The Stages of Crossover

When I crossed over to training with positive reinforcement, I had no idea how much my behavior and even my belief system would need to change. I had to question my faith in some long-held cultural assumptions and learn to rely on scientific observation and analysis.

Crossing over was a lengthy process for me, and even now, after more than 10 years, I occasionally fall back onto old assumptions and behaviors. I wonder sometimes if I am the only one so vulnerable to cultural programming. But a quick look around social media says no, I’m probably not.

There are intellectual, emotional, and cultural barriers to crossing over. For me, certain barriers were so large that they defined whole phases in my thinking and practice about training. I’ll share several of these phases here. Maybe they will be familiar to some of you. And maybe identifying them could be helpful to trainers who meet with resistance or confusion from their clients. Once upon a time, I was that client.

“I Tried R+ and It Didn’t Work”

This was my experience, and it was real—it’s not just something people say to provoke positive reinforcement trainers. I went in and out of this phase, trying and failing several times.

In 2002, when I got my rat terrier, Cricket, I read about positive reinforcement training on the young Internet. I wanted to teach Cricket to walk on a loose leash. I read about the “Be a Tree” method, wherein one stops forward progress whenever the dog pulls. I thought I was trying positive reinforcement training when I tried to be a tree. It sounded elegant and reasonable. But I didn’t know to start indoors, in low distraction. What I had read didn’t mention using food as a reinforcer when the dog was walking nicely, so I didn’t. And I didn’t know about any of the quadrants then, much less recognize the presence of the other three in the protocol as I was practicing it.

Lovely little Cricket—I don’t have a photo of our “Be a Tree” fiasco

I followed the “Be a Tree” protocol as faithfully as I knew how every day for six months, and, not surprisingly, it didn’t work. Cricket would immediately tighten the leash, and I would stop. She would stand there, barking. I would wait until she accidentally loosened the leash. (It often took a while.) Then we would go on, perhaps three more steps, and the process would repeat.

Now I know that she was probably too far over threshold to perceive that the loosening of the leash was connected to being allowed to go forward and that some sort of reinforcement (though not intended by me) was working to maintain the barking. And I know for sure my timing was bad. But since my attempt at the method was unsuccessful, I assumed that positive reinforcement training in general didn’t work. If I had known about learning theory then, I wouldn’t have hesitated to further generalize that learning theory didn’t work either. (Indeed, that was a later phase.)

Isn’t that a little strange? Why would I reject the whole thing rather than consider that my knowledge might be incomplete?

Suppose I had an orthopedic problem and needed surgery. The operation, a well-understood and documented procedure to be performed by a skilled surgeon, had a predicted 90 percent chance of success—but it failed.

My possible responses might include:

• The surgeon did her best, but due to complications I was forewarned about, the method failed
• The surgeon failed
• Western medicine failed

It’s so easy to jump to that third response with dog training. When we are new to training, the idea that it could be based in science is new too. And the science doesn’t always fit well with a lot of what we “know” from living in a punishment-based culture.

“R+ Is Not Practical”

Summer, my crossover dog, pursuing her passion for squirrels

Believe it or not, I failed a second time with loose leash walking, four years later and with a different dog. I was toying with positive reinforcement training again and had read about Premack’s principle, a theory stating that a stronger response will reinforce a weaker response. Since my new dog, Summer, was fixated on squirrels, I decided that running together to a tree where there was a squirrel would be the reward for walking nicely for a few steps and sitting and giving me eye contact. She quickly learned how to “ask” to run to the squirrel. The problem was getting her attention back after that. Also, I had accidentally created the adrenaline-filled, anticipatory stay so prized by some agility competitors. Summer was on pins and needles, then exploded into action when released. But I lacked the skill to get her back, and I saw that the main result was Summer getting more and more hyped up on walks.

I thought, “Well, that worked, but it’s sure not very practical.”

“Force Is Necessary for Dogs with Issues”

Another common phase of crossing over is the period where we believe that positive reinforcement is fine for most dogs/teaching tricks/teaching the basics, but we still need to punish dogs with behavior problems. Yes, I really believed this. I remember one night at an obedience club seeing a dog that was said to be aggressive. I told my friend that I was glad the dog was wearing a prong collar—this was a dog who needed it, and we had to consider the safety of the other dogs. It made intuitive sense to me that tough dogs needed a tougher approach. (I had never watched that show, by the way. And the idea of “being the boss” resonated culturally well before Cesar came along.)

I could think of no option except to suppress the “bad” behavior. I perceived a dog who bit as being “tough and mean,” rather than afraid, as he probably was. And I had no clue that wearing a prong could worsen his fears, as well as exacerbate the risk of aggression against the other dogs.

“My Dog Is Different”

Even after I had grasped the rudiments of operant learning, I figured there must be exceptions to the basic principles. I didn’t understand the breadth and depth of behavior science. I would swear up and down that a certain behavior that one of my dogs performed regularly was not getting reinforced. Or I would search for things that “didn’t work” as predicted. When I thought I’d found one, I had this victorious a-ha feeling: I just knew my dog was different! I had a grand old time going around saying how this didn’t work and that didn’t work.

“I’ve Got It Figured, and It’s Not What They Think!”

Text: The Phases of Crossing Over  • I tried R+ and it didn’t work • R+ is not practical • Force is necessary for dogs with issues • My dog is different • I’ve got it figured, and it’s not what “they” think  Don't get stuck the way I did! Keep studying and training. A little learning is a dangerous thing, at least for some of us. At some point, I was convinced that I had realized things that almost no one else had. I had it all figured out. And I found support from the iconoclasts: I would glom onto scholarly articles that didn’t say what the people who circulated them thought they did, opinion pieces by critics of behavioral science who didn’t understand it, and arguments that had elements of truth that had been falsely generalized.

I distrusted expertise in behavior analysis and figured that the iconoclast du jour had found a loophole. The trouble was that I didn’t (and still don’t) know the basics well enough to be “proving” that there were exceptions. I’m not saying there’s no nuance to the science; I’m saying that when I perceived something as exceptional I was merely mistaken.

“Not So Fast!”

This is not exactly a phase, but more of a common setback during crossover. I remember an example from a conversation with a force-free trainer friend. We were talking about a talented young agility student. He was taking lessons with a local so-called balanced trainer known for her rough handling. I mentioned this to my friend, and she said, “Oh I hate it when children are taught to hurt their dogs.”

I flinched, bigtime. Even though I had reported this development as bad news, I wasn’t ready to hear blunt language about hurting a dog. I had trained punitively only for a short time, never liked it, and had quit more than a year before. Still, I reflexively defended the rough trainer. Why? I don’t even know.

I Made It Anyway

Despite spending so much time arguing and looking for loopholes, eventually I “got it.” I started seeing how behavior is a map of what is reinforcing. I perceived the fallout of aversives. I learned about competing reinforcers and saw how, when a method failed, one common reason was that there was reinforcement coming from another source. I realized that training involved mechanical skill, and that without it certain methods wouldn’t work well. Failures became easier to analyze. I learned enough about canine body language to see the obvious differences in the demeanors of dogs trained primarily with aversives and those who weren’t.

What Pushed Me Off the Fence?

What helped? Seeing more and more examples of positive reinforcement working. Learning about the theory. Learning about the role emotions play in behavior. Repetition.

But it may well have been agility lessons with an excellent teacher that finally helped me turn the corner. Human neophytes in agility see their dogs go the “wrong” direction or take the “wrong” obstacle again and again. Without the influence of good teachers or other resources, students blame the dog. My teacher challenged my assumptions repeatedly, with gentle but inexorable logic.

Summer pursuing a new passion

If I claimed that my dog “defied” me by taking the tunnel, my teacher would remind me how much I had reinforced tunnel work. If I complained that my dog turned in front of me, my teacher would point out that I had slowed down just before she turned. When I thought my dog took a “random” direction, my teacher would instruct me to look where my own feet were pointing. She showed me over and over that my dog’s seemingly inexplicable behavior was usually a direct response to mine.

Most important, she helped me figure out what would motivate my dog more than the wildlife on the other side of the fence. Seeing my dog’s interest level change from, “This is okay if there is nothing else to do” to “Please, oh please, let’s play again!” showed me the true power of positive reinforcement.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Barks from the Guild under the title “The Crossover Client” and was edited for the magazine by Kiki Yablon.

