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 Fearfuldogs.com 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                                                                                                             eileenanddogs.com

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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

My iBook is Out!

rememberme_rev2I am pleased to announce that the iBooks version of Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction is available today!

I mean, really pleased! I’m not sure if this was the hardest version to create, but at this point, I am certainly the tired-est. 

This version is for sale only through Apple (iTunes or iBooks) and is optimized for the iPad. It’s also viewable on an iPhone or on the iBooks computer app.

Get "Remember Me" iBook from Apple

My book is also available at other locations as a paperback, a Kindle e-book, and a PDF. See the bottom of the post for purchase links for those versions. 

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Click on a thumbnail for a bigger version. 


Other Buying Options

Buy from Amazon      Buy from DogWise    Buy from Barnes and Noble

Buy from Google         Buy PDF (from me–goes directly to cart)       


Please share this post–I know those iPad people are out there!


Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016


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Posted in Announcement, Canine cognitive dysfunction | 6 Comments

My Dog Refuses Food Away From Home!


Don’t panic. This is a common problem and it often has a pretty clear path to a solution. Most important: you can still use positive reinforcement based training. It is not a dealbreaker!

I write a lot about how we can help dogs address life-limiting fears by performing desensitization and counterconditioning. It’s always important to keep the dog in her comfort zone (under threshold) when doing any kind of exposure work. One of the ways people assess whether a dog is comfortable in a situation is whether she will take food. This is an imperfect method since some dogs will keep eating food when they are starting to get upset. But it’s a start.

But if a dog refuses food, she isn’t necessarily afraid. There are other common reasons this happens. In this post, I’ll mention the possibilities and recommend a fix for the most common one.  

How Do I Tell the Difference?

It is vitally important to know whether your dog is refusing food because he is scared, excited, has a medical problem, or is more interested in the environment. I’m sorry to say that I can’t answer that for you and your dog in a blog post. At the end of the post, I’ll include some body language resources. For some dogs, it can be hard to tell. If your dog refuses food when away from home and you are not sure why, you should get help from a positive reinforcement based trainer. If she refuses food more generally or it happens suddenly, a vet visit is in order.

The suggestions in the rest of this post pertain to dogs who refuse food in new, interesting situations but are not scared or ill. That scenario is also what you will see in the embedded movie.

The Common Culprit: Competing Reinforcers

Let’s say you have trained your dog to respond to a few cues in your living room. Perhaps you have trained “sit,” “down,” “target,” and “stay.” Maybe even walking on leash. You decide to take the show on the road and take your dog to a local park. You bring some good food and your clicker if you use one. 

You get your dog out of the car and cue him to sit. But your dog is at the end of his leash, straining to smell something on the ground. You cue him again. Nothing. He doesn’t even seem to hear you.

You wait about five minutes. He is scanning, sniffing, and straining at the leash. But as it happens, you finally get a little scrap of attention from him. You click the eye contact and start to offer him something yummy. But at the sound of the click, he turns away and starts sniffing again.  He ignores the food completely. Or if you get it into the vicinity of his mouth, he lets it fall out.  

This is perplexing. At home, your dog is a real food hound. He will do anything for food and loves his training sessions. What’s happened? 

If your dog is not afraid, what has likely happened is that there are competing reinforcers. That means that there are things that are more attractive to him right now than the food. New places are thrilling to many dogs. Novel odors! New things to see, like dogs, other animals, or even people! These can all overpower the attractiveness of food.

We can’t decide for our dogs what is the most enticing thing in a particular moment. Often it’s something other than what we are offering.

Small black dog sniffing the ground near a tree .She is wearing a harness and is on leash. She often refuses food if there are good odors available.

Guess what is most reinforcing to Zani right now?

Show and Tell

I emphasize in this blog that I am not a professional trainer. It’s obvious from my dogs’ leash walking. Zani, who is featured in today’s video, actually has the best leash manners of all my dogs. But only when we are in my own neighborhood or somewhere else familiar to her. I don’t take her new places often enough for her to succeed in that situation (see below about practice!). So when I take her somewhere new to give her a little adventure (as opposed to training), I use a harness. I do let her pull me around somewhat. But I still reward richly for loosening the leash, offering attention, or walking at my side.

