Thursday, May 6, 2010


I had a great bit of serendipity the other day with a client.  I'm helping them train their mastiff, Madison.  Madison is a great huge beast of a dog, and a total lover.  But she has some slight timidity issues that sometimes result in her barking or growling.  Pretty minor, but given her size, and that her owners would like her to be a Therapy Dog (which she totally will be, she was born for it), it is definitely something to address.

I wanted her owners to know how a dog naturally responds to something that scares it, and I actually demonstrated by playing the role of the dog.  A dog, upon seeing something that startles or scares it, will back away very quickly and then check things out from a distance.  Then it will circle around and approach from another direction.  Usually it will back away again before getting all the way close.  After a few seconds of checking things out from a distance, it will circle in, getting even closer.  Eventually, it will get to within sniffing/touching distance - and then run away again.  Typically, when it approaches again after that time, that is when it has finally decided to be comfortable with the new thing.

(It is on that second-to-last approach, where the dog first gets close enough to touch, that most people blow it and try to pet a dog that is afraid of them.  That was really just a test to see if you could be trusted to stay cool and not move.  By trying to get too friendly too fast, you fail the test.  Wait a little bit longer for the dog to come back to you and then hang out on its own.  Then you can give a little scratch under the chin.)

So, I had gone through this whole comical pantomime of acting like a dog, and I could see the owner sort of got it.  And then I had my stroke of luck - while we were talking, Madison, giant 100 lb mastiff, was startled by a grasshopper!  And right there in front of us, Madison proceeded to reenact everything I had just done.  She jumped back away from the grasshopper.  She circled around and approached it again, and then jumped back.  She circled and tried again.  And then, after a couple more cautious approaches, she sniffed it - and then walked away unconcerned.

Other than being hilarious, there was a valuable lesson in all of that.   It is usually our own clumsy use of leashes and fences that create problem anxiety in our dogs.   If you give a dog freedom to deal with fear on its own, without trying to force it closer or farther away or impose your will on it, a dog will work through things on its own quite well.  Even grasshoppers, the mastiff's mortal enemy.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Positive reinforcement as a training method is not *just* giving treats for good behavior. There is a precise methodology to it, developed by B.F. Skinner, refined by Marian and Keller Breland and generations of trainers since.

In order to get an animal working as hard and eagerly as possible for you, the rewards should be, surprisingly, small. Instantly digestible treats that the animal enjoys, but leave wanting more. They should come only when the desired behavior is performed; if the animal can get the treats in other ways, they won’t have as much incentive to do what you want them to.

Most importantly, the treats should not come regularly, but in what we call an “Intermittent Reinforcement Schedule” - in other words, in a random, unpredictable manner. If the treats come every time, the animal will feel free to slack off, confident that it can always get more treats later. If the treats aren’t constant, but are predicable, the animal will learn to not bother when treats are unlikely, and only try when they’re likely to come. So they must be moderately rare, and unpredicatable.

My iPhone is the best positive reinforcement trainer I’ve ever met.

Its treats are email messages, texts and Facebook updates. They’re all very small and instantly consumed (mentally). They only come if I check my phone. But they don’t come every time I check my phone.

What’s the result? My phone has trained to check in with it over and over throughout the day. I would actually hate for someone to actually do a count of how often I check it. And that’s with me knowing that I’m being trained, and how. When I look at many other people, reflexively checking their phones in the middle of conversations, conversations in which they are interested and engaged, I am in awe of the power of positive reinforcement as a training tool. Truly, we must use this power only for good. Unlike the gaming industry.



We’ve all seen them, the tiny dog being carried around like a fashion accessory or a teddy bear surrogate. Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, Shih Tzus, and so on. “Aren’t they adorable?” people coo. And yes, they are cute little guys. Until you reach out to pet one and it tries to snap your finger off. Or barks like its having a fit at any one who walks by while the owner sits sipping their latte outside the coffee shop, only stopping when it is picked up once again into its owner’s protective embrace.

And that right there is the problem. Stop picking up your dog! You’re not doing him any favors. And you’re spreading the misconception that all little dog are yappy, neurotic messes. Which just isn’t true. I’ve known many calm and assured Chihuahuas. But you want to know what the common denominator was between all of them? They weren’t carried around - they walked on a leash by their owner just like any larger dog.

Which is the answer. Treat your toy dog like it was a full sized Labrador. Stop protecting it from the world. Stop cuddling it to you all the time. Let it get out in the world and sniff around. Let it be afraid every once in a while - and then let it get over that fear. Don’t let it get away with barking or growling just because its small - that sort of behavior would be terrifying in a larger dog, and it should be no more acceptable just because it comes from a small one.

I met an actress with two Pomeranians that were giving her problems - they were totally un-housetrained and undisciplined. When I outlined a few basics for her - such as crating them overnight so they couldn’t pee freely in her house overnight, and feeding them just twice a day to control when they would eliminate - she looked at me aghast. “They can’t hold it all night! They can’t go the whole day between feedings!” Luckily, I was currently being a trainer on a movie set with several trained Chihuahuas, and I was able to simply turn to one of their owners and say, “Can you dog, smaller than her Pomeranians, hold it all night? Go several hours without food?” “Of course, they can,” was the answer.

