This success got me thinking. I was able to take her into a completely new environment (the vet specialty practice) without graduated exposures. We just started going there for appointments. And although she was nervous at times, I felt like the experience was a positive one. She was more comfortable each time we went, which is pretty amazing without any deliberate desensitization.
What I thought: Maybe she’s ready to go to my office!
Clara, the newest office dog–a bit concerned but glad to be there
Dogs at the Office
It was a good move on my part to have two of Clara’s favorite balls waiting for her at the office
I have the good fortune to be able to bring a dog to my office whenever I want. I work in a two-person office in a small, quiet four-storey building. Having the office available for my dog friends has not only been enriching for them and pleasant for me–it has been very handy. When I had construction at my house for more than a week, Summer and Zani “went to work” with my office partner. This left me with only Clara to help through the chaos at home. And as I described in my book, going to the office provided Cricket with gentle enrichment even when she had advanced dementia. It also let me keep an eye on her.
I’ve long wished Clara could go to the office. A few times over the years I have taken her to the parking lot and to the lobby door for quick trips with counterconditioning. But I had a hard time keeping her under the threshold of fear so I hadn’t tried lately. Plus, there was what seemed like a difficult problem. An elevator. My office is on the fourth floor. And before you say stairs–they are dark and echoing and probably as scary as an elevator to a dog who’s never been exposed to either of them.
I knew if I could just get Clara up to the office, she could get happy and comfortable there. Her comfort at the vet was what prompted me to try taking her to the office with Zani. And it worked out great. When the elevator doors opened, she just walked in with me. I kept her clear of the doors and she watched them close with interest. She calmly rode up and was excited to see the fourth floor. Whew! 1)This was a calculated risk. Failure would have meant flooding and scaring my dog and setting her back. So I’m not advocating for others to “just try stuff.” Keep in mind that we have been working up to this for six years.
Leaving her back legs in another county is a sign that Clara a bit anxious
You’ve probably noticed that Clara looks a little stressed in the photos. Yes she is. She has her characteristic wrinkled brow that usually indicates some worry. But that’s a bad as it got. She wasn’t very nervous. She handled it far better than I expected for a first visit. She explored, she played, she solicited attention from my work partner, and she got plenty of treats.
She was most worried when she heard people in the hall. (You can see her lie down and look at me one time in the movie below. That is a trained default behavior for worrisome stimuli.) I expect as she gets some more experience at the office her worries will dwindle.
The “Social” in Socialization
Zani is probably thinking, “This used to be my private hideaway. And those are my toys.”
This was such a joyful experience for me. It makes me so happy to see Clara coping and happy as her world expands. I have long believed that if she hadn’t had such a problematic start to life, she would be a friendly, extroverted dog. Clara is curious. She loves new things and new places, and she is affectionate with the people in her small circle. She likes fun, commotion, and group activities. I can’t even express how happy it makes me to see her world grow and see her grow closer to the dog she was meant to be.
This was a calculated risk. Failure would have meant flooding and scaring my dog and setting her back. So I’m not advocating for others to “just try stuff.” Keep in mind that we have been working up to this for six years.
Changing a habit often takes longer than we think. Habits, AKA reinforced behaviors, die hard.
Here’s what happened when I changed the location of my dogs’ eating areas for the first time in about five years.
Background: Mat Training
Like lots of trainers, I teach my dogs to station on mats. I have rubber-backed bathmats at strategic places around my house. When a new dog comes in, I immediately reinforce her for getting on a mat, and then for staying there. Puppy Clara was already getting on mats in her first hour at my house. The photo below is from her second day.
Baby Clara learned quickly about mats
But I have written before that I am not great about training stimulus control and I am lazy about criteria. I forget whether I have cued things or not. For instance, if I verbally cue my dogs to get on their mats, they are supposed to stay there until released. I pay them well for this behavior. But they also “offer” mat behavior frequently. One will get on a mat, and since this is virtually always a desirable behavior, I will toss her something. Five minutes after a dog gets on a mat I can’t always tell you whether I cued it or not. So if she wanders off, there is no consequence. Ahem.
Our usual mealtime procedure is that my dogs get on their mats in the kitchen and wait while I prepare their meals.
Zani, Clara, and Summer on mats waiting for supper
Then when the meals are ready (food toys loaded), I release the dogs and take the meals to three different places in the house so everyone can eat without interruption or worry. When Summer was still in this world, she ate in the front room. Clara has always eaten in the den. And Zani has always eaten right there in the kitchen a few feet from her mat.
What happened first is that Zani started leaving her mat before I was finished with the process of loading food toys and would start wandering around the kitchen. This drove me nuts, though I did grasp that it was likely my fault. In the earlier post, I attributed it to the attractiveness of sniffing in the kitchen, and that I hadn’t reinforced her strongly enough for staying put. True, but that was only part of the story.
I didn’t figure the whole thing out until Clara started releasing herself as well. Did Clara wander farther into the kitchen? No! She trotted away from me, into the den. This bothered me a bit, but I didn’t intervene. My thinking was that at least she wasn’t coming farther into the kitchen, so I didn’t mind if she went into another room. (Sloppy trainer!)
Are you getting the picture? I kid you not: after that, Summer started breaking her mat stay as well. But she headed for the front room.
I finally got it. Zani wasn’t leaving her mat just to sniff for crumbs. She was leaving her mat in anticipation of where the big reinforcement was going to happen. She ate her meals in the kitchen, so she was going to that location. Likewise, Clara and Summer were going to wait where their meals would appear.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize this. We tend not to think of meals as reinforcement for a behavior. (At our peril!) I was thinking solely of the treats I gave the dogs on the mats as reinforcing mat behavior. And kind of vaguely thinking of their meal as a final reinforcer for that behavior. However, what was the meal reinforcing even more strongly? Leaving the mat to go to the usual eating area. (If that isn’t a good argument for treating richly in position, I don’t know what is!)
Changing Locations and Reinforcement History
But then I changed things up on Zani and Clara. In mid-October of this year, Zani had a spell of intervertebral disc disease. As she was recovering from her painful condition, it was not appropriate for her to be eating out of her usual food toys (either a Kong Wobbler or the saucer-shaped Nina Ottosson dog treat maze). Too much movement. But I didn’t want to switch to a plain bowl because my dogs don’t think they have eaten when they have a meal out of a bowl. I settled for the snuffle mat. I wanted to make it easy and comfortable by elevating it. The perfect place was the den, where there are some steps. So I switched Zani to the den. And to prevent traffic jams, I moved Clara all the way to the front room.
