Sheila Gunston Dip.CBST, PCBC-A       
Certified Dog Trainer, Accredited Professional Canine Behavior Consultant and member of the Alberta Force Free Alliance proudly serving Central Alberta 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.  

Learning Wednesdays

We Love To Learn Wednesdays!!

As often as I can, 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 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  :)



How many people instantly felt uncomfortable with that word? How many felt guilty for using one or considering using one?

If so, I used to be you. After I listened to a "balanced trainer" and eventually forced Joe into learned helplessness, then into aggression and almost to be euthanized, I had to make some serious changes. In order to make those changes and work properly with Joe, I needed to muzzle him. He was capable of seriously injuring other dogs (or even me if he redirected his frustrations) so for the public, his and my safety, we properly fitted and conditioned him to a basket style muzzle.

After Barret's second FHO surgery, he was in a lot of pain. He redirected the stress of that onto his furry family. For several months as we worked through this, Barret was also properly fitted and conditioned to a basket style muzzle.

A basket style allowed them to eat, bark, lick, drink, whatever they needed, but not bite. Cloth muzzles that keep the mouth closed are not recommended, unless it is for an emergency situation.

Aside from needing muzzles to work through behavior concerns, or taking trips to the vet, how great would it be if our dogs were conditioned to a muzzle just because? We can use a muzzle with puppies just to teach general touch and handling. If you plan to travel with your dog, know that some countries require certain breeds to wear a muzzle.

This is a great article written from Karen Pryor Academy on how to properly condition your muzzle.

This is a facebook page that helps to educate on the use of a muzzle and reduce the stigma that is attached to them

This is a link to my favorite muzzle. Joe and Barret both wore the Italian Basket Muzzle. They are not expensive, very light weight and they have fast shipping



Single event learning creates powerful associations. These events can cause negative associations at any stage of a dog's (or human's) life. During sensitive developmental stages (fear periods) are when these are more likely to occur.

Jackson experienced single event learning a few months ago with our screen door in the living room. As he entered through it to go back into the house, the window portion slammed closed right behind him. It has taken several weeks to slowly help him to feel safe again about walking through that door.

Do I attach a leash and drag him through? Absolutely not. This is considered "flooding" and will create even more stress to the environment (doorway, door) than we started with. I may get the desired behavior (Jackson walking through the door) but at the risk of negative behavior fallout - he may redirect his fear onto me (bite), onto one of his furry friends, he may never go near that door ever again, pee near it or completely shut down when asked to walk through it.

So what do we do?? Desensitize and counter condition.

First, I encouraged freedom of choice. Jackson was free to stay away from it or check it out at his leisure. To set him up for success, I closed the interior door for a while to make the scary door disappear. He had no troubles being in the living room with the interior door closed, he just wasn't interested in being too close. So we hung out near it, creating positive associations to the space rather than the door.

As time went on, he became more and more comfortable being near the screen door when the interior door was open. So we did the same thing.... hung out near it and had treat parties and hugs (Jackson's two favorite things).

Once I felt that the environment near the door wasn't as much of a trigger, I began opening and closing the door slowly and tossing treats away from it, towards him. He began to come closer and closer, on his terms. It wasn't long before I could crouch down with the door open behind my back, my arms open calling him and he'd walk through the door willingly.

It's been a few months since this happened and he's still hesitant sometimes.... he'd prefer if I held the door open with my body than just with a hand, but each day he becomes more comfortable and confident.

All of this because of ONE experience with the window in the door slamming shut behind him.

Be patient with your dogs - they experience fear and stress just like we do. I'm certain that if you were afraid of the water but I chose to drag you onto a boat without any choice whatsoever, you wouldn't be too pleased with me! This is why I would never do this to your dog to help him through fearful events of his life.

This is a great read on single event learning and fear periods. The blog is also a great reference for all kinds of behavior! Check it out  :)…/



Pseudoscience. Voodoo. Bullpoopy. There is so much "crap" on the internet and on TV - searching for dog training advice can be a total disaster and a danger to you and your dog.

For example, I pulled this off of "Cesar's Way" website today:
"But you cannot stop aggression with praise and a cookie, just like you can't stop a mugger from robbing people by smiling and handing over your wallet. In both cases, you're just saying - acting like this gets you what you want so keep doing it."

Excuse me for a moment while I bang my head on my desk......

Positive reinforcement (adding something to increase a behavior) does not mean to praise and treat a dog while they're over stress threshold or behaving aggressively. It means to remove them from the trigger, reinforce that movement (remember that space from a trigger is just as reinforcing as food) then set them up for success by giving them that SPACE they need to think and process before moving forward again. Furthermore, no dog will even hear your praise or acknowledge your cookie while they are stressed. This is one of the ways that they tell us that they are too close to a trigger! They can't hear us and don't want their treats.

It's gobblygoop like this, that is so easily accessible online with a simple search, that sets dog owners up for absolute failure. What's worse, is that many many "trainers" teach their clients this way.

As always, remember that the dog training world is unregulated. Please do your research.... if you're not sure what is and is not safe online, please ask me! I can steer you in the right direction and help you to find safe information online.



Well, according to the dictionary: "Definition of AVERSIVE. : tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus <behavior modification by aversivestimulation> — aver·sive·ly adverb. — aver·sive·ness noun."

Now let's apply this to our dogs. During behavior modification, we have a plethora of "tools" at our disposal to aid us in the journey. We have food, praise, touch, toys, shock collars, choke chains, water bottles, penny name a few. So how do we choose which tool to use?

