Victoria Stilwell, star of Animal Planet's popular "It's Me or the Dog," is the author of two books and active with international rescue groups.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
You have questions, she has answers
January 19 2013
You’ve no doubt seen Victoria Stilwell in action on It’s Me or the Dog, where, using positive reinforcement, she shows wayward pups and their sometimes equally wayward guardians how to get along. Now, Victoria joins our roster of training experts in offering sound and practical advice on a variety of, shall we say, behavior faux pas. Please join us in welcoming Victoria to The Bark.
Q: My dog’s barking is driving me (and my neighbors) crazy. He’s a healthy, two-year-old Sheltie mix, and I’ve been told that it’s impossible to train him not to bark—that I should have him surgically debarked, something I find completely appalling. Please tell me there’s a way to teach my dog to control his noisy self.
A: Dogs who bark excessively can cause big problems for owners, but even though it may seem completely out of control, this behavior can be modified to a bearable level. Sometimes barking dogs can cause such distress that people resort to having the dog’s vocal chords surgically removed, but I’m glad that you find that idea appalling, because most trainers and veterinarians would advise against taking such a drastic measure. Debarking can cause immense anxiety, as it takes away an important part of the dog’s ability to communicate. I do recommend, however, that you take your dog to the veterinarian for a thorough medical check up, since any extreme behavior can be exacerbated by a medical condition.
Shelties are working dogs and are known to be vocal. These days, most dogs who were once bred to do a certain job find domestic life boring, and barking relieves that boredom. If this is the case, increased exercise and mental stimulation will refocus your dog’s mind onto something more positive and help tire him out.
Dogs bark for many reasons—to get attention, as a warning, in response to other barking dogs, out of anxiety or when excited—and it is important to identify the triggers before training.
If your Sheltie barks to get attention, don’t reward his demands. Telling your dog off is inadvertently rewarding him for barking even if the communication is negative. In this case, it is best to ignore the barking, wait for five seconds of quiet and then reward him with attention. This way, the dog learns that he gets nothing from you when he barks but gets everything when he’s quiet.
A dog who barks when excited (i.e., before going for a walk or being fed) is harder to work with because an owner’s pre-departure or pre-food cues are usually highly ritualized. Again, do not reward your dog with the things he wants until he is calm. For example, if the barking happens as soon as you go for the leash, drop the leash and sit down. Keep repeating this until your dog is quiet. If you successfully attach the leash but he barks as soon as he gets outside, immediately go back inside. This technique requires patience, but if you are diligent, your dog will quickly learn that quiet equals a walk.& Dogs who suffer anxiety when left alone will often bark a lot during the first 30 minutes after departure, while others continue until their person comes home. If this is the case, you must get a trainer in to help, as separation anxiety can be a very difficult behavior to modify.
Shelties tend to be particularly sound-sensitive, responding to noises that the human ear cannot hear. Also, because they were bred for herding, some Shelties have a high chase and/or prey drive and are easily stimulated by fast-moving objects such as squirrels or birds. If your dog barks excitedly in the back yard, for example, immediately take him back into the house and only allow him out again when he is quiet. Keep repeating if necessary and never leave him in the back yard unattended. If your Sheltie reacts and barks at other dogs or people in or outside of the home, it might be because he hasn’t received adequate socialization and feels uncomfortable. In this case, he needs to go on a desensitization program so he can gain the confidence he needs to cope in a social situation.
As you can see, there are many reasons why dogs bark, but please don’t listen to those who say that extreme barking can’t be modified, because there are lots of ways to reduce what is a very normal but sometimes annoying behavior.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Troubled by Temptation
August 11 2012
Q. During the holidays, my dog discovered the joys of entertaining—from cookies and hors d’oeuvres on the coffee table, she graduated to leaping onto the counter for other delectables while we were busy entertaining our guests in another room. She never did this before! How do I train her out of this newly acquired habit without resorting to kenneling her when we’re home? Other than this, she’s a great hostess.
