The Puzzle Week – Part 9: An Introduction to the Superbowls Game

Superbowls is a pattern game that allows your dog to direct you towards a novel/potentially suspicious stimulus. It consists of a row of bowls. The dog learns that by giving you eye contact, they can cue you to put a treat down in the respective next bowl in the line. In the very end of the line, there’s your stimulus/trigger. Your dog will not directly interact with it within the structure of this game – that’s why it feels safe for your dog. They get to decide how close they want to go. If they stop offering eye contact, you will stop at the bowl you are at, or further increase the distance.

If they lead you all the way to the stimulus you plugged into the end of the line (it could be an object, or a person on a chair – anything goes as long as you can guarantee that the stimulus won’t approach your dog), the next eye contact rep cues you to turn around and move back along the line of bowls in the other direction: approach – retreat. Approach – retreat. Approach – retreat. In CU, when we approach, we will also retreat. Dogs NEVER get stuck near the stimulus you are working with in the context of Control Unleashed.

The first step of the Superbowls game is teaching Puzzle that eye contact makes things happen. In this case, eye contact will cause me to click, and put down a treat in the first bowl. We’ll stay at this stage until she offers eye contact without latency after swallowing the previous treat, and predicts where the next treat will show up: right there, in the bowl. For the first step, you’ll only use the first bowl in your line.

Puzzle doesn’t yet know that eye contact is a payable behavior. You’ll see her figure it out over the course of the three sessions below. Which brings me to yet another reason I love CU games for puppies or dogs who are new to training: they organically pick up different skills along the way! In this game, the meaning of the clicker gets reinforced, and Puzzle learns that eye contact is a behavior she can use to earn treats.

First session:

Second session:

Third session:

Next time, we’ll start moving between bowls!


For more dog training tips and videos, join Chrissi’s February class at FDSA: Calling All Dogs!

The Puzzle Week – Part 3: More Mat Work, CU-Style!

Now that I’ve built confidence around my presence and movement, and Puzzle is drawn to the mat, we’re ready for some actual CU-style treat dropping: I am wandering around the mat, clicking for being on the mat and for sniffing for treats, and dropping treats all over the mat while she’s busy eating. We continue building the association mat equals treats (rather than handler equals treats).

As a side-effect, Puzzle gets introduced to her second marker cue: the clicker.

A snippet from her fifth mat session (Day 2), showing that she has become magnetized to the mat:

A snippet from session #6 (Day 2), showing both attraction to the mat, CU-style treat delivery, and how she learns about her release cue – another useful word she is learning on the go in the context of mat work!

In session #7, Puzzle and I talk some more about release cues, and the fact that the mat goes offline when there’s no puppy on it. Backing up off of the mat works, too! Watch until the end for the cutest part:

The Little Rascal Files 6 – Checking In & Recalls under Distraction

Mr. H. has been a very good dog, so he’s been allowed lots of off-leash fun on our walks. I think it’s really important to work on good off-leash manners and a solid recall before adolescence kicks in and the once-brilliant puppy brain stops working for several months or even years. My hope is, of course, that if we practice these skills now, the little rascal will be able to keep some, if not most of his privileges in those difficult times yet to come.

For me to be happy with my off-leash dogs, I want them to do two things: 1. come when called, and 2. check in voluntarily on a regular basis. That is to say: I want them to know it’s their responsibility rather than mine to make sure we don’t lose each other.

This is how I work on the voluntary checking-in with me:

Step 1 – continuous reinforcement.
On every walk, I try to set aside at least a few minutes where I concentrate on reinforcing every single time Hadley chooses to look at or come towards me without being asked to. We know: behavior that gets positively reinforced will happen more often in the future. For Hadley, I mainly use food treats. I usually have a puppy trail mix in my treat bag: there’s some special kibble, cheese, and hot dog slices all mixed together. Hadley never knows what he’ll get, but he loves all of them.

Step 2 – intermittent reinforcement.
Once Hadley has his checking-in down, I’ll switch to an intermittent schedule: I’ll reinforce most of his check-ins with praise and attention, but only some of them with a tangible reinforcer like food or a toy. This creates a slot-machine effect, i.e. a dog who will check in with me a lot!

