If You Fail to Plan….

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Dog training is perhaps a very unusual exception.

Dogs are so amazingly adaptive, forgiving of the mistakes we make.  Dogs learn despite our errors.  Present them with the most convoluted, confusing training system and somehow they get it.  Had Ben Franklin observed dog training, he may have said, “If you fail to plan, plan to struggle.”

Planning is an essential skill.  I have as part of my Awesome Dogs C.O.R.E. skills. C.O.R.E. is not a protocol – it just stands for “Components Of Reliable Execution.”  It is a reminder that there are certain basic things that are the bedrock of effective, efficient training. Good trainers do these things.  Pet owners need to know their value so they can hire professionals that do them well.

Each time someone faces problem behaviours, they want a solution.  Exercises should address the problem by providing a path to a clear end goal.  A plan is not a soundbite, a suggestion or flippant piece of advice.  Protocols are not plans.  Cycling through ideas is not a plan.

People all over the world offer suggestions.   They range from someone saying they read an article on the “Top Ten Amazing Ways To Get Your Dog To STOP JUMPING!!!!”  It’s the person who stops you and says, “You know what you ought to do with your dog?”  It’s the person who watched that television show and feels compelled to share the latest miracle solution.  It’s also the person who reads a lot of books and jumps from one new thing to another, never stopped to fully assess if any have merit or risks.  Throwing stuff out there as a suggestion is not the sign of a plan.  It’s simply regurgitating information which may or may not be appropriate – even if it may come from a place of good intentions.

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A plan is goal, expressed in a series of steps that suits a specific dog and their family. A plan is the roadmap.  It shows the route and plots the steps to be taken to reach a specific destination.  It’s the pencil and the piece of paper, working out the BEST way to get there while avoiding detours and determining the best means of transportation.  Planning a trip to Toronto should be more detailed than saying, “Go east.”  You could fly, drive or take the train.  Or if you happen to be starting in Montreal, you might actually have to “Go west.”

Similarly, plans allow us to work through the dog’s training journey.  All dogs learn in the same manner.  It is a myth that different dogs learn differently. Not all dogs need to learn the same thing and not all families want the same thing.  A plan allows for preferences such as these.

Planning is in my opinion an ethical responsibility.  It indicates that we care to hear what a family wants to achieve.  It considers whether training suggestions might flare up other existing problems.  It values a client’s time and money.  We expect families to do right by their dog.  So we must do right by the families.

What are the attributes of a good plan?   First, they address the problem.  A roadmap to New York does little good if you want to go to Toronto.  Similarly, a solid plan for a leash reactive dog isn’t the best route for an anxious one.

Good training plans for success by setting a clear achievable goal or destination.  That goal is then broken down into steps – or criteria.  Criteria are the levels or steps throughout the training plan.  Good training splits these steps into tiny splinters of progression.  Each step needs to be clear and measured.  A trainer who says, “Reward the dog for being close,” has not created clear criteria.  It would be like saying, “Turn somewhere ahead.” Saying, “Reinforce the dog when it is within 30 cm of your legs,” is concrete.  How big is 30 cm?  Look at a ruler and you’ll know exactly.

Good planning addresses details.  Types of reinforcers are chosen with care.  For example, a toy might be ideal for teaching a dog to go over a jump.  You can toss it into the distance, into the grass, and not have the headache of waiting while the dog searches out crumbs of food.  Food is excellent for reinforcing a dog for walking in heel.  It allows for high rate of reinforcement drills, feeding the dog by your leg.  Plans also consider where the reinforcement ought to be given.  It can support and enhance the process.  Done poorly, it can slow you down.

Plans create the basis for clear instruction and reduce chaos.  Eyeballing and emotionally charged reactions are reduced.  We really cannot complain that clients do not follow instructions when the plan is sloppy.  No one can follow poor, arbitrary, loose instructions – not the dog and not the person either.

Let’s look at the usual suggestion given to families with dogs that jump up on people.  A common suggestion is this:



“Teach the dog an incompatible behaviour. If he learns to sit, then he cannot be jumping when he is sitting.”

