Should We Reinforce the Effort or the Results?

Dog using its nose to search a target scent (photo from

If you ask, “should we reinforce effort or the results?” you are liable to get as many answers supporting one idea as the other. Supporters of reinforcing effort sustain that reinforcing results creates emotional problems when one doesn’t succeed and decreases the rate of even trying. Supporters of reinforcing results maintain that reinforcing effort encourages sloppiness and cheating.

I shall proceed to argue for and against both theories and prove that it is not a question of either/or, rather of defining our criteria, processes and goals clearly.

I shall compare the learning of some skills in dogs and humans because the principles are the same. The difference between them and us is one “of degree, not of kind,” in the words of Darwin.

I will use SMAF to accurately describe some of the processes whenever I consider it advantageous. If you are not proficient in SMAF, you can read the free SMAF manual at

The main difficulty in some learning processes is reinforcing the right behavior at the right time, which bad teachers, bad parents and bad trainers do not master (here bad means inefficient, it is not a moral judgment).

Much of my personal work with dogs (and rats) is and has been detection work, mainly of narcotics and explosives, but also of people tobacco and other items. One of the first signals I teach the animals is a disguised reinforcer.

With dogs, I use the sound ‘Yes’ (the English word) and with rats a ‘bip….bip….bip’ sound produced on their backpacks and triggered by me.The signal part of this signal/reinforcer means “continue what you’re doing” and the reinforcer part “we’re OK, mate, doing well, keep up.” This is a signal that becomes a reinforcer: Continue,sound(yes) that becomes a “!+sound”(yes).

The difference between the most used “!±sound”(good-job) and “!+sound”(yes) is that the former is associated and maintained with “!-treat”(small food treat) and “!-body(friendly body language) and the latter with a behavior that will eventually produce “!-treat”. The searching behavior does not produce a treat, but continuing searching does, eventually (find or no find). This is why “!+sound”(yes) is a disguised Continue,sound(yes), or the other way around.

Why do I need this interbreeding between a signal and a reinforcer?

Because the signal ‘Search’ (Search,sound) does not mean ‘Find the thing.’ Sometimes (most of the time) there’s nothing to find, which is a relief for all of us (airports and the likes are not that full of drugs and explosives).

So, what does Search,sound mean? What am I reinforcing? The effort?

No, I’m not. We have to be careful because if we focus on reinforcing the effort, we may end up reinforcing the behavior of the animal just strolling around, or any other accidental and/or coincidental behavior.

I am still reinforcing the result. ‘Search’ means, “Go and find out whether there is a thing out there.” ‘Thing’ is everything that I have taught the dog to search and locate for me, e.g. cocaine, hash, TNT, C4.

“Go and find out whether there is a thing out there” leaves us with two options that are equally successful: ‘here’ and ‘clear.’ When there is a thing present, the dog answers ‘here’ by sitting as close to it as possible, or pointing to it (I have taught it those behaviors). When there is no thing, I want the animal to tell me exactly that: the dog answers ‘clear’ by coming back to me (again because I have taught it to do that). We have two signals and two behaviors:

Thing,scent => dog sits (‘here’ behavior).

∅Thing,scent => dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior).

The signals are part of the environment, they are not given by me, which does not matter: a signal (SD) is a signal*. An SD is a stimulus associated with a particular behavior and a particular consequence or class of consequences. When we have two of them, we expect two different behaviors and when there is none, we expect no behavior. What fools us here is that in detection work we always have one and only one SD, either a scent or the absence of one. It is not possible to have none. Either we have a scent or we don’t, which means that either we have Thing,scent or we have ∅Thing,scent, each requiring two different behaviors as per usual. The one SD is the absence of the other.

Traditionally, we don’t reinforce a search that doesn’t produce a find. To avoid extinguishing the behavior, we use ‘controlled finds’ (a drug or an explosive, we know it is there because we have placed it there to give the animal a possibility to obtain a reinforcer).

This solution is correct, except that it teaches the dog that the criterion for success is ‘to find’ and not ‘not to find,’ which is not true. ‘Not to find’ (because there is no thing out there) is as good as ‘to find.’ The tricky part is, therefore, to reinforce the ‘clear’ and how to do it to avoid sloppiness (strolling around) and cheating.

Let us analyze the problem systematically.

The following process does not give us any problems:

{Search,sound ⇒ b1(dog searches) => “!+sound”(yes) or Continue,sound(yes) ⇒ b1(dog searches) ⇒ dog finds thing (Thing,scent) ⇒ b2(dog sits=’here’ behavior) => “!+sound” + “!-treat”};

No problem, but what about when there is no thing (∅Thing,scent)? If I don’t reinforce the searching behavior, I might extinguish it. Then, I reinforce the searching with “!+sound”(yes):

{“Search,sound” ⇒ b1(dog searches) => “!+sound”(yes) ⇒ b1(dog searches) => ∅Thing,scent ⇒ b3(dog comes back to me=’clear’ behavior) => “!+sound” + “!-treat”};

It all looks good, but it poses us some compelling questions:

How do I know the dog is searching versus strolling around (sloppiness)?

How do I know I am reinforcing the searching behavior?

If I reinforce the dog coming back to me, then next time I risk the dog having a quick sniff round and coming straight back to me. That’s the problem. I want the dog to come back to me only when it finds nothing (as in it didn’t find anything).


Reinforcing the searching behavior.

Identifying the searching behavior versus strolling around (sloppiness). How can I make sure that the dog always searches and never just strolls around?


Reinforcing the searching behavior with “!+sound”(yes) works. OK.

Remaining problem:

I have to reinforce the ‘clear’ behavior (coming back to me), but how can I ensure the dog always searches and never just strolls around (avoid sloppiness)?

How can I make sure the dog has no interest in being sloppy or cheating me?


To teach the dog that reinforcers are only available if and only if:

1. the dog finds the thing. {Thing,scent ⇒ b2(dog sits) => “!+sound” + “!-treat”};

2. the dog does not ever miss a thing. {∅Thing,scent ⇒ b3(dog comes back to me) => “!+sound” + “!-treat”};


I gradually teach the dog to find things until I reach a predetermined low concentration of scent (my goal). In this phase of training, there is always one thing to find. After 10 consecutive successful finds (my criterion and quality control measure), all producing reinforcers for both the searching (“!+sound”(yes)) and the finding (“!+sound” + “!-treat”), I set up a situation with no thing present (∅Thing,scent). The dog searches and doesn’t find anything. I reinforce the searching and the finding (no-thing) as previously. Next set-up: I make sure there is a thing to find and I reinforce both searching and finding.

I never reinforce not-finding a thing that is there, nor finding a thing that is not there.

Consequence: the only undesirable situations for a dog is

(1) not-finding a thing that is there (the dog did not indicate Thing,scent), or (2) indicating a thing that is not there (the dog indicates ∅Thing,scent).

(1) {Thing,scent ⇒ b3(dog comes back to me=‘clear’ behavior) => [?+sound] + [?-treat]};


(2) {∅Thing,scent ⇒ b2(dog sits=‘here’ behavior) => [?+sound] + [?-treat]};

This is (negatively) inhibiting negligence, but since it proves to increase the intensity of the searching, we cannot qualify it as an inhibitor (earlier punisher). Therefore, we call it a non-reinforcer: “∅+sound”, “∅-treat”.

In the first case: Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => [?+sound] + [?-treat].


Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “∅+sound”, “∅-treat”.


{Thing,scent ⇒ b3(dog comes back to me) => “∅+sound”, “∅-treat” ⇒ b1(dog searches–more intensively) => Thing,scent ⇒ b2(dog sits=‘here’ behavior) => “!+sound” + “!-treat”};

In the second case, I have to be absolutely sure that there is indeed no thing. The training area must be free from any scent remotely similar to the scent we are training (Thing,scent). This is an imperative, especially in the first phases of the training process, and the trainer that misses this point is committing major negligence.

Nevertheless, should the dog, show ‘here’ for ∅Thing,scent, then we can use the same procedure as above:

{∅Thing,scent ⇒ b2(dog shows ‘here’ behavior) => “∅+sound”, “∅-treat” ⇒ b1(dog searches–more intensively) => ∅Thing,scent ⇒ b3(dog comes back to me=‘clear’ behavior) => “!+sound” + “!-treat”}.

What if later the dog doesn’t find a thing that is there in a lower concentration than the one I used for training, or is masked by other scents?

That’s no problem, it’s not the dog’s fault. I didn’t train for it. The dog doesn’t know that it is making a mistake by giving me a wrong ‘clear.’ As far as the dog is concerned, the room is clear: {∅Thing,scent ⇒ b3(dog comes back to me => “!+sound” + “!-treat”}; The dog was not strolling around and is not cheating me.

A human example:

I reinforce the child trying to solve a math problem. ‘Well done, but you got it wrong because…” The solution is wrong, but the method was correct. Therefore, it is all a question of training. The ‘wrong’ will be eliminated with more or better training, or maybe it was caused by an excessive increase in the difficulty curve of the problem (the teacher’s problem). We are not reinforcing trying; we are reinforcing the correct use of a method.

Why reinforce the process?

We must reinforce the process because of its emotional and motivational consequences. The dog and the child must accept the challenge, must want to be challenged, and be able to give their best in solving the problem. The exercise in itself will eventually end up being self-reinforcing.

Are we reinforcing the effort rather than the success?

No, we are not. Reinforcing the effort rather than the result can even lead to false positives. The animal indicates something that it is not there because it associates the reinforcer with the behavior, not the thing. Children give us three-four quick, consecutive, wrong answers if we reinforce the trying, not the process (thinking before answering).

We reinforce result (success) only.

When the dog doesn’t find because there’s nothing to find, that is success. When the dog doesn’t find because the concentration was too low, that is also success because ‘too low’ is here equal to ‘no thing.’ When the child gets it wrong, it is because the exercise exceeded the capacity of the child (he or she has not been taught to that level).

We are still reinforcing success and exactly what we trained the dog and the child to do. We don’t say to the child, “Well, you tried hard enough, good.”

