One of the many things I love to spend time on is a good puzzle.  Word puzzles are a ton of fun!  In particular, word morphs can keep my attention for hours.  A word morph is a puzzle game where you are given a starting word, and an ending word, and you change one letter of the word at a time to come up with the end word.  The challenge is to get from one word to another in the fewest number of steps.  Often the words are somehow linked, such as cat to dog, or help to safe.  Maybe it is these puzzles that really draw me to training using shaping.

Shaping is the process in training where we start with the dog doing something and change that something into something else through successive approximations.  What that means is each training step brings the dog closer and closer to the end behaviour.  As an example, let me describe teaching a dog to approach without jumping up, as I did with a client’s dog last night.  This dog, a young exuberant labrador loves to rush up to people, and throw herself at people.  At about 30 kg, this dog is big enough to really hurt someone if she chooses the wrong person to jump upon.  This is like the starting word.

Training is a process of steps towards a goal. If you try and take too many steps at once, you will stumble and fall back down to the beginning. When you take the process of learning step by step by step, you go from can’t to can and success with your dog. Copyright: cristianbr / 123RF Stock Photo

The desired behaviour is to have her come up to me, and keep her feet on the floor while I touch her.  In behaviour parlance, we would call this the target behaviour and I always like to break that behaviour down into the simplest terms possible.  I don’t like to use more than 7 words to describe that behaviour because the more simply that I can describe it, the easier it is to find the steps to achieve my goal.  Let’s call this behaviour “approach with 4 feet on the floor.”  That is 6 words, so it fits my desire to have no more than 7 words to describe what I am training, but you will notice that it cuts out the touching part.  By limiting myself to 7 words at most, I prevent myself from lumping too many things into one training session.

Now that I have the starting behaviour and the ending behaviour, the rest of the training session is a matter of inserting the intermediate steps.  This part of shaping requires that I let go of the idea that I am going to run the entire training show without input from my training partner.  It requires that I allow my learner to do what she wants without interference.  During the training session she may do exactly what I don’t want, and for the purposes of this example I am just going to let her do that.  I think that for some of my human students this is perhaps the hardest part of shaping.  Most of my students whose dogs jump up are so deeply appalled by the undesired behaviour that when it happens they give the dog feedback that may or may not be helpful.  Usually, the feedback they give the dog is just exactly something that will maintain or even strengthen the behaviour.  Pushing the dog down may feel like a solution but in fact, teaches the dog that you are more than happy to play a vigorous wrestling game for instance and from the dog’s perspective, yelling is just noisy barking that humans do sometimes.

Here is how the session played out.  We let the dog off leash in the training hall and she began to run around away from me.  This is not an uncommon reaction when the dog is off leash, so the very first thing I did was to set the dog up so that she was unlikely to do the undesired behaviour.  Setting up so that you get what you want is the hallmark of great training.  After about three minutes, she approached me and her person, and I clicked my clicker and threw a treat behind her.  I should mention that this dog understood what a clicker was and what it meant, so if you want to try this out, you should teach the dog that click means treat before you start.

When I clicked the clicker, the dog stopped dead in her tracks and stared at me.  For her, this was probably the first time that she had received any feedback about approaching other than yelling or pushing!  She was genuinely surprised at the outcome.  I made sure she could see me throw the treat and she took off like a shot to chase the treat.  Once she took the treat, she started to explore the training room again, sniffing the toys and finding dropped treats that had been left by previous trainers.  It took her another two or three minutes to approach us and again she approached us at a run. I clicked again and threw another treat behind the dog.  This time there was a short light bulb moment for the dog; approaching me was a safe, interesting thing to do, and it resulted in treats!  From there the dog began to approach me right away after getting her treat.  7 clicks and treats later she was coming in towards us eagerly but under her own control.  Throughout this time, I simply chatted with the client, never giving the dog directions, never micromanaging the dog, just clicking the dog for approaching, and throwing the treat away to get the dog to leave in order for me to set up a chance for the dog to return.

From that point forward, I wanted the dog to start to approach more closely while maintaining her self control.  To get her to do this, I just delayed clicking until she approached more closely.  About 10 more clicks and she was walking right up to me.  I had a little bit of history with this dog, working with her on the down stay, so she made a quick leap of logic and without any prompting or cuing or other information from me, she approached me and lay down.  I really liked that, so I clicked and threw several treats; I made approaching and lying down really, really valuable!

As I said at the beginning, shaping is a lot like a word morph game.  In this case the steps were approach, approach and stop, approach under self control, approach more closely under self control, approach and lie down at my feet.  You will notice that the learner added in something I had not planned for; lying down.  If she had added in sit, or stand and make eye contact, that would have been fine with me too; in this case, it doesn’t matter to me what she did when she arrived as long as it wasn’t putting her feet on me.  In five steps, I achieved my goal of “approach with four feet on the floor”.

This is what my goal behaviour looks like for the labrador retriever I was working with. Knowing what I want is an important part of shaping. If I don’t know where I am going, it is going to be much harder to take steps towards that goal. It is important to be able to form the goal behaviour in terms of what I do want, not just what I don’t want. Copyright: lightpoet / 123RF Stock Photo

In order to get my goal of being able to touch this dog, I would have continued to train, clicking and treating for approaching and lying down while I first stepped towards the dog, and then stepping in and reaching but not touching, then stepping in and touching her and finally stepping in, reaching, touching and stroking her.  The important thing to notice in this case is that once the dog is doing what I want her to do, I am shaping the activity that happens around her while she is doing the behaviour that I want.  This is an important next step in most training; trainers might call this proofing.  What we mean is for the dog to continue to do the target behaviour no matter what else happens around them.

It is popular to only define shaping in terms of reinforcement training but in fact, shaping can happen in any of the four training quadrants; you can certainly use punishment to shape behaviour too.  With this very same dog we did this to keep her safe after she jumped up on a treat station and broke it.  We have small flower pots on the wall to hold treats, and like many dogs before her, she tried to jump up and use her claws to pull the pots off the wall.  She broke a pot and it would be dangerous to her to continue to do this, so we didn’t want her to do that.  When she jumped up on the wall near the pots, we called out “that’s enough”.  If she stopped right away, we would toss treats for her to clean up.  If she continued to the pot, we would call out “too bad” and then quietly and calmly catch her and put her in the classroom crate for a few minutes.  Then we would let her out to try again.  In this way, the dog learned that jumping up on the wall near the pots was a behaviour that would predict an outcome that she didn’t like very much.  It wasn’t stressful for her, it was just something she didn’t like.

It took about five repetitions to teach the dog not to jump on the walls, but that was really only the first step; we really wanted this dog to stop fixating on the pots altogether, so the next step on this shaping protocol was to call out the warning as she approached the wall.  This time she learned the game even more quickly; it took her three repetitions to decide that approaching the wall near the pot was not a desired behaviour.  From there, almost half an hour passed before she tried the behaviour again.  In this way, we had shaped the behaviour we wanted using a negative punishment protocol.

Shaping can work with extinction too.  We use extinction to teach dogs not to snatch treats until they are told.  Extinction is the process of doing nothing at all until the behaviour changes and then reinforce the lack of the behaviour.  At first, we ask only that they not touch our hand when a treat is extended towards the dog.  Then we require that they stay off the treat for a second.  Then two seconds.  Then three, five, seven, ten and so on until the dog learns that trying to get at the treat just won’t work.  We essentially teach the dog to stop trying to get the treat for longer and longer periods of time.

The important thing to understand about morphing behaviours like changing words is to make changes slowly.  If you want your dog to pay attention to you when there are other dogs in the vicinity, then don’t start in the middle of the dog park; start far away, and pay your dog for giving you his attention at whatever distance he is already successful.  Some dogs struggle so much with attending to me out of doors that I start out with just hand feeding outside my front door.  Then I take them to places in the car and just feed them in new places.  In general, if I have a really distracted dog, I want them to take treats nicely in ten places before I start asking them to do anything at all in a new place.  Then I start asking for things they will do at home on my front step or in the driveway.  From there, I take them in the car and ask them to get out of the car and do something really easy.  Each time, I pay really well for whatever the dog does what I ask.  Just as teaching the dog a new skill requires that I increase the difficulty of the skill in a step wise manner, so does working in a new environment.

