Tag Archive: tips on dog training

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!


Nothing is more complicated for a pet behavior consultant and trainer than dogs who exhibit signs of stress when they are left alone. By the time we are consulted, the owner is often ready to give the dog away. I’ve worked with some extreme cases where the dogs had literally torn down their houses. Ripped doorframes, chewed molding, destroyed window screens, holes dug in the drywall, rugs in shreds. Destructiveness is just one symptom of separation anxiety in dogs. Other signs are excessive barking, inappropriate elimination, drooling, and pacing.

We’re not certain why some dogs freak out when left alone but others take it in stride. From my experience, most dogs who have separation anxiety have “parents” who spoil them and allow the dog to be the leader. While some dogs are confident and well-balanced enough to handle the leadership role, other dogs are not so eager to have that responsibility on their furry shoulders. Dogs who are more insecure should not be given the leadership role. It makes them much more anxious. One theory is that when an insecure dog is in charge and his “parents” leave him, he gets nervous because he cannot see them in order to tell them what to do!  Makes sense. So many dogs follow their people around relentlessly in order to keep an eye on them, not because they love us so much. It’s because they are in control.

Separation anxiety involves not just treating the dog but also the relationship of the dog with the family; therefore, there are no quick tips that I can convey here to help resolve the problem. Every relationship is unique. But one easy step to follow applies to our relationship with every dog in our care: The humans must be the leaders. It relieves the dog of the pressure of being in charge and avoids many potential behavior problems.

A good leader is kind and fair – no force is involved. Remember, you will never hear me advise someone to alpha roll (a.k.a., dominance down, restrain or pin the dog down) because that is NOT how to show leadership. A good leader never loses control by using physical means but instead controls the resources for the dog. What’s a resource? Anything that the dog wants:  Food, treats, affection, toys, play, walks, getting on the furniture, going outside, etc. Some trainers call this method “Nothing in Life is Free,” meaning that the dog must “work” for what he wants.  So, for example, when you feed your dog, ask him to “sit” and wait calmly for you to place his bowl on the floor. Or if your dog has a habit of asking you to play by dropping balls at your feet or nudging your hand for petting (see Dog Training Tip – Attention Seeking), just get your dog to sit or give paw or some other action that shows your dog that you are the one calling the shots.

All of my dogs have liked to rush the door when it’s walk time. Instead of me allowing them to push out the door, I ask them to back up several feet and “stay.” They know that cannot go for a walk unless they follow this rule. If they break the stay and rush the door, I simply walk away. They very quickly learned that they do not get what they want unless they follow my rules.  It’s kind and benevolent.

It’s pretty remarkable how quickly dogs respond to their humans taking over as the leaders. I once worked with a client whose black Lab was so obnoxious with following her around, barking for attention and freaking out when in his crate that she was ready to find a new home for him.  Literally within three days of my visit and advising the entire family to consistently be the leaders, the dog’s behavior changed.  He relaxed, stopped barking, no longer felt the need to follow them around and was easier to train to go into his crate.

Some dogs with separation anxiety may require medications to help them. As with human psychological disorders, a combination of drug therapy and behavior modification can work well.

Food – one of life’s great pleasures, for humans and animals. Our bodies need food to give us fuel and nutrition to keep us alive. But sometimes the desire for food develops into unhealthy patterns. Some humans may overeat or binge on the wrong types of foods.  Although dogs cannot overeat unless we give them access to too much food, they can develop another abnormal eating behavior – food aggression – when dogs growl, lunge or try to bite you if you take their food while eating, attempt to pet them or for some severe cases, when you enter the room if food is present.

Food aggression in dogs is very serious business. If you have a food-aggressive dog, chances are you just leave your dog alone when he is eating.  You’ve told your children and visitors not to bother the dog.  Food aggression may occur not only around the dog’s food bowl, however. What happens if your child drops a piece of food on the floor and your dog grabs it as your child tries to pick it up?  Or your dog is outside and encounters someone with food who drops it on the ground.  Aggression can occur with any foodstuff, and can be even more pronounced with bones, rawhide chews, pig ears, etc.  In most animal shelters, dogs with food aggression are euthanized because of the potential risk to adopters who may not be able to cope with this very dangerous problem.

Why it is that some dogs protect their food and others don’t?  Food aggression can be an inherited trait. And sometimes it can be a result of conditions when the dog was a puppy. Some dog breeders free-feed puppies, causing them to contend for food. If you’ve ever seen a dog who pushes his head into the bowl and practically inhales the food with one gulp, then you’re probably looking at a dog who had to fight for his share. Some dogs from puppy mills can have food aggression due to the conditions at the mills. They are most certainly free-fed, and probably not enough food.

