Tuesday, October 8, 2013


We had a follow up veterinary appointment this morning for D'fer and we have had some very, very good news.  What one vet and a radiologist thought was osteosarcoma may in fact be very severe osteoarthritis.  We sought out a second opinion this week, and had a second set of radiographs (the medical term for X-Rays is Radiograph) done today, ten days after the originals were taken.  What this allowed us to do is compare what his hips looked like ten days ago and what they look like now.  By finding out what the difference is we can find out one of two things; either the rate of cancerous growth is really fast and dangerous OR that perhaps the diagnosis of osteosarcoma was wrong and the diagnosis might be something else.  There are no significant changes between one and the other which means that most likely...we are NOT dealing with osteosarcoma.  We also did chest radiographs and there are no scary shadows on the film showing us that there has not been any cancerous spread to the lungs.  Phew!  Never the less, the radiologist did think that there is cancer in the bone, so we cannot dismiss that entirely.  If this is cancer, it is growing slowly enough that D'fer won't likely drop dead at any moment, and if this is not cancer, then we may have some treatment options that we hadn't had before.  And this brings me to the roller coaster metaphore for today.

D'fer with his celebration stick.  That would be the toy you buy when you get a different diagnosis than osteosarcoma.  Still not a great diagnosis, but better than death at any moment.

The injury that led to the osteosarcoma diagnosis was that Deef had been lame for a couple of weeks, off and on.  He had a sore shoulder and then he was gimping along on his left hip and then his right front leg looked a bit off.  Then one night, just about dinner time, I took D'fer out to pee and he asked me to throw his frisbee.  Normal D'fer stuff.  I took it and gave it back to him because he had been too sore to really play frisbee.  Then he trotted around the yard and did his thing, and brought me the frisbee again.  I took it and dropped it in front of him.  He launched himself into the air (much more forcefully than he needed to mind you!) and on his way up screamed in a way I had never heard him scream before.   He landed in a heap on his left hip.  When he got himself up he wouldn't put any weight on his left hind leg.  Off to the emergency room we went and they took a radiograph.  His left hip looked like scrambled eggs.  Not good.  I asked some questions and the emergency vet thought that he had severe osteoarthritis; a degeneration of the bone in the hip and sent us home with pain meds to keep him comfortable.  That vet visit is when we got onto the rollercoaster.

The injury happened on a Saturday evening so on Monday morning I went into my regular vet who looked at the radiograph and gave me the sad news that this might be osteosarcoma; a form of fast growing bone cancer.  He sent the radiographs out to a radiologist who confirmed his diagnosis.  My world fell apart, and I wrote last week's blog about how I was going to approach treating this.  D'fer's pain has been well managed and when his pain is under control, he really is a happy dog.  He is still quite lame, but he is a happy dog.  Even so, I felt like I was falling, falling, falling.

With the encouragement of friends, I sought out a second opinion; the second vet disagreed with the first vet and the radiologist.  Regardless of agreeing or disagreeing, a second set of radiographs would tell us if the image on the film was growing or staying the same.  That leg of the journey has been like the rollercoaster coasting along nicely and politely.  Things don't feel quite so disrupted or discouraging.  I feel quite a bit like I got my life back when I saw the rads today; especially the chest rads that don't show any cancer in D'fer's lungs.

Radiograph number one take ten days ago.  Compare the left and right hip joints; you will notice that one is nice and even and the other looks like scrambled eggs.  Or more technically "the left hip (right on the radiograph) presents with a  moth eaten appearance.  If you know about radiographs, this is a scary looking hip.

Now compare!  Don't worry that the bones aren't in the same exact direction as they were on the first radiograph; you can see that the problem joint is basically the same.  Now if you are like me, you expand this picture and then you look at it with a magnifying lens for fun!  The important part is that the joint didn't change between the first image and the second, even though D'fer was positioned slightly differently the second time.

