The Last Trip To the Vet: What If Your Pet’s Last Breath Is on the Operating Table?

Alex in the foreground, with Rusty and Andrew behind him—photo from 1993. Yes, they are in a bathtub.

Many years ago I lost Alexander, my dear, dear cat to stomach cancer. This was before veterinary medicine had the technology that’s available today. It was also before I took as proactive an approach to my animals’ health and welfare needs as I do now. I knew nothing about training or socialization. My cats were not crate- or carrier-trained. I didn’t know to use counterconditioning, desensitization, and habituation to teach them that the vet’s office could be a great place (or at least not an awful one). As a result, it was a struggle to take my cats to the vet and most were terrified there.

Alex was looking intently at me in every photo I ever took of him—1993

This came to a head with Alex. He had had a rough start in life. He was a runt of a neighborhood litter,  rejected by his mother, and he almost died of parasites. My friend and I bottle fed him and nursed him to health. He was a difficult cat for many years but we bonded very closely.

When he was eight years old, he started losing weight. I took him to the vet, who did blood work and could not identify a problem. He gave me pills to induce Alex to eat, something I now regret with some horror. It was an exhausting battle for both of us when I tried to get the pills down him. And after he did eat, digesting food probably caused him pain.  After a few months, as Alex lost more and more weight, the vet thought he felt nodules in Alex’s abdomen. This was before ultrasound equipment was commonly available at vet practices, or at least at this one, so this was through palpation only.  The vet thought he had localized kidney cancer and was hopeful that he could surgically remove it.

I remember, vividly and painfully, taking Alex to the vet for this surgery. He was petrified. I was required to take him at 8 AM. Then I left and waited and waited for a phone call. They didn’t operate until after noon. When the vet performed the surgery, he found that Alex was riddled with cancer. He called me and we agreed that there was no option but to euthanize Alex then and there. I was still in shock that I was losing this comparatively young cat, but another thing that I can still barely stand to think about was that he was terrified, in a steel cage in an unfamiliar place, for the last four hours of his life.

Things Have Improved

It is much more common now for people to work with their animals so that they won’t be scared of novel situations, handling, or the vet’s office. More and more people are learning husbandry techniques. There is now Fear Free Certification for veterinary professionals and trainers. And even many practices that don’t have the certification are practicing more techniques to keep the animals truly calm, rather than shut down.

There are countless things to prepare our dear pets for, with the goal of making these activities minimally stressful. One thing that many of our pets will eventually face is euthanasia. And when the time comes, we humans are not likely to be at our best.

I have a wonderful and brave friend who includes “euthanasia games” in her husbandry work with her dog. Getting her belly shaved, getting prepared for an injection or an IV insertion—all those steps we humans absolutely dread for our animals—can be predictors of great food and fun for a beloved pet. Just another game to her. And even if, at the end, the dog can’t or won’t take food, the activities will at least be familiar and have good associations.

In addition to this type of preparation, there are more and more options for at-home euthanasia, which is almost always less stressful.

Because of these factors, the odds of our pets’ end of life being low stress and pain-free have greatly improved. But there is one situation that is hard to prepare our animals for, and almost impossible to prepare ourselves for. That is if our pet must be euthanized on the operating table and have to undergo the waiting and prep for surgery without us. This may be during a routine surgery that turns up something awful and unexpected. It could be in the event of exploratory surgery, where something awful is expected. Or it could happen because of an unplanned emergency. I have been through the exploratory surgery situation with two beloved animals now.


My dog Summer was euthanized in August 2017 on the operating table after exploratory surgery unveiled hopelessly advanced hemangiosarcoma.  The vet and I had agreed to this plan beforehand. We would not revive Summer if the cancer were too advanced. (Some people make different choices about this. This is a deeply personal decision, and I respect all approaches.) The vet performed the surgery because of some hopeful signs on the ultrasound. But Summer had widespread cancer metastases.

Summer, just like Alex, spent her last waking hours waiting, without me, in a cage. I hope it was different for her because of the preparation I did do. I am thankful that every time I took Summer to the vet, I took her mat and some treats (unless she was fasting). I worked at making vet visits pleasant, with good associations. Some vets gave her treats, too. I did not do this methodically, though, and I wish I had. The vet I took her to most often was a large practice in a cramped space, and often fully booked, so we never went for practice or play visits.

Summer did have a few experiences of staying at the vet for a length of time. She had been spayed immediately after I adopted her, and also at age five she had had a bout of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, a life-threatening problem. She was hospitalized for several days. I treasure the video I took of her emerging when I came to get her to take her home.

I mention these experiences because they were times when I left her at the vet and she had to stay there for medical procedures and be kenneled and then I came and got her again. I hope that in her doggie brain, staying in a cage at the vet was enough of a familiar routine with a good outcome. But I wish I could have prepared her much more.

Leaving a Pet at the Vet: Can We Practice?

If my experience with my pets’ veterinary care is typical, some vets have a surgery list for their surgery day, but the order of surgeries can be fluid. I have always been asked to have my pet there fairly early in the morning, even if they end up having their surgery several hours later. I have not had the option of waiting with them, but I hope to have that option if there is a next time for this.

Perhaps some of you have a close enough relationship with your vet to be able to stay with your dog or cat as they wait for surgery. Or perhaps your vet schedules surgeries so your pet doesn’t have to be in limbo in a back room for long. I have not had those options. And I don’t think many of us can count on always having those options since we never know when we might have a medical emergency with our pet and end up seeing an ER vet we don’t know.

So after going through this exploratory surgery nightmare twice, it occurred to me that the animal waiting alone is just another husbandry task. As much negativity as there is about “sending our animals to the back room at the vet,” there always may be some times when they have to be without us for medical care. Can we prepare them for that?

Here are some ideas about getting your animal used to being handled without you being there. This presupposes that you trust your vet.

  • Go to a Fear-Free Certified veterinary practice. They will know techniques to help calm your pet and will be on board for any efforts you want to make to make things better for the animal. If you don’t have one locally, promote the program to the local veterinarians.
  • If the vet boards animals, and it’s affordable, pay for boarding every once in a while but do it for a very short period at first. Depending on the dog, this might mean starting at 5 minutes. Assume you will be paying for a day. Remember, it’s still work for vet staff to take your dog back to a kennel, load her in, and get her out for you, and you are reserving a space that could have accommodated another animal. If the practice offers a discount or lets you do it for free on a slow day, so much the better. But don’t expect or demand it.
  • Clara “goes to the back” for dermatology procedures and handles it well

    If your dog is doing OK with the short “boarding” visits, take the option of dropping her off at the vet for them to work her in for an innocuous procedure—something they have done before and you have practiced with her. Anal check, ear check, an inoculation. I know, I know. I NEVER used to take the “drop them off and we’ll work her in” option. I hated the idea precisely because I didn’t want to leave my dogs in a noisy cage among strangers. But with some preparation, wouldn’t doing that every once in a while with a vet you trust be better than their first experience being when they are very ill and you may never see them again? Food for thought.

  • Stating the obvious, but crate train the dog. Get her used to all different kinds of crates, and take her and crate her in all different situations. Work up to noisy situations with dogs barking. Agility trials are good for this, but remember: that’s graduate school work. Your dog needs to be completely comfortable in a crate in general and in other challenging situations first. I always think of vet scenarios when people talk about not needing to crate train their dogs. You may be able to arrange your life at home so that you never crate your dog.  But…what about at the vet? From here on I will train any animal I have to be calm about confinement.
  • Ask your vet if there is a sedative that would be safe for your dog to take before surgery or other procedures. I talked to a veterinarian friend before making this suggestion. She said it could be an option in many cases. You may have to try it ahead of time to make sure it works as intended on your pet. Your vet can counsel you about this. I did this with two dogs: Cricket, and Clara, “practicing” under my vet’s instruction ahead of time with a sedative before they were to have a medical procedure. In Cricket’s case, the drug had a paradoxical effect, making her hyper and drunkenly wobbling all around. So we didn’t use it. In Clara’s case, the sedative had a calming effect, and she had some before she went in for a large set of X-rays.

