Tag Archive: how to train a puppy mill dog

I had the pleasure over the weekend of seeing two former puppy mill breeder dogs at a party for senior dogs at Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue. They were sweet and happy but I could still sense the idiosyncrasies that many mill dogs carry with them all of their lives: A little reticent to approach people, overwhelmed with too much activity. One of these dogs now has titles in obedience. His owner put a lot of time and effort into his training. Most mill dogs have the capability to learn obedience and live a normal life. But owners and some trainers must understand that these dogs may learn at a different pace than other “normal” dogs. Proper expectations need to be established or else frustration, disappointment and even anger at the dog or trainer may result.

As anyone who has adopted or worked with mill dogs knows, the tiniest sign of progress is cause for the biggest celebration. For example, most mill dogs cannot walk up and down steps. They were never exposed to them, so steps can be quite frightening. The thought of these dogs doing steps is almost impossible to imagine. But when the dog does a single step up or down, it’s a huge accomplishment.

Consider group dog training classes. Most beginner classes will expect the dog to learn how to sit, stay, come, lie down and walk nicely on a leash. Expecting a mill dog to do all of these is entirely unrealistic. Most of them will shut down in fear when they attend classes. Unless the trainer, owner and other people in the class are aware of this issue, the dog will be criticized and the owner possibly shamed for having such a dog. A much better and more realistic expectation for mill dogs in group classes would be that the dogs learns to relax a little and even learn to accept attention from the other dogs’ owners and the instructor.  That’s it. The owner can learn how to train the dog for sit, stay, come, etc. by listening in class to the instructions and then take this knowledge and teach the dog at home where the dog is more relaxed and better able to learn. It could take a mill dog ten times longer or more to learn obedience. Or not! Every dog is different and an individual.

I wrote an article for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers’ Chronicle of the Dog which gives much more information for trainers who are working with mill dogs. If anyone wants a copy, I can email it to you.


Clicker Training for Dogs

Have you used clickers to train your dog? If done correctly, it is an amazingly effective and very humane method. But if the trainer or owner does not understand what they are doing or they do not do it correctly, clicker training can confuse the dog and will not get the desired results.

What is clicker training? It uses the principle of operant conditioning. An association is formed between a behavior and a consequence. An easy example is when you ask your dog to “sit” and you give him a treat. The dog then learns that when he sits (behavior) he gets a treat (consequence). Clicker training uses a clicker to tell the dog that he did the right thing. The clicker is a small plastic box with a metal strip that makes a sharp, clicking sound when pushed and released.  The sound of a clicker is very distinctive. It grabs the dog’s attention. When you pair the sound of a clicker with a reward, your dog will begin to associate the sound with something pleasant. A clicker allows the trainer to mark with great precision the behavior for which the dog is being reinforced.  Paired with something the animal finds very reinforcing, the clicker becomes a powerful tool for shaping behavior.  

I know a lot of trainers who insist on only teaching obedience classes with clickers but I have found that many people cannot master the clicker. It’s tricky.  Here are a few pros and cons of clicker training:


1. When used properly, a clicker tells the dog precisely that he did the right behavior. Therefore, timing is imperative when training with a clicker. The trainer must click at the exact instant that the dog performs the desired behavior. A click can be delivered much quicker than a treat or a “good dog.”

2. The sound of the clicker is distinctive and eliminates ambiguity for the dog. When the dog hears the sound of the click, he knows that he is being rewarded. Humans’ voices, on the other hand, can be loaded with uncertainty. Our tone or volume can be confusing to dogs.

3. Clicker training is an excellent way to train dogs who participate in sports such as agility. Because timing is so critical when training, a clicker is invaluable with shaping a dog’s behavior.


1. One of the biggest problems with clicker training is the lack of understanding of why and how to use the clicker. I recently met a novice trainer who didn’t know that the clicker needed to be “charged,” that is, before any training can begin, the dog must learn an association of something good when he hears a click. After all, the sound of the click by itself is meaningless. “Charging” the clicker involves simply clicking and immediately giving the dog a high value treat. Click and treat, click and treat. Do this about 20-30 times. The dog is sure to learn that whenever he hears the click, it’s a good thing!

