Fearful Puppies: Protocol for Touch

dog training, puppies, fearful dogs, counterconditioning, treat and retreat

This is part two of the sample translation of chapter 8.3 (Early interventions for fearful puppies) of my German-language puppy book. Click here for part 1: Protocol for Proximity.

While these are sample chapters from a geeky book about working with fearful puppies, the protocols are relevant for fearful or insecure adult dogs as well.

Special thanks to canine sports medicine extraordinaire and FDSA colleague Sue Yanoff for proofreading, and for her thoughtful feedback! 


Work through the Protocol for Proximity before working on the Protocol for Touch.

Protocol for Touch


Your Dog’s Chest


Now it is time to raise criteria again. Approach your puppy just like before. Squat down. This time, reach towards the front of her chest, but stop your hand at about 10 inches distance – do not touch her. Click, drop the treat, and retreat. Wait 15 seconds between reps, and stay at this level of difficulty for at least 5 reps. If your puppy is comfortable with the hand reaching towards her, move your hand 2 inches closer the next time. Click, treat, retreat. Wait 15 seconds, and repeat. Raise criteria only when your puppy appears confident and relaxed.


You should soon be able to move your hand up close to your puppy’s body. Now you are ready to gently touch the front of her chest. Gently put your hand on her body, barely touching her. Repeat this step at least five times without your puppy showing the stress signs described in the ladder of aggression (see body language chapter). She should remain perfectly relaxed: the muscles are soft, the tail rests on the floor or wags gently in expectation of a treat. The body isn’t stiff, but loose. Rolling over onto one hip is a good sign.

dog training, fearful dogs, protocol for touch, puppy training, counterconditioning, desensitization


Did your dog stay relaxed or show signs of happy expectation? Excellent. In your next rep, put a little bit of pressure on your dog’s chest with your hand – the same amount of pressure you would use when petting a dog. Repeat this step at least five times, and make sure your dog is comfortable. Once you can do this, you are ready to slowly stroke your dog’s chest. Move your hand over her chest for three inches. Click, drop a treat, and retreat. After five reps of this, move your hand over her chest for 6 inches. Click, drop a treat, and retreat. Repeat five times, and raise criteria to 9 inches. (If your dog is very little, 2, 4 and 6 or even 1, 2 and 3  inches may be better suited!)


Your Dog’s Chin


Once this works well, it is time to move on to a different body part. Your dog’s chin tends to be a good second spot. Again, start with extending your hand towards her. Stop your hand at about 10 inches distance from your puppy’s chin, click, drop a treat, and retreat. Work your way up to touching her chin, just like you did with her chest. Once you can touch her chin, scratch her with your fingers for one second before clicking, dropping the treat, and retreating. Gradually extend the time you spend scratching your puppy’s chin by counting in your head: “One good puppy.” Click, treat, retreat. “One good puppy, two good puppies.” Click, treat, retreat. “One good puppy, two good puppies, three good puppies.” Click, treat, retreat. Work your way up to 5 good puppies before moving on to the next body part.


Your Dog’s Side


Next, you will desensitize your dog towards touching her side. Just like before, start by reaching towards her without actually touching her body, and work your way up to a 9-inch stroke (less if your dog is very small).


Your Dog’s Withers


A good fourth spot to work on is your dog’s withers. Be patient – this may be more difficult for your puppy than the previous body parts. Follow the protocol until you can stroke from the withers back to her rump. Does she seem enjoy you touching her rump? If so, step five should be initiating touch there, and gently scratching her rump with your fingers. Work your way up from “One good puppy” to “Five good puppies!” of rump scratching. If she doesn’t enjoy her rump being touched, leave out this step.


Your Dog’s Head


Equally difficult is your dog’s head – your sixth spot of touch. Take your time, and only increase criteria when your dog is completely comfortable with the previous step. Your goal is being able to stroke from her head down to her withers.


Your Dog’s Chest and Belly


Number seven in our list are your dog’s chest and belly. Start when your dog is relaxing on her side, but not asleep. Allowing you to approach while exposing the belly is a sign of trust! Gradually build up your approach again before physically touching her body. Your first spot of touch is just behind the front legs. Build up to stroking her all the way back to her belly. If your dog doesn’t usually rest on her side when you are around, that is okay – skip this step for now, and move on to spot number 8. On the other hand, if your puppy enjoys being touched on her chest and belly, feel free to experiment a litte and gently scratch different parts of her belly. Never keep your hands on her for more than 5 seconds at a time (“Five good puppies!”) before clicking, treating, and retreating.


Your Dog’s Legs


Now you are ready to work on another sensitive body part: your dog’s legs. Start with the shoulder of a front leg, and gradually increase how far your hand slides down. Most dogs prefer a medium amount of pressure to a very gentle touch on their legs. Your goal behavior is slowly sliding your hand down from the shoulder muscles to the toes. Go through the protocol for both front legs, followed by both hind legs.




Repeat all steps when your dog is standing instead of lying down. Choose a time of day where your puppy is calm and relaxed, and start from scratch: take a step towards your dog, click, drop a treat, and retreat. Gradually decrease the distance, and then add touch. Start with every new body part like you did when your dog was lying down: the front of her chest, her chin, side, withers and back, head and neck, chest and belly, front legs and hind legs.


Puppies under 16 weeks of age should be able to go through the protocol for proximity and touch relatively quickly. Dogs that age are still behaviorally flexible. The fear response isn’t fully developed yet, and positive experiences quickly lead to positive associations. Nevertheless, a puppy between 12 and 16 weeks will already require more time and patience to learn to like your touch than a puppy under 12 weeks would. The socialization window has already started to close.


dog training, puppy training, fearful dogs, counterconditioning, desensitization

Have you successfully worked through the entire protocol on your puppy both when resting on her bed and when standing upright? Good! It’s time to generalize what she has learned! Keep practicing in different rooms of your house as well as outdoors. At the same time, the other members of your household should work through the protocol as well. Dogs do not generalize well. Everyone who works through the protocol needs to start from the very first step. Don’t worry though – with every new helper, your puppy will make faster and faster progress. Once your puppy is comfortable being touched by your entire family, it doesn’t hurt to ask dog-savvy friends to work through the steps as well. Choose calm helpers you trust with your dog, and give them clear instructions on when to feed and retreat. Click for them in order to help their timing. The more people your puppy learns to trust in this way before the age of 16 weeks, the better: women, men, children, and elderly people. Equally important is generalizing proximity and touch to as many different environments as possible. Work in different indoor and outdoor locations in order to generalize her positive associations to touch as widely as possible.


Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala, and teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Registration for Out and About , her April class at FDSA, is still open! Join me to learn more about advanced recalls, leash manners, getting past distractions, and keeping everyone safe on your dog-based adventures!


The pictures featured in Nur Mut! and in this post were taken by Olga Maderych of Gadabout Photography.

Fearful Puppies: Protocol for Proximity

dog training, puppies, fearful dogs, counterconditioning, treat and retreat

I’ve been too busy to blog, but I recently finished translating a second sample chapter for Nur Mut! (click here for the first English sample chapter). Here’s a sneak peak at one of the protocols from chapter 8.3 Early interventions for fearful puppies. Part 1 is my protocol for proximity. Part 2 will be the protocol for touch.

While these are sample chapters from a geeky book about working with fearful puppies, the protocols are relevant for fearful or insecure adult dogs as well.

Protocol for Proximity and Touch


Part 1: Protocol for Proximity


Before diving into the protocol itself, you need to establish how close you can get to your puppy without causing a stress reaction. No matter whether her threshold is 3 feet or 15 feet – add 2 steps to this distance. This is your starting point – a point where your puppy is perfectly relaxed.


Click – Treat – Retreat


Choose a time your puppy is resting calmly on her bed or another comfortable spot, but not asleep. Walk up to your starting point. Mark her relaxed body position with a click. Throw a treat to her. Turn around and retreat.


Retreating is an important part of this protocol. Not only do you pair your approach with food (classical counterconditioning), but you also negatively reinforce your puppy’s relaxed position by means of removing yourself – a potentially stressful stimulus – from her space. Wait 15 seconds, and repeat the exercise. Again, you will walk up to the starting point defined above, click, treat, and retreat. Keep your session to 5 minutes or less, and give your dog a break. Then, start the game again by means of walking up to your original starting point, treating, and retreating. You are explaining to your dog that you are playing the game she already knows. All she has to do is keep relaxing and wait for you to throw her a treat. What a great deal!