Summer on a happy outing in 2010, a month after her hemorrhagic gastroenteritis

As a result of my experience with Summer (and dear Alex, all those years ago), I have started to take my dogs to the vet to get their anal glands expressed without me present. I did it for a blood draw once as well. I want them to learn that yes, sometimes they have to go with someone else and perhaps have something a bit unpleasant done, but then they will come back to me. I wait for them in the waiting room with the best goodie possible. Even though I trust my vet to treat my dogs humanely, carefully, and as fear-free as possible, I pay attention to the results. If the dogs are getting more sensitized, more afraid from these experiences, they aren’t helping. Time to back up and do some less intense work at the vet as we are able.

I am going to do everything I can to be sure that my current and future animals are not terrified if they have to wait in a kennel for surgery. We don’t know if our dogs can think ahead in the way we do. But we do know that they learn that certain events predict others. It’s the basis of classical conditioning. And I want my dogs to know that a stay in the “back room” at the vet will be followed by returning to me and getting love. In this world or in my heart.

Related Posts

Both of these are on my dog dementia site.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

Thank you to my veterinarian friend with whom I discussed parts of this post. 


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Posted in Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Euthanasia, Handling and Husbandry | Tagged | 6 Comments

Dogs and Body Pressure: A Photo Study

Can you guess what just happened here?

Black dog Zani is respecting the personal space of tan dog Clara

Zani and Clara and I were playing a game I call the Gravity Game. It has evolved over the years. The indoor version is as follows:

  1. Clara deliberately drops her ball
  2. It rolls
  3. Zani picks it up
  4. Zani brings it to me
  5. I trade it for a piece of kibble
  6. I toss the ball back to Clara
  7. Repeat

I have a previous post on The Gravity Game. Clara invented it, first using gravity to play a game of fetch with herself, then training Zani and me to fetch for her. Here’s the Gravity Game video.

So the other night the three of us were playing the gravity game at my friend’s house. We were playing with an old favorite Goughnuts ball of Clara’s that’s so chewed up it doesn’t even roll properly.

We were playing the game as described above, repeating it in a loop. This went on for several iterations. Then, one time when Clara dropped the ball, it rolled a couple of inches, then rolled back to her. This happened because it’s chewed up and no longer spherical. Zani trotted over to get it as usual.

Then this happened. Here’s the photo again for reference.

Zani trotted after the ball, got that far, and stopped cold. She turned her head away and curved her body away from Clara. You can even see a weight shift to the right, and that her commissures are tight. She is not standing squarely on all four feet. It’s a reasonable assumption that she is not looking at Clara. (You can also see a little spinal curvature, lordosis, that has developed after her accident.)

Zani is socially adept and has lovely doggie skills, and even though the pattern of the game is that she picks the ball up and Clara “expects” her to, she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t make herself take those final two steps to enter the space right in front of Clara’s face and gaze to pick up the ball.

She froze in that position long enough for me to grab my phone and take this shot. I think afterward I even encouraged her to get the ball, but she just walked away.

Personal Space

I’ve written a bit about dogs’ sensitivity to spatial pressure. Zani is a great teacher. She is extremely careful about personal space. (Except when she is actively trying to get another dog to move by intrusively pressing her nose in their ear or butt.)

I wrote a long article for Barks from the Guild (Pet Professional Guild’s magazine) on this topic that I have permission to republish here. I’m planning to do it soon. In the meantime, here is the link if you’d like to check it out in the magazine (page 18). Turns out that personal space bubbles are a real thing and much studied.

But this post is just a mini-study on the body language during one incident. To anthropomorphize a little, Zani is being wonderfully “polite” to Clara about the ball.

Clara’s Body Language

So what part does Clara play? Does anybody want to take a stab at describing Clara’s body language in the photo of the two of them above? Mainly, is she guarding the ball? What observations do you have? (Her mouth is open because she was lightly panting after we had played ball outside.) I’ll wait and express my opinions later. What do you think?

Addendum 8/1/2018

I’ve gotten some great comments about Clara’s body language and her possible part in Zani’s reluctance to get the ball. Folks have observed the tension in her face (agreed) and her partial facing toward Zani and whether she might be guarding the bed vs. the ball.

Any of these could be having an effect. My opinion is that we are seeing Zani’s space bubble, and not necessarily any warding off by Clara. I believe Clara is looking at me because that’s where her next reinforcer is coming from. She’s waiting for me to toss the ball.  In other words, the fact that the ball is right in front of her doesn’t matter that much. She’s waiting for me to receive it and throw it.

In the video in the “You’re Too Close” post linked below, you can see Zani do the exact same thing with me. (Here’s the video.) She just can’t make herself come very close to the front of me when I’m standing up straight, admittedly not a very inviting posture.

I could be wrong. Zani is the dog body language expert, and she may well be sensing something from Clara that I am not, and that some of you are seeing. But my own guess is that it’s mostly Zani’s own space bubble. Thanks for everyone’s comments!

Related Posts

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson


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Posted in Dog body language | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Eileenanddogs’ Sixth Anniversary!


The numeral 6, signifying eileenanddogs blog's anniversary


Six years ago today I published my first ever blog post. By now I have published 304 (this is #305) and have 184 drafts in the works. I love blogging and I appreciate every kind word and constructive suggestion I get. Thank you readers, old and new! Here’s what’s going on for the dogs, for me, and the blog this year.

Dog News

A honey-colored dog is looking forward at the photographer. She is wearing an American flag scarf. Her ears are relaxed, her mouth is open and relaxed, and her eyes are oval and soft. She is relaxed.

Summer with a soft, relaxed look

It’s been an eventful year since my fifth anniversary at Eileenanddogs. The worst event by far was the loss of my eleven-year-old dog Summer last August. She had inoperable hemangiosarcoma. She was so healthy otherwise I would forget she was aging at all. I thought we had a good five more years.

Maybe this is the time to announce I am writing a book about her. She’s the one who brought me here, after all. And she, out of all the dogs I have known, was the most like me in temperament. I miss her quiet presence so much.

I have so many projects going that her book won’t be out all that soon. I have a good start on it. Then I realized that writing a book about our life together needed to be more than a simple chronology. I detoured into reading memoirs for a while. I didn’t like any of the memoirs with animals in them though, so we’ll have to see what I come up with.

Zani standing steadily, 9 days after her accident

The second hard thing this year was Zani’s accident in February. She slammed into a fence running at high speed. (Actually, I think Clara slammed her into it.) She got a spinal cord concussion but is recovering beautifully. We recently saw a rehab vet and I will be more proactive about careful exercises for her. But she has bounced back well on her own, and both her vets have reported no discernible pain. Yes!

Black dog on a green cot in the sun, taking sunbath on the blog anniversary

Zani catching some rays on our blogiversary

Clara and her ball

Clara continues to be my sweet, smart, beloved puppy. But all grown up. The work I have done with our trainer has paid off beyond my wildest dreams. Clara the snarly puppy with the stressful feral puppyhood (and probably stressful time in the womb as well) has developed into a steady, even extroverted dog. Her world has gotten big. She deals with things like vet visits better than many “normal” dogs. And she is simply lovely to live with.

Eileen News

I have big news in my personal life. I am retiring from my day job on July 31, 2018. Yes, in less than two weeks I will be a full-time writer and consultant! Calling the job I’ve had for 18 years a “day job” doesn’t do it justice, though. I have been privileged to work for a breast cancer program that allowed me to provide real, tangible help to impoverished women who had breast cancer. I learned so much about the lives of the poorest of the poor and how to help. My organization was able to help women who had so many strikes against them. And we saved lives. I don’t say that in a vague, rhetorical way. I know of about 50 women who are alive today because of my program. But funding was dwindling, so in April 2018 we dissolved the agency. We probably could have scratched along for another year, but my work partner and I were ready to retire from it. It’s a shame that there was no one to carry it on, though.

But I am so ready to write, edit, teach, and create full time. I will be offering the writing mentorship through IAABC again. I have Summer’s story to work on. And I have two other big projects coming out, both probably debuting in the next few months.

Oh, and I’m hanging out a shingle. I am available for hire as an editor or proofreader for dog-related writing and some other genres. I’ll have a little ad in the blog sidebar soon. But if you are interested, you can contact me anytime through the contact page on the blog. I am so happy to be able to offer this.

