Putting “Go Sniff!” into your reinforcement toolbox

I deliver and control “go sniff”opportunities much like I control food treats. I give “go sniff” to reinforce my dogs for paying attention to me.

If your dog loves to sniff, stop viewing this as a problem! The interest in sniffing around isn’t just a “distractions,” it’s a very affordable (free!) reinforcement that you can harness and deliver to reinforce behaviors that you like.

How? You put the opportunity to “go sniff!” on cue, and then deliver it, regularly, generously, as a reward for behaviors that you like. There is one little trick to it though, and the trick is that your dog needs to know and trust that you are going to deliver these “sniff” opportunities. Imagine if your dog was starving and didn’t know that you were going to feed him. That’s the sort of behavior you might get from a dog who needs to sniff and doesn’t know that you are going to give him all the sniff he needs.

I’d been doing giving my dogs “go sniff” opportunities for quite a while, before I started to really understand what was happening and what a gold mine of reinforcement I now had at my disposal. My eye-popping awakening came at an AKC rally and obedience run-through event, held in a huge barn/indoor arena. The facility owner told me they regularly had horses in there and “normally, we keep chickens in the corner.” They might as well have built the whole facility out of hotdogs, as far as my dog was concerned! My young dog was much too excited to eat treats, and so I settled him on his mat and watched competitor after competitor walk in with distracted, scent aroused dogs, take a look around and leave, saying things like, “not today!” and “I don’t think so!”

I started to warm up my dog. I gave him a sit cue, and then rewarded it as he had hoped, with a limited sniff opportunity.

Whenever I deliver a “sniff” reinforcement, I deliver it in bite size pieces, just as I do with hotdogs. My dog is on a six foot leash and I remain stationary until he’s done sniffing that limited area, and looks up at me for his next cue and reinforcement opportunity.

I always ask for a stationary behavior before delivering sniff reinforcement, so we heeled up to each aromatic corner of the barn. I delivered a “sit” cue, and walked around my dog, and then rewarded with “okay, sniff!”

When you have a hundred pound Czech bred German Shepherd, the cost of food reinforcements can be substantial, and there I was, discovering that all I had a literally limitless supply of free sniff reinforcement!

Previously, I had been using “sniff” opportunities to teach loose leash walking. I used telephone poles and fire hydrants, along with a little food in between, which resulted in a somewhat variable delivery of reinforcement reinforcing nice leash walking behavior. It’s important to make a clear delineation between the end of cued performance and the beginning of the reinforcement opportunity, so I always ask for a stationary behavior, or at least some hand targets, before I deliver “sniff!” So we would heel, walk trott, and come to a halt near a potentially smelly spot. Today, I might cue another few behaviors, maybe sit pretty, hand targets and then reward with “go sniff!”

Part of my trick included head halter training. When you have a dog as powerful as mine, head halter training is essential for safety, both for me and for my dog. The head halter meant my dog couldn’t drag me around collecting sniff reinforcement whenever or where-ever he wanted. So my dog is completely comfortable and relaxed wearing a head halter (see https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PL1E6379E57F518AF0 ), and it helps me control sniff reinforcement, and deliver it after behaviors that I like.

But even if you have a tiny dog who doesn’t need a head halter, you can teach your dog to respond to sniff reinforcement the same way they respond to hotdog reinforcement. Rather than ignoring or pestering your dog when he is sniffing around, you need to anticipate his interest and start controlling and delivering “sniff” opportunities the same way you control and deliver food: intentionally, not accidentally, and immediately after behaviors that you LIKE.

As time has gone by, my dog has learned to glance towards things he would like to sniff, and then he look back at me, hoping I will give him an opportunity to earn the sniff. When I let him off-leash, I often say, “okay, go sniff!” and I think of those times as being his “sniff-meal” times, similar to the way he experiences food-meal times. He doesn’t ALWAYS have to work for sniffing reinforcement!

