16 June 2018

The Train for Rewards Blog Party is Now Live!

The Train for Rewards Blog Party is now live with posts from many talented bloggers exploring the topic of reward-based training.

Check it out here.

Then share your favourite posts on social media.

And share a photo of your pet on social media with the hashtag #TrainforRewards.

Post for the 2018 Train for Rewards Blog Party hosted by Companion Animal Psychology

The blog party is hosted by Companion Animal Psychology. Thank  you to everyone who is taking part, whether by blogging or sharing your pet's photo on social media.

15 June 2018

The Train for Rewards Photo Post

Do you use rewards to train your dog or cat (or other pet)? Show you support reward-based training by posting a photo of your pet below.

By popular request, this post is part of the #Train4Rewards blog party hosted here at Companion Animal Psychology.

Add your pet’s photo, then share on social media with the hashtag #Train4Rewards.

The photo link-up is open until 8am Pacific time on Saturday 16th June, when the full list of Train for Rewards posts is available.

Add your pet's photo to the #Train4Rewards blog party

How to add the photo:

Click the link and follow the instructions. You will have up to 50 characters for your pet’s name.

If you make a mistake, you can delete the entry and start again.

Entries are moderated so at certain times of day there may be a delay before your pet’s photo appears.

You have to give your email address, but it will not be used except if needed to communicate about the photo link-up. You can read the privacy policy here.

You have to sign up separately if you want to subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

Thank you to everyone who is taking part!

Add your photo to the #Train4Rewards photo post to show you use reward-based training methods with your pet.

Not sure what reward-based training is? See seven reasons to use reward-based training methods and the ultimate dog training tip.

14 June 2018

The Best Dog Training Treats

What are the best treats to use when training your dog? From the right size and nutritional composition to what dogs love best, this is a user-friendly guide to the best dog training treats.

The best dog training treats. This little white dog is looking up, hopeful for a cookie
Photo: Rattanawan Thubthed / Shutterstock

Whether you’re new to training or a seasoned pro, using the right treats is an important part of dog training because you have to be able to motivate your dog.

Food is a commonly-used reward in dog training for a reason – it works.

We often use food in operant conditioning, when we’re training a dog to do a behaviour. This is positive reinforcement (for more on why food makes a great reward, see the ultimate dog training tip).

The best training treat in one situation is not always right for another dog in another training scenario. This article looks at what to consider and then lists my favourite dog training treats.

A guide to the best dog training treats. The poster features a cheeky Jack Russell Terrier. #Train4Rewards

Things to Consider When Choosing Dog Training Treats

There are several things to think about when choosing treats to use in training.

Your dog’s favourite foods 

It stands to reason that foods your dog likes a lot will be more motivating than those your dog is not so excited by. Every dog has their own individual preferences. For example, some dogs love pieces of carrot (my dog Bodger takes them away to munch on), but some dogs don’t particularly like carrot. (interestingly, some dogs like cheese less if a piece of carrot is given with it, even if they like carrot, something called suboptimal choice in dogs).

A recent study found that dogs run faster for a high quality training reward than for a low quality one (sausage vs kibble). However the quantity of the reward did not make a difference to the dog’s running speed (Riemer et al 2018). So it’s important to use reinforcement that is high quality from your dog’s perspective. Typically, that would not be kibble as your dog gets that at mealtimes anyway.

The training task

Some types of food reward are more suited to different kinds of training task. For example, suppose you are training basic obedience like sit, lie down, or stay, and you are working in your living room with few distractions. You will want to be training fast, both to keep your dog interested and to be efficient. That means you’ll be getting through a lot of treats.

When I studied at the Academy for Dog Trainers (“the Harvard of dog training”), I learned to aim for 8-12 repetitions a minute. This produces great results fast – but that’s a lot of treats. So you don’t want to be giving a great big slice of salami for each rep. My favourite for most obedience training is little pieces of cooked chicken.

But suppose you are training recall (teaching your dog to come when called). Recall is one of those things where you want to know you are going to get excellent results. And, at the same time, it’s something that is often difficult for the dog, in that there can be lots of distractions and other competing rewards, like dogs to play with, strangers to meet, and squirrels to chase. There are times when a great recall can save a dog’s life by getting them out of an unsafe situation. In other words, this is important stuff, and you never know when you might need it.

You could still use chicken, but you could also use something super yummy that your dog doesn’t get at other times, so they know they will always get a really special reward when they come when you call them.  My favourite reward for teaching recall is tripe stick, because dogs love it (I admit it is a bit stinky for me). Cheese is another favourite as most dogs really love cheese. Again, the stinkier the better.

The best dog training treats. A wet Golden Retriever waits for its reward.
Photo: Lukassek / Shutterstock

This guide assumes that you are using the treats as positive reinforcement in operant conditioning. For counter conditioning (when you are trying to change your pet’s emotional response to a positive one) you want to make sure you are using good food (e.g. chicken, roast beef) and not being stingy.

Sometimes you might be using food as a management strategy. One example is when you’re trying to get a harness on a jumpy, bouncy, wriggly dog. You can use food to get the dog’s head through the harness, and then put a little pile of food on the floor to keep the dog occupied while you do up the belly straps. (Yes, you are still going to want to train the dog to keep still while you put the harness on, but with this management method you can at least still take them out for a walk while training is ongoing).

Another example might be when you’re using food to distract a dog from something nearby they might react to, like other dogs. If you keep them interested in food, they won’t notice or pay attention to the other dogs. This can be a useful management strategy for those times when you aren't training.

If you want to avoid interruptions in the treat supply while you reach into your bait bag, you might prefer to use a treat tube. There are several brands you can buy, such as Leanlix or Lickety Stix. Or you can make your own by putting a food paste (such as watered down pate cat food) in a squeeze tube or reusable food pouch. These are available from camping supply stores or baby supplies. Pick something that is easy to clean after use, and has an opening that is easy to fill.

If you want to make your own lickable treat, you could mix cream cheese with canned tuna or peanut butter. Add water to get the consistency you require. Freeze it if you want to make it last even longer.

The best dog training treats - part of the 2018 Train for Rewards blog party


Every dog has individual preferences, and some dogs will care more about variety than others. If you find your dog getting bored of one kind of reward, you can always try another. (Or if it turns out the dog is tired of training, give them a chance to rest and resume again on another day).

Your dog’s dietary requirements 

Some dogs need a special diet. Suspected or actual food allergies may mean certain ingredients have to be avoided. Some medical conditions also have implications for diet.

For example, dogs with kidney disease have special dietary requirements including that it is low in phosphorus.  If your dog has chronic kidney disease, you may also like this post from the Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings Veterinary Medical Centre on treats that are suitable for dogs with kidney disease. They also have a list of reduced sodium treats and diets for pets with heart disease.

If you have concerns about your dog’s diet or need advice on nutrition, see your vet.

If your dog has dietary restrictions, any treats you use in training should also meet those needs, so read labels carefully and take your vet’s advice. Many kibbles made to meet special dietary needs also have a corresponding canned food (and sometimes corresponding treats too) that can be used as a reward in training. It may also be possible to make your own using ingredients that you know are okay for your dog.

Some hard chews (like rawhide) may be a choking hazard, so supervise your pet when you give them.


When choosing ready-prepared dog training treats, read the ingredients to check you are happy with them. This article from the Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings Veterinary Medical Centre, Tufts University, has some advice on reading pet food labels.

