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A Dog Training Epiphany

I moderate several Facebook groups, in addition to my business page for Paws for Praise, one of which is dedicated to reactive dogs and the use of desensitization, counter-condtioning, and positive reinforcement to effect lasting changes in behavior for such dogs.  The object is to keep the dog feeling safe, gradually convince the dog that the things that used to scare him are actually pretty cool (trainers call that a “positive conditioned emotional response), and add some obedience or impulse control behaviors once the dog is feeling better about the trigger stimuli.

Interestingly, despite a very long history of success of these humane, and well researched, methods, there are trainers who espouse other methods, some of which are not so pleasant from the dog’s perspective.  Sometimes, it’s hard for students of such trainers to switch gears and try something like the CARE protocol.

Every once in a while, though, someone jumps ship and crosses over to a new way of training – I like to call it an epiphany. This is just one of their stories, which was posted this morning, and which I’m proud to have received permission to share in its entirety.  From Reactive Dogs Facebook group member, Nichola Luna:


My_Wife_and_My_Mother-in-Law  (Old woman/young woman optical illusion)


“This post is going to sound like an Oscar acceptance speech and it kind of is because I feel like I have won something very special – a change of perspective. So before I start crying I want to say thank you to all of you for sharing your experiences and being supportive, thank you for being tolerant of my noob questions / comments, thank you to Anne Springer for running this group and most of all thank you to whoever it was who posted ‘DON’T BE STINGY WITH YOUR TREATS’.

What I’m going to say is going to sound so stupid and obvious to those of you who already understand but please remember this next time you meet / read a post from someone who says R+ only won’t work. As someone who has been brought up on old school ‘yank and crank’, being told R+ only can work is rather like seeing the picture of the old woman and being told that it is a picture of a young lady. Once you have one perspective, it is really, really, REALLY hard to see the other. For me, treats were always seen as a reward for obedience but now I understand that actually they are there to make my dog happy. It sounds so stupid yet it has completely transformed me and my dog which I will tell you all about as soon as I have finished glorying in my ‘penny drop’ moment.

Basically I have been working on faith here up until now. My dogs are livestock guardian dogs and some people will tell you that they can’t be trained to be obedient. My old girl was trained ‘old school’ and is a very good girl and I understand why – she has been conditioned to avoid an aversive (leash check) by responding to a verbal cue. Of course she was encouraged with rewards of games/praise/treats but I didn’t see how you could remove the aversive and still get obedience as this type of training is prone to extinction anyway as soon as you reduce the aversive even. You have to re condition periodically. If you just have rewards then the dog is simply choosing whether it wants the reward you are offering or the reward it has found for itself. This is why old school trainers say ‘bribery’ can’t work alone. There is nothing weighing in the trainers favour, the dog has 100% chance of reward whether it is obedient or not. And they are absolutely right ( if you only reward your dog for obedience, it’s too little too late. )Conclusion: these R+ only people, are clearly a bunch of mad hippies, who only own golden retrievers that love liver cake more than anything else in the world, which is why it works for them and not on real dogs like mine…

I decided to give it a try anyway. I never liked the puzzled / upset look I got from my dog when she got it ‘wrong’ and hit the end of the lead, even though I tried to make up for it with games and praise and treats. I also suspect the unnatural, sudden turns may have attributed to the wear and tear on her cruciate ligaments. So I decided that my new one was going to be an experiment in R+ only and to be perfectly honest, it’s been slow going. I thought mainly because I’m human and didn’t train often enough because I was tired from work or busy or whatever. There has been more than one occasion when I have thought ‘I can see why people stick to old school methods – it’s much quicker/more effective’. Now I realise that this was because I was being stingy with my treats! I was doing R+ only, but old school style. I still had old school mentality to treats; that they were there for shaping, luring and rewarding for obedience.

