eileenanddogs
I Just Show Him the Water Bottle and He Behaves—I Don’t Have to Squirt Him!

I Just Show Him the Water Bottle and He Behaves—I Don’t Have to Squirt Him!

Some people make claims like the one in the title out of true ignorance. They can’t identify how the behavior change is working. I’ve been there. It’s easy to believe that if one can get a dog to do something without discomfort or physical force in the moment, the training method is benign. We forget what transpired before.

There are others who make claims who, I suspect, do understand the method they are using. For them, it’s a game of “let’s pretend I’m not using force.” Some trainers use those statements to entice customers that their methods are humane or based on positive reinforcement. Some may have an interest in throwing fog into arguments on social media.

These methods are the topic of this post. Here is why waving a stick (at a dog who has been hit with one), or showing the spray bottle (to a cat who has been sprayed by one), and countless other things that don’t touch the animal are working through aversive control.

The Little Whip

When I was a kid, we had horses. I rode from a young age until we moved to town when I was about 15. For gear, we usually used hackamores and perhaps a bareback pad. More often bareback. Very rarely did we actually saddle up the horses or use bridles. Before the equine folks step up to the podium, I now know that the hackamores, with their pressure on the sensitive nose, were likely not comfortable either. But it did appear that the hackamores were less intrusive to our particular horses than the bitted bridles they were also trained to accept.

But don’t be misled. The methods we used were not kindly, except in comparison to those of some of our neighbors. We used pressure/release, yanking on the lead rope, kicking with our heels, smacking the horses with the reins or a whip, and using the reins to turn or stop the horse. I may have had spurs; I know my sister did.

We didn’t use positive reinforcement when riding. There were no appetitives involved except whatever pleasure the horses got from getting out in the world to walk and gallop around, and the feed we gave them before and after, as we were preparing for and cooling down after rides.

A quirt, or small whip. Except for the metal, it looks like a great tug toy!

I used a quirt, a short whip. It looked something like the image to the right. I don’t remember where I got it or whose idea it was. But I remember using it when I rode.

When I wanted my horse to go faster, I would swing the quirt around so it struck her behind me on her butt. I’d do that a few times until she had sped up to my liking. We all know how to do that with the ends of the reins, too.

I noticed after I had used the quirt for a while that I didn’t actually have to hit her anymore. With her excellent peripheral vision, she would see me swing the quirt forward, winding up to land a blow on her butt. She started speeding up when she saw the quirt moving and before I actually hit her with it. I adapted my behavior, whether out of kindness or efficiency, I don’t know. But I rarely hit my horse after I learned that all I had to do was to threaten her with the little whip.

Even at that young age, I realized what was happening, although I didn’t have the words for it. I do now. In response to my use of the quirt, my horse was changing her behavior from escape (speed up to make Eileen stop hitting her) to avoidance (speed up sooner to prevent Eileen from hitting her).

Escape and avoidance are the two faces of negative reinforcement. My horse’s behavior was under aversive control.

What Did I Think about It?

I could have gone around saying, “Using the quirt isn’t cruel; I don’t touch her with it.” I don’t think I said that because I understood even then that the quirt worked because I had hit her with it, and could hit her with it at any time. The movement of the quirt had become a threat. That’s still aversive control.

If I had never hit her with the quirt, if she hadn’t gained that history, she would have had no reason to speed up in response to the swing of it unless the movement itself scared her. But she would probably have habituated to the movement if there had been no following slap. There would be no threat.

Note: If this post appears on the websites Runbalto, Scruffythedog, Snugdugs, or Petite-Pawz, or frankly, anywhere else, know that they are reposting without permission and in most cases without credit. This is my intellectual property, not theirs. I haven’t had time to file DMCA takedown notices yet.

Spray Bottles

When I was in my late teens and living on my own, I got a cat. Nobody I knew at that time talked about training cats. We lived with the “cat” things they did or interrupted them in unpleasant ways, usually yelling or using a spray bottle with water. Some people even used lemon juice or vinegar.

I used a spray bottle with water. I found out, over time, that the spray bottle worked the same way as the quirt. I remember using the spray bottle when my cat would get on the dining room table. I’d spray him as long as I needed to until he’d jump off. This was the escape flavor of negative reinforcement. He made the aversive stimulus stop with his action of jumping down.

But the same thing happened with the spray bottle that had happened with the quirt years before. It took fewer squirts to get him to move, and finally, all I had to do was wave the squirt bottle in his direction or even walk over to get it. I didn’t have to spray him at all. This was avoidance. Still negative reinforcement.

Was there also positive punishment involved? Maybe. I don’t remember for sure whether the behavior of getting on the table decreased, but I don’t think so. So there may not have been P+. But there was definitely negative reinforcement, two flavors of it.

It would have been easy to eliminate, decrease, or prevent my cat from getting on the table to begin with. I could have used management and positive reinforcement. I could have provided him with several elevated beds and perches. And I could have taught him to target my hand or a target stick so I could move him off the table using positive reinforcement. I had no idea of those options then.

Is Avoidance Better than Escape?

Most dogs will work to escape or avoid body pressure

You will hear people proclaiming that they don’t have to use force anymore.

  • “I don’t have to vibrate the collar anymore; he behaves when I just make it beep.”
  • “I just show him the spray bottle.”
  • “I just start to roll up a newspaper and he shapes right up.”
  • “I just walk toward him and he pops back into a sit.”
  • “I don’t have to throw the chain anymore; she stops when I wind up to throw.”

Is this force-free training? Of course not. There would be no avoidance if the animal hadn’t experienced the unpleasant thing first. And not usually just once. They likely experienced it repeatedly until 1) they learned how to make it stop, and 2) learned the predictors that it was about to happen and responded earlier.

In learning to avoid the unpleasant stimulus, the animal may be preventing pain or even injury. So of course those are benefits. But is that an advantage to brag on? What about the pain or injury it took to get there? “I don’t have to whip the horse anymore. That was so unpleasant that she learned how to avoid it.” Yay?

How to Tell When Avoidance Is Involved

Avoidance is complex. A lot of behavior scientists have put their minds to the question of why an organism will work for the goal of nothing happening. I’m not even going to get into that here, but if you are interested, most behavior analysis books have a section on it.

Besides being complex, avoidance can be hard to spot. Again, it’s because we don’t see a blatant aversive in use. Think of the videos by aversive trainers of a bunch of dogs on platforms lying very still for long minutes. We don’t see them getting hit, yelled at, or shocked. But they are usually frozen and shut down. They have learned that the way to avoid being hurt is to stay on their platform. Body language is one tell. They are often crouched, not relaxed. Their eyes are either fixed on the human, or they have checked out and are going, “La la la” in their heads. They are not casually looking around the room or wagging their tails.

But the other thing to look for is this. Do you see any appetitives in the picture? Is anyone going around giving the dogs a nice morsel of food every few minutes or even more often? Rewarding them with a game of tug? Granted, some trainers use both aversives and positive reinforcement. So even if you do see food, there still may be aversives involved. But if you see frozen dogs not moving a muscle and no food or toys in evidence, you are probably seeing avoidance.

Another easy place to see it is in traditional horse videos. Horses are so attractive and look so beautiful being put through their paces that us dog people can often be fooled. There will be some nice verbiage about the natural method or the “think” method or what neuroscience proves. But look for the appetitive. Look for the yummy treat or the butt scratches. Something the horse enjoys, not the relief of something uncomfortable stopping. If you don’t see the fun stuff, the good stuff, you are probably seeing aversive control. The horse is performing because of discomfort or the threat of it: avoidance.

Things That Can Work through Avoidance

  • Squirt bottles
  • Shock or vibration collars, both manually triggered or as part of boundary systems
  • Prong collars
  • Choke collars
  • Bark collars
  • Body pressure
  • Eye contact
  • Citronella spray
  • Whips
  • Plastic bags on a stick
  • Verbal threats
  • Chains or “bean bags” that are thrown near the dog
  • Penny cans
  • Picking up a stick or anything you might hit your dog with

Aggression

The use of aversive tools and methods can prompt an aggressive response. Granted, some of the milder aversives are probably less likely to do that with the average animal. But it’s the animal that gets to define “mild” or not. I watched a YouTube video of a domestic cat aggressing at a woman who is threatening to spray him with a spray bottle. I’m not embedding or linking it because I don’t want to give it that support, but it’s among the first hits if you search for cats vs. spray bottles on YouTube. Here’s a description (not an exact transcription):

A small orange tabby cat is sitting on a wooden table next to a potted plant. A woman’s arm and hand come into the frame. She is holding a squirt bottle. The cat squints his eyes when the spray bottle first appears. She shoves the spray bottle nozzle into his face as she says things like, “Back up from the plant.” “I said, back up from the plant.” The cat responds to her movement and statements by repeatedly slapping the woman’s hand holding the bottle with his paw. He meows and whips his tail around. He actually advances on the hand with the spray bottle rather than retreating. She finally squirts him point-blank in the face, and he shrinks back a little and moves laterally but doesn’t get off the table. He goes to the other side of the plant. There are at least three aspects to her threat: the spray bottle itself, her advancing on him, and her verbal threats.

But this cat is not demonstrating avoidance. He only retreats when sprayed directly in the face, and then only a few steps. But instead of avoidance, his go-to method is to lash out. My cat, on the other hand, was more easygoing and merely worked to avoid the spray.

I’m not ashamed to say I was rooting for the cat in the video, but with a mental caveat. He’s lucky he’s small. If this were a large dog or a horse, similar behaviors would be extremely dangerous for the human, and the animal would be in danger of being euthanized for aggression. Even the small cat could be in danger of losing his home of life if he escalates further, except that his owner is making money on YouTube.

I include this story for two reasons: progressing to avoidance is not inevitable, and we can’t predict what kind of aversive use will elicit an aggressive response.

Avoidance Doesn’t Earn You a Pass

Teaching behaviors through escape and avoidance is generally unpleasant for the learner. Even in situations where we can’t see anything bad happening. if the animal is working to avoid something, something bad did happen. It could happen again, and the animal knows it.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

6 Ways To Prepare Your Dog for Fireworks Starting TODAY

6 Ways To Prepare Your Dog for Fireworks Starting TODAY

firecracker exploding in the air with lots of orange sparks

Is your dog scared of fireworks? Don’t wait until Canada Day or Independence Day to start worrying about it! You can make a plan and take action now to help your dog be a bit less afraid of the unpredictable scary sounds of fireworks, firecrackers, whistles, and even guns.

Get Ready

Here are some things you can do today.

