I Failed to Falsify—Twice! (Falsifiability Part 2)

Graffiti on a brick building that says, "False"

Photo credit carnagenyc: see bottom of page

I want to share just how tricky this falsification stuff can be. In the last few weeks I’ve received two comments from readers that pushed me to rethink some things I’ve written. They were both presented very constructively, offering some ideas in the spirit of good dialogue and the search for truth. They included fascinating questions that were a bit technical and they got my attention. This post may be overly nerdy for some readers. But it has given me great pleasure to learn from my generous commenters and write about I’ve figured out so far.

Both of the comments were about falsifiability, and related to these two posts:

  1. Do You Dogs REALLY Want to Come In? In this post, I pointed out that my dog Zani was more likely to stay in the yard when I cued her to come in using a questioning tone. I stated that the reason was that the reinforcer involved was lower value, not because she intrinsically understood that I was offering a choice.
  2.  Falsifiability or Falsehood in Dog Training? (Part 1). In this post I explained the concept of falsifiability. I claimed that if we are truly following the science, then we should be able to explain what would falsify the tenets of learning theory that we study and use to train. In other words, we should understand the science behind what we do so well that we could state what it would take to prove it wrong.

 Both of the comments are in the comment sections for the falsifiability blog.

That Damn Diagram

The original (faulty) diagram

The first comment was about a diagram I had created. In the falsifiability blog, I showed a diagram of different responses one might get if one asked dog trainers how their methods could be falsified or disproved. I had a good time creating it, especially when including all the evasive or incoherent answers one might get. But the joke was on me. As commenter “A” pointed out, the one answer I gave as “correct” was incorrect. And it was supposed to be the crux of the diagram. Here’s how it went. 

The question was, 

As a science-based trainer, how would you falsify your methods?

The answer I offered as “correct” was, 

For learning theory in general, there would need to be multiple replicated studies that were deemed by experts to be robust enough to be considered strong evidence and included in learning theory and cognition textbooks.

The same would be true on a smaller scale for individual techniques.

Do you see the problem? I didn’t falsify anything. I didn’t even put forth anything to falsify. I just described where one might look and described the nature of evidence that could add evidence for or against…some stuff…involving learning theory.

I have updated the answer on the graphic on the original post. Now it reads:

Some findings that could falsify important aspects of learning theory would be multiple, well controlled, replicated studies that found things such as the following:

Behaviors followed contingently by an appetitive stimulus do not increase or maintain (given no other consequences or factors attributable to antecedents).

Behaviors that are followed contingently by the removal of an appetitive stimulus do not tend to decrease (same disclaimer).

Painful aversive stimuli that are used to punish or negatively reinforce behaviors have no fallout, and have the result of influencing an animal to be more confident, enthusiastic about training, and less fearful.

This is a better response because it explains how to falsify specific tenets of learning theory upon which we rely for our training.  

Falsifying the Hidden Assumption

The next reader’s comment is more complex, but incredibly instructive. In the falsifiability blog, I offered some rough evidence of what could falsify my previous claim that my dog responded more frequently to the cue that was tied to a higher magnitude reinforcer. I didn’t go into detail, but I offered some names in the scholarship world where a person could find research on the topic, then I wrote:    

The hypothesis could be falsified if this body of research was overturned with the results of new, replicated studies that showed no correlation between the animal’s response and the quality of the reinforcer, or an inverse correlation.

I think I did OK with this. But my commenter detected an assumption that was buried deeper in my thought processes. I had also written the following major point in the post:

When we want a dog to respond reliably to a cue, we use high value reinforcers on a dense schedule.  We also limit access to reinforcers for the behaviors we don’t want. So what would we do if we want the animal to have a more of a choice? The opposite! We would use a weak-ish reinforcer ourselves so as not to stack the deck in our direction.

Three disks on the ground with arrows on them. Can we falsify this whole "choice" thing?

Choices again!—Photo credit Derek Bruff: see bottom of page

My commenter wrote the following, which includes a great question:

Skinner would not, of course, agree that you have given your dog any more of an option by using a lower-value reinforcer on a CR [Ed: continuous reinforcement] schedule, but I suspect you have good reasons to use and hold on to the term. I guess the succinct way of asking this is—Why do you think your dog is “choosing” to come in or stay out, rather than just exhibiting a weaker but no less determined behavior? What sort of evidence would you need to falsify this part of the hypothesis? And, if you do think she is choosing in the low value recall case, why would you say your dog is NOT choosing, or has less choice in, responding to her RRR [Ed: highly reinforced recall] cue, rather than just saying she chooses the high value reinforcer more often, but just as freely?

Bingo. She got me. I can’t amass evidence for my claim that offering lower value reinforcers gave my dog more choice, nor can I falsify it. The act of making a choice is an unobservable process. We see only the behaviors that result from the choice (if there is one).

When we discuss “choice”:

  • We need to say what we mean by the term;
  • We need to know a lot about the cognitive abilities of dogs (do they think of it as “choice”?); and
  • We even need to consider freedom of the will. As in, do any of us—of any species—have “choice”? The neuroscientists are saying “not likely” to that question these days. (Which I think is funny because it’s the radical behaviorists who always get accused of thinking of organisms as robots.) 

To put it another way, if I have a cue to which a dog responds 95% of the time and a cue to which a dog responds 50% of the time, she is “making a choice” in both situations—or in neither. I don’t know which it is. But my commenter pointed very succinctly that I can’t claim that I am giving my dog more of a choice by offering one type of reinforcer instead of another. I can say only that the odds of her performing the behavior are probably changing. To repeat what my commenter said, “she chooses the high value reinforcer more often, but just as freely.”

Ironically, I wrote that post partly as a gripe against making unfalsifiable claims about dogs’ understanding of language. But I jumped right into the unfalsifiability trap myself. 

Am I Going To Quit Offering the Lower Value Treat for Going in the House?

Hell, no! I can’t say what’s going on in my dog’s head. I can’t claim that I am “giving her more choices.” But I can operationalize what I am doing when I offer that reinforcer. I am putting more opportunities for reinforcement in her environment. I am offering enrichment. And I think we can agree that that’s a good thing without bringing the mysteries of choice into the discussion.

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Photo Credits
Photo of “FALSE” graffiti by carnagenyc via Flickr and under this license.
Photo of arrows by Derek Bruff via Flickr and under this license.

Text and diagram graphic copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want: 9 Ways Preference Testing Can Go Wrong

Two hands offering different treats to a dog in an attempt at a preference test

What’s your favorite color?
Do you prefer pie or ice cream?
Which shirt do you like better: the striped one or the solid green one?

Most of us have been asked our preferences since we were children. Sometimes we are being asked to make a choice: if we choose the striped shirt we won’t be wearing the green one also. If we are asked to choose enough times, our preferences often become clear.

With the best intentions, many of us are attempting to determine our dogs’ preferences by trying to offer them choices. There are quite a few articles out there in the dog training world that include instructions on how to do that.

Most say that we are supposed to hold a different item in each hand (usually toys or two different foods), and see which one the dog “chooses.” Or we may have items on two plates on the floor. Whichever item the dog doesn’t move toward or otherwise express an interest in, we take away. In the literature, this is called a “paired stimulus preference assessment.” 

We are told we that if we do this procedure several times, we can learn his preference. 

Wellll….not necessarily.

