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Behavior or “What the heck?”

Sniff sniff sniff, repeat.

Sniff, sniff, sniff, where has Julie been?

Reisner Veterinary Services posted this article from Silent Conversations, a website dedicated to “Insights into Canine Communication,” about sniffing the ground and what it might indicate about doggie discourse.

Although I have paid attention to sniffing in dogs, I have been watching it more closely lately as I recently read The Education of Will, by Dr Patricia McConnell. At one point she talks about noticing the constancy and intensity of Will’s sniffing and how it concerned her in such a young dog. So, I was delighted to see the article from Silent Conversations which explained and reinforced my own observations about something that all dogs do, but may do differently at different times. Knowing when your dog is just checking the pee-mail and when he is sniffing as a way to diffuse a potentially tense situation can help you keep Fido relaxed and manageable. 

Martha Knowes, the author of the blog says this by way of introduction:


Sniffing can be used as a calming signal when an interaction is too intense. One dog may start to walk away, slowly sniffing the ground; the other dog may mirror him by also sniffing the ground. This is a good way to defuse an interaction.


Sniffing can be used as negotiation as two dogs approach each other; a deliberate slower approach is polite when greeting. Sniffing the ground is commonly used as part of the body language signals offered at the beginning stages of an approach.


In other contexts, sniffing could also be interpreted as displacement behaviour or a stress response. A dog may feel conflicted about something he sees ahead of him; he may slow down and stop to sniff the environment. Sniffing may help displace the anxiety, and it gives the opportunity to assess things further from a safe distance by stalling the approach.

She continues by giving several examples of where you might see unusual sniffing and clearly describes not only the situation, but the body language that might accompany the sniffing. I really appreciated the use of common scenarios as well as the straight-forward, precise language used to describe canine body language. Even without accompanying pictures, I could clearly envision the dog she was describing.**

Ms. Knowles also adds a good section on what she means by stress. The paragraph is worth repeating in its entirety:

When I mention stress, this does not necessarily imply negative emotion. I mean stress in the physiological sense. So certain body language signals can mean the dog is feeling some sort of emotional discourse. This discourse could range from positive to negative emotion. Both excitement and fear could have similar effects on the body, with various hormones being released and activating the sympathetic nervous system. The dog may be feeling uncomfortable/fearful or it could also be excited about something. When analyzing stress in body language, it is worth noting the frequency and intensity of the various body language signals.

Closed mouth, turned head.

The last part of the article is a good reminder that when you are looking at body language it is important to describe what you see the animal doing, the immediate surroundings, and if there is anything that has changed in the environment (did something make a noise, is there a stranger dog approaching, or a person jogging?), rather than immediately interpreting the meaning of the behavior. For example, if you see a dog stop, close his mouth, look away, lower his tail, and squint his eyes, it could be that he saw a dog that he didn’t know, or a car backfired, or there was a strange smell. He might be slowing his approach to a strange dog, startled by a sound, or repelled by the smell. These are descriptions of the behavior and not emotional interpretations of the dog’s inner workings.  

In Ms Knowles words:

To offer an unbiased interpretation of the body language, observe and take note of the situation, taking into account the dog’s whole body, the body language signals, and environment first before offering an interpretation. List all the body language you see in the order that it occurs; try to be as descriptive as possible without adding any emotional language. For instance, saying a dog looks happy is not descriptive and would be seen as an interpretation rather than an observation.

 The more you know about your dog and her individual signals, including the more subtle ones such as sniffing, the better you will be able to protect and serve your best dog friend. 

Sniffing the breeze and getting the lowdown on the neighborhood.


**Note: she does include links to other articles which describe the dog’s perspective on things, or elucidate a particular aspect of canine body language, such as the head turn. All of her links are worth reading.

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Canine brainiacs

Bingley, Buckley, and Tex all crossed the Rainbow bridge this year.

Bingley, Buckley, and Tex all crossed the Rainbow bridge this year.