1. Check with your vet about medications
If your dog gets very anxious about noises and you have never talked to your vet about it, do so now. He or she may be able to prescribe something to help. And if you can’t get in before the holiday, do your best with some of the other ideas here to get through it and call your vet as soon as you can. This is a long-term problem. Sound phobias tend to get worse and are not something to be taken lightly.

2. Countercondition to noises
Get some great treats and start carrying them around at home. Whenever there is any kind of sudden or startling noise, but especially stray bangs and booms as people start to test their noisemakers, rain treats down on your dog. Use those special treats only for noises. Don’t pass them out for nice behavior (use something else for that!), and don’t ask for any particular behavior from your dog when the noise occurs. Just give the special treats. This is sometimes referred to as ad-hoc counterconditioning, and here is an excellent article about a survey that indicated its efficacy.

You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app, CD, or YouTube video with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky.  People who haven’t done DS/CC before run a real risk of scaring their dogs further instead of helping them, and many of the sound collections are poorly designed for DS/CC anyway. This is why I am suggesting straightforward counterconditioning, which uses environmental noises that are happening anyway. Save the formal training for well after the holiday, when scary noises are less likely to happen.

3. Create a safe place
Make (or adapt) a safe place for your dog. Keep in mind that the flashes of light that come with big fireworks displays can be scary too. Consider a method to darken any windows nearby or shield the safe place with a cover if necessary. Be aware that the low-frequency sounds of thunder are physically impossible to mute with the amount of absorbent material we can use at home. But being underground can usually help a bit, so basements are a good option for some dogs. Get the best protection you can in a basement or your most internal room. Despite the marketing claims, dog crates with walls a few inches thick can’t dampen low-frequency sounds significantly. Putting a soft cover on a crate does nothing to prevent the sounds of thunder from entering, although it may cause an auditorily cozy feeling because it deadens some of the reverberant sound in the space.

4. Play sound or music
Experiment with sound masking or music to find out what is most helpful for your situation. Try some kind of recorded white noise, natural noise, or music to mask the pops and booms. (Even a noisy food toy can be helpful.) This approach is evidence-based and called sound masking. Start working on it today.

And here’s a tip: the lower the frequencies included in the masking or music, the better it can hide those low-pitched booms (Kinsler, Frey, Coppens, & Sanders, 1999, p. 318–320). So if your dogs are already habituated to pounding rock music or some other music with a lot of bass or percussion, play it! It can mask some of the scary noises from outside your house more effectively. Taiko drumming is great if your dogs are accustomed to it. You can buy a few songs and loop them or find some on YouTube. But first, be absolutely certain that the music itself doesn’t scare your dogs. If they are already sensitive to booms, it probably will.

Household appliances can help. Some floor fans hit fairly low frequencies and can be helpful. You can run the dryer (no heat) with a pair of sports shoes in it for some booms that will probably be familiar and not scary. You’ll need to find the line of best fit for your dogs.

You can also try the Bang-Dog Playlist from Triplet Noir Studios. These are heavy metal selections (be aware that some of the language is not family-friendly). Before anyone mentions it: heavy metal has not ranked well in the dogs and music studies, tending to make shelter dogs more agitated. That’s not surprising. People might find it almost sacrilegious that I am suggesting heavy metal. But if you play it already and your dogs are fine with it, they are habituated. In that case, these playlists could be the perfect thing for you.

5. Practice going out
Make a plan for taking your dog out to potty. Do you know when the noise is usually at its worst and can you work around that? Are your fences and/or leash and harness secure? Dogs who are usually sedate have been known to panic and run off on noisy holidays. Don’t let that happen.  Keep your gates locked, your dogs’ ID tags on, and put some redundancy into your safety system.

6. Comfort your dog if that helps
LOSE that idea that there’s something wrong with comforting your dog if that’s what your dog wants. Helping a dog through a tough time is not “coddling.” Assess what is most helpful to your dog: a cuddle, food after every thunderclap, some lap time, sweet talk, being in their crate with a food toy, or hiding by themselves in a secluded place. Then help them do it.

The best part of thunderstorms: spray cheese!
The best part of noisy holidays for Summer was spray cheese!

Check out lots more resources and tips on my page “You Can’t Reinforce Fear.

Another good resource is this article by Val Hughes: My Dog Fears Fireworks and Thunderstorms—What Should I Do To Help?

Thanks for reading!

Reference

Kinsler, L. E., Frey, A. R., Coppens, A. B., & Sanders, J. V. (1999). Fundamentals of Acoustics (4th ed.). Wiley.

© Eileen Anderson 2015 

The Best Thing I Ever Taught My Dog

The Best Thing I Ever Taught My Dog

Bold claim, eh? But almost 10 years later, I think I am safe making it. Clara learned other things, like how to be around people other myself, that were more important. But those things were either trained directly by or supervised by my phenomenal trainer. This one I thought up and executed myself, and it has paid off ever since.

I classically conditioned Summer’s barking to predict puppy Clara’s favorite treat, which was spray cheese. That stuff is still very high on the list, so high I learned to make a substitute when I could no longer get it.

I did this conditioning because I was worried that Clara would pick up my dog Summer’s reactive habits. Summer was anxious and startled easily. She was fearful of most men, people coming on the porch (e.g., deliveries), and most of all, delivery trucks. She hated those trucks. I had never been able to classically condition her to them because I was not home all day. So she had plenty of exposures that were not paired with great things. I did make some inroads later but could never mitigate it completely.

Feral Clara was very much at risk for picking up fears and fearful habits since she already had a bucketload of them. But they didn’t include delivery trucks. She was remarkably calm about vehicles and machinery. And being a puppy, she hadn’t learned yet to join into bark-fests automatically, as so many adolescent and adult dogs do.

I figured I had a chance to get a foot in the door.

The classical response grew operant components of reorientation to me, followed by a recall. Pretty cool to have a dog come running to you when another dog barks, rather than joining into the mayhem!

How It Started

Here is Clara at less than one year old. The conditioned response was already strong.

How It Is Now: Nine Years Later

I have maintained the classical pairing. This is a response of Clara’s I highly value for her mental health. Of course, I don’t always have ultra-high-value stuff on my person. Over the years, I have tended to scale the value of the treat. When Zani was alive, Clara got some kibble when she barked. Ditto with my friend’s Chihuahua mix, who barks a lot. Neither of those was particularly alarming to Clara, but they fit in the barking category, so she got a little something for those.

But any other dog barking means great stuff for Clara. When she and I are outdoors these days, I am ready with it. We have dogs next door in both directions and two more who are often visible from the yard. In the winter, I generally have a tube of my faux spray cheese mix out on the porch. It’s safe from going bad for a few days when the weather is cold. Now, in the heat, I have a plastic container of soft cat food treats.

Clara does fine with the dogs on one side, a sweet border collie mix and a Dane mix. She doesn’t like it when they get noisy, but still generally ignores them. But on the other side, we have new dogs. Two goldendoodles, plus more doodles and retriever types that come with visiting family members quite often. And though they are dog-friendly, the doodles in particular tend to stand erect and stare, which bothers Clara no end.

These dogs are friendly and curious, but can you imagine how this appears to dog-selective Clara?

However, her conditioned response still holds. I’ve taken lots of videos of her “barking recall” over the years, but the following video is one of my favorites. It happened last fall. Clara and I were in the backyard doing our version of nose work. She was searching for a toilet paper tube with some treats in it. She knew the neighbor dogs were out there at the fence and had seen them staring but was still happy to search. And I had hidden the tube in the part of the yard away from the dogs.

Check out the video for Clara’s operant and classical responses when a dog barks at her.

The Ethics

Little extrovert Zani apparently barked to see who was around in the neighborhood

Dogs bark for all sorts of reasons; I’m not going to try to list them. But converting the sound of a dog bark to predict food rather than to function as a prompt for a social interaction, whether affiliative or aggressive, was not an easy thing. I was pushing back against some very strong, natural dog behaviors. Was this OK for me to do?

Classical conditioning is a paradox. On one hand, when you are doing it well, it is so non-intrusive that the dog doesn’t even “know” training is happening, not in the way they seem to know about operant-leaning training sessions. And although operant behaviors will be there immediately in classical conditioning, the dog never has to “work” for the food when we are following a classical protocol. They can’t get it wrong. Once they experience the trigger, the food is going to appear, whatever they do.

On the other hand, in this case, I was interfering with a basic and natural dog response. Barking certainly seems to be a social behavior, one that triggers predictable types of responses from other dogs. One could call it intrusive on my part to step in.

But you know what? I am fine with this decision. When we take a dog into our lives, the training we do is not just for us. The training benefits the dog in helping them thrive in this weird human world and develop behaviors that pay off for them and don’t drive us nuts or endanger anybody. This training was beneficial to her. I wasn’t even thinking about my own convenience when I trained it. I wanted to protect her from catching a particular fear.

Summer barked from fear

Clara is easily aroused. Since we worked so hard and exclusively on getting her OK with humans in her early years, some reactivity to dogs has crept in. Without the early bark-conditioning, she would likely have a lot more unpleasant experiences in her life. And her life would be much more limited. Just today, I took her for a walk around the neighborhood. (By the way, this is a Big Deal that Clara can do this.) Whenever we go out, without fail, we get barked at by dogs behind fences and dogs looking out windows and glass doors. A few of them pound on the windows with their paws as they bark. Clara either looks to me for a treat, or ignores them as she chooses another reinforcing activity, such as exploring sniffing. The classical pairing gave us a head start against likely leash reactivity. And indeed, the potential for reactive behavior is not completely erased. Back home, when the neighbor dogs catch us unawares, Clara will indeed run to the fence for the beginning of a fearsome “let’s bark in each other’s faces” session. But she interrupts herself almost immediately, or if she doesn’t, I do. So yes, there are big seeds for reactive behavior there. But the classical pairing, the reinforcement of operant behaviors, and the maintenance have prevented them from growing into a big extended aggressive response.

Yes, I have interfered with her natural dog reaction. I interfered, just as we do when we house train dogs, train them not to chew indiscriminately, and take steps to mitigate the natural behavior of resource guarding. And in this case, I did it entirely for her.

Other Types of Classical Conditioning for Puppies

Marge Rogers and I are currently discussing our new book, Puppy Socialization: What It Is and How to Do It on the Facebook group Books, Barks, and Banter. (Come join us! We are there until the end of June.) A discussion we had in the group made me think of juxtaposing these “then” and “now” videos of Clara. It’s also made me realize that one of the things I love about the topic of puppy socialization is that so much of it is based on classical conditioning: building positive, happy associations with new stuff. It’s a gift you can give to a puppy, or a grown dog if you are playing catch-up. Sometimes you don’t have to keep up the pairing religiously. Once a puppy (especially in their sensitive period for socialization) recovers from having a mild fear response to something in the environment, other reinforcers can come into play. I watched that happen with Clara with many things. But for a dog with fearful tendencies who didn’t get the best start in life, it really pays off if you do keep up the 1:1 pairing. I think I made the right decision with the dog barks.