There are quite a few assumptions in that scenario. We assume that the dog understands choice: that he gets to pick one thing and the other will go away. (Why are we such control freaks that we so often couple choice-making with taking something away? It’s not always necessary.) We assume that the item the dog goes to first or indicates in some way is preferred. 

The problem is that we can’t assume these things. There is a whole sub-branch of learning theory called “preference assessment.” There are different methods and protocols because it is usually not as simple as offering two things in different hands, especially to a non-verbal creature such as a dog. 

Here are nine reasons why the “which hand do you want?” process may not work to determine preference in a dog.  After the list, I’ll cover some other kinds of preference tests with examples from a good site. Finally, I’ll give some hints for performing the paired stimulus test more effectively if you want to stick to that one.

Potential Problems With the Paired Stimulus Preference Test

“Neither of the options is acceptable.”

  1. Sidedness. Many dogs have a preferred side. (This is called a directional bias.) When scientists in labs work on choice problems, they usually run some pre-tests about biases. They’ll remove from the trials the animals that consistently go to the item on a particular side. 
  2. Handler body language. Our dogs look at us for physical cues. If we stand there with treats, many will think that we are asking them for behavior, rather than asking what they want. It looks like a training session! So they may try to figure out what behavior will be reinforced. They’ll follow our body language: our hands,  our leaning, our gaze. Then they’ll interact in some way with the object that we appear to be indicating. 
  3. Handler bias. If the dog’s actions are not clear to us, our human brains are usually all too happy to step into the void with an interpretation. This will be subject to the normal sets of biases that humans have. 
  4. Previous reinforcement history of targeting. Our dogs may have a greater reinforcement history for targeting one of our hands over the other. It might kick right in when we put our hands out. If I hold out both of my hands, either empty or while holding small objects, my dogs will generally target my right hand, no matter what’s in it. That’s because I have taught them a hand target and I do it far more with my right hand than with my left. 
  5. Previous reinforcement history of leave-it. This is the corollary of the targeting issue. With some dogs it will be hard to get them to take either item—from hands or even from plates on the floor. This can happen if we have taught a very strong “leave-it.” By the time we have convinced them that it’s OK to take the object, we may have moved around the room or gestured. This can affect the dog’s “choice.”
  6. Visual presentation. There are several ways that the visual presentation can affect the outcome. One is that dogs see colors differently from how we do. Another is that many dogs will regularly take the larger item. And of course, some dogs’ vision may be impaired on one side or the other. 
  7. Noticing the wrong characteristic. When it comes to toys, all three of my dogs will generally be more interested in a new toy than a familiar one. That in itself is a good thing to know: novelty is a big draw. But if I want to know their preferences beyond that, I have to account for novelty. Either all of the items should be novel or none of them.  This is one of many factors we have to control for when we give paired choices. There are studies on preference that assess previous factors (establishing operations) that can affect the choice.
  8. Different sensory abilities of dogs and humans. This is related to #7. Our dogs may actually be affected by some stimulus we are unaware of. Maybe the hand that has the better treat has some leftover odor from a cleaning product. Eww. Better go for the other one…
  9. Reinforcement history that builds through the exercise. This is a common point of confusion. If we offer some items to our dog intending to give him a choice, he may perform a behavior involving us or the item. Then the behavior gets reinforced by his getting the item. If we do this repeatedly, we build up a reinforcement history for whatever behavior the dog is doing. For instance, it could be targeting the right hand or running to the closest plate. Building that reinforcement history interferes with the goal of getting an untainted preference from the dog. (This problem is inherent in some choice exercises as well. For example, if a dog is reinforced heavily for a certain stationing behavior for husbandry and is allowed to take a break, we can’t determine that when the dog comes back he is “choosing” for the husbandry to continue. He is performing a heavily reinforced behavior. We can’t know how the dog perceives the exercise.)

Some of these things can work out over time. But even in the best-case scenario, the paired stimulus preference assessment will need to be performed many times. 

ABA Preference Testing

Broccoli is not a preference

Raw broccoli is not acceptable.

Luckily, there are procedures that address problems like those I’ve listed.  The applied behavior analysts who work with children use preference tests to help determine what foods and items will be effective reinforcers for individuals. Some of these tests can carry over nicely into dog training.

An informative article from Vanderbilt University lists five different methods for preference assessment.

  • Multiple Stimulus without Replacement (MSWO) Preference Assessments
  • Multiple Stimulus with Replacement (MSW) Preference Assessments
  • Paired Stimulus Preference Assessments
  • Single Stimulus Preference Assessments
  • Free Operant Observations

Each method has a secondary linked article with a video example of the method.

One factor that is considered when choosing a method is whether the child can understand the verbal instructions. (You will hear the analyst saying things like, “Just pick one. You can play with a different one later.) Another is whether the child is likely to get violent if a toy is taken away as part of the test. The first methods above, including the paired stimulus preference assessment, do seem to rely on the child’s understanding of verbal instructions. 

However, the last two in the list are observational exercises. In the single stimulus preference assessment, the child is given access to one item while the analyst observes. The analyst records the amount of time the child plays with the item, and will later do so with other items and compare the data. In free operant observations, many toys and items are available at once. The observer records the amount of time the child plays with each toy or engages in other activities. The authors note that an advantage of free operant observation is that the analyst may observe activities that adults might not have thought of as possible reinforcers. 

Single stimulus and free operant observations are not as flashy as a paired stimulus tests, but they also avoid most of the problems I list above. And when we live with our animals we can perform these observations frequently. Most of us can already name a few of our dogs’ favorite foods, or what he especially likes in a toy. Then there are those surprise moments. I’ll never forget when I unwrapped a rubber tug toy Marge Rogers sent and offered it to each dog in turn. Summer wasn’t interested. Clara tugged politely, then looked for a treat. And Zani went berserk over it. It’s still probably her favorite thing to tug. 

If You Want To Do the Paired Stimulus Preference Test

Look at each of my nine points above and think how you would mitigate that. Because of possible directional bias, be sure to offer the same two items in different positions at for different trials. Do you discover then that your dog always takes the one on the right side? For body language:  What happens if you stare at or lean toward an item? Can you try for as neutral body language as possible? Here are a few more tips for doing the paired stimulus test if you are serious about getting good results. I gleaned most of the tips from the above articles.

  • Plan to do it a lot. It’s unlikely that you can do it once and determine your dog’s preference, or even that the dog will understand you are asking him to choose.
  • Start with pairs of items for which you know the outcome—a clear favorite and a dud. For instance, I can predict that my dogs would choose a bite of pork chop over a sprig of broccoli (see above photo). If the dog takes the broccoli, we can deduce that the dog is not expressing a preference. (But conversely, we can’t assume that the dog is expressing a preference if he takes the bite of pork chop. We have to do more tests.) Anyway, do plenty of trials where you are pretty sure of the outcome. You can study your dog’s responses, and your dog may overcome some of the reinforcement history problems I mention above. 
  • Do a “round robin” format. If you have six items, pair each of the six with each of the others for an iteration. Then at another time, do it again but reverse the sides on which you offer the items.
  • Track your results! This is too much data to keep in your head.
  • Remember to include which sides you offer things on in your reporting.
  • Do lots of repetitions over time. Tastes change. 

Good for you for wanting to know what your dog loves best!

