Monday, January 24, 2011

The tools of the trade

So, no discussion of dog training would be complete without going over the basic tools. I've tried to cover all tools below, though some I recommend more than others.

The clicker

This is the best of the best in dog training. It is a tiny, inexpensive plastic case with a metal tongue inside. You press it. It clicks. Pretty simple.

Clicker training is when you classically condition your dog to associate the sound of the click with an incoming treat (like Pavlov's bell). So when the dog hear's the click it knows a treat is incoming. You use the sound of the click to mark the INSTANT your dog does something you agree with. It's faster and more consistent than your voice can ever be, and it taps into the dog's subconscious and speeds learning.

Karen Pryor was instrumental in the development and proliferation of clicker training. Here is what she says about why clicker training is so effective: (Source)
Why is clicker training effective?
When an animal intentionally performs a behavior in order to bring about a desired consequence, as clicker trained animals do, they are learning in a way that researchers call “operant conditioning.”

Animals (and people) may also associate an action, event, place, person, or object with a consequence, whether pleasant or unpleasant. The more a certain event or environment is paired with a particular consequence, the stronger the association. This type of learning is called “classical conditioning” and represents reflexive or automatic behavior, rather than intentional behavior.

While clicker training initially employs classical conditioning, it quickly becomes operant conditioning as soon as the animal intentionally repeats an action in order to earn a reward. Training through operant conditioning results in purposeful behavior, while training through classical conditioning results in habitual behavior.

The difference between an animal that behaves with purpose, rather than by habit, is vast. Clicker trained or operantly conditioned animals try to learn new behaviors. They remember behaviors even years later because they were aware of them as they learned them, rather than acquiring them without awareness. They develop confidence because they have control over the consequences of their actions. They are enthusiastic because they expect those consequences to be pleasurable.

Why is a clicker used?
The essential difference between clicker training and other reward-based training is that the animal is told exactly which behavior earned it a reward. This information is communicated with a distinct and unique sound, a click, which occurs at the same time as the desired behavior. The reward follows.

Without hearing a click during an action, an animal may not connect the reward with that action. Or, the animal may associate the reward with another, unwanted action. With the click, a trainer can precisely “mark” behavior so that the animal knows exactly what it was doing. That’s why clicker trainers call the click an “event marker.” The click also bridges or connects the behavior and its reward, and so is also called a “bridging signal.”

Why use the click? Why not just a word?
A click is more powerful for training than a spoken word because it is not a sound heard by the animal in other circumstances. It means one thing only: a reward is coming because of what you did when you heard the click. It can be produced instantly and at the exact moment a behavior occurs. Even a very quick and subtle behavior, the twitch of an ear for example, can be clicked.

Unlike our voices, which can say the same word in different ways, and so express different emotions or meanings each time, the click sounds the same every time it is heard; its meaning never varies. Humans are highly verbal creatures, but our pets are not. It can be difficult for them to pick out a single word from the stream of meaningless words they hear us speak every day. The click’s meaning, however, is always clear. It is always directed at the animal, and it is always good news.

The clarity with which a click enables trainers to communicate with their animals has a profound effect on their relationships. Their level of interaction increases, and trainer and animal become more interesting and fun for each other.
Here's one of my videos of an example of what you can achieve with clicker training. You should be able to make out the sounds of the click over the music, and you can see me holding a clicker in most frames.

To start out, you want to "charge" the clicker. This means that you're going to spend some time going click/treat click/treat, giving your dog a treat immediately after you click. (The unconditioned stimulus becomes the conditioned stimulus.) You'll want to do this ~20 times in a row at first, maybe 4-5 times a day so you build up this association between the click and food in your dog's mind.

The biggest thing to remember is that you will always be pairing a click with a reward for the rest of your dog's life. If the click becomes unassociated with the reward then it becomes white noise to your dog, and it will hold no meaning.

