Why Dog Training "Tips" Often Fail: Puppy Biting Edition

When I began apprenticing as a dog trainer, almost a decade ago, I had a million questions for my new mentor, Laura Monaco Torelli, and most of them started with, “What do I do when . . . ”

I imagined any professional dog trainer would just have a mental catalog of predetermined responses for various situations: When the dog does this, you should do that. If he does that, you do this.

But instead, the answer to almost all of my questions, to my frustration, started with some variation on “Well, it depends.”

It turns out this answer is so common in dog training that it’s sort of an inside joke—at one seminar I attended, a presenter joked that she should just have a T-shirt made.

It would be a couple more years before I really understood this answer, and I’m not sure I truly, deeply grokked it until my interest in dog behavior led me into the broader field of applied behavior analysis.

That’s where, finally, I learned that what we think of as a single behavior—let’s use puppy biting as an example today—can actually be many different behaviors, and that each one must be viewed in context of its specific antecedents and consequences.

Antecedents are signals in the environment that tell the animal a given behavior is likely to produce reinforcement now. Consequences are outcomes that make the behavior more or less likely the next time the same circumstances arise. Behaviors that produce desired consequences will be repeated, and antecedents that predict desired consequences for a given behavior will become cues for those behaviors. To change behavior, we have to adjust these environmental conditions.

This is why dog training “tips” and even whole “methods” sometimes fail. General advice, by nature, cannot take into account the specific context in which a behavior occurs.

Yeah, yeah, you say. I get it in theory—but my puppy is biting my hand right now, and it hurts like a motherf@#%er. I have to do something, don't I?

The good news is that with some practice, assessing why a behavior might be occurring and figuring out what to change doesn’t have to take long.

First, identify the behavior—just one, and just the facts, no interpretation or implied motive.

Then, as if you were examining a filmstrip frame by frame, look at what typically happens immediately before and just after, in similarly objective terms. For example:

ANTECEDENT: I move my hand toward the puppy’s collar.

BEHAVIOR: The puppy puts her teeth on my arm.

CONSEQUENCE: I pull my hand away.

Now we can make a hypothesis—an educated guess—about whether, if these conditions are repeated, the behavior is more or less likely to happen again next time. It can be helpful to rephrase the above terms as “when,” “if,” and “then”:

WHEN I reach toward the puppy’s collar

IF the puppy puts her teeth on my arm

THEN I pull my hand away.

PREDICTION: When I reach for the collar, the puppy will continue to put her teeth on my arm in order to make my hand go away.

We don’t know why this hypothetical puppy wants my hand to go away. We don’t know if she’s “angry” (a label often used to describe a group of behaviors that people with better understanding of dog body language might call “scared”). It’s unhelpful to speculate whether she is “dominant.” But with just the observable facts, we can make a plan and test our hypothesis.

One approach might be to teach the puppy that as I reach toward her collar, she can do a different behavior that produces a consequence she likes:

WHEN I reach toward the puppy’s collar

IF she looks forward

THEN I give a treat

PREDICTION: The puppy will increasingly look forward more when I reach toward her collar.

What’s more, the puppy’s motivation to make my hand go away in the first place is probably going to get weaker. After all, my reach now predicts a treat.

There are lots of variables in this simple-sounding process. For instance, if the puppy is extremely uncomfortable being reached for, we might have to break it into small steps, only reaching partway toward the collar at first. The treats need to be something this particular puppy really values, not just something that came in a bag labeled TREATS. For one puppy, I might be able to just catch her looking forward before she turns toward my hand. For another, I might prompt the new behavior more explicitly to start, say, by presenting a treat right in front of her nose as I reach in, until she starts to anticipate that it will be there.

Over time, the puppy can also learn that me reaching for the collar predicts me clipping the leash on, which predicts a walk. At this stage, if the puppy finds going for a walk reinforcing, treats can be faded out.

Now let’s look at another puppy biting scenario, where the behavior looks the same (and hurts just as much), but the function is different:

WHEN I am working on my computer

IF the puppy bites my arm

THEN I reach for a toy

PREDICTION: The puppy will bite my arm more often when I am working on my computer.

