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Monthly Archives: August 2012

Want a positive relationship with your dog? Then look to the “negative space” for training help.

Thanks for the reminder. Great post deserving of viral sharing.

The Unexamined Dog

The following is a repost of an article I wrote a little over a year ago titled “Learning to move in the negative space.”  After spending some time observing my fellow dog owners in a recent training workshop, I thought it might be a good time to revisit this concept.

Every discipline includes a number of fundamental concepts that help guide both novice learning and expert practice in the field.  Mathematics teachers know that students must understand the properties of real numbers before algebraic thinking is possible, and history teachers know that understanding a concept like attribution is essential for those learning the work of an historian.  Those of us working in teacher education know that prospective teachers must acknowledge and understand the role of “prior knowledge” in their students’ learning, if they are ever to be successful as teachers themselves.

In art and design, one of these fundamental concepts…

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My Dog Isn’t Food Motivated….Really????????

I wish I had a nickel for all the times I’ve heard the phrase “my dog isn’t food motivated” as an excuse for why someone can’t get their dog to sit, fetch, come, or whatever behavior they are trying to teach.  Such owners often simultaneously cite their dogs’ stubbornness, breed, drive, or other characteristics as proof that they cannot learn what other dogs can.  So, how much truth is there to those assertions?

Well, in the case of food motivation, no truth whatsoever.  Any organism that rejects nourishment dies.  So, if you think your dog is truly and totally unmotivated by food, you should check his pulse right away!

I find it endlessly amusing that the owners of independent breeds seem largely unaware that the Internet is filled with just as many assertions about their particular breed being food motivated as it is by their particular breed being unmotivated.  When training, it’s best to just look at the one dog before you, assess the situation unemotionally, and proceed according to the science and good training mechanics.  But, a caveat.  If you go around thinking that your dog is different, special, and no one understands, you are making excuses, not proceeding according to science.  If behaviorists can make gorillas push their butts into a needle to get an injection, then certainly the same principles by which they do that can help you train your dog to come – if you use them and use them correctly.

The key to early learning and to retention is that you MUST use a reinforcement that the dog wants and use it at a high rate at first, then at an intermittent rate later.  So, what are those reinforcements and how can we insure that our dogs get reinforced sufficiently to facilitate learning?

The reinforcement that most dogs prefer is food.  There are some legitimate reasons why a dog might not take food in a given circumstance, however.  One of the most common is anxiety.  A dog’s system is designed to travel light when they feel they may need to fight or flee.  Another is taste aversion.  If a dog eats something that makes him queasy, even days later he can decide not to eat that particular food again.  A third reason is satiety.  If the dog just had dinner, he may not be very interested in continuing to eat, just because you want to work on “sit.”   Some dogs refuse food in the presence of another, some won’t eat without the presence of another.

Trainers who want to use food as a reinforcement have some options on how to make it more appealing to a dog that doesn’t seem interested at the moment (we’ll talk about other reinforcements beside food in a bit).  Firstly, the trainer can remove the dog from any anxiety-producing environment to a safer place to begin the training sessions.  See if the dog will take a delectable “freebie” such as beef, chicken, lamb lung, tripe, etc.  If he will, begin training.  If not, lower your expectations and begin in an environment where he can take the treat, which indicates less anxiety.

Many dogs who won’t work for a store bought treat in the presence of distractions will work for something of higher value.  It can pay off to do a “hierarchy of treats” test with your dog.  What does the dog like better if you offer chicken and beef simultaneously, for example?

Dogs that are fed very high quality food, or fed raw, for example, might not have a very far jump to make in terms of raising the desirability of the food treat in terms of scent or taste.  So, what do we do for those dogs?  A couple of things.  We might “close the economy” on food.  That means that the dog must work for each morsel, or not get fed.  There will be dogs for which you can partially close the economy, and dogs for which you can completely close it.  Here’s where the force trainers usually jump in with their rants on how cruel it is to only feed a dog for working.  Well, if the behavior you want to teach is a life-saving one, such as “Come!” then you need to decide if closing the economy on food is better than shocking the dog with a remote collar to enforce your will.  Personally, I, and I assume my dogs, would prefer closing the economy on food, which leads to positive reinforcement for behavior (come, get fed), rather than being shocked, which leads to positive punishment (the shock) followed by negative reinforcement (the shock stays on until the dog complies, then it is removed).

It is doubtful that any dog, despite a temporary lapse in appetite, or a temporary removal of free food will deliberately starve itself.  If you have any doubt as to whether it would be harmful to close the economy on food with your particular dog, then seek advice from a veterinarian behaviorist who is familiar with such protocols.  Most failures of closing the economy on food are caused by nervous owners, some of whom even feed raw diets to their dogs as an “ancestral diet.”   I guess I often wonder why they don’t seem to understand that, for the ancestral dogs, the rabbit didn’t run by every evening at five o’clock just begging to be consumed for dinner, as a mentor of mine once put it.  Dogs didn’t always catch what they hunted, so they went for a while without a meal fairly often sometimes.

Notwithstanding all of the above, it is true that some dogs prefer other reinforcements to food.  Dogs with a lot of drive or work ethic often respond well to tug games or frisbee/ball tosses as reinforcement, and it’s fine to use those.  But, in my opinion, it’s silly to reject food that a dog likes in favor of a tug that you have to work to get him to like.  Conversely, if you have to work to get your dog to respond to treats, and he is perfectly willing to work for a tug game, use the tug game.