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Guess What! That Dog Video Is Probably Fake!

Text: Fake Dog Videos Often 1) Have an altered sound track; 2) Are short and heavily edited; 3) Make you go, "Awwww"; 4) Don't show everythingMost of us are beguiled by videos where dogs appear to be doing something very human or beyond what we usually consider to be their intelligence level. Creators of fake dog videos exploit this tendency to get clicks. They make it appear that the dog is doing something he is not, or attribute some pretend, human-centric motivation or interest. And there are people who are willing to alter videos or create mashups so one of these things appears to be happening.

Innocent Misrepresentation of Dogs

Some misleading videos are not deliberate fakery. They are actually published out of misunderstandings of dog body language. Some popular video genres were born of this misunderstanding. One of these is the “cute dog and baby video.” These are videos of infants or toddlers close to or on top of dogs.  The humans rave about how wonderfully tolerant the dog is, while the dog is usually getting more and more desperate to escape. (Often the toddlers are roughly handling the dogs.) The caption is often something like, “Oh, Bowser loves the kids! He lets them do anything!” He may love them, but he doesn’t love what the kids are doing. I’ve talked to enough trainers to be concerned about this practice. Both the dog’s and the child’s lives can be at risk. And even if the dog isn’t demonstrating stress, such a video encourages other people into unsafe practices with dogs and babies.

Some good resources for making sure kids and dogs can live together safely are:

I recently published an article about a viral video of a “smiling” puppy, allegedly from happiness from being adopted. Same deal. The new owners likely misunderstood the communication of an appeasement grin. But they did realize that the cute factor could cause the video to go viral.

A related genre is the “guilty dog” video.  In most guilty dog videos, the dog is stressed because the human is scolding or threatening them. (In case anybody reading here isn’t aware, there has actually been a study that debunks dogs “acting guilty.” It showed no correlation between a dog performing these behaviors and having committed a misdeed.) The most famous “guilty dog” of them all was a Labrador named Denver. She sometimes performed a classic but rare appeasement signal for dogs: a grin. In her original viral video, her squinting and ducking her head supposedly signified guilt for stealing a bag of food. In later videos, her owner showed her squinting and grinning in other situations, such as when he approached her with ear medicine. Grinning at the prospect of ear medicine undermines the “guilt” theory, but it didn’t matter by then.

Most of the “cute dog and baby” videos, “guilty dog,” and “grinning dog” videos are born of misunderstanding. But then there are videos that appear to be deliberately faked.

Spotting a Faked Dog Video

There are a couple of reasons for the human behavior of fakery, but the primary reason is virality. The makers of these videos generally know the dog was not really doing what they purport. But they want to have a viral video, either to monetize or just for the attention. So they edit and alter a video to fit a narrative.

Here are eight things to look for that can indicate a faked dog video.

  • Is the soundtrack removed?
  • Is it very short?
  • Is there a lot of video editing in a short video?
  • Does the video make you go, “Awwww” or “Wow!” and you are amazed to think a dog could do such a thing?
  • Are there crucial parts of the scene that you can’t see?
  • Is the dog looking repeatedly off camera?
  • Is there is mood music added?
  • Are there added titles to establish a narrative?

A combination of one or more of these characteristics often means the video was faked. Here are four examples.

The Bulldog “Keeping the Beat” But Not Really

There is a video of a white English bulldog ostensibly “head-banging” to the Nirvana song “Come as You Are.” He rocks and nods his head somewhat in time with the beat. A person is playing a six-string acoustic (i.e. not electric) guitar in the foreground.



This video doesn’t convincingly show a dog feeling and moving to a beat. It is clearly a mashup. Here is the evidence.

  1. We can’t hear any environmental noise, including the acoustic guitar being played right up front, close to the camera. We hear only the electric bass and drums from the Nirvana song. In other words, it’s not a recording of what’s happening in the room. (You could stop right here. This alone ruins the credibility of the video. )
  2. The guitarist’s movements on the fingerboard don’t match the music. He’s playing something else.
  3. The soundtrack is not even the actual Nirvana song. The vocals never come in. We hear only the introduction, looped a few times.

What Really Happened?

Here’s what makes sense to me.

  1. A guy was playing the guitar while someone videoed him.
  2. The bulldog walked in, paused a few seconds, then started rocking on his butt, perhaps to scratch his butt or as some kind of stereotypy.
  3. The person with the camera kept filming and probably had a good laugh.
  4. Afterward, someone removed the sound from the video and substituted a looped version of the introduction of the Nirvana song.  They probably used the looped intro because including the vocals would trigger copyright algorithms in YouTube. YouTube would remove it or sanction them.
  5. They marketed the movie as an example of a dog moving to a beat.

By the way, the “Nirvana” versions of this video are not the earliest. There is an earlier version posted on YouTube with a blues soundtrack. That version **might** have the original soundtrack, but the dog’s movement is still clearly independent of the music.

To believe that the Nirvana video is as it purports to be, you would have to believe the following string of unlikely events.

  1. A guy was sitting in his house holding his guitar while a loop of the introduction of a Nirvana song played over his speakers (why the loop?).
  2. He was simultaneously playing a different piece on his acoustic guitar (why?).
  3. The two humans, the two dogs, and the acoustic guitar he is playing right in front of the camera are all completely inaudible.

A much simpler explanation is that the Nirvana song was chosen as a good match for the dog’s movement. Anytime the original audio is removed from a video, it’s a good time to get skeptical.

By the way, members of avian species have shown the ability to sense and respond to a beat (Schachner et al, 2009), and a sea lion has been *trained* to do so (Rouse et al. 2016). The Schachner paper linked above also found no evidence of dogs moving to a beat. They examined a lot of video evidence.  I haven’t seen any persuasive videos myself since that paper was published. And yes, I’ve seen the golden retriever whose head nods as someone plays the guitar. That video has problems, too.

Holding the Gate for the Golden Puppies: A Trained Behavior

Some videos that supposedly show dogs doing unusual things are likely showing trained behaviors. The producers frame the behaviors to look like the dogs are doing them on their own. This video of the golden retriever opening a gate and holding it open for a group of puppies to go to a line of food bowls is probably one of those. She is being heavily coached by humans. Here are some things to notice.

  • The adult golden can open the gate and hold it, but almost closes it with half the puppies still inside. She appears stressed.
  • She is looking away from the puppies, probably up at a human, a fair amount of time.
  • There’s no soundtrack, just cute music.
  • The editing is choppy and strange, with two obvious edits in a 19-second video.

The Lab “Rocking” Puppies: No Training, Just Fakery

In this video, we see a lovely yellow lab “rocking” two young puppies in a recliner type rocking chair. She is sitting in front of the chair, with her chin and her right paw up on the chair. The chair is rocking. Look closely. It’s unlikely that the dog is providing the motion. She is responding to it. Her body weight is pushed forward, but the chair is rocking down and toward her. A human is probably pushing the chair from behind. And here is our usual tipoff: we have an added soundtrack of the Brahms Lullaby, music box style. The tinny music was clearly added to the video and not playing in the room.

So the likely scenario is that someone put this lab’s two puppies in the chair, and she came to watch over them. Then someone rocked the chair from behind.

“Dogs rocking babies” is a genre. There are playlists and compilation videos galore. Often, the dog has her paws up on a rocker while a person or a motor provides the rocking. On a few, the dog has been trained to bat or push at the infant rocker and does so on cue. Some retriever types seem to like to rest their chins on a rocker while it rocks. In no case does the dog appear to be rocking the infant to soothe it, as a human would. Yet that is what the creators of these videos would have us believe.

Some establish a narrative using subtitles to make sure you get the message. Here’s one such narrative (I changed the names).

This shiba inu is lending a paw
to rock his baby brother to sleep!
1-year-old Fido loves to push
8-month-old Johnnie in his baby chair.
You can always find him near Johnnie, his mom said.
He is very helpful
and always ready to make sure his little brother is ok.
How sweet!

Props to this one for duration behavior, but you can see the cord from the electric rocker plugged in. Fido is not doing the rocking.

These videos are not cute, to me. I see little point to them. And it’s unwise to show your dog right up close to your infant. People copy things they see others post. The dogs are often right next to an infant’s face, performing a contrived and uncomfortable behavior. Nothing could go wrong there, right?


