of Disgust

two images of a bearded man in 19th or early 20th century clothing looking disgusted
Two versions of a “disgust” response. See note in the photo credits about the non-universality of emotions and how they are portrayed.

Disgust can save your life. But sometimes it gets attached to weird stuff, just as fear does.

I’m interrupting this dog blog to talk about human beings for a little while. I have to share something fascinating I learned back while researching a previous post.

I have written a fair amount about desensitization and counterconditioning. One of my more extensive posts was “You Can’t Cure MY Fear by Shoving Cookies At Me!” In that post, I designed a hypothetical DS/CC protocol for my phobia of crawdads. While reading studies for that post, I ran across a pocket of research about desensitizing the emotion of disgust.

Huh? I had never considered that desensitization would be used for anything besides fear. But using it for disgust made sense when I thought about it.

Disgust Can Save Your Life

Like the emotion of fear, disgust can save your life. Fear causes you to try your best to escape a wild carnivore, a human intent on harm, or an out-of-control fire. Disgust causes you to avoid food with visible or olfactory clues that it is not safe to eat. It causes you to avoid contact with excrement and other things that tend to carry unfriendly bacteria. It causes you to respond with “Ewww!” to the signs of vermin. (You can thank me right now for the restraint I employed in choosing images to accompany this post! You are welcome!) Disgust is absolutely connected to survival.

And like fear, disgust can apparently go wild and get attached to things inappropriately. That’s when desensitization can be somewhat useful.

Tan puppy with black muzzle is lying on a navy blue bath mat and looks serious
How about a cute puppy instead of a disgusting image? (I acknowledge that dogs are disgusting in some cultures. Just probably not to my readers.)

Now, since disgust is a functional response, we don’t want to try to eliminate it or treat it inappropriately. It would not be ethical to try to diminish fear and install feelings of happiness and attraction in a human at the sight of, say, a forest fire or a tornado. It would likewise be unethical to try to replace the disgust response to things that are unequivocally harmful.

So exposure therapy is generally limited to treatment for the “disgust” equivalent of a phobic response, a response that is disproportionate to the potential harm of the trigger. (Phobia has a different clinical definition for dogs. I’m describing humans right now.)

Fear and Disgust Together

Fear and disgust both tend to prompt distance-increasing behaviors. Interestingly, they can be attached to the same things. Horror novelists and moviemakers know his. Consider the movie Alien, for example. The monster is not just scary. It’s disgusting, right? It oozes and drips and pops out of people. So does John Carpenter’s The Thing (shudder). Items that have characteristics of offal, are parasitic, ooze, or have lots of legs trigger disgust in many people.

This intertwining of the two avoidance emotions was the topic of several research papers I read. For instance, it turns out that arachnophobes generally have a considerable disgust response to spiders as well. More on that below.

I thought about disgust with regard to my own phobia. I noted in my previous post that my phobia of crawdads does not extend to lobsters, which are much more capable of causing harm. And I can tell you why.  Lobsters generally look clean, whereas my real-life interactions with crawdads have been in murky water. I vividly remember seeing a large crawdad in a pond that was cut off from the creek I used to spend a lot of time in. The crustacean was holding very, very still. It had algae and murk on it. And when I poked it with a stick (I was a kid, okay?), it fell slowly to pieces. It was long dead and decayed. Ewww!

a pond with a wooden pier jutting out into it. The pond is surrounded by trees.
Only nice, clean, frisky crawdads in Bass Pond in Lanesboro, MN!

Crawdads bring up the “ick” response for me for sure! I found out subsequently that this is classified by some as the “animal reminder” type of disgust. I am not particularly sensitized to some of the typical animal triggers, though. For instance, I am not generally bothered by spiders, I like snakes (although I do have a startle response when I see one unexpectedly), and I am very fond of rats and have had them as pets. Crawdads not so much!

Classifications of Disgust and the Disgust Scale

Experts have identified several categories of disgust. One categorization currently in favor has only three classes (decreased from many more in previous publications). They are as follows.

  • Core disgust is based on a sense of offensiveness and the threat of contamination.
  • Animal reminder disgust reflects the aversion of stimuli that serve as reminders of the animal origins of humans.
  • Contamination-based disgust is a disgust reaction based on the perceived threat of transmission of contagion. (Olatunji et al, 2007)

Interestingly, core disgust and contamination-based disgust can correlate with obsessive-compulsive disorder (Berle & Phillips, 2006).

If you are interested in the topic of disgust and how you “rate” with regard to different types of it, check out the Disgust Scale Home Page. The Disgust Scale was created by some scientists and is widely used. On the home page, you can also request copies of some of their scholarly articles through an automated responder.

My scores were quite a bit higher than average in both core and contamination-based disgust. Whaddaya know!

Desensitization of Disgust

One of the more interesting articles I read that is available in full online was  “An examination of the decline in fear and disgust during exposure-based treatment,” (Smits et al, 2002). This study used exposure therapy on people who both feared and were disgusted by spiders. Desensitization was more successful at lessening fear than lessening disgust. That seems to be a general trend from what I’ve read. Isn’t it fascinating? The article discusses the relationship between fear and disgust and how they interact.

Disgust can be associated with stimuli that are not disgusting in the usual physical sense. These are the categories of disgust that relate to social and moral stances.

When people say that they are disgusted by classes of people unlike them, that can be the literal truth. They may have an internal response to some humans that is similar to how they would react to garbage. That is downright scary, especially considering the durability of the disgust response. On the other hand, some sociologists worry that we may be getting too habituated to horrific behaviors such as torture. In that case, we may be deficient in our disgust response.

Those topics are for another post. Suffice it to say that this is a rich field of research. The three articles listed below, as well as the Disgust Scale Home Page will provide lots of info if you are interested.

The Power of Disgust

When I was about seven years old, my family went on a vacation to the mountains for about a week. When we got back, I went straight to the refrigerator to get a drink of milk. I took a big swig straight from the carton. The milk was completely sour and clotted. It was a huge shock. I was just a little kid and it was completely new to my world. I had never tasted sour milk, in fact, I didn’t know milk could get sour. For a moment I didn’t even know what was happening. It was appalling. I think I made it to the sink to spit it out.

That was about 50 years ago, and to this day I still don’t trust milk.  I still like it (although I am in favor of more humane alternatives since the mainstream dairy industry is horrifying). But I always sniff it before using it. Always. And if a carton is even close to its date, I throw it away even if it smells OK.

I drank very sour milk once. A lifetime ago. My behavior was forever changed. That’s the power of disgust.

References and Further Reading

Berle, D., & Phillips, E. S. (2006). Disgust and obsessive-compulsive disorder: An update. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes69(3), 228-238.

Olatunji, B. O., Williams, N. L., Tolin, D. F., Abramowitz, J. S., Sawchuk, C. N., Lohr, J. M., & Elwood, L. S. (2007). The Disgust Scale: item analysis, factor structure, and suggestions for refinement. Psychological assessment19(3), 281. Available at

Smits, J. A. J., Telch, M. J., & Randall, P. K. (2002). An examination of the decline in fear and disgust during exposure-based treatment. Behaviour Research and Therapy40(11), 1243-1253. Possibly available here, although you may need to look up the link yourself if this one doesn’t work.

Disgust Scale Home Page, location of the disgust quiz itself and many other interesting surveys

Image Sources

IMAGE: “Expression of the Emotions Plate V, 2+3” by Oscar Gustave Rejlander – Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This image and the others in Darwin’s collection are now controversial. This is because the studies that used these images and others like them to seek evidence for the universality of human emotions across cultures were generally flawed. See Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work for more information. Her work may also affect things I have written in this post, but I don’t know enough about it yet to make changes.

IMAGE: Puppy Clara on a blue mat, copyright Eileen Anderson 2011.

IMAGE: Bass Pond Pier in Lanesboro, MN by user Lanesboro Arts. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Text and the specified image copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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Replacing a Poisoned Cue

A woman reaching down and shoving her hand in the face of a stuffed dog, as if to tell it to stay. This became a poisoned cue.


Originally published in December 2012; expanded and revised for 2019. The video in this post was featured at Tate Behavioral’s ABA Conference in October 2019 by Dr. Megan Miller.

A poisoned cue is a cue that is associated with both reinforcing and aversive consequences. Poisoned cues were probably the norm for a period in some types of training, and still are common. If you tell your dog to “sit” and he gets a cookie if he sits but gets a push on the butt or jerk on the leash if he doesn’t, then “sit” is a poisoned cue. The term was coined by Karen Pryor.

It’s only once you start training without pain and discomfort that you and your dog find out about “unpoisoned” cues. In positive reinforcement-based training, a cue is a signal that means reinforcement is available for a certain behavior. Cues become associated with very good things. There is far less stress attached for the dog, since a wrong guess doesn’t carry a painful, uncomfortable, or scary penalty. You can see the joy on the faces of dogs who are trained with positive reinforcement when they hear a familiar cue.

