Do You Dogs REALLY Want To Come In?

(In answer to a couple of comments: The title of the post is correct. I am addressing my dogs and asking if they want to come in. Sorry if it comes off as clunky,)

What do my dogs understand when I ask them a question?

A while back I read a suggestion that we should stop giving our dogs one-word verbal cues and start asking them questions instead. In full sentences.

Talking to our dogs is no biggie–most of us talk to our dogs all day, right? But doing so instead of carefully trained and clarified cues when we need a certain behavior? Several claims followed the suggestion. First, that if we ask our dogs verbal questions as prompts for behavior we are not actually giving them cues. Second, that dogs understand that when we ask them questions we are giving them choices. Finally, that asking dogs questions with the intention of giving them choices takes us outside of the realm of operant conditioning.

Whoa. I’m going to try to unravel this group of statements. 

First, about the cues.  Any change in the environment that can be sensed by an animal can function as a discriminative stimulus or cue.  For example, a whistle from a human, a hand signal, a sound in the environment, or an odor can all be discriminative stimuli. A verbal question from a human is a series of sounds. It can be a discriminative stimulus, or can contain one. There’s no reason in the world to exempt questions from that definition.

This is Learning Theory 101. So far so good?

Second, about the choices. While dogs may come to understand that a questioning tone acts as a predictor of certain things, we do not know that they understand questions semantically as we do. I’ll expand on that below. 

Finally, about learning theory. Both operant learning and respondent conditioning are going on all the time, whether we want them to be or not. Antecedents set the stage for behaviors. Consequences affect whether the behaviors increase or decrease. You can’t magically step away from antecedents and consequences by using a sentence with a particular inflection.

And it turns out that I might be just the right person to demonstrate this. I can demonstrate a few things about questions and choices because of how I communicate with my dogs. And I can show you a video of the results.

“Do You Want To Go Outside?”

Several years ago I realized my dogs didn’t always need to go out or come in from the back yard every time I did. I had adult dogs and knew their habits well. I went outside more often than any individual dog needed to for elimination, so I started giving them a choice. I had long had the habit of asking, “Do you want to go outside?” as my cue for that, although I wasn’t originally giving a choice. But over the years, I started to let a dog stay inside if she hung back and I knew going out wasn’t essential. Likewise, if I asked the dogs whether they were ready to come in and someone wanted to stay in the yard longer, I accommodated that.

Plenty of people do this. There are people out there casually giving their dogs choices about activities all the time and letting their dogs vote with their feet. Plenty of us look for ways to let our dogs make decisions about what they’d like to do and when. That’s been going on long before choice became a trendy word in dog training.

Zani on stump

Zani exercising her choice to stay in the yard

So How Does That Question Work?

But what about this “asking” thing? How did my question become a cue for “choice”? Did my dogs have some innate understanding of my words or inflection? Not necessarily. Science has started to show that dogs can detect inflections and familiar words–no surprise–but there are not yet data showing that they parse that information as humans do. (See a list of articles on dogs and human language here.)

But there was an obvious way for them to learn about those “question” cues. And that was through the consequences.

Cues in positive reinforcement training are opportunities for reinforcement. The thing we tend to forget is that using any cue is offering a choice, even when we’d rather not be doing so. There are decades’ worth of studies about reinforcement characteristics and the likelihood of a response from an animal. 

Any due we give in a positive reinforcement scenario offers a choice, whether we want it to or not. Any cue can be a question.

When we want a dog to respond reliably to a cue, we use high value reinforcers on a dense schedule.  We also limit access to reinforcers for the behaviors we don’t want. So what would we do if we want the animal to have a more of a choice? The opposite! We would use a weak-ish reinforcer ourselves so as not to stack the deck in our direction. We would make sure that there are reinforcers available for other choices. And we would not penalize the dog for making those other choices.

And that’s what I did. For example, when inviting the dogs to come in the house from the yard, I used low value reinforcers. Each dog who came in got a piece of kibble. Enough to sweeten the deal, but not so much that it overpowered the value of the other choice. Any dog could stay in the yard instead. There were naturally reinforcing activities in the yard, and all they’d miss would be one piece of kibble. (Which they could get later, although I don’t know if they thought about it that way.)  

I deliberately paired a cue with weak reinforcement, and I didn’t intervene if they chose the “stay in the yard” option. I could have skipped the food reinforcer entirely. Coming in the house is often reinforcing by itself. But I want to reinforce my dogs–in some way–any time they come to me after I have cued it.

“Real” Recall Cues

If that weakly reinforced cue were the only way I had to call my dogs, I’d be in trouble. A strong recall is a safety issue. I also have a strongly reinforced recall cue for each of my dogs. These cues are designed and trained to a level that the dogs’ responses are reliable even in the face of large temptations. When I use those recall cues, I pay well. I bring out the meat and fish.

So again, for the choice recall I pay low. If they choose not to respond, I let them go about their business.  For the “real” recall cue I pay high value, and keep it practiced so that their responses are reliable. 

The differences in the dogs’ responses are a result of the quality of the reinforcement. They are not necessarily a result of questioning tone. It’s not some intrinsic quality of the antecedent. It’s the consequence that is tied to it.

Movie: Two Different Recall Cues

The movie shows what Zani does when she hears her heavily reinforced recall vs. what she does when she hears her “come if you want” cue. 

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Wait–What’s the Real Cue?

This is important. When I invite my dogs inside, is my verbal question the only cue? Nope. There’s something more salient than what I’m saying. It’s the fact that I am up on the porch, headed to the back door.  

