eileenanddogs

Category: Handling and Husbandry

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 is during 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.

So you get out massively high-value treats and start following your dog’s ear drops with ham, Romano cheese, or whatever your dog finds amazing. But you didn’t have time to condition this gradually, starting with approach, then ear handling, and working up to ear drops. So you are doing something weird and unfamiliar, plus your dog’s ears are sore.

But you have worked a lot with your dog, and she doesn’t run from the room when you get the drops. She lets you do it, and you do it with the least restraint and most kindness possible.

What might you notice over time about her behavior as you prepare for this procedure when you compare it to other things you do with her?

She is probably not going to be eager to get into position. She will likely have high response latency to your cue.

Response Latency

Response latency, or reaction time, is:

The time that elapses between the onset or presentation of a stimulus and the occurrence of a specific response to that stimulus.

Online APA Dictionary of Psychology

Dog trainers usually refer to response latency as just plain latency, but there are other types of latency, both in psychology and applied behavior analysis, so I’m making the distinction.

Note that response latency does not include the time it takes the animal to perform the behavior. But doing the behavior slowly is another good thing to pay attention to.

Generally speaking, we want response latency to be low, zero even. We hope to see the dog start to respond immediately after our cue. And not only that, to quote my friend and wonderful trainer Lori Stevens, we want to see the joy. We don’t just want fast; we want happiness and enthusiasm. And with positive reinforcement training, fast and happy often go hand in hand.

It’s possible to get high latency for reasons other than a reluctant or worried animal. A common reason is that we haven’t worked hard enough on cue recognition or proofing. Or perhaps the behavior is challenging, and it takes the dog a bit of time to get ready. Or there may be a competing reinforcer. Bob Bailey wrote a great article about latency years ago for the Clicker Solutions Yahoo group. You should check it out if you are having latency problems due to training mishaps, or are interested in this little-discussed training issue. Just keep in mind that his latency protocol is not designed to address an untoward emotional response.

When a dog is uncomfortable or afraid of something, high latency often roughly means, “I know what you want but I don’t wanna.” This is tricky territory because it’s risky to say the dog “knows what you want.” It’s such a common mistake for newbie trainers or force trainers to believe that and then assume any lack of response is due to stubbornness or other “character flaws” in the dog. If we are using reinforcement well and the dog doesn’t respond or responds slowly, it’s generally because we haven’t been clear. We haven’t trained the dog to fluency (which is a better description than “knows what you want” anyway). But I’ll go out on a limb for my particular examples and say that I think Zani knew exactly what the circumstances predicted. She just didn’t have good feelings about it.

Eva Bertilsson and Emilie Johnson Vegh

I credit the lovely Swedish trainers Eva and Emilie for starting a conversation about latency that a lot of us needed to hear. We talk so much about body language and learning what our dogs’ behavior can tell us. We study stress signals in general and observe our individual dogs and their palettes of behaviors. But as far as I know, response latency as an emotional indicator was rarely discussed before Eva and Emilie started speaking about it. (Feel free to correct me on this if I’ve missed earlier discussions of it.)

They have a whole protocol they developed after noticing how important latency was, first in an agility setting. I’m not qualified to discuss that, and it’s not what I’m talking about here. My focus is more basic. I want to show you this one piece. I want to show you the difference between a low latency and a high latency version of the same behavior.

Mounting the Klimb for Husbandry

I have one of those cool platforms called a Klimb next to my bed. I got it so Zani would have an easier time getting on my bed, which is high. But it’s such a convenient thing that we use it for general training, physio exercises, and husbandry. Lots of fun stuff happens on the Klimb. And one not-so-fun thing: face holding for teeth brushing.

Face Holding

A black and tan dog is sitting on a platform. Her head is tilted and she is looking at the camera.

I brush Zani’s teeth every night. She is going on 12 and gets plaque easily. And now with the pandemic, I want to avoid unnecessary vet visits more than ever. So, although I’m not always great at being consistent about things like this, I have forced myself to be good about brushing her teeth every night. (And it’s helped immensely, by the way.)

I did a decent job with our beginning toothbrush practice. I found a video I liked, made myself a task list, nicely split out, and practiced with Zani. I didn’t work hard to develop a positive response to the toothbrush itself since she wasn’t bothered by it. I just got her used to different manipulations of her head and mouth and gradually introduced the brushing. It went fine.

But in the meantime, I had one of those husbandry mishaps going on where I had to go ahead and do something even though she didn’t like it. I won’t go into the whole unfortunate eyedrops story here. It, too, started out fine, but took a bad turn.

