Here is something I taught with positive reinforcement that enhances Clara’s life and mine. I’ve taught her to respond positively to being interrupted, and even to interrupt herself. This trained behavior helps us get along smoothly from day to day, and also helps keep her safe in the world.
Self-interruption is related to a whole batch of desirable dog behaviors. I mean desirable to us humans, but they are beneficial to the dogs, too. People refer variously to reorientation, offered attention, checking in, and more. Even recall is related. By whatever name, these are safety behaviors. When you can get your dog’s attention easily, and when they offer attention on their own, you can get them out of many emergencies without a fuss.
What Does Self-Interruption Look Like?
Over the years, I have taught Clara to interrupt her own behavior when there is something intense going on in the environment. She stops and checks in with me. If she’s next to me already, she turns and looks at me. If she’s across the yard or in another part of the house, she runs to me. This ability to turn away from something that’s bothering her has the effect of lowering her arousal. Self-interruption also means it’s easy to get her out of sticky situations. She does most of the work herself!
Clara was a feral puppy and came to me and had suspicious of humans preinstalled. She is eight years old now (today!). She now has some other people besides me in her trusted circle, and can happily walk on-leash in densely populated areas. She’s good with bicycles, baby carriages, wheelchairs, and all kinds of assistive equipment. All kinds of people in all sorts of attire. She would rather not be approached, but if people have moderately polite body language, she can tolerate it. I generally arrange things so she doesn’t have to interact.
At home, she keeps an eye on the neighbors, city and construction workers, the neighborhood dogs, and other animals. But instead of fence-running, endlessly alarm barking, or evading me, she generally takes a look, expresses her opinion with a huff or two, then checks in with me.
You can see it in this unedited video. Instead of being glued to the fence and barking at the neighbors, she watches, checks in with me twice on her own, and turns on a dime when I call her. She also responds instantly when I suggest we go inside.
Clara was well prepared to learn self-interruption because I classically conditioned her as a puppy that another dog barking made wonderful food happen. I didn’t want her to “catch” my reactive dog’s habits. It worked. Classically conditioning a dog to any stimulus and then providing the goodie yourself is going to have the effect, over time, of them reorienting to you when the stimulus occurs. This gave Clara and me a jump start on interruption training.
This time it’s a squirrel
But you don’t have to do that to teach dogs to interrupt themselves. I’ll tell you the two behaviors my teacher helped me teach.
The first thing is to interrupt the dog a lot and pay super well for it. At first, only interrupt when you think their attention is wavering away from whatever has their focus. For example, when they are turning toward you anyway. If they are playing, perhaps they have taken a break and are looking around. Call them, then reinforce like crazy when they come. Gradually, you can start to call them in more difficult situations. And sometimes you can do like I did in the video and encourage the dog to go return to what she was doing. (I don’t usually encourage her to go back when she is worried about something she sees, but this time she seemed to want one more look and I thought it would work out all right.)
What I have described is part of many recall training plans. But if you do it enough and the dog will probably start to offer the behavior without a deliberate cue from you. Treat like crazy! Then build up the habit with reinforcement.
In the video, I had kibble in my hand. But Clara’s habit was built with things like roast chicken, spray cheese, and cat food in a tube!
A second thing to do is to teach the dog that treats fall from heaven whenever anything weird happens in the environment. A jogger appears out of nowhere? Treat! Someone drops a garbage can lid next door? Treat! Did you notice in my video that the first time Clara runs to me is after there is a loud noise? She knows noises make treats happen. So instead of getting upset, trying to locate the noise, and barking in that general direction (which I guarantee is what she would have done without training), she runs to me.
Most of the things that get her attention in the yard worry her a bit. It may be interesting to watch the neighbors and what goes on in the street, but it’s not usually fun. Trained self-interruption gives her a way to get “unstuck.” If there’s too much going on, we go in the house, and she is glad to do so.
Because of positive reinforcement training, I never have to fight to get Clara’s attention. I don’t have to yell or nag. This dog who arrived with so many strikes against her is a dream to live with. Besides making life more pleasant, her responsiveness makes it safer for her to go out and about in the world. I can always “reach” her, and her recall is practically reflexive.
If you are a professional dog trainer, you probably have to write a lot. If you have a small business, hiring a copyeditor every time you put out a document is not feasible. But my new course provides a practical way to help you create more polished and professional writing.
You can learn how to edit your own writing.
Lots of you teach skills all day, and often to more than one species. You know to break behavior into small chunks to build new skills. That’s what this course does. Although nothing can substitute for the work a professional editor or copyeditor does, in this course, you will learn to look at writing like they do. You will learn more than a dozen things to look for. Fixing those will improve your writing bigtime!
Putting better writing out into the world starts a cascade of good things for your business. It helps you establish authority and demonstrate competence. It helps you attract clients. And clear written communication skills can help you keep them and get good outcomes.
“Edit Yourself” can help you make your writing better. And you don’t even have to provide the writing that you work on. I do.
“Edit Yourself: Writing Skills for Dog Trainers”
“Edit Yourself” is open for enrollment now on Lori Nanan’s Canine Online Courses platform. The course has 16 lessons, 34 activities, and 21 worksheets. There are also four videos, including two interviews with accomplished writers in the dog training world.
Here’s a peek at some of the lessons and activities in the course.
Each activity has an explanation of the issue and several examples. I explain how to identify a particular problem and how to fix it. With issues of style, I also discuss the reasons one might “break the rules” and not fix it.
Really, No Writing!
You don’t have to write for this course; you do that all the time for your business anyway and you don’t need extra writing assignments. Instead, you will tinker with and fix what I write for you. Some of the “bad” examples are straight from my older blogs! That’s where you’ll practice. Then you can take your new skills straight to your own documents.
A systematic way to find common style and readability errors can change the way you think about writing and take your skills to a new level. As you internalize these guidelines and practice editing, your new habits will flow into your writing. You’ll get more things right the first time and know what to look for when it’s time to polish your document.
People have asked me what level of writing skill they need to take the course. The material is helpful at all levels. You don’t need advanced writing skills.
This is neither a proofreading course nor a grammar course. There are hundreds of apps and online courses for those. In “Edit Yourself,” you learn to make your writing more polished, professional, and readable. You learn to catch common errors and mishaps. And you go about it in an organized, systematic way. For instance, several of the problems you learn to spot can be found by simple document searches. Others are a little trickier, but once you learn to look analytically at your writing, your good habits can generalize.
Not Just for Dog Trainers
This course focuses on principles of writing that apply to more than writing about dogs. It is helpful to anyone who writes nonfiction and in particular those who write for their business. Since my world is the dog training world, the course is aimed at people in that world. There is a lot of doggie content in the material. (Did you know there are rules for capitalizing dog breeds? Do you know where to find those rules?) Not just dog trainers, but behavior consultants, vets and veterinary staff, dog walkers, dog groomers, and shelter and rescue folks will all benefit.
This course is awesomely put together and extremely useful for writers of any genre. It’s very easy to follow, the instructions are clear and concise, and it helps you remember the ”rules” of writing in a fun way.
The Nuts and Bolts
After you have practiced different editing challenges, you will create a personalized list of issues to check when you are finishing up any document. I provide a master list of the issues students work on, and you can cut any that aren’t important for you. By the end of the course, you’ll know what you need to focus on. (Two of my own personal problems are too-long sentences and overuse of the word “that.”)
“Edit Yourself” is a self-paced course. There are group discussion areas tied to each activity, and you can choose how much you engage. Your work is completely private; you don’t turn anything in. But you can ask questions of other students and me when you need more help on a topic.
“Edit Yourself” is opening at an introductory price of $129, and you can get an additional 25% discount using the coupon code LAUNCH. This discount applies through June 30, 2019. That price is under $100, less than you would pay for an hour of a good copyeditor’s time.
Cricket almost lying down. Note the space under her chest.
