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.

stop nagging

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.)

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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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.

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.

Science says … a lot of things.

There seems to be an explosion of science circulating through dog training groups, and that is rather exciting.  I started collecting studies over a decade ago.  I am a huge fan of science and seem to have gotten a reputation as a go to person for links.  Often I receive messages that say:

“Do you have anything that proves that…..<insert topic here>.”

The truth is that you could insert almost any topic and I probably have something.  Heck, I could send you study links to “prove” that aliens exist.

Where dog studies are concerned, I have studies that show negative reinforcement is linked to stress.  However, I also have studies that show no increase in cortisol – a stress hormone – in dogs trained with negative reinforcement.  Pick any topic and there will likely be studies that draw very different results.

I can “prove” both sides.

Science is a lot like Lego.  Each block is important.  You can’t see the whole of the structure by looking at just one block.  Research studies are the pieces.  Together they give you a complete structure.  As you stand back, you might see that some don’t fit quite right.  Some pieces for whatever reason don’t work in a given spot.  Sometimes you might even get one of those cheap knock off bricks that doesn’t fit anywhere at all, except perhaps the trash bin.
IMG_8216 copy

There are knock off studies – pay to publish.  Money talks, sometimes a little too much.  Not all research is free from the dilemma of who pays and why.  We live in an era where corporations can hire researchers to “test” their products.  How biased those studies are depends on the construction of the study.

Other times statistics pose problems.  Small or pre-screened samples create a huge margin of error.  Who cares if one or two pre-screened dogs act a certain way?  One proverbial guinea pig is not a large scale study with blind controls and random assignment to groups.  That is rather important if you want to know how the average dog behaves.  That is not to say that small studies are bad.  It is what it is.

Scientists question studies, trying to replicate interesting findings.  If only one research team is getting a particular set of results, we should probably ask why.  It’s not personal, nor is it an insult.  Questions are good.  Researchers do it all the time.

Let’s not forget that mistakes can happen.  Media outlets reported that neutrino particles moved faster than the speed of light (apparently an amazing physics discovery).  Testing and re-testing confirmed the results.  Yet, other scientists kept digging into the controversial finding.  Eventually it was determined that a loose cable caused faulty results.  In the age of the internet, you can still Google the obsolete (2011) results.  Quote it all you like, it’s wrong.

Questioning research doesn’t make one a jealous Debbie downer.  The scientific process is all about throwing stones.

The question is whether we allow our own opinions and bias to determine which studies we blindly accept, and which we evaluate with a critical eye.  Searching for studies is not the same as searching for truth.  Validating our own choices, or heaven forbid our own business product is biased and self serving.

Don’t get me wrong, Google Scholar has a place.  But it’s not really a place where we should hunt down support for our own opinions.  “I knew I was right, I found an obscure abstract, skipped over the flaws and quoted one paragraph that proves my point.”  Of course, no one ever phrases their findings using those words – making the practice difficult to spot.

Instead, we should be looking at all studies with the goal of ascertaining truth.  If we have made an error in our thinking, we can seek to correct it, or wear blinders, plugging our fingers in our ears chanting “na na na na I can’t hear you.”

Our dogs deserve better from us.  They deserve us to care enough that we look for truth.  By doing so, we can see that conflicting studies just give different representations of information that might oddly fit together.

Returning to the negative reinforcement example from the beginning, there really is no controversy.  We know that successful avoidance of aversives can provide temporary stress reduction.  Both outcomes are possibly true under different scenarios.  Conflicting results can support one another.

It’s like saying that I don’t fear spiders in my home because I bug bomb regularly.  Does that make bug bombing is a good strategy in treating spider phobias?  No.  It can reduce my stress levels inside my home until it is time to spray again.  Conflicting results have surprisingly logical explanations.

The goal should be to keep asking questions, discarding pseudo science and disproven theories.  We should aim for the very elusive goal of seeking truth – ever mindful that we all carry a bias.  The antidote to that bias is to kick the studies that appeal to us with just as much ferocity as those that offend us.

That goes double for studies quoted by other people.  Read the studies.  Read the opposing points of view.  Simple truth: If you believe everything that comes with a link, you’re letting other people do your reading and thinking for you.  That is an idea that I just find, unthinkable.

Feb 21st:  Great blog done by another great writer – Eileen – on the subject.  Has some excellent links on assessing the qualify of journals.

Feed Problem Dogs Last

Kip, Karma and Icarus sleep on my bed.  Although, Icarus, the cat, prefers to use Karma’s tail as his own personal flirt pole rather than sleeping.

