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Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Tips for Picking a Dog Trainer
When shopping for a trainer, look behind the advertising language.
When shopping for a trainer, look behind the advertising language.

If you live in a big city like I do, you’re overwhelmed with choice for just about any service you can think of. I could get a different coffee and haircut every day of the week and never leave my local neighborhood. This is great, in theory, but how do I choose the best place for my morning latte? Who should I trust to get my hair faded just right?

Choice is also a benefit when you’re looking for a dog trainer, but you can end up facing the same kind of issues, with a lot more riding on the outcome than a bitter drink or a less-than-stellar ’do.

So how do we find the right trainer if we have only Google to go on? Online reviews are hardly fair and balanced, but we don’t always have the luxury of a personal recommendation. The answer is to learn how to interpret the language used on dog-training websites.

Think of a trainer’s website as an infomercial. Although we know it’s designed to convince us to sign up, if we’re savvy we can also pick through the language to find clues about a trainer’s methods and beliefs. Let’s start with the most common word, one that pops up on almost every trainer’s site: effective.

Of course, we all want our dog trainer to be effective. Who would sign up for Dave’s Ineffective Dog Training? We’re spending time and money trying to help our dogs become well-mannered citizens, and we don’t want to feel like our efforts have been wasted. However, there are many different ways to accomplish training goals, some more fraught with potential pitfalls than others. Efficacy is important, but ethics are important too, and are something that trainers also reflect in their word choice.

Words like compassionate, fair and humane indicate what trainers believe about themselves, but they don’t add much clarity for potential clients. All three are subjective terms; what I believe represents compassionate training might not be what you envision. Besides, what counts as humane and compassionate is determined by a trainer’s beliefs about how dogs learn and how best to teach them, so these words raise questions rather than answer them.

Trainers also use a relatively small number of more specific, objective sounding terms on their sites. Because these can provide a general idea of the kinds of things that might happen to a dog during training, it’s useful to understand what they mean. Following is a list of the most commonly used.

FORCE FREE/POSITIVE

Trainers who describe themselves as “force free,” or some variation of “purely positive,” will never deliberately use pain or fear in their training. They will focus on finding ways to reward a good behavior that is incompatible with the behavior they don’t want to see, like sitting politely instead of jumping up on guests. Often, they’ll use a clicker and treats, paired with ignoring the dog when he’s doing something inappropriate.

The key thing to remember here is that although these trainers might see themselves as using only positive, gentle methods, what really matters is how the dog sees things. Force-free trainers who put clients’ dogs in situations where they feel uncomfortable, or who can’t teach their guardians the skills required to carry on after the session, can cause frustration and anxiety and even reinforce undesirable behavior.

BALANCED

Trainers who describe themselves as “balanced” may use everything from electronic collars to clickers in their approach. The balance here is between things designed to punish bad behavior and things designed to reward good behavior. However, not all balanced trainers will use every tool, or the same balance of rewards and punishments. Some will use punishment only in certain cases, others will use it most of the time. Many balanced trainers make distinctions among different breeds of dog, or different types of problems that they believe won’t respond to the kinds of reward-based approaches on which force-free trainers rely.

For example, many balanced trainers claim that although dogs can learn tricks using a clicker and treats, they can be taught to avoid rattlesnakes only by associating the snakes with something unpleasant, like a shock. Force-free trainers strongly disagree with claims like this, which has led to serious rifts within the dog-training community.

LIMA AND HUMANE HIERARCHY

These terms are less common than the previous two, but they are gaining traction in professional circles as a way to explain both an ethical stance and a practical approach to dog training. LIMA stands for “Least Invasive Minimally Aversive,” meaning that with any set of possible interventions, the trainer will always try whatever is least likely to cause pain or punishment first, only moving to more potentially unpleasant options if he or she feels the need. (This position is endorsed by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.) The Humane Hierarchy was developed by Dr. Susan Friedman as one way of organizing potential interventions, from most to least punishing. A trainer who uses these terms is engaged with the latest thinking on ethics and wants to display this engagement to potential clients. It’s very unlikely that trainers who align themselves with LIMA will use punishment, especially for basic obedience issues.

BOOT CAMP (and other military terms)

This kind of language usually suggests that the trainer believes in punishment as the best way to manage behavior. Trainers who sell themselves as providing this type of intervention often also subscribe to ideas about dominance and “being the alpha.” They appeal to frustrated owners who are faced with dogs who seem rude and out-of-control, but their approaches can be harsh and lead to suppression, not modification. Trainers who describe themselves or their approach in this controlling, militaristic language are probably best avoided altogether.

NO SUBSTITUTE FOR SUBSTANCE

Although being able to parse these terms and understand them gives us more of a picture of how a trainer operates than the words “humane and effective,” it’s clear that each label still represents a spectrum of beliefs and approaches.

The only way to get the clearest possible information is to ask trainers directly. That means you’ve got to shop around, get in front of trainers, and ask unambiguous and substantial questions about what is going to happen to your dog, and why. Dog behavior consultant John McGuigan proposes the following questions, which every trainer ought to easily be able to answer: What will happen to my dog if she gets it right? What will happen to my dog if she gets it wrong? Are there less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

These questions don’t cover everything, and they can’t inoculate you against a marketing spiel, but they’re a good place to start. If you’re not comfortable with the answers you get; if the trainer becomes evasive and starts using concepts like “energy,” talking around the question or invoking his or her years of experience; or if the answer involves anything that is designed to cause pain, to startle or to do anything else unpleasant, think twice. It’s your responsibility to exercise due diligence when choosing a dog trainer, and it’s always better to risk being seen as a busybody than it is to put your dog in a situation you didn’t want or expect.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog Behavior: Bite Inhibition Matters
A soft mouth can be the difference between life and death for dogs.

All dogs come equipped with powerful jaws and teeth capable of inflicting injury, but they vary in their willingness to use them as weapons. Most save them for marrow bones, chews or Kongs, a quality that makes for good pets and great friends. The degree to which dogs learn not to use the full force of their mouths on people and other dogs is called “bite inhibition,” and it is the most important part of a dog’s education.

