The Day I Got Paid for Crying

The Day I Got Paid for Crying

Lately I’ve been thinking about something that happened to me in my early 20s, a pivotal day when I had an emotional reaction unlike any before or since. The experience has remained vivid to me all these years, but only recently has it snapped into place among my thoughts about behavior. It’s a human corollary to “you don’t need to worry about reinforcing your dog’s fear.” I underwent an intense, long period of extended respondent behavior followed by something that would be a huge reinforcer for operant behavior. Did my respondent behavior get reinforced?

Here’s the story.

i finished my master’s in music when I was 21 and was already working professionally. I played the harpsichord, and although I gave solo performances now and then, I specialized in the improvised “accompaniment” of the Baroque period: basso continuo. This meant that I got to play in ensembles from duos up to full orchestras, including opera orchestras.

I got my big break when the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, of which I was a member, was hired as a group to accompany a Baroque opera at U.C. Berkeley under the direction of Alan Curtis. Actually, the orchestra was first hired as orchestra-minus-Eileen. Since Alan was a harpsichordist himself, he usually conducted from the keyboard, a common practice in the Baroque period. I was super frustrated about this—I should be there with my colleagues!

Then everything changed. Alan injured his arm and it was in a sling. This painful and inconvenient experience for him was a boon to me. He couldn’t play, only conduct. Suddenly, I was hired as well. This turned out to be a turning point in my career and a setup for all that was to come.

Alan Curtis was an internationally famous scholar of early music, performer, and conductor. He was a creative genius and the driving force behind getting luscious, forgotten pieces of music performed in the world again. Alan practiced inclusive casting before anyone else even talked about it, hiring singers of color for lead roles with no concern for the familial relationships of the characters. He also ignored gender and hired by voice. He brought flare and emotion to every aria with his unique interpretations of the music. Unique, but never gratuitously flashy. You always had the feeling that he had figured out exactly what the composer intended.

The Opera

I loved playing continuo in the opera orchestra. There was a little gang of us “pluckers”: harpsichordists, lutenists, a theorbo usually. Once in a while a Baroque guitar. Sometimes a keyboardist would double on the organ. We created improvised accompaniment to the written-out parts the rest of the orchestra had, working closely with the cellos, bassoons, and basses, with whom we shared the bass line.

During the opera recitatives, the parts where a character sings in a more speaking style, often only the cello and the harpsichord play, with the harpsichordist providing flourishes and arpeggios to help portray the story told by the lyrics.

My particular musical talents lie with ensemble playing. I have the intuition and anticipation of a born accompanist (my sister got those genes, too), and I adored playing in that performance.

Alan encouraged me during rehearsals and performances, and even complimented me now and then, so I figured I was doing OK. But after the last performance, in front of a large group of people, he complimented me mightily on my continuo playing. He said that I was one of the top three harpsichord continuo players he knew in the world. As I salvaging my composure, in his professorial way, he made some constructive suggestions of things I could work on to get even better. I was 25 years old.

Playing in Europe

A few months later, Alan telephoned me to ask whether I would be interested in joining his opera orchestra in Europe, Il Complesso Barocco. He was conducting operas in Innsbruck, Austria, and in Amsterdam over a period of several weeks. I stammered yes, and he said the pay would be about $500 per week and the orchestra would pay airfare, but not accommodations.

In those days, a third party could buy your plane tickets, so you would call endlessly to check the status of your tickets, then show up at the airport hoping that the paperwork had been filed and payment made.

Happily, he hired two friends of mine as well, so I had travel companions. Somehow we got our plane tickets coordinated. One of my friends spoke both fluent German and Dutch—what a relief. I spoke passable German, but I knew only one word of Dutch: lekker, in its several meanings. That I made this first trip with friends was crucial to my feeling able to do this thing at all and influenced the trajectory that followed. They buffered the culture shock of my not only being in a foreign country, but working there. I jumped into an already ticking, familiar machine of music performance, but also had these weird moments of completely alien experiences. But my friends were my touchstone.

Our flight, which originated in San Francisco, had excruciating delays from rain at La Guardia, and turned into a red-eye. After landing in Hamburg, we boarded a train and got a compartment to ourselves. Exhausted from the marathon flight and attendant stress, we folded out the seats, made beds, and went to sleep. We woke up to the sun streaming through the windows of the cozy compartment and the magnificent sight of the Alps. One of the sweetest memories of my life.

I couldn’t have asked for a more magical setting for my first gig abroad. Innsbruck is both heavenly and intense, notched into a small valley and with an alarming, freezing river plunging through the center of town. My friends had been there before and knew the good sights and restaurants. They were vegetarian, so I learned the different ways to ask for “no meat” in German. On a day off, we took a funicular up to the top of an Alp, had lunch, then walked all the way back down, which turned out to have drastic consequences on our leg muscles for the next week.

Alan’s European rehearsals were an experience unto themselves. They moved fast, as he gave instructions to musicians from at least four countries in their native languages, seamlessly switching back and forth. His mind was so sharp. I learned to count bar numbers quickly in several languages! I understood a lot of what he said in German and Italian because of his American accent. I went to all the full orchestral rehearsals, and I was also the rehearsal accompanist when Alan worked with singers. Another round of “keep up with a rehearsal that’s mostly in a foreign language.”

After we finished that set of performances, my friends and I took another lovely trek by train to Amsterdam, staying a day each at Nuremberg and Köln to go to museums. I learned the tricks of getting around on the trains, changing money, and finding cheap pensions to stay in. (The tourist offices in the train stations provided paper maps and brochures about the town’s amenities.)

Amsterdam was great fun as well. I spent many mornings in the Rijksmuseum, looking at Rembrandts and other masterworks. We rehearsed and performed in nearby Scheveningen, and learned that saying the name of this town was a test to detect German spies in World War II because only the Dutch can pronounce it correctly. As musicians, we got obsessed and practiced it a lot and judged each other’s pronunciation. We thought we did it pretty well, but the Dutch orchestra members laughed.

The only bad part of the trip was that I caught a very nasty, feverish cold. I couldn’t sleep many nights as I sat up with excruciating sinuses. I had to serial-suck cough drops for the three-hour performances so as not to cough in the orchestra pit. Even that part was worth it, though.

This trip was wonderful in so many ways, but perhaps the most important was that it built my confidence for the challenges that came later.

Traveling to Italy

My next gig with Alan was in Italy, at the Teatro Olimpico by the famed architect Palladio in Vicenza in the northern part of the country. He put together an orchestra with some members of Il Complesso Barocco and some players from a young people’s orchestra in Venice. But it didn’t include my friends this time.

This trip was hexed from the start. Alan directed me to call a woman named Betti Marinelli at the opera company in Venice to arrange my travel and negotiate (negotiate? me?) my pay. Overseas calls were a big hassle then, and I had an eight-hour time difference to contend with. So this had me getting up at 3 AM, trembling with nerves, my voice tense and hoarse from shyness, calling an office where I might or might not find an English-speaking person, and using my limited Italian to find Ms. Marinelli. Betti spoke good English, thankfully, but it was hard to reach her, hard to hear her, and I never quite knew what to do next or what we had just agreed on. Besides the phone and language difficulties, I got the sense that the politics of the opera company changed every day. Ms. Marinelli disappeared for days at a time and the next people I spoke to would tell me the opposite of what she had. Why had I listened to her—she was gone now! I didn’t understand how much or how they were going to pay me. Whenever I called the airline, they had no record of my reservation.

The opera bureaucracy felt like this huge, lumbering ship that moved at an inexorable pace, but had vying political groups fighting to steer it. One day, the ship was sailing east, then the next day, without warning, I’d find it had laboriously turned southwest overnight and I’d have to start all over again with whatever issue I had been trying to work out.

But the hardest thing of all was that Alan didn’t need my friends for this production. I would be on my own. A different Eileen went on this trip. Confident enough to go (barely), but basically scared shitless. Frustrated and very anxious, I showed up at the airport at the right time, and there it was in the system: my ticket. I got on the plane with a prayer, both because I hated flying and because I didn’t know what to expect when I reached my destination. I discovered two singers on the plane whom Alan had also hired, so I had some people to hang out with in a limited way. After landing in Venice, we found our way together to Vicenza.

In Vicenza

When traveling with my friends earlier, I had learned the necessary habits for a traveling musician who doesn’t have accommodations arranged ahead of time. You show up, awkwardly, in the rehearsal space, sometimes while a rehearsal is in progress, with luggage in hand. Accommodations would depend on wherever the hell you would rehearse, and you had to find it first. So that’s what we did.

Upon arrival, there were administrative problems with everything, but worst, our pay. They didn’t have the down payment ready. The rehearsal times and places changed unpredictably and without notice. Some cast members were missing, others were double cast. One of the American singers who had a major role was so pissed that she turned around and flew home on her own dime. The other one stayed until he was dismissed a couple days later because someone liked the other singer hired for the role better. But after endless piles of paperwork, then appointments where often no one from the opera company showed up, the rest of us got enough money to live on through the rehearsals and performance until we got our final and main payment.

Vicenza is a typical European combination of old and new, and I was in the mostly old part with narrow, winding, hard-to-walk-on cobblestone streets. I could walk to a famous town square, the Piazza dei Signori, and just on the other side of it were some great, inexpensive restaurants. I walked everywhere, including to my performances, when I wore a long black dress with black Chinese cloth flats underneath. They looked like slippers and were all the fad in Berkeley at the time. I was a true dork. I carried my tuning forks, tuning hammer, and my bulging binder with the score and my complicated system of colored paper clips to help me get back and forth for repeats and skips in the music.

Playing in the Teatro Olimpico, with its marvelous acoustics, was a matchless experience. The interior of the Renaissance theater is constructed of wood and plaster with very little absorptive material anywhere. The acoustics are both live and balanced. Playing in that environment taught me how to do my job as a continuo player better. And I fell in with the continuo section, hanging out with the cellist, a very young, funny Italian woman who promptly teased me about my “dress” shoes, and the lutenist and theorbist, both American guys who lived in Europe. Also, I chatted with the lonesome hammered dulcimer player, who played in one haunting aria in the whole opera. He was the only German in the group and thanked me warmly for speaking to him in that language. We had the particular fun of a bunch of young people who only partly understood each other, but joked and horsed around as we fractured each other’s languages.

