It’s all (well mostly) about reinforcement

Sorry it’s been a while since my last blog. I asked a question on my Facebook page the other day.( What is the single biggest issue you have with your dog? On looking through the answers, there was a common theme about trying to eliminate unwanted behaviours. I’ll address some of the issues as best as I can. When dealing with any dog behaviour/training issue, it’s always absolutely essential that we have at least a basic understanding of reinforcement. Reinforcement simply means that the behaviour is likely to reoccur. If behaviours are reinforced, they will continue. If they aren’t reinforced they won’t. Here I’m only going to address reinforcement. Punishment (the scientific term) is the is about reducing behaviour. Behaviours which are not reinforced will go away. If the dog continues to do the behaviour you don’t want, he is still being reinforced on some level for doing that behaviour, or has a sufficiently long reinforcement history for that behaviour that he’ll continue to keep doing it, with the hope of accessing reinforcement.

If your dog doesn’t have access to reinforcers, he can’t be reinforced for the behaviour which allows him access to it. If the behaviour isn’t reinforced, your dog will stop the behaviour. This may take time, depending on your dog’s history of being reinforced for that behaviour. One of the sometimes frustrating rules of learning is that behaviours which are randomly reinforced, are resistant to extinction i.e they won’t go away. Think of it like a fruit machine at a casino. They pay out randomly to keep you playing. So if your dog has had a history of being reinforced for jumping on people, and you now try to stop it, but your dog is successful on average one time in fifty, this may be enough to motivate your dog to keep trying because sometimes it pays off. Sometimes dogs will work for one chance in twenty, others one time in one hundred, it depends on the dog.

So, to address some of the issues which came up. These are general points designed to illustrate principles of learning and aren’t exhaustive.

1. Jumping. Dogs find attention reinforcing. When a dog jumps, people will generally talk to (shout at), touch (pull) and look at the dog or a combination of the three. The three things which have occurred, are reinforcing to the dog, he now knows jumping gets a reaction and will do it again the next time. If you are still doing these things time and again, and your dog is still jumping up on people, what you are doing isn’t working and we need to try something else. Dogs I work with often jump on me on greeting them the first time. The client generally does a combination of the above. The first thing I ask them to do is just to ignore the dog. If the dog is on leash, I talk a step back, so I’m out of range (the dog can’t touch me) I don’t give eye contact and the dog isn’t reinforced. As soon as the dog stops jumping, or trying to jump on me, I reinforce the “four on the floor” with attention, praise, treats etc. The other technique I use very often is to stand on the leash. I use 6′ leashes for training. This is a good length for a number of things. What it allows me to do here is to drop the leash towards the ground while still holding it in a relaxed manner, and stand on it. I’m not pinning the dog to the ground here, there is still slack so the dog can sit or stand comfortably, but what he can’t to is jump. I’m stopping him from jumping, so he cant be reinforced for it, and behaviours which aren’t reinforced will go away. In this instance, I’d also combine reinforcing the wanted behaviour, four on the floor. this way the dog learns the jumping doesn’t work but four on the floor does.

This can be done for dogs jumping on visitors. Have the dog on a leash when they come in. Calm behaviour allows access to visitors, excited, jumping behaviour doesn’t. If the dog is calm and you release her to say hello and she jumps, you take her back to where she doesn’t have access. Consistency is the key. Remember the rule of random pay off.

2. Barking and growling at kids, visitors, strangers, men, other dogs, cyclists, skateboards. Again, this is a general description based on your dog being fearful/anxious of these things. Give the dog enough distance that he feels safe (generally, the distance that he isn’t reacting). Give him tasty treats or throw a toy for him. Generally, what happens here is that your dog feels scared/anxious and has learned that barking/lunging/growling causes the scary thing to go away. The dog doesn’t realise that the scary thing is likely to go away anyway. What we want to do is keep the dog feeling safe and make him feel better about the scary thing. overtime, we can decrease the distance as the dog feels better about the scary thing. Another approach is to kong train your dog. Every time a visitor arrives, you give the dog a “super” kong filled with the best food. Allow the dog to take this where he wants. He will make the association of visitors coming in with the kong coming out. Make sure the visitor comes in first and don’t give this “super” kong any other time.

3. Attacking the mail. Management can solve this. An external post box means the dog can’t access the mail, can’t attack it, so can’t be reinforced. A basket which the mail falls into helps also. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the most easiest.

