Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Reducing Fear in Your Dog
A gentle hand or a tasty treat doesn’t reinforce fear, it reduces it

It was one in the morning, and I was wide awake. Thunderstorms had been rolling like waves over the farm all night, and this one was so loud I thought the windows might break. Lassie, my 14-year-old Border Collie, lay panting beside me. She’s almost deaf, but the combination of a falling barometer, lightning flashes and the crashes of thunder were enough to send her into a panic. As we lay there together, I stroked her soft old head, thinking about the advice to avoid petting a dog who reacts to thunder. “You’ll just teach them to be more fearful,” according to the traditional wisdom. Only one thing: It’s not true.

We’ve been taught for ages that trying to soothe frightened dogs just makes them worse. It seems logical, in a cut-and-dried, stimulus-and-response kind of way. Your dog hears thunder, he runs to you and you pet him. Voilà, your dog just got reinforced for running to you when it thunders, and worse, for being afraid of thunderstorms in the first place. But that’s not what happens, and here’s why. First, no amount of petting is going to make it worthwhile to your dog to feel panicked. Fear is no more fun for dogs than it is for people. The function of fear is to signal the body that there is danger present, and that the individual feeling fearful had better do something to make the danger, and the fear that accompanies it, go away.

Think of it this way: Imagine you’re eating ice cream when someone tries to break into your house at midnight. Would the pleasure of eating ice cream “reinforce” you for being afraid, so that you’d be more afraid the next time? If anything, things would work in the reverse—you might develop an unconscious discomfort around ice cream. However, you sure as heck aren’t going to be more afraid if a burglar arrives because you were eating chocolate mocha fudge the first time it happened.

There’s another reason petting your thunder-phobic dog doesn’t make him worse, and it couldn’t hurt to take a deep breath before you read it. Research on thunder-phobic dogs suggests that petting does not decrease the level of stress in the dog receiving it.* If it doesn’t decrease stress, how could it act as reinforcement? Before you write describing how your loving touch calms your own dog, please note that (1) I didn’t do the research; (2) my own dogs stop pacing and whining when I pet them during storms; and (3) I don’t care what the research says, it makes me feel better, it doesn’t hurt anything, so I do it anyway.

Studying Stress
Humor aside, it’s important to be specific about what the study actually found. The authors measured the production of cortisol, a hormone related to stress. They found that cortisol levels did not decrease when the dogs were being petted by their guardians during storms. (The most important factor in decreasing cortisol was the presence of other dogs.) Interestingly, another piece of research on social bonding found that although cortisol levels decrease in people when they are interacting with dogs, cortisol does not decrease in dogs in the same context.** However, in both species, other hormones and neurotransmitters increased, including oxytocin, prolactin and beta-endorphin—all substances that are associated with good feelings and social bonding. So, while petting your dog during a storm may not decrease cortisol levels associated with stress, it is still possible that something good could be happening.

On the contrary, it’s just not possible that petting your dog is going to make her more fearful the next time there’s a storm. Warnings that you’ll ruin your dog by comforting her are reminiscent of the advice from the 1930s and ’40s to avoid comforting frightened children by picking them up. That perspective was tossed out long ago by psychologists, when research made it clear that having parents they can count on when life gets scary creates bold, stable children, not dependent or fearful ones.

A Classical Approach
The greatest damage that’s done with outdated “don’t pet the dog” advice doesn’t relate to storms, but to the pitfalls of trying to explain classical counter-conditioning (CCC). CCC can be a profoundly effective way to change behavior, because it changes the emotions that drive the behavior in the first place. A typical example in applied animal behavior is having visitors throw treats to a dog who is afraid of strangers.

Understandably, many a client has asked, “But isn’t giving him treats when he’s barking and growling just going to make him worse? Won’t he get reinforced for barking and growling?” The answer is no, not if his behavior is driven by fear. Remember, fear is no fun, and a few pieces of food, no matter how yummy, aren’t going to override the brain’s desire to avoid it.

Tossing treats (or toys) to a fearful dog can teach him to associate approaching strangers with something good, as long as the treat is really, really good, and the visitor is far enough away to avoid overwhelming the dog. CCC is one of the most important tools in a trainer or behaviorist’s toolbox, yet it can be hard to convince people to try it. It feels like rewarding a dog for misbehaving, and in our punishment-oriented, “you’ve got to get dominance over your dog” society, it is tough for some people to do. But that’s exactly what I did to cure another Border Collie, my Pippy Tay, when she developed a fear of storms many years ago.

