How to Feel More Confident in Private Lessons

Dog trainers often come to me for help with their private lessons. Commonly, a dog trainer will say, 

“I have this client coming in in a few days, Their dog is (name the behavior problem of choice), I know the owner needs more foundation, but I’m not totally sure what to do next.”

Have you ever felt this way prior to a private lesson? You know how to train the dog, but you have a bit of anxiety about your plan for the human?

There is a trick that I recommend for all of my pro dog trainer clients. It’s called Backward Planning. Some might refer to it as Reverse Engineering. At its core, it’s simple, but it can take some practice to train yourself to think like this by default.

The key is to start by thinking about the end of the process. Imagine that your client already has all the foundation skills, and they are now ready to address that behavior problem head-on. You will put them in the exact context that the behavior would occur. Except, you aren’t just going to let them wing it, right? You will definitely have some instructions for how you want them to use all the foundational skills they have learned and react to the choices that the dog makes.

What will those instructions be? 

What pre-requisite skills are required for the client to be capable of following those instructions? 

Can those pre-requisite skills be broken into smaller steps?

Those steps are your lesson plan. By starting with the end goal in mind, you can ensure that every lesson you have is pushing the client closer and closer to their goals with no wasted time or energy.

I know it seems basic, but you’d be amazed how many trainers fail to do this and end up wasting hours of time and feeling lost in the process.

If you are feeling a little lost in your training, I encourage you not only to think about methods and techniques but also to think about processes like setting a training plan.

As the old saying goes:

“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no winds are favorable”

More ways I can help you:

One-on-One Coaching

I work virtually and in person with trainers from around the globe to help them make more money, work fewer hours, and get better results. Whether you are trying to sharpen your training and behavior mod skills, grow your business, or achieve a better work-life balance, I’ve got you covered.

Click here to learn more.

Group Coaching

My mentorship community The Inner Circle is a forum where we trainers can share ideas and insights on training and behavior, business and marketing, employee management, and more. I am active in the forum daily, and we hold monthly Zoom meetings to dig deep into specific topics. 

Click here to learn more.

How to Stop Dog Owners from Sabotaging Their Progress.

One of our biggest challenges as dog trainers is keeping our clients from standing in their own way. There are a hundred variations of how this can manifest, and in this post, I will be discussing two recent situations that were brought to me by trainers that I coach. The cases are different, but both involve the owners wanting to push things too far too fast in spite of their trainer’s advice.

The first is a newer trainer who is taking on many puppy cases and helping owners with potty training. He is giving them a lot of good advice regarding structure and routine but is still struggling to get the owners to stay consistent and prevent accidents. In short, they want to give too much freedom too fast, resulting in accidents, and stifling their progress.

The second is a trainer that is working with a lot of both human and dog reactivity and aggression. She contacted me because she is finding that despite her best advice, many dog owners want to push their dogs too far, causing them to go over their threshold and explode.

In the video below, I discuss these situations in detail and offer my #1 solution for breaking clients out of this habit.

The Home Page Hack

There is one thing thousands of dog trainers have in common: They do not like sales and marketing.

The good news is that all of us, even those who work alone, have at our fingertips a salesperson who has the potential to be highly effective. That salesperson is your website. 

The bad news is that many dog trainers I meet are not using their websites effectively. 

First impressions matter. Your website will be many people’s first impression of you, and the home page will be their first impression of your website. It is crucial that you hook visitors in before they decide to “Just look around and see what else is out there.” 

In this post, we will explore one crucial component of an effective website: The home page – and I will share with you one of my best tips to engage visitors and convert as many as possible into qualified leads. 

Let’s dig in.

Here it is in its simplest form: The first thing your website needs to do is to identify your customers and the problems that you solve for them. 

This may sound simple, and it is. Now let’s get into some examples so you can see what I mean:

Last week I met with a client of mine to help them with their marketing and sales. They had recently updated their website but had still been seeing a slump in new leads and thus a downturn in sales. They asked me to look at their site and give them some feedback. Here’s what I noticed right away. This was the first section of their homepage (the company name is removed for privacy):

“Here at _____________, we believe owner education is essential in improving relationships and working towards the goals we have with our dogs. We provide owners with the tools, knowledge, and support to communicate correctly with their dogs. Our facility provides a safe and structured learning environment for all our clients to help them develop the skills to live better with their dog.”

Take a moment and see if you recognize the problem with this paragraph.

Maybe that was a little confusing. The problem is not with the paragraph itself. It is a lovely description of the company’s values and the type of facility they provide. The problem is with its location. 

The truth is that people don’t care about a company’s values or beliefs until they are interested in working with that company. And they aren’t interested in working with a company until they have identified that the company works with people like them and solves the kinds of problems that they have. 

The paragraph above is great content for the “About Us” page, but it should not be the first thing a site visitor reads. What could we put in its place? 

An easy way to identify the customer is by asking a question. For example, If you specialize in pet dog training and behavior, you might say something like:

“Are you struggling to get your dog’s behavior under control?”  or,

“Does your dog suffer from excessive fear or anxiety?”

Both of these questions have something in common. They get your potential customer to say “Yes”. The website visitor has now self-identified as the kind of person you serve.

The second question has an added benefit in that it also identifies the types of problems you solve.

You can link together multiple questions like this to suck visitors into your website and make them want to learn more.

Another common tactic is to use if/then statements, such as:

“If your dog pulls, jumps, lunges, or barks, we have effective training programs to turn your pup into a model citizen. “  Or, 

“If you are tired of feeling frustrated with your dog’s behavior, then you have come to the right place.”

Again, we are identifying the types of clients we work with and the problems we solve for them.

Once you do these two things, there is a much higher likelihood that the visitor will click deeper into your site and want to learn more about your programs. That is goal #1. 