But when you use sniff as reinforcement, it means you really need to pay attention to your dog. You need your dog to trust that you understand what they want, and you will deliver. When your dog trusts you, they can ignore smelly sniffy stuff the same way they can ignore a bowl of meat on the floor, confident that you are going to deliver, and they don’t need to steal it.


My experiences with electric (underground or “invisible”) fences

I’ve never personally used an underground or “invisible fence.” I joke that I am the queen of gates, I love real fences, fences that don’t bite, fences that can support roses and clematis, pole beans and pumpkins.

But a lot of people sell them,  and plenty of students arrive, loath to tell me that they use these fences. But I’m shockingly good at being able to spot dogs who use these fences, even before the handlers tell me the stories.

One of my most important training Gurus, Susan Garrett, regularly repeats the phrase “sometimes could be any time” to warn us about the importance of consistency in training our dogs. Of course, when Susan says this, she’s not talking about aversives such as electric containment, she’s talking about the way we condition cues.  She’s saying, if sometimes your dog is rewarded for barging out the front door, or if sometimes you reinforce the dog who just broke his down stay with a run through the agility course, then that dog might expect that to happen other times. So we try to be as consistent as possible in training.  We want the dog to learn how we operate, sort of like the way you learn to operate the car. If you don’t have the key, it won’t go.  One pedal makes you go, the other makes you stop. If the rules of operation are unpredictably changing, that could make animals — including us — anxious, mentally ill, “neurotic.”

So I can see it when dogs have learned, “I could get zapped here, I could get zapped anywhere.” And this can change their whole relationship with the world.

For example, a pet owner wanted to introduce me to her yellow lab. I tried to start our visit as usual, with an off-leash romp, observing the dogs’ natural behavior in a hopefully relaxing, cheerful environment. But the handler released her leash, and her dog froze.

I asked, and they said yes, they’d installed an underground electric fence, not long ago, and walked around the property to show the dog where the “boundaries” were. Her dog seemed concerned we were about to show her some new boundaries.

Another person, with an adorable beagle, called seeking help because when the microwave “dinged,’ her dog was suddenly freaking out. It would run upstairs, frothing at the mouth, and cower under her bed.

“Did you recently install an electric fence?”  Yes. “Does it emit a warning tone?” Yes.

Another story — a Great Pyrenees had become terrified to get into the car. I asked if the family used electronic containment, and maybe drove their car through the fence-line with the dog in the car. Well yes, they had installed an underground “fence,” and left the collar on the dog when they took him for a ride, but “the fence company told us dogs don’t get the shock if they are inside the car.”

 Maybe you hear all this and think, these problems are not difficult to solve. Take the dog’s shock collar off before you go anywhere. Dogs can tell if they are wearing the collar or not.

Sure. But dogs know you apply the collar sometimes, and if you could do that sometimes, you could do anything anytime.

I don’t deny that some dogs seem to be old enough or infirm enough or scared enough to remain contained inside an underground fence, but it’s also true that many invisible things can go wrong.

With my visible fences, I can see when they need repair. And visible fences offer a bit of screening.  And they give dogs larger more sniff-able yards.

Perimeters are danger-zones for electronic-contained dogs. Invisible-fence installers might “train” with the dial on low, but a low-level shock would fail with high-level distractions, so they typically leave the collar set at a much higher level than the dog experiences in “training.” And if the dog trips -up strong shock while relaxing to sniff a dandelion, the dog may be truly frightened and find it difficult to relax in the yard after that.

 It’s scary to walk past dogs barking behind an invisible line.  It’s sad when dogs escape after wildlife and get hit by a car. Fortunately those things only happen “sometimes.”

What’s worse is the harm that happens every time. Dogs don’t know what your criteria is when you apply the collar. They weren’t doing anything wrong and they don’t know your good intentions. They just know, you did it.  You gave them a collar that bites.  You foolishly led them to get hurt. And if you might do that sometimes, you might not be entirely trustworthy any time.

Humane Board and Train

This link will bring you to a playlist of training sessions from this week’s board and train student, Piper.