Food aggression can be made worse by the way the dog’s owner responds to the dog.  I’ve worked with people who get angry and indignant with the dog when he growls at them, claiming that they should be able to take the dog’s food at any time. So they proceed to “test” the dog by taking the food while the dog is eating. And often a good scolding and even physical punishment follows. This tactic will make matters worse, simply because the dog’s fears that someone will remove his food have been confirmed. And the scolding/punishment reinforces this fear. Some trainers and Internet advice sites say that the owners must be “the alpha” and control the food by taking it away from the dog at any time.  Nonsense. That approach will get you bitten, not resolve the problem. NEVER remove the dog’s bowl from him while he’s eating!

The best approach is to teach your dog that great things happen when you come near your dog while eating. Choose a food that your dog loves but rarely receives – canned chicken, cheese, steak, liver bites. If you can safely come near your dog when he’s eating, casually drop the food on the floor next to your dog’s bowl so that he sees it. Continue this practice every time that your dog is eating. He needs to begin associating your presence with the great food.  If your dog is so highly food aggressive that you cannot get near him, pick a time when your dog is not eating, take an empty bowl and set it on the floor near your dog. Drop the high value food in it. The idea is for your dog to get the picture of you near his bowl in a non-threatening manner giving him good stuff.

Or try a different technique: hand-feeding.  Remove the dog’s bowl from the equation altogether and give your dog his food in small handfuls from your hand. If that is successful, graduate to placing the empty bowl on the floor and adding a couple of food nuggets in the bowl at a time and allow your dog to eat them. Continue until you have given your dog his entire meal. Praise, praise, praise if your dog acts appropriately!  Yes, it’s completely time consuming but well worth the effort. (If he freezes, growls or tries to bite during any of these exercises, discontinue and consult a behavior consultant ASAP.)  

These methods can improve the behavior and even extinguish it, but it takes time, patience and consistency.  This post gives a few suggestions and is not intended to be a thorough guide to working with dogs with food aggression. It’s best to consult a qualified behavior consultant if your dog’s issues are severe.

Some dogs can be trained to eliminate outside within days with no trouble at all. And some dogs just don’t seem to get it – or they don’t want to.  I’d like to believe that all dogs can be housetrained if given the proper training and enough patience.  Dogs learn at different rates and some may take longer than others, especially puppies who have smaller bladders.  And I’ve run across particular breeds such as Yorkies which are often very challenging to achieve consistent bathroom habits. (Oh, and by the way, the term “house breaking” is no longer politically correct because it implies the use of force.)

Below are the time-proven methods for helping your dog to learn where to go potty.

 1.          Use a consistent door/location

Always take your dog out the same door and to the same place in your yard.  Dogs are scent animals and recognize their own odors.  Establish an area in your yard or wherever you regularly walk your dog and wait for him/her to eliminate there.

2.          Create a consistent schedule

Establish a routine feeding and walking schedule daily.  Do not deviate from this schedule, even on weekends.  Take your dog outside to the designated spot immediately after each meal, immediately after each playtime, immediately after awaking and right before bedtime.  Puppies need to go outside about every 2 hours. It’s also important not to allow your dog to free-feed, that is, graze all day. Free-feeding does not help dogs to regulate their bowels. And very few in-between meal snacks too!

3.          Never let your dog out of your sight

Until your dog is housetrained, do not let your dog in the house unsupervised.  Use either a crate to confine your dog when you cannot supervise him/her, or use a leash to keep him/her close to you.  This way, you be able to catch your dog in the act of eliminating in the house.  Then, you can immediately take him/her outside to the designated spot.  

4.       Reward, never punish!

Should you see your dog beginning to eliminate in the house, interrupt the behavior with “ah, ah, ah – outside!” and take the pup outside.  Never, ever scold your pup for eliminating in the house.  And dogs do not understand when you stick their noses in their housetraining mistakes, or if you hit them when they have an accident.  This only teaches them to fear you, to eliminate in the house when you are not looking or sneak off to another room and do their business there.  Instead, use praise and treats for when your dog eliminates when and where you want.  The very instant that your dog begins to eliminate in this place, say “Good dog!!!” with lots of enthusiasm, then give a treat when he/she is finished. Don’t wait until the dog has come back into the house. 

5.          Be patient!

If you are housetraining a puppy, expect training to take several weeks, depending on the breed, because of small bladders.  An older dog can be trained in a few days with the proper attention.  Expect your dog to make mistakes occasionally from the beginning.  Please be patient and continue to follow the principles.

