Sheila Gunston IP-CBC, FPPE       
Certified Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant, Certified (licensed) Family Paws Parent Educator and board member of the Alberta Force Free Alliance proudly serving Red Deer, Ponoka County and area!                                                                    

Specializing in Complex Behavior and always working within the Laws of Learning Theory, using Force Free, Positive Reinforcement methods and the Bond Based Approach.  I am a proud board member of the Alberta Force Free Alliance (AFFA), working towards positive change in the dog world.

Learning Wednesdays

We Love To Learn Wednesdays!!

Each week I am going to introduce a new topic based on what book I'm currently reading or what seminar I've recently attended, podcast I've listened to, conversations I've had with a colleague, etc.  

These posts are copied weekly from



What motivates a dog? Food? Toys? Play? Sure! However, we are forgetting something very important. ENVIRONMENT is truly their motivator. In order to create a motivated dog, we must change the environment. To say "my dog won't work for food, my dog isn't motivated by anything" is impossible. There are motivators occurring all the time for a dog, it's just up to us to find out what they are.

All behavior is caused by their environment. All conditions of that environment affect all behavior.

Genetics also affect behavior. Genetics are a source of behavior tendencies, as well as both current learning conditions and past learning conditions.

When our dogs offer a particular behavior, especially an unwanted one, this is our chance to change the environment to create a reinforcer. Is your dog barking and lunging at another on your walk? Walk in the other direction, change the environment, watch for a reinforcer..... was it a treat? A chance to pee? Maybe just distance from the other dog is the reinforcer. Maybe all of these things are.

The key point here, is that all dogs are motivated by something. Change the environment and create that motivation for your dog. Teach them how to think on their own and please allow them the chance to try. Dogs who are allowed freedom of choice to think on their own are the ones who most often, make peaceful choices in uncomfortable situations.



Today, I'd like to discuss something that popped up twice for me this week. Once, at the seminar that I just attended with Terrie Hayward and again while listening to a podcast featuring Chirag Patel.


Contrafreeloading describes an animal's willingness and choice to work for food being offered by you, rather than just accessing it from a bowl or more easily accessible source - under the right conditions and environment.

Have you ever heard someone say "oh sure, he's only working for you because you have food." Firstly, sure! You've got a nice tasty paycheck in that treat pouch. No one works for free, your dog especially should not have to. Secondly, remember that environment drives all behavior - you're setting your dog up for success by having a primary reinforcer in your treat bag and by focusing on the bond you have with your dog. Your dog's choice to work with you without any fear of being punished if he doesn't comply, is powerful proof of the stable and safe relationship that you have with your dog.

In addition to food being a primary reinforcer, so is choice! If you arrange the environment in a manner so that your dog has full control of his choices, you will see this behavior flourish. Control (choice) is a primary reinforcer to the learner (the dog). Food is the mechanism for that control.

Pictured below, is client Cheryl with her beautiful Maverick using TWO primary reinforcers. Food and choice. Maverick struggles on leash, but Cheryl has changed Maverick's environment (provided space from other dogs) so that he feels safe and in control of his choices. He chooses to work with Cheryl without the fear of being punished if the desired behavior isn't achieved.... instead, Cheryl will readjust the environment again until Maverick can feel good about the next task.  (Photo available on original facebook post)



What is Extinction and why do we try to avoid using it in training?

An extinction burst is when the unwanted behavior gets worse before it gets better.

An example:
A vending machine, that you've visited a time or two, one day decides to eat your money. You become frustrated, pushing buttons harder and harder, you may even kick or hit the machine. Why did this machine do this?? It has always given you your items in the past?! It worked yesterday, why isn't it working now?!

Your dog has been jumping on you for some time now, when you come home at night. Typically, your basic attention seeking behavior. You've been making eye contact with him (reinforcing), pushing him down (touch is reinforcing), maybe kicking him in the chest to force him down (still reinforcing) or maybe you've been giving him big hugs when he jumps up (also reinforcing).

So you decide today that you don't like being jumped on anymore. When you get home tonight, you're just going to ignore him. As you walk in, he greets you and jumps up and you ignore him. His jumping is not reinforced this time. He's now jumping higher, using his nails, mouth and whole body in a desperate attempt to seek attention from you because IT WORKED YESTERDAY.

This frustration is the result of an extinction burst. This is why it's not recommended that we simply just "ignore" the behavior.

Instead, when you come home at night, knowing that your dog will be craving your attention, provide him with an alternate way of achieving it. What else does he find reinforcing that will work for you too? Food? Squeaky toys? Balls? Be prepared to redirect him onto an appropriate behavior (chasing the ball for example) so that you can reinforce that instead. Be consistent so that your arrival home is always paired with that toss of the ball down the stairs or down the hall.... your arrival will soon equal "get ready 6 feet from the door because mom is going to toss my ball when she walks in".

Feeling such extreme frustration isn't fun for us or for them. Don't be a vending machine  ;)



Let's get a little geeky today and talk about Operant Conditioning.

Operant Conditioning is a learning process through which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment, developed by B.F. Skinner (

There are 4 quadrants of Operant Conditioning - but this does NOT mean that we should be using all 4. Let's break it down.

R = REINFORCEMENT (increases behavior)
P = PUNISHMENT (decreases behavior)

R+ (positive reinforcement) *recommended

Adding something to increase a behavior. Ex) give the dog a treat when he walks with a loose leash.
*this teaches the dog that when he's walking nicely, he will get treats

P- (negative punishment) *recommended

Removing or delaying something to decrease a behavior. Ex) delay (stop) walking forward when the dog pulls on leash.
*this teaches the dog that if he pulls on his leash, the walk can't resume. Once he loosens that leash and walks nicely again, he can move forward and resume his walk.

