Why All Dogs Should Search for Food

I believe that it is in our dogs’ best interests to be encouraged to search for food in certain contexts. Let’s be clear, we are not teaching the dog to search for food, the dog is not learning to search for food, they come programmed for that. I am talking about setting up scenarios in which the dog comes to expect that they can find food, and will be allowed to do so. The most structured form of this is my K9 Nose Work® classes, where dogs start off searching for high value food in a variety of settings before eventually pairing that food with a target odor that dogs can learn to hunt for in expectation of a reward. In a much less formal way, I encourage my in-home training clients to stop helping their dog find tossed treats on the floor, but rather let the dog use his nose to find it on his own. It might be surprising that it would be difficult for a dog to find a treat on the floor, but when we continually step in and help the dog by pointing or tapping our toe, he’s learned a new strategy for food acquisition, looking to you for clues. More about that later, but let’s discuss why food searching matters.

Searching for food is instinctual – it’s primal. It’s still not completely understood how dogs came to partner up with humans, but there’s little doubt that there was food on the table (no pun intended!). One of the more popular theories of domestication, and the one I think is the most likely, is that certain wolves had low enough fear levels to approach groups of humans to get scraps of food items. Those groups stayed closer to humans than more fearful wolves and started diverging from the population. The friendlier they were toward humans, the higher the likelihood that the humans would allow them to stick around, and eventually get close enough to get better quality food. This would mean the very earliest ancestors of dogs were out searching for food one day and smelled a kill that a group of humans had made. They investigated a bit further, following their supreme olfactory senses toward the humans. Decision making time, is it worth going closer to the potentially scary humans to get an energetically low-cost meal, or carry on looking for prey that you then have to chase down and kill yourself? A few individuals were bold enough to follow their noses to a few scraps on the outskirts of the encampment, and they got a few easy calories, thus increasing their chance of survival. Seeking out food sources that don’t involve an energetically costly hunt is in dogs’ DNA, I would argue more so than any actual hunting ability for most pet dogs.

Anyone who has taken a K9 Nose Work® class, or even watched your dog stare up at you as you try to point out a piece of food you’ve dropped in the kitchen, has witnessed the dog’s incredible ability to use the human instead of his own senses. Most people don’t see it as incredible, they think the dog “doesn’t have a good nose” or “doesn’t get the game”, but from the dog’s point of view, why try at all when someone is going to step in and do all the work for you? They’ve taken this energetically low-cost food seeking to the extreme. That’s not a problem, except that a large majority of pet dogs are bored, and many exhibit disruptive and destructive behavior as a result of that, and their brains need more to do. Just because they’ve manipulated us into giving them all their food for free, does not mean that it is in their best interest! We have gotten to the point where we are so fully in control of our dog’s resources, when they eat, when they go out, what they play with, where they go, that dogs rarely get a chance to use the part of their brains that is designed to seek things out, sniff, and problem solve.

I strongly believe that allowing our dogs to engage these sense is the answer to a lot of our dog problems. I’ve seen incredible things from taking and teaching K9 Nose Work® classes, where the dogs are taught a foundation of searching for food (in some instances a toy, but only when that’s much more valuable to that dog than food). This taps into that instinctual drive to seek out food and builds on it in a way that challenges the dog’s mind to solve complex odor problems. This changes dog’s lives. In the very first nose work class I took, there was a tiny toy poodle who was afraid of the world. She was very inhibited, and on the first night of class she would not take food at all.  Each time it was her turn, she would come out, the instructor and the owner would try a few variations of getting her to take a treat (from the owner’s hand, from the floor, etc.) and I don’t believe she took anything that first night. The next week she came back, and I remember her taking a treat of the edge of a box flap, and we all had to show enormous self-restraint in holding in our cheers so we didn’t scare her. By the time we work working outside (I would guess 8 weeks in or so), that same little dog was searching an entire pavilion of picnic tables searching for her piece of food. My two Border Collies, Pirate and Tori, were loving the sport by this point, but what really hooked me was the change I saw in that little poodle.

Sounder the Coonhound discovers a treat in a box during K9 Nose Work® class.

I have since recommended K9 Nose Work® classes to many of my clients’ whose dogs are struggling with a variety of behavioral issues from fearfulness, to reactivity toward dogs and people. Many of my fabulous colleagues recommend their clients to me for nose work classes as well. I have seen tremendous progress in these dogs, some of whom had been through lots of great behavior modification, but nose work seemed to be the thing that allowed them to start behaving more like a normal dog. There’s something almost magical that happens when a dog starts tuning out previous fears or concerns and gets lost in the search. By setting up a completely safe environment for the dog to search, they start to learn that more in the world is safe than they previously thought. They trust the game, and because we can create search areas almost anywhere, we can teach them to trust new environments, or new people, by incorporating them into the search.

For those who aren’t interested in attending K9 Nose Work classes, you’re crazy. Just kidding, but I really do think that any dog can benefit from being encouraged to search for food, and making it into a game that they can take on the road and play in other locations. I teach my clients the “Treat Toss Game” where you toss a treat a short distance away, and when the dog goes to get it, you call their name, and when they reorient back to you, you toss another treat in a different direction (Note: This is essentially the same as Leslie McDevitt’s Ping-Pong Game from her Pattern Games DVD, and it’s where I got the idea, I only changed the name in case I changed the game or the intent in any way!). Now, there are several uses for this simple game, including a great foundation for a recall, name response, and more, but my favorite part of this game is where the dog goes and chases down the treat. Eventually you can toss the treat farther and farther, and because of the success the dog has had at this game, she will more dedicatedly search for the treat. But, not if you help her! You have to build the game from a short distance where the dog can easily find the treat to a more difficult one where there is some searching involved. If you step in and help, you are denying your dog the benefits she can get from sniffing out the treat on her own. You can also set up multiple food searches for your dogs at home, like scattering kibble in the backyard, or hiding pieces of chicken around your living room for your dog to find. Just remember, your dog has a history of you helping him acquire food, so you must start off easy so that you never have to step in and help. If you help, you just reinforce your dog’s knowledge that it’s easier to look to you than to do it themselves, and the whole point is getting them to use their brains!

