eileenanddogs

Category: Enrichment

Is That Enrichment Toy Enriching? Not So Much.

Is That Enrichment Toy Enriching? Not So Much.

I bought my own LickiMat and this is an independent, unsolicited review. 

Here I go again, trying to figure out whether a food toy is fun, neutral, or a drag. This time it’s an Industripet LickiMat Buddy, a rubber mat with texture that you can spread food on. The texture makes it a challenge for the dog to lick all the food off.

I bought one of these mats, and immediately had to ask my trainer friend Marge how you use these without the dog just carrying it off and chewing on it. She said people cut them to size to fit into a pan. Aha!

I had the perfect thing. I’m a potter, and I had previously made a square pan, but it developed a hairline crack when fired. I hadn’t been able to make myself throw it away. Perfect home for the mat! Heavy and almost two inches deep. You can see the setup in the pair of photos below.

If I hadn’t had the dish I would have cut the mat round to go into a cast iron skillet.

The LickiMat Test

So I spread some wet dog food on the mat and let Zani go to it.

First, does it work as promised? Yes, in that it slows the dog down. I used about 1/4 cup of sticky low-fat dog food and covered only about a third of the mat. I think some foods would be a lot quicker to get off, but this was a challenge. It took Zani about 20 minutes to mostly clean it up:

Orange LickiMat in a casserole dish--before and after dog worked on it

Second, is it safe? This would vary from dog to dog. But yes, I’d give it a pretty high safety factor for Zani. She wasn’t able to get it out of the dish in her first introduction to it. (She might be able to learn that skill, though.) But I would still classify this as a “needs supervision” type of toy. I wouldn’t leave a dog alone with it, lest they did get it out of the dish then chew it up and ingest some rubber or choke.

Finally, is it fun? At least satisfying? My assessment is “not very,” at least in the normal way it’s used, and at least for my dogs. I’ve written before about toys that merely slow the dog down. I think they are probably the least fun kind of toy, and some are probably pretty frustrating for the dog. I’m not picking on the LickiMat about this; there are lots of these toys that don’t do much more than slow the dog down. But I have encouraged myself, and encourage others, to be analytical about determining whether toys are fun. They should go beyond just taking up the dog’s time. So I’m sharing my recent test of the LickiMat.

It’s hard to read Zani’s body language with food toys. If I offer anything with food in it, she is thrilled. But when she works on a food toy, she does the “concentration tail tuck.” This body language makes it hard to know how much enjoyment she is getting. She tried to lift the mat out of the dish several times and wasn’t able to, as you can see in the video. I would imagine that was probably frustrating. On the other hand, one of her favorite hobbies is finding and consuming the last molecules of food in an area.

Here’s what an untrimmed mat looks like. It measures 20 cm (8 inches) square.

full-size, untrimmed LickiMat

The Frustration Factor

Is there a way for this toy not to be frustrating? I was thinking about the difference between things we humans want to chow down on, and things we might enjoy getting only a little taste of at a time. Are there food items that we actually lick? The best examples I can think of are hard candies, suckers, and (some) popsicles. Notice that they are all sweets. Nobody eats pizza in tiny licks and bites unless they have a physical problem that prevents biting and chewing. And I think most of us would find it pretty frustrating, especially if we were hungry.

To be fair, some people have told me their dogs are very content licking something and enjoy the LickiMat. I think it’s great that they have a suitable toy for their dogs. Some dogs really do find it soothing, so I’m not ruling that possibility out with my criticism here. I just don’t want people to fall into the trap, as I have, of assuming something is necessarily soothing or calming or interesting because it’s marketed as enrichment.

I have thought long and hard about whether I would use the LickiMat as an enrichment toy for my present dogs (or most dogs). The general answer is no, but with one exception. I finally thought of a way of using this toy that would likely be both enriching and enjoyable for the dog. That would be to put a whole pile of food on there, as well as working some onto the surface. In other words, create a situation where the dog can eat most of their meal normally, then can choose whether to go on and work for those last bits.

I see Zani “work for the last bits” a lot. After a training session, she often patrols the area for the last treat crumbs. But since she has already had a meal (I don’t train my dogs on an empty stomach) and a good handful of treats, I think there is little frustration involved.