Blog News

My five most popular posts of all time are as follows:

Does Your Dog REALLY Want to be Petted? 224,907 views
Ringing the Bell to Go Out: Avoid These 4 Common Errors! 126,192 views
The Secret to Quick Non-Crumbly Homemade Dog Treats 106,564 views
No More Cutting! Making 500 Non-Crumbly Dog Treats From a Mold 53,838 views
Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture… 43,925 views

The first three and the fifth are the same as last year. But the “No More Cutting” post, where I describe how to make dog treats in a pyramid pan, jumped up from out of the running into fourth place. And it bumped off my “Operant Learning Illustrated by Examples” post, which is a bit disappointing. But I’m glad that people come to my blog for any reason. Maybe some of the recipe seekers will stick around for the rest!

The post I’m proudest of this year is the one on the matching law: Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Reinforcement Schedules. I worked on it on and off for years. I’ll be creating some other posts on that topic. I know it comes off as pretty technical, but studying the matching law is probably the one single thing that taught me the most about training. Give it a try!

I’m also keeping my Video Examples for Teachers page up to date with the posts that trainers most often use for their clients.

Clara learning to crawl-

Odds and Ends

My book on canine cognitive dysfunction is selling well, and I updated that website a bit. I need to create a second edition in the next year or so. I have more to do on the website as well. I finally have a “testimonials” page. Rather than asking people to write testimonials, I stalk approach people who say nice things about my book in public and ask to use their remarks. But if anyone I missed wants to contribute one, please let me know!

I was featured on the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast in April and had a great time chatting with Melissa Breau.

A Dutch television program used some of my canine cognitive dysfunction footage on a program that included that topic.

Finally, I will have three articles in Clean Run magazine later this year, one of them a biggie assessing the available tools to help sound sensitive dogs. I had five in the magazine last year, which you can find in these digital issues from 2017: August, September, October, and December.

For those who made it this far, here is a silly video from before Zani’s accident. My dogs are not allowed to play on the bed so this was an oddity to begin with. I don’t remember how it started. But I was pleased that Clara quit when I asked her to (the second time, ahem), and Zani…well, you’ll just have to see.


Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson 

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Posted in Announcement, Event announcement, Milestone, Retrospective | Tagged , | 13 Comments

My Dog Is Afraid of the Clicker. What Should I Do?

I wrote this article especially for people who are either new to using a clicker or have not dealt extensively with a fearful dog.

If your dog is scared by the noise of the clicker, slow down. Switch to a verbal marker for now. Don’t immediately focus on trying to achieve softer clicks. Here’s why.

A brown and white rat terrier is looking eagerly up at her human

Rat terrier Kaci says, “Train me!”

Some years ago, I used to train my friend’s rat terrier Kaci. She is the star of my “backing up” video and was an all-around champ of a dog. She had a littermate named Cookie. After I started training Kaci and she enjoyed it so much, I started training Cookie as well. Cookie was less extroverted than her sister and had some fears. But she was comfortable at home, personable, and so, so sweet.

I remember our first session. I took Cookie out on my friend’s back porch. I had a box clicker and some treats. I don’t remember what behavior I was trying to train. But I do remember that Cookie was super responsive. She was offering behaviors right and left soon after we started. I was thrilled. She seemed to be having great fun. Then suddenly she wilted. She started to flinch when I clicked. The clicker was obviously bothering her so I stopped the session.

I stopped training Cookie after scaring her with the clicker

I looked for articles on “what to do if your dog is afraid of the clicker” and found some advice. I’ve since learned that these are standard recommendations. The same recommendations will pop up in any Internet discussion forum if you ask the question. They center on creating a quieter clicking noise. They include using a retractable ballpoint pen, a stapler, or a metal bottle lid instead. Putting some duct tape on the clicker to dampen it. Getting a different type of clicker. Putting the clicker behind your back, starting with the dog in another room, or taking the training outside.

Some people will recommend switching to a verbal marker, but they are usually outnumbered by all the methods offered to get a quieter click.

For Cookie, I chose the tape method. I applied little squares of duct tape to the “tongue” of my box clicker and softened the click quite a bit. The next day I started to train Cookie and she fled after the very first (soft) click. I decided not to use a clicker for a while and switch a verbal marker. In a couple days I tried again to train. I had a pocketful of good food but this dog who had known me since she was eight weeks old wouldn’t come near me.

I had sensitized her to the clicker. My attempts at de-intensifying the stimulus were too late and the sound was too close to the original scary click. She was terrified of clicking noises now, and that fear had generalized to the other signs of training sessions and even, for a while, to me.

Because I didn’t live with her, I didn’t have a good way to fix the situation. And frankly, I might not have had the skill to do it at that time. She had a happy life and after that, we just did other things together. But I have always felt terrible for adding that fear to her life. I did what lots of us do: I took sensible-sounding advice from the Internet. But it only sounded sensible since I didn’t know enough about fear in dogs. I wish I had stopped the instant Cookie had responded poorly to a click and stopped trying to train for a few days. Then I could have started again at a different location and training a different behavior—only this time with only food and using no marker. Ah, hindsight.

What To Do if This Happens To Your Dog

My advice is a lot more conservative than the other articles I have read on this topic. If your dog is scared of the clicker, stop using any form of a click for now. If you must use a marker, use a verbal one.  Most people recommend trying some method of dampening the sound of the clicker and giving it another try. That’s what I did, and I ended up permanently scaring a dog.

If you searched for an article on this subject because your dog is scared of the clicker, you may be a comparative beginner at clicker training or this may be the first time you have dealt with a fearful behavior in a dog. What you may not know is that fears are super easy to create and very hard to get rid of. If you don’t have experience with this, trying to find a click sound that won’t scare your dog is not worth the risk, in my opinion. The clicker is not so important that you should risk worsening a fear in your dog. Instead, drop the whole clicking sound idea for now.

For many behaviors, you don’t need a marker at all. You can just give the dog the food or toy. If you need a marker, you can use a verbal one.  If you need some reassurance that you don’t have to use a clicker, here is an excellent write-up of a recent study from the Companion Animal Psychology blog. There are lots of studies about clickers and other markers and the results are mixed. I’m not arguing that a verbal marker is better. It’s just that any perceived benefit of using a clicker should be outweighed by the risk of installing fear.

Again, this decision doesn’t have to be forever. You can change course later as you get to know your dog better and as you develop some training skills.

You don’t lose anything by being conservative. You can lose a lot by experimenting with clicks. Continuing with a modified, softer clicker can attain what I got with Cookie. Fears are super easy to install and can be terribly difficult to get rid of. Play it safe. Lose the clicker for now.

Problematic Advice Related To This Topic

When researching this article, I read from a positive reinforcement trainer that it is practically mandatory to “cure” your dog of clicker fears, because if they are afraid of the clicker, imagine what other sounds they will be afraid of! How will they adjust to the big, bad world? (This is related to the “Dogs need stress in their lives” argument.) But again, if you are new to the training thing, you probably can’t assess how bad the problem is. Marching out to do desensitization and counterconditioning if you don’t have a lot of experience with that can dig you in deeper. DS/CC with sounds can be especially tricky.

Another well-regarded site recommends working with the clicker-fearing dog in an enclosed space or tethered. Click/treat, click/treat. The dog can’t get away. This actually constitutes flooding and is very likely to make a sound sensitive dog much worse, not better.

Am I Saying Not To Do Desensitization?

Nope, I absolutely believe in performing desensitization and counterconditioning to help dogs get used to scary sounds. I’m saying to wait. Clickers are optional sounds. If it turns out that your dog is sound sensitive, there are probably more important sounds to work on than an optional training marker. Plus you should be working with a veterinary behaviorist.

On the other hand, if the clicker sound was just a situational startle, time will probably help. You’ll observe your dog over time for other responses to sudden sounds. If you don’t see any more fear, you can get a qualified trainer to help you introduce the clicker later on if it’s important to you.

It Didn’t Work for My Dog!

I’ve written before about the dangers of claiming that something “worked for my dog” and then making a general recommendation of it. In this post, I am doing the opposite of recommending something that “worked for my dog.” I’m cautioning against something that terrified my dog and could terrify yours.  Granted, many dogs do fine with the normal solutions. Some people may even find my recommendations hysterical or overdone. They may not have had a sound phobic dog and haven’t seen the absolute misery that can cause in a dog’s life. There is a chance that your dog will be like Cookie. Do you really want to take the risk when it isn’t necessary?