We say, ” Well done, you did everything correctly, you just didn’t get it right because you didn’t know that x=2y-z and there was no way of you knowing.”

Next time, the child gets it right because she now knows it; and if not, it is because x=2y-z exceeds the capacity of that particular child in which case there’s nothing you can do about it.

The same goes for the dog: the dog doesn’t indicate 0.01g of cocaine because I trained it to indicate as low as 0.1g. When I reinforce the dog’s ‘clear,’ I say, “Well done, you did everything correctly, you just didn’t get it right because you didn’t know that 0.01g cocaine is still the thing.”

Now, I train the dog that ‘thing’ means ‘as low as 0.01g cocaine’ and either the dog can do it or it cannot. If it can, good; if it cannot, there’s nothing you or I, the dog or the child can do about it.


We reinforce result, success, not the effort, not the trying. We must identify success, have clear criteria for success, plan a successive approach to our goal and gradually increase difficulty. We must be able to recognize limits and limitations in ourselves, in the species we work with, in the individuals we tutor, in the particular skill we teach. We must know when we cannot improve a skill any further and when an individual cannot give us more than what we are getting; and be satisfied with that.

Have a great day!


Footnote: * Strictly speaking, the scent that the detection dog searches is not a signal, but a cue, because it is not intentional. In this context, however, it is and SD because we have conditioned it to be so and, therefore, we can call it a signal. Please, see “Signal and Cue—What is the Difference?” at


The Magic Words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

Roger Abrantes and Dog

'No' is a signal. It means 'stop what you are doing.' It is not a punisher (photo from the EI archives).

Yes and no are two very short words, yet they convey the most important information many living beings can receive, on one level regulating their organic functions on another, their behavior, and ultimately, their survival. If I say these words don’t require any explanation, everyone would probably agree and yet we’d be wrong. Did you know that in some languages yes and no don’t exist?

In my book “Psychology rather than Power,” written in 1984, I define ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in dog training for the first time. ‘Yes’ means “continue what you’re doing now” and ‘no’ means “stop what you’re doing now.” I explain how to teach our dogs these signals and I emphasize that ‘no’ is not a punisher and that it should always be followed by a reinforcer as soon as the dog changes its behavior. As the years passed, I reviewed, improved and refined all definitions, especially the ways to teach dogs these signals. In 1994, I wrote the first draught of SMAF, which provided the opportunity to analyze signals and teaching methods (POA=plans of action) with increased precision. The definitions of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ remained the same, but we could now clearly distinguish between the two completely different ways in which dog owners and trainers were using the sound ‘no.’ One was as a signal as I describe; the other was as a punisher. The punisher ‘no’ was pronounced more harshly than the signal ‘no’ but was basically the same sound. Transcribing it into SMAF, we had no doubt that we were talking about two different stimuli. The signal is No(stop what you doing right now),sound(no) and the punisher is [!+sound](no).

Using a punisher as a signal to encourage the dog to do something is never a good idea as the function of a punisher is to decrease the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. Conversely, the function of a signal is to produce a behavior which we increase in frequency, intensity and/or duration by reinforcing. Therefore, in order to increase the effectiveness of No,sound (the signal), we had to explain very carefully to owners and trainers that they should never use ‘no’ as a punisher. Amazingly (or perhaps not), many dogs could distinguish between the two ‘no’s,’ but we didn’t want to risk them forming a respondent association between the sound ‘no’ and an aversive. We should use any other sound (word), e.g. ‘phooey’ (‘fy’ or ‘føj’ in the Scandinavian languages) as a punisher.

Why the word ‘no’?

The word ‘no’ seemed to me at the time, the best option to convey, “stop what you are doing right now.” After all, implicitly or explicitly, this is the way most of us use this word (when we have it in our language, that is). Of course, some people cannot say ‘no’ properly, but the fact that some people have bad manners doesn’t detract from the meaning or the value of the word itself.

The magic words ‘yes’ and no

‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are two words used for expressing affirmatives and negatives. The words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are difficult to classify under one of the eight conventional parts of speech. They are not interjections (they do not express emotion or calls for attention). They are sometimes classified as sentence words or grammatical particles.

Modern English has two words for affirmatives and negatives, but early English had four words: yesyeano and nay.

If you’re a native English speaker, you know what yes and no mean and you have no problem using these words, from a linguistic point of view, that is. You might have a problem using the word no from a psychological point of view, but that’s a completely different story.

If you are a native English speaker and have never ventured into learning other languages, you probably believe there is no problem in simply answering any question with yes or no. After all, most things either are or are not, are either true or false, right? I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you by demonstrating that you are wrong.

Even though some languages have corresponding words for yes and no, we do not use them to answer questions. For example, in Portuguese, Finnish and Welsh, you rarely answer questions with yes and no. Portuguese: “Estás bem?” (Are you OK?) “Estou” (I am). Finnish: “Onko sinulla nälkä?” (Are you hungry?) “On” (I am). Welsh: “Ydy Ffred yn dod?” (Is Ffred coming?) “Ydy” (He is coming).

In Scandinavian languages, French and German (amongst others), you answer questions with yes and no, but you have two different ways of saying yes depending on whether the question is an affirmative response to a positively-phrased question or an affirmative response to a negatively-phrased question: Danish and Swedish (ja, jo, nej), Norwegian (ja, jo, nei), French (oui, si, non), German (ja, doch, nein).

So far so good, but if you venture into the Asian languages,  it gets far more complicated. Some Asian languages don’t have words for yes and no. In Japanese, the words はい (hai) and いいえ (iie) do not mean yes and no, but agreement or disagreement with the statement of the question, i.e. “agree.” or “disagree.” はい can also mean “I understand what you’re saying.” The same in Thai: ใช่ (chai) and ไมใช่ (maichai) mean “correct,” “not-correct.” In Thai you can’t answer the question “คุณหิวข้าวไหม” (Are you hungry?) with “ใช่” (correct). It doesn’t make sense for what is it that you are confirming to be correct? The right answers are “หิว” (hungry) or “ไมหิว” (not hungry). In all Chinese dialects, yes-no questions assume the form “A or not-A” and you answer echoing one of the statements (A or not-A). In Mandarin, the closest equivalents to yes and no are 是 (shì) “be” and 不是 (búshì) “to not be.”

Latin has no single words for yes and no. The vocative case and adverbs are used instead. The Romans used ita or ita vero (thus, indeed) for the affirmative and for the negative, they used adverbs such as minime, (in the least degree). Another common way to answer questions in Latin was to repeat the verb like in Portuguese, Castellano and Catalan (e.g. est or non est).  We can also use adverbs: itavero, etiam (even so), sane quidem (indeed, indeed), certe (certainly), recte dicis (you say rightly) or nullo modo (by no means), minime (in the least degree), haud (not at all!), non quidem (indeed not).

In computer languageyes and no appear as a succession of “A or B” conditions. If condition A is true, then action X. A computer’s CPU only needs to recognize two states, on or offyes or noone or zero for us to instruct it to perform complicated operations.

The theories of quantum computation suggest that every physical object, even the universe, is in some sense a quantum computer. The universe itself appears to be composed of yes and no. Professor Seth Lloyd writes: “(…) everything in the universe is made of bits. Not chunks of stuff, but chunks of information—ones and zeros. (…) Atoms and electrons are bits. Machine language is the laws of physics. The universe is a quantum computer.”

The way computers use yes and no is the closest to our own general use of these terms. ‘Yes’ means “continue what you are doing right now.” ‘No’ means “stop what you are doing right now.” This is the implied meaning of yes and no in the majority of the sentences. “Are you hungry?” The answer “yes” would result in you getting food and “no” in the opposite. “Shall I turn right? ” followed by a ‘yes’ would make me continue with what I intended to do and if followed by a ‘no,’ would make me stop doing it. A ‘yes’ in response to  “Did you buy rice today?” would prompt me to continue doing whatever I might be doing and a ‘no’ would lead me to interrupt what I’m doing to go and buy some rice. There are many other examples, but in general ‘yes’ prompts or encourages a continuation and ‘no’ does the opposite. There is nothing particularly positive or negative in either. Both are valuable bits of information that we can transform into behavior for our benefit. Both save energy, the most important resource for all living organisms.

Two peculiar aspects of ‘yes’ and ‘no’

As we have seen, some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ This is a cultural phenomenon. For example, in Japan and in Thailand, it is bad manners to be direct. Japanese and Thai people consider ambiguity to be a beautiful aspect of their language. The objective in courtesy is to convey the true meaning between the lines. The way the message is communicated should be as unclear as possible, especially when criticizing someone or rejecting an invitation. This linguistic feature is probably related to the sense of self-respect and honor that is so pronounced in both cultures, i.e. one doesn’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, or lose face.

For example, I can’t say to a Thai employee that arrives late to work “Arriving late is not acceptable. Please, rectify this in the future.” If I do, I won’t have an employee coming to work at all the next day or maybe ever again. I’d have to say “If we had employees that arrived late, we would have to ask them to come at the right time, don’t you think?” That would have the desired effect. If you invite a Japanese to an event that he or she is not the least bit interested in, they will answer “I want to come, but unfortunately it is impossible on that day.” That would suffice for me to understand that they not interested without making me lose face. Suggesting another day (and missing the point) is considered impolite.

Thais use คฺรับ (khrap, by men), ค่ะ (kha, by women) and the Japanese use はい (hai) to show that they are listening to you because it is impolite for them to let you talk for any length of time without their acknowledgement.  However, it does not mean they agree with what you are saying, or that they will comply.

In terms of animal training, if a signal is “everything that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver” and a command is “a signal that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver in a specific way with no variations or only extremely minor variations,” the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are probably the closest we come to commands (‘yes’ means continue and ‘no’ means stop and, as with most behaviors, there are not many possible variations in continuing or stopping, if any).

Is ‘no’ a bad word?