A. Well, Here’s an example of what not to do. One of my clients, fed up with her dog stealing food when her back was turned, placed “scat mats” (electrified mats) on the kitchen counters. On his first encounter with the mats, her dog received such a jolt that he squealed and ran out of the kitchen. The scat mats seemed to have done the trick, and the lady was pleased with the result. The “success” was short-lived, however. The only entrance to the backyard was through the kitchen, and when it was time for the dog to go outside, he flatly refused to go anywhere near the kitchen area. not surprisingly, he also began to have accidents inside the home. a counter- surfing issue had turned into major anxiety, and it was some time before the dog would walk through the kitchen to go to the backyard.
Put yourself in your dog’s paws. The next time you’re hungry, place your favorite food on the table and see if you can resist taking a bite. even people who have difficulty controlling themselves expect their dogs to resist temptation when food is placed right in front of them.
In order to set up your dog for success while ensuring her safety, it is much more realistic to use a mixture of management and training techniques. Dogs are opportunists and the more successful they are at getting food from kitchen counters or the table, the more they will try. Blocking access by using baby gates or putting your dog in another room if you have company is one way to ensure she doesn’t have an opportunity to surf and thus, reward herself for this activity. If this isn’t an option, try tethering her to you so she is with you at all times.
If you’re working in the kitchen and are unable to use a baby gate, draw an imaginary line along the floor and teach her to stay behind that line. (a reliable sit-stay cue needs to be taught first so that she understands what is expected of her.) If she strays, gently block her with your body until she retreats behind the line again. reward her at intervals while she stays behind the line and she will see the area as a positive place to be.
As counter-surfing happens mostly when no one’s around (dogs are smart!), you can try going hi-tech with a special two-way radio collar that allows your dog to hear your voice right next to her ear even when you’re in another room.* Put some food on the counter and then walk away to a place where you can see the food. Pick up a magazine or pretend to be doing something else so she thinks your attention is off her. Wait for her to go up to the counter, and just before she jumps up, ask her to “leave it.” If she backs away, praise her. Start this exercise using low-value food before making it more difficult with the yummy stuff. This technique might cause a little confusion at first, but your dog will soon learn that the “all-seeing eye” is everywhere, even if you aren’t in the immediate vicinity.
While you are entertaining, you can also provide your dog with something else to focus on by giving her an interactive toy such as a treat ball or a Kong filled with food. This will most likely tire her out while filling her up, quenching any desire to seek out food—leaving your dog satisfied and your food safe!
*The Hear now Two-Way radio Collar is one option; it’s not easy to find, however. an online search will sometimes turn up a source.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Talking Training with Victoria Stilwell
March 7 2012
Q: We get along great with our neighbors; alas, our dog seems to despise their dog, and it’s mutual. Why don’t dogs like one another, and how do we teach them to get along?
A: People ask a lot from their dogs by expecting them to be social with every dog they meet. This can put a lot of pressure on a dog—especially one who finds it hard to cope in social situations. Humans are able to choose their friends and avoid people who make them uncomfortable, but when dogs aggress at other dogs, their people often punish them for “bad behavior” and unwittingly force them into situations that make them feel more insecure.
Disharmony between neighborhood dogs is relatively common. Dogs can be very protective of their territory, and anyone encroaching on it is a potential threat. Tension over territory could be a potential reason why your dog and your neighbor’s don’t get on. I advise you not to introduce the dogs on either’s home turf. All introductions should take place on neutral territory such as a park (but not a dog park), or a street well away from where you both live.
Before the introduction, make sure your dog has learned to focus on you and is good at following your direction. Focus cues such as “watch me” must be built up in a distraction-free environment before they can be effective outside, so prior training is essential. Once your dog is responding appropriately, take her to neutral territory and have your neighbors stand with their dog a good distance away—the distance at which both dogs can see one another without reacting negatively. Ask your dog to “sit” and “watch me,” and reward her each time she complies. When a dog is using her “thinking brain,” she is less likely to become emotional and feel the need to aggress.
