Mama Dogs Don’t Use Treats…..

By Yvette Van Veen

Many people seem enamoured with the idea that we should emulate what dogs do in the wild.  “Mama dogs don’t give treats in the wild,” is one of the more common expressions.  This one carries quite a punch.  People have a natural affinity for natural.

Expressions, analogies, metaphors and idioms can serve various purposes.  They can help explain, illustrate and educate.  At their best, they simplify a complex topic.  They are also used to influence and to persuade.  The “mama dog” line usually falls into the persuade category.  It’s used to convince owners that they should stop using treats and start using corrections – because “that’s what mama dogs do.”

An expression is only valid if it holds up under scrutiny.  Look for holes.  This one is as holey as Swiss cheese.

Truth is, mama dogs don’t use shock collars, choke collars, say “tsssk” or “eh eh eh” either.  Switching from “unnatural” food to leash corrections and shock collars is moving from one unnatural thing to another unnatural thing.

No training technique is “natural” because obedience is not natural.  Nature is cruel.  Emulating nature is to aspire to a system of survive or die.  Find food or die.  Avoid predators or die.  Find shelter or die.  Be fearful enough to avoid moving cars or die.  Nature is more than cruel, it’s damn cruel.  Emulating nature is emulating a life of peril.

Female dogs birth, feed and wean puppies.  Male dogs offer little to no paternal care.  They’re promiscuous, breeding with multiple females.  If they were human, we would call them cheating deadbeat dads.  Pups quickly mature and become pregnant as early as five months of age.   Emulating natural dog care would be called neglect in most modern human cultures.  Let me repeat, nature is cruel.

natural is abuse

Dogs might not use food to teach obedience, but all animals learn with food, even in the wild.  Let’s look at a couple examples.

Imagine it’s garbage day.  After much pawing and fussing, the dog manages to open the latch on a garbage bin.  After opening the container, the dog finds food inside.  Obtaining food reinforces the dog’s biting and pawing behaviours.  With repetition the dog becomes proficient at latch opening behaviour.  Food continues to reinforce latch opening behaviour.  It’s a behaviour that my Kip has taught himself with significant proficiency.


Let’s say that the dog hears people as they drag the bins to the curb.  The banging and clanging scares the dog.  As the street becomes quiet, the dog notices streets lined with food refuse filled bins.  With repetition, the dog learns that the noise predicts a boatload of food.  An association forms between the noise and the food in the garbage bins.  The banging and clanging is no longer scary.  It’s straight forward classical counterconditioning.

The ability to find, obtain and retain food is a necessary skill.  Learning that certain people, places and things predict food – lead us to more food.  Reinforcement with food and classical conditioning are the ways all animals learn whether in the wild or in a home.  Food is as real world as it gets.  Food is really darn functional.

There is no segregation or difference between food and real life reinforcements.  Food is a real life reinforcement.  We are born with a need, desire and love of food.  It keeps us alive.  Food is nourishing, good and pleasurable – or at least it should be.  We’re not feeding cupcakes to dogs.  It’s a bit of meat or cheese – a yummy part of a balanced diet if offered with a dose of common sense.

Despite a dog’s need and love of food, people become worried.  “When can we wean off the food?”  Technically, dogs wean off food when they’re dead.  That is also natural.  Perhaps we should ask instead, “When will you wean off that toy?  When will you wean off massage?  When will you wean your dog off that warning signal that says a correction is possible?  When are you going to wean off that prong collar?”  No one seems too concerned about weaning away from anything BUT food.  It’s an interesting commentary on how we view food.

wean from treats

If “natural” is important to you when choosing a training technique, food is very much a natural way of learning.  It’s one things that lends itself exceptionally well toward positive reinforcement and classical counterconditioning.  Food is a renewable reinforcement.  By that I mean that tomorrow the dog will want to eat again, and the next day and the next day.  Dogs are scavengers.  They’ll eat even when they have just eaten.  There is no need to starve dogs in order to use food.  They’ll eat garbage.  Although I’d suggest using the less natural, “dog treat” instead of rotting compost for training.  Be sure to balance their caloric intake with other unnatural things – on leash walks, agility sessions, dog sports and activities for exercise.

The takeaway for owners is that this industry is full of little expressions and idioms.  They’re designed to persuade and influence you one way or another.  It’s not necessarily the most honest way of presenting information.  A long-winded narrative that illustrates the ugly of living in the wild might not be pleasant to read.  It is bluntly honest about what natural, function and “in the wild” means.

It’s one thing to seek out elements of an animal’s natural habitat that bring it joy or increase welfare.  Give dogs bones.  They love to chew.  Let them stop and sniff some pee mail occasionally.  It’s an entirely different thing to look for harsh live or die examples to justify adding more adversity into a dog’s life so we can call it training under the guise of it being natural.

About the Author

Yvette Van Veen PCT-A is dog behavior consultant and owner of Awesome Dogs, in Dorchester, Ontario, Canada.  She is also a long-time columnist and multiple Dog Writers Association of America award nominee, and currently writes a regular column for The Toronto Star.  She has worked with rescue dogs for more than 14 years, focusing mainly on rural, roaming and feral rescue dogs from communities throughout Ontario and Quebec, Canada.  She is also the creator of Awesome Dogs Shareables, an educational meme site providing resources and training tips in small, shareable formats.

What’s a Functional Assessment in Dog Training? (And Why You Should Care)

Black and brown dog with her head tilted, as if to ask a question

A lot of dog training advice you get on the Internet won’t help.

Pretty strange comment coming from a dog blogger who frequently writes about training, right? But even if people recommend a humane, positive reinforcement-based approach, something is missing that can’t be done in a typical online discussion. That’s the functional assessment.

A functional assessment, or functional behavioral assessment, is a method from the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA). It consists of identifying the functions of a problem behavior through observation and analysis, then making a plan to decrease that behavior and enable a more appropriate one.

Here’s a definition from the textbook that is arguably the “bible” of ABA:

Functional behavior assessment: A systematic method of assessment for obtaining information about the purposes (functions) a problem behavior serves for a person; results are used to guide the design of an intervention for decreasing the problem behavior and increasing appropriate behavior. — Applied Behavior Analysis, Cooper, Heron, & Heward. Second Edition, 2014.

Board Certified Behavior Analysts perform functional assessments of human behavior. Knowledgeable animal trainers, including dog trainers, do functional assessments when dealing with problem animal behaviors. (BCBAs also do something called functional analysis, which is not as common in animal training and I’m not going to cover it here.)

In most countries, anyone can hang out a shingle and call herself a dog trainer. The public needs tools to distinguish between the pain-based trainers, the charlatans, the wannabes, the well-intentioned—and the knowledgeable and ethical dog trainers. To that end, some of us online have created resources to assess professional dog trainers. I have links to some others at the end of this post.

One way to tell is that any knowledgeable and ethical dog trainer will perform a functional assessment before intervening in a dog’s behavior. They may not call it by that name, and they may or may not use scientific terminology when discussing it with you. If they do use scientific terminology, they will define it and won’t just start throwing it at you.

This post will teach you to recognize the process of a functional assessment and thereby help you know whether you have an informed trainer advising you.

word cloud for functional assessment terms like reinforcement punishment observation

Start with the Behavior

A knowledgeable trainer needs to know what the problem behavior is, what prompts it, and what it accomplishes. The first thing a qualified trainer will usually ask you about is the behavior itself. All other questions are pointless unless she has a really good description of the behavior. Not in vague terms like, “The dog is acting dominant,” or “I think he’s being protective.” Those are interpretations, not observations. The trainer will ask you in detail about exactly what the dog is doing. She needs to be able to visualize the behavior from your description.

The questions in this section and following are typical of what a trainer may ask. A trainer may not ask all of them, since some may not apply to your situation. They are a sampling of what type of questions to expect. And remember: you can ask the trainer questions, too! A good trainer will take the time to clarify whatever you ask about.

If you say your dog pulls on leash, she may ask how hard and in what directions. Does he forge ahead or lag behind? What does the behavior look like? What does it feel like to be on the other end of the leash? Does the dog vocalize? What else is the dog doing while pulling? Is there a way to measure anything about the behavior? What do you observe about the dog’s body language? Tail carriage? Vigilance? She will probably ask you questions to determine whether the dog is scared or not. Does he seem to be trying to get to something or away from something?


She’ll likely ask you where and under what circumstances the dog pulls. How often does it happen? She may what kind of gear you use.  Does he do it when different people walk him? What happens just before the walk? How do you start off the walk? What time of day is it? What is in the environment when you walk? Who and what else is out there? These are questions about antecedents: what sets the stage for the behavior?

For instance, a doorbell ringing might be an antecedent to your dog barking wildly at the door. A fire hydrant in sight might be an antecedent to your dog’s pulling harder on-leash. The trainer needs to know, in detail, what is setting the stage for the dog’s behavior.


Then come the questions about consequences. She’ll try to determine whether the dog is pulling towards a goal. She may ask you what he does if you just “give him his head.” She’ll likely ask what you have tried to modify the behavior. She may create a way to measure the frequency or intensity of the behavior and ask you to track it or make estimates.

The trainer wants to know what the dog is getting from performing the behavior. She must know the consequences before she can create a plan to change the behavior. Humane trainers will either help you train the dog another way to get those consequences, or set up other consequences the dog enjoys (aka positive reinforcement) to take the place of the ones she is seeking on her own.

The Big Picture

The trainer will also probably ask you the backstory, even if you have already filled out paperwork. She’ll ask about the dog’s history with you and what you know of his history before you had him. Depending on the behavior you contacted her about, she may ask questions about the dog’s medical history. The leash example is not a good one for this, but what if your dog has started to refuse to jump in the car to go on a trip? Or has suddenly stopped playing with his favorite buddy, or growls when you reach out to pet him? Trainers are not veterinarians, but because medical problems are at the root of some behavior problems, their first recommendation to you may be that you take the dog to a vet.

The trainer’s goal is to get the best picture possible of the problem behavior and the circumstances surrounding it.

In some cases, she will ask to see it, but be aware that sometimes she won’t. If it’s something like leash pulling she may want to observe it and test the dog herself. But if you have called her because your dog growled at your child, she definitely won’t. If it’s a dangerous behavior or if you have to scare your dog to prompt it, she will not want a demonstration. But she will want to observe your dog in other situations and interact with him in order to gather more information about his general behavior. If there are safe ways for her to check aspects of the problem behavior by handling him herself and make direct observations, she may do so.

What a Difference a Functional Assessment Makes

Dogs pull on leash for different reasons. So let’s consider four leash pulling dogs. A functional assessment might illuminate the following.

