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USA Dog Behavior Blog

“I shouldn’t have to reward my dog with treats.”

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© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

Some dog owners feel they shouldn’t have to reward their dog for doing certain expected behaviors. They tell me they’re already paying for their dog’s vet bills, food and housing – that should be enough to get their dog’s loyalty.

I’ve even had clients who get almost hostile at the thought of having to reward a dog for doing something, “it knows it should be doing anyway.”

Let me provide some points to consider when it comes to rewarding your dog when training new behaviors or maintaining others.

Does the dog really know what is expected of him or her?

Human beings have the bad habit of thinking that dogs understand everything we expect of them just because they live with us. Dogs have to be taught what we expect of them and, please remember, they don’t know English! One of the best and fastest ways to teach them is by using food rewards.

Human beings are able to recognize that a paycheck is from their employer and is for work they did days or even weeks earlier.

Dogs do not have the ability to connect the behaviors we expect of them with the good deeds we do for them (e.g., vet care, feeding, housing, etc.). They don’t understand our human economy at all. Further, dogs are only able to connect reinforcement (e.g., food rewards) to a behavior only if it is offered immediately after the behavior – no more than 2–3 seconds.

Would you go to work for free?

We all get paid to go to work and perform our job duties. Would you work one more hour if you stopped getting paid? The amazing thing is that dogs will continue to do behaviors even if they are only randomly and occasionally reinforced with treats. However, humans need to be constantly and continually reinforced with pay for our entire working careers! In this regard, we expect more of our dogs than we do of ourselves.

Would you continue to do nice things for people if those actions never brought you any kind of positive returns?

Even outside of work, humans expect to be “paid” with some kind of return on their efforts. Even though your volunteer work at the animal shelter doesn’t provide any monetary compensation, the interaction with the people and animals is very rewarding and keeps you coming back week after week. All animal species, including humans, need some kind of reinforcement to continue a behavior for an extended period of time.

Food treats are not the only kind of reward.

You might be surprised to learn that some dogs don’t even really enjoy treats. They would much rather be rewarded with a game of tug or petting, for example. It’s not necessarily about the food; it’s about the reward. With that being said, most dogs prefer food rewards.

Sometimes we think dogs are furry four-legged humans – they aren’t.

We’re all guilty of this at times because we get so close to our little buddies. We have to remember that dogs don’t know English and are 100% animals no matter how much we sometimes think they aren’t. I always like to tell clients that you can’t go against Mother Nature; dogs will be dogs.

Positive reinforcement provides more durable results in training and doesn’t destroy the relationship with the owner.

Sure, you can get a dog to “obey” you by using harsh techniques such as prong collars, shock collars, hitting, etc. (i.e., punishment). The problem with that approach is the training results don’t tend to be as durable and the dog’s relationship with the owner can deteriorate significantly. I’ve had many dogs referred to me that have been trained this way that are scared of their own shadow. Who wants a dog that is a fearful robot?

Don’t be afraid to use food rewards when training and maintaining behaviors in your dog. All of the latest scientific research in animal training indicates this approach has the best results. Once your dog is trained to a level that you are happy with, the food rewards can be decreased although you don’t want to completely eliminate them.

For more insight on reward and punishment in dog training, please see, Don’t do to Your Dog What Some People do to Their Children.

Does your dog dislike being touched? Here’s what you can do.

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

Dogs can become fearful of many things through no fault of their own. Examples include: noises, riding in cars, touch, veterinarians, animate and inanimate objects, etc. The list is virtually endless. While some dogs express this fear by trying to scare the feared item away by barking, growling, and lunging, other dogs simply attempt to avoid the scary thing by keeping a safe distance from it.

“While this is a specific example, the principles apply to virtually anything a dog might fear.”

Why do dogs become fearful of things? There are a number of reasons that cause a fear response to specific triggers in dogs. The list includes, but is not limited to, genetic factors, neonatal experiences, adult experiences, etc.

The most successful way to address these fears is through a process called desensitization and counter-conditioning.

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Desensitization is the process of exposing a dog to a trigger beginning at a very low intensity and gradually building. Think of a human child that is afraid of the deep end of the pool. Desensitization starts this child on the steps of the pool and over a period of time slowly moves him or her toward the deep end of the pool as he or she is comfortable with doing so. The same concept is used with fearful dogs.

Counter-conditioning is different from desensitization and is an additional technique for changing a dog’s feelings or emotional response to something that it considers scary. In dogs, counter-conditioning is most commonly done by presenting a food treat when the dog experiences the trigger while simultaneously calm. A training clicker can be used to make this process even more effective.

Counter conditioning and desensitization are normally done together. An example of a desensitization and counter-conditioning program for a dog that is fearful of being touched and petted (i.e., fear of human handling) is provided below. While this is a specific example, the principles apply to virtually anything a dog might fear.

