eileenanddogs

Author: Eileen Anderson

Clara’s Stand Disaster and Why She Still Hops

Clara’s Stand Disaster and Why She Still Hops

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Did the Disaster Look Like?

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Stand Successfully with Previous Dogs

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

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

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

What Were the Problems with Teaching Clara to Stand?

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

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

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

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

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

How I Solved the Problems

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

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

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

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

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

Reinforcement History: Ghosts of Behaviors Past

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

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

The concept of reinforcement history comes straight from Thorndike’s Law of Effect.

Of several responses made to the same situation, those which are accompanied or closely followed by satisfaction to the animal will, other things being equal, be more firmly connected with the situation, so that, when it recurs, they will be more likely to recur; those which are accompanied or closely followed by discomfort to the animal will, other things being equal, have their connections with that situation weakened, so that, when it recurs, they will be less likely to occur. The greater the satisfaction or discomfort, the greater the strengthening or weakening of the bond.

Thorndike, 1911, p. 244

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

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

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Reference

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Clara has a piece of kibble on her head

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

Treat on the Nose Trick

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

There are lots of aspects to the trick.

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

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

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

This nice flat kibble works for practicing this trick

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

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

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

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

Roll out the Carpet Trick

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


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


Paws in a Box Trick

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

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

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

Related Posts

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Planning the Tricks for Our Novice Master’s Title

Planning the Tricks for Our Novice Master’s Title

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

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

Trick Selection

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

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

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

Head Cock: Already a Mega-Blooper

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

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

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

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

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

Related Post

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

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the first batch.

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

Training Errors

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

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

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

3. We fail puppy push-ups.

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

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

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

Reasons for Errors

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

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

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

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

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

One of these things is not like the others

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Words

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

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

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

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

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

bright colored fabric dog collar with plastic snap

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Dampen the Sound and How Much That Can Help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts

Sciencey Addendum

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

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

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

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

References

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

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Whip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Did I Think about It?

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

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

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

Spray Bottles

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

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

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

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

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

Is Avoidance Better than Escape?

Most dogs will work to escape or avoid body pressure

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

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

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

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

How to Tell When Avoidance Is Involved

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

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

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

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

Things That Can Work through Avoidance

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

Aggression

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

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

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

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

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

Avoidance Doesn’t Earn You a Pass

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

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

6 Ways To Prepare Your Dog for Fireworks Starting TODAY

6 Ways To Prepare Your Dog for Fireworks Starting TODAY

firecracker exploding in the air with lots of orange sparks

Is your dog scared of fireworks? Don’t wait until Canada Day or Independence Day to start worrying about it! You can make a plan and take action now to help your dog be a bit less afraid of the unpredictable scary sounds of fireworks, firecrackers, whistles, and even guns.

Get Ready

Here are some things you can do today.

1. Check with your vet about medications
If your dog gets very anxious about noises and you have never talked to your vet about it, do so now. He or she may be able to prescribe something to help. And if you can’t get in before the holiday, do your best with some of the other ideas here to get through it and call your vet as soon as you can. This is a long-term problem. Sound phobias tend to get worse and are not something to be taken lightly.

2. Countercondition to noises
Get some great treats and start carrying them around at home. Whenever there is any kind of sudden or startling noise, but especially stray bangs and booms as people start to test their noisemakers, rain treats down on your dog. Use those special treats only for noises. Don’t pass them out for nice behavior (use something else for that!), and don’t ask for any particular behavior from your dog when the noise occurs. Just give the special treats. This is sometimes referred to as ad-hoc counterconditioning, and here is an excellent article about a survey that indicated its efficacy.

You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app, CD, or YouTube video with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky.  People who haven’t done DS/CC before run a real risk of scaring their dogs further instead of helping them, and many of the sound collections are poorly designed for DS/CC anyway. This is why I am suggesting straightforward counterconditioning, which uses environmental noises that are happening anyway. Save the formal training for well after the holiday, when scary noises are less likely to happen.

3. Create a safe place
Make (or adapt) a safe place for your dog. Keep in mind that the flashes of light that come with big fireworks displays can be scary too. Consider a method to darken any windows nearby or shield the safe place with a cover if necessary. Be aware that the low-frequency sounds of thunder are physically impossible to mute with the amount of absorbent material we can use at home. But being underground can usually help a bit, so basements are a good option for some dogs. Get the best protection you can in a basement or your most internal room. Despite the marketing claims, dog crates with walls a few inches thick can’t dampen low-frequency sounds significantly. Putting a soft cover on a crate does nothing to prevent the sounds of thunder from entering, although it may cause an auditorily cozy feeling because it deadens some of the reverberant sound in the space.