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

Photo of Ni Kokoro Omeshi Yakata Chanoyu, “Meesh,” the Japanese Chin, Copyright 2017 Blanche Axton


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How I Helped My Dog Love the Sound of Velcro

small black dog Zani gazes at a Lotus Ball toy with Velcro enclosures

Velcro, a type of fastener with two different fabric surfaces that adhere to each other, typically makes a loud ripping noise when pulled apart. Some dog harnesses, coats, medical supplies, and other gear use Velcro closures. 

This ripping sound can be aversive. Some sound phobic dogs are triggered the first time they hear it. And some dogs who are OK with most sounds may find it unpleasant when Velcro is unfastened close to their ears. 

I recently “inoculated” my dog Zani against fear of the Velcro ripping sound. Zani has a few minor sensitivities to sounds that are different from the Velcro sound (and are well controlled with meds and training). But she just plain dislikes sudden loud noises. So I wasn’t dealing with a pre-existing fear of Velcro on her part, but she didn’t love it either. I thought it would be nice if she could. So I set up a nice classical association: Velcro would predict great things. 

With some care, this toy could also be used as part of a desensitization and counterconditioning program to help a dog who is already afraid of the Velcro sound. But what I’m showing here is a plan for a dog who is not afraid of it, just finds it a bit unpleasant. For more information on desensitization and counterconditioning, check out my DS/CC resource page. 

A Convenient Toy: The Lotus Ball

Clean Run, the publisher and agility supplies vendor, produces and sells a treat-holding toy called the Lotus Ball. It consists of three sections that pull apart, with a space in the middle for a treat. The sections seal together with tough Velcro. I ordered one of these last year when I was trying a variety of toys. It instantly occurred to me that it would be great for classically conditioning a dog to the sound of Velcro. 

Lotus Balls Treat-Dispensing Pull-Apart Toys (US store)    
Link to info about international dealers for Clean Run
(These are not affiliate links. I never receive a kickback for products I mention here, and I don’t do solicited or sponsored reviews.)

Lotus Ball treat dispensing toy with Velcro closures

Lotus ball Velcroed shut

The Lotus Ball can be pulled apart by the dog or by the trainer. We did it both ways in my little training plan.  

The toy is perfect for conditioning. If you always fill it with food before the dog opens it, there will be a one to one correspondence between the Velcro ripping sound and the goodie. The sound becomes a perfect predictor of good stuff. In setting up the plan, I saw my job mainly as controlling the distance so I didn’t start right up close to Zani’s ears. I also took the normal precautions so as not to accidentally reverse the relationship. I didn’t want my messing around with the food to predict an unpleasant sound instead of the proper association of sound predicting food.

Note: In the movie I show most, but not all the steps we took. I was unable to film a few repetitions I did in other parts of the house.

Caution: This movie is full of Velcro noises! If they scare your dog, or if you want to start with a clean slate and condition him, watch the movie out of his earshot.

Link to the movie for email subscribers,

The Plan

Goal: Make the sound of ripping Velcro have good associations for Zani, even when it’s close to her ears.

General Approach: Use the Lotus Ball, then other items with Velcro, to countercondition Zani to the sound of ripping Velcro. Let the sound predict yummy treats. Graduate the exposure by controlling the distance, starting far enough away so that the sound is not loud or startling. Then move gradually closer.

My Steps:

  1. I chose freeze-dried lamb lung as the treat. It needed to be high value but dry so it didn’t goop up the Lotus Ball. Other candidates could be dehydrated raw food, beef jerky, or homemade treats that aren’t too moist. I didn’t use lamb lung for anything else during this time.
  2. Whenever I needed to load the treats into the ball, I snuck to the back of the house where Zani couldn’t hear it. (The Velcro is really loud!) I needed a pure association between noise -> treat, so I didn’t want her hearing that sound any other time. 
  3. Over the course of a couple of days, I left the loaded ball sitting on a high counter and a few other places around the house where the dogs couldn’t get it. My goal was to be sure that I didn’t get reverse conditioning. I wanted to teach Zani that smelling lamb lung didn’t predict anything, nor did seeing the ball, nor did the rattle of the bag of lamb lung. The association would go in one direction only: the Velcro noise would predict the treats.   
  4. Now came the training. I got the loaded Lotus Ball and set up a barrier between Zani and me. I stayed a few feet away from her. 
  5. I grabbed the Lotus Ball and opened it as I approached, letting her hear the Velcro from a distance. (That’s what the barrier was for; to keep her from coming up too close too soon.)
  6. I held the Lotus Ball out to Zani and let her eat the treats out of it.
  7. I repeated this process a few times over a couple days, but got closer to Zani each time when opening the Lotus Ball.  I did this twice a day at most, and at separate times. I was careful about my predictors. For example, I only used the gate a few times. 
  8. I also made sure to continue to have the loaded Lotus Ball out at other times when not doing any training.
  9. I varied the location. I have a kitchen counter my dogs can’t reach, and I could do repetitions from there when Zani was able to be closer. I also have a tall dresser in my bedroom where I could put the ball. I could open the ball high up before I got to the dog. I stopped using the barriers and the distance when Zani was eagerly trying to get to the ball when she heard the noise. 
  10. Because I made opening the ball the only predictor of that particular yummy treat, Zani was soon running to me when she heard it. I let this happen organically, just making sure she didn’t get too close to the sound too soon.  
  11. I also carried the ball around a few times and let her see and smell it without the noise (and without getting the treat). This was another way of teaching her: no noise, no treat. 
  12. After Zani was used to the noise, I also let her play with the ball herself, ripping it open on her own.

These are the steps I followed for my individual dog. Many dogs would need to go more slowly. Some might do better playing with the ball by themselves first. But you can get the general idea. Also, what these steps above achieved was “love for Lotus Ball Velcro.” The association needed to be generalized to other Velcro sounds, but that turned out to be pretty easy for us. 


Lotus Ball treat dispensing toy with Velcro closures

Lotus Ball opened up

I hunted the house for items with Velcro and I performed the process again. I used some strips of Velcro that weren’t attached to anything, an Ace bandage, and one of my jackets. None of them was as loud as the Lotus Ball, so I didn’t have to take as many steps. I paired the noises these items made with treats, just as I had the ball. Zani generalized the Velcro noise quickly.  

Finally, I did it with Zani’s coat, which Velcros all the way up the back. I practiced as before, holding the coat, starting with a bit of distance. I worked closer, getting the coat closer to her head, then finally putting it on her and ripping it open to take it off. I was ready with the high value food. 

If you follow a similar plan, you’ll be prepared ahead of time if your dog ever needs to wear a coat or a bandage or an Elizabethan collar. The Velcro will be a plus, not a problem. At some point you can start to vary the treats, but be sure it’s something good when your dog actually has to wear Velcro. And if that happens only rarely, you can maintain the Velcro Wonderfulness association by bringing out the Lotus Ball to play with now and then. 

Eileen and small black dog Zani playing with a dog coat that has a Velcro closure

Coats with Velcro can be fun to play with, too!

Finally, don’t be surprised if your dog comes running from another part of the house if you unfasten some Velcro for an unrelated reason. Give her a goodie if you have it! I was wearing an ankle brace during this process and I had to sneak around to put it on and take it off, or else pay up!

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Review, Sound phobias, Training plan | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Peanut Butter Dog Treats With No Sticking! Another Silicone Pan Recipe

Pyramid style silicone pan with baked peanut butter dog treats

Sorry I’m not filling my pans as neatly as I did before! That part got old.