Just like changing words one letter at a time, shaping or morphing behaviours is a lot of fun.  One of the biggest reasons it is a lot of fun is that if you are only changing a little bit at a time, you are going to be fairly successful in very short order.  It is a lot less fun when you try and change more than one thing at a time.  When you are training, if you are not succeeding, ask yourself if you are changing too much too fast and if you are, slow down and enjoy the success.



Originally posted September 2013

Lately I have been inundated with requests to help train people’s service dogs.  Here is more information about how to get started in training your own service dog.  Before you go through this blog, please read the first blog I wrote about getting a service dog.


Many people email me telling me about their special dog who helps to make them feel better.  Perhaps they are diabetic and their dog always comes to them when they are about to test their blood sugar level.  Or perhaps they come and cuddle just when the person’s chronic pain becomes intense.  Perhaps you are afraid to go out in public and you hope that your family pet might help you to do this.  My question is always the same; is the dog you have suited to the work you want him to do?

To answer if your dog is suited to the work, you have to first define what work you want your dog to do.  This complex question involves looking at what you do every day and where you might include your dog.  If you are thinking about sending your dog to school with your child, you have to have a dog who is very calm and confident around the things that children do.  You don’t in fact want a dog who is obsessively friendly with children as that would disrupt your child’s school mates.  If you are looking for a dog who will accompany you to the office and alert you to alarms and sounds that you cannot hear, then you don’t want a dog who barks incessantly.

D’fer is an example of a very rare case; he is a dog who was living in my home who happened to be suited to the work I needed in a service dog.  As a professional trainer, I had the skills to recognize his potential and then to cultivate that into a successful working dog.  This is the exception not the rule.


What your dog does will depend a lot on what you do.  Take an inventory of what you do every day for a week.  Include everything including bathing, brushing your teeth, cooking meals, and everything you do both in and out of the home.  Then go through your week, and ask yourself what the dog would be doing at each point you have inventoried.  If you shower with the assistance of a human aide, your dog should not be underfoot; the person can reach the soap and towel for you.  On the other hand, if you want to shower independently, you may wish to train a dog to lie calmly beside a running shower and be able to reach items on a low shelf and hand them to you.  At each step of your week, figure out what your dog will be doing.  Then you can look at if your current dog is suitable or not.  If you think your current dog is suitable, then you should get a trained professional to help you to determine if your dog really is suited.  A second set of eyes is always a great idea.  Unless you are a professional dog trainer, you really should consider getting someone else to look at what you want to do.


Hire a pro.  Really, hire someone who can evaluate the dogs you meet and match them up to the work that you do.  The person you hire should have experience selecting, training and placing service dogs.  They may or may not have worked with someone with your particular disability profile, but they should be able to help you to determine if a dog can do the work you have outlined.

This dog took me 6 months to find as a puppy, and then two years to train.  As a training professional I need to be paid for the work I do evaluating breeds and breeders, lines and litters and selecting the right dog, for raising the puppy, for the training and training classes I provide as well as for the placement coaching I do with the person who ended up with this dog.  All of that can cost a lot.


Here is where things start to get difficult.  I would love to be able to afford to find, train and place dogs for everyone who needs one.  I really, really would.  I too live with disability, and if I didn’t have the support of a wonderful husband,  I too would be on some form of support.  It is really hard to say no when someone asks me to help them, especially when I know how much my service dog does for me.  The sad fact is that I have expenses related to doing the work you would like me to do, I have bills to pay and I need to eat.  I cannot do this for less than what I charge.

There are programs out there that DO provide service dogs at little or no charge to disabled persons.  You can find many of them listed at the Assistance Dogs International website at  If you are approaching a professional trainer, it is fair to ask them for a possible budget, but it is not fair to ask them to cut their professional fees.  You put the professional into a very difficult situation when you do that; we hate to say no, but if we say yes, we won’t be able to afford to help anyone because we will be out of business.


As of this writing, the least expensive program trained dogs run about twenty thousand dollars USD and the most expensive dogs cost about $60 000.  What is the difference?  This is depending upon how many dogs the program is turning out, how much they pay their trainers, and what kind of program they run.  To train your own dog, you need to account for the cost of the dog (as low as $250 if you are very, very fortunate, to as high as $3500 if you are getting a rare breed that you have to research, find, and ship),  a professional to help select the dog (between $250-$1500), puppy classes (anywhere from $99 for six to $800, depending on location), private consultations for the first two years (about $3000), group classes (another $3000), plus food, vet care and equipment.  On the low end, that is about $8000, and on the high end, that could be about $16000.  If anything goes wrong, you may have to start all over and pay all that money again.


I don’t know.  I wish I did, but I don’t.  You can talk to local service groups, churches, friends and relations and see if anyone wants to fund you or is able to donate the money to you, but sadly, there is no central place to get money for service dogs.


There are a number of ways to find a trainer.  You can look up trainers at the Counsel for the Certification of Professional Dog Trainers at and find a local trainer.  You can then contact the trainer and ask them if they train service dogs.  If they do, then please don’t tell them all about you or the dog you hope to train.  Ask them how many service dogs they have trained, what disabilities they know about, and where they learned to train.  Ask them questions about how they work with clients.  You are looking at hiring a professional, and at this point, you are interviewing candidates and looking for referrals.  If you have a child with autism, and you call me up looking for help training your dog to help him, I am in the end going to refer you to the local program that trains dogs for autistic children.  I know little about autism and would not take on a project like that.

The initial phone or email contact should be to establish if the trainer is able to help you.  If they are not able to help you, please don’t spend all afternoon telling them about yourself and your dog and your hopes and desires.  On the other hand, if the trainer asks you questions, please don’t change the subject or tell us about where you vacationed last year (yes, I had a client do that!).  Answer the question and help us to help you.  Most of us got into dog training because we like to help, and we cannot help when you are telling us things that don’t pertain to what you want to know.

Once you have found a trainer who can help you, then you need to meet and find out if this person espouses values similar enough to your values that you can work together.  Do your research.  If the trainer has a blog or a website, read that.  Don’t worry if they have mostly written about their agility career or how they do visits to hospitals; learn about who this person is.  If you work with this person then you will be spending a lot of time and money with them and you want to make sure that you have a good idea about who this person is and what they do.  The time you spend doing this research is going to pay off in the end, and may save you thousands of dollars and months of time.

Once you have found a trainer who DOES the work you need, and who seems like the kind of person you want to work with, you will need to meet with that person face to face.  Please be prepared to pay them for that time.  Many of us will waive our fee if you have done your background work and have prepared yourself for this interview, but we should not be expected to do that.  If I had been paid even minimum wage by those who have dropped in and taken up my time when I am at my office, I would be financially much better off than I am.  This is my work, and I need to get paid for it if I am going to continue to do it.


If you have to be your own professional, you are going to need to grow a very specific set of skills.  There are fantastic resources on line that help people to learn about dog training and you can take advantage of those resources, but do be aware that if you are working on your own, your chances of success decrease a lot.  One of the most difficult situations is when you have a dog who is for whatever reason just intuitive enough and well enough behaved that he can do the work without any training, and then he has to retire.  This situation is difficult because the person who has this dog often doesn’t realize that the dog is not representative of what dogs are like in general.  In general, dogs don’t walk out of the womb willing, able and skilled enough to do service work.


That depends on what route you have worked out.  Ideally, I would suggest you work with a trainer.  Realistically though you should expect that interviewing a trainer, and then finding, purchasing, raising, training and preparing a service dog for the work he will do as an adult is a three to five year project, and at any time, the dog you have may wash out.  Some sources suggest that 60% of all dogs selected wash out between the time they are selected, and they have completed the first six months of full time work as a service dog.  This means that you may end up with one or more dogs in your care who are not service dogs.

