Month: October 2015

11. Of Time and Emotion

In an earlier post, I mentioned the importance of timing in delivering a reward to your dog after he completes a behavior. One of the reasons that small treats are so useful as rewards is that they can be delivered in a timely fashion. Since dogs, who can do several quick movements in a couple seconds, associate the treat with their most recent behavior, small treats help the trainer adhere accurately to the “deliver the reward within one second” rule.

But there’s a second, more important, reason why we use the “one second” rule: When the reward is immediate, then the sense of happiness and well-being that the dog associates with food will wash backwards onto the previous behavior: The more immediate the reward, the greater the effect. This is called a “conditioned emotional response”. An example would be that look of happy anticipation that your dog gets when you pick up his leash. The leash doesn’t naturally make him happy…he has become conditioned to feeling happy because it predicts a walk.

Suki awaiting her treat after performing a "less desirable behavior".
Suki awaiting her treat after performing a “less desirable behavior”.

When your timing is good, the response is biochemical rather than intellectual. Pavlov’s salivating dogs didn’t think about salivating…it was a response from their autonomic nervous system! There’s a well written scientific explanation here if you want more detail.

Here’s a video (also embedded in the above-referenced page) of Jean Donaldson training her dog to enjoy wearing a Gentle Leader harness which would have otherwise been abhorrent to the dog.

In daily training, this mechanism gradually teaches the dog to actually like doing things it would otherwise avoid, and it’s also crucial in changing a dog’s emotional state towards things it fears.

For example, when Suki sees a moving bicycle at the park, I have her stay, and I feed her tasty treats until the bike is out of range. Bikes really creep her out, so we’re on a long road with this, but her improvement has been substantial.

If you use this element of “classical conditioning” in your training, just remember that the effect washes backwards. The order should be:

  1. Scary stimulus or less preferable (by the dog) behavior, then
  2. emotionally satisfying reward

And remember that anything you ask your dog to do that he wouldn’t choose to do on his own comes under the heading of “less preferable behavior”.

10. Suki shows her stuff!

Back when Suki could not even be let off lead within our fenced yard, I saw this video of Leslie McDevitt demonstrating her dogs’ automatic “check in”.

I was amazed at how her dogs seemed to be magnetized to her. Whenever she stopped walking, they’d automatically return to her. I couldn’t even dream of Suki being like that. Last week, I thought we’d get a bit of video of Suki (who, 3 years ago, would have just disappeared into the distance,) demonstrating her good citizenship by staying “connected” with me. I just realized that she has developed these same skills. In the short video below, you’ll see her automatic check-in and her response to seeing a strange dog at a distance. When she sees the strange dog, look at her posture; everything gives the impression of leaning forward, a sign that she might be preparing to confront the other dog, which is something she would have undoubtedly done before a lot of training. In this case, though, she thinks it over, then makes a very civilized decision to look to me for guidance instead.

With the “automatic check-in”, she gets a double reward:

  1. A tasty treat
  2. Immediate freedom to go play again

Her response to the strange dog was trained in a number of ways, but the most significant was Grisha Stewart‘s “BAT training”. “BAT” stands for Behavior Adjustment Training, and depends on putting the dog in a situation where he is offered a choice between safe and unsafe behavior, then coaxing the dog into realizing that the safe behavior works better. Read about it here. The distance must be carefully controlled so the dog doesn’t “lose it”. Seeing the strange dog while we were recording was just a lucky chance, and Suki was great, but even after all this time, she can’t get too close to another dog while off lead or she will lose it. Anyhow, in the video below, she’s practicing her “emergency sit”. This is the command we train so that, if she’s not right next to me, and one of her “triggers” comes into view (bikes, skateboards, other dogs, scary men), I can put her in a sit, then get to her and put her on lead for safety’s sake.

Being the feisty little Cattle Dog girl that she is, Suki starts sassing me on the 3rd rep, but she still does the behavior.

The emergency sit is a great example of how you use positive methods to train your dog to not do an undesirable behavior. In this case, the undesirable behavior would be chasing a bike; she can’t chase the bike while she’s performing her “sit”, so the sit, which gets rewarded, serves to prevent the bike chase. Another reason why “say please by sitting” is such a great behavior to train from day one!

9. “Why Isn’t This Working???” Part II

Suki, delivering the goods!
Suki, delivering the goods!