Do not walk closer to your dog until you are convinced she understands that your approach predicts a treat. Watch her body language: does she lift her head and start wagging her tail when you walk towards her? She is beginning to understand that something good is about to happen!


Once your dog is clearly happy about your approach, you are ready to walk one step closer your next rep. Click, throw a treat to your dog, and retreat. Stay at your new click point for at least 5 reps. Does your dog look equally relaxed and happy about your approach as before? Good! Walk another step closer in rep number 6. Click, treat, and retreat! Stick to your new click point until your dog looks forward to your approach. Then, walk one step closer again.


Depending on your starting distance, you may already be standing directly in front of your dog at this point. Avoid leaning over her and looking into her eyes. Dogs can find this typical primate posture threatening. Instead, look at the floor between you and your dog – right at the spot you are going to drop the treat. Make sure to not let your session run over five minutes before giving your puppy a break.


dog training, protocol for proximity, fearful dogs, puppy training, counterconditioning, treat and retreatIf everything went well, start your next session one step behind the final starting point of your last session. The first rep of this new session is just a little bit easier than the last rep of your last session. Gradually work your way closer again, just like you did before, until you are standing right in front of you puppy. Is your puppy perfectly comfortable or happy and curious? Excellent! Bend your knees just a little before you click and drop the treat. Straighten up, turn around slowly, and retreat. Again, wait 15 seconds in between the individual reps.

Can you do five reps of walking up to your puppy, bending your knees, and dropping a treat between her paws with her looking perfectly relaxed or happy to see you? (Review the body language chapter if you need help reading your dog!) You are ready to raise criteria! In your next rep, you will squat down completely, click, and reach towards your puppy’s front paws with your treat hand. Do not touch her paws, but drop the treat in between or right in front of them. Get up slowly, turn around, and retreat. Repeat this step several times, waiting 15 seconds in between each rep. Your puppy should look perfectly relaxed or happy to see you – anytime she appears concerned, move your click point back one step!


Cold Trials


Before we raise the level of difficulty again, it is time for a cold trial. You are going to test whether your puppy has really learned that you squatting down in front of her and reaching out with your food hand is not a threat – even if you do not gradually work your way closer. Choose a time when your puppy is relaxed, but awake. Walk right up to her and squat down. Does your puppy appear just as comfortable with you being close as before? Great! You are ready for the next step.


Does she cower, retreat, bark, growl, snarl or snap? Freeze your movement the moment you notice her insecurity, and wait for your puppy to calm down. Count to five in your head: “One good puppy, two good puppies, three good puppies, four good puppies, five good puppies.” Then retreat and give your puppy a break. The reason I am asking you to freeze and count to five before retreating is that we do not want to negatively reinforce the potentially operant behavior of barking, growling, snarling or snapping by means of rewarding it with an increase in distance. Instead, we give the puppy five seconds to calm down or stop barking, and then reinforce her calm behavior with an increase in distance. Anything that doesn’t resemble offensive behavior does get reinforced by your retreat. In either case, try to avoid the need to use this kind of extinction of unwanted behavior in the first place. Ideally, all your training sessions will take place well under threshold. If your puppy hasn’t calmed down after 5 seconds, retreat either way.


Take a deep breath. Have a cup of tea and think about something else before you go back to training. Frustration and disappointment don’t make good teachers. Remember that all behavior is information. Now you know that your puppy isn’t yet ready to stay calm when you walk right up to her without gradually decreasing the distance. That’s okay. Go back to your last successful click point, and explain the game to your puppy again. Gradually work your way closer, just like you did before. End the session squatting down and dropping the treat between her paws.


Take a longer break, and then do another cold trial. Does your puppy stay confident and relaxed this time? Excellent! If your puppy struggles, be patient and explain the game from the beginning. If your puppy still struggles the third time you do a cold trial, find a competent trainer or behaviorist to help you develop a plan for your puppy to learn to tolerate and even enjoy your approach and touch (See chapter 10.6 Finding the right trainer or behaviorist).


Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Guatemala, and teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. In April, she will be teaching Out and About at FDSA – a class that is about a passion of her own: taking your dog on urban walks, nature hikes, and other adventures while having fun and staying safe. Registration opens today – come join me!


The pictures featured in Nur Mut! and in this post were taken by Olga Maderych of Gadabout Photography.

What happens in your body when you run into a lion?

I’ve been translating parts of my German-language book on fearful puppies, and decided to rewrite and extend my introduction to the specific training protocols for helping young dogs conquer their fears. All my protocols stress patience and working under threshold. Here’s the reason why:

Psychogenic distress has a number of physiological effects we should be aware of when trying to help a puppy overcome her fears. There are two systems that get activated under stress: the sympatho-adreno-medullary (SAM) axis, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Let’s look at them by means of an example.

Imagine you are walking to the supermarket. Suddenly, a lion jumps out of a driveway. The SAM axis responds immediately – your adrenaline levels rise quickly, and you are getting ready to outrun or fight the lion! A few minutes later, your adrenaline levels drop back to normal again. The same holds true anytime your puppy meets “her lion” – no matter whether that’s indeed a lion, a person on crutches, a strange dog or a teenager on a skateboard.

The HPA axis, on the other hand, is activated more slowly and remains active longer. It leads to the release of cortisol. Indeed, your cortisol levels will only peak approximately 20 minutes after you ran into the lion, and elevated cortisol levels can be measured in your body for up to an hour or two after the stressful event. Again, the same things happen in your puppy’s body when she encounters a trigger.

Why is this relevant when trying to change your puppy’s negative associations to skateboarders, men in hats, or strange dogs? Staying under threshold in training is significantly more effective than training in a state of mind our dog would be in if she saw a lion: anytime your puppy experiences distress, her ability to learn is compromised. While we do want to face the triggers your puppy is concerned with, we need to stay at a point where they do not trigger the physiological responses associated with distress. A puppy’s brain is most receptive when she is in a relaxed and attentive state of mind. That’s why, in order to maximize the training benefits for your sensitive puppy, you should stick to the recommended maximum duration of the training protocols as well as the minimum relaxation times in between sessions. If your puppy “goes over threshold” (i.e. the physiological stress response is triggered), you don’t only lose the benefits of your current desensitization session, but also of the following reps: the physiological stress response takes a while to subside, and only when your puppy’s body has returned to homeostasis can you effectively change her association to a trigger by one of the protocols described below.

Stress Stacking

Earlier in this chapter, we learned that adrenaline and cortisol levels don’t immediately drop back to normal the moment a real or metaphorical lion disappears: adrenaline levels stay elevated for several minutes, and cortisol levels for up to two hours. When several minor stressors happen immediately one after the other, the total level of stress keeps rising. That is to say the puppy doesn’t process them one after the other (image 1), but simultaneously (image 2).

stress stacking counterconditioning dog training
Image 1: Meeting several minor stressors in a row isn’t all rainbows and unicorns

An isolated trigger that is only perceived as slightly stressful by your puppy might cause your puppy to run away, freezy, alarm-bark or air-snap if it happens simultaneously or soon after another minor or major stressor. Stress stacking is also the reason many moderately reactive puppies and dogs don’t react to the first or second trigger they meet on a walk, but will react to the third one.

stress stacking counterconditioning dog training
Image 2: … but more like meeting a lion!

Thresholds and Relapses

And there is another reason I recommend always working at a distance to the trigger that is great enough to avoid fear reactions. Experiments show a connection between elevated heart rate during training sessions and future relapses. This hasn’t only been studied on animals, but also on people undergoing exposure therapy in order to conquer phobias. The results showed that the subject was most likely to relapse when the level of fear they themselves reported to be experiencing was out of line with the level of fear indicated by their heart rate. This is why I don’t like using food lures when socializing fearful puppies: a food-motivated puppy may be tricked into approaching someone she wouldn’t approach otherwise, only to realize she is in way over her head once she has swallowed the food.

Special thanks to FDSA instructor Jessica Hekman for making making sure I got the science right! Jessica also pointed me to one of her articles, which wasn’t only helpful, but also interesting and enjoyable to read. Check it out if you want to learn more about psychogenic stress in hospitalized dogs!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information.