If both dogs are calm, steadily move them closer to each other. If at any time either dog reacts, walk off in opposite directions, back to the point at which both dogs were comfortable. When the dogs are calmly standing within 10 feet of each other, start the “follow walk,” in which one dog follows the other (it is less confrontational for the more nervous dog to follow the non-biting end of the other). The next step is to walk them parallel with one another, making sure to maintain enough distance between them to avoid either of them reacting. If the parallel walk goes well, allow the dogs to greet face to face for a couple of seconds before you and your neighbor happily walk them off in opposite directions while praising them for their good behavior.
It might be possible to do all of this in one session, or it might take many weeks to get to the point where the dogs can greet calmly. Whatever the time frame, allow them time to feel comfortable. It is also important to realize that not allowing the dogs to greet can be frustrating to them, so if both look eager to make a connection, go directly to the quick greeting. If everything goes well, the greeting period can become longer until the dogs either want to play or go their own ways. If you are in an off-leash area and the dogs are calmly standing next to each other, remove the leashes.
Good walk and play experiences on neutral ground will bring them to the point where they can play with each other on home territory. Start the play outside before you bring them inside either home, and remove all highvalue resources (food and toys) to prevent potential fights. Dogs can also be highly protective of their people, especially inside their homes; in the event your presence causes a negative reaction, allow the dogs to interact in the yard; and if this is still too volatile a place, continue working in neutral spaces.
If both dogs continue to have problems even on neutral territory, it is time to either call in a professional or take the pressure off and realize that the dogs are not meant to be friends. If this is the case, then it is better for everyone if you visit with your neighbor on your own while your dog snoozes happily at home.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
September 29 2011
Q. My six-month-old whippet mix is driving me crazy. From the sweet, quiet pup I adopted, he has turned into a hellion. He now barks at me — probably for attention — and at other dogs (especially at the dog park), and even nips me during play. Is he trying to dominate me?
A. Pushy puppies, or dogs who display behavior such as nipping at people or barking at other dogs, are often thought to be displaying dominance, a frequently misunderstood concept. While dominance does exist in a dog’s world, it is not as prevalent as people have been led to believe. Dogs who have not been taught manners or how to play appropriately will often adopt their own behavioral “style” to get attention, and this style is frequently rude and pushy.
At six months of age, your puppy has entered adolescence, a phase where boundaries are tested and the “crazy” brain takes over. Rather than responding confrontationally, as is easy to do when we don’t understand a behavior, find ways to help your pup make good choices instead of bad ones. At this stage, his puppy brain is like a sponge, absorbing situations and experiences. This makes it the perfect time for positive learning to take place.
One of the best ways to teach a pup how to greet and play is by taking him to a puppy socialization and manners class. Manners training will help you understand and communicate with your pup, while socialization with other dogs will teach him how to play appropriately. A good class will show you how to teach your puppy a reliable recall, which gives you the opportunity to redirect negative behavior onto a toy or treat. This tells him that leaving play and coming to you are good things. If he ignores you, quietly remove him from the room for a time out until he is calm enough to return to playtime. If he resumes his pushy behavior once he is back in the room, repeat the sequence until he learns that making the right choice means he gets to stay where the fun is.
The same method can be used to curb his nipping behavior. If he nips during play with you, either get up and leave the room for a minute or two or have someone else hold his leash while you play and remove him from the room if he nips you. Play and your attention are rewards for keeping his mouth to himself.
While some dogs thrive on being at the dog park, others find it overwhelming. Observe your pup’s body language to see if he is barking at other dogs because he is overexcited and wants their attention, or because he wants them to stay away from him. Stop taking him to the dog park until you understand and address this behavior in class. Practice makes perfect, and rehearsal of negative behavior makes that behavior harder to change.
Choose a puppy class that utilizes positive-reinforcement methods only. Dogs who are trained this way are not only more tolerant and self-controlled, they behave much more predictably.
Positive training techniques center on working the dog’s brain in a nonconfrontational way, rewarding positive behavior, establishing rituals and predictability, training incompatible behaviors that negate the bad behavior, and lessening a dog’s anger and frustration. Because behavior is influenced without force, the dog’s trust in his person is not violated the way it can be when harsher methods are used (which they unfortunately still are by trainers who espouse outdated dominance and pack-leader theory).
