eileenanddogs

Month: August 2014

The Secret to Quick Non-Crumbly Homemade Dog Treats

The Secret to Quick Non-Crumbly Homemade Dog Treats

And they stay that way.

The secret is to use tapioca flour.1)A reader has let me know that tapioca flour and tapioca starch are the same thing, and the latter is much cheaper. It can be found in most Asian markets and other stores as well. Thank you Lili! If you can wing it in the kitchen, read no farther. You’re on your way.

This is not usually a recipe blog, but it is definitely a concept blog. The concept here is that lots of high value brownie-type dog treats are crumbly and fall apart in your hand, treat bag, or pocket. Ewww. Especially if they are made with cornmeal, but even with wheat or most other flours.

Tapioca flour (or tapioca starch) is the trick. (It’s also grain free, for folks who care about that.) If it is expensive, you can experiment and cut it with some cheaper flour and see how far you can go. My other trick is that you can use all sorts of leftovers instead of one protein source for the treats, including that you can save the voluminous crumbs that many store-bought treats exude.

Here is the general method I follow for brownies.

Easy Brownies for Dogs

Puree in a food processor:

  • 1 cup raw or cooked protein (see some suggestions below)
  • 1-2 eggs, depending on the moistness of your other ingredients

Put the puree into a bowl and stir in:

  • About 1 cup tapioca flour/starch, or a mixture of tapioca and other flour. You may need more or less, depending on your protein sources.

Mix well. It will stay a little sticky, but if it is too sticky to handle, add more flour.  Toss it between your hands to make a patty and plot it into a greased pan. Bake at 350F for about 15-20  minutes. Longer if you used raw ingredients.

This is what went in mine (pictured below), just to give you some ideas:

  • 1/3 cup leftover meat from fajitas: beef, chicken, even a shrimp
  • a few french fries
  • 1/2 cup crumbs from commercial dog treats: mostly Natural Balance dog food roll and Stella and Chewies dehydrated raw treats, both of which crumble massively
  • 1 tablespoon leftover Parmesan cheese crumbs

The mixture I used above yielded brownies that actually smelled like bacon. I think that was from the smoky flavor of the Natural Balance dog food roll. It wasn’t a terrible smell, and the dogs loved them. I have also made some very mild ones with chicken breast and a dollop of peanut butter. Those even smell kind of good to me!

The very easiest version is to use a can of tuna or salmon. Usually in that case I would use just one egg. You still need to puree it.

Even with the high-priced tapioca flour, these are far cheaper than any commercial treats that are this high value. And so much more pleasant to carry around.

Here’s a photo essay on making my version of the brownies. Hah. These aren’t beautiful photos, and any food blogger would scoff at them. But hopefully they get the point across.

 

Thank you to Anita Gard, who provided the first recipe I saw that used tapioca flour. Her treats are more moist, even less crumbly (they are rubbery), and bake longer. Here is her recipe:

Liver Dog Treats

Ingredients:

  • Equal parts (by volume) raw chicken livers and tapioca starch/flour. For example, about 1 1/2 lbs livers and 2 cups of tapioca flour work well.
  • 2 TB oil

Method:

Put ingredients in a blender/food processor and blend until smooth. Line a cookie sheet (not a completely flat one; it needs edges) with parchment paper. Pour in the goop and spread it flat. It should be less than 1/2 inch thick. Bake at 300F for 30 minutes or until done.

Cool in pan. Then lift the whole thing out with the parchment paper. Flip it over onto a large cutting board and peel off the parchment. Use a pizza cutter to cut into appropriate sized treats for your dogs.

Any More?

Feel free to share your favorite dog treat recipes or methods!

Related Post

The Secret to Filling a Food Tube (a great way to deliver ultra-high value treats!)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. A reader has let me know that tapioca flour and tapioca starch are the same thing, and the latter is much cheaper. It can be found in most Asian markets and other stores as well. Thank you Lili!
Impulse Control. Impulse Control. Impulse Control. (Puppy Lesson Three)

Impulse Control. Impulse Control. Impulse Control. (Puppy Lesson Three)

OK, wait a doggone minute! How is it that in Zip’s last lesson, I was being all poetic about how the behaviors didn’t matter all that much, but all of a sudden we are zeroing in on just one thing? And it sounds so…cold! How did we get there? Does this mean that Marge has given up on bonding and positive reinforcement and creating fun for her puppy (and rainbows and fairies while we’re at it)?

