Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Using Operant Conditioning for Dog Training

There are numerous methods utilized today for dog training - but which one(s) should you use to train your own canine?

What is Operant Conditioning?
Operant conditioning is the modification of behavior through the use of consequences (reinforcers and punishers). Although there are arguments against this, operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning in that it deals with changing operant behavior (or 'voluntary' behavior) versus reflexive behavior ('involuntary' behavior). That being said, whenever you're dealing with changing behaviors, operant and classical conditioning can work hand-in-hand.

Operant conditioning has two main tools for modifying behavior - reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcers increase behavior, while punishers decrease a behavior. These operate in two contexts - positive and negative. In this case, positive refers to addition; negative refers to subtraction.

B.F. Skinner was the "Pavlov" of operant conditioning, and actually outlined a third tool - extinction - which is the lack of any consequence. Though it might seem like doing nothing couldn't be an effective training method, it can actually produce results when used correctly.

Positive Reinforcement
An important thing to keep in mind when considering which of these tools to utilize is the long-term effects each can have on your dog. Positive reinforcement is - in my opinion - the strongest teaching tool - not only does it focus on increasing positive behavior; it teaches the dog to want to work with his owner and continue learning and trying.

The basic premise of positive reinforcement is: dog performs behavior, dog gets rewarded. The dog learns - at first - "every time I do this, I get THIS." After a desired behavior is consistently occurring, then the trainer will begin to decrease payment of the behavior, only focusing on the dog's best performances. This encourages the dog to try his best each and every time, since he only gets paid for his best endeavors.

Once a behavior is learned, the dog is only paid intermittently. He's not quite sure when he'll get paid, so once again, he is going to offer his best effort all the time. This form of intermittent reinforcement is often where most trainers who teach clicker training fail to understand the implications of operant conditioning. They teach their trainers to use treats and pay their dog for every single occurrence of behavior. This actually creates a dog who doesn't perform very well; since he's never pushed to give his best, he gets treated regardless of performance and often these dogs are lazy, don't perform behaviors on cue and tend to get lackadaisical about working with their trainers.

Negative Punishment
Negative punishment is also a strong tool to decrease unwanted behavior, since this method focuses on the removal of a desired reward when an unwanted behavior occurs. Trained consistently, the dog will learn whenever she offers a certain behavior, she loses something she's very motivated to have - i.e., a treat, a toy, another behavior (such as going outside, going for a walk, etc.). Other examples would be a dog gets overly excited while being petted, so the person ignores the dog until she settles and then continues petting; or a very a high prey-drive dog not being allowed to play fetch unless she displays the correct behavior. Fetch in this case is not only a game; it can be a very strong teaching tool. Of course, all dogs are different and are motivated - at different times - by different things. You need to choose the best motivator for your own dog in order to truly see results.

Negative Reinforcement
While the concept of training through negative reinforcement may seem counter-intuitive to positive methods, it can actually be a strong tool. Keep in mind 'negative' in this sense doesn't carry an emotional connotation. Negative reinforcement is the increase in desired behavior caused by the removal of an unwanted stimulus.

An example of negative reinforcement would be teaching a dog to respond to touch. If you place your hand on your dog's side and push, eventually he'll move away from the pressure. You're not hurting the dog, but pressure can actually be an adverse stimulus. When the dog moves away, you remove the pressure. This is how horses are trained to move while being ridden - it's called 'leg aiding' and applies the very theory of negatively reinforcing the horse for moving away from a rider's leg when pressure is applied.

Positive Punishment
There are many reasons I don't utilize this type of training with dogs - mainly because with this method you're merely telling the dog "don't do that!" Instead of empowering her with what she should or could be doing, you're focusing on one thing she shouldn't be doing.

In other words, dogs are always doing something, and if you use this method of training, you won't get very far, since it's a major trial-and-error to teach them the things you don't want them to do. That is, the communication focuses on an undesired stimulus (to the dog) such as a shock collar, a yell, even hitting the dog when she offers an undesired behavior (to the human). Even if you use positive punishment in conjunction with the other methods, another consequence from using this type of training occurs: your dog learns to be afraid to try new behaviors. This is because (through intermittent reinforcement) she doesn't know when she'll receive a shock (or other adverse stimulus) for a new behavior.

