IAABC Writing Mentorships With Eileen Anderson: 2019

I’m pleased to announce that I am offering writing mentorships for trainers and behavior professionals through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) again in 2019. The mentorships will enable professionals to improve their writing and better represent their businesses. Mentees who make the most of the course will leave the mentorship with documents they can immediately put to professional use.


The mentorships start on January 13, 2019. During the eight-week course, I will provide individual coaching to up to 15 mentees with writing projects of their choice. The projects may already be in progress or may be started during the mentorship. There will be print and video course materials and a weekly video conference. I will provide startup assignments and information on typical business documents for mentees who want help with writing but don’t know where to start.

There are also spots for auditors. They will audit in the academic sense. Auditors will be able to view all written discussions in the classroom between the mentor and mentees, will have full access to the supporting course materials, but will not take part in the videoconferences or submit their own projects.  

Read the official mentorship course description and register here. 

The link above will tell you “who, what, when, and where” about the mentorships. But here I’m going to tell you the “how and why.”  How will they work and what will it be like for participants? And why should you sign up?

How Will the Course Work?

The mentorships will take place in an online classroom. The classroom allows for several kinds of interaction. I’ll be posting videos and files. I’ll provide resource lists, cheat sheets, and sample assignments. Mentees will upload their individual projects so we can work on them together. Auditors and other mentees will view our discussions and the editing process. Mentees and auditors will be able to chat with each other. If time is available, I may answer auditors’ questions related to the mentees’ projects. The mentees and I will have weekly video conferences.

Documents we can work on include but are not limited to articles, blog posts, class handouts, behavior assessments, biographies and other marketing materials, announcements, press releases, grants, reports, and books. Fiction is welcome as well.

Prepared course materials will cover style sheets, time management, motivation, organization, voice and audience, writing tools, editing tools, search engine optimization, references and plagiarism, and collaboration.

What Do Writing Mentees Need To Know?

  1. I will not be grading anything. We’ll all push aside the “write-it-for-a-grade-and-hope-the-teacher-likes-it” paradigm. That’s not what this is about.
  2. I will be your hired coach. You can tell me the types of assistance and critique you want, or you can turn me loose and say, “Help!” We’ll figure out the best way to work together. My goal will be to help you improve your writing skills so you can turn out some great documents. My help won’t be painful or embarrassing.
  3. Our chat content will not be subject to critique. We will do a lot of communicating in a chat interface. Even though this is a writing mentorship, the spelling and grammar police are not invited to the chat conversations. Abbreviations, shortcuts, and other chat conventions will be fine. If we don’t understand something, we’ll ask. Nothing in the mentorship will be critiqued except the mentees’ projects, and then only by me unless a mentee requests feedback from others.

Why Professionals Need Coaching and Mentoring

Writers need coaches!

Top-level professional singers usually use vocal coaches for their entire professional careers. Professional athletes in individual sports such as tennis likewise retain personal coaches throughout their playing careers. Having an expert outside observer and teacher is essential. It allows professionals to get more information about their tasks and feedback on their skill sets. It prevents them from falling into idiosyncrasies. It gives that invaluable second pair of ears or eyes.

Coaching is a successful model for a writing mentorship. Calling on a mentor doesn’t mean you are helpless or unprofessional. It’s not about getting a grade. It doesn’t have to hurt your ego. It’s about getting an outside perspective and expert feedback.

Better writing will help you communicate better with your peers, provide clearer instructions to your clients, and present a more polished public appearance.

Register for the writing mentorship here.

A Note from a Participant

Eileen Anderson is the consummate writing coach and professional who can help weave your human voice into your emails, handouts, and website with all of the proper information including appropriately written science-based references.

Eileen is not only enthusiastic and encouraging, she is also in expert in the field that you are writing about. This class is a rare opportunity to be mentored and coached to keep the level of your written correspondence and materials on par with your knowledge-based expertise. — Benita Raphan

Writing Samples

You can read my bio on the mentorship page linked above, but I’m also providing some writing samples here. Since my voice in the blog is casual, I’ve included some documents that demonstrate more formal styles.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training

I always flinch a little when people start to discuss dogs’ emotions. What’s coming? Relevant, evidence-based observations or woo? I’ve removed some words from my own vocabulary when talking about dogs because of this. Even though my relationships with my dogs are primary and important, I hesitate to talk about “bonds” or “trust” anymore.  It sounds so…I don’t know…West Coast. (I can say that because I’m from California.)

I believe that the people who are out there focusing on magical energy and bonds and leadership and trust and all those other things we can’t describe concretely Continue reading

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1:1 Pairings: The Science Behind Clicking and Treating

A guest post by Eduardo Fernandez,  first published in 2001 in the now out-of-print American Animal Trainer Magazine as “Click or Treat: A Trick or Two in the Zoo.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A recent discussion on an Association of Zoos and Aquariums listserv, (specifically their ‘training’ list) caught my eye and my key­strokes, and one that has apparently be­come a commonplace discussion among many bridge trainers. The discussion emerged as a simple inquiry by another list member on whether it was appropriate to use a bridge without being followed by a “treat”, (whether food or some other backup reinforcer). I quickly answered that anything less than a 1:1 pairing would weaken the reinforcing value of the bridge, and put the subject to rest. But a strange thing hap­pened. As I continued to read the posts on this listserv, many other list members took the exact opposite stance: that it was ok to ‘click’ and not treat, and that such ‘click or treating’ may even strengthen the bridge. Astounded by the ensuing discussions and arguments, I decided to gather up the data and attempt a thorough review of what was the appropriate way to go about this busi­ness of clicks with or without a treat. The following is the result.

Operants and Respondents: Behavior’s Double Helix

Important to understanding any behavioral process, especially those entailed in bridge training methods, are the dual roles that both respondent and operant conditioning methods share. Many behaviorists recognize the importance of both pro­cesses on behavior, and many more recog­nize the practical impossibility of stating any set of responses as only respondent or operant behavior. Our training methods, whether one uses a bridge or not, are no different. For the sake of this article, however, I’ll focus on the use of a bridge, (specifically a clicker, although any bridge could fit the equation), and the dual processes involved.

As those of us who use bridges know, one must first pair the sound of the clicker with some reinforcer for it to function as a condi­tioned reinforcer, (a process referred to as “magazine training” in the laboratory). This is best understood, however, through the pro­cess of respondent condi­tioning. Just as Pavlov conditioned the tone of a bell with food to elicit a condi­tioned response, so do we initially pair the sound of a clicker as a conditioned stimulus (CS) with some unconditioned stimulus (US), generally food.

The continual pairings during our training programs between the sound of the clicker and food should also be understood through the process of respondent condi­tioning. Even though we are now also using the clicks as conditioned reinforcers (CR’s), the respondent conditioning process is still at work.

Pavlov’s work reveals two crucial discoveries relevant to bridge training: the temporal distance be­tween the presentation of a US and the CS and the occurrence or nonoccurrence of a US following a CS, (Pavlov, 1928). Pavlov found that the distance between the presentation of the US following a CS important. The further in time the two were presented, the weaker the effects of the CS. Also, Pavlov found that each presentation of a CS without the following US weakened the effects of the CS.

Extinction and Ineffective CR’S

Later researchers also examined the importance of the CS-US pairings and their temporal distance, as well as the conditioned reinforcer effects based on such pair­ings. The Rescorla-Wagner model (Rescorla & Wagner, 1972) gives us such an extinction curve, where one can graphically demonstrate the weakening of a CS over time when not paired with a US.