Phoebe’s checking-in is on an intermittent reinforcement schedule, and if you know her, you’ll know how often she does a drive-by on walks. For her, the reinforcer I mainly use these days is the happy voice and then telling her to run ahead, play or go do doggy things.

Recall away from dogs & people

We also did a little bit of intermediary recall training today: I walked towards a group of people and off-leash dogs in the distance, then called Hadley back after noticing them without changing direction. The smart little bugger did very well! For the recall, I use the highest value reward of Hadley’s choice: liver paté.

… and morning zoomies!

Of course, there’s also plenty, plenty opportunity to play and have fun on every walk. Here’s today’s morning zoomies with some random happy recall practice.

Shaping Confidence, or How to Deal with Penguins

In Hadley’s book, quite a number of things are alarming. One of them: new objects in familiar spaces, like the neighbor’s trash bag that hasn’t been sitting out the day before, or a penguin wearing a hat, standing provocatively at a doorway where no one used to stand. (I totally get that. Penguins are not supposed to wear hats; now that’s just weird!)

My favorite way to deal with scary stuff is to make it part of a game. I’ve done this with Phoebe back in the day when she had a random-objects-are-scary phase in her adolescence, and now I’m using the same strategy for Hadley. By means of shaping, I want to give Hadley the experience that he controls the situation, and can turn scary stuff into cookie vending machines by means of choosing to engage with it.

Engaging with scary objects in return for a cookie is entirely his choice, not mine. I’m not luring him closer, and I’m not forcing him to engage with the scary object in any other way. Hadley decided whether he goes all the way up to an object, touches it, or just plays a little LAT from a distance. If he chooses to disengage after a little while, that’s okay, too.

Now that I’ve finally decluttered my camera phone, I got to film today’s encounter with a penguin wearing a hat. We met that weird bird on our way home from a walk in the neighborhood. We frequently walk past this house, and never before has there been a penguin standing in front of it. Obviously, Hadley was concerned. It looked quite devious in its green hat, pretending to be all innocent, just standing there provocatively. It might just have been planning to murder us all, and Hadley was right to point this out to me.

This is what our penguin session looked like:

Note that rather than using strategic points of reinforcement, I’m feeding away from the penguin, so the increase of distance acts as an additional reinforcer (R-). The whole thing took about 5 minutes, including a few breaks whenever either Hadley chose to disengage and do sth. else for a little bit, or when I went to reinforce Phoebe who I had put in a sit-stay. When Hadley offered looking at the penguin or approaching it again after a break, we were back in the game. At 0.30 in the video, you can see from Hadley’s body language that he’s getting too close. I should have clicked sooner, i.e. after fewer steps towards the penguin. He trusts me enough to keep playing, so for the next click, I lower criteria to just a few steps, something he can easily do. Then I gradually increase criteria again. At the end, you see his first bold touch. He’s not worried anymore and recognizes the penguin as the latest cookie-vending machine that has been placed here for his convenience! Engage with it, get a cookie from mum. Sweet!

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 – greater 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 5 – More Dogs!

A few days ago, we met Tini and Nayeli for a walk. Hadley recognized Nayeli after briefly alarm-barking at her from the car, and immediately started playing chase with Phoebe and her! Wow – this is the first time he has played as intensely with a dog who isn’t a family member. Nayeli is simply a great role model, and a wonderful auntie to have as a puppy. I’m sure Hadley will have fun with Tini and her when he vacations with them in January.

We encountered two strange off-leash dogs on our walk. The first one was a tiny, shy puppy. Phoebe, Fanta and Nayeli didn’t care about the tiny dog, but Hadley approached him with a friendly wagging tail! WOW! Best. strange. dog. encounter. ever! I was soooo happy; proud of my puppy and of my training success, and happy that my dogs get to have dogs like Nayeli in their lives.

P1090351 P1090350The three musketeers are having fun near Lusthaus.

Today, we had another very successful outing: we went for a walk today – just Phoebe, Fanta, Hadley and I. Off leash, on the fields.


