Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!




Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Value of Preparation, Second Iteration

This post delves more pointedly into other aspects of preparation when living with a dog than my previous post. It is not a prerequisite to this one, but a companion piece.

When I was 15 years old, my best friend’s father taught us how to change a car tire. He wouldn’t allow my friend to get her learner’s permit until she had mastered that skill, even in the rain. On a warm summer afternoon, after both of us did it individually on his 1981 Corolla, he told us he was taking us to Sizzler for a steak dinner in a little bit, but first we were to put on our bathing suits and meet him back at the car. Then he turned the hose on, held it over our heads, and we had to change a different tire—from the beginning.

He wasn’t holding me against my will. It wasn’t torture. I could have left and walked home at any time, but he asked me the same question he asked her: “Do you expect that you will ever drive by yourself in your lifetime? And do you ever think you will drive in the rain?” I probably shrugged and nodded. He handed me the tire iron and smiled. “Wouldn’t you prefer to practice?”

I suppose I should have been thankful that the car was parked in a driveway, on level ground, and not on a busy highway. At the time, though, I probably rolled my eyes. The prospect of a steak dinner and not wanting to abandon my best friend kept me there, and of course I have used that skill several times, even in the rain, in the ensuing decades.

I am reminded of this frequently in my work with dogs and people. People tend to do the least amount of work needed, as a general rule, in any given situation. We like shortcuts, and we tend to avoid performing tasks that have no real or perceived advantage to us—short- or long-term. This conserves energy and often resources, and frees us up to participate in more things that we enjoy, so it’s not necessarily a negative. But when it comes to certain jobs, such as training one’s dog, there are no shortcuts. You will spend more time looking for them than the work would have actually taken. Not only that, but the work itself has great merit, both for the human and the dog.


“If you take the time it takes, it takes less time.” ~Pat Parelli


One of the problems I often hear about are situations that could have been prepared for, should have been prepared for, but weren’t. In the owner’s eyes, their dog didn’t need that skill or that confinement or that preparation, because their immediate situation didn’t warrant it.

Crate training is one of the most common areas of this. I meet someone with a puppy or dog who is not using a crate (there are several reasons people may have for this, but I want to focus on just the one right now). They are not using it because their dog “doesn’t need it.” He is not destructive. He is fully housebroken. He just hangs out while they are gone, and someone’s usually home, anyway. Ergo, they think he doesn’t need to learn how to tolerate confinement, because they cannot envision a situation where it would be needed.  But this is a common misconception, and it can make life quite frustrating for the dog and his humans later in life:

My dog Yukon Cornelius injured his leg and
needed crate rest for several weeks. 
  • They take a road trip—a long one—and the dog is nauseated, or otherwise stressed, the entire time
  • They stay in a hotel, and cannot leave the dog in the room because he barks at every sound, or suddenly learns how fun chewing pillows can be. The hotel stay triples in price.
  • They arrive at their destination, a friend’s house, and assume the dog will be fine to just roam the house like he does at home—but the dog, in a new environment, becomes destructive (or forgets his housetraining). 
  • They leave the dog at home and hire a petsitter. When she arrives, the dog is hiding and will not let her put a leash on him to take him for a walk
  • They must move to an apartment and the dog will not allow the maintenance people to enter. He bites one of them and his owners are threatened with eviction. They then start using a crate, but since he is unfamiliar with it, he cries all day and wakes the neighbors, who complain to management.
  • The dog ruptures his ACL, or suffers any malady that calls for him to be kept very quiet and still for days or weeks. Imagine trying to keep an active dog calm in a crate for that long when he has never been required to be crated at all.
  • There is an evacuation order due to an upcoming weather event, and they must leave their home and find shelter. The dogs are allowed, but only if they are crated (if you live near the ocean, this will probably happen to you at some point).

Crate training is valuable for many reasons, but one of the most valuable is that it helps prepare the dog for confinement both now and later. It can, done properly, have a great calming effect on the dog whenever he is placed in an unfamiliar situation, where misbehaviors are most common due to the stress of change. If you don’t prepare your dog for dealing with stress when you have the time to do so, you may not have the time later—and the older he gets, the longer it will take. A dog who is taught how to deal with frustration and confinement is a dog who is always easier to live with. Why wait?

Having a dog who walks nicely on leash is another task people with yards often neglect. Since they have a yard, they never teach the dog how to walk nicely, because they don’t see the need for it. But walks are beneficial for most dogs, even those with yards. And no one wants to walk a dog who drags them down the street, or lunges at people, or gets underfoot, or sits down and refuses to walk. Why not fix this common problem when the dog is young, or right when you acquire him? It is a win-win for both the dog and the human. Even if you have a yard, you will need to take your dog to the vet, at the very least. And since walks are a big part of mental stimulation and socialization for your dog, by not walking him, you are denying him something he needs to thrive.

I had an email a few days ago from a man who got two dogs fairly young, and never leash-trained them. Now they are 4 and 5, and pull terribly. This wasn’t a problem when he had a yard, but guess what? He had to move to an apartment, and now they must be walked multiple times a day on leash. He cannot control them together, so he spends twice as long on walks as he needs to, and is now suddenly quite motivated to get them trained. I told him I can absolutely help him fix that, but done correctly, it won’t be a “snap your fingers” fix. It will take some time and patience to do it right so that it sticks, because pulling on leash is rewarding to dogs until they learn otherwise.

How about some other examples?

Teaching the young pup or dog that absences are a part of life will help to inoculate him against future separation distress. This means, in part, using confinement and “forcing” some independence when you are home. It also means you need to stop fondling your dog so much.

