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Your new dog or puppy

How to choose a dog trainer.

This week Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services had a Facebook post about choosing a dog trainer, which links to an article in Companion Animal Psychology titled, How to Choose a Dog Trainer. It is a great article, clearly written, with good advice as to what to look for in a trainer, and what questions you should ask the trainer. Remember, this is your dog and you get to decide how it will be treated and to require that your trainer be committed to humane, dog-friendly training techniques.

When choosing a dog trainer, the most important thing is to find a trainer who uses reward-based dog training methods, which they might call positive reinforcement, force-free, or humane training methods.

You want to look for someone who uses a reward based method of training, meaning that the trainer uses rewards (primarily food) to make a behavior more likely to reoccur, and withholding a reward to lessen a behavior. For example, when your dog’s bottom hits the ground after you say “Sit,” reward with a tasty treat. If your dog jumps, turn your back on him (withholding the attention he seeks) and wait for his bottom to touch the ground. When it does, reward with affection and food!

In practice, the reward that works best is food. It is possible to use other types of reward, such as play, but food is more efficient because it’s faster to deliver; it’s better for most dog training scenarios (for example, if you’re teaching a dog to sit-stay, play will encourage your dog to jump out of the sit); and all dogs love food.

So in other words, you want a dog trainer who will use food to train your dog.

Many people fear that if they use food to train their dog, the dog will only listen when the food is present. A good trainer will also teach you how to: 1) use your dog’s food (so you are not always dependent on treats); 2) reduce the amount of food as training progresses and; 3) add in other rewards for desired behaviors.

The article goes on to talk about certification for trainers, professional memberships, and continuing education. Most professional organizations require continuing education, so check and see if the trainer you are considering pursues further education, and with whom!

There are certain names that are a very good sign. For example, if someone has attended training with the likes of Jean Donaldson, Karen Pryor, Kathy Sdao, Chirag Patel, Ken Ramirez, Ian Dunbar, or Bob Bailey, that’s very promising, because these are all important names in science-based dog training.


yourfamilydog_2Check out the trainer’s website and Facebook page to get an idea of what they do when they train and the methods they employ. Do they blog or podcast? Looking at their writings or listening to them talk about dogs will give you a clearer idea of how they approach training. Also, look for customer reviews (not only on their websites, but other forums such as Angie’s list or Thumbtack), and ask for references. And, to really get a good idea of what training will look like with a particular trainer, ask the following three questions:

          What, exactly, will happen to my dog if she gets it right?

          What, exactly, will happen to her if she gets it wrong?

          Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

If you are uncomfortable with the answers to any of these questions, keep looking.

The article also discusses the advantage of group versus private lessons, what to do if there isn’t a trainer in your area, and who to call if your dog has a behavior problem. This comprehensive article is well worth reading and will help you to make the right decision concerning the training and well being of your dog. Remember, you are your dog’s best and only advocate, do not settle for less than the best for your best friend.






Care and management or living together in harmony Decisions, decisions, decisions! General General Philosophy of training or "Why be positive?" Training or "Why, Why, WHY?" Your new dog or puppy

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.

Behavior or "What the heck?" General Training or "Why, Why, WHY?" Your new dog or puppy

What to look for in a shelter or rescue group.

“There are lots of different places you can go to get a dog. Some are better than others and there are some you should never patronize.” (From: Pick a Winner, by Pat Miller, Whole Dog Journal, April 2009). In my last blog, I wrote about choosing an ethical breeder and many of the same qualities that I look for in a breeder apply to a shelter or rescue as well. They are:

1) Have a contract that clearly states the terms of your contract with them.

2)  The shelter/rescue should insist that if you don’t want the dog for any reason, it is returned to them.

3) Make sure your pup has his appropriate shots before you pick him up.

4) They should ask for references from you, and it is fair for you to ask if you can talk to some of their past clients. If they can’t/won’t provide references there is something amiss.

However, with shelters or rescues, there are other things to consider and to expect. Pat Miller sums it up:

In the good shelters, staff will have conducted behaviors assessments of the adoption dogs, which will provide you with useful information and help you determine if the dog might be a good match…A really good shelter will give you a thorough and human-friendly vetting before they’ll agree to adopt one of their dogs to you.

Unfortunately, there are many shelters which are not top-notch* and adopting from them may require “conducting your own impromptu assessment** and risking diseases such as kennel cough and parvo that lurk in the corners of substandard facilities.” (Miller, WDJ, April 2009) Be sure to ask if they have had any outbreak of parvovirus or kennel cough in the last 6 months to a year, and if they did, what did they do to prevent a reinfection.***

Apology card image hi resOther things to consider when looking at a shelter are:

1) How quickly do they put their dogs up for adoption? It may seem like a great thing that a dog arrives in the morning and is on the floor for adoption by noon, but is that really the best way to insure that owners and dogs are correctly matched? I am of the opinion that dogs should be thoroughly vetted for health issues and behavioral problems and this takes time. I do not think it is inappropriate for a dog to be held for 3-7 days before being put on the adoption floor as this will help to insure that you get a healthy dog whose temperament is better aligned with your needs.

2) What information do they have about the dog? Some things to ask:

How long have they had the dog?

How did it come to be at that shelter/rescue? 

Has it been adopted out before and returned? If yes, how many times was it adopted and why was it returned? If the dog has been adopted out and returned several times, find out as much information as you can. There are probably legitimate reasons that the dog was returned and you may need to ask some probing questions to get straight answers. In general, if a dog is returned several times to a shelter or rescue, there is probably a serious issue with the dog that is not being addressed.

