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This is a question I hear at least once a week from clients new to clicker training, and the answer is absolutely not.

In fact, green clicker trainers often accidentally get clicker addiction and they don’t seem to mind, since their dogs are having a great time and being more responsive than ever, but it’s still not good dog training.  What I mean by this is that people start clicking their dogs to teach a behavior and continue to reward the behavior with a click and a treat long after the behavior is learned.   Clicking and treating every single time for the same exact behavior not only dulls your dog’s responsiveness for future cueing, but also dulls the meaning of the clicker.  Think about it: when you use a clicker to shape or capture behaviors, you are using it to identify specific moments in time, and you want your dog to think about what got clicked and build on or repeat it.  If you are clicking a learned behavior it should only be to point out something specific about that behavior that you like–such as your dog performed a tight, tuck-sit, instead of a lazy rock back sit.

In fact, you should get rid of the use of the clicker once your dog is performing the end behavior.  In my pet training classes, where we teach dogs to “sit”and “down” using shaping* or capturing* we focus first on sit, and then the next week move right to down, and in just two weeks’ time the dogs have a reliable sit and down verbal cue.  This is not because my students work harder than other people, it’s because they are taught how to use clicker training effectively.  The process should look like this:

First, get the behavior.  Shape or capture the behavior you are looking for, when the behavior is what you want it to look be (dog goes directly into a down, or dog sits immediately without backing up, etc.) and it is happening predictabley with 80% accuracy, move on.

Second, when you can predict when the behavior will occur and that it will occur with 80% reliability, add a cue.  The cue should happen right before the behavior happens.  For instance, you throw a cookie and your dog gets up and eats it.  You know that your dog will return to you and offer a down for a click, so say the cue “lie down” as your dog is returning to you.  Click when he lies down, and toss the cookie again to “reset” for another repetition.  When you have done this is a variety of locations (living room, front yard, training class, kitchen, garage, back yard, with human sitting, standing, kneeling, etc.) and your dog is still having an 80% accuracy rate, move on.

Lastly, stop using the clicker and move to a random reinforcement schedule (meaning you don’t give your dog a cookie every time).  It is important to get to this stage as quickly as possible to avoid clicker or food dependency.  Since this is the final stage of training, start to use your cue in a lot of situations, and be sure to back it up with reinforcement randomly, but frequently.  It is also vital to vary what the reward is, meaning sometimes your dog gets a cookie, sometimes praise, sometimes a toy, sometimes a chase game, etc. 

Happy training!

*Shaping:  Or shaping by successive approximation, is teaching by marking and rewarding small increments (approximations) of a behavior until the final behavior is achieved.  It’s brilliant, and where the real fun is at in dog training.  Shaping is what makes clicker training so fantastic.

*Capturing:  This is a method of teaching a behavior where the trainer marks and rewards the final behavior as it happens.  It is only practical to use if the desired behavior is already happening to some degree.  Most dogs that enroll in training classes have already learned that sitting earns them things in their life, so capturing can be used quite easily to teach a more reliable sit cue.  Other behaviors capturing can be used for include barking on cue and lying on a bed.

Before you navigate away from here (“I thought this was a dog training blog, why are we talking about abstract complicated concepts like empowerment?”) know that this blog is indeed about dog training, it just happens that dog training is indeed about abstract concepts like empowerment.  I got to thinking about this concept while wondering why it is that Grisha Stewart’s BAT protocol for fear and aggression actually creates social and friendly responses in dogs while using social distance as a reinforcer.   

First, let’s define empowerment.   Empowerment (as defined by is the noun of the verb, to empower.  To empower is to enable, permit, equip, or supply with ability.  There seems to be some debate over the use of the verb, but in general, it is used mostly in legal terms, as well as in pop psychology.  The noun “empowerment” was first popularized by the civil rights and women’s movements, speaking of empowering suppressed parties for the greater good.

While we’re talking about definitions, let’s define “power,” shall we?  Now that’s a big word, it turns up 16 dictionary definitions from and I’d be willing to bet that if you asked 20 different people to define it for you, you’d get 20 different answers.  Most of the official definitions refer to ability; if you can say that one has the ability to do something, you can also say that one has the power to do so.  The definitions also refer frequently to authority, and occasionally to force.  So for the sake of this blog, let’s say that power, like empowerment, is pretty abstract and not easily defined, but it generally refers to ability and authority.   

So what the heck does this have to do with dog training?  A lot of dog trainers (especially in this country, which is interesting but not surprising) are currently referring abstractly to power in their discussions with dog owners.  Dominance theory is all about power, so for trainers (like that guy on National Geographic, you know his name) that utilize this theory it would seem that if your dog has a behavioral issue like aggression, house soiling, or excessive barking, the dog’s got the power and not the human.  According to these trainers, the balance of power must be restored, the human must once again become the “alpha” in the relationship, and once this is achieved all will be right again.  Seems credible, especially to the harried dog owner who really just wants their sweet dog to behave again.  Empower the human, weaken the dog’s ability to carry out X, Y, or Z behavior problem, and balance is returned to the universe. 

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  If you’ve read my stuff before you know that I am not a member of the camp I refer to as “dominance mumbojumbo,” so what could I possibly be getting at?  Well folks, it’s like I said to my friend Sasha a few weeks ago, “power is not a pie.”  Power is not a pie?  Sasha laughed wildly at this statement, as you may also be doing right now, but read on, I have my reasons.  A pie is finite, and if you have 7 people and 6 slices someone is missing out.  If I get a big piece, you get a smaller piece.  If I want to eat the whole thing, you don’t get any.  If power is a pie then dominance theory works; the human gets the whole pie and the dog gets the crumbs (for which he better be grateful) and everything is in its rightful place.  But power is an infinite abyss, if anything.