I elevated the snuffle mat for Zani because of her sore back
So here is the question: How long did it take Clara and Zani to learn their new meal locations? When did they start running to the new spots (after breaking their stays)?
After 30 meals (15 days) of eating in the new location, Clara was still going to her old location while I finished preparing her meal. But she was going more slowly and tentatively. And when I walked into the other room with her food toy I didn’t have to call her as I had for the first week or so. She was watching and would come running as soon as she saw me head that way.
So her behavior was in the process of changing, but she had not adapted to the new location. That sounds like a lot—30 meals in the new room and she was still going to the old room! But compare it to the number of times she had eaten in there. My rough estimate is that she had eaten more than 3,650 meals in the den. So she had had less than 1% of that number in her new location. Thirty meals don’t sound like so many anymore.
Zani’s behavior was similar. She had not yet switched to her new location, although she followed me there more readily than she had when we first started.
Remember the light switch!
This behavior on both of their parts reminded me for the hundredth time that behaviors with a reinforcement history stick around. If your power goes out, how many times do you still flip the light switch when you go into another room? Lots, right? I think the longest my power has ever been out was four days, and my habit of flipping switches was still strong on Day 4. I would be slightly surprised when nothing happened. “Oh yeah! That doesn’t work anymore!”
So when your dog has had a behavior that worked for him for his whole life, keep habits and reinforcement history in mind. If the dog continues to perform the old behavior now and then, even though you have trained something new, he is not “blowing you off.” He likely has a long-term habit to change. Remember Clara and how she continued an unreinforced behavior twice a day for two weeks.
There was another joke on me. After starting this post, I decided to film Clara still running to her “old” eating location so I could do a before and after video when she finally changed over. However, when I put up a camera, dammit if she didn’t stay on the mat and wait for a cue. For the first time in a couple of years, she stayed on her mat without releasing herself. I knew putting up a camera tended to change my dogs’ behavior, but I hadn’t realized how much!
In the movie, you can hear me release her with “OK!” or a comment about supper EIGHT times. She doesn’t budge until she sees which way I’m headed with her food. (Speaking of stimulus control: my dogs are not required to move when I give a release cue. Some people teach it that way but I haven’t yet in my training life. So although Clara’s behavior was extremely unusual under the circumstances, she wasn’t technically failing to respond to a cue.) She stayed stock still every time I had the camera out and was filming. When I stopped bringing out the camera, she reverted to running to her old eating area. Stinker.
I’m reading this great book called The Death of Expertise. It has helped me think more clearly about my role as a dog blogger. It’s a fabulous book that I will write a review of a bit later. But here’s one piece of my response to it.
I am not an expert dog trainer. The people who are experts have specific training and education in that and are out there training a variety of dogs. They train a wider variety of dogs in a week than I have in my whole training life. Most of them have credentials and all of them seek and value ongoing education in their field.
I am also not an expert in learning theory. You find those among the PhDs in applied behavior analysis and psychology, and the credentialed behavior analysts.
What I am is a decent writer with experience and a passion for writing about some complex subjects for lay audiences, or at least audiences who are “lay” with regard to that subject. I’m a translator.
I’ve had a post in the works for a long time about the difference between professional trainers and me, but it seems, I dunno, a bit egocentric. I think I’ll skip the details for now. I just need to do my job and stay within my areas of expertise, conveying information from true experts. And to make it clear when I am speaking only for myself.
So I don’t think I need to go on and on about it to you readers out there. How about a humorous example instead? One where I almost blew it. For some of you, this may include a useful tip. Others can just have a little laugh.
Pipe Insulation Under the Couch To Catch Toys and Treats
I mostly avoid writing about tips and tricks, since it’s only one small step from there to what my friend Debbie calls, “Throwing sh*t against the wall”-style dog training. You know, seeing problem behaviors as solvable with “one weird trick.” I trust and support trainers who seek to understand the science and apply it consistently and systematically, and generally not those who have a set of tricks, a pat answer, or a protocol.
But tips and tricks can have their place in setups and infrastructure, and I ran across a tip that worked really well for me. I thought it was genius. I came across it on a “mom” board on Pinterest, and immediately saw the implications for the R+ animal training household. I thought it would be safe to share. Moms and dog owners can definitely use some of the same management tools!
The tip is that you can buy foam pipe insulation, which comes in various sizes, and stick it strategically under your furniture to prevent treats and toys from rolling underneath. Like in this photo.
Foam pipe insulation running along the underside edge of the couch
The insulation is squishy, so if you get the right size you can squish it into place and it will expand to fill all the gaps. You can find it at most any home improvement type store in the U.S., and hopefully other countries.
I did this a couple of years ago. I lined the edges of the underside of my couch, and those of my piano. Both of these are prime areas for treats to roll, and in the case of the piano, there is a cadre of ants that hangs out under the house right there. They’re just waiting to come out from under the floor for something like kibble to chew on.
I used halved pieces of the insulation under the piano.
It worked fabulously well for the couch with 100% efficacy. Somewhat less so on the piano since treats still went behind it at times, but I’m sure handier people than I could figure that one out, too.
Is the Tip Really Safe To Share?
So my friend has a Chihuahua mix who was about a year old at the time I learned the pipe insulation trick. The pup would get under her couch and chew on the lining. I had just installed the pipe insulation under my furniture, so that was fresh in my mind. I thought, “Hey, why don’t we put the pipe insulation under her couch the same way to keep the pup from chewing on the lining?”
<<Here I pause while every professional dog trainer laughs and laughs. So do lots of the amateurs.>>
We cut the insulation and installed it under her couch. The pup was delighted! We all learned that pipe insulation shreds even better than the cloth underside of the couch. And if you work on it hard enough, you can pull it out from under the couch and drag it around!
If I had trained more than one puppy in my life, I would have anticipated that, at least as a strong likelihood. My gosh, the problem was that she was chewing on stuff under the couch in the first place! How could I possibly think that pipe insulation would become a magic barrier? We would have needed something more like an iron bar! This issue didn’t even really require expertise, just a bit of experience that I didn’t have.
