eileenanddogs

Category: Dogs’ perceptions

If Your Dog Is Afraid of Fireworks, See Your Vet Now

If Your Dog Is Afraid of Fireworks, See Your Vet Now

What are we here for this time?

Every year I post an article about last-minute things you can do to help your dog who is afraid of fireworks. We are coming up on Canada Day and U.S. Independence Day, and that means bangs and booms. Over the years I have tweaked my list. I’ll be posting it in a few days.

But this year I am posting earlier with the most important tip of all.

  1. See your vet.
Continue reading “If Your Dog Is Afraid of Fireworks, See Your Vet Now”
How Does Dogs’ Hearing Compare To Humans’?

How Does Dogs’ Hearing Compare To Humans’?

There is a lot of misunderstanding out there about how well dogs hear. It’s true that their hearing is better than that of humans in a couple ways. They can hear higher-pitched sounds than humans can, and they can hear quieter sounds than we can in some frequency ranges. Because of this, they have a reputation for superb hearing. But their hearing capabilities are not better across the board. Our capabilities are superior to theirs in a few important ways as well.

Continue reading “How Does Dogs’ Hearing Compare To Humans’?”
My Dog Is Afraid of the Clicker. What Should I Do?

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

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

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

A brown and white rat terrier is looking eagerly up at her human
Rat terrier Kaci says, “Train me!”
Continue reading “My Dog Is Afraid of the Clicker. What Should I Do?”
Coping with In-Home Construction with Dogs

Coping with In-Home Construction with Dogs

Summer with HammerLife intervenes in our most careful, gradual training programs sometimes. I’ve got a dog that was born feral and a recovering reactive dog, both of whom I work with on their issues, including that I take regular lessons from a very talented trainer. Clara, the formerly feral dog, has made great strides in her ability to be comfortable around humans other than those on her very short list. She was still a wild puppy through almost all of her socialization window. I have done lots of DS/CC as well as positive reinforcement-based training with her over the last three years, and she now does well in many environments that would be challenging for almost any dog. And my mildly reactive dog Summer has been making great progress lately, mostly with an operant approach. But Clara in particular has very little experience with strangers in the house.

Ready or not, though, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I needed some work done on my house that would necessitate the long-term presence of workmen.

Usually when I have someone working in the house for an hour or two, I stash all the dogs in the bedroom with stuffed food toys in their crates. I turn up some loud music to mask some of the sound and we get through it. They do fine for a few hours.

However, this time the workers needed access to almost the whole house, including our major hangouts. And the project was days, not hours.

How We Coped

First, Summer and Zani got to go on a field trip every day. They went to work with our dear friend. They thought it was great. They got in the swing of things by the second or third day and were very cute when I would take them out front to wait for their “ride.” They were so excited when our friend pulled up.

Clara and I took up residence in the study, a small bedroom that was one of the few places the workmen didn’t need access to. This room was completely familiar to her, and a place where she would typically snooze while I worked at the computer.1)It’s not a great idea to go hang out in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place when you are already interrupting your dog’s routine. Going to the special room can become the predictor that scary stuff is going to happen. If you must use a new place, then it’s good to practice a few days before the actual event and mix things up a bit. We had a door we could close, but the room was right on the hall that the men had to walk up and down all day. I left it open the first few times so Clara could see what was going on (not sure whether that was a good idea, but she did great), then closed it for the rest of the time. I kept Clara on a harness, dragging a leash, because I am a worrywart about the possibility of doors and gates being left open when there are people coming and going.

I made a couple of really good frozen Kongs for Clara every day. I included high value stuff like some bits of chicken in each one. The men were there way too long each day for Clara to be able to eat the whole time, but I would give her a Kong when they first got here, and then another sometime in the afternoon when things were busiest. I used dog food roll for treats in the interim, and some spray cheese when things got tough. I cut down her other meals accordingly, but she always got a decent breakfast. No point in facing a stressful situation on an empty stomach!

Luckily, Clara is not sound phobic. Nobody likes booms, sawing, or machinery noises, but beyond the startle/annoyance factor, she doesn’t mind them much. It is all about the strange people for her. So her main triggers were the human noises: hearing the guys talk to each other or to me, or hearing them come in the door or walk around, especially right by us down the hall.

Oh yeah, and she wasn’t really fond of it when an electrician had to go in the attic and was obviously walking on the beams right above us. She looked at me like, “You have got to be kidding me!!”

Here is a printable list of our coping strategies: Helping Dogs Cope with Construction

Clara asleep during construction
Clara asleep during construction

The Order of Events

Even though it meant that I might get a small barking outburst from her, every day I made sure Clara saw and/or heard the guys coming in before we went into our room and she got her Kong. I wanted to make sure that the prediction went the right direction. Guys coming in the house should predict a great treat. I didn’t want being given a Kong to predict that something scary was about to happen.

After a couple of days Clara learned the sound of one guy’s truck, and would run to the door, ready to bark, when he got there. Instead I would lead her straight into our hideout, and once inside she would turn to me for her Kong.