Of course not! What Marge has done is make learning impulse control a win/win situation. With good teaching of impulse control (including what people call “Leave It,” “Zen,” or “It’s Yer Choice,”) dogs learn that when they control themselves around stuff they want, they can get even better stuff! As Sue Ailsby says:

It’s not my job to control the animal. It’s the animal’s job to control herself. It’s my job to put the animal in a situation where she can learn what I want her to know as quickly and easily as possible.

Sue calls it Zen, since the way to get the thing is to leave the thing alone. It’s just something else to learn, and Zip has already had many lessons in “learning is fun!”.

Zip on rug

That Puppy Sure Sits a Lot!

For a puppy that didn’t have any formal training sessions on “sit” Zip sure sits a lot. How did that happen? While Marge may not have done any training sessions on “sit,” she was still teaching Zip to sit by reinforcing that behavior when he offered it. Since, as Marge would say, Rewarded Behavior Continues, Zip started sitting more. When barking doesn’t work to get out of a pen, he’ll try sitting and will get rewarded (you can see this in the movie). If dashing towards the door doesn’t work, he’ll try sitting. That’s how highly reinforced behaviors can start to fill in the blanks. I love seeing puppies put two and two together and try it out, like Zip does.

Having default, highly reinforced behaviors are one of the lovely things about positive reinforcement training. At first, when teaching impulse control, any behavior but lunging toward the desired object or goal is usually reinforced. But soon, the trainer can select out of these other behaviors that she has already been reinforcing what she’d like to have. You can see that Marge is building in eye contact and a general orientation to her in all these situations, as well as sitting.

By the way, one of the reasons Marge hasn’t done any formal “sit” training is because she wants to teach Zip a “tuck” sit and just hasn’t gotten around to it.  Zip turns 10 weeks old today. She has plenty of time.

What Do They Practice?

So, what did Marge show us in Lesson 3? Zip is working on impulse control in the following ways:

  • Waiting for permission to grab the tug toy. Getting the permission by looking at Marge.
  • Staying away from food in Marge’s hand (at puppy level). Getting the food by looking at Marge.
  • Being quiet in his pen when Marge approaches.
  • Sitting quietly to get his leash put on (see, she is teaching sit, but she still has yet to say the word!)
  • Waiting to go out the door. Getting permission by looking at Marge.
  • Reorienting to Marge after they go out the door together.

Not only is he learning to control his impulses, he is learning to look to Marge when he wants something. A huge part of impulse control is focus on the handler. And Marge has been building that since Day 1.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Using Positive Reinforcement to Teach the Dog Not to Do Something

So many of us came to dog training because our dogs had behavior problems. We wanted them to Stop. Doing. That. And that is also one of the main questions that people ask about positive reinforcement based training: how to you teach a dog not to do something? Today’s whole movie, plus the two before it, do exactly that, but you have to know what to watch for. When you increase some behaviors, some others decrease without a whole lot of work. Some of the things that Zip is learning not to do are:

  • Lunge for the toy
  • Run off with the toy (since Marge has made herself the entertainment center–and also because the toy has a handle on it!)
  • Help himself to food without permission
  • Jump around when Marge puts his leash on
  • Run out the door without permission
  • Go nuts once he gets outside
  • And countless other behaviors that humans do not prefer!

All without a harsh word, a stern look, being forced into a position or held in place, or any kind of physical punishment.

How do you teach your dog about impulse control?

Zip holding tug

Related Posts

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Marge’s Channel on YouTube: Subscribe and see Zip’s next lesson!

Marge’s FaceBook business page: Rewarded Behavior Continues

The Second Thing To Teach Your Puppy

The Second Thing To Teach Your Puppy

A lot of people have enjoyed seeing what my friend Marge Rogers decided to teach her puppy first.   She taught Zip (and continues to teach him) that she is FUN. So I asked her what she was going to teach him second. (I love to watch her training, too!)

She said, “Now I’m going to teach him that learning is fun.”

Teaching a Dog that Learning is Fun

Why would this be so important that Marge would embark on it so early on? Doesn’t she need to train Zip how to behave acceptably?

First, we need to shake the notion that training is something we do to the dog. It is something we do with the dog. Then, it wouldn’t hurt to drop the “obedience” model from the back of our minds. With positive reinforcement-based training, we can get something better than obedience. We can build a joyful, trusting partnership between two species, and along the way we can ease our dog’s path into the weird human world.

And right along with that:  Using aversives in training is known to inhibit learningIf you went to math class and the teacher hit you over the head with a ruler every time you got the answer wrong, you could still learn math.  It probably wouldn’t be your favorite subject and you probably wouldn’t learn it as fast as you would if you enjoyed it.

