You’re Going to Make Mistakes

While I let Silas off the hook of being “perfect” years ago, I have a little harder time with myself.

Which is why I’m here to remind you that you are going to make mistakes with your dog. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when” and “what do I do now?”

Every dog trainer makes mistakes. For those of us with less well-balanced dogs, it’s painfully obvious when we screw something up. Anxious dogs have long memories, and they seldom “get over it” no matter how much time you let pass. Overestimate their abilities to handle a situation, and you can undo a lot of hard work.

It’s easy to say “be more careful,” and then beat yourself up when something goes wrong, but that doesn’t help you or your dog.


Here’s my example from today:

Silas and I were playing a retrieving game. It was going great.

Then it went off the rails. First, I got greedy. He was having so much fun! It was our best retrieving in months! So I thought “Let’s do just one more!” (Pro tip: train yourself to say, in response to that little voice, “Nah, we’re good.”) Except the one more was really slow and kind of bad. “I don’t want to end on that! I’ll do one more, so we can stop on one of the great ones.” DANGER. ABORT MISSION. The last retrieve was perfect! I was so excited! I threw a big excited party, like all those trainers tell you to!

Except noise-sensitive Silas, focused on the second ball I was holding, wasn’t expecting a big party. He dropped his poor ball like it was a hot coal and cowered in terror.

Now, despite my best efforts at damage control in the moment, he is apparently terrified both of his ball and of bringing me things. (Yeah, this is really going to be a big setback on the retrieve front.)

And here’s where letting go of perfection is useful.

Instead of wallowing in self pity (although I might have, for just a minute, and that’s okay too), I am making a plan. When Silas wakes up from his nap, we’re going to do some hand-touches with high-value rewards. The absolutely most important thing is to make sure that he doesn’t get skittish about running up to me, so I’m going to go back and re-invest heavily in that step.

I’m also going to do some free-shaping games with the offending ball. (Depending on how this goes, I may change over to a different ball, but I don’t think he’s quite that frightened.) We’ll progress from there back to the retrieve game only once he’s comfortable with the toy again.

In a completely different context (probably with his favorite tug) I am going to work on his tolerance for sudden noise while he plays, just in case I forget myself in the moment again.

You’re going to make mistakes. Accept it, let it go, get on with a plan.

October Goals? Big fail.

Back at the beginning of October I wrote that my goal this month was to successfully trim Silas’s nails.

It has not happened.

This is not entirely from lack of effort, although I did flag a little mid-month. (We ran out of our A++ value cookies, and I was thwarted in replacing them.)

You know what the problem is? Silas is too smart for this game.

He’s perfectly happy to do anything involving the nail clippers, short of actual clipping. We worked through all of the following:

  • Approaching me while the clippers are nearby
  • Approaching me while I hold the clippers
  • Him touching the clippers with his foot while the clippers are on the ground (foot targeting is one of the first behaviors he offers in a shaping session.)
  • Offering me his paw while the clippers are nearby
  • Offering me his paw while I hold the clippers
  • Letting me hold his foot for moderate duration while I hold the clippers.
  • Letting me touch his nail with the clippers

But the little rat is quite capable of believing both that “this is some bizarre but okay shaping exercise that involves the clippers as a prop” and “Hell, no, you are not actually clipping my nails.”

We’re in a vicious cycle now, where his nails are long and very sturdy, but probably also sensitive because they are too long and clack on the floor constantly. I broke down last week and trimmed a few of the worst ones on the front. At that point I realized that my clippers have gotten really dull and are squeezing his nails too much. (It also hurts my cause that I went ahead with the clipping, but I am only human and couldn’t take it anymore.)

So, the next part of our action plan, in a roughly chronological order:

  1. Acquire new clippers. (Check.) Repeat as necessary until I get a pair that’s sharp.
  2. Persevere with the non-clipping parts of the counterconditioning, even though they don’t seem to be adding up to real change.
  3. Make him a scratch board and see if I can train him to “file” his own nails.
  4. Think about my actual clipping mechanics and match them better with the counterconditioning sessions.
  5. Focus on clipping the tiniest possible amount, rather than actually getting them to a tolerable level.

In the dog food debate, I’m a hopeless moderate

Can I confess something?

I don’t like reading internet discussions about dog food.

I feed Silas mostly raw. I’m not the most diehard advocate for the cause, but I see the benefits. I agree that it can be a miracle for dogs with food allergies, which is why we do it. I enjoy being (mostly) in control of my dog’s diet. But I think raw feeding attracts a lot of very intense, very controlling people. And those people tend to butt in everywhere, even when they aren’t wanted. “What kind of kibble should I feed?” “Kibble is poison! Why did you even get a dog?!” I don’t like to watch it.