When I first started training dogs, things that didn’t work were a mystery to me. Why couldn’t I reward Summer with chasing squirrels like everybody said I could? Why couldn’t I find that slot in the layout of her teeth where the experienced trainers said she should hold the dumbbell? And why, oh why, could I not teach Cricket to lie down on cue? At first, I saw everything through the lens of disobedience: my dogs were wrong when things didn’t work out. As I learned more about training, I realized these things were on me. There was something I was doing wrong. But often, I still couldn’t figure out what it was.
When your primary source of dog training information is the internet, you are at a disadvantage. (Ironic, eh, for a dog blogger to say that!) What I mean is that even the way you identify and describe a problem can lead would-be helpful people down the wrong path. When you are new, you don’t have the information to assess the problem to begin with. So you can’t describe it well.
Back in 2007, when I was just starting to train, the situation was worse, because few people posted videos of their dogs. They were starting to, but YouTube was populated mostly with dog training videos by professionals. The idea that a newbie could post a video and get helpful critique from an expert was just getting off the ground.
That’s why I missed the two obvious reasons why Cricket didn’t want to lie down in training. Many more experienced people would have caught them.
Three Reasons a Dog Won’t Lie Down
Three reasons dogs (especially little ones) don’t want to lie down that have little to do with the mechanics of training are:
Discomfort with the surface
Not feeling safe
So if you have a dog, young or old, who doesn’t want to lie down, first see a vet. #1 is the biggie. Seriously. Even young dogs can have painful joint conditions or other reasons why lying down is uncomfortable, especially in the “sphinx” position. And even when a pup will lie down, don’t overdo the “puppy pushups” thing. Let those little joints mature.
For Cricket it was Reasons #2 and #3
Luckily, Cricket didn’t have any pain associated with lying down. My vets and I never detected any. She regularly did a “sphinx down” at home. Here she is doing it.
Cricket lying down (on carpet)
Cricket lying down at my office, inviting me to play
So what was the problem in the first photo above where her chest and belly are hovering an inch above the floor?
Two words: hardwood floor.
That floor was slippery, and I kept her nails longer than I would nowadays. If she had lain all the way down on it, she would have had to scrabble to get up. Plus, she likely didn’t care for the feeling of the cool, smooth floor on her little bare belly. This seems to be pretty common in small dogs with short hair. Cricket hovered even higher over the chilly concrete floor in my den.
In the two photos directly above where she is lying down naturally, she is on carpet.
No Lying Down at the Obedience Club
But then when I took her to the obedience club, they had nice mats with good traction. So why was she still keeping her chest off the floor? Apparently, this is so common with little dogs that they even had a name for it in the obedience world: “the bridge.”
Here she is performing a perfect bridge. Can you guess why?
Here’s a closeup.
Cricket, as tough and willing as she was, was anxious. She didn’t feel safe enough to lie down in the club environment, surrounded by strangers and bigger dogs.
It saddens me now that I couldn’t see or respect her discomfort. If I did comprehend it somewhat, it just wasn’t important enough to me. I figured she’d get over her nervousness.
Look how brave she was! And look how much effort, how much muscle tension it took for her to maintain that bridge. She held it for a couple minutes at a time. I wish I had that core strength. She wasn’t going to lie all the way down, even though she was fond of the nice lab mix on her left. There were too many dogs, too much going on there, and she was little.
Another view of her at the dog club. It’s hard to detect body language in these old photos, but look at her ear set during this heeling exercise. Her ears were pulled back. Worried, and not a happy camper.
For contrast, here is Zani at the same obedience club. Zani is not without her anxieties, but they don’t involve people, dogs, or new places. All those things are lovely, as far as she is concerned. Look how relaxed she is! It’s probably safe to say that Cricket never looked as relaxed as Zani in her whole life. Cricket was a worry wart, like me.
I said at the beginning that this kind of problem—a little dog who wouldn’t lie down in some situations even though I trained and trained on it—was on me. But it wasn’t precisely a training problem. It was a problem of observation and empathy.
I didn’t know enough to realize that more and more attempted reps weren’t necessarily going to make Cricket feel better about lying down. I’m not saying it couldn’t have been trained. It could have, with a more skilled trainer. But to do it well would have meant looking at the situation holistically and addressing Cricket’s anxiety first.
And that’s where the empathy comes in. I can be a little compulsive, a bit Type A about certain things. And by god, it drove me nuts that I couldn’t do something as “simple” as get my dog to lie down in an obedience class. So I had a little war with myself. One voice saying, “Why on earth is this important? It doesn’t matter! You aren’t going to compete with her! And she doesn’t want to lie down, so why stay fixated on it?” But the other voice was saying, “But she’s ‘supposed’ to.”
The first voice, the one that was both sensible and empathetic, did finally win out. I stopped forcing the issue. I gave up my idea of competing in rally obedience with her. (Yes, I really did consider it. It’s a tribute to what a brave and willing little dog she was, not indicative of any kind of good sense on my part.) I did keep taking her to the club, even as a stand-in for Summer once as a demo agility dog, and she did great. She got more comfortable at the club and made dog and human friends.
Reason #4 Why a Dog Might Not Lie Down on Cue
The title of this post, with the “three reasons” bit, is a little tongue in cheek. It’s a bit of clickbait. Of course there are more than three reasons, but I think I picked three important ones. There’s another one in Cricket’s case, though. I reinforced that bridge! I mean, wouldn’t you? The adorable, serious little dog was trying so hard and was so tense. Her belly was almost on the floor, and it never……quite…..got there. Yeah, I gave her treats for that. Way too many treats. Matching law hell. Bad training practice, but a good human, nonetheless. I’m not a bit sorry.
When I crossed over to training with positive reinforcement, I had no idea how much my behavior and even my belief system would need to change. I had to question my faith in some long-held cultural assumptions and learn to rely on scientific observation and analysis.
Crossing over was a lengthy process for me, and even now, after more than 10 years, I occasionally fall back onto old assumptions and behaviors. I wonder sometimes if I am the only one so vulnerable to cultural programming. But a quick look around social media says no, I’m probably not.
There are intellectual, emotional, and cultural barriers to crossing over. For me, certain barriers were so large that they defined whole phases in my thinking and practice about training. I’ll share several of these phases here. Maybe they will be familiar to some of you. And maybe identifying them could be helpful to trainers who meet with resistance or confusion from their clients. Once upon a time, I was that client.
“I Tried R+ and It Didn’t Work”
This was my experience, and it was real—it’s not just something people say to provoke positive reinforcement trainers. I went in and out of this phase, trying and failing several times.
In 2002, when I got my rat terrier, Cricket, I read about positive reinforcement training on the young Internet. I wanted to teach Cricket to walk on a loose leash. I read about the “Be a Tree” method, wherein one stops forward progress whenever the dog pulls. I thought I was trying positive reinforcement training when I tried to be a tree. It sounded elegant and reasonable. But I didn’t know to start indoors, in low distraction. What I had read didn’t mention using food as a reinforcer when the dog was walking nicely, so I didn’t. And I didn’t know about any of the quadrants then, much less recognize the presence of the other three in the protocol as I was practicing it.
Lovely little Cricket—I don’t have a photo of our “Be a Tree” fiasco
I followed the “Be a Tree” protocol as faithfully as I knew how every day for six months, and, not surprisingly, it didn’t work. Cricket would immediately tighten the leash, and I would stop. She would stand there, barking. I would wait until she accidentally loosened the leash. (It often took a while.) Then we would go on, perhaps three more steps, and the process would repeat.
Now I know that she was probably too far over threshold to perceive that the loosening of the leash was connected to being allowed to go forward and that some sort of reinforcement (though not intended by me) was working to maintain the barking. And I know for sure my timing was bad. But since my attempt at the method was unsuccessful, I assumed that positive reinforcement training in general didn’t work. If I had known about learning theory then, I wouldn’t have hesitated to further generalize that learning theory didn’t work either. (Indeed, that was a later phase.)