There are tons of cues like this in our dogs’ lives. If I am about to get my dogs’ supper, the time of day plus the fact that I’m walking to the kitchen show that. Other actions strengthen the message, including my gathering up the dogs’ food toys and getting out the food. It’s common for something other than our exact verbal cue to be the most noticeable cue for our dogs. My friend Debbie Jacobs has a great little movie where she is out with her dogs in the woods. Her dogs are all out of sight. She calls out, “Overhead slide projectors!” Her dogs come running. Her dogs are not responding to the specific words. It’s enough that they are out in the woods and she calls out some words, any words.

People who say that our dogs have advanced understanding of human language are making extraordinary claims. At the same time they are often ignoring dogs’ masterful powers of observation. Extraordinary claims require strong evidence.  Stronger than saying, “When I ask my dog a question, she understands she has a choice, because this study showed that dogs have a language center in their brains just like humans.” It’s difficult to control variables enough to show evidence for this outside a laboratory. I’ll be discussing the Law of Parsimony and the idea of falsifiability of claims in a future post.

Whose Language?

Often when we scratch the surface of a recommendation that sounds attractive–”Ask your dogs questions instead of ordering them around with robotic monosyllables!”–we find that the claimed results may not be as advertised. Or they may not be happening for the reasons cited. In response to the inevitable question: I talk to my dogs all day every day. But when I am actually trying to impart information to them, I try to be very clear.  I believe that it is humane and loving to give clean, clear cues to dogs and not to overestimate their language capabilities.  

The blanket recommendation of using complex conversational cues strikes me as odd for another reason. I currently have three dogs, and have trained another handful. Not a huge sample, but that’s part of the point. I have perceived big differences in how easily they learn verbal cues even within this small group. My little hound mix Zani has a really hard time learning verbal cues (though she’s great at inflections). I’m sure part of it is my poor training mechanics, but even so, there is a clear difference in how many repetitions Zani needs to learn a verbal cue compared to my dog Summer, for instance. And Zani is no slouch in the brains department. So I am concerned about wholesale recommendations to switch over to sentences, since for some dogs verbals are the thing they pay the least attention to.

Finally, I think focusing on dogs’ supposed understanding of human language is very human-centric.  I’d rather put that energy into reading them better and learning their language. Dogs are already saying yes and no to things all the time, if only we would listen.

Regarding Comments

I’ve provided this handy list of the recent journal articles on this topic: Dogs and Language. If you want to comment about the findings, please quote the actual articles and not the blog posts or major media articles about them. Many have been sensationalistic. 

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson


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Posted in Behavior analysis, Cues | Tagged , | 21 Comments

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. But I’m also going to work to rectify it. I’ll post about that later. (Here’s a good video by Kevin Duggan if you want to know how to get started using a nail board.)

I’ll tell you about a couple of things that worked, too. 

The Board and Techniques

I use a staple gun to attach 60-grade sandpaper (very coarse) to the board because all my dogs have hard nails and have become experienced scratchers. They all learned early on to extend their nails to protect their pads. I started them on a finer grit though, and that’s what I would recommend when starting out. You can move them gradually to the coarsest grade necessary. I replace the sandpaper whenever it starts to wear down, usually every couple of months. 

My final goal is to have very short nails on all my dogs. I follow the “alternate cut line” technique demonstrated and promoted by Susan Garrett, Dr. Leslie Woodcock, and others. (Check out the Facebook group “Nail Maintenance for Dogs” for more info.) The board itself doesn’t take off the part of the nail that needs to come off with the “alternate cut,” but it’s a great adjunct.  For Clara, I use a Dremel to do the “alternate cut line” (take more off the top of the nail). That leaves a bit of a point at the bottom of the nail. She can scratch off the point and some more of the middle of the nail using the board the next day or so. Progress! The other dogs are next in line for this Dremel + nail board system. I find I do better if I work with one dog at a time on slow-moving processes like this.

Training the Dogs To Use the Board

When I first started my dogs with the nail board, I went about training them in a sloppy way. I didn’t know if I was going to use it seriously so I just messed around with it. And I was not thinking at all about one crucial item: how to get them to switch feet. I just assumed it would “work out.” Even though it seemed to at first, Zani showed that assumption to be erroneous. (Not her fault. I’m the one who didn’t make a plan…) 

Think about the challenge. If you just stop reinforcing one foot, how long will it take for the dog to try the other? Do you need two different cues?  What happens if they prefer using one over the other? How do you make things come out even? Would there be an easy way to be systematic about it?

My sloppy training and lack of planning were “good enough” for two of my dogs. But not for Zani. She finally forced me to grow up and think like a real trainer.

I’ll describe the two methods that worked out for Clara and Summer, then tell what happened with Zani.

Clara: Switching Feet as a Result of Treat Placement

Marge taught me this trick. If you toss the treat laterally after the dog scratches, the dog will usually come back and scratch with the foot that is leading as they turn back towards the board. (It will make more sense when you watch it in the movie.) So you can get the dog to switch feet with treat placement. It’s a tendency, not a rule, but it turns out that Clara is almost 100% consistent. So my reinforcement placement is an antecedent arrangement that lets me affect which foot she will use next.

Summer: An Idiosyncratic Solution

Leave it to Summer. Summer and I have actually worked out strange, separate cues for her left and right foot. This is because she scratches differently with each one. When she scratches with her left foot, she does it the normal way. She stands on the ground and scratches on the bottom part of the board. But sometime along the way, she started standing on her hind legs and scratching with her right foot at the top of the board. I think she may have been trying to get closer to my treat cache. But I realized a stroke of luck when I saw it. I have reinforced these different behaviors and created cues. 

If I want her to scratch with her right foot, I tap the top of the board to get her started and I treat her in position. When I want her to scratch with her left foot, I fold my arms over the top of the board. She can’t scratch at the top so she scratches at the bottom with her left foot. I toss the treat to reset.  Yay, Summer! My friend Judith Beam pointed out to me once that scratching a propped up nail board takes some core strength. I think Summer’s version for her right foot may take some strength for sure, so I’m careful not to ask her to do it too long.

