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The Ethics Of Ditching The Bowl

ditching the bowl, ditch the bowl

Ditching the bowl is a fantastic way to enrich the lives of dogs and cats. It can offer mental stimulation, engagement, calm occupation and training success. Feeding pets by alternative methods other than a bowl can also help build positive relationships with their human family. The benefits of ditching the bowl are being increasingly recognised by modern trainers. However, there are fewer people who acknowledge the ethics of ditching the bowl. Doing it badly can result in-

  • Negative emotions
  • Emotional conflict and stress
  • Damage to the relationship
  • Unwanted behaviour
  • Training failure

For good welfare and mental health it is important to try and avoid the problems listed above. So let’s discuss the ethics of ditching the bowl…

ditch the bowl, ditching the bowl, the ethics of ditching the bowl,

The Creation Of Emotional Conflict

Ditching the bowl should be a positive experience for both the animal and owner. It shouldn’t be a way for humans to manipulate behaviour purely for their own advantage. You may have heard trainers suggest that you use all of the daily food allowance for training. This can be beneficial, however it can also be unethical in certain circumstances. 

For example, if a dog is hungry and can only access food through human interaction, this may create emotional conflict. If a dog can only acquire food by fulfilling human requests, this too could create negative emotions. It is vital that fair choices are offered. 

DON'T put your pet in a situation where they have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

DO facilitate good choices through fair opportunities and positive rewards.

the ethics of ditching the bowl, ditching the bowl, ditch the bowl,

A practical example of creating emotional conflict would be crate training. If a dog is unsure of entering the crate, or being shut inside, then this shouldn't be the only way they can access food. Whilst food could be used to build value inside the crate, the opportunity to eat shouldn't be dependant on compliance with going in.

If a dog can only access their daily food allowance by being somewhere they are concerned about, this could easily cause emotional distress. It is an unfair choice- do something you don't like or you don't eat. A hungry dog may well choose to go inside the crate but this doesn't mean they are are happy, they have just chosen what they are most comfortable with. Being most comfortable with something doesn't equate to acceptance, learning or contentment.

So to avoid emotional conflict when ditching the bowl, it is important to assess whether your requests are fair and that the animal is not fulfilling them just because they are hungry. 

Working For Food- Contrafreeloading

Our collie Milo loves working for food, he will choose a puzzle feeder over free roast meat sat right next to it. He prefers to eat out of a Toppl rather than a bowl, even if they both contain exactly the same food. So for him, working for food is great enrichment. It provides mental stimulation and positively engages his working genes. Our other dog Murphy is quite different! Whilst he enjoys a low level challenge, he gives up more easily and would take the free food first before having to work for it. So for him, some methods of ditching the bowl could create negative emotions, frustration or stress. If Murphy was expected to only gain food from lots of effort, this would not be as successful and could be detrimental to his welfare.

We therefore treat each dog as an individual and ditch the bowl accordingly, it's not one size fits all. We have also gradually expanded Murphy's desire to work for food, he's learning it can be fun and worthwhile. By progressively ditching the bowl and teaching him to try, this has created more calm behaviour as it occupies his brain. But neither dog are forced to ditch the bowl, they have the choice to participate or not.

west paw toppl, contra freeloading, ditch the bowl, slow feeder

The Ethics Of Ditching The Bowl For Training

Both our dogs are rescue dogs, Murphy came to us with severe travel anxiety and a fear of cars, as well as being scared of other things such as thunder. Using food has been invaluable as part of the training process, to create positive emotions around situations he's usually scared in. There is however a BIG FAT BUT!

The training process has been broken down into tiny, tiny steps and he has only ever been set up for success. At all times I have aimed to work with him in a positive mindset, keeping him below his stress threshold and gradually expanding his positivity. Food is used as positive reinforcement but not a bribe. Ditching the bowl has been to help him, not to make him do something. Tux has been used in the car to make it a positive place to be, not to try and distract him from his surroundings. His daily food has been used to help change his mindset from negative to positive, not to reach a goal.