Goal #2 is to make them excited to work with you, but that is a topic for another post. In the meantime, here are some other ways that I might be able to help you:

One-on-One Coaching
I work virtually and in person with trainers from around the globe to help them make more money, work fewer hours, and get better results. Whether you are trying to sharpen your training and behavior mod skills, grow your business, or achieve a better work-life balance, I’ve got you covered.
Click here to learn more.

Group Coaching
My mentorship community The Inner Circle is a forum where we trainers can share ideas and insights on training and behavior, business and marketing, employee management, and more. I am active in the forum daily, and we hold monthly Zoom meetings to dig deep into specific topics. 
Click here to learn more.

How to 10X Your Board & Train Success Rate

Dog Trainers,

Here’s the scenario: You had a dog in your board and train for 4 weeks. Today’s the day for the go-home lesson with the family. The dog has been spot-on, hitting every command for you, and you are feeling great. Then the time comes for you to have the owner give it a try. They say, “Come!”……..nothing, “Place”……crickets….

This is an annoying and frustrating moment for us trainers and can leave us feeling caught off guard. Now we are on the spot, in front of the owners, trying to pick up the pieces, fix the issue last minute, and hoping that the owners don’t doubt their decision to have us train their dog.

You see, many trainers think there is something that they need to do differently at the lesson itself. But actually, the problem starts well before the lesson, during the last 25% or so of the board and train.

The trick: Know Thyself.

Hear me out. We dog trainers are very clear and consistent in our communication with dogs during training; believe it or not, this is part of the problem. While this high degree of consistency is major asset during the early learning phases of training, it actually becomes an obstacle when you are preparing dogs to return home.

If you want to learn more about what I mean, check out this excerpt from one of my private coaching sessions that I just uploaded to youtube:


The essential task of the modern dog trainer

        Teach the dog how to behave naturally

                In an unnatural environment

        Master this

The rest is easy

Is Negative Punishment Really More Positive?


I am the proud father of two. A daughter whose age at the time of this writing is measured in weeks, and a son who is roughly two and a half.

Like most toddlers, my son experiments with many different behaviors, often to see what he can get away with. He is experimenting with the world to learn what is within the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

Earlier this week when I was dropping him off at daycare, one of the caretakers in his room informed me that over the past couple weeks he has been occasionally hitting other kids.  They said that when they try to intervene, he often just laughs as though it’s a game, and continues acting up. Naturally, at this point I asked what they do to discipline him. Their response was that they tell him to stop, and they try to redirect him into another activity. When I asked if they thought this approach was effective, the answer was “no.”

Here’s the deal. I wasn’t terribly shocked when they told me that my son had attempted to hit another kid. Other kids have done the same to him. Little kids do things like this. In fact, he had on occasion tried to hit his mother and me at home.  However, because of the way we address the behavior at home, it quickly comes to an end, and he hasn’t repeated it for a long time.

The difference is consistent and effective discipline.  I don’t hit my child. I don’t raise my voice. In fact, I don’t even get frustrated (training dogs has taught me to have tremendous patience.) When my son tries to hit one of us, I calmly tell him that if he does it again, he is going to get a “time out.” If he chooses to try it again, I calmly pick him up, carry him into his room, and put him in his crib. No second warnings or further discussions at that point. At his age, the “time out” is relatively short, lasting only  about 2 minutes. When I go to get him, I ask if he is done hitting, he says “yes,” and then we return to our normal activities. 

At his daycare, they have a policy against putting kids in time out. I get it, you have to draw a clear line in the sand when it comes to disciplining other people’s children. But, in this case, time out works. The reason it works for my son is because he hates it. It makes him upset, he often cries, and calls for us to come and get him. In other words, this type of discipline is effective at reducing the target behavior precisely because it is an aversive and stressful experience for him and he does not want to repeat it. Redirection does not inhibit behavior, meaningful consequences do.

In the world of animal behavior, we would say that the consequence of “time out” is a form of “negative punishment.” In other words, I am punishing (making less) a behavior by taking something away (in this case playtime, freedom, attention, etc.)

In order for negative punishment to be effective, there are two main criteria that must be met:

(1)  The experience must be sufficiently unpleasant to motivate a change in behavior; and

(2) The animal must be able to connect the consequence of his/her action to the target (problem) behavior.

In other words, the animal must be able to assume that the behavior we are attempting to reduce is what causes the punishment, and the animal must be able to deduce from this the necessary change in behavior required to avoid the punishment in the future.

In the world of animal behavior, and dog training specifically, there is an underlying assumption held by many that negative punishment is more ethical than positive punishment (i.e., applying an aversive, rather than removing a privilege, reward, or opportunity for reward).  This assumption, however, is worth questioning.

Two immediate questions should come to mind when evaluating the ethics of any particular approach to training:

  1.     What is the motivational or emotional value of the consequence (is it an attractive or aversive event, and to what degree)?
  2.     How easy is it for the animal to connect the consequence to their behavior?

It is widely agreed upon that for a consequence to have an effect on the future occurrence of a behavior, the consequence needs to have a “motivational representation.” In other words, we must ask whether the consequence is aversive (something the animal would want to avoid), or is it attractive (something the animal would seek out)? The lynchpin of most arguments for more “humane” dog training, training which only involves reward-based techniques (Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment), is that humane dog training should not involve aversive consequences or stress. Most trainers who operate under this philosophy will admit that they use punishment, but will make the distinction that they are using negative punishment (removal of reward) versus positive punishment (application of an aversive), and that the former is inherently more humane than the latter.

It is this basic belief – that negative punishment is inherently and always more humane than positive punishment – that I seek to bring into question here.

In fact, if we look to the scientific literature, there is mounting evidence that this assumption is false. To begin, consider the work of  Schalke, Salgirli, Bōhm, and Harbarth (2008). In a pair of parallel studies, the researchers tested the cortisol stress levels, as well as the overall effectiveness, of three different consequences: (1) the Prong Collar; (2) the Electronic Collar; and (3) a Quitting Signal on 42 police dogs.