Ian Dunbar tells a story of being asked how to stop a Yorkshire Terrier from messing on the bed by a woman at a seminar years ago. He asked her how long this had been going on, to which she told him “every day for 9 years”. He told her to shut the bedroom door. She was delighted. If we stop access to reinforcers, we stop behaviour. Management should always be our first step in training or behaviour modification. This is because it’s easy with some thought and imagination, least aversive for the dog, allows the dog to think, and therefor allows the dog to learn.

If your dog is doing something you don’t like, think about what she is being reinforced with. The more we understand this, the more successful we will be and the more successful our relationship with our dog will be.

I’ll address some problems with recall next week.

Preparing your dog for a new baby


The arrival of your baby is a tumultuous time for everyone. When we decide to have children, we are making a life changing decision. This impacts us all and certainly has consequences for your dog. You will now have less time on your hands than you did before. From my own experience with my children, you very quickly forget what you did with your time before they arrived and in the first few weeks it wasn’t unusual for me still to be in my pajamas at 11am despite getting out of bed at 6 am.

Most of us know that our baby is arriving well in advance of the due date. This gives us at least 6 or 7 months to train our dog to do all the things we need our dog to do when the baby arrives. Most of us only need the dog to entertain himself for a while when we are doing something else, so we can attend to the baby’s feeding, bathing and changing.

To start with, I would recommend feeding your dog most, if not all of her food from Kongs or similar stuffable dog toy. Please see the attached link for how to go about this

Along with training your dog to eat from her Kong, I would also recommend that you give a clear indication to your dog that your attention is now unavailable. An easy way to do this is to but an item where your dog can see it. I would suggest something like a clock or large picture frame. This way, your dog will make the connection that when the clock comes out, you now don’t pay the dog attention. To condition your dog to this, practice once or twice a day, every day. Vary the amount of time you leave the clock out for, sometimes a few minutes, sometimes up to half an hour. Put the clock out and ignore your dog. I would advice giving your dog his kong most of the time at the start (to keep him entertained), and then vary between giving him the kong when the clock is out and not giving him the kong. This way, you are teaching him that sometimes he will not have his kong when the clock is on show, as there will be times when you will not be able to put his kong out when you are dealing with the baby. The only thing the clock/picture frame means to the dog is that your attention is unavailable. He gets his kong very often when the clock is out, but sometimes he doesn’t. When you put the clock away, make a big fuss of him, pet him, tell him he’s a good boy and maybe give him a treat. This will let him know that he is allowed to comes and  say hello again.

Your dog also needs to become accustomed to the sound of a crying baby and your actions around her. There are loads of sounds you can download from the internet of crying babies. Stick them onto your ipod or phone. Buy or borrow a realistic looking baby doll. Wrap the doll up in a baby blanket, put the ipod on top of the doll and let your dog hear the “baby” crying and see your actions when she does. This will go some way to getting him used to the new arrival crying and your bizarre new actions. You can put the clock out at this time or not, but if you don’t, remember that the dog is allowed to approach you if he wants to.

When the baby arrives, take an extra blanket to the hospital. Your husband or partner can then bring this blanket home and let the dog smell it. The blanket need to be held in your hand and encourage the dog to be gentle around it rather than boisterously investigating it.

Your new baby coming into your home is a wonderful time but it can be stressful. With a little planning, forethought and some training, you can reduce this stress for both you and your dog.

Classical conditioning vs NILIF

Play with your dog
Play with your dog


Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF), Learn to Earn. You may be familiar with these terms. They were devised, probably by well intention people, to allow you to use what your dog routinely gets in his life as ways to train him. The other thing some NILIF advocates is that your dog is behaving in a poor manner because he has unlimited access to resources, is spoiled or thinks he’s the “boss” or you are not the “pack leader”.

Now, some of what I say in this blog may seem contradictory as you read it, but it’s the reason why we are doing it, and the scientific reasons for it’s success/effectiveness which are important.

Following on from last week’s blog, I’ll define a couple of terms again, in simple terms (very simple)

1. Classical conditioning – learning by association.

2. Operant conditioning – learning by trial and error

3. Reinforcement – anything which causes the increase in the duration/frequency/intensity of a behaviour

4. Punishment – anything which causes the decrease in the duration/frequency/intensity of a behaviour

5. Positive/negative – adding(+)/subtracting(-) something from the dog’s environment. In training/learning, it     doesn’t mean good or bad. We have positive and negative punishment and positve and negative reinforcement.

Proper understanding of the terms is important, because it allows us to have a greater understanding of what we are doing during training and why we are doing it.