These are some good sites for those of you getting started with the clicker: Clicker Solutions . com, Clicker Training . com

The treats

The best training treats are small and soft so they're easy to handle and your dog can eat them quickly. Some people use liver treats, steak, unspiced lunch meats, cheerios, carrots or whatever your dog really likes. Experiment with a bunch of different things, and keep track of favourites. Pull the favourites out when you're working on new or important behaviours.

My dog works for kibble, which is great. If I'm training her I'll skip her breakfast and give it to her over the course of the training session. If your dog eats 100 kibble pieces in a meal, that's 100 training opportunities. (Some dogs are less than enthralled with kibble -- it depends on the dog.)

The leash (standard, training, tabs, flexi)

The standard leash

Leashes come in a bajillion different colours and materials. The leashes best for training are about 4-6 feet in length, sturdy, easy for you to grab, leather or nylon.

Training leash

A lot of the time when it's recommended you have a training leash
it means a long, lightweight leash to allow your dog more freedom outside. You can either hold it, or let your dog drag it. These are normally nylon.

Leash tab

Leash tabs are short little handles you can attach to your dog's collar. I didn't find a lot of use for these until I started taking agility classes. Now I love them. My dog is off leash while navigating the obstacles, but when I need to hold her still it's just a little
more convenient than grabbing her collar.

Flexi lead

Flexi leads are retractable long leashes on a spring mechanism.
These are NOT RECOMMENDED for the following reasons:
- The dog gets used to constantly putting tension on the leash, and as a result it is much more difficult to teach the dog to walk nicely at your side.

- You have much less control when your dog is at a distance from you. I can't count the number of horrible stories I've heard about someone's dog darting out into the road in front of a car despite being "on lead" on a flexi.

- Similar to the previous point, if your dog is out in front of you and you approach another dog who's uncomfortable with your dog it could trigger a confrontation that would otherwise be avoided if your dog was controlled at your side.

- I highly highly recommend you teach your dog how to walk loose leash at your side. You have infinitely more control over them, and you're both able to keep tabs on what the other is doing.

The collar (flat, slip, martingale, prong, head, harness, electric)


The flat collar is the most basic of dog collars. It either buckles or latches like a belt, and it lays flat on your dog's neck. These collars are comfortable and make good everyday collars for ID tags, licences etc.

*** It is not recommended you ever keep your collar on your dog if you aren't watching it. *** It sounds silly, but accidents happen. Always make a point of removing your dog's collar if you're crating it or leaving the house. (Always ensure there's no way the dog could get loose without ID tags.)


Slip collars are commonly referred to as choke collars, or choke chains. They are not recommended. The idea behind them is that when your dog misbehaves you "check" him with a swift yank and release of the chain. There is a risk of damaging a dog's throat while using these, even when using them properly. Improperly used you can risk limiting a dog's air flow and doing significant damage.


Martingales are a hybrid between a traditional collar and a slip.
They have an area on them which can tighten when force is applied. These collars are recommended for sighthounds and other dog breeds with heads smaller than their necks since these collars will tighten instead of letting the dog slip out.

These can also be used as slip collars are used, with a quick check of the leash. They're an improvement over the typical slip since they will only tighten so far. However, using these collars in this way is not recommended. There are more effective methods of training that don't rely on leash pops.


Prong collars are designed similarly to martingales where they check the dog when pressure is applied to the collar. The prongs inside add additional discomfort so a dog is likely to avoid putting any pressure on it.

Suzanne Clothier, who no longer uses prongs in training but wants people to use them correctly, says (emphasis hers):
"When properly fitted, the prong collar should be at roughly the mid-way point on the dog's neck, with the chain portion flat, not sagging. Beware those who recommend fitting a prong collar (or any collar) up high, near the dog's ears - their intention is to cause pain by putting the collar in this nerve rich, muscle poor area of great sensitivity."

Read the whole article here. It has some good information on successful prong collar training.

