Dominance and the Pet Dog

Dominance in the pet dog has become a common topic of discussion in just about every training session I conduct. Nervous and fearful owners confide in me “My dog is dominant” and then they timidly ask: “How do I dominate my dog?”. The more confident few even ask: “How do I teach my dog that my child is dominant?”.

Over the years I have heard just about every behavior you can think of attributed to dominance. From unruly behavior like jumping up on people or eating poop, to mounting, dominance is thought to be the root of all bad behavior. Just Google dominance in dogs and you will find a treasure trove of misguided information on the subject. I found one site that listed 28 behaviors that were attributed to dominance. The most disturbing reference I saw was on a popular TV dog training program. The trainer was working with a dog who obsessively chased a laser light. His explanation? The dog was trying to dominate the light!

Unfortunately, these ‘explanations’ are offered to the general public by animal professionals who should know better. Most of this I believe, is that the use of the word dominance, although misconstrued, has been in use for so long, people take it as fact. They have not taken the time to fully research canine behavior and as a result continue to perpetuate false and potentially harmful information.

Dominance is a broad term that has many vague definitions, as you will find out if you research it. Biologists, Ethologists and Animal Behaviorists however, refer to dominance as a competitive series of encounters, that use force, intimidation or aggression to gain access to a priority resource (food, space, opposite sex). Through these series of encounters, the individual who triumphs most frequently can be considered dominant at that time. However, that role can change quickly depending on the fitness level or motivation of the individuals involved. It is not a constant state. In reality, the outcomes will vary greatly over time.

It is important to point out that dominance is not a personality trait. It is instead, the attribute of a relationship. When someone is told that their dog is dominant, an adversarial relationship is immediately formed. In response the owner attempts to control the dog with physical force or intimidation.

Equally important is that aggression does not equal dominance. Although dominance aggression, where the dog challenges his owners over resources, does exist, it is in fact, extremely rare. Most behavior cases have nothing at all to do with dominance and the dogs that are frequently labeled as dominant, are reacting out of fear. Dogs that are afraid will act defensive in an attempt to try and scare a potential threat away. It is not hard to recognize that major problems will arise when a fearful animal is treated like a dominant one. Using forceful methods to make him ‘submit’ will only make fear-based behaviors worse. This is the saddest fact and the one that troubles me most.
Dogs that are unruly, misbehave or are unmanageable are not trying to dominate their owners by attempting to control a situation, they are simply untrained. You needn’t walk out of the door before your dog to prove that you are ‘dominant’. However, teaching your dog to wait at the door until released will make life more pleasant for both of you, not to mention safer. Many of the behaviors that are commonly attributed to ‘dominance’ are normal dog behaviors that have been inadvertently reinforced by well-meaning humans.

The issue is of such importance that The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior issued a position statement on the use of dominance theory for behavior modification of animals. They emphasize that Veterinarians specializing in behavior should not use dominance theory as a general guide for behavior modification. Additionally, they recommend that Veterinarians “refer clients only to trainers and behavior consultants who understand the principles of learning theory and who focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors and removing the reinforcement for undesirable behaviors.”

The truth, for all the dog owners who want to ask about dominance, is that you don’t have to dominate your dog. Dogs don’t know what humans think is acceptable behavior. Only through training can dogs learn what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable. Dogs do need consistent and clear rules, mental stimulation and physical exercise to be able to learn well and adapt to a human world. All this is accomplished by being an effective teacher for your dog. Teachers can choose to use force and intimidation or motivation and reward. By using positive reinforcement methods, you will avoid the pitfalls of force-based techniques and build a bond that will last a lifetime with your dog.

So, what’s in a name?

One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed over the years in training dogs is how the names of dogs have changed. I remember when dogs used to be named Buddy and Bowser, Rex and Rover or even names that focused on their appearance like Rags and Patches. In the last 10 years however, there has been a shift away from those traditional names. Now my class roster is full of names like Chloe, Abby, Allison, Oliver, Harry, and Charlie! And those aren’t the owner’s names either!

