New people coming to or even through the door is a really common trouble spot for many dogs and their human companions. In many cases, the trouble starts very early in the dog's development, usually in puppyhood, and most often due a lack of socialization to strange people of all shapes, ages, sizes, and backgrounds. Ensuring that unknown (or in more acute cases - known) people are safe coming to or through your door involves leveraging the very short socialization window our dogs experience as puppies.
All that said, this critical period of socialization varies depend on who you talk to, but in a general sense when we talk about socialization windows we are broadly (and quite generously) referring to the time of birth right up to about the four-month mark. In an ideal setting, puppies will be exposed to no less than 100 different people by the time they're 8-weeks old. Unfortunately, most breeders are not on board with this level of human-dog integration, which means that when the puppy arrives home new puppy parents must work triple-time to ensure that puppy gets into the hands of as many broad and varied people as possible.
But what do we do when we've got a dog who wasn't socialized well enough during the critical socialization period?
Much of this entirely depends on the behaviors your dog displays in relation to strangers in and around the home. In this blog I'm going to focus on territorial behavior in and around the home.
I'm going to use aggression and reactivity interchangeably in this section, with the full understanding that many folks in the science-based/force-free training camps won't like it, even without any quantifiable, scientific reason why not other than a ridiculous notion of trying to control "appearances"(I was once publicly shamed by a well known dog trainer here in Toronto on the use of the word "aggression" when I was just starting out as a dog trainer. A truly unforgettable experience. I use both of these words interchangeably so that my readers who see reactive behavior and think "aggression!" are not confused as to any sort of implied difference between the two. For the layperson, reactivity = aggression, and that's okay!
When we are working with a territorially aggressive or reactive dog, we have a number of things we must do immediately.
1. Make safety your #1 priority. Once a dog successfully lands a bite on anyone and learns that this behavior works to get the target to move away you can bet that behavior will be repeated any time the dog finds herself in a similar situation. Is it important to understand the emotion underlying the problematic behavior? Absolutely, but if we make that our first priority, we risk a bite habit and the devastating consequences that come with it.
Making safety the priority involves measures like taking the bite out of the dog with a muzzle protocol. One of the best safety measures we have that allows us to honor the needs (breathing, eating, drinking, interaction) of the dog and keep our communities safe from the fallout of problematic behavior, if it were up to me, every dog in the city of Toronto would have a muzzle protocol in place. All that means is that the dog has been appropriately conditioned to wear one. This can usually be done in a day or two, and is much easier to do than you probably think.
2. Give your dog a safe space away from the "action" and condition the dog to associate "very good things happening" with that space.
Dog behavior is extremely context specific. If you have a dog that engages in territorial aggression/reactivity with humans who come through, or just to, the front door (known OR unknown), it is imperative that you provide the dog a safe space away from the 'trigger' (the new person). This space should be thoroughly conditioned as a "good place to be" and must be made a part of the dog's daily life - even without the presence of guests.
This step helps us in two ways.
The first part addresses the problem of habituation. By providing your dog a safe space you give the dog a break from rehearsing the problematic behavior. Habituation is, bar none, the most powerful force informing dog behavior (the good and the bad), with genetics coming up a distant second. The second involves keeping other humans and your community safe from the potential consequences of the problematic behavior.
Now, I want to spend a minute on this last point. It is neither advisable nor appropriate to wait until after a territorial dog makes contact with a human to implement a management strategy. Do it at the first sign of stranger-danger at the door, including when the dog displays aggressive/reactive behavior to people the dog knows.
The second part involves the neurochemistry of the dog. We understand that every time the dog has an aggressive or reactive episode, huge spikes of cortisol and adrenaline occur in the canine brain. Now, the neurological situation the dog finds himself in is more complicated than that, but for the purposes of territorial dog management, we'll focus on just these two.
Working via the endocrine system found in all mammals, cortisol amplifies a number of physiological processes within the dog: digestion, anxiety management, blood sugar, and control of inflammation. The important part is understanding that chronically elevated levels of cortisol in the body and brain result in chronic problems with digestion, sleep, mood regulation, inability to focus, heart problems, and even weight gain. Chronic Adrenaline spikes can result in urinary incontinence, pacing, whinging, diarrhea, compulsive behaviors (ie. chewing on paws until they're raw), hypervigilance (dilated pupils, stiff posture, and increased frequency and severity of reactive/aggressive displays of behavior). While these lists of consequences are by no means exhaustive, the effects of unchecked cortisol and adrenaline are cumulative. Left unchecked, these will get worse over time and can become catastrophic to your dog's health and well being.
3. If you want to improve or even eliminate these types of behaviors, enlisting the help of a professional who has experience working with territorial dogs is critical. You cannot do this alone, and the reasons why are actually quite commonsensical. To begin with, your relationship with your dog will confound your ability to assess the dog's territorial behavior in context. We often talk about being "too close" to a problem to be able to solve it, and our love for our own dogs is no exception to this general "rule". In addition, your desire to get the dog's behavior "turned around" will incentivize you to rush through the behavior modification process. When I'm talking to my clients about the challenges I face in dog training and behavior modification as a professional, this is always the very first thing that comes to mind. We want our dogs to do well, to be well adapted socially, to be happy, healthy, and included in every aspect of our daily lives. Unfortunately, this desire doesn't help our aggressive/reactive dogs. In fact, it quite often makes the situation much worse as we push the dog through the stages of the process before they're ready.
A professional eye many degrees removed from the closeness of the dog owner's relationship to their dog allows for a more rational and accurate assessment of the behavior and the protocols by which modification of that behavior is to be achieved and whether or not those measures are proving to be effective.
A quick note here that if your dog trainer does not quantify (track with data collected over time under controlled conditions) your dog's progress through any behavior modification program they are only guessing as to the dog's progress relative to baseline (the behaviors as they are expressed at the beginning of the training program, and a great many who refuse to incorporate data tracking into their work miss the mark, invariably making the problematic behavior much worse or, in the best case scenario, not changing it at all. We must insist on better standards for this critical work among the professional base.
You know, I've been doing this work for some time now. Working in Canada can be a real blessing in many respects, not the least of which is a fundamental understanding of what the humane treatment of animals entails among the vast majority of the Canadians.
At the core of humane treatment is the recognition that we are responsible to meet a fundamental hierarchy of needs as regards the living beings in our care.
The most basic hierarchy of needs recognized as necessary for life consist of the unrestricted provision of the following: air, water, food, shelter, and sleep. While these needs are most often taught and proscribed to human beings, it is understood by most Canadians that these needs are shared by all things that meet the definition of being alive.
In a nutshell, if you choose to care for a living being, human or animal, you are legally and ethically responsible to provide for their basic needs. Willfully depriving an animal of any of these for any reason is a violation of the Canadian Criminal Code.
In addition to the federal laws contained in the act protecting animals from states of deprivation causing distress, which carries with it a maximum penalty of two years of incarceration (not long enough, if you ask me), the provinces have their own regulations to ensure animals not find themselves in states of deprivation-related distress. Provincial regulations also have the power of law, but do not carry with them the consequence of a criminal record. Many municipalities also have active by-laws surrounding animal control and the treatment of companion animals.
Despite all of these regulatory and legal protections around cruelty to animals in Canada, I still find myself face-to-face with cases of acute deprivation resulting in distress each year. And while there is no "getting used" to this kind of experience (the consequences of vicarious trauma for those working in compassionate care are brutal and long-lasting) I am getting better at protecting myself, advocating for the animals I am contracted to work alongside, and accessing the appropriate legal avenues to ensure that the inhumane treatment of companion animals not be permitted to continue - no matter the "rationale" behind it.
Whether it's the deprivation of a 3-month old puppy of water for 12 hours a day to avoid pee "accidents" in an oversized crate, or the beating an adolescent dog with a broomstick to get him to stop barking at the mailman, cruelty towards animals in any context is simply unacceptable behavior and the consequences for it are both swift and severe.
My experiences with cases of animal cruelty post-pandemic have, undoubtedly, been more serious in both quality and scope to anything I experienced prior. Maybe that's a little bit of luck on my part, I'm really not sure. Frankly, it doesn't matter. The laws governing what constitutes animal cruelty are robust and getting stronger with each passing year. There is simply no excuse for not providing for the needs of an animal in your care. As the owner of a companion animal, if you should find yourself unexpectedly able to care for your animal through no fault of your own, there are resources you can utilize to get the help you need.
Finances are making it hard to care for your pet? The Humane Society can help: www.humanesociety.org/resources/are-you-having-trouble-affording-your-pet
Unable to provide shelter? Chances are, your municipality can help you get your pet the shelter it needs: www.toronto.ca/community-people/animals-pets/animal-shelters/giving-up-your-pet/
For pet owners who opt for deprivation, physical violence, or psychological terror in the face of the rearing, training, or general maintenance of your pet's daily needs, the onus is on you to recognize your inability to provide for your pet's basic needs and to get them somewhere safe. Chances are that if you don't, your neighbor will - with help from the city, the province, or through legal action at the federal level. Do the right thing under the law and surrender your pet to a shelter that can provide your pet with the basic necessities of life in the short-term, until they find an adoptive family who can provide for those needs long-term.
If you are struggling to care for your animal, contact the Ontario SPCA animal center closest to you.
For any one reading this blog working in animal care today, I encourage you to take a look at the last few points in my Terms of Service and to update yours accordingly. Protect yourself contractually from the compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma inherent to the work we are called to do. Never feel like you have to tolerate clients who neglect or abuse their animals. The law has your back, and so do I.
I've included two resources you can utilize immediately to report cruelty and abuse to animals here in Ontario. Every province has some version of these programs. Do NOT hesitate to report animal cruelty and abuse, to be a voice for the voiceless among us.
Whether you're a concerned neighbor or an animal-care professional (trainers, groomers, veterinary technicians, pet sitters, boarders, in-home pet sitters, etc.), report abuse when you see it. You just might save that animal's life.
This is such a great question, and one I get asked all the time. So why are our dogs always hungry?
The answer isn't as straightforward as you might think. When we're thinking and asking questions about our dogs, we often come up with hypotheses to our questions based on our experiences - past, present, and future. When it comes to hunger and dogs, this general rule holds up. As we're unable to ask our dogs why they're always hungry (or at least, appear to be hungry), we have to look at a number of variables before we can take our best guess.