You might be familiar with old fashioned “board and train,” where you ship a dog out of state, someone applies shock/prong/choke and sends the dog back to you, “broken,” a shadow of their former self. These gigs used to be sold in blocks of about ten days, for $2000, and it included the shock collar. If you’ve done this, I’d love to read your comments about what it cost and how it worked out, how your dog made out over the long haul. Usually these “board and train” lessons aren’t videotaped and it’s a sad mystery what transpires, but maybe you can imagine.

It might be harder to imagine how humane “board and training” works, so I thought I’d show you my videotapes of what I am doing this week to help an awesome, super intelligent collie who has been trying SO HARD to figure out how the world operates.

This doggie belongs to a Whole Dog Camp member, who will train with us forever I hope, but at least for the coming year. Training takes time, but even just one week of Whole Dog Camp style “board and training” offers learning opportunities that aren’t possible in hour long lessons, dog parks, kennels or daycares. Dogs are social creatures, and they benefit from having a training plan, in a habitat designed to facilitate safe socialization(gates, fields, and 24/7 social meat and potatoes).

A central feature of Piper’s plan was to help him learn to play. I enlisted the help of M’Ocean, nicknamed Dogzilla, who I hoped could put up with (and help discourage) Piper’s relentless herding. 100 pounds M’Ocean was muzzled during this process to ensure that no matter how annoying Piper’s herding behavior might sometimes be, M’Ocean wouldn’t puncture him for it.

I employed mat games and other strategies to help prevent practices of reactivity (screaming/barking) while still encouraging Piper to go on adventures. By Day 7, and Piper and M’Ocean both have earned the playmate of their dreams. Piper has also been exposed to 12 year old Bee and Piper is being super good about not bothering her at all. I just walked Piper through LLBean’s packed holiday celebrations, kids, dogs, crowds, and Piper was relaxed and didn’t make a peep! The next time he comes we will see how we can expand his social circle.

So no, we don’t use prong, choke, shock because that creates more anxious, stressed dogs. But Whole Dog Camp’s board and train is effective! The results of this sort of training cultivates a calmer, happier, more trusting and understanding canine companion.

Why head halters are an essential element of force free training…

Today I was at a dog-friendly beach, and I watched pet owners arrive with dogs on a variety of shoulder distorting harnesses. Some were front clip, some were back clip, some with literally hobbles wrapped around the front legs, some were not restrictive at all, and others were somewhere in-between.

I had my own dog on a head halter, because that’s the safe way for me to handle him. A family with a new german shepherd puppy arriving in a few weeks told me their plan: prong and shock. Why?

“I’ve heard that head halters can rub against the delicate nerves in the dog’s nose. I’m surprised your dog doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. With a prong, you can train the dog instantly, complete control.”

I really hate fake news, because the fake news about head halters is causing some people to resist this humane, gentle, effective training device, and instead choose devices that are proven to escalate aggression (prong/choke/shock), cause injuries and deformities in canines (restrictive harnesses and flat collars), or result in injuries to human handlers (flat collars and harnesses in general). So here is my rant to hopefully counter the disinformation that is out there about head halters.

1. Unlike other gear, head halter trainers learn upon purchase that we must condition dogs to voluntarily accept a head halter. It’s not about force nor hobbling. The process we use to teach dogs to be led with a head halter helps trainers understand dogs better, and become better, more compassionate, trainers.

2. It’s easier/safer to handle a big strong dog because they don’t have so much leverage. This is a geometry thing, not a nerve thing.

Trained german shepherd, leashed with head halter.

3. Yes, there are nerves all over a dog’s body. Armpits, shoulders, ribs are especially ticklish and sensitive. The vagus nerve is in the chest and the body harness makes it difficult to access the dog’s chest to stroke the dog’s chest. Head halters rest on the hard part of the skull, and they don’t compress any soft tissue, and you can read down and scratch your dog’s chest whenever you want, nothing is in the way.

Caught my dog reacting on a head halter, you can see how he it helps me redirect him to away from the surprise dog.