At the end of a meal, we humans will often chase that last pea around our plate or sop up the last bit of sauce. Cleaning up is an organic part of eating a good meal, but if the whole meal consisted of tastes and bites that small, it wouldn’t be much fun.

Husbandry

A lot of people use food toys like this one as distractions during husbandry tasks. They give the dog something to do while being clipped, for instance. I would do that only with a dog who is already fine with the husbandry procedure. I use food for building associations during husbandry, rather than as a distraction. For a dog who is already nervous about the handing, using food as a distraction can create reverse conditioning. That means the dog will get nervous when you bring the food out instead of the food making the husbandry a happy thing. But for most dogs who are habituated to husbandry activities, I think licking things off a mat is more enjoyable than just lying there. And of course it’s a better alternative than having to restrain the dog, as long as you aren’t sabotaging yourself with reverse conditioning.

I would also use a product like this for a dog who wolfed food down and was in danger of bloating. In that case, just slowing the dog can be a lifesaver.

Bottom Line

The marketing materials for the LickiMat lead off by saying that mats are a “medical-free” way to calm your pet during storms. There are such assumptions in this statement. First, that a scared pet is even interested in eating. Second, that licking is necessarily soothing. Third, that any method short of medication will help a thunder-phobic dog. I think all of these are questionable. But what bothers me most is the “medical-free” part. Discouraging a medical route when some dogs desperately need it is terribly irresponsible. But it’s a marketing ploy that works again and again.

Bottom line: if I had read the “medical-free” claim by Industripet, the maker of LickiMats, I wouldn’t have supported the company to begin with. But now I have one, and I don’t like to waste things. If Zani, or another future small dog in my household, ever needs to eat wet food, I may use the LickiMat in the way I described above. I’ll put a whole serving of food on there and let her eat just as she would out of a bowl. Then she can choose whether to take the time to lick up the rest. I might also use it for a dog who needed to eat slowly for medical reasons, and for a stopgap measure to distract a dog. And who knows, I may get a dog who loves licking food. But for general enrichment, I’ll give my current dogs a toy that moves or some sort of nosework any day!

Thank you to Alex Bliss for the photo of the untrimmed mat.

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

The Opposite of Force

The Opposite of Force

Clara's pool provides enrichment she can choose when she wants
Clara playing by herself in her pool

I think I’ve figured something out.

I continue to see the concept of choice bandied about the positive reinforcement-based training world. It can be a code word for a setup that includes negative reinforcement. “I’m going to do something physically unfamiliar or unpleasant to you and you have the choice of staying here and getting a piece of food or leaving and being relieved from whatever it is I’m doing.” I’ve suggested that this is not a laudable kind of choice; as trainers we can use our skills and take our time so that the dog doesn’t want to leave in the first place.

It can also refer to human-centric preference tests, many of which are subject to extreme bias.

But here’s my new realization. Continue reading “The Opposite of Force”

Are You SURE Your Dog Prefers That Food Toy?

Are You SURE Your Dog Prefers That Food Toy?

It just occurred to me that it is super easy to make assumptions about how much our dogs prefer a particular food toy, or even whether they really enjoy them that much.

Don’t yell at me. To be clear: I use food toys for my dogs every single day. I think they can be enriching and that they are ethical things to use.

But food toys present us with a funny little problem. The laws of behavior get in the way of something we might like to know. How can we tell which toys our dogs like best? Or whether they like them at all?

Continue reading “Are You SURE Your Dog Prefers That Food Toy?”
The Joy of Training With Food

The Joy of Training With Food

Thank you to Debbie Jacobs, who pointed out that many training videos do not include the important moment when the trainer feeds her dog. We need to see more of that. 

Training your dog with food is not only effective. It’s also fun. Do it for a while and your dog may start preferring his training sessions to his meals, even if it’s the same food. You will learn things too, and will enjoy seeing your dog get enthusiastic and attentive.

People who are new to it can profit from seeing what training with food looks like, so I’ve put together a video. I am most definitely an amateur, but I don’t mind showing my imperfect training. I’m not trying to model the perfect use of food delivery—I don’t have that level of skill. But I can give people an idea of what a high rate of reinforcement looks like. I can let them see what a good time the dogs are having. Hopefully, it will help people who are newer to the game than I am.