They can be an effective tool to teach loose leash walking, however they MUST be used in conjunction with proper training (not just as a crutch) or the dog is not likely to behave the same way if on a different collar.

If you use this collar please remember to remove it before letting your dog off leash at the park. I see a number of dogs playing with these on, and it's not a good idea.


Head collars fit around a dog's nose and around the back of their head. They latch either below the jaw or behind the ears. These can be a good tool to control an over-excited or rambunctous dog. If a dog puts pressure on the leash it will only serve to turn its head.

These are not muzzles. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions about why your dog is in a muzzle if you choose to use one of these.

Be very very careful to never apply swift pressure if a dog is wearing a head collar -- you risk torquing the neck and causing serious damage. Again, as with the prong collar, these are a training tool, and should be used in conjunction with proper training.

Try either Canny Collar or Sporn Collar. They're both head halters that attach to the leash behind the dog's head, instead of under the chin (like Haltis or Gentle Leaders). They're preferable to the under the chin designs since there's less risk of injury to the dog's neck if sudden pressure is accidentally applied to the leash.


Harnesses come in a few basic designs -- front clip and back clip. Back clip harnesses are more common and traditional. These are great since they put no pressure on a dog's neck and can be very comfortable to wear. Front clip harnesses are used as tools to alleviate pulling. If a dog puts pressure on the leash it will only serve to turn its body away from what it's trying to focus on. Again, as with the prong collar, these are a training tool, and should be used in conjunction with proper training.


Electic collars, or e-collars are a highly specialized training tool and SHOULD NOT BE USED without proper, face to face training with an accomplished professional. Also, the use of these collars is outlawed in certain countries (Wales, for instance).

They deliver an electric shock (aka nick) or a buzz (aka a page) to varying degrees upon the handler keying it into the handheld controller. They range from a tiny shock that feels like a warm sensation, to a HOLY GOD THAT HURT shock meant to "put a dog down" if it's getting into trouble (for instance if a dog starts chasing after game in the field, putting itself and others at risk).

These collars have their place in teaching advanced behaviours while at a distance from the handler -- most notably hunting. They SHOULD NOT BE USED to teach basic obedience, or in lieu of proper training techniques. They're very susceptable to being misused (and the dog abused), so they should be approached only after thorough research.

The toys (tug, fetch, and others)

Toys can be an excellent primary reinforcer. Some dogs are more nuts for toys than food, so use it to your advantage! Toys tend to build drive and excitement, whereas food rewards tend to have a calming effect.


Some dogs absolutely love playing tug. Tug is a great game, and minute for minute, is probably one of the fastest ways to tire your dog out. Some trainers recommend not playing tug for silly reasons (dominance), but I think it's a great option as long as you have a degree of control over your dog. For instance, when I play with my dog, I'll periodically ask her to drop it, and when she complies I reward her with MORE TUG OMG. Dropping it is important, but it shouldn't always signal the end of the game.


Games of fetch can help dogs run themselves ragged. Balls, frisbees, etc are great to play fetch with. I reward my dog with a kibble for almost every retrieval she does to further increase the value of the game. I do this since she's not as crazy about chasing balls as some dogs, but I didn't want to miss out on such a valuable way to drain energy.

The crate

Crating is a good way to limit your dog's access to the house when you can't supervise them. A crate should serve as a den -- a safe, warm, happy place they can go to when they're feeling tired, stressed, etc.

Some countries do not allow their use, and some people consider them cruel. But used as part of a training regimen they can be very helpful. Dogs who are crate trained handle boarding better, overnight vet visits, etc. Crates are also almost a necessity at dog shows and sporting events.

The training classes

Training classes are a fantastic way to train your dog. But they don't really train your dog, they train you how to train your dog, which is infinitely more helpful in my opinion.

Training classes offer a controlled environment to work with your dog. The more time you spend working with your dog the better a relationship you can have with them. Training classes cover a vast array of subjects, from the most basic of puppy obedience, tricks, off leash skills, etc to competitive sports like competitive obedience, rally, agility, nosework, dock diving, herding and more.