This is a wonderful trend and one that I think can be attributed to the fact the people are considering dogs as members of the family. Things can only improve for dogs as their status changes from family ‘pet’, to ‘family’.

Whatever you name your dog, there are a few things to consider. First and foremost your dog’s name should always mean that you need their attention. Just like when we call out to our human friends, the polite response should be a turn to look and make eye contact. A name simply means, ‘I need your attention’. It doesn’t mean ‘come’. In fact, using it to mean come can actually be dangerous. Imagine your dog has gotten away from you. You see him across the street and say his name. He hears it and dashes across the street! Yikes! If the name just means look at me, he will look up and then you can ask for a ‘sit’ or even a ‘down’ to keep him in place until you can reach him.

Your dog’s name should always have a positive connotation. As humans, we tend to use dog’s names when we are exasperated with their behavior. ‘Jake! Get your head out of the trash!’. After a few of these, your dog will start to cringe when you call his name and even stop responding altogether. That won’t be helpful when you want him to do something you ask. Instead, say his name sweetly and when he makes eye contact, follow it up with something he really likes, a toss of his favorite toy, a trip to the cookie jar, a belly rub or some sweet talk.

It is important to remember not to overuse the name either. It is not necessary to repeat your dog’s name before every command if you already have his attention. Remember, the name means ‘look at me’ so if he is already attentive, there is no need to belabor the point. If you say your dog’s name and he doesn’t look at you, don’t continue to repeat the name endlessly that will just turn his name into white noise! Instead, wait for him to look at you while at the same time preventing him from doing anything else such as walking away or sniffing at something on the ground.

The most important thing to remember is to reward the free attention your dog gives you! There will be many times when your dog will look to you in a ‘did you see that?’ way. Use that to your advantage! Be aware when you are with your dog and reward/praise when he looks to you for direction. You can never have too much attention!

A good name response is the foundation for everything else that you will ever train your dog to do! You must be able to get your dog’s attention before he can respond to your direction. Once you have a dog who attends to your call, training will most definitely be easier!

The Economics of Energy

All dogs have energy but adolescent dogs have TONS!  I bet you already knew this!

Dogs must burn off all that energy either physically or mentally, specifically through their feet, mouths or brains.  When a dog isn’t stimulated in each of these areas daily and in an appropriate way, the energy will be expended in inappropriate ways.  It is a simple case of supply and demand.  Here are some suggestions on how to provide creative ‘demand’ for your dog’s seemingly endless supplies of energy!

  1. Feet (physical) – They need to RUN!  Walking, no matter how long or how far, just won’t cut it.  They really need some good cardio activity where they can burn off steam! Play fetch! Play chase! Get them swimming! Practice long-distance recalls! When their physical energy isn’t expended properly, your dog will move to the next form of physical exercise – using his mouth.  If your dog is gnawing on you or your furniture, it is a safe bet that they haven’t had enough exercise.
  2. Mouths (physical) – They need to CHEW!!!  Giving your dog appropriate chew toys like Kongs, bones, food puzzle toys, and the opportunity to play tug will help to direct their excess energy to an appropriate activity. Yes, I said ‘tug’.  This is a natural activity for dogs and gives them something to use their mouths on.  If your dog doesn’t get enough of the right things to use his mouth on, he will use it on you and on your stuff!
  3. Brains (mental) – Dogs have ‘INQUIRING MINDS’!  They like to figure things out.  Training (not just repetitive drilling but training that requires them to really think), playing (both with you and other dogs), exploring and hunting are things that keep dogs fascinated. Dogs that aren’t using their brains will make up games to keep themselves entertained, like ripping up sofa cushions, peeling paper off walls, or chewing the flooring! (For further ideas, see the blog entitled,‘Think About It’.)

So, if your dog is mouthy with you or your things, or ‘creatively’ keeping himself busy, then you must consider whether you have a balanced economic plan.  Exercise and mental stimulation are as essential to a healthy dog as food or water. Show your dog how to expend his energy appropriately and you will end his behavior problems!

How to Ruin Your ‘Recall’, Easily!