It seems to be human nature to be a little cheap with the food at first. That’s another reason for the video. I’m showing high rates of reinforcement in the clips. Most people are surprised at first by how much food positive reinforcement-based trainers use. But if you are going to do it, do it right. Using a high rate of reinforcement makes it fun, helps keep your dog’s interest, and builds a strong behavior.

Some people talk imply using food and building a good relationship are mutually exclusive. But the opposite is true. Have you ever heard a new mom say, “I don’t want to nurse my baby because I don’t want her to associate me with food and comfort. I want her to love me for me!”? Has your grandmother ever said, “I was going to make you some cookies, but I didn’t want them to get in the way of our relationship”? Being the magical source of all sorts of good food for your dogs doesn’t hurt your relationship at all. Likewise, finding your dog a source of comfort when the human world is harsh doesn’t cheapen your love for her.

I know, I know. The analogies with the new mom and grandmother are flawed. Those are classical associations and in the case of our dogs, we are talking about training with food. Making food contingent on behavior. Please give me a pass on that for now. The net effect of using lots of food gets you the classical association anyway.

Why Train at All?

Poster: "Don't let anyone tell you that working on good mechanical skills is making yoerself (or your dog) into a robot. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love.When I first started training my dog (Summer was the first) it was because of behavior problems. Then I found out we both enjoyed it. So we kept on. My next purpose for training was to compete. We competed and titled in obedience, rally obedience, and our favorite, agility.

Zani needed minimal training to fit into my household. She is the proverbial “easy” dog. But she turned out to be a natural agility dog, so we did a lot of that. Clara did need training to fit into the household, and even more to be comfortable in the world.

Today, with my dogs at ages 11, 8, and 5, we don’t have any big problems getting along at home. I’ve trained them alternatives to behaviors that don’t work well in human environments. Things like peeing on any available absorbent surface, chewing anything attractive, and hurling themselves at me. In turn, they’ve taught me their preferences and the ways they like to do things.

What’s the main reason we train now? Because it enriches my dogs’ lives and it’s fun for all of us. Training with food and working together to problem-solve help create a great bond. And training with positive reinforcement is a game the dogs can never lose. We all learn so much! I train things like tricks, agility behaviors, and safety behaviors. For instance, right now I am working on everyone’s “down at a distance” using a hand signal. Oh, and husbandry! Any money I can put in that particular bank means less stressful vet visits for my dear girls.

What Training with Food Looks Like

I compiled a short video that comprises six training clips using food. A lot of food. Each behavior gets at least one treat. Sometimes I use a second behavior (such as a hand target) as a release and I treat for the second behavior too. In some cases when I am capturing a behavior for the first time, or working a little duration, I am giving multiple, “rapid-fired” treats. So in that case, one behavior gets many treats! Sometimes I’ll toss treats to “re-set” the dog for the next behavior and sometimes I’ll treat in position.

Almost all the videos are “headless trainer” vids, but that’s OK with me. I want you to be able to see the dog performing behaviors and eating.

I am using kibble in most of the clips, but if you are new to this, you should use something more exciting. Be generous. My dogs will work happily for kibble now because over the years they have come to love the games. And they don’t always get kibble. They also get things like chicken breast, roast, moist dog food roll, canned cat food, dehydrated raw food, and other exciting stuff.

A small black and tan dog is delicately accepting a treat from a woman's hand while training with food.
I appreciate Zani’s gentleness when I hand her a treat!

The behaviors in the movie are, in order:

  • Zani crossing her paws in response to a hand signal cue. On the latter reps, I am giving her more than one treat while she stays in position.
  • Clara working on one of her rehabilitation exercises for hind end strength. I am feeding in position. I’m giving lots of treats because we are just starting to add duration to this difficult behavior. After this session, I started treating after the behavior, since it’s a bit awkward for her to eat when she is stretched up vertically.
  • Summer targeting my hand with her nose. This was after I had cleaned up the results of my previous sloppy training. My rate of reinforcement in these clips was 27 reps per minute. (Not all repetitions are shown.) That’s 27 cues, 27 behaviors, and 27 food reinforcers per minute. Pretty good for me. I’m not usually that fast, and of course, there are tons of variables. (One is that Summer rarely chews small pieces of food! That helps with the speedy delivery.) If you’d like to see an exercise for rate of reinforcement and speedy treat delivery, check out this video from Yvette Van Veen. 
  • An old video of Zani drilling what I call “Level One Breakfast” from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. We were practicing sits, downs, and hand targets.
  • Summer filing down her front toenails on a scratch board. If you want to learn about this and other ways to make nail trimming a pleasant experience for your dog, visit the Facebook group Nail Maintenance for Dogs.
  • Clara’s very first try at “two on, two off” agility behavior on an elevated board. (Note: many people teach this with a nose target on the ground, but I don’t include that. I don’t plan to do agility with her and was just experimenting. ) When she gets in the correct position, I don’t mark, but just start feeding, feeding, and feeding in position.

