Can Every Dog Be Rehabilitated?

May 19, 2016

aggressive dog HP blogI recently came across an article in which a dog who was known to be “nervous, growling, and didn’t like children” was sent away for training. While in the trainer’s care, the dog mauled her. According to the lawsuit, “With the pit bull still attached to her left breast, Ms. Rickles backed into a laundry room where the dog released his grip, enabling Ms. Rickles to close the door. The pit bull then broke through the door and attacked Ms. Rickles a third time, latching onto her left arm and breaking it in two places.” After this horrific incident, you might assume the dog would have been euthanized. Indeed, a Texas judge did sentence the dog to death. However, the dog’s owner pleaded for the dog’s life, and it was agreed that the dog would go to the training facility of a well-known trainer who would “take the pit bull and rehabilitate it” and not release it until it was “fully deemed a safe member of society.”

Unfortunately, the training facility allegedly released the dog into someone’s care prematurely. A woman who was visiting her friend at that home got mauled. According to the lawsuit, the dog ended up inflicting “disfiguring wounds, deep muscle and tendon lacerations.” Incidentally, the training center was the Dog Psychology Center (Cesar Millan’s facility), but how you or I feel about Cesar is not the point. The real question is, can a dog who has demonstrated severe aggression ever be rehabilitated to the point of living safely among people?

Apparently a lot of rescues seem to feel the answer is yes, judging by the number of training calls I get from people who have adopted aggressive dogs. Just last week a woman called who had adopted a Bichon who had bitten three people. Two of the bites were disclosed by the rescue organization, and the third happened to her once the dog was at her home. I’m not familiar with the rescue group and don’t know whether any behavior modification was attempted, but I have seen all too many dogs over the years who were known for having aggression issues be adopted out.

Most rescues are overcrowded, and although there are some where trainers do behavioral rehabilitation, theose are few and far between. I’m not suggesting that a dog who displays aggressive tendencies to any degree should be euthanized—far from it. I’ve personally worked with many, many aggression cases ranging from mild to severe over the years, and helped the dogs and their owners go on to live long, happy lives together. But would I knowingly adopt out a dog with serious aggression issues? Never.

Even outside of a rescue/adoption situation the real question is, can every dog be rehabilitated? My personal belief is the answer is no, no more than every violent criminal can be. Many dogs who are capable of inflicting irreparable damage live in homes and are friendly with their owners, who have learned to never allow the dog access to other people. This is called management, not training, and is often a last resort. Management is of course never 100% and things happen, but it’s often the only choice left.

If a dog causes extreme harm, such as the case with Gus, that dog should be euthanized. Period. As one of the biggest dog lovers you’ll ever meet, who also has a lot of empathy for owners, I do not say that lightly. But human safety must be the first priority. And any trainer who believes they can fix any dog no matter what has an overabundance of hubris and a serious lack of understanding of dog behavior. Let’s give dogs the benefit of the doubt where appropriate, and do everything we can to help them behave better and improve their chances of having a long, loving life. But let’s be realistic as well, for the highest good of everyone concerned.

You can view my books, seminar DVDs and more here. If you have an interest in checking out my photography/art, click here. You can also find me on Facebook & Twitter.

Do You Expect Your Dog to be Psychic?

April 13, 2016

Sierra fortune tellerMost mornings, my husband and I take our dogs hiking. Because I lug my camera with a ginormous lens in hopes of seeing coyotes, he handles both leashes. This morning, I was walking ahead on a narrow trail when they came running up behind me. A noise sounding something like, “Uh-uh!” came from my husband. As they got even closer, he finally said, “Duck!” This was my signal to participate in the Dance of the Leashes by ducking my head so they could pass without anyone getting tangled.

Naturally, this made me think about dogs and the way we communicate with them. I had no idea what that first sound my husband made meant. I had a notion that it was directed at me, but I didn’t know what specifically he wanted. Once he clarified, I understood. Now, if I asked100 dog owners whether they’re clear when they communicate with their dogs, the majority would answer yes. But would they be right?