If things aren’t working in your training, there are two aspects of rewarding with treats that you need to consider. First is the quality of the treats. Jean Donaldson sometimes uses the term “paying” instead of rewarding. You’re paying the dog to do something he doesn’t have any desire to do. The less desirable the behavior is for the dog, the more you need to be willing to pay. Also, the more distractions are present, the more you need to pay. If a colleague asked you to sub for him at your job, and you have nothing else to do, you might want to get paid your standard rate. But, if you had tickets to see a great concert or sporting event, your colleague would need to offer you some greater reward to make it worth your while. Likewise,  “come” might be doable with some kibble if you’re in the living room. Out in the park, with squirrels nearby, you might need some roast chicken…at the bottom of this page, I’ve listed some food rewards in order of appeal.

Wahoooo!!!! Treats!!

Second, there’s the issue of “rate of reinforcement”, and, here, every dog is different.  Should you give your dog a treat for every correct response? Or just part of the time? Over time, you’ll really need to pay attention and feel it out, but here are some thoughts:

When you’re first training a behavior, it makes a lot of sense to reward the dog 100% of the time. (Remember, we’re not talking about showing the dog a treat, except for the first few reps. We’re talking about training the dog to trust that, if she does the behavior with no visible reward, then a treat will magically appear.) See the Ian Dunbar video in the “your dog does not understand English” post for instruction on how to use “lure-reward” training.

Once your dog understands the command, Dunbar’s simple solution to the “how often to reward” question is a system he calls “differential reinforcement”. He suggests rewarding only the above-average half of the responses. For the below average responses, you just say, “Good dog!” This theoretically leads the dog to improve her performance to make sure she’s getting the treats. When you’re satisfied with the quality of the behavior, you can switch to a non-food reward a/or only reward occasionally. Also, you can request a number of behaviors for one treat: “Sit-Down-Sit-Paw-Spin-Sit”, then give a treat!

Now…about those treats: The best treats should be small, easy to carry (I use a little pouch on my belt, or just keep them in the pockets of my sweatshirt or jacket), as nutritious as possible, and tasty.

Zukes are good quality, fairly tasty, and easy to handle.
Natural Balance rolls
Natural Balance rolls have complete nutrition and are a bit tastier.


I’ll rank some here, in the order dogs might prefer them, least to most:

  1. Kibble; regular dry food may work well if your dog is an avid food hound and you’re working in a “no distractions zone”. Many trainers suggest using kibble at home, and something tastier when you’re out and about. One advantage of kibble is that it provides complete nutrition as per the Association of American Feed Control Officials. (AAFCO)
  2. “Mini” hard biscuits (pictured). We use MilkBone Minis. Not huge dog favorites, but edible.
  3. Softer, smellier training treats. We use “Zukes” (pictured), and they are our default treat for Suki. They’re little, tasty (I assume), and slightly chewy without being too soft.
  4. “Natural Balance” rolls (pictured); this is another “complete nutrition” treat: Smellier and tastier than any of the above treats, but they’re more time intensive, because you need to slice and dice them off of the salami-like roll.
  5. Cheese! Yes, Wallace and Gromit’s favorite is adored by many dogs. String cheese works well, and is easy to handle.
  6. Roast chicken, smoked fish, chopped up hot dogs, and other real food; often a pain to deal with, but can be a great incentive to your dog.

Of course, dogs, like people, have their own personal preferences, but this list order is a good place to start. Your manipulation of how often to reward, and what quality of food you use, will help you fine-tune the process of training your dog!

Okay, that’s all for now!

Okay, gotta rest now...
Okay, gotta rest now…

8. “Why Isn’t This Working???” – Part I

Let’s say you’re starting to understand the “most basic idea” about training that we spoke about in an earlier post. Basically, if something wonderful immediately follows a behavior, then your dog will be more likely to repeat the behavior: “If I come when I’m called, I get a nice cuddle and a tasty treat!” And now you’re trying it, and it isn’t working, and you’re thinking, “This is bullsh#t! I should just grab him and drag him over here!”

Mutual trust leads to better behavior and a better bond!

If you’re rewarding with treats, here are some possible problems:

