Dogs Life Column

388358_10150391928507693_524669044_nDogslife-logoDogs Life is an Australian Magazine just for people who are crazy about dogs! For a little over a year I have been the ‘Agony Aunt’ for the ask a trainer column. I enjoy explaining how behaviour works to people (you may have guessed) and the ways we can go about changing it. Here are a few to help you see the way some of us dog trainers think!

Dear Dogs Life,

My dog, a female Dalmatian cross, is almost three years old, and I think she has an anxiety disorder. We got her from a lady that didn’t socialise her as a puppy, which I think may have contributed to her condition. Whenever she is in public, or in the car, or somewhere new she whines and yawns. She will sit practically on top of me when we are out at the park and whines constantly with her tail between her legs. When another dog comes up to her, she snaps but not aggressively. I think she is frightened. What can I do to help her anxiety?


Oh Shannen, my heart aches for you and your Dally cross. You paint the picture of her behaviour so well and from what you describe I agree it sounds very much like a fear based behaviour. You are right also to assume the lack of good experiences at a young age, when the brain is set up to learn safe from unsafe more than at any other time in an animal’s life, including humans. 

First things first is understanding that simply exposing her to things will not improve the problem. In fact, it often makes it worse. In the world of psychology we refer to this approach as ‘flooding’. Many well meaning dog owners have probably already said to you “Just keep bringing her to the park, she will get used to it..”. I wonder, if you had a terrible fear of snakes and I locked you in a room with 20 or so snakes and no way yo get away from them, do you think that you would come to enjoy their company? More likely, like so many animals that this techniques is used on you would develop fear aggression or become so stress and scared your whole system would shut down. Not what we want for your girl.

So what can we do to help her? Because what you describe is a very generalised anxiety (scared basically anywhere other than at home) I would certainly recommend the help of a veterinary behaviourist. There are many prescription medications that are available to give her brain and body some support. They will also work with you and design a specific program especially for her. They will look at her diet and see that it is not a contributing factor and basically hold your hand through helping her learn that life isn’t as scary as she believes it to be.

The most important thing though is that you keep her feeling as sad as you can. If she enjoys short walks around your home, do that, allowing her to sniff and in face setting up situations to sniff such as throwing tasty treats around on the front lawn or nature strip is a great activity for all dogs, especially dogs with nervousness issues – it increases many neurotransmitters in the brain that are associated with feeling good and over time will help. Nose work classes with certified Nose Work Instructors might be a little bit much for her now, but would be the very best way to change her feelings about other dogs and people.

Anxiety based issues in us all are the toughest problems to work with, but they can be improved. It takes time, commitment and good advice from a qualified professional, but we can gradually expose her to positive experiences which will gradually modify her emotional associations about the world to make both your lives more enjoyable. 

All the best for you both.


Dear DOGS Life,

My four-year-old Golden Retriever, Milo, only listens to me when she can see a reward. If I ask her to ‘sit’ without a treat being present, she couldn’t be less interested. As soon as I bring out the Schmackos, though? She’s all ears.

Do you have any advice on how to keep her attention all the time?

Nick, via email

Hi Nick, I love this question because it can help all of us to understand our dog’s behaviour better – not just in the problem you are experiencing, but in so many other aspects of behaviour.

As a student of psychology, I have learned that behaviour does not occur in a vacuum. What does that mean? Well, every time Milo makes a choice about how to behave she is considering two important things – what are the consequences for behaving one way or another (in your scenario, putting her butt to the ground or not) and what the consequences of her choice have been in the past. The other part of the picture for her is what environmental signals have been present in the past to help her in making her decision? Again, in your scenario, we know that your cue “sit” (I assume) with a specific hand or arm gesture, the presence or non presence of the food, the larger environment like the place you are asking her to perform the behaviour (your lounge room, your vet’s, your training grounds) – all of these things for her advise her on what behaviour is worth doing right here right now. The fact that we humans focus on the cue (the “S – I – T”) is just a tiny part of the picture for the dog. Behaviourists refer to this set up as the “ABCs of behaviour and we consider them to be a part of every behaviour – thus the saying “there is never just behaviour” If we want to understand why a behaviour is happening and what we can do to change it – we must take into consideration what happens consistently before and after the behaviour we are looking to change. In fact, when I lecture I constantly remind the trainers present that the only way we change behaviour is by changing the A (short for antecedents) and / or the C (short for consequences) that are linked to the behaviour you want to change.