4. Play sound or music
Experiment with sound masking or music to find out what is most helpful for your situation. Try some kind of recorded white noise, natural noise, or music to mask the pops and booms. (Even a noisy food toy can be helpful.) This approach is evidence-based and called sound masking. Start working on it today.

And here’s a tip: the lower the frequencies included in the masking or music, the better it can hide those low-pitched booms (Kinsler, Frey, Coppens, & Sanders, 1999, p. 318–320). So if your dogs are already habituated to pounding rock music or some other music with a lot of bass or percussion, play it! It can mask some of the scary noises from outside your house more effectively. Taiko drumming is great if your dogs are accustomed to it. You can buy a few songs and loop them or find some on YouTube. But first, be absolutely certain that the music itself doesn’t scare your dogs. If they are already sensitive to booms, it probably will.

Household appliances can help. Some floor fans hit fairly low frequencies and can be helpful. You can run the dryer (no heat) with a pair of sports shoes in it for some booms that will probably be familiar and not scary. You’ll need to find the line of best fit for your dogs.

You can also try the Bang-Dog Playlist from Triplet Noir Studios. These are heavy metal selections (be aware that some of the language is not family-friendly). Before anyone mentions it: heavy metal has not ranked well in the dogs and music studies, tending to make shelter dogs more agitated. That’s not surprising. People might find it almost sacrilegious that I am suggesting heavy metal. But if you play it already and your dogs are fine with it, they are habituated. In that case, these playlists could be the perfect thing for you.

5. Practice going out
Make a plan for taking your dog out to potty. Do you know when the noise is usually at its worst and can you work around that? Are your fences and/or leash and harness secure? Dogs who are usually sedate have been known to panic and run off on noisy holidays. Don’t let that happen.  Keep your gates locked, your dogs’ ID tags on, and put some redundancy into your safety system.

6. Comfort your dog if that helps
LOSE that idea that there’s something wrong with comforting your dog if that’s what your dog wants. Helping a dog through a tough time is not “coddling.” Assess what is most helpful to your dog: a cuddle, food after every thunderclap, some lap time, sweet talk, being in their crate with a food toy, or hiding by themselves in a secluded place. Then help them do it.

The best part of thunderstorms: spray cheese!
The best part of noisy holidays for Summer was spray cheese!

Check out lots more resources and tips on my page “You Can’t Reinforce Fear.

Another good resource is this article by Val Hughes: My Dog Fears Fireworks and Thunderstorms—What Should I Do To Help?

Thanks for reading!

Reference

Kinsler, L. E., Frey, A. R., Coppens, A. B., & Sanders, J. V. (1999). Fundamentals of Acoustics (4th ed.). Wiley.

© Eileen Anderson 2015 

The Best Thing I Ever Taught My Dog

The Best Thing I Ever Taught My Dog

Bold claim, eh? But almost 10 years later, I think I am safe making it. Clara learned other things, like how to be around people other myself, that were more important. But those things were either trained directly by or supervised by my phenomenal trainer. This one I thought up and executed myself, and it has paid off ever since.

I classically conditioned Summer’s barking to predict puppy Clara’s favorite treat, which was spray cheese. That stuff is still very high on the list, so high I learned to make a substitute when I could no longer get it.

I did this conditioning because I was worried that Clara would pick up my dog Summer’s reactive habits. Summer was anxious and startled easily. She was fearful of most men, people coming on the porch (e.g., deliveries), and most of all, delivery trucks. She hated those trucks. I had never been able to classically condition her to them because I was not home all day. So she had plenty of exposures that were not paired with great things. I did make some inroads later but could never mitigate it completely.

Feral Clara was very much at risk for picking up fears and fearful habits since she already had a bucketload of them. But they didn’t include delivery trucks. She was remarkably calm about vehicles and machinery. And being a puppy, she hadn’t learned yet to join into bark-fests automatically, as so many adolescent and adult dogs do.

I figured I had a chance to get a foot in the door.

The classical response grew operant components of reorientation to me, followed by a recall. Pretty cool to have a dog come running to you when another dog barks, rather than joining into the mayhem!

