The Danger of the Average

As a dog trainer, a significant part of my career focuses on methodology. At some point I had to make some decisions on what sorts of dog training methods I would be using to teach clients, what methods I wanted to learn more about, and which methods I would avoid. I’m not one for going with the flow, or doing something because someone told me to (there’s a reason I’m my own boss now!). I spent a lot of time thinking about what made the most sense to me; I want to be effective, and create procedures that clients can easily follow. The most important thing to me is that the methods I use work across the board, with minimal adaptation, for all dogs. This is important to me because my goal isn’t to teach an owner how to train one specific task with one specific dog. I want to impart enough information that someone could apply this to their next dog without having to think about whether this method is appropriate for this new dog. Is it possible? Absolutely, but it requires us to think beyond what I am calling “the average dog”.

What is the Average Dog?

The definition of average is a mathematical one, reached by dividing the sum of a set of values by their number in the set. So, if we added up all the dog personalities in the world, and divided them by the number of dogs, we have our average dog. Ok, so that doesn’t really make sense, but let’s think about the most middle-of-the-road traits that we see in an average dog population. The average dog isn’t overtly afraid of sights, sounds, or other stimulus. He is friendly with people and dogs, and likes to play, but not obsessively so. He is interested in the world around him, but isn’t overcome with a desire to chase and/or kill prey. He learns new skills easily, but not so quickly as to outthink his human. His energy needs are moderate. He listens to Top 40 Hits.

This bell curve represents the dog population as a whole, and the area colored green hypothetically represents our average dogs. I didn’t do the math, but the green area is smaller than the combined area on either side. That would mean a larger population of dogs falls outside the average than within it. Our training methods should serve the dogs on the far ends of the spectrum as well.

I’ll admit, as a dog trainer, I don’t see many average dogs in my career, and when I do they are generally puppies working on basic manners, or learning one of the sports I teach, Nose Work or swimming. Most of the dogs I see are on one end of the spectrum or the other. When I do come across those average dogs, it helps me to understand how certain punitive dog training methods have persisted, these dogs can take it. I’m not saying that I condone it, but quite honestly, average dogs can handle getting pretty intense corrections without much evident fallout in their overall temperament or affect. These are the dogs that allow traditional, punitive training methods to persist, because they appear totally fine with whatever comes their way, and are socially motivated enough to change behavior based on that information. Here’s the thing – When you set up systems of learning around the average individual, you are going to fail every other individual on either end of the spectrum.

What Happens When we Train to the Average?

The risk of using punitive or aversive methods might be small for the average dog, but it can be quite large for dogs on both ends of the bell curve. The problem is, it’s hard to tell how a dog might respond to a training tool or method before applying it, so you are taking a risk in going down that path to begin with. Some of the common “side-effects” I see from punitive methods include increased aggression, arousal, and/or anxiety, refusal to engage with training, and creating negative associations with innocuous stimuli. Again, just because we don’t see these effects in every dog does not mean that it’s a sound training method. Dogs are incredibly resilient, and just because some dogs can take a correction without having any sign of these negative effects doesn’t mean that it there wasn’t some fallout, and it also doesn’t mean that it won’t have a huge affect on the next dog. What I do know is that using reinforcement based solutions focused on building a relationship of communication and trust between the dog and handler will work well for all dogs, so to me it’s not worth the risk of the potential fallout when we have other options. Using methods that work for dogs on the ends of the spectrum will work faster and more easily for average dogs, so there’s really no argument for using punitive methods on these dogs.

Using an Inclusive Approach

The amazing thing about average individuals, is that almost anything works for them. So why should they be the goal posts? Training should start with a very wide base, and be refined to the individual as you progress. This can be demonstrated by the LIMA model, which I adhere to, which stands for Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive. I start every client out with the same basic exercises, whether it’s an 8 week old puppy, or a dog with a bite history. These foundations aren’t “obedience” exercises, they focus on three basic skills that I’ve boiled down to; 1) the handler is a home base, 2) don’t rush toward things you want, and 3) relaxing feels good. I believe every single dog needs to understand these concepts before you can move on to really solving any other problem. For the dog to truly understand these concepts they must be broken down into small pieces and reinforced in such a way as to communicate what you want the dog to do. The dog has to have a choice in the matter, because when choice is taken away, the dog is simply performing a series of tasks based on specific cues. This sort of training will break down over time, or you will be stuck micromanaging your dog for the rest of its life. If you teach the dog what behaviors are reinforcing, and give them choices in the learning process, you will create long lasting behaviors.

Border Collies like Kali fall outside the range of normal almost by their very essence. This is because the traits they were bred for are very unique.

