Dog Food As Enrichment

I often talk about the benefits of feeding at least a portion of your dog’s food, through training and activities including dog food puzzle and chew toys.  When we bring animals into our homes, we need to remember that enrichment is such an important piece of setting ourselves, our pets, and our relationship up for success. Providing our pets with opportunities to problem solve, exercise their minds and bodies, and use their senses allows them to expend energy they need to use in positive ways and also adds to their quality of life. If you don’t believe me, read my blog post about scientific research that demonstrated it.

(Although, just look at your dog when he/she is working to get food out of a toy or engaged in learning and you will see for yourself the value in having your pet work for food.)

Below are just a few of my favorite dog food activity toys.

The Kong chew toy is a great enrichment activity for puppies and dogs.

Kong Classic Toy

Kong Gyro

Kong Gyro


Kong Blue Satellite

Kong Blue Satellite

Buster food cube for dogs

Buster food cube


Can I be of more help to you and your pet? Please contact me

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Practicing Behavior Fluency

When you teach using positive consequences to behavior, you get a student who wants to engage, learn and listen.

Teaching Moments Abound

My reminder to you…every moment of every day is a teaching and learning opportunity for you and your pet. Reinforcers are all around. They are that chance to go outside, to play ball, to clip on a leash, to greet a human, to chew or sniff. They are powerful tools in your behavior change toolbox because every time that you pair one of those valued life experiences with a behavior, you are adding value to that behavior…and you are giving your pet reason to do that behavior again, and again.

reinforcement in dog training

What If Your Dog Will Not Budge On A Walk?

When you share your home and your life with a dog, there are so many activities your will be doing together. One of those that is pretty much universal is walking together joined by a leash.

And one of the most common issues people have with their puppy and dog is walking with their dog or puppy on a leash, a loose leash that is.

dog training tips for a stubborn dog or puppy that will not budge on leashI’ve addressed some of the reasons why that activity may break down.  I thought I’d specifically write about tips for solving an issue of a dog or puppy who plants his feet (or rear end) down on the ground and will not budge, as I have seen this happen time and again. I will refer to this as ‘no-budge behavior’.

Before talking about the behavioral modifications, you may first want to consider if there is an underlying medical issue that is giving your dog reason to stop in his tracks – especially if this is a sudden behavior change. Watch your dog or puppy carefully to see if he is favoring one leg over another; or if he seems uncomfortable in any way. If you touch a spot on his body, including his legs, does he wince or growl? If so, you should talk to your veterinarian to see if there is a physical or medical issue going on.

Additionally, take into consideration the outside temperature and the walking surface. Black surfaces can be extremely hot to a dog’s sensitive paws. Also keep in mind, dogs don’t sweat as humans do (much of their heat is released through their paws and panting). Certain dogs – especially those with short noses, thick coats and heavy muscle mass may be more sensitive to heat. And, some dog are more sensitive to the cold as well. Therefore, weather could be a reason for your dog’s unwillingness to walk with you. If weather may be the culprit, you may want to choose a different time a day, a different surface, give your dog more rest time (and bring plenty of water); or choose to find another activity that can give your dog an outlet for his mental and physical exercise needs. (which is a great idea even with walks)

And also, listen to your dog by watching his body language and paying attention to the surrounding environment. It could be that you are walking toward something that is aversive to your dog in some way (maybe he had a negative encounter with another dog or person in the past, in that area before – or a similar area, as an example). If that could be what is going on, then you may want to either avoid that situation or work with your dog to build a positive association with that environment instead.

These are some ways that I have worked through this issue with dogs and puppies.

Keep in mind, my focus is on using the most positive strategies for modifying behavior; and so, I focus on teaching wanted behaviors and building value for those behaviors while trying to avoid situations where my student will practice unwanted behaviors.

So begin by taking account of those situations when your dog or puppy is likely to stop cold in his tracks and not budge. What is the environment, the time of day, your dog or puppy’s previous activity been (maybe he is tired, for example)? Keep a record of this. Sometimes the most simple solution is modifying the environment (called antecedent arrangement) so as to not set that unwanted behavior into motion to begin with. And you definitely do not want your student to be practicing that no-budging behavior.

Practice building value for your dog or puppy walking next to you, following you, and paying attention to you off leash. Here is a link to a game for building value at being by your side. Watch for the criteria you are looking for, mark it with a click or verbal marker, and then give your student a reinforcer (I have used any combination of food, games, or the opportunity to chase me as reinforcers.)