Unfortunately, all dogs are likely to experience unpleasant or stressful incidents, but those with proper bite inhibition will not cause much (if any) damage in response. That’s why bite inhibition is so valuable. If an injured or terrified dog air-snaps or inhibits his bite so effectively that contact with another dog or person causes no pain or injury, that’s a manageable problem by most people’s standards. If a dog with poor bite inhibition is in the same situation and inflicts serious damage, it’s a potentially disastrous problem from a physical, emotional and even legal standpoint.

Consider the following incidents from my own case files.

A visiting child loses his temper when the family dog distracts him during a game of ping pong by yawning and whining. The child hits the dog in the face with the ping-pong paddle, and the dog runs away yelping. A teenager tries to dress up her dog to match her own outfit, and the dog resists. As she continues forcing the clothes on him, he whines and struggles. After several minutes, the dog growls and snaps at her face but makes no contact. An elderly man trips and falls onto his dog while the dog is eating. The dog bites the man on the leg, leaving no mark. A toddler tries to climb on her sleeping dog to ride him like a horse. The dog stands up and begins to walk away, but when she tries once again to get on his back, he bites her on the shoulder, causing a bruise. When a man reaches to pet his friend’s dog, his watch catches on the dog’s collar. He gently tries to disentangle himself, and the dog bites him on the leg, leaving two puncture marks and some bruising. A woman walks into her dining room, sees a dog toy under the table and reaches down to get it. Her dog races in from the living room and bites her arm repeatedly, resulting in multiple punctures along with fractures to her wrist and arm that require several surgeries to fix.

In each instance, it’s easy to see why the dog was distressed. Yet, the seriousness of the responses was not directly related to the injustice or pain suffered by the dog, but rather, to the dog’s ability to exercise proper bite inhibition. It’s no exaggeration to say that bite inhibition can be the difference between success and failure in treating behavior problems, and even between life and death for the dog.

When evaluating risk, it’s reasonable to ask what’s the worst that could happen if for example, a gate is left open, a leash breaks or a person barges in unannounced. If the answer is, “Someone could get really spooked and be furious with us because our dog may bark, lunge or snap,” many people would be willing to take that chance. If instead, the answer is, “Someone could be badly and even permanently injured, require medical care such as surgery or be deeply traumatized,” far fewer would be able to live with that risk. The answer is really important because it will generally determine how willing people are to live with the risk, which in turn influences how committed they are to their dog and working to improve his behavior.

Some dogs develop the bite inhibition so essential for navigating life’s tricky and unexpected events while others don’t. Both genetics and learning influence the process. Though there’s genetic variation among individual dogs, some types of dogs are famous for soft mouths. It’s not surprising, for example, that dogs bred to retrieve game use their mouths gently to avoid damaging that game. Retrievers are also well known for being “mouthy,” meaning that they use their mouth, including their teeth, often. Though there are cases of dogs who are gentle with their mouths while retrieving but do not have good bite inhibition in social situations, it is more common that dogs who are able to exercise control in one situation are able to behave similarly in others. That does not mean that dogs with good bite inhibition won’t kill squirrels or tear up their chew toys. Bite inhibition is all about exercising control in social situations, but that does not necessarily apply to predatory behavior or to play with objects.

Experience with play biting and mouthing often leads to better bite inhibition, and like anything else, those who practice become the most skilled. Littermates are a puppy’s first teachers, one of several reasons that it’s beneficial for puppies to stay with their litter for about two months. As the young dogs play, they use their mouths to tug or gnaw on their siblings’ ears, tails, paws and loose skin. If one puppy mouths another too hard, the puppy who got hurt will yelp, stop playing and move away. This teaches puppies that hard bites, even if not intended to cause pain, result in an interruption in play. Singleton puppies and those taken from their litter before the age of five or six weeks often lack proper bite inhibition. It seems that puppies need their littermates’ feedback to learn to control the pressure they exert with their mouths.

Once puppies head to new homes, their education needs to continue, and that includes socialization with other puppies and dogs. This does not mean throwing a puppy into the dog-park scrum and hoping it will all work out. In that setting, puppies are far too likely to be overwhelmed and to experience it as we might experience a gladiator pit. Rather, it means supervised play dates with carefully selected and well-behaved canines.

Lessons from people are also useful in teaching bite inhibition. Though using their mouths on our hands, arms, legs, hair and clothes is natural behavior for them, dogs must learn to interact in ways that are appropriate in our world. An effective technique, one based on puppies’ earlier experiences with their littermates, is to startle and then redirect the young offender. If a puppy mouths too hard, yelp with a puppy-like sound (Aaarp! is the closest description of this sound that can be spelled), which often interrupts the puppy’s biting. Take advantage of that pause in the behavior by immediately giving the puppy something appropriate to chew on. Good options include bones, chew toys, Kongs, squeaky toys and stuffed animals.

A common mistake when using this method is to make the yelping sound and then fail to redirect the puppy. In most cases, although the sound will startle the puppy into a break in the mouthing, he or she will go right back to it unless given another, more appropriate object to focus on. Many people begin by doing both steps (startle and redirect), but as time goes on, they switch to startling without bothering to redirect. They then report that the technique doesn’t work.

While more than 90 percent of puppies will respond to this method if it is used correctly and consistently, there are indeed dogs who seem to get worse in response to high-pitched yelps, becoming even mouthier and more revved up. For those dogs, it’s usually effective to startle the dog with a deep-voiced “Hey!” or “Ouch!” Otherwise, the technique of interrupting the behavior and then redirecting the dog to an appropriate object is the same. If the puppy fails to respond to either sound, walk away so that he learns that biting brings an end to the fun.

It’s important to begin by startling and redirecting the puppy only in response to the most forceful bites. Employing this approach with every instance of mouthing can be overwhelming to the puppy, who is, after all, doing what comes naturally and exploring the world by mouth. So, the first goal is to teach the puppy not to mouth so hard rather than not to mouth at all. When the hardest bites have been inhibited, the next step is to startle and redirect after medium-force bites. Finally, once the puppy has learned to mouth people with only the gentlest of pressure, teach him not to do this at all by employing the same technique in response to any occasion in which his teeth touch delicate human skin, hair or clothes.

There are many recommendations out there for stopping puppy mouthing and I advise against most of them because they are inhumane and generally ineffective. For example, do not hold the dog’s muzzle closed, yell at the dog, jam your fingers into the dog’s mouth or swat the dog. Basically, it comes down to one piece of general advice: Don’t do anything that involves any kind of physical punishment that causes pain or frightens the dog.

