It’s Not Your Dog!

September 13, 2019
Dog shelter for homeless animals and people

Just this week, I’ve run across no fewer than three separate situations in which someone had found a dog and was considering what to do with it. One person was concerned with how well the dog was getting along with her own dog and how the relationship would work out long-term; another wanted to know if anyone was interested in adopting the dog she’d just found, or whether a rescue group might take him; and the third was holding on to the dog while the family decided if they wanted to keep him. Although all of those people were well-meaning, it has to be said: It’s not your dog!

It’s a noble thing to rescue a dog. Taking a dog off the streets can prevent him from being hit by a car, being attacked by other dogs or wild animals, or slowly starving to death. But none of that takes into account the fact that the dog might actually belong to someone. An owner or even an entire family might be heartbroken, relentlessly driving the streets day after day looking for their dog, wondering what’s become of him and imagining the worst. They may be searching their local shelter, which is where most owners look; but they’ll have no luck, because he isn’t there.

Any found dog should be scanned for a microchip. Most veterinary clinics have a scanner and will be happy to help. But even if no chip is found, that doesn’t mean there’s no owner; it just means the dog hasn’t been chipped or, as happens in some cases, the chip has migrated, making it difficult to find. Likewise, a lack of ID tags could mean the tags got snagged on a fence or bushes as the dog went by, and were pulled off. Even a collar could get caught on something or slipped out of, especially if it wasn’t fitted tightly enough. (If there is a collar, check for a phone number printed directly on it. I almost missed this on a stray dog I rescued recently.) A lack of microchip, tags, or collar still does not mean there is no owner. Another common no-owner assumption occurs when a dog not only has no identifying information, but looks bedraggled. Surely the poor dog has been neglected or dumped, right? Wrong! While that could be the case, very often a dog has been on the streets for some time, resulting in a dirty, unkempt appearance.

Look, I understand the hesitation to bring a found dog to a shelter. No one wants to think of a dog being in a loud, frightening, unfamiliar place. Contracting illness is another concern (although the most common, kennel cough, is easily treated with antibiotics). But the most common fear is that the dog will be immediately euthanized. While it’s true that in some areas shelters do have high euthanasia rates, there are laws requiring them to hold a dog for a prescribed period (for example, five days) to give owners time to find their lost pet. If you’ve found a dog and are interested in adopting or fostering until a home or rescue can be found, you can fill out a CTA (Commit to Adopt), which gives you first dibs should the owners not show. And, by the way, the shelter should be the one nearest where the dog was found, as driving the dog to a “nicer” shelter in another area would likely prevent the owner from finding their dog.

If the shelter has a book of Found Dog flyers, leave one there. While the dog is at the shelter during the holding period, take steps to find the owners. Flyers should be posted all over the area where the dog was found. A flyer with a photo should be faxed to area vets and groomers and given to postal and delivery workers, as they may recognize the dog. The flyer should also be posted on social media sites. Most cities and even neighborhoods now have local Facebook groups for lost and found dogs. The digital communities Nextdoor and Ring should be posted to as well. Be sure to include a photo in online posts. Also, most newspapers will allow free Found Dog ads. If someone calls, you can let them know the dog is at the shelter. If you intend to hold on to the dog for a few days before bringing him to the shelter (although you really shouldn’t), be sure, whether in a flyer or ad, to withhold some identifying information such as markings or collar design so that whoever calls must supply it. Unfortunately, there are people who will try to take advantage of an opportunity for a free dog.

Again, no one wants to bring a dog to a shelter, but it is the dog’s best chance at being reunited with his family. Many shelters have an excellent group of volunteers who network with rescues and do everything they can to find dogs homes, so even if the owners don’t show up, many dogs still have a good chance at adoption. And, if no one claims the dog and you do want to keep it, you can rest easy knowing you did everything to find the owner before giving the dog a forever loving home.
Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and blog can be found at You can also find Nicole on Facebook and Twitter and in Santa Clarita, CA running Gentle Guidance Dog Training .

Dog Parks: Merriment or Mayhem?

August 29, 2019

Group of dogs at park smelling each other.
In my last blog, I described a fight that took place at my local dog park. Since then, I’ve witnessed an even more violent attack where two dogs belonging to one man latched on to another dog and literally tried to pull the poor dog apart. I’ll save you the trauma of the details. The dog lived, but it was horrific and is something that will stay with me for a long time to come. No doubt it will stay with that poor dog as well.