While that seems very sound, it isn’t a plan.  It’s a wish, and not a very thoughtful one at that.  Different families will interpret and execute these instructions in different ways.

One family will tell the dog to sit each time it jumps. The end result will be a dog that jumps – a lot – because each time they jump the person tells them to sit and then hands out a cookie.  Others will ask for the sit when the dog is out of control. They will wind up sit nagging.

Another family might hunker down and get to work.  Diligently they will dispense cookies to all friends and family.  People will be instructed to, “Give the dog a cookie each time he sits.”  The dog will wind up charging every person it sees.  To sit for strangers, you have to get to strangers.  Perhaps that deals with the jumping, but it also leads to a lot of lunging, darting and pulling on lead.

Finally, some might successfully teach the dog to sit for every stranger. They will be happy until the dog keeps sitting for the veterinarian trying to get a rectal temperature. Hopefully that client has a good sense of humour.

All of these are plausible interpretations of “teach a dog to sit instead of jumping.”  The problems are ensue are avoidable had there been a plan.

Discuss with the family what they actually want.  Many people do not want the dog at the door when guests arrive.  Teaching the dog to go to a mat, when cued by the presence of someone at the door, and to stay on that mat until released  That goal might have been more appropriate.

On the street, most families want their dog to ignore strangers and keep walking, politely, on leash.  The goal may be, “When cued by the sight of a person, move to within 20 cm of the owner’s leg.  Continue to stay in that location until released.”

During free time when the dog can socialize, few families want a sit.  What they want is the absence of jumping.  Standing, sitting and lying down are all appropriate.  A training plan can work that into the mix.  It will involve working through time based criteria, building duration.

Once the destination is set, the work of breaking down the steps begins.  Decide on which cues will be used.  Think through type and position of reinforcement.  Plan how to proof skills, adding in layers of distractions.  A good plan will keep in mind that every training sequence will also create various associations.  Pavlov is a monkey on your back. He can mess with the best laid out plan.  You can also nudge him so that the associations created are the ones you want.

That’s a lot of planning.  It does not even begin to touch additional skills such as chaining or sequencing behaviours.  Teaching takes skill.  I’m not sure when we started thinking that throwing a pile of suggestions at someone was good teaching.  Amassing a pile of strategies and cycling through them shows very little skill.  Good trainers have method to their madness – a plan.

The beauty of a plan is that it addresses the individual needs of the family.  Roadmaps are created. Do clients need to know how to write a training plan?  Of course not.  But they do need to know that one is important.  They should be free to ask for an overview at any time.  The steps need to be expressed in such a way that they can easily understand what to do.

Why Your Dog Doesn’t Know Sit

When I was a young girl, my grandmother would send gifts of books from Czechoslovakia.  The books were filled with stunning moving pop-up illustrations.  I learned a lot from those books.  I learned how those illustrations popped up.  I learned how one moving part operated another moving part.  What I failed to learn was how to read Czech.  My attention was so fixated on the illustrations that I memorized the words.  I recited the story based on the illustration.  I never focused on the letters.  Illustrations overshadowed the letters.

fox with cheese

Overshadowing is a well-researched part of dog training.  One place it applies involves adding cues.  (Commands for those who still use that term)  Animals, when simultaneously given two or more cues are likely going to learn about the most salient – to the detriment of the others.  Which facet carries the most weight depends on many factors.

Lured downs offer an example many can envision.  Dogs see humans bending at the waist during the lure.  If owners simultaneously say, “down” while luring or pointing, the word is unlikely to register.  Despite dozens or hundreds of repetitions, the dog stays focused on the owner’s gestures.  The word, “down,” becomes irrelevant background noise.  It predicts nothing of importance because with each repetition, the movement gives the dog all the information it needs.  Touching the ground comes to mean “lie down” rather than the word.  Pointing is perfectly acceptable if one wants to touch their toes in order to ask the dog to lie down.  I just don’t know many people who put it on their wish list.

Overshadowing affects many areas of training.  This is not a luring problem.  It can affect targeting, shaping and capturing.  It is not a positive reinforcement based problem.  Overshadowing has far reaching tendrils that reach pretty much everywhere.