How It Started

Here is Clara at less than one year old. The conditioned response was already strong.

How It Is Now: Nine Years Later

I have maintained the classical pairing. This is a response of Clara’s I highly value for her mental health. Of course, I don’t always have ultra-high-value stuff on my person. Over the years, I have tended to scale the value of the treat. When Zani was alive, Clara got some kibble when she barked. Ditto with my friend’s Chihuahua mix, who barks a lot. Neither of those was particularly alarming to Clara, but they fit in the barking category, so she got a little something for those.

But any other dog barking means great stuff for Clara. When she and I are outdoors these days, I am ready with it. We have dogs next door in both directions and two more who are often visible from the yard. In the winter, I generally have a tube of my faux spray cheese mix out on the porch. It’s safe from going bad for a few days when the weather is cold. Now, in the heat, I have a plastic container of soft cat food treats.

Clara does fine with the dogs on one side, a sweet border collie mix and a petite (100 lbs) Great Dane. She doesn’t like it when they get noisy, but still generally ignores them. But on the other side, we have new dogs. Two goldendoodles, plus more doodles and retriever types that come with visiting family members quite often. And though they are dog-friendly, the doodles in particular tend to stand erect and stare, which bothers Clara no end.

These dogs are friendly and curious, but can you imagine how this appears to dog-selective Clara?

However, her conditioned response still holds. I’ve taken lots of videos of her “barking recall” over the years, but the following video is one of my favorites. It happened last fall. Clara and I were in the backyard doing our version of nose work. She was searching for a toilet paper tube with some treats in it. She knew the neighbor dogs were out there at the fence and had seen them staring but was still happy to search. And I had hidden the tube in the part of the yard away from the dogs.

Check out the video for Clara’s operant and classical responses when a dog barks at her.

The Ethics

Little extrovert Zani apparently barked to see who was around in the neighborhood

Dogs bark for all sorts of reasons; I’m not going to try to list them. But converting the sound of a dog bark to predict food rather than to function as a prompt for a social interaction, whether affiliative or aggressive, was not an easy thing. I was pushing back against some very strong, natural dog behaviors. Was this OK for me to do?

Classical conditioning is a paradox. On one hand, when you are doing it well, it is so non-intrusive that the dog doesn’t even “know” training is happening, not in the way they seem to know about operant-leaning training sessions. And although operant behaviors will be there immediately in classical conditioning, the dog never has to “work” for the food when we are following a classical protocol. They can’t get it wrong. Once they experience the trigger, the food is going to appear, whatever they do.

On the other hand, in this case, I was interfering with a basic and natural dog response. Barking certainly seems to be a social behavior, one that triggers predictable types of responses from other dogs. One could call it intrusive on my part to step in.

But you know what? I am fine with this decision. When we take a dog into our lives, the training we do is not just for us. The training benefits the dog in helping them thrive in this weird human world and develop behaviors that pay off for them and don’t drive us nuts or endanger anybody. This training was beneficial to her. I wasn’t even thinking about my own convenience when I trained it. I wanted to protect her from catching a particular fear.

Summer barked from fear

Clara is easily aroused. Since we worked so hard and exclusively on getting her OK with humans in her early years, some reactivity to dogs has crept in. Without the early bark-conditioning, she would likely have a lot more unpleasant experiences in her life. And her life would be much more limited. Just today, I took her for a walk around the neighborhood. (By the way, this is a Big Deal that Clara can do this.) Whenever we go out, without fail, we get barked at by dogs behind fences and dogs looking out windows and glass doors. A few of them pound on the windows with their paws as they bark. Clara either looks to me for a treat, or ignores them as she chooses another reinforcing activity, such as exploring sniffing. The classical pairing gave us a head start against likely leash reactivity. And indeed, the potential for reactive behavior is not completely erased. Back home, when the neighbor dogs catch us unawares, Clara will indeed run to the fence for the beginning of a fearsome “let’s bark in each other’s faces” session. But she interrupts herself almost immediately, or if she doesn’t, I do. So yes, there are big seeds for reactive behavior there. But the classical pairing, the reinforcement of operant behaviors, and the maintenance have prevented them from growing into a big extended aggressive response.

Yes, I have interfered with her natural dog reaction. I interfered, just as we do when we house train dogs, train them not to chew indiscriminately, and take steps to mitigate the natural behavior of resource guarding. And in this case, I did it entirely for her.