When choosing a trainer, it is important to find someone whose methods work for all dogs. The problem is, most trainers will tell you their training methods work for all dogs, so how do you know who to trust? My decision in methodology was made through my own experiences in many years working with dogs, because that’s how I tend to do things, but if you are looking for trusted resources there are several. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants has the previously linked position statement on LIMA, and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has several position statements on training, including those on dominance theory and the use of punishment in training. If you are trying to find a trainer to help you solve a behavior problem with your dog, make sure that their methods fall in line with the most current evidence in animal behavior and training research. We know so much more about how animals learn, and how behavior is changed than we did when many of these traditional, punitive training methods were popularized. If your dog falls outside the “normal” range on the bell curve, find a trainer who is skilled in applying these methods with very basic foundations that can build into a significant behavior change.

Redefining our Expectations

It’s okay if your dog isn’t average. Let me repeat that – It’s OKAY if your dog isn’t average. There are so many special and amazing dogs out there that don’t come anywhere close to that middle range we call “normal”. These dogs make great companions for people whose lifestyle fits their needs, and sometimes they are able to teach their humans something about how they might view the world differently. Average isn’t good, it isn’t bad, it just is. Dogs will come into your life that are easy going and perfect in every way, and others will challenge you and cause you to learn new things. That’s what’s great about life with dogs. Good training will enhance your relationship with your dog regardless of where they are on that spectrum, and it won’t come with risks of unintended consequences.

Embrace the Change

Are we holding our dogs back from making the progress we seek?

No matter what we are doing with our dogs, we tell ourselves little stories about who our dog is, and what they are capable of. This happens to pet owners and sport trainers of all types – “My dog is a picky eater”, “My dog doesn’t like men”, “My dog can’t focus outside”, “My dog won’t work in the rain”. We know our dogs and what they like and dislike, right? Those who know me well, know that I am ALL about managing expectations, and creating success for our dogs. It is vital to your relationship with your dog to respect who your dog is as an individual, and to set expectations based on your dog’s current abilities. I often tell people, “Train the dog you have in front of you”, which is typically meant to convey that it’s ok if you have to take a step back and work on your foundations. Recently I’ve been thinking about the other side of the coin, what happens when your expectations of your dog are limiting their progress?

Carter’s owner is one of my favorite students, as she has worked incredibly hard with Carter, who started off near feral, and is now competing in K9 Nose Work, and enjoys hiking and playing Parkour. There were many points along the way that she could have decided to stop challenging his abilities to cope in various environments, but her persistence paid off and he has a much higher quality of life than he would have if she had stopped progressing.

This is an interesting thing to ponder, because isn’t it the whole point of training, to make progress? Why would we stand in the way of our dog’s progress?  It’s never intentional, we can all agree, no one would do that. If you trust in your training, and you are consistent in your practice, you are going to see change. It can be a scary process to test the boundaries of this change, and when you are dealing with any behavior where any being is at risk, it is necessary to take additional safety measures to do so. This may mean conditioning your dog to wear a basket muzzle, or using a long line, so that your training can progress.

I see this frequently, from my behavior modification clients, to my K9 Nose Work® students. The work we are doing is designed to change the dog’s behavior, creating more focus, and building confidence as we go along. If we are working on modifying your dog’s behavior, a necessary part of the process is testing how far we have come. This will require stepping out of your comfort zone, and trying something that might be challenging for you and your dog. We always want to create training sessions where your dog can be successful, but that doesn’t mean always keeping them in situations they find “easy”. Your dog will learn more by overcoming a small challenge than by doing the same thing day after day. Similarly, our K9 Nose Work® dogs need a strong foundation of success, but we need to be careful about defining their limits based on what we’ve seen in the past. One of the most amazing things about K9 Nose Work® is the increase in confidence we see in the dogs, and set-ups or search areas that may have been scary or overly distracting become easier as the dog gains odor obedience. By continuing the narrative that your dog struggles in those environments, you may hold back your dog’s ability to overcome those challenges.

My dog Fawkes (left) has gotten increasingly more confident through Nose Work, Parkour, and other training that he is comfortable jumping up on this bench which would have scared him before. He has also learned to be much more calm around other dogs, allowing me to use him as a demo dog/neutral dog to work with my client’s dogs like Cardi (right).