And after that, she started some mild avoidance maneuvers when I brushed her teeth. Not because of the actual brushing, but because I have to approach her head with my hands in a way similar to eyedrop application.

So the outcome is this.

  • She is happy to get her toenails trimmed on the Klimb.
  • She is not happy about getting her head positioned to get her teeth brushed on the Klimb, but she will cooperate.

And I can show you her attitude to both of those activities without showing the activities themselves. I can show you her response latency and her behavioral speed when mounting the Klimb.

Cues

One more bit of background! In both clips, you’ll hear me give a verbal cue. Now Zani is a clever little dog, but she isn’t great at verbal cues. That is not surprising, given her genetics, which likely include hound and terrier, breeds that were historically meant to work independently. But she reads situations superbly. When we are going to work on toenails, it’s usually during the day. I take her into the room by herself, pick up my headlamp and the trimming tools, and invite her onto the Klimb. But I always brush her teeth late at night, before going to bed. Clara is in the room with us. I do my going to bed routine, then get the toothbrushing gear.

These two situations are super easy for her to discriminate. They are screamingly different to her observant little self.

I go into these slightly personal details to make it clear that the words I say to her in the two different situations are not important. She’s reading the situation loud and clear. Her responses to my invitations to get on the Klimb are very different because she knows before I cue her up there what we are going to do.

Latency Rundown from the Movie

The first time I invite Zani to get on the Klimb for a nail trim, she is caught off guard, but then so enthusiastic that she jumps all the way onto my bed instead. And the time between my verbal invitation and her response—the latency—is 2.0 seconds. The second time, she actually anticipates my cue, but then waits. Then I give the verbal cue, and her latency is 0.6 seconds.

When I invite Zani to get on the Klimb to get her teeth brushed, her first response latency is 4.8 seconds and the second is 5.3 seconds. Remember, those are the gaps in time before she moves in response to the cue. And her responses themselves are both slow. She takes several seconds and in one case a false start to actually get on the platform. Recall that in one of the nail trim videos she mounted it (from several feet away) in less than a second.

And note her body language. I slowed down part of the video so we can see her body language as she reluctantly approaches the Klimb for teeth brushing. There are some more “I don’t wanna” signals.

By the way, I’ll send a free PDF of my book to the first person who comments (here on the blog, not on social media, email, or message) to identify what I did in the video that was unconsciously applying negative reinforcement. I didn’t catch it until I watched the clips. (All blog comments are moderated, and there is often a delay before I approve them. But they are queued in order of receipt, so I’ll be able to tell who was first.)

Congratulations to Camille Asmer, who pointed out that I was repeating my verbal cues when Zani was hesitant. In my own words, I was adding pressure to the situation, which I immediately released when Zani got on the Klimb.

Black and tan dog rushing up steps
We have very low latency on recalls, though!

Am I Going To Leave Things Like This?

The focus of this post is to show some examples of latency and attendant body language. I’m providing some video of my dog who is not happy to show up for some husbandry procedures that I must do. Am I going to leave things like that? Of course not.

One of the things that is most important to me in training is to get my dogs not only comfortable with, but happy about the stuff I need to do. Zani is relaxed and waggy during nail trimming, which took a bit of work on my part. There are several ways to approach the teeth brushing issue. I could teach her to bite a stationary dowel so I could take a hands-off approach. Or I could just work in lots of gradual face approaching and handling that doesn’t predict ouchy eyedrops, which will probably be the way I go.

But that’s another post.

Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

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 beginner 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 an extremely 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.

Counterconditioning Failed?

This post is for all the people who “tried counterconditioning and it didn’t work.” There are myriad mistakes people make with this procedure, but mine was one of the most common.

When she was about 14, I started giving my little old dog, Cricket, a treat every time just after I picked her up. I did it for the rest of her life. How come she didn’t start liking being picked up? That’s how it works, right?

The concept of desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC) is that we pair the scary thing, called the trigger, with something the dog loves, like some meat. That’s the counterconditioning part. Whenever the dog perceives the trigger, out comes the meat. The desensitization part means that we start with a version of the trigger that isn’t scary.  That’s right. The procedure progresses much more quickly if you start with a non-scary presentation. This usually means farther away (sometimes very far) but there are other ways to dilute the intensity of an exposure, depending on what exactly is triggering the dog’s fear.

