Food is not a Four Letter Word

Michael Baugh CPDT-KSA, CDBC

IMG_9994The question isn’t whether or not you can train your dog with food.  That’s pretty much a no-brainer.  Author and long-time animal trainer Dr. Grey Stafford put it best.  “If you’ve ever fed your dog, you’ve trained with food.”  Dogs have learned to do all sorts of things for their food bowl, including beg, spin in circles and jump on people.  What seems strange is that so many people would sooner give their dog a bowl of food for all that annoying behavior, than use small bits of food to teach desired behavior.  There seems to be a disconnect.  Feeding is good.  Food in training is bad.  Even some self-professed trainers advertise that they don’t use food in training.  Why?  Dr. Stafford inspired the title of this article when he made the claim that should be common sense to all of us.  Food is not a four-letter word.

Here’s how positive reinforcement training works.   If your dog spins in circles and barks, and the result is that you give him a heaping bowl of food, then he’s going to do more spinning and barking in the future.  It’s that simple.  Our dogs will keep doing the stuff we pay for.  In fact, it’s science (See “The Science of Dog Training”).  Dr. Susan Friedman PhD is a behavior analyst.   She cuts right to the meat of the matter.  “If behavior has no effect, what are we behaving for?”  So why not use the effect to our advantage?   Dog sits – food – more sitting.  Dog comes when called – food – more coming when called.  The list goes on.

Do you always have to have food with you?  No.  But (there’s always a “but”), it doesn’t hurt.  As your dog learns good manners, he may only get food every once in a while.  Many trainers refer to that as “phasing out the food.”  Use food to show your dog how to do new things (trainers call it luring), but don’t get stuck in a long-term pattern of bribing.  You should put the food out of sight as soon as possible.  Keep it handy but hidden.  Dr. Stafford speaks from experience, “I’ve trained hundreds of animals covering more species than I can recall.  The one lesson I’ve learned is the ultimate power of positive reinforcement, whether you train dogs or dolphins, is in its unpredictability.”  That means your dog will get paid for doing things you like, but not always how and when he expects it.  Any dog knows to come running when you’re wearing a treat bag, but try sneaking a few treats in your pocket, and then call your dog while you’re brushing your teeth or watering the lawn.  He’ll be mighty surprised when you hand him that food for a job well done.  Now, that’s unpredictability.

Is food the only way you can reinforce your dog’s behavior?  No.  But, some of the most potent reinforcers speak directly to the animal’s biological needs.  We call those primary reinforcers, and they include food, shelter, reproduction, and control (the ability to make choices).  In dog training food just happens to be the easiest primary reinforcer to deliver.  For professional trainers, food is often a first choice when teaching simple behaviors because you can get a lot more repetitions. Modern trainers pair the food with praise and smiles.  Those are called secondary reinforcers.  In time, praise, smiles, etc. will take on some of the built-in value of the food.  That’s a good thing.  You’ll want lots of possible reinforcers in your training tool kit.

What will your dog work for?  Some dogs love food.  But, other dogs will work for the chance to fetch a ball, play tug, or cuddle on the sofa.  Still other dogs learn to love petting and praise. Dr. Friedman notes, “It’s a teacher’s job to notice that individuality and use it well. The more reinforcers a learner has the more enriched its life can be.”  It’s our job to find what motivates our dog and to then use that to get the behaviors we want. Pay your dog for doing great things in lots of different ways, and see how that adds to the excitement from the dog we are looking for.  Your dog will work harder and learn faster because he’s always wondering, what am I going to get this time?

Is training all about the food?  No, and there’s no “but” about it.  Using food, pairing it with praise and fun, teaching your dog what pays and what doesn’t – that’s all about your discovering how to better communicate with your dog.  It’s about learning new things, looking for the next task, and loving every minute of it together.

The Truth About Humping

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA CDBC

Lots of dogs hump.  For people who live with those dogs, it can be embarrassing and upsetting.  We humans aren’t comfortable talking about things related to sex, especially when our beloved dogs are being indiscreet in front of guests.  For many of us, dogs are cute innocent “babies.”  I guess now is a good time to remember they’re also animals, and animals routinely practice behavior related to their own survival.  That includes sexual behavior: humping.

What baffles a lot of people is that dogs hump in situations that have nothing to do with reproduction.  I have a client whose 4 month old female puppy humped a stuffed animal.  We caught our dog Stewie humping his bed.  Dogs hump human legs.  Doggie daycare professionals deal with humping dogs all day, males and females, neutered and spayed.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it.  What’s going on here?

I asked trainer educator and author Jean Donaldson (The Culture Clash, Train Your Dog like a Pro).  She zeroed in on Modal Action Patterns.  Those are the behaviors all dogs share related to fighting, fleeing, feeding and reproducing.  She said, “All of the Modal Action Pattern categories are present in play.  That’s what play is.”  Social animals, including dogs, routinely play fight and play chase. They even pretend to stalk and hunt, so we shouldn’t ignore the idea that humping might be play sex.  However, that may not be the whole story of humping.

