New clients will often ask me if I offer agility classes, or other specialty training classes. I don’t offer them for a variety of reasons, including that I don’t have the staff or facility for it. But the primary reason is because the vast majority of dogs will never pursue canine activities such as agility or search and rescue work, but will spend their lives as family dogs. Moreover, if you can’t succeed at being the family dog, you will not be pursuing any extra curricular activities.
So what does it mean to be a family dog? I define it using this example:
I live in a small village in central Ohio. We have a local ice cream parlor called Whit’s and everyone in our village of ~2700 likes to walk to Whit’s on a summer evening to get ice cream and hang out on the wide sidewalk visiting with friends and neighbors. Kids play, bikes glide by, and dogs wait patiently for their puppy sundaes. Norman Rockwell would be proud!
In the midst of this idyllic scenario, owners are asking their dogs to walk to town (nicely, without pulling), and negotiate adults, kids, bikes, other dogs, fallen ice cream, trash cans, trees, tables and chairs on the sidewalk, aromas from the restaurants, outdoor seating for several restaurants, strollers, scooters, runners, etc., without misbehaving, and often without rewards for this amazing skill set.
The skills necessary for a family dog to succeed in public with his owners are amazing, but remarkably achievable, with positive reinforcement family dog training. In my classes and private lessons, I focus on a couple of objectives that are likely to give you the well mannered dog you desire. First and foremost, I focus on teaching your dog to check in with you. A dog who looks at you is more likely to follow instructions than a dog who is watching a squirrel, or focused on a child eating an ice cream cone. Think of it this way, if you have a teenager who is busy texting, how likely is she to hear what you are saying? I estimate you have a 2-3% chance of her hearing and responding correctly to your request while she is focused on the phone. If, however, she looks up from the phone, your chances for comprehension increase to 30-40%, if you’re lucky. Unfortunately, compliance hovers at a shaky 5 % at best.*
Therefore, I work with owners to develop several ways in which they can get their dogs to turn from distractions and check in. One thing I have written about is the class rule: If another dog barks, your dog gets a treat. This is an excellent way to teach your dog that checking in with you is a great idea. If the sound of another dog barking becomes a cue for your dog to look at you, then you will have a much better chance of preventing him from joining in the bark fest, and of keeping his attention when other distractions arise.
The other major objective is impulse control, which is, in essence, the heart of all training. Impulse control starts with sit. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of sit! This is why I use Dr. Sopia Yin’s Learn to Earn Program, wherein sit is equal to please. Anything your pup wants must be preceded by a sit. For example, in order for the dinner bowl to be put on the floor, your dog must be sitting. If he breaks the sit before the bowl is placed, then the bowl does get put down. It took my gluttonous Bernese Mountain dog about 3 attempts to put the bowl down for him to learn to hold his sit. Teaching your dog that sit is the key to all things wonderful, will also help him to learn that sit should be his default behavior. Then, when he is unsure of what is expected of him, he will likely sit and wait for further instructions.
Family dogs are not just the bread and butter of my business, they are the canines I love best. To see a family dog walking happily alongside his people, waiting patiently for his puppy sundae, or leaning contentedly against the leg of the person he adores, is pure joy for me, and the reason I have geared my training, blogging, and podcasting to helping families love living with dogs.
*I have no idea if these numbers concerning texting teenagers are accurate. They are my estimations and are used simply to illustrate the point that attention is essential to effective communication between individuals, whether you are the same or different species. I will leave it to the reader to define species in this context…
As regular readers will attest, I love clicker training and have written about it on numerous occasions. Recently the Whole Dog Journal had a wonderful article by Pat Miller, called Clicker Training 101. She mentions that the origin of clicker training in dog training was due to the publication of “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor. With the introduction of positive reinforcement training to the dog world,
“clicker training” became a popular slang term for positive reinforcement training that uses a “reward marker” of some sort, and the clicker became the method’s emblem.
As much as I love clickers, I do recognize that clickers are not necessary for positive reinforcement training. What is necessary is clearly marking the desired behavior and following it with a reward.*
The secret to the clicker (or any other marker) is this: When beginning training, the marker is paired with a high-value reinforcer (most frequently a food treat) until the dog has made a classically conditioned association between the sound and the treat.