I turned to the actress and explained, “Your dogs, as cute as they are, are the proud descendents of wolves. It’s time you started treating them accordingly.” I’m pretty sure she didn’t listen, but if we all spread the word, maybe other people will. And Chihuahuas and Pomeranians and Shih Tzus and Yorkshire Terriers can all stop being overcoddled toys and learn to be calm, confident dogs.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Reader Questions: Aggression! (Long)

T. writes:

My Sheltie, Ember, gets very wound up when we walk past other dogs, barking at them in a way that's beyond the alerting barking he does if somebody's at the door but I believe a step below any kind of serious threatening or angry barking.  After the other dog has passed the only way to get him to calm down is to have him lie down for a minute. If you don't wait until his breathing slows back down after this, he will turn and go to the end of his leash and bark at the other dog loudly (as loudly as he can; he's a little hoarse these days) as it leaves. He calms down faster if you put a hand directly on his back and even faster if you have him roll over, and gently lay a hand on his chest, but this feels uncomfortably close to an alpha roll to me and I don't want to do it.

S. writes:

My jack, Minnie, unspayed, has become very protective. She's 5 or 6 (I'm her 3rd owner) and in the last 2 years has started biting strangers.

I'm *thinking* it's in part due to traffic here. We live on a farm, and not only are there 5 related households, but the main home has an invalid who gets a large number of nurses and the like coming over to check on him.

Before this, I let her run as she wanted, which would let her go hunting rats in the barn and the 3 chickenhouses (I know she's a terrier, and ratting is one of those things she does). She never shows aggression towards her "pack" - My household, or anyone that lives on this farm.

She's up to date on her shots, so it's not rabies/distemper - not an OBVIOUS medical issue.

A small look into her personality - she was raised from puppyhood with small kids, which is generally a no-no with her breed. And when I got her, my daughter was in diapers, yet my daughter was her master in her eyes. My daughter can't go anywhere without Minnie trailing.

I've tried something basic - putting her on a leash, then walking, changing direction and stopping at random times to kinda force her to watch me and where we were going (a trick we used on the pug we had) but she's a lot more difficult to train than my pug was.

I'm answering these together because they're both examples of aggression.  "Aggression" is a very broad category, ranging from Ember's barking at dogs to Minnie's biting of people.  The origins of aggression vary a lot, from being undersocialized and just having poor doggie "social skills," to over-reactive possessiveness, to extreme fear caused by abuse or a feral childhood.

Aggression issues are complicated, often deeply ingrained and vary from dog to dog.  They cannot be treated by someone over the internet; they require personalized attention from a professional.  However, for anybody thinking about calling for help, here is some information about the methods to treat aggression that might be helpful.


Almost all aggression has its roots in fear of some sort, in the "fight or flight" reflex.  So, the first step is to alleviate as much of your dog's anxiety as possible.  An excellent start is to to establish a regular routine with your dog of feeding times, regular walks, relaxation time and play.   Set yourself up as a strong leader - do not let your dog demand your attention on her terms, require polite obedience in return for food or access to toys or affection or walks, and so on.

All dogs are instinctively more relaxed in the presence of someone they regard as their boss.  To be a leader of a pack is to have the responsibility of protecting the pack and looking after it.  If someone else is the pack leader, that means the dog doesn't have to worry about all that and can chill!


This covers everything from the Cesar Milan light, instant pop on the leash to much harsher methods involving yanking hard, "hanging" the dog with the leash and shock collars.

Don't use these methods. They can work, to an extent, when done by someone with perfect timing and expert dog-reading skills. You don't have those skills. Furthermore, most trainers who will take your money to use these methods don't have those skills either.

Even when done properly and perfectly, there's two problems. First, they can have unexpected consequences down the line - the better behavior fades, or more commonly, the aggression come back worse than it ever was before. Two, they don't actually fix the real problem, the attitude of the dog. They may inhibit certain behavior, but the emotions that triggered the barking/biting are still there under the surface, waiting.


Usually shortened to CCDS (or DSCC), this uses Pavlovian techniques to replace a dog's fearful association (with other dogs or people), with a happier association (steak!). Put very, very simply - you wait until your dog sees what sets it off (but at a distance that doesn't provoke a full fit), and then give your dog something awesome (steak!). Once your dog is pestering you for food whenever that thing shows up, you can make the distance closer. Repeat until your dog is fully associating the appearance of that thing in any situation with the possibility of awesomeness.

Obviously, there is a lot more technique to this than just that paragraph. Please look for a professional in your area with experience in CCDS. If you need help finding a reputable trainer in your area, feel free to write me at and perhaps I can help.

CCDS, if done correctly and consistently 2-4 times a week, typically takes 2-4 months. Periods of 6 months or more are often reported, though I suspect those people aren't consistent. And while I haven't had the chance to try it, research would seem to indicate that you could actually get much faster results if you were willing and able to do it a lot, every day, for a couple of weeks.

Keep in mind that doing CCDS "correctly" means not letting your dog be exposed to whatever sets it off, except in controlled training sessions, for the duration of the rehabilitation program. That... is challenging. But if you can manage it for a couple of months and put your time in, you can fix most of your problems.


