Category: Handling and Husbandry

Why to Muzzle-Train the Gentlest Dog

Why to Muzzle-Train the Gentlest Dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eyedrop Husbandry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ophthalmologist Visit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the ER

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

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

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

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

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

Muzzle-Training Plans

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Epilogue: Looking Back from 2021

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

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson


1 The final diagnosis, which was made by Zani’s dermatologist, was something called parasympathetic nose, where the ducts in a nostril stop working. The condition is probably related to the dry eye.
Wipe Your Chin! How My Dog Cleans Up Her Own Drool

Wipe Your Chin! How My Dog Cleans Up Her Own Drool

Clara and Zani sharing the prime part of the couch. Note Zani’s droopy mouth on one side.

Training husbandry behaviors with positive reinforcement is one of the kindest things we can do for our dogs. We have to do stuff to them; why not take it out of the battleground, past neutral, and into the “fun” territory?

One of the things I’ve trained of which I’m inordinately proud is Clara’s pill-taking behavior. I always have to credit Laura Baugh here, because her blog and video were what introduced me to pill-taking as a behavior, rather than as an event centered on “how well can I hide this pill from my dog?”. I was blown away. We’re talking about a dog voluntarily swallowing medicine, then, of course, getting a grand treat if possible. I say “if possible” because this behavior can also help when a dog has to take a pill without food. But in training, the great treat always followed.

Continue reading “Wipe Your Chin! How My Dog Cleans Up Her Own Drool”
Response Latency in Dog Training: What’s Your Dog Telling You?

Response Latency in Dog Training: What’s Your Dog Telling You?

A small black and tan dog is standing and looking up at the person. This is during a period between she heard a cue and responded to it. Her response latency was high.
This photo is from a period of high response latency

What happens when you ask your dog to do something they don’t care for? We are not all perfect trainers, plus sometimes we are forced to compromise. Let’s say you’ve worked on teaching your dog to get her nails trimmed and teeth brushed but suddenly she has an ear infection and needs ear drops. You haven’t gotten to ear handling yet.

Continue reading “Response Latency in Dog Training: What’s Your Dog Telling You?”
How I TRAINED My Dog to Take a Pill

How I TRAINED My Dog to Take a Pill

Clara, a sandy colored dog with a black face, is trained to swallow a pill

Most of us have used the “hide it” method at one time or another to get our dogs to take pills. In fact, I wrote a whole post about some ways to sneak pills into dogs.

But there’s a better way. What if you never had to hide a pill again? What if your dog would take a pill almost like a human? Instead of washing it down with a drink of water, your dog would get a favorite treat afterward instead.

Pill-taking can be trained as a behavior. It blew my mind when I first realized this, after reading Laura Baugh’s post on it and seeing her video.

Continue reading “How I TRAINED My Dog to Take a Pill”
The Last Trip To the Vet: What If Your Pet’s Last Breath Is on the Operating Table?

The Last Trip To the Vet: What If Your Pet’s Last Breath Is on the Operating Table?

Alex in the foreground, with Rusty and Andrew behind him—photo from 1993. Yes, they are in a bathtub.

Many years ago I lost Alexander, my dear, dear cat to stomach cancer. This was before veterinary medicine had the technology that’s available today. It was also before I took as proactive an approach to my animals’ health and welfare needs as I do now. I knew nothing about training or socialization. My cats were not crate- or carrier-trained. I didn’t know to use counterconditioning, desensitization, and habituation to teach them that the vet’s office could be a great place (or at least not an awful one). As a result, it was a struggle to take my cats to the vet and most were terrified there.

Continue reading “The Last Trip To the Vet: What If Your Pet’s Last Breath Is on the Operating Table?”
Allergy Shots for Dogs: How I Made Them the Best Thing Ever

Allergy Shots for Dogs: How I Made Them the Best Thing Ever

This post is about how I made weekly allergy shots into a fun event for my two allergic dogs. It’s not about the medical aspects of allergy shots or how to administer them. Be sure to get specific advice and training from your veterinary staff if you will be giving shots at home.

