Nine Steps to a Calm, Relaxed, Quiet Canine. Have a Go at DRO.

I like quiet, calm dogs.  Most owners I know want quiet, calm dogs.  Visions of a dog cuddling during a relaxing evening shatter with the reality of a pushy, loud, obnoxious pest.  Where classes are concerned, pestering pups embarrass owners.  I like my classes quiet so I don’t have to yell over the ear piercing, migraine inducing screaming of an out of control, demanding dog.

Typically, owners are offered a long list of tips ranging from increased exercise, busy toys, supplements, gadgets and massages.  Sufficiently exercised, some dogs fall asleep.  A sleeping dog isn’t well mannered.  It’s just sleeping.  When they wake, we’re back to pestering.

Owners can feel like they have become the dog’s personal entertainment center. Perhaps we should use training instead? Many owners try rewarding an incompatible or alternate behaviour.

For example, the dog that is lying on a mat cannot be clawing at your legs.  However, I like to use something a little different because DRIs and DRAs can create behaviour chains.  The dog swings back and forth between good and obnoxious behaviour like a pendulum on a clock.  Pester – treat – pester – treat – pester – treat.

When I get noisy, hyperactive, unfocused, pushy, pestering dogs in classes, I start them on a Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviour (DRO) plan.  It uses positive reinforcement to reduce unwanted behaviours.  The absence of a specific problem behaviour over time is reinforced. DRO’s work on a wide array of problems from barking, pawing, pushing, bouncing at the end of a leash and more.  I do not however use it with dogs with fear and anxiety problems that would be better served through desensitization and counterconditioning.

What many fail to realize is that a DRO rewards TIME, not RESPONSES. Simply reinforcing the absence of a problem doesn’t address that we want the dog to behave for a prolonged period of time.

Let’s use barking as an example.  We do not want to create a dog that barks and hushes, looking for a treat each time it quiets.  We want a dog that stays quiet.  Our criteria is not the absence of problem behaviour.  Our criteria is the absence of problem behaviour over time.  Dogs can absolutely learn time based or temporal criteria.

Back to our barking dog, we might begin by rewarding short periods of quiet.  It does not matter if the dog is sitting, standing, spinning, chewing a bone or doing a headstand.  If the dog remains quiet for a pre-determined length of time, they earn their reward. Gradually, we would ask the dog to stay quiet for longer and longer until barking rarely, if ever, happens.

Close attention to passing time prevents the dog from learning that they can bark and hush to get a cookie.  That’s because we are being very clear that our criteria is not the act of becoming quiet, but the act of staying quiet.  The dog is free to do any safe, appropriate behaviour it likes – so long as it is quiet.  The same goes for any other nuisance behaviour we seek to eliminate. dro A well executed DRO follows a process and some rules. There are variations based on the type and timing of reinforcements.  This is the one I typically use in classes and at home with my dogs.

The Process

Step one:  Identify the problem behaviour with clarity.  (My dog barks when near other dogs.)

Step two:  Measure the frequency of the problem to create a baseline.  How often is the dog barking?  (My dog barks when near other dogs on average every 2 seconds.)

Step three: Set the length of time your dog needs to “behave” in order to earn a reward.  This should be slightly less than your baseline.  (I will reward my dog every time he is quiet for 1 second.)

Step four:  Use a reward that motivates the dog.  (My dog likes meat.)

Step five:  Allow the dog to engage in normal activities that are safe and appropriate for the context of the situation.  You are not asking the dog to do anything.  Count quietly in your head and reward the dog each time they meet your criteria.  (One Mississippii – treat.  One Mississippi – treat.  One Mississippi – treat.)

Step six
:  Aim for A level student grades.  The dog should be right at least 80% of the time.  We want the dog practicing appropriate behaviour, not rehearsing the problem.

Step seven:  Continue to re-evaluate progress and measuring the dog’s responses.  Ask for longer duration of appropriate behaviour as the dog demonstrates that they are ready.  Stay at each level until the dog is consistent.

Step eight:  Switch to a random schedule when the dog has developed sufficient duration.

Step Nine::  Generalize the behaviour in various locations as needed.

Now for the rules:

  • Count!  Do not eyeball this exercise.
  • As your dog improves, you can increase criteria more rapidly.
  • If the dog misbehaves before time is up, get their attention and re-start the time.  (Do not reward the attention back to you.)
  • If the dog is not hitting A student level, decrease your expectations.  Make it easier.
  • Be careful not to reinforce other nuisance behaviours.  For example, if you want to eliminate barking, be careful that you are not rewarding pawing or jumping.  If the dog engages in too many alternate problem behaivours, reduce your time criteria.
  • Problem behaviours may initially increase before dropping off dramatically.
  • During initial stages,ignore other training goals.  Once problem behaviour disappears, you’ll have plenty of time to teach new things.
  • If the problem fails to improve, communicate with a qualified pet professional.  It is possible that the dog is misbehaving due to medical problems or anxiety issues.