2. The other issue with lack of knowledge of clicker training is timing. If the click is not delivered at the exact instant that the dog performs the desired behavior, then you may be reinforcing a different behavior.

3. Some people think that the clicker is used to gain the dog’s attention. I’ve seen people clicking when dogs bark and clicking when dogs aren’t paying attention. This is not clicker training.

4. The use of clickers in group training classes can be confusing for dogs. If you have 6-10 people in a class and everyone is clicking, the dogs may not know which click is meant for him.

5. Many people find that they cannot handle a leash, treats and a clicker in their hands. It can be too much to juggle.

6. In my work with puppy mill dogs, some of them are afraid of the noise of the clicker. Instead of it being rewarding, it creates fear.

From the above list, it appears that there are more cons than pros for clicker training. Don’t let that dissuade you!  Try it. Once you learn how to do it properly, you may never want to train dogs any other way.

Who Can You Believe?

I was recently checking out some web sites where I could publish articles and was astounded by what I found. Pages and pages of articles written by so-called “experts” on topics such as “How to Train Your Dog with a Shock Collar,” “The Benefits of Anti-Bark Collars,” “How to Use a Choke Collar” and more. Whoa!  This web site was promoting self-growth and spiritual issues, and showed noted celebrities such as Oprah and Anthony Robbins as contributors. Any “expert” who understands dogs, spirituality and self-growth would never advocate shock collars!  In these days where anyone can publish on the Internet, who can you believe?

There are literally thousands and thousands of places where people can submit articles on the web, mainly for purposes of driving traffic to advertising and for search engine optimization. There is little-to-no screening process for who can write and publish the articles. Obviously. But that leaves the public to fend for themselves to decide who is credible and who isn’t.

I, personally, never seek out information from sites that pump out articles. You can just tell that the articles have been quickly thrown together. Instead, I look for web sites of individuals with credentials – those who have been published and who are sought after as references – and academic sources.

In the world of dog training, there are as many opinions as there are “experts.” Sadly, novice trainers and those uneducated in animal behavior may use methods such as shock collars and obtain results. Then they write about it…and proliferate the information to the unsuspecting public. They appear credible and can give convincing arguments.

After seeing all of these disturbing articles, I may not publish articles anywhere else on the web. I’ll probably stick to my web site and this blog. And hope that you who are reading this know that I do have the credentials and experience to convey only information in the best interests of the animals.

Association, Emotion and Training Dogs

A couple of weeks ago, as we watched the commemoration of the September 11 events, some people posted comments on Facebook that they could not remember what they did the week before but could vividly remember where they were and what they were doing ten years ago on 9/11. There’s a very good reason for that – association and emotion. The more intense the feeling we have with an event, the better we remember it.

As I explained to the audience at Groom Expo recently, dogs learn the same way that people do. We form associations using our feelings. Because September 11 was such an intensely emotional event as we watched the tragedies unfold, our brains developed deep pathways that help us better remember the details of that day. We effortlessly resurrected the same feelings as we watched again.

Dogs have feelings too. They feel joy, pain, pleasure, and fear just as we do. If a dog strongly feels one of these emotions while in a certain situation, a deep association will be built into their memories. Think: A visit to the veterinarian where a painful shot was administered, a trip to the groomer when nails were quicked, an attack by a neighbor’s dog as he walked past their yard. All of these fearful situations will form fear associations for dogs that they will remember and feel again when they revisit these locations.

Pleasant experiences and associations are what we aim for – dogs and humans. And happiness forms neural pathways that are just as deep and enduring in our memories. We all remember the fun events just as vividly as tragic events like 9/11. Our birthdays, wedding days, graduations, the day we met our sweethearts, etc.  The happiest days of my life were the days I adopted my dogs! Boy, do I remember them.

In my teachings about dogs, I strive to communicate that we want dogs to feel strong emotions of pleasure and happiness when doing training and behavior modification. When dogs associate good feelings with what they are learning, they will be more likely to remember it. Using high-value foods that dogs rarely eat helps to form very deep, happy associations. If you only got to eat your favorite food once a year, you’re sure to remember where you had it and what you were doing, right?

