Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?

Black dog with tail held high

Zani’s tail is up, and you’ll see in the video below that it is wagging. Does she look friendly and happy?

Why do dogs wag their tails? The prevailing view is that they do so when they feel happy and friendly. Many do, but dogs also wag their tails in other situations. So the answer to the title question is no. Dogs wagging their tails are not always expressing friendliness or joy. Not by a long shot.

Many dogs will wag their tails from arousal or when performing predatory behaviors. Some will wag when they are getting ready to aggress. My dog Clara has a particular wag when she is anxious. When observing a dog wagging its tail, we need to look at the rest of the body language to determine what’s going on. Some things to look at are:

  • how the dog is moving and in what direction;
  • whether its movements are stiff or relaxed;
  • whether its mouth is tight or relaxed; and
  • whether the dog is looking directly at something (including you!).

An important factor is the carriage of the tail. How high is the tail? (See section below on breed differences.) Other important factors are whether the tail is wagging fast or slow and whether it is stiff or loose. These things can mean the difference between an eager greeting and an oncoming attack. We can never assume that a wagging tail means a dog is friendly.

The Direction of the Wag

There is scientific research that has found a correlation between the direction of a dog’s tail wag with its emotional state. It was found that the tail wagged predominantly to the right when the dog was responding to something it might want to approach, such as its owner. The tail wagged more to the left in response to something the dog would want to avoid. When you look at the video below, can you identify a sidedness to Zani’s tail wagging? Does it correlate with what we find at the end?

This research verifies what we can already see: dogs don’t wag their tails only to express happiness. They also wag their tails during general arousal, aggression, and other emotional states.

Tail Carriage

I haven’t found any research on the height of the tail when wagging, but experienced dog trainers learn to pay attention to that. In general terms, low and loose wags are usually friendlier than wags with the tail held high and stiff.

I think it’s hard to do research about that, though, because of big differences in “normal” tail carriage between breeds, not to mention between individual dogs.

Many northern breeds, like this Shiba Inu, have a naturally high tail carriage. Their tails are built that way.

Light brown shiba inu dog with tail curled up over its back (normal carriage)

Shiba Inu courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rhodesian Ridgeback with tail hanging straight down

Rounder is feeling good but his tail is hanging straight down

On the other hand, some hound breeds have naturally low hanging or even tucked tails. Rounder the Rhodesian Ridgeback is in a good mood in this photo, but his tail is hanging straight down. You can find extreme examples of this in whippets and greyhounds, who often tuck their tails between their legs when standing. This tail carriage could mean “I am miserable or afraid” in many other dogs. For the whippet, it’s often just business as usual.

Summer is expressing predatory aggression in her stance, the set of her mouth, and the curl of her tail






My mixed breed dog Summer probably had some northern breeds in the mix. She held her tail at different heights depending on her mood and activities. She wasn’t all that waggy, but she had a beautiful, low, wide wag when she saw someone she loved. When her tail was tightly curled up over her back it always meant she was aroused, often predatory. In this photo, she was watching a cat on the other side of our fence.

Note the stiffness of her body, the slight lean forward, the set of her mouth, and the piloerection (hackling) around her shoulders.

Why Is This Dog Wagging Her Tail?

The video shows my dog Zani in my friend’s yard. The video shows a few seconds of her behavior. Her tail is wagging the whole time. It first plays with the sound off, so you can concentrate on her body language. Then it plays again with sound. Then finally you see the reason for her behavior. Is she wagging because she is friendly?

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

What Other Body Language Accompanies Zani’s Wagging Tail?

Watch the way Zani moves. Is she moving toward something, away from something, or both? Is she eagerly approaching something? Is she looking at something, listening to something? Look at the fur down the center of her back. Look at the set of her mouth.

You’ll have to watch the movie to see what Zani was responding to, and hear my own final conclusion of what was going on for her. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet: the whole sequence is adorable. Enjoy!

