Spray With Caution!

When Kate LaSala told me about her dog’s experience with spray cheese, I knew I needed to share it. I mention spray cheese a lot, as a high value and easy-to-use food reinforcer for my dogs.  So it’s only right that I share this caution as well. I have had a few mishaps with cans of cheese with my two more sensitive dogs, but nothing like what Kate and BooBoo went through. No one can predict when something like that might happen, though, and the effects can be far-reaching. Kate and I both advise caution.–Eileen

Guest post by Kate LaSala, CTC

Kate and BooBoo

I see a lot of people using spray cheese in a can, or even whipped cream, as a quick, easy-to-dispense treat. It’s convenient, no mess and no smell until you spray it (so no tipping off your dog with stinky food that she’s about to get something good–so important when you’re training!)

I, like many of you, thought spray cheese was the perfect treat for training. When I was training BooBoo to stay on her kitchen mat (to keep from being under my feet when I’m cooking), I decided spray cheese was going to be my go-to reward. I could keep it in the cabinet by the mat and she loved cheese. So we set out on our training plan and for months we were moving along splendidly. She was happily going to her mat, then I’d open the cabinet where the spray cheese was and bend down to squirt some for her to lick. Everything was perfect, until about 1000 trials in when I went to reward her and “POP…POOF”–an air bubble in the can popped right in her face. She immediately recoiled and ran off to hide upstairs, as far away from the kitchen as possible. I was horrified and instinctively grabbed my treat bag filled with chicken and went to comfort and feed her. I needed to undo this. I managed to coax her out of hiding and we sat and cuddled for a while as I fed her. I thought to myself, “It’s OK. She’ll recover. She was just spooked because it surprised her. She’s got lots of padding after months of working on the mat and with the cheese. It will be OK.”

After a while of sitting, I happy-talked her downstairs and she stopped dead in her tracks at the edge of the kitchen, staring at the mat. So I tossed some yummy treats for her on it. She wanted nothing to do with it. She was clearly still afraid. My heart sank.

I tossed her some treats where she was and she gobbled them up. I decided to just let things be for the time being and hoped that overnight she’d sleep it off and by morning she’d be all recovered.

But the next morning, she still refused to come into the kitchen. She sat on the threshold but wouldn’t enter. I let her be, occasionally tossing her treats. At one point, not really thinking, I went to the cabinet–the same cabinet that housed the spray cheese–and as soon as I reached for it, Boo took off again to hide. It was very clear to me now that she had developed a very strong fear (negative conditioned emotional response or -CER) to the kitchen and the cabinet, all because of ONE spray cheese air bubble. My heart sank again. Suddenly the gravity of it hit me, and the concept that neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux had surmised was in my brain: fear is the easiest thing to condition in animals and the hardest thing to resolve. Months of positive reinforcement training had just been completely undone by one bad experience.

Now we weren’t even just back to square one–we were back farther than that, because now BooBoo had a fear response. I wasn’t training something she was neutral to and that was going to take a lot more work.

So, for the next several months I worked on a DS/CC plan to get BooBoo to be happy on her kitchen mat and not show any fear of the kitchen, the mat, or the cabinet where the spray cheese USED to live. (Needless to say, that was tossed immediately and I’m never buying it again!)

I’m happy to report that after a few months of working at her pace, building positive associations and keeping her under threshold at all times, that I was able to get her peacefully relaxing back on her kitchen mat.

Spray cheese presented on a finger
The safer way to present spray cheese

So I’ve got two important takeaways. Always remember how easy fear is to install and how hard it is to untrain. One bad experience can set you back months of work, even if the dog had nothing but positive experiences in that time. And, if you still want to use spray cheese (or anything in a pressurized can), I would recommend squirting it onto your finger or letting it dangle from the can before presenting it into your dog’s face/mouth. Food squeeze tubes like these are a great alternative without the pressurized, potentially scary part.

And, just so you can see, here’s a picture of BooBoo happily on her kitchen mat. I love happy endings.

Lovely black dog BooBoo is on her mat and no longer scared of the kitchen area
BooBoo, happy on her mat in the kitchen again

Addendum from Eileen: Spray cheese has gotten hard to obtain in local stores and mail order, so this is what I came up with as a passable substitute. I use a food tube, which doesn’t tend to pop and sputter in dogs’ faces!

Kate LaSala, CTC is an honors graduate of The Academy for Dog Trainers and owns Rescued By Training in Central NJ. She is also a certified AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Evaluator and trainer for the NJ Chapter of Pets for Vets. She shares her home with her husband, John and their two rescue dogs, Mr. Barbo and BooBoo. Kate and BooBoo are a certified therapy dog team, visiting nursing and rehabilitation homes locally. Follow her on Facebook for training tips and helpful information. Also, see Kate’s other post on this blog: “Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? But We Live in NJ!” 