I have two dogs with seasonal allergies that are severe enough to make them pretty uncomfortable, especially in the summer. I recently took them to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist. They got skin tests and the vet specialist determined that they were both good candidates for an immunology protocol. First, they would get shots approximately every three days Continue reading “Allergy Shots for Dogs: How I Made Them the Best Thing Ever”

Now Switch! Prompting the Dog to Change Feet When Scratching a Nail Board

Now Switch! Prompting the Dog to Change Feet When Scratching a Nail Board

I’ve been using a nail board (custom-made by Bob Rogers–thanks Bob and Marge!) with all three of my dogs for a few years now. I use it as an adjunct to trimming and Dremeling, and the dogs enjoy getting part of the kibble in exchange for scratching.

This isn’t a how-to post; it’s mostly another “Do as I say, not as I do,” post. In other words, I’m going to tell you about a mistake I made. Continue reading “Now Switch! Prompting the Dog to Change Feet When Scratching a Nail Board”

See My Successes; See My Failures

See My Successes; See My Failures

I wrote in my first post that one of the things I have to offer the world is a window into my mistakes as a newbie trainer. Last week I posted an update on the smashing success of my feral dog Clara (which I can’t really take credit for; most credit goes to my teacher).

So today I’m going to show you something that didn’t work with one of my other dogs, at least not how I expected it to. I think it may be very helpful to some people, as I made a common error. I don’t enjoy these pictures and videos of my dear little Cricket showing stress signals, but perhaps publishing them can help some other people and their dogs.

Continue reading “See My Successes; See My Failures”
Let Rats Decide

Let Rats Decide

Wait a minute! I thought this was Eileenanddogs! Well, just for today, it is Eileenandrats.

I write a lot about dog body language in this blog.  I discuss letting animals have a say in how and when they are handled and touched. I talk some about how to perceive their answers through observation. And I have shown, in my most popular post of all time, dogs communicating “yes” and “no” about whether they want to be touched. It’s a mini lesson about body language as well as a proposal that we let the dogs decide whether they want to be petted.

So you can imagine I was delighted to come across Gwen Lindsey’s work on rat body language and giving rats the chance to say yes or no to handling or other actions. She discusses the issues on this page, Let Rats Decide When, and has a lovely video on the same topic (embedded below). Gwen is the owner of the website JoinRats.com, a site that is chock full of advice for people who have rats as pets.

Small Animals

Mr. Robin Rat is thinking hard and super curious about the strange photographer and her noisy clicking machine. Staying out in the open is a sign that he is handling the strange situation very well.
Mr. Robin Rat is thinking hard and super curious about the strange photographer and her noisy clicking machine. Staying out in the open is a sign that he is handling the strange situation very well.

In the dog training community, it is still a fairly foreign idea to let dogs have a choice about being handled. They are legally only property, and to some people that seems fine and natural. Others of us don’t think it is fine, but even so, can still carry around the underlying assumption. It can be hard to shake off.

So if it’s that way for dogs, what might people’s attitudes to very small pets be? Not only are most of them much easier to force our will upon, simply because of their small size, but they don’t have the historical partnership with us that dogs do. And I think most people have kind of a rough assumption that any pet smaller than a cat doesn’t have much of a personality, and that we just don’t need to concern ourselves with what they might want.

I hope Gwen’s video can persuade people otherwise. It certainly was a revelation to me, seeing how her rats interacted with her. It’s the same difference that crossover dog trainers start to see in their dogs. I have always loved my dogs, thought they were brilliant, and appreciated their personalities and quirks. But they blossomed after I started to use positive reinforcement and desensitization/counterconditioning to “converse” with them. It added a new dimension to our relationships, and added freedom to their lives in ways that were visible in the smallest elements of their body language. 

I had pet rats in my teens and twenties. I was very fond of them, and good to them.  But at that time no one talked about enrichment or training for small animals. I know that my rats associated me with good things, but I could have built such a better life for them, and had such a better relationship, had I known then what I know now. They could have blossomed. too. Ahh, for do-overs. 

For now I hope some of you out there will enjoy, as I do, the happy, trusting rats in this movie.


Link to the video for email subscribers. 

I know there are some folks out there (and rats or other small animals) whose lives will be changed if they see this video. So please feel free to share it, either directly from this URL or by sharing this blog.