Perhaps one of my favourite parts of executing a DRO in group class is watching the dogs.   Young, powerful, adolescent dogs barking en masse and too distracted to learn anything start to breathe.  Their muscles relax and the room goes still.

The owners are stunned that for the first time ever , their hyper dog has gone from a maniac to sane – a cool dude lying by their feet.  It happens in a class of other dogs.

A DRO is how we taught Kipper the ex-crotch ripper to settle quietly at the end of a busy day. Sometimes we get so focused on telling the dog what to do, we become micro-managers instead of teachers.  Sometimes we forget that we often don’t actually care what a dog is doing, so long as it’s appropriate.

Often we forget about counting – the time factor.  It’s a shame we don’t focus on time more often because frankly – it’s really effective.  Results are often dramatic and can come quickly.  If you want to eliminate any number of nuisance behaviours, remember to keep one eye on a clock.

Becoming a RE-Crossover Trainer – Rallying Against the Slippery Slope

Several years back, I had a number of challenging dogs in class.  I work with a lot of rescue and feral dogs.  This doesn’t mean that I think that mutts are tough.  Rather, when dogs have a rough start, the odds of behavioural fallout are overwhelmingly high.  Not every puppy is born with a silver spoon in its mouth.  Many of my clients have dogs that were born on the wrong side of the tracks.

Those dogs had nice and highly permissive owners.  Those that work with animals will know what I mean when I say that permissiveness can be a huge problem.  While I appreciate the gung ho positive vibe that these families embody, allowing dogs to rehearse unwanted behaviour is a huge problem.

This combination of tough dogs and permissive owners was a perfect storm of pressure.  In a desperate effort to communicate the need for consistency, I used a standard expression.

“Nothing in Life is Free.”  There isn’t anything particularly wrong with this idea.  Dogs should learn appropriate behaviour.   We shouldn’t allow dogs to run amok.  There’s nothing wrong thus far.  My mistake was in what I omitted.

Nothing in life is free still requires good training mechanics.  I didn’t lean on this fact strongly enough.  Without a plan to increase criteria, proper timing and a fast rate of reinforcement, it creates a client that is asking too much, frustrating the dog, and using aversives.

While the distinction may be slight, let’s look at an example.  Pretend we have a dog that would like to play with other dogs, instead of sitting politely on a loose leash.

By skillfully reinforcing the animal, it learns what is expected, and is proofed to distractions.  With practice, owners can switch dogs to a variety of reinforcements.  Instead of earning a treat for sitting politely on a loose leash, the dog transitions toward learning that polite behaviour gives access to free play.  We are well within the realm of positive reinforcement and Premack Principle.  The dog gets what it wants by doing what the owner wants.

Without strong technical training skills, a very different scenario arises.  The owner fails to reach the dog, or fails to proof the dog.  Incorrectly they assume that the dog can meet expectations.  The dog, in over its head, fails to comply.  As frustration builds, the dog starts to strain at the leash.  The owner stands firm, waiting for a response that comes slowly if at all.  Very quickly, that tight leash stays tight.  Owners wait for a release of pressure.  Pressure and release – or negative reinforcement.  This negative reinforcement could have been avoided.

slippery slope
Just that quickly, we step across that invisible line between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement/positive punishment.  We slip into aversives.  More importantly, we unnecessarily slip into aversives.

When owners spend prolonged periods of time, hanging onto a dog that is forcefully and painfully yanking at their arms, the temptation to correct increases.  It leads to a verbal correction, a touch, a poke, a little tug on the leash, a leash correction.  Each step is small – almost insignificant.  However, the changes over time culminate into dramatic differences in training methodology.

Badly done positive reinforcement is the funnel that fills the coffers of force trainers.

Poorly executed positive reinforcement strengthens the conviction that aversives are needed and frankly not that bad.  Force trainers have a valid point when they point to dogs straining against leashes.  This is not positive, nor is it kind.  Snickering, they have reason to laugh as someone aimlessly walks about or literally walks in circles doing changes of direction.

It didn’t take very long for me to recognize the error that I had made and to correct it.  Not all people do.  Some people slide down the slippery slope of aversives.  Encouragement, from other individuals who feel similarly makes it seem more palatable.  If others were also failed by positive reinforcement, it’s easier to blame the method than to admit to screwing up.

