Cooperation Versus Coercion

July 26, 2018

Muffin LR4 edit smallI’d like you to imagine that you are a young, not-yet-verbal child who is entering a foster home. Naturally, you are a nervous about meeting your new foster parents, and wonder what life will be like. You don’t yet know what will be expected of you or how you will be treated. And since you’re not familiar with the daily household routine, you will need to be taught. On your first morning, your foster father says he’s going to take you out for a fun walk to see the neighborhood. You’re very excited! But when you run to the front door and fling it open, he scowls and pushes you away from the door. You’re surprised and a bit frightened at being handled that way. You try again, and this time the man seems very angry. He shoves you more forcefully than the first time. Now you’re truly afraid. You dare not go near the door. Instead, you wait, looking at the man, not knowing what to do. He smiles, opens the door, and gestures for you to go through. You learned a valuable lesson; don’t open the door and run out, but instead wait for the man to open it.

Now let’s imagine that instead, the man leads you to a small carpet near the front door. He gestures to you to stand there, and when you do, he smiles. He then walks to the door and begins to open it. Excited, you begin to move toward the door. He closes the door and waits. You’re momentarily surprised, but then think for a moment, and step back on the mat. The man smiles. Very quickly, you learn that waiting on the mat not only makes the man happy, but makes the door open so fun things can happen.

In both front door scenarios, you learned a lesson. However, the first method caused anxiety and trepidation, and taught you that you might need to be wary of this new stranger. In the second scenario, you learned that the man you would be living with seemed kind and patient, and behaved like someone who would show you what was expected. Of course, kids are not dogs, but the comparison of teaching with cooperation versus coercion, along with the possible fallout coercion might cause, is a legitimate one.

Among dog trainers, the concepts of cooperation and coercion are well known, and are implemented constantly. Confusingly, though, labels such as “positive trainer,” “balanced trainer” and others don’t really tell the average dog owner much about which way a trainer chooses to train, and can even be misleading. I’ve seen a self-proclaimed “positive trainer” jerk a dog so harshly that the poor dog ended up hanging off the ground by his neck. The only positive there is that owners should positively run the other way! Regardless of labels, though, any approach to training dogs is either based in cooperation or coercion. Sure, there are different forms of coercion, some much harsher than others, and many trainers only use coercion once a dog has been trained and chooses to disregard a command. But here I’m talking about when we’re first teaching dogs what we’d like them to do. A dog can be taught in a variety of ways to lie down, for example, from being lured into position with a treat to having someone stomp on his collar near the neck so his head is slammed to the ground, followed by his body. (Think that sounds awful? It’s how our group class trainer taught it when I was a kid. I was horrified.) The dog ends up lying down either way, but showing the dog what’s expected first, rather than using harsh physical force, is much more pleasant for everyone and builds trust rather than causing mistrust and fear. And what about things like leash walking where the dog isn’t given any instructions at all, but is simply jerked every time he makes a mistake? It would be like me wanting you to learn a ballroom dance, but instead of teaching you the steps, I just stomp on your foot every time you make a mistake. Wanna dance? Didn’t think so.

And that, really, is at the heart of it all. Dog training shouldn’t be a battle of wills, but an ever-evolving dance of communication and cooperation. It’s the way I’ve always trained and always will, and it’s what is kindest to the dog. Either way, the dog will learn; but what else the dog is learning—kindness and trust, or mistrust and fear—is even more important.
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Who Started It?

July 17, 2018

5_2147 Large guard dog.jpgThis morning, as Sierra and I were enjoying one of our local park trails, I spied a woman walking along the narrow path in our direction. Her dog was off leash, so I called out to her, “Good morning!” This was as much of a signal to put her dog on leash as it was a friendly greeting. Fortunately, she immediately leashed her dog. As we passed each other, though, her dog lunged and snarled at Sierra. The woman jerked her dog’s leash harshly and reprimanded him verbally.

“It’s okay,” I told her, “It really wasn’t his fault.”
“Of course it was,” she snapped, and continued walking.

…But was it? What I’d seen, and what perhaps the woman had missed, was that as we’d passed, Sierra had given the other dog a look that didn’t exactly say, “Halloo, me fine-furred friend. Top o’ the morning to ye!” (And when did Sierra become Irish, anyway?) If I had to guess, I’d say that look was more along the lines of, “I don’t know who you are, but don’t even think about messing with me.” That look, you see, was more of a hard stare. Normally, if I’m concerned that this type of thing might happen, I get Sierra’s attention, pass the other walker, and it’s a non-issue. This morning, blame it on a lack of sleep and a splitting headache, but I wasn’t paying as much attention. Nothing terrible happened, but I’d prefer that it hadn’t happened at all.

The thing is, hard stares are not at all uncommon. Although other dogs pick up on them immediately, they can be so fleeting that they’re easy for owners to miss. I can’t tell you how many times, as a trainer, I’ve been called to someone’s home and told that one dog was starting fights with the other, only to find that the alleged victim was giving the other dog a hard stare, to which the other dog was simply reacting. In my book Keeping the Peace, which addresses dog-dog aggression in the home, I describe a situation in which an owner believes one dog is jealous of the other, because when she sits on the couch with the second dog, the first one comes up and starts growling and barking at him. What she doesn’t see is that the dog on the couch is giving the other dog a hard stare, to which the first dog is simply responding.

Is it appropriate to respond to a hard stare with a growl or a bark? Well, let me put it this way: If you were sitting on a subway and someone were staring at you in an unfriendly way, would you be likely to smile and say, “Have a nice day!” or would you say something along the lines of, “What are you looking at?” (As for me, well, you can take the girl out of New York…) By the same token (Subway? Token? Sorry…) it’s perfectly appropriate for a dog to respond to a hard stare—essentially a threat—by doing what he feels he must to assert himself, whether that includes growling, barking, or lunging.

Most dogs are really very good at understanding the subtleties of each other’s body language. Again, it’s we humans that can easily miss mini-moments of posturing that are here and gone. But, we can make an effort to pay more attention and learn to pick up on those signals, which will in turn help us to better understand our dogs’ behavior, and to react appropriately.
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more here, and my artwork here.


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.
You can find my books (including my latest, “Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home) and DVDs at and my artwork at

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.
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more at and my artwork at

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?

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

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!

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.
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

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