When dog owners or trainers use fear or punishment, the wrong associations may form. The dog may learn not to pull on the leash when the trainer yanks the choke chain, for example, but the dog also may form a fear association as well which may be deeper-rooted than the learning. I frequently see a woman walking her yellow Lab in my neighborhood. I saw her training this dog as a pup – with scary leash pops. Now, as an adult, the dog walks behind the woman with his ears pinned back, anticipating the next pop. Walks have an association of fear for this poor pup; instead, walks should have formed fun, pleasurable associations. His owner deprived him of this should-be-happy experience because she failed to understand the principles of learning and association.

So the next time you remember an event and feel the emotions that accompany it, realize association is at work here and your dog’s mind operates just the same way.

If you are like me, you have an established relationship with a veterinarian, a pet sitter, and maybe other pet professionals. My pet sitter holds a very special place in my life – no one is more trusted. After all, this person is coming into your home and taking care of your best friend. But what happens when you feel that you can no longer trust them, or are no longer satisfied with their performance? Do you speak to them, or do you just switch to someone else without saying anything?

I used the same pet sitter for many years, and she even came to my dog training classes when she purchased a puppy (over the Internet, much to my extreme displeasure). She had some training issues with the dog as an adult and she sought out my advice which I gladly gave free of charge (as I do to all of my clients once I have worked with them). The issue: This person is a screamer. And there was nothing I could do to stop her. All of my advice fell on deaf ears. Consequently, her new puppy became aggressive as he grew into an adult, as did all of her previous dogs. I instructed her on counter-conditioning techniques and tried to explain to her that the screaming causes fear and negative associations but I could not get through to her.

Was she screaming at my dog as she did hers? And then a couple other events occurred which concerned me. When I arrived home early from an extended vacation, it appeared that my dog had not been visited yet that day – it was 2:00pm.  I decided that I needed to express some of my concerns to her. Coincidentally, a stray cat appeared on my doorstep around the same time. That gave me a reason to call her and ask if I could borrow one of her cat carriers to try to catch the kitty. I left her a message and she never returned my call. Case closed.  Time to move on. I’m sure she’s wondering why I haven’t called her recently to watch my dog.  If she had called me back, she would know.

As a pet professional myself, I know that it really hurts when someone does not continue to work with me. But what hurts even more is silence. I’d rather know about a problem so that I can address it and work on the issue so that it does not happen again.  Maybe not with that person, but with someone else in the future. After all, there’s always room for improvement.

Have you needed to change pet professionals for any reason? How did you handle it?

How many of you dig your dogs but don’t dig it when they dig?  It’s spring – almost summer – and your flowers are blooming, your vegetable garden is planted. And your dog is thrilled to have so many new, fun places to dig up!  Some dogs simply love to dig and could care less about how much time and tenderness you spent creating your beautiful oasis.

There can be several reasons why dogs dig. One primary reason is genetic. Certain breeds such as Dachshunds were bred to dig. Believe it or not, humans actually created this dog for the purpose of finding critters way, way back when. And when some people get this kind of breed and the dog digs up their yard, they get mad. DUH!  It’s what the dog is instinctively supposed to do.

 “Just doing my job, mom!” the dog says when scolded.

And even if the dog was not bred to dig, many dogs are curious creatures. With the excellent smelling abilities of their noses, some dogs like to dig to find out what’s happening down there. My first Golden Retriever, Caper, dug a hole in the drywall of our kitchen. To this day, I still wonder what she was going after. Mice?  Old chicken bones left by the builder? Yeah, could be. 

And the two most prevalent reasons why dogs dig: lack of exercise and boredom. So many of our poor doggies live their lives according to our rules and are forced to conform to our schedules and lifestyles. For dogs, that can translate into lying around the house waiting for us to come home. Or for some dogs, it could mean being put out in the yard all day with no one to play with. Without the proper outlet for their energies, trouble is bound to follow.