Be very realistic in your expectations of yourself, your dog, the trainer and the parameters of the disability that you live with.  It may take you longer to completely train a service dog.  Or you might get unlucky and have a medical event that prevents you from training for a period of time.  Or you might get lucky and finish ahead of schedule.  If you are realistic, you won’t be disappointed.



John, The Puppy Guy was not always The Puppy Guy. In fact, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, he spent an interminable amount of time on the corporate customer service desk for a large investment house. And not surprisingly, they wanted their phone jockeys to behave in very specific ways. John mostly just wanted a job in his field, and the paycheque. When the company and the employee have different goals, hilarity can ensue.


Working on the telephone desk of a big corporation is a complex task that could be broken down into component elements, but often isn’t!  Image credit: auremar / 123RF Stock Photo


Let’s call the company Big Bank and Investing. BB & I hired a consulting team to come in and figure out what criteria they wanted the people answering the phones to use in order to keep their customers happy. They narrowed it down to a few relevant things. First was that the customer service rep was supposed to address the client by name four times in each call. Second, they were to ensure that each client was asked if they wanted their account information updated. Thirdly, they wanted the phones answered within the first two rings, so that the clients never had to wait to talk to someone. Finally, they wanted their reps to thank the customer for calling BB & I. The consulting company chose measurable, repeatable criteria, which is always a good idea when you want to change behaviours. They forgot a few minor details however.


The first of the details they forgot was that the clients were calling a discount brokerage desk. This meant that individuals were sitting by their computers waiting for the markets to move and then hitting the speed dial button to talk to John or any of a hundred other guys just like him. The phone calls would go something like this:

Hello, this is BB & I, and you are speaking with John. Who is calling please?

This is MikeBRaddock24352345234-L, I need to sell 700 of GoGolfing at 42.

Thank you Mike. Before we continue Mike, I see that you only have 600 of GoGolfing and GoGolfing is selling for 38, Mike. Mike, shall I put that trade through for you at 38, Mike?

Yes go ahead.

Now, Mike, is there anything I can do for you?

  1. Thanks..

Before you go Mike, can I check your account details and make certain that we have your correct contact information?

No. Thanks. Bye.

Thank you for calling BB & I Mike.

Except that Mike would have hung up on you before you said good bye. And if you didn’t finish saying Thank you for calling BB & I to dead air, then you got a poor rating on that particular call. This was really depressing for the customer service reps, and in fact led to a suppression of the desired thanking behaviour. Not only that, Mike was annoyed because he talked to you fourteen times a day, every day and he was sick and tired of being asked to update his account. Some of the stories John told were quite funny about the responses they got to their queries about contact information. About the fourth time you are asked the same question in a given day, you start getting annoyed and you start giving smart ass answers, such as “Yes, please, update that I am in the den now instead of the office.” Or sometimes they would string along a rep in order to not change their address but to keep an agent on the line so they could make another trade without having to call back. And sometimes they would keep you on the line for a long time.


Not surprisingly, moral was not great amongst the employees, so the office management team was constantly challenged to come up with incentive activities. One such activity went like this. Each employee had four calls randomly selected each week to be evaluated by the management team. If you hit all the criteria that were laid out, you got the chance to kick a soccer ball into a net from a set distance. If you got the ball in the net (keeping in mind that everyone is in business attire), you got your name put in a box for a monthly draw to get a day off work. One day, John got all the criteria right, on all four calls and his manager proudly walked over to his desk, with the soccer ball under his arm. With great ceremony, he offered the ball to John.


“No thanks,” John replied, “I just want to answer my phone, and go home at the end of the day.” The manager was dismayed.  “You earned this”, he said.  “I don’t want it”, John replied.  “You are not being a team player”, the manager replied.  “I really don’t want to do this”, John came back.  “I will write you up in your permanent file if you don’t kick the ball”, the manager pressed. So John stood up and took the ball and removed his suit jacket. He carefully placed the ball on the floor. He took two steps back. And he HOOFED the ball into the goal. And his shoe….flew up and lodged in a ceiling tile.


Two days later a VP of the company came and toured the department and for some unknown reason, the soccer game disappeared forever. I have always thought that the shoe in the ceiling tile is a wonderful example of some of the things we ask our dogs to do, for rewards they don’t want and the problems that ensue when the trainer and the trainee are not on the same page.


So what can dog trainers learn from this anecdote? Let’s start with reward programs. As humans we are inundated with ineffective reward programs. What was wrong with this part reflects the poor understanding that almost everyone has about rewards and how they affect behaviour. The fact is, from a behaviour analysis perspective, rewards don’t change behaviour, because they are not necessarily linked to the behaviour. In order to for a behaviour to increase, it must be reinforced, which is the outcome of an effective reward. We may USE rewards to reinforce behaviour, but we can also use rewards at difference times than the behaviour. A reward in short is something we want, but not necessarily something that will reinforce a behaviour. This subtle difference becomes important when you look at how people use rewards. You can think of rewards as the tool that CAN or MIGHT use to reinforce behaviour, but you may also misuse the tool and inadvertently reinforce behaviours you are not interested in having.


The reward that was being offered was a day off. The behavioural criteria were the number of times that the rep said the client’s name, checking for updated information, that the phone was answered in a timely manner and saying the company name when thanking the client for calling. The reward would be delivered at a MUCH later date than the behaviour, and in fact, behaviour needs to be reinforced at the time it occurs in order to assure that it will increase. Not only that, but the reward was not actually contingent on the behavioural criteria; the reward was contingent on your name being pulled from a hat, and your name getting into the hat was contingent on your soccer ball getting into the goal, and the soccer ball getting into the goal was contingent on your ability to kick accurately over a given distance as well having carried out all four of the behavioural criteria four times in a random sample of your work. Getting a day off would be a relief, but not a reinforcement!


I had a client at one time who decided that her dog would only get the exercise he needed if he was well behaved until four pm that day. Any transgression would result in a lack of a walk. Lack of exercise made her dog quite unsettled and uncomfortable; he was a border collie who was bred to be very active. The frequency of this dog’s walks decreased bit by bit until he was spending most of his day being destructive in the client’s home. When the reward comes much later than the behaviour, or when the contingencies are unclear to the learner, as in the situation John found himself within, or that the border collie experienced, you will never make progress with teaching the behaviours you want.


Let’s consider too that kicking a soccer ball in a suit and tie was uncomfortable for John. The reinforcement would need to be pretty immediate and very valuable to get him to do the task reliably. John in a suit and tie is a sight to see and dignity is something that he demonstrated when he wore his dress clothes. Kicking a soccer ball in the office just isn’t dignified. How often do we ask our dogs to do things that they might feel is undignified? Treat on the nose trick? Some dogs like it, but more do not. The reinforcer may be immediate and valuable, but an awful lot of dogs just don’t like doing it and demonstrate their dislike in a manner not unlike what John tried to do; they avoid the situation if they can. In John’s case, the act of kicking a soccer ball in the office was probably the opposite of reinforcing; it was embarrassing and upsetting and likely decreased the likelihood of his doing what his manager wanted in the first place. If using the client’s name less frequently would avoid soccer ball kicking, John and many other employees probably would intentionally stop using the client’s name. When we ask the dogs to do things they don’t want to do, no matter how pleasant the outcome, many dogs just won’t do it.


I know that the promise of behaviourism is that we can get dogs to do anything they are physically capable of doing through manipulation of reinforcers. This is a case of just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Really. We don’t need to train everything we are able to teach a dog. Dogs have preferences and trainers should learn about those preferences and train within them. I am not saying that dogs should not have to learn to do behaviours that keep them safe, like not pulling on leash, but honestly, we don’t need to train our dogs to do things they don’t enjoy just to amuse ourselves. What does this mean to you and your dog? This means knowing what your dog likes and doesn’t like, what he is physically and mentally comfortable doing. Ask yourself if the behaviour is both necessary and kind. If you have a dog who hates water, there is little point in training him as a hunting retriever; that is un necessary and unkind. If that same dog lives on an island and has to take a boat to and from the mainland, teaching him HOW to swim and keeping up with that skill is necessary to keep him safe in the event of a mishap, even though it may be uncomfortable and to a certain extent, unkind.