Luckily someone posted the advice ‘don’t be stingy with your treats’ and along with the other comments I had read, stuff about ‘look at me’, clicker training and picking up on when others treat their dogs, I decided to change tack and feed for everything good, no matter how small or inadvertent, with a cue word attached. ‘Well duh!’ I can hear you all say it and now it seems so obvious but mentally, it was a total paradigm shift for me to reward behaviour rather than obedience. Feed my dog just to make her happy? Yes. Without her having actually ‘obeyed’ anything necessarily? Yes. Weird… …but OK I’m getting desperate now, let’s try it. Result? Exponential explosion in desired behaviours, better recalls than I ever had from ‘yank and crank’ training methods, beautiful lead walking and me repeatedly smacking myself upside the head for being a doofus for so long, and all in a matter of weeks.

These however, have been my ‘jack pot’ instances this week that made me really want to say thank you to everyone who has helped me to understand how to train my dog and see the young lady instead of the old crone.

First was when she spotted a horse in the next field, previously this would have sent her into a frenzy. Instead she stood calmly looking at it, looked at me, looked back at the horse and before I could open my mouth she turned around and started trotting back to me to collect her ‘prize’ for seeing a big four legs. A previous trigger, is now acting as a cue to recall.

Off lead, (my bad as we had seen ‘The’ cows and said hi and bye to them so assumed it was OK to let her off to chase the bunnies up the far end it’s a huge field, the cows were long out of sight by this point), was just thinking she was getting a bit wired and was time to put her back on the lead when she stopped dead, facing into the field. I came over the rise to see there was a new, second herd of cows in the field and my dog was twice as close to them than to me. Anyone with a reactive dog will know this is nightmare scenario #1. She was tense, my first attempt to call her came out a strangled squeak and was probably blown away in the wind. She started to walk / stalk towards the cows. I was having visions of stampedes, broken legs and a shot dog. I called ‘wait’ and she stopped, still staring at the cows. I called her to me, and blow me if she didn’t instantly turn her back on the cows and come galloping back to me! I fed her sooo many treats. My hands were shaking so much I could hardly get her lead back on. I just sat in the wet grass and gave her a chest rub and more treats.

Before then, I don’t think I believed, in my heart of hearts, that I could actually, genuinely, really, truly, CC a response without aversive measures. In that awful, heart stopping moment, my spoilt little ‘R+ only’ brat, proved to me that I can.”




Five Things You Can do to Bite-Proof Your Puppy

Five Things You Can do to Bite-Proof Your Puppy

1. Start early!  Puppies have a window for socialization that closes and you can’t re-open it easily once it does.  The best time to take a puppy to a positive training class is when they are less than 16 weeks of age.  Sadly, many people wait because they think they cannot attend class until pup has had all his shots.  But, many veterinarians now believe that it is just as important to protect a puppy’s mental and behavioral health as his physical health.  Puppies should have at least one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to their first class, be parasite free, and kept up to date with age-appropriate vaccines during classes. 

If you are considering a purebred dog from a breeder, be sure to do your homework – does the breeder do any socialization exercises while the pups are still with their mom?  They should! Puppies can be exposed to different people, surfaces, sounds, wobble boards, mazes, crates and chew toys, etc. while still at the breeder’s home.  While we advocate rescue, we understand that some people will want a purebred from a breeder – however, it is critical, if you go that route to find a reputable breeder

If your particular breed has a breed standard that says “aloof” or “reserved” for example, be aware that you may need to pay particular attention to careful, early, and ongoing socialization. 


2. Meet and greet!  Meet and greet some more!!!  Puppies should meet and greet lots and lots of people in the first weeks. That means people of different gender than the owner, and people of all sizes, especially babies and children of all ages and elders.  If your pup is shy, all the more reason to get to puppy class with an experienced positive trainer.  Make all interactions with people comfortable for your puppy.  A small tidbit or lick of cheese offered by you just after someone starts petting the pup will go a long way to keeping his mouth occupied, telling him that petting is GOOD, and telling him that people predict good things happening for him.  You can print out a Socialization Checklist and take it with you.