We can laugh, but it’s not a stretch to realize that that tip could even be dangerous. The pipe stuff rips off in chunks and it’s more than likely that a pup could swallow some. And it would be a very bad thing to swallow.
That’s the problem with tips and tricks.
So now that I have shared the tip, here’s my warning:
Don’t put pipe insulation under your furniture if there is a chance your dogs will chew it. And don’t assume you can put it far enough under the furniture that you can reach it but the dogs can’t. Just don’t assume that.
Clara is such a chewer that I have no idea why she didn’t go for the pipe insulation when I installed it at my house. But she never did. I could say that gave me a false sense of security. But the truth is that I didn’t think it through. I just saw a tip, it worked for me, and I figured it would work for my friend with a puppy.
We could do with a lot less of that type of assuming on the Internet and in the world.
When something works for us (and sometimes even when it doesn’t) we tend to develop a bias towards it. It’s my job as a writer to think beyond my own situation to the wider world where my writing is shared. So when I say I ‘m not a pro trainer, it’s not some kind of false humility. I’m really not. And it’s my job to keep that in mind when I am thinking of sharing any kind of information.
Stares of expectation from Clara and Zani. Note Clara’s tail wag.
The other day I was sitting in my bedroom with Clara and Zani and the doorbell rang. And there was dead silence.
This pierced my heart. If you follow the blog, you know that I lost my dear dog Summer suddenly in August. She was wonderful beyond compare. She also barked reactively at delivery trucks, the mail carrier, anyone but me on the porch, and the doorbell. So for me, this silence was one of those dozens of daily moments where my heart ached. There was a hole where my dog used to be.
But I was also in the here and now. I couldn’t help noticing that when the doorbell rang, something else did happen. Clara and Zani’s heads both swiveled in my direction and they both fixed me with their gaze. Why?
Classically Conditioning Another Dog Barking
Summer about to bark.
Here’s a hint. Those who have followed the blog for a really long time may remember something else. I classically conditioned Clara to have a positive emotional response to Summer barking.
I’ve always been proud of this bit of training. It worked out with no downside. I didn’t want Clara to “catch” Summer’s reactive barking, so I gave Clara her favorite treat whenever Summer barked. I was very consistent and it worked, even to the point that Clara drooled when Summer barked. That demonstrated the actual respondent behavior: the body preparing for food. Then she ran to me for her treat. You can read about the details in the following posts. But please come back, because the plot thickens.
OK, back to the two dogs staring at me in the silence after the doorbell rang.
Higher order conditioning: A form of classical conditioning in which a conditioned stimulus CS1 is first paired with an unconditioned stimulus, in the usual way, until CS1 elicits a conditioned response, then a new conditioned stimulus CS2 is paired with CS1, without the unconditioned stimulus, until CS2 elicits the original conditioned response.–Oxford Reference
So in plain English, you condition a response to a previously neutral stimulus. Then you use that stimulus, in turn, to condition another previously neutral stimulus. Pavlov and his buddies did some of this, using lights and sounds as first and second stimuli. For instance, they conditioned a light turning on to predict food. Then they used a buzzer to predict the light. They used his ghoulish apparatus to collect saliva from the dogs. They found that the buzzer came to make the dogs drool even when there was no food at the end of the sequence (until the association started to break down).
This is called second-order conditioning. The umbrella term is higher-order conditioning since there can be more than two “layers.” Exactly how many can pile up is determined by many factors and still being studied.
Higher-order conditioning also happens with fear-inducing stimuli, by the way. Does it ever! We are more used to it, I think. My friend Debbie Jacobs of Fearful Dogs puts it this way:
[thinking about higher-order conditioning] could get us aware of why our dogs might not want to go certain places or be around certain things, even if those themselves were not the source of fear or distress. I use the example of hearing screeching tires or smelling burning rubber after being in an accident and the adrenalin dump they can produce, even though it was the windshield that your head made contact with that was the source of injury.
Another example is what happens when we go to a scary movie. Do we sit there, calm and relaxed, until the monster jumps out and scares the crap out of us? Most of us don’t. Any director worth his salt has been loading in conditioned stimuli that have been previously associated with scary stuff happening. The squeaking hinge, the power going off, birds suddenly going silent, even certain types of camera work. We aren’t born being afraid of those things. But our very physiologies have learned what they mean in the movie theater. And predictable precursors of scary or painful things can initiate physical fear responses in our dogs as well.
My Example at Home
So what happened over the years at my house with barking and doorbells?
For Clara: The food conditioned Summer’s bark. In turn, I believe Summer’s bark conditioned the doorbell. Doorbell -> Barking -> Preparation for food. And when the barking fell out of the picture, we witnessed second-order conditioning. Doorbell -> Preparation for food.
I mention in the previous posts that Clara actually drooled and smacked her lips at the sound of Summer barking. The other day when the doorbell rang, I didn’t see any drooling. But I got the perked-up reorientation that often signifies a conditioned response.
I can’t prove that I got higher-order conditioning with Clara. But I’ll note that there is a lot of research that indicates that if two stimuli are perceived by the same sense, it’s easier to get higher order conditioning 1)Barry Schwartz, E. A. Wasserman, and S. J. Robbins. (2002). 5th ed. Psychology Of Learning And Behavior. p. 63 Barking and the ring of a doorbell are both auditory stimuli. The research indicates that they would be easier to pair than, say, barking and a light turning on or barking and a smell.
For Zani: I also got a reorientation and a stare from Zani, but I am going to argue that the process for her was different. I did not classically condition Zani to Summer’s barking. She lived with Summer for two years before Clara came along. Over those years she heard plenty of barking that was not paired with food. I started systematically pairing Summer’s barking with food for Clara as soon as Clara arrived. When doing that, I didn’t do the same for Zani, not systematically anyway. But Zani is keen to notice opportunities for food. She started to show up in these situations, so I gave her a treat. So through observation and perhaps some social learning, Zani learned that when Summer barked, she could run to me and get food. So I believe Zani’s response was primarily operant. Summer’s barking was a cue that running or reorienting to me would be reinforced.
These two types of responses are intertwined. Cues acquire an element of classical conditioning. Respondent behaviors such as the body preparing for food are quickly followed by operant behaviors to get to the food. So I’m not going to argue that Clara’s response was 100% higher-order classical conditioning, nor that Zani’s was 100% operant. But I think those are the main processes that happened.
