Agility Photography Tips

agility-dobeMore often than not lately my photography focuses on dogs running agility. I still take plenty of photos of my own dog when we’re out and about, but when I’m asked to take pictures, about 99% of the time it’s for agility photos.

Disclaimer: I am not a professional photographer, just someone who loves the hobby and spends too much time thinking about it.

Disclaimer, part 2: I love taking photos of agility dogs.

Agility photography is fun, no doubt about it it. But there are plenty of challenging aspects to photographing these dogs. For one, they’re fast. Sometimes really fast. And they’re somewhat unpredictable at times. Dogs speed up. Dogs slow down. Handlers direct them to the wrong obstacle and they veer away from where you expect them to be. Unless you know the specific dog in question, you don’t know if you’re looking at a dog who is going to race through the course at Mach-10 or if the dog is going to just trot through it with a ridiculously stupid grin on her face while making everyone laugh (Dahlia, I’m looking at you). And honestly, the way they come out to the field is not always indicative of what you’re going to see. There’s a dog in our class who trots out slowly with his handler. But then when she releases him watch out! He’s one of the fast dogs I know.

So there’s a lot to think about in regards to taking photos of these crazy dogs in action. If you do it wrong, at best your photo will be a little blurry and at worst you’ll completely miss the moment. And there’s no do-overs in agility, especially in trial situations. So you have to be fast. You have to be accurate. And you have to know what you’re looking for.

Let’s address equipment issues first. I’m going to be honest here. Agility photography without a DSLR is really really difficult. I know because I’ve been there. When I first started classes in 2010, I still had a point and shoot camera. A fancy one to be sure, but it still wasn’t a DSLR. I took a handful of pictures once and managed to get a couple that weren’t overly blurry, but still weren’t good quality. They definitely weren’t what I wanted. And they’re probably not what you want either.

So what do you want?

If you’re going to take photos outside at a fun match or a trial, any DSLR will do, really. I took my first agility photos at a trial back in 2011 using a Sony A230. It was a small, lightweight camera, and an entry-level DSLR. It’s not the best of the best, certainly, but it was more than adequate for outdoor agility photography.


Not half bad for a relatively inexpensive DSLR!

However, a camera like the A230 is going to fail you if you want to take indoor agility photographs. Which is most of what I do these days.

Camera fail!

Camera fail!

A camera upgrade was definitely warranted! These days I use a Sony A580. It’s a great low-light camera and we’ll get into why that is in a little bit!

So now that you’ve got a decent camera, let’s talk lenses. Lenses can get ridiculously expensive. Anyone who is into photography learns that lesson pretty quickly. Do you need an expensive lens? Not necessarily and especially not if you’re at an outside event. The first photo I posted was taken using a Tamron 75-300mm lens, which I got for about $150 in 2011 (that lens is now discontinued, but the Tamron 70-300mm is only $165). It’s a little tougher using a cheap lens. They’re not very fast. They’re a little bit clunky. You have to get really good with timing your shots because the lens doesn’t react quickly. But it’s certainly doable. So if you have an entry-level DSLR and a cheap zoom lens, have at it!

Now, that being said, if you want to take indoor agility photos, the lenses are out there for that. In this case, you truly do want a very fast lens.

What is a fast lens? A fast lens has a large aperture (generally f/2.8 or lower), which allows a lot more light in. Why is this important? Because the more light you let into the lens, the faster your shutter speed can be. And when you’re talking dogs moving as fast as some of these agility dogs do, you need a pretty speedy shutter to freeze the moment. A “fast” lens also autofocuses fast. The problem with the Tamron lens above is that it often hunts for focus and so sometimes you just don’t catch the moment. With a faster lens, it can autofocus almost instantly, catching the moment as you see it coming.

In addition to wanting a fast lens, you’re going to want a lens with a bit of reach. There are some great fast lenses at the 28mm and 50mm range, but that’s going to generally put you far too away from the action you’ll end up seeing far more of the course and far less of the dog than you want to. Favorites of agility photographers generally are in the range of 70-200mm.

My current favorite lens for agility photography is a Minolta 135mm f/2.8. Yes, it’s a prime lens, which means any “zooming” has to be done by my feet or by cropping the photo (both of which I use quite frequently!). It’s extremely lightweight, it’s very fast, and it lets in a lot of light. And because it’s a prime, it tends to be very sharp. The other lens I use on occasion is a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8. This lens produces some great quality pictures, but has some drawbacks. It’s extremely heavy (the lens itself weighs 2.5 pounds!) and not nearly as fast as the prime lens. It gives me a little more (and less) reach, but I find myself reaching for the Minolta far more often because the Tamron is hard to handhold for extended periods of time.


Photo taken using the Sony A580 and Minolta 135mm f/2.8 lens. One of the rare times I got to photograph my own dog doing agility!

Ultimate suggestion for agility photography: A mid-level DSLR and a lens that goes down to f/2.8 for aperture and gives you a bit of reach.

