Animal training is not a Queen song and your pet is not a robot

Just what the heck does that mean?! Okay, bear with me.

If you’re anything like the average human being, which most of us are, you probably hear yourself thinking, “I want it all and I want it now”. Kind of like Queen’s 1989 hit, I Want It All.

Freddie Mercury is onto something here. You want something, so why not have it all and why not have it now?

And that’s certainly possible with animal training! I mean, IF you’re training one of those robot puppies. Zoomer Interactive Dog, just $89.99 at your local Toys R’ Us! I think robot parrots, cats, and some other species are available too, but don’t quote me on that.


But… Chances are we’re not training a robot here. Chances are we’re training a living, breathing, thinking, feeling, sentient creature. Rather like yourself! We don’t just insert a chip, press a button on a remote, tighten this wire, loosen that wire, or otherwise program organic creatures. You see, real creatures learn, adapt and change according to what life throws at them. Temperament (your dog’s personality) plays a role too. As does our own behavior, since we control so many aspects of our animal’s lives.

Thus, how can anyone make a guarantee regarding the way a creature will behave, or promise you results overnight? How is such a thing possible? Common sense tells us it’s really not. At least where our pets and ourselves are concerned. While the occasional, “Ah-ha!” moment does occur, and results can be long lived and rather fast, it’s certainly not something that can be predicted. It’s much more likely that behavior change, whether reducing fear, aggression, or even better compliance for obedience cues, will take a while and some work to achieve and stick around. It takes science too, behavioral science. The approach needs to address the underlying issue. It needs to effect a change of emotional response where behavioral issues are concerned, and it needs to address the learning deficit where obedience isn’t being complied with.


If you want guarantees and instant results, I can promise you this: I can guarantee that I can make it so that your pet doesn’t feel safe to communicate the way that they feel. But I can’t wave a magic wand and permanently alter the way that they feel. See conditioned emotional response. I can also (near) instantly make shutting down to be the safest choice for your animal so that they don’t chance unnecessary behavior that carries with it the chance of unpleasant repercussions. This phenomena is called response depression. And you may end up with a robotic-like creature. Which is great… If that’s what you want for your pet… But is that what you really want?

To most of us, it’s not what we want for our pets. To most of us, our dog, cat, parrot, or other pet is a member of the family, our buddies, our pals, and even our work partners. Even though behavior change may not be like programming a robot, it’s well worth the wait and the work. Not only for your own peace of mind, but for your pet’s too.

As the Association of Pet Dog Trainer’s Association says,

We believe it is unethical to make guarantees about behavior results. In fact, as members of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), we pledged to refrain from giving guarantees regarding the outcome of training. Instead of guaranteeing specific behavior results, we promise to work with you and your dog to achieve a better relationship.

We are committed to excellence, and that you can count on.
It is unethical for trainers to guarantee changed behavior results. This is due to the variables in dog breeding and temperament, owner commitment and experience, the dog’s future life experiences, etc. You know this to be true when you consider that human behavior cannot be guaranteed, let alone a dog’s behavior. Dogs are independent beings that we cannot sit down with and verbally convince them to comply with our instructions. It doesn’t matter if that session is one hour or 10 hours long. One session is not going to change behavior patterns in either the dog or you. You must understand that when it concerns behavior, it’s up to you to change and learn so that your dog can change and learn. No trainer anywhere can guarantee you and the dog.

Your dog’s success is dependent on YOU doing your homework if you are getting private lessons or coming to group class. If at the end of each week the dog is not showing that he can do that week’s homework, you will repeat that week. The dog cannot progress to the next set of exercises without some proficiency in the ones you were supposed to be teaching him.

So, how and why are animal trainers promising you guarantees and instant results? Because they can! This industry is unregulated. You need to be your pet’s advocate. You’re his/her only protection.

Need some helping choosing an animal trainer? World renowned animal behavior professional Jean Donaldson offers the following suggestions.