Proper bite inhibition is incredibly important, and developing it requires lessons early in life. The normal process of learning bite inhibition is linked with puppy development and it can’t usually be learned later in life with the same degree of success. Dogs without this essential skill may cause severe damage—punctures, painful bruising and even broken bones on occasion. Learning bite inhibition is one of the first and most essential lessons for puppies, because it is about safety as well as being a well-behaved, polite member of society.

Dog's Life: Travel
Training Service Dog Puppies at New Mexico Spa Resort
A look inside Sunrise Springs Spa Resort’s Puppy Enrichment Center.
Assistance Dogs in Training at Sunrise Spring Spa Resort, New Mexico

According to philosopher Bernard Williams, “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.” Imagine having four or five of them jockeying for attention, slipping and sliding as they try to gain favor. “Pet me!” “Give me treats!” “Play with me!”

But these young and slightly clumsy little chocolate, black and yellow English Labs aren’t here at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort’s Puppy Enrichment Center just to get their licks in. They’re here being trained to be service dogs for people with mobility impairments; traumatic brain injuries; combat injuries; autism spectrum, seizure, and emotional and anxiety disorders; developmental disabilities; and diabetes.

As part of their training, the dogs are taught to be patient as well as comfortable with being handled and spoken to by many different people in a variety of environments. When they’re older and ready to work, they will truly make a difference in their partners’ lives, helping them become more independent, self-reliant and confident.

This tranquil northern New Mexico resort is able to offer its guests opportunities to interact with the adorable Labs as part of its collaboration with Assistance Dogs of the West (ADW). Founded in 1995 in Santa Fe, ADW now has the largest assistance dog studenttraining program in the world.

The facility at Sunrise Springs is the brainchild of ADW’s founder, Jill Felice, and Sunrise’s Andy Scott. The two longtime friends decided that guests could benefit from contact with these healthy, welltempered dogs and observing their development and training firsthand. The puppies add another level to the spa experience, as do the Silkie chickens, also on the premises and available for guest interaction; the chickens are known for their calm temperament and fluff, which adds an additional layer of relaxation to this wellness oasis. (Marie Claire magazineis calls Sunrise Springs “the perfect escape for the animal lover.”)

The puppies are born at the resort, and staff trainers—professionals, student trainers ranging in age from eight to 18, and veterans with ADW’s Warrior Canine Connection—prepare the dogs to be mission-ready when they’re placed with their human partners. They teach the dogs 90 commands, including how to open doors; climb stairs one at a time; and “under,” which means to put their bellies on the ground under a chair or table when their person sits.

The dogs are also taught to step over Styrofoam tubes to learn agility, fetch rubber balls from a baby pool to learn retrieval skills and even to use a ramp. The trainers take them into public places to further refine the commands. All this helps the puppies become better problem solvers, smarter about handling the critical situations in which their future partners will require assistance.

The puppies’ spacious pen is set up in a large room, and guests are encouraged to interact with the dogs during visiting hours, known at the resort as Open Puppy Studio. In addition, there’s an adjacent playroom well stocked with toys, and a large pen out back. The puppies and their trainers are also free to roam the resort’s many acres of gardens, paths, walking trails and undeveloped land.

Guests are asked to remove their shoes and wash their hands before entering the center. Once they’re inside, Britte Holman, who runs the center and is the first supervisor of this new program, encourages them to engage with the puppies, and answers any questions they might have. She also reminds them that if they wave a ball at a puppy, they must toss it, because the dogs need to know how to follow through. When it comes to assistance dogs, this is especially critical, since when they’re on the job, their people will be relying on them to respond promptly and accurately to commands. This type of training is extremely demanding, as errors can have serious consequences for both dog and person.

Clickers are used to train the puppies, and the reward after a click is food. Other rewards include toys, pats and verbal praise. The clickers are also used to shape and reinforce critical behaviors. The trainers do not use the word “no,” and choke chain collars are never employed.

The dogs help to choose their human partners and are placed with them at two years of age. Some of ADW’s dogs are with their people for life; others work in facilities, such as children’s advocacy centers or with district attorney’s offices, spending their lives with their handlers in homes carefully screened by the organization before placement.

Like all of ADW’s training programs, the focus at the Puppy Enrichment Center is on the dogs’ mental, physical and emotional well being, all of which are important to the eventual heartfelt relationships they will forge with their people. They are truly four-legged solutions to human challenges. Come see for yourself.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
The Professor Paws Project
A “Dog-torate” in Occupational Therapy

Niko may very well be more popular than any Big Man on Campus has ever been. He’s not that big, and he’s actually not a man, but this Labrador Retriever spends far more time in college classrooms than most students, and he is adored. Niko is trained as a service dog, and is a key member of the Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. The goal of this program is to help students in the occupational therapy program, healthcare professionals and members of the community learn about service dogs.

The world of service dogs is filled with information that is not common knowledge. Because people are not aware of all the ways that service dogs can, well, be of service, many people are missing out on additional ways to live independently and in fully satisfying ways. More education is part of the solution.

Not very many people know all the ways that service dogs can help people with disabilities, or the proper etiquette to observe around a service dog. Fewer still are familiar with what protections the law offers to service dogs and their people. This lack of knowledge usually means that people may behave in ways that are annoying or unhelpful in the presence of a service dog. For occupational therapists, such gaps in their knowledge could mean doing their jobs less effectively. Service dogs are often underutilized in plans to help a person achieve independence and improve their higher quality of life. The Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa aims to change that. With Niko’s help, professors at OU-Tulsa are able to educate students about service dogs with practical, interactive hands-on experience and demonstrations.

By teaching students and other members of the community about service dogs, Niko helps reduce the barriers faced by people who need and work with service dogs every day, and that means that people’s lives are enhanced by the program. Over 500 people receive education each year through the Professor Paws Project, which was developed by Assistant Professor Mary Isaacson. To honor this contribution to the community, the City of Tulsa has just designated May 9, 2017 as “Professor Paws Day”. On that day, Niko will officially walk in the graduation ceremonies. (Think of it as Niko receiving his “Dog-torate”.)