When we first switched to raw, I spent a lot of time looking for the “perfect” nutritional supplement and mix of foods to make his diet (you guessed it) “perfect.” I worried about the fact that one expert wanted X amount of vitamin E and another felt that Y was better.  I doodled little lists. I was in charge, dammit, and I was going to be great at this.

When our food allergy diet was finally far enough along for me to start adding in supplements, I tried a few. This is when I got hit by the ugly fact:

Silas is not going to eat that stuff.

There was a brief, shining moment where it looked like he might (finally) be okay with one multivitamin, and then that, too, fell flat. Salmon oil is the only thing he will take consistently.

At the same time, I’ve had to accept that we have a moderate but very real food availability problem. I am blessed with a year-round source of at least some turkey parts, including heart and liver. I can get pork, if I’m willing to pay for it (nobody in my house is eating factory-farmed pork unless it’s a serious emergency), but not organs. Venison is similar–for a price I can get plain ground, with or without bone, but no organs unless I wheedle them out of hunting family members.

Because we rotate proteins, this lack of liver is worrisome. I add slightly more during the times Silas is eating turkey, but too much liver at once is hard to digest. I couldn’t quite balance it out. This combination of fewer nutrient-rich organs and an inability to give supplements drove me back to (gasp! shock! horror!) feeding Silas some commercial dog food including (gasp! shock! horror!) one with grains. I don’t know that my mixed bag of foods will really save me from long-term nutritional issues, but it’s the best I can do.*

The long and the short of it is, though, that Silas’s allergies are inconvenient but apparently limited to proteins. I can’t see any clear reason why I shouldn’t let some commercial food into his diet.

And that’s why I don’t like listening to people go on and on about their elaborate supplement regimens and the twelve hours a month they spend pre-packaging ideally blended meals to put in the deep freezer. I just don’t see the benefit, except for the extreme minority of dogs who have more extensive allergies than Silas does. Neither the science nor my own experiences with a delicate flower of a dog support the hysteria.

*This is not to say that Silas’s diet is anything wild. I find it vaguely hilarious that I am half-expecting to get scolded for what is, in fact, still a very solid raw diet. On a typical day, he has Honest Kitchen (either Keen or Preference)+ground meat for breakfast, with some kind of plain bone-in meat at dinner. (Venison is ground+mix for both meals.) Once or twice a week he gets canned or freeze-dried food. There are actually a few kibbles out there now that Silas isn’t allergic to, but after all this time away he doesn’t seem to digest them very well in large amounts.

Be The Change for Animals: Heal Yourself


I didn’t have a Blog the Change/Be the Change post lined up for today. Then the Universe kicked me in a not-subtle way, when a friend of a friend shared something on Facebook. That blog post, from a blog I don’t read and know nothing about, seemed so stunningly appropriate that I couldn’t keep it to myself.

Go read it. It’s short.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.–Thomas Merton

Compassion fatigue is a real thing. It’s especially pernicious in people who work with animals.

We can wear ourselves so thin trying to save the world that, ironically, we are unable to act. We perpetuate the violence of the world on our own selves, in ways both small and tragically, devastatingly large.

If all you can do today is to take care of your own animals, do that. Do it without punishing yourself. Do it with love. Let yourself find joy in it.

The bigger fight will still be there when you come back.


You Can’t Reinforce Fear, Continued

Last Spring I wrote this post about how you can’t reinforce fear.

I wanted to revisit the topic today, though, because I still see this idea everywhere. Also, a conversation I had yesterday on Twitter with a blog-less reader made me want to add a few thoughts to my original post.

“Don’t give the dog a cookie while she’s scared! You’ll make her worse!”


Reinforcement increases behavior. Fear is not a behavior; it is an emotion. We don’t choose to have or not have our emotions, and dogs don’t have our ability to talk themselves out of their feelings. Technically, you could reinforce a fear-based behavior, like cowering, but that assumes a level of active awareness on the dog’s part that I personally haven’t seen. Could you exactly replicate the way you jump when someone slams a door behind you?

One of the reasons that the “reinforcing fear” myth is so pervasive is that there is a distantly related scientific truth. You will, absolutely and without a doubt, have the best results from counterconditioning/desensitization if the dog is what behavioral scientists call “under threshold.” That is, the ideal time to deliver your reward is to do it before the dog starts reacting to something. So, yes, once your dog is already cowering or barking, you’re behind the curve. In a perfect world, you would deliver every reward while the dog is calm or happy.

Let’s get this clear, though:

The absolutely worst thing you can do for a fearful dog is to do nothing. 