Age plays a huge role in determining your dog's appetite. Young, growing dogs in their puppy or adolescent stages of growth are absolutely hungry the vast majority of the time (barring any health issues, which I'll discuss in greater detail below) because they're growing. Their bodies grow fast, and they've got lots and lots of hormones fueling that growth. For our growing dogs, having a healthy, robust appetite ensures that they eat enough to grow strong, healthy, and ready for whatever the world might throw their way.
Dogs that are quite unwell, or dogs that are taking certain kinds of medication, may experience increased or decreased levels of hunger. In most cases, these kinds of changes (big upticks in hunger or decreased desire to eat) will be something your veterinarian talks to you at the time of your dog's diagnosis. My dog Gus is a great example of this. Gus has always had a really healthy appetite. He loves to eat, and he can't get enough of new flavors and textures. It's something we enjoy exploring together.
But when Gus came down with IMT (Immune Modulated Thrombocytopenia) in late 2021, he had to go on a big round of prednisone. This medication causes huge increases in both thirst and hunger, something Gus and I have been navigating ever since. I am hugely sympathetic to Gus' increased hunger, and do my utmost to provide healthy, low-calorie treats he can satisfy himself with between meals. It hasn't been easy, but keeping Gus healthy, free of distress, and on the course to full recovery is my #1 priority.
Dogs that receive dog food that is substandard in its quality nutritionally are often hungry despite eating their full mealtime allotment each day. This is because the dog's body is deficient in some key nutrients that keep them on the lookout for more food with which they can address why they're not feeling great. The key to this type of challenge is to take a close look at the food you're giving your dog each day, and being sure that it's a reputable brand made here in North America. Gus and I were with Petcurean for a long time before his IMT diagnosis, and today we rely on Hill's Veterinary formula to ensure he's getting what he needs on a daily basis.
Reinforcement & Behavior
The final key to this puzzle comes down to the kinds of behavior we reinforce with our dogs. Understanding that food is the fastest and most effective reinforcer when working to modify behavior with our dogs is critical here. When a dog begins to understand that you respond to them reliably to behaviors like: begging at the table, stealing food from plates, and counter-surfing, you can bet that you're going to get a whole lot more of that behavior.
Knowing this, should you punish your dog for these habits? Absolutely not. What's interesting here is that, even if your response is a negative one, the dog registers that you responded first and foremost. The nature of the response (pleasant/unpleasant) is secondary. What's worse, if you respond to this type of behavior with punishment, instead of getting a truly compliant dog who understands the boundaries of the household, you will have a dog that sneaks around behind your back. This is not a good setup for any relationship, let alone a cross-species one.
Instead, set yourself and your dog up for success in three easy steps:
1. Manage the environment. Remove any and all opportunities for counter surfing, plate stealing, and begging at the table. This may involve securing food where your dog cannot reach it, and giving your dog a tasty kong during mealtimes to dehabituate the begging behavior.
2. Stay consistent. Bad habits take a long time to unlearn, so stick with it. Over time, you'll begin to see the changes you want to see in your dog if your management is good and your responses to poor behavior are minimal.
3. Reinforce what you DO want. When you see your dog doing something you want to see your dog doing, reward them. Really make a big fuss. Be careful not to overdo it here though! If your dog is easily startled, gentle reinforcement and praise is the way to go here. Whatever you do, remember this: what we give our energy and attention to, we're going to get a lot more of. This is nowhere more true than in our relationships with our dogs.
What does it mean to think scientifically?
To begin, we start with mindset. Being skeptical is key to thinking scientifically. Being skeptical involves suspending judgement until you've had the opportunity to collect evidence from reliable sources. There's no doubt that at times, the evidence about something we want to better understand isn't perfectly clear, and that's all right. It simply means that you must make do with a working model until you have a handle on better evidence.
In dog training, thinking scientifically is a critical part to addressing our dogs and their behavior. Avoiding problematic conclusions and statements like universal truths "ALL dogs love other dogs" or "All Dalmatians behave poorly with children" is the first step in determining what work you might like to do to improve your relationship with your dog and any problematic behaviors you want to address.
Understanding that not all dogs have the same drives informing their choices and behavior allows us, their caregivers, to treat each dog as a unique individual. When we take into account the countless variables at work in any dogs life, from puppyhood through to middle age, it's easy to understand why there is no one-size-fits-all solution to dog behavior. They're simply too different, their experiences too varied, to be able to apply a singular truth to all dogs.
Another critical component to the process of thinking scientifically about your dog and dog behavior in general is being able to accept and taking some delight in being wrong about our initial assumptions. When we can disprove what we initially hypothesize, this is a very exciting thing. It allows us to narrow our focus, to take factors into account that we might have initially thought were unrelated to whatever it is we're trying to better understand.
For anyone working in the field of dog behavior, there is an implicit understanding that what we think is true is always some kind of approximation of what is actually true. Sometimes our approximations are deeply inaccurate, founded in more confidence than actual data or evidence. Our beliefs and expectations can inform judgements made prematurely. In dog behavior, these premature judgements about why something is happening can be extremely costly to our dogs and their caregivers.
When we develop a more flexible approach to our propensity to make judgements before we have sufficient evidence to support them, our lives with our dogs become easier. We learn to see our dogs as individuals-in-context, rather than trying to make them fit into a preconceived model that may be wildly inappropriate to what our dogs need to be healthy and well-rounded. We can do this by exercising skepticism, not forming premature judgements, and understanding that our first assumptions are usually wrong.
It's never too late to adopt scientific thinking into your work and daily life. And our dogs agree. Better late than never at all.
This blog is for Marija, who sent in a request hoping to teach her dog recall. It's a great subject, a phenomenal skill to learn with your dog, and her request immediately inspired me to write this post. Thank you Marija!
Teaching recall is quite simple. You want it to work anywhere and everywhere you might need it, so first you'll want to choose a cue word that you will remember in a pinch. Make it easy to remember and ideally, short. You'll want it to be a cue that you and your dog don't use for anything else.
Next, choose a treat you know your dog will do somersaults over. Something really high value works here. Make sure it's a treat your dog doesn't often receive. It's rarity will establish a more powerful reinforcing function in your recall work with your dog.
Begin the actual work of recall by saying the cue word and feeding your dog the high value treat reward. Don't try to incorporate any distance, distraction, or unusual environments at this stage. All you want to do is pair the sound of the cue with the reward. This will help to motivate the dog to come to you when you utter the word from a distance. Do this at least 10-15 times with your dog, and not all at once. You'll want to do it many times throughout the day.
After a week of steadily and regularly rewarding your dog when you say the recall cue word, you can start to test your dog's understanding and association with the cue.
When you're elsewhere in the home, say the recall cue loudly enough that your dog can hear it. If he comes to you in a great big hurry, tail wagging, nearly tripping over himself to arrive at your side, make it rain those same high value treats for your dog. Really have fun with it, and make sure your dog knows how delighted you are with his efforts.
Continue to condition this word inside the house with generous treat rewards over another week or so of practice. And if your dog wasn't quite over the moon to get to you the first time you tried it out, you may want to reconsider your choice of high-value food motivator. Maybe the one you're using isn't quite valuable enough to get that big reaction you want from a rock-solid recall.
Once your dog is responding reliably to this cue every time, you can test it out-of-doors. Start in your backyard, if you have one, and if not, try the exercise on a long line in a dog park, ideally at a quieter time of day, or at the beach.
Even once your dog has learned a solid recall, be sure to revisit the exercise a few times each week. This will keep the cue fresh and the response snappy.
If you have a fearful, shy dog, you know how challenging managing this fear can be in a day-to-day context. This is perhaps no where more pronounced than in large city centers (like the one I’m in here in Toronto). Across mammalian species, fear is a normal response generated in response to a threat that can be real or perceived.
While fears that present themselves up-close and personal are relatively easy to acknowledge and even address, perceived fears experienced by our dogs can be difficult to pinpoint and even more difficult to remedy. In terms of best practices for the handling and management of our shy, fearful dogs, there is a way to approach the issue in real time that’s relatively straightforward. It just takes a little practice. Let’s dive in.
We start with learning the language of our dogs. Dogs do communicate with barking, but here we’re going to focus in on the way they communicate with their bodies. It’s a remarkable language and in some ways, quite complex. Without question, learning to read the body language of dogs takes some time, but there are a few cues you can watch for and utilize right away.
Maybe the easiest to spot, the tail of a dog experiencing fear is most often lowered and you might see a low, slow wag. Don’t worry about what’s causing the fear just yet.
In our fearful dogs, the head may be lowered in something that looks like a deliberate dip of the head and extension of the neck. You may also see stress lines appear around the eyes and cheeks, a furrowed brow, and narrowed, blinking eyes. A tight mouth with long lips can often be seen here as well, with a kind of compulsive licking of the lips. Perhaps most commonly but most often missed by us as dog handlers and caregivers – yawning.
When a dog is experiencing extreme, overwhelming fear, the body language signals get quite serious in their implications and potential consequences. A dog in this emotional state will avoid eye contact, and their bodies may tremble in an all-over response that looks like a full body shiver. The tails are tucked deeply between their back legs, they may pant heavily or, alternatively, close their mouths tensely and completely.
If you corner a dog experiencing this level of fear, they may snap in the air in your direction, a behavior designed to get more space by getting you to move away. Here you may get explosive barking, lunging, air snapping, charging, and if the dog cannot get relief and space with these, they may do their utmost to land a proper bite on whatever it is triggering their fear.
How Can We Help?
It’s heartbreaking when we don’t understand and don’t know how to help our fearful, shy dogs. Dogs we love and know are suffering terribly with fear, often on a daily basis. So how can we help them manage, mitigate, and even overcome their fear? Outside of learning how to read the body language of fear so that you can recognize it as it happens and ideally, intervene before it escalates to an extreme, there are a number of steps you can take to get ahead and help your dog.
In my experience working with shy, fearful dogs and their human companions, this may be the hardest part for most of us. We’re busy, we’re trying to pay attention to a thousand things at once, and we ourselves find that we’re often overwhelmed by the demands of daily life. Despite understanding and recognizing all of this, if we can take just a few minutes each day to make note of what is triggering our dogs fear and how that fear is showing up in our dog’s body language we can start to understand the patterns in our daily lives and interactions with our dogs generating the fearful response. You’ll notice elements in this pattern that relate to time-of-day, places (environments), noises, physical events (sudden appearances, arrivals to the home, stranger-danger), and the like.