6.          Thoroughly clean up all accidents

Carpet cleaner alone is not effective to remove pet odors in the house.  Use a pet deodorizer such as Nature’s Miracle.

If you’re still having problems after faithfully following these guidelines, first consult with your veterinarian.  Your dog may have a health problem such as a urinary tract infection.  If your dog gets a clean bill of health, then consult a pet behavior consultant.  A qualified specialist can take a good look at what’s going on in your house and in your relationship with your dog, both critical factors in determing the success of house training.

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.

Are your kitchen counters and tabletops pristinely clear and clutter-free? Do you have to cool the brownies on top of the fridge? Had to replace your TV’s remote control more than once because it became your dog’s chew toy? If these apply to you, then you must live with a thief!  A canine thief that is.

Counter surfing is the term that dog trainers use to refer to the actions of dogs who like to steal things off of counters, tables and others places where tempting objects can be found. Mostly an issue with dogs who are large enough to reach the counters, smaller dogs can still be guilty of larceny from lower furniture.

Counter surfing can be a dangerous problem, resulting in dogs getting sick from what they’ve eaten or needing surgery because they ate something that caused a blockage. It can be a very challenging and difficult behavior to stop.

First, if you live with a counter surfer, you know that you must be diligent with keeping temptation away from the dog. No food can be left on counters and tables, and even dish towels must be kept out of reach or else they get swiped and chewed. Management of the dog’s environment is the easiest step to take to prevent unwanted behavior.

Next, ensure that you never, ever, ever chase your dog when he steals something. More than likely, this is how he became a counter surfer in the first place. He stole something he wasn’t supposed to have and someone chased him. He thought it was a cool game (because he got your attention), thus an unwanted behavior was reinforced.

I realize that it is incredibly difficult not to chase your dog if he has just stolen your expensive shoe. Instead, try to distract and divert your dog’s attention from the object.  Shake the box of dog treats, ring the doorbell, pick up his leash and ask if he wants to go for a walk, yell “squirrel” out the window. What dog can resist any of these?!  If your dog drops the stolen object and comes running, give him tons of praise and a treat.

When your dog begins to see that he gets no attention when he steals things, the behavior should stop – as long as everyone who interacts with him is consistent and never chases and scolds him. Remember that any behavior that you give attention to will be reinforced.

You can also train your dog the “leave it” command (see the Dog Training Tip of the Week – Leave It). Place a treat on a table where your dog can see it and use the “leave it” command to instruct him not to touch it. Yes, this takes a lot of practice, but a well-mannered dog is worth the investment of time. Whenever you catch your dog attempting to surf, tell him to “leave it.”  Remember to praise him when he responds.

One last thing – if you regularly feed your dog scraps when you are preparing food at the counter and you have a very smart dog, he will soon learn that yummy things come from that counter area. It’s best not to feed your dog from the counter. Put him into a “stay” in an area away from your food preparation. If you still want to give him a snack, place it in his bowl.

If you are diligent with keeping counters and tables free of temptation and not giving attention to your dog when he steals things, you stand a good chance of extinguishing the behavior.

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!

In the last Dog Training Tip of the Week, I reviewed things to do to prevent your dog from becoming thunder phobic. So what do you do if your dog already has thunder phobia?  I wish there was an easy, straightforward and consistent solution.  There’s not.  The truth is that some dogs react well to some methods and other dogs have no reaction.  Plus, the severity of the dog’s reaction to storms will dictate the course of action.  

There are many theories as to why dogs become so phobic of thunder.  One theory suggests that the electricity in the air creates a static charge, making the dogs very uncomfortable.  Another theory indicates that the barometric pressure drops during a storm, and this too creates discomfort for some dogs.  Or it can quite simply be that the dog fears noise.  Regardless of the source, the idea behind most treatments requires lowering the dog’s anxiety and using counter-conditioning.  Counter-conditioning means to change the dog’s present negative association of bad things with thunder to a positive association.

