Are Trainers and Their Dogs Perfect?

January 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 7, 2016

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

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

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

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

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


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