Getting Rid of Summer’s Poisoned Cue

I am proud of the training I share in this post and video. I made a plan and successfully replaced a poisoned cue for my dog Summer, which improved her quality of life.

Summer, who passed away in 2017, was my crossover dog, and unfortunately carried some baggage from that. We took three levels of obedience courses at a traditional dog club. Although I had searched for positive reinforcement training after reading about it on the Internet, after looking around locally I figured maybe it didn’t actually exist in the real world. In the dog club I found a place where people cared for their dogs very much and were interested in training them, just not completely how I wanted to train (and sometimes not at all how I wanted to train). I did not partake of the harsher methods at the club, but as most of us know, even the less physical practices such as stern voices and physically pushing them into positions can be hard on lots of dogs.

How the Cue Got Poisoned

Summer was quite sensitive to pressure on her personal space. (Even Zani knew this. She regularly got Summer to move away from a desired spot just by lying down right next to her.) So when I taught Summer to stay by issuing a stern STAY “command” and rushing my open palm to within an inch or two of her face, it was unpleasant for her. In addition, the stay exercise itself was probably scary. She was a 10-month-old stray when I got her and our bond was still tenuous. Hearing all the other trainers raising their voices at their dogs, and particularly my leaving her and walking away while she was surrounded by this activity, were also hard on her.

I’ve come to realize over the years just what a difficult and unnatural behavior “stay” is. I admire Summer for learning it in that environment.

Here is a short YouTube video showing an AKC competition group sit stay. Watching it will explain the cause of Summer’s stress better than I ever could in words. The stay cue happens at about the one-minute point, but it’s worth watching the rest. Imagine if this environment was your dogs’ introduction to the stay behavior! And all the problems are exacerbated if your dog is small, since she can be in physical danger during the stay exercise. (The offleash version of the group stay has since been eliminated from AKC competitive obedience because of safety concerns.)

So even after I crossed over to positive reinforcement-based training, Summer responded to the stay cue with a flurry of stress behaviors, even though she did stay. For years I tried half measures to rehabilitate the cue. I tried to counter condition the verbal cue with pairing with treats. I softened my voice practically to a whisper. I decreased the hand signal until it was barely a twitch. But I still got reactions to the cue and hand signal, and also she consistently showed stress when I turned my shoulder away and left. I tried to counter condition that too, but the cues kept bringing the stress back.

Pretty clearly this was a poisoned cue. In positive reinforcement training, a cue signals that reinforcement is available for a certain behavior. A poisoned cue is one that has been taught with a mixture of reinforcement and an aversive, either deliberately or accidentally. So even though I used treats to reinforce Summer’s stays, both the verbal cue and the hand signal were poisoned not only by their intrinsic unpleasantness but by their association with what was initially a frightening experience for Summer. The cues came to mean, “Brace yourself because bad stuff is happening, and by the way you get a treat at the end if you make it that far.” I have written about my own personal experience with a poisoned cue here.

In addition I think Summer’s physical reaction, which usually included an abrupt drop of her head, was not only born of stress but had become a superstitious behavior as well. A tough combination to try to fix.

I finally understood, with some discussion and encouragement from my teacher, that I would have to re-teach the behavior with a new cue. Changing cues is one of my unfavorite things. Who wants to change their habits? But that is exactly what we are asking our dogs to do every time we train them. After watching Kathy Sdao’s wonderful “Improve Your i-Cue”DTB1024_b DVD, I realized just how unfair I was being by not wanting to change my own behavior. Cues are comparatively easy for humans. We have language, and we usually choose a word related to the behavior (although we don’t have to). For dogs, learning verbal cues is an exercise in pure memory, using a sense (hearing) that they don’t lead with. They take in information more readily with smell and sight. So Kathy convinced me that not wanting to change my own habit was pretty selfish.

I picked a new verbal cue: “Hang out.” I wanted something that had relaxed connotations for me so I could always say it very pleasantly. I said it in a high, singsong voice.

A sable colored dog sitting by herself in a kitchen. Her body language is relaxed, her eyes are soft, and she is looking toward someone off camera. We have worked to replace a poisoned cue for "stay."

Summer hanging out


Retraining to Replace the Poisoned Cue

When retraining, I couldn’t use the “New cue/old cue” technique of teaching a new cue. This is an application of classical conditioning in which you repeatedly give the new cue just before the old cue. (Then reinforce the dog for responding with the right behavior.) The dog starts to make the association and “anticipates” the old cue by performing the behavior. Pretty soon you can pause after the new cue and the dog may respond! You can fade out the old cue as the dog responds earlier and earlier, finally responding to the new cue by itself.

But if I had done that, I would have brought the bad feelings attached to the old cue right along for the transfer. Instead, I had to start from scratch. I had to change or rehabilitate three things: the hand signal (I dropped it completely), the verbal cue, and the motion of my turning away from her. Since Summer already had a very nice stay, with distance, duration, and distractions, I wouldn’t need to retrain the advanced stuff extensively. I just had to build good associations with the cue itself and my initial leaving.

I applied classical conditioning in a different way. I associated her new cue with a great treat. I did cue/treat/cue/treat/cue/treat while she was in a sit or down. I did this for several sessions and a few hundred reps. I was serious about this rehabilitation. I wanted the cue itself to have great associations. This wasn’t pure classical conditioning since I did have the one contingency on her behavior: she must sit still. But realistically, what dog is going to move away when you are shoveling treats at them like I was?

Then I applied desensitization. My turning away from her was a big stressor, so I started with the tiniest piece of a turn away without moving my feet (then treat!) and ever so gradually working up to taking a step away. If I got a stress reaction, I knew I had gone too fast and would go back to an earlier increment that didn’t bother her. Only after I had done these things for many sessions over several days did I start re-teaching stay in the usual way including adding the new cue.

We had a huge history to overcome. Her old reaction was such an entrenched behavior that pieces of it still crept in, even when “Hanging out.” I continued to do conditioning on the verbal cue and especially the turning away, which seemed to be the strongest trigger. This was a particularly difficult situation to rehabilitate, since there were so many longstanding triggers for her stress.

Changing a cue, even a poisoned one, is not always this extensive a project. I also had to replace her “Leave it” cue and that was much easier. I just stopped saying those words, trained the behavior per the Training Levels, and started attaching our new cue. The whole experience was so dissimilar to what we had done in obedience class (“You better believe it!” said Summer) that her old stress didn’t get triggered. I offer that as a ray of hope to the folks who watch the video and think, “Hundreds of repetitions? OMG!”

The video compares Summer’s “stay” behavior from some older clips from 2009, complete with stress reactions, and her new “hang out” behavior in 2012. In the second half of the video I show some 0f the training.

Video: Replacing a Poisoned Cue

>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: This video shows the result of replacing a cue that was associated with stress, and shows some of the training involved.

2009 Watch Summer’s body language when I say “stay” and turn away.


>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: Head drop, eyes squinting. Look away.


>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: 2009. Lip lick, whale eye. Paw lift.

>>EILEEN IN MOVIE: “Sit. Stay.”

>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: 2009. Head drop, looking down. Whale eye.

2012 Now watch her body language during her new “stay” behavior with a new cue:

>>EILEEN IN MOVIE: “Hang out.”

>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: Soft eyes throughout. Slow blink and deep breath coming up.

Here’s where the stress came from. This is Summer’s old “stay” cue, as I was instructed to do it in a traditional obedience dog club in 2006.


>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: Here’s how that looks from the dog’s point of view.

Even though I softened the verbal cue and hand signal over the years, they remained stressful for her. In 2012, six years later, I finally replaced the cue. Here is how.

There were three things I needed to do something about.

The hand signal (I dropped it entirely)

The verbal cue  (>>EILEEN IN MOVIE: “STAY”)


And Summer’s stress during the moment I turn away.

So first I conditioned the new verbal cue by pairing it with food.

>>EILEEN IN MOVIE: Hang out. Hang out. Hang out. OK

>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: With me in different positions but always stationary. All she had to do was sit there.

>>EILEEN IN MOVIE: Hang out.

>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: We did several hundred repetitions.

Then I conditioned turns away without the cue.


>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: I took several days to work up to taking a full step.

If I went too fast and got a reaction, I backed up to smaller movements.

Only after many reps of both the cue and the movements did I put them together and start training stay with duration, distance, and distractions.

She seems so much more comfortable now.

Thanks for watching!


By the way, I trained Zani and Clara without using an explicit cue for stay. Sit, down, and stand all mean to stay in that position until released. But since I trained Summer with a stay cue initially, I think we were both more comfortable using one.

Anyone else have to replace a poisoned cue or have to rehabilitate certain aspects of a behavior?

