Tag Archive: how to train dogs


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.

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Showing Dominance?

No topic in the world of dog behavior is more controversial and misunderstood as the concept of dominance. It’s a complicated subject and not always easy to explain, observe and interpret. There are two perspectives on dominance: The human’s and the dog’s. This post will focus on the human interaction with the dog and I’ll tackle the dog’s side of the debate in a future post.

WordPress, the host of this blog, shows me the search phrases that people have entered to bring them here. It amazes me how many times this phrase appears: How to show dominance to a dog. Sounds like a lot of people didn’t get the memo – you don’t show dominance to a dog! In my post on February 21, 2011, I explained how the dominance theory was inaccurately developed and proliferated.

Instead of “being dominant” over dogs which is all-too-often misinterpreted as showing physical force, dog behavior experts have learned that being a leader is preferable. What’s the difference?

The dominance theory recommends using something called an alpha roll or a dominance down to control a dog and show the dog who is boss. People who still advocate the dominance methods say to pin a dog down if the dog growls, gets over-excited, tries to bite or just about any time that the dog needs to behave. I once worked with a family who had a Golden Retriever. The husband regularly alpha-rolled the dog and this sweet-natured pup grew into a highly stressed and fearful dog, especially around the husband. No wonder.

Other dominance techniques use force as well: Ensure that the human always goes through doors first and on walks, the dog must stay by the person’s side or walk behind. A power struggle is usually the result of both of these techniques.

Being a leader is preferable to showing dominance because no force is used. Force can harm the dog’s psyche and damage the bond between human and dog.  And it can often make behavior issues worse.

Leadership is kinder, gentler, more effective and most aligned with how dogs really think. Dogs respect a leader who is calm, in control and does not need to resort to physical displays. Just as humans. Watch our most respected leaders and see that they are calm and in control. We certainly don’t like bullies and neither do dogs!

Being a dog’s leader is simply about controlling the dog’s resources. A resource is anything that a dog wants: Food, treats, toys, affection, access to furniture/the bed, going in/out of doors, going up/down steps, going out for walks, and anything else that the dog desires. As a leader, the human must ask the dog to either sit or wait before getting a resource. That’s it!

Let’s use an example to compare leadership to dominance techniques. Your dog wants to go out the door and gets very excited. The dominance theory recommends that the person goes through the door first which can turn into a physical battle of wills with the dog. Instead, showing leadership and controlling the resources would have you asking the dog to sit and wait calmly before getting the privilege to go out. The human doesn’t need to go first. Once the dog learns that he gets nothing without being calm and good, there is no power struggle. The dog can relax and not worry about getting forced to do anything and best of all, the dog is not in charge. With humans who are leaders, dogs feel less anxious and are less prone to behavior issues.

Try it, you and your dog will like it!

In the previous two posts on barking (June 6 and June 13), the important points were: 1) Barking is a natural activity for dogs, 2) some breeds bark more than others, 3) people can inadvertently reinforce their dogs’ barking by inappropriate methods such as yelling, scolding, laughing and punishment, and 4) dogs can also learn to bark by imitating their “friends.”

Okay, I know all of you are waiting eagerly for the solutions! Like I said in the other posts, teaching a dog to stop barking after it has become a habit is very difficult. And also as important, changing the way you react to your dog’s barking is just as challenging.  Your dog has habits; so do you. And the reasons why your dog is barking also play a huge part in resolving the problem.

In this post, I’ll discuss alert or excitement barking. The next post will address territorial barking (usually outside) and the final post addresses fear and play barking.

Alert/Excitement Barking – In the House

I’ll bet that everyone who reads this post expects a magic solution to stop your dog from barking when he sees someone walk past the house or if someone comes to the door and enters the house. Sorry, there is no quick, easy and effortless solution that does not involve punishment (which jeopardizes the mental health of your dog and your relationship, so please try to avoid it). My first suggestion involves managing the dog’s environment.

Dogs bark because they get excited; their adrenaline rises. The very best way to prevent barking is to prevent the adrenaline from rising in the first place. How do you do that? If you have a dog who likes to bark at windows, ensure that he cannot be perched at the windows. Keep him away from the windows when you’re home, and when you cannot be home, close the curtains or shades.  Pair this step with some training, which will be discussed below. So, that’s tip #1, remove your dog from the source of barking.