I posted in January about making hundreds of small treats at a time in a silicone pan. I had no idea how lucky I was that I hit on a recipe that worked so well the first time. You can check out that chicken-based recipe and some details about the pan in this post. It seems that you need to have enough binding ingredients in these recipes or things get…sticky.

Ever since then I have been trying on and off to develop a recipe for peanut butter dog treats for the silicone pan. So far they have all stuck a bit. On one of them I actually had to push the treats out individually (500+ of them) which pretty much defeated the purpose of using the pan. I meant using the pan is fun, but the original idea was to save time by avoiding cutting things up.

Several people suggested using peanut butter powder instead of regular peanut butter to un-sticky the recipe. That worked great on the first try. It’s generally lower fat than the recipes with real peanut butter, too. 

ceramic dish of small peanut butter dog treats

This is about a half of a pan’s worth, i.e., a quarter of the recipe


Non-Sticking Silicone Pan Peanut Butter Dog Treats

2 eggs, beaten
2 Tablespoons oil (I used canola)
1/2 cup peanut butter powder (I used “PBfit” brand. Its ingredients are peanuts, coconut palm sugar, and salt.) DO NOT USE ANY PRODUCT WITH THE SWEETENER XYLITOL. IT IS TOXIC TO DOGS.
1/2 cup white flour
1/2 cup tapioca flour
1/2 cup water

Mix well. You want it smooth. Put about half the batter in the middle of the pan and spread it outwards. It takes less batter than you think. I don’t bother to fill every single hole in the pan anymore, i.e., not the outer rows, because of the time it takes. My apologies to the compulsive types! I do like the look of a neatly filled pan, but the time isn’t worth it to me. But feel free!

Bake at 350 degrees F for 12 minutes, or until the individual treats are still soft but starting to draw away from the sides of the pan.

Let cool a little and stretch the pan in both directions to loosen the treats.  I show the stretching in the video. Dump them out. Peanut butter dog treats!

And like the treats made with the chicken recipe I posted previously, these work perfectly in the Manners Minder/Treat and Train using the insert with the 3/4″ holes.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Continued Experimentation

I am honored to be writing to an international audience here, and I promise I am not deliberately trying to use obscure ingredients. The peanut butter powder is available and not too expensive here in the U.S., but I’ve been told that is not the case elsewhere. So I’ll keep trying to get another peanut-based recipe that dumps out of the pan nicely. I am starting to suspect that the problem isn’t the peanut butter anyway. I think it’s the canned pumpkin (which itself is hard to get in many places).

The only one of these weird ingredients I’m attached to is the tapioca flour. It makes the difference between crumbles in your pocket and nice discrete little treats.

If anybody has a tried-and-true recipe for fish-based treats that pop out of the mold well, feel free to post it in the comments. I’ve got a friend looking for that, and my first version was a little difficult to work with. 

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Dog training hints, Food reinforcers, Treats | Tagged , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Falsifiability or Falsehood in Dog Training? (Part 1)


What if we had to know our animal training theory and practice so well that we could easily tell someone what would disprove the hypotheses that inform our methods? That’s what scientists do. If we are going to claim to base our training methods on science, I think we should get with the program. 

There’s a concept in science that is not much discussed in the world of dog training. The concept is falsifiability. Learning about it can save us a world of hurt in assessing statements about training methods. Focusing on how we would disprove our own methods may seem counterintuitive at first, but bear with me.

All dog training methods are based on science because the processes involved can be explained by science. But only some trainers actually study the science and base their decisions on what they learn from it. For the purposes of this article, I’ll call them science-based trainers.

Whatever they call themselves, in my opinion, anyone who says they base their training on science should be able to explain how they do it. They should also be able to tell you what would falsify, i.e., disprove, the hypotheses they use. 

Falsifiability and The Scientific Method

The Scientific Method: photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Falsifiability, also known as testability, is the ability of a hypothesis or statement to be scientifically disproven, and is intrinsic to the scientific method. Any researcher who puts forth a hypothesis should be able to state ways it could be falsified, and should expect those methods to be attempted in the future. Many researchers perform repeated experiments to attempt to falsify their own findings. I admire these people who are willing to put their ego investment on a back burner to seek ever more accurate information.

Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True, has a post on his website that lists seven items that, if observed and confirmed, would shoot holes in parts of the theory of evolution. Taking a look at his article will give you a good grasp of what falsifiability is. It will also demonstrate the high level of expertise in a subject needed to understand how to falsify it.  

(Falsifiability is not used as a metric in some sciences, such as physics and astronomy, because some hypotheses can’t be tested. For instance, much of string theory is famously unfalsifiable. That doesn’t mean that the hypotheses involved are accepted without rigorous examination though. In the main we don’t have those kind of problems in behavior science)

The scientific method gives us a good guide for questioning dog trainers, their methods, and statements about them. Every training method involves one or more hypotheses about cognition or ethology. You can use this concept of falsifiability to ask someone about their overall philosophy or just a particular method. Here’s how you can go about that.

  1. Identify the training challenge or part of their philosophy you want to discuss.
  2. Ask the trainer what the general research is behind their approach. They don’t need to name specific studies or textbooks. But they should know the concepts and be able to explain their relevance.
  3. If discussing a method within a training system, ask the trainer if that specific method has any specific research behind it, i.e., has it been scientifically tested? 
  4. If the method has been tested, ask the results and assess the evidence.
    1. If the method has been tested and found to be successful, ask whether the results have been replicated by other research.  Replication is essential. Hanging on the results of one study is not good practice when other studies are possible and ethical to perform.
    2. If the method has not been tested, ask how they would design an experiment and what would falsify the method. Again, there doesn’t have to be a lot of detail. But this will show whether they understand the claim they are making.
  5. Whatever the answers to the above, ask them what it would take to disprove their method or philosophy. 

The last thing is perhaps the most important. You are not only putting the trainer’s knowledge to the test, but also potentially running up against their ego. We all get attached to our methods and an ego response is natural. But pursuing falsifiability forces one to override the ego.

Remember, we can’t “prove” a hypothesis. What we hope to do when we research it is to amass evidence for it. But we can disprove it by finding examples within the scope of the hypothesis in which the outcome is not as predicted. In that case the experimental methods should be checked. After further experiments, the hypothesis might be modified or scrapped.

Falsifying My Own Hypothesis: A Specific Situation

In a previous post I wrote about teaching one of my dogs two different cues for the same behavior. Both were cues to come in the house, but in one case I reinforced the behavior with high value treats, and my dog came running virtually all the time when I used that cue.  I reinforced the other cue with one piece of kibble. I set this latter cue up to offer my dog the option of coming in the house. I kept the reinforcer low value so if she was having a better time in the yard she might choose to stay instead. She responded to that cue intermittently.

My hypothesis is that the reason for the lower probability of response with the “kibble” recall is the lower value of the food. So let’s go through it with a view to falsifiability.