And finally, many dogs dig under trees or bushes in order to find a cool place to lie, and it’s no wonder on days like these when the temperatures are in the 90’s.  (I hope that you’re bringing your dogs inside when it’s this hot!)

There are solutions to the digging problem, and many of you may not want to hear them. First of all, a tired dog is less likely to get into mischief. I recommend that you walk your dog at least once a day. The length of time depends upon your dog and the outside temperature. If your dog is young and healthy, as much as an hour or two of exercise may be necessary. My boy, Gizzy, needed several hours of daily exercise when he was younger.  But if your dog is older or not in the best of health, or if you have a brachycephalic breed (Pugs, Bulldogs, Boxers, etc.), limit the exercise time. Regardless, all dogs need time to explore their worlds. I wrote an article several years ago, Mind, Body Spirit Fitness for Dogs, that addresses a dog’s need to get out.

In addition to physical exercise, your digging dog needs to do something that he digs – other than digging, that is. If you have a dog who was bred to work (collies, shepherds, retrievers, spaniels, pointers), he needs to have an outlet for this instinct. You don’t need to buy sheep and have your dog corral them! But some training time every day gives your dog something to focus on that uses his brain. Brain work is just as tiring as physical exercise.

Next, if you want to stop your dog from digging, management of his environment is key. First, start by placing a barrier around the area where your dog likes to dig. Prevention works wonders!  If that works, great. If not, then you will have to do some training. As difficult as this may be for some people, dogs require guidance to do the right thing. I know, I know, you just like to open the door and allow your dog to go about his business.  But if his business is digging your yard, he must be watched and trained.

Catching your dog in the act of digging may be the only way to stop the behavior. If you see him beginning to dig, do not scold him. (Remember, if you are a regular reader of my blog, when you call attention to a behavior, it rewards the behavior.) Instead, call your dog to you and when he comes, praise him lavishly. Get a toy or a treat and motivate him to do something else that may be more fun than digging. Move away from the area where your dog was digging and either play with him or do some training. Repeat this every time your dog attempts to dig.

One final way to stop you dog from digging – keep him on a long leash. You can quickly interrupt the behavior and redirect your dog.

Sorry, sometimes there just aren’t easy and convenient ways to correct inappropriate behavior! Our dogs like to do what comes naturally and makes them happy, and often the behaviors are in conflict with living in a human world. They need to be kindly and compassionately shown what we expect of them. We owe it to the ones we dig!

Cuts to the Quick

For all of my disgust with people who abuse animals, you would think that I wouldn’t have done it. But I did.  There’s blood everywhere. The rug, the kitchen floor, a trail to the counter where the dog treats are stashed. A forensics dream come true. I suppose it’s happened to almost every dog owner – the ones who brave to trim their dogs’ nails, that is.

Yes, I cut one of my dog’s toenails too close that it bled. Not just a little – a lot. Everywhere.  It looks like I killed him. The nail won’t stop bleeding and I don’t have styptic powder in the house because I’ve never needed it. I’ve always been so careful! 

My dog Gizzy is a 13-year-old big, fluffy Golden Retriever who shuffles and stumbles when he walks due to arthritis and advancing weakness. As a result, some of his toenails are worn down from scraping the pavement.  But a few of them are not. And Gizzy has a lot of fur between his toes, making it more difficult to see the nail. It just takes a little nick to made a lot of blood.

Gizzy was such a trooper. He didn’t cry, he didn’t even run from me. Most of us know that just one cut of the quick can forever make a dog fearful of future nail trims. Thankfully, my guy has been trained to associate nail trims with getting chicken jerky when we are through. Thus, the trail of blood from the living room to the kitchen counter! When I jumped up to grab a tissue to stop the bleeding, he thought that we were finished and he made a beeline for the treats despite my requests for him to “stay, stay!”