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2012

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Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training

Aggressive, dangerous dogs (a.k.a. Red Zone Dogs) should be trained with positive reinforcement, desensitization, and counterconditioning. Here’s why.

Training with pain, startle, and intimidation carries huge risks. Decades of science tell us that aggression begets aggression. It’s that simple.

Two of the most common side effects of attempting to use pain or other punishment on an animal are called “operant aggression” and “redirected aggression” (Azrin, Holz, 1966). In operant aggression, the dog attempts to stop the aversive stimulus by aggressing against the individual who is delivering it. For example, you jerk the dog’s collar; dog bites you. In elicited aggression, the dog aggresses against nearby individuals who may have had nothing to do with the punishment. For example: you jerk the dog’s collar; dog bites your kid.

black and brown dog barking in the snow. Some would call this a Red Zone Dog

When seeking to modify aggressive behavior, you shouldn’t use methods known to create aggressive behavior.

So even though it is super tempting to believe that we just need to “carry a bigger stick” than the dog and keep him intimidated and subdued, that is neither safe nor sensible. And of course, not humane.

A recent study found a correlation between behavioral euthanasia of dogs and the owners’ use of punishing training methods. 

Dog- and owner-related risk factors for consideration of euthanasia or rehoming before a referral behavioral consultation and for euthanizing or rehoming the dog after the consultation (Siracusa, Provoost, &Reisner, 2017)

I do understand how seductive the “overpower and subdue them” idea is, especially when a dog’s behavior is scary. The approach is imbued in our culture.

Our Typical Response to Red Zone Dogs

Many years back, when I was still new to the dog training world, I went to audit a workshop. One of the working participants’ dogs was aggressive. His owner and the people in charge of the workshop wanted him to be able to participate but were worried about the safety of other dogs. The person hosting the workshop provided a prong collar and recommended that the owner use it on the dog.

prong collar

She did so. Prongs work by poking into the dog’s neck when he moves out of position or when the trainer applies pressure or a jerk. I remember talking to a friend at the workshop. I said I didn’t like the idea of prong collars, but I was glad they put one on that dog “because it would keep the rest of the dogs and the humans safe.”

I had it exactly backward. I was caught in one of the biggest misunderstandings about behavior. Using an aversive method can quite likely make a dog more dangerous.

For aggressive dogs, aversive methods often mean putting a prong collar on them and jerking on it whenever they react. For some dogs at some times, this will subdue them. They may shut down and offer very little behavior at all. This is another known result of aversive methods. But it takes some education about dog body language to see that such dogs are not “calm.” They are petrified or have “left the building” in their heads. Even though that’s not humane training, that outcome is fine with some aversive trainers. It’s the goal.

But the thing is: that shut-down response is not guaranteed. The dog, alternatively, might start to aggress. Also, over the long term, the dog will develop a classical association between whatever it aggresses at and the pain of the correction. A conditioned negative response. That, also, is exactly what we don’t want.

I need to mention that not all use of prongs is so ham-handed. There are trainers who use them with more skill and (perhaps) less risk. But any use of a prong is aversive. They don’t work any other way.

Witnessing the Fallout of Aversives

I don’t know what happened to the dog at the workshop. But let’s fast forward a few years, to another “problem” dog. This time I did see what happened.

I was at another event and had noticed an adolescent corgi. The pup was full of beans and a handful. I didn’t envy the owner, but the pup was a typical feisty teenager and was fun-loving, friendly, and full of life. This dog also received a prong collar and I watched a tragedy unfold. The owner would jerk on the collar, as directed, and the pup first shrieked, then snarled, and by the fourth collar jerk he was biting the owner’s ankles or whatever he could reach. These weren’t careless puppy bites. The dog started landing serious bites to get the pain to stop. The owner was advised to escalate. In the course of an evening, the dog had been hurt by the person he trusted, responded in kind, and acquired a bite history. It was a living example of how many “Red Zone Dogs” are created.

Here’s another example of “operant aggression” that happened in my own household. I used to have a very benevolent shepherd mix, and at the same time had a feisty rat terrier mix. The terrier, Gabriel, would be all up in Shadow’s face every day. Shadow was three times Gabriel’s size and weight. When they ran somewhere, Gabriel would leap and snap at Shadow’s neck. Shadow put up with this for years. Then one day he had enough and bit Gabriel. It was an inhibited bite, but it was still enough for a vet trip. If it had been to a toddler, that might have been the end of Shadow’s life. I always think of Shadow when I think or someone else says “He’s so sweet; he puts up with so much from the other dogs.”

Try to make it so the nice dog doesn’t have to put up with aversive methods from other dogs, either.

Here’s my standard reminder about anecdotes. I only relate anecdotes that are solid examples of highly accepted science. The ones above could be textbook cases. My goal is not to “prove” a point. Anecdotes can’t do that. My goal is to show “this is what that well-understood principle looks like in real life.”

Are Red Zone Dogs a Thing?

No, they are not really a thing. The term “Red Zone Dog” was made up by a TV personality to describe aggressive or reactive dogs, usually big strong ones. Dangerous dogs. It is an example of the myth that “some dogs are qualitatively different and need forceful training.” I wouldn’t give the phrase any screen time except that people are out there searching on it and I want them to get good info. 

The word is already spreading. My friend Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and has a very thorough post about Red Zone Dogs. It includes a questionnaire that can help you assess the risks posed by a dog’s aggression. 

Another friend, Debbie Jacobs, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in fearful dog behavior cases, also has a great post about Red Zone Dogs. She always writes what I want to write, but better and more succinctly.

How Do We Use Positive Reinforcement-Based Training on Aggression?

A qualified behavior consultant will first observe the dog in person or via a camera interface and possibly interact with it. She will perform a functional assessment, which has as its goals the determination of the function and antecedents of the aggressive behavior. She will almost never need to see or provoke the actual aggression to treat it. Unlike aversive trainers who need the dog to perform the aggressive behavior so they can punish it, science-based trainers prevent the dog from practicing (and perfecting) its aggressive responses.

The behavior consultant will make recommendations for keeping the dog’s family safe. She will recommend a training plan that depends on the function of the dog’s aggression.

In the case of fear aggression, she may recommend a visit to a vet who specializes in behavior to ask about possible medications. She will create a training plan that centers around counterconditioning, either classical or operant, to address the dog’s fear. That’s right. The plan aims at the root cause of the aggression and doesn’t merely suppress the symptoms.

What Do The Experts Say About Fear and Aggression?

Ethologist Dr. John Archer argues in his classic paper that the same kinds of situations are capable of evoking either escape or aggressive responses and that fearful and aggressive responses are closely intertwined (Archer, 1976).

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall lists 13 distinct varieties of canine aggression (Overall, 2013, p. 223-224). No surprise: none of them is called “Red Zone.” Aggression in response to fear and pain are two of the most common. We don’t immediately think of great big threatening dogs as being fear aggressive, but it is not uncommon.

She spells out what a bad idea it is to punish a dog for fear aggression:

Physical punishment/discipline has no role in the treatment of an aggressive dog, but it is particularly awful for dogs with fear aggression. Fearfully aggressive dogs become worse when punished/disciplined and may have no recourse except to bite.

Dr. Karen Overall, Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Cats and Dogs (Overall, 2013, p. 185)

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ilana Reisner says something similar in her scholarly and practical article about aggression in dogs (Reisner, 2003):

Punishment of any kind should be avoided, including hitting, leash corrections, ‘‘hanging’’ by holding up the leash, holding the dog by the scruff, shocking the dog at the moment of aggression (using an electric shock device), rolling the dog onto its back, and other misguided actions. Any of these can increase anxiety and is almost certain to result in further biting. Reacting to an anxious or fearful dog with such a display also guarantees increased aggression at the next exposure to whatever situation sparked the aggression in the first place.

Dr. Ilana Reisner, “Differential diagnosis and management of human-directed aggression in dogs”

I’ll leave the reader to find the parallel resources from the field of neuroscience. You could start with the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response.

Think I’m cherry-picking? I’m not. You’d be hard-pressed to find a doctoral-level behavior professional who recommends punitive treatment for aggression. The science about that has been writ large for decades. This is why people who base their dog training on punishers have to resort to cults of personality, claims of magical energy, or misplaced talk of dominance to justify their training. Most avoid science like the plague.

If Your Dog Is Aggressive…

Demand transparency from any trainer you consider. Don’t accept euphemisms. You could be risking your dog’s life if the trainer uses painful methods, whatever terms they use and whatever arguments they make.

Here’s an option if you can’t find a qualified trainer locally. More and more qualified trainers are offering remote consultations via Skype, Facetime, and online meeting programs. Here are three who do so. They are highly qualified, and I know them personally.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson


Archer, J. (1976). The organization of aggression and fear in vertebrates. In Perspectives in ethology (pp. 231-298). Springer, Boston, MA.