After a few minutes, two women with a dog slightly bigger than Hadley, also off-leash, crossed our way. We saw them coming from a distance. Phoebe and Fanta walked over to say hallo, and Hadley … looked, wagged, and went back to playing chase with Phoebe! He had only hesitated a moment, than decided that the strange dog wasn’t a threat. He didn’t keep close to me, and didn’t mind walking or running close to the strange dog. The women and I walked together for about fifteen minutes.


Phoebe, Hadley and the first dog we encountered on today’s walk.

A little later, the next challenge: a with an on-leash Spitz about Phoebe’s size came straight at us. I took my dogs on leash, and made way for the Spitz to pass, started feeding treats when Hadley noticed the strange dog and went on feeding until he had passed us. Hadley watched the dog attentively and calmly ate his treats, then quickly switched to offering sits – the strange dog wasn’t important enough to pay attention to! Hah! I am SO happy with how he is developing!


Phoebe, Fanta, Hadley and the two women’s small dog were let off leash again. Another few minutes went by, and we met the next dog: an old, off-leash Maltese who was standing quietly near his even older owner. The Maltese told our group in body language that he was neither a threat not interested in interacting with any of them, and they all curved around him. Hadley followed suit! While curving, he had his tail slightly between his legs and glanced sideways at the Maltese, but followed the other three without hesitation. Woohooo! Witnessed how to deal with dogs like this, and did it himself! Wonderful puppy, and I’m happy my training has helped him become more confident around strange dogs!


Fanta, Hadley and, in the distance, the dog who walked with us for a while. Everyone’s happy doing their own thing. There’s plenty of space for everyone, and no need to feel threatened.

We parted ways with the two ladies and their dog. I played with my camera while Phoebe and Hadley played near the water and Fanta had one of his rare it’s-my-favorite-season runs.


On our way back, we met an off-leash Border Collie; an adult black-and-white female. Phoebe mistook her for Xandro and was quite startled when she realized that Xandro isn’t the only beautiful Border around. I didn’t interfere with Hadley’s behavior because it had been going very well so far. Hadley looked and I could see that this dog was more concerning to him than the others had been. She was more active, and held her busy tail up high. And then she even looked at him directly! Hadley made one tiny bark. I kept walking and called him, he came. She came over, he let her sniff him submissively, and then happily greeted her human. We exchanged a few words while Hadley watched Phoebe and the Border discuss who was going to keep the stick they had found.


We walked on, and passed the old man with the Maltese again. They were still standing at the same spot, chatting with an acquaintance. This time, Hadley curved around the Maltese without hesitation and without putting his tail between his legs. Yeah!


Almost back at the car, we met a woman with a big, on-leash dog resembling an Akita, but slightly smaller. They were walking straight at us. I put my dogs on their leashes, and noticed that the woman deliberately lead her dog on the side of her body that wasn’t facing us and was feeding treats while approaching us. It always makes me smile to see other dog people working with their dogs in similar ways as I do! Also, I’m always happy to encounter polite dog owners who are as keen to avoid on-leash encounters as I am.


We walked a little to the side and let the two of them pass. Hadley requested that I play LAT with him! He looked at the Akita, then back at me. At the Akita again, then back at me! Hah! This is awesome! Thank you, Leslie McDevitt, for coming up with this simple, yet brilliant game. Of course, since he asked me to, I played with Hadley, and he got to earn a few treats for looking, and then for the sits he offered. And on we went, off leash again, back to the car.


I have to say, I am relieved and really, really glad Hadley’s attitude towards strange dogs is slowly relaxing. I am also glad that the strategy I chose for dealing with his issues is turning out to be the right one for him!

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!

Photo 15-10-15 1 26 46 pm
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.

Photo 08-10-15 2 36 49 pm
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.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 18.43.16
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 🙂

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!

Photo 18-10-15 3 19 57 pm
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.

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 “Pfötli” (Swiss German for raise your paw) and “Bötli” (Swiss German for a small boat) – the two words sound almost the same. However, the dog only performed the behavior upon the correct cue (“Pfötli”). 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 —

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 —

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 —

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


… is a great movie about Ian Curtis, which you should definitely watch. While I hate to disappoint you, this blog post isn’t about Joy Division, but about dog training and closeted alpha theorists.

