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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You Know Your Dog Best—And It Could Save His Life

September 17, 2015

Tuesday aftelying look of lovernoon, after being gone most of the day, I returned home to find Sierra looking strange. She had been acting perfectly normal when I left her in the morning, but now she just stood there, hindquarters trembling, eyes slightly squinty, just looking wrong somehow. It crossed my mind that it had been raining and perhaps there had been thunder, which frightens her. I called her to me but she stood there staring. I realize many pet parents would, at this point, elect to keep a careful eye on their dog or try to make them comfortable and hope the weirdness would pass. But, as my husband always says, Sierra and I have an almost telepathic bond, and I just knew something was wrong. I put Bodhi outside with his dinner, got Sierra into the car, and headed to the vet’s office.

The vet did blood work and took x-rays. Her explanation of what she suspected amounted to congestive heart failure, although she didn’t use those words. She recommended a cardiologist who was about an hour away, and after calling him for us, said if I could get there within the next 90 minutes he could see Sierra. Fortunately, the L.A. traffic gods were with me. Between that and my utter panic, we made it in under 45 minutes. One echocardiogram, more blood work, and a few x-rays later, the cardiologist had ruled out a heart issue. Great. But Sierra had a fever of over 105 and she was septic. (My mother, who is critically ill, had gone into septic shock the same day. What are the chances?) They suggested putting her on antibiotics and keeping her overnight, hoping the antibiotics would clear up whatever was wrong. They didn’t. The next day her fever was still dangerously high. My husband and I drove to the clinic, where they explained that an ultrasound had showed abnormal fluid around Sierra’s stomach. That and other factors led them to suggest exploratory surgery. We were shocked, but I immediately agreed. Again, I knew something was seriously wrong, and I didn’t want to waste a minute trying different antibiotics and hoping one would help

Two very long hours later, I called the vet. They had just finished surgery, and Sierra had come through it. They had discovered an abscessed mass on her liver that had ruptured and spread infection through her body. They were able to remove the mass and stabilize her, but there were a few other smaller masses on her liver that were worrisome. Removing them all would have mean taking most of her liver, so only the large one was excised. According to the vet, the other masses were on the smaller, benign looking side, but there is of course no way of knowing without a biopsy. So now we wait 3-5 days for results.

I’m not someone who shares much of my personal life on Facebook, in blog posts, or elsewhere publicly. But I share this to say that if I hadn’t rushed Sierra to the vet and she hadn’t had that surgery, things might have been dire. No matter what anyone says, regardless of those voices of reason telling you to wait and see, not to be a panicky, overprotective dog parent, that everything will be fine, listen to your intuition. I’m not suggesting you rush your dog to the vet any time she looks a little strange. But no one knows your dog better than you, and acting on that intuition just might save your dog’s life.

An Open Letter to the Man Who Smacked His Dog

June 9, 2015

Black ChihuahuaHi there! I passed you this morning while walking my dog along a mountain trail. I’ve seen you with your dog before, and you’ve always been pleasant as we exchanged greetings. I’ve also noticed how your dog is reactive toward other dogs, so we give you a wide berth.

This morning, as we hugged the far side of the trail, you allowed your dog lots of leeway on the long line. He ended up in the middle of the trail lunging and barking at us. I had just a moment to notice that he was wearing what looked like a wide-muzzled head halter, before you smacked him with the leash across the nose. He was startled, and stopped what he was doing immediately. You kept walking, and after you’d passed us I turned to see you yelling at him and smacking him again over his muzzle. This time he was cringing, ears back, trying to move away from you.

Here’s the thing: you seem like a nice guy. I don’t think you beat your dog; in fact, I’m guessing that at home, you take good care of him. When you smacked him the second time, I said calmly, “You don’t need to do that, he’s already stopped.” You replied, “I don’t want him doing that!” But let’s think this through. Although I’m not a fan of smacking dogs, at least the first correction was delivered as your dog was doing the thing you wanted him to stop doing. Clearly, he got it. He stopped. The second time, he’d been doing nothing but walking obediently along beside you, and got smacked for his trouble.