Brown dog Summer getting ready to scratch a nail board with her right foot

My cue for right foot scratching at the top of the board: I’m tapping with the fingers of my right hand. She reaches across the board with her right paw towards that hand.

Brown dog Summer scratching a nail board with her left foot

My cue for left foot scratching at the bottom of the board: blocking the top by folding my arms. She has to scratch at the bottom and she automatically uses her left foot. 

Zani: Ummmmm

When Zani first started scratching the nail board, I was thrilled because she switched her feet back and forth right from the start. Rather than going left, left, left, left, she went left, right, left, right.

This sounds great, right? (It was also super cute.) But there is a problem. Zani has hard nails and doesn’t scratch firmly. Bad combination. I needed to reinforce harder scratches. But when trying to selectively reinforce harder scratches, I utterly confused her. Soft left, soft left, soft left (no reinforcements for any of those), hard right TREAT! So….did I reinforce the harder scratch or the right foot scratch? Since she is continuing after all this time to switch, and not scratching any harder in general, I think we can deduce what has been reinforced: switching. 

She doesn’t respond in a consistent way to the treat-throwing trick. Trying different board positions doesn’t get me a firmer scratch. So I think to fix it I’ll have to start over. More on that below. 

The “Digging” Method

Some dogs go after the board as if they are digging a hole and use both feet in flurries of scratching. This could probably work for getting the nails done evenly but none of my dogs has been inclined to do it that way. I think it may work better with the board flat on the ground and finer sandpaper than I use.

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

So Not a Pro

This lack of foresight on my part is one of the things that marks me as an amateur trainer. Between being serious about their profession and working with lots of dogs, professionals learn to foresee these types of problems. “Where is this behavior pattern going to lead us?” They have a better sense of what order in which to do things. 

But maybe by putting this out there I’ll save another lazy trainer like me from this particular problem. And perhaps writing it down will help generalize my own lesson and help me think through the next training challenge better. 

I do know that I am motivated to fix a problem when I make a plan in public. So here goes. I’m going to tackle this and will be sharing more. Stay tuned.

What about you? Any nail board users out there? How do you get your dogs to switch feet? Anybody teach their dogs to scratch with their hind feet? I have seen some elegant methods for that but I haven’t tried them with my dogs.

Brown dog Summer on her hind legs scratching the nail board

Summer is so intense about the nail board!

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson


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Posted in Handling and Husbandry, Making mistakes in dog training | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

No More Cutting! Making 500 Non-Crumbly Dog Treats From a Mold

Best dog treat hack ever! Here’s how to make batches of more than 500 small treats at a time without having to cut them up.

  1. Buy a silicone cooking mat for low-fat cooking. One brand available by mail order is called the Pyramid Pan. It has 556 little protrusions. The idea is that you can roast a piece of meat on there and the fat can run out. K-Mart also has one.
  2. “Pyramid” silicone mold

    Turn it upside down. Now you have a mold with 556 small cavities.

  3. Mix up your favorite treat recipe, but adapt it in the following ways:
    1. If there is anything coarse in the recipe, put the batter through a food processor. It needs to be smooth.
    2. Adjust the liquid so that it is more like a batter than a dough.
  4. Put the silicone mold, cavity side up, on a large cookie sheet or baking pan. 
  5. Mold turned upside down and filled with treat batter

    Spread the batter around so that it fills all the little holes. This can take a while (but not as long as cutting them all up!). You can use a spatula, egg turner, or even a table knife. As you finish this process, scrape the top so that the boundaries between the holes are fairly batter-free.

  6. Bake it for about half to two-thirds the time you normally would (see my recipe below).
  7. Take it out of the oven, and when it’s cool enough to handle, dump the treats out into a container.
  8. Smile because you don’t have to spend the next 20 minutes cutting up treats and cleaning up crumbs.

I don’t normally measure ingredients when I make treats, but getting the consistency right is important for this recipe. So here is one I tested that came out well.

Simple Baked Chicken Treats 

1 10-oz can chicken including liquid
2 eggs
1 cup tapioca flour
1/2 cup white flour
1 tablespoon oil

  1. Blend the chicken, its liquid, and 2 eggs in a food processor.
  2. Pour the mixture into a bowl and stir in the flours and oil. (You can adjust the ratio of tapioca to regular flour if you like. See my post about making treats with tapioca flour.) The batter should be a little thicker than pancake batter but still pourable. 
  3. Spread half the batter onto the silicone mold on a cookie sheet as described above. Take the time to get the batter into the holes. Scrape it off the dividers.
  4. Bake for 12 minutes at 350 degrees F. 
  5. Remove from the oven.
  6. When the silicone sheet is cool enough to handle, turn it over and dump the treats out. This is the best part!
  7. Bag them up and refrigerate or freeze.

This recipe yields two molds full, or about 1,100 treats.


  1. These treats are small. In most cases, I would give my dogs at least two. 
  2. Their little corners are sharp. They are fine when soft, but I wouldn’t want to bake them too long and get them crisp.
  3. You can spend forever getting batter into the rows on the outer edges of the mold. After I made my first batch (pictured above) I didn’t bother anymore. I dolloped some batter in the middle of the mold and spread it as far as it naturally went. The beauty of this method is that it saves you the time and hassle of cutting the treats up. It doesn’t make sense to me to spend that time getting perfect edges instead. 
  4. Also in the interest of efficiency, I experimented with not cleaning the dividers of the mold very carefully. I thought I wouldn’t mind if some of the treats were attached to each other. But the places where the batter had baked on top of the mold were very dry. I’ll go back to doing it neatly.
  5. I never greased the mold in any of the recipes I tried. I  never had trouble getting the treats out. 
  6. Finally, I made a batch using an adaptation of a peanut butter/pumpkin treat recipe I make a lot. They turned out great but took forever to spread into the mold because the batter was stickier. I may be able to tweak the recipe so that it works better, but for now, I will probably stick with a meat-based recipe.