When Kip first came to us, he preferred to sleep under the bed.  It took some time using coaxing and treats to convince him that it was safe to sleep in the open.  When puppy Karma earned the right to come onto the bed, I was sensitive to the fact that Kip likes his space.  If others are too close, he retreats to the floor.

I brought treats with me to bed, ensuring that I quickly set some ground rules.  “You lie down here and you lie down there.”  Both were close to one another, but both had their assigned areas.

I had anticipated that Kip would be uneasy.  Surprisingly, Karma snapped at Kip.  “Back off – my space- my treats – my mom.”  She is a spunky little gal.  While mild resource guarding might be natural, I do not like it.  I do not want it in my house.  I do not want it when I’m around other dogs either.  Mild resource guarding does not scare me, but I am on it immediately.  Therefore, I made the decision to follow the following rule:

“Karma, you get your treat last.”

Many trainers claim that problem dogs are trying to assert themselves, trying to become the alpha.  By feeding them last, you are driving home the point that the dog is at the bottom of the pack, the omega.  “I am alpha, you are not.  Knock it off.  Alphas eat first and you need to be the alpha.  Feed the dominant ones first, and you cannot let it be the problem dog.”

Trainers and owners swear that this strategy works.  I have no doubt that it does.  After all, I just said that I implemented it.

A treat for Kip, then a treat for Karma.
A treat for Icarus, then a treat for Karma.
A treat for Icarus, a treat for Kip and then a treat for Karma.

Not only did we do this as we prepared to go to sleep.  Karma had snapped at a couple potential dog friends.

A treat for the strange dog, then a treat for Karma.

Initially I would have one dog to the left of me.  Karma was further off to the right.  The distance between my outstretched arms increased the distance between the animals.  With time, I allowed the other dogs closer and then initiated a pause.

A treat for Kip, followed by a pause, then a treat for Karma.

By pause, I mean the briefest of moments.  It feels like you have taken a short breath and are still waiting to exhale.  With time, those pauses grew longer.  “Please learn to patiently wait for your treat.”

Finally, we added the element of motion.  If I tossed a treat to another animal and it went astray, I wanted Karma to back away instead of fighting over it.

Throw a treat to Icarus, watch the cat bat it around like prey, then a treat for Karma.

Execution matters.  We worked in careful measured steps.  This is an overview, not a how to.  Had these been adult dogs, I would have put safety precautions in place.  I hope that the gist is clear.

Karma eats last.  Proponents of dominance theory use the same exercise.  The problem dog eats last.  Yes, it can work.  I do not think it has anything to do with dominance.

There is this principle in science called Occam’s razor.  It states that if there are two hypotheses, the one with the least assumptions is likely true.

We can assume that dogs act like wolves.  We can assume that the desire to be the alpha dog motivates them to act in dangerous and destructive ways, even if it seems counterproductive and unstable.  Our assumptions can extend to the idea that dogs keep a tally based on when they eat in relation to others.  We can leap to the conclusion that dogs are too dense to realize we belong to another species.  We can believe that we can integrate ourselves into this battle of social rank and that we can influence the dogs.  We can ignore the caveat that dominance is about relationships between conspecifics – members of the same species.

Would it not make more sense to say that dogs make associations?  Pavlov rang a bell and the dogs salivated.  If Kip gets a treat, then Karma gets a treat.  I am creating an association.  See a dog get a cookie and salivate.

With repetition, the dog’s internal emotional state changes so it no longer wants to drive away other animals.  It wants those dogs closer.  “Please, come closer.  If you get a cookie, I get one too.  I’m drooling in anticipation of your presence.” 

Karma and Ic napping

Feeding the problem dog last can be part of an effective strategy for many dogs.  However, the fact that it works doesn’t prove that dominance played any role in the problem.   Similarly, just because some trainers justify the strategy with dominance based explanations, it does not make the technique flawed.

Occam’s razor is probably right.  It usually is.  Classical conditioning as an explanation has an additional benefit.  Labeling our dogs as dominant, painting them as creatures set on usurping our authority is combative.  These magnificent creatures share our homes and our hearts and deserve better than a negative bias based on assumptions.  Ulterior motives for misbehaviour justify anger, frustration and punitive measures.

If I have two competing hypothesis, I choose to go with the one that paints the dog in the more flattering light.  If I feed, pet, play or give attention to a dog last, I’m very likely creating an association.  We can break down all protocols into basics confines of learning theory.  We really don’t need an explanation that is more convoluted than that.