Other researchers examined the reinforcing effects of a CR based on its previous pairings with a primary reinforcer/US. Again, the results were as Pavlov had demonstrated almost a century ago, the longer the temporal delay between the CS and US, the weaker the CS’ s effects were (Fantino, 1977). But what of the actual rein­forcing effects of a CS? Does a weak CS necessarily mean a weak CR? Egger and Miller (1962) examined this aspect itself. They conditioned rats by pairing two different stimuli (SI and S2) with food on two different sched­ules. One stimulus (S1) was always followed by a US (a 1:1 CS-US or click-treat pairing). The other stimulus (S2) was occasionally not followed by a US, and there­fore not a 1:1 pairing. They then examined the condi­tioned reinforcing effects of each stimulus on lever pressing. The stimulus that was occasionally presented by itself, (S2, or the non-1:1 pairing) did not become an effective reinforcer, while the other stimulus (S1, or the 1:1 pairing) did. Although this study was conducted to examine the ability of a stimulus to provide informa­tion about the delivery of primary reinforcement (its ability to function as a ‘marker’), its point, along with the other presented data, should still be taken. Anything less than a 1:1 click-treat relation will produce a weaker CR than the direct 1:1 relation, at best.

Beyond the Data

Now that we’ve examined the data-driven story, what about the argu­ments against using the 1:1 click-treat pairing? Here are a few comments, concerns, and arguments often leveled at the idea.

What about VRs?

As Skinner himself demonstrated, variable ratio schedules of reinforcement (VR) are highly effective, and often more effective than fixed ratio schedules (FR), (Skinner, 1938). How­ever, clicking each response but not delivering food after each click is NOT a VR schedule. You are still pre­senting a reinforcer for each occurrence of the response, regardless of whether it’s a CR or primary one. What you are doing, however, is weak­ening the CR’ s reinforcing effects, since you are now not pairing each click with food. This is still a continu­ous schedule of reinforce­ment (CRF). The only way this becomes a VR schedule is if the clicks were no longer functioning as reinforcers, at which point the clicks would then be meaningless. To effectively intermittently reinforce responses on a VR schedule or other, you would need to allow more than one response to occur, then click, and finally “treat” after each click.

The Occasional Click or Treat

The respondent conditioning processes described above are not only relevant to the initial pairings of the clicks with “treats”; they are an ongoing process. Al­though an extensive history of click-treat pairings will strengthen the CR effects of your clicks, this in no way renders your clicker invin­cible. At any point during your training, extinction of a response based on a lack of click-treat pairings is a threat. Each click that is not followed with a “treat” undergoes this process, regardless. It may be mini­mal, but you’ve still weak­ened your bridge.

Too Much Food!

I’ve heard a few trainers comment that it’s just not possible to give as many “treats” as they do clicks. The argument is simple; “I can’t give the animal THAT much food!” Fortunately, the answer is just as simple, “Then don’t.” I use “treats” in quotes for a reason. Treats do not neces­sarily mean food. They simply refer to any stimulus that functions as a reinforcer for an organism, whether a primary or secondary one. This can include pets, hugs, ice cubes, play time, ball chases, escape from “work”, etc. Pairing a number of reinforcers with your bridge is not only an option, it’s ideal. While a click paired with one reinforcer is simply a conditioned reinforcer, a click paired with numerous reinforcers now becomes a generalized conditioned reinforcer. Generalized conditioned reinforcers are more resistant to both satiation and extinction. The only thing to remember is that any item paired with the clicks should in fact be a reinforcer in and of itself.

Chain Them Up

Many trainers use chained schedules of rein­forcement. Some trainers also insist that they are simply using the bridge as a ‘marker’ for some responses and a conditioned reinforcer for others. For example, you click without “treating” for a dog running through a tunnel (1st response), use the same clicking sound without a “treat” for running up a ladder (2nd response), and finally use the same click again with a “treat” for heeling on a stand (3rd and terminal response). However, you’re still clicking without treating, and the animals you’re training may not be as unforgiving as you ex­pect.

There is an important distinction between a chain schedule of reinforcement where different stimuli are used as discriminative stimuli SD/CRs for each response, and a tandem schedule where the same SD/CR is used. Although tandem schedules are often used to explain light stimuli that do not change, using the same click for different responses in a chain without treating is generally the functional equivalent.

The distinction may seem complicated, but the previous example illustrates the difference. In the original instance, where the dog received the same click with or without food for each response, the trainer is using a tandem schedule. How­ever, if the trainer were to use a different marker or bridge for the two previous responses, and only used a bridge followed by a “treat” for the terminal response, he/she would be using a chain schedule.

For those who insist on using markers, the solu­tion is again simple. Use different stimuli as markers. By doing so, you’ve more accurately established a chain schedule. The marking stimuli do not have to be paired directly with a rein­forcer, and you can now save your click followed by the treat for the terminal re­sponse. However, whether using markers is more or less beneficial than not using trainer-specified SD’s/CR’s for non-terminal responses is yet to be proven. The termination of a response, (e.g., the dog making it to the end of the tunnel) will function as a CR for that response, as well a SD for the next response, without additional bridges or mark­ers. No specific conclusions can be made about the benefits or lack thereof of using trainer-specified mark­ers until such empirical applied research has been conducted.

Ivory Tower Blues

A possible argument against any empirical sup­port for using a 1:1 click-treat pairing method is that it’s strictly laboratory-based. Such arguments have been leveled against scientific communities on occasion, especially those within the behavioral sciences. Any such data are claimed to be too “basic”, and therefore not relevant to applied fields.

A valid aspect of this argument is that for animal training, the applied arena is drastically different than the lab. The ani­mals we work with are distantly related to rats and pigeons, the behaviors we train are drastically different than lever presses and key pecks, and I have yet to see an animal trainer train in a setting that even slightly resembles a Skinner box. Our applied arena is different, and one that needs its own applied research. Animal training can lead to discovery too, and new phenomena not covered by the basic research are bound to occur.

However, little can be justifiably argued from this stance on this particular issue. Click-treat pairings are directly based upon concepts discovered from these same or similar basic laboratories. Also, all data that I know of to date is in support of the 1:1 click-treat-pairing method. Although further applied research on this issue would be beneficial (as is generally the case in any science), there is no evidence at present that I am aware of to support the concept of a non-1:1 bridge pairing being as effective as a 1:1 pairing.

Good Enough

Which vehicle would you prefer for a drive in dangerous conditions?  Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Even with all this said, many have stated that a weaker bridge is still “good enough”. One does not necessarily need the world’s most potent reinforcer for a specific response to effectively train. Even with a considerably weaker bridge, one might get the desired target responses they want.

Still, this is a dangerous place for any trainer to base decisions upon, let alone any endeavor you choose to engage in. Imagine yourself forced to drive in the mountains in a blizzard. Now imagine being given the choice of driving a 4×4 Chevy or a Pinto. The Pinto might be “good enough” to get you up or down the mountain, but the Chevy is prob­ably a much safer bet! You shouldn’t treat your clicking much differently especially considering how comparably equal the two methods are in terms of time, effort, and money.

Training Beyond Hallows Eve

The choices we have for how to train may seem endless, but a few questions beg simple solutions. I believe this area is just that: one with a simple solution. Allow me to simplify this for you if the point hasn’t hit home yet; anything less than a 1:1 click-treat pairing will weaken your bridge. It’s that simple.

Although science creates no hard and fast rules, Pavlov, Skinner, and their colleagues have stood the test of time on this topic for nearly a century now. When it comes to pairing a “treat” with a bridge, always follow the bridge as immediately as possible with a “treat”. Eventually, our own applied research will bridge the gaps be­tween basic research and applied phenom­ena. Until that time, we should let the basic research guide our behavior, and keep an eye out for areas that might demand such future research.