I constantly hear owners telling their dogs to “Leave it!” when their dog is approaching or has a forbidden object. Sometimes, because of the tone of voice alone, the dog will momentarily freeze or back away. But how instructive or fair is it if the dog has never actually been taught what “Leave it” means? In case this is something you need to teach, here’s a simple way to begin. Use treats, but not the ones that make your dog do backflips—choose something he likes of so-so value. Hold one treat in in the palm of your hand, and another behind your back. Let your dog see the treat in your palm, then make a fist. As your dog sniffs (trust me, he will), keep your hand solidly in place. Once he backs off, even for a second, say, “Yes!” to mark the moment, then immediately reward with the treat from behind your back. (I recommend this rather than giving the treat in your palm because you don’t want your dog to learn that backing off something means he then gets that thing.) Within a few repetitions, most dogs learn that backing up is what earns them a treat. Once you can reliably predict that he will back up, say, “Leave it!” just as your dog backs up. With more practice, he’ll associate the words with the action.

Of course, there’s more training needed to help your dog generalize “Leave it” to other objects and situations, but think about a dog who has been trained this way versus one who has no idea what the words mean. Unfortunately, it’s far from just this one cue that we expect dogs to know. Many people talk to their dogs like they’re…well, people! They expect their furry family members to understand when they use full, wordy sentences. If the dog is especially talented, maybe he’ll pick out the pertinent words, but it sure makes things more difficult. Another common error is using the same cue, for example, “Down!” for different things such as lying down, getting down off the sofa, or not jumping on visitors.

Next time you find yourself giving your dog a cue he hasn’t been taught, or assuming he’ll understand a full sentence, ask yourself whether you expect your dog to be psychic. And then do both of you a favor by taking the necessary steps to ensure he doesn’t have to be.
_________________________________________________________________You can find my books, DVDs and more at and can find me on Facebook.
You can also check out my photography and art here

Why the Latest Cesar Millan Incident Isn’t Just About a Pig

March 14, 2016

If you’re involved in the dog world in any way, chances are you’ve heard about the latest incident involving Cesar Millan. In a nutshell, on National Geographic’s “Cesar 911,” a dog named Simon who was a known pig killer was brought to Cesar for rehabilitation. The televised incident that has so many up in arms occurred when another man restrained a pig by the hind legs, causing it to squeal, and Simon, having been let off leash by Cesar (who previously had him on a long line), ran at the pig and bit its ear, drawing blood and, according to many reports, removing a chunk of the pig’s ear. Shortly after Cesar applied his brand of “rehabilitation,” he leashed Simon to the pig and boasted about how wonderful it was that they could be together in that way without violence. The incident was reported to Animal Control and Cesar is now under investigation.

There are so many things wrong with the pig episode that it’s difficult to know where to begin. For starters, the dog never should have been off leash in the first place. And later, when they were tethered together, the dog, who was showing avoidance behaviors, had no choice but to follow the pig. The pig had no choice, either. That’s rehabilitation? But before I address the bigger issues, I am aware that many people’s responses to the outrage over the incident has been some version of, “So what? It’s a pig!” or “Pigs are treated even worse in the meat industry, why aren’t you up in arms about THAT?” For the record I’m vegetarian, but that’s not the point. And I agree that the meat industry has some horrific practices; but that’s still not the point. This isn’t about a pig being harmed in the food industry. It’s about unnecessary pain and suffering caused to an animal in the name of training. And that is not okay, whether the injured party is a pig, a dog, or any other animal.