Gestures do not need to be grandiose.  It can be as subtle as the wiggle of a finger or a raised eyebrow.  We all have dog training tells much like poker players have tells.  It takes self-awareness to compensate.  Often it takes a second set of eyes to spot them.

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This does not mean hand signals are bad.  Rather that few people want ridiculous signals.  No one wants to touch their toes to get a down.  It’s annoying.  Holding an arm extended for “stay” isn’t useful.  You can’t hold your hand up to sign stay and tie your shoe at the same time.  If you train with a prolonged gesture, that’s what the dog will need in order to understand.

Good hand signals are functional.  It takes effort to teach a great verbal cue.  Teach both but don’t mash them together and expect the dog to recognize them individually.  Don’t blame a dog for misunderstanding cues that were never made clear.

This might seem persnickety.  Who cares if signals are mashed so long as the method is “positive?”  Frankly, it is a problem when many trainers tell clients to mash signals and then encourage “balance” to clean things up.  Many repetitions become justification that the dog ought to know better and do better without recognizing that the repetitions were flawed.

Clients may feel that positive reinforcement failed because the dog is not responding to verbal cues.  This perceived failure again leads to “discipline.”  Positive reinforcement didn’t fail.  It worked exactly how science said it would.  In the absence of another reasonable explanation “dominant, stubborn, willful” can sound reasonable to a frustrated owner.

That’s a real shame because overshadowing is pretty easy to deal with.  Cues need to precede the behaviour without interference.  Fade lures.  Remove training aides during shaping or targeting.  Get a clean behaviour.  Then purposely add in the cue, and only the cue.  Spend a little time highlighting that these words or signs that are important and have meaning.  Do this in a thoughtful and planned way.

If we dismiss science, then we don’t learn about factors such as overshadowing.  I suppose it must be easier to justify corrections and sleep at night if one remains willfully oblivious to such things.  It is a choice to ridicule science and then justify corrections under the pretense of “balance.”

Learning the science is hard.  It demands that we regularly rip off the bandage that protects our fragile egos.  We need to find the thing we have yet to learn.  It goes beyond lip service.  We can’t just say, “We all have more to learn.”  You have to do something about it.

Learn better.  Do better.  Get better results.  Often those who suggest this path went down it before.  At least I certainly have.  There are walls you hit where it seems like something isn’t working right.  Finding out why is worthwhile.

Individually we should all lose a little sleep wondering if there isn’t some variation of overshadowing playing havoc with our cues (probably).  We should wonder if it impacts other areas of training (it does).  We should wonder if there are other effects to learn about (there are.)

Owners absolutely don’t need to learn decades of research in order to train their dog.  The trainers they hire should.

The takeaway for owners is twofold.  First, don’t mash your cues.  Second, science often does have all the answers….and it makes training a lot less frustrating when you work with it rather than against it.

Reaching the Holy Grail of Training

Years ago, I taught our Kiki a formal recall using targeting.  Systematically I proceeded to work through the exercise.  Much to my delight, Kiki developed the most fantastic competition recall.  People gasped at her speed and enthusiasm.  Her formal recall never failed us over the years.  You could say that it had behavioural momentum.

Domjan, in The Principles of Learning and Behavior describes behavioural momentum as, “response persistence in extinction.”  In non-technical language, behaviours with momentum are enthusiastic, despite distractions.  They are highly resistant to extinction.  Behavioural momentum is the Holy Grail of dog training.

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Behaviours with momentum are like boulders rolling down a hill.  Considerable effort is required to stop them.  By contrast, weak behaviours are like pebbles.  The slightest bump in the road and they get derailed.

Sluggish responses are an indication of poor behavioural momentum.  Dogs that are easily distracted have poor momentum.  When sniffing a blade of grass is more appealing than coming when called, recall behavioural momentum is low.  If you wonder if your dog enjoys doing what you ask, then you might have a behavioural momentum issue.

When owners ask for reliable manners, they are asking for behaviour momentum.  They want a dog that walks politely and ignores squirrels.  They want a dog that keeps four paws on the ground, even when visitors approach.  They want fast, immediate recalls.

