Co-Parenting is hard! Part 2

What’s next? Tom and Hadley are becoming more and more of a team. Twice a week, they’re attending adolescent dog class, and I think they are having fun together. They’re also trying out new things and had their first mantrailing session the other day. Hadley likes using his nose, so Tom thought this might be something for the two of them. Furthermore, Tom has started playing with the thought of actually giving herding a shot. This might be very exciting for the little rascal, since he’s been trying to herd birds for a while, and both his parents are working sheep. I also know that his brother, who is still with the breeder, is showing good herding potential. So chances are Hadley will have fun with sheep as well.


As Tom got more involved, I stepped back and resumed the role that was originally supposed to be mine: Hadley’s dog-sitter while Tom is at work. Since I mostly work from home, Hadley gets to hang out with Phoebe and Fanta and me and joins us on our long afternoon walks and hikes. Due to The Adolescence sending his recall out the window, Hadley has lost his off-leash privileges with me and goes for walks on a 10-meter-leash unless we’re in a safely enclosed area. And that’s it – no more training for Chrissi.


It has been really hard to step back, because I had been quite involved in the beginning. I have seen how fast Hadley learns by shaping, how fun he is to work with (for example, he’s less body pressure sensitive than Phoebe and getting him to heel nice and close is so easy; I love it! He’d be great for precision obedience work!). I also love how gentle he is – it’s easier to channel his energy into drive rather than frantics than it is with Phoebe. Yep, I miss having a BC pup to train! Even now that he’s turning into an adolescent brat who conveniently forgets what a recall is, I’m chomping at the bit to take on the challenge and work through this difficult time in a growing dog’s life. But – no. It’s Tom’s job now, and that’s good.


Clearly defining our roles has definitely been good for our relationship, and for Tom’s and Hadley’s relationship as well. Tom’s approach to many things is different from mine, and while it’s sometimes hard to step back and trust that he and Hadley will find their own way, I think I’m slowly getting better at it. I also think that giving your partner the freedom to do things their own way is a healthy skill to have – so this is a good learning opportunity for me.


It’s interesting – different couples develop different startegies for dealing with multiple dog households without driving each other crazy. I’ve met people who fight about the right training method all the time, people who share one philosophie and train all their dogs together, people who strictly separate between “your dog” and “my dog”, people where one person is in charge and the other one follows their instructions, and people who’ve defined separate jobs related to the same dog (e.g. one person does obedience and the other person herding, or one person does anything related to training, and the other person takes the dogs running and mountainbiking and feeds them dinner). Tom and I have tried a few methods, and for now, the “your dogs” vs. “my dogs” approach seems to be working best for us. I’m responsible for Phoebe and Fanta, and Tom is responsible for Hadley. We don’t get into each others’ way (well, it’s mostly me learning how not to get into Tom’s way), but, of course, still stick together and help each other out when needed.


However, from seeing Hadley grow up and getting to do lots of the early socialization work, I now know for sure that I love BCs as a breed, and that I want another puppy of my own to train. I want a competition obedience dog, a performance puppy. And I want a herding breed. Not necessarily a BC, but definitely a herding breed. Not right now, no. But next fall, when Tom and I are getting a bigger place, there should be space for a new pup. So … ūüėČ

Read Part 1 of Co-Parenting is hard.

The Potentially Obsessive Floor-Digging Riddle, Part 5

Life is full of surprises! As you might remember, we had first intervened with negative punishment (removal of attention) whenever Hadley started digging the floor. In the beginning, this strategy seemed to be successful. It looked like our hypothesis (The unwanted behavior is being being reinforced by owner attention) was valid! However, after a while, the number of floor digging/biting incidents increased, and our leaving of the room ceased to be effective. While it had originally interrupted the behavior, Hadley would now continue to dig and bite the floor even after we had left.

Nicole and I decided that, since our current intervention was obviously not working, we would try something different – we would interrupt and redirect whenever the behavior occured. We would continue to meticulously note down any instances of the OCD behavior occurring, and see if this brought a change. If after about four weeks, the rate and intensity of behavior hadn’t significantly decreased, we would look into psychopharmalogical treatment.

Well, before we could start this new intervention, Tom and I were going on vacation for almost 3 weeks. Hadley got to stay with my dad while we travelled to California and Hawaii. My dad is a dog person who hasn’t had a dog for a few years, so he was very happy to take care of the little rascal. He’s retired, lives in rural Austria, has a huge fenced yard including a brook and a pond, meadows and shrubbery and trees, birds and smells etc … A puppy¬†paradise at his doorstep. Having suffered from dog withdrawal, dad went above and beyond in keeping Hadley happy and busy. He got to roam the yard at home, and go on long nature hikes in the surrounding meadows, forests and fields¬†every day. And in between, dad trained Hadley to do all sorts of things – he worked on looking for and retrieving toys from out-of-sight places, and various obedience exercises – heeling, staying … Hadley was a busy pup alright!

When Hadley stays with us in Vienna, he gets to do a bit less – I’d love to do that much with him, but I don’t because Hadley is Tom’s dog (and co-parenting is hard). Tom has been working with him, but not to the extent I would or my dad did.

Now, the interesting thing: in the 3ish weeks that Hadley spent with my dad, the floor digging/biting behavior only happened twice. (My dad left the room both times, as we had instructed him to do – we wanted to begin the new intervention after we were back.)

After our vacation, I picked Hadley up and learned about what he and my dad had been up to, and how Hadley hadn’t had many fits of stereotypical behavior. The 2 conclusions I jumped to were:

1. either Hadley had indeed needed more mental and physical stimulation, and had finally gotten enough at my dad’s place so he didn’t need to engage in stereotypical behaviors anymore. OR

2. my dad had done so much with him and had let him enjoy chasing birds in the yard to such an extent that Hadley, whenever he went into the house, was just so exhausted that he pretty much passed out rather than having energy left to engage in any floor digging/biting.

In either case, I expected the behavior to return once we were back in Vienna and had settled into our old rhythm Рunless from now on, Hadley received the same amount of mentally and physically stimulating activities as he had received with my dad.

Interestingly (and luckily!), I was wrong. Hadley’s stereotypical¬†behaviors did not return. We have been back for 4 weeks now, and like in the three weeks that Hadley stayed with my parents, the behavior has only flared up 3 times since then. We interrupted Hadley each time, and he stopped. Hadley’s rhythm is back to normal, but without the floor digging/biting!

Why did Hadley spontaneously improve?

I have no idea!¬†Maybe it had to do with brain development – maybe the wiring of Hadley’s adolescent brain, various hormon levels etc. simply changed away from an OCD tendency and to a more stable temperament? I don’t know if this is even possible – are there any scientists among my readers who might know? Hadley was born on July 1, 2015, so he’s 7.5 months old by now – an age where doggy brains get rewired a lot, and lots of physical and mental things change, just like in a human teenager.