So why is note-taking important here? Well, having foreknowledge of what triggers your dog ahead of the fearful experience will allow you to anticipate, avoid, and manage your dog’s exposure to their triggers. Understanding like this will allow you to give your dog a break from being constantly triggered in a way that feels outside of your control, and I cannot overstate how important it is to relieve sources of fear, especially extreme fear, for your dog. If we do not address this fear, it escalates across all metrics: severity, longevity, and frequency of the experience. What’s more, it will facilitate getting help for you both. By having this work done before your consultation (with someone like me), or your next visit with your veterinarian, you expedite our ability to do what needs to be done to relieve you both.
This is where my patience and tolerance for dog “professionals” is truly the thinnest. I’ve worked with six-month old puppies whose ‘trainers’ have told their owners to slap a prong or shock collar on them when experiencing fear on walks, effectively punishing those dogs for their emotional experiences. Leash pops, shouting, hitting, exposing your dog to increasingly worsening fear by flooding them through unrelieved exposure to the fearful experience – if anyone ever advises you to do any of the above, run in the other direction. And if you’re interested in saving some canine lives in the process, make sure you leave that ‘business’ with an honest review exposing their practices. We can no longer look the other way when those who purport themselves to be well educated professionals continue to recommend cruel, aversive management techniques with our fearful dogs. The damage these individuals do can take many years to remedy, and in some cases, the damage is permanent. I take solace in the foreknowledge that the science we are now doing on these techniques will soon inform the legal framework we need to ensure these individuals are frozen out of the profession permanently.
Recognize, respect, and address your dog’s needs and boundaries. Some dogs do not appreciate being embraced, kissed, or interacting with children. Maybe your dog doesn’t care much for adolescent dogs and puppies. There’s no need to force the issue. If your dog isn’t having a good time, and you’re pressing them to do what they’re not comfortable with in order to address some idea of what good dogs do, you’re missing the most important part of what it means to love and live with your dog: trust and respect. If you trust and respect both your dog’s boundaries and what they love, they’ll return the favor in ways you can’t imagine.
For a long time dog training and behavior modification has focused on producing results. More often than not these results occur in artificial setups where the environment and the variables at play within are both known and controlled. This is what dog trainers might call "an ideal training scenario."
Unfortunately, these types of training setups fail when they're applied to behavior happening in the real day-to-day world of the dog. This everyday world, with all of its inherent chaos, might be classified by the dog trainer as the "worst possible training scenario". The dog is distracted and overloaded with stimuli. The trainer is also distracted by the going on all around them: the sounds, sights, and smells. There's no question that when we start out on the path of working and training with our dogs it seems intuitively (or experientially) correct that these early lessons are best delivered in an ideal training scenario. So the dog has the best chance of getting everything right.
But what if this assumption is wrong?
What if the only way to effect real change in the behavior of our dogs when it really matters - when we are in a "worst possible training scenario" - is to observe and then work with the problem behavior at the time during which it is problematic.
Let's consider the issue from the point of view of learning. Imagine for a moment that we have a dog trainer trying to teach his client about how to elicit better, more consistent attention from her 18 month old terrier. The trainer has two ways to help the client learn what she needs to know to manage and mitigate the terrier's problem behavior: a total lack of attention when attention is required.
1. The dog trainer can teach the client how to use the tools that directly relate to the problem. For example, he might talk all about leashes and collars and how to manipulate them to garner the dog's attention. He might show the client steps on how to turn a neutral stimulus like a clicker or a whistle into a positively charged, attention grabbing sound cue. The trainer will do all of this in an environment in which there are simply not a lot of distractions to ensure the dog is able to comply with what the trainer is asking of him successfully. Sounds pretty straightforward for the trainer, right?
This is what is known as "teaching to the tools."
For the client, on the other hand, this is a very difficult way to tackle the behavior problem requiring attention. To mention just a few of the skills the client will need to learn how to manage to work "from the tools", the trainer might include: how to use a six foot leash with finesse and expert timing in relation to the dog and his lack of attentive behavior. The client will need to understand multiple rates of reinforcement and the value hierarchy of stimuli unique to her dog and her dog alone. She will need to make a list of all of the stimuli that drive her dog to distraction, and she will need to update it as her dog matures and changes and their lives together change over time. This list is by no means exhaustive. It isn't even comprehensive. In fact, we're barely scratching the surface.
With even a small number of difficult, time-consuming skills to master, it's no surprise when the trainer hears from the client two weeks later in an email expressing overt exasperation at the failure of the skills and tools she spent so much time, money, and effort to learn. She might even be feeling like nothing will ever change, or that somehow the deficit - the failure - is her own for not being able to become the "person her dog needs now". All this because she simply is not a dog behavior professional. She does not have the time, the exposure to different dogs in different contexts, or even the physical aptitude to utilize these tools with the expert precision the management of her dog's behavior requires in order to "work from the tools" effectively.
2. Instead, the dog trainer might think to himself, "Well, hang on a moment here. The dog isn't able to offer meaningful attention to the client in a wide variety of contexts, not just here inside the home." He might even have the foresight to look ahead and realize that, "these tools are not likely to be sufficient to redirect the dog's attention. What's more, thie clients' schedule and commitments will simply not afford her the time she needs to master these tools quickly enough to mitigate or even manage the problematic behavior." A really exceptional trainer might then ask himself, "What needs to happen to ensure the client is able to capture and hold her dog's attention in any scenario?"
This is known as "teaching to the problem".
Instead of presenting the client with the tools and the skills to use the tools in an expert fashion as a first approach, the trainer instead presents the client with the dog and says, "All right, let's look at this problem directly, and then apply those observations to what we do know about dogs in terms of immutable scientific fact (for example, the neurophysiology of the dog's brain. The fact that food rewards cause a certain part of canine brain to light up like a laser show, or where the predatorial nature of the dog lives in the brain and so on.) We might then ask questions like, "is there a pattern to the type of stimuli that elicit the behavior? Is the stimuli related to any of the dog's fundamental needs or wants? Does the stimuli cause a change in the affective (emotional) state of the dog, and if so, what about the dog's body language informs us what that emotional state might be?" We will intersect this information with the hard facts we do know about the dog: physiology, neurochemistry, genetic disposition, medical history, etcetera.
Once we've established a thorough understanding of our problem by asking critical questions, instead of defaulting to conventional approaches, a really amazing thing happens. The client begins to understand the usefulness of the tools (whether they're a physical management tool like a leash or a training protocol like Dr. Karen Overall's "Protocol for Relaxation") because of how they work on the problem. The leash, for example, working to establish safe distance, to impart impulse control where none exists, and to reinforce the connection between the dog and their human partner. The relaxation protocol, used to turn active attention into passive, relaxed attention through repetition, desensitization, and classical conditioning over time.
And wouldn't you know it, once that session is done the dog trainer doesn't hear from this client for four weeks. When they do finally connect for a follow-up lesson, the client exudes nothing but happiness and confidence. She's able to navigate the myriad of "least desirable training scenarios" with what she knows about the problem, and by extension she understands the necessary usefulness and practical application of the tools at her disposal. Not only is she able to manage her dog as regards the particular issue at hand, but she is able to extrapolate her understanding of the dog to new and novel problems as they arise throughout the rest of the dog's life.
This what it means to learn. To really, truly learn.
It may be that you've never experienced it before. The learning done in our high schools and universities is geared for mindless, unquestioning regurgitation of conventional truths and analogies. Even if you haven't yet experienced it, there is still time to develop this critical way of framing any problem.
If we continue to assume what is most effective in dog training and behavior modification is found through convention (what has always been done), or analogy (well it was this way for this dog so it must work for all dogs), we make it impossible to figure out where we might improve our approach and make things better. In any line of thinking, no matter the discipline, we want to make sure that the underlying premises we're working and building on are valid and useful in context of the problem we're facing. When we do reach a conclusion about the problem before us, we must then make sure that our conclusion is driven by these same principles. This is no more important in any other discipline than it is in the study of behavior.
It is this distinction that I hope to guide each and every one of my clients to understand and to embrace in their lives with their dogs. The reasoning that drives me is simple: I know that it will exponentially improve the quality of your life with your dog (and with every other animal you interact with) from the very first day we begin work together until your very last day on this Earth.
I can think of no greater calling. When you're ready, I'll be here. Let's get started.
It's a complicated problem, and if you've ever found yourself in the middle of two dogs you dearly love with a fighting habit, it's the kind of problem that keeps you awake at night. You just don't know when they're going to get into it again, and how bad it might be this time. o
Naturally, the next thought is can I separate them permanently? Not if you want to keep your sanity, you can't, but I know of folks with a pair of beloved dogs on 24 hour crate rotation schedules. That's how bad the aggression can get. I am also aware of folks who, on a singular failure of a 24-hour crating protocol like this one, lost either one or both of their dogs. The very worst case of all involves a woman who was herself killed when she missed a step of her management protocol and attempted to insert herself between her fighting dogs.
It's a brutal problem to have.
Like anything related to our dogs and their behavior, the best outcomes are won when we start early. But it's not always possible. When the fighting habit is already in place, we have to work fast and smart to ensure a few necessities are met right off the bat.
First, bite prevention. Not bite inhibition (this work is done much, much earlier in the dog's life), but bite prevention. This has to be total for inter-dog aggression to be handled quickly and well. A few options to executing bite prevention in a total sense are available; some of them swift and smart, others more painful and laborious (for both our dogs and us).
Crate Rotation: I touched on this a bit above. This is very hard work. It's also hard on the dogs who, necessarily, spend a great deal of time crated. It's particularly difficult to execute if the dogs once had free roam of the home and have experienced a change in their relationship. It can be done, and done well, but it may be the most labor intensive option out there.
With this kind of protocol, you rotate the dogs out-of-crate time, through feedings, walks, and time for affection and socialization. You've got to know that crate is locked down and closed (and even when we get these right every time, sometimes the equipment itself fails. It sucks but it happens), and the dog has to know that the crate time isn't forever. Ideally, the dog has learned to really enjoy crate time, even in lieu of the other household dog not having crate time at the same times. It can, however, help to ease the heartwrenching pain of interdog aggression among the humans in this particular equation, who don't have to choose between dogs or come to terms with the idea and appearance of their dog in a muzzle.
Muzzle Protocol: I'm a huge proponent of muzzle protocols. If it were up to me, licensing in any city center would be contingent on a muzzle protocol being in place, but I digress. While the muzzle protocol can allow both dogs to be out and about without tearing into one another, it has its risks, and they're not insignificant. The dogs can still do damage to one another via muzzle punching, pinning, and the like. Psychologically speaking, dogs can still experience psychological pain at the actions of another dog, through strategies like blocking access, stalking and spooking, etc. What the muzzle does is take about 98% of the life-threatening damage out of the picture when we have a household where interdog aggression is at play. Like the crating protocol, the muzzle, a piece of equipment, can fail too. What's more, some dogs are able to escape certain muzzles. Figuring this out through trial and error with a dog that's aggressive to another dog in the household is a very high-risk endeavor, and not recommended.