We all know that training methods are, for the most part, based on simple behavioral principles. We also know that regardless of that fact, training can become infinitely complicated. Therefore, if you need no other excuse, stick with the simple plan. Parsimony is next to godliness in the sci­ences, and little else gets simpler than “do x after y“, a.k.a. 1:1.


Egger, M.D., and Miller, N.E. (1962). Second­ary reinforcement in rats as a function of information value and reliability of the stimulus. Journal of Experimental Psychol­ogy, 64, 97-104.
Fantino, E. (1977). Conditioned reinforce­ment: Choice and information. In W.K. Honig & J.E.R. Staddon (Eds.), Handbook of oper­ant behavior (pp. 313-339). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
Pavlov, I.P. (1928). Lectures on conditioned reflexes. New York: International Publishers.
Rescorla, R.A., and Wagner, A.R. (1972). A theory of Pavlovian conditioning: Variations in the effectiveness of reinforcement and nonreinforcement. In A.H. Black & W.F. Prokasy (Eds.), Classical conditioning II: Current research and theory (pp.64-69). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Skinner, B.F. (1938). The behavior of organ­isms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Many thanks to Eduardo Fernandez for letting me republish this important article. You can see more of Dr. Fernandez’ work on his ResearchGate page. He also runs a FaceBook group: Animal Reinforcement Forum.

Copyright 2001 Eduardo Fernandez

Photo Credits

Gorilla photo credit Tomáš Petřík via Wikimedia Commons.

Ford Pinto photo credit dave_7 via Wikimedia Commons.

Chevrolet Colorado 4×4 photo credit Kobak via Wikimedia Commons.

Clicker photo copyright Eileen Anderson.


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Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?

Black dog with tail held high

Zani’s tail is up, and you’ll see in the video below that it is wagging. Does she look friendly and happy?

Why do dogs wag their tails? The prevailing view is that they do so when they feel happy and friendly. Many do, but dogs also wag their tails in other situations. So the answer to the title question is no. Dogs wagging their tails are not always expressing friendliness or joy. Not by a long shot.

Many dogs will wag their tails from arousal or when performing predatory behaviors. Some will wag when they are getting ready to aggress. My dog Clara has a particular wag when she is anxious. When observing a dog wagging its tail, we need to look at the rest of the body language to determine what’s going on. Some things to look at are:

  • how the dog is moving and in what direction;
  • whether its movements are stiff or relaxed;
  • whether its mouth is tight or relaxed; and
  • whether the dog is looking directly at something (including you!).

An important factor is the carriage of the tail. How high is the tail? (See section below on breed differences.) Other important factors are whether the tail is wagging fast or slow and whether it is stiff or loose. These things can mean the difference between an eager greeting and an oncoming attack. We can never assume that a wagging tail means a dog is friendly.

The Direction of the Wag

There is scientific research that has found a correlation between the direction of a dog’s tail wag with its emotional state. It was found that the tail wagged predominantly to the right when the dog was responding to something it might want to approach, such as its owner. The tail wagged more to the left in response to something the dog would want to avoid. When you look at the video below, can you identify a sidedness to Zani’s tail wagging? Does it correlate with what we find at the end?

This research verifies what we can already see: dogs don’t wag their tails only to express happiness. They also wag their tails during general arousal, aggression, and other emotional states.

Tail Carriage

I haven’t found any research on the height of the tail when wagging, but experienced dog trainers learn to pay attention to that. In general terms, low and loose wags are usually friendlier than wags with the tail held high and stiff.

I think it’s hard to do research about that, though, because of big differences in “normal” tail carriage between breeds, not to mention between individual dogs.

Many northern breeds, like this Shiba Inu, have a naturally high tail carriage. Their tails are built that way.

Light brown shiba inu dog with tail curled up over its back (normal carriage)

Shiba Inu courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rhodesian Ridgeback with tail hanging straight down

Rounder is feeling good but his tail is hanging straight down

On the other hand, some hound breeds have naturally low hanging or even tucked tails. Rounder the Rhodesian Ridgeback is in a good mood in this photo, but his tail is hanging straight down. You can find extreme examples of this in whippets and greyhounds, who often tuck their tails between their legs when standing. This tail carriage could mean “I am miserable or afraid” in many other dogs. For the whippet, it’s often just business as usual.

Summer is expressing predatory aggression in her stance, the set of her mouth, and the curl of her tail

My mixed breed dog Summer probably had some northern breeds in the mix. She held her tail at different heights depending on her mood and activities. She wasn’t all that waggy, but she had a beautiful, low, wide wag when she saw someone she loved. When her tail was tightly curled up over her back it always meant she was aroused, often predatory. In this photo, she was watching a cat on the other side of our fence.

Note the stiffness of her body, the slight lean forward, the set of her mouth, and the piloerection (hackling) around her shoulders.

Why Is This Dog Wagging Her Tail?

The video shows my dog Zani in my friend’s yard. The video shows a few seconds of her behavior. Her tail is wagging the whole time. It first plays with the sound off, so you can concentrate on her body language. Then it plays again with sound. Then finally you see the reason for her behavior. Is she wagging because she is friendly?

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

What Other Body Language Accompanies Zani’s Wagging Tail?

Watch the way Zani moves. Is she moving toward something, away from something, or both? Is she eagerly approaching something? Is she looking at something, listening to something? Look at the fur down the center of her back. Look at the set of her mouth.

You’ll have to watch the movie to see what Zani was responding to, and hear my own final conclusion of what was going on for her. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet: the whole sequence is adorable. Enjoy!

Related Pages and Posts

Photo Credits

Shiba Inu: Takashiba via Wikimedia Commons
Rounder the Ridgeback: Marge Rogers
All others: Eileen Anderson


Quaranta, A., Siniscalchi, M., & Vallortigara, G. (2007). Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli. Current Biology17(6), R199-R201.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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The “Invention” of Cues in Training

Hat made out of folded newspaper stars in the invention of cues

Can this hat be a cue?

Once upon a time, there was a girl who decided to teach her dog some tricks. She figured out that if she gave her dog something he liked after he did something she liked, he was liable to do the thing again. So she taught him some simple tricks using food and play as reinforcement.

As she went along, her dog started finding playing training games lots of fun in and of themselves. But she still used food and play. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him. She didn’t see any reason to stop.

This girl was unusual in that she didn’t try to tell her dog what to do in words. She realized what is not obvious to so many of us: he didn’t speak English. Things worked out just fine because he could generally discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

sable colored dog has her front feet on an inverted yellow plastic basin, preparing to spin her rear end aroundShe used a little platform to teach him to pivot in a circle. He would put his front feet on the platform and walk around with his back feet and rotate. He got good at this and soon could spin in both directions. As soon as he saw the platform he would run over to it and start to pivot, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

One day she decided she’d like to teach him a different trick using the little platform. She wanted him to sit on it. She got out the platform and he ran over and immediately started spinning. She smiled and signaled for him to stop and he did.

Using hand targeting, she got him up on the platform with all four feet within a few minutes. It was easy from there to get him to sit. He earned plenty of cookies during this learning process.

The next time they played training games with the platform, he pivoted at first. But she gestured that she wanted him to get up on it and sit, and soon he did. Each time they trained, he spun less and sat sooner, until one day he ran in and sat on the platform. She told him how smart he was and gave him a cookie.