I’m a big fan of using the language “yet” or “right now” when describing our dog’s limitations, as in, “My dog can’t focus in outdoor environments yet” or “My dog isn’t able to greet people nicely on leash right now”. This leaves us open to the changes that we are working toward, and reminds us that our dog will be able to do these things at some point, even if that isn’t right now. Train the dog in front of you, including when that dog is showing you that they are much more focused, or much more confident. Allow your dog to show off their new skills to you, and challenge their learning by taking those skills on the road. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to work within your dog’s skill level so that they can be successful, but learn to recognize when you are ready to move forward.

Management 101: Tether Training

Do you have a puppy, or a dog that is out-of-control? How often is your dog on a leash in the house? Yes, I said on leash in the house. This is what trainers call a “tether”, and it is about to make your life a lot easier. Puppies especially require a huge amount of supervision, otherwise they are peeing, chewing on things, and getting into all kinds of trouble. If you are trying to solve a behavior problem with an older dog that only happens when you aren’t looking, like marking, or counter-surfing, the first step is supervision. Depending on the layout of your house it can be really difficult to block off a small area with gates where you can closely supervise your puppy or dog. This is where a tether comes in to save the day.

Gracie wearing a tether while practicing relaxing on the couch. Gracie started off very shy, and the tether helps her people to move her off the couch without grabbing for her collar.

Two Forms of Tethering

A tether can be stationary, easily made by wrapping a six foot leash around the leg of a heavy piece of furniture, and threading the leash clip through the handle. If you don’t have heavy enough furniture, or you have hardwood floors and a big dog, you can also use a closet door by putting the leash handle on the inside doorknob, and dropping the leash down and under the crack under the door, then closing the door. With a six foot leash, there will be about 3 feet of leash sticking out from under the door where you can tether your dog. Only tether your dog in a location where you can carefully supervise your dog for safety.

You can also use what I call the “umbilical cord” method, where the tether is attached to you. You can either loop the handle of the leash through a belt, or just hold on to the leash, whichever is more convenient for your situation. This is a good option if you move throughout the house a lot, because you don’t want to leave the dog unsupervised on a stationary tether until your training is much further down the road.

Tether Training

It’s important to teach your puppy or dog what you want him to do while on the tether, which is to say, not much. As soon as you snap on the leash, start rewarding the dog for standing still, sitting, or laying down. You want to encourage and reinforce as much calm behavior as possible, so once your puppy/dog picks a position, give treats every few seconds to keep them in that position. Eventually you want to work toward lying down, but sometimes we have to start where the dog can be successful. If your puppy/dog wants to bite at the leash, up your rate of reinforcement so you are rewarding for leaving the leash alone. If you prepare your puppy/dog by teaching them what you do want while they are tethered, you will get more of the behavior you want, and less chewing and pulling.

Creating Rewardable Moments

Sadie is wearing a leash, even though no one is holding on to it (she is laying on it), just in case she decides to start jumping up on me.

The beauty of tether training is that it creates the opportunity for the dog to choose the right behavior, while making the wrong behavior harder to do. If your puppy or dog jumps on guests, keep them a leash-length away so that they can’t make contact with the person. When they make the right choice of either sitting, or coming back to you, you can reward them with treats, or the opportunity to greet the guests if they can control themselves! When you can’t control the puppy/dog, you can’t control the misbehavior from happening, so the behavior is practiced. A tether allows you to control what behavior is happening, so you get to chose what gets practiced!

Remember to always supervise your dog while on a tether, they can get easily tangled, especially in the beginning before training has taken effect. If you need help on tether training, and you are in the Northern Colorado area, contact me about In-Home Training. If you are not in my service area, find out more about how to find a trainer here.

I Liked it Better, When it was Wrong

I recently realized that one of my favorite songs perfectly illustrates a great technique to use in modifying problematic behaviors. The lyrics of “When it was Wrong” by The California Honeydrops describes a typical romance between two young lovers, “Wooo, baby do you remember when we were hiding out? Just a-sneaking out, a little making out?”. The song reminisces about those days, because according to the singer, sneaking around was what made the relationship exciting, and now that those days are over the thrill is gone. Now, I’m not going to comment on the human behavior involved in these sorts of relationship games, but I think it represents something we see in dogs all the time. The chorus finishes off with the song’s title “I liked it better, when it was wrong” which is oh-so-true when it comes to many dog behaviors that we find problematic.

Here are a few behaviors that can increase by making them “forbidden”:

  • Fence fighting
  • Chasing squirrels or rabbits
  • Stealing items (can lead to swallowing items as well)
  • Sniffing
  • Looking at distractors

Like the forbidden romance in the song, most of these behaviors meet an emotional need. By forbidding a behavior that meets an emotional need, the typical response is an emotional outburst, rather than a thoughtful decision not to repeat the behavior. We can deal with each of these behaviors in such a way as to meet the emotional need, without continuing the problem behavior.