In all my years training dogs, I have met exactly one dog who prefers praise to all else.  That’s how rare it is, folks.

Some dogs like a good chase, and are blase about food or toys.  If I had one of those, I’d figure out how to set up a lure in my yard and use it as a reinforcement!

Claiming that your dog doesn’t like food or toys, then just shrugging and putting a shock collar on him is a trainer failure, not a dog failure.

I regard it as part of my job as a trainer to make some form of positive reinforcement salient to the dog.   It enables me to reject “Do it or I will hurt you” in favor of  “Do it and I will pay you for your work.”  I’d rather close the economy on food, and seem temporarily mean to my detractors, than to put a shock collar on a dog and prove that expediency trumps kindness.  It never should.  And it doesn’t have to.

I Kill Dogs

Apparently, that is what many force-based trainers think I do for a living.  The Internet is replete with quotations from such people bemoaning the supposed idiocy of training with kindness or training with food, who say that they are the saviors of all those dogs for whom positive training failed, and thus they saved all those dogs from certain euthanasia.

I guess I’d better confess then.  I kill dogs.  And, this is how I do it:

I train puppies early, and socialize them with people, other dogs, and novel happenings so that they don’t live a life of fear, and grow up to be confident dogs.  Funny, but the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior must be in favor of killing puppies, because they wrote this position paper that agrees with what I do.

I use modern, scientifically proven techniques that are based on how dogs learn, teaching them the desired behaviors, rather than waiting until they do something wrong so that I can “correct” them for exhibiting normal dog behavior.   I use marker or clicker training.  When I hear people who think that praise alone is enough, I show them an article about the efficacy of the clicker versus the voice.

If there is a normal dog behavior that I don’t like, I teach my dog how to do a behavior that I would appreciate he do instead of the one I don’t like.  Again, this is done by reinforcing the desired behavior, and making the unwanted behavior something that simply never pays off for the dog.  Knowledgeable trainers understand this concept as DRI, or differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior.  Simply put, if it would be difficult for your dog to jump  up on you if he could be cued to “Sit”, then teach him to sit instead of jumping.

I’m not alone.  So many trainers are getting stellar results with force free training.  Pamela Johnson has a great video on how to get your dog to settle on a mat.  That’s one of the exercises that shock collar trainers often use to suggest that they make dogs more obedient than we do .  But, they forget to tell you that the way shock works is to globally suppress behavior because the dog is subjected to shock until he gives up and just stays put.  He’s not doing this willingly, he’s just reacting to the inevitability of his situation.  A famous experiment in the late 1960’s by Martin Seligman proved that this situation, referred to as “learned helplessness” is the result of the animal not having any control over his environment.  We now know that animals (and people) learn better when they feel they do have some control.

I don’t use forceful jerks on collars to make my point any more than I would choke a child to make him sit in his seat at a restaurant.  And. I don’t emulate popular TV personalities who use physical coercion on dogs.  The real reality of dog training on television was highlighted in an article by Niki Tudge, founder of the Pet Professional Guild, in which she says, “If the pet industry is to continue being featured on television then it should not be at the mental and physical expense of our pets.”

I don’t use shock to keep dogs in line.  It’s barbaric and cruel, and oh so easy to convince some pet owners to do when you tell them it’s just a “tap” or a “reminder”  or a “muscle stimulator.”  It’s electric shock plain and simple, and if the dog doesn’t obey the shock at the lowest setting, it most assuredly will be turned up.  You be the judge.  The first video shows a dog hitting an electric fence used to contain cows in a pasture.  The second video shows one of my dogs trained by positive training not to approach my horse in his paddock.   Which treatment would you prefer for your dog?  Oh, but don’t listen to me – after all, I kill dogs.

If you want an eye opener, visit the Facebook page of Drake Sporting Dogs where you will see photos of dogs being shocked during “snake aversion training.”  You will also see comments that suggest a certain glee as the dogs are jolted.  And, the inevitable “but it saves their lives” comments.  Should a dog have to be shocked off the ground to save its life???  Not when there are other ways.   A notable former police K9 trainer, Steve White, has developed a non-shock protocol for snake aversion training, as has Jamie Bozzi, BA, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP, CC.   And, now there is a vaccination against snake bites for dogs.

No method is foolproof no matter what the trainer tells you.  Dogs learn differently, people make errors and assume behavior is proofed when it isn’t, batteries malfunction, and accidents happen.  The real bottom line is that if you want a well trained dog, you should do your best to learn as much as you can about dog behavior and learning, and do no harm to your dog out of your own ignorance.  Learn about dog body language so that you can tell yourself if your dog seems happy, and not simply mistake absence of behavior for happiness.

If you were a dog, which of the following trainers would you want to be taken to?

Introduction of the Remote Collar

Introduction of the Clicker


Interestingly, the shock trainer’s Youtube channel has over 4 million views and 2000+ subscribers.   That’s a lot of people who still think it’s OK to hurt dogs to train them.

Thankfully, the latter (Emily Larlham, of Dogmantics Dog Training and the Kikopup Youtube channel) has more than 7 million views and 30,000+ subscribers.  Slowly but surely the “dog killers” are having an impact.

And we will keep killing dogs WITH KINDNESS until the notion of shocking dogs becomes as abhorrent to the nation as that of drinking and driving.