Top Five Dogs Most Likely to Bite!

Which dogs are most likely to bite you? It’s not about breed, it’s about behavior! Check out this list to learn which dogs are most likely to bite.

1. A dog who isn’t being listened to
Biting is what we call a “distance increasing behavior”, meaning that it’s purpose is to get the other animal to go away. There is an escalation of behaviors that precede a bite, starting with tensing of the muscles, and may include growling, snarling, and air snapping. If you ignore these early warning signals, you may end up getting bitten!
2. A dog in pain
One of the first rules of Canine CPR and First Aid is learning how to create a muzzle out of whatever you have handy. Even the nicest dog can bite out of pain. If you’re not mid-emergency, and your dog bites “out of nowhere”, the first step is to get a vet check to rule out any pain the dog may be experiencing.

Tori is stressed out by the high velocity dryer during her grooming. I am careful to keep my hands out of the way, because she could redirect her stress onto me!

3. A stressed-out dog
Dogs who are experiencing some external stressor may redirect their frustration on another person or dog who is standing nearby. When a dog is really worked up about something, they aren’t in the right mind set to be thoughtful, and they can make a poor decision about how to act on that frustration.
4. An occupied dog
Some dogs are very concerned with people taking something away from them. This can manifest with food, bones, toys, or other valuable resources. These dogs must be taught that taking away a resource isn’t a reason for defensiveness, but until they have learned that, they are best left alone. Kids, especially, should be taught “When the dog has a bone, leave him alone!”
5. A puppy!
Puppies explore their world with their mouths, plus they are busy growing in new teeth, so it’s no surprise that we occasionally get bitten. Puppy biting directed toward human skin should be reducing in frequency and intensity by 4-5 months. Those little puppy teeth hurt, so try redirecting to a toy!

If your dog has displayed any aggressive behaviors, resource guarding, or your puppy’s biting is going on way too long, call a professional trainer to help you sort out what is going on.

Why are We Obsessed with Verbal Cues?

I’m sitting in the living room of one of my private, in-home training clients, teaching their dog the first steps of “leave-it”. The dog is totally getting it, and I hear those oh-so-common words, “You haven’t even said anything to him yet!” Oh, but I have! I’ve been communicating exactly what I want from the dog – through my actions, not my words.

Communication is very different for people and dogs, because we rely heavily on verbal language, and dogs rely almost exclusively on body language. Take a moment to imagine what your dog’s world is like when it comes to verbal language. From the moment they come into our lives, we are talking to them, and more significantly, we are talking to each other. Think about how many conversations your dog hears during the day; the discussion with your spouse, the phone conversations with your boss, your favorite TV show. They have to learn that none of those conversations have any significance to them, and it becomes the background noise of life. Then suddenly, we need to address the dog directly, and we get frustrated when they don’t listen! We must teach our dogs what words have meaning to them, and when they should pay attention to our words.

While our dogs might learn to ignore our words, they are definitely not ignoring us! If we truly understood how closely our dogs are watching our every move, we would probably be a little creeped out. Try this experiment – Using a cue your dog knows very well, like sit, try asking the dog to “sit” while standing up straight, holding your hands at your sides. Did it work? If so, you’ve done a nice job of teaching this verbal cue! For most of us, the dog just stands there. Now try using any hand gestures or other body cues you normally give, and don’t say the word “sit”. I’m willing to bet your dog did it that time! Even when we think the dog knows what a particular word means, they are often looking to our body language to get additional hints as to what will get rewarded.

Training is all about deepening the bond with our dogs through communication.
(photo by Tails and Trails Photography)

Given that dogs don’t always pick up on verbal cues very quickly, wouldn’t it make sense to start saying those words right from the start? Well, that can cause a few problems. One risk is that like many of our words, the intended cue will become background noise. Your dog is focusing on what behavior will earn her the treat, not what you are saying. Once the dog learns what behavior earns the treat, then you teach her what word is associated with that behavior. Another issue is that during the teaching process, the behavior doesn’t always look like what you want it to in the end. Going back to teaching leave-it, I start by holding a treat in my closed fist, and rewarding the dog every time it moves away from my fist. In the beginning, many dogs will try to mug my hand for the food, licking, chewing, and pawing – none of which I want as part of the final behavior. If I started chanting “leave-it” to the dog as I worked on getting the behavior I want, the dog might think that the cue “leave-it” means “mug my hand for 10 seconds before backing off”. I want “leave-it” to mean “look at me when you see the food presented”, so I’m not going to say the words until I am at that point in my training.