Does it matter why Hadley got better? Not really. We’re just glad that he did! I’m thankful to the FDSA community for sharing your own¬†experiences with OCD behaviors in your dogs, and sending us good thoughts! And I’m very glad for getting to consult Nicole Pfaller-Sadovsky, who spent many hours thinking through possible interventions with me. Last but not least, a big thank you also goes to¬†Loretta Mueller, who looked into the OCD background and researched Hadley’s lines for genetic predispositions. (She didn’t find any OCD cases among Hadley’s ancestors.) Let’s hope that this post concludes Hadley’s floor digging diaries, and that there will be nothing else to report!

Read Parts 1 to 4 in the Potentially Obsessive Floor-Digging Series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

What Fanta and Phoebe have been up to …

While Hadley has battled his OCD and enjoyed his first bouts of adolescence, the others haven’t been lazy, either.


finally got to perform her Advanced Trick Dog Certificate tricks for an audience, and is ready to hand in the video we’ve done a while ago:

After a long break, we went to Nicole for a dummy training session again. Since the retrieve in highly exciting environments is Phoebe’s nemesis, we started working in Nicole’s office, and soon had her carry the dummy across the room. Yey for Phoebe! Here’s few little dummy games we played outside my house the other day:

Phoebe and I have been taking Advanced Shaping at Gold at the FDSA. Deb Jones’ and Judy Keller’s classes are great as usual. We’ve worked on retrieving a beer can from the fridge, riding the skateboard with 3 or 4 paws on it, resting her chin on the ground when lying down, automatic sits in heel position, and closer & straighter fronts with the help of a double chin target, and isolating the lifting of a single paw. It’s been challenging and fun. I particularly like that the class is individualized to such an extent that students from a high variety of skill levels are getting a lot out of it. It’s been a lot of fun!

Phoebe and I made a deal with Angelika that we can come to her morning beginner classes and do our own thing there – which is wonderful. I like training under distractions, but I like to do it my own way. We’re also going to start 1-on-1 agility lessons with Angelika once Tom and I are back from the US.

The last thing is not as nice a memory. Phoebe was neutered this week. She is still recovering and not back to her usual lively, vivid self. Unfortunately, she and I did not get to enjoy the first real snow together this year because she’s not allowed to run and jump, and neither does she want to. Get well soon, my girl!


The last year has been Fanta’s best year so far. High quality food, lots of exercise and walks on every kind of terrain, and Dogosan¬†for his joints brought him to a point where he enjoys running to a degree he never did before. He’s cheerful on walks these days, especially walks in the snow! He’s not slipping or falling when running on uneven surfaces anymore, and sprinting does not cause him to limp. The retired Irish racer has become a wonderful, happy pet Greyhound. I think he’s ready for us to try some lure coursing sometime – I’m looking into it right now.

Fanta being happy in the snow:


And me?

I’ve been working with an incredibly cute Lab-Dachshundmix Lilly on her reactivity to skateboards and bikes, and got a few referrals from a vet friend of mine, Cathy, and also from Helene. I’m particularly excited about accompanying a young family with their first dog, a Lagotto puppy, from the beginning onwards. Getting referrals is the best thing – it makes me feel proud and happy, because people who know me are recommending me. Thank you for trusting me!

I took the Tierschutzqualifizierte Hundetrainer exam in November. This is a certification available to Austrian dog trainers that seeks to ensure high-quality, scientifically valid, humane training methods. Since there are no legal requirements to opening a dog training business in Austria, I think it is a great idea to have an exam like this and spread awareness.


Last but not least, I started writing for Your Dog magazine. My first article was published in the January/February edition and is about the History and Development of dog training. You can read the entire article here (German).

In non-dog-related news, Tom and I will be going to the US next week. Apart from meeting Tom’s family, I’ll get to spend lots of time with two of my favorite people: Gretchen and Denise. I can’t wait to hang out with them in L.A.! Fanta and Phoebe will be well taken care of by Tini and her Golden Nayeli, who is Phoebe’s best girlfriend. Hadley will be staying with my parents and enjoy having his very own gigantic yard.

The Little Rascal Files 7 – Adolescence, Shopping, and Progress with Dogs

Adolescence, also known as Your Puppy’s Brilliant Brain Is Out Of Order, has been starting: at five months and one week, Hadley’s energy level and stamina have increased, his recall is occasionally failing, on the first hundred meters of our walks, all leash manners are forgotten, his relaxed crate behavior is diminishing, and he has been experimenting a little with attention barking. Oh, isn’t it nice: our little boy is growing up!


So puppy innocence and the time I tried hard to protect him from things that are too much is officially over. Let the games begin!


On December 1st, we started Performance Fundamentals over at the FDSA, and in week 1 alone, Hadley and I had a ton of fun (all filmed inside because it was a mostly rainy week):



This week, we’re working on shaping a go-to mat behavior and offered focus. The go to mat is great fun for the boy – he’s flinging himself right back onto it whenever released.


I’ve also started to take him on regular longer walks so he gets his zoomies out, and I’m currently reading Denise Fenzi’s Play! book and working on tug games – Hadley’s gotten his very first special tug toy that only comes out when I play with him. I want to build play as a powerful reinforcer that can be used in training in addition to food. Unlike with Phoebe, who is a natural player, Hadley has to be taught that playing with humans and toys is fun.


With Tom’s permission to also do The Fun Stuff with Hadley, not just work on his basic manners and behavioral construction sites, I didn’t only bring him into his first FDSA class, but will also be taking him to Schneeberg for Phoebe’s and my next dummy training on November 28th! ūüôā So he’s getting a hobby, finally! I also really want to do some agility foundations, but will yet have to decide whether to work on it myself via online instruction or with the help of a local trainer. Also, I’ve yet to ask Tom whether he’d let me play agility with Hadley, or whether that’s something he wants to do himself, or doesn’t want Hadley to do at all. In either case, I think the boy and I would have a lot of fun with body awareness and obstacles.


Yesterday, we went shopping and I took this opportunity to take Hadley to the pet supply store. He did very well at Megazoo, a big pet supply store in Vienna. He enjoyed checking out all the smells, picked out a deer antler for himself, got a new harness (neon green reflecting Hurtta, as befits a young man of world!), and we played LAT with a French Bulldog.


Afterwards, I took him to an off-leash dog area for the first time with Phoebe and Fanta. (It’s not a traditional dog park, since it isn’t fenced, and we went in the morning – a time where most people are at work and don’t walk their dogs. So it was the perfect time to test out whether my off-leash dog encounter training has paid off. Hadley did GREAT. He met several dogs, communicated his good intentions extremely well and clearly, and got to play with three of the dogs. I’m really proud of him – off-leash doggy encounters are starting to be fun!

As for on-leash encounters, I’m planning to set aside a little training time specifically for this every few days from now on. Yes, we’re playing LAT and curving, which works well for Hadley, but the distance he requires to be okay with strange dogs is still comparatively big. I would like to graduate to peaceful encounters on the same side of the street sooner rather than later.


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 Рa 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. ūüôā


Read the other parts of the floor-digging series:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

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.

What Should a Puppy Learn in His First Year?

Well, what should a puppy learn in his first year? You’ll probably get as many answers as you ask trainers and handlers, and there is no single right answer to this question. With every new puppy I meet, my own philosophy gets further refined, and as science discovers new truths about the development of animals, my ideas change, sometimes subtly, and sometimes radically. Let me share the puppy and young dog training answer I’d give you today.