Others, seeing that they are sliding, dig their nails into the dirt, pulling themselves back up to where they want to be.  Despite erring, they bravely swallow that bitter pill.  Holy heck does it hurt.  Recognizing that the frustration in the dog’s eyes is a result of our shortcomings is excruciating.  I’ve slipped into that tenuous place where a “little firmness” or some “natural consequences” look tempting.  I’ve immediately regretted that misstep.

Owning our mistakes and our mechanics is a good thing.  We are all fallible human beings.  Making mistakes is to be expected.  Repeating them because we wear blinders made of ego is wrong.  Since we all make mistakes, our first course of action prior to sliding into aversives is to find our own errors.  Failing that, we need a trustworthy, honest person to give a second opinion.  Hubris does not belong in dog training.

Stepping out onto the precipice is costly.  It absolves trainers of personal reflection and growth.  As we habituate to minor aversives, what was once unthinkable gradually becomes acceptable.

Sloppy execution begets sloppy results.  Dissatisfied clients, people who assume they were using positive reinforcement, become convinced that it doesn’t work.  These people don’t know that their execution was flawed, nor do they know that they were using aversives.  We fail both the owner and the dog.

Poor mechanics create a need for aversives.  Aversives come bundled with side effects.  Perhaps there are trainers who are comfortable with minor aversives.  Perhaps they feel that the results that they obtain are good enough.  I hope that they also embrace the term balanced in their marketing material.

If we want positive reinforcement to be a method that appeals to the masses, then we need to deliver on results.  That will only happen if we all embrace the idea that our learning never stops.  The experience of training in the zone of correctly executed positive reinforcement is something that words cannot describe.  Unless one has been there, you cannot understand how quickly and efficiently the results come.  Only by experiencing these results can one understand the importance of rallying for professional proficiency.  Only then can someone understand why it’s so critical to rally against the slippery slope that lack luster mechanics can bring.

We can always develop our mechanics and technical abilities just a little bit more.  Only perfect people have a right to claim otherwise.  I just don’t happen to know any perfect people.

Good dog – Bad dog – Sad dog – Mad dog

We have had a number of dogs over the years.  Their nicknames range from Crazy Kiki and Loveable Kaya, to Kipper the Ex-Crotch Ripper and Sweet Karma.  Their nicknames give a clear indication of their personalities.  Their names are practically labels.

A past client of mine labelled their dog.  They adopted a mixed breed puppy.  The trainer that they first met made a dire prediction.  “That is a Pit Bull.  It is genetically predisposed to aggression.  You don’t have children…do you?”

Diligently they worked at modifying the dog’s “genetic tendencies toward being a menace to society.”  Of course, the poor pup lived under an iron fist and non-negotiable rules.  Fear of an impending mauling struck the fear of doG in the family’s heart.  Instead of socializing they shied away from other animals – they shied away from play dates, scared that some killer instinct would emerge.

Of course, aggression did start to emerge.  I would expect no different in any under socialized dog.

By the time I met the dog, the owners were convinced that they had been cheated (they thought they had adopted a lab cross).  They were grateful to the first trainer for being honest about the impending aggressive reactions.  They felt that had they not been aware, they might have…gasp…put the dog into puppy classes.

Suffice it to say that this was not a “Pit Bull,” puppy.  Lack of socialization can lead to behaviour problems in dogs.  It is more reasonable to assume that fear kept the owners from socializing their puppy.  That lack of socialization is more likely to blame than some hypothetical genetic predisposition to maiming and killing.

By the time I became involved, it was too late to change this family’s belief system.  A hundred people could have told them that they owned a very normal mutt.  It didn’t matter, their perceptions had been formed.  They formed a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Negative labels can wreck havoc with training goals.  Low bars, gloom, and doom expectations generally lead to dismal results.  Frustration and disappointment clouds the reality that most pups can be obnoxious and it’s normal to have to work through these problems.  These are not “bad” dogs.  They are young dogs.

Trainers and owners often do label their dogs.  “My dog is fearful.”  “My dog is dominant.”  “That dog is anxious.”  “Our dog is bad.”  That does not seem healthy if you get what you project.

Researchers Rosenthal and Jacobson conducted an experiment in the 1960’s.  Children from Oak school were evaluated with an IQ test.  Subsequently those children were divided into random groups.  The researchers then told the teachers that one particular group was ready to “bloom” intellectually.  This group had potential.  The teachers did not know that this was patently false.

All the kids in all the groups were…average.

At the end of the testing period, children (falsely) labelled as intellectually gifted had better academic marks.  The average children were still…average.  (Although some of the average children did better than expected and that is another blog post for another day.)

Our expectations shape our results.  This is called expectancy theory.  Labels we place on others can improve results.  Conversely, negative perceptions can hold students back.  There is an element of truth to the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dog trainers and pet owners are teachers.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we project our bias onto our dogs.  We can choose to look at our pets as anxious, scared, reactive, bad, hyperactive, dominant, willful or stubborn and the dogs will probably fulfill that vision.