We can use dogs’ tendencies to pick up on physical cues to our advantage. If a dog can read the environment, and determine which behavior is most likely to get rewarded, you don’t have to be responsible for telling your dog what to do at all times! For example, you stop and talk to a neighbor while walking your dog. You have been training the dog that every time to stop to talk, you will reward the dog for lying down. The dog learns that the cue to lie down is you stopping in front of another person. Now you don’t even have to tell your dog to lie down, and your neighbor thinks your dog is brilliant! If your dog knows hand signals for sit and down, you can communicate what you want him to do while you are on the phone, or watching a really suspenseful movie.

So, when are verbal cues useful? Well, if you plan to compete in certain dog sports, verbal cues are a must. It is also important to be able to communicate what you want when you are in different positions (sitting vs. standing), or when the dog is unable to see your body language directly (walking slightly in front of you on a walk or in another room). I also believe that living with dogs is about compromise, and we are a highly verbal species, so I think it’s reasonable to ask dogs to meet us half-way and respond to our verbal cues. This is why it is important to teach our verbal cues carefully, so that we are being fair and consistent in their use. It isn’t dogs’ primary language, and they are working hard to understand what we want from them. I think one of the most important cues we can teach our dogs is that their name means to attend to you. This is the most straightforward way that we can be clear to our dogs when our words are directed at them, they hear their name, look to you, and then you can direct them further from there.

It’s amazing that we do as well as we do, living with this species we can’t always communicate with. Often, I’m called in when that communication breaks down. If we take a moment to consider how the dog perceives the world, and spend some time teaching him exactly what we mean when we attempt communication, we can resolve our frustrations with our dogs. This is the key to a harmonious relationship with our favorite canine companions!

Three Lists that Will Improve Your Relationship with Your Dog

Around Christmas time we spend a lot of time thinking about lists. Wish lists, grocery lists, packing lists, to do lists, the list goes on! Here are three lists you can make that will help you improve your relationship with your canine companion, and start to change any behaviors that frustrate you.

List #1 –My Favorite Things

Make a list of all your favorite things about your dog, and display it where you will see it regularly. This list is the one you will look at when you are feeling frustrated by your dog’s behavior. You can include anything you want, anything that will make you smile, even when you are evaluating the damage to your lawn along your fence-line.

List #2 – My Dog’s Favorite Things

This is a list of everything that is important to your dog. Try to be specific, especially when it comes to food and toys, so write “cheese” instead of “treats”. This will become your master list of reinforcers, meaning these are the things that you can use to improve or alter behavior in your dog. Some reinforcers are straightforward to use, like a treat, whereas others may require some creativity, like squirrels!

Pirate’s favorite reinforcers were definitely toys!

List #3 – What Do We Know?

Your last list is all the skills/cues/behaviors your dog knows. This list has several uses, it helps you keep track of what you have taught the dog (especially useful in multi-dog households!), it’s a great reminder of how awesome your dog is, and we can use it to help us solve behavior problems. When you start feeling frustrated with a dog’s behavior, think about what you want the dog to do instead of the problem behavior. Is it on that list? If so, you just solved your problem, and if not, you now know what you need to train!

We all feel a little frustrated with our dogs’ behavior at times, but these three lists will help you to move past that frustration and start finding a solution.

5 Tips for More Enjoyable Leash Walks

Dogs love to go on walks, and we love to walk them, but things don’t always go as planned. Here are some tips to make your leash walks more pleasant for everyone!

Gracie and her owner learning to have more enjoyable leash walks. It takes consistent practice!