I remember one such fracture. There was a line in the opera that went, “Il mio cuore rimbomba.” This translates to “My heart thunders” or “My heart rumbles.” Typical opera language, right? But I couldn’t parse the words; I heard, “Il mio corrimbomba.” So I asked my new Italian friend what a “corrimbomba” was. She whooped with laughter. I had invented a new word! Henceforward, our continuo gang went around singing little songs about corrimbombas. Musician humor.

There was also the time, out by myself, when I bravely asked a woman at a food truck, in Italian, the name of a savory-looking pastry. She looked at me drily and said, “Pizza.” Oh.

Outside of rehearsals, I mostly did things on my own, staying in a pension where the owners spoke no English and going to grocery and sundry stores and restaurants where the situation was the same. But everyone was friendly and good-hearted with my two-semesters-of-college Italian. There is an American army base in Vicenza, and in the 1980s, the Italians still considered any American a great friend because of our country’s actions in World War II (even though the U.S. and the British bombed Vicenza). And the older Italians in the orchestra adored me for speaking to them in my bad Italian. The horn player would parade me around, saying, “See, she understands!” That was only fractionally true.

I was holding my own, but anyone who has spent time in a new country can guess my stress level. Everything was different, and I only understood a small slice of what went on around me. I was (am) both introverted and shy and all the people-y stuff would have been exhausting even without the culture shock. And for every rehearsal and performance, I had to get there ahead of the rest of the orchestra to tune the 120 strings of the harpsichord. This was part of my job and took about a half an hour under good conditions. It was a mechanical task; I’d done it so many times that I didn’t even have to think about it. But before rehearsals I often had to play the game of “find the harpsichord” first, and before the performances I had to tune at the same time as someone vacuumed the whole, echoing teatro. I could do it, but it exhausted my ears before the opera ever started. Then I’d play the three-hour opera, try to find something to eat near midnight, go back to my little room, and get some sleep. I’d get woken up pre-dawn by the weird little scooter garbage trucks made for the ancient, narrow streets, and do it all the next day.

Besides the culture shock, just playing a three-hour performance where the whole audience can hear you improvise creates so much stress that you try not to think about it. I didn’t have a written out part; I played from a score but mostly the bass line. Musically, anything could happen.

We played the last performance, and I went out with most of the orchestra to a restaurant where my fellow players carried on so loudly that we almost got bounced. I even had some wine, which I had not done during the entire trip because I needed all my faculties all the time. Turns out I still needed them.

The Last Day

So the performances were over, and my last day in Italy was an administrative one. More hidden people to find, more papers to sign. More bureaucracy, more frustration, more chaos. Going up and down the stairs in the modern office building next to the Renaissance theater. As I got ready to sign final paperwork for my paycheck, I did the currency conversion in my head and I was dumbfounded to realize that the amount was about half of what the company had promised me. It had to be a mistake. But no. The woman (maybe la Betti—I’m not sure) explained, after my question, that the amount was correct—they had deducted Italian income taxes. I protested, but she held firm. It was the rules.

I broke. No one had told me about the taxes—or at least I didn’t think so. I couldn’t even be sure whether they had or not, and that endless ambiguity was part of the problem. I started to cry. All the days of stress and frustration and culture shock had piled up and now it all poured out. I. Couldn’t. Stop. Crying. Here I sat in some busy office, sobbing, because it was all too much.

Betti (we’ll assume it was she) spoke to me kindly, but also chided me, saying it was my fault for not knowing about the taxes. It didn’t matter. I was stuck in cry mode. I couldn’t even talk. My embarrassment was epic, but I couldn’t do anything about my condition. I wasn’t crying to “get what I wanted.” That possibility didn’t seem to be on the table, and manipulative crying is not in my normal behavior palette anyway.

But guess what happened? While I sat there and cried, there were some hushed, hurried conversations. Betti left, returned, and said they would pay me the full amount. I was relieved—but that didn’t stop the crying. Removing the last straw didn’t make the rest disappear. Betti said they could skip the deduction only this once (imagine her shaking her finger at me), that the next time they would have to take out taxes. But along with the finger shaking came some true warmth and hugs.

I had calmed down, but I still couldn’t stop the tears. So a staff person from the opera walked me to the bank, where I, with my puffy face, received my full pay in cash from a very curious teller. They then walked me partway back to my pension, made sure I could go the rest of the way myself, and took off, obviously relieved to ditch me. When I got back to my place, I waved hastily at the owner at her desk and rushed up the stairs to my room. I finished crying at some point. I had leaked tears for about 90 minutes.

Behavioral Realizations

Now, so many years later that, I see these events through the lens of behavior analysis for the first time. I cried, which resulted in my being given several hundred dollars that I would not have otherwise received. And money is a powerful reinforcer.

Questions 1 and 2: Did receiving money reinforce the tears? The next time I had to negotiate something, did I cry?

No. These tears were respondent behavior. They were not subject to reinforcement. I couldn’t even stop them, much less start them at will. (Operant crying, crying behavior driven by reinforcement, is a real thing, but not what happened here.)

The function of my tears was not to get more money. I’m not sure how to describe the function of crying, but I surmise it provides some kind of emotional release. This article describes respondent crying as self-soothing.

But respondent crying can be operantly mimicked. As humans, we can cognitively note the success of the tears in changing someone else’s behavior and fake or induce crying in the future. We can seek a stimulus that prompts the respondent behavior of tears, whether it is a spray of onion juice or thinking of something sad. Or we can fake weeping without tears. But for me, the experience was extremely humiliating. I’m not a big crier, not then and not now. And virtually never in public. I never want to repeat that experience again. Thank god the respondent behavior of creating tears doesn’t normally get reinforced.

The brew of emotions that overtook me that day and caused me to cry was not centered on fear, not exactly. But it was a cousin to fear, and, as with fear, my feelings and some responses were not under my volitional control. I’ll always be thinking of that day now when I hear concerns about “reinforcing fear.” There’s some nuance to the question, just as there is related to tears. But the broad majority of people who bring up concerns about reinforcing fear in their dogs by giving them food or comfort have nothing to worry about.

But, backing up to my story, what behavior might have gotten reinforced by that almost-lost-then-retrieved chunk of money? Even during those arduous weeks, there were other mega reinforcers, too. I got a trip to Europe with traveling expenses paid. I got to play music in a great orchestra inside a 16th-century historical monument. I had fun with new musician friends. And I got praise and recognition for playing, which is right up there with money in terms of reinforcement for most musicians.

RIP, Alan Curtis. Playing in your opera productions was the best musical experience of my life.

Question 3: When Alan called me a few months later and asked me if I wanted to play the opera again in France, what do you think I said?

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Special thanks to Bridger Watson, who helped me interleave my “normal” expository voice with the memoir style and content of this piece. It’s much improved because of her help!

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It’s OK to Comfort Your Dog!

Photo Credits

The Giustino opera poster photo is copyright Eileen Anderson. All other photos are from Wikimedia Commons. Credits are as follows:

Clara’s Novice Masters Trick Dog Title: More Tricks, More Lessons Learned

Clara’s Novice Masters Trick Dog Title: More Tricks, More Lessons Learned

It’s an oxymoron, as my friend Carol pointed out, but Clara and I earned her Novice Masters Trick Dog title recently. I haven’t had time to post about it until now.

Things We Learned

As usual, the balance between stuff she already knew (get in a crate), tricks we could adapt quickly from stuff she already knew (get in a cardboard box), and completely new stuff (roll out the carpet) was…interesting.

Practicing the cookie balancing trick by starting with kibble on the top of Clara’s head

Here are some highlights.

Stand: We finally have a nice stand on cue after our long running debacle. Her stance is a bit crouchy (no idea where that came from), but it’s fixable. What I’ve got is a moderately calm dog with four on the floor and I’m happy! I’m using a hand signal and have no plans for a verbal one. No, no, no way!

Find hidden treats: This should have gone quickly because of all the food searching games we play, but we got haunted with a bit of previous reinforcement history. Clara is so experienced with searching for food that she can find a few pieces of kibble in a very large backyard. For the trick, all she had to do was find three hides of stinky lamb lung in a small area in my bedroom. However, in that room she is patterned to head for the bed and her snuffle mat area where she eats breakfast and often searches. She spent some time over there, off-camera, rather than finding all the easy hides I set.

Rolling out the carpet: I was proud that we finally won our wrestling match with the matching law. In the video, you can see her pause, then flip over the last little corner of the rug. To me, that was better than rolling the whole thing out in one swoop. I could tell she was getting the criteria. It made me very happy.

Platform jump: The directions for this trick say it must be clear that the dog is jumping from platform to platform, not just stepping. We nailed that one!

Tricks We Re-Recorded

There were several tricks I had to tweak and record again when I saw we might not have met some nuance of the requirements. They included the muffin tin game (what could we do wrong with that?), the bang game (whack a board), and eye contact, the last because I had the wrong camera angle.

Finally, we had to re-record the cookie on the nose game. This is one we put some work into, although she already had a good foundation with lots of different Zen/leave-it practice. I taught her to hold still twice as long as the description required, but after we had recorded it, I re-read the rules. It said that the dog would hold the cookie on her nose until the handler reached and took it (or the dog could flip the cookie and eat it for an intermediate trick). We were doing neither. When the time was up, I reached toward her and she dumped it off her head! So I taught her to keep her head still even as I reached for the cookie, and we re-recorded in case the former version was a fail.

I’m pretty proud of that trick, though. My goal was that it would be fun for her. I’ve seen so many miserable-looking dogs with treats piled on their bodies. I was curious, so I finally searched to see how the force-based trainers do this trick, since it is a very common “show-off” trick. The trainer I found, not even one of the worst, held the dog’s chin and scolded whenever they tried to move their head, so the dog learned through physical molding and threats to keep still.

