Category: Enrichment

Tearribles Review: Neither a Chew Toy nor a Tug Toy

Tearribles Review: Neither a Chew Toy nor a Tug Toy

There are thousands of people searching for that perfect stuffed toy: the one their dog will love playing with and which will last longer than a couple of days.

The Tearrible sounds like that toy, but for us, it wasn’t. It’s a toy meant to be played with in one limited way—a way a dog might or might not enjoy. Surely there are dogs for whom this would be a great toy. But be sure to understand how the toy actually works before you assume your dog is one of them.

Even though it is advertised as very tough, and gives hope to us guardians of super chewers, the company advises against letting the dog just play with it. They recommend playing tug using the toy, but a very specific kind of tug game that stretches the meaning of the word. The toy is not well suited for normal tug play at all.

Tearribles

Tearribles was a Kickstarter project of an innovative dog toy in 2017. The inventors got great backing and set up manufacturing. The toy was a sturdily made stuffed monster featuring removable appendages the dog could pull out: legs, arms, and a tail fastened with Velcro. After the dog ripped them out, the human could press them back in place.

They now have an adorable (yes, it’s really cute) virus toy with16 protein spikes to pull off.

I was an early donor/investor and paid enough to get the Extra Large Tearrible. It seemed like a good idea—if the dog did indeed enjoy playing with it the way it was designed.

That turned out to be a big “if.”

Pros

  • The toys are absolutely adorable.
  • They are made well.
  • They are tougher than a lot of toys.
  • For certain dogs it could be a favorite toy.

Cons

  • I believe the signature removable limbs are of limited interest for most dogs.
  • Dogs can shred and destuff the toys, despite the advertising.
  • They are marketed as tug toys, but they lack the most basic features of a good tug toy.
  • There is misinformation about dogs on the website.

The marketing takes advantage of our desire for the impossible: a toy that is fun for a dog to rip up that doesn’t rip up.

My Experience with the Tearrible

The Tearrible out of the box

I received mine in early 2018. I gave it to Clara and Zani with some other toys. Within just a couple of minutes, Clara had removed an ear from the Tearrible. She swallowed it before I could intervene. She usually spits out the things she tears off, but this piece went right down.

I supervised more closely and let her continue with the toy. She did pull the bottom legs unit off (as the toy is designed for). Then she immediately set to work chewing out the seams she had exposed on the bottom corners. She pulled out a fair amount of stuffing while I made sure she didn’t swallow it. But after she tore off two more pieces of the outer fabric, I traded her some goodies and took away the toy. I didn’t want her to ingest any more fabric after that entire ear.

I had my answer. Despite the marketing, the toy wasn’t magically tough.

Full disclosure: What I did was not how the Tearribles are now instructed to be used. The toy didn’t come with instructions to use it as a tug toy then, although they did say to play with it with your dog. My goal was to check the sturdiness and observe how much pleasure the dogs took in ripping the limbs off, the main selling point. They didn’t. The limbs were just one more bite to remove and discard. They wanted to get deeper into the ripping.

Perhaps breeds that have had the dissection part of the predatory sequence diminished would enjoy them more, unlike my Arkansas varmint dogs.

YouTube and Social Media

I searched for videos and posts about dogs having a great time with Tearribles. I found no video on YouTube of extended (or even more than brief) play in the manner the company recommends. The company marketing video has two short segments of a dog playing with the toy totaling 23 seconds: a few seconds of ripping appendages off while playing tug with a person and a few solo kill-shakes. There is a video review by a fellow who only shows the features of the toys and never shows his dogs playing with them, and there’s a video by Dr. Patricia McConnell of her border collie happily pulling the spikes off the virus, but not playing tug with it. She does have two dogs who enjoy removing the appendages and don’t do further dissection. On her blog, Dr. McConnell cautions not to offer the toy to a dog who swallows small, removed parts.

I found a couple of positive posts about dogs who liked their Tearribles in an enrichment Facebook group. They played with the toys as intended and the toys lasted.

Social Media Addendum

I found some videos. Instagram, of course. Keep in mind, though, that it’s the perfect medium to show a dog tearing the toy apart…once. IG videos have to be short. So it’s hard to tell how how long a dog’s interest lasts. But you can see some very happy dogs pulling limbs off toys.

The Marketing Is the Problem

So while there seem to be some dogs out there who enjoy the Tearrible, the company doesn’t sufficiently clarify the very narrow intended use of the toy.

Original Marketing

There was originally no real caution in the whole Tearribles website that dogs could actually tear the toy up. They implied the opposite. And they made the following strange statement:

In our tests, we played tug of war for 45 minutes with our 80lb destructo-dog, Izzy. The results? Not a single tear on the toy, and one really tired dog.

I took this text directly off their site in 2018, but it is no longer there.

The statement is odd. Playing tug with a human is not how dogs usually rip up toys. Supervised tug doesn’t test a toy. Any well-made toy can have a good lifespan if you play tug with it rather than giving the dog unfettered access.

These tug toys belonging to Marge Rogers are about eight years old. Her dogs and her client dogs have played with them several days a week for years.