Now, practice this with a leash attached to your student’s flat collar. If needed, you can begin this in a space free of danger of the leash snagging on something and let the leash drag on the ground – or you can hold the leash. If you are holding the leash, ensure that the leash is loose and there is not pressure on your student’s neck.

Practice walking and marking (with a verbal marker or clicker) when your student is walking with you where you want him to be (with a loose leash). Do this first in an environment that DOES NOT have the history associated with your dog or puppy’s no-budge behavior. You may want to begin by standing stationary and building value for your student being at your side, and then take a single step and continuing the process.

Gradually you can add more steps, continuing to mark and reinforce your student for walking on a loose leash. Since you will have kept a record of where and when the no-budge behaviors are likely to occur, you can pay special attention to practicing with a high rate of reinforcement BEFORE you get to that spot; and then walk away from the spot and continue to get closer and closer with each repetition. NOTE that you also should be watchful for any body language your student is using to indicate uneasiness and do not push your student beyond that comfort zone. If there is a fear or other reactivity issue, you may want to work with a trainer who uses positive strategies.

While I work to try to avoid the leash/neck pressure, there are times where it may happen and so teaching your student positive association with that – and to move toward the source of pressure instead of away is also a good idea. Similar to the collar grab game, practice a slight tug on the leash (not so much pressure as to cause discomfort) and follow that with a treat. Then practice waiting for your dog to shift his body weight toward the pressure, then making a small movement toward it, and more movement toward it. (This is called shaping.) Practice this numerous times through the day and you can gradually add a little more pressure.

What you do not want to do is continue to pull on your dog or puppy’s leash while he is practicing that no-budge behavior. When you are both pulling against each other, neither one of you is going to win; and there is the potential to inflict harm.

I can tell you that recently several puppies who had a history of the no-budge behavior, eagerly walked by my side after my spending time working through these steps.

And always remember – to have fun!


Self Control Is An Important Skill For Dogs

A reminder, teaching your dog or puppy self control skills and to stay is important in so many contexts…waiting at an open door, for calm greetings, for YOU to initiate play as just a few examples. Here are some tips for beginning to teach it.  The game that I show here for teaching self control can be used in so many other applications, substituting other environmental reinforcers for food such as the opportunity to sniff, to play with a ball, to tug, to go outside, to have a leash put on, to go into or out of a car.

tips for teaching dog self control and waiting

Training People Is Like Training Dogs

Did you know you can train people just like you can train dogs and parrots?

What is so awesome about learning how to train non-human animals with scientifically sounds positive reinforcement based strategies is that this kind of teaching applies to ALL living beings…including people. I loved this segment on The Meredith Vieira Show this morning where psychologist Wendy Walsh talks about using Applied Behavior Analysis to train husbands.

Please click here to watch the segment.

Training people as you train dogs and parrots was the topic of the Meredith Vieira Show

Tugging As A Dog Training Tool

I have been working on down/stay/release and recall this month with an awesome and super smart dog. (I know, not unlike lots of other dogs I have worked with.)

In training, I talk a lot about building value for behaviors by using reinforcing consequences that are of huge value to the learner (to the learner are the key words). For this sweet boy, tasty food like chicken and cheese are pretty great but tugging trumps everything.

And so, as I began teaching ‘release’ as the last part in the behavior chain of sit or down, wait, then release; I have been using the opportunity to tug a lot as the consequence to releasing on cue. As we have been building on this, I have been mixing things up though so he often will not know whether his getting up from a down and running to me will result in a good, short game of tug or a piece of tasty food or a short game of chase.

There are many directions I could take this post from here. I thought I’d write about tugging today because it can be a powerful tool in your reinforcement toolbox during training.

tugging with your dogFirstly, I’ll address a common statement. I have heard many times that tugging can make dogs aggressive or allows dogs to assert dominance over people.  Here is the thing. Dogs already have predatory energy. It is part of who they are, and tugging – properly, with rules – gives dogs a release for that energy.

Some Benefits of Tugging. There are many.

Tugging strengthens behaviors…and relationships. A few weeks back, I wrote about how classical conditioning affects emotional states and training.  With enough pairing of a release cue and an opportunity to tug, your dog will come to associate the release cue with the awesome fun, which will in turn mean that the stay will become associated with the positive emotional state of the release cue. Of course operant learning (meaning your dog is also learning that good consequences happen when he stays until released) is also at play. And likewise, with you on the other end of that tug toy, you will become associated with the fun opportunity to tug too, which adds to your dog’s reasons for wanting to listen to you. A double whammy of goodness!

