AVSAB: good vets doing great things!

Hawk1The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) is a group of veterinarians and research scientists dedicated to improving the lives of animals and people through an understanding of animal behavior. – AVSAB website


An understanding of animal behavior…”  One of the frustrations of every positive reinforcement trainer, vet, or behaviorist, is the lack of understanding about animal behavior that guides and mis-informs animal professionals as well as the general public. Additionally, many people do not understand the many differences between positive reinforcement and punishment based training methods and their respective consequences. I have written about the repercussions of punishment/aggressive training methods, but it bears repeating that punishment will, in the vast majority of cases, make the situation worse, not better, and will likely add another layer of issues to the existing problem.

According to the AVSAB’s position paper, Guidelines on the Use of Punishment for Dealing with Behavior Problems in Animals:

The adverse effects of punishment and the difficulties in administering punishment effectively have been well documented…For instance, electronic anti-bark collars can cause burn marks on dogs. Choke chains can damage the trachea, increase intraocular pressure in dogs thus potentially worsening or contributing to glaucoma in susceptible breeds, cause sudden collapse from non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema (water in the lungs) due to temporary upper airway obstruction, and cause nerve damage. The risk of damage is greater when the choke chain sits high on the dog’s neck.

24_dog_zombie run away2Problems can arise behaviorally as well when punishment is used to curb or correct an undesirable behavior:

Punishment can suppress aggressive and fearful behavior when used effectively, but it may not change the underlying cause of the behavior…As a result, if the animal faces a situation where it is extremely fearful, it may suddenly act with heightened aggression and with fewer warning signs. In other words, it may now attack more aggressively or with no warning, making it much more dangerous.

This position paper on punishment based methods not only clarifies the consequences associated with punishment but provides clear definitions of terms, cites several studies, and provides further reading.  It is only one of several well written and informative position papers. The other papers are:

Position Statement Regarding Cruelty Investigation of Cesar Milan

198748_252858861398895_119922748025841_962621_1484376_nPosition Statement on Breed Specific Legislation

Position Statement on the Use of the Dominance Concept in Training

Position Statement on the Importance of Proper Socialization for Puppies 

All of these position statements serve to explain and inform the reader about the issue in understandable terms. Where needed, they also provide clear explanations of terms and resources for further reading.  The AVSAB website also has a search for “Behavior Consults Near You” so you can find an AVSAB member who is “an AVSAB member veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, or PhD behaviorist who accepts animal behavior cases in your area.”

The purpose of AVSAB is to educate animal professionals and lay people alike, to provide the resources necessary to promote humane treatment, as well as being “committed to improving the quality of life of all animals and strengthening the bond between animals and their owners.” (AVSAB website).


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Loose Lead walking revisited, again, and again, and again…

I have a variety of posts about walking with the untamed beast who shares your home, as this is a subject that comes up frequently. Rare is the dog who, when you snap on the leash, says, “Cool! I’m tethered to my person so let’s stroll uptown for a brisk constitutional! I think that I will stick close to his side, walk in a straight line, and not bother to check the pee-mail from my buddies, notice the pesky squirrel next door, or the Golden Retriever two streets over, because we are out for exercise not socializing!”

Dogs’ amazing sense of smell makes it very hard to ignore the flood of information wafting up from trees, grass, fire hydrants, sidewalks, breezes, tires, cracks in the sidewalk, benches, sticks, rocks, fences, McDonald’s wrappers, mailboxes, and turtles to name a few. Asking your dog to ignore the literal essence of his being is like asking your bacon loving Cousin Joey to have one piece of dry white toast at the all-you-can-eat Golden Corral Breakfast buffet. It can be done, but at what price?

51_dog_lawyer and dog_colorHaving a successful outing where both parties are satisfied does not require that you enter into formal mediation:
Lawyer: “Mr. Jones, you agree to allow Sparky to sniff seven objects in one block segments for 10 blocks before asking for a sniff free zone, correct?”
Mr. Jones: “I do.”
Lawyer: “Sparky, you agree to not dart randomly back in forth in front of Mr. Jones, and that you will not pull him willy-nilly towards ‘imaginary’ squirrels, correct?”
Sparky: “Arf.”