What is your dog's label?

What is your dog’s label?

Focusing on what the dog is – today – could hold us back.  Those words and labels have no goal, no purpose and no vision.  We quit.  We settle.  We act according to our mind-set and expectations.  We choose training strategies fulfill or play to our expectations.

We might become overly assertive on the assumption that a dog is problematic.  Others might coddle a shy dog, limiting social experiences.  We become desperate when faced with the energy and youthful antics of an otherwise normal dog.

An alternative is to label the dog with their potential.  The dog is, “learning to be stubbornly obedient.”  Perhaps the pup is showing, “potential to bloom with confidence.”  Maybe we have a “chill dude in the making.”  We can see the “high energy agility star in training” – the one that gets us up off the sofa.  These are good things.

I have an EX-crotch ripper.  (Thank you to the person who added the ex to his nickname a few years ago.)  Kipper the EX-crotch ripper is a more productive and optimistic version of Kipper the crotch ripper.  Those names represent very different perceptions and goals.

If you see potential, then setbacks are simply pebbles that stub your toe.  We alter course and move on.

I do not ever mean to suggest that we should minimize real dangers.  I will be the first to point out a bona fide safety concern.  We address it and adjust our goals.  Today’s problems should not be tomorrow’s vision.

I refuse to aim for a goal of nothing.  I refuse to continue labeling a dog by its history, or the flaws of today.  I will not settle when success is an option.

The dog’s potential is the inspiration that can motivate us to keep going.  Seeing the bigger picture can prevent anger, fear and frustration from setting in.

If I were to be completely honest with myself, I know that I treat Kip and Karma differently.  People who meet my dogs treat them very differently.

Kip, although large and reserved draws people to him like moths to a flame.  Protests fall on deaf ears.  Strangers wiggle with fingers and tell all 70 pounds of him, “I don’t mind if you jump.”  People encourage their dogs to run up to him.  This really reflects my vision of fulfilling his potential of becoming a social dog.

I treat Karma like a working dog.  I reinforce her more quickly.  People give me a wide berth.  They call their dogs away from her.  She happens to be the small, cute and cuddly dog.  How ironic is that?  My expectations create a culture that supports good behaviour.  She learns to be attentive to me.

I think we often get what we ask for and what we expect.  If that were the case, why would we ever dwell on our dog’s flaws when we could re-frame our perspective, just enough to add a degree or optimism and potential?

So tell me, what is your dog’s label?

Blurred Lines – When Approach Means Escape

Imagine that you are locked in a museum.  Evil people have hidden bombs throughout the building.  You cannot run away.  There is no way you can call for help.  If you smash the bombs with a hammer, they explode.   Your only hope is to defuse the bombs.

Rushing about, you seek to find the explosives.  As you find each bomb, your nimble fingers gently open the casing.  You pry apart the mass of tangled wires and you deftly clip the wire and disable it.  Then you rush off to find the next one and the next one.

Why would you run toward something scary?

Why would you run toward something scary?

Which quadrant did the evil villain use?

I love bizarre questions like this because sometimes the insanely exaggerated helps us understand the mundane.  Running around looking for bombs is creepy and twisted.  Thus, it is…interesting.

Plenty of behaviours are increasing:  searching, prying apart wires, clipping them.  We know that this is some form of reinforcement.  There is an obvious aversive (something unpleasant that we would rather avoid).  Bombs are clearly an aversive in the vast majority of situations.  Thus, this is clearly negative reinforcement.  Without the negative reinforcement, none of the behaviours, the seeking or the defusing would take place.

Here is the twisted part.  Generally, we flee FROM things that are nasty, scary, painful, uncomfortable or just plain yucky.  If a tiger is trying to eat you, you probably will run away.

In the bomb scenario, we would run TOWARD the aversive.

While it is natural to flee from aversives, the reason we run toward a bomb is because the behaviours that lead to escape are near or part of the aversive.  In order to escape the aversive, you must search for the bomb, touch the bomb, examine the bomb and cut the wires.

Placing the abort sequence on an aversive creates an odd scenario that causes people to run toward things that are scary, nasty and even potentially dangerous because the behaviour of approaching is part of the escape route.

While our hypothetical example might conjure up images of blind panic, there are other examples that do not.  People who search for land mines do the same thing.  However, it’s with a slow and steady purpose.  As J.M. Lohr points out in Clinical Psychology Review, “”there is no expectation that the predictability of an aversive event will reduce the aversiveness of the event.  Having the ability to safely find and defuse bombs does not make bombs any less aversive.