Azrin, N.H, Holz, W.C., “Punishment” from Honig, W. (1966) Operant Behavior: Areas of Research and Application, 380-447.

Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Reisner, I. R. (2003). Differential diagnosis and management of human-directed aggression in dogs. The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice33(2), 303-320.

Siracusa, C., Provoost, L., & Reisner, I. R. (2017). Dog-and owner-related risk factors for consideration of euthanasia or rehoming before a referral behavioral consultation and for euthanizing or rehoming the dog after the consultation. Journal of veterinary behavior22, 46-56.

Photo credits: prong collar, copyright Eileen Anderson. Standing dog courtesy of CanStock. Snarling dog on couch copyright Eileen Anderson (and thank you to the friend of a friend whose dog is pictured. Astute observers may have noticed that this is likely not a dangerous dog, and they’d be correct.)

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Evidence-Based Practice

Two years ago, I started having a neck problem that required physical therapy. My doctor sent me to a practice owned by one of his colleagues. I was treated by a licensed physical therapist.

I promise this relates to dog training. Bear with me.

The physical therapist took my history. She didn’t measure anything. She suggested a short set of exercises, heat treatment, massage, and treatment with a T.E.N.S. unit. My appointments lasted about 45 minutes. I went three days a week.

Each time I went, the therapist would ask me if I had experienced improvement. I would say none or “Maybe a little.” I wanted there to be improvement and kept trying to believe it was happening, but it didn’t seem to be there. She was disappointed and acted perplexed. She subtly pressured me to say I was doing better.

She added another treatment. This was called the Graston technique, where the therapist “breaks up muscle tissue” with a stainless steel tool. She said I probably had adhesions that needed to be broken up. At the time, I also had a transient problem with my elbow, so she did the Graston technique on my forearm as well as on my shoulder muscles near my neck.

The Graston technique hurt and left bruises. At first, the pain of the treatment and the bruises made me feel we were “doing something.” I could feel and see the effects. Unfortunately, my neck didn’t particularly improve. And having bruises all up and down my forearm didn’t fix my elbow.

I looked up the research on the Graston technique and it turns out the evidence for it is thin to nonexistent. The review study found its results to be no better than placebo. I started to have doubts.

One day at the beginning of the third week, I asked the therapist if she could not measure something, anything, about my neck. Could she not measure range of motion so we would be able to judge whether there was progress? She said, “Well, that’s kind of hard…..” Her voice trailed off.

That was it for me. This just couldn’t be right. My subjective responses shouldn’t have to be the only measure of progress for something that seemed so…measurable.

I went back to my doctor and asked for a different referral. I asked him to find me the most hard-ass, science-based PT in my area. He did. I went to a different practice.


At the beginning of my first visit, the physical therapist used an instrument called a CROM: cervical range of motion instrument. (That’s cervical as in neck.) Well, well. Something relevant to my condition can be measured after all! The CROM was patented in the 1980s and experimentally verified in 1990 as a superior method for measuring neck range of motion, so it’s not new on the block. It’s an instrument in the inclinometer family.

CROM: a cervical range of motion instrument that is part of science-based physical therapy

He measured and recorded the range of motion of my neck on three axes before we did anything else. I didn’t ask him to do this. Measurement was the natural first step of a data-driven approach. He told me how much range of motion I had, in degrees, in the axis I was concerned about (side to side). He told me how my results deviated from what was normal for my age. He talked to me about my neck condition and described which muscles I would need to strengthen to alleviate the problem that had developed.

The difference in approach was immediately obvious. I told him about my previous experience. He asked what exercises they had me do and I told him. He said a couple were okay but one of them was specifically contraindicated for my condition and told me why. I told him about the heat treatment. He mentioned that the inappropriate use of heat actually helped keep him in business—it often created problems rather than resolving them.

I didn’t bring up their use of the T.E.N.S. unit, but I have noticed subsequently that in all the times I have gone to the new practice to exercise, I have seen the therapist use T.E.N.S. on only a couple patients. The other practice appeared to use it across the board for everyone. That told me something, too. (Among other things, T.E.N.S. is a billable procedure for many conditions; all the therapist has to do is say it is warranted.)

My sessions at the new practice were completely different. Instead of lying there getting heat, shock, or stainless steel instruments ground into me, I had about 40 minutes of exercises to do, then a cooldown. I was advised to never, ever continue exercising if it hurt. Fatigue was okay; pain was not.

After I finished the allotted sessions my insurance covered, the physical therapist got out the CROM and measured the range of motion in my neck. I had gained 12 degrees of rotation on the affected side. The range of motion was now close to normal for my age. I also gained a 20% improvement in side bending (moving the ear towards the shoulder) on the other side. And my overall neck strength rose from 3/5 to 4/5 on the Muscle Strength Scale.

But this wasn’t the end of my treatment. He explained that it could take more than a year to build the musculature I needed to gain to maintain the joints and get all the range of motion my body was capable of. I had exercises I could do at home, and I joined the “graduate program” at the practice so I could continue to use the gym.

We See This in Dog Training

The difference between the first practice I went to and the second was a difference we also see in the dog training world. The first practice was doing what my friend Debbie calls “throwing sh*t against the wall to see what sticks.” They had a set bag of tricks, most of them passive and palliative for the patient. They offered no way of measuring progress, and no explanation of my physical problem and how it would need to be addressed long term. I was pressured to report improvement. Most of what they used on me was ineffective; some techniques could have been harmful.

There was also no plan beyond the sessions paid for by my insurance. No one sat down and told me that you couldn’t really fix my problem in a few weeks. They implied that it could. This was the medical equivalent of offering a quick fix.

I think I’m a moderately savvy medical consumer. I ask questions. I look up academic research, not to second-guess my doctors, but to know what questions to ask. But like most others without graduate degrees in the life sciences, in the end, I have to put myself at the mercy of the professionals. I had deliberately asked for a referral to a physical therapist rather than a chiropractor, hoping to avoid the “woo” factor. But woo was what I got.

I stayed there as long as I did because my doctor had sent me. There is reasonable deference to authority, but there are also cognitive biases in our responses to authority. I don’t know where I fell along that line. My doctor had a good history of evidence-based practice with me, so I trusted him over what I was witnessing for longer than I might have otherwise. (It turns out that he, in turn, had trusted his colleague, and didn’t himself have direct experience of this clinic.)

But I knew evidence-based practice when I encountered it. At the second practice, I received measured results of the treatment I got. I got knowledgeable answers to my questions. I was told of the limitations of treatment, and I didn’t get any false promises of quick cures. I found out that a lot of the success of treatment was up to my own behavior change (sound familiar?). No shortcuts. And basically, no B.S.

Consumers who are seeking help with their dogs should be so lucky.

Transparency and Regulation

That first practice exists and is thriving even though the world of human medicine is highly regulated. The first therapist had the proper degree and credentials for her vocation. She is required, as are all PTs in my state, to participate in continuing education. But she, perhaps reflecting the ethos of the practice she worked for, was throwing sh*t against the wall. (All highly billable.)

Dog trainers and behavior consultants have no such professional requirements in the United States, except through credentialing bodies that some may voluntarily join. Nothing is mandated at the state or federal level in the U.S for dog trainers, even though they are advising you how to live with a carnivore that can hurt or kill you.

So if the first physical therapy practice can exist in a highly regulated industry and “take in” a fairly educated consumer for a few weeks, think what can happen when such a consumer falls into the hands of an uneducated dog trainer? Their profession is subject to no required education and no effective oversight. There is no requirement of transparency. With my medical situation, I was able to go back to my doctor to ask questions and get another referral. I knew enough to know something was wrong, though it took three weeks. How long does it take people to realize something is wrong with a dog trainer who is peddling platitudes and shortcuts? And to whom do they turn for an alternative?

Most consumers who are trying to find a dog trainer don’t have a true authority who can help them choose. Behavior science is even more of a mystery to most people than a lot of medical practices. Without regulation or at least transparency in the dog training and behavior consulting world, both woo and cruelty will continue to flourish.


Cheatham, S. W., Lee, M., Cain, M., & Baker, R. (2016). The efficacy of instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization: a systematic review. The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association60(3), 200.

Crothers, A. L., French, S. D., Hebert, J. J., & Walker, B. F. (2016). Spinal manipulative therapy, Graston technique® and placebo for non-specific thoracic spine pain: a randomised controlled trial. Chiropractic & manual therapies24(1), 16.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Critical Thinking | 8 Comments

How I TRAINED My Dog to Take a Pill

Clara, a sandy colored dog with a black face, is trained to swallow a pill

Most of us have used the “hide it” method at one time or another to get our dogs to take pills. In fact, I wrote a whole post about some ways to sneak pills into dogs.