The animal training industry is completely unregulated and anyone can call themselves an animal behavior professional in spite of having no formal education or qualifications. So what can consumers do to protect themselves?
1. Ask for formal education and credentials.
2. Ask for continuing education involvement.
3. Ask for scientific evidence supporting any claims about behavior.
4. Ask what actual physical events will be used to motivate your animal (keep asking if you receive obfuscating answers such as “energy,” “leadership,” “status” or “dominance”). For example, ask, “What exactly will happen to my dog if he gets it right? And what exactly will happen to my dog if he gets it wrong?”
5. Ask what side effects each procedure has. Fear is a particularly concerning side effect as it is difficult to undo.
6. If you feel at all uncomfortable, don’t be bullied: get another opinion.
You are entitled to full information before consenting to any training or behavior modification procedure.
Animal Learning Solutions.


Rapid, painless nail length reduction technique

I grind (or shave with clippers from Dollar Tree, they don’t slide at weird angles like more expensive clippers I’ve tried) 360 degrees around the quick until there’s only a very thin nail sheath left around the quick.

This provides some protection from pressure from impact with the ground, but not a full degree of protection so the increased degree of pressure upon impact will help to recede the quick, and less protection also allows more air exchange which will allow the end of the quick to dry and shrivel as well. This will leave a “dead”, painless layer that you can remove painlessly. This layer will be a different color from the “live” quick, that has blood flow and nerve activity.

I haven’t observed any pain or favoring of feet with this technique.

Now that you have a quicker “dying” of the quick, you can shave off a thin layer more frequently and repeat the process, shaving away another layer of nail, again semi-exposing the quick until you get the desired nail length and then go back to normal grinding or clipping to maintain length.

Easy high value training treats recipe. Highly customizable!

Recipe: Easy high value treats. Perfect for training. Customize your flavors.

There are no measured ingredients.

You’ll need your 
-flavor base(s), 
-one egg, 
-oil or water, 
-flour (with NO leavening agents!),
-Gelatin, optional (It helps the pieces keep their integrity and is a natural source of highly absorbable chondroitin), and
-Preservative, optional. I use potassium sorbate and ascorbic acid. You can use vinegar or lemon juice if you don’t have anything else on hand. 

I like to mix it all in a food processor with the chopper blade, not the mixing blade. You need to have everything very finely blended.

Flavor base: Use whatever your dog likes. Cheese and chicken. Tuna fish from a can. A can of dog food. Apples. Whatever. The stinkier for dogs and cats, the better. Must be moist. If using something from a can, include the oil or water. 

Add an egg. Size doesn’t matter. 

If you want chewy treats, add about a tablespoon of oil. If you want crispy treats, add about a tablespoon water or broth. If your flavor ingredients were dry, add more water or broth as needed. Now would be the time to add your preservative. Now stir so everything is broken up and ingredients mixed. 

Now you add flour. I usually use rice or potato flour, or tapioca starch. But you can use corn flour, oat flour, wheat flour, whatever. It’s your binder. You need it to help glue the flavor base together. Don’t use any flour that has leveners (baking soda, baking powder, yeast, etc.)! You don’t want this to rise or become spongey with air bubbles.

You should have added just enough flour so that when you stir the ingredients, you get a spreadable paste with a rich flavor base (should be mostly your flavor ingredient). The thinner your paste, the easier it is to spread it even. If you make it really thick, it’s probably easier to use a second parchment lined sheet and press your paste between the two cookie sheets.

Spread your paste THINLY onto a non-stick tray or parchment paper. Bake at 350 degree F until it starts to dry up a little. I.E. It shouldn’t stick to your finger if you press it. If it does, it’ll also stick to your pizza wheel cutter and you don’t want that. Put it back in the oven for a little longer if this is the case. DON’T turn off your oven but do take it out.

Now get a pizza wheel cutter and score it vertically and horizontally so that you’re making bite sized squares for training, or larger if you desire. A good training treat size to aim for is the size of your pinky nail.

Shove it back into your oven and cook until done (about 10-15 minutes) for soft and chewy, or longer for crispy. 

After it’s cooked, you can easily break it into the bite sized pieces that you’ve scored earlier, the baking will have helped separate the pieces. If you wait for it to cool, you can GENTLY rub the treats between your hands to break the pieces apart a lot faster. 

*Note* that your treats will be somewhat soft when piping hot from the oven but will firm up when cooled, but IF you made your treats too wet and they’re VERY soggy on one side, try flipping sections over CAREFULLY with a spatula and baking for a bit longer so dehydration takes place on the wet side.