Eye contact

By the way, all that re-reading of the instructions I did? It’s partly because I have considerable ego involvement in this. I don’t plan on screwing up a trick because I misread the directions. But also, re-checking is a habit from my grant writing days. Check the directions, and check them again, and again, and then once more before you turn the damn thing in. Old habits can pay off!

Sloppy Training

Maybe you’ve noticed that I’m not one of those precision trainers (understatement). I am sloppy. I work to get my mechanics decent enough that I am not doing too much of a disservice to my dog, but I hardly ever go that final 20%. But man—watching these videos is an incentive to clean up my act.

Any regular viewer now knows that I keep my treats in my left pocket, because that’s where Clara looks or heads after any behavior. I mention below that I fixed that for our Peekaboo behavior (not shown), so I do know how.

I made the treat orientation worse when working on these tricks because I was often using some kibble from Clara’s breakfast. I was too lazy to take the different kibble out of my pocket so I could pocket her breakfast kibble. So for several tricks I have kibble already in my hand, which I’m waving around in front of her. If you want to see her hand and pocket orientation at its finest, check out the stand behavior about one minute into the video and the hand signals near the end. One of our best tricks is “Look at Eileen’s left hand.” There are so many ways to fix that; I really should!

In the front behavior, I do the classic novice move of taking a step backward and luring her toward me with my two hands together. I made sure this was allowed. I taught Summer a pretty front without that move, since it is disallowed in some levels of obedience. But I’ve never needed formal obedience moves with Clara. The move is included in the official demo video, so I took that shortcut. That’s a lure even without food in the hand, but upon a closer look, I was holding food in that take! I was unintentionally luring her with food.

Many of you have noticed by now that Clara has a superstitious foot lift when she sits. She’s had it forever. A paw lift can be a stress-prompted behavior, but Clara wasn’t a stressy puppy when at home with the other dogs and me, and I suspect that this longstanding addition to her sits is just something I accidentally clicked too much when she was very young. You can see it (barely because of the angle, but I remark on it) in the very first behavior in the video, getting in a box. She holds her paw up for at least three seconds, and I cleverly treat her in that position. Brava, Eileen!

These things I have accidentally trained are annoying for me to look at. It’s my job to remember that they are there because I reinforced them. If I want them to go away, I need to load more reinforcement onto the version I want, not punish or frustrate my dog. There’s a strong human tendency to use punishment to solve problems, but in this case and so many others, it’s completely unfair and uncalled for.

Our Title Video

Things We’re Still Working On

We’ve started our intermediate tricks, but I am keeping my eyes on the prize here, which is to do some great training, not only earn pieces of paper. So we are still working on some of the novice tricks.

Puppy pushups, how about that most basic trick that “everybody” does in obedience schools and many other venues? Hanging my head in shame. We are up to sit, down, sit, down on one treat, but we need to get up to six behaviors rather than four. (She can also do down, sit, down, sit.) I truly do ask my dogs for more than one behavior for a reinforcer at times. But the stand behavior still haunts us, the one that I practiced with her in an aroused state approximately one billion times. And as I extend the number of behaviors on one reinforcer, it usually pops up. “Wait, did you mean this?”

I worked on having her target the long target stick with the enticing ball on the end enough that I was getting a higher percentage of touches than bites, but I haven’t worked the bites down to an acceptable percentage. We still work on it. She’s fine with most anything else I ask her to target.

Our peekaboo during the “whip the head around” phase

One of the novice tricks we both enjoyed was peekaboo, where the dog comes up from behind as you are standing and puts their head between your legs. I didn’t include it for the title, because it required three seconds of duration and we didn’t have that. We kept practicing, though, because I wanted to teach her this behavior for when we are out and about (prompted by the Denise Fenzi “squish” behavior). We got our duration, then I noticed she was poking her head through and immediately whipping it toward my treat hand. I started switching hands, so then I got a dog who poked her head through, then immediately whipped her head back and forth, looking for the treat. C’mon, Eileen, think! I could have predicted that if I’d thought about it for half a second. So I thought about it.

I didn’t want to spit treats like I learned to do in competitive obedience. Clara doesn’t like to catch them, and the only dog treats I’m willing to put in my mouth are pieces of mozzarella cheese. Then I remembered Marge Rogers’ method for treating for a straight front behavior. Before treating the dog, she would bring both hands up to her chin, then bring a hand straight down with the treat. So the treat was not only presented in the center position, it was in the center position for a noticeable amount of time before it came to the dog. That did the trick nicely, and now Clara is getting into position, staying there, and looking forward or straight up at my face. Progress!

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Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

That Damn “Roll Out the Carpet” Trick

That Damn “Roll Out the Carpet” Trick

Tan dog with black muzzle sits next to a tightly rolled up maroon carpet. She is sitting on the tiny part of it that is not unrolled.
Clara dutifully sitting on her sliver of mat

I picked the “Roll out the carpet” trick from the novice trick list from Do More with Your Dog because it looked fun and more trick-like than a lot of the other behaviors. We had been doing things like sits and downs and walking on leash and targeting. This was more like a real trick. It would be new, but still looked like a fairly straightforward one because Clara knows how to push things with her nose.

The definition of the trick is:

Dog will use his nose to unroll a rolled-up carpet. Carpet can be a yoga mat, rug or towel and should be roughly 5 feet/~2 meters in length.

DMWYD Novice Trick List

I have rolled food up in towels for Clara before as enrichment, so that seemed like an obvious way to practice. So I took a 5-foot rubber-backed rug and rolled it up with treats inside, and she promptly unrolled it to get the food. I had Clara do this for a couple of days. Easy Peasy.

But that was for practice. Luring is allowed, but I’m not sure about luring-and-eating-as-you-go-along. Even if it’s allowed—the rules for Novice tricks are pretty loose—to me, it’s not in the spirit of the trick. So the next time we practiced, I rolled up the carpet with no treats. Guess what happened? See the photo above?

Clara gave the rolled-up carpet a good sniffing all over, then sat on the little strip that wasn’t rolled up and looked at me. There was obviously no food in there, so why should she bother? Maybe starting with a loaded-up carpet wasn’t the best idea after all!

I had thought the original discriminative stimulus (cue) to get her to unroll the carpet was the rolled-up carpet. But it was the rolled-up carpet with treats in it. I had annihilated a giant lure (perhaps 20 treats) in one blow. Why should she bother with an empty carpet?

Back to Square 1. I realized I was going to have to actually teach the trick instead of coasting in on previous behaviors.

First Teaching Attempt: Get Clara’s Nose in the Right Spot without Treats

I started rolling up an empty carpet and shaped a nose touch in the correct area to push the carpet. This wasn’t hard. She would sniff when she approached the rolled carpet, anyway. So I turned that sniff into a little nudge. And I was thoughtful about my treat delivery, aiming for the little crack under the roll of the mat so I would direct her nose right back to the correct area when she went for the treat.

Tan dog with a black muzzle and ears is putting her nose under part of a rolled up carpet and receiving a treat
Crappy photo of my glorious treat placement. She always scrunched herself up to stand on the mat, because guess why?

However, I had two problems. One was that she has an enormous reinforcement history (there’s that problem again!) for lying down on mats or anything matlike. Possibly the most reinforced behavior in her life. So even though I kept my rate of reinforcement high for the nose touches, whenever there was even a momentary lull, her first choice was to lie down on the mat.

Tan god with a black muzzle and ears is lying down on a maroon carpet. The very end of the carpet is turned over, showing the white backing.
This is what we do on mats: lie down.

The second problem was yet another behavior that was stronger than the nose push: a foot target. She would sometimes hit the unrolled part of the carpet with her foot or stand on it.

Standing on it was incompatible with unrolling it for sure! And once she would start these other two highly reinforced behaviors, it was not likely she would find her way back to the nose touch. So I didn’t just leave her to figure it out. That would have been too frustrating. I would interrupt, ask for a nose touch to my hand or simply toss a treat, then start us over again.

I did succeed in shaping the gentle sniff under the rolled part of the rug into a nudge, then a push. Sometimes she would give a big push and the whole thing would unroll! I reinforced well for that, but again, I didn’t feel like it was in the spirit of the trick. It happened frequently when I used a yoga mat instead of the rubber-backed carpet runner, so we stuck with the latter.

I was getting the nudge, but I had a problem. I needed to thin my reinforcement schedule and get enough pushes from Clara to unroll the carpet completely before I reinforced. But I had these two other behaviors lurking, ready to pop out the minute Clara didn’t get reinforced for a nose touch. I knew if I tried to thin my schedule now, the first time I didn’t reinforce a nose push (because I wanted a second one), she would try one of the other behaviors instead.

Extinction and Thinning the Ratio Schedule

I’ve made it no secret that I generally pay my dogs for every behavior. You can see my article on it here and another by Dr. Eduardo Fernandez here. You can also look up Nevin’s work outlining the arguments for rich reinforcement schedules creating behaviors that are resistant to extinction (Nevin, Mandell, & Atak, 1983).

I do have a few exceptions to using a 1:1 ratio schedule with my dogs. For loose leash walking, I have extended the number of steps between reinforcers. I probably reinforce on a VR15 (steps) or so. I have also trained stationary duration behaviors where the reinforcers get fairly spaced out. For instance, there can be time periods between reinforcers measured in minutes when I am reinforcing Clara for staying on a mat while I work in the kitchen. I have at least one behavior chain (retrieve) where I generally only reinforce the terminal behavior. Finally, just living with my dogs, sometimes I randomly don’t reinforce for everyday behaviors. But I probably reinforce daily behaviors far more than most people. For instance, I still reinforce 10-year-old Clara with food virtually every time she pees or poops in the yard.

What I haven’t asked for from Clara, since back when I was working on the Training Levels, is multiple iterations of the same behavior for one reinforcer. What Sue Ailsby calls “twofers.” I found this out the hard way early in our trick training endeavor. Clara could not do puppy pushups unless I reinforced every behavior, or at least every other one. Doing six iterations, as is required for the trick (sit, down, sit, down, sit, down), was not possible for us. On the third cue or so, if I failed to reinforce for a sit or a down, she “assumed” she was wrong and started hopping around and throwing behaviors, usually a stand or a hop. I got an extinction burst. How humbling. I hadn’t worked hard enough on cue recognition.