But there’s a better way. What if you never had to hide a pill again? What if your dog would take a pill almost like a human? Instead of washing it down with a drink of water, your dog would get a favorite treat afterward instead.

Pill-taking can be trained as a behavior. It blew my mind when I first realized this, after reading Laura Baugh’s post on it and seeing her video.

The concept is simple. The dog gets a treat for the behavior of swallowing a pill. But you don’t have to start with pills. You can start with low-value treats such as kibble. Something you’re sure the dog will eat. Swallow a piece of kibble, get a much better treat! Then work your way through bland items, non-food but safe items, and finally to pills. With Clara, the sequence was kibble, pieces of carrot (which she does not consider food), empty capsules made of gelatin, then actual antibiotic pills.

Swallow a piece of kibble, then get a piece of chicken!

Another dog might need additional steps between the capsules and real pills, which can be bitter. You could consider rubbing a gelatin capsule with lemon juice or another vegetable or fruit juice that’s safe but unfamiliar. Just enough to make it taste “weird.”

I had an easy dog to teach it to. Clara is a gulper, so it was easy to get the idea across to her: swallow this and get an awesome treat. My friend has a dog who, while she loves food, is suspicious of anything you give her and has to give it a good sniff. Gulping down something handed to her is not in her repertoire. This will be a lot harder to teach her, but I will probably take on the challenge. I’m glad I got some practice with Clara.

The Wonder of Gelatin Capsules

two sizes of gelatin capsules that are great for training a dog to take a pill

Empty capsules are a great transition between bland edibles and real pills. They come in sizes from 000 (about an inch long) to 5 (less than half an inch). You can buy them in drug stores or online.

If your fingers are wet, gelatin capsules will stick to you. I used sizes 3 and 4 as shown in the image. You can apply spray cheese to the capsules, as Deb Jones does in this video. I didn’t need to since Clara was already gulping by the time we got to the capsules. But if your dog is apt to react poorly to something that could stick to his tongue, you can apply spray cheese or some other food at first. But remember: the eventual goal is to get them to swallow something that is dry and potentially unpleasant. So that’s what you work toward.

Notes About the Method

Remember to check out Laura Baugh’s post, “An Easy Pill to Swallow,” if you want a good training plan instead of my method, which was tailored for my own dog.

One way my process differed: I used the verbal cue from the beginning. I almost never do that anymore. We generally avoid using a cue when we first start training a behavior, since it may only be a rough approximation of the final behavior. We don’t want to attach the cue to the wrong thing. But since I started with a piece of kibble, I knew Clara would eat it. That is the final behavior, so I used the verbal cue from the beginning.

During all the repetitions, she only failed to swallow the “pill” twice. The first time was with a carrot. She spat it out. Sorry Clara, no treat. On the next rep, she swallowed it right down. The second failure was with an actual pill, but ended up not being a failure at all. Clara dropped the pill, but then she picked it back up off the ground and swallowed it! I don’t count that as a failure. I think it shows she understands what behavior pays off!

You can’t see it clearly in the movie, but I did vary the time between the “pill” and the treat so she could learn to tolerate a short wait.

Some of you will notice that I don’t feed Clara in position in a sit. But remember: swallowing the pill is the behavior. I didn’t chain anything else into it. She does not have to sit or hold a stay. If she wants to jump or reach for the treat afterward, that’s fine with me. Since we trained for speed, going after the treat came pretty naturally. Others might make a different decision.

I debated whether to post this because my technique is not always great. But I want to spread the word about training pill taking. And spreading the word is why I have a blog, so I went for it, warts and all.

For another example, here’s a completely different method from Michelle Chan, who shaped her sheltie Juliet to take pills in one impressive, less than three-minute session: Juliet Pops Pills.

Why Train a Dog to Swallow a Pill?

This can be a foreign concept. Many of us transitioned from forcing pills to hiding them in food, and I think that set the bar for “humane” pill administration for a long time. 1)Note that every situation is different, and there may always be a time when we have to force a pill, or even an animal for whom that might be the best solution. But think about it. In what other situation do we settle for “let’s fool them” if we don’t have to? Why not work toward cooperative care?

Some reasons for teaching a dog to take a pill are:

  • The “hide it” method may eventually fail (and you’ll have to force it).
  • There may come a time when your dog has to take a pill without food (and you’ll have to force it).
  • It adds another behavior to their palette.
  • It’s cool.
sandy colored dog with black face opens her mouth to take a pill

I’ve seen some people argue that training the dog to take a pill this way is less humane than hiding it because the dog has to taste the pill. But see the first two bullet points above. There may be a time when they have to take a pill plain. And then they will not only taste the pill, but they will likely be stressed from the force involved.

Also, I think it may vary from dog to dog. Clara is truly gulping the pill. She doesn’t chew it and doesn’t have much time to taste it. You’ll see in the movie that once she gets the hang of it, Clara thinks this is a fun game and very easy money. I give her really nice treats for swallowing pills.

And once you’ve trained it, you don’t always have to use it every time. Right now I am giving Clara half an allergy pill every morning. It’s small. Most of the time I just bury it in a small wad of peanut butter, which she gets twice a day whether she is getting pills or not. But some days I cue her to take her pill, then give her the peanut butter afterward, so as to keep the behavior sharp.

One situation in which you would probably not want to use this method is with pills that must not be chewed. Even though I have a gulper, I’d probably just bury those in food, rather than risk a mishap with her biting down on the pill.

Every discussion I’ve seen of training a dog to take a pill like this has prompted comments like “this is my disguise/trick/hide method.” I know it’s natural to want to be helpful and give suggestions of things that worked for us. But I’m going to ask that if you want to suggest disguises, go visit my old post on hiding pills and comment there. Let’s keep this discussion focused on teaching the behavior.

Who else is working on this?

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Note that every situation is different, and there may always be a time when we have to force a pill, or even an animal for whom that might be the best solution.
Posted in Handling and Husbandry | Tagged | 12 Comments

How to Soundproof a Dog Crate

You can’t. It’s almost impossible for the average person to soundproof a dog crate against low-frequency noises like thunder, or even against most higher frequency noises. Here’s why.

  • Soundproofing is bulky, so you need lots of space. You essentially need to build a room around the crate. A room with walls thicker than the exterior walls of your house.
  • The necessary materials are specialized, expensive, and heavy.
  • You need to be willing to give up the portability of the crate.
  • And even if you can do all this, you can’t soundproof it against low frequencies (e.g. thunder, fireworks displays). And this is generally the reason why people try to do it in the first place.

If you take my word for it that you can’t soundproof a dog crate, nor can you currently buy a crate that is soundproof, skip to Section 7 about sound masking for some practical help. Otherwise, read on for the information that every acoustician and civil engineer will tell you.

How Sound Travels

The transmission of noise into a room [space] is aided by the multitude of paths sound can find to penetrate the architect’s defenses. The most prominent paths are (1) airborne noise outside the room that sets the common wall into vibration, which in turn radiates sound into the rooms, and (2) noise originating in the vibration of a solid structure that propagates along the structure and sets surfaces in the room into vibration. If the above paths are efficiently blocked by properly designed partitions and resilient mountings, then flanking paths can become important. Some flanking paths are obvious, such as the propagation through a false ceiling or crawl space and window-to-window transmission. Others are more insidious, such as porous cement block, poor seals between walls and ceiling or floor, gaps around wall penetrations, and back-to-back electrical outlets.

Kinsler et al, 1999, p. 379

In other words, sound gets into enclosures like houses, rooms, and crates in all sorts of ways.

So imagine your dog crate sitting in the middle of a room. Maybe it’s wire or plastic. It even could be wood, although that may not be any better, since wood transmits sound from the outside of the crate to the inside very well. What would it take to block all those paths into the crate? (Don’t forget the floor and the door!)

How Soundproofing Works

To soundproof a space, you need to use a combination of specialty materials, which are very dense and expensive. You need to disconnect that space from all other structures because sound can travel straight from exterior walls and the floor through to the interior via the building materials. These materials must be decoupled to break up the paths. That can mean, for instance, a double-stud or staggered stud wall setup. Normal walls, even with insulation in the air pockets, transmit sound very well. At lower frequencies, those air pockets can even become resonating boxes.

If attempting to soundproof a crate with barrier methods, you would need to isolate the walls and roof of the crate, for example, by building another structure around it. You would also need to decouple the crate and structure from the floor. The barriers would have to be heavy and vastly larger than the crate itself. For instance, a concrete bunker such as this World War II bunker from Hirtshals Beach in Denmark would not be sufficient to prevent the sound of thunder from penetrating. Engineers compute the permeability of materials with regard to sound and publish ratings. A wall of solid, densest available, 8-inch concrete blocks would have a Sound Transmission Class (how soundproofing is rated) of 57 (National Concrete Masonry Association, 2012).