Some treats contain sugar in one form or another. Dogs, unlike cats, can taste sweetness. It may be added to make the food tastier to dogs, but sugars are also used as humectants in some products. Humectants keep moisture in food and keep the texture nice.

A recent study of the ingredients lists and nutritional content of dog treats found that while they are low in glucose and fructose, levels of sucrose are variable (Morelli et al 2018). While some contained no sucrose, at the highest level one dog biscuit contained sucrose at a level of 35.9g per 1000 kcals, while one tender treat (made up mainly of meat and cereals) contained 51.7g sucrose per 1000kcals. (Note this is expressed as a ratio and the treats are not 1000kcals each!).

Morelli’s paper says that while there is a guideline from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association that treats should not make up more than 10% of a dog’s daily energy requirement, if the feeding instructions on packets were followed, many (but not all) treats would exceed this amount.

Another consideration is whether or not you wish to feed treats that are raw. Most freeze-dried treats are raw and thus have the same risks as other raw foods (Freeman et al 2013). Freeman’s paper says the risk of infection from raw meat-based food is of particular concern for humans or animals that are young, elderly, pregnant, lactating, ill, or have a compromised immune system.

Remember that dog training treats are part of your dog’s overall diet. This means you need to adjust the calories given in meals to ensure your dog does not become overweight or obese. Some recent studies suggest more than half of dogs are overweight or obese (German et al 2018).

If you need advice on feeding your pet, or you are concerned about your dog's weight, speak to your veterinarian.

Which are the best treats to use in training?

These are my favourite treats to use for dog training. They are tasty to motivate dogs and the right size for use in training.

Cooked chicken

As mentioned above, little pieces of cooked chicken are my favourite treat for most dog training activities. I sometimes put chicken breasts in a tray, cover them with water, and bake in the oven until cooked through. The liquid becomes a nice chicken broth for my dog, and I chop the chicken breasts into little pieces about the size of a pea.

But I’ll be honest, sometimes I’m lazy or busy and so I buy ready-to-eat chicken pieces from the supermarket and cut it into bits for training. It’s important to read the label and check no onion or onion powder is in the ingredients, as onion is not safe for dogs to eat.

Tripe Stick

One of the things that is great about tripe stick is that it is stinky and dogs love it. Another thing I like is that you can easily tear it into smaller pieces.

Depending on the brand you get, some are 100% beef while others contain a mix of ingredients that make them softer and easier to tear. As always, read the ingredients to check they are right for you and your pet.

You can also buy little freeze-dried tripe treats.

Dried Sardines

Dogs seem to find these very tasty and they are easy to break in half if you want to make them smaller. Look out for minnows at the pet store.

Orijen freeze-dried tundra dog treats

These are great if you are looking for something that is completely natural, and another big favourite with my dog. They do sometimes leave flaky bits at the bottom of my bait bag, but I add it to kibble at mealtimes.


Something you no doubt already have in your home, little cubes of cheese can be a good training reward, especially for those occasions (like recall) when you want to use something really special. What type of cheese you use is up to you. Many dogs probably think the stronger the better!

Waggers Peanut Butter Tid Bits

These pork liver treats are a great size for training. My dog loves the peanut butter ones. This Canadian brand is based in Kelowna, BC.

Tricky Trainers, Liver Flavour

These are a small size for training and another favourite with my own dog.

Fruitables Skinny Minis

These are just 2 calories per treat and have a nice fruity smell. My favourite is the pumpkin and mango, but other flavours include rotisserie chicken, grilled bison, and apple bacon.

Tuna Fudge

See the recipe below! This is a great home-made dog training treat that does not crumble.

Hot Dogs

These are cheap, easy to cut into small pieces, and dogs love them. If you cook them in the microwave they will become dry and you can avoid the greasy feeling on your hands. Canned Vienna sausage is a good alternative too (again, you might prefer to microwave it first).

Make your own home-made dog training treats

Of course, it’s very easy to make your own home-made cookies. If you like to bake, you can experiment with the recipes below and come up with your own variations.

A nice idea from Eileen Anderson is to bake the cookie mixture in a silicone mould so that it comes out ready-cut into little pieces.  But you can also bake them on a flat tray and cut into pieces.

When using peanut butter, pick a brand that is all natural and does not contain added sugar. Read the label carefully to check there is no xylitol (an artificial sweetener). Some brands of peanut butter contain xylitol, which is poisonous to dogs. (Xylitol is also found in other food products such as chewing gum and candy, and some dental products, so always read labels and keep your pet safe).

Recipes for Home-Made Dog Training Treats

Tuna Fudge Recipe

170g (1 can) flaked tuna (including the liquid)
2 medium eggs
125g (1 cup) flour
A pinch of turmeric.

Mix all the ingredients together. Press onto a baking tray. Bake for about 20 minutes at 350F (175C).

Possible varations: Substitute another canned fish e.g. salmon, or even canned chicken or corned beef, for the tuna. Since the tuna includes liquid, if you’re using something without liquid, the equivalent amount is 120g of e.g. corned beef, and add 50ml of milk to make up the liquid quantity.

Other flavourings: Instead of the turmeric, substitute some chopped parsley, basil, rosemary, cilantro, oregano or peppermint.

Another variant is to add a small amount of grated cheese to the mixture.

Three Frozen Home-Made Dog Treat Recipes

You can adjust the size of these frozen dog treats according to the containers you freeze them in. Of course, frozen treats take longer to eat, so they are not so suitable for quick-fire training rounds, but they may be especially appreciated on a hot day.

Frozen Yoghurt and Tuna Treats

Mix 1 can flaked tuna with the equivalent amount of plain yoghurt. If desired, add a little bit of flaked parsley or basil. Spoon into ice cube trays and freeze.

Frozen Chicken Fruit Cubes

Mix 250g chicken stock (1 cup), I banana (mashed), 1 grated apple, and 75 grams (about half a cup) of whole blueberries. Put into ice cube trays and freeze.

Pumpkin Peanut Popsicles

One 796ml can of pumpkin (get 100% pumpkin, not the sweetened variety); 250g (1 cup) smooth peanut butter, a quarter teaspoon of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon honey.

Mix all the ingredients, put into small silicone popsicle moulds and freeze.

What are your dog’s favourite treats in training? 

If you want to find out which are your dog’s favourite treats, you might be happy to go by gut feeling of how happy your dog seems to get them. Or you might like to set up a preference test to find out.

One way to do so is to use a 2-bowl test, which is often used by scientists to evaluate dogs’ preferences. Essentially, a different food item is put in each of two bowls, and the dog is given a choice. The one the dog tends to go to first (and gets to eat) is assumed to be preferred.

If you want to try this at home, you will need to do many trials and keep track of your results. It may take your dog a little while to get the hang of this new game you are playing.

It is better to use a bowl or plate rather than your hand, as you may already have a history of tending to feed your dog treats from one hand rather than the other, or training them to nose touch one hand rather than the other. So your dog might already have a positive bias towards your left or right hand.

You will also need to swap the location of the treats so that over time, half the time one treat is in the left-hand bowl, and half the time it is on the right-hand bowl. Some dogs have a tendency to go towards the left or to the right, and maybe you will observe this in your dog.

Keep your own body language neutral, so that you are not inadvertently encouraging your dog to choose a particular bowl because of your body language or because you are looking at it.

If you try this with lots of different treat pairings, you can make a ‘pay scale’ for your dog!