  • Dog A pulls wildly in the direction of home and appears scared.
  • Dog B pulls constantly ahead of his person because his normal pace is fast. He loves to run.
  • Dog C pulls only when he sees squirrels.
  • Dog D pulls constantly to one side. She has dementia.

small black and white dog pulling on leash

Skilled trainers would design very different training and management plans for all of these situations.

Pulling based on fear, differences in speed of gait between the dog and the handler, response to a potent distraction,  and cognitive decline would necessitate completely different approaches.

The Trouble with Internet Advice, Tools, and Protocols

This should be obvious by now, right? If your dog has Behavior Problem X and you post in a Facebook group asking for advice, you will get plenty. And it may include links to some excellent blogs and YouTube videos with well thought-out advice (along with some stuff that is probably not as good, and possibly some stuff that is horrifying). What’s the problem with the good stuff? The advice won’t take your dog’s individual situation into account. And if you are a beginning trainer, you won’t know how to do the functional assessment yourself. You won’t know what is relevant and important to describe about your dog’s situation. You also won’t have the knowledge about dog behavior from an ethological perspective that a professional will.

Beginning trainers (and some not so beginning ones!) also don’t know how to create a training plan. A professional trainer will create a plan to set criteria, track repetitions, and break down the components of a behavior so as to set intermediate goals (approximations of the final behavior) as benchmarks. She will teach you the mechanical skills to implement your part of the plan and help you practice.

So if you have the scared leash-pulling dog and your only resource is the Internet, you could follow the best thought-out, most humane, most straightforward loose leash walking method there is, but it probably wouldn’t work. And even with your good intentions, it might not be humane. You would be taking your dog repeatedly to an environment where he is scared, trying to teach him something challenging when he just wants to run home.

Without a functional behavioral assessment, trying to change behavior is a shot in the dark. Our dogs deserve better.  I hope this description helps shed a little light on the science of learning theory and how to determine whether a trainer you are interviewing or have hired knows their stuff.

Related Posts

Thank you to the people who read drafts and offered advice about this post. 

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

Retractable Leashes Are Risky

Judging by the number of people I see walking dogs with retractable leash devices on their dogs it appears the product is popular. They are also unsafe.

As Dr. Karen Becker describes them “A retractable leash is not so much a leash as it is a length of thin cord wound around a spring-loaded device housed inside a plastic handle” in her article “10 Reasons Not to Use a Retractable Leash.”

Photo: Flexi Explore Retractable Dog Leash

Photo: Flexi Explore Retractable Dog Leash

The length of the retractable cord varies from 15-30 feet, and may be locked in place. Pet stewards have told me the variable length appeals to them so they may keep their dog close or let them go sniff about.

But the variable length is also one of the most dangerous features of the product.

First, there may be a local ordinance restricting the length of the leash. Second, non-professional dog handlers often lack the situational awareness, timing and motor skills to lock the cord under exigent circumstances. Third, if the dog bolts or the handler jerks the leash serious injury may occur to the dog or those who may be entangled in the long cord. Fourth, every retractable leash I ever owned broke…leaving me with my dog 20 feet away and no safe way for me to shorten the lead.

While driving to an appointment one afternoon I observed an older lady walking her two small dogs on the sidewalk. The lady was paying no attention to either dog, both of whom were walking in different directions. One dog wandered about six feet into the street before the lady noticed, and then she jerked on the leash as a punishment to the dog.

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

The dog could have been struck by a vehicle, as happened when a motorcycle struck a dog who was treated by Dr. Garret Pachtinger, a critical care specialist. He suspects the dog was hurt more by the yanked leash than the motorcycle collision.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg wrote “Why Retractable Leashes Are Dangerous” expressing her concern, “I don’t think most people realize how many injuries they have caused.”

In a Consumer Reports News article the author wrote “In 2007 there were 16,564 hospital-treated injuries associated with leashes, according to Consumer Union’s analysis of statistics collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Of those, about 10.5 percent involved children 10 and younger; 23.5 percent involved injuries to the finger. The CPSC’s data does not parse the leashes into types but it’s likely that the amputations were caused by retractable leashes.

Photo: PlanetPaws

Photo: PlanetPaws

The most common injuries reported were burns and cuts, usually sustained when the cord came in contact with skin as it rapidly reeled out from the handle of a leash. Others occurred when the cord got wrapped around part of the owner or the dog.

Dr. Pachtinger stated two types of (canine) injuries are most common. “The first is muscular, such as a neck strain or sprain; the other is a cervical intervertebral disc herniation, which can be more severe. “ UCDAVIS Veterinary Medicine published a fact sheet detailing cervical disc herniation.



Massage Therapist Eri Suzaki wrote “Concern For Leash Jerking On Dogs – From a Canine Anatomy Stand Point” stating “Leash jerking is still used and recommended by many dog trainers today…but I really don’t see the benefit of it.”

Whether the handler intentionally jerks the leash, or presses the lock button as the dog has bolted, or tries to yank the dog back to them, the damage is the same.

On another occasion as I was driving along a four-lane boulevard with a 35-mph speed limit I stopped in the left lane as a man crossed the street in a marked crosswalk with his German Shepherd. The dog walked beside the man on a loose leash and as he passed in front of my car the man waved in appreciation for yielding the right of way.

With his next step into the right lane a van whizzed by and the man had to suddenly jump back, with his dog still beside him. Clearly the man and his dog had a strong training history and he did not have to yank on the leash. Had the dog been on a longer lead ahead of the man, as is nearly always the case with folks using retractable leashes, the dog would have been killed.

There are other hazards such as when the handler drops the large plastic handle. One of my clients took her leash-reactive dog into the neighborhood on a retractable leash. When her dog bolted at something she lost her grip. The leash hit the sidewalk with a loud sound and then retracted, striking her dog.

The terrified dog ran out of view and was found one hour later, by a search party. The leash had become entangled in shrubs at the edge of the city, where there was little chance he would be discovered by any passerby.

Several other clients told me how they were cut by retractable leashes, and my veterinarian reported treating dogs with deep lacerations due to these devices.

My recommendation is to use a no-pull chest harness with a six foot nylon or leather leash. For those who want their dogs to enjoy the benefits of sniffing and exploring at a distance I recommend a long training lead, and then show them how to safely use it.

Retractable leashes are not often thought of as aversive (shock/prong/choke collars) equipment but they certainly can cause serious harm to people and pets alike.

The Pet Professional Guild Position Statement on the Use of Shock in Animal Training

Shock Free Coalition Social Media Graphics_007It is Pet Professional Guild’s (PPG) view that electric shock in the guise of training constitutes a form of abuse towards pets, and, given that there are highly effective, positive training alternatives, should no longer be a part of the current pet industry culture of accepted practices, tools or philosophies. In this position statement, PPG will combine decades of research with the opinions of certified animal behaviorists, and highlight the question of ethics to explain why using electric shock in the name of training and care is both ineffective and harmful.

Behavior Problems

Since its inception in 2012, PPG has never wavered from its position that “the use of electronic stimulation, or ‘shock’ or ‘e-collars’ to care for, manage and train/modify the behavior of pet animals is completely unnecessary.” According to The Kennel Club (2017), “electric training collars are already banned in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Germany and in some states in Australia,” as well as Finland and parts of Canada (Stilwell, n.d.), and Wales (Welsh Government, 2016). Nevertheless, shocking pet dogs remains a common, if controversial, training practice in many other countries.

The British Veterinary Association and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association both recommend “against the use of electronic shock collars and other aversive methods for the training and containment of animals” and state that shocks “and other aversive stimuli received during training may not only be acutely stressful, painful and frightening for the animals, but may also produce long-term adverse effects on behavioural and emotional responses.” (British Small Animal Veterinary Association, 2012).

In PPG’s view, the general pet-owning public must be better served by professional organizations and associations to help them ensure their pets live in nurturing and stable environments where they are able to maintain a positive emotional state and feel safe. This will, in turn, play a significant role in preventing behavior problems and enhancing dog bite safety protocols.

Depending on an individual dog’s genetics, environment and early learning experiences, behavior problems may still occur, in spite of an owner’s best efforts. Pet owners need to be aware that such issues can be consistently, reliably and effectively resolved — or at the very least successfully managed — with the implementation of humane, modern, science-based training methods based on positive reinforcement, and without the use of any form of so-called electronic stimulation. (Note: For the purposes of this document, electronic stimulation devices include –but are not limited to — products often referred to as e-collars, training collars, shock collars, e-touch, stimulation, tingle, TENS unit collar, remote trainers, and e-prods.) A positive reinforcer is a stimulus such as food, games, treats, toys (i.e. anything that the dog considers to be a reward) that, when presented following a behavior, makes it more likely that the same behavior will be repeated (Burch & Bailey, 1999).

In 2018, can there really still be a debate over the issue of using pain as a “method” of animal training? Decades of peer-reviewed, scientific studies show, whether discussing dogs, humans, dolphins or elephants, that electric shock as a form of training to teach or correct a behavior is ineffective at best, and physically and psychologically damaging at worst. Renowned board certified animal behaviorist and veterinarian, Dr. Karen Overall (2005) states: “There are now terrific scientific and research data that show the harm that shock collars can do behaviorally. At the July 2005, International Veterinary Behavior Meeting, held in conjunction with the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and American College of Veterinary Behaviorists research meetings, data were presented by E. Schalke, J. Stichnoth, and R. Jones-Baade that documented these damaging effects…There is no longer a reason for people to remain misinformed. Let me make my opinion perfectly clear: Shock is not training – in the vast majority of cases it meets the criteria for abuse.” Ziv (2017) condenses a number of studies and surveys to review the data on the relationship between the use of electronic collars and dogs’ behavior and concludes that, “given the available data and in order to avoid risking the dogs’ welfare, trainers should avoid using electronic collars when training dogs.”

The Use and Application of Shock

Applying an electric shock provides no effective strategy for an animal to learn a new or alternative behavior; it simply inflicts pain and risks making him fearful, anxious and/or aggressive. Generally speaking, a pet owner’s main goals when shocking their pet are, firstly, to punish perceived misbehavior in the moment and, secondly, reduce future recurrences of the undesirable behavior. Shocking is a form of punishment and, as such, can only, achieve the first goal — harshly. In the absence of a constructional approach whereby new and more appropriate behaviors are built, most punishment outside a laboratory environment (where all components can be systematically manipulated) is extremely unreliable and encased by unintended consequences.