The unfortunately named "C.A.T." program is a new-ish procedure developed by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, PhD. Put simply, you could call it a "Fake It Until You Feel It" program. The basic premise is that what a dog really wants when it barks/growls/bites is to make the scary thing go away. So why not use the going away as the reward for the behavior you want?

The dog is exposed to the thing that sets it off (the "trigger"), at a distance where the dog's reaction will be mild. The trigger stays there until the dog does something that doesn't look like aggression - turns away, yawns, sniffs, etc. At that exact moment, the trigger leaves. Repeat over and over again, at lesser and lesser distances. The dog learns that not acting aggressive is what makes the trigger go away.

There's a lot more to it, of course, but a really remarkable thing happens. There's a point at which the dog has been offering friendly-looking behavior to the trigger so often that it actually becomes friendly. It's actually quite miraculous when you see it happen.

The trouble with CAT is that it works best when done in big chunks of time over a compressed period, like 3-4 eight-hour days in a row. That's a big commitment of time. Add onto that that you need a lot of volunteers. It's not enough to get the dog to be friendly towards a single person or dog - although you can certainly do that - but if you want that friendly attitude to generalize to all dogs or people, you're going to need a lot of volunteers over those 3-4 days (say, at least 5-6 people or dogs).

C.A.T. qualified trainers are pretty rare right now. (I'm one, and I think there's only one other in Los Angeles, though there's a very good one in Santa Barbara.)

On the other hand, when it works, you can totally turn a dog's attitude around in a long weekend, which is just miraculous to see.


"{Ember} calms down faster if you put a hand directly on his back and even faster if you have him roll over, and gently lay a hand on his chest, but this feels uncomfortably close to an alpha roll to me and I don't want to do it."
If Ember will lay down down voluntarily when you tell him to, it's not an alpha roll. Anything that keeps him calm as much as possible in the presence of other dogs is good for him - he's learning that being calm is an option. Feel free to place a firm but calming hand on him once he's down. Just don't force him down - your instincts are good on that count.

I think CCDS is probably your best bet. Find a trainer with experience in your area.  Keep in mind that you may not need to get him to the point that he loves other dogs in all situations - if he learns to associate dogs at a moderate distance with great rewards, that may be good enough for you as long as you can usually keep some small distance between him and other dogs.

I've tried something basic - putting her on a leash, then walking, changing direction and stopping at random times to kinda force her to watch me and where we were going (a trick we used on the pug we had) but she's a lot more difficult to train than my pug was.
Yeah, with a Jack you're going to get a lot more progress using treats. They're "headstrong" dogs - all that means is that the old-school methods of jerking them around on leashes don't work that well. But Jack Russells usually respond really well to treats.

If you want her to pay attention to you as you walk, start by making some small "Tsk" noises as you go. When she looks up in response, toss her a tiny little treat (the size of a pencil eraser is fine). Repeat a few times. Once she's figured out that game and is anticipating the "Tsk" sound, stop making it. When she looks up at you on her own as if to say, "Hey, why aren't you making that sound that means you'll feed me?", toss her one of the treats. Now you start tossing them whenever she looks up at you on her own.

During this you're still making random course corrections, but usually you'll precede them with that little "Tsk" noise until she's watching you often enough that it isn't necessary.

Once she's looking up at you ever few steps, start tossing the treats less and less often. Don't fade too fast, but over a few days, you should be just tossing a couple over the course of the whole walk. Eventually, you won't need them at all.

In addition, use the Loose Leash tips from my earlier blog post, and she should be paying much more attention to you.

However, all that said, I don't expect this will make her less aggressive to strangers on her own. For that, I think you're going to need one of the actual methods I mentioned above. However, for a Jack who is food motivated (if she is), you might have some luck modifying the CCDS by making sure an strangers are given a few pieces of jerky or chicken to toss on the ground whenever they pass by her (not directly approaching her and not not leaning down to give them to her). Put a basket with the treats and an explanation by the front entrance gate to the farm or something. If every time someone walks by they're tossing a treat on the ground for her, she'll probably start to feel a little better about strangers over all.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Bragging About my Dog

My dog BeBop was cast in a movie and the shoot was Wednesday, January 20th.  It is called "Chihuahua: the Movie" and I don't know the release date, unfortunately.  He was cast through Hollywood Paws, an animal talent agency.  Here's how the process goes: the production gets with Hollywood Paws and they decide what kind of dogs they need and what behaviors the dogs will need to know.  In this case, they needed a "mean looking dog."  HP called me and asked if BeBop could do a Stay, a Down, could remain calm while another dog barks at him, a Head Down, a fast, strong Come, Back Up, could bark on command, could follow a Watch Stick, would jump and bark at a target, could lie down on his side next to two other dogs, and fetch a ball.  I said "Sure!" to everything except for the Fetch.  BeBop has never been big on chasing a ball.  They sent BeBop's picture to the production and they liked him.  They decided the fetch wouldn't be a big deal since there was another dog that could take on that part.

BeBop, in costume

The premise of his scenes was that the titular Chihuahua comes into a home with two big dogs, BeBop and and a German Shepherd mix named Jaxon.  The Chihuahua was named Peanut.  The big dogs are boisterous and run roughshod over the Chihuahua.  This was my first production shoot with either of my dogs.  I'd spend the previous week practicing with BeBop as much as I could, but I was still very nervous coming into this.  Would BeBop be able to keep his cool and remember his cues with cameramen and cables and lights and all the chaos of production going on?