This post is part of the 2018 Train for Rewards blog party. Check out the other posts!

What are your favourite treats to use in training?

Freeman, L. M., Chandler, M. L., Hamper, B. A., & Weeth, L. P. (2013). Current knowledge about the risks and benefits of raw meat–based diets for dogs and cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 243(11), 1549-1558.

German, A. J., Woods, G. R., Holden, S. L., Brennan, L., & Burke, C. (2018). Small animal health: Dangerous trends in pet obesity. The Veterinary record, 182(1), 25.

Morelli, G., Fusi, E., Tenti, S., Serva, L., Marchesini, G., Diez, M., & Ricci, R. (2018). Study of ingredients and nutrient composition of commercially available treats for dogs. The Veterinary record, 182(12), 351-351.

Riemer, S., Ellis, S. L., Thompson, H., & Burman, O. H. (2018). Reinforcer effectiveness in dogs—The influence of quantity and quality. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

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13 June 2018

The Train for Rewards Blog Party 2018

The 2018 Train for Rewards blog party celebrates reward-based training of dogs, cats, and other pets.  Join in the fun, find new bloggers to read, and share a photo of your pet on social media with the hashtag #Train4Rewards.

The blog party celebrates what we can do with reward-based dog training, encourages people to use rewards in training their pets, and inspires people to improve their technical skills and understanding of how reward-based animal training works.

Take Part in Train for Rewards

  • Read the blog posts, comment on them, and share your favourite posts with the hashtag #Train4Rewards
  • Share a photo of your pet dog, cat, rabbit, ferret, horse, etc... on social media with the hashtag #Train4Rewards
  • Afterwards, reward yourself for participating with a piece of cake, some chocolate, a glass of wine, a walk on the beach, or whatever makes you happy. 

The 2018 Train for Rewards blog party #Train4Rewards

06 June 2018

An Interview with Dr. Marty Becker

"..a recognition that they have emotions and we have an obligation to look at both their physical and emotional well-being."

An interview with Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free movement, here with a dog having a Fear Free visit to the veterinarian

An interview with Dr. Marty Becker about the Fear Free™ movement, Fear Free Happy Homes, and his new book, From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias, co-authored by Dr. Lisa Radosta, Dr. Wailani Sung, Mikkel Becker, and edited by Kim Campbell Thornton.

Zazie: I am absolutely thrilled to speak to you. I love your book, which is the choice for May for the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club and everyone’s been very excited to read it. So I’m going to ask you in a moment why you decided to write this particular book, but I wanted to ask you first of all how did the Fear Free™ movement come about?

Dr. Becker: I’ll give you the unvarnished, stripped down version of stuff that’s authentic. I’m 64 years old, and I’ve traveled to now, we just got back from Cuba so then it’s 84 countries, 7 continents, flown 5 million miles on Delta – real miles, not credit card miles. I’m at the highest level of Hilton, called Diamond Honors, I’m at the highest level of Marriott and them folks there’s only 1 out of 10,000 honoured guest members that are at a level I’m at called the Master level. So I’m tired. It’s really interesting, my daughter Mikkel is a well-known trainer, she’s 33 years old in December. And her first year alive I never, never, saw her. I left before she was awake and I came home after she was in bed. And then I read a book and decided to do a life change thing and started taking 3 months a year off. So for 32 years I’ve taken 3 months a year off. Not sequentially, but cumulatively. And then what I would do the other 9 months, I would just work twice as hard as everybody else. So I’d work 18 months-worth of work in 9 months, so it’s like ‘hell this guy’s gonna kill himself’. But nobody knows I have time off. So here comes Fear Free™. And I’m thinking, that’s interrupted my 3 months a year off.

I was at a veterinary conference, and my whole life I’ve always sat at the back of the room. So if I could manipulate it in grade school I'd be at the back of the room. In college, where you had a choice, I was at the back of the room. In vet school, I was at the back of the room. And never one to ask a question. I never asked one single question in vet school. You know, those people at the front would ask questions all the time. And I was in the back of the room at a veterinary conference on Vancouver Island in Victoria, and a boarded veterinary behaviourist named Karen Overall gave this talk on fear, and how fear was the worst thing a social species could experience and how it caused permanent damage to the brain. So those of us that are veterinary professionals are causing repeat severe psychological damage to pets by what we were doing and not doing. That behaviour produces a physiological response, so behaviour is medicine. And that we are not only harming them emotionally, we’re harming them physically. And you know, before the best-seller was written about Leaning In, all of a sudden, you know I’m not distracted I’m leaning in, like “What the hell?! What?!!” And I realized, Wow. And then she was brilliant. She gave this description comparing what we were doing to the human health care system, those were her words. Not healthcare, healthcare system of the 50s and 60s, where the dependent beings in human health care are children. They are taken against their will for medical care, where they were man-handled, manipulated, threatened and abused. When she asked us to remember examples of that, oh hell, the old amygdala just did a download, like ‘oh god, I remember being held down to lance an abscess at the end of my finger, I remember being held down to get a shot in my butt, leaning over this doctor’s exam table, of antibiotics, and my Mom, when I started crying, jumping out of her chair holding her hand above her head and going “Shut up, Marty!”. Like, “Don’t embarrass the doctor!”, that’s all. I remember my sister getting her pony tail pulled to keep her mouth open at the dentist.

How do these people in the zoo world train a rhino to give you it’s hoof for a foot trim and we can’t get a 10 pound Pekingese or Chihuahua to give its foot for a nail trim?

And so then she toggles to the dependent beings in veterinary care, animals. They don’t seek healthcare on their own. And then, they are taken against their will where they are manhandled, manipulated, threatened and abused. And then I thought of my sister Cheryl. This was a really good dentist and that dentist did the whole area. I don’t know if you remember, I don’t know how old you are, but there was a little circular sink with some water going around the circle, and yet there was no dental assistant, you know they grind away and then they flush your mouth out and you spit, gargle and spit.  There’s a drill, and the smell of burnt enamel and the whirr of the fricken drill. Today if they had that smell of that stuff they put in your mouth, the smell is like cloves or something… But what happened is my sister is a physician and she didn’t seek dental services her whole life, she got freaked out. And my older brother got freaked out and was a very successful lawyer with poor dental health. So I thought well hell, this is why pets aren’t coming in. It just hit me like a thunderbolt. It’s not lack of money, it’s not the fact that they don’t have enough information, now that we’ve lost our monopoly and people don’t  have to come to us for information, products and services, it’s just much easier to go on the internet or go to a place that their pet enjoys going aka the pet store. So I thought okay, I love pets, I’m compassionate to pets, I sure as hell didn’t know I was causing repeat severe damage to pets. As for when, that was 2009.

Dr. Marty Becker and a dog, talking about the Fear Free initiative
Dr. Marty Becler

Zazie: Wow. I’m sitting here now having bad memories about dentists, so I think everyone will understand that.