There can be no doubt that electric shock is a punisher, and for punishment to be effective as a means to training a dog — or any other animal — there are three critical elements that must be fulfilled: consistency, timing and intensity. First, the punishment must occur every time the unwanted behavior occurs. Second, it must be administered within, at most, a second or two of the behavior. Third, it must be unpleasant enough to stop the behavior. To reiterate, in the real world outside science laboratories, meeting these three criteria is virtually impossible for a dog training professional, and most certainly for a dog owner. Citing a variety of studies, Ziv (2017) concludes that “even when experienced trainers operate [shock] collars, the welfare of the dogs could be compromised,” and states it to be “likely that the threat to dogs’ welfare would be even greater in the hands of unskilled dog owners, who might lack the timing and consistency needed for this type of training to be successful…due to the aversive nature of these devices and the likelihood of training ineffectiveness, their use can be abusive.”

The Consequences of Using Shock

Pets are cognitive, intelligent creatures that experience emotions such as fear, anxiety, and joy. They are subject to the same laws of applied behavior analysis (ABA) as any other living organism. According to psychology professor, Dr. Susan Friedman, who has pioneered the application of ABA to captive and companion animals: “Punishment doesn’t teach learners what to do instead of the problem behavior. Punishment doesn’t teach caregivers how to teach alternative behaviors. Punishment is really two aversive events – the onset of a punishing stimulus and the forfeiture of the reinforcer that has maintained the problem behavior in the past.” (Friedman, 2010). Especially troubling for pet professionals is that punishment requires an increase in the intensity of the aversive stimulus for it to have any have any hope of maintaining behavior reduction.

Forcing dogs to comply to avoid being shocked does not enhance the canine-human relationship, nor does it create an environment where healthy learning can take place. Rather, a pet repeatedly subjected to aversive stimulation, shock, may go into a state of “shut down,” or a global suppression of behavior. This is frequently mistaken for a “trained” pet, as the pet may remain subdued and offer few or no behaviors. In extreme cases, pets may refuse to perform any behavior at all, known as “learned helplessness.” In such cases, animals may try to isolate themselves to avoid incurring the aversive stimulation. This is evidently counterproductive to training new, more acceptable behaviors. (O’Heare, 2011).

Some common problems resulting from the use of electronic stimulation devices include, but are not limited to:

Infliction of Stress and Pain

Even at the lowest setting, electronic stimulation devices present an unknown stimulus to pets which is, at best, neutral and, at worse, frightening and/or painful. In many instances the shock is completely unpredictable for the pet, who does not know when or why it is coming. This can only add to overall levels of fear and stress. Pets conform under the shock stimulus in order to escape or avoid the terrifying and/or painful electric shock. Avoidance learning is very real and the threat of pain is just as capable of inducing stress, fear and emotional damage as the pain itself. By definition this makes the stimulus aversive.(Note: Aversive means something unpleasant or frightening that the pet seeks to avoid or escape, as opposed to a pleasant stimulus that a pet seeks out voluntarily.) In addition, electronic stimulation regularly causes physiological pain and psychological stress, often exhibited by vocalization, urination, defecation, fleeing, or complete shut-down. In extreme cases, electronic stimulation devices have also been known to cause muscle contraction and respiratory and cardiac paralysis (Overall, 2013).

Global Suppression or “Shut-Down”

A pet repeatedly subjected to aversive stimulation may go into a state of “shut down,” or a global suppression of behavior. This is frequently mistaken for a “trained” pet, as the pet remains subdued and offers few, or no behaviors. In extreme cases, pets may refuse to perform any behavior at all, known as “learned helplessness.” In such cases, pets may try to isolate themselves to avoid incurring the aversive stimulation. This is evidently counterproductive to training new, more acceptable behaviors (O’Heare, 2011).


For new, more appropriate behaviors to become reliable in random environments, they must be accessed, reinforced and then practiced so a pet is able to transfer them to any context or situation (known as “generalization”). When using shock to train or manage a pet, the pet must be repeatedly subjected to the aversive stimulus for the behavior to appear resolved, when it is, in fact, only suppressed. In such cases, the pet still has not learned a more appropriate alternative behavior. In addition, as the pet is most likely still experiencing a negative emotional state, such as fear or anxiety, he is susceptible to even more problematic behavior fallout.


If a change in behavior is not seen immediately, users of aversive tools and those inexperienced in behavior fallout often opt to increase the frequency, duration or intensity of the application. Unfortunately, this can only result in the pet attempting to escape or avoid the stimulus with even greater intensity, thus often compounding or exaggerating the problem behavior for which the shock was applied to resolve. This creates a counterproductive paradigm whereby the pet simply learns to fear the stimulus, the context, and/or the person delivering it. In addition, some pets tend to be “stoic” and may fail to show any kind of fear response, irrespective of increased levels of anxiety or frustration. There is also the risk that pets may become habituated to the sense of fear or anxiety, once again causing the trainer or owner to increase the level and/or frequency of the aversive stimulus. It has been scientifically proven that fear and stress caused in such situations can have a significant effect on a pet’s well-being due to increasing cortisol levels and heart rate, not to mention the psychological impact (O’Heare, 2005).

Redirected Aggression

Pets subjected to repeated aversive stimulation may be respondently conditioned to associate the fear and/or pain with certain contextual cues in their environment. As an example, using an aversive sound such as an air horn to interrupt barking risks pairing the owner or trainer with the unpleasant stimulus and, in particular, the hand or arm that is reaching out while using the tool. Repeated instances may generalize to the pet attempting to flee. If the pet feels, however, that flight is not possible or a safe or reliable course of action, he may instead start acting aggressively toward any arm or hand movement, or any approach behavior whatsoever. O’Heare (2007) discusses that “shock can create significant levels of frustration and reduce the dog’s bite threshold.” O’Heare cites a study by Polsky (2000) where data implies that electric shock containment fencing elicits redirected aggression in dogs with no aggressive history.

Suppressed Aggression

The use of aversive stimuli is counterindicated in pets with aggression. This is because the behavior may only be suppressed rather than extinguished, and may thus resurface at any time without warning, generally in a more severe display. Using aversive stimuli to reduce behaviors, such as barking, lunging and growling may suppress signals that warn of a more serious, and potentially imminent behavior, such as biting. Without ritualized aggression behaviors, people and other pets will receive no warning before the pet subjected to punishment feels forced to resort to biting.

PPG holds that desensitization and counterconditioning are the only ethical and effective paradigms in which to treat aggression in pets. Protocols such as these help positively impact the pet’s emotional state from one of fear and/or anxiety to one that is more happy and relaxed, and thus able to learn new behaviors.

Best Practice

a)     Transparency and Consumer Advocacy

Many shock collar trainers market themselves under verbiage and marketing slogans such as “force-free,” “positive relationship,” “natural methods,” “relationship building,” “positive only,” “no food necessary,” and so on. These are all taglines that are bandied around the industry, but mislead unsuspecting owners looking for humane ways to train their pets. They are carefully crafted to appeal to pet guardians who may not always understand the various training methods available, or the fallout and unintended consequences of making the wrong choice. They thus do not provide consumers the autonomy to make ethical decisions on behalf of their pets. This, compounded with the inability of a pet to offer informed consent, further questions the ethics of such training practices. The foundation of anyone working in behavioral sciences must always be to do no harm, and, wherever possible “practitioners should base their choices of training methods on scientific data.” (Ziv, 2017).

b)     Scientific Training Methods: “Do No Harm” must become aligned with “Do Good”

All animals are motivated by food. Food is necessary for survival. It is therefore a powerful primary reinforcer and a critical component when used correctly as part of a strategic training or management plan. For behavior consultants who engage in behavior change programs where it is necessary to change a pet’s emotional reaction to a problematic stimulus, food is essential. When modifying observable behaviors such as growling, lunging and biting that are often manifestations of a fearful and/or anxious emotional state, the goal must be to change the underlying emotional response, thus enabling the dog to learn a new, more appropriate behavior.

It is frequently misunderstood that fear is an emotion and not a behavior. One cannot simply “train it out.” Indeed, fear is often the underlying emotional state to aggressive behavior, and requires the implementation of a different set of scientific protocols and a greater understanding of emotional learning and animal behavior. A review of the scientific literature recommends the use of food as a reinforcer in desensitization and counterconditioning protocols that are specifically aimed at addressing the underlying emotions of fear and/or anxiety. In reality, using food to counter condition emotional responses is the most widely accepted method for treating fear-based behaviors (Overall, 2013).

c)      Humane Hierarchy

A common trend across professional animal training and behavior associations is the promotion and application of a so-called humane hierarchy, and there are several versions available. A number of key animal behavior and training associations promote the use of a specific hierarchy to their membership, and deem it acceptable to move up through the hierarchy when working with owners and their pets. Some humane hierarchy models are accompanied by pages of explanation, detail and academic citations, while others are wonderfully graphic and detail each level. Levels generally start using management strategies and antecedent control moving then to positive reinforcement, i.e. rewarding a desirable behavior to increase the likelihood of that behavior being repeated, and eventually build up to positive punishment (which would include electric shock) to stop an undesirable behavior via the use of force or pain or any other aversive (to the animal) means. Members of any given professional body are encouraged to work within the guidelines of these hierarchies, and they are promoted to members as a tool to utilize when initiating training and behavior change programs.

O’Heare (2014) presents that the least intrusive effective behavior intervention (LIEBI) model is “proposed as a ‘best practice,’ because of its careful attention to ethical responsibility… Considerately working through the process of finding the least intrusive effective intervention is a wise choice, partly because it avoids excess side effects associated with highly intrusive methods.” However, if so-called humane hierarchies work in isolation from any non-negotiable best practices or ethical guidelines, ultimately they fail the pet, the owner, the professional, and the entire industry. Progressing up the hierarchy to more invasive and aversive protocols is merely a matter of time for individuals who are not proficient in their craft, or do not have the requisite scientific knowledge or education to understand why this strategy is so problematic in the first place. Other professionals simply skip through the levels, preferring to commence their training programs using the most aversive and invasive tools at hand.


It is important not be fooled by deceptive marketing terms (e.g. vibrating, e-touch, stimulation, tingle, static) for shock collars. The primary reason shock collars are effective in stopping behavior is because they are painful, and it is time for pet professionals to stop inflicting pain masquerading as training, and take shock off the table once and for all. Rather, by focusing on education and advocacy to ensure a better-informed pet owner who seeks out humane alternatives, consumer demand would automatically be reduced, and real progress could be made in reaching the end goal.

