When Kate LaSala told me about her dog’s experience with spray cheese, I knew I needed to share it. I mention spray cheese a lot, as a high value and easy-to-use food reinforcer for my dogs. So it’s only right that I share this caution as well. I have had a few mishaps with cans of cheese with my two more sensitive dogs, but nothing like what Kate and BooBoo went through. No one can predict when something like that might happen, though, and the effects can be far-reaching. Kate and I both advise caution.–Eileen
Guest post by Kate LaSala, CTC
I see a lot of people using spray cheese in a can, or even whipped cream, as a quick, easy-to-dispense treat. It’s convenient, no mess and no smell until you spray it (so no tipping off your dog with stinky food that she’s about to get something good–so important when you’re training!)
I, like many of you, thought spray cheese was the perfect treat for training. When I was training BooBoo to stay on her kitchen mat (to keep from being under my feet when I’m cooking), I decided spray cheese was going to be my go-to reward. I could keep it in the cabinet by the mat and she loved cheese. So we set out on our training plan and for months we were moving along splendidly. She was happily going to her mat, then I’d open the cabinet where the spray cheese was and bend down to squirt some for her to lick. Everything was perfect, until about 1000 trials in when I went to reward her and “POP…POOF”–an air bubble in the can popped right in her face. She immediately recoiled and ran off to hide upstairs, as far away from the kitchen as possible. I was horrified and instinctively grabbed my treat bag filled with chicken and went to comfort and feed her. I needed to undo this. I managed to coax her out of hiding and we sat and cuddled for a while as I fed her. I thought to myself, “It’s OK. She’ll recover. She was just spooked because it surprised her. She’s got lots of padding after months of working on the mat and with the cheese. It will be OK.”
After a while of sitting, I happy-talked her downstairs and she stopped dead in her tracks at the edge of the kitchen, staring at the mat. So I tossed some yummy treats for her on it. She wanted nothing to do with it. She was clearly still afraid. My heart sank.
I tossed her some treats where she was and she gobbled them up. I decided to just let things be for the time being and hoped that overnight she’d sleep it off and by morning she’d be all recovered.
But the next morning, she still refused to come into the kitchen. She sat on the threshold but wouldn’t enter. I let her be, occasionally tossing her treats. At one point, not really thinking, I went to the cabinet–the same cabinet that housed the spray cheese–and as soon as I reached for it, Boo took off again to hide. It was very clear to me now that she had developed a very strong fear (negative conditioned emotional response or -CER) to the kitchen and the cabinet, all because of ONE spray cheese air bubble. My heart sank again. Suddenly the gravity of it hit me, and the concept that neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux had surmised was in my brain: fear is the easiest thing to condition in animals and the hardest thing to resolve. Months of positive reinforcement training had just been completely undone by one bad experience.
Now we weren’t even just back to square one–we were back farther than that, because now BooBoo had a fear response. I wasn’t training something she was neutral to and that was going to take a lot more work.
So, for the next several months I worked on a DS/CC plan to get BooBoo to be happy on her kitchen mat and not show any fear of the kitchen, the mat, or the cabinet where the spray cheese USED to live. (Needless to say, that was tossed immediately and I’m never buying it again!)
I’m happy to report that after a few months of working at her pace, building positive associations and keeping her under threshold at all times, that I was able to get her peacefully relaxing back on her kitchen mat.
So I’ve got two important takeaways. Always remember how easy fear is to install and how hard it is to untrain. One bad experience can set you back months of work, even if the dog had nothing but positive experiences in that time. And, if you still want to use spray cheese (or anything in a pressurized can), I would recommend squirting it onto your finger or letting it dangle from the can before presenting it into your dog’s face/mouth. Food squeeze tubes like these are a great alternative without the pressurized, potentially scary part.
And, just so you can see, here’s a picture of BooBoo happily on her kitchen mat. I love happy endings.
Addendum from Eileen: Spray cheese has gotten hard to obtain in local stores and mail order, so this is what I came up with as a passable substitute. I use a food tube, which doesn’t tend to pop and sputter in dogs’ faces!
Kate LaSala, CTC is an honors graduate of The Academy for Dog Trainers and owns Rescued By Training in Central NJ. She is also a certified AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Evaluator and trainer for the NJ Chapter of Pets for Vets. She shares her home with her husband, John and their two rescue dogs, Mr. Barbo and BooBoo. Kate and BooBoo are a certified therapy dog team, visiting nursing and rehabilitation homes locally. Follow her on Facebook for training tips and helpful information. Also, see Kate’s other post on this blog: “Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? But We Live in NJ!”
Copyright Kate LaSala 2016