Link to my video for email subscribers.

The one thing missing from the above video is a magnitude reinforcer: a large extended reinforcement period. Magnitude reinforcement is a great consequence for something the dog put real effort into. I give them mainly after agility runs, or when my dogs do something unexpectedly impressive in real life. The latter happened just the other day when I cued Zani to drop a stinky dead snake and come to me…and she did! Sadly, there was no camera running while I thanked her and showered her with all the goodies I had.

Luckily, my friend Marge Rogers has a great video of Rounder, her Rhodesian Ridgeback, practicing his Reliable Recall (from Leslie Nelson’s great DVD). Note in particular what is happening at 0:54 – 1:02. After she successfully calls him away from a yummy plate of food, he gets a constant stream of fabulous food and praise. If you don’t think eight seconds is a long time for food and praise, try it sometime!

Link to Marge’s video for email subscribers.

Other Reinforcers

Using food doesn’t mean I neglect other fabulous reinforcers. I use tugging, playing ball, sniffing, personal play, find-it games, and playing in water with my dogs. All these are great relationship builders too. I talk to and praise my dogs all the time, and have even used praise to shape behaviors with them. But you know what? Praise would be empty if we didn’t have a bond already. Praise gains value only after we are connected.

So Don’t Forget the Food!

Training with food builds your bond with your dog. It’s not mechanistic or objectifying. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love, and so is using a great reinforcer. These will help you communicate with your dog. And the observation skills you will gain as you improve as a trainer will help you learn what your dog is saying to you!

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats

Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats

I am all about efficiency. You could also say I’m lazy. Also, my freezer is usually stuffed full.

So rather than freeze whole filled food toys for three dogs, I use several gadgets that let me freeze things separately. Then I can put frozen dog treats (of all sorts—just look!) into food toys for a quick treat for the dogs that they can enjoy for a few minutes.

Continue reading “Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats”
Flavors: Ideas for Ultra High Value Treats

Flavors: Ideas for Ultra High Value Treats

A plate of spaghetti with a red colored meat sauce and a pile of grated cheese on top
Spaghetti Bolognese as a training treat? Is that even possible? See below!

OK, I’m going to break the ultimate taboo here and talk about giving so-called “people food” to dogs. 1)Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.

Most of us who do positive reinforcement training and counterconditioning are already accustomed to giving our dogs some pretty special, high value stuff at times. Tuna, ham, Gorgonzola cheese; most anything fragrant and full of calories has been tried at one time or another.

But these types of foods have something in common, and that is that most consist of one basic flavor.

A friend who doesn’t actually train her dogs, but gives them small amounts of interesting food out of love and as enrichment, caused me to notice how much dogs appear to enjoy complex odors and flavors.

My friend read a quote similar to this one about dogs’ olfactory powers: “We smell ‘vegetable soup,’ but a dog smells each individual ingredient.” 2)In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well. Author and scientist Alexandra Horowitz writes:

Dogs have more genes committed to coding olfactory cells, more cells, and more kinds of cells, able to detect more kinds of smells….their sense of smell may be millions of times more sensitive than ours.–Alexandra Horowitz, “Inside of a Dog,” 2010

My friend subsequently started making sure that her dogs regularly got–along with the smells–some tastes of safe, home cooked foods that were complex and seasoned. Just because she figured they would like it. She was right. They love it. She calls it “flavors” and all her dogs line up for their special tastes of interesting food, and look forward to a bite in their dinner bowls.  And note: her dogs can all proficiently suck up spaghetti à la “Lady and the Tramp.”