Same thing goes if you are expecting visitors to your home. Keep your dog away from the door, the scene of repeated excitement. Place your dog in a quiet room or outside, preferably with another person and even better, have the other person distract your dog by doing some obedience training or engage in play. You can even go as far as placing a sign on your doorbell asking people not to ring it – at least while you are in the process of re-training your dog! 

Once your visitors are settled in and the initial excitement has ebbed, bring your dog out on a leash to greet them and have some treats handy. Calmly take your dog to your guests and reward him with treats and praise as he remains calm. If he gets excited, remember not to fuel the excitement by barking with him like so many of us tend to do: “Sit!” Down!” “Off!” We all try to get our dogs to obey but if he is in a state of excitement, you are just wasting your breathe and getting your dog even more jacked up. Instead, remove your dog from the room. Take him somewhere else and give him a Kong filled with treats. Sorry, I digressed… We’re discussing barking.

If you are not expecting guests and the doorbell rings, your dog is sure to bark. Stay calm and quiet and before opening the door, escort your dog to another room and close the door.  The idea is to keep your dog from the excitement that happens at the door. Once you have worked on the training tips below, you can keep your dog with you as you open the door.

Okay, those are the management portions of controlling barking. Here are the training tips. And this will take time and work.

One of my all-time favorite commands to use for many situations where you’d like to get your dog’s attention is “Watch!” This word tells your dog to look at you. Some people also use the word “Look!” When I teach dog training classes, this is the very first thing I teach. It’s a basic foundation for getting your dog to listen to you.

For barking problems, you may want to employ the use of “Watch!” Or pick another word. It could be “Quiet!” but ensure that you’re not already using this word when you are agitated.  Okay, begin training. Get some high value foods – canned chicken, cheese, hot dogs, liver bites – and work with your dog when you have some quiet time. When your dog is paying attention to you, say your cue, if it’s “Watch,” “Look” or whatever, and immediately feed the dog a small bit of treats.  Continue doing this until you see that your dog is showing lots of interest as you give the cue. This is classical conditioning at its best, pairing a cue with a response. When your dog hears the cue, he immediately thinks, “Yum!” With enough practice, your dog will be conditioned to stop what he’s doing, look at you when you say the word and know that good things are coming his way.

Of course, this cue will work like a champ when there are few distractions once your dog gets it. That’s why it’s important to practice this exercise by gradually increasing the distractions. In other words, if you only practice when there are no distractions it’s not realistic to expect your dog to respond to you when the doorbell rings!

The trick to getting this combination of tips to work will be to keep your dog’s level of excitement low so that he does not bark. And  if he does start to bark, you catch him in time to stop him with the practiced interrupt cue.

Any questions? Next time, I’ll get into outside territorial barking.

It’s so, so cute when they are puppies.  The nose nudge, an occasional paw smacking your arm, the look of love, the undivided attention to you – the one they love. So irresistible and appealing to our need to be loved. But when they grow up, so annoying! Some dogs learn at a very young age that if they ask to be petted by barking or nose-nudging or any other clever means, they will get attention. And they will never stop. That wonderful feeling of being loved turns to annoyance just as quickly.

I’ve met quite a few dogs through my behavior consulting business who have caused their owners to reach the breaking point. They simply could not stand the constant neediness of their dogs.  And I had to be the one to inform these people that they actually created the problem. When their dogs asked to be petted, they petted them. Yes, it sounds reasonable but it’s so easy to create a behavior issue when the dog is placed in the position of leadership.  And how is this leadership? Simply put, when the dog asks to be petted and gets petted, the dog has trained his person. The dog is in charge. 

I’ve said it so many times – the smartest dogs can often be the worst-behaved.  They quickly learn how to get what they want. When you combine an insecure dog with a very soft-hearted human, you get an attention-seeking dog. Attention-seeking is also very difficult to eliminate if you do not understand how a dog thinks. Most people will try to stop their dog’s insistent need to be petted by giving in to them.  But they do not realize that giving in rewards and reinforces the behavior.  The dog knows that if they bark or nudge, they will eventually get attention.

Just like begging which we covered in the Dog Training Tip of the Week on January 24, once the dog learns that their behavior results in the response that they want from their humans, the dogs will continue doing it.

Attention seeking behavior is very, very difficult to eliminate. It takes a great deal of consistency and persistence. My advice often seems cold-hearted to some owners but it‘s very necessary in order to restore the relationship.