Look, I know what it’s like to be really irritated with your dog. If we’re being honest, most dog owners do. But how about using good management by keeping him closer to you, and better yet, teaching him what you expect? He seems intelligent and eager to please. I bet he’d love it if you gave him some instruction on what to do—for example, walk next to you and pay attention—instead of what not to do when passing other dogs. It’s so much easier for a dog to focus when he knows what specifically you’d like him to do. You saw my dog put herself next to me and look up at me when I said, “With me,”  and she got rewarded for it, especially because it was a difficult, high distraction situation. Believe me, she did not come fully trained, in fact she’d apparently had very little guidance if any, and had with such a high prey drive that it made training a challenge. Still, I’d rather have her happily complying than being fearful of being struck, and I’ll bet if you think about it, you feel the same way about your dog.

Again, I don’t mean to get on your case. It just pained me to see your wonderful, sweet dog being hit across his sensitive nose, and cringing that way. I truly don’t think you’re a bad guy. I just hope you’ll have an open mind and consider your options so that you, your dog, and everyone you encounter can have a nice, pleasant walk. Have a good day!

When Your Dog Says, “Eeeuuu! What’s that Smell?”

May 7, 2015

nose of a dog , macro shot , focus on center ( beagle , police dog )

My husband calls me a canary in a coal mine. I can walk into a room and, if there is any trace of a scent of a chemical nature, I will immediately smell it and react. Send me in first and save yourself! Not only can I detect these scents, but I am hyper-sensitive to them to the point that my eyes will burn, my throat will begin to close up, I will have an instant crushing headache, and worse. We have had to switch all of our cleaning products to natural, non-chemical versions as well as making other adjustments in the house.

Now consider your dog’s sense of smell. I may be sensitive, but I still can’t smell a substance in a sealed plastic bag buried under a pile of snow. Your dog, however, can. Think about all of the typical household culprits that are offensive to a very sensitive nose, a nose that is attached to a being that has no way of letting us know that the scent is bothersome or even makes him feel ill.

We’ve known for years that cigarette smoke, even and perhaps especially in second-hand form, is harmful. Even people who don’t think much about it know enough not to smoke around infants. And yet, those very same people will smoke around dogs without giving it a second thought. So not only is the dog having to deal with the offensive odor, it’s actually having a negative impact on his health.

When I walk through a mall department store (which happens as little as possible), I am assaulted by the many strains of toxic, offensive odors—sorry, I mean perfumes. Yes, I can see the allure, but to me it’s nothing but an assault on my senses. And guess what, it’s the same for dogs. Dogs are sensitive to perfumes, cleaning products, and so much more. In the home, air fresheners, dish detergents, hand sanitizer, scented beauty products, scented candles, that horrible chemical smell that comes with certain new products like mattresses and other furniture—it’s all all a lot for a dog to deal with. What if those molecules of scent, being constantly inhaled, were giving your dog a constant headache? How would you ever know? I often wonder how much of dog behavior issues such as aggression have a link to feeling unwell from environmental factors.

So what’s the answer? Do you de-chemicalize your home? Well, it’s not a bad idea for everyone’s health. But at the least, if you smoke, do it outside, away from your dog. Switch to kinder, gentler products in the house, such as unscented dryer sheets, candles, cleaning products, and beauty products. Don’t worry, you won’t miss the scent. Besides, thinking about your dog’s feelings and health? That’s truly beautiful.


Join me in Colorado on May 30th for a special one-day seminar “Talk to the Paw! What Dogs are Really Saying–and What We’re Saying to Them” Visit for more info, and for books/DVDs.

Redirected Aggression in Dogs

March 30, 2015

husky attacksAs any police officer can tell you, domestic violence calls can be tricky. The officer arrives at the home where a couple’s heated argument has progressed to violence. But although the two have been screaming at and even hitting each other, when the officer arrives, a strange phenomenon occurs. The target of the violence suddenly shifts to the officer.

Now consider two dogs who are fighting in the home. What started out as a skirmish has escalated to the point that the owner feels the need to step in. She approaches and tries to grab one of the dogs by the collar. The dog whips around and bites her on the arm. What’s going on here?

Both scenarios are examples of redirected aggression. Emotional arousal becomes so intense that it needs a release, and the target shifts from the original opponent to the source of interference. That’s one reason so many people are bitten when trying to break up a dogfight. It’s something most of us learn the hard way, and I’m no exception; I could show you scars.