This sounds like a silly title for a dog training blog.  No trainer would ever want to teach you how to ruin your dog’s recall or ‘come’ cue!  The sad truth is though, that despite valiant attempts to teach human’s how to train this particular behavior, a perfectly good recall is ruined every ten seconds.  Ok, I made up that statistic, I guess it just seems like every 10 seconds!  Recalls always start out great! They work wonderfully for about 6 to 8 weeks, and then something happens…..


First, there are the many obvious ways that you can ruin a recall.  These are the ones that your trainer probably warned you about.

1. Call your dog to ‘come’ and then do something he doesn’t like: put him in the crate then go to work for the day, cut his nails or give him a bath. That will help him make the association that ‘come’ = bad thing.

2. Use ‘come’ when you are about to end a good time: play fetch but then call him to  ‘come’ so you can go inside and ignore him while you make dinner. That will help him learn that ‘come’ = end of fun.

3. Call your dog to come when you can’t enforce it or control the situation: call him when he is distracted at a distance with no leash on and you can’t get him quickly. That will teach him that ‘come’ = an option for consideration. I call this the ‘wishful thinking’ recall, the one where you are expecting your dog to perform a behavior you haven’t even taught yet (e.g., leaving a distraction).

Most people understand these three problem areas and try to avoid them.  So then, what eventually goes wrong?  Why do recalls get ruined so easily?  The answer is systematic over-use.  This is the lazy person’s route to dog training. They begin to use the word ‘come’ to mean other things, like stop poking in the trash, stop barking, don’t go in that room, or leave that (whatever) alone.  Whenever the person is too tired to actually train the dog, they call the dog to ‘come’.

When the dog hears ‘come’ ceaselessly throughout the day, and most of the time it doesn’t lead to anything important to the dog, he begins to learn that it is irrelevant. ‘Come’ should be something special, a wonderful and surprise event in your dog’s day!  It should never be reduced to a nagging, repeated duty.  ‘Come’ should mean run to me, something wonderful is about to happen!

If you don’t want to ruin your recall, use other words and train your dog for the varied behaviors you want performed.  For instance, if you want your dog to come in the house, train him to respond to the cue “let’s go in”.  If you want him to go in his crate, train him to respond to “kennel up”. If you want him to get out of the trash, train “leave-it”.

While ruining a good recall may be easy, it is much easier to maintain a good recall than to try and fix it once it has been damaged.  Keep it good, keep it controlled and keep it special and you will have a recall your dog always responds to!

Investing in a New Leash

Today I had a day off and spent it enjoying my dog.  On this day we didn’t practice our fancy agility moves, we didn’t work on our obedience skills, we learned no new tricks – we just took a nice relaxing walk in the woods; my little guy and me off on a little adventure of our very own.  We walked through the woods and along a stream; the leaves were just starting to fall.  We stopped and sat together on a little hillside, breathed in the fresh air and watched the water as it flowed past. It was simple and it was heaven.

As we walked, Nevar moved ahead, but never far away.  At about 15 feet, he would spin around and come back to me, a bright and happy smile on his face. I imagine that his smile was because of his sheer joy of being out in a place he likes, doing something he enjoys (which, for Nevar includes just about anywhere and anything!) with someone he loves. I know that those were the reasons I was smiling!

I have always used a long-line when Nevar and I hike.  I use it for safety, ‘just in case’. But I find that we don’t need that long-line anymore.  There really is no need for it. I don’t have to use it as a means to control him. As it turns out, our relationship is the only leash we now need.  A silent, invisible leash, that binds us to one another.

That invisible leash is the result of time well spent, training, playing, practicing, and even just being together on a sunny day.  It was an investment in his future and in mine too, and that investment is now paying dividends for both of us.  Despite his disability Nevar (who is deaf) is able to enjoy things that many other dogs can’t, and this time spent with him gives me such joy.

There is no shortcut to building a relationship.  You must commit to it, time, energy, love and a lot of yourself. Training is a big part of that. We could not enjoy the things we do without training.  On our hike, Nevar came back to me more times than I was able to keep track of.  That was the auto check-in that I taught him.  That little trick is an absolute necessity for us because we can’t communicate if he isn’t looking at me.