I like to make different flavors and put them into the same bag in the fridge so that I have a trail mix. A variety is exciting.

Are pinch/prong collars magic?

pinch collar 3                                                  *

There’s a lot of information going around about training tools. Some factual, some less so. A lot of it is heavily steeped in emotion and bias. I suppose I would be lying if I didn’t make it clear that I’m biased myself, I don’t advocate tools that use pain, fear or intimidation to function. I don’t need them, and if a person is willing to learn, they won’t need them either. But that aside, I feel that it’s important to give factual, unbiased information so that consumers are armed with accurate information in order to make an informed training tool decision. If something uses pain to work, people should be aware. So where do pinch collars stand? How do they work, and why do they work?

You have several variations of the pinch collar. Most have thin prongs of uniform thickness, while a few have triangular projections, ending in a point. Most are metal, while a few are plastic. Most of these collars are martingales, which means that they’re looser at rest, but tighten when pulled on by the handler, or when the dog pulls against the leash and applies pressure. The correct placement is high on the neck, under the ears. In order to stay in proper placement, high on the neck (weakest, most vulnerable point), the collar must fit snug, so tight enough not to slide down, and then even tighter when the collar is being actively utilized.

When a correction (yanked on by the handler or the dog straining on the leash) is given, the collar tightens and the prongs dig in, the standard prongs (not the triangular projection type) also pinch together at the ends. If skin is caught, the skin is pinched between the prongs. Fur and hair isn’t a protection, the smooth metal prongs or smooth plastic triangles part all but the most matted fur/hair and make full on contact with skin.

Handlers often use the collars as positive punishment. This means the addition of a punitive stimulus. An example would be, if a dog is doing an undesired behavior, you’d yank on the collar in order to motivate the dog to decrease this behavior. You can also keep pressure on the collar until the dog gives into your directions. This would be negative reinforcement. This means the removal of the stimulus is reinforcing (rewarding). An example would be keeping the collar tight until the dog stops straining against the leash. The collar pressure being removed is nice by comparison.

You’ll hear a lot of arguments for and against pinch collars. They don’t hurt, it’s like a mother dog’s bite (correction) to a puppy, and so on.

The mother’s bite claim mentioned here is somewhat funny to me. You see, bitches use what’s called muzzle grabbing. You can read about it here. So to keep in line with the logic that the collar brings back old memories of being corrected by their mother when they were pups, the collars should be worn on the face for this to make any sense. Assuming an adult will actually make this leap in logic and memory. I don’t know about you, but I don’t tend to remember much from when I was a baby.

The other mentioned argument for pinch collars is the claim that they don’t hurt. And that can be correct, they don’t always have to hurt in order to work. You can use a lower level of application if you first develop it as a conditioned punisher, by pairing non-painful levels of correction WITH painful levels of correction, to give the non-painful levels meaning. “A conditioned stimulus that signifies that an aversive is coming. Used to deter or interrupt behavior; if the behavior halts or changes, the aversive may be avoided. For example, a trainer that says “ack” to interrupt a behavior, or the warning beep of a shock collar when a dog gets too close to the boundary of an electric fence.” If you don’t first condition these non-painful levels as a punisher, then all but the most sensitive of dogs will easily ignore it because it’s not motivating enough to change behavior. An non-painful correction just isn’t inherently aversive to the vast majority of dogs. You have to make that level aversive. Else, why should the dog care and not just ignore it?

This doesn’t just go for pinch collars, it also applies to other punitive devices and collars. Your shock collars, choke/slip collars, head halters in some cases, some harnesses that act like a noose, and so on.

So yes, initially it must hurt to lend meaning to the non-painful levels. It doesn’t just end there though, you must repeat the pairing (conditioning), or up the ante and increase it, periodically in order to prevent or fix a punishment callous. This is when tolerance develops for the current level, and thus this level no longer serves to motivate behavior change in order to avoid it.

It’s a good idea to try the tool on yourself. While you’re not a dog, and you’re not likely to try it around your throat, although this would be the CLOSEST comparison to a dog’s experience and I DO recommend you get on the floor, put it on your throat and have someone correct you, trying it on your arm is an okay test if you keep some factors in mind.

