Choose Your Reinforcement

I swear, some days with Silas come with big neon signs: LESSON. OVER HERE.

We took advantage of a rare cool day to run out to the park on Sunday. I was hoping to get some video footage to send to the behaviorist. I forgot Silas’s treats (that first year, when he wouldn’t eat outside ever, seems to have permanently taken them off of my park checklist), so all I had were toys. Silas didn’t want to work with my toys. The few snips of video we shot were mostly Silas ignoring me. Left to his own devices, Silas picked up a stick instead. Suddenly he was happy enough to do a few commands. Even better, stick was good enough for a game of “look at that!” with some people who walked past. One bark, then “Who cares about them? I have a stick!” (Of course you all know that sticks can be pretty dangerous for dogs. Use your judgment.)

Later on, back at home, I was trying to do some routine training exercises. I had Silas’s favorite toy. My husband was tidying up the house, bless him, and kept rattling bags of cookies. Silas was gone like a shot. This is my dog who almost never prefers a treat to a toy. “Oh,” rational brain said, “it’s twenty minutes before his dinner time. He’s starving.” I grabbed a handful of cookies and he was absolutely focused no matter what else was going on.

Moral of this story: if you’re training with positive reinforcement, it doesn’t always matter what your dog “always likes.” To get really great results, it matters what he likes at that moment.

Relaxation and the Action Dog

There are two tiers to dog relaxation.

1) Is your dog capable of relaxing while you are ignoring him? If you are using the computer or cooking dinner, does your dog just hang out? Or is he poking you with a toy, staring at you, or nudging you for pets?

2) Is your dog capable of relaxing while you are looking at him? Or does the faintest breath of your attention turn your otherwise relaxed dog into a behavior offering machine? “She’s watching me! She must want me to sit! No, down! No, roll over! Where’s my ball?!”

The problem with a dog who always prefers to be moving is that they will try to turn calming behaviors into action behaviors. These dogs can be trained to a great sit or down stay, but it’s like a border collie and the start line of an agility trial–it’s a job. If you want the dog to actually, you know, chill out, you have to work it a little differently.

I didn’t really recognize how much Silas was this way, because he isn’t the quivering with energy type. He’s never frantic. We went through puppy class with a labradoodle who literally was not capable of keeping all four feet on the ground. Even sitting, she was paddling her little fluffy feet and wagging her whole body. Silas isn’t like that. He’s just on the move all the time, unless he’s asleep, usually trying to get human attention in one way or another.

The good thing is that relaxation can be taught.

We started with a two pronged approach. I picked up all the toys. All of them. I was down to leaving out just one or two anyway, but for a few weeks I put them all away. Play time is not all the time. I also started giving him a Kong around 5:30, which is about an hour into Silas’s evening busy time. Frozen solid, they take around thirty minutes for him to eat.

Now, with half an hour of the evening free of toy-poking, my husband and I decided on the amount of play that we thought was reasonable. I give Silas a puzzle toy and do some training during the day, then usually do two more short play/training sessions in the evening. My husband plays with him pretty hard right as he comes in from work, then once more later in the evening. Outside of that, we ignored his poking and rewarded him for going to his crate or his bed. (For the record, the training/play mix is incredibly important for us. There are times when I can tell Silas just really wants to work rather than play, as weird as that sounds.)

In two weeks or less we had a really dramatic turnaround. Now that Silas knows what to do with himself he’s happy to do it. The bonus for us is that the overtired, overstimulated deterioration of his behavior as the evening goes on is pretty much gone. He’s still busy, but much less obnoxiously so.

I’m filing this one into my “Why didn’t people tell me this when he was a puppy?” file.


You wanted me here? Why didn’t you say so?

Equally Attractive Alternative

A lot of colleges have rules about alcohol being served at mixed student/faculty parties. These range from “hell no” to “whatever.” A friend of mine went to a school with an “equally attractive alternative” rule. There had to be something non-alcoholic that was pleasant to drink–say, some sparkling fruit juice next to the wine.

We’ve been working on getting Silas to settle down in his own space. He’s had the same dog bed for ages, and he’s never really liked it. Instead, he wants to be on the couch or sitting wherever I’m sitting, usually partially on my legs. Neither of these things are a problem, really. We just thought it would help him to understand  what it means to settle down if he could do it in a dedicated dog-settling-down place.

Enter the equally attractive alternative.

One day I picked up the fleece mat from Silas’s crate while I was sweeping (he pulls it out all the time) and tossed it into the dog bed. He loved it. From then on, he would go find that mat, drag it to the big dog bed, and sleep on it. He still preferred the couch, but bed-bed (as we started calling it) was okay.

Bed-bed became even better when we bought a second one of his favorite crate-style beds. I was not going to look at his bedraggled fake fleece crate mat all day. The new little bed fit perfectly inside the bolsters of the original bed. After that, he started sleeping in bed-bed a good bit. Voluntarily, even.

