What To Do If Your Dog Digs

Perched precariously on the edge of the pot, Pan was in his element. Paws pumping, dirt flying, tail waving wildly, he quickly and professionally excavated the area, messily transferring potting soil from inside the heavy clay pot to a wide swath immediately surrounding it.

Pan and Trout dug under our shed to access a nest of baby rabbits. Dogs often dig for a purpose.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” I exclaimed as I turned around, dumbstruck at the amount of chaos a determined terrier cross could cause in only moments when my back was turned. In answer, Pan snorted up at me happily, eyes dancing in delight, before returning to his energetic digging. Gathering my wits, I asked him to “leave it,” which he did with a grin and a play-bow before zooming off in ecstatic circles around the yard. What a delightful time he was having!

Less delightful for me, of course. Only minutes before, I had carefully planted some [dog-safe] bulbs in that very same pot, placing them the proper distance apart before covering them with the correct depth of soil. I looked at them lying on our cement patio. I looked at my dog, bounding around in pure joy. It was time to do some training.

Digging is a common behavior for all dogs, and especially for certain breeds such as terriers and dogs with more primitive roots. There are many reasons why your dog might dig, and one of the first things that you need to do is figure out what’s motivating your pup to let their paws fly.

Most commonly, dogs dig for fun. It just plain feels good! There’s something especially satisfying about the feel of loose dirt or sand between their paws.

Pan just cached a special chewy in this hole. Photo by Matt Helgemoe.

However, dogs will also dig for more practical reasons. Many dogs will dig holes to cache special treasures such as treats or toys, covering their prize carefully after depositing it in the hole by scooping dirt or sand back over it with their nose. You may also see this behavior indoors, when your dog pushes blankets over his food bowl or perhaps even makes the motions of scooping with his nose in the air above a special prize. Dogs also dig due to social facilitation. This is why your dog might start digging next to you in the garden every spring – your digging prompts his interest, and he joins in on the activity. Dogs will dig with one another, too. Some dogs will dig burrows, especially if they are hot. Digging into the cool earth provides them with a more comfortable place to rest away the heat of the day. Some pregnant dogs are determined to dig a “den.” Dogs will also dig to achieve a goal, such as escaping from under their fence to go on a grand adventure, or digging under your shed to get to that compelling nest of baby bunnies.

If your dog is digging for a specific reason, addressing that reason completely resolves the digging. For example, our older dog Trout dug out of our yard multiple times shortly after we moved. Every time we thought we had Trout-proofed the yard, she showed us a new weakness in our fortifications! Luckily, Trout is always supervised, so we were able to quickly retrieve her before she wandered onto the nearby busy road.

Trout’s digging issues were fairly easily resolved through management. We prevented her from digging by burying cement blocks in all of her favorite digging locations. We also used ex-pens to shore up any weak areas where she could squeeze under the fence until we were able to build a better barrier to keep her in the yard. We didn’t just take away her digging options, though. Digging out of the yard told us that Trout was bored, and the world outside her backyard looked much more green than the ground she’d already explored inside her highly-reinforced “AlcaTroutz.” So, we needed to make things more interesting.

Increasing the excitement of the backyard wasn’t difficult, but it did require some minor maintenance. Sprinkling interesting scents in random areas of the yard kept things interesting for Trout. A small handful of used hamster bedding, a few feathers from a friend’s chicken, or the dust from the bottom of a bag of beef liver dog treats were all big hits. Trout also thought that the trail of juice dribbled from a can of tuna was fascinating, and she loved it when we threw a small handful of treats out in the grass for her to find. Of equal enrichment value was our brush pile. After we removed two arborvitae from alongside our house, the brush became a frequent playground for her. She climbed, burrowed, and sniffed amongst the branches for hours. We made sure to position this brush pile well away from the fence so as not to provide a convenient staircase into the world outside her yard, and Trout soon stopped attempting to dig out at all as her backyard became the paradise that she’d always assumed the rest of the neighborhood to be.