With a dog who is scared of moving cars, for instance, you could start at a large distance away from the cars. You do the pairing thing when cars come by until your dog not only isn’t bothered by the cars, but starts looking for them because they predict goodies. Then you would do the same thing a little closer. Lather, rinse, repeat. Alternatively if the big problem is the movement, you could start a bit closer with one stationary car, and have a helper drive the car, at first very slowly and for very short distances, in similar controlled exposures. The more details you can tease out about the fear, the better you can aim your graduated exposures at the trigger.

The following posts have sample lists of this gradual exposure process that is involved in desensitizing to a scary or unpleasant stimulus:

Are you back? Good. So, counterconditioning can be done without these gradual desensitization exposures but it is less likely to be effective. If you leave out them out, you will likely start at a point where your animal is already bothered by the trigger. Replacing feelings of fear and anxiety with a positive conditioned emotional response can sometimes be done, but it takes a lot more time and may never be effective as when desensitization is involved.

My Case Study

So, to Cricket’s problem with being picked up. Take a look at this picture. I am reaching for her. Her body language shows classic stress. She is leaning back, away from me. Her ears are way back, almost 45 degrees from normal. Her eye is rolling and you can see the white (whale eye). She is doing a huge lip lick. Look at her tight little jaw muscles, too. And she is about to raise her right paw.

Cricket's feelings about being reached for are pretty clear
Cricket’s feelings about being reached for are pretty clear

As I said above, I started giving Cricket a treat immediately after I picked her up, as soon as I had her in my arms. I was extremely consistent about it. Over time, her stress at being picked up abated **somewhat**. But it did not disappear.

Why Didn’t Counterconditioning “Work”?

The problem was that Cricket’s discomfort was not limited to the event of being picked up. You’ll see in the movie that she was visibly upset long before I touched her with my hands. You can see her stress response as I walked towards her and leaned over.  She even appeared to consider punching me with her muzzle when I finally grabbed her.

To properly countercondition a dog to being picked up, we have to use desensitization as well. We need to start with versions of the triggers that are non-aversive, plus we need to make sure we work on every aspect of the situation. If the dog is uncomfortable being approached, having a human stand close, and being leaned over and reached toward, each one of these needs to be treated with DS/CC, And all should start with a version that is not uncomfortable to the dog, that is,  under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

Oops! But it Worked After All

The title of this post was actually a little tricky. My attempt at counterconditioning Cricket to being picked up didn’t work. She remained uncomfortable with being walked at directly, being leaned over, being reached at, and being picked up as long as she still had her marbles. (In truth, she stopped being bothered by these things when she had advanced dementia, but that was definitely not due to my counterconditioning attempt!)

However, something did get counterconditioned. Once again, the sequence was to walk over to her, lean down, reach out, grab her around the abdomen, and pick her up. Then I would immediately give her a treat. If I was carrying her for a while, I would give her another treat from time to time.

I miss the closeness of my little Cricket
I miss the closeness of my little Cricket

I counterconditioned Cricket to being held. The instant the picking up process was finished, her head would whip around to look for her treat. And she remained quite happy with being held and carried around for the rest of her life.

Full Disclosure

I did realize what the problem was well before Cricket died. I chose not to try DS/CC on the other triggers because by that time, I already had to pick her up and carry her probably a dozen times a day. One of the principles of successful DS/CC is that you do the pairing every time the action is performed; you never perform the action without the treat. Also you work on one action at a time. That simply was not feasible. But I was faithful with her treat after being picked up. Her discomfort abated somewhat, and she was already anticipating her treat when she was in the air, coming up to be held.

It was a lesson learned for me though, and Zani, whom I may need to pick up a lot as she gets older (we are working on it now), will profit from it.  Another lesson for me was start early with all husbandry behaviors!

Whenever we think the science doesn’t work as predicted, examining our own actions and techniques is a great place to start.

Anybody else have any educational failures? Man, dog training is sure like that for me. The dogs are like little maps of all my mistakes!

Related Posts and Resources:

I will be making a movie in the future on the specific topic of counterconditioning a dog to being picked up. In the meantime you can get an idea of the first steps of a handling protocol from this movie of mine, or this movie by Chirag Patel of Domesticated Manners about teaching a dog to wear a muzzle. Neither video is an exact match for how we would start out if teaching a dog to like being picked up, but you can get the idea of starting at the very beginning, rather than lumping all the steps together.

YouTube

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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!

DS/CC

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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Just a Trick?

Just a Trick?

