The Comfy Chair It Ain’t

The Pet Safe Stay Mat has absolutely no place in positive reinforcement dog training.

Usually on the Three Dogs blog we like to bring you guys notices of classes, updates to the web page, and items of interest that may help you and your dog(s) live a happier, healthier life.  However, sometimes we have to warn you about things and this is one of those times.

Imagine you have gone to visit your neighbor because you are new to the neighborhood.

They kindly offer you a necklace as a house-warming gift and they then proceed to go make some tea.  You are sitting in a chair in the neighbor’s living room and notice something outside the front window.  You get up to investigate the commotion out the window just across the room.

Suddenly, you hear a funny noise then the pain begins and at first you can’t tell where the pain is coming from.  You begin checking yourself and find the pain is coming from the “necklace” your new neighbor just gave you.  You try to get it off but it doesn’t come off.  The pain is non-stop.  You begin to run around to see it you can find something to help get it off, something to make it stop – something to stop the agonizing, confusing, scary pain.

As you are running, you brush the chair where you were sitting before this all began and for a brief second the pain stopped.  That couldn’t be it – no.  So you keep running; keep pulling at the necklace, now you are screaming and asking any deity to help you make it stop.  You ask yourself, “What have I done to deserve this?  What lesson could this possibly be teaching me?”  But no good answer comes in the language you speak.  The pain just won’t stop.

Unexpectedly the new neighbor grabs you and forces you back into the chair.  You sit in the chair shaking and breathing heavily – afraid to move; afraid even to breathe too hard for fear it will start all over again.  Even though the pain is stopped, the fear, the anguish, and confusion are all still there.  What the hell was that???

It was the “Pet Safe Stay Mat”* brought to you by the people at Pet Safe who encourage shocking a dog into scared submission  rather than easily rewarding them for doing what is fun and makes everyone happy around them.

Here’s their explanation:

The Stay! Mat functions by detecting your dog’s weight on the mat. If your dog leaves the mat while the unit is turned on, the mat will send a radio signal up to 6 feet in all directions. The receiver collar will receive the radio signal and produce a beep or beep and static correction until your dog returns to the mat. The correction type depends on the setting you choose. Once your dog returns to the mat, the beep and static correction will cease. (Two week training period required.)

In the words of Karen Overall,  M.A, V.M.D., Ph.D from Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals:

“Shock collars are seldom used correctly, are more often overused or inappropriately used, can make any aggressive animal more aggressive, and may tell us more about the people who feel that they have to rely on them than about the pet’s problem…”

In the instructions for the cold-hearted “Stay Mat” it says there is a two week training period required but I can easily train a dog to hold a position on a mat for rewards in an hour or less.  I can proof that behavior in a couple of 10 – 15 minutes sessions and have it reliable with distance and distraction in a couple days.  So, why spend more time, more money and torment your dog in the process by using this device?

When looking at various training methods we have to consider what is the scientifically best proven approach – it is and always will be positive reinforcement because it has been proven to be both more effective and more humane than coercion.  AND we have to ask ourselves:  how would you like this done to you?  Yes we are talking about dogs not people.  But when we are talking about dogs we are talking about animals whose capacity to feel, emote, love, fear, and forgive is equal and sometimes greater than we humans can produce.  And it is necessary to keep in mind that the way a dog’s brain and our brain processes pain and fear are almost identical – fight or flight.   So it is valid to ask if this is something you would like to endure.

Please tell Pet Safe, PetSmart, and others who are carrying this product; tell your friends, your neighbors and anyone who will listen – this is not the way to teach an easy settle command.  But it is a great way to torment your dog, teach them fear, and break down any hope at a trusting relationship with them since you will be the one putting them back “into the non-comfy chair.”

Managing Dog Aggression Toward Babies

The first rule to keeping your child safe from your dog is keeping your dog safe from your child – LJ Edwards, “Please Don’t Bite the Baby…”


Professor Boo, I have an 11 year old female German Shepherd and a 10 month old baby at home. My dog has always been friendly towards my baby girl and usually kisses her and licks her a lot. My baby is always after the dog, using her as a “ladder” to stand up, grabs her tail and face and usually my dog just walks away but today was the first time she growled at her and showed her teeth when my daughter tried to grab her (my daughter was in my dog’s sleeping area.) Does that mean she might bite her? I love my dog dearly but my baby comes first. What do I do?

Pinball gets to see that great rewards come when he ignores the silly toddler.

This is fairly common when little ones begin to toddle around and use the dog as a walking “helper” as it were.

