Its The Dog

Learning through dogs

Archive for the category “Training”

The importance of body language

I’ve posted about body language before. It’s something I believe everyone should have some understanding of, especially those who share their lives with dogs. Understanding body language can prevent bites and maulings, it would seem like common sense to have at least a basic grasp of calming signals.

Unfortunately most people aren’t even aware that dogs communicate with us so much. I recently viewed a youtube video depicting a great dane with a small child climbing on his back. The dog was clearly not enjoying the experience, but the parents recording the event were encouraging the child. There were two instances within the 2 minute video where the dog froze. These people were oblivious to the danger they were putting their child and the dog in.

The video can be seen here; Danger dane

Just because a dog is tolerant or below threshold doesn’t mean you should continue to push the dog, doing so is asking for trouble.


‘Tis the season

Dingo at 8 weeks old

Some of you may be considering bringing home a new puppy for the holidays. Maybe you’re trying to justify it; the kids will enjoy it; it’ll keep you company during the winter; it’ll be fun. Maybe it’s time for a reality check.

Winter puppies are no fun, house training in 2 feet of snow, bone chilling winds and road salt are only a few of the complications. Dingo was a winter puppy, it took 8 months before he was reliably going potty outside. We had a routine, 3am I’d be up take him outside, then back in the crate, 5 minutes later go back out. By this time he was awake, great. Play for a few hours, potty breaks every 5-10 minutes. By 5am he’d be sleeping in his crate and I’d head for bed. By 7am he’d be awake again and already have gone potty in his crate. I’d wash his bed, play with him for an hour, feed him, again we’d be outside every few minutes. In between I’d be cleaning his accidents because he’d get so cold outside wouldn’t do his business. By spring this was the norm, and it became a battle of breaking the habbit of going potty inside. Once it was warm enough to spend more than 3 minutes outside, we assumed a very strict schedule, and even then there were accidents.

Other issues such as lack of soclialization are common among winter puppies. Due to the weather, lack of day light and, in some areas, winter road conditions, people lack the motivation or the means to take a puppy out for daily socialization. The puppies only social interaction is with the people who live at the house, and occassional guests. This is great if you want a dog who’s unsure about how to interact with other dogs and people.

The point is winter puppy raising isn’t all that fun, infact there are times when you’ll feel overwhelmed, and maybe even consider rehoming or abandoning the dog. The typical christmas puppy will find itself in a shelter by spring, when the family had become tired of their floors being destroyed by urine, or when the adolescent dog begins showing signs of being under socialized and nips the kids. Once the novelty wears off, it’s the puppy who suffers.

Counter conditioning and desensitization

So what other methods are there to work with biting dogs? A little thing called counter conditioning and desensitization of course. But what are they?

Counter conditioning

CC as it’s often called is a tweaked version of Pavlov’s classical conditioning. Pavlov used a neutral stimuli to trigger a response. In the case of counter conditioning you’re taking a negative stimuli and giving it a positive meaning. remember last week when I mentioned habituated responses? this is what I was talking about.
The point of this method is not to go over threshold so you never put the dog in a position where it feels the need to defend itself. This is why it takes so long. 


Desensitization is not the same thing as socializing. It’s the process of getting the dog comfortable in the presence of a trigger without going over threshold.

What do these two methods used together look like? well like this.

Notice the dog is fairly comfortable throughout the session, her head and tail are high, she’s focused on her handler and the leash is loose. There’s no physical contact with the dog other than during the transfer of treats.
Heres a dog who’s afraid of the world beyond the comfort of the house.

This video touches on what I will talk about tomorrow, flooding and displacement behaviors. displacement behaviors are similar to calming signals, however they mean something different. Calming signals are used to diffuse stressful interactions, displacement behaviors are used when the dog is experiencing two conflicting drives. An example would be a dog is afraid to move forward but want to stay with his person. More to come tomorrow.