Camera settings
Now, Dom has explained an awful lot about camera settings for dog photography here. I’d definitely suggest re-reading that if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology or want a quick refresher. On the technical camera side of things, all photography can be seen as a combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

These can combine in many different ways, but here’s how I see it for agility:

I need a fast shutter speed. That is Priority #1. Fast-moving dogs require a fast shutter speed. I never shoot slower than 1/500 and if I can I shoot at 1/1000 or faster. In brighter light where I can make use of it, I’m often up around 1/2000 or even higher. The faster I can go for shutter speed, the faster the dog I can capture.

To get that fast shutter speed, especially in lower light conditions it means doing two things:

(1) Lowering aperture. At indoor shoots, unless there is some ambient light from outside, I tend to shoot as wide as I can (generally f/2.8, though I have had the rare opportunity to use my 50mm f/1.7 lens in class situations). The wide-open aperture often means that photos are likely to be a little soft (which means they’re not quite as sharp when viewing the full size photo), but it’s a compromise I make to get a higher shutter speed and a photo that’s in focus. Since most people these days aren’t making huge prints of their photos, this isn’t a massive deal. But it’s something to be aware of. And as Dom points out, less of the photo will be on focus.

If you look closely, you'll notice Nia's head and front is in focus, but her back end is not. Be careful with wide-open apertures that it's not the other way around!

If you look closely, you’ll notice Nia’s head and front is in focus, but her back end is not. Be careful with wide-open apertures that it’s not the other way around!

(2) Raising ISO. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the digital processor is to light. So it seems to make sense to bump this up as high as you can go. But…(you knew that was coming, right?)…there is a caveat. The higher the ISO, the more grainy (or “noise”) there is to the photo. And some cameras simply cannot handle an ISO above 800. The “camera fail” photo above was taken at 3200. The Sony A230 is really not designed to take low-light/high-ISO photos. This was my main reason for switching to the Sony A580. While there is still some noise at higher ISOs, it is much less severe. I have shot as high as 6400 at an indoor shoot at night.

This photo was taken at night in a poorly-lit agility barn. ISO is set to 6400. Note that it's still better quality than the "camera fail" photo that was set to 3200!

This photo was taken at night in a poorly lit agility barn. ISO is set to 6400. Note that it’s still better quality than the “camera fail” photo that was set to 3200!

Ultimately, what works best is completely dependent on the lighting conditions that are present. In the agility barn during the day, I like to keep to ISO 800-1600, and at least 1/640 shutter speed. Aperture is almost always at f/2.8. That combination allows me to get a fast enough shutter speed to catch photos like this one.

Photo taken on my Sony A580 with the Minolta 135mm f/2.8 lens; ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/640

This photo from an agility foundation class was taken on my Sony A580 with the Minolta 135mm f/2.8 lens; ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/640

For outdoor agility photos? This is so dependent on the lighting conditions (which can change from one moment to the next, making outdoor photography occasionally even more challenging) that it’s hard to say. In bright sunlight, I aim for 1/1000 to 1/2000 for a shutter speed, try to stick to no higher than 200 for ISO, and bump up my aperture to sharpen the images.

Still one of my favorite agility photos of Dahlia. Taken using the 135mm f/2.8 lens, set to ISO 100, f/4.0, 1/640

Still one of my favorite agility photos of Dahlia. Taken using the 135mm f/2.8 lens, set to ISO 100, f/4.0, 1/640


Setting up your shots
Here are a few recommendations from my experiences in shooting agility:

(1) If this is a trial situation, be very careful of where you are. Do not sit too close and make sure that you’re not interfering with the hired photographer, if there is one. You may even want to introduce yourself to the photographer during a down time and let them know you’re just there for some practice.

(2) Watch everyone walk the course or get yourself a course map. You’ll want to pick one spot to stand and be able to catch a couple obstacles. You will not be able to get everything. So situate yourself where you can catch something toward the beginning and something toward the end. Remember that these dogs move fast. Sometimes they finish an entire course in under 25 seconds! That means you don’t have much time to think. So get yourself in there, find your spot, and stick to it!

two shots

I was sitting at the end of the A-Frame in this class (being used as distraction!), but also was able to get a clear shot to the jump.

(3) Watch the sun if you’re outside. The last thing you want to do is pick a spot and find out that the jump you wanted to photograph has the sun directly behind it.

(4) Make sure you are far enough away that you don’t interfere with the dogs on the course. The first agility trial I ever went to, I found a spot toward the end of the weaves to photograph. I was about 10 feet back from the ring so not right up against it, but still, someone came over and informed that where I sat was a huge distraction and a dog was going for their MACH (Master Agility Championship title) that day. I moved. It was the polite thing to do. Now, granted, that dog should have been able to ignore anything by that point, but they wanted to give him his best shot at finishing that all important agility title (he did) and I understood entirely.