  1. My hypothesis: when using the same reinforcement schedule (in this case a continuous schedule, where the behavior is reinforced every time it is performed on cue) for the same behavior with two different cues, the response to the cue with the greater magnitude reinforcer will be more frequent.
  2. What research supports this? I’m not going to present a literature review, but here is the information one would need to investigate the issue. Schedules of reinforcement and reinforcement magnitude have been much studied. Some of the big names in the field are J. A. Nevin, H. L. Miller, B. J. Herrnstein, W. W. Fisher, J. E. Mazur, and P. De Villiers. Keywords for an article search are “reinforcement magnitude,” “contrast effect,” “concurrent schedule,” “reinforcement variety,” and “matching law.” You don’t even have to read scholarly articles if you have access to a learning theory textbook. These topics will be included. 
  3. Has the hypothesis been formally tested? Yes, in a lab setting.
  4. What were the results? The hypothesis was confirmed and replicated.
  5. What would falsify the hypothesis? The hypothesis could be falsified if this body of research was overturned with the results of new, replicated studies that showed no correlation between the animal’s response and the quality of the reinforcer, or a negative correlation. I could possibly falsify the application of the hypothesis to my own situation by finding that there was an interfering detail in my setup. 
  6. Could problems turn up if I attempted my own experiment? Sure. Since my hypothesis has to do with learning and behavior in the real world, my application of this hypothesis could have problems. If I got substantially different results when testing under the most controlled conditions I could create in the real world, that would not necessarily falsify the hypothesis. It might show that I was not applying the science successfully. (I will discuss homegrown research and experimental design in the next post.) But hopefully I would be able to analyze the problems and try again. If I exerted excellent controls on my experiment and still got results contrary to my hypothesis I might contact an expert in the field. If interested, this person could advise me on how to perform the experiment with more skill. Or if they were convinced that I had discovered something new in the world, they might choose to pursue the line of research. (In this case a new discovery would be extremely unlikely.)

Ask the Question

The point of all this is to give us a framework to determine if a trainer is knowingly basing their practices on science. So if a trainer is touting a new or branded method, consider the questions above, but especially Question #5 about falsifiability.  You don’t always need to ask the details about research and outcomes. It’s a good litmus test if you will just ask the following:

What would convince you this method is ineffective or doesn’t work in the way you claim it does? 

You might be very surprised at the responses when you ask that question.

What If Something Can’t Be Falsified?

The interesting thing about falsifiability is that the absence of it is not a good thing. We don’t say, “This hypothesis is so strong that it can’t be falsified!” On the contrary, a hypothesis or method that can’t be falsified, i.e., its practitioner can’t identify a test and outcome that would disprove it, is not scientifically based.

So there’s a paradox here.  The people who are the most attached to their methods, the most forceful in describing them, the most certain of themselves, are often the ones you should run away from. Instead, seek out the science-based trainer who can tell you what would falsify their methods, who is able to share with you the limitations of any procedure they use, and who is willing to admit when they are wrong. 

I don’t recommend that pet owners ask this series of questions when interviewing dog trainers.  Jean Donaldson has a much more practical set of questions for dog owners to ask potential trainers.  And I understand that from the trainers’ point of view, most clients are more interested in the fact that something works than the details of how. But my falsifiability question is in the spirit of Ms. Donaldson’s push for generalized transparency in the training industry. 

The graphic below shows some typical answers you might get when asking dog trainers, even within the positive reinforcement-based training community, how they would falsify their methods. Only one of the answers is acceptable.

Click on the graphic for a larger, readable version.



Eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper stated that the difference between pseudo-science and science is that pseudo-science seeks confirmations and science seeks falsifications. If this is true, then there is a lot of pseudo-science floating around in the dog training community. It is time to raise the bar??

What’s Next?

I have one or two more posts brewing on this subject. I want to discuss experimental design. Although our back yards are not the ideal places for controlled scientific experiments, we need to be able to assess whether the ways we train our dogs are working. We need to learn to be better observers. There are some criteria we can follow that will help make our assessments more accurate. 

I’d also like to discuss the kinds of claims made by trainers that are unfalsifiable. Whoo boy!

Are you with me so far? Have I explained sufficiently the importance of being able to prove a theory, a hypothesis, or belief to be wrong?

Thank you to Sorrel Robinson, Skye Anderson, “V,” and Hayl Bergeland for advice on the scientific method and falsifiability. Readers will see more of their input in Part 2, but they helped get me off to a good start here as well. All mistakes are my own and they aren’t responsible for anything I wrote here!

Addendum 4/29/17

Thank you to commenter “A” who pointed out a flaw in the diagram. In the green box, I didn’t actually give specific examples that would falsify tenets of the science of learning theory. I didn’t answer the question in the blue box (which was the whole point, not only of the diagram, but the whole post!). I have replaced the text in the green box and hope I did a better job. (Just when I start to “get” this falsification stuff, it slips away!) In case you are curious, here is a link to the previous version of the graphic, where I just gave general instructions on how to find evidence, rather than suggesting specifics that would falsify aspects of the science of learning. 

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Book Wins Maxwell Award


My book won!

I’m proud to announce that Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction has won a Maxwell Award for 2016. The Maxwells are awarded yearly by the Dog Writers Association of America.  My book won best book in 2016 in the category of Behavior, Health or General Care.

The winners in all categories were announced at a banquet in New York City on February 12. I didn’t get to go, but a friend texted me as soon as it happened. I’ve been on Cloud Nine!

I thank the Dog Writers Association of America for the recognition and honor of the Maxwell Award.


I’m running a celebration discount on the PDF version. The PDF is available on my Dog Dementia website, and I’ve marked it down from $12.95 to $9.99.

Click here or the “Add To Cart” button to buy the PDF.

Add to Cart

The PDF is designed for both pleasant online viewing and a nice print copy, so it’s like getting two versions in one. The print is large, at 14 points, and the photos are in color.  Here’s a sample page. The discount will run through midnight on March 21, 2017.

In addition, Amazon and Barnes and Noble seem to be having a price war. They have marked the paper book down from $15.99 to $11.48 and $11.36 respectively.

Book: Remember Me: Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive DysfunctionMy book is also available in Kindle, Apple iBook, Nook, and Google digital formats. You can buy all the formats here.

Please feel free to share this announcement with anyone who has a senior dog. My book can help!

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2017

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Do You Dogs REALLY Want To Come In?

(In answer to a couple of comments: The title of the post is correct. I am addressing my dogs and asking if they want to come in. Sorry if it comes off as clunky,)

What do my dogs understand when I ask them a question?

A while back I read a suggestion that we should stop giving our dogs one-word verbal cues and start asking them questions instead. In full sentences.

Talking to our dogs is no biggie–most of us talk to our dogs all day, right? But doing so instead of carefully trained and clarified cues when we need a certain behavior? Several claims followed the suggestion. First, that if we ask our dogs verbal questions as prompts for behavior we are not actually giving them cues. Second, that dogs understand that when we ask them questions we are giving them choices. Finally, that asking dogs questions with the intention of giving them choices takes us outside of the realm of operant conditioning.

Whoa. I’m going to try to unravel this group of statements. 

First, about the cues.  Any change in the environment that can be sensed by an animal can function as a discriminative stimulus or cue.  For example, a whistle from a human, a hand signal, a sound in the environment, or an odor can all be discriminative stimuli. A verbal question from a human is a series of sounds. It can be a discriminative stimulus, or can contain one. There’s no reason in the world to exempt questions from that definition.

This is Learning Theory 101. So far so good?

Second, about the choices. While dogs may come to understand that a questioning tone acts as a predictor of certain things, we do not know that they understand questions semantically as we do. I’ll expand on that below. 