3. Socialize carefully.  Puppies need lots of “padding” with other puppies and safe older dogs.  They do not need to be “told off” or learn bullying play styles, either by example of older dogs or through fear.  That’s why puppy socials or puppy classes are ideal for first experiences with off leash contact with other dogs.  

It’s not enough that your pup plays with the other dogs in your home, or with one or two neighbor dogs.  They need to learn that many different kinds of dogs are out there in the world, but that most are friendly.  If a friend suggests letting your pup meet their dog, the question to ask is, “Does your dog play nicely with UNFAMILIAR dogs and PUPPIES?”  Introductions should be made with leashes dragging (you’ll have to be a careful “wrangler” so that no one gets tangled).

Be sure that all play takes place in a very securely fenced environment so you can remove collars and harnesses once you are sure the dogs are friendly.  The area should also be small enough for you to intervene if you need to quickly step in to remove a dog, or give a gentle time out to pups that get overly-aroused.  

Normal play means both dogs are having fun, no one looks stressed, and there is plenty of “give and take” with lots of curved body language and meta-signals, such as “play bows” and exaggerated pouncing.  There may or may not be wrestling, growling, play-biting, etc.  If you are not sure your pup is having fun, do a “consent test” – gently remove the “offending” pup and see if the underdog pup goes to seek him out again.  If so, they are probably OK.  If not, time to find another play mate for a little while, or even permanently.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that the offending dog is awful (after all, it may be YOUR pup that is overly aroused at times), it may just mean that the dogs’ play styles are not compatible at this stage.

4. Make sure your puppy gets husbandry training so that he/she will be more comfortable when you must give puppy a pill or clip nails, or he/she must go to the veterinarian or groomer. Acclimating puppies to being handled all over is important, as is getting them used to having their collar grabbed or to being hugged (children tend to hug dogs, and most dogs don’t naturally like being hugged, so it’s important that we teach them!).  For those of you who want to more thoroughly understand the process that good trainers use to do this, the ASPCA has an article about “Desensitization and Counterconditioning” on their virtual behaviorist section.


5. Use force free training!!! Evidence is mounting that if you train with aggressive methods your dog may be more aggressive.  Many who are new to training think that all trainers do the same things.  Training, however, is an unregulated industry and knowing how to find the right trainer isn’t always easy.  The first place to look to find a force free trainer in your area is the international organization for force free pet professionals – Pet Professional Guild.  
If you have no trainer nearby, Puppy Start Right is a great book that can help you with puppy’s early education.

The Love/Hate Relationship of Social Media and Rescue

The Love/Hate Relationship of Social Media and Rescue.

How Did The Aversive Get There? A Call for Honesty

The always thought provoking Eileen does it again.


I am mystified by one particular argument of those who use protocols for fearful or reactive dogs other than desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC). These other protocols often use negative reinforcement; if not that, then sometimes desensitization without counterconditioning; sometimes extinction; sometimes habituation.

People who practice these protocols intentionally expose their dogs to their triggers at an aversive level at times, as opposed to people who practice pure DS/CC, which is ideally practiced at a distance or intensity such that the trigger is not aversive to the animal.

The argument that bothers me is this:

It’s OK to expose the animal to a trigger at a potentially aversive level as long as we are not the ones who put the aversive there for them to be exposed to. We’re not adding an aversive; it’s already there.

I wrote a post a while back addressing this idea in part. I pointed out that for negative reinforcement…

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Dog Trainers Playing in the Sandbox


The dog training industry is not regulated in any way, so currently, anyone who wants to call themselves a trainer and hang out a shingle can do so (which is why I wrote a previous blog post on how to find the right trainer).

Sadly, even if the industry were regulated tomorrow, there would likely be a grandfather clause which would allow anyone currently practicing dog training to continue doing so.  So, consumers would still not be protected against those who have insufficient skills, no background in behavioral science, or who use force in training dogs.