A rare chance to take close-up shots of dogs running the weave poles. I was situated directly at the end and using only a 50mm lens. This is the kind of distraction training all dogs should be subjected to!

A rare chance to take close-up shots of dogs running the weave poles. I was situated directly at the end and using only a 50mm lens. This is the kind of distraction training all dogs should be subjected to!

(5) Use “continuous” mode shooting. I make this mistake more often than I’d like to. I take some portraits and then head off for an agility shoot and it often takes me about 30-40 photos to realize that my camera is set to the wrong mode. Most cameras have three modes for shooting: Single-shot (you press the shutter down halfway, the focus locks on that particular thing and you can move the camera to recompose your shot; handy for portraits but not for agility!), Automatic (if you lock the focus on a stationary object and it starts to move, the camera will continue to focus on it; this can be handy for agility, especially if you “track” the dog as it’s heading toward a jump); and Continuous (the camera is constantly focusing without ever locking down; definitely handy for agility). I prefer the latter only because dogs are so fast that sometimes tracking them in automatic doesn’t work as well as you might think.

(6) Don’t be afraid of using the burst mode of shooting on your camera. In the burst mode, your camera will continue to take pictures while you hold the shutter down. My camera has a few different modes for this, but I generally choose the “low” option, which allows the camera to focus between shots, but still can take up to 3 photos per second. This means that sometimes I can start taking photos just before the jump and finish just after the jump. I might get 6-10 photos in that short bit of time and one of them might be at the right moment. I don’t use this nearly as much as I did in the beginning as I’ve gotten pretty good at timing the photos based on the dog’s speed. But when it comes to a particularly fast dog or a tricky spot, I still make use of it!

Using burst mode on my camera allowed me to get these 4 photos of this dog weaving.

Using burst mode on my camera allowed me to get these 4 photos of this dog weaving.

Phew! There’s a lot to agility photography as you can see. Feel free to offer more tips in the comments. And if you’re reading this and thinking “Wow I never thought about everything that goes into that awesome photo of Fluffy I bought last year,” then go thank that photographer! They’ve put a lot of work into their craft to get that photo for you.

Risk and Reward: The balance between trust and caution in dog training.

Getting a second dog was a risk. It didn't work out perfectly, but it DID work out - totally worth it.

Getting a second dog was a risk. It didn’t work out perfectly, but it DID work out – totally worth it.

At some point in my life — I can’t pinpoint exactly when, and it was probably a gradual transformation anyway — I became pretty risk-averse. It surprises me to acknowledge just how worried and safety-conscious I am, because I didn’t expect to grow up this way. I really respect people who are bold and adventurous and I want to claim those traits for myself, but when it boils down to it, I’m just… not. Oh, I like to travel and try new things, I’m outspoken and career-minded and I want great things for myself, but I’m also very, very anxious and tend to check and double-check myself a lot.

I don’t know if it was just a twist of fate that saw me end up with an anxious dog or if there’s some sort of causal mechanism there (I don’t like to dwell on it), but that’s what happened: I have a dog just as anxious as I am, and together we are greater than the sum of our anxious parts. He does things that make me anxious, I tense up, he gets more anxious, I flail like Kermit and we shut ourselves away from the world. At least, that’s how it was until I started working with a great, force-free trainer and started to make some real progress on Cerb’s reactivity (and my reactivity to his reactivity; all great dog-trainers are human-trainers, too).

One of the biggest battles was finding the balance between trust and caution. Over and over again, I would hear trainers tell me “Trust your dog.” They would see me choke up on his leash when we passed other handlers and their dogs, or see me start pulling him away as we approached a trigger without ever giving him the opportunity to information-seek and make his own decision. I had a bad habit of always expecting the worst of Cerberus and, in one of those tricksy self-fulfilling prophecy kind of things, I was guaranteeing that the behaviors I expected were the behaviors I saw. I thought Cerb would bark and lunge at that dog over there, so as soon as he spotted it, I tensed up on the leash, communicating to Cerberus that *I* was worried about that other dog and perhaps he should be worried, too. He would bark and lunge, I would feel vindicated (and sad and stressed), and next time I would tense up on his leash even more. Things were getting worse, not better.

I had to trust Cerberus to make the right choice, but that required two things: teaching him that there was a better choice than barking and lunging, and giving him the opportunity to make that better choice. I could achieve both of these things using a combination of the Control Unleashed and BAT methods, and Cerberus quickly improved (and continues to improve, as this is a lifelong commitment, not a quick fix).

Trust is only one side of the equation, though. Yes, I fall too heavily on the cautious side, and I’ve explained why that was counter-productive when dealing with my reactive dog. Too much trust, especially when paired with a deafness toward your dog’s signals of discomfort, can be disastrous. When my trainers told me to “Trust my dog,” I took their advice, but only as far as I felt comfortable.