‘No’ is not a bad word, on the contrary it is a very useful word. It conveys information in a precise and efficient way. To get ‘no’ as an answer is as important as getting a ‘yes.’ Both save us energy and lead us to our goal. Personally, I like the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ equally and I wished people would learn to use them properly and more often.

The other day, I went to a busy store at a busy hour with busy employees and I didn’t have the time or the patience to wait. I said to the employee: “I have a question that you can answer quickly with a yes or no. Do you have a Time Capsule 2TB?”

“I have one, but it’s reserved for a customer,” he answered.

“What does that mean? Is he coming to pick it up or not?” I asked again.

“Yes, he is.” He answered.

“Well, than that’s a no right?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Why couldn’t he just have said no the first time? It would have saved us all time: me, the other customers in the line, and not least himself.

Another example:

United Airlines desk at the gate boarding to ORD: I approach and ask: “Do you have an empty seat on this flight?”

The United operator answers me: “That depends on your ticket, sir.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I reply, “whether or not you have empty seats does not depend on my ticket, It depends on whether all the seats will have butts on or not.”

A colleague of hers smiles and checks. “Sorry, sir, this flight is fully-booked. I have one seat on the next flight, but… it’s business class.”

“No ‘but’, you can put a comma or an ‘and’ in there,” I say. It blows my mind. A seat is a seat and that’s what I asked for. A seat is not less of a seat because it is a business class seat.

“Excuse me, sir?” she says with a smile, plainly not understanding my remark based on linguistics/logic.

“Never mind. Here’s my frequent flyer card. I have an e-ticket for the 7.13 pm flight. Upgrade it on the card, please. Thank you.” I smile to her in an attempt to reinforce her for having been able to think clearly (yes/no) for two seconds and for checking availability on the next flight.

“Yes, sir.” Finally a short and precise answer!

Why couldn’t they have just answered first ‘no’ and then ‘yes’ until they got the next bit of information, if I had any to give them? It would have saved me (and them) time and energy. If the lack of words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Asian languages is frustrating for the Western communicator, the refusal to use them or their incorrect usage in languages where they exist and are well defined is exasperating.

Why don’t some people like the word ‘no’?

Cultural differences apart, some people don’t like the word ‘no’ for the same reason that some dogs don’t like it either: because they associate ‘no’ with aversives. Parents are just as bad as dog owners in distinguishing between signals and punishers and they make the same mistakes which will later create problems for their children.

Of course, parents have to yell ‘no’ if  the toddler is about to  stick his fingers in the wall outlet (plug socket). There’s nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, and creates the aversive respondent association with ‘no’, is the constant repetition without a reinforcer when the behavior stops. The toddler only learns that sometimes parents go berserk and, has no idea why or how to avoid it. The toddler becomes so sensitive to the word ‘no’ that later on, like many others, he or she would rather live with regret than to risk hearing a ‘no.’ This conditioning can also happen later in life to which abusive parents, irate spouses, tyrannical bosses all contribute.

An elementary mistake, committed by both parents and dog owners, contributes to the aversive connotation of ‘no.’ If we have to use punishment, we should never (ever) punish the individual, we punish the behavior. Punishing the individual is what creates traumas, a lack of self-confidence, the feeling of rejection, etc. Punishing the individual rather than the behavior can even produce aggressive behavior rather than decreasing the intended behavior.

The reason why some people don’t like ‘no’ has nothing to do with the word or the message conveyed, but with the aversive(s) to which it was (respondently) conditioned. To change that goes beyond the scope of biology, animal behavior and linguistics, and pertains to the realm of psychology.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘no’ and particularly not with the message it conveys. There is something wrong with abusive parents, irate spouses, tyrannical bosses and ignorant people (all potentially abusive animal owners). To forbid the word ‘no’ or to replace it with another, e.g. ‘stop,’ does not resolve the problem. The only thing that does solve the problem is to educate people, to teach them to respect others independently of species, race and sex.

‘No’ in dog training

The signal ‘no’ is indispensable in dog training. I use it constantly when training detection dogs and rats, and the animals respond correctly with no emotional response at all. I give the signal ‘search’ by means of sound, the dog searches, I reinforce it. I give the dog the signal ‘no,’ the dog changes direction, I reinforce it. If the dog stops and looks at me, I give the signal ‘direction’ with a stretched arm toward the desired direction, I give the signal ‘search’ by means of sound, the dog searches and I reinforce it. If necessary, while the dog searches, I can signal ‘yes’ to encourage the dog to continue searching (‘yes’ functions here as a signal and a reinforcer, not an exception at all).

For those of you proficient in SMAF:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound”};

PRS2. {No,sound => Dog changes direction => “!±sound”};

ALT2. {No,sound => Dog stops and looks at me => Direction,arm + Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound”};

If necessary:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound” => Dog searches => Yes,sound};

/* Yes,sound also functioning as “!±sound */

In languages where there are no words for ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ such as Thai, I use ใช่ (chai=correct) and หยุด (yut=stop) respectively for “continue what you are doing right now” and “stop what you are doing right now.” I don’t use ไมใช่ (maichai=not correct) because the sound is too close to ใช่ (chai=correct).

Some trainers don’t allow their dog owners to say ‘no’ at all in their classes. This is an option, particularly if we have a class full of bad-mannered dog owners, but if our class consists of average, well-mannered owners, I cannot see any reason to do so. If they are not well-mannered, maybe they should learn good manners before beginning training their dogs; and maybe, by training them to be polite to their dogs, we could even make a change for the better in their lives in general by teaching them good manners toward their fellow humans as well.

Forbidding the signal ‘no’ in dog training is a grave mistake (and misunderstanding) in my opinion. Firstly, it is one of the two most crucial signals in life. Secondly we all need a quick, efficient signal to stop a behavior which might be life threatening for someone we care about (human or animal). Thirdly, it would be an untenable waste of time and energy if we had to resort to diverting maneuvers every time someone (our dogs included) did something undesirable.

Substituting the signal ‘no’ with other sounds (words) such as ‘stop,’ or ‘off’ doesn’t solve the problem. It only transfers the conditioning to those new words. The problem is that some people just can’t speak nicely to anyone. Most dog owners yell their dog’s name and they yell ‘come.’ What are we going to do about that? Forbid them to use their dog’s name and the word ‘come’? What’s the next thing we are going to forbid them? Rather then forbidding, it seems to me a much better option to teach them to communicate properly. We need to explain to them that the words they use, in the way they use them, are not signals but punishers and by definition they will not achieve the desired result, quite the contrary, they will get an undesired outcome. We need to show them how appropriate signals effect appropriate behaviors.

Bottom-line: The fact that some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and that Latin uses quantifiers instead, suggests that there are cognitive as well as emotional elements connected to the meaning of both words. Maybe the logical human brain likes the precision and simplicity implied in ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but the emotional human brain doesn’t. The universe and computers have no queries with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ perhaps because they are not emotional. Perhaps ‘yes’ and ‘no’ appeared in some languages at a stage when action became more decisive than emotion. We don’t know. I haven’t been able to clarify any of these questions. Nevertheless, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ convey important bits of information in a succinct and precise way. In the languages, which contain them, we can use them correctly for our benefit.

Enjoy and don’t feel guilty because you are well-mannered and know how to say no.



Abrantes or Dunbar—Who’s the Best?

Ian Dunbar and Roger Abrantes in San Francisco in 2005.

The other day after a seminar, an attendee came to join me at the pool table. I have a habit of selecting the bar with the most decent pool table as my after hours office wherever I happen to give a seminar. I invite the attendees to join me there in the evening, assuring them that they will be most welcome to ask me any question they like; and indeed they do, they approach the pool table, drink in one hand and pool cue in the other; and fire away.

Balls racked up, I took the break, didn’t pocket any balls, didn’t scratch and passed the game to my opponent, a local, female dog trainer in her late twenties. She took a shot and missed. Then, she looked at me with a radiant, slightly coquettish smile.

“Is it now that I can ask you any question I like?” she enquired teasingly.

“Yes, it is, but please do it before or after I take my shot,” I  replied, stressing the words before and after.

“Ok then,” she said. I could see her formulating the question in her mind before the actual words materialized. “Your approach to training is so different to Ian Dunbar’s,” she said finally with a slightly furrowed brow.

It was my turn to smile, “That’s not a question, that’s a statement,” I said jokingly while I chalked the tip of my cue. “Really?” I added slightly theatrically.

“Yes,” she continued eagerly,“ I’ve just been to one of his seminars. What do you think?”

“Equal or different?” I asked rhetorically, “I don’t know, I have never thought of it that way. I don’t know exactly how Ian trains particular skills, but I’m sure it’s good.”

“Interesting!” she exclaimed slowly, syllable by syllable, “How can you say so emphatically that it is good and yet admit you don’t know exactly what it is? Didn’t you recommend as recently as this afternoon that we question everything and never rely on authorities just because they are so? You called that authority bias, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I did, but I’m not committing authority bias by believing that what Ian does is right, just because it is Ian. I question all authorities, including and mainly myself when I’m supposed to be one,” and I approached her as if I were going to tell her a trade secret.

“In this case, I’m relying on the WHATFOR principle,” I said with an enigmatic air.

“The WHATFOR principle?” she asked with a furrowed brow.

“Yes, the ‘Wise, Honorable And Trustworthy Friend’s Own Record,” I explain.  Since I don’t have the time to check everything for my self, I select a few people, very few, who I trust and know well to do it for me, so to speak. I know Ian’s record. I’ve known him since we were young and hopeful, I know what his principles are and I know his integrity. That’s why, not because he’s an authority. I can do that, but you can’t. You can’t just accept what Ian or I tell you without questioning it because you don’t know us that well. It would be too risky for you to do so.”

“Okay,” she said pensively, in two very distinct syllables, fidgeting with the cue and chalk. “And that is enough?”