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Photo Credits

Shiba Inu: Takashiba via Wikimedia Commons
Rounder the Ridgeback: Marge Rogers
All others: Eileen Anderson


Quaranta, A., Siniscalchi, M., & Vallortigara, G. (2007). Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli. Current Biology17(6), R199-R201.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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The “Invention” of Cues in Training

Hat made out of folded newspaper stars in the invention of cues

Can this hat be a cue?

Once upon a time, there was a girl who decided to teach her dog some tricks. She figured out that if she gave her dog something he liked after he did something she liked, he was liable to do the thing again. So she taught him some simple tricks using food and play as reinforcement.

As she went along, her dog started finding playing training games lots of fun in and of themselves. But she still used food and play. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him. She didn’t see any reason to stop.

This girl was unusual in that she didn’t try to tell her dog what to do in words. She realized what is not obvious to so many of us: he didn’t speak English. Things worked out just fine because he could generally discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

sable colored dog has her front feet on an inverted yellow plastic basin, preparing to spin her rear end aroundShe used a little platform to teach him to pivot in a circle. He would put his front feet on the platform and walk around with his back feet and rotate. He got good at this and soon could spin in both directions. As soon as he saw the platform he would run over to it and start to pivot, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

One day she decided she’d like to teach him a different trick using the little platform. She wanted him to sit on it. She got out the platform and he ran over and immediately started spinning. She smiled and signaled for him to stop and he did.

Using hand targeting, she got him up on the platform with all four feet within a few minutes. It was easy from there to get him to sit. He earned plenty of cookies during this learning process.

The next time they played training games with the platform, he pivoted at first. But she gestured that she wanted him to get up on it and sit, and soon he did. Each time they trained, he spun less and sat sooner, until one day he ran in and sat on the platform. She told him how smart he was and gave him a cookie.

Over the next couple of weeks, she had him do lots of things on top of the platform and didn’t ask him to spin. Now he would always run to the platform and sit on it to start.

Then she asked him to start pivoting again. They worked on both things equally. After a little awkwardness at the beginning of the session, he would figure out what she wanted.

One day she got ready to train and put the platform out. Her dog ran in and then stood stock still next to the platform and looked straight at her. He seemed to be asking, “What are we going to do today?” She realized it would be nice for him if he knew which thing she wanted him to do that day, rather than always having to figure it out by trial and error.

She thought about it and realized she could create some way to let him know which set of tricks she wanted to work on. She made herself a big hat out of newspaper. From then on, every time she wanted him to get all the way on the platform, she wore the paper hat. When she wanted to work on spinning and pivots, she didn’t wear the hat.

It took only a few sessions for him to catch on. Thereafter he would immediately offer the right starting behavior depending on whether she was wearing the hat or not.

Question: What did the girl create with the hat?

Answer: A cue.

Question: Did she really “invent” cues?

Answer: No. She discovered them on her own and put them to use. See below.

Bonus question: Looking at the photos of Summer and Zani above, what might be a contextual cue that I want my dog to sit rather than pivot?

Some Things to Know About Cues

OK, I’m a little obsessed with cues. But I would really like to share my (admittedly limited) understanding with those who are newer at this than I am.