Attention seeking can be stopped if the owner withdraws attention to the dog when the dog asks for it. Simple, huh? Not really. Most people will get annoyed and frustrated with their dogs when they are constantly pestering them. The people will yell at the dog and push them away, as well as other corrections. Well, that’s the problem with corrections. You are still giving attention to the dog – which rewards the behavior.  Behaviors are rewarded when the dog receives attention, regardless if the attention is intended to be praise or punishment.  The dog only sees it as attention. So the dog continues to attention seek.

Ignoring the dog when he asks for attention is the first step in extinguishing the behavior. The other step requires that you reverse the relationship. Instead of your dog asking for your attention, you need to be calling the shots. You initiate the petting instead of your dog.  And if your dog seeks attention, first ignore him, then have your dog sit or do some other activity. By doing this, then you are in charge, not your dog.

 So the next time your dog nudges you for attention and you can’t stand it anymore, here’s what you do:

–          Completely ignore your dog. Do not talk to him or touch him.

–          Stand up and walk away if necessary.

–          After ignoring your dog for a few seconds, call him to you.  Ask him to sit or do something else. Then you can pet him.

As with most behavior modification plans for your dog, everyone who interacts with him must adhere to the rules. It’s not only unsuccessful but confusing to the dog if someone allows the dog to attention seek. Consistency is the language of dog!

Does your dog act like a sled dog when you walk?  If so, then you are always going where he wants to go and probably getting your shoulder pulled out of its socket.  What’s the view like from behind when your dog is the leader?  Not so good, huh? When you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes!

All dogs need to learn to walk nicely by your side without pulling ahead or dragging behind.  Your dog should be looking to you for direction.  Many dogs are able to comply but so many others have such a natural instinct to hunt or are so excited to be walking that they pull constantly, even when they have been trained to heel.  There are several ways to deal with this behavior.  First, you need to have your dog outfitted with the proper equipment.  A regular flat collar, a martingale, a metal choke collar or a prong collar are ineffective for major pullers.  These only cause the dog to choke and cough, and may damage the dog’s throat.  Instead, there are several collars or harnesses which you should consider:

  • Head halters such as the Gentle Leader.  These collars fit over the dog’s nose somewhat like a horse’s halter and the leash attaches to the nose loop.  When the dog pulls, the nose loop pulls the dog’s head to the side which stops the dog from pulling. These collars are very effective for most pullers, but some dogs have trouble adjusting to the feeling of the loop over their noses. The proper fitting and introduction of the collar to the dog is critical to the success of its use. And for some dogs, like my Gizzy, the head halters are ineffective. In fact, Gizzy pulled so hard that he crushed his tear duct in one eye from the loop compressing on his nose.
  • Body harnesses such as the Easy Walk.  These harnesses fit around the dog’s chest and back, and the leash attaches to the front of dog’s chest.  When the dog pulls, the harness tightens around the dog’s chest and stops the dog.  I have found these harnesses to be most effective, however, a small number of dogs experience chafing under the front legs and some can twist their bodies and escape from them. The old-style harness where the leash attaches on the top of the dog’s back are completely ineffective to stop a dog from pulling.
  • There are other types of devices that have been shown to be effective for some dogs: the Sporn (www.sporn.com) and the Weiss Walkie (www.emilyweiss.com) are two popular types of leashes and harnesses to try.

Additionally, the proper leash is an important ingredient for preventing pulling. If you really, really want your dog to stay close to you as you walk, always use a flat 4 foot or 6 foot leash instead of the retractable leash that gives your dog the ability to run 15 feet or more away from you, giving you less control over your dog.

Believe it or not, when you allow your dog to pull, you are unintentionally reinforcing the behavior. Your dog is getting his way.  And if you try to jerk him back, something called an opposition reflex kicks in: If you pull the dog, the dog pulls more.

Here are a few tactics to practice. First, pick a time when you can concentrate on working with your dog, obviously not when you are in a rush to go to work or take the kids to sports practice.  Designate a time of day when you can have a leisurely walk and can work with your dog uninterrupted.  Have your dog on a short leash and the appropriate type of collar as discussed above. Stand still with your dog by your side (traditionally, a dog heels to your left, but unless you are competing in shows with your dog, it does not matter to which side your dog walks). Start to walk slowly, keeping the leash tight.  If your dog starts to pull, change the direction you are walking.  If he resumes pulling, do another about-face and keep on walking.  Because you are keeping a tight leash, your dog has no choice but to follow you.  Your neighbors will watch you curiously as you zigzag up and down the street, but that’s okay!  Continue walking this way until your dog gets the idea that he must follow you. 