So now we coast for a bit.  Some things have changed and will stay changed; we still have the radiology report saying that the image on the film looks a lot like cancer.  It still might be.  But it hasn't changed!  The vet cautioned us that we have to remember that it might just be.  Now we have a crate in the kitchen so that if we need to we can easily care for D'fer if he is in pain from his leg.  That will stay.  We are not turning D'fer out with other dogs in the yard because it just wouldn't be a good idea for him to get to running and chasing and rough housing with his friends given the state that his hip is in.  That is a change for sure.  We use the hip helper harness (http://www.hartmanharness.com/) to help him up and down stairs and in and out of the car and over curbs when he is stiff or sore.  Likely we will be using this more and more often as he ages and we are very happy to have it.  Probably the biggest change though is that we know that there will be more diagnostics and possibly more treatments on the horizon.
Happy D'fer on pain meds, with his cancer beating Frisbee and his hip helper.  One of the changes we have made is to make a rule that he cannot come upstairs without the help of his hip helper harness.  So nice to see him smiling again.  Good boy! 

Right now, D'fer's rads are being sent to the surgeon to see if they can remove the head of the femur and alleviate his pain that way.  IF, and it is a very big if, the surgeon thinks that she can successfully remove the head of the femur, then we will consult an internal medicine specialist and see if his heart is healthy enough to undergo anesthesia.  IF it is safe to anesthetize him, then we will work out a plan involving our veterinarian, the surgeon, the internal medicine specialist or cardiologist, and likely and anesthetist to remove the head of the femur.  This is a big hill on the Reprieve Rollercoaster, because a whole bunch of factors have to fall into place in order to be able to surgically help D'fer.  Knowing it is coming is stressful, and not knowing what the hill will surprise us with is even more stressful, but we are going to go up the hill and down the other side in the company of professionals who are educated and who care deeply about D'fer.

There are some important lessons in this experience that are not training related but they certainly do impact training.  The first is that you really need to know a little bit about your dog in order to advocate for him.  I have known for a long time that Deef has been "off" but have not been sure what exactly might be going on with him.  Once we had an injury, I count myself lucky on a number of fronts.  I know a lot about the basic anatomy and organization of the body, and how medicine works, so when the veterinarian wants to do something like taking a radiograph of my dog, then I have a good idea what she is talking about.  Also, I knew the emergency vet really, really well.  Those three things; knowing my dog, knowing a bit about biology and health and medicine and knowing my vet have paid off HUGE dividends this past ten days.  I have been able to talk to the veterinarians, I have been able to identify exactly how D'fer is not "himself", I have been able to ask good questions and I have been able to integrate what is being said so that I can advocate on D'fer's behalf.  When faced with an illness or injury being able to advocate for your dog like this allows you to return to training quickly and effectively.  This is really important.

Another thing to think about is that I had really clear boundaries about what I would and would not do to my dog before I needed to pull them out of my pocket and examine them.  I know that although I might amputate a dog's leg if it was injured or if it would buy him years of time, I am not going to amputate his leg to get a tissue sample (one of the options discussed when we had the osteosarcoma diagnosis).  I know that I will not engage in radical, painful, long treatment if it is not going to get us a great deal of benefit.  That means that for my dogs, although I might allow surgery, radiation or chemotherapy to happen to alleviate pain, or to significantly prolong life, I also know that I won't put being alive ahead of having what I consider a minimum level of quality of life.  I made this decision long before I needed it and I have discussed that decision at length with my veterinarian.  In fact I have decided these things about each of the animals I have responsibility for so that I can be certain that in a crisis I am not held over a barrel to make a choice I may not be comfortable with later.  Make your choices ahead of time where possible and then discuss them with your vet.  Doing so will save you a lot of headaches later on when you are faced with the decision and you already have a plan.

