To Pay or Not to Pay

I find that people are understandably confused over which way is best to train their dog.  Basically there are 2 ways you can train your dog, by teaching them something then giving rewards for doing so, or through fear by scaring or hurting your dog to get what you want. Both ways create motivation for the dog but one according to science works better than the other.  I am sure you can guess which one!

Paying or rewarding your dog, known as Positive Reinforcement (R+) is way more likely to ensure that the behaviour is repeated in the future and while scaring or hurting the dog looks like it works and you will get results, at least in the short term,  it comes with many side effects including damaging your relationship with your dog.

In everyday life it is much easier to set your dog up to do what you want and then reward them, than to set them up to fail and punish them. 

To pay a dog you first need to find the currency the dog is willing to work for and usually food works best.  You can use praise affection, play, toys or access to something the dogs likes.  Using your dog’s daily food to get them to work for it instead of getting it for free is an excellent way to train your dog, but this won’t work if you leave food down for the dog to snack on all day.

But is it bribery? No!  The dog gets rewarded for doing what you ask  - you are the dispenser of the treats and as such need to use them wisely and not when your dog demands them.  Once a behaviour is reliably trained and your dog is repeating the behaviour you gradually reduce  the food treat replacing I with affection and praise giving a food treat only occasionally.

Dogs are after all always looking to do something that brings them enjoyment so all we have to do is set them up to do what we want and give them that enjoyment.  Why wouldn’t we want the best for our dogs anyway – they are supposed to be our best friends.

Do Dogs Feel Guilt?

Many people tell me that their dog knows it has done something wrong, because as they walk through the door after a busy day and notice the puddle on the floor, they see their dog crouched down, approaching very cautiously,  tail wagging low, head slightly turned to the side, while making quick upper lip licks.


Dogs excel at reading emotions and owner intentions.  As we notice the mess, we have an automatic emotional reaction that the dog immediately sees.  To avoid scolding, our dogs then do what comes naturally and express appeasement signals. They may look guilty, but what they are really feeling is fear of being scolded. This is not an indicator of their ability to draw any correlation with the act they have committed. That’s already in the past. After a few repetitions, the dog starts expressing the same fear signals prior to the owner’s notice of the puddle. Just like us, dogs are designed to notice patterns, so quickly learns that puddle on the floor and presence of owner is bad news.

One of many formal studies on the subject, involving Alexandra Horowitz (2009), and author of the book ‘Inside of a Dog”, demonstrated that, whether or not the dog appears guilty to the owner has nothing to do with what he actually did. In the study, owners were asked to leave the room telling their dog not to touch a treat left in their reach. One group of dogs was fed the treat by the experimenter, the other group was not. When the owners returned, they were either told that the dog left the treat alone, or had disregarded them and eaten it. What the owners did not know, is that what they were told was not necessarily true. The results of the study revealed that the ‘guilty’ look on the dog had little to do with whether or not he had eaten the forbidden treat. It had everything to do with how the owner reacted when given the news.

These studies showed that our dogs have all the basic emotions such as joy, fear, anger, disgust and even love, but not the more complex ones such as guilt, pride or shame, demonstrating one of the many misunderstandings that can occur between humans and their pets, and although natural, we should remember dogs and humans are two different species with two different thought processes.



Good Dog Bad Dog

With all the media in recent times about recent dog attacks I thought I would give the public another perspective to consider.

Having just returned from a trip to Philadelphia USA to the Penn Vet Working Dog Centre conference and training facility, I saw just how truly amazing dogs can be and what they can achieve with expert training and socialisation.  As a well-respected facility both in USA and around the world the centre assists police dog trainers, search & rescue, private organisations and owners as well as being a research facility working alongside universities.

The conference itself covered all of the disciplines outlined below, as well as other topics from scientific advancements in training methods, Wounded Warrior program for PTSD of returned military personal, physical fitness of dogs, to medical scent detection and research.

At the Penn Vet Working Dog Centre dogs are fostered by families who drop them to the facility each weekday morning and collection each evening.  Puppies start training at 8 weeks and each is trained in body strengthening, agility,  high level of obedience and scent training using positive reinforcement methods.  They are assessed during training  for drive and motivation, work ethic and personality then based on these findings are trained specifically for one of many disciplines including Search & Rescue live find, human remains, explosives, accelerants, narcotics, diabetes alert, and cancer detection. 

These dogs are wonderful examples of how dogs help us in so many ways and a true contrast to the bad publicity often afforded to our dogs.  From my perspective, dogs assist us so much more than they attack us and ultimately it is our responsibility as humans to offer our dogs the best physical care, excellent socialisation and training in a positive and compassionate manner.

Shock Collars

There is always much debate about the use of shock collars and E or electronic collars with some saying they  don’t hurt but mostly emit an unpleasant vibration and other vehemently against them.  Often they are used as the last resort for dogs with behavior drives that are difficult to control, like recall or chasing problems.

Opponents to their use believe they can be harmful to dogs and should not be available to the public. They lead to abuse and don’t offer better results than reward based methods. 