Current Marketing

The Tearribles company has amended its claims and includes some qualifiers now. This is from the FAQ page.

Question: Are Tearribles chew toys/indestructible toys?

Answer: No. Dog teeth, no matter how small, are built to crush bones and tear tendons – there is no material (safe to be in your dog’s mouth) that your dog cannot chew through.

True! But they still focus on their toys’ toughness. Their YouTube movie says dogs can destroy any stuffed object in seconds, then says, “It’s time we stopped insulting our dogs’ abilities with weak toys.” That’s not how you sell a tug toy; it’s how you sell a chew toy.

They state on the website that if you play with the Tearrible in a structured way with your dog, the dog will learn it is your “together” toy and will stop trying to “annihilate” it. My take: true if you remove the toy after your “together” time, but that’s something you can do with any toy.

And they top it off with this false statement:

Dogs chew non-food things for two reasons:

  1. they are teething
  2. they are bored

No. Chewing is a natural and necessary behavior for dogs. Dissection is one step in the predatory sequence. Giving your dog a full and stimulating life will not prevent him from wanting to chew stuff up. In fact, chewing stuff up is part of a full and stimulating life for most dogs.

Lewis and the Tearrible

Here’s the hero of our story. I wrote much of this review three years ago. But I never published it, because I didn’t want to post yet another grouchy review. I felt bad about criticizing a well-meaning company that sought to create a novel toy for dogs, even though I disagreed with their claims.

I still have the toy, even with its holes and leaking filling. When Lewis first came, all the Velcroed appendages still worked. He figured the toy out and pulled it apart. He did seem to enjoy that. I put the toy back together and he pulled it apart a few more times, sometimes while I held it. But the minute I stopped putting it back together, he started working on the seams. He removed one of the Velcro strips (I nabbed it before he or Clara swallowed it). So now the bottom legs no longer reattach. But although Lewis likes the toy, even he doesn’t want to limit himself to pulling off arms, legs, and the tail. He wants to continue on to destuff it. But I did finally get a dog who seemed to enjoy the signature aspect of the toy. One dog out of four pulls the limbs off, but zero dogs out of four were happy to stop at that point.

Stuffed Toys and My Dogs

Every one of my dogs has enjoyed pulling toys apart and destuffing them. I’ve tried tough toys, and the tougher they were, the less fun they were for the dogs.

I finally decided the only stuffed toys that made sense for us were cheap ones they could rip up while supervised. I supervise as they pull them apart, then throw away the husks when they become unsafe. Before the pandemic, I would pick them up at garage sales. Nowadays, I concentrate more on edible chews and playing tug and scent games.

Clara and Lewis played with the husk of this Snoopy toy for a long time after it was completely de-stuffed

Why Isn’t the Tearrible a Good Tug Toy?

Unless you want to redefine tugging as a dog repeatedly pulling off discrete appendages and starting over, this is not a tug toy. It does not have the features of a good tug toy: long and slender, attractive to chase, a clear target area for the dog, and a handle for the human. The torso of the Tearrible is a nightmare for the human to hold on to.

The company didn’t originally advertise the Tearrible as a tug toy. Check out this post from July 2018. There is no mention of tugging. They may have added the directions to tug after too many people (like me) tried to use it as a regular chew toy.

Alternatives

  • If your dog likes to tug, make or buy a real tug toy. There are hundreds on the market. The best tug toy is something your individual dog wants to chase and grab and that you can hang onto. Try Clean Run or Dog Dreams Toys. You can even try a flirt pole if they are permitted in your area. Playing with a flirt pole is like tug on steroids; your dog gets to chase and tug.
  • If your dog prefers to shred and dissect, you are probably already letting them tear up stuffed toys. Be sure to supervise your dog closely so they don’t ingest fabric or plastic squeaker parts. There are always risks of swallowing, however. Check out the Canine Enrichment Facebook group for more ideas for safe shredding activities.
  • If your dog enjoys chewing and/or squeaking a fabric toy and you don’t want them to rip it apart, there are some decent options. The Outward Hound Fire Biterz toy is made of firehose material. The goDog toys might do for some dogs. My dogs don’t chew up the canvas-covered toys like Kong Wubbas. The Tearrible may be tough enough for some dogs. And maybe you’ll just want to get one to support an independent business with a very cute and sturdy product.

Bottom Line

The Tearrible may be the perfect toy for some dogs, and I hope it finds its way to them. But it looks like a chew toy, and they market it that way. At the same time, they instruct you to use it as a tug toy and it’s not designed well for tug at all.

Related Posts

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

Photo of well-used tug toys copyright 2022 and courtesy of Marge Rogers. All other photos copyright Eileen Anderson.

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!

Continue reading “Is That Enrichment Toy Enriching? Not So Much.”
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 prefer 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 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 see the dog performing behaviors and eating.

I am using kibble in most of the clips, but if you are new to this, 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.

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 genuine 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!

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 … Continue reading

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)

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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

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.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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.

Continue reading “7 Great Benefits of Flirt Pole Play for You and Your Dog”
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