The truth about dominance

As I mentioned last week, many popular and famous trainers boast about dominance. Helix Fairweather made a list of the behaviors often refered to as dominance behaviors, the list follows; 

1. paw whacks
2. going through the doorway first
3. jumping up
4. not instantly performing whatever behavior was just cued
5. sitting/lying on the furniture
6. being destructive in the house
7. barking at strangers on the street
8. peeing in the house
9. pulling on the leash
10. leaning on people for petting
11. barking while family is eating
12. struggling with/trying to paw at head halter
13. chewing through leash
14. scraping feet after peeing or pooping
15. putting a foot on top of owner’s foot
16. rushing out the door
17. walking in front of you
18. not getting out of the way
19. stealing a Kleenex
20. non-compliant dog, refusing to do as you ask
21. nudging, pawing, begging for attention
22. bumping into you
23. standing over you
24. putting dog paws on your shoulders
25. barking at you in response to a cue
26. stealing your items
27. house soiling past the usual expected time a dog should be trained
28. body slamming you with their rear end
29. having his “lipstick” out (HF: male dog, think about it, it took me a minute)
30. won’t sit, down, or anything else unless he feels like it
31. barks at me when I yell at her
32. bites me (my favorite was the recommendation from a vet regarding a 5 -week- old rescue pup whose mother died, he instructed the foster mom to alpha roll the pup 3 times a day)
33. eats too fast (i’m not kidding)
34. won’t come in the house
35. won’t get off the bed/sofa
36. barks at strangers
37. barks at the cat
38. barks at cars
39. when in the car, barks at people who walk by the car
40. growls when i try to take his bone
41. growls when i try to take his toy
42. lays down when i’m walking him (young giant breed puppy, being walked 2 miles in the heat, idiot is lucky the pup is still alive!)
43. barks while i’m getting her meal
44. throws his food bowl around
45. mounts my 3 yr old 46. stood on my bed, looked me right in the eye and peed on my pillow
47. growled at other dog when they were introduced (after questioning the poster about the situation, they were introduced in a 6′ x 6′ hall where there were 4 adults and 3 children)
48. my puppy puts everything in her mouth
49. obeys my husband, doesn’t listen to me
50. mounts me
51. mounts my brother in law
52. barks when left alone
53. pees in crate
54. isn’t neutered
55. 8 week old puppy dives on golden, bites him
56. licks the bottom of my shoes (huh?)
57. is dominant over my other dog and my other dog gets hot spots
58. growls at me when i put her citronella collar on her
59. snores (another real eye opener for me!)
60. eats rocks
61. eats off of kids’ plates
62. lunges at people
63. steals my shoes
64. poops on husband’s clothes (in my never humble opinion, serves him right for leaving his clothes on the floor…tee hee)
65. stares at me
66. puts her paw on me when i pet her
67. when he’s bad and i shake his scruff, he’s started to growl at me (wow! what a good start at owner induced aggression!)
68. tried to bite my son when my son tried to drag him out from under the bed 69. when trying to grab his collar to take him inside or finish playing he starts running crazy away from you
70. always wants more food
71. peeing on your leg
72. not giving up items on request
73. being stubborn
74. growling, snarling, snapping, biting
75. sitting on owner’s foot

What this basically means is dogs should be robotic, they should lack the free will.

Lets see what dominance looks like. Here a man is making a dog “submit” to him by alpha rolling him, pay attention to the dogs body language, what is the dog telling the guy.

So did you watch the dog? Did you notice the dogs reaction when the man approached? Did you see the calming signals throughout the video? That was a fairly mild video, lets look at more.

Here a man is working with a “dominant aggressive” cane corso.

Whats going on? I’d be willing to bet the dog has an underlying health condition going by the thick vaginal discharge. The dog throughout the video is giving calming signals, and some threats. After he “alpha rolled” her you notice she stayed down, blinking, squinting and averting her gaze, she’s on her way to learned helplessness. The averting gaze continued til the end of the video, the only time she looked at him was to make sure he wasn’t going to attack her again.

I am not saying that a biting dog is okay, however there are better ways to approach their training, and I will touch on those tomorrow. For now lets continue.

Can you see what happened here?

