Beware the Poisoned Mat


In dog training, we most frequently hear the term “poisoned” attached to the word “cue,” meaning a cue for a particular behavior has taken a negative association, either because the cue has become associated with deliberate punishment or because the cue was given at the same time as some unfortunate unexpected aversive event.

The cue for “come when called” frequently becomes poisoned when someone is foolish enough to punish their dog (for running away, as the most common example)  after the dog finally comes back, or calling him and then doing something he doesn’t like, like giving him medication or crating him. The dog thinks bad things happen when he responds to the “Come” cue and is less likely to come the next time he is called. 

A dog’s name can also be poisoned if his human makes the mistake of saying, “No, no, Rocky!! Bad dog, Rocky!” 

An example of an “unfortunate aversive event” might be that your dog just happens to touch his nose to your horse’s pasture electric fence at the same time you give the “sit” cue, so your “sit” cue becomes poisoned. Your dog now thinks “Sit!” means he is about to get shocked.

Objects also can become poisoned when they are associated with an aversive event. Something your dog previously loved, such as his mat, can become aversive if it is repeatedly associated with something that he finds mildly to moderately stressful, such as frequent trips to the veterinary clinic, or even nail clipping or medical treatment procedures at home. 

Once you have mat-trained your dog, recognize and protect the value of his positive association with his mat. Make sure that for every time you use it to help him with a mildly to moderately stressful situation that you follow it with many happy and fun “Place” repetitions. And don’t even try to use it for things that are extremely stressful for him – it won’t help, and you will likely poison the mat and lose your very valuable training and management tool. 

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.