I highly recommend you look into classes regardless of how accomplished you might be. There's always someone better out there who can offer you insight on things you might otherwise have missed.

The hard part is finding a suitable training facility. The general rule of thumb is to determine whether they use positive reinforcement techniques, and whether the instructor has any advanced performance titles on their dog(s).

Reference books

When in doubt, read. There are loads of helpful dog training books out there.

The internet

This is an overlooked resource. Youtube is an amazing place. If you're stuck on a trick or behaviour, search it up on youtube to receive a dozen different videos suggesting a dozen different ways you can teach it. Of course, like anything, there's loads of garbage interspersed with good advice, so you'll have to determine what will work for you.

My favourite youtube dog trainer is Kikopup -- check her out.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

An introduction to dog training, pt 2

The schools of training - old and new school

There are two basic schools of training when it comes to dogs: old and new.

Old school, or traditional dog training tends to be very hierarchically based, where a trainer tends to take a very no-nonsense approach with their dogs. They expect a dog to listen and obey commands lest risking punishment for non-compliance. This is a very corrections-based method. You'll often find a lot of people using terminology like “be the alpha” in conjunction with these training styles and the two ideologies are closely related.

Rewards also exist in this methodology, but often they're pats or verbal praise in lieu of food rewards. There is the concern that reliance on food to train results in reliance on food for compliance for the rest of the dog's life, and that a dog may not obey in situations where no food is present.

Ever pop your dog's leash? That's an traditional training method. It is a correction for the dog misbehaving in a situation where it can be expected that the dog knows what it should be doing, but is doing something else instead. The general idea behind these methods is that you first teach a dog to do something, then you punish it for not complying if necessary. (Personally I feel that the teaching is often rushed, and a dog does not always know why it is being reprimanded.)

These tactics can and do work, but they can also be misused and abused. In soft-tempered dogs, or already anxious animals you might find the animal shutting down when faced with the stress added by the handler.

Popular old school dog trainers are Cesar Milan, Brad Pattison, and Don Sullivan. Certain training schools also adhere to these methodologies. One of the most popular and widely spread schools is Bark Busters.

The schools of training - new school

The new school of dog training is reward based, founded on the basic principle that you reward desirable behaviours to increase the frequency at which they're offered. You use reinforcers like food, play and praise as rewards to lay the groundwork for positive associations and future training.

This new school of training was developed to work with a wide range of animals, from bears and lions to whales and rats. I'm sure you're all aware, but it's not recommended you alpha roll a bear, and leash popping a whale is difficult, to say the least. A better method of communication and training had to be developed, as physical coercion simply cannot occur with some species.

This new school of dog training normally goes hand in hand with a tiny handheld device called a clicker. Prior to its use, there was some discussion that methods of delivering praise and reward did not inform the animal of successes with enough promptness and precision to create the required cognitive connections for speedy learning. The response was the clicker. It is a unique sound that the animal only ever encounters as a mark for good behaviour that is more reliable and precise than a human voice can ever be.

These techniques have been used with whales, bears, lions, as well as domestic dogs and cats. It's a faster, more reliable way to communicate to your animal. The click is used to mark a split second of a behaviour and communicate that a reward is on its way. I'll speak a bit more about using a clicker in the “Tools”section.

The positive reinforcement that this methodology is based on is excellent for working with quiet dogs, or dogs lacking self confidence.

Popular new school dog trainers are Victoria Stillwell, Pat Miller, Jean Donaldson and a bunch of other people you've probably never heard of.

Check out this video as an introduction to clicker training. What Is Clicker Training? by Kikopup (youtube link)

Here are some popular misconceptions about new school training:

The dog won't perform without food present: This is a popular problem people have. The issue is that the handler is not fading out the food lure fast enough when teaching a new behaviour. The idea is to fade out the lure quickly, and to reward on a variable rate of reinforcement so the dog is never sure when it will receive its reward.