Providing enrichment such as novel scents, sights, sounds, obstacles, and toys in the yard is one great way to reduce your dog’s digging, especially if he or she is digging out of boredom. However, I recommend against doing away with digging altogether for the vast majority of dogs. Digging is great enrichment, a great stress-reliever, and wonderful exercise! Instead of forbidding your dog from digging, I recommend that you instead channel his or her digging skills into appropriate outlets.

Trout and Pan dig apart their straw bale.

How you do this depends on your available space and how much your dog likes to dig. Those with less space can use a single straw bale sprinkled liberally with treats to create a fabulous digging surface (let your dog tear the bale apart, don’t bother spreading it out yourself). A wide, shallow rubbermaid tub can also be filled with shredded paper, strips of fleece, or even playground sand, and provided for your dog once a week (or more) in an easily-cleaned room of your home (bonus: it’s quite satisfying to vacuum up all of the spilled sand afterwards). Or, you can go to the gold standard in doggy delight: create your very own digging pit.

A digging pit is a clearly defined area where you not only allow, but encourage your dog to dig. You can mark this out with wooden planks, cement blocks, flags, or other landscaping materials. I decided to go with a large box made of treated cedar planks, which was situated on a gravel bed in my backyard. In my last several homes, our digging pits have been made up of a children’s plastic sandbox (with a lid to keep out brave but suicidal neighborhood cats, whom my terriers may not have greeted kindly on their turf), a bed of straw under a deck, and a sand/clay area where nothing but a couple of determined hostas grew, which I marked out with fist-sized rocks in a large square. Look at your available space, and determine what you can provide.

Add interesting items, like toys or treats, to your dog’s digging area to keep them coming back.

Now comes the fun part! Most dogs are delighted to discover that there’s an area where they can get their legal digs out. Make the area extra enticing by burying prizes for your dog to find. Hard biscuits, dental chews, bones, toys, and bully sticks are all good candidates. Start by making it really easy for your dog to “win” in their digging pit lottery by sprinkling some small treats on top of the dirt or sand in that area. As your dog starts to show some interest in the magic treat spot, let him or her watch you as you theatrically bury a larger biscuit under a very shallow layer of substrate. Then, encourage your dog to get it. Help him dig, if he seems hesitant! Remember, social facilitation is huge for dogs, so when he sees you digging and hears you encouraging him to join in, he’s much more likely to get into the game. Really make a big deal over him when he digs up the treat, regardless of whether he used his nose or paws to extract it.

As your dog gets better at the digging game, you can make the challenges you provide for him harder. Bury prizes more deeply, or do so when he’s not looking so that he has to use his nose to find them. Planting “surprises” in the box once or twice a week will keep him heading back to the same spot over and over to see what fun he can [quite literally] dig up each day. It’s okay – even good! – if your dog doesn’t find anything most of the time when he digs. As long as he keeps getting rewarded for digging in your designated area on occasion, he’s going to keep playing the digging lottery in that special spot that sometimes pays off.

Providing your dog with a designated digging pit isn’t enough to stop him from digging in other areas, however. As Pan proved with his potted planter excavation, dogs need some additional training to learn where they are and are not allowed to do their yardwork.

This is easily accomplished with supervision, redirection, and most of all, consistency. After his joyful hole creation, I watched Pan carefully. Anytime he started to dig in off-limits areas of our yard, I interrupted him with a cheerful “leave it!” or “oops!” and an invitation to run to the sandbox. Anytime he went to the sandbox on his own, I praised him profusely. Sometimes, I ran over and planted a prize for him to dig up. Sometimes, I ran over and dug with him, using my hands or a small trowel to dig alongside him (a reward even better than food for Pan, who relished the chance to do something fun together). Sometimes, I’ll be honest… I lay in my hammock and simply praised from afar, too comfortable to get up. Hey, dog training doesn’t always have to be a lot of hard work!

Pan’s nose is still sandy from caching his deer antler.