This year has been a challenge for me and my family as we lost 2 dogs to cancer and one dog to a seizure disorder. I wasn’t sure my heart could take any more sorrow and I was a bit hesitant to risk it on another dog, as Bingley was my canine soulmate. But, if I have learned anything, it’s that loving a dog with everything you have makes it nearly impossible to live without one, and it is that love of a great dog which propels you forward into another canine experiment.

img_3432So meet Zuzu, my newest pooch. She, like Bingley, is a flat-coated retriever, and true to her breed, is one of the happiest dogs on the planet. At 16 months she is a teenager who is unlikely to grow out of her teenage enthusiasm anytime soon. Channeling her inexhaustible energy into constructive activities and teaching her to focus on the task at hand are my immediate goals for her. To do this, I have decided to enlist the aid of a book I recently discovered: Fun & Games for a Smarter Dog, 50 Great Brain Games to Engage your Dogby Sophie Collins.

This book is great on so many levels beginning with the introduction and a part on playing safely with your dog which includes a very important section on playing with children.* Take the time to read the section on  play and  training before you plunge into the individual games, as it will set you up to better use the games to your particular dog’s advantage and is a wonderful reminder that training and play can happily overlap. After all, “there’s no reason you can’t teach your dog by playing with him.” She also has sections on dog personalities, toys, and clicker training.** And, be sure to read the “About You, What You Need To Do” as it reminds us that we can be part of the problem when our dogs are not “getting it.” Subsequent chapters divide the games into categories: Basic Games, Bonding Games, Brain Games, Fitness Games, Figuring it out, and Getting Along.

Sit happens.

She starts with the basics of Sit, Down, Wait, and Let’s Go (which you have likely taught your dog already, but perhaps used different names for these behaviors). She makes the point that, “It is better to make sure that your pet stays responsible and reacts promptly to key commands instead of moving on to other exercises at the expense of the basics.” So, she goes over these core behaviors in detail so that you can be sure that you are clearly communicating to your dog, and he clearly understands what is expected of him. This section is a good place to begin as it really does help you to pay attention to your words and your body language so you can more effectively communicate with your dog. Moreover, the rest of the games will be easier for you and your dog if you have figured out how to work with one another.

As you work through the various exercises in the book (and you can easily pick and choose those that are most appealing to you and your dog) she continues to provide clear instructions as well as explaining what he is learning and why this behavior is useful. Almost every game has a note that will enhance the learning experience or give you an extra challenge. When playing Hide-and-Seek with your dog she suggests that you, “Try hiding at different levels: going up a level, for example, perching on a bunk bed because dogs don’t automatically look above eye level when they’re searching for something but instead rely on their noses.”

In addition to Clicker Training, she also has sections explaining positive reinforcement training and the Dominance myth. Her easy to read and understand instructions, coupled with her explanations of the science of learning and play, will broaden and enhance your understanding of how dogs think and learn. But mostly, this wonderfully accessible book will convince you that playing with your dog is a great way to live, learn, and love together for a lifetime.

Above: Zuzu and I practice some fetch, sit, and give, 3 days after picking her up. Playing games is a great way to establish a strong bond with your new dog.



*Having kids play with dogs is great, but should never be done without the direct supervision of an adult. Colleen Pelar and I talk about Simple Games for Kids and Dogs in our podcast airing 12/20/16, and see my other blogs on kids and dogs: Forced Friendship and And Baby Makes Four.

** See also our podcast, Why Be Positive?

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Dogs and hugs do not go together!

A gentle and appropriate interaction between a pre-schooler and a dog.

A gentle and appropriate interaction between a pre-schooler and a dog.

Reisner Veterinary Services posted a link on their Facebook page on November 19, showing a video of three different dogs, two of which are being hugged by small children. For those of us who work with dogs this is a very scary video as the first two dogs are clearly stressed by what is happening and the third dog is being put into a situation that can quickly escalate into a bite to the child’s face. Here is a link to the page they reference (the post is dated 11/10/16 and titled, “Do you have a child who likes to hug the dog”):

And here are Reisner’s thoughts on the videos:

1. Hugging is NOT a positive interaction for many, many dogs. If an individual dog does seem to enjoy it, it is usually a learned behavior, and may be tolerated from only certain people. Generally speaking, children are less tolerated than adults. If you look closely at a dog’s face while being hugged, you’re more likely to see stress than pleasure.

2. It’s clear from videos like this that knowledge about dog safety is lacking. It’s doubtful that this is a deliberate attempt to put toddlers at risk. We need to press on and educate the public. I also need to remind myself that the great majority of parents are not connected to progressive dog groups and pages on Facebook, and have absolutely no idea of the risk.