Another effective way to teach your dog not to pull is for you to stop walking when your dog pulls. Just stand there, don’t pull on him. Only begin walking again if he ceases straining. You are rewarding him for walking nicely by resuming the walk.  He will learn that pulling gets him nowhere.

With these tactics, your dog will eventually begin to realize that in order for him to have a walk, he must be watching you and not pulling.  Remember to praise your dog in a happy voice as he walks nicely by your side.  Your dog thrives on your happy praise and tells him when he is pleasing you.  Every time you or someone else walks your dog, you must practice the above strategies. 

I only covered a couple of ways to resolve leash pulling. Please consult with a qualified positive rewards trainer or behavior consultant if you’re still having problems.

It’s not enough nowadays to just be competent, compassionate and honest. It seems that controversy is the only way to garner attention. Politics and show business depend on creating controversy.  Haven’t we had enough of that lately with Charlie Sheen?!  Sorry, but being controversial is not my style.  I’m not looking for attention and do my best to steer away from confrontation and the limelight.  But I inadvertently stepped right into it, last week when I posted about Cesar Millan.

When the post was crossposted on Facebook, it became the most read entry of the entire year that I’ve been writing my blog.  On Facebook, a lot of people voiced their opinions about what I tried to convey: Most comments were from people who had taken the time to fully read and comprehend my message, while there were a few who either didn’t read it entirely or failed to comprehend what I wrote and they rushed to judgment.  I’m so happy that I was able to reach some people. As for the others who either didn’t read the post entirely or just didn’t understand it or didn’t want to understand it, they had various things to say about me, not about the facts that I presented. Interestingly, not one person challenged the validity of using counter-conditioning instead of force.  It was easier to condemn me.

One person said it was “tacky” that I compared Millan to Michael Vick. Huh??  Please reread my post; I made no comparison made between these men. I said that each one brings controversy.  Yep, they certainly do, as evidenced of the number of hits and comments on Facebook and this blog!

Someone else said that my post showed a “desperate attempt” to boost my own agenda.  Hmmm, my agenda? To help animals and to educate people about positive, loving training methods. Okay, I’m guilty!  Desperate?  Sorry, that’s simply not worth commenting on.

If it takes controversy to get attention for messages that will help animals, then I probably have no choice than to embrace it. In our current society, it seems like that’s the only way to get noticed.  I’m a pretty shy person. If I want to continue writing about helping animals, I’ll need to get thick-skinned and get used to the attention. Bring it on – for the sake of the animals.

Getting your dog to come to you reliably and consistently can be one of the most challenging and frustrating things to teach your dog. Entire books are dedicated to this subject! It’s not easy and requires a lot of practice and consistency. I will tackle this topic in several posts. Today, let’s review what types of things we do that encourage dogs not to come to us.

When dogs are puppies, we have the opportunity to shape their behavior in order to get the very best behaved dog. Or…we can do things that will forever make your dog difficult. I see many people inadvertently discourage their puppies from coming to them by doing several things:

–          Because pups can be so wild and active, many people will call their pup to them and once the pup finally comes to them, they will grab the pup, mostly by the collar, and restrain the pup.

–          So many times, people will catch their pups doing something wrong and they will call the pup to them and scold the pup.

–          People who use crates to train their pups will call the pup to get him to go into the crate, usually against the pup’s will. The pup quickly learns that “come” means playtime is over and he can no longer have fun.

These incidences all create negative feelings because something bad happened when the pup came to his person. In the pup’s mind, he’s thinking, “I don’t want to come to you because I won’t like it!”

Back in the early 2000’s, I used an accountant for my business who had a very lovely Lab.  She was a sweetheart!  A very soft and loving dog. When we finished with our business meeting one day, the accountant and I went out into the yard to play Frisbee with the dog. She was a wonderful Frisbee girl!  Most of the time, she brought the Frisbee right back to us.  She knew that she would get her reward in another chance to catch it.  But one time when my accountant called to her, she didn’t come back to us and instead decided to sniff around.  He called to her again. After four tries she finally trotted up to us with tail wagging happily.  My accountant scolded her and hit her repeatedly on the rear. She was visibly upset and fearful. I was mortified. I tried to explain to him that if you hit your dog when she finally comes to you, she will never want to come to you again. In the dog’s mind, she’s thinking, “I come to him, I get scolded and hit.” Yes, I quickly changed accountants.

So, tip number one for training your dog to come to you: Make it an enormously happy and wonderful thing whenever your dog comes to you. Always, consistently. It’s obviously best to start as a puppy but any dog can be shown that coming to you is a good thing. After all, if a puppy mill survivor can learn to come to people, any dog can!