CCC is one of many ways you can help a thunder-phobic dog. I’ve used some of the following with good success, either on their own or, in Pippy Tay’s case, combined with other methods: pheromone therapy, wraps, acupuncture, acupressure, diet change and, in serious cases, medication. If your dog is afraid of storms, you’d do well to consult a behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist for assistance in choosing the method that is right for you and your dog.

Thunder Treats
Pippy and I would run outside and play ball every time a storm loomed. Pip loved ball play, and I wanted her to associate the feelings she had when fetching with a drop in barometric pressure. Once the storm rolled in, we’d go inside and I’d feed her a piece of meat every time we heard thunder, no matter how Pip was behaving. I wasn’t worried about her behavior; I was focused on the emotions inside that caused the behavior.

I even put thunder on cue. “Oh boy, Pippy, you get thunder treats!” I’d say each time we heard the thunder growl. Mind you, these words would come through clenched teeth at three in the morning, but for two summers, I chirped about thunder treats, pulled out the drawer beside the bed and fed Pip after each thunderclap. By the end of the summer, Pip stopped lacerating my face with panicked attempts to crawl inside my mouth to hide from the storm. She began to sleep through moderately loud storms, not even waking up to beg for treats when the thunder rolled. She came over to me when things got really loud, but with little of the panic she’d shown before.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should share that as Pip improved, I became conditioned in the other direction. I began to dislike storms, because even the quietest of them required that I stay awake long enough to hand Pip a treat after each thunderclap. And now that Pip is gone, it seems I’ll have to start again with Lassie. Sigh. Maybe I should give myself a piece of chocolate every time I hand a treat to Lassie!

Fear Is Contagious
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the one way you can make a fearful dog worse, and that’s by becoming scared yourself. The emotion of fear is so compelling that it is easy to spread around. “Emotional contagion” is the ethological term used to describe the viral spread of fear within a group, and it’s a common occurrence among social species. If you want your dog to be afraid of thunder, strangers or other dogs, just get scared yourself. If you’re afraid of storms, it is entirely possible that your dog will pick up on it and become more nervous.

However, if you are scared (and who isn’t sometimes?), all is not lost. You can calm things down by concentrating on your body—slowing down your breathing and your movements, changing your posture to one of confidence and relaxation, and speaking slowly and calmly (if at all). These actions have the beneficial effect of altering your own emotions as well as your dog’s. The calmer you pretend to be, the calmer you’ll actually feel.

I kept that in mind last night as I cooed, “Oh boy! Thunder treats!” and fed Lassie tasty snacks from the bedside table. I had a lot more reasons to be scared than she did—she didn’t know that the basement was flooding, the white water crashing down the hill was threatening to take out the barn, and the roads were washing away all around us. All she knew was that every thunder roll predicted a piece of chicken, and that I seemed to think it was a great game. She settled down relatively soon, but I lay awake for hours. I guess it really is time to put some chocolate in the drawer beside the bed. If, the next time they see me, friends notice that I’ve gained a lot of weight, they’ll know it’s been a stormy summer.

*Nancy Dreschel, DVM, & Douglas Granger, PhD. 2005. “Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 95:153–168.
**J.S.J. Odendaal & R.A. Meintjes. 2003. “Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs.” The Veterinary Journal 165:296-301.


Dog's Life: Lifestyle
From the Round Pen to the Office
Building better work dynamics through herding sheep

I fund my agility addiction with a job in corporate professional development. Over the years, I've seen a lot of parallels between how people and dogs learn. For instance, human or canine, it's best to break down new behaviors into small achievable pieces. And, whether it comes in the form of a good performance review or a click from a clicker, feedback is rarely given often enough.

We have a lot we can learn from our dogs, but a shepherd in Wiltshire, England, has taken the notion to a new level. Chris Farnsworth is teaching business professionals to build better office dynamics by rounding up sheep. In his “Raising the Baa” course, teams learn how to give feedback, develop leadership skills and deal with stress through herding and analyzing video.

I've seen many team building exercises over the years, but this one is definitely the most unique. Participants have said that they've learned a lot about improving office relationships, but I'm sure they also found out that being a sheepdog is no easy task!

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
9 Fun and Educational Toys for Dogs.
Play by the numbers
9 Fun and Educational Toys for Dogs.

The popularity of Dog Perignon Champagne plush toys, Hairy Winston squeak toys, and the chewable Dolce and Grrrbana designer shoes is a sign that the market for dog toys has exploded in recent years. Choosing toys can be daunting—the good ones need to be safe, fun and last a reasonable amount of time, but they shouldn’t be outrageously priced or so painful when stepped on in the middle of the night by bare feet that we lose our PG rating. Here are a few that I feel meet all of the above requirements.