The “Quitting Signal” is a verbal cue that tells the dog that its behavior will not be rewarded (negative punishment). The dogs were trained with the Quitting Signal ahead of time using food and toys for a period of 4 months1

In this study, the dogs were asked to heel, and then a “helper” appeared on the field attempting to provoke the dog. If the dog made a mistake (failed to heel), the appropriate correction was administered, either a prong collar correction, electronic collar correction, or they were given the quitting signal (non-reward). The researchers then tested the level of stress each correction produced in the dog.

The researchers found that the quitting signal produced the highest levels of stress (measured by cortisol), and the electronic collar produced the lowest. This is the exact opposite of what the popular reward-based philosophy of animal training would predict.

Before we go further, it is worth noting that there are several key factors that contributed to these results that also make it difficult to generalize these findings to the average family pet. The most significant is the fact that the dogs used were all Belgian Malinois, a breed which possesses far stronger appetitive motivation that the average dog. The more an animal wants a reward, the more stressful it is when the reward isn’t delivered, and these dogs really want the reward.  In fact Schalke noted: “Frustration is a high stressor for Malinois,” suggesting that the authors would agree  that negative punishment can produce high levels of stress in an animal, and in this case, higher levels of stress than with positive punishment.

However, it might also be argued that although the quitting signal produced higher levels of stress, the stress could be characterized as eustress (often considered “healthy’ stress) rather than distress, with the implication being that the former is healthier and more humane. However, these again are assumptions, and we should be careful about accepting such an appealing proposition as dogma.

There is in fact plenty of research that suggests we should be more careful with our assumptions.  Dickenson & Dearing (1979) were able to demonstrate in a transreinforcer-blockingexperiment that the omission of food (reward) has the same motivational representation to an animal as an electrical stimulation (aversive). To summarize the findings, the researchers were able to demonstrate that a signal, which a rat has learned to associate with receiving “No-food” can block new learning about a signal which means “A shock is coming.”

In the Dickenson & Dearing (1979) experiment, rats were taught that a tone means “no food.” Then the tone was given at the same time as a buzzer, both preceding a shock. The surprising result was that the rat’s learning about the buzzer/shock relationship was blocked by the tone/no food relationship. The tone/no food relationship was already represented in the rat’s mind as “tone means something bad/unpleasant is going to happen,” and since a shock is also unpleasant, the buzzer did not give the rats any new or helpful information from which to learn. What this all means is that we have reason to believe both “no food” (negative punishment) and “shock” (positive punishment) have the same motivational/emotional representation for the animal.

For those who like “sciency” jargon, Dickenson states in his book Contemporary Animal Learning Theory:

“Omission of an attractive stimulus activates the same motivational representation of an explicit aversive stimulus (such) as shock”


“The omission of expected food and the presentation of shock excited a common representation”

There are some conclusions that we may take from the two studies I mention above.  First, If we take the findings from Dickenson & Dearing, then it follows that negative punishment is represented in the animal’s mind as an aversive experience, in much the same way as positive punishment.  Moreover, the work of Schalke et. al. suggests that, at least in some circumstances, negative punishment can produce more stress, and thus be a more aversive experience, than positive punishment, such as an electronic collar.

Now that we have addressed the first question (i.e. What is the motivational and emotional value of the consequence?), we turn to the second question:  How easy is it for the animal to connect the consequence to their behavior?

We might start by again looking at the Schalke studies.  The authors sought to test the relative stress induced by electronic collars, prong collars, and quitting signal (negative punishment). However, not only did the authors report on the stress produced by each, but they also reported on the effectiveness of each at eliminating the target behavior.

Interestingly, although the quitting signal produced higher stress than the electronic collar, it actually had the lowest learning effect of the three tools. In fact, whereas both the electronic collar and the prong collar had a significant learning effect on 38 out of the 42 dogs, and 32 out of the 42 dogs respectively, the quitting signal had only a learning effect on 3 of the dogs, (38 of the dogs did not quit the behavior at all after the signal).  So in this case, negative punishment was both the least effective, as well as the most stressful, of the three techniques used (It should be noted that the electronic collar was both most effective, and least stressful).

These two studies are a just a few examples of similar findings in the literature, but it is certainly enough to add shades of grey to the black and white assumption that negative punishment is inherently more humane than positive punishment.

More recently, in 2015 in an article titled 51 Shades of Grey: Misuse, Misunderstanding and Misinformation of the Concepts of “Dominance” and “Punishment,”   Simon Gadbois of the Canid Behavior Research Laboratory at Dalhousie University noted:

“I have seen border collies go nuts if they are told only what they do right, and are ignored when making a wrong choice (for example, in a matching-to-sample task). In fact, ignoring wrong responses becomes very aversive, without really telling the dog what to avoid doing.”

While some may argue that the use of a non-reward marker (or quitting signal or conditioned negative punisher) does, in fact, tell the dog when a mistake is made, as we have seen in the Schalke studies, in some cases it is a very ineffective means of doing so. Between the lines in the Gadbois statement above is that this inefficiency can lead to very aversive experiences for the animal.

Back to the situation with my son. When addressing children, we have a significant advantage, which ensures that the behavior and consequence are connected: Language. The reason that negative punishment is far more useful when disciplining our children than when disciplining our dogs is that we can explain the connection to them. Note in the example above using my son, I told him “If you hit me again, you will get a time out.” Then, prior to removing him from his crib, I ask him to reaffirm his understanding: “are you done hitting?” “Yes, Dad.”

With dogs and other animals we do not have the luxury of semantic language. With animals, consequences are best understood when they begin and end with the behavior itself. If I withhold food from a dog as a consequence, the feeling of frustration, desire, or hunger may persist after the target behavior has ceased. However, with an electronic collar, I have the ability to both start and stop the consequence with surgical precision, with accuracy within one-fortieth of a second.