  • First, all sorts of things can be cues. If you don’t create a deliberate, explicit cue, dogs will usually figure out what you want from other indicators. These can come from the environment or your actions. And they usually figure that out early, so even before you think you have a cue—you have one. Before the girl started using the paper hat, there were still lots of cues for the dog. But they were fluid and not systematically organized. 
  • You might not even know what a dog’s cue actually is! Lots of times when we think the dog understands a verbal cue, they are heeding something else. Try this: put your dog in front of her crate (if you use one), point, and say, “Purple cow!” Some other time, get your dog in front of the crate, don’t point, but just look at it, and say, “Daddy long legs!” Dogs notice contextual cues brilliantly, and most will get into the crate in this situation. Everything else about you is saying: “Get in the crate” even if your words are different. If you had taught your dog to heed the cue over your body language and had complete stimulus control over it, the “proper” response would be for the dog to stand and look at you. He should wait for further instructions if you give a verbal cue he doesn’t recognize. But many people don’t work that hard on verbals for crate or mat behaviors. So dogs who are conditioned to like their crates will leap in at the slightest hint that that might be reinforceable right now.
  • Conversely, think of a situation in which you always ask your dog to sit (with or without a verbal cue). Get them in that situation and give your verbal cue for down, stand, or another behavior and see what happens. If you have worked hard with your dog on the distinction between your verbal cues, your dog might do fine. But many will have a bit of a hard time. There is a strong likelihood that they will sit no matter what you say. (Dogs from breeds that have been selectively bred to work with humans do seem to have an easier time learning verbal cues. Gun dogs and herding dogs come to mind.)
  • Finally, cues in training or the real world don’t have to be words or gestures. The “Open” sign that stays lit up all day in a store window is a cue that says that going into the store will be reinforced by the ability to shop for a while. When you’re at a club, the music going on is a duration cue for people to dance. Most people stop when the music goes off. You don’t have to, but it’s more fun (reinforcing) to dance while the music is on. So a paper hat worn continuously can be a cue that a certain type of training is going to happen and a certain family of behaviors will likely be reinforced.

Here is Summer in a situation where contextual cues and the matching law conspired to make her fail to respond correctly to a verbal cue. 

Link to the video for email subscribers.

The contextual cue was the mat. All Summer had to do was feel a mat under her feet and she would lie down. It was that automatic. At my house, if a dog lies down on a mat, reinforcement is very likely to follow. And the matching law says that behaviors with big reinforcement histories are more likely to be performed than behaviors with scanty reinforcement histories. And Summer had hundreds, even thousands of past reinforcers for lying on the mat. Even after she learned to sit from a down on the mat, she still responded incorrectly part of the time. She had a long-standing habit to break.

Having clear cues is a way to be fair to your dog. Remember, a cue is an indication that a certain behavior, set of behaviors, or behavior chain, is likely to be reinforced. Having unclear ones defeats the purpose. Help your dog by being clear about cues!

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014. Originally published 05/09/2014 as “The Girl with the Paper Hat.”


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Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?

This article was first published by Clean Run – The Magazine for Dog Agility Enthusiasts, in August 2017. I changed the title after publication in this version. Please see the note about that at the end of the article.

Three dogs looking through a fence. Continuously reinforcement. A recall trained via variable reinforcement probably won't get their attention.

If I’ve trained recall on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, how likely are my dogs to come away from the fascinating distraction behind the fence?










But do I have to carry around treats or toys forever?

This is a common question from trainers who are new to positive reinforcement techniques. And most of us have heard the following typical answer.

No, you’ll be able to wean the dogs off the treats. You do it like this.

When you first train a new behavior, reinforce the dog every single time she performs it. When she responds consistently to the cue, start reinforcing every other time she performs it. Then do it every third time, et cetera.

When she has learned that she might not get something every time she performs the behavior, randomize the reinforcement. You will reinforce on average every third or fourth time your dog performs the behavior. But avoid staying in a pattern she’ll figure out. This is called a variable ratio reinforcement schedule and it makes behavior resistant to extinction. You can also work in some life rewards.

Unfortunately, the “let’s thin out the reinforcement” plan is based on experimental practices that are hard to duplicate outside the lab. Vital bits of instruction are usually left out when the practice is suggested. And the results of the “thin it out” plan with performance dogs can be dire. For years we were encouraged to thin, thin, thin the reinforcement until it was time to perform in the ring. Then our dogs often performed with no reinforcement from us at all. Or they didn’t perform. Remember when lots of breeds were considered “untrainable”?

Times are changing, and the great trainers are showing us how to develop secondary reinforcers to help transform the ring into a fun place rather than a joyless or scary one. In the agility world, we have the advantage that many of the activities are already fun for our dogs. On top of that, we can easily associate them with good stuff. Even in competition, we can have a cooler with great treats at a seating area close to the ring. If our dogs like to tug, we can bring a reinforcer right into the ring in the form of a well-chosen leash.

Clara thinks training is fun, and that I’m fun too.