People want solid, reliable, strong behaviours they can count on.  There is no magic.  Behavioural momentum combines operant and classical conditioning.  Pavlov might always be on your shoulder.  For too many, he’s snoozing, periodically waking to create an unexpected association here or there.  We forget about him and he dozes off again.  Wake him up.  Intentionally create behavioural momentum by using a fast rate of reinforcement.

“Behavioral momentum is directly related to the rate of reinforcement (see Nevin & Grace, 2000).  A higher rate of reinforcement produces behavior that has greater momentum and is less susceptible to disruption.”  The principles of learning and behavior – Domjan

Crazy fast reinforcement triggers two types of learning.  The dog learns the skill through positive reinforcement.  The fast reinforcement creates a positive association to the behaviour.  When dogs love executing learned skills, distractions are less tempting.  That is crazy powerful stuff.

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Food is a natural fit for creating momentum.  Food offers ease of use, speed of delivery and speed of consumption.   Anything that slows the rate of reinforcement can interfere with creating momentum.  Slow reinforcement leads to frustration, boredom and wanderitis.  It is the road to “I’d rather be doing something else.”

How fast is fast?  The following video shows my Karma working with a high speed of reinforcement.  A reasonable goal for initial training is ten reinforcements per minute (or about a third of the reps in the video.)  Reinforcements should come quickly enough that the space between repetitions is devoid of wanderitis.

Slow reinforcement tanks momentum.  The temptation to prove that we can quickly wean away from “treats” can lead to slow reinforcements.  We employ a litany of protocols, “real life” reinforcements, games, variable reinforcement schedules and Premack.  While there is nothing wrong with some of these things some of the time, they are slow reinforcements.

Sluggish, sloppy outcomes tied to poor momentum convince people that positive reinforcement is not reliable or effective.  There’s a real tragic irony in there.  Tactics that we use to convince people to use positive reinforcement may slow reinforcement, sabotaging reliability and enthusiasm.  Weak results convince people that positive reinforcement did not work well enough.  Aversives can trickle back into the dog’s training.

Behavioural momentum is within anyone’s reach.  Both are possible when operant and classical conditioning neatly combine.  Enthusiastic, persistent responses tell us there is no place the dog would rather be.  There is no behaviour they’d rather be doing.  If we say, “sit,” the dog responses with “I thought you’d never ask.”

Creating behavioural momentum is the trainer’s choice to use food to its full potential.  We can choose to decide, today, that we will not only teach behaviours, we will teach so the dog loves doing them.  We owe the dogs that.  If we create behavioural momentum, there will be no doubt in our mind that the dog wants to do the things we ask of them.

There is no greater feeling than knowing you have reliable behaviour from a happy dog.  It really is a Holy Grail worth pursuing.  Wake Pavlov up and get him to work.  He is not just a tag-a-long.

Five Days from Fear to Fun – Classical Counterconditioning.

I decided to spend some of our holiday time working on a whistle recall.  This is when a dog learns to come to the sound of a whistle.  Pamela Dennison has a number of resources on how to teach this skill for anyone who might be interested.

Unlike other whims, I remembered to grab my camera.  When I blew the whistle for the first time, Karma tucked her tail and ran.

I probably should have been a bit more thoughtful in my introduction of the whistle.  However, when you have confident dogs you get accustomed to taking liberties.  Sometimes, Karma bites you in the butt.

Before anyone sends me hate mail, we didn’t plan for this to happen.  We adjusted immediately.  Fear can unexpectedly happen.  I decided to share that one incident because frankly it happens to owners all the time.  It’s the clicker that scares a dog, the dropped cooking pan, the ratting of aluminum foil, fireworks or the whirl of a new kitchen appliance.  Sometimes our dogs get scared.

I thought it would be interesting to put together a time lapse of Karma’s responses as they changed over the course of five days.  It would show the change in her body language and a real time account of what we actually did.

We used classical counterconditioning.  This means that each time the whistle sounded, Karma received a really amazing goodie, mainly turkey.  There were no conditions on her behaviour.  I did reduce the volume and duration of the whistle until she grew more comfortable.  I made sure she was some distance away from me during the first few repetitions.  This made the process easier on her.