I would encourage you to think of some of the “naughty” behaviors your dog does, and figure out a way to make them “legal”. This won’t work with every problem behavior, and should never be used with behaviors that are dangerous to your dog or others. However, you might be surprised at your dog’s reaction to being sent back to sniff, or to race back to the fence as a dog passes by. What’s at work is the Premack Principle, which states that a behavior with a high probability of happening can reinforce a lower probability behavior.

The Premack Principle works well with hound breeds like Otis who really love to sniff and hunt! Often, the opportunity to return to sniffing/hunting is much more valuable than a treat for these types of dogs.

Let’s look at an example: If your dog wants to sniff a spot on your walk, sniffing is high probability (the dog is likely to exhibit the behavior), so it can reinforce coming away from the smell to look at you, a behavior which has a low probability. By allowing the dog to go back and sniff when he looks at you, you have now interjected yourself into a behavior your dog loves. This creates a shift in value, meaning you take on some of the value of the sniffing, and the sniffing loses some of its value. Your dog will be more likely to look at you when you call him away from a smell, because he knows you might just send him back!

This framework will increase your relationship with your dog. This happens because you switch from constantly nagging your dog about the things she shouldn’t be doing, to allowing her to indulge in some of her favorite behaviors. Your dog will be able to communicate about the things she wants to do without losing control, and you will start getting more of the behaviors you want. Congrats, you’ve now become the “Cool Mom/Dad”!

From Donovan to Wallace!

Megan was married on May 26, 2018, and has changed her last name from Donovan to Wallace! The wedding was beautiful, and full of fun with a game theme (including a puzzle with this picture of the dogs, since they couldn’t be there) and a live band. June brought a Scotland honeymoon, complete with watching Border Collies work on a sheep farm!

How to Give your Dog Freedom Responsibly

If you’ve read my post 5 Tips for More Enjoyable Leash Walks, you will know that I am not a huge fan of the retractable leash. Many people use retractable leashes to give their dog’s more freedom than a standard 6’ leash allows, so I want to present my alternative – the long line. I was given a bright orange biothane, 25’ long line by my mother, an expert buyer of dog things, who routinely gifts them to me when she’s acquired too much. As I started using it for “adventure walks”, where the intention is for the dog to get to roam and sniff further out, I started thinking about the advantages of a long line over a retractable leash, and wanted to share those ideas, as well as what to look for in a great long line. I now refer to my bright orange leash as my “adventure line”, because I think it has advantages over other long lines I’ve used for the purpose of adventuring.

With a long line, the dog can stop and sniff, and you can walk 25 more feet before they have to finish up and run to catch up with you! This makes for lots of great sniff time!

Using a long line will not be as easy as a retractable leash, but once you develop some skill it will not be difficult. You will need to stay present with your dog on your walks, which is something we could all use a little more of. It is not a one-handed activity, where you can talk on the phone, or scroll through Facebook while you walk. I would suggest that these aren’t ever good activities while walking the dog, regardless of whether your equipment makes it more convenient to do so. Paying attention to what our dogs are doing is so important to preventing bad behavior before it happens, keeping the dog out of trouble, and everyone else in the area safe. The goal with a long line is to pay out as much line as your dog needs at any given time, and reel it back in when you need to limit the dog’s freedom.

We are approaching another dog, so I reel in most of the line so that she can’t approach the other dog. Mia is very friendly, but we always respect that the other dog might not want to greet on their walk.

A long line is much sturdier than a retractable leash, not relying on any mechanics, which means it is less likely to cause accident or injury. Retractable leashes, if dropped accidentally, often scare dogs as they bounce along behind the dog, and can make a scared dog much more difficult to catch. This doesn’t happen with a long line, at worst the dog gets tangled around something, and then you can catch them! In an area where you can allow your dog to run free, you can use a long line to teach off-leash skills by dropping the line and allowing them to get further away from you without giving them complete freedom before they are ready.

I really appreciate the bright orange of my adventure line because of its visibility to myself and people around me. A retractable leash line can be almost invisible, which leaves other walkers to wonder if they are approaching an off-leash dog. It can be unnerving to pass by a dog who is 20’ away from a person which appears they are off-leash, especially if you are walking a dog, or riding a bike. A brightly colored leash is very apparent to passersby, even if the dog is not directly next to you.

With the long line, Mia can move at a faster pace than me…until she finds something new to sniff!