With Ditching The Bowl, Focus Should Be On Income For the Animal, NOT Outcome

Ditching the bowl shouldn't be a replacement for the required training and time it takes to achieve success positively. For example, ditching the bowl unethically would be me keeping him hungry, then using food to bribe him to get in the car. Once there he could be given a lickimat as a distraction, whilst I shut the doors, forcing him to stay inside. Instead, to be more ethical, he has been given choice to participate at every stage. He has been allowed to leave at all times and he has been given access to free food both inside and outside the car. Once he has been happy to jump in, we've done ACE Freework inside the car or he's had a stuffed food toy. These are activities we also do outside of the car in neutral situations, they are not just for working on something that worries him.

It is important to be mindful of coercion and extortion. Ditching the bowl should be about enrichment, building positive emotions and enjoyment for the individual animal. It shouldn't be solely about human gain, achieving goals or creating training 'success' via giving unreasonable choices.

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For Ethical Success With Ditching The Bowl....

  • Choose the timing, method and frequency for the individual animal in the individual situation
  • Make challenges progressive
  • Set your pet up for success
  • Offer trustworthy and honourable choices within the animal's capabilities at that moment
  • Focus on income for the animal, not outcome

Ensure it's fun, fair and frustration free!

If you're interested in learning more about contrafreeloading and the ethical considerations too, this is a great podcast with Hannah Brannigan and Chirag Patel.

Thank you for reading.

Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc is the owner of Pawsitive Thinking. We offer a tried and tested portfolio of products to help you with the training, care and enrichment of your much loved dogs, cats and chickens. SHOP HERE 

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Veterinary Treatments Linked To Canine Behaviour Change

Unwanted behaviour in dogs, dog aggression, behaviour change in dogs

Unwanted behaviour in dogs is a major cause of rehoming and even euthanasia. An American vet specialising in animal behaviour, stress evaluation and canine aggression has reported some interesting findings. Carlo Siracusa from the Department of Clinical Studies at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania has noted that several medical and surgical treatments that are routinely prescribed by vets can affect the behaviour of dogs.

Links Between Veterinary Treatment and Behaviour Change

  • Dogs under corticosteroid treatment were reported to have several behavioural changes. These include being less active, less playful, more nervous, more fearful, more aggressive in the presence of food and when disturbed, more likely to bark.
  • Apoquel, a drug used to help dogs with itchy skin conditions has been linked to increased aggression.
  • A well-known and frequently used antihistamine called Diphenhydramine has been linked as the cause of unwanted excitement and nervousness in dogs.
  • A drug called Phenylpropanolamine which is commonly used for the treatment of urine leaking in dogs, can cause restlessness and increased irritability.
  • Medication used to control seizures may provoke anxiety and agitation.
  • Surgery can be incredibly stressful and consequently cause major behavioural changes.

Worth Considering….

So if your dog is experiencing changes in their behaviour and is receiving or recently received medication or has had surgery, it is worth having a chat to your vet. Likewise, it would be a good idea during any veterinary consultations to discuss the potential side effects of treatments, including the potential for behaviour changes.

Lots of things can affect behaviour, including the gut, brain, immune system and hormones. Siracusa advises that any medications that affect body systems linked to behaviour have the potential to cause noticeable behavioural changes. 

REFERENCE: Siracusa, C. (2016) Treatments affecting dog behaviour: something to be aware of. Veterinary Record 179, 460-461.

Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc is the owner of Pawsitive Thinking. We offer a tried and tested portfolio of products to help you with the training, care and enrichment of your much loved pets. SHOP HERE 

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Choosing The Reinforcer

Dog training, Puller dog toy

Reinforcers are an event that increases the likelihood that a specific response or behaviour will occur.

Making Choices

Dogs are making choices all the time, so we need to train our dogs to make the right choices. This is where reinforcement comes in. If you add the right reinforcer at the right time, it will encourage more of the behaviour you want. The reinforcer promotes the value of the choice the dog has made.

Good Choices + The Right Reinforcement = More Good Choices.