So, Milo doesn’t sit without seeing the treat. Many would tell you she is trying to exert her dominance on you… I would say she is well trained and has learned that the presence of the treat before she performs the behaviour of sitting is part of the A of the sitting sequence. Have you ever not had a treat in your hand, asked her to sit, had her not respond and brought out the treat and got her to do it? You have trained her that seeing (or smelling) that food is important. Have you ever asked her to sit and not had a treat and she has and she got nothing for it (a pat on the head may not cut it)? Then you have told her without seeing the treat you don’t get the treat. So we just need to change what she expects when you ask her to sit and she doesn’t see a treat – right now the cue for her to sit is seeing the treat, we want to cue to me you giving the “sit” command.

Here is what I would do. Get the treats out and put them on a shelf or table. Give her the cue to sit. She will because the treats are nearby. Praise her and reach out and give her a treat. If you do not have a strong marker word or what we animal trainers call a bridge, now is the time to install one. If you don’t know what I am talking about, google “using a bridge in animal training or there is an article on my website This speaks about the concept when training parrots, but it is exactly the same with dogs.

Next move away from the treats a bit, do the same as above and when her bum hits the ground, bridge her and run back and give her a treat.

Continue doing this in different locations, with different distances between you and the treats. As you progress you can stop bringing out the treats and making it so obvious – but when she responds to the cue (“sit’) you must bridge her and run and get a treat. In time, the behaviour doesn’t always need a food reinforcer, but the best trainers will have a bag of different things they can use to reinforce their dog’s correct responses and thus strengthen the chance of that behaviour happening again in the future. If you want more about that aspect of training dogs (it is way cool!) check out this article

Good luck!


Dear Dog’s Life,

I have a pet dog that loves to chase garbage trucks when they go past our yard. I have tried giving her treats for good behaviour, but now she just runs up to me for a treat when there’s a garbage truck, then runs back to the edge of the fence to try bark at the truck! Is there something else I can do?

Emily, via email

Ah… those noisy, stinky old garbo trucks! Great to chase after mum… what’s the issue…?

I’m being funny with you – ok, trying to be, but I can feel your frustration. Frustration really is a wonderful motivator isn’t it? For us and our dogs. I mean, after all,  it’s the reason you wrote in Emily!

Your thought about reinforcement for good behaviour rather punishment for bad makes my heart sing. Where ever we can in our lives with dogs (and people, but somehow that’s often a lot harder..) it is always the best choice. But, many of us are left thinking, “Yes but it obviously isn’t working Peta! Emily is still having issues and the dog had OBVIOUSLY been reinforced for chasing the truck! That’s the WORST thing that could have happened!  You can’t change everything with positive reinforcement!” (is it obviously how many times I have heard the above?” 🙂

Reinforcement is alive and well in the control of this behaviour, but your treats have little to do with it.  The opportunity to chase and see off the truck was a huge reinforcer long before you stepped in with some goodies to try and stop it through rewarding an alternative behaviour. So, now we have a beautifully trained behaviour (the trainer being the garbage truck…) that we want to “un-train” and that’s where the fun begins. Here’s how I would go about it (and here is how I have gone about it – live with three terrier crosses and you learn well how to do this!).