Yes.  Yes, he would.

I am so proud of my dog.  He was simply a superstar for the day.  His behaviors were all sharp and he almost never missed a beat.  And he shone even brighter next to the other dogs at the shoot.  The Chihuahua  had been shooting every day for a couple of weeks and I think was getting near his stress limits.  And the German Shepherd mix was a young, high-energy dog that hated to be still for any length of time. 

One scene involved all three dogs sitting side by side looking up at a cat.  In reality, the cat would be edited in later - the dogs were all looking at us trainers on top of a hill standing beside the camera keeping our dogs' attention.  The other dogs could not stay still.  They kept getting up and walking forward towards crew members or just to sniff around.  Because of this, what was supposed to be five or 10 seconds of footage turned into half an hour of trying to get all three dogs to be still for any length of time at all.   

But through it all, BeBop stayed stock still and focused on me.  It may sound simple to just stay sitting, but trust me, for a dog to ignore other dogs moving around him, and people constantly rushing in to reset those dogs, and stay still the entire time, is a HUGE deal.  The entire crew was very impressed by him.  Many times I heard people say, "My God, BeBop is so focused!"

Later on, it got even worse when all three dogs were supposed to lie on their sides next to each other in the sun.  In hindsight, maybe they shouldn't have saved this shot for last outside - we had only 20 minutes of sunlight by the time we got around to shooting it.  And as antsy as the other dogs were before, they were even worse by this point.  The shot required them to stay lying down for about a minute.  By the end, I think we were lucky if we even got 10 seconds of continuous footage of them lying still.  And again, through it all, BeBop stayed lying down on his side, listening to my low, slow voice say, "Staaaaayyyy.  Gooood boooyyyyy.  Staaaayyyyy." 

(One thing I will take credit for is that I did not use BeBop's name during this: I did not say, "Stay, BeBop.  Good boy, BeBop."  Almost all of us dog owners use our pet's name as another version of "Come" - very often when we say our dog's name, we want it to come to us.  I'm no exception, so I made sure not to say his name when I wanted BeBop to stay still.  Of course he can recognize my voice, so when I say, "Stay" or "Good boy," he knows I'm talking to him.  No need to confuse him by saying his name.  It is a lesson the other trainers had not learned.  And consequently, their dogs were repeatedly popping up and coming to them when they were being told to stay put.)

It wasn't just staying still that BeBop excelled at.  When I would call him from another room so it looked like he was bolting for dinnertime, he turned and ran full tilt through the room towards me.  He offered me about 20 barks in a row for the scene with the cat.  And the director loved him when he gave a sad look and belly-shuffle forward in a scene where his owner has had a heart attack.  ACTING!

Afterwards, the cameraman told me that "That dog's got a real future in Hollywood."  High, high praise.

BeBop had his weak points; he's not great at just freeform explosive play.  Years of teaching him to control himself are hard to turn off on command.  There was a scene were he needed to play boisterously with the dogs, a woman and small boy in a yard.  And while the German Shepherd was leaping and running after tennis balls, BeBop was content to just wander and sniff around the yard.  Luckily, I brought his favorite toy - a stuffed squirrel on a stick and rope.  They let me give it to the little boy, and after that, BeBop was playing like a fool, thrashing the squirrel while the boy drug him around like a fish on a pole.  It was hilarious, and everybody had loads of fun.

And speaking of the boy, BeBop was a HUGE hit with the kids.

"Mean dog."  Awwww.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Non-Food Rewards

Anyone reading the advice I give on training would be forgiven for thinking that I depend 100% on food for rewarding my dogs.  But while I do use food quite a bit in training new behavior, the real reason I emphasize it so much in writing is because it's a safe bet that anyone's dog will respond to food.  It takes a jaded dog indeed to turn down warm chicken or sirloin.  However, I do use "life rewards" for behavior - in short, in return for good behavior, I let the dog do whatever it wants to do at that moment.

For instance, I'm trying to get Trooper Thorn and BeBop to do their Sits and Downs more promptly with less reluctance.  Now, part of that, of course, is just practicing more with clicks and treats.  But I'm making better progress using "life rewards".  Along walks, whenever I see that one of them wants to go sniff something and check it out, I ask them for a Sit or Down.  I make sure that I do it in a light hearted voice, not stern. And at first, I was falling into the bad habit of "making" them give me their attention if they were slow - touching them, a tug with the leash, a "Hey!"  Bad, Hudson!  Bad!  Luckily, I caught myself, and now the worst that happens if they don't give me a Sit or Down, or take terribly long to do it, is that we move on without them getting the chance to sniff.   No punishments!  Only the missed chance for a reward.

And lo and behold, I am noticing a marked improvement in the speed of their responses.  Not lightning fast yet, but it's only been a few days.  But much prompter than when we started.  They're starting to pair the behaviors with good things.