Ziv (2017) notes that there is “no evidence to suggest that aversive training methods are more effective than reward based training methods” and that, in fact, studies suggest “the opposite might be true  in both pets and working dogs.” Ziv (2017) suggests a new line of research to “examine how humane, reward-based methods can be improved in order to facilitate better communication between humans and dogs. In turn, such outcomes will allow dogs to modulate their stress, and at the same time improve their ability to effectively understand and respond to the behavior displayed towards them.”

Indeed, we now have enough research to conclude that using fear or physical punishment in the name of training or care of our pets is ineffective and potentially harmful (in some cases, lethal). We also know that countless professional organizations and industry experts condemn physical punishment and urge pet owners to seek professionals who advocate for and, instead, practice positive behavior modification.  

However, there is a third reason to advocate against the use of physical punishment, and that is a moral one. Most pet owners, if asked, would most likely say they do not punish their pets, or deliberately place them in frightening situations to try to encourage new, or more appropriate behaviors. Yet the same owners will unwittingly take advice from training professionals who practice “methods” such as hitting, shocking and physically correcting a pet using a leash, or an array of aversive tools. By using different terminology, a professional may feel justified in physically punishing a pet while dispensing corresponding advice to pet owners, without acknowledging that he/she is, in fact, damaging the pet’s physical and mental well-being.

In civilized society, it is generally agreed that physical behavior is not an effective or acceptable way for adults to resolve their differences. Bearing this in mind, it should come as no surprise that physically correcting pets, like hitting children or adults, causes more problems than it solves, such as the many outlined above. It is time to stop physically harming our pets in the name of training. By working together, professional animal training and behavior associations have the ability to achieve this, and successfully reach the ultimate goal, which must be to do no harm to the animals in our charge, and improve the welfare of pets all over the world.

*For the purposes of this document, electronic stimulation devices include –but are not limited to — products often referred to as e-collars, training collars, shock collars, e-touch, stimulation, tingle, TENS unit collar, remote trainers, and e-prods.

Written by Niki Tudge and Susan Nilson © 2016

For more information, please see

Join the Shock-FreeCoalition to make the use of electric shock in animal training a thing of the past.


British Small Animal Veterinary Association. (2012). Position Statement on Aversive Training Methods (Electronic and Other Aversive Collars). Position Statement No. 31.

Burch, M., & Bailey, J. (1999). How Dogs Learn. New York, NY: Wiley Publishing Inc.

Friedman, S. (2010, March). What’s Wrong with This Picture? Effectiveness Is Not EnoughAPDT Journal.

O’Heare, J. (2011). Empowerment Training. Ottawa, ON: BehaveTech Publishing.

O’Heare, J. (2007). Aggressive Behavior in Dogs. Ottawa, ON: BehaveTech Publishing.

O’Heare, J. (2005). Canine Neuropsychology. Ottawa, ON: DogPsych Publishing.

O’Heare, J. (2014). The least intrusive effective behavior intervention (LIEBI) algorithm and levels of intrusiveness table: a proposed best practices model. Version 6.0.

Overall, K.L. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders.

Overall, K.L. (2005). An open letter from Dr. Karen Overall regarding the use of shock collars.

Polsky, R. (2010). Can Aggression in Dogs Be Elicited Through the Use of Electronic Pet Containment Systems? Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (3) 4 345-357

Stilwell, V. (n.d.). Shock Collars.

The Kennel Club. (2017). Electric Shock Collars.

Welsh Government. (2016). Electronic Shock Collars.

Ziv, G. (2017). The Effects of Using Aversive Training Methods in Dogs – A ReviewJournal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research (19) 50-60. 


Azrin, N.H., Rubin, H.B., & Hutchinson, R.R. (1968, September). Biting Attack by Rats In Response To Aversive ShockJournal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (11) 633-639.

Beerda, B., Schilder, M., van Hooff, J., de Vriesa, H., & Mola, J. (1998, July). Behavioral, saliva cortisol, and heart rate responses to different types of stimuli in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science (58) 365–381.

Blackwell, E., & Casey, R. (2006). The use of shock collars and their impact on the welfare of dogs. University of Bristol.

Dale, S. (2000).Vets on Behavior Proclaim, Never Use Shock Collar.

Englert, K. (n.d.). The Use of Electric Shock Collars vs. Other Training Methods: Efficacy, Stress, and Welfare Concerns.

Hiby, E.F. Rooney, N.J., & Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004, February). Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfareAnimal Welfare (13) 1 63-69(7).

Miller, P. (2006, February). Shock or AweWhole Dog Journal.

Miller, P. (1999, May). Electronic devices and aversive-laden collars are NOT the ideal fenceWhole Dog Journal.

Pet Professional Guild. (2012). Guiding Principles.

Pet Professional Guild. (2012). Defining, Determining and Maintaining Best Practices within Our Force Free Organization.

Schalke, E., Stichnoth, J., Ott, S., & Jones-Baade, R. (2007, July). Clinical signs caused by the use of electric training collars on dogs in everyday life situationsApplied Animal Behaviour Science (105) 4 369–380.

Schilder, M., & van der Borg, J. (2004). Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects. Applied Animal Behaviour Science (85) 319–334.


Encouraging Play and Activity with Newly Blind Dogs

By Debbie Bauer

When a dog loses his or her sense of sight, their whole world changes.  There are many things that dogs can do without their sight, but dogs that started out sighted and are now blind are often confused and maybe even fearful when they can no longer see.  They can’t interact with their world the way they used to.

Most likely, they knew landmarks around the house and yard by sight, they knew family members by their mannerisms and how they moved, they could see the steps were nearby, or that there was a curb or obstacle in front of them on their walk.  Now, all that visual information has disappeared.


It is a fairly common concern to pet parents that their dog appears depressed and may stop interacting with their world in the special ways they used to.  There is, of course, going to be a time of transition when the dog will begin to relearn how to navigate by a different map.  They will create a mental map, now relying more on smell and tactile information such as surfaces, air currents, and feeling their way around.

There are ways that we can help our dog through this transition and encourage them to stay engaged with daily activities, to play, and to be active.

The very first thing to consider, is that our dogs are very in tune with us and they take their cues from us.  When we are worried about our dogs, and sad because they’ve lost their sight (which is normal for us to do), our dogs can sense these emotions in us.  Our mood and our thoughts and feelings always affect our dogs.  It is normal for us to grieve when our dog loses its sight.  And it’s healthy for us to grieve.  There are many wonderful groups on social media particularly centered around dogs that are blind.  These are great resources, and they are also great support systems.  You can talk with people who will understand what you’re going through, who can help you problem-solve, and who can tell you stories to give you hope.

It’s OK to comfort your dog if she’s feeling confused or scared.  You won’t make her feelings worse.  She needs to know you’re there for her.  Help her to feel safe and loved.  But also help her to feel empowered and confident in herself.  Teach her the skills she needs to know to become self-sufficient again.

It may be overwhelming for your dog to try to navigate the entire house and yard suddenly without sight.  It’s often helpful to give your dog a smaller area to learn to navigate first. You can use gates or ex pens to create smaller areas for her to safely explore at first. And it is very helpful to have your dog wear a harness so you can easily help guide her along routes in the house and yard that she will use often.  Go at her speed, and help her to avoid obstacles.  It’s no fun for anyone to run face-first into a doorway or a table.

With consistent guidance, she will begin to learn how those routes smell, how they feel to her feet, and how many steps to take between point A and point B.  Try to keep furniture and the layout of her world the same.  Keep her food and water in the same place, her bed where it has always been, etc.  As she learns these routes, you will find you need to guide her less and less until she can do it herself.  This will give her confidence.

Encourage play with favorite toys as she is ready.  I use longer plush toys, so there is room for my hand at one end, and still plenty of room at the other end for the dog to grab the toy without grabbing my hand (because she can’t see it).  Will she chase it if you toss it across the room like you used to?  Perhaps.  But it is more likely that you will need to learn a new way of playing with her.  Move the toy back and forth near her, but touch her with it playfully as you pull it around on her level.  Let it move over her paws so she can feel it moving and be tempted to grab at it.  If she can hear, use your voice to excite her in the same ways you used to so she recognizes this is a game.

Many blind dogs enjoy light tug of war games with toys.  This way, she can play while keeping the toy in her mouth where she can keep track of it.  Some enjoy chasing toys that make noises as they move – giggle balls, balls with bells inside (always supervised!), stuffed toys that continue to make noises after they are squeezed, etc.  Most enjoy toys that can be stuffed with yummy treats to tempt their noses and taste buds.  These can be played with as toys, used as enrichment activities, hidden around the room for her to sniff out and find, etc.

Blind dogs still enjoy going for walks and outings.  If she liked to ride in the car, continue to take her out and about.  Don’t stop doing her favorite things just because she can’t see.  She will enjoy the smells of going some place new, the breeze in her face, the lick of your ice cream.  If your dog is reluctant to walk, take it slow.  Just take her out and go at her pace.  There’s no place you need to go in a hurry, right?  Just let her explore at her pace.

Give her time to acclimate to the new surroundings.  Maybe sit with her and read a book if you need  something to occupy the time while you wait.  She will eventually step out and begin sniffing around.  This creates confidence, and if you do it often, she will begin to go farther and farther.  Your dog may appreciate it if you wear a small bell or a set of keys on your belt loop when you are out for a walk so she can easily hear and keep track of you.

Take time to reteach her how to walk with you on a leash.  I prefer to use a harness with a leash attached to both the front ring and the back ring at the same time.  One end of the leash to each attachment point.  If your leash only has one clip, you can use a lightweight carabiner clip on the handle end of your leash to attach it to the harness. This allows your dog to receive more information about where you are, how fast you’re going,etc.  Your dog probably kept track of you on walks by sight in the past.  Now she will need to relearn how to use her other senses to keep track of you – by smell, by hearing where you are, and by feeling you through the leash.

Teach her verbal and/or touch cues to help her navigate her world.  Teach her to stop and wait, to step up or down for a curb or a set of steps, etc.  These will help her understand her world better, and will help you to keep her safe.



Enrichment activities are important for any dog, but can really help to increase a blind dog’s confidence and interest in the world around her.  You can use your dog’s regular meals to encourage toy play by putting her food in the many varieties of puzzle toys that are available.  You can even make your own in some cases.

Enrichment activities can use all the senses she has available.  So taste of course, and smell is very important.  Snuffle mats are great for encouraging sniffing and searching.  You can teach her to search out treats or toys you hide (easy at first and then making the game more challenging) in the house or yard, or even out on your walks.