You can have a better relationship, a invisible leash, with your dog. What are you willing to investIMG_2965?  Will you teach him a new trick? Visit a new park?  Play a new game?  Try a new sport? Maybe just sit together on a hillside on a glorious afternoon?  The time you spend with your dog is a tribute to him.  Every second tells him he is special, that he is worth it. Be generous with the time you spend with your dog.  You will find the dividends far greater than the initial investment. It is the best leash you will ever buy.

“To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring — it was peace.”

Milan Kundera

Recipe Ingredient #1 – Socialization!

DSCN0196I listed socialization as my first ingredient in the perfect puppy recipe, probably because it is the single most important thing that you can do for your puppy and your time to do it is limited. Socialization prepares your puppy for everything he will encounter during his life with you.  Unfortunately, there is a small window of opportunity to do this.  Your puppy can be easily socialized between the ages of 3 to 12 weeks but, once that window closes, socialization becomes more difficult.

Puppies that haven’t been exposed to a wide variety of good experiences, may have problems coping in new situations or with new things.  They may develop a fear of certain things or people and can even become aggressive.  Just exposing puppies to new things isn’t enough; the experiences must be pleasant.

Think socialize not traumatize! If the puppy is frightened and overwhelmed you are going in the wrong direction.  Watch your puppy for signs that he isn’t enjoying his socialization experience (i.e., any of the following: ears back, tail tucked, crouching, attempting to escape or hide, avoiding eye contact, yawning or showing the whites of the eye).  If you see any of these things either remove the puppy from the situation or make it easier by reducing the number of things he is seeing (people, animals) or increasing the distance between the puppy and the object he is nervous about.

Never try to force a scared puppy to do anything!  Encourage him and try to make whatever it is seem less scary instead.  You can feel free to comfort the puppy too.  That old adage about reinforcing fear is an impossibility.  When dogs (or people for that matter) are scared or in any emotional state, learning (which takes place in the pre-frontal cortex) is impaired by neurochemicals that prepare the body for fight or flight.

Your puppy must be exposed to people, places, things, sights, smells, sounds, and other animals (especially other dogs).  For each of these individual things, think variety!  For instance, how many different types of people can your puppy meet, and in how many different places? Tall people, short people, men with beards, people with floppy hats and mirrored sunglasses, people wearing helmets, and uniforms, etc., must all be part of the program. Take your puppy to visit the local police station or fire department.  Sit out in front of Starbucks with your puppy and coffee and see how many people you can meet!  Bring treats with you so that people can offer the puppy something yummy to sweeten the deal.

Do things at different times of the day and night. Walking in the neighborhood during the daylight is different than walking in the dark.  You may find that in the dark, that trashcan that went unnoticed earlier is suddenly your puppy’s boogeyman.  Sounds are important too, like blow dryers or vacuum cleaners.

Of course your puppy must also be able to get along with dogs and other puppies. Puppy kindergarten is an ideal place to socialize.  Young puppies should NOT go to dog parks. Remember that not all dogs are friendly and you should have plenty of information about the dog before you entrust them with your impressionable young friend. Its ok to say no if any dog your puppy is about to meet looks threatening or is overly excited (i.e., jumping, pulling, lunging) about seeing your puppy.

Get your puppy out and acquainted with the world!  Time is wasting!

Puppy Diaries #8 : Treats and E-fences

This is a great post regarding E-fences.  I am not a fan of them for all the reasons stated but I have committed to so many blogs, I don’t know when I’ll be writing about them!  Until then, this wonderful post will more than suffice.  I believe that there is no substitute for a good solid fence!

Puppy Diaries #8 : Treats and E-fences

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The Perfect Puppy Recipe

I recently read the quote, “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face” (Bern Williams). I couldn’t agree with that sentiment more!  Like most people I adore puppies, but raising them is a different story!  It can drive you crazy, especially, if you are unprepared, or unsure how to do it.

There is so much to know and do with these active little fur bundles and all the conflicting information available today compounds the confusion. New owners find it difficult to sort it all out, much less do it right.  It is enough to make a new puppy owner cry.