But the best thing we can bring into the ring with our dogs is our own self. If we have used rich schedules of reinforcement for daily behaviors as well as agility behaviors, we have likely built a bond with our dog and a beautiful classical association to the activities we do together.

Rather than “thinning out the food” we should consider maintaining the food and adding every other reinforcer we can think of. I aim for a continuous reinforcement schedule for the majority of behaviors I ask of my dogs. Because in the real world, thinning a reinforcement schedule does not have the same effects that it has in the lab. It’s almost impossible to bring along the controlled conditions that yield the desired result.

The problems with using intermittent reinforcement schedules in the real world fall into three areas. A problem in any area can be enough to punch holes in the expected benefits. First, “resistance to extinction” is not the best measure of behavior when our goal is to get enthusiastic, consistent responses exactly when we want them. Second, even if resistance to extinction were our goal, it’s difficult for humans to perform the necessary randomized schedules. Third, in the real world, there are many alternative sources of reinforcement (we call them distractions). That means even when done correctly, the possible value of an intermittent reinforcement schedule can be demolished by something called the Matching Law.

Intermittent Reinforcement and Extinction Trials

Much of the information we have on the effects of variable ratio reinforcement schedules comes from lab experiments called extinction trials (Mowrer & Jones, 1945). An animal confined in a small area is trained to perform a behavior. A monkey may press a lever, a pigeon may peck a disk, or a rat may run down a chute to jump on a platform at the end. The animal performs the behavior repeatedly, and the behavior is reinforced each time. After these reinforced repetitions, the reinforcement schedule is thinned according to a preplanned formula. Reinforcement is gradually reduced, and in some experiments taken down to zero. The pattern of the animal’s response is recorded under these conditions of reduced reinforcement.

It’s true that many studies have shown that a variable ratio reinforcement schedule is comparably more resistant to extinction. (Although it’s important to note that not all studies have shown that. Recent studies have shown that richer reinforcement schedules can lead to better resistance to extinction, a phenomenon called “behavioral momentum” (Nevin, Mandell, & Atak, 1983).)

When a behavior is resistant to extinction, an animal will keep performing it as reinforcement becomes sporadic. But there is no guarantee that the behavior will happen when we want it. A behavior that is resistant to extinction is only more likely to be performed after decreased reinforcement. Also, just because a behavior is resistant to extinction doesn’t mean that it will be performed eagerly, enthusiastically, or with low latency. These are all qualities we value and need in our dogs’ behavior.

Finally, many extinction trials are performed in what is called a “free operant” setup. In this setup, there is a signal to the animal that reinforcement may be available for a certain behavior the animal has already learned. The signal stays on for a period and the animal is free to perform the behavior multiple times. The performances of the behavior are reinforced or not, according to the schedule. But counting free operant responses yields data that have little relevance to most of our training situations. Real world training usually incorporates what are called “discrete trials.” That is, we give one cue and we need the dog to perform a behavior right then. If instead, the dog waits 90 seconds and then performs it three times, those would count as “responses” in a free operant trial. In the lab, they would count towards “resistance to extinction.” But in real life, they wouldn’t help us at all (if we happened to wait long enough to find out about them).

Random Schedules

In order to attempt to get the resistance to extinction that can be tied to variable ratio reinforcement schedules, we need to follow a precise plan.

First, we need to train the behavior to fluency. Behavioral fluency is defined as a combination of accuracy plus speed of responding (Binder, 1996). Fluency is a much bigger challenge in the real world than in the lab because we need our dogs to be able to respond in so many different situations. There’s a lot of generalization work to do before we can reduce the schedule. And our dog might never achieve the fluency that an animal alone in a Skinner box could.

Second, after the behavior is fluent and generalized, we need to change the schedule gradually. That’s one thing the science is in agreement on. For instance, if we changed from continuous reinforcement directly to a schedule where the dog was reinforced every eighth time on average, the dog would likely give up rather than transitioning to the new schedule (Schwartz, 2002, p. 219). Resistance to extinction only occurs if the thinning of the schedule is gradual.