  1. Use proper equipment – If your dog is a dedicated puller, use a front clip harness or head halter instead of a regular collar. Good equipment will help give you a little more control, but it is not a replacement for consistent training.
  2. Retractable leashes teach dogs to pull – These leashes operate by the dog creating tension, resulting in more leash length, so the dog learns that pulling is the way to get further. To give your dog more freedom, use a long line, and focus on teaching your dog to keep slack in the line.
  3. Don’t let your dog pull you where he wants to go –  Pulling on the leash gets reinforced by the dog getting where he wants to go. When he starts to pull forward, turn around and walk in the opposite direction to send a clear message to the dog that pulling will not get him what he wants.
  4. Be respectful of other people and dogs walking –  Not every dog wants to meet your dog, and either does every person you come across. Be sure to ask permission BEFORE your dog approaches another dog or person, and be respectful if they say no, and give their dog plenty of space from yours.
  5. Keep on leash greetings short –  If you do have your dog greet another dog on leash, keep the interaction very brief (3-5 seconds). Any longer than that, and one of the dogs might decide they are uncomfortable, which could cause growling or snapping at the other dog.

If you are struggling with your dog’s leash manners, contact a professional dog trainer for help. Visit the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers “Find a Trainer” directory to find a qualified trainer in your area.

What’s the Deal with Food in Dog Training?

If you trained a dog 15 years ago, like when I was starting out, you probably didn’t use much food in that process. Sure, dogs might get a milkbone before bed, but we weren’t dicing up cheese and hot dogs in our kitchens before class. To be fair, my first obedience class did allow us to bring food treats for the dogs, but treats were used sparingly, and it’s possible that the food only added to the confusion that the dogs were most likely experiencing in those classes. I still get hesitation or resistance from some clients when I bring up the topic of using food rewards in training, because horror of horrors, the dog may learn to only do the behavior when the treat is present.

As a culture, we have an expectation that our dogs should do what we ask of them, when we ask, without hesitation, and definitely without food involved. We’ve been taught that the key to happiness with our dogs is obedience, the dog will listen to what you say, no matter what. Is this a reasonable expectation of our dogs? If so, how do we achieve that high level of response to our cues?

I will not expect 100% reliability from my dog until I can produce 100% reliability in myself, which is to say – never. Dogs are individuals, each of whom react to motivating factors differently. I expect that there are going to be situations where my dog may not do what I ask of her, and for the most part I know what those situations are for each of my dogs. When we set reasonable expectations for our dogs in any given situation, we are more likely to manage them appropriately, and less likely to be frustrated by their behavior.

So, how do we get our dogs to do what we want them to do? Well, dogs (and all animals) learn things in two basic ways: 1) They work to earn something they want, OR 2) They work to avoid something they don’t want. Back when I started training dogs, dogs were taught to perform a behavior to avoid a correction. If the dog didn’t sit, they received a leash correction (a sharp jerk on the leash), often while wearing a training collar such as a choke chain or prong collar. One problem here is that we don’t always get to choose what our dog will do to avoid the unpleasant consequence, and many dogs will avoid the consequence by avoiding the work altogether. You can’t train your dog to do anything if he’s avoiding you. Other dogs will become desensitized to the unpleasant consequences, and will no longer work to avoid it, unless you increase the unpleasantness. After running into several of these issues with my own dogs, I decided to look for a different way.

A new generation of dogs benefits my decision to change how I was training. Tori, Fawkes, Pirate, Millie, and Mia have all learned that staying will result in things they want, like treats!

Here’s where the food comes in. To be clear, there are many things other than food that dogs enjoy working to earn, such as access to freedom, and the best trainers utilize these other options skillfully. I’m going to talk specifically about food, because that seems to be a sticking point with many dog owners embarking on training. Food is a currency that works for all dogs, because they have to eat to live, so most dogs will work to earn a bit of food. What is puzzling to me is that many people seem to feel that using the food in training cheapens the relationship they have with their dog. Do you eat dinner with your family? Have you ever invited a friend out for lunch? What about bringing brownies to the new neighbor? Food is a big part of our human relationships, and so it should be with dogs. Teaching your dog to work to earn food will create longer lasting, and more reliable behaviors in the long run, plus you will develop an amazing relationship with your dog. Food can also be used to create positive associations with anything that scares our dogs, helping their brains to switch from fear to acceptance, or even excitement.