Dogs “Hopping To Show Support”

This video purports to show two dogs limping in empathy with their owner, who has a broken foot. This is a particularly unfortunate situation because the larger dog’s leg may have been tied up to cause a limp.

The dog may have a natural limp, or the owner may have trained a front leg limp. But that’s a pretty advanced trick. Somehow that doesn’t fit with the hilarity of the onlookers. And the dog wouldn’t have gear wrapped around its neck.

The smaller dog doesn’t limp; he just does a paw lift near the end of the video, a common sign of stress.

This video does seem to have the original soundtrack. If the dogs are “showing support,” why must the owner beckon them repeatedly?

This video is also looped and slowed down, a common tactic when videos are super short. You will see the major sites do this a lot.

Other Popular Videos That Are Probably Not as They Appear

I’ll add to this section as I see viral dog videos that appear to have an element of fakery.

  • The sledding dog. This video shows awesome training. But the versions edited and posted by major media try to make us think that the dog is sledding all on her own as a way of self-entertainment. But the original soundtrack is missing, and the dog is obviously looking at the human for cues. There is a lot of editing and looping, and someone turns the sled around (off camera) at the top of the hill. It’s too bad because the owner did a fabulous job training the complex behaviors of riding a sled down a curved hill, fetching the sled back to the owner, and pulling it up the hill on cue.
  • The jumping, turning puppy. This video even made the rounds among dog trainers. Many posted it as an example of “social learning.” In it, a puppy (looks like a pug) jumps—odd, stiff legged little jumps—and simultaneously turns 360 degrees. Then a teenager jumps and twirls, waving their arms. Then the teenager points at the puppy. The puppy jumps, then turns again. We want to believe we are seeing mimicry, but there are several fatal flaws with this claim, including that the puppy does the behavior first. Oops. We are seeing mimicry by a human! The puppy could easily have performed and been rewarded for the behavior a dozen times before the video started. There is no sound, the video is oddly edited, and it’s only 10 seconds long.  If I had a puppy who could copy a behavior of mine on cue, I would make a video that truly demonstrated it happening, wouldn’t you? Kudos to the kid for giving the pup a treat, though.

These are my opinions about the videos. I’m open to evidence that I am wrong. Usually, this would be as straightforward as showing the unedited video with the original soundtrack. On some, we would need a different camera angle. This would require that the dog do the behavior again in a similar situation.

I’m always interested in seeing other videos that are not likely showing what they imply or claim to show. Got any?

Thank you to the people who provided me videos when I asked on Facebook for examples. I’m sorry I didn’t write down your names for credit!


Rouse, A. A., Cook, P. F., Large, E. W., & Reichmuth, C. (2016). Beat keeping in a sea lion as coupled oscillation: implications for comparative understanding of human rhythm. Frontiers in neuroscience, 10, 257.

Schachner, A., Brady, T. F., Pepperberg, I. M., & Hauser, M. D. (2009). Spontaneous motor entrainment to music in multiple vocal mimicking species. Current Biology19(10), 831-836.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Dogs and music, Dogs and sound, Eileen ruins everything, Human and dog misunderstandings | 13 Comments

How Does Dogs’ Hearing Compare To Humans’?

There is a lot of misunderstanding out there about how well dogs hear. It’s true that their hearing is better than that of humans in a couple ways. They can hear higher-pitched sounds than humans can, and they can hear quieter sounds than we can in some frequency ranges. Because of this, they have a reputation of superb hearing. But their hearing capabilities are not better across the board. Our capabilities are superior to theirs in a few important ways as well.

Here is what the experimental literature tells us about dogs’ hearing compared to that of humans. First, we’ll cover a couple of things we need to know about the characteristics of sound.

Measuring and Defining Sounds

There are two aspects of sound that are most important to understand and identify: frequency (pitch) and sound pressure level. Sound pressure level (SPL)  is a physically measurable quantity that corresponds very roughly to what we subjectively experience as volume.

There are other qualities that are essential to sound, such as timbre and duration. But frequency and SPL are the most important to understand.

Frequency is how high or low the sound is in pitch. It is measured in cycles per second or Hertz. Low, rumbly sounds have low frequencies, that is, fewer cycles per second. High sounds such as digital beeps, children singing, and most birdsong have more cycles per second. Some frequencies of well-known sounds are:

  • The lowest note on an 88-key piano: 28 Hz
  • The highest note on an 88-key piano: 4,186 Hz
  • The low rumbles of thunder: 5–220 Hz (Holmes, 1971)
  • The typical range of human conversation: 80–8,000 Hz (Fant, 2006, p. 218).  The fundamental frequencies of speech are on the low end; fricative consonants like f and s are on the high end.
  • Typical digital beeps and whistles: 1,500–5,000 Hz (measurements by author)
  • The high range of hummingbird vocalizations: 12,000 Hz (Rusch, Pytte, & Ficken, 1996)

Sound pressure level is measured in decibels, a logarithmic unit. The decibel scale is used because the range of detectable sound is so wide.  A linear scale would have to go from 0 to greater than 100 million units to cover the range of sounds we can respond to. But SPL doesn’t exactly correspond to how loud we perceive a sound to be. That is termed “apparent loudness” and differs from person to person, organism to organism. It can’t be objectively measured in a practical way. But SPL can be objectively measured, and those measurements are what we have available to tell us roughly how “loud” we will experience a sound to be.

Logarithmic scales are counterintuitive and a bit difficult to understand. But you can get the idea of the range of sounds we can hear and how loud they are on the image below. You can also consult this article by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to help you get your bearings with decibels.

Dogs’ Hearing vs. Human Hearing

OK, so now we are ready to compare dogs’ hearing to humans’.

High Frequencies

Dogs can hear much higher frequencies than humans can. A young human with normal hearing can typically hear up to about 20,000 Hz (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166). As humans age, that upper limit decreases to about 12,000 Hz. Dogs can hear to 45,000 Hz (Heffner, 1983).

Low Frequencies

Humans can hear slightly lower frequencies than dogs can. We can hear pitches down to about 20 Hz.  We can hear lower than this, down to about 2 Hz, but we don’t perceive these notes as pitches (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166). Sound lower than 20 Hz is called the infrasound range. Dogs can hear down to about 67 Hz (Heffner, 1983). There was speculation in the past that large dogs such St. Bernards can hear low frequencies better. But this was not born out by Heffner’s research. The dog that could hear the lowest frequencies best was a poodle, and the St. Bernard came in last(Heffner, 1983). 

Sound Localization

Humans can locate sounds more precisely than dogs can. For humans, the so-called minimum audible angle is 1° or less in our strongest zone and frequency (Mills, 1958).  The minimal audible angle for dogs is 4° (Fay and Wilber, 1989, p. 519). 

Psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren (2005, p. 47) points out that sound location is one of the first capabilities that dogs lose if they go deaf.

Threshold of Hearing

The threshold of hearing is the sound pressure level at which a sound becomes audible. In the lower frequency range (125–500 Hz), dogs’ and humans’ thresholds of hearing are about the same. At higher pitches, though, dogs have a lower threshold. That is, they can hear sounds at a lower volume than we can. This is true in the range of  500–8,000 Hz, where they can hear noises that are from 13–19 decibels lower (quieter) than we can (Lipman & Grassi, 1942). This is a significant difference. At frequencies higher than 8,000 Hz, the discrepancy grows wider. Then comes the range where we can’t hear at all, but dogs can (20,000–45,000 Hz).

There is a widespread claim that dogs can hear things at “four times the distance” humans can. I haven’t found the source for this and the information above shows that it isn’t a general rule. There are many variables in play when sounds travel over a distance. The range in which dogs’ hearing really excels is the high-frequency range. But this is also the range where sounds don’t travel over long distances. The claim may be related to Lipman and Grassi’s above data point that some dogs can hear noises that are up to 19 dB lower than humans in some ranges. That 19 dB difference would correspond to a factor of four in loudness (but not sound pressure level, sorry). But it’s at a specific frequency, 4,000 Hz (Lipman & Grassi, 1942). If that’s the case, the “four times the distance” claim is an overgeneralization and an impractical comparison. In other words, it’s false.