Nayeli Phoebe Puppy

I believe that every dog is an individual, and the amount of exercise and action needed on the one, and relaxation needed on the other hand varies from dog to dog. I also believe there are general things that are true for most puppies of a certain breed, and there are other things that are true for most puppies of any breed whatsoever – and there are also things that differ from dog to dog, from one individual to the next. The things I’m going to focus on today are the ones that I consider important for every puppy and young dog, no matter whether big or small, working or toy group.


The first level – a foundation for behavioral health.


  1. A dog should learn to be comfortable just “being in the world”.

1A. Being confident and curious around people (adults, children, quiet ones, running ones, people on bikes, skateboards etc.), and not startled by their touch.

1B. Being confident and curious around other dogs (off-leash and on-leash, big ones and small ones, calm ones and active ones etc.)

1C. Being able to relax at home even when not tired and exhausted.

1D. Being able to relax out in the world even when not tired and exhausted.


  1. A dog should learn to be comfortable in his own skin.


These are the two single most important skills – everything else, in my opinion, is secondary. Everything else (from basic pet dog manners to dog sports skills) can be taught to adult dogs as well as to puppies. However, being comfortable and confident “just living” is something that should be taught during puppyhood – the longer you wait to socialize your dog, for example, the harder it will get.


The second level Рgreater life quality for the human & greater freedom for the dog.


The next important level increases the life quality for the human part of the team by means of making her dog easier to handle and an eager partner in crime, and the amount of freedom her four-legged partner can be allowed in a safe way: the more reliable your dog, the greater his freedom.


  1. A dog should learn how to learn, and that learning is fun.
  2. A dog should learn basic everyday skills:

4A. Peeing outside.

4B. Staying home alone.

4C. Walking on a loose leash.

4D. Coming when called.

4E. An appropriate way to greet people.

4F. An appropriate way to ask for attention.

4G. Riding the subway/wearing a muzzle/settling under a restaurant table/relaxing in a box if you’re planning to travel etc.

  1. A dog should learn things related to the kind of husbandry he will have to experience on a regular basis. (Brushing, clipping, trimming, cutting nails, getting a bath etc.)



The third level – foundations for sports and work.


Then there is nothing for a really long time, and then we come to the specific skills you expect of your dog. These can, but don’t have to be started in the first year. If you start them later – no worries. Even adult dogs can learn to excel at them. If you have a scared or anxious puppy, don’t worry about these skills at all, but spend 90% of your training time on points 1 and 2, and 10% on points 3 to 5. However, if you have a confident, happy-go-lucky puppy, now is a good time to lay the foundations for the future:


If you want to do any kind of performance work, you’ll want to build numerous reinforcers (food, toys, personal play etc.)

If you want to do any kind of performance work, you’ll work on building value for attention and motivation to work with you in distracting environments.

If you want to do agility, you may want to work on general body awareness and rear-end awareness in particular.

If you want to do pet therapy work, you might place an extra strong focus on enriched environments and introducing your dog to small kids, people on crutches, wheelchairs etc.

If you want to do obedience, you’ll make sure to not only teach a rockback pet dog sit, but a separate clean tuck sit, not only a relaxed hip-bent down, but also a sphinx down with a separate cue etc. from the very start.


Things handlers should learn in the first year with their dog.


  1. General canine needs – how much sleep, how much exercise, how much mental stimulation do dogs in general and your breed in particular tend to need?
  2. Get to know your dog as an individual: what does he like? What doesn’t he like? What games does he enjoy, what’s his favorite food, what’s his favorite sleeping spot, his favorite spot to be petted?
  3. Read your dog well in specific situations to predict and avoid stressful situations before they escalate. What does it mean if his body stiffens? If he wags slowly/fast? If he pricks his ears? What kinds of noises does he make, and what do they mean? etc.
  4. How to train animals in a scientifically and ethically sound, force-free way.


… This is it for the handler, in my mind – and believe me, this is a lot for first-time dog owners – and even for experienced ones!


I’m looking forward to reading about your experiences in the comments – what has worked for you in your puppy’s first year, and what hasn’t worked? I also hope to find some time to post videos about Hadley’s first months and the skills he acquired in those days in the next days/weeks. I’ve taken what feels like a gadzillion videos, but haven’t found the time to edit, upload and share them yet!

The Little Rascal Files 4 – Dogs

Wow – time really does fly. So much has happened since the last time I found a moment to sit down and write a blog post. Where do I begin?

The little rascal has been a pretty easy puppy to take care of. He’s been spending lots of time with me when Tom is at work, and I couldn’t help comparing him to Phoebe. In most regards, Hadley has been less of a challenge than Phoebe when she was his age. Phoebe was an extremely high-energy puppy, and she was very mouthy. Hadley has mostly been relaxed and friendly.

There is, however, one thing that concerns me: Hadley is a rather wary puppy, particularly when it comes to strange dogs. From day 1 onwards, he has been alarmed by strange dogs, even the ones that were 1.5 blocks away. I am worried about this because Hadley spent his puppyhood among all kinds of different dogs – his breeder has more than 10 Border Collies, Norwegian Lundehunds, and a Beauceron. To my knowledge, Hadley has only had good experiences with her dogs. In theory, these positive early socialization experiences should have turned him into a dog who approaches new dogs with curiosity and confidence. However, this is not the kind of puppy he turned out to be: initially, he would avoid other dogs whenever possible, froze/stared and eventually barked when avoidance was not possible, and tried to hide/flee if they came too close. He also took a comparatively long time (read: several meetings over the course of several days) to warm up to new dogs. However, once he considered a dog a friend, he’d play with her like any other happy puppy.

After consulting with friends and colleagues and debating how best to handle a dog-sensitive Border puppy, I came up with the following plan, which I’ve been working on since Hadley has moved in:

Part A – socialization

introduce Hadley to my friends’ friendly adult dogs in various short sessions. Always put up a portable crate and/or familiar blanket for him to retreat to, and make sure the other dogs respect his safety zone. Let him watch and decide for himself whether and when he is ready to initiate interaction. Never force contact. Never overwhelm or flood him.

My idea was that I would provide Hadley with a number of distinctly positive experiences that lead to dog-dog friendships, rather than create lots of neutral dog-dog experiences. I hoped that the more dogs he got to know and make friends with, the easier it would be for him to be around new dogs in the future, and that eventually, he would start considering strange dogs to be interesting rather than scary.

Part B – management and alternative behavior

I would also work on Leslie McDevitt’s Look at That game (LAT). That is to say, I would teach Hadley to earn clicks and treats by means of looking at strange dogs from a distance: I wanted him to start seeing strange dogs as cookie-vending machines rather than potential threats. “Dad, mum, there’s a dog, did you see it? Look, it’s over there! Where’s my cookie?”

LAT makes use of both classical and operant conditioning. One the one hand, a potentially scary stimulus is repeatedly paired with a strong reinforcer (tasty treats), which changes the emotional response to the stimulus. On the other hand, the dog is being empowered as he learns that he can use dogs he spots on the street to make a treat happen. All he has to do is point them out to his humans with a movement of his head.