Finally, the most important thing that I did to prepare for the Rollercoaster Reprieve, was to carefully develop and organize a support system for myself.  This network is made up of close friends and family members, of dear and cherished clients, of veterinarians and technicians, of people on the net who have never met me but who have read my blogs and my articles and been to my seminars and who have reached out through this difficult time to help me, John and D'fer.  We are not out of the woods.  We may still lose D'fer imminently; he is after all ten years old with a heart condition.  He may or may not be a candidate for surgery.  He may over do it at some point tomorrow or the next day and fracture the neck of the femur, and we may be right back to where we were last week, when I wrote "IT WILL BE ALRIGHT", but I am confident that it WILL be alright because we have the support we need, we have good diagnostics and we have all the right things happening to help us to survive the Reprieve Rollercoaster and whatever it throws at us.  Thanks everyone; I couldn't have made it through this past week without you!


Saturday, August 17, 2013


No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.-Albert Einstein

In the last blog I disclosed that doubt is perhaps my best trait and then discussed some aspects of what science is in a general sense.  Now I want to explain how doubt is the most important part of science and for many of us, the most fun.  When we look at experimental science, or research that is done based on direct experiment, we have a formula to use to determine if information is valid or not.  It is called the Null Hypothesis[1].  The quote above sums up the principle of the Null Hypothesis or the “null “quite nicely.  If you can disprove the null, then you have evidence that supports a theory.  If I want to learn something using the scientific method, then I need to make a few notes about what I want to know.  A common statement by force free trainers and clicker trainers is that force free training is the best training.  How could I learn more about that?  Let’s start with how I talk about it.  Notice that I don’t say that I want to prove that force free training is the best, but that I want to learn more about that.  If you try and prove something you can get a lot of supporting evidence but you cannot categorically say that there is never an exception to the rule.  On the other hand, if you state your question in the form of a null, by saying that force free training is not the best way to train a dog and then set out to disprove your null, you have stronger support for your argument that force free is the way to go.

Unfortunately, most dog trainers are not scientists.  They don’t understand that you cannot prove anything; you can only disprove things and achieve any degree of certainty.  As I write this I remember struggling with this idea in university.  I remember that I couldn’t figure out why you had to go through this round about way of determining if a fact was valid or not.  Leaning on science to support what you do can make you feel like you are justified in your actions without a thorough examination of what you are actually doing.  Few dog trainers actually have any scientific training and this means that we are seeing more and more trainers throwing around information and calling it science all the time.  At the moment of this writing, we have no studies that disprove the null hypothesis that force free training is not the best training.  We also don’t have studies to disprove the null that force based training is not the best.  We see a lot of trainers sharing blogs, articles and bits of information to support their pet ideas, but very little evidence to refute the null hypothesis of what they want to do.  This means that although there is a lot of science behind the training and learning that is being done, there is very little understanding of that science and that is a big problem!

One of the popular pieces of information that is making the rounds at the moment is a “study” done by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the United Kingdom about shock collars[2] and why they ought to be banned.  Blogs abound referring to this “study”.  In science, remember that we do research where we formulate a null hypothesis, we develop an experiment to try and disprove the null, and we make a conclusion.  If the conclusion is robust, we send that research off to a relevant scientific journal.  The journal will send the study out to several scientists to read and review and then it gets sent back to the original researcher with questions, and then it goes back to the journal and THEN if the people who read and reviewed the research feel that the information is sound, the study will be published.  In this way there is a series of checks and balances to ensure that the research is sound and the results are reliable.  The next step in the process is that a separate scientist can take the method that the original scientist used and try and confirm or refute what was done the first time.  Science is a process of gathering knowledge and then testing it.  If the results aren’t repeatable, then the results are not terribly robust.  The study done by DEFRA is just that; a study.  It has not been through the process of being submitted to a recognized journal to be juried, so no second set of eyes have looked at this study to find out if it is valid or not.  When a study is done by an individual or a group, but no one looks at the data to see if their conclusions have problems with them, then the study is not terribly credible.  It is at best a data set that can be interpreted various ways.  Never the less people who have an agenda to not use punishment are pointing at this as though it is a great supporting argument against using shock collars.  Until a second set of eyes evaluates the study, it really isn’t valid in terms of supporting or refuting anything.