Case Study: Toni gets paid for looking at dogs

Last week, I told you about Toni’s relaxation blanket that helped him stay calm around visitors. Today, I’m going to share how we tackled the second behavior his owner wanted to change: lunging and barking at dogs he saw in the street.

During our first consult, I asked Sabrina to take me on one of her usual walks, and do everything the way she normally would, so I could see the problem. Given the part of Vienna that Sabrina lives in, it was likely that we would meet a dog or two, even if we just walked around the block.

Toni walked on his leash relatively nicely. He took his time sniffing doorways and lamp posts, and peeing on trees. The people walking by and the traffic noise didn’t seem to bother him. He’d trot along happily, sniffing here and there, and pee on lots of trees. Except for his dog reactivity, he was a pleasure to walk in a busy town. He ignored strangers on the street beautifully, and Sabrina was doing a great job giving him opportunities to take his time sniffing rather than pulling him along.

When a man with two Labs suddenly appeared in a doorway further down the street, Toni reacted as soon as they entered his peripheral field of vision. He barked, hackles raised, and pulled towards them. Sabrina held on to the leash (which wasn’t easy, given Toni’s size!), and waited while the guy with the Labs crossed the street and disappeared around a corner. Toni shook when the dogs had disappeared, and went right back to sniffing the spot he had been investigating.

Sabrina explained that this was a typical Toni reaction: he’d become aware of a dog – sometimes, that dog had to come quite close until Toni noticed; sometimes, he was still further away. Toni would pull and bark until the dog had disappeared. Since Toni was a big black dog, the other owner would usually get out of the way, and Sabrina tended to just stay where she was, tightly holding on to the leash, until the trigger was gone.

Toni didn’t have dog friends or regular contact with other dogs except the ones he saw in the street. He didn’t have a concept of how to deal with them, or what to do with them, but seeing them was clearly arousing. That arousal manifested itself in barking, pulling, and lunging.

We were going to teach him an alternative way to react to dogs in the street, and a way to get rid of the startle response that probably contributed to his arousal when a strange dog showed up unexpectedly. I love Leslie McDevitt’s “Look At That” (LAT) protocol for cases like this because it gives the dog something specific to do (look at the trigger), and it creates positive associations with the trigger (food!).

A quick break down of the “Look at That!” game for those of you who aren’t familiar with it:

The dog gets specific job around his triggers: showing them to his human by means of looking at them. Looking at the trigger gets clicked or otherwise marked. Upon hearing the marker sound, the dog turns back to his human to collect his treat. The owner can even click her dog several times in a row for looking at a trigger and then back at her – until the trigger is out of sight.

Later, a cue is attached to the behavior. I usually suggest “Schau!” – German for “Look!” – to my Austrian clients. We introduce the cue by saying it when the dog is about to turn his head and look at the trigger anyways. Through repetition, the dog connects the cue with the behavior. The goal is that eventually, the human can cue “Schau!” when she sees a trigger the dog hasn’t yet seen. The dog will then scan the environment until he finds the trigger in order to collect his click and treat.

I didn’t video Toni’s training sessions, but here is a short clip of another client working on the first steps of LAT with her adolescent Border Collie. I am coaching the owner and videoing, and a helper is walking my Greyhound up and down in the distance. Toni’s first sessions looked very similar to this.

Training steps

We started working on LAT once Toni had learned to work for his food and knew the meaning of the click (turn to your handler and collect a treat). This was achieved as a side effect of the first training steps with his relaxation blanket.

Toni’s first LAT dog session took place on a wide, open field outside the city. I instructed my helper to walk Fanta, my Greyhound, up and down at about half a soccer field’s distance from Toni, Sabrina and me. Toni saw the decoy dog in the distance. He tensed up and watched intensely. He didn’t lunge or bark though. The distance was much bigger than what he was used to from the city. I asked Sabrina to click right away, then feed from her hand as Toni turned towards her. He swallowed his cookie, then looked again. Click and treat. He looked back – click and treat. After about four clicks, Toni visibly relaxed. He had collected information and realized this dog in the distance, who wasn’t coming closer, was not a threat. What’s more, looking at him was getting paid in clicks and cookies! Once Fanta had walked up and down four times, Toni seemed happy and interested in this new game, and Sabrina’s timing and mechanics looked nice, I asked her to start walking and move parallel to Fanta. Now, Toni got clicked for looking at our helper while walking. Since this went just as well, Sabrina could reduce the distance to Fanta by 4 feet. She kept walking parallel and clicking Toni for looking there and back.

In the course of this first meeting, we did several short sessions, interrupted by sniffing breaks for Toni, and worked our way closer and closer to Fanta, until there were only about 15 feet between the two dogs, and they could still walk parallel to each other without Toni getting the least bit upset. Towards the end of this session, Sabrina started introducing the “Schau!” (German for look) cue. She inserted it right before Toni was about to look at Fanta.

In our next session together, we practiced in a different place, with a new helper dog, and went through the same protocol again. Toni did well, enjoyed the new game, and never got over threshold.

In session number three – my last LAT lesson with Sabrina before I sent her out to practice on her own – we were ready to play in a more urban environment. We worked in a parking garage I often use for this kind of training: it is usually not frequented by dogs (so there are no unexpected triggers), and it’s easy to do set ups with having a dog suddenly appear behind a car. It’s not a busy garage, so there are some, but not too man distractions. You can see this location in the video of Border Collie Rose above. We worked a bit with both my dogs (Fanta and Phoebe) as the decoys. This time, I handled the helper dogs myself while Sabrina and Toni worked alone. Sabrina learned to watch out for my dogs appearing behind a car, clicking as soon as Toni saw them, and then walking off in whatever direction was safe and increased the distance between us. I gradually made things more difficult for them, trying to hide behind parked cars to sneak closer and surprise them both! Neither Sabrina nor Toni were getting nervous at this point – it had really turned into a game they both were having fun with.

In the second half of our urban LAT session, we took Toni for a walk through the neighborhood. Now Sabrina was working in real life rather than with set-ups. She was going to apply the protocol we had been practicing to the random dogs she met in the street. I led them past the back of a small, fenced dog park: instead of avoiding triggers, we were now looking for them so Sabrina could click and treat Toni!

Sabrina was doing a great job looking out for dogs, cuing “Look!”, and being proactive. Rather than passively remaining in place and waiting for the trigger to pass, she now actively helped Toni cope by means of clicking, treating, and, whenever necessary, retreating.

After successfully testing what we had practiced in the real world together, Sabrina was ready to play the LAT game anytime she met a dog on her regular neighborhood walks. She was going to avoid really close encounters with other dogs for now, until the new, alternative behavior of looking instead of lunging and barking had become an ingrained habit.

When Sabrina wrote to tell me about their progress about half a year later, Toni had learned passing strange dogs on the same side of the street, on a narrow sidewalk, without getting upset! Sabrina isn’t bringing her clicker on walks anymore, but she still makes sure to always have treats on her, and feed a particularly tasty one after passing a dog up close. She says she believes Toni wouldn’t need to get a cookie every time anymore, but she likes paying and praising him because it reminds her how proud she is of him.

Why we chose this training approach

Sabrina’s goal was for Toni and her to be able to walk through her neighborhood without him getting upset about other dogs. She didn’t need him to interact with other dogs up close, but she wanted their city walks to be enjoyable and less stressful. Sabrina just needed a strategy and a plan about how to get through dog encounters. Having the LAT game in place, she stopped being passive, and was able to successfully lead Toni through the situation.

Book Recommendation

Check out Leslie McDecitt’s books Control Unleashed and Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program to learn more about the “Look at That” protocol as well as other training games! I really like Leslie’s training approach. Her books are targeted at sports dogs, but many of their games and concepts are very useful for working with pet dogs as well.

Case Study: Toni learns to relax around visitors

Meet the dog

Toni is a very big, black-and-tan, floppy-eared, 3ish years old male mixed breed who was adopted by Sabrina when he was about 5 months old. With the exceptions of the two issues described below, Toni is a laid-back and mostly low energy dog.

Sabrina has four housemates, and they all have active social lives – a lot of the time, there isn’t just five people at their house, but rather ten. It’s never boring, and it’s never quiet. Toni does well in this environment – he’s a good fit for a social owner. Soon after Sabine got him, he started greeting each and every one of their visitors like old friends, even when they were new ones.