4. Dogs gradually outgrow the need for headhalters, so why does it seem like people use restrictive body harnesses even when dogs are off duty? Maybe because it’s hard to get some harnesses on and off? While pet owners understand they need to condition dogs to wear the head halter, pet owners often don’t understand that they shouldn’t just slap on a body harness and start walking and tugging the dog around.

4 Head halters can gently turn the dogs head away from a distraction. When a dog is on a body harness, if the handler is trying to guide a dog away from a reactivity situation, they are pulling the dog’s whole body, while the dog’s head is still staring at the distraction.

5. You never need to pull on a dog in a head halter, you can just move your hand so you are holding the leash beside the dog’s face. That’s it, now the dog has no leverage. Whereas if the dog is on a body harness and starts to react, even if you move your hand to hold the leash beside the dog, the dog can pull you down or drag you.

6. I use harnesses for skijoring and tracking so harnesses cue pulling and sniffing. A head halter is very different and helps dogs be clearer about what we’re doing.

Opposition reflex in action: body harnesses restrict soft tissue and can contribute to musculoskeletal injuries and disorders, in both animals!

7. It’s so easy to carry a head halter in my pocket, put it on and off, and only use it if I am in an environment or situation where I need the extra safety that a head halter allows. My dogs have noticed a pattern where if they pull on the flat collar, I’ll put the head halter on them. Sometimes it seems like they actually WANT to be on a head halter, they want mommy to hold their hand! It’s conditioned relaxation, so the head halter reassures, I am in charge, and they don’t need to worry about anything in the environment.

Should I use food in dog training?

M’Ocean enjoying the food at a party, using a snufflemat!

This is a question I am often asked, and I see the question online as well. And no wonder: how often do we see “The Dog Whisperer” using food on his program?

But truthfully, if you “don’t want to use food,” your dog will die. You are going to “use food,” and every time you do, your dog will learn something about how the world operates, and how s/he can operate the world. F

In behavior science terminology, food is a primary reinforcer. That means, we are born with an instinctive drive to get food, and so the delivery of food reinforces (ie strengthens) whatever behavior happened right before the food was delivered. Other primary reinforcers for dogs are freedom, physical comfort, opportunities to sniff, hunt, play, socialize. Eventually, we will learn to use ALL of these primary (plus secondary) reinforcers to shape the behaviors of our dogs.

See one of my dogs laying nicely on a mat, in a quiet down-stay in a busy dog training hall? That’s my dog, “begging at the table,” except there is no table and the cue isn’t me sitting down at a table with a plate of food. The cue is the mat, and the context of where we are and what we’re doing, and they know if they lay there (you could call that “beg”) long enough, the wait will be rewarded.

Why is it that people often “don’t want to use food,”but they aren’t as reluctant to punish? Maybe food is inconvenient? Instead of delivering treats, Cesar Milan says “fsst!”, and then he uses (and sells) pinch/prong/shock/choke, and if you watch enough episodes with the sound turned off, you’ll see him choking, twisting a dog’s ear, or delivering his famous swift kick to the ribs (no close ups of that). But no food.

Use of force or punishment is reinforcing to us. It makes us feel powerful as we can see an immediate impact, it creates an illusion of control or success, but what we don’t see immediately is the longterm impacts. Using force and punishment builds uncertainty into dogs. It stimulates reluctance or resistance, avoidance in our pet, when what we really want is to get them to participate.

And just so we’re on the same page, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists just came out with a position paper, reflecting decades of research, that reinforcement based training is the most effective way to resolve any behavior problem. https://avsab.org/resources/position-statements/ .

So, learning how to most effectively, efficiently use food, as well as other reinforcers, is a key component of understanding how to train any animal. Food is not the only primary reinforcer. Freedom and movement, physical comfort, are also a primary reinforcers that pet owners dish out arbitrarily, unconsciously delivering reinforcement when dogs are barking at the door, pulling at the leash, or otherwise misbehaving.

Learning how to use food and freedom, as well as secondary (learned) reinforcers, such as toys, games, cues, allows dogs to become confident in how the world works. Instead of avoiding you (or Cesar’s “sst” which he often follows with a swift kick to the ribs or off camera ear pinch), your dog is orienting to you, and offering you behaviors that s/he knows will help the dog get where or what he wants. You’re working with your dog, instead of just trying to control your dog.

