Tag Archive : positive reinforcement

So often I have people reach out to me for training and they are simply looking for “Basic obedience.” And over the years my definition of what that entails has grown, changed and evolved with my own skill and understanding. And over the last couple of years I have come to conclusion I no longer care about having an obedient dog, and I do not strive to teach clients to have obedient dogs either. I seek to achieve a well behaved dog. And those two things are different.

To understand what I mean when I say I don’t want an obedient dog, I think we must first look at the definition of obedience.


[ oh-bee-dee-uhnt ] adjective

obeying or willing to obey; complying with or submissive to authority:an obedient son.

From this definition I think the key components to it as it applies to teaching is the phrase “submissive to authority.” And most importantly out of that the word “submissive.” Submissive is a loaded term in dogs, and in dog training. Mostly it is used by people who don’t understand how dogs think as a means of establishing “authority.” If your dog is not submissive to you, he is trying to undermine or over take you. Both of which are patently untrue.

So when we discuss obedience in dogs we are essentially still leaning back on that old school of thought, that unless the dog is obedient, he is some how challenging your authority.

When we think about obedience in children what comes to mind are images of tough authority figures disciplining kids to ensure they do as they are told. Obey or be punished. We have come a long way in how we interact with one another, especially in regards to education and learning in children, and one of the primary take-aways from our modern understanding is that punishment is not terribly useful in teaching. Unfortunately for many dogs, we have not as a culture realized this applies to our canine companions as well. That punishment is not useful for learning, it hinders and slows learning. While you might be able to punish a dog into compliance, you will never be able to punish a dog into being well behaved.

“But,” you ask. “Isn’t well behaved obedient?” The answer to that is a resounding; not really. An obedient child is one who does exactly as they are told, and does not question authority. We know this sets children up to have conflicts with authority figures, and even places them in danger of complying to dangerous, immoral or unthinkable things because they have been forced into obedience instead of being taught how to be well behaved. A dog who has been taught to be obedient, that is to always comply with authority is a dog who has never been taught to think through a situation, or to be well behaved. Their compliance is reliant on the act of what happens if you don’t comply. Their compliance is reliant on punishment to be maintained. Yes, they absolutely do as they are told, but at what cost? And what happens the moment you remove the threat of punishment for their lack of obedience? How many dogs trained on prong and ecollars (shock collars) and other forms of compulsion are ever able to be with out those items? Very few.

So what does a well behaved dog look like? You’ve seen this dog already. You’ve seen the dog patiently waiting at their guardian’s feet, with eyes on their person, watching them. You’ve seen the dog who is excited, bouncing down the trail but whips around and recalls the moment his person says their name. This is the dog who sits quietly at the vets office and who follows along on a loose leash through the pet friendly store. You perhaps even know a few dogs like this, who are calm, relaxed and content to simply walk along with minimal supervision from their human. Their human holds conversations with friends, or browses the pet toys contemplating which one to buy. Their human checks their phone while their dog just waits patiently. Their human enjoys long walks on and off leash. These are well behaved dogs, and this is achieved through reinforcement. What we expect of our dogs needs to be reinforced.

So when a client contacts me asking for basic obedience classes, I ask them what they are looking to achieve. And invariably they want the dog whom they can trust off leash, whom they can walk down the street with out incident, they want the dog who doesn’t knock things off the walls, or jump all over company. They aren’t looking for an obedient dog, they are looking for a well behaved dog. A dog who looks at new situations and makes the choice to behave in a socially appropriate manner. They don’t want to have to punish their dog to get them to behave a certain way, they want a dog who just understands what behaviors are expected and how to translate those behaviors to new situations.

Your dog will never learn to make good choices if you do not give them any choices to make. When the consequence for making the “wrong” choice is punishment, what happens is a dog learns to be obedient. So long as the desired behavior is spelled out for them they appear to function. But when faced with novelty they shut down, or worse become reactive to it. This is because at no point during the use of punishment (particularly positive punishment that causes pain) were they taught how to make appropriate choices. They might become very obedient, doing exactly as they are told , but they are not well behaved. They are not relaxed. They are not comfortable in new situations, especially since dogs are not very good at generalizing, because they have no idea what is expected of them in any given novel environment. Are the rules the same? Are the rules different? What am I supposed to do now that we are in this entirely new place? It is not with out irony that often times novel environments require escalations in punishment to achieve obedience again in our dogs. Dogs are not very good at handling prolonged exposure to distress, it often leads to escalations in their reactive or otherwise undesirable behaviors. Dogs who are trained with punishment become distressed about meeting new people, and this often escalates their jumping up behaviors, or resort to displays of aggression to handle their emotional overload. This is because these dogs have been trained to be obedient, but not to be well behaved and make well behaved decisions. With out the express permission of a cue from a handler, these dogs often show immature, or overly cautious behaviors. They are not capable of making the appropriate choice to avoid jumping on someone, or to disengage from someone who makes them uncomfortable because these dogs have never been taught to make a choice.