The Next Puzzle To Solve
Whenever I leave the house, I put the dogs in their respective parts of the house first. Zani in the den. Summer, when she was still with me, in the front room. Clara in the bedroom. Then I would give them each a cookie that I got out of a particular bag in a particular cabinet. You can see Clara’s response in this video.
Clara’s digestive system is expecting a goodie
In the video, she was in the kitchen watching me. You can see that she didn’t respond when I opened the cabinet and got out something else. She sure did when I reached for the cookies on the correct shelf, though.
Nowadays she doesn’t see any of this because she is waiting back in the bedroom. She listens intently to the auditory evidence of the progress towards her cookie. By the time I arrive back in the bedroom to give her her cookie, she is doing some serious drooling. I have been trying to stealth video her to see when the drooling starts. My “deliver the cookie” behavior chain is something like: open the cabinet, open the package of cookies, break apart a cookie, put away the cookies, toss Zani’s cookie onto the daybed in the den and tell her to go get it, shut the kitchen door, walk down the hall, and give Clara her cookie. By the time I get there, she sometimes has serious strings of drool hanging down. The question: how far back in my process did the drooling start? Her cookie is a sure thing by the time I walk down the hall with it. How much earlier does her body “believe” it’s coming? Do we have higher order conditioning in this case as well? Or does she start drooling when I open the package in the other room and keep on drooling through my other activities?
I’ll keep trying to figure it out and let you know! Do you see examples of higher order conditioning–either appetitive or aversive–with your dogs?
A lot of dog training advice you get on the Internet won’t help.
Pretty strange comment coming from a dog blogger who frequently writes about training, right? But even if people recommend a humane, positive reinforcement-based approach, something is missing that can’t be done in a typical online discussion. That’s the functional assessment.
A functional assessment, or functional behavioral assessment, is a method from the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA). It consists of identifying the functions of a problem behavior through observation and analysis, then making a plan to decrease that behavior and enable a more appropriate one.
Here’s a definition from the textbook that is arguably the “bible” of ABA:
Functional behavior assessment: A systematic method of assessment for obtaining information about the purposes (functions) a problem behavior serves for a person; results are used to guide the design of an intervention for decreasing the problem behavior and increasing appropriate behavior. — Applied Behavior Analysis, Cooper, Heron, & Heward. Second Edition, 2014.
Board Certified Behavior Analysts perform functional assessments of human behavior. Knowledgeable animal trainers, including dog trainers, do functional assessments when dealing with problem animal behaviors. (BCBAs also do something called functional analysis, which is not as common in animal training and I’m not going to cover it here.)
In most countries, anyone can hang out a shingle and call herself a dog trainer. The public needs tools to distinguish between the pain-based trainers, the charlatans, the wannabes, the well-intentioned—and the knowledgeable and ethical dog trainers. To that end, some of us online have created resources to assess professional dog trainers. I have links to some others at the end of this post.
One way to tell is that any knowledgeable and ethical dog trainer will perform a functional assessment before intervening in a dog’s behavior. They may not call it by that name, and they may or may not use scientific terminology when discussing it with you. If they do use scientific terminology, they will define it and won’t just start throwing it at you.
This post will teach you to recognize the process of a functional assessment and thereby help you know whether you have an informed trainer advising you.
Start with the Behavior
A knowledgeable trainer needs to know what the problem behavior is, what prompts it, and what it accomplishes. The first thing a qualified trainer will usually ask you about is the behavior itself. All other questions are pointless unless she has a really good description of the behavior. Not in vague terms like, “The dog is acting dominant,” or “I think he’s being protective.” Those are interpretations, not observations. The trainer will ask you in detail about exactly what the dog is doing. She needs to be able to visualize the behavior from your description.
The questions in this section and following are typical of what a trainer may ask. A trainer may not ask all of them, since some may not apply to your situation. They are a sampling of what type of questions to expect. And remember: you can ask the trainer questions, too! A good trainer will take the time to clarify whatever you ask about.
If you say your dog pulls on leash, she may ask how hard and in what directions. Does he forge ahead or lag behind? What does the behavior look like? What does it feel like to be on the other end of the leash? Does the dog vocalize? What else is the dog doing while pulling? Is there a way to measure anything about the behavior? What do you observe about the dog’s body language? Tail carriage? Vigilance? She will probably ask you questions to determine whether the dog is scared or not. Does he seem to be trying to get to something or away from something?
She’ll likely ask you where and under what circumstances the dog pulls. How often does it happen? She may what kind of gear you use. Does he do it when different people walk him? What happens just before the walk? How do you start off the walk? What time of day is it? What is in the environment when you walk? Who and what else is out there? These are questions about antecedents: what sets the stage for the behavior?
For instance, a doorbell ringing might be an antecedent to your dog barking wildly at the door. A fire hydrant in sight might be an antecedent to your dog’s pulling harder on-leash. The trainer needs to know, in detail, what is setting the stage for the dog’s behavior.
Then come the questions about consequences. She’ll try to determine whether the dog is pulling towards a goal. She may ask you what he does if you just “give him his head.” She’ll likely ask what you have tried to modify the behavior. She may create a way to measure the frequency or intensity of the behavior and ask you to track it or make estimates.
The trainer wants to know what the dog is getting from performing the behavior. She must know the consequences before she can create a plan to change the behavior. Humane trainers will either help you train the dog another way to get those consequences, or set up other consequences the dog enjoys (aka positive reinforcement) to take the place of the ones she is seeking on her own.
The Big Picture
The trainer will also probably ask you the backstory, even if you have already filled out paperwork. She’ll ask about the dog’s history with you and what you know of his history before you had him. Depending on the behavior you contacted her about, she may ask questions about the dog’s medical history. The leash example is not a good one for this, but what if your dog has started to refuse to jump in the car to go on a trip? Or has suddenly stopped playing with his favorite buddy, or growls when you reach out to pet him? Trainers are not veterinarians, but because medical problems are at the root of some behavior problems, their first recommendation to you may be that you take the dog to a vet.
The trainer’s goal is to get the best picture possible of the problem behavior and the circumstances surrounding it.