Teaching the young dog to allow himself to be physically handled by humans is a huge benefit when he goes to the vet or groomer. Lots of owners hate vet visits as much as the dogs do because they have very little control over their pets and it’s embarrassing or frustrating to go to the vet. But if the dog tolerates being handled for exams, having its teeth looked at, having its nails trimmed, being brushed, and being picked up or carried (for smaller dogs) by others, the visits to the vet or groomer’s become much less stressful. Having a dog that has no problem being pilled or medicated ensures that treatment will go more smoothly, and may be cheaper. The dog that tolerates grooming will save you money, and will be healthier and happier because he won’t be matted or suffering from too-long toenails (which can hamper movement and cause gait problems).

It is unlikely that you will live in the same place, in the same house, forever. It is likely that you will change jobs, change partners, or add children to your life at some point. Your schedule may change. You may fall ill and experience having to cohabitate with family or friends because of financial difficulties. Your home could be made uninhabitable due to a natural disaster and you may need to seek temporary shelter. Life happens to all of us, and the more resilient our dogs are, the more likely they can stay with us and help us through the tough times—as best friends do.

You do your beloved dog zero favors when you don’t prepare for the potential future. In the same way you’d gas up your car before a road trip, you can “gas up” your dog to help him adjust to the bumps and falls in life. Make hay while the sun shines. Better to have the knowledge and not need it than to need it and not have it.


Friday, July 14, 2017

The Value of Preparation

When we decide to acquire a dog, we know that we will need to have certain tools and supplies in place before the dog arrives. Those who have owned dogs previously wouldn’t even think of bringing a puppy or dog home without the essentials of crate, gates, a knowledge of where the pup will be confined, and a plan for housebreaking and obedience training. Even newbie dog owners know that bowls, food, bed, collar and leash are going to be needed. We may elect to procure these items at the same time as we get the dog, if not before, but we certainly don’t (or shouldn’t) think we can bring a dog or puppy home and go for days or weeks without the proper equipment.

Preparation saves a lot of headaches later on. It tends to make things like having a picnic, buying a car, going on a vacation, and bringing home a new baby much easier, doesn’t it?
Well, the same is true for dogs, but not just for the first night home.

Preparation regarding training is also quite helpful.

I’m not talking about knowing the best method for training, per se. There are many paths to a well-trained dog, including hiring a professional, or reading books and articles and watching videos in a “DIY” manner. Some people try it on their own first, then hire a pro. Most dog owners do not hire professional trainers, though. They either make it work with DIY, or they just live with the dog’s behavior. Or, they get rid of the dog.

What method you use isn’t really the point here. It can matter, for sure, but you probably already knew that.

What I’m talking about is preparing the dog for his life ahead, or the training itself as a preparation.


Pretrain your dog to lie in her bed while you answer
 the door, instead of mauling your visitors.
If your dog jumps up on people when they enter your house, waiting until people come over and yelling “DOWN!” at the dog (or yanking him down, or something worse) when he jumps is not training.

If your dog chases the cat, waiting for him to start chasing and then yelling at him or throwing things at him is not going to fix that problem.

If he jumps up on counters, pulls on the leash incessantly, barks obnoxiously at passerby, chews your belongings, or tries to bite you when you walk past him while he is eating, your responses during those situations do not constitute meaningful training.

Oh, learning is occurring, but it isn’t the type of learning that is going to help you.

So, you say, “When IS the time for meaningful training to begin for the dog who jumps on guests, chases the cat, jumps up on counters, pulls on the leash incessantly, barks obnoxiously at passerby, chews my belongings, or tries to bite me when you walk past him while he is eating?”

The answer, of course, is “before he started to exhibit those behaviors.”

And you are saying, “But I didn’t know I needed help with those things until he started doing them!”

That’s where you should have prepared a bit better.

See, you don’t try to train a dog not to do something when he is in the middle of doing it. And you don’t try to train him to do something when he is in the middle of doing something else. You train him to do the behaviors you want before you need him to do those behaviors, so that when the time comes and the need arises, he already knows what you require and either 1.Waits for you to remind him what to do, and then remembers and does it, or 2. Does it automatically.

(2. comes after a certain amount of teaching. 1. constitutes a trained dog, but 2. is even better.)

Dogs jump, pull on leash, eat what smells good, chase moving objects, make noise, and chew things naturally. These are default behaviors to most dogs, and one can pretty well assume most dogs will do them if not taught not to. In fact, you should absolutely assume they will.


Pretrain your dog to sit quietly when
you want to stop and chat with a neighbor.
So, you pretrain the dog to sit for greetings, keep four feet on the floor in the kitchen, walk nicely next to you on leash, chew their own toys and bones exclusively, refrain from chasing the cat, and allow you to control their resources without complaining. You train in advance of these things so that the dog can fully concentrate on what needs to be done when the behavior is needed. You pretrain because while he is learning the new behaviors, you need to be able to control the dog’s attention and give him lots of small successes, and this is unlikely to be successful when things are already hectic.

In short, you don’t train when you need the behavior—you train before you need it. That way, it’s already instilled in the dog, and all he needs to do when told to sit, or stop, or get off, or move away, or be quiet is remember what he already knows.

Because if you haven't taught him these things, he doesn't know them.

Think of it like taking a test. You don’t try to take a test without having studied. You learn when the test will happen, and you prepare for it by learning the material. Then, on test day, you walk in, sit down, and wrack your brain to remember what you just stuffed into it. There is no learning happening at that moment—it’s all recall.