Positive, however, does not mean permissive, and discipline in the form of vocal interrupters, time outs or ignoring bad behavior is used to guide the dog into making the right choices rather than suppressing negative behavior through fear or force.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Don't leave me!
July 20 2011
Q Charley, a rescued three year- old Lab who’d spent his entire life in an outdoor kennel, was scared of everything when we first got him. He’s been with us for eight months and now, he panics when we leave him alone. We have two crates, one in our house and one in our car. He goes into the home crate and stays there for about an hour. I’ve been gradually closing the door and even leaving the house, and when I come back, he’s fine. However, when we leave him in his car crate, he just loses it, so distraught that he’s destroyed a crate bed and a quilt. Is this separation anxiety? We adore him and want to help him, but what can we do?
A Charley is obviously suffering from a form of separation distress, which is not uncommon for a dog who has spent so much of his life in relative isolation. Fear of abandonment and the desire to seek reattachment are what drive some dogs into a panic when left alone, and the resulting destructive behavior is a manifestation of this desperate feeling.
Extensive research has shown that dogs suffer from the same kinds of fears, phobias and anxieties as do humans, even experiencing the canine equivalent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It would not surprise me if Charley were suffering from a version of PTSD, which could be triggered by being left alone in novel places, even in a car that he knows. Dogs who become distressed when left alone typically do not do well in confined spaces such as crates, and in Charley’s case, it’s obvious that his anxiety is a result of his previous confinement.
You seem to have made good progress desensitizing Charley to the crate in your home, and a similar routine needs to be adopted for the crate in your car. Until he is completely comfortable being in the car without you, it’s better for him to stay at home, where he feels secure. If you try leaving him in the car too early in the process, he will revert to his former behavior, so it is vital that the following training steps be implemented slowly.
To begin with, show Charley that being in the car is a good thing. At various times during the day, walk him to where your car is parked and either feed him his favorite food in the car or play his favorite game around it. Open the doors and sit next to him while he is in his crate, with the crate door open so he can leave if he wants. Allowing him the freedom to make choices will help increase his confidence. Give him a durable rubber toy stuffed with food to chew when he’s in the crate. If, however, he decides to leave, gently take the toy from him and place it in the crate again, showing him that’s where he gets the nice stuff!
If Charley is comfortable in the crate while you drive, take him to a variety of places and repeat the exercise, which will help him learn that being in the car with you in different environments is a good thing. Only when you see that Charley is eager to be in the car crate with the door open should you start closing the door for short periods while you sit with him. Gradually increase the length of time the door is closed.
It goes without saying that a dog should never be left in a car when the weather’s warm (or very cold). In direct sunlight, a car can heat up within minutes, even on relatively cool days. If you know that you will be running errands or going to dinner, leave Charley at home.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
You have questions, she has answers
Q: We had two questions for Victoria on the sensitive issue of marking and inappropriate defecation. One involved a young male dog adopted from a shelter who, the owner wrote, “is an ideal playmate for our female dog and is perfect in all ways but one: though we walk him multiple times a day, take him out after meals and pay close attention to him, he still urinates in the house, and will even mark us with urine. We’ve taken him to the vet and he received a clean bill of health.” The other involved a female who had a hard beginning in a puppy mill; her owner noted that she “sometimes will poo while lying in bed or sitting on the couch with us, sometimes even while sitting on our lap. We’ve tried (with limited success) to anticipate her need to go outside, but this has us stumped.”
A: Scent marking is a very normal and common behavior, particularly in male dogs, but it becomes a big problem when marking occurs in the home. Dogs mark to advertise their presence and to claim territory and resources. Urine and feces contain pheromones, or chemical messages, that convey information — age, gender, health and reproductive status — about the dog doing the marking.
Resources such as toys, food bowls, chew treats, bones and beds are the most likely objects to be marked. As you’ve experienced, a dog will also actually mark a person or something that smells heavily of that person, such as a sofa or bed.