3. Most dog bite injuries that end up in emergency rooms are to young children, in the head, face and neck. It’s very easy to see why.

Just because a dog IS tolerant and patient doesn’t mean the dog needs to be confronted with such aversive interactions (including the infant tapping a toy on the dog’s head). The dogs here are just being set up to fail. Why tempt fate?

I couldn’t agree more with Reisner’s comments. I would add that there are plenty of good sites online that educate parents about appropriate interactions between kids and dogs. Here are some of my blogs as well as my favorite online sites:

My blogs:

Forced Friendship

Some from Column A…

And baby makes four

And here are some great websites with terrific advice and resources for parents:

Living with Kids and Dogs

Family Paws

Kids and dogs can live harmoniously, but it requires supervision of small people, an understanding of stress signals in dogs, and respect for the needs of both children and canines.

A relaxed interaction between teen and dog. No hugs here, and plenty of room for both of them to move.

A relaxed interaction between teen and dog. No hugs around the neck, and plenty of room for both of them to move.



Behavior or "What the heck?" Care and management or living together in harmony General Stress: signals, management, & warning signs0 comments

May I help you? …or not?

On October 15th Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services addressed an issue that has been of concern to me for a long time: dogs who really shouldn’t be therapy dogs. Not every dog can be molded into a dog who relishes visits with children, Alzheimer’s patients, or nursing home residents. As much as I admire someone’s desire to give light and joy to those individuals, very few dogs really have the right temperament to do this work, and those that do may well have institutions they do not like, types of people who make them uncomfortable, or days they just don’t feel like doing the job.

Hudson at the ready to meet and greet!

Hudson at the ready to meet and greet!

Or, it could be that your therapy dog is ready to retire. Our Golden Retriever, Hudson, was the dog I used for Bite Prevention workshops in schools. When he was about 7, I was invited to a first grade class to talk about dog safety. One of the things I did in these visits, was have the kids hide a stuffed Kong in the classroom and then let Huddy find it. He never failed to retrieve it and then settle down amongst the children to clean out the Kong. On this day, the kids hid the Kong, Hudson got it, and promptly walked away from the kids to settle under a desk to eat his treat. I knew right then that it was Hudson’s last day as a classroom dog because he was telling me quite clearly that he no longer enjoyed the situation, but was only tolerating it. Therapy dogs need to love their work, not just put up with it.

As Reisner puts it so very well:

Many of us see therapy work as a desirable goal, where we and our dogs can work as partners to help others less fortunate than we are. But it’s not typically our dogs’ choice to do this work; some of them just aren’t meant to do so.


Socialization, training and even ‘testing’ don’t guarantee that a particular dog will do well in an institutional or hospital setting, and with children or elderly people. Very elderly people may be stiff and fragile, or may not be able to follow instructions. Children can be impulsive, loud, and can crowd dogs. Any institution is crowded with equipment, noises, staff and smells that can intimidate dogs.


My beloved red Aussie, Zev, was Therapy Dog International certified, well socialized to a variety of human sizes, shapes and abilities and very easy-going. Neither of us was prepared when, in a nursing home, a woman with Alzheimer’s approached him very slowly, and with a direct stare, while he was in a small room visiting with someone else. Understandably, he growled; I almost growled myself. That was the day he retired from therapy work, much to his relief. And there have been dogs presented for behavior consultations because of fearful behavior in such environments.


Every therapy setting is unique, as are the temperaments of individual dogs. It pays to think twice before putting a dog in a setting that neither you nor the dog can control. Consider your dog’s temperament and, most important, his attitude and posturing in the therapy setting. Protect him from situations that might trigger fear and, if needed, be willing to walk out for his sake.


If your dog is sketchy or the setting is challenging, remember that you can choose to spend weekend afternoons visiting a nursing home and enriching the lives of its residents without your dog, while he stays home working on a frozen food-filled Kong.

Finding the right dog to do therapy work is a major challenge, especially with rescue dogs whose backgrounds and socialization maybe murky at best. That might lead you to think that purebred dogs are the answer. Not necessarily. Even well-socialized pure bred dogs, raised from puppyhood to be comfortable with a variety of people, may not have the temperament for this line of work. Challenging situations might trigger discomfort and reactivity that would put him and others at risk. This is why it is imperative to pay close attention to the signals your dog is giving you that may indicate that he is unhappy and would prefer to be doing something else. If your dog does rise to the challenge of being a therapy dog, congratulations! But, don’t feel bad if he doesn’t, just allow him to spread joy in his particular fashion.