Redirection doesn’t only happen to third parties, though. It can erupt between two dogs when caused by another. For example, a Labrador Retriever and a German shepherd are at the dog park, happily romping and playing together. A Boxer comes along and approaches the pair. Suddenly, bodies become stiff. Tension is in the air. Just as the Boxer and the Shepherd are cautiously checking each other out, the Lab slaps a paw over the German Shepherd’s shoulder as if to say, “What’s up? I thought we were playing!” The Shepherd turns and lashes out at the Lab. Again, the tension needs a target, and in this case, instead of being focused on the cause of the tension, it’s redirected to what drew the attention away, much as a lightning rod diverts lightning from a structure.

A common scenario for redirected aggression is when two or more dogs are behind a barrier, such as a chain link fence. Someone passes by the yard with another dog. The enclosed dogs begin to bark and jump at the chain link. They can’t get to the dog, so they become agitated. Frustration builds. When it reaches a boiling point, the dogs may redirect on each other. Barrier frustration can easily turn to redirected aggression in other scenarios, too: picture two dogs who both want to go out to the yard because they see a squirrel. They jump, whimper, and claw at the sliding glass door that leads to the yard. Frustration builds, and soon they turn on each other.

Anytime there is over-arousal, aggression can follow, and it will find the most convenient target. So what can you do to avoid redirected aggression? Be aware of the potential. Try to avoid putting your dogs in situations where redirected aggression might occur. If you see a situation building, interfere before it’s escalated too far. Teach a solid attention cue, meaning your dog stops whatever he’s doing to look at you when you call his name. Don’t jump in to the middle of a dogfight and expect not to be bitten. (How to properly break up a dog fight is a whole other blog.) Don’t approach dogs behind a barrier if they seem agitated; if they are calm but then become agitated, leave. In many cases, redirected aggression can be avoided. The more we understand about how dogs think and react, and the more vigilant we are about recognizing their body language and actions, the safer we can all be.


Don’t miss my Burbank, CA seminars April 18 & 19! Topics are Helping Fearful Dogs, Separation Anxiety, & Dog-Dog Play.

Do Little Dogs Get Away With More?

January 14, 2015

Young chihuahuaScrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, this headline caught my eye: “Pet Pomeranian Kills 6-Week-Old Baby Girl.” Now, any incident where a dog kills a child is horrific, but this one was also unusual. I mean, cute, fluffy Pomeranians aren’t exactly known to be a menace to society. It’s always particularly shocking when small dogs cause extensive harm since they are, by definition, less capable of inflicting physical damage than their larger, stronger counterparts.

Too many times, I’ve heard some version of, “He’s bitten me a few times; he’s bitten my daughter once, and my son’s friend, too. Oh, and then there was the neighbor…” The subject of these confessions are almost always small dogs. I can’t help think that had the dog been a hundred-plus-pound mass of muscle, the problem most likely would have been—excuse the unfortunate pun—nipped in the bud after the first occurrence. These situations are perpetuated too by the fact that fewer people will report a bite from a smaller dog than one from a large dog. Men in particular seem to be reluctant to walk in to their local animal control department, roll up a pants leg, and say, “Look what that mean Chihuahua did to me!” It’s unfortunate that aggression in small dogs is sometimes not taken seriously until it’s too late. What “too late” often looks like is someone outside the family getting bit, the family getting sued, and the dog being euthanized.

The paradigm of small dogs equaling small problems is also apparent when it comes to potty training. I’ve lost track of how many homes I’ve visited where the Maltese, Bichon, or (insert your favorite small dog breed) has been soiling the house for… wait for it…years! Yes, actual years. I’ve wanted to loan some of those people a 120-pound Rottweiler to see how quickly their vigilance increased. Again, with small dogs, some issues just seem…smaller.

Then there’s the flip side, the many wonderful owners I see walking their little dogs in the park, because yes, small dogs need exercise too. Let’s hear it for those responsible people who train these dogs, rather than saying, “Oh, he’s so small, he can’t really pull on leash anyway,” and actually teach the dogs not to run out the front door, jump on visitors, or use the house as their private urinal. These are no doubt the same owners who, if their small dog were to have an aggression issue toward other dogs or people, would address it immediately. So, do small dogs get away with more? They shouldn’t—and they don’t, if owners understand that where behavior is concerned, a dog is a dog no matter the size.
BURBANK, CA seminar April 28 & 19 earlybird reg. closes March 18th. Discounts for shelter/rescue groups. Upcoming Seminars (First Half 2015): Brisbane, Australia, Burbank, California, New Orleans, LA, Broomfield, CO, Edmonton, Canada. For seminar info, books & DVDs, visit

Are You and Your Dog Sympatico?