As a canine behavior specialist for over 20 years I, along with many of my professional colleagues, have been protesting Cesar’s methods for a very long time. His modus operandi is almost always the same: get the aggressive dog riled up to the point that he will demonstrate the aggressive behavior; punish the dog to the point that he shuts down and does not dare do it again; declare the dog rehabilitated. It certainly makes for good drama on television. But should our concern be what’s best for the animal, or for the viewing audience? Having worked with what Cesar terms “red zone dogs”—dogs with severe aggression towards dogs and/or people—for many years, I can tell you that rehabilitation does not require violence. The vast majority of dogs who are termed “aggressive” (yes, even “red zone dogs”) are displaying fear-based reactivity. Whether due to lack of early socialization, traumatic experience, or some other reason, the dog is not comfortable with other dogs. The barking, lunging and other aspects of the display certainly appear aggressive, and serve to cause the other dog or person to move away. It works, so the dog continues the behavior. But even in the small minority of cases where the cause is not fear-based reactivity, the dog already has a negative association with other dogs. So what is the answer? Should we scare or hurt the dog through harsh physical corrections every time he displays the aggressive behavior? Since dogs learn by association, although he might stop the behavior at the moment, a negative association is being strengthened. The dog’s underlying feeling about other dogs is, if anything, worsening. Any “improvement” in his behavior is due to fear of correction.

The foregoing describes setting the dog up to fail and then punishing him. The dog may no longer show aggression around other dogs, and may even display avoidance behaviors, because he knows other dogs coming around is going to be trouble. In this scenario, we have seemingly “fixed” the problem by strong-arming the dog into stopping. I wonder what the result will be when the human who did the strong-arming isn’t around, and the dog has access to another dog? And I wonder what sort of trust the dog now has in the person who choked, kicked, or otherwise punished.

Now the other side of the coin: modern, enlightened training methods. Using classical conditioning, for example, positive associations are created by pairing rewards with the appearance of another dog. At first, the training happens at a distance where he does not react. Gradual progress is made as the dog is comfortable. The dog is never pushed into a situation where he feels that he must react. It might not be scintillating action for television, but it results in a dog who is happy working with the person, and whose underlying association with other dogs changes, thereby resulting in a natural change in behavior. And for those dogs who are never going to like other dogs regardless, alternative behaviors to lunging, barking, etc. are taught. Again, the default behavior changes without causing harm to the dog or the relationship. Yes, even with “red zone” dogs.

I watched the entire first season of The Dog Whisperer back in the day, and have seen plenty of episodes since. I have watched horrified as dogs are forced to confront things they were terrified of (flooding), put into situations where of course they were going to bite because they were scared and pushed too far (bang trimming, nail trimming episodes come to mind), and more. In the infamous Holly episode, a resource guarding dog is pushed and pushed until she finally bites Cesar. There was a huge uproar over it, and yet nothing changed. Then there was the episode where he pushed a poor wolfdog who was dog reactive so far that the dog reacted. The dog was then hung to the point that he appeared unconscious. And this is rehabilitation?

Veterinary colleges, behaviorists, and all manner of trainers have protested time and time again. The point is, it’s ultimately not just about the pig. The problem is a man pushing dogs over threshold time and time again until they react, punishing them for it, and then deeming them cured. The problem is showing the public that this is the way to train dogs. Any show that needs a “Don’t try this at home” disclaimer is clearly using methods that can be dangerous. I have personally cleaned up countless messes where people have tried those very methods and things have gotten worse. Whether these owners applied the methods correctly is debatable, but what is not debatable is that many of them were bitten by their own dogs or, at the least, the fallout was a damaged relationship. The general public should not be trying methods that can result in harm to them or their dog. In fact, no one should. Meeting violence with violence is never the answer. With all we know nowadays about the way dogs think and learn, and all the safe, effective, scientifically based rehabilitation methods, there is no excuse for these Neanderthal techniques to still exist, and certainly not to be televised. No animal should ever suffer physically, emotionally, or psychologically in the name of training, period.

