Who's a Good Dog?


Dissecting Sit

Recently I shared a video on FB that got me thinking about reasons why someone might decide positive training “didn’t work.”  As a trainer, I will admit, that statement makes me crazy.  My first thought is usually something like then you’re doing it wrong.  But as I was re-watching the video, I thought about how easy it could be for someone to try a version of positive training, not get results, and then give up.

Here’s the video, taken a couple weeks ago at the shelter where I volunteer.  In it, I was getting to know Ash, a 6 month-old lab mix puppy.  In the hope of getting some footage to advertise the shelter’s training program for its canine residents, my friend Maria (kennel tech and enrichment coordinator at the shelter) was recording our session.  She asked me to explain what I was doing to teach Ash to sit.  I wasn’t expecting the question, so my reply was off the cuff.  But how hard could it be to explain teaching a dog to sit?  It’s just sit, right?


But rewatching this video I realized that there is more going on than my answers to Maria’s questions explain.

At 00:22, Maria asks me what sound like pretty straightforward questions—could I explain when I click? when I treat deliver? and why I toss a treat?  My response tells part of the story:

I click when his rear end hits the ground.

If he doesn’t do it on his own, I give him a hint.

And I toss the treat to reset him.

If you’re new to positive training, you might reasonably ask why? in response to each of those statements.  Or you might not think to ask why and instead just try what you observed in the video.  But your dog might not respond the way Ash does, and so what you see in the video might not work, and you might then reasonably  conclude that positive training doesn’t get results.

So, if you are new or otherwise wondering why, here’s a fuller explanation than offered in the video.

Why click when his rear end hits the ground?  I’m using the click sound paired with something yummy to mark the behavior of bum-on-ground.   Dogs, like humans, learn by association.  So Ash is learning, first, that click = something good (i.e., the food reinforcer).  And, after enough reps where sit is followed by the click which is followed immediately by food, to associate sitting with something good.  Could I teach him to sit without a clicker?  Yep.  In that case, I would pick a word to pair with the reinforcer (e.g., super!).  So why use a clicker?  A clicker is not required to teach this behavior, or for positive training more generally.  There are actually a lot of reasons positive trainers often use clickers, but that topic could be the subject of a separate post.  I’m using one here because the sound of the click is distinctive—moreso than my voice.  Notice that I am talking a lot in the video, but he’s tuning out most of it?  The click stands out as a unique noise.

Why not say sit and push his rear end down?  Because he could learn that the cue for sit is my hand on his rear end, or the verbal cue “sit” + my hand.  I think it’s clearer for the dog if my hand isn’t involved at all.  Plus, dogs (again like humans) have what is called an opposition reflex.  If I push on his back end, he’s likely to push up instead of sitting down.  (ETA: Since publishing this post, eileenanddogs has published this very interesting post on why “opposition reflex” is actually a problematic term.)   Last for a young puppy like Ash, a lot of pushy, handsy behavior from me might seem like an invitation to play and wrestle rather than sit.

Why give him a hint?  Like a lot of positive trainers, I will try to capture or lure a behavior.  Capturing means that I reinforce a behavior the dog does on his own.  Luring  means that I use food to get the dog to do the behavior.  My “hint” (hand above nose) was a lure.  Many dogs, especially young puppies, will offer a sit as they look up at you.  Ash did that a few times before we started recording.  Then he stopped.   I lured to help him out and also keep him in the game.  By holding the food just above his nose, I was hoping that as his nose went up, his butt would go down.  Which is what happened.  The thing with lures is that you want to fade the food quickly so that the food itself doesn’t become the cue.

Why toss the food?  I give one reason in the clip, but if I think about it there are actually three and a half.

(1) I wanted to get additional reps.  In order to sit, he has to be not sitting.  Tossing food gets him up and moving.   (That’s what I mean by “resetting” him.)

(2) Chasing food is fun for most dogs.  Sitting gets old fast.  So alternating sits with food chasing = more fun.

(2a) Not a conscious reason, but still important:  As a trainer, when I see my dog having fun, I am positively reinforced and want to keep going!

(3) I wanted to see whether, on returning, he might sit on his own.  Then I would know I could fade the lure.  But he didn’t sit which is why I lured again.  After a few more reps with the lure, I would want to check again to see if he’d offer sit on his own.