Niko is not the first service dog to be involved with the education of occupational therapy students at OU-Tulsa. Before Isaacson trained Niko, she trained a service dog named Samson, and began incorporating him into her classroom instruction. Samson regularly attended classes, which allowed her to demonstrate the specific ways that a service dog can have an impact on a person’s daily life. Whether it is opening the fridge, retrieving dropped items, helping remove someone’s socks, or turning lights on and off, students were able to see what a difference such assistance can make to a person with a disability.

After training, Samson was placed with a high school student with cerebral palsy. That was 6 years ago, and now Samson lives on a college campus and continues to assist the same person. Having Samson participate in classes during his training and before his placement was so beneficial to students that people recognized the value of having a dog present on campus permanently.

As a result, the goal all along for Niko has been different than for Samson. Rather than being placed with someone as a service dog or working directly with patients, Niko will remain at OU-Tulsa in order to continue educating people about service dogs. As far as staff at the university know, the Professor Paws Project is the only program of its kind. However, its success suggests that this might not be true for long.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog Behavior: Beware of Simple Names for Complex Problems
Dog Training / Dog Behavior

During their first appointment, my clients told me that their dog had “severe territorial aggression,” and that they had been advised to euthanize him. I looked at the wide-eyed and quaking Hound mix hiding under a chair and had a strong suspicion that the label given to this dog was far from accurate.

As it turned out, the dog was actually terrified of strangers. Not only was his problematic behavior based in fear and totally unrelated to any concept of territory, he had never hurt anyone. He whined, barked and showed his teeth to anyone he didn’t know who got too close to him, giving them an awful scare, but even when people tried to pet him (unwise, but it happened!), he didn’t bite.

Over the years, situations like this have made me increasingly disillusioned about the labels that are so often applied to dogs’ behavior problems. I find that labeling often does more harm than good, especially when the label is wrong.

It’s not surprising that we want to label dogs’ behavior issues: it matches the system we use for people. In the realm of human health care, labels are necessary because billing codes are required for insurance coverage of both treatment and medications.

Having a label for a dog’s behavior problem may also make it easier for us to access information and resources. Learning that it is a known syndrome or problem often makes us feel better even before there’s any discussion about what to do to improve the behavior. It’s a natural human tendency—just naming a problem can give us a sense of control over it. But sadly, mislabeling interferes with arriving at an appropriate response to the problem, whatever the problem turns out to be.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to labeling behavior problems is that it provides a verbal shorthand that speeds up communication. There’s an appealing simplicity to using a short phrase or two to identify a dog’s issue rather than going into great detail about each incident, especially when many people are involved. (It’s not unusual for an evaluation team to include a behaviorist, a veterinarian and a trainer, as well as other experts.)

On the other hand, describing the behavior in detail lends an accuracy to the situation that labels sometime obscure.

For example, every year, multiple clients seek my help with separation anxiety because they have been told (erroneously) that their dog suffers from it. The dog may be showing behaviors often associated with separation anxiety —including excessive barking, eliminating indoors or destructive chewing—but the real problem can often be revealed with a thorough description of the dog’s behavior before, during and after the guardian’s departure.

When the real issue is boredom, incomplete house training or a simple (which is not to say easy!) case of adolescence, changing the undesirable behavior by approaching it as a case of separation anxiety is unlikely to be successful. Rather than medication and complex protocols to desensitize the dog to departures and the cues that precede them, the real solution could be to add activities and enrichment opportunities, return to Housetraining 101 or provide a long exercise session before putting the dog in a crate with appropriate, long lasting chewables.

It is also common for people to consult with me because their dog is “protective” of them. Lila brought in Banjo because every time anyone got near Lila, Banjo barked, growled and lunged. Lila was concerned that he would hurt someone, but delighted by his bold confidence. Trouble was, after taking a case history and observing Banjo in a variety of contexts, I could tell that he was not protecting her so much as he was possessing her. He guarded toys, food, sleeping spaces and anything he considered of value, including Lila. He was not her brave protector, but an insecure dog who considered her to be the best bone in the world, and he was not going to let someone else have her. Mislabeling Banjo’s behavior as “protectiveness” rather than of “possessiveness” hindered attempts to change this behavior, and interfered with Lila’s understanding of who Banjo was.

Another negative of labeling behavior problems is that it oversimplifies the situation. If a dog is called a “fear biter” or even labeled with the more professional sounding “fear-based aggression,” it implies a simplicity that is just not there. Even among the many dogs whose fear drives aggressive behavior, differences are enormous. Dealing with a dog who is afraid of red-headed children (and therefore reacts badly when in the presence of one) because he was once traumatized by an attack from such a child requires a very targeted approach to overcoming that fear. Modifying such a specific behavior is different than working with dogs who are afraid of everything; dogs who missed out on socialization early on but are great with familiar people; or even dogs who panic and bite as a reaction to loud noises such as gun shots, fireworks or the crash of pot hitting a tile floor.

A related drawback of labeling behavior problems is that the label implies a solution, again, much like the human medical model, in which a diagnosis necessarily points to a specific treatment. Boxed-in thinking about how to change undesirable behavior can short circuit continued investigation. Using the label “arousal-based aggression” gives the impression that the situation is thoroughly understood and that all that is needed is an appropriate behavior modification program, one that emphasizes predictability and includes exercises to help the dog learn to practice self-control. However, that label may mask the dog’s anxiety and the need for intervention to address it.

Then, there’s the issue of shame; giving a dog’s problem a label makes it seem more serious and alarming to many guardians and may also make them feel unnecessarily ashamed of their dog’s behavior. That’s especially true of any label that includes the word “aggressive,” which carries such a stigma. It’s too bad that a stigma exists, but since it does, it makes sense to be mindful of it when discussing dogs’ behavior with their guardians. People are often devastated to be told that their dog is aggressive, especially if the dog is sweet and loving within the family. It can be even harder for a family whose dog is behaving out of character due to an injury or other physical ailment to accept a label of “aggression.” If the dog is in such pain that the problem behavior is just the dog’s attempt to keep people from touching him because he has learned it will hurt, I would rather say that— even if it is long and a little unwieldy—than call the dog aggressive. Even if it is modified by the term “pain-induced,” the word makes people feel bad, and that’s not helpful.