So, to get back on topic. NILIF protocols advocate taking everything away from your dog if he isn’t behaving the way you want him to behave. The dog has no free access to food, toys or people for petting, playing etc. Further, every time your dog wants something, he has to earn it. You can’t just give your dog something, like a rub on the ear, just because he’s your pal and you want to. He has no access to toys he can play with himself, like chewing on a nylabone or kong, or playing with a squeaky plush toy to keep himself amused. Every morsel of food, every game you play with your dog, every time you want to pet her depends on her doing something you want her to do like sitting politely or coming when called.

The NILIF protocol says that when you decide you want to, you give the dog all the good things, and don’t when you don’t want to. What can happen here, is that if owners can’t be bothered or don’t have the time to interact with their dogs, they now have permission not to. It further recommends that if your dog approaches you for attention, ignore him, but when he walks away, then call him back and pet him then. That way, you are dictating access to you, not the other way around.

Now, if you haven’t already thought about this, this can lead to a very sad and frustrated dog. The day before you instigated this programme, your dog was fed regularly, had toys to play with, could come and say hi when he wanted to and you’d say hi back. Now his whole life has been changed, and as far as he’s concerned, not for the better and he can become depressed. The dog can also become demanding if this happens as he is trying desperately to get attention.

The other side of this, is that we can do very similar things to NILIF, but for different reasons and obtain hugely different results. These are all training programmes I’ve learned from the best trainers in the world such as Ian Dunbar, Jean Donaldson, Ken Ramirez and Kathy Sdao, among many others. Your dog has to eat. Hopefully, you like going out for walks, playing with your dog and giving them attention and petting. Your dog likes, and needs, these things too. So let’s use them for training. This is where it does become different.

1. Your dog’s food – food is a primary reinforcer. So let’s use it to train our dog. It reinforces behaviour, so when your dog sits, give him a piece of kibble so he’s more likely to do it again. Take your dog’s food out on a walk with you. Sit on a park bench and every time a person or dog walks past, give him a piece of food. This way he learns dogs and people means food comes out which makes him feel good and with enough practice, dog’s and people approaching makes him feel good with there being no food present (classical conditioning) and you are reinforcing him for paying attention to you when people or dogs are around (operant conditioning using positive reinforcement).

2. Your dog’s toys. Let him play with his own toys. He has his, I have mine. Mine are a couple of balls on ropes and a tug toy. He gets to play with his by chewing on them, maybe throwing them in the air and catching them. I let him play with mine, but only when I’m there and there are rules attached, but mine are more fun, beacsue I’m involved in the play. My toys move, I throw throw them and I tug on them. She gets to chase them and tug on them back. The rules are be careful with your teeth, and give them back when I ask you to. I don’t play with my dog’s toys but I do allow her to play with mine, because they are fun (for both of us) and because I can train her when playing.

Your dog enjoys playing tug or chasing a ball, you play tug or throw the ball, your dog will now enjoy playing with you (classical conditioning). You give your dog a game of tug or throw the ball when they come back to you you are now using positive reinforcement to train a recall.

There’s also loads you can do for free for your dog which is still training your dog and classically conditioning you to him in a beneficial way. Playing long games of tug in the garden with your dog, for no reason other than having fun, classically conditions your dog that you are a great, fun guy to be around, Further to that, now when you give your dog a short game of tug after a recall or a down stay, he has that long history of big tug games to refer to and it is much more powerful. Similarly, petting your dog for 40 minutes in the evening when you are sitting reading or watching TV means that clapping your dog when he does something you like now has more meaning.

One of the main differences between this approach and NILIF is that it doesn’t give you permission to do nothing. Your dog needs daily exercise and stimulation for a full life. The more we use our dogs food and play and attention for training, the better trained our dog will be. If you use a quarter of your dogs food for training, rather than all of it, you will only get a quarter of the benefit. That said, you don’t need to hand feed it all, put what you don’t use in a Kong or other stuffable toy and you are now teaching your dog to entertain herself, chew an appropriate item and be calm. The minimum we can do with this, if we’re motivated to is to give all daily food in toys or food puzzles so you are at least getting that benefit from it.

A programme like this leads to a well trained, sociable dog, and a truly deep relationship with you.

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.

Proper socialisation of young dogs – part 1

With many of the dogs I work with, their problems stem from inadequate socialisation when they were at the critical age of 5-16 weeks. This lack of socialisation doesn’t become apparent until your dog is around 5-8 months old which is when your pup enters the second fear phase of it’s life. Your previously friendly, devil-may-care pup can then become a shivering shell of his puppy self.