Smell vs. Taste

Even though they have those amazing noses, dogs have a lot fewer taste buds than we do. They probably can’t discriminate tastes nearly as well. But that’s no reason to limit their food to “simple” tastes like we often do, even when looking for high value treats. The smell of complex foods is likely rewarding in itself, and I find it hard to believe, after seeing what complex foods dogs often seem to like, that the smell doesn’t enrich the eating experience.

I remember one day at an agility practice when one of the people brought spice cookies for the humans. The dogs, with my Summer leading the way, went nuts over the odor of those cookies and when offered some bites gobbled them down like ambrosia. Summer has had cookies (intended for humans) before. Mostly simple things like vanilla wafers and shortbread.  The smells and tastes of butter, sugar, and vanilla are not unknown to her. But add in the clove and nutmeg and cinnamon in spice cookies and it was clearly a whole different experience.

Cautions

OK, before my suggestions, here are the cautions. Use common sense about foods that are toxic to dogs. Here is a list:  Foods That Are Hazardous to Dogs.

Also, be careful about foods with high fat content because of the risk of pancreatitis, plus of course all those calories. Highly processed foods full of sugar or white flour (see the fast food entries below) are probably best kept to small quantities as well. They can’t be any better for dogs than they are for us…. High salt items aren’t great either. And on the other hand beware of artificially sweetened foods, which may have Xylitol, extremely toxic to dogs (thanks to reader Jane for this reminder).

Finally, with regard to using these kinds of treats for counterconditioning: I generally avoid making suggestions about things that “work for some dogs.” It is tempting when working with fearful dogs to try every trendy thing that comes along, without buckling down to do the actual conditioning and training which has been shown to help. So I don’t usually say, “It can’t hurt to try.” It can hurt to spend time on things that aren’t likely to work. But I don’t believe widening the search for foods that our dogs love falls into that bucket. It’s part of the basics of training and conditioning to find something the dog goes crazy for.

Practicality

So OK, that plate of spaghetti looks great, and it’s not too onion-y, but how could one use something like that as a training treat?

Remember food tubes? If spaghetti with meat sauce turned my dog on like nothing else, I would be putting it in a blender and dishing it out with a food tube. But there are quite a few “people foods” that lend themselves more easily to training.

A pile of plain tortellini on a green plate.
Plain tortellini are popular with dogs and fairly  practical

Things You Can Cut Into Pieces

  • Cheese or meat tortellini or ravioli, boiled plain
  • Commercial or homemade meatballs
  • Meatloaf
  • Grilled cheese sandwich
  • Whole wheat waffle with cranberries (NOT raisins)
  • Fast food hamburger or cheeseburger with bun (hold the onion, mustard, and pickle). The buns are very soft–just rip off small bites with both meat and bread
  • Fast food breakfast sandwich
  • Pizza
  • Pumpkin or spice bread  (no chocolate chips)

Things to Blend and Put in a Food Tube 

Some of these may take some finesse with the food processor, especially those with  potatoes. They can get gluey. Most of these require the addition of some liquid.

  • Spaghetti with meat sauce
  • Barbecue meat
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Omelettes
  • Hash brown casserole
  • Lasagne
  • Many soups, stews, and casseroles

A Little More Common Sense

OK, before the healthy food posse comes after me, please note that I am not recommending that anyone change their dog’s diet to include these foods in quantity. Just a bite now and then for enrichment, for a very special training treat, or for counterconditioning. And I wanted to give the people who do lots of counterconditioning some ideas for things they may not have used yet.

Also, there are plenty of non-junky home cooked foods. The sky is the limit!

My Summer will do anything for any sort of bread or baked goods. What interesting things does your dog like?

A brown dog is exiting a set of weave poles, with her eyes on a piece of white bread that her handler is throwing ahead
Summer weaving for plain white bread (with the headless agility handler)

 Related Posts

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Photo Credits

Spaghetti image

By Manfred&Barbara Aulbach (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0 ) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html )], via Wikimedia Commons

Tortellini image

By cyclonebill (Tortellini med valnøddeolie og sort peber) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Notes   [ + ]

1. Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.
2. In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well.
My Dogs Are Not in Charge

My Dogs Are Not in Charge

As a Humane Hierarchy trainer, it is part of my value system to help my dogs get what they want, within the confines of our mutual comfort and safety. It’s important for me to give them choices and let them operate on their environment. To have an enriched existence not overcontrolled by me.

