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

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


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.

I am a Clucker Trainer

Some claim that there is a new fad running rampant through dog training circles.

It is based on some of that sciencey stuff by Pavlov, Skinner, Watson and Thorndike.  A few well-known trainers such as Breland, Keller and Bailey furthered this fancy stuff by using geeky science outside the lab, causing this new age stuff to proliferate to the dog owning public.

Perhaps you have heard of some of these fads.  You’ll recognize these fancy methods because they use terms such as positive reinforcement, desensitization, counterconditioning and the charming though less scientific term clicker training… among others.  Some feel that these will quickly pass.

I’m still waiting.

It should happen at any moment.  After all, this fad has been around for at least 162 years.  Yes, you read that correctly.

One hundred sixty two years of “fancy” training and counting.

In 1882, S.T. Hammond published, “Practical Dog Training or Training vs. Breaking.”  It begins by saying….

“The system of dog training described in this book is a new one…This system is humane and rational.  It is also practical and efficient.”

Hammond’s book comes after 30 years of him using these techniques.  Do not jump to the conclusion that Practical Dog Training is a book for lunching ladies and their lap dogs.  It is a hunting dog manual.  Many of the exercises are similar if not identical to exercises done today using positive reinforcement and classical conditioning.  Hammond even suggests in places that people “cluck” prior to giving a piece of meat.  I suppose you could say that Hammond was a clucker trainer.

I thought I would share a few excerpts from Practical Dog Training.  If we stick to the strict definitions of the quadrants, not all of the exercises are positive reinforcement and classical conditioning.  Hammond’s book is heavily weighted in that direction.

On Clucking and Treating

“….as soon as his attention is fixed upon the meat, and he looks at it steadily for a second, release your hold and cluck to him as a signal that he can now have it….”

Getting a Dog Accustomed to Gun Shots

“…take the pans to quite a distance from his pen…..When it is time to feed him we go to the pans….we give a stroke just loud enough for him to hear plainly and at once proceed to his pen and give him his feed.  By pursuing this course for a few days and gradually going a little closer every time, he will become accustomed to the sound, and learning that the noise is connected with our coming, and also his dinner, he soon gets used to it, and in a short time will stand the racket without flinching….”

Whistle Recalls

“We think it a very good plan to always have in our pocket something good for him to eat, and when he minds this long note (whistle) and comes in quickly, we reward him with a bit of something substantial as well as with fine words.”

Back chaining a fetch

“In this lesson especial care must be had that each successive step is well and thoroughly learned before proceeding any further.  Thus when you have succeeded in getting him to take a step or two toward you, do not try him at a longer distance until he has had considerable practice at this, and will readily come the one step or two at the word, “bring”;….”

 Fear of Water

“If he shows no inclination to wet his feet you will find it a very good plan to hold a piece of meat over the water where it is but an inch or two deep, and where he cannot get it without putting his feet in….he will learn that it will not hurt him … You should never throw him in no matter how much you feel disposed to do so, but rather let him find out for himself that water will not hurt him, and he will soon lose all fear.”

If we stop to think about it, it is absurd to think that pre-Pavlov, humans could only comprehend or use punishment and coercion.  Using food, as the book points out, is “rational”.  It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to think that no one, ever, in history ever noticed that animals would work for food or make associations – that it was “discovered” in a lab.

I do not mean to insult or diminish what scientists and pioneers of dog training gave us.  If anything, I think that they gave us something far more important.  We risk diminishing some of their contributions.

  • They gave us a common language.
  • They taught us the details of how to us learning theory and conditioning effectively.
  • They applied those scientific lessons to real life situations and shared that knowledge with those who want to train better.

“Sciencey” terms such as desensitization and positive reinforcement help us better communicate with other professionals.  Guidance from training greats, who applied the science help us train more effectively.

We use OLD dog training methods, based in positive reinforcement and conditioning better because of NEWER information on HOW it works.  That does not mean that positive reinforcement, desensitization or counterconditioing is new, nor is it a fad.  It has been around for far too long to be a fad.

Positive reinforcement not a fad
Trainers who used positive reinforcement before it had a name deserve some recognition.  At least, they deserve a little humility from us.  When it comes to the practical aspects of dog training, not much has changed.  Much of what Hammond wrote would easily flow in a Facebook dialogue on dog training today.

Maybe it is time we stopped bickering about who thought it first.  If we look back across the ages, science describes what we’ve done all along using only a handful of terms:  Reinforcement, punishment, conditioning, extinction, habituation, flooding.  All that we do regardless of training methodology, can be described with the language of the training greats who defer to science.  There is not much new under the sun.