The dogs become fat with too many treats being provided: Yes, you'll be giving your dog a lot of food. But you don't always have to use treats. For 95% of the training I do with my dog I use kibble, and if I'm doing an intense training session I'll skip my dog's meal and feed it to her one at a time as rewards.

Dominance and dog training

Have you ever heard someone refer to themselves as their dog’s “alpha”? How about being told that if your dog does X then it’s a sign that it’s exerting dominance over you? Now, if you hear people saying as much you can quietly roll your eyes for the following reasons:

Dominance theory is based on flawed studies performed on captive wolves in the 1960s, and basic brute force prior to then. There have been many studies that display that dogs do not operate under a dominance hierarchy. Dogs' social structure is more fluid, and not typically hierarchical.
Association of Pet Dog Trainers says:
One of the biggest misconceptions we find ourselves faced with is the definition of "dominance." Dogs are often described as being "dominant" which is an incorrect usage of the term. Dominance is not a personality trait. Dominance is "primarily a descriptive term for relationships between pairs of individuals." and moreover, "the use of the expression 'dominant dog' is meaningless, since "dominance" can apply only to a relationship between individuals. (Bradshaw et al., 2009)

The idea is that dominance is never elicited forcefully, rather it is voluntarily given. What we often consider “dominant” traits are often anxiety-based behaviours that can and do intensify if addressed with force.

So, forget about dominance theory – regardless of whether it exists or not it’s completely irrelevant. Your goal, when addressing behavioural issues, is not to understand a dog’s emotional state, but rather to focus on what the dog is currently doing, and what we want the dog to do instead. Then we help the dog understand what’s expected of it by rewarding desirable behaviours.

“Alpha rolls” and “scruff shakes” are not only unnecessary, but they can damage a dog’s trust in its handler and can intensify the already-present anxiety.

This article says it better. If you have anyone who’s a bit stuck on dominance theory it’s a good thing to show them:

However, dogs need structure and routine, and they need to know what’s expected of them. Just leave the alpha-dominance theory at the door where it belongs.

Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is a term that means a condition of a human or animal in which it has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected. In short, the animal has given up on helping itself. It's a sad state of affairs.

Learned helplessness is sometimes the result of harsh training and over-correction. If a dog is constantly punished for not behaving accordingly (and remember that the dog might have no idea what “accordingly” is) it might give up on ever trying to figure it out.

That is the primary reason why I infinitely prefer clicker/positive reinforcement training since it rewards the dog for trying new things. If you have a creative, enthusiastic dog there's really no limit on what you can teach it.

Here's one of my videos of Cohen when she was one year old to show the fruits of positive dog training:

Selective disobedience

One major criticism of dogs trained primarily with positive reinforcement is that they’re selectively disobedient. It makes sense – when few reprimands are given the dog is not scared of making a mistake and incurring punishment.

A lot of people who train improperly can’t get their dogs to behave without waving a treat in front of their noses. And to these people I say, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.

The goal of positive reinforcement training is to lay the groundwork for good behaviour when you’re out in the real world and away from your bait bag. You do this by quickly fading lures and utilizing a varied rate of reinforcement so the dog’s never sure when it’s getting a reward. When you’re beginning you can maybe get 3-5 behaviours for a treat, but veterans can expect to get 50+ without pausing to feed/reward.

The other key aspect of maintaining obedience without threatening punishment is that you have to do some work to convince the dog that they want to do what you want them to do. Convince them that it’s their idea. I’m really not too sure how to describe this, but in order to achieve success with this you have to know your dog very well, and have a good working relationship with them. You really must go out of your way to relate well to your dog.

Training methods:

There are a couple basic training methods: luring, capturing, shaping and targeting.

Luring: This is when you have a piece of food in your hand and you slowly move your hand in such a way for the dog to follow it. For instance, slowly moving a treat above your dog's head to get him to sit, or moving the treat to your left side to get the dog into heel position. This is normally the fastest way to achieve a new behaviour, but is not the best for retention.