I don’t often give straight up advice. I don’t have the credentials to tell you what to do about a fearful dog. But urging caution does no harm. You can wait. Slow down. Get more experience and information. Hire professional help if you and your dog need it. You don’t have to use a clicker today, this week, or this month. If you back off now, you may be able use it later. But if you keep at it now and scare your dog, you may lose a lot more than the ability to clicker train.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Clicker, Fear, Sound sensitivity, Stress Signals | 6 Comments

Which Pavlov Is on Your Shoulder?

Which Pavlov Is on Your Shoulder? Two photos of Pavlov, side by side, one with a halo and one with devil's horns.

The trainer Bob Bailey is often quoted as saying that when one is training an animal, “Pavlov is on your shoulder.” He is reminding us that while we are training operant behaviors (sit, down, fetch, weave), there are also respondent behaviors and respondent conditioning occurring. Respondent behaviors are behaviors that are generally involuntary and that include reflexes, internal surges of hormones, and (probably) emotions.

But there’s another part that is not quoted as often. Bob Bailey also says that while Pavlov is on one of your shoulders, Skinner is on the other. (B.F. Skinner was known for exploring operant conditioning.) In his Fundamentals of Animal Training DVD, Bailey states that both fellows are always on your shoulders. Depending on what you are doing, one may shrink while the other grows in importance. (Great visual, eh?)

When we are training operantly, there are still classical associations going on. And when we are doing classical conditioning, there are operant behaviors that come along and get reinforced.

I find these mixtures fascinating and have some posts and video examples.

• In this post, I describe and show how I was using Skinner for operant behaviors but Pavlov was on my shoulder. You can see the results of good associations (food, play) with agility behaviors. I was teaching operant behaviors, but many aspects of the training (including me) got a positive dose of classical conditioning.

• In this post and video, I discuss how I performed Pavlovian conditioning. But Skinner came tagging along close behind. You can see the results of classically conditioning my dog Clara to respond favorably to another dog barking. Yes, she even drools. We can assume that her body is getting ready to ingest food. But we also see tail wagging, orientation to me (food lady), and in the end, running to me when she hears barking. Those are all operant behaviors. She was performing operant behaviors that reflected her emotional state and expedited the food delivery, and those behaviors got reinforced.

What About Fear Conditioning?

Wait, what?

skinner box with rat inside. The box has a food dispenser, a floor with an electrified grid, an audio speaker, and lights that can blink

Skinner box. Note electrified grid in the floor.

We often use classical conditioning procedures with the goal of alleviating fear. We do this by classically conditioning an appetitive response, and, via desensitization, slip it in place of the fear response. But the term “fear conditioning” means something else in the literature. It refers to using classical pairing to create a fear response to a formerly neutral stimulus. Scientists including Pavlov did this. Such experiments have been performed for decades. Animals learned that a buzzer, light, or other stimulus predicted a shock to the floor of their cage or to some apparatus. They started showing fearful behaviors and a general suppression of behavior when exposed to the predictive (conditioned) stimulus.

carolina wren closeup

Carolina wren: I am little and very noisy

These pairings happen in life all the time. Some years back, a pair of Carolina wrens were nesting in a rubber bucket on my back porch, but I didn’t know it. The bucket was up on a table and one day I went to put it away. I grabbed it and a bird flew out noisily right into my face. It scared the crap out of me. Even though the startle wasn’t painful, nor was my life in danger, that’s the way I reacted. And I got leery of that bucket. I avoided moving it again until six months later in the dead of winter. Even then I touched it only after getting on a ladder to peer into it from a distance. I remained wary of the bucket for a year or two after as well. The bucket was not directly responsible for my scare. It was just a bucket. But I couldn’t shake the anxiety that got attached to it for quite a while.

Not all associations are dramatic or come from trauma. Repeated unpleasant experiences can become associated with the place they happened or the sight of the person who caused them. How about when that person who bugs you comments on Facebook? All you have to see is her name—not the content of the current remarks—to get a sinking feeling.

Back to dog training. People who train using aversive stimuli also have Pavlov on their shoulders. But trainers who use shock and prong collars, molding and body pressure, or who throw things are not generally accompanied by Nice Pavlov*. Not the one who floods the animal’s body with “let’s eat!” or “let’s play!” chemicals and causes pleasant anticipation. They get Bad Pavlov, the one associated with fear conditioning. The one who causes the animals to hunker down in fear. Here is an example of a dog who looks like Bad Pavlov is hanging around. (I have used the Do Not Link function in hopes of not adding hits to this shock training video.)

There’s nuance in reading the body language, of course. If an animal has enough training to know how to control the aversive stimulus with its behavior, it won’t necessarily look miserable. Also, you can see happy body language on an animal being trained with aversives if the activity itself is fun. Hence the dogs who are said to “get excited” when the prong collar comes out—because it predicts a walk. Disassociate the walk and you will find that the prong collar—surprise—is not intrinsically fun. In a mixed case like this, though, I envision the aversive control as a heavy weight that always has the potential to pull the dog’s emotions in a negative direction or to suppress its behavior. The dog’s happiness is despite the aversive stimulus, not because of it.

Nice Pavlov Is Not Automatic

Just as the presence of aversives doesn’t always squelch all of the pleasure out of a situation, the presence of appetitive stimuli doesn’t guarantee rainbows and unicorns. We tend to assume that if you train with positive reinforcement, you automatically get a positive conditioned emotional response.  But it ain’t automatic. There are ways to mess it up.

Bad Pavlov was on my shoulder

See below for the reason Bad Pavlov is hanging around poor Clara.

If you are generous with reinforcement, minimize extinction frustration, and don’t frustrate or scare your dog—Nice Pavlov is probably on your shoulder. Your dog will build good associations to the training experience and to you.  But what if you frustrate or scare your dog? What if you repeatedly get in your dog’s space and don’t notice that she doesn’t like that? Is Nice Pavlov going to show up and save the day just because you are using food? Probably not. You are not going to get a sweet, positive conditioned emotional response to your cues, to your training sessions, or to you if you are regularly letting aversive events creep into your training.

Here’s what it can look like if our own training session—with food—is less than fun for the dog.  I’ve set the link to start the video in the middle where training of my older dog, Summer, begins. It was a moderately stressful session for her, with too many competing, slightly scary stimuli from the environment. I was also asking for stationary “leave-it” behaviors that need a lot of self-control, and I was using kibble, a low-value food. Not a great combination.

Summer was a trouper, worked hard, and although she was clearly anxious through much of the session, succeeded at what I asked of her. I wouldn’t say this session damaged our relationship or tainted training in general—we had much too strong a history of happy training. But consider this: what if every training session I ever had with her was like that? Mildly scary stuff, hard tasks, low-value treats. Even though it would still be “R+ training” I don’t think I would have built up much of a positive response to training. Nice Pavlov would not have joined us—or if he had, he would have been smaller than Bad Pavlov. (Too many dudes on our shoulders!)

The photo above shows Clara on a day in 2015 after she knew I was getting ready to trim her nails. I have always used tons of good food, and Clara had been comfortable with nail trims for quite a while. But nice Pavlov was not in sight. Clara was recovering from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. While she had been sick, her joints had become painful, and it bothered her for her feet to be handled and nails trimmed. (I should not have trimmed them.)

Are Pavlov and Skinner All Jumbled Up?

Yes and no. Operant and respondent behaviors are both going on all the time. But I’ve also seen some trainers use it as an excuse. They say that since Pavlov and Skinner are both present, we shouldn’t get “hung up” on which one is primary. Well sure, we can’t crawl inside the animal’s body to check. But our training procedure should reflect our goal(s). And we should definitely get hung up on whether the dog is enjoying herself.

Teach Your Children Puppies Well

Positive reinforcement-based training done even moderately well comes with lovely side effects for the trainee (and also the trainer).  But badly attempted R+ training that regularly lets aversives, coercion, or too much difficulty in the picture can stress out dogs.  If I grab my dog’s collar to move her and I haven’t conditioned her to that, she may dodge when I grab the next time. That was aversive. If I push into her space to get her to move and she starts jumping back when I approach her, that was aversive. If I play a game with a fearful dog where they need to come closer and closer to me to get the treat and I go too fast—I am the aversive.