The first thing we are going to do is to teach your dog a fun game where she uses her nose to sniff out the high quality treats. You are going to get yourself a packet of cupcake or muffin wrappers. You can get cardboard ones – they are a little better because they are heavier. Here is all you do:

1Inside the house or in the yard – where she is comfortable and there are no distractions at first tie her up, have someone hold her, or if she understands the stay cue well tell her to stay. You are going to take three of the muffin cups and place then about 5 feet in front of her. show her the treat (make a big fuss) and put it in the middle cup. Teller “ Go find it!” Easy. Do this a few times, but move the cups around. Always put it in the same cup but sometimes move it to the far right or far left.

2Now you are going to make it trickier. Set her up and go and pretend to put it in one cup but don’t! Put it in the next cup, using the same movement. You can talk to her – you should talk to her – you want her to love this game. Then pretend to put it in the last cup. So she has seen you put it in all three cup and now she has to come in and use her nose to find the treat. Perfect.

3Now, all you do is gradually make it harder and harder. More cups, more tricks (where you present to put it in a cup and you don’t) and more distance between the cups. You can put one that in several cups so that she learns to continue searching – there might be one more! You can have cups in different rooms…. make it as fun as you can. Make sure you play it in the yard she will be in where the truck chasing behaviour happens at least three or four times WITHOUT THE TRUCK.

4I would do this a few times a day every day for a week. You can even give her her meals like this – that would be extra awesome and the thing to do if you really wanted to wave the the truck chasing behaviour goodbye.

Ok, so once you see that she loves this game we are going to re name it “The Garbo Truck Game”. From now on the only time we are going to play this game is when the garbo truck comes rolling by. We need to set ourselves up ahead of garbage truck time. We want to have a lead of some kind ready (a long line is great for this – you can make one or buy them, often called puppy training lines or tracking leads – get one to suit your dog’s size) and we want to have really, really, really high value food. Think BBQ chicken or left over lamb roast. (Great excuse to have a roast the night before). We want to have some control over our dog but still provide the ability for her to choose. This is important for long term success. A behaviour we choose to do sticks better than a behaviour that we are made to do. So a long leash gives us the chance to give your dog enough room to move about, but not enough freedom to hook along the fence after the truck. Our job now is to start replacing the choice we don’t want her to make (chasing) with the choice we do want her to make – playing the “find it / Garbo truck game”.

You will set your muffin cup outside before the truck comes rumbling along. When its getting close we are going to pop outside and put one treat in several of the muffin cups. now the long line goes on and we  take her out to the yard to play the game. If she chooses to chase the truck instead of play the game we are just going to stand there holding the lead saying nothing and once the truck goes by she is allowed to play the game. This choice gives us good information – she maybe can’t focus on the game just yet because the truck is so arousing for her, maybe our treats aren’t good enough – maybe she’s not that hungry. I would suggest if she gets breakfast skip it on the day the garbage gets picked up and give her more motivation to play the game rather than chase the truck.

So! Why the “ Find it” game? Dog’s love using their nose and they actually get a big rush of feel good chemicals by doing so – probably a similar rush to the high she gets when chasing the truck. Handing her a treat is soon different – it might be nice food, but it doesn’t provide that rush of dopamine and endorphins that chasing does. Hunting for the food however does! Awesome.

The other thing we are doing is not actually thinking about the treats as a reward for good behaviour – that’s too hard for her right now – we are actually using a different type of learning. It is the same learning that got you into this pickle in the first place – it’s known as classical conditioning. It’s how we learn what goes with what. So now your dog knows that the sound of the truck is a cue for the behaviour of chasing. We are going to change that around and tell teach her that the truck is actually now a cue to have the chance to play that hunting game you love. You will need to be there and play the game when the truck comes and goes once a week, but over time we can start to just toss some food out on the lawn or in the garden – again, a great way for dog’s to be fed anyway – so much better than the old food bowl! These dogs of ours are scavengers, letting them scavenge is a sure fire way for all of us to improve their behaviour and quality of life Emily, even without a behaviour we want to fix! Let the hunting begin!


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