The Truth About Consequences

June 5, 2018

2 dogs waiting pixabay smallI was sitting across the kitchen table from my dog training client, trying to get a word in edgewise. The woman herself wasn’t the problem; it was her two young children, who kept interrupting, yelling, and generally acting in a way that could only be described as bratty.

The woman warned them: “If you don’t stop that, you’re going to your rooms.” Still, the children carried on.
“I’m warning you. Be quiet and let me talk to the nice dog trainer lady.” Still nothing.
“That’s it, I’m counting to three. One….two….three!” And yet… the kids kept it up.
“Go on, go to your rooms.”
The kids just sat there.
“Okay, then, be quiet if you want to stay.”

Needless to say, this is not the way to establish consequences, whether with children or with dogs. And while we might not be able to tell dogs in the same way we can warn children that their behavior is about to have an unpleasant consequence, we can certainly show them, in a fair, consistent way, that we mean business. In my house, unfortunately, canine incontinence has become an issue as of late. One thing that helps is to take my dogs out to potty regularly. Fortunately, I had put the behavior on cue when they were younger, so they both know what it means when I say, “Go potty!” The problem comes when one or both just don’t feel like it. Who knows whether it’s the hot weather, laziness, or what, but sometimes one dog will just stand there and watch as the other walks with me to the potty area and goes. Now, when my husband, being the kind, wonderful guy that he is, takes them out to potty and this happens, he runs back inside with them and gives them both a cookie anyway. Being nice is great, but in this case, not so effective. And so, I explained that we were only going to reward the dog who pottied. Not only that, but we were going to make a big deal of it. And so, the next time after Bodhi went out and dutifully did his business while Sierra stood on the dog ramp waiting, I gave Bodhi a cookie and lots of effusive praise. I only wish I had a photo of Sierra’s face. Her jaw dropped, and there was a thought bubble over her head that read clear as day, What the…? The next time, it was the opposite scenario, with Sierra being the only one who pottied. And so, she was the only one who got rewarded. On day three, guess what? They both went immediately when cued. And, they both got rewarded. Things have been much easier ever since.

Consequences don’t need to be harsh. They just need to be clear and consistent. For example, my dogs know that before they get walked in the mornings, their job is to sit on the mat by the front door until released. This means exercising self-control while I open the door and scan the porch to make sure there are no rattlesnakes, bunnies, or other surprises out there. When I give the release word, we all go walking. Once in a while, one dog or the other breaks the sit. Do I shrug and think Eh, we’re in a rush, let’s just go and leave, or does the door close again until they reseat themselves and stay? What do you think? While the former is definitely tempting, the latter is what reinforces the behavior. Don’t be lazy! What the specific rules are at your house are not as important as the fact that you have rules, and that you are consistent. The truth about consequences is that dogs understand them and learn very quickly—so long as we are fair and consistent about reinforcing them.
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You can find my books (including my latest, “Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home) and DVDs at www.nicolewilde.com and my artwork at www.photomagicalart.com.


This Whole Pack Leader Thing

May 22, 2018

dog looking up at man pixabayIf you hear a whistling sound, it’s the steam coming out of my ears because I’ve just heard yet another person state that someone else’s dogs wouldn’t have aggression issues if only that person were a stronger pack leader. Gah! Okay. Deep breaths. Let me backtrack. I was at the park this morning with my dogs when I ran into a woman I hadn’t seen in some time. I like her and her dogs, and we stood there catching up as our dogs romped happily. When she asked what I’ve been writing lately and I responded that I’d put out a book called Keeping the Peace, which is about dogs fighting in the home, she looked perplexed. “But,” she said, “that’s just a matter of being a strong pack leader. Dogs won’t fight if they have one.” Here’s the thing: she’s partly right, in that it is important that dogs have someone who teaches them the rules and enforces them in a kind, fair way. It’s important too that when dogs are unsure of something that they can look to their person for direction, and that when they’re starting to do something they shouldn’t, their person can intervene. However. That doesn’t mean that having even the best of human leaders in the home guarantees that dogs won’t have aggression issues.