This little guy doesn’t look thrilled about getting into the water; asking him to retrieve ducks would be completely un necessary and unkind, not to mention unrealistic.  Image credit: cynoclub / 123RF Stock Photo


The next thing to consider is the meaningfulness of the reward, the tool you use to increase the likelihood of the behaviour you want. In John’s case, the ultimate reward was a day off, something he wanted very much. The problem was that the reward was deeply buried in a complex and convoluted reward cycle that included an element of chance. Everything that happens between the time that you mark or identify the correct iteration of the target behaviour and the end reward is part of the reinforcement cycle. If you click and then walk your dog towards a treat station, both the walking and the treat station, as well as the treat itself are part of the reinforcement cycle. When the reinforcement cycles get too long, then the behaviour that you targeted gets lost in the process. If the ultimate reinforcer is something that the dog wants but the rest of the reinforcement cycle is onerous, then there are a good many learners who had the same reaction that John did; “thanks, no, I don’t need that badly enough.” Making John kick the soccer ball was like offering D’fer the chance to sleep in his crate overnight so that he can have a special breakfast in the morning; the reward is too far away, and the behaviour of sleeping in his crate is something that he doesn’t want to do in order to get it.


Finally let’s look at the target criteria. I have intentionally placed them out of sequence, because that is something that trainers often do. When you want your dog to come in straight on the recall and sit in front of you and wait till you tell him what to do next, and then you decide that sitting must be straight you cannot just tack that criterion onto the list willy nilly. When we are training, we have to suss out a single criterion, train that, and then suss out a second criterion and train that, and then put those two together. To make more complex behaviours we train each criterion individually, and then when we have achieved fluency we can put those behaviours together. If we get halfway through our process and then add something in the middle as an afterthought, the learner just gets frustrated. In John’s case they wanted the rep to say the client’s name four times, check for updated information, and say the company name when thanking the client for calling, and somewhere along the line someone added in the need to answer the phone within a specific number of rings. Instead of training each criterion as an individual behaviour, the managers tried to lump everything together and without actually reinforcing successful iterations of the target behaviour, they worked on all the behaviours at once. I see this problem so often in training classes that it is often amazing to me that the dogs get trained at all.

One of the most common places I see this is in teaching the recall. If pressed, the handler will state his target behaviour as the dog coming when called even if distracted. This is a really vague criteria, and it gets worse when the handler asks the dog to stay and then walks across a room with nothing between them and then calls the dog out of his stay, but only rewards the dog if he also sits when he arrives. I break coming when called into several discrete behaviours. I want the dog accept handling when he comes, so I teach a collar grab as a first step. Grab, feed and release; lather, rinse and repeat. When the dog is happy about being grabbed, we do a restrained recall where the dog is held back and the handler runs away and then stops and calls the dog. When the dog is good at that we put the two behaviours together; the collar grab AND the restrained recall. Then we do this with toys in between the handler and the person restraining the dog. Then we add people and dogs between the dog and the handler. Then we play a game where the dog is free and we call him and click and place a treat between our feet and move away while the dog is eating. Then we play a game where we click when the dog comes in close and then we throw the treat away to get the dog to move away from us. THEN we start calling the dog out of play. There really isn’t a link between coming when called in a distraction free environment and coming when called out of play. By working on each of the component elements of the come when called out of distractions and rewarding for the smallest successes, we reinforce the behaviour we want.


When you examine training programs it is tempting to use results as your only measure. From the perspective of the young managers who were trying to get better customer service, they thought they had a solid plan. They didn’t understand the difference between a reward (the tool) and a reinforcer (the effect), and they didn’t understand anything about the reinforcement cycle. They didn’t understand criteria, and the process of taking behaviours and deconstructing them into their component elements. In short, they didn’t really understand what they were doing. This is why we need to have instructors who really understand the process of training; so we can help our students to avoid the pitfalls of the shoe in the ceiling.



I work with dogs with behaviour problems every day. Some of the dogs I work with have bitten people. Some of them have attacked other dogs. Some of them leap at passersby when walking on leash. I see dogs with separation anxiety, with inappropriate elimination issues, who chase lights and shadows and who snap at invisible flies. I see dogs who don’t sleep and who eat things they ought not, and who do a wide variety of very strange behaviours. Over the years I have seen dogs who charge and lunge, who bite, who target the other dogs in the house, who have lunged at me, who have knocked me over, who have targeted another dog in my classroom and who have lost control over their bladders when I have looked at them. There is a really important thing to know about my job. I know what misbehaviour looks like. I don’t need to see your dog show misbehaviour in order to help you. You may wonder why.

The coach probably won’t play this player until he is off crutches and completely healed. The same is true of a dog with a behaviour problem; we don’t want to re-injure your dog by triggering the problem over and over again. Copyright: ljupco / 123RF Stock Photo

The very first thing to know is that triggering the behaviour problem you are experiencing is not good for your dog. It is not in your dog’s best interest for me to see your dog misbehave. If your dog has a serious behaviour problem, every time he practices that behaviour, the behaviour becomes stronger, and that is not what I want when I am helping a family. There is a medical analogy that I like to use to help people to understand. Suppose that you had a broken leg. Every time you go to the doctor for a check up on your leg, would you expect your doctor to ask you to do something that would further injure your leg? Would you agree to jump up and down on your broken leg ten or eleven times to see how much it hurts? Would you expect your leg to ever actually heal properly if you keep re-injuring it?

Every time that you set your dog up to exhibit the undesired behaviour you have come to work on with me, you are re-injuring your dog. I don’t want your dog to get worse! I want your dog to get better. I look at resolving behaviour problems by starting from the point of doing no harm. I don’t want to make matters worse. If seeing your dog misbehaving were helpful, I would be in favour of allowing your dog make as many mistakes as possible but it doesn’t help. It really, really doesn’t help.

The next reason I don’t need to see your dog misbehave is that it often isn’t safe for me, for you, for your dog or for the dogs and people who are around you. If your dog is aggressive towards other dogs, it is really risky for other dogs for your dog to practice that behaviour. It is not safe for me if your dog is practicing being aggressive towards me! If your dog is aggressive towards me, and I have to do something to protect myself, your dog could be hurt. I don’t want to hurt your dog; that is not my job!

If your dog bites me during a consult, I cannot help him. I am not wearing a bite suit to protect myself and if he bites me, I might hurt him protecting myself. It can be dangerous for me to see the problem behaviour. Copyright: mosheruzh / 123RF Stock Photo

The final and perhaps the most important reason to avoid triggering a problem behaviour is that I likely already know what it looks like. I have seen some very wild and woolly behaviour. I have seen a dog with seizure induced aggression; I don’t need to ever see that again. It was extremely dangerous to me and I don’t think the dog was having much fun either. I have seen various types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and that is so hard for the dog to endure. I have seen in person more fear aggressive dogs, defensively aggressive dogs, and confidently aggressive dogs than I care to count. I have seen dog to dog aggression and twice, I have seen dog fights so severe that both dogs nearly died. I have seen play, I have seen affiliative behaviour, I have seen fearful urination and defecation, I have seen leash aggression and I have seen resource guarding. After twenty five years of working with dogs with behaviour problems I have seen more problem behaviour than most pet owners will see in a lifetime. I don’t need to see most of this again, but if there is some reason for me to see a problem behaviour, I want to see it on video, retrospectively. For the very most part I don’t want to see the problem behaviour if I can avoid it.

This probably leaves many readers wondering how I can help if I don’t see the problem behaviour. First off, I want to know what the problem behaviour is, so I ask lots and lots of questions about the problem behaviour. Most people can tell me what I need to know after I ask the right questions to frame the problem. Once I have an idea of what the problem is, I need to know more details to start to help solve the problem. How much does the dog sleep? What does he eat? Is there something that happens right before the problem appears? Has the dog caused any injuries? How much exercise does the dog get and what kind of exercise is it? Who does the dog live with? Who does the dog play with? How is the dog’s health? Does the dog have any pain related issues?   When I know about as many of the contributing factors as I can find, I can start to formulate a plan to help the dog and their family.