Most of the world’s problems exist (in my humble-I’m-just-a-dog-trainer-what-do-I-know opinion) because most of the world’s people think power is a pie.  We wage war on other countries in order to keep our bigger slice.  We deny the rights of suppressed people (Jews, blacks, women, immigrants, the GLBT community, need I go on?) because we fear that if we empower these groups our slice will get smaller.  But the lesson that history needs to continue teaching the world for some reason is that actually, the more power a person grants, the more powerful a person is.  The greatest leaders in history knew this rule, and the greatest dog trainers are well aware of it also. 

Ah, yes, finally, back to dog training.  The greatest methods for behavior modification empower the dog to make a better choice than the one she previously chose.  In separation anxiety, we empower the dog to feel less anxious about being alone, teaching her that she will not necessarily have a panic attack when you leave, thereby teaching her to keep her cool.  Now the dog has the power to enjoy her life, and you have the power to enjoy your dog.  In aggression we empower the dog to act in a non-threatening way. We allow him to experience the feeling of controlling his environment in less stressful, less violent ways. We empower him to become a safe member of society; therby empowering his owner to keep his dog and not feel afraid. 

This is where this long, boderline rant of a blog comes full circle.  When a dog owner empowers the dog on the end of her leash to make his own choice, and rewards that choice with the exact reinforcement he was seeking in the first place (as in BAT), both experience empowerment.  The dog now has the power to control what happens to him in a social situation, helping him to feel more comfortable in that situation, eventually leading to his actually seeking these situations in the future.  The human has the power to take her dog for a walk in peace, knowing that he is no longer afraid.

Picture this: you’re out with a friend and the two of you decide to check out an art gallery.  You become fully engaged by a painting at the center of the room so you head straight for it. As you’re closely examining the canvas, soaking up the vibrant colors and technique, your friend calls to you from across the gallery.  You gesture to him that you will be with him in just a moment, but he keeps calling to you.  You successfully tune him out, and actually can’t believe how rude he is being.  His voice is getting louder, and he even starts to make some strange noises to try and get you to look.  Now you’re just irritated, and purposefully move onto another painting, even farther from your friend.  As you begin to check out the new painting, your friend races over to you, grabs you by the arm and jerks you repeatedly until you finally rip your arm away and storm out of the gallery.

Now, imagine a different scenario.  You and your friend go into a gallery together. You notice an interesting painting and start to head that way, but as you start to veer off your friend gently touches your arm and says in quiet voice, “wait, let’s start over here, at the beginning, that way we’ll get to see it all and we won’t have to jump around, what do you say?” You agree, his idea makes sense, and the two of you get to enjoy the whole exhibit together. 

Tell me, who would you rather hang out with?  The loud nagger that demands your attention in the rudest of ways, or the quiet insister whose ideas typically work out for both of you?  I think I know the answer, so let’s get to what all of this means when it comes to dogs.

Shaping attention is the first thing covered in my pet dog training classes, whatever the level.  What this means is that attention is not lured, as it is in most reward-based classes in my area.  There is no ‘show a dog a cookie and bring it up to your face’ nonsense (that I used to teach).  Instead, I ask dog handlers to be patient and wait for their dogs to orient toward them.  In the case of one client, this meant she parked herself in a chair for the good part of an hour, waiting for her puppy to look at her.  The reason it took so very long is a lack of clicker skills on her part, since she is very new to the method.  She missed several clickable moments in the beginning, but once she got the hang of it, she wound up with a puppy that wouldn’t look away from her, as all of my clients do.  

Shaping attention goes like this:  park yourself somewhere, put your dog on a leash if there are other dogs or people around, or if you’re in a new place.  Have your clicker and some yummy treats ready.  As soon as your dog glances in your direction click and treat.  If he looks away click and treat him when he looks back, if he keeps looking, click and treat him at varying intervals.  Boom! You have a pooch that won’t look away.  Start out any training session in a new place like this, and revert back to it whenever your dog is ignoring you.  Do not speak to him, do not touch him, do not (under any circumstances!) pop his collar, and please don’t say his name or any other cue (like come or sit).  The nature of the human is to call to the dog relentlessly, and when the dog finally turns toward you (as if to say WHAT?!), you immediately ask him for something else, like a sit, or a nose-touch.  BAD HUMAN! Reward attention and attention will happen.  Nag for attention and your dog will most certainly ignore you whenever possible. 

The best times to hang out and shape attention are usually in dog classes, out on walks (my training buddy and colleague hung out in the middle of trail for 30 minutes or so one day, waiting for her young dog to remember she existed, but once he did they had a great walk together!), at dog shows or events, and other “training” times.  There are times when this is not appropriate.  Times that your dog’s inattentiveness can be chalked up to a strong emotional state, like fear or anxiety, are terrible times to shape attention.  For instance, if your dog is dog-reactive on leash, and she is barking and snarling and lunging at Fluffy from down the street as you two pass each other on a walk, do not wait for attention, it won’t happen until after Fluffy is gone.  If your dog is afraid of going to the vet, don’t try to shape attention in the lobby.  There are different, more appropriate things to do in each of these situations, and a qualified reward-based trainer or behaviorist can help. 

