Why Positive Works: Bumper Cars and Shopping Carts, An Analogy

beagle-puppy-mini-shopping-cart-10051360There are a lot of trainers talking about the benefits of positive training. From Ian Dunbar to Karen Pryor, most modern dog trainers are espousing the benefits of this new way of engaging your canid friends. Why does it work?

When I was in High school I had a job at a grocery store. One of my duties was to retrieve the shopping carts from the parking lot. I’d walk around shoving the carts back into a corral. Sometimes I’d push one across the lot from an especially long distance. The cart would go part of the way towards the corral. Then the caster would sputter, catch and the cart would turn off in another direction. It wasn’t very effective.

Let’s imagine I had a bumper car to help me with this job. Would it have helped?  I would drive around bumping the carts here and there. Eventually I might get one in the corral but it wouldn’t be very efficient and it might even get frustrating. I might even slap into one of these carts at the wrong angle and it might turn and knock back into me injuring me in some way. Also, the more carts I would have to corral, the exponentially more difficult the solution would be to achieve.

So what could I do? It seemed like I had tried everything! I’d even yelled at the carts and they just kept on being naughty! Well, I guess I might try engaging the shopping cart to my bumper car in some way, by pulling it along beside or behind me, until I could drive it right into the corral. Not only would this work, but the more carts I’d have, the easier and the more quickly the job would be done. I’d hook them all up and drive them right across the lot and right into the corral, without any trouble at all!

This is how positive response training works. If we engage our dog and bring them to the behavior we want them to display, they learn the value of behaving in that way. If, however, we try to bump them into the corral of the desired behavior by saying “No” to every behavior they display, they have no focus for where they should go with their enthusiasm. As a result they sputter off in some other undesired direction.

Positive Reinforcement has been written about in much more technical detail than this, and I will include some links to pages you might find interesting, but I’m warning you now it can get pretty wonky. All you need to know is that if you are tired of constantly saying the word “No” all the time, if you are done with being ignored by your dog, then maybe it’s time to consider trying something new.

Six Myths About Positive Reinforcement

Kids, Cookies, Tied Shoes

Ian Dunbar on TedTalks Youtube 

Dog Carting-Part One: A Brief History


(c) Williamson Art Gallery & Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Does your dog get excited when you put a harness on them? Do they yank you out of the door and down the street? Do you ever wonder why horses, goats, bulls and almost all the other four-legged domesticated animals are expected to draft heavy loads behind them, but you hardly ever see dogs doing this work? Well, here are some answers to your questions.

Dogs have been by our side for a very long time. Since prehistory, they have been a loyal hardworking companion, as well as a compassionate, steadfast bone-handeled-knife-dog-wearing-harnessfriend. At a site termed Ust-Polui, near the Arctic Circle in Siberia, Dr. Robert Losey, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta, has found archeological evidence of dogs being ceremonially buried in the same way as humans from the same period. Also found on the site was this carved bone handled knife. The decoration on the handle seems to depict a dog in full pulling harness. On the same site were two dog sleds. This site in particular dates back 2,000 years and indicates that the practice of dog sledding had been around for much longer.

So what are the advantages that these dogs have over horses, or some other drafting animal? Well first of all, horses get cold in these arctic environments. This is a very harsh climate, and since dogs are much smaller, they’re able to conserve their body heat. Secondly, horses mainly subsist on grasses, which much of the year are not available this far north. Dogs eat what we do for the most part, and so their diet can adapt to whatever we’re able to forage and scavenge for ourselves. Thirdly, dogs can double as protector, pulling guard duty. I’ve never heard of a guard horse; maybe they exist somewhere, but I’d bet that a dog is better suited to the job. Lastly, the ice gets very thin, and a heavy horse can pull you and your load down into the chilly brine. Dogs can pull themselves out of this situation though. So even if the ice does break and your whole load goes into the drink, the dogs can make use of their dew-claws to pull themselves out of the water. Check out a video to see labradors doing just that here.

So, for thousands of years dogs were getting good work as the load bearing, tug toting engines for small farmers and hunters alike. There is evidence of dogs pulling loads behind them from all around the world. In pre-Colombian North America there were no horses, and the predominate work engine was the Native American dog.

dutch-belgian-dogcartAnother advantage to having a dog pull your cart is that they take up less space and are more maneuverable in many situations. So in metropolitan areas, teeming with crowds and tight alley-ways, the dog became a relatively low-cost; more reliable option for small farmers bringing their wares to town.


So when and why did this all change? In England at the beginning of the Victorian period there was an ordinance passed called the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839. It forbade the use of dog carts within fifteen miles of Charing Cross.

“XXXIV. [Prohibition of Dog Carts.] And be it further enacted, That after the First Day of January next every Person who within the City of London and the Liberties thereof shall use any Dog for the Purpose of drawing or helping to draw any Cart, Carriage, Truck, or Barrow, shall be liable to a Penalty not more than Forty Shillings for the First Offense, and not more than Five Pounds for the Second or any following Offense.”