Capturing: This is when you capture a behaviour your dog offers or does in day to day life. For instance, you can capture a bow that your dog might do while stretching after a long nap. You do this by marking the behaviour you want with either a click or a marker word (followed by a treat) to communicate to your dog that it was desirable. This is probably the slowest way to teach a new behaviour, and the dog retains the training moderately well.

Shaping: Shaping is when you mark successive incremental changes in behaviour as they approach your end goal. Say you want to teach your dog to pull a lever. You can do this by shaping it from the ground up. Start by rewarding your dog (with a click or marker) if he looks at the lever. Do this a few times. Then hold out on the treat when he looks at the lever and wait for him to approach it. Repeat. Then wait for him to touch it. Repeat. Mouth it. Repeat. Etc until you've built the behaviour you were looking for. This can be very time consuming, but the dog will retain the information much better since he's actively taking part in the learning process.

Targeting: Targeting works similarly to luring, however instead of asking your dog to follow a piece of food, you're asking your dog to follow a target, which can be your hand, a target stick, a mousepad etc. Targeting works on the principle that "If I touch the hand I will get a treat", compared with luring works like "I want that treat so I will follow it". The dog has learned previously that a reward will be provided after touching the target, so the target isn't a primary reinforcer (see the section below on information on primary/secondary reinforcers). A great usage of this behaviour is if you have a dog who's been known to bite if disturbed from the couch (bite inhibition and/or resource guarding), you can teach him to move from your seat on command by asking for him to target something on the other side of the couch so you can manipulate the dog both without bribery and without touching it then rewarding for good behaviour. This is a very fast way to teach positioning once you've taught your dog how to target the desired object.

Primary vs Secondary reinforcers:

Reinforcers are, as you know by now, a response to a dog operating on its environment that will increase the likelihood that a behaviour will repeat itself. Reinforcers can be broken down into multiple categories:

Primary: A primary reinforcer is providing something that the dog wants in reaction to a desirable behaviour. These can be food, toys, access to other dogs, getting to go outside. Not all dogs value the same things, but food is the most universal of all primary reinforcers, and is most commonly the strongest. This is why food is used so often.

Secondary: A secondary reinforcer is a click or marker word which signals the imminent arrival of a primary reinforcer to which the dog has been classically conditioned.

Tertiary: A tertiary reinforcer (or tertiary bridge) is a signal that the secondary reinforcer is on its way: "Good, keep doing that and you will get a click."

An accomplished trainer will likely use all of the above reinforcement techniques. Primary reinforcers are instantly gratifying and very strong. Secondary reinforcers are intrinsically less gratifying and slightly weaker, and so on. However once you move into secondary/tertiary reinforcers you're able to achieve much more precise, advanced behaviours that would otherwise not be available to you if you focused entirely on primary reinforcers.

Baby it's cold outside.

It's -17c outside, -25c in the wind. Cohen has the right idea.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

An introduction to dog training, pt 1

An introduction to dog training ends up sounding a lot like an introduction to psychology. Because it is. If you want to teach your dog anything it would be helpful to look into how animals (ourselves included) learn.

I'm going to use these first few posts to lay out a lot of the basic language that I think is important to understand when talking about training.

Classical conditioning

Pavlov's dog: By this point in your life you probably have at least a passing familiarity with Pavlov and his dogs. He was a physiologist who noticed that his experiment subjects would occasionally drool when no food was present – for instance, when the assistant who normally fed them walked into the room, even if he wasn't carrying food at the time. Pavlov designed an experiment that looked into the root of the dogs' responses. In phase one he would measure the dog's salivation under two situations: when meat powder was placed on the dog's tongue, when a neutral stimulus was presented (a tone, which on its own would cause no salivation). In phase two he would sound the tone and then present the meat powder several times. In phase three he would sound the tone with no food present and, whelp, the dogs still salivated. They had learned that the sound of the tone indicated the imminent arrival of food.