Our first “aha!” moment actually happened late at night. I was finishing up some bookkeeping indoors when Pan asked to go outside. He’d been given a new deer antler chewy earlier that day, and when I opened the back door he ran to retrieve this prize from where he’d buried it under his dog bed in his crate. I waited patiently while he found a spot to pee in the yard, antler in mouth. He then ran over to his sandbox, where he spent almost fifteen minutes under the light of the moon carefully excavating a hole, depositing his treasure, and covering it with layers and layers of sand. He came back in with his head covered in sand, a big smile on his face. Mission accomplished! He could sleep easily, prize cached in a safe location. The next morning, my husband reported that Pan dug his antler up first thing before once again conscientiously caching it under the sand.

Over the course of a month, Pan’s digging attempts in other areas of the yard became both less common and less intense. However, his digging in the sandbox continued on, strong as the day we’d built it. He cached treasures, dug up treasures, and oftentimes dug just for the delight of the sand beneath his speedy paws. I replanted the flower bulbs, which grew quickly in spite of their early and abrupt departure from their home. Pan left my pots of plants alone. He left the soft earth where a tree stump had been removed alone. He joined Trout in digging under our shed to devour a nest of bunnies, and we added gravel, landscape boulders, and an ex-pen around the back of the shed to keep our suicidal long-eared guests safe. He gave up on the shed and went back to his sandbox. I stopped having to issue “leave it” reminders.

Too often in our dogs’ lives, we forget to let them be dogs. We forget that they’re intelligent, autonomous beings with their own likes and dislikes.

Layla chomps on a crab apple that she’d cached in her straw digging area.

Activities like barking, chewing, chasing, and digging aren’t intrinsically bad. The problem comes not from the activities themselves, but from when and where your dog engages in them. Rather than punishing normal and natural canine behavior out of your best friend, consider instead whether you can direct it into a more appropriate channel. Consider how very good that activity feels to your dog. Consider how that activity benefits your dog: in the feeling of fulfillment from carrying out a centuries-old instinct, in the discharge of pent-up energy or anxiety, or perhaps in the cascade of dopamine that enjoyable activities releases. Why take that away from your best friend?

What opportunities do you provide for your dog to dig? Please share your stories in the comments section below!

Case Study: Bear’s New Lease on Life

Written by Sarah Griffin. Thank you to Sarah for sharing Bear’s journey!

I have a fearful dog. At this point in his life, I expect surprise when I say that to strangers. I hear it all the time: “Really? But he’s so happy!”

In most situations, my fearful dog no longer appears to be fearful. He still is, but I’ve built a bond of trust with him based on positive associations with scary things. For the behavior geeks among the readers, I’m referring to classical conditioning! For the rest of us, let me sum it up this way:

Every time a very scary thing appears, a very good thing appears immediately following it– and the very good thing must be so good that it can take his attention away from whatever it is that’s scary. Over time, how he feels about the very scary thing will change for the better, because it will have become a predictor of very good things. Here’s the part we like best as owners: as his feelings about the very scary thing change, his behavior changes too.

So how does that work in the long term with a “problem dog,” and why do we at Paws Abilities believe in this method? Let me take you back to the dog before the training.

My German Shepherd, Bear, is a rescue from a city shelter where he was slated for euthanasia. For the whole two hour drive home from the shelter, he cowered in the back of my car on the floor. He did not want me to touch him. He did not make a noise. Upon getting inside my apartment, he lay down in the corner of the bed, hid behind a stuffed animal, and shivered. Even if I hadn’t snapped a picture, that image could never leave my mind. This is that picture.

(Caption: Bear’s safe spot on his first day home.)

Now, take a look at a picture from about two years later.

(Caption: Now Bear likes to go out on adventures in the winter more than I do!)

Here, Bear is bounding through the Minnesota snow, tongue lolling out of his mouth, ears only back because of how fast he’s running. He’s being recalled back to me to go out further on a walk, and he loves it. His tail is up, his eyes are on me, and he’s happily responding to my cue from a distance with distractions all around.

What changed?

Very good things happened. Every time we saw a person, he got a very good thing. Every time we saw another dog, he got a very good thing. Every time we saw a car, he got a very good thing. You get the picture. For two years, I rained treats from the sky at almost anything he encountered.