Related Posts

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Puppy Socialization Book Is Now Available

Puppy Socialization Book Is Now Available

Beau, 11 weeks


Puppy Socialization: What It Is and How to Do It, by Marge Rogers and myself, is now available at Amazon and several other e-book vendors (with more to come)! We think it’s already a steal at its list price, $9.99, but it’s 20% off for the whole month of June. You can purchase 63,000 words, 50+ photos, and access to 50+ linked videos for $7.99.


Clara, 11 weeks

This book is why the lights have been off for an unprecedented two months in my blog! Late at night sometimes I work on some posts—it’s impossible for me not to write blog posts—but I haven’t had the brain cells to polish them. Polishing the puppy book is all Marge and I have been doing for most of that time period!


Tinker, 10 weeks


We are very proud of this book. It was a huge endeavor and we and hope there is something in it for every reader.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Photo Credits

  • Beau: Blanche Axton
  • Clara: Eileen Anderson
  • Tinker: Marge Rogers

Helping a Reactive Dog Compete in Rally—And Why We Retired

Helping a Reactive Dog Compete in Rally—And Why We Retired

This is a rewrite, with significant changes, of a post originally published in March 2013.

Dog Trial venue
The distracting, sometimes scary environment of a dog trial

In March of 2013, Summer and I competed in her last AKC Rally Obedience trial. Yes, I was one of the many people who took a moderately reactive dog to trials to compete. She was such a good sport. She was a wonderful partner (she passed away in 2017) and did a great job, but I decided afterward that I was asking too much of her.

Sable mixed breed dog walks briskly in heel position next to small woman wearing jeans and red sweatshirt
Summer stepping out with a jaunty gait, relaxed mouth and face, and a happy tail

What It’s Like for a Reactive Dog at an Obedience Trial

Summer encountered many challenges at performance events and venues. A dog trial will never be the favorite environment of a dog who is indifferent to most people, primed to be afraid of men, bothered by certain types of dogs, and easily startled. Every time you turn a corner, or even while you sit in your own little area minding your own business, somebody new pops into your field of vision or right in your space. And the noise!

Once I described the trial environment and what it was like for a dog like Summer to a friend, and she said, “Like a funhouse!” She nailed it. For those a bit younger than my generation, a funhouse is an interactive carnival attraction that people walk through.

From the Wikipedia definition:

…funhouses are participatory attractions, where visitors enter and move around under their own power. Incorporating aspects of a playful obstacle course, funhouses seek to distort conventional perceptions and startle people with unstable and unpredictable physical circumstances…

Scary_clown
Public domain image of what an obedience judge might look like to Summer

Funhouses have mirrors that distort your appearance or confuse the pathway or aren’t mirrors at all. Some floors give way and move when you step on them. Weird characters may pop into view. They often have a confusing maze. In other words, a funhouse is an out-of-control environment that is hard to escape.

The big difference, of course, is that humans generally enter such attractions voluntarily, knowing roughly what to expect. For some reason, some of us actually seek out experiences that startle or scare us or bewilder our senses. I don’t think dogs do. Summer went (rarely) to obedience events because I took her. I did my very best to make them easy and pleasurable for her, but this was a challenge.

Summer’s History in Competition

I got Summer at about 10 months old from a local shelter. She was under-socialized and feared children and most men. She was anxious, she hated most small terriers and other feisty dogs, and she became somewhat sound-sensitive over the years. Besides these traits, she didn’t have a huge drive to do stuff with people. She was an extremely mixed breed, close to the phenotype of the village dog except for her longer coat. She generally wanted to do her doggie things like chase varmints and she liked her comfort. Finally, she was hypothyroid, on medication, and tired easily.

Perfect performance dog, right? Actually, for me, she was.

Summer and I were very close. We worked together for all of her life with me and she always read me better than any of the other dogs. She was my crossover dog and we grew up together in the dog training world. She loved to go places and have me to herself. I reinforced the hell out of rally and obedience behaviors, and she came to enjoy them almost as much as agility. Plus there were always those wonderful smells at dog trials!

Sable dog sitting in heel position gazing upward at woman (mostly out of picture)
Summer in the ring maintaining nice contact

How I Helped My Dog at Rally and Obedience Trials

Here are some of the things I did at trials to maximize the good for Summer:

  1. She got tired easily, so we minimized the time at any event (We stayed for about 2 1/2 hours at this event but we were outdoors for plenty of that).
  2. I left her by herself as little as possible since it worried her. Even if I had to go to the bathroom, I would get someone she knew to sit next to her crate.
  3. I set up our crate in a less-trafficked area and set up visual barriers in our little zone to cut down on some of the stimuli.
  4. I sought out and let her visit with a couple of people whom she adored (and who adored her).
  5. I took her outside as much as possible. She loved to explore outdoors.
  6. If there was an opportunity to work in the ring beforehand, we always did. I used the time to get her comfortable in the space while still staying connected with me.
  7. I stayed hypervigilant (since she was). I tried to see every possible startling thing before she did, to protect her or give her a heads up. (Also to protect other dogs from a possible snark.)
  8. I took the best treats ever, both for after her competition run but also for sitting around in such a difficult environment.
  9. I was responsive to her energy level and generally didn’t take her more than two days in a row.

I am not the only person who has made these efforts. Our name is legion, and since the original date of this post, the group has grown. There are now entire courses on helping dogs adapt to trial environments. Many bloggers write about competing, and sometimes choosing not to compete, with dogs who have difficulties in public situations. Thankfully, the pressure to compete at all costs seems to have given way to more consideration for the dog’s wants and needs. There are also many more opportunities for competition that accommodate the needs of fearful or reactive dogs, including all-virtual titles where you submit videos online.

I would not compete in public with a dog like Summer now. Why did I do it then? I had several motivations. Competing gave me specific goals and helped me keep focused on my training. It gave Summer and me something to do together with just the two of us. Also, I liked to get out and show people what a dog trained with positive reinforcement could look like in the ring. Even with Summer’s challenges, she always looked happier than 90% of the dogs who competed. And I wanted people to see a mixed breed dog competing and doing well. (This was still a rarity at the time.) And hey, I admit, I’m competitive.

With all these motivations, I had to temper my ego and preferences and avoid pushing my dog too hard.

Sable dog trotting toward camera with her mouth open and tail up (looking happy)
Summer heading for the gate (and probably thinking about chicken baby food)

Our Title Run in Rally Advanced

The sport of rally obedience involves lots of heeling in patterns and some other combinations of moves such as sits, downs, stays, and jumps. There are signs placed in order around the ring, each representing a defined behavior to perform.

Summer was one of the two first mixed breed dogs in my state to get an AKC Rally Novice title, a goal I set out to achieve as soon as I found out that she would soon be eligible. She got two first-place runs and a third place. The other mutt did well, too. I think the other owner was a motivated as I was to show that mixed breeds could perform well.

At the Novice level in rally, dogs compete on leash and there are 10–15 signs in the ring (out of a pool of 40 or so that you learn). In Rally Advanced (the second level in AKC) they are off leash and there are 12–17 signs, including more difficult ones. Summer and I already had two “legs” (qualifying runs) in March of 2013. A third qualifier would give us our title. Spoiler alert: we succeeded.

At this last trial, the course was a fun one, with a lot of Summer’s favorite moves and a couple of the new signs added that year. Things went very smoothly until we got to the very back of the ring.

We encountered a problem I had never experienced. The required behavior was a spiral left. You must take the dog in a certain spiraling pattern around some pylons, with the dog on the inside, between you and the pylons. But the pylons were set up parallel to the ring boundary and very close to it. We couldn’t walk comfortably in the space between the ring fencing and the pylons. I don’t know how the people with bigger dogs did it. I had trained Summer to walk at a certain proximity to me and she kept trying to move over into her normal position. This sent her toward the wrong side of the pylons. But she was only doing what I had trained her to do.

I kept getting her back in position but she finally made a move that would have made us fail the sign completely. So we took the option of a complete do-over, which lost us only 3 points instead of the 10 we would have lost if we had failed to perform the sign correctly. I walked a little more slowly the second time and clung to the boundary of the ring, encouraging her to stay extra close to me. Even with the do-over, we got a score of 96 (out of 100) and second place.

There were some other rocky moments when she got distracted by sights or sounds. I didn’t blame her. People were cheering in the other rings, and a bunch of dogs and people gathered around ours. I was so proud that she stuck with me so well in such a difficult environment.

Video of the Run

I’ve never posted a rally or obedience video before because we were decent but not all that great. We were true amateurs, competing in obedience less than once a year on average. But I was pleased when I saw the film. The only moments Summer looked unhappy were a couple of times during sit stays (at 1:13 and 2:15). When we were moving, her tail stayed up and she looked focused and happy. I even like the parts where she got distracted and looked out of the ring because she responded when I asked her to.

I edited out the first try at the spiral for brevity and clarity. I’m not embarrassed by the mistake. We were at the back of the ring and it’s hard to see our fatal error, so for most viewers, it would be 27 seconds of boredom. I linked to the unedited version at the bottom of the post for the curious.

Retirement

As you can see from her body language, Summer was pretty happy in the ring. It’s not surprising; we practiced a lot and I regularly gave her a whole jar of chicken baby food after a rally run! She knew what was waiting for her. But even that ambrosia can’t turn a miserable dog happy, and she looked happy and comfortable for most of her time in the ring.

Nonetheless, this was Summer’s last competition. We could have returned the next day to compete at the next level, for which we had practiced. But trials exhausted both of us. And with her potential for noisy reactivity if a small terrier should get in her face, I felt it wasn’t responsible to keep taking her. Remember, in the funhouse, you are never quite in control.

UCD Summer RA NA NAJ TBAD TG2.
11/2005–8/25/2017

Unedited version of rally run for those who want to see the mess-up.

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

Why To Muzzle-Train the Gentlest Dog

Why To Muzzle-Train the Gentlest Dog

I wrote this post in June 2020, before Zani was diagnosed with cancer and passed away three months later. I’m leaving it in the present tense.

Zani, a brown and black beagle mix, gazes with her chin on the table
Zani at the time of her eye and nose problems. Thank goodness for the lucky camera angle.

It’s odd, the things that finally make you break down and cry when your dog is sick or injured. This is the story of one of those times, and how I came to see the need to muzzle-train sweet, affiliative little Zani, who is approximately the least likely dog on earth to bite someone.