This information about how science works should help you to follow along some steps when evaluating the information you are given about the science of training.  We now know that science is the collection of knowledge, based on agreed upon definitions that help us to learn facts.  Facts are gathered together to form theories which are observable trends that have been repeated many times.  When a scientist wants to study something, they should form a null hypothesis, develop an experiment, carry out the experiment and then send their results to a journal for a second set of eyes to examine what the first scientist has studied.  If the experiment refutes the null hypothesis we have good evidence that the null is not true and we can use that information to support or refute ideas about the subject matter.  If the null is not refuted, we can say that more research needs to be done, and we need to find another null hypothesis to test to support what we want to find out.  Finally, the study if it is found to be valid is published and other scientists can repeat the research and either get the same results or different results.  When a student does the research in the hopes of getting a masters degree or a PhD, then the process is the same except that usually instead of submitting their work to a journal, they submit it to their university and their advisory council examines them and if their research is valid, they get their degree.

Science is a process.  Perhaps the most important part of the process is the part that people are the least comfortable with; challenging the information they are given.  Doubt.  Doubt is a good and treasured friend to a scientist because it makes you ask important questions about what you are seeing, hearing or observing.  When you are given information that is obviously not true, that you can observe is not true, then doubt creeps in and you start to think about what you are seeing and experiencing.  When what you are being told doesn’t match with your experience, you can start to look at the research itself and see if there are any problems with either the method or the research or the process of review.  In this way, when we are told things that are based on research and studies, then we can analyse the information and figure out if it is actually supporting or refuting what we are being told.

Teasing out validity when you are reading about the science that underlies training is like solving a puzzle.  Approaching all information with doubt, and asking if the source is credible and if the research and if the researcher followed good protocols and if the research actually applies to what you want to know is both an interesting challenge and an important step to perform before you accept information.  Photo Credit: Ashwin Kharidehal Abhirama /123rf.com

Dog trainers use science, but often they don’t use the doubt part of the process very well.  Doubt needs to be your best friend when you are looking for scientific support for the practices you do.  You have to understand the process and a bit more in order to be effective.  The final piece to the puzzle that dog trainers need to learn about is how to evaluate the science they are reading.  Now we have to look at what has been done in a study to see if it is a valid piece of research at all.  Let’s start with the sample size.  If I wanted to know if jackpotting, the practice of giving a reward that is qualitatively better than other rewards in the training session will increase performance.  This is just exactly what was studied by a masters student recently. 

At the University of Texas, Kirsty Lynn Muir studied “The Effects of Jackpots on Responding and Choice in Two Domestic Dogs”.[3]  For dog trainers, this study would be really helpful if it were valid.  Many of us use larger than normal rewards to reinforce especially good iterations of a given behaviour.  Looking at this study we start off with some problems right in the title.  There are only two subjects being studied.  This means that although this research may be true for the two dogs studied, it may not be true for dogs in general.  I doubt that two dogs would be enough dogs to convince me that every dog would be the same.  I have three dogs at home.  Two of them are German Shepherds and one of them is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.  If I randomly selected two of them and selected both German Shepherds and then extrapolated the data to say that ALL dogs in the world were German Shepherds, you should doubt that this is credible.  When you are looking at a study, you need to make sure that enough dogs were studied to give us a big enough sample size to decide if the results of the study could reasonably be expected to represent the information they are supposed to represent. 

Another problem in this study has to do with the definition of a jackpot.  Most of us use a higher value reward to reinforce better than average iterations of behaviours.  In terms of the study they wanted to standardize the responses so that the research could be replicated.  Instead of using a criteria for better than average, they used a definition of jackpot that doesn’t match how most dog trainers think of jackpots.  The definition they used was “a jackpot is a one time within session increase in the magnitude of reinforcement”.  Hmmm.  This is not how I would define a jackpot.  I would define a jackpot as a “higher than average VALUE of reinforcement paired with a higher than average LEVEL of performance”.  There are problems with my definition from a scientific perspective; I have used words that are subjective, not objective.  When you look further into the study, it turns out that the jackpot was given on a fixed schedule of reinforcement (a well defined term in the world of Applied Behaviour Analysis) and the increase in the magnitude of the reinforcement was not paired with a better than average performance.  Given that the increase in the magnitude of reinforcement was not paired with anything that the learner did differently it would be hard to say that based on the definition, they were studying how I use a jackpot.