Bear is an extreme example, so don’t worry! Not every dog will require anywhere near as much work. Perhaps your dog hates those Wednesday tornado sirens, and that’s her very scary thing. Think about what very good thing would help your dog cope with those sirens. For Bear, the very good things are often food! Bits of cheese, deli turkey, licks of cream cheese, pieces of leftover meat, a potato chip… Think outside the box. A very good thing has to be special, after all, for it to qualify in the first place. However, this list is only made up of things my dog likes– your dog may prefer a game of tug to a handful of cheese.

(Caption: Bear at Paws Abilities’ north Rochester location, smiling his big, goofy smile.)

Helping a fearful dog requires consistency, patience, and a lot of rewards, but I can’t give you a better testimonial than Bear’s. With lots of work and lots of love, my shy boy not only has a life, but he has a good one.

Need help expanding your fearful dog’s world? We are experts at confidence building, and can help you put together a customized program to bring your wallflower out of his or her shell! We have all sorts of options to help fearful dogs, ranging from private lessons to group classes.

Already worked through fear issues with your furry friend? Tell us all about your journey in the comments section below!

Sniff Before You Drip: Essential Oils and Your Dog

Have you ever been stuck in an elevator when someone wearing way too much perfume walks on (or worse yet, stuck sitting next to that person on a plane or bus)? Not only does it bother you initially, but it can actually be physically uncomfortable. You quickly develop a headache, and may feel nauseated. Often you will go “nose blind” after twenty minutes of smelling the perfume or cologne, no longer registering its presence at all (but also not able to smell anything else in your immediate environment). Even after you’ve long since stopped being aware of the scent, the physical effects on your body linger on.

We all know how unpleasant strong odors can be. However, I think we frequently forget to look at (or rather, sniff) the world from our dog’s perspective.


Consider this: the canine olfactory system is so specialized, so amazingly designed, that we literally cannot match it. Even the most brilliant scientists in the world are unable to build a robot that can track or differentiate odors as well as your pet dog. Dogs are unmatchable.

Let’s look at the dog’s olfactory system in relation to our own favorite sense, vision. Dogs so far outperform our own limited noses that we must seem to them to be, for all intents and purposes, anosmic. If scent were vision, what you could easily see 1/3 of a mile away, your dog would be able to see three thousand miles away, just as clearly.  Dogs have somewhere between 200,000,000-300,000,000 scent receptors in their noses. They’re rock star sniffers.

Why does this matter? I want you to think about your perfume-drenched elevator companion for a moment. What if you had to live with that person 24/7? What if you could never escape that tiny elevator? This is the reality for many dogs. They’re stuck in physically overpowering and even painful scent environments for their entire lives.

That diffuser plugged into the outlet in your living room might smell heavenly to you. But, do you think it would still smell as good if it were 10,000 or even 100,000 times more pungent? Does your dog enjoy it?

Worse yet, do you use essential oils on your pet or in your home?

Essential oils may have some health or mood-altering benefits. I have no problem with dog owners using these as an ancillary treatment alongside training or behavior modification. In fact, conditioning a relaxing and “safe” scent can sometimes make a huge difference for anxious dogs! However, I often see oils used way too irresponsibly with animals. Good practitioners will tell you which oils are safe or unsafe to use with your pet. However, your responsibility doesn’t end there. You also need to make sure that you’re using the oil in the correct concentration.

Considering how keen our dogs’ noses are, we need to be highly cautious about using oils at full strength. I instead prefer to use a small bit of the essential oil diluted in a less pungent carrier oil. A single drop of essential oil can be mixed into a small glass jar of olive or coconut oil, for example. You can then further dilute the oil by repeating the process, placing a single drop of the diluted mixture into a second jar of carrier oil. While this may not smell as strongly to you, it will still be plenty powerful for your dog’s superior sniffer.

If you wish to use essential oils with your dog, I also recommend that you ask your dog which oils are best. You can do this by simply placing a single drop of your diluted mixture on a small washcloth or towel. Place the scented cloth near where your dog likes to hang out, and observe your dog’s reaction for twenty-four hours. Does your dog investigate, lie on, or seem drawn to the scented cloth? Great! That’s a green light to use the diluted oil for your dog. Does your dog ignore the cloth? Go slowly, and be cautious about its use. Does your dog avoid the cloth, or perhaps even the whole room that the cloth is in? Stop right there. Your dog finds the oil aversive, and you should not use it.