It’s common for people who are told that their dog is “fear aggressive” to be more daunted and overwhelmed than if they are told that their dog is fearful, and is acting the way he does because he can’t say, “Please, oh please, don’t come any closer—you’re scaring me! And for heaven’s sake, don’t pet me because I can’t handle that except from my closest friends.” If people understand that dogs are barking, growling or biting because they are desperate to increase the distance between themselves and whatever scares them—other dogs, people, trash cans, bicycles—and will only stop if we can help them overcome their fears, there’s less judgment and more hope. Focusing on the behavior itself— what the dog does—and discussing the motivation behind it avoids problems that can arise with simply labeling the behavior.

I recently consulted with a family whose dog was a victim of a labeling error that had hindered their ability to help him. This family’s sweet, three-year-old Newfoundland was urinating inside the home and because their veterinarian could find no medical reason for it, she had referred them to me to handle the “housetraining” problem. One complication with this particular label is that there is no agreement across disciplines about what it means. To many people, house soiling without a medical cause is always related to housetraining, but behaviorists recognize that many issues involving urination indoors can be signs of appeasement behavior or a need to mark territory, among other possibilities.

It was a challenge to get contextual information from the family about the problem because they just kept saying, “He pees everywhere, and it’s such a mess!” and then detailing the clean-up, which was no doubt considerable given that the dog weighed 125 pounds. With persistent inquiry, however, I was finally able to get a fuller picture; it turned out not to be a housetraining problem after all. The dog’s housetraining was solid, but he peed during greetings. As a puppy, he urinated whenever he greeted anyone, but now he only did it when greeting the husband or the occasional male visitor, especially if the visitor reached for the dog.

Recognizing that the inappropriate urination was a specific type of social issue (often called “submissive urination” and somewhat unusual in dogs older than 12 to 18 months of age) rather than one of bladder control— or not knowing or caring where it was appropriate to eliminate— made it easier to address the real issue: the husband’s approach to his sensitive dog. Though he thought he was doing right by his dog by being firm and applying stern, consistent discipline, he was open to a new approach. I was able to help the family by teaching the husband kinder, gentler and more effective ways to interact with his dog and influence the dog’s behavior. As a result, the dog stopped urinating in the house. No program designed to solve a housetraining problem would have achieved this result, which had the added benefit of improving the overall family dynamic as well.

The temptation to put a name on a problem is strong, and many of us are quick to embrace it. However, while labeling seems like an intuitively obvious approach, the downsides are too important and too numerous for me to be on board with it. Labels can get in the way of seeing the dog, focusing our attention on a pathology and turning the dog into an example of a specific behavior problem rather than what he or she actually is: a complex individual and a unique case.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How To Get Your Dog’s Attention

Having your dog’s attention is one of the most important and underrated aspects of positive dog training. It’s obvious when you think about it – how can you train your dog, if your dog doesn’t pay attention to you? Luckily, we’ve come up with three simple and fun exercises designed to help get your dog’s attention, making training your dog a little easier.

 

TEACHING YOUR DOG TO BE A GOOD STUDENT

Training your dog to pay attention teaches them to be a good student, ensuring that they will sit quietly and wait for instructions – once these foundations are in place, training your dog will become a great deal easier. Later on, we will cover two of the best attention exercises available, which are centred on being a good student, paying attention and awaiting instructions.

Although it is often underemphasised by dog training experts, ensuring your dog is capable of paying attention is one of the core principles in positive reinforcement training, and an absolutely necessity if you are to ensure your training is a success. This post aims to rectify this issue, by providing you with the mind-set and training exercises required to train your dog to be pay attention – eventually leaving you with a happy, well-trained and trusting member of the family! 

 

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE YOUR DOG’S ATTENTION?

The easiest way to see if your dog is paying attention to you is to observe whether or not he is looking at you and following everything you do closely. Once you have an attentive dog, this will be very obvious, especially to other family members or friends, who will note that your dog seems to follow you around and work for your attention – particularly at feeding time!

However, it is worth remembering that some dogs are discrete – they might not seem interested in where you are or what you’re up to, but the moment you disappear, they’ll appear right next to you – my dog can even be upstairs while I’m working downstairs, but the moment he can no longer hear the sound of me typing on my computer, he’ll come down to check that I haven’t nipped out without him. This is attention in a nutshell - when your dog is aware of your movements and what you are doing at any time of day.

 

IS HAVING YOUR DOG’S ATTENTION REALLY NECESSARY?

You might wonder if all this talk about attention is overrated – this outlook is typical of more traditional or ‘old school’ trainers, who believe you can get better results by forcing your dog to pay attention when you demand it. In my experience, though, this approach doesn’t work anywhere near as well – there’s a notable difference between a dog who focuses on you because he has to, and one who focuses on you because he wants to please you. The goal of this post is to help you reach a point where your dog is focused on pleasing you, as this is the easiest way of training him successfully.

 

 

DON'T TAKE YOUR DOG'S ATTENTION FOR GRANTED

In my experience, dog owners take a lot of things for granted – too many, in fact. When a dog first comes into the home, he relies on us completely, and we have his full attention at all times. After a few weeks, however, your dog will relax into the environment and encounter new, fresh and exciting experiences which are more interesting than you – and that’s not good news for your relationship, particularly where training is concerned. By remaining at the centre of your dog’s world, you’ll not only enjoy a stronger bond with your dog, but stand a much better chance of being able to train him successfully.

So how do we accomplish this? With consistent training – every day, all year. By making training a habit, you’ll make it second nature for both you and your dog, ensuring you’ll have the basics – sit, come here, down etc. - covered quickly and efficiently, allowing you to move onto more complicated routines.

Now that we understand what it means to have your dog’s attention and why having your dog’s attention is so important, we can move onto the frameworks we use for teaching attention, along with a few simple exercises you can undertake to ensure your dog is always paying attention to you.

 

YOUR DOG KNOW WHEN YOU'RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION

First things first - when training your dog to pay attention to you, you have to really be present with your dog, not just physically but mentally; remember, your dog can feel you! He knows when you’re sad and when you’re happy, and certainly knows when you are lying and when you are not. By taking an active role in training your dog, you can make the framework very simple, rewarding your dog not only with treats but praise and happiness. Here are three of my favourite ways to train your dog to pay attention to you:

 

DOG ATTENTION EXERCISE #1 – EYE CONTACT

The first exercise is based around eye contact, and is the exercise that teaches your dog to sit quietly and pay attention to the teacher. Grab some treats and then sit beside your dog, waiting for them to look at you. This requires a bit of patience the first time you train this, but hang in there – it’s worth the wait! Once your dog lifts its eyes to meet yours, praise them warmly (or use your clicker) and reward your dog with his favorite treat. Then simply keep still and wait for them to meet your gaze again - keep doing this until your dog understands that he will be rewarded for looking into your eyes, and he will be more than happy to do it whenever necessary.