Zani's useful "Trick"
Zani’s useful “Trick”

“Crossing over” is a phrase dog trainers use to refer to the act of giving up training that uses aversives and changing over to training that uses principally positive reinforcement: becoming a Humane Hierarchy trainer, a force-free trainer, or a clicker trainer. (We have lots of phrases to describe ourselves.) Folks who have made this change (and those who never trained traditionally) will attest that this is more than just a different set of skills. It is a change of world view, and it runs counter to the emphasis on and acceptance of punishment in our culture. For many of us, it is not an easy thing to do. Social and technical support are both very important.

My friend Marge Rogers is a crossover trainer who crossed over with no local mentor, although she would credit her wonderful dog Chase, as well as books and internet resources. She wanted to change the way she trained and she needed to do it on her own.  She came from a competitive obedience background. She decided, brilliantly, to throw off everything she knew, put her obedience goals temporarily on hold, and train her dogs to do tricks.

Why Tricks?

Here’s what she told me:

  1. Teaching tricks improves mechanical skills like observation and timing.
  2. Teaching tricks helps trainers learn to create training plans and break down behavior (cognitive skills).
  3. It helps develop critical thinking skills. (How different are the skills for teaching dust the coffee table or blow bubbles in water than teaching drop on recall?)
  4. There is no pressure for the handler. Or the dog.
  5. Trick training encourages creative thinking and problem solving.
  6. Trick training give immediate feedback for the handler (via the dog’s behavior).
  7. There is no handler baggage.
  8. And the best reason for teaching tricks – you’re not burdened by the curse of knowledge for stuff you’ve never trained before.  No old habits to unlearn. In short: it’s the perfect way to become a better trainer.

P.S. You can make your own chicken camp.

The Result of Chicken Camp
The Result of Chicken Camp

Marge is referring to Bob Bailey’s well known chicken camps where trainers learn to hone their mechanical skills. This picture is the outcome of one of her personal “chicken camps,” where she taught her Rhodesian Ridgeback Pride a high leg lift to emulate taking a pee (he normally squatted to pee, by the way). She shaped that leg lift all the way up from a twitch.

Marge’s trick skills resulted in her fame as the “Ridgeback lady” on YouTube, who featured her Rhodesian Ridgebacks in videos such as these:

By the way, Ridgebacks have a reputation among traditional trainers as being an untrainable breed.

Finally!

Many was the time that Marge exhorted me to train tricks. I generally declined, saying that it’s all tricks (true, but perhaps evading her point a little bit), and that I had my hands full with polite pet behaviors and agility (also tricks!)

So a funny thing happened. Recently I broke down and trained my dogs a couple of tricks. It was supposed to be just for the heck of it, but two of the tricks immediately became very useful.

Marge says, “That figures!”

1) Sit Pretty. I’ve been teaching little Zani to “sit pretty.” We went slowly, so she could build up her abdominal muscles, but she really took to it. What’s a more classic “trick” that sitting up? Adorable but useless, right? But no sooner did we have a few seconds’ duration than it came in incredibly handy.

I’m teaching all my dogs to sit or stand on the bathroom scale by themselves. I thought I would have to manipulate the dogs’ feet a little bit so that I could see the readout. But Zani solved that problem by offering her “useless” trick.

Link to video for email subscribers

If I were Marge, though, I’d probably teach the dogs to curl their tails around as well, so they didn’t brace any of their weight on them if they were on the floor. That’s a little more than I have the patience for, though. I’ll just elevate the scale if I need to.

2) Leg weaves. I don’t remember why I decided to do this, but I taught Clara how to weave through my legs. Let me be frank: I think that is one of the silliest behaviors ever. Even when the most accomplished freestylers do it, it’s mostly a “yawn” from me.

But as soon as I taught Clara the rudiments, I discovered something. It’s fun! No wonder people do it. Clara and I both enjoyed it, although I’m sure we looked even dorkier than average. And no, I’m not sharing a video!

Two photos of a tan dog with a  black muzzle and tail pressing up against a woman's feet and legs. The woman is sitting in a chair and the dog is walking under her legs in one photo, and backed up and pressing into her feet in anther
Clara enjoying pressing against my feet and legs

The added benefit of this one is a little harder to describe, but no less real. Clara is a very “touchy” dog. She likes to lean against me, touch me, cuddle, and be as close as she can. So she loved the leg weaves. She got to be right “inside” my personal space. And darned if she didn’t make up a new game: she comes and weaves her way through my legs when I am sitting down, just for fun. Kind of like a very large, pushy cat. She clearly likes the sensation.

I couldn’t get a shot of the actual weaving when I was sitting down, but here she is walking under my leg and pressing against my foot. See how she is pushing toward me in both photos?