Whether you plan to use an oil diffuser or rub the essential oil directly on your pet, I encourage you to always ask your dog whether they find the scent acceptable before you proceed. The same goes for other scents in your home. Scented laundry soap, fabric softener, room sprays, candles, perfumes, cologne, and diffusers can be highly aversive to many dogs. In fact, I believe that excessive use of these products often contributes to many of the common behavioral issues we see in our pets by adding an unnecessary stressor to their lives, and perhaps even making them feel less well.

Please, be sensitive to your dog’s sniffer next time you wish to use scent in your household. You may be surprised how very many opinions they have about the topic!

Understanding Dog-Dog Sociability

Recently, my young dog, Pan, snarked at another young dog at a playgroup event. It was entirely my fault: I didn’t set Pan up for success. [It was also absolutely embarrassing, since I was wearing my Paws Abilities polo shirt (“seriously, she’s a dog trainer?”).]

Dog-dog relationships are one of my specialties, but I make mistakes too. As much as I’d like to be a superhero, I’m only human. My dogs, too, are not perfect. They’re only canine, and their social behaviors with other dogs are entirely normal and manageable.

Pan and his housemate Trout. Photo by Grape Soda Photography.

Pan and his housemate Trout. Photo by Grape Soda Photography.

We humans get into a lot of trouble with dog-dog relationships in our society. We expect our adult dogs to act like puppies forever, and we expect every dog to love every other dog. We judge and label dogs who display entirely normal, species-appropriate behaviors as “bad dogs” because they dared to growl or show teeth, and think that dogs who jump all over other dogs wildly are displaying entirely sweet and benign behaviors.

The truth is that dog tolerance levels are variable, and will change with both age and experiences (good or bad). There is also a genetic component to most dogs’ sociability with others of their own species, so all of the appropriate socialization in the world will not necessarily make every dog socially adept and friendly.

So, what does “normal” dog-dog behavior look like? Think of dog sociability as a bell-curve.

Normal dog sociability levels change as a dog matures.

Normal dog sociability levels change as a dog matures.

Dog Social: most puppies start here. They generally enjoy and seek out other dogs, and tolerate (or sometimes even encourage) rude behaviors from other dogs like humping or barking in their face. As dogs mature, almost all of them will move to the right of this trait. Truly Dog Social adult dogs (those who really appreciate the company of almost every other dog) are quite rare. Unfortunately for the species, this is the trait we expect all dogs to exhibit, even though it’s a fairly abnormal occurrence in the vast majority of mature dogs.

Dog Tolerant: slightly to the right of Dog Social dogs are those who are Dog Tolerant. Many puppies who will grow up to become Dog Selective or Dog Aggressive start here, before sliding to the right as they mature. This is also an incredibly common place for adult dogs to end up after maturity. Dog Tolerant dogs get along with most other dogs. They may be playful or neutral, but they generally have a pretty long fuse and good communication skills. Dog Tolerant dogs also tend to do well on leash around other dogs. They require normal supervision and limited direction from their human guardians.

Dog Selective: just as common as the Dog Tolerant adult is the Dog Selective one. While a rare and concerning trait in well-socialized puppies who have not had bad dog-dog experiences, this is a very normal place for an adult dog to end up at maturity. Dog selective dogs will often have a circle of “approved” dogs or types of dog that they do well with. Scuffles may break out quickly, and these dogs often have very short fuses. They may dislike certain play styles or types of dog on sight, and may be less than stellar on leash with other dogs. These dogs often dictate the rules while playing and may seem like the “fun police” or the “instigator” in group situations. They require a lot of supervision and positive direction from their owners to succeed with others of their species.