1. Intellitoys. Dogs learn when they play, and some toys, such as the Intellicube and the Intellibone, are designed specifically with canine education in mind. Dogs can spend hours happily playing with the removable parts, learning to use mouths, paws and noses to manipulate objects.

2. Jackpot Chipmunk. Another educational favorite, this toy has a Velcro® closure pocket containing a plush-covered squeaker. Dogs can learn to open the pocket to get the squeaker, or the pocket can be used to store treats. My dog Bugsy, whom I lovingly describe as a couple of ants short of a picnic, finally learned to fetch with this method. He dutifully brought the toy, which he probably thought was a dog-proof cookie jar, back to me so that he could be paid in liver biscotti for his hard work.

3. Kong. If a household has only a single dog toy, it’s likely to be from the Kong line. These almost indestructible hollow toys can be filled with almost any kind of food, including treats such as cheese, peanut butter, cream cheese or biscuits, which the dog will then spend enormous amounts of time removing.Many dogs who are not toy-motivated learn to love them after experiencing the Kong.

4. Ball. A lot of dogs get over-the-top excited about fetching tennis balls, and anybody whose dog loves them to the point of distraction (literally!) should pause to be grateful, because never was there a less expensive, versatile, goodfor- us, good-for-them toy. If you’re inhibited by the prospect of handling a slimy ball, get a Chuckit, a plastic tool that you can use to scoop up and toss the ball without ever touching it.

5. Flying Disc. Fetch games with flying discs are even more fun and exciting to many dogs than fetching balls. The Flying Squirrel and the Hurl-a-Squirrel are both popular with the canine set. The Soft Bite Floppy Disc floats in water and has hot pink edges, which make it easy to locate after an errant throw (note the voice of experience here).Regular flying discs can injure dogs’ teeth, which is why I recommend these kinder, gentler types.

6. Donkey Tail Tug Toy. Though a knotted rope will suffice, the Donkey Tail— a long, stretchy braid of fleece—is even better for tug games. Plus, it’s made of material that doesn’t get as slimy as most tug toys or become as strongly redolent of eau de dog breath.

7. Egg Babies. These plush toys, which come in forms such as dinosaur, duck, hedgehog or platypus, have three removable squeaky “eggs” hidden inside a pouch. Dogs can pull the eggs out through the elasticized opening, which is fun for those who love to search for and find treasures. The eggs are just a little bit bigger than tennis balls, and as a huge bonus, replacement three-packs are available.

8. Booda Rip ’Ems. These are “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” toys.Dogs love to rip things apart, and Booda Rip ’Ems are actually designed for it. Their pieces are attached with Velcro® and can be reattached in a variety of ways. Many dogs love the ripping sound the Velcro® makes as much as the feeling of pulling the toy apart. The shapes include tigers, beach balls and watermelons.

9. The Critter. Lest we forget that our furry friends are predators, and superb ones at that, their toy choices remind us. Plush toys to rip apart and squeaky toys to pounce on are prized by most dogs. For the more discriminating predator, consider The Critter, which is essentially a faux fur–covered tennis ball with a faux fur tail attached. It is rare to make the acquaintance of a dog who does not go wild over it.

The main purpose of dog toys is not to give us a peaceful moment in which to read the paper and have a cup of coffee (although if you’ve used them this way, join the club). Rather, their function is to enhance play, which is a critical and often ignored part of canine behavior. And just as the best children’s books can be enjoyed by adults and children reading together, the best dog toys can be enjoyed by people and dogs playing together.

News: Guest Posts
Online Dog Training
It's convenient and can save you time and money
dutch shepherd dalmatian rescue trick gopher sit pretty beg

If you could train your dog at home, would you do it? Trainers around the world are betting on it! Online dog training is a hot trend. Costs vary, but when you consider the savings in travel time and gas money, convenience pays.

Need basic obedience or behavior help? Check out CyberDog or E-Training for Dogs, founded by Cheryl Asmus-Aguiar, Ph.D. Classes and webinars are available by subject.

Agility addicts often drive far away and pay big bucks to attend seminars by some of the top trainers in the world. Now many of them offer their knowledge via online videos and homework assignments. Some even welcome videos of your training session so you can get feedback from the instructor and your cyberclassmates.