Material of the long line can be an important consideration, and may be variable depending on your needs and preferences. My mom gave me the adventure line because she thought it was too heavy, and prefers a lighter line. It is made of ½” thick biothane, and has a pretty sizable clip attached. Biothane is a synthetic leather which is very easily cleanable, and doesn’t gather dirt, or retain water. It is a great option for adventuring situations where the dog might get wet. It is available in a variety of widths and thicknesses, and customizable in length. I also use long lines made with paracord (width dependent on the size of dog), but I don’t find them as comfortable in my hands, so I prefer to use those for teaching a dog off leash skills in a wide open space, rather than an adventure walk where we are mainly on a trail. These also gather more dirt, and retain water, so they aren’t always a great choice in wetter conditions. Many commercially available long lines are made of nylon or cotton, which can be uncomfortable to hold. Cotton lines will retain a lot of water, which makes them heavy, and get dirty easily. Find a long line that fits your needs and preferences so it is more enjoyable for you in addition to your dog.

I hope that you will explore the use of a long line instead of a retractable leash for your adventure walks. You will find that your dog has more freedom, you have better control of your dog, and others around you can see that easily, which will lead to more comfortable walks for everyone!

We are so lucky to have such a beautiful place to walk, which is Riverbend Ponds Natural Area. We always stay on leash because we don’t want to disturb the wildlife that make this place their home!


Why Won’t My Dog Listen to Me?

One of the most frustrating moments in dog training is when our dog doesn’t respond the way we expect them to. We label this as stubborn, or even stupid. The frustration we experience can lead to speaking more sternly to the dog, escalating to yelling, or even physical punishments. Before we resort to being annoyed at the dog, we need to step back and evaluate why this is happening. Here are some common reasons that a dog doesn’t listen to you.

  1. The dog doesn’t understand the behavior – It is very important that there is a learning stage for any behavior you expect your dog to do. This involves practicing the behavior in a low distraction environment, with a high rate of reinforcement, so that the dog can learn what is expected of him before you expect him to do it in the real world.

What you can do about it: Be sure that you teach your dog the skills you will need before expecting the dog to perform in the real world. Break down more difficult tasks into smaller bits, and practice until your dog is proficient.

  1. The dog isn’t sufficiently motivated – Some behaviors we ask our dogs to do are harder for them physically or mentally than others. These behaviors “cost more” to perform, because they need a longer history of reinforcement to acquire the behavior, and more frequent variable reinforcement to maintain. For example, it costs more to call a dog away from a rabbit than to ask her to sit in the kitchen. If you are asking for a “high cost” behavior, your dog needs to believe she will be paid well for her actions.

Fawkes and I have discovered dog parkour as a way to enjoy checking out new environments, while still focusing on me! This was built up slowly, over time, and now he can experience new environments in a way that is fun for both of us!

What you can do about it: Use high value reinforcers (the best food and favorite toys) for high cost behaviors, and practice frequently so the dog knows what to expect. Each dog is an individual when it comes to what behaviors are high cost, but commonly dogs do best when paid well for coming when called, ignoring distractions (dogs, people, other animals), and anything that is physically difficult/uncomfortable (advanced tricks, nail trims, vet visits, etc.).

  1. The dog is distracted – What we expect from our dogs, and how the dog actually behaves often don’t match up. Often this is because their experience of the world is much different from our own. Their olfactory experience (sense of smell) is one that we can’t even fathom. Just like a small child will be overly visually stimulated at Disneyland, your dog can have a similar experience just walking out the door with the smells they are taking in. Many times, we ask the dog to do a behavior, and their mind is completely wrapped up in something else entirely.

What you can do about it: Practice focusing on you in low distraction environments and build that slowly toward focusing on you in more distracting environments. If going out the front door causes your dog’s ears to turn off, practice in the front entry with the door open. Your dog needs lots of practice listening to you around small distractions before you can expect him to listen around big ones.

  1. The dog is fearful – Strong emotions always get in the way of cognitive processing. When the dog’s brain is overwhelmed with fear or anxiety, nothing else can function properly. We can not expect a dog who is experiencing true panic to listen and respond to our cues. The dog may be able to perform well known behaviors, but it is still important to address the fear.

What you can do about it: Depending on your dog’s level of fear, you may need to see a professional behavior consultant, or veterinary behaviorist. Helping a dog overcome fear needs to be a slow, systematic process that should be tailored to the individual dog.

As you can see, it is important to step back and evaluate why our dog isn’t listening to us at any given moment. This can help us from feeling frustrated with our dog and understand why he might not have listened. It is also apparent that when our dog is not listening, it is up to us to solve the problem, not to blame it on the dog. We can help our dogs understand what we expect of them and make it worth their while to comply so that we can get the behaviors we want from them.

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 senses 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.