So the moral of the story is, quit nagging! Don’t nag your friends, significant others, family members, or your dogs! It will get you nowhere fast, I promise.

I hear it at least once a week, “well, you see, he has separation anxiety.”  While in fact, if all of these dogs truly had this disorder, they’d either be homeless, or I could quit my three other jobs and just treat separation anxiety (SepAnx).  The fact of the matter is SepAnx is a very serious (though treatable) disorder  that often results in death for the afflicted dogs.  Dogs with this disorder have been known to leap through glass windows, dislodge their own teeth and nails in efforts of escape, and, if escape is not an option, they often turn on themselves, inflicting horrendous self mutilation.  Yes, it is that serious.

Saying your dog who barks in the crate or chews on your couch when alone has Separation Anxiety is like saying your moody teenager has schizophrenia.

I am no expert in treating SepAnx, but I do consider myself knowledgeable about the subject–and in fact more knowledgeable about dogs whose owners think they have SepAnx, who in reality just don’t like to be alone.  I have news. Dogs don’t like to be alone. It’s part of being a social creature. It is our job to teach them to accept being alone from day one, so that they do not develop this devastating disorder.  Most of these fake Separation Anxiety cases are in fact just cases of boredom and its counterpart; destruction.  If you think your dog has SepAnx, do consult a qualified professional, and do buy the book, I’ll Be Home Soon by Dr. Patricia McConnell.  The book will help you decide if your dog does have this disorder, and if so (or if not) how to fix what is happening.

Understand that the treatment for Separation Anxiety is intense.  It is time-consuming and difficult.  This is not a simple problem behavior that can be managed, suppressed (never recommended anyway!), or replaced.  It requires behavior modification, and absolutely can be treated, with a good protocol and lots of help.  

An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure.  And since SepAnx requires approximately ten pounds of “cure” for each pound of hound involved, let’s all just prevent it, ok?  First, teach your pups, when they are pups, to be cool with the alone factor of life.  Give them a super tasty frozen kong or raw marrow bone and leave.  Then come back.  Take your pup’s prize away and hang out a while.  Then give it back and leave.  Now your dog is learning to associate your absence with the best treats in the world, which isn’t so bad!  Second, crate train.  Spend some serious time teaching your dog to enjoy being in a crate.  Don’t shove him in, teach him to go in willingly.  Check out Susan Garrett’s Crate Games DVD for help with that.  Don’t only put him in there when you’re leaving, either, let him hang out in there while you are home and unable to supervise him.  Take your puppy to a ton of different places for socialization purposes, but be sure to go on plenty of outings and leave the kiddo at home, too.  If you are fortunate enough to work from home or have the luxury of bringing your dogs to work, be sure the pup stays home alone for at least part of each day.

Medication is available for help in treating this disorder, but is often used too liberally (IMHO) by well-meaning veterinarians who believe the pill will solve the problem.  In reality behavioral drugs should only be used in conjunction with a solid behavior modification plan (for people too, if you ask me, but that’s another blog entirely) that involves a “whole picture approach” including home life, nutrition, long-term goals, and day-to-day realities.  If you would like to look into using behavioral drugs for your dog try to find a veterinarian who works closely with an excellent dog behavior consultant or trainer to make these recommendations (or better yet, a veterinary behaviorist, which is basically a unicorn and if you found one, congratulations). 

Lastly, if you believe your dog actually does have Separation Anxiety, please please please find a behavior consultant to help you.  Seek out a professional with experience and knowledge in this area who is dedicated to dog training that is free of aversives and all about setting dogs up for success.  Do not buy a crate designed to transport wildlife, shove your dog in it, and hope for the best.  Do not listen to anyone who suggests the use of electricity in your dog’s behavior modification (ever!). And, sadly, if you find that your dog’s problems are too much for you to bear, do not drop her in a shelter.  Dogs with this heartbreaking disorder are almost always euthanized in shelters because of their inability to function in the shelter environment, and if they are of the select few that are actually adopted, they are most often returned (almost all high volume shelters have a 3 strikes policy in which they will euthanize a dog on the third return, others euthanize all that are returned, and still more euthanize based on the reason for return–SepAnx being one of those big reasons).  It is up to you to either place the dog in a competent home (few homes are available for dogs with SepAnx), treat the behavior problem with the help of a professional, or choose to euthanize your pet.

One week ago today Kelso and I got the final double Q for our Master Agility Champion (MACH) title at the Mile High Golden Retriever Club’s agility trial.  Kelso just turned 9 and we started competing in agility when he was about 2, so this title was literally 7 years in the making.  The past 9 years with this dog have been nothing short of a wild ride, and his influence in my life has truly made me who I am today. 

It all started with the tragic and untimely loss of my dog, Duffy.  Duffy was almost ready to compete in Agility and Obedience when I lost him, and there are not words to describe how hopeless I felt at that time.  But a new beginning came to me in the form of a little black and white puppy named Kelso.  

Kelso was ten weeks old when I took him home and he was ten weeks old when he bit his first dog.  The very first time Kelso met another dog, an on-leash encounter at a park with an older labby mutt, who was pretty polite if I recall correctly, he pulled his lips back into a snarl and gripped the other dog straight on the muzzle.   A little surprised, but unwilling to label my new puppy as anything but bouncy and beautiful, I walked on. 