So, this is the advantage of non-food rewards - you always have them.  You're never without your treat bag.  You don't have to worry about your dog only performing when you have food.  Because, trust me, there is always something your dog wants, even if its just to go roll in that smelly spot in the grass.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Pitfalls of Punishment

My two dogs, Trooper Thorn and BeBop, have had to put up with being the Guinea pigs for everything I learned - and had to unlearn - about training.  Once upon a time, I trained them with Cesar Milan-esque methods: light leash pops delivered at the exact moment that bad behavior started.  This was usually no more than a furrowed brow or a stare as a precursor to bigger behavior, which the leash pop headed off.  I also got into the habit of getting their attention when training basic obedience (sit, down) by giving them a light pop if they hesitated or let their attention wander.

Later on, after I learned positive reinforcement methods, I began training them in much more complicated behaviors - circling left or right, walking backwards, kneeling, crawling, fetching, etc.

Now, here's the odd thing: all those complicated behaviors?  They respond to those with eagerness and verve.  But "Sit" and "Down," the simplest behaviors?  They do those very slowly and grudgingly.

Of course, it's not so odd after all.  "Sit" and "Down" were paired with punishment - the leash pop they'd get when they were slow or let their attention wander.  Is it any wonder that they're not eager to do something that so often made them uncomfortable?  Yes, they'll do it, but they won't like it.  The other behaviors were paired with rewards, treats for getting things right.  Those behaviors they find fun and snap right to them.

I have decided to get off my butt and see if I can finally correct the damage I did with Sit and Down, if I can turn them into a more positive experience for my boys.  But the truth is that I may never be able to get them to enjoy doing those fully.

And that right there is why you don't use punishment to train dogs - because the best you can hope for is grudging compliance.  Punishment can make a dog obey, but it can never make it eager to perform, and isn't that what you really want?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Lost Your Dog? Something you should know.

A colleague lost his dog recently when it jumped his fence.  After a harrowing day for both owner and dog, that ended with the dog being hit by a car and breaking a leg, everything is working out okay.  However, there are a few lessons all dog owners can learn from his ordeal.


I'm going to discard my calm and collected professional demeanor for a moment, and say that every time I see a dog without any sort of identifying tag on its collar, I want to strangle its owner until their eyes pop out of their head.  A personalized dog tag with your phone number on it costs FIVE LOUSY DOLLARS at PetCo.  There is NO excuse not to have one.  If your dog doesn't have one on it right now, you're being a bad owner.  Go out now and get one, no excuses.  Being microchipped is not enough - that will get your dog to you if it is picked up by Animal Control or taken to a vet, but if your dog has a tag with your contact information on it, it is far more likely to make it back to you just from a friendly stranger.  And every day your dog is loose free is another day to get hurt or stolen.

Now, my friend knew this, and had a tag for his dog.  But his dog had a "normal collar" and a "training collar."  The normal collar had a tag, the training collar didn't.  (And the chip in the dog had outdated information about a previous owner.)  And my friend had to rush to work after a training session and didn't switch the collar.  Guess when his dog decided to run away?  Which brings me to my second point.


I see people without tags on their dogs, and they'll tell me, "We put one on him when we go out."  Guess what?  Your dog will not run away when you expect her to.  If there is a time that you do not have a tag on your dog, that is when she will run away.   It does not matter that you closed the gate or left her inside.  A meter man will open the gate while you are gone.  Maybe your house will be robbed and the burglar leaves the door open.  You cannot control the world - the unexpected WILL happen.  Be prepared.  Have the tag on your dog.  Have current pictures of your dog you can use on fliers.  Be prepared!


If your dog is hit by a car and injured and taken to a city or county animal shelter, do you know how much time you have?   Most will euthanize your dog within twenty-four hours if it is injured.  Think about that.  Let's say your dog gets loose and is running free somewhere.  You call the shelter, but it hasn't been picked up and so they don't have it.  Then, the next day, he gets hit by a car, is injured, and taken to the shelter.  Unless you think to call again, even though you just called yesterday, they will euthanize him within the day.

This is sadly just a reality of the restrictions animal shelters work under.  Money spent to treat a single injured animal could be used to house and feed dozens of others.  I wish forty-eight hours was at least the standard, and in some places maybe it is, but you cannot count on that.

On top of that, my friend almost didn't find out his dog was at the shelter even when he did call - they had a policy of requiring a person to come down to identify a dog.  Luckily, he was able to get someone on the phone who wasn't a completely jaded bureaucrat and recognized his description of his dog, but it was a VERY close call.

Sorry to use scare tactics, but it is a scary thing.  Hopefully, your dog will never get loose and run away.  But a little forethought and a little knowledge about your city's animal policies can go a long way.

(My friend's dog was found on the side of the road by an unidentified woman who drove it to multiple vets trying to find someone to care for it before finally taking it to the shelter and never left her name.  After my friend got his dog back, he and his vet managed to find a specialist who could do surgery to repair the leg, and the dog is resting and healing nicely.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

More reader questions: My dog is afraid of scissors!

J.C. asks:

My dog's acquired a fear of scissors from somewhere - he was about six months old when we got him, a terrier/Pekingnese cross (we think.) He has long hair that easily gets matted, and while we can take him to the groomer, I'd like to be able to trim little tufts and the suchlike every so often to prevent them getting worse. He doesn't mind being combed, but squirms like a mad thing as soon as he sees scissors. Any suggestions?
Yep. You'll need to set aside a bunch of little sessions over a few days to help get your dog into a new state of mind, but it should be doable.  You'll be using classical conditioning to establish a positive, eager response to the scissors. 