Isn’t that a little strange? Why would I reject the whole thing rather than consider that my knowledge might be incomplete?
Suppose I had an orthopedic problem and needed surgery. The operation, a well-understood and documented procedure to be performed by a skilled surgeon, had a predicted 90 percent chance of success—but it failed.
My possible responses might include:
• The surgeon did her best, but due to complications I was forewarned about, the method failed
• The surgeon failed
• Western medicine failed
It’s so easy to jump to that third response with dog training. When we are new to training, the idea that it could be based in science is new too. And the science doesn’t always fit well with a lot of what we “know” from living in a punishment-based culture.
“R+ Is Not Practical”
Summer, my crossover dog, pursuing her passion for squirrels
Believe it or not, I failed a second time with loose leash walking, four years later and with a different dog. I was toying with positive reinforcement training again and had read about Premack’s principle, a theory stating that a stronger response will reinforce a weaker response. Since my new dog, Summer, was fixated on squirrels, I decided that running together to a tree where there was a squirrel would be the reward for walking nicely for a few steps and sitting and giving me eye contact. She quickly learned how to “ask” to run to the squirrel. The problem was getting her attention back after that. Also, I had accidentally created the adrenaline-filled, anticipatory stay so prized by some agility competitors. Summer was on pins and needles, then exploded into action when released. But I lacked the skill to get her back, and I saw that the main result was Summer getting more and more hyped up on walks.
I thought, “Well, that worked, but it’s sure not very practical.”
“Force Is Necessary for Dogs with Issues”
Another common phase of crossing over is the period where we believe that positive reinforcement is fine for most dogs/teaching tricks/teaching the basics, but we still need to punish dogs with behavior problems. Yes, I really believed this. I remember one night at an obedience club seeing a dog that was said to be aggressive. I told my friend that I was glad the dog was wearing a prong collar—this was a dog who needed it, and we had to consider the safety of the other dogs. It made intuitive sense to me that tough dogs needed a tougher approach. (I had never watched that show, by the way. And the idea of “being the boss” resonated culturally well before Cesar came along.)
I could think of no option except to suppress the “bad” behavior. I perceived a dog who bit as being “tough and mean,” rather than afraid, as he probably was. And I had no clue that wearing a prong could worsen his fears, as well as exacerbate the risk of aggression against the other dogs.
“My Dog Is Different”
Even after I had grasped the rudiments of operant learning, I figured there must be exceptions to the basic principles. I didn’t understand the breadth and depth of behavior science. I would swear up and down that a certain behavior that one of my dogs performed regularly was not getting reinforced. Or I would search for things that “didn’t work” as predicted. When I thought I’d found one, I had this victorious a-ha feeling: I just knew my dog was different! I had a grand old time going around saying how this didn’t work and that didn’t work.
“I’ve Got It Figured, and It’s Not What They Think!”
A little learning is a dangerous thing, at least for some of us. At some point, I was convinced that I had realized things that almost no one else had. I had it all figured out. And I found support from the iconoclasts: I would glom onto scholarly articles that didn’t say what the people who circulated them thought they did, opinion pieces by critics of behavioral science who didn’t understand it, and arguments that had elements of truth that had been falsely generalized.
I distrusted expertise in behavior analysis and figured that the iconoclast du jour had found a loophole. The trouble was that I didn’t (and still don’t) know the basics well enough to be “proving” that there were exceptions. I’m not saying there’s no nuance to the science; I’m saying that when I perceived something as exceptional I was merely mistaken.
“Not So Fast!”
This is not exactly a phase, but more of a common setback during crossover. I remember an example from a conversation with a force-free trainer friend. We were talking about a talented young agility student. He was taking lessons with a local so-called balanced trainer known for her rough handling. I mentioned this to my friend, and she said, “Oh I hate it when children are taught to hurt their dogs.”
I flinched, bigtime. Even though I had reported this development as bad news, I wasn’t ready to hear blunt language about hurting a dog. I had trained punitively only for a short time, never liked it, and had quit more than a year before. Still, I reflexively defended the rough trainer. Why? I don’t even know.
I Made It Anyway
Despite spending so much time arguing and looking for loopholes, eventually I “got it.” I started seeing how behavior is a map of what is reinforcing. I perceived the fallout of aversives. I learned about competing reinforcers and saw how, when a method failed, one common reason was that there was reinforcement coming from another source. I realized that training involved mechanical skill, and that without it certain methods wouldn’t work well. Failures became easier to analyze. I learned enough about canine body language to see the obvious differences in the demeanors of dogs trained primarily with aversives and those who weren’t.
What Pushed Me Off the Fence?
What helped? Seeing more and more examples of positive reinforcement working. Learning about the theory. Learning about the role emotions play in behavior. Repetition.
But it may well have been agility lessons with an excellent teacher that finally helped me turn the corner. Human neophytes in agility see their dogs go the “wrong” direction or take the “wrong” obstacle again and again. Without the influence of good teachers or other resources, students blame the dog. My teacher challenged my assumptions repeatedly, with gentle but inexorable logic.
Summer pursuing a new passion
If I claimed that my dog “defied” me by taking the tunnel, my teacher would remind me how much I had reinforced tunnel work. If I complained that my dog turned in front of me, my teacher would point out that I had slowed down just before she turned. When I thought my dog took a “random” direction, my teacher would instruct me to look where my own feet were pointing. She showed me over and over that my dog’s seemingly inexplicable behavior was usually a direct response to mine.
Most important, she helped me figure out what would motivate my dog more than the wildlife on the other side of the fence. Seeing my dog’s interest level change from, “This is okay if there is nothing else to do” to “Please, oh please, let’s play again!” showed me the true power of positive reinforcement.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Barks from the Guild under the title “The Crossover Client” and was edited for the magazine by Kiki Yablon.
Most of us are beguiled by videos where dogs appear to be doing something very human or beyond what we usually consider to be their intelligence level. Creators of fake dog videos exploit this tendency to get clicks. They make it appear that the dog is doing something he is not, or attribute some pretend, human-centric motivation or interest. And there are people who are willing to alter videos or create mashups so one of these things appears to be happening.
Innocent Misrepresentation of Dogs
Some misleading videos are not deliberate fakery. They are actually published out of misunderstandings of dog body language. Some popular video genres were born of this misunderstanding. One of these is the “cute dog and baby video.” These are videos of infants or toddlers close to or on top of dogs. The humans rave about how wonderfully tolerant the dog is, while the dog is usually getting more and more desperate to escape. (Often the toddlers are roughly handling the dogs.) The caption is often something like, “Oh, Bowser loves the kids! He lets them do anything!” He may love them, but he doesn’t love what the kids are doing. I’ve talked to enough trainers to be concerned about this practice. Both the dog’s and the child’s lives can be at risk. And even if the dog isn’t demonstrating stress, such a video encourages other people into unsafe practices with dogs and babies.
Some good resources for making sure kids and dogs can live together safely are:
I recently published an article about a viral video of a “smiling” puppy, allegedly from happiness from being adopted. Same deal. The new owners likely misunderstood the communication of an appeasement grin. But they did realize that the cute factor could cause the video to go viral.
A related genre is the “guilty dog” video. In most guilty dog videos, the dog is stressed because the human is scolding or threatening them. (In case anybody reading here isn’t aware, there has actually been a study that debunks dogs “acting guilty.” It showed no correlation between a dog performing these behaviors and having committed a misdeed.) The most famous “guilty dog” of them all was a Labrador named Denver. She sometimes performed a classic but rare appeasement signal for dogs: a grin. In her original viral video, her squinting and ducking her head supposedly signified guilt for stealing a bag of food. In later videos, her owner showed her squinting and grinning in other situations, such as when he approached her with ear medicine. Grinning at the prospect of ear medicine undermines the “guilt” theory, but it didn’t matter by then.