The sound of the whistle was initially aversive to her.  Aversive means that it’s something that the dog will seek to escape, avoid or postpone.  At first, you can see that Karma clearly is looking to escape from the sound of the whistle.  By pairing the sound of the whistle with goodies, her emotional response changes over time.

Just because something is aversive for a dog today, it does not mean that it cannot be changed.  Things that used to be aversive can become appetitive and vice versa.  It might have been easier to shelf the whistle recall idea entirely.  Perhaps for some dogs that is an option.  However, as Karma goes to more and more events, I know that eventually someone is going to blow on a whistle.  I do not want her to be startled and frightened if there is something I can do today.

Some people seem to think that classical counterconditioning is hard or doesn’t work. They say it takes a lot of time and effort.  While there are some basic rules to keep in mind, by following the rules, busy people – like myself – really aren’t doing that much work at all.

People fail to realize that long breaks between sessions are beneficial – perfect for the busy dog owner.  In its simplest form, you feed the presence of the trigger.  In this case whistle equals goodies.  You do need to be mindful of things that can block or overshadow the conditioning.  Otherwise, it’s really that simple.  Trigger equals treat.

One thing we did was hide a treat somewhere in the house while Karma was out in the yard.  Later, when she was back inside, I’d blow the whistle and surprise her.  This was done because I was going out of my way to ensure that the whistle predicted goodies.  Not “hand in pocket” or “open fridge door” or “standing in the kitchen.”  It really has to be the trigger that equals the food.  The cleaner you work, the faster the association will happen.

The results in the following video involved the following:

  • Five days of classical counterconditioning
  • Six reps per day approximately (only 2 on the 24th…was busy … it was Christmas eve.)
  • Ten seconds of work per repetition.


Total Training Time
Less than FIVE MINUTES.

I will probably re-visit whistles a few more times.  It pays to finish the job by generalizing the conditioning.  We could work in a variety of locations or work with different types of whistles.  Then we’ll be ready to switch back to our initial plan of a whistle recall.

Yes, I do realize that some dogs have traumatic experience in their past.  Not all problems will go away in five days.  There are dogs with global fears and there are dogs with a history of trauma and abuse.

For the most part, many dogs are just normal dogs that occasionally get scared of one thing or another.  We are the ones who are our dog’s worst enemy. We over think what needs to be done.

We become embroiled in minutia and complexities that are not relevant.  We worry that feeding a fearful dog will reinforce fear.  It doesn’t.  We wait for “good” behaviour instead of just feeding the trigger.  I clearly fed a dog that was afraid and I fed a dog that was not necessarily behaving.  Yet, the fearful response disappeared.  Sometimes it pays to let go of intuition and just trust the science.  Feed the appearance of a well defined trigger.  It works.

Additional resources:

Awesome Dogs Shareables Counterconditioning Collection

Reactive Dogs on Facebook

Fearful Dogs on Facebook

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Stop Nagging – Start Training – Using the environment as a command

I cannot stand micromanaging my dog’s behaviour.  There is a certain point when I expect my dogs to behave.  I hate repeating myself, and I really hate sounding like a nag.

It’s exhausting.

When we think of obedience, the command/obey sequence is what typically comes to mind.  It is what most dog owners first learn.  Say sit, and when the dog sits, reward the dog.  Continue practicing until the dog sits when told to do so.  I have no objection to this.  Being able to communicate with your dog is very useful.  Stylized commands are extremely useful in competitive environments.

Constantly reminding the dog of expectations can get old fast.  Some expectations never change which means it would be nice if the dog did them without having to give a command.  For example, I never want the dog eating the cat’s food.  My dinner is always off limits.  Jumping on visitors is never okay.  Darting out the car door without permission is downright dangerous.  Really, I am never going to want any of these things.

I don’t want to give a command.  I don’t want to give reminders.  Dear dog:  Just do what you are supposed to do.

It’s a lot like little children.  We expect that young children need reminders to “flush the toilet.”  However, there comes a point in time when seriously – you just should not need to be reminded to flush.

If that sounds demanding, it is.  I demand it of myself to train my dog to understand that certain behaviours are expected at all times.  In order to achieve this, we need to expand the idea of what constitutes a command.