You can break it down. Dog 1 starts a low rapid tail wag(calming signal/excitement) Dog 2 gives a side ways glance(whale eye threat). Dog 1 continues low rapid tail wag and possibly attempts to mount dog 2(excitement and stress relief), Dog 2 becomes tense(anti social) and lunges(anti social). Dog 1 appeases(a calming signal) and stops the attack. Dog 2 backs off and Dog 1 continues with the calming signals.



In training the word “method” is commonly heard. Method refers to the kind of training you take part in, or what quads of operant conditioning you take part in. There are some other dirty details and I’ll talk about those as well. But first; the quads.

The quads of operant conditioning.

During the early 20th century a scientist by the name of B.F. Skinner experimented with learning theory with pigeons, rats and dogs in a laboratory setting. Through his studies he defined a basis of learning in which consequences influenced the future behaviors of an individual organism. Today Skinner’s works are employed in behavior modifications from whales to hamster.

Positive Reward: Through a positive consequence a behavior is strengthened(more likely to occur again).

Negative Reward: A behavior is strengthened through avoiding or ending a negative consequence

Negative Punishment: The withdrawal of a positive consequence results in the decrease of a behavior

Positive Punishment: A behavior is followed by a negative consequence resulting in a decrease in that behavior.

What about Extinction?

Extinction is part of the operant conditioning model, but is often forgotten or considered a phantom quad. Extinction as a learning element is the act of ignoring an unwanted behavior. Under the theory that a behavior that is not reinforced will diminish(read be come extinct). When employing this as part of your lesson plan you will likely encounter extinction bursts where a behavior becomes more intense and frequent prior to diminishing.


There are many different methods at the disposal of trainers(lay persons included). Often you will hear terms such as “dominance” and “positive training” But what do they mean?

Dominance as described by ethologists is the relationship between two or more individual organisms that through force, aggression and submission is established for priority to resources. Resources are defined as food, water, shelter and mates.

Dominance is a term you often hear in traditional training techniques based on captive wolf social interactions. The problems with this are; Dogs are not wolves, dogs are dogs. And wolves in captivity do not behave as they do in the wild due to the stresses of confinement. Forcing a hierarchy on a species that does not establish a solid alpha position can lead to undue stress. Many dog behaviorist have shown that dominance theory can create aggression, or make an aggressive dog worse.

Positive training Positive training takes many forms, and as I said training is liquid and sometimes those forms aren’t exactly positive. Some traditional trainers will call themselves positive trainers despite their use of aversives. Although typically this type of training makes use of positive reward and  negative punishment.

Marker (clicker) training falls under positive training. But as I said some traditional trainers do make use of marker training along with aversives.

What is training

As I said yesterday, training is behavior modification. That means any behavior that isn’t wanted want can be trained against. There are behaviors that can be modified to occur on cue, and/or behaviors that  can be modified to become habitual. There’s no rule anywhere that one behavior has to be put on cue, and the other habituated. Many people train a habitual sit when working on heel or when training in general. These are behaviors that aren’t cued directly but rather by the circumstance or environment.


Behaviors modified to occur on cue are typically seen in sporting rings, shows and events. These can be anything from basic obedience to schutzhund to tricks performed at school events. Most often these are behaviors performed at home for friends and family.


Habitual modifications are on another level; these take time to grasp and modify to work with and for the dog. These are modifications usually used in reactivity training, where the trigger becomes the cue and the response becomes habituated to the trigger.

Liquid training

I like to think of training as liquid. Technique or method can be modified or adapted. The only rules are with the tools themselves not in the details of the technique. For example a clicker sequence is click then treat, that is a rule because that’s how it makes sense. But lure, partial lure and shape, full shape, or capture  can all be employed to help the training process along.


As I stated in the “about” page, I am a cross-over trainer. I was brought up with the belief that training and behavior modification were two separate aspects of dog raising.

Training had to do with tricks and certain behaviors.

The light bulb moment for me was when, on a forum of all places, another cross-over trainer had stated that reactivity is a behavior. That made sense. And so my journey across the line of dominance and control to understanding and benevolence began.

So this week I am going to focus on why training is important, methods, and tools.

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