 

 DOG ATTENTION EXERCISE #2 – HAND TARGETING

Sometimes, you’ll need get your dog’s attention in order to protect them from something that might harm, scare or upset them. Occasionally dogs will become fearful and, naturally, will look to either run away or attack – neither of which are desirable outcomes. However, it is possible to interrupt this natural response by training your dog to keep attention on you even in stressful situations. Try putting your hand in front of your dog’s face, the palm of your hand right in front his nose. Say nothing, as it is important that your dog learns to make these associations for himself. Once your dog touches the palm of your hand, give him a reward in the form of praise or a treat. Repeat this exercise, and eventually your dog will come to understand that when your hand is down, he can receive a reward by touching it – and while he’s focused on you, he will be unable to focus on whatever might be scaring him, allowing you to avoid conflict with others and protecting him from harm!

See the below video for an example of how to do this.

 

DOG ATTENTION EXERCISE #3 – IMPULSE CONTROL

This exercise is called impulse control, and is really more of a concept that an exercise, because there are so many variations to work with.

Once your dog knows that he should be looking at you (see exercise #1) you can use this when training him. For example, you can ‘drop’ something from the kitchen table and if your dog tries to grab it, simply cover it with your foot. When your dog then sits and eventually looks at you, make sure to praise him and then allow him to eat the dropped food. Once more, your dog will learn to associate looking at you with praise and a reward – and over time will begin to realise that everything he wants can be channelled through you. As far as your dog is concerned, you are the origin of everything that is good in life. Clever, right?  See the following video for more information.

 

As you can see from the video above, treats are often used as a reward for behaviour we wish to encourage. With this in mind, I usually retain around half of my dog’s rations, which I distribute throughout the day during training sessions. If treats are not withheld, your dog will either lose motivation to be rewarded or simply end up overweight – by rationing them and associating them with good behaviour, you can ensure your dog is healthy and well-behaved.

In summary, the most important, fundamental principle of dog training is attention – both your dog’s and your own. This element of training is sadly underutilised by most dog training experts, so make sure you don’t make the same mistake – ensure your dog associates paying you attention with rewards and praise, and you can ensure your training exercises are easy and successful. Good luck with your training!

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Who’s the Real Winner?
Dog makes the most of opportunity

Coming when called and ignoring anything interesting along the way is a challenge for dogs. Two dogs in this video succeed, running right to their guardians even though there are so many exciting distractions. The third dog? Well, he has a glorious time even if he doesn’t do what his guardian wanted.

It’s fair to say that he needs more training to fully master the task. Dogs who succeed with this much temptation have likely had extensive training in similar situations, although the occasional dog is so gifted at recalls that this task is not as challenging as for the rest of the dogs on the planet. For the sweet dog in this video who is clearly not one of those “gifted at recalls” dogs, the incident in the video is a huge training setback. Potentially, it was an opportunity to learn that ignoring all the goodies and going directly to his guardian is the way to “win” because he gets to play or receive something of great value. Instead, he learned that there is a lot of great stuff to be had along the route and that being a “stop and smell the roses” kind of guy is a great strategy for getting the most out of life.

I find it endearing that nobody becomes upset with the dog. His guardian simply goes closer to him with a toy to influence his behavior so that he does (eventually) come to her. Everyone remains cheerful despite the dog’s epic failure, and nobody is more delighted than the dog.

Dog's Life: Humane
A Dog’s Purpose
Training of dogs for movie under scrutiny

The movie “A Dog’s Purpose” is suffering what can only be called a PR disaster after footage has surfaced showing unacceptable treatment of one of the dogs during filming. In response to the treatment of the dog, many people have vowed to boycott the film, which will be released next week.

In the clip that is causing the controversy, a German Shepherd is being forced into turbulent water to film a scene in which the dog rescues a child from drowning. The dog is being physically pushed into the water despite clearly resisting, and even climbing back out using the side of the pool and the trainer as footholds. The dog looks panicked, and is making obvious efforts to avoid being tossed in the water, even clawing at the edge. You can hear someone say, “Don’t worry, it’s warm water at least,” and “He ain’t gonna calm down till he goes in the water” and “You just gotta throw him in,” all of which show complete disregard to the well-being of the dog, who is truly terrified. At one point, you hear someone say, “I think he wants to go in,” which is clearly wishful thinking. The next thing you hear is the more truthful, “He wants to get away! Just throw him in,” which is exactly what happens, to the chagrin of most viewers. Once he is in, he goes under, and it turns frantic on set. You can hear someone yelling, “Cut it, cut it!” and people are running towards the submerged dog.

The one bright spot in this clip is the boy in the water, who about halfway through is calling out cheerily, “Here boy, here boy” at which point the dog looks calmer and more relaxed than at any other point in the 60 seconds of footage. Additionally, it is this child who rushed first and fastest to the dog when he is submerged. I don’t see evidence that the filmmakers are concerned enough about the safety and feelings of the dog, but the child actor is, and I give him credit for that.

The American Humane Association (AHA) is responsible for the No Animals Were Harmed program, which is supposed to insure the well-being of animal actors on set. However, they have a history of ignoring poor treatment of animals during moviemaking. In response to this recent controversy, the AHA has suspended the safety representative who was on set that day and say they will investigate the incident.

The behavior of entering turbulent water in the chaotic situation associated with making a film needed to be approached step-by-step so that the dog was trained to do this ahead of filming. It would take a lot of work and a considerable amount of time to help almost any dog feel comfortable in this situation, and based on this clip, that investment was not made, and it is the dog who suffered. Another option if a dog is unable to handle the scene without distress would be to use a stunt double—a dog who is more comfortable with water.