Rehoming: I'm not going to sugarcoat it. This option SUCKS. The emotional devastation, the heartbreak, the initial separation and the grief that follows. When it comes to us, the dog owners and trainers and lovers, well... This is the worst possible scenario, right?
Maybe not. It depends on your perspective. I'm not denying that the pain will be very real, and last a good long time. There's no question about it. But what is gained may well outweigh the cost, as hard as the price here is to pay. You will recover from the grief, and so will the dog you've chosen to rehome in order to protect both of the dogs you so dearly love and care for. What's more, if there's any opportunity to maintain a relationship with the rehomed dog, the separation and related grief need not be total. Oh, it'll still be there, and it will be hard, but your dogs will live and so will you. You will live FREE. Free of fear, free of pain and harm.
Interdog aggresssion is a difficult, difficult subject. It's hard to broach as a professional, and it's even more confusing to try to live with and live through. The options available, however, are worth thinking through. Sometimes the shorter-term agony is worth enduring when long life and good health are at stake. It's certainly worth our consideration.
Maybe the farthest thing from a "dog whisperer" there is, the work I do every day with my clients - work I stand behind and attach my name to - is the antithesis of everything being a "dog whisperer" means. And I'm not just talking about Cesar Milan and his long-running, incredibly popular, deeply problematic reality television show.
To be a "dog whisperer" is to evoke the magical, maybe even the mystical. The power of presence; a look, touch, or even a simple thought in the direction of the beast transforms the animal in the span of just a few minutes. Suddenly, the dog is everything any family has always dreamed of and believed he or she a dog can be. It's marvelous, it's miraculous, it's potentially life saving, it defies rational explanation.
And it's deeply damaging. Let me explain why.
First and foremost, it immediately renders unnecessary any understanding of the scientific theories on which our best explanations for dog behavior are built. These foundations, developed over decades upon decades of research, are what provide dog owners with ever-better explanations about behavior and how it might be addressed when it's problematic. Without it, one bump in the road renders us lost with no idea what direction to go next. Even worse, more often than not, we risk make things worse when we don't understand the fundamental theories and principles on which our understanding of behavior is constructed.
The idea of a "dog" or "animal whisperer" renders the associated behavior and training protocols - our best, most robust applications of these theories and principles - as out of reach for the everyday dog owner. They become relegated to the magical, and the magical is out of reach by default. As we're unable to parse the multiple, simultaneously occurring skills at work when our dog is engaged with a professional dog trainer or behavior professional, we don't understand what's happening, or why. Not initially, anyway.
The implication that this work has an element of the magical robs the dog owner of the responsibility he or she has to internalize and execute the work that needs to be done with their dogs. It also deters those who otherwise might pursue this work as a career path. This divide happens without our even realizing it. It has the more insiduous consequence of relieving the everyday human of the burden (responsibility) of developing any understanding about the behavior around us. If we're working with a "dog whisperer" we're talking about magical processes, after all. Only a certain number of us are born with "it" - that mystical touch that can change everything for the better in an instant. That inexplicable quality that makes a human into a "dog whisperer". Except that no such magic exists.
The quality we are trying so hard to define is in fact the synthesis of behavior theory, the practical application of that theory via tried and tested protocols, continuing education, and the ongoing quantification of the work itself. In short, it is something that is earned. It cannot be bestowed via genetic lottery. Some aspects of it can be taught, but not all. Somewhere along the line, it is defined in the doing.
You can imagine who might suffer the most from this well-meaning, if poorly applied, moniker.
These explanations and applications are not out of reach for anyone wanting to understand and potentially change the behavior of their dog for the better. Dog training and behavior modification is equal parts academic study and hard skill acquisition, a brilliant fusion of the best the mind and body have to offer. It has the singular aim of improving the lives and relationships of people and their dogs by providing better, easier-to-access explanations and applications of behavior and training theory to dogs and their human partners.
Put simply, there are no "dog whisperers", because nothing in dog behavior and training is magical. No one "born with it", in much the same way your dog wasn't born knowing how to sit on cue. It's scientific, it's practical, and it's work. Nothing more, nothing less.
Dog training. How do we define it today? It's been around a long, long time. As long as we've had dogs working with us we've been training them. Training is, comprehensively, the ability to increase the frequency and duration of behaviors we want, and to decrease the frequency and duration of the behaviors we don't want.
That's it. No matter how complicated we may be able to make the various facets, approaches, protocols, and applications of dog training it fundamentally comes down to this simple definition. It's what our clients come to us to do.
The first written mention of food reward-based training can be found in a book on the subject of gun dogs from 1751. The author apologizes to the reader for the audacity of using food to lure his gun dogs to perform reliable retrieving behaviors quickly, easily, effectively, and reliably over time. His methodology stood firmly against the accepted standard for dog training at that time, which consisted primarily of the use of physical punishment, often in the form of a whip, that would be applied to a dog when behaving undesirably. You'd be hard pressed to find another book about training dogs that uses food rewards again until the late 1960's.
Since then, the reward-based or "force-free" training movement has reached every corner of the globe, setting a humane standard for dog training and proving time and time again that rewards, lures, and good environmental management are the fastest, easiest, most effective and reliable way to reducing behaviors in our dogs we don't want, and increasing the ones we do. We know this to be true because we can prove it. Behavior and behavior change (training) is observable and quantifiable, and is therefore irrefutable.
On the flipside of this, if the number of correct responses from your dog does not increase relative to the number of rewards, the dog isn't learning very much. She's probably having a wonderful time getting all those treats though. It's not terrible, but it also isn't easy, fast, fun, effective dog training. It's hard, slow, tedious, and the results are unreliable. Interestingly enough, graduates of dog training classes exit 98% of dog training classes with a dog whose response reliability rate is less than 25%.
Less than 25%.
In practice, for example, that breaks down to a dog who can perform a recall under perfect circumstances one out of every four times.
If you ask me, spending four, six, or even eight weeks, and anywhere from $200-$500 on a training class or protocol for a 25% improvement in my dog's ability to come when I call him is simply not a good return on my investment in terms of both time and money. So what's gone wrong? Why are stays that can last 5 minutes such a rarity in an obedience basics class today? And why are we still a slave to the food lure four weeks in? The reason is quite simple.
Dog trainers are, more often than not, afraid of numbers.
Response:Reward Ratio, Response Reliability Percentages, Time & Repetition to Par, Baseline Percentages and most important of all, for the balanced trainers out there who are still living in the dark ages of dog training (join us, I promise, the water is SO MUCH nicer here), Response:Punishment Ratios. ((As an aside, take note, balanced dog trainers. If the number of punishments is not decreasing relative to the number of Responses, the dog is not learning and having an extremely bad time indeed. And if you are not tracking whether or not the responses are decreasing with each application of punishment, you're simply not a dog trainer by any professional estimation. I won't hazard a guess as to what you are, but you certainly aren't that))
All of these must (with the exception of the last one for the science-based/Force-Free/R+ training community) be in the dog trainer's wheelhouse in such a way that they're the rule that supports their work and not the exception. And why not utilize these easily accessible tools? They reduce time spent in debate over things we can never and will never know about our dogs, and useless, time-wasting conjecture, "Oh well you know the dog must be thinking about how much he misses the dog park when he urinates on the bathroom mat at lunchtime...", they prove the effectiveness of the trainer and the training methodology being used (I mean, imagine it. Being required to show proof of your work. It's like, you know, a real job where you're accountable for getting certain tasks done or whatever) and they improve the behavior of the dog being trained in minutes. This is easy, fast, fun, effective dog training that's reliable for life.
Dog trainers in North America and beyond have lost focus. In the endless flood of new information about neurochemistry, affective (emotional) states, trauma, and the like in canines and more broadly, the mammalian brain, many of us are in the weeds. We want to do good work and we want to improve the lives of our clients and their dogs. There are none of us here, doing this compassionate work, with ulterior motives. Hell, we'd not last a calendar year going at this kind of job with any other motive.
The thing is, it's easy to lose focus when no one is holding you accountable. What our clients need from us is so straightforward. Good dog training should never take weeks, months and years. It does not require perfect consistency from your human client day in, day out. Not when the work is done early and done by someone who can competently and confidently back it up with hard data (percentages you can see). Effective dog training does not require the dog owner to become a dog trainer! What lunacy! To start, not everyone can become a dog trainer, nor should they be expected to become one because they're struggling with their dog's behavior To ask this of our clients is madness; sheer, utter madness.
The focus of accountability should never be on the new puppy parent with the 6 month old hyperactive border collie who is still being lured into the most basic of cues, and who has been training with the same trainer or training team since he was 8 weeks old. This woman has shelled out loads of her time, money, and energy and gotten next to nowhere with her dog. A dog she loves deeply and wants only the best for, as evidenced by her behavior. But she's the one to blame?
I don't think so.
Dog training, in every camp, is on notice. Now is the time to shape up, be accountable to clients and client dogs, and prove the work. Clients will not continue to accept sub-par results that cost top-dollar when there are alternatives readily available. What they may (and are more and more likely to) do is to take their adolescent Dalmatian that pulls like the dickens to the guy with the slip or prong collar, slaps it on their dog, and instantly changes their behavior... for about three weeks after which the dog exceeds its threshold for pain and does the unwanted thing anyway resulting in lifelong physical damage, let alone the damage of the related emotional fallout.
The truth is I'm not comfortable with the possibility of being responsible for this happening to any dog, let alone a dog I've had a relationship with of any kind. The very idea of this happening to a dog I've known keeps me awake at night. Why? Because I hold myself accountable to my work in a way that's fast, easy, fun, and effective. I do it early (when called in early), I do it in a way that's nearly invisible (to ensure the human client can do it effortlessly), and I do it as quickly as the situation will allow.
Will there be grey area along the way? Absolutely. That's one of my favorite things about this kind of work. The need to problem solve is without limit, but I don't spend very long in those grey places. The quantification I do allows me to navigate difficult areas as though I had a map of the area already in hand.
This is effective dog training. No more, no less.
Okay okay okay. Take it easy. I'm not here to put dog trainers on blast. I do want to make the distinction between two types of dog trainers you might be presented with during your training and behavior shaping adventures with your dog. Let's get into it.