So, you make a timing mistake. Your dog sees or hears something that you weren’t prepared for. Maybe you have a situation like thunder phobia where there is no “milder version” or “greater distance” to work with. If you believe that you will reinforce fear by delivering a cookie, petting, praise, or even by getting the dog out of the situation, your dog’s behavior will deteriorate. This is science.

Once your dog is reacting fearfully, he is over threshold. Not only is being over threshold bad for your dog physiologically, it will sensitize your dog to future encounters. His threshold for future fear reactions will lower. Sensitization and the lowering of thresholds is bad enough for problems like leash reactivity, but for conditions like separation anxiety or thunder phobia it can be disastrous. For any fear, once that threshold gets low enough, your only choice will be to medicate, because it is no longer possible for your dog to be safely counter-conditioned otherwise.

Now that your dog is over threshold, you have two choices: you can either do nothing, because it “reinforces fear” (bad idea), or you can deliver an admittedly sub-optimal reward. What your poorly-timed cookie/praise/petting/escape will get you is the chance that your dog will go back under that threshold. You may or may not get long-term learning out of it (whatever the books say, counter conditioning in the real world is hard, imprecise work), but at the very least you are stopping the damage.

Your frightened dog is not making a choice that you can validate or (heaven help me) punish. You are helping your dog–a creature who completely depends on you–handle a bad situation, whether he’s coping in an ideal way or not.

Control Issues

I’m a person who likes ORDER and ROUTINE. I balance my budget to the penny. I always go to the grocery store with a list. I read the care labels before I do the laundry. My husband and I once went to the same restaurant, on the same day of the week, every week for six months.

In other words, I’m a control freak who doesn’t tolerate change well.

As I’m sure you can imagine,  Silas and I struggled a lot in his early life. There’s some of this evident in the earlier parts of the blog, but most of it had happened before then. The dog training facility we used rolled puppies straight from puppy class to Obedience I. There were our pals from puppy class, gazing adoringly at their humans, begging for instructions. And then there was Silas, at the end of his leash, checking out everything but me. That’s how he was everywhere. When he was about a year old, we were on some trails with loose dirt over rock, and he pulled me completely off my feet. I went back to the car and cried. It wasn’t that it hurt; it was because my dog didn’t seem to even know I was outside with him.

I wasn’t “in control” of his behavior. I couldn’t even influence his behavior.

It changed everything when I realized that he constantly scanned his environment, apparently not paying me any attention, because I was the one thing out there that he could count on.

I also distinctly remember reading a passage in Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed. McDevitt brings up that old saw–you need to be more interesting than your dog’s environment in order to get your dog’s attention, and you need your dogs attention 100% of the time. Then she says that it just isn’t true:

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be interesting or rewarding to your dog. But I am relieving you of the burden of having to be the best thing in the galaxy at all times….It should be very rewarding for your dog to work with you, and I hope it always is. If it isn’t, you need to thoroughly examine your training structure and methodology. But you don’t have to take this concept to the extreme to train your dog…and you don’t have to feel like a total failure if your dog occasionally wants to act like a dog. (54)

Since then I’ve thought a lot about control. How much do we need in our relationships with our dogs? What purpose does it serve?


Force-free dog training changed the methods that we use to teach our dogs, but it hasn’t always changed the assumptions that underlie what “good dog training” looks like. I touched on this a few weeks ago when I wrote about failure. We don’t want our dogs to fail, because we still believe that failure is something bad that needs to be punished. Since we know we don’t want to punish, we feel like we can’t allow failure.

Control is on that same continuum. Traditional dog training said that your dog should be “under control” 100% of the time. Obedience trials are expressly designed to test that level of control. Will your dog stay in a cued position even when you aren’t there? Will your dog work devotedly even when there are no tangible rewards?

Perhaps ironically, positive dog trainers are often more intense about control than trainers who are willing to use punishment, because we feel like we have fewer options. I’ve seen a good bit of paranoia about dogs “self-reinforcing.” There is a real fear that our reinforcements won’t be reinforcing enough to get the behavior that we want, unless we keep the poor dog in some kind of sensory deprivation the rest of the time.

Obviously, an “out of control” dog is a problem. Dogs have sharp teeth, strong muscles, and poor judgment. Dogs need to be kept safe, from themselves and from the world, and people need to be kept safe from dogs. Also true, a dog with unlimited access to reinforcement isn’t going to make a great training partner. Why work for something you can get for free?

There is, however, a vast amount of grey area between no control and too much. Most importantly, trying to control your dog all the time is filling your world with NO, and that’s exactly what positive dog training is trying to change. Our dogs will be happy to work with us without Stockholm Syndrome. Let yourself off the hook. Sometimes it’s okay for your dog be a dog.