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Traditionally, commands are words or hand signals that tell the dog what to do.  Who says that commands have to be limited to words or stylized gestures?  Actions and situations can act as commands too.

Dogs readily learn that our actions mean something.  We pick up a leash and they run to the door in anticipation of a walk.  You don’t have to say a word to speak volumes to your dog.

You can use this ability to intentionally to create “commands” for your dog.  If the context or situation reminds the dog of what it should be doing, you no longer have to.

Environmental commands or contextual cues have a wide array of uses.  Teach a dog to sit for visitors, without being told to do so.  Have them wait until released from the car.  For this blog, let’s work through “leave the cat’s food alone”.

Start by ensuring your dog has a reasonable grasp at leave it.  I teach it by reinforcing movement away from treats as shown in this video that demonstrates with American Sign Language.  A verbal cue is taught in the same manner.

Next, bring out the cat’s food.  Continue working leave it, giving the command and reinforcing the dog when it is correct.

At some point, the dog will jump the gun, offering the leave it BEFORE you ask for it.  I call this a genius moment.  Your smart dog has decided to leave cat food alone without being asked

Celebrate this.  Reinforce it – generously.  Give treats.  The dog has noticed that the cat dish being placed on the ground predicts the leave it command.  With repetition, placing the food on the ground will become a command of its own.

Cat food in the bowl = leave it.

The finished product makes for a very peaceful co-existence with our dogs.  The following video shows Kip, Karma and Icarus demonstrating a few variations.  You will see both dogs leaving the cat food alone.  In addition, you will see the animals leaving treats thrown to the others.  I do not like my guys charging and battling over food.  I never want my dogs charging at dropped or thrown food unless given permission to do so.  It’s an excellent candidate for a context based command.

As you watch the video, notice the following key points.

  • There are no verbal commands or reminders given.
  • The dogs are free to do any appropriate behaviour they like.  This is not a stay.
  • Notice the calm and disinterest.  It comes from consistency and generous positive reinforcement.

Most importantly, listen to the silence.  Our dogs are capable of learning that situations have meaning.  Our training has to come up to their abilities.  Watch for those moments when dogs offer genius.  They might be fleeting at first.  With reinforcement, they can blossom into so much more.

(I have used the word command throughout this piece for readability.  Many pet owners recognize it.  Trainers often use the word cue instead because it implies communication while the word command can feel like an order.  By command I really only mean a word, gesture or situation that communicates information to the dog – an antecedent.)

Preventative Counterconditioning…because bad stuff happens

Dog training is supposed to be a thoughtful process.  During planned training sessions we should keep dogs under threshold.  If only life were that easy.

Imagine a loose dog charging while the owner flails their arms shouting, “He’s friendly.”  It is the child screaming, “Doggie” and rushing to pet the fearful dog.  Life is when you accidentally knock over a heavy metal gate and it clashes and startles.

Unless you cloister your dog away from the universe, scary stuff happens.  Life is just not fair and can throw some interesting challenges our way.  We are facing this at our home tonight.

A few hours ago, I became aware that our new neighbours planned to host a party in their McMansion.  It is possibly the most massive party I have ever seen.  It rivals reality television standards.  I first became aware of the situation as the band started sound check.

If I felt so inclined, I could lob Frisbees off the back of the band member’s heads.  As if that wasn’t enough, the celebration includes a professional fireworks show.  We have front row seats.

My son plays drums, so the dogs are accustomed to loud sounds.  However, stacks of Marshall amplifiers are sure to shake the walls and windows.  I can only hope that between our noise desensitization and our son’s practicing that we are sufficiently prepared.

The fireworks have me concerned.  My dogs have only heard fireworks in the form of a free phone app.  Between learning about the event at the last minute and our close proximity, our choices are limited.

  • We could rent a hotel room and avoid a stressful night.
  • We could chop up some chicken and countercondition the dog in vivo (In real life).

We chose to forge ahead with a counterconditioning plan.  Simply put, it means feeding tasty treats when the fireworks explode.  Treats, or other pleasant activities, flow freely regardless of the dog’s behaviour.  Fireworks predict chicken, so fireworks become good through association.