Tugging is an outlet for redirecting inappropriate use of teeth. Tugging (again, properly with rules) not only gives dogs and puppies something appropriate to mouth, it is great exercise as well. And we know the benefits of exercise as it relates to behavior problems.

Distractions are less important. Dogs in lower arousal states will notice more of what is going on around them, and is more likely to register those distractions. Think about yourself, and how, when you are really focused on something that you are not thinking about your stressors.

Tugging properly with rules is great for teaching self control. When you teach your dog that the game starts with your cue, stops with inappropriate play, and ends on your cue, you are teaching your dog valuable skills in impulse control. And the great part is, your dog won’t even know you are in class!  He/she just knows it is all about having fun.

What are tugging rules?

Rule One
Tugging begins only when the human cues it. This means your dog will not start the game on his own by bringing you the toy or grabbing for it while you are holding it. I like to use ‘get it’ as this cue. As soon as I say ‘get it’, I present the tug and make it super enticing for the dog to want to play.

Rule Two
Your dog should drop the toy upon your cueing him.

To teach this, begin by giving your dog the cue (I use ‘get it’), and before your dog’s arousal heightens (after just one or two seconds), hold the toy firmly and still, say your release cue (I use ‘out’) and then present a very high value piece of food near his mouth. The second he releases his grip, mark that with a verbal cue like ‘yes’ or a clicker and give your dog the piece of food.  Later, keep your food behind your back until he let’s go and then give him the food…and you can also offer another game of tug. (Remember – to give your cue first to begin the game.)

Once you teach Rule Two reliably on cue, then you will need to proof Rule One, meaning, practice swinging the toy around and if your dog goes for it, the toy should be taken away. Only when you give the cue will the game begin. You can also ask for a control behavior first like sit, then release the sit with a cue and then say ‘get it.’

Rule Three
Game stops before your dog becomes over aroused and also if your dog’s teeth touch your hands. Stop the game with your out cue.

Short games of tug, between 3 and 10 seconds, will keep you both focused and will leave your dog wanting more.

Rule Four
Test all of the rules. Not following them means there will be no tugging. Period. But give your dog more opportunities to succeed. With consistency, your dog will learn the rules and you will have a great opportunity for mental and physical exercise, strengthening your relationship, and fun!

Rule Five
As you advance, teach your dog that it is controlled behaviors like sit or down that lead to more games of tugging. Teaching your dog to calm himself from arousal is a great skill.


Okay, now you’ve got the game rules. Now go out there and have fun!


Putting The Joy In Learning Through Classical Conditioning

I talk a lot about how animals learn from their consequences; and how, those immediate consequences of their behaviors are what determine the future rate of those behaviors. In scientific terms, this is called operant learning or operant conditioning.

classical conditioning in dog trainingHowever, there is another type of learning that is also very important to understand when it comes to helping our pets – and our relationship with them – to succeed. It is called classical conditioning, a reflexive type of learning where one stimulus acquires the capacity to evoke the same response as another stimulus.

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov first taught us about classical conditioning over a century ago when he measured the salivation response to dogs being fed. In his famous experiment, he gave his dogs food and also rang a bell. After numerous repetitions, he rang the bell on its own without food and found that the dogs still responded with an increase in salivation. The bell, which began as a neutral stimulus, had become a conditioned stimulus.

This video gives a cute demonstration of how classical conditioning works.

Why is this such an important concept to understand? Because just as our pets are continually learning whether or not to repeat behaviors based upon whether those behaviors serve to get them a consequence of value; they also have the ongoing capacity to develop associations – positive or negative – with occurrences in their environment.

As I have heard trainer Kathy Sdao say numerous times, the emotional response to the second stimulus infects the emotional response to the first stimulus occurring just before.

The examples of this can be endless. The clicker which initially has no meaning to the animal, only acquires a positive response from the animal after it is repeatedly paired (with the clicker sound coming first) with a consequence of value to the animal. The sight of a leash acquires a positive response after repeatedly being paired with an outing.

Equally important to understand is that something your dog initially has a positive response to like a piece of chicken or favorite toy, can also take on a negative response if it is repeatedly shown just BEFORE something negative. I have seen dogs come to put their tail down and walk away as their owner begins making a stuffed kong, when the kong is only given to the dog after being put into a crate and left there for eight hours (if the dog has a negative association with being in its crate).  Many dogs begin to pant heavily, shake and seek shelter when they feel an air pressure shift as that air pressure shift has come to be associated with feared thunder storms. When an owner jerks his dog’s leash as another dog approaches in anticipation of his own dog’s barking and lunging behavior, his dog my begin having even more heightened heart rate and attention to that other approaching dog as it has come to be associated with a leash jerk.