Good dog training imparts the lessons before they are needed, so that when they are needed, all the dog need do is remember.


Prepare your dog to exhibit good behaviors in stressful or hectic situations by pretraining him. It’s much more kind and effective, and a lot less frustrating, than reacting in the moment.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

It Works When You Work It


Do you ever wonder why your dog trainer tells you to do certain things?

When we tell you to crate train your dog, to practice leash work, to teach your dog how to be physically handled, to socialize your dog properly, to leave him alone sometimes, to forge a good relationship with a vet you can trust, and to obedience train to a “holy-cow-the-leash-just-broke” standard, why do we bother?

Are we motivated by money to tell you these things?

Believe it or not, we actually make more money off untrained dogs. Trainers who do board-and-train programs can charge more for dogs who have never been crate trained or socialized. Trainers who give private lessons can make more money off of dogs who don’t have any type of head start because it will take more lessons to get them to a trained state. Trainers who work with aggressive dogs can definitely charge more for their services because they are taking on higher risk (vets can charge more for aggressive dogs for this reason, too).

In short, untrained dogs will cost you more to own, and your trainer could benefit financially from your unpreparedness. (So can your vet, your insurance company, and your landlord, but that’s another post.)

But putting some simple rules in place when you first acquire your dog can save you money and time and frustration later. So why would a dog trainer tout these things if they might “cheat” us out of cash? If the trainer has no connection to your vet, why would we care if you have a good relationship with one?

Most of us have sources we like to share, such as books or articles or videos about dog training, which we will happily point you towards. Why would trainers recommend books and videos that can teach you how to train your dog yourself? Some of us spend hours (typically without pay) on emails or phone calls with our clients to keep them going, to keep them practicing. But we make more money when you don’t practice, actually.

Maybe it’s not about the money? Well, we need to pay our bills, too. We’ve spent years and our own cash, often earned at mindless jobs to get us through, learning how to be best at our craft, and we deserve remuneration for that. You are paying for expertise and we are no different from other service providers in that regard.

But that’s not the sole reason, or even necessarily a reason that is more important than others.

If it’s not about money, is it about exerting authority, or making you feel dumb? No. We don’t get into dog training because we hate people, or want to feel superior. We don’t study long hours, get our hands on thousands of dogs (sometimes at risk to our body parts and often at risk to our emotions), and attend seminars all across the country because we want to lord something over you. We really don’t have much control over you, anyway. You are free do as you please when it comes to your dog; we just hope you take the advice you are paying us for. (Good trainers know that the dog doesn’t have any money to pay us, but his owners might.) Many of us like people just fine, believe it or not. And the ones who don’t care for people much (but are often excellent at their craft) get good at hiding it. Treat your dog well and commit to the training, and even those trainers will sing your praises.

If it’s not money, or making people feel dumb, then what? You are probably saying, “Well, it’s a love of dogs.”

Sure, 99% of trainers love dogs. It’s pretty much a given. But loving dogs doesn’t a career make. Anyone can love dogs, and millions of people do. It’s not difficult, for goodness’ sake. Dogs are ridiculously easy to love, even when they are misbehaving. People put up with a lot of crap from their dogs in spite of misbehavior because they love them. Loving dogs is as easy as falling off a log.

So, it’s not about money, really, and it’s not because we want to feel superior, or that we “just love dogs.”

Your trainer suggests crate training, physical handling practice, leash training (and other obedience) practice, socialization, passive bonding, and having a good veterinary partnership because we want what is best for dogs.

The fact that crate training, physical handling practice, leash training (and other obedience) practice, socialization, passive bonding, and having a good veterinary partnership saves you time and money and frustration isn’t what drives us. It’s a lovely benefit, and that’s always a positive.

But we suggest these things because dogs need them. We recommend them because dogs thrive with them. We beg, plead, cajole and encourage you to provide these things because they are important to the well-being of the dogs. We want you to meet your dog’s needs, because when you do, everyone wins.

Your dog wins because he is safer, less stressed, more comfortable, and calmer. He knows what is expected. Therefore, he gets more freedom, more walks, more things he enjoys. He lives longer, and in better health. He gets to go places with you, explore, and be a dog. He thrives.

You win because when your dog’s needs are met, and he is safer, less stressed, more comfortable, and calmer, you get to enjoy him more instead of being frustrated. He lives longer, and in better health. He gets to go places with you, explore, and be a dog. He thrives. Is that not what you wanted in the first place?

And when your dog wins and you win, we win. The fewer dogs who live lives of frustration, pain, and suffering because their needs aren’t being met, the happier we are, and the more we feel as if what we do matters. The better dogs are cared for, and the more their needs are met, the fewer end up deprived, or homeless. This is what drives most of us. More than anything, we want what’s best for the dogs, and by extension, their people will benefit.

There are no magic wands in dog training. It's work, but it's gratifying work because it forges a communion that cannot exist without it. You may love your dog, and he may love you, but without clear expectations and practice, you will never have true, honest relationship.

Help us help you, and your dog. He’s so worth it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Leave the Dog Alone


Honor your dog's "dogness."
Dogs, like humans, are social creatures. This is one of the reasons they make such great pets and companions. Domestication and breeding have cleaved our species together in ways that benefit us both, for better or worse. Our dogs want to be around us, and we want to be with them. And we are not shy in showing them so with touch, talk, and eye contact—sometimes in overpowering amounts.

Dogs enjoy being part of our family, and being close to us, yes, but they are also individuals who sometimes want time to themselves, despite what we might think. They seek us out for attention, but they also learn, when given the chance, that closeness can exist without affection being given 24/7.