Peanut butter pumpkin treats


Bonus hack: these treats work marvelously in a Manners Minder remote control treat dispenser!  The treats are the right size for the insert that has 3/4-inch holes. Because they are soft they don’t jam the mechanism. And because treats with tapioca flour hold together well there are few crumbs.

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Thank you to Alanna Lowry for passing along this great hack. She got it from her friend Suzie Greentree, who got the idea from another friend. We are not sure who came up with it first. 

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Dog training hints, Food reinforcers, Treats | Tagged , , , , , | 28 Comments

Eileenanddogs: 2017 Pet Blogger Challenge

Thank you to GoPetFriendly for the Pet Blogger Challenge. This is my third time doing the challenge. I always enjoy it, and I’m looking forward to being introduced to some new blogs from other participants. 

1. When did you start your blog? And, for anyone who is just seeing it for the first time, please provide a description of your site. Would you say your blog focuses more on sharing stories with your readers, or providing a resource for your audience?

I started my blog in July 2012. I am a hobbyist dog trainer who is hooked on the science of learning and dedicated to spreading the word about humane, positive reinforcement-based training. I’m not a professional trainer, and I often post real-life training complete with embarrassing mistakes.  People seem to enjoy seeing training where the dogs don’t already know the behaviors and where I deal with common training problems instead of everything going perfectly.

I tell some stories, but my blog is mostly a resource. Just for fun, here is a pie chart I made for my writing mentorship course. In the pie chart, I show what proportion of my writing falls into each of the four traditional categories of prose: expository, persuasive, descriptive, and narrative writing. I spend most of my time explaining things and persuading people (about positive reinforcement based training).

2. What was your proudest blogging moment of 2016?

I suppose I should say that it was about being able to blog that my book was out in paperback. But that’s about the book and not the blog. The best blog moment was the learning experience of studying and writing about the opposition reflex and realizing that I had really discovered a misunderstanding in that expression. The blog comments were illuminating and helped me on my own understanding of the subject. 

Opposition Reflex: What Is It Really?

3. Which of your blog posts was your favorite this year and why? (Please include a link.)

My post about the punishment callus was very interesting to write and I learned a lot. I also think it added to the helpful literature about training. It’s about the effects of attempting to use low-level punishment, and how difficult it is in general to suppress behavior to an effective degree.

Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong 

4. Year after year, one goal that we all seem to share is that we want to reach more people. What one tool did you use or action did you take this year that had the most impact on increasing traffic to your blog?

My readership has begun to level off. My traffic only increased by about 8% this year, which is less of an increase than previous years. I have not posted as much this year because of other projects, such as getting my book published. So I didn’t use a particular tool, I guess. However, I have a lot of evergreen content. Most of my articles are not time sensitive. So I do spend some time promoting my popular older posts and doing some optimization to make them easy to find. 

5. Which of your blog posts got the most traffic this year? (Please include a link.) Have you noticed any themes across your most popular posts?

I mentioned that I have a lot of evergreen content and, as it happens, the post that got the most traffic this year was one from 2014: Ringing the Bell to Go Out: Avoid These 4 Common Errors! I actually don’t know why this post is so popular but it remains one of my top performers. The new post that got the most traffic this year was: Opposition Reflex: What Is It Really? 

6. What blog do you find most inspirational and how has it influenced your blog? (Please include a link.)

Debbie Jacobs’ writing on inspires me. She is a genius with metaphor, has a great message, and stays on point. I have learned a lot from her.

7. What is one thing your readers don’t know about you or your pets that would surprise them?

I mention in my biographies that I have a master’s degree in music. It’s in harpsichord performance. I don’t think I have ever mentioned that my father and I built a harpsichord together. It was a fairly common way to get a nice instrument in the 1980s; mine is a French double from a Zuckermann kit. One of these days I’ll take some good photos. It has a beautiful soundboard painting by a now well-known decorator (thank you, Janine!).   

8. What is something you’ve learned this year that could help other bloggers?

I’ve gotten more efficient at going after plagiarists. I file DMCA takedown complaints with sites and also search engines and keep a spreadsheet to track responses.

Here is a link for anyone who wants to ask Google to take down plagiarized content. It’s a little hard to find if you don’t know it’s there. On the second page of the form, choose “I have a legal issue that is not listed above.” Then on the next page, there will be an option for “I have found content that may violate my copyright.” If you can prove it with links to your original content and links to the plagiarism, Google will remove the results fast.

9. What would you like to accomplish on your blog in 2017?

I would simply like to write more. I don’t have any benchmarks or marketing goals. My blog is my writing home. I enjoy all sorts of writing, but even when I am getting paid, I am usually hankering to get back to my blog. I do it for fun, for dessert, after I do writing for others. I have some exciting articles in the queue and would love to finish and publish them.

10. Now it’s your turn! You have the attention of the pet blogging community – is there a question you’d like answered, or an aspect of your blog that you’d like input on?

In this section, I would like to thank GoPetFriendly, the sponsor of this blog challenge, and bring their bravery to readers’ attention. GoPetFriendly needs our support. A bunch of Amy Burkert’s blog posts on GoPetFriendly were apparently copied. Then when she claimed her copyright, the company turned around and filed a $5 million suit against her! This is a bullying tactic and Amy is fighting back. She has a funding page set up so that she can respond to this harassing lawsuit. I have contributed and I urge others to do so. Amy is very brave and standing up for all of us “little guys.” Please support her.