Is there a bite history?

Does it like children? Other dogs? Cats?

The organization may not have answers to all of these questions and that is understandable, but they should be asked nevertheless because the staff may have the answers to them and not think about passing that information along until prompted to do so.

The May 2015 issue of Whole Dog Journal had an article, How to Prevent a Bad Adoption, also by Pat Miller (which is in their subscriber’s only section online). In it she discusses how bad adoptions can be traumatic for all involved and gives three examples of difficult adoptions and the problems the adopters faced. She then lists “five things you can do to maximize your chances of adopting a dog who will turn out to be all you want him to be.”

In order, they are:

1) Be willing to wait. Just because you go to the shelter or rescue, does not mean you have to adopt a dog that day. Resist any pressure from staff or volunteers to adopt a dog that doesn’t make your heart sing. You can keep coming back until you find the right dog.

2) Meet the dog before you adopt. Don’t adopt over the internet. You do not know the quality of the shelter or rescue who is offering him and moreover, no matter what the online story says, in reality you simply don’t know who you will be getting unless you meet him. If you absolutely have to have a dog from across the country, fly out and meet him. If you adore him, rent a car and drive back home together.

3) Let your head rule your heart. It is so easy to feel sorry for the scared dog hiding in the back of his kennel, and to think that you have to rescue him. Ask if you can take him to another room that is away from the noise of the kennel or outside where you can spend some quiet time one on one. “If he morphs into a friendly, happy, normal dog when you get him away from the kennels, then you’re on more solid ground; you probably have a reasonably normal dog who is on the sensitive side…Even so, keep in mind that he may also be fearful of other busy or chaotic environments.” (Miller, WDJ, May 2015)

On the other hand, if he continues to be fearful away from the noisy environment, “he may be a pathologically fearful dog who will take tons of work and still may never be even close to normal.” (Miller, WDJ, May 2015) Is this really the companion you are seeking? If not, walk away.

4) Ask for a behavior assessment. Behavior assessments or temperament tests cannot tell you everything about a dog, but they can give you more information than you gain by simply looking at the dog. If the dog has been in a foster home, ask for details on his behavior in her home. And, do your observations match what they are telling you? For example, if they say the dog is quiet and well-behaved, but he is overly excited, barking, lunging, and tearing around when you meet him, something is off.

5) Engage a professional to help you find a dog. If you are having a hard time finding the right dog, don’t hesitate to contact a dog trainer or behavior professional to see if they can help you find your new best friend. Be sure to let her know not only what you want in a dog, but what you don’t want, and what you can be flexible about. I have a client who unfortunately had to make the heart-wrenching decision to put a dog down due to aggression towards other dogs and children. They knew they wanted another dog and I told them I would help them locate one. It took 3 years and a lot of looking (and saying no) but at the end of June, I was able to steer them to a wonderful little dog who has made their family complete.

Adopting a dog should not be a traumatic experience. Take the time to do it right and you’ll significantly increase your chances for a successful adoption and the start of a 10-15 year love affair and adventure with your canine buddy.




*I do understand that there are many reasons why some shelters or rescues are not poster children for perfect adoptions. The purpose of this blog is not to discuss why that is, only to give you guidelines as to how to determine the quality of the shelter/rescue and what you can do to better insure a good adoption, from any organization.

**When it comes to evaluating the temperament of a given dog, the primary quality I want in any dog is a high social drive towards people. A strong social drive is your best insurance policy against aggression as the dog who loves people will better tolerate mistakes (such as tripping over him, stepping on a paw, a toddler falling on him, etc.) than a dog who doesn’t care to be around people. There are other things that I want to see in any candidate for adoption, and I discuss them in detail in my blog: Choosing Your New Best FriendAlso check out my webpage on temperament tests.

***Parvo is a particularly difficult virus to get rid of as it is ubiquitous and can last in an environment for several months. Cleaning the area with a bleach solution is the best and most effective means of killing parvo.

Decisions, decisions, decisions! Informational or Doggie Demographics Your new dog or puppy

How to choose an ethical breeder.

The Boys 009Choosing the right dog for your family can be an overwhelming decision. You will receive a lot of earnest, heartfelt advice from friends and family who may have strong opinions on the best and/or only way to get a new dog. My own opinion is that there are many unfortunate ways to get a dog and no one right way. Whether you choose to adopt from a shelter or go to a breeder is a personal choice, but there are things you can do to insure that you make the right decision about where to get your new best friend. So, once you have chosen the type of dog, especially if you have decided on a particular breed, how do you decide where to get a dog? This week I look at how to choose an ethical breeder. A good article on how to choose a dog and from where, is “Pick a Winner* by Pat Miller, in the April 2009 issue of The Whole Dog Journal . In the August  2013 issue of the WDJ, is the article “A Field Guide to Ethical Breeders* by Heather Houlahan, and it has a lot of useful information on choosing the right breeder. Ms Houlahan has a great summary of what you should look for in a breeder:
Buy a puppy from someone who brings her up in such a way that you wish every puppy could be raised that way.
She goes on to describe some characteristics of great breeders beyond providing a clean, healthy, and nurturing environment for their dogs:
  1. The breeder does something with her dogs…Their dogs are seen and assessed by other experts, and there are thresholds – a working title or certificate, a conformation championship…that dogs achieve before being bred.” For example, the flat-coated retriever breeder where I got Bingley and Tex, does a variety of activities with her dogs. She shows some, hunts with others, and does agility with some more. And, her dogs all have titles of some kind.
  2. The breeder has as many, or more, questions for you than you do for her.” When I first called about getting a puppy from Victory retrievers, we spent over an hour on the phone talking about dogs, why I wanted a flat-coat, what I intended to do with my dog, etc. Any breeder worth their weight in puppy chow has for a goal “that every puppy goes to a lifetime excellent home, not getting every puppy paid for and out the door the moment he is weaned.”
  3. Ethical breeders work to support their dogs; their dogs do not support them.”  In other words, this is not a money making affair. Ethical breeders spend a lot of money to raise good dogs and are most interested in producing the best examples of their chosen breed, not the greatest number of puppies. Therefore, expect to hear a lot about their adult dogs and their accomplishments as this will tell you the most about the quality of their puppies.
  4. _CSG5621-crop puppyAnd as Pat Miller says, “No responsible breeder on the earth sells puppies to pet stores. Not one.” Do not buy from a pet store as you will be getting a dog from an irresponsible breeder or a puppy mill, guaranteed.