Humans often misinterpret dog behavior in ways that, at best, confuse the dogs we love, and at worst drive them to send us messages we don’t tend to welcome. Because they are so forgiving and desiring of affiliation with us, our dogs continue to try to communicate with us in the only way they know how.

And often, we can’t see, don’t see, don’t want to see, don’t want to believe. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I have a simple message that can help you to interact with dogs much more effectively and safely. It costs you nothing, but may save you, or someone else, from being bitten. It will honor the dog's "dogness," too. You won’t like it, necessarily, and you may have a difficult time carrying it out. But it’s something that we humans owe to the dogs in our lives.

Leave the Dog Alone


Why do people seek out dogs as pets? There are lots of reasons, but in my experience I’ve found two reasons that transcend age, gender, class, financial status, and personality: we want a being that will love us unconditionally, and we want to be able to touch and stroke that being pretty much at will.

Luckily for both our species, dogs tend to enjoy touch and other forms of attention from us, but most humans don’t know when to stop—or why they need to! There is definitely such a thing as too much “love” when it comes to dogs.

Passive bonding
When you are hanging out with your dog, touching, stroking, talking silly, kissing him, picking him up, or playing with him, you are bonding actively with him. In and of itself, active bonding is a good thing, and we both benefit. But both dogs and people also need the absence of active bonding, too. Passive bonding is often overlooked in our relationships with our dogs because we don’t realize that they need it. Passive bonding is “the space between the notes,” the closeness without touch, the proximity to each other without any requirements or need. Are you allowing passive bonding in your relationship? Your dog needs it, and so do you.

Leave the dog alone so that he can rest, sleep, settle, and learn that touch should be earned in some way—it’s not freely abundant. Leave the dog alone so that you develop some self-control around your dog. Just because your dog “doesn’t seem to mind” you constantly petting him, or even seems to want it 24/7 does not mean you must comply with his requests. Just because your dog is close enough to touch doesn't mean you have to do it so much.

Show your love to your dog by actually meeting his needs—not just yours. Here’s a blog post on the things your dog really needs, with more on passive bonding.

Leave the Dog Home Alone 


Dogs don’t understand the concept of temporary separation until they’ve been taught, so every time you leave the house, the dog isn’t sure you will be back. There is no way to convince him that you will return except by always returning. So yes, dogs feel stress when we leave them, but we cannot ameliorate this stress by staying with them more. We must teach them how to deal with the stress of being left alone by actually leaving them a fair amount, and by not allowing our emotions to get the better of us. The best way to inoculate the puppy against separation anxiety is to leave and return, and to mix up departure and arrival times, length of time away, and actions that precede and follow an absence.

The dog needs to be left safely, of course, which may involve the use of a crate or other confinement. Don’t get all emotional about that part of it—dogs don’t generally perceive confinement like we do, and it helps greatly with structure.

You needn’t make a big deal out of your comings and goings, even though you think that’s necessary. Your dog will still love you just as much if you come in calmly, take him out calmly (or send him if he’s trained) to his potty area, and then engage with him calmly. All the high-pitched voices and exclamations are your attempt to meet your own needs, and they can confuse the dog. Keep things simple, and on a schedule as much as possible. The dog will adjust.

Many people tell me that their dog has “separation anxiety,” and usually, they are wrong. They themselves have separation anxiety. Sitting at a restaurant or movie theater and worrying about the healthy dog you left an hour ago is pointless, and likely not reciprocal—he’s probably napping by now.

Most dogs don’t have separation anxiety, but many do fall somewhere on a continuum of separation distress. Mitigate that stress by keeping your emotions in check, making your farewells and arrivals calm and consistent. (And if your dog really does have diagnosed Separation Anxiety, work with a professional, please.)

Make sure your dog is getting the proper amount of exercise, mental stimulation (including training), and having his primary needs met, and then go away. Don’t go away mad, just go away.
After all, how can he appreciate you if you never go away?


Leave the family dog alone, kids


Dog bite statistics can be alarming when you first hear them: 4.7 million dog bites occur yearly according to the CDC, with over half of those occurring to children. Actual fatalities are rare (fewer than 100 per year), and many other things kill us with more regularity. But when dogs kill, it hits us right in the gut, doesn't it?

Everyone has heard news stories of children being mauled and even killed by dogs, often by dogs that are well-known to them. Most bites to children come from their own family dogs. Why is this? Often, it’s because the adults assume too much from both the dog and the child. The family dog should not have to endure children bothering him endlessly—even when they are "being kind" to him.

We know it’s wrong to hit, grab, tease and badger dogs--and responsible parents drum this into kids' heads constantly. But even when kids are taught to refrain from these actions, their attentions to the dog may still cross the line. It’s also wrong to allow your child, or any child, to ride your dog, lie on top of him, climb on him, move into his space quickly, grab toys or food from him, wake him from sleep, pet him endlessly, or pick him up when it’s not absolutely necessary. You might think it’s cute, and you might presume that the dog is OK with these behaviors because he hasn’t growled or bitten, or walked away.

But you’d likely be wrong. It’s to dogs’ credit that they tolerate a lot of crap from us, but not all dogs have the same amount of fuse. If pestered, badgered, climbed upon, picked up, laid upon, or grabbed enough, any dog can bite—even your beloved family pet. And when it happens, you don’t get to blame the dog. He was, in all likelihood, sending signal after signal and was thoroughly ignored.

In short, do not allow anyone—child or adult—to treat your dog in a manner you’d not allow towards another human. Know your dog, and protect him.