Dr. Becker: And you know what too, I had other boarded veterinary behaviourists talk to me about this before. So some of them are upset at me, ‘why do you give Karen Overall credit, I talked to you about it before then.’ I go, you did, but it was one of those days, the way she communicated it I had an awakening. And before that I always just thought it was collateral damage. I saw them licking their lips and yawning and shivering and shaking and hiding. I mean that’s obvious there is distress. But I thought the quicker we get it done and out the better. And that’s just like collateral damage and I didn’t realize well hell, there’s a better way of doing this you know. And I also remember by the way, Zazie, when she went through the signs of fear, anxiety and stress, and I’m looking at shivering, shaking, trembling, whale eye, avoidance, in a C shape, furrowed brow, pinned ears, salivation, yawning, and then she got to shaking dry like they’re wet. And I thought, God I’ve seen that a lot, that’s weird, they’re not wet. Why would they shake dry when they’re not wet? And then the one that got me was dogs that would come in the exam room and lay down and close their eyes. I always thought those were calm. I thought that when they like it they’d be calm like that. I didn’t realize that they were collapsing in immobility. I’m sure you’re familiar with the defense cascade, and I didn’t realize that’s as bad as it got. So I’m thinking, ‘holy shit, the one I thought was the best was the worst’. What else don’t we know?!

It’s the fact that pets have a broad range of emotions that we need to recognize. 

Then I went back and started talking to boarded behaviourists. Came back and talked to everybody I know. Literally, I called everybody. I was like, I have found the answer, holy shit we’ve gotta stop this. We’ve got an obligation and an opportunity, we’ve got to stop this. So I went back to Gary Landsberg, Debra Horwitz, Wayne Hunthausen, and went back to the boarded veterinary behaviourists. And I really think, and I communicate this all the time, Fear Free™ is not me, Fear Free™ is we. The bedrock of Fear Free™ are boarded veterinary behaviourists. And another layer of bedrock are our Certified Applied Animal Behaviourists. And another layer of bedrock are the other people like you. There’s people been talking about it for decades. I’m a populizer, I’m a gatherer of resources. I’m doggedly determined, that’s what I bring to it.

A cute little white dog in the grass, to illustrate an  interview with Dr. Marty Becker
Photo: Bad Monkey Photography

Zazie: That’s so important. And so now vets can train to become Fear Free certified™, and dog trainers, and practices as well. So what can dog trainers get from becoming Fear Free™ certified?

Dr. Becker: Well let’s go one step back. So Fear Free™, I came back and I ran around like I got my tail caught on a fan belt on a car. I was like, ‘we’ve gotta change this, and fast!’. But we didn’t launch until 2016. So we sat back, let’s figure this out. So we started … Everybody told me I was doing this the wrong way. I mean literally everybody. ‘You’re adding too many people to the Fear Free advisory group, why do you have so many people?’ Well what ended up happening, beyond boarded veterinary behaviourists, there are certified applied animal behaviourists. Beyond that, how do these people in the zoo world train a rhino to give you it’s hoof for a foot trim and we can’t get a 10 pound Pekingese or Chihuahua to give its foot for a nail trim? How do they get an elephant to have an odoscopic exam, and we do a pile of techs restraint to flush the ear out on a Lab? How do they get an Orangutan to willingly participate in its own healthcare for a cephalic blood draw, and we have a rodeo judo throw to hold this 10 pound cat down with 500 pounds of human? So we went to them. Then we went to animal cognition experts. And then we went to the Head of Ethology at MIT. And then we added some of these brilliant people like Patricia McConnell. And then we went to the training groups, you know Karen Pryor and Victoria Stilwell and Brian McMillan, and Marje Alonso and IAABC, and some people at APDT. And then we added the medical experts. So when Fear Free started, it was just going to be, okay, let’s reduce fear, anxiety and stress in dogs and cats. And then we thought, well if they have a great experience at the vet, what happens if they have a shitty life at home? So we’ve got to figure out the home. And then what about if the trainer doesn’t follow things to not only reduce fear, anxiety and stress but increase happy and calm and do enrichment? And then it went on to the next verticals we’re working on, we’re working on grooming, we’re working on dog walking, we’re working on boarding, we’re working on daycare. And we’re working on a shelter module.

We want people to not only look at reducing fear, anxiety and stress, but increasing happy and calm, and looking at enrichment.

So at the end of the year, you’ll be able to adopt a dog at a Fear Free shelter, which is complementary to all shelters. By the way Fear Free™ is also complementary to all veterinary nurses in school and all veterinary students in schools. So you can graduate as a veterinary nurse or veterinarian with all the levels of certification free. And then, you’ll adopt a pet at a Fear Free™ shelter, it’ll live in a Fear Free Happy Home, it will go to a Fear Free™ veterinarian who will refer to a Fear Free™ trainer, Fear Free™ boarding, Fear Free™ dog walking, Fear Free™ grooming. So it’s gone to ecosystem management really, where we take the pet’s emotional well-being and put it in bubble wrap. And then we have avian and exotics launches later in the year. Next year, there’s a group working on the equine modules for horses. And where this is eventually going, Zazie, is we will build and endow the Centre for the Study of Animal Well-being and Enrichment at Washington State University, probably a 75-100 million dollar gift inside ten years.

Zazie: That is so exciting.

Dr. Becker: And then we’ll look at emotional well-being in dairy cows, chickens, beasts of burden in third world countries… I just got back from Cuba you know, they’re whipping the shit out of the horses going down the road not realizing without emotional well-being you don’t have physical well-being.

So trainers are critical in this. I learned this from R.K. Anderson years ago. This is probably late 1980s. R.K. Anderson who's been called the grandfather of boarded veterinary behaviour. He’s the guy that developed the Gentle Leader. I don’t know if you’ve met R.K., what an icon. He said if you ask people if you have any behaviour problems in your dog they’ll say no. He said it’s like saying do you have any behaviour problems in your kids, or your grandkids, and you’d be ‘oh, no not really’. But if you say are there any behaviours you’d like to improve, then they’re like ‘oh God yes’. Barks too much, inappropriate elimination, leash aggression, blah blah blah. So for trainers I think every pet should start out, whether it’s a puppy or a kitten or a shelter pet, working with a trainer. Before what’s happened, let’s say they have noise phobias or leash aggression. First of all we’d never ask about it so we’d never know they had it. So they’re coming in for a wound, vaccinations, diarrhea, dental disease, ear that looks like a fire pit, epilepsy, we would never ask ‘Does your dog have noise phobias’, ‘Does it have separation anxiety’. We’d have never asked are there any pets at home that suffer from these things and could use improvement. And then we’d say the pet’s fighting back at the clinic, well you need to work with a trainer. Well, what’s a trainer? I mean anybody can call themselves a trainer, the public has zero idea, hell the profession has zero idea what APDT, CPDT, KPA, Victoria Stilwell, ABC, they have no idea. And so we thought we’ve got to work with a group of trainers, find 6 or 8 really good groups that train trainers, and then work with the trainers to integrate them within Fear Free™. We have zero desire to take people that love animals and they want to make a career and we’re going to train them to be a trainer. We don’t want to do that. We want to work with the ones that already do it well, integrate them, bridge into Fear Free™. So that they are, whether they’re going to the groomer, they’re going to Memorial Day, they’re walking down the street at night, it’s thunderstorm season, whatever it is, that they work hand-in-hand with the veterinarian and pet owner. Again this is ecosystem management.

Zazie: Brilliant. And so the book is very much aimed at ordinary dog owners and it covers every aspect of a dog’s life. Why did you decide to write the book?

Dr. Becker: Well first of all I would have rather had a root canal than write another book. I am so sick of books. And this sounds horrible from somebody that’s been blessed to sell over 8 million books and had three New York Times bestsellers and made a shitload of money over the years. I have books I’ve made a half a million dollars on. But books change. And so people didn’t want to read a book. They want to go online and read one tip. ‘I don’t want to read a book’. So when I wrote Your Dog: The Owner’s Manual and Your Cat: The Owner’s Manual, those are really good books but there’s also like a thousand other books that are really good on the subject. And you can find everything online.