  • Susan Garrett of Canada, Say Yes! Dog Training
  • Linda Mecklenburg of Ohio, Awesome Paws
  • Daisy Peel of Washington
  • Silvia Trkman of Slovenia

Try a new dog sport, such as Treibball or K9 Nose Work; go to Wag It Games, founded by Sumac Johnson of Maine. Online classes include Rally Obedience, Sniff It, Ball Herding, Living Room Agility and Homeopathy.

For less formal learning, go to YouTube and use search terms like dog training, obedience, agility, disc, etc.One of my favorite channels is Kikopup. Instructor Emily Larlham of Sweden generously shares step-by-step training skills for practically anything you'd like to teach your dog. And it's free!

If you've taken an online course, I’d love to hear what you liked and didn’t like about it. Did you and your dog enjoy it working on your own? Did you miss the social camaraderie of a physical classroom?


Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Can't Our Dogs Just Get Along?
Talking Training with Victoria Stilwell

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.

News: Guest Posts
Rainy Day Dog Games
Tricks for keeping indoor pups engaged

My dog, Stella, thinks she’s made of sugar. With exposure to rain, snow or other inclement weather, she hunkers down as if she might melt. That’s why my canine companionship toolkit includes a few strategies for occupying my little busybody when the sun’s in a downstay.


Treat Search

We’ve done basic nosework together, but really any parent-dog team can play “search.”


You’ll want to start the game with your dog in a sit or stay. Place a toy on the floor. When you release her, she’ll go to the toy. Reward this attention with a high-value treat. Do this a few more times, eventually introducing the name of the toy with your search cue.


Soon you’ll have an ever-growing list of searchable goodies in your dog’s repertoire.


Up the ante by placing the toy farther away or under things. Note that the higher you place something, the less easily she’ll be able to find it with her sense of smell.


Have a friend gently hold the dog while you go hide. Then *you* can be the prize.


Will Work for Food

Even if your dog doesn’t want to go out for a hike on a soggy Saturday, you can still keep her mentally stimulated. Instead of plopping her food down in a dog bowl, use a treat dispenser, such as the Tug-a-Jug, to make mealtime into playtime. These toys are often nearly indestructible, and they keep Stella engaged for hours. Literally.


Indoor Boot Camp

From a training perspective, reading on the couch is time wasted if you don’t seize the opportunity. Use this time in all kinds of creative ways to shore up your dog’s skills—lengthening the downstays your dog can handle, for example, or practicing this triad of super-important behavior cues: come, stay and leave it.


For even more playful ideas, check out JoAnna Lou’s Indoor Fun blog post or read up on Christina Sondermann’s Indoor Agility Exercises.


What are your secrets for rainy day fun with your dog(s)?

News: Guest Posts
Managing My Beasties
Handling a houseful of love

I knew I was going to be on my own navigating the new parenting world with a dog already in the house when more than once I came across the following advice: reduce the attention you give your dog by at least fifty percent. The logic: I would have less time to devote to my dog, so she should get used to it early. Say what? Stop petting the dog? Less toys for the dog? No more lavishing love on this beloved beast I *chose* to bring into my home, the one I committed to for life? No can do, parenting experts!

Still, when my son Wren came along, I needed to make changes. I've got a 60-pound Pit Bull-type dog in the house with me, and Stella can be something of a tornado when she gets excited. She skids and scrambles around on the wood floors, wedges herself between the object of my attention and me and seeks out high fives precisely at toddler-eye level when things are going her way. Here are a few of the things I've learned. It's not to say I've applied these strategies flawlessly, but it's the structure of these boundaries that have kept our household—and ALL the members in it—happy and secure.

1. Dogs + Babies Alone = No

We trust Stella. She's a good girl and can be left on the couch alone with a plate of food without eating it. That is to say, she's got great impulse control. But for both the baby's safety and for hers, we simply never leave them in the room alone together. Too much could go wrong—a yanked dog ear, a stomped baby hand, a dog tail to the eyeball.

2. Toy Management

This is a tricky one. As I wrote in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of The Bark, we did tons of training in advance to help Stella recognize her toys from Wren's. She's got this down now, and leaves his well enough alone. Wren has been a whole different issue. He makes a beeline straight for Stella when she's playing wth things, and likewise when she is eating. Despite Stella's tolerance of this (not all dogs are so gracious, nor should they be expected to be), I still protect her from Wren's prying hands by redirecting him with his own toys. He doesn't always appreciate this—so if he can't be redirected, I put a baby gate between them so Stella can play or eat in peace.