So Clara and I have not only discovered a new way to play one-on-one that needs no  toy or prop.  With a little finesse, I could even use it as a reinforcer. But right now, it’s just another way to have fun with my dog.

So thanks Marge, for urging me to train pure “tricks,” but they keep turning out to be useful! Or was that part of what you were trying to show me all along….?

Coming Up:

  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

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How to Give Your Dog a Pill: Several Methods

How to Give Your Dog a Pill: Several Methods

Zani mainlining spray cheese
Zani mainlining spray cheese

Emergency Method: If you are currently in a struggle trying to administer a pill to a reluctant dog, try the multiple meatball method. The other techniques in this blog are specialized and probably won’t help in an emergency situation.

Link to the video on the multiple meatball method for email subscribers.

Longterm Training Method: If you are in the opposite situation and have the time to train your dog from scratch to take any kind of pill you need her to, without force or disguising the pill,  read my post on how I taught my dog to take a (plain) pill with positive reinforcement.  Also check out where I originally got the idea: Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s post “An Easy Pill to Swallow.”  In my opinion, this is the gold standard method.

Now that I’ve sent half of you away, is anybody still here? Following is the original inspiration for writing this post.

Administering Pills with Spray Cheese and Food Tubes

If your dogs already eat spray cheese sometimes, or will eat a moist mixture out of a food tube, this idea could save you some time and hassle. 

I realized a few months back that spray cheese extruding out of the can, as well as moist food exiting a squeeze tube, both make excellent “carriers” for pills.

Link to the video on giving pills with spray cheese and food tubes for e-mail subscribers.

My dog Summer takes a small thyroid pill twice a day, and having several options for administering it makes it easy. I often have a food tube with some leftovers from a training session in the refrigerator, and the spray cheese is a staple at my house. For Summer, it only takes a tiny bit.

We Can Train This

When I read Laura Baugh’s post on teaching a dog to take a pill, I was chagrined. Why had it never occurred to me that we could teach a dog to swallow pills just like we teach them other behaviors? Zoo and marine mammal trainers train this kind of thing all the time, so why not dogs? Most of the pill administration methods out there for dogs (including most of the ones linked in this post) depend on trying to disguise the pill. Older ones use plain old force to open the dog’s mouth and put the pill in, then hold the dog’s mouth closed. That’s unnecessary in this day and age.

So I really appreciate Laura’s post about training the behavior: An Easy Pill to Swallow. And I was delighted to find out how straightforward it was to train!

I haven’t had to put a bunch of energy into disguising pills over the years. My dogs have a huge reinforcement history for sucking cheese and other goodies out of gizmos and for eating gobs of peanut butter. They get these things daily whether they are taking pills or not. It doesn’t seem to be a big deal when there are pills present. Still, I’m glad that I finally got around to teaching Clara to take pills in a straightforward manner. It’s a useful behavior, whether I use it every time or not.

 More Good Tips

Donna Hill has a video with some great tips for giving pills: 4 Tips to Give Your Dog a Pill.

More inspiration for those of us teetering on the edge of training this behavior. See Michelle Chan shape her sheltie Juliet to take pills in one impressive, less than three minute session: Juliet Pops Pills.

And check out mymeowz blog: Here we have a cat getting trained to take pills. Can it get any better than that?

Kathy Sdao has a really nice article with information on all sorts of husbandry techniques: Husbandry Training for Dog Owners.

Nickala Squire points out that crunchy peanut butter disguises pills better than smooth. What a good observation! I’ve been using it ever since.

And Tegan Whalen suggests washing one’s hands between handling the pill and administering the treat. Another great idea.

Food Tube Info

Summer is ready for the food tube
Summer is ready for the food tube, pill or not!

I use food tubes for high value treats, both for Clara’s socialization sessions, where we do lots of counterconditioning, and in agility. I actually throw these tubes ahead of the running dog in agility, so they are tough. I’ve never had one come apart or have the lid or clamp pop off. I buy them online at REI. (Google “Coughlan squeeze tube” if that URL ever goes out of date.)

You don’t always have to use high calorie or high fat treats in them, either. I’ve made a mixture of pumpkin, low fat yogurt, and some peanut butter that my dogs really like. The trick is to get the right texture. If it’s too runny or not homogeneous, it will drip out of the tube and make a mess. If it’s too thick or has lumps, it won’t come out well. Experiment a little to find the Goldilocks point and you will be in business.

 Let me know if you try anything new, either from this post and the linked resources, or from something completely different. Especially if it works!

Coming up:

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