At the end of the day I am not concerned if a dog I work with, particularly a pet dog, is obedient. I want to achieve a dog who’s default is well behaved. I want to teach a dog to make appropriate choices when faced with certain stimuli, and to be capable of thinking through new situations to make even better choices. I don’t care if that dog has a flashy heel, I care that that dog and guardian can walk together peacefully in all kinds of situations. I am not interested in a dog who submits because a lack of obedience will mean punishment. I am interested in a dog who makes good choices, who behaves because he has been conditioned and reinforced so well for those choices they are the default. A dog that understands even under duress we can still think through our choices, and we can seek reassurance, guidance and support from our humans, no strings attached.

I have no interest in a dog who submits to human authority. I am interested in training dogs who follow human guidance because they want to, not because they have to. A dog who is well behaved goes a lot of places, sees and does a lot of things. A dog who is well behaved and works with their humans has a full, rich and fantastic life. One they can appreciate fully instead of just waiting to be punished for the wrong move.

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“A yes means very little from an animal that can’t say no.”

Dr. Amy Cook, Ph.D.

Checking My Ego: Lessons in No.

Today I had to check my ego. I went to visit my horse, Ben, and I had every intention of riding. It had been a week or more since I had seen him. My schedule is intense, and my efforts to continue to build my online business to make more time are going slow at the moment. This leaves me limited extra bandwidth, which unfortunately Ben often pays the price for. This is on me. Ben fortunately lives in a large pasture with four other geldings, and has a good time in his offer hours...days....sometimes weeks. But today I had made space to go ride my horse. My intent was to practice some of his skills under saddle, to use the time to relax and focus on our goals with his collection, and responsiveness. I have finally been able to transition him to bitless (Ben was initially trained in a very classical manner, and I have been working towards a more modern, less forceful way to interact with him.)

Ben said no.

He was not aggressive about it, or explosive which has been his method in the past to communicate when he was overwhelmed, or frustrated. But he wasn't feeling it. As I went through the routine of practicing mounting up (a historically problematic area for him) Ben said no. He refused to stand to be mounted, his tail swished consistently and his agitation was obvious in his body language. Ben has always been particular about who gets to ride him, and today he told me that he did not want to be ridden.

There might be a dozen reasons for this. I don't work with him enough to keep his eagerness to explore and learn sharp. It was early morning, and I had called him away from his breakfast (which he came willingly, but still.) The list goes on. But the point was; he wasn't interested.

In classic horsemanship guidelines I would have been required to force the issue. You would have heard some old cowboy telling you “Don't let him get away with that!” And a variety of other euphemisms that boil down to: make the horse do it. But I have worked very hard to teach Ben to present his feelings in a less explosive, and dangerous ways. I have worked hard to unlearn my own very classical horsemanship education (that started when I was just old enough to spell my own name.) And in this paradigm of putting the horse first, Ben made it clear he did not want to do what I wanted to do, and I took him at his word.

I stress a lot on the value of letting our dogs say “no.” I teach that a no is valuable. I teach that it is meaningless to have our dogs say “yes” if we do not also allow them to say “no.” This is not something that many horse people practice, it is something I am making strides in practicing. Today, I practiced it.

As I went through the work I noticed Ben's agitation, I also noticed my own frustration that he was not willing to cooperate and follow the cues I had given him. As my frustration increased, so did his. And at some point I realized what was happening: Ben was saying he did not want to be ridden today.

I completed a successful approximation towards our goal, I stood on the mounting block (For those who don't know I am very short, and Ben is absolutely huge) put my foot in the stirrup, marked it and get back down onto the ground and rewarded Ben for holding still during that. Then instead of taking advantage of the fact he was cooperating that far, and jumping up on him, I respected his feelings, and rewarded his good hard try by walking away. He followed me to the barn where I untacked him , gave him a nice brushing and returned him to his pasture, and his waiting breakfast. He shoved his head in his feed trough and didn't watch me leave as he normally does.

Could I have continued and just made him deal with it? I had no intentions of working him hard today, it was going to be more a mental work out then a physical one. It was mostly to just spend some time with him, practicing basics (as with dogs the basics are your foundation of everything else.) All in all it wasn't going to be a stressful day. And I could have made him hold still for me to mount him and proven my point that it is useless to say “no.” But what would that have taught him? What lesson was he likely to take home from that? Was it that being ridden won't be bad? Maybe. Or would it be that subtle, peaceful objections will be ignored in the face of his owner's desires? Also maybe. And if it is the latter, what do you suppose he will do the next time he is uncomfortable or unwilling to try something I am asking of him? Do you think he will remain polite, and peaceful? Or will he, in an attempt to be certain he is heard, escalate his responses? Perhaps to a level where he endangers one or the both of us?