The function of this behavior is different from the function in the previous example—and thus it best assessed as an entirely different behavior.

The first time your puppy bites your arm here, she probably isn’t requesting a squeaky. But behaviors that start with one function can easily acquire another. Sitting is not the behavior dogs naturally do to get food. Yet most pet dogs, even if you’re barely making an effort to train them, will somehow learn to sit to acquire food. Think about that—what animal, in the wild, sits to get food?

In this case, your solution should acknowledge that a puppy needs lots of legal stuff to do with her mouth. So you can still direct her to a toy, but timing matters: Take your arm out of play right away, without a lot of fuss, and then watch for a moment or two of some other behavior that you like better. Then present the toy so that it not only satisfies the puppy's need to chew or play but also reinforces that bit of more desirable behavior.

Other, even better options:

Give your puppy the toy as soon as you sit down at the computer—before she has to “ask.”

Limit the ways in which she will be able to "ask." For example, you could confine her to an exercise pen near you during computer time, with plenty of legal options for chewing and play, but zero access to your pants. Think of the pen as training wheels: she can ride the bike, but she can’t fall over. When she’s developed good riding habits, you can take the training wheels off.

From there, you can teach easily your puppy something like:

WHEN I am working on my computer

IF you sit next to me

THEN I will give you a toy

Note: This is a place where standard "tips" can really go awry. The behavior here doesn't have to be a sit—and maybe it shouldn't be. Sitting might be hard for your individual dog, because it hurts his hips or because he's too excited or because the surface near where you use your computer is slippery. Standing, lying down, or doing an adorable head tilt might be acceptable or even preferable ways of making this polite request. For more on how to select alternative behaviors, see my columns When Sit Doesn't Happen and Training With the Grain for One Tail at a Time.

There are as many behaviors as there are reasons to behave. Figure out what need your dog is expressing, and teach her the easiest way to get it met.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.

The Dog Already Knows How: Teaching When, Where, and Why

In training we talk a lot about teaching our dogs how to do behaviors. But what are we really teaching them? They come knowing how to move their own bodies. What we’re really teaching them most of the time is not how to sit, stand, lie down, walk, or look, but rather when, where, and why.

The when is generally either when the human gives the cue or when a certain something else happens in the environment. The where is position—where do you want the dog to be or go or do that thing? And the why is of course what’s in it for the dog. No behavior will keep happening if there’s no reinforcement in it for the behaver.

A really easy way to teach a dog when, where, and why is to simply teach him that a certain signal (from you or the environment) reliably predicts that something he likes will appear in a certain place. He will figure out which behaviors will put him in that place at the right time—so all you need to do is make sure he has a repertoire of actions to choose from that have worked in other situations.

This approach can be used to solve problems that might initially seem to require a more complex plan. Here's an example:

Archie, an adolescent black lab, lived in a home where the front door was below street level and the main living area was up a flight of stairs from the foyer. The top of the stairs was gated while Archie learned that keeping his feet on the floor was the best way to get his favorite people to come up. But the area they stepped into once the gate was opened was pretty tight, so we still wanted to prevent crowding. And if Archie did make a mistake and jump up after the person came through the gate, we didn’t want him to knock anyone backwards down the stairs.

Our first step was to show Archie where to go instead. Archie couldn't be at the side of the stairs and at the top of the stairs at the same time. So to give him a hint, I laid a bathmat along the side of the stairs. He had some reinforcement history with this mat, having been taught to settle on it as a young pup, but he would have needed lots more training, with lots of incremental steps, to be able to settle on it from the time the doorbell rang to the time a guest finally reached the main floor. I wanted to give him and his busy people a simpler, more accomplishable plan.

Next, we taught him when and why. Each time I went down or up the stairs, I reached through the railing and placed a treat on the mat—even if Archie wasn’t anywhere near it. The treat wasn't contingent on his behavior; it was contingent on me arriving at a certain spot on the stairs.