We had an even worse situation with unrolling the carpet, because my goal was to cue her to unroll the carpet, which meant nudging it up to five or six times before it was all the way unrolled, then reinforce. Multiple nudges for one terminal reinforcer! I knew the nudging was still weak enough that I needed to reinforce every single one for a while. Because as soon as I would space out the reinforcement, in would pop into the foot targets and lying down. And I don’t want to put her through extinction without a really clear idea of what she can do for reinforcement.

Then I realized what I should do.

Backchain It!

I don’t think I’ve ever written about backchaining here. I don’t teach many chains. Backchaining means you start with the last behavior of a behavior chain first and work backward. There are several benefits. One is that you load a lot of reinforcement onto the final behavior (stay tuned to see the result in the video below). Another is that because of this, the dog is working toward the more familiar part of the chain that has gotten more reinforcement.

I can think of three behaviors I backchained. First, I backchained a retrieve with Summer and Clara. I also backchained Clara to drop a ball into a bowl using this video as a model. That’s a good video that shows how backchaining can work, if you are curious. It can be almost magical. I also backchained stopped contacts in agility.

Here is how I I used backchaining to get out of the rug trap.

I folded over only the very end of the rug. Clara had enough practice with pushing at the rug that she happily unrolled the little end I had folded over. I didn’t load it with treats, but she had enough experience by then that she would do it without seeing the money on the front end. We did many reinforced repetitions of opening one fold. Many. Then I folded it over twice. Oops, too soon! Got a down and a foot target. Went back to the beginning with just one fold, worked up again to two, and voilà! She pushed it hard enough (or pushed twice) to unroll both folds! Lots of reps of that, too. So we continued, working backward, with me rolling the rug more and more. I sometimes gave interim treats. She was giving multiple pushes rather than one constant one, which was fine with me. I didn’t want her to go from feast to famine, but I wanted her to gradually learn I would pay well if she performed the nose push multiple times to get to the end criterion: unfolded rug. That was backchaining.

While working on the trick, I also remembered she knows how to get food out of a rolling food toy, so I got out the Tricky Treat Ball and fed her some of her breakfast in there. It seemed like a good idea to build some more repetitions of nose pushes however I could get them.

As we got close to success with the backchaining, I added a cue, “Push,” and started using a conditioned reinforcer, “Good girl,” instead of the intermittent treats to let her know she was on the right track. As for that verbal cue: I was cheating a little. It didn’t matter what I said. Clara didn’t instantly learn the specific meaning of “Push.” If I were to say “Push” to her when she was lounging on the couch, for example, she wouldn’t start hunting for a rolled-up rug to nudge. It’s contextual. “Lady says something in a certain tone while I’m standing on the rug, so I will do the thing I just did.” But hey, it worked.

A tan dog with a black face and tail pushes an orange ball filled with food with her nose
I always think of the Tricky Treat Ball as “Summer’s food toy,” but Clara gained some fluency at it after she aged out of trying to eat the toy itself.

Progress Video

The video shows the steps we took and our victory a couple of days ago. For such a simple-seeming trick, this feels like quite an accomplishment. But I know exactly why it was a challenge for us, and I’m pretty pleased I could thread my way through all those heavily reinforced but “wrong” behaviors to tease out the right one.

I love the last iteration of the trick on the video. She pushes the rug several times and ends up with a small flap of it still folded over at the end. She looks at me, she looks at the rug. I am holding my breath, waiting for the reinforcement history to burst into the picture. But the folded over flap, because of the backchaining, became a pretty good discriminative stimulus for “push with your nose to unfold that.” She pushed both sides of it to open the rug flat all the way!

She never did one constant nose push, but it doesn’t appear to be a requirement, so I don’t think we’ll bother. We have already learned a lot by working on this trick!

Speaking of learning a lot, shout out to Marge Rogers for not saying, “I told you so!” She’s been trying to get me to train more tricks for years!

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson


Nevin, J. A., Mandell, C., & Atak, J. R. (1983). The analysis of behavioral momentum. Journal of the Experimental analysis of behavior, 39(1), 49-59.

Questions to Ask About That Bizarre Prong Collar Diagram

Questions to Ask About That Bizarre Prong Collar Diagram

Dear Dog Owner,

I’m writing to let you know of some really dreadful misinformation going around.

But first, here’s the truth.

It’s very simple. Prong collars hurt dogs. They can hurt a lot, depending on how tightly they are fastened and the handler’s behavior. Sometimes the sensation may be as low as mild discomfort. But make no mistake: if wearing a prong collar gets your dog to stop pulling on the leash, it’s because it becomes uncomfortable to do so.

If you take a good look at a prong collar, your intuition will be correct. Ouch! Even though those prongs are blunt, they transfer a lot of pressure into a tiny area.

Unfortunately, some trainers who use prong collars will go to great lengths to defend them, often by making stuff up. It’d be one thing if they would say, “Right, I know the collar hurts this dog, but it’s the best thing I know how to do. I’m willing to consult a professional for other ideas on how to handle this case.” But humans hold on to our biases. So instead, against what we can directly perceive with our own senses, prong defenders make up fairytales about how beneficial such collars are for the dog. They are getting more and more agitated and come up with more and more absurd defenses.

If a trainer has told you that prong collars are good for dogs because they “distribute pressure” around the neck or “protect the trachea,” please know that this is not the case.

Here are some of the many holes in the silly claims about prong collars.

The Diagram

I am going to critique a certain diagram (and a few other arguments about prong collars) I have seen online. But I won’t link to the diagram. I hate vague-posting, but I can’t see another ethical way through this swamp. I feel bound to say something about the misinformation, but I know that linking to it, even for criticism, will promulgate it. So I am in this weird position.

If you haven’t run across the diagram (I’ll describe it in a moment) or heard these arguments, great. Just bookmark this post and go on your way. If you come across weird claims about prong collars in the future, you can come back and read this article.

If you have seen the diagram and arguments, and maybe even been persuaded by them, this post is for you.

The diagram has a drawing of a prong collar with forces drawn on it to supposedly “prove” that prong collars do not put any pressure on the front of a dog’s throat. This is incorrect, and it’s easy to verify on yourself in real life if you want to wear a prong collar attached to a leash, then have someone pull steadily against it. Or you could use ballistic gel to create a model to test this on, which would be safer. This is a real-life case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The purveyors of these myths are asking you to go against what you can perceive with your senses and instead, believe a fairytale.

I’m going to give you some basic critical thinking points for this diagram and others like it through the lens of basic engineering mechanics. I’m suggesting what questions to ask when you see diagrams that purport to portray the forces on prong collars.

Note that the people who post diagrams like this put on the mantle of science and accuse anyone who disagrees with them of “being emotional.” Ya know, if “being emotional” makes you realize that what your trainer recommended is hurting your dog, then more power to emotions. But here, empathy and science agree. The prong users’ attempts to apply science to support their bias are absurdly wrong.

The diagram in question appears impressively science-y, with its vectors and arrows and cosines. But it wouldn’t get a passing grade in a high school statics/dynamics course. It lacks required definitions, descriptions, and disclosures of approximations and assumptions. It uses the wrong kind of diagram for the information it purports to present. It’s the opposite of impressive; it’s desperate.

So here’s what to do if you encounter this diagram. Ask the person who is posting some questions. The questions follow here in much detail. You can, if you like, skip all this and download the one-page PDF with the questions on it. But the more of the details you can understand, the more you will realize how ridiculous the diagram is.

Questions to Ask about the Prong Collar Diagram and Claims

l. Which of the four primary force scenarios involving a prong collar does this diagram illustrate?

There are at least four possibilities. My explanations of them include some technical details, but you can definitely get the gist of it without a strong math background.

Force Scenario A. The pressure of the prongs themselves on the dog’s neck with no leash attached. The prongs are creating pressure inward while the dog’s body is pushing outward in a state of static equilibrium. The pressure exerted by the prongs of the tightly fitted collar (as per the fitting instructions) is always ignored when people claim prong collars “protect the trachea.” Whatever the orientation of the collar—whether the chains and attachment area are at the back of the dog’s neck or the right side of the neck, some of those prongs are in the front of the dog’s throat, pressing inward.

The formula for this is ΣF = Σ(ma) = m1a1 + m2a2 +m3a3 + • • • + mnan = 0.

In plain English, that means that the sum of all the different forces comes to zero. That’s because the collar is stationary. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any forces. It means they balance each other. Imagine a tight belt. It can exert pressure on your abdomen without being attached to anything else. It gets uncomfortable fast. Now imagine it with prongs on the inner surface. There is much less surface area on prongs than on a belt (or flat collar), so the pressure is concentrated. It likely causes pain or at least discomfort. On a prong collar, the inward pressure will be distributed around the neck and be roughly equal for all the prongs. But that’s when there is no external pressure on it. Remember—we haven’t attached a leash to it, yet.

A prong collar not attached to a leash is still exerting plenty of concentrated pressure on a dog’s neck.

Force Scenario B. The steady-state force when a leash is attached and it is taut between the dog and handler (i.e., the dog is pulling). The force of the leash pulling backward balances with the force of the dog’s body tissues and other physical elements pushing roughly forward. The collar tightens because of the movement of the chain through the holes. But even after it is tight, the pressure exerted by the different prongs will not all be the same. They will depend on the direction the dog is pulling and the orientation of the collar.

Think of the belt again. If you are wearing a tight belt and someone grabs a part of it and pulls you toward them, the belt no longer has equal pressure all around your waist. If they pull on the right side of your belt and you resist, there will be increased pressure on the left side of your belt. Likewise, if they pull on the back, there will be increased pressure on the front. The prong promoters argue that the prongs, because of their angles, somehow magically direct the pressure away from certain areas. Even if that were true in the way they argue it (it’s not), decreased pressure in one area means increased pressure in another. Force doesn’t just go **poof** into thin air. It has to go somewhere. So depending on the orientation of the collar on the dog’s neck and the direction of the force, there is no area of the neck that is magically protected from pressure from the prongs 100% of the time.