And here is my list of things that I insist on in a breeder. If they won’t do these things, I walk away:

1.  Have a contract with the breeder that clearly states the terms of your contract with them. The contract should respect and protect the welfare of you, the puppy, and the breeder. Is there a health guarantee? Does it include behavior issues as well as physical problems? For example, what happens if the puppy starts guarding food or toys within the first month you have it? Will the breeder take him back?

2.  The breeder should insist that if you don’t want the dog for any reason, it is returned to the breeder. For example, my grand-dog Tex developed seizures and his owner decided that she could not keep him. The breeder took him back and kept him for 9 months to be sure his condition was stabilized. Before she gave him to me, we once again spent over an hour on the phone discussing him and deciding if Tex was a good choice for us. We ended up agreeing that Tex would be the perfect dog for my daughter and her new husband and arrangements were made to pick him up.

3.  Ideally, do not pick up the dog before 8 weeks of age. The best age to get the puppy is between 8-10 weeks of age. If the breeder is trying to get the dogs out the door at 6 weeks of age or younger, ask why. Puppies learn a lot about life from their litter mates, so don’t be too eager to get them before they have had the chance to learn about how to get along with other dogs!

4.  Find out the vaccination record, the pedigree of the parents, if there has been any problems with legs, hips, eyes, thyroid, in her dogs and get details about any problems. Ask about specific problems relating to that breed. Flat-coats, for example, have a history of cancer and as a result their average life span is only 7.5 years. The breeder should want you to be aware of the breed’s shortcomings as well as their strengths and they should also let you know what is being done to improve the quality of the breed. Does she require you to have the appropriate health tests done? Both Bingley and Buckley (our Bernese Mt. Dog) were required to have thyroid tests, eye exams, and orthopedic x-rays done at the appropriate ages. The results were sent to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals** national data base.

5.  Make sure your pup has his appropriate first shots before you pick him up.

6.  This should not be a bargain. Good, reliable breeders do not make money on their litters. But, their pups are not cheap either because it costs a lot to produce a quality puppy. Expect to pay between $1000-$2000 or more for a dog. If the puppy costs only $400-500, it probably has some issues.

7.  Ask questions about how the puppies are raised. Are they inside the house? (and I mean in the house, not the basement) When are they weaned? How many people have they met before they are adopted? A puppy’s  socialization window closes at 16 weeks of age, so it is important that he meets people, experiences different substrates, and generally has a positive introduction to the world before you take him home.

8.  What are the parents like? Do they get along with other dogs? Do they like people? Children? Cats? How old is the mother and how many litters has she had? You should meet the mother and, if possible, the father. If the breeder refuses to let you meet her adult dogs, you should not adopt from her.

9.  Get references! Ask if you can talk to some of her past clients. If she can’t/won’t provide references there is something amiss. Moreover, she should insist on references from you as well. Don’t be offended, be glad she cares so deeply about placing her dogs in a good home.

If this feels a bit overwhelming, know that getting the right dog from the right source requires some effort on your part. As Ms Houlahan puts it:

This is the acquisition that most demands a restrained, educated, skeptical approach that serves your own self-interest as well as supporting practices that are good for dogs. For no other purchase does intelligent self-interest mesh so closely with good social ethics.

Huddy at 10 weeks old with Emma

Huddy at 10 weeks old with Emma

*To access this article, you must be a subscriber to the WDJ. I have been a subscriber for about 10 years and can say that it has been well worth the money, but I leave that decision up to you.
**The OFA’s mission is: “To promote the health and welfare of companion animals through a reduction in the incidence of genetic disease.” One way in which they achieve this goal is by collating and disseminating information concerning orthopedic and genetic diseases of animals.

Decisions, decisions, decisions! Informational or Doggie Demographics Your new dog or puppy

Choosing your new best friend.

“We want to get a dog for our family. Do you recommend a particular breed or type of dog?”

I get this type of question primarily from people who have not had a dog as an adult, but have fond memories of their childhood canine companion, and they want their children to have the same experience. I want this too. My wish for every family is that they have the dog who curls up next to the rocking chair as mom nurses her newborn; sleeps beside the bed of his 6 year old boy every night; plunks himself in the middle of family movie night because being with his family is his idea of Heaven; and who gently licks away the tears from his teenage girl suffering through her first break-up. Every family deserves a dog whose gentle personality and canine goofiness defines the growing up years.

While there are no guarantees with any dog, no matter where you get him or how old he is, there are some things you can do to improve the chances that you get the dog you really want. In general, I do not recommend any particular breed, but as Pat Miller wrote in an article titled Family Planning, in the August 2009 issue of The Whole Dog Journal:

While the individual dog’s personality is more important than the general breed standard, there are certain breed characteristics that make some dogs more likely to be good candidates for the job of providing companionship to kids. These include a high tolerance for pain and discomfort; a resistance to becoming easily aroused; a resistance to being highly reinforce by chasing children who are running (or moving on bikes or skates, as just a few examples); and a predisposition to being quiet (as opposed to excessively vocal).

She lists Bernese Mountain Dogs, Great Pyrenees, Irish Wolfhounds, Beagles, Basset Hounds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Australian and English Shepherds and Rough Collies as breeds that when properly socialized to children can do well with children. She recommends that parents think carefully about getting toy breeds as they are “tiny, fragile, and sensitive” – not necessarily ideal for families with active children. High energy dogs such as Weimaraners, Boxers, and Dalmatians, may be hard for families to provide the level of mental stimulation and physical exercise these dogs need, especially when there are babies in the house.

It bears repeating, however, that the most important thing you can do is evaluate a particular dog, rather than rely on breed standards, or hope that the adorable mixed breed dog you are considering has the best characteristics of the breeds who contributed to his particular DNA.

When I evaluate dogs, the very first, and most important thing I look for is social drive, especially towards children. A strong social drive is your best insurance policy against aggression as the dog who loves people will better tolerate mistakes (such as tripping over him, stepping on a paw, a toddler falling on him, etc.) than a dog who doesn’t care to be around people. In essence, You do not want a dog who tolerates children, you want a dog who lives for children.  The ideal family dog should be such a wiggling fool at the sight of little people, that you are sure he is going to split right out of his skin. “If a dog displays anything less than full enthusiasm for kids you’re asking for trouble.” (Miller, WDJ, August 2009).

So how do you evaluate the social drive in a dog? Here are some things to look for when considering any dog:

1) When you enter the room where the dog is, stand quietly and watch him. Do not immediately call him to you, but wait to see what he does in the presence of strangers. Does the dog happily approach you and your children? Resist taking home the shy or fearful dog, no matter how cute he is. “A fearful dog is probably not well-socialized, and it will take a lot of work (behavior modification) to help him become ‘normal.’ Love is not enough!” (Miller, WDJ April 2009).*  Also, see my blog on fearful puppies.

2) Is the environment more interesting to him than you are? You should be infinitely more interesting to the pup than his surroundings, especially if you are meeting him in his home where the environment is not novel. In my blogBeauty is only Fur Deep,  I compare two puppies from the same litter and discuss why I preferred one to the other. In the case of the male pup:

He was far more interested in the environment (though this was his house and not a new environment), did not stick around to be petted, was not interested in engaging with the people (i.e.: he did not seek out attention from anyone in the room, but did not object if someone petted him), he resisted being hugged and immediately walked away from me when I set him down. When offered a toy, he ran into another room and was not interested in playing with me or the kids.

He wasn’t a bad dog, he just wasn’t an ideal family dog, especially compared to the female who we felt was everything we would have wanted for a family.

3) How does the dog react to handling? Can you lift his lips by placing your hand on his snout, and using your thumb and forefinger gently pull up the sides of the dog’s mouth? Can you handle his paws, does he lean in for petting? If you are scared or uncertain about touching the dog’s head or feet ask yourself if this is a safe dog to be around your children. A good example of what you should look for when handling a dog is the female puppy mentioned above:

She sought out the children, curled up in their laps and gently licked their hands. When presented with a stuffed toy, she ran over to one of the children to solicit a game of fetch and tug. When petted, she curled in for more, did not mind when I lifted her lips or hugged her. In fact, when I hugged her she quickly settled into being with me and when I set her down, she leaned into my legs.

3) Is the dog easily aroused? I look for playfulness in a dog and I don’t mind if a puppy uses his mouth to explore the world, but a dog that goes from calm to over-the-top arousal and bites hard, growls, snaps, or is difficult to calm down is probably a dog you want to pass on. If movement and noise overly excite him, then imagine how difficult it would be to manage him with a group of six year old boys playing Transformers in the backyard.

4) Be sure to ask the current owner if the dog protects or guards toys, treats, food bowls, water bowls, blankets, beds, people, etc. If a dog tenses, growls, or snaps around things it values, this can be a dangerous situation in a home with children. As cute as Fifi may be, do not bring her home if she doesn’t know how to share.

5) Familiarize yourself with the warning signs that a puppy may be headed for behavioral trouble, and do not adopt him if, in addition to the items listed above, he shows these tendencies:

Avoiding or hiding from people, places, or objects.  This may indicate fear that could escalate into aggression as an adult.

Alarm barking, lunging, putting “hackles” up in response to people or animalsThis is another indication of fear that could mean serious problems as an adult dog if not addressed while the dog is young.

Excessive mouthing specifically during physical handling. Puppies should use their mouths to explore the world, but hard biting, especially if accompanied by stiffening, growling, or snarling could indicate underlying fear or pain and should be evaluated.

Reluctance to “sit” or “down” during training.  Pain, especially in the hips or elbows, can cause non-compliance to basic commands. Have the puppy examined to determine if there is an organic cause to his non-compliance. Anxiety is another cause of dogs not “obeying” commands (and is often labeled as stubbornness), and needs to be addressed appropriately. 

Confinement problems.  If  the puppy will not eat while confined, has excessive vocalizations in his crate, and/or will not settle in his crate, he may be showing early signs of separation or confinement anxiety.

6) If you are new to dogs, or feel as if choosing one for your family is a monumental task, find a positive reinforcement trainer who is experienced with temperament tests and ask her to help you. A dog is a 10 year (or more) commitment, so asking a professional to help you make the right choice will increase the likelihood you will find the canine companion who enhances and defines your family’s formative years.



* The Whole Dog Journal does not make all of its articles available to the public online. Some require that you buy an online subscription to view content. This is one of those articles. I have had a subscription for about 10 years and I think it is well worth the money, but I will leave that decision up to you. You can also view the article at Highbeam Research, but that too requires a subscription. Sorry about that! Call me if you want to discuss the article further.

Care and management or living together in harmony Decisions, decisions, decisions! Informational or Doggie Demographics Your new dog or puppy

Fearful puppies, biting adults, an unfortunate alliance.


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.

I have referenced Reisner Veterinary Behavior & Consulting Services in past posts as they have a terrific way of succinctly stating canine problems, their causes, and their solutions. On Facebook they have a “Tuesday’s Pearl” that is always worth checking out and this last week was no exception. The topic at hand is fearful puppies who graduate to become fear biters, an all too common story:

Tuesday’s Pearl: Nervous, fearful puppies often grow into adults who bite.

It is notoriously difficult to predict a puppy’s future temperament. This is the case even when the temperament of both parents is known – though, then, the odds are much better that predictions will come true. There is one pattern that emerges again and again, however. When a puppy exhibits fear (even without aggression), she is more likely to show fear-related biting as an adult.* 

     Unfortunately, owners often guess that the opposite is true. Puppies, they assume, just have to learn to navigate the world through socialization. The sensitive period for socialization is approximately from the time puppies can see and hear (about 2-3 weeks) until the age of 3 months, and exposure to both social (mother, littermates, human hands, children) and environmental (temperatures, surfaces, noises, crates) stimuli is necessary. But, like humans, puppies come into the world with inherited predispositions as well. It’s the combination of genes (traits) and environment (learning) that create the sum of adult behavior. Ignoring the fear will not help.*

      Fearfulness and worry have a common trajectory in dogs. A nervous puppy may show reluctance or active avoidance when she’s exposed to new stimuli. This may appear ‘cute’ as the puppy hides behind her owner’s legs in Petsmart, but should very quickly change to curiosity and engagement with friendly dogs and people. If it does not, by four to six months, fear can be manifested through arousal – the puppy’s hackles may be up, her body language defensive, and she might start to show mild aggression through growling. By nine months her fear may become more preemptive as she stands her ground. Barking, pulling towards the stimulus and even lunging are common; in fact, the sensation of being held back (and trapped) by a leash can contribute to classically conditioned reactivity. Young dogs who act this way with unfamiliar people or dogs are at high risk of biting when they become behaviorally mature at 1-3 years of age.

     Behavior is plastic and responds well to gentle handling, encouragement and training (learning), but it’s important to recognize that biting as young adults is a very common outcome for nervous puppies. Common does not mean inevitable – however, recognizing the course of behavioral development can make a big difference in helping an anxious puppy to feel safe and to navigate the world.

Should you have concerns about your puppy’s shyness or other behavioral issue please do not wait for the problem to resolve on its own. If you are uncertain as to whether or not there is an issue, check out my blog “This is not the dog I wanted…”  for The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Indoor Pet Initiative list of red flags in puppies. Or, call me (740-587-0429) and together we can decide on the next best step for your pup.

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 and needed some special handling at times to keep him comfortable.


*Text emphasis mine.

Behavior or "What the heck?" Informational or Doggie Demographics Shy dogs Your new dog or puppy

Why your puppy should be a social butterfly.


Huddy at 10 weeks old with Emma

Huddy at 10 weeks old with Emma

When my daughter got her Golden Retriever, Hudson, in January of 2005, she was determined that he would be well socialized. Her previous dog, Molly, was adopted when she was about 1 year of age and was most likely grossly under-socialized to people, places, pets, and the rhythms of life in general. She was quite leary of people and aggressive towards dogs. Try as we might, we were never able to get her past her behavior issues.

Emma kept a detailed log of everyone that Hudson met by 4 months of age. At that time we lived in Spotsylvania county Virginia, a fairly rural area surrounded by the Chancellorsville battlefield. Getting him out to meet people required some planning and creativity on our part. Nonetheless, by 16 weeks of age he’d met 750 people. As a result of this intense effort to socialize him, Huddy adored people and could work a room better than most seasoned politicians. 

In general, you should aim to have your puppy meet at least 100 people by four months of age. Consider keeping a log of the type of people your dog meets: babies, boys, girls, tall and short people, men with beards, people with hats, sunglasses, and/or both, etc. All these people look different to your pup and the greater the variety of people he meets the more comfortable he will be as an adult dog. Colleen Pelar has a wonderful Scavenger Hunt for Puppy Socialization on her website Living with Kids and Dogs that gives you a checklist of people, places, and things your puppy should encounter.

Any behaviorist or trainer worth their weight in dog biscuits will tell you: the very best way to have a socially sound, well mannered, and stable adult dog is to socialize him, in a positive way, during this critical period. Once the socialization window closes at 16 weeks, it does not reopen, and you are no longer socializing, but counter conditioning. So, when you get your new puppy, commit to introducing him to a variety of people, places, substrates, and objects, when he’s open to it, so you won’t have to hire someone to try and fix him later. 

Bingley as a puppy wiggles his way into a twister game.

Bingley as a puppy wiggles his way into a twister game.

Some veterinarians will tell you that you should not get your dog out until his puppy shots are complete. I understand their desire to reduce your baby’s exposure to diseases such as parvovirus, I do not want your dog to get sick either. However, according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on Puppy Socialization, “[b]ehavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.” (Emphasis mine.)

While puppies’ immune systems are still developing during these early months, the combination of maternal immunity, primary vaccination, and appropriate care makes the risk of infection relatively small compared to the chance of death from a behavior problem. Enrolling in puppy classes prior to three months of age can be an excellent means of improving training, strengthening the human-animal bond, and socializing puppies in an environment where risk of illness can be minimized…In general, puppies can start puppy socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should receive a minimum of one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to the first class and a first deworming. They should be kept up-to-date on vaccines throughout the class.

In addition to a good puppy class, your dog can be introduced safely to a variety of things, if some guidelines are followed:

1) DO NOT take him to the dog park, or to places like PetSmart where the dog population is not regulated before he is 5-6 months of age as his shots and his socialization are not complete.
2) DO take him to puppy class with a positive reinforcement trainer.
3) Have friends over for margaritas and puppy socializing. Be sure to invite friends with kids.
4) Take him to Home Depot, Lowes, or Tractor supply to meet people. Most of these brand stores will let you take dogs in, but you can always stand outside and meet people as they head in.
5) Find out Mass and service times for your local churches and synagogs and stand outside as the service is letting out. You will meet the entire world.
6) Ask a friend with preschool age children if you can bring him to meet the kids.
7) Stand in the foyer of a Barnes and Noble and greet people as they go in and out.
8) Stand in front of your local Starbucks and greet people.
9) Allow him to approach people, places, objects, etc at his pace. DO NOT allow anyone to overwhelm him or to pick him up without your permission, as this can be uncomfortable or distressing to your pup. If someone asks to pet him say, “It’s fine with me, but you will have to ask Fido.” Then tell her to put out her hand. If Fido goes over to her, then she can pet him. If Fido does not go over to her, do not force him (Fido may be tired of meeting people right then) and say, “Sorry, I guess he isn’t in the mood right now.” Build your relationship with him by protecting him and allowing him to explore novel things (people included) in a way that is comfortable for him. See:
           The AVSAB sums it up nicely, “During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing over- stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal, or avoidance behavior.” In other words, be smart about how you socialize your dog. You want him to experience the world as much as possible, but in a way that accentuates the positive and minimizes the risk of disease and fearful experiences. Help Fido to be the very best version of himself as a puppy and as a happy, well adjusted adult.

Puppies need pals as well as people.


Behavior or "What the heck?" Informational or Doggie Demographics Shy dogs Your new dog or puppy

Leash Handling with a Mouthy Puppy, and more…

IMG_0651A common problem with puppies is general mouthiness, but when an owner is trying to clip the puppy’s leash onto its collar it can go beyond annoying to infuriating . The typical response seems to be to tell the puppy “NO!” and try to get it to settle by sheer force of will and a stern voice. I have not found that this is the most successful method and it generally results in a frustrated owner and a non-compliant dog.

So, what’s an owner to do? The answer is surprisingly simple actually! Use treats to get the the dog to look at you, then lure him into a down and place the treats between his paws as you clip the leash either on or off. If the dog will not do a down, then simply put the treats between his front paws and as he leans down to eat them, snap on the leash. You can use a small handful of kibble as the treats, but I find that adding in a few really yummy treats helps to motivate the pup to be still. Here is a wonderful little video illustrating this technique:


I just hafta hold something!

I just hafta hold something!

One last hint for leash mouthiness, if your dog is toy motivated, give him a stuffed toy or ball to hold while you snap on the leash. It is really, really hard to hang onto Mr. Bear and bite your leash at the same time.



In an earlier blog, I talked about what to do when a puppy or dog is biting your hand.  Mouthiness is a part of puppy play as he learns to use his mouth appropriately, and as Ian Dunbar puts it:

Puppies bite — and thank goodness they do. Puppy biting is a normal, natural, and necessary puppy behavior. Puppy play-biting is the means by which dogs develop bite inhibition and a soft mouth. The more your puppy bites and receives appropriate feedback, the safer his jaws will be in adulthood. It is the puppy that does not mouth and bite as a youngster whose adult bites are more likely to cause serious damage. (Ian Dunbar,

Here’s Dr. Dunbar talking about the importance of bite inhibition and allowing your puppy to use his mouth:

I do understand that excessive biting can be frustrating, so if you cannot get your puppy to inhibit his biting or if your puppy seems to be biting out of fear, seek out the help of a positive reinforcement trainer or a certified animal behaviorist so that you can nip that problem in the bud.

Behavior or "What the heck?" General General Informational or Doggie Demographics Training or "Why, Why, WHY?" Your new dog or puppy

Bringing home your new best friend.

Meet Tex

Meet Tex

About a week ago my daughter, son-in-law, and I picked up the newest addition to our clan of canines. Tex, a liver-colored flat-coated retriever was available from Bingley’s breeder and after careful consideration of all his attributes (including some health issues that we agreed were very manageable), he seemed like the perfect dog for their little family. He is a 2 1/2 year old, intact male who is highly social with people, has had a fair amount of training, and is a typically active flattie. We loved him from the instant we learned about him. The breeder was in Dresden for some field dog training and brought Tex with her, so off we went to get Emma and Thomas’s new best friend.

In the past, we have introduced puppies to our current canine companions, and though we have had boarders, we have not added an adult dog to the clan since 2002.  Personally, I have found that adding puppies (~8-10 weeks) is easier than adding an adult dog when you have other dogs in your home, as there is a certain puppy license that adult dogs will grant to youngsters under 4 months of age. Adding an adult dog requires that you appreciate the personal space that each dog has and allow them to move freely around one another. However, no matter the age of the newcomer, adding any dog to any household requires a certain amount of preparation, tact, patience, and, if you have other dogs, a high level of canine diplomacy for peace to reign supreme.  I have some basic rules that I like to follow when introducing dogs, and in searching my archives I found an article from The Whole Dog Journal  called “New Dog Do’s and Don’ts“* that has some suggestions as well for introducing a new dog to your home whether or not you have other pets. Some of her best ideas are about pre-planning for your pet, and what you need to be aware of when deciding to get a dog:

Often, new-dog ventures fail most frequently when people don’t take enough time – time to research what sort of dog is really best for them, time to prepare for the dog’s arrival, and time to spend with the dog. In fact, the first thing I ask when I hear someone is thinking about getting a dog is, “How much time do you have?”

I couldn’t agree with her more! I do not recommend bringing a new dog into your home if you do not have ample time to make it work both short and long term. We got Tex on a Thursday when Emma and Thomas were on fall break (until Sunday evening) and I did not schedule anything on my calendar until the following Monday. We wanted to be sure that we had ample, relaxed time to make Tex and the rest of the pack comfortable.

In addition to allotting a surfeit of time, we did the following to introduce Tex to our household:

Don't put unfamiliar dogs together in a small space, such as a car. That can lead to a very uncomfortable situation for everyone.

Don’t put unfamiliar dogs together in a small space, such as a car. That can lead to a very uncomfortable situation for everyone.

  1. We picked up Tex without the other dogs. This allowed us to meet him and spend some time getting to know him before we added the challenge of a new home and two new dogs. Moreover, I did not want to put two (or more) dogs who do not know one another in a small area for any extended period of time. With no ability to move out of each other’s personal space, I would be setting them up to be very uncomfortable around each other, potentially dislike one another, and possibly fight with each other. Not the way I want to get this relationship started.
  2. When we got home, Emma and Thomas put Tex on a leash and walked him down the block. I then brought out our dogs, one at a time and we introduced the dogs to one another on neutral territory making sure the leashes were slack at all times.  Keeping your dog’s leash nice and loose when he is meeting another dog is critical to making the encounter successful. Think of it this way: if your dog’s options for stressful moments are fight or flight and the leash is taut, thereby preventing him from moving easily around the other dog, what option does he have left to get the other dog to back off?
  3. We also did not have them meet coming at each other head on, but allowed them enough room to pass by one another, move to one side, or turn away completely. It is very rude in the dog world to come at another dog head on, so we allowed them some room to move around each other comfortably and to turn away or arc away from the other dog if needed.
    Bing and Hudson with Emma Rose in the back yard. Note they are moving in the same direction and have plenty of room to maneuver around each other.

    Bing and Hudson with Emma Rose in the back yard. Note that they are moving in the same direction and have plenty of room to maneuver around each other.

  4. We kept the encounter short and sweet. They met, greeted one another and when one moved away we took that as a signal to part and I put my dog in the back yard, then brought out contestant number 2 to meet Tex, repeating steps 1-4.
  5. The next part was to allow the dogs to engage off lead in the back yard where they had plenty of room to move around. We did not leave the dogs to their own devices but instead, monitored and  supervised all canine encounters  to ensure they were appropriate. We had lots of tennis balls to throw for the retrievers and found it handy to have them parallel playing. Bingley played ball with me, Tex ran around, played some ball, talked to the people, etc. Buckley  watched the silly retrievers expend exorbitant amounts of energy.
  6. Bingley does not like other dogs to go over his shoulders and when Tex put his paws on Bingley’s back we watched to see what would happen. Bingley stiffened and let out a low growl. It took a few warnings, but Tex got the message that Bingley did not like that. Allowing dogs to work out their disagreements is fine, as long as it does not escalate into a fight. We were careful to make sure that it did not get to that point by diffusing the situation by calling Tex off of Bing and re-directing both dogs to other activities or parts of the yard.
  7. We also managed the time in the yard together by adding in breaks from one another, not just by using parallel play, but by taking one dog inside for a drink and a chance to unwind.
  8. When it was time for the dogs to meet inside, we brought each dog in separately and did not allow the other dogs to hang around the doorway as tight spaces can cause problems. We were very conscious about making sure all dogs had room to move and to get away from the other dogs so that no one ended up feeling cornered or trapped. Bingley and Tex did some posturing towards one another and when they seemed tense, we would separate them, give everyone a treat and allow them to reunite. My objective here (as it is with play groups) was to keep everything as low key as possible, so I prefered to err on the side of more rather than less interventions. Thus, we interrupted their behavior/interactions, sometimes every minute, sometimes every 5-10 minutes.
  9. One thing we found extremely handy was a series of baby gates.  The baby gates allowed Tex and Bing to be close to one another, they would sniff through the gate, even lie down next to it, but they could not invade each other’s personal space. It encouraged them to be together without constantly interacting, and it allowed us to have all the dogs in the same room and not have to constantly monitor those interactions. For example, Bingley was developing a small hot spot at the base of his tail and for some reason Tex decided it was his responsibility to lick it. Bingley was very tolerant for the most part, but the licking made the hot spot worse and it eventually annoyed Bing. The gate prevented Tex from licking Bing and allowed them both to settle down while we watched a movie.
  10. In addition to parallel play, we found it very handy to walk them together so that they were moving parallel and close to one another. They were doing something together and with their people, but they didn’t have to be paying complete attention to one another either, thus teaching them to be more comfortable with each other in close proximity. It’s sort of like a moving gate! The dogs are together and active, they have space to move, and can interact but it also gives us a way to quickly and efficiently separate and re-direct the dogs.
  11. Reward desirable behavior. We were all outfitted with bait bags loaded with tasty morsels so that we could reward good behavior the moment it happened. When the dogs all sat next to one another and focused on a person, everyone got a treat. When one dog turned away from another to avoid a kerfuffle, he got a treat. When all dogs settled down, bones rained from the sky. A basic tenet of behavior is that it is consequence driven. As I said in an earlier blogIn other words, rewards matter. Rewarding desirable behavior will do more to change and improve your dog’s behavior than anything else you do, including playing at being alpha dog. Thus, use praise, petting, food, toys, anything your dog loves, to your advantage to get better results sooner. Your dog will quickly learn that getting along with the new dog on the block brings good things.