Sound transmission class, or STC, provides a single-number specification of the acoustic isolation characteristics of a particular soundproofing material.

Kinsler et al, 1999, p. 380

The higher the STC, the better the soundproofing. The rating of 57 for the concrete blocks would be decent, except for the fact that the ratings don’t apply to frequencies under 125 Hz, which is smack in the middle of the frequency range of thunder. Even this bunker, with its thicker walls, would not keep out the sound of thunder. Not to mention that enclosures for living things need doors.

The highly regarded Soundproofing Company has illustrations of some typical wall soundproofing solutions. Again, even these professionally designed installations are unlikely to be effective in the low-frequency range of thunder.

Demonstration of the Failure of Absorptive Materials To Soundproof a Crate

This article on soundproofing from the Los Angeles Film School clears up some misconceptions about soundproofing. Acoustic foam, such as that shown in the photo, is not designed to prevent the transmission of sound. It is used to adjust room acoustics.

This material is not for soundproofing

But we really want to believe that foam and blankets can protect us from sound. So I ran a home experiment to see whether covering a crate with a couple of bedspreads (a common recommendation) could prevent low-frequency noise from entering a crate in even the smallest amount. (Spoiler: no.)

I used a Sony Bluetooth XB speaker with 20 Hz–20,000 Hz bandwidth to generate brown noise from an iPhone app called White Noise. I chose brown noise because it has more low frequencies than white or pink noise. I placed the speaker approximately 2 feet from the back corner of the crate and 5 feet from the microphone placement at the front of the crate.

Naked crate on the left, 3-4″ thickness of bedspreads covering the top, back and sides of the same crate on the right. Speaker to the back right of the crate in both cases.

I used an iPad Air 2 with Studio Six Audio Tools to record and analyze the sound inside the crate. I used the Fast Fourier Transform tool to capture peak values.

This plot shows frequencies on the x-axis going across the bottom. Like a piano keyboard: the low frequencies are on the left (and have low numbers) and the high frequencies are on the right. (K stands for 1,000, so the highest number is 16,000.) Frequencies are measured in cycles per second or Hertz.

The y-axis shows sound pressure level (not technically the same as loudness or volume but we’ll informally use those terms) in decibels. But the trick is that the software I used to analyze the sound in real time computes the volume at each frequency area separately. I juxtaposed the graphs for the crate uncovered and covered. The blue line is the uncovered crate and the red line is the covered crate. You can see that there is no significant difference between the sound in the crate when covered or uncovered from the lowest frequencies to somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 Hz. Since there is a random element to brown noise, and I made the plots at two different times, the agreement between the two lines is remarkable. It tells us that covering the crate with two bedspreads did nothing to prevent the low-frequency sound from entering.

Somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 Hz, the lines start to separate. This is exactly what the physics of sound predicts, because the higher frequency waves are smaller and more easily absorbed (more on that in the next section). But the maximum difference of 7 dB at about 5,000 Hz is not enough to make a significant difference. The inside of the crate will not be free of higher frequency sounds. Some of these sounds will be absorbed by the bedspreads. But they will still be perfectly audible inside the crate.

Covering a crate with absorptive materials can accomplish something, though. It dampens some higher frequencies inside the crate. Some people find that to be a “cozy” feeling. Maybe dogs do, too. There are several reasons a dog might like a covered crate. Protection from the sound of thunder is not one of them.

Why Low Frequencies Can’t Be Well Controlled

Sound waves vary in size according to frequency. High-frequency waves like hummingbird song are tiny, fractions of an inch long. But low-frequency waves are huge.

Sound waves are pressure waves, and they pass through gasses, liquids, and solids. They are longitudinal waves, which means the oscillation is in the same direction of the propagation of the wave. But they are conventionally drawn as transverse waves, because longitudinal waves are hard to visualize and draw.

The diagram shows one wavelength of a 60 Hz wave. This low-frequency wave is 18 feet long. And drawn to scale, the red line represents a tw0-inch wide wall of a crate. That crate wall is much too small to have any soundproofing effect. In acoustics, we would say that such a wall would be “invisible” to the large low-frequency wave.

This is the problem with low-frequency waves. They are too large to be absorbed or blocked using barrier methods (Elliot & Nelson, 1993).

Crates on the Market

I am not going to link to the crates that market themselves as protecting dogs from thunder, because they make very misleading claims. Some have some good characteristics. One has a sealing thermoplastic door. Another is decoupled from the floor (but unprotected from noise traveling through the air). But no “protective” crate addresses the issue of low frequencies. It is physically impossible for them to protect your dog from low-frequency sounds. Yet that is the focus of their marketing claims.

Active noise control was originally used for dampening low-frequency sounds and is the only noise control solution for these frequencies that doesn’t depend on bulky materials (Elliot & Nelson, 1993). Ford Motor Company has put out a prototype of a dog crate that incorporates active noise control technology. If they do a good job on this, it could work. It would have to be more sophisticated than most noise-canceling headphones, and probably incorporate feedforward rather than feedback technology. (Feedforward systems are fascinating, and in acoustics they depend on the fact that electrical signals travel faster than sound. Check out my thesis on active sound cancellation for an explanation.)

If You Really Want to Give It a Go—Nope, Sorry

OK, I tried. I wanted something I could recommend. I thought about whether it would be worth it to cover a blanketed crate with a sheet of mass loaded vinyl to pick up a few decibels of protection. But that stuff isn’t designed for household use and probably not safe for chewing puppies (some products are controlled and have health warnings attached). Plus it’s heavy, probably smells, and would make the crate hot inside.

I consulted an engineer who manufactures a unique low-frequency sound absorber and designs room acoustic treatments. His unit costs more than $1,000. But I definitely know people who would spend that to help their dogs. He said, essentially, that there were too many variables to be able to recommend his product across the board. And that depending on the room, his unit might end up weighing more than 1,000 pounds. I was offering a holy grail of sorts: a free link that might attract him some customers. And he didn’t even nibble.

It was great to run across an informed, ethical person who wouldn’t even consider making tenuous promises. I’m not going to link to his business here since he convinced me it just wasn’t relevant enough. But if anyone wants to talk to the right person to custom-design a home sound barrier (or a recording studio or home theater), drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch.

Sound Masking: A Better Solution

Currently, the best acoustical help we have for dogs who are afraid of thunder and low-frequency fireworks is sound masking. I covered that extensively in my recent webinar at The Science Dog. The recording is not for sale (participants got access for a month), but I will be giving the webinar again. For some basic information, you can check out my sound masking post.


It is heartbreaking to care for a dog who panics at certain sounds. We desperately want to help them. It is no wonder to me that people buy all sorts of products that promise to “cure” sound phobia or sound reactivity.

Go ahead and cover the crate if it helps to limit visual stimuli or makes your dog feel cozy. But know that you can’t keep the thunder out that way. The high-priced crates that claim to do so can’t either. Save your money for something that will help!

The best way to help your dog is to see a veterinary behaviorist, a veterinarian who is knowledgeable in behavior, and/or a credentialed dog behavior consultant. Desensitization and counterconditioning, often with meds on board, is what the experts recommend to treat this condition. And sound masking or taking the dog away from the source of the sound entirely are the best management techniques from a physics standpoint.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson


Elliott, S. J., & Nelson, P. A. (1993). Active noise control. IEEE signal processing magazine10(4), 12-35. Available at

Kinsler, L. E., Frey, A. R., Coppens, A. B., & Sanders, J. V. (1999). Fundamentals of acoustics. Fundamentals of Acoustics, 4th Edition, by Lawrence E. Kinsler, Austin R. Frey, Alan B. Coppens, James V. Sanders, pp. 560. ISBN 0-471-84789-5. Wiley-VCH, December 1999., 560.

National Concrete Masonry Association. (2012) Sound Transmission Class Ratings for Concrete Masonry Walls. TEK13 1-C. Retrieved from:

Photo credits: WW II bunker from Wikipedia Commons taken by Tomasz Sienicki and used according to this license. Acoustic foam courtesy of CanStock photo. All other images copyright Eileen Anderson.

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Posted in Dogs and sound | Tagged | 4 Comments

“I Will Never Use the Shock Collar Again!”

foxhound and black lab playing in a field

This is a story from a client of one of my professional trainer friends. Let’s call my friend “Phoebe.” My friend had met the client for some coaching for her young, exuberant dog, Raven. But it was a very long distance for the client to come. My friend received this email after she hadn’t heard from the client in a while. Some details were altered for privacy, but I’ve left the email essentially as the client wrote it because she tells the story so eloquently.

I am sharing the story because people need to know what can happen to their dogs in the unregulated profession of dog training. This is what can happen to a dog and their owner at the hand of a trainer who uses aversives.