What’s your take on the treatment of the dog during the filming of this scene?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Don’t Let Others Spoil Your Dog’s Training
Protect the Cue

No matter how much work you put into training your dog, it often seems like there’s an army of folks conspiring against you, determined to derail your efforts. Maybe Uncle Ian loves to roughhouse with your dog, or perhaps your daughter’s best friend encourages him to jump up on her every time she visits. It could be that your dog-sitter forgets to give him a treat if he comes when called, or your neighbor thinks it’s hysterically funny to chase your dog when he steals a sock and runs away.

Out of necessity, I have developed defensive strategies to prevent other people from wrecking both my own and my clients’ best-laid training plans.

Training dogs is simple in theory but complex in practice. The goal is to teach a dog to perform various behaviors on cue, so that when we ask a dog to “sit,” the dog’s behind hits the ground, and when we say “come,” he runs to us without hesitating. All we have to do is to teach the dog what those cues mean and make it worth his while to comply, but the details of how to do that are anything but straightforward.

Complexity enters the picture in so many ways, including: How to teach the dog the behavior (shaping, luring, capturing). How to reinforce the dog (using a primary reinforcer such as a treat, belly rub, game of tug or new chew toy versus a secondary reinforcer like a click or a cue for a favorite behavior). Proofing the dog to be able to respond to a cue in a variety of situations (including distractions up to the level of “squirrel”). The trainer’s skills and expertise (timing of the reinforcement, length of training sessions and when to stop them, the order and speed of progression through each step in the process).

On top of all those challenges, other people can mess with our cues, and this can cause them to lose meaning, change meaning or be weakened—to break the association we have built in our dog’s mind between the cue and the desired behavior. People sometimes even create new cues that promote undesirable behavior. Luckily, there are many ways to prevent other people from hijacking a dog’s training cues.

The Poisoned Cue

It takes a lot of consistent work over many months to teach a dog a totally reliable recall—to come when called every single time. I like to think that for a well-trained dog, the cue “come!” means “Whatever I’ve got here, she’s got something better over there.” In actual practice, that level of perfection—the dog always receives something so wonderful that he is glad he came when he was called—is hard to achieve, but the goal is to be as close as possible.

Many of us achieve a good recall with cues we don’t intentionally use. For example, lots of dogs come every time they hear the crinkle of a bag of treats or see us pick up the leash. To most dogs, those actions are linked with getting treats and going for a walk because of the exceptionally strong association between the cue and what follows.

From the dog’s point of view, the spoken command “come!” rarely predicts something so reliably great. This is partly because we’re up against other people who call our dogs-in-training to come and don’t reinforce them when they do so. Luckily, you can usually swamp these occasional “oops” moments with plenty of better experiences.

The real recall-killer, however, is calling a dog to come and then doing something that is aversive rather than reinforcing. When a dog associates a cue with something bad, the cue has been poisoned, and the dog will resist responding to it. So, if a dog runs to a groomer who called him to “come” and then clips his nails and gives him a bath—both of which he hates—the cue is being poisoned. The aversive can be something obviously bad (being yelled at) as well as something less obviously negative (the end of play time).

A cue is rarely poisoned by just one or even a few misuses, but repeated bad experiences are a different story. Because it’s difficult to fix a poisoned cue, the best option is to change it. Yes, it’s possible to reverse the dog’s negative association with a cue, but it’s less work to build a new association. For example, “here!” or “this way!” are good alternatives to “come.”

Teach a New Response

Years ago, I lived in an old farmhouse while it was being renovated, so workers were in the house with my dog, Bugsy, while I was at work. I knew and trusted these men, and wasn’t worried about his safety and well being. In fact, they loved my dog so much that their enthusiasm became a problem.

Each time they arrived, there were effusive greetings all around, which included encouraging Bugsy to jump up on them. He was a big dog and they got a kick out of how close he was to their height when he was on his back legs with his front paws on their chest. The problem was that I didn’t want my dog’s front paws on anybody’s chest. In fact, after I adopted Bugsy, I spent months “de-jumping” him—teaching him not to jump up like that.

A week into the remodel, I came home to a dog who jumped on me with great joy and enthusiasm. Though I was, of course, pleased to see him, the joy and enthusiasm were all his. I was totally joyless and unenthusiastic about the return of this behavior; among other things, I was concerned about him knocking over a child or my frail elderly neighbor, or upsetting people who like to keep their clothes free of dog prints.

Also, as a professional dog trainer who referred to Bugsy as “the best résumé I’ve ever had,” I saw a lot of awkwardness in my future. If he jumped on people during public appearances or when I was using him as a demonstration dog in group classes, I was going to look foolish. Immediate action was necessary. My first strategy—asking the guys not to encourage Bugsy to jump up on them and explaining the reasons why—had no effect.

After observing that the men patted their chests to encourage Bugsy, I came up with a solution. I taught Bugsy to sit whenever people patted their chests. In other words, I wrecked the workers’ ability to invite him to jump up by making that action a cue to sit. After a few weeks, my efforts paid off. A fellow who had just started working with the crew told me that he tried to get my dog to jump up, patting his chest as he told me this, but that the silly mutt couldn’t seem to figure it out. He actually implied that maybe my dog was stupid because he sat instead. (It’s not my dog who can’t figure out what’s going on, I thought, with considerable satisfaction.)

To prevent the workers from finding another way to invite Bugsy to jump up, I showed them how to cue him to shake, wave or high-five after he sat to greet them. Luckily, they found these tricks more entertaining than having him put his paws on their chests, so I didn’t have further problems.

Unique Cues

When it comes to a defensive strategy, choosing atypical cues has an upside. If your cues are standard (“sit,” “heel,” “down,” “come”) and you use “okay” as a release for “stay” and “leave it,” then your dog is more vulnerable to training sabotage from other people. Someone can poison the cue or make it irrelevant by saying it endlessly even when the dog is clearly not going to respond. This often happens with “come” and also with “drop it,” which many people say to a dog who is holding something in his mouth. The result is that the dog learns that those sounds are meaningless, making it harder to teach him to respond to them appropriately in the future.

If you use unusual cues, or words in a foreign language, you protect yourself and your dog from these problems. How likely are most of us to come across people who try to communicate with our dogs using the Dutch “af,” meaning “down,” the French “ici” for “come” or the Czech “zustan” for “stay”? Avoiding the release word “okay” in favor of the less-common “free” or even a random choice such as “jailbreak!” or “all done” prevents interference from other people.