Throughout the day, whenever there was a triggering event, be it a man’s shout, a door slam, or a startling noise, I generally gave her a treat. I say generally because I had to limit it somewhat. It was just too long a time to be completely consistent, or even Clara would have gotten sick from all the food. So even as she was generalizing, looking to me for treats with every sound, I had to deliver them less frequently. I did my best to save the good stuff for the more dramatic moments, like the predictable time at the end of the day when the last workman would come knock on the study door and give me an update.

One other thing I was careful about–I tend to get hypervigilant when I am expecting visitors. I look out the window at every little sound; I go look out the door, etc. I do this whether I am expecting my favorite people in the world or someone I would rather not see. I just get very anticipatory. I actively fought this behavior on my part this week because I did not want my peering out the window and door to become a predictor for the dogs of invasion by workmen. So I was purposely less vigilant and more discreet when I did take a peek.  I’m pretty sure I prevented that particular connection from being made.

Counterconditioning without Desensitization–                                 No Wait, it’s Management

Following triggers with treats is classical conditioning or counterconditioning–if one can be consistent, if one’s timing is good, and if the dog is in shape to take the treats. But I have to say that because of the long periods of time involved and my lack of control of the process, this wasn’t a training situation, it was management. There were simply too many events every day. My goal was to keep from hold our own and prevent backsliding, and I achieved that.

And there was zero desensitization involved. When we have control over triggers, we can start them at a non-aversive level and gradually increase the proximity or amplitude of the trigger when the animal is ready. (If you add a goodie after each exposure you get the magic combination of desensitization and counterconditioning.) But most real-life situations don’t work like that. I don’t have the means or the time to hire a guy to come impersonate a workman for a month, first just driving up to my house, then walking to my front door, then coming in, then talking to me, then making gradually more noise, etc. All of that would have to be carefully coordinated so as not to be an aversive exposure, include only a limited number of reps per day, and require exquisite timing on my part. Ain’t happening.

So at best, we had management and a bit of counterconditioning. Clara did learn that having workmen in the house predicted Kongs and spray cheese, so I guess I can say that we did build a classical association!

Summer

Summer offering eye contact again

Summer continues to do really well with her triggers and did fantastic the couple of times she had to be around the construction. One day the workmen stayed late and she “came home from work” about an hour before they left. All three dogs came in the study with me, and Summer did phenomenally well, not reacting to the workman talking on his cell phone, whistling, or walking up and down the hall. You’ll see in the video–she looks quite relaxed. (As opposed to Clara, who is looking pretty worn out–it was her seventh hour of commotion, as opposed to Summer’s first!)

Getting the Connection

You can see in the video at least one Positive Conditioned Emotional Response (CER+), where Clara’s tail starts to wag after the man walks by us. You can also see a good handful of “expectant” responses from both Clara and Summer when they hear something. No tail wags or obvious drooling, but the “where’s my treat?” look. This is not all the way to a complete CER+, but think how much nicer it is for the dog than barking, lunging, and panicking.

Link to the video for email subscribers

Did I miss any tips? I can always add to my list. Here’s the link one more time:

Helping Dogs Cope with Construction

Other Posts on Helping Dogs Cope with Hard Stuff

 Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Notes   [ + ]

1. It’s not a great idea to go hang out in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place when you are already interrupting your dog’s routine. Going to the special room can become the predictor that scary stuff is going to happen. If you must use a new place, then it’s good to practice a few days before the actual event and mix things up a bit.
Summer’s Turtle Diary

Summer’s Turtle Diary

A three-toed box turtle is walking through some high grass. Its she is yellowish brown with darker markings. Its head is held high
Turtle minding its own business

I was reminded again this week of the awesome olfactory capabilities of dogs.

My dog Summer has a passion for turtles. Passion is maybe not the right word. Fixation, love-hate relationship.

She wants to get them and chew them up. I have no doubt that she would eventually chew through the shell completely and kill them. Second best is getting them and having me remove them from the premises. I’m getting really anthropomorphic here, but she acts like they really, really offend her.

She cannot rest if one is around.

A sable dog is curved towards and looking directly at a small, black and white rat terrier. The sable dog is resource guarding a turtle. The look is direct and unfriendly.
Summer says, “My turtle!”

Here is a video (from when she was much younger) of her trying to get a turtle. You can see that she gives Cricket a very hard look (at 0:30) when she comes a little too close. Summer is resource guarding the turtle, which is unreachable on the other side of the fence. Speaking of the fence, note the chain length fence. That fence is still there, behind my privacy fence. That becomes relevant in the new movie below.

Turtle Migration

These are three-toed box turtles, and this is their migration season. They used to come in my yard from my neighbor’s yard, heading west. Then I put in a privacy fence. This was both bad and good for the turtles. Bad because it made their migration more difficult. (Sorry! I hate that!) Good because they won’t stumble into the clutches of Summer, the dog who hunts turtles.