Dog Aggressive: this trait is highly abnormal in puppies, and fairly uncommon in adult dogs. In fact, it’s about as uncommon as truly Dog Social adult dogs. Dog Aggressive dogs often have a very limited circle of dog friends (perhaps only one or two housemate dogs), or may have no dog friends at all. They have quite poor social skills and can be quick to spark up on leash. Dog Aggressive dogs need additional support, patience, and direction from their guardians to succeed in dog-dog interactions.

So, where does Pan fall? As an eighteen-month-old intact male terrier cross, he’s matured into a very normal and manageable Dog Selective boy. He can be rude and pushy with other dogs, and is frequently inappropriate about intrusively sniffing or licking new dogs’ genitals if not redirected. He is also highly aroused by both meeting and playing with other dogs. He most enjoys interacting with opposite-sex partners under thirty pounds, but has dog friends of both genders and of various sizes. He does well with other dogs on leash when he is in “working mode” and generally handles on-leash greetings appropriately. Pan currently takes corrections from other dogs well if he meatballs into their space, but I suspect that he will become less willing to cede space as he continues to mature.

Dog sociability is not a fixed trait. As a dog matures, he or she will often quite naturally become less social and tolerant. There are many developmental changes that happen between sexual and social maturity, and most dogs will continue to display these changes until two to three years of age. Proper facilitation of dog-dog introductions and friendships can change your dog’s sociability for the better over time, and bad experiences can quickly make things worse. Good leadership and direction is important to set your dog up for success with their species.

As Pan’s handler, I failed to set him up for success when I allowed him to continue an aroused interaction with a male hound puppy who was larger than him. When the puppy jumped on and mouthed him too hard, he responded appropriately by correcting this behavior… then continued to go after the puppy [quite inappropriately!] until he was physically removed. Once on leash, he immediately calmed down and was able to focus on me, even with the puppy mere feet away. While this incident was over within seconds, it’s the sort of thing that, when allowed to happen repeatedly, will continue to shift Pan further towards the Dog Aggressive end of the spectrum. In fact, many of my clients could tell similar stories of how their dog initially enjoyed playgroups, the dog park, or doggy daycare, then became pickier and more likely to scuffle as adolescents, only to end up with a more serious incident as a young adult prompting them to call me.

Regardless of where your dog falls on the sociability spectrum, it’s your responsibility as their guardian to set them up for success. Remember that these traits are flexible, and that thoughtful management and slow introductions can shift your dog further to the left of the spectrum. Just as I have zero interest in frat parties, my adult terrier crosses are less than enthusiastic about the idea of a free-for-all play environment… and that’s entirely normal and okay.

Where does your dog fall on the sociability spectrum?

Case Study: Learning to Relax

Written by Katie Kelly, CPDT-KA, ABCDT

When I was looking to adopt a second dog, one of my top priorities was to find a dog who was dog-social. I already had Minnie, my small reactive Shih Tzu, and I needed to make sure that she and my future dog could safely coexist. Having a dog-social dog would also mean a canine partner to join me at work, providing demonstration and help with behavior modification for my client dogs.

Finally, I found Jasmine. She was dog social, a good dog-sport prospect, and (most importantly!) she passed Minnie’s test. She was dog-social, alright. I found myself frustrated with many of the same problems my clients have with their dogs. Jasmine wanted to greet everyone! She would zip to the end of her leash and whine at any glimpse of a dog in view, and became very excited about people as well. This not only made her look intimidating to some, due to her pit bull type features, but it was extremely tough to go anywhere with her. I would repeat over and over to myself, “at least she’s social. At least she’s social. At least she’s social.” But there was more.

Jasmine

Jasmine

Animated beings were not the only things Jasmine got excited about. She would zoom in circles any time she touched a leaf, or felt the crunch of the snow beneath her feet. If I was out and about with Jasmine, she could never just stand still. If I stopped to talk to a friend, Jasmine would get fidget, pace, and whine until we moved on. At one point, when out on a walk, she got so excited about sniffing a tree that she zoomed around the tree multiple times until she broke the clip on her leash, and ran off in a frenzy. Gone. Thankfully, she found me again once she was able to calm down. During moments such as these, she began to worry me, as she appeared out of it, incapable of any sort of mental response. At that point, I began labeling her as “hyper-reactive,” meaning she over-reacted with hyperactive behaviors on a regular basis with everyday situations.