You can find Nicole’s books and seminar DVDs at

New Study Reveals Shelter Workers Often Mislabel Dogs as Pit Bulls

February 18, 2016

A new DNA study led by Dr. Julie Levy, a professor of shelter medicine at UF College of Veterinary Medicine, has shown that many dogs who have been identified by shelter staff as “pit bulls” are actually mislabeled. “Pit bull” has long been the label given to any dog who has American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, or Staffordshire Bull Terrier heritage.

In the study, DNA samples were taken from 120 dogs who had been assessed by 16 shelter staffers at four shelters, including four veterinarians. The results showed that dogs with pit bull heritage were correctly identified 33-75% of the time, while dogs who had none of the DNA were mislabeled as pit bulls 0-48% of the time. The study also showed that even though the staffers all had at least three years of experience, there was marked disagreement among them in their assessments.

Correctly identifying a dog’s breed heritage is tricky, and having seen DNA test results for many dogs, I can tell you they are often surprising based on the visual presentation of the dog. The thing is, if a poodle is assessed incorrectly in a shelter, that misidentification is not going to cost the dog his life. Years ago, while volunteering at a busy Los Angeles city shelter, I encountered a woman with her young child perusing the row of pens. They seemed to be enamored of one beautiful, frisky dog who was wagging his tail so hard his entire butt wiggled. He was happily licking the smiling child’s hands through the bars. When the woman asked what breed the dog was, I told her it was an American Staffordshire Terrier. With a look of concern, she asked, “Is that a pit bull?” I smiled and said yes. Aghast, she immediately stepped back from the bars, pushing her child behind her. They moved on, and that friendly, wonderful, adoptable dog was left to face the odds.

Having co-run Villalobos Rescue Center many years ago, which is now the largest pit bull rescue in the country, I can tell you that while many people absolutely adore pit bulls and know them to be the loyal, loving, tolerant companions they often are, just as many have a knee jerk reaction to hearing the very name. News stories of pit bull attacks only fuel the fire. Of course, an aggressive pit bull can do a lot of damage; you don’t often hear the headline, “Tiny Chihuahua bites man on leg!” In the pit bull’s case, the fact that the aggressive dog belonged to an irresponsible owner, or worse, was encouraged to be aggressive by the owner, never seems to be the thing people remember.

You truly can’t judge an individual dog by their breed. I’m not suggesting that shelter staffers purposely not label a pit bull as what it is, but that when that assessment is made, based on the fact that it could mean a potential death sentence, another educated staff member should lay eyes on the dog. Temperament tests are being done in more and more shelters and, assuming they are conducted correctly by experienced personnel, should be the standard of judgment regarding adoptability. The other piece is educating the public. Because so many shelters are flooded with pit bulls, and the euthanasia rate is incredibly high, having posters at shelters explaining “What is a pit bull?” and what to expect from their behavior, including facts and fallacies, would be a great start. In the meantime, let’s look beyond looks and judge dogs by the deed, not the breed.

For Nicole’s books, blog and seminar DVDs, visit

Are Trainers and Their Dogs Perfect?

January 19, 2016

world's longest tongue edit smallI recently posted on Facebook about my morning at the park with Sierra. I’d had her off leash in a semi-remote area we often frequent, when she suddenly stopped running and went into predatory stalk mode. She crouched low and remained stock still. I thought the German Shepherd who sometimes patrols behind a chain link fence we were coming up on might be visible, but he wasn’t. Regardless, I knew she saw something, and that her next step would be bursting into motion and running toward whatever had caught her attention. I called her to me. Guess what—she didn’t come. I then whipped out the Mom Voice, and she came running in record time. I leashed her, and gave her a piece of hot dog and praise. When I looked up again, I saw a coyote standing less than 50 feet from us, staring directly at us. He must have been there the entire time, watching us. Having my camera with me, I held Sierra tightly on leash, took a few photos, and then moved on.