What if, instead, the teacher valued above all that the student be happy, relaxed, and enjoying himself, and did all in her power to make that happen? This is not only humane and kind, but also very practical. If Zip is “in the game,” if he and Marge are partners, he will value the game. She can help him build resiliency. If at some point she makes mistakes or gives unclear information, he’ll keep trying.  And that’s where we see that the partnership works both ways. Zip will teach Marge to formulate training plans, improve observation skills,  and work through timing errors.

Marge goes so far as to say, “At this stage, the behaviors I’m teaching him don’t really matter.” Wow. So obviously true, yet so radical.

What she wants, what she values, and what she is building: an eager student.

A dog can learn a behavior at any age if he has the physical skills to do it and the trainer has the mechanical skills to teach it. That’s why the lesson right now is two-way communication.

If learning is fun for him, Marge can teach him anything.

Zip holding tug large

What Do They Practice?

So, what did Marge show us in Lesson 2? Keep in mind that the actual behaviors they work on are less important that the growing partnership. But I know some of you will be curious about some of what they do, so here is a list with short explanations.

  • Name training. She is teaching him that hearing his name predicts something great. He is learning to shift his attention immediately to her when he hears his name.  The name game builds a positive classical association to hearing his name and to her, and also builds a recall.
  • Puppy retrieve (with optional somersaults!). What all is this good for? Let us count the ways. It is an interactive, cooperative game.  It’s great for exercise: it drains the dog’s tank, but not the owner’s.  It’s a great interaction for kids and dogs. Also, Zip is rehearsing returning to her and releasing things to her. Deposits into those “Let Go of Stuff” and “Return to Me” accounts are always good!
  • Impulse control. Just about all of life with dogs boils down to impulse control, doesn’t it?  Many “good dog” behaviors share the principles of that exercise: do not help yourself to things you want. Look at your person when there’s something you want.  Do it in the face of distractions (starting with a food distraction).
  • Turns. Those are some agility moves Marge is making, and they teach some nice lessons. Prime among them are moving with Marge, turning, and switching seamlessly from being on Marge’s left to her right. For many of us, the days of teaching our dogs to walk exclusively on the left side are long gone.
  • Perch work. This is for both hind end awareness and strength. It will help in sports, everyday coordination, and tight turns for competition heeling. Plus cool stuff like a “tuck sit” as you can see at the end of this short video.
  • Hand targeting. Hand targeting teaches puppies that hands near their face are a good thing.  It teaches them to use their nose on hands instead of puppy teeth.  It is a foundation behavior for a recall. The dog is at point A, and you want them with you at point B: use a hand target.  Marge says it is a great way to start a training dialogue.
  • Experiencing new things. Just like in Lesson 1, Marge is continuing to introduce Zip to new things. Can you see that she has made it more challenging?  Dogs are great discriminators, and as they get older are quick to categorize things as abnormal and scary if they haven’t seen them before. So the more surprising and rare stuff she can show Zip, as long as it happens with good associations, the better. What she shows in the movie is the tip of the iceberg. She is taking him every day for different levels of observation of and interaction with the world.
  • Conditioning praise. Did you hear all the utterances of “Good boy good boy good boy”? This is not just filler. Dogs find repeated sound stimulating.  You’ll hear that kind of  repetition from many good trainers when they are having an exciting fun time with their dogs. But also: how many times in his life is Zip going to hear “good boy” and get a treat or special play? Answer: a lot. Marge is also conditioning praise as a secondary reinforcer. If she keeps it conditioned well, the phrase by itself will gain some reinforcing power. This is another foundation she is laying down in their training relationship.

What About Sit, Down, and Stay?

Zip profile 2Have you noticed the absence of certain behaviors that many of us are brought up to believe are the absolute foundation of proper dog behavior? How come Marge hasn’t taught Zip to sit or lie down, or stay on cue?

[8/26/14 Edited to remove a comparison with traditional training that wasn’t quite accurate. Thanks, reader S.T.] It’s not really that she isn’t reinforcing sit and down. They are some of the many behaviors of his that she is capturing and reinforcing in contexts. She is putting money in the bank for later. She has Zip’s whole life to teach him specific behaviors and put them on cue. Now is the time to establish a bond, show him that certain things pay off bigtime, to reinforce a large variety of desirable behaviors in an informal way; to teach him that learning and trying stuff aren’t scary. This will give Zip a palette of behaviors to default to in life situations. Sit and down are definitely in the palette, and a tiny puppy “stay” is developing as she waits a little longer and holds eye contact a little longer. And the more of these good behaviors he knows, the less time Marge will have to spend diminishing undesirable ones.