Using food consciously in dog training is like teaching your dog how to drive you, like you’d teach a kid to drive a car: this is always your gas pedal, and this is always brake. And the car doesn’t go by itself, you need to have the key and you need to know how to start, stop and steer the car. You need to know the rules. If you don’t know how to use primary and secondary reinforcers, but instead deliver reinforcers with a sprinkle of punishers haphazardly throughout the day, that would be like trying to teach someone how to drive when red sometimes means go. If you aren’t consciously aware of reinforcement and how you are using it, your dog will be confused about how to successfully operate your world.

Bottom line: yeah, you are going to use food. It’s impossible to avoid “using food.” So the bigger question is, do you know HOW to use food? That’s where we begin.

About Cesar Milan, Master Illusionist

“I’m so glad I’m not Cesar Milan’s dog.”

Cesar Milan has a new program coming out on National Geographic, so I thought it was time to update my opinion on his methods. I watched this program, and it had many of the features of past versions of his show, with some new surprises. https://youtu.be/Wm66HLT2j3E

Cesar Milan isn’t always wrong. After some legal and personal troubles ( https://www.bphope.com/cesar-millan-discusses-his-depression/) it seems he did take some training classes and supplement his so-called “natural” (“magical”) ability with dogs with some actual education. In this show and in some other examples, he is acknowledging fearfulness more often (whereas in the past he was often labeling it “aggression.”). But this is still all about entertainment playing off fear of dogs, and it employs his regular techniques.

  1. Violence. It’s not Cesar Milan without a dog fight and/or bite, amirite?!? Bad animal handling makes for exciting videos. If there’s not a dog fight, some sort of blood (dental surgery?) ! But don’t try this at home. And not at my place either.
  2. Editing to create a more dramatic storyline. Dun dun dun dun dun dun Hear the scary drum beat? and narration to make you feel this is a SERIOUSLY dangerous dog? It’s a golden retriever for crying out loud! But Milan manages to set up an aggressive incident so the viewer is wowed. First, he shows Leon with one dog, no reaction. Then, he’s got a dog fight a minute later. Milan says this is because the woman is in the picture, but the fight involves a different dog, and also Milan has brought toys ( a ball and a ball launcher) into the pen. We don’t know really what’s caused the fight, but we know Milan needed fight footage for his dog show.
  3. He blames the woman, and her emotions. A consistent feature of Dog Whisperer episodes is editing to make women look like idiots, frequently playing clown music, but in this case playing a “danger danger” drumbeat. This makes it appear that her concern is A. wrong and B. the cause of the aggression. But look again. Competition over toys can often cause a dog fight. And we know that resource guarding is a common cause of this type of aggression. The woman knows her dog. But as usual, Milan doesn’t give advice about resource guarding, he takes no responsibility and offers no apologies. He delivers pop-psychology and congratulates himself for “stopping the fight before any dogs were hurt.” They even title this episode “Stopping a dog fight” because, it titling it “Cesar Causes another Dog Fight” wouldn’t sell as many ads.
  4. Milan hides the ear twist. I saw the ear twist at 3:28. Did you? Funny that he doesn’t talk about that, but in past episodes I’ve seen him, on camera, deliver very swift kick to the ribs. Usually, he chokes dogs. And now this ear twist. Who knows what other techniques he employs on the dogs off-camera? https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2224252/Yes-I-dogs-electric-shocks-use-spike-chokers–Im-NOT-cruel-says-Hollywoods-favourite-pet-guru-Cesar-Millan.html That little “sst sst” intimidation sound he makes? It’s a warning, and Milan follows up on that. So, whatever you think about using punishment, he isn’t talking honestly and openly about these techniques on camera. Viewers are led to believe it’s just calm authoritative male energy that is subduing the REALLY DANGEROUS (not really) dog. But, the ear twist, kick in the ribs, choke and off-camera zaps mean that the relationship Milan is growing with the dogs isn’t a friendly one.