If you're a behavior nerd who's thinking "hey, that sounds a lot like a classical conditioning procedure," well, you're not wrong. But to paraphrase Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, in a discussion last month at the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference: if Pavlov's dogs had not been strapped into harnesses, you can be pretty sure that in addition to salivating when the meat guy walked into the room, they would have moved toward him too.

Anyway, I repeated this pattern until when Archie saw me coming up the stairs, he anticipated the treat and began moving to the mat ahead of it. Anticipation of what predicts where food will appear is a basic survival mechanism, and I just capitalized on it. When Archie started moving to the side reliably, I began to wait until he moved to stick my arm through the railing. The treat now became contingent on his behavior.

If Archie didn’t go to the mat right away, I stopped on the stairs and waited. I didn't place the treat on the mat, and I didn’t come through the gate. When it was clear there was no reinforcement forthcoming for hanging out at the gate, he would move to the mat at the side, and then he'd get the treat. He started to move to the mat faster and faster.

Then we repeated the process with different family members. You can see a snippet of this in the video above. The family stashed a container of treats at the top and bottom of the stairs so that they could consistently reinforce this behavior whenever they went downstairs or came home.

Additional steps included fading the mat and varying how Archie got reinforced for moving to the side—sometimes with a treat, sometimes with butt scratches and happy talk once human and dog are safely away from the top of the stairs. On a visit about a year later, the gate was gone too, and as I came up the stairs, Archie still moved to the side. Good boy, Archie!

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.

Training With Affection

At ClickerExpo in Portland last week

At ClickerExpo in Portland last week

Food is the go-to reinforcer for training with positive reinforcement, and for lots of good reasons: All animals behave in some way to get food; it's built in or we'd die. Food is a primary reinforcer, meaning you don’t have to learn to want it. With dogs especially, it’s easy to divide into small bites and deliver quickly and consistently, so that you can get in lots of quick reps in a given training session or day. And it’s an extremely potent tool for creating positive associations.

Yet animals also behave for many other reasons, and we humans seem to be particularly interested in whether they will change their behavior because they like us. Researchers have gone back and forth on whether social interaction with humans is a primary or learned reinforcer for dogs and how to quantify its effectiveness; a widely cited 2012 study found it to be less effective than food. Yet many dogs do seem to greatly value human attention, as evidenced by all the acrobatics they regularly perform to attain it—including a whole host of behaviors many people don’t enjoy, such as jumping, barking, mouthing, pawing, and object stealing. And that’s worth exploring, because especially when you’re trying to replace a bad habit with a better one, there are advantages to being able to reinforce the new behavior with whatever the animal was trying to get with the old one.

In recent years, I've attended several seminars presented by Human Animal Learning Opportunities in St. Louis with Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, an associate professor in the behavior analysis department at the University of North Texas. Dr. Rosales-Ruiz’s special interests include animal training, particularly clicker training, and he is generous about sharing what he and his students are working on with nonacademic practitioners. At these workshops, attended mostly by dog trainers, he reported on the progress of various projects by his grad students, including one called “Give Them Love" whose goal was to further explore the effectiveness of human affection as a reinforcer in training dogs.

I originally wrote about their protocol for my column for the local rescue One Tail at a Time, but Rosales-Ruiz presented on the topic again at ClickerExpo 2017 in Portland last weekend, so I thought now would be a good time to update and republish that post here.

In the shelter environment, dogs who do enjoy affection from humans are often starved for it—and behave accordingly, sometimes scaring potential adopters and volunteers alike with their wild enthusiasm. Training is thought to improve their prospects for getting and staying adopted (though we're still figuring out how) and can enrich the dogs' lives while they're in temporary care, but shelters have limited time, limited resources, limited staff, and if they’re lucky, a rotating cast of volunteers with varying aptitudes for training.

It was in this environment that the UNT team set out to develop and demonstrate their protocol, working with their local shelter in Denton, Texas. They wanted something that worked quickly and was as simple and systematic as possible so it could be easily carried on by staff, volunteers, and adopters.