On the Internet, there are many dog-related forums, blogs, and Facebook groups.  These groups are populated by everyone from average pet owners to nationally known trainers and everyone in between, including some of those force trainer people who would get grandfathered, much to my chagrin.  Just as with any other subject matter, there are as many opinions on those groups as there are…well, you get it.  Arguments ensue over almost everything. Should you feed raw food or kibble?  Should you train using food as a reinforcement or not?  Should you crate your dog or not?  Should you spay or neuter your dog, and at what age?  Should we identify the quadrant of operant conditioning that we are using or abandon thinking about quadrants altogether (I don’t think we should – I want to use the quadrants that are force free whenever I can)?

These issues, if you look at the rancor they cause, are akin to the ones that cause nations to go to war.  They involve “no compromise” types of choices. Pro choice or pro life?  Gay marriage OK or not OK?  Republican or Democrat? Dog aficionados are just NOT going to agree on some matters.

The problem isn’t the disagreements.  Most adults can handle disagreement or debate, and they can even handle the tough debates.  What is disconcerting, however, is the departure from debate into tantrums.  It represents devolution, if you will, to a form of benign or not so benign name calling that is designed to deflect any attempt at pressing for answers to hard questions, so that people can hide from uncomfortable scrutiny. I’ve been called everything from “cookie tosser” (I like that one) to “queen of mean” to “crone” and everything in between. People have suggested to others that they rant privately about people like me because we are just so mean. The word “mean” is now tossed into the mix any time someone loses the ability to debate using facts and citations, versus “my way or the highway.”

If we are to elevate the profession of dog training, we must go beyond doing what is effective, and move toward doing what is effective AND ethical. We must treat dogs the way we would want to be treated if we were the dogs. It is our obligation, as force free trainers, to expose practices that cannot be supported with research, ethics, experience, and efficacy.

Elie Weisel once said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Many dogs lead lives that are not ideal, where even supposedly loving owners cannot see the fear or distrust in them. Sometimes, knowing that requires turning the other cheek when someone elects to call you a “hater” because you disagree. It requires you to smile to yourself when you find out that someone has encouraged ranting about you on some closed clique or Facebook group, or even on an open one. If no one hates you, you’ve probably never stood up for a difficult or unpopular position in your life.

Remember, it is not MEAN to ask for evidence, to question why a practitioner wants to do something to YOUR dog, or to stand up for the oppressed, the weak, the defenseless, or the misunderstood.

“Being ‘nice’ doesn’t convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced. And being ‘mean’ doesn’t impede someone who wants to learn.” –Melissa McEwan

So, stop telling me to be nice every time I give you information. Stop telling me to be nice when you are frustrated by your own misunderstanding of an issue that I’m trying my best to explain in scientifically accepted language (in order to level the playing field so ALL can understand), and stop telling me to be nice because I refuse to drink the guru-of-the-week’s Kool-aid. I’m not being mean, just persistent.

I haven’t called you any names, or told you you’re stupid (even when I think you are), and I haven’t called you incapable of learning. I’ve simply given you an opinion, hopefully with some reasoning behind it. Put on your big boy or big girl pants and engage in adult debate, if you can. But, if you can’t, stop ranting about the meanies and go do some more research so that you can enter the debate constructively. Either that or, if you are going to run away on every Facebook page or Yahoo group from the hard questions posed to you, stay gone and let the rest of us learn together.

Threshold Roulette or Choice?

Threshold Roulette or Choice?.

Cesar Millan training methods can lead to dog abuse

Dog Connect SF Bay Area

Monday evening, September 9, 2013. Pictures of a woman jerking, kicking and dragging three dogs behind her made the round on Facebook. Not much was known. KTVU report Amber Lee posted a picture on Twitter. Shortly after KTVU showed the whole footage:

My first response was “boil in oil”! How can someone treat their dogs like that? The body language these three dogs provide to us is clear. Their bodies are crouched, their tails are all down, their ears back and they go into a dead stop every few steps. They are moving slowly and at a great distance behind her. This is not behavior that happy dogs provide us when enjoying a walk with their handler. These are dogs that appear afraid.

I watch the woman continuously correct the dogs. Jerking the leash and kicking the dogs. Methods promoted on National Geographic through the infamous Dog Whisperer…

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