Why cues?

This post is a re-post of a blog entry that I wrote for the blog of the new business that OnScent has begun partnering with, K2K9. Enjoy–and check out the new website!

Modern trainers use the term “cue”, often confusing clients who grew up using the term “command.” More than once a client has looked up when I’ve asked them to give their dog a cue, and said, “a what?”

Since educators are supposed to be good communicators, why insist on using the new(ish) lingo?

First, “cue” accurately describes what we are doing. The Oxford Dictionary defines “cue”, as a “thing said or done that serves as a signal to an actor or other performer to enter or to begin their speech or performance.” If you consider the behaviors that we teach our dogs a performance, then giving them a cue to begin a behavior makes perfect sense.

Second, it expands our understanding of why dogs might choose to behave a certain way, in a certain context. Behavior doesn’t happen randomly: it is always in response to an internal or external event. Just as we might take a cue from a host’s yawn and say, “it’s time to go”, even if they ask you to stay, dogs are not only taking cues from us, but also from the world around them. This explains a lot when you think about it. You do not need to rely on labels like disobedience or stubbornness to attempt to explain your dog’s behavior when you recognize that there is more going on in your dog’s world than just you (and we haven’t even touched on genetics or learning history).

I like to use the example of intending to drive to the store after work, but soon finding yourself pulling in the driveway at home. You were not disobedient, you simply saw a visual cue—although it could have been nonvisual— to turn somewhere along the drive home, and then you saw another, such as a tree at the end of your street, until next thing you knew, you were pulling into your driveway. An example of a nonvisual cue might be your stomach growling, telling you that it’s time for dinner. If our own behavior is controlled by the world around us in this way, it is not fair to expect our canine friends to tune it all out perfectly every time and be obedient. Instead, we need to look at how we can arrange the environment to make our animals successful and how to reinforce desired behaviors so that they increase in frequency. This may be done, for example, by reducing environmental distraction until your dog is performing the behaviors you want, happily.

In this way, the concept of a cue gives us a paradigm for handling behavior that takes context into account. So many problem behaviors can be overcome through a good antecedent arrangement—change the environment and change the resultant behavior. For example, I was working on a heeling pattern the other day. After each click, my dog swung out of position to get his treat in front of me. My treat pouch was on my side opposite to my dog. I moved my pouch behind me, and, without any other modification, cue, or command, my dog remained in position for his treat—no struggle between wills required; I just removed a competing cue.

There is a third reason for my preferring the terminology “cue” over “command”, however, and it speaks to ethics. How do you see your dogs?

Although animals were seen as independent actors in the early medieval period, this changed over time. From the late 1500s on it became common for humans to view animals as machines: without feeling, intellect, or consciousness. Decartes was a prominent proponent of these outdated notions, which modern scientists have begun to refute. There is more work to be done, but even so, we can no longer accept that dogs are thoughtless and without feeling.

Dogs remember events much the way we do. Dogs form attachments to their human caregivers in a manner that is strikingly like the attachments formed by human infants. Dogs experience different emotional reactions based on a person’s expression, whether it’s happy, which activates reward centers in the brain, or angry, which activates more primal limbic systems. Whether dogs are sentient is still debated by some, but there is compelling evidence, such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging (“fMRI”) work of Professor Gregory Burns, supporting the belief that dogs experience emotions like us and share a level of consciousness similar to that of a human child.

Other animals also exhibit behavior we regularly attribute to humans. Rats play hide and seek; birds make tools; and there are other examples. While scientists still argue over whether animals are self-aware, it is accepted that they think and feel and have likes and dislikes.

If dogs form attachments to their human caregivers that mirror the child–parent relationship, and they remember episodic events, and they possess preferences regarding people, and can discern emotions in another being, then they are not equivalent to property. We need to recognize that animals are something more. Animals, including dogs, are independent, sentient creatures. As such, we do not have the right to demand absolute obedience.

Animals are entitled to likes and dislikes and other competing interests of their own—it is our job to incentivize them to behave as we wish. While it is practical and quite likely reasonable that they do not hold all the rights of a human (although this is debated), their inherent value is much more than their purchase price and their lives are much more than how they meet our human needs.

Even the courts are catching up on this evolution of our attitudes toward animals, with one judge stating that, “a pet is not an inanimate thing that receives affection, it also returns it”, while holding that a plaintiff was entitled to greater damages for the loss of her dog’s body than the dog’s market value. Corso v. Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital, 415 N.Y.S.2nd 182 (NY Civ Ct, 1979). This trend has continued with increasing numbers of cases holding that animals are not property. See, e.g., Murray v. Bill Wells Kennels, Ltd., Wayne County Circuit Court No. 95-536479-NO (Mich. 1997). See also, Wolf, C.L., Legal Re-Classification of Animals is Long Overdue.