Methods of lowering the dog’s anxiety are many: 

  • Anxiety Wrap, Thundershirts or tight t-shirts – Studies have shown that some dogs experience a lowering in their anxiety if they are hugged securely.  Several garments have been invented with this theory in mind.  The Anxiety Wrap is worn around the dog’s torso. It fits very snugly and may simulate the action of being hugged.  The Thundershirt works in a similar fashion. Instead of buying either of these, some dogs respond to a tight t-shirt worn similarly around the torso.
  • Static cape – Although I have never heard of any dogs who have benefited from this garment, the static cape is a garment worn around the dog’s shoulders and back (just like a cape) and has been purported to reduce the static charge affecting the dog during a storm.
  • DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) –When dogs nurse their pups, they emit a pheromone which is comforting to the puppies.  There is a product on the market called DAP which is a synthetic version of this pheromone.  First available as a plug-in unit (like an air freshener), it also comes in a spray version and as a collar worn around the dog’s neck.  Many dogs have shown improvement in their reactions to thunder when this product is used. 
  • Lavender, essential oils and flower essences – Many people believe that these products have calming effects on dogs.  Although no scientific evidence exists to prove it, there is no harm in trying them.  The results may be very subtle yet effective.
  • Massage and T-touch – Gentle and slow stroking helps to relax dogs.  If your dog’s reaction to thunder is not severe, he may enjoy a relaxing massage at the beginning of a storm to help keep him from getting more agitated.  However, a dog who reacts severely to storms will not be able to settle down for a massage.  I once visited a new client to give his dog a massage.  In the distance, the dog could hear thunder but I could not.  This poor dog would not lie down for me and nothing I did settled him. It wasn’t long until I heard the thunder myself and realized this dog was not in any mood to be massaged.

Dogs with more severe thunder phobia will need counter-conditioning and possibly medication:

  • Counter-conditioning – A thunder phobic dog has developed an association of something bad with thunder.  He is “conditioned” to react with fear.  The objective of counter-conditioning is to teach the dog to associate good things with thunder.  A common approach is to play a CD with thunder sounds, very softly at first, as you feed the dog high quality treats.  The idea is hopefully the dog will then develop a new conditioned response to the thunder – to look for high quality treats when he hears the thunder. 
  • Medication – Sedatives are usually the last resort when a dog is severely affected by thunder. Many vets still prescribe acepromazine (ACE) which is administered at the first signs of a storm.  This is a very powerful tranquilizer that zonks out the dog after about an hour.  Unfortunately, the storm can come and go before the medication takes effect, and often times, the owners are not home when the storm hits to be able to administer it to the dog anyway.  Additionally, research has shown that dogs who are given ACE become more thunder phobic.  The presumption is that ACE causes the dog to be out of control.  This lack of control during a fearful event creates an even more conditioned fear response.  More and more veterinarians are now prescribing Xanax instead of ACE.  Consult your veterinarian for medication recommendations. 

Best yet, a combination of treatments are now being explored.  The use of medication, DAP, the Anxiety Wrap or Thundershirt and any other relaxing activity during counter-conditioning can create a package of a positive conditioned response to storms.  This is how it works:

When there is no storm present, light a lavender candle, plug in the DAP unit (or spray the DAP), dress the dog in the Anxiety Wrap/Thundershirt (or a tight t-shirt) and do some massage.  Play the CD with the thunder sounds as you give the dog very high quality treats that he usually does not have (canned chicken, string cheese, liver bites).  The idea is that the dog will form an association of the lavender candle, the wrap/t-shirt, a massage, and great treats with thunder.  So when a real storm approaches, you can do the same routine (if you are home) and the dog will feel better. 

Resolving phobias is tricky business.  Ensure you proceed slowly and consult with a professional before attempting any counter-conditioning.  All of these methods require a huge consistent commitment to work with the dog.  It’s worth it, if it keeps your dog with you and makes him happier.

It’s still March and my town has already experienced two evenings with thunder booms. Having lived with a severely thunder-phobic dog for the last 8 ½ years, I completely sympathize with people who also have dogs who quiver, drool and freak out with approaching dark clouds and the first raindrop. I originally wrote an article in 2007 for the Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue’s newsletter called April Showers Bring…Thunderstorms and it has subsequently been reprinted in Our Havanese magazine. I have updated it for this blog, and will divide it into two posts as it’s a lot of information for one post. 

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when you hear the forecast that many dog owners dread – chance of thunderstorms.  People lose sleep and often time from their jobs in attempts to be with their dogs during storms.  Houses get destroyed when dogs frantically try to escape the noise.  I even heard of a dog who jumped out of a second story window in an attempt to find safety.  Consider yourself among the lucky ones if your dog does not completely freak out during a storm.  Even though your dog may not have problems now, many dogs develop thunder and noise phobias later in life.  Let’s first review how to ensure your dog does not become thunder-phobic.  Then we’ll take a look at what can be done to work with dogs who react fearfully during storms.