Until I read this brilliant post, “Threshold Roulette or Choice,” by Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs, I would have said without much thought that more control and choices for pet dogs are always better. But Yvette is way ahead of me. There’s a big fat exception to that. So if you have time only to read one post today, go read hers. It is show stopping. I’m just riffing off of it. But here is the learning that she triggered.

Is Putting the Dog in Control a Good Thing?

I think most of us who are dedicated to avoiding force in training would put a high value on freedom, choices, and the ability for our dogs to have control over their environments. So where’s the problem?

There are two problems that I perceive.

  1. As magical as dogs are, with their fascinating intelligences, we are the ones with the bigger brains and with the majority culture. We protect them, care for them, and make decisions for them to the best of our abilities. In so many situations, the one who knows more (the human) needs to be making the major decisions. Yvette made this point beautifully in her post.
  2. This one is more insidious. It’s not a problem with putting them in control per se. It’s just the observation that that even when we think we are putting them in control, most often we are not. Their choices are limited inside the structures that we create and we are feeding the illusion of giving them control. Refusal or inability to acknowledge the power differential provides a mask for doing abominable things to dogs and still claiming that “they are in charge.”

Exploring the Idea

Hypothetical situation: If giving my dogs as much control as possible is a good thing, does that mean that they should be able to eat what and when they want? I love for my dogs to enjoy life and have lots of pleasures. So is more food, tastier food, or more available food better?

I could do this:

I could put out for my dogs an ever-refilling bowl of pork cracklings and another of peanut butter cookies and perhaps some chicken to round things out. They would LOVE that.

But the problems that would cause include:

  • obesity;
  • pancreatitis;
  • bloat;
  • other digestive problems;
  • aggression and possible likely injuries from inter-household resource guarding;
  • danger from vermin or predators if this were set up outside;
  • and more.

My dogs would find this very cool
My dogs would find this very cool

I’ve described this in extremes to get a point across. Setting up situations where their free choice would have ruinous consequences is not humane. Even just giving them free access to kibble at all times has problems. I used to free feed. I stopped when my 60 lb dog gave my 15 lb dog a warning bite to the neck as they squabbled over the feeder while I wasn’t home. (A neighbor saw.) They were both overweight, and also I had a rat problem that went on for years after that.

I don’t usually use the term “dog guardian,” as it’s just a little too touchie-feelie for me, but it is a accurate description nonetheless. We make decisions on our dogs’ behalf all the time. We protect them. They will always be dependent on us, and living in a world that is at least partly foreign.

The obvious limit to giving dogs freedom and control over their lives and environment is safety. The considerations are both immediate (protection from mishap and injury) and long-term (keeping them healthy).

So just as we wouldn’t overfeed our dogs, we need to consider that putting some other bounds on the choices and control they have may be a good thing.

Enrichment

Many of us who love our dogs is enrich their lives by arranging challenges that allow them to express instinctive or naturally expressed behaviors. Instead of free-feeding, many of us use some of their food to train. We arrange for them to forage for some of it. Or we freeze or melt some into food toys.

Some days I choose this for them
But some days I choose this for them

These things we set up are enriching and even empowering to our dogs. You bet! And within the structure of the games we set up, they do get to make choices and exert control. Not to mention develop some skills that express their their natural aptitudes.

But we set up the structure. We don’t ask the dog if she’d rather snack on kibble from a never ending bowl all day or hone her extraction skills with a frozen Kong. We can’t ask her. We make decisions for her based on our observation, knowledge, and best guesses. And we keep in mind the concepts that she cannot. Perhaps she would have chosen the big pot o’ kibble, but we know that eating out of a Kong will assuage some boredom and give her something to chew on for a little longer. So we make the latter choice for her. And we take away her choice of an easy meal for that day.

Who’s In Charge?

I am.

I think the attraction of the idea of “putting the dog in control” is partly a rebound from the practice of punishment and valuing dominance, and in that sense is partly a good thing. At its best, it is an ethical imperative to make up for the strictures that domestication puts on their lives. However, “putting the dog in control” has the same unthinking attraction that the label on food of “all-natural” has for many of us. We like to think that our animals are expressing themselves in unfettered ways. It feels good and wholesome to many of us.