Unconditioned stimulus (meat powder) -> Unconditioned Response (salivation)

The process of conditioning:

Neutral stimulus (tone) -> Unconditioned stimulus (meat powder) -> Unconditioned Response (salivation)

After conditioning has occurred:

Conditioned stimulus (tone) -> Conditioned response (salivation)

This is an important idea to understand about the learning process. The physical response is involuntary, but still occurs despite being protracted from the original trigger.

This reaction can be stretched a bit by, say, pairing a flashing light with the sound of the tone, which was previously paired with the arrival of meat so the flashing light eventually increases salivation response, but the response is weaker. This is called second-order conditioning. You can normally further protract the process another few times, but you must understand that it's less effective each time.

The coolest thing about conditioning, and what's most important to remember, is that the learning process happens subconsciously. It is a natural reaction of animals' brains, and it can be used to explain the occurrence of various phobias, etc.

So how does this apply to dog training?

Say you're out walking your dog and it sees another dog approaching in the distance and starts barking at them and generally being an asshole. This sort of antisocial behaviour is normally born out of insecurity, and the dog has learned that if it barks and is unapproachable the other dog won't approach. The dog has been conditioned to feel that other dogs' presences are unpleasant and reacts accordingly. To bring this back to Pavlov, the approach of the other dog is the conditioned stimulus, and the barking is the conditioned response.

So, well, your dog has already been conditioned to think that other dogs mean bad things. What now? Now it's time for counter-conditioning. Your goal is to change the approach of other dogs from an indicator of negative things into an indicator of positive things. You do this with food, 'cause, well, dogs love food (and they need it to live).

First you need to figure out what your dog's reaction distance is. Is it when the other dog gets within 10 feet of it, or when your dog sees another dog 6 blocks away? The reaction distance is your dogs' threshold between being chill and freaking out. You want to keep the dog under threshold at all times if possible (but admittedly, this is not always possible). So, keep your distance from other dogs while you're doing this. Don't push your dog too hard.

Second, once you see that other dog approaching your dog's threshold start popping food into its mouth, one piece immediately after another. If your dog won't take food you're too close to the other dog and you need to move away. Use awesome treats for this if your dog is really disinterested in taking food – steak, pizza, hotdogs, peanut butter, etc. Essentially your goal is to repeat this enough that your dog starts looking at you expecting food when it sees another dog. And your job is to provide food every single time.

Important things to remember: Your dog should notice the other dog before he gets food, so he understands more quickly that other dogs = incoming food. Counter-conditioning takes a LOT of time, so expect to spend months working on this. Progress might seem slow, and there are occasional set backs, but keep at it.

This is an excellent video demonstration of how successful basic counterconditioning can be:


Systematic desensitization is often coupled with counter-conditioning. It's used by psychologists to treat people with anxieties or phobias. The subject is exposed to a fear-evoking object or situation at an intensity that does not produce a response. Intensity can be modified via the degree of realism, proximity, etc. Intensity is gradually increased contingent on the subject continuing to feel okay.


In general, a conditioned response will gradually disappear if not reinforced through the process of extinction. For instance, if Pavlov stopped offering meat powder after sounding the tone for a period of time, the dogs will cease to salivate since the association between the tone and the food is no longer being reinforced. This is why ignored behaviours often stop since the dog is no longer being reinforced for providing them.

However, some behaviours are self-reinforcing, and therefore very difficult to extinguish. For example, a dog often finds barking to be a pleasurable response to various stimuli (barking is FUN!) so even if you ignore a barking dog they're very unlikely to stop this behaviour since they're reinforcing it themselves. That's not to say that you can't train a barking dog to be less barky, but it requires a different approach than to ignore it.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning accounts for most of what we learn every day.