3. Breathing Room

That brings me to the next point. Sometimes, both baby and dog need space away from the constant attention of the other. This applies especially to old dogs or those with sore spots. Wren has reached a stage now where he finds Stella absolutely fascinating. He crawls behind her like the wake behind a boat. And while I find it charming, Stella sometimes may just want to sail around on her own. And that's fair enough. Baby gates, the Pack 'n Play or crib—all these serve as fine barriers between your beasties.

What are your trade secrets to happy cohabitation? Was your dog jealous when the kid(s) came along? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog Daycare
More than fun and games

You have an all-day work event, your dog walker comes down with something and your back-up help is out of town. Then you see the ad for a local dog-daycare facility: “We can help! We offer 12 hours of fun and socialization for your dog.” The message is accompanied by cute photos of pooches at play. Should you be sold?

Across the U.S., dog-daycare businesses — franchises and single-owner operations alike — are flourishing. They offer your dog what you sometimes cannot: playmates, companionship and supervision when other commitments take you away from home. Most keep hours similar to those of daycare centers for children: drop your dog off before work, pick her up afterward.

Do dog daycares provide a necessary service for both dogs and owners? Are all daycares created equal? Is dog daycare an option you should consider? The answer is a resounding “It depends.”

Marc Bekoff, PhD, a University of Colorado ethologist who has studied dogs and their wild relatives for more than four decades, gives the concept of dog daycare a thumbs-up: “I love the idea. I think they provide a great function. At the same time, daycare should not replace people spending a good deal of time with their dogs.” E’Lise Christensen, DVM, and board-certified veterinary behaviorist in New York City, agrees “For healthy, active, social dogs, daycare can be a great outlet for getting exercise and social enrichment.”

In fact, this belief is exactly what originally spurred the development of the dog daycare industry. “In the early 1990s, training professionals found there was a need for dogs to get out of the house, socialize and engage in mental stimulation and physical exercise,” explains Melinda Miller, hospital director at Smith Ridge Veterinary Center in South Salem, N.Y.

Social play and mental stimulation are the main reasons many people choose to enroll their dogs in daycare. Mat Zucker of New York City has been taking his co-pilot Ezra to Paws in Chelsea three times a week for the last nine years. “When Ezra was a puppy, it was a great place for him to burn off energy, be social and run around. We were worried he would be bored home alone.”

Zucker makes a good point. The complex process of domestication did not shape dogs for solitary living (raise your hand if one is napping at your feet as you read this). On the other hand, dogs did not evolve to engage in all-day play sessions either.

The Social Scene
Dog daycare websites feature buzz words like “play,” “fun” and “canine friends,” words that, for owners, readily elicit images of their dog exuberantly sparring with a new best friend. But what do social experiences at dog daycares look like?

In the daycare setting, dyadic play (play between two dogs) is probably the most prevalent type. A recent study* investigating social play in adult, group-housed dogs at a boarding kennel found that of 343 social-play bouts, all but one were dyadic in nature. “This is not surprising,” notes Alexandra Horowitz, PhD, and term assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College, who has studied dog play behavior extensively.** “Dyadic play is an easier dynamic for most dogs than triadic or larger-group play. In a bigger group of players, it would be hard to have play signals in all those different directions, and a dog could certainly miss something. Because of the complexity of play, this high-paced, rambunctious activity needs a lot of coordination.”

The idea of giving dogs space to play might seem straightforward enough, but there’s more to it than simply providing square feet. Numerous factors can influence the presence, or absence, of happy frolicking. While a dog’s physical size warrants consideration when forming daycare playgroups, play style is paramount. Becky Trisko, PhD, behaviorist and owner of Unleashed in Evanston, Ill., knows this well. “A good daycare surveys play styles and groups dogs accordingly. At the same time, [it] also allows flexibility between groups throughout the day to manage personalities and excitement levels.”

When it comes to play, turning up the dial is not always better. As Miller explains, “Hyper dogs allowed to get into a frenzy and maintain that level of excitement all day can be worse in the home than they were before they went to daycare. Staff members who help dogs learn about relaxed play and recognize when dogs need time out or a change of pace and rest are helping both dog and owner.” Trisko agrees. “Owners often assume that an exhausted dog is a happy dog. But an exhausted dog could also be an irritated dog.”

In a well-run daycare, these issues are addressed by handlers who ensure that dogs engage in the congenial play their owners envision. While no formal research has been done to validate these numbers, the consensus is that an ideal handler-to-dog ratio is 1:10, or 1:15 at the outside (Christensen recommends a ratio of 1:5). If groups grow in size, so too should the level of human attention. But even with multiple human hands on deck, large dog groups can be challenging to manage. Kate Senisi, a former daycare employee, knows this firsthand. “Daycares that create multiple, smaller groups within a space, as opposed to one large group, allow for more direct supervision of the dogs. But that also means that the daycare has to provide additional staff to cover the new groups,” she says.