And consider what withholding reinforcement means to the dog. When teaching a new behavior, we withhold reinforcement when the dog responds incorrectly. But when we switch to an intermittent schedule, we will withhold reinforcement when the dog responds correctly. We need a plan for explaining the new rules to the dog. Removal of reinforcement is a known cause of frustration and even aggression in animals.

Finally, we need a method to compute and track the schedule. It must average the right number of reinforcements and must be random.

Randomizing is hard for humans. Let’s say we’ve decided that our goal is to reinforce the dog for one out of every four sits, that is, 25% of the time. But it has to be random. So if the dog is going to sit 20 times, we will plan to reinforce five of them, but we can’t do it in a pattern.

If we try to wing it, we’ll likely become predictable. That’s what humans do. We may reinforce more often in the kitchen than in the den, or more often when the dog looks at us a certain way. Or we’ll reinforce when the dog sits in a more difficult situation and consistently skip it during the easier times. And the dog will learn the pattern, because that’s what dogs do. So in those situations where we tend not to reinforce, they will tend not to respond.

How would we address this problem? By preparing beforehand. We can use a random number generator or do it by hand. For example, we could plan ahead to reinforce sits #3, #9, #10, #15, and #18 of the dog’s first 20 sits of the day.

Word cloud of words associated with variable schedule

After we’ve memorized the sit numbers, what about the times we ask the dog for eye contact or to get on a mat? We will need a plan for those, too. Good luck with memorizing all that.

This is no joke. The data about the effects of intermittent reinforcement come from precisely computed schedules. If we are going to try to use variable ratio reinforcement, we need to use the methods that make it work.

The Matching Law

There is one law of learning that tends to overpower most others when training in real life, and that is the Matching Law (Herrnstein, 1961). The Matching Law deals with concurrent schedules of reinforcement, where more than one reinforcer is available at a given time. The Matching Law says that a behavior will be performed with a frequency that correlates mathematically to the rate of reinforcement. So the more one is likely to gain reinforcement from a behavior, the more one is likely to perform it.

When we walk out the front door with our dogs, or even out of the training room, the Matching Law hits us square in the face. Look at all those competing reinforcers! Why wouldn’t a dog want to sample all of them? We live in a Matching Law world and all creatures have evolved to take advantage of resources when they are available. It is natural to switch between reinforcers when given the opportunity.

Digging for a turtle: priceless!

This is the biggest problem of all. Our carefully crafted, randomized schedule of reinforcement is in direct competition with richer schedules. Many of the distractions around us are reinforcing every time the dog gains access to them. Popular lampposts don’t pay off with good pee-mail every third or fifth time the dog goes to sniff them. It’s a good bet that they will pay off every single time. Then there are birds. Squirrels. Cats. Other humans. Other dogs.

The Matching Law research approximates real-world conditions better than most lab studies. And the data are consistent. Activities that offer richer reinforcement schedules win.

Slot Machines or Vending Machines?

When discussing variable ratio reinforcement, people often present the idea of a slot machine. They talk about the excitement for the player of wondering if this is the time she will get a payout. They theorize about the excitement and persistence the parallel situation could invoke in their dogs.

But the slot machine model has a problem. Let’s say you are gambling on a slot machine that makes payouts up to $100. The most common payouts are $5 and $10. As you are gambling, someone regularly strolls through the casino, taps you on the shoulder, and hands you a $100 bill. Do you stop and accept the free money, or do you turn away and concentrate on your lever? Of course you take the money! Your machine will still be there after you pocket the cash. (Although you may decide to follow around the money guy instead!)

We are walking around in a world full of free $100 bills for our dogs. Being a slot machine putting out random $5’s and $10’s on a thin schedule is not good protection against them.

Instead, if we are rich and consistent providers of a variety of reinforcement for our dogs: food, play, fun, and social companionship, we have a better chance against those tempting $100 bills.