So I’ve seen all that before but there are some new twists to the “dog psychologist” schtick. This is the first time I’ve seen him traumatizing and injuring other species. Actually he calls it “herding” at 7:40 and then he takes that back, “not herding, just sheep and Lorenzo.” I’d call it chasing.

“Leon has been getting into fight after fight since he’s been here.” (whoa. And you’re still in business?!) “I want to give him a new job.” Show this to anyone you know who keeps sheep or lamas. The dog chases the animals and Milan is pleased at the dramatic shot of the terrified lama colliding, bash!, with the camera man. “Camera alright? You got a good shot there.” And then the dog is given another opportunity to chase, which he does until he is exhausted. Again, Milan treats the owner like she’s an idiot and applauds his mistreatment of the animals, asking her, “Have you ever seen herding?” The right answer would be, “No, Cesar, have you?” Because apparently not. How in God’s name is this produced by National Geographic?

Dogs Act Nice When They Feel Nice

M’Ocean became a lot more intense as he hit full maturity at 3 years old. The best way I can explain it is, he became more like a wolf. Yeah he’s got his Rally Obedience levels one and two but his 95 pounds of serious intact male German Shepherd was making it too risky for me to ever let him off leash in the real world.

Recently, after A horrible thing happened I started my new “adult dog” training plan by neutering him. The testicles have been gone three weeks, and I’m already beginning to notice some improvement in his energy and frustration level. I’m also grooming him daily. I’ve always noticed that dog cuddling and brushing is good for “gentling” dogs and now science can explain how friendly human’s gentle petting and grooming of dogs helps cultivate the cuddly friendly hormones. https://news.arizona.edu/story/hormone-could-be-making-your-dog-aggressive

And, after addressing the hormones, I’m harnessing his really big mouth. M’Ocean’s dog social environments have mostly been indoors or on leash. Outdoors, I’ve been cautious about socializing off-leash, as M’Ocean’s so powerful, he can easily overwhelm every dog we’ve ever seen. He’s done well in big groups, on this beach, when he was younger. Wearing a muzzle, and getting neutered for him is sort of like a golfer’s handicap. It knocks him down to size so he can’t lord over all the citizenry, at least, not with his mouth. And I don’t want him barking at other dogs or reacting, I’m going to wait until these dogs doing this stuff on the beach is old news, where he can just hang out and watch and feel bored, and then I’ll let him onto the beach. Check in here if you want to see how it goes, I’ll post what I try and how his dog-social behavior changes. Everything is always changing, right? Nothing stays the same, it’s either getting better or getting worse. He could still knock some over or squash another dog, but on a muzzle, he can’t bite. Disarming teeth can slowly open a new world of safer social possibilities for dogs and handlers.

I got this muzzle from ETSY (excellent buy! Bespoke Premium Leather Muzzle, listing #565458786) about one week ago. It’s made of woven leather, very strong, with little metal rivets. I lubed it with a little petroleum jelly. M’Ocean can eat, drink, bark, swim and (most importantly) SNIFF and practice tracking in it! Having a super comfortable muzzle helps dogs feel relaxed and “normal” while wearing it. They are just exactly what I was hoping to find!

Dogs act nice when they feel nice. Conditioning a friendly (Oxytocin) emotional response in connection with dog/dog social interactions takes time, and kindness. Some trainers get faster submission by conditioning intimidation, but unhappy emotional responses have many unhappy side effects! At three and a half years, M’Ocean is still a young dog. Dogs can live to be 15 years or older. This is still just the beginning of M’Ocean’s adventures with me.


I’ve trained quite a few dangerous dogs to wear muzzles, but I’ve never trained my own dogs to wear muzzles. If you read my last post, “A Horrible Thing Happened,”https://wholedogcamp.org/2021/07/01/a-horrible-thing-happened/ you know why I am training M’Ocean to wear a muzzle now.

Like most people, I thought, if I got my dog as a tiny puppy, from a responsible breeder, socialized him and trained him and socialized and trained some more, my dog would never be dangerous dogs. Wishful thinking is dangerous when it comes to our dogs.