For example, you’re out walking and your chase loving dog sees a rabbit. They choose to start pulling on the lead. If they manage to go quicker or even pull the lead out of your hand, their choice to pull gets reinforced by the ability to run after the rabbit. However if you have reinforced looking at you or for walking calmly when they see a rabbit, then they are less likely to pull. This is because they have been reinforced for different behaviour associated with the rabbit, not for pulling.

Importantly, if you don’t reinforce desired behaviour it is unlikely to increase. In the case of unwanted behaviour the dog is often reinforcing themselves. Without you reinforcing the required behaviour instead, the dog will continue to choose to do things you might not want.

Dog training
Your dog’s choices aren’t always the ones you would like.

What Are Reinforcers?

Reinforcers are behaviours rather than objects. The following behaviours are all reinforcers-

  • Running
  • Eating
  • Playing
  • Sniffing
  • Chasing
  • Swimming
  • Chewing

Each individual dog chooses what is reinforcing to them. For example, swimming would not be reinforcing to our collie Milo but chasing most certainly would.

Dog training
Dogs are all individuals when it comes to what they find reinforcing.

Levels Of Reinforcement

Reinforcers do not neccesarily work in every situation. For Milo, eating a small piece of his regular food is enough to reinforce him lying down at home. However faced with that rabbit it is more reinforcing for him to chase it, rather than to stay with me and eat some food.

You therefore need to work out what your dog finds most reinforcing and use those behaviours to strengthen the behaviour you would like in different situations. Thinking about Milo again, it would be pointless me offering him a piece of food in a potential rabbit chase situation. However if I offered him a game of chase with me when he sees that rabbit, I am more likely to be able to get the opportunity to stop him running off. The chase with me would be running after a tug toy or me throwing a Puller dog toy.

Reinforcer Delivery

You can also change the delivery of the chosen reinforcer to change the level of desirability of that reinforcer. This gives you more versatility in different situations and more options to be able to gain the desired behaviour. If I just handed the Puller dog toy to Milo after he sees the rabbit, that would not be as reinforcing to him as me rolling or throwing it. For some dogs, calmly placing some food on the ground would be more reinforcing than you animating it. Alternatively, for Milo, he is reinforced more by me throwing a piece of food for him to run after than me just handing it to him. The Kong Hide N Treat is a great training tool for varying reinforcement delivery.

So once you have identified things that your dog loves to do, you can play around with the delivery of those things to help you with your training.

Examples Of Reinforcer Choices

  • Ask your dog to sit and then reinforce the completed behaviour by releasing the dog to go and swim
  • Cue your dog to wait, then reinforce them for waiting by opening the door and releasing them to go outside
  • Your dog notices a distraction in the distance, reinforce a hesitation to run by scatter feeding
  • After your dog has returned to your recall cue, excitedly play with their favourite toy
  • Ask your dog to stay beside you, then reinforce a positive response by releasing them to go and sniff
Dog training
Once established at home, practice reinforcing desired behaviour out and about

Examples of Reinforcer Choice For Milo

The tractor engine starting used to trigger Milo to run after the tractor, before it even moved. Now the engine starting is a trigger for Milo to run to me! How did I achieve this? Through me making the right reinforcement choices to reward Milo for the behaviour I wanted to see more.

What didn’t work-

  • Feeding a piece of regular food directly to him
  • Scatter feeding
  • Recall
  • Throwing a chew stick
  • Walking in a different direction

These didn’t’t work because they weren’t reinforcing enough to Milo.

What did work-

  • Playing with the Pullers regularly, building his desire for them away from a chase situation. Then starting with the tractor at a distance, rewarding him for not running towards it by throwing a Puller.
  • Throwing one piece of food towards the tractor, then several pieces of higher value food away from the tractor.
  • Throwing the Kong Hide N Treat in the opposite direction to the tractor when the engine started.
  • Gradually moving closer to the tractor and consistently reinforcing Milo’s good choices.

So now when the engine starts, he sees it as fun time with me and not fun time with a tractor wheel!

Positive reinforcement dog training
The power of training with positive reinforcement.

Thank You For Reading

Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc is the owner of Pawsitive Thinking. We offer a tried and tested portfolio of products to help you with the training, care and enrichment of your much loved pets. SHOP HERE