Something like this, maybe.
  • First off, get a new pair of scissors to use.  One that looks as different as possible from any previous ones.  Gimmick it up if you need to - put a bow on it or something. Dogs are terrible generalizers.  Usually this is a pain, meaning you have to teach your dog the same trick in many different situations.  But in this case it will work for you, as he's less likely to have generalized to "all scissor-type things"

  • Now, get a big bag of awesome treats. I'm a big fan of Natural Balance rolls - available at all pet supply places and easy to cut up into bite sized bits.  But anything tasty and smelly should work, like cooked chicken pieces.  Don't skimp and use dry biscuits - you're trying to overcome a fear here, so you want to pull out all the stops.

  • In a calm environment, give him a quick peek at the scissors.  A second later, give him a treat and hid the scissors.  Wait a few seconds. Repeat: bring out the scissors, give a treat, hide the scissors. Repeat many times.  Make sure to vary the amount of time between appearances.  Basically, you're going for " SURPRISE!!! Treat-scissors!!!"

  • When he is visibly excited about the appearance of the scissors (tail wagging, smiling), move them closer and repeat the process. Move up to having them right in front of his face. (Take your time. This whole process may take 2-3 days of periodic 10-20 minute sessions.)

  • Now hold them right up to his nose and see if he'll sniff them or touch them with his nose. The moment he does, hey, treat!

  • Start touching him with the scissors, always treating after each touch. Again, be sure to vary the moments between touches. "C'mon, c'mon! Touch me with the scissors already! I want a treat!"

  • Once you've moved up to being able to touch him anywhere on his body and have him happy for it, back up a step.  Have him see the scissors in your hand and make a little "snip" motion with them - and treat.  Repeat, getting closer and closer, making little snip motions around his body (not touching him).

  • Once you're sure he's cool and happy with the snip-snip sound, and is eagerly awaiting his treat, time to back up a step again - now have him lie down while he sees the scissors in your hand and you're touching/holding him the way you would to groom him.  Repeat.

  • Now that he's cool with you holding him while making little snip-snip motions all around his body, go ahead and snip a TINY piece of hair.  Probably best to end that session there.

  • Next session, do some snip-snip motions, then snip a little piece of hair, then just some motions again.  Work up to more and more hair being cut.

  • Voila, you're cutting your dog's hair and he's thrilled. Start phasing out the treats, till maybe you're just giving him only one at the very end of a grooming session.

Here is a video of Jean Donaldson using a very similar technique to get a dog acclimatized to a Gentle Lead harness. In your case, it will probably take longer, because she's working from a blank slate (the dog has no previous emotional connection to the harness), while you have to overcome bad feelings. But the techniques and timing are the same.

Books every dog owner should have on their bookshelf

DFW asks:

"My girlfriend and I are looking at getting an English bulldog puppy at some point in the nearish future. While she grew up around dogs, I have never owned one. What's a good resource for learning how to be a good dog owner? I'd like to avoid bad habits on my part before they start. The dog would be a pure companion animal."

It doesn't take a lot of effort to learn the basics of good dog ownership.  Here's three books that I think cover the bases of how to establish a good relationship with your dog, understanding your dog (and yourself, too), and to train your dog.  If these are on your shelf, and you make a moderate effort to put them into practice, you've got your bases covered.

 "How to be the Leader of the Pack" by Patricial McConnel 

Super cheap and short. Teaches you how to have your dog's respect without resorting to force. 

The Other End of the Leash 

Also by Patricia McConnell. Also not really a training manual, but a fantastic book on how people and dogs' instincts both clash and work together. It's a great read, and just understanding so much of why both we and dogs act the way we do will make you a better dog owner.

The Power of Positive Dog Training, by Pat Miller

 This is a training book, and probably the best there is at both being accessible by newcomers and also being comprehensive. It's not short (~250 pages), but it's broken into easy to manage sections (training, chewing, housetraining, problem behaviors, etc), and provides a great week-by-week basic obedience syllabus for your puppy that covers all the important commands plus some fun tricks.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Q&A TIME: Dog Barking in the Backyard

F. S. asks:

Dunno how easy this one is to answer. We have a Black Lab/Cocker Spaniel named Trip and over last few months he has at night been barking at the back of our yard (it is on a hill so wooded past the yard). We think it is something has made a den there.

He's an indoor dog but is allowed into the backyard whenever he wants. He gets a mid-day/late-morning for a walk in a park for about a hour-and-half.

Now he has a quite loud bark so it is mainly we don't want to bother the neighbours. Is there any training techniques to stop him barking, or perhaps a deterrent from going to the very back of the yard (like how some scents keep animals away)?

First off, good job on the exercise, though it does remove my most common advice. Dogs that bark a lot in the backyard are often just suffering from boredom and excess energy because they don't get regular walks. That's not your case, though.

There's a few options you have here. First up is simple management: keeping Tripp away from the area that makes him bark. At a garden supply store or maybe a hardware store, you should be able to buy a cheap short wire fence that you just stick into the ground, and provide a barrier between him and the back of the yard. (This is dependent on whether he's likely to just jump over/barrel through, or if he'll respect it.)