If your dog can hear, try hanging a wind chime, or playing music.  And touch is important too – helping her to feel confident on all surfaces will go a long way toward helping her be more active.  A dog that is not confident walking across tile floors, for instance, is more likely to remain in her bed than venture out and risk walking on one.  Even if she used to walk on your kitchen floor, she may be hesitant to now.  Remember, this is new for her to experience the same floor but through different sensory input.

Teach your dog new things!  This will help get her up and active and engaged with you and her environment.  There are so many ideas here in this blog!  Have a look and pick something you’d like to teach your dog.

Tellington TTouch, massage and other calming touch, and modalities such as Healing Touch for Animals, will help reduce your dog’s anxiety and stress, and will help her to relax.  A relaxed dog will be more likely to try new things and to play.  Plus, these are techniques you can learn to do yourself with your dog, so they will also help to relax you at the same time!

I’ve written many posts on my blog about enrichment activities, food toys, and even teaching leash walking to a blind/deaf dog, that may be useful to you during this time of transition.  The most important thing to remember is that this IS a time of transition.  For you and your dog.  Be patient and be kind in guiding her and helping her.  Allow yourself to grieve, and then, allow yourself to empower your dog.  Empower her to be confident and to try new things, and cheer her on every step of the way.

About the Author

Debbie Bauer, HTACP, operates Your Inner Dog in the Effingham, Illinois area and has over 25 years of teaching and consulting experience working with dogs and their people. She specializes in working with dogs that display shy, fearful and reactive behaviors and also has extensive experience working with dogs with special abilities, including deaf and blind/deaf dogs. Bauer has trained dogs in a variety of fields, including therapy work, flyball, herding, print ad and media work, obedience, rally, agility, musical freestyle, conformation, lure coursing, tricks and scent work. She has over 13 years of experience with custom-training assistance dogs, including medical alert dogs, to match the specific needs of each person.  Her special interest lies in educating the public about dogs which are homozygous merle (often called double merle), and about how deaf, blind, and deaf/blind dogs can live happy fulfilled lives as part of a family.  

Clicker Training for Cats (5/6)

By Paula Garber and Francine Miller

Introducing Cats to Each Other

When introducing cats to each other, clicker training helps boost positive associations between them. © Can Stock Photo/DragoNika

When introducing cats to each other, clicker training helps boost positive associations between them. © Can Stock Photo/DragoNika

In a nutshell, cats should be gradually introduced to each other one sense at a time: first by scent, then by sight, and then physically. Throughout the process, positive associations are built up with the scent, sight, and physical presence of the other cat using food, play, brushing, low-key play—anything the cats enjoy.

When introducing cats, you can use clicker training to help boost positive associations between them and keep them focused on you instead of each other. During scent introductions, click-treat each cat for calmly investigating items with the other cat’s scent on them. You could also have the cats nose target the items. Click-treat for all positive interactions with the “scented” items, including playing with, sitting on, or sleeping on them.

The visual and physical introduction processes are similar in many ways. The visual introduction involves using a physical barrier, such as a baby gate, and a visual barrier like a blanket or large piece of cardboard that is lifted for brief periods. During the physical introduction, the physical barrier is removed for brief periods.

Visual and physical introductions can be tricky because cats communicate using body language, and something as benign-appearing as the cats looking at each other can actually be a sign of impending aggression. Clicker training both cats to play the “Look Game” can prevent this, and it is super easy to do. Simply click-treat the moment one of the cats looks at the other cat. This allows the cats to briefly “check on each other” while ultimately looking to you for reinforcement. If one of the cats stares at the other cat without orienting to you, she is over threshold and you need to make adjustments to help his feel more comfortable, such as moving the cats farther apart.

Also click-treat the cats any time they are calm and relaxed in each other’s presence.

Taken from the article Clicker Training for Cats, first published in BARKS from the Guild, November 2017, pp. 16-23.

About the Authors

Paula Garber holds a master’s in education and is a certified animal training and enrichment professional and certified feline training and behavior specialist. She is also certified in low-stress handling, and pet CPR and first aid, and is pursuing a diploma in feline behavior science and technology from the Companion Animal Sciences Institute. Based in Ossining, New York, she owns and operates LIFELINE Cat Behavior Solutions, is currently chairwoman of PPG’s Cat Committee and is a supporting member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also serves on the Cat Protection Council of Westchester in her community.

Francine Miller is an applied animal behavior counselor and associate certified dog behavior consultant (IAABC certified associate) who has 13 years experience treating dogs and cats with behavior problems. She currently offers house calls for behavior consultations throughout San Diego County, California under the business name, Call Ms Behaving, and overnight pet sitting in the area around Carlsbad, California where she resides. She is also the vice chairwoman of the PPG Cat Committee.

The Neurological Benefits of Counter Conditioning Leash Reactive Dogs

Counterconditioning and desensitizing dogs when on leash also has neurological benefits © Can Stock Photo/Amaviael

Counterconditioning and desensitizing dogs when on leash also has neurological benefits © Can Stock Photo/Amaviael

Creating new and better associations for dogs on leash when exposed to fearful/stressful stimuli is crucial, as it is better for all involved for the dog to be less stressed and less fearful. The goal is potentially a positive association is created, or at least less stress. When this can be achieved via counter conditioning and desensitizing dogs to these intrinsic stimuli, and many times they can be, then life is better for the humans and the dogs that have stress when on leash. This is something that, among dog trainers knowledgeable in the ways of DS/CC, is widely known.

What is less known, is how the process of counter conditioning affects the neurological processing that leads to behavioral and emotional changes, be they towards the dog feeling less fear and stress, or perhaps a positive conditioned emotional response. This blog will discuss the topic of the neurological benefits that accompany counter conditioning and desensitizing dogs when on leash.

It will also ask questions along the way and at the end. Please, anyone in the neuroscience community that may read this blog, I would greatly appreciate any insights and or answers you can supply. If there are additions, subtractions, clarifications, links, etc…all can be added or subtracted to have this blog be as accurate as it can, please let me know. Thank you. Let’s begin.

Stress hormones are reduced when desensitization and counter conditioning is applied.
Stress hormones can have a deleterious effect and impede learning and memory. These neurological “insults” that occur over time, from stress and fear, damage critical neurons and connectors, which can cause many negative side effects cognitively, behaviorally, and within the dog’s immune system.

When dogs are on leash they do not have their flight response, and that makes for some intrinsic stressors on leash. If the dog has a history of being stressed or fearful and lunging and barking at stimuli, the stress is increased by proximity, intensity and duration of exposure to the stimuli. Often there will be an inordinate number of events on leash that will trigger some levels of fear and stress that result in reactivity or perhaps the dog shutting down. The main issue with reactive dogs is the environment always carries the potential of stress being increased, that means an influx of “fight flight”, and dog’s cannot flee on leash, unless the handler runs with the dog when they want to flee or beforehand.

I have found that general counter conditioning for dogs on leash to all sudden environmental contrasts (SEC) reduces stress and raises the reliability of cue recognition significantly. In addition, dogs with a pathology of stress, fearful over threshold reactions to various stimuli will, in time, habituate more so than not, if a proactive counter conditioning protocol is applied as a preventative. This is a process to reduce stress and fear or as a general supportive measure for events on leash that may trigger stress, fear, frustration, even excitability in very pro social dogs can benefit from the procedure of counter conditioning when on leash.

The pro social dog learns, it is more efficient to relax and take food treats for watching people, after all dogs cannot meet everyone, and learning to relax and simply be “paid” for watching people pass at an appropriate distance has helped many young, excited dogs I’ve worked with.

While there is never a zero reduction of stress hormones, and there is always a potential the dog could react over threshold, or freeze up and shut down, as there is a need for these behaviors, after all they are there or a reason, however, there can be a leveling, a homeostasis can be achieved, and that will translate to less stress and a less reactive dog.

Amygdala, Hippocampus, Stress and Long Term Memory
From his lecture at Stamford University on The Limbic System, Dr. Robert Sapolsky illustrates how chronic stress causes growth in the amygdala, one of the main areas that processes stress and fear. Long term chronic stress can shrink the hippocampus, which measures levels of glucocorticoids, and is in large part how the stress response is “turned off”. The hippocampus is also a big factor in long term memory recall and learning. This part of the brain, does lots of work in the processing of learning and memory, two areas related to behavior that we want an animal to feel good about, and an area of the brain we want to be in as healthy a state as possible.

The hippocampus is a main area in mediating surprise and startle, which is a large part of leash reactivity. Along with mediating startle and sudden environmental changes, the hippocampus is also a work horse for habituation and learning, i.e. less stress or more stress, depending on the health and history of the hippocampus.

The ventrotegmental (VTA) is in the Frontal Cortex area of the brain, this is where “anticipation of rewards” and dopamine flourish, this is where the “empowerment of the behavior” to “get the reward” is particularly processing these outcomes in training, and when that training and learning is in a stressful environment such as leash reactive events, this processing of rewards and behavioral outcomes are crucial for what is known as LPT or Long Term Potentiation.

In his lecture from October 28th 2009 At the NIH Lecture series, Dr. Sapolsky illustrates how with chronic stress, the amygdala expands and the hippocampus atrophies, thus leaving the brain in a state of generalized fear when triggered by stimulus known to cause fear and aggression. Thus, LPT is enhanced and fear is learned more readily. Dogs already generalize fear easily as they are an amygdaloidal centric creature. There is already intrinsic stressors when a dog is on leash. It would stand to reason that approaches that reduce stress will be helpful in the dog’s learning not just that the stimulus is not to be feared, but how to behave in the presence of stress.

Sapolsky goes on to state that the frontal cortex sends messages to the amygdala, in essence trying to shut it down, and for the animal, or humans, for that matter to do the right thing when it is the more challenging thing, and this also speaks to the Premack principal.

With proactive counter conditioning and desensitization, the hippocampus, and amygdala, stay healthier, and receive less and less “neuro-insults”. Additionally, counter conditioning has shown that a “reverse” growth, or shrinking back to normal sized areas can occur, and stress reduction by way of D/CC promotes neuron growth not death. This can be achieved when interventions of counter conditioning and desensitization are implemented. fMRI imagining for these positive changes to brain areas has been seen in other animals when tested, so it stands to reason it would with dogs.

Sapolsky details it is possible to “enhance cognition” during stress if there is a way to block (lessen) the stress hormones (glucocorticoids), and enhance other functions that are beneficial to learning (PFC processing, dopamine, estrogen) by manipulating the environments and implementing desensitization and counter conditioning this can be achieved. Sapolsky goes on to state that when this “blocking of stress hormones (glucocorticoids)”, is achieved the animal will learn better during stress and how to handle stress better. (habituate = hippocampus doing its job more efficiently = Dog staying under threshold more so than not).