A beautiful black Terrier.
Photo: Bad Monkey Photography

But when we got to looking, there really wasn’t anything designed for the pet owner that looked at emotional well-being and that. And I think we were smart, like I was like ‘oh God I don’t want to write another book’ because that’s hard, you know, it’s really hard. But I thought, okay, we’ve got to have it because there’s nothing out there to look at this stuff, so away we went. I have to say I’m pretty proud of the book. One of the only negative reviews on Amazon was somebody that didn’t like it chopped up as it is, you know they want it to read like a book where you read a novel. Well they might want to do it but 99 out of 100 don’t want to do that, they want little short bites with stories, illustrations, and I think we did that. I think we got what today’s reader wants with the information they need, in a way that that same information in the book is what you’re going to hear in the veterinary hospital and you’re going to hear from a trainer that’s Fear Free™ certified. So all on the same book, so to speak. And then the glory goes to the boarded veterinary behaviourists. I’m so tickled to be able to give people like Lisa Radosta, Wailani Sung, or individuals like you the limelight. These decades of education, training and experience you have, that you can manifest it on a wide audience.

Zazie: Thank you so much!

Dr. Becker: We have 260 people on the Fear Fear™ Advisory Group. Oh my god, they are brilliant. We’ve got the world’s probably number 1 medical expert, the best known veterinarian in the world Stephen Ettinger’s our chief medical officer. Gary Landsberg’s the board’s behaviourist, our head of research. Tony Buffington is the world expert in feline enrichment, our head of environmental environment. Robin Downing is our head of pain and clinical bioethics. That’s just the team. And then we have the head of integrated medicine at the Mayo Clinic. You think what the hell does that have to do with Fear Free™? Well they’re experts in patient-centred medicine and in integrated care which fits in perfectly with Fear Free™.

Zazie: Such an amazing team. And so, the book is a group effort, and it has all these lovely little bits like as you’ve just said you can basically open it and start reading little stories or tips anywhere. What was it like working as a group of people on the book?

Dr. Becker: It was a great experience. First of all it’s my daughter Mikkel’s fifth book. And so she knows the process. This is my 25th book. For Dr. Radosta and Dr. Sung it’s their first book. One of the things we did is we worked with a writer, and that makes it easy. Because I don’t know if you’ve written a book, but knowing how to sequence a book is really a gift. And working with her, she’d say ‘give me a story on this’ or ‘tell me how you do this’ and then she’d just whip it up in the kitchen and it would come out just brilliant.

Zazie: Fantastic. And the book is absolutely full of stories but I wanted to ask if you have a favourite bit or favourite section at all?

Dr. Becker: I think my favourite thing would be… I graduated from veterinary school being taught that animals didn’t feel pain. So I graduated 1980, 40 years ago, literally told by professors in Neurology and in Clinical Medicine that pets didn’t feel pain, and if they did it was good because they would be inactive and not tear the stitches out or walk on the leg we just fixed. And I’m thinking, how in the hell could I have thought that when we dehorn and brand a cow and they literally bellow, just scream. That’s not pain? Or you step on your dog’s foot and they cry? I mean how dumb was that? I think it’s just the fact that pets have a broad range of emotions that we need to recognize. You know I fly a lot and you go through first class and we used to call it the Blackberry prayer, it wasn’t my term, but when people had Blackberries their heads were all bowed looking at their phones as they got on. And now it’s the iPhone, Galaxy 9 prayer. But if a baby walks through and is crying, everybody looks up. Everybody. And ‘ooohh, what’s wrong? Is it an upset stomach, dirty diaper, diarrhea, nap, hungry, oh she’ll fix it, don’t worry.’ Well pets are like that. That impending thunder storm, 4th of July, separation anxiety, leash aggression, dominance aggression, with the cat you get attacked on the way to the bathroom, whatever you’ve got. So a recognition that they have emotions and we have an obligation to look at both their physical and emotional well-being.

Zazie: Absolutely, thank you. And then I wanted to ask you quickly about your website Fear Free Happy Homes and what people can find there.

Dr. Becker: That’s probably the place I’d most like to promote because people are the ones that are going to spend most of the time with a pet. In the course of a year if you stripped out how long they were at the veterinarian, the training and the grooming and stuff, what are we, one per cent or less? One tenth of one per cent? So we want people to not only look at reducing fear, anxiety and stress, but increasing happy and calm, and looking at enrichment. Today’s zoos do a better job of enrichment than most homes. And we’ve got to get to where these pets are not mentally bored or tired, they have these athletic bodies, with the minds that can find supper, and we’ve got an obligation there again to let them express their genetic exuberance.

Zazie: It’s great that you’re looking at enrichment as well. And I have to say that’s one of the things I loved about the book, that you do cover everything it’s not just about going to the vet.

Thank you so much for your time!

About Marty Becker, DVM

Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian,” has spent his life working toward better health for pets and the people who love them. In recent years, his realization that it’s impossible to provide for pets’ physical well-being without equal focus on their emotional well-being led him to found the Fear Free™ initiative.

Because the anxiety and stress of veterinary visits was preventing pets from receiving the veterinary care they need and deserve, Dr. Becker brought together veterinary behaviorists and dozens of other experts and leaders in the field to develop an educational program to train veterinarians in easing the fear and anxiety of their patients and clients. This training and certification program launched in March of 2016.

Dr. Becker was the resident veterinary contributor on "Good Morning America" for 17 years and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the American Humane Association. He serves as an adjunct professor at his alma mater, the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine and practices at North Idaho Animal Hospital.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

03 June 2018

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club June 2018

"...an illuminating exploration of the fierce moral conundrums we face every day regarding the creatures with whom we share our world."

A pet rat on a book. This month's book is Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for June 2018 is Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals (P.S.) by Hal Herzog.

From the back cover,
"Does living with a pet really make people happier and healthier? What can we learn from biomedical research with mice? Who enjoys a better quality of life—–the chicken destined for your dinner plate or the rooster in a Saturday night cockfight? Why is it wrong to eat the family dog? 
Drawing on more than two decades of research into the emerging field of anthrozoology, the science of human–animal relations, Hal Herzog offers an illuminating exploration of the fierce moral conundrums we face every day regarding the creatures with whom we share our world. Alternately poignant, challenging, and laugh-out-loud funny—blending anthropology, behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology, and philosophy—this enlightening and provocative book will forever change the way we look at our relationships with other creatures and, ultimately, how we see ourselves."

Will you be reading too? Leave a comment to let me know what you think of the book!

You can follow the author, Hal Herzog, on Twitter. And you can see a list of previous book club choices here.

30 May 2018

Cat and Dog Adopters are Satisfied with their New Pet

A new study shows most people who adopt a dog or cat from a shelter are happy with their choice, and provides information on the most common behaviour problems.

Study shows people who adopt cats and dogs from shelters are happy with their new pet. Kelpies (pictured) were one of the most common dogs.
A tricolour Kelpie. Photo: K.A. Willis / Shutterstock

Wherever you are, there are many dogs and cats in shelters or rescues waiting for new homes. One of the reasons some people give for not wanting to adopt a pet from a shelter is that they are concerned about behaviour problems. A new study by Sophie Scott et al (University of Adelaide) looks at the behaviour problems people report in their newly-adopted dog or cat, and finds out how they feel about their new pet.