So take this friendly reminder from someone who has made plenty of mistakes. Yes, Pavlov is always on your shoulder. But even if we use food to train, it doesn’t mean we will automatically get a beautiful positive conditioned response to training. There are other stimuli that can creep into our training sessions that can knock the fun right out of it.

*Pavlov wasn’t actually what we would consider “nice” to dogs in this day and age, although he was likely better than many experimentalists. I’m using some rhetorical license here.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

Pavlov photo credit Wikimedia Commons. Additions in color are mine.
Skinner Box diagram credit Wikimedia Commons.
Carolina Wren photo credit Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Clara credit Eileen Anderson

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A Quadrant by Any Other Name is Still a Cornerstone of Operant Learning

This 2003 edition book is $4.89 on Amazon. Contents: priceless.

There is a science that deals directly with how organisms learn and how to use that information to change the environment in order to change behavior. It’s called applied behavior analysis (ABA). It is the applied version of behavior analysis, which was referred to as the experimental analysis of behavior earlier in the 20th century.  It is descended from the work of the behaviorists such as Skinner and is a sub-discipline of psychology.

It is a rich field of study. Universities offer graduate degrees. At the same time, it is approachable. Many of the entry-level ABA college textbooks currently in use are readable to someone with a strong high school education and certainly to someone with a college education. They are generally self-contained, in that they don’t require a lot of previous exposure to terminology to be able to work through.  The books contain fascinating information about what makes us tick, why we do what we do, and how we might go about changing behavior if we needed to. They also teach skills in ethics and kindness.

Because they are written by experts in learning, the texts are generally well organized, interesting, and approachable. A sidebar in Paul Chance’s Learning and Behavior starts off, “What would you do if, while camping miles from the nearest hospital, you were bitten by a poisonous snake?” It goes on to discuss superstitious behavior. Other sidebars are titled “Punks and Skinheads,”  “Variable Ratio Harassment,” and “Learning from Lepers.” I’ll leave you to go find out the subject matter. This topic is a goldmine for the curious. It is relevant to everyday life and can teach knowledge and skills that are very practical. If you buy older editions of textbooks, as I usually do, the prices are quite reasonable. (For instance, here’s a link to Paul Chance’s Learning and Behavior, with the oldest editions first. You can scroll forward to newer editions as your pocketbook allows. The most recent edition is 2013.)

Like any field of study, ABA has its own terminology. When we first encounter it, two things typically happen. First, we think we know it already. Who doesn’t know what punishment is, right? Motivating operation—doesn’t sound too hard to figure out! Then we go a little deeper, and even though the words are familiar, the concepts may not be. Some are extremely unfamiliar. That can cause dismay. One of the problems in the dog training world is that a lot of people get stuck at that point.

Skinner was familiar with the bump in the road when we begin to learn about behavior.

We all know thousands of facts about behavior. Actually there is no subject matter with which we could be better acquainted, for we are always in the presence of at least one behaving organism. But this familiarity is something of a disadvantage, for it means that we have probably jumped to conclusions which will not be supported by the cautious methods of science. … A great deal of unlearning generally takes place in our early contact with a science of behavior.–B.F. Skinner Science and Human Behavior

Even though the texts are readable, the words are familiar, and the topics are fascinating, there is some work to be done on the front end before you get to the really juicy stuff. But a layperson can get there with careful study and attention.

Translating Some of the Principles of Learning and Behavior

So here is this rich academic discipline that is rigorous, approachable, and applicable to daily life. It doesn’t discount other scientific disciplines covering cognition. It provides a great “on the ground” view of behavior that can mesh with and inform other study. But what has tended to filter down into the dog training world from ABA is a piece of a piece of a piece of the discipline, with a bit of a misnomer to boot.

Behavior analysis covers all types of learning, including respondent, operant, and other types (e.g., habituation and sensitization).  Let’s talk about operant behavior for a moment, since that’s the part that usually filters into the training world. (It’s not the only part we need to train dogs, though!) There are four contingent processes of operant learning that are often grouped into a table or list: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. See my article for explanations and video examples. Contingent in this context refers to the relationship, or dependency, between behavior and consequences. There also exist operant behaviors that don’t have this type of contingency.

The operant contingencies are presented in a number of different ways in learning and behavior texts and articles, but generally over several chapters. Sometimes positive and negative reinforcement are grouped together. Sometimes negative reinforcement and positive punishment are grouped together since they involve aversive stimuli. Sometimes operant extinction (see below about extinction) appears with punishment, since both decrease behavior. Sometimes it merits a whole chapter of its own.

In textbooks, the charts or summations are generally presented after the learning processes have been discussed. They come after the student has gotten a chance to get familiar with the processes.  Here is a link to a contingency table from a publicly available slideshow (since I can’t copy one from a textbook). Most books on ABA have such a table or list, but they don’t always look exactly the same. But they convey the same basic information.

Now, here’s a problem. In the dog training world, the material that is usually presented over several chapters in a behavior analysis textbook is frequently reduced to one of these tables or lists. And for the last 20 years in this world, the shorthand for referring to these four learning processes has become “the quadrants.” This is not the way ABA people usually refer to these processes. More often it is described as a “contingency square” (Chance, 2013) or a 2×2 matrix (Mazur, 2016). It is a convenient depiction of two related variables each with two levels, i.e., function (increase and decrease) by operation (add and remove). At some point, people started using the term “quadrant,” i.e., the cell in which the term appears in this classification scheme, to refer to the contingent learning process itself. To me, it is important to remember that the definition is more than the quadrant, cell, or sector it lives in. It’s a real-life process.

If you want to use the best terminology and be understood by people certified or degreed in behavior analysis, instead of saying “quadrants,” you can instead refer to the “contingent processes of operant learning.” I dropped the “quadrant” terminology a few years back after I started talking to more ABA people, some of whom had not even heard the expression. At first, it was awkward. It’s a shortcut that virtually everybody in the dog world uses, and some people don’t know any other name for it. But after learning to use different words it now seems odd to me to refer to a learning process as some kind of area on a grid. As one-fourth of something. Most important, dropping that term filtered some of the mud from my understanding of learning science.

But Terminology Is Not the Main Problem

But there’s a worse problem than the propagation of idiosyncratic terminology. It is that people assume that the chart of four contingent processes that makes its way to the dog world represents the sum of learning science. Many think that with only the information on that chart, they can go ahead and use (or criticize) behavior analysis.  But unless they have been well taught through coursework and self-study, their understanding of how these processes work is often scanty and insufficient. (I know because I’ve been there.)  There are more processes to learn about.  Between getting limited information and the irritation of having to use terms that mean something different in everyday English and can be counterintuitive to boot, people discount these basic building blocks.

So we will read diatribes about the “limiting nature” of these particular operant processes. Even claims that using the contingent operant learning processes to learn and to classify behavior is somehow evil. I understand these criticisms because I’ve been there myself. There is help for the people who make these claims, though. The help is to get a learning and behavior textbook and read it. Or take a Behavior Analysis course at a university. Or take Susan Friedman’s professional course.

The four contingent operant processes are necessary but not sufficient to apply the science of behavior analysis. They are but some of the basic building blocks to master before you can get to the juicy stuff. But in my experience, it’s best to know them cold before you go on to the treasure trove that lies beyond.

Extinction, Recovery, Escape, Avoidance

There are some important learning processes that aren’t in that chart. One important one is extinction.  It’s an operant process (and also a respondent process, but let’s not go there now) and often has its own whole chapter in a textbook. It’s complex. But it’s not on most of the charts that filter into the training world. The result is many dog trainers assume that if a behavior decreases, it must be due to punishment. In extinction, the reinforcement that was previously maintaining a behavior is withheld or no longer present. You need to know about extinction and in particular how it relates to reinforcement if you are to use the basics of behavior analysis to train animals. Also important to know about are recovery from extinction and the two forms negative reinforcement takes: escape and avoidance. Avoidance is such a complex process that learning and behavior books often have a whole chapter on it.  It will lead you into some of the more fascinating riches in ABA, including more ways we learn. And there are still more processes I have not listed here.