The behaviors we wanted to change

1) Toni used to get very excited when Sabrina had visitors, would try and jump on their lap as they sat on the couch, solicit attention, scratch their legs, and whine. It wasn’t easy to have a conversation with Toni in the room. Sabrina wanted to change his behavior around visitors. Taking him places wasn’t easy, either, because he insisted on being the center of attention when Sabrina was out with friends.

2) Out in the street, Toni would bark and lunge at other dogs. Sabrina wanted him to learn to pass them calmly.

Training steps: Learning to relax around human friends

Toni’s life included a lot of different people coming and going. He had the right kind of personality for it – he liked people. However, he liked them so much that he wanted to interact with them, and he had learned that the best way to do so was to pester them until they gave him attention! Sabrina had a lot of dog-loving friends, so this had been working well for him.

We decided to teach Toni to station on a blanket. This particular blanket would only come out when Sabrina wanted him to stay on it, and the blanket itself would become the cue to lie down.

Our first challenge was that Toni wasn’t interested in food rewards. He was free fed. Sabrina had a 15-kilo bag of high-value kibble in a corner of her bedroom. The bag was always open, and Toni just walked over and ate when he was hungry. He had been free fed ever since Sabrina got him. He was a little chubby, but he didn’t over-eat. He was very relaxed around food in general. Food wasn’t a limited resource. This was convenient in everyday life, but presented a training challenge!

In order to increase Toni’s interest in earning his food, Sabrina stopped free-feeding him. The first thing Toni needed to learn was that food could be the consequence of something he did – a concept he wasn’t familiar with. However, he knew how to sit. This was our starting point. Sabrina asked him to sit, clicked, and fed a cookie. She threw the next cookie to make him get up again, asked for another sit, clicked, and threw a cookie. After looking slightly perplexed in the first few sessions, Toni decided that this strange new game was fun. Now that food wasn’t available for free anymore, Toni’s interest in it had increased considerably. He liked interacting with people anyways, and these cookies weren’t all that bad, either! You could see him perk up as he realized that he had the power to make clicks happen and food appear.

With the help of a cookie pressed against Sabrina’s hand with her thumb, he soon learned to do a hand-touch as well, which earned him a click and released the cookie. Sabrina could fade the lure within a few reps. Toni learned to figure out how to get his cookie: sitting, hand touches, or “shake”: he needed to paw at a closed fist in order to get his treat!

Next, I showed Sabrina how to add an element of shaping to her training sessions. Toni was going to learn to go to the blanket we were later going to use to change his behavior around visitors. I asked Sabrina to get a new blanket Toni had never seen before. She made a big fuss about it, then put it on the floor. Toni came over to investigate – click! Sabrina threw the cookie away from the blanket. Toni chased down his treat, and since he hadn’t been done investigating the blanket just yet, he returned to give it another sniff – click! In the course of several short sessions, Toni learned to step on the blanket with all four paws. Now, Sabrina clicked him for standing on the blanket, and then lured him into a down with the reward cookie. She waited a second or two, clicked again, and threw a cookie off the blanket. After a few reps, Toni offered his first voluntary down on the blanket and got a jackpot. After every brief session, Sabrina removed the blanket. It was only out when she was working with it.

Once Toni had learned to lie down on the blanket as soon as it was presented, we put the blanket where Sabrina eventually wanted it to be when she had visitors: in one of the corners of her big couch. It was important to her that Toni could be a part of her social life. She didn’t want him to have to wait in a different room, in a crate, or in a corner. During training sessions on the couch, she could sit next to him, feed him cookies and read or work on her laptop at the same time. She could also scratch his ears while he relaxed next to her, which he loved.

Once Toni recognized the appearance of the blanket on the couch as his cue to lie down, we started adding duration. From this point onwards, we made sure that Toni wouldn’t have Sabrina’s undivided attention. She’d read a sentence – feed a cookie. Read two sentences – feed a cookie. Read three sentences – feed a cookie, and so on. As long as he continued hanging out on his blanket next to her, cookies would materialize. At the same time, we made sure her full attention and eye contact weren’t part of the picture we were creating. After all, we wanted Toni to eventually relax rather than “work,” and Sabrina wanted to be able to focus on her visitors, and not just on her dog.

Toni was good about relaxing for the occasional cookie, and daily sessions got Sabrina to a point where she could soon read several pages of a book between the individual cookies, and occasionally replace a cookie with ear scratches. We systematically introduced Sabrina getting up, walking around the room, and sitting down again while Toni remained in his spot. He also learned to stay when Sabrina got up, left her room, and then came right back in. We practiced this until Sabrina could get up, go to the kitchen, get a glass of water, and return without Toni getting up or getting fidgety.

The next step was practicing with various visitors. The first one was me: Toni learned that the blanket game could still be played when someone else was in the room. We first increased the rate of reinforcement again, and since Toni’s desire in this situation was to interact with the visitor, we decided that I – the visitor – would give him the occasional cookie and attention when he was on the mat. My attention made the reward even more reinforcing.

It turned out that Toni was actually able to be quite patient and well mannered now that he knew hanging out on his blanket would get him cookies and attention. His excitement hadn’t been due to high arousal and overflowing energy – he had simply learned that he had to pester people in order to get attention. Once provided with an alternative behavior, he turned out to be an easygoing big boy.

After some experimenting, we decided that the mat would come out right before a visitor came into Sabrina’s room. If he stayed on his mat, the visitor would come over and great him with a cookie right away. If he got up, the visitor would turn around and close the door behind them. Sabrina would pick up the blanket, wait a second, and then put it down again. This usually reminded Toni to lie down. Now the visitor could come in and approach again.

Sabrina then began to ask other helpers to visit her in order to train her dog. First, we worked with two of her dog-savvy housemates. Then, she would ask friends to help her. If Tony stayed on his blanket, Sabrina would instruct her friends to deliver a cookie to him and calmly talk to him.

While building this new behavior, Sabrina had people over specifically for this exercise, not in order to socialize or talk about other things. She was consistent in her training, and it showed in Toni’s progress. He learned to stay on his mat while visitors came in the room, and his overall level of excitement around human friends decreased.

Sabrina then switched from cookies to long-lasting chews and stuffed Kongs that Toni could use to entertain himself on the blanket when she had people over. At that point, she was able to actually focus on her visitors, too, and not just on training Toni. By the time Toni had gotten used to eating part of his dinner from a Kong when Sabrina had people over, she was able to start giving him more freedom again. At first, she had made sure people would leave before Toni finished his Kong. Then we tested what would happen if Toni got to finish his Kong before the visitor left: it turned out he soon dozed off while Sabirna and me were still sitting together. We then tried what would happen if Sabrina released Toni and took away the blanket after he had finished his Kong – and he would just trot over to his bed and continue dozing off there. The Kong seemed to have a calming effect, and Toni’s need to be the center of attention had disappeared now that his relaxation on the blanket got reinforced on a regular basis. As Sabrina gradually increased his post-chew freedom, he would sometimes go right to his bed, and other times, he’d jump off the couch, wag and wait for ear scratches from Sabrina or the visitor before heading over to his bed. The attention-seeking behavior and vocalization had disappeared completely.

Training steps: Learning to relax in public

Sabrina wanted to be able to take Toni more places. In order for him to relax around friends away from home, Toni needed to generalize his blanket skills. Most cafés and restaurants in Austria allow dogs, and it is pretty normal that people bring their dogs when they go out for lunch or dinner. In order to practice for this, Sabrina and I went to McDonalds. Fast food restaurants are perfect for this: you can just get up and leave anytime, and it’s perfectly fine to only spend a few minutes inside. We picked a table in a quiet corner. Sabrina would head over to the table, put down the mat, and calmly reinforce Toni for lying down on it, and for staying down. I would get our drinks from the counter and join them. Once Toni had settled, he got a frozen Kong or long-lasting chew. We would finish our drinks, keep an eye on Toni, and discuss the next training steps. Then, Sabrina would trade the Kong or the remains of the chew for a cookie, release Toni, pick up the blanket, and we would leave.