Be Proactive

Specific defensive strategies are useful, but none are as effective as taking charge of the situation and doing everything you can to be assertive about what happens around your dog. Few people are skilled in dog training, but for the most part, they mean no harm. (If someone is purposely wrecking your dog’s training, they don’t deserve to be around either of you.) Most people will do the right thing with some direction, and that can prevent them from causing training trouble.

So, manage the situation. That may mean preventing access to your dog, especially in your absence. It can also mean saying in a straightforward way, “He came when he was called, so give him this stuffed Kong,” as you hand it over.

If someone is encouraging your dog to steal things and play keep-away, tell them exactly what to do instead, and why: “This will teach him to make a game of stealing things, and I don’t want that. Instead, let’s encourage him to trade that sock for a handful of treats.”

If someone is playing rough with your dog, tell them, “He’s not allowed to play that way because he gets too excited and starts biting, but here’s a tug toy that he will like playing with even more.” If that fails to change the person’s behavior, you can intervene by enticing your dog into a game of tug with you, or by saying, “When he gets overly aroused like this, I put him in his crate with something to chew on so he can calm down,” and then do exactly that.

Dog training would be tricky enough if we could do it in our own bubble with no interference from anyone else. As it happens, we do it in the real world where all kinds of unplanned challenges crop up. As frustrating as this can be, there are ways to counteract the actions of these would-be spoilers. Ultimately, we are each responsible for training our dogs and protecting them from setbacks in that training—any way we can.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Tension & Teamwork in Dog Training
Understanding the role tension plays in relationships.

We were in an open hayfield in the middle of a training exercise with one of many young bird dogs when John, my boss, asked me, “What is tension?” When I looked at him quizzically, he said, “There was no tension between you and your dog.”

Though I’ve been around bird dogs and mounted field trials for almost seven years now, I still have much to learn. Because it was my first time as a handler during this part of the training process, my own tension level was initially pretty high.

Earlier, I had consciously tried to let go of the concern that I would make a fool of myself and, by association, of my dog. Mostly, though, I was mentally and physically tense because I knew how crucial it was to get my timing right. I’m fine with being a beginner, I’m even fine with making a fool of myself. What I’m not so fine with is the idea that after three years of gradually developing my good dog, I could potentially screw her up in a matter of weeks.

Young bird dogs are taken through a process that transitions them from their puppy days of chasing birds to their lives as functional and valuable hunting partners. Against their every well-honed instinct, they learn that only humans are allowed to go after the bird once they’ve pointed it.

The classic Pointer pose (one leg tucked up so high that it’s almost under the dog’s chin) doesn’t always happen. I’ve seen dogs stop stalking with a back leg off the ground as the scent of the bird hits their nose, or point with no foot-lifting at all. A point is simply a stalk turned into a stop, and it’s instinctive—tiny bird-dog puppies point.

Eventually, puppies and untrained older dogs become overexcited by the prospect of the feathered snack in front of them and pounce, which flushes the bird. If they let us go first, we may bag the bird for them. Of course, they don’t know the whole picture as they go through their training milestones. They experience each stage as it happens and, just like us when faced with change, they may seek a way out of the tension. This is when tension can become fear if allowed to go unchecked.

We slowly but surely bring them through the concerns they have about human involvement in their hunting “game.” To be fair and consistent with the dogs, we do our yard work well ahead of time so that they already know commands like “whoa,” “heel” and “come.” The big trick is to teach them to combine this obedience training with the thing they most want to do. Even the best-trained dog can want something a little too much.

A single badly timed cue or jarring interruption at this vital stage can cause juvenile dogs to catastrophically misunderstand the situation. If too much pressure is applied, or if they are expected to take in too much information too quickly, they can develop some truly unnatural habits. For example, they can learn to avoid birds when humans are present, an issue we call “blinking.” Once dogs start down the path of fear, it takes a lot of skill to bring back their desire to hunt.

During our initial exercise, my dog did nothing wrong. I don’t mean she was flawless, but her mistakes were down to this being her first real test of specialized skills and to my own inexperience. However, it was obvious that she was strangely detached from the situation; she appeared to be almost bored. I wondered if her lackluster demeanor stemmed from her desire to do the real thing—to go out in the field and hunt and chase birds—rather than what we were offering her. We worked with her a little more that day and some of her enthusiasm came back, but still not to a level I would have liked to have seen.

I wasn’t disappointed, but I was confused. Hence, John’s question. My initial gut reaction was that tension was a negative thing. I mentally flicked through a litany of anxious scenarios I’ve faced in life, not least of which was how to figure out the “correct” answer to the situation in front of me. Eventually, I came to the following conclusion: in order for dogs to remain quiveringly eager to hunt birds when the rules change, we have to instill in them a sense of urgency as well as the paradoxical need for compliance and cooperation—in other words, a very specific and productive type of tension.

The tension between handler and dog is a symbiosis of a sort that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere. In the moment, the dog is intensely focused on the scent, so much so that you can tell if a bird moves by the swivel of the dog’s head or the flick of his eyes. His nostrils flare to catch the smallest scent molecule, and his tightly contained excitement is palpable. He is the epitome of tense but he is also very still at his core, driven by a primal desire but knowing that his best chance to fulfill it is to work as part of a team.

Because I have a great desire to train these dogs, I have to go through the fear of tension to a place of understanding— even if the understanding is that I could potentially screw up my good dog. I’m excited about exploring these aspects of tension because I recognize that tension turned to fear is of very little use unless you’re in a dangerous situation, and even then, it’s a quick-burning fuel.

Which brings to mind a term used in Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy: “dynamic stillness,” which I interpret as potency stored, like lightning in a jar, ready to be unleashed in the transformation of compression to kinetic energy. When a great bird dog points, it feels exactly like that to me. The human handler needs to get on the same energetic wavelength, or get out of the way.

As I watch dogs learn to trust what they’re being asked to do, even if they don’t understand it, I see light-bulb moments. Rather than backing off the level of tension, we help the dogs find better ways to handle it, and their intensity grows proportionally with their confidence level. I have always learned a lot from dogs, but this might be the biggest lesson yet. What is tension? Tension is wanting and yet waiting in the moment. It’s a powerful place to be.

This essay was adapted from a version that first appeared on the Good Men Project website.

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