I have written before about the importance of being your dog’s advocate. The trust-caution balance is another place where this comes into play. I advocate always working with a professional on these issues, but even when working with a professional, you must still stand up for your dog. *You* are the one who lives with him, who walks him, who observes him day in and day out. The professional is a skilled individual who has come into your lives but sees only a fraction of what you are dealing with. If a professional asks you to do something that you don’t feel is safe for your dog, you *must* say no. It is better to move slowly and cautiously than to rush into something and end up setting your dog back or, worse, hurting him, yourself, or someone else. Communicate with your trainer: explain how this task or exercise makes you feel worried or why you think it will be too much for your dog, and see if there’s a way that you and the trainer can modify the exercise so that your dog can succeed.

The damage that can be done if you fail to take the proper safety precautions can not be overstated. A bite history can change a dog’s life forever, even if it was a minor bite or there were exacerbating circumstances; I can tell you that nobody cares that your dog doesn’t like men in hats or was having a bad day because he encountered another dog on your morning walk. A bite history could result in your dog being labeled an aggressive or dangerous dog. It could get you evicted from your rental property or increase your home insurance rates. You could be required to build more secure fencing or to walk your dog in a muzzle. You could be sued, your dog could be seized and euthanized. This is before we even consider the fear and pain experienced by the victim, be it a dog or a human.

As the owner of a bully breed, I am particularly sensitive to the risks. I know that my dog would not even have to put his teeth on someone. As a large, muscular, blocky-headed dog, his barking and lunging is enough to be seriously threatening, and I have no desire to be reported to the authorities for having a dangerous animal. I have no desire to lose my dog or to put him in any situations where he feels he needs to defend himself. Therefore, I have sought out the professional help we needed *and I continue to take all the necessary safety precautions*. I trust my dog in controlled training settings where there is little risk and much to be gained, and I make sure that I have management strategies to use in less controlled settings, like our neighborhood walks or visits to his veterinarian. I use a high-quality leather collar and leash, I stay aware of our environment, I use our CU and BAT training when we do encounter triggers, I stay attuned to Cerberus’ body language, and I do not let people or other dogs rush up to him.

Every owner needs to find the appropriate balance between testing boundaries to make training progress, and being cautious and respectful of a dog’s limits. The cost of being too cautious could be slower training progress or perhaps making some fear issues worse; the cost of not being cautious enough could be a training setback, an injury, or even a fatality. In general, I recommend that you:

1) Work with a professional in a controlled environment. Just having another set of eyes, ears and hands available can be helpful for managing your dog and the environment, and a professional trainer or behaviorist will be able to help you read your dog’s subtle signals that he is worried. A trainer can also help to give you confidence by showing you how to teach your dog that, rather than bark and lunge, he can communicate to you in some other way and *you will listen to him* (this is important!) and get him out of an uncomfortable situation.

2) Be your dog’s advocate and trust your gut; know when you need to say no, even to the professional. If a training task makes you uncomfortable because it’s too much, too fast or you think that your dog will fail, ask your trainer if you can make some modifications so that you can work slowly up to the full task. There’s no harm in breaking a task down into manageable pieces.

3) In my opinion, always err on the side of management and safety. The consequences of being too careful are better (if only slightly) than the consequences of not being careful enough.

Happy training!


Confessions of a Dog Gear Hoarder: Outfox Field Guards


In TU member Zak’s last post, she talked about how harmful foxtails can be for your dogs and the costly consquences of getting them embedded. Since I live in the Bay Area of California and we are going through an awful drought right now, foxtail season came early and they are everywhere. Most people here and in similar areas who regularly go out with their dogs in late spring and summer can tell you exactly how many hundreds of dollars they have spent at the vet for foxtail removal; it is not fun! Typically I don’t hike that much during the summer anyway, but foxtails can show up literally anywhere I take my dogs outside. We have encountered these horrible weed monsters in many areas of our daily lives including training fields, trial grounds, and public parks.

If foxtails get into the mouth, eyes, nose, or ears they can wreck a special kind of chaos resulting in pain, injury, and a possible vet trip. Last summer I purchased a pair of Outfox Field Guards for River and Owen. Essentially they are dog-head-shaped mesh covers to catch foxtails before they can make their way to the face. While they do only cover the head, that is also one of the most typical body areas that foxtails embed into without you noticing. Always make sure you do a full body check after walking in a foxtail area; paws are another “popular” body part for trouble.

First time wearing the guards. Not a big deal!

First time wearing the guards. Not a big deal!

Outfox Guards are super simple to put on: just slip the appropriately sized Outfox over the dog’s head, adjust the pull cord snug enough so it cannot slip off, and then velcro both loops to your dog’s collar. Most dogs (most!) don’t care at all that they are wearing one and go about their business as usual; they are able to freely pant, play with toys, and drink while wearing the Outfox. My best advice is to only put them on when you are already at the trailhead or park then go have fun immediately. When first using an Outfox with a new dog, I slip a small handful of treats into the guard every time it’s put on so there is an instant positive association with the equipment.