And the verbal cue thing? Believe it or not, you really don’t need word cues at this point. Zip has already picked up situational cues to do certain things. Dogs are geniuses at this; so good at it that we don’t even notice it half the time. We think they know a verbal cue but they are really reading the situation. Zip is already developing a default sit (you can see that in the impulse control section), eye contact, and can walk nicely on a leash.  A word is just a label. There will be time for that.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Have you shown your puppy or dog that learning is fun? (And what do you think Marge’s next lesson will be?)

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Marge’s Channel on YouTube: Subscribe and see Zip’s next lesson!

Marge’s FaceBook business page: Rewarded Behavior Continues

P.S. Editorial remark: I’m so glad Marge didn’t say she’s “teaching Zip how to learn.” I’ve always thought that was a very human-centric thing to say. Animals already know how to learn. Many of our problems come from the fact that they learn stuff that we don’t want them to.  Marge is teaching Zip how to be her dog, have fun with her, communicate with her, solve problems, and be happy in a human world. And with her gradual challenges, she is helping him develop his brain power.

The First Thing To Teach Your Puppy

The First Thing To Teach Your Puppy

My friend Marge has a new puppy, Zip, a Portuguese Water Dog. I just love what she decided to teach him first.

Marge is a professional trainer. Depending on Zip’s interest and aptitude, he may eventually be able to to help her in her business as a neutral dog, play therapy dog, or uncle dog. He’ll be introduced to a variety of fun dog sports. I think I heard whispers about agility as well as water dog sports. All these are possibilities, of course. No matter what his temperament, health, and inclinations, he will always be a beloved family pet.

Seaworthy's Won Direction "Zip"
Seaworthy’s Won Direction “Zip”

Marge said, “Do you know what the first thing I’m going to teach him is?” I didn’t know, but I figured it would be good.

“I’m going to teach him that I’m FUN.”

I have to say that was not what I expected, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

That first lesson accomplishes so many things.

  • It sets the tone for a lifetime bond.
  • It associates Marge with terrific things. Most of us get strong associations with food with our dogs. That happens almost automatically if we train with food, and if we are careful how and when we feed. (See my article “Double Your Money” in the Spring 2014 issue of BARKS magazine, page 19.) But in addition to being the provider of food, Marge is setting herself up as the entertainment center in her pup’s life. Via classical conditioning, she is building an association with herself to joy as well as nurturance.
  • Zip’s play with her is something he can learn to “take on the road.”
  • The behaviors that happen in the play (little proto behaviors that will be built on for skills later) get imbued with the fun–more classical conditioning.
  • Finally, fun and anxiety are mutually exclusive. Play creates a joyful world.

Marge’s lesson would not be appropriate–as a first lesson anyway– for every dog. She’s got a well bred, confident, socialized puppy (of a social breed, no less). She picked the sassy one of the litter. When we get a dog with a suboptimal or unknown history (Marge has had plenty of rescues too, I might add), the first lesson we often need to teach the dog is some version of  “You are safe.” Or “I won’t be mean to you.” Or, “We’ll always go at your speed; I won’t force you.” Those things look a bit different. What you see Marge doing in the video is appropriate for a confident, dare I say “pushy,” little guy.

But even with our fearful dogs, the sooner we can get some  joyful fun in their lives, the better. And the more I think about it, the more similar the approaches are. Whether you are showing the pup a rollicking good time or giving him a place to feel safe, you are prioritizing his emotional state over mere skills or obedience.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Do you see all the sub-lessons in the movie, all the bricks that Marge is laying for Zip’s future skills?

  • Zip is getting experience on stable and unstable surfaces, including a metal surface.
  • Zip is climbing through things that touch his legs.
  • He’s getting to put different things in his mouth and getting an outlet to chew and be mouthy.
  • He’s experiencing things that make sudden noises.
  • He is learning to tug.
  • He is learning to release and trade.
  • He is learning a puppy retrieve.
  • He’s learning that Marge will direct him to things that are OK to play with. (Did you notice that there is only one “real” dog toy in the whole video?)
  • He is learning to come when called.
  • He is learning to settle down and to be handled.

All this in a few minutes of play with a really fun lady.

Small tan puppy with black muzzle and tail looking up at camera
Clara on the day she arrived (about 10 weeks old)

I’m trying to remember the first things I taught Clara. In a four dog household, I think one of the first lessons was, “This is how you can happily fit into the group.” But I also taught her “You are safe with me.” (Actually I just remembered: The very very first thing I taught Clara was, “I have spray cheese, the ambrosia of your world.”)