Here is another reason why understanding this can help or hinder you in your training. Think about the ultimate chain of events – you give a cue, your pet does a behavior, and then that behavior is followed by a consequence. Each step of the first two steps is immediately followed by a consequence, and thus has the power to cause the same response as the event that occurs immediately after it.

In other words, with enough pairing, your pet’s behavior will cause the same response (whether that is an emotional response, salivation or other) as its consequence. AND the cue then, with enough pairing, will cause the same response as its consequence (with is the behavior).

When you train using positive reinforcement (with let’s say a clicker or verbal marker) then everything about that lesson is about causing positive responses. The food given at the end of the chain infects the marker which infects the behavior which infects the cue. And so the cue then takes on the same reflexive response for your student of salivation, energy release, mental stimulation, etc.

If you are wanting to build strong behaviors and have success in your training, it is important that your cues always are predictors of good things for your learner.

If, on the other hand, you give a cue, your pet does the behavior (or does not immediately do the behavior), and something negative occurs, then everything in that chain can become associated with something aversive. An example of this is if you call your dog to come and he ignores you, and the consequence is receiving a shock (remote collar) which causes your dog to feel pain and to jump. Then ultimately sniffing the flowers (or whatever your dog was doing at the time) and your cue have the potential of being associated with a feeling of pain and jumping.

This is one of the ways that taught behaviors can break down and cues can be weakened – or at least can work to cause your dog to not want to learn from you because it causes unpleasant things to happen.

My challenge to you is this: if you want your dog to do what you cue it to do without hesitation and with a tail wag, then take care to make sure that cue is only associated with positive outcomes.

To Help Your Pet Learn, Keep Clutter Out Of The Lesson

I was one of more than 500 trainers from across the globe who convened on Dearborn, Michigan in March for the Karen Pryor Clicker Training Expo. It was a phenomenal opportunity to learn from some of the best trainers and behaviorists whose focus is on modifying behavior in the most positive way.

distractions in dog trainingIn one of our labs about hands on experience teaching a behavior chain, Trainer and instructor Laura VanArendonk Baugh began with a sort of Wii game. She gave instructions at the very beginning. The game involved a foot pad with up, down, right and left arrows. On a large screen, arrows moved up and when one touched an arrow at the top, the contestants were told to tap the corresponding arrow on their foot pad. As the game went on, the movement got quicker and quicker. The winner had the highest number of correct foot taps.

Although Laura gave directions at the very beginning and asked if there were any questions, once the game began things got a little complicated. In addition to the moving arrows on the screen, there were other distracting lights in the background and people in the audience making noises. There was the added pressure of increased speed.

One of the contestants thought she needed to put both feet onto each arrow on the foot pad which required a tiny bit more time to do the behavior.  As the game sped up, people in the audience shouted guidance to them.

When it was done, we analyzed what had just happened and compared it to animals we train.

Performing the behavior of tapping their foot to the correct arrow on the pad when the arrows matched on the screen was a challenge with the distracting lights, and the difficulty rose as the speed of the arrow movement increased. When this happened, errors also happened more frequently. And, as errors began happening more quickly, some of those watching couldn’t help but shout out tips.

So, even with Laura having given clear directions at the beginning of the game, learners still had some pretty major hurdles to overcome and their ability to succeed waned as a result.

What does this have to do with training?

Well, for one, it was a great reminder to us of some of the factors that go into helping our animals succeed in our learning environment.

It demonstrated the importance of having minimal to no distractions when teaching new behavior skills. Focusing on learning is enough of a challenge. This includes environmental stimulus such as the presence of other dogs, and also trainer chatter. Remember, pets do not speak English so your verbally telling him what to do can complicate the classroom.

If we make our classroom too difficult and that causes errors, then our learner is practicing unwanted behavior. Additionally, it can cause frustration and lack of interest in the training.

Living With Kids And Dogs: Building Relationships

One way you can help your child be a dog Super Hero is by jump starting your dog’s training (with sample behaviors like sit and come) and then teaching your child how to practice teaching your dog with positive reinforcement. Not only will you build your child’s confidence as he/she sees her accomplishments, you will be teaching your dog positive associations with your child which leads to positive relationships. A word of caution about your child walking a big dog: if your dog sees something and suddenly lunges or lurches toward it, your child could get hurt and your dog may be loose to run toward that stimulus. Always be very careful to actively supervise and be watching the surroundings as well as your dog’s body language. Even better, you can hold onto a second leash.Tip for interaction between kids and dogs

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