Summary: Comparing the Hearing of Humans and Dogs

Auditory Processing

The qualities listed above have to do with the physiological capabilities of hearing. Dogs’ abilities to classify and discriminate sounds have been studied as well. The following are not characteristics of hearing, per se, but of the brain’s processing of an auditory stimulus.

Pitch Discrimination

Dogs can discriminate between pitches. They have been tested using both operant and respondent methods. Dogs can discriminate up to 1/3 tone, for instance, between 2,820 and 2,900 Hz (Dworkin, 1935). This is a bit finer than the scale of notes used in most Western music, which progresses by 1/2 tones. They can likely perform even better. In one experiment, a single dog was able to discriminate between tones of 29,500 and 30,000 Hz (Andreyev, 1934). This is far above the range of human hearing, and a smaller increment than 1/3 tone.

Tempo Discrimination

I’m not sure what to call this one, but experiments have been performed to test dogs’ response to different metronome settings. A musician would call these settings differences in tempo. Tempo is measured in beats per minute. For instance, in a tempo of 60 beats per minute, the beats are exactly one second apart.  Dogs can discriminate between 118 beats per minute and 120 beats per minute (Andreyev, 1934). To understand, try this online metronome. Enter the setting of 118 beats per minute, listen, then change it to 120 beats per minute. Could you tell which one it was if someone played one of them for you out of the blue?

Sound Source Categorization

Dogs can learn to categorize sounds. In one study, they were able to differentiate between “sounds that dogs make” and “other sounds.” The other sounds included mechanical sounds and sounds made by other animals (Heffner, 1975).

Timbre Discrimination

Timbre is defined as:

a sensory attribute of sound that enables one to judge differences between sounds having the same pitch, loudness, and duration (Gelfand 2010, p. 227).

We witness dogs’ ability to discriminate timbre empirically all the time. Does your dog discriminate the sound of your car from others? Your voice from your best friend’s? Sure! but the research on it seems pretty limited. Some studies were performed in the early 20th century that showed that dogs could discriminate the difference between the same note played on a tuning fork or a keyboard instrument, and also between different chords (Razran & Warden, 1959).

A different kind of evidence of timbre discrimination was shown in Adachi et al’s study (2007). They demonstrated that dogs could match their owner’s face to the owner’s voice (contrasted with another voice and face) calling their name. Ratcliffe et al (2014) similarly showed that dogs could likely discriminate voices by human gender, which may involve timbre discrimination.

Since a lot of what comprises timbre is the overtone structure of a sound, timbre discrimination could be a subset of pitch discrimination.

Human Speech Sound Discrimination

There are also studies that investigate dogs’ abilities to discriminate between aspects of human speech. These are not about dogs’ comprehension of language, which is a different issue. These are tests to see if dogs can hear the difference between certain human-spoken consonant and vowel sounds.

For instance, Baru (1975) demonstrated that dogs could discriminate between the vowel sounds i and a. The dogs were trained with shock, where wrong answers and “no responses” were punished.

I’m mentioning one study even though it is a master’s thesis. Athanasiadou (2012) tested vowel discrimination in dogs using the preferential looking paradigm. This is a noninvasive method used with human infants. The dogs could discriminate between the Dutch vowel sounds a and e. I hope that future studies of language discrimination follow this method rather than Baru’s.

There are quite a few studies of dogs vis-à-vis words and language, but these veer away from dogs’ discrimination capabilities. The discrimination abilities are taken as a given. If you are interested in speech sound discrimination, there is a review article by Kriengwatana et al that synopsizes a lot of that research for dogs and other animals and is available free online.

This article is a cornerstone for a new section of my blog devoted to dogs and sounds. I will be offering some very practical advice. I hope you stick around for more!


Adachi I., Kuwahata H., Fujita K. (2007). Dogs recall their owner’s face upon hearing the owner’s voice. Animal Cognition 10 17–21

Andreyev, L. A. (1934). Extreme limits of pitch discrimination with higher tones. Journal of Comparative Psychology18(3), 315-332.

Athanasiadou, P. (2012). Studying speech sound discrimination in dogs (Master’s thesis).

Baru A. V. (1975). “Discrimination of synthesized vowels [a] and [i] with varying parameters (Fundamental frequency, intensity, duration and number of formants) in dog,” in Auditory Analysis and Perception of Speech, eds Fant G., Tatham M. A. A., editors. (Waltham, MA: Academic Press; ), 91–101.

Coren, S. (2005). How dogs think: understanding the canine mind. Simon and Schuster.

Dworkin, S. (1935). Alimentary motor conditioning and pitch discrimination in dogs. American Journal of Physiology-Legacy Content112(2), 323-328.

Fant, G. (2006). Speech acoustics and phonetics: Selected writings (Vol. 24). Springer Science & Business Media.

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. (1975). Perception of biologically meaningful sounds by dogs. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America58(S1), S124-S124.

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.

Kriengwatana, B., Escudero, P., & ten Cate, C. (2015). Revisiting vocal perception in non-human animals: a review of vowel discrimination, speaker voice recognition, and speaker normalization. Frontiers in Psychology5, 1543.

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.

Ratcliffe, V. F., McComb, K., & Reby, D. (2014). Cross-modal discrimination of human gender by domestic dogs. Animal Behaviour91, 127-135.

Razran, H. S., & Warden, C. J. (1929). The sensory capacities of the dog as studied by the conditioned reflex method (Russian schools). Psychological Bulletin26(4), 202.

Rusch, K. M., Pytte, C. L., & Ficken, M. S. (1996). Organization of agonistic vocalizations in Black-chinned Hummingbirds. The Condor98(3), 557-566.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson


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Shelter Pup “Smiles” From FEAR After She’s Adopted

brown puppy shows a submissive grin

The viral video linked below shows a scared puppy.

  • The puppy huddles at the back of an enclosure.
  • At the beginning of the video, her front legs are braced, pushing her backward.
  • She blinks and squints repeatedly.
  • She looks away and turns her head away several times.
  • Her ears are pulled back.
  • She pulls her mouth back into a “grin” that is associated with appeasement.

All of these behaviors demonstrate stress.

At the end of the video, the puppy starts to venture forward.


Dog Smiles Are Different From Human Smiles

If you see a dog with its mouth closed (or almost closed with teeth showing) and the mouth corners (commissures) drawn back, the dog is likely stressed. This behavior usually is associated with social anxiousness. Ethologists agree that it generally signals something like, “Don’t hurt me; I’m not a threat.”

The pup in the video is also showing other signs of stress: blinking, squinting, looking away, and flattening back her ears.

But we humans are wired to respond positively to anything that looks at all like a smile.  We assume it indicates happiness. This particular pup has facial features that combine with the submissive grin to create a mouth that is upturned at the corners. It’s cute, but not a sign of joy.

There is one smile-like behavior that happy dogs do. That is the openmouthed smile you can see in this photo of my dog Clara when she was a teenager. Her mouth is open and the corners of her mouth are pulled back a little but not harshly so. Her forehead is smooth and her eyes are soft. Can you see how much more relaxed she looks than the pup in the video?

To see comparisons of dogs with stressed grins and happy grins, check out my post, “Is That ‘Smiling’ Dog Happy?”

Is That “Smiling” Dog Happy?

Hope for the Puppy

I almost titled this post, “Terrified Puppy Smiles.” It would make for better clickbait, but I don’t believe the pup is terrified. We are not seeing flight, freezing or trembling.  This pup is definitely scared, but she is also exhibiting interactive body language. Depending on her age, her fear is concerning. But it would be worse to see in an adult dog. If the pup is generally fearful, there may be time to mitigate it before the socialization window closes. The pup was showing some tentative tail wags and already moving toward the human at the end of the video.  Hopefully she will come to be comfortable and happy with her new family and the world.

We humans usually find puppy appeasement behaviors adorable. This has probably given pups who exhibit them a survival advantage over the thousands of years our species have hung out together.

But my jaded self has to wonder why the sound was not included with this video. I hope the people weren’t deliberately pressuring the pup. The siren song of the viral video—even of the “cute” variety—can cause people to do some pretty crude things to animals. There is a video genre of “dogs who are grateful/happy after being adopted.” Most of them show dogs who are stressed out, unfortunately. The publishers of this video (not necessarily the pup’s adopters) were probably going for that genre.