The first thing I will do after taking a history from family members is develop a management plan to avoid the problem. As with my example of a broken leg, for a period of time, I don’t want the dog to be re-injured by being triggered by the things that disturb him. I think of your dog having an episode of bad behaviour as being like re-injuring a broken bone. If you do it often enough, you are going to create a permanent and potentially worse problem. If nothing else, your relationship with your dog is not going to be as good as it could be.

Management in behavioural terms simply means setting up a successful environment. This can be very straightforward to do sometimes, but often it can be tricky. When you are talking about a dog who is afraid of men in hats, you can usually avoid men in hats for a period of time while you work on the problem. This is much trickier when you cannot tell what triggers the undesired behaviour, and that is where I am often really helpful to my clients. I have years of experience coming up with unique and creative ways to prevent exposing your dog to the things that set him off.

When we are talking about problems such as house soiling, I often have a few cards up my sleeve that you may not have thought of; it isn’t just common sense even though simple solutions are often what works. Often, coming in with experience and fresh eyes can help me to develop a plan to meet your dog’s needs even though you may have already thought up a number of solutions of your own and yet still, I don’t need to see your dog making the error to help.

The next thing I want to do is to determine what is driving or motivating the problem behaviour. If your dog is toileting in the house, but only does it on days when he or she is asked to stay home alone for ten hours at a time, then what is motivating him is a full bladder. If you get someone to come in and toilet your dog half way through the day, then he won’t have a full bladder and won’t soil in the house. That is a simple example of the kind of problem solving I help my clients with.

2309147_s This dog is showing us all his teeth and his tongue is retracted deep into his mouth. I know what this looks like! I even know what is most likely motivating him; he is guarding his stick. I don’t need to see your dog do the same thing in order to understand what resource guarding looks like or to help you help your dog! Copyright: cynoclub / 123RF Stock Photo

Some situations are more complex though. I have worked with dogs who are afraid of a myriad of things in their environments and the first step we have to take is to teach the dog that he is safe within his own environment. Once I have done that, we can start to expand his success puddle from within the house and yard to the street, the neighbourhood and then beyond. Sometimes the motivator behind the behaviour is medical; then I need to work with my client’s veterinarian to resolve the motivation. Sometimes it is hard to tell what the motivation is, and then I get to work like a detective solving a mystery to figure out how to help.

The final step in the work I do is to help you to teach your dogs the skills they need to succeed in their new reality. When we aren’t triggering the dog over and over again, and when we change what motivates the undesired behaviour, the next step is to examine what skills the dog needs to successfully navigate the situations that used to be a problem. Sometimes when I work with aggressive dogs the aggression is triggered by a specific triggers (such as men in hats) and it is motivated by fear (perhaps a man in a hat startled the dog when he was a puppy) and when we overcome those two components, we need to teach the dog what he should do instead of being aggressive.

By now you may be thinking “gee, your work sounds pretty straightforward” and to be completely honest you are not wrong, but I still hold the card of experience. I know how to evaluate the situation and what questions I need to ask to find out what the problem might be. I can recognize when the motivation that is driving the problem might be medical instead of behavioural. I know where to start when we attack the problem you have come to see me about. And I know what skills to teach your dog to give him tools to use in his tool box.   I also know that although it might be flashy, your dog’s life is not a TV show, so I don’t need to see him exhibit the undesired behaviour!



Originally Published November  2013

Lately a few of my students have been struggling with very intelligent, high drive dogs who enjoy pushing their person’s buttons.  If you say sit, they lie down.  If you ask for got to mat, they offer a trick.  If you send them to fetch up a dumbbell, they go out, turn and face you and sit.  If you leave them on a down stay they bark.  When I work with these dogs, I can often turn them around quickly and get the desired behaviours, often to the frustration of their people.  What am I doing that their handlers are not, and why can I turn this around when other trainers cannot?  I will start with the caveat that I am NOT magic.  I just have a few pieces to the puzzle that my students often don’t have.

The key factor that I have is a better understanding of how learning works.  When we read training books, it often sounds like all learning is linear and builds upon itself.  Training plans are often presented like knitting patterns, where if you follow all the steps and you use the right wool and needles, you will get a predictable outcome every single time.  While this is somewhat true, there are a few things that we have to take into account when working on learning.

When you are knitting a scarf from a pattern you can put the project down and nothing will likely change.  There are not knitting gnomes who come along and unravel your work or add extra bits when you are not looking.  This is not true of training.  When you are training your dog, a lot of things can change from session to session or even within a training session that can effect the outcome of your training session.  Image credit: dole / 123RF Stock Photo

The first thing to take into account is that learning is only linear when the skill set upon which learning is built is solid to begin with.  If the dog has a fuzzy idea of the foundational skills that are needed for an advanced version of the same behaviour, then he is not going to be successful at the advanced version because he doesn’t have the background to understand the more difficult work.  Think back to learning how to read; if you gave this blog to a first grader they would be hopelessly muddled in multisyllabic words, clauses within sentences and my sometimes non linear route to an idea.  They don’t have the foundational skills necessary to follow along on the sentences that build upon “see Spot, see Spot run!”

This is a very complex behaviour that is built on strong foundational skills.  In order to get this picture, D’fer had to be able to sit and stay, to follow my cue to jump the correct jump and to look in mid air for the next cue.  If the foundation is not solid then the end goal behaviours will not be solid either.  Photo Credit:  Karen Brody

Next I also understand that success is built on success.  When you are working with a dog, starting new work cold without doing a few things he is good at means that he is not starting from a point where he has gotten a few answers right.  When I am teaching something new, I usually start by getting the dog to do something he knows well for a few repetitions, and then do the foundational work with him and then start stretching his brain with new work.  In order for learning to be a fluid process, you have to start from where the dog is at when you start the training session, not from where he was the last time you worked on the behaviour.  Learning is not like knitting that can be put down and picked up and carried on from one session to another.  Learning is a much more fluid and dynamic process and in between training sessions, learning is still happening.  Sometimes that learning may impede the next session, and other times it may help that session to move forward.

Yesterday one of my staff came over to learn more about horses and riding.  He has had a couple of ground lessons with Kiki, John’s mare (whose real name is MacKenzie), and has learned to groom her, to lead her and to mount and dismount and ride on the lunge line fairly successfully.  Yesterday I asked him to lead her unsupervised through a field to where we were going to work.  He got about fifty metres into the 200 metre walk and Kiki put her head down to graze.  Kiki is very committed to grazing.  She loves grazing.  She also knows how to walk politely for a stranger.  I coached him through the final 150 metres and he eventually got her to the riding area.  Then I took the lead rope and asked her to step forward.  After twenty minutes of starting and stopping and grazing and getting reinforced for fiddling around instead of walking forward, she was baulky and difficult to handle.  Keep in mind that for me, I can walk her through a hay mow with feed pans of grain on the ground and she normally would not baulk.  Never the less she gave me a very hard time about moving forward.  Why would she do this?  Because between the last time I walked her somewhere and this time, she had learned that stopping to graze might work and that by planting her feet she could get more opportunities to graze.  The twenty minutes that she spent with a novice handler unravelled some of the training we have already done and I had to go back and review some of the “walk beside me without pressure on the lead rope” lessons we have already done!  Often in class, the work that a student is doing may be interrupted by what they have learned between lessons.