Most of the “cute dog and baby” videos, “guilty dog,” and “grinning dog” videos are born of misunderstanding. But then there are videos that appear to be deliberately faked.
Spotting a Faked Dog Video
There are a couple of reasons for the human behavior of fakery, but the primary reason is virality. The makers of these videos generally know the dog was not really doing what they purport. But they want to have a viral video, either to monetize or just for the attention. So they edit and alter a video to fit a narrative.
Here are eight things to look for that can indicate a faked dog video.
Is the soundtrack removed?
Is it very short?
Is there a lot of video editing in a short video?
Does the video make you go, “Awwww” or “Wow!” and you are amazed to think a dog could do such a thing?
Are there crucial parts of the scene that you can’t see?
Is the dog looking repeatedly off camera?
Is there is mood music added?
Are there added titles to establish a narrative?
A combination of one or more of these characteristics often means the video was faked. Here are four examples.
The Bulldog “Keeping the Beat” But Not Really
There is a video of a white English bulldog ostensibly “head-banging” to the Nirvana song “Come as You Are.” He rocks and nods his head somewhat in time with the beat. A person is playing a six-string acoustic (i.e. not electric) guitar in the foreground.
This video doesn’t convincingly show a dog feeling and moving to a beat. It is clearly a mashup. Here is the evidence.
We can’t hear any environmental noise, including the acoustic guitar being played right up front, close to the camera. We hear only the electric bass and drums from the Nirvana song. In other words, it’s not a recording of what’s happening in the room. (You could stop right here. This alone ruins the credibility of the video. )
The guitarist’s movements on the fingerboard don’t match the music. He’s playing something else.
The soundtrack is not even the actual Nirvana song. The vocals never come in. We hear only the introduction, looped a few times.
What Really Happened?
Here’s what makes sense to me.
A guy was playing the guitar while someone videoed him.
The bulldog walked in, paused a few seconds, then started rocking on his butt, perhaps to scratch his butt or as some kind of stereotypy.
The person with the camera kept filming and probably had a good laugh.
Afterward, someone removed the sound from the video and substituted a looped version of the introduction of the Nirvana song. They probably used the looped intro because including the vocals would trigger copyright algorithms in YouTube. YouTube would remove it or sanction them.
They marketed the movie as an example of a dog moving to a beat.
By the way, the “Nirvana” versions of this video are not the earliest. There is an earlier version posted on YouTube with a blues soundtrack. That version **might** have the original soundtrack, but the dog’s movement is still clearly independent of the music.
To believe that the Nirvana video is as it purports to be, you would have to believe the following string of unlikely events.
A guy was sitting in his house holding his guitar while a loop of the introduction of a Nirvana song played over his speakers (why the loop?).
He was simultaneously playing a different piece on his acoustic guitar (why?).
The two humans, the two dogs, and the acoustic guitar he is playing right in front of the camera are all completely inaudible.
A much simpler explanation is that the Nirvana song was chosen as a good match for the dog’s movement. Anytime the original audio is removed from a video, it’s a good time to get skeptical.
Holding the Gate for the Golden Puppies: A Trained Behavior
Some videos that supposedly show dogs doing unusual things are likely showing trained behaviors. The producers frame the behaviors to look like the dogs are doing them on their own. This video of the golden retriever opening a gate and holding it open for a group of puppies to go to a line of food bowls is probably one of those. She is being heavily coached by humans. Here are some things to notice.
The adult golden can open the gate and hold it, but almost closes it with half the puppies still inside. She appears stressed.
She is looking away from the puppies, probably up at a human, a fair amount of time.
There’s no soundtrack, just cute music.
The editing is choppy and strange, with two obvious edits in a 19-second video.
The Lab “Rocking” Puppies: No Training, Just Fakery
In this video, we see a lovely yellow lab “rocking” two young puppies in a recliner type rocking chair. She is sitting in front of the chair, with her chin and her right paw up on the chair. The chair is rocking. Look closely. It’s unlikely that the dog is providing the motion. She is responding to it. Her body weight is pushed forward, but the chair is rocking down and toward her. A human is probably pushing the chair from behind. And here is our usual tipoff: we have an added soundtrack of the Brahms Lullaby, music box style. The tinny music was clearly added to the video and not playing in the room.
So the likely scenario is that someone put this lab’s two puppies in the chair, and she came to watch over them. Then someone rocked the chair from behind.
“Dogs rocking babies” is a genre. There are playlists and compilation videos galore. Often, the dog has her paws up on a rocker while a person or a motor provides the rocking. On a few, the dog has been trained to bat or push at the infant rocker and does so on cue. Some retriever types seem to like to rest their chins on a rocker while it rocks. In no case does the dog appear to be rocking the infant to soothe it, as a human would. Yet that is what the creators of these videos would have us believe.
Some establish a narrative using subtitles to make sure you get the message. Here’s one such narrative (I changed the names).
This shiba inu is lending a paw
to rock his baby brother to sleep!
1-year-old Fido loves to push
8-month-old Johnnie in his baby chair.
You can always find him near Johnnie, his mom said.
He is very helpful
and always ready to make sure his little brother is ok.
Props to this one for duration behavior, but you can see the cord from the electric rocker plugged in. Fido is not doing the rocking.
This video purports to show two dogs limping in empathy with their owner, who has a broken foot. This is a particularly unfortunate situation because the larger dog’s leg may have been tied up to cause a limp.
The dog may have a natural limp, or the owner may have trained a front leg limp. But that’s a pretty advanced trick. Somehow that doesn’t fit with the hilarity of the onlookers. And the dog wouldn’t have gear wrapped around its neck.
The smaller dog doesn’t limp; he just does a paw lift near the end of the video, a common sign of stress.
This video does seem to have the original soundtrack. If the dogs are “showing support,” why must the owner beckon them repeatedly?
This video is also looped and slowed down, a common tactic when videos are super short. You will see the major sites do this a lot.
Other Popular Videos That Are Probably Not as They Appear
I’ll add to this section as I see viral dog videos that appear to have an element of fakery.
The sledding dog. This video shows awesome training. But the versions edited and posted by major media try to make us think that the dog is sledding all on her own as a way of self-entertainment. But the original soundtrack is missing, and the dog is obviously looking at the human for cues. There is a lot of editing and looping, and someone turns the sled around (off camera) at the top of the hill. It’s too bad because the owner did a fabulous job training the complex behaviors of riding a sled down a curved hill, fetching the sled back to the owner, and pulling it up the hill on cue.
The jumping, turning puppy. This video even made the rounds among dog trainers. Many posted it as an example of “social learning.” In it, a puppy (looks like a pug) jumps—odd, stiff legged little jumps—and simultaneously turns 360 degrees. Then a teenager jumps and twirls, waving their arms. Then the teenager points at the puppy. The puppy jumps, then turns again. We want to believe we are seeing mimicry, but there are several fatal flaws with this claim, including that the puppy does the behavior first. Oops. We are seeing mimicry by a human! The puppy could easily have performed and been rewarded for the behavior a dozen times before the video started. There is no sound, the video is oddly edited, and it’s only 10 seconds long. If I had a puppy who could copy a behavior of mine on cue, I would make a video that truly demonstrated it happening, wouldn’t you? Kudos to the kid for giving the pup a treat, though.
These are my opinions about the videos. I’m open to evidence that I am wrong. Usually, this would be as straightforward as showing the unedited video with the original soundtrack. On some, we would need a different camera angle. This would require that the dog do the behavior again in a similar situation.
I’m always interested in seeing other videos that are not likely showing what they imply or claim to show. Got any?
Thank you to the people who provided me videos when I asked on Facebook for examples. I’m sorry I didn’t write down your names for credit!