What Dog Body Language Experts Say About Grinning

Barbara Handleman classifies the canine grin as a behavior of active submission (Handleman, 2008). She points out that the submissive grin can be affiliative or agonistic. That means the grinning animal may want to approach and interact, or it may want to get distance. She has photo examples in her book of different submissive grins:

  • wolves, page 10 (crouching, tail lowered, ears flattened)
  • dogs, page 78 (affiliative, distance decreasing)
  • dogs, page 175 (with paw lift, stressed)
  • wolves, page 260 (active submission, soliciting interaction)
  • dogs, page 263 (submissive grin with play bow)

Some other experts classify the submissive grin as passive submission rather than active submission. Dr. Michael Fox might classify this puppy’s grin as a “greeting grin,” also a signifier of appeasement or submission, because of the closed mouth (Fox, 1972).

Veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall discusses grinning behavior in her book, Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. She describes it as an act of deference, and says the dogs are generally showing that they are not a threat.

Addition 3/8/19: Response from the Owner

The adopter of the pup has commented that the pup is fine. She has elsewhere posted lovely photos of the pup, who is obviously more comfortable now.  You can see her statement and my response in the comments on this post.


This video is being shared as an example of a smiling, happy pup. The caption refers to the pup being happy that she has been adopted. This is a damaging form of anthropomorphism that’s pandering for a “feel good” story. I hope the pup was adopted (by kind and gentle people) and I hope she is happy. But the behaviors in the video indicate stress and anxiety. The pup’s life will be much happier if her people realize that. The more we learn about canine body language the better we can treat our best friends.

Related Posts


Dogs Don’t Smile, from the blog Border-Wars.

Fox MW: A comparative study of the development of facial expressions in canids; wolf, coyote and foxes. Behavior 1970; 36:49.

Fox MW: Understanding Your Dog. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan Inc, 1972.

Fox MW: Inter-species interaction differences in play actions in canids. Appl Anim Ethol 1976; 2(2):181.

Fox MW, Cohen JA: Canid communication. In Sebeok TA (ed): How Animals Communicate. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977, p. 728.

Handleman, B. Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook. Wolf and Word Press, 2008.

Overall, K. L. (1997). Clinical behavioral medicine for small animals. Mosby-Year Book, Inc..

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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Oops! I Trained the Better Than Perfect Recall!

What if your dog’s recall is so good that she comes before you call her?

The little movie featured in this post shows the myriad ways a smart dog can mess up your plans.

small black dog running to come when called, to a recall

The Original Goal: Film That Recall!

This post brings together a lot of ideas I like to explore. Among them are cues, offered behaviors, and stimulus control. And like many of my posts, this one features an unintended consequence. I’ll explain.

Zani has a great recall. Bragging material. Even though she is getting older and her gait is wonky, she’s a nice example of a hound who comes when she is called.

I’ve been wanting for a while to get a video or two of this “miracle” of training. The most impressive recall videos demonstrate low latency (a speedy response) while dealing with high distraction. No problem, I think. Zani’s recall is that strong. I’ve been calling her out of play, away from other dogs, and away from varmints for years. I can film that.

So when Zani fails to come indoors when Clara and I do, it seems like the perfect opportunity. She’s involved with something in the yard. I think, “Aha! I can call her with her “real” recall cue and record it!”

But I don’t have any high-value treats, so I’ll need to go into the house and come back with some. Don’t misunderstand; the food isn’t a bribe. I’m not going to stand out there and wave food at her to get her to come. She will respond to her verbal recall cue whatever the circumstances. I’m getting the food to keep the reinforcement topped up so she’ll also come the next time.

Here’s the plan.

  1. Zani is involved in something in the yard and doesn’t come in the house when first invited.
  2. Eileen goes into the house to get a great treat.
  3. Eileen comes back outside. She has her phone ready to take video.
  4. Eileen calls Zani.
  5. Zani comes with Eileen filming.
  6. Zani gets the great treat.

And that’s how it worked for the first couple times. But the videos had flaws that made them unusable. I filmed poorly, or she slipped. Something went wrong. But I kept at it.

The Problem: Dogs Notice Patterns

Dogs are known for paying attention to us. In my experience, dogs who can earn treats for behavior around the house get very attentive.

Zani is a great example of this. She is a brilliant little problem solver. Let’s rewrite my list of events from Zani’s point of view.

  1. I’m barking in the yard.
  2. Eileen goes into the house.
  3. Eileen comes back out holding the camera.
  4. Eileen calls me.
  5. I go to her.
  6. I get something great.

Question: What is the immediate predictor that a recall will be reinforced with something great?

Answer: Eileen gives the verbal recall cue.

Question: But what happens before that?

Answer: Eileen comes out the back door holding up her phone.

Bingo. Why should Zani wait for me to call her when she already has an excellent predictor of reinforcement?

It didn’t take but a couple times for Zani to learn the pattern. She started running toward me as soon as I came out into the yard holding my phone. Before I called her. She ruined my movie! I’m supposed to call her before she comes. Otherwise, it can look like she is randomly running to me.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Human Biases

Now, it’s moderately interesting that one of Zani’s recall cues is me coming out the door holding a phone up.  But there’s nothing earthshaking about it. It’s behavior science 101. All creatures with a nervous system (and maybe some without) are wired to notice predictors. Antecedents and consequences drive behavior.

The really interesting thing about this is the human response. We are biased toward cues that we give deliberately, especially verbal ones. Some of us refer to them as commands, as if they were inviolable. We think of environmental cues as somehow less important or less real. But here’s a hint: the dogs don’t.

Yes, it’s breezy. Why do you ask?

As much as I might get frustrated with Zani’s strangely cued recall, it’s just as impressive as if I called her. My little hound will turn away from something that is very exciting in order to run to me for the likelihood of reinforcement.  But it doesn’t feel as potent or valid because I’m not verbally cueing her or using hand signal. That’s so silly, but that’s a human for you.

I’ve had several epiphanies about behavior science over the years. The first and biggest one was about reinforcement. But the next one was about cues. Do you remember the first time you heard someone use a cue that wasn’t a description (in English or another language) for the behavior? Did it startle you a little? It did me.  “Wait, you can’t use that word because it doesn’t mean….oh.” That was the first step for me to get that dogs don’t understand language the way we do. Despite interesting research about areas in their brains that correlate with ours, we can’t assume that they understand word meanings or syntax. Humans always hear the meaning of the word behind the sounds. In fact, we can’t un-hear the meanings. But it is still only fair to assume that dogs have to brute-memorize the sounds.

So to them, there may not be much of a difference between “see Eileen come out the door with a phone” and “hear Eileen make a certain sound.”

Stimulus Control

Should there be a difference to me?

I’ve written recently about my lack of focus on stimulus control. I’m a bit self-deprecating about it, but it is a choice. In most cases, the behaviors I ask my dogs to perform are useful even if I haven’t asked for them. But I do think it through in each case.

You’ll notice in the movie that I reinforce Zani for coming to me even though I haven’t called her. That was a decision point. I could have discouraged that developing recall cue by not reinforcing Zani for coming unless I had actually called. Instead, I considered: Is it a good thing for my dog to interrupt what she’s doing because something in the environment suggests that it’s a great time to run to me? Is there a reason that might not be a good thing?

In my situation, it’s almost always a very good thing. So I reinforced it. But there is a circumstance in which stimulus control on a recall would be desirable. That would be in some kind of accidental situation where my dog was loose and ended up on the other side of a busy street or another hazard from me. If my dog comes running to me when she sees me appear and there is something dangerous between us, she could get hurt.

As much as we like 100% guarantees, we rarely get them in life. I weighed the probability of that dangerous situation against the benefits of a dog who comes “before I call her.” In my case, the default recall provides enough benefits that I’ll take that small risk. I can also train a different behavior that I can cue during a rare emergency. But for me, it’s great to have a dog who will turn away from exciting things to check in or come to me on her own. Others who take their dogs into lots of situations off leash might decide differently.

By the way, I trained Zani’s recall by 1) giving her something fabulous every time she recalled on cue; and 2) giving her something good-to-fabulous when she came to me in many other situations. Pretty straightforward. That’s why I love training recalls.

How about you? Do you reinforce “offered” recalls? Got any interesting cues, deliberate or accidental?