Other Types of Classical Conditioning for Puppies

Marge Rogers and I recently released our new book, Puppy Socialization: What It Is and How to Do It. We have a whole chapter on how puppies learn, including through classical conditioning. The book made me think of juxtaposing these “then” and “now” videos of Clara. It’s also made me realize that one of the things I love about the topic of puppy socialization is that so much of it is based on classical conditioning: building positive, happy associations with new stuff. It’s a gift you can give to a puppy, or a grown dog if you are playing catch-up. Sometimes you don’t have to keep up the pairing religiously. Once a puppy (especially in their sensitive period for socialization) recovers from having a mild fear response to something in the environment, other reinforcers can come into play. I watched that happen with Clara with many things. But for a dog with fearful tendencies who didn’t get the best start in life, it really pays off if you do keep up the 1:1 pairing. I think I made the right decision with the dog barks.

Related Posts

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Puppy Socialization Book Is Now Available

Puppy Socialization Book Is Now Available

Beau, 11 weeks


Puppy Socialization: What It Is and How to Do It, by Marge Rogers and myself, is now available at Amazon and several other e-book vendors (with more to come)! We think it’s already a steal at its list price, $9.99, but it’s 20% off for the whole month of June. You can purchase 63,000 words, 50+ photos, and access to 50+ linked videos for $7.99.


Clara, 11 weeks

This book is why the lights have been off for an unprecedented two months in my blog! Late at night sometimes I work on some posts—it’s impossible for me not to write blog posts—but I haven’t had the brain cells to polish them. Polishing the puppy book is all Marge and I have been doing for most of that time period!


Tinker, 10 weeks


We are very proud of this book. It was a huge endeavor and we and hope there is something in it for every reader.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Photo Credits

  • Beau: Blanche Axton
  • Clara: Eileen Anderson
  • Tinker: Marge Rogers

Why to Muzzle-Train the Gentlest Dog

Why to Muzzle-Train the Gentlest Dog

I wrote this post in June 2020, before Zani was diagnosed with cancer and passed away three months later. I’m leaving it in the present tense.

Zani, a brown and black beagle mix, gazes with her chin on the table
Zani at the time of her eye and nose problems. Thank goodness for the lucky camera angle.

It’s odd, the things that finally make you break down and cry when your dog is sick or injured. This is the story of one of those times, and how I came to see the need to muzzle-train sweet, affiliative little Zani, who is approximately the least likely dog on earth to bite someone.

Zani has more than her fair share of health problems. She is sound phobic (handled well with meds). She will never quite recover from the effects of her spinal cord concussion; her gait and balance are affected. And she has a dry eye that is unresponsive to the standard medications. She still has to take the drops, but they have not opened up her tear ducts on the affected eye. The ophthalmologist says they help her cornea stay as healthy as possible.

One night in 2019, just before going to bed, I noticed that the juncture between her nose and the rest of her snout was raw and bloody. I recalled she had been scratching her face a lot and that the night before I had found “mystery blood” on my hand. I bet most dog owners know of “mystery blood” and the sinking feeling it gives you. I hadn’t been able to track down the source. Now I’d found it.

Zani already had an appointment with her ophthalmologist scheduled the next day. And the ophthalmologist is at the same practice as the emergency vet. So I took Zani for a two-for-one appointment.

I went to bed that night nauseated and wanting to cry because of the weird thing that was wrong with her nose. This was not just a cut or scratch. Besides being bloody on the outside, her muzzle was swollen and the “wrong color” inside the nostril. I’m sparing you a photo, but it looked awful.

I withheld water and food in case they would need to anesthetize her.

My mental balance deserts me when I must wait for medical care for a suffering animal, and I particularly hate withholding water. They don’t understand. I fought back almost-panic. But we made it through the night. The morning went well. I called the emergency/specialty practice first thing, and they said the ER could coordinate with the eye doctor to get both things done earlier than her original appointment.

So in we went. I had treats in a pouch but left them in the car, so I wouldn’t give her one without thinking until we knew whether they would sedate her.