When the definitions that are proposed in a paper don’t match the information you want to know, then you cannot say that the study supports or refutes what you wanted to know.  Never the less, this paper has been circulating on Facebook refuting the effect of the use of jackpots in training.  The researcher didn’t study what we all wanted to know, and since few dog trainers are actually reading more than just the abstract (a short paragraph describing the research and the conclusions), then it looks like we might be using science to refute the use of jackpots.  When you find out that you are using a study to refute something, you need to know what they actually studied, and if they studied enough subjects to really give us the information that we want to know.

This sort of study, an experiment, needs to follow rules in order to be useful.  When the sample size is too small, then you won’t get good results.  When the definitions don’t match what you want to know, then you cannot use the information in the study to support or refute what you want to find out.  Then you have to look at the research itself.  In the study cited above, the sample size is too small to be considered robust information, and the definition of what they were studying doesn’t match what most dog trainers are doing.  This means that when a dog trainer quotes this study to tell their readers or students not to do something, they are basing their evidence on some pretty shaky information.  What it doesn’t mean is that jackpotting is a good thing to do or not a good thing to do.  The jury is still out on that one.

After carefully reading through Kirsty Lynn Muir's study on jackpotting we still don't know if jackpotting is helpful or not; her sample size was too small to tell us if what she saw applies to all dogs, her definition is not equivalent to the definition that most dog trainers use when they talk about jackpotting and the way that her experiment was designed didn't associate the reinforcement of greater magnitude wasn't associated with a better than average iteration of the target behaviour.  Scientists spend a lot of time discussing and comparing their interpretation of studies, and this is an important part of good science.  Analyzing, evaluating and then comparing our thoughts to those of others is an important thing to do when you are doing science.  This is becoming an important part of being a dog trainer, and understanding how science works helps people to understand that disagreement is not the same as an attack on the other person's opinion.  Photo Credit: Graƃ§a Victoria /123rf.com

The final thing about studies that we need to touch on here is how to tell if a source is credible.  Just because it is written on the net doesn’t mean that information is valid.  Even THIS blog about science is just my interpretation of what I learned in university about how to interpret scientific information, and I am talking only about how to interpret experimental research; there is much more to the picture than I have included here.  Not only do we need to know if the person who did the research is credible, we also need to know if the journal or University that reviewed the research is credible.  If I do a study, and publish that on my blog, then I have given my readers a starting point, but my blog is not as credible as say an article published in an academic journal such as Nature or the International Journal of Biological Sciences.  When you are being presented with “science” in training, then use doubt to confirm if the information is valid or not, and if it supports or refutes the author’s bias.

Before leaving the topic of how to evaluate research papers, it is important to add that scientists compare notes, disagree and discuss what they are reading all the time.  Evaluating what you read should not be an unpleasant or undesired activity.  It is an important part of doing good science.  

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Null_hypothesis
[2] http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Default.aspx?Menu=Menu&Module=More&Location=None&Completed=0&ProjectID=15332
[3] http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc28456/m1/2/

Thursday, August 8, 2013


Imagine what it might be like to live in a completely behaviourally random world.  You go to the cafe and order a latte, and the cashier asks for your hat and coat.  As a cooperative citizen, you give it to the lady who throws it in the trash, as she calls out “NEXT” and turns her attention to the person behind you in line.  You move down the counter to pick up your latte, and the barrista, comes out from behind the counter and grabs you and begins to waltz you around the Salvador Dali cafe and throws open the door and turfs you out onto the sidewalk.  On the sidewalk, a bear in a business suit offers you a Rolex, cheap from inside his waistcoat and when you say no, he pulls out some flowers and hands them to you and approaches someone else on the street.  Still wanting a latte you go back into the store, only to find that it is now filled with pink balloons and you cannot make your way to the counter.  After much struggling, you catch the eye of the cashier and mention your latte and she says “no latte today, m’dear, only champers and cheese” and hands you a plate of candied almonds.  Nothing you do can change the maelstrom of activity you have found yourself within.  How would you feel?