Done right, supervision gives dogs the variety they need within a complex environment. Though many daycares tend to highlight “all-day play,” a quick review of online daycare videos reveals dogs engaged in any number of activities. Some dogs play, some watch; others investigate something on the floor, jump on a handler, sit in a handler’s lap or lie on the floor. In other words, individual dogs have a range of interests that shift moment by moment, and good supervision can facilitate this variety.

According to Horowitz, it’s important that dogs have options and control. “Not to say that the dog is dictating the day, but that the dog has options to be social, to be with a person or by themselves. That would be the highest-quality day: a lot of things to do and being able to make choices about when and with whom to do it.”

Handlers perform a critical role in promoting fun and safety. Much like playground monitors, they pick up on individual behavioral cues — for example, noticing when a dog becomes anxious or has simply been playing for three hours straight and could use a change of pace. Fun can quickly disappear when a dog finds himself in an environment that conf licts with his own emotional state.

The often-overlooked aspect of dog daycare is, of course, learning. “An important factor to consider,” says Laura Monaco Torelli, director of training at Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago, “is that dogs are always learning, even in the daycare environment.” Since most daycares do not explicitly advertise training, owners might not readily notice this aspect. But watch any dog, and you’ll find that various behaviors and emotional states are being reinforced, or not reinforced, over the course of the day by humans, other dogs or even the environment. Just as a toddler might return from preschool with his first painting of a flower and a bit of an attitude, so too might a dog return from daycare played out, but a bit jumpier and mouthier than when he went in.

Practical Considerations
At the end of the day, dog daycares are businesses; moreover, they are unregulated businesses. While daycare owners, managers and employees probably become involved in this particular enterprise because they love dogs and are interested in promoting canine welfare, it is an industry with no agreedupon set of “best practices.” Some might have learned the business from authorities such as Robin Bennett or Gail Fisher; for others, a random instructional DVD might suffice.

Some daycares highlight their facilities’ bells and whistles: climate control, dog cams, unique flooring or even a particular type of background music. Unfortunately, many daycare websites are silent on the less flashy ethological and organizational considerations that are most relevant to those concerned about their dogs’ welfare. For example, daycares rarely describe daily play and rest schedules, handling techniques, procedures for introducing new dogs to the group, criteria that determine how dogs are grouped, handler-to-dog ratios, access to outdoor space and staff first-aid training.

There are many ways to handle the daily influx of bouncing dogs, and at their best, daycares do this by viewing every dog as an individual. Some daycares rely on message boards to keep track of the different canine personalities gracing their establishments. Descriptors might read: “Don’t let anyone jump on Tiger’s back. Keep Sam from being overstimulated. Keep Janet from eating rocks or poop.” But how do daycares uncover these nuances?

A behavior assessment is the first step toward getting to know each dog’s unique ethological needs. Even if a dog has been comfortable in comparable settings, there’s no foolproof way to predict how he or she will feel in a novel environment. Each daycare provides a unique stew of sights, smells, sounds, movements and management styles, and any dog could be less than thrilled with the surroundings. Even dogs described by their owners as “social butterflies” or “happy players” do not necessarily thrive in every setting. (I am reminded of a therapy-dog certification class I once observed. The behavior of two of the dogs screamed out, “Umm, may I please be excused from this experience?” Their owners were surprised by their reactions.)

Assessments can also identify dogs who are not likely to be thrilled about daycare from the get-go. For some, discomfort with other dogs could spark aggression; others might be unable to de-stress in a group setting. With this information, daycares can evaluate whether they have the staff knowhow and facility design to admit such dogs. Dog owners not only expect their dogs to be having positive experiences at daycare, they also expect them to be exposed to suitable playmates. “I like that Huey had a behavior test, because that means the other dogs also had a test,” says Beth Windler, a Minnesota dog owner and once-aweek daycare patron. For Windler, this was particularly relevant after Huey, a happy-go-lucky Basset Hound, was injured at a dog park.

The behavior assessment is just the beginning of the story. John Squires, owner and manager of Wag Club in Brooklyn, N.Y., stresses that the daycare facility has an ongoing role in habituating each dog to its setting and rewarding good behavior. He has found that, unfortunately, not all daycares prioritize such methods. Some accept dogs who are completely unsuited for a daycare environment without taking steps to help them acclimate, which could lead to a dog spending most of his time in a kennel rather than interacting with others.