Gwen has tons of great information on pet rats on her website but is also revamping a lot of things right now. Another really nice page of hers for rat owners who are new to training their rats or enriching their lives is Using Positive Reinforcement to Help Rats Trust.

I bet some of you have a lot of questions. Gwen can be reached by email here, and will also answer questions in the comments section below.

I am hoping to find some rattie lovers out there among my readers!  

Coming Up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

Stinky Stuff on My Back! DS/CC for Flea Treatment

Stinky Stuff on My Back! DS/CC for Flea Treatment

A woman and a small black and tan hound mix are sitting on a bed. The woman is holding a syringe (no needle) against the dog's back while the dog looks at her attentively. She is performing desensitization/counterconditioning for the application of topical flea medicine

Thank you to Jennifer Titus and Debbie Jacobs for their help with the post and movie. All errors are my own and all clumsy training moments are in spite of their excellent counsel. 

Before I got serious about training, I regarded putting topical flea treatment on my dogs as one of those necessary evils in their lives. After all, it happened only once a month at most. And it didn’t occur to me that I could make that awful smelling stuff any easier to bear. So I would either catch and hold them while I applied it, or apply it by stealth while they were eating. Summer and Cricket were cooperative, if unhappy. Zani actively avoided me when I had the applicator in my hand. I had to chase her down.

Fleas have been rare around here for a couple of years now, for whatever reason, and I have rarely had to treat the dogs. It became a non-issue for a while.

Please note that I am not making any recommendations regarding whether to apply flea treatment, how often, or what product one should use. But even if you never use the stuff–stick around long enough to see what this is about. The processes described here can be generalized for other kinds of handling as well. 

Anyway,  recently I saw some signs of fleas, so I decided it was time to start applying the treatment again. I recalled how unpleasant  Zani used to find the application of the liquid to her back. I decided to do a little desensitization/counterconditioning with all the dogs to see if I could get them a little more comfortable.

I didn’t go for the whole banana, the whole classical reaction, as I explain below in “How Far to Go.” But in three short sessions I got three dogs who were pretty blasé about the process, and looked forward to their treats. I wish I had done it much earlier!


Desensitization/Counterconditioning (DS/CC) is a method wherein you replace one emotional response, in this case,”Ewwww, run!” with another one: “Yummy, fun!!”*  You do this by pairing the individual aspects of the “ewwww”-invoking activity gradually with a wonderful treat. So the holding of the plastic medicine tube can come to predict good stuff just as reliably as if you were holding a dinner bowl or a food toy if you do the procedure properly. Ditto the smell of the icky medicine, and all other aspects of the process you can identify and practice.

A poster showing a dog, in the first pat, having a happy reaction to a piece of meat, then a neutral reaction to a bell. In the second part, the bell ringing precedes the piece of meat. In the last part, the dog has a happy reaction to the bell.
Poster credit to Sarah Pennington of Yaletown Dog Training. Used with permission. Thanks, Sarah!

For detailed instructions on performing DS/CC, check out this description from the ASPCA, and the CARE for Reactive Dogs site. The protocols on the CARE website are designed for dogs with fear and/or aggression issues, and they focus on exposure to people, other animals, or scary objects. But guess what: the concept is exactly the same. You can use the same process to help your dog learn to accept stinky medicine as you do to help them stop being afraid of that guy with the beard, dark glasses, and cowboy hat. Or the FedEx truck.

Also you can check out my post and movie about thresholds, which clarify some terminology and discuss the need for each step of counterconditioning to be done at an exposure level that is non-aversive to the animal.

There are two different procedures that are both referred to as counterconditioning. One is  classical or Pavlovian counterconditioning, where the behavior of the subject animal is irrelevant. You are building an association between one stimulus and another, like Pavlov’s bell that predicted food. The other procedure is operant counterconditioning,  where the animal is asked to perform a certain behavior while in the presence of a formerly aversive stimulus. The behavior is usually one that tends to elicit an incompatible state of mind, such as relaxing on a mat or a behavior that the dog finds especially fun.

What I usually do, and what you will see in the movie, is pure classical conditioning. Zani is not required to do any particular behavior. She is just learning the pairing of various handling actions with great treats. She does lie down for a lot of it, but that is not required.