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Everyone loved Max, but he got grumpy whenever anyone tried to pet him or touch him anywhere on his body. He especially hated having his head touched; he wasn’t real fond of having his paws touched either! Max’s pet parents implemented the following plan to help Max feel better about being touched. They knew he would never be completely comfortable with being touched, but they wanted him to hopefully be able to tolerate it when it was necessary (e.g., teeth brushing, nail clipping, veterinarian checkups, grooming, etc.)

Max’s 7 Point Treatment Plan

1) Max’s pet parents (the Swansons) first had to determine at what point Max became bothered when someone touched him. How close could they get to him? Where did he dislike being touched the most and the least? They determined they could touch him gently on the side of his body and he was okay with that. Any more than that and he stiffened and started to growl a little (some dogs may respond by just attempting to move away instead of getting grumpy).

2) The Swanson’s next step was to determine what food treat Max really liked. They already knew that Max loved the small training treats they had been giving him so they decided to use those. They knew that these treats needed to be very small, as Max would be getting a lot of them.


3) They decided to use a training clicker when working with Max to help these exercises be as effective as possible. Some dogs are fearful of the clicker and it shouldn’t be used in those cases*, but Max was okay with it. They were going to systematically and repeatedly touch Max, click the clicker and then give him one of his training treats. The process always looked like this: touch -> click -> treat. And they were careful to always give Max a treat every single time they clicked the clicker.

4) The technique was to start at a place on his body where he was completely comfortable and over time very slowly move to a place on his body where he was less comfortable.

  • Mrs. Swanson just stood near Max and repeatedly clicked and treated when he looked at her. She did this until Max didn’t seem to even notice Mrs. Swanson any longer.
  • Mrs. Swanson next moved a little closer to Max and continued to click and treat until Max started to look somewhat bored!
  • Next, she barely touched Max’s side (remember, that’s where he is the least uncomfortable with human touch) and repeatedly touched, clicked and treated. Touch -> click -> treat, touch -> click -> treat, touch -> click -> treat… Mrs. Swanson knew that at any time Max got the least bit grumpy that she was moving too fast and should back up a little in the process. When Max seemed to be losing interest in the exercise, Mrs. Swanson knew it was time to go to the next step. Remember, some dogs try to move away instead of getting grumpy – but the process of desensitization and counter-conditioning remains the same in both cases.
  • Mrs. Swanson next moved her hand a little closer to Max’s head and continued to click and treat over and over until Max seemed to lose interest in her hand again. In addition to carefully and slowing moving closer to Max’s head over time, Mrs. Swanson very slowly added in a little pressure on Max’s body and some movement in her touch.
  • Mrs. Swanson continued to slowly move closer to Max’s head in very small steps until she was touching Max’s head while clicking and treating him.
  • This process was repeated many days in multiple 3-5 minute sessions. Each time Mrs. Swanson started the exercise she started a little further back on Max’s body than where she finished in her prior session.
  • It was very important for Mrs. Swanson to read Max’s body language throughout the entire process to make sure she didn’t go over Max’s tolerance threshold for being touched (i.e., move too fast). When Max’s tolerance threshold is exceeded this means he is uncomfortable with how he is being touched. If this happened, Mrs. Swanson just backed up a little.

5) The Swanson family also knew that it was important to have multiple adults in the family do these exercises with Max in order for him to learn that it’s okay to be touched by all types of people – not just Mrs. Swanson. It also provided a way for all adult family members to share in the training. They also knew that it is helpful to do these exercises in different locations in the house so that Max doesn’t think it’s only okay to be touched by humans in certain locations.

6) Before any of this training started, the Swanson family had a family meeting where they discussed the importance of learning the basics of dog body language so they could look at Max and know if he was uncomfortable with the pace of his treatment plan. If he was uncomfortable, they knew to back up a little. They also knew that if Max started to show aggression (e.g., barking, biting, lunging, growling, etc.) or a panicky need to escape during these exercises they would immediately abandon the training and get the help of an independently certified dog behavior professional.

7) The Swansons wondered how many of these 3-5 minute sessions it would take for Max to better tolerate being touched – they knew he would never be 100% okay with human handling, but they wondered when they would see improvement. They talked with a canine behavior specialist and he told them it could be as few as 15 sessions or as many as a 100 – or even more! He told them Max would let them know how many sessions it would take through his body language. The specialist also reminded them that Max probably would need occasional reminder or refresher sessions throughout his life.

* If a dog appears to be afraid of the sound of a clicker, then the reinforcement can change from [touch -> click -> treat] to simply [touch -> treat]. The clicker is removed, but the process remains identical. As an alternative, a verbal marker (e.g., “yes”, “good”, etc.) can take the place of the clicker [touch -> “yes” -> treat].