I didn’t set about using play cleverly like Marge. Frankly, I let Zani babysit Clara a lot, since I was really in over my head with a geriatric dog, a reactive dog, and then a feral puppy, most of them incompatible with each other. If Clara and I hadn’t had such a strong bond, all that babysitting could have been a bad idea. Luckily Clara is up for just about any kind of fun with me, and has always played any kind of game I offered with enthusiasm. But I do wish I had been as deliberate as Marge in setting the stage for a playful relationship with Clara. Even more so with Zani, a born party girl.

I’ll remember for next time: there are some things that are even more important than sit and down. Build the relationship. Then the skills will likely be a piece of cake.

What was the first thing you taught your puppy or new dog?

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Marge’s Channel on YouTube: Subscribe and see Zip’s next lesson!

Ringing the Bell to Go Out: Avoid These 4 Common Errors!

Ringing the Bell to Go Out: Avoid These 4 Common Errors!

This post is for the people who have tried—and failed—to teach their dogs to ring a bell to go outside. I suspect there are a lot of bell ringing failures out there. Not that it’s so hard to teach a dog to poke a bell with his nose or paw. But it can be tricky to teach him when to do it, to let him know that this is a way to communicate with you about a certain thing.

I went through the top hits on a Google search on the topic before writing this post, and all but one of the sets of instructions had some crucial omissions. The exception was a wonderful protocol for teaching a dog to ring a bell to go out by Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs. If you are new to teaching the behavior, just follow her instructions. She will help you avoid every one of these errors listed here.

How Do I Teach my Dog to Ring a Bell to go Outside?—Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs

On the other hand, if you have already worked unsuccessfully on the behavior, check out the rest of this post to help you troubleshoot. There’s a good chance your problems are explained below.

The Common Errors

  1. Loud noises can scare dogs. If you obtained a set of bells or single bell that is loud enough that you can hear it from anywhere in your house, it may be too loud for your dog’s comfort at first. So start with the bells dampened with tape or cotton, or if it is just one big bell, apply something to the clapper. Do something to make it much, much quieter. Quieter than you think necessary. Your dog is going to have his head right up next to the bell. Use desensitization/counterconditioning if you need to, especially if your dog is already nervous about the bell. You don’t want your dog to never get past a half-hearted little poke at the bell just because the sound makes him nervous. First dampen the bell(s), train a hearty nose (or paw) touch, then gradually un-dampen them. Hold onto your criteria for the enthusiastic touch. There’s no point in training this behavior if you can’t hear the bells from the other end of the house when your dog rings them. And it’s no fun for your dog if he is even a little bit nervous about the bells.
  2. Going out the door is not always rewarding. Many sets of directions skip directly from giving your dog a treat for targeting the bell to opening the door when he does so (with no treat). Unless your dog LOVES going outside at any time under any conditions, you have just pulled most of the reinforcement out from under him right when he needs it the most. Not to mention that if you do time it right and require your dog to ring the bell when he is dying to pee, what you’ve got there is negative reinforcement. Not a great way to build enthusiastic behavior.
  3. Ringing a bell to go outside is a distance behavior. That means that the dog needs to be able to do it when their person is not close by or is even out of sight. Distance behaviors have to be specifically trained. Most of us have a huge “reinforcement zone” around our bodies. That’s where our dogs are used to getting their treats. If you were to cue your dog to lie down when he was 15 feet away from you, what would he do? Unless you have specifically trained him to lie down where he already is, he would probably either 1) look at you blankly; or 2) run over and plop down right in front of you. The whole point of the bell ringing is for the dog to communicate with you, wherever you are. Every set of directions I have seen except for Yvette’s completely neglects the distance. They have you time and time again practicing with your dog at the door when you are standing right there. Some dogs will make the cognitive leap on their own. But why not include it in the training?
  4. Your dog may “abuse” his new skill.  You don’t want the bell ringing all the time, night and day, on the dog’s whim, right? I’ve written before about stimulus control, so I’m not going to go into the full definition here. The relevant part is this: we want the cue for the bell ringing eventually to be that your dog needs to potty, and only that. Not that she wants to play ball. Not that there is a rabbit in the yard. Not that she’s bored. I’m poor at teaching stimulus control, but Yvette isn’t, and she built it right into the instructions.