Again, I must reiterate, lest I be accused of arguing an absurdity,  that I am not in any way proposing that negative punishment is always more aversive and/or less effective than positive punishment. What I am stating is that if we are going to use science and empirical evidence as our compass in assessing the ethics of various training procedures, then we must be prepared to acknowledge several things:

  1. That for punishment to be effective at eliminating a target behavior, the punishment itself needs to be aversive enough to compete with the motivation which is eliciting the behavior itself.
  2. Negative Punishment (removal of reward) is effective because it creates an aversive experience.
  3. At least in some cases, Negative Punishment is more aversive/stressful than Positive Punishment (application of an aversive, i.e. electronic collar).
  4. At least in some cases, Negative Punishment is significantly less effective than Positive Punishment.
  5. In some cases, Negative Punishment can be both more aversive and less effective at the same time (as seen in the Schalke studies).

This last acknowledgment is significant. How can we make generalized claims that positive punishment (i.e., prong collars, electronic collars, etc.) are inherently and objectively unethical, in favor of either ignoring incorrect behavior, or using a non-reward marker?

In the world of companion dog training, we are often faced with situations where dogs are exhibiting behaviors that are dangerous to themselves or others. In most cases these behaviors need to be controlled or eliminated quickly and effectively to both mitigate the risk to the dog or others, or to prevent the dog from being surrendered or euthanized. In such cases, there are times where a more aversive consequence can be justified if it produces a significantly more expedient result, thus maximizing safety for all involved. However, if a particular consequence is both more aversive, and less effective in a given context, it can almost never be justified.

We owe it to ourselves as professionals, the clients we serve, and most of all the dogs for whom we are stewards to take into consideration all the evidence of both effectiveness and aversiveness when evaluating possible training procedures.  There is no value in deceiving ourselves with false scientific claims and emotion-laden arguments. Furthermore, failing to take into account the effectiveness of training procedures, particularly concerning dangerous behavior, or other behaviors that place the dog’s future at risk is not only unethical to the dog, but to any other dog or person who may be hurt physically, emotionally, or otherwise as a result of the lack of effective treatment.

The point of all this is that black and white generalizations and cult-like dogma do not lend themselves well to the honest study of animal behavior, nor to productive discussions of animal welfare.

Ultimately, as to the question of which is more effective, humane, or ethical, positive or negative punishment? The only honest answer is “It depends…

Tyler Muto


1. Below is the process which was used for training the Quitting Signal in the Schalke studies: 1st step:

The first aim of the quitting signal training was to condition the feeling of frustration with any vocable which was previously insignificant to the dog. To this end, the following program was carried out:

  • 1)  The handler with many treats in one hand made fists with both hands. The handler held his/her hands in a certain position so that the dog was able to see both of them.
  • 2)  The handler took the treats one by one from his/her full hand to his/her other hand and fed the dog until the association had been developed and the dog expected to have the food with the above mentioned hand movement. During this feeding session, no orders were given to the dog.
  • 3)  The handler took the food piece by applying the same hand movement but this time instructed the signal, i.e., the previously chosen vocal, with the normal tone of voice immediately before the hand movement had completed and subsequently retained the food in his/her hand. The dog was startled by the sudden absence of the food which it got used to having without exhibiting any performance and, therefore, got frustrated.
  • 4)  As soon as the dog quit demanding the food from the hand and exhibited any alternative behavior, the other hand was opened and the handler gave the food piece to the dog. Thus, exhibiting the alternative behavior after getting the signal was the only solution for the dog to terminate the feeling of a frustration.

2nd step:

  • 1) In this step, the same feeding procedure as the one in the first step was performed by a foreign person.
  • 2) Together with the signal instructed by the owner, the foreign person retained the food in his/her hand.
  • 3) As soon as the dog showed the alternative behavior, the owner rewarded the dog by serving the food.

Different sorts of treats such as dry food, sausage, cheese, or mixture of two or three of them etc. were used for the training. If food mixture was used, the dog’s favorite one was served as a reward.

3rd step:

  • 1)  For this obligatory step, the dog was on a long leash (approx. 3 m) and the owner had two toys.
  • 2)  The owner played with the dog by throwing a toy until the dog had the feeling of free access to the toy.
  • 3)  The handler threw the toy so far that the dog could not reach it and instructed simultaneously the signal.
  • 4)  As soon as the dog exhibited the alternative behavior, the owner played with the dog by using the other toy as a reward.


2. “Blocking” is a phenomenon in animal learning that occurs when a previously learned signal interferes with learning about a new signal. Here’s an example:

Let’s say that I taught a rat that a buzzer sound occurs right before a shock. After they have sufficiently learned that the buzzer predicts shock, I want to also teach them that a light turning on predicts the shock. If I present the buzzer and the light together, the rats won’t learn anything about the light, because the buzzer already told them everything they need to know. The light did not provide them with any new information. This is called “blocking” because the previously learned association of the buzzer “blocked” learning about the light. To take it one step further, we could even change the aversive event and still witness blocking. In other words, I could teach the rat that the buzzer predicts shock, and then use the buzzer to block learning that a light turning on will predict getting poked with a needle. The rat will not learn about the light/needle relationship because prior learning about the buzzer “blocks” it. The motivational representation is “buzzer predicts something bad is going to happen.” It doesn’t really matter whether the bad thing is a shock or a needle poke.

Counter Conditioning, Causal Relevance, and the Implications for Humane Dog Training

In 1972, Michael Domjam and Nancy Wilson tested an interesting hypothesis:  When creating a conditioned association between two events, do the types of events matter?

To help illustrate this question more clearly, let’s take an example: You go out for dinner at a new restaurant. You eat a large meal consisting of salmon, and don’t eat anything else for the remainder of the evening. The next morning you wake up to find yourself violently ill. As a rational human, you are likely to make the assumption that it was the food you ate which made you ill. In other words, you don’t assume it was the particular wallpaper that was chosen for the restaurant, or the uniform worn by the waiter, even though these two things were as equally correlated with the illness as the food you ate. You likely will have at least a temporary aversion to salmon, and no aversion at all to red floral wallpaper, etc. The point being that if the effect is gastro-intestinal illness, then we are more likely to have a conditioned aversion response when the perceived cause is something we ingested, versus something we saw or heard.