A Proposed Step by Step Protocol for Topical Meds Application

I have never seen a protocol for DS/CC presented for this particular husbandry task, so I made one, and made a movie of it.

Here’s how I went about it.

What’s Unpleasant About Getting the Treatment?

First I had to figure out what I would need to address. Here are some of the things my dogs didn’t like about getting their topical flea treatment applied.

  • They sometimes had to be restrained.
  • The medicine smelled very unpleasant.
  • I had to reach over and touch them on their back with a tube or syringe.
  • The touch had a few seconds’ duration.
  • The sensation of the liquid flowing onto their back was probably pretty weird.

Even though there was apparently no pain involved, it was a moderately unpleasant process.

Supplies for the Conditioning and Application

Two syringes without needles: one full of liquid, the other empty but sitting in a bowl of water
Some of the necessary supplies

What did I need?

  • Clean eyedropper or a syringe without the needle
  • Used flea treatment applicator tube (for the medicinal smell)
  • Water-filled eyedropper or syringe
  • Actual flea treatment applicator, or the liquid in a syringe
  • High value treats: meat, cheese, liver or tuna brownies, dehydrated raw meat, etc.
  • Washable or disposable towel

Setup and Position

What would be the optimal setup? I took my dogs (one at a time) to a comfortable area. They could take any position, and could leave if they wanted to. That would simply be a message to me that my treats were not good enough and/or I was proceeding too fast. I would need to adjust accordingly.

Sitting is the least desirable position, since if the treatment is applied it will run straight down the dog’s back, but it is probably OK for most small dogs since the amount of liquid is less. Once my dogs realized that the actions I was performing predicted treats, they stuck around and got comfortable. Either standing or lying down work fine for the actual application of the medicine for most dogs, but I didn’t worry about that during the initial conditioning. The focus is entirely the dog’s comfort level, not requiring a particular behavior.

The Steps of the Process

Here are the steps I chose for my dogs, written out as instructions. You may be able to skip some of the steps, or you may need to further split them out into smaller increments. Let your knowledge of your dog and her response to each activity be your guides.

Perform desensitization/counterconditioning for each of the following steps as follows:

  1. Don't forget the good treats!
    Don’t forget the good treats!

    Reach over dog’s back with your hand, treat. Repeat the reach/treat until dog is happy or at least comfortable with this. *

  2. Reach over and touch dog’s back with your fingers, treat. Repeat the touch/treat as in the previous step.
  3. Put the used applicator tube close enough for your dog to get a whiff, treat. Do not let your dog lick or mouth it. Also, you don’t need to wait for an obvious sniff. You don’t want to teach an operant behavior. She’ll get the smell if you just wave it by her face. Repeat the presentation/treat.
  4. Show your dog the clean eyedropper or syringe without the needle before you start. Reach over and touch dog’s back with it, then treat. With big dogs, practice touching between their shoulder blades and also a place farther down their back, if included in the instructions for the treatment. Repeat the touch/treat.
  5. Repeat Step 4, adding duration with the eyedropper in contact with the dog’s back, then treat. Repeat the touch-hold/treat.
  6. Return to Step 3 for a few repetitions, letting your dog sniff the used applicator. Then use it to touch your dog’s back as you did with the eyedropper as in Steps 4 and 5, and treat. Repeat the touch/treat, then the touch-hold/treat.
  7. Switch back to the clean eye dropper. Put some water in it. Repeat the duration touch to the back but this time squeeze out some liquid, then treat. This will likely surprise your dog. Be ready to start out with a very small amount. Take your time with this step as you build up to the approximate amount of liquid you will need to apply. Repeat the liquid application/treat. (Don’t do too many repetitions of this at once since your dog will get wet! But you may need to do a lot of short sessions since this is probably the single most novel experience for the dog. You also may need to back up to Step 5 a few times.)
  8. It’s show time! Clear the area of food bowls and anything that you don’t want to get droplets of medication on (your dog will shake at some point). Get the actual medication in the correct dosage. Offer it to your dog to sniff, give a treat. Apply the medication to her back according to instructions, treat. Treat a few more times if you like, especially if you think the liquid causes discomfort.
  9. Your dog will eventually shake off, so keep her in the area of the house/yard where that is OK. Keep your treats covered. Hang around with the towel and you can hold it next to/above your dog to limit the shower of medicine.