There is a lot of misunderstanding out there about how well dogs hear. It’s true that their hearing is better than that of humans in a couple ways. They can hear higher-pitched sounds than humans can, and they can hear quieter sounds than we can in some frequency ranges. Because of this, they have a reputation of superb hearing. But their hearing capabilities are not better across the board. Our capabilities are superior to theirs in a few important ways as well.
Here is what the experimental literature tells us about dogs’ hearing compared to that of humans. First, we’ll cover a couple of things we need to know about the characteristics of sound.
Measuring and Defining Sounds
There are two aspects of sound that are most important to understand and identify: frequency (pitch) and sound pressure level. Sound pressure level (SPL) is a physically measurable quantity that corresponds roughly to what we subjectively experience as volume.
There are other qualities that are essential to sound, such as timbre and duration. But frequency and SPL are the most important to understand.
Frequency is how high or low the sound is in pitch. It is measured in cycles per second or Hertz. Low, rumbly sounds have low frequencies, that is, fewer cycles per second. High sounds such as digital beeps, children singing, and most birdsong have more cycles per second. Some frequencies of well-known sounds are:
The lowest note on an 88-key piano: 28 Hz
The highest note on an 88-key piano: 4,186 Hz
The low rumbles of thunder: 5–220 Hz (Holmes, 1971)
The typical range of human conversation: 80–8,000 Hz (Fant, 2006, p. 218). The fundamental frequencies of speech are on the low end; fricative consonants like f and s are on the high end.
Typical digital beeps and whistles: 1,500–5,000 Hz (measurements by author)
The high range of hummingbird vocalizations: 12,000 Hz (Rusch, Pytte, & Ficken, 1996)
Sound pressure level is measured in decibels, a logarithmic unit. The decibel scale is used because the range of detectable sound is so wide. A linear scale would have to go from 0 to greater than 100 million units to cover the range of sounds we can respond to. But SPL doesn’t exactly correspond to how loud we perceive a sound to be. That is termed “apparent loudness” and differs from person to person, organism to organism. It can’t be objectively measured in a practical way. But SPL can be objectively measured, and those measurements are what we have available to tell us roughly how “loud” we will experience a sound to be.
Logarithmic scales are counterintuitive and a bit difficult to understand. But you can get the idea of the range of sounds we can hear and how loud they are on the image below. You can also consult this article by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to help you get your bearings with decibels.
Dogs’ Hearing vs. Human Hearing
OK, so now we are ready to compare dogs’ hearing to humans’.
Dogs can hear much higher frequencies than humans can. A young human with normal hearing can typically hear up to about 20,000 Hz (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166). As humans age, that upper limit decreases to about 12,000 Hz. Dogs can hear to 45,000 Hz (Heffner, 1983).
Humans can hear slightly lower frequencies than dogs can. We can hear pitches down to about 20 Hz. We can hear lower than this, down to about 2 Hz, but we don’t perceive these notes as pitches (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166). Sound lower than 20 Hz is called the infrasound range. Dogs can hear down to about 67 Hz (Heffner, 1983). There was speculation in the past that large dogs such St. Bernards can hear low frequencies better. But this was not born out by Heffner’s research. The dog that could hear the lowest frequencies best was a poodle, and the St. Bernard came in last(Heffner, 1983).
Humans can locate sounds more precisely than dogs can. For humans, the so-called minimum audible angle is 1° or less in our strongest zone and frequency (Mills, 1958). The minimal audible angle for dogs is 4° (Fay and Wilber, 1989, p. 519).
Psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren (2005, p. 47) points out that sound location is one of the first capabilities that dogs lose if they go deaf.
Threshold of Hearing
The threshold of hearing is the sound pressure level at which a sound becomes audible. In the lower frequency range (125–500 Hz), dogs’ and humans’ thresholds of hearing are about the same. At higher pitches, though, dogs have a lower threshold. That is, they can hear sounds at a lower volume than we can. This is true in the range of 500–8,000 Hz, where they can hear noises that are from 13–19 decibels lower (quieter) than we can (Lipman & Grassi, 1942). This is a significant difference. At frequencies higher than 8,000 Hz, the discrepancy grows wider. Then comes the range where we can’t hear at all, but dogs can (20,000–45,000 Hz).
There is a widespread claim that dogs can hear things at “four times the distance” humans can. I haven’t found the source for this and the information above shows that it isn’t a general rule. There are many variables in play when sounds travel over a distance. The range in which dogs’ hearing really excels is the high-frequency range. But this is also the range where sounds don’t travel over long distances anyway. The claim may be related to Lipman and Grassi’s above data point that some dogs can hear noises that are up to 19 dB lower than humans in some ranges. That 19 dB difference would correspond to a factor of four in loudness (but not sound pressure level, sorry). But it’s at a specific frequency, 4,000 Hz (Lipman & Grassi, 1942). If that’s the case, the “four times the distance” claim is an overgeneralization and an impractical comparison. In other words, it’s false.
Summary: Comparing the Hearing of Humans and Dogs
The qualities listed above have to do with the physiological capabilities of hearing. Dogs’ abilities to classify and discriminate sounds have been studied as well. The following are not characteristics of hearing, per se, but of the brain’s processing of an auditory stimulus.
Dogs can discriminate between pitches. They have been tested using both operant and respondent methods. Dogs can discriminate up to 1/3 tone, for instance, between 2,820 and 2,900 Hz (Dworkin, 1935). This is a bit finer than the scale of notes used in most Western music, which progresses by 1/2 tones. They can likely perform even better. In one experiment, a single dog was able to discriminate between tones of 29,500 and 30,000 Hz (Andreyev, 1934). This is far above the range of human hearing, and a smaller increment than 1/3 tone.
I’m not sure what to call this one, but experiments have been performed to test dogs’ response to different metronome settings. A musician would call these settings differences in tempo. Tempo is measured in beats per minute. For instance, in a tempo of 60 beats per minute, the beats are exactly one second apart. Dogs can discriminate between 118 beats per minute and 120 beats per minute (Andreyev, 1934). To understand, try this online metronome. Enter the setting of 118 beats per minute, listen, then change it to 120 beats per minute. Could you tell which one it was if someone played one of them for you out of the blue?
Sound Source Categorization
Dogs can learn to categorize sounds. In one study, they were able to differentiate between “sounds that dogs make” and “other sounds.” The other sounds included mechanical sounds and sounds made by other animals (Heffner, 1975).
Timbre is defined as:
a sensory attribute of sound that enables one to judge differences between sounds having the same pitch, loudness, and duration (Gelfand 2010, p. 227).
We witness dogs’ ability to discriminate timbre empirically all the time. Does your dog discriminate the sound of your car from others? Your voice from your best friend’s? Sure! But the research on it seems pretty limited. Some studies were performed in the early 20th century that showed that dogs could discriminate the difference between the same note played on a tuning fork or a keyboard instrument, and also between different chords (Razran & Warden, 1959).
A different kind of evidence of timbre discrimination was shown in Adachi et al’s study (2007). They demonstrated that dogs could match their owner’s face to the owner’s voice (contrasted with another voice and face) calling their name. Ratcliffe et al (2014) similarly showed that dogs could likely discriminate voices by human gender, which may involve timbre discrimination.
Since a lot of what comprises timbre is the overtone structure of a sound, timbre discrimination could be a subset of pitch discrimination.
Human Speech Sound Discrimination
There are also studies that investigate dogs’ abilities to discriminate aspects of human speech. These are not about dogs’ comprehension of language, which is a different issue. These are tests to see if dogs can hear the difference between certain human-spoken consonant and vowel sounds.
For instance, Baru (1975) demonstrated that dogs could discriminate between the vowel sounds i and a. The dogs were trained with shock, where wrong answers and “no responses” were punished.
I’m mentioning one study even though it is a master’s thesis. Athanasiadou (2012) tested vowel discrimination in dogs using the preferential looking paradigm. This is a noninvasive method used with human infants. The dogs could discriminate between the Dutch vowel sounds a and e. I hope that future studies of language discrimination follow this method rather than Baru’s.