Leave the public dog alone



Everyone knows dogs who “love the world,” and pert near everything in it. These canines seem to have a permanent grin on their faces, constantly wagging tails, and the perfect acceptance of any touch we seem inclined to bestow upon them. If you don’t own one of these dogs, you have friends or acquaintances who do, and you see people at the park, on the street, in every city who do. I like to call these guys Ambassadors, because they embody so many of the qualities we seek in our pets: friendliness, joy, laid-back acceptance regardless of our faults and flaws, a desire to avoid unnecessary conflict, and a joie de vivre that we covet but cannot ever seem to clear our thoughts enough to reach.

Luckily for us, most of the millions of dogs living in homes, riding in cars, and going for walks in the community are Ambassadors in full or in part. We trust them, and they trust us. We relax with them because we value what they embody, especially the desire to avoid conflict. People call them angels, heroes, furkids. They claim, "I didn't rescue my dog--he rescued me."

Just as people differ in our personalities, dogs come sometimes with personalities that aren’t as easy to accept. Not all dogs are ambassadors, and that’s actually perfectly fine. Dogs were bred to perform tasks, and sometimes the ambassador qualities don’t fit with those tasks (guarding, for instance). Some dogs do not want to interact with people they do not know, and this is their right. Whether it's because of genetics, personal temperament, a lack of socialization as a pup, or some other factor, the dog is simply how he is, and while training and proper socialization can help pretty much every dog on the planet fit more within our parameters as constituting a good pet, training cannot erase genetics. With dogs, it’s nature AND nurture, always.

The thing is, many humans assume that every dog they encounter is naturally an Ambassador, and this can be a big problem. Assumptions about dogs and their behavior gets us into trouble sometimes. You are not entitled to interact with every dog you meet in public, regardless of your desires. In public spaces, in friends’ homes, in situations where a dog or dogs happen to be, leave the dog alone by default.

Yes, of course there are situations where it is OK to pet or interact with dogs that do not belong to you. Always ask permission from both the owner, and the dog—and listen to the answers they both provide before touching. No matter what the owner says, if the dog says "no," do not touch.

How do dogs say "no"? Some people assume that if the dog isn't snarling or trying to bite them, he likes it. But dogs are appeasers, and may try lots of things before they get to this point. These include hiding behind the owner, blatantly avoiding you; ducking the head, pulling away from you, averting the eyes, tucking tail, or taking a submissive, low posture. If you stop, crouch down, and wait for the dog to enter your space, and he does not come into it, leave him alone.

NOTE to the owners/caretakers of Dogs Who Prefer to Be Ignored By Strangers: You have a responsibility to your dog to keep him safe. This includes not just actual, physical safety, but also his perception of safety. This means that even though *you* don't perceive the "nice" man who is trying to pet him as a threat, the dog might--and it's HIS perception of the situation, not yours, not the stranger's--that matters. I know you don't want to appear unkind to people, but your dog depends on you. If you allow, or worse, encourage touch from people when your dog is sending clear signals that he is not comfortable, you are throwing your dog under the proverbial bus. How can he trust you? And at what point does he proceed from hiding behind you to biting? This can be prevented. Listen to your dog.

Building your dog's confidence is essential, and part of your job. Allowing or encouraging unwanted touch does not build confidence--it erodes it. Contact a trainer who works with dogs like this and uses an inclusive approach (lots of tools in the toolbox, several ways to tackle the problem) to help you.

And stop worrying more about what strangers will think of you or your dog, and focus on helping your dog. No one is entitled to touch your dog. It's OK, and often better, to Just Say No, smile, and walk away.

Here's a blog post I wrote about interacting with other people's dogs.

Children Are the Most at Risk When Things Go South


Read the above section again and apply it to your kids. Most dog and child interactions are perfectly safe as long as a watchful adult is present. Teach your kids to Leave the Dog Alone when:


  • The dog is unfamiliar to them
  • The dog is loose or itself unsupervised
  • The dog is sending signals that it wants to be left alone
  • By default

If you teach children that their default behavior when they encounter a dog that meets the above criteria is to Leave the Dog Alone, they will be safer.

Yes, there are situations where children are allowed, maybe even encouraged, to interact with dogs that do not live with them. But these interactions should never be assumed, and must always be permitted by an adult who knows the dog. Never assume, even if the dog is displaying “friendliness,” because most people who are not canine professionals misinterpret signals of stress or excitement for friendliness.

Look, we love dogs, and they love us. Dogs are pretty adept at showing affection for us, and we think we are adept at showing them we love them--but often, we are wrong. We give them too much affection and not enough structure, in general. We want to meet their needs, but we often only meet our own needs and confuse ours with theirs. We can do better, and we must.

"Do you love your dog? Or do you love loving your dog? If it's the former, you will make sure to provide your dog with what he truly needs. If it is the latter, you will do what you want and then complain about him." ~Sarah Wilson

Leaving the Dog Alone, like obedience/manners training, helps dogs deal with our often confusing world. It isn't mean, or cruel, except sometimes to our own sensibilities. It's safer for us, and ultimately for them. It honors them. Make it your default behavior until you are invited to interact, either by the owners of the dog, or the dog himself.

Enjoy the dogs in your world, definitely, but do it consciously and while meeting their needs, not just yours. They will pay you back a hundred-fold.


Friday, December 16, 2016

Fences make good neighbors…and can frustrate some dogs



Part of dog ownership is making sure your pooch gets the right amount of exercise for his age, breed, size, and temperament. Walks are necessary, and a great activity for dogs, but walks alone won’t meet most large, boisterous dogs’ needs for exercise. Since the days of opening the door and letting Rover run the neighborhood all day are over (thankfully), having a securely fenced yard can be extremely helpful for dog owners, especially when you have large (or multiple) dogs.