If strange dogs were too close, I would retreat by means of putting a barrier between ourselves and the trigger, changing sides or doing a U turn.

Part A has been going well. Apart from my own two dogs, I’ve strategically introduced Hadley to 12 dogs by now; some male, some female, some neutered, some intact, some small, some large:

1 Border Collie
4 Miniature Pinschers
1 Irish Setter
1 Golden Retriever
1 American Staffordshire Terrier X
1 Akita mix
1 Sheltie X GSD
1 small Terrier X
1 Dalmatian

He has met all of them several times in safe, short sessions, and made friends with all of them. The first few outings, he would just sit in his safe space and observe from a distance until we went home again. I did not try to convince him to come out, but focused on making sure he felt safe. Apart from that, I did not distract him with food, but let him choose what to do – stay in his safe spot and observe, walk away and do his own thing, or initiate contact with the new dogs. Helene, a friend who shares her life with 7 wonderful dogs, has been a huge help with this. (Thank you, Helene, Xandro, Wasti, Arkani, Schoko, Hexi and Guinness!)

Helene lives just around the corner. So we would meet up at a meadow close by. I would get there first and set up Hadley’s safety zone: a pop-up crate and a blanket in front of it. He could choose to hide in the crate, sit on the familiar blanket, or come all the way out on the meadow. I took one of my own dogs with me so Hadley could see that they were not afraid of the new dog we introduced him to. If he wanted, Hadley could take the crate’s side exit and go explore the forest and shrubbery rather than engaging with the other dogs, who did their own thing out in the field.

The first two times, Helene brought Border Collie Xandro and Miniature Pinscher Wasti, and I brought Fanta and Hadley. Helene and I spent twenty minutes sitting on the blanket and chatting. Hadley stayed in the crate or on the blanket with us, but did not approach either of her dogs. This was okay. It was his choice. After twenty minutes, we left and Hadley went back to sleep at home to sleep off his adventures and maybe do some latent learning.

The third time, Hadley approached Wasti with a cautious wag … and started following him around at a distance. Whenever Wasti turned around, Hadley would hurry back to his safety zone, but soon after, his curiosity took over and he followed Wasti again. He did, however, still keep his distance from Xandro.

The fourth time, Hadley was happy to see Wasti and followed him around more, even if it meant moving further away from his safety zone. His overall confidence had clearly grown, and he even sniffed Xandro’s tail a few times – of course, when Xandro turned to face him, he would retreat like he used to do with Wasti. But from behind, the Border Collie had stopped looking all that scary.

We did numerous sessions like that. Once Hadley had grown comfortable with one dog, we’d introduce another one. The last time Helene and I met, we didn’t need a blanket or crate anymore, and were able to take all 9 dogs for a walk together. Hadley had fun from beginning to end. He mostly played with Phoebe, but did not mind running ahead with her, getting close to Helene’s dogs, and quickly bounced back the two times he didn’t respect Schoko’s personal space and got a reprimand by his new auntie. I’d call this a BIG success – thank you very much for your help, Helene, and a big thank you to your patient, friendly dogs who have already been a big help in raising Hadley!

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Hadley is having a good time during a 9-dog outing with Phoebe, Fanta, Xandro, Guinness, Wasti, Arkani, Hexi and Schoko.

Another dog who has been immensely helpful is Olivia, the dog who’s mum runs our local pharmacy. Olivia is a friendly and very patient Dalmatian. We’ve been visiting her several times in the course of the last weeks. At first, we kept Olivia in a back room behind a baby gate, while Hadley could look at her from the far end of the adjoining room. He could choose to walk closer or leave, to just observe Olivia who slowly wagged her tail and looked sideways, or to engage with the pharmacy personnel who were happy to greet him and let him lick their faces. (Meeting people is something that has always made Hadley happy.) The second time we went, Hadley chose to approach the gate and cautiously greet Olivia and lick her lips. The third time, he was able to meet her without a gate, and was happy to dance around her and explore her space. Olivia, the patient girl, gave him all the freedom in the world and happily took my thank-you treats.

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Hadley and Olivia – first time without being separated by a baby gate.

Phoebe’s best girlfriend, the Golden Nayeli, has had a very easy time when it came to making friends with Hadley. She and her mum visited us at home and spent an afternoon with us. In his own home, where he feels most confident, and able to watch Phoebe and Nayeli play, Hadley quickly decided that he wanted to join in the fun – and that’s what he did. Thank you, Tini, for helping Hadley make a new friend! Nayeli has already been a great aunt for Phoebe when she was little, and now she’s doing the same thing for Hadley. It takes a village, doesn’t it?

Various other helpers later, Hadley has made great progress! By now, he will cautiously approach new dogs with a wag after only 1 or 2 minutes of observing from a save distance.

However, his initial response is still fear, and unless I carefully set up these situations and manage the initial distance, he will default to freeze/stare or hide/flee.

It was interesting to visit his breeder two weeks ago. His mom, dad and brother were there. Tom let Hadley out of the car. Hadley saw his father and immediately hid under the car. His father lowered his head to look at Hadley, and there was a lightbulb moment of recognition – as soon as he recognized the Border Collie in front of him, Hadley was ready to approach and happily greet his dad. Or at least, that’s what it looked like to me. It’s not that Hadley is afraid of his father – but until he recognized him, he wanted to hide.

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Hadley, his parents and his brother Horace got to have a little family reunion when we visited the breeder.

What does this mean? Does he have a genetic predisposition to being on the fearful side? His breeder remarked a while ago, when I commented on Hadley being cautious, that he had always been “the most sensitive of the litter”. Is sensitive a euphemism for something else? I don’t know. And in the end, it does not matter. No matter where a certain behavior stems from, the laws of behavior always apply. And these laws are the foundation of all training. Also,¬†no matter who Hadley was yesterday, is today, or will be tomorrow, the one thing that will always be true is that he’s the world’s most wonderful puppy, and the most perfect dog Tom¬†could have adopted ūüôā

But back to Hadley’s dog issues:

Part B has also been going well. I’m always armed with clicker and treats anyway, so I’ve been playing LAT with all the random dogs we met on walks. I like how having an objective (teach Hadley that the LAT game is fun!) changes my attitude towards dog encounters: it makes me happy whenever I see a dog in the distance rather than annoyed that I have to change sides or do¬†a U turn. This always happens when I play LAT with a new dog – Pirate and I also had a lot of fun whenever we went out trigger hunting and LAT adventuring. It became one of our favorite bonding games.

As for Hadley, he is becoming an LAT expert. I’ve started naming the behavior, and the distance we can play at has shrunk. We can now play with (calm) dogs on the other side of the street rather than 1.5 blocks away, and after only a few Look-s, Hadley will now switch to offering a different behavior (usually prolonged eye contact or sit). Definitely a success worth celebrating!

Tom and Hadley also participated in my recall workshop the other day. Hadley had to keep a bit of a distance at first, but soon was able to comfortably work near the other dogs, and was happy to play with them after class. He’s a very brave little puppy!

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Tom and Hadley testing the quality of treats. Even though the other participating dogs are nearby, Hadley can relax and concentrate on his task.

