Dog Food Toys, Rates of Reinforcement, and the Matching Law

Dog Food Toys, Rates of Reinforcement, and the Matching Law

Three dog stuffable food toys: a blue Westpaw Toppl, a red Kong, and a Greenish-yellow Westpaw Tux

Can you tell which one of the food toys in the photo above likely offers the highest rate of reinforcement when full? Your dog knows!

Lewis taught me this lesson. He is happy to lick and munch on a Kong (center) stuffed with frozen food when there’s nothing else going on. But if he’s excited in the car, he will ignore a Kong full of the same food. It’s not high enough value in that situation, but the same food in a “Toppl” toy (left) is.

What makes the difference if the food is the same? It’s the rate of reinforcement. The rate from these two toys is drastically different. This is because of the larger available surface area of the Toppl and the lack of the “bottleneck” effect of the Kong.

Another factor that affects the rate of reinforcement is whether the food is frozen. Frozen food is slower to come out of the toys. Lewis has also demonstrated that cool or room temperature food is more enticing, since it raises the rate of reinforcement even higher.

These are very basic observations, but I had never thought about them systematically before.

Food Toys and the Matching Law

Toys vary in the accessibility of the food because of their design and mechanics, and dogs must often perform multiple behaviors to get the food out. If you watch your dog eat out of a food toy from beginning to end, you can see great examples of the matching law.

The matching law tells us that we (animals including humans) perform behaviors in a ratio matching the ratio of available reinforcement for those behaviors. Food toys can give us real-time examples of a dog changing behaviors to optimize what pays off the most at any given moment.

Closeup of the fabric of a denim blue snuffle mat with kibble embedded in it
This snuffle mat at this moment would have a high rate of reinforcement

It’s easiest to understand with two toys filled with the same food. If a dog can get food out of Toy A much faster than Toy B, they will empty most of A before they switch to B. They will switch when B’s rate of reinforcement becomes higher than A’s.

But we can also see it with one toy, as a dog changes their behavior to use the most effective one at that moment to get the food out.

Food Toys and Operant Learning

Let’s back up a little, because we might not be accustomed to thinking about operant learning regarding food toys. We usually think in terms of training: humans giving cues and the dogs responding. For instance, my dogs go to their mats when I cue them to do so because I have given them food hundreds of times for that behavior.

How is a food toy like that? A food toy provides cues, too! These visual, audible, kinesthetic, and olfactory cues indicate there is food inside and how much of it there is. The toy ejects or allows access to food as a consequence of different behaviors the dog performs. The rate of reinforcement changes during the process, depending on how much food is still in the toy and other factors. The matching law comes in as the dog varies their behavior for optimal reinforcement at each stage as the toy empties.

Six fillable dog food toys: a Nina Ottosson Pyramid, a pink rubber bone shaped toy, an orange Tricky Treat Ball, a puprle Busy Buddy Twist N Treat, an orange Westpaw Tux, a purple Busy Buddy Tug-A-Jug, and a black Kong
Each one of these food toys requires a different set of behaviors to get the food out

It’s the same with an open bowl of food; the process just goes a lot faster. The rate of reinforcement is much higher at the beginning when the dog can take big bites of food than it is at the end when there are only a few pieces left, then crumbs. There are still multiple food accessing behaviors. These include:

* walking to the food bowl;
* scooping up the food with their mouths;
* licking the bowl; and
* searching for spilled food outside the bowl.

Every dog who eats out of a bowl is “food motivated.” It’s just very easy work, for most.

Most food toys follow a similar reinforcement pattern: the rate of reinforcement is higher at the beginning than at the end. A few have a “hump” of difficulty to get over at the start, then a high rate of reinforcement that tapers off like the others. I have reviewed a toy called the Foobler that deviates from this typical progression enough that it would confuse or frustrate some dogs.

I’m going to offer some observations I’ve made about different types of food toys: their rates of reinforcement and my dogs’ behaviors in response.

Wobble Toys: The Kong Wobbler, Nina Ottosson Pyramid, and Others

These hard plastic toys have a weight on the bottom and turn themselves upright after movement like inflatable punching bags. Food spills out of a hole when they tip, so dogs learn to push them with their noses and manipulate them with their paws to make that happen. The rate of reinforcement changes depending on how much food is in the toy. If there is, say, a half a cup of kibble in the toy, almost every movement is going to knock some out at first.

The behaviors I’ve seen dogs perform to access the food are:

* approaching the toy;
* knocking the toy over with their paw;
* pushing the toy over with their nose from the top of the toy (rare; I’ll explain why);
* pushing the toy from the bottom with their nose;
* rolling the toy on its side in a circle with their nose;
* searching for kibble that may have scattered away; and
* coming to me for help with the last bits.

If frustrated or left too long with the toy, a dog may also bite at the opening or where pieces join.

In the beginning, the dog may be eating constantly for a couple of minutes. But as the toy empties, it takes more work, more movements to get each piece of food out. At the end, there may be two or three intransigent pieces of food that require several minutes of work to access. The rate of reinforcement is very high at the beginning, slows down as the dog must work harder to get the food, then is very low at the end when there are only a couple of pieces left. A dog with less experience or who isn’t hungry might give up and leave those last pieces of kibble. It might not be worth the effort. My dogs learn that I will pick up the toy and help them with those last few pieces.

I hadn’t realized until I watched the video that Clara has a sequence of behaviors she usually uses with a Wobbler toy. First, she knocks it over with her paw. Then she pushes it in a circle with her nose. If she pushes the toy with her nose when it is standing, she pushes the base. Her method prevents the toy from punching her in the nose.

My partner’s small dog either got punched in the nose or saw the risk of it. I introduced her to the smaller Wobbler. It has a proportionately heavier weight in the bottom and the movement is stiffer. It’s harder to push over and comes back up more forcefully. After a couple of pushes, she would not interact with it. We switched quickly to a different type of toy, and I filed that bit of information away for future reference.

Rolling Toys

Rolling toys have a reinforcement schedule similar to the wobbler types. A lot of food comes out at first, then the amounts diminish as the dog rolls the toy around. I’ve noticed that when the rate of reinforcement gets low, Lewis will take a break and scout around for any kibble he may have knocked out before and not noticed. Matching law! He may get more pieces of food in 20 seconds of scouting the area than in 60 seconds of pushing the almost-empty ball around.

The food seeking and accessing behaviors I’ve observed Lewis doing are the following:

* finding the ball (I vary its placement);
* pushing the ball with his nose;
* rolling it with his foot;
* carrying the ball to a different place;
* leaving the ball and searching the area;
* when indoors, reaching under closed doors to try for kibble that escaped; and
* sitting by those same doors to get me to open them.

I pay attention when he carries the ball. He may do it to get the ball to a more optimal area, say, away from another dog who is giving stink-eye from the other side of a baby gate. But carrying can also be a precursor to trying to chew up the toy. That happens especially when the rate of reinforcement gets low. This, too, reflects the matching law. The time it takes to get those last couple of pieces of kibble out can be very long, but chewing can be reinforcing in itself and can happen immediately. And who knows, you might get to the kibble that way. (I confiscate the ball at that point, trading a few pieces of better food for it.)

Mild mannered Summer ate out of the Tricky Treat ball for much of her life and never tried to chew it up. She got every piece of food out, though. She loved the toy; she learned its name and could find it on cue. Here’s an adorable video of that for the Summer fans.

Clara, on the other hand, chewed almost every toy I had when she was a youngster, before I learned to supervise her better. The only toy that proved impervious was the Ottosson pyramid.