It does, however, have to provide for the needs of both parties and you can set yourself up for greater success if you keep some important points in mind:

1) Read Stop, Look, and Listen!  again for start up tips such as: exercise your dog before walking, keep your walks short, and don’t dawdle.

Walk this way...

Walk this way…

2) Your dog is not a robot and will have good, bad, and better days at this. Do your best, end on a positive note, and try again another day.

3) Have a clear idea of what you want from your dog and what it looks like when your dog is loose lead walking. Then and only then you will be prepared to strategically reinforce that particular behavior (ie: only reinforce/reward when Sparky gives you the desired behavior).

A jackpot can be anything your dog loves, as long as it is wonderful and plentiful!

A jackpot can be anything your dog loves, as long as it is wonderful and plentiful!

4) Reward sustained loose lead walking, not when he first re-engages. That is, if Sparky veers off to sniff a tulip and you call him back to you, walk a few steps with him at your side before you give him a treat. We want to reward Sparky for staying with you, not just for quickly re-engaging with you.

5) Use Jackpots very deliberately to reinforce a particularly good session. For instance, imagine you are walking along a busy street and three noisy dogs come by. Sparky, instead of rushing over to join the fun, looks at you and continues walking. When you are a reasonable distance from the fray (i.e.: Sparky is far enough so that the canine distraction is not tempting), stop and reward him with a jackpot for a job well done, or a diversion well avoided. Jackpots can come in a couple of different forms. One is a fistful of treats given all at once from your hands or dropped in a heap between his front paws. Or, if you want to extend the experience, try giving him the fistful of treats rapid fire, one at a time while praising him for being the best dog ever. You can also use other things he loves. For Bingley I will sometimes throw an armful of never-been-dogified tennis balls into the air for him to chase and pounce upon.

Loose lead walking is a challenge for many dog owners, but patience, a sense of humor, and a clear vision of what and how to reward good walking skills will get you where you want to go.

Out and about!



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Crime and Punishment, part 2: Clicker training

“Click and give her a treat,” our trainer, Robin Bennett, said.
“That’s it?” I queried.
“Yes,” Robin replied, “to start with. Next you are going to ask her to do something, such as sit. Then when her bottom touches the ground, click and treat. She’ll learn that doing certain things brings rewards. Then, she’ll start doing those things more and more.”
     Thus started our introduction to clicker training* 16 years ago when we sought help for Molly, our Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, and her aggressiveness with other dogs. We saw first hand the power of the clicker and how quickly it can improve a dog’s behavior. Though were never able to completely cure Molly of her aggression, we were able to help her adjust as best she could and give her three years she would not have had otherwise.
You want us to sit? Show us the clicker...

You want us to sit? Show us the clicker…

From that first introduction to the clicker, we have used it with all of our dogs. Though each dog is unique in his personality, interests and skill level, each one has responded with gusto to the clicker and to positive reinforcement training. When we had Buckley, Bingley, and Hudson, and I would pull out the clicker, all of them would get excited and start throwing behaviors at me to see what would elicit a click. Buckley would immediately sit, Hudson would start “petting” Bingley, who would back up, spin, bow, whatever! They knew that something would bring a click and a treat and they were eager to figure out what it was. Bingley was so enthusiastic about training when he was younger that he would find a clicker and come to my office holding it between his front teeth. When I turned and looked, he would click it and run down the hall, instigating a grand game of chase. Apparently clicker training works on people too!

Bait bag, clicker, ready to roll!

Bait bag, clicker, ready to roll!