The fence will allow you to control when Trip gets to the part of the yard that sets him to barking. And you'll want to let him into that part of the yard, because you're going to use that to teach him proper behavior, so that you don't have to use the little fence anymore...


Now, there's an interesting characteristic to training animals - if you train an animal to do something on command, it becomes less likely to do it without the command. This isn't fullproof - my dogs sit on command, but they also sit on their own. But I find it works well for barking. In short, if you want your dog to stop barking, sometimes the best method is to teach it to bark on command. Huh.

I'd take Trip (and a baggie of treats) out to the back fence where he likes to bark (and at the time he likes to bark), and say "Speak!" and wait for him to bark. Encourage him/get him worked up if you need to. When he does, say "Good boy!" and treat him. (If you're doing "clicker training," which I'll describe here soon, you'd click instead, but for now we'll just use "Good boy!")

Say "Speak" again and wait for a bark, then say "Good boy!" and treat. In short order, Trip should be barking right after you say, "Speak!" and then probably looking for his treat. Now you start varying the intervals between giving the command. Start with a few seconds, then work up to random lengths of time between a five seconds to a minute or more (this may take a few days). Do not get into the habit of repeating the command over and over if he doesn't bark right away! Wait at least 30 seconds before saying "Speak!" again. (Although, in the very beginning, you can go ahead and use body language to get him worked up enough to bark if necessary.)

Any time Trip barks when you haven't told him to, say "Nope!" and turn your back on him for 10 seconds. Ignore him completely. Then turn back around and continue the game.

You see what you're doing here? You're training Trip to bark when you say "Speak," and only when you say "Speak." Start working other parts of the yard, then inside.

When he's got this pretty good, within the first couple of days, start phasing out the treats. Say "Good boy!" but every so often, leave out the treat. Then only treat about every other time, then less and less often. Try to stay random. Eventually, you won't be treating at all except on very rare occasions just to surprise him.

Now, the stronger you build this command, the less likely he is to bark without it, but I'd be surprised if it was 100% - sometimes he's still going to hear something outside that fence and get to barking. So, let's build a couple of other behaviors on top of that.


If there's anything else that gets Trip to barking, let's use that to teach "Quiet." (For a lot of dogs, ringing the doorbell does the trick. You can either have a friend hang outside and ring your doorbell, or for about $15-20, you can buy a doorbell set from a hardware store and just ring that inside your living room.)

Whatever works, get Trip barking. After two or three barks, say "Quiet!" in a firm (not yelling), low voice. Now wait for him to stop barking. Don't do anything else while waiting. The moment he stops barking for a second, say "Good boy!" and give him a treat. Ring the doorbell again and repeat. Before long, Trip will stop barking when you say "Quiet" and then you treat him.

Don't make the session more than 5 minutes or so. You can have a few sessions through the day, but keep them all very short. He's barking because the sound stresses him a bit, and you don't want to make that worse.

Once he's got that down solidly (may take a few sessions), start saying "Quiet" softer and softer. Be consistent about saying it always after the first two barks. Probably, Trip will only ever bark twice after a while, because that's always when the command comes.

Eventually, you try not saying "Quiet," and see if Trip stops barking after just two barks. If so, praise him mightly and treat him. Give him a another try, and then quit that session and pick up later.

Start working the Quiet command from different parts of the house, or standing farther and farther away from Trip. Advance quickly, but in baby steps.

If you catch Trip barking at the back fence, grab a couple of treats and go to him and say, "Quiet." When he stops, say "Good boy" and treat. After a few times like that, he'll get the connection that "Quiet" in this context means the same thing as it did with the doorbell.


This one's pretty easy. Get some REALLY good treats - pieces of meatballs, or diced up steak. Call Trip from the other side of the room with a loud, friendly "Come!". As he comes towards you, turn partially away from him and move away from him, like you're starting a game of chase. As soon as he gets to you, give him the awesome treat and lots of praise.

Surprise him with this multiple times during the day. Furthermore, make an effort not to make a habit of calling him to you only when he has to stop doing something fun. If he's playing in the yard, call "Come!", give him a treat, and then immediately let him go back to playing. He will start coming to you much more responsively and eagerly.

Anytime you see him by the back fence, but he's not in a barking jag, call him to you and praise him and play with him and give him the awesome treat.

Just as with "Speak," phase out the treats slowly, but make sure to surprise him every so often with one.


If Trip is typical, within a couple of weeks, you can have a dog that
  • barks less because he thinks its only worth it to do it if he's asked to, 
  • knows that "Quiet" means he needs to stop barking if he wants any chance of a reward, 
  • and will come running to you when you call him away from the fence.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Far and away the most common complaint among dog owners is that their dog drags them along on the leash. "So, your dog's taking you for a walk, huh?" the wise guys say. Time to teach your dog to get with the program and start working as a team.

First off, you have to understand that walking nicely on a leash is a pretty unnatural thing for a dog. Their casual walking speed is much faster than ours, and their incredibly sensitive noses are much closer to the ground. In essence, we're telling them "Walk incredibly slowly and ignore everything interesting."

On top of that, most animals seem to really like actively resisting someone pulling on them. Push or pull on somebody and they automatically push or pull back. So, when you pull on a dog's leash, you're pretty much begging them to pull even harder. Obviously, that's a fool's game if you want the dog not to pull.