From there I became the official dumping ground for opinions and advice about dog-dog aggression as the dog world caught wind that Sarah’s new puppy has a nasty temperament.  Everyone wanted to help, and everyone thought they could.   I was told to grab him by the neck and shake him when he growled at another puppy in puppy class. I was told to pin him to the ground when he attacked to show my “dominance.”  I was told to pop him under the chin with my fist, so show him exactly which body part had committed the crime–his jaws.  I am sorry to say that I desperately tried it all, and I am now certain it is all of this that made my sweet dog’s problem so much worse.

What resulted from years and years of abusive “solutions” to my dog’s problem was nothing but increased aggression and a broken relationship with a dog I loved.  I would sit in the parking lot of the training center I was using to teach him obedience and agility and cry more often than not.  I would hear suggestions about getting a new dog, of a different breed, to participate in dog sports with because not only was Kelso aggressive, he was very low-drive for a border collie as well.  I now understand that Kelso is NOT a low-drive dog, he is in fact quite easy to motivate and a willing participant in all that we do.  The truth is that Kelso learned to hate training because of the unfair sitations I put him in, and the dispicable corrections I doled out when he tried to tell me he was uncomfortable.   He learned to hate agility. He hated obedience. He didn’t want to get out of the car when we arrived at training class.  My heart ached for him but I didn’t know what else to do.

Years passed and I finally found my way with this dog.  I learned that fighting aggression with aggression is absurd.  I learned that correcting a fear-based behavior only confirms the fear that caused the behavior in the first place.  I learned that first and foremost, my relationship with this dog had to be repaired.  Because dogs are the most forgiving of creatures, he learned to trust me again, and I learned how to show him that I would keep him safe.  Interestingly enough, when I abolished the use of physical corrections in my training my dog soared to become one of the best obedience dogs in the state, earning his Utility Dog title, 4 UDX legs and a handful of OTCH points with an Open B first, and other wins.  He started to be a fantastic agility dog that consistently came in 15-20 seconds under time, as opposed to barely making course time before. 

What this dog has taught me is about more than the sports of dog agility and obedience, though he has taught me more about these than any instructor or seminar. What he has taught me is about more than dog behavior, or aggression in particular, what he has taught me is about life.  He taught me above all to consider the experience of others. To know that no one has all the answers. And to trust myself.  If your gut tells you something is wrong, it probably is.  If you cry after an hour spent with your best friend, there’s a reason.  

The way that I train now, whether it is behavior modification or stupid pet tricks, I feel energized and happy.  I never feel beaten down and exhausted. I am a constant student of excellent dog training, I never settle for an answer that seems wrong.  I never train dogs based on tradition or opinion.  I now look at training or behavior challenges with a scientific mind that can merge easily with my own personal philosophy gained through the spiritual journey Kelso led me through. 

I don’t believe in religion. But I believe in universal order.  I believe in souls converging for a greater good.  The mistakes Kelso so generously forgave me for do not get filed in the category of regret, they get filed in the category of remember.  I will always remember how I did wrong by him so that I will never forget to do right by the next dog.  I can always draw strength from the fact that he and I finally got it right in the end.  Getting our MACH last weekend was an experience that proved our dedication to each other.  I knew there was a way for this dog to be successful, and I finally found it. 

As for Kelso, it’s on to Big Adventure Time.  That means that though his formal training is through, he will still get to do something fun every day.  While the baby dog gets to learn agility and obedience and how to be a good dog, he gets to walk with me to the mailbox and carry the mail in himself.  He gets to do a grid of 8″ jumps, at the end of which I tell him he is Champion of the World! He gets to go on long walks carrying his Chuck It Squirrel.  He gets to just be, and I get to reflect on the lessons he taught me and continues to teach me.  Thank you, Kelso, my life would be so very different without you.

Totally guilty of not writing in this thing AT ALL.  Oh well, a lot’s been going on so I have good reasons.

First and foremost Kelso and I just celebrated his 9th birthday earlier this month.  He and I went for a long hike with no baby sisters allowed.  It was foggy and chilly and absolute bliss for both of us.  He carried his Chuckit Squirrel the whole way, and we only saw two dogs the whole time, both well-behaved and on-leash, so we were happy.  He is my soul, and I love him.  New additions to his life are Zeel, a homeopathic arthritis medication, and my own Kelso-specific raw diet formula which took me months to figure out, but now that I have, he has had pretty much zero GI troubles (except for when he eats something stupid that is not included in the diet!) which is a huge blessing.  The Zeel is interesting, not sure if it’s working or not.  I gave it to him for an agility trial weekend a few months ago and I, being the very best kind of dog mom, took one too.  We were both groggy all day.  So I won’t be using it for times he has to be sharp, but I have been using it in between with Metacam when he needs it, and of course our trips to see Dr. Long for accupuncture.  I think , with all of this, he feels great most of the time, which is my goal.  In more exciting news (what? more exciting than a birthday?) Kelso and I got our 19th double Q for our AKC Master Agility Champion (MACH) title, which means we only have to double Q one more time for his MACH.  Yikes! We have a trial coming up in a week so I will of course post on how that goes.  I am super excited, he just knows he got to have a cheeseburger (yes, the vegan feeds her dog a cheeseburger when he double Qs–remember those indiscretions that cause his GI upset? yeah…)