Zani has more than her fair share of health problems. She is sound phobic (handled well with meds). She will never quite recover from the effects of her spinal cord concussion; her gait and balance are slightly affected. And she has a dry eye that is unresponsive to the standard medications. She still has to take the drops, but they have not opened up her tear ducts on the affected eye. The ophthalmologist says they help her cornea stay as healthy as possible.

One night in 2019, just before going to bed, I noticed that the juncture between her nose and the rest of her snout was raw and bloody. I recalled she had been scratching her face a lot and that the night before I had found “mystery blood” on my hand. I bet most dog owners know of “mystery blood” and the sinking feeling it gives you. I hadn’t been able to track down the source at the time. Now I’d found it.

As it happened, Zani already had an appointment with her ophthalmologist scheduled the next day. And the ophthalmologist is at the same practice as the emergency vet. So I took Zani for a two-for-one appointment.

I went to bed that night nauseated and wanting to cry because of the weird thing that was wrong with her nose. This was not just a cut or scratch. Besides being bloody on the outside, her muzzle was swollen and the “wrong color” inside the nostril. I’m sparing you a photo but it looked awful.

I decided to withhold water and food in case they would need to anesthetize her.

My mental balance deserts me when I must wait for medical care for a suffering animal, and I particularly hate withholding water. They don’t understand. I fought back almost-panic. But we made it through the night. The morning went well. I called the emergency/specialty practice first thing, and they said the ER could coordinate with the eye doctor to get both things done earlier than her original appointment.

So in we went. I had treats in a pouch but left them in the car so I wouldn’t give her one without thinking until we knew whether she would be sedated.

Eyedrop Husbandry

To explain what happened when she saw the eye doctor, I have to go back in time. I first started giving Zani eye drops in November of 2018 under the direction of her primary vet. From day one, I made them a fabulous experience. She got half of a thin slice of “Black Forest Ham” lunch meat after each drop. She would come and get happily into position for every session, every day. I was applying drops up to seven times per day, some of them painful, but most neutral or even soothing. That all went well until we cut out some of the nice drops, which left a higher percentage of painful ones.

The high-concentration tacrolimus drops obviously stung. Her happy cooperation with the eye drops routine decreased, and she developed some evasive maneuvers. But, being Zani, they were more like “please don’t” than “no way are you going to put that in my eye again.” When I would gently hold her head, she would whip her head to the left, then to the right. I allowed this without restraint. After that, she would settle down and hold still, and I could apply the drops and give her the great treat. This became our new routine. I dreaded giving her the eyedrops. She cooperated so nicely under the circumstances, after her token resistance. It almost made it worse. She was such a good sport. I felt awful about doing something several times a day that hurt her.

I am embarrassed to report my failure to prevent the worsening of the experience for her. I messed up. In retrospect, I should have kept applying some painless, benign drops like artificial tears, some pretend drops with the cap on the bottle, and some head handling involving no eye stuff at all. All of it well reinforced. But I didn’t think to do it, so Pavlov got me. So did the Matching Law, as we started building up an unpleasant history with more hurty eyedrops. The physical sensation of getting an eyedrop went from painful perhaps 25% of the time to 50% of the time. That change was all it took. Even though the eyedrop still predicted her favorite treat, the event was no longer a happy one.

This is a typical problem in real life with pets. You sometimes have to jump into some handling or husbandry without working on it first. But next time I won’t take it for granted that the experience will continue to be a good one for my animal as dosages and meds are adjusted. When the numbers changed, I should have compensated.

I included all that background to explain why, by the time Zani finally started going to the specialist, she had the evasive head whiparound behavior perfected. It seemed like she had to get it out of her system before the drop. Whip, whip, lightning-fast, and then she would still herself and wait quietly for the eyedrop.

But that was with me. When she whipped her head around at her first specialist appointments, the ophthalmologist thought she intended to bite him. (He moved back faster than I’ve ever seen a human move away from a dog. He also had a very practiced behavior! I don’t blame him.) A few years back, I would have told him, “She won’t bite you!” But I’ve learned that you can’t say that about any dog. Any dog can bite, even gentle Zani. (I seriously doubted she would, though.) And even though I advocate for my dogs at the vet, I opted not to speak up about this. I know vets frequently hear clients protest that their dogs don’t bite—immediately before they do. I figured I couldn’t change his mind. These visits were very fast, and I could usually give her treats instantly afterward. And Zani has some experience with reinforced restraint.

The doctor’s prudence extended to having the tech hold Zani’s mouth closed while he tested her eyes for moisture. But Zani is very resilient about anything involving people, and a minute later she wagged her tail and tried to get the same tech to mess with her.

The Ophthalmologist Visit

But the day of the nose emergency was worse. We had seen the ER tech first to give an initial history of the nose problem. The tech was great and fell hard for Zani. She got a good look at Zani’s nose and asked good questions. Then the eye people came to get Zani. I went along. The tech put her on the table, took Zani’s chin in her hands, and Zani performed the evasive head whiparound. The ophthalmologist said, “Get a muzzle.”

I haven’t muzzle-trained Zani. She is a low, low bite risk and she doesn’t have pica. And she generally hates garments and gear tight on her body.

They got out one of the little nylon mesh muzzles (not the basket type). Then I did speak up, pointing out Zani’s sore nose. But they went ahead, indeed carefully, and muzzled Zani for 30–40 seconds while they did the eye tests. She was whimpering by the end of it. And I couldn’t give her any damn treats afterward because ER hadn’t decided what to do about her nose yet.

Black nylon mesh dog muzzle
A nylon mesh muzzle, only to be worn for short periods in special circumstances

The news about her eye wasn’t good, and neither was my emotional state. The eye doctor talked about the option of eye surgery where they replace the tear duct. I couldn’t take it in and said I’d have to think about it. And her nose was still undiagnosed.

As he was leaving, I heard the ophthalmologist tell his staff to note the necessity of a muzzle in Zani’s record for future visits.

I struggled to hold myself together as the eye tech and I went back to the other exam room. I chose my words carefully, and told her Zani was likely the lowest bite risk she would see all day, that she whipped her head around as a practiced evasive maneuver. The tech was polite but said Zani might bite because of her sore nose. This is true. Again, I’m not going to be the person to say my dog (even Zani) won’t bite. I sat and tried not to cry while waiting for the ER tech.

Back to the ER

Zani, a black and brown beagle terrier mix, standing in a vet's office with her head ocked
Zani at the specialty clinic, having bounced back fast

Zani had already bounced back when the ER tech returned, even though I hadn’t. I told the tech about Zani’s practiced head movement. She listened and was receptive.

Zani went and saw the ER doctor without me and the tech brought her back. She had done fine and they didn’t have to muzzle her. The results from the nose exam were decent, too. They gave me some possible diagnoses that I won’t go into here[1]The final diagnosis, which was made by Zani’s dermatologist, was something called parasympathetic nose, where the ducts in a nostril stop working. The condition is probably related to the dry … Continue reading. She went on antibiotics and would see her dermatologist later.

I paid the bill. I took Zani to the car, put her in her crate, and gave her a handful of nice treats to munch on.

Then I went home and cried. Zani had an eye that was unresponsive to meds and the doctor was recommending scary surgery. She had an awful-looking, still-mysterious sore nose. But I was crying because she had to wear a muzzle for 30 seconds and the eye doctor misunderstood her. He thought sweet Zani was aggressive. That’s what took me down.

Muzzle-Training Plans

I reviewed the possibilities for Zani’s diagnosis and learned that when dogs need topical treatments for nose conditions they generally have to wear one of those nylon mesh muzzles anyway. It’s to prevent them from licking their noses for a few minutes while the medicine works.

The handwriting was on the wall. I bought a couple of the nylon muzzles.

I’ve also started doing a lot more head handling and non-painful eye stuff to get the ratio of pleasant face-handling experiences higher. I’ll face the matching law head-on and see if I can decrease the evasive head jerk. I also need to practice manual muzzle restraint. And I need to condition her to a nylon muzzle. (All while still giving eight medicinal eye drops per day, four of which are painful.)

I’ll try, but I may not be able to talk the eye doctor out of a muzzle in the future. I’m a realist. So I’m going to teach Zani that nylon muzzles predict great things. Even if I talk this vet out of it, maybe someday she really will need a muzzle. I may not always be with her. And through this experience, I learned another reason why even the most unlikely dog may need to be comfortable with a “closed-mouth” muzzle: topical nose meds. They could appear at any time in Zani’s future.

We can’t predict these things. All we can do is try to prepare our dogs for the eventualities to minimize the possible trauma attendant to husbandry and medical procedures. My friend Blanche Axton who takes in foster dogs muzzle-trains every dog who enters her home. More and more trainers I talk to express the same sentiment. I appreciate the growing number of husbandry resources available now. They can help us think ahead and be proactive with our training. Check out the great resources, both free and paid, on the Muzzle Up site.

Emotions

As I said, the muzzle was a strange breaking point. Zani’s sweet nature and unique combination of resilience and emotional tippiness are factors. I am accustomed to protecting her from all sorts of odd things. She endures so many things that bother or hurt her and keeps a sunny disposition. Cricket earned a note in her chart early on in her vet visits: “Biter!” She never bit anyone or came close. She air-snapped at a tech once, and they thought she “tried to bite and missed.” I didn’t think her behavior merited the notation, but it didn’t hurt my feelings. Even though she was threatening rather than “missing,” who knows when she might have decided to get serious about biting? That was Cricket. But it’s not Zani.

I think a lot of my emotions around the muzzle incident were displaced from Zani’s medical situation. The eye problem was and continues to be upsetting. The nose thing was terrible.

I’m better now, but at the time this happened I was very stressed. And my feelings were desperately hurt because a vet put a muzzle on my gentle dog.

But there’s one thing I can fix. It took me almost a year, but I’m finally starting the muzzle training.

Epilogue: Looking Back from 2021

Life intervened again. I never got to the muzzle training because Zani was diagnosed with cancer just days after I started preparing this post and she passed away in a few months. But there are so many good reasons to muzzle-train your dog, and not only for a basket muzzle. I’m putting “train for wearing a nylon muzzle for a short period” on my permanent husbandry list. Thanks again to Zani, who taught me so much.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Notes

Notes
1 The final diagnosis, which was made by Zani’s dermatologist, was something called parasympathetic nose, where the ducts in a nostril stop working. The condition is probably related to the dry eye.
Using Sound Apps for Desensitization & Counterconditioning for Dogs

Using Sound Apps for Desensitization & Counterconditioning for Dogs

“What’s that noise and where’s it coming from?” Dogs’ hearing abilities are different from ours—a fact that is frequently and strangely unconsidered in the development of many audio products for dogs.