In some cases, she will ask to see it, but be aware that sometimes she won’t. If it’s something like leash pulling she may want to observe it and test the dog herself. But if you have called her because your dog growled at your child, she definitely won’t. If it’s a dangerous behavior or if you have to scare your dog to prompt it, she will not want a demonstration. But she will want to observe your dog in other situations and interact with him in order to gather more information about his general behavior. If there are safe ways for her to check aspects of the problem behavior by handling him herself and make direct observations, she may do so.
What a Difference a Functional Assessment Makes
Dogs pull on leash for different reasons. So let’s consider four leash pulling dogs. A functional assessment might illuminate the following.
Dog A pulls wildly in the direction of home and appears scared.
Dog B pulls constantly ahead of his person because his normal pace is fast. He loves to run.
Dog D: Cricket veering left. (I should have had her on a harness.)
Skilled trainers would design very different training and management plans for all of these situations.
Pulling based on fear, differences in speed of gait between the dog and the handler, response to a potent distraction, and cognitive decline would necessitate completely different approaches.
The Trouble with Internet Advice, Tools, and Protocols
This should be obvious by now, right? If your dog has Behavior Problem X and you post in a Facebook group asking for advice, you will get plenty. And it may include links to some excellent blogs and YouTube videos with well thought-out advice (along with some stuff that is probably not as good, and possibly some stuff that is horrifying). What’s the problem with the good stuff? The advice won’t take your dog’s individual situation into account. And if you are a beginning trainer, you won’t know how to do the functional assessment yourself. You won’t know what is relevant and important to describe about your dog’s situation. You also won’t have the knowledge about dog behavior from an ethological perspective that a professional will.
Beginning trainers (and some not so beginning ones!) also don’t know how to create a training plan. A professional trainer will create a plan to set criteria, track repetitions, and break down the components of a behavior so as to set intermediate goals (approximations of the final behavior) as benchmarks. She will teach you the mechanical skills to implement your part of the plan and help you practice.
So if you have the scared leash-pulling dog and your only resource is the Internet, you could follow the best thought-out, most humane, most straightforward loose leash walking method there is, but it probably wouldn’t work. And even with your good intentions, it might not be humane. You would be taking your dog repeatedly to an environment where he is scared, trying to teach him something challenging when he just wants to run home.
Without a functional behavioral assessment, trying to change behavior is a shot in the dark. Our dogs deserve better. I hope this description helps shed a little light on the science of learning theory and how to determine whether a trainer you are interviewing or have hired knows their stuff.
Here is a little bright spot a few weeks after the sudden loss of my beloved dog Summer.
In February 2013, I posted a set of photos of Clara that I took at the vet’s office. (They were actually video stills.) That post, Dog Facial Expressions: Stress, was one of my most popular ever. Trainers all over the world have used the photos, with my permission, for educational presentations of all sorts. (The offer of the photos remains open. Anyone who wants sets of labeled and unlabeled photos can drop me a line through my contact page.)
Ever since Clara came to me as a feral pup in 2011, I have worked with her twice a week with a great trainer and friend, Lisa, on socialization catch-up. None of that work has been at the vet’s office. We do far more basic work than that. When Clara has had vet appointments, I have always taken her mat and great food and tried to make it as quick and non-threatening an experience as possible. It has not been any kind of training situation. Just management-with-food.
In February 2013, the time of the photos, she was petrified but functioning. She could respond to some cues. She could take food. But she was trembling, panting, pacing, and hypervigilant before the vet staff even came into the room. She became literally the poster dog for stress. But things have changed. Even though the socialization work we have done with her has not involved vets or veterinary offices, the work we’ve done has generalized. I have seen her get gradually more calm and comfortable at the vet’s.
This week, in September 2017, I took Clara and Zani for a vet visit together. They are both seeing a board-certified veterinary dermatologist for allergies. Clara has already been to this practice several times on her own and I have noticed how comfortable she is becoming, and in particular, how much she likes the dermatologist. Last time she solicited petting from her. This time, with a little moral support from her buddy, she was spectacular.
As we waited in the lobby, she looked with interest and curiosity at the people and dogs. Because of the tight quarters, a woman with a mellow older lab had to go right by us. She was being completely conscientious, but I was cornered and her lab and Clara ended up face to face. They sniffed noses, wagging tails, then I stepped between them to make sure nothing escalated. The woman was apologizing (not her fault) and I don’t encourage such encounters. But given that it happened, I was super-pleased with the outcome. Clara almost never gets to meet dogs because they generally have strange-to-her humans attached to them and I have no idea how she would respond. No problem!
“Hey–where are you going, new buddy?”
When we went to a patient room, Clara was friendly to the tech and mugged her for petting. She charmed the tech with her getting-into-her-harness behavior, as did Zani when she put her feet up on a chair to help the tech leash her up. Then, with just one backward glance from Clara, they went willingly with the tech to the dermatologist’s work area without me.
Taking videos during a vet visit when wrangling two excited dogs is a challenge, but I realized I had a chance to capture a few seconds if I readied myself for their return. I’ve tacked it onto some videos from 2013 vet visit footage to show the progress. I’ve never published those videos before—they are the ones from which I took the stills that I have shared so far and wide.
I hope the contrast, and Clara’s behavior in general, makes you smile. My favorite part is when the vet tech leaves and Clara stands at the door watching her, wagging her tail in relaxed, wide wags.
Most stories about dogs with the deadly cancer hemangiosarcoma end sadly and this one does too. Just so you know. But I want to tell the story because canine hemangiosarcoma is so sneaky and can be hard to diagnose. For Summer, it all started with a backache, though it turned out not to be the main problem.
Summer had a couple of flare-ups of intervertebral disc disease in her last years. The first one was from an obvious cause: we were playing with the garden hose. She loved to jump and bite the water. She jumped one time too many and landed wrong and very soon after was experiencing back pain. I was familiar with how dogs’ posture can change with that particular problem because I had had two previous dogs with back issues and I took her straight to the vet.
Summer got a course of steroids and muscle relaxants and soon seemed as good as new. I didn’t let her jump anymore when we played with the hose and was more careful with her activities in general.
She had another bout of back pain a few months later, and this time the cause was not obvious. But I saw that posture again, took her to the vet, and again she responded well to the medication.
In June 2017, when she was 11 1/2, she had a physical with a full blood workup. Everything looked great.