Amy Martin has a really nice blog post on how to help turtles that are trying to migrate, including directions on how to handle snapping turtles. (Answer: very, very carefully.)

Anyway, a turtle showed up in the neighbor’s yard on June 16th, and Summer stalked it relentlessly for 11 days. Every single time she went outside, even during hard rain, she paced the fence until she got as close as she could to its current location. Then she would dig. I wasn’t particularly concerned because between our two yards are a wooden privacy fence, the original chain length fence right next to it, embedded in the ground, all mingled with a privet hedge that has been there more than 30 years and has an impermeable tangle of roots. Or so I thought.

If this were one of those tacky, click garnering websites, here is where I would say, “and I couldn’t believe what happened next!” And I really couldn’t! But I’ll tell you below in case you don’t want to watch the video (which is adorable, grin).

On June 27th Summer dug a shallow but incredibly accurate hole under the fences and through the roots, and pulled that turtle out of the other yard. I still don’t know exactly how she pulled that turtle through. Did it just stand there on the other side, wait, and tumble into the hole she dug? Was it digging too?

In any case, she grabbed it and brought it up to the house, then very nicely put it at my feet (really!). She watched me quite happily as I took it away into the other neighbor’s yard, in the direction it was going.

She has been patrolling the original fence daily since then, but not with the same intensity. She just gives it a quick check, to make sure there are no new offenders. She pays no attention to the fence in the direction I put the turtle, which tells me it must have torqued on out of there. I don’t blame it!

I have known four other dogs who were very intense about turtles. They were all rat terriers. I also read that there is a guy in South Carolina who uses Boykin Spaniels to help researchers do turtle counts. How about you? Are your dogs interested in turtles?

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • You’re Too Close! The Pressure Sensitive Dog
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

 

 

It’s OK to Comfort Your Dog!

It’s OK to Comfort Your Dog!

U.S. folks and Canadians, get ready for the fireworks!

Summer, a sable colored dog, is photographed in profile looking scared and worried
Summer back when she was more afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other loud noises

People in the U.S. and Canada are getting ready for national holidays that often include all sorts of loud pops and booms from fireworks and firecrackers, even cannons and guns.

These kinds of noises scare some dogs very badly, and during these holidays the noises are unpredictable and can go on for a long time period.

A lot of folks worry about comforting their dogs when they are afraid, and are concerned that they will reinforce their dogs’ fears.

That is incorrect.

  1. Behaviors can be reinforced.
  2. Emotions can’t.
  3. Fear is an emotion.
  4. If you comfort your fearful dog, it doesn’t somehow “reinforce” the fear and make them more scared next time.

But don’t take my word for it.

Take Dr. Patricia McConnell’s: You Can’t Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms

Or Suzanne Clothier’s: Calming the Fearful Dog

A sable colored dog (fur is brown with black on the tips) is sitting under a kitchen table. She looks (and is) frightened.
Summer hiding under the table during a thunderstorm

Everybody’s dog is different. Maybe your dog profits from just hanging out with you. Or maybe you make her more nervous and she’d rather get in a crate. If she isn’t too scared to eat, maybe she would like a food toy. You can judge what helps the most.

At my house, whenever possible during fireworks or thunder, we all troop to the bedroom. Summer gets on the bed with me and cuddles. I give everybody spray cheese every time it booms. Clara and Zani consequently LOVE thunderstorms. And Summer feels better being near me and profits from the routine.

If you want to get really nitpicky, it is possible to reinforce fearful behaviors. But during a noisy holiday is not the time to worry about that!

Other Resources for Getting Through the Fireworks

Fireworks: Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons
Fireworks: Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Here are some very practical tips for getting your dog through events with loud noises. Some are short term helps, and some are long term solutions. I hope you find something that will help in your own situation.

Keep your gates locked and your dogs’ identification items on.

Thanks for reading! You can go cuddle your dog, if she likes it!

Coming Up:

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

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Phobia?

What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Phobia?

Summer is afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other booms and squeaks
Summer has gotten less afraid of thunder

Is it weird to write a post saying that something really shouldn’t have worked, but look, it kind of did? Is it irresponsible even? I keep pondering why I feel the need to explain all the strikes I had against me for this project. I certainly want to be responsible and not give people false hopes that if they try something they will have great success. But at the same time, I want to show something that did help my dogs.

Consider this an attempt to balance out all the posts I have read that say,  “I tried desensitization and counterconditioning and it didn’t work” or “Positive reinforcement didn’t work with my dog!” Despite many identifiable barriers to success with something I tried, I still got a moderate change for the better in one of my dogs’ quality of life. (The others thought it was pretty cool, too.)

The requirements to perform desensitization and counterconditioning successfully are very straightforward, but can be difficult to do properly in real life. Often, people who fail  blame the science. So let’s take a look at some of the situations in which the science itself says that the method might fail.