For me, the value of the clicker for training (or in the absence of a clicker, accurately marking the behavior with a distinctive word or phrase such as “Yessss!” or “Good Dog!!”) cannot be overstated. Clickers allow you to be very precise in marking desired behaviors. For example, If your dog is easily excited, use your clicker to click for a calm moment (even if it is only for an instant) and immediately give him a tasty morsel. The dog will soon figure out that calm gets him everything, noisy gets him nothing. The more you consistently reward good behavior (even if it is a flash in the pan!) the more you will see it. Likewise, if your dog regularly behaves well (sitting quietly or lying down peacefully, for example), mark the behavior (Click! or “Good dog!”) and reward, reward, reward, so that you are sure to see more of it!

Clicker training is very helpful if your pup is dog reactive. For example, if he looks at another dog and doesn’t react, click and treat! If he looks at another dog and then looks back at you, click and treat! Or he looks at a dog and sits, click and treat. Marking and rewarding these desirable responses will teach your dog that this exact response is how you ought to behave! Use food as a reward when first teaching a new behavior or trying to reward a calm moment to turbo charge your training and your dog’s interest in learning and behaving. Eventually, your dog will become more consistent in his response and you will not have to reward with food every time your dog behaves. But, in the beginning stages, clicks and tasty snacks really help him learn to be the best dog he can be.
For more information on the origin of clicker training see: And, check out my resource page,  as well as these books, Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor, and Click to Calm by Emma Parsons.

See this blog and more on reward based training at the Companion Animal Psychology Blog Party!




Blogs with book recommendations General General Philosophy of training or "Why be positive?" Training or "Why, Why, WHY?"2 comments

Crime and punishment, Part 1: When does a reward become a punishment?

_CSG3316-EditWhen introducing my clients to positive reinforcement training in general, and clicker training in particular, I tell them that it’s important to reward the behavior you want in your dog and ignore or re-direct undesirable behavior. After all, behavior that is rewarded will increase in frequency, while behavior that is ignored will decrease.

He's turned his head away from me, indicating he's not interested in interacting with me right now.

He’s turned his head away from me, indicating he’s not interested in whatever I’m offering.

I also explain that rewards (or punishments) are always defined by the recipient, not the one doling them out. What may seem a reward to you, may not be all that reinforcing to your dog. One good way to tell if your dog really isn’t interested in your idea of a reinforcement is if he turns his head, walks away, or otherwise disengages from you. He is clearly telling you that this is not his cup of tea. For example, many people will greet or reward their dogs by patting them on the head, thinking that their dog loves petting. And, they are surprised when their dog moves away from them as they approach head on. The dog may well love being petted, but this is not petting, this is thunking your dog on the skull, and most dogs do not care for it.* Therefore, it is not a reward, but a punishment for Fido, and will not encourage him to come to you.

Rewards, by their very nature, should make your training easier. Ken Ramirez, the Head Trainer at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago states that if training a new behavior is taking longer than you think it should, is harder for the animal than it ought to be, or otherwise is not progressing as well as you think appropriate: Look at your reinforcers (rewards). They probably are not rewarding enough to motivate the animal to work for it. Make sure you are using things your dog actually loves, not what you think he loves!

Moreover, keep in mind that what you are offering may not be reinforcing enough for the particular circumstances. Using your dog’s food at home (where it isn’t so distracting) and giving several pieces in a row as reward when they do something wonderful, may be a perfect acceptable reinforcement for their behavior. But, if your dog is consistently distracted in new situations, ask yourself, “What’s in the bait bag?” Is this really rewarding to him, or do I just think it is? When you are outside and have to compete with pee-mail and other canine delights, bring a good assortment of small, soft, and stinky treats so he has a good reason to stay checked in with you. Quantity, quality, and variety is the spice of life for dogs, just as it is for people, and is the key to keeping Fido focused and eager to learn.

Ball anyone?

Ball anyone?