Phoebe and I are both in awe of this email and how much Raven’s owner loves her dog. We appreciate her generosity in letting us share her cautionary tale.

Dear Phoebe,

Our last correspondence was in late April, I think.  A lot has happened since then with my elderly dad’s health.  As for me, I am hanging in there but a month ago I got knocked over by a friend’s dog who was here to play with Raven.  The dog plowed into me from the back and down we both went.  I ended up with pretty bad damage to my knee.  I’m getting around now but carefully.

Now for the tragic part.  Raven continued to be a handful and I couldn’t travel to see you. I was told by a friend about a local trainer who would come to the house to help.  The main problems were, are, and continue to be a weak recall and difficulty controlling her if she sees a cat, another dog, a squirrel, or other things of interest.  So, I met with the trainer.  I adamantly refused to work with the e-collar but after the third session, I gave in. I think her words were, “well, we can train her with an e-collar or you can let her run out in the road and get hit by a car.”   She promised me it would only be used on vibrate and a 1 or 2 setting.  I watched a session here and was a little reassured but not totally comfortable and never comfortable enough to handle the control myself. 

Anyway,  in May, we needed to be gone for a long weekend.  The trainer asked if Raven could stay at her home and she would work with her for that time. Raven liked and had played with her dogs before and all had been fine.

Now for the part that breaks my heart.  When the trainer returned Raven on Monday afternoon, she was a different dog.  She got out of the car and was cowed, would not make eye contact, her back was humped up, and her tail was between her legs. She appeared to be frightened and worried.  I burst into tears.  I got a lecture from the trainer on my inappropriate ways of working with Raven.

We went through the house to the back yard. She took Raven off-leash, Raven saw the cat and started to run toward it. She was given a shock that had her yelping and threw her to the ground.  I was a basket case.  The trainer took Raven back inside and put her on a “place” cot in the kitchen and I was told to leave her there for several hours then crate her and make her depend on me for everything–bathroom breaks, food, play, etc… 

The trainer left.  Raven laid on the cot and shivered.  I took the e-collar off immediately and put in a box–it will never be used again!!  She was afraid to get off the cot, and it was 2:00 AM before I got her to get off and come up to bed with me.  It took two weeks for her to start greeting friends normally (people she knows and loves). Before that, when they would come, she would run up to my bed and hide.  She is now greeting people.  It was also that amount of time before she would take a treat from anyone.  She would not come to the kitchen/den area (where she had been forced onto the cot) for weeks.  Only last week has she started coming in and watching TV with us some nights.

Before, our custom has been to feed her then carry our dinner into the TV room on trays. Raven would climb up on the footstool or on the love seat and stay with us till time for to have a potty break before bed.  But now, most of the time she looks around the door and chooses to go outside through the garage and not even come in or through the kitchen/den area (we have a doggie door that goes from den to outside). She is uncomfortable eating her dinner in front of us.

Phoebe, I am embarrassed and ashamed that I let this happen.  I thought it would be safe and you know I would never let anyone hurt Raven. But the long and the short of it is that I did.  I have had little contact with the trainer since. She texted a few times and asked how I was (because of the knee) and how Raven was.  I told her. After her last text, I told her that I would continue to work with Raven with reward based training only.  I have not heard since and I am not going to initiate any contact.  

I have started from scratch again. We continue to work on basics with only rewards.  Raven is consistent in the sit, wait, down, up and come without distraction. It is so easy still for me to fall into the “beat myself up” game.  I am heartsick that I have let this happen but it isn’t helpful to her or me to continue to dwell on it.  I must move forward. You had mentioned that I have one session left. If that is still available, I am hopeful that you can see us and advise me on how to proceed.  I just wish you were closer or that I did not have the constraints of my dad and my injured knee….but I do. 

First, how brave is Raven’s owner? Fear of being judged or an “I told you so” would have stopped many people from getting back in touch with their original trainer.  But she did it out of love for her dog and as an expression of her own values. And she is willing to share her story to help others.

Phoebe was saddened and devastated right along with Raven’s owner, of course, and more than glad to see them again. They have had two sessions in person and are planning some remote training sessions. Raven is recovering. Let this ring loud and clear to others who may have been pushed into a wrong turn with their dogs’ training. R+ trainers want you and your dog to be happy. They are familiar with the pressures that can push you to try aversive methods like shock.

Dog Training Is an Unregulated Industry

Raven’s owner and Raven are victims of an unregulated industry. Every professional positive reinforcement-based trainer I know has stories like this. Many of the dogs they work with have fears or aggressive behaviors that have been previously installed through aversive training.

In most professions, the trainer’s behavior would be unthinkable. The list of unprofessional behaviors from this “trainer” is long.

  • She hurt and terrorized Raven via the shock collar.
  • She lied about her intentions, telling Raven’s owner that she would only use the collar on the two bottom settings.
  • She blamed, bullied, and threatened Raven’s owner.
  • She failed to be transparent and did the bulk of the punishing training out of sight of Raven’s owner.
  • She exhibited ignorance about how dogs and people learn.
  • She had no response when confronted with evidence of Raven’s persistent trauma.
head shot of a black lab who is looking at something

No matter the skill level of a trainer, or whether they use the aversive only occasionally or “on a light setting,” there are always risks with aversive training. Veterinarians, credentialed behavior consultants, and professional organizations agree on these risks and recommend training with positive reinforcement. But the problem here was not only the shock collar. It is also that—in my opinion—the trainer was incompetent. This so-called “trainer” was willing to cause a dog permanent harm in order to suppress behavior, no matter the cost to the dog. She either had no knowledge of dog body language or did not care that she had left the dog with longterm trauma. Not all dogs will respond as dramatically and pitifully as Raven, although with this level of aversive use, it’s likely.

I support the movement toward regulating the dog training industry. I believe trainers should be required, at a minimum, to be transparent about their methods and the alternatives to those methods. Otherwise, stories like Raven’s will continue to be common.

Predictable Consequences of Aversive Training

Raven was terrified as a result of the shock training, and her fear got attached to the cot, to locations in her owner’s house, and to the activities of her owners. (These are textbook examples of the generalization of fear.) At the time of this writing, six weeks after the shock training, Raven still trembles in the kitchen at home.

tri-color rat terrier with big ears lying on a blue mat

One of the things I do in this blog is to show how dogs’ behavior correlates with the science as we know it. Usually, that’s in the context of positive reinforcement-based training. But understanding the effects of aversives is important, too. Raven’s responses to aversive training are in keeping with the science. Those responses included escape/avoidance, generalized apathy, and learned helplessness. And enduring fear. Some dogs would alternatively have developed retaliatory or redirected aggression.

Telling an anecdote about one dog and one trainer doesn’t in itself “prove” that aversives have fallout. But we don’t need it to. That fact is already amply supported in the science. What telling the story does is to show you what those observations of textbook fallout look like in real life. I hear or read several of these stories per week. I hear about the doodle with nervous diarrhea and colitis—he wears two shock collars because his owners have electronic fences both outside and inside the house. I hear about the dog who bit his new owner after receiving a painful “correction” at the direction of a self-proclaimed trainer. I see with my own eyes the terrier who has been so mistreated on the agility field that he cowers at the start line. My trainer friends are frequently the cleanup crew when a dog has been reduced to a pitiful wreck by an aversive trainer. It takes a toll on them.

The false dichotomy presented by the aversive trainer—well, we can train her with an e-collar or you can let her run out in the road and get hit by a car—is unfortunately a fairly common tactic. Aversive trainers will say the dog will run into traffic and die, or become unmanageable, or bite someone and get euthanized—unless aversive methods are used. But this is not what the science tells us. In fact, there is evidence that behavioral euthanasia correlates with aversive training methods. The very opposite of what the aversive trainers claim.

Helping the Dogs and Humans Recover

I can relate to what happened to Raven’s owner. I once had a dog whom I desperately loved, but who was wreaking havoc with my life and was a danger to my smaller dog. I used aversives (a prong collar and forceful handling) because those were the solutions offered to me by the people who claimed authority about dog behavior and training. My situation felt untenable, and that was the only way out that I saw. I am so sorry, just as Raven’s owner is. And we are both learning better ways.

Raven’s owner was brave. She came back to Phoebe and told her the whole truth of what happened. Use of aversives has fallout on owners, too. We don’t know how many are too embarrassed to seek help after their dog has been abused in the name of training, much less to describe the sad situation so thoroughly. Or how many run out of money for training. So kudos go to Raven’s owner for protecting Raven from further abuse from the so-called trainer. Raven’s original problems of not coming when called and over-arousal in the presence of other animals are straightforward to address, and Phoebe is helping this sweet dog and loving, honest owner to go forward.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson


Siracusa, C., Provoost, L., & Reisner, I. R. (2017). Dog-and owner-related risk factors for consideration of euthanasia or rehoming before a referral behavioral consultation and for euthanizing or rehoming the dog after the consultation. Journal of veterinary behavior22, 46-56.