I know Ben well. Perhaps in many ways better then I know myself. I know that when he is frustrated, angry, upset or scared he will explode. That explosion can be very dangerous for small humans, and for Ben himself. I have worked hard over the last two years to help Ben learn to trust me, to believe me when I say everything will be okay. In order to not undo that trust, I have to believe him when he says he doesn't want to do something. I have to frame uncomfortable, or scary things in a way that allows him to trust me completely when I ask him to do them. I have to respect his no, so I can trust him when he says yes. Ben is my ride or die, but that is meaningless if he doesn't have a choice in the matter. Today he made his feelings clear, so I put him back in the pasture where he promptly resumed his breakfast with out looking back.

As I reminded my ego to check its self, and set aside my daydreams of riding my horse today, I realized that practicing what I preach matters. And it matters the most when it's hard for me to do. As I drove away from the barn Ben's head was still in his trough eating breakfast. He was hungry. I am not keen on working out when I'm hungry either.


"The more chances we give them to say no, they more chances they have to say yes." - Pine Irwin CPDT-KA, ABKA L2, PPG, FFCT, IAABCM, SFCS , QTDE

Like most people who train through positive reinforcement, I use a lot of training treats. Doubly so because I am often using them for client’s dogs etc. That means my treat budget is pretty extensive compared to a lot of my other expenses. And as we all know the best treats with the best ingredients are kind of expensive.

Another concern is for dogs who have strict dietary restrictions, getting away from common allergens like chicken, or rosemary can be really challenging. Not to mention expensive. And none of us really want to give more money to amazon or chewy. So I have a homemade training treat that is amazing! Dogs love it and it’s super easy to make! (Not to mention cheap.)

For the recipe I made here I use multiple kinds of baby food, but you can use a single flavor, or any combination you want. The key is to use the flour to help balance it out. The first time I made these I just baked the baby food, the results were tasty but mostly flavored air crisps. They crumbled with the slightest touch, and were mostly air. Obviously this is not ideal for storing in a treat pouch.

What you need: mixing bowl, spatula, large baking sheet, silicone triangle mat.

Available via Amazon. I know, I know, you can check your local restaurant supply for them too.

Basic Recipe:

13 to 14oz baby food

1 cup flour

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Mix together baby food and flour to form a consistency that is thicker then the baby food, but easy to spread.
  3. Spread in inverted silicone trays. I just glob it in the middle and spread it out, scraping off any excess so it’s all level. I don’t really worry about the edges since the goal here is to create treats as easily as possible and I am not detail oriented. At all.
  4. Bake. 10 to 13 minutes, I kind of eye ball them if they look like they are going to burn I take them out.
  5. Let cool enough you can dump them out. They will pop right out of the silicone tray, I just roll it and out they come. I do not grease the tray ahead of time.
  6. Let cool completely, toss into a jar for storing. I do keep them in the fridge when not in use since I don’t dry them into hard rocks, and there are no preservatives in them. You want them to be cool completely before storing because the heat escaping will create steam that will make them too soggy long term.
  7. Let your dog lick the bowl.

For this recipe I used 4oz Apple, 4oz pumpkin, 2.5oz Chicken and 2.5oz turkey. You can use any combination of flavors. You could even use peanut butter but if you do you might want to adjust the flour content to ensure you don’t end up with a paste that is too difficult to spread. I like using baby food because you can control the ingredients, and make sure you aren’t accidentally getting something in there that is not diet approved for dogs who are restricted, or need to manager their calories. (I haven’t experimented with using canned dog food yet, I am planning too soon though! But with canned food there are often a lot of additives and stabilizers that I don’t necessarily care about, but also don’t really need to add when baby food is pretty cheap and easily obtained. Also with canned food you will need a pate variety with no “chunks” unless you want to take the step to run it through a food processor first. No chunky, all smooth.)

It is really that easy. And I have two trays, I filled them both completely and baked them. There was a little batter left over that I split between the dogs and let my youngest lick the bowl before putting it all in the dish washer. (The trays can go through the dish washer too!)

Voila. Easy, delicious, entirely customizable dog treats! No spending half your day cutting hot dogs, or cheese. All in all when I make these it takes maybe half an hour. And most of that is just baking the trays (I bake them one at a time since my oven isn’t super large.)

Let me know if you try them!