Building blocks of stress in behaviour modification and training

When working with dogs, either in training or behaviour modification, we will often notice that there is a level at which a dog will respond or not respond to our request or to something in the environment. You may have heard this referred to as “threshold” and I’ll discuss it a little further here.

For dogs who react to other dogs, I often like to think in terms of building blocks. Say, for the purposes of this illustration, your dog needs to get to a value of 20 before he barks, lunges, pulls aggressively on the lead etc when he sees another dog. The other dog might need to be thirty feet away before your dog reacts, this 30 feet would have a value of 20, so your dog reacts. So you increase your distance to 50 feet, this may cause the dog’s reaction threshold to drop to 15 but another dog arrives. This other dog might represent 10 points to your dog, which puts him up at 25, so he reacts again.

Each time your dog reacts, stress hormones are released into his body. It takes time for these stress hormones to return to their normal level. So, your dog, with a normal threshold from a calm state, takes 20 points before he reacts. He sees another dog at a distance of 50 feet, which only represents 5 points, and appears to handle the situation very well. The other dog disappears from view and you continue on your walk. A few minutes later, another dog appears. This dog is 35 feet away (close to your dogs normal reaction distance of 30 feet). In this case your dog is already at 5 points from the previous dog from a few minutes ago. The dog at 35 feet represents 17 points, so your dog is now at 22 points and he reacts.

Examples of factors which add point are

1. distance decreasing between your dog and the other dog

2. the other dog staring or looking directly at your dog

3.the other dog standing square on to your dog

4. more than one dog

5. the other dog moving as opposed to standing still – faster movement from the other dog usually means more points

6. your dog being in a higher state of arousal from previous interactions with dogs within a short space of time

Conversely, examples of factors which reduce points are

1. greater distance between your dog and the other dog

2. the other dog offering more social body language such as averting his gaze or turning side on

3. the other dog moving more slowly or standing still

4. the dog moving away

The above are examples and are not an exhaustive list and every dog is different. Another application of this, this time for training, is when training a recall. The three Ds of dog training enter here (distance, duration and distraction) Distance from you adds points, distance from the distraction such as play time with another dog will influence it, the amount of time since you last recalled your dog may be a factor as may the number of distractions in the environment or how the dog is feeling (tired, ill etc)

When working with your dog, whether in behaviour modification or training, and your dog does not perform to the level you would expect, this point system will usually be a big part of the reason. Examine what changed and see if you can play with the points to make it easier.

Until next time, happy dog training

8 reasons why you shouldn’t train your dog using a spray bottle.

Article by ,


Reblogged here. Enjoy. 

Most dogs have some annoying habits. We humans want them to stop as quickly as possible.

Some humans have a little handheld tool they use to stop behaviors they don’t like: a squirt bottle. A sharp spray of water in the dog’s face should stop jumping/chewing/nipping/barking pretty efficiently, right? Plus the gadget is cheap, easy to get and shouldn’t really hurt the dog, right? Well, not in my opinion.

I am a professional dog trainer, and I have, in my time, used a squirt bottle as punishment. It’s worked. It made my then-puppy learn to leave the curtain, rug and a corner of the coffee table alone. Would I use the squirt bottle as a training technique with my clients or own dogs today, with the current knowledge that I have on dog behavior? No, I would not.

Today, I see that the reason for my success with my puppy a decade ago was simply that I got real lucky. But I believe more in science-based methods of behavior modification than I do in luck. What I know now is that squirt bottle training isn’t as precise or useful as other methods of training. In fact, it can be harmful. But that’s true of most kinds of punishment.

When you’re talking behavior technical definition of punishment is that it’s anything that makes a behavior less likely to occur again. But in order to be effective, there are certain laws to be followed. One of my favorite trainers, Steve White, has beautifully outlined “eight rules of punishment”, which all have to come true for the punishment to be effective. Let’s examine the spray bottle technique from the point of view of these rules.

Rule #1. The punishment must be something the animal dislikes and something the animal does not expect.

Does your dog dislike it? I can think of several dogs, who would just LOVE a spray of water in their faces! Often they would be the Labrador types who just want to experience water in all of its different forms. So the squirt in the face wouldn’t be much of punishment for them.