The marker is important not only because it clearly tells the dog the exact behavior that you are rewarding, but it serves as a bridge between the behavior and the reward. It’s not a remote control that elicits a behavior, it is a communicator that tells the dog, “You done good kiddo, and I will reward you for that!”
I have found that not only do clickers turbo charge your training by helping you clearly and quickly mark desired behavior, they also make training more fun for you and your dog.** A few years back we had three dogs, Hudson the Golden Retriever, Bingley the Flat-coated Retriever, and Buckley the Bernese Mountain dog, all of whom had experience with clicker training to one degree or another. Whenever I would reach for the clicker hanging by the back door, all three would get up and start throwing behaviors at me to see what would produce the magic sound and treats, knowing we were about to have some real fun. Buckley would instantly sit, and follow me around sitting whenever I paused. Hudson would play bow, spin, pet Bingley, and Bingley would spin, sit, grab a toy. Indeed, Bingley loved clicker training so much, that if he found one, he would put it between his front teeth, run to my office, stick his head in, and click the clicker at me. Thereby training me to play a great game of chase.
What delighted me the most about clicker training these dogs was their full commitment to it and the fact that it encouraged them to be curious, inventive individuals. Since there was no punishment for mistakes, only rewards for success, they would try all sorts of things. As a result, this is how Hudson learned to “pet the puppy.” My daughter Emma reached for a clicker when Hudson and Bingley were sitting next to one another. Hudson took his front paw and put it on Bingley’s neck. Emma clicked and treated, gave both a treat, and “pet the puppy” was born. Here is a video (no sound) of the part of the process where Hudson is learning the cue to pet Bingley. Though you can’t hear it, Emma tells Hudson to “pet the puppy.” She waits for his response, then marks it, and delivers a treat. Notice the rapt attention of the dogs on Emma, including our Spaniel mix Rebel, who isn’t part of the training, yet knows a good thing when he sees it! And, just an FYI, no puppies were harmed in the making of this video.
At the end of the training, Hudson was so skilled at gently placing his paw on Bingley’s back, that we started using this behavior in classrooms when we did bite prevention workshops. Hudson would sit next to a child and when we asked him, “Who’s your buddy?” he would put his leg over the shoulders of the child. It was enchanting, and never failed to delight the child.
So, if you are interested in trying something new, rewarding, and fun with your dog, get yourself a clicker, a bag of yummy treats and see what happens! You might be surprised at how quickly you both become hooked on training.
*Clickers are just one way to communicate with your dog. As mentioned, a verbal marker such as “Yes!” or “Good Dog!” in a happy, crisp tone will also work. If you have a deaf dog, try a flash of a pen light (which, by the way, is a great way to “clicker” train your goldfish to do play football!
**Clicker training can also be very effective when working with dogs with behavior issues. I use it with dogs who have very short attention spans, mouthy puppies, timid individuals, and even dogs with aggression issues. In fact, the only truly humane and effective way to help dogs with behavior issues is with positive reinforcement and the guidance of a good trainer or behaviorist skilled in behavior as well as reward based training.
For more information on the deleterious effects of punishment see:
And to find a behaviorist in your area to help with behaviors issues:
ASVAB: Find a Behavior Consultant
To find a trainer in your area:
Association of Professional Dog Trainers: Trainer Search (Your best bet on getting a positive reinforcement trainer is to limit your search to certified trainers)
Professional Pet Guild: Trainer Search
As a trainer, I get a fair number of calls from people who want to turn their pets into “therapy or service dogs,” or they want me to train their dog to be “certified as an emotional support dog.” While these are admirable goals, they are at times unrealistic and the problem starts with not understanding the terms and how they are recognized in the law. So let’s start with definitions:
1. Service dogs. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network Publication Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals:
A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button.
Examples of animals that fit the ADA’s definition of “service animal” because they have been specifically trained to perform a task for the person with a disability are: Guide Dogs for the blind, Hearing or Signal Dogs for deaf individuals, Psychiatric Service Dogs*, and SSigDOG (sensory signal dogs or social signal dog) dogs who are trained to assist a person with autism, and Seizure Response Dogs. These dogs are carefully selected and recieve years of training before they are paired with a particular individual.
The ADA guarantees people with disabilities who use service dogs equal access to public places such as restaurants, hospitals, hotels, theaters, shops, and government buildings. This means that these places must allow service dogs, and the ADA requires them to modify their practices to accommodate the dogs, if necessary. (www.nolo.com)
2. Therapy dogs.** Whereas Service dogs provide a particular service to a particular individual, therapy animals “provide people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.” (Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals). These are dogs that visit at nursing homes, hospitals, libraries, etc. Since they are not limited to working specifically with persons with disabilities, they are not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals, and therefore:
are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals either. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. (Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals)
3. Emotional Support Animals. Also known as Comfort Animals, Emotional Support Animals may be part of a medical plan to help a person manage depression, anxiety, phobias, loneliness, or to provide companionship. The owner must have a verifiable disability and a letter from a qualified medical professional stating the need for an ESA. To qualify as an ESA, dogs do not need specific working skills, and, like therapy dogs, they are not considered Service Dogs under the ADA:
It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal. (Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals)
The most frequent questions I get about Emotional Support Dogs concern housing and travel. According to the Michigan State University Animal Legal & Historical Center landlords need to make “reasonable accommodations” for Emotional Support Animals if the following conditions are met (emphasis mine):
An emotional support animal is a type of assistance animal that is recognized as a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHAct, 42 U.S.C.A. 3601 et seq.). The assistance animal is not a pet according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD is the agency that oversees the FHAct and investigates claims of housing discrimination.
There are only two questions that HUD says a housing provider should consider with a request for an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation:
(1) Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability — i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
(2) Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal…provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?
(FHEO Notice: FHEO-2013-01 at page 2). A “no” answer to either of the questions means that a housing provider is not obligated to make a reasonable accommodation according to HUD… If the answer is “yes” to both, then HUD states the FHA requires an exception to a “no pets” rule. The emotional support animal must alleviate, or help, some symptom(s) of the disability.
The second question: “Where can I take my Emotional Support Animal?” is a bit trickier. Are they allowed admittance to stores, restaurants, airlines, etc? Since these dogs are not recognized by the ADA as service dogs, they may not be allowed to accompany their owner in public places. Since public access laws can vary according to state it is best to check with your local government about the pertinent regulations.
For airline travel the ADA’s rules for accommodating service dogs does not apply on airlines. But, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) “prohibits airlines from discriminating against travelers with physical or mental impairments.” However, with Emotional Support animals, airlines may require “a recent, signed certification from a licensed mental health professional that the passenger:
- has a recognized mental or emotional disability
- needs the animal’s help in order to travel, and
- is a patient under the professional’s care.” (www.nolo.com
given the relatively lax standards for emotional support animals, travelers are increasingly using this designation to skirt the cost and restrictions on flying with pets. This has led to more conflicts on flights, from attacks on other passengers or trained service animals to excessive barking. When Delta Air Lines announced in 2018 that it was tightening requirements for emotional support and psychiatric service animals onboard, the company said that “incidents” with these animals (like biting or defecating on the planes) had nearly doubled in the previous two years. (www.nolo.com)
Dogs are wonderful companions and their ability to provide services, support, and comfort seems limitless. The access that Service Dogs must have to public buildings and services is essential to providing an independent life for people with disabilities. Therapy Dogs brighten the lives of many, and Emotional Support Dogs help to ease anxiety or depression. Knowing how your dog fits into the scheme of service, therapy, or emotional support dogs, and what that means as far as public access goes, will help to keep all of these dogs doing what they need to do.
* A “Psychiatric Service Dog is a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, interrupting self-mutilation by persons with dissociative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger.” Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals
**Your Family Dog podcast did an interview with therapy dog handler Mary Graham. If you are interested in therapy dog work, check it out: Therapy Dogs’ Work Brings Joy
2018 is the Chinese Year of the Dog. According to history.com,* Chinese New Year (also called the Spring Festival) is the most important holiday in China, and “[o]racle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that the calendar existed as early as 14th century B.C.” Unlike the western or Gregorian calendar with a fixed New Year’s Day, the Chinese calendar’s start date fluctuates, and is dependent on lunar phases as well as solar solstices and equinoxes. Typically, the New Year celebration starts “with the new moon that occurs between the end of January and the end of February, and it lasts about 15 days, until the full moon arrives with the Festival of Lanterns.”
Traditionally, families would thoroughly clean their houses in preparation for the festival, and “[r]itual sacrifices of food and paper icons were offered to gods and ancestors. People posted scrolls printed with lucky messages on household gates and set off firecrackers to frighten evil spirits. Elders gave out money to children.” Feasting was very important and in the first five days of the festival people ate long noodles to symbolize long life. (history.com).
The Chinese calendar also includes the Chinese Zodiac, “the cycle of twelve stations or “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos.” (history.com) The twelve animals representing these stations are: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Each year is marked by characteristics of its animal and each sign repeats every 12 years.
But, according to Chinese element theory, each zodiac sign is also “associated with one of the five elements: Gold (Metal), Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. For example, a Wood Dog comes once in a 60-year cycle. It is theorized that a person’s characteristics are decided by their birth year’s zodiac animal sign and element.” (china highlights.com).
1958 and 2018** are Earth Dog years, and people born in these years are likely to be, “communicative, serious, and responsible in work.” They are not, however, likely to be lucky this year, because “[a]ccording to Chinese astrology, people in the year of their birth sign…will offend Tai Sui, the God of Age in Chinese mythology. They are believed to have bad luck in this year.” (chinahighlights.com).
Reading through the predictions for Fortune, Career, Love, and Health, the best way for dogs to get rid of bad luck (or to bring good luck) is to take walks in parks or lakeside areas. So, a great New Year’s resolution would be to increase your fitness (both physically and luck-wise) by power walking near ponds and gardens.
Since every year is a Year of the Dog for canine owners, why not take your dog with you? Walking near water and wilderness will increase not only your health and happiness, but that of your dog. Dr. Zazi Todd, in our podcast, Making Happy Dogs Happier states that one of the easiest ways to make your dog happy to take him on a “sniff-fari.”
If making your dog happier isn’t enough of an incentive to get out and about consider this quote from my blog, What’s good for the goose… :
The Journal of Physical Activity & Health found that dog owners are more likely to reach their fitness goals than those without canine companions. Researchers at Michigan State University found that…owning a dog promotes health and fitness even after you take your pup for a stroll, increasing leisure-time physical activity by 69 percent.
Being close with a dog helps improve human relationships. Studies find that owning and walking a dog increases social interaction. Dogs help ease people out of social isolation or shyness, says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta…Children who experience caring for a dog have higher levels of empathy and self-esteem than children without pet dogs, shows child psychologist Robert Bierer.
So, even if you weren’t born in a year of the dog, increase your health and happiness by enjoying a stroll with your pup. If that isn’t good luck, then I don’t know what is!
*Click here for a quick video on History.com about the Chinese New Year.
** Other dog years include: 1934, 1946, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006.
A friend suggested that I write some tweets from a dog’s perspective. I thought that was an intriguing idea and found myself wondering what my dog would say to me in 120 characters or less.
The first one that came to mind was “In my defense, I was left unsupervised” which I originally saw on a T-shirt. I could see my dog sending this as an after thought to such puppy inpulses as: shredding my current book, chewing the thumbs off my favorite gloves, or ingesting an entire loaf of bread I irresponsibly left on the counter. Careful and consistent management (of dog and environment) is an important part of training and may help to prevent humans tweeting: “In his defense, he was left unsupervised.”
On a post on Care.com titled 26 Hilarious Hypothetical Dog Tweets I found this one: “Just got back from taking my person for a drag around the neighborhood. Remember: keep your human on a leash. It’s the law.” Dogs are not naturally inclined to walk sweetly at their humans’ sides, so teaching leash manners can be challenging to say the least, and may lead to the unfortunate use of prong or choke collars. I have many posts on loose leash walking, but if you are having difficulties getting Rover to resist the lure of squirrels and the base of every tree, contact a positive reinforcement trainer to help.* It just might help to prevent you tweeting: “Just got back from being dragged around the neighborhood. Keeping him on a leash may be the law, but I’m headed to the doctor. #shouldersurgeryhereIcome”
“Dogs, just warning you, do not read “Old Yeller.” #prayforoldyeller.” (Care.com) I clearly remember reading Old Yeller in 4th grade and exactly where I was sitting when I read the end of the book. I was heartbroken, but also amazed at the power of good literature to move you to the core of your being. I think that was the moment I became a bibliophile. For a guide to some great books on dogs, where at least some dogs do not die, listen to our podcast: Literary Dogs. If there is a child in your life who loves to read and would like to read a story to your dog, check out Three Stories You Can Read to Your Dog.
“Where are you? When will you be home? You coming home soon? #10minutesisforever.” Dogs are social creatures and do not revel in your absence. I don’t believe that Zuzu is hoping I will go away for several hours so that she can work on the great American canine novel. If you do need to leave your dog alone for several hours, be sure they are not going to get into mischief (#carpetsarenotjustforpee) while you are out. Making sure your dog has had some exercise, some mental stimulation, and something appropriate to do while you are gone** will help to make sure his next tweet isn’t, “Who doesn’t like Italian leather chew toys? #gottachewshoes.”
And of course who wouldn’t want their dog to tweet, “(insert your name) is the bestest friend ever. #lovemyhuman”
“Love you too buddy. #bestdogever”
*The Association of Professional Dog TrainersIf you need a trainer in your area, you can do a search by zip code at . Requiring that the trainer be certified helps (but does not guarantee) to locate a positive reinforcement trainer. If you are uncertain about how to choose a trainer, see: How to Choose a Dog Trainer (blog) and Choosing a Dog Trainer (podcast).
Dogs just wanna have fun, but in their pursuit of play, some dogs are overly exuberant with toys. Stuffing is removed in a microsecond, limbs are severed, and “indestructible” toys are demolished in record time. So, what is an owner to do? Are there toys out there that will actually withstand the rigors of a dedicated destroyer?
Recently, I was in Granville’s Village Pet Market* and as I was checking out, asked whether a particular toy floated. That led to a discussion of toys and their durability. According to the helpful staff, there are three companies that make durable toys. I have not used them with my dogs yet, but the ones recommended have been tested, unofficially, by the Granville vet staff’s vigorous chewers.
Planet Dog. The toy I asked about was a rubber ball on a nylon rope. According to the packaging, the toy is a 5/5 on the “Chew-O-Meter” which equates with “extremely durable”. We have not played with our ball yet, so I can’t verify whether or not this is actually extremely durable, but I have been assured that they are tough, and other Planet Dog balls we bought have lasted through multiple dogs. Moreover, “Planet Dog took the top two spots of the most indestructible toys in the industry…” in the Whole Dog Journal’s rating of balls for “Fetching and beyond.”
If your dog isn’t crazy for fetch, there are a lot of Planet Dog toys that may appeal to your pup. They even have a page on their website about How to choose the right toy for your dog. Check out the variety of toys they offer and I am sure you will find one that suits your beast. Moreover, they state: “Our products are 100% guaranteed. If you are not satisfied for any reason with our products, rest easy. We will make it right.” Nice.
West Paw Design. The “Jive Zogoflex” ball is guaranteed tough. It has an interesting shape with curves and valleys that make it easier for a dog to grab, but also make for interesting bounces when tossed.** It comes in three sizes, can be thrown with a “standard ball-thrower,” is dishwasher safe and recyclable. It is also a 5/5.
My dogs have not used this ball, but have used the Bumi Tug Toy. It is durable, and for dogs who live for tug, I would give this a try. The only caveat: because it stretches, it is not as durable and is rated 3/5.
West Paw also makes food distribution toys, bones, and flying discs that are rated from 3-5, so be sure to get one that is the right durability for your dog. They also guarantee ” the performance of every product we design and manufacture here in Bozeman, Montana (that’s all of them). We want you to love West Paw’s products. If you don’t, we’ll make it right.” That helps make spending $15 on a ball worth a try.