The pros for this product should be extremely obvious:

  • No more foxtails in your dog’s face! No more late nights freaking out that your dog started sneezing a few hours after your daily walk in the park and could have a foxtail traveling up their nasal cavity.
  • Easy to use and clean. Put on, go have a blast, remove, rinse with the hose and some soap after your dog rolls in the dirt/cow poop/random dead things, done!
  • Most dogs adjust to wearing the Outfox almost immediately. They can do almost all of their normal activities without any changes.
  • The guards are relatively inexpensive to purchase ($38-42) and are quality made to last.
Image from

Image from

Some potential cons:17

  • Some dogs, especially little Cattle Dogs that a certain someone lives with, will not like wearing the Outfox because it interferes with her cow poop eating adventures and will try to remove it a few times during a hike. That’s my girl! However, I have tried these on many dogs over the last couple years and it hasn’t been an issue with any of them. Owen doesn’t mind it one bit, and it’s typically only the first couple hikes that River tries to take it off then she is fine.

    Another potential con: if beekeepers scare you... well...

    Another potential con: if beekeepers scare you… well…

  • Outfox Guards make it difficult to quickly and easily deliver treats to your dog. What I typically do is mark the behavior then just shove food under the end so my dogs can lean down and eat it from the guard. Not incredibly speedy, but it works ok. Friends of mine have also cut a very small hole to push treats through and report that that works out fine too.
  • Smaller water bowls won’t work well while wearing the Outfox. Since the dog will need to push their mouth a little further to reach the water due to the guard, tiny bowls for hiking aren’t very useful. This solution is pretty simple; just bring along a larger one!

Overall, I highly recommend the Outfox Field Guards to help keep your dog (and wallet!) safe and pain-free during foxtail season. Visit their website to order one or look for local California stores who carry them.

Behavior 101 #3: Functions of Behavior

Welcome back to the latest installment of your behavior 101 class. In case you missed the first two, or want to brush up, we covered the 4 quadrants of reinforcement and punishment HERE, and extinction, conditioned reinforcers, and schedules of reinforcement, HERE.  Today, we’ll be delving a little deeper into functions of behavior.

All behavior that occurs has a function to it. No matter who is doing it, what they’re doing, or where it occurs, behavior happens for a reason. That reason is not always the most apparent to the observer, but some data taking, and a Functional Analysis of Behavior (FBA), will reveal the behavior’s function.

The 4 main functions of behavior:

Access/Tangible: The organism’s behavior serves to gain access to a tangible item (food, item, etc.).

Attention: The organism’s behavior serves to get social attention.

Escape: The organism’s behavior serves to get away from something/someone.

Sensory/Automatic: The organism behaves in a way that feels good to them.

In order to determine what function is maintaining the behavior we’re looking at, we can take some ABC data. ABC data’s purpose is to analyze the environmental changes surrounding the presence of a behavior. This is considered a ‘descriptive analysis’ of behavior rather than a functional analysis. For most trained behavior analysts analyzing everyday behavior, a descriptive analysis is all that is needed to pinpoint the function(s) of the behavior. For more complex cases or for more clinical/academic/research work, a full functional analysis is done. For brevity, and because doing an FBA takes training, we won’t be discussing that here, but rather looking at descriptive analysis.

What is ABC data?

A= Antecedent: anything that exists before the behavior is exhibited

B= Behavior: the behavior we are analyzing

C= Consequence: anything that happens after the behavior. The consequence can be reinforcement, punishment, or extinction, depending on the effect it has on the behavior.

ABC data is typically taken on a chart with three columns, one each for A, B and C, and helps us see the function of the behavior.

Simple ABC collection data

Simple ABC collection data

Let’s do an example together.

A person says, “Sit.” Puppy sits. Person gives puppy an edible. In the future, the puppy sits more often when he hears, “Sit.”

What is the antecedent? The person said, “Sit.” (This is an Sd, a discriminative stimulus, and we’ll learn what kind of antecedent this is later on). What is the behavior? The puppy sits. Consequence? Puppy gets an edible. What kind of consequence was that? Well, the rate of the behavior occurring in the future goes up- so the puppy was positively reinforced. What was the function of the puppy’s sitting behavior? The puppy sat in order to gain access to the edible. The puppy’s behavior functions for access.

Let’s try another:

The kitchen has a nice, stinky, full trash can. Dog doesn’t touch the trash while her person is home. Person walks out the front door, gets in the car, and drives away. Dog gets into the trash. This is Great Fun for the dog, and as a result, whenever her person leaves, she gets into the trash.

Mmmmmm.... trash....

Mmmmmm…. trash….

What is the antecedent? The trash can being full and stinky? No- the trash can was full and stinky before, but the dog didn’t touch it. The antecedent was the person leaving the house. The behavior was getting into the trash can. And the consequence was, again, access to the delicious trash.