To explore the use of affection as a reinforcer, they first had to determine what exactly that would look like. Clearly not all interactions with humans qualify. Some of them dogs find downright scary, and some they find annoying: It’s very common for owners to undermine their own training by “rewarding” a lovely behavior with a well-intentioned but off-putting pat-pat-pat on the top of the head.

The researchers in the 2012 study had decided that a good social reinforcer would be four seconds of scratching around the neck combined with verbal praise. But Rosales-Ruiz says that wasn’t nearly enough: Petting, he argues, is the type of reinforcer that is best delivered continuously as the behavior it’s reinforcing occurs, like music or kisses, and not in little bites, like food. So the UNT team started with a definition of “affection” as calm, gentle, and sustained physical contact.

The training process they came up with had two phases:

1. TEACH THE DOG HOW TO GET THE REINFORCER—JUST AS YOU WOULD WITH FOOD. In other words, make it contingent on something he does.

The students picked five dogs who jumped up on people under certain conditions, and chose two simple alternative behaviors to reinforce instead: sitting and lying down, both of which are incompatible with jumping.

They entered the dogs’s kennels bent slightly to greet them before they could jump, and then petted in a slow, sustained manner with one hand for up to two full minutes—or, initially, as long as the dog kept four feet on the floor. No verbal praise was added.

If a dog jumped up, the person stood up, stopped petting, waited for the front feet to return to the floor, and then resumed petting with one hand. If the dog walked away, the person also stopped petting.

If the dog sat or laid down, though, the person switched to two hands, and again petted for up to two minutes.

Within 5-20 minutes, all the dogs were sitting or lying down to solicit the students’ affection. And perhaps because there weren’t many contextual hints that the students were capital-T Trainers—no treats, clickers, or other special equipment—Rosales-Ruiz says the dogs quickly learned to respond the same way to shelter volunteers and potential adopters. We might guess that from the dog's perspective, anyone with hands might have been able to offer this reinforcer.

2. USE THE REINFORCER TO TEACH MORE BEHAVIOR. When the dogs would remain lying or seated for the full two minutes, the students switched to petting for 15-30 seconds, with very brief pauses (3-5 seconds at first) to allow the dog to choose to remain in position and “ask” for more. They began to use this interaction as a reinforcer to teach the dogs to stay for longer stretches, and while the person stood up, walked away, or entered/exited the kennel. All of these human behaviors evolved into environmental cues for the relaxed behavior. (Think about how handy that would be at home.)

To help clarify when the dog had met the current criteria, they incorporated a marker signal, equivalent to the clicker or “yes” frequently used in training with food to signal that reinforcement is on its way. For this, they chose a hand motion that looked like the beginning stages of reaching toward the dog. This ritualized motion—which civilians would be likely to do anyway as they went to pet the dog—could be consciously used to mark any other behavior the trainer liked, letting the dog know exactly what he’d done right and increasing that behavior in the future.

Some students played with this with their dogs at home to great effect as well, using the protocol to teach them in small, achievable steps to remain relaxed while they added distractions like plucking a harness off the hook by the front door, exercising on the floor, or leaving the room.

When the dogs were adopted, the new owners were offered a class in which the procedure was taught to them. In a HALO seminar, Rosales-Ruiz showed some impressive video of the dogs sitting and lying down patiently in an outdoor ring amid other dogs, adults, and children during class.

The students are reportedly in the process of building a website to share the protocol with more shelters and pet owners. In the meantime, this video is the only thing I've found available to link to. [Update as of March 2018: the Constructional Affection website is live.]

I haven't used this protocol exclusively, like the students did, to train multiple behaviors, but I haven't been at all surprised to find that it works well in reducing vertical greetings that have been inadvertently reinforced by human attention. And it has definitely changed the way I pet, specifically the duration. It has helped me find petting routines that my own dog, who has historically walked away from casual touch, finds reinforcing.