It only takes one incident for a dog to learn to fear thunder.  You may be in the middle of some particularly loud and house-shaking boomers when you dog’s ears go back and he runs under the bed.  Being human with the instinct to nurture, our first inclination is to tell the dog that everything’s okay.  We even hug the dog and comfort him like a child.  The problem with this approach is that dogs don’t think like humans. Telling a dog that “it’s okay” is not understood.  Dogs, instead, may read this comforting as a reinforcer for the behavior. In the dog’s mind, he’s thinking, “Hmm, I act scared and I get comforted which feels good.  So I’ll keep on acting scared in order to receive more comforting.”  A dog cannot reason that “it’s okay” means that the thunder will not harm him. Researchers are divided on this theory, however. Some believe that comforting a dog during a thunderstorm reinforces fear while others think that it’s cruel to ignore a dog who is reacting fearfully. 

I prefer not to comfort the dog but instead to redirect him to something fun and distracting if possible. But all dogs react differently. Some like to find a safe place to hide; others prefer to be close to their people. Most dogs have a place in their homes where they feel good.  If your dog gravitates to this area in a storm, allow your dog to go there undisturbed.  But if your dog does not seek a safe place and instead comes to you, act like nothing is wrong.  Try to engage him in play or distract him with his favorite treats.  Have him do sits, stays and other obedience commands that show your dog that you are in charge and in control of the situation.  Plus it also serves to distract you from the scary storm!  After all, we may have the tendency to react nervously ourselves during a bad storm. Our dogs pick up on our reactions. I have a friend who bakes cookies during a storm and her dog loves it!

 Next time, we will get into what to do if your dog is already thunder-phobic.

In the previous post on February 28 discussing how to train your dog to come, I talked about what not to do when your dog comes to you. I always tell people that teaching a dog to come is easy, but getting your dog to do it reliably is the challenging part. Today, let’s go over how to teach your dog to “come” and then in Part III, I’ll review some games that we can play with our dogs to reinforce “come” and make it a happy event.  As we know, training needs to be fun for everyone – your dog and you! 

First, think of an object that your dog really loves, something that will motivate him to come to you: a particular kind of treat or even a toy. Since most dogs are motivated by food, it’s best to use small bite-sized treats like cheese or canned chicken. I like using something that your dog is not accustomed to eating and it smells really enticing. But if your dog is not food-motivated, a toy is a great option if your dog has a favorite like a ball or a retriever roll. With this treat/toy in your hand, hold it in front of your dog so he can see it/smell it. Once you get your dog’s attention, take a few steps backwards and say the word “come” to your dog in a happy, upbeat tone.  When your dog follows you, give the treat/toy to your dog and praise him happily.  Remember, when your dog comes to you, it must always be an enormously happy event!  Hugs and kisses are good things too but only if your dog really likes that. 

Continue practicing luring your dog to you in this manner with a treat or a toy by walking backwards and rewarding your dog, and gradually increase the distance that you walk backwards. You will be able to see if your dog is responding to you obviously if he comes to you. If so, then you can move on to more advanced work.  Put your dog into a “stay” and walk away – not too far, maybe just a few feet. Call your dog by saying “come” happily. (Your tone of voice is sooooo vital.  No dog is going to want to come to someone who is screeching or clearly unhappy.)  When your dog comes to you, give him the treat or the toy. Some trainers also like to give dogs a “jackpot” of treats when the dog comes to you.  By doing this, you are really showing the dog that coming to you is wonderful!

Important: If your dog does not come to you, do not scold him. I don’t even like to do an “Aw, try again.” We only want to reward your dog for doing good things, not call attention to when he doesn’t do it properly.  

It’s best to begin training your dog to “come” when there are no distractions.  Inside your home with no other dogs, people or kids around is ideal. As your dog becomes more reliable with coming to you inside the house, you can then take the training outside where there are usually more distractions (smells, sounds, etc.). Always use a leash when outside doing training work for “come.” I like to use a long, 30-foot cotton leash for this training so that you can gradually increase the distance between you and your dog.   Allow your dog to walk around and sniff to his heart’s desire while on this leash. Then call your dog to come. Make it happy and enticing. You might even want to run away from your dog and slap your thighs to make it more of a game. If your dog comes to you, great! Give him treats, toys, praise and hugs. If your dog ignores you, take the leash and as you say “come” again, guide the dog back to you. Don’t yank, just gently bring your dog back. 

Practice, practice, practice!!!  And be the person that your dog can’t resist coming to. Those are the keys to a dog who will come every time he’s called.  Next time, some games to play to reinforce your dog’s reliable recall.