Snuffle Mats and Food Scattering

Snuffle Mats have reinforcement schedules similar to those of the preceding toys. The rate of reinforcement is richer at the beginning, then thins out as there is less kibble available and more searching necessary. But in my observation, they are easier than most other toys at the beginning and at the end, and the rate of reinforcement doesn’t change as much as with the wobblers or balls. The food is more accessible in general, even to an inexperienced dog. There is little manipulation involved; it’s mostly the nose!

A multicolored homemade snuffle mat with long fabric strips
Homemade, fleece-free snuffle mat

Scattering food on the floor around the house or on the ground outside can be a similar exercise. But if you scatter it evenly over a large area, there won’t be a high rate of reinforcement at the beginning. Although finding food on the ground is something most dogs learn easily, it pays to make this exercise very simple at first. If I were to spread a half cup of kibble over my back yard as my puppy’s first scent exercise, they’d give up fast. The rate of reinforcement would be low to start with and fall to zero if they didn’t move out of the original area, which they wouldn’t know to do. Their food seeking behavior would go into extinction in that situation. You can start with an area of a few square feet (an invisible snuffle mat), then enlarge it as the dog gains skill and an understanding of the game.

I mentioned above that Summer loved her Tricky Treat Ball. What does she tell us in this video about the differing rates of reinforcement between the ball and a snuffle mat?

Sound alert: there are jingling tags in the video.

Toys for Soft Food: Kongs, Westpaws, and Others

These container type toys can be stuffed to be very easy (high rate of reinforcement from the very beginning) or harder. If you have never used one of these toys, check out my video, “Kongs for Beginners.” It’s easy to make these toys too difficult at first. Also read further in this post, because I made that video in 2012; there are now much easier toys of this type to start with.

When first introducing these toys, use very yummy food at room temperature so the dog has immediate access to it and can learn some moves for manipulating the toy. But because freezing them increases the differences in the rate of reinforcement, I’m going to discuss frozen ones.

Now we are going to revisit my opening point: toys with bigger openings have a higher rate of reinforcement for the dog.

An orange Westpaw Toppl and a red Kong food toy, both filled with canned dog food. The opening to the Toppl is much bigger than the opening of the Kong.

Although the orange Topple in the photo contains more food overall, that’s not the most important point. The surface area is bigger, and more food is accessible than in the Kong, even if the dog can only lick it. The rate of reinforcement depends on the size of the opening, what behaviors can be used to get the food out, the rate of thawing, and the size of the dog compared to the size of the toy. At the beginning, the dog can lick at the food and scrape their bottom teeth at it. As the food thaws, the toy becomes more flexible and more chewing methods are possible.

The Toppl starts off with a moderate rate of reinforcement when frozen. The dog can lick, scrape their bottom teeth against the food, and bite at the rim area with their top teeth. There is more room to get their teeth in. A lot of the food is exposed to air and can thaw pretty fast. As the food thaws, the rate of reinforcement speeds up even more, until the end where it slows down as they get the last bits of food out. The Kong, on the other hand, starts out hard. The food opening is small, and the frozen solid toy offers little access to the food. It thaws slowly as the dog at first can only lick and scrape their teeth against the small opening. There may be some power chewers who can crush a frozen Kong in their teeth so the food crumbles and comes out faster. But even for those dogs, the Toppl would likely still be easier.

Dogs can build some interesting skills with Kongs. Besides licking at the contents and chewing around the hole, some dogs learn to toss the Kongs in the air so the contents will loosen and fall out.


* Observe your dog with a food toy and count the different behaviors. It’s fun and you may learn something.
* Watch for true enjoyment. Just because something is called a food toy doesn’t mean a dog will enjoy it, or enjoy it at that moment.
* Watch out for frustration. Not only is it unpleasant for the dog when behaviors stop working (go into extinction), this situation predicts that the dog’s behavior will vary more. This is when they might start chewing the toy rather than working to get the food out. So watch closely when they are finishing up the food.
* Supervise, supervise, supervise. Do better than I did with Clara. Chewing hard plastic can be dangerous; swallowing it can be fatal.

I plan at least two more posts on dogs and food toys: one on contrafreeloading and one on whether licking is intrinsically more calming than chewing.

I’d love to hear about your dogs’ unique approaches to food toys!

Copyright 2023 Eileen Anderson

“The Negative Effects of Positive Reinforcement” by Michael Perone: Another Misrepresented Article

“The Negative Effects of Positive Reinforcement” by Michael Perone: Another Misrepresented Article

Three orange and red bags of Cheetos snacks are standing up in a row

Note: I have been working on this paper for 18 months. Today when I published it, I was unaware that Dr. Perone was the head of a recent task force that concluded that contingent electric skin shock of of a population that could include people with developmental disabilities,  emotional disorders, and autistic-like behaviors could be part of an “ethically sound treatment program.”  It casts his paper in a different light. I’m leaving my writeup published for now because I think we need these answers to what is an often quoted paper. Please don’t consider it in support of Dr. Perone in any way.

“The Negative Effects of Positive Reinforcement” by Dr. Michael Perone is a scholarly article some trainers like to use to muddy the waters about positive reinforcement training. They throw out Dr. Perone’s article title like a bogeyman and use it to defend aversive methods in dog training. That usually indicates they haven’t read it. It’s a thoughtful article and has some interesting things to consider, but it doesn’t say what they seem to think it does. Not even close.

I’m going to list here and summarize the effects of positive reinforcement mentioned in the article. I’ll summarize why they have almost nothing to do with well-executed dog training. They give us something to think about in our human lives. But they apply almost exclusively to humans and our lifestyles, and the ones that can apply to animals are easily avoided.

Positive Reinforcement Can Have Delayed Aversive Consequences

Perone attributes the first mention of these aversive consequences to Skinner and quotes him several times (1971, 1983).

Here’s what they are talking about. Let’s say I spend my whole weekend water-skiing. I may come home with a sunburn (but the sun felt so good!), sore or strained muscles (but every run was great!), and maybe even a hangover (gosh that socializing was the best!). Don’t drink and boat, folks, this is just an example. I may be so wrung out after my fun weekend that I won’t have enough energy to finish the report I was supposed to have completed by Monday. All the things I did were fun and reinforcing at the time and I kept doing them, to the detriment of my body.

These potential longer-term aversive effects are one category of “negative effects” Perone is talking about.

How much do they apply to positive reinforcement-based animal training? Hardly at all! We don’t choose training methods and activities with delayed aversive consequences. As animal guardians, we aim to protect our animals from such consequences in both training and the rest of their lives. For example, we don’t let dogs overdo playing in the water hose—we don’t want to risk obsession or water intoxication. We don’t let a dog with an injury play endless games of fetch, even if they beg us. We interrupt dogs playing with each other when they begin to ramp up into over-arousal. The equivalent of my water-skiing weekend shouldn’t happen.

Perone quotes Skinner about activities that are so reinforcing they exhaust him. Skinner wrote, “Fatigue is a ridiculous hangover from too much reinforcement” (1983). He was concerned that the attraction of highly reinforcing activities would prevent him from more important activities with less immediate reinforcement. This is a crucial concern for any human with control over their activity choices, and one many of us wrestle with for most of our lives. Should I do the immediate fun thing or the less fun thing that has good results over time?

But this is unlikely to be a concern for positive reinforcement-based animal trainers. On the contrary, well-executed positive reinforcement training is a highly reinforcing activity for both the human and animal. It also has delayed positive consequences for both parties.

Do I even need to point out that aversive methods often have long-term aversive consequences, even deadly consequences? There is just no comparison.