“That’s more than enough for me; and, by the way, we do question ourselves and one another,” I replied. “Of course, you’ll find similarities and differences between us. There will always be similarities and differences. We are not the same person even though we think alike in many respects. We are similar enough to understand one another and work together toward a common goal; and reasonably different to be able to inspire one another with new ideas. That’s the most important thing I think, but making comparisons doesn’t get us anywhere. I don’t think there is one single better or best way. That depends on the user. Some will find one way better, others the other. Of course Ian and I are different. In the end, no two trainers do the same thing the same way, not even our twin brothers would.”

“Oh, you both have twin brothers!” she exclaimed, all thrilled and wide eyed.

“No, we don’t,” I observed calmly, a touch sorry to dishearten her.

“Interesting,” she uttered again, syllable by syllable, visibly puzzled whilst looking long and deeply into her beer glass. I found it appropriate to call my shots and pocketed three balls.

It was when I was getting ready to go for the next shot that she continued.

“Sorry to bother you with all these questions, but I find it fascinating and I really have so much to ask. I want to become a good trainer.”

“No worries, just fire!” I hastened to say. “It’s your turn by the way,” I added, turning my eyes to the table.

She pocketed a ball, called an apparently easy, but long, shot and missed. Her bridge was very unstable, her mind apparently not on the game.

“It’s because I want to choose a training method,” she explained, turning to me, “and I like both yours and Ian’s, but they are so different that I don’t know what to do. OK, at least you agree with the way Ian trains dogs even if you do things differently.”

“It all depends on how you look at it,” I exclaimed. “When I look at Ian working with a dog, I don’t look with my feelings and emotions, I detach myself from my own particular thoughts and feelings, and Ian’s way looks good to me. I don’t even put myself in agree/disagree mode. If I always look at things with my own limited repertoire of emotions as a reference, I will miss a lot, maybe even the whole lot .”

I got ready to take my next shot, but she didn’t allow me to.

“And then?… Please, continue, “she begged,” and I indulged her.

“You’ll become a good trainer if you’re patient and diligent, if you take the time to study behavior and the principles of learning in depth and get the necessary experience. You must be open-minded and critical at the same time, not an easy task. Don’t discard a theory just because you don’t like it, and don’t accept another just because it apparently suits your own immediate goals. Don’t approve of an argument just because you like the person who uses it; and don’t reject one because you don’t like the person behind it. Then, you’ll become a good trainer and you know what?” I asked, pausing for effect.

“No, please tell me!” she pleaded.

“And you’ll be a different trainer, different from Dunbar and Abrantes because you’ll be your own.”

“Wow,” she cried out, “I hope you’re right!”

“I am, but you must be careful and wise. One method does not necessarily need to be better or worse than any other. It all comes down to what level of detail you want to go into and, in the end, what kind of person you are. There are many ways to do the same. Look at life, so many ways to live, so many life forms and yet the same goal, to live as long as possible and preferably pass your genes to the next generation. Ian’s way is great on one level and mine, hopefully, on another. I like to think they supplement or complement one another. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter.” I said and added with a sheepish smile, “Einstein didn’t prove that Newton was wrong. They are both right. It all depends on what level of reality you’re looking at.”

I left her pondering for a while, I called my next shots and pocketed four more balls. I had a good pool night.

“This becomes more and more interesting,” she said and laughed. “So you and Ian are looking at two different levels of the same reality. Never thought about it that way.”

“Maybe we are,” I said.

I took a sip of my beer and called “Eight in the corner.”

“Well, maybe you’re right. I think I can see now that your methods are not so different after all. It’s all a question of detail,” she said, sort of summing up her thoughts.

“Anyway, you do look alike,” she added jokingly, “you are both intriguing and you both drink beer,” and she laughed wholeheartedly while I pocketed the eight.

“But Ian beats you,” she added with an extra giggle, “he drinks more beer than you.”

“That may be,” I said, “but I beat him in pool!”

Rack ’em up! Life is good!


The First Ten Skills You Should Teach Your Puppy

A male Bulldog puppy.

Bulldog puppy (Image via Wikipedia)

There are many skills that your puppy must learn in order to enjoy a good doggy life in our human world. It is your responsibility to teach your puppy these skills. Opinions may differ as to what are the most fundamental skills to teach your puppy. In my opinion, you should focus on the ten skills I describe here so that both you and your puppy enjoy being together and can safely begin to discover the world.

There are many ways to teach your puppy the skills I mention below and one method is not necessarily better than another. There are many ways to reach the same goal and you should choose the method or variation that best suits you, your lifestyle and your puppy’s temperament. The training methods I describe here have worked very well for the many owners and puppies we have coached at the Ethology Institute Cambridge over the years, but remember that they are only rough guidelines and you should adapt them to your own puppy as you see fit.

Dog friendly facial expression.

Dogs understand our friendly facial expressions (a slight pouty mouth and slightly closed eyes). They may even offer us a ‘lick,’ which is a friendly behavior in dogs (Picture from PetTastics)

The first ten skills

1. The puppy’s name

2. Yes

3. No

4. Come

5. Sit

6. Walking on leash

7. Hygiene

8. Socialization

9. Environmental habituation

10. Home alone

Two principles (=> means implies or is followed by)

One signal => one behavior: Give only one signal for each behavior that you want the puppy to display. Example: you give the signal ‘sit’ by means of ‘sound’ and ‘hand movement’ and expect the behavior of your puppy sitting. Strictly speaking, you’re giving two signals, but they both intend to produce the same behavior, which is all right.

One signal => one behavior => one consequence: Your puppy’s behavior will change according to the consequences immediately following the behavior. If you give it a treat when it sits, it will sit more often. If you don’t give it a treat and ignore it, it will sit less frequently.

Your training tools

signal is everything that changes a behavior. It indicates to your puppy that if it does something, it will get something. Remember: One signal => one behavior => one consequence. A signal can be a sound (a word), a hand movement, a body posture, and a facial expression.

A reinforcer is everything that increases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior of your puppy—it reinforces the behavior and that’s why it is called so. You use reinforcers to reinforce the behavior you wish to be repeated. Reinforcers are, therefore, the consequences of what you consider to be good behavior. They can be a food treat or a word of your choice. Most people say “good-dog,” or “good-job.” My chosen word is  “dygtig,” (which means “clever” or “competent” in Danish) as I find that the sound of it works efficiently as a reinforcer. A “click-sound” can also be a reinforcer if you have repeatedly associated it with a treat, but you won’t need the clicker for these first skills. Remember that a treat is only a reinforcer if the puppy is hungry and that your chosen word is only a reinforcer if you associate it with a doggy friendly body language and facial expression and say it in a pleasant tone.

Doggy friendly body language consists of deliberate movements (not quick, not jerky and not as slow as stalking). Don’t bend too much over the dog. Give the dog some personal space. When you walk, do it rhythmically: don’t change pace or direction abruptly. A doggy friendly facial expression consists of a quiet and self-confident expression. Don’t make big eyes. Dogs interpret closed mouths with lips together (as when you are going to give a kiss) as a friendly expression (I think this is why the sound dygtig works so well).

Important: Treats, toys and training devices are useful and sometimes necessary, but the greatest learning tool of all is the way you use yourself, your body language and your facial expressions.

You will need treats (if you use dry food, use some of it as treats), a collar and a leash (for skill 6).

Some terms and expressions:

  • DLO means Desired Learning Objective.
  • POA means Plan of Action
  • QC means Quality Control and indicates the number of times in a row (or similar criteria) you must have accomplished your DLO successfully before you move to the next level.
  • => means implies.

To fail to plan is to plan to fail. Therefore, you’ll find that I’ve organized each plan to train a skill like a ‘quick guide.’ Read each one carefully and make sure that you know exactly what you must do before you begin a training session.

1. The Puppy’s Name

DLO — to teach the puppy to look at you when you say its name.

The puppy’s name is important because you’ll need to have the puppy look at you on many occasions. The name of the puppy is not the same as “come,” but you can give it that meaning if you want, in which case, you don’t need to teach the puppy the signal “come.” However, I recommend you keep these two signals separate. Later on, depending on how much you would like to teach your puppy, you may need a signal for the puppy to look at you without coming to you.

Tools you need:

Name (means look at me) — choose a clear sounding name; a name with two syllables works well (in our example the name is “Bongo”).

Reinforcers — You’ll need two types of reinforcers, a word (I use “dygtig” in the examples below) and food treats.

Your POA:

Level 1 — Stay close to the puppy, no leash.

  1. Say, “Bongo” and clap your hands.
  2. The puppy looks at you => say “dygtig,” show doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression, and give the puppy a treat.

QC: Repeat until the puppy looks at you ten consecutive times. Take a small break and then continue.

Level 2 — Move 5-6 steps away from the puppy and repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy looks at you ten consecutive times. Again, take a break.

Level 3 — Move 5-6 steps away from the puppy and repeat steps 1 and 2, but without clapping your hands. Just say the puppy’s name.

QC: Repeat until the puppy looks at you ten consecutive times.

2. Yes

DLO — to teach the puppy the meaning of the sound “Yes.”

“Yes” is a very important signal. It means, “continue doing what you are doing.” It is a signal you teach the puppy from day one by using it. Initially it does not mean much to the puppy but, as the puppy associates it with your body language, it will begin to understand what you want.

Your POA:

You teach the puppy “yes” by using it repeatedly any time the puppy does what you want, such as running towards you.

  • When the puppy responds to your “yes,” say “dygtig” and show doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression. You can give it a treat, if you have one, but it not necessary. Your friendly body language and facial expression are enough reinforcement.

3. No

DLO — to teach the puppy the meaning of the sound “No.”

“No” is also a very important signal. It means, “stop what you’re doing.”

Your POA:

You teach the puppy “no” by using it any time the puppy does something you don’t want it to do.

  • If and when the puppy stops, say “dygtig” and show doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression.
  • If the puppy doesn’t stop, say “no” again with a harsher voice and maybe a slight foot stamp on the floor. As soon as the puppy stops, say “dygtig” and assume doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression.

Important: Don’t shout “no.” You don’t want to scare the puppy, only startle it slightly so that it looks as you. Remember that no is a signal as any other and it should not elicit any unpleasant connotations. You should always say your “no” confidently and politely as in “No, sir,” or “No, ma’am.”