The agility ring environment is a controlled one. Yes, there are plenty of loose $100 bills in there, but we can proof for many of them. And if we have made agility a source of invigorating, partnering fun for our dogs, we can drive it up towards the $1,000 range.

Agility: Also priceless!

All in all, I’d rather be the much-maligned vending machine. I do plan to carry around the treats forever. I want to be a consistent source of fun and goodies for my dogs. I want to provide as close to continuous reinforcement for the things I ask them to do as I can.

Real life will teach them that occasional brief dry spells of one type of reinforcement are not the end of the world. My goal is not to get the most behavior out of them for the cheapest payout on my part. My goal is for them to have fun, enriching lives and fit into our human world with the most ease possible. Being generous with all sorts of reinforcers works beautifully for agility and daily life.

Addendum 9/21/18: Thank you to Jakub Beran and Eduardo Fernandez for pointing out that my inclusion of the phrase “variable reinforcement” in the title and article was problematic. Although that is generally what people say when they discuss this issue, there is no such thing. And that’s actually part of the problem. There are variable ratio schedules of reinforcement, variable interval schedules of reinforcement, and more. But there is no such thing as a variable reinforcement schedule. A better general term for non-continuous reinforcement schedules is “intermittent reinforcement.” For more information on schedules, check out my article on the matching law linked below.


Binder, C. (1996). Behavioral fluency: Evolution of a new paradigm. The Behavior Analyst, 19(2), 163-197.

Herrnstein, R. J. (1961). Relative and absolute strength of response as a function of frequency of reinforcement. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 4(3), 267-272.

Mowrer, O. H., & Jones, H. (1945). Habit strength as a function of the pattern of reinforcement. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 35(4), 293-311.

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.

Schwartz, B. (2002). Psychology of learning and behavior, fifth edition. WW Norton & Co.

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson 

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Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Reinforcement Schedules


This article was first published by Clean Run – The Magazine for Dog Agility Enthusiasts, in August 2017. Thank you to Clean Run for publishing it, and for allowing me to republish.

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Posted in Behavior analysis, Matching law, Reinforcement | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Scared Dog vs. Happy and Engaged Dog


Black dog with brown ears, shot from the back. Ears express alert dog body language

Here’s a little dog body language study.

My dear Zani shows a lot of emotion, which means she is a good dog to observe. She is pretty easy to read and can teach us a lot.

The short video below consists of two quick clips taken less than two minutes apart. In one clip, Zani is afraid, and in the other she is having a good time.

I reversed the order in the video from what happened in real life. We had been on a walk and things were going fine. But a neighbor drove up and backed their car into their driveway. We had to stop and wait, and she started staring at the car like it was a monster. She has never been scared of cars before, but she was then. I don’t know why. There may have been another factor. Anyway, I took the “scared” video immediately after we saw the car. The “happy and engaged” video was from a minute or two before the car came by. I had just filmed her to show a friend what a good time she was having on her walk. Darn.

Body Language Aspects to Observe

Here are some things you can compare between the two clips

  • Head carriage
  • Ear carriage
  • Tail carriage
  • The shape of her back and spine
  • Gait and speed
  • What she is paying attention to

Link to the video for email subscribers.


Her gait and head carriage are a bit abnormal because of her previous spinal cord injury. You can actually see the abnormality more in the “happy” clip.

I have her leash attached to a collar rather than a harness for a combination of reasons I won’t get into here. It’s our best choice for now. I make it my job, not her job, to be sure the leash never gets tight.

The terms “engaged” and “engagement” are often used to mean that a dog is focused on and partnering with her trainer. But in the part of the video where Zani is feeling good, she is engaging with the environment. That’s OK with me. She has been deprived of a lot of outdoor enrichment since her accident. My goals when I take her on a walk these days are to let her smell and otherwise interact with the environment, and to keep her from getting scared. I do reinforce check-ins. Why not have the option of some nice food on a walk as well!