But denying the control we have and need to have is a dangerous slope. We cannot in good conscience turn away from the facts that we are the ones with the big brains, we are the ones who have the keys to the cabinet, we put on and take off the leashes, and make health decisions. We spay and neuter our dogs or do not allow them to breed (how natural is that?). And people are free in many countries to strap on shock collars and hold the remote and hurt their dogs.

Many people say jokingly or not-so-jokingly that their dogs are always in charge. Sure, they shape our behavior. Certainly those of us who care for pets dutifully feel like we are their servants at times. But you know, I try not to even joke along those lines. It’s part of the cultural fog about learning and behavior to ignore the power that we have when we control the reinforcers and punishers and set the contingencies. I have read more than one shock trainer claim, in all seriousness, that the dog is in control of the training process. They mistake the fact that the dog can learn how to behave to turn off the shock with the dog being in charge. Really? Did the dog go pick out the shock collar, put it on, hand the human the remote and order him to start pressing the button or else? If the dog is in charge, in what way exactly does he hold sway over the human that would be even nearly equivalent to the humans’ power of holding the shock remote?

Recently protocols that include negative reinforcement have become popular among some trainers who consider themselves part of the force free community. Some practitioners (not all) make similar claims about the subject dog being in control or in charge of the process. This is what Yvette discusses so eloquently. But, as she points out, the dog did not participate in the decision making that arrived at that training session. She didn’t set up the rules. She might have preferred not to participate in that whole situation entirely. (And Yvette’s major point: that letting the dog make the decisions in a potentially explosive situation is a bad idea anyway.)

As in any situation involving operant learning, including with positive reinforcement, the dog learns behaviors according to a rule structure set up by the humans. She is not in control except in responding to the situation that we set up.  We don’t need to unthinkingly attach ourselves to this idea of the dog being in control because it sounds warm and fuzzy. Certainly sometimes the safer and more humane choice is for the human to make the decisions in the dog’s best interest.

Feral dog Clara at the mall
Formerly feral dog Clara at the mall

One of the things I do in this blog is to attempt to clarify misapprehensions about the learning processes, to the best of my ability. Sometimes they are things I read, sometimes they are my own errors in reasoning. I like to explore my own value system and discuss ethical choices. So I really appreciate that Yvette has widened my comprehension with her post. I’m still thinking about what she wrote.

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Introduction to the Exercise Ball

Introduction to the Exercise Ball

Small black and rust colored hound dog is putting her front paw on a red exercise ball (peanut shaped). Her mouth is open, anticipating a treat.
Zani’s ready for a treat for foot targeting the peanut

I bought an exercise ball, a FitPAWS peanut, from CleanRun a couple of years ago. It’s a device to help dogs develop core strength and balance.

After seeing some YouTube videos and even a professional DVD that showed dogs and puppies being placed on exercise balls and held there while they were clearly stressed and uncomfortable, I decided to make a video showing how I introduced my dogs to the ball. We went comparatively slowly, over the course of a few days, with no force or pressure. I wanted my dogs to have a great association with the ball and no anxiety attached to it. So from the very beginning they always had a choice; they could walk away, jump off, take a break.

As is typical, giving them choice in the matter and building good associations made them absolutely fanatically fixated on getting on the ball! And once more, going slow turned out to be fast!

Small black and rust colored hound dog has both  her front paws on a red exercise ball (peanut shaped).
Zani has her whole front end up on the peanut!

You can see in the short video that I used a combination of shaping, targeting, and treat placement to get Zani happily on the ball in a few daily sessions. This method can be used to introduce a dog to all sorts of unfamiliar objects and equipment.

Small black and rust colored hound is standing on top of a red exercise ball (peanut shaped).
And she’s up on the peanut!

Zani’s a confident little dog and I probably could have done it all in one day, but 1) I wanted to take no risks of rushing her psychologically; and 2) we are dealing with a physical skill that builds muscles, and I didn’t want to overdo.

If you are considering getting an exercise ball for your dog, be sure and check it out with your vet. Also, size the ball correctly (CleanRun and the ball vendors such as  can help with that). I hope your dog enjoys it as much as Zani does.

