Is rewarding your dog bribing her?

Several years ago, my dogs and I went on a drive over Guanella Pass in Colorado to enjoy some fresh air and beautiful fall scenery together. As we were making our way over the other side to Georgetown, two sheriff vehicles in front of us blocked the road, stopping us and all who were behind us. One of the deputies approached us and told us to make ourselves comfortable, even go walk our dogs, because we were going to be there for a while; a group of hot rod enthusiasts had a permit for an event and they were closing the road off for a race.

I wasn’t bothered by this as we weren’t on any set schedule and it is a beautiful place to be stuck! I got the dogs and headed down a little trail nearby, then came back after a few to take a place alongside other spectators by the road to watch the cars go by.

My then-foster dog, Uma, was a highly reactive dog. I knew the crowd of people and sounds of the cars would likely be stressful for her, and I of course had my treat pouch full of bacon ready. As she was able to look at people and then look at me, I would praise her every so often and give her small bits of the bacon for these behaviors. Same with the cars as they came by, particularly if they were loud—as she was able to be calm and offer other behaviors, I continued to reward her every so often with the bacon. Jasper also got bacon for similarly being well-behaved.

On Guanella Pass with Uma and Jasper

After a while I decided enough was enough. We were all getting tired and Uma was older and had medical issues, too, so I took them back to the car to give them water and allow all of us to relax. They’d done very well at being calm, and Uma didn’t even bark once!

When it comes to reactive dogs, less is more. I definitely didn’t want to end up in a place where she would get too tired or trigger-stacked, and end up reacting or feeling badly. All these situations must end on a high note and lead to a more positive association for the dog, rather than go too long.

I passed by a lady who felt compelled to say to me, “Bribing them to be good works.” Since what I was doing was not bribing, I simply replied, “Actually, I was rewarding them for good behavior,” and just kept walking. I admit, it made me cranky. I didn’t have the energy to engage further but I also wanted her to know what I actually was doing!

I hear it so much—isn’t using treats (or any reward, for that matter) for training bribery? Critics of positive reinforcement methods will often talk about this, and some seem to think that, if we took the treats away, the bad behavior would rear its ugly head. Others also seem to think that dogs should just do what we want of them, out of “respect” and no need for any reinforcement.

Let’s ask ourselves: What is bribery and what is reinforcement?

Bribery would be if I had to show a treat to a dog first, every time, to get her to do something. If my practice was based on this and the dog learns that the treat has to precede his behavior, I would be doing her a disservice. Timing is very crucial when it comes to bribery versus reinforcement.

Reinforcement is when my dog offers a behavior and I can mark and follow it with something she likes, like bacon, to reward her for making the right choice, and therefore increase the frequency of her choosing this desired behavior. When I am teaching something new, I will mark and reinforce every time the dog offers the behavior. As the behavior becomes more consistent, I will then switch up my reinforcement—marking and treating every other time, every few times, and offering other rewards and praise. This is basic operant conditioning, and it works to teach a dog what choices to make if you do it correctly.

Food is a powerful motivator. It helps turn off fear. It is easy to carry and conceal, and it is essential to survive. It’s easy and relatively inexpensive, particularly if you make your own simple treats and use “human” foods. (A whole boiled chicken, diced into treats, can go a long way!) Your dog needs to eat, so why not use her dinner as a reward for behavior you want?

We may have this fantasy of all dogs living to please us. While it’s true that most dogs are motivated by pleasing us at times, it’s not true all the time and for some dogs, pleasing us may not be much of a motivator! Dogs are living beings with drives and desires all their own. It’s our job to recognize this and work with them to get and reward the behavior we do want. It is so much more powerful—and fun!—to have this proactive, rather than reactive, approach.

The ideal is to use a variety of rewards and mix them up to keep it interesting and engaging for the dog, and to vary the delivery as they gain proficiency. And with dogs who possess an emotional response to stimuli, it is extremely crucial to follow through with food rewards to help them make more positive associations that can help them feel better, calmer and able to think to make the best choices.

Want to learn more? I recommend these links:

Thank you for reading!
Laura McGaughey, CPDT-KA

Four steps to a safer Fourth

It’s that time of year, folks!

Even with this weekend’s Memorial Day festivities–it seems that many of us live in communities where we have neighbors who enjoy shooting off fireworks. I know in my neighborhood, my dogs and I have heard them throughout the year, regardless, because I guess some people just can’t get enough. Luckily for me, my dogs don’t have a lot of fear of them or sensitivity to sounds in general.