How reliable can a dog become when trained with food? That may depend on a variety of factors including the dog’s personality, temperament, age, and physical status, as well as your commitment to training, opportunities for training, and training skills. In my experience, dogs who work to earn something, rather than working to avoid something, develop a higher level of reliability without relying on tools (such as a training collar) to maintain that reliability. As previously mentioned, food is just one of the many things dogs will work to earn, and including a variety of desirable consequences in your training will increase your dog’s reliability.

In conclusion, we should embrace the use of food in our training and maintaining our relationships with our dogs! Many of the skills we expect our dogs to know do not come naturally to them, and we need to pay them for their hard work in learning these skills. If food isn’t working for you in training your dog, you need to step back and look at the technique, rather than blaming the food. Training is a skill that must be learned, whether through books, seminars, YouTube videos, or lessons with a professional trainer. If you are struggling with your dog’s behavior, and you’ve resisted using food in the past, or have tried and not gotten the results you wanted, contact a professional trainer for help in adapting your technique to meet your goals!

5 Tips to Reducing Conflict with your Dog

Why do we want to reduce conflict? Because dogs and humans have evolved together for tens of thousands of years to work together, not to be at odds with one another. They are our partners and friends, not our adversaries. Here are some suggestions on how to reduce the conflict you may experience with your dog:

  1. Focus on what you do want your dog to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do. If you are always focused on what the dog is doing wrong, you will find yourself frustrated and more likely to increase conflict in your relationship. Think about what you want the dog to do instead, and then focus on training the behavior you want.
  2. Learn as much as you can about dog behavior. Many things that create conflict between dogs and humans are really a misunderstanding of what constitutes normal dog behavior. Frustrated that your dog pulls on leash? Your dog is probably frustrated that you walk so slowly! Dogs don’t pull on leash to drive us crazy, they pull because they naturally walk faster than us, and they are very keyed in to the environments where we walk them.
  3. Set reasonable expectations for your dog. We tend to have this idea in our minds of Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, the ever-faithful companion that does whatever we ask. This isn’t the reality for most of the dog population, yet many times we still hold dogs to this standard. Dogs are individuals, and depending on their genetic makeup, their early life history, and their current environment, they all vary in their abilities to handle a given situation. Be sure your expectations are reasonable when dealing with your dog.
  4. Learn about how dogs learn. Dogs will always do what works for them. If a behavior is being reinforced, intentionally or not, they will continue to do it. This applies to sitting for a treat, stealing roast beef off the counter, or pawing for attention. If a behavior has been punished, whether it be going in the crate after coming when called, or being asked to do one too many repetitions of a difficult task, you will see less of that behavior. We don’t get to decide what dogs find reinforcing or punishing, so if the consequence doesn’t mean anything to the dog, it won’t be effective in changing behavior.
  5. Recognize that you are the only one in this relationship that can make a conscious effort to reduce conflict between you and your dog. Your dog is simply reacting to her environment, and the consequences she receives for her actions. If you have brought conflict to the table, it’s your job to remove it!

If you are experiencing persistent conflict with your dog, consult a professional trainer who will help you resolve those issues. We share our lives with dogs to enjoy them, not to be at odds with them. Reduce the conflict with your dog, and I can assure you that you and your dog will reap the benefits!

Shake it Off!

My favorite dog behavior is the shake-off. Now suddenly I’m pondering how much of a dog nerd you have to be to have a “favorite dog behavior”. I love the shake-off because it has such a connotation of moving on, which is exactly what dogs are saying when they shake-off. Other than a wet dog shaking the water off its body, most shake-offs appear to have some aspect of trying to improve the mental state. These are some of the situations where I commonly see shake-offs:

This Border Collie just completed the physical exam in the show ring, and is shaking off before starting the movement exam. He’s clearly ready to move on!

