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.)

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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Do you love me for the treats?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pet – treat.  Belly scratch – treat.

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

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

I want to stay.

I want to stay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Your Dog Ain’t No Jesus – Even He Lost His Shit

People want the perfect dog.  They want Lassie.  Lassie is a bit like the Jesus – holier than average.  Perfect most of the time.  I say most of the time because even Jesus lost his shit.

I don’t particularly care to enter any religious debate.  Truth is, Jesus has a reputation and most people have heard of him.  He fed the hungry, saved baby lambs, taught children and washed the feet of prostitutes.  “Turn the other cheek”…that would be Jesus.

Despite the cheek turning, there is an exception.  In a fit of righteous indignation, Jesus charged into the temple, turning over tables. He used a whip to drive out the moneylenders and the animals.

On a scale of one to ten, Jesus was at eleven.

Yet owners are told that no dog should EVER show ANY sign of aggression.  Dog aggression is pretty cut and dry.  Dogs that bite rarely get second chances.  Holy heck, we want our dogs to act better than Jesus did.

Never mind that they are animals and have no moral code to abide by.  Pets certainly cannot write letters to newspaper editors, nor can they protest or unionize.  Our expectations of what dogs should tolerate are high.  We want them better than Jesus no matter what the circumstances.

Dogs - expected to behave better than Jesus.

Dogs – expected to behave better than Jesus.

Quickly glace through social media, pictures of kids riding dogs like horses or shoving macaroni up their poor animal’s nostril.  Infants grasp handfuls of fur as they yank the dog closer for a hug and kiss.  Why?  So parents and owners can post pictures online captioned with phrases like, “So cute!”

No, it is not cute.  It is bullying.  That dog ain’t no Jesus that will turn the other cheek indefinitely.

Other dogs live a life of unpredictable expectations and nagging.  Mom invites the dog up on the sofa.  “Daddy’s gone – come and cuddle.”  When dad gets home, the dog is scolded for being on the couch, and then labeled as being stubborn and dominant.

No, it is not okay.  It is confusing and stressful.  That dog ain’t no Jesus that will turn the other cheek indefinitely.

Aggression begets aggression.  That should not be hard to understand.  Retaliation is no surprise.  We should expect that with repetition, a dog is going to bite the hand that strikes it.

No, it is not discipline.  It is hitting.  That dog ain’t no Jesus that will turn the other cheek indefinitely.

As our dogs grow older, illness can trigger aggression.  Even in youth, routine care can be painful.  Unwell dogs often have a short fuse.  Unwell people often have a short fuse too.  It’s understandable when a human is the one suffering.

No, reacting to pain and illness is not disobedience.  It is a dog that needs empathy.  That dog ain’t no Jesus that will turn the cheek indefinitely.

Even the perfect dog can get scared.  Fear keeps us safe from things that can legitimately cause us harm.  Many dogs spend too much time chained, penned or avoiding life.  They fail to receive adequate socialization that will help them learn that the world is a safe place.  Humans need to help dogs out of legitimately dangerous situations while teaching dogs to feel safe in normal daily life.

No, scared dogs are not spoiled.  These animals did not get the advantages that socialization offers. That dog ain’t no Jesus that will turn its cheek indefinitely.

At the end of a day, we can aim for Lassie.  Rare genetic factors and past history aside, the burden is mostly on us.  We socialize to prevent problems.  We condition our dogs to various handling.  We step in and prevent our dog from harm and bullying.  Dog lovers should ask permission before petting dogs.  Owners should condition dogs to accept touch as a precaution.

We do this because our dogs have to put up with us.  Too many dogs have to put up with too much provocation from humans.  We expect dogs to take it and take it and never protest. A steady stream of grievances chips away at our dog’s patience, wearing it thin.  We should be surprised and grateful that dogs tolerate as much as they do.

Therefore, it is a good reminder to realize that even “perfect” Jesus really lost his shit.  Your dog ain’t no Jesus.  Maybe we should rethink what constitutes provocation instead of assuming that dogs will tolerate us indefinitely.  Maybe, sometimes, we need to have their back, ensuring that expectations are realistic.  Realistically speaking, no one can expected to endure repeated provocation and not eventually blow up.