While this may seem like common sense, or perhaps simply a function of our human ability to explain the connection via reason and language, Domjam and Wilson set out to investigate further. In their study titled Specificity of Cue Consequence in Aversion Learning in the Rat, they were able to show that when either a specific taste (saccharine) or a sound (buzzer) were paired with illness (via injection with lithium chloride), the rats learned a very strong aversion to the taste, while the group that received the buzzer/illness pairing learned virtually no association at all. Likewise, when they paired the saccharine or buzzer with a shock, the results were the opposite. The group who received the taste/shock pairing learned almost no association, while the buzzer/shock group readily learned the association.

The theoretical implication of this study is that animals will learn selectively, in favor of associations which reflect an underlying causal relationship (Dickenson p.60).  Evolution has programmed our learning mechanisms to understand that an external stimuli such as a touch sensation is more likely to be caused by something you can see or hear (such as a predator), while internal discomfort is more likely to be caused by something you ate (such as rotten meat). Clearly animals that have developed such learning preferences have a greater chance of survival.

I recognize that at face value, this may not seem like a groundbreaking concept. However if we take this line of reasoning a bit further, I think it raises some interesting questions, particularly in the realm of determining what constitutes “humane” dog training. dog training

First, a qualifying statement: At this time I have no idea if any of the following hypotheses have been studied. The following discussion is purely a speculative thought experiment for the purpose shedding light on a different way of approaching the question of what is truly “humane.”…

To begin, knowing that animals employ selective learning in the case of aversion, is it fair to assume that the same selective learning may exist in the case of attraction? If we paired a variety of different stimuli with pleasant outcomes, would the same learning biases occur? For instance, will sight, sound, or smell be associated more readily with a pleasant taste than touch? If we assume the evolutionary perspective on causal relevance, then perhaps the answer would be species specific. Predatory animals rely on sight and sound to find food (prey), but most predators do not rely on touch to find something to eat. However, herbivorous prey animals are likely to use sight, smell, and perhaps even touch (foraging) to find food, and are less likely to rely on sound (although they would rely on sound to avoid predators.) If evolutionary pressures select for learning biases, then it seems appropriate to at least consider these possibilities.

For the purpose of exploring this line of reasoning, let’s assume for the moment that the hypothesis above is correct, and that selective learning applies to both aversion-based associations, as well as attraction-based associations. The next question that I would like to consider is if these biases have any influence on counter-conditioning protocols.

For those unfamiliar with the terminology, counter-conditioning refers to a classical conditioning process in which an attempt is made to alter the emotional association of a particular event or stimulus by pairing it with an event or stimulus which has an opposing emotional effect. A simple example of this would be to take a dog that is afraid of a flag blowing in the wind, and present it with food/treats every time it sees a flag.  In theory, if the procedure is executed properly, over time the dog should begin to associate the flag with the presentation of food, and will begin to have a more pleasant emotional response to the sight of a flag.

If we apply our theory of selective learning to counter-conditioning, does it follow that the efficacy of a counter-conditioning procedure would be dependent on the nature of the two events/stimuli/emotions being paired?  For example, does fear that is associated with a sight, such as a flag, respond better to food as a counterconditioning agent versus perhaps a toy, or a social reward (affection)?

Additionally, is it the type of emotion that matters most, rather than the type of stimulus? In other words, does it matter if the dog is in fear for her own safety, versus mildly annoyed? Does it matter if the stressor is related to a social anxiety (such as dog on dog aggression), versus a noise phobia (perhaps as the result of something falling and crashing to the ground near the dog)?

To take it one step further, can a negative reinforcer act as a counter-conditioning agent? I have written in the past about research that was conducted in the 1970’s that showed that behaviors that are learned through an escape/avoidance procedure (negative reinforcement) are maintained via a sense of relief and relaxation which occurs upon successfully eliminating or avoiding an aversive. In 1983, Daniel Tortora applied this finding in an interesting way. With the help of Tri-tronics, he designed an electronic collar which automatically produced a tone after the release of the stimulation button/termination of electrical stimulation. There was also a button that could produce the tone only. He used this system to rehabilitate 36 dogs who exhibited what he termed “Avoidance-motivated aggression.” Through the process of obedience training, the dogs learned to associate the tone with the sense of relief/relaxation/safety that they experienced after the stimulation button was released. He also used the tone-only button when the dogs successfully executed a command and avoided any stimulation.

Once the dogs were successfully conditioned to the meaning of the tone, he then put the dogs in a situation which normally would trigger an aggressive response, except he would give one of the previously trained commands, and present the tone to signal safety when they successfully completed the command.

The theory behind this procedure was that the dogs were using aggressive displays to achieve a sense of safety during a perceived threat. Tortora was using the conditioned safety signal (tone), to show the dogs that they could achieve the same sense of safety by behaving obediently and in a pro-social manner.

While I am not certain that this can truly be considered counter-conditioning, the results of his study were very similar to what we would desire from a traditional counter-conditioning procedure. Not only did Tortora report that aggression was successfully eliminated in all 36 dogs in the study (He followed up with each dog’s owner for a period of up to three years after the study concluded, and no dogs required re-training). Most interestingly, it was reported that each dog showed overall improvements in emotional stability, and evidence of an increased sense of “self-efficacy” or courage (Tortora p.176).  In fact, Tortora noted that the safety tone, once learned, appeared to act as a conditioned positive reinforcer, thus supporting the theory that negative reinforcement plays a legitimate role as part of a counter-conditioning procedure.

Moreover, Tortora compared the results of his safety training experiment to several other protocols including differential reinforcement of alternative behavior, systematic desensitization, flooding, and punishment. In all cases, safety training was superior to the rest.