Using the term “cue” and eliminating the term “command” helps support a change in mindset: dogs are not ours to do with as we wish. Our animals deserve choices and whatever autonomy is practical in each setting. We need to accept “misbehavior” as a function of learning history and environment and not an intentionally willful or malicious act. Animals are individuals: they are not simple extensions of our own egos. Using “cue” promotes kindness in our training and our relationships with our dogs—and hopefully any human or animal with whom we interact.

Are you really reinforcing your dog’s good behavior?

If you’re a positive reinforcement trainer, you should know the answer to this question!

Consequences are important

Thorndike’s Law summed up training with “consequences drive behavior.”  This is an important idea if you want to train your dog, or your cat, pet rat, or Alpaca.  The rule holds true for all animals.

Consequences in positive dog-training

When you make the commitment to train using positive reinforcement, you have decided to use things that your dog loves as consequences during training, and to forgo deliberately using positive punishers—in this context “positive” means adding a punisher, such as a collar pop or an electric shock, and is distinguished from a “negative” punisher, which is taking away something good).  This seems like a basic concept, but its application is more complex than simply providing treats.

For effective positive dog-training, the following is critical.

  1. First, to the extent possible, manage the environment so that it is less likely that your dog will practice unwanted behaviors, e.g., using a baby gate to keep your dog out of the family room when children are playing on the floor to prevent scratches and nipping, or crating an unattended puppy.
  2. Next, manage the environment so that your dog is not reinforced for unwanted behaviors, e.g., keeping food off counters while training a “counter surfer”.
  3. Now, shift your focus from stopping “bad” behaviors to catching your dog being good instead.
  4. Last, when your dog does something correctly, know how to reinforce that behavior effectively.


Management is always a good place to start.  Management has two goals.  The first objective is to arrange the environment, as much as we can, to prevent our dogs from rehearsing an unwanted behavior over and over.  This is because a frequently rehearsed behavior will only get stronger.  The second objective is to eliminate any source of reinforcement for the undesired behavior.  This step is important because behavior that is not reinforced will move into extinction, and eventually disappear, whereas behaviors that are reinforced will happen more frequently. 

So why not simply stop with management? 

With some issues, you can.  But when we are working with an existing behavior problem, extinction can be an unnecessarily frustrating experience for your dog, and extinction does not tell your dog what they should do instead—and what they come up with on their own may be equally problematic, or worse!

Catch them being right!

Shifting your focus from finding fault to identifying what behaviors you want to see more of can take a lot of work because many of us learned through correction ourselves—and often suffered because of it.  From ticketing speeders to having naughty children stay after school, our culture is permeated with finding fault.  But you can, with practice, start noticing your dog (and the people around you) when they do something right, or even something that is simply okay—if you reinforce approximations toward desirable behavior, you will get there faster than you might expect.  The more you do this, the more positive behavior-changes you will see around you—which is reinforcing to you too!

So how does reinforcement work?

Like consequences, reinforcement is also a simple concept that is not always straightforward in practice.  The first thing to know about reinforcement is that your treat (or toy or praise) is only reinforcement if it changes your dog’s behavior

Consider, if your dog sits and you give him a Cheerio and he spits it out, you would probably conclude that you did not successfully reinforce that sit.  But if your dog sits and you give him a Cheerio and he eats the Cheerio, have you actually reinforced the sit?  Maybe.  If he immediately sits again, hoping for more Cheerios, it probably did function as reinforcement.  If he wanders off after eating the Cheerio, or jumps up, or barks, the Cheerio probably wasn’t reinforcing to your dog at that time. 

This is why many trainers encourage students to use “high-value treats” in class and in distracting environments.  A bored dog, hanging around the house waiting for something to do, might like Cheerios and find them reinforcing.  That same dog, at class or in a park with strange smells, other dogs, and lots going onaround him, may no longer be all that interested in Cheerios—maybe sniffing or meeting other dogs is more reinforcing in this environment at this time.  Steak, however, might do the trick—or it might not.  The individual animal (or person) being reinforced always decides what constitutes reinforcement.

What should you use?

In most contexts a high-quality training treat, if your dog likes it, will be the easiest way to reinforce your dog.  In more challenging environments, you might try cut-up block cheese, small bits of hot dog (microwaved on paper towels to make them less slimy), boiled chicken breasts cut into small pieces, or steak trimmings.

But don’t stop at food.  Tug games, fetch (ball or Frisbee), and personal play are all excellent reinforcers once your dog has learned to love these games.  Unlike food, which will loose value as your dog gets full, these forms of reinforcement will retain their value during most training sessions—although they too could lose potency during a tiring, physically draining session or on a hot day.