Most owners consider dog parks fun places to let their dog play with others while they socialize as well. Dogs, like us, are social creatures, and it can be fun for them to romp  and make new friends. But ask any professional trainer whether dog parks are a good idea, and we’ll advise you against ever attending one. Why? Are we killjoys? Worrywarts? Over-the-top protective of our and our clients’ dogs? Nope. We just know too much and have seen too much. We’re all too aware that when a dog is attacked, even if no grave physical injury results, there is damage in the form of serious emotional distress. That’s bad enough in and of itself, but it can also result in the dog becoming fearful of or fear-reactive toward other dogs. That can happen even if a dog isn’t attacked but is simply bullied, which happens constantly at dog parks. Imagine the cumulative and lifelong impact, especially on a young puppy.

I don’t have kids but I if I did, I can’t imagine I’d let them play with a group of assorted marauding kids of all ages and temperaments, especially without checking things out first. And yet that’s exactly what happens when someone blindly enters a typical dog park. More often than not, dogs run toward the newcomer, surrounding the dog, sniffing, jumping on, humping, or snapping at him. Welcome to the park! Even if there’s no overtly aggressive behavior, that forced attention can be overwhelming and some dogs don’t do well with it. There are also many dogs who, once inside, don’t find the experience fun at all. I’ve seen dogs hide behind their owners or climb or jump on their person repeatedly in distress, only to be told to go play. And I’ve seen many dogs who repeatedly target other dogs and bully them or get into fights over and over and yet are never reprimanded, because their owners aren’t watching, don’t realize what’s going on, or don’t care.

Now, I’m aware that there are some dog parks that are different. There are private parks that charge a membership fee, screen members, and have employees monitoring the action. I have no problem with those, assuming the monitors are knowledgeable and responsible and the operation is well run. Other parks are public but are so large that much of the tension is averted. Lastly, some people visit dog parks at such off hours that they barely encounter other dogs. These are not the scenarios I’m talking about. The vast majority of public dog parks, at least in the U.S., are not private, huge, or sparsely populated. Instead, it’s a free for all, with owners who range from being responsible and knowledgeable about dog body language and behavior to people who have absolutely no clue and/or just don’t care. Common sense is, unfortunately, anything but common. Given these facts, is it really worth it to expose your dog to others who could injure him physically or emotionally, along with possibly causing a lifelong fear of or reactivity toward other dogs? (There is also the chance of exposing him to disease as well, especially if he’s a young pup.) As trainers and behavior specialists, we are called in to address fear and aggression problems after the damage has been done. Behavior modification is time-consuming, can be challenging, and is an expense for the owner. Just imagine if, instead of exposing your dog to random dogs who might or might not play nicely or even be friendly, you set play dates for your dog as you would with a child. You meet, you screen, you arrange times, you monitor. Or, you find a well-run doggy daycare where everyone can be safe and happy.

I realize that some of you will read this and think I’m being overly cautious. Maybe you take your dog to crowded, unsupervised parks and have never had an unpleasant incident. You monitor your dog carefully and know your stuff. That goes a long way, but you can’t ever fully control the behavior of others, canine or human. You’ve been lucky so far. An acquaintance I had warned against dog parks early on when she got her pup recently relayed a story of how the pup was almost killed by another dog, and how she wished she’d heeded my advice. Sure, it’s all fine…until it’s not. And when it’s not, it may be too late. Please, please, please avoid typical public dog parks. As a trainer and behavior specialist, I would much rather have less business due to there being fewer traumatized dogs in the world. Our dogs give us their trust and unconditional love. Isn’t protecting them the least we can do?
Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and blog can be found at You can also find Nicole on Facebook and Twitter and in Santa Clarita, CA running Gentle Guidance Dog Training .

The Most Dangerous Breed

August 7, 2019

Danger sign in : beware of the dog - naughty dog - guard dogA man and his German shepherd were alone in the dog park one early morning when another man with three dogs appeared. The three were overly aroused and snarking at each other in the airlock. As soon as the group entered the park, the shepherd ran up to them. The largest of the three, a malinois, immediately attacked the shepherd. It was noisy. It was horrific. It was terrible to see. Fortunately, the shepherd’s owner had the wisdom to pull the attacker away, rather than grabbing his own dog. The malinois’ owner then restrained his dog by the handle on the dog’s body harness. I shouted at the shepherd’s owner to grab his dog as well. Instead, he called his dog to him. The shepherd did not listen, and began walking back toward the malinois. Once again, I urged the man to get his dog on a leash. Instead, he called the shepherd to him. Again, the dog did not listen and this time, he approached the malinois, who pulled free of his owner and once again attacked the shepherd. This time the malinois’ two housemate dogs joined in. Now there were three dogs attacking the poor shepherd, who is not a dog that fights back.