Donate to GoPetFriendly Fighting Infringement

Thank you to GoPetFriendly for the 2017 Pet Blogger Challenge!

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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Posted in Milestone, Retrospective | Tagged | 21 Comments

6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms

Firecrackers exploding in the air

New Year’s Eve is coming. You can make a plan and take action now to help your dog be a bit less afraid of the unpredictable scary sounds of fireworks, firecrackers, whistles, and even guns.

Get Ready

Here are some things you can do today.

  1. Get some great treats and start carrying them around. Whenever there is any kind of sudden or startling noise, including stray bangs and booms aspeople start to test their noisemakers, rain treats down on your dog. Use those special treats only for noises; don’t pass them out for nice behavior (use something else for that!), and don’t ask for any particular behavior from your dog when the noise occurs. Just give the special treats. 1)You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app or CD with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky. The chances of getting successful conditioning in the three days between this blog post and New Year’s Eve are slim, and there will be a huge tendency to rush. People who haven’t done DS/CC before are far more likely to scare their dogs further than to help them. This is why I am recommending only Step 1 above, which consists of counterconditioning without systematic desensitization, using environmental noises that were going to happen anyway.
  2. Make (or adapt) a safe place for your dog. Keep in mind that the flashes of light that come with big fireworks displays can be scary too, so consider a method to temporarily darken any windows nearby. Also, low-frequency booms can’t be “soundproofed” for except with materials that are much too big to use inside a house. Get the best protection you can in a basement or your most internal room. Despite the marketing, dog crates with walls a few inches thick can’t dampen low-frequency sounds to an effective degree. 
  3. Experiment with sound masking or music to find out what is the most helpful for your situation. There are two contrasting methods here. Some people find that slow, quiet classical or easy listening music is soothing to their dogs. If you have already found that to be so, use it, but don’t try it out for the first time when the fireworks are going on. It does not work for all dogs, and you might even get “reverse conditioning” and make the music scary to your dogs if it predicts fireworks. The other method is to use some kind of recorded white noise, natural noise, or music to mask the pops and booms. (Even a noisy food toy can be helpful.) This “mechanical” approach is more to my liking. And here’s a tip: the lower the frequencies included in the masking or music, the better it can hide those low-pitched booms. So if your dogs are already used to pounding rock music or some other music with a lot of bass or percussion, play it! It can mask some of the scary noises from outside your house more effectively. I have a taiko drumming CD that is great for this. But if you try that, be absolutely certain that the music on the CD itself doesn’t scare your dogs first. If they are already sensitive to booms, it probably will. You’ll need to find the line of best fit for your dogs.
  4. Make a plan for taking your dog out to potty. Do you know when the noise is usually at its worst and can you work around that? Are your fences and/or leash and harness secure? Dogs who are usually sedate have been known to panic and run off on noisy holidays. Don’t let that happen.  Keep your gates locked, your dogs’ ID tags on, and put some redundancy into your safety system.
  5. If your dog gets extremely anxious about noises and you have never talked to your vet about it, do so today. He or she may be able to prescribe something to help. Sound phobias are not something to be taken lightly.
  6. LOSE that idea that there’s something wrong with comforting your dog. You can’t reinforce fear, and helping a dog through a tough time is not “coddling.” Assess what is most helpful to your dog: a cuddle, some lap time, sweet talk, being in their crate with a food toy, or hiding by themselves in a secluded place. Then help them do it.
The best part of thunderstorms: spray cheese!

The best part of noisy holidays: spray cheese!

Check out lots more resources and tips on my page “You Can’t Reinforce Fear.

Thanks for reading! Remember to cuddle your dog, if she likes it!

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015, 2016                                                                                                   

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Notes   [ + ]

1.You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app or CD with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky. The chances of getting successful conditioning in the three days between this blog post and New Year’s Eve are slim, and there will be a huge tendency to rush. People who haven’t done DS/CC before are far more likely to scare their dogs further than to help them. This is why I am recommending only Step 1 above, which consists of counterconditioning without systematic desensitization, using environmental noises that were going to happen anyway.
Posted in Fear, Sound phobias | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Book Nominated for Maxwell Award

I am proud to announce that my book, Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, has been nominated for a Dog Writers Association of America’s Maxwell Award 2016.  My book is one of three nominees in the category of Behavior, Health or General Care.

The winners in all categories will be announced at a banquet in New York City in February.

How About a 30% Discount?

I’ve been thinking about discounting the PDF version anyway, and this seems like a good time to do it. The PDF is available for purchase on my website, and I’ve marked it down from $12.95 to $8.95.

Click this line or the funky little “Add To Cart” button to purchase the PDF.

Add to Cart

This version is designed for both pleasant online viewing and a nice print copy. The print is large, at 14 points, and the photos are in color. It’s a version that can be used two ways, and right now it costs less than all the others. Here’s a sample page. The discount will run through midnight on January 1, 2017.   

My book is also available as a print book and in Kindle, Apple iBook, Barnes & Noble, and Google digital formats. You can purchase all the formats here.

Please feel free to share this announcement with anyone who has a senior dog. My book can help!

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016



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  • Eileen Anderson's book on dog dementia on sale @ 30% discount!
Posted in Awards, Canine cognitive dysfunction | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Lessons for My Puppy: Free iBook (and PDF)

Lots of play is included in puppy training!

Portuguese Water Dog puppy Zip at 13 weeks old

Do you have a new puppy or know someone who does? Then Marge Rogers and I have a present for you.

Dog and puppy training have changed a lot over the years. We recognize that not everyone is aware of those changes. So when my friend, trainer and behavior consultant Marge Rogers got her new puppy, I wrote blog posts to go with each one of her first six puppy training videos. I was thrilled with her first lessons for Zip and wanted to share them far and wide. And now they are in a book as well!