Dog trainers often recommend smartphone apps and YouTube videos for desensitizing and counterconditioning dogs who are afraid of specific noises. There are many apps designed for this, and they typically have recordings of a variety of sounds. However, the physics of sound production and the limitations of consumer audio present large problems for such use, problems substantial enough to prevent the success of many (most?) conditioning attempts.

This post describes the pitfalls of using sound apps and other recordings for this purpose. It maps out a strategy for sound desensitization that avoids most of the problems.

Why Many Audio Conditioning Products Fail

If quizzed, most people would likely guess that dogs have hearing abilities that are vastly superior to ours. In fact, it’s a mixed bag.

Humans can hear slightly lower frequencies than dogs can (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166). We can also locate sounds quite a bit better than they can (Mills, 1958), (Fay and Wilber, 1989, p. 519). But dogs are the big winners in the high frequency range—they can hear tones over about twice the frequency range that humans can (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166), (Heffner, 1983). Also, dogs can also hear sounds at a much lower volume level than humans can over most of our common audible range (Lipman & Grassi, 1942).

Yet the superior aspects of dogs’ hearing are rarely considered when we decide to use sound recordings in conditioning.

There are four major acoustical problems with using human sound devices to condition dogs.

  • The inability of smartphones to generate low frequencies, such as those present in thunder
  • The limited ability of even the best home audio systems to generate these low frequencies in high fidelity
  • The upper limit of the frequencies generated on all consumer audio
  • The effects of audio file compression on the fidelity of digital sound

There are other problems when using apps that can make or break attempts to positively condition a dog to sound.

  • Lack of functional assessment before attempting conditioning
  • The length of the sound samples used for conditioning
  • The assumption that lower volume always creates a lower intensity (less scary) stimulus

Some, but not all of the above problems can be addressed with do-it-yourself work and a good plan. But sound conditioning of dogs using recordings will always have some substantial limitations that can affect success.

What Is the Frequency?

Frequency is the aspect of sound that relates to the cycles of the sound waves per second. Cycles per second is expressed in units of hertz (Hz). I’ll refer a lot to low and high frequencies because they pose different challenges.

To help with the concept of frequency, think of a piano keyboard with the low notes on the left and the high notes on the right. The low notes have lower frequencies and the high notes have higher frequencies. Keep in mind that sound frequency goes much higher than the highest notes on a piano!

Common sounds with low frequencies include thunder, large fireworks demonstrations, industrial equipment, the crashing of ocean waves, the rumble of trains and aircraft, and large explosions. Common sounds with high frequencies include most birdsong, the squeaking of hinges, Dremels and other high-speed drills, referees’ whistles, and most digital beeps.

Motorized machinery generates sound frequencies that correspond to the rotation of the motor. These frequencies can be high like the dentist’s drill or low like aircraft. Motors can also vary in speed. For instance, when you hear a motorcycle accelerating, the frequency of the sound rises as the engine speeds up.

Humans can hear in a range of 20–20,000 Hz (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166), and dogs can hear in a range of 67–45,000 Hz (Heffner, 1983).

Some sounds don’t have a detectable pitch, meaning they include such a large number of frequencies that you can’t pick anything out and hum it. These are called broadband sounds. A clicker generates a broadband sound.

Missing Low Frequencies

…the better to hear you with!

Our human brains are great at filling in blanks in information and taking shortcuts. This makes it hard for us to realize what a bad job our handheld devices do in generating low-frequency sounds. Our dogs undoubtedly know, though.

Many people purchase sound apps in order to try to condition their dogs to thunder. The frequency range for rumbles of thunder is 5–220 Hz (Holmes, 1971). Handheld devices can’t properly generate those low frequencies. They generally have a functional lower output limit of about 400–500 Hertz. If you play a recording of thunder (or a jet engine, or ocean waves) on a handheld, the most significant part of the sound will be played at a vanishingly low volume or be entirely missing.

When performing desensitization, we aim to start with a version of the sound that doesn’t scare the dog, so using a handheld could possibly be a starting point. But you would have to fill in the missing low frequency sounds gradually as part of the desensitization process, which would mean using a different device after the first couple exposures anyway.

Home sound systems, including some Bluetooth speakers, can do a better job. They usually generate frequencies down to 60 Hz. This is roughly the lower limit of dogs’ hearing, so it’s a good match. But even the best home system can’t approach the power and volume of actual thunder, and the sound is located inside your home instead of outside. Some dogs do not appear to connect recordings of thunder on even excellent sound equipment to the real thing, or they will respond to recordings with a lesser reaction (Dreschel & Granger, 2005).

In one study of thunder phobic dogs, the researchers brought their own professional quality sound system to each dog owner’s home; great mention is made that the sound system was large (Dreschel & Granger, 2005). This bulk indicates that they were serious about being able to generate low frequencies. In general, the larger the speakers, the better they are at generating low frequencies. The difference today is smaller than it was 15 years ago, however. Sound systems have improved a lot in recent years.

Some of the sound apps for dog training now instruct you to send the sound to a home sound system rather than using the speaker in the handheld. This is excellent advice for any sound. But the bottom line is that you will not always be able to emulate low frequencies well enough to function as desensitization for some dogs.

This image compares the magnitude of a recording of a roll of thunder played on an iPhone 7 vs. a home sound system (Altec Lansing speakers). The Blue Yeti microphone I used to capture the sound for analysis was the same distance from the speaker in each case.

This plot shows that the smartphone speakers don’t generate low frequency sounds effectively

The part of the plot in the oval is the approximate range of the rumbles of thunder. The navy blue line represents the sound generated by the smartphone in those frequencies. The red line was from the Altec Lansing home speakers. The speakers generate sound down to 60 Hz effectively (as per their specifications).

In contrast, the output of the phone is virtually inaudible below 300 Hz. Sounds below about 44 Hz in that frequency range are generally indistinguishable from indoor ambient sound.

Missing High Frequencies

All consumer audio equipment is designed for human ears. Our handhelds, computers, TVs, and sound systems put out sound only up to the frequency of 22,000 Hz. Humans can’t hear higher frequencies than that. But dogs can hear up to about 40,000 Hz. So again, the recordings are not high fidelity for dogs.

This is different from the thunder situation. The low frequencies of thunder are present in high quality recordings, but our equipment can’t perfectly generate them. With high frequencies, it’s not only a limitation of our speakers. The sounds in “dog frequencies” are not recorded in the first place.

It’s not that it can’t be done. Biologists and other scientists use special equipment that can record or play back sound in the ultrasound range. The recording device requires a higher sample rate (how often the sound is digitally measured) than consumer equipment and the speaker for playback requires a wider bandwidth for frequency response. 

How much do the missing high frequencies affect the fidelity of recorded sound for dogs? We can’t know for sure. But virtually all sounds include what are called harmonics or overtones. These are multiples of the original frequency into a higher range. Dogs can hear these in the range from 22,000 to 40,000 Hz, but they are never present in sound recordings made even by very high quality equipment.

Because of these missing frequencies, dogs with normal hearing will likely be able to discriminate between a natural sound and even the best recording of it. 

Other Sounds Missing Due To Compression

Digital audio files are large. Most files that are created to play on digital devices are saved in MP3 format. This format was created in the 1990s when digital storage was much more limited than it is today. Hence, MP3 files are compressed, meaning that some of the sound information is removed so they won’t be so large.

MP3 is termed a “lossy” compression because sound data is permanently lost through the compression. The compression algorithms are based on the capabilities of the human ear. Sounds we humans are unlikely to be able to hear are removed.

Some of these limitations may be shared by dogs. For instance, quieter sounds that are very close in time to a loud sudden sound are removed. We can’t hear those because of masking effects, and it’s probable that dogs can’t either, although there may be a difference in degree.

However, there are other limitations of the human ear that dogs do not share. For instance, our hearing is most sensitive in the range of about 2,000 to 5,000 Hz. So very quiet sounds that are pretty far outside that range will likely be eliminated by the compression algorithm. Dogs’ most sensitive range is higher than ours, so sounds they could hear are probably omitted from compressed recordings.

Keep in mind that dogs not only hear sounds that are higher than we can perceive, but they hear all high-pitched sounds at lower volumes than we do.

So the MP3 compression process is another reason that some sounds in dogs’ hearing range that would be present in a natural sound would be missing in a recording of it.

If you make your own recordings, there is an easy thing to do to prevent this problem. You can save your sound files in WAV or AIFF formats as discussed below. I haven’t seen a desensitization app that uses these formats, however.

Behavior Science Considerations

The problems I’ve discussed so far are caused by physics of sound and how it is recorded, compressed, and played.

The following cautions have to do with applying what we know about performing classical conditioning to sound without errors.

Lack of Functional Assessment

Trainers and behavior consultants who help dogs with behavior problems perform functional assessments. They observe and take data to help them understand what is driving the problem behavior. In the case of fear, they analyze the situation in order to determine the root cause of the fear.

In the case of sound sensitivity, a dog may react because the sound has become a predictor of a fear exciting stimulus, as is the case with much doorbell reactivity. Or the dog may be responding to an intrinsic quality of the sound, as in the case of sound phobia. These are different fears that require different approaches. Sound phobia is a clinical condition that necessitates intervention. Many such dogs need medication in order to improve.

Trainers, working with veterinarians or veterinary behaviorists, can make these determinations. Consumers often can’t. And as the sound apps being marketed to consumers become more elaborate, pet owners who follow the directions have a good chance of worsening some dogs’ fears.

Jo is not impressed

For example, a newer sound app allows you to set up the app to play the sound randomly when you are not home for purposes of desensitization (without counterconditioning, although a mechanism for it is planned for the future). The instructions show an example of a dog’s doorbell reactivity going away through use of the app (although I’m skeptical that it could work long term). The app was programmed to play doorbell sounds randomly when the owner wasn’t home. This decoupled the doorbell as a predictor of strangers at the door.

This protocol would give any professional trainer pause. First, the cause of the reactivity, the dog’s fear of strangers, isn’t addressed at all. All things considered, that is not a humane or robust approach. The dog’s fear is left intact while the inconvenience of their barking at predictors is removed. Second, for a dog with a true sound phobia, playing a feared sound repeatedly when the owner isn’t home, even at a low volume (more on this below), could have ruinous results.

Apps that can play randomized, graduated sound exposures can be a good tool for trainers, as long as the trainers are aware of the physical limitations outlined in this post. They should not be marketed or recommended to consumers. Following the directions that come with the app could actually make a dog worse.

Length of the Sound Stimulus

Many noises in the apps are too long for effective desensitization and counterconditioning. Real-life thunder and fireworks both have an infinite array of sound variations. If you play a 20-second clip of either of these, there will be multiple sounds present and a sound phobic dog may react several times, not just once.