Positive Reinforcement Can Make People Vulnerable to Exploitation by Government and Business.

This is true. Exploiters can use positive reinforcement (praise, social acceptance, money, tangible items) to draw people into dangerous or unfair situations from which they can’t escape. This happens on the large scale but also on the small, interpersonal scale. This danger, again, has very little application to training animals or to our lives with animals. We already have a ton of control over their lives, even those of us who do our best to give our animals freedom. We work hard to make even the onerous experiences of life fun for our animals. Things such as some husbandry activities, taking meds, and physical therapy. And we use positive reinforcement to give the animal more choices, more opportunities, a wider world. Plus remember: it’s fun.

Some Reinforcing Activities Naturally Have Delayed Aversive Consequences

This is a reiteration of the first point, but Perone includes a list of “more mundane” activities for short-term pleasure here.

Positive reinforcement is implicated in eating junk food instead of a balanced meal, watching television instead of exercising, buying instead of saving, playing instead of working, or working instead of spending time with one’s family. Positive reinforcement underlies our propensity toward heart disease, cancer, and other diseases that are related more to maladaptive lifestyles than to purely physiological or anatomical weaknesses.

Perone, 2003, referencing Skinner, 1971

Of course!

Here is my own example: Let’s say I eat a whole bag of Cheetos because they are engineered to taste good and cause me to want more and more. The behaviors of reaching into the bag or the bowl and putting a piece in my mouth and all other behaviors that get those Cheetos ingested are immediately and powerfully reinforced. Delayed aversive consequences can include stomachache, bloating, poor nutrition, and that “ick” feeling. Oh yeah, and getting the orange stuff all over my fingers. (See big important note at the bottom of the post. I am not food- or body-shaming here.)

Again, this doesn’t apply to animal training or living with our pets. For instance, with both horses and dogs, we educate ourselves about bloat and do our best to prevent the circumstances that can cause it. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have a single positive reinforcement dog training friend who would let their dog eat a whole bag of Cheetos.

But once during an agility trial, I gave Zani too many rich treats over the course of the day. On our last run, she had diarrhea in the ring. Was my conclusion, “Welp, better stop using positive reinforcement”? Of course not. My conclusion was, “You asshole, you made your dog sick with that Braunschweiger. It could have even been worse; dogs can suffer or even die of pancreatitis from too much fatty food. Don’t do that again.”

Aspects of Positive Reinforcement Schedules Can Be Aversive

Top-down view of a pigeon pecking a yellow button in a Skinner box

Perone describes two studies identifying aspects of positive reinforcement schedules that can be aversive. Yes, in a controlled laboratory environment, we can test to see whether an animal will work to avoid a certain positive reinforcement schedule.

In the first study, the researchers studied the effects on pigeons of a change from a rich reinforcement schedule (Variable Interval 30 seconds) to a leaner one (VI 120 seconds). With some clever indicators to the pigeons of which schedule was in effect, they showed the leaner schedule was an aversive condition compared to the richer schedule and that indicators of the leaner schedule could act as conditioned punishers (Jwaideh & Mulvaney, 1976).

In the second study, pigeons were taught to recognize predictors of changes in reinforcement schedules and reinforcer magnitude. They were given the option to “escape,” to peck a key that would stop the trial until they pecked it again. When the trial was stopped, the indicator lights changed, the “house-light” color and intensity changed, and no pecks on any keys were reinforced. It turned out that within a schedule, the pigeons were most likely to take a time-out just after being reinforced. During schedule transitions, the pigeons were most likely to take a time-out when the indicators told them they were switching from high magnitude reinforcers to lower magnitude reinforcers (Everly et al., 2014). These situations meet the criteria for aversiveness because the birds were opting to escape, to “quit the game” for a time.

These are valuable lessons. It’s important to note that these were “free operant” experiments, rather than the discrete trials we generally use in training. This post discusses the difference. In life, we should have very few situations in which we make large step-downs in reinforcer magnitude or frequency for the same behavior. But it can happen by accident or out of ignorance. If there is likely to be a step-down of this sort, we need to take action about it.

Sable dog trotting toward camera with her mouth open and tail up (looking happy)
Summer in a competitive rally run

The example that comes to mind is competitive obedience. I used to compete in rally obedience with my dog Summer. While learning and practicing, I generally reinforced (and reinforced well, with meat or cheese) every behavior. Then I carefully stepped down to every second or third behavior. This was OK with her, and she maintained her enthusiasm. But what would have happened if, at that point, I had suddenly taken her into an obedience ring and performed a minute-and-a-half-long run of 25 behaviors with no reinforcement until the end? Well, maybe nothing bad performance-wise the first time. Her behaviors were strong and resistant to extinction. But it wouldn’t have been kind, and over time (it doesn’t take much time at all!) she would have learned the trial environment predicted no goodies while in the ring. This happened to a lot of dogs before skilled positive reinforcement trainers entered the obedience world.

Thanks to modern dog training methods, we now know lots of ways to make the ring experience happier for the dog and not have that huge step-down in fun. These include using conditioned reinforcers and putting some thought into our reinforcement schedules. Luckily, I had good teachers. What I did was gradually wean Summer from intermittent treats during the run during practice while teaching her she would get a mega-treat (a whole jar of chicken baby food) at the end of the run. We even practiced a fun “hurry from the ring to our crating area to get the treat” sequence as part of the routine when preparing. Believe me, this switch did not diminish her interest and happiness with rally at all! And I was able to do the same during trials, so trials didn’t predict a leaner schedule to her.


Please note what I have not said here. I have not said that training with positive reinforcement has no possible negative consequences. It can. When we humans hold access to all the good stuff, it takes a mindful approach to avoid coercion. But if we are positive reinforcement-based trainers, avoiding coercion is already a top goal. Schedule effects such as Perone describes are a very good thing for us to learn about to provide the best, happiest experience for our animals. Punitive schedule changes can be avoided.

In the meantime, keep in mind that the negative side effects of positive reinforcement training listed in this article by Perone are minimal in animal training. These effects are not at all comparable to the potential fallout from force-based training, which can ruin the lives of dogs and destroy relationships.

The title of the article causes some trainers who use highly aversive methods to hope it can work as a “gotcha” to support their stance. “Look, positive reinforcement is just as bad!” Except it doesn’t show that at all, and they would know if they had read it. Or they do know, and expect you not to read it. Next time you see it referenced, feel free to link to this post.

Training with positive reinforcement, even moderately well, is unlikely to have delayed aversive effects. It’s more likely to have both current and delayed beneficial effects.

A Note about Cheetos

I eat Cheetos and other snack foods. I’m aware they are engineered to be extremely tasty but not satisfying, so we eat more. I eat them anyway. I don’t food shame anybody. I don’t idealize thin body types. I hope everyone reading has the resources to treat themselves to plenty of their preferred pleasures in life, both short-term and long-term.

Further Reading

I find this article by Balsam and Bondy, The Negative Side Effects of Reward, a far better discussion of challenges we might encounter when doing positive reinforcement training. Before you get worried: this article is not at all damning of positive reinforcement-based animal training either. It gives some very practical information about challenges we already recognize. For instance, if you use a powerful food reinforcer, you may get more “food approaching” behavior than the behavior you are trying to capture and reinforce. (“My dog is distracted by the food!”) This is a fairly minor training challenge. The other points in the article are similar. Again, the negative side effects” are not at all comparable to the fallout associated with force-based training.

Also, for advanced reading and more information about how to make positive reinforcement training the best it can possibly be, take a look at Nonlinear Contingency Analysis by Layng, Andronis, Codd, and Abdel-Jalil (2021).