Between the two men, they got the dogs separated and away from each other, although both parties remained in the park. The shepherd was limping badly, not able to put any weight at all on one of his back legs. Since my dogs and I were in the empty, enclosed small dog side of the park, I left my dogs to walk over and see if I could help. By this time the shepherd was on the ground, lying on his side. A few people I normally encounter during weekday morning walks were passing by. I stopped them and asked the owner of a Lab if he could stand by in case the shepherd needed to be carried back to his car. Instead, the Lab owner walked into the park to inspect the shepherd himself. While he was examining the dog, I told the shepherd’s owner the dog should be taken to a vet. But the Lab owner stood up and pronounced, “He’s fine. He doesn’t need to be taken in.” Good thing this man’s a veterinarian. Oh wait, he’s not. (He is, however, the same man who once, upon hearing that my dogs were on leash in a high-brush, rattlesnake-infested area because I was concerned about rattlesnakes, said, “You worry too much.” Yep, that’s me.) The shepherd was finally standing again and as he left, his owner called to the man with the three dogs that he’d see him the next day. These men are normally both in the dog park on the weekends at the same time, and although this is the second time their dogs have fought, they planned to allow them back together again the very next day. What could go wrong?

Have I mentioned that this same malinois has attacked at least four other dogs that I know of? It’s true that he does get along with many dogs, but then…well, there are some he just doesn’t. Interestingly, I was chatting recently with the woman who cuts my hair when something about this man and his dogs came up. She said, “Oh, I know him! His malinois attacked my puppy!” According to her, this very same dog had attacked her six-month-old labradoodle to the point that the mal had the pup’s entire head in his mouth. When it happened, she said, the man had sauntered over and in a baby voice said, “Oh look, he’s playing with the puppy.” Seriously.

You might be wondering if I’m going to say malinois are the most dangerous breed. I’m not. They’re certainly serious, driven dogs, but they are not the most dangerous. Nor are German shepherds. The most dangerous breed is, hands down, the Irresponsible Owner. If you run into one, you can certainly attempt to reason with them, and I give you kudos for trying. But don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work. This particularly breed is unlikely to be swayed by logic or even experience. Often seen allowing their dogs to participate in unsafe activities, members of this breed may also appear to have gone completely deaf and blind in instances where their dogs are bullying others. They’re also the ones yelling, “He’s friendly!” after you shout to please call the dog, who is off-leash and making a beeline for your own dogs. In a perfect world, members of this breed would walk around wearing shirts that say, “Don’t worry, it will all be fine!” so they could be instantly identified. If you encounter this dangerous breed, beware! The best course of action is to avoid, avoid, avoid, and do whatever you need to in order to keep your own dogs safe.
Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and blog can be found at You can also find Nicole on Facebook and Twitter and in Santa Clarita, CA running Gentle Guidance Dog Training .


Helping Hyper Dogs: Sometimes Less is More

June 20, 2019

Dog agility: terrier jumping and flying highYou don’t always get the dog you were expecting. Just ask my training client Melissa, who envisioned a Lab puppy like the one her neighbor has; a sweet, reasonably calm, focused dog. In fact, her now six-month-old pup is the polar opposite of the show-lines-bred dog who lives down the hall. Not only is Hailey from field-bred lines, meaning she’s got plenty of energy and drive and needs a job to do, but even for a dog typical of those genetics, she is over-the-top excitable, and prone to incessant jumping and hard mouthing on Melissa and her boyfriend, visitors, and yes, even the trainer. When I say over the top, I am comparing Hailey to the many jumping, mouthing dogs I’ve helped over the years. When Melissa and her boyfriend come home after a long day of work (Hailey goes to work with Melissa), thanks to Hailey’s behavior, they can’t relax. The thing is, Hailey is actually very sweet, affectionate, and intelligent. She just has an alarming excess of very scattered energy, and what I see as a serious need to learn how to focus and relax. Fortunately, Melissa is a lovely, dedicated woman who is willing to do whatever it takes to help her rowdy teenager.

At our first training session we’d discussed Hailey’s basic needs, including longer walks than the very short ones that were being given. Melissa also started taking Hailey to a nearby park where she could chase a ball and burn off some energy. But when they got back to their townhome, Hailey would be even more stimulated, even after the initial adrenalin rush had subsided. Even more intense jumping and hard mouthing ensued. I explained how stress chemicals that are released along with adrenalin can remain in a dog’s system even for days, and prescribed long, calm walks instead (with running-type exercise every fourth day instead), along with puzzle toys and other types of mental stimulation. Still, those things alone were not going to solve the problem.