After going through these steps together, Sabrina was ready to practice at places like McDonald’s, Burger King, or Starbucks on her own, or in the company of dog savvy friends. If she went on her own, she made sure to set him up for success by having him wait in the car while she ordered her coke or coffee and put it on the table, and set up the blanket. Then, she got Toni from the car, lead him directly to her table, and rewarded him for recognizing his blanket and lying down on it.

Gradually, Sabrina increased the time Toni could spend at a fast food restaurant, and decreased the attention he got from her until she was able to take him to other restaurants as well and actually have conversations with her friends while he relaxed on his blanket under the table.

Why we chose this training approach

Toni wasn’t a high energy dog to begin with. That made the blanket a good choice. He wasn’t torn between finding an outlet for his energy, and staying on the mat. He just needed an acceptable way to solicit attention when people were around. Hanging out on a blanket was congruent with his base personality: a big, friendly, laid-back dog.

Toni’s excitement around people wasn’t based on anxiety or insecurity. He genuinely liked people, and wanted to meet them. Not knowing how to get their attention was frustrating to him. Interacting with them was reinforcing, not stressful. This made it possible to integrate visitors into his reinforcement protocol.

It was important to Sabrina that our training plan would allow Toni to keep being part of her social life. She wanted her friends to be his friends, too. Using a blanket on the couch achieved just that.

Check back next week for how we worked on Toni’s second issue: barking and lunging at strange dogs in the street.

Case Study: Dao’s Resource Guarding

I’m trying something new today, and if you like it, I might do it more often: I’m going to tell you about a dog I have worked with.

I made a video about Dao’s training a while ago and shared it with friends, but I haven’t shared it publicly before. I’ll add some background in this blog post.

Meet the dog:

Dao is a 5-year old female Czechoslovakian Wolfdog. She was bred and lives at Siam Crown Kennel, where she used to be part of an amateur study on working with Czechoslovakian Wolfdogs. She’s a kennel dog, not a house dog.

The behavior I want to change:

Dao will guard food. That is to say, when she has something edible, she will let you know that you cannot touch it. She does this eloquently by flattening her ears, protecting the food item with her head/body while looking up at you so the white of her eyes is visible, showing her teeth, and growling. It is a clear warning, delivered in beautiful body language and in just the right intensity to be unmistakable: “Don’t touch this.”

A friend and colleague challenged me to teach Dao to let me touch her food items. She doubted it could be done without intimidation. I, on the other hand, was sure it could be done without intimidation, and I videoed most steps so I could show her my training process.

Training steps:

I’m narrating the training steps and Dao’s reaction in this video. In short, I used classical counter-conditioning, and I built a relationship based on mutual trust. Or, in other words: I taught Dao it was safe to trust me around her food. There was no reason for her to worry about me stealing it. What I found most interesting is not that it worked, but how extremely well Dao responded to it, and just how much trust and affection she’d soon show me. None of our sessions lasted longer than a few minutes.


Generalization, Distractions, and Driving in Thailand

Growing up in Austria, I learned to drive on the right side of the road, and that’s where I’ve been driving for 14 years. In Thailand, people drive on the left side. Everything in the car is reversed: driver’s seat on the right, passenger seat on the left. Gearshift on the left, windshield wipers on the left, blinkers on the right. Since I’m used to driving a lot, and I’ve driven in Mexico’s crazy traffic, I didn’t think Thailand would be a big deal – I’d just rent a car and drive on the left; everything else would be just as I was used to-ish.

On my first two days of driving, I ran over the same maliciously high, razor-edged concrete curb twice. Both times, I flattened my car’s left front tire and bent the rim. Both times, there was a painfully loud noise – Skkkkreeeekkkkkkkkkkk-kkk! – pretty punishing for me to hear! Today, on my fifth day of driving, I’ll still occasionally turn on the windshield wipers instead of the blinkers. It took me three days to stop accidentally opening the passenger door when I wanted to get into the driver’s seat. This is hard, guys!

I remember learning to drive in my Dad’s Suzuki. I believe I learned fast and did well. Now this could be because I was misremembering, or because I was younger and my brain was making new neural connections much faster than now, 14 years later. Or it could be that learning something new for the first time is significantly easier than changing the meaning of a well-established cue. I bet it’s the latter.

The original driving-related cue I learned 14 years ago and have practiced on an almost daily basis is:

CAR –> get in on the right side.

The functional reward for driving on the right side of the road, using the gearshift to my right, the blinkers to my left and the windshield wipers on my right has been the fact that I got from A to B.

So driving on the right side, operating the gearshift and windshield wipers with my right and the blinker with my left hand have been reinforced thousands of times. These behaviors have been well generalized, too: they have been generalized to different contexts (country, city, highway, sunshine, rain, snow, day, night …), different locations (Europe, North & Central America), and different cars (big and small, stick shift and automatic). They have been proofed against various distractions such as someone in the passenger seat talking to me, dogs in the car, being on speaker phone, eating, listening to the news, music, audiobooks, and podcasts while driving. Through practice and thousands of functional reinforcers, the behaviors of driving on the right, changing gears with the left, operating the blinker with the left and the windshield wipers with the right have been deeply ingrained in my brain. They are on autopilot; unless I consciously pay attention, this is what my body will default to when there’s a stirring wheel in front of me.

Doing everything in reverse requires significant effort and concentration. Not only do I have to execute a new behavior, I also need to fight the strong neural connection of the old behavior. Imagine my brain looks like this. Pink is the old neural high-speed connection. It’s been well maintained, and there’s a bright street lamp every few meters. The green scribbles are the jungle of uncharted brain territory. Yellow is the new neural pathway I’m trying to cut through the jungle with a butter knife. It’s bearly visible because this is one of the first times I’m walking there, and it’s dark in the jungle and I only have a flash light.

Chrissi's Brain.JPG

Let’s compare my driving experience to my process of learning the Thai alphabet (ตัวอักษรไทย). I have no prior learning experience with these letters. I’ve made flashcards and gone through them in various locations while I was waiting for an appointment or during other kinds of empty time. Now when I stop my car at a red light, I look around and recognize the letters. Not all of them, and not all the time – but I’m getting there. Anytime I recognize a or a or something else, I get a little dopamine hit. It makes me happy, keeps me motivated. I’m surprised how easy it seems to remember the letters. Compared to the task of learning to drive on the left side of the street, I’d say I’m doing really well with the alphabet. So I assume I’m not simply too old to learn new things. The fact that I don’t have any prior learning experiences with the alphabet is serving me well. I’m writing my new language skills on a blank slate in my brain rather than in between the lines of older memories. Learning something new is easier than editing something that’s already stored in your brain, it seems.

Are you still reading? Good, because here comes the dog training angle you’ve been waiting for. It’s a lot easier to teach an entirely new cue than to change one the dog is already executing in an unwanted way.

Imagine you have taught your dog a rock-back sit. It was one of the first behaviors you’ve taught her when she was a puppy, and you’ve asked for it on an almost daily basis for the first two years of her life. Now that she’s two, you’ve discovered dog sports, and now you want a beautiful tuck sit, dogdammit! Can’t be so hard, can it? Well – it depends. Let’s assume you shaped your tuck behavior, you’re getting it consistently, and now you’re ready to put it on cue. You say “Sit,” the same thing you’ve been saying for years. For years, this cue has been followed by your dog rocking back into a sit, which you have paid for with a cookie. What’s your dog likely to do? If she knew the rock-back sit well, it’s likely that her body will just execute it as soon as you say “Sit”. The reinforcement history of the rock-back sit is much stronger than the reinforcement history of the new tuck sit. Now that your dog is thinking rock-back thoughts, she might stop offering tuck sits altogether and do her usual rock-back sits for the rest of the session, wagging her tail, looking at you expectantly, “Where’s my cookie?”

How do you avoid this? Choose an entirely new cue for the tuck sit! The movement involved in the tuck sit and in the rock-back sit are different. Different muscles are involved. It’s really two different behaviors, even though the end result is the same: a dog who sits. So rather than messing with your rock-back “Sit” cue, put your new tuck sit on an entirely new cue (how about “Tuck”?), and never give the cue for the rock-back sit again!