Related Posts

Thanks to Erin Topp for helpful suggestions about this post.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?

retrieving items over and over indicates lack of stimulus control

What happens when you don’t have retrieve on stimulus control?

This is an update of a post published on December 16, 2013.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not very good at stimulus control. I’ve included in this post a great video from when Clara was younger that demonstrates that embarrassingly well.

Stimulus control in training is all about response to cues, and goes like this. Given a behavior:

  1. The behavior occurs immediately when the cue is given.
  2. The behavior never occurs in the absence of the cue.
  3. The behavior never occurs in response to some other cue.
  4. No other behavior occurs in response to this cue.
Pride, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, sitting pretty

Pride, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, sitting pretty on cue

This means, for example, if I have trained the behavior, “Sit pretty,”:

  1. When I say, “Pretty,” the dog immediately sits up with his front feet in the air.
  2. He doesn’t ever do that unless I cue it.
  3. He doesn’t do it if I cue something else like down or sit.
  4. He doesn’t sit or lie down when I say, “Pretty.”

Most everybody’s first question is about #2. If this were a natural dog behavior like lying down, he would still do it at other times, right? Sure. And although I’ve seen some discussions about that, I don’t know in what situations it would be a “violation” of stimulus control for the dog to lie down without a cue from a human. The common answer is to append “in a training session” to the above rules. But how do we expect a dog to draw a line between “training session” and “not a training session”? And aren’t we training for real life? Do we say that behaviors like sit and down are never on true stimulus control? Probably.

You may choose not to reinforce downs that you don’t cue, but they are reinforcing to a dog who wants to rest and relax. We can’t help that.

For most trainers, there is a period where we are teaching cue recognition and stimulus control where we do not reinforce uncued behaviors. After that is taught, though, we may change the rules a bit in real life.

There are behaviors for which one needs strict stimulus control. I have a friend with a service dog. “Gigi” has a special setup so she can do the equivalent of calling 911 if my friend falls down. Falling is actually the cue. My friend needs absolute stimulus control on this behavior because it is completely not cool if Gigi “offers” hitting the call box at any other time.

My dogs are not like Gigi. Or more to the point, I am not as skilled a trainer as my friend.

Lack of Stimulus Control

Three dogs bored

Even a gate didn’t stop them from offering eye contact

If you put aside Rule #2 and reinforce your dogs for uncued behaviors, you get dogs who offer behaviors frequently.

One of the stereotypes of clicker trained dogs is that they offer behaviors all the time.  Dogs trained with positive reinforcement tend to do stuff. And they’ll go wild with offering stuff if their people reinforce it. But it doesn’t have to be that way all the time. You can have a dog who is a virtuoso shaper and completely unafraid to offer behaviors, but who has also learned when that pays off and when it doesn’t.

We can set up some environmental cues and change our own behavior to let a dog know when we don’t want a bunch of offered behavior.

I do have those crazy behavior-offering dogs. If my dogs come running up to me in the yard for no reason to check in—I like that! They’ll usually get something from me. If I walk through a room and someone is lying nicely on a mat, they’ll get a treat.

I also reinforce offered eye contact. It usually comes along for the ride with other behaviors. Reinforcing this in real life means I have dogs who sit and stare at me.

I am OK with the results of this, but some people wouldn’t be. If you are regularly going to reinforce uncued behaviors, then you’d best be willing to do so even when it’s inconvenient. Because it’s just not fair to change the rules on your dog without warning.  If you do that, you can put behaviors into extinction. This is unpleasant for the dog and doesn’t serve our overall training goals well.

My dogs are good at chilling since one of the offered behaviors I reinforce is lying down with relaxed muscles. This is nicely incompatible with trying a bunch of stuff to get my attention. I don’t mind tossing a treat around every 10 minutes while I’m working at the computer. But if we are really out of sync and they are tuning up to bug me to death, I just use management. I get behind a gate.

One of these days I may set up a cue for “The Bar is Closed.” There are a couple of situations in which I never reinforce my dogs and they have learned that perfectly.

In the following movie, the bar was definitely open. I was reinforcing Clara’s offered retrieves, and you can see the amusing outcome.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

About the Behavior in the Movie

Clara brought me this rusty nail

I’ve reinforced Clara for “trading” since she was tiny. But she started it. She always had a tendency to bring me things. I liked that, so I reinforced it. Still do. It means when she has something dangerous, I can immediately get it from her with no stress. This is a good thing since everything goes in her mouth.  She was an outrageous chewer when younger, so I managed very tightly about this then.

When Cricket was alive, Clara was limited to only half the house most of the time. Clara was just under 2 years old when Cricket died in May 2013, and it seemed appropriate to open things up a bit after that. It went very well. About the worst thing that happened was that Clara snitched napkins off the table to chew up. I was careful where I put food, so she didn’t develop a counter-surfing habit. She did have certain items of my clothing—a hat in particular—that she kept a constant eye out for. But almost everything she picked up other than napkins she brought straight to me. She still does this, “busting” herself for picking up contraband.

There are good reasons to make another training choice, by the way. Some people teach a default “Leave It.” What if there is someone in your household who is prone to dropping pills or leaving sharp tools around? Then reinforcing a dog for picking random things up in her mouth and bringing them to you is not a good idea. But it has been a good choice for us, I think. You can see the rusty nail Clara brought me above. If she hadn’t, she would have been chewing on it in the yard.

By the way, the movie shows pretty impressive distance behavior. Clara was bringing items to me clear from the back of the house!

Does your dog have any behaviors on stimulus control? Or any behaviors with an embarrassing lack of stimulus control, as mine do?


Note: A knowledgeable reader pointed out what I was already feeling itchy about: the “rules” of stimulus control above are training guidelines, and not the behavior science definition. Keep in mind that behavior is never absolutely predictable, and behavior science deals in statistical likelihoods, not absolutes. I’ve linked to the American Psychological Association’s dictionary definition below. I’ll see if I can link to a non-paywalled example of the behavior science definition that is a bit more extensive. If I can’t, I’ll quote from a textbook.

Eileen’s Related Posts

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson
Updated 2018

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Eileenanddogs 2019 9th Annual Pet Blogger Challenge

Thank you to GoPetFriendly for another opportunity to learn about other pet blogs and to showcase my own. These are my answers to the 2019 Pet Blogger Challenge.

For those who may be visiting your blog for the first time, how long have you been blogging and what is your main topic? I started blogging in July of 2012. My main topic is dog training, with a humane, evidence-based approach. I talk about behavior science and I demonstrate things with my dogs. I do not train professionally, so I have the advantage of being able to write about my embarrassing mistakes without affecting my business! My wonderful dogs are Zani, an adorable mostly-black hound mix, and Clara, a tan mixed breed with a black muzzle and tail. Clara was born feral and came to me as a puppy. She and I have many stories to tell. Here’s one of the big ones: Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog.

What was your proudest blogging moment of 2018? My proudest blogging moment was when I retracted a post. That sounds pretty strange, I know. But a post I wrote about some behavior science terminology as used in the dog training world went awry. It was misinterpreted to be a criticism of the use of behavior science in dog training. It was meant to be the opposite of that. My point was that we should use behavior science more fully and accurately. But the post was shared by the very people I was arguing against because they thought it supported their position!

Buy a behavior science book. Older editions are cheap!

I’d like to say that the fault was theirs because they didn’t read carefully, but I gave it a provocative title, and of course, my writing wasn’t perfect. So I’ll take a good portion of the blame. I took it down after I saw that it was having a damaging effect on the training community. This was difficult because I had spent a lot of time on it and of course my ego and emotions were very invested. But I’m proud of my actions and also proud of the rewritten post: A Quadrant By Any Other Name Is Still a Cornerstone of Operant Learning.

What was the biggest blogging challenge you faced in 2018, and how did/will you tackle it? I retired from my day job in 2018, and am now a full-time writer/ editor/ mentor/ presenter. You’d think that would give me more time for my blog, right? Nope! I have lots more writing projects! So my challenge is a very common one: finding the time to write blog posts.

My blog does not generate income directly. I have always written purely for education and sharing information. But it’s the platform upon which I’ve built my reputation, so it supports the ways I do earn income as a writer.