I feel it is apropos to raise a glass and say, “I am a clucker trainer!”  It is not a fad.  Get used to it.  It is practical, effective and rational.  Mad respect to the observational skills of the trainers of old who recognized a good thing when they saw it.  Thanks to the pioneers who taught us how to do it well.

For those who want to read Hammond’s book, it’s available online by clicking (or should I say clucking?) here.

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eMDR or HAT Treatment offers insights into dog behaviour problems.

Experts have an exciting new anxiety reduction protocol.  Discussed since 2003, P.H.T., otherwise known as eMDR, this revolutionary treatment plan has spawned reviews and discussions about its ability to bring success. With a few slight changes, P.H.T. helps trainers and owners to treat anxiety and behaviour problems in pets better.

P.H.T. stands for Purple Hat Therapy.  The authors go to great lengths detailing the importance of colour selection, most likely due to greater understanding of the influence that colour plays on our emotional state.  Where dogs are concerned, their limited colour vision makes these distinctions less important.   In an effort to avoid any proprietary infringement, I have simply started referring to this treatment as H.A.T. (Heuristic Anxiety Treatment.)

Briefly, H.A.T. is a desensitization and counter conditioning protocol, with one added feature and benefit.  With the use of a novel item – a hat – dogs learn a contextual safety cue.  Examples from the literature and reviews detail its effectiveness in treating driving anxiety.  This specific application, it is eMDR (electro magnetic desensitization and remobilization) as it helps people remobilize in various social contexts

H.A.T. is an extremely important and critical advancement in anxiety treatment.  I am excited to bring it to you….even if it only exists in the mind of Rosen and Davison.  They created the hat protocol.  Everything I stated above is true.  Despite being fake, it is important.  P.H.T. or eMDR is an example used to illustrate that you can add bells and whistles to standard therapies and the program might still work.  People will sing the praises of a silly little hat.  Chances are, if you test H.A.T. therapy, scientific testing will probably show that it works better than doing nothing.  Perhaps it does not work better than a placebo.  It will work for some.


The eMDR (electro Magnetic DESENSITIZATION!!!! and Remobilization) therapy uses desensitization – a well-established treatment. Hat or no hat, the desensitization part is going to have an effect.

Jim Morrison and The Doors were right.  People are strange.  We are strange because we are biased.  When we add bells and whistles, we often credit the bells and whistles.  We are so biased that there is a bias for thinking we are not biased.

The one that applies here is illusionary correlation.  We assume flawed associations.  Someone bitten by a particular breed of dog assumes that all dogs of that breed are aggressive.  Add a new sound, gesture or movement to a training plan and we credit the sound, gesture or movement.  Put in a twist and it’s new and improved….ready for sale.

However, a twist on the words of psychologist Richard McNally points out the critical lesson.

What is effective in certain therapies is not new, and what is new is not effective.
HAT copy
Many fads incorporate tried and true elements that work in the background.  According to the Rosen and Davison report, “proprietary, trademarked therapies can receive recognition without regard to any meaningful principle of change.”  We need to be cautious that our desire to find a helpful protocol does not create an environment where “any treatment innovator or savvy charlatan who puts a novel method through a single randomized controlled trial with a no-treatment comparison,” thrives despite the lack of scientific testing.

Personally, I have a difficult time asking clients to hop from one expensive fad to another when the meaningful processes of change are well documented and readily available.  I have an even bigger problem crediting the silly proverbial “hat” when I know that results come to those that apply techniques and work diligently.  The majority of my clients are awesome.  It is not the hat or any other silly gimmick.

We need to arm ourselves against blind faith and desperation, without becoming too skeptical.  According to the book Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, the following warning signs are warnings that someone might be trying to peddle pseudoscience.

Ad Hoc Claims:  Problems are dismissed in a way that cannot be falsified.  There is no way to show the objection is incorrect..

Absence of Self-Correction:  While both science and pseudoscience can be wrong, science seeks to find errors and fix them.

Avoiding peer review:  Expert review can sting.  Avoiding critical review by independent sources looking to poke holes is a problem.  Watch out for those that try to avoid scrutiny by claiming that science is wrong, biased or not yet ready to examine a new discovery or strategy.

Accentuates the positive:  Pseudoscience looks for proof.  Science looks for flaws.   Yes, it does come across as negative and critical.  It is possibly the one time “positive” trainers should be “negative.”  Poke holes.  It is what science is supposed to do.