I learned several lessons from this scenario of dog abuse: 1) always keep styptic powder on hand, 2) don’t take for granted  that all nails need to be trimmed equally, 3) always do nail trims in the kitchen, 4) trim the fur around the nails to better see them, and 5) be thankful that I have learned that counter-conditioning works. My Gizzy did not freak out when I cut his nail too close because I taught him to associate great things (chicken jerky) with getting his nails trimmed. He isn’t scarred forever because of my boo-boo. Thank goodness!

I like to recommend that any time you or your veterinarian or groomer trims your dogs nails that they use the counter-conditioning technique that I described in my article, Grappling With Grooming. It can ensure that your dog will not freak out during nail trims.

Puppy teeth. Little needles that pierce your fingers when they chomp down. Puppies are inquisitive creatures and explore their worlds with smell and taste. Everything goes into their mouths. If they are not guided at a young age, puppies will continue to use their mouths and teeth inappropriately.

In an ideal world, puppies stay with their moms and littermates until they are at least 8 weeks old. Those weeks are a pivotal behavior classroom where pups learn good manners. If a pup bites his littermate too hard, the littermate will yelp and run away. “I’m not playing with you anymore!” the pup seems to say. So the offending pup learns that if he bites too hard, he no longer has friends to play with.

But many puppies are being denied this critical period of education: Puppy mill-bred dogs are usually removed from their moms and littermates at about 4 weeks to be shipped to pet stores. And some backyards breeders, especially of Pit Bulls, allow pups to leave too soon.

Puppies who have not learned bite inhibition will grow up to be mouthy adults and be quite difficult to live with. I know, I adopted one. His name was Donner and I wrote a story about him called The Old Dog Nobody Wanted, published in the book, Pets Across America.  Donner, a handsome red Golden Retriever, was no pup.  He was about 9 years old when I adopted him.  He became very grabby when he was overexcited.  I still have a scar on my arm as a memento. As I explained in his story, I tried several different methods advocated by various dog “experts” to validate what I already knew to be the proper means to extinguish the behavior. Just to see how Donner reacted to these dumb methods, I did the “alpha roll” otherwise called “dominance down” to get Donner to calm down, as well as holding him by the jowls. These methods didn’t work, as predicted. They only jacked him up more and he grabbed harder. Okay, Donner, stop laughing. He knew that these methods don’t teach dogs not to grab!  Here’s a list of other things not to do:

–          Never use your hands to correct the dog/pup when he nips. I’ve heard of trainers telling people to either clamp the dog’s mouth shut or chuck the dog under the chin with your fist. These actions will cause your dog to fear your hands by associating them with punishment. You also may make the nipping worse or cause your dog become more aggressive with the biting.

–          Never scream at the dog and don’t tell him “No!” As discussed in my post on February 6, 2011, “No” teaches them nothing.

–          Never use force to try to calm the dog, as explained above.

–          Believe it or not, some people actually get so frustrated with their dog’s nipping that they muzzle the dog, tie a cord around the dog’s mouth and I’ve even seen dogs with duct tape wrapped around their muzzles. I hope I don’t have to say “Don’t do this!”

The best ways to stop pups and adult dogs from using their teeth inappropriately employ the same dog psychology taken right from watching littermates at play. If your pup/dog nips you too hard, first try letting out a loud, high-pitched “Yip!” like a pup would do if bitten too hard. If your dog stops and looks at you, give him an enormous smile and a very soft, calm “Good dog!” It’s very important not to be too enthusiastic and loud with your praise because that may excite your dog again and the nipping may resume.

If the “Yip!” method does not work, try this: When your pup nips you, give him a toy or a bone, and again praise him softly when he takes the toy. (Remember that we always praise our dogs when they are doing good things!)

Finally, if your dog persists with nipping despite these two suggestions, simply stand up and silently walk away from your dog. That’s what littermates do. Your dog will learn that he loses the privilege of your attention if he nips you.

For any of these solutions to help, it is so important that you and everyone who interacts with your dog must be consistent and not allow the dog to nip by employing whichever of these suggestions are effective.

Tune into your dog’s behavior. Watch him and learn to see when he gets nippy. Is it when he is really wound up? If he is anything like my Donner, keeping him calm will “nip” the issue in the bud!