It will take some time for everyone (you included) to be comfortable with the new arrangements so be patient with all involved and remember that time and space are your best friends here! Monitor your dogs’ interactions and give them time together and apart. Make sure that all the dogs have a safe place to go to re-group that will not be invaded by others. Bingley spent time with me in my office with the gate closed while Tex and Emma hung out in the other office with a baby gate across the doorway. Buckley slept in our bedroom in his spot by the bed. We found that time together and time apart made for a an easier transition for everyone as no one was forced to make small talk when they didn’t feel like it.

Tex has gone to Michigan with Emma and Thomas, but will be back for holidays and vacations and we will start the introductions all over again from step 1 so that no one gets overwhelmed. We will still use gates as necessary, but I know that the need for them will diminish over time as everyone becomes not only accustomed to the changes, but happy to have Tex aboard.

Tex and Annie (Thomas's parent's dog) met that weekend as well. Note they are giving each other physical space as well as mental space (not looking at each other).

Tex and Annie (Thomas’s parent’s dog) met that weekend as well. Note: they are giving each other extra space by not looking directly at one another.




Another Whole Dog Journal resource is: Managing a Multi-dog Household

Care and management or living together in harmony Decisions, decisions, decisions! Informational or Doggie Demographics Your new dog or puppy

Exuberant play or keeping you at bay?

IMG_0782Recently, I had a client email me this question:

How do I handle Ralphie “biting” our hands when we pet him? If I pull my hand away isn’t that what he wants? But if I keep petting him, then am I encouraging that behavior also?

In order to provide the best solution to this concern, I needed to gather some more information:

When you go to pet him, is he soliciting attention from you or are you approaching him? Does he back away, move his head away from your hand or otherwise try to avoid contact with you when you reach over to pet him? How he reacts to your approach and petting will determine what I suggest you do.

IMG_0653   Many puppies, for instance, become mouthy with their owners when playing and may bite as part of the IMG_0651play. These dogs are learning what is and is not appropriate use of their mouths with people when they get excited. In this case, since the dog is not trying to avoid the person’s touch, but is exuberantly playing. I recommend that as soon as the dog’s mouth makes contact with skin in what is considered to be inappropriate or excessive, then all attention to the dog stops. Stand up, turn your back on the dog and even exit the room for 5-10 seconds so that the dog learns that when he gets too rough, he loses his people. Adding a high-pitched yelp when the teeth hit the skin can tell the dog, “Ouch, dude! That hurt!” much like the puppy’s littermates would do if things got out of hand (Puppies will yelp and stop playing with the miscreant sibling, who generally will stop what he is doing and will come back to play more gently).
     If, however, Ralphie is actively trying to avoid his person’s hand, and Mom keeps coming at him, he is likely feeling panicky and needs to clarify that he does not want to be petted. If she continues to pet Ralphie when he (at least in his view) has warned her how uncomfortable this is for him, then she might be encouraging him to escalate the biting so that it is abundantly clear that he does not want anyone to pet him. Instead of continuing her frontal approach, I recommend that she turn her profile towards Ralphie, move her hand down to her side, be quiet, and don’t look at him directly. When Ralphie feels less threatened, he may decide to approach her. If he does, she should allow him to make the first move to sniff her hand, and she should not move it up and over his head. This will likely scare him as dogs see a frontal approach as rude and/or threatening.
     I would also recommend counter conditioning to help Ralphie understand that his person’s approach and petting is a good, enjoyable thing to have happen. This entails pairing food with petting (and using something really wonderful, such as chicken) to help Ralphie change his emotional response from one of fear/dislike to anticipation and comfort. Because you do not want to overwhelm Ralphie in the process, counter-conditioning is best done with the help of an experienced trainer or behaviorist who can guide you successfully through the technique.
     Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that behavior is seldom simple and is always a combination of emotion, genetics, and learned responses. Therefore, the solution to any dog’s biting depends on the nature of the biting, why he is doing it, and is never made better by using force. Bullying causes fear in people, it does the same in dogs. Dominating, alpha rolling, or other forms of physical punishment will only serve to exacerbate the problem (See: for more information on what happens with punishment based training methods). I recommend that if your dog has a mouthing issue, find yourself a positive reinforcement trainer with experience in counter-conditioning who can advise you on the best course of action.

71C_dog_park not vet-01

Behavior or "What the heck?" General Informational or Doggie Demographics Your new dog or puppy