In Britain where  two extensive studies from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) close to 500,000 dog owners use electronic collars and the study came about after the Kennel club expressed real concerns about the welfare of dogs being exposed to them.

There are close to 170 different models of shock collars with different functions controlled by a remote. Some collars come with a tone or a vibration meant to warn the dog of the eminent shock or they can be used independently of the shock. Some collars give a short electrical shock that lasts between 4ms and 500ms where others also give continuous stimulation that can last for as long as the button on the remote is pressed. There are considerable differences between collars in shock delivered, from 110v (at 5 kW), to 6000v (at 500kW) and the effect on the dogs will depend on their skin resistance.

The first study by Bristol University, Central Science Laboratory and Lincoln University focused on assessing the physical and emotional impact these collars have on the dogs (AW1402). How the dogs experience these electric pulses will of course depend on the intensity of the stimulus, but also on the sensitivity of the individual dogs.

35 dogs were tested under the supervision of a veterinarian to assess whether they were afraid, in pain or distressed when shocked. The researchers watched for behaviors such as: stopping play, redirected attention, head, eye or ear movements and vocalization. All dogs were over 6 months old, social and playful with no nervous, fearful or aggressive disposition. None of them had been previously exposed to electronic collars.

The behavior and learning during training was measured between dogs wearing shock collars and dogs without them. In general, owners reported better success with positive reinforcement based training but the research could not determine if this was a difference due to perception or an actual fact since most owners who used the  shock collars were rating their dog’s problematic behavior as severe. Results suggest an increase of the dog’s focus on the trainer when fitted with a shock collar but the overall training success was better with reward based training, including for recall and chasing problems (Blackwell & al. 2012).

When measuring salivary cortisol levels (related to stress) of the dogs with or without shock collars, the researchers found a significant increase of cortisol levels in the dogs exposed to shock collars, when they’re fitted with a collar a second time. This indicates that the anticipation of the stimulation immediately increases the stress level of the dogs. Behavior changes also indicated that the dogs were more stressed and tense than dogs trained using positive reinforcement. The dogs trained with shock collars also spent more time 5 meters or more away from their owner and were more distracted when trained by the researcher and active than the control group.

The study also investigated the information contained in the manual that comes with the purchase of these collars. All of them explain how to adapt the level of stimulation to the dog and describe what behaviors to expect when the dog notices the stimulation. Only three however warn about the level set too high if the dog vocalizes. All of them also warn about potential skin irritation and pressure necrosis if improperly fitted. A few also discourage the use of the collar on aggressive dogs and suggest the help of a professional trainer (harsh punishment can increase aggression in dogs).

The manuals provide information about using the shock collars for basic obedience training but also about dealing with behavior issues. Many provide suggestions to alternative strategies first. To assess the right level of stimulation, some suggest watching for behavior changes such as attention redirection, while others suggest looking for outward signs of discomfort and confusion. Even more concerning is the absence of explanation as to when to use short over continuous stimulation or how to use the tone or vibration modes. Many also emphasize the application and use of negative reinforcement, which can lead to prolonged electrical stimulation until the dog performs the desired behavior. Overall, most collars seem to lack sufficient information for the basic users.

Surveys from users also showed that 36% of dogs vocalized when the collars were first used and that the levels of stimulation applied were not necessarily those suggested by the manual. Even more concerning is that 26% of the dogs were reported to still vocalize on subsequent use, indicating that the levels were kept higher than recommended. Some owners even reported that they started at the highest level then either adjusted down or just kept using the collar at the highest level. Many simply didn’t read the manual or failed to follow the guidelines. The availability of such devices to typical owners, without the need to work with a professional trainer, clearly leads to poor timing and misuse and could have disturbing effects on the dog’s welfare.

Advocates for the use of shock collars have often argued that most studies do not offer objective data based on the appropriate use of such devices. As confirmed by the study above, owners don’t always use shock collars in the way suggested by the manufacturers. In a second study by Lincoln University but also involving ECMA (Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association), meant to measure the long term effects of using shock collars in training and its potential welfare consequences, three groups of dogs were compared while the shock collars were used by experienced trainers and as specified by the manufacturers: group A dogs were trained with shock collars, by trainers experienced in their use, group B dogs were equipped with dummy collars and trained by professionals experienced in the use of shock collars and group C dogs were trained by APDT trainers through positive reinforcement and no shock collar (AW1402a).

In general, the dogs from group C spent more time exploring their environment were less tense and yawned less than the dogs in the two other groups. The dogs from groups A and B carried their tail low more often, yelped more often, panted more and moved away from the trainer more often than those of group C.

This study also showed that the trainer’s general approach, as well as the tools that they use, affect the dog’s emotional response to training. When dogs are trained through more traditional methods, they show more signs of stress, anxiety and aversion than when trained through positive reinforcement techniques. Even when used by professional and experienced trainers, the researchers conclude that using shock collars did have negative consequences on some dogs during training.

Finally, this study also pointed to the fact that using shock collars along with treats did not make a difference in the efficacy of the training over using treats alone. This was true even for livestock chasing protocols, which is one of the most common reasons for using such devices.