The environment is also a great source of natural reinforcement.  If your dog loves going outside, ask for a behavior and, when your dog performs it correctly, let them out to play.  Sniffing bushes can reinforce loose-leash walking. A belly rub can reinforce lying down quietly while people talk or watch T.V.

Getting started

Draw up three lists.  The first one will rank your training environments from easy to the most challenging.  Think about what sort of reward would likely function as reinforcement in each context—e.g., Cheerios for performing a sit in the kitchen, cheese for sitting in class, and a fun game of tug for sitting with you on the agility course when another dog is running in the ring beside you.

Next, list everything your dog loves.  To the extent you can, order this list from highest-value rewards to the lowest (or the reverse).  Think about how you could use each of these items in your training—compare this list with the first one you drew up.

Next, draw up an ordered list of distractions.  Consider whether any of these “distractions” could be converted into reinforcers, at least if you set up the training session well.  Distractions are by definition super interesting and often are desirable to your dog; therefore, many distractions are likely to function as reinforcement if accessed by your dog as a consequence of engaging in training with you.

Last, have fun reinforcing your dog’s behavior effectively!  Your dog will love you for it.

Happy training!

Should you spay or neuter your dog? What the experts say.

Clients often ask my opinion on whether and when to spay or neuter their dog, and I can understand why they want help making this decision—there’s a lot of conflicting information out there!  The decision, however, is one best made by the client in consultation with their veterinarian.  Still, knowledge is a good thing.  Knowledge helps us evaluate for ourselves the risks and benefits of spaying or neutering our dogs, and then helps us form solid questions to ask when we meet with our vets.  This is why, when I recently read a lengthy literature review on sterilization and its effect on dogs’ health, lifespan, and behavior, I thought it might be helpful to summarize the information here (please note, I will use the term “sterilization” going forward when referring to both spay and neuter, or other sterilization procedures). 

For people with a serious interest in this topic and who would like access to the full article, its citation (along with a link) is as follows.  Urfer S. R. and Kaeberlein, M. (Dec., 2019) Desexing dogs: A review of current literature.  Animals, 9 (12) at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6940997/.

Sterilization as a population management technique

One thing that may surprise folks—it did me—is how much attitudes vary toward sterilization among various western countries.  In the U.S., around 64% of dogs are sterilized, and it is mandatory in some municipalities.  The UK and Ireland run a little lower, 54% and 47 % respectively; whereas, only 10% of dogs in Sweden are sterilized.  In Germany and some other Nordic countries sterilization is actually illegal (see, p. 2).

One reason for the high rate in the U.S. is our desire, stemming back to the 1970s, to decrease the number of dogs placed in shelters.  The interesting thing here is that, based on current research, sterilization does not reduce this number for companion and shelter-dog populations.  The reason seems to be that, in the U.S., around “two thirds of litters are intentionally bred” (p. 6).

In contrast, there is data supporting sterilization as a population control method for free-roaming-dog populations.  In this instance, however, there has not been any emphasis on the sex of the animal being sterilized, which is unfortunate, according to Urfer and Kaeberlein, since studies in mammals have shown that population growth (or decline) is tied to the number of fertile females in a population, not the number of males.  If this is true for feral dog populations, narrowing the focus to females could impact the costs of these programs.  Moreover, giving males vasectomies, instead of providing more traditional neuterings, will cause the sterilized males to continue competing for females, which also results in a lower population growth (see, pp. 6-8).


Note that in this post, I am only summarizing sterilization methods covered by Urfer and Kaeberlein that have been used on dogs in the general population.  I am not summarizing methods that have only appeared in specialized research settings, even if they were touched-on in the article.

Surgical.  Here in the U.S., the most common forms of sterilization are neutering (known as orchiectomy) for males and, for females, spaying (which is usually an ovariohysterectomy, meaning the removal of both the ovaries and the uterus, in the U.S., but an ovariectomy or oophorectomy, the removal of the ovaries only, in western Europe). 

Despite these clear preferences, there are alternative methods available.  For males, vasectomies are another surgical option, which does not impact the dog’s testosterone levels and behaviors related to testosterone.  For females, other options are a hysterectomy or cutting the dog’s fallopian tubes.  Like a vasectomy for a male dog, these methods do not impact the female dog’s hormone levels (see, pp. 3-4).

Hormonal.  Progesterone is used, on a limited basis, in both male and female dogs to cause reversible infertility.   Testosterone and estrogens are also used.  These methods tend to be more reliable in females than in males. 

A more recent hormonal treatment, administered via subcutaneous implants, is known as GnRH superagonists or (gonadotrophin releasing hormone).  This is a key hormone of reproductive function in mammals.  GnRH agonists cause infertility by first increasing certain hormones, which after ongoing use, triggers a desensitization in the pituitary and a subsequent collapse in the dog’s sex hormone levels, thus preventing fertility.  After six to eight weeks on GnRH, a dog will have undetectable levels of sex steroids.  This method is widely used in Europe and Australia, but not in the U.S (see, pp. 4-5). 