I understand why people buy the idea that the prong collar “protects” the dog’s neck, even though that’s an incredibly deceptive thing that prong trainers say. Imagine a dog wearing a flat collar pulling on leash for all they are worth—pulling and gasping. Not great for their neck and throat. If one used a prong collar instead, the dog **might** pull less. You might see less pulling and gasping. That’s why people use them. Pulling less decreases the type of force described in this scenario (but not necessarily the other three). But to then call that “protecting” the dog’s neck is doublespeak at its finest. There are much better ways to protect a dog’s neck than to poke things into it if they pull. And remember, plenty of dogs do pull when wearing prong collars. Mine did, the few times many years ago that I used one.

OK, back to the math. The forces are vectors, with both magnitude and direction, but if the dog and handler are moving as a unit, the sum of the forces is approximately 0. Let me emphasize that this is an approximation. The dog and the handler will always make minute changes in direction, which create acceleration. The acceleration creates a sum of forces that is nonzero. But for an approximation, we can assume the pulling is steady and in the same direction, and the sum of the forces = 0.

The formula is the same, but the numbers in it will be different: ΣF = Σ(ma) = m1a1 + m2a2 + m3a3 + • • • + mnan ≈ 0.

The prong is tighter and exerting more pressure into the dog’s neck asymmetrically when the leash is applying force

Force Scenario C. The dynamic force of a correction (jerk on the leash) when the leash is attached to the “live ring” of the prong collar. The live ring is the one that allows the collar to tighten when there is force transmitted by the leash. With this type of correction, the force is instantaneous and dynamic and the sum of the forces does not likely equal zero; it will equal mass times acceleration. The tightening of the chain part of the collar directs some of the force to close and tighten the rest of the collar via a pulley, then the rest of the non-symmetrical force can move the dog off balance. The formula is ΣF = Σ(ma) = m1a1 + m2a2 + m3a3 + • • • + mnan = ma.

A jerk of the leash, when it’s attached to live ring, causes an instantaneous, dynamic tightening of the collar

Force Scenario D. The dynamic force of a correction when the leash is attached to the “dead ring.” The dead ring holds the collar at a constant tightness. With this type of correction, the force is also instantaneous and dynamic and does not likely equal zero. Again, it will equal mass times acceleration. There is no pulley action and less or no tightening in this case because the configuration of the chain is fixed. A forceful correction of this type will have forces that differ from (C) above, and may be more likely to pull the dog off balance. But the formula is also ΣF = Σ(ma) = m1a1 + m2a2 + m3a3 + • • • + mnan = ma.

A jerk of the leash attached to the dead ring (both rings) causes an instantaneous, dynamic jerk on the dog’s neck and may pull the dog off balance

Even if you don’t care to follow all that, know that there are different forces involved with prong collars, and some can go on at the same time.

Of the forces above, A is a static force, B can be approximated as static, and C and D are dynamic forces. Static and dynamic forces are computed differently. And remember that B, C, and D always add to the baseline force of A. If you ask which force is being discussed or represented in a drawing, prong enthusiasts usually won’t answer this, because doing so reveals that their one drawing is only a tiny part of the big picture (besides being wrong). They are not presenting the true mathematical picture at all.

2. If they tell you which of the four force scenarios the drawing illustrates, ask them to post diagrams of the other three force scenariosAsk them to discuss how these forces combine and interact, and whether there might be even more scenarios. Posting one diagram when there are multiple forces that work differently is unethical.

3. Ask them what orientation of the collar on the dog’s neck their diagram represents. Is the leash attachment area on the right side of the dog’s neck, as directed by many paid trainers who use prongs, or on the back of the neck, as many lay people use it?

Leash attachment portion of the prong collar on right side of dog’s neck as directed by some trainers
Leash attachment portion of prong collar on the back of dog’s neck, as commonly used by lay people

This question will also show that they are not presenting an accurate picture. They will not want to answer it.

If you want to see real-life photos of the right-side attachment, search for “How to Fit a Prong Collar.” Ed Frawley has a post on the Leerburg site. (I won’t link it here, but it’s easy to find.) He states that one should place the attachment section of the prong collar on the right side of the dog’s neck, not the back of the neck. The photos of the Doberman and the Malinois on that page show the right side attachment and will also give you an idea of how tightly the collars are fastened (see section A above).

If they do answer the question about the orientation of the collar, ask them to provide a force analysis that applies to the other orientation. All the elements will rotate by 90 degrees, and the leash angles will probably change. Ask them how these two orientations affect any claims about the pressure of the prongs going to zero at certain parts of the dog’s neck. It can’t be the same part in both cases (if that claim were even true to begin with).

4. On any diagram, ask whether it represents a statics problem or a dynamics problem. Why did they not make the distinction? (Another instant fail in our high school mechanics class.) Most seem to be drawn as statics problems, but they also seem to represent the forces of a correction, which is a dynamics problem. Do you see how it is to the prong collar defender’s benefit to leave that part vague?

5. If the drawing is a two-dimensional rendering, ask them what margin of error this approximation introduces, since leashes attached to collars create forces in three dimensions. Leash pressure is rarely exactly coplanar (on the same plane) as the collar orientation, which is the assumption behind using a two-dimensional drawing. The following photos show the direction of the leash force (black leash) and its relationship to the plane of the collar (yellow line).

Figure 1. Force of the leash is approximately coplanar with the collar. On a real dog, the orientation of the collar would be closer to vertical since it is usually placed close behind the dog’s ears, but that doesn’t work on my stuffed dog.
Figure 2. Force of the leash is not coplanar with the collar
Figure 3. Force of the leash is not coplanar with the collar

If a diagram is two-dimensional, this assumes that the force of the leash is coplanar with the collar. This is rarely the case in real life.

It’s defensible to use a two-dimensional approximation of the problem, but only if the creator discloses the approximation and includes a discussion of the ways this could skew results. When the force is not coplanar with the collar, for instance, the upper and lower prongs in the pairs do not exert force equally. In the image directly above, where the leash is taut and being held higher than the plane of the collar, the lower prongs of the front pairs will exert more force into the dog’s neck than the upper ones.

Again, this would be a permissible simplification, but only if the diagram creator acknowledged it and discussed the effects it had on the accuracy.

Other Problems with the Diagram

The diagram I’m discussing has some other obvious errors. Again, I will not link to it, but these are general principles you can apply in the future if you see such diagrams.

The diagram has a two-dimensional problem drawn onto a three-dimensional perspective rendering of the collar. This creates errors in the angles. To accurately draw the angles they are trying to represent, you need a view looking straight down on the collar. The image on the left immediately below approaches that. Notice how the upper prong of each pair almost obscures the lower. I shot that photo almost straight down. Now, look at the upper and lower prongs in the image on the right. Drawing angles onto an image like that one and claiming that they are valid would be an instant failure in any mechanics course.

To represent an object such as this type of collar accurately, a top view and side view should be provided. A three-dimensional rendering could be included to show readers better visualize the object. This is not where you draw your angles, though.

In another terrible error, the creator of the drawing drew the angles on parts of prongs that were not connected to each other. They used the top prong for one section of each angle drawn, but then used the bottom link on the collar, the part that does not connect to the top prong, for reference for the other part of the angle. The first image below shows the section that is operating as a unit and should be the basis of any angles computed.

These parts of the prong collar are part of one functional unit

The second image shows how parts of the collar that are not directly connected were used for computing angles.

These parts of the prong collar are not directly connected to each other

This may be a subtle point to follow, but it is an egregious error.

A final problem is that the drawing doesn’t account for the change in direction of the force resulting from the pulley effect of the chain that tightens at the attachment area of the collar during a correction. A pulley changes the direction of a force. This is an especially interesting omission because if the creator had noticed it, they could’ve used it to support their argument (which would still be erroneous, though). That they missed this shows that we may be dealing with more ignorance than deception. But the end effect is still the same: they are using fallacious math to support a biased and incorrect conclusion.

When force is applied to the live ring, that force changes direction as the chain pulls through elements of the collar that act as pulleys

Bonus Fallacious Argument

This argument may not accompany any particular diagram. But it is common, and so demonstrably wrong.

If someone states that the prong units are acting as levers, ask for details about this. Levers are machines that magnify (increase) force. Ask what class of lever it is: 1, 2, or 3? (That one, at least, is a simple question—if there is a lever function going on here at all.) Ask for an approximation of the mechanical advantage of the levers (ratio of load and effort). How much do the levers increase the pressure from the prongs on the dog’s neck? Increasing force is the function of a lever. So prong users who claim that the prong units have a lever function are shooting themselves in the foot. Levers increase force.

A true lever has a load that is normal (at a right angle) to the lever itself. Think of a seesaw (a class 1 lever). We put loads (children) on top of the seesaw; we don’t apply a force horizontally and push it from end to end. If we did, it wouldn’t be functioning as a lever. Ask for a diagram showing a detail of a prong acting as a lever and the forces applied by it, including the ratio of effort to force. Ask how much the lever is increasing the force on the dog’s neck. Because that’s what levers do: increase force.

Succinct Printable Document with the Questions

I know this is awfully long. So here is a one-page document that has the key questions to ask when you encounter a prong collar diagram that purports to show beneficial effects.

Questions to Ask About Prong Collar Claims


It never seems to go well when defenders of prong collars try to appeal to science. It would be funny if it weren’t tragic that people can make stuff up, take shortcuts, refuse to define their terms, and won’t disclose approximations—and convince many people that they are producing good science merely by drawing some arrows.

Not to mention that they convince many people, who in their hearts may suspect otherwise, that they are doing a good thing for their dog when they use a prong collar. People do desperate things when their dog has a behavior problem they don’t know how to fix. I certainly did.

Some may ask why I didn’t provide my own diagram of the forces. I think I’ve made it pretty clear that it would take more than one diagram. The interaction of forces on a prong collar is not a simple problem. It needs to be addressed with the more sophisticated mathematical modeling tools we have now, such as the finite element method.

Take-home message: One drawing can’t represent all the force scenarios on a prong collar. It’s a cheap deception. Trainers who use pain or discomfort to train or manage dogs need to own it. They need to stop making up stories about protecting the dog’s throat when instead they are painfully concentrating force into tiny areas.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

P.S. I am keeping comments closed for now. I have been working on this off and on for months and am tired of the whole thing.