Then I gave him an old throw pillow I found when I was cleaning out the closet. He took it straight to his bed and it hasn’t moved since. Now Silas’s bed-bed is probably the most comfortable place in the house. You can tell, because he spends about eight hours a day exactly like this:


Equally attractive alternative indeed. Have you ever seen a dog that spoiled? I’m going to have to start asking for my snuggles.

Dog TV

My parents have fancy satellite television. One of their new channels this season is Dog TV. Apparently it’s meant to be what you leave on for your dog while you’re away from home.

The minute or two I watched were calming classical music, which is scientifically proven to have a positive effect on dogs, accompanied by pictures of dogs lolling in meadows or what have you. The nice thing I could see about Dog TV is that it gives you something to turn on quickly that, at least in the “relaxing” program that I saw, isn’t likely to have trigger noises like barking or doorbells. Until the last six months or so, Silas freaked out whenever a doorbell rang on a TV commercial. Silas has never seemed to actually watch anything on TV, so I assume the pleasant dog pictures exist mostly to make the owners feel better. As weird as it seems, the Dog TV people have their head in the right place–they even suggest you make sure to watch the programs with your dog the first time, to make sure that he enjoys them without becoming too excited. Not something that I’d pay for, but it seems harmless enough.

One afternoon while I was running some errands, Mom got the idea to turn on Dog TV for Silas. She felt bad for him, because he was just sitting on the couch, “looking sad.”

After a few minutes, he got up, went to the other room, and got into his crate.

There goes my lucrative spokes-dog contract.


I don’t watch just any old TV program.

The Food Allergy Diet, A Year In

I realized last week that we had officially been on Silas’s food allergy diet for over a year. I moved him to eating just turkey early last summer, in June or July.

Here’s what I’ve learned: when people tell you that food allergy trials take a long time, they’re lying.

Food allergy trials never end. They take a long time only in the sense that infinity takes a long time.

After 14 months, Silas has three known safe proteins–turkey, sardines, and pork. His known allergens are duck, beef, salmon, and lamb. These are my facts. The sum total of what I know. In reality, given that a full test is 12-16 weeks, that is a lot to know in 14 months.

There are lots of grey areas, too. He had what seemed to be a chicken allergy as a puppy, but I have not retested it. I still wonder if his duck “allergy” was just that he hated duck so much that he was going hungry and triggering his acid reflux.

Other things don’t seem to cause any problems, but for one reason or the other they haven’t been subjected to a full trial. Eggs, yogurt, cheese, grains, fruits, vegetables, and non-salmon fish all seem fine in small/occasional quantities. These things come and go in his diet depending on where we are in a trial. The first few weeks of a new food are very strict, then I gradually loosen the rules. You have to, at a certain point, to make your life reasonable to live.

I’d like to get Silas to four proteins, which is usually considered a sustainable number. (Because most food allergies in dogs are caused by over-exposure, an allergy dog who only eats a few foods is highly at risk for becoming allergic to them. Experts who are willing to commit to a recommended number of foods to rotate seem to settle on four.) I have no idea how long that will take. We’ve just ruled out lamb, so in a few weeks after his stomach heals we’re due to try venison. I have a whole pantry full of venison tripe that I bought when it was discontinued and then got nervous about feeding him. In this mythical land of four proteins, I will probably stop with the protein trials for a while. Instead I will probably do some more thorough testing of the “small quantity okay” foods I listed above.

With all the “novelty” proteins out there I could easily do another two years of protein trials. Bison, quail, rabbit, kangaroo, brushtail, goose, emu, not to mention individual kinds of fish. I probably won’t, both because those things are expensive and because I need to save some things in case he does develop allergies to our existing safe foods later on.

It all probably sounds terrible and tedious to you, but in reality it does gradually become your way of life.

After a few months, you can no longer imagine just walking into the store and buying a bag of treats without reading the label at least three times, even in the “good” store. It becomes as weird as driving up to the gas station and selecting a random fuel grade for your car.

You learn how to turn down dog treats without offending people.

You learn not to have a panic attack when your dog eats a kibble off the floor at PetSmart.

You learn how to make your own treats, because the only ones your dog can eat cost a fortune. After six or eight months, if you’re like me, you’ll even stop resenting having to do it. (Except liver. Blech.)

You will learn how to pick a pet store in a new city that might possibly have one thing your dog can eat, and you learn how to navigate it when they don’t.

Most importantly: you will develop food contingency plans, and backup contingency plans, and food trial schedules, and then you will stop worrying so much.


Puppy socialization is kind of “the” topic in dog behavior these days. Your adult dog has a problem? Under-socialized as a puppy!

It’s something that really gets under my skin. My adult dog has a lot of psychological problems, including a general anxiety with anything new. He’s uncomfortable with anything that isn’t in a place that he expects it to be, and he has a lot of rules about what is “allowed” to happen where.

We are, in a way, the test-case for what socialization can and can’t do.