However, there are many dogs who do have sound sensitivities, have had bad experiences with loud noises, lack socialization or just find them very scary. Whatever the reason, I wanted to go over my four steps to a safer Fourth so that all of you can be as prepared as possibly–and hopefully have a more peaceful pooch!

Photo of Splash and Riot courtesy of their mother, Jeanne Diver. Both dogs are “bombproof” when it comes to being comfortable in all sorts of situations, and are ready for the Fourth!
  1. Consult your vet or, better yet, a vet behaviorist. I’m going to say it: natural or homeopathic remedies can only help so much, if at all. If your dog has a very mild reaction to loud noises, then sure–that Thundershirt or natural oil diffuser may help take a slight edge off. Most, however, are not that effective and even unproven, such as L-Tryptophan supplements.

    The only two OTCs that I have recommended in the past are treats like Composure (L-theanine has been proven to have a relaxing effect on the brain but must be taken daily/over time to have the effect) or Adaptil diffusers, sprays or collars (pheremones that can naturally relax dogs that have had more proven effects through research as well). There are variations in what you can buy for L-theanine supplements and pheremones but if your dog is truly stressed: panting, pacing, unable to settle, drooling, trying to escape, shaking, or cannot relax in the presence of toys/play or even eat food, then you should speak to your veterinarian or consult a veterinary behaviorist for medical interventions, as that would be more effective and appropriate. Steer clear of acepromazine (ACE), as it will sedate the body and not the mind, and can actually increase anxiety because of this.

  2. Secure your home environment and make it as comfortable for your dog as possible. Make sure everyone in your family is on board with ensuring doors and gates are shut and locked as needed, and if your fencing needs repairs or fortifications, to see those through. It’s best not to allow your dog in your yard or outside off-leash at all. Supervision and well-fitted harnesses attached to leashes are key to making sure your dogs can’t escape. Take your dogs out to potty well before many fireworks begin (more on this below as we go through having a routine).

    Inside, set up an area or two (or more if you have more than one dog) where your dog will feel comfortable and safe. Some dogs might want their crate, while others might enjoy a closet space or under a table or another “enclosed” spot. Having white noise or soft, relaxing music ready to play can help drown out the noises outside, and make sure you have their favorite foods, chews, toys or other items prepared too.

    Giving them outlets for enrichment and mental stimulation, as well as having a more positive experience, can help everyone get through the celebrations more successfully. Maybe your dog really loves nose work games–this is a great time to do some of those, maybe have some tug afterward, all while eating delicious chicken bits as noises happen. Whatever your dog loves, bring it all out to help them!

  3. Do training in advance with desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) is the process of presenting a stimulus at a low intensity to a dog, and then giving them something they love in order to make them feel, over repetition, happier about that stimulus. Most of us know about Pavlov and his dogs, which represents classical conditioning: he rang a bell and would then feed them dinner. Over several repetitions, the dogs began to salivate in anticipation of their dinner!

    With DS/CC, the same process applies but it is vital that the stimulus being presented (i.e., the sound of fireworks in this case), be presented at a lower intensity so the dog won’t be so scared that it is ineffective. If you’re making it hard, it won’t work and can make things worse. I recommend getting recordings of fireworks and playing them at a very low volume to start, from a device like a phone. You play a bit of the noise and then feed your dog a high-value treat (i.e., bits of cheese, hot dog, chicken, roast beef–whatever your dog will LOVE). Noise stops = treats stop. Do short amounts of time of this and, as the dog is comfortable and even happy-looking when they hear the noise, you can gradually increase the volume. Do this in all areas of your home. Then you can also use a system with speakers, but again, at a very low volume, gradually raising it, practicing in all rooms of the home, for very short sessions (5 minutes or less).

    You can also do the same DS/CC process using other things your dog likes. Start playing the noise and then play tug, if they love tug. Or you can give them a bully stick, or a stuffed Kong–whatever your dog loves. Incorporating play can be a great way to help your dog loosen up too. The main goal is that the noises make their favorite things happen! Practicing this daily can help you be more prepared for when the actual fireworks in your neighborhood begin.

  4. Have a routine ready to go when it’s showtime. If you know fireworks will begin at 8:30 pm, take your dogs out before that time to adequately potty and get some outdoor exercise. Have their well-fitted harnesses and leashes on at all times, and avoid going outside at all once the festivities begin. Have all your good things and safe spaces prepped. You might even consider getting some potty pads for your dogs for inside if necessary. It’s better to have as much ready for any case scenario than not. Establishing your routine for the evenings during fireworks times can help you stay on point, as much as it will help your dog know what to expect and lessen their anxiety.