Finally, although she was definitely scared, her response was about a 4 out of 10 on the Zani fear scale. Thank goodness we don’t see those higher numbers often anymore. In this situation, she could still respond to me and move, and willingly walked home with me. She wasn’t trembling. When she gets more severely afraid, she generally trembles and freezes.  For comparison, here’s a photo that’s 9/10 on the fear scale.

black and tan dog showing fearful dog body language

And because I don’t want to end the post with that photo, here’s a cute one of her in the yard.

Small black and tan dog lying in the grass

How does her body language look there?

Feel free to post your observations of the video or any of the photos in the comments.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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Corrections Are Punishment (If They Work)

Correction is a term used in certain segments of the dog training world. It commonly applies to jerking the dog’s leash (also called a “leash correction). Sometimes “correction” refers to other physical things people might do to a dog.

Trainers who use corrections do such things when a dog is performing an undesirable behavior. For example, they will perform a “leash correction” when a dog is pulling on the leash, is in the wrong position, or is not focused on the handler. The magnitude of a leash correction can range from a twitch of the leash to jerking hard enough to lift the dog partially off the ground or knock him off balance.

stuffed dog wearing prong collar getting leash corrections

Feisty receiving a leash correction

Corrections are intended to decrease an undesirable behavior. You never hear anyone say, “My dog was doing a gorgeous job of heeling so I gave him a correction.” You won’t hear “My dog behaved perfectly when the guests were here so I gave her a correction.”

You might hear a trainer say they gave a correction “to get the dog’s attention.” That implies the dog was not paying attention. The trainer wants to decrease sniffing, pulling, fixating on squirrels, or whatever the dog was doing instead of paying attention.


In behavior science, what do we call a learning process in which a behavior decreases? Punishment.

There are two types of punishment. One is the removal of something appetitive (desirable), as a consequence of a behavior. An example would be holding out a treat near the dog while he is supposed to be maintaining a position. If the dog moved out of position to get it, the handler would pull the treat back out of the dog’s reach. This would constitute punishment if the behavior of moving out of position decreased in the future.

The other type of punishment is the addition of an aversive stimulus as a consequence of  the dog’s behavior.  An aversive stimulus is something the dog will work to avoid if they can. An example of this type of punishment would be stepping on the dog’s back foot whenever he tried to jump on you, if in the future the behavior of jumping on you decreased. (I am not recommending this technique. There are humane and effective ways to train dogs not to jump on people.)

Positive punishment, as this latter type is called, need not be obviously harsh. It need only be effective. I used to have a dog who would leave the room when I coughed. She hated that sound. (Poor dog; I have asthma.) I could probably have used coughing as a punishing stimulus.

Another typical example of positive punishment is…jerking on the leash. A.k.a a leash correction. If your dog moves out of position (undesirable behavior) and you jerk on the leash (added stimulus) and moving out of position decreases, that behavior has been punished.

Defining Words to Suit One’s Purpose

Why then, does the segment of the dog training world that employs corrections often deny that they constitute punishment? You can read this myth in a thousand articles online. You can hear it from ten thousand trainers. And it will be stated in countless beginner obedience classes. Here is a quote from a well known and successful trainer:

The purpose of a correction is to get a behavior change. It’s not to punish a dog.

Wait, what? In behavior science, the definition of punishment is about behavior change.

The reasons for avoiding the use of the word “punishment” are pretty obvious. In a world where positive reinforcement-based training is becoming more well known, many potential clients would not like the idea that a trainer may hurt their dog or instruct them to do so. So trainers who do use positive punishment often call it something else.

Many also use the word “punishment,” but they use the lay definition of the word instead of the behavior science definition. That way they can claim not to use it.  The lay definition is associated with retribution and cruelty.  Many such trainers use the word “punishment” to mean doing something harsh to the dog in a fit of emotion, and state that they don’t believe in doing that. They reserve the word correction to mean something planned, deliberate, and by implication less severe. And they often call it “communication” or “getting the dog’s attention” or some other benign-sounding phrase.

Defining “Correction” This Way Is a Red Flag

People are free to use different definitions of words. Heck, the retribution definition of punishment is probably the first in the dictionary. But if you choose a trainer who uses corrections and claims they aren’t punishment, you can know that one of two things is true.