Over the next couple of weeks, she had him do lots of things on top of the platform and didn’t ask him to spin. Now he would always run to the platform and sit on it to start.

Then she asked him to start pivoting again. They worked on both things equally. After a little awkwardness at the beginning of the session, he would figure out what she wanted.

One day she got ready to train and put the platform out. Her dog ran in and then stood stock still next to the platform and looked straight at her. He seemed to be asking, “What are we going to do today?” She realized it would be nice for him if he knew which thing she wanted him to do that day, rather than always having to figure it out by trial and error.

She thought about it and realized she could create some way to let him know which set of tricks she wanted to work on. She made herself a big hat out of newspaper. From then on, every time she wanted him to get all the way on the platform, she wore the paper hat. When she wanted to work on spinning and pivots, she didn’t wear the hat.

It took only a few sessions for him to catch on. Thereafter he would immediately offer the right starting behavior depending on whether she was wearing the hat or not.

Question: What did the girl create with the hat?

Answer: A cue.

Question: Did she really “invent” cues?

Answer: No. She discovered them on her own and put them to use. See below.

Bonus question: Looking at the photos of Summer and Zani above, what might be a contextual cue that I want my dog to sit rather than pivot?

Some Things to Know About Cues

OK, I’m a little obsessed with cues. But I would really like to share my (admittedly limited) understanding with those who are newer at this than I am.

  • First, all sorts of things can be cues. If you don’t create a deliberate, explicit cue, dogs will usually figure out what you want from other indicators. These can come from the environment or your actions. And they usually figure that out early, so even before you think you have a cue—you have one. Before the girl started using the paper hat, there were still lots of cues for the dog. But they were fluid and not systematically organized. 
  • You might not even know what a dog’s cue actually is! Lots of times when we think the dog understands a verbal cue, they are heeding something else. Try this: put your dog in front of her crate (if you use one), point, and say, “Purple cow!” Some other time, get your dog in front of the crate, don’t point, but just look at it, and say, “Daddy long legs!” Dogs notice contextual cues brilliantly, and most will get into the crate in this situation. Everything else about you is saying: “Get in the crate” even if your words are different. If you had taught your dog to heed the cue over your body language and had complete stimulus control over it, the “proper” response would be for the dog to stand and look at you. He should wait for further instructions if you give a verbal cue he doesn’t recognize. But many people don’t work that hard on verbals for crate or mat behaviors. So dogs who are conditioned to like their crates will leap in at the slightest hint that that might be reinforceable right now.
  • Conversely, think of a situation in which you always ask your dog to sit (with or without a verbal cue). Get them in that situation and give your verbal cue for down, stand, or another behavior and see what happens. If you have worked hard with your dog on the distinction between your verbal cues, your dog might do fine. But many will have a bit of a hard time. There is a strong likelihood that they will sit no matter what you say. (Dogs from breeds that have been selectively bred to work with humans do seem to have an easier time learning verbal cues. Gun dogs and herding dogs come to mind.)
  • Finally, cues in training or the real world don’t have to be words or gestures. The “Open” sign that stays lit up all day in a store window is a cue that says that going into the store will be reinforced by the ability to shop for a while. When you’re at a club, the music going on is a duration cue for people to dance. Most people stop when the music goes off. You don’t have to, but it’s more fun (reinforcing) to dance while the music is on. So a paper hat worn continuously can be a cue that a certain type of training is going to happen and a certain family of behaviors will likely be reinforced.

Here is Summer in a situation where contextual cues and the matching law conspired to make her fail to respond correctly to a verbal cue. 

Link to the video for email subscribers.

The contextual cue was the mat. All Summer had to do was feel a mat under her feet and she would lie down. It was that automatic. At my house, if a dog lies down on a mat, reinforcement is very likely to follow. And the matching law says that behaviors with big reinforcement histories are more likely to be performed than behaviors with scanty reinforcement histories. And Summer had hundreds, even thousands of past reinforcers for lying on the mat. Even after she learned to sit from a down on the mat, she still responded incorrectly part of the time. She had a long-standing habit to break.

Having clear cues is a way to be fair to your dog. Remember, a cue is an indication that a certain behavior, set of behaviors, or behavior chain, is likely to be reinforced. Having unclear ones defeats the purpose. Help your dog by being clear about cues!

Related Posts

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014. Originally published 05/09/2014 as “The Girl with the Paper Hat.”

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Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?

This article was first published by Clean Run – The Magazine for Dog Agility Enthusiasts, in August 2017. I changed the title after publication in this version. Please see the note about that at the end of the article.

Three dogs looking through a fence. Continuously reinforcement. A recall trained via variable reinforcement probably won't get their attention.

If I’ve trained recall on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, how likely are my dogs to come away from the fascinating distraction behind the fence?


But do I have to carry around treats or toys forever?

This is a common question from trainers who are new to positive reinforcement techniques. And most of us have heard the following typical answer.

No, you’ll be able to wean the dogs off the treats. You do it like this.

When you first train a new behavior, reinforce the dog every single time she performs it. When she responds consistently to the cue, start reinforcing every other time she performs it. Then do it every third time, et cetera.

When she has learned that she might not get something every time she performs the behavior, randomize the reinforcement. You will reinforce on average every third or fourth time your dog performs the behavior. But avoid staying in a pattern she’ll figure out. This is called a variable ratio reinforcement schedule and it makes behavior resistant to extinction. You can also work in some life rewards.

Unfortunately, the “let’s thin out the reinforcement” plan is based on experimental practices that are hard to duplicate outside the lab. Vital bits of instruction are usually left out when the practice is suggested. And the results of the “thin it out” plan with performance dogs can be dire. For years we were encouraged to thin, thin, thin the reinforcement until it was time to perform in the ring. Then our dogs often performed with no reinforcement from us at all. Or they didn’t perform. Remember when lots of breeds were considered “untrainable”?

Times are changing, and the great trainers are showing us how to develop secondary reinforcers to help transform the ring into a fun place rather than a joyless or scary one. In the agility world, we have the advantage that many of the activities are already fun for our dogs. On top of that, we can easily associate them with good stuff. Even in competition, we can have a cooler with great treats at a seating area close to the ring. If our dogs like to tug, we can bring a reinforcer right into the ring in the form of a well-chosen leash.

Clara thinks training is fun, and that I’m fun too.

But the best thing we can bring into the ring with our dogs is our own self. If we have used rich schedules of reinforcement for daily behaviors as well as agility behaviors, we have likely built a bond with our dog and a beautiful classical association to the activities we do together.

Rather than “thinning out the food” we should consider maintaining the food and adding every other reinforcer we can think of. I aim for a continuous reinforcement schedule for the majority of behaviors I ask of my dogs. Because in the real world, thinning a reinforcement schedule does not have the same effects that it has in the lab. It’s almost impossible to bring along the controlled conditions that yield the desired result.

The problems with using intermittent reinforcement schedules in the real world fall into three areas. A problem in any area can be enough to punch holes in the expected benefits. First, “resistance to extinction” is not the best measure of behavior when our goal is to get enthusiastic, consistent responses exactly when we want them. Second, even if resistance to extinction were our goal, it’s difficult for humans to perform the necessary randomized schedules. Third, in the real world, there are many alternative sources of reinforcement (we call them distractions). That means even when done correctly, the possible value of an intermittent reinforcement schedule can be demolished by something called the Matching Law.