I hope that these tips can help you and your dogs feel more comfortable this year, and following years. I know many people who struggle with this, and feel terribly for their dogs and what they, too, are going through. I also think of the veterans in our communities, or others with post-traumatic stress that these fireworks can trigger, and it hurts my heart. Feel free to reach out for any questions and remember to help each other through this time. If you are celebrating, please be mindful.

Thank you for reading and be safe!

Learning through dog training

One of the aspects of dog training I love most is the fact that I am not only teaching dogs and their people, but I am learning from them as well. My career over the last decade has been one of constant adaption and readjusting for those with whom I am working, and the lessons they’ve taught me have been invaluable in many ways–not just professionally, but personally.

Here I am with one of my wonderful teachers at Petco, Daisy!

I started out as a shelter volunteer, where the dogs ran the gamut in terms of breeds and mixes, and living in a stressful environment that could affect them in myriad ways. Even today, I believe that for anyone who wants or thinks that dog training is the career path for them, I will recommend they volunteer with a shelter as the handling experience they will gain will be invaluable, particularly if the shelter has a great in-house positive training program.

In addition, the Open Paw program and the ASPCApro resources can be great resources for those who are involved in the shelter/rescue world. Besides the experience you will gain, you will also help improve and enrich the lives of the animals you work with, and help them learn skills that will make them more adoptable, and find the best home. It’s a complete win-win in so many aspects!

I began working in dog daycares before starting my business as a pet sitter and dog walker as I continued to learn from mentorship opportunities from other trainers, as well as working on gaining my certifications through Animal Behavior College and the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers. While my first mentor and initial exposures to the training world were more “balanced” (a combination of positive reinforcement and using punishment), I found clicker training when a dog I was fostering became reactive, and my first balanced trainer mentor told me there was nothing I could do to address it. I was at a point where I felt lost on the path–if I couldn’t help my foster dog, how could I become a professional trainer?

Luckily I found Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed program, which changed everything. Through her clicker training protocols, in particular, LOOK AT THAT, I was able to help my reactive foster dog learn how to notice stimuli but not bark and lunge, and instead, look to me. I became completely immersed in clicker training and realized that positive reinforcement training was much deeper than I originally learned through other outlets. I also turned away completely from using any form of punishment in my training.

As I continued to learn about how to truly use positive reinforcement, and address the emotional components in dog behavior, my eyes began to open to how I not only worked with dogs, but with people. And this wasn’t limited to professional aspects, but personal ones as well. Positive reinforcement isn’t just about training–it’s a way of life for me. Learning how to see the world in this way really shifted everything for me. I gained a deeper understanding and empathy. I also found TAG Teach and became more aware and present with my human clients.

With my business and continued learning and experience, I gained more training clients and helped them with everything from foundations for puppies and new dogs, to mild behavior issues like jumping, chewing, digging and so forth. Helping them learn how to communicate with their dogs and set them up for success to learn what they’d like them to do, as well as provide appropriate outlets and opportunities to be natural dogs, was very fulfilling. Over time as I completed certifications and continued learning and gaining experience, I was able to help more clients with more moderate to severe problem behaviors, such as reactivity, fear and aggression. I also got to work alongside veterinary behaviorists to ensure success for these clients, and work as a team dedicated to what was best for each and every client.

Then I received a great opportunity to work as a service dog trainer for Freedom Service Dogs of America. While I hadn’t had any previous experience, I was able to learn quickly from the other trainers there. Teaching dogs “advanced tricks” so they could help people live their lives to the fullest was one of the most amazing times in my professional life. Even today, retaining contact with these clients and knowing how much their dogs mean to them, and seeing how much love and care they give to them–there really aren’t words to adequately describe how wonderful this feels to me. Despite the challenges life has thrown to them, they are gracious and positive, and whenever I have a bad day, I can always think of them and feel inspired and more grateful for my life, no matter what is going on at the time.

Most recently I worked for Petco, where I was able to reach pet parents on a daily basis. Even if they didn’t choose to take a group class or private lesson from me, I was still impact their lives by helping them find the right products or feedback they need to be the best they can be for their dogs–and vice-versa. I especially enjoyed the new puppy parents who come in to work with me to ensure they have a great bond from the start. Their dedication and love for their new family members was amazing to see.