The results are very positive and show most people are happy with their new dog or cat.

Sophie Scott told me in an email,
“It's incredibly important we understand the nature of adopter satisfaction after the adoption of a cat or dog. Issues such as problem behaviours and/or conflict with other pets or children can affect adopter satisfaction and are often attributed to adoption failure, so the ability to pin-point the main issues and troubleshoot them early is essential in maintaining the human-animal-bond in these cases. 
We found that a large number of adopters experiencing issues still had high satisfaction levels despite this. This implies many adopters had realistic expectations of their rescue cat or dog and therefore have a certain degree of tolerance for these issues. More research needs to be done of course to further investigate adopter satisfaction, but this suggests that appropriate counselling at the time of adoption and access to assistance such as animal behaviourists in the time following adoption may be essential in modulating adopter expectations, and therefore, their subsequent levels of satisfaction. “

107 people who had adopted a dog or puppy, and 168 people who had adopted a cat or kitten, completed the telephone survey.

Most cat owners (85%) were very satisfied with their new pet’s behaviour, and only 0.6% said they were dissatisfied with their cat’s behaviour.

14% of cats were said to have an undesirable behaviour. The most common complaints were inappropriate scratching or chewing of furniture, house soiling issues, or other issues. The shelter has advice available from a behaviourist for adopters who need it, and just over half of those who said their cat had a behaviour problem were referred, while the remainder did not wish to be referred.

Dog owners were less satisfied, but 65% of people were very satisfied with their new dog’s behaviour, and just under 4% said they were dissatisfied. 53% of the dogs were said to have an undesirable behaviour. The most common problems reported were pulling on leash, scratching or chewing furniture, and house-soiling issues. Just under half of people who said their dog had a problem were referred to the behaviourist.

For both cats and dogs, the reason for the animal's admission to the shelter did not affect people's overall satisfaction with their new pet.

Interestingly, dogs who had been at the shelter for a longer period of time were less likely to have behaviour problems. This suggests the shelter had successfully worked with the dogs to resolve any issues.

About half of the animals were adopted to homes with children, or with children who often visited. Most people said the dog or cat was adjusting well to the children, even though just over half of them had been assessed by the shelter as not being suitable for a home with children.

Cats were more likely to go to a home that already had other animals, but were also less likely to be said to adjust well to it than dogs.

Of the dogs, just over half were female and most had been strays, although 30% had been owner surrenders. The most common breeds were mixed-breeds of which part was Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and Kelpies (an Australian sheep dog).

Of the cats, more than half were female and more than half had been strays, with 38% owner-surrenders. They were mostly mixed-breeds, typically Domestic Short-Hairs or Domestic Medium-Hairs.

Both dogs and cats were typically aged between 1 and 7 years, although there were also quite a few kittens. The average length of time in the shelter was 19 days for dogs and 20 days for cats.

These results show most people are very satisfied with the behaviour of their new pet. This is consistent with the results of earlier research on dogs which found that most people who adopt a shelter dog would do so again.

In terms of the most common problem behaviours exhibited, a no-pull harness is a good way to manage dogs pulling on leash. As for cats, it’s very important to provide good scratching posts that are appropriate (from the cat’s point of view) as scratching is a natural behaviour; rewarding cats for using the post is also a good idea.

Although there could be variations between shelters, this study provides very useful information as to the adoption counselling that would be useful. The results are also very reassuring for people planning to adopt a shelter pet.

You can follow Dr. Susan Hazel, one of the authors of the study, on Twitter.

What’s your advice to someone thinking of adopting a dog from a shelter?

Love dogs, cats and science? Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology

Scott, S., Jong, E., McArthur, M., & Hazel, S. J. (2018). Follow-up surveys of people who have adopted dogs and cats from an Australian shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.12.021

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.
Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

25 May 2018

Invitation to the Train for Rewards Blog Party 2018

Join the pet blogging community in supporting reward-based training of dogs, cats, and other companion animals. #Train4Rewards

A little dog in a party hat invites pet bloggers to take part in the 2018 #Train4Rewards blog party

Are you a blogger? Do you support reward-based training for dogs and other animals? Would you like to take part in the #Train4Rewards blog party?

You are invited to write a blog post about reward-based training of dogs or other companion animals, post it on your own blog on the set date, then come and share a link to it here. Bloggers from anywhere in the world are invited to take part.

In the past, posts have covered the training of dogs, cats, horses and pigs. Posts on the training of rats, mice, ferrets, rabbits, and fish are all welcome too. Read on to find out more.

If you are not a blogger but still want to take part, you can do so by reading and sharing the posts, and sharing a photo of your own pet on social media on 16th June with the hashtag #Train4Rewards.

Here is how bloggers can take part.

On Thursday 14th or Friday 15th June:

1. Publish a post on your blog in support of the #Train4Rewards blog party. It can be words, photos, video, a podcast, or a combination, and relate to any kind of companion animal.  I’ve put some suggestions below to get you started.

Double-check your post to make sure the tone is friendly and supportive to people who might not know anything about positive reinforcement training – we want to be encouraging and upbeat.

2. Include the #Train4Rewards button in your post and make it link to the Train for Rewards blog party page (see below for more info).

3. Add your blog to the list on companionanimalpsychology.com. The list will be open from 8am PST on 14th June until 8am PST on 16th June. Don’t miss the deadline!

The small version of the button

On Saturday 16th June:

1. Check out the full list of participating blogs on companionanimalpsychology.com. Visit the other blogs, and leave comments to show support for your fellow bloggers.

2. Share your blog post on social media using the hashtag #Train4Rewards.

3. Share your favourite posts from other participating blogs on social media, also using the hashtag #Train4Rewards. You don’t have to share all the posts (unless you want to), so pick the ones you like best and share those. You can spread this out throughout the day.

4. Feel proud of your contribution to improving animal welfare. Reward yourself with a piece of cake, a bunch of flowers, a walk in the woods, or whatever makes you happy.

Ideas for posts

Blog posts can be about any aspect of reward-based training and can use text, photo, podcast or video, so feel free to use your imagination.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • What you enjoy about training using positive reinforcement
  • How to use positive reinforcement to teach a behaviour or solve a behaviour problem
  • How to train your cat to go into a carrier
  • Reasons why training is important to cats too
  • A video of your dog, cat, rabbit, rat or ferret doing tricks
  • The key thing that made you become a crossover trainer
  • Photos of dogs (or other animals) enjoying a training session
  • The best treats to use as rewards
  • Recipes for training treats
  • An ode to your bait pouch, written by your dog
  • Why you love your dog trainer

The 2018 Train for Rewards blog party celebrates reward-based training of dogs, cats and other companion animals
The larger version of the blog party button (800 x 800 pixels)

How to get the most out of the blog party

1. Bring your best post. It’s like wearing a beautiful dress to a party. The people who got the most out of previous years’ blog parties wrote great new posts. If you must use an older post, you should update it. People are more likely to share new content.

2. Take time to edit. It’s generally best if you can set aside the first draft of your post for a day or two, and then come back to edit. Re-writing is always an important part of the writing process.

3. Use a great photo. When you add your post to the list here, you will get the chance to choose the photo that will appear as your thumbnail. Everyone will have the Train for Rewards button, so if you have your own photo it will make yours stand out. Also, photos really help with sharing on social media. You can use your own photo, find one that is available for free use or pay for a stock photo (just make sure you’re following copyright rules).