It's not a secret that the latter of what I mentioned is NOT one of your best and safest choices - but what if a simple form of praise, like a scratch on top of the head, is just as aversive as a shock collar?

When choosing our tools, we often forget that it's not up to us to decide what is aversive and what isn't. It's up to our dog to decide. If your dog doesn't like to be touched on top of the head, then using that as a reward is going to extinguish the behavior you're trying to create, not help to make it more fluent. If your dog feels that touch to the head to be aversive - it could be just as damaging as using a shock collar, whether it's set to vibrate only, or not. (A vibration can also be aversive to a dog. Even though we may feel that it's JUST a vibration, they can feel stress, fear or confusion - just like a shock)

I noticed this myself with Gus - when he'd come to me I'd pet the top of his head (habit). He began ducking his head after only a few times, very hesitant to come towards me. So rather than reinforcing/rewarding his choice to come to me, I was essentially correcting it. I had to find something else that wasn't aversive to turns out that a two handed bum scratch is the winner 



What do we mean when we say that your dog is overly aroused, hyper aroused or maybe over the top? This simply means that your dog has tipped over his stress threshold into a place where he's unable to think and focus. In this "place" is where many people will feel like their dog won't listen or pay attention because they are "stubborn" or "stupid". We would never expect to successfully teach a child the alphabet at Disneyland, nor can we expect to successfully teach a dog how to do anything while he's unable to focus. It will only lead to both you and your dog becoming very frustrated with each other.

We have discussed some of the most common reasons why our dogs may not be able to focus - times where he is over stress threshold and is being "stubborn" or "stupid". Labels like stubborn or stupid are just that. Labels. Labels keep us from digging deeper to determine true behavior.

Let's talk about one reason that you may not have considered before - food value.

Educated trainers will often default to suggesting that you use food to teach your dog. Food is wonderful - it's also a powerful primary reinforcer. However, your dog may love food too much and using it to teach your dog may send him over stress threshold. He may snap at your hands for it, he may begin to act aloof and goofy, unable to even make eye contact. He may even be so hyper focused on you to get that treat that he isn't learning anything at all.

So while we will often suggest that you "up your food value", for some dogs that's not always a good idea. For dogs who are unable to think in the presence of hot dogs, bring your food value down a little... try dehydrated liver treats. If that's too much, try kibble. We want to be sure that our dogs are being reinforced for their good choices but if the food value is too high, no learning can occur. This is no different than a dog who is too close to a trigger (another dog for example) and won't respond to their name.

For some dogs, we can't always use food to teach them. So we give control back to our dog and allow freedom of choice, we use premack principle, we use toys, we use other functional rewards to encourage learning.

Food is powerful.... just be sure to use it appropriately so that it works for both of you 



Counter surfing. What a pain in the butt when our dogs feel the need to help themselves to what's on the tables or counters! The best way to prevent this is to manage the environment from the very first day you bring your puppy or dog home.

1. Do not feed them at the kitchen table or while you're leaning up against the counter. Will this guarantee that no food will be stolen when you're not looking, especially on low tables? Absolutely not. Dogs like food. Don't expect them to just know that they can't have your pizza that's sitting on the arm of the couch while you leave to get a drink....

2. Set up actual boundaries so that they are not to be in the kitchen when you're eating or cooking. Teach them to go to their bed or to another room with a frozen kong or a bone instead. While you're eating, they can be eating too.

Sometimes though, we bring home a new puppy or dog and the counters are the one place nothing is safe. Especially if you have large breeds (like me) who's faces can easily sit on top of tables and counters. Quite often, your dog is stealing food because it smells good, they're perhaps still hungry or they desperately want your attention and know that they can get it by "getting into trouble."

My boy Hudson was a counter surfer... he was a basset/beagle with an incredible nose and insatiable appetite and was always interested in getting the most attention from me that he could. The food sharing picnics that we began to do on a daily basis (pic below) did something amazing. Not only did these 20 min daily sessions satiate his need for ME, but it satiated his need for FOOD too. This exercise stopped Hudson from counter surfing - rather than punishing his love for food, I met his needs instead. I learned this powerful technique in Georgia during my 3 day Bond Based Choice Teaching workshop with the Canine Assistants group, back in 2016.

It's very simple:
Choose a food that is not of high value to your dog. This exercise is intended to create a calm, bonding experience rather than a highly arousing or "working" session. Dry popcorn, dry cheerios or even their own kibble typically works best for most dogs. After several picnics, you can then begin to increase the food value.

Pick a time of day where you won't feel rushed or distracted. Plan to spend a minimum of 15 mins giving your undivided attention to him.

Choose a comfortable spot on the floor or on furniture that you would regularly invite him onto (as long as you're comfortable with him eating on the couch). Without asking for a sit or a down, (no restrictions at all for this exercise) begin eating (or pretending to eat) a piece of food. Then offer a piece to him. Make sure that he is watching you. Talk to him. Make eye contact with him (if eye contact is comfortable for him). Read a book out loud to him. Share your bowl of treats with your dog, simply enjoying sharing time and space together.

This exercise is also intended to create trust, bonding and calming as well as satiate your dog's excessive need for food and eliminate counter surfing, food snatching and begging. Providing such a valuable resource often and in a peaceful environment, can create new associations to an otherwise arousing treat or even schedule.

*Hudson, Joe, Billy and Gus all enjoying our food sharing picnic of dry cheerios