Currently I am taking select clients for help with service dog or therapy dog training, new puppy/dog foundations training, and to offer enrichment and day training options where I work one-on-one with the dog or puppy. I don’t have a “one-size-fits-all” package system, but cater to the individual canine(s) and their people.

For every new client, every type of training needed, and all the different dogs of different ages, breeds and temperaments, I am always referring back to what I have learned through previous experience and mentorship, and reaching out for more. I learn each and every day from all these interactions, and I am truly blessed.

Thanks to all of you who have been or are clients, and those of you to come!

Seven strategies for stopping off-leash dogs

Spring is just around the corner, and likely to increase your chances of an encounter with an off-leash dog.

Whether it’s a dog that’s just been left to roam freely without supervision, or accompanied by a person who says “they’re friendly,” regardless of the scenario, not all dogs want to have other dogs approach them–especially if you have a dog that is afraid, or may not like greetings from overzealous, happy dogs.

And so, here are my seven strategies for stopping such dogs and helping you and your dog(s) stay safer:

  1. Toss a handful of treats away from you and your dog. If the dog is friendly, the best way to cope is by tossing a huge handful of treats as far away from you as possible, and then move quickly away in an opposite direction. In this way, you’re very peacefully diffusing the situation and giving the other dog something way better to do, especially if those treats are scrumptious! This is the kindest way to deal with the situation, which is why it’s at the top of my list.
  2. Place your dog in a “behind” and assume an authoritative stance. It’s best to do some training with your dog on getting into a position behind you so you can act as a barrier. You can easily use a food lure to get your dog into position, and say YES and give the treat once they are behind you. Doing this in a variety of situations and environments can help once you are being approached by an off-leash dog when you’re out. As you block your dog, you can then assume an “authoritative” stance by straightening up as tall as you can, and placing your hand as a “stop sign” like a cross guard. Say NO, STOP or STAY in a firm voice. For some dogs, this can help stop them in their tracks.
  3. Pick up your dog if needed, or let go of his leash. For those with small dogs who can be picked up, we recommend doing so, to keep them safe. You should be careful to pick up your dog quickly and turn away so the approaching dog won’t be able to jump and bite at your dog, if they aren’t friendly. You could also try to move him into a car, truck bed or behind another barrier like a fence, if you can. If your dog is too large to be picked up, you might want to let go of the leash to let him get away, if necessary. While we all want to keep our dogs safe, it’s imperative that you are safe as well–if you aren’t, then you won’t be able to help regardless of the situation.
  4. Use a pop-up umbrella as a barrier. This is one of my favorite strategies, especially if you’re worried the dog will not be persuaded by your treats to move away, or stop for you. It’s a great, easy barrier to carry as you can find many small umbrellas that are easy to carry along, and with the push of a button, will pop up and can be used to not only startle the oncoming dog, but be a barrier between you and your dog, and the accosting dog. It’s important to get your own dog used to this, though, before using it in real life. By bringing out the umbrella and letting your own dog sniff at it, while you give treats, and then eventually pop it up and use it as you would in real life. Pairing it with really high-value food treats before a situation arises will make your dog view it as a good thing instead of also getting startled in the moment(s) you may end up having to use it!
  5. Carry bang snaps. Bang snaps are a novelty noisemaker firework; they come in small boxes and snap as you toss them down on the ground. These can definitely help startle and keep another dog away but again, you’ll want to use it around your own dog, pairing with very high-value treats in a gradual way so they’ll get used to the noise before you would ever have to use it in a real-life scenario.
  6. Some sprays can be helpful too. There are a few commercial deterrent sprays that could be helpful as well, but you’d also want to get your dog used to these options as well before you use them against dogs who are rushing you:
    • Pet Corrector: This product emits a hiss sound that is very loud and most animals find unpleasant. It’s marketed a lot for barking (which I do not advocate; I DO NOT advocate using punishment to correct problem behaviors).
    • Spray Shield: This deterrent is a citronella-based spray; most dogs find this smell unpleasant, but it not harmful for anyone in its path in terms of physical pain.
    • Halt!: This spray is the last on my list because it does have capsicum, a natural pepper extract. I do not advocate this except as a LAST RESORT ONLY for when you are not walking your own dog, and worry about the possibility of an aggressive dog approaching you. Pepper sprays and mace really aren’t the best options as they can also shift with wind to possibly hurt YOU as well!
  7. Carry a cane. Again, this is not at the top of my list because I do not advocate for harming dogs, but if you do worry about the potential of being hurt by an off-leash aggressive dog, carrying something like a cane to use if absolutely necessary can be another tactic. If nothing else, it can help those who have been traumatized by a dog attack to feel a little more comfort having such a “weapon.” There are also other self-defense sticks out on the market, but you should check your local laws to ensure you aren’t breaking any by having these on your person.