Intermittent Reinforcement and Extinction Trials

Much of the information we have on the effects of variable ratio reinforcement schedules comes from lab experiments called extinction trials (Mowrer & Jones, 1945). An animal confined in a small area is trained to perform a behavior. A monkey may press a lever, a pigeon may peck a disk, or a rat may run down a chute to jump on a platform at the end. The animal performs the behavior repeatedly, and the behavior is reinforced each time. After these reinforced repetitions, the reinforcement schedule is thinned according to a preplanned formula. Reinforcement is gradually reduced, and in some experiments taken down to zero. The pattern of the animal’s response is recorded under these conditions of reduced reinforcement.

It’s true that many studies have shown that a variable ratio reinforcement schedule is comparably more resistant to extinction. (Although it’s important to note that not all studies have shown that. Recent studies have shown that richer reinforcement schedules can lead to better resistance to extinction, a phenomenon called “behavioral momentum” (Nevin, Mandell, & Atak, 1983).)

When a behavior is resistant to extinction, an animal will keep performing it as reinforcement becomes sporadic. But there is no guarantee that the behavior will happen when we want it. A behavior that is resistant to extinction is only more likely to be performed after decreased reinforcement. Also, just because a behavior is resistant to extinction doesn’t mean that it will be performed eagerly, enthusiastically, or with low latency. These are all qualities we value and need in our dogs’ behavior.

Finally, many extinction trials are performed in what is called a “free operant” setup. In this setup, there is a signal to the animal that reinforcement may be available for a certain behavior the animal has already learned. The signal stays on for a period and the animal is free to perform the behavior multiple times. The performances of the behavior are reinforced or not, according to the schedule. But counting free operant responses yields data that have little relevance to most of our training situations. Real world training usually incorporates what are called “discrete trials.” That is, we give one cue and we need the dog to perform a behavior right then. If instead, the dog waits 90 seconds and then performs it three times, those would count as “responses” in a free operant trial. In the lab, they would count towards “resistance to extinction.” But in real life, they wouldn’t help us at all (if we happened to wait long enough to find out about them).

Random Schedules

In order to attempt to get the resistance to extinction that can be tied to variable ratio reinforcement schedules, we need to follow a precise plan.

First, we need to train the behavior to fluency. Behavioral fluency is defined as a combination of accuracy plus speed of responding (Binder, 1996). Fluency is a much bigger challenge in the real world than in the lab because we need our dogs to be able to respond in so many different situations. There’s a lot of generalization work to do before we can reduce the schedule. And our dog might never achieve the fluency that an animal alone in a Skinner box could.

Second, after the behavior is fluent and generalized, we need to change the schedule gradually. That’s one thing the science is in agreement on. For instance, if we changed from continuous reinforcement directly to a schedule where the dog was reinforced every eighth time on average, the dog would likely give up rather than transitioning to the new schedule (Schwartz, 2002, p. 219). Resistance to extinction only occurs if the thinning of the schedule is gradual.

And consider what withholding reinforcement means to the dog. When teaching a new behavior, we withhold reinforcement when the dog responds incorrectly. But when we switch to an intermittent schedule, we will withhold reinforcement when the dog responds correctly. We need a plan for explaining the new rules to the dog. Removal of reinforcement is a known cause of frustration and even aggression in animals.

Finally, we need a method to compute and track the schedule. It must average the right number of reinforcements and must be random.

Randomizing is hard for humans. Let’s say we’ve decided that our goal is to reinforce the dog for one out of every four sits, that is, 25% of the time. But it has to be random. So if the dog is going to sit 20 times, we will plan to reinforce five of them, but we can’t do it in a pattern.

If we try to wing it, we’ll likely become predictable. That’s what humans do. We may reinforce more often in the kitchen than in the den, or more often when the dog looks at us a certain way. Or we’ll reinforce when the dog sits in a more difficult situation and consistently skip it during the easier times. And the dog will learn the pattern, because that’s what dogs do. So in those situations where we tend not to reinforce, they will tend not to respond.

How would we address this problem? By preparing beforehand. We can use a random number generator or do it by hand. For example, we could plan ahead to reinforce sits #3, #9, #10, #15, and #18 of the dog’s first 20 sits of the day.

Word cloud of words associated with variable schedule

After we’ve memorized the sit numbers, what about the times we ask the dog for eye contact or to get on a mat? We will need a plan for those, too. Good luck with memorizing all that.

This is no joke. The data about the effects of intermittent reinforcement come from precisely computed schedules. If we are going to try to use variable ratio reinforcement, we need to use the methods that make it work.

The Matching Law

There is one law of learning that tends to overpower most others when training in real life, and that is the Matching Law (Herrnstein, 1961). The Matching Law deals with concurrent schedules of reinforcement, where more than one reinforcer is available at a given time. The Matching Law says that a behavior will be performed with a frequency that correlates mathematically to the rate of reinforcement. So the more one is likely to gain reinforcement from a behavior, the more one is likely to perform it.

When we walk out the front door with our dogs, or even out of the training room, the Matching Law hits us square in the face. Look at all those competing reinforcers! Why wouldn’t a dog want to sample all of them? We live in a Matching Law world and all creatures have evolved to take advantage of resources when they are available. It is natural to switch between reinforcers when given the opportunity.

Digging for a turtle: priceless!

This is the biggest problem of all. Our carefully crafted, randomized schedule of reinforcement is in direct competition with richer schedules. Many of the distractions around us are reinforcing every time the dog gains access to them. Popular lampposts don’t pay off with good pee-mail every third or fifth time the dog goes to sniff them. It’s a good bet that they will pay off every single time. Then there are birds. Squirrels. Cats. Other humans. Other dogs.

The Matching Law research approximates real-world conditions better than most lab studies. And the data are consistent. Activities that offer richer reinforcement schedules win.

Slot Machines or Vending Machines?

When discussing variable ratio reinforcement, people often present the idea of a slot machine. They talk about the excitement for the player of wondering if this is the time she will get a payout. They theorize about the excitement and persistence the parallel situation could invoke in their dogs.

But the slot machine model has a problem. Let’s say you are gambling on a slot machine that makes payouts up to $100. The most common payouts are $5 and $10. As you are gambling, someone regularly strolls through the casino, taps you on the shoulder, and hands you a $100 bill. Do you stop and accept the free money, or do you turn away and concentrate on your lever? Of course you take the money! Your machine will still be there after you pocket the cash. (Although you may decide to follow around the money guy instead!)

We are walking around in a world full of free $100 bills for our dogs. Being a slot machine putting out random $5’s and $10’s on a thin schedule is not good protection against them.

Instead, if we are rich and consistent providers of a variety of reinforcement for our dogs: food, play, fun, and social companionship, we have a better chance against those tempting $100 bills.

The agility ring environment is a controlled one. Yes, there are plenty of loose $100 bills in there, but we can proof for many of them. And if we have made agility a source of invigorating, partnering fun for our dogs, we can drive it up towards the $1,000 range.

Agility: Also priceless!

All in all, I’d rather be the much-maligned vending machine. I do plan to carry around the treats forever. I want to be a consistent source of fun and goodies for my dogs. I want to provide as close to continuous reinforcement for the things I ask them to do as I can.

Real life will teach them that occasional brief dry spells of one type of reinforcement are not the end of the world. My goal is not to get the most behavior out of them for the cheapest payout on my part. My goal is for them to have fun, enriching lives and fit into our human world with the most ease possible. Being generous with all sorts of reinforcers works beautifully for agility and daily life.

Addendum 9/21/18: Thank you to Jakub Beran and Eduardo Fernandez for pointing out that my inclusion of the phrase “variable reinforcement” in the title and article was problematic. Although that is generally what people say when they discuss this issue, there is no such thing. And that’s actually part of the problem. There are variable ratio schedules of reinforcement, variable interval schedules of reinforcement, and more. But there is no such thing as a variable reinforcement schedule. A better general term for non-continuous reinforcement schedules is “intermittent reinforcement.” For more information on schedules, check out my article on the matching law linked below.