The rules

What is allowed: anything that celebrates the reward-based training of companion animals.

What is not allowed: training that uses pain, including but not limited to choke and prong collars, electronic shock collars, alpha rolls, shake cans, citronella sprays, or other aversive techniques; blog posts of a commercial nature.

I reserve the right to remove posts if they are inappropriate and/or not within the spirit of the blog party. Please keep posts family-friendly. No discussions will be entered into.

If you want, you can let me know that you are planning to take part. I look forward to reading your posts!

Technical details of adding the blog party button: 

The button is already available on this page, and the url it should link to is this one.

This year, I am not using a photo hosting site because the cost is prohibitive. Instead, you can download the photo by right-clicking on it and saving it to your computer. Add it to your post where you would like it to appear.

You should make the blog button link to the blog party; if you prefer, you can include a text link as well or instead.

Please make sure the link to the blog party is a nofollow link. 

Google does not like it if people use follow links in blog parties and can apply penalties, which no-one wants. Typically, to make a link you just click the ‘nofollow’ button when you add it.

If you need help, please ask. There are many of us with different blogging setups taking part, and between us we should be able to help.

Technical details of adding the link to your blog post to the blog party:

You need to post the specific permalink to your blog post, not the main url of your blog.

If you have several pictures in your post, you will have a choice of thumbnails. Choose the one you want to display in the link-up.

If you make a mistake or want to choose a different thumbnail, you can delete it and start again, any time up to the deadline.

Blog posts will be displayed in a random order, so you do not have to be the first to add your link – just don’t miss the deadline of 8am Pacific time on Saturday 16th June.

23 May 2018

What is Negative Reinforcement in Dog Training?

A user-friendly guide to understanding negative reinforcement in dog training – and the three alternatives you should know about.

A guide to negative reinforcement in dog training, illustrated by a handsome Husky sticking his head through a fence
Photo: Angyalosi Beata /Shutterstock

If you are new to dog training, or want to understand some of the language of dog training, this article is for you. It covers the technical definition of negative reinforcement in dog training, examples of how it is used, what research tells us about negative reinforcement, and alternatives that you can use instead (along with some common mistakes people make, so you know how to get it right).

This article is part of a series of guides that also covers positive reinforcement and positive punishment in dog training.

Let’s start with the technical definition.

What is negative reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement is one way to train dogs (and other animals).

Negative reinforcement means taking something away that increases or maintains the frequency of a behaviour.

The ‘negative’ part refers to something being removed, and ‘reinforcement’ means the behaviour went up in frequency. (If it instead occurred less often, it wouldn’t be reinforcement).

So what kind of thing can you take away to make a behaviour more likely to happen? Something that is unpleasant and which the dog does not like.

A guide to negative reinforcement & the alternatives, illustrated by a beautiful collie dog looking to the side

Examples of negative reinforcement in dog training

One example of negative reinforcement is when the dog’s bottom is pushed to force the dog into a sit, and then released once the dog is in a sit. Assuming the behaviour of sitting goes up in frequency, the behaviour was negatively reinforced by the removal of the pressure on the dog’s rear end.

Another example of negative reinforcement involves applying an electronic dog training collar until the dog does the behaviour you want – let’s say it’s ‘sit’ again. As soon as the dog sits, the shock is turned off. The thing that is removed is the unpleasant sensation from the shock collar, and the behaviour of ‘sit’ is more likely to happen and hence has been reinforced. (Note that not all electronic collars allow for this type of training. Some models will apply the shock for a fixed time of 11 seconds after the button is pressed; read more about shock collars).

Another example of negative reinforcement is sometimes used when working with a dog that is afraid, e.g. of other dogs. When another dog is close by, the handler waits until the dog offers a particular behaviour (such as looking at the handler) before allowing the dog to move away. Here, the behaviour of looking at the handler after seeing another dog is being reinforced by taking away the scary situation of being too close to another dog.

I’m not suggesting these are good ways to train your dog. In fact we’ll get to some alternatives in a moment.

Research shows risks with negative reinforcement in dog training

In order to use negative reinforcement, something aversive has to be applied first so that it can then be removed contingent on the dog doing the behaviour you are teaching.

Let’s say you’re teaching sit. Typically what happens is that whatever behaviour the dog was doing before the sit – let’s say, standing – goes down in frequency and is replaced by the sit. Technically speaking, in this scenario the behaviour of standing is positively punished (read more about positive punishment).

Unfortunately, applying an aversive – such as an electronic shock or pressure on the dog’s neck or body – has risks for the dog’s welfare. Research shows that using aversive methods in dog training is associated with an increased risk of fear and aggression, and may even be less effective. It’s better to use reward-based methods (see more on why more people don’t use positive reinforcement to train dogs).

Most of the research on dog training methods has focussed on comparing reward-based methods to aversive methods. For example, in a 2014 study of aggression in dogs, the use of positive punishment and/or negative reinforcement was associated with an increased risk of aggression of 2.9 times for aggression towards family members, and 2.2 times towards unfamiliar people outside of the house (Casey et al 2014). In this study, barking, lunging, growling and biting were all considered to be aggression.

A cute reactive dog barking. What are the alternatives to negative reinforcement for training reactive dogs?
Photo: alexei_tm / Shutterstock

But there is one study that looked specifically at the use of negative reinforcement in dog training (Deldalle and Gaunet, 2014).

This study compared dogs taking an advanced dog training class at two different schools: one that used positive reinforcement and one that used negative reinforcement. The dogs had already completed a basic dog training class at the same school.

Negative reinforcement was used to teach loose leash walking by tugging on the leash while the dog was at a distance from the owner, and stopping tugging when the dog was close by. Sit was taught by both pulling the leash up and pushing the dog’s bottom down and only releasing when the dog was in the sit position. At the other school, positive reinforcement was used to reward the dog for doing the right behaviour.

The results showed that dogs in the negative reinforcement group:

  • Rarely looked at their owners when walking on leash, compared to those taught with positive reinforcement. This is unfortunate because trainers want the dog’s attention
  • Showed more mouth licks and yawns when practicing the ‘sit’ command, and were more likely to have a low body posture, all signs of stress

The study concludes that training dogs with positive reinforcement is better for the human-canine relationship than using negative reinforcement.

As mentioned above, negative reinforcement is sometimes used when the dog is afraid of something. Unfortunately in this case negative reinforcement involves keeping the dog in a situation where they are afraid until they have done the required behaviour. There is a risk of sensitization (making the dog more afraid) or flooding which can cause learned helplessness (in everyday language we might describe this as being “shut down”).

Besides which, it violates the principle that the first priority with a scared dog is to help them feel safe. There is no need to put your dog in a situation where they feel fear in order to train them.

While we still need more research on dog training methods, it is better not to risk negative effects if we don’t need to. Many professional organizations recommend the use of reward-based methods (see: seven reasons to use reward-based dog training methods).

So what are the alternatives to negative reinforcement? There is more than one alternative to negative reinforcement, depending on the situation.

The best alternative to negative reinforcement for obedience behaviours

As you can guess from the previous section, one of the alternatives to using negative reinforcement is to train with positive reinforcement instead. This is a great choice for teaching obedience behaviours like sit, lie down, and loose leash walking.

A common mistake is to use something the trainer thinks will be reinforcing but which the dog doesn’t particularly care about, like praise. That’s why I suggest to anyone new to dog training to use food to train their dogs (for more information, read the ultimate dog training tip).