Photo Credits

The photo of my rat terrier, Cricket, on the blue mat belongs to me.

The three photos featuring the black lab are by Peter Wadsworth and were uploaded from Flickr to Wikimedia Commons according to the licenses of the two sites. They are shared under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The dog in the photos is not connected with the story in this post in any way.

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Sound Decisions: A Webinar on Dogs and Sound

Have you struggled to protect your dog or your client’s dogs from intrusive sounds?

You’ve probably heard the advice to cover a dog’s crate in heavy blankets or even acoustic foam if the dog is scared of thunder. But does this practice create a barrier against sound? How much? Are you sure?

I will be giving evidence-based answers to this and many more questions about dogs and sound at my upcoming webinar at The Science Dog on July 24, 2019:

Sound Decisions: Helping Your Dog Cope With a Noisy Human World

Trainers need to understand basics about sound science and technology to perform desensitization and counterconditioning effectively with client dogs. They need to be informed about the science of sound to help with management solutions. And pet owners often search for methods to protect their dogs from bothersome sounds. Many of the solutions commonly offered for both these problems are not supported by evidence.

Here’s just a bit of what I’ll be covering.

How Can We Protect Our Dogs From Sounds That Bother Them?

Whether our dogs are sound-reactive, sound phobic, or happily normal, there are times when we want to protect them from sounds. I will be discussing the major suggested methods: barriers, wearable devices, music, and masking.

I’ll discuss both the why and the how. For instance, I tested the sound levels in a crate when covered and uncovered. I used an app that does some math to compute the sound pressure level over a broad range of frequencies. I’ll share the results of my test in the webinar and explain how it matches what the science tells us.

How much sound is absorbed by the cover on the crate? I’ll show you.

How Can We Play Sounds That “Sound Right” To Dogs?

In dog training, there are also sounds we do want our dogs to hear. We need accurate, high fidelity sounds when counterconditioning. I will be sharing important information about the characteristics of digital technology. You’ll find out why generating high fidelity sound—high fidelity for dogs’ ears—is difficult. I’ll tell you the best ways to get around these limitations when it is possible to do so.

Low-frequency sounds like thunder and fireworks are uniquely challenging to reproduce. High-frequency noises like beeps and whistles have a different set of challenges. I’ll suggest some best practices for both. And I’ll also offer an alternative way to get a less intense version of a sound trigger for desensitization and counterconditioning when lowering the volume doesn’t help.

We need to approach sound with the same scientific rigor that we do behavior science. I’m uniquely qualified on the subject. I have a master’s degree in music from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a master’s degree in applied science (acoustics) from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Come to the webinar on July 24th and let’s get started.

Sign up for the webinar here!

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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If Your Dog Is Afraid of Fireworks, See Your Vet Now

What are we here for this time?

Every year I post an article about last-minute things you can do to help your dog who is afraid of fireworks. We are coming up on Canada Day and U.S. Independence Day, and that means bangs and booms. Over the years I have tweaked my list. I’ll be posting it in a few days.

But this year I am posting earlier with the most important tip of all.

  1. See your vet.

If you see your vet now to discuss prescription drug possibilities, you have time to make sure they work for your dog and your vet can adjust them if necessary. There are new products on the market, as well as several options that have been around for years.

Here is what Dr. Lynn Honeckman, veterinary behavior resident, says about the benefits of medications.

Now is the perfect time to add an anti-anxiety medication to your firework-preparation kit. The right medication will help your pet remain calm while not causing significant sedation. It is important to practice trials of medication before the actual holiday, so that the effect can be properly tested.

There are a variety of medications or combinations that your veterinarian might prescribe. Medications such as Sileo, clonidine, alprazolam, gabapentin, or trazodone are the best to try due to their quick onset of action (typically within an hour) and short duration of effect (4–6 hours).

Medications such as acepromazine should be avoided as they provide sedation without the anti-anxiety effect, and could potentially cause an increase in fear.

Pets who suffer severe fear may need a combination of medications to achieve the appropriate effect, and doses may need to be increased or decreased during the trial phase. Ultimately, there is no reason to allow a pet to suffer from noise phobia. Now is the perfect time to talk with your veterinarian.

Dr. Lynn Honeckman

Sound phobia is a serious condition. The best way to help your dog get through the coming holidays in the U.S. and Canada is to contact your vet for help. Call now.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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Teaching Your Dog to Self-Interrupt

What are the neighbors doing?

Here is something I taught with positive reinforcement that enhances Clara’s life and mine. I’ve taught her to respond positively to being interrupted, and even to interrupt herself. This trained behavior helps us get along smoothly from day to day, and also helps keep her safe in the world.

Self-interruption is related to a whole batch of desirable dog behaviors. I mean desirable to us humans, but they are beneficial to the dogs, too. People refer variously to reorientation, offered attention, checking in, and more. Even recall is related. By whatever name, these are safety behaviors. When you can get your dog’s attention easily, and when they offer attention on their own, you can get them out of many emergencies without a fuss.

What Does Self-Interruption Look Like?

Over the years, I have taught Clara to interrupt her own behavior when there is something intense going on in the environment. She stops and checks in with me. If she’s next to me already, she turns and looks at me. If she’s across the yard or in another part of the house, she runs to me. This ability to turn away from something that’s bothering her has the effect of lowering her arousal. Self-interruption also means it’s easy to get her out of sticky situations. She does most of the work herself!

Clara was a feral puppy and came to me with suspicions of humans preinstalled. She is eight years old now (today!). She now has some other people besides me in her trusted circle, and can happily walk on-leash in densely populated areas. She’s good with bicycles, baby carriages, wheelchairs, and all kinds of assistive equipment. All kinds of people in all sorts of attire. She would rather not be approached, but if people have moderately polite body language, she can tolerate it. I generally arrange things so she doesn’t have to interact.

At home, she keeps an eye on the neighbors, city and construction workers, the neighborhood dogs, and other animals. But instead of fence-running, endlessly alarm barking, or evading me, she generally takes a look, expresses her opinion with a huff or two, then checks in with me.

You can see it in this unedited video. Instead of being glued to the fence and barking at the neighbors, she watches, checks in with me twice on her own, and turns on a dime when I call her. She also responds instantly when I suggest we go inside.

The video is badly recorded—sorry!

This is normal everyday behavior for her. She has learned to interrupt her own fixation on things that bother her. This was all taught with classical conditioning and positive reinforcement.

Training Self-Interruption

Clara was well prepared to learn self-interruption because I classically conditioned her as a puppy that another dog barking made wonderful food happen. I didn’t want her to “catch” my reactive dog’s habits. It worked. Classically conditioning a dog to any stimulus and then providing the goodie yourself is going to have the effect, over time, of them reorienting to you when the stimulus occurs. This gave Clara and me a jump start on interruption training.

This time it’s a squirrel

But you don’t have to do that to teach dogs to interrupt themselves. I’ll tell you the two behaviors my teacher helped me teach.

The first thing is to interrupt the dog a lot and pay super well for it. At first, only interrupt when you think their attention is wavering away from whatever has their focus. For example, when they are turning toward you anyway. If they are playing, perhaps they have taken a break and are looking around. Call them, then reinforce like crazy when they come. Gradually, you can start to call them in more difficult situations. And sometimes you can do like I did in the video and encourage the dog to go return to what she was doing. (I don’t usually encourage her to go back when she is worried about something she sees, but this time she seemed to want one more look and I thought it would work out all right.)

What I have described is part of many recall training plans. But if you do it enough and the dog will probably start to offer the behavior without a deliberate cue from you. Treat like crazy! Then build up the habit with reinforcement.

In the video, I had kibble in my hand. But Clara’s habit was built with things like roast chicken, spray cheese, and cat food in a tube!

A second thing to do is to teach the dog that treats fall from heaven whenever anything weird happens in the environment. Does a jogger appear out of nowhere? Treat! Someone drops a garbage can lid next door? Treat!

Did you notice in my video that the first time Clara runs to me is after there is a loud noise? She knows noises make treats happen. So instead of getting upset, trying to locate the noise, and barking in that general direction (which I guarantee is what she would have done without training), she runs to me.

Most of the things that get her attention in the yard worry her a bit. It may be interesting to watch the neighbors and what goes on in the street, but it’s not usually fun. Trained self-interruption gives her a way to get “unstuck.” If there’s too much going on, we go into the house, and she is glad to do so.

Because of positive reinforcement training, I never have to fight to get Clara’s attention. I don’t have to yell or nag. This dog who arrived with so many strikes against her is a dream to live with. Besides making life more pleasant, her responsiveness makes it safer for her to go out and about in the world. I can always “reach” her, and her recall is practically reflexive.

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Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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