Classical delay conditioning, where the stimulus to be conditioned is present for several seconds, and the appetitive stimulus (usually food) is continually presented during that time, is said to be the most effective form of classical conditioning.

Delay conditioning would be appropriate to use for a continuous, homogeneous sound, such as a steady state (non-accelerating) motor. But fireworks and thunder are not continuous. They are sudden and chaotic. They consist of multiple stimuli that can be extremely varied.

To offer a visual analogy: if your dog reacts to other dogs and you seek to classically condition him, you might create a careful setup wherein another dog walks by at a non-scary distance and is in view for a period of, perhaps, 10–20 seconds. You would feed your dog constantly through that period. That is a duration exposure to one stimulus. (And you would try to use a calm decoy dog who doesn’t perform a whole lot of jumpy or loud behaviors!)

But for the first time out you would not take your dog to a dog show or a pet parade or an agility trial to watch 60 different dogs of all sizes and shapes coming and going and performing all sorts of different behaviors, even if you could get the distance right and the exposure was 10–20 seconds. That is the visual equivalent of the long sound clip of fireworks. There are far too many separate stimuli.

Also, if you play a longer clip, one lasting many minutes, as has been done in some sound studies, you are essentially performing simultaneous conditioning, a method known for its failure to create an association (Schwartz, 1989, p. 59). The fact that you started feeding one second after the sound started is not going to be significant if the thunder crashes and food keep coming for minutes on end. You have not created a predictor.

And if you are feeding the whole time but the scary sounds are intermittent, you are probably also performing reverse conditioning, where the food can come to predict the scary noise.

If you are working to habituate a non-fearful dog or a litter of puppies to certain noises, the longer sound clips are probably fine. They may even work for a dog with only mild fears of those noises. But the more fearful the dog is, and the closer the dog is to exhibiting a clinical noise phobia, the cleaner your training needs to be. To get the best conditioned response, you need a short, recognizable, brief stimulus. 

After you get a positive conditioned response to one firework noise, for instance, you can then start with a different firework noise. After you have done several, you may see generalization and you can use longer clips. But don’t start with the parade!

Assumptions about Volume

Most mammals have what is called an acoustic startle response. We experience fear and constrict certain muscles reflexively when we hear a loud, sudden noise. It’s natural for any dog to be startled by a sudden noise. It may be that dogs who have over-the-top responses to thunder and fireworks have startle responses so extreme as to become dysfunctional. For dogs who fall apart when they hear a sudden, loud sound such as thunder, it makes all the sense in the world to start conditioning at low volume, because this practice can remove the startle factor.

But it’s different for dogs who are scared of high-frequency beeps and whistles. These odd, specific fears are not necessarily related to a loud volume. I have observed that, with these dogs, starting at a quiet level can actually scare the dog more. Remember, dogs don’t locate sounds as well as humans do. It could be that the disembodied nature of some of these sounds is part of what causes fear. (Have you ever tried to locate which smoke alarm in a home is emitting the dreaded low battery chirp? Even for humans, it can be surprisingly difficult. And we are better at locating sounds.)

When lowering volume is ruled out as a method of providing a lower intensity version of a sound stimulus, virtually all apps for sound desensitization are rendered useless.

Solutions

With apps that can do more and more for humans, it seems odd to suggest that in order to help your dog, you might have to invent your own helpful tools. But doing so can help you make recordings of better fidelity and more appropriate length, and if you or an acquaintance are at all tech savvy, you can also alter sounds in other ways besides volume.

  • Record sounds yourself using an application that can save the recordings in WAV or AIFF (uncompressed) formats. This eliminates one of the ways that recordings can sound different to dogs from real-life sounds. Newer smartphones are fine for this. Even though they can’t play back low-frequency sounds, they can record them.
  • Create short recordings of single sounds, especially for dogs with strong sound sensitivities. Or you can also purchase high-quality sounds. For instance, you could purchase a 20-second recording of a thunderstorm, and edit out one roll of thunder to use. But be sure that the file you purchase is uncompressed. I use the site Pond5, where I can buy appropriate, high-fidelity sounds for $3–7 apiece.
  • Play sounds for desensitization on the best sound system possible, especially if you are working with thunder, fireworks, or other sounds that include low frequencies. Be aware, though, that you can’t always successfully condition to those sounds.
  • For dogs who are afraid of high-pitched beeps, create a less scary version by changing the sound’s frequency or timbre rather than by lowering the volume. Generally, lowering the frequency works well. You will then need to create a set of sounds for graduated exposures. They should start at a non-scary frequency, then gradually work back up to the original sound. See the papers by Poppen and Desiderato listed in the references for validation of this approach.
Silly human says what?

There are several ways to change the frequency of a recorded sound. You can use video software that has good audio editing capabilities, the free computer application Audacity, or professional sound editing software. You can also generate beeps at different frequencies using a free function generator on the internet.

The one advantage of working with dogs who are afraid of such sounds is that the original sounds themselves are usually digitally generated, so when you create similar sounds the fidelity will be high. (In other words, when a dog is afraid of a smartphone noise, a smartphone is the perfect playback tool.)

This is not a project to be undertaken lightly, but it can be done if you have tech skills and a good ear. Be sure to use headphones and be at least one room away from your sound sensitive dog when you start working with recordings of beeps. My dog can hear high frequency beeps escaping from my earbuds from across a large room.

I create sound series for desensitization for dogs who are afraid of whistles, digital beeps, and some other sounds (not thunder or booming fireworks). You can check out the information on my Sound Sensitive Dogs site for more information on this service.

Sound Conditioning Is Not Always a Perfect Solution

With some dogs and some sounds, it will not be possible to play recordings that are similar enough to the natural sounds to be able to carry over a conditioned response. Thunder and fireworks will always present significant problems.

We want to believe there is always a training solution. But sometimes physics foils our plans and the gap between an artificially generated sound and the natural sound will be too high. In that case, masking, management, and medications will be the best help.

References

Desiderato, O. (1964). Generalization of conditioned suppression. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 57(3), 434–437.

Dreschel, N. A., & Granger, D. A. (2005). Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 95(3-4), 153-168.

Fay, R. R., & Wilber, L. A. (1989). Hearing in vertebrates: a psychophysics databook. Hill-Fay Associates.

Gelfand, S. (2010). Hearing: An introduction to psychological and physiological acoustics. Informa Healthcare.

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

Holmes, C. R., Brook, M., Krehbiel, P., & McCrory, R. (1971). On the power spectrum and mechanism of thunder. Journal of Geophysical Research, 76(9), 2106-2115.

Lipman, E. A., & Grassi, J. R. (1942). Comparative auditory sensitivity of man and dog. The American Journal of Psychology55(1), 84-89.

Mills, A. W. (1958). On the minimum audible angle. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America30(4), 237-246.

Poppen, R. (1970). Counterconditioning of Conditioned Suppression in Rats. Psychological Reports, 27(2), 659–671.

Schwartz, B. (1989). Psychology of learning and behavior. WW Norton & Co.

Photo Credits

  • Jo the black pug copyright Blanche Axton
  • All other photos copyright Eileen Anderson

Thank you to Whole Dog Journal, who originally published this article in 2020.

Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article

Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article

Thank you to the readers who helped me with this paper. Any mistakes are my own.

Some terminology in behavior science is notoriously hard to get one’s head around. One of these terms is negative reinforcement. Not only is this learning process itself a challenge to understand, but the terminology itself is counterintuitive. Behavior scientists specialize in training, teaching, and learning, so naturally, if a term from their own field trips people up, they are going to analyze the problem. The terminology for negative reinforcement has already been changed once, in the 1950s to early 1960s. There has been more discussion since then. This post is about the article that started the more recent discussion, and how it is often misunderstood in the animal training community.

In 1975, psychologist Dr. Jack Michael published an article named, “Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things” in the journal Behaviorism.

This journal article is widely mischaracterized, in my opinion. It is commonly quoted by people who use aversives in training and seek to minimize that when discussing or defending their methods. And certainly, the title sounds very promising for just that purpose. But only if you ignore the last phrase about “bad things.”

Some people claim the article says that the distinction between the learning processes of negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement doesn’t exist or is immaterial. They say that the difference between positive and negative reinforcement is blurred and can’t always be determined. Some say that Dr. Michael dismisses all the possible reasons for maintaining a distinction between the two. This is false (see page 43 in the paper).

Michael’s paper centers on better ways to make descriptions of and determinations about the contingent processes of operant learning. The claim that Michael states that there is little difference between positive and negative reinforcement is false. This claim misrepresents both the focus and the conclusions of the article. Note again the last part of the title: “A better way to talk about bad things.” 

In the article, Michael asks whether we need to make the distinction between what we call positive and negative reinforcement. His final answer is yes, that we need the distinction. He concludes, “We need to make the distinction in order to have a name for the bad things in our world.” (page 43)

Dr. Michael is concerned about terminology on two fronts:

  1. He wants to get rid of positive/negative and present/remove in the descriptions for different types of reinforcement.
  2. He wants to find a better nomenclature to indicate when an aversive is involved.

He proposes a solution, which I will describe below.

There are four major parts to the paper: a history of the usage of the terms for reinforcement and punishment, a critique of the current terminology, a section that explores whether we need the distinction or not (his answer: yes), and a proposed solution. I’ll summarize each briefly. The following four sections are headed with the subtitles used in the paper.

1. A Brief History of the Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

This section comprises 75% of the paper and is devoted to a retrospective of the usage of the terms for reinforcement and punishment, starting with Skinner in 1938. As some people know, what Skinner initially called “negative reinforcement” is what we now call punishment.

A textbook published in 1950 by Keller and Schoenfeld (1950) used different terminology, and in 1953 Skinner reversed his usage of the terms in his own textbook, defining them as we know them today. There was a period of transition—Michael mentions that it had to have been especially tough for the students who attended courses at the same time that employed different textbooks—and by the 1960s Skinner’s revised usage, what we use today, was in common use.

I am not going into detail here, but Dr. Michael did. Eight and a half of the eleven pages of the article are dedicated to the changes in definitions and usages of the terms and the resultant confusion. This is a major focus of the article and a major part of his criticism of the use of “positive” and “negative” with regard to reinforcement.

2. What is Wrong with the Present Usage?

In this section, Michael says, “Since 1953 there must have been thousands of man-hours spent in the attempt to prevent the learner of behavioral terminology from equating [negative reinforcement] with punishment…”

Even though I am not credentialed in that field, I know what he means. I have spent many hours myself figuring out the processes of operant learning, with bonus time on negative reinforcement, and many hours as well trying to pass on my basic understanding to others. Reinforcement, punishment, and the plusses and minuses can be confusing, especially since almost all the words used have other meanings or common metaphorical uses.