On the baby dog front all I have to say is HOLY CRAP, HOLD ONTO YOUR SHORTS.  This bitch is DYNO-MITE.  She isn’t such a baby anymore, she actually just turned 16 months old and I already can’t believe what she can do.  Her running dogwalk is currently timed at a consistent 2 seconds, which I suspect will get faster as her confidence grows.  Her Susan Salo gridwork is looking good, and she is pretty sure tunnels=crack.  Her automatic down on the table is fantastic, too.  We just started training her 2×2 weave poles a few days ago, and I think she really could have 12 poles in 12 days as Susan Garrett suggests is possible.  Her A-frame training is going well, she is consistently running it without fault, and I will let you know how fast it is when it gets up to full height.  Her teeter is proving a minor challenge (fun!) and we have gone back and forth trying some new things.  We spent weeks just playing the bang game and now I am having her run to her 2on2off position with the starting end up on a chair.  She is doing well with that, total confidence, which is how I would like to keep it.  She is also continuing with her strengthening and conditioning via Sasha Foster of Canine Fitness Zone.  She actually loves all of the shaping games for fitness we’ve been doing, and it’s a good brain break for both of us to focus on that stuff a few days each week.

And that same future agility rockstar has a few behavioral issues that I am of course constantly working on, learning from her all along.  Her leash reactivity to dogs has made steady progress, and I am currently implementing Grisha Stewart’s BAT program as an experiment.  It is working great for her, and we actually had a really peaceful walk along the Poudre River this weekend.  She is getting used to her new face jewelry (aka her Comfort Trainer head collar) to help us along the way.  So far, though, I am actually really thrilled with the progress we’ve made on all of her issues which include but are not limited to: fence fighting, dog reactivity, fear of children, and general weirdness.  LOVE her. I have a theory that the universe sends dog trainers screwed up dogs to make them better, and that is certainly what has happened to me thus far!

Work life has also been good, and very busy.  Hence the lack of writing.  I’ve been working on new curricula for the classes I teach, writing up behavior protocols to help with my private clients, and have been seeing an average of about 4-5 clients privately on weekends.  WAHOO! That is truly awesome.  So I don’t have a social life, so who needs one? 😉

A labrador-poodle mix puppy recently went through our puppy program, and is now a regular daycare client.  I will call her Lucy for the sake of this blog.  As a young pup Lucy was reserved with her humans, nonchalantly moving just out of reach whenever they reached to pet her, and never asking for their attention.  During puppy play time she engaged and mostly participated in chase and be-chased games.  She never displayed blatant fear or stress while being handled or petted by people, but always wore  look on her face that seemed to say, “must you? Must you always do that?”  Her humans of course adored their “easy” puppy.  She never cried or barked in the kennel, entertained herself just fine, and best of all, never mouthed on their children, seemingly skipping right over that puppy biting period.  Medically, she was a perfectly healthy pup, so what could possibly be wrong about a dog that is never a bother, and never mouthed on human skin? A whole hell of a lot, as it turns out.

Ian Dunbar’s bite inhibition model teaches us the importance of allowing puppies to mouth on human skin, breaking them of this habit slowly, giving them feedback the entire way.  The pups learn good bite inhibition (or a soft mouth) through this feedback, and it is extremely important to allow them to go through this process.  At first pups are allowed all sorts of bites as long as the bites are not painful, then all bites with any sort of pressure are weeded out, and finally play-mouthing is put on cue, paired with a cue to cease play mouthing–or all mouthing on humans is erradicated.  A far-cry from the old days of “never let a puppy’s teeth touch human skin!” this method works. It doesn’t only work to curb puppy biting, it actually teaches dogs to inhibit their bites, if they are ever forced to bite–making injurious bites less so, and infrequent.  There is one draw-back, however, and that is what on earth do you do with that rare, seemingly angelic pup, who has no interest in chewing on human skin?

You must get that puppy to bite.  It seems silly and counter-intuitive to encourage a behavior you eventually wish to erase, but the feedback puppies receive about their mouths through early play-mouthing is absolutely priceless.  Bite inhibition can not be relearned later in life, and a well-socialized dog without proper bite inhibition is an even bigger danger to the general public than a dog who has never had proper socialization.  Owners of puppies that would rather not engage in play biting have a duty to encourage play biting while their pups are young.  I recommend doing so by playing with the pup with small toys (increasing the odds that the pup might “slip” and hit skin), run your fingers on the ground in a teasing manner (call this game “spiders”), and touching the pup’s mouth and face affectionately.  The point is to bring these kiddos out of their puppy shells, getting them to bite at us in play. 

Returning to Lucy, the mixed-breed puppy I mentioned earlier, she inspired this blog because her parents failed to engage her in such play (they didn’t want to, found it tough to see the point, and well, it was tough).  In their defense they tried, and they have done a good job with her otherwise.  For the most part she is a well-adjusted, well-socialized, well-trained dog.  She gets to go to daycare, does not pull excessively on leash, sits and waits and doorways and for her food bowl, and at face value is a “good” dog.  Unfortunately, even good dogs get put in tough situations sometimes, and that is precisely what happened to Lucy.  She was involved in a tangle where another puppy got his mouth caught on her collar (hence all daycare participants are required to wear quick-release collars).  The daycare staff member who stepped up to intervene was bitten by Lucy, since Lucy felt she was choking, and most dogs will bite when they are in such a state of panic.  And herein lies the difference between a dog with an inhibited mouth and a dog who does not.  A dog with proper bite inhibition would have bruised, or at worst scratched, the employee’s hand.  Lucy, a sweet-tempered, generally easy-going dog, bit her daycare supervisor’s hand so deeply, she exposed bone.  Had this been a different situation, one in which there were less dog-savvy people involved, or worse, had it been the children Lucy lives with, Lucy might not even be alive now, having placed such a serious laceration on a human being. 

