Do You Want a Well Trained Dog, or a Happy Well Trained Dog?

November 4, 2014

run to me hill cropIf you scroll down my personal Facebook page, you’ll find lots of photos of my dogs. There’s Bodhi standing atop a hill in the early morning; Sierra focused on a sound she hears in the distance; and many shots of each dog, separately or together, coming when called. These latter types of photos and are fun and exciting and, as one of my Facebook friends commented, “They do it joyously! Makes all the difference, I think!” She was absolutely right.

Obedience training isn’t rocket science. Of course, some trainers are better than others, and I’m not saying anyone can do it. But obedience skills are a fairly straightforward thing to teach if one knows what they’re doing and has the patience and persistence to stick with it. But unlike fixing a bathroom sink, in training, it’s not just the end goal that’s important. While a drain plug might not mind rough treatment or suffer long lasting effects, dogs certainly can. Here’s an example: The owner of Benny, a Rottweiler mix, believes that rock solid recalls are crucial. So far, so good. But after teaching the basics, he becomes frustrated when Benny doesn’t come when called in certain situations. There was the time Benny had his nose down a critter hole, and ignored the request to come. When he did finally return, his reward was a smack across the muzzle and a stern reprimand. Streak’s owner too knows the importance of a reliable recall, particularly because the little Aussie mix, true to her name, streaks across hillsides at manic speed. Streak’s owner trains a rock solid recall, but takes a different tactic. She sets Streak up to succeed by teaching the basics, and then building difficulty in distance and distractions gradually. She rewards Streak for good behavior along the way. When Streak doesn’t come immediately when called, sometimes the owner hides behind some bushes. Streak soon looks around to find herself alone, and begins frantically searching for her owner. When she finds her, all is good. At other times, her owner goes to Streak, leashes her, and the fun ends. Streak learns to pay better attention.

Fast forward a few months. Both dogs come to their owners when called. Benny, although he will dutifully come, doesn’t seem very happy about it. Streak, on the other hand, comes flying over hillsides, a big smile on her face, happy to play this fun game. And that, my friends, is the difference. Why does it matter how we train a dog, when we can get the same results with various methods, some faster than others? Teaching a dog that a painful or frightening consequence will follow if he doesn’t comply will certainly work. There’s no denying it. But what’s the end result? A dog who acquiesces out of fear of punishment. And, perhaps, a dog who does not especially enjoy working with the person doling out the punishment, or who loses trust in that person. Fear may create compliance, but it does not create a bond of trust or feelings of affection. Contrast that with the dog who is trained kindly and gently, yet effectively. The same reliable recall results, without the fallout. The dog enjoys working with the person, and trust is built. It’s patient teaching, teamwork and encouragement versus threats. Which way would you rather learn?

And so, when I receive comments like the one on Bodhi’s joyous recall photo, it makes me happy. I reflect on how far Bodhi and I have come. Yes, it took some time and patience, but the results were worth it. He’s not only got a rockin’ recall—all with a goofy grin plastered on his face—but our relationship has also blossomed.
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What is “No!” Really Telling Your Dog?

October 21, 2014

man yelling at dog smallThis past weekend my husband and I saw the film Whiplash. The story centers around a teenage music student whose teacher is…well, I can’t really print the words that would accurately describe him. But at one point the student, a drummer, is asked to play solo a few bars of a piece the group has been working on. “That’s not my tempo!” the teacher yells. The boy tries again. “Not my tempo!” the man barks. And so it goes. After a number of tries there is blood on the boy’s hands, and the despotic instructor just keeps yelling.

What does this have to do with dogs? Well, consider the way the teacher reprimands the boy. Does “Not my tempo!” give the drummer any concrete information? It certainly tells him that he’s got it wrong; but beyond that, there is nothing useful to work from. Given that the man couldn’t seem to instruct without yelling, even yelling, “Faster!” or “Too damned slow!” would have offered a clue. And yet, many dog owners seem to be constantly yelling “No!” at their dogs. Sure, a dog will stop what he’s doing when that one-syllable, sharp sound is uttered, but does it tell the dog what he’s expected to do, exactly? Nope.

Take the example of a dog who is chewing on something he shouldn’t. The owner could yell, “No!” and the dog would stop momentarily, having been startled by the sound. Depending on the dog, he might then go right back to chewing or not. But what if, instead, the dog were instructed to “Leave it!” Assuming the dog has been trained to understand the meaning of the words, that would let the dog know that the owner is requesting that he kindly move away from the object. “Leave it!” is an instructional reprimand, whereas, “No!” is more like “Not my tempo!” which leaves a dog wondering what exactly he did wrong, thereby increasing the likelihood that he’ll get it wrong again. Once “Leave it!” has been used, the owner can redirect the dog to a more appropriate behavior.