There are also some takeaways here that are bigger than any single protocol: (1) The individual dog decides what is reinforcing, or in other words, what is worth behaving for. Food isn't a reinforcer just because the bag says TREATS, and a pat on the face isn't reinforcing just because dogs enjoy some forms of human touch. (2) If you can observe what a dog is working to get, and you can give him same thing after a behavior you like better, you've struck gold.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.

Pulling Toward Other Dogs (and People Too)

One of the most common complaints trainers hear from dog owners is that their dogs pull on leash to get to other dogs.

Why do they do it? It might be the desire for social interaction, or it might be the desire to scare the other dog away. But either way it goes back to how animals learn: They behave, and if the result is desirable, they do it again.

If you actually wanted to teach your dog to pull toward other dogs, you’d do what many owners routinely do, which is to walk him toward other dogs as he’s pulling. Even if you allow pulling to “work” only once in a while, the dog will keep trying it; in fact, randomly disallowing it is likely to just frustrate the dog, causing him to try harder and probably throw in some other behaviors, like whining or barking.

So what can you do to stop this cycle, or, better yet, prevent it from starting?

If at all possible, avoid the first response that occurs to most humans, which is to stand in the middle of the sidewalk, tighten up your dog’s leash and/or pull him close as the other dog passes. For one, when you pull dogs one way, they tend to pull back in the opposite direction. For another, pain or discomfort caused by walking or training equipment (whether or not the equipment is specifically designed to cause it) can become associated with the other dog, and a dog who initially was just frustrated at not being able to greet may begin to warn off other dogs to avoid that feeling. And if your dog is already worried about whatever’s coming down the pike, heavy restraint can make him feel like a sitting duck. Animals who feel like they can’t flee are more likely to fight.

Instead, at the very first appearance of another dog, start to create distance. This is key. Distance is pretty much inversely proportional to distraction—the closer you are to something, the more likely it is to attract your dog’s attention. Think of each distraction as emitting a tractor beam, like the Death Star in Star Wars. If you and your dog blunder into that beam, there’ll be little you can do to avoid getting sucked into the distraction. So start moving proactively, before your dog starts pulling. Casually curve into the grass, into the alley, or even across the street if that's what your dog needs. Keep going until you get to where you’re pretty sure he’ll be able to choose you. That’s where training can start.

Pretrain the behaviors you’d like your dog to do when he sees another dog, so that they become habitual before you try them in the problem context. “Sit” is popular, but it may make some dogs feel vulnerable. And although it may be easy at home, if what your dog really wants to do is go-go-go, a stationary behavior is hard. Replacement behaviors should be easy. Behaviors that involve movement, such as turning toward the owner or following a hand target, may be useful because in addition to giving your dog something else to do, they can create distance. Another alternative behavior I really like is looking—at the other dog, at the handler, or both, in a "game" such as Leslie McDevitt's Look at That or Alice Tong's Engage-Disengage Game.

Behaviors that involve sniffing and eating, such as “find it” (a cue to sniff for a treat you just tossed into the grass), are also a good bet, because most dogs already like doing them. In general, the easier the better: Unless you’ve trained for long duration and high distraction, the dog is most likely to succeed initially with a rapid-fire series of simple behaviors rather than one long one. Cue the behavior, reinforce it, and repeat until the other dog has moved on.

If you and your dog haven't practiced any simple behaviors yet, when you get to the right distance, just feed him as soon as he looks at the distraction. With consistency, similar distractions can start to prompt him to look to you, a wonderful, simple alternative to pulling.

If you have a new puppy, starting this process right away will set you up for a lifetime of pleasant walks. If your dog already has a big fat history of getting reinforced for pulling toward other dogs, you may initially need to practice at off-peak times or in less congested places. After you have some well-rehearsed behaviors under your belt, a small group class may also be a good way to work on them in a controlled setting. (Be sure to let your instructor know your dog’s history with other dogs and your specific goals.)

If your dog’s pulling is socially motivated, you can even use interaction with other friendly dogs to reinforce the attentive behaviors you’re asking for. This can be extremely powerful if you can swing it, but on-leash greetings do require some finesse that I won't get into here. At minimum, be sure to (a) ask permission from the other owner first and (b) eyeball the other dog’s body language to ensure that he also really wants to meet your dog.