Our Own Experience

A tan dog with a black muzzle is holding a red ball in her mouth. Her tongue is hanging out beside it. She is looking sideways towards the person with the camera
Clara with her precious ball

I’m having fun with all three of my dogs with this right now. I made my own string of bells with a cowbell and some jingle bells from an art supply store. I dangled it in a doorframe that is close to my back door so that the bells can be hit from several directions, i.e., they are not flat against the back door itself or the wall. I trained Clara and Summer first, leaving Zani for later since she is the most sound sensitive. However, hearing the bells repeatedly, and getting treats after going through the door (I generally reinforce my dogs for reorienting to me after going out the door) apparently acted to desensitize her to the sound. Yesterday she started offering to poke the bells herself!

However, Houston, we have a problem. I mentioned above that I am poor at stimulus control. Guess who has already put it together that ringing the bells makes me come open the door even when I’m not in the same room? And guess what motivated her to do it? Yes, Clara has rung the bells three times now directly after her supper while I was sitting in the next room. This is prime time for playing ball. And I fell for it. I did not think through the implications of reinforcing the behavior by playing ball. Headdesk! (Edit, 12/19/15: we no longer play ball right after dinner because of the risk of bloat.)

How about you? Anybody have perfect bell ringing behavior? Or not so perfect? I’d love to hear about it!

Link to the (very short!) video for email subscribers. 

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Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

Stinky Stuff on My Back! DS/CC for Flea Treatment

Stinky Stuff on My Back! DS/CC for Flea Treatment

A woman and a small black and tan hound mix are sitting on a bed. The woman is holding a syringe (no needle) against the dog's back while the dog looks at her attentively. She is performing desensitization/counterconditioning for the application of topical flea medicine

Thank you to Jennifer Titus and Debbie Jacobs for their help with the post and movie. All errors are my own and all clumsy training moments are in spite of their excellent counsel. 

Before I got serious about training, I regarded putting topical flea treatment on my dogs as one of those necessary evils in their lives. After all, it happened only once a month at most. And it didn’t occur to me that I could make that awful smelling stuff any easier to bear. So I would either catch and hold them while I applied it, or apply it by stealth while they were eating. Summer and Cricket were cooperative, if unhappy. Zani actively avoided me when I had the applicator in my hand. I had to chase her down.

Fleas have been rare around here for a couple of years now, for whatever reason, and I have rarely had to treat the dogs. It became a non-issue for a while.

Please note that I am not making any recommendations regarding whether to apply flea treatment, how often, or what product one should use. But even if you never use the stuff–stick around long enough to see what this is about. The processes described here can be generalized for other kinds of handling as well. 

Anyway,  recently I saw some signs of fleas, so I decided it was time to start applying the treatment again. I recalled how unpleasant  Zani used to find the application of the liquid to her back. I decided to do a little desensitization/counterconditioning with all the dogs to see if I could get them a little more comfortable.

I didn’t go for the whole banana, the whole classical reaction, as I explain below in “How Far to Go.” But in three short sessions I got three dogs who were pretty blasé about the process, and looked forward to their treats. I wish I had done it much earlier!

DS/CC

Desensitization/Counterconditioning (DS/CC) is a method wherein you replace one emotional response, in this case,”Ewwww, run!” with another one: “Yummy, fun!!”*  You do this by pairing the individual aspects of the “ewwww”-invoking activity gradually with a wonderful treat. So the holding of the plastic medicine tube can come to predict good stuff just as reliably as if you were holding a dinner bowl or a food toy if you do the procedure properly. Ditto the smell of the icky medicine, and all other aspects of the process you can identify and practice.

A poster showing a dog, in the first pat, having a happy reaction to a piece of meat, then a neutral reaction to a bell. In the second part, the bell ringing precedes the piece of meat. In the last part, the dog has a happy reaction to the bell.
Poster credit to Sarah Pennington of Yaletown Dog Training. Used with permission. Thanks, Sarah!

For detailed instructions on performing DS/CC, check out this description from the ASPCA, and the CARE for Reactive Dogs site. The protocols on the CARE website are designed for dogs with fear and/or aggression issues, and they focus on exposure to people, other animals, or scary objects. But guess what: the concept is exactly the same. You can use the same process to help your dog learn to accept stinky medicine as you do to help them stop being afraid of that guy with the beard, dark glasses, and cowboy hat. Or the FedEx truck.

Also you can check out my post and movie about thresholds, which clarify some terminology and discuss the need for each step of counterconditioning to be done at an exposure level that is non-aversive to the animal.