But the truth is, that it is relatively simple to raise a perfect puppy.  After 10 years of teaching hundreds of puppy kindergarten classes, guiding thousands of new puppy owners, raising my own puppies and fostering, I have boiled it down to a few simple things. I have found a special recipe that involves a delicate balance of five ingredients to create the ‘Perfect Puppy’! The five ingredients are:


Physical exercise;

Training/mental stimulation;

Alone time/crate training; and

Creating a reinforcement rich environment.

Each one of these ingredients is incredibly important to your puppy’s development and emotional well-being. They will also play a role in what kind of a dog your puppy will grow into and what type of relationship you will have.

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing installments on each of these ingredients.  Follow along!  In the meantime, check out the following books: Raising a Behaviorally Healthy Dog, by Dr. Suzanne Hetts and Dr. Dan Estep; After You Get Your Puppy, by Dr. Ian Dunbar and Raising Puppies and Kids Together, by Pia Silvani.

Think About It!

A student recently asked me to explain precisely what I meant when I suggested mental stimulation as a way to tire her very energetic dog.  It seems her exercise program was inadequate and she really was stretched to the limit in trying to meet his needs.  The result was an over-active and destructive dog.

The very best mental stimulation encourages your dog to use his brain to solve some sort of a problem.  Dogs love problem solving. Problems to dogs usually are ones that involve how to get something they want.  Unfortunately, their idea of problem solving is our idea of a PROBLEM!  Examples:  dog sees something he wants, dog digs under fence to get to it; dog smells food on counter, dog figures out how to jump up; dog is bored, dog finds his own giant chew toy (can you spell sofa?); etc.

So how do we create good problems for dogs to solve?  Food puzzle toys like, Kongs, stuffed bones, Buster Cubes, are the easiest to use.  There are so many to choose from, I can’t even mention them all.  All of these toys involve some type of food item being stashed inside while your dog chews, licks and plays his way to success – and sleepiness.  You can increase the difficulty of these toys by packing the food in tighter, freezing them and then maybe even hiding them around the house for your dog to find.  These toys are great because they can be recycled and a different one used each day so your dog is never bored of it.  These toys can very successfully take the place of the food bowl and make your dog’s dining experience something special that isn’t over in 30 seconds!

Training challenges are very mentally stimulating and a great way to increase your dog’s brainpower. In fact, the more your dog learns, the better he will be at learning.  Challenge: I will hold your favorite toy just out of your reach, what must you do to get it?  Answer: look me in the eye, sit, lay down, or anything else that you can think of.  The key to this game is that you do NOT give the dog the answer! They must figure it out for themselves and ‘offer’ the behavior.  You remain quiet and patient.  Most dogs know ‘sit’ so that might be the first behavior you get. As soon as he does it, YES!  Give him the toy! When he’s good at that, let him sit there awhile until he wonders why you aren’t giving him the toy as usual, he may then look in your eyes.  When he’s good at that, move onto the next behavior.  Translate this to going out the door.  If your dog wants to go outside, see what behavior he’ll offer you to get you to open the door. You can make a challenge/training game out of almost anything.

I love to shape behaviors using a clicker.  This is kind of like playing the childhood game of ‘hot and cold’ with your dog. You can get your dog to perform some impressive behaviors this way.  You do nothing except click and reward your dog for offering some small behavior. I like to start out with targeting, (getting the dog to move to and touch with nose or paw an object that you have chosen). Over time, you will shape that behavior into something useful or fun.  I taught my dog how to limp on command while interacting only with the sound of a click and the delivery of a treat. There are some great books and videos out there to get your started, check out Karen’ Pryor’s “Getting Started, Clicker Training for Dogs”, and “Click for Joy” by Melissa Alexander.

One of my favorite ways to mentally stimulate my dogs is to teach them to do tricks.  Tricks can be as elaborate or complex as you want.  Trick behaviors are very often the basis for the complex tasks that service dogs perform: turn off the lights, close the door, pick-up the laundry!  A great book for learning tricks is “101 Dog Tricks” by Kyra Sundance.  The book offers clear instruction and great illustrations to guide you.  You will start with the easier, basic behaviors and gradually work to more advanced skills. Whatever you do, do more with your dog.  Their brains will thank you!