  1. The treats aren’t tasty enough. If a friend says, “Hey, help me move this refrigerator and I’ll give you a stale Poptart”, how inviting is that? I mean, let’s at least have some pizza!!! (We’ll discuss some more specific treat advice in Part II of this post.)
  2. Your dog is too well fed. You need to pay attention to his food supply. We’re not talking about starving your dog, but you can’t give him all his food for free, then try to give him more as a reward. For fastest results, Sophia Yin says, “Throw away your food bowl!” Measure your dog’s food supply for the day, then dispense it in training exercises. If there’s leftover food at the end of the day, then give it to him. (If “fastest results” aren’t a big issue, then just give half his food in training, but don’t train him right after you feed him.)
  3. Your timing a/or treat delivery need work. You may say you’re doing exactly what you saw a trainer do. If you saw comparison video, you’d probably eat your words. “Hey, I’m swinging my golf club just like Tiger Woods…how come I’m not a PGA pro?” An experienced trainer may do 12-15 precise “reps” in the time it would take you to do 3 or 4, and the dog would get a very clear message each time. Getting some feedback lessons from a good trainer really helps! In the meantime, get the Sophia Yin DVD at the top of the Resources page. It teaches treat delivery as the athletic skill that it is.
  4. Someone else in the household is undoing your work. If you’re training your dog to sit for affection and your housemates are training her to jump up, you need to come to an agreement. It’s not fair to a puppy to encourage her to jump up, then punish her for it when she weighs 60 pounds. You need to be consistent, and your housemates need to help, or at least not hurt. Fail, and it’s the dog who suffers.

These are just a few reasons. We’ll talk more in Part II, but here’s the bottom line:

Humane training works! You just need to do it right!

A well-trained dog is a happy dog!
A well-trained dog is a happy dog!

7. What Is Humane Training? – part II

NOTE: If you’re new to the blog, you may want to go back to the beginning (bottom of the page) and read the earlier posts, the disclaimer, and pages on “why this blog”, “resources“, and “is this blog for you?” It’ll help fill in the gaps!

Suki's not crazy about retrieving, but she'll do it if you make it worth her while.
Suki’s not crazy about retrieving, but she’ll do it if you make it worth her while.

Now, listen up, especially if you learned “obedience” dog training years ago, think it’s the “right way”, and feel reluctant to change. I was once like you. I had learned standard obedience training protocols in the early ’80s, from a trainer who was, essentially, the Barbara Woodhouse of Australia. When I first read and explored the Cesar Millan books and videos, years later, I thought they made sense, but I was being blind to the negative effects these training styles can have on dogs, and to the generally abusive nature of choke chain training. So I urge you to be open to more modern, humane ideas. It comes down to this:

You CAN teach an old dog-trainer new tricks!!!

“Old school”  choke chain training is an artifact of military dog training. Read the history here. Most people who have trained dogs for years grew up with this older approach. Virtually every long-time humane trainer and teacher working today started out with inhumane techniques. In retrospect, some of them were truly horrific. If there’s an afterlife, and I see my earlier dogs there, I’ll have some serious apologizing to do. We didn’t know there was another way until behavioral scientists started to point the way.

I was stuck between these two training styles just four years ago. I did some choke chain training and some positive reinforcement training. It was a phone conversation with Kate Derr of  Bonaparte’s Retreat that pushed me to let go of outmoded, inhumane methods, and come into the modern age.

She made it clear that I wouldn’t be able to adopt Suki unless I changed my approach. I had already fallen in love with Suki’s picture (below), seen on the Internet (she looked like a perfect combo of Australian Cattle Dog and Australian Kelpie), and, the longer we talked, the more committed I became to meeting Suki.

Suki, with Bonaparte’s Retreat founder Emmylou Harris.

I promised Kate that I’d look more carefully into the modern approach. It didn’t take much to convince me. We’d already had a lot of laughs training our earlier Kelpies to fetch, jump, etc., using clicker training.

Django the Kelpie in flight.

 I read Patricia McConnell’s landmark book, “The Other End Of The Leash”, recommended my my niece Judy, a critical care veterinarian in Canada. Then I called Kate, and the rest is history.

With humane training, Suki and I became pals from day one!

6. What is “Humane” training? – part I

Okay, so use your imagination with me here for a minute…not just imagining what you think, but imagining your emotion.


Scenario one: You come to visit me, and we decide to go for a walk in town. I put a metal noose around your neck and attach a leash to it. We walk along, and I randomly change directions. Whenever you don’t immediately follow. I jerk the leash, the noose snaps tight around your neck, and you’re pulled in my direction. If you see something nice in a shop window (clothing? A vintage guitar?) and want to look, I jerk the leash and drag you along. Your neck hurts and you start to constantly worry about when I’m going to jerk you again. At the end of a half hour, you would probably feel which of the following?

  1. Loyalty, Kinship, Affection
  2. Fear, Anger, Resentment

Scenario two: You come to visit me, and we decide to go for a walk in town. You stop to look in a shop window, but I say, “Hey, come here for a second. Try this!”. And I give you a chocolate covered strawberry from my knapsack. Then I say, “Okay, now let’s look in that window!” While we’re walking, I tell you how much I love having you visit. “It’s SO GREAT to see you!!” If you’re okay with hugs, maybe I give you a hug. On we go. Maybe I have a hidden agenda that doesn’t interest you…”Hey, while we’re here, I’d like to stop off and look at this old Gibson guitar at Fred and Catherine’s shop! Stop in with me for ten minutes, and then I’ll buy you lunch at this great restaurant down the block”. I keep my word, and you get a tasty lunch in exchange for our little diversion. Again, which might you feel?