4. Come

DLO — to teach the puppy the meaning of the sound “Come.”

Tools you need:

Name (means look at me) — Teach the puppy “come” once the puppy is reacting promptly to its name, which it should be doing after skill 1.

Come (means move directly towards me).

Yes (means continue what you’re doing) — already taught in skill 2.

Reinforcers — You’ll need two types of reinforcers, “dygtig” and food treats.

Your POA:

Level 1 — Indoors in a quiet environment. Stand 5-6 steps from the puppy, no leash.

  1. Say “Bongo” and then when the puppy looks at you, say, “come” clapping your hands.
  2. While the puppy runs to you, repeat the signal “yes” as many times as necessary.
  3. Say “dygtig” when the puppy is in front of you, show doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression and give it the treat you are holding between your fingers.

QC: Repeat until the puppy comes to you ten consecutive times.

Level 2 — Indoors with one or two other people present, no leash. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy comes to you ten consecutive times.

Level 3 — Outdoors in a quiet, closed environment, no leash. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy comes to you ten consecutive times.

5. Sit

DLO — to teach the puppy the meaning of the sound “Sit.”

Tools you need:

Sit means put your butt on the floor and keep it there until you get another signal. You will be using two signals for sit, one is the sound “sit” and the other is your hand movement.

Free (means move now). You say “free” and, initially, you move around a bit to encourage the puppy to move as well. In the beginning, you are therefore using two signals—the sound “free” and your movement.

Reinforcers — You’ll need two types of reinforcers, “dygtig” and food treats.

Your POA:

Level 1 — Indoors in a quiet environment, no leash. Stand or kneel in front of the puppy.

  1. With a treat between your thumb and pointing finger make a smooth movement upwards right in front of the puppy’s nose and say “siiit” at the same time.
  2. When the puppy sits, say “dygtig” and give the puppy the treat you are holding.
  3. Wait a couple of seconds, say “free” and when the puppy moves, say “dygtig” and give it a treat.

QC: Repeat until the puppy sits five consecutive times and moves on your “free.”

Level 2 — Indoors, stand 2-3 steps away from the puppy, no leash. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy sits five consecutive times and moves on your “free.”

Level 3 — Outdoors in a quiet, closed environment, no leash. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy sits five consecutive times and moves on your “free.”

6. Walking on Leash

DLO — to allow the puppy to get used to walk with a collar and leash.

Tools you need:

Reinforcers — You’ll need two types of reinforcers, “dygtig” and food treats.

Collar and leash.

Your POA:

  • Walk 3-4 slow, but steady, steps in one direction and then change direction several times, all in a smooth, rhythmical movement.
  • Don’t wait for the puppy—the puppy will understand after a few trials that it has to follow you.
  • In the beginning, for every change of direction, give the puppy a treat, then for every second change of direction give the puppy a treat.
  • Keep eye contact with the puppy and show friendly body language and facial expression.
  • Say “dygtig” whenever the puppy follows you.
  • QC: Repeat until the puppy follows you freely 8-10 steps.

7. Hygiene

DLO: to teach your puppy not to urinate and defecate indoors.

Your POA:

There is no standard way to teach your dog cleanliness. However, the following advice has helped many puppy owners, including myself. Dogs develop preferences for spots as well as surfaces on which to urinate and defecate. It is important we give them these preferences early on. You need to choose a suitable place outside your house where your puppy can relieve itself. This place should be relatively quiet, without too many distractions. Get your puppy acquainted with that area, but don’t make it a play area. When your dog has relieved itself, move away from the area. Allow the puppy to relieve itself without disturbing it. Do not reinforce the behavior. If you do, the puppy may associate the behavior of urinating and defecating with getting attention from you and will do it later to achieve that.

  • Take the puppy to its chosen doggy toilet area as soon as it has eaten, played vigorously for a while or has just woken up.
  • If you discover that the puppy has urinated or defecated indoors, just clean it up thoroughly, removing all odor. There is no point scolding the puppy or giving it any explanations.
  • If you see the puppy urinating elsewhere, pick it up right away and go to your chosen doggy toilet area.

Be patient.

8. Socialization

DLO: to teach your puppy how to live in our human world.

Your POA:

Socialization is the process by which individuals acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to conform to the norms required for integration into a group or community.

There is no standard way to socialize your puppy.

You must start socializing your puppy from day one, as soon as you get it. The opportunity for socialization is at its peak between 8 and 16 weeks of age and remains until the puppy is about six months of age. You must not waste this period. If you do, you will not be able to re-gain what you lost, only attempt to repair it.

  • It is not enough for your puppy to feel comfortable at home and in your favorite dog park where it goes for a walk every day, plays with the same playmates and greets the same people. You need to expose the puppy to (many) strangers, people as well as dogs, and to new environments.
  • Exposure to novel stimuli should happen gradually.
  • Allow your puppy to play with other puppies as well as (sociable) adult dogs. Growling, snarling, barking are all normal canine expressions and there’s nothing wrong with it. Rough play with other puppies teaches your puppy the boundaries of social interactions. Your puppy learns self-control by playing with others. It learns good manners and when enough is enough.
  • Your puppy should go out every day and have pleasant experiences with all different types of friendly people (adults and children) and friendly dogs (of many different sizes, shapes and ages).

9. Environmental habituation

DLO: to habituate your puppy to the environment.

Your POA:

Since our world contains many different stimuli, you should habituate your puppy to as many stimuli as possible, such as sounds, motions, people, animals, objects. Allow the puppy to discover the world. Do not control everything. You should coach, not control.

  • If the puppy has a bad experience, your role is to downplay it. Don’t give the puppy explanations that it cannot understand. Just proceed engaging it in some other familiar activity.

10. Home alone

To teach your dog to be home alone, please read “Teach Your Dog to be Home Alone in Five Steps” at

Remember that your puppy is a living being with its own characteristics and that, independently of how well or badly it fares in its learning process, it deserves to be respected.

Enjoy your puppy training!



Q. When can I begin training my puppy?

A. Right away. The methods I describe here are so doggy friendly that you can use them as soon as your puppy comes home, when the puppy is eight weeks of age.

Q. What is the most important to teach a puppy?

A. To learn how to learn, which means to learn how to change its behavior in order to achieve the desired consequences, and to feel good about it. Life is a challenge and you should teach your puppy to enjoy being challenged. Coach your puppy; don’t solve all its problems for it.

Q. When can I go out and let my puppy meet other puppies?

A. Preferably right away. Socialization is a crucial factor in the puppy’s development and is time limited. Talk to your vet about vaccinations and other health precautions you should take.

Q. What about punishment? —Surely I will need to punish the puppy occasionally?

A. A punisher is everything that decreases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. Remember that punishment has nothing to do with violence, pain or revenge; and it has nothing to do with the individual, only the behavior. You punish the behavior, but never the puppy. If your puppy is hungry, you can offer it a treat if it sits. If it doesn’t sit, you don’t give it the treat (this is called a negative punisher because you negate, take away something). If your puppy is not hungry, not giving it the treat will not be a punisher. Sometimes, to have the puppy stop doing something, you may need to use a startling sound, like a foot stamp or a particularly loud clapping of your hands. This is called a positive punisher because you posit, put forward, add something. However you may occasionally need to punish a behavior, remember that the best strategy is always prevention rather than cure. Creating good habits from day one will considerably decrease your need to punish unwanted behavior. Warning: violent or painful stimuli may not decrease the behavior (hence, are not punishers), but may elicit evasive behavior, traumas, or aggressive behavior.

Q. Do I need to train every day?

A. It depends on what you consider training to be. Living with a puppy you are training it constantly. Beware: the most important training happens when you are not training your puppy. Everything you do has consequences.

Q. Do I need a lot of time to train my puppy?

A. Again, it depends on what you consider training to be. Initially, your puppy will require a lot of your attention because you should be preventing unwanted behavior and creating good habits, which means that you’ll have to watch the puppy most of the time. If your life is stressful, you have too many responsibilities and you don’t think you can allow yourself enough time-out to dedicate yourself solely to the puppy with a relaxed, positive mindset, you shouldn’t get a puppy.

Q. Do I need to be bossy for my puppy to respect me?

A. You should lead by example. If you show your puppy that you are good at solving problems, the puppy will follow your directions more readily. If you lead by force, you create animosity that may one day turn against you. If you lead by example, you’ll be active and create opportunities for the puppy to expend its energy and develop its skills. If you do not, the puppy will find other ways to stimulate itself, which you might not find appropriate (the first step in creating a problem dog).

Q. Do I need to join a dog training class?

A. You don’t need to, but it’s a good idea. Good dog training classes are beneficial to both you and your puppy. You will receive coaching and your puppy will have a wonderful opportunity to meet a variety of dogs and people as well as be challenged. Be critical when you choose a dog training class, or a dog trainer to coach you, and remember that you are the one who decides in the end. Like in all professions, there are many excellent dog trainers out there, using different methods but all with good results—whilst, unfortunately, there are also many bad dog trainers, using bad methods with bad results. Choose carefully.

Related articles

SMAF Manual

SMAF Cover Page

SMAF Cover Page

Mission SMAF—Bringing Scientific Precision Into Animal Training

This is the SMAF manual, latest update. The SMAF manual is in a way a super concentrated course in animal learning. This is only a booklet, but it will take you time to read and digest. Don’t rush thru it.

We update this manual regularly, sometimes even daily. Come back often to check if there are any new updates. Each manual has a version number (v.YYMMDD).

Changes in this version v.120302:

  • Updated and improved syntax with some new symbols.
  • Updated examples of how to transcribe the teaching of skills in SMAF.
  • New Chapter 4 “Quick guide to designing a POA in SMAF.”

Enjoy your reading!


Click the full-screen view icon for better reading. Zoom in and out as you please.

