So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want: 9 Ways Preference Testing Can Go Wrong

Two hands offering different treats to a dog in an attempt at a preference test

What’s your favorite color?
Do you prefer pie or ice cream?
Which shirt do you like better: the striped one or the solid green one?

Most of us have been asked our preferences since we were children. Sometimes we are being asked to make a choice: if we choose the striped shirt we won’t be wearing the green one also. If we are asked to choose enough times, our preferences often become clear.

With the best intentions, many of us are attempting to determine our dogs’ preferences by Continue reading

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Posted in Behavior analysis, Choice, Research | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

How I Helped My Dog Love the Sound of Velcro

small black dog Zani gazes at a Lotus Ball toy with Velcro enclosures

Velcro, a type of fastener with two different fabric surfaces that adhere to each other, typically makes a loud ripping noise when pulled apart. Some dog harnesses, coats, medical supplies, and other gear use Velcro closures.

This ripping sound can be aversive. Some sound phobic dogs are triggered the first time they hear it. And some dogs who are OK with most sounds may find it unpleasant when Velcro is unfastened close to their ears.

I recently “inoculated” my dog Zani against fear of the Velcro ripping sound. Zani has a Continue reading

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Posted in Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Review, Sound phobias, Training plan | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Peanut Butter Dog Treats With No Sticking! Another Silicone Pan Recipe

Pyramid style silicone pan with baked peanut butter dog treats

Sorry I’m not filling my pans as neatly as I did before! That part got old.

I posted in January about making hundreds of small treats at a time in a silicone pan. I had no idea how lucky I was that I hit on a recipe that worked so well the first time. You can check out that chicken-based recipe and some details about the pan in this post. It seems that you need to have enough binding ingredients in these recipes or things get…sticky.

Ever since then I have been trying on and off to develop a recipe for peanut butter dog treats for the silicone pan. So far they have all stuck a bit. On one of them I actually had to push the treats out individually (500+ of them) which pretty much defeated the purpose of using the pan. I meant using the pan is fun, but the original idea was to save time by avoiding cutting things up.

Several people suggested using peanut butter powder instead of regular peanut butter to un-sticky the recipe. That worked great on the first try. It’s generally lower fat than the recipes with real peanut butter, too. 

ceramic dish of small peanut butter dog treats

This is about a half of a pan’s worth, i.e., a quarter of the recipe


Non-Sticking Silicone Pan Peanut Butter Dog Treats

2 eggs, beaten
2 Tablespoons oil (I used canola)
1/2 cup peanut butter powder (I used “PBfit” brand. Its ingredients are peanuts, coconut palm sugar, and salt.) DO NOT USE ANY PRODUCT WITH THE SWEETENER XYLITOL. IT IS TOXIC TO DOGS.
1/2 cup white flour
1/2 cup tapioca flour
1/2 cup water

Mix well. You want it smooth. Put about half the batter in the middle of the pan and spread it outwards. It takes less batter than you think. I don’t bother to fill every single hole in the pan anymore, i.e., not the outer rows, because of the time it takes. My apologies to the compulsive types! I do like the look of a neatly filled pan, but the time isn’t worth it to me. But feel free!

Bake at 350 degrees F for 12 minutes, or until the individual treats are still soft but starting to draw away from the sides of the pan.

Let cool a little and stretch the pan in both directions to loosen the treats.  I show the stretching in the video. Dump them out. Peanut butter dog treats!

And like the treats made with the chicken recipe I posted previously, these work perfectly in the Manners Minder/Treat and Train using the insert with the 3/4″ holes.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Continued Experimentation

I am honored to be writing to an international audience here, and I promise I am not deliberately trying to use obscure ingredients. The peanut butter powder is available and not too expensive here in the U.S., but I’ve been told that is not the case elsewhere. So I’ll keep trying to get another peanut-based recipe that dumps out of the pan nicely. I am starting to suspect that the problem isn’t the peanut butter anyway. I think it’s the canned pumpkin (which itself is hard to get in many places).

The only one of these weird ingredients I’m attached to is the tapioca flour. It makes the difference between crumbles in your pocket and nice discrete little treats.

If anybody has a tried-and-true recipe for fish-based treats that pop out of the mold well, feel free to post it in the comments. I’ve got a friend looking for that, and my first version was a little difficult to work with. 

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Dog training hints, Food reinforcers, Treats | Tagged , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Falsifiability or Falsehood in Dog Training? (Part 1)


What if we had to know our animal training theory and practice so well that we could easily tell someone what would disprove the hypotheses that inform our methods? That’s what scientists do. If we are going to claim to base our training methods on science, I think we should get with the program. 

There’s a concept in science that is not much discussed in the world of dog training. The concept is falsifiability. Learning about it can save us a world of hurt in assessing statements about training methods. Focusing on how we would disprove our own methods may seem counterintuitive at first, but bear with me.