Binder, C. (1996). Behavioral fluency: Evolution of a new paradigm. The Behavior Analyst, 19(2), 163-197.

Herrnstein, R. J. (1961). Relative and absolute strength of response as a function of frequency of reinforcement. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 4(3), 267-272.

Mowrer, O. H., & Jones, H. (1945). Habit strength as a function of the pattern of reinforcement. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 35(4), 293-311.

Nevin, J. A., Mandell, C., & Atak, J. R. (1983). The analysis of behavioral momentum. Journal of the Experimental analysis of behavior, 39(1), 49-59.

Schwartz, B. (2002). Psychology of learning and behavior, fifth edition. WW Norton & Co.

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson 

Related Post

Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Reinforcement Schedules


This article was first published by Clean Run – The Magazine for Dog Agility Enthusiasts, in August 2017. Thank you to Clean Run for publishing it, and for allowing me to republish.

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Scared Dog vs. Happy and Engaged Dog

Black dog with brown ears, shot from the back. Ears express alert dog body language

Here’s a little dog body language study.

My dear Zani shows a lot of emotion, which means she is a good dog to observe. She is pretty easy to read and can teach us a lot.

The short video below consists of two quick clips taken less than two minutes apart. In one clip, Zani is afraid, and in the other she is having a good time.

I reversed the order in the video from what happened in real life. We had been on a walk and things were going fine. But a neighbor drove up and backed their car into their driveway. We had to stop and wait, and she started staring at the car like it was a monster. She has never been scared of cars before, but she was then. I don’t know why. There may have been another factor. Anyway, I took the “scared” video immediately after we saw the car. The “happy and engaged” video was from a minute or two before the car came by. I had just filmed her to show a friend what a good time she was having on her walk. Darn.

Body Language Aspects to Observe

Here are some things you can compare between the two clips

  • Head carriage
  • Ear carriage
  • Tail carriage
  • The shape of her back and spine
  • Gait and speed
  • What she is paying attention to

Link to the video for email subscribers.


Her gait and head carriage are a bit abnormal because of her previous spinal cord injury. You can actually see the abnormality more in the “happy” clip.

I have her leash attached to a collar rather than a harness for a combination of reasons I won’t get into here. It’s our best choice for now. I make it my job, not her job, to be sure the leash never gets tight.

The terms “engaged” and “engagement” are often used to mean that a dog is focused on and partnering with her trainer. But in the part of the video where Zani is feeling good, she is engaging with the environment. That’s OK with me. She has been deprived of a lot of outdoor enrichment since her accident. My goals when I take her on a walk these days are to let her smell and otherwise interact with the environment, and to keep her from getting scared. I do reinforce check-ins. Why not have the option of some nice food on a walk as well!

Finally, although she was definitely scared, her response was about a 4 out of 10 on the Zani fear scale. Thank goodness we don’t see those higher numbers often anymore. In this situation, she could still respond to me and move, and willingly walked home with me. She wasn’t trembling. When she gets more severely afraid, she generally trembles and freezes.  For comparison, here’s a photo that’s 9/10 on the fear scale.

black and tan dog showing fearful dog body language

And because I don’t want to end the post with that photo, here’s a cute one of her in the yard.

Small black and tan dog lying in the grass

How does her body language look there?

Feel free to post your observations of the video or any of the photos in the comments.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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Corrections Are Punishment (If They Work)

Correction is a term used in certain segments of the dog training world. It commonly applies to jerking the dog’s leash (also called a “leash correction). Sometimes “correction” refers to other physical things people might do to a dog.

Trainers who use corrections do such things when a dog is performing an undesirable behavior. For example, they will perform a “leash correction” when a dog is pulling on the leash, is in the wrong position, or is not focused on the handler. The magnitude of a leash correction can range from a twitch of the leash to jerking hard enough to lift the dog partially off the ground or knock him off balance.

stuffed dog wearing prong collar getting leash corrections

Feisty receiving a leash correction

Corrections are intended to decrease an undesirable behavior. You never hear anyone say, “My dog was doing a gorgeous job of heeling so I gave him a correction.” You won’t hear “My dog behaved perfectly when the guests were here so I gave her a correction.”

You might hear a trainer say they gave a correction “to get the dog’s attention.” That implies the dog was not paying attention. The trainer wants to decrease sniffing, pulling, fixating on squirrels, or whatever the dog was doing instead of paying attention.


In behavior science, what do we call a learning process in which a behavior decreases? Punishment.

There are two types of punishment. One is the removal of something appetitive (desirable), as a consequence of a behavior. An example would be holding out a treat near the dog while he is supposed to be maintaining a position. If the dog moved out of position to get it, the handler would pull the treat back out of the dog’s reach. This would constitute punishment if the behavior of moving out of position decreased in the future.

The other type of punishment is the addition of an aversive stimulus as a consequence of  the dog’s behavior.  An aversive stimulus is something the dog will work to avoid if they can. An example of this type of punishment would be stepping on the dog’s back foot whenever he tried to jump on you, if in the future the behavior of jumping on you decreased. (I am not recommending this technique. There are humane and effective ways to train dogs not to jump on people.)

Positive punishment, as this latter type is called, need not be obviously harsh. It need only be effective. I used to have a dog who would leave the room when I coughed. She hated that sound. (Poor dog; I have asthma.) I could probably have used coughing as a punishing stimulus.

Another typical example of positive punishment is…jerking on the leash. A.k.a. a leash correction. If your dog moves out of position (undesirable behavior) and you jerk on the leash (added stimulus) and moving out of position decreases, that behavior has been punished.

Defining Words to Suit One’s Purpose

Why then, does the segment of the dog training world that employs corrections often deny that they constitute punishment? This is a myth. It doesn’t even make any sense. It is dangerous misinformation.

You can read this myth in a thousand articles online. You can hear it from ten thousand trainers. And it will be stated in countless beginner obedience classes. Here is a quote from a well known and successful trainer:

The purpose of a correction is to get a behavior change. It’s not to punish a dog.

Wait, what? In behavior science, the definition of punishment is about behavior change.

The reasons for avoiding the use of the word “punishment” are pretty obvious. In a world where positive reinforcement-based training is becoming more well known, many potential clients would not like the idea that a trainer may hurt their dog or instruct them to do so. So trainers who do use positive punishment often call it something else.

In fact, I recently saw a trainer who uses highly aversive methods say that if he announced that fact on his website, he would lose clients.

Some trainers do use the word “punishment,” but they use the lay definition of the word instead of the behavior science definition.   The lay definition is associated with retribution and cruelty.  Many such trainers use the word “punishment” to mean doing something harsh to the dog in a fit of emotion, and state that they don’t believe in doing that. They reserve the word correction to mean something planned, deliberate, and by implication less severe. And they often call it “communication” or “getting the dog’s attention” or some other benign-sounding phrase.

Defining “Correction” This Way Is a Red Flag

People are free to use different definitions of words. Heck, the retribution definition of punishment is probably the first in the dictionary. But if you choose a trainer who uses corrections and claims they aren’t punishment, you can know that one of two things is true.

  1. This person is ignorant of the correct terminology used in the science of behavior, even though they are claiming professional expertise and taking money for changing behavior. Or:
  2. This person is using an idiosyncratic definition on purpose. Whatever their explanation is for this, the effect is to mask what they are actually doing to dogs. They are minimizing the fact that they are startling, hurting, or causing some kind of discomfort to the dog. They are avoiding transparency.
A brown and white stuffed dog iw being held forcefully on her back. You can see a woman's arms coming down and her hands are on the dog's belly and the underside of her neck, pushing hard.