It’s easy to get caught up in procedures and forget about the people. Just as a love of children does not necessarily make someone a competent firstgrade teacher, a love of dogs doesn’t automatically equip a person to manage the behaviors and personalities of a group of them. “Is a daycare just looking for warm bodies who like dogs and can stay there for eight hours a day?” asks Miller. Christensen adds, “Is the staff trained [in] the basics of dog behavior as based on science, not popular wisdom?” Staffers’ ability to recognize stress and discomfort is just as important as their understanding of the complex set of movements that make up play. Play and aggressive displays share many elements, and even to a watchful, astute eye, meanings can change quickly. According to Monaco Torelli, “Observation of canine communication is a critical variable of proactive management in daycares.”

So, is doggie daycare a necessary part of life for every dog? The answer lies largely with the individual dog. Some daycares are better than others at maximizing fun and safety and decreasing fear and stress. At the same time, dog daycare is not the only game in town. Your dog might prefer a long walk, a training class, a trip to the dog park, an open window where he can take in the passing sights and sounds, or a small playgroup. Consider what’s important to and appropriate for your dog. Also consider how you might be able to build time for these extras into your schedule.

When thinking about our dogs’ quality of life, most of us inevitably ask the question, “What should my dog be doing all day while I’m gone?” If you think the answer for your dog involves daycare, then the next question is, “Which one?” A little due diligence on your part will result in a solution that’s right for your pup.


* Adler, Carina, et al. 2011. Social play behavior of group-housed domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Journal of Veterinary Behavior 6 (2): 98.
** Horowitz, Alexandra. 2009. Attention to attention in domestic dog (Canis familiaris) dyadic play. Animal Cognition 12 (1): 107–118.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Will Work for Toys
Kong's Mark Hines on toys and training

It’s not surprising that retired sport dogs Kaya and Dakota are well behaved, polite and respond phenomenally fast to a wide variety of cues. They live with Mark Hines, behavior and training specialist for the Kong Company, who’s logged thousands of hours with them, and thousands more consulting with service dog organizations, shelters, military and law-enforcement handlers, prison programs, behaviorists, breeders, and veterinarians, to name a few. At heart, though, he’s just a guy who loves his dogs. Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Mark about using toys as a training tool.

Q: Why do you like training with toys?

A: Basically, because it’s fun! You see more desire on the dog’s part to work, more passion and willingness to perform when you train with toys.

Q: Is one type of dog more receptive than another to this method?

A: High-drive dogs tend to respond well to toys. By drive I mean high arousal, easily stimulated dogs who are willing to work and have the motivation and desire to work. Dogs with drive are dogs who are rarin’ to go. When I see drive, I see so much happiness. I know I can shape a behavior and get a beautiful response.

Q: How do you advise people to begin using toys as training aids?

A: Find a toy the dog likes and that is stimulating. Then, teach a good foundation, which includes a solid “out” so there’s no conflict over the toy. The dog can spit it out on the ground, drop it or trade it for a treat. If you are having trouble with this, try switching to a toy that the dog doesn’t want as much. You can also go up in size to a bigger toy that the dog can’t get into the back of the mouth, an area I call the “power zone.” Or, go to a harder toy that’s not as self-rewarding. For example, a Wubba with tails that flop around is harder for many dogs to give up than a toy that has no movement. If the toy is self-rewarding, the dog may not release it as easily, especially early in the training process. Once a dog has a clean “out,” any toy should be fine.

Q: Not all dogs are interested in toys. What then?

A: Dogs can be taught to enjoy toys, even dogs who seem to be the least playful or toy-motivated. I once worked with a Beagle who was only into food, not toys. I started giving him treats every time he made a toy squeak, and it evolved into play even after I stopped using food as reinforcement.

Q: What about the dog who’s more interested in the toy than in you? How do you stimulate that interest?

A: You have to be engaging. What’s the point of trying to interact with the dog if he doesn’t even want to be with you? Be the gate to play—a clown with gadgets, toys and fun.

Q: You also use food rewards; why do you incorporate both types of reinforcement into your training?

A: Using toys as a reward instead of food is kind of like taking your child to an amusement park rather than taking him out to dinner. Which do you think your child would choose? I consider food as a way to focus the dog (especially puppies) and toys as a way to stimulate play and create drive. Sometimes toys bring out arousal and frustration, which can actually cause a dog to lose focus, so you need to balance toys and food. When working with a low-drive dog, it’s possible to do more repetitions with food than with a toy. High-drive dogs will work for a toy all day long.