Burden of Proof:  It lies on the one making the claim (the one selling the product.)  Period.  End of Story.  The person questioning should NEVER feel guilty about asking for it, or asked to wait for some distant point in time to get it.

Lack of Connectivity:  Anything that claims to exist above, beyond or outside of current scientific knowledge is highly suspect.  While radical new discoveries may exist, any claims of such require strong scientific evidence to support it.

Testimonials and anecdotes:  Every dog trainer on the planet has stories and testimonials.  (Mom, brother, aunt, friend, boyfriend….)  Don’t mistake stories for proof.

Technical language:  Big words sound fancy.  If you do not understand the jargon, ask a third party (unbiased) to explain it.  Big words make things sound all sciencey.

Holism:  Dismissing lack of scientific evidence because research fails to focus on the whole or holistic picture. For example, “My protocol can’t be tested because you can’t replicate this in a lab with any accuracy.  I do real life therapy.”

At the end of the day, Rosen and Davison point out that, “Principles of behaviour change, after all, cannot be trademarked, for they belong to science.”  The rest is just a bell…a whistle…a hat – until put through the ringer of empirical testing.

“A” Sucks. “B” Stinks. What Kind of Choice is That?

Each year we go to a large Chinese buffet restaurant for a family event.  This particular buffet offers a plethora of choices.  This apparently is good because “everyone can find something that they will like.”

Unless you hate greasy Chinese food.  What draws me to this restaurant is not the food, but the company.  I enjoy visiting with extended family.  My little foodie rant is rather trivial.  It goes to show that having choices is not the same as having good choices.  Children understand this.

“Sweetie – blue pants or red pants?
“I want to wear a tu-tu.”
“You can’t wear a tu-tu.  You have a choice.  Blue pants or red pants?”
“I want to wear a party dress.
“You can’t wear a party dress.   You have a choice.  Blue pants or red pants?”

It doesn’t take long for a kid to realize that choices have been limited.  Beneath the guise of choice lies the ultimatum of “You will wear pants.”

Not all choices are good choices.

Not all choices are good choices.

Dogs also get limited choices during training.

Sit = cookie – Don’t sit = no cookie.
Come = praise – Don’t come = correction.
Pee = treat – No pee = stay out in the cold until you do.
Bark and lunge = scare away other dog – Flee = avoid the scary other dog.
Choose to do anything you want, but you are doing rehab setups today.

Choice sounds good creating the assumption that all choice based programs must be good.  Choice sounds good unless you ask, “What are the choices?”

Just because a dog made a choice, it does not mean that the dog enjoyed it.  Dogs can pick the best of the worst.  What other choice do they have?

Choice is no gift when A sucks and B stinks.

When a dog retracts, retreats or refuses, the dog has made their choice.  The dog is saying, “A sucks.”  Communication goes two ways.  We can respond to the dog’s message that “A sucks” through our actions.

I can continue doing the same thing, justifying it by saying that the dog is free to leave.

I can change what I am doing, so the dog no longer wants to leave.

When we make an error – when the dog tries to retract, retreat and refuse – we should respect the dog’s wishes.  Apologize, do not let the dog suffer.

Listening to the dog once during an error is not at all the same as planning and creating scenarios where the dog is stuck between many lousy, unpleasant or irritating choices.

When our dogs communicate that we have erred, it is our choice whether to adapt the training plan or continue forcing the issue.   Humans should not dump the responsibility of our own behaviour onto our dogs – our lack of listening and adapting to feedback – by cloaking it in a guise of choice.

Once is a mistake, twice is stupid.  It is a human choice to engage in the same scenario that triggered the retreat, retraction and refusal in the first place.

Which choices are available is up to the human.  There may be 2,3, or 100 of them.  Owners can create choices the dog avoids, tolerates, or seeks out.

Shrugging one’s shoulders is akin to saying, “They can always leave.”  It is an example of hearing rather than listening and responding to the dog’s attempts at communication.  Listening means that I alter the training plan so that the dog wants to stay and participate.  Signs of retreat and resistance disappear.

We can choose to take responsibility for our own technique.  We can swear to better our skills, trying to provide choices that the dogs not only want but enjoy and love.  We can promise to look for signs of refusal, retreat and retraction.

Some may argue that we really cannot fully know what the dog wants.  Perhaps that is true.  We can make educated guesses.  Researchers are finding ways to test choice and preference.  It seems cold to not try to listen to our pets.

Why put a dog in a position where it has to chose between one aversive and another?  At the very least, it’s really not so hard to lay out the dog’s choices, like a buffet table of behavioural menu items.  Take a good look and ask yourself if there is anything on the menu that your dog actually likes – or are you giving the dog a choice of A sucks and B stinks?