Some dogs, such as the more robust breeds such as Labradors and Staffordshire Bull Terrier can socialise themselves. I say can, and not do, because while some individuals within these breed can, many can’t, so our socialisation should be deliberate, active and ongoing well into the dog’s adolescence and early adulthood. For some of the smaller breeds, this means at least until the dog is 2 years old and for the larger breeds such as Rottweillers, Dobermanns, Mastiff breeds and German Shepherds, this should continue until the dog is at least 3 years old. For breeds like Basenjis, Akitas and the livestock guardians, we need to be even more deliberate as these types of breeds can have a tendency to be a little more standoffish than others. Of course, I am talking in broad, general terms here and there are always exceptions to these statements.

Your pup needs to be used to being handled in a positive way by many people during the weeks 5-12 after birth. Your breeder should have done their part in this process with the pup having met at least 100 people from 5-8 weeks old. People attend the breeders home, remove there outdoor shoes and wash their hands to reduce the risk of parvo and distemper. The pup is handed round the visitors with his dinner and kibble is given each time her paws, mouth, ears, tail and genitals are handled. Men give a few more pieces of kibble and kids give liver treats. That way, the dog learns that being handled is a good thing, women are good, men give better treats than women and kids give the best treat of all.

The pup should be used to all household noises. This should start by the breeder from birth so that when the pup opens her eyes and ears, household noises such as vacuum cleaners, electric drills, TVs music etc are the norm.

When the pup goes to her home, the new owners continue this. The figure to aim for is 100 different people by the breeder from 5-8 weeks old, 100 different people by the new owner from 8-12 weeks old and 25 new people per week until the dog is 2 or 3 years old. The goal is that every new person gives the dog a piece of kibble or two.

In part 2, I’ll outline the necessary steps to take to ensure your dog is friendly with other dogs.

Kongs – the best dog toys in the world

There are a huge number of applications for Kong dog toys. I often recommend them for training as there are a variety of things your dog cannot do when chewing from a Kong. Your dog cannot bark, lunge, growl, stare at anything else or jump up when chewing a Kong.

I recently worked with a young, shy, under-socialised gundog who the owner wanted to take him to dog friendly cafes and pubs. I recommended feeding the dog from a Kong almost exclusively to get the dog addicted to chewing a Kong. Any behaviour which is reinforced will increase in frequency, duration or intensity and if your dog plays with or chews a Kong and gets food from it, this will reinforce the chewing or playing but we must start out with the dog being able to get the food from the Kong. If we make the Kong too challenging to start, the dog will get fed up as he the pay off isn’t enough and the training won’t work.

Here is the link for teaching your dog to chew from a Kong

We teach the dog to chew from the Kong when we are there. This means we are able to supervise the dog and make sure he can use it safely. I will explain the protocol I would use for using Kongs with a nervous dog so that the dog can enjoy being out in dog friendly premises.

First, teach the dog to chew the Kong using the steps followed in the YouTube clip when you are at home and the dogs is supervised. Gradually build the difficulty so that the dog is able to chew the Kong stuffed with moistened kibble, partially frozen moistened kibble and finally fully frozen moistened kibble. Once the dog is addicted to chewing a Kong, you can then increase the level of reward as you go out into scary places.

Next take the dog to a quiet pub or cafe, with only a few people in it. Give the dog a Kong stuffed with kibble and a few extra bits of something really tasty such as cheese or pieces of hotdog. Let the dog become accustomed to being in the new place with the better Kong.

Once the dog is used to being in that place, take him to another place which is slightly busier. Repeat the process but have a few more tasty treats in the Kong. Scarier place means better Kongs. Repeat this process for the next, busier pub/cafe, then start again.

On the next series of trials, you should hopefully get to another pub/cafe which is busier than the last. It is important to back off and start from the beginning and do your training in “waves”. This way you are not pushing the dog to improve each time, but gradually improving then backing off, improving a bit more, backing off again and so on.

So it would go like this-

Cafe 1, Cafe 2, Cafe3

Next, Cafe 1, Cafe 2, Cafe 3, Cafe 4

then Cafe 2, Cafe 3, Cafe 4, Cafe 5 and so on

When you get to really intense places for the dog, give the dog a Kong stuffed with moistened kibble, pieces of cheese, hot dog, deli meat and lined with peanut butter or cream cheese. The scariest places mean the best Kongs.

This process would be done over weeks or months. Go at the dog’s pace, pushing him just a little to improve but not so much that he’ll shut down or lapse.

Finally, as part of the treatment for separation distress/anxiety, teach the dog to chew the Kong when you are in the room, then gradually further and further away in the same room, then a little out the room, then gradually further away etc until he is in one room and you are in the other. Then give him a stuffed Kong and go out the house for a few seconds and gradually increase the time you are out the house, again using the “waves” approach.

Until next time. Yours in Good Dog training,