I was having a discussion with a friend with whom I trade yoga classes for nose work classes for her two dogs. One of her dogs is quite anxious, and we were discussing how much searching settled his mind. She suggested that it might be the increased oxygen he was getting to his brain from sniffing that helped him, just like when we do yoga, or any type of deep breathing exercises. While I have no evidence to support this idea, I think it’s a really good one. I have seen dogs who typically stress pant in new situations take a deep breath before starting a search, because panting isn’t conducive to bringing in odors. I think we could all benefit from breathing more deeply, as often as possible, and if searching helps dogs do that, I’m all for it.

I have become a total K9 Nose Work fanatic, but it’s truly because of the difference I have seen it make in so many dogs’ lives, and their owners’ lives in turn. It has totally changed the way I solve behavior problems in dogs, and changed the way I see my own dogs and dogs as a whole. If you aren’t incorporating searching for food into your dog’s life, I highly recommend you do. Get back to the roots of who dogs truly are and see what a difference it makes for your dog!

Can I Pet Your Dog?

You see her before she sees you. You are walking down the street, when you spot the most adorable, fluffy puppy trotting down the street next to her owner. You start to get excited, this is your favorite type of dog! You resist the urge to push past people on the street to close the gap faster. When the eternity of time between you and this adorable floof finally ends, you spit out the words “CanIpetyourdog?” as you descend on the ball of fur. The owner doesn’t object, but there’s one problem, the fluffy puppy is now hiding behind her owner. “It’s ok”, you think, “I love dogs, and I can help her feel better about me!” Your attention sticks with the puppy as she tries to get away, reaching your hands out to “let her sniff”, and cajoling her to come out from hiding under her owner’s legs.

Who benefited from this interaction? I’ll give you a hint: It certainly wasn’t the puppy. This interaction just served to teach that adorable puppy that people are strange and unpredictable, and that her communication about her discomfort will be ignored by her owner and the world around her.

Why do we, as humans, pet dogs anyway? A review of studies in scientific journals found the following about human-animal interactions:

  • improvement of social attention, behavior, interpersonal interaction, and mood
  • reduction of stress-related parameters such as cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure
  • reduction of self-reported fear and anxiety
  • improvement of mental and physical health, especially cardiovascular health

Registered therapy dogs provide all of these wonderful benefits to the people they encounter. Dogs like Timber are screened for temperament to ensure they enjoy interacting with humans.

These effects, they proposed, are mediated by the oxytocin system. Oxytocin is associated with childbirth and breastfeeding, but levels also increase in the brain with physical touch in trusting relationships. Increased oxytocin levels have been associated with lower stress and depression. If we can get all these benefits from petting dogs, why shouldn’t we?

The first question we need to ask ourselves is “does the dog want to be petted?” By learning to read dog body language (the Dog Decoder app is a favorite of mine), we will start to learn that there are many dogs out there who don’t want to be petted, at least in certain contexts. Just as there is a difference between hugging your Nana and hugging a stranger, many dogs appreciate attention and petting from their owners, but not a random stranger on the street. Some dogs may want attention from everyone they meet, while other dogs aren’t even comfortable being petted by their owners. Dogs have individual personalities the same as people do, and there is a wide variation in the amount of social contact that dogs desire. We need to be observing the dog’s body language before we approach a dog in public, and most importantly LISTEN! If a dog is showing that they don’t want to be approached by a stranger, don’t approach the dog.

We also need to ask the dog how it would like to be petted, and for how long. Most dogs prefer that you come in low; avoid reaching over their heads, or looming over them with your body. The best way to “ask” a dog if they are enjoying the interaction is to pet the dog for 1-2 seconds, and then pause. Bring your hand back to neutral, and watch the dog’s behavior. Does the dog look relieved that you have stopped petting, or even move away from you? If so, don’t go back for more. If the dog moves toward you, it is soliciting your attention and wants more petting. Repeat this “question” several times while you are petting the dog, pausing to see if they come back for more, or move away. This shouldn’t be reserved for strange dogs, try it on your pup at home and see what they tell you!

CSU students petting Timber

Timber loves all this attention, which is why he makes a great therapy dog!

Finally, ask yourself “why do I want to pet that dog?” If the answer is to make ourselves feel better, we need to be very sure that we aren’t doing so at the detriment of the dog. If you love petting dogs, and don’t have your own, or your dog doesn’t like petting, consider volunteering to help a therapy dog organization. These are dogs who have been carefully screened, and have proven to enjoy human touch, so that people can get the positive benefits we’ve discussed. Most therapy dog organizations love volunteers to help with their training and certifications, and you will get your oxytocin rush!

It is imperative that we listen to dogs, especially when they tell us they are uncomfortable. Think back to that fluffy puppy walking down the street – next time she encounters a scary situation, she might escalate to a growl or a snap in an attempt to get space, because she wasn’t listened to when she shied away. Next time you see a dog who is nervous about interaction, let them know that some humans are safe, and will listen.

Unless a dog is practically begging you to pet him, think carefully about who benefits from the interaction, and if it is in the dog’s best interest. Even if a dog is begging you to pet him, be thoughtful about what behaviors you might be reinforcing if you pet that dog. Friendly dogs can become very difficult to manage if they believe everyone in the world will pet them, regardless of their behavior. It is often us who benefit from these chance interactions with strange dogs, just take a moment to be sure the dog will benefit as well!

 

 

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!