In classical conditioning, the neutral stimulus and unconditioned response are predictably paired, and the result is an association between the two. (Then the conditioned stimulus triggers the conditioned response.) Stimuli occur before or along with the conditioned response. But dogs (and humans) also learn many associations between responses and stimuli that follow them – between a behaviour and its consequences.

Operant conditioning is all about consequences, whether they're good or bad. Learning is governed by the law of effect which states that if an action is followed by a satisfying effect the action is more likely to be repeated the next time the stimulus is present, and if an action is followed by an unsatisfying effect it is less likely to be repeated. The subject learns by operating on the environment, hence the term operant conditioning.

In classical conditioning the conditioned response does not affect whether or when the stimulus occurs. Pavlov's dogs salivated when the buzzer sounded, but the salivation had no effect on the buzzer or on whether food was presented. To contrast, an operant has some effect on the world. A child says “I'm hungry” and then is fed, the child has made an operant response that influences when food will appear. If a dog sits and then is fed, the dog has made an operant response that has also influenced when food will appear.

Reinforcement and punishment

There are four quadrants of consequences that follow a response in operant conditioning. They are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. A reinforcer increases the likelihood of a behaviour happening again, and a punishment decreases the likelihood of a behaviour happening again. The term “positive” means you're adding something to the environment, “negative” means that you're taking something away from the environment. To clarify:

Positive reinforcement (R+): So, based on the definitions I just gave, a positive reinforcer is something you provide to the dog that will increase the likelihood of a behaviour repeating itself. Example: a treat following a dog sitting after you ask it to sit.

Negative reinforcement (R-): A negative reinforcer is when you take something away from the environment to increase the likelihood of a behaviour repeating itself. Example: upwards tension on a leash is released once a dog has sat after being asked to sit.

Positive punishment (P+): Positive punishment is adding something to the environment to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour repeating. Example: When you reprimand a dog for jumping up on visitors.

Negative punishment (P-): Negative punishment is when you remove something from the environment to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour repeating. Example: Putting a dog on “time out” after jumping up on visitors.

I like to focus primarily on R+/P- quadrants. I like to reward good behaviour and ignore bad behaviour. If bad behaviour is ignored (and not self reinforced) then its occurrence will decrease. (See the Extinction section for more information.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Photo day.

Cohen as a Japanese horror movie villain.

Some photos from a recent trip to the ravine.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Goals for 2011

Entering into 2011, Cohen is 15 months old and is starting to come into her own. Last year served as both of our first introductions into competitive dog things, and, well, I'm hooked (I can only assume she enjoys it too).

She successfully earned her CGN and RN, but then I stalled and lost momentum. I put off advancing her Rally title in the hope of getting professional lessons. As time goes on it becomes evident that Rally just isn't as popular here as I would like, and people willing to pay for lessons are few and far between. All classes I'd signed up for were cancelled. So it's evident that I can't sit around waiting for a class to happen. I've got to step it up and get the training done myself. (Oh, how tedious...)

Cohen's agility abilities are progressing nicely. She'll never be a speed demon, but I think she'll grow to be enthusiastic enough (and reliable enough) to put on a decent show in trials. The next step in her (our) training is to focus on my handling skills -- that's the real challenge. Cohen is a great student. I fear I won't prove to be as adept at learning.

I have a job on the horizon working as a part time training assistant at my favourite dog training facility, which is fantastic. Not only does it afford me opportunity to learn under some formidable trainers, but to advance my relationship with Cohen. Not to mention, free classes. I've had to hold myself back in signing up for absolutely everything right off the bat, as I do have a life outside of my dog. (Though sometimes I wonder.)

With all the free classes I want, I figure I'll end up having taken all of them pretty soon. Clearly the only way to continue to take advantage of this perk is to get another dog to take to classes. Clearly.

So, goals for 2011:

Earn Cohen her RA.
Earn Cohen her NA (and maybe NAJ).
Work on her continued reactivity to large black dogs.
Earn Cohen her CD.