While humping is common in play groups and day care settings, it also occurs in other contexts.  Some dogs hump people and inanimate objects.  Sugarland Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug says most of the time humping is “merely a nonspecific sign of arousal.”  Trainers and day care counselors agree.  Dogs get wound up or nervous and they hump.  Pamela Johnson is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in San Diego.  Her dog used to hump her leg during training sessions.  She videotaped the behavior and noted that the humping was caused by excitement over training and frustration when the lesson got difficult.  Still, identifying what sets off the behavior doesn’t fully answer the question: Why humping and why not some other behavior?

We should keep in mind that anything our dog does regularly is reinforced behavior.  The dog is getting something out of it.  For example, dogs who wrestle or chase during play are reinforced by other dogs who enjoy wrestling and chasing.  Similarly, dogs might enjoy the attention they get for humping.  Humping may also relieve a dog’s anxiety in an uncertain social situation.  It may just be pleasurable.  That pleasure, says Dr. Haug, “obviously would come under the sexual category.”  So, we’re back to that uncomfortable subject.  Regardless, all of this information leads us to some good ideas about stopping humping.

Make humping no fun and not a big deal.   This really means we need to control our own behavior and not react when we see our dog humping.  Don’t accidentally reinforce the behavior by freaking out.

Control the Dog’s environment.  In the case of the client’s dog who was humping the stuffed toy and in the case of our own dog humping his bed, we simply removed the objects of their affection.  People who work at doggie day care facilities calmly and gently remove a humping dog from its playmate.  In all cases, the dog can’t practice the unwanted behavior anymore.

Teach the dog a better behavior.  For the client’s dog and Stewie we replaced humping objects with more appropriate enrichment toys (Kong Toys and other treat puzzles).  In daycare, counselors might direct a humping dog to a less disturbing play behavior.  Trainer Pamela Johnson greatly decreased her dog’s humping by interrupting it and taking a short break from training.  She held and petted her dog until he calmed down, then she returned to training less-frustrating tasks.  In all cases, the handler is teaching the dog to do something other than hump.

That’s the bottom line really.  Stay calm.  Interrupt the humping.  Encourage the dog to do something else, anything else.  I might choose some of those other Modal Action Pattern behaviors, like a game of tug, or fetch, or even some nice quiet time with a chew toy.  The humping one – not many of us really want to see our innocent little dogs doing that.  Sure, it’s normal animal behavior.  But don’t forget, we’re only human.

Houston Dog Trainer Michael Baugh specializes in fearful and aggressive dog training.


Something to Chew On

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC

Dogs chew.  It’s not just a puppy thing either.  Dogs actually chew throughout their lifetime.  It helps pass the time, keep their teeth clean and diffuse stress.  More than that, it appears to be fun and satisfying for most dogs.

A lot of folks ask, “How do I get my dog to stop chewing?”  We should probably ask a different question.  Perhaps, “can I teach my dog to chew something else other than my stuff?”  Now we’re on to something.  The idea is to teach your dog to chew this and not that.  Here’s a straightforward two-step process.

Step one:  limit choices.  Make it more difficult, if not impossible, for our dog to make the wrong choice.  If your dog is chewing furniture, keep him away from his target.  If he’s tearing up clothes, make sure all the clothes are out of reach.  Woodwork?  Safely confine and carefully supervise your dog.  Some trainers call this management.  I call it good common sense.  Don’t set your dog up to lose time and time again.  The truth is your dog doesn’t live by a moral compass.  There is no right or wrong; there is only available or non-available.  Make the wrong choices hard to find.

Stewie and Stella enjoying elk antlers

Step two: make it easy to make right choices.  Give your dog chewing options which are both allowed and better than the other options (like furniture).  I’m a huge fan of fully packed Kong Toys.  Don’t just smear peanut butter in there with a measly treat.  Load that bad boy up with a meal.  Then revel in watching your dog solve the puzzle of unpacking it.  Of course, there are tons of other chewing options.  My dogs love elk antlers.  Stella, in particular, really enjoys cardboard paper towel rolls.  Of course, I give these to her and we always supervise chewing.  Avoid putting out too many choices for chewing.  Remember, we want to make the choices easy.  A room full of toys and chew sticks doesn’t make for easy choosing.  Everything looks like a chew toy in that setting, and then we’re back to square one.

Changing your dog’s behavior is all about making smart changes in the environment.  Left to their own devices dogs will do the best they can, but they won’t always make the right choices.  With just a little help from us, they can win every time.  Make it harder for them to chew on the stuff we don’t want them to chew on.  Make it easy and rewarding to chew on the right stuff.  Keep that up for a few months and watch what happens.  You’ll be so happy watching your dog chew up something you gave him that you’ll wonder why you ever wanted to make him stop.

Originally published on the Houston Pet Talk blog.