Challenges of Counter Conditioning

(you’ll see why I’m not even mentioning desensitization here in a minute)

To do counter conditioning successfully, you have to be ultra consistent and careful about pairing the stimulus (in this case, thunder) with the goodie that you hope will create a conditioned positive response (in this case, food). So if the stimulus happens a lot without your being there to provide the food, the dog’s physiology doesn’t get “convinced” that one will always predict the other. Likewise, if you run up to your dog and give her the same treat, in the same way, that you have been doing for thunder, but at random times, you will also dilute the predictive value of the thunder.

There are more nuanced problems. If your timing is off and you repeatedly give the goodie before the stimulus, you can get reverse conditioning. In this case, that would mean that food predicts thunder. Oh oh. And if you don’t switch up characteristics of the situation, the dog can attach the response to the wrong thing. For example, if you always wear a certain hat when counterconditioning, there is a good chance that the hat is the stimulus, or a necessary part of it.

And of course, the thunder needs at all times to be under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness for the dog. Yeah, right.

So what this means is that technically, counterconditioning to thunder may be well-nigh impossible. Do you get why? It’s something we have no control over. We can’t cause it, control it, or prevent it from happening.

What’s Hard About Treating Thunderstorm Phobia?

  • Unless you are home 24/7, you can’t always be there to pair the thunder with good stuff. That can shoot your efforts down before you even get started.
  • When you are home, the dog’s likely hear the thunder before you do.
  • The sound is hard to “fake” convincingly using recordings on an audio system. Most a speakers  aren’t capable of generating the very lowest frequencies. And I suspect most dogs can distinguish the source of the sound. (It’s still probably a good idea to try desensitizing puppies via recordings though.)
  • In a real thunderstorm, you can’t do true desensitization. The thunder may start quietly, but it gets loud too fast, and goes unpredictably from louder to softer during the duration of the storm. The thunder goes over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness way too fast, i.e., the phobic dog is already scared.
  • The rolls of thunder can have considerable duration and can overlap each other, making it difficult to know when to start and stop doling out the food.
  • Around here, thunder can be audible on and off for hours. There is a limit to the numbers of treats you can safely give!
  • There may be other physical effects of thunderstorms that the dog is reacting to, such as changes in barometric pressure. If so, those can’t be mimicked for practice, nor can humans sense them in a real storm in the way that dogs do.

So, given these limitations, I never figured I would get much of an improvement for Summer. But I’m a “tryer.” Even if we didn’t get a conditioned response, I figured the distraction might be helpful.

What I Did

I used spray cheese, my go-to easy, high-value treat. As soon as I heard the first thunder clap, or the dogs appeared to hear one, I got the spray cheese. I commenced giving everyone a little lick with each roll of thunder. I did this every time I was home. During very long storms or those days where it would thunder on and off all day, I would finally stop at some point, or stop treating all but the loudest rumbles or claps. This was not ideal, but real life came barging in and it wasn’t OK to make my dogs sick.

After a year or more, Summer started showing a preference for going into the bedroom when it thundered, so I incorporated that into the routine when possible.

In the movie, you can see the progress that she has made between late 2012 and early 2014.

Link to the movie for email subscribers. 

Note: my treat delivery in the movie is often slower than normal because I am trying to film at the same time.

John Visconti’s “Bunker” Method for Thunder Phobia

When I first started this piece, I had not read about John Visconti’s “Bunker” method for helping a dog with a thunderstorm phobia. If you are interested in starting a protocol for your dog, you should definitely read the article and study his well thought-out method. It’s much more complete than what I have done, and has much better odds of having a beneficial effect.

He acknowledges in his piece that he can’t “prove” that the actions he took are what helped his dog so much. (But his evidence seems very strong, especially given that his dog started prompting him for the protocol.)  I love that. I’m much more comfortable with his caution than with anyone who says, “Follow my patented, definitive, unique method and your dog will get 100% better! In only two short sessions!”

I was pleased upon reading Mr. Visconti’s piece that there are some aspects of his system that I have happened onto, mostly having to do with the routine. As I mentioned, at Summer’s suggestion we have started going to a certain room for the thunder routine.

But I did not take the care to condition a “whole package” response like Mr. Visconti did, including olfactory, tactile, and auditory cues. (What a great method, to pack in all those associations that he can control.) But I got the great food and location part. And as you can see from the movie, it probably helped.

Other Resources

Other Posts of Mine on Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Final Thoughts

In our situation, there is also habituation in play. I’ve mentioned that sometimes we have thunder rumbling for many hours on end. I just can’t keep passing out the treats every time. Generally after a bit of time has passed, I can stop and Summer manages to sack out for a nap. But habituation on its own is a fairly weak way of changing an emotional response, so I suspect that the overall change has been due to the counterconditioning.

But even if this is mostly habituation and the security of a routine, I am so happy that it has helped Summer. I think ameliorating fear is a huge quality of life issue, so I’m glad to do it wherever I can.

Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Thresholds: The Movie

Thresholds: The Movie

Summer, a sable colored dog is lying down on a step with a toy in front of her. Her eyes are wide and her ears  very far back and in motion. She is reacting to a noise and looks extremely fearful. She is at the threshold of a fear response.
Summer at the instant she reaches threshold of fear

I have made a movie about thresholds in dog training. It gives a quick overview of the work that I presented in my webinar for the Pet Professional Guild. (Click here for a complete script of the video; or expand the audio (only) transcript below the video.)

The threshold webinar is still available as a recording ($10 members/$20 non-members of PPG) and I encourage anyone who is interested in thresholds to view it.

Also, I have previously published a blog post on the topic: Thresholds in Dog Training: How Many?

If you are a visual learner, the movie will probably be helpful. I spend a lot of time explaining the diagrams, and have an animation of what happens to the thresholds as we train.  The movie also has video examples of dogs and stimuli over the thresholds. (Plus it has a threshold of hearing test! How cool is that?**)

Threshold Movie Script

[Dogs barking]

>>EILEEN ANDERSON:

Have you ever heard a dog trainer use the term “over threshold” and wondered what it meant?

A threshold is the point or level at which something begins or changes. That’s the standard dictionary definition. But the interesting thing is that there are actually three physiological and psychological thresholds that are important when we are training our animals.

The first threshold we need to know about is the sensory threshold as defined in psychology. Here’s a definition: “The faintest detectable stimulus, of any given type, is the absolute threshold for that type of stimulus.” Have you ever heard the term, “threshold of hearing?” Right now during this slide I am playing a high frequency hum. Can you hear it? If not, it is under your threshold of hearing for that frequency. If you can hear it, it is over the threshold.

The sensory threshold is involved when our dogs are able to see, hear, or smell something new in their environment.

Another threshold is the threshold of reactivity or fear. This is the one people usually mean when they say their dog is over threshold. The most general definition of this threshold is the point at which the sympathetic nervous system responds when the animal is afraid. This causes chemical changes in the body and overt behaviors usually falling into the categories of fight, flight, or freeze.

Dogs who are aggressing are generally over the threshold of fear. Here are two other examples of dogs over that threshold.

[vet clinic noises]

>>EILEEN:

She’s panting, but it’s not hot.

She’s hyper vigilant.

Trying to escape, or hide.

And trembling.

This dog is practically paralyzed with fear.

But there’s one more threshold, and it’s located behaviorally between the other two. If one threshold is where the dog sees something, and another is where the dog freaks out about it, what’s in between?

The point at which the thing becomes aversive, where the dog starts to be uncomfortable with it.  This could be called the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Here is an example of a dog in a situation where a stimulus is over the threshold of aversiveness. In other words, she is stressed about something in her environment, but so far she is holding it together.

[Neighborhood noises: siren in distance, children talking, birds, a sudden thump]

>>EILEEN:

She repeatedly licks her lips and looks behind her.

She’s responding to my cues, but she’s worried about the noises.

In my webinar on thresholds in dog training, I made diagrams of these thresholds, and discussed where each of our common training protocols falls among the thresholds. Here is a summary of those diagrams.

The black line represents distance from or intensity of the stimulus.

All three of the protocols discussed here take place over the threshold of stimulus perception, since the animal has to perceive the stimulus to learn about it.

The combination of desensitization and counterconditioning is correctly practiced under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Protocols that use negative reinforcement straddle the threshold of stimulus aversiveness. The animal is exposed to the stimulus at an aversive level, and escape from the aversive level of the stimulus is used as a negative reinforcer for appropriate behaviors.

The closest proximity to the aversive stimulus may be more or less than I show here; the important point is that negative reinforcement protocols have to cross the threshold of stimulus aversiveness to work.

Flooding takes place at or above the threshold of fear.

The thresholds aren’t always spaced out nicely. For example, if the threshold of perception and the threshold of aversiveness are very close together in space, a trainer using desensitization/counter conditioning would probably not use distance as the initial way to keep the stimulus non-aversive. The trainer would probably use a different form of the stimulus first. This configuration of the thresholds is probably common with wild animals.

Likewise, if the threshold of stimulus aversiveness and the threshold of fear are very close together, a negative reinforcement protocol would be very difficult to perform without risking flooding.

Finally, the thresholds move because of environmental factors, the animal’s stamina and psychological state, and of course as we train. This is what we hope will happen as we train.

For more information on thresholds, please see the links to my webinar and blog in the video description. Thanks for watching!


Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Surprising Progress on Thunderstorm phobia
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”  
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** For the auditory people, musicians, and nerds among us (I’m all three): I used an iPhone app to generate a high frequency sinusoid (15.5 kHz) and recorded it for the movie. I used an oscilloscope app to make sure that the sound was playing during that part of the movie, through my own computer anyway. It’s just below my threshold of hearing. Younger people can probably hear it, if their computer speakers can generate it.

7 Common Dog Training Errors: More Cautionary Tales

7 Common Dog Training Errors: More Cautionary Tales

I have to admit that I likely have a fair number of readers who look forward to reading about my mistakes. But hey, I asked for it, from the very first day of the blog.