Let’s go back to driving in Thailand for a moment. I promise, we’ll get right back to another dog training lesson. Remember how I said I liked looking at the Thai letters when stopping at a traffic light and challenging myself to say the corresponding sound? Well, there’s even more to see. There are colorful pick-up trucks with people standing in the back. There are little street food restaurants on every corner where; the dishes are so spicey that the cooks are wearing face masks to protect their skin when bending over their outdoors stoves. Stands with fresh fruit, fried bananas, and Gai Bing for sale. There’s little shops with colorfully eclectic displays crowding the sidewalks: pots and pans and plastic buckets, cleaning utensils (all the dog training equipment I could build from these!), key chains, china, toys and scissors, pillow cases … There’s the people walking – I love watching people going about their lives in new places. And the dogs in the street, mostly lazily trotting or lying on the sidewalk, muzzle shoved under a bushy tail. It’s too hot to move or make mischief. There’s the strangely beautiful details I notice: a trash can that has fallen over, with paper, empty bottles, and instant rice containers spilling out into the street. The old woman sitting in the shade of her house, folding laundry. A little girl in a surprisingly white skirt running barefoot into a side street.

Long story short: there are distractions everywhere. Eve-ry-where! It’s hard to concentrate on driving when I’d rather turn my head to see if the brown dog is going to find something interesting among the trash. I’m trying to learn a new behavior in a new environment with lots of distractions present. Do you see where I’m getting at? No wonder I drove over the same malicious curb twice, slicing the same left front tire twice. I didn’t set myself up for success. It’s like asking a dog who has only trained indoors his entire life to learn a new behavior in the middle of a busy park he has never been to, complete with squirrel-filled trees, hot dog vendors, street musicians, and children playing soccer.

Is your dog any more likely to succeed in this environment than I am likely to successfully drive through Sam Phran? Nope, he isn’t. Getting mad at him really misses the point, too: your dog probably did the best he could, tried hard to pay attention to your wishes – but the distractions were too difficult, and the behavior you asked for was too hard.

How can you avoid the Sam Phran effect and set your dog up for success? First of all, train the new behavior in a known, distraction-free environment. Next, train outdoors – without any distractions present. Gradually increase the distractions: add a food distraction. Remove the food distraction, and add a toy distraction. Remove the toy distraction, and train somewhere you can hear and see children running in the far distance. Gradually decrease the distance. Go to a place without children playing, but with squirrel-filled trees at a distance. Gradually decrease the distance. Increase the distance again, but combine two of the distractions you have been working on separately. Once this goes well, add a thrid one, then a fourth one. Remove one or two of the distractions, but decrease the distance to the remaining ones, and so on. Learning to perform under distractions is hard work – for most dogs, it doesn’t just magically happen. Make a plan before you head out, and do a reality check in your head: is this easier than asking Chrissi to drive on the left side of the road in Sam Phran? If it is significantly easier, go for it. If it isn’t, change your plan, and set your dog up for success. Beware the Sam Phran effect!

The Potentially Obsessive Floor-Digging Riddle, Part 4

… in which we decide to go back to the baseline.

I talked to Nicole on Thursday, and we looked at my latest observations to see how the behavior had developed:


Blue: stereotypic behavior
Orange: DRA (FI 15min)
Grey: DRI (sitting or standing in front of human and making eye contact)

My notes and the graph showed that our current intervention was not being successful. While it had looked very promising in the beginning, the floor digging/biting behaviour had quickly returned, and shown up in new contexts. It was time to change our strategy and try something new. However, before I go into the further plan, let me share with you the things that have changed about the behavior.

Changes in the topography of the behavior

Originally, i.e. during the baseline, the floor digging/biting had lasted much longer – up to several minutes. Now, it often lasts less than a minute. Originally, the behavior had included more vocalization – now, the intensity of whining while biting had decreased. However, the rate of the behavior – the amount of times it occurred during a day – had increased.

Discovering new functions

While the behavior had originally appeared to only be reinforced by owner attention, it had soon turned up in new contexts. The fact that the originally successful intervention of nonexclusion time-out and response cost had stopped being effective showed that the behavior was multiply determined, that is to say it served more than just one function. We had already identified demand avoidance as an additional function in the context of food puzzles. In the last days, yet another function turned up: the floor digging/biting behavior appeared to be a displacement activity. Hadley has shown an increasing interest in birds. He’ll watch them fly through the living room windows, trace them with his eyes, and sometimes start panting and whining, scratching the glass doors and eventually start floor digging/biting as a displacement activity.

An interest in birds and having fun running after them, of course, is to be expected in adolescent dogs. I’m actually a fan of this behavior – in Phoebe, I used it effectively as a reinforcer when she was a puppy. I’d ask her to perform a well-known behavior, click and let her run at a flock of pigeons on the ground as a reinforcer. This was a nice application of the Premack principle: “high-probability behavior reinforces low-probability behavior” (Chance 453). Chasing pigeons was a high-probability behavior for Phoebe. Making eye contact was a low-probability behavior. By means of asking or waiting for eye contact and then reinforcing it with pigeon chasing, Phoebe’s “Watch me!” got stronger and her desire to chase pigeons eventually decreased. Furthermore, it was yet another lesson in “You do what I want you to do, and then you get to do what you want to do. There’s no conflict of interest between us. Cooperation gets you what you want!”

So Hadley’s interest in birds is neither surprising nor a bad thing as such. However, the way he deals with the fact that he can’t chase the birds he sees through the window is concerning. Other dogs might bark or jump at the window. Hadley once more resorts to floor digging/biting, and that is the concerning part.

The way he displays his interest in birds also seems like a strong herding behavior to me – the eye stalk part of the predatory motor pattern. I asked a friend to recommend a good herding trainer, and I suggested Tom and Hadley try and see what Hadley thinks about sheep. This might be something for the two of them to do on a weekly basis, and it might give Hadley an outlet for his predatory motor patterns. He is half a year old now and, being a working line BC whose father works on sheep, should be ready for meeting his first sheep.

Looking for patterns: is there a connection between the floor digging/biting behavior and the amount of enrichment/mental stimulation/training/exercise during a particular day?

I have kept an eye on how the rate of the behavior changed in relation to what we did with Hadley on a particular day. After all, two scenarios were possible: Scenario 1: Hadley might show the floor digging/biting behavior particularly often when there was a lot of down-time and little training, walking, playing or mental stimulation on a particular day. Scenario 2: Hadley might show the floor digging/biting behavior particularly often when there was a lot of training, walking, playing or mental stimulation on a particular day.

However, neither Nicole nor Tom nor I could discern a pattern. There were days with a lot of physical activity and/or mental stimulation and enrichment when the rate of the behavior was high, and there were days with little activity and stimulation when the rate of the behavior was high. At the same time, there were days where a lot was going on, but the rate of the behavior was low, and there were days where little was going on, and the rate of the behavior was high. We couldn’t make out a pattern.

My interpretation so far

From what I have observed since starting to work with Nicole, the floor digging/biting behavior seems to be (among other things) auto-reinforcing, and it seems to be a behavior that finds new outlets and contexts to creep up in. I’m sure that with Nicole’s help, we’ll get a grip on it. However, we might still have a long journey ahead of us.

Further strategy

Hadley will stay with my parents for two weeks while Tom and I are on vacation. Yey, LA and Hawaii! I’ve instructed my parents to stick with the current strategy for now: leave the room as soon as floor digging/biting occurs.

Once we get back, we will go back to the baseline and observe what happens for about 10 days. That is to say: I will stop DRL and DRA (FI 15min), which we didn’t do during the baseline. I’ll still reinforce the incompatible behaviors of politely asking for attention by means of sitting or standing in front of us and making eye contact, since I’ve been doing “sit to say please” from the very beginning of Hadley’s time with us. However, whenever the floor digging/biting happens, now we will immediately interrupt and redirect Hadley the way we used to in the baseline. We will take notes, and it will be interesting to learn what happens: will the rate of the behavior increase, decrease, or stay the same?

Stay tuned for part 5 of the potentially obsessive floor digging riddle …

Read Part 1, 2 and 3 of Hadley’s Floor Digging Diaries:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3


Chance, Paul. Learning and Behavior. Fifth edition. Belmont: Wadsworth 2003.

The Potentially Obsessive Floor-Digging Riddle, Part 3

High time for another update! When I wrote part 2 of this series, it seemed pretty clear that Hadley’s floor-digging and biting was being reinforced by Tom’s and my attention.