Living in our world as it is depends on understanding things like the rules of the game, that gravity controls what floats and what doesn't and who people are.  When things stop being predictable, then it becomes very difficult to learn what to do.  Salvador Dali had a talent for showing this concept visually in a playful and interesting way, never the less, few people would want to play checkers on a board where the pieces persist in falling through the board and where time expands and contracts independently of what the players do.   Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

When we work with dogs, they are forever looking for the way through the maze; the way to control their environment, the rules of the game.  There are lots of games you can play and learn the rules through experience, and training is one of them.  Yesterday, I worked with a lovely young terrier who is trying to figure out the rules.  When she barks, she wants attention, and as a youngster, it worked well.  She can make her person do all sorts of things by barking.  Not wanting to disturb people, her person will come in to her and pick her up, or give her treats or tell her to be quiet or point a finger at her or tell her to lie down.  Like trying to order a latte in the Salvadore Dali cafe, everything changes at every step of the game.  So how can we make training an experiential fun game for the dog?

Think about games and activities that you have learned through experience.  If someone invites you to play Scrabble and you have never played before, it might run like this.  Your opponent will give you a hint or a clue or a starting point.  Perhaps they will start by giving you a tile tray and some tiles and ask you to make some words in your tile tray without showing the words that you have found.  Then your opponent will put down some tiles and the board and explain how the scoring works.  Then it is your turn and you can take your letters and place them on the board to make a word that intersects the first word.  You do this and your opponent scores your word for you and then it is his turn again.  He makes a word that intersects a word on the board and you work out the scoring together.  Turn by turn you learn the rules of the game, what strategies work and which strategies are ineffective.  This is exactly how dogs learn when we train using operant conditioning.

Coming back to my terrier friend (she really is a friendly dog who is just trying to make sense of her world), what we set up for training was a contingency that allowed her to learn some rules through experience.  The first thing we did was use a tether to limit where she could go; we set up a playing area so to speak.  Then we clicked and treated to remind her that the game was starting and give her some information about the game and how it would work.  Then we used four basic rules; if she was quiet, her person would stand close to her and wait.  If she was barking, her person would take one step back for each bark, until he got to the far end of the room.  After barking started, if she were quiet, her person would come back one step at a time.  If she lay down, her person would click and treat.  At first, she didn’t know the rules so she did a lot of different things to see what would happen.

When she barked, her person would step back.  This frustrated her and so she barked louder.  When her person was about twenty steps back, she stopped barking and he stepped forward.  Then she barked again and he stepped back.  For about five minutes, she learned how her behaviour affected the behaviour of her partner.  Then abruptly, she lay down.  Her partner came in and fed her a treat.  And she barked.  He backed up.  She stopped barking and stood up.  He stepped closer.  She lay down, he gave her a treat.  A very simple, but very predictable game, in which she controlled the behaviour of her partner.

This is how I think the best training works.  The trainer decides on the game for the day.  The trainer decides on what the contingencies are.  Then the trainer allows the dog to work out the contingencies.  The dog gets to decide if he wants to play or not and if the trainer has done his job well he has set up rules that make sense to the dog and the dog wants to play.  In order to do this we have to understand some things about the game and about the dog we are working with.

If I have a dog who LOVES liver, but doesn’t love cheese, then it doesn’t matter what I want the dog to do, cheese is not going to help him to learn the rules of the game.  Likewise if the penalty is something the dog doesn’t care about, then using that as a penalty isn’t going to work.  If in the scenario that I presented above the dog was afraid of the handler and barking made him go away, the dog would learn that barking resulted in something he wanted and he would do more barking.  I see this all the time in training.  The person thinks that their dog should like something, and they offer it as a reward, and the dog when working out the rules figures out that he will get something he doesn’t want to have if he does a particular behaviour.  This isn’t about the dog not wanting to play your game; this is about the dog not wanting what you have to offer. 