Among dog training professionals, a "hack" is a dog trainer who tackles undesirable canine behaviors in a random or as-needed way. There will be little control exerted over the multitude of variables at work in any context. The "hack" will pay no mind to the extra body in the room on the second session of training for a dog who resource guards the food bowl, for example. When working a "no-bark" protocol, the hack will likely treat all barks, no matter what is stimulating the barking, as equal.
The results as far as the dog involved in the training is concerned will be unreliable. The dog will appear to simply have "good days" and "bad days", and chances are that by the end of the training block the dog parents, delighted with some progress will be left to bring the work to completion. Unfortunately, because their learning and protocol execution mirrors that of the hack, the training will continue to be unsystematic and, in many ways, unreliable.
The Systematic Dog Trainer
When working with a systematic dog trainer, each step in the training process, no matter the behavior at issue, will be addressed with tremendous detail. Let's use leash reactivity as an example here. The systematic dog trainer will factor in any number of criteria through which the reactive response will be addressed and then adjust those criteria accordingly. These criteria often involve questions of distance, approach, duration, and warm up (or cold trialing). The systematic dog trainer will take the time, no matter how clunky the process, to chart the work being done. In terms of the dog component in this training partnership the results are reliable, long-lasting, and perhaps most importantly, can be reasonably replicated by the dog's owner (provided, of course, they're a willing, active, and motivated participant. Sadly, and much to the dismay of many of us in the industry, this is not always the case).
Depending on what you're working through with your dog, the hack trainer may be just what's required. The differences illuminated in this blog are not meant as a value judgement. They are intended to help you decide the kind of dog trainer you need depending on the behaviors needing address with the pup in your care. Where those behaviors are somewhat complex, potentially dangerous (to you, to others, or to the dog itself), the systematic trainer is going to be what you need to get the work done well. If, on the other hand, you're simply hoping for someone to show you how to teach your dog basic, one- or two-step tricks, the hack trainer can get the job done.
Don't be afraid to ask your trainer what kind of methods they employ in the work they do from day-to-day, and where there prior experience lies. It is likely to get you to where to want to be with your dog more quickly and with greater ease than simply taking your best guess.
It's rare, but it happens. Every once in awhile I meet a puppy or dog parent who believes I am there to "fix" their dog. The behaviors requiring address may be as simple as puppy teething and chewing, or as complicated as human-reactivity/aggression, and the dog owner is eagerly anticipating the moment that these behaviors evaporate... With little to no effort of their own.
Most recently this occurred to me with a young woman here in Toronto and her heeler puppy-mix. When she realized that more than two or three minutes of practice was required to help this puppy mature into a calm, controlled, well adjusted adult, her generally kind demeanor turned to one of anger, ire, frustration, and verbal abuse. She felt comfortable enough, on her home turf, to hurl that aggression at both me and her puppy, escalating with each lesson.
Against my better judgement, I persevered with her and that darling dog, focused on ensuring that the puppy at least get a minimum of training experience during our time together. No matter how many times I pivoted in our protocol to address the client's constant negativity and "He can't do it" attitude, no matter how many options were provided, and no mater how positive I tried to remain during the process, there was no change in the client.
The reason for this is pretty straightforward. The client, in her way, believes that dogs are like machines - when something doesn't work right you take the machine in to get the part fixed or replaced. And that people employed as dog training professionals operate like a car mechanic would with a broken down car.
I'm here to tell you that this is a grave mistake that can cost your dog his life, and not for the reasons you might think.
Puppies and dogs brains develop much like ours in the very early stages of life. What dogs lack (and we enjoy) is primarily the formation of a pre-frontal cortex, responsible for higher learning and reasoning, critical thinking, language comprehension, and the nuances of complex emotional states. The canine brain is a truncated version of our own mammalian brain, with many of the same systems in place: the amygdala, basal ganglia, parietal lobe, etc. This is important to understand because it means that each dog requires treatment as an entity separate from the rest.
In short, what works for some won't work for others. This requires the ability of the humans involved in the care of the dog to be able to modify training protocols and approaches, to stay flexible and pivot to new and different approaches when things fail, and to stick with protocols that take awhile to work until they stick. Like everything else, the timeline of learning for our dogs is variable and dependent on things like context, environment, training partner, neonatal experiences, experiences with the mother dog and in the original home.
That doesn't, however, mean that we should paint our dogs with the brushes of their past experiences indefinitely. Awareness of them and the possible limitations they may impart to the dog in the short to mid-term, is important. But even more important is that we move on from those early life experiences and provide mindful, carefully planned experiences and interactions going forward.
When training finished with the aforementioned client and I made my conclusions on the prognosis of the puppy's success and what required address in her behavior in order to achieve the behavior she wanted from her puppy, she opted to attack me publicly with a "review" on my Google business page. Unsurprisingly, her review made non-factual claims about my final correspondence with her regarding her puppy and her own behavior towards myself and the little one. This final aggressive attack, undertaken from behind the safety of her computer screen, was one I thoroughly anticipated well in advance.
You might wonder why I bothered to send her my conclusions on our time working together and honest notes about what had to change in her behavior in order for her dog grow up to be a successful member of the canine community here in Toronto. Particularly if I knew in advance what her response would entail.
The answer lies in the single fundamental reason I do this work for clients across the GTA.
My primary function as a canine training and behavior professional is to ensure a long life in the original home of the dog by modifying the behavior of the human training partner (dog/puppy parent) to address the needs of both individuals.
This is the ethical imperative I adhere to as a requirement of my certification, and is a reflection of my lengthy experience working with dog/human pairs of all ages, backgrounds, and breeds. If the human counterpart of the dog/human training cannot or will not modify their behavior to meet the needs of their dog, the training protocols we work on together essentially fly out the veritable window the minute I walk out the door. One hour a week is simply not enough time to make a lasting impression on ANY dog. The human counterpart of the training pair MUST pick up the torch and run with it to ensure the long life and success of the dog in their care.
I'm not doing this difficult, compassionate work to kiss ass, equivocate, or excuse poor human behavior. I do it to save dogs lives. That isn't ever going to change. As the scientific and force-free training community grows in experience and confidence in the years and decades ahead, this ethical mandate amongst animal behavior professionals won't remain the exception to the rule.
It will be the rule.
So you adopted a puppy during the pandemic?
There are few things more wonderful than the addition of a brand new darling to the home. They will enrich your life in ways you would never expect.
The decision does come with a heavy weight of responsibilities. I've written this blog for all the pandemic puppy owners as a way to prepare yourself for what's coming in the next few months.
When you adopt a new puppy, there are six developmental deadlines you must meet before your puppy is six months old! If you think that's a tight timeline, you're absolutely right. That you're here, reading this blog, puts you and your puppy partner ahead of the curve. What's the risk of not meeting these developmental deadlines? Playing behavioral catch-up for the rest of your puppy's life. So without further ado, let's dive into the first three developmental deadlines you must meet with your new puppy before she or he is six months old.
Deadline #1 - Your Education
You may not realize this, but it is critical that you first complete your education about puppy education before searching for your puppy. You need to know how to select a puppy well, and how puppies work and function in daily life. This is an awful lot like buying a car: it involves tons of research and a "test drive", and in a perfect world, you'd do this with a wide selection of puppies before narrowing down to just one.
In terms of puppy education itself, you must know how to teach your puppy some very critical behaviors:
Deadline #2 - Learning How to Evaluate Your Puppy's Progress.
Understanding how to assess your upcoming puppy's current socialization and educational development. This is regardless of breed or breeding. Allow me to repeat.
Your puppy's socialization and education development at the time of your meeting is what it is regardless of breed or breeding.
If socialization, errorless housetraining, and basic manners are not well underway by eight weeks of age, the puppy is already developmentally disabled.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Deadline #3 - Perfect Housetraining and Chew-toy Training
It is your responsibility to ensure that an error-free housetraining and chewtoy program is in place from the very first day that your puppy comes home. That means you must be ready with the right education and a robust home set-up before your puppy ever arrives home.
So now you might be wondering, and rightfully so - how do I get ready for this? And if your puppy is already on the way to you in so-many-days, you may be reading this and wondering - oh man, where do I start?
That's where I come in. I want to help you get ready, and I'm going to do it for the cost of just two minutes of your time. Go ahead and register with All Dogs here Register and send me an email. I'll send you my free ebook straightaway. If you're local to Toronto but not sure about taking some puppy classes with a professional, let me know your situation - I'm certain there's some way I'll be able to help.
If you're not local to Toronto, you might be reading this blog and have a puppy on the way (and even if your baby has already arrived - no judgement, you're going to be okay!). You may also be realizing that the cost of a professional dog trainer is just not within reach right now, or that the kind of training help you want isn't available where you live. Not a worry! I have resources for you!
Allow me to introduce you veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar. I encourage you to check out his course on puppy rearing and training here. There are also some free classes available that will help you later in your dog's life. There's no fee to sign up, so you really have nothing to lose. Dr. Dunbar's tireless work and dedication to bringing force-free dog training to the masses is the reason it is such a widespread training method today. I'm really happy to be able to pay my experience learning with him forward in this way. Go forth, new puppy parent, and learn!
No matter what you decide to do, I wish you the very best of luck with your new addition. The days ahead will be wild, but wonderful, and you'll wonder how you ever got along without a dog in your life before.
Happy training everyone!
I don't think there's anything cuter than dogs at play. The ubiquity of one piece of dog body language in particular has a great deal to tell us about what our dogs are thinking and feeling: the play bow. It's probably my very favorite thing to see any dog do, and yet, until I looked into it, even I was unaware of it's many and varied expressions. In today's blog, I'm going to review a few of them.
1. The "Classic"
This joyful pose tells other dogs, and us, 'Let's have a good time!" and "I'm ready for you!" In the classic expression of this particular piece of dog body language, look for the following physical markers: rear end up, ears perked up and alert, the mouth partly open with long, relaxed lips, a lowered tail, and elbows very nearly touching the ground. The eyes of the dog exhibiting the classic play bow generally follow the nose, which is often oriented on the desired playmate.
2. The Prey Bow
Here we see a few subtle differences in body language when compared to the classic prey bow. Like the classic, we have the ears and rear up, and the elbows very near or touching the ground entirely. The differences here lie in the tail, which is straight up, and the mouth, which is gently closed. This indicates an intention to pounce, and it means business!