Thank you to my well-qualified friend who looked over my post. All mistakes, of course, are my own.

Related Post


Balsam, P. D., & Bondy, A. S. (1983). The negative side effects of reward. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis16(3), 283-296.

Everly, J. B., Holtyn, A. F., & Perone, M. (2014). Behavioral functions of stimuli signaling transitions across rich and lean schedules of reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior101(2), 201-214.

Jwaideh, A. R., & Mulvaney, D. E. (1976). Punishment of observing by a stimulus associated with the lower of two reinforcement frequencies. Learning and Motivation, 7, 211- 222.

Layng, T. J., Andronis, P. T., Codd, R. T., & Abdel-Jalil, A. (2021). Nonlinear contingency analysis: Going beyond cognition and behavior in clinical practice. Routledge.

Perone, M. (2003). Negative effects of positive reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst26, 1-14.

Skinner, B. F (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.

Skinner, B. F. (1983). A matter of consequences. New York: Knopf.

Positive Punishment—With the Touch of a Cotton Ball

Positive Punishment—With the Touch of a Cotton Ball

a white ball of cotton on a black background

I accidentally punished my dog’s behavior with a wad of cotton.

Lewis and I are participating in Dr. Mindy Waite’s husbandry study on ear cleaning. The goal of the study is to be able to wipe the dog’s ear with some cleaning solution on a cotton ball while he happily cooperates.

The protocol starts with training a chin rest. We completed the steps for the chin rest in my lap on a little towel (see below), then I proceeded to the steps of lifting his ear, bringing my other hand close to his ear while it was lifted, moving a dry cotton ball toward his ear, then touching the cotton to the inside of the ear flap.

For each of these steps, he needed to maintain his position while I performed the task and not chain in other undesirable behaviors before putting his chin down, such as pawing at me or vocalizing. (Yes, both happened.)

When I performed the step where I touched the cotton ball to the inside of his ear, he started to dodge away after the touch. I was able to reinforce a few, but most didn’t meet criteria. I did two brief sessions of this as the rate of reinforcement dropped, then I stopped and regrouped with Dr. Waite.

We agreed I would back up a step, to a step that didn’t involve touching his ear. In this step, I brought the cotton ball to within one inch of his ear without touching it.

But the previous sessions had created a behavior change through an aversive event. Here is the fallout.

I sat down in the chair I always use, readied the cotton, and put the small towel that functions as a chin target in my lap. .

• Lewis approached the towel and paused
• He put his chin down
• When I reached to lift his ear, he flinched away
• He lowered his chin again, I lifted his ear, and brought the cotton ball to about 1 inch from his ear
• I clicked and treated as he pulled quickly away (oops, not good timing!)
• He started to lower his chin, then dodged away as I reached for his ear with one hand and the cotton ball with the other
• He put his chin down once more, then quickly lifted it away 
• Then, while still standing in front of me, he turned his head 90 degrees to his right
• Then he turned his head 90 degrees to his left
• He looked at me
• He turned to his right again
• He walked away
• He walked around, mostly off camera, for 24 seconds
• He put his paws up on a table, I cued him to get down, and he did
• He sniffed around for 15 more seconds, then headed back to me
• He put his chin on the towel but immediately lifted his head
• He looked hard to the right and walked away again
• He returned, put his chin down, immediately picked it up, licked his lips, and looked away
• He sniffed and licked his anus
• He sniffed and licked his anus from the other side
• He walked a few steps away and did another anal check
• He came over to me and nuzzled my hand holding the cotton (thanks for doing that right after licking your butt, Lewis)
• He put his chin down on the towel, I lifted his ear, brought the cotton ball close, and clicked/treated
• I ended the session (something I should have done much earlier)

Negative Reinforcement

The list above is a roll call of escape and avoidance behaviors. These behaviors got negatively reinforced because they released him from my approach to his ear. Also, this avoidance was highly unusual for Lewis. I’ve never seen him leave a training session before. The touch of the cotton the previous day was so aversive he couldn’t even tolerate the proximity of it during this session.

But there was a more subtle, even more important result.

Positive Punishment

A mostly white dog stands still with his head in the lap of a woman who is sitting on a low table. the woman is lifting the dog's right ear

Lewis’ chin rest was positively punished by the soft touch of the cotton ball to the inside of his ear. How do I know that? Here’s my analysis.

This preceded the big-time avoidance session I describe above.

Antecedent: I put the towel in my lap, which is the cue for him to put his chin on it
Behavior: Lewis put his chin on the towel
Consequence: I lifted his ear and touched the inside with a dry cotton ball

I would normally put a prediction here. I’m not because I didn’t make one at the time. But I sure found out.

Lewis’ rate of offering the chin rest after that experience dramatically decreased. Before this step, Lewis had been fluently performing repeated chin rests for days in our sessions. And during this “aftermath” session I got only two, with high latency and the fidgety, avoidant behaviors I described.

Some of you will be wondering about another possibility. Good thinking! Positive punishment is not the only mechanism by which a behavior might decrease. There are two other well-known possibilities (and some less common ones). The well-known ones are negative punishment and extinction.

I can’t think of a way that negative punishment could be the process involved here. I was not contingently removing an appetitive stimulus. (Check out this article if you need a brush-up on the processes of operant learning.) But we need to consider extinction, because the rate of reinforcement did drastically drop.

Remember above I mentioned that part of the criteria for this husbandry task was for Lewis not to chain in undesirable behaviors like pawing me or vocalizing? Those started off as extinction-related behaviors. They happened when he was frustrated that I had raised criteria too fast and he wasn’t accessing reinforcement at the former rate.

I know what extinction-related behavior looks like from Lewis, and this wasn’t it.

That Innocent Little Cotton Ball

a closeup of a white cotton ball on a black background

I didn’t start out to be misleading about the cotton, but I ended up burying the lede about it a little. Here is the lede: Touching a cotton ball directly on the opening of the ear canal is LOUD. Cotton balls look soft and innocuous, and touching them to lots of places on the body could be unremarkable. But the sound of the cotton touching his ear was startling and unpleasant to Lewis

Dr. Waite kept that in mind as she gave us some new steps to perform. They separated out the sound from the touch. We went pretty far back in the process, because this strong avoidant response was so unusual for Lewis. I’m pleased to report that we have worked back up to touching his ear with the cotton ball and he has decided that’s OK!

Watch the Dog and Film Your Reps

There’s a lesson here. You don’t need a shock or prong or choke collar for positive punishment. I think we concentrate way too much on tools sometimes. I don’t use any such collars, I don’t jerk on the leash, nor do I use front attach harnesses or head halters, but frankly, those make up a pretty low bar. It’s a baseline. It’s not challenging or difficult not to use tools that hurt. What I find much more challenging is noticing other stimuli that are unexpectedly aversive, such something very soft applied to the wrong place the wrong way.

Lewis was not hurt, harmed, or traumatized by the cotton ball, as he would have been with a harsher method. But he was unhappy with the situation, which is the opposite of what I want. If I hadn’t been filming, I might never have known just how unhappy he was. And if I hadn’t been tracking reps, I might not have noticed that the chin rest got punished. I’m glad I did know, even if a little late, because I could have made the situation must worse had I persevered.

A woman trims the nails of a white and brown dog while he licks peanut butter from a flexible toy that is suctioned to the wall
This photo is from January 2022, and I still trim his nails this way

A wise friend once described the type of training positive reinforcement trainers aim for as “training that is fun for the learner.” It may sound simplistic, but that description is an elegant and direct description of my goals and beliefs as a trainer. We can say Lewis’ chin rest was positively punished. We can also say Lewis obviously wasn’t having fun. And let me be clear: I want Lewis to be having fun because of the training, not despite it.