Copyright Kate LaSala 2016

19 thoughts on “Spray With Caution!

  1. Been there, done that. My dogs both became fearful of the cheese can on the same day when it popped in their mouths. Neither dog ran away, but I quickly discovered that the cheese can had suddenly become aversive and was no longer a reward. Fortunately, it didn’t set any other training behind, but I never feed directly from the can any more.

    1. Sorry that happened! Glad you chimed in, though. We may have more cheese can mishap survivors than we think.

  2. Poor BooBoo! I have a dog with similar fear issues and it really doesn’t take much to instill a phobic response into her so I’m always having to be super careful. I’m glad you and BooBoo were able to get back on the right track. On the notion of using spray cheese, I would like to draw attention to food ingredient lists, since processed foods contain a lot of toxic and cancer-causing chemicals that are bad for us big people, let alone small animals; things like GMO oils (canola, soybean, cottonseed, etc), GMO sugar (beet sugar, often just listed as “sugar”) caramel food coloring, chemical preservatives, etc. all of which cause hormonal disruption (linked to behavioral issues) as well as being linked to major diseases and cancer. Spray whipped cream almost always contains carrageenan, which is linked to chronic digestive issues, inflammation, and cancers of the digestive tract. Much better to toss crumbled up or cubed up pieces of “real” cheese to your pup instead if you can!

    1. Johanna, thanks for that caution. I have been braced for loud disapproval about the use of it so I find your reasoned caution very nice. We should all take care about any foods we feed our dogs and definitely check ingredients. In moderation I am good with using it. I realize that for some its use is out of the question. I know our goals are the same: healthy and happy dogs. Thanks for the comment!

      1. Thank you, Johanna, for your reply. I do normally use chicken and “whole foods” for training but for this I was trying to find something novel to her (to build strength in conditioning) and something I could leave in the cabinet for convenience. But it isn’t something I’d use all the time.

  3. Oh, yeah, we’ve had the air bubble experience with Ziva, my reactive rat terrier. Ziva is noise sensitive anyway and that certainly didn’t help! The other concern is that too much squeeze cheese will give a small dog diarrhea!

  4. When I’ve used a cheese can for a few days, I pick up some crackers for humans, and finish the can myself. As one could predict, this has come to mean that there are always cans of cheese here to work with. 🙂

  5. This happened to me with my first clicker-trained dog. Forever after, he would leave the room if I brought out the spray cheese can. Fortunately, his negative association was to the can. When I use it now (with different dogs), I dispense a half-inch of cheese, THEN present the nozzle to the dog.

    1. Sorry about the first guy! I do the “extrude, then present” method with my dog Summer now.

    1. While it’s true that adult dogs, like most adult mammals, generally have some measure of lactose intolerance, I think poison is overstating the case. Cheese is comparatively low in lactose, and is literally watered down in the spray cheese form. This is a decision for each pet owner to make. What my dogs enjoy and respond to counts in the equation for me, as long as we are not overdoing it. Certainly moderation with heavily processed foods is wise.

  6. The one thing I particularly love spray cheese for is muzzle desensitization, for which spraying it directly is what makes it work so well. I’m wondering if these air bubbles tend to happen when the can is emptier, in which case it would be safe to spray directly with a new can?

    1. I’ve been using spray cheese fairly regularly since I got Clara in 2011. Up until recently, I would have answered that it is only the partially empty cans that sputter. But this year I got one that went ka-pow when I was giving some to Zani (it just had to be her!). But that’s one can out of…a lot. So from my experience: 95% chance that you are OK if you stick with new-ish cans. Oh, and I haven’t mentioned anywhere else: in my neck of the woods, there is a store brand available. The spray mechanism is definitely lower quality. The ones I’ve gotten break down right away. (They just stop extruding; I haven’t had one that sputters.)

  7. OMG i really feel so bad for you.. I know for my self how hard it is to see so many hours of training being undone in a split second.. I have a very reactive dog that was Kicked by a stranger and also beaten by the owner of the kennel she stayied in during a weekend i had to go to work on the other side of the country… From being a wonderful pup she turned out to be a scared red zone dog… I spent 3 years on rebuilding her trust and one day she was actually where she should be.. but then the accident happend.. she played with my male dog and got hit on her shoulder. that made a splnt come of and we had to go to the vet.. The vet held her down while she actually screanmed of fear.. so now we are back to square one ;( and now she is actually worse then ever.. but i am never giving up.. So it just takes ONE thing and yiour dog can get scarred for life.. I am so happy to hear that BooBoo is doing well and that you guys are back on track.. I hope i can say the same about my beloved GSD Inca again <3

  8. I just want to say that I’ve had this issue with non-pressurized food tubes as well. I’m sure the noise wasn’t as loud, but possibly because of it the mixture it contained not being just the right consistency, an air bubble emerged and scared a dog.

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