I went location scouting for a BAT set up today. So I was driving and thinking about training dogs, and ended up pondering closeted alpha theorists. A closeted alpha theorist is someone who believes in clicking and treating, but also in “setting boundaries” and “leading the dog” and “taking the responsibility of controlling the situation/the chance to control the situation away from the dog,” in “letting the dog know that the human is controlling the environment, and he doesn’t have to.”

To my ears, this sounds like a euphemism for the alpha theory. A straightforward, non-euphemistic alpha theorist would say something like, “All dogs want to control all humans! Therefore, we (qua humans) need to control all dogs. We need to let them know we’re in charge, and they aren’t.”

The closeted alpha theorist, on the other hand, uses a euphemistic, more subtle approach to convey the same message: Maybe not all dogs want to control all humans, but this particular dog sure is a bit obsessed with control. Maybe we don’t need to show all dogs who is in control, but we certainly need to show this dog.”

The openly alpha-theorizing trainer argues that “this dog wants to be higher-ranked than we are – he wants to control everything.”

The closeted alpha trainer, on the other hand, says, “that dog is insecure, and therefore, he thinks he needs to control everything. He doesn’t know that you will take care of the situation.”

While the underlying factions are slightly different (“dogs are power-driven hierarchy-climbers” vs. “dogs need a confident leader in order to be happy”), the implications are the same: “You (the person) need to control the dog.” The only difference is that the openly alpha-theorizing trainer wants to control the dog for her own, i.e. the trainer’s, sake, and the closeted alpha-trainer wants to control the dog for the dog’s sake. The open alpha trainer assumes an egocentric stance, while the closeted alpha trainer sees herself as altruistic. Still, whether they are aware of it or not, both follow an alpha approach to training.

Both myths make me cringe, but actually, the altruistic alpha myth makes me cringe even more because it’s harder to counter. It’s a sneaky myth, a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing myth; the kind of myth that invades people’s minds easily. The closeted alpha approach is like a center right party. It’s a “respectable” conviction in society at large, the ÖVP of dog training. People who will indignantly distance themselves from the extreme right (or the open alpha theory) may still say that some ideas of that right-wing extremist do make sense. They themselves are no alpha-theorists, for sure. But they can certainly understand the people who are. And really, the alternative – the far left, the cotton ball throwers -, that kind of training certainly has its perks for soft dogs, but it wouldn’t work for their dog. Their dog, after all, likes to control his world.

The problem I see with both open and closeted alpha approaches is that they want to resolve problematic behaviors by means of taking control away from the dog. By means of “clear rules” (closeted alphas) or “strong leadership” (open alphas).

Unfortunately, this solution may actually look like it “works.” One example is what Rütter said in his cabaret at Stadthalle the other day. He suggested that dogs who are afraid of the vacuum be trained a really strong down/stay, first without the vacuum, then with the vacuum present.

A dog who is afraid of the vacuum, but has an incredibly strong down/stay, may actually hold his down/stay while the vacuum snuffles and grunts and wreaks havoc around him. He may stay on his spot, panting ferociously, but stay. As a result, he will get flooded. Flooding is one method of habituation. The other one is desensitization. The problem with flooding is that while it works for some dogs, it doesn’t work for others: “Stimuli that elicit really strong emotional reactions, such as fear, often don’t habituate. Instead they continue to affect the general arousal of the animal and make the response even stronger.” (Reid 36) If your dog is truly very afraid of the vacuum, he may get even more scared of it in the future if you force him to hold his down/stay. And not only that: he may even sensitize to additional sounds as well, such as the sound of the blender or the sound of the blowdryer. Very light fears are more likely to habituate, while full-blown fears are likely to sensitize even further – and while habituation is specific (e.g. habituation to only the sound of this specific vacuum), sensitization tends to generalize (i.e. sensitization to all kinds of noises).

In the down/stay situation with the vacuum, you controlled the dog. Both open and closeted alpha theorists may applaud you.

I (just like everyone else who truly opposes the alpha myth) would take a different approach to that problem. Instead of controlling the dog, we would control the vacuum. Start with counterconditioning in combination with desensitization. Have the dog move freely, and present the stimulus at an intensity he is comfortable with. It may take a while until you reach a point where he doesn’t care about the vacuum any more – but it’s worth the effort: no matter who uses the vacuum in the future, he’ll stay relaxed, and there is no need to “control” him in order to keep him from killing that expensive Dyson.

