Oh No You Didn’t!

The first thing most people think about when they bring a dog home is how to stop bad behaviors. Stopping them is important but even more important is preventing bad behaviors from occurring in the first place. Prevention not only keeps bad behaviors from becoming habits, it also stops the dog from finding out how much fun those bad behaviors can be! Behaviors that are fun for the dog will get repeated with greater frequency.


Imagine the dog who likes toilet paper. At his first opportunity, he enters the bathroom grabs a mouthful and runs! This gets the nearby human to immediately chase him in what he considers to be a great game of pursuit. Young dogs are explorers, so when you bring one into your home, look at the house from the dog’s perspective. Everything is chew toy fun. It doesn’t matter if it is a sofa cushion, your favorite book or a squeeky toy. All those items can get torn up in much the same way, so your dog sees them as the same.


By implementing mistake-free learning, you remove all items that could be considered a chew toy to your dog. After he has been with you awhile and adopted appropriate habits, you can begin to reintroduce the things that would  have been problematic before. He will ignore them because he now has established appropriate behaviors.


Because it is nearly impossible to remove everything that your dog might get into trouble with, you also have to use supervision. This means that when your dog is not in his crate, you are carefully watching him. You will watch for signs of behaviors that you like, so you can quickly

reward them, and for signs of unwanted behavior so that you can discourage them.


Discouraging Unwanted Behavior


So, let’s say when you got home you forgot to put your leather gloves away. You also got very busy and forgot that you should have been supervising your dog. Now, you have just discovered  that he is happily chewing on your gloves. What do you do now?


First and foremost, do not resort to any type of physical punishment (i.e., shaking cans of pennies, squirt bottles, rolled up newspapers or smacking). Confrontational tactics and strong discipline will create a fearful dog that distrusts you. You want your dog to see you as the person to whom he/she can go for comfort, friendship and kindness. If your hands dispense scary or painful things, your relationship with your dog will be one that is based on fear and avoidance.


If your dog does do something you don’t like, you can convey your displeasure by:


Ignoring the dog – Avoid making eye contact with your dog, turn your back or even leave the room.  This method works best on attention seeking behaviors like barking at you or pestering.


Interrupting and redirecting – Calmly interrupt the inappropriate behavior with a short sharp noise like Eh-Eh, then direct her to what she should be doing. Provide her with a bone to chew instead. This works for potty accidents, destructive behaviors like chewing or even counter surfing.


Time-out – Put her in her crate for 30 seconds. Do this calmly and without emotion. This is the canine equivalent of being sent to your room. Using the crate as a means of removing the dog from a behavior you don’t like won’t ruin the crate as a safe place. At other times continue to use the crate for other good things, like eating and sleeping.


Lastly, Remove an expected reward – Take away something the dog wants as a direct result of inappropriate behavior.  For example: barking for food makes me put the food away; being pushy around the door makes me close it; and jumping at the leash makes me put it down.


It is important to remember that after the fact reprimands don’t work. If you did not see the dog perform the behavior, just pick up the pieces and move on. It isn’t that dogs don’t have good memories, it is just difficult for them to understand what behavior caused the problem when dogs don’t understand human language.


So the keys to getting rid of bad behavior are: 1. prevention, 2. mistake free learning, 3. supervision, 4. rewarding good behavior, and 5. discouraging unwanted behaviors with ignoring, interrupting/redirecting, time-out and removing an expected reward.


Most common behavior problems can be solved with the tools listed above and a little preparation. If you are thinking that a great deal of getting good behavior from your dog is the responsibility of the human, you are right!

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

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.


Why does my dog (fill in the blank)?

I teach around 16 classes a week and I open every class with a question and answer period. It never fails, I’m always asked the same question. “Why does my dog…” or “How can I stop my dog from….”. The answer to most of these questions is relatively simple, but most people don’t like the answer. Any dog that is constantly getting into trouble or pestering for attention is bored, pure and simple. Dogs that have adequate mental and physical stimulation are able to relax.

Breeding and genetics can affect how much energy a dog will have and how well they cope with inactivity. Each dog will have his or her own energy threshold and what may be tired for you may not be tired for your dog, especially if they are young.

The majority of dogs that I see are in busy families. Working, shuttling children, and personal appointments dominate the day. The dog, who is usually crated, is expected to be content with a 30-minute walk twice a day, maybe. This is not nearly enough for the majority of dogs and walks won’t cut it. These pups need to so some serious cardio, like chasing a ball or Frisbee, swimming, playing with another dog and or an extended game of tug. Physical activity can help curb problems like mouthiness, destructiveness and barking.

Mental exercise can also tire a dog. Training games, food puzzles, time spent sniffing out a new place, and time spent with canine friends are as stimulating to a dog as reading the news and answering emails are to us. My mantra is always the same. “A tired dog is a happy owner”.