So my point here is this: allowing puppies to receive feedback about their mouths is often a matter of life and death.  I can think of not one more important thing to teach a puppy, and yet it is misunderstood or even overlooked by the vast majority of puppy classes being offered to the public.  The first puppy classes I ever attended made no mention of teaching bite inhibition, and instead focused on stopping the annoying habit of puppy biting now, not later.  Some methods to stop puppy biting that I encountered were aversive, and others downright cruel.  It is absolutely unacceptable for dog “professionals” to take puppy owners’ money and not teach them about bite inhibition. 

You will not teach a dog not to use her only defense mechanism in times of panic, so the best you can do is to teach her to use it correctly.  The best lesson a dog can learn is that humans are delicate flowers, and we need not bite them too hard.    

I have had the same question posed to me three times this week, and that means a blog is most definately in order.  All three people had different issues, all surrounding the same problem: introducing dogs that do not know each other, do not seem to want to know each other, and yet the humans need them to get along.

The first was a phone call. The woman on the other end is crying and desperate, because she has had her 10 week old labrador puppy for 3 days, and her 5 year old corgi has brutally attacked the puppy several times so far. The baby labby is now not only afraid of the other dog but has shown an increase in sound sensitivity and is generally scared of her own shadow.  She bought the puppy from a backyard breeder (her words) who does not have any interest in taking the puppy back (confiscate that womans dogs and spay/neuter them, please).  Unfortunately, the best solution for this distraught woman was for her to place the baby labrador, and soon while she’s still adorable and has a chance of bouncing back from this trauma.  That was very upsetting for the woman to hear, though she admitted she knew that was the best thing. 

The next two were email inquiries. One was from a good friend of mine who was asking for a friend of hers, I told her to give the friend my contact info, and haven’t heard any more about the situation.  The other was from my cousin (hi Hollie!), who is trying to integrate her small mixed breed dog with two dogs who are already not getting along with one another. Oh boy. So here’s what we do.

Be Patient

The biggest mistake people make is they try to throw the dogs together right away. They figure dogs all get along, or that they will “work it out” on their own.  Wrong. Dogs do not naturally integrate well with strange dogs. Period. Introductions, especially if the dogs are going to be expected to eventually live together, must be done slowly.  By slow, I do not mean over the course of a few hours. I mean weeks, sometimes months.  I recently brought a new puppy into my house, and my older dog has dealt with dog-aggression issues his whole life.  He is a generally well-rounded and well-trained dog these days, but I do not expect him to interact freely with new dogs.  I expect him to go to agility trials and dog shows and not kill anything, but I never ask him to tolerate interactions with new dogs unless I need him to get along with them in the future.  He also has a particularly hard time with puppies, as many dogs do, because of their coarse social skills and often exaggerated appeasement gestures.  It was a full month before Kelso and Idgie would be allowed to be loose in a room together, and this was under very close supervision only–usually with one of them on-lead.  Before that time they were constantly separated by a baby gate or crate.  I didn’t allow them to have free loosely-supervised access to each other (I didn’t “trust” them) in my house until Idgie was 6 months old, and I got her at just shy of 2 months. So that’s four months people! Four months of work so that I could have peace in my home, and I have to tell you how worth it it was. Kelso and Idgie are now so great with each other I will put them in an ex pen or small kennel run together without concern for fighting, and they eat very near each other in the kitchen.  So it is possible, with patience.

The Process

As I did with Kelso and Idgie, the dogs need to be separated by a physical barrier all of the time.  There really is no room to be lax about this.  I had one incident just days after bringing Idgie home where she knocked down my lazily placed baby gate and came rushing up to visit her new brother, who promptly put a hole in her lip to show his appreciation for puppies.  Bad human! Needless to say this did not happen twice.  Idgie practically lived in an ex-pen or crate, and later on a leash for a very long time.  This way the dogs can sniff each other through the barriers at their own pace, and get used to each other’s presence without the pressure of social contact.  In the meantime there is a lot to be said about taking the dogs on walks together.  During these walks they should be kept separate, on leashes, preferably handled by separate people.  They should not be interacting–just walking near each other.  This process goes on as long as it takes for the dogs to no longer show an interest in each other.  When they decide that the new dog is “business as usual” (this may take a day or 6 months, just depends on your particular pooches) it is preferable to take them to an area where they can both romp off leash (with minimal other dogs, a dog park is probably not your best bet here).  Walk them together to this neutral open space, casually drop or unclip leashes (dragging leads can get caught and cause injury, but if they do have a conflict you can grab a leash instead of a dog, so it’s up to you) and watch them interact.  Any stiff body postures should be interrupted cheerfully, then leashes should snapped back on, and it’s back to the drawing board.  If all goes well at off-leash romping time, it’s time to let them do some hanging out around the house while dragging leashes.  The dragging of leads is important, you need to be able to get them away from each other without getting your hands too close to dog jaws.  Casually remove the barrier, have both dogs dragging leads around in a (preferably large) common room, with constant human interaction.  If all goes well like this for a few days you can ditch the leashes and keep the supervision heavy, then in a few more days go to off-leash dogs with passive supervision (you’re engaged in another activity but in the same room).  Keep tabs on the situation constantly, by this point you should have a general feeling of ease with the dogs out around each other.  If you don’t, you moved too fast and need to back up.   If at any time you sense or see conflict arising, it’s time to go back to SQUARE ONE–not just back to the previous step.  Remember caution is your friend.