When it comes to dogs, this sort of “put the abort button on the aversive” scenario is interesting for a couple of reasons.  Two things change when the location of the abort sequence is near the aversive.

  • The direction of escape changes.  Fleeing turns into approach.  Do not assume that approach equals lack of aversive control.
  • Lack of overt fear does not mean lack of aversives.  Calm, cautious behaviour may indicate practice and predictability, not lack of aversiveness.

Trusting common sense and rules of thumb can only get you so far.  Thankfully, quadrants do not lie.  Some might claim that quadrants are fuzzy.  As Leahy and Leahy pointed out, “Just because the boundaries between night and day are fuzzy, it does not mean they cannot be meaningfully differentiated.”

The quadrants are four little boxes – it’s not rocket science.  Changing small details such as the location of the desired behaviour can change everything.  Fleeing takes the form of approach.  These details are interesting and important elements that require our attention.

Exceptions such as these are especially important for trainers and rescue workers who evaluate dogs for placement into family homes.  Approaching children is not necessarily the same as loving contact from children.  It’s an important distinction if one is placing a dog in a home with a child.

Trainers can place abort sequences on or near scary things.  Dogs will learn to approach them.  Anything is possible if you know how to wield the sword of behaviour modification.  The question in dog training isn’t whether you can but rather whether you should.  Sometimes the quadrants get a little sneaky and you have to look very carefully to see if there’s an aversive lurking about.

I’d like to give Jean Donaldson a thank you for her assistance – for letting me ask her questions.  I have never met someone who is so open to questions and helping others.

Go Buy Milk (Or Teach Heel).

Not too long ago, I asked my husband to stop and buy butter and milk at the store.  It’s such a simple request.  “Please buy butter and milk.”  How hard can it be?

Buying dairy is harder than it seems apparently.  Between organic, 2%, skim, homo, fine filtered, lactose free, goat, I know that “Please buy butter and milk” will probably result in a flurry of text messages.

That confusion is absolutely my fault.  I know the dairy counter is filled with wall-to-wall milk choices.  I failed at communicating.

If two humans can miscommunicate about “Go buy butter and milk”, a seemingly easy task, how much more likely is it that we miscommunicate with our pets?  We are not even the same species.

For example, heel position means many things.

  • Put your behind on the ground.
  • Do so beside my left leg.
  • Keep your body parallel to mine.
  • Sit tall.
  • Look at me.
  • Move your body into heel following a precise series of steps.
  • Sit not too close and not too far away.
  • Learn to control your hind end as you swing in tight.

Sit in heel is about as complicated as “Go buy butter and milk.”  There is a lot going on behind that very simple request.  Communication is hard.

How hard can sit be

Dogs can learn to understand us.  They are at an incredible disadvantage.  Using words is not in their nature.

Some handlers have a knack for making these skills look easy.  It’s not because they have some magic in their pocket, but rather that they engage in thoughtful, planned training.   Communicating a beautiful heel position is a skill – like a teacher that captivates a classroom or a couple that understands each other’s nuances.

A skill taught well to a dog, polished and finished is an indication that someone cared enough to teach well.  We should absolutely celebrate improvements along the way.  However, habitual crooked sits or the inability to wean away a lure speaks volumes.  Never finishing and polishing a skill is a shame.

The art of completing just one skill, from start to finish speaks to the question:

“Can you communicate with your dog well enough that you can finish and polish behaviour?”

Which skill does not matter.  No one has to enter the world of competition behaviours.  Completing your dog’s “shake a paw” trick is a very worthy goal.  Get the behaviour on cue and achieve stimulus control.  At least it has the benefit of stopping enthusiastic and repeated swatting and scratching of people’s arms.  It develops skills that carry over to other real life scenarios.

The beauty of a perfect heel, chase turn, rear cross or cute trick is not in a ribbon or medal.  It is in the experience of learning to finish a task from start to finish.  We learn to persevere, adapt and communicate more fully.  The dog shows its comprehension by demonstrating the skill – flawlessly.  The dog learns to attend to the cue, and not a lure.  Dogs learn to offer behaviours only when asked.  Our gestures and movements begin acting like spoken words.

Make that journey.  Achieve the most perfect form of behaviour possible.  Eliminate lures, create stimulus control, and work on minute position changes on at least one skill because it’s an important skill to have.  Eliminating lures and contextual cues in a routine are the same skill set found in rehabilitation programs.  They are not optional accessories in a dog-training toolkit.  A trick can be a opportunity for growth.

Effort is required for the simple things, perhaps even more than for the complex.  Mistakes glare on simple skills.  It’s just you, the dog and a sit.  Not much hides a sloppy sit or unfaded lure.