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Changes in version v.111023:

  • Definition of command with example, page 10: “While a signal is everything that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver, a cue is everything that unintentionally changes the behavior of the receiver. A command is a signal that changes the behavior of the receiver in a specific way with no variations or only extremely minor variations.”
  • SMAF syntax corrected, page 22: “25.2. Example 1: Sit,sound + Sit,hand + γSit,treat  ⇒ The dog sits ⇒ “!+sound” + “!-food”.” (The second ⇒ was missing).
  • Minor typos corrected.

Changes in version v.111017:

  • Semi-conditioned reinforcers have their own code.
  • Non-SD has its own code.
  • New code for reinforcers and punishers.
  • Signal and cue slightly redefined.
  • A new POA example (POA example 3).
  • New photos.

Dog Training: Signals, Cues, Commands, Obedience and Punishment

Kelly Gorman Dunbar and Roger Abrantes at Animal Cafe.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar interviewed Roger Abrantes at Animal Cafe on October 17, 2011.

This is the podcast where Kelly Gorman Dunbar interviewed me for Animal Cafe.

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Signal and Cue—What is the Difference?

Male Lion (Panthera leo) and Cub eating a Cape...

Secondary sexual traits, as the mane of the male lion, are powerful cues (Image via Wikipedia).

In the behavioral sciences, there is some confusion about the meaning of the terms signal and cue (as with so many other terms) and some authors use it interchangeably. To make it even more difficult, communication theory also uses the same terms with slightly different meanings and in the theatre and movies world a ‘cue’ is actually a ‘signal.’

However, in behavioral sciences, the general consensus (see references below) is that signal and cue have the following meanings.

signal is a perceivable behavior or feature that has evolved and has acquired the specific characteristic of conveying information about the signaler or the signaler’s environment. Information (communication) changes the behavior or the beliefs of the receiver.

This definition of signal implies that if a signal changes the behavior of an organism, this change of behavior must be profitable to both sender and receiver more often than not, or otherwise, signalers would cease to send the signal and receivers would cease to respond. This definition distinguishes, in principle, a signal from coercion, although some signals may be coercive, e.g. threats.

In general, signals must be honest and reliable, or otherwise they cease to have any effect (receivers don’t behave appropriately) and they undermine communication (honest senders will not benefit from sending the signals). However, some signals can tolerate a certain degree of dishonesty, all depending on the costs and benefits for all parties. H. W. Bates discovered in 1861 that some (palatable) butterflies had an advantage in mimicking (Batesian mimicry) poisonous butterflies, which is detrimental to the poisonous butterflies inasmuch as it turns their signals of unpalatability less reliable. On the other side, some species use the same signals to convey the same information and they all benefit from it (Mullerian mimicry).

cue is any feature that an organism can use as a guide to display a particular behavior or series of behaviors. The classical example is the mosquito seeking a mammal to bite and flying up wind when it detects CO2. The CO2 is a cue for the mosquito, but it is surely not a signal sent by the mammal, which would prefer to remain undetected and not be bitten. Intentionality is the key element to distinguish signals from cues.

A cue is a regularity, a pattern that either is permanently ‘on,’ or is ‘on’ and ‘off” depending on specific conditions, e.g. a rock, a tree, or the position of the sun in the sky cues us of directions, and dark clouds cues us of impending rain. The rock, the tree, the sun and the clouds are not there to give us information, but they do if we interpret them correctly. A signal is more malleable, more intentional and we can turn it ‘on’ and ‘off’ in response to relevant cues in the environment, e.g. the warning cry that many species (signal) issue in response to the appearance (cue) of a feared predator.

Cues are traits or actions that benefit the receiver exclusively. The sun and the rock do not profit from us getting our bearings. When a mouse by accident makes a rustling sound in the leaves and attracts a predator increasing the risk of being killed, the sound is a cue for the predator about the location of its prey. When an alert animal deliberately gives a warning call to a stalking predator resulting in the predator giving up the hunt, this sound, the alert call, is a signal both for conspecifics and the predator. Different species can, thus, communicate by means of signals which both recognize and behave accordingly.

Secondary sexual traits are features that distinguish the two sexes of a species, but that are not directly part of the reproductive system. They are probably the product of sexual selection for traits, which give an individual an advantage over its rivals in courtship and competitive interactions. Secondary sexual traits are also cues for the opposite sex. They are not directly related to a better production of offspring, but are normally good indicators of better sperm quality or egg production, e,g, manes of male lions (Panthera leo) and long feathers of male peacocks (Pavo cristatus). In humans, visible secondary sexual traits include enlarged breasts of females and facial hair on males.

The study of signals and cues is more complex that it may appear at first sight. Cues can become signals. In 1952, Niko Tinbergen described ritualization as the evolutionary process whereby a cue may be converted into a signal, e.g. the canine behavior of baring teeth. In 1975, Zahavi described the handicap principle where the reliability of some signals is ensured because they advertise greater costs than absolutely necessary, e.g. the exaggerated plumage of the peacock.

We must understand correctly what the intentionality of signals means and not to confound the intentionality of the signal itself with its origin, development and evolution. Signals do not origin by design with a determined purpose. Some features or behaviors just happen at a certain time to be efficient for an organism in generating in another organisms the right behavior at the right time. If they convey an advantage to these organisms in their struggle for survival (and reproduction), they will spread in the population (provided these organisms reproduce). With time, they gain intentionality and become true signals, but their origin was accidental like everything else. This is the reason why I had to modify (some extensively) the definitions I use in this text and I had to create new ones—to make them compatible with the Darwinian theory of evolution.

Applying the principle of simplicity, as always, I suggest the following definitions:

signal is everything that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver. A cue is everything that unintentionally changes the behavior of the receiver.

These definitions open for the possibility to better distinguish between the intentional signals (proper signals) we send and the unintentional ones (which are cues). For example, many dog owners say “no” to their dogs meaning “stop what you are doing,” but their (unintentional) body language (cue) says “yes.”

In conclusion: signal is the most correct term to denominate what we use when we communicate with our animals; and signals may assume many forms, auditory (the words we use), visual (the hand movements and body language we use), olfactory (in canine detection work), tactile (a touch, very common in horse training) and probably also palatable.

So, enjoy the consequence of your (intentional) signals and be careful with any cues you may be (inadvertently) sending to your favorite animal. Enjoy as well your further studies of this fascinating topic: animal communication.

Keep smiling!



References and further readings

  • Dawkins, M. S., and T. Guilford (1991). The corruption of honest signalling. Animal Behaviour 41:865–873.
  • Donath, J. (2007). Signals, cues and meaning (February draft for Signals, Truth and Design. MIT Press)
  • Hasson, Oren (1997). Towards a general theory of biological signaling. Journal of Theoretical Biology 185: 139-156.
  • Hauser, Marc D. and Mark Konishi, eds. (1999). The design of animal communication. Cambridge: Bradford/MIT Press.
  • Maynard Smith, John and David Harper (1995). Animal signals: Models and terminology. Journal of Theoretical Biology 177: 305-311.
  • Maynard Smith, John and David Harper (2003). Animal signals. Oxford University Press, UK.
  • McFarland, D. (1999). Animal Behaviour. Pearson Education Limited, UK.
  • Otte, D. (1974). Effects and functions in the evolution of signaling systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systemat- ics 5:385–417.
  • Saleh, N et al. (2007) Distinguishing signals and cues: bumblebees use general footprints to generate adaptive behaviour at flowers and nest. Arthropod-Plant Interactions, 2007, 1:119–127
  • Schaefer, H. M. and  Braun, J. (2009). Reliable cues and signals of fruit quality are contingent on the habitat in black elder (Sambucus nigra). Ecology, 90(6), 2009, pp. 1564–1573.
  • Searcy, W. A., and S. Nowicki (2005). The evolution of animal communication. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.
  • Tinbergen, N. (1952). The curious behavior of the stickleback. Scientific American December 1952.
  • Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection: a selection for a handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology 53:204–214.


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Commands or Signals, Corrections or Punishers, Praise or Reinforcers

An Australian Shepherd doing agility at the Ro...

Do you use signals or commands to communicate with your dog? (Image via Wikipedia)

Commands or signals, corrections or punishers, praise or reinforcers—does it matter what we call them?

If you think it doesn’t matter, there’s no need to read any further. If you think it does matter, please continue reading because I’d like to help you. I noticed some inconsistencies in contemporary dog training terminology  and will proceed to argue that they need correcting.  Trainers use too many terms that either are badly defined, not defined at all or already exist and mean something else.

Why is it important to agree on one single terminology? Because only then can we have a meaningful discussion and avoid falling out with people with whom we might otherwise like to cooperate.

For example, the majority of “positive” dog trainers have no problems using the word command and yet a command means “an authoritative direction or instruction to do something,” or “a line of code written as part of a computer program.” To command means “to exercise authoritative control or power over.” The word has connotations of the military, the police and of authority in general. Of course, we may use the word command but it beats me why we ban the terms dominance (without defining it properly) and punisher (whilst disregarding the correct, technical definition of the term) and use command with no concern whatsoever.

Personally, I have a problem with the use of command in dog training for several reasons. A command implies the obligation to execute a behavior in a very precise way. We give computers commands to execute actions in exactly the same way every single time, no variations allowed (that’s what we want from our computers). Army officers issue commands they want obeyed with no questions asked and disobedience is severely punished.

Is this what we want from our dogs? No, it is not. We want them to perform a behavior within a particular class of behaviors where variations are both inevitable and acceptable. There are many ways to sit correctly, but not many ways to “copy” or “paste”. The authoritarian aspect also bothers me; it implies subjugation. I don’t want my dog so much to obey me as to understand what I want him to do. The essence of communication is to convey information, not to enforce it. When we communicate, we use signals, and signals are understood, not obeyed and not commanded. I can’t say “I command you to understand.” A command is a signal before becoming a command, only we don’t need to issue commands to our dogs if we’ve done our job properly.

Signal seems to me undoubtedly the right term and has much better connotations than command. Your dog is not a computer, nor a soldier (PS—I have nothing against computers nor soldiers).