How about this one:

A stranger walks past the front window. The dog jumps off the couch and charges the window, barking and snarling. The person continues walking down the sidewalk, eventually disappearing from sight. Every time the dog sees a person through the window, he now barks.



The antecedent? The sight of the person through the window. The behavior? The dogs barking. The consequence? The person goes away. Now, we know the rate of behavior in the future goes up (because we are good little data takers!) so we know the dog is being negatively reinforced. What is the function? The dog is engaging in behavior in order to have the strange person go away. The barking functions for escape.

A child is in math class, and is told to complete 5 math problems. He starts screaming, and throws himself on the floor. The teachers remove him to a time out chair. Now, every time he is told to do math, he screams and throws himself on the floor. What just happened? The screaming and throwing himself on the floor functioned for escape, and the teachers put him in time out. He got out of doing the math problems that he didn’t want to do, and now he does it every time he doesn’t want to do math, because it works. Inadvertently, the teachers are negatively reinforcing the screaming behavior. This is why identifying the correct function of a behavior in crucial to planning an effective intervention, no matter if it’s a human, a dog, or your spouse ;).

Can you think of a very common type of escape behavior in dogs? Growling. This is generally the go-to escape behavior for dogs, along with fleeing. Fight-or-flight behaviors are escape behaviors. With few exceptions, a growling dog is trying to get the antecedent to stop.

Go away!!

Go away!!

One of the side effects of punishment is an increase in escape-maintained behaviors. It is one of the reasons that punishment-interventions are only used when nothing else has worked (usually in cases of severe life-threatening self-injury in people). We see this side effects in dogs- use enough aversive control training techniques and you’ll see a lot of escape behavior- to include aggression, growling, and avoidance of the trainer. We’ll discuss the side effects of punishment at length later, but suffice to say, these side effects are the reasons that only Masters and PhD-level Board Certified Behavior Analysts are allowed to use punishment in treatment settings, and only for the most severe cases which have failed to respond to other positive or discriminative interventions (with data to support the failed prior interventions), or for severe life-threatening behavior. Punishment should never be taken lightly.

What’s the function in this example?

A dog is left alone in the backyard. He starts howling. His person comes outside and shouts at him to stop. The dog stops howling and runs to greet his person. His person, satisfied that the howling stopped, then turns and goes back inside, closing the door behind them. The dog then starts howling again. The howling functions for attention. Every time he howls, his person arrives! The howling is being positively reinforced by the arrival and attention by his person. Just because the person is yelling, doesn’t mean that it’s punishment. Yelling at me would certainly be punishment; I don’t like being yelled at (unless, maybe, you’re yelling at me that I won the lottery). But to this dog, all that’s happening is that he is bored and alone, he howls and… yay! My person showed up!

A child might make rude nosies in class. His classmates laugh, and his teacher scolds him. If he continues to make noises, the behavior is maintained by attention from his classmates and his teacher. The teacher is another example of someone accidentally maintaining a behavior they don’t intend to! (It’s also possible the teacher’s scolding acts as punishment, but the social attention from the class outweighs the punishment- we’ll get to that in another lesson, later).

What about a dog with hot spots? The dog’s skin itches, so he scratches it. It feels good, so the next time he itches, he scratches it again. This is an example of a sensory function. If you bite your nails, tap your pen, or rub a soft piece of suede because it feels soft, those are all sensory-based behaviors. Children with intellectual disabilities that rock, flap hands, or spin are often engaging in sensory-maintained behaviors (although, just because a behavior seems like a sensory function, doesn’t mean it is- an FBA will revel if it is or not)

Automatically reinforced, sensory-maintained behavior. AKA- scratching.

Automatically reinforced, sensory-maintained behavior. AKA- scratching.

Behaviors can be multiply controlled, meaning, they serve more than one function. A dog may bark to get attention in one situation, and bark as a form of escape in another. When served broccoli a child may scream, throw the broccoli on the floor, and beg for cookies. The parents, out of frustration at the screaming and worried about their child not eating (especially if this is a severe case of food refusal with a pattern of days or weeks of not eating), gives in and gives this kiddo cookies. This is an example of something that is multiply controlled. The behaviors are functioning both for escape from eating broccoli and access to eating cookies.

Aggression in dogs is often multiply controlled, and without learning in what situations aggression arises and what the functions are in each situation, it will be impossible to intervene on this or other dangerous behaviors. Ascertaining the correct function of a behavior before intervening on it is of tantamount importance in designing a safe, effective and scientifically-validated intervention to reduce the behavior and replace with a socially acceptable behavior. It is important to never make assumptions on functions. Let’s say you are presented with a clinical case of a 16 year old male with polyembolokoilamania. You might do a cursory talk with the caregivers who say “Nope, he does it at all hours of the day or night.” Since this behavior is happening at night, with no one around to provide attention, nothing to gain access to, and nothing to escape from, you might assume this is an automatically reinforced sensory function. But just to be sure- you decide to conduct an FBA and leave the family with data sheets. What you find is that, after each episode, the boy is taken to the doctors or the ER the next morning to be treated for minor injuries related to his activities. Even though the doctors trips are happening hours apart from the target behavior- data and an FBA show you that this is, in fact, being maintained by attention from the doctor, if the doctor is someone the boy likes and he only gets to see if he engages in polyembolokoilamania.