Eventually, after some conversation with my veterinarian, Jasmine was put on anti-anxiety medication. Once the medication took effect, I was able to work on teaching Jasmine to relax. This was life changing for Jasmine.

At first, I started in my home. I helped Jasmine realize that it was okay to go lie down on the floor like a normal dog, rather than feeling the need to seek out constant attention. Then I began to take the skills Jasmine was learning at home and apply them in our training classes. I specifically took the “Focus and Control” class, where the goal is to maintain connection, teach impulse control, and condition the dogs to relax.

One of the best parts about our “Focus and Control” curriculum, is that we teach dogs to drive to a mat, and lay down. Mat training is wonderful all by itself, but we also add a relaxed emotional response. The mat becomes a soothing comfort that can easily transport from place to place. This gave us the ability to take our training out into the real world!

I practiced relaxation with Jasmine everywhere: out in pet stores, café patios, out on walks, and at friends’ houses. She became much easier to take places. Whenever she began to escalate, I would begin some sort of relaxation technique, sometimes with the mat and sometimes not. Over time, I was seeing less and less reaction to the things that once overstimulated her.

While Jasmine is an extreme example, teaching relaxation is beneficial for every dog. Giving a dog the skills to cope and settle in everyday situations can prevent many behavior issues, such as anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity. It is also beneficial to their overall health, as stress affects our dogs in the same ways it affects us humans. Lastly, dogs who can maintain emotional stability are much easier to train, as they have a higher capacity to process and retain information.

Jasmine (right) helps "little Jasmine" (left) learn to relax around other dogs at Day Camp!

Jasmine (right) helps “little Jasmine” (left) learn to relax around other dogs at Day Camp!

Today, Jasmine is off medication. Her daily overreactions now only happen on very rare occasions, and in those moments she is now easy to redirect. Her stable personality is perfect for day camp, where she now helps other dogs learn to relax in her presence, a skill that can be extremely difficult for those super social dogs!

These days I stress the importance of canine relaxation to my clients. It is also a major focus in our day camp programs: Puppy Headstart and Canine University. Could your dog benefit from a little more down time?

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by flickr user dagnyg.

Photo by flickr user dagnyg.

I have a dog, Maggie. I trust her with my life, but not with my sandwich. -Dr. Phil

The Problems with Remote Collars

There are many different training methods out there, and each has its pros and cons. Today, I want to talk specifically about the use of remote collars (also known as shock collars or e-collars).

Photo by Tate Viehmann

Photo by Tate Viehmann

Today’s remote collars are a far cry from early versions. Many brands now have a very wide range of shocks (called “stimulations” by collar users), which can range from virtually unnoticeable to intensely painful. “Good” remote collar trainers use the collars primarily as negative reinforcement. What that means is that the dog learns to comply immediately in order to turn off a painful, uncomfortable, or annoying sensation. While this is a far cry from the early days of remote collar use, when dogs were hurt at high levels for noncompliance (a training technique called positive punishment, for you geeks out there), it’s still not a pleasant way to learn.

So, how would someone use a remote collar? Let’s use a recall (come when called) as an example. The trainer would start by asking the dog which level of stimulation was the right one. This is done by putting the collar on the dog and, starting at one, increasing the level until the dog displays a change in behavior. This level is then the one used for initial training, although the trainer may adjust the level up or down depending on a variety of factors. The dog should not be displaying significant signs of pain or distress at this level (no yelping, head shaking, or fight/flight reactions).

Once the “appropriate” level of shock is determined, the trainer will teach the dog to turn off the shock. This can be done in a variety of ways, but usually involves repeated stimulations (tapping the remote over and over rapidly) until the dog moves towards the handler, at which point the shocks stop. The dog learns that his or her behavior can make the sensation stop.

While remote collar training can certainly be effective (if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t still be around), it is not a technique that I recommend. So, what are the common problems with remote collar use?