Lewis is a challenging dog for husbandry tasks. I am still, after more than a year, clipping his nails while he licks peanut butter. When I dry him with a towel, I must parcel out kibble with one hand while I do it, because otherwise, he descends into overwrought wiggling and mouthing. I plan to train these husbandry tasks instead of managing them with distractions, but I haven’t gotten there.

Lewis’ general discomfort with husbandry was a large part of what prompted me to join Dr. Waite’s study. It is incredibly helpful to me to have a structured approach and her expert counsel. I hope we don’t blow the bell curve!

Copyright 2023 Eileen Anderson

Does My Ultrasonic Humidifier Hurt My Dog’s Ears?

Does My Ultrasonic Humidifier Hurt My Dog’s Ears?

ultrasonic humidifier with a white base and a clear blue plastic top

No, Your Ultrasonic Humidifier Doesn’t Hurt Your Dog’s Ears

The mechanism in an ultrasonic humidifier has a frequency much too high for dogs to hear. Ultrasonic humidifiers use frequencies ranging from approximately 1,600,000 Hz to 3,000,000 Hz. Dogs can hear up to 45,000 Hz. The sound produced by this very high-frequency device is profoundly out of hearing range for both dogs and humans.

Although sounds outside our hearing range can in some cases damage humans’ ears and possibly dogs’, I’ve seen this documented only for extremely low-frequency sounds (Kugler et al., 2014), not high.

Humans tend to assign a glamour around the fact the dogs can hear in a higher frequency range than we can. Maybe it’s mysterious because we don’t know what’s going on up there? We feel like anything could be happening since we can’t hear it! Whatever the reason, there is a ton of misinformation online about dogs’ responses to high-frequency noises. I’m tackling this myth about ultrasonic humidifiers first.

This post includes a lot of discussion of sound frequency; if you need a review of the concept, check out my post that includes an explanation. Also, you will see me writing out the numerals for frequencies in this piece rather than using the common scientific shorthand. For instance, I will write 1,600,000 Hz instead of 1.6 MHz. I want the magnitude of the numbers to be clear to all readers.

What Is Ultrasound and Can Dogs Hear It?

Ultrasound is defined as sound higher than 20,000 Hz. That base frequency is the approximate upper limit of human hearing.

But the term “ultrasound” has two common usages, and this causes confusion.

One usage is to refer to frequencies in the range immediately above the limit of human hearing. Sometimes an upper limit of this “lower” ultrasound is given as 25,000 Hz or 40,000 Hz. Dogs can hear in this range. I’ve also seen “low-frequency ultrasound” defined as up to 100,000 Hz.

That’s the first usage, and you can see it’s a little fuzzy.

The other usage of “ultrasound” refers to very high-frequency sound in the millions of Herz. These are the frequencies of ultrasound often used in medicine and industry.

These two usages often result in people worrying that dogs can hear up in the millions of Herz range, but they can’t.

Dogs with normal hearing can definitely hear sounds above 20,000 Hz, as in the first usage. Their hearing range tops out at about 40,000–45,000 Hz (Heffner, 1983). They can’t even come close to hearing sound with frequencies of a million Herz.

For a complete comparison of dogs’ hearing with that of humans, check out my blog post on the topic.

What Frequencies Do Ultrasonic Humidifiers Use?

ultrasonic humidifier with a white base and a clear blue plastic top with mist coming out of it

Ultrasonic humidifiers have a vibrating plate that creates ultrasonic waves ranging from 1,600,000 to 3,000,000 Hz (Al-Jumaily & Meshkinzar, 2017; Yao et al., 2019; Yao, 2016).

The function of ultrasound in humidifiers is to atomize the water in the tank into tiny droplets, creating a mist.

In general, the higher the frequency of the ultrasonic vibration, the smaller the droplets produced.

To reiterate, the ultrasound frequencies used by humidifiers are far too high for dogs to hear. A humidifier using a 1,600,000 Hz mechanism is operating at a frequency 36 times the upper limit of dogs’ hearing.

We are not even talking about the same ballpark.

Can Ultrasound Cause Damage to Dogs’ Ears?

It could, in the lower range of ultrasound I’ve discussed. But such a sound would rarely be encountered, and it wouldn’t be coming from a humidifier.

The important factors in causing ear damage are the sound pressure level (SPL) experienced by the individual and the duration—not the frequency. So higher frequencies are not intrinsically worse for dogs’ ears. A noise in the ultrasound range would need to be very loud to cause damage, just as is the case in other ranges of the sound spectrum.

Ultrasound in the lower range can also be damaging if it is focused by a medical or industrial instrument. For example, ultrasound around 25,000 Hz is finely targeted to break up kidney stones in humans. This is a frequency dogs can hear, but what are the odds of a direct, focused exposure to a dog’s ear?

Neither of these cases apply to humidifiers because of the difference in frequency range, and would rarely be encountered by humans or dogs in day-to-day life.

I haven’t found any literature indicating that ultrasound in the millions of Herz would cause ear damage to dogs or humans. I’ll be looking further to make sure, but my guess is that it’s not something to worry about, for two reasons. First, it would be rare to encounter a loud sound source in that frequency range. That takes some extremely specialized equipment. Second, sound waves at ultra-high frequencies dissipate and attenuate (roughly, they scatter and get quieter) very fast as they travel through air.

In a future post, I will review possible sources of psychological irritation from ultrasound. There are indeed sounds in the lower ultrasound range that your dog might hear and find irritating or scary even though they don’t damage his ears. I’ll discuss ways to detect sounds in this range in your home. I’m not including these topics here because they don’t relate to the ultrasound frequencies humidifiers use.

tan dog wearing hearing protection: Mutt Muffs

Consumer Cautions about Ultrasonic Humidifiers

If you read up on the safety of ultrasonic humidifiers, you will find lots of cautions about the fact that they can aerosolize mold, bacteria, and even minerals in water (Environmental Protection Agency, 1991; Yao et al., 2019; Dietrich, Yao, & Gallagher, 2022). These cautions actually made me start cleaning out my humidifier more often and I plan to get distilled water to use instead of tap water.

In the safety instructions, you will not find any cautions about the ultrasounic waves.

Why Did I Even Write about This?

Search the title of this post in Google and you’ll see. There is so much misinformation online about dogs and high frequencies. This post is just a start. Next, I’ll be discussing the erroneous belief that somehow, all sounds with frequencies in the upper half of dogs’ hearing range are intrinsically annoying, painful, or harmful to them.

Copyright 2023 Eileen Anderson

Other Dogs and Sound Posts

Impulse Sounds and the Startle Reflex: Why Some Dogs Fear the Clicker Sound

How to Soundproof a Dog Crate

• Review of Pawnix Sound Cancelling Headphones for Dogs: Unlikely to Work as Described

• My webinar on dogs and sound: Sound Decisions

• How to Tone Down That Plastic Collar Click (and Why)

• How I Taught My Dog to Love the Sound of Velcro

• Using Sound Masking to Protect Your Dog from Loud, Scary Sounds

• Are Dogs Ever Irritated by Sights, Sounds, or Smells?

• 6 Ways to Prepare Your Dog for Fireworks


Al-Jumaily, A. M., & Meshkinzar, A. (2017). On the development of focused ultrasound liquid atomizers. Advances in Acoustics and Vibration2017.