She does those things intermittently. But she won’t always take the food. So in the video, you’ll see her “ignore” my marker and just continue along. Sometimes she’ll turn for the treat, then decline it. You’ll also see her take treats after a nice behavior as well. (Hey, it wasn’t all bad!)

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Sorry about Zani’s clunky, mismatched getup. This was an unplanned outing and she was wearing a borrowed harness. 

What To Do About It

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. A keyboard player doesn’t start her studies by playing Liszt or Rachmaninoff. She starts with simple pieces. She works on scales. She attempts harder things gradually, usually under the tutelage of a teacher. If she is going to be a performer, she also widens her playing experience gradually as well. She plays on different types of pianos. She plays in different settings and for different groups of people. She learns to handle herself in lots of different musical situations.

Likewise, taking a dog who has practiced behaviors only at home (and maybe in only one room of the house) to a park and expecting perfect performance is like taking the first year piano student to Carnegie Hall, aiming her at the stage, and saying, “Knock ’em dead!” 

She’s not ready. And neither is your dog.

Instead, teach your dog behaviors in your living room. Then in your kitchen. Then in a room with an outside view. Then on the back porch if you have one. Then in a boring part of your back yard. Then in an interesting part of your back yard. Then on your front porch. Then in your front yard. Then a few steps either way toward your neighbors’ houses. (I have a friend who had a big van with some open space in it, and she taught her dog to perform all of his behaviors in the van! How cool is that?)

You can also practice asking for your dog’s attention as part of her “getting out of the car” routine. Also even going out your front door. Both of these are common times for dogs to get excited and unreachable. 

Be generous with the reinforcement. You are gradually introducing competing reinforcers, so yours needs to be good. 

When you do get to the park, set her up for success. Pick a time when most people are staying home. Go to an area where you can practice on a parking lot or the pavement before you venture into more exciting areas. If you do mat training, bring the mat. Help your dog practice getting out of the car and straight onto the mat. Keep the first lessons short.  

Get the picture? Work up to it. Set your antecedents. 

Better Food

High-value food is your friend when you are going new places with your dog. But it’s important to note that food is not a cure-all. You can’t just skip to a distracting environment and count on liver brownies to save the day. You and your dog will still need to work up to it. And some days, for some dogs–there just isn’t a high enough value food. Dogs are animals. We don’t live in a perfect world.

But It’s Her Walk!

That’s right. It may be important to you to offer your dog as much freedom as you can. You may want to give her time to acclimate and explore whenever you go somewhere new. But those goals are not incompatible with what I am describing here. My own teacher has encouraged me to see on-the-road training as a safety issue. I don’t have to have my dog’s attention all the time–far from it. But I need to be able to ask for it and get it.


Here is the place where someone is going to suggest the Premack principle. That principle says that you can reinforce statistically less likely behaviors (walking nicely on leash) with more likely behaviors (sniffing). After all, if the thing your dog wants the most is to sniff new odors, why not use that for your reinforcement? 

It can be done, but it’s more complicated than it sounds. If you are a beginning trainer and your dog is so entranced by odors that you can’t get his attention for love or money, how can you get him back after you let him go off sniffing?

I have two blogs about that:

I do use sniffing as a reinforcer for my dogs when we are on my own street and other familiar places. I have it on cue and it works pretty well. The second link above describes how I did it. But I rarely try it in a brand new place. Again, because we haven’t practiced enough for Carnegie Hall.

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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Leave It: Not Just for Dead Men Anymore

The other day I was pondering the trend of talking about teaching “self-control” and “impulse control” in our dogs. I got to thinking about “leave it,” both the term and the behavior. I realized a couple things. First, the term “leave it” doesn’t pass the dead-man test. (I’ll get to that below.) Second, the behavior “leave it” is not just one, but several behaviors. Third, I realized that this combination of problems could present some difficulties when training.