Failing to communicate all the elements of a behaviour is not much different than saying, “Go buy butter and milk.”  It’s too vague.  Be prepared to eat some crow when they bring home buttermilk.  Don’t expect dogs to do much better with partial instructions either.

Good communication looks like magic, but it is really just a whole lot of effort on our part.  Only in its absence do we miss it.  It is something that everyone can achieve with their dogs if they set a goal, create a training plan and go for it.  Start with, “just one behaviour – as close to perfection as possible.”  Finish it.  You may find that it gives you something more valuable in return.

Layman’s Dictionary of Dog Jargon in Rehabilitation


Technical jargon can sound impressive, scary, intimidating or any combination of the above.  I get that there are proper, technical definitions.  However, using jargon to explain jargon isn’t very helpful to people that are new to dog training and rehabilitation.

Think of this as a stepping stone, one that I recognize is taking liberties.  The concepts are accurate, but the words are less formal.  Hopefully you won’t need migraine medication after looking up a definition.

If you’re learning about learning theory, I hope this layman’s guide helps get you over the initial hump.  From there you can progress to more technical versions.

Please note, just because a strategy is included in the dictionary, it does not mean that it is effective, without risk or appropriate for your dog.  This is just a glossary of terms with examples.

Classical Conditioning (AKA Pavlovian Conditioning AKA Respondent Conditioning)

Take something meaningless  and pair it repeatedly with something good or bad.  Meaningless things take on meaning by association.

Easy example:  I run the can opener.  I repeatedly feed the cat a can of food.  The cat starts salivating when it hears a can opener.

Or, you could just click here and watch this clip from The Office where the neutral Window’s sound is paired with Altoids.  That leads to the Window’s sound triggering dry mouth.

Dog example:  Get the leash, go for a walk.  If the dog likes walks, it will become happy and excited to see the leash.  Be careful, if the dog is scared of walks, the dog can become scared at the sight of the leash.

Process:  You can teach your dog to like things through careful association.  The word, “yes” makes the dog salivate because “yes” has been paired with treats.  Conversely, “No” can be paired with a leash correction, triggering fear.

Conditioned Emotional Response (CER+ or CER-)

Learned emotional reactions that come from our experiences.  They can be pleasant, neutral or negative.  We learn that things predict “good”, “bad” or neutral feelings.  We develop feelings about things that predict these outcomes.

Easy example: A special phone ring tone means a loved one is calling.  We feel happy when we hear that ring tone.  (Or the opposite if we associate the sound with someone that we dread talking to.)

Dog example:  Sight of training gear such as a collar, treat pouch or special leash means fun times.  Dog feels happy at seeing these things.  (CER+)  The dog can also learn that the sight of nail clippers means pain, so they feel dread or fear if they see nail clippers.  (CER-)


When you break previous conditioning by NOT following through with the consequence..

Easy example:  The neighbour’s car alarm repeatedly goes off which used to mean danger.  The alarm keeps sounding for no reason, so now it means nothing.

Dog example:    Your dog has learned that the sound of the clicker means food.  You click but do NOT give food.  Eventually the dog realizes that the click has become meaningless.  A second example would be a dog that received attention for barking.  If attention is no longer given, the dog stops barking because it is no longer rewarded.

Process:  Present the trigger and do NOT follow with the expected consequence.  You can extinguish associations, and you can also extinguish behaviours.


Take something that has previously been classically conditioned.  Pair it with something different to change the reaction.

Easy example:  You hate loud rock music.  You have a child, that child decides to take up drums and play in a rock band.  You get so much joy out of watching your child play, you start liking rock music.

Dog example:  The dog is afraid of strange people.  Each time your dog sees a stranger, you give them special, tasty treats.  With repetition, the dog starts feeling happy when they see strangers.

Process:  Present the scary thing, and then give something that the animal can ENJOY in that moment.  The dog leaves the situation while enjoying the experience.


Gradually expose the animal to something it fears in baby steps while teaching it to relax.  Begin with easy steps and work toward more challenging exposures.

Easy Example:  You are scared of spiders.  You learn to relax while looking at a fat lazy spider in a locked box.  Later on you learn to relax while looking at a fast moving spider that jumps around, while the spider is locked in a box.  You learn to relax while the fat lazy spider is in an open box.  You learn to touch the fat, lazy spider.  You learn to relax while looking at a medium speed spider in a partially opened box….etc.

Dog Example:  You teach a dog that is afraid of other dogs to relax when faced with other dogs.  At first, you might work at a distance, with a very slow moving animal that is facing away.  Then you expose the dog, but approach a bit closer.  You then teach the dog to relax while the slow moving dog is far away, but facing each other.  You work toward situations where the dog has to face fast, unpredictable dogs in close proximity…etc.