3. The Calm Bow
Used by socially savvy dogs at play, this bow is used to say, "Hey, don't forget we're playing now!" or "Calm yourself, this is a game, remember?" We see this bow with dogs involved in many different kinds of interactions, like play or status determination. It's often used as a diffusing mechanism, often to stop conflict between dogs, or to safely take space from a dog who may be reluctant to give it up. You may see your dog diffusing a potential altercation between two others nose-to-nose over something with a classic play bow. It shows excellent communication skills, and should be celebrated. Especially if it works!
If you're familiar with dogs, chances are you've seen resource guarding behaviors (hereafter referred to as "RG" for the purposes of this article). RG behaviors can be big, scary, over-the-top events between not just dogs, but also between dogs and other animal species (including humans). And while a great many dogs stop at the warning stage of an RG demonstration, others have no qualms about backing up this threat. In this blog, I'm going to talk about two ways to identify RG behaviors the moment they start in your dog's body language.
It should be noted that in the canine world, possession is important. Possession can include any item that is real and tangible, for example: the bed you're lying on, the food on your plate, or the person sitting next to you.
1. Is the dog still or frozen in place?
The mighty calm before the storm. In the very instant following this stillness, motion is often explosive and ugly. Teeth, fur, paws, flight - these are all often seen in a dog following through on an RG threat. For those who've ever intervened in an RG display, this is the moment they've capitalized on (and for many, including myself years go, ended up with a redirected bite for their trouble). Knowing whether the dog intends on following through with RG behavior usually comes down to the behaviors and body language immediately preceding the freeze.
2. The eyes have it.
Noting where your RG dog's eyes are focused will give great insight as to whether the dog intends on conflict, or is willing to defer the desired object to whatever is causing the threat. If the RG dog is looking directly at the offending party, it is highly likely that RG behaviors will ensue should the pressure continue to mount for the RG dog. If, on the other hand, the dog is looking away from the offending party, it is likely the RG dog is willing to defer the desired object.
Dilated pupils is another one to watch for here, however this can be more difficult to spot in the precious few moments before a display of RG behavior. While a trained professional like myself will spot it immediately, because I've been conditioned to look for it, most often it is an aspect of RG behavior recalled after the RG display has occurred.
Finally, blinking. A dog that blinks is friendly, malleable, and open. A hard eyed stare, on the other hand, is a threat promising further explosive action if the pressure of the situation is not relieved. These hard-eyed stares are intense, and if you've ever been the subject of one, you'll recall a feeling of time slowing down as the nature of the threat registers in your conscious brain. This is the result of adrenaline - a survival response - and it is not to be ignored!
Remember that while RG behaviors may follow the same environmental guidelines and cues most of the time, stress and context play a huge role as to when, and how severely, these behaviors will present. Possessiveness between dogs is a normal and natural set of behaviors, but that isn't to say that they can't be well managed by the savvy dog owner and in many cases, prevented altogether. Dogs skilled at their own language and the understanding of the dynamics of a group navigate these behaviors with great proficiency.
If you have an RG dog, and you're having trouble managing these often frightening behaviors, don't hesitate to reach out to a certified dog trainer or behaviorist working in your area. They can help you recognize the precursors to RG behavior in your dog, and teach you to manage your environment in such a way that RG displays are minimized.
There are a myriad of reasons your dog needs learn how to have his or her body handled. From veterinary visits to grooming, to being hugged, pet, and tugged on by a wide variety of people, a relaxed tolerance of handling does not come naturally to our dogs. The easiest way to ensure your dog is able to tolerate handling is to start when they're still very young indeed. Ideally as soon as you bring your puppy home.
Start with the basic tools needed for grooming. A comb, brush, toothbrush, nail clippers, scissors, and any other grooming tools can be laid out for the puppy to explore. When she does, give little rewards for such brave curiousity. Next, practice examining the dog. After each 'exam', give a treat. For example. Hold one of your puppy's paws. Then release and give a treat. Check inside the ears. One ear, check! And treat! Other ear, check! And treat!
Repeat this until your puppy is delighted to have you handle these sensitive body parts. If the puppy tries to get away, or is squirmy and unsettled, simply withhold the treat and say something like, "Oopsie!" You can always start again in a little while. Feel between the toes, the nails, the windpipe, the belly, the tail - and gradually, over a few days, try to get to a whole body exam.
Practicing grooming with your dog follows the same principles. You can expect to be treating your dog often while you condition her to tolerate and even enjoy grooming. With every brush stroke, treat! Then two brush strokes, and another treat! Do this until your dog can tolerate a whole body grooming, and even add a little pressure for a nice, deep brush through. Once your dog is comfortable with having feet and nails touched, you can practice touching her nails with the clippers. One touch, one treat! Then a few touches for a treat. Next, hold the paw in your hands and press on the toe to make the nail come out. Treat! Continue like this, adding the clippers into the equation slowly and gradually, until you can effectively hang onto your dog's paw and clip those nails without a fuss.
Many dogs find themselves quite traumatized by the grooming experience, having never been conditioned to tolerate or even enjoy the process. By taking your time, starting early, and staying consistent, fear of grooming does not have to be a reality for your dog. Instead, make it a joyful, relaxing experience with these important grooming practices.
If you'd like more information on how to get your puppy ready for anything that might come his or her way, check out this class with the Dunbar Academy here. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar is a legendary force-free dog behavior expert, and his work with puppies is second to none. I've learned a great deal from his work, and I'm sure you will too. Many of the courses in his online Academy are totally free - and they're a wonderful place to start.
Good luck, and happy training!
There are some fundamentals to behavior modification that every dog owner must be aware of before employing the help of a behavior specialist. I'm going to outline some of the most basic here so that you know what kinds of questions you should be asking, as well as the kind of information you should be receiving, from your dog behavior expert.
Having a solid understanding of how the brain works is critical to good behavior modification. We begin with the amygdala, or lizard brain. This is the emotional center of the brain. It is responsible for fight or flight reactions, temperature control, safety, the need for food, sex, and other basic survival needs.
We move next to the limbic system. Wrapped around the lizard brain, the limbic system is all about emotions. The canine limbic system is very similar - nearly identical - to the human limbic system. Here we have mood, memory, and hormone control.
Finally, we have the neocortex. This is only found in mammals. It can be divided into four subsystems: a) the frontal cortex, associated with movements, relationships, associations, and learning, b) the parietal cortex, fundamental to associative function, c) the occipital cortex, which controls vision and association, and d) the temporal cortex, responsible for equilibrium, hearing and association.
2. Establishing baseline
A great example of the importance of establishing a behavioral baseline is the game of Clue. In this game, we attempt to determine the murderer via a series of clues that appear when we explore the rooms of the house the game takes place within. If we simply started the first round of the game trying to determine who the murderer was via their appearance, we would find our participation almost immediately forfeit (outside a stroke of great luck).
Understanding behavior is similar. We cannot walk into a room, take one look at the subject of our inquiry, and start making assumptions about the how or why of this or that behavior. We must establish a baseline of behavior first from which we can compare behaviors in context. Context can include environment, verbal, visual, or motion cues, and other similar stimuli. Establishing baseline behaviors takes time, and in the case of canines, an inherent understanding of human behavior. This may seem counterintuitive. Allow me to explain why understanding human behavior is fundamental to this work next.
3. Understanding human behavior.
Behavior specialists, who do not often have the luxury of spending the many hours needed to establish baseline behavior with the dogs we are asked to work with, must rely on their human counterparts for information. If we cannot determine then, whether or not these human counterparts are giving us the whole or only part of the truth, we end up with a baseline that is flawed. As a result, the application of our work is inadequate to meet the behavioral needs of the animal, and the needed modification breaks down or works only in part.
Corollary to the above, know that it is not that the humans in this behavior equation are knowingly deceptive or wanting to waylay the specialists they've hired to address the "problem" behavior with their dogs. In many cases, they are simply unaware of what motivates them to tell a partial or rationalized version of what is underlying the issue at hand (we have the neocortex to thank for this). Getting to the bottom of this is the subject of many textbooks on human psychology and behavior, and is not the purview of this article. Simply knowing that this is fundamentally the case allows canine behavior specialists to equip themselves with the tools necessary to address behaviors in context that may not be spelled out as part of the baseline provided to us by their owners. A good behavior specialist will take this information and blend it with a behavioral baseline they themselves establish, within the framework of where the 'trouble is' provided by the human caregiver.
4. Cluster Analysis and Behavioral Profiling
Behavior specialists will use clusters to explore our gathered datasets about the canine in question and discover patterns within the data, allowing us to simplify them in such a way that we reduce the complexity. Clustering is imminently useful for categorizing behaviors and getting an overall idea about the variances in behavior and how that behavior is organized (see 2. Baseline). Clustering techniques require expertise to utilize, and an understanding of the subject in question is essential to evaluating the results of clustering.
Fundamentally, cluster analysis is a dimensional reduction technique. It allows us to take the datasets we've collected, which have many dimensions, and locate the dimensions that matter the most (for example, environment or a particular stimulus.) This is invaluable for finding patterns in behavior and developing a behavioral profile that then provides an insight into the kind of behavioral protocols most appropriate in context.
If you've taken the time to come this far in this very difficult, heavily science-based blog, well done. I'm going to take an educated guess and say that you may, in fact, be here reading this because you yourself are interested in working with dogs - maybe your own, or as a career choice. One great way to get started is through the Dunbar Academy's online course workshops. These are designed for the layperson who may want to develop their understanding of dog behavior, and those who are considering dog training and behavior modification as a career path. Dr. Ian Dunbar's work is where I started, and I highly recommend taking his Where Do We Go From Here class, and/or his Crucial Concepts
Behavior modification is a heavily scientific, progressive, detailed process that should never be undertaken lightly. Ensure that your behavior specialist has a solid handle on the principles necessary to perform this work well to ensure the least possible fallout should the process go awry. It is my hope that this blog will help you understand some of the fundamental knowledge your behaviorist must have before employing them in the behavioral modification of your most valued canine friend.
With their chin resting on your knee and those sad eyes staring into your soul, how can you resist giving your dog human food? Dogs often beg for human food. At first it may seem harmless but it’s important to know what foods can be potentially dangerous.
Here are our top 5 foods to keep safely away from your dog.
Chocolate and Caffeine
The easiest way to think about it is the higher the cocoa content, the higher the risk is for your dog. As an example, baker’s chocolate and dark chocolate is higher in toxicity, whereas milk chocolate is lower. Even white chocolate has toxic levels. Ingestion of any type of chocolate, depending on the quantity consumed, can cause drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, muscle tremors, seizures and coma. The main toxic ingredient in chocolate is theobromine, but the other factors are caffeine and methylxanthines.