Please remember all dogs can bite anyone if they feel they have no other way to stop something that either scares them or hurts them. Cute as it may be to see baby loving the dog, most dogs are not really comfortable with this kind of grabbing as most little ones don’t have really good grip control and can hurt when they pull and tug on an dog especially an older dog.

It should not have to come down to a choice for you between the dog you love and the child you love.

It really just has to come down to always remembering that baby doesn’t know she may be hurting the dog and your dog is telling baby with a growl “please stop.” Your job is to stop baby before doggie gets to the point where she feels the need to “correct” the baby. There are some simple rules that will help.

Please start out by thinking of your dog like an open pool in your back yard. You would never turn your back on your baby around an open pool. You would never let her dangle her feet in the pool without you right there, next to her. You would always be right there to catch her if she fell, etc…

Please follow these rules:

Dog and baby are never alone together.

You are always right between them for now.

  • Baby can only touch dog when you are right there, guiding baby as to how to gently touch dog.
  • Baby never wakes the dog, pokes the dog or lands on the dog when dog is sleeping.
  • Dog is never chased by baby – not with walker, not with toys and not on her own.
  • Dog is never used as a walking helper for baby.
The first rule to keeping your child safe from your dog is keeping your dog safe from your child.

In addition to all of these I would suggest some review of basic skills that allow parents to get their dog out of a potentially dangerous situation quickly. Very often parents find it easier to call the dog away from baby than to ask baby to stop advancing on a resting dog. This may mean some new or review training either individually or in a classroom. In my book “Please Don’t Bite the Baby, and Please Don’t Chase the Dogs,” I cover a number of quick techniques to get your dog out of a situation before trouble occurs.

Too many dogs are euthanized each year because they are viewed as aggressive to their toddler. Much of this can be avoided if we try to understand that for most dogs, toddlers can be scary. Most dogs try to warn the toddler away and too many parents punish the dog for the growl. This leads to a dog who feels like they have no alternative but to bite.

Always remember

When your dog growls, she has given you a great gift – she has told you she is uncomfortable with some things baby is doing. Take that gift and return the favor to your dog by following the rules above and teaching or reviewing some really basic skills to keep everyone safe.

For more on how keep baby and dog safe and happy together, click here

For more on Please Don’t Bite the Baby, and Please Don’t Chase the Dogs, click here

Shock collars banned in Wales thanks to the RSPCA and The Kennel Club!

After years of effort, the RSPCA and The Kennel Club of the UK successfully get shock collars banned in Wales!

For as much as I don’t mince words about aversive training methods, I especially don’t mince words about the use of shock collars in dog training.  Apparently others don’t either:

Communications Director Caroline Kisko [The Kennel Club of the UK] said: “Electric shock collars train dogs through pain and through fear – they are a cruel, outdated and unsuitable method of training dogs.”

The Kennel Club of the UK:  “… this barbaric method of training dogs.”

Claire Lawson, RSPCA public affairs manager for Wales, said: “This is a great day for animal welfare in Wales.” (1)

Electric shock collar ban in Wales announced

Based on years of solid behavioral science we know the use of coercive behavior modification like shock collars is inappropriate and cruel.  While one can choose to inflict pain to punish a behavior, it speaks more to the individual’s preference than to good training techniques.

Although some people will suggest – even put forth as solid science – that shock collars are just another option in training, they have missed the core issues in behavioral science.  As Murray Sidman (2) plainly points out in his book Coercion and Its Fallout, “[J]ust punishing the animal for doing something else does not teach it to sit.  At most, punishment only teaches it what not to do.” (3)

He has much more to say on this topic and I will simply add one more of his comments here:  “When we take all of its effects into account, punishment’s success in getting rid of behavior will seem inconsequential.  The other changes that take place in people who are punished, and, what is sometimes even more important, the changes that take place in those who do the punishing, lead inevitably to the conclusion that punishment is a most unwise, undesirable, and fundamentally destructive method of controlling conduct.” (4)

I know some will say:  “Yeah, but he’s talking about humans – we’re just talking about dog training.”  Actually the experiments he is referring to have been on mice, dogs, monkeys, birds, and other critters – not of the human variety.  We can see what happens to humans as a result of coercion from real-life observations.  We know what happens to our animal friends by real laboratory experiments where we can clearly point to the coercion as the cause of a host of unwanted “fallout” behaviors, not the least of which are increased aggression or learned helplessness and complete shut-down.

As the overwhelming body of science against shock collars continues to grow, the tide against their use as being acceptable has begun to pick up momentum and this is just the latest example.

Cymru am byth!