Michael goes on to describe another problem that includes semantics, in this often-quoted section:

Another difficulty with current usages is that the critical distinction between positive and negative reinforcement depends upon being able to distinguish stimulus changes which are presentations from those which are removals or withdrawals, and these latter terms are not very satisfactory descriptions of changes. The circumstances under which we have a tendency to say “present” certainly seem to differ from those where we say “remove” in vernacular usage, but some of these differences are irrelevant to a science of behavior, and there are a number of circumstances where the distinction is not easily made.

Michael, 1975, p. 40

Note that he is not saying that it’s difficult to detect the differences between aversive and appetitive stimuli. The issue he objects to is the use of the terminology of presenting and removing stimuli.

…In other words, from the point of view of the behaving organism presentations and removals are both simply types of environmental changes. If they differ, the difference must not be based upon the variables controlling the person who causes the change.

Michael, 1975, p. 40

This section merits careful reading. His major objections to the concepts of “presenting” and “removing” are that they focus unnecessarily on the actions of the environment or a third party and that they have societal and linguistic baggage (e.g., he mentions that removal can sound negative). He says what is really important to the subject organism is simply that something changed, and it is the point of view of the subject that we should be concerned about describing. We don’t need to talk about adding or removing stimuli, we need to describe bad changes and good changes from the standpoint of the subject. (Michael uses the terminology of “bad” and “good” throughout the article, which is also a deviation from standard practice.)

In other words, it appears that “present” and “remove” are abbreviations that can sometimes stand in place of a more complete description of both the pre-change and  post-change condition. The abbreviation is usually possible in the case of unconditioned reinforcements, although even here it must always be possible to infer the characteristics of both pre- and post-change conditions if we are to imply behavioral significance.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

An interesting point: he states “present” and “remove” are incomplete descriptions. He is not arguing to ignore the nature of the circumstances the organism finds itself in. He is arguing against shorthand. He is arguing that we need to describe the state of the environment and the nature of the change more accurately in order to determine the learning process in play.

There is much more in this section about presentations and removals not being specific enough for scientific usage, and it is in this section one really gets a sense of Dr. Michael’s concerns.

He also addresses an argument that has been going on for a long time in behavior science. It goes like this:

You can’t tell the difference between positive and negative reinforcement if you train using food because you don’t know if you are adding food or removing hunger.

Various people

Experts in the field discuss this question earnestly and with goodwill. But you will also see it glibly thrown into arguments by trainers who seek to mask their use of aversives (it’s is a favorite among force trainers). I humbly offer my own study of this question, but here’s a surprise. Dr. Michael addresses this very situation in his paper.

When we say that we present a food pellet to the rat the listener can always assume that the pre-change condition is one in which no food is available. We could say that we remove the “no-food” condition, but then the behaviorally important aspect of the change would remain to be described. When we say that we terminate a 50 volt electric shock, the subsequent “no-shock” condition can generally go without further description, but if it were described alone little information would be provided.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

He is saying that only one description is typically accurate in a particular situation because the other one fails to describe crucial parts of the situation. Again, he is arguing that we need to analyze the reinforcement situation with information about the environment before and after the change, not by focusing on one stimulus and whether someone “presented” or “removed” it. What is happening from the animal’s point of view? Is it a “good” change or a “bad” change, and does it involve a bad thing (aversive)?

3. Why Do We Bother?

In this section of the paper, Michael examines possible differences between negative and positive reinforcement and discusses whether each particular aspect could or should be the reason we need to make a distinction.

As we find ourselves applying behavioral analysis to more and more complex human situations we find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between presenting and removing, or we find an increasing number of situations that seem to involve both. A fairly common response to this situation is to avoid making the distinction, and simply refer to the relevant environmental change as “reinforcement,” without attempting to determine whether a positive reinforcer is being presented or a negative removed. One might well ask, then, why we bother making the distinction even in those cases where it can easily be made.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

If your goal is to generally minimize fallout of the use of negative reinforcement, you can cherrypick the above paragraph without continuing and make it look like Michael is saying the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement is unnecessary. On the contrary, this is the section where he specifically rejects that interpretation. He considers four reasons for making the distinction. He discounts the first three as follows.

  1. Are the (behavioral) strengthening effects of R+ and R- different? He answers that they are not any more different than the differences between different forms of R+.
  2. Do R+ and R-  involve different physiological structures or processes? He doesn’t think trying to make this distinction is a good idea in view of the changing field, but he leaves room for future research. This article was published in 1975, before most of the current discoveries that showed exactly that: that different physiological processes are likely involved (Overall, 2013, p. 69). 
  3. Should we keep the current terminology so as to warn people only to use “positive,” not “negative”? He appears to be asking whether we should actually appeal to the double meaning of positive. Again he answers no, that we shouldn’t base a scientific definition on a social distinction. (Note that in using the term “social distinction” he is referring to the words “positive” and “negative,” not to the actual learning processes.)

So he rejects three reasons for making the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. Then, in a section that is rarely quoted, he goes on to answer his original question in the affirmative, saying that we do need a way to distinguish the difference. He says:

The layman frequently finds it necessary to identify an environmental event or condition as one which he doesn’t like, which he attempts to escape, or avoid. He may refer to such an event as “bad” (without the moral implications of this term), “undesirable,” “unfavorable,” etc., and he also has “punishment” to use as a contrast with “reward.” A science of behavior also needs a way of identifying such events.

Michael, 1975, p. 42

And finally:

We need to make the distinction in order to have a name for the bad things in our world…

Michael, 1975, p. 43

He is arguing that we need the distinction between what is currently called negative and positive reinforcement so as to be able to specify when a “bad thing” is involved. So it is incongruous that this paper is cited in support of arguments to blur and erase the use of aversives.

4. The Solution

Michael spends so much time focusing on confusing terminology in the paper that it is strange he doesn’t devote more space to making his solution clear.

But here is what he wrote.

So, the solution to our terminological problem is to refer to the good things as reinforcers and reinforcement and call the bad things punishers and punishment. One set of terms refers to changes which have a strengthening effect on the preceding behavior; the other to changes which have a weakening effect. The distinction between two types of reinforcement, based in turn upon the distinction between presentation and removal simply can be dropped.

Michael, 1975, p. 44, bold added by Eileen

The last sentence of that quotation can also be taken out of context in a misleading way. A hasty reader, or one with an agenda, can claim Michael is saying that there is no difference between the learning processes we call R+ and R-. But he has already said that we need to specify when there is a bad thing involved. He is arguing not to base the distinction on the terminology of presentation and removal. 

Finally he writes:

The arguments set forth above convinced me about 6 years ago to stop making the distinction between negative and positive reinforcement and to refer to the bad things as punishers and punishment.

Michael, 1975, p. 44

That is the way he achieves his goals of getting rid of the terminology of presentations and removals and finding a better way to describe the “bad things.”

It’s a shame that Dr. Michael doesn’t give some examples of applying his terminology. But I would suggest a couple of examples, following his lead. Both of these are what we would now call negative reinforcement.

  1. In a shock experiment with the goal of increasing behavior, the learning process could be called using reinforcement with the punisher of shock.
  2. In an escape protocol where an animal’s behavior is reinforced by giving them more distance from a scary thing, the learning process involved could be called using reinforcement with the punisher of a feared stimulus.

It seems clunky at first, but once you realize a bad thing (“punisher”) can be involved in reinforcement in only one way, escape/avoidance, it falls into place.

Dr. Michael makes it clear that we need to stipulate when there is a bad thing included as part of the learning process. He also states that what we call negative reinforcement includes a bad thing, and presents a cogent argument that the differences between what we currently call R+ and R- are important and are distinct from each other in real-life situations.

Epilogue

In 2013 (yes, I’ve been working on this post for seven years), I tried to contact Dr. Michael to ask for some examples of how he applied his terminology: how and when he made the distinction that a punisher was involved. I reached his wife, who said he was not able to discuss such things any longer due to dementia. He passed away this year: November 13, 2020.

Dr. Michael’s paper prompted several others in the same vein, questioning the terminology of “positive” and “negative” with regard to reinforcement. In my reading, the arguments had some of the same flavor but were not exactly the same. I’ve included those articles in the references below. My arguments above apply to Michael’s 1975 article alone.

These papers usually get a footnote in behavior science textbooks, but the standard nomenclature hasn’t changed to reflect the ideas put forth, which Michael himself later noted (Michael, 2005). I recently heard a behavior analyst being interviewed in a podcast voice a similar concern with “presentations and removals.” She mentioned that in her work it is most important to observe whether behavior is under aversive or appetitive control, and those are the classifications she uses.

And permit me one moment of editorializing: I don’t know any trainers who don’t use negative reinforcement. Even the kindly act of letting an animal leave or take a break from a difficult procedure means that R- is a planned part of a training plan. Most of us would agree that allowing escape is less intrusive than flooding, but we also try mightily to train with enough skill that the animal doesn’t want to leave in the first place. So my aim here is not to preach purity, although I try to avoid the use of R- in every possible way. My argument is with people who are disingenuous about their use, and who cherrypick quotes from this paper to attempt to obfuscate the contingent processes of operant learning.

Rest in peace, Dr. Michael, and I hope my efforts here have done this famous paper justice.

References

Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2005). Positive and negative reinforcement: Should the distinction be preserved?. The Behavior Analyst28(2), 85-98. 

Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2006). The distinction between positive and negative reinforcement: Use with care. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 141-151. 

Chase, P. N. (2006). Teaching the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 113. 

Iwata, B. A. (2006). On the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. The behavior analyst29(1), 121. 

Keller, F. S., & Schoenfeld, W. N. (1950). Principles of psychology: A systematic text in the science of behavior.

Lattal, K. A., & Lattal, A. D. (2006). And Yet…: Further comments on distinguishing positive and negative reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 129.

Michael, J. (2006). Comment on Baron and Galizio (2005). The Behavior Analyst29(1), 117. 

Michael, J. (1975). Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things. Behaviorism3(1), 33-44.

Nakajima, S. (2006). Speculation and Explicit Identification as Judgmental Standards for Positive or Negative Reinforcement: A Comment on. The Behavior Analyst29(2), 269. 

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

Sidman The Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Some Additional Considerations

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis.

Photo Credit

Skinner Box diagram credit Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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

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

In 2018, I wrote a post titled “My Dog Is Afraid of the Clicker. What Should I Do?” I told the sad story of how I scared a dog with the clicker, then scared her even more by following the standard advice to remedy the situation. In the post, I did something I rarely do, which was to give straight-up advice. I advised people whose dogs were afraid of the clicker to switch to a verbal marker if they really needed a marker, and to leave the click sounds alone for a bit while they determined the extent of the dog’s fears.