The nice thing about writing these things down is that it makes me see the progress. When I don’t keep notes, it’s easy to miss out on the tiny little steps of progress I’ve been making every day or every session. It’s like watching a kid (or a puppy) grow up: you see them every day, and you don’t notice how they get bigger – unless every once in a while, you ask them to stand with their back to a door frame and draw a line where their head is. Taking training notes is like drawing lines on a door frame. It helps me¬†see change.

I’ve made another observation that makes it clearer what often happens to clients who have reactive dogs: when I’m out with Hadley in our neighborhood, we hardly ever have an incident. I’m always ready to change sides, make a U-turn, play LAT … Tom and Hadley, on the other hand, still have those encounters where Hadley starts barking or freezes for a moment or two. That means Hadley still practices reactivity.

I’ve been thinking about why this happens to Hadley and Tom rather than Hadley and me, and come up with the following list of reasons. I think being aware of these might help me better coach clients with reactive dogs:

– Until we’ve trained our eyes and brain to selectively focus on dogs in our environment, we tend to see them too late (aka after our dog has already seen them).
– Until we’ve fine-tuned our observation skills to read the fine print in a dog’s body language, we tend to notice fear only when it is obvious – i.e. when our dog is about to react or has already started reacting.
– Unless we have experienced fear ourselves, or really taken an interest in how it works, it is not obvious to us that a puppy’s dog reactivity is a reason to worry in the first place. We tend to assume it’s just a phase he’ll grow out of, or that it will go away with random exposure to dogs, or that a dog is still capable of learning when in fight-or-flight mode.
– Unless we have experienced fear ourselves, or really taken an interest in how it works, it is not obvious to us that aversives are not a constructive solution for reactivity.
– We tend to forget that dogs learn all the time, not only¬†in the training sessions we specify: we’re likely to forget clicker and treats when we take our dogs out to potty rather than setting up for a training session.
– Putting our dog’s safety and comfort level first, even if it means ignoring/stopping/avoiding/standing up to friendly strangers (and their dogs) is an attitude we have to consciously adopt, and to practice.

I wonder how I can make these pieces of the puzzle more accessible to my clients to get them to this point sooner rather than later. I want to minimize their frustration and maximize the quality of their and their dog’s walk. The more “mistakes” happen, the longer it will take for a reactive dog to get over his fears. The longer it takes for our reactive dog, the longer we will have to actively work on his issues, and the longer it will be until being out and about with our canine companion will be the walk in the park¬†will be the uncomplicated, fun activity we’ve been looking forward to.

Of course, this is not to say that Hadley and I don’t run into problems on our walks, too. Walking a reactive dog is hard. It requires both background knowledge, concentration, the desire to be our dog’s advocates, and a number of skills we need to practice: observation skills, timing of the click, and speed (as little time as possible should pass between click and reward). We need to prepare before we go out (clicker, treats, mindset), and keep in mind that like children, our dogs learn every minute – not just when we want to train. Walking a reactive dog is not a walk in the park, it requires your full attention. At least for me, it still requires my full attention. When I don’t pay attention, I often¬†run in a situation I become aware of too late. While¬†walking around my neighborhood has been categorized by playing LAT and hardly any reactive incidents for me, going new places is harder because I don’t know when and where to expect the next strange dog. The other day, Hadley and I were hanging out at a park. He was on leash, and since it was a sunny Sunday and a number of people were out walking their dogs, I¬†ceased the opportunity to play LAT from a safe distance near my car, always ready to retreat behind it, should it be necessary to get another barrier between us and a strange dog. After a while, a woman with her French Bulldog on a flexi lead passed us. Hadley was off the road at a little distance, and on a short leash. It should have been pretty obvious that I was interacting with/training my dog rather than seeking social encounters. The Bulldog came closer, and the woman let it run on the flexi … I politely asked her to stop her dog from coming closer, since my dog was afraid. But what did she do? Let the Bulldog¬†keep running towards us rather than stopping her flexi, telling me, “Well, he has to get used to other dogs at some point, doesn’t he?”

Hadley barked before I had a chance to retreat behind the car.¬†Encounters like this really annoy me. It’s NOT up to you, stranger, to decide when, how and what dogs my dogs are meeting up close. And it is never okay to let your dog run up to a dog on leash without asking. Dogs are on leash for a reason: maybe my dog is scared, or maybe he’s on a leash in order to keep your dog safe from his teeth, or maybe he has flees that I don’t want him to pass on to yours! ALWAYS ask before letting your dog great a strange dog on leash.

Anyways – time to post this update, which is, in fact, already a few weeks old – I just¬†haven’t found the time to finish it yet.

The Little Rascal Files 1: Meet Hadley!

The four-legged family is going to grow! Tom is getting his Border Collie puppy this weekend. I’m excited: I get to help train little Hadley, and I get to cuddle him, and look after him sometimes … Tom, on the other hand, is the one who will take him out when he needs to pee in the middle of the night, and clean up after him if he has an accident in the house. Now if that’s not the perfect deal, I don’t know what is ūüėČ

Hadley will be loved and well cared for, and he’ll grow up to be the most well-socialized, happy, friendly canine citizen he is capable of being. <3 I’m excited! And I love being with a dog person ūüôā

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Marie, Hadley’s Breeder, took a pick-up day picture of all the puppies and their new families. This is Hadley’s picture. He is 9 weeks and 4 days old.


Simone Fasel workshops

Phoebe and I spent the weekend with Simone Fasel, who taught two workshop days on “Keep Calm!” (Saturday) and “Advanced Clicker Training” (Sunday) at Nicole’s training facility in beautiful Puchberg.

It was two nice and inspiring, relaxed days.  I was looking forward to working Phoebe in a supportive group environment.


Keep Calm

Keep Calm was about teaching high-strung dogs to relax. Phoebe can get quite over-aroused when there are toys, high-value treats and clickers present. She would happily work for cardboard, sometimes gets so excited that she can’t think straight and you have to count your fingers after feeding a treat, and she has a hard time taking breaks once she’s in the training zone.

The ideas Simone presented were not new (look at that, conditioning a relaxation mat and combining it with a certain scent, teaching dogs to wait at barriers, clicking relaxed body cues, Karen Overall’s protocol for relaxation). However, she mentioned some interesting studies I hadn’t heard about that backed up these approaches, and it was helpful to get her feedback as we were working through the exercises. I also appreciated her perspective on “fake” relaxation: if I click Phoebe’s tail for wagging more and more slowly, and her hip for moving to the side, she’s doing a trick rather than actually relaxing. However, the body still responds accordingly – and this will eventually have the effect of calming her down.

It was also reassuring¬†to hear that Simone agreed with what I generally do when Phoebe needs to relax in an exciting environment: I keep my rate of reinforcement high, and only gradually lower it, setting her up for success. I have been criticised for this approach, and this is also the reason we stopped agility shortly after starting it: I clicked her for being calm whenever it wasn’t her turn, and was told to not do that but just tether her to the fence and ignore her. However, teaching Phoebe to jump into the leash and bark at the fence until it’s her turn again is the last thing I want – and this is, unfortunately, only too common in the agility community.