Kiki is a wonderful mare who will do anything for John.  She will however learn tricks and undesired behaviours in between training sessions and those tricks can be frustrating to deal with.  She can for instance learn that grazing, perhaps her favourite thing ever, is a great idea if the person leading her doesn’t prevent her from starting.  Once she has started to graze, she will often keep going for a long time, and then if John or I ask her to do something else, she may drop her head and start to eat.  What happens between training sessions is as important and sometimes more important than what happens during training sessions.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Another thing that can happen is that behaviours that we don’t want get inadvertently reinforced.  I have a number of students who click after the behaviour has occurred.  When they are working on simple foundation behaviours this can actually help them to have early success because they don’t click until the dog is firmly in the sit or firmly in the down.  When you are trying to train very precise behaviours though, late clicking means that you are clicking for things you don’t want and the dog develops the habit of fidgetting or fiddling with the behaviours until the handler clicks.  In an extreme situation what you end up with is a dog who thinks that your target behaviour is not what you asked for, but a whole string of behaviours that terminate with the asked for behaviour.  I watched a dog this week when asked to sit go through the following string of behaviours; he sat, lay down, crawled backwards, sat again, stood, barked, and then sat and held the sit for a micro second.  Then the handler clicked.  This dog is very, very smart and he is pretty sure that the behaviour his person wants when she asks for sit is this long chain, because he is reliably being clicked for it.  Not only that, but he seems to be reinforced by his handler’s frustration.  The more frustrated she gets, the more fidgety he gets when she asks for simple things.  He is a brilliant dog, but very frustrating to work with because when he doesn’t get feedback in the right place, he throws in all sorts of embellishments.  While embellishments might make for a nice sweater, they can make for a very frustrating teaching experience when the trainer has an idea in mind for what behaviour they need the dog to learn.

When I watch this particular team, I am reminded of a skit I saw once of a couple at a restaurant.  They are served their meal and when the waiter returns to ask what they think of the food, they hesitate, so he whips their plates away and replaces them with a “better” plate of food.  When he returns and asks again, the diners are not fast enough to give him feed back so he takes their plates away again and brings them back with “improvements”.  This happens six or seven times, the chef is brought out, the maitre d’ and finally the manager and the closing comment is “some people….you can never please them!”

When trainers don’t have a clear target behaviour, I think this is how some dogs must feel; nothing they do will make the trainer happy.  Like the wait staff at a restaurant where the customer gives little or no feedback, the dog keeps trying new things to make the client or in this case the trainer happy.  Image credit: lisafx / 123RF Stock Photo

I think that when the dog is not reinforced at the right time, he must be left feeling the way these diners did; like nothing he can do will meet the needs of his handler.  This is a bright dog who needs immediate feedback  for each and every iteration until he understands what is wanted.  This particular dog also tends to go through a long and protracted extinction burst when he finally understands what you want.  This can be endlessly frustrating for handlers.  I watched him working on item discrimination recently.  He really knew the item that they were working on.  When put in a pile of four other items, he reliably chose the wrong item, looked at his handler, and then repeated the drill.  Sometimes he would go to the other items ten, twelve or even fifteen times before he picked the right item.  This is a dog who really likes to be sure!  An extinction burst is a phase of learning that dogs go through that can drive trainers nearly screwy.  What happens is once the learner understands the criteria, then they go through a period of not giving you what you ask for, over and over again.  This is important because of what is happening in the brain.  It implies that the brain is not only collecting data on what earns the click, but also that it is collecting data on what doesn’t earn the click and that information may be every bit as important to the learner as what does earn the click.  While this may feel like your learner is unravelling the knitting, in reality, they are just adding some interesting pieces to the pattern.

The final issue I see regularly in class that impedes learning is when the trainer hasn’t determined a target behaviour for the dog.  If the trainer has a “sort of, kind of” definition in mind, then the dog is going to give you “a sort of, kind of” performance.  When the dog knows the behaviour and they are embellishing it, the fastest and easiest way to overcome that is to take a moment to clarify in your own mind what behaviour you want and then train THAT.  Getting upset that the dog may have known the behaviour at home, or may have known it yesterday isn’t going to help.  Likely there is a good reason for the dog fiddling around with the behaviour, but the reason doesn’t change the fact that you have to reknit when you the behaviour has decayed.  When Kiki wouldn’t walk on, I could have been angry and frustrated, but she is a smart horse and my frustration is just an indication to her that she can keep her feet still and drop her head and sneak in a bit of grazing while I am busy losing my cool, which brings me to my final point.

Dogs are the masters of picking up cues.  They know when you put your running shoes on to dash out to the car and retrieve your paperwork so that you can call your insurance agent that a walk is not imminent.  They also know when you put on your running shoes in preparation for a walk.  It can be very baffling to the trainer how the dog knows the difference when both cases involve getting the shoes out, sitting down on the bench in the hall, putting the left shoe on before the right, tying the laces, and then standing up and reaching for your keys and walking out the door.  When you are frustrated with your dog because he has yet again undone your knitting, he can tell when you are just going to deal with the behaviours you have in front of you and when you are going to actually deal with those behaviours.  He has determined the cues that precede actual training with the opportunity to play with you.  Training is a mirror image activity.  While you are training your dog to carry out specific skills and activities, he is training you.  If you are unclear on your target behaviour for the session, don’t be surprised if he is really, really clear on his target behaviour.  Every time you reinforce your dog for a correct answer, he is busy training you to give him reinforcements himself.  If sitting makes you throw the frisbee, then throwing the frisbee makes him sit; it really is a closed loop where you and the dog have an agreement about two behaviours you are willing to exchange.  The more advanced your training, the more elegant the interaction becomes.  When your dog enjoys your frustration behaviours (and yes, some dogs do!) then you are exchanging frustration behaviours on your part with your dog’s fiddling around and unravelling the knitting.  Having a rock solid picture of the target behaviour allows you to change the cycle and come to a different agreement, and ultimately to complete the knitting project you have taken on with your dog when you train.



Regularly I get students in my classes who tell me that they want other family members to attend classes so that everyone will be consistent. Consistency is important in training, but what I mean by consistent and what my students often mean by consistent is often different. My students often spend a lot of time trying to replicate cues to their dogs that look identical regardless of who is giving the cue. I have often watched students who give an absolutely perfect imitation of one of the instructor’s body postures and positions when it comes to giving the cue and I know of people who have practiced cuing in the mirror. I am fairly sure that the dogs don’t care how consistent the cue is however. When learning, I think that MOST dogs care a lot more about how consistent the outcome is.

There are several learning stages that dogs go through when they are being trained. An easy way to think about the stages of learning in dogs is what I refer to as the 4 As. The first stage is awareness. During the awareness stage of learning, the dog gets a vague notion of what you are trying to teach. Either you lead him through the activity, or you shape it, or you capture it, but you make it easy for him to develop an awareness of what you want him to know. At this stage, you would not normally use a cue to tell the dog what you want because he does not yet know what it is that you are driving at.

Trainers often refer to puppies as blank slates. This doesn't mean that they don't come with their own preferences and personalities, but rather that they haven't learned anything yet. They have no awareness of the behaviours that will earn reinforcers. Copyright: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo
Trainers often refer to puppies as blank slates. This doesn’t mean that they don’t come with their own preferences and personalities, but rather that they haven’t learned anything yet. They have no awareness of the behaviours that will earn reinforcers. Copyright: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

The next stage is acquisition. This stage is where you add the cue, and the dog gradually develops proficiency in the behaviour. The third stage is application and this is the stage during which the dog learns to do the behaviour in a wide variety of circumstances, and if you have been using prompts, props or lures, you would fade these. In the fourth stage, always, the dog always performs the behaviour in context and on cue and never offers the behaviour when it would be inappropriate to do so.

In the first two stages, awareness and acquisition, it is essential that the outcomes are always consistent. If for instance, you are teaching your dog to stand on a platform, then in the awareness stage each and every time the behaviour occurs, the trainer MUST produce some sort of an outcome, and that outcome must be consistent. I like to use marker training for sits, and sits are an early foundation behaviour for my dogs, so I click and then throw a treat away from the dog for each and every sit until sits are super reliable. I would bet money that in a given training session if I have been reinforcing sits, the dog will finish that session up by offering me a sit after each treat. Why wouldn’t he? I have been extremely consistent, and he likes treats, so he is going to do what gives him treats! The click just marks exactly what it is that I am training (the sit) and the click is always followed by a thrown treat. This makes training very, very clear to the dog. Our job as trainers is to help our dogs to understand what behaviours will predict what outcomes.