This dog was lovely with my grandson, who gently put his arms around him. He wasn't a therapy dog, but spread joy wherever he went!

This dog was lovely with my grandson, who gently put his arms around him. He wasn’t a therapy dog, but spread joy wherever he went!

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Some from column A, all from column B…

It’s time, once again, for a hodgepodge of items that I have recently encountered. These tidbits are related by four components: 1) I like them, 2) they are all about positive approaches to training and interacting with your dog, 3) Reisner Vet likes them and, 4) I was not smart enough to write them first.

The first is the Freedom Harness Exchange Program.

The Harness Exchange Program is an advocacy program of Biggies Bullies that promotes the use of force-free pet equipment. We are asking pet guardians o swap out their choke, prong, and shock collars for a free harness! We want all pets and their parents to experience the huge advantages and long-lasting effectiveness of force-free training and pet care. When you mail us your choke, prong, or shock collar we will send you a free Freedom No Pull Harness. -Biggies Bullies Website.


Bingley in his first no-pull harness. Works for non-bully breeds too!

The page is filled with pictures of adorable “bully” breed dogs happily ensconced in their bright colored freedom harnesses. The beauty of any no-pull harness is that it works with your dog to stop pulling, rather than punish or hurt your dog for pulling. Choke chain collars can damage your dog’s thyroid, increase the pressure in his eyes (putting him at greater risk for glaucoma), and can cause damage to the trachea or esophagus. “Dogs walked on prongs are also constantly subjected to pain and discomfort, which creates fear, anxiety and aggression on walks.” (Biggies Bullies Website). Dogs corrected with shock collars may associate the pain and fear they experience with their owners and may respond by avoiding their owners, shutting down, or acting out aggressively.*

I have used the Freedom harness as well as other front buckling no pull harnesses and I highly recommend them. They are the most effective, however, when used in conjunction with positive reinforcement training to teach a dog loose leash walking.  I think this is a great program and if you want to support it, click here to donate.

Lili Chin Drawing

Lili Chin Drawing

Another article that I came across came from my old standard Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services is dated June 6th and has a wonderful graphic by Lili Chin, titled Calm and Relaxed? or Shut Down? What I love about this is that it points out how important it is to understand dog body language so you know what your dog is actually telling you! Dogs who are subdued when meeting new people, places, things, or other dogs, may not be calm and relaxed, but rather shut down and scared. Understanding how your dog is interpreting the situation will give you the information you need to best help him.**

Vet Behavior Team Early Stress

Lili Chin for Vet Behavior Team

While scrolling through Lili Chin’s website I found some graphics that she produced for the Vet Behavior Team about stress signals in dogs. Going to their website, I found several handouts that clearly and precisely illustrate the signals that dogs use to communicate to us that they are upset, stressed, hyper-vigilante, or just plain scared. Even if you know your dog’s stress signals, I recommend that you take a look at these handouts as they will help you recognize stress signals in other dogs. Knowing what other dogs are “feeling” will help you to keep your dog safe. I plan on using these handouts with all my clients!

I have written about dogs and kids before, but recently I came across this website: Family Paws Family Education which I really like. It has a lot of useful information for parents, parents-to-be, trainers, and veterinarians to help kids and dogs live together in harmony. The resource page has plenty of links to other valuable resources (such as Living with Kids and Dogs , Colleen Pelar’s website) as well as some terrific handouts with nice graphics about Dog and Baby safety, Dog and Toddler safety, what is supervision (and isn’t! This is a particularly eye-opening handout). I recommend to parents that they post the relevant ones on the frig so they are a ready reminder of how to have your expanding household live together positively and safely.


*See also the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSABposition paper on Punishment

**The article to which this graphic is attached is a detailed look at Cesar Milan and his television program concerning a Boston Terrier who attacked and killed pigs, and Mr. Milan’s approach to changing this behavior. I am no fan of Mr. Milan and the methods he employed here just about made me pass out and/or vomit. His outdated approach caused egregious harm to the health and mental well being of the dog as well as the pigs he employed. I cannot emphasize loud or long enough that bullying, hurting, or punishing your dog is not the humane, responsible way to change behavior, no matter how abhorrant that behavior may be. Every animal deserves to be cared for and handled with compassion and dignity. Period.