I arrived at our next session armed with a clicker and treats. I do not normally use an actual clicker in clicker training (I normally say, “Yes!” as a verbal marker instead), but I had a strong intuition that it could be helpful in Hailey’s case. I explained how a click marks the second a dog is doing what we want, and how it predicts an immediate reward. (Why else would a dog care if we click?) I conditioned Hailey that a click meant a treat was coming, and we were off! In no time at all, Hailey became intently focused on this great new game. I shaped the behavior of her going to her bed and laying down. Melissa proved to be an excellent student as well, with stellar timing on her clicks. Soon we had Hailey not only going to her bed and lying down, but we’d also captured a head on the floor with sad eyes looking up. This will morph into a trick cued by, “Are you sad?” which gave us both a laugh. The best part was, Melissa and I were able to stand in her living room and have an actual conversation, periodically rewarding Hailey for good behavior, without being jumped on or mouthed. I believe that might have been the first time Hailey was that calm for that length of time since she came into the home. We also clicked for four paws on the floor to greet visitors, which went extremely well. Melissa was so happy she hugged me, and I left feeling happy that I could help them both. I know Melissa will continue to work with Hailey, and things will continue to improve.

Of course, clicker training was only part of the overall plan, which is too long to go into here, but it was an important aspect. I wanted to share this story because so many times, we believe the solution for a dog who has over the top energy is simply to provide more exercise. Or even worse, in the case of trainers who use harsh punishment, to punish the problematic behavior, thereby stressing the dog even more and never solving the underlying problem. Sometimes the answer is simply to help the dog, using small, incremental steps, to learn to relax. Once the dog is more relaxed, many of the troublesome behaviors clear up on their own because the underlying anxiety has been addressed. And, with relaxation comes an environment in which learning can take place. It’s true that exercise is a basic need for dogs and very often owners don’t provide enough of it. But for some dogs, it’s worthwhile to take the time to teach relaxation and focus. Sometimes less really is more.
Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and blog can be found at You can find Nicole on Facebook and Twitter. Nicole also runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in Santa Clarita, CA.

The Latest Miracle Training Device

June 13, 2019

dog see no evil cropGah! One more “simple device to stop problem dog behaviors” has hit the market. I was alerted recently when, thanks to Facebook’s advertising algorithm, it showed up in my news feed. What is this miracle product, you ask? According to the website, it “releases unharmful high-frequency sounds to stop barking in seconds!” The site goes on to boast that this miraculous device can “…distract rude dogs from barking, biting, or any other forms of annoying or even aggressive behaviors.” Sigh.

It’s not that an ultrasonic frequency sound wouldn’t stop a dog mid-bark. It would most likely stop a dog in its tracks momentarily, regardless of what the dog was doing at the time, as the sound is startling and unpleasant. But, as with all of these types of devices, it’s really just putting a Band-Aid on the problem. If a dog is barking at visitors because he’s uncomfortable with them, how is startling him going to solve the underlying issue? Does anyone really believe these things are like remote controls you point at a dog and violà! the behavior changes instantly, like changing the channel?

The website wrap-up claims, “It’s almost impossible to read the dog’s body language.” (Hence the need to “discipline your dog.”) Well, I have news. It’s not “almost impossible” to read a dog’s body language. In fact, it’s not all that difficult if you know what to look for. If an owner doesn’t know, that’s okay; they simply have to become educated. But if someone doesn’t know how to read a dog’s body language, they sure as hell have no business training a dog, particularly with punishment-based methods. We have become a culture of short attention spans and instant gratification. Still, that’s no excuse not to take the time and make the effort to train our dogs in a kind, gentle way. It might take a little longer than scaring them into stopping problem behaviors, but the effects will be long lasting and we won’t be damaging the bond between us and our beloved companions.
Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and blog can be found at You can find Nicole on Facebook and Twitter. Nicole also runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in Santa Clarita, CA.

Frustration Tolerance

May 23, 2019

dog dish istockphoto cropHave you ever been in the supermarket and seen a child pointing at something on the shelf, imploring his mom to buy it? The mom says no. The child asks again in a louder voice. But when he gets another “No!” he starts crying, or worse yet, screaming. What’s going on here? Frustration intolerance, that’s what. The child simply cannot accept that, as the Rolling Stones said so eloquently, “You can’t always get what you want.”

This fact of life applies to our dogs as well. Although I’ve not seen studies on the subject, I suspect that with both dogs and children, there is a genetic set point for frustration tolerance. In other words, every dog or child is more or less genetically predisposed to having a certain level of patience and acceptance when dealing with their desires being thwarted. That said, the environment and the way one is raised has a lot to do with whether that tolerance level stays the same, decreases, or increases. Whether a dog is a puppy or a full-grown adult, frustration tolerance is something that can be taught.