This reminds me of the man who walks his nice, sweet Lab around our local park in the mornings. Fortunately for him, his dog is friendly with other dogs and people. But he truly believes that if any dog has aggression issues with other dogs he encounters, it’s entirely the owner’s fault, period; and that a dog who snarls and lunges at passing dogs can be “rehabilitated” simply by walking him right up to other dogs (regardless of how dog-reactive those dogs are) and letting them meet, and not allowing the dog to react aggressively. Do that enough, and the problem is solved, thanks to strong pack leadership. Yeah. That goes well…until it doesn’t. Again, while being a good leader is important, it’s not the be-all and end-all to solving all canine behavior problems.

Although children and dogs are obviously two different species, family dynamics and psychology do have some things in common. A parent who lets their kids run wild with very few rules and boundaries is likely to have less control over them than one who establishes house rules and enforces behavioral expectations. In all the homes I’ve visited over the years to train dogs, there was a strong correlation between how much control the owner had over her kids and how much control she had over her dogs. But does being a responsible parent and strong leader guarantee that a kid isn’t going to fight with other kids? Does it mean the kid will like most other kids he meets? And should he be expected to like and get along with every one of them? Of course not, and we can’t expect it from our dogs, either. Sure, we should train them and yes, we absolutely should teach them our house rules and how we expect them to behave. And there should be fair, non-violent but effective consequences should they choose not to comply. Those things can go a long way in raising well-behaved dogs. But the fact is that dogs, like people, simply do not like everyone they meet. A dog might like most dogs, but absolutely loathe the other dog who lives in the home. Or, perhaps the dogs get along some of the time but then get into horrific fights in specific situations. Of course, I believe much if that is solvable (hence the book); but simply being a strong pack leader is not going to fix everything on its own. Our television culture has ensured that many owners have heard about the importance of being a strong pack leader and, to an extent, that’s useful. But on the flip side, it’s damaging in many cases to put the entire burden of blame on the owner (along with the resulting guilt if the problem isn’t solved), and to believe that canine behavior issues, which are inherently complex, can be solved with strong leadership alone.
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You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more at www.nicolewilde.com and my artwork at www.photomagicalart.com.


Long-Distance Behavior Assessment

April 23, 2018

woman dog phone pixabay small“My dog bit my father and broke skin. He’s also bitten a relative who came to visit. My father thinks the dog should be put down. What should we do?” This was the gist of a recent inquiry I received. It’s not unusual for me to receive advice-seeking messages, as I’m an author who writes about dog behavior. I help where I can. But this particular type of question is something that not only can I not answer in the way the person wants, but it’s one that I believe no trainer can or should take on.

It’s not that I don’t empathize with those who are living with dangerous dogs. Of course I do; helping people and dogs is the motivation behind everything I do. But these are potentially life and death situations for a dog. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of options for dogs who bite. Most rescues won’t take aggressive dogs, and surrendering a dangerous dog to a shelter for someone else to adopt is irresponsible. Management is a possibility if owners are willing to put in the work and if the family members and lifestyle allow for it. But beyond that, sadly, in many cases the choice to euthanize the dog is made.

But how can any trainer or behavior specialist assess a situation involving aggression without seeing the dog? I’m not talking about an obvious case such as where a dog has severely mauled a young child. Those are rare and at the far end of the spectrum. And I’m not talking about giving general training advice, or even advice about mild aggression. I’m talking about potential life or death cases such as the one mentioned here. How would I know, for example, if the dog bit the father because the father was reprimanding the dog for something by using physical punishment, and the dog acted in self-defense? And what about the visitor who was bitten? Did the person’s body language somehow scare the dog, who happened to be in a position where he couldn’t escape? Even if the dog was completely at fault and bit without provocation, I know nothing beyond what the person is relating. My response to her was that I could not in good conscience give advice about a serious aggression issue without having worked with the dog myself, and that it would not only be unethical, but it would not be doing the dog any favors to do so. I offered to find them a trainer in their area who could work with them in person.