Is it something the dog doesn’t expect? This is so important, and that’s why I got so lucky with the squirt bottle the first few times I used it. I was stalking my puppy and managed to surprise her just at the moment when she was grabbing our curtains with her teeth. But to obtain the element of surprise I had to stalk her behind a couch or a kitchen counter and have the squirt bottle somewhere handy so that I could grab it without her noticing it. Pretty exhausting and challenging work! Plus the prerequisite for this to work was that she had no previous associations with the bottle. The first few times it worked fine, but when she started to experiment with other items with her teeth, she quickly caught onto
me and only backed off if she sensed the squirt bottle despite my detective-like manoeuvres.

Rule #2. The punishment must suppress behavior. If something is being used for punishment, but it does not suppress behavior, it’s ineffective and often just plain abuse.

Yes, even if it is “only” a spray of water, if you have to use it a more than twice to try and suppress the same behaviour, clearly something is off. And even a squirt bottle can easily become abusive. We cannot choose what a dog finds punishing or reinforcing; maybe the water isn’t what works for that particular dog, or something else in the environment is reinforcing the behaviour and negating the effect of the (possibly) unpleasant water spray. This will easily happen with some very self-reinforcing behaviors like barking or jumping on people. Fair enough, the water is a little annoying, but oh boy isn’t jumping on visitors fun! Definitely worth a few squirts in the face! The challenge with us humans is that we still keep trying to use the intended punishment because pressing that lever on the bottle and seeing ANY kind of a reaction in the dog is so rewarding for us.

Rule #3. The punishment must be of the perfect intensity. Too much and there will be negative fallout. You’ll end up hurting your relationship with the animal and loosing more than just that behavior. Too little and the punishment will only serve to desensitize the animal and build resistance.

What happens with too strong a punishment? Many dogs are not as hard-tempered as my puppy was. If you squirt a sensitive dog, there are many caveats to this technique. The dog may become fearful of water or any kind of bottles. Bath times and any kind of medical procedures involving a bottle will become battles in the future. Or if the punishment occurred when your dog was greeting a specific visitor, you may get a fearful response from your dog every time your friend comes over.  Not much fun for any party involved.

How about if you play it “safe” and just squirt the dog a little, just to startle them a little bit? Well, it doesn’t solve the problem behavior if it’s just a little annoying to the dog. And chewing/jumping/barking or whatever it is that the dog is doing is most likely worth it despite the annoyance. Also, we are not able to experience the spray of water the way the dog does, therefore gauging the intensity is very difficult for us. Otherwise said: You can try to test it by spraying yourself in the face, but you still don’t know what it’d feel like because you don’t have a face like a dog.

Rule #4. The punishment must happen immediately after the behavior it is to be associated with. Otherwise, a clear enough association between the wrong behavior and the punishment will not be made.

Superfast reflexes are required for using punishments! If we’re just a second or two late the dog may associate the punishment with something completely different. Such as looking out of the window at the neighbor coming home. Now in the dog’s mind the neighbor produces the evil spray in the face and the next time he sees the neighbor outside, a frantic barking sequence may follow. Personally I have noticed that the older I get, the slower my reaction time is. At least I know if I deliver a reward too late I will not be scaring the living daylight out of my dog. Very few of us are fluent enough punishers to make them work well.

Rule #5. The punishment must be associated with the behavior, but not with the trainer. Otherwise, the trainer becomes part of the punishment and the animal starts fearing and disliking the trainer.

This rule comes back to the element of surprise.  If you didn’t do your pink panther-like detective stalking well enough and your dog sees you and your arm approaching with the horrid bottle that produces the horrid spray, what will happen? The punishment will become equal with you and the dog will become fearful of you. Fearfulness often manifests itself as aggressive behaviors, so this may end up being a vicious circle. Even if your dog doesn’t become fearful, what most likely will happen is that your dog will still indulge in the unwanted behavior when you are not around.

Rule #6. The punishment must happen every time the behavior occurs. If punishment does not happen every time the behavior occurs, the behavior gets put on a variable schedule of reinforcement. Depending on the behavior and how often the punishment actually occurs, the animal could decide that performing the behavior was worth the risk of getting punished.

Exactly. This is the exact reason why it is tough to extinguish unwanted behaviors. To not reinforce a behaviour we should ignore it every single time. Like demand barking. An annoying habit, no doubt about it! It is such a self-reinforcing behaviour that it seems to wind the dogs up, and if we acknowledge the dog one time out of ten, BINGO, the dog just got a huge jackpot. They just learned that the tenth time works in getting a reaction out of us, so they need to try extra hard ten times to get what they want.