Many people look to sterilization as a means of eliminating undesirable behaviors in their dogs, and Urfer’s and Kaeberlein’s review indicates that this is warranted in some cases, but even then there are risks.  Methods of sterilization that remove the sex organs do impact behavior, but only some of the behavior changes that have been documented are beneficial to humans.  Others are not. 

It is also hard to predict which of the possible behavior changes will result from sterilization when you are looking at an individual dog.  Research looks at a population of dogs and determines what percentage of that population is impacted by a procedure.  If a large percentage is impacted, then data supports an effect, but your dog may be one of the outliers.  If sterilization is contemplated solely for behavior modification, Urfer and Kaeberlein suggest GnRH superagonist implants because this form of sterilization is reversible.

Documented behavior changes fall into four categories: libido and related behaviors, urinary marking, bite risk and aggressive behaviors, and cognitive function.  Most behavior changes are seen in male dogs and, in areas where both sexes show an effect, the effect in the male dogs is stronger (see, pp. 13-17). 

LibidoDecreased mounting and roaming.______
Urine markingReduced marking.______
Bite risk and aggressive behaviorsDecreased bite risk and boldness.  Decreased aggression towards other male dogs.  Increased resource guarding against both dogs and humans.  Mixed findings on fearfulness and / or reactivity and aggression.Decreased bite risk and boldness.  Mixed findings on fearfulness and / or reactivity and aggression.
Cognitive functionIncreased risk of cognitive dysfunction.Increased risk of cognitive dysfunction.

Libido.  Testosterone controls libido in dogs, as in humans.  Many undesirable behaviors, from the human point of view, are impacted by testosterone, including copulation, mounting, and roaming.   According to the authors, multiple studies found that neutering reduces “mounting [ ] and roaming in 60% to 90% of male companion dogs” (p. 14); however, a study involving free-roaming dogs did not see an effect.  It may be that age at the time of neutering matters: there is evidence that sexual behaviors will persist after neutering if a male is already sexually experienced (see, p. 14).

Urine marking.  Neutering does seem to reduce marking.  The effect of neutering on marking may be more pronounced when the procedure is done at an earlier age (see, p.p. 14-15). 

Bite risk and aggressive behaviors.  A variety of population-based studies in the US and Canada consistently show that sterilization reduces bite risk, but, according to the authors of the review, it is hard to quantify these findings because of how the studies were structured and because sterilization acts as a proxy for better husbandry overall.  

Additional studies look at boldness and the aggressive behaviors that exist on the far end of the boldness spectrum.  For example, an Australian study found that (1) males rate higher in boldness traits than female dogs and (2) sterilized dogs of both genders score lower on the boldness scale than intact dogs.  The problem is that several other studies have linked sterilization with the other end of the boldness spectrum—fearfulness and reactivity!

Moreover, there are studies that reveal a “small but significant increase in aggression towards strangers” (p. 16) in dogs who are sterilized under 12 months of age, and that also correlates to an increase in the length of time that a dog lives with increased fear and aggression.  Two more studies link sterilization with increased resource-guarding behaviors toward other dogs and humans.  A Hungarian study showed that intact males were less obedient than either neutered males or females, but that neutered “males who fall into the less-obedient category are more likely to show signs of owner-directed aggression“ (p. 16).

The strongest finding, according to Urfer and Kaeberlein, is that neutering male dogs is likely to reduce dog-directed aggression (see, pp. 15-16).

Cognitive function.  There is some evidence that sterilization increases the risk of cognitive dysfunction in both sexes; the finding is somewhat stronger in females.  There is preliminary evidence that ovariectomies may impact spatial learning in females (see, pp. 16-17).

Impact on health and life span

The first thing that Urfer and Kaeberlein note is that most published studies on the impact of sterilization on health fail to account for lifespan or the age at which a condition is diagnosed.  This matters because age remains the most important risk factor for many of the diseases that are impacted by sterilization—so, if lifespan increases, this alone could increase the prevalence of a disease linked to sterilization.  Also, because lifespan is not considered in most studies, results may show increases in disease without alerting us that the lifespan increased as well (see, p. 8).  Urfer and Kaeberlein argue that research is needed that uses “lifespan as a relevant measure of positive or negative health outcomes associated with [sterilizing] dogs, regardless of the ultimate cause of death” (p. 8), and this needs to be done despite the existence of several confounding variables that are hard to account for, such as the following:

1. sterilization functions as a proxy for better veterinary care, and

2. to be sterilized, an animal must live to the age of sterilization, which skews the data towards older dogs (p. 8). 