If you have recurring issues with off-leash dogs, CALL ANIMAL CONTROL. Yes, it sucks to be the “bad guy,” but leash laws exist for a reason, and violators should be reported for everyone’s safety.

Stay safe and have a wonderful spring season with your Way Cool Canine!

The love of my life, Jasper

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to write about the love of my life: Jasper.

Jasper is my heart dog. There never was, nor will there ever be, another dog that has done so much to help me through this world. He and I share a special connection and we have had so many wonderful adventures together. He has been there for me through so many ups and downs; he’s assisted me in training with clients; he’s also just helped me forget everything that stresses me out and have fun, and be in the moment.

I remember the first time I saw Jasper. He was named Micah, and at the MaxFund Shelter in Denver. I was a volunteer at the time and was just starting out on my path as a trainer, having volunteered there for a few months to get some experience and learn from their then-existing positive training program for the shelter dogs, CHAMPS.

My then-husband and I had lost our dog, Soup, just a few days earlier. It was Christmastime and I decided to go in and walk dogs. Jasper was in a kennel and immediately I was drawn to him. He was three months old. After a walk with him, as we were walking another dog, we both decided to apply for him.

One week later we brought him home and he was so little that he could lie on a standard pillow for a nap. Over the months, he got to meet new dog friends, went camping for the first time, played in the snow, got lots of toys and learned many things, and became my best son, the love of my life. In time he became a vital part of my business in Denver, Delightful Doggies, helping me with dogs with all sorts of issues: being a helper dog to help fearful dogs come out of their shell, walking across the streets with assistants to help dogs with reactivity, and much more.

We’ve traveled to all sorts of amazing mountain trails in Colorado. He went with me to the ClickerExpo in Portland, OR, a few years ago, to do labs with me, and then get a nice vacation to see the ocean and play on the beach for the first time. We have enjoyed so many wonderful hiking and adventure forays–I am so grateful for all the beauty we’ve seen, and joy we’ve shared. It’s made such a difference in my life: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Any day that was bad could immediately be turned around by going out to the hills with him, or by going to one of Denver’s large off-leash areas so he could fetch, roll in the snow and more. He always brings a smile to my face and warms my heart.

When I have had dark times, Jasper has saved me. My husband and I split some years back and it was devastating for me. Knowing better than to separate us, a friend of mine who was out of town let me stay at her house for a bit, with Jasper. I would cling to him every night and cry myself to sleep. I went through many months–if not more than a year–feeling suicidal, not knowing what direction to take, going through lots of transitions: moving out of my house into an apartment, ending my business and taking a job with Freedom Service Dogs, losing some of my family and friends, and feeling completely unsure about everything and everyone, most of all, myself.

Jasper kept me going. He gave me a reason to live, and even flourish and become stronger. He’s still seeing me through lots of changes. We moved across the country last spring to come to Kentucky, and he just turned 10 this past fall! As things are changing with my business (more to come on that in a future blog post), he is now permanently retired. His only job now is to keep being the love of my life, and allowing him to take whatever time I can to give him the things he most enjoys.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you, from me and the love of my life, Jasper!

Dogs with big feelings

What are dogs with big feelings and why am I writing a post about them?

With February and Valentine’s Day approaching, in addition to some thoughts I’ve been having as I reflect on the training I do with dogs, I felt inspired to write a free-flow blog post. Emotions are tough; some people hate Valentine’s Day because of bad experiences or the pressure the holiday gives to those of us who may not have a romantic counterpart, while others who are high off dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin dumping into their system because of an object of affection can’t wait for the date! I’m not going to comment on my personal status right now, but I do have a bit to say about dogs who have “big feelings.”

For as long as I’ve been on the dog trainer path (at this point it’s been a little more than a decade), I have been surrounded by dogs with big feelings: dogs who jump all over you, excitedly, because they love and missed you so much, dogs who pull and bark and whine if you’re walking them on leash and they see something or someone they desperately want to visit, dogs who run away from something or someone, or bark and lunge at it, because it is different, weird, and/or scary, and many more. There are many dogs with many big feelings that lead to big behaviors!