Determining what is motivating to your dog may also take some experimentation and creative thinking, and may include activities and toys as well as food. For example, I know that Bingley will do anything for access to a game of fetch**, and he adores banana bread (He even knocked Buckley, 50 pounds larger than him, out of the way to get a piece). My grand-dog Tex, adores roasted asparagus, carrots, and car rides. Make a list of five things your dog loves and post it on the refrigerator as a reminder of what is rewarding to your pup. Add things to it as you discover what makes your dog’s tail wave like a flag on the 4th of July.

food pig's ears car rides

food, pig’s ears, car rides…

You may find, as I do, that using a lot of food when beginning to train your dog (or when teaching a new behavior to your dog), is the easiest and most effective method of rewarding the right response.*** The time does come (sooner than you might think!) when you can reduce the amount of food and add in other reinforcers, such as toys, access to other dogs, car rides, etc., so that food becomes only one of many ways to reward your dog. This is one reason why I encourage you to keep a list of what your dog loves, so you can be creative in your rewards and more interesting to your pup.

Rewards and clicker training go hand in hand, so next time we explore how to use these rewards to get your dog to be the best behaved pup he can be.



*Ask yourself, how would you feel if someone charged up to you and thunk, thunk, thunked you on the top of the head? At best, dogs tolerate this behavior, and many dogs really loathe it. If you want to pet your dog, scratch him behind the ears, rub his shoulders or withers, approaching from the side, and I bet he will move into you rather than away from you.

** One winter we were walking the dogs at a local park and Bingley ran up to me holding something that looked, at a distance, like a frisbee. I’d brought tennis balls, not frisbees this day, so as he approached I looked closely at what he was holding and realized he had a half a frozen groundhog in his mouth. I had no intention of getting into a tug of war with him over the front end of a rodent, but I knew he loved his tennis balls and would likely relinquish the frozen furball for a game of fetch. I took out a ball, held it up and said, “Look at what I have Bingy! Do you want this? Huh? Do you?” That got his attention and as soon as he dropped the groundhog I threw his ball as hard as I could. He zoomed off, I picked up the rodent, tossed it to my husband (who threw it into the woods) and we ran off to meet him before he came back and looked for his frigid friend. Knowing what he loved, helped me to easily resolve a situation that had the potential to be very unpleasant.

***Food is easy, precise and it will build your relationship with your dog. (And, if you think about it, don’t we build relationships that way as well? “Let’s go out for coffee?” “Lunch anyone?”). I do add other rewards, but to learn to reinforce correctly, food is the easiest tool. And, by heavily reinforcing the dog in the beginning I am front end loading the training so that the dog will be more engaged in the process and understand quickly what is desirable behavior.



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Delayed aggression, are your dogs at risk?

24_dog_zombie run away2I have mentioned and quoted Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services several times over the last couple of years as they have terrific advice concerning the health, well-being, and emotional welfare of dogs and cats. Once again, they have identified a problem that I see more often than I like: fighting that erupts between dogs who have lived together for awhile when the younger of the dogs comes into social maturity. This Tuesday’s Pearl appeared March 22 on their Facebook page:


     Fighting between dogs is a stressful problem for their owners/guardians, as well as for the dogs. Especially when it appears with little warning, the aggression can be explosive and deafening, and may lead to serious injury. The triggers of fighting often fall into the categories of high-value resources (including a favorite resting place or the owners themselves), crowding, excitement and arousal. Dogs usually fight because they are defending resources or defending themselves, and in many cases at least one of the pair tends to **overreact** due to fear or anxiety. Very generally speaking, aggression is most frequently seen between dogs of the same sex (this is not always the case, however). They also tend to be adult dogs. Normal adult dogs should not be seriously aggressive to (ie injure) puppies. But this can completely change once the younger dog grows up. 

     When a new puppy or juvenile (< 1 year) dog is introduced into a household with an adult dog, there is a possibility that aggression will be seen as the younger dog matures. Behavioral maturity isn’t really complete until a dog reaches 3 or 4 years of age, and a tendency to threaten or bite may first appear at the age of 1 or 1.5 years. It’s not uncommon to hear from owners whose dogs fit this pattern: they got along swimmingly for the first year, but now had a serious fight, “out of the blue”. This might be a problem even with mother-offspring pairs or between littermates who mature at the same time. 