All dog training methods are based on science because the processes involved can be explained by science. But only some trainers actually study the science and base their decisions on what they learn from it. For the purposes of this article, I’ll call them science-based trainers.

Whatever they call themselves, in my opinion, anyone who says they base their training on science should be able to explain how they do it. They should also be able to tell you what would falsify, i.e., disprove, the hypotheses they use. 

Falsifiability and The Scientific Method

The Scientific Method: photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Falsifiability, also known as testability, is the ability of a hypothesis or statement to be scientifically disproven, and is intrinsic to the scientific method. Any researcher who puts forth a hypothesis should be able to state ways it could be falsified, and should expect those methods to be attempted in the future. Many researchers perform repeated experiments to attempt to falsify their own findings. I admire these people who are willing to put their ego investment on a back burner to seek ever more accurate information.

Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True, has a post on his website that lists seven items that, if observed and confirmed, would shoot holes in parts of the theory of evolution. Taking a look at his article will give you a good grasp of what falsifiability is. It will also demonstrate the high level of expertise in a subject needed to understand how to falsify it.  

(Falsifiability is not used as a metric in some sciences, such as physics and astronomy, because some hypotheses can’t be tested. For instance, much of string theory is famously unfalsifiable. That doesn’t mean that the hypotheses involved are accepted without rigorous examination though. In the main we don’t have those kind of problems in behavior science)

The scientific method gives us a good guide for questioning dog trainers, their methods, and statements about them. Every training method involves one or more hypotheses about cognition or ethology. You can use this concept of falsifiability to ask someone about their overall philosophy or just a particular method. Here’s how you can go about that.

  1. Identify the training challenge or part of their philosophy you want to discuss.
  2. Ask the trainer what the general research is behind their approach. They don’t need to name specific studies or textbooks. But they should know the concepts and be able to explain their relevance.
  3. If discussing a method within a training system, ask the trainer if that specific method has any specific research behind it, i.e., has it been scientifically tested? 
  4. If the method has been tested, ask the results and assess the evidence.
    1. If the method has been tested and found to be successful, ask whether the results have been replicated by other research.  Replication is essential. Hanging on the results of one study is not good practice when other studies are possible and ethical to perform.
    2. If the method has not been tested, ask how they would design an experiment and what would falsify the method. Again, there doesn’t have to be a lot of detail. But this will show whether they understand the claim they are making.
  5. Whatever the answers to the above, ask them what it would take to disprove their method or philosophy. 

The last thing is perhaps the most important. You are not only putting the trainer’s knowledge to the test, but also potentially running up against their ego. We all get attached to our methods and an ego response is natural. But pursuing falsifiability forces one to override the ego.

Remember, we can’t “prove” a hypothesis. What we hope to do when we research it is to amass evidence for it. But we can disprove it by finding examples within the scope of the hypothesis in which the outcome is not as predicted. In that case the experimental methods should be checked. After further experiments, the hypothesis might be modified or scrapped.

Falsifying My Own Hypothesis: A Specific Situation

In a previous post I wrote about teaching one of my dogs two different cues for the same behavior. Both were cues to come in the house, but in one case I reinforced the behavior with high value treats, and my dog came running virtually all the time when I used that cue.  I reinforced the other cue with one piece of kibble. I set this latter cue up to offer my dog the option of coming in the house. I kept the reinforcer low value so if she was having a better time in the yard she might choose to stay instead. She responded to that cue intermittently.

My hypothesis is that the reason for the lower probability of response with the “kibble” recall is the lower value of the food. So let’s go through it with a view to falsifiability.

  1. My hypothesis: when using the same reinforcement schedule (in this case a continuous schedule, where the behavior is reinforced every time it is performed on cue) for the same behavior with two different cues, the response to the cue with the greater magnitude reinforcer will be more frequent.
  2. What research supports this? I’m not going to present a literature review, but here is the information one would need to investigate the issue. Schedules of reinforcement and reinforcement magnitude have been much studied. Some of the big names in the field are J. A. Nevin, H. L. Miller, B. J. Herrnstein, W. W. Fisher, J. E. Mazur, and P. De Villiers. Keywords for an article search are “reinforcement magnitude,” “contrast effect,” “concurrent schedule,” “reinforcement variety,” and “matching law.” You don’t even have to read scholarly articles if you have access to a learning theory textbook. These topics will be included. 
  3. Has the hypothesis been formally tested? Yes, in a lab setting.
  4. What were the results? The hypothesis was confirmed and replicated.
  5. What would falsify the hypothesis? The hypothesis could be falsified if this body of research was overturned with the results of new, replicated studies that showed no correlation between the animal’s response and the quality of the reinforcer, or a negative correlation. I could possibly falsify the application of the hypothesis to my own situation by finding that there was an interfering detail in my setup. 
  6. Could problems turn up if I attempted my own experiment? Sure. Since my hypothesis has to do with learning and behavior in the real world, my application of this hypothesis could have problems. If I got substantially different results when testing under the most controlled conditions I could create in the real world, that would not necessarily falsify the hypothesis. It might show that I was not applying the science successfully. (I will discuss homegrown research and experimental design in the next post.) But hopefully I would be able to analyze the problems and try again. If I exerted excellent controls on my experiment and still got results contrary to my hypothesis I might contact an expert in the field. If interested, this person could advise me on how to perform the experiment with more skill. Or if they were convinced that I had discovered something new in the world, they might choose to pursue the line of research. (In this case a new discovery would be extremely unlikely.)