You would think this would all be common sense, but I’ve had more than a few phone calls over the years from desperate owners whose dogs are showing aggression, who have been advised by a trainer sight-unseen to euthanize the dog. To cavalierly suggest that someone end their dog’s life based on a brief phone consult is not only irresponsible, it’s despicable. Perhaps the trainer simply did not want to take on a case that involved such an aggressive dog; that’s understandable. But there are those of us who do deal with severe aggression issues. At least refer the person to someone who does! As for the owner, they’re calling for help. Even in those rare cases where a dog is truly dangerous and there are no viable options other than euthanasia, most owners will sleep much easier at night knowing they did all they could for their dog before coming to that incredibly difficult decision. Having someone assess the situation in person is a necessary part of a comprehensive evaluation. Doesn’t every dog deserve at least that much?
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Got a dog with dog-dog aggression issues in your home? Or a dog with separation anxiety, or fear issues? There’s a book for that! Find help at www.nicolewilde.com.


Turn Your Dog Into a Supermodel

April 16, 2018

Sierra park purple flowers for blogIf you’ve followed me for any length of time, you’ve probably seen tons of images of my dogs Sierra and Bodhi. The thing is, neither of them particularly liked having their photo taken when they were first adopted. Sierra in particular did not like that giant eye pointing in her direction! That was unfortunate, because I greatly enjoy photography and not only do I love Sierra like crazy, but I find her a beautiful subject. And so, my first task was to get her over her discomfort with the camera.

If you’ve ever done clicker training, you’re already familiar with the concept of click-and-treat. It’s simple conditioning, with the dog associating the sound of the click with something super yummy, so that the dog works to earn a click. In this case, the camera shutter delivered the click. I started with the camera in my lap, with each click followed by a small piece of hot dog for Sierra. I gradually worked up to holding the camera up to my face, clicking, and treating. Over time, Sierra got comfortable being photographed. Still, tolerating a camera is not the same as modeling. Since we’d all love to take great photos of our dogs, I’d like to share a few tips. I’ll assume that you know the basics of using your camera. (If not, there are some great tutorials online.)

1. Just as human models need to have posing skills, so do dogs. At minimum, your dog should have a solid stay. Ideally, she should stay on cue whether she is sitting, standing, or lying down. But keep in mind that just because your dog performs well in the house, that doesn’t mean she’ll remain in position on a hillside at a busy park around passersby. Build up gradually to stays with distractions.

2. Another useful skill is attention. Photos of dogs gazing off into the distance can be quite beautiful, but you’ll also want to have images of your dog looking at you. Normally, a dog’s name is used as the attention cue. If your dog is not trained to look at you when asked, and calling her name doesn’t work, try using interesting sounds to get her attention. You can actually purchase duck calls and other noisemakers online, but it’s easy enough to make your own mouth sounds. I’ve personally perfected the sound of a cat meowing, but I’ve also used a sharp intake of breath, blowing a raspberry, and even, “Want to go for a drive?” Experiment to see what works for your dog, but don’t use the attention-getter until you’re in position with your camera settings correct, and don’t overuse the sound. Variety is key if you’re going to take more than a few shots.

3. Get down on your dog’s level. Photographing your dog while you’re standing could still yield a cute image, but try sitting on the ground or even lying on your belly instead. You’ll see a huge improvement. (I do, however, sometimes like to shoot down on small dogs who are looking up at me. Cuteness overload!) To make it easier on yourself physically, you could also position your dog on a slight hill or tabletop.

4. Don’t ever put your dog in danger! I would never, for example, pose Sierra off-leash near a busy road, no matter how beautiful the background was or how much I’d love a shot of her there. If you’ve got someone you can bring along, have that person hold your dog on leash while you take the photo. Use a thin leash, and tell your helper to hold it up and away from your dog on a diagonal. That way it will be easier to remove later on in a program such as Photoshop or Elements.

5. Don’t forget to pay your model! I normally show Sierra where I want her to stand, turn her collar so her tags don’t show, take the photo, and then go back and shower her with praise and hot dog bits. No wonder she tolerates me. Just be sure the experience is fun for your dogs. Bodhi, for example, is happy to model all day long, but I know that Sierra only enjoys it for short periods, so we keep her sessions much shorter. Don’t get frustrated if your dog isn’t listening or the images aren’t turning out the way you’d like. There’s always another day. With practice and persistence, you’ll soon be getting great keepsake images of your dogs.