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Puppy class: why your baby dog needs to go!

Bingley at 8 weeks.

I have written about socialization and the need for your puppy to experience a wide range of people, places and things before the age of 16 weeks. While you need to be careful about exposing your young dog to the larger dog population (in order to prevent unnecessary exposure to disease), a good puppy class is a terrific place to start your pup on the road to being a well adjusted adult dog for the following reasons:

1) It provides your dog with proper socialization with people and other puppies in a safe*, supervised environment with a positive reinforcement trainer who understands puppy development, canine body language, and the warning signs in puppies.
Huddy at 10 weeks old with Emma

Huddy at 10 weeks old.

2) Puppy class gives owners the support and instruction they need for successful house training, supervision, and management of a young dog.

3) It should also begin to teach core obedience behaviors in a fun way so that the owner and the dog learn to work effectively together and the pup begins to understand impulse control.



In my puppy classes we start with teaching the puppy to look to the owner for instructions. If your dog doesn’t look at you, it is pretty darn hard to get it to do anything else you want it to. So, focused attention is a biggie. We also learn: sit, down, touch (teaching the dog to touch her nose to your hand), exchanges, name game, and we begin building the foundations for come, loose lead walking, impulse control, and stay.

We want our owners to learn what is normal puppy behavior and what may require additional work or intervention, so puppy specific issues such as biting or mouthiness, jumping, and chewing are covered. We also work on getting your dog comfortable with having her paws handled, being brushed, having her ears examined, etc.
             Your dog is a puppy only once, help him to get the best start on his life as your best friend by giving him instruction, socialization, and experience in a fun and rewarding environment. To find a positive reinforcement trainer in your area check out the trainer’s search on the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

Bodhi practices his recall in puppy class!

*Make sure they check that all puppies attending are properly vaccinated for their ages, and the facility is clean.

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Successfully Managing Meet and Greets for Dogs

A few days ago, fellow trainer Mary Graham, posted an article by trainer Chad Culp on her Facebook page.  I promptly shared a link to it on my business Facebook page. The article is titled Letting Dogs Meet: The Three Second Rule and I think it is a terrific guideline for how to do an appropriate meet and greet for dogs who don’t know one another.*

The basic concept here is to have a short introduction that allows dogs to meet, without escalating into an unpleasant foray. Even a dog who is very easy going and “loves other dogs” will encounter canines that he is uncomfortable with, is not interested in meeting, or who are socially inept. This is where a 3 second meet and greet will allow you to decide if this is a dog with whom you and your pooch are comfortable.

He mentions that if you meet “a dog out in the world and you don’t feel comfortable with having your dog meet him, that’s ok.” I couldn’t agree more. Trust your gut, and politely excuse yourself from the situation before the rendezvous becomes a skirmish. (Tell the other person that you are in training mode and need to keep focused.)

He lists 10 bulleted points for the 3 Second rule and one that immediately caught my eye was:

Keep your eyes peeled and be fully present. (Don’t be texting while a dog meeting is taking place.) (Emphasis mine.)

Roxy's ears are pinched close to her head.

Roxy’s ears are pinched close to her head.

If you want to keep you and your dog safe and happy, you have to pay attention to what is happening right then and know what your dog’s body language is telling you about his current comfort level. If your dog starts to stiffen, press his ears back, tuck his tail, or try to move away from the new dog, do not proceed with the meet and greet as he is telling you, in no uncertain terms, that this is not a good idea.**

He further adds:

Know your dog. If your dog has a history of biting or aggression, your situation is beyond the scope of this blog. Consult a dog training professional to help your dog with his particular needs.

Absolutely. Whether this has been a long standing problem or a recent development, if your dog is irritable with other canines, then don’t force an interaction when he is clearly not in the mood, frightened, or testy. This will exaccerbate, not solve the problem. Find a positive reinforcement trainer, behaviorist, or vet who can help you develop or enhance your dog’s social skills.


*Mr. Culp also points out that this is good standard procedure even for dogs who do know one another. Why? Because it gives owners a chance to evaluate how their dogs are feeling at that particular moment and whether or not this is a good day for a play date.

**I have written a lot about stress signals and dog body language. For a refresher on what your dog is telling you see: Stress Signals

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Knowing when to take a break.

Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services, has once again provided the basis for a blog post. Their Facebook post from January 11, 2016 is a terrific summary of why dogs have bad training days and what you can do about it. Here it is, with my notes or comments in italics or with asterisks:

Tuesday’s Pearl: Dogs can be overwhelmed by training.

Training your dog to perform a new task can be gratifying, especially when your dog really seems to ‘get it’. Doing it well requires knowledge of operant conditioning*, finding the right positive reinforcer** for the individual dog in front of you, and keeping expectations in check as you approximate the task being trained. But dogs are only human; like us, they can have bad training days for a number of reasons.


I’m trying, but I”m not sure I understand what you want me to do!

Overwhelmed or confused dogs may begin to exhibit conflict signals such as yawning, turning away or lowering their bodies.*** Others may show displacement behaviors such as barking, jumping up or mouthing, mounting, stretching or simply walking away. To the untrained trainer’s eye, this might look like “stubborn” or even “dominant” behavior, but it is more simple than that (and it is never an issue of dominance). She doesn’t know what you want, and is frustrated or no longer willing to cooperate in this futile activity. (Emphasis mine.).


In most cases, the dog is being asked to perform/offer a behavior beyond his understanding. This is often the case in training, of course, but if you’re working on a complex behavior and skipping the smaller steps, the dog may simply stop working. A few tips to help him get back on track:


Reward the desired behavior with something or dog loves.

Reward increments that lead to a final behavior. Here we rewarded Roxy for coming from just a few feet away. As she got more consistent about turning and coming, we increased the distance we asked her to come.

• Go back a few steps in training and move forward more slowly. (Also consider training in smaller increments of time, say 5-10 minutes at a time. This will help both of you to avoid frustration).
• Break the training down into smaller steps. (Think in terms of parts of a behavior. For example, if you want your dog to sit when greeting guests, start with teaching your dog to sit, then sit at your side. Then teach him to stay while at your side. Then stay while you move away, stay while you move to the door, stay while the door opens, etc., until you have built a complete behavior).
• Take a day or two to review and reinforce what the dog already knows well.
• Give your dog time to think – your own impatience may be undermining his ability to learn. A little breather between steps can give your dog the chance to offer something he’s figured out for himself. (I remind my students that after you ask your dog to do something, count to 5 while you wait for his response. This allows the dog to process what you have asked him to do and respond.  Also, when your dog does something exactly as requested, reward him well and end your training session on that perfect note. Practice this behavior for a few sessions before you move onto the next step).
• Swallow your human pride and consider abandoning an exercise that repeatedly frustrates your dog (and you). Try something else.


Hudson and Bingley wait for instructions from headquarters.

Hudson and Bingley eagerly await instructions. For them, playing ball was as valuable a reward as food, so I reinforced checking in with me with a chance to play fetch.

Like us, dogs are better at learning when they enjoy the process, and they’ll enjoy it much more if they have the opportunity to succeed (i.e.: are positively reinforced).** If our dogs seem overwhelmed or apathetic, the responsibility is entirely ours to find a solution – and there almost always is one.”

If you find yourself uncertain as to how to proceed with your training, give me a call! I offer group and private lessons which can help you and your pooch get back into your training groove.







*Operant conditioning:operant conditioning is a fancy way of saying learning things through consequences, both good and bad. (Think Skinner). For example, a dog sits and gets a treat, he learns to sit more. If he is punished for leaving the yard by an electric shock, he learns to stay away from the edge of the yard.

**Positive reinforcer: Treats. The biscuit you give to Fido for sitting is a positive reinforcer. (See Set you and your dog up for success  for ideas of how to use rewards and NILIF for more information on reinforcers). Also, know what your dog loves and use it as reward. This may include food, play, petting, access to other dogs, a car ride, etc. Make a list of 5 things your dog loves and post it on your refrigerator as a reminder of what you can use to creatively reinforce desired behaviors.

*** I have written a lot about body language and stress signals. See Stress: signals, management & warning signs for more information.

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“Can you hear me now?” or Learning to Effectively Communicate with Fido.

I have mentioned the Whole Dog Journal (WDJ)* in several posts, and I have also written a fair amount about stress signals and learning to understand when your dog is asking for your help to manage a situation. I get the WDJ’s “Tip of the Week” and this week’s was an excerpt from the book, Decoding Your Dog from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Edited by Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB and John Ciribassi DVM, DACVB, with Steve Dale.** The excerpt suggests six steps to better understand and communicate with your dog.