Even though marking can have a dominant and competitive component, it may also occur if a dog is overstimulated — for example, during or after vigorous play — or becomes anxious in a particular situation, such as when a person leaves. This common expression of anxiety in dogs is often mistaken for spite, resulting in punishment, which only serves to increase the anxious behavior. Scent marking is also more common in multidog households where dogs compete for space, resources and human attention.
Both sexes scent mark, but intact males are the worst offenders, as signaling sexual availability and claiming territory is “encouraged” by the presence of testosterone. In many cases, neutering can significantly reduce a dog’s desire to scent mark, but some continue even after they have been neutered.
Although this is a difficult behavior to work with, taking the following steps can improve the situation: Remove high-value resources that encourage competitive marking and do not allow the dog or dogs who scent mark to roam freely throughout the home. Prevent access to favorite marking spots by restricting the dog(s) to a dog-proofed room or crate when you are unable to actively supervise them. Avoid competitive or vigorous play indoors, as excess activity encourages urination. If your dog is about to mark, interrupt the behavior with a short, sharp vocal noise and immediately direct him to something more positive or take him outside. You can also help an indoormarking dog succeed by walking him in new and different areas; this will encourage him to mark outside rather than in the home.
Training older dogs who are not housebroken to toilet appropriately can also be a challenge. Most dogs raised in a normal domestic situation respond well to a good housetraining schedule, but those who have lived in puppy mills are notoriously difficult. Dogs are essentially clean animals and do not like to toilet where they sleep and eat, but because puppy mill dogs are confined to cramped cages, they are forced to do just that. This makes crate training (a usually successful way to housetrain a dog) much less effective. However, even puppy mill dogs can be taught to toilet appropriately. Go back to basics: allow access to outside areas every hour, then make less-frequent trips as the dog builds up control. Following a schedule establishes a ritual of behavior that eventually becomes predictable and reliable.
Every dog needs to feel confident about toileting, and punishing accidents will only scare the dog into finding ways to toilet in secret. Human patience and sensitivity is the key to success.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Redirecting Extreme Excitement!
Q: Butters, our three-year-old Lab, is incredibly smart and affectionate. Although we have worked at training him, he is still overly “social” and excitable. Recently we were walking him and met a young puppy he’s befriended. Both dogs were overjoyed to greet each other. Then Butters jumped on the owner — which was really embarrassing — and I realized we should not have allowed him to say “hi” when he was so excited. How can we control his friendly exuberance? — Tiffany
A: A joyful dog is a wonderful thing to behold, but extreme excitement can be a nuisance for anyone at the receiving end. While training should be geared toward improving your dog’s greeting behavior — by teaching attention and impulse control skills — it should not dampen his joy and desire to socialize. Before you begin training, evaluate whether your past behavior has contributed to the problem; so much of a dog’s negative behavior is inadvertently reinforced by human attention. For example, if you allow your dog to jump and mouth while greeting you, it is an open invitation to jump and mouth on everyone else, so employ a “no jumping” rule at all times. Ignoring your dog’s leaps and only giving attention when he has four paws on the ground is a great way to extinguish jumping behavior, but some dogs need extra help. You can deter him by bodyblocking him: Step toward him or to the side just before he jumps.
Training an alternative greeting behavior that is incompatible with jumping and mouthing (such as teaching him first to approach and sit in front of you and then repeating the behavior with friends or strangers) will show him that greeting in a calmer manner is intrinsically more rewarding than jumping up. This skill also allows him to channel all his energy into an appropriate behavior. Start all training in your home where there are fewer distractions and gradually build up to more stimulating environments where it will be harder for him to succeed.