  1. Loyalty, Kinship, Affection
  2. Fear, Anger, Resentment
Which Rolly would YOU rather be? Click for larger view!
Which Rolly would YOU rather be? Click for larger view!

Of course, being a human, the second approach might make you feel a bit manipulated, but dogs are not as sneaky as humans in this regard, and they’ll usually take us at face value.

So, here’s the thing: Both approaches work, if all you care about is getting results. But the first approach causes the dog to feel fear, which might transform to anger, while the second approach causes the dog to feel contentment, which may transform to affection and loyalty.

Humane dog training is simply the Golden Rule:

Do unto the dog as you would have others do unto you!

5. To Treat or Not To Treat…?

Given that we will reward good behavior with something which makes the dog want to repeat it, how do you motivate your dog with the most effective reward?

“I’m here to please…uh…what’s in it for ME???”

In dog trainer language, “primary reinforcers” are the key; these are things which every animal needs. According to Jean Donaldson, author of “The Culture Clash”, (a “must read” for dog training enthusiasts), the indispensable things are food, water, sex, and avoidance of pain/discomfort. Of these, food is the most convenient for humane training exercises which require many repetitions. There are other reinforcers which are not as universally necessary for animals. Dogs may or may not respond to verbal praise, play, toys, access to open space, a chance to chase squirrels, access to other dogs, a chance to go for a walk, belly rubs, etc., etc.

Our friend Catherine uses the “belly rub” method on Suki.

Ken Ramirez of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has an excellent DVD on “non-food reinforcers”. There’s a teaser video at this link.

One thing that most everyone agrees on: The treats should be phased out as soon as possible. Ian Dunbar discussed this in the video I posted yesterday. In that video, he alludes to the difference between “luring” (or “bribing”) and “rewarding”. In luring, the dog sees the treat, and is led by the treat. If you always use this technique, the dog will only be inclined to obey if there’s food present. In “rewarding”, the dog does not see the treat until after he has completed the behavior. Dunbar recommends luring the dog with a treat, but, within a dozen reps, switching over and hiding the food, then luring with a hand signal but no treat. It’s a kind of “bait and switch”, but the dog is pleased to learn that, amazingly, even if he obeys an empty hand, a treat still appears! Hence the dog will learn to do the behavior without food being present, because the hand signal predicts the arrival of food.

Now, the cool thing is that you can condition your dog to regard affection (or some other non-primary reward) as a good reason for performing. We use the same technique we used in an earlier post for training the “Yep!”

  1. Rub your dog’s chest or give her an affectionate scritch at the back of the neck.
  2. Deliver a treat.
  3. Repeat.

In this way, your dog will learn to expect a treat after the affection. The affection will be the “message” that predicts the arrival of food. You can just do this any time your dog is being good. Is she lying on her bed like a good girl? Just go over, give her a little belly rub, then feed her a treat. Over time, the affection will gain power as a reward.

And here’s a huge scientifically proven fact: The “message” (referred to in dog trainerese as a “secondary reinforcer”), actually changes the dog’s emotional state, and makes the dog happier and more content, just as the food does. So, eventually, the “Yep!” or the neck scritch will win the dog’s heart for you.

In the next post, we’ll discuss the concept of “humane” training, and why the older model of choke chain training does not win the dog’s heart, but, instead, makes the dog comply out of fear.

4. Your Dog Does NOT Understand English!!!

I know, I know; your dog can understand everything you say, and he can spell “P-a-r-k” and “W-a-l-k-i-e-s”, too!


But NO! Dogs only learn as much English as we teach them. What they do learn really well is how to read subtle body language and vocal inflection. (This was first identified at the turn of the 20th century, in the case of “Clever Hans”, a horse who was said to perform complex math computations. Read here!)