What is your dog actually doing when she successfully “leaves it”?

You know what that means: I’m going to write about it!

Negative vs. Positive Descriptions

When describing how we would like dogs to act, how many times do we start with the word “doesn’t”? (Or worse, “shouldn’t.”)

  • The dog doesn’t counter-surf.
  • The dog doesn’t jump on people.
  • The dog doesn’t bark inappropriately.
  • The dog doesn’t pee or poop in the house.

You get the picture. And as people with a little (or a lot) of experience with positive reinforcement based training, you know what good trainers will do first. They will decide–and describe–what they want the dog to do. Like this:

  • The dog lies on a mat when in the kitchen.
  • The dog keeps four feet on the floor for greeting.
  • The dog barks once and runs to a family member when the doorbell rings.
  • The dog eliminates outside.

I could have made the second group of descriptions more specific and precise. You can consider them a rough draft. But with the descriptions I was taking the first steps toward something called operationalization.

Operationalization and Dead Men

Operationalization is an important concept in applied behavior analysis. To operationalize a behavior is to describe it in observable, measurable, objective, and specific ways. (That description is from this article about behavioral interventions with children, but most definitions are similar.) For some reason that is difficult for humans to do. We want to conceptualize and label things instead. The dog is being naughty; the dog is being dominant; the dog is getting back at us; the dog is acting guilty.

None of these phrases tells us what the dog is actually doing. And if we are going to observe, analyze and modify behavior, we have to know that.

When you operationalize behavior, you can’t define it as a negative or an absence of something. Attempting to define a behavior by what it isn’t fails the “dead-man test.” Ogden Lindsley coined this term in 1965 and you can read about it here: From Technical Jargon to Plain English for Application.1)Lindsley, O. R. (1991). From technical jargon to plain English for application. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 24(3), 449-458.

The bottom line is that if a dead man can do it, it’s not a behavior. Look at my top list of problem dog “behaviors.” A dead man could do all those things.  For instance, dead men are really good at things like “not counter-surfing” and “not jumping on people.”

Attempts at behavioral descriptions that start with the word “doesn’t” usually aren’t real behaviors at all. They fail the dead-man test.

The dead-man test comes in handy because it clues you in to times when you are going down the wrong road. For instance, when discussing negative reinforcement, I have had people tell me that all other behaviors besides the one that’s being negatively reinforced are automatically being punished. For instance, let’s say I have dirty hands. I wash them. My hands are now pleasantly clean and washing was negatively reinforced. Having dirty hands was aversive to me and I removed that aversive via washing. But my correspondent wrote that also, “not washing hands” was positively punished.

Whoa! What does “not washing hands” look like? Ask a dead man. He’s doing it right now. If there is no behavior observed and described, we can’t identify punishment occurring. (By the way, there could have been positive punishment in this scenario. But there’s not enough information in my description to know.)

Exploring “Leave It”

And that brings me to “leave it.” We tend to think of “leave it” as being a single behavior. We casually define it as the dog not getting that thing that we don’t want it to get. But wait! “Not getting the goodie”? That doesn’t pass the dead-man test.

When we talk about “leave it,” we actually may be talking about one of several behaviors. Watch this video of baby Clara learning “leave it” (a.k.a. Zen in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels.) She does great, despite some poorly timed markers on my part. But what behavior is she learning?

Link to the puppy video for email subscribers.

When we teach Zen or “leave it,” we usually mark and reinforce the first thing the dog does after she stops mugging and licking the hand. So I marked (late, but it worked) when Clara pulled her head back. I then dropped the treat, and she got it off the floor. The very next time around, Clara pulled her head away and looked at the floor. Clever pup. And that’s the behavior I reinforced for most of the rest of the session.

So at that time, Clara’s experience with “leave it” was:

  • When a fist with a treat inside it appears in front of your face…
  • look at the floor…
  • and a treat will appear.