With consistency, the appearance of other dogs can actually become an environmental cue for your dog to offer preferred behaviors, or just to check in with you to see what fun stuff you might have in store. In most cases, too, the distance you need will gradually decrease over time.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.

Turning "No" Into "Do": Reducing Unwanted Behaviors Using Positive Reinforcement

Let’s say you’ve just arrived for your first day at a new job. You walk into your new office, where you find a computer on a desk. “Oh, I know what to do with that,” you think, and push the space bar to wake up the screen.

Your new boss strides into the office, looking angry. “No!” he shouts.

What exactly didn’t he like? Should you never press the space bar again? Was this just the wrong time to press it? Does he not want you working on the computer at all?

How do you feel about your new boss?

And what do you do now?

Dogs encounter this scenario pretty much every day. They do things that come naturally to dogs, like chewing on stuff, eating stuff, peeing on stuff, barking at stuff, or chasing stuff. And when we catch them in the act, as often as not, our response is to yell “no!”

While this sometimes interrupts the behavior, it probably won't prevent it from recurring again in the future. And if the dog finds the interruption scary, he may begin to hide the behavior from you in dismaying ways–say, only peeing behind the couch, or only chewing things if nobody is looking.

Behavior science tells us that the best way to reduce unwanted behavior is to replace it, not suppress it. In other words, once you’ve figured out what’s reinforcing your dog’s behavior, you’ll want to teach him a more acceptable way to get it—or if that’s inadvisable, something he likes equally well.

Note: I say reduce unwanted behavior, not eliminate, because once an animal forms a habit, it can’t be magically erased. It can, however, be overridden by a new habit. (For a fascinating long-form read on the subject, pick up The Power of Habit by New York Times science writer Charles Duhigg. Here’s an excerpt describing how he tackled his own habit of buying a cookie every afternoon.)

The main components of a plan to change behavior are:

1) PREVENT THE BEHAVIOR. The old adage “practice makes perfect” also applies to unwanted behavior. Another word for “perfect” behavior is habit—a routine that the brain doesn’t even have to actively think about any more.

Prevent habits before they form. If it’s too late for that, start by removing the dog from the circumstances that trigger those routines. Gates, crates, exercise pens, leashes, and visual barriers are tools you can use to set a dog up to do something you like better.

2) DON’T REINFORCE THE BEHAVIOR. If, despite your best efforts at management, the behavior happens, and you can control whether it “works” or not, try not to let it work. For instance, if your dog jumps on you for attention, and you don’t like that, don’t reinforce the jumping by giving him attention.

To a dog, who doesn’t speak your language, looking at him, laying hands on him, and saying “no” to him can all constitute attention.

Instead, try to respond as little as possible for 3-5 seconds. Maybe step aside to make it easier for the dog's feet to hit the floor. Watch for a behavior you like better, and then reinforce that, or give the dog a cue for an easy, acceptable behavior that you can reinforce with attention, treats, and/or play.

3) TEACH YOUR DOG WHAT TO DO. Using positive reinforcement, train a behavior that’s incompatible with the one you don’t like. The good news is that you may already be halfway there: the uses for simple behaviors like standing, looking at you, sitting, hand targeting, and settling on a mat are endless.

Once your dog is performing the new behavior quickly and enthusiastically in a number of benign settings, you can incrementally introduce it into the problematic context. You can even do it in such a way that those same circumstances begin to trigger the new behavior instead of the old one: e.g., the approach of a person becomes another cue to sit, or the sight of a squirrel becomes a cue to check in with the handler. The tougher the conditions, the more important the incremental part is.

The video above is just one example of replacing an unwanted behavior with a desirable one. Pablo, a 3-month-old doodle, had started to run into the entryway when his owners went out to answer the door. The outer door opened to the street, so we wanted him to stay in the apartment. Rather than punish him for running out, we taught him to go to a mat, with the door "ding" as the cue.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.