Positive reinforcement - used here to teach a Siberian husky puppy to shake paw - is a better choice than negative reinforcement in dog training
Photo: Nina Buday / Shutterstock

When teaching loose leash walking with positive reinforcement, you may also find it helpful to use a no-pull harness. This is a harness with a clip on the front designed to prevent pulling (note that some harnesses have a clip on the back and are designed to facilitate pulling instead – don’t accidentally get the wrong kind!). A no-pull harness is not harmful and does not compromise dogs’ welfare (Grainger et al 2016). (Some dogs with body handling issues may need a gradual introduction to having the harness put on and lots of yummy treats to help them learn to like it).

Alternatives to negative reinforcement when the dog is afraid

But what about when we’re not teaching basic obedience? You may remember one of the examples above relates to using negative reinforcement when the dog is afraid, and the aversive stimulus is the thing the dog is scared of.

If the dog is afraid, then you have two great options: positive reinforcement to teach a different behaviour (which dog trainers call DRI, or differential reinforcement of an incompatible behaviour); or counter-conditioning with or without desensitization.

Let’s stick with the example of a dog that is afraid of other dogs. In the negative reinforcement case, the dog was being asked to look at the handler before being allowed to move away from the other dog.

If we use positive reinforcement instead, we would not get close enough to the other dog for our dog to be scared; instead, we would stay at a safe distance (from the dog’s perspective, even if that’s an inconveniently long way away). We could still use the behaviour of looking at the handler; every time the dog sees another dog, you encourage him to look at you and reinforce with some good food.

Over time, the cue could be seeing the other dog so that any time your dog sees another dog, he will look to you for his piece of food. If, every single time he sees another dog, you ask him to look at you and then reinforce that behaviour, what will happen over time is that your dog will begin to learn that seeing another dog is a good thing, and this is actually a classical conditioning side effect.

So now let’s look at the counter-conditioning option. Counter-conditioning is a type of classical conditioning. You would not get close enough to the other dog for your dog to be scared, but would deliberately stay at a safe distance where your dog is happy and comfortable. Every time another dog is in sight, you would give your dog yummy food. He doesn’t have to do anything in order to get the food, just realize that the other dog is there. What you are trying to do is change the association, so that your dog learns other dogs are a good thing because they predict yummy food.

A beagle makes eye contact with its owner. A DRI like 'watch me' is a good alternative to negative reinforcement in dog training
Photo: PH888 / Shutterstock

Even though one of these is operant conditioning (positive reinforcement) and the other is classical conditioning (in this case, counter-conditioning) there are some similarities.

In both cases you’re hoping eventually to change the dog’s feelings about something scary, it's just that one method focuses on this aim while with the other method it's a side-effect.

In both cases it is important to keep your dog at a safe distance where they don’t feel scared, otherwise you risk undermining your training (and perhaps accidentally using negative reinforcement).

And in both cases, your dog will get food (or another great reward such as a quick game of tug). It’s just that in the positive reinforcement option they will have to do something to earn the food, and in counter-conditioning they don't have to do anything; the food happens because another dog appeared.

Some Common Mistakes

A common mistake is to push things too fast and to accidentally go ‘over threshold’ – in other words, put the dog in a situation where they are in fact scared. If this happens, move quickly back to a safe distance, and resolve not to let it happen again.

You may also need to brush up on your skills at reading canine body language, which is nothing to be ashamed of as it takes time and experience. We all keep on learning from the dogs we spend time with. See the website iSpeakDog; and there is also a great book called Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook by Barbara Handelman. You might also like to read about the role of experience in recognizing fear in dogs.

Another common mistake with the DRI option is to make it too hard. You actually need to make it really easy for your dog because you want them to earn the treat every time so as to start getting a classical conditioning side effect. The behaviour doesn’t have to be 'watch me', it could be 'leave it' or 'sit' or a nose-touch or something else instead. Just make sure to keep it nice and easy (which may include practicing at home first).

Another common mistake is not being ready to give the food fast enough. If you’re using the DRI option, you should feed as soon as the dog has done the behaviour requested. If you’re doing classical conditioning, you should feed as soon as your dog sees the other dog. Either way, you need to have your treats ready, hidden on your person (in a pocket or bait bag), and be paying attention, so you get your timing right.

Whichever approach you are using, use food rewards that your dog really likes, and don’t be stingy, because that would be another mistake.

A man walks his two dogs outdoors. Positive reinforcement is a good alternative to negative reinforcement in dog training
Photo: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Which is the best approach, DRI or classical conditioning?

Which of these two techniques works best? We don’t know. Both approaches work!  I don’t know of any research which investigated which is the best option in a real-life dog training situation.

With both techniques, it is important to go at the dog’s pace, so the speed of learning is the one that the dog is comfortable with.

With the DRI option, the dog learns a new behaviour and gets a classical conditioning side effect. With the classical conditioning option, often you will find that the dog learns a new behaviour too (called a superstitious behaviour), such as looking at your bait bag after seeing the other dog, because they have learned that seeing the other dog predicts food and that’s where the food will come from. One reason you might choose desensitization and counter-conditioning over a DRI is when you don't have control over the scary thing, whatever it is. In our example, if other dogs are popping up all over the place (which is a common problem), you might find your DRI keeps being too hard, which means your dog is not able to earn the treats in the presence of all the other dogs, undermining your classical conditioning side-effect. In this case, you could find somewhere else to train where things are a lot more predictable, or just decide to start with counter-conditioning instead.

Another reason you might choose desensitization and counter-conditioning is if your dog is actually very afraid, rather than a mild fear. In this case, it's probably better to concentrate your efforts on gradually developing a positive conditioned emotional response (counter-conditioning).

If your dog is fearful and you are concerned, see your veterinarian in case medication and/or referral to a veterinary behaviourist is advised.

I find that some people seem to have a natural preference for either operant or classical conditioning, so if this applies to you and both approaches seem suitable, then you can let your own preference guide you to the approach you prefer.

Working with a reactive dog can be tricky. If you need some help, check out the web page CARE for reactive dogs, which clearly explains how to use desensitization, counter-conditioning and positive reinforcement when working with a reactive dog. If you have a fearful dog, you might like the website fearfuldogs.com. The associated Facebook group is a friendly place to ask questions about helping your dog.

And if you need help, find a good dog trainer to work with you and your dog. And look out for for some more relevant posts coming here soon.

You might also like: Can dog training books be trusted? and dominance training deprives dogs of positive experiences. And if you want to delve into the scientific research on dog training methods, check out my dog training research resources page.

What is your favourite dog training technique?

Further Reading

The following books are useful guides to dog training and understanding your dog:

It's Me or the Dog: How to Have the Perfect Pet by Victoria Stilwell.
The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller.
Culture Clash and Train Your Dog Like a Pro by Jean Donaldson.
The Cautious Canine-How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears by Patricia McConnell.
Don't Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor.
Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook by Barbara Handelman.
From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias by Marty Becker, Lisa Radosta, Mikkel Becker and Wailani Sung, edited by Kim Campbell Thornton.

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Casey, R. A., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G. J., & Blackwell, E. J. (2014). Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 152, 52-63.
Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(2), 58-65.
Grainger, J., Wills, A., & Montrose, V. (2016). The behavioral effects of walking on a collar and harness in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 14, 60-64 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2016.06.002

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