1. The arm is significantly less sensitive than the throat. This is why most glucose meters have evolved to take blood from your arm now instead of your finger.

2,. The arm doesn’t have fragile structures, such as the hyoid apparatus, thyroid gland, vertebrae, etc.

3. Humans have thicker, less sensitive skin than dogs.

“Canine skin has several layers, including an outer epidermis that is constantly being replaced and an inner dermis that contains nerves and blood vessels. Canine skin is thinner and much more sensitive than human skin.” *

“The epidermis of a dog is 3-5 cells thick however in humans it is at least 10-15 cells thick.” *

4. You hopefully don’t have as much hair or fur on your arms as a dog has on their neck. But remember, the fur doesn’t really play a part as it gets parted by the points. The argument that fur somehow softens the effect is moot.

5. Most dog’s necks are lower than your hand. This means you have to deliver the correction to your arm at an upwards angle.

6. The collar MUST be fitted to your arm’s circumference! A collar much bigger than your arm won’t apply as much pressure as a collar that fits your arm. Your dog is more than likely wearing the appropriately sized collar fitted to his neck’s circumference, if not smaller to apply even more pressure, which will inflict an even greater degree of pain.

For the sake of getting photos, I did the pinch collar test on my arm today.

pinch 1

The first picture is immediately following varying levels of pressure, all of which I’ve observed used in training. From somewhat gentle to much harsher. And yes, at the levels of application that motivate, it does hurt.

pinch 2

 The second picture is several hours later.

After all, pinch collars aren’t magic. If they don’t hurt, and the lower levels don’t promise painful levels if not heeded, why should the dog care? Pinch collars utilize pain as their motivation factor. Pain doesn’t suddenly make the dog understand what you’re trying to teach him, better teaching does. Pain doesn’t solve behavior problems, pain just suppresses the outward signs.

Dogs are strongly associative learners. This means that they can associate what they’re experiencing, say the pain from a pinch collar, with what they happen to be near or even looking at. They lack our human logic and reasoning. For all they understand, yes, the pain did happen because they were near a child, dog, stranger, etc. Hello new or worse behavior problems. Professional trainers who utilize tools such as pinch collars will usually use the collar for this as well, in order to suppress the dog communicating their defensive fear towards whatever they think is causing them the pain.

All in all, not such a great tool after all, in my opinion. But what do you think?

Update! Nope, I still haven’t changed my stance on pinch collars. But I’ve been informed that there is a rare creature called the “Elusive Prong-Collar Loving Dog”.* This not often seen creature will actually jump for joy when the prong collar comes out because he just can’t wait to feel it around his neck! Well, why is it? Is he a masochist? Is he a glutton for pain?

Nope! This dog just can’t wait to go on walkies or whatever other activity the pinch collar signifies. While the pain from the pinch collar is indeed punitive, the enjoyment of getting to go for a walk trumps the unpleasantness of the collar. It’s why we can train animals to participate in their own health care. In your local zoo, the resident lion doesn’t enjoy getting stabbed with a needle for his blood draw, but he’ll willingly back onto it, because the juicy steak reward makes it worth his while.

* Photo credited to Judith Beam, who pulled an old collar out of storage for me. She does NOT actively use pinch collars!





“I only correct my dog when he knows what he’s supposed to do.”

“I only correct my dog when he knows what he’s supposed to do. Or when he knows he’s doing wrong.”

For clarity’s sake, a correction would be some kind of (at best) unpleasant action taken to enforce a behavior or stop a behavior.

It’s something I hear all too often. But unless your dog can actually tell you in words that he actually understands what you’re asking of him, don’t assume! Dogs aren’t humans and they lack our human logic and reasoning skills. They learn a lot like us, but they also differ in some key ways. They lack our morals too, by the way. The concept of “right” and “wrong” is a human concept, largely determined by society. To hold a dog to our belief that they grasp that concept would be anthropomorphic.

There are a LOT of reasons for non-compliance that a correction won’t even begin to address.

And if the choice to comply wasn’t conditioned to be reinforcing enough, that is trainer error too. A positive reinforcer is a tool, and any tool needs to be utilized correctly.