Process:  The dog is slowly exposed to things it fears, working from easiest to hardest.  The dog leaves the situation while it is relaxed.  The dog learns to relax at each step or level prior to moving on.  Important note:  Easiest to hardest does not mean farthest away to closest, nor does it mean you work in chronological order.  Different dogs have different triggers.  Triggers are actively worked in the order in which the dog finds easiest to hardest.

Negative Reinforcement (R-)

Something unpleasant ends when the dog engages in a specific behaviour we want to encourage.

Easy example:  Your spouse is nagging at you to do chores.  They keep nagging until you do what they want, at which point the nagging stops.  You do what is wanted to make the unpleasant nagging stop.

Dog example:  The dog learns that by standing calmly, it will be allowed to move away from scary things.  The dog stands still more often because that is how it has learned to escape.

Process:  Show the dog the thing it fears.  Wait for an appropriate behaviour.  When the dog does what you like, encourage the dog to leave.  The dog leaves when it feels uncomfortable enough to want to leave, thus feeling relief.  Dogs can learn to stop things like pain as well.


Immerse the patient into something scary.  Prevent escape until they get over the fear.

Easy example:  Lock a person that is afraid of spiders into a room teeming with spiders.  Do not let them out – no matter what – until they are fine with spiders.

Dog example:  Take a dog that is scared of other dogs.  Drop him off into a crowded dog park.  Do not let him leave until he is over his fear of other dogs.

Process:  Take the dog and force it to face what it fears.  Prevent escape regardless if the dog becomes aggressive, loses bowel control – nothing can allow the dog to escape.


A rather passive process where one is accustomed to something until they no longer notice it.

Easy example:  You move near a set of railroad tracks.  With time, you no longer hear the trains.

Dog example:  A dog hears a dog bark on television and reacts.  As the dog is exposed to more television, it realized that dog noises from the television are irrelevant.  The dog barely notices them.

Process:  Keep repeating something until the dog fails to notice it any longer.


Process of becoming more sensitive and aroused to things after repeated exposure or exposure to highly aversive stimuli.  Individual usually becomes more aroused to all stimuli, not just the one in question.

Easy example:  A repeated and annoying sound starts to get on your nerves.  As you become irritated, all sounds start to grate on your nerves.

Dog example:  Dog hears scary noises.  As the sounds repeat, the dog because more aroused, more jumpy.  May start to startle at other noises

Positive Punishment (P+)

Adding something unpleasant to hopefully decrease a behaviour you do not want.

Easy example:  Spanking.  The child has a tantrum.  You spank the child in the hopes that they do not do misbehave in the future.

Dog example:  The dog reacts at the sight of another dog.  You leash correct the dog in the hopes that the dog will stop reacting at the sight of another dog.

Process:  The dog is allowed to react/misbehave and is corrected for doing so.

Differential Reinforcement (DR)

Using positive reinforcement, reward a behaviour you would like to increase, while ignoring behaviour you do not want.  There are various ways you can do this.  For example, you could reward incompatible behaviours.

Easy Example:  Giving stickers and attention to a child when they sit at their desk working quietly instead of running.  As the child sits quietly more often, running about reduces because sitting is rewarded more.

Dog Example:  The dog is rewarded for sitting instead of jumping.  The dog cannot be sitting and jumping at the same time.  The dog sits more often because it is rewarded more.

Process:  Teach the dog a behaviour by rewarding it.  Continuing rewarding that behaviour so it takes place of a problem behaviour.  Often times, unwanted behaviour is prevented to ensure safety.  For example, you might have the dog on a leash to ensure Grandma isn’t knocked to the ground.

Negative Punishment (P-)

Take something away that the animal wants, suppressing an unwanted behaviour.

Easy Example:  Take away television privileges when the child swears.  The child learns to reduce swearing so they do not lose further television viewing time.

Dog Example:  Put the dog into timeout when it jumps for attention.  The dog loses the opportunity to get attention and social contact.  In the future, the dog learns to jump less often.

Process:  When the dog misbehaves, take away something they value.  The dog has to lose something, and not just be waiting to earn the next reward.

Positive Reinforcement (R+)

Giving something pleasant that increases the chances that the dog will do something you want.

Easy Example:  Give a child a sticker for completing a homework correctly.

Dog Example:  Give the dog a treat or play session when the dog comes when called.  The dog starts coming when called more often.

Process:  When the dog does something that you like, follow that behaviour with something the dog finds rewarding.

You could watch this clip from The Big Bang Theory for a visual example.

Extinction Burst

When an animal is going through extinction, but the behaviour increases before it decreases.

Easy example:  A child has a temper tantrum.  That tantrum escalates before it stops.