Q: Can you use toys to increase a dog’s drive?

A: Yes. Movement is your friend. Show excitement, be active and animated, make an idiot of yourself. Make a toy desirable by holding onto it. Make it something that your dog finds fascinating and really, really wants. Build frustration just a little. Play hard-to-get in order to build the dog’s energy and motivation. Toys on ropes create even more drive because they move faster and are unpredictable.

Q: What would you say is the most common training mistake people make?

A: Not using markers, either a clicker or a consistent “Yes!” Don’t use the toy as a marker. Say “Yes!” or click before presenting the toy or the treat. Otherwise, the dog will only watch the toy.

Q: How much time should a dog be allowed to play with the toy as reinforcement?

A: Train with a pattern of “drive, exercise, drive.” Start with a toy in your training vest or under your arm, then ask the dog for a behavior, and as a reward, offer the toy for a few seconds to rev him up. Ask him to release the toy, then ask for another behavior and continue that way throughout the session. The toy is a reward just as a treat would be a reward. So, it’s sit, yes! toy, out! Then it goes back in the pocket for another exercise. These are not play sessions in between. In training mode, the dog is working for that toy, and he works fast because you are withholding the reward and he really wants it.

A play session at the end can serve as a jackpot for exceptionally good work, and that can be as long as you have time for. At the end of a session, I say “free dog,” which means work is over and we’re having fun.

Q: How can you use toys to help a dog learn a variety of skills?

A: Presentation matters. The dog has to take toys from all over: high, low, different positions. Be versatile. This also helps dogs learn to target. If the dog gets too near my hand and bites by mistake, the game ends immediately. Dogs can be very careful with their mouths, but not enough people require them to be.

Always have the dog come in to you—move the toy away to attract him in. This is especially true with recalls. Throw the ball behind you as the dog approaches, sometimes to one side, sometimes to the other, to keep the dog coming in with good speed and in a straight line.

Q: In addition to fun and training, do you use toys in other ways?

A: Toys are great tools to help dogs recover from something scary—a fallen jump or loud noise, for example. You can take the dog right back to a state of drive with a toy.

Q: Lots of people like to play tug with their dogs, but sometimes struggle to play it correctly. What advice do you give people about this game?

A: If you give an inch, dogs will take a mile. When playing tug with dogs, pull forward and out, not up and down or side to side. To keep the dog from creeping up the toy, keep the toy moving. Dealing with arousal is important. You need to decide when the game starts and ends.

Q: What are your favorite toys?

A: I love the Kong, of course, and the Kong on the rope is my key toy. I also love the large Goodie Bone to train good “outs.” I can hold onto both sides while the dog has it in his mouth, and it is not self-rewarding because it has no motion. To create intense drive, many agility or dock-dog trainers swear by the Wubba.

Q: What other training advice do you wish everyone would follow?

A: Train in short sessions, especially with young or inexperienced dogs. “Short” means just a few minutes, or even one minute for puppies at the very beginning. Multiple sessions throughout the day that add up to 15 minutes are better than 15 minutes all at once. Make it happen every time. It’s better to ask dogs for a behavior 50 times and have them do the behavior 50 times than to ask 100 times and have them do it 75 times. Have fun! The minute a session turns into work for you, give it up because it’s not going to go anywhere. Finally, always, always, ALWAYS end on a positive note.

News: Guest Posts
The Most Incredible Sit Stay of All Time
Tiger is one patient dog
food on my dog blog Tiger balance donut

Food on my dog; we've all seen it, usually by chance after a particularly frenzied mealtime. Often, it's done on purpose as a stupid pet trick. A meaty treat is carefully placed atop the dog's snout. The person tiptoes away, hand outstretched, saying, "Staaay, staaaay," until finally, either the dog or the audience can't take it anymore.

"Okay!" Upon hearing the magical release word, the dog shows off shark-like reflexes in pursuit of his prey. He tilts back his head, flicks up the treat, and snatches it out of the air. Well, you ain't seen nothin' yet till you view "Food On My Dog," the blog. The star, Tiger, has the patience of a saint as her owner balances everything from bacon strips to steak fries on her head. You'd think that the sheer weirdness of taking a simple, common trick to such an extreme would be the X factor, but no, it's the bemused expression on Tiger's face—the quivery anticipation that whatever's on her head will soon be hers—that will compell you to scroll through every single shot.