If we bring this back to our previous discussion, it appears that there may be some evidence that: A) negative reinforcement can play a role in counter-conditioning (either directly, or indirectly through the development of a unique safety signal which acts as positive reinforcement),  B) counter-conditioning procedures can be susceptible to selective learning, and C) in the case of emotions that elicit avoidance-motivated behaviors, a program which involves negative reinforcement may be more effective than positive reinforcement alone for the purposes of counter-conditioning.

If that last statement turns out to be correct, then there are some interesting ethical implications. If we consider that avoidance-motivated behaviors are elicited by unpleasant emotions, then it follows that dogs who are displaying avoidance-motivated behaviors are suffering from diminished emotional welfare. If (1) it turns out that counter-conditioning, facilitated either directly or indirectly by negative reinforcement, is the most effective means of counter-conditioning those unpleasant emotions and producing the greatest overall reduction of stress when compared to other types of reinforcers, and (2) we assert that a training procedure is to be judged as “humane” by assessing its overall effect on emotional welfare and the overall increase or reduction on stress, then it follows that, at least in some cases, a training approach that involves negative reinforcement may be the most humane choice.

Admittedly, this discussion has been largely based on hypothesis. However, I hope at the very least what might be taken from this is that a comparison of various training procedures, particularly in reference to determining what constitutes “humane” dog training, is far more complex than it might initially appear. Oversimplification of the matter will likely lead to a position that does not hold true across the broad range of potential training contexts. In any conversation in which the question “Which training philosophy is better?” is posed, it should always be followed by “Better at what?” The more we define the “what,”  the more likely we are to realize that these questions may not be as easy to answer as we once thought.

-Tyler Muto



Domjam, M. & Wilson, N.E. 1972. Specificity of cue to consequence in aversion learning in the rat. Psychonomic Science, 26, 143-5.

Tortora, D.F. (1983).  Safety training: The elimination of avoidance motivated aggression in dogs.  J Exp Psychol Gen, 112: 176-214.

Dickinson, Anthony. Contemporary Animal Learning Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.

Denny M.R. (1976). Post aversive relief and relaxation and their implications for behavior therapy. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry, 7: 315-321.

Cognitive Dissonance


I wish I could be a reward-only trainer. I don’t enjoy correcting dogs or putting any “pressure” on them. I love dogs. That’s why I chose this career.

Unfortunately, because I specialize in helping dog owners to achieve success in real world
situations, some amount of pressure/correction/punishment is often necessary. The reality is that even in situations where a reward-only approach could potentially work for the dog, it often doesn’t work for the dog-human team. The tremendous amount of required skill, patience, time etc. is often unattainable, unrealistic, and out of reach for the average dog owner. I’m not happy about this, but it is the reality that dog trainers are faced with. Even if all dog owners started on the right track from puppyhood, this would be a challenge. Working with owners who have dropped the ball of puppy training, or rescue dogs that often come with a bit of “baggage” only emphasizes the issue.

I wish I could be a reward-only trainer, but if I were I wouldn’t be able to help nearly as many dog owners to achieve balance with their dogs.

I want to help as many dog owners as possible, but doing so requires that I take part in the less comfortable, less enjoyable, less than ideal parts of dog training.

cog·ni·tive dis·so·nance n. [PSYCHOLOGY] the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, esp. as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

This dichotomy is something I often struggle with. But I shouldn’t.

I understand the reward-only movement, and why it’s so alluring. Contrary to many people outside of this movement, I do actually believe, that in some cases, it is possible to create truly balanced and reliable dogs without the use of negative reinforcement or positive punishment. I have seen a very few skilled trainers who have been able to achieve sufficient real world reliability with their own dogs using an only reward-based approach. Those people are few and far between, but I am glad they are there, to inspire the rest of us to think outside of the box to achieve more with rewards.

However, although I have traveled around the country and worked with hundreds of trainers, I am yet to encounter a reward-only trainer who is able to reliably achieve those same results with the average family. Especially when it comes to modifying serious behavioral problems. This is only to be expected. If only a small percentage of professional trainers are achieving real world reliability (not just excelling in a sport) with their own dogs, is it realistic to expect the average dog owner who has only a fraction of the skill, experience, patience, and time to be able to do it?

As a trainer who works with families, I am regularly faced with situations where those families have been through multiple reward-only programs without success, and they are nearly ready to give up on their dog. To do what’s truly in the best interest of both the dog and the owner, a little pressure/correction can make a world of difference. And the end result of that, seeing the family and their dog “whole” again, is what gets me up every morning. Without someone to teach them the proper way to use negative reinforcement and positive punishment as a part of a well rounded training program, both the family and the dog would continue to suffer.

I’ve heard all the arguments on both sides:

“Dogs will never be reliable and respect their owner if all the person does is dispense treats”

Well, go hang out with someone like Susan Garrett in Ontario and tell me how she managed to do it?

“If you can’t train a dog without the use of aversives, then you shouldn’t own a dog”

Well, then we will have to immediately euthanize billions of dogs around the world. There is already an overpopulation issue, and if we eliminate all but the best of the best, elite dog owners, we would have a big mess on our hands. People are going to use pressure/corrections with their dogs out of necessity, and the responsible thing to do is to provide education so at least they do it properly and fairly.

The arguments on both sides are endless. They exist in the industry, on social media, and inside of me. If you are a professional dog trainer who truly wants the best for dogs, these arguments should exist inside of you too.

Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species…discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, re-evaluate and criticize. Consistency is the playground of dull minds… Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset.

-Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

These contradicting views are essential for the progress of the industry. Without the desire for more humane dog training that created and continues to drive the reward-only movement, dog trainers would still be using antiquated techniques such as filling a hole with water and submerging a dog’s head to discourage digging, or suspending their feet off the ground with a choke chain until they vomit to discourage unruly leash manners (Yes both these “methods” were accepted and published in dog training manuals of the mid 1900’s).