Most of the few studies looking at life span show that sterilization results in longer lifespans for female dogs and, in some studies, males, but the effect was more pronounced in females in all the studies.  One study found that intact males live longer than intact females, but spayed females live the longest.  Only one international study showed no difference in lifespan between intact and sterilized dogs (see, pp. 8-9). 

Other weaknesses in these studies, according to Urfer and Kaeberlein, include the following (see, pp. 8-9).

  1. Age at sterilization is not accounted for.
  2. The studies only look at surgical sterilization.
  3. The strong effect seen in female dogs in many instances may overshadow the effect in males when considering sterilization across both sexes.
  4. All but one of the studies used data from deceased dogs.

Disease risk

According to Urfer and Kaeberlein, most studies looking at individual disease risk have relied on data gathered from only a single breed.  Since risk can vary according to breed, the overall risk to your dog might vary significantly from what these studies find (see, pp. 9-13). 

Reproductive sys. tumorsEliminates testicular tumors and prostatic hyperplasia; increases risk of prostate tumors; decreases risk of venereal tumorsEliminates conditions, including ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, and pyometra; reduces risk of breast cancer; decreases risk of venereal tumors
Other tumorsIncreased risk of cardiac and splenic hemangiosarcoma, appendicular osteosarcoma, lymphoma, and transitional cell tumors of the bladderIncreased risk of cardiac and splenic hemangiosarcoma, appendicular osteosarcoma, lymphoma, transitional cell tumors of the bladder, and mast cell tumors
Joint disordersMore common disorders include CCL injury, hip dysplasia (HD), elbow dysplasia (ED), and osteoarthritis generallyMore common disorders include CCL injury, HD, ED, and osteoarthritis generally
Urinary___Limited risk of increased incontinence and urolithiasis, esp. in larger dogs and those spayed under 3 mos. Of age
ObesityIncreased risk, plus an obesity associated increased risk of diabetesIncreased risk
OtherIncreased risk of immune-mediated diseases, reduced risk of several congenital or early onset disorders, longer survival after onset of epilepsyIncreased risk of immune-mediated diseases, reduced risk of several congenital or early onset disorders, longer survival after onset of epilepsy

Reproductive system tumors.  The beneficial effect of sterilizing female dogs is strong overall, particularly for reducing pyometra and, to a lesser extent, breast cancer.  For males, the strongest effect is on benign hyperplasia, which is not life threatening, but the effect of sterilization on male reproductive-system tumors generally is mixed (see, pp. 9-10). 

Other tumors. Sterilization increases the risk of several tumors in this category in females and, for some tumors, in males as well.  Other than perianal adenomas in males, there are no decreases in the risk of tumors in the “other” category shown for either sex.  For many tumors not specifically mentioned in the review, the evidence regarding risk is inconsistent and varies widely depending on a dog’s breed, age, and gender (see, pp. 10-11). 

Joint disorders.  Sterilization affects the risk of joint disorders generally and among specific breeds.  The most common reported disorder with an increased risk in both sexes after sterilization is a craniate cruciate ligament (CCL) injury, with a subset of studies showing an even greater risk for dogs sterilized before puberty.  Because of variations in risk according to breed, sex, and age at sterilization, more evidence is needed for other listed disorders.  One study found an increased risk of low bone-density, but the result has not been reproduced, and Urfer and Kaeberlein believe that sterilization does not increase risk of bone density loss in females (see, pp. 11-12).

Other.  Sterilization increases the risk of immune-mediated diseases, including among other conditions, atopic dermatitis, Addison’s disease, hypothyroidism, epilepsy (although sterilized dogs lived longer after first seizure), and IBS.  For all but a couple of these disorders, the effect is stronger in females than males.  In contrast, there is actually a reduced risk of several congenital or early onset disorders (see, p. 13).

This was a lot of information! —with full credit to Urfer and Kaeberlein.  But as you can see, it doesn’t, on its own, clarify what you should do with the puppy in front of you. 

So what should you do?

After reading through all this information,

  1. Identify your specific concerns; for example, is a condition listed here prevalent in your particular breed?  Was your breed used in a given study? Is your puppy fearful or bold?  Do you have multiple dogs? 
  2. Consider what current science says regarding your areas of concern.
  3. Last, take all the information that you have gathered to your veterinarian and ask them to help you wade through the process of balancing the pros and cons of sterilization for your particular situation and, most importantly, for your individual dog.

Dogs don’t get a day off—particularly in the time of Covid-19.

As someone who frequently interacts with working dogs and working-dog people, it is easy to divide the world of dogs into working dogs and pet dogs. Working dogs have drive and are intense; more importantly, they have jobs. Pet dogs, in contrast, are supposed to be happy-go-lucky, willing to hang out with their humans and accept life as it is.