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Clara’s Stand Disaster and Why She Still Hops

Clara’s Stand Disaster and Why She Still Hops

tan dog with black muzzle stands on all four feet on a mat
This calm stand happened during a time when we weren’t working on it, of course

I considered titling this post “Eileen’s Stand Disaster,” but I thought that might be too confusing. Clara was the one standing, but the disaster part was definitely on me.

Thousands of people worldwide have used Susan’ Garrett’s fun method for teaching the stand and gotten fabulous results. I wasn’t one of them, but I blame myself, not the method.

The method is to have the dog in heel position in a sit, and to use a hand target above the dog’s head to get them to leap into the air, hit the target with their nose, then land on four feet. It’s a fun, flashy behavior. But the activity got Clara over-aroused, and I didn’t know how to handle that.

When I casually mentioned on social media that Clara and I had bombed using Susan’ Garrett’s method, a group of angry fans came for me. But wait! I am a Susan Garrett fan, too! I took part in the very first Recaller’s Class, and that was probably the time I saw all three of my dogs at their happiest. I respect her work and have used lots of her methods, both in and out of agility settings.

My failure with that stand method was just that: my failure. Between Clara’s temperament and my weaknesses as a trainer, we had a wreck that kept on wrecking. Not every method works for every trainer’s skill level with every dog.

What Did the Disaster Look Like?

I messed around with the method for a couple of years, alternating between trying to make it work and trying to reteach stand another way. Here’s a video from that time. It’s pretty embarrassing, but things had been even worse earlier. You can see (and hear from my yelps) that Clara’s arousal level was a tremendous problem. I know better now how I helped ramp her up. I literally fed into it by feeding too rapidly and never adding duration. Shark creation.

And no, I don’t know why the half-squat position with her back legs crept into her stand!

I do kind of wish I had that “leapfrog” behavior at 0:05 on cue, but I know better than to work on it! Another thing to notice is at 0:50 when, after trying unsuccessfully multiple times to get her to stand with a forward hand target, I give up and say “OK.” That, unfortunately, became the verbal cue for the behavior. What to me was a release cue, to her meant “stand.” You’ll see it in subsequent videos.

Clara is not always ramped up. She can melt into a mat and relax, and has successfully relaxed through every session of Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol in several locations. But jumpiness became part of the stand sessions.

Susan says in her video: “Even a six-year-old can do it.” Sigh. But I couldn’t, not with this dog.

Teaching Stand Successfully with Previous Dogs

I taught standing on cue to two other dogs with no problems. I taught Summer while training for competitive obedience and rally. I believe I used targeting but forward, not high in the air as in Susan’s method. Later, I taught Zani an adorable kickback stand using Sue Ailsby’s clever luring method: you lure them backward so they don’t step forward. Stand was the first and maybe only behavior I taught Zani by luring with food. I had to persuade her to follow the lure, since we had done so much leave-it practice.

This video of Zani is from 2018, after her spinal cord concussion. She couldn’t do a tight sit because of the effects of the spinal cord injury on her right rear leg, but she could still do the kickback.

Thanks for indulging me. Yeah, I posted this video partly to calm my ego, but also, damn, Zani was so cute!

What Were the Problems with Teaching Clara to Stand?

Clara gets aroused when she moves. A common problem, but I had not experienced it with any dogs before Clara. For instance, when we practice loose leash walking—ouch! She gets excited and super chompy when she gets treats while in motion. So when I taught her to leap from a sit or down and touch my hand in the air, then jammed food in her face when she hit the ground, I got her all worked up.

I was trying to capture the stand before she moved, so I shoved the treat into her mouth reallyreallyfast. And, predictably, got shark behavior in return.

Also, when Clara got confused about what we were doing, she would land in a sit or a down and stay there. I responded by giving my release cue to get her to move. She would stand, and I would reinforce. So the release cue (“OK”) became the cue for stand. By the time I added a real cue (“Brace”), I had already accidentally but firmly taught her to listen for “OK.” And it was unhandy that Clara popped into a stand whenever I tried to release her from anything.

I kept starting over with the process, so I got no duration.

I had an over-aroused, grabby dog who would bounce around nervously whenever I tried to train stand. Whatever I did with my reinforcement mechanics left her manically continuing to try other behaviors.

How I Solved the Problems

Clara already knows how to stand, of course, as does any dog with typical mobility. She stands dozens of times every day, meaning she performs both the motion of standing up from a sit or down, and the duration behavior of standing around. Standing in everyday life doesn’t arouse her; I created the arousal in our training.

A few months ago, I started over one more time. I took a page from my previous training and looked up my video on capturing stands. I thought I had made the video with Zani, but there was Clara, in 2015, with a nice little start on a fairly calm kickback stand! LOL, that’s what can happen when you write lots of blog posts and make lots of videos over the years! I think I had done that before I got her all overwrought with the jumping and targeting method! In the video, you’ll see her roach her back a couple of times, but her rear legs are in a much better position than the ultra-squatty stuff reinforced during the Bad Times.

So this year, I copied the steps from my own video.

First, I captured quiet stands for a while (not the behavior of standing up, just standing). I changed the picture from the method that didn’t work for us and stopped using the heel position setup. After sessions of capturing, I set her up facing me and waited. She offered movement into a stand quickly (but not nervously!). I was careful not to feed too fast, and I added duration as soon as I could. (One of my tragic flaws as a trainer is neglecting duration.) And I used a new cue—a flicking hand signal. No more “Brace” or “OK.”

This video from April 2021 through today shows our progress. She was still crouching somewhat with her hind legs in April, but that is mostly gone now.

Reinforcement History: Ghosts of Behaviors Past

But my “sort-of “victory isn’t the point of this post. I did some decent problem-solving. I was very patient. I got back a pretty nice stand behavior that we can continue to work on. You’ll see it in our next trick training video as well. But the nervous behaviors I reinforced during the stand practice still pop up frequently in training sessions of all sorts.

Behaviors rarely diminish all the way to zero. Clara unfortunately has a big reinforcement history for the debacle-stand. Here are a few examples of the attendant behaviors reappearing. And at the end, she does a perfect stand from a down (in response to my release cue) while I turn my back to go turn off the camera!

The concept of reinforcement history comes straight from 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

The matching law quantifies the Law of Effect. The percentage of the time a behavior is reinforced will be reflected in how often the animal performs the behavior. So it’s a numbers game. If I stop reinforcing Clara for popping into a stand after I give the release cue (the last behavior in the above video), the stand will gradually decrease in that context. But the leapfrogging around in training sessions will be hard to eliminate because it got a ton of reinforcement in the past and gets chained into other behaviors I reinforce. You can see me reinforcing these chains throughout the video. The chain problem is not impossible to fix, but I need to sit down and think about whether I (with my own limitations) can carry out a plan without frustrating Clara, whether it’s worth it to try.

In the meantime, I’m pleased I am getting a semi-normal stand.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson


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

Tan dog with black muzzle and tail sits in "front" position and gazes up at a woman standing
Clara thinks “front” is a great game. Stay tuned for more tricks!

P.S. Although I didn’t categorize it that way, this post was born of the trick training we are working on. We aren’t through with tricks by a long shot!

Clara’s Tricks: Treat on Nose, Carpet Roll, & Paws in Box

Clara’s Tricks: Treat on Nose, Carpet Roll, & Paws in Box

Yes, Clara has a piece of kibble on her head

Clara and I are learning so much! Here is a quick trick update with a couple of videos.

Treat on the Nose Trick

We are taking the treat on the nose exercise nice and slow. I can now put a piece of flat kibble on the top of Clara’s head for a second or two. I’ll work up to an actual dog biscuit.

There are lots of aspects to the trick.

  1. There’s the Zen aspect: the dog can’t grab for the treat as you are putting it on her face. I’m stating the obvious, but most treats coming to a dog’s face are heading for their mouth, and trained dogs have a huge history of that.
  2. There’s the “something is on my face!” aspect.
  3. There’s the balance aspect, which means holding the head still. Clara knows various stays, but this has never been a criterion.
  4. There’s the duration aspect.

We are still working on #1 and #2. There’s not really balance involved with the kibble on the forehead. She just needs to stay moderately still, which is a good first step.

The kibble does often fall off when I release her, but that’s fine for now. I usually give it to her, so she’s getting bits of mozzarella cheese from my right hand and a kibble now and then from my left. No wonder she thinks this is a great game.

This nice flat kibble works for practicing this trick

Our leave it cue is “Pas.” (So when I say that, I’m not referring to her foot.) I love how she snaps into forward focus when I say that cue as I put the kibble on her head.

The most interesting thing to me is that she had a very hard time leaving the treat alone when I tried to put it on her head with my right hand. She could do it when I used my left. You can see both in the movie. There is something in her reinforcement history or the current environment that is causing that, but I’m not sure what. I thought at first that I use my right hand more commonly for a hand target and she was trying to target it. I know I have a “target hand” and a “Zen hand.” Bad Eileen. But I looked at last week’s video and I was using my left hand for targeting. So that probably wasn’t it.

Two training concepts I’m passionate about are reinforcement history and the matching law. Whatever your dog does reflects their reinforcement history. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out where a behavior or difficulty is coming from. I have a splendid example for the next post. But this right-hand business is still a mystery. One thing I know for sure: she’s not “being stubborn” or “blowing me off.” We all can see how into the game she is. When I use my right hand, it paints a different picture for her from when I use the left.

Treat on the nose is such a common trick, but I’ve never noticed how people teach it. I was never interested before. I’m interested in the trick now, and I’ve decided not to check into how other positive reinforcement-based trainers do it. I want to see what I come up with first. I think I can do this successfully in my own way and keep it fun. Mozzarella cheese is guaranteeing that Clara thinks it’s great. Watch her tail wag!

Roll out the Carpet Trick

This has gotten almost too easy. I switched to using the yoga mat because that length is required, but it often rolls out completely in one or two pushes. It’s easy money for Clara. We’re still practicing with the bathmat because even though it’s half the length, it’s more work to unroll. I’m not bothering with a video here. I just remembered that I have a couple of long bathmats and I’ll use one of those when we record the trick. Hopefully, it will take her more than one push to roll it out.