Without trainers who continue to question the limitations of reward-only training, and who are willing to confront the less-comfortable parts of training when punishment may be necessary, many families would be left frustrated and without the help they need.

When these arguments take place in places like social media, they fuel hatred and anger. However, when we embrace these contradictions within ourselves, they fuel progress and innovation.

Whereas the industry used to be split into distinct camps: Trainers who use “force” and trainers who use “bribery.” The truly modern dog trainer employs the best from both sides. We now understand that “reward” doesn’t equal “bribe”, and “pressure” doesn’t equal “force, fear and pain.” We are using sophisticated reward-based protocols to shape behavior and improve the dog’s desire to learn, while using subtle and graceful applications of pressure to increase reliability and bridge the gaps where an individual constraints may limit us otherwise.

We should all be continuing to become more skilled with reward-based techniques. The more skilled you become, the less pressure you will find yourself using. We should also all be refining our skills when it comes to negative reinforcement and punishment, so that when we do have to use some pressure, we can do it with the utmost care and consideration for the dog.

The reward-only trainer who is content with seeing their clients struggle in the name of staying true to their idealized view of what constitutes “humane” dog training should be ashamed of themselves.

The “balanced” trainer who gives the occasional treat, but is perfectly happy relying on pressure to get the job done, without pausing for a moment and considering that perhaps the reason they need to use pressure is due to a deficiency of their own skills, should probably find a new profession.

I don’t care which side of the fence you fall on. Put your ideals aside, embrace the turmoil inside of yourself, and help us lead this profession and this craft into the future.


Negative Reinforcement and the Curse of Sisyphus

Sisyphus was the King of Ephyra, and he had a reputation for defying the Gods and being a bit of a trickster. One of his best known exploits came at the end of his life when Hades, the God of the Underworld came to claim him, bringing along a pair of handcuffs. Sisyphus, in all his cunning and mischief, managed to persuade Hades to demonstrate the handcuffs on himself. Sisyphus further took advantage of this turn of events by locking the handcuffed Hades in his closet.

sisyphusEventually Sisyphus’ shenanigans caught up with him and he was brought to the underworld to receive his eternal punishment. For all his transgressions, he was condemned to an eternity of rolling a massive boulder up a hill. What made this especially torturous
was not that the hill was infinitely tall; in fact by exerting all his strength Sisyphus was able to reach the top.  However, the moment he reached the peak and was ready to rest and rejoice in his accomplishments, the darn boulder rolled right back down to the bottom. Sisyphus, tired and frustrated, had to start the process all over again. And on it went for eternity….

Now, for lack of a clever segue, I’m going to abruptly shift gears. But don’t let the tale of King Sisyphus slip too far from your mind.

Negative reinforcement is one of the most widely used and versatile aspects of how animals learn. Technically speaking, negative reinforcement refers to the elimination of a stimulus (generally unpleasant), for the purposes of encouraging or strengthening of behavior. In dog training, negative reinforcement refers to when the dog learns to turn off (or escape) an unpleasant sensation, and later learns to avoid the unpleasant sensation altogether by responding to a specific cue.

Used properly, negative reinforcement can strengthen and solidify your dog’s response to known commands, and make that response far more reliable and resistant to extinction. The key, however, is to learn to use negative reinforcement properly. An incorrect understanding of negative reinforcement can make training stressful for the dog. At best, using negative reinforcement incorrectly can simply slow down your training progress and limit the overall reliability of the results.

While there are many mistakes that are commonly made when it comes to the use of negative reinforcement (which I will refer to as R-), I would like to use the story of King Sisyphus illustrate one of the most common ones:  During the initial conditioning, or instructional phases of training, when the dog is learning how their actions can control the stimulus (or pressure), no sooner than the dog completes the task asked of it, then they are instantly released and/or given another command and the dog has to escape the pressure again.  

To illustrate by way of example, let’s take the early stage of remote collar conditioning where the dog learns to go his bed in response to the stimulation*.  The trainer presses the button on the transmitter on a low setting (only a mild tickle or annoyance to the dog), and then guides the dog to his bed. As the dog goes to his bed, the trainer releases the button and the dog is praised and rewarded. Then, after only a brief moment, the dog is released and the exercise is started again (the trainer presses the button, guides the dog etc.).

What we must remember is that it is the cessation of the collar pressure that is reinforcing to the dog. In order to really take advantage of this reinforcement, the dog needs a moment to enjoy his accomplishment and the sense of relief and relaxation that comes with it. In other words, when the dog successfully removes the stimulation, give them a minute to savor it.

When we drill our dogs with a rapid succession of commands during R- training, we are essentially giving our dogs the same fate as Sisyphus. However, training should be a fun and enjoyable experience for the dog. The “curse of Sisyphus” erodes the value of the reinforcement, thus eroding the dog’s desire to work with us, causing them undue frustration, and slowing down our progress.

Don’t give the dog the curse of Sisyphus.

Moreover, the more motivating the stimulus or pressure is, the more important it is to give the dog this extra bit of time.

After all, if Sisyphus was given a chance to sit down and catch his breath between boulder rolls, perhaps an extended break at lunch for a Panini and a glass of wine, and two solid days off on the weekend, maybe his fate wouldn’t have been so torturous (heck, it’s just a solid days work!).

In addition to potentially causing undue stress during training, we may also be missing out on one of the potential benefits of negative reinforcement training.

For those with just a casual interest in training, you can probably stop here. For those dog nerds like myself, you may want to read on, I’m going to get all sciency for a moment.

As stated earlier, negative reinforcement training ultimately has two components. First, the dog must learn to turn off, or “escape” the pressure when they feel it. Second, they learn to avoid it all together by responding to a predictive cue (i.e. our command).  One of the unique and desirable qualities of this later avoidance  learning is that once the dog learns how to avoid the pressure, they continue to do so for many repetitions without needing to be exposed to the pressure again. In fact, done properly, this type of learning is one of the most resistant to extinction.