Helping Animals is Not a Competition

While marketing my book, I optimistically sent emails and letters to people and organizations, large and small, involved with animal welfare. I received some very nice, helpful replies and promotion of the book. But I was pretty stunned at the lack of response from quite a few places and people whom I thought would be very supportive. Even some Facebook pages which purport to help animals and the message to stop puppy mills have turned a deaf ear. Why? I wonder if they more interested in promoting their own agendas than someone else’s?

That is so sad because one basic law of the universe is abundance. If these organizations and people won’t pass along someone else’s message that would help the animals, then they are missing out on another law of the universe, attraction: You get back what you give out.

First of all, as we know, there are more than enough animals who need all of our help.  Sadly, an overwhelming abundance.  The animals need as many of us as possible to pitch in and work together.  And secondly, understanding the law of abundance also means that there will be enough money, foster homes, etc. for organizations to help the animals. If you believe.  If you are following the laws of abundance and attraction. If they are only following their own agendas and not truly in it for the animals, that philosophy may come back to bite them. (Sorry for the pun!)

Although we have never met in person, I am so grateful to know Carol Bradley, author of Saving Gracie. Her book traces the story of a dog rescued from a puppy mill in Pennsylvania to her adoptive home. I am happy to say that Carol’s book and mine are the foremost books about puppy mills. But what’s even better still is that Carol and I promote each other’s books. I have done reviews of Saving Gracie and had Gracie and her adopter on a TV show that I host.  And Carol has sent people my way. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me feel when I receive an email from someone that Carol has referred to me. Cooperation for the sake of the animals.

If you are affiliated with any groups who may benefit from Puppy Mill Dogs SPEAK! and Saving Gracie, I kindly ask you to crosspost this message. There are so many people who still are unaware of the problems of puppy mills and lots of adopters who need help with these wonderful rescued dogs.  Thank you!

A recent reader’s comment saying that anyone can be a dog trainer is absolutely correct.  There are no governing bodies to control it. I visited my local pet store and saw business cards for almost a dozen trainers hanging on the bulletin board. It’s become a very popular profession. But are they good trainers? I’ve heard people say that they want to be a trainer because they were able to teach their dog how to sit. Is that enough? What are the attributes of a good dog trainer?

I started my career working with animals as a pet massage therapist and I am glad that I did because through that training and experience, I learned how to read dogs’ body language and communications signals. This was important for two reasons: I needed to see where the dog was experiencing pain so that I could focus on that area but not hurt the dog, and I had to avoid getting bitten. Because I did a lot of my practicing on shelter dogs, I had no idea if they had behavior issues or not. It was a quick and invaluable lesson on reading dogs. Every dog trainer needs to learn how to read dogs. That’s probably one of the biggest criteria for making a really good trainer.  It’s not something you can learn in a classroom or by reading a book.

The next attribute of a good trainer is obviously being able to work effectively with the dogs using humane and scientifically sound techniques. This too cannot be learned in a classroom.  Every dog is unique, and getting to know the various breeds and their characteristics comes with practice and experience. For instance, teaching a Golden Retriever to “come” is quite different from teaching an Akita.  It also involves staying current on the latest research about behavior and learning theory.  Reading books, blogs of experts and attending seminars or conferences is advisable.

Most trainers teach classes and provide one-on-one consultations with clients. It is not enough to have excellent training skills with the dogs if the trainer cannot convey information to the clients; a really good trainer has great people skills as well. I’ve seen some really talented trainers who work wonders with dogs but they lack the personal communications skills to help the dogs’ owners learn how to work with the dogs once they get home. As we know, most dog behavior issues come as a result of things that owners do or don’t do.

And finally, probably the least important skill is writing ability although I do believe it’s still necessary. If trainers want to teach classes, they will need to prepare written handouts and a curriculum.  This information must be conveyed clearly and accurately to the clients. Also, many trainers who do private lessons or consultations will follow up with a written behavior plan. It will be useless if not written well.

So, yes, anyone can say they are a dog trainer but do they have what it takes to be a good one? Can you think of anything else that makes a dog trainer stand out from the “pack”?