     Aggression between household dogs can be managed so that everyone is safe; in many cases (but, unfortunately, not all) the fighting itself can be resolved. Most important is watching your dogs and their postures, attitudes and tension around each other. Dogs should be able to compete, annoy and settle differences with each other many times a day without any overt aggression. If there is a more serious argument, however, it should not be ignored. Like aggression to people, fighting between dogs is unlikely to resolve on its own.


If your dogs are having a hard time finding an amicable solution to their differences, and the atmosphere in your home is tense a good deal of the time, do not think that your dogs will grow out of this. In all likelyhood they are growing into it and need your help to stop the escalation. Call a professional trainer or behaviorist before someone, maybe even you, gets seriously hurt.*

Get some help before someone ends up in a cone!

Get some help before someone ends up in a cone!



*Another resource is the book Fight!, by Jean Donaldson and is available through The Whole Dog Journal:

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Puppy class: why your baby dog needs to go!

Bingley at 8 weeks.

I have written about socialization and the need for your puppy to experience a wide range of people, places and things before the age of 16 weeks. While you need to be careful about exposing your young dog to the larger dog population (in order to prevent unnecessary exposure to disease), a good puppy class is a terrific place to start your pup on the road to being a well adjusted adult dog for the following reasons:

1) It provides your dog with proper socialization with people and other puppies in a safe*, supervised environment with a positive reinforcement trainer who understands puppy development, canine body language, and the warning signs in puppies.
Huddy at 10 weeks old with Emma

Huddy at 10 weeks old.

2) Puppy class gives owners the support and instruction they need for successful house training, supervision, and management of a young dog.

3) It should also begin to teach core obedience behaviors in a fun way so that the owner and the dog learn to work effectively together and the pup begins to understand impulse control.



In my puppy classes we start with teaching the puppy to look to the owner for instructions. If your dog doesn’t look at you, it is pretty darn hard to get it to do anything else you want it to. So, focused attention is a biggie. We also learn: sit, down, touch (teaching the dog to touch her nose to your hand), exchanges, name game, and we begin building the foundations for come, loose lead walking, impulse control, and stay.

We want our owners to learn what is normal puppy behavior and what may require additional work or intervention, so puppy specific issues such as biting or mouthiness, jumping, and chewing are covered. We also work on getting your dog comfortable with having her paws handled, being brushed, having her ears examined, etc.
             Your dog is a puppy only once, help him to get the best start on his life as your best friend by giving him instruction, socialization, and experience in a fun and rewarding environment. To find a positive reinforcement trainer in your area check out the trainer’s search on the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

Bodhi practices his recall in puppy class!

*Make sure they check that all puppies attending are properly vaccinated for their ages, and the facility is clean.

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A Canine Grief Observed*

“I’m not sure I should be missing Max this much. He was just a dog after all,” is something I hear, fairly often, from people who have lost a beloved companion.

Having recently lost a dog myself, I have thought about this a lot. Dogs have a unique relationship with people that supersedes our relationships with any other animal. As I mentioned in an earlier post, archeological evidence hints at the special relationship that man has had with dogs for thousands of years, even in death. Dogs, unlike other domesticated animals, have consistently been given special burial status among humans, as early as 15-17,000 years ago. Dogs have been buried with bones placed in their mouths, or with their humans. It appears that dogs have been man’s best friend for nearly as long as they have been dogs.

The skunk tamer.

The skunk tamer.

Dogs are the epitome of a best friend: giving all of themselves and asking no more than to be included in the rhythm of our everyday lives. Having to let the dog out, clean up the yard, clip his nails, brush out tangles, wash out a skunk encounter, de-worm him, etc., seem a small price to pay for the companionship of someone who is willing to do whatever you have in mind as long as he can come, stay by your side when you’re lonely or sick, and exuberantly greet your very presence. Indeed, dogs weave their existence into the length and breath of our days so seamlessly that we may not realize how intertwined our lives have become until they are gone.