There are quite a few studies of dogs vis-à-vis words and language, but these veer away from dogs’ discrimination capabilities. The discrimination abilities are taken as a given. If you are interested in speech sound discrimination, there is a review article by Kriengwatana et al that synopsizes a lot of that research for dogs and other animals and is available free online.
This article is a cornerstone for a new section of my blog devoted to dogs and sounds. I will be offering some very practical advice. I hope you stick around for more!
Adachi I., Kuwahata H., Fujita K. (2007). Dogs recall their owner’s face upon hearing the owner’s voice. Animal Cognition 10 17–21
Andreyev, L. A. (1934). Extreme limits of pitch discrimination with higher tones. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 18(3), 315-332.
Athanasiadou, P. (2012). Studying speech sound discrimination in dogs (Master’s thesis).
Baru A. V. (1975). “Discrimination of synthesized vowels [a] and [i] with varying parameters (Fundamental frequency, intensity, duration and number of formants) in dog,” in Auditory Analysis and Perception of Speech, eds Fant G., Tatham M. A. A., editors. (Waltham, MA: Academic Press; ), 91–101.
Coren, S. (2005). How dogs think: understanding the canine mind. Simon and Schuster.
Dworkin, S. (1935). Alimentary motor conditioning and pitch discrimination in dogs. American Journal of Physiology-Legacy Content, 112(2), 323-328.
Fant, G. (2006). Speech acoustics and phonetics: Selected writings (Vol. 24). Springer Science & Business Media.
Fay, R. R., & Wilber, L. A. (1989). Hearing in vertebrates: a psychophysics databook. Hill-Fay Associates.
Gelfand, S. (2010). Hearing: An introduction to psychological and physiological acoustics. Informa Healthcare.
Heffner, H. (1975). Perception of biologically meaningful sounds by dogs. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 58(S1), S124-S124.
Heffner, H. E. (1983). Hearing in large and small dogs: Absolute thresholds and size of the tympanic membrane. Behavioral Neuroscience, 97(2), 310.
Holmes, C. R., Brook, M., Krehbiel, P., & McCrory, R. (1971). On the power spectrum and mechanism of thunder. Journal of Geophysical Research, 76(9), 2106-2115.
Kriengwatana, B., Escudero, P., & ten Cate, C. (2015). Revisiting vocal perception in non-human animals: a review of vowel discrimination, speaker voice recognition, and speaker normalization. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1543.
Lipman, E. A., & Grassi, J. R. (1942). Comparative auditory sensitivity of man and dog. The American Journal of Psychology, 55(1), 84-89.
Mills, A. W. (1958). On the minimum audible angle. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 30(4), 237-246.
Ratcliffe, V. F., McComb, K., & Reby, D. (2014). Cross-modal discrimination of human gender by domestic dogs. Animal Behaviour, 91, 127-135.
Razran, H. S., & Warden, C. J. (1929). The sensory capacities of the dog as studied by the conditioned reflex method (Russian schools). Psychological Bulletin, 26(4), 202.
Rusch, K. M., Pytte, C. L., & Ficken, M. S. (1996). Organization of agonistic vocalizations in Black-chinned Hummingbirds. The Condor, 98(3), 557-566.
The viral video linked below shows a scared puppy.
The puppy huddles at the back of an enclosure.
At the beginning of the video, her front legs are braced, pushing her backward.
She blinks and squints repeatedly.
She looks away and turns her head away several times.
Her ears are pulled back.
She pulls her mouth back into a “grin” that is associated with appeasement.
All of these behaviors demonstrate stress.
At the end of the video, the puppy starts to venture forward.
Dog Smiles Are Different From Human Smiles
If you see a dog with its mouth closed (or almost closed with teeth showing) and the mouth corners (commissures) drawn back, the dog is likely stressed. This behavior usually is associated with social anxiousness. Ethologists agree that it generally signals something like, “Don’t hurt me; I’m not a threat.”
The pup in the video is also showing other signs of stress: blinking, squinting, looking away, and flattening back her ears.
But we humans are wired to respond positively to anything that looks at all like a smile. We assume it indicates happiness. This particular pup has facial features that combine with the submissive grin to create a mouth that is upturned at the corners. It’s cute, but not a sign of joy.
There is one smile-like behavior that happy dogs do. That is the openmouthed smile you can see in this photo of my dog Clara when she was a teenager. Her mouth is open and the corners of her mouth are pulled back a little but not harshly so. Her forehead is smooth and her eyes are soft. Can you see how much more relaxed she looks than the pup in the video?
I almost titled this post, “Terrified Puppy Smiles.” It would make for better clickbait, but I don’t believe the pup is terrified. We are not seeing flight, freezing or trembling. This pup is definitely scared, but she is also exhibiting interactive body language. Depending on her age, her fear is concerning. But it would be worse to see in an adult dog. If the pup is generally fearful, there may be time to mitigate it before the socialization window closes. The pup was showing some tentative tail wags and already moving toward the human at the end of the video. Hopefully she will come to be comfortable and happy with her new family and the world.
We humans usually find puppy appeasement behaviors adorable. This has probably given pups who exhibit them a survival advantage over the thousands of years our species have hung out together.
But my jaded self has to wonder why the sound was not included with this video. I hope the people weren’t deliberately pressuring the pup. The siren song of the viral video—even of the “cute” variety—can cause people to do some pretty crude things to animals. There is a video genre of “dogs who are grateful/happy after being adopted.” Most of them show dogs who are stressed out, unfortunately. The publishers of this video (not necessarily the pup’s adopters) were probably going for that genre.
What Dog Body Language Experts Say About Grinning
Barbara Handleman classifies the canine grin as a behavior of active submission (Handleman, 2008). She points out that the submissive grin can be affiliative or agonistic. That means the grinning animal may want to approach and interact, or it may want to get distance. She has photo examples in her book of different submissive grins:
Some other experts classify the submissive grin as passive submission rather than active submission. Dr. Michael Fox might classify this puppy’s grin as a “greeting grin,” also a signifier of appeasement or submission, because of the closed mouth (Fox, 1972).
Veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall discusses grinning behavior in her book, Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. She describes it as an act of deference, and says the dogs are generally showing that they are not a threat.
Addition 3/8/19: Response from the Owner
The adopter of the pup has commented that the pup is fine. She has elsewhere posted lovely photos of the pup, who is obviously more comfortable now. You can see her statement and my response in the comments on this post.
This video is being shared as an example of a smiling, happy pup. The caption refers to the pup being happy that she has been adopted. This is a damaging form of anthropomorphism that’s pandering for a “feel good” story. I hope the pup was adopted (by kind and gentle people) and I hope she is happy. But the behaviors in the video indicate stress and anxiety. The pup’s life will be much happier if her people realize that. The more we learn about canine body language the better we can treat our best friends.
What if your dog’s recall is so good that she comes before you call her?
The little movie featured in this post shows the myriad ways a smart dog can mess up your plans.
The Original Goal: Film That Recall!
This post brings together a lot of ideas I like to explore. Among them are cues, offered behaviors, and stimulus control. And like many of my posts, this one features an unintended consequence. I’ll explain.
Zani has a great recall. Bragging material. Even though she is getting older and her gait is wonky, she’s a nice example of a hound who comes when she is called.
I’ve been wanting for a while to get a video or two of this “miracle” of training. The most impressive recall videos demonstrate low latency (a speedy response) while dealing with high distraction. No problem, I think. Zani’s recall is that strong. I’ve been calling her out of play, away from other dogs, and away from varmints for years. I can film that.
So when Zani fails to come indoors when Clara and I do, it seems like the perfect opportunity. She’s involved with something in the yard. I think, “Aha! I can call her with her “real” recall cue and record it!”