I don’t really have a plan to tackle time management. I’ve always had a rule that I wouldn’t publish a post just for the sake of keeping a schedule. I post when I have something to say that I feel strongly about and can write clearly about. When I do feel that strongly, I make the time. That will probably continue to be my plan. My blog is still hands down my favorite place to write.

Which of your 2018 blog posts was your favorite and why? (Please include a link.) My favorite post was If My Criticism of Someone’s Comment on Facebook Was Punishment, Why Won’t She Shut Up?

This was a post that I had worked on intermittently for a long time. I have always been fascinated by the manner in which people argue and discuss on social media. (Even before social media, I read Usenet groups for entertainment and education.)


Dog trainers who use positive reinforcement are often attacked for being “punishing” when they disagree in a discussion. Sometimes, certainly, it’s all too true that they are being unpleasant or inappropriate. But they also get that accusation from people who disagree with them even when they are being perfectly polite. It’s a cheap shot. And also, technically, it’s usually not true. Punishment is about a decrease in behavior. But usually on Facebook, if someone doesn’t like your tone or your words, they post more to argue with you! I explain what is really happening in the post.

Which of your 2018 posts was most popular with your audience? Why do you think it did so well? My most popular post that I wrote in 2018 was  Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?  I have a lot of evergreen content, so this was only my 12th most popular post (or page) overall for 2018, but it was the most popular of my new posts.

I’m not sure why this post was so popular, except that it addressed a very common misconception and perhaps was shared a lot because of that. It’s one of my own favorites besides being my readers’ favorite! I’m also very proud that it was first published in Clean Run magazine in 2017.

Did you implement a new series, feature, or practice on your blog in 2018 that you’re enjoying? I guess it’s pretty common for bloggers to write about their animals’ medical conditions, but my dogs have had some pretty unusual ones. It’s become a recurring feature without my realizing it. I usually write about medical situations from a husbandry standpoint: how best to care for an animal with certain problems using humane and cooperative care.

Zani is always game to train

This year I had two posts about Zani and her unusual injury: a spinal cord concussion. These were: A Dog with Spinal Cord Concussion: Zani’s Story Part 1 and A Dog with Spinal Cord Concussion: Zani’s Recovery on Video. I also wrote an emotionally challenging post called The Last Trip To the Vet: What If Your Pet’s Last Breath Is On the Operating Table?. That situation has happened to me twice, and in the post, I discuss how to prepare for this awful eventuality so it has a chance of being easier on your pet.

Zani has some more health issues, so stay tuned for more features about how we cope.

Zani moving well after her accident

As the social media landscape changes, how are you promoting your blog posts and connecting with new readers? I am not great at promotion. I generally post any new article on Facebook on both my personal page and my blog page (sometimes on separate days). I sometimes post in an appropriate Facebook group with permission, but I don’t overdo that. I don’t want to be that annoying person who only shows up to promote her stuff.

I also post on Twitter (just once for each article—I should do more), Google+ (a dying platform), and LinkedIn. I’ve had an Instagram account for quite a while and need to get into the habit of posting my blogs there! Since almost all my content is evergreen, now and then I pull out an older post that I think deserves some more love, rewrite it, and publish it as new. I make sure to use a 301 redirect from the URL of the old post to the new one so as not to lose any links or rankings.

Clara will always be my baby

Looking forward to 2019, if you accomplish only one thing through your blog, what do you hope it is? I always have the same goal. I want to share good information about dogs and behavior science and change the lives of dogs for the better.

What steps are you planning to take to ensure you reach your goal? Continue to research what interests me, observe my dogs, and share what I learn.

Now it’s your turn! How can we help? Is there an area where you could use some advice, or an aspect of your blog that you’d like input on? Share it here, and we’ll answer you in comments! I’d love to know how other self-hosting WordPress bloggers are dealing with Gutenberg, the new online editor.


Clara and her ball

Thank you for the Pet Blogger Challenge, Amy. I was glad to see that you are still moving forward with your plagiarism suit. (And sorry to see that you’ve got yet another site stealing your stuff!) I urge all readers to check out your posts on the plagiarism and to give to your fund. You are helping us all by defending copyright for the little guy.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson







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Starting Soon: IAABC Writing Mentorships With Eileen Anderson

There is still time to sign up for my writing mentorships that start this Sunday, January 13th, 2019. You can take steps to improve your business writing and earn serious CEUs for CCPDT, IAABC, or KPA.

During the eight-week course, I will provide individual coaching to up to 15 mentees with writing projects of their choice. The projects may already be in progress or may be started during the mentorships. There will be print and video course materials and a weekly video conference. I will provide startup assignments and information on typical business documents for mentees who want help with writing but don’t know where to start.

There are also spots for auditors. They will audit in the academic sense. Auditors will be able to view all written discussions in the classroom between the mentor and mentees, will have full access to the supporting course materials, but will not take part in the videoconferences or submit their own projects.  

Read the official mentorship course description and register here. 

The link above will tell you “who, what, when, and where” about the mentorships. But here I’m going to tell you the “how and why.”  How will they work and what will it be like for participants? And why should you sign up?

How Will the Course Work?

The mentorships will take place in an online classroom. The classroom allows for several kinds of interaction. There will be nine video lectures that address different aspects of writing for trainers. I’ll provide resource lists, cheat sheets, and sample assignments. Mentees will upload their individual projects so we can work on them together. Auditors and other mentees will view our discussions and the editing process.  The mentees and I will have weekly video conferences.

Documents we can work on include but are not limited to articles, blog posts, class handouts, behavior assessments, biographies and other marketing materials, announcements, press releases, grants, reports, and books. Fiction is welcome as well.

Prepared course materials will cover style sheets, time management, motivation, organization, voice and audience, writing tools, editing tools, references and plagiarism, and search engine optimization.

What Do Writing Mentees Need To Know?

  1. I will not be grading anything. We’ll all push aside the “write-it-for-a-grade-and-hope-the-teacher-likes-it” paradigm. That’s not what this is about.
  2. I will be your hired coach. You can tell me the types of assistance and critique you want, or you can turn me loose and say, “Help!” We’ll figure out the best way to work together. My goal will be to help you improve your writing skills so you can turn out some great documents. My input won’t be painful or embarrassing.
  3. Our chat content will not be subject to critique. We will do a lot of communicating in a chat interface. Even though we will be working on writing, the spelling and grammar police are not invited to chat conversations. Abbreviations, shortcuts, and other chat conventions will be fine. If we don’t understand something, we’ll ask. Nothing in the mentorships will be critiqued except the mentees’ projects, and then only by me unless a mentee requests feedback from others.

Why Professionals Need Coaching and Mentoring

Writers need coaches!

Top-level professional singers usually use vocal coaches for their entire professional careers. Professional athletes in individual sports such as tennis likewise retain personal coaches throughout their playing careers. Having an expert outside observer and teacher is essential. It allows professionals to get more information about their tasks and feedback on their skill sets. It prevents them from falling into idiosyncrasies. It gives that invaluable second pair of ears or eyes.

Coaching is an accurate parallel for a writing mentorship. Calling on a mentor doesn’t mean you are helpless or unprofessional. It’s not about getting a grade. It doesn’t have to hurt your ego. It’s about getting an outside perspective and expert feedback.

Better writing will help you communicate better with your peers, provide clearer instructions to your clients, and present a more polished public appearance.

Register for the writing mentorship here.

A Note from a Participant

Eileen Anderson is the consummate writing coach and professional who can help weave your human voice into your emails, handouts, and website with all of the proper information including appropriately written science-based references.

Eileen is not only enthusiastic and encouraging, she is also in expert in the field that you are writing about. This class is a rare opportunity to be mentored and coached to keep the level of your written correspondence and materials on par with your knowledge-based expertise. — Benita Raphan

Writing Samples

You can read my bio on the mentorships page linked above, but I’m also providing some writing samples here. Since my voice in the blog is casual, I’ve included some documents that demonstrate more formal styles.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms

Firecrackers exploding in the air

I’m sorry I’m so late with my fireworks post this year. But there are still some things you can do. You can 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 on Monday, December 31.