Buckley leans into his favorite person.

Though all dogs connect to people in a unique way, every dog person has had that special dog that defies description, who fused directly to your soul, and elevated the relationship to something nearly mystical. For us, Buckley, our Bernese Mountain Dog, was one of those dogs. We got him with the idea that he would be Brad’s dog** and they bonded instantaneously. In the evenings, Buckley loved to lay on the couch with his head on Brad’s lap. Brad would read or work on the computer and brush Buckley’s side. Hence his left side was always a bit tidier than the right. When we went hiking, the retrievers would tear through the woods, but Buckley was always content to be at our side. He put himself to bed every night around 9 pm, and would come into the study to say goodnight if he wasn’t already with us. He slept next to the bed on Brad’s side and when Brad came to bed, he was greeted by a steady thumping of his Berner’s tail. In the morning, Buck would launch himself onto the bed to snuggle with Brad. His world revolved around his Dad, but I don’t think there was a person or animal that Buckley wasn’t delighted to meet, and who didn’t love him in return. When he was first diagnosed with cancer and we were afraid we were going to lose him that very weekend, he had a parade of visitors who wanted to say goodbye to him. I can only hope that I have half so many people pay me respect when I die.

We were able to keep Buck with us, happy and comfortable for just three months from the date he was diagnosed. When going upstairs was no longer an option for Buck, Brad slept downstairs in the library with a fire going and his hand on Buckley’s side to give him solace and comfort. Lying next to Brad and having his constant reassuring touch kept Buckley calm and peaceful that last long night. Our hearts were breaking at the thought of him leaving us, but the cancer was now unstoppable and comfort and release were all we could offer. The unbelievable grief that we were experiencing was poignantly and accurately described in a Field and Stream article by Tom Davis about his dog Butch:

I’d spread blankets on the kitchen floor, next to the food he’d stopped eating and the water he’d stopped drinking, so I could lie next to him in the night. To be able to reach out with a comforting hand was all I could think of to do; my only palliative for his terrible pain…


The cancer had eaten away at the base of his spine… There wasn’t a thing that anyone could do. The disease, far advanced, took Butch down with appalling swiftness…When he looked at me in pleading incomprehension, unable to understand what was happening to him and why I wasn’t making it better, the sense of helplessness overwhelmed me. I felt bludgeoned.


It wasn’t a hard decision; it was the only decision. His suffering needed to stop. The arrangements for the following morning had been made. And so I found myself on the kitchen floor next to my trembling dog, trying to calm his ragged breathing and keep the terror at bay. When my wife saw us lying side by side, she burst into tears.

Buckley died at home with us by his side. We miss him everyday and sometimes the grief physically hurts. As a result, I have come to see that you really, truly need to grieve the loss of your dog, just as you would grieve one of your closest friends. How long that process takes is a very personal thing, and I am not sure you can put an “appropriate” time frame on it. I have also found, however, that even though each dog’s passing leaves a gaping hole in my heart that no other pet can fill, over time the hole will be filled with all the wonderful memories of our time together. And somehow, each time this happens, my heart expands enough to allow another pet in.


So, we will get another dog… just not quite yet.

Brad and Buckley

Brad and Buckley


*A respectful nod to C. S. Lewis and his book, A Grief Observed.

**In essence, all our dogs have been family dogs and are happily bonded to all of us, But, we also have our “own” dogs. Hudson, was Emma’s dog, Rebel was Brad’s and Ellie’s, and Bingley is mine. We manage to do this by having everyone participate in caring for the dogs, but having one person be the dog’s primary caregiver when a puppy or first joining us as an adult. Thus, the middle of the night potty trips, feeding, walking, playing, etc., are the domain of the primary person with all of us aiding and abetting his efforts.

Care and management or living together in harmony General Toy Box or stuff that doesn't fit neatly elsewhere10 comments