The book with embedded videos is available exclusively as an iBook and can be read on iPhones, iPads, and Macs with iBooks. 1)If anyone knows of a book reader for PC that will work for iBooks, let me know and I’ll list it here. Having the videos embedded means you can download it and have everything available even when you aren’t connected to the Internet.

By popular demand, I have also released a PDF version. It doesn’t have the videos embedded, but they are linked. Otherwise, it is the same as the iBook.

Best of all, they are both FREE!

Find out what a dog training professional teaches her puppy first–and why–in Lessons for My Puppy.

Button to access the iBook Lessons for My Puppy

Get the PDF version

Sample Page

Sample page of puppy training book

Table of Contents: The Lessons

  1. The First Thing To Teach Your Puppy
  2. The Second Thing To Teach Your Puppy
  3. Impulse Control. Impulse Control. Impulse Control. 
  4. Puppies Need an Off Switch! 
  5. Meeting the World 
  6. I Will Teach You What I Want You To Know 

We hope you enjoy the book! For more about Marge Rogers and more great resources, check out her website, Rewarded Behavior Continues, or follow Rewarded Behavior Continues on Facebook

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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Notes   [ + ]

1.If anyone knows of a book reader for PC that will work for iBooks, let me know and I’ll list it here.
Posted in Puppy Training | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Latent Learning: The Original Definition

The graphic shows silhouettes of rats poking their heads up out of a maze. The first study of latent learning really did involve rats in a maze.

Latent learning has a precise definition in learning theory and it’s not what many people think. It’s not magic learning that happens during downtime–at least not in the way people assume. It is not a sudden better performance after a break between training sessions. It’s not when everything suddenly comes together after we sleep on it.

Here’s the definition:

[Latent learning is] learning that occurs during non-reinforced trials but that remains unused until the introduction of a reinforcer provides an incentive for using it.–Lieberman, David A. Learning: Behavior and Cognition. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 1990.

Note that the definition includes nothing about making sudden cognitive leaps. If we are struggling with teaching our dog something and in the next session she has improved vastly–this does not fit the definition of latent learning.

One reason we can be sure it doesn’t fit is that when training we are regularly reinforcing the behaviors we want or reinforcing the closest approximation to them that we can get. Again, latent learning deals with “non-reinforced trials.” 

The First Latent Learning Study

The study that prompted the definition and exploration of latent learning took place in 1930 by Tolman, Chace, and Honzik.1)Tolman, Edward Chace, and Charles H. Honzik. “Introduction and removal of reward, and maze performance in rats.” University of California Publications in Psychology (1930). Rats were divided into three groups and the individuals in each group were put in a maze. The rats in Group 1 received a food reward when they reached the end of the maze. The rats in Group 2 never received food; they just were put in the maze and wandered freely for a certain amount of time for 10 days. The rats in Group 3 wandered the maze with no food for 10 days, then on the 11th day they started receiving a food reward for finishing the maze. It took them only one day to catch up to the Group 1 rate of running the maze. This was believed to show that they had been learning to navigate the maze during the period of no food, i.e., no reinforcement.

Stevenson demonstrated probable latent learning in humans in 1954. His experiment also dealt with remembering locations.2)Stevenson, Harold W. “Latent learning in children.” Journal of experimental psychology 47.1 (1954): 17.  

A real-life version of latent learning could go like this. Say I have no interest in bicycles or cycling. None. Nobody in my life does that. And say there is a bicycle repair shop in a little strip mall that I pass sometimes. If I notice that, there’s nothing in it for me. No reinforcement.

However, let’s say I have a new friend who is into cycling. She cycles to my house one day, and just as she arrives something goes wrong with her bike. She needs a repair. If at that moment I remember the location of that bike repair shop, that is latent learning. Learning about the location of the bike shop was not valuable earlier. There was no reinforcement available for it. To repeat the definition: The knowledge was “unused until the introduction of a reinforcer provided an incentive for using it.” In this scenario, the potential reinforcement is that I can help my friend.

What Should We Call the Other Thing?

OK, so if that’s latent learning, what should we call that thing that happens when we wait a little bit, then it all comes together? When everything gels and we, or our dogs, “get it”? It’s a great thing when it happens; no wonder we want a name for it!

Candidate #1 could be the so-called Eureka effect, where a perplexing problem becomes clear all at once in a flash of insight. But the focus on this term is not on the passage of time, except that a period of sleep is sometimes mentioned. Also, it’s not usually applied to animals.

Candidate #2 could be memory consolidation, a concept in neuroscience.

Consolidation is the processes of stabilizing a memory trace after the initial acquisition.–The Human Memory

It involves converting something we know from short-term to long-term memory. It could contribute to fluency in knowledge and possibly tasks. It is even known to correlate with getting some sleep. I am pretty far out of my league here, but it seems like it could apply, for example, in something like cue recognition. It could account for a notable difference in correct cue responses from one session to the next. But I’m not sure whether that merits that dramatic change we are usually talking about when something all comes together.

Here’s a good review article if you want to read about memory consolidation: Memory–a century of consolidation.3)McGaugh, James L. “Memory–a century of consolidation.” Science 287.5451 (2000): 248-251.  

Candidate #3 could be that some dramatic improvements we observe are related to longer inter-session intervals. Since the early 20th century, learning and behavior researchers have been studying the effects of tinkering with the times between sessions of learning.4)Shea, Charles H., et al. “Spacing practice sessions across days benefits the learning of motor skills.” Human movement science 19.5 (2000): 737-760. That time period is referred to as the inter-session interval (and yes, occasionally the time between is referred to as inter-session latency, just to build in some confusion). But I’m not aware of a zippy term for the advantages of a longer wait, although said advantages are common. Somehow, “benefit of a longer inter-session interval” isn’t sexy. 