Knowing the function of the behavior, and the effects of reinforcement and punishment, can enable you to systematically control the environment to bring about changes in behavior, such as suppression of dangerous or socially unacceptable behaviors, or increases in behaviors we want to see, such as required behaviors to compete at the top tiers of agility or obedience. We’ll discuss more about using this, along with differential reinforcement, and motivating and abolishing operations, in upcoming posts.

In the meantime- try identifying the ABCs and functions in the examples below and leave your answers in the comments!

Ex 1: Mom pushes cart through the candy aisle. Child screams. To quiet him, Mom gives him candy. The next time he sees the candy aisle, he screams.

Ex. 2: Dog is alone in the backyard. He decides to dig a hole. It’s fun, so he does it next time he is in the backyard.

Ex. 3: Dog is eating dinner. Another dog comes near, dog growls. The second dog turns around and leaves. The next time the second dog approaches the bowl, the first dog growls.

Ex. 4: Mom tells little boy to put his shoes on. Boy screams and says “No!” Mom’s frustrated, and grabs the boy, holding him down and putting his shoes on. He never learns to put his shoes on and screams every time someone tells him to put his shoes on.

Ex. 5: When I open the fridge, my guinea pigs run to the side of the cage and squeal. Shortly after, fresh vegetables appear in their cage. Now, whenever I open the fridge, the pigs squeal louder.

Ex 6: A little girls likes to draw pictures and show them to her mom. Every time she shows them to Mom, Mom gives her a big smile, tells her what a great job she did, hugs her, and puts the picture on the fridge. The little girl draws her mom a picture every afternoon.

Ex 7: As I’m writing this, my dogs come up and head butt my elbow. I reach down and pet them. As more time goes on, they head butt my elbow more frequently. (Then I finally make this the last example, get up, and take them for a romp in the field!)

Let’s Be Friends! : A Few Tips for Introducing Dogs

When I’m not writing for TU, I work with dogs at a large animal sanctuary. We get dogs in from all over with a variety of issues, and while many of them are a little selective with their doggy friends, we try hard at work to find them suitable roommates and playmates.  There are a lot of benefits that come with dogs having friends: first, dogs can play with each other in a way that humans just can’t duplicate, and I suspect it’s a relief for dogs to be able to easily communicate with each other.  An analogy I use a lot is this: if you’re in a foreign country, even if you’re pretty good in the local language, it can be a huge relief to find somebody who speaks your native language and can understand your little idioms and colloquialisms and accents. Sometimes it’s nice to not have to fight to be understood, and while dogs work hard to make humans understand what they’re saying, other dogs speak dog as a first language.

Second, dogs benefit from keeping their dog skills up. Even dogs who don’t care much for other dogs need practice walking peacefully down the street when other dogs pass them, and having occasional low-stress exposure to new dogs can be a big benefit, even for dogs who don’t really want to play.  Sometimes our ‘playdates’ at work just consist of two dogs peacefully coexisting in the same space, not interacting, just sniffing around and exploring on their own terms.  They’re not very exciting looking, but those low-key encounters can be valuable too!

Because my older dogs in particular can be pretty selective with other dogs, I have absolutely been guilty of limiting their dog-dog social time in the past; however, doing lots of dog introductions at work has gotten me a lot braver about it, and these days, Widget and Nimbus have a several playdates every week, Nellie has periodic playdates with with specific dogs and Lucy’s started to go on group walks where she doesn’t interact with other dogs but walks peacefully in the group. This is a terrific thing for all of them, and I’m glad I’ve started to be able to do it again. Below the cut, I’ll lay out the steps we use for new dog introductions at work, which have also worked really well with my own guys!

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Introducing Ben!

Pepper, my childhood dog

Pepper, my childhood dog

I grew up with dogs…or rather, a dog. One at a time only. My parents did not want the added expense and nor did they really have the time for more than one dog. So we had Pepper. And then we had Teri. And they were content with that.

Ever since I got Dahlia in 2008, I’ve wanted a second dog. I’ve spent ages imagining that two-dog life, looking at dogs, thinking about what I wanted.

And then hesitating.

We weren’t in the right place. We lived in a duplex in the city. We had no yard. Our landlord wouldn’t allow two dogs. He barely allowed one. We had to talk him into it and even then I think he caved because (a) he was too old to care anymore, (b) the place was falling apart around our ears (seriously, our new landlord, who bought the place in 2013, redid the bathroom while we lived there and we found out the toilet, which was sinking into the bathroom floor, was sitting on about half an inch of rotted wood), and (c) he was guaranteed to have people living there for a number of years instead of the constant turn-over of drunk college students (serious about this, Princeton Review named the university the top party school in 2014-2015 — WE’RE #1!!).