Mad Hatter Tea Parties – Through the Looking Glass – Dog Training Jabberwocky

My mother says that when I was a child, animals would just follow me around.  She says not much has changed since then.

Animals were simple back then.  If I met an aggressive dog, I thought, “I’m going to make you like me.”  When I wanted the rabbits to come to me (Yes, we had rabbits, and of course I trained them!), it just seemed easy.  Come to me, and I will give you the best, sweetest grass there is.  “I’m gonna’ teach you.”  If a scared kitten recoiled as I tossed treats, I never felt offended.  I would just say, “I’m sorry, I’ll make that easier.”  When my puppy thought my new hat was odd, the answer was simple.  Have a Mad Hatter party.  This is a hat; I am going to put it on.  This is a hat.  And this is another hat.  Pretend tea and crumpets for all at the hat party.  “I’m gonna’ show you.”  Maybe children have so many things in the world to see, they understand that a slow, easy and gentle introduction without any fear is appreciated.

Today, I know that these strategies have names.  “I’m gonna’ make you like me,” is classical conditioning.  “I’ll give you the sweetest grass for coming” is operant conditioning.  “I will repeatedly show you” a hat is habituation.  Saying I’m sorry and adjust difficulty is about criteria setting or adjusting the threshold.

I am not suggesting that we put children in harms’ way and put the burden of training on them.  I am suggesting that we remember what it is like to see the learning process the way we used to as children.

Children often understand things that adults struggle to comprehend.  We over complicate the obvious.  We attach emotional baggage.

As we mature, we take a more complicated road.  Debating whether to give a cookie triggers analysis paralysis.  What should be a simple answer to a simple question becomes a five-page oratory that really just says, “I dunno – maybe.  Come to my $500.00 seminar and ask the guru yourself.”

Looking only at behavioural principles, there are only a few limited choices at our disposal.

  • Reinforce/Punish
  • Classical Conditioning/desensitizing
  • Extinguish/Habituate
  • Highly controversial flooding.

All protocols boil down to these core elements.  There is nothing new under the sun.

Professionals absolutely should understand how to execute these strategies well.  From speed of reinforcement, criteria setting, finding the dog’s threshold all the way to variable schedules, extinction bursts and post interval scallops – maturity brings experience and greater knowledge.

Maturity should also bring things like patience and understanding.  We should realize that Rome was not built in a day.  Our actions have consequences.

Yet, we often do not have these traits.  Our stupid, busy lives can take simple problems and cram them into a pressure cooker of stress and expectations.  We want it fixed – this dog is so stubborn – this dog is ruining my life – it’s costing me so much money.

Molehills become mountains and we forget that there was a time in our lives when learning and doing stuff was fun.

I find revisiting a more simplistic, childlike view makes it easier to empathize with the dog – to feel what that dog might need.  To stop feeling so stressed about problems.

We forget that a Mad Hatter tea party can be a valid teaching tool.  School becomes a chore.  We forget what it feels like to be scared of things like a haircut.  Our grown up maturity become insensitive because we forget what that terror felt like to us so many years ago.

Kip and mom copy

We become one of THOSE people that we swore we would never become – old of mind and heart.  The inconvenience of having our orderly (boring) life weighs heavy; we make the mistake of thinking that big words, jabberwocky and a handful of cash can buy the perfect dog that fills our heart with joy.  If everyone just did what he or she was supposed to do we could fix it NOW!

Our desperate need to fix everyone around us triggers fad jumping – a desperate search for the one magic protocol that gives us a Norman Rockwell dream.  Mr. Rockwell painted plenty of dogs, but he also painted plenty of children.  He painted relationships, some tinged with whimsy and some with a bit of naughtiness.  Those real, imperfect relationships illustrate joy.  Rockwell’s pictures often show dogs doing things that a bitter person would frown upon – a dog bowing in church tsk tsk.

If you want joy, do not expect the dog to give it to you.  Look inside yourself.  Are you joyful or have you crept toward intolerance.  It happens.  Your dog is here to shake you up and wake you up.  Would you feel stupid having a hat party?

Maybe that is what dogs give us.  They are the looking glass that reminds us that another version of ourselves exists.  That person is young at heart and joyful.  They are capable of seeing that most problems can be fixed with “I’m gonna’ make you like…I’m gonna’ teach….I’m gonna’ show….I’m sorry, I’ll make that easier.”