But What If There’s No Such Thing?

It gets more complex. There were later studies that countered the latent learning effect. There were researchers who argued strongly against it. They claimed that the rats in the maze without food were getting some type of reinforcement and that their behavior could be explained under standard principles of behaviorism. You can read about that point of view in this article:

“Behaviorism, latent learning, and cognitive maps: Needed revisions in introductory psychology textbooks.”5)Jensen, Robert. “Behaviorism, latent learning, and cognitive maps: Needed revisions in introductory psychology textbooks.” The Behavior Analyst 29.2 (2006): 187. 

After reading that article, I almost decided not to publish this post at all. But I still think it could be useful. I’ll let eager researchers make their own decisions. 

So, in summation:

  • Latent learning has an official definition and it might not be what you thought.
  • There isn’t a sticky term for what you thought was latent learning, but I mention three possibilities.
  • Oh, and latent learning (as per the definition) might not exist anyway.

But Eileen, Language and Usage Are Always Changing!

Here’s the part where you can get after me for being stodgy or old fashioned. It could be that “latent learning” is on its way to becoming an acceptable term for a sudden improvement in performance after some downtime. I have seen one recent journal paper that uses the term that way.

I don’t know if popular usage will bleed into academia or not. But learning about the original definition turned me on to some pretty cool research, and I hope you enjoy it too.

This post started life as a rant about terminology on the Facebook group Canine Behavior Research Studies. Thank you to the people who contributed to the discussion there, particularly  הדס כלבי ה, who suggested the term memory consolidation, and Sasha Lazareva, who brought up the “other” controversy about latent learning and cited the Jensen article mentioned below.

 Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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Notes   [ + ]

1.Tolman, Edward Chace, and Charles H. Honzik. “Introduction and removal of reward, and maze performance in rats.” University of California Publications in Psychology (1930).
2.Stevenson, Harold W. “Latent learning in children.” Journal of experimental psychology 47.1 (1954): 17.
3.McGaugh, James L. “Memory–a century of consolidation.” Science 287.5451 (2000): 248-251.
4.Shea, Charles H., et al. “Spacing practice sessions across days benefits the learning of motor skills.” Human movement science 19.5 (2000): 737-760.
5.Jensen, Robert. “Behaviorism, latent learning, and cognitive maps: Needed revisions in introductory psychology textbooks.” The Behavior Analyst 29.2 (2006): 187.
Posted in Behavior analysis, Positive Reinforcement | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

With Her Tail Between Her Legs

Most of us know that a dog’s tail can be a fairly good indicator of mood. We can observe whether the tail carriage is low, medium, or high and whether it is loose or stiff. Whether and in what manner it is wagging. We can often draw some pretty good conclusions from those observations, keeping breed in mind.

A dog wagging her tail loosely at a low angle is possibly friendly. A dog holding her tail upright, wagging it stiffly from side to side is one to watch out for. A dog with her tail hanging straight down or tucked between her legs is usually afraid or unhappy. 

dog with tail between legs eating out of a Kong toy

Zani focused on a Kong with her tail tucked

Except when she’s not.

I have a popular YouTube movie called Kongs for Beginners, in which I show how to make very easy Kongs for puppies and inexperienced dogs. All four of my dogs from that time demonstrate. A viewer commented that Zani looked unhappy because her tail was tucked. I hadn’t noticed. I agreed and put a note in the video description about it. 

But over the years I’ve changed my mind. I’ve noticed that Zani tucks her tail in certain situations in which I know she is not unhappy. She does it when she is working with a food toy, when she is digging, even when she licks a plate. It seems to happen when she is very focused on a task in front of her.

Take a look. 

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

I’m letting this be a reminder to me to look at the whole dog and the whole situation and not just one obvious aspect. And don’t forget: breed can make a big difference in tail carriage and other aspects of body language.

Zani’s tail may be tucked in those situations, but the rest of her body is not spelling out “misery.” She is animated and her ears are forward, and in two of the clips, she is eating.

Here’s a photo of Zani with a tucked tail when she was scared and upset for comparison. In this photo, you can see a lot of other stress signs.

How about the rest of you? Anybody else’s dogs tuck their tails when they are probably not upset? The reason I finally published this is that I did find one other person whose dog does the same thing. Thank you to Johnna Pratt, who also has a dog who tucks her tail when working hard on something. We’d love to hear about some others.

dog with tail between legs

Zani working to “bury” a Himalayan chew in the pillow, with her tail firmly tucked


Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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Posted in Dog body language, Stress Signals | Tagged , , | 32 Comments

If You’re Loving It, Why Leave?

Is “choice” a code word for negative reinforcement?

It can be. Seems like that’s the context where I see it pop up the most. 

I’ve written a lot about choice. Two of my major points are:

  1. Many people are confused about using choice as an antecedent vs. a consequence; and
  2. People are rarely referring to choices between positive reinforcers when they write about their animals having a choice.

But here’s another thing that gets under my skin. These days it seems like many people who use the language of choice to describe their training are referring to the fact that they permit the animal to leave as relief from a difficult task. For instance, in a husbandry session, the dog may receive a food reinforcer for cooperative behavior. That constitutes positive reinforcement if we see cooperative behavior (usually staying still or focusing on something) increase or maintain. 1)This also applies to sessions of  counterconditioning where the food is not contingent on behavior. I am setting that aside for now. The dog is allowed to leave as often as she wants. The session starts back up if she returns. The leaving constitutes negative reinforcement if we see leaving increase or maintain. But remember: escape is only a reinforcer if the activity is unpleasant.

Letting the dog leave is a good thing. But there is a big drawback if it is planned on as an expected response and built into a protocol.