1 BBC 25, February 2010
2 Dr. Sidman, Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University, International Fellow, Association for Behavior Analysis, former academic appointments include: Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, EK Shriver Center for Mental Retardation, Columbia University, Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins University, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil,  and others.
3 Coercion and its Fallout, pg 46
4 Coercion and its Fallout, pg 77

Dogs and cats playing together? Mass hysteria!

The different ways that dogs and cats play and the best ways to make sure that they play well together.


Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

Honey the dog asks:

My name is Honey, and I am a 2 year old Cockapoo. My little brother, Toby, is a cat, and he came to live with us a few months ago. He is 10 months old. We love each other, but sometimes we don’t seem to speak the same language, what’s up with that?? For example, I do lots of play bows, really obvious play bows…. does he understand I am saying let’s play??  When he wants to play, sometimes he stares at me and then flicks his ear… also, sometimes he just bolts out from nowhere and tackles me….. any insights will be gratefully accepted.

Professor Boo responds:

I can really relate to this question.  I have a cat, too – her name is Freya and my daddy found her in a tree in our yard.

She likes to chase me around and sometimes jumps at me.  I never play bow her because I just don’t play bow easily.  My big little-brother does play bow her but since he is 85 pounds she sometimes runs from him when he does this and sometimes she just sits there and looks at him funny.

I have also observed him telling her off when he thinks she is going to get in between him and his food.  She understands this very clearly and is gone is a streak of black and white fur when he does this.

From my perspective, Freya knows exactly when I want to play and she lets me know when she wants to play.  The same is true with Porthos.  Dante doesn’t play with her too much these days.  Although cats and dogs speak different species language I think they, like humans, eventually start to understand each other.

Dante doesn’t play with Freya much these days.

But in his prime he and Merlin-the-cat were great buddies.

Play is understood as play based on the consequences that follow

If they are having fun they will recognize it as play and log that away for later reference. 

Dogs and cats that don’t like each other will clearly demonstrate their intentions. 

Cats can hunker down, ears back, and they may hiss. Some cats will run away. Unfortunately, this can cause the dog to chase them. My cat Freya is a funny cat and she will actually chase me around the house. I don’t especially care for that.

Dogs who don’t like cats will often try to put more distance between them and the dreaded cat by growling, barking, showing teeth, etc.  Dogs will more often (except in Freya’s case) be the chaser and chase the cat sometimes in a predatory manner and sometimes to drive the cat away. 

Ultimately we can know it is play by the wriggly body language and bounciness from each.  Threatening body language is hard and direct – no bounciness and joy can be seen. Either animal may want to make more distance between him and the other, or want to come if for fun and play

Honey, it sounds like you are communicating with Toby very nicely. 

It is possible he understands you want to play but remember cats tend to play differently – they like to lie in wait then pounce (it seems they wait until they think no one is looking – but who really knows what’s in the mind of a cat).  This could be why Toby stares, then flicks his ears, and then pounces.  You have told him you are no threat and would like to play and in typical cat fashion he has understood this and said, “Great, I’ll get back to you on that in my own good time…”

While these are just my observations from my doggie perspective with Freya and even years ago with Tara and Merlin you can find more about cat behavior at this web site:  Cat Behavior Associates.

Alpha. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Alpha is the most misused word in dog training and often leads to abuse. Here’s the correct definition of the word.

One of the most misused terms in all of dog training is the term Alpha. I hear this term used over and over again.

Alpha is a scientific term that allows researchers to identify the animal in a social situation who has the most access to the most resources from food to safe sleeping places to reproduction.

Alpha is not about force, aversives, bullying, or dominance.

Here’s a video by Dave Mech (pronounced Meech), the renowned wolf research biologist who coined the wolf “Alpha” reference in his 1970 book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, where he discusses how the term is woefully outdated because of subsequent research that proved their original Alpha concept was an unfortunate result of non-optimal study subjects.

It would be much like observing humans in a prison and extrapolating from that that all humans sleep with shivs under the pillows and use cigarettes as currency:

Being the pack leader is about being a parent and not a bully. It’s not about rolling your dog, kicking your dog, poking your dog with a snake-like sound, using shock, pinch or choke collars on them, or using any other aversive tool.

If someone tells you that to be the Alpha in your pack you need to dominate by force or cause pain to your dog, it’s not a position based in behavioral science but is simply their choice.

If you want to be the leader of your pack then be your dog’s parent.

Teach them, guide them, love them, play with them, redirect unwanted behaviors, and control access to resources.  In short, be everything they’re instinctively expecting out of a parent and nothing they’re not.

Not only is this proven behavioral science, it’s just good plain old common sense.