One ounce of chocolate per pound of body weight is enough to cause a potentially lethal dose. For example, a 3 ounce piece of dark chocolate is enough to be fatal to a 25lb dog.
Coffee/tea also fit into this category since caffeine toxicity is identical to chocolate toxicity. Within 1-2 hours of consumption of toxic levels of caffeine your dog can experience hyperactivity, restlessness, vomiting, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, tremors, seizures, and even death.
It’s a sugar alcohol you can find in things such as chewing gum, mints, candy, baked goods and diabetic products. It can also be found in toothpaste, mouthwash, chewable vitamins, and cough drops. When ingested by dogs it can cause a sudden drop in their blood sugar which can cause liver damage and liver failure. Symptoms include vomiting, seizures and loss of co-ordination. These symptoms can occur anywhere from a few minutes to several hours after ingestion. Ultimately it can result in death.
To date there have been no reports of problems with other sweeteners. For good measure you should keep all common sugar substitutes away from your dog. To emphasize the severity of xylitol’s toxicity, a 10lb dog would only need to eat a single piece of gum containing it to reach toxic levels.
Onions and Garlic
We’re talking anything within the onion family – garlic, shallots, chives, scallions – whether it’s in its natural form or even powder. They contain disulfides and sulfoxides, compounds that when broken down in the digestive system can cause anemia, gastroenteritis, and damaged red blood cells. Dogs that are heavily affected may require blood transfusions or oxygen therapy.
Typical signs of onion or garlic poisoning often don’t appear for days after ingestion. It can include lethargy/weakness, vomiting, breathlessness, and orange to dark red coloured urine. A small does might not do much harm, but frequent small doses or one large dose can lead to poisoning.
Fruits, Seeds, and Pits
Apples, cherries, peaches, and other similar fruits make this list because different seeds, pits and even stems contain cyanide. As an example, the casing of an apple seed contains a natural chemical called amygdlin that releases cyanide when digested. Cyanide is not only poisonous to dogs but it can also cause intestinal issues of varying degrees if consumed in moderate to large quantities.
The peels, flesh, and seeds of citrus fruits contain citric acid and limonin. These can cause gastrointestinal upset, vomiting, and diarrhea if a lot is consumed.
Grapes and raisins can cause vomiting and diarrhea in as little as 12 hours after ingestion. Other symptoms include loss of appetite, lethargy, and abdominal pain. With the possibility of developing kidney disease with this poisoning, your dog could die from kidney failure within a few days if toxic levels are reached.
Avocados also pose a threat to your dog. The flesh, pits, and skin contain a fungicidal toxin known as persin. The pit of an avocado holds the most toxins (persin levels drop if an avocado is ripe), but thankfully they are only toxic in high doses. Another dangerous part of the pit is the choking hazard. Consumption can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and heart congestion. If a small piece of avocado has been eaten it may not be the end of the world, but monitor your dog for any warning signs.
Alcohol and Yeast Dough
Even small amounts of alcohol can affect your dog’s health. Alcohol contains ethanol while beer contains hops. Both of these ingredients/compounds can cause alcohol poisoning in your dog. Hops in particular can cause malignant hypothermia which can be fatal. Symptoms of intoxication include vomiting, high body temperature, excessive panting, and even seizures.
Dogs that show signs of alcohol intoxication should be monitored by their vet since it can cause organ failure or even death.
In addition yeast, when it ferments, creates an alcohol compound that can therefore lead to alcohol poisoning. Another threat about yeast dough is that it can literally rise in a dog’s stomach and cause blockage in their digestive tract. Less severe cases cause gas and stomach discomfort where has severe cases can cause stomach and intestinal rupture.
Remember! Even a small amount of human food can cause great distress to your dog. Check, check again, and check a third time before giving your dog human food. It might just save his or her life!
Prey drive can be tough to manage. Living in busy city centres with dogs who are wired to track, capture, and kill prey is a challenging proposition but it absolutely can be done. It can even be done well. In this blog, I'm going to talk about some games you can play with your dog to help channel his or her prey drive.
1. Hide and Seek
Sounds easy enough, and really, it is! Put your dog in a sit/stay in the bedroom, bathroom, or some other area so that he can't see what you're up to in the living room or wherever it is you decide is best to play this game. Hide the object and then begin the game by releasing the dog from the secure place and saying something along the lines of, "Where's your toy?!" or "Find 'X'"! If your dog struggles to understand at first, and he might, feel free to coach him along. Be sure to hide whatever motivates your dog best, whether it be a squeaky toy, a ball, or a delicious treat.
When your dog finds the hidden object, celebrate with something appropriate. For example, if a squeaky toy was the object of the hide-and-seek game, play tug of war for 15 seconds. If it was a ball, play toss and retrieve. And if it was food, well, eating the treat in question is a great reward in and of itself.
Remember! Start with easy finds and big excitement when your dog successfully finds the hidden object to get him really hooked. Then, as soon as your dog will tolerate, stop helping him make the finds to increase difficulty and to help him gain confidence in his finding ability.
You'll hear again and again - don't play tug with your dog! Whether from trainers, veterinarians, or behavior experts, what this statement misses is context. Tug in and of itself is not a bad game leading to aggressive or as we often hear used (albeit almost always incorrectly) "dominant" behavior, but it is important that it's played appropriately with a specific set of rules in mind. Let's get into it.
The first condition is a pair of cues. One for relinquishing the item to be tugged, and one for taking it. I often use 'drop' for relinquishment as it comes to me with the most ease. Use whatever cue works for you but be sure to stick with it. Consistency is key! Before getting into the game of tug, practice some exchanges with your dog that are low-intensity. When your dog is holding something in his mouth, give the cue, wait for the release, give a treat, and then ask your dog to take the object again. For the taking cue, I like to use 'take'! Yes, I know it's not very creative, but for me it works and is easy to remember.
Even if your dog doesn't take the object in his mouth, you can put it down right in front of him and then take it back, being sure to give the treat with each repetition and then replacing the object.
As you and your dog get good at this, the second condition comes into play. Your dog may not take the object or re-take the object until cued to do so. This prevents grabbiness or improper initiation of the game. First present the take/retake cue like "Take the ball!" and then present the object. Be sure to do both - doing so prevents the dog from accidentally engaging in this game when it's not appropriate to do so. Therefore, you want to have one and only one toy used for this game.
The third condition is that the game not be initated by the dog unless he is invited to play. This is an extremely common event and so it's important to capitalize on the opportunity the first time it appears. If your dog reinitiates tug before being invited, have a brief time out before re-engaging. Should the dog initiate twice before being invited, end the game for that day.
In order to keep the intensity of a tug game in check, take frequent breaks to do obedience work. This is the fourth condition of the tug game. What's more, it will allow you to obtain lightning-fast obedience from your dog while he is excited - a critical lesson for any dog to learn! He will be extremely motivated to get back to the tug game and as such, is likely to offer you some astonishingly fast obedience work.
The final condition for tug comes down to a zero tolerance policy for any accidents wherein teeth make inappropriate (read: painful) contact with human skin. Immediately give a good yelp and end the game. The consequence for an error of this nature must be unequivocal. Your dog is more than capable of controlling his mouth with consummate precision - it's up to you to allow for nothing else.
3. Chew Training and Dissection
(Morgan and Kathryn, this one is for you (and Eden and Jenga!))
The inestimable Jean Donaldson, author of numerous books on dog training and behavior modification, likens chew training with the following conceptual model - an hydraulic pump (and for those of us who are mechanically minded, the comparison is likely to ring very true):
"Think of a dog's total behavioral output as being fuel in a tank. The tank has X amount of fuel in it every day. The fuel will be drained every day into several reservoirs (fuel burners), which represent the dog's various behavioral outlets. One outlet is likely labeled "Chewing" (others might include "chase and grab, bark like crazy, etc"). If you plug the hole (by interrupting) leading to one of the reservoirs, there will be a backlog of fuel that will still have to drain. Thus, you might get more barking or chasing but the likelihood is that you'll get the drainage into the chewing reservoir at times when the plug (you) are not there to block the behavior. Only if yuo have already opened up another reservoir ("chewing chew toys") does your interruption have a change of plugging "furniture chewing" more permanently. Dogs must have outlets for their natural behavior. If you can't or don't want to provide for the basic behavioral needs of a dog, do not own one. Subjugating natural dog behavior through punishment and morbid obesity is no longer acceptable." - Jean Donaldson, "The Culture Clash"
And so, how do we drain the chew and dissect reservoir? We have a few options. Kongs are a great start, but we can go further as they don't really address the dissecting behavior so many dogs enjoy engaging with. Collections of socks, rags, old towels all work. If you have a really dedicated dissector, tie knots throughout the material object you're giving your dog to dissect. I often use the rolls from toilet paper and paper towel, fold up one end, drop some treats inside, and then fold up the other end and give them to my dog Gus to sort out. Be sure to supervise your dog at the beginning of this game to ensure they don't ingest anything they shouldn't. If you have a dog that likes to ingest things that are not food, this is the wrong game for you!
For those of us with dogs who have strong predatory instincts, management can often feel hard-won and short-lived. I'm hoping this blog will inspire you with ways you can give your dog constructive outlets for these very natural behaviors without stress, frustration, or the need for punishing management protocols. Dogs are animals after all, and like any animal, they have behavioral needs that lie far outside what we consider normal social behavior. Respect those needs, meet your dog halfway, and enjoy a long, happy, productive, and most importantly, fun life together.
If you're looking for more games and tricks you and your dog can learn together, check out the Dunbar Academy's Reliability and Dog Games training class. Gus and I have done it and it was invaluable at strengthening our relationship. Enjoy, have fun, and keep training!
We hear this word, 'mindfulness', thrown around a lot these days. It seems to be everywhere; from ads on our social media, to Youtube videos about improving your life, in your daily yoga practice, and in the article you just read about eating well. But what does it mean?
Mindfulness can be described as a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
It sounds pretty straightforward. Seems to be the way we should be comporting ourselves in our every day life. Makes sense, and if we want to be happy, well-rounded individuals, it would follow that the ability to be mindful might make up a big part of the equation.
But wait a minute, Camille, you might be thinking. This is a blog on dog training. So why are we talking about mental techniques to achieve a better life?
Have you ever noticed how your dog is incapable of worrying about the future? Or fretting about the past? Your dog is not concerned about the big hydro bill due at the end of the week, or what his buddy at the dog park thought about his hairstyle that day. Your dog is focused on one thing and one thing only. The present moment.