The same goes for the term punisher. You’ll find “positive” trainers using the word command without blinking, but demonizing you if you dare as much as whisper the word punisher, which doesn’t make any sense at all to me. If we are sensitive about the connotations of one term, it seems that we would also be sensitive about those of the other. Whilst blithely employing the word command, some trainers substitute punisher with correction, which doesn’t make any difference, it still means the same and is interchangeable with punisher in some senses.

Then, there is praisePraise means “an expression of approval and commendation,” “applaud,” “pay tribute to,” “compliment.” It is true that praise can influence learning in humans, but I doubt it very much that it has any value in animal training. Praise and reinforcer are two different things. We use reinforcers in dog training, not praise. “Positive” animal training claims to be a more humane way of training animals (meaning showing compassion or benevolence), to be more scientific than the “old-fashioned” training, and to know all about “classical conditioning” and “operant conditioning.” If this is true, why don’t we show it and educate people accordingly? Why don’t we use the proper scientific terms?

Some claim that the right scientific terms are too difficult. I fail to see what’s more difficult in reinforcer than in reward, in signal than in command, but even if it were true, this appears to me to be one of the situations where the end justifies the means. It would be a small price to pay in order to gain more clarity and avoid misunderstandings. Using technical terms instead of everyday words would also help people fully understand and use the various learning tools correctly. Sometimes, in trying to simplify things, we miss the point completely. Most dog owners don’t know that praise in dog training means “everything that increases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior when presented simultaneously or immediately after the behavior takes place” (= reinforcer). Dog owners are not more stupid than dog trainers and if the latter can learn it, so can the former. It’s up to us to motivate them. We were all dog owners before we became dog trainers. Did we like condescending dog trainers back then?

As far as I can see, we only have two options: (1) to claim that it doesn’t matter what we call things, in which case nobody should be labelled for using terms such as punisher, dominance, etc., and we can all be “positive” nevertheless; (2) to use, teach, encourage and propagate the use of correct, well-defined terms, starting with ourselves, in order to be consistent with ideology and methodology.

Personally, I am not worried by the terms you use and I will not label you solely on your choice of words. The only concern I have is that (unless I know you) when you say command I’m not so sure you know about the intricacies of signals, and when you say praise I’m not certain that you fully appreciate the function of reinforcers (and punishers). I understand that you don’t like the word punisher because you are a good person, but I’m not sure that this is the right way to manifest it. Changing a term doesn’t change an attitude. Sometimes, quite on the contrary, if you used the word punisher, you’d have an opportunity and a reason to emphasize that it has nothing to do with violence and abuse.

On the other side, I do have worries that we label good, humane, “positive” dog trainers otherwise because of their correct use of the scientific terms; and that we label good, humane, “old-fashioned” trainers abusive due to their ignorance of the terminology that is fashionable nowadays. Before you even think of labeling me on the basis of my comments here, I would like to remind you that my first book on dog training, published in 1984 and entitled “The Dog, Our Friend—Psychology rather than Power,” was a revolution in dog training at the time; it was the first book (as far as I know) to describe exactly how to teach a dog sit, stand, down, come, heel, jump, slalom, treat-on-the-nose, retrieve, etc., without the use of any force at all. I showed even pictures of the clicker (except that we used a whistle) and of the precursor of these so fashionable toys that you fill with treats to stimulate the dog. Since then, many have followed in the same spirit: respect for the dog as a species and as an individual.

The bottom-line is that we should define terminology and implement it consistently. As it stands now, I’m afraid we’ll lose many good people for our cause of “a better world for dogs and dog owners” because of fashionable trends and pettiness.

Think about it.

Keep smiling,


Unveiling the Myth of Reinforcers and Punishers

Cute Dog

Positive and negative reinforcerspositive and negative punishment— these terms are no doubt familiar to you but the definitions are confusing or you may be unsure of how and when to use each. I shall endeavor to explain. As a biologist and an ethologist, I study and explain such topics irrespective of political correctness, commercial interests, or fashion trends.

Except for reflexes, the behavior of all living creatures changes as a result of its consequences; and there are only two ways in which behavior can change: there can be more of it or less of it. Even what we call new behavior is nothing more than an increase in frequency, intensity and/or duration of components of an individual’s behavioral repertoire. New behavior sometimes amounts to the recombination of well-practiced elements. We may alter its frequency, its intensity, its duration and we may associate it with new stimuli, but if that particular element of behavior is not present in the behavioral repertoire of the animal, it will not be displayed.

As most people know, reinforced behavior tends to increase in frequency, intensity and/or duration and punished behavior tends to do exactly the opposite, i.e. it decreases in frequency, intensity and/or duration.

As most people should also know, a reinforcer is not a reward, like the bonus our boss gives us at the end of the year because he earned a lot of money. A reinforcer is anything that somehow increases a certain behavior. It may not increase the behavior of every individual, or every behavior. A reinforcer is thus only a reinforcer in relation to a specific behavior and a particular individual. It may also work, as reinforcers often do, in circumstances other than those originally envisaged, and on a class of individuals, but this is incidental (an added extra), not a requirement.

In contrast, a punisher tends to decrease the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. Again, punishers are particular to specific behaviors and individuals, and need not operate on various individuals or behaviors. There is a tendency to relate punishers to violence, but a punisher is simply an aversive, i.e. something, one would like to avoid in a specific context, and does not necessarily have anything to do with violence. For example, I immensely dislike mayonnaise, which implies that any restaurant that serves me a sandwich with mayo will decrease the frequency of my visits to that specific restaurant. Unbeknown to him, the chef is actually punishing me (or rather my behavior of visiting his restaurant). When I open a window and am almost blown away by gale force wind, I hasten to shut it again. The natural elements punished me for my opening-the-window-behavior.

In short, reinforcers and punishers are everywhere and we are exposed to them by simply living and interacting in this world. There’s no way of avoiding them completely. You can learn how to control them, by controlling your behavior, so you are reinforced more often than you are punished if that’s what you want, but even experienced people, wolves, bears, wombats, jellyfish and, of course, dogs, sometimes display behaviors, which are instantly and duly punished. Behavior punished and behavior reinforced—that is how we all learn and it’s a fact of life whether we like it or not.

In terms of learning theory, the scientific definitions of reinforcers and punishers are:

reinforcer is everything that increases the frequency, duration, and/or intensity of a particular behavior when presented or removed simultaneously or immediately after that behavior takes place. Reinforcement is the presentation of a positive reinforcer or the withdrawal of a positive punisher (an aversive).

punisher is everything that decreases the frequency, duration, and/or intensity of a particular behavior when presented or removed simultaneously or immediately after that behavior takes place. Punishment is the presentation of a positive punisher or the withdrawal of a positive reinforcer.

Bottom line: in principle reinforcers and punishers are neither good nor bad, they are not things we like or don’t like, they are just stimuli that either increase or decrease the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. A reinforcer may be a punisher one day and a reinforcer another, whilst a reinforcer for you may be a punisher for me. Consider the following example: your dog is standing in front of you and you hold a treat in front of his eyes. You look at the dog and you say ‘sit’. The dog doesn’t sit; he just plays around and barks at you. You then, you put your serious face on, emit a grunting sound, and remove the treat. The dog sits and looks as innocent as ever. You hasten to say ‘good’, you get rid of your serious face and present the dog with your friendliest expression of the day, and give the dog the treat you were holding in front of his eyes, the one you removed when he was being silly. This is a situation that I’m sure all dog owners and trainers have experienced countless times. Is there anything wrong with it? Not at all, right? Ok, let’s take a closer look at it. You say ‘sit’, the dog doesn’t sit, and you remove the treat and put on your serious face. The technical term for the removal of the treat is negative punishment and the serious face is a positive punisher. The dog then sits; you remove your serious face and give the dog a ‘good’ and the treat. The removal of your serious face is negative reinforcement and the presentation of ‘good’ and the treat are positive reinforcements. In two seconds you’ve used all four tools (correctly).

Reinforcers and punishers must have the right intensity in order to function. This is a key feature of both. A stimulus of too low an intensity will not increase or decrease a behavior. Hence, such a stimulus is not a reinforcer or punisher. Conversely, a reinforcer with too high an intensity may create another behavior. If it does, it is no longer a reinforcer for the behavior you wanted to reinforce. For example, showing the dog a treat increases its sitting behavior, but if the treat is too good (particularly yummy or the dog is very hungry), it may overexcite the dog and produce jumping up behavior. Equally, a punisher of too high an intensity will not decrease the behavior you want to decrease and instead may produce a completely different behavior. If this is the case, what you thought was a punisher for a particular behavior becomes instead a reinforcer for another, undesired behavior. For example, saying, “stop” to your dog with an unpleasant tone of voice and stern face decreases its barking behavior, but if you shout or become violent, you may produce fleeing or aggressive behavior.

Reinforcers and punishers are stimuli that have a determined window of opportunity and sometimes this window is very narrow. You have to adjust them to the individual animal you are working with, the environmental conditions and the behavior in question. Remember that you never ever reinforce or punish the animal, only its behavior. For example, you still love your dog equally, independently of whether the dog displays a behavior to your liking or not. If it does, fine. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to work a bit more on that.

If you don’t like the terms reinforcer and especially punisher, we can change them.  I once suggested calling them increasers and decreasers, positive reinforcers thus becoming add-on increasers and negative reinforcers turning into take-away increasers. What do you think about using add-on decreasers and take-away decreasers? They certainly don’t have the same connotations as punishers, do they? If you’re a good dog trainer, I’m sure you use these techniques. If we substitute the terms reinforcer, punisher, positive and negative with my suggestions, the famous table for the four operant procedures looks like this:

Operant Behavior Table

So, life is all about learning how to control the consequences of our behavior—and this is a very apt description of our job as dog trainers. We must help our dogs to learn how to control the consequences of their behavior, which is not the same as avoiding them. If, as a rule, we either only reinforce or only punish everything they do, we are indeed doing a poor job, and we are certainly not preparing them for real life where both reinforcers and punishers (increasers and decreasers) are a reality, depending on circumstances and one’s behavior. If you like my table with the alternative names, you’re welcome to use it. A warning though: the terminology doesn’t make any difference to the dog. It may make a difference, however for dog owners and dog trainers with no, or only rudimentary, knowledge of learning theory. I believe it is our duty to educate dog owners and dog trainers to distinguish between the various stimuli and teach them how to use them correctly.