Rabies, or as it was commonly termed Hydrophobia, was becoming a real problem on the island and in an effort to stamp it out many theories were put forth as to a cause for the disease. A very popular theory was that over worked dogs were more susceptible to the condition, and so fines were imposed on anyone seen employing their dog in this regard.

That was the beginning of the end of dog carting. As we approached the industrial age, dogs were given less and less work and became more a show of wealth and stature. As we needed them less for their pulling talents and more for their companionship they retained the compulsion to pull. So now when you harness up your little canid powerhouse are you seeing just your own frustration that they won’t walk at heel? Or instead are you seeing all their potential? I have taught a great deal of dogs how to walk at heel and many owners how to maintain the leash language of the guided walk at a steady pace. But what if your dog is a massive engine that is meant to pull more than his own weight? In the next part of this series on Dog carting I will go into how to prepare your dog for the exciting, enriching and entertaining world of dog carting.

If you want to read more about the history of dog carting here are some links.

Dog carting in history 1

Dog carting in history 2

Dog carting in history 3

Ancient Dog Sledding

Dog Friendly: Oktoberfest 2016

This is the first of a series of regularly reoccurring blog posts, meant to help people find events and locations that are dog approved.


Nestled in the Bear Mountain State Park, just off the Palisades Parkway at exit 17 is the new site of an annual Oktoberfest that Rowdy loves to attend. My dog is, like me, a German mutt. At one point we did a DNA test and the results were Dachshund, Doberman, Min Pin, Weimaraner and Schnauzer. So obviously oompah music is in his personal playlist.

There are some great trails nearby, and your dog will love burning off some energy first by going on a nice walk in the woods. After that, the entire festival is not just dog tolerant but seriously dog friendly. People approach, ask very nicely if they can greet your dog, and have a hand out for a sniff before you have to instruct them to do so. The dog culture is on point!

There’s an assortment of booths set up selling crafts as well as food, but Rowdy honed in on one that seemed a little more important than the others. Good Reasons is a not-for-profit dog treat company on a mission. They create scrumptious, human-grade all natural dog treats, while providing employment opportunities to people with autism and other developmental disabilities.


We saw all kinds of other shapes and sizes of dogs there, from tiny Tibetan Terriers to great big Great Danes and everything in-between. All were friendly and approachable. The food was yummy above the table and below. The music was appropriately silly and the beer… well Rowdy was the designated driver so he didn’t have any of that.

The party continues until October 30th and we might return, so maybe we’ll see you there! Here’s a link to the Bear Mountain Inn Oktoberfest site.


What Is A Dog Puzzle?


Cognition is the process of interpreting the world through the use of thought, experience and the senses. It’s something that we do every day all day and so does our dog. Creating a scenario that allows our dog to solve problems in a controlled environment gives us a way to help them create good habits for how they process the wider world. Sure, we give them toys and maybe a bone to chew on occasionally, and that is a great way to help them burn off some mental energy, but what if we want to challenge them more? Here are some examples of how dog puzzles can help you do just that.

Defining a Puzzle

A Dog Puzzle is different in one significant way from a dog toy, in that it involves your input. A kong toy is fun and difficult, demanding the dogs attention for a good period of time, but it can be solved without your presence. In this way, I would argue that the kong toy and toys like it are in a category by themselves. Puzzles should involve the handler setting up the item while the dog sits and watches at a distance, and then is invited in to try and solve it. Once the dog has achieved the goal of solving the puzzle, the handler should immediatly praise the pup. This way, our dog learns that there is value in both waiting for something good and in persisting through something difficult.

DIY Puzzles

Muffin Tins are great!


Getting your dog to find things in difficult-to-reach places is a big part of how this works, and an easy and cheap way to start is with stuff you may already have. Have your dog sit and stay. Take a few steps back, and kneel as you set the muffin tin upside down on the floor. While the dog sits patiently, place some treats between the inverted cups. Wait for your dog to look you in the eye. As soon as they do, push the puzzle halfway to them, stand up and say “Find it!” When your dog does this, reward them with praise.

Scale the difficulty

So maybe your dog has moved past that and you want something more difficult? Try this…


Turn over the muffin tin and put stuff in the cups. Here, you can see some tennis balls and an old sock have been placed in the tin, and underneath are some yummies. Now repeat the routine that I set out in the first level.

Once they have gotten that down, try cutting the tennis balls in half and/or inverting another identical muffin tin on top for more difficulty.


Got an old plastic bowl or piece of tupperware that doesn’t have a top any longer? Give it a shot!

Dog Puzzles You Can Buy, Sure There’s That Too.

This is the Dog Tornado made by Nina Ottosson. It’s a great puzzle and very versatile.


They make a lot of puzzles out of quality materials and my dog Rowdy really likes all of them, except for the Pyramid. That one should probably get a reboot.

If you are able to find something that you like and it works for your dog, please let me know what it is and where to get it.

The Ultimate Dog Toy!


You are your dog’s best challenger and rewarder. Your attention and diligence are what are going to foster your dogs intelligence and talents. Make your dog’s brain work and you will gain trust and confidence from your pooch.

Let me know how it goes!