Because, you know, we did it all “right.” We went to puppy kindergarten. We met their suggested number of new people and new dogs every week. We went to stores. We went to a different park every weekend. We stayed in puppy daycare when he was still nervous around the other dogs. We went to obedience class so that he would keep getting exposure to people and dogs, and kept going back. We live in a major urban area. Nowhere we go is completely devoid of people.

There are places that I can see what good it did. The places that we went most often with puppy Silas are still his happiest places. He’s not likely to be the ambassador of the dog park, but, thanks largely to puppy daycare, I don’t have to worry constantly about what will happen if we meet another dog.

On the other hand, socialization on its own is just not capable of fixing everything. I’m sure that we could have done more. We could have had Ian Dunbar’s 100 people over to visit, instead of the three or four we managed to scrape up. Found some children somewhere for him to play with. Worked harder on getting him over his fear of cars, when he was still more impressionable. Put him in the better puppy kindergarten. But, you know, we’ve lived in the same house since Silas was five weeks old. He was “socialized” to every noise that this neighborhood is capable of producing. He still finds that noise overwhelming some days.

Don’t get me wrong–socialization is extremely worthwhile. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to live with Silas without that base exposure. The truth is, though, that socialization is not going to change your dog’s basic temperament. You can give your fearful dog the best start possible, but he’s still going to be a fearful dog. Don’t spend the rest of his life beating yourself up that you didn’t do enough when he was a puppy.

Bath Time

We brought some unwanted guests home from our jaunt in the country.

Namely, fleas. I killed one and spotted a second, so bath time it was. Luckily Silas is naturally inhospitable to fleas, so a bath whenever I see them is usually good enough to get them gone again.

This, by the way, is how Silas feels about bathtime:

Bath time

Naked and ashamed.

I honestly can’t quite figure out his attitude toward the bathtub. When I take off his collar and turn on the tub, he will sit right outside the bathroom baby gate until I open it to let him in. Then he walks right to the tub and jumps in. But he looks like he’s walking the plank. I’ve seen humans go to the dentist with more pep. At least he’s willing to hop in on his own these days.

Our current doggie shampoo is this one from EarthBath. I’m not wild about the way it smells, but it’s better than dirty dog. It doesn’t seem to irritate Silas’s skin, which is a plus. It makes great bubbles. I’m glad I don’t hate it, because I think it’s going to last until the end of time. We’ve had it over a year, and it’s still 2/3 full. Silas only gets a bath every two or three months and he doesn’t have a lot of hair.

After the bath we run around like crazy people for a solid twenty minutes. The crazies last longer than the bath.


Do your dogs like bath time? Have you ever actually used up a dog shampoo?

Five Week Behaviorist Follow Up

We had our follow-up appointment with the behaviorist on Tuesday. Good stuff.

The follow-up appointments are one-part talking about what’s been going on and improving, and two parts really focused private dog-traning class. Today we did mat work and leash walking.

The mat work was hilarious. Silas had only been in the room a few minutes when we started, so he really wasn’t inclined to settle down. I’d get him to relax, then he would pop back up. Relax, pop-up. Repeat. The behaviorist warned me to be extremely careful with that behavior–a smart dog like Silas, she cautioned, will learn that leaving the mat, then coming back, is a quicker way to get a cookie than hanging out on the mat while you count to five. So, when he comes back, you have to make sure to wait the same amount of time you were going to wait anyway.

The leash walking was probably the most effective training session I’ve ever done. We were walking along the side of the building, away from the road but at the edge of the parking lot. Parking lots are hard for him, but not as impossible as the road. We’ve worked up now where he doesn’t have to sprint through them at top speed just to leave the park. Silas was being himself and wouldn’t eat. I got his frisbee, and he wouldn’t look at it. Everyone I’ve ever worked with has thrown up their hands at this point. “Well, he’ll get better. Just keep at it.” The behaviorist told me to pet him for being good, but he wasn’t really that aware of what I was trying to do. So finally she told me to just crouch down next to him on the sidewalk, make him a little “safety cocoon” up against my body and pet him for a five or ten seconds. A reward that he loved, and that made him actively feel better. A few repetitions of that, and he was not only walking better, but he was also comfortable enough to take the much-easier-on-the-knees cookies.

As a side note, I know most people don’t need a veterinary behaviorist to teach their dog how to walk on a leash. Honestly, neither do I. In a familiar environment, Silas is pretty good on-leash. His first instinct in a moment of panic, though, is to bolt. He is strong. He pulled my mother, who is not a small person, off her feet one day. There are times that I only keep him from getting away because I can run with him until I get him back under control. We’re trying to teach him that walking with me is the safest thing and that I will turn him away from anything bad.

As for the other stuff–apparently not barking when their owners are away is extremely common with dogs like Silas. She blames it on general dog-ness and a reward history (probably unconscious) on behalf of the owner. She was hopeful that the car thing means he’s more “fixable” than we might have guessed based on his original behavior.

Homework: more mat work, more walking, more trips to the park.