The truth, however, is that pet dogs do work, every day of their lives—which for some requires a certain drive and grit all its own. Even when our lives are not turned upside down by a pandemic, pet dogs have work to do. For example, pet dogs offer quiet companionship for hours while we watch T.V.—even when they would much prefer a game of fetch because their human skipped walking them that day.

Pet dogs are close observers of their humans. They notice when we want to interact with them and when we don’t—indications that are often inconsistent and unclear. Many dogs are expected to stay away from the table while people are eating, but still understand that their human wants them to curl up at their feet when reading a book. Failure to learn subtle indications about their human’s mood can lead to a dog being relegated outside, which is hard on these highly social creatures, or in extreme cases surrendered to a shelter.

Pet dogs must learn a foreign language, and tolerate our frequent failure to learn theirs. “Go lie down” is “down” is also “off.” At times they are expected to be mind readers capable of complying with unexpressed expectations. Despite ambiguity in our cues and general communication, many owners still expect dogs to obey them instantly, regardless of the dogs’ own needs—a belief that is perpetuated when cues are described as commands. If we had bosses as mercurial and dictatorial as some dog owners, we would probably look for a new job. So, I am not convinced that the current meme about dogs being happy to have humans at home all day is universally true—although I’m sure it is for many.

To make sure that all this together time is good for both ends of the leash, ask yourself what is your dog’s life like during our global stay-at-home? Are his or her working conditions still acceptable or are reasonable accommodations to the workplace required?

To help you decide whether your dog’s needs are being met during this crisis, consider the following.

Time off. Does your dog get any time off now that you no longer go to work or even out to dinner? Consider that your dog may still need some alone time (which will also make the transition back to work go more smoothly, assuming we do go back some day). Make sure that your pet dog can retreat and rest away from kids and any other loud or high-energy aspects of your home.

Routines.  Dogs like routines. If your pet dog is underfoot more these days (or less), or is suddenly unusually destructive or is barking more than in the past, consider that your dog may be struggling to learn their new place in a household that never leaves.

Stress.  Covid is stressful. Many people are worried about losing incomes, homes, and jobs. We may have lost people we loved and we fear for our own health. We may not mean to let our stress impact those around us, but it is easy to do so. Dogs, like children, are particularly vulnerable. Dogs live their days entirely at the mercy of their humans. Ask yourself, would you want to be a dependent in your home right now? We all have moments when we fail to be our best selves leaving our pets to pay the price, but what is your primary temperament at home during this period of stress and fear? Could your dog be living anxious and scared? Or is your dog simply ignored and bored? 

My challenge to us all during this period of staying at home is to use this time to observe your dog. Create a stay-at-home routine and watch how it impacts them. Give your pet dog some space every day and see how this impacts their behavior. Notice what they like and what they don’t. Care enough to make sure your dog has access to at least some things they want and voluntarily choose to do every day. Think past dog treats. Treats are great and can certainly reinforce desirable behavior, but so can walks, playing ball or tug, or a long run outside. Joint activities build a stronger relationship and being active is good for both dogs and humans.

Dogs work hard to provide us with the companionship that we desire, but they don’t always know what to do to please their “boss.” You can help by making sure your expectations for them are clear. Instead of focusing on the things you don’t like, which does nothing to clarify what you want your dog to do, catch your dog in the act of doing something good—they will learn how to meet your expectations much more quickly. For example, when your dog walks up to the sandwich you forgot on the coffee table and simply lies down, tell him he’s wonderful and give him a belly rub (if he likes belly rubs) or grab the leash and take him for a walk. Your dog will appreciate that you noticed him doing the right thing and that his choice led to something fun. 

See how many things you can catch your dog doing right each day and how many different ways you can reinforce those good behaviors. Your dog will appreciate your communicating to them what you expect and giving them a workplace that is once again (or maybe finally!) predictable and manageable. Your pet dogs will welcome finally getting the “paycheck” that they have long deserved for all the work they do at home! In turn, they’ll work harder than ever at being good.

Under Pressure . . .

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. This is due, in part, to all the things that have been keeping me busy, but also because I took time to write an article for the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants Journal, which you can read here (you have to scroll down a couple rows). Hopefully you find it interesting and helpful.

Who are you calling lazy?

Okay.  I know I said I was going to write next about searching as a reward, and I’m working on it.  But I just read a blog post that dovetails nicely to the previous discussion on rewards, although it’s not about dog training at all.  Instead the author, Mike Sturm, explores how we use laziness as a label for people who do not perform up to expectations.

Two points in particular caught my eye:

(1) accusing other people of laziness is intellectually lazy and

(2) helping someone to overcome perceived “laziness” requires actually “transferring  [your own] perception[s] and felt value[s]” to the individual whom you are trying to motivate.