What you have, in effect, is a dog who doesn't entirely trust you - or herself.

Extinction is the lack of consequence after a behavior. This can be utilized by a trainer to decrease behaviors. When a behavior consistently produces no consequence, that behavior will occur with less and less frequency. Keep in mind the dog has to be accustomed to the 'rule': desired behavior results in reward.

However, you might have heard of an "extinction burst." This refers to the dog taking more action in order to gain the desired consequence. For example, when free shaping a dog, you'd start by paying the slightest increments, and once the dog is offering the first increment consistently, you don't pay him the next time. The dog knows this behavior has paid before, so what he'll do is try harder to gain the consequence.

Of course, as mentioned before, if the dog never gets paid for the behavior, he will slowly stop offering the behavior, since there is no gain in performing it.

Remember, whichever method you decide to use, don't forget to have fun!

Thanks to Teaching Dog Obedience for this well written article!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day Treats for Dogs

"He loves me, he loves me not..." Fortunately, that's something you never have to worry about with your dog. He'll love you through thick and thin, no matter how you look or how much money you have. It doesn't get any better than that for Valentine's Day!

Your dog gives you unconditional love, and you love him with all your heart, too. But you can do one thing your dog can't: You can make him some delectable Valentine's goodies as an extra special treat. (If your dog had opposable thumbs and could read, he would do the same for you.)

Here are three of our favorite Valentine's treat recipes from the Interwebs. They're so good you might be tempted to have a bite yourself. (Well, maybe not the liver treats...)

Carob-Dipped Valentine's Day Dog Treats

From Doggie Stylish

•1 egg
•1/4 cup applesauce
•1/2 cup beef or chicken broth
•1 tablespoon honey
•1 tablespoon molasses
•1/4 cup cooking oil
•2 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
•2 cups carob chips

Cooking Instructions
Preheat oven to 300 F.

In a large bowl, combine egg, applesauce, broth, honey, molasses and oil. Gradually stir in flour.

Dough should be stiff, add flour or water to adjust.

On a well-floured surface, roll out dough into 1/4 inch thickness.

Use a heart shaped cookie cutter to make shapes from the dough

Place on lightly greased cookie sheets and bake for 30 minutes, or until the cookies are golden brown.

Melt carob chips in microwave or double boiler.

Dip half of the heart into the melted carob.

Place cookies on waxed paper and let stand until carob is set.

Red Velvet Pupcakes

Adapted from

Red velvet is all the rage in the world of cupcakes these days. So why not try these crimson-hued beauties on your best friend? Beet juice gives them their color, an whole-wheat flour gives them fiber. The cottage cheese icing helps make these trendy treats a balanced meal.

•1/4 cup canola oil
•1 cup applesauce
•1/3 cup beet puree or fresh beet juice
•1 and 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
•2 teaspoons baking powder
•1 cup low-fat cottage cheese

Cooking Instructions
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a six-cup muffin tin with muffin cups.

In a large bowl whisk together oil, applesauce and beet puree.

In a separate bowl, combine flour and baking powder. Slowly stir flour mixture into the wet ingredients.

Spoon batter into muffin cups to three-quarters full and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into a cupcake comes out clean. Remove cupcakes from the pan and cool on a rack.

In the bowl of a food processor, puree cottage cheese until smooth, about 30 seconds. Keep frosting refrigerated until cupcakes are completely cool. Frost and serve.

Valentine Liver Nibbles Recipe

From The Honest Kitchen

Nothing says "Be my Valentine" better than a blender full of raw beef liver. You have to love your dog a lot to pop that special ingredient into your blender and then make yourself a smoothie in it the next day. These treats are very nutritious and judging from our dogs' reactions, very delicious.