The GREAT outdoors?

One of the fundamental rules of owning a dog, specifically an untrained one, is that they must be supervised all of the time.  I can’t say that clearly enough, S U P E R V I S I O N  A L L  O F  T H E  T I M E!  True, once dogs are trained to understand the rules in your home, they require less and less oversight, but young dogs or newly added dogs, require some upfront work.  This supervision rule extends to the one place people never think it applies: the great outdoors.  Most people think that the dog needs to be outside and should be able to do so without human intervention.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Dogs that are left outdoors unattended become increasingly independent. That works great for wolves and coyotes, but it is detrimental to the family dog.  A family dog should be attached to his people, social and friendly with strangers, fun to be with and easy to train.  Independent dogs, are not social, they don’t really care if they get human attention or not because they have found that the world can be fun without it.  Independent dogs often do not feel the need to be handled by humans either.  This makes grooming, vet visits and even petting difficult.  Finally, because they have been reinforced by their environment (i.e., chasing squirrels, barking at passersby, etc.) it is hard to get their attention, because they have been getting better and better at giving their attention to things that really matter to them (i.e., birds, poop, other dogs, etc.) but have little or nothing to do with you.  This translates into major training challenges.

Independent dogs are more likely to run away. These are dogs that are getting all the fun things they like (and need) to do, outside of the family unit and so they are more apt to seek them out.  There is more motivation to be outside than inside the human-dog relationship.  Dogs need more than food and a warm bed to keep them at home.  They need a mental connection to what is important to them.  Where is your dog’s mental connection?  Who meets HIS most important need/priority?  If it is a squirrel across the street or the dog down the road, then that is where you’ll find him.

One of the first things I teach my dog is to pay attention to me, because anything worth having is going to come from me anyway.  They learn early on that I am fun to be with.  I have all the things they love and I produce those things at random. (Secret: I spend a fair amount of time helping them learn to love the stuff I have by fostering their desire for games like tug and fetch.)  These are things that many dogs enjoy, so I just make sure I’m the one who gives it to them.  This is how you build a relationship.  The quickest way to destroy a relationship however is with independence, letting your dog find out how much fun he can have – without you.

One of my clients brought a dog to me for destructive issues.  It seems this one year old Lab had not only eaten the siding off the house, but also two deck chairs and the top to their convertible.  It was pretty obvious to do that kind of damage; he must have been outside for quite sometime.  Boredom is a big problem with dogs that spend too much time alone.  Whether inside or outside, an untrained dog left alone with nothing to do will amuse himself.

Most people put their dogs outside to ‘exercise’.  Unfortunately, dogs don’t go outside with the intention of ‘doing a few laps to keep in shape’. Instead, they often can be found lolling around on the deck watching the neighbor’s cat.  They need a good, sustained and structured romp to burn energy and stave off boredom.  (To learn more about appropriate exercise, read my blog, “Why does my dog, (fill in the blank)?”.) Most dog owners are surprised that after spending a few hours outside (“getting tired, ahem”), the dogs come back in the house crazier then they went out.  This is because all that time spent outside has denied them the valuable lessons of how to behave in the house.  After they’ve been laying under a tree, watching birds for an hour or two, getting a second wind, they are back inside and looking for something stimulating to do.  They have their indoor/outdoor behaviors confused.

From day one, my dogs learn: outside is for play and inside is for rest.  I teach this by taking them out first thing in the morning and playing until they are tired.  We then come back inside and after their breakfast they fall asleep.  Depending on the age or need of the dog, this may be repeated once or twice more during the day.  After awhile, they see the yard as the place to run and the house as the place to be calm. Nice arrangement if you ask me.

Just about everyone wants a dog that is reliable off-leash (i.e., they don’t run away, they come when you call, no matter what).  Unfortunately, having a dog that is outdoors alone and one that is reliable off-leash, are mutually exclusive. If you want the outdoors to be great, you need to invest in your relationship with you dog.  Spend quality time, do things together, train him.  Your dog needs to build a relationship with you and be taught what you expect from him, everywhere.