Dogs are emotional creatures. While we can’t get in there to know what might be going on, and they can’t just say, “Hey, Laura, that dog over there is staring at me and it’s making me nervous,” we can observe the behavior. For the dog who just “spoke” to me in that last sentence, he might be tucking his tail, looking away, and sniffing the ground because he wants to avoid that dog and show he’s not a threat, or, he may be hitting the end of the leash, barking and snarling, to tell the other dog that he should stay away.

Carlos having “zoomie” feelings – there is a lot of happiness and excitement behind that running!

Regardless of the motivation, the dog has big feelings that lead to these behaviors. Some of these behaviors we may not even notice and they may not bother us, while some of them are making our lives almost hell…no joke. I have had clients at the end of their rope because their dogs have terrible anxiety, fear, reactivity or aggression. I have had other clients who don’t even realize there is a problem, though their dogs are giving signs—and they haven’t reached out until the dog has a bite history.

This isn’t a blog designed to teach any of you how to address each and every big feeling a dog may have. Instead, it is to help you know that you are not alone if you are struggling. And it to help some of you know that there is a lot for you to learn so that you can read your dog before some bigger feelings do happen. It’s also to encourage people to have compassion for their dogs, even when they may be making you embarrassed, or you’re labeling them as a jerk or a scaredy cat or whatever else. Your dog is struggling and there is help.

Also, it’s to encourage you to reach out for help and to be aware that, if you are talking to a dog trainer or professional of any sort, they should have an adequate understanding of how to address those big feelings, because an emotional state is something that needs to be addressed first, before the behavior can be improved. And it’s definitely not a dog who needs to be put on a shock, prong or choke collar, or to be punished for getting things wrong. These dogs need well-seasoned positive reinforcement-savvy professionals who will have compassion for not only your dog, but you, too.

We’re here to help. Even if we’re not the right fit, we’re committed to helping you find the right help. That’s our promise to you, and to your dogs with big feelings, this Valentine’s Day holiday, and beyond.

Thanks for reading, and keep your chin up!

Tips for teaching a reliable come when called

Come when called, or recall, is an extremely important skill to teach all dogs. After all, if your dog gets away from you it can be extremely unsafe! You’ll want to practice with your dog a LOT inside your home, in your fenced-in yard, and by using other enclosed spaces as well as using a long line in other areas, so that your dog will be able to come to you no matter where you are.

In addition, you’ll want to add distractions to these situations. It is always important to have your dog on a leash to prevent them from getting to the distraction. Whatever you use to reward your dog when they do come to you must be even better than the distractions you’re working against. For instance, if your dog finds squirrels really appealing and you’re using milk bones, that may not be successful–you may need to use little bits of hot dog or cheese instead! And remember to build your distractions gradually. Going to the park when it’s less busy before going on a busy weekend will set you both up for better success, for example.

Recall practice with day training client Bella in her backyard

Here are more tips and techniques to build a more reliable recall with your dog:

  • Seize opportunities to reinforce this cue, like using “come” to call your dog to dinner or to engage in play or another activity she likes.
  • Be careful to not call your dog to come if you are certain or even unsure if she will actually come. Overusing this cue and not having success with it can work against you! Set up situations that are successful when practicing.
  • NEVER punish your dog once she gets to you. This can “poison” the cue. Even if it takes a bit for her to come to you, still reward her! If it does take a while, re-evaluate your criteria and make things easier. Maybe you need to move closer (work on shorter distance) or work in an area with fewer distractions. By evaluating the why, you can be mindful about how to practice for better successes.
  • Make it fun! Call your dog very excitedly and be more interesting than anything else. This may mean making silly noises, raising the level of your tone or getting closer to the ground. Play fun games like “catch me” (enticing your dog to run after you if you run in the other direction to “catch” you) and “hide-and-go-seek.”
  • Remember, if you are always calling your dog in from the yard or to leave an activity she is enjoying, she may develop a negative association with your recall cue. Practice calling her in these situations and allowing her to go back to the fun so that it doesn’t always mean the fun ends.
  • Practice lightly and then more firmly grabbing your dog’s collar when she comes to you, and treating for it. This is important to build a positive association with this kind of handling, so that, if a situation occurs where she is away from you without any leash on her, you can grab her collar to get her to safety so she is used to it. You can also use a verbal cue, such as GOTCHA, right before you put your hand on her collar, so she can anticipate the grab.
  • When you are using a leash or long line for practice, be mindful to not apply pressure to the lead to get your dog to come to you. This will set a precedence for her giving into pressure rather than making the choice to come to you, and won’t translate well for off-leash reliability.