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Calm (and tired) doggies in the end of day 1.

Advanced Clicker Training

The advanced clicker training day was particularly inspiring. There are numerous clicker trainers I admire for their trick training skills and their approaches to shaping – and everyone is slightly different, which is the most interesting part of all. I’ve done my last shaping workshops with Sue Ailsby, Donna Hill and Deb Jones via the FDSA. I’m particularly a fan of the Sue Ailsby way, which emphasizes splitting a lot and really teaches a dog to problem-solve independently. Compared to Simone Fasel, Sue is a free shaping purist.

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Verena teaches walking figure 8-s around two cones.

Simone’s shaping sessions are even shorter than the ones of most other trainers – she recommends 5 treats per session, or 30 seconds. Also, Simone does not increase criteria within one session. If you took pictures of every iteration within one session, Simone’s pictures would¬†ideally look exactly the same.

Sue and many others (me included) train slightly longer (up to 1 or 2 minutes, or up to 30 treats), and may increase criteria within one session – first click for 1 step, then 2 steps etc. Our pictures, put together, would ideally look like the pictures in a thumb-flip book.

I don’t know if one of these methods is actually superior to the other, or if the best method to choose depends on your and your animal’s particular teaching/learning style. In either case,¬†I¬†enjoyed¬†learning about Simone’s methods and her reasons for preferring it. Her explanations always made sense or were backed up by studies.

Another intriguing difference between Simone’s method and other methods is that Simone recommends not shaping more than one behavior with one single prop until the first behavior is really strong and on cue. For example, she would not shape going around a chair, and in the next session (or even on the next day) shape crawling under the same chair. This, she argues, will lead to confusion and frustration in the animal.

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Can we please keep working? 

Sue’s approach to shaping, on the other hand, is all about watching out for changing criteria. When working with Sue, the animal learns to answer the question, “What gets reinforced right now?” – The animal even learns that the goal behavior might change within one session. Watching Sue’s dogs work this way, and other dogs (including the easily frustrated Phoebe) follow in her footsteps, I don’t agree with Simone that this is necessarily frustrating. As long as your timing is good and you keep the RoR high, it seems to be okay to change the target behavior even within one single session. However, I also see Simone’s point, and I agree that if you lump during the change of criteria, there is a big chance the animal will end up frustrated. Maybe it really is¬†a question of personal philosophy which approach you prefer? Well, that is,¬†until someone does an experimental study on which method is (A) more efficient in teaching an animal a particular behavior and (B) more effective in teaching an animal general creativity and problem-solving skills.

Another interesting thing Simone introduced was to have a different marker for food and toy rewards. So far, I’ve used the same marker and surprised the animal with the reward that was coming. Since toys are of higher value to Phoebe, I assumed that this would work in my favor – she never knew when there would be the fun toy surprise. I used to hypothesize that¬†by means of intermittently reinforcing with a toy, I’d get the strongest possible ¬†marker,¬†just like intermittent schedules of reinforcement (think: slot machine) build the strongest behaviors (think: gambling addiction).

Simone, on the other hand, says the same marker should consistently lead to the same reinforcer: when an animal is expecting reinforcer A upon hearing the click, but receives reinforcer B (which is also coveted), the reinforcer becomes weaker. Disappointing expectations, according to Simone, will always weaken your reinforcer, even if the reinforcer the animal receives is similar in value to the reinforcer she expected. This is interesting, and I’ll have to research it some more to see if I want to start differentiating between a marker announcing a treat and a marker announcing a toy.

Simone also suggested using distinct markers for active and calm behaviors. The excitement of the activity gets built into the reinforcer, and when you work on relaxation, it makes sense to use a different marker than when you work on jumps.


Explaining details about the target cup exercise.

Carina asked another interesting question about different markers. She wanted to know whether it made sense to use different markers for all of her dogs. A little while ago, I had asked the same question on the Clicker Solutions list, and was surprised to find that many people did not tend to use different markers or different clickers for different dogs. Simone definitely thinks that different markers are a good idea, because even if dog A is not paying attention to dog B being clicked – even if dog A knows it’s not her turn! -, the neural connections in dog A’s brain will still get weakened by “her” marker sounding in the background without being followed by a reinforcer.

This is particularly interesting now, since Tom gets his puppy next weekend, and I get to help train¬†him! Yey! So I need a marker for Hadley. Since Phoebe and I usually work with the iClick, Hadley will get a box clicker. Phoebe’s marker word is Yes!, and Hadley will get his own word; maybe Top!, which used to be Pirate’s marker word.

While Simone is a big fan of shaping, she is not a fan of (pure) luring which, in her opinion, mainly teaches dogs to be passive and don’t switch off their brains. It was nice to hear this; I also love shaping best – even if sometimes, luring a simple behavior would be faster than shaping it. Still, I don’t think we can generalize that luring always leads to passive dogs. Emily Larlham is a good example of someone who uses lots of luring and has very creative dogs at the same time.

Another topic that was mentioned was the importance of reducing¬†the latency between marker and reinforcer as much as possible. It is till commonly¬†assumed that the click bridges the time between behavior and primary reinforcer, eliminating the need to feed really fast. However,¬†Simone pointed out that this is not the case – you will still need to reinforce really fast. Just as you should ideally mark at the exact moment the dog performs the behavior, you should ideally deliver the treat no more than 0.5 seconds later – and you definitely shouldn’t take more than 1 second. This makes sense to me, but I’d still like to¬†further look into it – especially since the Alexandra Kurland translation I’m currently working on¬†makes an equally convincing case for something different: according to Alex, you have to promptly initiate the delivery of the reinforcer¬†after the click; however, the way you deliver the treat itself can be slow. That is to say, Alex would take a treat out of her treat pouch within those 0.5 seconds, but then take her time giving it to her horse – according to her, the knowledge¬†that the reinforcer is actually coming (hand into treat pouch) is¬†essential for keeping up the strength of the neural connections, while the¬†time between starting and finishing the treat delivery is not.

We also spent some time working on stimulus control and cue¬†discrimination. It was pretty impressive to see a dog hear the difference between “Pf√∂tli” (Swiss German for raise your paw) and “B√∂tli” (Swiss German for a small boat) – the two words sound almost the same. However, the dog only performed the behavior upon the correct cue (“Pf√∂tli”). Simone pointed out that stimulus control leads to a dog who works more calmly and is less excited. Dogs who have good stimulus control show very similar¬†working styles, no matter whether they tend to be calm or lively in general. Cue¬†discrimination, on the other hand, leads to a dog who is extremely attentive and a concentrated worker. Phoebe and I will have to work on that some more! It’s good to be reminded of these things sometimes.

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Finley pays attention during the cue discrimination exercise.


Phoebe makes new friends during lunch break.

Thank you, Simone, for an inspiring training weekend!

Phoebe’s retrieve journey and the backchaining of complex behaviors

Some dogs are “instinctually” good at certain behaviors, and other dogs are not. For example, water dogs tend to be untiring and talented swimmers, herding breeds tend to have the proverbial herding instinct, and retrievers are, well, usually “natural” retrievers. Phoebe has many talents, but she is not a natural retriever.