My previous post on common dog training errors was very popular and I’m very happy to see it still making the rounds! So here are seven more, five of which I have personally made in spades.

(1) Too much freedom too soon 

The person who should be ashamed is me!
The one who should be ashamed about this is me!

Boy, this is an easy mistake to make. I bet a large percentage of problem behaviors and damaged property (and so-called “dog-shaming” photos) can be linked to this one simple error. Lots of times our hearts overrule our heads. Let’s say you just got a rescue dog. You feel very badly about his history. You work part-time  and you plan to crate him when you go to work. Only problem: he hates the crate. You can’t stand putting him in it the first day you go to work. The idea breaks your heart. He’s sleepy anyway when you get ready to go, so you just leave him loose in the house. You come home to poop in the corner, a chewed carpet, and some overturned plants. What a bad dog! No, he’s just a dog who hasn’t been taught the house rules yet. (Jean Donaldson’s book The Culture Clash explains this heartbreaking misunderstanding about dogs in an unforgettable way. It will change how you look at your patient, long-suffering dog forever.)

When I first got Summer, I had never had a puppy or an active adolescent dog before. I didn’t realize you couldn’t give dogs cardboard to chew on, then expect them to know not to chew up the books that were in a bookcase at floor level. I learned on the fly how to limit Summer’s opportunities to self-reinforce inappropriately, but with my two subsequent dogs I doled out freedom much more carefully from the get-go.

(This is not a how-to post, but in the case of the dog hating the crate, if you have to go somewhere before you have conditioned your dog to love a crate, most would recommend you use an exercise pen to enclose a safe space for him, or gate off the room of the house that is easiest to clear of tempting but forbidden items. And of course, leave him plenty of permissible activities, such as stuffed food toys.)

(2) Value of reinforcement too low

Last time I talked about rate of reinforcement, but what about the value? What if you ask  your dog to run a complete agility course for some kibble?  Or when she finally works up to 30 minutes quiet in the crate, you give her one piece of carrot? Or maybe you are trying not to use food at all, trying to get good results from your dog merely from praise or pats on the head (which are actually punishing for many dogs). No matter how frequently you praise, that just isn’t going to cut it with most dogs.

Chunks of dark meat chicken on a plate, round disks of dog food roll, a ziplock bag with pieces of dog food roll
Yummy stuff!

Food, especially good food, not only motivates your dog, it makes the communication in training crystal clear. When your dog gets a great treat repeatedly for the behavior you want, it makes it very clear to her that this is what pays off. There is no muddy water. If your dog is not responding eagerly in training sessions, check not only your rate of reinforcement, but the quality of it.

I have written about my own experience with Summer, who was highly distracted by her environment and just not really into the work we did. My food reinforcers, though high value, were cut in too small pieces.  Once I rectified that, the nice chunky new treats passed value to training in general and we got over the hump. She is now a training junkie and works eagerly for kibble.

I might also mention, once more, that what is yummy is defined by the dog. I was going to make a photo contrasting chunks of meat with something lower value. I thought of using bread, then remembered that my dog Summer will do anything for white bread. It pays to know these things!

(3) Over-using negative punishment

Negative punishment is defined as follows: Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often. It often takes the form of a penalty or time-out.

Pulling the treat away when Zani moves out of a sit
Pulling the treat away when Zani moves out of a sit

The thing about negative punishment is that it meshes so perfectly with positive reinforcement sometimes. Too perfectly. It’s an easy default method. You start to hand the dog a cookie for staying in position. The dog starts to move out of position to get it, you pull the cookie back. You walk into the room where the puppy is in the crate. She starts to cry when she sees you. Oops! You turn on your heel and walk away. Or how about this one? You are teaching your dog the cups game, where she figure out which cup has the treat under it, then indicate that somehow. She guesses wrong and indicates the wrong cup. You immediately pull both the cups away.

These are all terrifically easy, and often effective ways to train. In all cases there is a penalty for the incorrect behavior, and it is the disappearance of the goodie the dog was  on the cusp of earning.

It surprises some people that negative punishment is at the same level on the Humane Hierarchy as extinction and negative reinforcement. Most trainers are more “OK” with negative punishment than negative reinforcement, but I think Dr. Friedman is telling us that we need to look at each case individually.

Negative punishment is punishment. It suppresses behavior. It can be unpleasant for the learner. It can directly inhibit them from trying stuff. Two of my dogs, Zani and Clara,  tend to shut down very fast if I pull an item away from them because they have taken the wrong action, as in the cups game example above.

I treat my own over-use of negative punishment as a symptom. When I find myself using it or being tempted a lot, I ask myself what it is that I have not sufficiently trained. If my dog is pulling out of position to get a cookie, there were probably holes in our stay practice. If the puppy regularly whines in the crate, I have lumped somewhere.