•1 lb fresh raw organic beef liver or chicken liver
•3 free range eggs
•1/4 cup canola or other vegetable oil
•2 cups instant oats
•1 Tbsp applesauce (optional)
•2 Tbsp nutritional yeast (optional)
•3 Tbsp powdered kelp
•Filtered water sufficient to make a batter


Process the liver in a blender or food processor until completely pureed. Beat the eggs in a bowl and pour in the oil. Add the liver. Mix in the dry ingredients slowly, stirring continuously so they are thoroughly combined. Add water gradually, until you have a "batter" consistency. Pour this batter into a loaf tin. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Cool in the tin until able to be handled, then gently turn the loaf out onto a rack and refrigerate to cool completely. Cut with heart-shaped cookie cutter. Store in a sealed container.

Thanks to Dogster for these delicious ideas!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Guide to a Pet-Friendly Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day can be as much fun for pets as it is for humans if dangerous foods, flora and other items are kept out of paws’ reach. Each year our poison control experts see a rise in cases around February 14, many involving chocolate and lilies, a flower that’s potentially fatal to cats. So please heed our experts’ advice—don’t leave the goodies lying around on Lover’s Day.

Pet-Safe Bouquets
Many pet owners are still unaware that all species of lily are potentially fatal to cats. When sending a floral arrangement, specify that it contain no lilies if the recipient has a cat—and when receiving an arrangement, sift through and remove all dangerous flora. If your pet is suffering from symptoms such as stomach upset, vomiting or diarrhea, he may have ingested an offending flower or plant. Use our online toxic and nontoxic plant libraries as visual guides of what and what not should be in your bouquets.

Forbidden Chocolate
Seasoned pet lovers know the potentially life-threatening dangers of chocolate, including baker’s, semi sweet, milk and dark. In darker chocolates, methylxanthines—caffeine-like stimulants that affect gastrointestinal, neurologic and cardiac function—can cause vomiting/diarrhea, hyperactivity, seizures and an abnormally elevated heart rate. The high-fat content in lighter chocolates can potentially lead to a life-threatening inflammation of the pancreas. Go ahead and indulge, but don’t leave chocolate out for chowhounds to find.

Careful with Cocktails
Spilled wine, half a glass of champagne, some leftover liquor are nothing to cry over until a curious pet laps them up. Because animals are smaller than humans, a little bit of alcohol can do a lot of harm, causing vomiting, diarrhea, lack of coordination, central nervous system depression, tremors, difficulty breathing, metabolic disturbances and even coma. Potentially fatal respiratory failure can also occur if a large enough amount is ingested.

Life Is Sweet
So don’t let pets near treats sweetened with xylitol. If ingested, gum, candy and other treats that include this sweetener can result in a sudden drop in blood sugar known as hypoglycemia. This can cause your pet to suffer depression, loss of coordination and seizures.

Every Rose Has Its Thorn
Don’t let pets near roses or other thorny stemmed flowers. Biting, stepping on or swallowing their sharp, woody spines can cause serious infection if a puncture occurs. “It’s all too easy for pets to step on thorns that fall to the ground as a flower arrangement is being created,” says Dr. Louise Murray, Director of Medicine for the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital. De-thorn your roses far away from pets.

Playing with Fire
It’s nice to set your evening a-glow with candlelight, but put out the fire when you leave the room. Pawing kittens and nosy pooches can burn themselves or cause a fire by knocking over unattended candles.

Wrap it Up
Gather up tape, ribbons, bows, wrapping paper, cellophane and balloons after presents have been opened—if swallowed, these long, stringy and “fun-to-chew” items can get lodged in your pet’s throat or digestive tract, causing her to choke or vomit.

The Furry Gift of Life?
Giving a cuddly puppy or kitten may seem a fitting Valentine’s Day gift—however, returning a pet you hadn’t planned on is anything but romantic. Companion animals bring with them a lifelong commitment, and choosing a pet for someone else doesn’t always turn out right. Those living in the Manhattan area can let their loved one choose their own cat with a gift certificate to adopt from the ASPCA. If you’re not from New York, check your local animal care facility or take a romantic trip to the shelter together.

Thanks to The ASPCA for this article!