Finally, about learning theory. Both operant learning and respondent conditioning are going on all the time, whether we want them to be or not. Antecedents set the stage for behaviors. Consequences affect whether the behaviors increase or decrease. You can’t magically step away from antecedents and consequences by using a sentence with a particular inflection.

And it turns out that I might be just the right person to demonstrate this. I can demonstrate a few things about questions and choices because of how I communicate with my dogs. And I can show you a video of the results.

“Do You Want To Go Outside?”

Several years ago I realized my dogs didn’t always need to go out or come in from the back yard every time I did. I had adult dogs and knew their habits well. I went outside more often than any individual dog needed to for elimination, so I started giving them a choice. I had long had the habit of asking, “Do you want to go outside?” as my cue for that, although I wasn’t originally giving a choice. But over the years, I started to let a dog stay inside if she hung back and I knew going out wasn’t essential. Likewise, if I asked the dogs whether they were ready to come in and someone wanted to stay in the yard longer, I accommodated that.

Plenty of people do this. There are people out there casually giving their dogs choices about activities all the time and letting their dogs vote with their feet. Plenty of us look for ways to let our dogs make decisions about what they’d like to do and when. That’s been going on long before choice became a trendy word in dog training.

Zani on stump

Zani exercising her choice to stay in the yard

So How Does That Question Work?

But what about this “asking” thing? How did my question become a cue for “choice”? Did my dogs have some innate understanding of my words or inflection? Not necessarily. Science has started to show that dogs can detect inflections and familiar words–no surprise–but there are not yet data showing that they parse that information as humans do. (See a list of articles on dogs and human language here.)

But there was an obvious way for them to learn about those “question” cues. And that was through the consequences.

Cues in positive reinforcement training are opportunities for reinforcement. The thing we tend to forget is that using any cue is offering a choice, even when we’d rather not be doing so. There are decades’ worth of studies about reinforcement characteristics and the likelihood of a response from an animal. 

Any due we give in a positive reinforcement scenario offers a choice, whether we want it to or not. Any cue can be a question.

When we want a dog to respond reliably to a cue, we use high value reinforcers on a dense schedule.  We also limit access to reinforcers for the behaviors we don’t want. So what would we do if we want the animal to have a more of a choice? The opposite! We would use a weak-ish reinforcer ourselves so as not to stack the deck in our direction. We would make sure that there are reinforcers available for other choices. And we would not penalize the dog for making those other choices.

And that’s what I did. For example, when inviting the dogs to come in the house from the yard, I used low value reinforcers. Each dog who came in got a piece of kibble. Enough to sweeten the deal, but not so much that it overpowered the value of the other choice. Any dog could stay in the yard instead. There were naturally reinforcing activities in the yard, and all they’d miss would be one piece of kibble. (Which they could get later, although I don’t know if they thought about it that way.)  

I deliberately paired a cue with weak reinforcement, and I didn’t intervene if they chose the “stay in the yard” option. I could have skipped the food reinforcer entirely. Coming in the house is often reinforcing by itself. But I want to reinforce my dogs–in some way–any time they come to me after I have cued it.

“Real” Recall Cues

If that weakly reinforced cue were the only way I had to call my dogs, I’d be in trouble. A strong recall is a safety issue. I also have a strongly reinforced recall cue for each of my dogs. These cues are designed and trained to a level that the dogs’ responses are reliable even in the face of large temptations. When I use those recall cues, I pay well. I bring out the meat and fish.

So again, for the choice recall I pay low. If they choose not to respond, I let them go about their business.  For the “real” recall cue I pay high value, and keep it practiced so that their responses are reliable. 

The differences in the dogs’ responses are a result of the quality of the reinforcement. They are not necessarily a result of questioning tone. It’s not some intrinsic quality of the antecedent. It’s the consequence that is tied to it.

Movie: Two Different Recall Cues

The movie shows what Zani does when she hears her heavily reinforced recall vs. what she does when she hears her “come if you want” cue. 

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Wait–What’s the Real Cue?

This is important. When I invite my dogs inside, is my verbal question the only cue? Nope. There’s something more salient than what I’m saying. It’s the fact that I am up on the porch, headed to the back door.  

There are tons of cues like this in our dogs’ lives. If I am about to get my dogs’ supper, the time of day plus the fact that I’m walking to the kitchen show that. Other actions strengthen the message, including my gathering up the dogs’ food toys and getting out the food. It’s common for something other than our exact verbal cue to be the most noticeable cue for our dogs. My friend Debbie Jacobs has a great little movie where she is out with her dogs in the woods. Her dogs are all out of sight. She calls out, “Overhead slide projectors!” Her dogs come running. Her dogs are not responding to the specific words. It’s enough that they are out in the woods and she calls out some words, any words.

People who say that our dogs have advanced understanding of human language are making extraordinary claims. At the same time they are often ignoring dogs’ masterful powers of observation. Extraordinary claims require strong evidence.  Stronger than saying, “When I ask my dog a question, she understands she has a choice, because this study showed that dogs have a language center in their brains just like humans.” It’s difficult to control variables enough to show evidence for this outside a laboratory. I’ll be discussing the Law of Parsimony and the idea of falsifiability of claims in a future post.

Whose Language?

Often when we scratch the surface of a recommendation that sounds attractive–”Ask your dogs questions instead of ordering them around with robotic monosyllables!”–we find that the claimed results may not be as advertised. Or they may not be happening for the reasons cited. In response to the inevitable question: I talk to my dogs all day every day. But when I am actually trying to impart information to them, I try to be very clear.  I believe that it is humane and loving to give clean, clear cues to dogs and not to overestimate their language capabilities.  

The blanket recommendation of using complex conversational cues strikes me as odd for another reason. I currently have three dogs, and have trained another handful. Not a huge sample, but that’s part of the point. I have perceived big differences in how easily they learn verbal cues even within this small group. My little hound mix Zani has a really hard time learning verbal cues (though she’s great at inflections). I’m sure part of it is my poor training mechanics, but even so, there is a clear difference in how many repetitions Zani needs to learn a verbal cue compared to my dog Summer, for instance. And Zani is no slouch in the brains department. So I am concerned about wholesale recommendations to switch over to sentences, since for some dogs verbals are the thing they pay the least attention to.

Finally, I think focusing on dogs’ supposed understanding of human language is very human-centric.  I’d rather put that energy into reading them better and learning their language. Dogs are already saying yes and no to things all the time, if only we would listen.

Regarding Comments

I’ve provided this handy list of the recent journal articles on this topic: Dogs and Language. If you want to comment about the findings, please quote the actual articles and not the blog posts or major media articles about them. Many have been sensationalistic. 

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson


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Posted in Behavior analysis, Cues | Tagged , | 21 Comments

Now Switch! Prompting the Dog to Change Feet When Scratching a Nail Board

I’ve been using a nail board (custom-made by Bob Rogers–thanks Bob and Marge!) with all three of my dogs for a few years now. I use it as an adjunct to trimming and Dremeling, and the dogs enjoy getting part of the kibble in exchange for scratching. 

This isn’t a how-to post; it’s mostly another “Do as I say, not as I do,” post. In other words, I’m going to tell you about a mistake I made. But I’m also going to work to rectify it. I’ll post about that later. (Here’s a good video by Kevin Duggan if you want to know how to get started using a nail board.)

I’ll tell you about a couple of things that worked, too. 