  1. This person is ignorant of the correct terminology used in the science of behavior, even though they are claiming professional expertise and taking money for changing behavior. Or:
  2. This person is using an idiosyncratic definition on purpose. Whatever their explanation is for this, the effect is to mask what they are actually doing to dogs. They are minimizing the fact that they are startling, hurting, or causing some kind of discomfort to the dog. They are avoiding transparency.
A brown and white stuffed dog iw being held forcefully on her back. You can see a woman's arms coming down and her hands are on the dog's belly and the underside of her neck, pushing hard.

Feisty being “alpha rolled.”

I realize there is a wide spectrum of aversive techniques for training dogs. Some are harsher than others. If I used positive punishment, I, too, would want to distinguish myself from those who used more violent methods than I did. But there’s a more honest solution to that problem. The solution is to be specific and transparent about what one does. Such a trainer could say, “I use punishment in the form of jerking on the collar or scruffing dogs, but I don’t ‘helicopter’ dogs, hit them with plastic bats, or kick them.”

But that last sentence demonstrates a good reason why people who use any aversives may not want to be specific. Even the mention of more violent ways to train dogs is going to be off-putting to much of the general public. How much easier and benign sounding it is to say, “I use corrections, but not punishment.”

When Corrections Aren’t Punishment

There are situations where “corrections” aren’t punishment. And that is when they don’t work to decrease behavior. And that does happen quite often.  So I suppose we could add a #3 above. If someone says that corrections aren’t punishment, it could be true if their methods don’t work to reduce behavior over time. That would also be a good reason not to let that person work with your dog.

I Use Punishment

I use negative punishment. This is the type where you remove something desirable when the dog performs an unwanted behavior. You do this with the intent of decreasing (punishing) the behavior. This method can be very effective in clarifying to a dog what behavior works and what behavior doesn’t work. But I try not to overuse it. There are some situations where it is unpleasant for the dog, even though it doesn’t employ an aversive stimulus. I’d rather train a strong behavior to begin with, using positive reinforcement, than be pulling away cookies, toys, or attention frequently. Also, with several common applications of negative punishment,  positive punishment can easily creep in. I do not knowingly perform positive punishment, nor do I ever design a training plan to include it.

I just applied the word punishment to my own training and explained the ways I might use it. So if I can use the word…how about you folks out there who use “corrections”?

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things Have Improved

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Leaving a Pet at the Vet: Can We Practice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts

Both of these are on my dog dementia site.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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


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Dogs and Body Pressure: A Photo Study

Can you guess what just happened here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Space

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

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

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

Clara’s Body Language

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

Addendum 8/1/2018

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

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

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

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

Related Posts

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson


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Eileenanddogs’ Sixth Anniversary!


The numeral 6, signifying eileenanddogs blog's anniversary


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

Dog News

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

Summer with a soft, relaxed look

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

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

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

Zani standing steadily, 9 days after her accident

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

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

Zani catching some rays on our blogiversary

Clara and her ball

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

Eileen News

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

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

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

Blog News

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

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

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

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

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

Clara learning to crawl-

Odds and Ends

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson 

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

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

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

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

Rat terrier Kaci says, “Train me!”

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

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

I stopped training Cookie after scaring her with the clicker

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

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

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

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

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

What To Do if This Happens To Your Dog

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

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

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

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

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

Problematic Advice Related To This Topic

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

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

Am I Saying Not To Do Desensitization?

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

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

It Didn’t Work for My Dog!

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

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

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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

Which Pavlov Is on Your Shoulder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About Fear Conditioning?

Wait, what?

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

Skinner box. Note electrified grid in the floor.

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

carolina wren closeup

Carolina wren: I am little and very noisy

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

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

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

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

Nice Pavlov Is Not Automatic

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

Bad Pavlov was on my shoulder

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

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

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

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

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

Are Pavlov and Skinner All Jumbled Up?

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

Teach Your Children Puppies Well

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

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

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

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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

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Posted in Respondent behavior | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments