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Not every person wants to meet your dog!

Keeping your dog happy and safe is your primary focus when you are out and about. Knowing his or her individual body language is especially important as this is how your dog tells you that everything is great, just ok, or that help is needed to cope with that particular moment. Moreover, knowing dog body language will help you to recognize when other dogs may be fearful or unfriendly and when to keep an appropriate distance from them.
What many people don’t think about is that you can use your knowledge of body language to read people as well as dogs!* It is important to understand and respect the fact that not everyone wants to meet your dog. Cuing into a person’s body language will help you to avoid a potentially awkward situation. Moreover, from your dog’s point of view, avoiding those who don’t enjoy canines is as vital as having dog lovers greet him correctly.

With that in mind, here are my hints:

Watch for flight from people. Like dogs it could be very subtle (looking away, turning their head, taking a step backwards). Have treats at the ready to distract your dog from greeting  someone who doesn’t want to meet him. A fistful of treats at his nose may be all you need to keep him with you.

Watch for subtle signs of fight in people. The vast majority of people will not lash out at your dog, but fight can be the first response for someone afraid of a situation. Some signs of fight could be: furrowed brow, frowning or grimacing, clenched teeth, direct stare, stiff body posture, crossed arms, clenched fists.

Watch for freezing in people. Slowing their movements, not moving at all, trying to make themselves smaller, or going very stiff as your dog approaches are all signs that canines make this person uncomfortable.

Children can be tricky for dogs and vice versa. If your dog is backing away, do not let the child pet your dog. If the child is backing away, do not allow your dog to pursue her! If both are relaxed and comfortable, encourage the child to pet your pup softly between the shoulder blades or to stroke the dog’s back. 

Do a 3 second greeting with people as well as dogs! Maybe it will be longer than 3 seconds, but keep the meeting short and successful if you think your dog is becoming uncomfortable, or the person you are visiting is uncomfortable

Keep your leash loose so your dog has options to move. A person may startle at your dog and you want him to have the ability to move away as quickly as possible. If the leash is taut, he may lose that option.

And lastly: If either the person or the dog starts to move away from a situation, take that as a cue that it’s time to go. The bottom line here is to trust yourself. If you are uncomfortable with a person, situation, or moment, or detect that someone else is uncomfortable, then simply move along. Often times I just smile, say hi, and give my dog a treat as we pass by a person or group of people. I try to remember that I am an ambassador for the next dog who comes along. If I am sensitive to the people and dogs we encounter, and remember that my dog doesn’t have to greet everyone we meet, then I am probably doing a good job of keeping everyone safe and happy…not to mention promoting good will towards dogs.

*Dr. Patricia McConnell has some wonderful photos in her book For The Love Of A Dog, that show the similarity between human and canine body language and facial expressions. And, one of my blogs on body language which might be helpful:

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Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Does your elderly dog walk into a corner and just stand there? Does she just stare into space? Does she pace in circles? Go to the hinge of the door to be let out? Not respond to her name?  She might have Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), commonly referred to as doggie Alzheimer’s or dementia. 

Eileen Anderson is an award winning blogger (eileenanddogs) and dog owner. She knows all about CCD as her beloved rat terrier, Cricket, had it and she was able to manage Cricket for two years with CCD. Ms. Anderson has written a book, Remember Me?  Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, which has garnered praise from experts such as Dr. E’Lise Christensen, board certified veterinary behaviorist, and Jean Donaldson, author of Culture Clash. One of her goals, with the book and website, is to help owners diagnosis CCD early because “there is medical help for cognitive dysfunction in dogs.” She also wants to provide owners with information that will make their lives and that of their dogs more manageable. I have not read the book, yet, but her website dedicated to canine dementia is filled with valuable information about CCD, including photos, videos, a printable symptoms checklist, treatment options, suggestions on caring for a senior dog, and more.*

One of the pages I found to be the most helpful was on symptoms. Ms. Anderson lists types of symptoms as well as specific ones. (She includes pictures and a couple of videos to illustrate the symptoms.) Here is her list of types of symptoms:


Changes in social interactions
Sleep disorders
Loss of house training
Changes in activity level
Memory loss
Inability to learn

She goes on to list 29 specific symptoms of canine dementia, and at the bottom of the page is a link for a printable checklist of symptoms that you can take to your vet. In addition to the four listed at the beginning, here are some others to look for:

  1. Failing to get out of the way when someone opens a door.
  2. Failing to remember routines, or starting them and getting only partway through.
  3. Performing repetitive behaviors.
  4. Having trouble with eating or drinking (finding the bowls, aiming the mouth, keeping food in mouth).
  5. Losing appetite.
  6. Trembling for seemingly no reason.
  7. Falling off things. 
  8. Getting trapped under or behind furniture.
  9. Sleeping more during the day and less at night.

Under Treatment she lists prescription drugs as well as supplements that may be helpful. Food and enrichment are discussed on the treatment page as well as on the Enrichment page. The resources page has tips from other owners as well as links to books and articles that can help you manage your dog. And, she also has a kind and sensitive page devoted to how to decide when the time has come that “you need to help your dog with dementia leave this world.”*

Watching our dogs age is never easy, but having a dog develop dementia can be especially painful. But, by diagnosing early and effectively managing it, we can provide our senior buddies with a good life for however long they have with us. 



* On Your Family Dog, Colleen Pelar and I have a two part series with Dr. Alicia Karas, of Tufts Veterinary School, on elderly dogs. Part 1 is Giving Older Dogs the Good Life, and part 2 is Knowing When It’s Time to Say Goodbye.

Also, just after publishing this blog, this link about a potential new drug to treat CCD came through my email. Let’s hope the trial goes well and we have another tool for helping our elderly dogs.

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A few of my favorite things!

I have posted blogs on various toys, books, foods, and management and training aids that I like, but I decided that this week I would write about things I have encountered lately, or that I have re-discovered, that I would recommend. 

First, books!

I have mentioned The Education of Will, by Patricia McConnell previously, but I wanted to recommend it to anyone who has experienced trauma, or has a dog who was traumatized. Her compelling memoir sheds realistic light on how pervasive trauma can be and how challenging it is to overcome. But, mostly it is a tale of hope and compassion and well worth the read. 

The book I am currently reading is The Dawn of the Dog, The Genesis of a Natural Species, by Janice Koler-Matznick. It is a well researched look at the origin of dogs. She takes on the status quo ideas of domestication and challenges them with reasons why dogs are not just sub-species of wolves. I have not finished the book, but I am impressed by her extensive research and, I am becoming increasingly convinced that man did not create dog, but, as one reviewer put it: “dog existed as a unique, naturally evolved species distinct from today’s wolves long before any association with humans.”For anyone curious about the origin of dog, and who wants an eminently readable book, I highly recommend it. 

Dean Koonz is a prolific author and often includes dogs in his books. I found an old copy of Dragon Tears and really enjoyed the role of the golden retriever mix in this book. He has delightful insight into the mind of dogs and how they see/smell and interpret the world. He also wrote an endearing (tissue alert!) book about his dog Trixie called A Big Little Life that I loved and find myself reflecting on years after I read it. 

For those interested in the world of dog shows, I found tucked in the back of one of my shelves, Dog Eat Dog, by Jane and Michael Stern. Published in 1997, it is a bit dated, but the essence of dog shows and what it takes to have a champion remains true. It’s a quick read and has a good index of dog show terms. For a really entertaining look at the world of dog shows, nothing beats Best in Show, directed by Christopher Guest and starring a delightful potpourri of Hollywood actors.

Uncommon Goods has a wonderful line of “Bad Dog” products. My favorites are the tumblers, especially the Bad Dog Tumblers, and the Bad Dog Best in Show Tumblers. They also have free, downloadable Bad Dog Birthday cards. The images are a fun and are an all too real portrayal of our canine companions at their best…or worse!

The current treat of choice for my dogs is lamb lung. High in protein, low in fat, they are easy to break into small pieces and are a great addition to any Kong! I buy them in the 12-oz, headed-out-on-the-Oregon-trail size, though they are also available in a more reasonable 5-oz size. They are not wet or gooey (I think they are dehydrated), but they since they break into small pieces they are great for training treats and I have yet to find a dog that doesn’t adore them. 

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our podcast, Your Family Dog, featuring Colleen Pelar and me talking about all things canine. Our goal is to help families love living with dogs. Colleen’s gentle humor, compassion, and deep knowledge of dogs makes every episode a learning experience for me, and I hope for you as well. We cover a broad range of topics, from behavior problems, to dog sports, caring for your elderly dog, making happy dogs happier, managing vet visits, literary dogs, and so much more! With over 40 episodes, there is a topic of interest for every dog lover. Find us on iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher. If you like us, please leave us a review. And, if you have a question or comment, please let us know by emailing us at or call and leave a message at 614-349-1661.


*Dr. Michael Fox, from the back cover of the book. 

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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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Exercise can be your dog’s best friend.

Hudson and Bingley wait for instructions from headquarters.

Let’s play!

Dogs, like people, need regular exercise to keep their waistlines trim, reduce health problems, and moderate their behavior. For people, living the sedentary life can lead to a variety of health problems, including diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, colon and breast cancer, heart disease, dementia and more.* It is no different for our dogs (and cats). According to the Dog Nutrition Center:

[R]ecent findings by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), [show] more than 45 percent of dogs and 58 percent of cats can be classified as overweight or obese. A gain of even a pound or two of additional fat on some dogs and cats can place significant stress on the body.


Some of the conditions that can occur as a result of excess weight are:


  • Exercise intolerance, decreased stamina
  • Respiratory compromise (breathing difficulty)
  • Heat intolerance
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Diabetes or insulin resistance
  • Liver disease or dysfunction
  • Osteoarthritis (lameness)
  • Increased surgical/anesthetic risk
  • Lowered immune system function
  • Increased risk of developing malignant tumors (cancer)

If these things weren’t bad enough, “overweight dogs die at a younger age than those maintained at an optimum weight.”  According to a study by WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, obesity can reduce the length of a dog’s lifespan by up to 10 months.** At particular risk are Labradors, Beagles, Shih Tzus, Goldens, and American Cocker Spaniels.

In addition to preventing obesity, regular aerobic activity has a myriad of other benefits. There is an adage among dog trainers that “a tired dog is a well-behaved dog.” Most dogs do not get enough physical exercise or mental stimulation so they get bored and restless (especially young dogs) and go looking for something to do. A well exercised dog is more likely to settle, sleep better and longer, and refrain from nuisance behaviors such as barking and destructive chewing.

tennis-ball-dogSimply walking on a leash however, may not be enough exercise for some dogs, particularly among breeds who “are built to spend the entire day working outside with their owner, and they have the physical ability and energy required for constant thinking and moving for hours.” (From Decoding Your Dogpg.179). Having your dog run and chase a ball or another dog, go running with you, go swimming, or take an agility class may  provide him with the aerobic activity he needs to be a better behaved dog. Chapter 9 in Decoding Your Dog has tables of canine activities, sports, and jobs that you might consider for your pup.

IMG_2353To get your dog to go from crazy to calm, it is also important to provide him with mental stimulation as well as physical exercise. Figuring out the right intelligence toy as well as the right amount of exercise may require some experimentation on your part and will change with the age of your dog. (For suggestions, check out my blogs on intelligence toys.) As you find toys and games that Bowser loves, keep them interesting by picking them up after a play session. Limited access keeps them special.

I found it!

One way to keep toys interesting, as well as provide some fun for both of you, is to play hide and seek with them. This was one of my dog Bingley’s favorite games and a great rainy day activity. Start by teaching your dog to sit and stay in front of you. When he can hold a stay for 10 seconds or longer, take one of his toys (be sure he sees and sniffs the toy so he know which one he is seeking) and put it behind your legs. Ask him to “Go find it!”  When he gets it, make a big deal about it, give him a treat (so he releases the toy), and ask him to sit and stay again.  After a round or two of this, next walk a few feet away, put the toy behind your legs and ask him to find it again. As he gets the idea of staying until told to “Go Find it,” begin to make it harder. For example, I have an island in my kitchen so I would put Bing in a sit-stay on one side of the island, walk to the other side, put the toy down, walk back to him and tell him to go find it. As your dog gets better at waiting to be released venture farther afield and get creative where you hide it. I would put the toy behind doors, under sofas or pillows, in a basket, on the stairs, etc., until it got to to the point that I could hide the toy anywhere in my house and he would seek it out.

You should find that this game is both physical as well as mental as he will run all around the house looking for his treasure. This might not be enough physical activity for an adolescent Weimaraner, but it might be for a small or elderly dog, and it certainly is plenty of mental stimulation for any age of dog.

Whatever you choose to do with your dog, remember that you’ll both feel better when you take the initiative to get involved and active with him everyday.

Let's play ball!

Let’s play ball!



*See: “Risks of Physical Inactivity” and “Sedentary Lifestyle is Dangerous to your Health

** An article on PetMd stated: “A recent analysis of veterinary records revealed that dogs under 20 pounds had an average lifespan of 11 years while those over 90 pounds typically lived for only 8 years. Medium and large dogs fell in the middle at around 11 years.” Therefore, depending on the life expectancy, obesity may take anywhere from 7.6 to 10.4% off of your dog’s lifespan. [If your dog is expected to live 8 years  (96 months) and his obesity takes 10 months off his life, that’s a 10.4% reduction in his lifespan. If your dog’s expected life span is 11 years (132 months), and he loses 10 months due to obesity, his life span is reduced 7.6%]

***For specific instructions for getting your dog to go from crazy to calm, see: “Fun”nel of Activity!

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Crime and Punishment, part 2: Clicker training

“Click and give her a treat,” our trainer, Robin Bennett, said.
“That’s it?” I queried.
“Yes,” Robin replied, “to start with. Next you are going to ask her to do something, such as sit. Then when her bottom touches the ground, click and treat. She’ll learn that doing certain things brings rewards. Then, she’ll start doing those things more and more.”
     Thus started our introduction to clicker training* 16 years ago when we sought help for Molly, our Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, and her aggressiveness with other dogs. We saw first hand the power of the clicker and how quickly it can improve a dog’s behavior. Though were never able to completely cure Molly of her aggression, we were able to help her adjust as best she could and give her three years she would not have had otherwise.
You want us to sit? Show us the clicker...

You want us to sit? Show us the clicker…

From that first introduction to the clicker, we have used it with all of our dogs. Though each dog is unique in his personality, interests and skill level, each one has responded with gusto to the clicker and to positive reinforcement training. When we had Buckley, Bingley, and Hudson, and I would pull out the clicker, all of them would get excited and start throwing behaviors at me to see what would elicit a click. Buckley would immediately sit, Hudson would start “petting” Bingley, who would back up, spin, bow, whatever! They knew that something would bring a click and a treat and they were eager to figure out what it was. Bingley was so enthusiastic about training when he was younger that he would find a clicker and come to my office holding it between his front teeth. When I turned and looked, he would click it and run down the hall, instigating a grand game of chase. Apparently clicker training works on people too!

Bait bag, clicker, ready to roll!

Bait bag, clicker, ready to roll!

For me, the value of the clicker for training (or in the absence of a clicker, accurately marking the behavior with a distinctive word or phrase such as “Yessss!” or “Good Dog!!”) cannot be overstated. Clickers allow you to be very precise in marking desired behaviors. For example, If your dog is easily excited, use your clicker to click for a calm moment (even if it is only for an instant) and immediately give him a tasty morsel. The dog will soon figure out that calm gets him everything, noisy gets him nothing. The more you consistently reward good behavior (even if it is a flash in the pan!) the more you will see it. Likewise, if your dog regularly behaves well (sitting quietly or lying down peacefully, for example), mark the behavior (Click! or “Good dog!”) and reward, reward, reward, so that you are sure to see more of it!

Clicker training is very helpful if your pup is dog reactive. For example, if he looks at another dog and doesn’t react, click and treat! If he looks at another dog and then looks back at you, click and treat! Or he looks at a dog and sits, click and treat. Marking and rewarding these desirable responses will teach your dog that this exact response is how you ought to behave! Use food as a reward when first teaching a new behavior or trying to reward a calm moment to turbo charge your training and your dog’s interest in learning and behaving. Eventually, your dog will become more consistent in his response and you will not have to reward with food every time your dog behaves. But, in the beginning stages, clicks and tasty snacks really help him learn to be the best dog he can be.
For more information on the origin of clicker training see: And, check out my resource page,  as well as these books, Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor, and Click to Calm by Emma Parsons.  Your Dog Advisor offers another good resource on clicker training at: Clicker Training 101: How to Use a Clicker to Train Your Dog

See this blog and more on reward based training at the Companion Animal Psychology Blog Party







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“I know he’s doing it to get back at me!”

Dogs are many things, but spiteful is not one of them. They do not plan ahead to get back at you for leaving to go to work, nor do they artfully wait until you are out the door to exact revenge upon your carpet or door molding. Dogs, as Jean Donaldson puts it in Culture Clashthink in terms of safe vs dangerous rather than good vs evil or moral vs immoral. Since they are motivated to keep themselves safe and out of danger, it is very important to help them understand what safe is and to feel as comfortable as possible, especially when first introducing them to your family.*

With this in mind, I try to help clients understand what their dog needs to be successful in their home, by helping them see the world from their dog’s point of view. Not only is the canine perspective on the world a lot lower to the ground, it is from a different species with a less convoluted brain and no language skills (think in terms of Frat boys and you get the picture…).

I found a wonderful article** by Irith Bloom, the Director of Training at The Sophisticated Dog in Los Angeles about understanding the canine perspective. In one section, she does a superb job of describing what it must be like for a newly adopted dog who is anxious and worried about being left, and how we humans mis-interpret the actions of the dog. What we perceive of as acting guilty for wrongdoing, the dog sees as appeasement gestures to try and get his people to stop being angry. Sadly, this cycle of misunderstanding behavior inevitably sets up both humans and canines for failure:

One classic example of how canine instincts and poor communication can have devastating results is the all too common story of the rescue dog who has been placed in a new home and has a touch of separation anxiety due to several recent transitions. When the dog finds himself left alone in the house, he panics, urinates, and scratches at the door. While it’s dangerous to anthropomorphize, it’s reasonable to assume the dog is stressed at being isolated from his new-found family, and he may even “think”—in some canine way—that the family will never return now that they have left.

The family comes back at the end of the day to find their home a mess. They yell at the dog, who throws all his best calming signals at the family in an effort to placate them, and becomes even more anxious about the situation in his new home. At some point, the family leaves again, and the anxious dog engages in more destructive behavior. Day after day, this pattern continues. The family is sure that the dog knows he’s being bad while they are out, since he “acts so guilty” when they come home. This makes them yell at him even more.

Unfortunately, they don’t understand that the dog does not associate the family’s current anger with actions he took hours earlier, and that his behavior has nothing to do with guilt. The dog has learned that when the family comes home, scolding ensues, so he throws calming signals at the family in an effort to avert it. He doesn’t understand why his calming signals aren’t working, or what exactly is causing his family to be so angry. This makes him more and more anxious, so he becomes increasingly destructive. In the end, the dog’s fear of permanent separation from his family is realized, when the family, at their wits’ end, drops the dog off at the local shelter.

24_dog_zombie run away2So what’s an owner to do? If your dog is having behavioral issues*** such as: destructiveness, barking, whining, house training problems, lunging or snarling at other dogs or people, or trembles at the sight of anything new then, first, understand that your dog is not doing this to hurt or spite you. He is likely fearful and needs some help to overcome his difficulties. Please contact a positive reinforcement trainer**** who can help you to better understand what your dog is trying to communicate and how you can better communicate to him that life is good and safe.

37_dog_dreamingofrunning*This is why it is so important to properly socialize your puppy, so that he understands that kids, bikes, lawn mowers, vacuums, sidewalks, men with beards, wagons, snow blowers, teenage boys with iPods, golden retrievers, scooters, steps, etc are all safe things! See my blog: Why your puppy should be a social butterfly and Bringing home your new best friend.

**This essay was a contribution to the Dogwise John Fisher Essay Scholarship (sponsored by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers).

*** I have written several blogs on behavioral issues. See Behavior or “What the heck?” for a variety of blogs on behavior. For specific puppy issues see: This is not the dog I wanted and Fearful puppies, biting adults, an unhappy alliance.

**** The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) offers a trainer search by zipcode, and I do behavior consults as well as training. Please call if you have any concerns about your dog’s behavior, 740-587-0429

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A dog’s changing behavior

Culture Clash
Jean Donalson’s book The Culture Clash is one that I recommend to people who want to know more about the nature of the human-canine bond and how dogs struggle to understand a world so very different from their own. Ms. Donaldson is quite adept at presenting the canine point of view as well as bringing humans up short for their inept behavior concerning their dogs.  The Whole Dog Journal sends me regular emails with tidbits about dogs, oftentimes referencing experts and their books. Here is a recent one about changing behavior in dogs from The Culture Clash:

People are terribly mystified by any change in their dog’s behavior and go on a lot with the “why? WHY?” as though there should never be any variability whatsoever in this living organism’s behavior. Training regressions are a frequent occurrence and no big deal. It is so important to remember that behavior is always in flux, constantly subjected to whatever contingencies there are in the environment as well as being influenced by unknown internal events. In the case of behavior problems, there are three main reasons for behavior that had seemed to be “fixed” to break down again:

  1. Undertraining: the behavior was never that strong in the first place
  2. Contingency change: the behavior extinguished or another one was trained by the owner or environment
  3. Failure to generalize: the behavior falls apart in a new location or context

A “contingency change” example: Inadvertent New Rules


A contingency change might look like the following. The dog has learned that it’s safe and often reinforcing to urinate in the yard and dangerous in most places he has tried in the house and so a fairly solid yard habit is in place. The owner has become upset about the yellowing of grass from dog urine and has decided to limit the dog to eliminating in one corner of the yard. The owner takes the dog on leash at elimination times for a couple of weeks, always going to one corner and praising the dog for urinating. The first couple of times the dog goes out off leash, she urinates in the wrong area. The owner punishes the dog. On the third day, the dog will no[t] urinate in the yard. The owners sees this and takes the dog for a walk. The dog has a very full bladder and finally urinates and is praised by the owner. The owner likes the idea of the dog urinating on the walk rather than in the yard and 61_dog_peeing on mailboxstarts taking the dog around the block to eliminate, which is successful and keeps the yard urine-free.


A few months later, the owner is in a rush to prepare for guests arriving so lets the dog into the yard to pee while finishing the cooking. The dog does not urinate in the yard and comes back in full. When the guests arrive, the owner puts the dog on leash to calm one of the visitors who is afraid of dogs. The dog urinates on the Persian rug. The owner thinks the dog sensed that one of the guests didn’t like her and urinated to demonstrate her resentment. In fact, the dog has learned to urinate when on leash only, based on the new contingencies inadvertently set up by the owner. Dogs aren’t into big agendas. They just need to know where and when it’s safe to pee.

I like this example because it shows: 1) how easily we can misinterpret our dogs’ motivations, making them much more complex than they really are; and 2) if our dogs are now making mistakes, perhaps we need to consider what we have changed in their routine or if we have inadvertently taught them to do exactly what we don’t want them to do!

Other End of the LeashAnother book which speaks to the bond between people and dogs, and the importance of understanding that what we do on our end of the leash directly impacts the behavior of the creature on the other end of the leash, is Dr. Patricia McConnell’s book The Other End of the LeashDr. McConnell is an Applied Animal Behaviorist who deals with serious canine behavior problems on a daily basis. She is also, however, a dog trainer, breeder, competitor in dog herding trials, and a dog owner who understands just “how easy it is for us humans to miscommunicate to our dogs.” Her clear and approachable writing style makes this compendium of personal and professional experience translate into terms that help people to better appreciate and communicate with their particular canines and, moreover, to love the dog they actually have.  As she so eloquently states:

Perhaps one of the kindest things that you can do for your dog is to understand that, just like us humans, every dog has both a unique nature and a bevy of characteristics that he shares with others and that this bedrock foundation of “personality” is influenced each second by internal and external factors that impinge upon him throughout the day. Every dog is indeed special, and he deserves a human who gives him permission to be who he is, whether it’s sweet and shy or bold and cocky.” (The Other End of the Leash, pg. 207)

By understanding that our dogs don’t have ulterior motives, that they have distinct personalities and preferences, and that they are watching us for clues to how this world works, The Culture Clash and The Other End of the Leash help us not only to enjoy our dogs more, but to be the best possible advocates for the goofy, wonderful canines that populate our lives.

Puppy Twister

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Holiday Happiness or enough already?

Giving your dog a place to retreat to can help him cope with holiday stress.

Any trainer worth her weight in dog hair will tell you that recognizing your dog’s stress signals is critical to insuring that it is not overwhelmed by current events. I have written columns about recognizing the most common stress signals,* but the question today is: What are some of the most common holiday situations that can drive even the most easy going of dogs to dismay and distraction?**

Colleen Pelar, trainer and author (Living with Kids and Dogs, Puppy Training for Kids), describes doggie stress*** as part of a continuum of behavior:

Nobody is happy all the time. We each have our good moments and our bad moments. It’s important to remember that dogs do too. Rather than look at dog behavior as simply aggressive or nonaggressive, it’s far better to see it as a continuum ranging from Enjoyment to Tolerance to Enough Already (and back again).

The critical thing to remember is: when our dogs move from enjoyment to tolerance, they are asking for help. It is our obligation to help them get back to enjoying the happenings so that they do not have to take the situation into their own paws and say, “Enough! I have had enough already!!”

Her enlightening photo gallery of dogs and kids presents situations that most people do not recognize as trying for their dogs. The holidays provide many such stressful opportunities.  I encourage everyone to ask:  How many times do I put my dog into a position where he is uncomfortable and simply tolerating the situation?

HenryandGoldenOne common stressful scenario is staged photo shoots. Everyone wants the photo of the children and the dog all snuggly and happy for the holidays. Look at image #21 of 32 in Colleen’s gallery. This attempt at making the dog part of the photo op results in a dog who is not happy, but only tolerating the situation. A great example of how quickly a dog can move from comfortable to tolerant is the sequence of #24-25. In 24, the dog is happy to be with his children because he has sufficient space around his head. But in #25, the children have turned towards him and are crowding his head. He has moved to tolerance.

Think carefully about how you arrange the family photos. If your dog goes from open mouthed to close mouthed, wiggly to barely moving, looking at you to avoiding eye contact, he is telling you that this is not comfortable for him. Your best bet is to give him more space, especially around his head and face. Also give him several tasty treats throughout the photo session and have someone dedicated to be his private treat dispenser so that he has one person to focus on. If there are loud children, sudden movements, or other distractions that un-nerve your dog, give him a treat every time a kid shouts, runs, or otherwise acts in an erratic fashion.

Another situation that can stress a dog is Christmas morning, when we plunge “into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.” (Gene Shepherd, A Christmas Story). The opening of presents, the piles of paper, ribbons, and box tops, the squeals of delight and the wantonOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA disregard for the normal canine routine can unsettle your dog. To help Rover better cope with the chaos, make sure he gets outside first thing, and is given a tasty stuffed Kong to work on while the presents are opened. Make the Kong the night (or two) before and freeze it so it is readily available and long lasting. I have several stuffed Kongs at the ready so my guys have something to do besides helping the grandkids open their treasure trove.

A third situation to keep in mind is the constant stream of people who the dog sees but once or twice a year. Many dogs revel in the flow of humanity through their abode, but for others, this is the height of stress and anxiety. In my blog Make Your Holidays Merrier I suggest two strategies for your dog to meet and greet guests:

Tip #3: Manage your meet and greets! Two strategies can be employed here:

1  Fido meets people as they come in, then retires to happy spot; or

2  Have Fido outside or in a crate. Then when your guests are settled, Fido comes out for a meet and greet, goes potty, and then  settles down with a tasty kong.

And remember: your dog doesn’t have to meet everyone who comes to the house. If Fifi feels overwhelmed, put her in her happy place and let her choose when to re-join the festivities. That way, everyone’s Christmas is merry and bright.

Happy Hollydogs for website



*For my past posts on stress signals see: “Yelp Me!“; “Beware of Cement Pigs!”“Puppy Wiggles”

**To help your dog manage the holidays see: “Make Your Holidays Merrier!”

***Check out Colleen’s stress signal list at:

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The Difficult Dog.

24_dog_zombie run awayYour dog lunges at passing dogs, snaps at approaching people, or growls when you least expect it. Maybe you think your dog is unpredictable – sometimes she’s okay with a person or another dog, sometimes she isn’t.

What you do know is that you don’t trust her to behave in a civilized manner, and want to do something about it. Can you? The answer is, maybe.

-Trish King, Director Behavior and Training, Marin Humane Society (

When your dog behaves in an unpredictable, difficult, or aggressive way it can make you feel as if you are being betrayed by your best friend. So, what do you do when your dog displays behaviors that make you uncomfortable at best, and scared of her at the worst?

First of all, don’t ignore it,  and don’t make excuses for it. You know your dog better than anyone else, so if something is off with your dog, get some help before the problem escalates to the point of being completely unmanageable, especially if your dog has a sudden onset of bad behavior for no apparent reason. A good place to start is with your veterinarian. For example, if your dog suddenly starts house soiling, have him checked for a urinary tract infection (UTI). Or, if your elderly dog starts pacing and knocking things over, especially when you are gone, don’t assume this dog has suddenly developed Separation Anxiety. It could be that your best buddy has developed vision or hearing problems or perhaps is showing signs of Canine Cognitive Disorder Syndrome (another symptom of which is house soiling). Detailed observations of his behavior will help your vet to diagnose the problem and get your pup the relief he needs. Moreover, the sooner you take care of a physical problem the less likely it will develop a lasting behavioral component as well.

(And, just for the record, UTIs can also cause problems with puppy house training. If your house training is not going well with a puppy, despite doing all the things your positive reinforcement trainer has suggested you do*, then have your puppy tested for a urinary tract infection (UTI) to rule out an organic cause to the problem.)

Another thing to consider when you have a sudden onset of cranky or aggressive behavior in your dog is whether or not your dog is in pain. My dog developed arthritis in his right elbow at the age of 2 and getting the pain under control helped to restore his happy nature. One thing I ask of owners whose dogs have behavior changes that seem to come on quickly or with our a clear reason, is to get the dog into the vet for a thorough physical exam to rule out any organic causes for the behavior changes (such as joint/spinal pain, allergies, ear infections, or other underlying causes of irritation, pain, or inflammation). You don’t want to jump into an extensive behavior modification program that can be time consuming, costly, and difficult to implement consistently by all members of the of the family, if it isn’t needed.

This puppy was quite fearful of new people and would stiffen and growl if you got too close.

This puppy was quite fearful of new people and would stiffen and growl if you got too close.

There are many reasons other than physical problems which can cause your dog to demonstrate aggressive behavior. A few things to consider are:

  • Fear: is the most common cause of aggression in dogs. Dogs that are cautious as puppies may learn that aggressive behavior is the best way to keep scary things at bay.
  • Trauma: “One of the more common causes of fear-based aggression is a traumatic episode in early life… The younger the dog is when the trauma occurs, the more lasting the imprint of the event. Often, the dog learns not to trust dogs, people… or even you, since you have been unable to keep her safe.” – Trish King
  • Frustration: Dogs who lunge, growl, bark, etc., at the end of the leash, at a fence, or on a tie out are frustrated and may be fearful as well. They have learned that aggressive displays will scare away that which frustrates them.

If you see signs of aggression developing, especially in a puppy, don’t wait it out hoping that he will grow out of it. (See my blog, This is not the dog I wanted… A common adage among trainers is, “Dogs grow into aggression, not out of it.” The longer you wait to address a problem, the more difficult it will be to resolve and your chances for success will diminish. Don’t hesitate to call me and together we can move towards a solution.

A wonderful training book for any dog, but especially helpful for the difficult dog.

A wonderful training book for any dog, but especially helpful for the difficult dog.


* See my blogs on house training: To pee or not to pee…inside:, and Housetraining: how do I get Sparky to tell me he needs to go out?


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