But I don’t have any high-value treats, so I’ll need to go into the house and come back with some. Don’t misunderstand; the food isn’t a bribe. I’m not going to stand out there and wave food at her to get her to come. She will respond to her verbal recall cue whatever the circumstances. I’m getting the food to keep the reinforcement topped up so she’ll also come the next time.
Here’s the plan.
Zani is involved in something in the yard and doesn’t come in the house when first invited.
Eileen goes into the house to get a great treat.
Eileen comes back outside. She has her phone ready to take video.
Eileen calls Zani.
Zani comes with Eileen filming.
Zani gets the great treat.
And that’s how it worked for the first couple times. But the videos had flaws that made them unusable. I filmed poorly, or she slipped. Something went wrong. But I kept at it.
The Problem: Dogs Notice Patterns
Dogs are known for paying attention to us. In my experience, dogs who can earn treats for behavior around the house get very attentive.
Question: What is the immediate predictor that a recall will be reinforced with something great?
Answer: Eileen gives the verbal recall cue.
Question: But what happens before that?
Answer: Eileen comes out the back door holding up her phone.
Bingo. Why should Zani wait for me to call her when she already has an excellent predictor of reinforcement?
It didn’t take but a couple times for Zani to learn the pattern. She started running toward me as soon as I came out into the yard holding my phone. Before I called her. She ruined my movie! I’m supposed to call her before she comes. Otherwise, it can look like she is randomly running to me.
Now, it’s moderately interesting that one of Zani’s recall cues is me coming out the door holding a phone up. But there’s nothing earthshaking about it. It’s behavior science 101. All creatures with a nervous system (and maybe some without) are wired to notice predictors. Antecedents and consequences drive behavior.
The really interesting thing about this is the human response. We are biased toward cues that we give deliberately, especially verbal ones. Some of us refer to them as commands, as if they were inviolable. We think of environmental cues as somehow less important or less real. But here’s a hint: the dogs don’t.
Yes, it’s breezy. Why do you ask?
As much as I might get frustrated with Zani’s strangely cued recall, it’s just as impressive as if I called her. My little hound will turn away from something that is very exciting in order to run to me for the likelihood of reinforcement. But it doesn’t feel as potent or valid because I’m not verbally cueing her or using hand signal. That’s so silly, but that’s a human for you.
I’ve had several epiphanies about behavior science over the years. The first and biggest one was about reinforcement. But the next one was about cues. Do you remember the first time you heard someone use a cue that wasn’t a description (in English or another language) for the behavior? Did it startle you a little? It did me. “Wait, you can’t use that word because it doesn’t mean….oh.” That was the first step for me to get that dogs don’t understand language the way we do. Despite interesting research about areas in their brains that correlate with ours, we can’t assume that they understand word meanings or syntax. Humans always hear the meaning of the word behind the sounds. In fact, we can’t un-hear the meanings. But it is still only fair to assume that dogs have to brute-memorize the sounds.
So to them, there may not be much of a difference between “see Eileen come out the door with a phone” and “hear Eileen make a certain sound.”
Should there be a difference to me?
I’ve written recently about my lack of focus on stimulus control. I’m a bit self-deprecating about it, but it is a choice. In most cases, the behaviors I ask my dogs to perform are useful even if I haven’t asked for them. But I do think it through in each case.
You’ll notice in the movie that I reinforce Zani for coming to me even though I haven’t called her. That was a decision point. I could have discouraged that developing recall cue by not reinforcing Zani for coming unless I had actually called. Instead, I considered: Is it a good thing for my dog to interrupt what she’s doing because something in the environment suggests that it’s a great time to run to me? Is there a reason that might not be a good thing?
In my situation, it’s almost always a very good thing. So I reinforced it. But there is a circumstance in which stimulus control on a recall would be desirable. That would be in some kind of accidental situation where my dog was loose and ended up on the other side of a busy street or another hazard from me. If my dog comes running to me when she sees me appear and there is something dangerous between us, she could get hurt.
As much as we like 100% guarantees, we rarely get them in life. I weighed the probability of that dangerous situation against the benefits of a dog who comes “before I call her.” In my case, the default recall provides enough benefits that I’ll take that small risk. I can also train a different behavior that I can cue during a rare emergency. But for me, it’s great to have a dog who will turn away from exciting things to check in or come to me on her own. Others who take their dogs into lots of situations off leash might decide differently.
By the way, I trained Zani’s recall by 1) giving her something fabulous every time she recalled on cue; and 2) giving her something good-to-fabulous when she came to me in many other situations. Pretty straightforward. That’s why I love training recalls.
How about you? Do you reinforce “offered” recalls? Got any interesting cues, deliberate or accidental?
What happens when you don’t have retrieve on stimulus control?
This is an update of a post published on December 16, 2013.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not very good at stimulus control. I’ve included in this post a great video from when Clara was younger that demonstrates that embarrassingly well.
Stimulus control in training is all about response to cues, and goes like this. Given a behavior:
The behavior occurs immediately when the cue is given.
The behavior never occurs in the absence of the cue.
The behavior never occurs in response to some other cue.
No other behavior occurs in response to this cue.
Pride, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, sitting pretty on cue
This means, for example, if I have trained the behavior, “Sit pretty,”:
When I say, “Pretty,” the dog immediately sits up with his front feet in the air.
He doesn’t ever do that unless I cue it.
He doesn’t do it if I cue something else like down or sit.
He doesn’t sit or lie down when I say, “Pretty.”
Most everybody’s first question is about #2. If this were a natural dog behavior like lying down, he would still do it at other times, right? Sure. And although I’ve seen some discussions about that, I don’t know in what situations it would be a “violation” of stimulus control for the dog to lie down without a cue from a human. The common answer is to append “in a training session” to the above rules. But how do we expect a dog to draw a line between “training session” and “not a training session”? And aren’t we training for real life? Do we say that behaviors like sit and down are never on true stimulus control? Probably.
You may choose not to reinforce downs that you don’t cue, but they are reinforcing to a dog who wants to rest and relax. We can’t help that.
For most trainers, there is a period where we are teaching cue recognition and stimulus control where we do not reinforce uncued behaviors. After that is taught, though, we may change the rules a bit in real life.
There are behaviors for which one needs strict stimulus control. I have a friend with a service dog. “Gigi” has a special setup so she can do the equivalent of calling 911 if my friend falls down. Falling is actually the cue. My friend needs absolute stimulus control on this behavior because it is completely not cool if Gigi “offers” hitting the call box at any other time.
My dogs are not like Gigi. Or more to the point, I am not as skilled a trainer as my friend.
Lack of Stimulus Control
Even a gate didn’t stop them from offering eye contact
If you put aside Rule #2 and reinforce your dogs for uncued behaviors, you get dogs who offer behaviors frequently.
One of the stereotypes of clicker trained dogs is that they offer behaviors all the time. Dogs trained with positive reinforcement tend to do stuff. And they’ll go wild with offering stuff if their people reinforce it. But it doesn’t have to be that way all the time. You can have a dog who is a virtuoso shaper and completely unafraid to offer behaviors, but who has also learned when that pays off and when it doesn’t.
We can set up some environmental cues and change our own behavior to let a dog know when we don’t want a bunch of offered behavior.
I do have those crazy behavior-offering dogs. If my dogs come running up to me in the yard for no reason to check in—I like that! They’ll usually get something from me. If I walk through a room and someone is lying nicely on a mat, they’ll get a treat.
I also reinforce offered eye contact. It usually comes along for the ride with other behaviors. Reinforcing this in real life means I have dogs who sit and stare at me.
I am OK with the results of this, but some people wouldn’t be. If you are regularly going to reinforce uncued behaviors, then you’d best be willing to do so even when it’s inconvenient. Because it’s just not fair to change the rules on your dog without warning. If you do that, you can put behaviors into extinction. This is unpleasant for the dog and doesn’t serve our overall training goals well.