I stand by that advice. And now I am going to show you why switching to a quieter mechanical click is not enough of a change to remediate some dogs’ fear.

It’s been great to see more research on training with and without the clicker and the comparison studies rolling in. Many people would be surprised at how many studies of markers, bridges, and secondary reinforcers have been made over the years. I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet of them for quite a while now. For instance, it’s often said that the click sound has special properties in that it is processed by the amygdala. But it turns out that the amygdala is involved in reward expectation and the processing of all predictors and secondary reinforcers—not just the click sound. There is research on this dating back to at least the 1980s.

People have long speculated that the clicker has special effectiveness because the sound is unique. Its short duration and salience seem to help with precision. But do you know what I have never seen? An analysis of that sound compared to other sounds. How long is it, really? What kind of sound is it?

I’m going to show you. Then I’m going to put forth some ideas about the ramifications.

How Can We Communicate about Sounds?

We don’t have enough words in English to describe sounds. As an auditory-oriented person, I run up against this problem a lot. Here is one thing that helps a little. Waveform diagrams allow us to translate the aspects of a sound wave into a visual presentation. So I’m going to give you some examples of what various sounds “look like.” We’ll examine their amplitudes (volumes), rhythms, and onset times graphically over time.

Instead of talking a lot about it, I’m going to show you a lot of examples. You’ll get the hang of it soon enough.

Examples to Get Started

The x-axis (horizontal) is time in seconds. The y-axis is amplitude (volume). I am not including details for the y-axis. These would properly be in decibels. But because these sounds were recorded in different situations, I didn’t control for the distance between the sound source and the mic. Giving readings in decibels would be misleading. I want you to look at the shapes. (If you are curious, the y-axis is on a linear scale to help the user know their recording level. Several of the click sounds “saturated” the scale, meaning that their volume exceeded the bounds of the scale at the distance from the microphone I used. Bad audio engineering behavior on my part!)

I’m not going to get into pitch, because if there are many different frequencies playing at the same time, we don’t hear pitch at all. Most of the sounds I’m going to show you are of this variety. For the piano and violin, the frequency is too high for us to see individual oscillations at the given scale on the page. But most of the sounds are too complex to show oscillations at all.

Here is the C above middle C (C5) on a piano, played at loud, medium, and soft levels. Note how the sound starts off very suddenly (the piano is actually in the percussion family of instruments). Even the very soft one has a definite beginning. Then the amplitude decreases (decays) quickly over time on each one.

Here is the same C played on the violin. String instrument sounds played with a bow don’t necessarily decay. This particular sound starts abruptly, but stringed instruments can also fade in.

Here is what talking looks like. (This is the image of me saying, “Here is what talking looks like.”)

Here is a chainsaw being used to cut down a tree. The last shape is the tree falling.

OK, now we get to the good stuff, the point of this article. I want to show you what the sounds of the clicker and other mechanical markers look like.

Impulse Noises

The following noises are all what acousticians call impulse noises. An impulse noise goes from zero to a high volume in such a short time that it is perceived as instantaneous. Impulse noises are likely more common in human society than in nature. Sudden thunderclaps are impulse noises. Natural explosions can be. But humans create all sorts of impulse noises. Exploding gasses, mechanical impacts, and explosions are impulse noises. Digital noises that are not deliberately faded in, but just “turn on” can be impulse noises. Noise is well studied and regulated by OSHA and the CDC because it can be harmful in several kinds of ways. For instance, very loud impulse noises can cause ear damage because of the suddenness, whereas a gradual noise that peaks at the same volume would not.

You may suspect what I’m working up to. Even though these sounds are quieter, clickers and other mechanical markers have the other characteristics of impulse noises: sudden, with a very fast onset. They are of the mechanical impact type. The suddenness is one aspect of their precision. If you want a short marker, you want it to start (and stop) fast. Here are some examples.

Here is the pop of bubble wrap. Check out the time scale: the loud part is over in less than 1/10 of a second. The loud part is about 0.07 seconds, or 70 milliseconds. I’m going to use milliseconds from here on out. Just remember that 1,000 milliseconds comprise a second.


Here’s the click of a dog’s plastic buckle collar. Hmmmm, imagine that right next to your ear.


Here is a box clicker. The two clicks are about 110 milliseconds apart.


Here is a “bug” clicker. This one was a little harder to do quickly so the two clicks were about 160 milliseconds apart.


Here is a baby food lid. Note: I learned that they are very unwieldy. Trying to click with a round disc that keeps slipping out of your fingers is not practical! The amplitude is also very different, with the second click much quieter. These clicks are about 100 milliseconds apart.


Here is a retractable ballpoint pen. I had never noticed that the second sound is louder than the first one, but it is. These clicks are about 170 milliseconds apart. You’ll see in a minute why I’m mentioning the time between the clicks.


Less Abrupt Sounds

All those clicking sounds started very abruptly. Here are some verbal sounds and a mouth click for comparison.

Here’s the verbal marker “Yip.” It is about 110 milliseconds long. But look how gradually it starts compared to the clicks above.


Here’s a verbal “Yes.” It also starts gradually and is about 150 milliseconds long.


Here is a mouth click. It is about 75 milliseconds long.

Onset Comparisons

One of the characteristics of impulse noises is the fast onset of the noise and the quick rise to the maximum amplitude. So for the following images, I zoomed in 10x, that is, we now see the detail in a tenth of a second (100 milliseconds) in the space we were seeing a whole second. This is so we can see the time it takes for the onset of the sound.

Here is the “Yip” zoomed in. It may be only 110 milliseconds long, but almost all of that is the comparatively gentle onset of the Y sound.


Here is the mouth click zoomed in. Even though the mouth click looks a lot more sudden than the verbals in the images above, check it out when zoomed in. It still doesn’t have the almost instantaneous onset of the mechanical sounds.


So we can compare the above with a mechanical sound, here is the plastic buckle zoomed in. The amplitude rises to its maximum within just a couple of milliseconds.

Impulse Sounds and the Acoustic Startle Response

I’ve shown graphically how much faster mechanical clicks start than our verbal noises. Here’s why I am focusing on that fast onset.

Mammals have a reflex called the startle response. It can be triggered by a sudden noise, an unexpected touch, or even a purely visual stimulus (think of a silent jump scare on a computer or movie screen). But it is so commonly triggered by noise that that variety has its own term: the acoustic startle response.

In the startle response, the body responds with a rapid extension, then flexion of several muscles. (In humans, these often center on the head, neck, and shoulders, but also extend down to the legs. You probably can summon the kinesthetic memory of your shoulders tensing when you have been startled. If you were sitting down, the quick muscle movement of your legs made you jump out of your seat a little as well.) The criteria for an acoustic stimulus to trigger a startle response have been studied in several species, although not in dogs that I can find. The criteria to acoustically evoke the startle response in rats are 1) that the sound reaches full intensity within 12–15 milliseconds (0.012—0.015 seconds) of its onset, and 2) that the sound is about 80-90 decibels (Ladd et al, 2000). Many texts note that quick onset is essential to the startle response. If a sound is equally loud at its peak but takes more time to rise to that volume, it won’t trigger a startle.

With the onset criteria in mind, take another look at the zoomed-in image of the buckle collar. The time from onset to maximum of that sound is well under 12 milliseconds: it’s less than 5. On the other hand, the onset of the mouth click is more gradual and does not reach as high an amplitude (volume). Again, the amplitudes are not exactly at the same scale, because I did not maintain an exact distance from the microphone over the time I recorded them. But they are roughly representative of the comparative volumes. The mouth click is indeed much quieter than the buckle collar.

Finally, look again at the zoomed in verbal “Yip.” It takes fully 100 milliseconds to reach the peak amplitude.

The Takeaway

  • While clickers may not quite reach the criteria to evoke the startle response, they come close. A sensitive animal could be startled by a clicker, especially if the click happens close to its ears. Animals can habituate to startling stimuli, but there is a chance that a sensitive animal will instead become sensitized. And a dog who is sound phobic may respond with fear to a click at any volume.
  • If an animal becomes sensitized to the clicker sound, changing to another mechanical sound (jar lid, ballpoint pen) or dampening the original clicker may not work. I’ve tried this with unfortunate results, and I know some of you have, too. I hypothesize that it is because these quieter mechanical sounds still have the sudden onset of an impulse sound.
  • From a bioacoustical standpoint, switching to a verbal marker will generally solve both of the problems. It is quieter, and the onset is much slower than that of a mechanical device.
  • The total time of a quick verbal marker is comparable to the time between the two clicks of a clicker, so you may not be losing much in precision.

Mechanical clicks, even quiet ones, have the characteristics of impulse sounds, which can trigger the mammalian acoustic startle response. If you’ve scared an animal with a clicker, it’s probably wise to move away from mechanically generated sounds until you know more about their particular sensitivities.

These are my own deductions, based on the acoustic properties of mechanical clicks, the nature of the mammalian startle response, and what I have observed in dogs. I’m not saying that clickers are dangerous for all dogs, or even most dogs. I’m saying that some fearful or sensitive dogs will not habituate to these startling noises, that they may get sensitized instead, and that the sensitization can generalize to other similar sounds, even at lower volumes. There could be errors in my assumptions, and I am open to any discussion on the topic.

References and Further Reading

Götz, T., & Janik, V. M. (2011). Repeated elicitation of the acoustic startle reflex leads to sensitisation in subsequent avoidance behaviour and induces fear conditioning. BMC neuroscience12(1), 30.

Ladd, C. O., Plotsky, P. M., & Davis, M. (2000). Startle response. George Fink. Encyclopedia of Stress.(ed), 3.

Rooney, N. J., Clark, C. C., & Casey, R. A. (2016). Minimizing fear and anxiety in working dogs: a review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior16, 53-64.

Yeomans, J. S., Li, L., Scott, B. W., & Frankland, P. W. (2002). Tactile, acoustic and vestibular systems sum to elicit the startle reflex. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews26(1), 1-11.

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Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

A Great Substitute for Canned Spray Cheese for Dog Treats

A Great Substitute for Canned Spray Cheese for Dog Treats

If the idea of giving junk food to your dog appalls you, don’t read this. But I will say that my concoction of goopy stuff is healthier than the original.

I won’t make you read the history of the world before presenting the recipe. To save some of you from scrolling down, here’s my best substitute for canned spray cheese. But feel free to read the story of my experimentation. It will probably help with your own. Also, Cheez Whiz is a U.S. product; I have ideas for my friends in other countries at the end of the post.

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