Spot. Play Strong S Bone. This 12 ” bone is apparently a favorite amongst the dog staff at the vet’s office. Designed with chewing in mind, it also floats and is hollow so that treats can be added. This is the long S-shaped bone, (which if you ask me is just begging for a game of fetch..) but the Play Strong toys also come in shorter (4.5″, 5.5″, and 6.5″), straight bones, and balls.
I hope that one of these toys will work for your vigorous chewer and provide your dog with hours of fun. Let me know if they work for you, or if they don’t! And, don’t hesitate to let me know what you have found satisfies your dog’s need to chew and play.
*As I have mentioned in previous posts, we have two wonderful pet supply stores here in Granville, The Village Pet Market, and Bath and Biscuits. Both offer terrific food as well as toys, collars, leashes, etc. Bath and Biscuits also offers grooming as well as a place for you to bathe your dog. They are well worth your patronage.
**Interesting bounces mimic the ways in which prey animals try to throw off a predator by moving erratically when being chased. Unpredicatible movement is intriguing, fascinating, and dare I say, addictive to some dogs.
I was skimming through my photos for a particular image and found so many that I enjoyed, that I decided to do a post just on the happy animals who have populated my life in one way or another. Some of these are my animals, some are clients, some are just buddies I have made during my travels. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!
First, here is my granddog Tex* enjoying the water:
Flatties (short for Flat Coated Retrievers) just wanna have fun:
Kids and dogs (or cats as the case may be!):
A few friends of mine…canine and others of a different nature.
And lastly some former chicken clients say hi to their mom…
I hope these snippets make you smile and cheer up your day as much as they have for me! And, remember, life is short, so go play with your dog!
*Tex, unfortunately is no longer with us. We miss him terribly, especially his exuberant nature and enthusiasm for life.
Anxiety is something that everyone experiences at one time or another, to one degree or another. Perhaps when you had to give an oral book report in front of your 6th grade class, or your first presentation to a new boss, or when you were waiting for a loved one to get out of surgery. Often times, others don’t even know you are anxious as you devote every resource to making yourself appear fine (at least outwardly), while praying that no one asks you to something as unreasonable as multiply 6 times 8.
You may have tells, such as biting your lip, twirling your hair, pacing, or tapping your foot, that people may or may not recognize as symptoms of stress or anxiety. When I was a kid, my mother, assuming I was bored rather than anxious, would tell me to “Stop figeting!” My sister on the other hand, would get quiet and withdrawn, earning her the title of the “Good Kid.”
I have written (and podcasted*) about stress signals and the importance of recognizing your dog’s particular behaviors that indicate he is not comfortable. Learning to read your dog and understanding the way in which he communicates his discomfort is the first step in helping him with his anxieties or fears. But, that is just the beginning. What do you do when you see Rover is uncomfortable with the situation?
The first thing I recommend is physical distance. For example, if your dog is uncomfortable with large dogs and you see a great hulking beast headed your way, don’t insist that your dog meet his fears head on. Instead, add enough distance so that your dog can watch Sasquatch go by without overreacting. Give him lots of tasty treats as the dog goes by so that he is focused on you, rather than his fears.** This teaches him that the presence of dogs means I should look to my person for assistance. Moreover, because good things now happen to him when scary dogs come by, he will begin to look forward with anticipation (rather than fear) to big dogs.
I am frequently asked if I am rewarding the dog’s fear by giving him treats when he is scared. My question in return is: When you are scared, does it help to have someone comfort you, offer you something else to focus on and give you a reason to not be so afraid? With our dogs, we are trying to change their emotional responses from fear to anticipation. When we offer them treats, the chewing and eating helps to not only distract them from the menace, but it also makes them happy. And, it is very very hard to be both happy and afraid at the same time.
So, what do you do when a big dog appears out of nowhere, and you have no room to move away? This is where you need to give your dog mental distance from the situation. Take a fistful of treats (yes, an actual fistful, this is no time to skimp!), and put your hand right at your dog’s nose! (Your hand needs to be touching his nose, not 6 inches in front of it.) This should get your dog’s attention and now you pick up the pace and move as quickly as possible away from the situation, all the while keeping the treats right at your dog’s nose. When you get a reasonable distance from the distraction, give your dog 3-4 of the treats in your hand, tell him he’s good boy, and resume your walk.