In fact, I’m currently working with a client who has a young, small breed puppy. This is a lovely, well behaved, adorable pup who I have never seen show an ounce of aggression. The owner, however, informed me that the pup has lately been showing teeth and hard staring. To be honest, I was shocked to hear it. But just because I’ve never seen something doesn’t mean it’s not true. I absolutely believed the owner that something was happening, but a gut feeling, along with knowing that this puppy is constantly wanting—and getting—attention, I suspected frustration intolerance was behind the behavior. Upon questioning, I learned that the display most often occurred when the pup wanted to be picked up, played with, or otherwise shown attention. I gave the owners exercises to  start building self-control and frustration tolerance, for example, having the pup sit and wait to be released to eat meals. I also instructed that at the exact moment the pup began to show the troublesome behavior, the owner use a lightly said marker phrase, “Too bad!” and put the pup in a time out for a minute. (Long time outs are not necessary—no dog is sitting there pondering the error of their ways.) Lo and behold, I received an email a few days later, saying the pup is no longer showing the behavior at all, and that all the owner has to do is utter the marker phrase and the behavior immediately stops. Well, that’s not exactly the way the phrase was to be used, but it’s working for them and it shows that the pup is learning that the Rolling Stones were right after all.

Hey, this is a frustrating world for people and dogs. None of us get what we want all the time—and maybe that’s a good thing. But we need to teach this concept as early as possible, and reinforce it regularly. Besides, not always getting what we want makes that special something all the more special if we do finally get it.
Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and blog can be found at You can find Nicole on Facebook and Twitter. Nicole also runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in Santa Clarita, CA.

The Terrible Weight of Responsibility

May 9, 2019

Sad, abandoned dog in the middle of the road /high contrast imagThe voice on the other end of the phone was difficult to understand, because the woman was struggling to speak through her tears. This was technically a training call, but it was really a desperate cry for help. The caller did not live in my training area. Still, I felt so sorry for her that we spoke for quite a while. Her 3-year-old dog, a Golden Retriever, had bitten three people. Two were young teenagers. Each child needed more than 10 stitches. In one case, the dog had bolted through the front door when it had been left open; in the other, the child had gone to pet the dog. The woman has two children herself, a 20-year-old and a 9-year-old. Although she was lucky as far as the parents of the injured kids not suing, this was a grim situation and she knew it.

I know some of you are thinking, Why was a bite allowed to happen more than once? I’m guessing it had to do with less than perfect management, a hope that the first bite was an isolated incident, and the family’s love for the dog despite what had happened. The 20-year-old sleeps with the dog every night, is extremely closely bonded with him, and has told her mom that she doesn’t know how she’ll go on if the dog is euthanized.

The dog had a rough start in life: parvo as a pup, along with seizures. The family paid quite a bit to nurse him through it all. Did the illnesses leave lasting neurological damage? No one knows. We do know the dog has inflicted multiple bite wounds and caused serious injury. I did suggest getting the dog a complete veterinary workup, on the off chance that there was a physiological reason for the behavior. While I would never tell someone sight unseen to euthanize their dog, I asked how the woman would feel if, knowing what she does, the dog mauled or even killed a child. How would she live with herself? We both knew there was no way the dog could be rehomed. The family could work with a trainer, but regardless, this is a dangerous dog who would always need to be managed carefully. The other option, full-time management, would entail muzzles, crates, and constant worry and oversight. Besides the stress it would create for the dog and the family, management is seldom 100% reliable, especially when there are kids involved. At this point, the young son has no friends because no one can come to the house. This is a dog who could live another 10 years. Should the child be forced to grow up that way?

I’ve trained a lot of dogs over the last 25 years. The Golden Retrievers I’ve worked with who were aggressive tended to be intensely so. Perhaps it’s because the normal Golden temperament seems to be the sky is blue, the birds are singing…  In my experience, when dogs of this breed go wrong, they go really wrong. In this particular case, options were very limited because of the extent of the dog’s aggression, along with the family having a young child in the home. I believe the woman will end up euthanizing the dog. By the end of our conversation she had stopped crying, and said she felt better for having talked it over. My heart goes out to her and her family. It’s a terrible situation. Unfortunately, sometimes we must bear the terrible weight of responsibility in order to do the right thing for everyone involved.
Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and blog can be found at You can find Nicole on Facebook and Twitter. Nicole also runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in Santa Clarita, CA.

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