I believe this is a large part of why we are so fascinated by our canine pals. Their ability to accept their reality in the here-and-now and to live joyously. The way they are enraptured by the simplest of life's little moments and pleasures. They have a complete disregard for what happened in the past or what may happen in the future, revealing a mindfulness that we crave and acknowledge as a critical part of what it means to be fulfilled as living creatures. We watch and we marvel at their merriment on our every arrival home. We long for the sense of wonderment they experience at every mealtime. What's more, with each passing day, their feelings on these matters never diminish. They remain, as strong and as rooted as the undeniable life our dogs possess.
As dog trainers (and make no mistake - every dog owner is a dog trainer to some extent - what you do every day with your dog informs what comes next in terms of behavioral expectations) this ability to live and operate in the present moment when working with the dogs in our care is essential to effect positive and lasting behavioral change. A canine handler distracted by things outside of the immediate is a handler out of touch with their working partner (the dog). The distracted/worried/preoccupied handler cannot relate to what the dog sees and experiences with his or her senses at any given moment. It is therefore impossible for the human counterpart in this particular relationship to do any effective work. Mindfulness must be part of the equation.
How do we cultivate mindfulness when working with our dogs?
1. Pay attention to your environment.
Take in the smells, sights, and sounds all around you. Identify their sources, and notice that your dog is doing the same as well as an aspect of his basic nature. This is simply a part of what it is to be alive for him or her, and believe it or not, it is for you too!
2. Take notice of the physical sensations associated with what you are doing.
Feel the wind on your face, and the heat of the sun. Is the ground under your feet soft and yielding, or is it hard, uneven? Notice the cadence of your feet if you are in motion, and the rhythm of your breath. How do these things make you feel?
3. Take note of your emotions.
Are you feeling anxious about something unrelated to the present moment? Perhaps it's the activity itself causing this feeling. Are you angry? Or feeling calm and contented? Identify the emotion, but don't put any weight or stock in any imagined outcome. Simply acknowledge the
feeling and recognize that these emotions are derivative of what you've experienced. They are not what you are. In the same way you know that, for example, your dog's reactivity to sudden noises is not what he is. This simple act of acknowledgement will enable you to react to anything you encounter with your dog in this moment in a more productive way.
By practicing these three simple elements of mindfulness in your work with your dog, whether as an animal professional or a pet parent, you will find an immediate improvement in your ability to enjoy your time together because you are able to focus your attention and accept the present moment as it is, not how you think it should be. And for those of us with dogs whose behaviors are less than what we might consider ideal, this practice is even more important to avoid getting caught up in what's wrong, and to zero in on everything that's right.
If you're like me, you may have a dog who is a little afraid of new people. The causes of this fear are manifold: from a lack of socialization during that critical puppy imprinting period, to a traumatic experience in the past, and sometimes even genetics come into play. What's important to know is that dogs who are a little anxious around new people need gentle, gradual introductions and a whole lot of understanding. Let's talk about best practices on introducing your shy, possibly fearful dog to new people.
1. Go slow
When introducing your shy or fearful dog to new people, take your time. There's no need for your guests or new friend to overwhelm the dog with attention, eye contact, and touch. Instead, have your guest pay the dog no mind. If you want to accelerate the process, the guest can toss treats onto the floor for your pup. However, do NOT have them hand feed your dog for any reason. This can sensitize your dog to new people even further, worsening the fearful/anxious response.
2. Offer an alternative
Bring your dog to your side and ask him or her for an alternative behavior to the stress and anxiety he or she is experiencing. This can be as simple as a shake-paw, a sit, or a down. Allow your dog to be comforted by your presence, and don't worry about making your dog's fear worse by comforting him or her. Fear doesn't work that way, and if you push your dog away, you can give them even more cause for their anxious feelings.
3. Keep the visits short, at first
Instead of flooding your dog with all the smells, sounds, and activities a new guest has to offer all at once, keep the meetings short at first, and positive. You'll find in time that your dog's response to this new person changes with gradual certainty if you handle the introductions will skill and mindfulness at each interaction.
4. Take a walk together
A really nice, enriching way for your dog to associate your new friend with good things is to do what your dog likes best altogether - go for a walk! Keep the dog with you at your side, and explore the areas you know your dog loves to sniff and enjoy. Do this a few times before bringing your new guest over and watch your dog welcome this person with overwhelming happiness in no time at all.
What insurmountable problem are you having with your dog? Is it poor leash work? Unstable physical boundaries? Maybe your dog is a resource guarder, or harasses your guests for attention every time they come through the door. It might be incessant vocalization, or growling and lunging at other dogs, inanimate objects, men, or some other trigger point. Take a moment and write it down, and then put it aside for a moment while I tell you a story.
I certainly never thought I'd become a dog trainer. I definitely did not imagine myself working with some of the toughest behaviors in the canine world. And yet, at 38, I have found myself doing the best work of my lifetime. How did I get here? Well, it all started with a dog named Indy.
Indy came into my life 11 years ago part and parcel of my now ex-partner. Indy was his dog, and the pair of them were inseparable. Despite this connection, when left on his own, Indy's destructive capacities were mind-boggling. A restaurant manager at the time, I came home on one particular evening to find my refrigerator door removed from its hinges. Indy had happily helped himself to the contents, and as though the carnage of the scene weren't enough, the gas and bowel movements that followed over the next few days were enough to send everyone for a city block running in the other direction. Another instance saw Indy destroy a queen sized mattress. He has removed cabinetry, chewed through doors, taken apart doorframes, and even harmed himself. No crate could hold him without terrible damage to his teeth, nails and feet (as a result of trying anything to get out), and the only management recourse we knew at the time was never to leave him on his own.
There really was no other choice. I loved this dog. I had to learn how to help him. And this started my long journey and years of study into canine behavior modification. At the time, I didn't realize it would lead me to a career in the field. I just wanted the madness to end. Anything to make the chaos of the situation less, well, chaotic. I hated it. The constant worry. The cabin fever of feeling like I could never leave the house. And more than anything else, I could not stand to see Indy's suffering. I had do something.
And if you ask me today about that time with Indy and how I feel about it, you'd know probably just from the look on my face that I have nothing but gratitude towards that very special dog.
The lessons of patience, the importance of really knowing the animal with which you live and work, understanding modalities of behavior modification and their fallouts, all of this I learned because of Indy. What I didn't know at the time and can see as clear as the light of day today is that those difficult, seemingly impossible experiences with that dog were one of the most significant blessings of my life. By changing my response to the situation from frustration, emotionality, and despair, into first acceptance, then discipline, and a steady application of what I was learning to this dog who worked with me through every bump along the way, I arrived at the place I belonged. Able and ready to do the work I was meant to do. Meeting the people I am here to help understand their dogs, the problems they face, and how to work through them.
All of this is to say, if you're having difficulties with your dog's behavior and you feel like all is lost, remember my story. And know that more often than not, what stands in the way becomes the way. Let these impediments to action with your dog advance your next action to achieve your goals together.
The truth is, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Our time with our dogs is short. By leaning into the problems you want to change through learning and compassion, you may find you not only change your dog's life for the better, but like me, yours will change as well.
If you ever looked at a dog trainer's prices and thought, "Whoah, that's a lot!", this blog is for you. If you're a dog trainer who isn't sure how to provide accurate and fair pricing to your clients, this blog is also for you. And if you're just curious about the subject, read on!
To begin with, I'd like to say that if you're not reacting with some surprise at the cost of a dog trainer, you should probably run.
Good, effective dog training and behavior modification involves an investment of time, teaching expertise, and the ability to communicate well with two very different species: humans, and dogs. Considerations of the dog's environment, health, history, and the human connection in every case we're presented with must be taken in account. An understanding of neurochemistry, a finger constantly on the pulse of new information in the fields of canine physiology and training methodology, a thorough understanding of handling equipment, and the willingness to adapt and change our approach in an instant when warranted - this is what the best of us will provide. This kind of dog training is extremely effective, provides the quickest route (without sacrificing quality) to the end goal, and it's cost reflects the scope of the work involved.
The worst of us will ofter "quick fixes". These are easy approaches, easily replicated and potentially effective in the very short term with often disastrous long term consequences. Dogs are ripped from their homes to be trained in hidden environments. We see household pets placed under tremendous physical and mental pressure and asked to cope with unfamiliar stimuli and shocked, pinned, or otherwise forced into compliance. The methods used by these "quick and cheap" trainers and their organizations lie entirely outside the realm of science, humane treatment, and any semblance of a well-informed training program, and they are never 'good'.
Somewhere in the middle are dog trainers whose work is very affordable, but too limited in scope to effect the behavioral change needed (such as when we are dealing with fearful dogs). Training in this way takes a great deal of trial, error, and time. The combination invariably reflects a lack of experience, and those of us in this arena are best utilized in the arenas of trick training and manding behaviors, where the stakes are not quite as high as when attempting to improve the life of a reactive or aggressive dog.
In fact, there's a diagram I really like called the "Triangle of Life" and in it's simplest form, it's very easy to understand. The triangle gives you three options, but you can only select two, and I daresay it's a good way to consider any one thing you are inclined to invest your time or money in.
To summarize, if something is fast and cheap, it will not be good. If something is good and fast, it will not be cheap. And if something is good and cheap, it will not be fast. This could not be any more applicable to the world of dog training and behavior modification. Decide on the kind of results you want, and choose your dog trainer accordingly.
All of this is to say, if you're interested in getting quality results as quickly as you can using the best possible methods, information, and equipment available, you can bet the work won't be cheap.
The best rarely is.
And when it comes to dog training, it's very difficult to undo the 'bad' we do to our dogs by going with the fast and the cheap, while ignoring the good. What's more, if we spend too much time with behaviors we don't want by going with the good and cheap options, those behaviors become harder and harder to change. This is because of something called habituation.
Habituation is about habits. And as any ex-smoker will tell you habits can be really hard to break, and that's with our tremendous brain power and force of will. Try to imagine the journey a dog habituated to maladaptive behaviors has to take to unlearn a habit.
Your dog's behavior is important, and the window in which to address those poor behaviors that just do not fit in his or her environment, while ever-present (until the day your dog dies - make no mistake, it is never too late to teach an old dog new tricks) gets smaller all the time. As a result, the work of identifying, isolating, and changing behavior can become even more difficult.
Because choosing a dog trainer and/or behaviorist is a very serious decision affecting the well being of your entire household in a significant way, consider your choices carefully and do what makes the most sense from all three perspectives: cost, quality, and time. In this way, you can't go wrong.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.