I have been working on teaching Phoebe to retrieve to hand for a while now, and I was thrilled when, after almost six weeks of working on this behavior, I got her to put a piece of garden hose in my hand when I was sitting on the balcony steps in my living room. However, that Phoebe was able to put this specific object into my hand in this specific location while I was sitting did not mean that she had learned to put any object into my hand in any location, no matter what body position I assumed. Her learning experience only applied to this one behavior. She had acquired the behavior, but not generalized it yet.

Pamela Reid distinguishes four stages of learning: acquisition, fluency, generalization, and maintenance. At the point when Phoebe was able to put the hose into my hand after four weeks of training, she had mastered the first stage: acquisition. She wasn’t fluent in it yet – i.e. she still had to deliberately think about what she was doing -, and she hadn’t generalized it to all objects, all locations, and all body positions yet. For a dog who isn’t a natural retriever, retrieving to hand is a fairly complex behavior chain that can take quite some time to perfect. Even if I we split lit into very broad junks, the retrieve chain still consists of at least 4 links: walk towards object, pick up object, carry object towards handler, deliver object to handler’s hand.

However, the more times we explain a certain behavior in a new location, or in a new body position, or involving a new object, the faster our explanations will go, and at some point, the animal will generalize the behavior to all objects, all body positions, and all locations. However, depending on the dog and the task, this may take either only a few repetitions and little time or lots of repetitions and lots of time.

Since my goal is to have Phoebe retrieve anything in any location and no matter what body position I assume, I keep working on her retrieve to hand. I use shaping and backchaining in order to teach a retrieve, a time-tested approach to this behavior used by positive reinforcement trainers all over the world. Shaping is the reinforcement (in our case, click and treat) of successive approximations to the target behavior. We start small and gradually increase criteria, always surfing the extinction burst: we need to raise criteria slowly enough to set the animal up for success, but also fast enough to keep her from getting bored. Shaping is my favorite game, because it requires creativity, strategy, and patience on the trainer’s part, and thinking and creativity on the animal’s part, and it is a training approach that feels most like having a conversation with the animal: the animal asks a question, and we answer – either by means of a click (Yes!) or by not reacting (Try something else!). Sue Ailsby, one of my favorite trainers, says that shaping makes you recognize the unicorn in your dog: no two dogs are exactly alike; every dog you shape will have a different conversation with you … and this is the beauty of it. Another more pragmatic reason I love shaping is that 5 minutes of shaping tire Phoebe out as much as an hour-long walk.

If you have never shaped an animal, think of the children’s game of “hot or cold”: one person hides an object, and the other person moves through the room looking for it. The person who hid the object informs the seeker with “cold”, “warmer”, “warm”, “hot” etc. that he gets closer to or further away from the object in question. In shaping, the dog’s task is to figure out what we want her to do. An experienced shaper will offer all kinds of behaviors and make it easy for us to find something clickworthy. If our target behavior is something the animal is not likely to do by itself, we start with successive approximations – that is to say, we click for anything remotely resembling the target behavior, and then gradually narrow down our criteria. For example, in Phoebe’s retrieve, I started with the last behavior in the chain – the shared hold of an object – and shaped this behavior first. I presented a novel object in my outstretched hand. As Phoebe moved closer to sniff it, I’d click and reinforce her. Then, I’d wait for her to offer a nose-touch of the object. Next, I waited for ever-so-slightly touching the object with her teeth. Next, for putting her mouth around the object. Then, I built duration on the shared hold – in 0.5 second increments, I increased the time she had to keep her mouth locked around the object I was holding with her, playing 300-peck-pigeons (or, as known in Sue Ailsby circles, chutes and ladders). This way, I shaped a shared hold.

Next, I moved on to the last-but-one link in the retrieve chain. But before I go into details about this, let me explain to you why we are backchaining to begin with. Let’s start at the beginning. A behavior chain – such as the retrieve – is a number of behaviors that are performed in a certain sequence. Each behavior cues the respective next behavior, and is reinforced by it. Only in the very end, upon completing the chain, does the animal receive a primary reinforcer. In dog training, the primary reinforcer in the end of the chain is usually a treat.

I said that the retrieve is not one single behavior, but rather a behavior chain consisting of at least 4 links: walk towards object, pick up object, carry object to handler, deliver object to handler’s hand. I have explained the retrieve behavior to a number of dogs. Some of them needed only those 4 links to understand what I meant, others didn’t need an explanation at all, and yet others – among them, Phoebe has been the most challenging – need many, many more links. You always start the same way – at the last link in the chain – and then feel my way towards the beginning. Depending on the dog’s reactions I’ll arrive there within only a few sessions, or within lots of sessions.

When teaching a behavior chain, the commonsense approach is to start with the first link in the behavior (e.g. throwing the dumbbell) and work towards the last (e.g. shared hold of the dumbbell). However it turns out that the commonsense approach is not the smartest one. Behaviors are performed more reliably and are more stress-resistant if they are taught beginning with the last link in the chain. Let’s see: when we train with positive reinforcement, a behavior chain ends with a primary reinforcer. This is the goal; it is what the animal is working towards. The more often a behavior gets reinforced, the stronger it becomes. The stronger the reinforcement history of a behavior, the more likely the animal is to perform this very behavior. In fact, a behavior that has been taught by means of positive reinforcement will itself turn into a reinforcer. You have, so to speak, charged it with lots of positive reinforcement, and now it can in turn reinforce other behaviors. (This, of course, only applies if you train with positive reinforcement! A behavior taught by means of positive punishment will not acquire reinforcing qualities.) If we start with the last link in a behavior chain, this will eventually be the part of the chain the animal knows best – it will be the part that has been reinforced most often. Think of the dumbbell retrieve again: 1 walk towards object, 2 pick up object, 3 carry object to handler, 4 put object in handler’s hand.

If we start with the last link, our reinforcement history looks like this:

4 – primary reinforcer (PR)

3 – 4 – PR

2 – 3 – 4- PR

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – PR

In this simplified backckchaining example, the fourth behavior (put object in handler’s hand) has been reinforced 4 times, while walking towards the object has only been reinforced once. The last link in the behavior (put object in handler’s hand) is the strongest link in the chain, because it has the strongest reinforcement history. It reinforces the link that comes before it. When it comes to behavior chains, we perform best when we are working towards something we know well – in this case, towards a shared hold. If we start with what we know well, but work towards something we are less sure about, we perform not es good – especially under stress. Susan M. Schneider uses an example most of us will have experienced ourselves in primary school: learning poems by heart, the nightmare of many schoolchildren. Even though the laws of backchaining have been well-known among behaviorists for a long time, they still have not made it into our schools – at least, they hadn’t made it to the classroom when I was in primary school: parents and teachers usually applied the commonsensical approach, telling children to start learning a poem from beginning to end. In the case of the retrieve, the reinforcement history of forward chaining would look like this:

1 – PR

1 – 2 PR

1 – 2 – 3 – PR

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – PR

In this example, the first link in the chain (walk towards object) has been reinforced 4 times and is the strongest link in the chain with the most reinforcing qualities of all the links. However, since there is no behavior to precede it, its reinforcement power is wasted. The last link in the chain (deliver object to hand) has only been reinforced once, and has the least reinforcing qualities, because it is least well known.