Legal Implications of Dog Ownership, The “One Bite Rule”

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

There are numerous laws regarding dog bites. One that is important for dog owners to be aware of is known as the "one bite rule". Simply stated, the one bite rule means that dog owners have limited liability the first time their dog bites a human (this rule does not apply to dog-dog bites).  There are 18 states that offer some version of this protection to dog owners. The other 32 states (and Washington D. C.) hold the owner liable for the first and following bites.


As is true with all things legal, there are exceptions to this rule that cause it not to apply:

  • The dog owner is aware that his or her dog acts aggressively to humans and the dog acts in ways that indicate a dog bite is imminent.
  • The owner is negligent in handling his or her dog around humans or knowingly puts the dog in situations where it is inevitable there would be a bite.
  • The owner is in violation of local animal control laws (e.g., leash laws).

"Once a dog has bitten someone in a one bite rule state, the owner could be open to misdemeanor charges or even felony charges…"

Needless to say, this rule is controversial. As is true with many laws and regulations about dogs, it is based in part on popular cultural beliefs about dogs, not necessarily the realities of canine behavior or aggression.

Books have been written about the logic behind the one bite rule. The rule demonstrates some naiveté by the legal system of dog-to-human aggression – something I regularly see as an expert witness and consultant in dog bite cases.

The thinking is that pet dogs are domesticated and therefore naturally coexist peacefully with humans. Because of this, dog owners could not anticipate their dog would bite a human. It is only after the first bite that an owner would realize that his or her dog has a propensity to bite humans.

Dogs don’t aggress to humans because they are “mean” dogs; they aggress because they are afraid of humans. Discovering the exact nature of a dog’s fear of humans and managing that fear is the first step in safely handling these dogs and avoiding dog bites. With some fairly predictable exceptions, dogs rarely bite humans for the first time when there is no prior history of aggressive behaviors such as growling, barking, lunging, etc.

An aspect of the one bite rule that is troublesome is that it is virtually impossible to know with certainty whether a dog has, or has not, bitten a human before. And what exactly is considered a dog bite? If the teeth touch the skin, is it a bite? Do the teeth need to penetrate the skin?  

Once a dog has bitten someone in a one bite rule state, the owner could be open to misdemeanor charges or even felony charges if the next victim is wounded seriously. In addition, the dog could be required to be euthanized.

There are also additional penalties that can be brought by the victim or victim’s family. Texas, for example, provides compensation for mental anguish of someone witnessing the bite if the following criteria are met:

  • The witness must be a parent or child of the victim.
  • The victim had to be severely injured or killed.

It takes just a fraction of a second for dogs to inflict serious injury to humans. Everyone loses when a dog bites a human. If your dog displays any type of aggression toward humans or appears as if he or she may bite a human, please seek the help of an independently certified professional full-time dog behavior specialist.

I consider dog to human aggression the most serious type of canine behavior problem and it is critical that the right kind of advice is sought in handling these dogs.

The information presented in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended nor implied to represent legal advice regarding dog bite liability in any context.


Service Dogs, Frequently Asked Questions


©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"People who use fake service dogs…make it exceedingly more difficult for those who need and rely on legitimate service dogs."

The state of affairs in defining and regulating service dogs is in flux to say the least – it’s the Wild West. Governmental entities, including the federal government, are looking at ways to more tightly control the definition and use of these dogs.

It seems as if every third dog I see these days has some kind of service vest on which tells me there are a lot of dogs identified as service dogs. I’ve also observed a large number of dogs being used as emotional support dogs that appear to be poor candidates for this kind of work (i.e., they are nervous, unruly, hyperactive and even aggressive).

People who use fake service dogs, or those who use untrained and unruly dogs as emotional support dogs, make it exceedingly more difficult for those who need and rely on legitimate service dogs.

There are 4 types of service dogs:

Service Dog – Dogs that are specifically trained to perform tasks to assist people with disabilities. These dogs can be taken to most public places including those identified as a no-pets-allowed location.

Service Dog in Training – This is exactly what the name implies. Because of the potential for some to claim their untrained pet dog fits in this category, there are local and state laws that govern this definition.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA) – The purpose of these dogs is to provide comfort for the owner, but there are no agreed on criteria as to what training should be required for these dogs. While service dogs have virtually unlimited access to public spaces, ESAs only have access to airplane cabins and housing that would otherwise restrict access to dogs.

Therapy Dog – There are few local and state regulations regarding these dogs and no federal definition. Therapy dogs assist people other than the owner (e.g., comforting patients in a hospital). They do not have access to public places including airplanes and no-pets-allowed housing. Organizations that allow therapy dogs normally have their own definition and requirements for the therapy dogs they allow at their facilities.