I was surprised by the comments on the post thanking me for being truthful about Sierra not coming the first time. Then I thought about it. We don’t often hear professional trainers talk about how something didn’t work out perfectly, or how training failed. You might be surprised to know that many professionals, some quite well known, have dogs who every now and then do things like jump up on the dining room table with all four feet, jump on visitors, and worse. Sometimes those dogs had issues that were there when they were adopted—many trainers end up adopting the worst behaved dogs—and the issues aren’t fixed yet; and sometimes it’s a case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes. But I have heard some of my favorite trainers and lecturers admit to being less than perfect, and I respect them all the more for being open and honest. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen many more who portray themselves as infallible. The thing is, we’re human, dogs are dogs, and s*#& happens. To everyone.

It’s like those trainers who guarantee they can fix any dog’s issues, regardless of the problem or severity. Those claims never seem to take into consideration things like genetic predisposition, how intense the behavior is or how long it’s been going on, the dog’s age, health, or a multitude of other factors. There’s even one company that guarantees to fix your dog’s behavior in one session! If that doesn’t happen, there’s a lifetime guarantee, meaning the trainer will come out as many times as necessary. But why make such an unrealistic claim in the first place, not to mention that if the trainer really doesn’t know how to address the issue, how is having him/her return endlessly going to help?

I don’t know about you, but I make mistakes. My dogs make mistakes. Of course I train them and expect them to comply. Who wants a trainer with poorly behaved dogs? But instinct is incredibly strong, particularly in dogs like Sierra who are a bit on the wild side. I would never be so pompous to claim that because I’m such an amazing trainer, my dogs never do anything they shouldn’t. (Have you read Hit by a Flying Wolf? Hah!) Or, that I have superhuman powers that allow my training to trump instinct every single time. Yes, I can call my dogs off squirrels, another dog, and, as evidenced this morning, a coyote. But I won’t say it’s easy or that it works 100% of the time. Humility, paired with caution, goes a long way toward keeping everyone safe.

We should absolutely strive to train our dogs to the highest level of compliance, practice, proof, and practice some more. But professionals do a disservice to owners and to other trainers when they represent themselves as infallible. I’ve had many people comment about how relieved they are that something I shared in a blog post, “could happen to a professional.” The truth is, it does happen. To all of us. So let’s train, train, train—but let’s be honest as well.
_________________________________________________________________You can find my books and seminar DVDs here and my photography here. You can also find me Facebook and Twitter.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T Find out What it Means to Me—in Dog Training

January 7, 2016

recall part 2
A woman I know once told me, “I’d rather be feared than respected.” That was her honest opinion, whether it involved people or animals. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to share her view. Take the boss who threatens his employee that if he doesn’t have a report in by the end of the day he’s fired. Or the parent who threatens that if his son doesn’t clean his room he’ll slap him into next week. Sure, the report is likely to get done, and the room cleaned. But what kind of feelings do you think those acts create?

Of course there needs to be consequences for actions. In dog training, we talk about antecedent, behavior, and consequence. But there are way too many people who still subscribe to that old, timeworn philosophy that to get a dog to listen, you need to “show him who’s boss.” Look, it’s a no-brainer that you should ultimately be the one in charge. But training by intimidation is pointless. Yes, you can threaten, strong-arm, and punish a dog ‘till the cows come home, and yes, he’ll comply because you’re bigger and stronger. But is that the kind of relationship you want? In working with wolves over many years, I often thought about how I’d love to see some of those might-is-right trainers try those techniques with the wolves. In dog training we have a name for what would result—one trial learning; that is, for the human.

I was once in a big box pet supply store when I noticed a man with his Akita. The man was trying to look at something on the shelf, and wanted his dog to lie down. He issued the command in a gruff voice. The dog looked nervous, but did not lie down. The man said, “Down!” again, this time a bit louder. The dog cringed and shrank away as much as possible while on leash but remained standing. Finally, the man all but shouted a very threatening-sounding, “Down!” in the dog’s face. The dog hit the floor—facing completely away from the man. Was the Akita blowing him off? Trying to make a statement by pointing his furry derriere in the man’s direction? Nope. The dog was completely upset by the tone of voice, and turning away physically is a very common stress signal. The point here is not that a stern voice should never be used with dogs, or that it’s fine for dogs to not respond until the third request. It’s difficult to judge by one incident, but it certainly appeared by the body language of both species and the man’s voice and demeanor that this was not exactly a relationship built on mutual respect.