Desensitization (working in small steps easiest to hardest), often paired with counterconditioning is a luxury that does not exist tonight.   If my dogs had noise phobias, I might have chosen the hotel.  I have no desire to flood or traumatize any animal.  It’s a calculated decision.  However, if the dogs accidentally go over threshold we can leave.  I never plan on making that mistake, but it is worth noting that it can happen.

Real life can and does slap us in the face unexpectedly.  By being alert, we can use preventative counterconditioning.  By this, I mean that we take advantage of every first encounter, making it a positive one.  The fireworks are a first for my dogs.

Not all novel experiences are as extreme as the party next door is.  Your dog has many firsts.  Things will unexpectedly startle your dog.  When they happen, your dog is deciding if they pose a threat.

We can influence the dog’s experience.  When something new happens, feed your dog something tasty.  Good behaviour is not required.

  • Car backfires – treat
  • Police sirens wail – treat
  • Baby cries – treat
  • Dog barks – treat
  • Accidentally step on their paw – treat
  • A dog rushes – treat (For safety’s sake, wait until the offending dog is out of the way and under control.)
  • A car enters the driveway or a door slams – treat.
  • Roar of a lawn mower, the snow blower, a chainsaw, the vacuum, see a horse – give a treat.

The dog does not have sit or obey any command to get the food.  I don’t care if my dog sits when they hear firecrackers.  I want them comfortable and relaxed when it happens.  That is achieved by feeding the appearance of a trigger.

Pre-emptively feeding of what may be a bad situation is an exercise that has served all of our dogs well.  Our process of feeding a treat at new situations becomes my way of telling the dog, “That surprising thing…it’s nothing to worry about.”

I do this with seemingly minor nuisances.  I cannot know if a surprise is slightly concerning to the dog.  With repetition, the dog can sensitize to nuisances, becoming more agitated with each exposure.  Erring on the side of caution by clearly communicating that there is no danger is one small step that can pay out huge dividends.

Life happens

I tell clients to recognize times when their dog might feel ambushed.  Who hasn’t experienced the surprise of a fence fighting dog charging?  If and when it is safe to do so, feed your dog.  Do damage control on the assumption that your dog was just as blindsided as you were.

Failing to anticipate problems and failing to act on behalf of our dogs leaves them vulnerable.  By doing nothing, you are leaving the dog’s decision to chance.  That seems just short sighted to me.  As the dog’s caretaker, we have the foresight – the ability to predict – things that may become problematic.

By counterconditioning at every opportune moment, we can give our dogs confidence.  We do not have to wait for fears, phobias and anxiety to take hold.  Behaviour is not stagnant, nor is it ever “finished.”  You can allow life to chip away at your dog’s confidence or actively work at making it stronger.

Dogs would face far fewer rehabilitation protocols if firsts in their lives were anticipated – influenced with a delicious piece of food.  This does not mean that dogs must live a life immersed in things they do not enjoy.  I would not enjoy living next to a house that had weekly parties.  I would move if that were the case.  Similarly, my dog does not have to stand next to the mower.  It is loud.  However, I do not want them fleeing into the house every time a neighbour revs up a power tool.  Our dogs should not feel like there are boogie men lurking in the bushes, always scanning and searching for information that warns of a potential problem.

There are times when we all startle.  Life surprises us.  Pre-emptive treats are about influencing the dog’s interpretation when bad things, out of our control, happen.  Does the dog startle and retreat?  Does the dog shake it off and realize that it’s no big deal?  That’s not a lesson I’m willing to leave to the universe.

How’d it work out for us?  You tell us.  (If your dog is afraid of fireworks or band music, reduce the volume and prepare for some preventative counterconditioning.  Feel free to add desensitization because you have the ability to control the volume.)

The video is dark and difficult to see.  Nevertheless, it is real life – jammie pants and all.  The dogs were on leash initially as a precaution.  To me, the moment that makes me smile is when Karma runs off.  She’s running toward the show.  My son has to bring her back to me so I can keep her in frame.  Do not underestimate the power of tasty morsels of food.