I’d love to see some of the images you’ve taken of your own dogs!
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You can find my books (including my latest, Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home) and seminar DVDs here. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter, and check out my artwork here.

 

 


Rewarding Bad Behavior

April 10, 2018

Sierra spies somethingEvery dog trainer would like for their dogs to be compliant 100% of the time. I mean, we’re trainers, right? But dogs are not robots, and although a dog might listen 99% of the time, there is always that 1% that keeps trainers humble and reminds us that nothing in life is 100% guaranteed. Sierra, for example, is very well trained. Because of all the training we did early on and that we still practice, I often have her off-leash at our local park early in the mornings. As we walk the trails and remote areas, I am able to call her away from any fellow walkers we encounter, whether they have a dog with them or not. I can even recall her mid-chase from a bunny or squirrel (and yes, that took a ton of work). However…let me share the story of this morning’s walk with you. I had Sierra at the park bright and early, and after we’d finished our normal route, we headed toward the dog park that’s set in one corner of the larger park. I normally let her into the small dog side when her buddies are on the big dog side, since they enjoy racing along the fenceline together. When we were halfway across the grassy area leading to the dog park, after ascertaining that no one else was in sight, I let Sierra off leash. She started to race happily toward the park.

Just then, a man walking his Lab came down the hill that runs alongside the park. Now, this particular man is someone I used to be friendly with, until it became apparent that he had anger issues, as well as believing that not only is he an expert in dog behavior, but that it’s his job to tell everyone else what they’re doing wrong. Unfortunately, his knowledge is in inverse proportion to the amount of advice he gives. Nevertheless, Sierra loves this guy. Any time she’s run up to him in the past, he’s given her treats (the crappy quality yummy ones I don’t let her have at home) and petting. But nowadays, I really don’t want her near him. And so, when she spied him at a distance this morning and froze, I told her calmly from a few feet away, “Sierra, stay.” Instead, she took a few steps toward him. Then she began to run. Stern Mom voice: “Sierra, no!” Nothing. Now she was really running. Happy voice: “Sierra, come!” Nope. Nada. Zilch. Nothing I did worked. This was not good. Here was my well-trained dog, racing away from me at top speed toward something she wanted. The man, of course, saw and heard the whole thing. When she reached him, did he, with his infinite dog training wisdom, ignore her and withhold treats and petting so as to teach her that she got nothing when she disobeyed her owner? Nope. He gave her plenty of treats, petting, and praise. Great! So now, not only had she not listened to me, but she’d been rewarded for it as well.

Obviously, I’ll be more careful in the future about having her off-leash in that particular area, and we’ll be doing some remedial recall-with-distractions training. But it made me think about all the times dogs inadvertently get rewarded for bad behavior. For example, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been at a client’s home, sitting across the kitchen table listening to them tell me how they don’t want their dog jumping or climbing on them. And yet, during the conversation, any time the dog puts their paws up on the person’s lap for attention, they absentmindedly stroke the dog while chatting. Score! Why would the dog ever stop?

Whether or not to reward a dog can sometimes be tricky. Back in the day when we had Soko, our German Shepherd, I was awakened early one morning by her barking—only it wasn’t coming from our house, but from the neighbor’s house across the way. Apparently, she’d scaled our six-foot chain link fence and had run down our hill, across the dirt path, and over to the neighboring property. I grabbed some treats, walked outside in my pajamas, and in the happiest sleepy recall voice I could manage, said, “Soko, come!” She began to run to me. “Soko,” I continued in my happy voice, “You little brat, I can’t believe you did that, what a stinker you are!” It really didn’t matter what I was saying; it sounded happy. And when she reached me, I did give her treats and got her back inside. Was I rewarding her running off by giving her treats? No. I was rewarding the fact that she came when I called her.

It’s pretty simple: dogs do what works for them. If they’re rewarded for something, it improves the chances that they’ll do it again. If they’re not rewarded, or are punished (we’re talking behavioral consequences here, not physical punishment), chances decrease that they’ll repeat the behavior (unless the behavior itself is inherently rewarding, as things like digging can be). But dogs are living beings, and stuff happens. And so, we train, train, and train some more. We try to be vigilant, and to learn from our mistakes. And if our dogs’ behavior improves, there’s our reward.
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You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more, including my latest, “Keeping the Peace” A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home” at www.nicolewilde.com.