  • Waking up from a nap, stimulating the body and mind after a deep stretch
  • After a stressful event, such as a visit to the vet, or a close call with an unfriendly dog
  • During a break in play, especially after particularly rough or intense play
  • After the removal of equipment such as a harness, backpack, or clothing
  • Before and during a Nose Work search

In all of these situations, the dog is shaking-off in order to move into a better state of mind, or to stimulate and awaken the body. Whether or not it starts with stress, the end goal seems to always be a better mental state afterward. When a coach tells his players to “Shake it off” after the other team scores, he’s telling them to stay in the moment, and improve their mental state for what’s coming next. I believe that dogs are masters at this mind set, and I strive to learn from their ability to live in the moment and not dwell on the past.

Once you start looking for shake-offs you will start to notice how often our dogs do this. I have gotten into the habit of praising dogs when they shake-off, because I want to encourage that “moving on” mentality wherever I can. I should probably start praising myself when I remember to shake it off!

Loose Dog! Tips for catching an out of control dog

I was standing at a Nose Work trial in the heart of Denver, outside of South High School when I heard someone yell out “Loose Dog!” My many years in the dog industry, attending dog shows, working at doggie daycares and grooming salons, caused me to jump into action, ready to help. I’ve caught many strange dogs in my life, including a rambunctious Shepherd at a Search and Rescue practice who came barreling into me at full speed, and instead of backing away to protect my own body as many others did, I let her run full force into my open legs, closing them quickly around her body and bringing an end to her interruption of the training day. On more than one occasion, I have raced out the door of a dog business where a dog escaped their owner in the parking lot. When I lived on a corner lot in a busy neighborhood, I caught many a stray dog who came up to investigate my dogs through the fence. On this day, when I turned to see the loose dog at the Nose Work trial, I had that sinking feeling that I’ve had too many times in my life with dogs, “Oh s***! My dog is loose!”

Some dogs, like this Gordon Setter, are bred to run all day. It is very important to teach them to come when called!

I’ll admit that Fawkes, my 5-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, looked beautiful galloping across the front lawn of South High School. I immediately cursed myself for not spending more time working on his emergency recall. As an intact male of an independently minded hound breed, he requires an immense amount of work to build his desire to come when called, especially when the stakes are high. Like the cobbler’s kid growing up without shoes, Fawkes the dog trainer’s kid has received an inadequate amount of training in coming when called. I generally manage this by keeping him on leash or on a long-line at all times, but there’s this pesky little saying that management always fails…

While I could write an entire blog on recall problems, and the training solutions for such problems, this one is about what you should do if that training hasn’t been established (or it’s a dog you don’t know), or if the training you have done is presently failing. As with many things in dog training, as with life, the answer is “It Depends”. Your reaction will change based on the environment around you, what you know about the dog, how many people you can mobilize, and what you have at your disposal (food, toys, leash, etc.).

Based on my experience in catching loose dogs, here is my best advice:

  • Do not chase the dog! This can have many effects, none of them desirable. If the dog is scared, you are just adding to the scary experience. If the dog is having a great time being loose, they may interpret your running after them as joining in on the fun. Some loose dogs will stay within a certain distance of their owner, and running after them will only expand their range.
  • If you have a bag of treats, it’s worth a try to shake them to get the dog’s attention. Not all dogs will buy this, or even care, but enough dogs will react to it that you should give it a shot.
  • Run away from the dog. This will incite the chase reaction, and you can get the dog moving toward you. If the dog starts chasing you, run to the safest location you possibly can.
  • Do not reach for the dog! If you manage to get the dog coming toward you, avoid the temptation to try to grab the dog. A scared dog will only become more scared, and a clever dog enjoying a jaunt will only work harder to avoid being caught.
  • Fall down. Yep, that’s right, fall to the ground – the more dramatic the better! This is how I caught Fawkes at the Nose Work trial. It does two things – it creates some concern in the dog, especially if it’s your own dog. Humans matter very much to dogs, even independent hound dogs. Second, it makes you very non-threatening to the dog. The dog knows that you can’t run after them, and sometimes that’s just enough to convince them you are safe.
  • Move slowly in securing the dog. If you have food, scatter it on the ground for the dog to eat while you quietly get ahold of them. Once Fawkes came toward me after I fell down, I scattered treats all over the ground, and waited for him to start to eat them before reaching out to secure him. He was enjoying his freedom, but his concern about my falling, and consequently treats raining down on him convinced him that I was worth sticking around in that moment.