Using shock collars on dogs may be effective in training or treating certain problematic behaviors. But if their efficacy is not better than reward based training alone and presents physical and emotional risks to some dogs, their use altogether becomes highly questionable. The results from these studies point out, that at the very least, such devices do indeed have welfare implication on the dogs and should not be available to the public at large. Their ease of use and immediate efficiency over more time-consuming reward based protocols make them very attractive to the user. Unfortunately, they may force the dog into behaving a certain way but they do not address the underlying reason for the problem in the first place. Inducing fear and discomfort also has the potential to cause further behavior issues. Other methods are just as efficient, do not increase the chances of problematic behaviors to develop, promote a desire to respond and enhance the relationship between humans and their dogs.


Thanks to Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. for information in this article.

Yes or No! What Works Best?

I recently had a Facebook post from a friend and she put a challenge out to all her dog loving friends and owners.  I think it is excellent and challenge you all to try this.

Every time you find yourself saying "NO" to your dog try instead to think of a cue you could use that tells them what you DO want them to do. Many of us spend a lot of time telling our dogs "NO," and while this may stop them from doing a particular behaviour at the time, it gives them no feedback or direction, and makes it unlikely they will make a better choice in the future. Using a specific cue that tells your dog "please stop doing THAT, and do THIS instead" gives them guidance and feedback, and if used consistently will actually successfully shape their behaviour, and make them less likely to do the unwanted behaviour in the future.  Which of course  leads to a happier home and a happier dog!

So instead of NO - try "leave it" "wait" "off" "drop it" "this way" or "come"? If it turns out your dog doesn't actually know a cue that could be used more constructively than NO, then do your dog a favour and take some time to teach it! You may find yourself surprised at the good choices your dog will learn to make as a result!

And remember we call our dogs ‘man’s best friend” so why wouldn’t we want to do the very best we can for our special friend.

"Oh No I Don't Like Using Treats To Train Dogs"

For those of us who use food treats to train, that phrase is not unfamiliar. Many of us trainers hear it regularly from owners who believe they will end up with a dog who is dependent on treats in order to comply. If done properly, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I always explain to prospective clients that I use food to train behaviors, sure—it’s fast, easy, and fun. But once the dog understands and is performing a particular behavior well, they are then weaned off the treats by progressing to a schedule of random reinforcement (which isn’t a schedule at all, but really just  a fancy way of saying they get a  reward every now and then—just like the slot machine effect).  We also start using real life rewards instead  such as the door opening for a walk, or a bowl being placed on the floor to allow them to eat in return for the good behaviour that has been learned

Sometimes the concern with using food is that the dog will gain weight. This is of course a legitimate consideration, and is compounded if the dog already has weight issues. It’s true that if treat training is used heavily a dog can gain weight, just as if I were given a few chocolate treats each time I did something right, I’d soon be complaining that my jeans were too tight (wait, I’m already there, I must be doing sooo many things right and getting too many treats!). Here are three easy solutions:

1. At mealtime, feed only one half to two thirds of the dog’s usual ration. Use the rest as training treats throughout the day. (Easier done with dry food .
2. Cut back on the amount of food the dog gets at mealtimes to compensate for the extra calories he’s getting from training treats. Just make sure the treats are nutritious.
3. To make the treats more special and your dog eats dry food, place 1/3 or so of the meal (subtracted from the regular feeding) in a plastic bag with some chicken or a sausage. Seal and store in the fridge overnight. In the morning, remove the chicken or sausage, and you’ll be left with yummy-smelling kibble that’s now a valuable training treat. Or use the chicken and sausage as well for really good work.

It’s true that some dogs are actually more motivated by play or even affection than they are by treats, and when training, you should always use what the dog finds most valuable. But because most dogs are very food-motivated, keeping the option for using treats in training open is invaluable.

Cornerstones of Successful Dog Training

1.    Physical Exercise
All dogs need good physical exercise every day.  This can be in the form of a good walk with off lead play, two shorter walks (or more)or if time is an issue think about a long play session of fetch, tug of war , or other off lead exercise.

2.    Mental Stimulation
This can include training of any sort – obedience, clicker training, agility etc.  There si no need to have expensive materials use things in your backyard for fun agility or get a hula hoop from your local two dollar shop and teach your dog to jump through.  Have uneven surface for him to run over and planks or wood or boxes to climb on or sit on and make a small but fun circuit.

3.    Socialisation
All dogs need to be well socialised as lack of good, ongoing is the number one reason dogs are euthanased. Keep introducing your dog to new people, children, situations, sounds and other dogs of all sizes. 

4.    Predatory Games
Dogs naturally have predatory instincts so instead of feeding your dog in a bowl ask him to work for it.  Give him his food in a Kong or a treat ball or just put some food in an ice-cream container and see if he can get it out.  Start with the lid a tiny bit open to encourage him. Throw his kibble on the grass so your dog has to search for the pieces to eat. Be constructive and make it fun your dog will love you for it


1.    Your dog must work for many good things in life

2.    Pushy demanding behaviour is totally ignored

3.    Ask for the good behaviour only once

4     Use the same command every time.

5    Everyone on the household must cooperate.

6    Be patient especially in the beginning.