My dogs are good at chilling since one of the offered behaviors I reinforce is lying down with relaxed muscles. This is nicely incompatible with trying a bunch of stuff to get my attention. I don’t mind tossing a treat around every 10 minutes while I’m working at the computer. But if we are really out of sync and they are tuning up to bug me to death, I just use management. I get behind a gate.
One of these days I may set up a cue for “The Bar is Closed.” There are a couple of situations in which I never reinforce my dogs and they have learned that perfectly.
In the following movie, the bar was definitely open. I was reinforcing Clara’s offered retrieves, and you can see the amusing outcome.
I’ve reinforced Clara for “trading” since she was tiny. But she started it. She always had a tendency to bring me things. I liked that, so I reinforced it. Still do. It means when she has something dangerous, I can immediately get it from her with no stress. This is a good thing since everything goes in her mouth. She was an outrageous chewer when younger, so I managed very tightly about this then.
When Cricket was alive, Clara was limited to only half the house most of the time. Clara was just under 2 years old when Cricket died in May 2013, and it seemed appropriate to open things up a bit after that. It went very well. About the worst thing that happened was that Clara snitched napkins off the table to chew up. I was careful where I put food, so she didn’t develop a counter-surfing habit. She did have certain items of my clothing—a hat in particular—that she kept a constant eye out for. But almost everything she picked up other than napkins she brought straight to me. She still does this, “busting” herself for picking up contraband.
There are good reasons to make another training choice, by the way. Some people teach a default “Leave It.” What if there is someone in your household who is prone to dropping pills or leaving sharp tools around? Then reinforcing a dog for picking random things up in her mouth and bringing them to you is not a good idea. But it has been a good choice for us, I think. You can see the rusty nail Clara brought me above. If she hadn’t, she would have been chewing on it in the yard.
By the way, the movie shows pretty impressive distance behavior. Clara was bringing items to me clear from the back of the house!
Does your dog have any behaviors on stimulus control? Or any behaviors with an embarrassing lack of stimulus control, as mine do?
Note: A knowledgeable reader pointed out what I was already feeling itchy about: the “rules” of stimulus control above are training guidelines, and not the behavior science definition. Keep in mind that behavior is never absolutely predictable, and behavior science deals in statistical likelihoods, not absolutes. I’ve linked to the American Psychological Association’s dictionary definition below. I’ll see if I can link to a non-paywalled example of the behavior science definition that is a bit more extensive. If I can’t, I’ll quote from a textbook.
Thank you to GoPetFriendly for another opportunity to learn about other pet blogs and to showcase my own. These are my answers to the 2019 Pet Blogger Challenge.
For those who may be visiting your blog for the first time, how long have you been blogging and what is your main topic? I started blogging in July of 2012. My main topic is dog training, with a humane, evidence-based approach. I talk about behavior science and I demonstrate things with my dogs. I do not train professionally, so I have the advantage of being able to write about my embarrassing mistakes without affecting my business! My wonderful dogs are Zani, an adorable mostly-black hound mix, and Clara, a tan mixed breed with a black muzzle and tail. Clara was born feral and came to me as a puppy. She and I have many stories to tell. Here’s one of the big ones: Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog.
What was your proudest blogging moment of 2018? My proudest blogging moment was when I retracted a post. That sounds pretty strange, I know. But a post I wrote about some behavior science terminology as used in the dog training world went awry. It was misinterpreted to be a criticism of the use of behavior science in dog training. It was meant to be the opposite of that. My point was that we should use behavior science more fully and accurately. But the post was shared by the very people I was arguing against because they thought it supported their position!
Buy a behavior science book. Older editions are cheap!
I’d like to say that the fault was theirs because they didn’t read carefully, but I gave it a provocative title, and of course, my writing wasn’t perfect. So I’ll take a good portion of the blame. I took it down after I saw that it was having a damaging effect on the training community. This was difficult because I had spent a lot of time on it and of course my ego and emotions were very invested. But I’m proud of my actions and also proud of the rewritten post: A Quadrant By Any Other Name Is Still a Cornerstone of Operant Learning.
What was the biggest blogging challenge you faced in 2018, and how did/will you tackle it? I retired from my day job in 2018, and am now a full-time writer/ editor/ mentor/ presenter. You’d think that would give me more time for my blog, right? Nope! I have lots more writing projects! So my challenge is a very common one: finding the time to write blog posts.
My blog does not generate income directly. I have always written purely for education and sharing information. But it’s the platform upon which I’ve built my reputation, so it supports the ways I do earn income as a writer.
I don’t really have a plan to tackle time management. I’ve always had a rule that I wouldn’t publish a post just for the sake of keeping a schedule. I post when I have something to say that I feel strongly about and can write clearly about. When I do feel that strongly, I make the time. That will probably continue to be my plan. My blog is still hands down my favorite place to write.
This was a post that I had worked on intermittently for a long time. I have always been fascinated by the manner in which people argue and discuss on social media. (Even before social media, I read Usenet groups for entertainment and education.)
Dog trainers who use positive reinforcement are often attacked for being “punishing” when they disagree in a discussion. Sometimes, certainly, it’s all too true that they are being unpleasant or inappropriate. But they also get that accusation from people who disagree with them even when they are being perfectly polite. It’s a cheap shot. And also, technically, it’s usually not true. Punishment is about a decrease in behavior. But usually on Facebook, if someone doesn’t like your tone or your words, they post more to argue with you! I explain what is really happening in the post.
Which of your 2018 posts was most popular with your audience? Why do you think it did so well? My most popular post that I wrote in 2018 was Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior? I have a lot of evergreen content, so this was only my 12th most popular post (or page) overall for 2018, but it was the most popular of my new posts.
I’m not sure why this post was so popular, except that it addressed a very common misconception and perhaps was shared a lot because of that. It’s one of my own favorites besides being my readers’ favorite! I’m also very proud that it was first published in Clean Run magazine in 2017.
Did you implement a new series, feature, or practice on your blog in 2018 that you’re enjoying? I guess it’s pretty common for bloggers to write about their animals’ medical conditions, but my dogs have had some pretty unusual ones. It’s become a recurring feature without my realizing it. I usually write about medical situations from a husbandry standpoint: how best to care for an animal with certain problems using humane and cooperative care.
Zani has some more health issues, so stay tuned for more features about how we cope.
Zani moving well after her accident
As the social media landscape changes, how are you promoting your blog posts and connecting with new readers? I am not great at promotion. I generally post any new article on Facebook on both my personal page and my blog page (sometimes on separate days). I sometimes post in an appropriate Facebook group with permission, but I don’t overdo that. I don’t want to be that annoying person who only shows up to promote her stuff.
I also post on Twitter (just once for each article—I should do more), Google+ (a dying platform), and LinkedIn. I’ve had an Instagram account for quite a while and need to get into the habit of posting my blogs there! Since almost all my content is evergreen, now and then I pull out an older post that I think deserves some more love, rewrite it, and publish it as new. I make sure to use a 301 redirect from the URL of the old post to the new one so as not to lose any links or rankings.
Clara will always be my baby
Looking forward to 2019, if you accomplish only one thing through your blog, what do you hope it is? I always have the same goal. I want to share good information about dogs and behavior science and change the lives of dogs for the better.
What steps are you planning to take to ensure you reach your goal? Continue to research what interests me, observe my dogs, and share what I learn.
Now it’s your turn! How can we help? Is there an area where you could use some advice, or an aspect of your blog that you’d like input on? Share it here, and we’ll answer you in comments! I’d love to know how other self-hosting WordPress bloggers are dealing with Gutenberg, the new online editor.
Thank you for the Pet Blogger Challenge, Amy. I was glad to see that you are still moving forward with your plagiarism suit. (And sorry to see that you’ve got yet another site stealing your stuff!) I urge all readers to check out your posts on the plagiarism and to give to your fund. You are helping us all by defending copyright for the little guy.