What’s Missing and What Happens as a Result?

Summer hasn’t learned what the desired behavior is yet, but she is happy to work on it.

Typically people get into trouble if they assume that the contingent processes of operant learning are all there is to behavior science, or if they think they can safely extrapolate the rest from their own knowledge (aka preconceptions) without learning more about ABA.

I have identified four omissions that create common errors that lead to claims that these learning processes are “too vague” or “have many gray areas” or make other claims that are based on assumptions and not learning science. I have committed all of these errors. I will be expanding on them in a separate post, but here’s a quick list.

First, to analyze behavior we need to identify an antecedent, a behavior, and a consequence. This “ABC,” not the four-part chart or one of its cells, is the basic unit of behavior. Many claims that the processes on the chart are problematic are from scenarios where only two of these three items have been identified. There is insufficient information.

Second, in behavior analysis, we start by identifying and describing a specific behavior. That sounds simple, but it’s not, at least at first. If you start anywhere else, you are instantly off the path and into storytelling and conjecture.

Third, we need to keep in mind that the four contingent consequence procedures are defined by their effects, not what we think the effects should be. A reinforcer increases or strengthens behavior over time; a punisher decreases or weakens behavior over time. When we assume that we know what process is present because of the type of stimulus that’s added or removed, we fall off the path in a different way.  (There are a lot of those ways to fall off until we become more fluent!)

Fourth, we need to be clear that the plus (+) and minus (–) symbols that are used describe the operations, not values. Positive in this context means the behavior produced the addition of a stimulus and negative means the behavior removed a stimulus.

Getting Over the Bump

A “quadrants” chart is not the only gateway into the world of ABA but it is a working gateway. The contingent processes of operant learning are necessary—but not sufficient—to analyze behavior. Many of the criticisms of the quadrants come off like questions from someone who has memorized the periodic table of the elements but not taken a chemistry class. (Ahem—I’ve been there, too.) How can radon have a larger atomic weight than lead when everybody knows radon is a gas? Learn more about chemistry, and you will know.

In behavior analysis, you need the definitions, and memorizing the four processes of operant learning with contingent consequences is a great start. But they are not useful until you know how to apply the information. To correctly use the periodic table to help build an equation, you need to study chemistry. To learn the long list of operant processes (of which contingent consequences are only four) and effectively analyze and change behavior humanely you need to study ABA.

Sable colored dog leaps off a pink mat towards her female handler's outstretched hand

Summer is learning to exit a mat only when a particular cue occurs

My Previous Post

This post replaces a previous one that I removed because it was causing confusion and being misapplied. This was because of some poor choices I made, including that the title was misleading. Also, there is a ravenous audience out there in dog blog land that is hungry for criticism of “the quadrants” and they believed that was my point. I’m really sorry I provided fodder for that. It was the opposite of my intent.

In that post, I focused more on the terminology problem of “the quadrants” and less on the larger problem—that people in the dog training world tend to think that’s all there is to learning science (and many don’t even understand that part). And I committed the writer’s gaffe of claiming some terminology was wrong without suggesting how to make it right.

Also what that post did not convey is how gratifying it is—and fun—to progress in the understanding of ABA. To have epiphany after epiphany. How it can enrich one’s understanding of behavior and the animals and people around us, and help us make informed and kind decisions if behavior needs to be changed.

From ABA I learned that intervening in the behavior of another is a serious step that carries responsibilities. It usually entails preventing them from getting something they want in a way that is natural and works well for them. To interfere with that that bears an ethical weight. I’m reading further in behavior analysis and getting even more guidance on that front.

The quadrants, by any name, are necessary to an understanding of ABA. But they are just the beginning.

Big thanks to Debbie Jacobs, Yvette Van Veen, Kiki Yablon, Randi Rossman, and Susan Friedman for discussions about the previous post and/or suggestions about the current one. As always, all mistakes are my own.


Chance, P. (2013). Learning and behavior. Nelson Education.

Mazur, J. E. (2016). Learning & behavior. Routledge.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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A Quadrant by Any Other Name Is Still A Cornerstone of Operant Learning




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Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Reinforcement Schedules


Chocolate cookies on a cookie sheet. The baker may do other activities while the cookies are baking as long as she shows up at the right time. Her behavior follows the matching law.

When we bake cookies, some reinforcement is on a variable interval schedule.

Have you heard trainers talking about the matching law? This post covers a bit of its history and the nuts and bolts of what it is about. I am providing this rather technical article because I want something to link to in some other written pieces about how the matching law has affected my own training of my dogs.

In 1961, B.J. Herrnstein published a research paper in which there was an early formulation of what we call the matching law (Herrnstein, 1961). In plain English, the matching law says that we (animals including humans) perform behaviors in a ratio that matches the ratio of available reinforcement for those behaviors. For instance, in the most simplified example, if Behavior 1 is reinforced twice as often as Behavior 2 (but with the same amount per payoff), we will perform Behavior 1 about twice as often as Behavior 2.

The matching law can be seen as a mathematical codification of Thorndike’s Law of Effect:

Of several responses made to the same situation, those which are accompanied or closely followed by satisfaction to the animal will, other things being equal, be more firmly connected with the situation, so that, when it recurs, they will be more likely to recur; those which are accompanied or closely followed by discomfort to the animal will, other things being equal, have their connections with that situation weakened, so that, when it recurs, they will be less likely to occur. The greater the satisfaction or discomfort, the greater the strengthening or weakening of the bond. — (Thorndike, 1911, p. 244)

It gets complex fast, though.

Following is Paul Chance’s simplified version of the basic matching law (Chance, 2003). I’m using Chance’s equation because Herrnstein’s original choice of variables is very confusing. Please keep reading, even if you don’t like math. This is the only formula I’m going to cite.

Matching law formula



where B1 and B2 are two different behaviors and r1 and r2 are the corresponding reinforcement schedules for those behaviors.

This is the same thing I said in words above about Behavior 1 and Behavior 2.

Note that this version of the formula deals with only two behaviors. However, the formula is robust enough to extend to multiple behaviors, and also holds true when you choose one behavior to focus on and lump all other behaviors and their reinforcers into terms for “other.” Later, a researcher named William Baum did some fancy math and incorporated some logarithmic terms to account for some commonly seen behavioral quirks (Baum, 1974).

There is something else we need to understand to really “get” the matching law. We need to understand schedules of reinforcement, both ratio and interval schedules. We often use ratio schedules in training our dogs. We don’t use interval schedules as often. They are very common in life in general, though. First, let’s review ratio schedules.

Ratio Schedules

Woodpacker on a tree represents a ratio schedule of reinforcement. The Matching Law says the bird will find the easiest bugs to access and peck there

Woodpeckers who are pecking for food are reinforced on a variable ratio schedule: a certain number of pecks will dislodge a bug to eat or uncover some sap.

Most of us are at least a bit familiar with ratio schedules, where reinforcement is based on the number of responses. When training a new behavior, we usually reinforce every iteration of the behavior. Some trainers deliberately thin this ratio later, and only reinforce a certain percentage of the iterations.

There has been a ton of research on schedules and their effects on behavior. The terminology of ratio schedules is, for instance, that if your schedule reinforces exactly every 5th behavior, that’s called Fixed Ratio 5, abbreviated FR5. (This is generally a bad idea in real life. Animals learn the pattern and lose motivation during the “dry spells.”) If the schedule keeps the same ratio but the iterations are randomized, and you reinforce every 5th behavior on average, that’s called a variable ratio. That would be referred to as Variable Ratio 5 or VR5. Introducing that variability makes behaviors more resistant to extinction, but there are many other factors to consider when deciding how often to reinforce. More on that in later posts!

Interval Schedules

In an interval schedule, a certain amount of time must elapse before a certain behavior will result in a reinforcer.  The number of performances of the behavior is not counted. Interval schedules have fixed and variable types as well. A fixed interval schedule of 5 minutes would be noted as FI5; a variable interval schedule of 5 minutes (remember, that means that the average time is 5 minutes) would be VI5.