Training Dogs Using Hand Signals

In my obedience classes, I’ve always taught the accompanying hand signals for all commands. Some dog trainers wait until advanced classes to include this lesson but I believe it’s important even for beginners and puppies.  Dogs respond reliably and often quicker to hand gestures versus voice commands. 

Because of variations in our speech, it seems that dogs prefer the consistency of gestures. So many of us talk to our dogs in sing-song voices, often asking or pleading instead of telling.  I hear, “Can you si-it?” instead of “Sit.” No wonder the dogs blow us off!  Hand signals are clear and lack the intonation and emotion our voices may convey.

Why else are hand signals important? Many dogs go deaf as they age.  My dog has lost most of his hearing and the only way to communicate with him is through hand gestures. In addition to the signals for the basic commands of sit, down, stay and come, he has become adept at knowing where I’m pointing.  My one index finger can mean so many things to him.  And a “thumbs up” has become recognized as “good boy!”

I just met a dog who was rescued from a shelter and his foster mom quickly realized that he is deaf. In just one day, she taught him “thumbs up” and he is well on his way to learning more signals.  Dogs are amazing at watching our visual cues and I’m confident that she will be communicating effectively with him before long. 

If you have read my book, Puppy Mill Dogs SPEAK!, you’ll remember that Molly is deaf (and was disgracefully breeding puppies who are probably deaf as well ).  Her adopters taught her many hand gestures. It doesn’t take long. 

Consistency is important.  It really doesn’t matter what signal you use, just so you always use the same one for the same command or meaning.  Try it!  Your dog will love the challenge and it will impress your friends. Nothing wows people more than when I raise my hand over my head and my dog lies down. It takes some practice but the results are worth it.

My First Book – Published Today!

Yes, it’s official.  Puppy Mill Dogs SPEAK! is available for purchase! After three years of interviews with the most amazing people and their dogs, lots of research and writing, and working with the very best editor in the world, Chris Slawecki, the book is out.  Please go to http://www.createspace.com/3445335 to purchase your copy.

From July 30 until August 31, 2010, 50% of the proceeds will be donated to Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue and Brookline Labrador Retriever Rescue.  Your purchase and telling others about the book will go a long way in helping homeless animals.

Plus, everyone who reads the book will gain an understanding of the unique and quirky behaviors of dogs who have spent their lives living in cages, and the challenges of adopting them.  In addition, the book goes into the health and behavior issues of the puppies that come from puppies mills.  It is an enlightening book for all dogs lovers!

Thank you for your support and for loving the animals!

Dogs and Egos

If you’re reading this blog, I’m betting that you love dogs (and other animals too). And I really doubt that you’re reading this because you love menopause! Thank goodness, there are so many people who put their passion for the animals into action by working or volunteering for animal-related organizations, shelters and rescues in particular since they tend to be the most cash-strapped.  These incredible people are so needed because there are millions of homeless pets in this country who need care and help in finding new homes.  In my 10 years as a volunteer and employee of several shelters and rescues, I have found that most people approach this work with selflessness, to help the animals and derive a sense of satisfaction that they are of service.  But there are a few – and I’ve encountered them at every organization – who believe that they have a “gift” with animals, dogs in particular, and that they know more than anyone else.  Instead of getting satisfaction just from being of service, they need to have their egos stroked by being viewed as something better than everyone else.  They come in various forms – the credit-grabber, the bossy know-it-all and the “I can do it all myself.” I can’t tell you how many people tell me, “I’ve been told that I’m a dog whisperer.”  I just chuckle inside.  That may very well be true but so are the other 50 people who are volunteering here! 

People who really know about dogs (and other animals) are humbled by them and understand that we always have something to learn from the animals.  In my work with dogs and their owners, I have learned that every dog, every person and every situation presents different interractions.  I found that when I started to get cocky, a situation presented itself to me that smacked my ego back in check – I didn’t know it all and I never will. 

I try to remember and appreciate every lesson and be an example as a leader.  A good leader allows others to learn and thrive without needing to force their knowledge and position on others.  So, even if I am not in charge, it’s a good practice to allow others to learn – be it from their own mistakes or successes.  Each and every day, I tell myself that the satisfaction from working with animals must come from within.  And I have a great opportunity to be an influence even if I’m not the boss.

Check out the blog of Michael Hyatt for a great post about being a leader and letting go of pride (also known as ego!).