So, my recommendation for people who want their dog to stop pulling is

  1. Don't use a choke chain. For a dog that pulls, these can damage their trachea, and there's no real reason to use it. If you need something to help control your dog, see my suggestions below for alternative collars.

  2. Let the dog only have 2-3 feet of leash. Don't let them run out to the end of a 6' leash if they like to pull, and absolutely don't use a retractable leash. (More on that later.)

  3. Keep the hand holding the leash by your side, and make sure you have a good grip on it. Loop it around your hand if need be. I also recommend hooking a thumb into your pocket or belt to make sure your hand stays at your side even if the dog pulls. You're going to let your body do the talking, not your arms.

  4. When the dog pulls on the leash, STOP. Just dead stop in your tracks the very second you feel the leash tug in your hand.

  5. Your dog will pull for a few seconds, most likely. But at some point he will relax, or look back at you, or start to sit, or do something other than pull. The very second you feel that relaxation, start walking forward!

  6. Repeat #3 and #4. When you first start this, you WILL be stopping on almost every step, because the second you start moving, your dog will rush to the end of the leash, and you'll stop again. But I am confident that if you are consistent, then by the end of a block or two (which will take a long time to traverse), your dog will have gotten the message and will be pulling much much less.

  7. Start over on the next walk. It will feel like your dog will have forgotten everything. But if it took you 3 blocks to get your dog to stop pulling the first time, this time it may only take 2.8 blocks. And the next time, only 2.5 blocks. And so on, until - usually within 2-4 weeks - your dog will have learned that the best way to move forward is to never pull on the leash.

Some variations/tips:

  • If your dog doesn't seem inclined to relax once hitting the end of the leash, and is still pulling like mad 30 seconds or a minute later, try shuffling backwards just a few inches, pulling him back slightly. Your dog will break the pull in order to keep his balance, and that's the precise moment you start walking forward. Repeat.

  • Use the things that your dog is pulling towards as the reward for stopping the pull. That's an awkward sentence, so let me use an example. You're walking and your dog sees a squirrel up ahead and, BAM, hits the end of the leash trying to run towards it. You instantly dead stop. Your dog is frustrated, but eventually stops pulling for a moment - that's when you start slowly jogging towards the squirrel! Your dog will pull again and you'll stop. But every time he gives you some slack on that leash, you take him quickly even closer to the squirrel. The very thing that was making him pull turns into a VERY powerful incentive to keep the leash slack. This is called the "Premack Principle," and it's one of the most powerful dog training tools there is.

  • Don't forget to give your dog plenty of opportunities to sniff and pee - just make sure that you're doing the deciding. At many times on your walk, during one of those moments that your dog is not pulling (again, even if it's just for a third of a second), say "Check it out!" or "Go sniff!" and give him the full length of the leash to go sniff and pee on whatever is interesting to him. After a minute or so, say, "Let's go" and confidently start walking along again.


Choke Chains: No. They carry the chance of injury for the dog and offer no advantages that can't be done in a safer way.

Retractable Leashes: No. The tension in the retracting mechanism means the dog ALWAYS feels like you're pulling, so it will never learn to walk properly. On any medium or larger dog, they're incredibly unsafe for both other people, animals and the dog itself. If it full out charges to the end of the line, two things can happen. One, the cheap plastic of the locking/retracting mechanism breaks and the dog is loose, still charging at whatever it wanted to get. Two, the mechanism holds, and the dog is yanked back at the height of a full charge, probably suffering whiplash and other neck trauma. Just no.

Martingale Collars: These are like choke chains, but they are limited in how much they can constrict, so lessen the chance of injury. They come in all-cloth and part-chain versions:

If you absolutely feel you must give your dog "corrections" (sharp yanks on the chain to punish bad behavior), use these. However, I recommend not using corrections in most cases. More later.

Prong Collars:

Used to make pulling physically uncomfortable or even painful. Only use on extreme aggression cases. Consult a professional. These can easily end up heightening aggression, or causing it in dogs that weren't aggressive in the first place.

Premier Gentle Leader:

Excellent for very powerful dogs with which you can't simply stop and keep the dog in place. The Gentle Leader attaches the leash under the dog's snout, so that when the dog pulls, its head is pulled to the side and around, completely redirecting the dog's direction. Takes all the fun out of pulling. However, dogs pretty much hate having stuff on their faces, so you'll have to condition your dog to accept it. Plus people always think it's a muzzle and are wary of your dog. (It's not a muzzle - it doesn't restrict a dog's mouth at all.)

Warning - the Gentle Leader is NEVER to be used with sharp yanks or jerks on the leash. It is far too easy to injure the dog's neck with sudden movements. For that same reason, it is important that you only allow 2-3 feet of leash, so the dog can't rush forward and injure itself.

Premier Easy Walk Harness:

Again, the leash clips in front - this time in front of the chest - redirecting the dog if it tries to pull. The advantage is that dogs don't mind stuff around their chest and people won't act like your dog is muzzled. Also, doesn't present the possibility of cranking the neck like the Gentle Leader does. The disadvantage is that it doesn't give as much control or leverage. But for medium-sized dogs, or dogs that pull, but not ferociously so, this can be a great tool.