A helpful exercise that I’ve used with training clients is to draw a vertical line down the middle of a piece of paper. On the left side, list all the behaviors you’d like your dog to stop doing. Number one might be jumping on visitors at the door, number two pulling on leash, and number three, begging for food at the table. Now, on the right side, jot down what you’d like the dog to do instead. For number one, the doorbell could become the dog’s cue to go and lie down on his bed. Number two could simply be “walking by my side,” while number three’s food begging could be solved with a down-stay on a nearby dog bed during family mealtimes.

Thinking of what we’d like dogs to actually do instead of just shouting a frustrated, “No!” takes a bit of forethought, but it communicates information the dog can use. In the long run, issuing calm cues that tell the dog what we’d like him to do solves problems much more efficiently with less stress all around. Now, that’s my tempo.

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Living in the Moment

September 30, 2014

Sydney copyOne of my best friends lost one of her best friends yesterday. Sydney was a thirteen-year-old mixed breed bundle of love, and was my friend’s “soul dog.” If you’ve ever had one of your own, you know what I mean. Although passing on is not unexpected in a dog of many years, it’s still a shock when it happens, and my friend is crushed. All I can do is offer a shoulder, an ear, and send lots of good energy her way. I can’t say I know exactly how she feels, but unfortunately, I have an idea.

Mojo was my own soul dog, my 120-pound baby. He passed in 2008, and his death hit me harder than I can describe. (If you’ve read Hit by a Flying Wolf, you know what I’m talking about.) Our dogs are our kids, and people who don’t have dogs just don’t get it. When a human family member dies, people send sympathy cards, understand if we need time off work, turn up on our doorsteps with food and friendship, and are generally extremely supportive. With dogs, some look at us a bit strangely.

In Mojo’s senior years, I had a habit of stealing glances at him as he slept. There was always a microsecond of holding my own breath as I watched for his; I’d exhale as I saw the soft, reassuring rise and fall of his chest. I remember feeling a little crazy and obsessive, but I couldn’t help myself. I knew my time with him was finite. When he was 14, Mojo bloated. We rushed him to the emergency vet, where we were told that he only had a 50/50 chance of making it through surgery, the surgery was expensive, and he was over 14 years old. Clearly, we were meant to draw one very final conclusion. Well, we didn’t. I told the woman to stop talking and get in there and save my dog. Mojo made it through the surgery and ended up living another six months. It was worth every cent.

My friend is now experiencing the sharp pangs that accompany those little daily routines that are forever changed. When Mojo passed, for days afterward my hand still extended with a piece of banana, meant for my breakfast-sharing buddy who was no longer there. There were dozens of times this sort of thing would happen, and countless tears. I always remember the saying, “Grief is the price of love.” I don’t know who said it, but it feels like truth. But for the seemingly bottomless pit of grief, we also get a bottomless well of unconditional love, and a magical, shared slice of life with an amazing being.

I am all too aware as I look at my own dogs, now middle-aged by the standards of dogdom, that the crushed, grieving person will one day again be me. And so, I give them my entire heart while they are here. In those moments when they look at me as I’m busy at the computer, I stop what I’m doing and give them that tummy rub. When I have appointments and it would be easier to sleep in, I get my butt out of bed and take them to the park. And more than anything, I make sure they know how much they are loved. I know my friend’s dog knew how much she is loved, as Mojo surely did. I suppose that’s all any of us can ever hope for, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Aggressive Dog? No Problem!

September 17, 2014

GrinThis morning, I visited amazon online. Naturally, amazon suggests things I might like to purchase. Usually I breeze past them. Elegant gold women’s watch? Not my style. Cat tree? Hmm. I’m pretty sure my invisible cat is happy enough without one. What did catch my eye was a book about dog aggression. This book promised, right in the title, to eliminate the problem… in just seven days!

Now, I haven’t read the book, and this rant…er, post…is directed in general at the idea of “curing” aggression immediately. In short, it’s ridiculous. Oh, I suppose you could do something so painful or scary to a dog whenever he shows aggressive behavior that he stops right away. I mean, come on, if you hit me over the head with a mallet every time I bit my nails, I’d stop doing it. And it would look as though the problem was fixed. But although the punishment stopped the behavior at that moment, it didn’t remove the underlying cause. What if I were biting my nails at the time because I’m nervous around horses, and we were near one? Did the mallet whack cause me to become less afraid of horses? No, but it probably made me more afraid of you. It also gave me another bad association with horses. See where this is going?

Humane, scientifically sound methods for handling dog aggression are not flashy. They don’t come with wild promises, bells or whistles. Proper behavior modification can take time and patience. What it doesn’t do is scare the dog, break the trust between dog and owner, or make the problem worse. The dog learns over time that whatever was causing him to be afraid and therefore reactive (the vast majority of dog aggression is fear-based) is really nothing to be afraid of. Once the underlying reason for the aggression is gone, so is the behavior. Rather than slapping a Band-aid on the symptom, there is a real, long-lasting cure.