So a one-dog family remained for over 7 years.

Until things started to change. This April we bought a house. One major stipulation I had for the house was that the yard had to be fenced in. I really wanted to adopt a second dog and having that fenced in yard would make it easier to do so.

But then I hesitated some more.

There was a lot to set up in the house. Dahlia had been an only dog for so long, how would she react to another dog in the house all the time? Especially a younger, more active one. And then there were the financial concerns. Buying the house actually set us up better than it did before. Besides tax write-offs (yay!), we also are paying significantly less per month in mortgage/taxes than we were in rent and by bundling we dropped our car insurance by about $1000 a year. So we’re in a much better place to afford a second dog.

And so on June 23, I bit the bullet and just did it (with my husband’s permission of course). I sent in an application to Glen Highland Farm. Yes, the same Glen Highland Farm that we have vacationed at for the past three years. I wanted a Border Collie or maybe a Border Collie mix. To be honest, at that moment, I wanted Ben.

Ben's petfinder picture

Ben’s petfinder picture

I had seen Ben on a Petfinder page perhaps a month or so ago. He was cute as a button and just looked like a great dog. He, admittedly, reminded me a little bit of Dahlia. But he was located in New Jersey, just a little further than we really wanted to travel to meet a dog, especially if we had no idea how he’d fit in with our family. So I let that one go, just another one of my “petfinder dream dogs” who I knew would go to another home. And who was, a short while later, listed as adopted.

As it turned out, Ben was adopted. He was adopted out to a family who was supposedly very active recent retirees who had former Border Collie experience and who turned out to be anything but that (late 70s, medical issues that meant the man in the couple had trouble walking, not active at all, and they had never owned a Border Collie). Needless to say, Ben was snapped back up by the people who had been fostering him for the shelter.

At that point, it all gets a little odd, like this was fate. Which is not surprising considering Dahlia’s entrance to our life seemed to be the work of fate as well (two transports I was supposed to be doing got canceled/postponed and I was freed up to do Dahlia’s). Ben’s foster family had adopted dogs from Glen Highland Farm. They ended up calling them up to see if they could somehow list him on the courtesy part of their website. The decision was to list him on the main site with their contact info and a note that he could be brought up to the farm if someone was interested in him.

And then Glen Highland Farm, headed up by the amazing Lillie, and the foster family, decided he would flourish at the farm and were going to bring him up.

Enter: Us. I chatted with a lovely woman from the rescue on June 25 to clarify some things on my application and make sure that they knew what we were looking for. And then I chatted with the ever amazing Lillie on June 26 about potential dogs. One of the ones suggested: Ben. She asked the foster family if they could come up Saturday with him and then asked if we could meet them there at 12:30pm.

We did, and fate just came together. While we did meet one other dog, it was clear from the beginning that Ben was meant to come home with us. Dahlia and he trotted around and sniffed things and peed together. They looked remarkably alike. They didn’t play but they seemed pretty comfortable around each other.

Ben bears a striking resemblance to Dahlia.

Ben bears a striking resemblance to Dahlia.

So he came home with us. And suddenly we were a two-dog home.

Dahlia has gotten used to his presence fairly quickly. There have been a few warnings from her telling him to back off, which he heeds and then spends the next little while ingratiating himself to her. He has not once given her any warnings.



Ben very much takes things as they come, bonding quickly and loving pretty much everything. He is a very positive dog, with no fear (not of walking over grates or thunderstorms or children or other dogs). Everything is “the best thing ever!” to Ben. He loves watching the birds in the trees and squeaking his toys and can entertain himself for long periods of time with those things.

Ben and Dahlia

Dahlia and Ben play a bit of chase

And he loves enticing his big sister to play. That’s right, there have been games of chase that Ben initiates almost every day since he came home, something that brings tears to my eyes. He’s bringing some more fun to Dahlia’s life!

He’s incredibly smart, fairly  driven, and just a joy to be around, even if it means our lives have changed quite dramatically. It’s strange having a young active dog in the house when we’re used to a dog who takes short walks and then relaxes for hours on end. Dahlia sleeps through the night, doesn’t want to bother going out until 8am or 9am, and is so easy that sometimes I simply forget she’s there. Ben does not allow that. He does have an off switch, but he needs the proper exercise and mental outlets to get to that off switch. He is definitely not the dog for everyone, but he fits in with our family like he’s always been there.

Ben on his first night with us.

Ben on his first night with us.

Ben starts agility training soon and I can’t wait to see how this little man does. He has the potential to be a really amazing agility partner and an even best friend. Like we keep telling Dahlia, we aren’t splitting our love for her; we’ve just opened our hearts up to more love. And I think Ben is slipping right in there with great ease.

Welcome home Ben. We look forward to many happy years with you!


Two dog home

Two dog home