On July 21st, we were playing some very active training games. Too active for a senior doggie, and she slid and fell. She was in that “backache” posture again a few hours later. She was panting and in a lot of pain this time. It was after hours and I took her to the emergency vet clinic. I didn’t crate her in the car because she was so weak that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get her out. She threw up on the way to the vet.
Summer after hurting her back
Vet Visit 1: ER Vet 7/21/17
After ascertaining that she probably wouldn’t bite him, a tech carried Summer into the clinic. The ER vet was thorough. He reported to me that he tested reflexes and the back issue was affecting all four of her legs. He showed me which part of the back was likely affected. He mentioned that the nerves that came from that part of the back also went to the heart and lungs so impairment could become serious. He said we were “not nearly at that point” but he wanted me to know. I had brought the meds that my regular vet had prescribed the last time, but he said he preferred a different approach. He prescribed gabapentin and meloxicam. Summer didn’t perk right up, but over the next two days got a lot better.
I needed to accommodate her infirmity. I have 12 steps down into my back yard and we worked out a system of walking around the side of the house—day and night—to avoid the steps. She was a little too big for me to carry safely down the steps. It would have been great if she would eliminate in the front yard, but she refused to go that way. I have no idea why. That refusal was a completely new behavior for her.
Summer on a good day
The pain started to dwindle, but her behavior got a bit strange. She would avoid certain areas of the yard, peering around, seemingly afraid of part of her regular areas. She started acting a little like my dog who had dementia, standing in the bathroom, staring off into space, seemingly unable to turn around to come out.
Vet Visit 2: Our Regular Vet 8/1/2017
On August 1st, I took Summer to my regular vet. She had taken the course of the RX prescribed by the ER vet, but she was still showing pain and discomfort intermittently. She panted a lot. It may have been pain, but she was also clearly hot—I started setting up a floor fan for her and she would lie in front of it day and night.
My vet checked her out. She showed me some sluggish responses in her feet that indicated neurological problems related to disc disease. She palpated Summer’s back and identified the same area the previous vet had said was probably the location of the problem. She suggested steroids and muscle relaxants, and I was glad to switch back to that strategy. We both believed that the gabapentin was causing her strange behavior. But Summer didn’t bounce back as she had previously. I texted with the vet the next day because Summer was still very uncomfortable, and she said Summer could also have tramadol to help control the pain. I filled the prescription and ended up giving her the high end of the dosage the vet suggested.
Vet Visit 3: ER Vet 8/13/17
We were in the weaning down phase of the steroid treatment and Summer was having one pill every other day. She was still taking tramadol, and still a high dose. She had never felt great on the steroids and now she was feeling worse again. Sometimes she would just suddenly lie down in the yard while walking. We ended up at the ER vet again on a Sunday afternoon. I felt I had to try again. It was the same practice, different vet this time. They were very busy and we were there for four hours.
This vet couldn’t detect any pain in Summer’s back. She wrote down her symptoms as seizures, “risk of ” back pain, and “risk of” dementia. She was seeing the zoning out behavior that had started when Summer was on the gabapentin. I realized she could only advise on the symptoms she could identify but this was frustrating. She said we could do X-rays but she didn’t think they would show anything. Since we had already been there all that time, and it seemed to me that we were eventually going to have to do X-rays, I asked them to do a set.
The vet showed them to me. Summer’s back looked pretty good to her—no gnarly arthritis or anything obvious. She showed me a couple of places where the discs looked a bit too close together, which could indicate a problem. She didn’t notice the big round blob in Summer’s abdomen that was visible on at least two of the slides. I did, but I didn’t know what her abdomen was supposed to look like so didn’t mention it.
I asked the vet what I should do since my dog really was still in pain. She said to keep giving her the tramadol if that was helping. (I guessed it was.) She said I could talk to my regular vet about putting Summer on an NSAID, but that there was supposed to be a two-week washout period between the steroids and the NSAIDs. So I took Summer home and didn’t schedule another appointment right away. Two vets had suggested joint supplements so I bought some.
Summer lying in front of the fan
Summer got more restless at night. She started lying on her side almost all the time when she lay down, preferably next to an air vent or the fan I kept running for her. She started licking the bed covers sometimes, which I knew could be a sign of nausea.
August 20, 2017, was the last day she had a steroid pill, and the last day she ate normally. The next day she wouldn’t eat some of her usual favorites foods. I scheduled an appointment with the vet for August 25th. I was still trying to give some time for the steroids to wash out. But I felt like she was starting to fail physically.
On Thursday, August 24th, Summer was running a fever and also still not eating. I wondered suddenly about tick-borne diseases. I had already had a rough experience with one dog with that. Many of Summer’s symptoms matched. I called the vet practice to see if I could change Summer’s appointment to that day. I prepared materials for the vet: some videos I had taken of Summer practically collapsing, and the X-rays.
Vet Visit 4: Our Regular Vet
I brought my vet up to date and showed her a video, then the X-rays. She pointed to the white blob in Summer’s abdomen on the X-ray and said, “I don’t like the looks of that.” She immediately started telling me about tumors on the spleen. I was familiar with hemangiosarcoma but was stunned at this development. The owner of the veterinary practice, an internal medicine specialist, was there and did an ultrasound of Summer’s abdomen.
My vet came back looking grim but said there was some hope. It did look like a hemangiosarcoma, but because it was already so very big and they didn’t see any metastases, there was a possibility it was a very rare, benign type. She said that she normally didn’t recommend surgery because with the malignant tumors the life expectancy was very short even after removal. But if it were her dog, she would get the surgery because of how the tumor looked. And get it ASAP. I looked at that big blob and thought about what could happen, what would happen if this was a hemangiosarcoma.
We scheduled the surgery for the next morning. She told me to be ready for a phone call during the surgery. If the tumor were metastatic, I would need to decide whether to remove everything they could and wake Summer up again or have them euthanize her.
I thought I had gone to the vet with a dog with a bad back. And now I was facing possible euthanization in less than 24 hours. But even in my stunned state, I knew that if the tumor were metastatic, that’s what I would opt for. Summer had had a month of discomfort, the last 5 days of which had been pretty miserable for her. If I had them perform surgery on the metastatic tumor and wake her up again, she would have to recover from major surgery with no future except more tumors coming very soon. It wouldn’t be fair.
My last photo of Summer. Calm but clearly not feeling well.