Here is the excerpt. The parts that I wish to emphasize are in italics. I have also added photos of mine to better illustrate the body language listed.

These six steps and the following guide will help you to “speak dog” and understand your dog’s body language.

1. Learn their language.
2. Listen with our eyes.
3. Use cues that work for dogs.
4. Avoid miscommunication traps.
5. Teach a common language.
6. Have realistic expectations.

The goal is not to learn our dogs’ language so that we can “speak dog” back to them; that just won’t work. But we can use a knowledge of canine language to better understand our dogs’ emotional states and predict what they might do next.

Remember to look at the entire dog, not just one body part or a single vocalization, and to also look at the situation to get an accurate read of the dog’s emotional state.

• Dogs understand some words, but they can’t understand a full conversation. Gestures and body language are clearer ways to communicate with dogs. Clear communication takes attention and effort, but is well worth it!

Not every dog can succeed in every situation. Watch your dog for signs of anxiety or aggression and change the circumstances so that the dog doesn’t get overwhelmed.

• If something seems like it’s about to happen, step in. Either remove the dog from the situation or change what’s happening.

Canine Body Language 

-Unwavering, fixed stare: challenge, threat, confident
-Casual gaze: calm
-Averted gaze: deference
-Pupils dilated (big, wide): fear
-Wide-eyed (whites of the eyes are visible): fear
-Quick, darting eyes: fear

This puppy was quite fearful of new people and would stiffen and growl if you got too close. Notice his hard stare forward and stiff ears.

This puppy was quite fearful of new people and would stiffen and growl if you got too close. Notice his hard forward stare and stiff ears.

Averted eyes and furrowed brow may mean this dog is worried or at least uncomfortable.

Averted eyes and a furrowed brow may mean this dog is worried or at least uncomfortable.


This dog's averted gaze, stiff body, and pinched ears tell me that she is ill at ease.

This dog’s averted gaze and stiff body tell me that she is ill at ease.









-Relaxed, neutral position: calm
-Forward, pricked: alert, attentive, or aggressive
-Ears pinned back: fear, defensive

Roxy's ears are pinched close to her head.

Roxy’s ears are pinched close to her head.

This is Roxy more relaxed and curious about what I'm doing.

This is Roxy more relaxed and curious about what I’m doing.








-Panting: Hot, anxious or excited
-Lip Licking, tongue flicking: anxious
-Yawn: tired or anxious
-Snarl (lip curled, showing teeth): aggressive
-Growl: aggressive, or playful
-Bark: reactive, excited, playful, aggressive, or anxious

Liplicking, when not waiting for dinner, is another indication that the dog is uncomfortable and needs some space!

Liplicking, when not waiting for dinner, is another indication that the dog is uncomfortable and needs some space!

One dog yawning, the other has a closed mouth. Both are a bit stressed by my camera.

One dog yawning, the other has a closed mouth. Both are a bit stressed by my camera.

A happy dog ready to say hi! Relaxed mouth, ears, and soft eyes.

A happy dog ready to say hi! Relaxed mouth and ears, and soft eyes.









-Up, still: alert
-Up with fast wag: excited
-Neutral, relaxed position: calm
-Down, tucked: fear, anxious, or submissive
-Stiff-wagging or still and high: agitated, excited, and perhaps unfriendly



This pup’s tail is level, relaxed and waving gently. She’s calm and happy to work with me.

This little dog's tail is low, and slightly tucked. His ears are back and he's telling me he's a bit nervous about class.

This little dog’s tail is low, and slightly tucked. His ears are back and he’s telling me he’s a bit nervous about class.









Body carriage
-Soft, relaxed: calm
-Tense, stiff: alert or aggressive
-Hackles up: alert or aggressive
-Rolling over: submissive

Bingley’s raised front paw and his ready stance show he is alert and eager to play.

This guy could be a bit shy and nervous with new things and needed some special handling at times to keep him comfortable.

This guy could be a bit shy and nervous with new things. His tight body and lack of movement lets me know he needs some special handling at times to keep him comfortable.