You may need additional steps to get your dog comfortable. For instance, if you use latex gloves on your hands, you will need a step for the dog to smell them, and you may need to spend more time desensitizing her to the hand touch. Also, you may note that I didn’t work on the restraint part. After I worked on the other stuff my dogs didn’t need to be restrained.

What if it Stings?

As far as I can tell, the topical flea treatment does not hurt my dogs. But I have heard that it is painful for some dogs and can remain that way for quite a while. If that is the case for your dogs, when you give them the actual treatment it might be a good time to hand feed them a meal. Also in that case, periodic maintenance treatments with plain water in the applicator would be helpful so that the application doesn’t predict a long-term discomfort every time.

Tips for Successful DS/CC

The key to successful DS/CC is making the particular action predict the goodie, and making sure that prediction doesn’t attach to anything else.

  • Don’t get in a rhythm of touch, treat, touch, treat. Wait varying amounts of time in between repetitions. This is harder than it sounds. Humans don’t choose random intervals well. If you need to, write out a series of random numbers (within reasonable boundaries) before you start. Silently count out the seconds between reps using the random numbers.
  • Always treat just after the action, but not simultaneously. Don’t move that treat hand until you have performed the action, or it is well underway if it is a duration procedure.
  • Do use a unique treat that they don’t get any other time, at least during the initial conditioning. Make it a good size. Fewer reps with a spectacular treat are usually better than lots of reps with even a very good treat.
  • Do change up everything else. Sometimes use a treat bag, sometimes put treats in your pocket, sometimes have them in a bowl on the floor if your dogs can work with that. Do sessions at different times of day. Use different locations. Wear a hat. Skip a day or two. Do a stealth, unexpected action once in a while. When they are least expecting it, whip out the eyedropper, touch their back, give the awesome treat. (In the video, I recorded all of the sessions in the same location, but that was to simplify the filming.)
  • Demonstrate that some common actions do not predict treats. Move your treat hand, but don’t give a treat. Rattle the treat bag, but don’t give a treat.
  • Avoid the temptation to start a repetition every time your dog gives you eye contact or does something else that is charming. Stay strong and be random! You can probably see me responding to Zani sometimes in the movie. It’s a real challenge not to respond to the dog’s behavior.
  • Don’t reverse the conditioning by reaching toward or even looking at the treat before performing the action.
  • Practice without the dog first if you need to.

The movie doesn’t show the gradual change in Zani’s attitude to the handling steps; that would be a bit longer! My focus is to show how to break down the handling, and hopefully to show a dog who is more than just tolerant of the different activities. But you can see that she is not pulling away or trying to leave. If at any time I had seen signs of discomfort, it would’ve been time to go to an easier step.

Link to the video for email subscribers

How Far to Go

In Step 1 above, I wrote, “Repeat the reach/treat until dog is happy or at least comfortable with this.” You can decide ahead of time, or as you go along, how far you want to take the conditioning. Do you hope for the dog to be tolerant, neutral, or delighted?

If it were a perfect world and you had infinite time, it would be great to condition your dog so strongly that she started wagging her tail at the scent of the flea treatment and drooling when you got out the applicator. But most of us have bigger fish to fry. I have a formerly feral dog who still gets weekly conditioning for working in close proximity to unfamiliar humans. Another dog is sound sensitive to high frequency beeps and chirps, a third to thunderstorms and delivery trucks. I’m working on these and also with all three dogs on foot handling and nail trimming. All of these issues affect their quality of life to a much greater degree than getting medicine put on their backs at most once a month.

So I didn’t go for the full-bore, Pavlovian reaction on this one. I aimed for a neutral response, but I actually got more than that, even before doing all the steps as many times as I planned. You can see in the movie that Zani is having a pretty good time, and looking anticipatory when I perform some of the actions.

Since the treatment is needed rarely, I’ll do a few more sessions now and then, and will probably do a refresher first when I need to treat them again.

I hope anyone who tries this will let me know the outcome. Also be sure and comment if you have any more tips about the process. Have you had to split things down into finer steps when working on handling?

*We can’t directly perceive the dogs’ actual emotions, of course. But we can discern the change in their response through their behavior.

Coming Up:

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

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