Increase your dog’s attention on you by incorporating a repertoire of calmer behaviors into everyday activities. Training induces a calming effect and will provide you with constructive tools to deal with his behavior. Everyday rewards such as feeding or walking can be introduced to enhance attention; with these activities, focus must be given to you and impulse control techniques employed before the reward is given. If your dog likes to chase balls, for example, give him the opportunity to chase a ball only after he has listened to your “wait” cue for a period of time. Waiting becomes a vital skill that allows him to think and remember what he has to do before reacting. You can set up a ritual of behaviors onleash when greeting a person or dog, such as having him wait, approach the person when he is told and sit in front of them to say hello. If your dog forgets himself and gets too excited, calmly remove him to a distance where you can both regroup and try again. Keep repeating this exercise until he greets calmly, the consequence of which will be the reward of the person’s attention or play with another dog.
Dog parks can be great places for dogs to run and socialize, but they can also be a problem when a dog gets too excited and greeting behavior causes fights. You should avoid the dog park while you are working on training so your dog has no chance to rehearse jumping behavior off-leash. Dog parks can gradually be introduced as an activity when he is more under control — but only after you’ve walked, run or played with him for approximately 30 minutes before going to the park. Make sure, however, that you get him to the point where he is tiring from the activity rather than getting more hyped up, which will only make him more excitable when he finally gets to the park. Plenty of daily exercise, outdoor experience and rehearsals of greeting compliant strangers on-leash will teach him how to greet appropriately and will eventually translate into polite offleash greetings as well.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Talking Training Stilwell
Q: We recently added a puppy to our household, and our five-year-old Aussie is definitely not amused. He’s lived with another dog, albeit one who was older; when the older dog died, he became “big dog on campus,” and seems to like the position. Though he hasn’t hurt the puppy, he’ll pin her to the ground and won’t let her up, even when she squeals. How can we help our BDOC come to terms with his new packmate?
A: Introducing a new dog into a household with a resident dog can be problematic, and the resulting stress and tension can have serious consequences. Puppies have a lot of energy, and even highly social dogs may find them frustrating. However, I am concerned that the older dog does not appear to be responding appropriately to the puppy’s distress signals; the resulting conflict could cause both dogs to display more aggressive behavior in an effort to increase social distance. As you work with the older dog, it is important that all interactions between the two are supervised and that you intervene if things get out of hand.
Peaceful coexistence is the obvious goal and can be achieved in a number of ways, including monitoring the dogs’ interactions and reducing situational and environmental stress. Removing tension-inducing triggers, such as food, bones or toys, reduces their need to compete, and potential fights can be avoided by being vigilant about the location-guarding that commonly occurs in multidog households. Toys and chews should be given to the dogs only when they are separated, and they will also need to be fed separately if there is conflict at feeding time. Identifying triggers and minimizing stress for both dogs will help them develop a better relationship.
The adult dog needs to learn that the new puppy’s presence means good things for him. Stand in a room with your older dog and have a friend or family member walk in with the puppy. There should be no physical interaction between the dogs, but as the puppy is brought into the room, the adult dog should be praised and given high-value treats. The puppy should then be taken out of the room, at which point, treats are withdrawn. This exercise can be repeated until the older dog becomes more comfortable around the puppy. When you see relaxed, fluid body language and a willingness by the adult dog to engage in social contact with the puppy, you’ll know that the technique has been successful.
Walking the dogs together is another way to give them positive experiences in one another’s presence. The puppy will require less exercise than the older dog to begin with, but a small walk every day will help increase that bond. Also, start basic training with the pup while giving the adult dog a refresher course, so that when they are together, they know to focus on you and be guided by your cues.
Management is equally important to maintain calm; baby gates are a highly effective way to give the dogs their individual space. Occasionally, however, they can have the reverse effect and exacerbate tensions. In this case, the dogs should be put in separate rooms and only allowed to interact under active supervision. Other stress-relieving tools such as dog-appeasing pheromones (DAP) can be used to stimulate a sense of calm when they are around each other.
As with humans, even the best of dog friends occasionally quarrel. What is essential, however, is that you do not subject either dog to any situation that could cause them to react negatively to one another. If tension continues to escalate, rehoming options may need to be explored, but this can be avoided if you are diligent in applying training and management procedures so that both dogs can live peacefully together in a stress-free environment.
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