She also learned that licking or even approaching the hand with the treat in it didn’t work. Those behaviors started to extinguish in that context.

Here are three more examples of “leave it.”

What are my dogs doing in this picture?

Three dogs practicing leave it: staying on their mats as treats roll by.

We call this “leave it” but what are the dogs doing?

If I operationalize it, I would say that they are lying on their mats with their heads up, watching treats roll by. I could improve on the term “leave it” by calling this behavior a down stay or a mat stay with distractions. 2)Ironically, stay, especially considering Lindsley’s original concerns and description, could also be considered to fail the dead-man test. But notice that I stipulated that the dogs are holding their heads up and watching something.

What is Summer doing in this picture? (Those are pieces of mozzarella cheese on the floor.)

Summer practicing leave it: walking on a loose leash through a grid of cheese on the floor

We call this “leave it” but what is Summer doing?

Summer is walking with me on leash, keeping her head and shoulders in line with my left side and within two feet of me such that the leash stays loose. She is doing this with a major distraction of cheese on the floor. AKA “leave it.”

Finally, what does Clara do in this movie?

Link to the Clara recall video for email subscribers.

When I call her, Clara lifts her head up from the food she was eating, turns, and runs to me. It’s a challenging recall. But it’s also “leave it.”

Can we specify that “leave it” consists of one of these four things?

  • Come
  • Stay
  • Continue another duration behavior
  • Relax the jaw muscles to release an item

Did I miss anything?

So What? (Part 1)

Sometimes we can train ourselves into a corner if we don’t operationalize what the dog is actually doing. Clara learned (after the above puppy video) that a reliable way to get a reinforcer in a “leave it” situation was to move away from the tempting item. She put distance between the item and herself. This worked fine until I started using food as a distraction on the floor and she actually had to go close to the food to do what I was asking of her. Then I realized that I had taught “leave it” as “back away” when what I really wanted was “hold your head up and keep your mouth closed.” Those are pretty different!

I wrote a whole post about that: The Missed Cue: Attack of the Zen Field.

The embedded movie in that post shows Clara struggling when I ask her to get on her mat with a treat in the way. This was harder for her to learn than it was for my other dogs. That was probably because backing away from the treat had been so heavily reinforced.

Anybody want to suggest how I could have made the transition with less stress for her?

So What? (Part 2)

This post started off as a rant prompted by the use of the terms “self-control” and “impulse control” in the dog community. I have used those terms myself, plenty of times. That’s how we conceptualize what we want from our dogs. We don’t want to have to order them around all the time. We would like for them to perform the behaviors we like almost automatically (with reinforcement from us, of course).

But I am becoming a little concerned about using the constructs of “self-control” or “impulse control.” They have an almost moralistic edge to them. The typical definitions of those things for humans involve urges, emotions, and morality. More important, we tend to see self-control type behaviors all under one big umbrella. I think that with our dogs we do better to talk about specific behaviors. Just as we shy away from using constructs such as “guilt” in dogs because of the harm that can be done under that assumption, I think we might want to hesitate in using these general terms about self-control. We don’t know that the dog conceives it that way. What we do know is that we can successfully reinforce certain behaviors.

I truncated my rant when I found out that the term “self-control” does have a valid definition for animals.  It’s a big topic, so I’ll address that in the future.

In the meantime, here is my encouragement to operationalize, operationalize, operationalize! Figure out specifically what you want the dog to do. Figure what it looks like. Define it. Describe it. Then teach it.

And for fun: does your dog do anything quirky as part of “leave it”? I bet there are some cute ones out there.

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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Notes   [ + ]

1.Lindsley, O. R. (1991). From technical jargon to plain English for application. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 24(3), 449-458.
2.Ironically, stay, especially considering Lindsley’s original concerns and description, could also be considered to fail the dead-man test. But notice that I stipulated that the dogs are holding their heads up and watching something.
Posted in Behavior analysis, Terminology, Zen/Leave it | Tagged , , | 27 Comments