Your Dogs and the Green-Eyed Monster

April 2, 2018

jealousyJealousy. We’ve all experienced it. The “green-eyed monster” is petty, unpleasant, and something that most of us would prefer to avoid. But what about when the ones feeling jealous are our dogs? Some scientists still believe that dogs don’t experience emotions such as jealousy, but any dog owner could tell you different. When we first brought Bodhi home from the shelter, there were most definitely jealousy issues between he and Sierra over our affections. When Sierra was on her back having her tummy rubbed, Bodhi would clumsily stomp over and actually walk on the poor girl, trying to get in on the action. As you might imagine, this did not go over well. I had to come up with a solution.

I came up with different solutions to the jealousy issue depending on the situation. I’ll share the one that allows Sierra to have her tummy rubbed and Bodhi to jump on the affection train without derailing it. I’ve described it in my new book Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home. Here’s an excerpt:

My solution was to train Bodhi to perform an alternate behavior. I taught him that if I was petting Sierra and he wanted affection too, his job was to approach and, instead of steamrolling over her, to lie down on the other side of me and wait. This effectively positioned me between the dogs and kept them from interacting with each other. It allowed Sierra to feel assured that Bodhi would not be stepping on her, and that she would not lose my attention. Nowadays, whenever I’m giving Sierra a tummy rub and Bodhi wants in on the action, he comes running over and immediately lies down next to me. He has, on his own, added the follow-up of rolling over on his back to make getting to his tummy that much easier. (He’s such a thoughtful boy.) I can then give both dogs affection at the same time or, if I choose, I can finish rubbing Sierra’s tummy and then turn my attention to Bodhi. And if Bodhi forgets his manners every now and then and Sierra snarks at him, I let her. There is nothing wrong with allowing her to remind Bodhi that pushiness is impolite.

 Of course, I realize that sounds simpler on paper than it might be in practice. Assuming your dog understands the cues to lie down and to stay, it’s pretty simple to teach. The reward, by the way, is not a treat, but affection. In case you might find it helpful, here’s another excerpt that describes how to teach it:

Now, maybe this technique sounds promising but you can’t imagine your dogs having the self-discipline to carry it out. Perhaps one of your dogs is even more Bodhi-like in his pushiness, or the situation is more intense in your home. In that case, begin by tethering the pushy dog to a furniture leg or other sturdy object. Have treats on hand. Ask the non-tethered dog to lie down nearby. Then ask the pushy dog to lie down. Pet the non-tethered dog. As you are petting, periodically toss treats to the pushy dog so long as he remains in a lying position. You are accomplishing two things at once: teaching the pushy dog that lying down nearby while you pet the other dog is not only okay but results in being rewarded, and showing the dog who is being petted that it is okay for the other dog to be nearby. Over time, as your pushy dog learns to lie calmly as you pet the other dog, switch the reward from treats to petting. When you feel that it is safe, do the exercise without the tether.

 So, there you have it. This particular technique is easy, and just takes a bit of time and practice until the behavior becomes habitual. Try it and let me know how it goes in your home!
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Thanks for reading! You can find my books, DVDs and blog here, and my artwork here.

 

 

 


Do Some Rescues Need to be Rescued?

March 22, 2018

Pug stare at cameraThe woman on the other end of this morning’s phone call was distraught about her dog and in need of help. This was not unusual. That her dog was behaving aggressively was not unusual, either. When she told me her large purebred dog’s breed, I asked whether she had by chance gotten the dog from a particular local rescue group. Sure enough, she had. It was all I could do not to utter the expletives that came to mind. Why had I suspected that the dog might have come from that rescue? Because over the years, I have had countless calls from owners who adopted from them, and over 90 percent of those dogs had aggression issues.

This gets my hackles up. Having been involved in rescue for over 20 years, I understand what it takes to run one. For years I co-ran a rescue for wolves and wolfdog mixes. Granted, it was a bit different because many of the dogs could not be adopted out. However, before that, I worked for a low-kill rescue organization, as well as volunteering (and then volunteer coordinating) for years at a Los Angeles city shelter. I networked with many groups, got very involved in and helped out others, and understand the ins and outs of rescue. I’ve seen the best and the worst of what can happen. And I’m here to say that the “worst” doesn’t have to be this way.