Interval schedules are not the same as duration schedules, which are also time-based. We use duration schedules much more often in animal training. During duration schedules, there is a contingency on the animal’s behavior during the whole time period, such as a stay. In interval schedules, there is no contingency during the “downtime.” The animal just has to show up and perform the behavior after the interval has passed in order to get the reinforcer.

Interval schedules happen in human life, especially with events that are on schedules. Consider baking cookies.  You put them in the oven and set a timer for 15 minutes. But you are an experienced baker and you know that baking is not perfectly predictable. This means your schedule is Variable Interval 15, so there’s a chance that the cookies could be ready before or after 15 minutes. So you start performing the behavior of walking over to the oven to check the cookies after 12 or 13 minutes. But only after the cookies are done and you take them out of the oven do you get the positive reinforcement for the behavior chain: you get perfectly baked cookies. And at the beginning of the baking period, you are likely to do something else for a while. You know there is no reinforcement available for visiting the oven at the beginning of the period; the cookies won’t be ready.

Your dogs heed scheduled events, as well. If you feed them routinely at a certain time, you’ll get more and more milling around the kitchen (or staring into it) as that time approaches.

Tigers are ambush predators and are reinforced on a variable interval schedule for some attacks after their patient waiting.

Interval Schedules and the Matching Law: Translating Herrnstein’s Experiment

Let’s apply what we learned about interval schedules to better understand the matching law. Here is an example that is parallel to Herrnstein’s original experiment.

Imagine you are playing on something like a slot machine, except that it is guaranteed to pay out approximately (not exactly) every 3 minutes, no matter how many times you pull the handle, with the stipulation that you must pull the handle once after it is “ready,” for it to pay off. This is an interval schedule. (In real life, slot machines are on ratio schedules, that is, their payoffs depend on the number of times the levers are pulled and are controlled by complex algorithms that are regulated by law.) The schedule of our interval-based machine would be called VI3, the time units being minutes. When you first start playing with it, you don’t know about the schedule.  

There is another machine right next to it. It pays out about every 15 minutes, VI15, although again you don’t know this. Let’s say that each payout for each machine is $1,000 and you can play all day. No one else is playing.

It won’t take you long to realize that Machine 1 pays out a lot more often. But every once in a while, Machine 2 pays out, too. Pretty soon you’ll start to realize this about the machines’ schedules. You’ll gravitate to Machine 1. But no matter how many times you pull the lever, it won’t pay out more often than every few minutes. There is a downtime. Also, you’ll find out that you can’t just let the payouts “accrue.” If you miss pulling the lever during one period where a payout is available, you miss out on that reinforcement.

So you will continue to modify your behavior. You won’t bother to pull the lever for a while after Machine 1 pays off. It rarely pays again that fast. You’ve got time on your hands. What do you do? Go over to Machine 2 and pull that lever. Every 15 minutes or so, that gets you a payout as well. As long as there is no penalty for switching and no other confounding factors, this will pay off. You can “double dip.” Then you go back to Machine 1 so you won’t miss your opportunity, and start pulling the lever again.

Which machine will you play more?

After you have spent some time with the machines, and if there are no complications, your rate of pulling levers will probably approach the prediction of the matching law. If r1 is once per three minutes (1/3) and r2 is once per 15 minutes (1/15), r1/r2 = 5. That predicts that you will pull the lever on Machine 1 approximately 5 times for every pull on the lever of Machine 2.

What About Ratio Schedules?

Some people say the matching law doesn’t apply to ratio schedules. But it does. It’s just dead simple. If there are two possible behaviors concurrently available, both on ratio schedules, with the same value of reinforcer, the best strategy is to note which behavior is on a denser schedule and keep performing it exclusively. If you are playing a ratio schedule slot machine that pays off about every 5th time, you have nothing to gain by running over and playing one that pays off about every 10th time. In the time it takes for you to go pull the other lever multiple times, you could have been getting more money for fewer pulls. So you find the best payoff and stay put.

To review the different strategies, let’s let some experts explain it. Paul Chance summarizes the different successful approaches with ratio vs. interval schedules:

In the case of a choice among ratio schedules, the matching law correctly predicts choosing the schedule with the highest reinforcement frequency. In the case of a choice among interval schedules, the matching law predicts working on each schedule in proportion to the amount of reinforcers available on each. —(Chance, 2003)

Michael Domjan lists some situations in which there are complications when computing the matching law:

Departures from matching occur if the response alternatives require different degrees of effort, if different reinforcers are used for each response alternative, or if switching from one response to the other is made more difficult.— (Domjan, 2000)

Life Is Not a Lab

There’s a reason psychologists perform their experiments in enclosures such as Skinner boxes, where there are very few visual, auditory, and other distractions. It is to minimize the competing reinforcers: positive and negative. Let’s say our little experiment with the machines is in the real world, though. There are a thousand reasons that your behavior might not exactly follow the simple version of the matching law formula for two possible reinforcers. Someone might be smoking next to Machine 1 and it makes you cough. There may be a glare on the screen of Machine 2 and you get a headache every time you go over there. Maybe you are left-handed and one of the machines is more comfortable for you to play. Heck, you may need to leave to go to the bathroom. But you know what? The complications added by these other stimuli don’t “disprove” the matching law. They just force you to add more terms to the equation. In this example, most of the competing stimuli would lead to behaviors subject to negative reinforcement. Yep, the matching law works for negative reinforcement as well.

The matching law applies to reinforcer value, too. If the schedules were the same as described above but Machine 1 paid out only $50 and Machine 2 paid out $1,000, you might still pull the lever for Machine 1 more times. But you would be intent on not missing the opportunity for Machine 2. The ratio would skew towards Machine 2 as you pulled its lever more often.

In the real world, there are always multiple reinforcers available and they are all on different but concurrent schedules. And concurrent schedules—in the lab and in life—are where we see the effects of the matching law. And they are why the matching law can bite us in the butt, time and again in training. How about with loose leash walking?  The outside world is full of potential reinforcers on concurrent schedules. On the one hand, there is your own schedule of reinforcement for loose leash walking, hopefully a generous one.  Because you are competing with things like the ever-present interesting odors on the ground. Things like fire hydrants and favorite bushes probably pay off 100% of the time. Birds and squirrels are often available to sniff after and try to chase. What does this predict for your dog’s behavior when she is surrounded by all those rich reinforcement schedules?

When our dogs stray from the activities that we may prefer for them, they are doing what comes naturally to any organism. They are “shopping around” for the best deal. It correlates with survival.

That “shopping around” is codified in the matching law. Given multiple behaviors on different schedules, the animal will learn the likelihood of payoffs for all of them and adjust its behavior accordingly. That includes that we trainers can adjust our behavior—specifically our reinforcement schedules—so the matching law doesn’t make mincemeat of our training.

Helpful Resources

For further reading:

This post is part of Companion Animal Psychology’s 2018 #Train4Rewards Blog Party! For other articles from the Blog Party, click the box.


Baum, W. M. (1974). On two types of deviation from the matching law: Bias and undermatching. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 22(1), 231-242.

Chance, P. (2003). Learning and behavior. Wadsworth.

Domjan, M. (2000). The essentials of conditioning and learning. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Herrnstein, R. J. (1961). Relative and absolute strength of response as a function of frequency of reinforcement. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior4(3), 267-272.

Thorndike, Edward L (1911) Animal intelligence: Experimental Studies. Macmillan.



Photo Credits

Cookies photo courtesy of Sarah Fleming via Wikimedia Commons

By Sarah Fleming (originally posted to Flickr as Oven) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

 Woodpecker photo courtesy of JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons  

By JJ Harrison ( [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Tiger photo courtesy of SushG via Wikimedia Commons

By SushG [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Slot machine photo adapted from Vincent Le Moign via Wikimedia Commons

Vincent Le Moign [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson


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A Dog With Spinal Cord Concussion: Zani’s Recovery on Video

Zani, a little black and tan dog, one day after her spinal cord concussion

Zani could use her front legs to balance a little while lying down on Day 1

This is a follow-up to Dog with Spinal Cord Concussion: Zani’s Story Part 1

In February I told the story of my dog Zani’s accident and traumatic spinal cord injury. Today, almost four months out from the accident, I’m publishing a video diary of the first days of her recovery.