Feisty being “alpha rolled.”

I realize there is a wide spectrum of aversive techniques for training dogs. Some are harsher than others. If I used positive punishment, I, too, would want to distinguish myself from those who used more violent methods than I did. But there’s a more honest solution to that problem. The solution is to be specific and transparent about what one does. Such a trainer could say, “I use punishment in the form of jerking on the collar or scruffing dogs, but I don’t ‘helicopter’ dogs, hit them with plastic bats, or kick them.”

But that last sentence demonstrates a good reason why people who use any aversives may not want to be specific. Even the mention of more violent ways to train dogs is going to be off-putting to much of the general public. How much easier and benign sounding it is to say, “I use corrections, but not punishment.”

When Corrections Aren’t Punishment

There are situations where “corrections” aren’t punishment. And that is when they don’t work to decrease behavior. And that does happen quite often.  So I suppose we could add a #3 above. If someone says that corrections aren’t punishment, it could be true if their methods don’t work to reduce behavior over time. That would also be a good reason not to let that person work with your dog.

I Use Punishment

I use negative punishment. This is the type where you remove something desirable when the dog performs an unwanted behavior. You do this with the intent of decreasing (punishing) the behavior. This method can be very effective in clarifying to a dog what behavior works and what behavior doesn’t work. But I try not to overuse it. There are some situations where it is unpleasant for the dog, even though it doesn’t employ an aversive stimulus. I’d rather train a strong behavior to begin with, using positive reinforcement, than be pulling away cookies, toys, or attention frequently. Also, with several common applications of negative punishment,  positive punishment can easily creep in. I do not knowingly perform positive punishment, nor do I ever design a training plan to include it.

I just applied the word punishment to my own training and explained the ways I might use it. So if I can use the word…how about you folks out there who use “corrections”?

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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The Last Trip To the Vet: What If Your Pet’s Last Breath Is on the Operating Table?

Alex in the foreground, with Rusty and Andrew behind him—photo from 1993. Yes, they are in a bathtub.

Many years ago I lost Alexander, my dear, dear cat to stomach cancer. This was before veterinary medicine had the technology that’s available today. It was also before I took as proactive an approach to my animals’ health and welfare needs as I do now. I knew nothing about training or socialization. My cats were not crate- or carrier-trained. I didn’t know to use counterconditioning, desensitization, and habituation to teach them that the vet’s office could be a great place (or at least not an awful one). As a result, it was a struggle to take my cats to the vet and most were terrified there.

Alex was looking intently at me in every photo I ever took of him—1993

This came to a head with Alex. He had had a rough start in life. He was a runt of a neighborhood litter,  rejected by his mother, and he almost died of parasites. My friend and I bottle fed him and nursed him to health. He was a difficult cat for many years but we bonded very closely.

When he was eight years old, he started losing weight. I took him to the vet, who did blood work and could not identify a problem. He gave me pills to induce Alex to eat, something I now regret with some horror. It was an exhausting battle for both of us when I tried to get the pills down him. And after he did eat, digesting food probably caused him pain.  After a few months, as Alex lost more and more weight, the vet thought he felt nodules in Alex’s abdomen. This was before ultrasound equipment was commonly available at vet practices, or at least at this one, so this was through palpation only.  The vet thought he had localized kidney cancer and was hopeful that he could surgically remove it.

I remember, vividly and painfully, taking Alex to the vet for this surgery. He was petrified. I was required to take him at 8 AM. Then I left and waited and waited for a phone call. They didn’t operate until after noon. When the vet performed the surgery, he found that Alex was riddled with cancer. He called me and we agreed that there was no option but to euthanize Alex then and there. I was still in shock that I was losing this comparatively young cat, but another thing that I can still barely stand to think about was that he was terrified, in a steel cage in an unfamiliar place, for the last four hours of his life.

Things Have Improved

It is much more common now for people to work with their animals so that they won’t be scared of novel situations, handling, or the vet’s office. More and more people are learning husbandry techniques. There is now Fear Free Certification for veterinary professionals and trainers. And even many practices that don’t have the certification are practicing more techniques to keep the animals truly calm, rather than shut down.

There are countless things to prepare our dear pets for, with the goal of making these activities minimally stressful. One thing that many of our pets will eventually face is euthanasia. And when the time comes, we humans are not likely to be at our best.

I have a wonderful and brave friend who includes “euthanasia games” in her husbandry work with her dog. Getting her belly shaved, getting prepared for an injection or an IV insertion—all those steps we humans absolutely dread for our animals—can be predictors of great food and fun for a beloved pet. Just another game to her. And even if, at the end, the dog can’t or won’t take food, the activities will at least be familiar and have good associations.

In addition to this type of preparation, there are more and more options for at-home euthanasia, which is almost always less stressful.

Because of these factors, the odds of our pets’ end of life being low stress and pain-free have greatly improved. But there is one situation that is hard to prepare our animals for, and almost impossible to prepare ourselves for. That is if our pet must be euthanized on the operating table and have to undergo the waiting and prep for surgery without us. This may be during a routine surgery that turns up something awful and unexpected. It could be in the event of exploratory surgery, where something awful is expected. Or it could happen because of an unplanned emergency. I have been through the exploratory surgery situation with two beloved animals now.


My dog Summer was euthanized in August 2017 on the operating table after exploratory surgery unveiled hopelessly advanced hemangiosarcoma.  The vet and I had agreed to this plan beforehand. We would not revive Summer if the cancer were too advanced. (Some people make different choices about this. This is a deeply personal decision, and I respect all approaches.) The vet performed the surgery because of some hopeful signs on the ultrasound. But Summer had widespread cancer metastases.

Summer, just like Alex, spent her last waking hours waiting, without me, in a cage. I hope it was different for her because of the preparation I did do. I am thankful that every time I took Summer to the vet, I took her mat and some treats (unless she was fasting). I worked at making vet visits pleasant, with good associations. Some vets gave her treats, too. I did not do this methodically, though, and I wish I had. The vet I took her to most often was a large practice in a cramped space, and often fully booked, so we never went for practice or play visits.

Summer did have a few experiences of staying at the vet for a length of time. She had been spayed immediately after I adopted her, and also at age five she had had a bout of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, a life-threatening problem. She was hospitalized for several days. I treasure the video I took of her emerging when I came to get her to take her home.

I mention these experiences because they were times when I left her at the vet and she had to stay there for medical procedures and be kenneled and then I came and got her again. I hope that in her doggie brain, staying in a cage at the vet was enough of a familiar routine with a good outcome. But I wish I could have prepared her much more.

Leaving a Pet at the Vet: Can We Practice?

If my experience with my pets’ veterinary care is typical, some vets have a surgery list for their surgery day, but the order of surgeries can be fluid. I have always been asked to have my pet there fairly early in the morning, even if they end up having their surgery several hours later. I have not had the option of waiting with them, but I hope to have that option if there is a next time for this.

Perhaps some of you have a close enough relationship with your vet to be able to stay with your dog or cat as they wait for surgery. Or perhaps your vet schedules surgeries so your pet doesn’t have to be in limbo in a back room for long. I have not had those options. And I don’t think many of us can count on always having those options since we never know when we might have a medical emergency with our pet and end up seeing an ER vet we don’t know.