P+ (positive punishment) *not recommended

Adding something to decrease a behavior. Ex) pressing the button on the shock collar (or leash popping on a prong collar, choke chain, even a flat buckle collar) to stop the dog from pulling on leash.
*this teaches the dog that if he pulls, it hurts, hence stopping the behavior.

R- (negative reinforcement) *not recommended

Removing or delaying something to increase a behavior. Ex) delaying pressing the button on the shock collar (or leash popping) while the dog is walking loose leash
*this teaches the dog that if he walks loose leash, it won't hurt.

Now let's talk about how using ALL 4 of these quadrants to teach loose leash walking (for example) is not recommended by professionals. It's actually very simple.

Behavior that is reinforced is more likely to continue. Behavior that is punished may weaken or go away, but at the risk of negative behavior fallout. Period.

These risks include: (referencing Terrie Hayward M.Ed, CSAT, CPD-KA, ACDBC, KPA-CT from her book A Training Guide to Using Your Time Wisely to Communicate Effectively)

"Aggression: because punishment is not pleasant, there often can be aggression towards the punisher

Apathy: since every move the animal makes runs the risk of incurring punishment, the animal becomes apathetic - lacking interest, emotion, concern, or feeling about learning and he may just give up

Escape/avoidance: here, the learner attempts to escape or avoid the punishment and, often times, also the person dolling out the punishment

Generalized fear: in this case, the animal comes to fear things they may associate with the situation, behavior, or the person connected with the punishment"

Now what happens when ALL 4 quadrants are used at once (aka balanced training)?? When I pull it hurts. When I walk nice I get a treat.... oh but I really want to go see that other dog (ZAP!) Damn, new dogs hurt!! Next time, I'm going to get him before he gets me! (Now we have leash reactivity and a negative conditioned emotional response to other dogs). This is just one example - the most common one that I see over and over again. Remember too, that when the punisher (handler and/or collar) is gone, the behavior comes back. These methods don't actually teach the dog anything other than what hurts and what doesn't.

How many people slow down when they see a police car on the highway? When the punisher is present, the behavior is suppressed. Period. This is the science behind behavior. This is not opinion, pseudoscience or, as Dr Karen Overall calls it, "voodoo"  ;-)

So, next time you're out for a walk, remember that you AND your dog are both learning all the time, via both classical and operant conditioning! Carry that treat pouch! Reinforce the things you like! It will make for a much nicer walk and much nicer relationship between you and your dog.

If you need help preventing leash concerns or even undoing them, please contact a force free, educated professional to help you.



Physical vs mental stimulation. When less really is more.

"My dog cannot calm down. She is bouncing off the walls all the time even though I take her for 4 walks a day!"

Sound familiar? What if I told you that for the next 2 weeks, you're not going to go for a walk... but instead, replace that walk with mentally stimulating/enrichment games at home instead?

For many of my clients here, you know the drill  ;) I've had people look at me like I have 3 heads, say to me "she'll destroy the house if I don't walk her" and even a plain old nope. Not doin it.

Let's take a look at the difference between physical and mental stimulation.

Firstly, it's important to understand that mental stimulation really is more important than physical. If those mental needs are not met (this is no different than with children or even adults), the dog will ultimately find a way to meet them on their own. This is when you see destruction, lack of impulse control, inability to relax or even sleep, reactivity to other dogs/people/the wind in the trees, etc.

We ALL need jobs. We ALL need something constructive to do with ourselves. What (I'm finding) typically happens on a walk with your dog, is NOT mentally stimulating. The leash is usually too short, the walk is rushed (no sniffing or peeing allowed) and no mental needs are met. The legs move and ultimately just keeps the dogs adrenalin high all day, especially when they are being walked multiple times each day. Imagine spending 8hrs a day on a treadmill just staring at the wall. Your body may be tired but your brain certainly isn't.

A "walk detox" gives both you and your dog a chance to find a more appropriate outlet for that energy, especially if your walks are stressful. They are stressful for your dog and for you.... so you have my permission to NOT walk your dog  ;)

There are so many different ways to keep your dogs brains working! If she's using her nose, she's using her brain.

Ditch the bowl: 
1. Instead of her morning walk of craziness, toss her meal out on your lawn. Scatter it all over the place so that she has to search for it. If you're feeding raw, portion out some dehydrated liver treats and scatter those after her bowl breakfast.
2. Instead of lunch time walk, pull a frozen kong from your freezer that you had filled with peanut butter or something from your blender the night before. Let her work on that instead.
3. Instead of mid day walk, teach her a new skill. Perhaps shake a paw, or roll over. Maybe something like how to target or how to cross her paws. 
4. Instead of night time walk, fill a rubbermaid bin with her meal (or portioned out treats if feeding raw) along with some toys, empty water bottles, whatever you like. She will need to forage through all of that stuff to get her meal out.

After your detox, we can work on providing your dog with a well structured, mentally stimulating walk so that both physical AND mental needs are met. You won't want to bring that bowl back though.... your dog will enjoy the games. Remember too, it's ok for you and your dog to do nothing at all. Curl up on the couch and read her a book, sharing your popcorn. Practice relaxing. All sentient beings need some down time. It's how we reboot. Don't feel guilty about relaxing.... its important for both of you that you take that time "off".

For more enrichment ideas, visit these fb pages! For help teaching your dog (and you) how to have a relaxing and enjoyable walk, let me know and we can book a session together  :)