I took her home and proceeded as if these were our last hours together. Her appetite was poor, but she would eat chicken baby food and beef jerky, so I gave her tidbits through the evening. We sat on the bed together with the other dogs locked out. I wished I had spent more time with her by herself. She loved just being with me. The other dogs didn’t like her and she didn’t like them. We made those 18 hours count.
In the morning we sat on the bed just a little bit more before our dear friend came to pick us up. I gently petted her head and she would put her paw on my hand to ask for more when I stopped. I told her she would feel better by afternoon. That was the only true thing I knew to say about the future.
Leaving her at the vet’s was horrible. I had dreaded it. I could barely think about the fact that possibly her last couple of hours on earth were going to be in a cage, scared, waiting for surgery. But I had no choice. And she had been through procedures before and I had always come back for her. I hoped against hope that she wouldn’t be petrified; that it would just be another episode at the vet for her. One she would survive.
This is one of the many reasons that it’s a really good idea to condition vet visits to be a positive as possible for our dogs.
A technician called at 10:45 AM to tell me they were starting the surgery. At 10:55 AM they called again. This time it was one of the veterinarians and as soon as I heard her sympathetic voice I knew the news was bad. They had found tiny cancer metastases all over Summer’s abdomen in addition to the giant tumor. And the tumor was bleeding. There had not been blood in her abdomen per the ultrasound the day before but there was no. Weeping, I told them to let her go.
In a later conversation, my vet said that the tumor had probably been bleeding episodically. That’s why she would feel really bad for a period, then recover and clearly feel better.
I’m not upset at the ER vet for not noticing the tumor. At that point, the outcome was predetermined. All that would have happened is that I would have had 10 fewer days with her. I’m sorry that for 5 of those 10 days she was feeling badly, but I’m selfishly glad we had them. From most of the stories I have read, this is actually one of the less awful hemangiosarcoma experiences. Summer was spared the acute pain and trauma of a bleed-out, and I have read stories where it took much longer to diagnose the problem. By all appearances, she was feeling quite good at the beginning of July. She had episodes of pain and discomfort through late August, but things didn’t turn really bad until four or five days before she died. Her last night was a good one and she seemed comfortable and was calm on the morning of her last day.
I do believe she had an episode of disc disease. Both vets did neurological tests and had the same diagnosis. But it’s possible that our rowdy training that day caused the tumor to bleed, rather than causing a back problem. But I don’t think so. Her abdomen was never tender and her back was. It just made things really complicated when trying to track down the serious problem.
I debated making this video, but it seemed important to document the episodic nature of her pain. That’s part of what made it difficult to diagnose.
Note about the video: while perhaps not a really smart thing to ask an 11-year-old dog to do, the jumping in and out of the bathtub training at the beginning of the movie is not how Summer hurt her back.
If your dog exhibits symptoms of apparent pain, weakness, or intermittent fatigue, see your vet. It could be so many different things, but you and your vet need to know.
Summer how I will remember her–this is from a May 2017 video of her first experience with a Snuffle Mat.
Summer succumbed to hemangiosarcoma on 8/25/17. I wrote this on 7/10/17 and have left it as it was when I wrote it: a tribute to a dog who I thought had many years left.
I currently have three dogs: Summer, Zani, and Clara.
Clara is the youngster, and has a dramatic backstory. She was a feral puppy, and also my first puppy. Life gave her lemons and we have made lemonade together.
Zani has “all the cuteness going on,” as a friend puts it. She is adorable, wicked smart, sensitive, and feisty—all at the same time. Whenever I teach anything to all the dogs at the same time, Zani picks it up the fastest (unless it’s a verbal cue, in which case she is dead last). Zani has quite the fan club on social media.
Zani helped raise Clara, and they are buddies.
Summer is my oldest dog, currently going on 12 years old, although she doesn’t look or act it. The others tolerate her, and she is part of the group, but they don’t adore her.
But I do.
Summer is not dramatic, except when she is reacting to a delivery truck or an invading dog. She is normally low-key. If you saw her on the street she would be unremarkable. In person, she looks like a rather plain brown dog. She looks beautiful in my blog largely because she photographs amazingly well.
But I have a bond with her that is unlike what I have with any other dog. Even Clara, my puppy, my baby, doesn’t touch my heart in quite the same way.
Summer in the kitchen, ready for a training session
Summer is my crossover dog. For those who don’t know the term, it means that when I first started training her, I used aversive methods. A year or two in, I “crossed over,” and stopped using such methods. I had used a prong collar on her. I had done collar pops. I had used various other amounts of force.
People often observe a difference between dogs who were originally trained with force, then crossed over, and those who were never trained with force. Most force training has the effect of discouraging dogs from offering behaviors, and that seems to create a lasting inhibition with some dogs.
I was lucky. It didn’t with Summer. In fact, when I play shaping games with my dogs, Summer is the most creative. She will try anything and makes up crazy stuff.
Summer was also my first agility partner, and we “grew up together” in agility. She is an unlikely agility dog, with very strong interests in the varmint department. But we have a fantastic teacher who helped me learn what Summer loves. We used those things in agility, and she came to love agility as well. She runs fast and happy, and reads me so well that it feels from my end like we have ESP.
As she gets older she is more and more of a dream to train, and just gets sweeter and sweeter.
Training with Summer
Guests in the House
A few days ago my friend Charity brought over her Newfoundland puppy, Lizzy. This was their third visit. She and Lizzy have been visiting with me and Zani, who is friendly to people and dogs. I’ve been closing up Summer and Clara together in a room with loud music (so they won’t have to hear us having fun) and yummy Kongs.
Lizzy is still in her socialization period, so it’s extra important that she not have any bad experiences. This is why I kept Summer (not guaranteed to be dog-friendly) and Clara (guaranteed not to warm up right away to a new human) out of the picture so far.
Yes, this one is from a training session, too
Today I checked with Charity about bringing Summer out, but keeping a gate between her and Lizzy. She said sure. Summer knows Charity. So Summer was delighted to come out, and she visited with our mutual friend. Then she saw Lizzy (obviously, she had known a pup was in the house) and went straight to the baby gate. Lizzy was on the other side. Head-on meetings are not ideal for strange dogs. Both dogs sniffed each other and were a bit uptight. Summer was a little stiff, so I called her away. It took two calls the first time, but then she came right to me. Lizzy was still waiting at the gate so after I gave Summer a treat, gestured and said, “go see the pup.” She trotted over and they sniffed again, then I called her back. We did this about seven times. Summer was just so fantastically nice and responsive, and so happy to be part of the doings. Nice low, wide tail wags. She even gave Lizzy one of her odd, truncated play bows.