My biggest concern with the use of these collars is that, used according to modern training directions, there is no way for the dog to avoid shock entirely. The first “tap” of the collar is given simultaneously with the command. While the dog can quickly turn off the sensation by complying, there is no time or way for the dog to entirely avoid all shocks. The dog is only able to avoid future shocks, not the initial one. This necessarily sets up a stressful learning experience.

But what if the collar isn’t used simultaneously with the command? What if, instead, the trainer only begins tapping the remote after the dog has had a few seconds to respond? While this training method would avoid the above issue, it creates other problems. Don’t forget, Pavlov is always on your shoulder! If the recall command is repeatedly followed by an uncomfortable or unpleasant stimulus, you will quickly condition your dog to feel dread when you call. This process is called classical conditioning, and it’s powerful stuff. We call cues that are associated with icky things like this “poisoned” cues, and research shows that changing the association with a poisoned cue is a very long-term, difficult process. Once your dog has associated a word with something unpleasant, they will always have that memory in the back of their mind when they heard the poisoned cue in the future, even if future repetitions of the cue have only been associated with nice things. By the way, this same process happens if you use a warning tone or vibration before (and eventually even in place of) the stimulation.

Speaking of emotions, my second concern has to do with the quadrant of learning theory that remote collar users employ: negative reinforcement. In negative reinforcement, the dog learns to do something in order to stop an unpleasant thing. The primary emotion associated with negative reinforcement is that of relief. People feel this too! Consider doing your taxes, shoveling the driveway after a big snowstorm, or loading the dishwasher. The biggest reward for completing these tasks is the sensation of relief when you’re done. The tasks are not enjoyable in and of themselves, but you feel better when they’re completed because you’ve removed the pressure of the need to act that’s been looming over you.

Compare this to the emotion that positive reinforcement causes: joy! Which would you rather have your dog feel when you call him? When trained with positive reinforcement, the recall cue becomes a tiny reward in and of itself. Dogs feel a little jolt of happiness when you call, because they’ve associated the recall over and over with very pleasant things happening. Dogs who are trained with negative reinforcement, such as remote collars, feel a strong compulsion to move towards you when you call them, followed by a feeling of relief once they are in motion towards you. That’s not the same, and it’s not what I want our relationship to be based on. That’s not to say that dogs trained with remote collars can’t have lovely relationships with their owners – they can! In fact, training of any sort will begin to build a relationship, regardless of methods used. But my opinion is that positive reinforcement works the very fastest and best to build strong, lasting relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.

Finally, remote collars can cause fear or aggression issues. This comes back to that classical conditioning we talked about before. If you repeatedly use the collar to call your dog away from people or other dogs, for example, your dog may come to associate the uncomfortable sensation with what he sees when the collar is activated (dogs or people) rather than with his behavior. If he’s looking at another dog every time he hears the warning beep or gets “tapped,” he’s going to come to associate other dogs with this, and his behavior towards other dogs is likely to change. In fact, this is such a common situation that the AVSAB has released a position statement warning about these risks, and advising that e-collars are never used in dogs who have any history of fearful or aggressive behavior.

But, aren’t remote collars necessary in some situations? What about if your dog lives near a busy road or has a history of chasing livestock? Aren’t e-collars more reliable than positive reinforcement alone? This is one of the most common excuses I hear for using remote collars. Luckily, this question has been studied, and the results were quite conclusive. Positive reinforcement training works every bit as well as remote collar methods in teaching a reliable recall, even for dogs who have a history of chasing livestock. Furthermore, dogs trained with positive reinforcement methods showed fewer signs of stress, such as yawning and tense muscles, and had lower salivary cortisol levels three months later upon visiting the training center. If you feel that you need to use a remote collar to achieve a reliable recall, you likely need a better trainer and better management tools, not a remote collar.

Ultimately, I believe that remote collars are a step up from previous compulsive methods of training dogs, such as using a long leash attached to a slip or pinch collar. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the best method out there, or even a good method, and before using one I would strongly advise you to do your research. Reward-based methods work, even with strong, hard-headed, and highly predatory dogs. In fact, they work really well for all animals, with fewer potential side effects. They can work for you, too.