A fenced yard allows for dogs to move about more freely, play exuberantly, chase each other or play fetch with you, explore freely with their senses, and generally expend larger amounts of stored energy. Unlike dog parks, which harbor lots of unknown variables, your own fenced yard tends to be a safe place to run your pooch. If your dog isn’t wild about other dogs, but has lots of energy, having your own secure yard will really help you meet his needs. (I don’t care for dog parks, and here’s why.)

A secure fence also keeps other dogs, kids, and some other animals out. It can add privacy, as well as a layer of home security, too.

But many dog owners don’t understand that fenced yards have some drawbacks, and even hazards. Let’s look at a few aspects of private yards that you may not have considered.

Dogs are moving animals, for the most part. In the wild, when they are not denned up, canids move across large tracts of land regularly, hunting, scavenging, exploring. Leashes, and by extension, fences, keep dogs from moving in as large an area as they would often prefer. Since leashes and fences keep dogs and people safe, and make dog ownership available to more people, they are a necessity—so domestic dogs must learn to live less nomadic lives. And they easily can. Once they bond to us, they don’t want to be far from us, so they accept confinement as a trade-off.


Fences create barrier frustration


But barriers like fences and leashes can cause frustration in dogs who have not yet acclimated to them. Barrier frustration is common in domestic dogs, and it can cause mild to serious problems. We’ve all seen dogs who are being walked on leashes who lunge, growl, bark, snarl, and look like Cujo when they pass other dogs on a walk. This leash aggression (or leash reactivity) is the result of pent-up frustration at being restrained. A dog on the other side of a fence, especially if it is also agitated, can create the same response.

If your dog and your neighbor’s dog “run the fence” a lot, barking and getting agitated with each other, you should not sit on your patio and think, “That’s good—they are both getting exercise.” It isn’t good. Pressure is building, and that, coupled with the dog’s natural territorial tendencies, could be a recipe for disaster.

Just this week, I learned of two separate incidents from two separate dog training colleagues that happened through fences, involved serious injury, and both chilled me. In both cases, neither of the perpetrator dogs had ever had problems with other dogs besides the dogs they shared a fence with. Both were fine with people and dogs in open settings. The problem was localized to the barrier frustration, and the arousal and stress that comes with it. If you want to read about the incidents, you may do so at the end of this post*.

Just yesterday, a client whose dog I worked with years ago told me that her 2 dogs got into a pretty nasty fight while out in the yard. These are dogs who have always gotten along just fine. But they both got to chasing and barking at the neighbor’s dog on the other side of the fence, and then the larger dog turned on the smaller. This is called redirected aggression and it can be serious.


Fenced yards aren’t babysitters


I tell my students all the time: don’t leave your dogs unattended, even in your own fenced yards. My dogs are never out in the yard when we are not home, and when we are home, they are not out for more than a few minutes without my wife or me being with them. The fence is currently secure, and none of them can get out, or want to, so why am I so cautious?

My dogs are small, so I worry about hawks or other birds of prey, mostly. I also worry about my neighbor’s cats, who love to jump over the 6-foot wooden fence and come into my yard. I don’t mind cats, but my dogs do. If they were to catch a cat, or a squirrel, or a possum, they will not leave it alone if I am not there to make them. So we watch them carefully, especially after dark. Our dogs tend to be noisy when excited, as well, and no one wants to hear a dog yapping for more than a minute or so.

If I’m there, I can call them away and keep them quieter and calmer.

Dogs left alone in yards can also be subject to kids sticking fingers through the fence to agitate them. They can ingest sticks or other items that are harmful. They can bark for hours on end. They can destroy a wooden deck, a lovely garden, a gutter system, or other property out of boredom. They may go after a meter reader or landscaper, or escape the yard when he or she enters. They can ingest items that shouldn’t be ingested—including poisoned meat that your nasty neighbor throws over the fence (yes, this happens). Dogs often need more supervision that you’d expect—especially when they are younger or are new to you. Just because the neighbors aren’t complaining doesn’t mean you are in the clear, either.

When asked where dogs should be left when no one is home, my answer is “in a crate, until they can be safely weaned out to be left alone in the house without being destructive—at a year of age or later.” There are some exceptions to this rule, but not many.


Yards don’t exercise dogs


Your dog needs exercise, but he doesn’t necessarily know how to use his time wisely. Often, he needs his human to help him exercise properly. Playing fetch, playing tug, playing with other dogs (when appropriate), and playing in ways that work the dogs muscles and heart are all positive ways to fulfill his exercise needs. He needs you to help him work off that energy in positive ways, instead of neurotic ones. Use the yard together for best results.


Also, your yard may be a great place for your dog, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of novelty, which is necessary for mental stimulation. Walks can be great for this, especially walks where you work on some training as well as allow him to explore a bit.



Yards don’t train dogs


I can’t tell you how often a dog owner tells me that they don’t need to worry about housebreaking because Rover spends most of his time in their yard. Not only does being in the yard most of the time not teach the dog how to be clean indoors, it also doesn’t teach him how to be calm indoors, or around kids, or how to behave in ways that make him a treasured family member and not a nuisance. 