We all want to save dogs. But the sad truth is that not all dogs are adoptable. If a dog is behaviorally so unsound as to be a potential danger, a rescue has no business adopting that dog into a home with an unsuspecting owner who may (or whose kids may) be injured by that dog. Even if a dog has “workable” aggression issues, the screening process for a qualified home had better be very thorough. Years ago, I visited the home of a disabled woman who had adopted a large breed dog from a rescue that dealt only in that breed. The woman had a “helper” who was a friend that came by daily. However, this well-meaning friend had some mental challenges and was not able to truly take responsibility for helping with the dog. This 90-pound dog very calmly sat down in front of me, took my forearm in his mouth, and stared at me as he began to bite down with increasing pressure. It was strange and unsettling. I was not harmed, but given this and other behaviors I observed, it was obvious this was not the right dog for this home (or possibly any home). Although this was a different rescue group than the aforementioned one, I had also seen quite a few aggressive dogs come through that organization over the years.

Most rescue groups bail dogs out of shelters where they would otherwise be euthanized. This is laudable, but what then? Some have a network of foster homes where a dog can settle in and his behavior can be properly observed. If there are other pets in the home, it may be possible to find out whether the dog gets along with other dogs and even cats. If there are children present, the dog’s behavior around children can be assessed as well. All of this is the best-case scenario. Unfortunately, some groups simply get dogs from shelters and then, with no temperament testing at all, put them up for adoption. Can you guess the effect this might have on the return rate, not to mention the chance of harm to adopters? And what about the dog’s health? How can anything be known if the dog has just come out of a shelter?

The organization I used to work for had an adoption form that some joked was as lengthy and detailed as a college application. And you know what? It was, and that was fine. It automatically screened out those who weren’t committed enough to take the time to fill it out, and it told us a lot about the potential adopters. I’m not suggesting that an overly difficult, long, or judgmental adoption process is the goal. It’s not. But some groups I’ve encountered (rescue groups, not shelters) have absolutely no adoption application at all, nor do they take the time to so much as have an in-depth conversation to judge whether the home might be appropriate. There should be a happy medium.

Then there are home checks. Over the years, I have seen people write on applications that they lived on a ranch with acreage, when in reality they lived in a studio apartment. While I would like to think that most potential adopters are honest, the sad truth is that some people will lie to get what they want. A home check should be a part of every adoption, not only to ensure that the dog will have adequate living conditions, but to see whether anything needs to be fixed or changed before the dog arrives. Owners often miss things like the fact that an unfenced pool area can mean death for a dog who’s never encountered one before, or that the garbage bin that’s sitting against the backyard fence is a great stepping-stone for a dog to jump over and out. Fencing, kids’ toys that could be ingested, and other safety concerns are things that must be surveyed first-hand.  Again, to clarify, I am not talking about city or county shelters here, but rescue organizations that have the time and resources to do this. And the idea is not to judge whether anyone is “good enough” for the dog, but to help them repair what’s repairable in order to make the environment safe for the dog, and if it can’t be made safe, to prevent possible tragedy.

Rescuing dogs is hard. It’s more difficult physically, mentally, and emotionally than non-rescuers will ever know. It can be extremely rewarding, of course, but it can also be heart-wrenching. My hat is off to rescuers everywhere, truly. But if an organization is going to rescue, there needs to be ethics and oversight in place. Simply bailing dogs out of a shelter, putting them directly into homes with no regard to health or temperament, charging way-over-average, exorbitant rates and then boasting about how many dogs you have adopted out is NOT ethical rescue. Does an adoption process have to be overly long and complicated? No, and it shouldn’t. But taking the time and making the effort to place dogs in well-matched, loving homes will ensure that the dogs stay in those homes. And really, shouldn’t that be what it’s all about?
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Keeping the Peace cover for website 3On a happier note, my new book “Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home” will be out next week! Click here to pre-order, to view the Table of Contents, and to read the complete Introduction.


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