Same principle is true for punishment that happens every now and again. If we are not delivering the consequence, the spray bottle, consistently every single time when the behaviour occurs, for example we are not at home or are in a different room, the dog learns that they still occasionally get to do the reinforcing behavior. Since it is punished only randomly, it is always worth trying it.

Rule #7. There must be an alternative for the animal.

This is the rule in positive reinforcement training: train the dog what TO do instead. Here is an example from my own life. I am Finnish and when I moved to Canada six years ago in January, I had no clue about having to tip people for their services. I mean, I had already paid them right? This what I was used to. When I landed at Toronto International Airport, I took a cab to my lodgings. When we arrived, I duly paid the cab driver the exact amount in the meter. He stormed out of the cab and literally dumped my two suitcases in the dirty slush in the street and drove off. I was in tears, horrified and shocked by his rude behavior and had no clue why I had been punished this way.  Nobody had ever taught me that in Canada I have to tip the cab driver.

This is pretty much how our dogs feel, they live in a human society which has our rules, not theirs. Therefore, as fair parents, it is our task to teach them what to do. If we punish a dog for jumping without teaching them that we people would appreciate a nice sit for a greeting, we are not being fair to them at all.

Rule #8. Punishment must never be used to the extent that punishment outweighs positive reinforcement (from the animal’s perspective, not yours!).

When we grab the water bottle and decide to spray that annoying behavior out of our dog we easily end up sliding down a slippery slope. To successfully teach a dog to do any behavior, the amount of rewards should always exceed the amount of punishments. If the “good” thing to do, such as leaving the couch cushion alone, is not adequately reinforced, it is therefore less rewarding than the “bad” thing (the pleasurable, reinforcing activity of chewing the cushion into pieces). If that’s the case, we are not really training the dog to do what we want. We are just falling into the cracks of failing to comply with the rules already listed above.

As tempting as it may be to us humans, the use of punishment is very challenging in training. I figured out a long time ago that I’m not a good enough trainer to be able to use it, even if it’s something relatively mild, like squirt bottle. Until I run into a training dilemma that I cannot solve with the combination of management and reinforcement of acceptable behaviors, I’m not going to feel the need to think about spray bottles again. But I don’t think that day will ever come.

Paws Abilities

“I shouldn’t have to give my dog a treat when he comes. He should do it because he loves me.”

Oh, how these words make us trainers cringe! This common and persistant myth that dogs should always be perfectly obedient just because their owners told them to is ridiculous and is harmful to the human-canine bond.

This myth seems to have originated from compulsive training techniques. With traditional techniques, a dog was praised when he made the correct choice and was corrected (punished) if he didn’t comply. Dogs trained using these methods do indeed work for praise alone without the need for a more substantial reward like food or a toy, but they do so because praise serves as a safety cue.

These dogs learn that when they’re being praised, they’re not in imminent danger of a correction. While praise in these situations certainly functions as a reinforcer, it…

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Your dogs needs to eat

As you know, food is a powerful tool in dog training. One of the main reasons that food works in reinforcing behaviour is that dogs find eating pleasurable, much like humans do. Some food will produce a more pleasurable internal response than other, for example, most dogs would prefer a piece of cooked chicken over a piece of dried kibble. Now, because dogs need to eat, we can use their daily food (e.g. kibble) as a means to train them.

So what if your dog isn’t interested in food? One of the reasons is that many dogs in the western world are over fed and most of them are well fed. If your dog gets all of his food in a bowl once or twice a day, why would he or should he work for the same food when he is outside and you want to train him? If you had a job where you were able to sit with your feet up on the desk all day, reading the newspaper and surfing the internet and were paid handsomely for it, your boss would have a pretty hard time motivating you to do work for him. One of the ways he could motivate you is to start to withhold your wags until you start doing the work required of you and then pay you when the work is done.

Your pet dog’s job is to be a good dog. When you think about it, it’s about what he’s expected not to do, rather than what to do, in the most basic of relationships with you. Most pet owners can live without competition level obedience. We can live without our dogs being able to perform complex tasks. However, what we should expect is that our dog doesn’t mug us or our visitors, doesn’t run out the door when it is open, doesn’t chew our furniture, shoes or dig up our carpets, comes back when we call, and isn’t reactive to other dogs and people (in an ideal world, most of us would want our dogs to be friendly to other dogs and people, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll talk about minimum standards).