As Always, A Few Words on Advocacy

Let me mention now that you, as a dog owner, need to familiarize yourself with basic canine body language.  Here is a great resource and here is another  Just do it, you owe it to your dog to have some background knowledge, and you’ll be surprised at how much you didn’t know, I promise.  You can’t expect to advocate for your dogs if you can’t understand them.  I am saddened when people selfishly throw dogs together with no regard to the wishes of the dogs.  The woman who called me in tears over her corgi and new lab puppy would not have found herself in such trouble if she had paused for a moment to consder what her older dog wanted.  She knew, as she later admitted, that her corgi didn’t like other dogs, especially puppies.  And yet, she figured they would “work it out” and got a puppy anyway, to meet her own wants.  I knew my dog Kelso would not be thrilled to have a new dog in the house, but I also knew that I had successfully integrated him with dogs before, resulting in lasting doggie friendships.  Because of his previous background, and my experience with the process, the odds were good that I would be able to not only teach him to tolerate the new puppy but to accept and love her in time.  I have little doubt that had the corgi/lab situation been dealt with correctly from the start, those two dogs could have also become friends.  I feel with proper behavior modification the dogs could have been taught to tolerate each other, but in that case it simply was not in anyone’s best interest to try that route.  If you are struggling with inter-dog conflict in your home please do not try to resolve it alone, or worse, do not let the dogs “work it out.”  Call a qualified trainer who uses only positive reward based methods.  This is a good place to start to find a trainer near you

If the dogs in your home are already fighting, acting aggressively through the barriers, or have caused injury to one another, the process needs to be modified, and you need the help of a professional.

…then just get the hell out of dogs.  Seriously.  Somebody called us yesterday looking for help with her on-leash dog-reactive malamute.  She was frustrated because she had worked recently with a well-known, well-marketed, national training chain that I won’t name here. Anyway, these yahoos that call themselves dog trainers told her to throw water baloons at her malamute when he bark-lunged at other dogs on walks. Yeah, that’s right, WATER BALOONS.  Trust me, I couldn’t make this crap up if I tried.  The exasperated woman wanted to know if we knew how hard it was to accurately throw a water baloon at a lunging, large-breed dog.  No, in fact, I’ve never thrown a water baloon at a dog before, and frankly, I’m upset anyone has. 

Now, not only are water baloons just a silly impractical solution to a problem that actually has a highly successful treatment plan using reward-based training, it falls under the camp of positive punishment (if the dog hates the water baloons, which I assume is the idea) and will likely make this problem (usually based in insecurity) worse.  This is not a blog about healing the leash-reactive dog, there are plenty of fantastic resources on that available, like this one  No, instead I decided to talk about several absurd bits of advice I have heard regarding dogs, either directed at myself, my friends, or my clients before they came to me. 

I recently had someone at an agility trial tell me to alpha roll my dog, and this is not the first time I have heard this, nor the first time one of my clients or friends has heard it, and unfortunately I am sure not the last.  The “alpha rollover” is a harmful technique loosely based on faulty observations of captive wolves in the 1940s, in which the trainer flips the dog on her back in a display of “dominance,” usually yelling, and sometimes scruff-shaking. The Monks of New Skete were the first to popularize the technique (along with a bunch of other crap) and it has since stayed around.  This maneuver actively invites your dog to become physical with you, since you have engaged in a threatening gesture toward him.  It has spurred violent attacks from dogs (since, isn’t it a violent attack against the dog in the first place?) and has created aggression where there was none in numerous dogs.  In short, don’t try this at home. Ever.

Throw a can full of pennies at a barking dog.  Who hasn’t heard this one? If the dog finds the sound of the shake can aversive enough, this might stop some of the barking, but if the dog finds the thing that punishing, it’s cruel, in my book.  Most dogs find shake cans to be an annoyance, at best.  Others, like my now-passed dobe, find it kind of funny, and would like to have it as a toy.  To conclude, shake cans are a gimick, they are not for training, and usually not worth the effort in management.

Spray Binaca in your dog’s mouth if he’s barking or trying to bite.  WOW. What a terrible thing to do.  Spray that stuff in your own mouth.  Feel the tingling in your sinuses? Now imagine having about a gajillion more olfactory cells. Feel it then.  OUCH.  Most dogs find this really punishing so with luck you’ll stop the barking, and the biting, and probably get a dog that won’t let you open his mouth again, runs at the scent of mint, and might even get aggressive toward anyone chewing gum or pulling a tube of Binaca from their purse.  What a bonus! Yay!

That’s only a few of the harmful bits of advice that definately won’t help a damn thing.  This industry is full of “experts” who actually don’t have a leg to stand on.  I may sound cocky here, and believe me, I don’t think I’m the greatest trainer on earth.  But I do think the consumerism of dog training needs some serious help, and it could start with a little common sense.  Start with this: if a dog trainer tells you to do something to a dog that you wouldn’t dream of doing to a child, walk away.  If a dog professional advises you to do something that seems absurd, it probably is, and if their advice seems scary, it probably is.  Real dog training is not scary, real dog trainers do not accept being bitten as “part of the job” (in fact when we are bitten it is because we screwed up, and we try to learn from that), and real dog trainers provide dog owners with practical advice that may involve some practice, but will never involve water baloons.

A good friend of mine in the dog world recently asked me to think about cutting back on calling dogs “kids” or “children” in my blog. She made some excellent points, and after a long email exchange I promised her I would address the issue here.