Phoebe isn’t in a down stay – she has learned that there’s no reason to get up. All she has to do when the vacuum goes on is continue whatever she was doing before, and every once in a while, treats will materialize in front of her nose.

The same holds true for dogs who are scared or over-excited by visitors. If you want to help the dog feel better rather than just suppress his reaction, careful counterconditioning and desensitization are the way to go, not flooding in combination with controlling the dog’s position. This is something I practiced with my last foster dog, and I was impressed by how fast he improved: when I couldn’t train, I managed him (had him hang out in a different room, behind a baby gate or in his box with a frozen Kong, for example). When I could concentrate on training, I had visitors come and go, come and go, come and go … in and out of my door. They would not approach him, but as soon as the door opened, I would feed him yummy treats at the other end of the room distance. When they disappeared, the treats stopped again. It took lots of repetitions, but with every new visitor I played this game with, he was able to stay more relaxed. He started learning that he could choose to not approach rather than having to be kept from approaching by force. He learned to control himself rather than being subject to his human’s control.

Let’s look at another example. Some dogs seem fine once they have gotten used to the fact that you, a stranger, are in their house: you are sitting down with their person, not looking at them, and you haven’t moved for half an hour. Slowly, their excitement level goes down. They start to relax. You don’t seem quite as scary after all.

A client has a dog like that. She gets excited and alarmed by visitors, but starts calming down after a while and approaches the new people.

However, as I kept observing her interactions, it turned out that her approach didn’t mean that she was okay at all. She was still past her magnet point, so approaching was not a choice for her – it was something she had to do. The trigger kept drawing her closer like a magnet. The living room was very small, so she would usually approach soon and even try to climb on visitors’ laps. When the visitors moved, she would stiffen and growl. I’ve observed a similar reaction in my last foster dog as well. What happened in these situations?

As the alpha fraction has it, “She was being dominant!” (Wrong answer.)

The closeted alpha might say, “She’s a dog who wants to control everything – she doesn’t allow you to move.” (Tricky answer!)

Let’s look at the closeted alpha answer in detail: control is indeed a primary reinforcer, making it something that animals (human and non-human) covet. It is not just any old reinforcer either, but a really potent one, since it is connected to safety (thank you, Christian Holeček, for this observation). Being able to control your own outcomes ensures your personal safety. This shows us that control has nothing to do with “dominance,” but with using your own behavior effectively. Control means that your behavior is having an effect on your environment. That makes it the opposite of helplessness (not being able to use your behavior effectively, and eventually giving up). So, indeed, the closeted alpha’s response contains a grain of truth. The dog tries to practice behavior in order to have an effect on his environment. Why? Because he wants to get some safety distance between himself and the scary monster (aka visitor)!

Why does the dog growl at visitors he had been fine with first? Because changing body positions are scary! Suddenly, the scary monster looks at him or touches him or moves. That’s way more scary than when the monster held completely still. The dog who growls at the moving visitor exercises the only behavior he knows will keep him safe. If he growled in the past and didn’t get eaten by the scary monster as a direct result, he will growl again in the future. Growling keeps scary monsters from eating dogs, and dogs do what works.

Imagine you are moderately scared of spiders. You wouldn’t choose to approach one, but when you happen to visit your friend’s place and realize he has a pet tarantula in a terrarium, you might be fascinated by the creature. It’s sitting completely still, and there’s glass between you, so you might be so intrigued that you go closer, maybe even tap the glass. You are thrilled, you heart rate fastens, but you feel fine – after all, the spider doesn’t move. After watching the motionless thing for a while, you’ll sit down for a coffee with your friend and almost forget it is there … until you see it moving from the corner of your eyes. All of a sudden, it jumps. It moved, you didn’t expect it, and you are likely to jump yourself. The same happens to the dog when the visitor makes an unexpected movement.

Why, then, did the dog approach the visitor in the first place? Because the visitor was too close for him to not approach, just like the spider in the terrarium drew you closer and made you run through your script for commenting on friends’ pets (“Big, beautiful, hairy!”) even though you don’t trust spiders.