I’m not sure if this is an error in the same category as the others. It’s more of a value judgment. Negative punishment is still much more humane than some alternatives. But I invite you to look beyond it, whenever you find yourself or your students using it a lot.

(4) Treating in a sub-optimal position or manner

Pulling Cricket out of position for her treat
Pulling Cricket out of position for her treat

Well, there could be a whole treatise here. I am a former expert at this. You can see in this movie about Cricket in her Prime, from the very first scene, that I built into her training a little leap up for the treat in almost all behaviors. Partly because she was small, and partly because she was so intense, and entirely because I didn’t know any better. In the picture to the right, even though I had already clicked, how much better would it have been to treat her down on her mat rather than letting her jump up into the air? The position of your treat delivery can help train the behavior.

Then there’s the difference between throwing, dropping, or handing over treats. Throwing treats is very exciting and fun for lots of dogs. In certain situations it’s perfect for setting up another iteration of what you are practicing and buys you some time. So would you want to do that every time you click your dog for another increment of relaxation if that’s what you were practicing? Probably not. On the other hand, if your dog is slower than you’d like on some rapid-fire behavior, throwing treats for her to chase can amp things up.

And yes, I get the irony between the picture of my deliberately pulling Cricket out of her sit for a treat, and the picture of my pulling the treat away from Zani when she breaks position. Same picture. Hmm, I wonder how Zani learned to break position in the first place…

(5) Making training sessions look like “training” and not real life

Guilty, guilty, guilty. That’s me. This one is similar to “Failure to generalize,” in the last post but it’s more, um general. When you fail to generalize a behavior, a dog knows how to do it in one location or situation, but not another. So once your dog knows “sit” in all sorts of places and situations, is there something more you should do? You bet. Did you have your treat pouch on during all of those sessions? Or have your clicker and a pocketful of treats? Did you cut up the treats just beforehand? In other words, is everything about the situation screaming, “This is a training session?” Then good luck getting Fluffy to sit the first time your best friend comes over and you are having coffee at the kitchen table. It’s not just the possible lack of treats. It’s a completely different situation for your dog.

So first, the food. Your dog needs to learn that she might get a food treat even if she hasn’t seen all the signs of “training session.” One way to do this is to cache little covered containers of treats out of your dogs’  reach around the house and even the yard or your walk route. Casually, outside of a session, ask your dog for a sit. (Start off in the less challenging situation, of course.) Voila: out comes something really good from a jar on top of the bookcase! You can pull treats out of the sky!

Think about what else indicates to your dog that you are about to train? Do you gather up some props? Get your clicker? Put the other dog in a crate? Take your phone out of your pocket? Believe me, whatever the habits are, your dog knows them. So prepare to surprise your dog. Just like with any other training, start simple and raise your criteria. One of the main reasons most people train their dogs is to make them easier to live with. This won’t happen unless you integrate their training into real life.

(6) Clicking or marking without treating

I still see questions about this. “When can I stop treating for every click?” The answer is, “Never.” Although there are a few rarer training systems where one click does not equal one treat, if you are a beginner, forget about them for now. The clicker (or verbal marker if you use that instead) gets its power from being a perfect predictor of good things to come.

Now, it’s perfectly OK to fade the use of the clicker over time. You don’t have to click or mark every single time your dog does what you cue.  And over time, with skill, you can use food less and life rewards more. But if you click, give a treat, unless you just clicked something totally disastrous. One missed pairing out of 100 click/treats will not ruin the meaning of the clicker.* But just remember the look on your dog’s face when you don’t give them the promised treat, and do your best not to make that mistake again. Because clicking the wrong thing was your mistake, not your dog’s.

(7) Too long a delay between the behavior and the consequence: assuming the dog makes a connection when they can’t

I once read on a dog chat forum some comments by a man who was fervently defending punishing a dog when he got home and found out that the dog had done some misdeed–perhaps an elimination problem or the dog tore something up. He was incredulous that anyone would question his punishment; he said, “But dogs have great memories!”

Yes, they certainly do. His dog probably remembered peeing in the corner or how good that shoe tasted. But how exactly is the punishment supposed to be connected to that deed from hours earlier? The dog has performed hundreds of behaviors since then. Showing the dog the pee or the shoe does not connect their earlier action to whatever punishment is being doled out.

Consequences for behavior need to be very close in time to the behavior for behavior change to occur, and not just for dogs. A behavior analyst named Kennon Lattal has been the go-to guy since the 1970s for studying the effect of time delays and intervening events between behaviors and  reinforcers for people and all sorts of animals. In one famous experiment he tried for 40 days (one hour a day)  to shape a pigeon to peck a disk while delaying reinforcement for each behavior for 10 seconds. The pigeon never got there. When he changed the time delay to one second, the bird learned in 15-20 minutes.  (Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, Fifth Edition, 2003, p. 160)

So, actually two lessons about treat timing here: when you are training, deliver those treats (or tennis balls, or whatever) as quickly and efficiently as you can. And in day to day life with your dog, don’t assume that if you give them a goodie or a talking to, that they can associate it with something they did 5 minutes or 5 hours ago.