People often comment that in photos where my dogs are running towards me, they always look happy. Those frozen moments in time come right after I’ve called my dogs to come, and they comply because we’ve practiced the recall many, many times, with them being rewarded for their good behavior. If they choose not to come, there’s a consequence. Because my dogs are so attached to me, I will hide behind a bush or tree and keep very still. The dog who chose not to come, after finishing sniffing where a bunny had been or whatever the distraction, suddenly realizes I’m not there and all but panics. I let the freak-out go on for a moment or two, and then reappear. This time, the recall is lightning fast. And then we work on getting it right the first time with progressively more difficult distractions.

Yes, you can absolutely get people and animals to do your bidding because they fear you. People do it all the time, and there’s no doubt that it works. But it also damages the relationship, creating feelings of mistrust and even dislike. Besides, why do that when cooperation, patience, and consistency in training get solid results while building respect. Personally, I would much rather have my dogs comply out of respect than fear any day.
     You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more at

The Most Important Thing You Could Ever Teach Your Dog

November 2, 2015

park back hill coming atcha editAsk 100 dog owners what they feel is the one most important thing to teach their dogs, and you’ll get a variety of answers. The owner of the six-month-old, over the top energetic Lab might say (in a trailing voice as she’s being dragged down the street) teaching leash manners. The 80-pound lovable Rottweiler mix’s owner might choose not jumping on and knocking down visitors. And the owner of the four-month-old Dane who’s still not completely potty trained…well, you can guess. But, beyond the obvious not biting people or being aggressive with other dogs, there’s one thing most trainers would agree on. Rather than simply telling you, let me illustrate what this most important thing is with an experience I had this morning.

My husband and I took our two dogs Bodhi and Sierra hiking in the canyons behind our house. I was carrying a heavy rented camera lens, so my husband was holding both dogs on leash. Suddenly, something darted up the mountain and disappeared just out of sight. Before you could say, “Meep, meep!” Bodhi had lunged after the coyote, pulling the leash right out of my husband’s hand. As my husband maintained his grasp on Sierra’s leash, he called to Bodhi. Bodhi kept right on tearing after the coyote. I stopped and called in my best training voice, “Bodhi, come!” I won’t lie; it took two repetitions—but that boy stopped mid-bolt, turned, and ran back to me. I was able to get the leash back into my husband’s hands.

By now you’ve guessed what is, in my opinion, the most important obedience skill you could ever teach your dog. Say it with me: Rock. Solid. Recall. Feel free to pump your fist in the air and chant it like you’re at a rock concert. In fact, try that the next time you’re at a concert. (Okay, maybe not.) But seriously—it’s that important. One of the biggest misconceptions I’ve found among dog owners is that teaching their dog to come when called in one scenario, for example, being called into the house from the yard, or even just across the room, will guarantee success in a high distraction, high value environment. It just ain’t gonna happen. A rock solid recall takes a lot of practice and patience. You’ve got to start small with no distractions so as to set your dog up to succeed, and of course, reward for that success. Oh, and make sure those rewards are really rewarding to your dog. Nine out of ten dogs surveyed prefer a super yummy treat to your oh so lovely smile and praise.

Slowly add in difficulty, such as calling your dog when she’s slightly distracted sniffing something mildy interesting. You might soon add someone walking by, or someone walking a dog past at a distance. Eventually you’ll want to practice in busier environments and make the challenges more difficult, but you get the idea. Build slowly, because in this case slow and steady really does win the race. And if you ever end up in a situation where your dog is loose and about to run into traffic, or take off after another dog, or even chase a coyote, you’ll know that every bit of time and training you put in was well worth it.


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