Unless you know better, it’s too easy to hold animals to a human standard of doing things. But they’re not humans. We need to remember that.

Many a trainer who advocates and uses corrections will tell you that the dog “knew better” and the correction was justified. But there’s something many of these trainers have in common; a willful lack of an education in their field.

Some trainers feel that experience alone should be enough. I’ll share a secret with you, sometimes I make the same clueless mistakes over and over again, until I learn different. With experience alone, there’s nothing to prevent this from occurring. And at your dog’s expense.

It’s widely accepted by most people that an education is beneficial to your efforts. Because, scientia potentia est! Knowledge is power! It’s the lack of ignorance. What is a professional in the field of animal behavior doing without an education in their specialty anyways? Without knowing the science and theory behind behavior, the why’s, the how’s, and the what’s behind what’s occurring, more mistakes that could easily have been avoided can be made at your pet’s expense, as well as your own.

Here’s an example:

Trainer A. puts Spike through his obedience paces. First they work on downs, then sits, then leaving cats alone. The session soon goes downhill. Spike started off well enough, but he was never taught duration for the down and sit behavior, nor was he taught these behaviors in different settings and situations before taking it on the road. Spike gets confused and makes a lot of mistakes. Also, Spike is started at a proximity to cats where he’s not in control of himself, and it takes many corrections to get him to stop trying to go for the cat.  This session didn’t set Spike up for success, in my opinion, it was a failure.

Trainer B. puts Sophie through her obedience paces. First they work on leaving cats alone. Sophie is started at a proximity where she notices the cat but is still easily in control of herself. She gets moved progressively closer as she accomplishes self control at each progression. Then they take a break. Then they work on downs, Sophia is taught duration, and is taught the behavior in many different settings and situations. Then a short break. Then they work on sits, and the same goes as it did for learning downs. The session started out well and ended well. Progress never flagged. This session set Sophie up for success, in my opinion. This session was a success.

Why was there such a glaring difference between these two scenarios? Trainer B. has experience AS WELL as an education and can apply her learned knowledge to her training. Trainer B. knows that the research strongly suggests that humans, as well as dogs, have limited amounts of self control that must A. Be well rewarded and B. Allowed time to recharge. Trainer B. also knows that in order for Sophia to succeed, she must be working at a level where this is easily possible before progressing onwards. You don’t learn to run before you learn to walk. Trainer B. is aware of thresholds, a neutral or near neutral level of exposure to a stimuli that can be tolerated. And further more, Trainer B. also knows that dogs need to have criteria (the different components of a behavior like degree of difficult, duration, distance, amount of reinforcement, and so on) split, and they also need the behaviors generalized to different settings and situations. Dog generally do not generalize behaviors well. This needs to be taught.

I’m not a nurse. I don’t have an education in health care. Nurses have the expertise that I lack. That’s what I’m paying a health care professional for! I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to shell out my hard earned money for a professional, I want my money’s worth! I would want a dog trainer who would understand what went wrong, if it happens to occur, and was able to set my dog up for success in order to constructively address the actual cause behind the failure. The goal shouldn’t be to set the dog up for failure when you train. In fact, the goal we should be striving for is called errorless learning. Why practice unnecessary mistakes that we can easily avoid? But just as dogs are dogs, humans are humans, and therefore, we’re not always exempt from mistakes, no matter how careful we may be.

Let’s explore why it’s not safe to just assume that your dog “knew better”. Please take a moment to view some video examples that explore the possibilities behind your dog not complying with what you’ve asked of him, or otherwise behaving in an undesired way. And then ask yourself, would issuing a correction have been beneficial, or even relevant for that matter? How might you have instead addressed the learning deficit?

Elieenanddogs presents a series of four videos where a dog misses cues (traditionally known as commands).

This dog is uncomfortable and fearful of the grooming process. He doesn’t understand that grooming is necessary for his hygiene. He is put over threshold (how much of the stimulus he can handle without reacting) and then is corrected in order to try to control him. Mr. Millan grabs the dog’s head to stop the behavior, but the dog won’t stop biting at the brush so he has to resort to putting a muzzle on, because he can’t figure out how else to get the grooming done.