Dietrich, A. M., Yao, W., & Gallagher, D. L. (2022). Exposure at the indoor water–air interface: Fill water constituents and the consequent air emissions from ultrasonic humidifiers: A systematic review. Indoor air32(11), e13129.

Environmental Protection Agency. (1991). Indoor Air Facts No. 8: use and care of home humidifiers.

Heffner, H. E. (1983). Hearing in large and small dogs: Absolute thresholds and size of the tympanic membrane. Behavioral Neuroscience97(2), 310.

Kugler, K., Wiegrebe, L., Grothe, B., Kössl, M., Gürkov, R., Krause, E., & Drexl, M. (2014). Low-frequency sound affects active micromechanics in the human inner ear. Royal Society Open Science1(2), 140166.

Yao, Y. (2016). Research and applications of ultrasound in HVAC field: A review. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews58, 52-68.

Yao, W., Gallagher, D. L., Marr, L. C., & Dietrich, A. M. (2019). Emission of iron and aluminum oxide particles from ultrasonic humidifiers and potential for inhalation. Water research164, 114899.

When a Dog Suffers a Trauma

When a Dog Suffers a Trauma

The scene is the back interior of a car. There is a bowl of cat food in the foreground. In the back is a dog crate with a distressed brown dog looking away.

Here’s a photo that breaks my heart. Clara the bold, refusing to leave her car crate, even to eat some cat food.

This is what happened.

Early in December, I took Lewis and Clara to the house my sister is going to move into so they could mess around while I cleaned house. It was raining and dreary. There were leaves layered on the lawn and on the steep driveway.

Clara always jumps into the car on her own, but I help her get out. It’s the same routine we’ve had since she was a little pup. After I open her crate door, she comes to the back driver’s side door where I am standing and walks into my outstretched arms, and I lower her down. We do this even though she is 45 pounds, because my SUV floor (on top of the folded seats) is too high for her to jump down from safely, especially at her age.

A red Subaru Outback is parked on an inclined concrete driveway covered with leaves. An arrow points to an area on the concrete just below the back door on the driver's side.
The arrow marks the place I put down Clara after I lifted her from the car. The driveway was wet as well as leafy.

So on this day, she came out of her crate and came to the car door. I beckoned, and she stepped into my arms. I lifted her down. When I put her down on the wet driveway, she slipped and fell onto her side. She didn’t appear to be injured, but the fall was traumatic. She scrambled up, jumped back into the car, and dove into her crate.

I coaxed her out, and she stood there with her back legs trembling, as she does when scared. I couldn’t tell for sure, but she seemed unhurt. Then she scooted back into her crate again and wouldn’t come out.

Clara used to retreat to a crate as a puppy when she was scared or overwhelmed.

Coaxing Her Out of the Crate

I drove back home with both dogs (Lewis had never gotten out of his crate). When I got into the garage, I opened Clara’s crate door, but she wouldn’t come out. I let Lewis out and took him into the house, closing the car door before we went. I didn’t want Clara to try to get out on her own in case she ventured out of the crate.

I returned to the car and tried to coax Clara out. She wasn’t having any of it. She crouched in her crate, looking petrified. I got ahold of her collar, but she was a dead weight, and I didn’t want to resort to force in any case.

I went in the house and came back with two bowls of cat food. The ultimate treat. I planned to put one bowl near her crate, and another on the floor outside the car.

The scene is the back interior of a car. There is a bowl of cat food in the foreground. In the back is a dog crate with a distressed brown dog lying in the crate, backed up from the opening, looking at the camera and ignoring the food.

I set a bowl down in front and a little to the side of her crate. She didn’t budge. I had to hold back tears. She wouldn’t come out for cat food. I left for a bit, shutting the car door. When I came back, she was still in her crate, the cat food untouched.

I left again, for a little longer. When I came back, she was in her crate, but the cat food was gone. She had come out and gone back in again. I was simultaneously relieved and heartbroken. She would come out and eat when I was gone, but not when I was there. Ask anyone who takes in fearful foster dogs. That’s how she was acting, creeping out to eat the food when I was gone, then scuttling back into her safe place. I appeared to be associated with the trauma.

I brought cat food again and left it. Each time when I came back, she had eaten it. She started hanging out in the front of her crate with slightly more relaxed body language. Finally, on about my fifth try, she came out to eat the cat food while I was still there. As desperate as I was to get her out, I didn’t grab her. I let her have the cat food, then she went back into her crate, as I figured she would. This gave me confidence to proceed, though.

I needed a new way to help her out of the car. She didn’t know how to do it on her own by taking a step on the floor of the car, and I was sure she wouldn’t walk into my arms. I decided to use my Klimb, a sturdy, low platform designed for dog activities, as a landing pad. I opened the rear hatch, took Lewis’ crate out, and put the Klimb next to the back of the car. Clara has experience Jumping down onto the Klimb already. I bought it as a step off my bed for disabled Zani, and Clara has used it as well. We do all sorts of training and husbandry on the Klimb, too. It is conditioned as a happy and safe place.

I set up the Klimb. I put the bowl of cat food down near Clara’s crate and she came out and ate. As she did that, I again refrained from grabbing her, but I closed the crate door so she couldn’t hurry back in. She tried a couple of times to get back in her crate, then she walked to the rear where I was waiting. I tapped the Klimb and cued her to jump down on it, and she did! I had yet another bowl of cat food ready. She gobbled it happily, jumped off the Klimb, and went into the house. The timing was great. My partner Ruth had just finished having lunch and had saved a couple of pieces of hot dog for Clara, as she always does. Clara slipped straight into one of her happy routines.

Back in the House

Clara didn’t act scared of me. What a relief—I had been fearing the worst. I have always been her safest anchor in the world. I was safe again, outside the car situation. I had no idea how she would react when we tried the car again.

Over the next couple of days, Clara got excited and asked to come along every time I went somewhere, which made me hopeful.

The traumatized reaction was atypical for Clara. She is physically bold and has never been afraid of objects or unstable surfaces. I was deeply upset by this development. I wanted and needed to help her feel better about exiting the car. Riding in the car is the doorway to lots of enrichment and fun for her, besides being a necessary life skill.

I have seen this kind of large fear response to an event only a couple of times with dogs, and I have learned to take it seriously. I needed to make a careful plan. It’s human nature to minimize this kind of thing in our minds, to assume the dog will “get over it.” It would have been natural for me to try the next day to “see if she would get out of the car the normal way.” I didn’t. I might have tried to change the situation a little, go somewhere different with a better landing area, and assume Clara “would understand that this was different and wouldn’t be scared anymore.” But I’ve finally learned that fear doesn’t work like that. I fought my impulses and made a plan that changed the picture a lot for Clara, because who knew what part of the situation her fear had already generalized to?

Addressing the Fear

The view is through the open rear hatch of a Subaru. There are two dog crates with a Klimb dog platform fitting vertically between them.
Klimb between crates: the front bottom leg is removed

I successfully rehabilitated Clara’s fear and she can again exit the car.

I abandoned the old method of lifting her down. Not only was it now associated with her fall, but I have a shoulder problem and the process causes me pain, too.

With encouragement from Marge Rogers, I figured out that I could fit the Klimb in my car along with both crates. It fits vertically between them if I unscrew one of the bottom legs. I purchased the Klimb’s custom nonslip cover. I had been using a square of yoga mat, but wanted the extra security of the better fit.

Our new method was the same way I got her out that first day: step down onto the Klimb, then down to the ground. But I didn’t want to always have to get her out the back. I needed to have the option to put the Klimb next to a door as well.