Early researchers postulated that what was maintaining the dog’s response in the absence of actual pressure was a classically conditioned fear response when the cue is given. This seems to make sense. The dog hears a command, and responds out of fear of the consequence for not responding. The problem was that the evidence simply did not support this theory. Dogs wear their emotions on their sleeves, and they are terrible liars. What researchers observed was that when dogs were properly conditioned through negative reinforcement and avoidance learning, not only did they respond reliably, but they did so with very happy and relaxed dispositions.

More research and a new theory were needed to explain this phenomenon. Along came the safety signal hypothesis. Several researchers (see M.R Denny, R.G Wiesman/J.S Litner, and D.F Tortora) recognized that after the removal of pressure, the dogs experienced a sense of relief and relaxation. Further, as the dogs learned to successfully avoid pressure, any potential unpleasant emotions faded quickly, but the sense of relief and relaxation remained. Thus it is the pleasant emotions of relief and relaxation which act as reinforcement, and account for the dog’s disposition and the continued maintenance of the desired behavior.

In fact, M.R Denny noted that the experience of relief occurs 3-5 seconds after the cessation of pressure, and lasts for 10-15 seconds, whereas relaxation requires approximately 2-5 minutes to produce full benefits**. He also noted that the effects appear to double when the dog experiences both relief and relaxation as opposed to just relief by itself.

In other words, if you give at least 2-15 seconds between reps, the dog experiences some reinforcement, but it if you give a full 2-5 minutes, the experience of reinforcement can effectively double.

What this means is that by giving ample time between repetitions during escape/avoidance training, not only are you avoiding giving your dog the curse of eternal damnation (a bit of an exaggeration I know), but you are doubling the pleasurable aspects of the training.

We can take advantage of this extra time. Research has shown that we can condition other signals to be associated with this sense of relaxation. Thus praising and interacting with the dog during this time can increase the value of your praise and help establish your interaction as a source of safety and comfort. The latter is immensely valuable for professional trainers who are regularly working with dogs with whom they are relatively unfamiliar.

Lastly, remember that this principle doesn’t only apply to leashes and collars. For instance, in the rehabilitation of dogs with social anxieties we are often working on how to relieve social pressures in appropriate ways. Taking a bit of extra time between exposures can help to amplify your results. The same applies to exposure to other forms of fear, phobia and anxiety as well.

Training with any kind of pressure is a responsibility, not a right. If you are going to do it, every effort should be made to do it well.  Avoiding the curse of Sisyphus is just one of the many ways you can ensure you get the most out of your training.

-Tyler Muto


*I recommend training dogs initially with the use of positive reinforcement techniques, and utilizing the electronic or remote collar only to solidify and reinforce the previously established training.

** Denny specifies that relief involves a strong autonomic factor, whereas relaxation involves striatial muscles and various motoric components.


Denny M.R. (1976). Post aversive relief and relaxation and their implications for behavior therapy. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry, 7: 315-321.

Denny M.R. (1983). Safety catch in behavior therapy: Comments on “safety” training: The elimination of avoidance motivated aggression in dogs. J Exp Psychol Gen, 112: 215-217.

Lindsay S.R. (2000). The handbook of applied dog behavior and training. Vol 1,  295-296.

Tortora D.F. (1983).  Safety training: The elimination of avoidance motivated aggression in dogs.  J Exp Psychol Gen, 112: 176-214.

Weisman R.G. and Litner J.S.  (1969). Positive conditioned reinforcement of Sidman avoidance in rats. J Comp Physiol Phychol, 68: 597-603.

How to Defeat Self Doubt


We all know it, that voice in our head that plays on repeat phrases like:

“Am I good enough?”

“Is this unique enough?”

“I don’t deserve this.”

“I’m not ready.”

Although it is easy feel that you are the only person who struggles with this type of negative thinking, the truth is that everyone around you, even the those who appear to exude nothing but confidence, all struggle with self-defeating thinking. Although we may find some comfort in knowing that we all share the same struggle, it is also helpful to cultivate strategies to avoid letting ourselves be trapped and limited by the naysayer in our own head.

The internal dialogue of self-doubt is often seen as a toxic thought pattern that needs to be suppressed. Decades of self help gurus and motivational speakers have preached the value of positive thinking in an attempt to keep us from succumbing to the “resistance”.  While I don’t want to undermine the value of positive thinking and visualization, for anyone who has tried to suppress self-doubt and replace it with positive thoughts, you know it is far easier said than done.

Self-doubt is a mechanism that is produced by our amygdala (read: lizard brain) that keeps our egos from becoming over-inflated and prevents us from “flying too close to the sun”.  Evolutionarily speaking, self-doubt serves a protective function by keeping us from taking chances that could cause injury or death. But it becomes problematic when it prevents us from taking risks that may enhance our lives. Try as you might, you will never rid yourself of it completely, and like most demons, it thrives on the fight. The more you push against it, the stronger it can become.

If you are tired of fighting with self-doubt then I have one suggestion: Embrace it.

Here’s a little secret…I didn’t become successful as an entrepreneur because I was super-confident.  I didn’t gain a reputation as an innovator in the dog training industry because I felt like I was doing a great job. The reason I have found this measure of success is because I was constantly questioning myself, and questioning my operational status quo.

The ultimate driving force that pushed me to look at things in new ways is the fact that I am constantly doubting the way I am currently doing things. I still question the way I do things everyday, which leaves open space to innovate and improve.

I learned to take self-doubt, embrace it, and turn it into a drive to do better.

Self-doubt can either paralyze you or push you. We all have the internal dialogue of resistance. We can’t make it go away, but we can choose how to respond to it.

Never forget, self-doubt is a demon. Demons hate being embraced. Demons hate seeing that all their efforts to hold you back are only pushing you into the lead.  Listen to your doubt, smile at it’s attempts to paralyze you, and then put your nose to the grindstone and become stronger, smarter, and happier.

-Tyler Muto

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