So after going through this exploratory surgery nightmare twice, it occurred to me that the animal waiting alone is just another husbandry task. As much negativity as there is about “sending our animals to the back room at the vet,” there always may be some times when they have to be without us for medical care. Can we prepare them for that?

Here are some ideas about getting your animal used to being handled without you being there. This presupposes that you trust your vet.

  • Go to a Fear-Free Certified veterinary practice. They will know techniques to help calm your pet and will be on board for any efforts you want to make to make things better for the animal. If you don’t have one locally, promote the program to the local veterinarians.
  • If the vet boards animals, and it’s affordable, pay for boarding every once in a while but do it for a very short period at first. Depending on the dog, this might mean starting at 5 minutes. Assume you will be paying for a day. Remember, it’s still work for vet staff to take your dog back to a kennel, load her in, and get her out for you, and you are reserving a space that could have accommodated another animal. If the practice offers a discount or lets you do it for free on a slow day, so much the better. But don’t expect or demand it.
  • Clara “goes to the back” for dermatology procedures and handles it well

    If your dog is doing OK with the short “boarding” visits, take the option of dropping her off at the vet for them to work her in for an innocuous procedure—something they have done before and you have practiced with her. Anal check, ear check, an inoculation. I know, I know. I NEVER used to take the “drop them off and we’ll work her in” option. I hated the idea precisely because I didn’t want to leave my dogs in a noisy cage among strangers. But with some preparation, wouldn’t doing that every once in a while with a vet you trust be better than their first experience being when they are very ill and you may never see them again? Food for thought.

  • Stating the obvious, but crate train the dog. Get her used to all different kinds of crates, and take her and crate her in all different situations. Work up to noisy situations with dogs barking. Agility trials are good for this, but remember: that’s graduate school work. Your dog needs to be completely comfortable in a crate in general and in other challenging situations first. I always think of vet scenarios when people talk about not needing to crate train their dogs. You may be able to arrange your life at home so that you never crate your dog.  But…what about at the vet? From here on I will train any animal I have to be calm about confinement.
  • Ask your vet if there is a sedative that would be safe for your dog to take before surgery or other procedures. I talked to a veterinarian friend before making this suggestion. She said it could be an option in many cases. You may have to try it ahead of time to make sure it works as intended on your pet. Your vet can counsel you about this. I did this with two dogs: Cricket, and Clara, “practicing” under my vet’s instruction ahead of time with a sedative before they were to have a medical procedure. In Cricket’s case, the drug had a paradoxical effect, making her hyper and drunkenly wobbling all around. So we didn’t use it. In Clara’s case, the sedative had a calming effect, and she had some before she went in for a large set of X-rays.

Summer on a happy outing in 2010, a month after her hemorrhagic gastroenteritis

As a result of my experience with Summer (and dear Alex, all those years ago), I have started to take my dogs to the vet to get their anal glands expressed without me present. I did it for a blood draw once as well. I want them to learn that yes, sometimes they have to go with someone else and perhaps have something a bit unpleasant done, but then they will come back to me. I wait for them in the waiting room with the best goodie possible. Even though I trust my vet to treat my dogs humanely, carefully, and as fear-free as possible, I pay attention to the results. If the dogs are getting more sensitized, more afraid from these experiences, they aren’t helping. Time to back up and do some less intense work at the vet as we are able.

I am going to do everything I can to be sure that my current and future animals are not terrified if they have to wait in a kennel for surgery. We don’t know if our dogs can think ahead in the way we do. But we do know that they learn that certain events predict others. It’s the basis of classical conditioning. And I want my dogs to know that a stay in the “back room” at the vet will be followed by returning to me and getting love. In this world or in my heart.

Related Posts

Both of these are on my dog dementia site.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

Thank you to my veterinarian friend with whom I discussed parts of this post. 


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Posted in Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Euthanasia, Handling and Husbandry | Tagged | 12 Comments

Dogs and Body Pressure: A Photo Study

Can you guess what just happened here?

Black dog Zani is respecting the personal space of tan dog Clara

Zani and Clara and I were playing a game I call the Gravity Game. It has evolved over the years. The indoor version is as follows:

  1. Clara deliberately drops her ball
  2. It rolls
  3. Zani picks it up
  4. Zani brings it to me
  5. I trade it for a piece of kibble
  6. I toss the ball back to Clara
  7. Repeat

I have a previous post on The Gravity Game. Clara invented it, first using gravity to play a game of fetch with herself, then training Zani and me to fetch for her. Here’s the Gravity Game video.

So the other night the three of us were playing the gravity game at my friend’s house. We were playing with an old favorite Goughnuts ball of Clara’s that’s so chewed up it doesn’t even roll properly.

We were playing the game as described above, repeating it in a loop. This went on for several iterations. Then, one time when Clara dropped the ball, it rolled a couple of inches, then rolled back to her. This happened because it’s chewed up and no longer spherical. Zani trotted over to get it as usual.

Then this happened. Here’s the photo again for reference.

Zani trotted after the ball, got that far, and stopped cold. She turned her head away and curved her body away from Clara. You can even see a weight shift to the right, and that her commissures are tight. She is not standing squarely on all four feet. It’s a reasonable assumption that she is not looking at Clara. (You can also see a little spinal curvature, lordosis, that has developed after her accident.)

Zani is socially adept and has lovely doggie skills, and even though the pattern of the game is that she picks the ball up and Clara “expects” her to, she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t make herself take those final two steps to enter the space right in front of Clara’s face and gaze to pick up the ball.

She froze in that position long enough for me to grab my phone and take this shot. I think afterward I even encouraged her to get the ball, but she just walked away.

Personal Space

I’ve written a bit about dogs’ sensitivity to spatial pressure. Zani is a great teacher. She is extremely careful about personal space. (Except when she is actively trying to get another dog to move by intrusively pressing her nose in their ear or butt.)

I wrote a long article for Barks from the Guild (Pet Professional Guild’s magazine) on this topic that I have permission to republish here. I’m planning to do it soon. In the meantime, here is the link if you’d like to check it out in the magazine (page 18). Turns out that personal space bubbles are a real thing and much studied.

But this post is just a mini-study on the body language during one incident. To anthropomorphize a little, Zani is being wonderfully “polite” to Clara about the ball.

Clara’s Body Language

So what part does Clara play? Does anybody want to take a stab at describing Clara’s body language in the photo of the two of them above? Mainly, is she guarding the ball? What observations do you have? (Her mouth is open because she was lightly panting after we had played ball outside.) I’ll wait and express my opinions later. What do you think?

Addendum 8/1/2018

I’ve gotten some great comments about Clara’s body language and her possible part in Zani’s reluctance to get the ball. Folks have observed the tension in her face (agreed) and her partial facing toward Zani and whether she might be guarding the bed vs. the ball.

Any of these could be having an effect. My opinion is that we are seeing Zani’s space bubble, and not necessarily any warding off by Clara. I believe Clara is looking at me because that’s where her next reinforcer is coming from. She’s waiting for me to toss the ball.  In other words, the fact that the ball is right in front of her doesn’t matter that much. She’s waiting for me to receive it and throw it.

In the video in the “You’re Too Close” post linked below, you can see Zani do the exact same thing with me. (Here’s the video.) She just can’t make herself come very close to the front of me when I’m standing up straight, admittedly not a very inviting posture.

I could be wrong. Zani is the dog body language expert, and she may well be sensing something from Clara that I am not, and that some of you are seeing. But my own guess is that it’s mostly Zani’s own space bubble. Thanks for everyone’s comments!

Related Posts

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson


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Posted in Dog body language | Tagged , , | 12 Comments