If you’re new to positive training, I hope I’ve offered a fuller explanation of what I was thinking as I was working with Ash.  These aren’t all of the questions that can be asked, so please speak up (or ask another positive trainer) if there are more things you want to know.  If you are an experienced positive trainer, all of this is fairly basic (and you’ve probably stopped reading at this point, anyway!).  But thinking about why-I-did-X  is a good way for me to remind myself that there is often more to positive training than meets the eye, and that handing someone a clicker and a bait bag might not immediately—or ever—translate into a love of positive training.

Last if any local friends are still reading (!) Ash, the puppy in the video, is unbelievably still available for adoption at Camp P in Stroudsburg.  He’s listed as a lab mix, and could easily be the cover dog for an Orvis catalog.  Srsly, he’s that handsome.  And as you can see from the video, he is an eager learner.  I suspect he’d be a wonderful partner for walking, hiking, or camping and for all kinds of dog sports.

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Homemade Treats (photo essay)

Last Sunday I needed some high value treats for Nose Work class, so I decided to give my new silicone pan a try.  (File this post under things you can do once final grades are in.)  The results were excellent:  hundreds of healthy treats and three very happy dogs.  These pans are popular now for making dog treats, and there is a lot of information available about which ones to buy and what recipes work best.  A good place to start is the Pyramid Dog Treats page.

Here are some photos from my kitchen.


TFW your human is baking and you heard it was something for dogs (!!)


Perfecting my technique. (Arlo waiting patiently, top left). After the first batch, I realized that spreading the batter went a lot faster with a spatula.


Helper dog covered in flour.


I was surprised at how easily the finished treats popped out of the pan. After batch three, I realized they come out even more easily if you wait for them to cool. (Note: some people think treats come out cleaner if you use the pan with round holes. That’s the one I have.)




Franz keeping an eye on the process.


One tray’s worth. (Maria waiting in the background.)


Me: Ready! Dogs: Finally!


You’re doing it wrong!

The “correct” use of punishment (positive punishment or negative reinforcement) involves causing enough pain to the dog to stop a behavior. That is not something I want to do to a dog or my relationship to a dog. And I don’t care if that is a dog living with a loving family or dumped in a shelter for behavior problems. There are better (more humane) ways to communicate with dogs than causing them pain. Period.


Franzi earned his Canine Good Citizen certification and some Rally Qs. All skills taught with positive reinforcement.

But, just for the sake of argument, let’s look at a rationale that I have heard many times from those willing to use force, pain or intimidation: If a [insert painful method of choice here–shock collar, prong collar, finger jab, etc.] is used correctly, it works!  In other words, you’re doing it wrong!  But here’s the thing that those people NEVER say:  that argument also applies to positive training. In other words, when done correctly, positive training also works. Moreover, unlike punishment-based approaches, there is no risk of harming the dog physically or emotionally, or harming your relationship with the dog.

Saying positive training doesn’t work is like saying that that the laws of gravity don’t apply to you. All beings repeat behaviors that work and avoid ones that don’t. If positive training “isn’t working” for a particular dog, there is something wrong with the training plan or the trainer’s skills. And of course you can say the same thing about punishment–if it’s not working (e.g., if a dog continues to pull in spite of multiple collar corrections, or when wearing a certain type of collar), then it’s the training plan or the trainer’s lack of skill.  But here the thing:  when punishment doesn’t work, trainers typically increase the level of punishment (e.g., the low setting on the shock collar isn’t working? let’s turn it up a few notches).

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Arlo using his nose to find all of the smells. He is off leash and there are other dogs in the room. Trained with positive reinforcement.

The problem–and the reason why I don’t use aversive tools or recommend them to clients–is that punishment has fallout that is very hard to predict. There is no guarantee that the dog will associate the discomfort of, say, crossing the barrier for an electric fence with crossing the barrier.  He could, instead, associate the pain with dogs walking by. Why? Because every time he approaches the barrier to chase off other dogs (a common and normal, although not desirable, behavior for dogs left alone in their yards) he receives a painful shock.

Whenever these conversations happen about whether it’s okay to hurt a dog in the name of training, people often turn to the most extreme example–a dog who will be euthanized for aggression.   If that is your concern—if you have such a dog–then you need a certified behaviorist, not a shock collar.