December 11, 2014

woman with dogA while back, I watched a television special where singer Sheryl Crow was discussing the process of songwriting and producing music. At one point she mentioned working with another person, and smiled as she said they were “sympatico.” She described a relationship where each seemed to feel what the other was feeling and know what the other was thinking, in such a way that allowed the creative process to flow freely. Like so many other things, this made me think of dogs.

Although there’s no true dictionary definition of sympatico, it’s generally accepted to mean having a strong mental connection or bond; to get along; to have a mutual understanding. We’ve all heard stories of people who have these types of relationships with their dogs, and if we’re lucky, we’ve been those people. I’ve had friends over the years whose dogs knew when they were feeling sad, and would come over and nuzzle or otherwise comfort them. Then there are the dramatic stories where an owner-dog bond is so strong that the dog lays down his life for the owner, or won’t move from the place the owner has died.

As much as I hate to admit it, although I’ve had dogs I absolutely adored, and one named Mojo who will forever be my soul dog, I never had that truly sympatico type of relationship. Take Soko, the German Shepherd who was Mojo’s buddy when he was alive. One winter morning, I slipped on the icy dog ramp in back of our house and went down in a most ungraceful heap. My ankle was twisted beneath me at a horribly painful angle, and it felt as though it might be broken. The pain was excruciating. I began to cry. What did Soko do? Did she whimper, whine, look concerned, or nuzzle against me to offer solace? Did she, in an act of inspired canine wisdom, dash indoors and dial 911 with her paw? No. She disappeared around the corner of the house, only to return moments later…with her tennis ball! She dropped it at my feet as if to say, Since you’re down here anyway, why not toss a few? It was disappointing, to say the least.

I always felt badly for students in my group classes who seemed to have little or no bond with their dogs. It was difficult for them to master obedience skills together, because their communication was sorely lacking. Neither seemed to understand the other, and there was frustration on both sides. If there were a word for the opposite of sympatico—perhaps nonpatico?—that was them. Of course, with encouragement and coaching on how to work and communicate better together, relationships can improve. But some bonds are just effortlessly special.

I said earlier that I’d never had a truly sympatico type of relationship with my dogs—that is, until Sierra. I was absolutely crazy about her and somehow knew she was mine from the moment I saw her at the desert shelter where she’d been impounded as a stray. Ours was a strong, immediate bond. In the months that followed her adoption, we worked through her separation anxiety (yes, there can be too much of a bond), did lots and lots of training, and learned gradually about each other. Her prey drive was so high that at first I thought I’d never be able to allow her off leash, lest she spy a squirrel and cease to remember I existed. But now in the mornings I let her run loose over park trails. She happily bounds up and down hillsides and races around dirt tracks, but always looks back to check where I am. And she always comes when I call.

As for Sierra’s ability to sense my moods? Well, I’m normally a fairly strong, balanced person emotionally, but last week I had a bit of a meltdown. The trials and tribulations of caregiving for two elderly parents who are both seriously declining at once are exhausting. After receiving some especially bad news by phone, I hung up, sat at the kitchen table, and just lost it. My other dog, Bodhi, stayed a short distance away and circled nervously, apprehensive about those weird noises that were coming out of Mom. Sierra ran to me. She sat in front of me, looking up in a way that I can only describe as very concerned, and kept pawing at my leg. Now, she does paw when she wants her chest rubbed, and through my tears, I automatically complied. It calmed me. But it was more than her wanting affection; there was real worry in her eyes. There have been many other instances of our being in sync, but really, it’s more of a constant, everyday type of thing. It’s the ease of a relationship where you don’t have to try so hard, the natural rhythm of simply being in tune—the type of thing we look for in a life partner. I’m lucky to have that in my husband, and now, happily, I finally have it in a canine companion as well.
Fundraiser alert! Between now and Christmas, I am donating $5 per “Hit by a Flying Wolf” sold ($3 per ebook) to Villalobos Rescue Center. Books must be purchased through Get a great holiday gift (or a gift for yourself!) while doing something good for dogs in need.


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