Ask the Question

The point of all this is to give us a framework to determine if a trainer is knowingly basing their practices on science. So if a trainer is touting a new or branded method, consider the questions above, but especially Question #5 about falsifiability.  You don’t always need to ask the details about research and outcomes. It’s a good litmus test if you will just ask the following:

What would convince you this method is ineffective or doesn’t work in the way you claim it does? 

You might be very surprised at the responses when you ask that question.

What If Something Can’t Be Falsified?

The interesting thing about falsifiability is that the absence of it is not a good thing. We don’t say, “This hypothesis is so strong that it can’t be falsified!” On the contrary, a hypothesis or method that can’t be falsified, i.e., its practitioner can’t identify a test and outcome that would disprove it, is not scientifically based.

So there’s a paradox here.  The people who are the most attached to their methods, the most forceful in describing them, the most certain of themselves, are often the ones you should run away from. Instead, seek out the science-based trainer who can tell you what would falsify their methods, who is able to share with you the limitations of any procedure they use, and who is willing to admit when they are wrong. 

I don’t recommend that pet owners ask this series of questions when interviewing dog trainers.  Jean Donaldson has a much more practical set of questions for dog owners to ask potential trainers.  And I understand that from the trainers’ point of view, most clients are more interested in the fact that something works than the details of how. But my falsifiability question is in the spirit of Ms. Donaldson’s push for generalized transparency in the training industry. 

The graphic below shows some typical answers you might get when asking dog trainers, even within the positive reinforcement-based training community, how they would falsify their methods. Only one of the answers is acceptable.

Click on the graphic for a larger, readable version.



Eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper stated that the difference between pseudo-science and science is that pseudo-science seeks confirmations and science seeks falsifications. If this is true, then there is a lot of pseudo-science floating around in the dog training community. It is time to raise the bar??

What’s Next?

I have one or two more posts brewing on this subject. I want to discuss experimental design. Although our back yards are not the ideal places for controlled scientific experiments, we need to be able to assess whether the ways we train our dogs are working. We need to learn to be better observers. There are some criteria we can follow that will help make our assessments more accurate. 

I’d also like to discuss the kinds of claims made by trainers that are unfalsifiable. Whoo boy!

Are you with me so far? Have I explained sufficiently the importance of being able to prove a theory, a hypothesis, or belief to be wrong?

Thank you to Sorrel Robinson, Skye Anderson, “V,” and Hayl Bergeland for advice on the scientific method and falsifiability. Readers will see more of their input in Part 2, but they helped get me off to a good start here as well. All mistakes are my own and they aren’t responsible for anything I wrote here!

Addendum 4/29/17

Thank you to commenter “A” who pointed out a flaw in the diagram. In the green box, I didn’t actually give specific examples that would falsify tenets of the science of learning theory. I didn’t answer the question in the blue box (which was the whole point, not only of the diagram, but the whole post!). I have replaced the text in the green box and hope I did a better job. (Just when I start to “get” this falsification stuff, it slips away!) In case you are curious, here is a link to the previous version of the graphic, where I just gave general instructions on how to find evidence, rather than suggesting specifics that would falsify aspects of the science of learning. 

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Book Wins Maxwell Award


My book won!

I’m proud to announce that Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction has won a Maxwell Award for 2016. The Maxwells are awarded yearly by the Dog Writers Association of America.  My book won best book in 2016 in the category of Behavior, Health or General Care.

The winners in all categories were announced at a banquet in New York City on February 12. I didn’t get to go, but a friend texted me as soon as it happened. I’ve been on Cloud Nine!

I thank the Dog Writers Association of America for the recognition and honor of the Maxwell Award.


I’m running a celebration discount on the PDF version. The PDF is available on my Dog Dementia website, and I’ve marked it down from $12.95 to $9.99.

Click here or the “Add To Cart” button to buy the PDF.

Add to Cart

The PDF is designed for both pleasant online viewing and a nice print copy, so it’s like getting two versions in one. The print is large, at 14 points, and the photos are in color.  Here’s a sample page. The discount will run through midnight on March 21, 2017.

In addition, Amazon and Barnes and Noble seem to be having a price war. They have marked the paper book down from $15.99 to $11.48 and $11.36 respectively.

Book: Remember Me: Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive DysfunctionMy book is also available in Kindle, Apple iBook, Nook, and Google digital formats. You can buy 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 2017

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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!

Related Posts (Husbandry)

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.

Related Posts

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