Here is the plan I made and carried out. You can see most of it in the video embedded below.

1. With Lewis’ crate removed, I cued Clara to get into and out of the car via the Klimb placed in back. I reinforced generously, especially for coming out. I used either spray cheese or Stella and Chewy’s dehydrated raw food for every step.
2. Next, I cued Clara to get into and out of the car via the Klimb placed next to the passenger side door, which she has never used before.
3. First with Lewis’ crate removed, then with it present, I cued Clara to get into and out of the car via the Klimb placed next to the driver’s side. This is her lifelong exit location from the car, and was the most likely to have fear attached to it, so we worked up to doing it last.
4. Finally, we took it on the road. We went somewhere fun. She was happy to jump out via the platform.

A Klimb dog platform is sitting on the level part of a mostly inclined driveway next to a red Subaru. The Klimb is placed next to the back door on the driver's side as a step for dogs when they get out of the car.
The Klimb goes flush next to the car and the car door opens over it. Perfect!

Designing a Training Plan for One Dog

I tailored this plan with Clara’s history and capabilities in mind. I’m not suggesting this as a method for anyone else.

Luckily, Clara was not scared of getting into the car, being in the car, or riding in the car. Just getting out. So I needed to take an operant approach. I would have made a different plan (and likely a longer one) if either of the latter two had scared her. I would have used a classical conditioning-based method.

Here are some reasons why my approach worked for Clara, but might have been a bad idea for some dogs.

1. It involved jumping onto a small surface. It would have been a different and longer process if Clara hadn’t already been comfortable with the Klimb. She has had lots of good experiences on there, including jumping down onto it as well as up. She grew up in an agility household and got plenty of practice jumping on and off a variety of things.
2. My method involved a bit of luring or targeting as I beckoned her onto the Klimb the first few times. For some dogs, that would have been too much pressure. It’s not a good idea to lure a dog toward something that scares them. Again, Clara’s comfortable with the Klimb.
3. The area behind my car in the garage was a tight place to work. You’ll notice it in the video. Clara was exiting the car straight at the closed garage door, which was very close. She had to jump down and immediately halt her forward motion. A bigger dog, or a dog lacking her physical ability might have had a hard time. But she coped fine. I made this choice because leaving the garage door open would’ve had its own set of problems.

For those who would like some more general instructions for a dog who may not be used to getting onto a stool or platform, here is a video by the wonderful trainer Donna Hill with step-by-step instructions on teaching a dog to enter and exit a car using a step stool.

Video of Training Steps for Getting Out of the Car

The great thing about a dog who loves to go places in the car is that going to a fun location becomes the large, terminal reinforcer. I’m still using higher value reinforcers for moving on and off the platform, but I’m gradually fading them to lower value as she becomes fluent with this new system. You can see in the video that she is interested in the environment as soon as she exits the car.

Might Clara’s Reaction Be Related to Cushing’s Disease?

Clara was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease last May (2022). Her original symptom was extreme hunger. Her case is mild so far, and she is not on medication yet. But over the summer, she started exhibiting some weird fears.

I suspect those fears, and her high-magnitude response to a onetime fall, are related to the Cushing’s. This disease causes dogs to have an overabundance of cortisol in their system. Not a great situation for a dog with fears and who had such a hard start in life. Her recent anxiety and fears could also be early symptoms of canine cognitive dysfunction. Cushing’s may raise the likelihood of that condition as well (da Silva, 2021).

My vet and I are trialing some meds. The thought of Clara having added fear and stress in her life makes me feel sick. I’ll do anything in my power to help her. In the meantime, I’m relieved Clara is comfortable getting out of the car again. We dodged a bullet. I’ll be keeping the Klimb in there for good.


da Silva, C. C., Cavalcante, I., de Carvalho, G. L. C., & Pöppl, Á. G. (2021). Cognitive dysfunction severity evaluation in dogs with naturally-occurring Cushing´s syndrome: A matched case-control study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 46, 74-78.

Copyright 2023 Eileen Anderson

Photos copyright Eileen Anderson. The photos of Clara frightened in the car were digitally altered by a Photoshop specialist to remove a whole lot of white dog hair that was sticking to the fabric on the back of the rear seats. I don’t mind telling you about it, but I’m glad I didn’t have to let you see it!

Happy Gotcha Day to Lewis!

Happy Gotcha Day to Lewis!

Closeup of a brown and white dog's face while he rests his chin on a green toy. He is looking straight at the camera.

I can’t believe it has been a year. But indeed it was December 28, 2021, when I welcomed boisterous eight-old-month Lewis into my life.

If you want to see the list of things I first identified as difficulties, here it is. But instead of creating a progress report based on that list, I’m just going to write about the ways we have learned to live well together.

Lewis’ and My Achievements, Successes, and Fun

• Lewis’ door-related behaviors are good. He waits until I check out the yard and tell him to go ahead, and will continue to wait if I cue the other dogs to go out first. I never did specific training on release cues, but he knows when I am cuing the other dogs and not him. Waiting at the door is for the dogs’ safety, not some kind of dominance rule!

• I taught Lewis through classical conditioning that riding in the car is cool and leads to great adventures. I had to go slowly at first, because he had issues with both the crate confinement and the movement of the car. At some point, I’ll write a post about it. He loves going places, including to the vet, where he lived for more than a month as a puppy.

• Lewis and I have a great play relationship. He is game to play anything. Tug, balls, fetch, and anything that involves running. (See the video!)

• He loves training games, too.

Portrait of a brown and white dog's face. His mouth is open in a smile.

• He has really taken to nosework, surprise!

• He is progressing nicely in Dr. Mindy Waite’s husbandry study, funded by Fear Free. Here’s a video of a session.

• He settles where I ask him to on the bed at night (rather than pushing Clara around).

• I haven’t worked much on extending crate duration, but he hangs out in the crate sometimes, and I ask him to go in there for short periods with the door shut for management. He eats most meals in there.

• I taught him the household’s sleeping schedule; he is no longer on vet clinic time. In fact, I had to get up earlier than usual yesterday, and he stayed in bed and declined to come along when I offered to take him outside!

• He has learned to enjoy walks. He walks decently on lead, largely because his normal pace is slower than mine because of sniffing. But we have worked on it as well. Much of his fear of new things is gone.

• He’s made a couple of human friends on our walks and exhibits moderately good greeting manners even while being thrilled out of his mind.

• He has a good recall, and I know we can work it up to great.

• He has been very cooperative during some periods when I or my partner was not feeling well and I didn’t have time to play and do things with him. He was able to relax and accept the downtime with the rest of the household. This was a long time coming, but who can blame him! Teenager!

• He has made friends with the neighbor dogs on both sides of the yard: doodles on one side and Danes and a Border collie on the other. We incorporate them into our games; when he is playing with me, he will also run to each fence to include them (or, sometimes, taunt them). He goes on his own sometimes, and sometimes I cue him to do it (“Go see your friends!”). You’ll see this in the video.

• He holds back from going for dropped food or other items and doesn’t lunge for other dogs’ treats.

• He waits his turn quietly when I am training other dogs (thank goodness!). He can even station in the same room while I train another dog, although we haven’t worked on it much since I wrote about it last May.

• He remains mouthy but no longer grabs sleeves, and seldom tries to grab things out of my hands.

• He is affectionate and continues to be good-natured.

• He is fun!


Here are some highlights of our year together.

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson: all text, photos, and video

Related Posts

Most of my other posts about Lewis are linked in the text, but here are his intro post and the “list of challenges” posts one more time.