There are several types of spinal cord injuries in dogs. Many of them are debilitating. My previous article describes how my small dog Zani got a traumatic spinal cord injury on February 8, 2018, after running full speed into a fence.  I didn’t know what we were dealing with, but I knew what to do. I called a friend, moved Zani carefully to the car, and we went straight to the vet.

Zani was semi-awake but as limp as a rag doll. But it turned out that considering the severity of the blow, her injury was probably the luckiest one she could have had.

After taking her to the vet immediately after the accident and getting her X-rays and a CT scan, Zani got the diagnosis of a spinal cord concussion. I then took her home again. I was shocked that they sent her home with me since she had no use of her legs. She couldn’t walk, crawl, or even use them to steady herself while lying down. But the vet was confident Zani would regain the use of her legs over time, possibly even making a full recovery. The X-rays and CT scan showed no fractures, nothing dislocated, no obvious bruising of the spinal cord. She told me that when the cord is bruised, damage can be permanent.

Zani’s ability to use her legs did come back, beginning the next day and increasing gradually.

The embedded video shows Zani’s daily progress at walking, starting the day after the accident. I created the video so people whose dogs get this rare injury can see the progress of a dog who recovered.

Small black dog standing in yard, recovering from spinal cord consussion

Zani looking pretty steady on Day 9

Starting the first day, I had to take Zani out to the yard so she could try to pee and poop. She is one of those dogs who won’t eliminate if she is not comfortable in a situation, including that she will “hold it” for 36 hours or more. No indoor solutions would work and she would hate a diaper. So I knew I needed to try to get her outside even though she could only flail and struggle.

The first few days as captured in the video are hard to watch. I had to let her stumble around because she wouldn’t even try to pee if I was close or trying to support her. She did work out how to pee on her own the very first day, and I was able to swoop in and help her stay steady when she got in position to poop. (I got lots of practice with that move with dear little Cricket.)

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Every dog’s situation will be different, as will be their abilities to heal and return to normal activities. I don’t know if Zani’s response was average, above, or below, but I do know that I feel very fortunate about her recovery. At almost four months out, she can run at about 75% of her former speed. She tends to list to one side or the other when she is moving fast, but she also corrects herself. She gets on and off things successfully; she has learned to be careful about it. She can go up and down flights of steps. The main clue that something is still wrong is the listing when moving fast and that she often nods her head or holds it a bit sideways when trotting. She also does some odd thrashing in her sleep that is new.

Beagle dog mix is lying on a mat, looking alert. She is recovering from a spinal cord concussionI will be consulting with a rehab vet soon about what exercises Zani can do and what might be contraindicated. I want to know how I can best help her. I also want to discuss the likelihood of problems as she ages resulting from her gait abnormalities.

At this point, I don’t think she will regain 100% of her pre-accident abilities, but as long as she is not in pain and can do things that make her happy I am good with that!

Related Post and Video

A Dog With Spinal Cord Concussion: Zani’s Story Part 1

YouTube video showing how dependent Zani was on care the first two days





Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Speeding Tickets: Negative or Positive Punishment?

Speeding tickets are commonly used as an example in learning theory textbooks. But I’m going to disagree with the typical classification because of my own experience. Here’s a true story.

When I was about 20, I was driving in my hometown. I was home from college and driving down my own street. I think I was going about 45. I think the speed limit was 35. I don’t remember why I was speeding. I didn’t commonly drive fast. But that day I did.

I heard a siren and caught my breath. Looked in the rearview mirror. There was a police car behind me, lights flashing and siren blaring. It took a moment to realize that I was the target. My heart started beating fast and I got shaky. It took a while before there was a good place to pull off the road. I started to panic, fearing the officer would think I was trying to flee. But I got off the road as soon as I could. I parked, still shaky, and rolled down my window. I don’t remember what the male officer said, but I had been speeding and he was giving me a ticket.

I am not crier, but I started to cry. I was scared and humiliated. Then further humiliated because I was crying and couldn’t stop. Then worried that he thought I was crying strategically, to get out of the ticket. I wasn’t. I was just that upset.

But I was lucky. I was a young white, privileged female, moderately attractive if a little nerdish. I was in very little danger, compared, say, to any person of color. Being stopped by a police officer can be lethal for some people. Probably not for my demographic, and frankly, it wasn’t that type of fear. I wasn’t afraid for my life or personal safety. But a run-in with an authority figure where I was in the wrong still scared the holy bejeezus out of me.

I think the ticket was $50, a fair amount for those times and my college student budget. I received the written ticket, an attached envelope, and instructions to pay before a deadline several weeks away. I paid it.

White window envelope from City Hall. Is receiving this in the mail punishment?

Did I Stop Speeding?

As I mentioned, I generally observed the speed limit. But yes, there was a behavior change. I was extra careful on that street and in my hometown in general for several years afterward. I paid extra close attention to the posted speed limits. So although the behavior didn’t generalize as much as the authorities might have desired, I was indeed punished for speeding. My behavior of speeding reduced. I didn’t want to get caught and pulled over again.

What Kind of Punishment Was It?

It was positive punishment.

Positive punishment: Something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.

What was added? A scary, humiliating stop by a police officer. This was definitely an aversive experience for me.

But Wait, That’s Not What the Learning Theory Books Say!

Speeding tickets and other types of fines are often presented as examples of the operant conditioning process of negative punishment.

Negative punishment: Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.

What’s removed? Money! Your money is taken away contingent on an incident of speeding. This is with the presumed intent of reducing speeding behavior. Negative punishment is also called a response cost.

So a ticket with a fine may be an example of negative punishment for some people, but that’s not what made me reduce my speeding.

If you aren’t bothered by authority figures or if you are on friendly terms with the officer who stopped you, the interaction itself may not be aversive. But the amount of the ticket could be hard on your budget, even catastrophic. It could prompt you to change your behavior. For me, the money was painful, but the interaction had a larger effect on my behavior.

What If There Is No Behavior Change?

Speedometer with needle just about 50 mphOK, in the negative punishment scenario, how likely is the behavior to change? How effective is the fine? Obviously, the results will vary from person to person, but there is a problem with the timing. Consequences are most effective when they follow a behavior immediately. But speeding ticket fines don’t usually do that. You are usually handed a ticket with an address or attached envelope. There is some legal code on there to reference what law you are accused of breaking. You usually have a couple of weeks to get the money to the local government or dispute the ticket and get a court date.

We can certainly understand the connection between speeding and paying the money but it doesn’t pack a big punch as a consequence because of that time lag. The time between behavior and consequence is one of the crucial factors determining whether a consequence is effective. In almost all cases, it needs to be short.

But sometimes the fine can be immediate. Once I was traveling driving across the country with a friend who got stopped on the highway in a speed trap. It was in Kentucky or Virginia. The officer pulled over and corralled two cars at once (both with out of state license plates) and led us both to the station. It soon became clear that we would have to pay a large fine then and there to be able to go on our way. The alternative was to come back to the same town at some date in the future. Who can do that when they are driving through? In that experience, the loss of the money was immediate. But hopefully, that is unusual. (It was also a scary experience.)

I wonder how often behavior changes because of the fine with the envelope in the mail scenario.

The Effects of Consequences Vary

I’ve related my personal speeding ticket story above. Someone else’s might be very different. The interaction might not bother them. Or there might not be any human interaction at all if they were “caught” by a programmed camera and mailed a ticket. On the other hand, a person without white privilege would be justifiably much more frightened than I was by being stopped.

For some people, the loss of the money could indeed be a driving force for behavior change. But I think overall, the speeding ticket example is a poor example for the learning theory books because 1) it skips the experience of receiving the ticket, which can be very aversive; 2) there is usually a time lag between the behavior and the response cost of paying the fine; and 3) being stopped by a police officer is a politically charged issue right now.

Further Reading and Discussion

After writing this, I discovered a very nice piece that analyzes several of the behaviors and consequences related to receiving a traffic ticket. If I had seen this, I might not have written mine! The author concludes that the purpose of traffic tickets is not to change behavior.  Take a look. It gave me some new realizations on the topic.

Are speeding tickets punishing?—ABC Behavior Training

I’d love to hear others’ experiences. Anybody out there make a long-lasting behavior change because of getting a fine? Oh, and drive safely!

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson 

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