Eyedrop Husbandry

To explain what happened when she saw the eye doctor, I have to go back in time. I first started giving Zani eye drops in November 2018 under the direction of her primary vet. From day one, I made them a fabulous experience. She got half of a thin slice of “Black Forest Ham” lunch meat after each drop. She would come and get happily into position for every session, every day. I was applying drops up to seven times per day, some of them painful, but most neutral or even soothing. That all went well until we cut out some of the nice drops, which left a higher percentage of painful ones.

The high-concentration tacrolimus drops obviously stung. Her happy cooperation with the eye drops routine decreased, and she developed some evasive maneuvers. But, being Zani, they were more like “please don’t” than “no way are you going to put that in my eye again.” When I would first put my hands around her head, she would whip her head to the left, then to the right. I allowed this without restraint. After that, she would settle down and hold still, and I could apply the drops and give her the great treat. This became our new routine. I dreaded giving her the eyedrops. She cooperated so nicely under the circumstances, after her token resistance. It almost made it worse. She was such a good sport. I felt awful about doing something several times a day that hurt her.

I am embarrassed to report my failure to prevent the worsening of the experience for her. I messed up. In retrospect, I should have kept applying some painless, benign drops like artificial tears, some pretend drops with the cap on the bottle, and some head handling involving no eye stuff at all. All of it well reinforced. But I didn’t think to do it, so Pavlov got me. So did the Matching Law, as we started building up an unpleasant history with more hurty eyedrops. The physical sensation of getting an eyedrop went from painful perhaps 25% of the time to 50% of the time. That change was all it took. Even though the eyedrop still predicted her favorite treat, the event was no longer a happy one.

This is a typical problem in real life with pets. You sometimes have to jump into some handling or husbandry without working on it first. But next time I won’t take it for granted that the experience will continue to be a good one for my animal as dosages and meds are adjusted. When the numbers changed, I should have compensated.

I included all that background to explain why, by the time Zani finally started going to the specialist, she had the evasive head whiparound behavior perfected. It seemed like she had to get it out of her system before the eyedrop. Whip, whip, lightning-fast, and then she would still herself and wait quietly for the drop.

But that was with me. When she whipped her head around at her specialist appointments, the ophthalmologist thought she intended to bite him. (He moved back faster than I’ve ever seen a human move away from a dog. He also had a very practiced behavior! I don’t blame him.) A few years back, I would have told him, “She won’t bite you!” But I’ve learned that you can’t say that about any dog. Any dog can bite, even gentle Zani. (I seriously doubted she would, though.) And even though I advocate for my dogs at the vet, I opted not to speak up about this. I know vets frequently hear clients protest that their dogs don’t bite—immediately before they do. I figured I couldn’t change his mind. These visits were quick, and I could usually give her treats instantly afterward. And Zani has some experience with reinforced restraint.

The doctor’s prudence extended to having the tech hold Zani’s mouth closed while he tested her eyes for moisture. But Zani is very resilient about anything involving people, and a minute later she wagged her tail and tried to get the same tech to mess with her.

The Ophthalmologist Visit

But the day of the nose emergency was worse. We had seen the ER tech first to give an initial history of the nose problem. The tech was great and fell hard for Zani. She got a good look at Zani’s nose and asked good questions. Then the eye people came to get Zani. I went along. The tech put her on the table, took Zani’s chin in her hands, and Zani performed the evasive head whiparound. The ophthalmologist said, “Get a muzzle.”

I haven’t muzzle-trained Zani. She is a low, low bite risk, and she doesn’t have pica. And she dislikes garments and gear tight on her body.

They got out one of the little nylon mesh muzzles (not the basket type). Then I spoke up, pointing out Zani’s sore nose. But they went ahead, indeed carefully, and muzzled Zani for 30–40 seconds while they did the eye tests. She was whimpering by the end. And I couldn’t give her any damn treats afterward because ER hadn’t decided what to do about her nose yet.

Black nylon mesh dog muzzle
A nylon mesh muzzle, only to be worn for short periods in special circumstances

The news about her eye wasn’t good, and neither was my emotional state. The eye doctor talked about the option of eye surgery where they replace the tear duct. I couldn’t take it in and said I’d have to think about it. And her nose was still undiagnosed.

As he was leaving, I heard the ophthalmologist tell his staff to note the necessity of a muzzle in Zani’s record for future visits.

I struggled to hold myself together as the eye tech and I went back to the other exam room. I chose my words carefully, and told her Zani was likely the lowest bite risk she would see all day, that she whipped her head around as a practiced evasive maneuver. The tech was polite but said Zani might bite because of her sore nose. This is true. Again, I won’t be the person to say my dog (even Zani) won’t bite. I sat and tried not to cry while waiting for the ER tech.