Well, I’d best get back to amazon and try to remember what I was there for in the first place. Maybe I’ll find a book on fixing my memory in 7 days.

You can find my books, seminar DVDs and seminar schedule at

Options for Severely Aggressive Dogs

August 6, 2014

Mechanics have weeks where they see a slew of brake jobs, or more carburetor issues than usual. There’s no rhyme or reason—it’s an odd universal phenomenon. Dog trainers too have weeks where they seem to hear about an awful lot of the same type of issues. This week, for me, it’s been life threatening, severe aggression issues.

When I say life threatening, I don’t mean the dog is mauling people; I mean solutions are being discussed that include ending the dog’s life. These can be the toughest types of issues trainers deal with both behaviorally and emotionally, but that emotional pain is multiplied exponentially for the owners.

No one gets a dog expecting it to behave aggressively. By the time a bite or multiple bites happen, the family is normally very attached to the dog. I have worked with a multitude of aggressive dogs over the years. Some had mild issues such as fear-based reactivity toward other dogs, or snapping at people. Some issues were more moderate, and the dog had already bitten someone. And there have been those who had multiply puncture-wounded multiple people.

For severe cases, before anything else, I recommend a veterinary exam that includes a full blood workup (including full thyroid panel conforming to Jean Dodd’s specifications) and thorough physical exam to rule out any type of physiological cause for the aggression. Assuming the dog is physically sound, for those dogs at the extreme end of the aggression spectrum, options are limited:

Training: Owners must be wholeheartedly committed to a behavior modification protocol. They must use careful management in the meantime so that no one is hurt. Even with owners who are completely committed, though, if there are children in the home, training might not be a viable option, as the children’s safety must come first.

Management: I have known people who have had severely aggressive dogs, who managed the dogs so carefully that no one was ever hurt. Those people did not have children. What they did have was a strong love of the dog, a boatload of patience, and a willingness to live in a way that causes chronic stress. The quality of life for the dog must also be considered in these situations.

Rescue: I list this as an option mostly because so many people think a rescue might be the answer. Having been involved in rescue for many years, I can tell you that no group wants to take in an aggressive dog. Think about it: how will they adopt the dog out? There would have to be months of behavioral rehabilitation, assuming the rescue even had a trainer on hand. Even then, should the dog be adopted out and bite someone, the organization could be liable. Besides, during those months of training, a number of other sweet, deserving dogs could have been occupying that space. Believe me, we all wish that magical ranch where dogs run free existed—but it doesn’t.

Euthanasia: This is the option no one wants to think about. Unfortunately, in some cases it does end up being the right alternative. That said, I have never in twenty years of behavior made the call as to whether someone should euthanize their dog after only having read an email or having a phone conversation, despite the fact that I have been asked to do so numerous times. No owner should ask for help with that type of decision without a thoroughly qualified behavior specialist seeing the dog in person.

One more thing: I have heard people discuss extracting a dog’s canine teeth as a solution for severe aggression. Seriously! Sure, the dog wouldn’t be able to cause as much damage, but this is not a solution. The dog would still experience the emotions that went along with the aggression, thereby not solving the underlying problem; another dog could attack and the dog would not be able to defend himself; and the chronic stress the dog was under would likely eventually cause the dog physical illness as well as emotional.

Of course, in the best of all worlds, a trainer would be consulted before the aggression issue gets to the severe stage For trainers, check out Interview trainers carefully to get a feel for their methods and experience. If you work with a trainer who does not seem to be a good fit, find another. A veterinary behaviorist is another good option. (Please note that many veterinarians do not have extensive training in behavior—an actual behaviorist is recommended.) My heart goes out to anyone who is dealing with this issue. Be sure to discuss options with a qualified professional who can help you to make the right decision.

You can find my books, seminar DVDs and seminar schedule at, and find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Your Dogs are Fighting: Step In or Step Off?

July 28, 2014

Bodhi growls at Sierra crop small copyYesterday afternoon, I gave Sierra and Bodhi a snack of stuffed, frozen Kongs. Bodhi, of course, finished his first—the boy inhales anything in front of him. Sierra likes to take her time, alternating between excavating treats and giving Bodhi her patented Look of Death any time he so much as looks in her direction. Bodhi, rather than taking the hint and leaving her alone, will walk past at a distance, sniffing for crumbs on the ground. If he gets too close, Sierra will launch at him with a “GRRRR!” that startles even me in the next room. I have no doubt it startles Bodhi as well, particularly when accompanied by Sierra’s fast, repetitive clacking of jaws. At that point, Bodhi normally backs off.