The Board and Techniques

I use a staple gun to attach 60-grade sandpaper (very coarse) to the board because all my dogs have hard nails and have become experienced scratchers. They all learned early on to extend their nails to protect their pads. I started them on a finer grit though, and that’s what I would recommend when starting out. You can move them gradually to the coarsest grade necessary. I replace the sandpaper whenever it starts to wear down, usually every couple of months. 

My final goal is to have very short nails on all my dogs. I follow the “alternate cut line” technique demonstrated and promoted by Susan Garrett, Dr. Leslie Woodcock, and others. (Check out the Facebook group “Nail Maintenance for Dogs” for more info.) The board itself doesn’t take off the part of the nail that needs to come off with the “alternate cut,” but it’s a great adjunct.  For Clara, I use a Dremel to do the “alternate cut line” (take more off the top of the nail). That leaves a bit of a point at the bottom of the nail. She can scratch off the point and some more of the middle of the nail using the board the next day or so. Progress! The other dogs are next in line for this Dremel + nail board system. I find I do better if I work with one dog at a time on slow-moving processes like this.

Training the Dogs To Use the Board

When I first started my dogs with the nail board, I went about training them in a sloppy way. I didn’t know if I was going to use it seriously so I just messed around with it. And I was not thinking at all about one crucial item: how to get them to switch feet. I just assumed it would “work out.” Even though it seemed to at first, Zani showed that assumption to be erroneous. (Not her fault. I’m the one who didn’t make a plan…) 

Think about the challenge. If you just stop reinforcing one foot, how long will it take for the dog to try the other? Do you need two different cues?  What happens if they prefer using one over the other? How do you make things come out even? Would there be an easy way to be systematic about it?

My sloppy training and lack of planning were “good enough” for two of my dogs. But not for Zani. She finally forced me to grow up and think like a real trainer.

I’ll describe the two methods that worked out for Clara and Summer, then tell what happened with Zani.

Clara: Switching Feet as a Result of Treat Placement

Marge taught me this trick. If you toss the treat laterally after the dog scratches, the dog will usually come back and scratch with the foot that is leading as they turn back towards the board. (It will make more sense when you watch it in the movie.) So you can get the dog to switch feet with treat placement. It’s a tendency, not a rule, but it turns out that Clara is almost 100% consistent. So my reinforcement placement is an antecedent arrangement that lets me affect which foot she will use next.

Summer: An Idiosyncratic Solution

Leave it to Summer. Summer and I have actually worked out strange, separate cues for her left and right foot. This is because she scratches differently with each one. When she scratches with her left foot, she does it the normal way. She stands on the ground and scratches on the bottom part of the board. But sometime along the way, she started standing on her hind legs and scratching with her right foot at the top of the board. I think she may have been trying to get closer to my treat cache. But I realized a stroke of luck when I saw it. I have reinforced these different behaviors and created cues. 

If I want her to scratch with her right foot, I tap the top of the board to get her started and I treat her in position. When I want her to scratch with her left foot, I fold my arms over the top of the board. She can’t scratch at the top so she scratches at the bottom with her left foot. I toss the treat to reset.  Yay, Summer! My friend Judith Beam pointed out to me once that scratching a propped up nail board takes some core strength. I think Summer’s version for her right foot may take some strength for sure, so I’m careful not to ask her to do it too long.

Brown dog Summer getting ready to scratch a nail board with her right foot

My cue for right foot scratching at the top of the board: I’m tapping with the fingers of my right hand. She reaches across the board with her right paw towards that hand.

Brown dog Summer scratching a nail board with her left foot

My cue for left foot scratching at the bottom of the board: blocking the top by folding my arms. She has to scratch at the bottom and she automatically uses her left foot. 

Zani: Ummmmm

When Zani first started scratching the nail board, I was thrilled because she switched her feet back and forth right from the start. Rather than going left, left, left, left, she went left, right, left, right.

This sounds great, right? (It was also super cute.) But there is a problem. Zani has hard nails and doesn’t scratch firmly. Bad combination. I needed to reinforce harder scratches. But when trying to selectively reinforce harder scratches, I utterly confused her. Soft left, soft left, soft left (no reinforcements for any of those), hard right TREAT! So….did I reinforce the harder scratch or the right foot scratch? Since she is continuing after all this time to switch, and not scratching any harder in general, I think we can deduce what has been reinforced: switching. 

She doesn’t respond in a consistent way to the treat-throwing trick. Trying different board positions doesn’t get me a firmer scratch. So I think to fix it I’ll have to start over. More on that below. 

The “Digging” Method

Some dogs go after the board as if they are digging a hole and use both feet in flurries of scratching. This could probably work for getting the nails done evenly but none of my dogs has been inclined to do it that way. I think it may work better with the board flat on the ground and finer sandpaper than I use.

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

So Not a Pro

This lack of foresight on my part is one of the things that marks me as an amateur trainer. Between being serious about their profession and working with lots of dogs, professionals learn to foresee these types of problems. “Where is this behavior pattern going to lead us?” They have a better sense of what order in which to do things. 

But maybe by putting this out there I’ll save another lazy trainer like me from this particular problem. And perhaps writing it down will help generalize my own lesson and help me think through the next training challenge better. 

I do know that I am motivated to fix a problem when I make a plan in public. So here goes. I’m going to tackle this and will be sharing more. Stay tuned.

What about you? Any nail board users out there? How do you get your dogs to switch feet? Anybody teach their dogs to scratch with their hind feet? I have seen some elegant methods for that but I haven’t tried them with my dogs.

Brown dog Summer on her hind legs scratching the nail board

Summer is so intense about the nail board!

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson


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No More Cutting! Making 500 Non-Crumbly Dog Treats From a Mold

Best dog treat hack ever! Here’s how to make batches of more than 500 small treats at a time without having to cut them up.

  1. Buy a silicone cooking mat for low-fat cooking. One brand available by mail order is called the Pyramid Pan. It has 556 little protrusions. The idea is that you can roast a piece of meat on there and the fat can run out. K-Mart also has one.
  2. “Pyramid” silicone mold

    Turn it upside down. Now you have a mold with 556 small cavities.

  3. Mix up your favorite treat recipe, but adapt it in the following ways:
    1. If there is anything coarse in the recipe, put the batter through a food processor. It needs to be smooth.
    2. Adjust the liquid so that it is more like a batter than a dough.
  4. Put the silicone mold, cavity side up, on a large cookie sheet or baking pan. 
  5. Mold turned upside down and filled with treat batter

    Spread the batter around so that it fills all the little holes. This can take a while (but not as long as cutting them all up!). You can use a spatula, egg turner, or even a table knife. As you finish this process, scrape the top so that the boundaries between the holes are fairly batter-free.

  6. Bake it for about half to two-thirds the time you normally would (see my recipe below).
  7. Take it out of the oven, and when it’s cool enough to handle, dump the treats out into a container.
  8. Smile because you don’t have to spend the next 20 minutes cutting up treats and cleaning up crumbs.

I don’t normally measure ingredients when I make treats, but getting the consistency right is important for this recipe. So here is one I tested that came out well.