The following are commonly asked questions regarding service dogs. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is the accepted standard for these definitions.

Are emotional support dogs considered service dogs?

If someone’s dog is used to help prevent anxiety attacks, does that quality the dog as a service dog?
The law differentiates between psychiatric and emotional support dogs. Dogs that have been trained to sense an anxiety attack and take action to prevent it can be considered service dogs. Dogs that provide emotional support to an owner by their mere presence are not considered service dogs.

Do service dogs need to be trained by professionals?

Can employees of a restaurant or other public place where dogs are not normally allowed ask someone if his or her dog is a legitimate service dog?
Yes, but they can only ask two questions: 1) is the service dog required because of a disability? and, 2) what specific task does the dog perform in relation to this disability? No other questions can be asked including those about the dog’s certifications, etc.

Do service dogs have to wear a vest or use an identifying harness?

Do hospitals have to allow patients to keep a service dog in their room?

Do ambulances have to allow service dogs to ride along?
Yes, if possible.

Do service dogs have to be certified as service dogs and provide documentation?
No. While there are online organizations that provide service dog “certification”, these documents are not recognized and are unneeded.

Can service dogs be any breed?
Yes, and no entity can refuse entry of a service dog because of its breed type.

If a city has an ordinance prohibiting certain breeds of dogs (e.g., Denver has breed specific legislation prohibiting pit bulls), can that prohibition be applied to service dogs of that breed?

Are there any situations where service dogs can be removed or prohibited from entering?
Yes. If the presence of a dog would significantly change the functioning of an entity or if a service dog is out of control, the dog can be required to leave the premises.

Are places of worship such as churches, synagogues, mosques and temples required to allow service dogs in their buildings?
No. These institutions are specified as being exempt. In some cases, there may be local or state laws that allow for this.

California Makes a Mess of Just About Everything, but They Got This Right

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"I’ve observed the AKC increasingly turn a blind eye to puppy-mills and the physical and behavior issues they cause."

There are probably a number of reasons why the population growth rate of California has continued to decline over the last 30 years (1). Excessive government regulation is one of the reasons that is frequently cited.

However, on October 13 California governor Jerry Brown and the California assembly got it right with a new regulatory change. On that date, governor Brown signed AB485 into law. AB485 makes amendments and additions to California state law that requires pet stores to source their dogs exclusively from animal shelters or animal rescue organizations. The law takes effect on January 1, 2019.

This will be a significant change for pet stores that sell puppies; they have historically purchased 100% of their puppy inventory from puppy-mills. For more information on puppy-mills, please see Puppy Mills 101 .

This may sound like a new idea to stem the number of puppy-mill puppies being bred across the US like livestock, but it isn’t. Thirty-six cities already have such laws; California is the first state to make it a state law.

Why is AB485 so important when it comes to animal welfare?

  • Puppy-mills have negatively impacted every breed of popular dog because they only breed for appearance with little to no regard for physical or behavioral health. For an example of what I’m talking about, please see German Shepherds are the Second Most Popular Dog in America. Why do you Rarely See Them in Public?
  • Puppy-mills raise dogs in such large numbers that supply grossly exceeds demand. Unwanted puppy-mill dogs are ultimately dumped into shelters by their owners in such large numbers that 670,000 dogs are euthanized at shelters each year in the US (2) . This law should significantly reduce the number of dogs being euthanized in California.
  • The breeding male and female dogs in puppy-mills are virtual prisoners-of-war. They're kept for years in horrible conditions with virtually no interaction with humans or dogs. The abusive way the breeding females are managed in order to pump out as many litters as possible is almost unspeakable. And guess what happens with these breeding male and female dogs when they are no longer “producers”? They are frequently euthanized or abandoned in a field. This law will hopefully reduce the amount of animal abuse found at puppy-mills.

Unfortunately, the AKC (American Kennel Club) is adamantly against AB485. You have to understand that the AKC’s very existence is predicated on breeders producing puppies.  California is not saying that breeders can’t breed puppies for sale; the new law simply specifies that pet stores can’t sell these dogs. Individuals can continue to buy directly from breeders if they wish. I’ve observed the AKC increasingly turn a blind eye to puppy-mills and the physical and behavior issues they cause. I’m bothered, but not surprised, that they don’t support this regulatory change.

I've always been a fan of rescuing dogs since so many are euthanized simply because of oversupply – primarily caused by puppy-mills. Until these regulations are instituted in your city or state – and hopefully they soon will be – please encourage your friends, family and co-workers to rescue a dog instead of purchasing from a pet store. For more information, please see Buying a Puppy Instead of Rescuing? Consider These 7 Facts Before You Do.

(1) First Tuesday Journal
(2) ASPCA estimate