When there are too many glucocorticoids the hippocampus slows down neurogenesis. When there is a proactive approach to decrease stress and fear with desensitization and counter conditioning, studies have shown you can have a hippocampus learning better during stress, and making more neurons, not damaging them, as the hippocampus is not flooded with GLC’s but “protective secretions” of other neurochemicals. This maps to more habituation, better learning in times of stress, and less and less stress by the dog. Humans just need to formulate a plan and do the work. When they do, better results will occur.

Neurogenesis (Wikipedia) is the process by which nervous system cells, known as neurons, are produced by neural stem cells. Neural stem cells have the potential to produce many different types of neurons. They include neuroepithelial cells (NEPs), stem cells, radial glial cells (RGCs), basal progenitors (BPs), subventricular zone astrocytes, and subgranular zone radial astrocytes, among others. Neurogenesis is most active during embryonic development, but continues throughout adult life.

There is a fantastic research paper entitled Old Dogs Learning New Tricks: Neuroplasticity Beyond the Juvenile Period by Angeline S. Lillard and Alev Erisir.
In its simplest form, neuroplasticity is how malleable the brain is in terms of neuronal changes in connectivity. This neuroplasticity is enhanced by enriching stress free, low stress, or good stressors as environmental influences.

One thing that has been discovered and verified is, repeated motor or cognitive activity can also drive neuro-plastic changes. This is regardless of the source, and when the source is the interventions of humans working towards addressing the associative, predictive values (antecedents) of sudden changes in the environment, to create better associations, and condition “parallel operant sequences” as they occur, there is a change in neural activity, and it leads to a reorganization of neural circuits. This can map to long lasting functional change (LPT). This translates to less and less reactivity, perhaps none if the protocols are started early and often enough in the dog’s life, or perhaps counter conditioning will result in a counter conditioned response that results in a disengagement from the stressful/fearful stimuli. After all many dogs learn that the stimulus is the cue, and they start to self-disengage from the stimuli looking to the hander for reinforcement. When there are less insults to neurons and less stress on the immune system, the dog will learn more efficiently and habituate sooner rather than later. It is simply predicated on the humans having a plan to counter condition the dog when on leash.

Donald Hebb proposed the concept of synapse strengthening back in the 1940’s and 50’s. He discovered; when an axon of cell A is near enough to excite cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place on one or both cells such that cell A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B is increased.

A large part of the neural landscape and the physical attributes that accompany all dogs when on leash is visual and auditory stimuli.

The temporal lobe communicates with the hippocampus and plays a key role in the formation of explicit long-term memory modulated by the amygdala. Sound is processed in large part by the Medial Geniculate Nucleus. Sounds processing is less precise then visual processing.

When dogs are on leash they are met with a multitude of auditory stimuli, traffic, wind, humans, sounds from all spectrums from low rumbles to high pitches, when humans start issuing a “mark & pay, or a “yes” (Click) and treat, protocol for auditory stimuli, it increases the chances the dog will not react over threshold upon those events occurring. Often the preceding auditory antecedents to traffic, people, children especially, and dogs, are appearing first as auditory events, and those should be counter conditioned.
Adjacent areas in the superior, posterior, and lateral parts of the temporal lobes are involved in high-level auditory processing. The temporal lobe is involved in primary auditory perception, such as hearing, and holds the primary auditory cortex.[6] The primary auditory cortex receives sensory information from the ears and secondary areas process the information into meaningful units such as speech and words.[6] The superior temporal gyrus includes an area (within the lateral fissure) where auditory signals from the cochlea first reach the cerebral cortex and are processed by the primary auditory cortex in the left temporal lobe.

All visual events on leash have some auditory stimulus attached as discussed in the above section, the auditory stimuli being reinforced with food pairing is crucial for complete counter conditioning, obviously, there will be events that include little or no audio due to the nature of the stimulus, a person behind a glass door, or perhaps the dog and handler are far from another dog, and they just have a visual for the stimulus, but most events have audio, and always remember that ambient audio is attached to these events, even if the audio attached the stimulus is not part of the package.

With visual stimuli many times there are multiple pieces of stimuli to a “package”, or in the environment as the counter conditioning event is occurring. This is what makes the counter conditioning of a dog on leash in a public space so challenging.

For example, when counter conditioning traffic many times it is the audio that the dog orients to first, then they see the traffic. By issuing reinforcements (marking YES & issuing Food), for the sound the visual is less stressful and both parts of the stimulus package are conditioned.

Many times, there will be competing stimuli that if not paid for may also go along for the ride in the “unsafe” determination many dogs make to other dogs, traffic, or people.
For example, if the dog is fearful of traffic, and when they see the traffic pass, and are fearful, and then they see a person, both can go along in the associative stream. When all pieces of stimuli are marked and paid for the better the dog does overall with the entire environment. When the dog is not counter conditioned they may end up being flooded (shutdown) or reactive at people, dogs, traffic, sounds, etc…a generalized fear and stress can build up due to simply being overwhelmed.

The areas associated with vision in the temporal lobe interpret the meaning of visual stimuli and establish object recognition. The ventral part of the temporal cortices appear to be involved in high-level visual processing of complex stimuli such as faces (fusiform gyrus) and scenes (parahippocampal gyrus). Anterior parts of this ventral stream for visual processing are involved in object perception and recognition.

General counter conditioning maps towards stress reduction.

Counter conditioning a leash reactive dog allows the brain to assemble internal resources more efficiently, by responding to environmental stimuli with a new suite of behaviors, and a new processing of information when met with stimuli on leash, these can be reinforced simply by the leash handler using an event marker (YES/CLICK) and rewarding the dog with high value food for under threshold responses/behaviors in a “suite,” or a range of behaviors that can be classified as “under threshold” for that individual dog. Even if the dog is over threshold and has an event that is classified as “reactive”, the handler should “pay through the event” create distance, reassure the dog, issue food if possible, and mitigate the environment in the moment, “pad” as much as can be padded. Real life training is sometimes messy, even with the cleanest of plans and world class mechanics. Then re tool for the next event. Performance Feedback Revision, as Dr. Susan Freidman says.

Neural circuits and cortical maps come in three distinctions, excitatory, inhibitory, or modulatory. Multiples of these circuits create “cortical maps” of organized receptors or “motor fields” for a given function.

All behavior has a function, and many times the leash reactive dog is struggling with associating stimuli on leash due to their not having a flight response to enact, and that causes some intrinsic stress. When the dog has a generalized fear, or inordinate stress, what is needed is a proactive plan to reduce the stress, even with medications, a plan will enhance the processes of the brain to reorganize and build new neuron connections and strengthen existing connections. When neurons are strengthening towards less stress and the dog is learning the world is safe, or there are alternatives to reacting to achieve reinforcements, the dog will do better and better. It is binary.

This is a special case of changes to existing circuits when excitation of a neuron is reduced, mitigating its inhibitory influence onto other neurons, within the same sensory map. The result can be an instant increase of activity in those other neurons,
Unmasking is thought of as a “widening of the functional response area”.

This functional change is immediate, and it is sustained if the responsible stimulus is maintained: however, no hard-structural changes occurs in neural circuits, making unmasking a special case of neuroplasticity. Unmasking is an extreme instance if a normal function of neural circuits adapting to fluctuations in sensory input. These changes are only permanent to neuroplasticity, not neurodevelopment.

Sensitive and Critical Periods of Development

Sensitive and Critical periods are times when a change in environmental input from what is normal for the organism leads to consequential changes in the brain and behavior, when that same input during a different developmental period would likely lead to much less or even no change at all. Such periods are critical when a specific development must occur or it never would occur at all, and sensitive when it simply requires more input later to change. Neuroplasticity Beyond the Juvenile Period by Angeline S. Lillard and Alev Erisir.

Puppies in their critical development period which ends at week 21 (5 months) are well known to benefit from enriched environments and positive social experiences with humans and other dogs, what many people are not instructed to do is proactively counter condition puppies to sudden changes in the environment, but they should as that can be crucial for habituation to novel stimuli and that will pay big behavioral dividends as the dog develops into adolescence.

As has been illustrated in this blog, the hippocampus is a major player in habituation, learning, mediating startle and sudden changes in the environment, by proactively counter conditioning and working to reduce stress, the puppy will be learning more efficiently during stress. Thus, the puppy develops better coping mechanisms and better neurological processing of stressful or fearful events. Often, people report that dogs are behaviorally “more challenging” during adolescence. By having an acute awareness to a puppies environment and implementing a overly proactive counter conditioning protocol, many challenges and fears that arrive for dogs in adolescence could be avoided or drastically decreased.

Adolescence, is roughly from 5 months through to a year, then the juvenile phase of development occurs, and the dog is roughly “socially mature” around 2-3 years of age, larger breeds/mixes mature a bit longer. One of the most challenging times for canine development is adolescence, this is due to a proliferation of neurological development during the “teen years”. As the brain changes in adolescence it “prunes” neuronal structures and connections, thus forming the mature adult dog brain somewhere between 2 – 3 years of age. Remember all dogs are a study of one, and environments play a huge role in the development of dogs.

This sensitive/adolescence period is a time many people report their dog has “forgotten” cues, “tunes out”, and is more challenging than when they were puppies.

This is due a new load of neural activity. Many times, puppies “come out of their shell”, or develop more confidence in their adolescent and juvenile phase, and this can be a time when leash reactivity starts occurring.

Memory recollection is crucial for all dogs, and this is related to many areas of the brain. Dogs operate largely from working memory. This can be enhanced as any other processes of the brain are by away of helping the dog through stressful events, be they leash reactive or general stress associated with life in the hectic 21st century.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is heavily interconnected with a variety of other cortical brain regions, sending and receiving inputs to/from most sensory brain regions, as well as subcortical brain regions like the basal ganglia.
Also, the frontal cortex is known to handle “executive functions”, a catch-all term for a cluster of higher cognitive skills, such as: working memory maintenance, attention set-shifting (update a behavior when the rules change on you), reward evaluation, motor planning. Dogs have a small frontal cortex, hence one reason dogs can easily be cognitively “tripped up” by distractions.

Another aspect of the frontal cortex is sending signals to the amygdala and convincing it that it is not worth it to be fearful, it is also the area of the brain that deals with decisions, and outcomes when there is a struggle between “do the right thing” verses “do the wrong thing”, in the case with dogs, where it is fight, flight, freeze, it is “do the thing that is less stressful”, and you will get better reinforcements, food, distance, praise/reassurances.