If you really cannot move your dog away from the problem, try to position yourself in front of your dog, blocking (or at least partially blocking) his view of the dog. Stay calm and keep the treats close to his head, feeding him one at a time as the other dog moves away. As soon as you can add physical distance, do so, treating him as needed to keep his focus on you.
Keep in mind that it is far better to get your dog away from a situation that will cause him anxiety, fear, or to overreact, than it is to try and force him to deal with his fears in an unexpected and distressing situation. By adding physical distance before he reacts, or using food to lure him or encourage him to focus on you and forgetting the scary thing over there, you will be teaching him skills that will make his life (and yours) easier.
If, however, your dog is consistently overreactive to a particular thing, such as other dogs or people, or he seems to be getting worse, then consider hiring a positive reinforcement trainer who is experienced with fearful dogs. Using a controlled setting that allows him to learn, without being overwhelmed by his anxieties will help Fido get over his fears, as well as boost his confidence. When your dog can negotiate difficulties without fear, stress, or anxiety, then he will see that the world is a happy and safe place to be.
*In pretty much every podcast Colleen Pelar and I discuss stress signals in dogs, so it is hard to make a specific recommendation for which one to listen to. Thus, I heartily recommend that you start at the beginning, listen to every one, subscribe, and write a wonderful review on iTunes. But, that’s just a suggestion…
**If your dog will not take any treats, then you are probably too close to the thing which scares him and you need to add some more distance.
And, alternatively, if your dog is toy rather than food motivated, have a tug toy or squeaky toy in your pocket to use as a distraction when the scary thing comes by. There’s nothing like a good game of tug to keep your mind off that which scares you.
Christmas is coming and you want to give your best buddy a special gift and make his Christmas fun and stress free. Over the years I have written and podcasted about great products as well as simple ways of helping your pet have the best Christmas holiday ever.
First, here are somethings you can do to make sure your dog’s holidays are as stress free as possible.
Making Happy Dogs Happier (Low cost ways to improve your dog’s life.)
Helping Your Dog on Halloween Night (Yes, Halloween is long gone, but in this episode we discuss how to tell if your dog is enjoying, tolerating, or trying to end an interaction, and strategies for making holidays more enjoyable for your dog.)
And secondly, here are some things that might brighten up your dog’s life:
It’s been a great year for A Positive Connection as well as Your Family Dog and I am looking forward to continuing to serve you and your dogs next year. Have a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
I have written (and podcasted) a lot about the importance of positive reinforcement training and the need to avoid using positive punishment for training your dog. Dr. Zazie Todd* in her blog, What is positive punishment in training?, clearly defines positive punishment:**
Punishment means something that reduces the likelihood of a behaviour happening again i.e. the behaviour goes down in frequency. And positive means that something is added.
So positive punishment means adding something after the dog did a behaviour that makes the frequency of that behaviour go down.
For example, if the dog jumps up and you knee [it] in the chest, and next time you see [that] the dog does not jump up, you have positively punished the dog jumping. You added something (the unpleasant sensation of a knee in the chest) and reduced the frequency of the behaviour.
With a correction collar such as a prong or pinch collar, you are using positive punishment by adding pain when the dog pulls against the collar or when you jerk on it to “correct” your dog’s behavior.
Some claim that this correction doesn’t hurt as it mimics a mother dog’s hold on a puppy’s neck, but frankly, I don’t buy that. A mother dog carries her pup with a soft mouth and holds it by the scruff (on the back of the neck) or around it’s body. The mother dog does not clamp down, nor does she put pressure on the front of the throat around the windpipe, which is exactly where the pressure occurs with a prong collar.
Yvette Van Veen writes about these collars and how it feels to wear one in her blog Pinch Me, A.K.A. Prong Me. She started her experiment by placing a prong collar on her forearm and pulling. She was surprised when it did not cause pain, and she thought she might have to admit that she was wrong about it being painful. But, then she moved on to the next part of her experiment, placing the prong collar on her own neck!