Building escape behavior into a protocol can provide a disincentive to the human to make the process as pleasant for the dog as possible. Rather than working harder to create a situation where the dog doesn’t want to leave, the trainer can focus on saying that the dog is “empowered” by the ability to leave. On the contrary, some trainers, including myself, consider a dog repeatedly leaving as evidence that we have not worked hard enough at making the experience pleasant.  It’s a failure, not a goal. It means we didn’t set up our antecedents and graduated exposures well enough.

Text: What does true free choice look like in a husbandry session? I tried it. My dogs LOVED it.

Forced vs. Free Choice

I have written about forced and free choice before. Forced choice applies to our husbandry example. The dog can stick with the session and get food or another appetitive stimulus, or the dog can leave. Leaving usually leads to an environment that is bare of other positive reinforcers, or has very weak ones. We deliberately set things up that way as an incentive for the dog to stick with the session. There is no shame in that. Controlling other reinforcers is a part of positive reinforcement-based training. But bragging that escape offers the animal empowerment when the other option is bare of interesting activities is a bit strained.

Also, the presence of food can be coercive. The husbandry session may be unpleasant but the food quite good. Hence, the dog is putting up with discomfort to get the food. Again, sometimes we have to perform medical or husbandry tasks that are painful. But why start out that way if we don’t have to?

On the other hand, free choice is a choice between two appetitive stimuli: two good/fun/nice things. Two things the dog will work for. For instance, stay inside and be petted (for a dog who likes that) or go outside and play ball. Play with this toy, then that one. Dig in the yard or lie in the sunshine.

Is there a way to offer free choice between two appetitive stimuli in a husbandry session? Sure, and I tried it. My dogs LOVED it.


Summer watching to see if the Manners Minder will pay out

If You Really Want to Give the Dog a Free Choice…

…you have to stop controlling other options for reinforcement. Instead, offer another option. In my case, I set up for a husbandry session, but provided another reinforcement option in the form of a Manners Minder, an automated treat dispenser. 

I loaded it with the same treats I was using and placed it a few feet away. I set it to eject treats on a variable interval schedule. My intention was for the Manners Minder’s rate of treat delivery and mine to be similar. It would eject treats every so often no matter what the dog was doing (no contingency from me). But the dog’s behavior of leaving the husbandry session could be positively reinforced.

I started a nail clipping session with the video camera running. 

This unedited movie shows the very beginning, where Zani is still figuring out what the deal is. Is it OK for her to run to the Manners Minder in the middle of our session? (Yes.) Is there a good reason to return for nail clipping? (Yes, because there were gaps in the Manners Minder schedule.) Zani has a genius for optimization and was soon going back and forth. 

I was super pleased that husbandry sessions are pleasant enough to her that Zani happily came back.  If she hadn’t, that would be valuable information. It would mean I needed to work more on making husbandry pleasant for her. In the meantime, to get the job done, I could stack the deck a little in my favor via treat value or rate of reinforcement. I would have no problem with the ethics of that. In my opinion, it’s still far superior to the scenario where the dog’s only other option is escape to a boring room.

During my other dogs’ first sessions, I needed to call them back a few times. They both tended to get stuck in one place or another because of their reinforcement histories. Thinking it through, I don’t think calling them affects the balance of the two options much. The sound of the Manners Minder is a very strong cue that food is available. Likewise, my calling my dog is a strong cue for the same. I reinforced the dogs for coming back to me when I did so. They were free to leave again right away, but they usually stuck around for a nail clip or two, or until the Manners Minder produced another treat.

In the movie with Zani you can see me using the remote on the Manners Minder. I am turning the down-stay variable interval setting on and off.  But in subsequent sessions (not filmed) I just set it and let it alone. 

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Choice Doesn’t Apply Only To Negative Reinforcement Protocols (Even Though That’s When You Often Hear About It)

One of the things that often gets lost in the discussions about choice is that we offer our dogs a choice every time we give a cue for a positively reinforced behavior.  When I call my dog while she’s digging in the dirt in the yard, I have offered her a choice, whether I’m happy about that or not. And it’s a choice between two nice things. But this type of choice is often overlooked because the reason we train dogs is often to get them to do things we want. Offering a dog a choice between two appetitives can be inconvenient for the human. Whereas offering a dog a choice to leave an uncomfortable husbandry session doesn’t cost us much. We know the dog will probably come back because we are the source of R+ in the room. It seems pretty self-serving to me to promote choice primarily when it is easiest for us. 

If a trainer or a protocol focuses on choice, ask questions. What are the choices? Ask the trainer or author to operationalize them. Are the choices antecedents or consequences? What will your animal be choosing between? The trainer should be able to tell you whether both of the choices lead to positive reinforcement, or if one leads to positive reinforcement and the other to negative reinforcement (escape). 

Don’t Necessarily Try My Experiment at Home

This was an experiment. Our success with the dual reinforcement setup had a lot to do with the dogs’ history with me. Offering a powerful reinforcer for leaving a husbandry session could backfire if a dog didn’t have a strong reinforcement history for staying. I’m not necessarily recommending it. I wrote in another post about the down side of offering a dog between two positive reinforcers and how it can be tricky. That risk is very clear in my game with the Manners Minder.

Another issue is that the dual reinforcement setup as I presented it is not workable for procedures where the dog must stay still, perhaps as in a jugular blood draw. But that’s true for any method that allows the dog to leave. Most of us at some point also train the dog to stay still.

I tried this out because I was curious. I am publishing it because I want folks to see what it can look like for a dog to exercise free choice in a husbandry session. I’m continuing to do it because it makes toenail trims downright fun for my dogs.

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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Notes   [ + ]

1.This also applies to sessions of  counterconditioning where the food is not contingent on behavior. I am setting that aside for now.
Posted in Choice, Escape/Avoidance, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Reinforcement | 9 Comments