Any of these strike home with you? Care to share? I can’t be the only one making these mistakes, can I?

This post is part of a series:

Coming Up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

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*There are eminent people who say you shouldn’t fail to treat even in this situation, even once.

Using Sound Masking To Protect Your Dog From Loud, Scary Sounds

Using Sound Masking To Protect Your Dog From Loud, Scary Sounds

If you have:

  • a dog who reacts to noises while at home;
  • a smartphone or tablet that can send a signal to wireless speakers; and
  • wireless speakers

…you can try sound masking to protect your dog from some sounds that might bother him.** 

Two dogs waiting to listen to some sound masking to see if it protects them from scary sounds
“We flunked our part of the movie!”

What I’m going to describe is called sound masking, and it is the auditory counterpart to putting up window film. Because I already had a smartphone and wireless speakers, my solution cost only $1.99 for the app.

The idea is to buy a sound generating app that includes white noise, beach or ocean waves, or another wide spectrum noise (randomish noise with lots of frequencies), and looping capabilities. That is, it will play this noise over and over seamlessly until you tell it to stop.

If you play the noise through your speakers, you can mask at least some of the outdoor noises that might cause your dog to react. My dog reacts to some engine noises, car doors closing, joggers going by, and people talking or shouting. Putting on the noise generator can mask a lot of that. Not all, but a lot.

This is a management technique, in that you are not seeking to train the dog or change their emotional response. You are just controlling the environment to limit their exposure to things that scare them. This is counterintuitive, but sound masking is actually more effective than trying to build a barrier against the sound, especially at low frequencies.

Working on sound phobias with desensitization and counterconditioning can help your dog actually recover from the fear, but in the meantime, this can be a big help.

Also, you may want to review my article on dogs’ hearing capabilities compared to humans’ and also my article about what to do if your dog is afraid of the clicker.

Why Not Music?

But wait, you say. Isn’t there special music you can buy to relax your dog? Yes there is, and lots of it. I don’t use it for three reasons.

  1. Despite some studies, the evidence is thin that music of a certain type intrinsically soothes dogs. Much thinner than the abundance of products would suggest. The background research of what dogs can perceive and discriminate in music is missing. A recent study had the result that dogs were calmer when listening to a male voice reading an audiobook than to specially composed dog relaxation music.
  2. My goal is not to play something for them to listen to and relax to. It is to cover up extraneous sound. A much simpler and more direct goal. To that end, I’ve even been known to play very loud rock music during thunderstorms. Not anybody’s idea of relaxing, but it’s not scary to the dogs like a thunderstorm, and it has low (bass) frequencies that can compete with the rumble of thunder. But I figured there might be a better way.
  3. When I tried the special music, it didn’t work.

The App

I bought “White Noise” by TMSOFT. There are many noise apps for smartphones; this is the one I picked and I like it a lot. I wasn’t solicited in any way, nor did I get anything for mentioning the product. It is marketed as a sleep aid and has all sorts of capabilities. I am just touching the tip of the iceberg with my usage here. It has 40 different noises, some of which definitely wouldn’t be soothing to most people, but are interesting. Dripping faucet, anyone? Ride in a jet?

Choosing a Sound

Obviously, if you are going to play this while you are home, it needs to be something that you can tolerate as well as your dogs. With regard to the science, the more low frequencies you can incorporate, the better. In other words, ocean waves are better than lake waves. Brown or Brownian noise with its abundance of lower frequencies is better than white noise. Pink noise is another option. FYI, the brown noise crossed Summer’s threshold into “scary” because it was just a tad too rumbly. Anyway, lower frequencies more effectively mask other low-frequency sounds, such as truck engines.

As with any management tool, introduce the sound you plan to use at a time when the scary sounds are unlikely, so it doesn’t come to predict them.

Here is sound-sensitive Summer (and in one case, Zani) demoing that the noises don’t bother her. (And for what it’s worth, they don’t distract me, either.)

Link to the video for e-mail subscribers.

**And of course, there are other resources if you don’t have the particular setup I describe. You can buy these sounds on a CD or playlist and play them on any kind of sound system. Whatever you use, test it on your dogs first. With ultra-long recordings such as you find on YouTube, you’ll have to listen to the whole thing to make sure there is nothing scary embedded in there.

I would love to hear if anyone else tries this or is doing anything similar. We are all listening to running water as I write this.

Addendum, 7/12/14

Just read a great tip by Yvette Van Veen  of Awesome Dogs. She suggests that running the clothes dryer with a couple of shoes in it can mask thunder to some extent. I think this is a great idea. It is at least partly random and includes fairly low frequency bumps and thuds. You might need to desensitize your dog to it beforehand, but that would be “money in the bank” for later. Karyn K. on the FaceBook group Fearful Dogs, where the discussion took place, also suggested tennis balls in the dryer. Great ideas and I can’t wait to try them!

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