Any knowledgeable trainer will tell you that dog training is not a matter of opinion about this or that approach. It should be based on the most current behavior and canine science. And all of that research says you will get results when punishment and reinforcement are correctly applied.  That research also says that using punishment  comes with the risk of creating new problems (e.g. aggression) or exacerbating existing ones.  Why take that risk when there are humane and effective methods you could use instead?  You will sometimes hear that “different things work for different dogs.” And that is true—again, a good trainer is always monitoring your dog and willing to make adjustments to the training plan as she goes. But saying different things work for different dogs is not the same as saying that the laws of learning (+R, -R,+P, -P) apply differently. The laws of learning affect all animals (humans included) in the same way. We repeat what works. We avoid what doesn’t. And we know that from a long history of peer-reviewed scientific research. Zazie Todd at the Companion Animal Psychology Blog keeps an excellent, up-to-date bibliography of resources on dog training. If you want to understand the science behind punishment- as well as positive-reinforcement-based training, go take a look.


Maria, fresh from digging holes in the back yard. We are working on it… 🙂

Please don’t believe anyone who tells you he has a “quick fix,” or the “secret” to some behavior problem. Or that hurting your dog is the only way to save your dog. It’s simply not true. Training is a process. Problems aren’t fixed overnight, or in a 1-hour television show, or with a single, magical tool. Training your dog is about building trust and relationship, and that can’t happen if your dog is hurting, intimidated or afraid.

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IMG_7090Like a lot of you, I am not sorry to see 2017 come to an end. It was a difficult year. One option for this first post of the new year would be to look back and try to gain some perspective.  Another is to try and move forward.  I’m going with the latter.

So, first, I’ve merged my old training website with this one.  Anyone interested in training can find more information here.

Second, if like me you are spending more time than usual inside because outside it is FREEZING cold, you may want to check out the training fun happening all over the internets in honor of the APDT’s National Train Your Dog Month–an annual event that happens every January.  For more info, visit the APDT website here.

Third, earlier this week, I had the opportunity to meet some very wonderful Camp P dogs who are waiting for their forever homes.  Locals, if you are looking for your next family dog, let me introduce you to Ringo, Lindsay, Lacey and Joe Wilson.  Each of their photos below includes a link where you can find more information.  These are not the only great dogs at Camp P–just the ones I was lucky enough to meet this week.


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Puppy Diaries–Week 1

Yesterday marked puppy M’s one week adopt-a-versary. We are of course still getting to know her, but so far she seems to be a smart, confident little pup. My first training priority is just getting her to like us and to think that interacting with us is the bees knees (grateful for advice about this from books by Denise Fenzi, Kay Laurence, Claudine McAuliffe, Kathy Sdao and Suzanne Clothier). In addition to that, lots of handling—ears, paws, toenails, teeth, tail, etc. And recognizing her name. Pretty standard stuff.

The really big surprise this past week has been Arlo, who turns out to have some excellent puppeh skillz. He has been a huge help socializing her and tiring her out.   As some of my FB friends know, we actually had to bench him for a couple days because he played so much that he was limping.

We are starting to see some progress with crate training. After just a couple days of feeding her meals in the crate, she started racing to the crate when it was time to eat. I’m leaving the door open so she can leave when she wants to—which she does. It will take awhile for her to want to stay in there, but right now, she only has to go in at night (because that’s the only time I can’t watch her). Because we’re all in the same room, she doesn’t complain as much. In fact last night she hardly made a peep. A few whines and then she settled down and slept until she heard me get up around 6:15.

I am a huge fan of Kongs for all kinds of dog training tasks, but I have recently added to my list of favs the Toppl by West Paw Design. The Toppl has a bigger opening and consequently is a bit easier for puppies to empty. I am feeding Maria half her food inside her crate in a bowl, and the other frozen in a Toppl or Kong which keeps her busy in the morning while I do other chores (like feed the rest of the animals). I bought one to try and liked it so much I bought two more so that I can always have one ready.


Toppl by West Paw

Last, I mentioned earlier this week on FB that a new puppy was an opportunity for some creative problem solving. Turns out it’s also an opportunity for some humility and willingness to practice what you preach. How many times have I said to people, set a timer and take your puppy out every 20 minutes unless she’s sleeping. More than I can count.  It took me a few days to follow my own advice, but it is much easier to set the timer than to remember how long it’s been since the last time she went out.



Sources mentioned in this post

Suzanne Clothier, Bones Would Rain from the Sky:  Deepening our Relationships with Dogs

Denise Fenzi, Beyond the Back Yard:  Train your Dog to Listen Anytime, Anywhere!

Kay Laurence, Every Dog, Every Day

Claudine McAuliffe, Mindful Dog Teaching

Kathy Sdao, Plenty in Life is Free

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OMG puppies!