Questions? Need help! Contact me today.

Happy Training!

Training: A bank account filled with trust

Most clients are duly impressed by what I can accomplish with their dogs. At the same time, it’s important for my clients to remember that I, too, am human, and am imperfect, AND, have imperfect dogs!

Training takes time, consistency and patience. Even after dogs learn behaviors, there is work that must be done over their lifetime to maintain behaviors. Without practice in this way, behaviors can deteriorate. It’s also important to remember that behavior isn’t always foolproof: the right (or wrong!) circumstances can happen to make even the most well-skilled trainer a tad frustrated.

And so, I will relay to you the story of Jasper and the frog, which illustrates a key point in training for me, and my philosophy. Jasper often assisted with training when I owned my first business in Denver, and after a long day working with clients, I decided to take him to Cherry Creek State Park’s off-leash area as a reward. I hadn’t had a lot of quality time with him as of late, and while we were both tired, I felt we could use the fun. I had his “grade-A” rewards with me—some turkey hot dogs and his chuck-it ball.

Jasper at the Cherry Creek Dog Park

After walking for quite some time, as we were turning back to end our excursion there, dusk began to fall, and frogs started coming out. Jasper had not interacted with frogs before and took to playing with one right away. At first I thought to discourage it, as I didn’t want any harm to come to the frog, but as I saw how gentle he was being and how much fun he was having, I felt there was no harm in allowing him to continue. I kept walking while he was playing, figuring he’d catch up, as he never does let me get too far away without catching up.

However, Jasper found this frog much more fun and kept following him into taller and taller grasses and bushes. I began to call him and pulled out all the stops that usually get his attention—throwing his ball, making noises he finds intriguing and exciting, running away, trying to entice him with hot dogs—but nothing was working this time. It was getting darker and I was tired and ready to leave! I was also starting to worry about other creatures that could be out there, like snakes, who could cause him harm, and I admit it made me a bit anxious.

Those who have trained with me know I never advocate the use of harsh tones or punishment at all, especially when calling a dog by name to come to you. I encourage the use of a positive interrupter and trying to redirect the dog on what to do, being exciting and inviting as opposed to threatening. This night at the park, though, I was being tested. I was tired, I was worried and I was feeling like I had no other options but to lower my voice in a deep, growly tone and say quite harshly—“Jasper! Get over here now!”

Jasper came out, slinking along the ground. So many people interpret this as a sign of feeling “guilty.” Of course, I know better as a dog trainer. Jasper was not guilty—he was just finding my tone unpleasant and was trying to appease me. It wasn’t very nice, what I did to get him to come out.

I have relayed this story to a few of my colleagues and clients. Colleagues like to say things like, “It worked because you don’t overuse it,” and “Don’t feel bad—it happens sometimes.” Clients are sometimes surprised by what I’ve relayed, but also relieved that it’s not always rainbows and unicorns—that I, too, have not-so-perfect moments of pure positive reinforcement all the time. It makes me more relate-able, and helps them forgive themselves for similar decisions they’ve made.

By and large, pet owners have no need for corrections in the traditional sense. If we train our dogs very well on behaviors we DO want, and maintain them well by practicing them in many different scenarios, then by and large we will never have to resort to yelling, or worse. But sometimes life happens and it’s very grey, and sometimes in a life-or-death situation I may end up doing something that isn’t completely force-free (like yanking on a leash when a dog wanders out too far into oncoming traffic, or grabbing out of his mouth a chicken bone or other life-threatening object). Those times should be rare.

A few years back, I was very excited to attend a lecture by Dr. Susan Friedman based on her course, “Living and Learning with Animals.” She said something that made a considerable impression on me, and I found it within an article she had written for Bird Talk Magazine:

Think of it this way: Gaining an animal’s trust is like building up a bank account. We make deposits into the trust account one positive interaction at a time. Positive interactions are not just about animals gaining valued rewards but also about having the power to make choices. Alternatively, we make withdrawals from the trust account with negative interactions, such as the use of force, threats and punishment. Even small or inadvertent withdrawals add up over time, putting the relationship in the red. If a withdrawal is so big that it exceeds the positive balance, we risk bankrupting the relationship.