If you see this post on any other site besides Eileenanddogs and Teaching My Old Dog New Tricks, please know that these other sites are posting without permission. They are stealing my content. Please don’t support them.

Paws in a Box Trick

The joys of mat training! If you teach your dog to get on a mat, it becomes a target. Then you can put the mat anywhere to tell your dog that you want them to get there, even if it’s inside or on top of something else. Clara is one of those dogs who is so magnetized to her mat that I have to throw treats to distract her so she doesn’t try to get on it before it hits the ground!

I couldn’t find a cardboard box that was the right size, so we started with a shallow plastic box. We did two reps of just the mat, then a few reps with the mat inside the box. Then I slipped the mat out, and voilà, she got right into the box. Stationing at its best! What we recorded today would probably qualify for the trick, but I still plan to get her into a real cardboard box. How can she be an R+ dog if she’s never been in a box?

This series of posts is about teaching an old dog new tricks. But Clara doesn’t respond like an old dog. Even so, part of the challenge with teaching completely new things to an older dog is the matching law. Older dogs trained with positive reinforcement carry with them huge reinforcement histories for common behaviors over the years. Clara is mentally as sharp as ever, and she is fast. But getting out of ruts (that I put her in) can be a challenge. My next post will show some of the behaviors that keep popping up because of past training we have done together.

Related Posts

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Planning the Tricks for Our Novice Master’s Title

Planning the Tricks for Our Novice Master’s Title

This is not actually how you play the “Roll out the carpet” game

For Clara’s Novice Masters Trick Dog title through Do More With Your Dog, we need 15 more tricks to add to the 15 we’ve already done. I’ve picked an assortment. Some she already knows fluently, some we can resurrect from old training, and some are completely new. Likewise, my criteria will vary a bit. She can already do paws up on a wall; we’ll get it once and that’ll be enough. It’s something I’ll fade out as she gets older. But Peekaboo/center position, where she stands under me and pokes her head out between my legs, is something I want to get fluent and strong.

Trick Selection

Here’s the list of what we are going to work on, with commentary.

  • Balance beam (walk on an elevated plank). This should be straightforward. I have a sturdy agility teeter that she has actually walked while it moves. Walking a steady plank should be easy.
  • Balance cookie on nose. I’m thinking of this as a fun challenge. I hate the “leave-it” videos where dogs have treats all over them and look miserable. I realize this is just one treat on the nose, but it’s a new thing for Clara. I broke out the boiled chicken today. She may have only a dog biscuit on her face, but she’ll get chicken for her efforts. And we’ll break it off if I can’t make it enjoyable for her.
    Update: We’ve done one session of this. I used some flat, large kibble to start with instead of a dog biscuit. I aimed to start by putting the kibble on top of her head, but she thought that was too weird when I reached up there with food. Instead, I started by putting it on her front legs, using our “leave-it” cue. She got that right away. I paid with mozzarella cheese, which she seemed to think was a more than fair deal. Sometimes she got the kibble, too, if it fell off, which was OK with me. Toward the end, I switched to putting the kibble on the top of her head and she did fine with about five reps of that.
  • Crawl. We have worked on this before, but I find it a challenging behavior, so it might take us a while to meet criteria. (This image is from 3 1/2 years ago.)
  • Disc rollers. New behavior. I’ll need to get some rollable disks. The only ones I have are soft rubber and not suitable.
  • Doggy pushups (sit/down). This was an earlier failure. We are practicing. We’ve got this easily if I reinforce each position. But I want to build some confidence and extend the behavior to all six iterations on one treat if we can. I rarely ask for multiples, and I’d like to get her more used to the idea.
  • Focus. This is eye contact for six seconds. When we used to do the Training Levels, she got up to 20. Shouldn’t be too hard.
  • Front (go from heel position to sitting in front of me). This will be new for her, but with my rally and obedience background, I’m pretty clear on how to teach it. It looks like they allow the backward step, as in rally novice (AKC).
  • Memory game (indicate where a treat was placed under one of three containers). Should be fun.
  • Muffin tin game. Also fun. Hardly any criteria—remove items to get to the goodies.
  • Paws in a box. We’ve never done this, but she can do a tucked sit on a small elevated platform, so this shouldn’t be too hard.
  • Peekaboo/center position. I am excited about this one. I want her to get it very solid so I can cue her to do it on walks. So I will go slowly and work to keep my training clean. Like mat training, I want to reinforce strongly both getting into position and staying in position.
  • Platform jump (jump between two platforms of equal height). This is easy for her; I just need to get my two platforms the same height. I think I can take the height of the Klimb down to get it close to the Kato board.
We had one trial with the yoga mat. Video next time!
  • Roll out the carpet. We started this. It’s completely new for her, even though it’s such a baby trick. First, I put treats in a bath mat and let her at it. She was initially a little tentative and looking for instruction from me. But got the idea pretty soon that when she pushed with her nose, a treat appeared, whether it was one that was already in there or one I tossed. The challenge will be to get her to use her nose exclusively since she likes to use her feet.
  • Stand. We’ve been working on this on and off for years. I have to remember what I started using as my verbal and hand signal!
  • Target disk (nose touch to a disk). This will be simple if I hold it in my hand, more challenging if it’s on the floor (the rules give you a choice). I have taught her a paw touch to a disk on the floor and it’s actually on stimulus control. I don’t want to risk messing that up. In this case, I am going to take the easier route and hold the disk for the nose touch and let that be part of the cue. I rarely work on stimulus control and I don’t want to lose what we have with the paw touch. (To clarify: it’s perfectly possible to get both things, but I am running up against my own limitations. Plenty of these tricks will challenge us, so I don’t mind taking the easier way on this one.)
  • Target stick. We are working on the new stick. This is an easy and fluent behavior for her; I just need to get it transferred to the longer stick with the ball on the end.
One-year-old Clara checking out a stink bug
  • Wall stand (paws up on the wall). We’ve done this before. We’ll do a one-and-done.
  • Weenie bobbing. This is new for her, but she loves water and puts her head under naturally, so I don’t foresee a problem.
  • Which hand holds the treat? This will be new for us. Since closed hand is an old signal for “leave it,” this might get interesting.

You may notice that there are more than 15 here. I need a little insurance in case some don’t work out!

Head Cock: Already a Mega-Blooper

I’m also planning for some of the hard ones on the list (we aren’t stopping at 30 when there are 61 tricks on the list!). One of the novice tricks seems like it will be very difficult for Clara: cocking her head. Zani was the queen of this charming behavior, but I have never seen Clara do it in her whole life. I will try shaping it, but it will be tough.

I’m trying to do the planning and problem-solving myself in this project, but on this trick, I might need to bring in some reinforcements. Hmm, which trainer friend shall I hit up?

We had a practice session where I tested the waters about capturing/shaping head movement. I marked and treated for any kind of movement of the head in any direction. This seemed a safe enough thing to do for one session. Unbeknownst to non-observant me, something was going on with another part of her body. This movie first zooms in on her head, where you can see that I was doing a halfway decent job of marking head movement. Then it zooms out and you can see the other movement I was capturing. Oops.

We also had some amusing developments when I started using the yoga mat for the carpet roll, as you can see from the featured photo at the top. I’ll post some yoga mat footage next time since it’s cute.

Clara is enjoying this so much and that makes me very happy.

Related Post

Clara’s Notice Trick Title: 15 Tricks, 4 Informative Fails

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Clara’s Novice Trick Title: 15 Tricks, 4 Informative Fails

Clara’s Novice Trick Title: 15 Tricks, 4 Informative Fails

To keep us both on our toes, I am starting to teach 10-year-old Clara every trick I can get my hands on that is safe for her and that she enjoys. Going to grab some online titles on the way (these are judged via video). Titles are reinforcing to me and often the requirements jolt me out of my training ruts.

These posts will be both here on Eileenanddogs and on my new blog: Teaching My Old Dog New Tricks. For now, my plans are that it will be the same material. If you don’t want to have to search for these among all the different topics on this blog, go to the new one because the tricks posts will be the only ones on there. There’s also a little intro that also gives a little more background about why I embarked on this project.

We started with our novice trick title for Do More With Your Dog. For this first go-round, I picked things Clara already knew and could do fluently. Hey, I wanted a little immediate reinforcement! But also, I was honest about it. When it turned out I was wrong about the fluency and she struggled with puppy pushups and a new target stick, we saved those for later. I could have gotten the behaviors well enough to pass the criteria for the test, but passing at all costs is not my goal. I want to do some good training. I don’t have to have everything on verbal cue (thank goodness) or stimulus control, but I want a modicum of understanding of the behavior. And the failures (see below) are so instructive about the flaws in my training.

I do aim to get better cue recognition along the way. I’ll be working on duration (with myself—Clara does whatever I ask of her!) as well.

A large part of my motivation is that Clara needs more enrichment in her life. Throughout these 10 years, I’ve learned that playing training games is one of her very favorite things. So here we go with every trick I can get my hands on.

Here’s the first batch.

Clara is virtually always this happy when training. This video earned Clara her Novice Trick Dog title with Do More With Your Dog. Thank you to Kit Azevedo for judging our video.

Training Errors

So far, the behaviors are mostly kindergarten behaviors—it feels like a stretch to refer to them as tricks. But a couple of them took some skill. The things I thought we could do that we couldn’t are far more interesting! Here’s a list of the things you can see on the following “Informative Failures” video. I’ll discuss them below after the video.

1. I make her break her stay on a cot by saying her name in a way that resembles our recall cue.

2. I forget to release her from her cot, she stays 60 seconds, and I don’t notice or reinforce.

3. We fail puppy push-ups.

4. We fall apart when I use a new target stick

5. (Not on video.) I cue her to jump, she takes me literally, and jumps into the jump instead of over it.

The following video is not quite funny enough to qualify as a blooper video, although I found some things amusing. But then, I always laugh a lot when we work together.