Every dog is an individual, and no one method will work for every dog. Try to think about the dog’s motivation in making your plan, and be ready to try something else as soon as one plan fails. Even if it’s an unknown dog, it’s body language can tell you if it is running scared, or having the time of its life. Focus on drawing the dog toward you and building trust by offering food and not reaching toward it quickly. It’s worth taking the time to build that moment of trust in order to secure the dog safely!

Megan is now a Certified Nose Work Instructor!

Megan completed all of her requirements through the National Association of Canine Nose Work to become a Certified Nose Work Instructor! This certification included 8 days of in-person learning, an exam, instructor evaluations from students, video submissions of classes, as well as additional requirements such as passing an Odor Recognition Test, and attending certain lectures from the founders of the sport. It was a lot of work, but Nose Work is Megan’s passion! If you are interested in learning more about K9 Nose Work, we have a special 9 week Intro course starting June 2nd. Contact Megan at megan@dogsdeciphered.com for more information!

Piper loved Megan's K9 Nose Work Classes in Loveland, CO

Piper loved Megan’s K9 Nose Work Classes in Loveland, CO

How to Choose a Dog Trainer

In the world of search engines and social media advertising, it’s hard to know where to turn when you need help with your dog’s behavior. Do a search for “dog training [city, state]” and you will come up with all kinds of options. Who can help?

  1. Where to start? An internet search is a good start, just keep these things in mind:
    • It’s easy to sell a good story on a website, which gives no actual evidence that the person has the experience or knowledge to help you.
    • Some of the best trainers aren’t the best at marketing. Coming up high on Google searches actually takes a pretty specific skill set, and spending money in just the right places. I would say most of my colleagues are in the learning phase of marketing their business correctly, because they’ve spent their time mastering their training skill!
    • I recommend looking on the CCPDT (that’s the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers) trainer search: http://www.ccpdt.org/dog-owners/certified-dog-trainer-directory/.
    • Even if you find a trainer whose website looks great, you owe it to your dog to ask them a few questions (see below) before hiring them.
  2. Ask for recommendations. Your veterinarian is a good place to start, but they may or may not know trainers personally or have experience with them. Ask friends or local groups on social media if they have ever hired a dog trainer they would recommend. Your friends and community members are the most likely to be honest about their experience. You may just find the local gem that hasn’t quite mastered search engine optimization. pirate-and-megan-heeling
  3. Once you get a few names, or even one good lead, call or email to ask them a few questions:
    • Briefly describe your problem, and ask if they have experience with that issue. A trainer may not be comfortable with aggression cases, or have much experience with severe separation anxiety, and that’s okay. A good trainer will be honest about their experience level, and refer you to a more experienced colleague if needed.
    • Jean Donaldson sums it up perfectly with her 3 questions for dog trainers, and you will want to find someone whose answers you are comfortable with –
      • What will happen to my dog if he gets it right?
      • What will happen to my dog if he gets it wrong?
      • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
    • If they offer inexpensive or free consults, they may encourage you to make an appointment, which is fine, but be sure to ask those questions during your consult!
  4. Be your dog’s advocate! At any point in any training program, if you do not feel comfortable with what is happening to your dog, speak up. You owe it to your dog to do what you feel is best, even if a professional is telling you otherwise. Dog training is an unregulated field, and there are many unqualified individuals working in the industry. This is why it is important to ask questions first, but unfortunately some people are deceptive. If it doesn’t feel right for you and your dog, don’t continue.