If your dog is well behaved and does most of the above most of the time, then we’re on the right track. If he doesn’t, one way to help him get there is to motivate him through hunger. I’m not for a second advocating starving our dogs, but making him have slight hunger pangs for a short period of time will prove beneficial in the long run. Dogs who are not well behaved (by our standards, not the dog’s), tend to be physically restrained/excluded or man handled by their owners more than their well trained counterparts. There can also be the tendency for frustrated owners to shout at their dogs more. This in turn can lead to an increase in adrenalin and cortisol (stress hormones) in the dog’s bodies, which can cause many health problems such as cancers and heart disease. As a trainer, I’m always looking for the least aversive way to train a dog. Given the alternatives of making a well fed, ill behaved, stressed dog a little hungry for a few days and using a more physically punitive method such as a choke chain, I’ll always choose the hunger.

How do we do this to minimise hunger and stress to the dog? Rather than have the dog eat from a bowl twice a day, we measure out the dog’s daily portion of food and ask him to work for each piece. Well fed dogs can go several days before feeling hungry, but as long as we’re offering the food to the dog, the dog has the choice to take it or not. The criteria for feeding initially can be something as basic as not jumping, not barking or not pulling ( see for more details). We’re not asking the dog to work for loads of complicated behaviours, just basic manners.  As the dog starts to feel hungry, he’ll feel a sense of satisfaction internally when he is fed, we then use the power of this internal feeling to motivate him to train. After a few days of feeding your dog in this way, you’ll probably see a change in his willingness to work for food. The first day he might take very little or no food from your hand, remember, we’re only requiring really basic behaviour. Day two he might feel a bit more hungry and might take a bit more, but still not his full daily ration. By day three of four, you’ll probably find that he is willingly taking most food you offer him from your hand. We can also put some of the food in chew toys such as Kongs so we are training him to chew appropriate items.

Now, with this as with all training, you need to start in a very low distraction environment. This could be your kitchen, living room, front garden or a place your dog is really familiar with. If the level of distraction is too high, the dog is very likely to be far more interested in what’s going on than the food you have in your hand. As he regularly starts to take food from you, you can gradually increase the level of distraction. When you have the dog that you want and are happy with, he has earned the food in a bowl.

Happy training


How do you define force free dog training?

Appropriate use of a long line

How do you define force free dog training? Is it lack of physical corrections, not using aversive training tools (prong collars, shock collars), or physical molding (such as pushing your dog’s rear end onto the ground to train it to sit)? Do you consider rattle cans and spray bottles a use of force. Is shouting at your dog or constant repetition of cues using force? Do you stare your dog down when she does something you don’t like. These are all things I wouldn’t use in training or behaviour modification either for my own dogs or working with clients.

Now, what about turning around and physically moving your dog when he lunges, either aggressively or playfully, at a person walking past you and your dog when he is on leash? Do you use a long line to train recall or closer proximity to you so you can prevent him from moving towards a distraction? Would you take your dog by the collar and physically move him from the counter if he was jumping up to get the left over roast chicken and you forgot to close the kitchen door? Do you use a crate or put you dog in another room when visitors come in? Do you body block your dog from coming into rooms or use the door to stop him running out the house? If your dog breaks a sit/stay, would you give another cue to ask him to sit again? Would you consider tethering a dog in place for short periods? I do, or would consider using these methods.

Now, the point of this is that all of these influence the dog’s behaviour, and most of them use some physical means to do so. I attended a BAT seminar recently with Grisha Stewart. Grisha talks of “putting on the breaks” using a long line when working with reactive dogs. What this means is that you use a the long line to slow the dog down from moving forward when the dog would normally run forward and this gives him time to think. We physically stop the dog from moving forward, but slowly and gently.

If I use the analogy of a military base. The military don’t want you entering in the interests of both you and themselves. For them, security and secrecy are the motivators. For you, they don’t want you coming in because they might be dangerous and there may be the risk of exposure to live ammunition etc. The fence is first line of physical control. After that, there might be security patrols where they could stop you by their presence or resort to more physical or might detain you.

In the above example, you might not know that you weren’t supposed to be in a certain area. Say the fences were in a poor state of repair. There might not be any signs or you might not understand what they say. As this applies to dog training, your dog might not know what the rules are, but you have a responsibility to keep him safe. You might not have reached that level of training yet and the environment throws you something you can’t manage in that instant. If that’s the case, you need to get physical with your dog.