Let’s get back to the training question. How is my approach different from a closeted or open alpha? Both closeted and open alpha theorists will try to solve the problem by means of minimizing the level of control a dog has over the situation.

They might punish the dog when he growls, thus contacting a strong reinforcer themselves: control. Controlling your dog is very reinforcing if you are the one doing the controlling. Even if we don’t punish the dog but “only” force him to stay next to the visitors and be quiet, for example in a down stay like Rütter suggested for the vacuum, again, this might look as if it worked: your dog has stopped growling; he might even have stopped behaving altogether (helplessness). If this is all that happens – lucky you.

However, it may get worse. Remember what we said about sensitization versus habituation? If the dog is forced to stay near the scary monsters (aka visitors) and is kept from behaving effectively, he is being flooded. Of course, there is a chance that he will habituate to the visitors and be fine in the future. However, the bigger his fear was initially, the bigger the chance that he might sensitize instead. In the future, he might not only growl at, say, male visitors or visitors in wheelchairs, but at all visitors. If you combined your “control” of the dog with punishment upon his initial growling, you might end up with an even bigger problem: you might end up with a dog who doesn’t growl, but bites right away.

Open as well as closeted alpha theorists will try to minimize the dog’s level of control in one way or another. If you truly distance yourself from the alpha myth, on the other hand, you will take an opposite approach and try to maximize the dog’s level of control. You will set up a safe environment for the dog to learn how to behave effectively in a way that doesn’t put him or yourself or your visitors in danger. The good thing is that this approach works, and there is no fallout. If it doesn’t work, it is not because the method is faulty but because you overwhelmed the dog with the situation and asked for more than he could handle. In order to set him up for success, you want to present the problematic stimulus at an intensity he is comfortable with: people at a far-enough distance for the dog to stay calm and relaxed, yet notice the trigger and gather information. A distance that allows the dog, as Grisha Stewart would have it, to stay in the green and blue zone:
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I did a BAT set up with a client the other day, and I loved how obvious it was that the distance to the trigger needed to be really, really big at first – way bigger than it would ever be on a walk through a busy neighborhood. This way, the pet parents could actually observe their dog making wonderful choices: gathering a little information about the trigger, than continuing to sniff and explore the area. Wandering to the left, to the right, behind a car … This is very different to the behavior the dog shows on their busy home street: she will try and approach everyone and tend to be hypervigilant. She may not bark at the first dog she encounters, but certainly at the third one. Giving her enough space in the set up gave her human mum and dad the chance to be proud of their dog’s good choices and to realize that, in fact, direct contact with the trigger was not the dog’s first choice, as they had thought it was. Most importantly, it showed them that they didn’t have to “control” her every movement all the time, either.

On a walk through a busy neighborhood, you are automatically in survival mode with your reactive dog. It’s hard for him to learn because his arousal is always high. Depending on the dog and the strength of his reactivity, he may be able to learn even in a highly stressful environment to cope better – or, like my client’s dog, he may not be able to do so; he may experience constant trigger stacking and not be able to “think clearly enough” to develop a set of alternative behaviors for difficult situations. As in the examples above, without helping him develop an alternative set of behaviors, he may sensitize rather than habituate.

The first dog (the one who is able to learn even though he is in a stressful environment) will do well even with a closeted alpha trainer. The second dog won’t: you can’t build confidence by means of minimizing your dog’s control over her outcomes. She may give up responding (which is probably your best case scenario), but won’t learn to relax in the vicinity of her triggers. In order to do that, she must have a chance to learn that her behavior is effective, and that curving around or walking away from a the trigger is a behavioral choice she can make. As you continue practicing, that distance will shrink, and eventually, the dog will be able to even make “good decisions” in a highly stressful environment. What’s more, he may even start to enjoy the company of his triggers. The path there is long, but it’s there, just waiting for you and your dog to walk it. It is paved with patience and understanding, not with control.

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For some wicked scientific background info on why it’s all about setting your dog up for success and letting him experience the effectiveness of his behavior, check out:

Reid, Pamela J. Excel-Erated Learning. James & Kenneth, 1996.

Stewart, Grisha. BAT 2.0 Series. (DVD) Tawzer, 2014.

Yin, Sophia. Solving Fear and Aggression. (DVD) Tawzer, 2013.