  1. 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 today, do your best with some of the other ideas here to get through the night and call your vet as soon as you can so you’ll be ready next time. Sound phobias tend to get worse and are not something to be taken lightly.
  2. Get some great treats and start carrying them around. Whenever there is any kind of sudden or startling noise, including 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.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. This is why I am suggesting this method, which uses environmental noises that are happening anyway. Save the formal training for after the holiday, when you can keep your dog safe from accidental exposures to the sound.
  3. 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, so consider a method to temporarily darken any windows nearby. Also, low-frequency booms can’t be “soundproofed” for except with materials that are much too big to use inside a house. 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 to an effective degree. But if a crate is your dog’s safe place, that’s great. Here are some examples of safe places for dogs.
  4. Experiment with sound masking to find out what is the 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.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 be absolutely certain that the music itself doesn’t scare your dogs first. 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.A new resource is 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. But if you play it already and your dogs are fine with it, they are desensitized. In that case, these playlists could be the very thing for you.
  5. 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. LOSE that idea that there’s something wrong with comforting your dog. Helping a dog through a tough time is not “coddling.” Assess what is most helpful to your dog: a cuddle, 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.

Thanks for reading!

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                   

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All That’s Unpleasant Does Not Punish

I’ve written a lot about the behavior science definitions of reinforcement and punishment. That’s because they can trip us up so easily. Something can be attractive, but not always reinforce behavior. Something can be unpleasant, but not serve to decrease behavior even when it looks like it should. This story is about a natural consequence that seemed like it would decrease behavior but didn’t.

garden fence made of PVC and chicken wire

This garden fence proved to be an effective barrier for a certain beagle

Daisy was frail for a beagle. She was already infested with heartworms when she came to me years ago. The treatment for heartworms then was brutal. She survived the treatment under my care and was cured of heartworms, but she was never strong afterward.

At the time, I didn’t think she was very smart. But now I know I didn’t have the knowledge to determine that. It’s amazing how “smart” our dogs suddenly get when we start using positive reinforcement. She never had the chance.

But I feel confident in saying she was persistent. Very, very persistent.

Fertilizer in the Garden

When I moved into a new house in 1998, it was my first chance to have a garden in my own yard. I built raised beds with cedar landscape timbers. Then, with the help of a friend, I built a little 24″ fence made out of PVC, chicken wire, and plastic ties. It was a durable little fence; I only took it down in 2011 after Clara climbed it as a tiny puppy. That was not a safe move, so the fence came down that day. It wasn’t serving much purpose by then, anyway. Summer and Zani (both trained in agility) could jump it, although they didn’t do so often.

Back to 1998—Daisy was not strong enough to jump the fence. But when I used fertilizer, she wanted in there mightily. Beagle -> stink -> must get there. So she started going to a corner of the fence and pushing her nose at the base between the vertical pieces of  PVC. Here’s a pic of the fence (from much later—2009) where you can see the gap between the corner vertical pieces. I would periodically fasten those together at the base, but the grass and weeds would push them apart and break the plastic ties.

A garden fence made of white PVC. The pinch of PVC around your nose would typically be an aversive stimulus

This photo of the fence shows one of the corners where Daisy pushed her nose.

Just How Persistent Was Daisy?

So when I fertilized in the garden for the first time, it became an instant beagle magnet. After circling around the garden and not finding any significant holes in the fence, Daisy settled on a corner with a gap.  She tried to push her way in with her nose between the poles. She would push her nose, then yelp, push her nose, then yelp, over and over again. Honestly, that’s what she did. She put her whole body into those nose pushes. Then yelled from the resulting pinch.

She did that on and off for several days. I have no idea why I didn’t do something to prevent it. I guess I kept thinking she would stop.  These days I would intervene for sure.

It Had To Hurt, But….

So here’s the question. Was getting her nose pinched over and over punishment? Check out this definition.

1. A particular behavior occurs.
2. A consequence immediately follows the behavior.
3. As a result, the behavior is less likely to occur again in the future. The behavior is weakened (Miltenberger, 2008, p. 120).

Part of the definition of punishment in behavior science is that behavior must decrease. But there was no decrease in  Daisy’s behavior in that situation. You would think getting one’s nose pinched between vertical staves would decrease the behavior that resulted in the pinch, but it didn’t. She got a few dozen nose pinches over a few days.

What we would expect from a nose pinch would be a positive punishment process.

Like this:

Antecedent: There is fertilizer in the garden on the other side of the fence
Behavior: Daisy pushes her nose between two poles in the fence
Consequence: The poles press back on her nose
Prediction: Pushing her nose between the poles will decrease.
What’s the process? Positive punishment

Except it didn’t happen that way. She didn’t stop after one or two pinches. Even though she yelped most of the times she pushed, she kept trying.

Why She Stopped

But after a few days, she finally stopped. Was positive punishment finally kicking in, or something else? I think it was something else. When positive punishment happens, it’s usually right away, in response to an unpleasant stimulus of some magnitude.

Instead, Daisy kept doing push/yell. When she finally, gradually stopped (after a few days) I think instead it was extinction at work. The pattern of her behavior fit extinction more than it did punishment. The definition of extinction is:

1. A behavior that has been previously reinforced
2. no longer results in the reinforcing consequences
3. and, therefore, the behavior stops occurring in the future (Miltenberger, 2008, p. 102).

Zani says, “I can relate. I would like in there!”

Certainly, pushing her nose against things to move them had a reinforcement history for Daisy. It had worked many times. But this time, the reinforcement didn’t happen. Pushing her nose all around the garden fence didn’t get her access to the fertilizer. So she finally stopped.

Another possibility is that the odor decreased over time to a non-enticing level. A decrease in odor would affect the strength of the antecedent. But knowing her beagle nose, I bet it was extinction. She stopped because the behavior wasn’t getting her what she wanted.

Aversive Stimuli

One of the ways behavior science is challenging is that it prevents us from generalizing in the ways we humans like to. It’s situational. That’s the lesson I have learned recently about aversive, unpleasant stimuli. (I am using “aversive” in a general sense: an unpleasant stimulus that will often change behavior. But its definition is not dependent on that occurring.)

A stimulus can change behavior sometimes but not others. There are hardly any absolutes.

My story illustrates a couple of important things about aversive stimuli that have been sinking in for me lately.

  1. Something can be very unpleasant and still not affect behavior. We can call it an aversive or noxious stimulus because it’s something that is normally unpleasant for that species. But we can’t call it a punisher or negative reinforcer unless those respective changes in behavior happen.
  2. Stimuli are situational. A stimulus can change behavior at one time, and not at another.  Or it can even be a reinforcer at one time and a punisher at another. When you put it on, a sweater provides relief from cold in the form of automatic negative reinforcement. But donning a sweater when it is very hot outside is aversive. If I forced you to put on a sweater every time you came to my backyard in the summer, you would come less often (Mayer, 2018, p. 686).

Here is an article that demonstrates the same event operating as both a punisher and a reinforcer for the same rats in different antecedent arrangements.

We know #2 above through life experience. We know that sometimes we want things and will work to get them, but at other times we will work to avoid the same things or be indifferent. But it can be really hard to remember to let that knowledge guide our use of terminology in behavior science.

Does This Mean Hurting Your Dog Repeatedly Is OK If No Behavior Changes?

Of course not. And why would you even do that?

But noting the (non)effect of a low-level aversive stimulus can teach us a lot. It’s another reason not to try to use positive punishment in training. Because unless you use a stimulus at a knockout level you are more likely to get the “Daisy” situation. “I don’t like this, but I’ll keep going because there’s something I really want to do or get to.” Going to the knockout level is inhumane and risks terrible side effects. Remember: Skinner originally concluded that punishment didn’t work to change behavior. It’s because the unpleasant stimuli he was using were not intense enough.

This post in no way supports the idea that it’s OK to do painful things to our dogs as long as their behavior doesn’t change. Or if their behavior does change, for that matter.

I think I’ve experienced every typical misunderstanding about behavior science out there. I’m sure I’ll continue to do so. And when I have worked through those misunderstandings, it’s gratifying to understand the science just a little bit better. I am driven to write about it because I want to help others who are on a similar journey of learning.

Daisy, the star of the story. This is my only photo of her.


Mayer, G. R.,  Sulzer-Azaroff, B., Wallace, M. (2018). Behavior analysis for lasting change. Sloan.

Miltenberger, R. G. (2008). Behavior modification: Principles and procedures. Wadsworth. Belmont, MA.

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Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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