Carefully, I adjusted the number of links so the collar sat high up on my neck, snug but not tight. Gently I pulled on the ring where the leash attached. Again, I was legitimately surprised that spikes did not dig into my neck, and there was very little pain.
My husband entered the room, rolled his eyes at yet another “experiment”. Jokingly, he grasped the chain. Using his fingers only he tugged. “You’re coming with me!”
That is when the prong collar “bit” me. As the metal of the prong pressed against the bone of my spine, it created sharp, intense pain. I screamed – yes screamed – for him to stop. My husband blubbered, “I didn’t pull hard. It wasn’t hard at all. I just used my fingers.”
Since a friend had pointed out to her that dogs’ necks are more muscular and the pressure would be different because they walk on all fours, for the next part she got down on her hands and knees:
Head down (literally, I got down on all fours) we attached the leash to the collar. My son “walked” me around the house. He was applying FINGERTIP pressure.
It was here that the collar “bit” me for the second time. It was not painful. I think it was worse than that. The pressure from the evenly spaced links didn’t distribute evenly, the way it had on my arm. Walking on my hands and knees, the collar did not pinch. It pulled up against the front of my throat, an area that has very little muscle to afford any protection. Checking the front of my dog’s neck, it becomes quickly apparent that his muscular neck and shoulders do not offer protection to the front of his neck either.
As I crawled along the ground, and the prong dug up into my windpipe, I felt a primal urge to recoil and relieve pressure. While not quite a choking feeling, it was a gagging, gurgling, inability to swallow. My stomach seized and I felt panic. In an instinctive need for self-preservation I gasped, “Drop the leash!” Grasping at the links, my hands shaking, I immediately struggled to remove the prong collar from my neck. Having felt both the pain of prong on bone, and the pressure of a prong on my windpipe, the pressure on my windpipe was, at least to me, far worse.
As Ms Van Veen pointed out, the heavy muscles are on the back of the dog’s neck and the underside is very much like a human’s with the windpipe unprotected by thick musculature. Researchers at the University of Minnesota college of Veterinary Medicine, showed that the use of any collar increased intraocular pressure which can be particularly problematic for dogs with exisiting ocular issues. According to veterinarian Dr. Peter Tobias, choke, prong, and shock collars can irreversibly damage your dog, causing, “a whole array of problems… including lameness, skin issues, allergies, lung and heart problems, digestive issues, ear and eye conditions and thyroid gland dysfunction, to name a few.” He goes on to state that “neck injuries can cause a variety of problems including emotional trauma.”
In addition to the the possible physical damage or problems that may arise from the use of choke or prong collars, the punishment that is delivered can adversely change your dog’s behavior. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a position paper on the use of punishment to modify animal behavior. They state,
Even when punishment seems mild, in order to be effective it often must elicit a strong fear response, and this fear response can generalize to things that sound or look similar to the punishment. Punishment has also been shown to elicit aggressive behavior in many species of animals.
Punishing a dog for any behavior may result in a dog who is not only more fearful, but who is more likely to be aggressive towards people, as well as show other behavioral issues. (Companion Animal Psychology). I would also contend that using force, pain, or fear to train your dog is not conducive to building a relationship that is companionable and grounded in co-operation and trust.
Instead, consider a body harness for your dog. The Whole Dog Journal rated several of the front clip no-pull harnesses this year and there are many wonderful choices out there. I have tried all three of their top rated ones and found them to be easy to use and comfortable for my dogs.
So, before you reach for the prong collar to teach your dog not to pull while on a walk, think about the unintended consequences of this force based method. Is this really the best way to treat and train your best friend?
**When talking about reinforcement and punishment there are four combinations to consider: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. Positive in these cases means adding something, negative means removing something. Reinforcement means the behavior will increase in frequency, punishment means the behavior will decrease in frequency. Thus, positive reinforcement means that adding something will make the behavior happen more often. If your dog sits, for example, and you give him a cookie when his bottom hits the ground, then he will be more likely to sit. Click here for a good graphic on this.