If you have been in the world of dog training for any amount of time you have likely heard about variable schedules of reinforcement as a way to maintain known behaviours. While this is a very useful way to help dogs to learn duration of behaviour, it can backfire when you are working on the early stages of behaviours. In the first two stages of learning, you really want to work hard to make sure that your dog understands exactly what will result in a predictable outcome. In the final two stages we can start to change up the variables, but only when we are certain that the dog understands what the cue means, and what will happen when the behaviour is carried out.

An important part of consistency is to know which stage you are in and to work within that stage. The first stage, awareness, is all about learning the mechanics of the behaviour. You may need to use equipment, the landscape and your reinforcers very carefully at this stage to “explain” the behaviour to the dog. You know that your dog is ready for the second stage when he starts to offer the behaviour readily after each reinforcement is delivered. If you have been consistent, your dog will get through this stage in very short order and be ready to move on to the second stage.

We know that the puppy is able to sit, because we have seen him do so. When we make him Aware that the sit will earn rewards, he becomes Aware that the behaviour is relevant. Pair the behaviour with a reinforcer often enough and you will be able to put that behaviour on cue, and he will have Acquired the behaviour. Copyright: pryzmat / 123RF Stock Photo
We know that the puppy is able to sit, because we have seen him do so. When we make him Aware that the sit will earn rewards, he becomes Aware that the behaviour is relevant. Pair the behaviour with a reinforcer often enough and you will be able to put that behaviour on cue, and he will have Acquired the behaviour. Copyright: pryzmat / 123RF Stock Photo

In the acquisition phase, you can start to name or attach a cue to the behaviour. From the dog’s perspective the only thing that really changes between awareness and acquisition is that a cue is attached to the behaviour, and if you don’t give the cue, the predicted outcome won’t occur. At this phase you might start to do the behaviour in slightly different locations or under slightly different circumstances, but your dog should still be able to count on the consistent outcome to his behaviour. Coming back to the example of teaching your dog to step onto a small platform, and he is offering to put all four paws on the platform willingly and eagerly each time after he has received his treat thrown off to the side, then you are ready to name it. As your dog is on the way back to the platform you might say “pose” as he is on his way back to get all four feet onto the platform, and then mark the correct behaviour and throw a treat away for the dog to get. Over several repetitions, the dog will begin to associate the cue with the behaviour. Although the cues should be accurate, keep in mind that repeating your cues absolutely exactly time and again will not necessarily serve you well. If you have been careful to cue accurately in a certain pitch and cadence, then there is a pretty good chance that if you have a cold, or if you get startled when cuing your dog may not feel that the cue is sufficiently accurate to follow. In my experience, slightly messing cues can actually help the dog. Now this doesn’t mean using “pose” some of the time and “pretty” at other times, but saying the cue word slightly differently is not the end of the world. What will degrade your training more than anything will be if after your dog starts to offer the cued behaviour you suddenly start to use difference consequences. In these important learning phases, your dog counts on your to provide the same outcome to the behaviour he offers, each time he offers that behaviour.

After Acquisition comes Application, where the dog learns to do the behaviour in a number of different places and under different circumstances and for different reinforcers. Copyright: lightpoet / 123RF Stock Photo
After Acquisition comes Application, where the dog learns to do the behaviour in a number of different places and under different circumstances and for different reinforcers. Copyright: lightpoet / 123RF Stock Photo

You know you are finished with the Acquisition phase of the learning process when you can cue the behaviour, casually, formally, while sitting down, while standing up and still get the same high quality behaviour that you built in the awareness phase. If you have been careful to not move beyond this phase until your dog is truly ready for it, then you will be able to move smoothly into the phase where consistency starts to run the other way; instead of you being consistent for your dog, you can start to teach your dog to be consistent for you. The third phase of learning is Application and this is the phase where we start to work towards anytime, anywhere for anyone.

To start the Application phase, I want to continue to be consistent for my dog. Now though, I will start putting my new behaviour in a chain. Let’s say that my dog knows how to come when called and he is really good at it. Returning to my go to platform example, I might ask my dog to come away from something that he was doing by calling him, and when he came to me, I would ask him to pose. This is a two behaviour chain (come to me, pose) and the pose behaviour is the one that I reinforce. Once I had marked and rewarded the desired behaviour, in the case the pose, I would ask for a different behaviour such as the sit and then ask for the pose again and mark that and reinforce. I would keep doing two chains and then three, four and five chains until I could get pose into a very long sequence of behaviours, consistently reinforcing that last. Once my dog was willing to pose even after doing a whole bunch of other behaviours, then I would ask him pose and add in a second behaviour AFTER the pose. For the first time, I am being just a tiny bit inconsistent. I am starting to teach the dog that when I ask for a behaviour, I need him to consistently give it to me. This is where the nuances of consistency come into play. When he is reliably giving me two chains, then I start asking for longer chains, and I really start to take the behaviour to new places. If the new place is particularly difficult (say in class with a big and active adolescent beside you), I might go back to the second phase of learning, Acquisition, before practicing chains with the dog. The more you mix it up at this point though, the better your dog will get at consistently offering you the same behaviour over and over again. This is the point at which you can also start to offer a wide variety of reinforcers for the behaviour. If you started out using food treats, you can switch to using toys. The dog has a really good idea about what the behaviour is, and now you can start integrating the behaviour into his life.

When you would bet me a nickel that your dog will do the desired behaviour on cue, you are in the final or always stage of learning and you can expect that your dog will consistently offer the behaviour when you cue him to do so and not offer it to you when you don’t ask for it. At this point you need to know where you want this behaviour. With the pose behaviour, you might practice it from time to time to maintain fluency, but you really don’t want to just ask for the behaviour in random situations and expect to get it. Gratuitous tricks annoy dogs just as much as they annoy people. If you know how to type, you will willingly do that when you want to communicate, but you won’t likely be pleased if I ask you to do so at a dinner party or in the middle of a game of tennis. Just because you CAN type, doesn’t mean you will want to do so all the time. Let’s say you taught your dog to do this behaviour so that you could get him to stand still on the vet scale. By all means, practice it and reward it from time to time, but don’t just ask for it randomly. Ask for it in context and it will be there. Throw it into behaviour chains from time to time to ensure that he is fluent in the behaviour, but don’t ask for it all the time or you will decrease his consistency in giving you what you ask. If you have been consistent all the way through, he will continue to be consistent when you need the behaviour.

Always means anytime, anywhere and often for no reinforcement. Copyright: amaviael / 123RF Stock Photo
Always means anytime, anywhere and often for no reinforcement. Copyright: amaviael / 123RF Stock Photo

The Door

The front door is almost always the culprit when a dog bolts out of the house and gets into traffic.  Cuing the dog to sit at the door only works if you are there to give the cue.  I teach my dogs that the door itself is the important part-if someone puts a hand on the door it means stop, sit and wait.  If the door is open, I want my dogs to choose to stay inside regardless of what might be outside.  Copyright: spirer / 123RF Stock Photo
The front door is almost always the culprit when a dog bolts out of the house and gets into traffic. Cuing the dog to sit at the door only works if you are there to give the cue. I teach my dogs that the door itself is the important part-if someone puts a hand on the door it means stop, sit and wait. If the door is open, I want my dogs to choose to stay inside regardless of what might be outside. Copyright: spirer / 123RF Stock Photo

Doors seem to be high voltage issues for so many people with dogs. You answer the door, and your puppy bolts through and greets whomever is on the other side. You want to pop out to the driveway and hand something to your neighbour who is passing by and the door doesn’t latch and your dog is now running down the street and out of control. Your sister comes to dinner, and not realizing that dogs don’t know about doors stands with the front door propped open so that she can call her kids in from play. Doors are contentious issues for dog owners. Several times a year, clients contact us to tell us that their dogs have bolted out the door and been hit on the road, so for me, this is a very important issue.