There’s an expression among force free dog people – “Positive doesn’t mean permissive”. Some circumstances will dictate we need to physically move or restrain our dogs. Sometimes we need to get physical in preventing them from doing stuff we don’t want them to do. As long as we’re keeping the physical aversion to an absolute minimum, work to try to eliminate it and train our dogs so physical management to a minimum, we are on a more enlightened path.  For example, teaching your dog to lie down with a stuffed Kong when visitors come in will reduce or eliminate the need to put them in another room or crate them if they are prone to mugging your guests.

We have big brains compared to dogs. Dogs are faster than we are, have better weapons that we do, but we are generally smarter. There will always be times when we may need to physically intervene, but we can train and teach to reduce those times. No force, no fear, no pain or intimidation.

Physical punishment – why we shouldn’t use it in training (part 2)

I recently blogged on using physical punishment on dog training, why people use it and some of the consequences using it can have. While the vast majority of feedback on the article was very positive, there were a few comments which made me think that some of the points needed clarification. The link to the original blog is here

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the learning as


  • 1gain or acquire knowledge of or skill in (something) by study, experience, or being taught
  • commit to memory
  • become aware of (something) by information or from observation

And Teaching as


  • 1 [with object and infinitive or clause] impart knowledge to or instruct (someone) as to how to do something
  • [with object] give information about or instruction in (a subject or skill)
  • [no object] work as a teacher
  •  [with object and clause] cause (someone) to learn or understand something by example or experience
  • [with object] encourage someone to accept (something) as a fact or principle:the philosophy teaches self-control
  • informal make (someone) less inclined to do something

Now, the point of defining learning and teaching (or in this case as the term applies, training) is so that we don’t get bogged down in the semantics. In cases like this people from either camp (either force free or traditional dog training) can get a little hot and bothered by this highly emotive subject. Again, just to reiterate, I am a 100% force free trainer and behaviour consultant. I use no physical corrections and no sound aversive training tools such as rattle cans.

In the first article, I stated that physically punitive training can produce some results. One of the arguments I encountered was that this type of training merely suppresses others and that it is not actual training, learning or teaching. The flip side of this argument is that reward based training only encourages and animal to do what we are trying to reinforce. As you can see, when compared against the opposite side of the argument, it begins fall apart. Rats in a Skinner box (, for definition) learn not to press the button which gives them a shock. They learn this by avoidance, but they do learn not to do it. As applied to dog training, dogs taught not to pull on leash using a prong collar or choke chain learn not to pull. The behaviour is not merely suppressed. If the consequence of pulling it a painful stimulus in the neck, they learn to avoid the pain, hence not pull and learn to walk on a loose leash as this does not cause them pain (again, I’m in no way advocating this as a training method). Animals can learn by avoiding pain, but not exclusively.

The other argument I encountered is that physically punitive training doesn’t work. Given the above, I’m going to offer an explanation as to why some reward based trainers think this way. Many modern dog trainers have a background in purely reward based training. Since they have never used traditional methods, and many have never even witnessed this type of training, the knowledge of some of them can be based on third hand accounts. I absolutely do not mean to be disparaging of reward based trainers who have not used traditional methods here. They are extremely lucky to have been able to come into the training world and learned from enough enlightened trainers that they have never had to use force, and if I could start again, it would be my preference also. But as trainers, we owe it to our dogs, our clients and our profession to fully understand these training techniques and not dismiss them outright. There is a huge difference between understanding why something works and advocating it’s use. We should be able to have a well reasoned, logical discussion about this issue without it becoming emotional.

I think another reason some force free trainers say it doesn’t work is because of the blurred lines between training and behaviour modification. Training is generally to teach dogs how to do something, for instance a recall or closing a door. Behaviour modification, for example changing aggression, involves removal of the inappropriate behaviour and addressing the emotional state behind it. In this instance, I would absolutely agree that harsh, painful techniques do not work, are counter productive and can make the behaviour worse. Correcting a fearful dog on a metal collar or shocking a dog with separation anxiety will do nothing to make the dog feel better about what is distressing them and will often lead to an association between the frightening stimulus and being hurt. This in turn can lead to breakdown in dog/owner bond, redirected aggression where the dog attacks the handler, or learned helplessness, among others, where the dog stops doing anything at all because all his tools for trying to cope with the stressful situation lead to him being hurt.

I do truly feel that all trainers need to understand the differences between techniques and training methods and philosophies and why people use them. If we are to have an impact in our field of work, inclusion is better that exclusion so that we can use our knowledge to influence other trainers and owners who still use these outdated training methods.