Decoding Your Dog can be purchased at Whole Dog Journal, Dogwise, or Amazon (where it is also available in Kindle format). Learning to better communicate with your dog will not only improve the training and management of your pup, but will dramatically enhance the relationship with your canine best friend.

These dogs have loose and relaxed bodies, open mouths, soft eyes, and calm tail carriages.

These dogs have loose and relaxed bodies, open mouths, soft eyes, and calm tail carriages.


*To see the posts that I mention the WDJ go to:

**Dr. Meghan Herron, veterinary animal behaviorist at OSU has a chapter in the book. I mention Dr. Herron in several of my blogs. To find these posts go to:

Behavior or "What the heck?" Care and management or living together in harmony Stress: signals, management, & warning signs2 comments

You are your dog’s best (and only) advocate!

Apology card image hi resI have a huge soft spot in my heart for shy dogs or ones who have had a less than ideal start on life. Often times these dogs find even the simplest things in life to be overwhelming. Life is hard, often scary, and it might be asking way too much of a shy dog to greet a visitor to the house or to be petted by a stranger on a walk. Your job, therefore, is to be his advance man, running interference and protecting him from the maddening crowds.

The first rule of thumb for a shy dog* is: No one touches Fido unless Fido seeks it out or permits it, and this includes his owners as well! Dogs view the world in terms of safe and unsafe. We all feel safer when we feel as if we are in control of a situation. Allow your dog to decide who he does and does not meet, and you will help him to be more comfortable and secure in his world.

Brad and Friend

This fellow ran up to my husband at a cafe in France, asking to be petted.

This dog doesn't know me well, so leans away to create more space.

This dog doesn’t know me well, so leans away to create more space.

So, how do you tell when she wants physical contact with you or anyone else? If he leans away, looks away or otherwise moves away from you or others, he is saying you are too close at that moment, so give him some more space and allow him to make the move towards you if he so chooses. If he moves towards you, leans on you, gets up on the couch and snuggles, or puts his head on you, this is him making the choice to interact and should be rewarded (with praise, food, gentle petting, but not on the top of his head!).

2) When you are walking him and you meet someone who may want to pet your shy guy, I suggest you say: “It’s fine with me, but you’ll have to ask Fido.” This will generally make the person pause long enough so that you can tell her to put her hand down by her side. Then, Fido can make the decision whether or not to approach her. You can also add: “If he comes over to you, you can pet him.” If Fido doesn’t move towards her, say something like: “I guess he isn’t feeling very social today, perhaps another time.” Then, prevent the overly eager dog lover from moving towards him by stepping in-between her and Fido, or moving away.  This will help Fido to feel as safe and in control as possible.

This dog is comfortable with my grandson partly because he can move his head easily.

3) Pay close attention to the space around his head. Most dogs are very sensitive to the area around their face and head and if you crowd them they get stressed. Let him make the decision to bring his face or head close to you.

4) When strangers come to the house, be sure that they do not try to pet him, but instead, keep far enough away from him that he will take treats in their presence. We want to pair the presence of a stranger with the presence of wonderful treats so that we begin to change his emotional response to strangers from one of fear/discomfort to one of “hey, this is pretty cool! New person, great treats!” Another thing to keep in mind: It is critical that the treats are only available when strangers are visible. If the person leaves the area, so does the treat. If the person is far away, the treats are fewer and farther apart. As Fido’s nemesis gets closer, the treats start coming in great quantity and frequency. If the person should get really close, Fido should be getting fistfuls of treats (think in terms of trucks backing up and unloading sides of beef for him) until the person moves away. As the “threat” recedes, so do the treats.

5) Once again, distance is critical. Work below the threshold point where Fido loses it, (freezes, hides,

 Run away! Run away!

Run away! Run away!

growls, or bolts, for example) and will not take treats. If you get too close to a person while walking, then do your best to remove him from the “threat” (and reinforce him when you get to a distance he can take treats again). This is the time to keep escape routes in mind! Some ideas for adding distance: back up, turn around and go in the opposite direction, cross the street, move into a yard, go behind a bush or tree. 

Shy dogs rely on us to be their first line of defense in a scary world. Being your dog’s best advocate will help him to learn that life need not be so hard, it might just be okay. Possibly even good.

People are good things for me!

 *Blogs on shy dogs:

Behavior or "What the heck?" General Philosophy of training or "Why be positive?" Shy dogs0 comments