You can fast forward to 10:10 to see this in action.

The corrections don’t change the dog’s fear for the better, it will only compound the dog’s dear. This can either cause the dog to shut down, or continue fighting. Shutting down  is not “calm”, as Cesar Millan often claims on his shows.

Dr. Sophia Yin, a board certified Veterinary Behaviorist, shows a dog with a similar problem, yet Dr. Yin shows how a qualified behavior professional might handle the situation. She pairs what the dog finds unpleasant (grooming), with something that the dog really enjoys (food). The dog is shown over threshold at the beginning for demonstration purposes (most people wouldn’t believe the dog fights grooming unless seen with their own eyes), but as you can see with the counter conditioning procedure, the dog is kept under threshold so that he doesn’t need to be corrected in order to keep him under control.

She enables the dog to become familiar with being brushed and also conditions a positive emotional response to it via what’s known as desensitization and counter conditioning.

In case you’re wondering, Dr. Yin is not rewarding the dog for being fearful. There is a science behind behavior, and those who have studied it will know how to handle situations in a constructive and relevant way.

Here Dr. Yin has a video and an explanation on why counter conditioning doesn’t reward fear.

There are many, many reasons why a dog may not do what you ask. Your dog may not be ready for practicing recall in a high distraction environment if you haven’t built up to it. This is called lumping criteria. Your dog may not sit without a treat if you’ve used food incorrectly and turned it into a bribe. Your dog may have forgotten some of their skills through lack of practice. These examples, and the examples shown in this blog, are just a few of the many reasons why a dog may fail to do as expected.

Here is a perfect example of a trainer assuming that a dog “is very sniffy” and just isn’t paying attention. So he corrects the dog for this behavior.

What this trainer doesn’t seem to know is that excessive ground sniffing is a displacement behavior! A displacement behavior is brought on by stress, designed to appease the other individual and direct their attention else where. This dog wants to show that he’s busy minding his own business by sniffing the ground and doesn’t want any trouble and isn’t a threat to anybody. However, the dog isn’t even allowed to communicate his stress. He’s punished for it.

You can be sure this is stress by looking at the rest of the dog’s body language. His ears are held low and far back on his head, his head is lowered, he’s walking in a semi-crouch to appear as small as possible, his tail is semi-tucked, and his eyes are very squinty.

You may be able to suppress the ground sniffing by correcting the dog for it, but you do nothing, except to often compound the emotional state, that’s causing the behavior. What good does this do? At best, the dog just gives in and continues to be stressed. At worst, the dog’s stress builds until he reaches a breaking point and puts those sharp teeth to use.

Note that I don’t think that this trainer is malicious, I just don’t think that he’s armed with the pertinent information to know what is going on behind the motions.

Just putting a dog through the motions, without understanding what’s underneath, is more like puppeteering than actual teaching. But we’re dog trainers, not puppeteers. We’re being hired to teach your animals.

A behavior professional who is both educated and experienced will be armed with the pertinent knowledge needed and will be less likely to blame and punish the dog when they’re not at fault.

However, while a dog might very well know better, the likelihood that that’s the case, in my professional opinion, is very small and the dog more than likely hasn’t been set up for success in the way that he’s been taught. But we can change that. Instead of using corrections that doesn’t really address the underlying issue and serve any real purpose, we can train better and set up dogs up for a higher rate of success.

Do You Have Any Business Punishing a Dog?

Those who can teach, do. Those who can’t, punish.

Fearfuldogs' Blog

cocker spaniel sitting in a garden facing a wallHow would you justify going to a surgeon who claimed to be really good at cutting out tumors but had flunked out of classes on physiology and biology? Maybe some of their patients survived the surgery and went on to live full lives without a tumor, but what about the others? What about that nerve bundle that the surgeon nicked because they didn’t realize how important it was to walking? Or that the tests ordered prior to surgery were read incorrectly and the wrong blood type was requested? If someone was desperate and grasping at straws I could understand how they might use this surgeon. But how does that surgeon explain putting themselves out there as a professional?

At a seminar I was attending a young trainer described how she explains to potential clients how she trains dogs. It was along the lines of; All dogs are different and I…

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