Food has the power to change emotions.

As Highway to Hell rattles the foundations of our house, all the animals are sleeping.  As a trainer, I’d give my right arm if all preventable problems were addressed with a little pre-planning.  Tomorrow, I’m going to predict that it’s plausible that we will hear the bang of a few leftover fireworks.  You can bet that I’ll have treats in my pocket all day waiting for it to happen.

Do you love me for the treats?

One day, something magical happened with Kip.  I share his story because I find that it gives people hope.

Helping a challenging dog is more than mechanics.  It is an emotional rollercoaster.  As a trainer, I might have the experience to know this is true.  Someone forgot to tell my heart.
rehab is a rollercoast
One problem in particular hurt.  Kip would not sleep on the bed at night.  Perhaps that seems insignificant.  Maybe some people might welcome that problem.  Think about what it says when a dog moves off the bed each time you arrive and only when you arrive.  It says, “I am aversive to my dog,” meaning that my dog wants to avoid me.

Sleep, in my opinion, is a vulnerable time.  Living in the wild, it makes perfect sense to hunker down in a hole.  Predators are less likely to find you.  In a human house, there should be no need to hide.  I took it upon myself to change his mind.

The plan was not particularly difficult.  Kip felt uncomfortable when I got into bed.  To address this, I brought treats with me.  I would feed him treats.  Eventually I started feeding him while I scratched his ear.

Kip only stayed as long as the treats were present.  Shortly after the last morsel disappeared, he would scamper to his safe corner on the floor.

Do not let anyone tell you that doesn’t have the potential to hurt.  Who wants to entertain the idea that your dog will only stay next to you if you have food?  Gutted is the feeling that washes over you the moment you realized that your dog only wants the treat and not you.

Flipping the proverbial coin, I wondered how Kip felt.  How does it feel living life avoiding people and other things that are safe?  Avoidance might be a life saving option for a feral dog that is living in the wild.  So long as we avoid conflict, we can avoid fighting and aggression.  The absence of blustering does not mean that the dog enjoys the presence of others, nor does it mean that the dog feels safe.

Much of the first part of our life together, I suppose Kip and I were much like the couple who cohabitate through successful avoidance.  So long as we were busy doing things, life was good.  We interacted through tricks and training.  In the quiet moments, his subtle avoidance that stood out as an indication that the trust between us was not where it needed to be.

Despite the hurt, each night I’d grab a handful of treats.

Pet – treat.  Belly scratch – treat.

After months of doing so, I resigned myself to the fact that perhaps life would always be like this with him.  It hurt.  There is something comforting about the idea that not all dogs are social butterflies.  Which I suppose is a thinly veiled way of saying, “It’s not me.”  It truly was not me.  He was born that way, touch sensitive and high anxiety.  It still hurt.

Then one night, it happened.  I went to bed, treats in hand.  As he finished the last crumb, I realized that he stayed.  I continued to scratch behind his ear.  He leaned into me.  His paws went up over his muzzle, rubbing his face in that way that means, “I am happy.”  He wanted to stay.  He momentarily placed his head on my knee.

I want to stay.

I want to stay.

Somewhere along the way, it stopped being about the treats.  In behaviour modification terms, he developed a positive conditioned emotional response.  The positive interactions we had with the treats transferred to our relationship.  Ear scratches and belly rubs became positive in their own right.  Kip felt safe enough to stay on the bed, open to the approach of others.

I did not need to have Kip on the bed.  To me it was a significant reflection of how Kip felt about his people and his personal space.  Certainly, many dogs prefer to sleep on the floor for other reasons.

We do not always do rehab because a problem needs fixing.  Failing to address fears means that the dog misses the joy that social interaction can bring.  We miss out on living a life where we can interact with our dogs without worrying that we are aversive to them. We create positive emotional responses so we can thrive rather than survive.

At the end of the day, we cannot force a dog to like us.  We can only invest our time and energy into giving all of our heart, hoping that we create trust.

Faith – not blind faith – but scientific faith gets us there.  If the means and method are sound, the results will follow.

If we do that, we might be surprised to find that one day it happens.  One day, it stops being all about the treats.