In the case of the schoolchild learning a poem, the common approach is to start with the first line, rinse and repeat until you know it by heart, then first and second line, rinse and repeat until you know it by heart, then first, second and third line and so on. Let’s assume you want to learn Robert Frost’s The Road not Taken by heart and present it in front of your school class. You are nervous about speaking in public, and you don’t like to stand in front of the class with everyone staring at you. You could either start learning in the commonsense way – with the first line:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

And sorry I could not travel both

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth […].

By the time you get to the end of the first stanza, you have repeated the first line 5 times, the second line 4 times, the third line 3 times, the fourth line 2 times and the 5th line once. Which line do you know best? The first one, of course. When, during your classroom performance, will you have the most energy? In the beginning. So what should you start with – the part you know best, or the part you know least? The part you know least. You are most likely to make it to the end of the poem without stumbling over Frost’s iambic tetrameters if you work towards what you know best, not what you know least. As you spend your energy, you get to well-known terrain.

Ideally, then, you wouldn’t start learning at the beginning, but with the very last line of the last stanza:

And that has made all the difference.

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I ‚ÄĒ

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I ‚ÄĒ

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I ‚ÄĒ

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Try it yourself: pick two poems of equal length. Learn one from beginning to end, and one from end to beginning. Which way do you need less repetitions until you are able to fluently recite it?

This is Sam, a Weimaraner with no previous retrieve training. He learned to retrieve a beer can to hand in less than 10 2-minute sessions.

Phoebe, on the other hand, learned to retrieve her first object to hand in the course of six weeks, and in order for her to be successful, her individual sessions, spread out over the course of the day, needed to be 6 treats short rather than 2 minutes long. She needed to take a day off retrieve training every once in a while, and I needed to mix in other behaviors with the retrieve session in order to keep setting her up for success. In terms of shaping complex behaviors, Phoebe has been one of the most challenging dogs I have worked with. This also makes her one of the best teachers I’ve ever had: she has me to be a micro-splitter. Time and again, she lets me know that the slices of criteria I’ve come up with in my training plans are too big for her. Or that the training sessions are too long for her. Or that my mood is not calm and happy enough for her to be able to focus rather than worry. She has taught me to write training plans rather than wing it, and the importance of filming myself so I can then analyze the video and recognize the split second when things started going wrong, or what initiated her lightbulb moments. Phoebe also taught me how to work with dogs who aer extremly sensitive to my own body language, and how to adapt my own body language to help her become just a tiny little bit pushier rather than always being polite and keeping her distance. Anyways, back to the retrieve. After six weeks, Phoebe could do this and made me a very proud Poodle mama:

Here’s the 17 individual behaviors I had to split the hose retrieve chain into in the acquisition stage. Lumpier shaping approaches did not work for Phoebe:

  1. Sniff hose.
  2. Mouth hose.
  3. Mouth hose slightly longer.
  4. Introduce cue “Take it!”
  5. Get duration on the shared hold. – Fail. Even increasing duration in split seconds and playing the Chutes & Ladders game did not work. Get creative:

5.1 Teach chin target to open hand:

5.2 Get duration on the chin target.

5.3. Introduce cue “Chin!”

5.4. Combine Take it and Chin.

5.5 Get duration on the shared hold that resulted from this combination. – Success!

  1. Introduce cue “Halt fest!” (“Hold on to it!”)
  2. Lower the hose closer to the ground in 2-cm-increments and have Phoebe lift it together with me.
  3. Lower the hose closer to the ground in 2-cm-increments, let her lift it on her own and click after I grabbed it again.
  4. Lower the hose closer to the ground in 2-cm-increments, let her lift it on her own and then chin-target my hand while holding on to it.
  5. Gradually build duration on the shared hold after the lift.
  6. Eventually put the hose to the floor and have her lift it – fail: Phoebe would give up because getting her lower jar around it was too hard when the hose was on the ground. Be creative:

11.1: Put cardboard circles on both ends of the hose so it gets dumbbell-shaped and easier to lift off the floor. (Easier to put mouth around.) – Success!

  1. Tape 9 strips of duct tape on the floor, play chutes & ladders with it: put down on first strip, let her lift it and do a chin target. If successful, put down on second strip, have her lift it and do a chin target. If successful, put down on third strip, have her lift it and do a chin target. If not successful, return to strip one and start from scratch. (We returned to strip one lots of times.)

We run into problems here, since Phoebe did not know that it was possible to walk while holding the object. She’d lift it off the floor alright, but then stand there and look at me without bringing it. – Be creative, do some blending!

12.1 Take turns having her lift the object and put it into my hand from right in front of me, throwing the treat away from me and having her run towards me to do a chin target. Put object on strip no. 2, have her lift and put it in my hand. Throw treat away from me and have her run towards me in order to do a chin target. That way, I eventually got the first steps without dropping the object, followed by a chin target while holding the object. Success!

  1. Reduce distance. Place the object on the floor in different angles from me so she had to turn in order to bring it back to me.
  2. Start rolling the object a short distance with the help of the cardboard circles.
  3. Stop rolling; reduce the size of the cardboard circles so picking the object up got gradually harder, until she could lift it up without the circles that would help her get her lower jar under it.
  4. Introduce rolling again, this time without the circles.
  5. Introduce the first little object throws.
  6. Gradually build distance while throwing, have her run after it and bring it back to me.

Since achieving our first decent retrieve to hand with the help, inspiration and encouragement of the wonderful Donna Hill, I have worked on fluency and generalization, the next two stages of learning according to Pam Reid. The nice thing is that once she had the hose retrieve down in one position, I started my explanations from scratch in new locations and new body positions, but she got there much faster. By now, Phoebe can pick up and hand me the hose in the corridor and carry it up stairs (!) to hand to me, sitting on the top stair. She can also pick up the hose and hand it to me on two different outside locations while I’m sitting – both on pavement. And she can pick up the hose and hand it to me while I am standing on grass. However, we haven’t built distance in these new locations yet.

We have also started working on the next object – a rolled-up magazine. I chose this object next because I needed a novel object for a train-off with Tom. He wondered whether he could come up with a faster and more generalizable approach to teach the retrieve of a novel object. So we decided to test it. We would each use our own approaches to teach the retrieve of at least one novel object. Our rules excluded physical manipulation (such as holding the dog’s mouth shut or shoving an object into her mouth), harsh words and other types of positive punishment. Everything else was allowed, and how long, how often and with the help of what objects we trained was up to us. The person who first got Phoebe to retrieve a novel object to hand 4 out of 5 times from 1.5 meters distance would win.

This is not perfect yet (I still need to work on grabbing the magazine at different angles without dropping it), but I think it qualifies – it was all about getting there first, after all.

And some pretty awesome background reading:

Ailsby, Sue. Training Levels

Chance, Paul: Learning & Behavior

Hill, Donna: The Elusive Hand-Delivered Retrieve. (FDSA class & lecture notes)

Reid, Pamela J.: Excel-Erated Learning

Schneider, Susan M.: The Science of Consequences