This is all enhanced, and fast tracked when the handler of leash reactive dogs implement desensitization and counter conditioning. The opposite occurs when there are fear and pain based approaches to suppress behaviors, the dog will react more or if not at all, or less, it’s due to the dog shutting down and being in learned helplessness.

In Changing Fear: The Neurosecretory of Emotion Regulation by Catherine A. Hartley and Elizabeth Phelps, discuss how “active coping” can attenuate a learned fear response. By using various “mental strategies” and a “performance of behaviors”, the fear memory can be disrupted. Anyone that has done any form of counter conditioning knows this can be achieved proactively with dogs by way of D/CC, while this research is directed at humans changing fear, dog brains are good analogs for human brains, and vice versa. When humans are issuing the YES&TREAT routine for SEC to dogs on leash, they are proactivity helping the dog actively cope with the stress.

Active coping should hopefully translate into extinction. Extinction refers to the gradual decrease in the expression of the conditioned response (CR), (lunging, barking, freezing) that occurs when the conditioned stimulus (CS) (dogs/humans/traffic) is presented without the reinforcement of the unconditioned stimulus (US) (Food)

Extinction does not erase fearful memories, the original CS-US association is intact. It can reemerge if there is a context shift (renewal), or reinforcements drop, or the stimulus is too sudden, too intense, this original memory can occur with the passing of time as well, known as spontaneous recovery.

By now even the cursory interest in cognition and fear familiarize the inquisitor with the amygdala. The lateral nucleus of the amygdala (LA) is considered what is coding the associations between the CS and US related sensory inputs.

When the CS is present, the LA excites the central nucleus (CE), which controls passive forms of expression of the CR through descending projections to the brainstem and the hypothalamus.
In dogs, the hypothalamus is a central processer in predation, stalking, goal directed behaviors, focus and attention.
This knowledge has led researchers to investigate functional changes during extinction.

Research suggests there is interactions between the amygdala, the ventrotegmental pre frontal cortex, and the hippocampus, which supports acquisition, storage, retrieval, and contextual modulation of fear extinction.
It is precisely this “contextual modulation” that is enhanced by way of proactive counter conditioning for dogs on leash.

Dogs already possess the ability to easily generalize fear, and due to the small frontal cortex, and less executive functions than humans, many times dog simply get the associations wrong and they are not in danger despite what their biology is suggesting,
this is where proactive counter conditioning helps tremendously to reduce stress and create better associations for the dog; regardless of where they’re on the fear spectrum when on leash, all dogs process stimuli with the same regions of the brain, because all dogs need some level of extinction in terms of fear or stress related behaviors and negative emotional responses when on leash.

After extinction is achieved, contextual information has a critical function in terms of which memory will be retrieved, the extinction memory or the fear memory?
Research evidence suggest that the hippocampal projections to the vmPFC and the amygdala mediate the context dependent expression of extinction. (Fanselow 2000, Ji and Maren 2005).

Should the hippocampus receive too many neurological insults, and not be working efficiently, there could be impaired contextual reinstatement if the CR is after the unconditioned stimulus (US) presentations. (Wilson et al 1995).

The hippocampus plays a big role before or after extinction learning, one suggestion is that the hippocampus controls in large part the context specific modulation of both fear expression and CS evoked activity in the LA (lateral amygdala), which leads to a greater responding in the non-extinction context than in the extinction context.
There is strong evidence that the hippocampus, through communications with the vmPFC and the amygdala, regulates the contextual modulation of fear expression during extinction retrieval.

Now what does this mean for handlers of leach reactive dogs? Generalization of fear is easy for dogs, generalization of other responses and the ensuing behaviors are more challenging to generalize. This why many people report “the dog is trained well at the house, but when we leave the house, it is like the dog forgets what he learned”. Nope, dogs just get distracted by all manner of stimuli, add in fear or stress and the dog is trying very hard to determine if they are safe or not, many things for a dog contained on leash, are associated by the dog as “stressful” or “fearful” when they are not at all, and by issuing counter conditioning (YES &TREAT, MARK & PAY), and or creating distances (helping the dog obtain “flight”, away from stress/fear), the human is helping the dog by reducing stress and creating a better association, this will map towards better responses under threshold when the context shifts, and it shifts, often and suddenly when on leash, and as was indicated by the research listed above, the hippocampus controls in large part the context specific modulation of both fear expression and CS evoked activity in the LA (lateral amygdala), which leads to a greater responding in the non-extinction context than in the extinction context.

By issuing proper counter conditioning and distance mitigation, humans are bolstering the chances of the dog responding under threshold and making a new and better association.
When humans use fear and pain to suppress the dog’s reactivity, they run a very high risk the dog will respond over threshold in and out of the context the dog was issued the aversive, any change in the environment is considered a “context shift”. Now think about how much occurs second to second on a leash walk.

What sort of brain do you want the dog to develop, one that learns they are safe, or a brain that learns everything is fearful and possibly painful? It really is up to us humans t work towards stress reduction in our dogs as much as we reasonably can.

All dogs with leash reactivity should be considered a study of one. This is especially important to remember as there are many micro components of the leash reactive events, add in the dog’s age, and stage of neurological development, their pathology, and the ensuing behavioral changes, and it is easy to see each dog will have its own signature behavior suite in response to stimuli on leash. This response suite will be largely predicated on the distance, duration and type of stimuli that the dog may orient to and or react towards. Always factor in the human’s mechanics and timing of reinforcement in the form of distance and high value food rewards, as that is the biggest variable of all, and the one that is most easily changed, but sadly overlooked in far too many assessments of the dog.

One thing is certain, as I have worked with 1000’s of dogs in various contexts that have or could have resulted in leash reactivity, once the human handler starts the Hybrid Approach and issues a marker (YES/Clicker) and starts reinforcing the dog for sudden environmental contrasts with high value food, regardless of what they are responding to or how the dog feels about the sudden changes, the dog does better overall in terms of stress reduction and adherence to general training cues over time. This is a day to day endeavor, there is no magic fix. Once the dog has less stress, they do better, and that is the whole point of training and counter conditioning dogs that have a stress/fear response to sudden environmental stimuli when on leash, to help dogs feel and do better in this hectic world alongside humans when on leash.

In these times when we have an abundance of information on how brans process stress, develop, and expand or atrophy, it is high time we started to look towards this information to help dogs develop and build better neurons, as that will only help, no matter the training, counter conditioning, or what sort of lifestyle the dog is leading, better neurological health is always a plus.

Addendum’s and Questions.
Below are some other areas of interest that support reducing stress and using counter conditioning and desensitization for leash reactive dogs. If any of the readers of this blog have information on these subjects please share. Thanks!

Myelin is a fatty tissue that wraps around axons, as a sheath, and permits faster transmission of neuro signals. This is a lifelong neuro plastic process, and enriched environments are known to create more Myelin, this has been shown in both animals (Markham and Greenough, 2004) and humans (Ullen and Collegues2005).

Two studies have shown that working memory training impacts white matter (Myelin). (Loveden 2010) and (Johansen – Berg 2010).

Seeing as dogs are operating largely from, working memory, supporting the learning process by way of proactive counter conditioning, learning/teaching or positively reinforced repetitions will increase Myelination (speed of learning).

Myelination is a dynamic process that occurs all through life, and by changing the speed of neural transmissions, myelin can modulate neural synchronicity and thus efficiency in adaptation to environmental changes. (Neuroplasticity Beyond the Juvenile Period by Angeline S. Lillard and Alev Erisir).

Now place this in the context of a dog that is being positively trained and counter conditioned to fear or stress on leash, every day in some way, to build resiliency.

Spontaneous Recovery is a phenomenon of learning and memory that was first named and described by Ivan Pavlov in his studies of classical (Pavlovian) conditioning. In that context, it refers to the re-emergence of a previously extinguished conditioned response after a delay. Such a recovery of “lost” behaviors can be observed within a variety of domains.

The research of Bouton and Moody has done an excellent job at detailing what occurs neurologically over temporal contexts (time) and it’s resulting in spontaneous recovery. I have released a video discussing this called Cognition and Memory. Link below.

Spontaneous Recovery as it relates to dogs, my question is…
Seeing as the pre-frontal cortex / basil ganglia “loop” has a role in “memory consolidation”. (associations to CS and US). There is a pathway between the basil ganglia and amygdala inside the neo cortex.

Q_ Is this where spontaneous recovery occurs in part?

The Caudate Nucleus also has a role in “fear related memories” and “voluntary movement”, which is related to freezing up, and no true flight response when on leash.
The Cerebral Cortex has a role in “storing” memory of aversive conditioned responses and “inhibitory functions”, again we see the flight/freeze responses are related to this area or cognitive processing fearful/stressful events.

Q_ what further research has been done on spontaneous recovery that looks at these areas of the cognition that could be potentially related to spontaneous recovery?


Old Dogs Learning New Tricks: Neuroplasticity Beyond the Juvenile Period by Angeline S. Lillard and Alev Erisir.

Changing Fear: The Neurosecretory of Emotion Regulation by Catherine A. Hartley and Elizabeth Phelps!po=13.4259
The Limbic System Lecture by Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Stress and Plasticity in the Limbic System

Dude, Where’s My Prefrontal Cortex?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky October 28th 2009 At the NIH Lecture series Stress and Societies

Cognition & Memory – Leash Reactivity

Counter Conditioning Leash Reactive Dogs

Counter Conditioning Dogs To Other Dogs On Leash

Counter Conditioning Dogs to Traffic and Humans On Wheels

Dog Life Episode 6 Counter Conditioning Leash Reactivity


A Plug for Play

By Julie Naismith

Just like humans, dogs need play time too. And one of the many beautiful things having dogs has taught me is that you’re never too old to play.

You might be asking: “But, where does play fit into separation anxiety training?”

I am all about fixing separation anxiety dogs, I am also passionate about encouraging them to play too. Working with an anxious dog is about more than tackling the causes of anxiety. The richer a dog’s life, the more productive anxiety training becomes.

Enrichment doesn’t fix separation anxiety, but it’s part of the training package. There is little that compares to play as a source of enrichment. Play engages the dog’s brain and spends the dog’s energy. Anyone who’s owned a puppy will recognize the play-sleep-eat-play-sleep-eat cycle. There’s no sleep quite like the deep sleep of a youngster exhausted from play.

Play is exhausting and it’s not just for puppies


A lifetime of play

What’s unusual about our pet dogs, when compared to other animals, is that it’s not just puppies that play. Adult dogs play too, and this fact sets them apart from other species. Maybe that’s another reason we love dogs so much: just like us, play doesn’t stop when they grow up.