Reasons for Errors

The reasons for the “errors” that Clara made (I’m using scare quotes because they are not really her errors) are so clear to me. They are due to matching law effects and reinforcement history, both schedules of reinforcement and patterning on my part.

1. Breaking her stay when I say her name. People warn against using a dog’s name as a recall cue, and this is the reason. But it’s not usually a problem for us. I use a special tone and inflection for her recall cue (you hear it later in the video). It’s different from my normal way of speaking to her, but when she was staying on her cot, I inflected her name just enough to make her come to me. My bad.

2. Staying on her cot because I forget to release her. This isn’t a mistake at all, it’s a lovely success, except it would have been nice of me to reinforce her after that great stay while I was walking all around and setting things up. But no, I jumped right into cueing the next behavior.

3. Puppy push-ups. Here’s where it starts to get interesting. The puppy pushups chain consists of repeating the behaviors of sit, down, sit, down, sit, down, on cue. What half-way trained dog can’t do this? Answer: a dog whose trainer has been emphasizing stand on and off for the past two years and tends to ask her for a pattern of sit, down, sit, stand. My pattern overruled her recognition of the verbal cues. Not to mention that I usually reinforce 1:1 and I was asking for six without working up to it. Doh!

We could have pushed through this on the spot and gotten the requisite number of correct repetitions, but I’m choosing to go back and do some remedial work. I worked hard for that stand, but I don’t want it to overrule another behavior I ask for! And getting the verbal cues for sit, down, and stand distinct seems like a great idea!

One of these things is not like the others

4. The new target stick and “three-fers.” Clara has a strong nose-targeting behavior. She can target my hand, my foot, a target stick, a piece of tape on a wall, a cabinet or door. So what happened here? The first problem was reinforcement history. We have been practicing a directed retrieve for months now, so putting her mouth on something is right at the top of her “behaviors to offer” list. The second problem was that the target stick was much longer than the two others I usually use, so the visuals were wrong. The end was much farther from my hand. You can see her repeatedly targeting the place on the long stick that corresponds to the length of the sticks she is used to. Also, the end of the target stick was a round object that must look delectable to a dog who loves balls. But that doesn’t account for most of the errors. If those had been the only problems, we would have gotten 70–90% correct touches within a few minutes.

My biggest mistake was to start asking for three-fers. I’m stealing Sue Ailsby’s term of “two-fers,” that is, to ask for two reps of a behavior before marking and reinforcing. We’ve done plenty of that along with higher numbers of reps as well. The trick requirements for the video asked for three nose targets in different positions, so I absentmindedly started asking for them as a chain. <Insert record scratch sound effect.> Clara’s success rate because of the other problems was already too low. When I started asking for three touches for one reinforcer, i.e., not marking and reinforcing the first two, I put the targeting behavior on extinction. It wasn’t paying off, so she started trying a bunch of other stuff. This is a classic side effect of extinction: getting more variety in the behavior. It’s a side effect we sometimes gently and carefully use in shaping. But here it must have been frustrating. She couldn’t figure out the game we were playing because I changed too many variables. She’s such a good sport.

You can see in the video that there are three clean touches in a row at least once. But that was not representative of our performance, which had a low percentage of right responses for this simple behavior. So I’m going back to the drawing board on this one, just like puppy pushups.

5. Bar jump. This is not on the video, because some mistakes are too awful even for me to show. Even though Summer and Zani were titled agility dogs, the cue “jump” to them was background chatter. To them, the cue was being pointed toward an actual jump combined with my body language. But Clara learned the verbal cue “jump” back when we were working on the Training Levels. I use it occasionally, cueing her to jump over a narrow flower bed in front of the house when on leash.

So I forgot which dog I had. I lined Clara up before the bar jump, cued “Jump” and she jumped right where she was, doing exactly as I asked, and landed on the jump. This was especially bad because it’s a homemade jump with bars that don’t come off. She could have broken a leg by catching it between the two horizontal bars. She didn’t do that, and she didn’t injure herself in any way. But that horrifying scare was punishing for me. I don’t think I’ll get mixed up about that again.

It’s ironic that I am weak at teaching verbal cues, but I somehow taught a good one for “jump.”

Final Words

One of the reasons I’m writing up these details is that there are still people, many many people, who blame errors on the dog. That is like a different world to me now. How can I unlearn what I have learned about reinforcement history and the matching law? When I see Clara’s “mistakes,” I am looking at a map of my own training habits and flaws. Look at Clara in the videos. She wants to perform behaviors for food and fun. Her attention is riveted on me. She is eager. There is no reason on earth she would deliberately make a mistake, as some people claim their dogs are doing when being “disobedient.”

She is obedient to the laws of learning, as we all are. And the most important thing is that she loves these games, even with my warty training. As I improve my skills, she’ll enjoy this activity even more.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

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

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

bright colored fabric dog collar with plastic snap

Plastic collar clicks are loud! And we often snap them right next to our dogs’ ears. I realized I habitually dampen the sound with my hands; this practice undoubtedly came from my experiences with little Zani, who was clinically sound phobic. During bad periods, she would startle at any kind of sudden noise.

I imagine I’m by far not the only one who does this. But in case there are dog owners who haven’t worked this out, here’s a kind thing you can do for your dogs. If you use collars or harnesses with plastic snap buckles, you can use your hands to damp the sound of the click when you snap the collar closed.

I wanted to know just how loud the snap might be and how much quieter I could get it. I ran a seat-of-the-pants experiment with a good mic and a sound analysis app. The click was about 83 decibels at its peak frequency, undamped. (That’s just one measurement; the intensity of the sound will vary with the type of collar, the flexibility of the plastic, the distance from the ear, and many other factors.) Eighty-three dB is not normally in the painful range for humans (or likely dogs), but since the snap is an impulse noise, it can be shocking to the ears at that level. One study with rats showed that a sudden sound can evoke the startle response if it is between 80–90 dB (Ladd et al, 2000). Bingo.

If you hold a plastic buckle three inches from your ear and snap it together, you will feel an uncomfortable sudden blast of sound pressure in your ear. I’m guessing it doesn’t feel great to dogs, either.

This plot represents that sound. It has frequency on the x-axis and sound pressure level (roughly the same as volume) on the y-axis. More about the plots at the end of the post.

Sound pressure level graph with frequency on the x axis showing the SPL of the peak of the collar noise at 83.2 dB
83 dB—and note the sharp peak

How to Dampen the Sound and How Much That Can Help

Many of you have probably figured out, either analytically or subconsciously, to hold the pieces of the buckle a certain way to reduce that loud click.

But I bet you haven’t seen how much it helps if you dampen the snap with your hands.

If you simply press the two parts of the snap collar together, they click loudly.

plastic dog collar snap about to be clicked
Loud click (83 dB) is about to happen

But if you use your fingers to dampen the sound, you can lower the intensity substantially. Not all collars have the same design, but I got an optimal reduction of the sound when I fit my fingers into the curves of the receptacle as shown in the next image. I not only damped the vibrations; I could slow the progress of the plastic prongs. I was able to ease them over the internal part that makes them snap (you can see that in the movie). You can also get a decent reduction in the sound if you hold the flat parts or put your whole fist around that side of the buckle, but though it will be quieter, the snap will still be sharp.

Fingers pressing on the receptacle portion of a plastic collar buckle so as to dampen the sound
Nice quiet click: 54 dB

The damped click is about 54 dB, 29 dB lower.

Sound pressure level graph with frequency on the x axis showing the SPL of the peak of the collar noise at 54.2 dB
54 dB and no sharp peak; this is a thud, not a click

In the weird world of logarithmic scales, that translates to the loud click being almost 1,000 times louder than the damped one. See the note at the bottom of the post if you are interested in more detail about the math behind these diagrams.

Here’s a quick video showing how I optimally damped the click of the collar.

Be careful with damping, though. I did pinch my thumb once and got a blood blister.

Woman's hand with closeup of small blood blister on thumb

Some people with sensitive dogs avoid snappy collars and harnesses entirely. I find them handy enough that I do use them but take care to keep my dogs’ ears (even my non-sensitive dog) from being clobbered by the sound. I hope the points in this post weren’t painfully obvious to every dog guardian already.

What things do you do to improve your dog’s sound environment?

Related Posts

Sciencey Addendum

The diagrams I use above to show the comparative sound pressure levels in decibels (dB) are in the form of a Fast Fourier Transform. (Believe it or not, the previous link is one of the more understandable explanations of the FFT.) What the FFT does is transform a signal, in this case a sound, from the time domain to the frequency domain. In these diagrams, the FFT is showing the sound pressure level (roughly speaking, the volume) at its different component frequencies. There are at least three interesting things about the diagrams.

First, you can “see” that the undamped click is much sharper. Check out the sharp peak on the plot. That’s a click. The damped sound is more like a thud. It’s quieter but also spread out farther over a range of frequencies. That makes the sound less startling.

Second, the sound pressure level stays high in the frequencies above the peak in the undamped version. The overtones and other contributing high frequencies are free to do their loud thing. You can see in the damped version that I pretty much killed those higher frequencies with my fingers. What nice news for dogs, who hear these high frequencies better than we do.

Third, those two other “humps” to the left of the peak frequency in the damped diagram are interesting! But I can’t explain them, except that I changed the contour of the sound by slowing down the plastic prongs as they passed over the internal clasp. But I’d like to know more about what’s going on. It’s possible the lowest hump is now the fundamental frequency. I’ll do it again one of these days and check out the center frequencies of the other humps and see if I learn anything interesting.


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

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Whip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Did I Think about It?

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

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

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

Spray Bottles

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

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

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

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

It would have been easy to eliminate, decrease, or prevent my cat from getting on the table to begin with. I could have used management and positive reinforcement. I could have provided him with several elevated beds and perches. And I could have taught him to target my hand or a target stick so I could move him off the table using positive reinforcement. I did not know of those options then.

Is Avoidance Better than Escape?

Most dogs will work to escape or avoid body pressure

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

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

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

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

How to Tell When Avoidance Is Involved

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

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

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

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

Things That Can Work through Avoidance

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


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

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

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

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

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

Avoidance Doesn’t Earn You a Pass

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

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

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