Initial intervention and success

In our initial intervention, we reinforced incompatible behaviors (sitting or standing in front of human and making eye contact) with attention (talking, petting), and used a combination of nonexclusion time-out und response cost in order to extinguish the floor digging/biting: we immediately left the room as soon as Hadley started engaging in the behavior, and only came back after he had stopped. Hadley reliably stopped floor digging/biting when we left, and the behavior occurred less and less often. We were ready to celebrate a successful intervention. Nicole and I agreed that Tom and I would keep doing what we had been doing. If owner attention was the sole reinforcer for the floor digging/biting behavior, it should soon disappear altogether as long as we stuck with the current strategy.


The rate of the stereotypic behavior increases again

That’s what we did: we kept reinforcing incompatible behaviors and alternative behaviors on an FI 15min schedule, and whenever there was floor digging/biting, we left.

However, things turned out to not be as simple as we had hoped they would be. After the initial decrease of the behavior, its intensity and rate increased again. Hadley showed the floor digging/biting behavior in new situations, and even when he was alone in a room – something that had not previously happened.

The new situation the floor digging/biting occurred in was when I confronted Hadley with food puzzles. This was quite surprising, since food puzzles had been something I had given him from his first week with us : frozen Kongs, kibble in a cardboard box or egg carton, treats in an empty plastic bottle, kibble hidden under various containers, pillows, blankets etc.

Hadley used to have fun with most of these food puzzles. He destroyed cardboard boxes, opened plastic boxes I had hidden treats in, and rolled his bottles around on the floor to make food fall out. I am a big fan of home-made food puzzles because they are an inexpensive and fast way to provide our dogs with enrichment – a simple way to fight boredom, learn to manipulate a variety of objects, problem-solve independently, and have the dog experience that his own behavior controls what happens in his environment. Well, at least that’s what happens with most dogs.


Here is Hadley searching for food on the bed – we don’t have a snuffle mat, so we make bed-sized food toys instead!





However, Hadley’s demeanor around food toys started to change. In the last weeks, he would more and more often just sit in front of the food puzzle, stare at it, maybe paw it or nose-touch it once, quickly retreat, start barking at it, and then engage in floor digging/biting in front of the toy. This left me a bit puzzled: Hadley had grown up with food toys, and now he would react this way even with the kind he had already successfully solved in the past! Was it the hormones of adolescence that had made him forget things he had been comfortable and successful with in the past?

Nicole explained to me that this behavior is called demand avoidance: I demand that Hadley solve the food puzzle. He can’t; he “escapes” by means of floor digging/biting. While we were surprised that Hadley showed this behavior, I agreed with Nicole’s advice to reduce the amount of food puzzles Hadley would get, stick to the ones I am sure he can solve, and always stay with him when he works on them so I can help him in case he is having trouble. However, if he does start floor digging/biting in front of a food puzzle again, I will immediately and without comment remove the food puzzle.

Here is the updated graph Nicole made for me after our last consult. You can see that the floor digging/biting (blue) increased again after its initial decrease.


Graph 3

Blue: stereotypic behavior
Orange: DRA (FI 15min)
Grey: DRI (sitting or standing in front of human and making eye contact)

What was going on here? Why was the floor digging/biting not disappearing, but increasing again? Why was it creeping up in new situations? Several things might contribute to this. In the next weeks of observation, we will hopefully learn more.


  1. We might be dealing with an extinction burst: “a sudden increase in the rate of behavior during the early stages of extinction” (Chance 451). If this is the case, the floor digging/biting should decrease after its short increase, and eventually disappear completely, as long as we stick to the original plan.


  1. Very often, OCD spectrum disorders are multiply determined: as Kennedy et al. (560) suggest, “individual topographies of behavior can serve more than one function.” In Hadley’s case, one function seems to be to get our attention. After all, removal of all attention (leaving the room) had initially significantly decreased the rate of the behavior. Another function, it seems, might be task avoidance – this is what has been happening with the food toy. Now we will wait and see if and what other functions creep up. We will stick with the current plan until January 8th. On January 8th, I will consult with Nicole again to determine the further course of action: continue as before, or maybe go back to the baseline, i.e. interrupt the behavior whenever and as soon as it is occurring, and see if and how this affects the floor digging/biting behavior.


  1. As Nicole explained to me, certain dog breeds – among them Border Collies – are born with above-average dopamine levels. The release of the neurotransmitter dopamine leads to the experience of pleasure and reward. This might make abnormal repetitive behaviors auto-reinforcing and more likely to develop in various situations in these breeds (see also Arons & Shoemaker and Gadbois & Reeve – two sources Nicole pointed out to me).


As you can see, we haven’t been bored … We’re still trying to get rid of the floor digging/biting. But we’re working on it, keeping notes, and of course we won’t give up until we’ve reached our goal, which is a happy, stereotypy-free Border Collie. I will keep you updated …





Arons, C.D., Shoemaker, W.J. (1992) The distribution of catecholamines and beta-endorphin in the brains of three behaviorally distinct breeds of dogs and their F1 hybrids. Brain Research, 594(1): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1467939

Chance, Paul. Learning and Behavior. Fifth edition. Belmont: Wadsworth 2003.

Gadbois, S., Reeve, C. (2014) Canine olfaction: scent, sign and situation, in Horwitz, A. (Ed) Domestic Dog Cognition and Behaviorhttp://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-642-53994-7_1

Kennedy, Craig H., Meyer, Kim A., Knowles, Tanya, and Shukla, Smita (2000): Analyzing the multiple functions of stereotypical behavior for students with autism: implications for assessment and treatment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Number 4, Winter 2000. 22, 33, p. 559-571. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1284279/pdf/11214031.pdf/?iii=&iii=


Read Part 1 and 2 of Hadley’s Floor Digging Diaries: 

Part 1
Part 2
Part 4
Part 5

The Potentially Obsessive Floor-Digging Riddle, Part 2

… in which our hypothesis is confirmed and we see some interesting video proof.

As you might remember, Hadley had me worried with his obsessive floor digging and biting, which appeared to be getting worse rather than better over time despite redirection. I implemented the changes Nicole and I had agreed on during our last consult (see Part 1). Here is a summary of my observations from November 30 to December 2, 2015: Summary Part 2 (pdf with video links).

What we hypothesized and how we intervened – a quick recap: 

In my last post on this topic, we had developed the hypothesis that floor digging/biting was being reinforced by owner attention:

Reflections on floor – Hadley bites/digs floor –> Tom and Chrissi look at and talk to Hadley.

In order to test this hypothesis, we were going to change the consequence of the unwanted behavior by means of P-:

Reflections on floor – Hadley bites/digs floor –> all people leave the room.

If floor digging/biting was truly reinforced by owner attention, leaving the room should function as negative punishment and extinguish the unwanted behavior. Furthermore, if floor digging/biting was truly reinforced by owner attention, it should never happen when Hadley was home alone. If, on the other hand, the behavior was self-stimulating, it should continue after I left the room, and also occur when Hadley was home alone.

What we learned and what this means:

In the three-day observation period, there were 7 incidents of floor digging/biting. I reacted by means of immediately leaving the room every time, and recorded 6 of the incidents. By means of having a camera pointed at Hadley, I could see what happened after I left. As you might remember from the last videos I posted, when I used to stay in the room and observe, the floor digging/biting tended to go on for up to several minutes. Here’s an example of what happened when I left – watch this video if you only want to watch one, since it has a better camera angle than most of the others:

Further video evidence for the effectiveness of P- for Hadley’s floor digging/biting:

In each one of the 6 incidents I have on video, Hadley immediately stopped the unwanted behavior. This confirms our hypothesis: his floor digging/biting was really reinforced by owner attention! Believe it or not, but this made me very happy. No other scenario was as easy to resolve as this one! Plus, Hadley was young and we had caught it early. There would most likely be no need for meds, and we should get a grip on his obsessive floor digging/biting in the course of a few weeks.

Differential Reinforcement from November 30 to December 2, 2015:

When using negative punishment, it is advisable to simultaneously strengthen alternative behaviors in order to avoid creating a “behavior vacuum” where no functional replacement to the unwanted behavior is available to obtain the desired reinforcer. In Hadley’s case, the reinforcer is attention (talking, eye contact, petting). While weakening the unwanted behavior, we strengthen a replacement behavior that will allow him to ask for attention in an appropriate way: sitting or standing in front of me and seeking eye contact.