Sometimes the task we are asking the dog to do is of no interest to him.  If we ask a herding dog to go sit in a boat and retrieve ducks, no amount of liver is going to make that as fun for him as taking him out to herd sheep.  In the best training the activities we do with our dogs are of interest to the dog.  That said, there are always parts of the game that we might not enjoy; I hate setting up the board in Scrabble, but if I don’t do that part, I cannot do the part that I like doing.  Manners are an example of activities that your dog must do in order to get to do things he likes better.  Behaviours like greeting with four on the floor, taking treats gently, and keeping quiet are all behaviours that the dog must learn in order to be able to do things like playing agility, herding sheep or retrieving ducks.  Teaching good manners allows us to do more fun things with our dogs later and also allows us to establish that the dog doesn’t live in a random world where nothing he does affects the world he lives within.

Luring is a tool that I often see in the training game that can be quickly and dangerously misused.  Imagine if in my Salvador Dali coffee shop, the cashier kept holding out that latte that I wanted, but I could only get it by following her around.  I might tolerate a lot of Rolex selling bears and pink balloons to get my lattte, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy the experience a whole lot more.  Luring should be only used with caution and with respect for the dog.  When a novice trainer discovers that he can make the dog sit by holding the lure over the dog’s head, it is a short and dangerous step to using the lure to get the dog to do things he might consider otherwise risky.  Consider the dog who is not confident about getting onto a piece of agility equipment.  The trainer puts the lure on the equipment, and the dog is then in a conundrum; he can get the treat, but he isn’t learning to control his environment any longer.  He is conflicted because he wants the treat, but he has to do something that he considers dangerous to get that treat.  He doesn’t learn to play the game as much as he learns to balance the conflict between what he wants and what he doesn’t want to do.  Luring is even more dangerous when it is used to get the dog to interact with people or dogs he isn’t sure of, because he may at that point become aggressive.  Luring, properly used tells the dog how to position his body, but that is all it should be used for.  If the dog is concerned in any way about what you want him to do, pairing the thing he is concerned about to the thing he wants is a much safer bet than making his interaction the contingency that results in a treat. 

Luring is a tool that can lead the dog into the Salvador Dali Cafe.  It is best used to help the dog understand how his body ought to be positioned, but if it is abused and used to coerce the dog to do things that are uncomfortable or risky, then the dog loses control over how he interacts with the world and then he can end up in situations that don't make sense to him or that actually put him at risk.  In general, targeting can achieve the same results, with fewer risks.  Image credit: simsonne100 / 123RF Stock Photo

As soon as worry comes into the game, then it is not fun anymore.  Then it is time to play a different game; a game that will allow the learner to figure out that he is safe and that the world is a good place to interact with.  When the dog is worried the game should simply be “see that scary thing?  It produces treats”  This game is great when it is played with the frightening thing far enough away that the dog can cope with his fear.  Only when fear dissolves can you switch back to a game of “if you interact with the thing you are worried about, you will get a treat”.

When we think about training as a game, we can set up a series of rules and outcomes that the dog can be successful at.  Teaching dogs to be confident is contingent on the dog being repeatedly successful.  If the dog is successful over and over again, the dog starts to think that he can do many more things than he used to be able to do.  Perhaps the worst thing we can do to our dogs is create a random world where they cannot control what they live with.  Overwhelming dogs with repeated conflicts or failures results in a dog who lacks confidence and who doesn’t want to participate in training games.  If your dog feels like he is living in the Salvador Dali coffee shop, don’t be surprised if he stops participating in the training game, or if he becomes tense or fearful or anxious.  Just writing about the Salvador Dali cafe is difficult because none of it makes sense and there is no control over the outcomes.  When there is no control over your world, learning is inefficient and upsetting and pretty soon you have a dog who just doesn’t want to participate any more.