Your yard doesn’t give your dog any guidance. It doesn’t make him a better companion. It doesn’t teach him right from wrong. And unless you and your family spend most of your waking hours in that yard too, it works against you because your dog will do best when he is fully integrated into the household and near his humans most of the time. If he’s never allowed to be involved in your activities, how will he learn? If you don’t want to spend all your time with the dog yelling at him to stop jumping on the kids or chewing things, train him. And training requires proximity. Don’t like dogs in the house? You probably shouldn’t have a dog.

Yards can make dog owners complacent


It’s easy to become complacent when you have a nice fenced yard. If you don’t have to take Rover for a walk every day out of necessity, how often will you actually do it? Too many people with fenced yards don’t walk their dogs enough, and may not be meeting the dog’s needs. It’s easy to think that Rover is getting enough of what he needs, when he may not be. He also may be getting into trouble that you may not notice right away. Walks give your dog much-needed mental stimulation. Don’t neglect them.

Is your dog hell on the leash? Training can fix that. It’s worth the time and effort, believe me. You and your dog will be much happier when he can walk nicely on a leash.

Doggy doors can make complacency even worse. Having access to a doggy door will not housebreak most dogs—they need to be taken out and shown where to go. After housebreaking, they may still have accidents even if they have access to the yard, especially in a large house. And for dogs who run the fence, antagonize the neighbors’ dogs, or bark for the sheer fun of it, having access to do this incredibly stimulating-but-harmful-for-everyone activity any time they want is a recipe for disaster.


Why are you such a buzzkill? Isn’t having a yard better than chaining my dog?

Absolutely! I’m just trying to offer advice that you may not have considered. There are a lot of upsides to a securely-fenced yard—more positives than negatives, if you ask me. Use your fenced yard well, and enjoy it as a tool to help you have a happy, balanced dog. Just be aware of the dangers, that’s all.
Thanks for reading.


*(WARNING: graphic descriptions ahead.) One of my colleagues received an email from a client who reported that her neighbor’s smaller dog managed to stick its nose through the fence separating their yards, and her dog, a large mix, tore the other dog’s nose clean off (the victim had to be euthanized). Apparently, the dogs had spent years at odds with each other through the fence, and the frustration built to a fever pitch.

The other colleague reported that a client of his had to euthanize his own dog because it pushed its head through a broken fence slat, and it got stuck. It began to scream in panic, and the dog on the other side ended up ripping its ears off. (This sounds crazy, but dogs in a panicked state often invite aggression from other dogs. Why? Perhaps it’s because high-pitched screaming sounds like prey. Maybe because despite what we want to believe, animals don’t have morals and whether they can feel compassion for other creatures who are suffering is still in doubt. What is not in question is that a panicked animal can easily become a victim.) The victim here was elderly and had lost too much blood to be saved.


ONE LAST NOTE: there’s a difference between possibility and probability. But downplaying the latter can easily slide into blocking out the former, so just be aware.



Monday, October 24, 2016

One-Trial Learning

Remember, if you can, learning how to ride a bike, or use roller skates, ride a skateboard, throw or hit a ball, or dance a routine as a young child.

If you grew up in the age before video, you were shown what to do by someone who had already mastered the skill. Patiently or not, that person gave you the steps to follow, and then allowed you to try. Maybe they moved your arms and legs, or maybe they just talked you through it.

You failed at first, didn’t you? You fell. The ball wobbled and landed nowhere near where you were trying to throw it. You struck out—a lot. You got the dance steps wrong, and out of sequence.

Your teacher showed you again. And you failed again. This process repeated itself, for hours, days, or weeks, leaving you frustrated and feeling as if you’d never “get it.”

Then one day as you were practicing, after a number of repetitions over the days or weeks, the activity fell into place as if you’d always known how. Once you knew it, you could never again not know it. A feeling of euphoria washed over you. Your teacher celebrated with you. Maybe you even skipped off to teach someone else.

The next time you went to learn a new skill, you knew it might take some time. You instinctively knew that you would need to practice to get better, and this knowledge boosted your self-confidence. Because what you wanted, now, more than anything, was that euphoria of getting it right. 

Now think about, at around that same age, how you learned not to touch a hot stove.

Was there any practice involved in learning this important lesson? Not only did no one demonstrate how to avoid the stove, you were actively warned against practice for this task.

How quickly did the learning occur? If you are like most people, you only needed one repetition—just one—for this lesson to sink in.

That is what is known as “one-trial learning.” It’s behavior change that takes place extremely quickly, typically because the consequences are painful, scary, harmful, dire—or all of these.

What does this have to do with dogs?

Dogs, like most social beings, learn in many of the same ways we do: by practice, and repetition, and by consequence (reward or punishment). Every behavior has a consequence, and how the animal perceives that consequence determines whether the animal will repeat (practice) the behavior. If the consequence pleases the dog, he will practice more, and gradually improve to mastery. If the consequence is displeasing, he might attempt the behavior a few more times, then give up. If the consequence is scary, painful, or dire, he will cease the behavior—usually after one trial.

So what does that mean for us, as dog owners and teachers?

Why, when teaching their dogs new behaviors, do so many owners assume that the dog should know what to do after only one, three, or five successful repetitions? They weren’t riding a bike as well as Lance Armstrong after one attempt, but they feel like Fluffy should “get it” immediately. Or, even worse, they assume Fluffy “knows” it and is just disobeying to spite them! (This is definitely incorrect. Owners often assume knowledge on the dog's part where it does not exist. Do not fall into this trap.)

Maybe this expectation stems from our “want it now, get it now” culture.  We are an impatient species these days, and we suffer for it.

Wherever it comes from, it’s not helpful.