Simple Baked Chicken Treats 

1 10-oz can chicken including liquid
2 eggs
1 cup tapioca flour
1/2 cup white flour
1 tablespoon oil

  1. Blend the chicken, its liquid, and 2 eggs in a food processor.
  2. Pour the mixture into a bowl and stir in the flours and oil. (You can adjust the ratio of tapioca to regular flour if you like. See my post about making treats with tapioca flour.) The batter should be a little thicker than pancake batter but still pourable. 
  3. Spread half the batter onto the silicone mold on a cookie sheet as described above. Take the time to get the batter into the holes. Scrape it off the dividers.
  4. Bake for 12 minutes at 350 degrees F. 
  5. Remove from the oven.
  6. When the silicone sheet is cool enough to handle, turn it over and dump the treats out. This is the best part!
  7. Bag them up and refrigerate or freeze.

This recipe yields two molds full, or about 1,100 treats.


  1. These treats are small. In most cases, I would give my dogs at least two. 
  2. Their little corners are sharp. They are fine when soft, but I wouldn’t want to bake them too long and get them crisp.
  3. You can spend forever getting batter into the rows on the outer edges of the mold. After I made my first batch (pictured above) I didn’t bother anymore. I dolloped some batter in the middle of the mold and spread it as far as it naturally went. The beauty of this method is that it saves you the time and hassle of cutting the treats up. It doesn’t make sense to me to spend that time getting perfect edges instead. 
  4. Also in the interest of efficiency, I experimented with not cleaning the dividers of the mold very carefully. I thought I wouldn’t mind if some of the treats were attached to each other. But the places where the batter had baked on top of the mold were very dry. I’ll go back to doing it neatly.
  5. I never greased the mold in any of the recipes I tried. I  never had trouble getting the treats out. 
  6. Finally, I made a batch using an adaptation of a peanut butter/pumpkin treat recipe I make a lot. They turned out great but took forever to spread into the mold because the batter was stickier. I may be able to tweak the recipe so that it works better, but for now, I will probably stick with a meat-based recipe.

Peanut butter pumpkin treats


Bonus hack: these treats work marvelously in a Manners Minder remote control treat dispenser!  The treats are the right size for the insert that has 3/4-inch holes. Because they are soft they don’t jam the mechanism. And because treats with tapioca flour hold together well there are few crumbs.

Related Posts

Thank you to Alanna Lowry for passing along this great hack. She got it from her friend Suzie Greentree, who got the idea from another friend. We are not sure who came up with it first. 

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Dog training hints, Food reinforcers, Treats | Tagged , , , , , | 28 Comments

Eileenanddogs: 2017 Pet Blogger Challenge

Thank you to GoPetFriendly for the Pet Blogger Challenge. This is my third time doing the challenge. I always enjoy it, and I’m looking forward to being introduced to some new blogs from other participants. 

1. When did you start your blog? And, for anyone who is just seeing it for the first time, please provide a description of your site. Would you say your blog focuses more on sharing stories with your readers, or providing a resource for your audience?

I started my blog in July 2012. I am a hobbyist dog trainer who is hooked on the science of learning and dedicated to spreading the word about humane, positive reinforcement-based training. I’m not a professional trainer, and I often post real-life training complete with embarrassing mistakes.  People seem to enjoy seeing training where the dogs don’t already know the behaviors and where I deal with common training problems instead of everything going perfectly.

I tell some stories, but my blog is mostly a resource. Just for fun, here is a pie chart I made for my writing mentorship course. In the pie chart, I show what proportion of my writing falls into each of the four traditional categories of prose: expository, persuasive, descriptive, and narrative writing. I spend most of my time explaining things and persuading people (about positive reinforcement based training).

2. What was your proudest blogging moment of 2016?

I suppose I should say that it was about being able to blog that my book was out in paperback. But that’s about the book and not the blog. The best blog moment was the learning experience of studying and writing about the opposition reflex and realizing that I had really discovered a misunderstanding in that expression. The blog comments were illuminating and helped me on my own understanding of the subject. 

Opposition Reflex: What Is It Really?

3. Which of your blog posts was your favorite this year and why? (Please include a link.)

My post about the punishment callus was very interesting to write and I learned a lot. I also think it added to the helpful literature about training. It’s about the effects of attempting to use low-level punishment, and how difficult it is in general to suppress behavior to an effective degree.

Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong 

4. Year after year, one goal that we all seem to share is that we want to reach more people. What one tool did you use or action did you take this year that had the most impact on increasing traffic to your blog?

My readership has begun to level off. My traffic only increased by about 8% this year, which is less of an increase than previous years. I have not posted as much this year because of other projects, such as getting my book published. So I didn’t use a particular tool, I guess. However, I have a lot of evergreen content. Most of my articles are not time sensitive. So I do spend some time promoting my popular older posts and doing some optimization to make them easy to find. 

5. Which of your blog posts got the most traffic this year? (Please include a link.) Have you noticed any themes across your most popular posts?

I mentioned that I have a lot of evergreen content and, as it happens, the post that got the most traffic this year was one from 2014: Ringing the Bell to Go Out: Avoid These 4 Common Errors! I actually don’t know why this post is so popular but it remains one of my top performers. The new post that got the most traffic this year was: Opposition Reflex: What Is It Really? 

6. What blog do you find most inspirational and how has it influenced your blog? (Please include a link.)

Debbie Jacobs’ writing on Fearfuldogs.com inspires me. She is a genius with metaphor, has a great message, and stays on point. I have learned a lot from her.

7. What is one thing your readers don’t know about you or your pets that would surprise them?

I mention in my biographies that I have a master’s degree in music. It’s in harpsichord performance. I don’t think I have ever mentioned that my father and I built a harpsichord together. It was a fairly common way to get a nice instrument in the 1980s; mine is a French double from a Zuckermann kit. One of these days I’ll take some good photos. It has a beautiful soundboard painting by a now well-known decorator (thank you, Janine!).   

8. What is something you’ve learned this year that could help other bloggers?

I’ve gotten more efficient at going after plagiarists. I file DMCA takedown complaints with sites and also search engines and keep a spreadsheet to track responses.

Here is a link for anyone who wants to ask Google to take down plagiarized content. It’s a little hard to find if you don’t know it’s there. On the second page of the form, choose “I have a legal issue that is not listed above.” Then on the next page, there will be an option for “I have found content that may violate my copyright.” If you can prove it with links to your original content and links to the plagiarism, Google will remove the results fast.

9. What would you like to accomplish on your blog in 2017?

I would simply like to write more. I don’t have any benchmarks or marketing goals. My blog is my writing home. I enjoy all sorts of writing, but even when I am getting paid, I am usually hankering to get back to my blog. I do it for fun, for dessert, after I do writing for others. I have some exciting articles in the queue and would love to finish and publish them.

10. Now it’s your turn! You have the attention of the pet blogging community – is there a question you’d like answered, or an aspect of your blog that you’d like input on?

In this section, I would like to thank GoPetFriendly, the sponsor of this blog challenge, and bring their bravery to readers’ attention. GoPetFriendly needs our support. A bunch of Amy Burkert’s blog posts on GoPetFriendly were apparently copied. Then when she claimed her copyright, the company turned around and filed a $5 million suit against her! This is a bullying tactic and Amy is fighting back. She has a funding page set up so that she can respond to this harassing lawsuit. I have contributed and I urge others to do so. Amy is very brave and standing up for all of us “little guys.” Please support her.

Donate to GoPetFriendly Fighting Infringement

Thank you to GoPetFriendly for the 2017 Pet Blogger Challenge!

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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Posted in Milestone, Retrospective | Tagged | 21 Comments