Yesterday, though, he didn’t. In a demonstration of misplaced machismo, he grabbed the Kong away from Sierra. From the next room, I suddenly heard the unmistakable sounds of fighting. I ran in to see Sierra driving Bodhi backward with what appeared to be mouthfuls of his fur between her teeth. Bodhi was carefully stepping backward while still facing her, attempting to defend himself while getting the hell out of Dodge. One sharp, “Hey!” from me and it was over. The two voluntarily separated, as I knew they would. My reaction had been instantaneous; when we’d first adopted Bodhi, he and Sierra had fought for 10 days. I’d quickly become adept at jumping in and separating them. But in this case, I wondered afterward, should I have interfered? After all, possession is 99% of the law in the animal kingdom, and Bodhi shouldn’t have tried stealing from the Queen. I should have let her tell him off.

Dog fights—even harmless skirmishes—sound very frightening. Male dogs in particular can sound like there’s a barroom brawl going on. It’s understandable that when we hear those sounds, for many of us, our first reaction is to jump in and break it up. And there are times when that is absolutely the right thing to do. But sometimes, interference, well…interferes. The dogs never straighten out the situation at hand, and so it arises again. Had I allowed Sierra to properly “instruct” Bodhi as to the house rules, chances are he would have been less likely to attempt the Great Kong Caper the next time.

This begs the obvious question, How do we know whether to interfere or not? I only wish there were an easy answer. If either dog is being injured, breaking things up right away is obviously necessary. But if not, should you let it go on or step in? Well, it depends: it depends on your particular dogs, their past history together, their relationship, their level of communication with each other, and the particular scenario. If skirmishes happen often, a trainer can assist with understanding body language and signaling, and sorting out what’s really going on between the dogs. In the meantime, consider whether stepping in—or stepping off—is the better choice.


You can check out my books, seminar DVDs, seminar schedule and more at and find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Who Comes First: You or Your Dog?

June 25, 2014

iStock Lab with woman.The woman on the phone sounded anxious. She needed a trainer to come to her house today. When asked about the urgency, she replied that she was bringing a four-month-old puppy home, and needed help introducing her to her other dog. The resident dog was a 10-year-old small breed who was dog-aggressive. When I questioned politely whether that might not be the best situation for either dog, she replied that she also had a two-foot-long lizard, and although the small dog had been aggressive toward the lizard at first, she’d taught him to turn away and not make eye contact. That had put a stop to the aggression, she said, and she planned to do the same when it came to the new puppy.

She went on to complain that two different rescue groups had brought dogs over for potential adoption, but when they’d let the dogs down on the ground together, the 10-year-old had gone after the other dog, and the rescue groups had refused the adoption. Oh, and by the way, the puppy she intended to bring home was a shy, fearful dog. I took a deep breath. Then I patiently explained why it was a terrible idea. First, bringing a dog who is already shy and afraid into a home with a dog who is dog-aggressive could only make things worse for the poor pup. Second, the resident dog has already demonstrated more than once that he does not like other dogs, and certainly does not appreciate them in his home. If you were a senior who didn’t particularly like the company of other people, how would you like it if a rambunctious child moved in? Even if the dog could be taught to ignore the puppy, think about the stress it would cause him. I listed the physical issues that chronic stress can cause in dogs (including suppression of the immune system, which opens the door for all sorts of disease); and this was not a young dog. There’s that plus the emotional and mental stress to consider, for both dogs and everyone living in the house. The woman listened, and by the end of the conversation, she said she could see my points, and would consider what I’d said.

I don’t know whether she ultimately decided to adopt the puppy. But the whole situation begs the question: when do we stand back and consider what’s best for our dogs, as opposed to our own wants and desires? I know people who do agility with their dogs, and the dogs absolutely love it. I know others who wanted to participate in agility so they got a specific breed—only the particular dog doesn’t seem to like it anywhere near as much as the person does. In fact, the dog seems not to enjoy it at all, and yet the pair continues to compete. I know people who bring their dogs to the dog park because they enjoy socializing with other owners. The dog, in the meantime, does her level best to stay away from other dogs, and becomes defensive if any come near. She clearly does not enjoy herself and seems perpetually stressed. And yet the park visits continue.

We all have an idea of what we’d like life to be like with our dogs. Depending on our own lifestyle, we might need a dog to be social around kids, be athletic, be dog-friendly, or any of a host of traits. But sometimes the dog we get is not the dog we want (hello, have you read Hit by a Flying Wolf?). And that’s okay. We can certainly do our best to train, socialize, countercondition, and habituate our dogs to the things we’d like them to be okay with. But in the end, sometimes it’s we who have to adjust our expectations and perhaps even our lifestyle. Because in the end, it’s not all about us—it’s about our dogs.

You can find my books, seminar DVDs and seminar schedule at


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