Back to the ER

Zani, a black and brown beagle terrier mix, standing in a vet's office with her head ocked
Zani at the specialty clinic, having bounced back fast

Zani had already bounced back when the ER tech returned, even though I hadn’t. I told the tech about Zani’s practiced head movement. She listened and was receptive.

Zani went and saw the ER doctor without me, and the tech brought her back. She had done fine, and they didn’t have to muzzle her. The results from the nose exam were decent, too. They gave me some possible diagnoses that I won’t go into here[1]The final diagnosis, which was made by Zani’s dermatologist, was something called parasympathetic nose, where the ducts in a nostril stop working. The condition is probably related to the dry … Continue reading. She went on antibiotics and would see her dermatologist later.

I paid the bill. I took Zani to the car, put her in her crate, and gave her a handful of nice treats to munch on.

Then I went home and cried. Zani had an eye that was unresponsive to meds and the doctor was recommending scary surgery. She had an awful-looking, still-mysterious sore nose. But I was crying because she had to wear a muzzle for 30 seconds and the eye doctor misunderstood her. He thought sweet Zani was aggressive. That’s what took me down.

Muzzle-Training Plans

I reviewed the possibilities for Zani’s diagnosis and learned that when dogs need topical treatments for nose conditions, they often have to wear one of those nylon mesh muzzles anyway. It’s to prevent them from licking their noses for a few minutes while the medicine works.

The handwriting was on the wall. I bought two nylon muzzles.

I’ve also started doing a lot more head handling and non-painful eye stuff to get the ratio of pleasant face-handling experiences higher. I’ll face the matching law head-on and see if I can decrease the evasive head jerk. I also need to practice manual muzzle restraint. And I need to condition her to a nylon muzzle. (All while still giving eight medicinal eye drops per day, four of which are painful.)

I’ll try, but I may not be able to talk the eye doctor out of a muzzle in the future. I’m a realist. So I’m going to teach Zani that nylon muzzles predict great things. Even if I talk this vet out of it, maybe someday she really will need a muzzle. I may not always be with her. And through this experience, I learned another reason even the most unlikely dog may need to be comfortable with a “closed-mouth” muzzle: topical nose meds. They could appear in Zani’s future.

We can’t predict these things. All we can do is try to prepare our dogs for the eventualities to minimize the possible trauma attendant to husbandry and medical procedures. My friend Blanche Axton, who takes in foster dogs, muzzle-trains every dog who enters her home. More and more trainers I talk to express the same sentiment. I appreciate the growing number of husbandry resources available now. They can help us think ahead and be proactive with our training. Check out the great resources, both free and paid, on the Muzzle Up site.

Emotions

The muzzle was a strange breaking point. Zani’s sweet nature and unique combination of resilience and emotional tippiness are factors. I am accustomed to protecting her from all kinds of odd things. She endures so many things that bother or hurt her and keeps a sunny disposition. Cricket earned a note in her chart early on in her vet visits: “Biter!” She never bit anyone or came close. She air-snapped at a tech once, and they thought she “tried to bite and missed.” I didn’t think her behavior merited the notation, but it didn’t hurt my feelings. Even though she was threatening rather than “missing,” who knows when she might have decided to get serious about biting? That was Cricket. But it’s not Zani.

I think a lot of my emotions around the muzzle incident were displaced from Zani’s medical situation. The eye problem was and continues to be upsetting. The nose thing was terrible.

I’m better now, but at the time this happened I was very stressed. And my feelings were desperately hurt because a vet put a muzzle on my gentle dog.

But there’s one thing I can fix. It took me almost a year, but I’m finally starting the muzzle training.

Epilogue: Looking Back from 2021

Life intervened again. I never got to the muzzle training because Zani was diagnosed with cancer just days after I started preparing this post and she passed away in a few months. But there are so many good reasons to muzzle-train your dog, and not only for a basket muzzle. I’m putting “train for wearing a nylon muzzle for a short period” on my permanent husbandry list. Thanks again to Zani, who taught me so much.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Notes

Notes
1 The final diagnosis, which was made by Zani’s dermatologist, was something called parasympathetic nose, where the ducts in a nostril stop working. The condition is probably related to the dry eye.
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