In the pdf summary above, you find the number of times I reinforced specific behaviors or the number of times specific things happened. Here’s what this means.

Table “Wanted behavior”:

Date, Time: refers to the date and exact time the session started.

Duration: refers to the duration of the respective session.

FI: refers to the schedule of reinforcement used during the session. FI stands for fixed interval and the time stated defines how many seconds or minutes have to pass until reinforcement becomes available. For example, FI 15min means that reinforcement becomes available after 15 minutes. When my timer rings after 15 minutes and Hadley happens to be showing one of the alternative behaviors I have defined, he will be reinforced.

The alternative behaviors I am reinforcing on a FI schedule are: “being awake and doing things by himself” – e.g. lying on the floor/couch/rug/dog bed/crate, walking around, playing with a toy by himself, chewing a chew toy, drinking water.

The reinforcement used for this is eye contact and talking to Hadley in a calm voice for at least 5 seconds.

The DRA column refers to the number of times I reinforced alternative behavior in the respective session. This number does not always equal the duration divided by the interval because I did not reinforce when Hadley was asleep or playing with one of the other dogs.

The DRI column refers to the number of times I reinforced behaviors incompatible with the unwanted behavior in the respective session. We defined two incompatible behaviors: sitting and standing in front of me and seeking eye contact. These behaviors were reinforced with eye contact, cheerful talking and petting for at least 5 seconds.

The DRL column (DRL = differential reinforcement of lower-intensity or lower-rate behavior) refers to the number of times I reinforced the unwanted behavior occurring at lower intensity. In our case, lower intensity was defined as stretching and/or rolling on the ground/couch. The videos in the first observation phase (see Part 1) had shown that these behaviors often preceded the unwanted behavior of digging/biting the floor. So in phase 2, whenever I caught Hadley stretching and/or rolling on the couch/ground, I reinforced him by means of calmly walking over, talking to him in a calm voice and petting.

Let us take a closer look at DRL, since reinforcing part of a problematic behavior – even though at a lower right – might seem counterintuitive at first sight. What’s its purpose? DRL procedures are useful for behaviors that are generally acceptable, but occur too often or in an exaggerated form. In Hadley’s case, rolling on the ground and stretching are perfectly acceptable dog behaviors. However, what they tend to turn into in Hadley’s case (floor digging/biting) is an unwanted behavior. By means of reinforcing lower rates or intensities of an unwanted behavior, we avoid the need for punishment: when I pet Hadley, who is rolling on his back, he half-closes his eyes and his muscles relax in response to my belly rubs. If I did not walk over and reinforce this lower-intensity behavior, he might start floor digging/biting, which would result in me leaving the room, i.e. negative punishment. DRL procedures, then, are an effective means of working with certain kinds of unwanted behaviors and an alternative for punishment. (1)

The P- column (P- = negative punishment) refers to the number of times I left the room as a consequence to Hadley’s floor digging/biting in the respective interval. Since we had established that the unwanted behavior was being maintained by attention, leaving the room turned out to be an effective means of negative punishment. My videos show that Hadley immediately stopped floor digging/biting whenever I left the room.

Check out the video above for an example.

Table “Unwanted Behavior”:

Whenever the unwanted behavior (floor digging/biting) occurred during the observation period, I also made a note in this table. As you can see from the left column, it occurred a total of 7 times in the 3-day period.

The Date, Time column specifies the exact date and time the unwanted behavior occurred.

Die “P- successful?” column shows if my leaving the room interrupted the unwanted behavior. In all 6 cases I recorded, the unwanted behavior stopped immediately. Instance #2 has a question mark because the camera crashed and I could not review the video.

Table “Alone Condition”:

On each of the three days, I also tested Hadley’s behavior in an alone condition of about an hour (30.11. – morning, 1.12. – night, 2.12. – noon). I filmed Hadley while I and the other dogs were out. Never did floor digging/biting occur in the alone condition, which further confirms the hypothesis that the unwanted behavior is reinforced by attention.

Nicole made a graph from the data I collected:

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 16.14.43

What’s next?

On December 3rd, I had another phone consult with Nicole to look at what had happened during the last days, and see where we should go from here. We agreed that our hypothesis had been confirmed and that I should keep doing what I had been doing in the last three days, with some minor modifications:

DRA: I will keep up my DRA routine, but start not only reinforcing with eye contact and a calm voice, but also petting in slow, long strokes. For the time being, I’ve set my timer to 15-minute intervals, which I am planning on keeping up for the next weeks.

DRI: I will keep continuously reinforcing the incompatible behaviors of sitting or standing in front of me, making eye contact, with a cheerful voice and petting. For the time being, I will keep up a continuous schedule, but in about 3 weeks, I might start intermediately reinforcing instead. Once these incompatible are well established, they will be further strengthened and made resistant to extinction by means of an intermittent schedule.

DRL: I will keep reinforcing lower intensity behavior, i.e. Hadley’s stretching/rolling on the ground/couch with petting and calmly talking to him. For the time being, I will keep reinforcing continuously; in about three weeks, I might introduce an intermittent schedule of reinforcement for this behavior.

P-: Whenever Hadley bites/digs the floor, I will keep doing what I’ve been doing and leave the room for 10 seconds.

I will keep taking notes and see what happens. Stay tuned for Part 3 of the potentially obsessive floor digging riddle!

Further ponderings: Holy shit! Have we been looking at stereotypic behaviors/OCD all wrong?

These last weeks have been most intriguing for me. In the beginning, I was worried – a lot. I did not want Tom’s puppy to develop OCD and need to be on medication for all his life, and to be constantly on the lookout for interrupting, and to … argh!!! What would his life be like? Would he be unhappy and ruled by obsessions, chasing shadows, for the rest of his life rather than living the blissfully careless life a puppy should have?

Well, then, with Nicole’s help, I made a plan and started looking at the behavior from a applied behavior analysis point of view. Things started making sense, albeit in an unexpected way: it wasn’t interrupting (i.e. attending to Hadley) that was the solution, but the very opposite: leaving the room (i.e. withdrawal of attention)!

This realization, together with the results of the study by Hall et al. (2) and the fact that a number of knowledgeable, experienced trainers recommended me to redirect (i.e. give attention) as soon as Hadley engaged in the unwanted behavior made me wonder: is there a big number of dogs out there who are on meds these days, and still suffer from occasional compulsive outbursts, simply because their well-meaning human families unknowingly reinforced their stereotypies by means of redirecting (i.e. giving them attention?), making the behavior not better, but worse and worse over time? It wouldn’t be very surprising if this was the case: my first intuition had also been to interrupt what worried me! It seemed like the obvious thing to do! Apart from that, most of us are predisposed to look for problems inside the animal rather than looking at environmental consequences. I’m not saying that the problem will never be inside the animal – of course, this is also possible. However, how often is “the problem inside the animal” really the case, and not simply a convenient interpretation? We can only profit of developing the habit to take a good look at the antecedents and consequences of an unwanted behavior and making sure we’re not strengthening a problem behavior with a seemingly commonsensical approach.

The good thing: I’ve learned a lot in the last weeks, and my wish to study behavior has once more been strengthened. I’d really like to learn more about applied behavior analysis and its implications for dog training! Well, I guess I’ll just have to keep saving up for the program of my choice. 🙂


Read the other parts of the floor-digging series:

Part 1: https://chrissisdogtraining.com/the-potentially-obsessive-floor-digging-riddle/

Part 2: https://chrissisdogtraining.com/the-potentially-obsessive-floor-digging-riddle-part-2/

Part 3: https://chrissisdogtraining.com/the-potentially-obsessive-floor-digging-riddle-part-3/

Part 4: https://chrissisdogtraining.com/the-potentially-obsessive-floor-digging-riddle-part-4/

Part 5: https://chrissisdogtraining.com/the-potentially-obsessive-floor-digging-riddle-part-5/



(1) See Chance, Paul. Learning and Behavior. Fifth edition. Belmont: Wadsworth 2003. S. 211f and 356f.

(2) Hall, N.J., Protopopova, A., & Wynne, C.D.L. (2015). The role of environmental and owner-provided consequences in canine stereotypy and compulsive behavior. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 10, pp. 24-35.