Puppy New Year!
Training a Teenage Puppy

Dog Facial Expressions: Can You See the Stress?

Dog Facial Expressions: Can You See the Stress?

A white dog with brown ears lies on a purple mat in a vet clinic. The muscles in the dog's face are very tight and bunched up.

In February 2013, I published a set of photos of formerly feral Clara at the vet. Trainers worldwide have used those photos, with my permission, as examples of extreme stress in a dog’s facial expressions.

Clara was terribly afraid. She panted, paced, and panicked. We were working on desensitization and counterconditioning to people slowly, in much more controlled situations. But every once in a while she had to go to the vet, and we just had to get through it.

Her fear and panic were obvious.

The photos of 16-month-old Lewis in this post were also taken at the vet. Lewis is friendly and enjoys meeting new people, even at the clinic. But Lewis was stressed as well.

I won’t go into arousal vs. distress vs. eustress here, though the interplay of these is a fascinating topic. That’s a post for another day. Nor do I want to get into “how much stress is OK?” or related philosophical and ethical questions.

My focus here is a simpler one: stressed dogs look and behave in many different ways, and some of them can be harder to spot than others.

We always need to look at the whole dog when reading body language, not just a part. We’ll get there. But this is a tricky case, in that we tend to associate the behaviors Lewis is exhibiting with happiness. I think it’s informative to look at a small part—Lewis’ facial muscles—before going to the big picture.

Photos of Stress Face

Maybe this is overkill (who, me, belabor a point?) but every photo below shows bunched-up muscles on Lewis’ right cheek between his eye and his mouth. And the corner of his mouth itself (commissure) was tight. His pupils were dilated. I took many stills from a one-minute video, and they all showed the same thing. Be sure to zoom in on at least one or two of them.

I’m showing the photos before the video on purpose because it may be challenging to see the stress in the video before you know where to look.

Video of Lewis in the Vet’s Exam Room

This is the video from which I grabbed the image stills. As you’ll see, Lewis was bouncing up and down a little, getting on and off his mat. He was gobbling food, and he was wagging his tail in a fairly happy way. He oriented to me most of the time. He was not calm, but at the time, he didn’t seem upset. But now that I have studied the video and stills, his face shows the stress.

Note: partway through the video, I started to toss treats rather than placing them on the mat. This was not a good idea, since tossing treats can add to excitement, and Lewis was already ramped up. I did it only for that brief period, and that was because it was hard to keep him on the camera screen and put treats on the mat at the same time.

What Was Lewis Not Doing?

You’ve seen Lewis now, and can tell he was excited and tense. How does his behavior compare to Clara’s, or that of another terrified dog? Here are some things he wasn’t doing.

• He wasn’t constantly panting.
• He wasn’t trembling.
• He wasn’t pacing; he just got up and down a few times.
• He wasn’t frantically looking for a way out of the room.
• He wasn’t licking his lips constantly or having trouble swallowing.
• He wasn’t hypervigilant. He oriented to sounds, but didn’t startle.
• He wasn’t flushed or shedding.

If you’d like to see the comparison, this short video includes footage of Clara’s February 2013 visit to the vet where she was so frightened.

Greeting the Vets

Back to Lewis.

It’s always such a bother when you have to drop the camera to participate in real life, isn’t it? When the vets came in, I couldn’t film Lewis’ over-the-top greeting. What you can briefly see is that I grabbed his harness firmly, so he couldn’t cannonball into the vets. Again, having a dog who likes people is awesome. But his greetings verge on frantic, and show he is not entirely comfortable with the situation.

Look at his ear movement before and after the vets entered the room.

In the photo on the left, a vet turned the handle on the door and Lewis was watching and listening, with his ears lifted forward. In the photo on the right, the door was open, and humans were visible. Lewis’ ears dropped, and you can catch briefly on the video that his tail was wagging wildly. As he greeted the vets (not shown), he exhibited puppy-like appeasement behaviors. He crouched low to the ground and flattened his ears as he shot forward. I would approximate what was going on with him as saying both, “Hi, I love you!” and “Please don’t hurt me!”

A Final Look: That “Open Mouth” Thing

This last comparison is fun. Marge Rogers and I, in our book about puppy socialization, talk a lot about looking for an open mouth and relaxed jaw in puppy body language. An open mouth is one of the easiest indicators a pup is relaxed and comfortable in a situation. But there is always nuance.

In the photo on the left, Lewis was sunning himself on the grass in the winter. The weather was cool, and his mouth was shut. But look at his soft eyes and smooth face. He was relaxed, only perhaps a little curious to see what I was up to. Here is the uncropped photo in case you want to see the rest of his relaxed body language.

In the photo on the right from the vet clinic series, Lewis’ mouth is open. But is he relaxed and comfortable? Hell no. There are those bunched muscles and tight mouth. You can even see the tightness in his lower lip. This is the opposite of the relaxed jaw we look for when trying to determine whether a dog is comfortable and happy in a situation.

This is a comparison collage of two pictures. Both show the same white dog with brown ears and ticking. In the photo on the left, the dog's facial muscles are relaxed. In the photo on the right, the dog's mouth is open but his facial muscles are very tense and bunched up.

It’s new for me to live with a dog whose stress can look like happy excitement (or for whom the two commonly combine). Now I know one “tell” to look for. Stay tuned for further adventures!

Related Posts

Dog Facial Expressions: Stress
Shelter Puppy “Smiles” from FEAR after She’s Adopted
Dog Body Language Is Crucial to Puppy Socialization
Is That “Smiling” Dog Happy?
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Dog Body Language Posts and Videos

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

Calling My Dog off Rabbit Scent at Night

Calling My Dog off Rabbit Scent at Night

A black and white photo shows a bright white dog standing in a dark backyard with leaves on the ground. The dog is alert and his tail is curled over his back.

I love training recall. When my dogs come to me, I love making it worth their while. I love being generous with treats, toys, and fun.

It’s hard to stage a surprise recall with Lewis. Whenever he is lingering in the yard and I get the bright idea to go get a high-value treat and practice his recall, I find him waiting for me at the door when I get back. He and his nose are too smart for their own good. (He’s not the first one of my dogs to have that problem!) But the other night he was very turned on by recent rabbit visits in the yard. He was enjoying it so much I let him spend quite a bit of time out there. I sat on the cold cast iron patio chair longer than usual, taking occasional videos while he galloped, paused, stopped, sniffed, and galloped some more.

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“No” Is Not a Behavior . . . But That’s Not the Problem with Saying It

“No” Is Not a Behavior . . . But That’s Not the Problem with Saying It

Lewis, a brown and white dog, is lying on a leather couch holding a snuffle mat between his paws. He is looking at the camera.

I don’t think this post is going to win a popularity contest, but here goes anyway. I can’t get it off my mind.

Trainers regularly work hard to teach people alternatives to endlessly saying “No!” to their dogs. Even those of us who know the pitfalls of the habit lapse into it from time to time.

But I seem to disagree with many others about what exactly those pitfalls are.

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Just a Whisper: The Early Signs of Fear in Dog Body Language

Just a Whisper: The Early Signs of Fear in Dog Body Language

A white dog with brown ears and ticking, wearing a blue harness, looks at the back of a construction worker's trailer

It’s pretty easy to recognize intense fear in dogs. A tucked tail, crouching, panting, a tight mouth and wrinkled forehead, shrinking away. But my friend and coauthor Marge Rogers has taught me the importance of seeing the early signs. The whispers, she calls them, that precede the “shouts” that come later if we don’t heed the early warnings.

I caught a “whisper” on camera.

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