As we’ve all seen, adults and puppies play socially with other dogs and with humans, and also on their own with objects. However, as dogs get older, they get more selective about who they play with, and they play with other dogs less frequently. It’s a bit like us. When we were five, we were friends with nearly everyone else in class. Now, we have a smaller number of friends, see them less often, and don’t typically run around the playground with them on a daily basis.

So, as dogs age, the nature of their play changes. But, the spirit of play remains throughout their life.

Old dogs, new games

You may have experienced going to the dog park only to see your once-playful dog snark off a former puppy playmate. Or you may have a ball-obsessed dog who has no interest in other dogs. You might have even used the usual excuse: “Sorry, he’s dull. He doesn’t like to play with other dogs anymore.”

But, just because older dogs play less than puppies doesn’t make play any less important. Getting a puppy to play is easy, but getting an older dog to play can take work, which is perhaps why it doesn’t happen as much as it should.

With a little effort, you can encourage your older dog to play.

He’s not interested in toys

The ball-obsessed pups are luckier than their peers—they’ve discovered their passion early on in life. Like the squirrel chasers or the swimmers, they’ve found an outlet for their adult playfulness.

But, what are the options for the dog who’s decided play with other dogs is “so last year,” or who has zero interest in toys? Well, here’s the thing, while some dogs take to chasing stuffed ducks like a duck to water, others may need to be coaxed to play with toys.

Given a little encouragement, lots of dogs can become tug maniacs, and a great many will enjoy getting stuck into a good food puzzle if food is more their thing than toys.

You can read more about play and dog toys in different blogs posted during the Academy for Dog Trainers Play Week, but I wanted to put in a word for my favourite dog toy, the flirt pole.

The homemade toy that dogs go crazy for

The flirt pole is a versatile toy that keeps chasers, tuggers, stalkers and chewers alike entertained. It’s excellent for use in a confined space, either indoors or outdoors. This makes it an ideal exercise option when it’s either too hot or too cold to go out.

It’s a fabulous alternative to off-leash play for dogs who might be staying away from the park. And it wears out a dog like nothing you can imagine if you’ve never used one. You’ll be delighted by how tired a dog gets after even 10 minutes of flirt pole play.

Another thing I love about the flirt pole is that it’s easy and cheap to make at home.

Your dog might not take to the flirt pole instantly. If he or she isn’t keen, try tying a squeaky toy to the pole, or a sock filled with treats. And start with tiny flirts in front of his nose.

If you have a squirrel chaser, you’ll have the opposite problem – your dog might love it so much you can’t get him to stop. But, that just means a tired and happy dog at the end of it.

But won’t tugging and chasing make him aggressive?

I understand your concern, and I used to buy into the idea that playing tug-of-war would be ruinous and lead to a “dominant” dog, plotting world supremacy. But the thing is, tugging is a normal part of play. It’s the dog pretending to dissect prey, the keyword here being “pretend”.


And no, it’s not just big “bully” types who love to tug. All sorts of dogs can become tug maniacs, especially when the flirt pole is involved. My soft, fluffy cockapoos are great examples of dogs least likely to love tug-of-war. Though, maybe they are in training for world domination. One never knows.

All that said, if the flirt pole is not for your dog, then check out some other ideas from Lori Nanan at Your Pitbull and You, and Jessica Ring from My Fantastic Friend.

Let’s play!

One last plug for playing with your anxious dog is, it’s fun! It can be draining dealing with a dog you can’t leave, and that can test your bond with him. But, playing with your dog is a delightful connection and a beautiful reminder that it’s not all doom and gloom with a separation anxiety dog.

What are your tips for getting a dog to play? Share your comments below.

About the Author

Julie Naismith is CEO and Founder of SubThreshold™ and a self-confessed separation anxiety geek. When her dog, Percy, developed separation anxiety she became a woman on a mission – determined to cut through the swathes of incorrect advice to find how to fix it. Having successfully resolved his separation anxiety, with little support and lots of judgment, she founded SubThreshold Training™ with the vision of pioneering treatment for separation anxiety.

Prior to SubThreshold, she apprenticed with one of the world’s leading force-free, evidence-based trainers, Jean Donaldson. She graduated with honors from Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers (CTC) and is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) having studied with leading expert Malena DeMartini’s separation anxiety program. Naismith works solely with separation anxiety cases, making her a true specialist in the field. She is also a member of PPG’s Shelter and Rescue Division.

Talking to Dogs

Koala, a black Labrador, rests on her hammock-style dog bed

Photo by Deni Elliott

A newly published study finds that dogs pay attention to both the way we talk to them and to what we say. Alex Benjamin and Katie Slocombe’s ‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog‑directed speech looked at what they term “dog-directed speech,” or DDS, which is similar in tone and affect to baby talk. Their canine test subjects were all adult dog guests of a boarding kennel whose humans gave permission for their participation.

An earlier study had played recorded human voices using baby talk and regular speech. The content of the speech was supposedly of interest to dogs: greetings and expressions of “good boy!” and “come here!” Puppies in this study showed greater interest than adult dogs. The earlier study had serious flaws, though, primarily that the dogs heard the voices while alone in a room. It’s not surprising that adult dogs didn’t respond to a disembodied “come here” or praise.

Benjamin and Slocombe’s study is far more respectful of canine intelligence. While they also used recorded speech, so that all dogs got the same stimuli, a matching researcher (gender-wise) was in the room and the dogs were able to approach and interact with the human. In the first experiment, the stimuli were:

  • DDS (higher pitched, more emotional speech) with dog-directed content
  • Human-directed speech with human-directed content (assumed to be uninteresting to dogs)

Each trial started with simultaneous dog- and human-directed speech so that dogs would not approach the first or last speaker.

Dogs were more likely to look at, approach, and interact with the researcher who was associated with the DDS than those speaking in normal pitch and register.

A second experiment attempted to determine whether dogs had a preference for content of speech. It used:

  • DDS with human-directed content (content assumed to be uninteresting to dogs)
  • Human-directed speech with dog-directed content

The dogs showed no significant difference in which speaker they preferred. The researchers conclude that, when content and tone don’t match, the dogs were equally indifferent (or equally interested).

The dogs showed the most interest in high-pitched, emotional speech directed to them, with relevant content. What does this tell us? These results could mean that:

  • Dogs do learn to associate meanings with particular words and phrases, so it is not only about tone of voice
  • People tend to use DDS when talking to dogs, so dogs learn that what is said in these exaggerated tones is meaningful
  • Dogs learn that people might say interesting things in a dull tone and then nothing fun for dogs happens, so they learn to ignore even favored words (“walk” or “cookie”) when it’s clear that the human isn’t addressing them

I think there are additional layers that develop as a specific human builds a relationship with a specific dog. I’ve always talked fairly conversationally to my dogs, and they do respond to relevant phrases and questions when I say them in a “normal” tone. I also use DDS (blush). I believe that dogs learn to read their humans and are able to tell — with a familiar person, though not necessarily with a researcher — which speech is relevant to them, regardless of tone.

I also think that it’s about time more people studied communication with dogs!


Added Brainpower!

Exercise your dog's mind too!

Exercise your dog’s mind too!

Quite a ‘buzzword’ bandied around at the moment is ‘enrichment’, so here I’m going to take a look at what it actually means and involves.


So lets start right there – what is enrichment? Put simply, enrichment is an all encompassing term referring to the addition of something which enhances the quality of something else.  If we put this in the context of our dog’s world, we can talk about 2 main forms; social enrichment and mental enrichment.

Social Enrichment refers to enhancements we might make to our dog’s environment.  Maybe providing variation in surroundings and lifestyle and incorporating novelty.

Mental Enrichment refers to the addition of new and often problem solving tasks which offer mental challenges for the dog.  Certainly one question I hear often is ‘what more can I do to entertain my dog?’.


Increasing enrichment gives owners lots of opportunity to become inventive!


  • Feeding part of a food ration from activity/puzzle toys – there are hundreds out there.
  • Hide and seek feeding within cardboard boxes
  • Feeding of a partial ration via training
  • Feeding a partial ration in empty bottles (no top)

More Games

  • Play hide and seek
  • Recall games with the family
  • Football/garden games
  • Tug
  • Flirt pole games
  • Frisbee

Novel Fun Stuff

  • Bubble blowers
  • Ice lollies/iced activity toys to lick
  • Muffin tin games with treats under
  • Hiding treats within a rolled mat for dogs to seek
  • Scatter – free feeding
  • Train new tricks/clicker training/target training


  • Walks to new areas
  • Sand pits in garden
  • Water pools in garden
  • Digging areas
  • Dog Tv
  • Dog music
  • New activities – scenting, agility, flyball, other dog sports

Why Add Enrichment?

So why should we concern ourselves with increasing social and mental enrichment?  In practice, I see many dogs weekly who have very little to do and are unoccupied.  Combine this with high drive/high arousal and energetic breeds and you have the potential for explosion and behavioural issues. Most of these dogs improve significantly with a behaviour modification programme which includes an enrichment package.

Other dogs that may significantly benefit from increased enrichment include those which are highly aroused, those which may be displaying repetitive behaviour , older dogs with symptoms of cognitive decline and dogs with symptoms of depression or apathy.

Enrichment – All Good?

Generally I would always include some sort of enrichment opportunity or activity into the remedial plan that I create for dogs.  What I would always do though is to ensure enrichment is bespoke to the individual I am tailoring it for.  I will always look at inherent breed traits and select an enrichment activity that, that dog might enjoy – not all dogs actually enjoy every enrichment option. Recently for instance whilst discussing the topic with the owner of a Dachsund, they explained to me that they had tried activity toys but their dog had been very reluctant to engage with them and actually seemed afraid.  We discussed the fact that enrichment encompassed a huge range of activities beyond simply the aforementioned toys.  Eventually we settled upon a tunneling bed with internal pockets which held small bits of kibble – the little Daxie loved it & the activity was chosen because it channeled natural Dachsund behaviour  – tunneling.

Beware too of activities that could over-stimulate your dog.  If you have increased enrichment because your dog was previously very aroused, the last thing you want is for enrichment activities themselves to increase arousal level!  This can happen, so choose the activity wisely.  In such cases, calmer, peaceful changes of walks may be better than supercharged flirt pole play.

So as we are all used to physically exercising our dogs, we always need to keep in mind that our dogs are amazingly intelligent beings and that as such, we also need to keep exercising their mental capacities!  Do that too and we keep them sound of limb and mind.