Sturm’s first point caught my eye because it reflects how many, if not most, people speak about their dogs.  How many times have you heard someone say, or said yourself, “he knows better”?  At a recent dog event a woman, tears in her eyes, bemoaned that her dog had just thrown away all the many months she had spent training him.  All that time she had given gone simply because of her dog’s bad attitude.  It’s the he-just-won’t- ____-despite-all-the-things-I-do-for-him syndrome.  Maybe they’re not saying their dog is lazy or bad, but the implication is there.  This is sad because, as discussed in Sturm’s blog, the real problem is that we have we focused only on “how” and not looked below the surface behavior and questioned,  “why should he?”

It is so easy to point the finger at another and so hard to look in the mirror–believe me, I know.  According to an individual interviewed on NPR recently, a person whose name I did not catch (but am still looking for), science shows us that when we make a mistake, we explain it away as related to some temporary circumstance; whereas, with others, including our dogs, we attribute error to some inherent failing.  This means that, when we call our dogs lazy or bad or dumb, we’re failing to go through the same basic mental process or analysis that we go through automatically when the error is our own.  We are being lazy!  Worse, our failure to analyze what really happened condemns us to never change the behavior in question, at least not reliably.

This takes us to the second point.  If you want another individual to approach a task with “urgency” and gusto, you must do more than prod, nag, or bribe, you must actually transfer your perception of the situation to the other person or dog.  You must get your dog to buy into the idea that agility or scent work or obedience is fun and worth doing.  As Sturm points out, even people designated as lazy will move heaven and earth to find a bathroom–because they value the goal.

Perception transference also helps explain why a seemingly well-trained dog will appear to throw away all their training.  It’s not on a whim.  What you were asking him to do just wasn’t that important to him, or was not important enough under the given circumstances. You see it again when a trainer’s frustration taints an activity for a dog, despite liberal use of food and praise.  The trainer’s perception was transferred all right, just not as intended.

The catch?  Training this way takes work, a great attitude, perseverance, more perseverance, and a willingness to take responsibility for failures.  It also requires trainers to respect their dogs as independent, thinking, feeling creatures, and not as extensions to our own egos. It also takes forgiving yourself and your dog for errors, bad-attitude moments, distractions, and, yes, occasional laziness.

This can be hard, but it’s also what makes training rewarding–assuming it’s all for the love of dogs.



Making training rewarding

Hexi Playing - cropped

It feels like this should be an easy topic, no real training or thought needed, and on some level this is true. We all have a general idea how to dole out a reward. But it’s oh so easy to reward ineffectively! I think most of our issues stem from a failure to recognize (or remember) that rewards are ANYTHING that makes a behavior more likely to reoccur. So, a reward is something your dog actually likes and wants, offered in a manner that links it to a behavior so that your dog is likely to do behavior again—like when your dog almost pulls your shoulder out of it’s socket as he drags you to a bush, and then rewards himself by sniffing at it happily.

One way to reward ineffectively is to accidentally reward a behavior you don’t want!

Another way rewards can run off the tracks is when some of us confuse treats with rewards. Pet food marketers encourage this error after all, and it’s easy to feel you have rewarded your dog simply because you have shoved a treat at them—I think we are all guilty of this at times. But does your dog like the treat? Or maybe your dog is bored with a treat that was once super yummy—until 6 months passed by with absolutely no variation. You don’t have to hang out with dog trainers very long to hear someone indignantly say, “but he always liked these before”! Would you like potato chips if they were all you were ever allowed to snack on?

I might want to test this theory on myself, just to be sure! Potato chips are pretty darn good.

Maybe your treats are great, but your demeanor screams boredom or frustration or inattention when you offer your dog their treat. Another common thing that I see is a person leaning down over their space-sensitive dog as they offer the treat, counteracting the pleasure the dog might have felt over the treat. All these types of things can easily affect whether a tidbit is received as a reward by the dog.

Think how you feel when someone slaps food in front of you and then marches off. It’s not dinner. It’s an insult. Consider context when you’re evaluating your methods for rewarding your dog.

A related problem is the ease with which we forget that there is a whole world of rewards out there that we can draw upon. We are creatures of habit after all. But we needn’t limit ourselves to one brand (although my dogs do like Zuke’s®). Even hot dogs or cheese can get old, so although food is really helpful for precision, and treat placement, toys and games can be fun too and more motivating for some dogs or certain behaviors. Tugging (let your dog win) is a great reward for a recall or for holding two-on/two-off in agility. Frisbee or retrieving a ball can be highly motivating, and works-off calories from all the teats you’re using too.

Watch your dogs’ demeanor as you branch out. There are dogs who just don’t want you to toss the ball; they want to hold on to it. A squeaky toy that one dog loves may scare a sound-sensitive rescue.