Learning is changing behavior according to its consequences, and as simple as it may seem, it proves undeniably more complicated in a practical learning situation. To be a good animal trainer, or teacher, we need to master the science of learning theory and behavior modification, as well as the art of applying it at the right time, in the right dose, for the right reason. We need to be able to exercise reason and manage our emotions.

Enjoy your training session!



Q. Can I train my dog without punishers at all?

A. Yes, you can, (we have tried it) but it is extremely difficult if not unrealistic. Sooner or later something will disturb you and your dog and you’ll at least have to withdraw the positive reinforcer, which amounts to negative punishment.

Q. Can I at least avoid using positive punishers?

A. Yes you can, but you might not get as reliable a behavior. If there is no consequence for not displaying a behavior and the dog is not interested in what you can offer as reinforcers, there is no reason for the dog to display the behavior you want. It’s up to you, but don’t expect something that you have not taught the dog.

Q. Are punishers bad things?

A. No. Punishers just decrease a behavior. A reinforcer may be a punisher another day and vice versa.

Q. Do punishers hurt?

A. No. Punishers and violence and two different things. Violence may decrease a behavior, but may also result in increased intensity of the same behavior. You should never recur to violence in animal training.

Q. Are reinforcers good for the dog?

A. Reinforcers are neither good nor bad, they simply increase the behavior in one way or another. We presume the dog likes them, but that is not the essence of a reinforcer.

Q. What happens if I use too many punishers, can I hurt my dog?

A. Yes, you can. You should always teach your dog the desired behavior as a first option by reinforcing it. A punisher is a last resort, a necessity, not a choice. Life is not fun if you’re punished all the time (even if it has nothing to do with violence). Punishers inhibit your behavior. Reinforcers enhance your repertoire of behaviors.

Q. What about reinforcers, can I also hurt my dog if I reinforce everything?

A. Yes, you can. Life is not a bed of roses. Your dog must also learn to cope with adversity. It’s all a question of balance and for you as an educator to use the right tool for the right job.

Q. How do I use what we know about reinforcers and punishers to plan my training?

A. When planning your training, you should devise ways of motivating your dog to display the behavior you want and reinforce its behavior. Your dog’s motivation to do what you wish is your most efficient tool. Punishment should only be an emergency measure. If you plan your training properly, you may not need to use punishers at all, which is the optimal strategy.

Further reading

Abrantes R A. 1997. Dog Language – An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior.

Abrantes R A. 2011. Animal Trainers Handbook (not published yet).

Bailey J. S. & Burch M R. 1999. How Dogs Learn.

Catania C.1975. Learning.

Chance P. 1999. Learning and Behavior (4th ed.)

Dickinson A. 1980. Contemporary Animal Learning Theory.

Donaldson J. 1999. The Culture Clash.

Dunbar I. 1998. How to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.

Holland J G & Skinner B F. 1961. The Analysis of Behavior.

Lindsay S. 2000. Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Learning.

Pryor K. 1999. Don’t Shoot the Dog.

Ramirez K. 1999. Animal training: Successful animal management through positive reinforcement (don’t get fooled by the title, just read the foreword).

Reid P. 1996. Excel-Erated Learning.

McFarland D. 1987. Animal Behaviour.

Wilkes G. 1993. On Target!
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Teach Your Dog to Be Home Alone in Five Steps

Puppy on its bed.

Dogs are social animals, enjoy company and dislike being alone. We must teach our puppies to be home alone to avoid serious problems later (photo by Roger Abrantes).

You can teach your dog to be home alone in five steps. The earlier you begin, the better.

Number one canine problem behavior is “home alone.” Don’t panic if someone tells you that your dog suffers from separation anxiety. It’s probably not the case. Anxiety is a serious disorder and most dogs don’t have any anxiety when left alone. They are either under-stimulated and burn their surplus energy by wrecking the furniture, they’re having fun and don’t know that it is wrong to destroy human possessions, or the owners have not taught them the desired routines when left home alone. There is a good chance that you can solve the problem with my five steps program.

You’re not alone. Problems with dogs that can’t be home alone (I call it CHAP=Canine Home Alone Problem) is the most common problem all over the world when we keep dogs as pets. Everybody seems to have a different idea as how to solve the problem. Remember the principle: too many cooks spoil the broth. If you choose to follow some other method, please do it and don’t even bother reading the following. If you choose to follow my five steps method, stick to it and don’t listen to what others tell you.

Teach your dog to be home alone in five steps:

  • DLO means desired learning objective.
  • QC means Quality Control and indicates the number of times in a row (or similar criteria) you must have accomplished your DLO successfully before you move to the next step.

1. Teach the dog to associate the bed (crate, blanket, spot, or whatever you have chosen) with positive experiences.

DLO: The dog likes to lie down on the bed. 

QC: The dog goes often and voluntarily to its bed.

  • Throw a couple of treats on the bed of the dog (without the dog seeing it) whenever there are none left.
  • Whenever the dog lies on the bed, reinforce it verbally (don’t exaggerate, so that the dog gets up).
  • Sometimes, pet the dog when it lies on the bed (calmly).
  • Send the dog to bed with a particular signal, e.g. “bed” 10-20 times daily.
  • Send the dog to its bed often when you watch TV, read the news, do computer work, etc.

2. Teach the dog meaning of the word “bed.”

DLO: The dog goes to the bed after you say “bed” without any problems.

QC: Ten successive correct behaviors.

  • Send the dog to the bed with the word “bed” by pointing to the bed or throwing a treat on the bed.
  • Use only the word “bed.” Don’t say anything else.
  • Reinforce it verbally, calmly so it remains on the bed.

3. The dog lies down on the bed even if you walk away.

DLO: The dog lies down on the bed even if you walk away. 

QC: Ten successive correct behaviors.

  • Send the dog to the bed with the word “bed.”
  • Reinforce it verbally, calmly so it remains on the bed.
  • Stop reinforcing it immediately if it should leave within 10 seconds and ignore it for a couple of minutes. (Important: those two minutes must be particularly boring for the dog).
  • Start all over until the dog remains on the bed even if you walk away.

4. Teach the dog to stay on the bed.

DLO: The dog lies on the bed for three minutes after you leave the room.

QC: Ten successive correct behaviors.

  • Reinforce the dog verbally as soon as it lies on the bed after you said “bed.” Be calm.
  • When the dog lies quietly on the bed, leave the room for two seconds, then come back.
  • Repeat, leaving the room at irregular intervals and for irregular periods, e.g. 5 s, 30 s, 4 s, 1 minute, etc.
  • If the dog remains on the bed, do nothing.
  • Should the dog leave its bed, send it back and start all over.

5.  Teach the dog to stay on the bed when you leave the room and close the door.

DLO: You can leave the dog and close the door without any problem.

QC:  Ten successive correct behaviors.

  • As soon as you can leave the room three minutes without the dog leaving its bed, repeat procedures in point 4 but beginning to close the door.
  • The first times, do not close the door, only touch it.
  • The following times, leave the door ajar.
  • Then, leave the room, close the door for two seconds, open it and enter the room. If all is all right, do not pay attention to the dog. Otherwise, start all over with point 5.
  • Finally, leave the room, close the door, stay out for irregular periods, open it and enter the room. If all is all right, do not pay attention to the dog.

Maintaining the good behavior

  • Even when you’re home, leave the dog alone sometimes. Do not pay attention to it all the time.
  • Always stimulate the dog properly before leaving. Remember: too little and too much are equally wrong.
  • Give the dog something to do when you leave. You don’t even need to invest in expensive toys. A plastic bottle full of treats will keep the dog busy for a while figuring out how to take them out (watch the dog the first couple of times and encourage it, if necessary, to toss the bottle around and not bite it).
  • Place the dog’s bed in a central place in the house (living room). Most dogs don’t like to feel isolated.
  • Continue using “bed” and continue making the bed attractive with occasional treats, verbal reinforcing and petting (all very calmly).
  • Make sure the bed is not too clean (most dogs don’t appreciate our flagrance drenched laundry), nor too dirty and is doggy-comfortable.
  • Pick up your keys often (or put on your shoes, cap or whatever you normally do before you leave) so that the dog disassociates these cues with being left alone.

Here is some explanation for those of you interested in the principles of these five-steps method:

  • We create a positive association with the bed so that the dog will go often and voluntarily to its bed.
  • We get the dog used to lie on the bed when we are at home either relaxing or doing our home work. After all, the ideal dog is the dog that it quiet at home and active when out.
  • We teach the dog the meaning of the word “bed.”
  • We get the dog used to us leaving the room and coming back as a normal routine.
  • We teach the dog to associate the door with a normal routine.
  • We create a routine for the dog that when there’s nothing to do at home, the best is to go to bed.

You maximize your chances of speedy success if:

  • The dog sleeps on its bed at night and (even better) if it doesn’t sleep in the same room as you.
  • The dog is routinely well stimulated (under-stimulated dogs are more difficult to teach to be home alone)
  • The dog is not hyper-active and over-stimulated (over-stimulated dogs have difficulties in remaining in the same spot for longer periods of time).

Important for you:

  • Be calm no matter what you do.
  • Advance step by step.
  • Be patient.
  • Control your emotions and behavior when you succeed as well as when you fail.
  • If you haven’t anything important to say to the dog, be quiet.
  • It’s your responsibility alone to understand and implement this five-steps program and to adjust them if needed, not the dog’s.
  • If my five steps method don’t seem to solve the problem, it may be that your dog shows genuine separation anxiety in which case you must contact a competent specialist.

Enjoy training your dog and remember that you train your dog primarily for the dog’s sake, not yours!