After that, I left Summer on her side of the gate with a Kong and went back in with the others. Summer was so happy to have her Kong and be in visual contact. She brought the Kong right to the gate once, and of course the pup was quite interested and came to the gate. Summer was again very nice (I didn’t catch any lip curl or other resource guarding) but I gestured that she take the Kong to a mat a little farther from the gate, which she did.
Later I let Summer come in and do a little training with me while Charity kept Lizzy occupied, and she did fantastic.
We didn’t let the two dogs try to play because 1) Lizzy is already getting big and might play too roughly; and 2) Summer has a history of dog aggression; and 3) Summer is almost 12. But I was amazed at how well it worked out without them actually playing. Just occupying the same area while interacting with their respective humans.
And Summer was quietly magical about figuring out what I needed her to do—and doing it.
My three dogs all have different geniuses. All three are game to try anything I ask of them, which is so cool I can’t believe it at times. But they have different fortes.
Clara has an incredible work ethic and always has. She is up for long training stints.
Zani is a problem solver and usually the quickest study. Plus she keeps me in my place by yelling at me when I don’t train well.
But Summer. Summer is this soft presence, this part of me that got lost and came back via a small town shelter.
This probably doesn’t seem like much of a story to people with friendly, non-reactive dogs. And indeed, it would have been great to provide my friend’s pup with another dog she could safely play with or at least hang out with.
We didn’t have that, but what I had was a dog who has not had an easy time in life who nonetheless kept her wits about her in a challenging situation and was beautifully responsive to me the whole time our guests were there.
I wrote this post because I felt like I don’t write enough about Summer’s quiet, solid presence in my life.
Summer started having health problems on July 21, 2017, and left this world on August 25, 2017, after being diagnosed with a very large hemangiosarcoma on her spleen.
This post is about how I made weekly allergy shots into a fun event for my two allergic dogs. It’s not about the medical aspects of allergy shots or how to administer them. Be sure to get specific advice and training from your veterinary staff if you will be giving shots at home.
What follows is how I made the allergy shots a good experience for my dogs. It is not a “how to”; it’s unique to our situation. But I hope there are parts of it that can be helpful to others.
Allergy Shots Can Hurt
Clara’s dose, on the left, is a full CC
Regular readers know that I use desensitization and counterconditioning to make scary or uncomfortable events pleasant for my dogs. So you may be surprised to hear that I didn’t work on conditioning the actual allergy shots. It is theoretically possible to achieve a positive conditioned emotional response to an originally aversive stimulus, after all. But not very practical in this instance, right? Do I really want to stick my dog with a needle over and over, more than I already have to? With more and more liquid to work up to the quantity of a full-strength allergy shot? No thanks.
I did countercondition the steps up to the actual shot. We worked on my leaning over, feeling around on the dog, pinching up the skin, then touching with an object.
But we needed to go farther than this. The dogs also needed to perform a specific behavior while I gave the shots: they needed to stay still. I approached it as a down-stay on a mat with a (big!) distraction. (The down was the position in which I could best tent up some skin on Clara. She doesn’t have much loose skin!) The down-stay was not hard for them. They are so accustomed to staying on their mats and also getting goodies for various husbandry tasks that there was little training involved.
What I decided to do about the potentially painful shot was to create a reinforcement period afterwards that was really special. Enter the magic treat boxes.
Special containers with novel treats
The Magic Treat Boxes
I bought four small identical refrigerator containers. At any time, there are two of them in the fridge and I put bites of novel, high-value foods in them. In the photo above, the boxes have bites of roasted potatoes and bites of pizza with some creamy cheese on it. I eat a lot of stuff that’s not really suitable for the dogs because of the abundance of onions or hot peppers, so I keep around a few things to fall back on if I don’t have any of my own food to share. Beef jerky is super-popular with my gang and I save it for special occasions. Also, a few spoonfuls of canned high-quality dog food will do. But they really do enjoy the “special bites.”
My dogs are trained that there might be a longish period between an event and their reinforcers, so I leave the container in the fridge and only get it out after the shot is finished. That way they don’t know ahead of time what they are going to get.
Our Allergy Shot Routine
Start with all dogs out of the kitchen.
Invite in the dog who will get her shot.
Make any remaining preparations to give the shot while she waits. (I have usually drawn it up and brought it to room temperature already.)
Cue the dog onto her mat.
Show her the syringe and let her sniff if she wants. (This is the immediate antecedent that tells her for sure she is going to get a shot.)
Give the shot.
Move my hand with the syringe away from the dog.
Pause. (I don’t want the end of the shot to be a cue for the dog to jump up.)
Accompany dog to the refrigerator while praising.
Get out the magic treat box, open it, and start delivering the treats, still talking and telling the dog how great she is.
The video includes a real-time allergy shot session for both dogs, with no edits. Note that they have no collars on and no one is holding them. They are not being physically restrained.
Clara started her shots about six weeks before Zani did. So right now Clara is up to her full dose and is taking her shots once a week and Zani is still doing them every three days. After I set up our little routine, I didn’t anticipate what might happen when one dog got a shot and the other didn’t.
Sorry Clara, no shot today….
At the end of the movie, you can see what happened the first time Zani got a shot and Clara didn’t. That’s when I knew for sure that my little system was working well.
Since the shots can be painful, I’ve paid close attention to make sure that there is no fallout from the procedure. I’ve been looking for things like the following:
a dog being reluctant to come into the kitchen;
a dog being reluctant to get on her mat;
a dog getting up and leaving or flinching away as I approached with the injection;
a dog getting generally avoidant of me.
There has been none of that. There has been the opposite. Zani and Clara are both eager for their turns. They are each excited to come into the kitchen for their “shot party.” Their tails do stop wagging during the actual shot, but at all other times, their body language is happy and excited.
This week, the magic treat boxes have bites of some lovely, lightly breaded chicken from a Mexican restaurant. Zani’s shot is tonight and Clara’s is tomorrow. I’ll have to work on some kind of lesser consolation treat for the poor unfortunate who doesn’t get a shot!