So, now you’re convinced you should branch out, but don’t stop at toys. Why not look for other opportunities to reward good behavior. Let your dog out to play after a nice “sit” or “down.” Tell your dog to “go sniff” to reward his decision to not tug you all the way to the well-marked mailbox. Also, what things in the environment are rewarding behaviors you don’t like? You may need to cut off access to this environment-based reward if you want the annoying behavior to slowly extinguish itself.

Quantity can also be important, along with delivery (e.g., one treat after another to draw out the fun, or a quick jackpot or a 5 minute game of tug for a great job). A puritanical insistence on avoiding handouts (the nothing-in-life-is-free plan) can also undermine certain types of training, such as classical conditioning, as can the ever-popular fear of over-treating. Outside of calories (and cost), I’m not sure why this is of such concern for so many people. But over and over, I see people reward their young dog for finding a source after a long, hard search with, drum roll, a single, teeny, tiny treat—even after they were encouraged to go wild—and then they wonder why their dog is distracted by all the good scents occurring naturally in the environment. Hint—they are more interesting than the reward that you’ve conditioned your dog to associate with the scent.

I’m not suggesting that we treat anything and everything, but we forget at our peril that a better-than-all-previous-efforts effort deserves a bigger-than-most payout even if the behavior still needs work. Any effort may warrant a jackpot if it was in the presence of an overwhelming distraction, or took an exceptionally long time to complete. I cannot emphasize enough how an occasional piece (or 5) of steak, or a meatball, or a long tug session in exchange for a better-than-most effort may be all that is needed to help motivate a dog accustomed to working in a sea of teeny, tiny kibble.

So ask your dog to learn a lot and work hard, but remember that nothing in life is free. Pay up!

*Next time we’ll talk about rewards, I’ll explore how searching can function as a reward.

Slaying dragons is difficult when you ignore them…

…Or when you decide to start with the mother of all dragons!

Slaying DragonsI read an article this morning, a parable really, that addresses the common practice of talking about change, promoting it even, while running scared from the reality of it.  There’s a similar phenomenon seen in dog training where a handler says she wants her dog’s behavior to change.  This handler attends classes to promote change.  She fights traffic to get to this class after work.  She pays for this class.  While in class, she listens carefully to what her instructor says.  Then, while waiting her turn, or coming or going from the building, this handler reverts instantly to gripping the end of her leash, hanging on tight, and tolerating all of the problem behaviors she just spent an hour learning how to address.  And then she wonders why nothing ever changes.

Behavior changes slowly.  Habits are easily entrenched, but hard to fill in or reroute.  There is no magic formula.  To change behavior we all must make small changes.  Work with new “baby” behaviors patiently and consistently.  You have to nurture a future habit until it becomes fixed.  Then you’re ready to make the next change, and so on.

This is hard however.  First, you have to know where you want to go with your behavior issue, whether its your dog’s or your own.  After all, a fun trick that you once taught your dog may turn into a “zombie” problem that keeps rising from the extinguished behavior pile to haunt your obedience routine, or simply piss off guests, if you didn’t look ahead at what your long term expectations really were.  For example, I have a “rewind” trick that now rises up in finishes and other exercises from time to time–I find it funny, but it could really upset a trainer with more exacting standards.  I have another trick where my dog peeks through my legs.  I like it, but not all guests are amused and my agility instructor can’t stand it!

It is also hard because we don’t break things down and think small enough.  For example, teaching “stays.”  Each session I ask students to start teaching “stay” first by teaching the dog to resist following a treat when the handler moves their hand away from the dog.  Then, I’ll have them simply build some time into their dog’s sit: one one thousand, treat.  Then move to: one one thousand, two one thousand and treat.  Now build this up to a solid 5 seconds.  At this point, I’ll ask them to add the actual word, “stay”, but go back to counting one one thousand, the hold period that your puppy has already mastered (and not a 5 minute stay), mark and treat, then release.  Now build up to five seconds slowly before stepping away–and when you do, lower the time held.

Invariably, students ask their puppy, who just acquired the concept of sit, to stay as they walk out to the end of the leash.  Of course the puppy follows, bouncing along beside them happily–or she might wander off to sniff the puppy next to her.  The student then calls and scolds the puppy (breaking down the puppy’s nascent heel and recall) and drags him back to try again–hopefully I catch each student before this cycle gets too far!

Knowing this, I have to wonder why I still decide I’m going to make a change, like taking up meditation, or eating well, or starting this blog, and then alternate between attempting to create an award-winning site and completely ignoring my page, sometimes for years!  I should listen to myself and start small.  Baby steps.  Write an entry each week (I almost said day, but caught myself).  When this is habit, I will grow the behavior.  I’m getting better and better at expecting smaller changes from my dogs, maybe I can start expecting less of myself, and getting further in the end.