Only rarely do I post the steps that I use to teach a behaviour, but today I am going to make an exception. I have had a look around at what other trainers are offering and I have my own thoughts about door manners, so I will say that this blog is about the parts I think are important, not what everyone else does. When I am training I always keep in mind what I want to end up with. My criteria is simple; when faced with a door to the outside of a building, I want my dogs to know that they should never leave without permission. What does that look like? That means that if I am having my furnace fixed and the repair technician leaves the door open while he grabs his toolbox, my dog isn’t going to inadvertently get out of the house. An open door does not mean that you are necessarily going out. I want my dogs to understand that an open door and a closed door are the same thing; stay in the house unless invited out. There is an important part to this whole behaviour. The key is that what the person does at the door is NOT important. This means that if the door opens of its own accord, the dog’s behaviour should be the same.

To start with, I want to make the door really relevant to my dog. I want my dog to understand that an opening door is important, but it doesn’t mean that we are going through. I start at home, by my front door and I work with the dog OFF LEASH. I don’t want to have to fade anything I don’t want or need to fade. When working on this in classes, the dogs are on leash, but at home, I practice without the leash. What I do is walk up to the door, drop treats and walk away. I do this many times in a row without ever touching the door itself. This step is very simple; I walk up, drop treats and then leave, without ever saying anything to my dog.

This dog looks ready to bolt out the door!  This might be a dog who has been taught to sit at the door when told, but not to stop when a door is open.  Copyright: damedeeso / 123RF Stock Photo
This dog looks ready to bolt out the door! This might be a dog who has been taught to sit at the door when told, but not to stop when a door is open. Copyright: damedeeso / 123RF Stock Photo

The next step is to drop the treats, open the door and close the door and then walk away again. I want my dogs to be very sure that I have developed an obsession with approaching, dropping treats and then opening and closing the door. So far, you will notice that we have not gone through the door. During this stage of training I only go through the door with my dog in the event that my dog is on leash. I want my dog to be really, really aware of how different it is to go through the door compared to having the door open and have nothing to do with him.

I continue to practice with my dogs, dropping treats, opening the door and then at some point when they are really convinced that the door opening and closing has NOTHING what so ever to do with bolting through the door, I drop the treats as normal and open the door and go through and close the door myself. I come right back in and drop treats as I close the door and pass the dog. I am working really hard at this point to make staying inside the more rewarding behaviour. If my dog shows the slightest interest in going out the door, I return to an earlier stage and work at that until we are ready to open the door without the dog showing any interest in going through it.

Once I can walk in and out of a door without my dog showing interest, then I work at the next step of the game. For this I usually have to put my dog’s leash on to keep him safe if he goofs, but I don’t want to use it for anything more than a safety line. I start as before, approaching the door and then dropping treats. I open the door and call my dog to go through ahead of, with or behind me. I want to practice all three situations, as they may be relevant to me at various times in my dog’s life. Let me explain. If I am staying with someone who has a backyard, I may wish to send my dog out ahead of me or by himself, so it is important to be able to send him ahead. We may be going in or out of a vet clinic so we may need to go through a door together. And if I am unsure of what is ahead of me, I may ask my dog to fall back and behind me and wait until I have gone through the door first. Regardless of which position I have put my dog in as I go through the door, I stop and drop treats just after the door. I want my dog to pause at the door. I don’t want him to think that just because he has gone through the door that there isn’t more to do. The whole goal is to get him to use the door as a signal or cue to slow down and not bolt.

When I am able to walk up to the door and my dog anticipates that I will drop treats, open the door and walk through and he anticipates that I will drop treats, I start reversing the order of the activity. I walk up to the door and open it first and then drop treats. At this point I go back to working on just one side of the door at a time. I want my dog to notice that the door is opening and that the opening door doesn’t predict going through; it predicts dropping treats. When I can count to five and my dog neither leaves nor looks out the door, I know that I am ready to drop treats, step through the door, and then step back in and drop more treats.

If you have persevered this far, you must be beginning to think that I am unusually detail orientated and patient. I might be detail oriented, but really, I am not that patient. I just keep doing this when I have a few moments here and there until I see the results I want. This is a case where I am not paying the dog to pay attention to what I tell him to do, I am teaching the dog to be aware of what is happening around him, and the more intense I am about the dog attending to me, the less successful I will be in terms of training the desired behaviour.

When I am able to step out and back in and my dog doesn’t even think about going out the door I will begin calling him through the door again. Notice that my criteria here don’t include my dog sitting; rather I am interested at this point in creating a situation where my dog will wait patiently for the door to open and then close and not bolt through. Soon I will add in the sit, but it is an automatic sit, not a cued sit. To do this, I approach the door and reach out to touch the door handle. At this point I stop and wait and wait and wait. At some point, the dog is going to ask himself why I am stuck, and what he might be able to do to get me unstuck to move on with the procedure of open the door and dropping the treats. I want touching the door handle to be the cue that the dog uses to tell him to sit. When eventually he tries sitting (and with most dogs, if I have done the background work, it takes less than two minutes the first time!), I drop treats and open the door. I keep repeating this over and over and over again until my reaching for the door handle causes him to sit. During training I will wait as long as it takes, but I won’t move on until the sit is both automatic and quick.

When my dog has started to figure out that reaching for the door will only be followed by treats if he is sitting, I want to speed that up significantly. To do this, I mentally count while I am waiting for the sit for five repetitions. Suppose I was working with a dog who took a count of 15 the first time, 12 the second time, 16 the third time 4 the fourth time and 11 the fifth time. From this data, I can notice that the dog is taking far longer to sit than I want, and I have a rough estimate of how long the dog takes on average. I am going to disregard the 4 count sit because although it is closer to what I am looking for, it happens too rarely to impact what I am working on in the moment. Using the 4 numbers that are pretty close together, I can figure out that I want to only reinforce sits that take less than a count of thirteen. With this in mind, I will approach the door and put my hand on the handle and then start to count. If I get to thirteen without a sit, I walk away. If my dog sits before I get to thirteen, I drop my treats as before. When my dog is reliably sitting at less than a count of thirteen, then I will drop my number a bit; let’s just say that I will start walking away if my count reaches eleven. I keep dropping this number until my dog will sit at a count of three. Three is a reasonable number to live with, and at that point I can move to the next step.

Once my dog is reliably sitting when I approach the door and I can open the door and he will stay sitting while I drop treats, it is time to start to lengthen the amount of time that he waits before I treat. I like to build up to at least three and preferably five minutes. I continue to ask him to walk through the door with me from time to time, dropping treats on the outside of the door too. The door itself should be a very strong cue about behaviour, and the desired behaviour is not “run out the door and hope for the best”!

At the point where my dog will hold a five minute sit stay while I stand in the door, I start to introduce guests to the picture, and I decrease the rewards. I truly want this to become an automatic behaviour that my dog just does without my input. I want my dog to see the open door as an important piece of information; don’t go through unless told, regardless of who opens the door, who or what is on the other side and what rewards are available. If I am outside the house, I will sometimes open the front door and drop treats inside so that the reward for the door behaviour remains strong regardless of when the door opens, who is opening it or what is happening outside.

Notice that at no point do I tell the dog what to do. Never. Not once! If I tell the dog to sit or stay or prompt the dog or correct him for moving then I am the thing stopping him from bolting out the door. Successful door manners rely upon the behaviour occurring even in my absence.

Below is a video I made outlining the steps I take to teach a dog to stay inside when a door opens.  I used my elderly Chesapeake D’fer to demo this behaviour.  D’fer knew this behaviour really well as a much younger dog, but doesn’t get to practice it much because he is quite arthritic and no longer gets up when people come or go.  You will notice that D’fer takes a long time to sit and at one point struggles to get in the house.  I did not follow the sequence to the end because he was becoming uncomfortable and his comfort was more important than doing a demonstration.

I will add in here that for my own dogs there are exceptions to the door rules. When I am working with or training a service dog, I teach them to give me eye contact through every door, but to keep moving. I do this so that we can pass smoothly in and out of buildings when I am out and about. In general though, for pet dogs, the door itself should be the cue to tell the dog what to do. Imagine now what life might be like for your dog if you could throw open your front door and your dog would not run out. Would it make your dog’s life safer? I think so, and I hope that this blog will help prevent door bolting accidents.

The Door