Of course, it’s fun to think of your dog understanding your every word, as in this William Wegman video with his dog, Man Ray:

But there’s a downside: If your dog doesn’t seem to understand, you then tend to blame him for being stubborn or resentful, when he’s usually just clueless, because you’re not communicating clearly.
So, what’s the solution? It’s easy! Teach your dog “English as a Second Language”! A great way to start doing this is Ian Dunbar’s “Lure-Reward” training, shown here:

(disclaimer: Often, with expert dog trainers, their perfectionism may intimidate you from even trying their techniques…don’t let this happen. Every dog is unique, and you may need to adjust to your dog’s learning style. Just do the best you can…this may be the topic of a whole ‘nother blog post…)

With this sort of method, your dog can learn “ESL” word by word. Just remember to keep commands simple. If Rover understands “Rover, Sit”, it does not follow that he’ll understand, “Hey, Rover, come over here and sit down!” How confusing is that? Three different commands (come, sit, and down) in one sentence! And, although it may seem like fun to impress your friends with Rover’s understanding of English, you’re doing your dog a genuine disservice by taking something which should be simple and making it difficult.

3. The Most Basic Idea In Dog Training!

Everything in dog training grows from this one simple concept:

Dogs recognize the consequences of their behavior.

It’s part of their survival technique.

If a behavior has a favorable consequence, they’re likely to repeat the behavior. If it has a painful or negative consequence, they’re less likely to repeat it.

“If I sit, I get a treat!” is a very simple version of this contingency.


If you understand that the consequence which occurs immediately after the behavior is what the dog learns from, then you’ll begin to comprehend the importance of timing. For example, if you say, “Sit!”, then lure your dog to a sit, and, while you’re reaching for your treat, he stands up and barks, he may think you’re rewarding him for standing and barking.

Most trainers believe that you have to reward the behavior within one second for the dog to really “get” it.  As a result, trainers learn to develop a quick message to promise the dog that a reward is coming. “Clicker Training” is one method which we’ll discuss later, but I like the verbal “Yep!”, in a punchy, high-pitched chirp that dogs like. Here’s how you’d develop this:

  1. Start with a handful of small training treats and be in a small room where the dog can’t really get too far from you.
  2. Say a chirpy “Yep!”, wait a half-sec, and deliver a treat. Don’t do the two things simultaneously. The “Yep!” must come first, then the treat. The treat must be perceived as the “consequence” of the “Yep”. When I was first learning this, I’d silently say “and GO!” to myself after I said, “Yep!”, then I’d immediately deliver the treat: “Yep!” -> silent “and GO!” -> treat.
  3. Repeat this about 30 times. Maybe you’ll use part of your dog’s kibble for the day as treats, to prevent her from getting fat…
  4. Do this every day for 3 or 4 days. She doesn’t need to do anything. She just hears, “Yep!”, and a treat arrives. You’ll know she “gets” it if you go “Yep!” and she reacts.

Now, if you’re working on something close up, you can just deliver the treat within a second. If your dog is across the room and you’re training her to sit at a distance, you can use “Yep!” to tell her a treat is on the way, then get the treat to her ASAP.

The understanding of the “If A, then B” contingency” is simple, but the application of it is not so simple. Remember, think of dog training as a skill which requires practice and repetition, both for you and the dog.

In the next blog post, we learn a bit more about teaching your dog, “If A, then B”.

2. What do dog training and going to the gym have in common?

No sensible person goes to the gym one time and says, “There! I’m in good shape now!” Likewise, if you go the first day and learn that you can bench press a maximum of 130 pounds, you don’t go for your next workout and try to bench press 250 pounds. The equivalent in dog training might be that you get your dog to come across your living room for a treat on day one. Then, day two, you take her to the park, let her off lead, then get mad when she doesn’t come after you call her from 50 yards away while she’s chasing a squirrel.

Likewise, if you go to the gym 3 times a week for 6 weeks, make some real gains in strength and fitness, you can’t come back a year later and expect to pick up where you left off. Same goes for “obedience class”. It’s “use it or lose it”. Want your dog to stay well trained? Make it part of her daily life.

My favorite method of doing this comes from the late Dr. Sophia Yin, who called this method, “Say ‘Please’ by sitting”. She goes into this in detail in the DVD I mention on the “References” page, but you basically train your dog to sit for any reward it wants: treats, meals, belly rubs, other forms of affection, getting out the door, getting in the door, greeting guests, etc. : Whatever the dog wants, she must sit and look at you to get it.

Here’s Dr. Yin demonstrating the beginning of this training with a pup. And watch her fantastic timing and crisp delivery. It makes it so easy for the dog. “I do the right thing, I immediately get a treat”, with no confusing motion involved.

Here’s a great little video of Sue Sternberg getting the first “sit” from a very untrained dog. The crux of the matter happens in the first four minutes. This video is meant to train workers in rescue facilities, but it’s a great demonstration of teaching a dog to work out a problem. Once you get this part down, say “please” by sitting is a breeze…