In my last blog, ” ‘Hyper’ Dogs” I called dogs “kids” or “children” 8 times.  Whew! That’s a ton, and probably what got my friend’s brain ticking (and surely she’s not the only one).  Proofreading sometimes does us wrong when it’s our own work. Though this was an excessive use of these words, I don’t feel it gives the blog the wrong tone, especially since I was focusing on the parallels between hyperkinetic dogs and children with ADHD.  (If you keep your ADHD-diagnosed child on a diet free of artificial chemical additives, why would you feed your hyper dog a dog food with that crap in it?).  Anyway, go back and read that blog if you haven’t, and let me know what you think of my use of these words.


I use a lot of words to describe dogs with affection. “Kids” is just one, and “children” just another. In speech I refer to them most offen with nonsense words like “puppit” or “schmobbity” (now you think I’m really nuts…I also call them all “hounds” though I know plenty of them are not hounds at all but toys, sporting dogs, etc.) and in writing I lean more toward “pups” or “kids.”  For me this is no different from saying “this little guy is a little sound-sensitive,” or “this girlie like her frisbee,” since “guy” and “girlie” are not technically dog terms either.  Dog, bitch, pup/puppy, are the “correct” nouns to use when referring to dogs.  When I call dogs kids or children, I do not mean to imply that that is what they are, and though I thought that was clear, it has become apparent that it is not.  It is just that the way I feel about dogs can only be compaired to what human educators feel for the children in their care.  What I feel for my dogs can only be described as a maternal kind of affection.  I feel the need to protect, educate, care and provide for them.  I think of them before myself. I want to raise them to be confident, well-learned individuals.  Could one not say all of that for one’s own human children?  Having said that, I want to mention that thinking of the dog-human relationship as nothing but a parent-child relationship is faulty.  In fact if I were AS protective of, AS affectionate toward, AS, well, let’s face it, obsessed with,  human children as I am with dogs it would not be considered healthy for any party involved! I think that the dog-human bond is a bond all its own, unique and special, and should be respected as such.  Caroline Knapp’s book Pack of Two is an excellent resource for more information on the intensity of the human-dog bond.

Guardian vs Owner

Recently a few counties and cities have legally changed dog “owner” to dog “guardian.”  This is considered a case of Animal Rights vs Animal Welfare (and if you’re not sure what that means, check this out ) Though it is arguable as to whether this legal change in vernacular will take us down the Animal Rights road as opposed to the Animal Welfare road (and there are people on both sides who prefer the term “guardian”).  My point here is not to delve into that subject much, but instead to vocalize MY OWN PERSONAL THOUGHTS since this is, after all, my own personal blog!  I still use the term “owner” instead of “guardian” in my daily life.  You will notice I use it several times in my ” ‘Hyper’ Dogs” blog.  The term “owner” does not quite reflect my true opinions, I do not feel that I “own” my dogs in the same sense that I own the laptop I am currently using or my cell phone that is sitting next to me.  My dogs are sentient beings, they DO have rights, and more importantly I have responsibilities toward them.  I try to take care of my personal belongings, but the only person that suffers when I don’t is myself.  I believe that all creatures have the right to be treated humanely, and that if human beings are to intervene in their lives they deserve to BENEFIT from that relationship.  I believe that I am a guardian of sorts when it comes to my dogs, but I still use the term “owner” if for no other reason than “guardian” seems formal and awkward to me! I DO, however, refer to myself as their “mom.” I am “the mama” in their world, and I use the terms mom or dad most often when describing the dog-human relationship–yes, even with clients.  Here’s why: if you are the dog’s parent, not his “owner” you no longer have the right to dump him in a shelter, put a shock collar on him, flip him on his back in a display of “dominance” or any other such nonsense.  I wish more people viewed themselves as having a parental role in their dog’s existence, I think this would force them to take more responsibility.  I also think using parental terms softens everyone up, and encourages people to relax and laugh about their dogs, instead of taking everything so seriously.  You and your dog are not wolves who need a strict social hierarchy to survive, be friends or family instead!

What’s Different About Child-Rearing and Dog-Rearing, For the Record

Yes, I want people to take a more parental role with their pooches.  But, I want them to be good parents!  Good parents set boundaries, enforce rules with kindness, reward good behavior frequently, and stay consistent in their expectations.  They do not overindulge their children, and though they protect them from harm they don’t coddle them.  Good dog owners do all of these things as well.  Both should provide adequate education, and excellent nutrition.  Dogs, on the other hand, need to learn how to deal with isolation appropriately, and must be left alone for periods of time very early on in life to acclimate to this.  They must be taught aquired bite inhibition. They go through very canine-specific developmental periods that must be adhered to.  All of this is quite obvious, but I think the cardinal difference between raising kids and raising dogs is this: while both species benefit trememdously from consistency, dogs require it much more than children, because you can’t speak to them.  “Just this once” might not get you into too much trouble with a child, but with a dog you could be in a world of hurt.  (Think about the kid who learns they can stay out late when dad is out of town, versus a dog who can’t figure out that dad feeds them from the table but begging drives mom crazy). 

On an end note, I would like to say that I do think words matter, and that I choose mine carefully depending on which clients I am around (I know not all of them appreciate parental lingo pointed at dogs).  But for the purposes of this blog suffice it to say that in my efforts to enhance respect for this species I have come to know and love so very much I will continue to refer to them in human terms periodically.  If dog owners came to see themselves as the responsible parents of dogs, they would pay them more respect, and be less inclined to give up and try again, as so many people do.