This is a great analogy for us to consider. My relationship with other people, pets and any life form is based on trust. When we are able to make positive interactions the crux of our training program, we are helping our dogs to learn how to cope with life and make the right decisions, and growing our bank account of trust. We empower them to have control over their lives, which is important, because all life NEEDS that empowerment to learn and thrive. If I’m always punishing or making things unpleasant for my dogs or clients, they will not feel good about working with me. It will undermine the relationship and trust.

Great training is about having a great bank account balance, and I’m happy to help clients achieve that, even if we’re not perfect all the time! Together, we can continue to improve our skills so the bank account can grow each and every day. That is my promise to you!

Thanks for reading!

Teaching your dog to love his crate

Crate training is an important element in dog training. There are many reasons to crate train: to assist in house training young puppies and keep them safe when you’re unable to actively supervise, to give a dog a place to go that is safe and where no one will disturb him, to give your dog a break so he can relax. Those who participate in dog sports and classes also need crate training skills so the dog can be put away when not in competition or actively working. If you must evacuate in an emergency or your dog needs a medical procedure, confinement may be a necessary part of such situations. Your dog may need crate training just so he’s prepared for these possibilities, even if you don’t plan on actively using a crate for much of your lives together.

Some dogs adjust more easily to others when it comes to crate training. Anxious dogs can often have a hard time being confined as well. First and foremost, going slowly and positively is key in having successful crate training. If a dog finds the crate VERY scary, then you may want to take off the door and not worry about closing it for a while. As he’s able to stay in for longer periods, you can gradually shut it little bits at a time. By starting simple and working up to that point, and then gradually extending the time the door is shut, you can build his trust. Going too far too fast will only work against you!

Charlie enjoys a Kong tie-out in his crate

Below is a list of tools and strategies that can help with crate training your dog; they revolve around making it a GREAT place to be, at his level of comfort, as well as teaching behaviors we want.

  • Choose a proper placement. The placement of the crate is important. It should provide some privacy and be in a place that is comfortable for the dog to be able to relax, but not sequestered in the basement away from the family. Choosing a happy medium is important.
  • Feed meals in the crate. Your dog does have to eat so make it work for you! Putting meals in slow feeder bowls can also help him stay longer.
  • Hide goodies for him to find. I like to sneakily put in high-value treats, awesome chews and enrichment toys for dogs to find in the crate. If he doesn’t see me put it in there but he walks by and realizes what’s in there, it’s like the crate is actually making those things happen there, and makes it a really great place!
  • Use a Kong tie-out. Kongs and other toy enrichment where a dog has to lick food can be great for using in a crate. It’s not only a fun way to work for food, but licking can help a dog relax. The only problem with using enrichment toys is that a dog can go in for a toy and take it out! Kong tie-outs are a great solution for this. If you use a string or a section of a wire metal hanger that has a knot/bend at one end, you can feed it through the Kong from the larger hole to the smaller hole so it catches and hangs out of the small hole end. You can stuff and freeze your Kong accordingly, and then use the string or metal to affix it to stay in the back of the crate so your dog cannot go in and take it out. It also helps make the back of the crate the most rewarding place to be! A colleague of ours in Colorado Springs, Angie Neal, has a great video on making Kong tie-outs you can view here.
  • Reinforce calm and good manners. Barking, whining and pawing at the crate means you are ignored. Being quiet, calm, even sitting means you will get out. Most times if you are patient enough to wait for the behavior you want and then give the dog what he wants, and you are consistent with these outcomes, then he will know what is expected and will likewise be consistent in giving you what you want. Start where the dog can be successful and build on it. If your dog panics the instant he is in the crate, he may need more help and just ignoring him won’t be the best approach. We would recommend reaching out to us for help.
  • NEVER use the crate for punishment. While a crate is a very good way to help puppies and even older dogs learn how to settle on their own and as management to halt unwanted behavior, you should be very conscientious of how you use the crate to these ends. If you’re putting your dog forcefully in the crate without anything good, you’re really setting yourself up for making the dog associate the crate with you being angry and them being isolated. It’s better to ask him to go in and give him something good for it, even if he just finished doing something you consider naughty!

If you’re facing serious difficulty acclimating your dog to his crate, don’t continue to push ahead without help. If it’s causing major anxiety or aggression, continuing to crate your dog can ultimately work against you, and I advise consulting me or another qualified professional for help.

Happy training!