Avoidance Makes for Happy (Looking) Dogs

This New Years, I made a resolution.  I am leaving a number of Facebook groups.  It was triggered by a couple interesting exchanges, one that left me sobbing.  I can’t say that I was sad or hurt.  I have to respect someone in order to be hurt by them.  I can’t say that was the case.

In hindsight, I suspect it was stress release.  When you keep trying to not rock the boat, there comes a point where a straw breaks the camel’s back.  Low-grade, long-term stress sucks.  The relief of making up my mind and leaving just opened the floodgates.

Leaving the first group was difficult.  It felt like I was shunning people.

Click…you’re gone.

Each subsequent group became easier.  I needed less of a reason to go.  I didn’t even need to feel personally threatened or offended.  Seeing others bicker was enough.


You know something, it feels GOOD.  Damn good.  Click!  You are gone.  Click!  No more Facebook baiting.  Click!  No more trolls.  Click!  You are banished from my little world.

Click … I have the power to leave.

It gave me an epiphany.  Everyday social situations can be extremely aversive.

Some people will chime up that we should have the choice to leave abusive situations.  Absolutely:  Leave and stay away.  This blog is not about the right to leave abuse.  Although I do find it interesting that people go back to abuse.  That just goes to show that returning to something does not mean it was pleasant.

Dogs should live a life free from abuse too.  Let’s be really clear.  This blog is not about leaving abuse.  Nor is it about accidental situations where a dog becomes scared.  Chalk that up to a mistake and don’t let it happen again.

This blog is about using aversives intentionally in training.

When you leave an aversive situation, you get a sense of relief.  In social situations, it boils down to, “I feel good knowing that I can escape or avoid you.”  That is negative reinforcement.  All negative reinforcement involves aversives.  That is what negative reinforcement means – the cessation of an unpleasant stimulus, increasing a particular behaviour.

There are two special forms of negative reinforcement.

Leaving an unpleasant situation is escape.  With practice, you can hit the abort button soon enough, before things become unpleasant.  That is avoidance. If you’re at all clever, you’ll learn how to avoid unpleasant situations entirely if you’ve had to escape them.

Tears notwithstanding, I am grateful that I felt the joy of leaving that first group.  You don’t need shock collars, prong collars, choke collars or other tools to make something aversive.

I also realized just how good escape feels.  Click…you are shunned.  Woo hoo!  Holy sh!t it feels good.  I don’t have to face this anymore.

That creates quite a conundrum.  Escape and avoidance legitimately feels good.  If you feel good, you LOOK HAPPY once you have figured out the process.  Looking happy as you leave does not mean that you didn’t feel lousy at some point in the past.  The same goes for the dog.

If the dog is escaping, it could have felt lousy a few seconds ago.
If the dog has learned to avoid (escape before they feel lousy), then they might have felt lousy in the past.  The “happy” dog you see is possibly avoiding an aversive that happened days, months or years ago.

Negative reinforcement is powerful.  It is extremely resistant to extinction.  You have to face what you fear in order to realize that you’re not actually in any actual danger.  That fear, of facing what we fear, keeps us avoiding again and again and again.

Negative reinforcement is deceptive that way.  If I I can avoid discomfort, I look happy, not because I have overcome a fear, but because I have become a master at avoiding fear.  The embarrassing blowups might stop, but that does not mean the fear has disappeared.  The fear of fear lingers and supports the avoidance.

The quadrant police, whoever they are, have it right.  If you cannot trust your eyes, then trust the science.  Blurring the lines of the quadrants obfuscates and hides the aversive control.

I care why my dog looks happy. In negative reinforcement your dog can look happy AND be under the control of aversives.  They are not mutually exclusive.  Perhaps I might not ever know for sure, but if I know which quadrant I’m using, I can make a reasonable assumption.  If I can identify the behaviour, I can try to answer whether my dog is happy to approach or happy to leave.

As tempting as it might be to curl up and avoid social situations, I have decided that I dislike avoiding life as much as I dislike seeing dogs practice avoidance as a method of choice.  I don’t feel truly happy escaping and avoiding a small handful of jerks because it deprives me of the smart, interesting, good, quirky people out there.  So, I’ll continue reaching out.

It would break my heart to suspect that my dogs look happy because they are successfully avoiding the people and animals in it.  I certainly don’t want to worry and watch for signs that my dog is recoiling from the people who love them.

JV Kip dirtyPerhaps the idea that a dog can look happy and be under aversive control is a tough pill to swallow.  I would rather face that uncomfortable idea.  If my dog is a master of avoiding, I need to micromanage my dog, making sure no one assumes that looking happy means that the dog wants social contact.  The implications of that would frankly scare me.