It took the owners of these recent Intermediate Class graduates months to get them to a place where they could "stay" this close to other dogs and be calm. It doesn't happen by accident--it takes practice.

No good training uses dire (scary, harmful, painful) consequences to teach new behaviors like sitting, coming when called, or lying down. When we want a behavior to continue, we use pleasant consequences after it occurs (or we help it to occur). Since we are not using dire consequences, we will need multiple repetitions to get the dog to a place of mastery. These multiple repetitions should happen over a period of days, weeks, even months. There is no humane way to get “one-trial learning” of a positive behavior like “come.” It takes the time it takes, with multiple reps in “easy” locations, then in different locations under different conditions, so that the dog understands.

Also: your dog enjoys those euphoria moments, too! When he gets it right and you rejoice in his success, your bond grows.

This is textbook learning theory, and there aren’t any shortcuts that work. Dog training takes patience, just like learning to throw a ball. Practice daily, reward small successes, and give it time to work, just like your parents, teachers, coaches and friends did with you.

The relationship that blossoms with your dog may surprise you.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Sense of Entitlement

Quick quiz: you are walking down the street and someone (a stranger to you) with a dog is walking towards you. The dog is calm and appears well-behaved, and both he and the owner are minding their own business. You love dogs, of course (yours is not with you at the moment). What should you do?

A: Start squealing in a high-pitched baby voice at the dog while moving towards it with your hands outstretched. If it's small enough, go right over and pick it up, then kiss it. If it’s a big dog, bend over it and kiss it.

B: Start cooing in a sing-song voice, stop, bend over and wait for the dog to get close, then try to pet it.

C: Squat down, talking sweetly to the dog, and wait until it comes to you, then let it sniff your hand, and pet it.

D: Ask the owner if you can pet the dog, and then do C.

E: None of the above. It's not your dog, and you don't have a right to pet it. Smile at the owner, say, "cute puppy!" and continue walking.

Did you choose (D)?

The correct answer is (E).

What? Did I just tell you to pretty much ignore a dog on the street, even though it's adorable and you clearly love dogs?

Sigh. I did.

Would you walk up to a stranger and pet their child on the head? Would you touch them? Would you walk up and grab someone's bike, or phone, or dress, and admire it? If the person with the dog was walking without his dog, would you stop him, touch his arm, and interact with him, just because? Why not?

Because it would be rude.

When you go to pet someone's dog, someone who has not explicitly asked you to interact with the dog, you are making an assumption, and you put the owner in a tough spot. If they refuse you, you will think them rude. Why is that?

Dogs are not public property, despite the apparent eagerness of many to be social. If you would feel hurt that someone wouldn't allow you—lover of all dogs--to pet their pup, you need to look at your assumptions--and your desires. 

Because wanting to pet that dog is your desire, your want. It's all about you. It doesn't take the dog, or his human, into account at all.

Just because your dog loves people, and just because you love dogs, that doesn't grant you the right to interact with others' dogs without explicit permission.

If their dog is sketchy around strangers, they don't want you to try and pet it (and you shouldn't want to!). Telling them, "It's ok! Dogs love me!" as you approach and as their dog clearly turns away from you (or growls or barks at you) is not OK. Continuing to approach a dog that is barking in a threatening manner, instead of backing off, is not OK.

If their dog is in training, they may be concentrating on that, and following the advice of a professional to prevent others from touching the dog (I give this advice a lot to my students).

If their dog is too social, and will jump all over you, they may be embarrassed about this and trying not to encourage it. Even the dog that is clearly straining to be petted belongs to someone who may not want him to be doing that.

Please don't put people in an awkward position. You would blame them if the dog bit you (or scratched you in his exuberance), when in fact it would be your fault if you invaded his space. Some dogs just are not social with strangers, and you believing yourself “good with dogs” doesn't imbue you with some magical force that makes it OK. In fact, if you are actually “good with dogs,” you’d never try to pet one you didn’t know—especially one who was clearly sending signals that he didn’t want to be petted.

(People who are “good with dogs” don’t typically announce this fact. They act in ways that dogs understand to be non-threatening. It’s not magic—it’s experience. And practice.)

I don't allow people to pet my dogs when I'm out. They don't care for attention from strangers, and often, we are in training. I never foist myself upon dogs I see in passing. I smile and compliment them, and go home to love on my dogs, because each of us knows and trusts the other. I love dogs, yes, but because I love them, I don’t have a searing need to interact with every one I see--especially uninvited. Self-control around dogs takes some practice, but you can do it.

I once entered a pet supply store with my dog, who I was training. I needed to buy something, and I wanted to work my dog around the distractions of the store while I was doing it. Everything was fine, and my dog was doing quite well, until one of the clerks spotted us. She literally started squealing and following us around the store (I started moving quickly away, on purpose) with her hands outstretched.

My dog was looking to me for help to get him away from this crazy person, and I could not shake her. I finally had to stop, put my dog in a stay behind me, and block her approach like a soccer goalie. She finally asked if she could touch him, and I said no, not rudely, but with conviction. She got her feelings hurt, sure enough (not my intention at all), and probably told her co-worker how rude I was as we left without buying anything, both of us breathing a sigh of relief upon stepping out into the sunlight.

My job was to protect my dog, and I did.

NOTE: I’m not an absolutist. Life is full of shades of gray. Many dogs love people, and want to approach them, and belong to people who are trying to socialize them, and can handle your greetings properly. Many people don’t mind if you pet their dogs. In fact, some may ask you to. Some may even become offended if you don’t touch their dogs! If you meet such people with such dogs, see option D above. And enjoy!

Otherwise, please keep moving.