There are two different procedures that are both referred to as counterconditioning. One is  classical or Pavlovian counterconditioning, where the behavior of the subject animal is irrelevant. You are building an association between one stimulus and another, like Pavlov’s bell that predicted food. The other procedure is operant counterconditioning,  where the animal is asked to perform a certain behavior while in the presence of a formerly aversive stimulus. The behavior is usually one that tends to elicit an incompatible state of mind, such as relaxing on a mat or a behavior that the dog finds especially fun.

What I usually do, and what you will see in the movie, is pure classical conditioning. Zani is not required to do any particular behavior. She is just learning the pairing of various handling actions with great treats. She does lie down for a lot of it, but that is not required.

A Proposed Step by Step Protocol for Topical Meds Application

I have never seen a protocol for DS/CC presented for this particular husbandry task, so I made one, and made a movie of it.

Here’s how I went about it.

What’s Unpleasant About Getting the Treatment?

First I had to figure out what I would need to address. Here are some of the things my dogs didn’t like about getting their topical flea treatment applied.

  • They sometimes had to be restrained.
  • The medicine smelled very unpleasant.
  • I had to reach over and touch them on their back with a tube or syringe.
  • The touch had a few seconds’ duration.
  • The sensation of the liquid flowing onto their back was probably pretty weird.

Even though there was apparently no pain involved, it was a moderately unpleasant process.

Supplies for the Conditioning and Application

Two syringes without needles: one full of liquid, the other empty but sitting in a bowl of water
Some of the necessary supplies

What did I need?

  • Clean eyedropper or a syringe without the needle
  • Used flea treatment applicator tube (for the medicinal smell)
  • Water-filled eyedropper or syringe
  • Actual flea treatment applicator, or the liquid in a syringe
  • High value treats: meat, cheese, liver or tuna brownies, dehydrated raw meat, etc.
  • Washable or disposable towel

Setup and Position

What would be the optimal setup? I took my dogs (one at a time) to a comfortable area. They could take any position, and could leave if they wanted to. That would simply be a message to me that my treats were not good enough and/or I was proceeding too fast. I would need to adjust accordingly.

Sitting is the least desirable position, since if the treatment is applied it will run straight down the dog’s back, but it is probably OK for most small dogs since the amount of liquid is less. Once my dogs realized that the actions I was performing predicted treats, they stuck around and got comfortable. Either standing or lying down work fine for the actual application of the medicine for most dogs, but I didn’t worry about that during the initial conditioning. The focus is entirely the dog’s comfort level, not requiring a particular behavior.

The Steps of the Process

Here are the steps I chose for my dogs, written out as instructions. You may be able to skip some of the steps, or you may need to further split them out into smaller increments. Let your knowledge of your dog and her response to each activity be your guides.

Perform desensitization/counterconditioning for each of the following steps as follows:

  1. Don't forget the good treats!
    Don’t forget the good treats!

    Reach over dog’s back with your hand, treat. Repeat the reach/treat until dog is happy or at least comfortable with this. *

  2. Reach over and touch dog’s back with your fingers, treat. Repeat the touch/treat as in the previous step.
  3. Put the used applicator tube close enough for your dog to get a whiff, treat. Do not let your dog lick or mouth it. Also, you don’t need to wait for an obvious sniff. You don’t want to teach an operant behavior. She’ll get the smell if you just wave it by her face. Repeat the presentation/treat.
  4. Show your dog the clean eyedropper or syringe without the needle before you start. Reach over and touch dog’s back with it, then treat. With big dogs, practice touching between their shoulder blades and also a place farther down their back, if included in the instructions for the treatment. Repeat the touch/treat.
  5. Repeat Step 4, adding duration with the eyedropper in contact with the dog’s back, then treat. Repeat the touch-hold/treat.
  6. Return to Step 3 for a few repetitions, letting your dog sniff the used applicator. Then use it to touch your dog’s back as you did with the eyedropper as in Steps 4 and 5, and treat. Repeat the touch/treat, then the touch-hold/treat.
  7. Switch back to the clean eye dropper. Put some water in it. Repeat the duration touch to the back but this time squeeze out some liquid, then treat. This will likely surprise your dog. Be ready to start out with a very small amount. Take your time with this step as you build up to the approximate amount of liquid you will need to apply. Repeat the liquid application/treat. (Don’t do too many repetitions of this at once since your dog will get wet! But you may need to do a lot of short sessions since this is probably the single most novel experience for the dog. You also may need to back up to Step 5 a few times.)
  8. It’s show time! Clear the area of food bowls and anything that you don’t want to get droplets of medication on (your dog will shake at some point). Get the actual medication in the correct dosage. Offer it to your dog to sniff, give a treat. Apply the medication to her back according to instructions, treat. Treat a few more times if you like, especially if you think the liquid causes discomfort.
  9. Your dog will eventually shake off, so keep her in the area of the house/yard where that is OK. Keep your treats covered. Hang around with the towel and you can hold it next to/above your dog to limit the shower of medicine.