Dog example:  An owner decides to ignore all food begging at the table.  The dog pesters more, insistent on getting food before finally quitting.

Process:  Although not something one usually strives for, it happens as a by-product of extinction.

This list offers a good overview of the main strategies used in dog training and rehabilitation.  There are others that I’ll add to the list as they come to my attention.  Let me know if there are terms you want to see!

One important note.  These strategies are not based on intent.  It is always the dog and their reaction that determines which strategy actually happened.  For a more detailed explanation, click on this previous blog post.  For example, owners might intend to reward their dogs with praise and petting.  However, if the dog is scared, human contact might be punishing.  Look at the whole picture when deciphering which technique is at play.

Yes you can reinforce fear…..or at least enable it.

A number of recent articles claim that, “You can’t reinforce fear.”  What they mean is that you cannot use positive reinforcement to create or maintain fear.  This would be true.  I can pay you to fake an Oscar worthy performance of being afraid of spiders.  However, I cannot pay you to BE afraid of spiders.

However, you can, absolutely enable fear via negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement is a bit challenging to understand.  You can read how it works in more detail here in a previous blog post.

The Reader’s Digest condensed definition of negative reinforcement is that you stop something unpleasant in order to increase behaviour.  Presumably you have to start being aversive in order to stop it.  For example, you can’t turn off a car unless someone started it first.  The important point being that it is the cessation of something unpleasant that has all the power.

In dog training, negative reinforcement is used a fair bit.  Turning off continuous shock when a dog obeys is one example.  Nagging is a classic example of negative reinforcement.  Fear also works.  Dogs can learn if they act calm, they can move away from something that makes them nervous.

Negative reinforcement supports a wide range of fears and phobia.  For example, some people stay in their home because they are afraid of social situations.  Anxiety reduces when outings are successfully avoided.  Staying at home increases.

In order to survive in this world, we develop coping strategies.  Not all of them are healthy.  Some people might brave the world if a close friend tags along.  For lack of a better word, the friend acts as a crutch or buffer.  Their presence prevents the phobic person from facing the root of their fear, on their own.

These are maladaptive coping strategies.  Other publications call them safety behaviours and safety signals.  Maladaptive strategies create a rapid drop in anxiety, but stand in the way of addressing the primary fear.  Continued practice of these maladaptive strategies makes the patient better at avoiding the real problem.  Fear festers in silence.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement

Similar things happen to our dogs.  Fear can be maintained with negative reinforcement.  In order to cope, our pets can create maladaptive strategies that deceptively look like cures.

For example, nervous dogs might take a back seat to another dog in the home.  So long as “big brother” takes the lead in social situations, owners fail to see any sign of fear.  Anxiety festers.  The dog fails to develop social skills – until one day big brother is no longer around.  The poor dog is ravaged with terror.

Owners can also become a crutch by repeatedly bailing (rather than occasionally helping) dogs out of difficult situations.  Dogs become dependent on the owner in an unhealthy way.  Instead of learning how to handle difficult situations, they learn how to escape when thing get uncomfortable.  Owners offer an easy out.

If it makes you recoil at the possibility of being an enabler, understand that negative reinforcement is powerful and subtle.  The curative appearance that safety behaviours create can fool expert eyes.

Our role, as owners or coaches is to help empower our dogs.  We need to give them roots and wings.  This means careful self-reflection – bitter, painful, self-reflection.  Are we serving the dog, teaching it to face its fear?  Or are we intentionally giving the dog an escape route?

By no means am I advocating that dogs sink or swim.  There is no reason to work a dog to the point of discomfort.  There are plenty of options such as desensitization and counter conditioning.  New advances in their execution are improving upon already impressive results.

However, what I am pointing out is that you can enable fear through negative reinforcement.  You can fool yourself into thinking that you have cured said fear if you intentionally or accidentally create a safety behaviour that allows or encourages escape.

Perhaps you are fine with that, so long as your dog stops being embarrassing in public.  Remember that life isn’t always fair.  Owners get sick, divorced – heck they go on holidays.  Dogs become lost and end up in a shelter.  Like the dog that lost its “big brother”, how will your dog feel and behave when abruptly forced to face a very scary world all alone?  What will your dog do when they no longer have you to turn to as a routine escape plan?  What will you do when your dog is cornered unexpectedly because they are charged by something or someone scary?

Regardless of your personal decision, understand that negative reinforcement plays a role in keeping phobias alive whether you like it or not.  If you’re helping a nervous dog to overcome its fears, it pays to understand how negative reinforcement works, how it maintains fear, and the risks that tag along for the ride  When a quadrant has this much power, it pays to know it inside out..

**Safety behaviours and safety  signals link only works in some browsers like Chrome.  If the link doesn’t work, please try changing browsers.