I like easy ways (for me!) to exercise my dogs. Don’t forget flirt poles, too!

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Thanks for watching!

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7 Great Benefits of Flirt Pole Play for You and Your Dog

7 Great Benefits of Flirt Pole Play for You and Your Dog

Two Dogs’ Experiences with the Flirt Pole

If you have been following the blog, you may have seen that young Clara is an absolute maniac for the flirt pole. It is right up there with playing ball in her list of favorite things.

a tan dog is stretched out at her whole length, chasing a toy on a rope attached to the end of a pole
Clara Stretching Out to Get the Toy

I waited quite a while before introducing Clara to the flirt pole because teaching “release the toy” was a real struggle with her when we played tug and ball. I had visions of her getting overly excited and breaking the flirt pole by pulling on the toy endlessly.

When I taught her to release a tug toy, I didn’t use food. I used the method of reinforcing the release with resumption of the game. I had a pretty hard time with that, since hanging onto, chewing on, and dismembering toys is very reinforcing to Clara, and I lacked experience teaching the behavior. You need pretty good timing. I finally got it though, and Clara was dropping the toy pretty consistently.

But it turned out that playing with the flirt pole actually improved Clara’s releases. First,  we lucked into the perfect toy. Marge Rogers gave me this skinny little tug toy from Dog Dreams Toys. It is perfect to chase, but not as fun to chew as, say, rabbit fur. Our flirt pole has a gizmo where you can attach different toys. It works and they do not come off! Second,  the flirt pole helped me make the game immediately exciting when she dropped the toy. I could zip it away instantly and irresistibly. Much more quickly than I could when we were playing tug. The right behavior (release on cue) was set up to predict more fun than the holding and chewing.

Here are two of Clara’s nice releases, so you can see what I mean.

Here is a link to “Releasing the Toy Means More Fun to Come” for email subscribers.

But enough about the flirt pole champ. We have an up and coming talent. Little Zani, the challenger.

small black and tan dog chases a red toy at the end of a rope on a pole
Zani Enjoying the Flirt Pole

I had first tried her with the pole months, maybe years ago. And Zani didn’t care for it. She was a little afraid of it, and I didn’t have the interest to work on that at the time. But Zani has developed methods of inserting herself into virtually every fun thing that happens around my house, and she finally had enough of watching Clara play with the flirt pole from the sidelines. One day she asked to play with it.

She went for it! Fearsome little dog! She was so excited that half the time she just jumped into the air or snapped at me before she remembered to chase the toy.

small black and tan dog is leaping into the air, snapping at the sleeve of a woman holding a toy attached to a rope and pole
Zani Slightly Confused about What to Bite

She has a different style from Clara’s when she catches the toy. Clara grabs it and holds. She loves for me to grab it and tug with her. But Zani has to give it multiple killing shakes. I have long suspected that Zani is part Russell terrier. And yes, she does know how to kill small animals efficiently. But I don’t mind her “killing” the tug toy at all.

I hope you find Zani’s sessions as delightful as I did. I just loved how she would  jump around and snap before she got it together enough to chase the toy. If she were a bigger dog, it might have been a problem, but she is a small dog with great bite inhibition and a wonderful sense of fun. She always knows exactly where her teeth are. You can see in the still photo above that she is actually not quite connecting with my sleeve. That was the case every time she jumped at me.

Here is a link to “Zani Discovers the Flirt Pole” for email subscribers.

7 Benefits of Flirt Pole Play

  1. It is great exercise.
  2. It teaches coordination, for both the dog and the human! I am continually having to develop new “moves” as my dogs learn to outwit my old ones.
  3. You can use it to teach impulse control.
  4. You may have a better chance of teaching a good release than with tugging.
  5. The dog gets to chase something at high speed but also stays close to you (you are part of the picture).
  6. She can’t run off with the toy, and thereby develops a habit of sticking around you with it.
  7. As long as the dog has a reliable release, the human doesn’t have to move at all. It can be outdoor couch training!

The toy we are using is a Chase It toy purchased at CleanRun.

Note: I have heard that flirt poles are illegal in some areas because they are associated with fighting dogs. I have not determined any specific locations for which this is true, but I am certainly not condoning dog fighting or encouraging anyone to break any laws.

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