When people find out I volunteer at the shelter, they will often say something like “I could never do that.  It would be too sad.”  And I admit, some days it’s not easy.  But yesterday was not one of those days because–puppies.


I got to spend part of my afternoon hanging out with a litter of five-week-old puppies.  Technically, I was there to help socialize them.  But that pretty much amounted to being buried in puppies and squeeing over their cuteness.

If you’d like to have some of this puppy cuteness for yourself, the Center is looking for fosters.  Visit their Facebook page for more info.

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At the Market


Didn’t have a photo from the market to accompany this post, but here’s Arlo giving a tongue flick (stress signal) in response to my camera.

Arlo can be anxious when he meets other dogs, especially ones he doesn’t know—I think he’s conflicted: he wants to meet them and he doesn’t.   This is not a huge problem, but it is something I’d like to change so that both of us can relax a bit when we’re out in public.   We started inside (with help from our trainer) with CC/DS to a stuffed dog, then reinforcing him for check-ins, then CC/DS with real dogs outside but at a distance, then reinforcing for check-ins with actual dogs first at a distance and then gradually a little closer.  He’s been doing well on walks in our neighborhood, so for the past two weeks, I’ve been working with him at the Farmer’s Market, where there is always a good chance of seeing other dogs. We don’t actually go in to the market area—he’s not ready for that. Instead, we stay in the area across the street so he can see other dogs, but we have good distance and plenty of room to get outta Dodge if necessary. And because it’s a new environment, I’ve gone back to just CC/DS.

The first session went well. The most recent one was less successful, possibly because there was another dog there who was very stressed and barking at all the other dogs. Arlo heard the other dog before he saw him and immediately started whining and worrying. Then he barked at an adorable little dog coming toward us who didn’t even give us a second look.   (This kind of escalation is also known as trigger stacking.)  I needed to get him out of the situation ASAP, so he and my husband took a walk around the block, well away from the stressed out dog and all of the commotion while I did some quick shopping. Interestingly, although they ran into other dogs on their walk, once Arlo was away from the stressed out dog, he was ok. Our walk home was uneventful, so in spite of a rough start, we were able to end on a good note.

I felt sorry for the little dog, though. His owner was oblivious—even laughing at his dog’s stress. He probably didn’t realize the dog was uncomfortable. At least I hope he didn’t.

I love that people can bring dogs to the Farmer’s Market. It’s lovely to see dogs enjoying an outing with their humans. It’s lovely that people want to have their dogs with them, not to mention that we have a dog-friendly Farmer’s Market. But not all dogs enjoy these outings. And I say that as a person with a dog for whom the Market is overwhelming. I hope that with support and training, Arlo will improve, but I also realize he may never be comfortable there.

Another thing I observed at the Market—dogs on choke chains and prong collars. I hate those things, and I wish people would stop using them. Fortunately, there is a lot of information available about the dangers of these devices, and I’ve included some resources at the end of this post.

But if you only read this post: understand that if pinch and prong collars “work” (prevent a dog pulling on the leash), it’s because they hurt the dog. Period. And what concerns me about dogs on these collars in a public space like the Farmer’s  Market is that the collars are adding pain and stress to dogs in what is already a highly stressful environment. So dogs who tolerate the environment are actually learning to associate something negative (pain around the neck) with the environment, and especially with meeting new people (including children) and dogs. And of course dogs who are already anxious about the environment are being made to feel even worse about it. For either kind of dog, these collars are not, in the long run, doing any kind of good. They may make it possible to take a dog to the Farmer’s Market on a given day, but there are costs: pain and the possible association of people and other dogs with that pain.

Also understand that most dogs do not “naturally” walk politely on a leash, especially in a place as distracting as the Farmer’s Market. Neither of my dogs initially had great leash manners—I had to teach them. And that’s how I know that there is better equipment available for teaching leash walking and that doesn’t harm the dog. Two of my favorites are the Freedom Harness and the Ruffwear Front Range Harness.

Apparently when A. was walking Arlo, a woman stopped and asked lots of questions about his harness (he was wearing the Front Range harness).  I hope she was convinced to try it out, or one like it.

Sources and Resources:

“Choke and Prong Collars,” positively.com

“Fallout from the Use of Aversives,” eileenanddogs.com

“Prong Collars,” Glasgow Dog Trainer

Steinker, Angelika and Niki Tudge,“Choke and Prong Collars: Health Concerns Call for Change of Equipment in Dog Training,”