You may need additional steps to get your dog comfortable. For instance, if you use latex gloves on your hands, you will need a step for the dog to smell them, and you may need to spend more time desensitizing her to the hand touch. Also, you may note that I didn’t work on the restraint part. After I worked on the other stuff my dogs didn’t need to be restrained.

What if it Stings?

As far as I can tell, the topical flea treatment does not hurt my dogs. But I have heard that it is painful for some dogs and can remain that way for quite a while. If that is the case for your dogs, when you give them the actual treatment it might be a good time to hand feed them a meal. Also in that case, periodic maintenance treatments with plain water in the applicator would be helpful so that the application doesn’t predict a long-term discomfort every time.

Tips for Successful DS/CC

The key to successful DS/CC is making the particular action predict the goodie, and making sure that prediction doesn’t attach to anything else.

  • Don’t get in a rhythm of touch, treat, touch, treat. Wait varying amounts of time in between repetitions. This is harder than it sounds. Humans don’t choose random intervals well. If you need to, write out a series of random numbers (within reasonable boundaries) before you start. Silently count out the seconds between reps using the random numbers.
  • Always treat just after the action, but not simultaneously. Don’t move that treat hand until you have performed the action, or it is well underway if it is a duration procedure.
  • Do use a unique treat that they don’t get any other time, at least during the initial conditioning. Make it a good size. Fewer reps with a spectacular treat are usually better than lots of reps with even a very good treat.
  • Do change up everything else. Sometimes use a treat bag, sometimes put treats in your pocket, sometimes have them in a bowl on the floor if your dogs can work with that. Do sessions at different times of day. Use different locations. Wear a hat. Skip a day or two. Do a stealth, unexpected action once in a while. When they are least expecting it, whip out the eyedropper, touch their back, give the awesome treat. (In the video, I recorded all of the sessions in the same location, but that was to simplify the filming.)
  • Demonstrate that some common actions do not predict treats. Move your treat hand, but don’t give a treat. Rattle the treat bag, but don’t give a treat.
  • Avoid the temptation to start a repetition every time your dog gives you eye contact or does something else that is charming. Stay strong and be random! You can probably see me responding to Zani sometimes in the movie. It’s a real challenge not to respond to the dog’s behavior.
  • Don’t reverse the conditioning by reaching toward or even looking at the treat before performing the action.
  • Practice without the dog first if you need to.

The movie doesn’t show the gradual change in Zani’s attitude to the handling steps; that would be a bit longer! My focus is to show how to break down the handling, and hopefully to show a dog who is more than just tolerant of the different activities. But you can see that she is not pulling away or trying to leave. If at any time I had seen signs of discomfort, it would’ve been time to go to an easier step.

Link to the video for email subscribers

How Far to Go

In Step 1 above, I wrote, “Repeat the reach/treat until dog is happy or at least comfortable with this.” You can decide ahead of time, or as you go along, how far you want to take the conditioning. Do you hope for the dog to be tolerant, neutral, or delighted?

If it were a perfect world and you had infinite time, it would be great to condition your dog so strongly that she started wagging her tail at the scent of the flea treatment and drooling when you got out the applicator. But most of us have bigger fish to fry. I have a formerly feral dog who still gets weekly conditioning for working in close proximity to unfamiliar humans. Another dog is sound sensitive to high frequency beeps and chirps, a third to thunderstorms and delivery trucks. I’m working on these and also with all three dogs on foot handling and nail trimming. All of these issues affect their quality of life to a much greater degree than getting medicine put on their backs at most once a month.

So I didn’t go for the full-bore, Pavlovian reaction on this one. I aimed for a neutral response, but I actually got more than that, even before doing all the steps as many times as I planned. You can see in the movie that Zani is having a pretty good time, and looking anticipatory when I perform some of the actions.

Since the treatment is needed rarely, I’ll do a few more sessions now and then, and will probably do a refresher first when I need to treat them again.

I hope anyone who tries this will let me know the outcome. Also be sure and comment if you have any more tips about the process. Have you had to split things down into finer steps when working on handling?

*We can’t directly perceive the dogs’ actual emotions, of course. But we can discern the change in their response through their behavior.

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

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