Training helps prevent dangerous behaviors, and petting, grooming, stroking your dog can increase his level of oxytocin and make dogs less dangerous, but some dogs naturally produce less oxytocin than others https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/why-are-some-dogs-aggressive-hormones.

Fortunately, properly muzzled dogs can’t bite. It allows you to more safely socialize, train and travel with your dog, and it allows the dog to pant, drink water, bark, eat treats and even to push around balls and other toys! But a muzzled dog can’t bite, puncture, or pick up and toss a dachshund. A muzzled dog is far, far, far less dangerous than an unmuzzled dog. Here is a video showing how a very dog aggressive dog’s behavior changes when they are disarmed with a muzzle. https://youtu.be/xCEx6pn4W6s

But if the dog isn’t wearing one during the time that you need it or if the dog is able to push the muzzle off his face? It won’t work. A safe muzzle doesn’t interfere with vision or the natural movements of panting, breathing, eating, drinking. It has a forehead strap so the dog can’t push it off his face, and the part that goes around the skull is very snug, so the dog can’t possibly get out of it. Fitting the muzzle can take a week. Often I’ve bought two or three muzzles, and punched new holes in the straps, to get the fit just right.

Basket muzzles can be so comfortable and well ventilated that a dog can wear them all day long. If you have a dog who might jump up and pop you in the face with it, a plastic, rubber or silicon type is better than wire. We condition the dog to love it as with a head halter. Chirag Patel made a great muzzle training video, so I’ll just share that with you here. My only added comment is that you do need a forehead strap, especially if your dog has a history of knowing how to push a head halter off his nose. https://youtu.be/1FABgZTFvHo

The part of the muzzle that goes around the skull needs to be very snug. Often times, when I fit a muzzle, the head strap stretches and loosens over a few days and I need to keep punching new holes to tighten. You shouldn’t be able to fit any fingers under the strap that fits on the back of the skull, but the basket itself needs to be loose enough for the dog to open his mouth, bark, pant, drink water, eat treats. Here are some examples of muzzles that many dogs can wear comfortably all day long. Do you have a favorite muzzle?



Why I don’t cue “leave it.”

Why I don’t teach or use “leave it.”

  1. Because it’s doesn’t tell the dog what you DO want him to do. It’s a concept that is frustrating and confusing to dogs.
  2. Because it can make the “leave it” item seem more valuable.
  3. Because what will the dog do when you’re not looking? Sneak?
  4. Because when I train a “drop it” cue, I can teach them to “drop it” in a basket or on a target or in my hand. When I cue “this way” I can use it in agility.
  5. For all the same reasons we never use a “leave it” cue in agility.
  6. Because people get grouchy/punitive when they say “leave it” and they typically don’t reward the dog even if he leaves it.
  7. It they DO reward the dog they are often rewarding a problem behavior chain.(IE: the dog digs at the garbage in order to get a “leave it” cookie from you.)
  8. Because when the default behavior is “wait for permission” we don’t need to say “leave it.”
  9. Because when your dog is trained to get reinforcement from YOU, you don’t need to say leave it.
  10. Cuing “leave it” is a lose/lose game.

Anything I should add to the list?

Why I avoid saying “leave it!” (part one)

I’ll add my two cents in the ranks of trainers who don’t create a “leave it” cue that means, “here is a thing you want to have and I’m not going to let you have it.”

Ideally the cue “leave it,” would signal a reinforcement opportunity (just like “sit” “down,” “water,” and all our other cues). “Reinforcement” based trainers train it by rewarding the dog for “leaving it.” But how does this “leave it” cue function when we’re not training it, but when we’re actually using it? How is our tone of voice when we say “leave it ?” What if you don’t happen to have a chunk of steak in your pocket when you are cuing your dog to “leave it” the steak on the plate?

If we’re teaching a dog a verbal cue that tells them “you can’t have a thing you want,” no matter that we are delivering food reinforcement during training, we’re associating a cue with negative punishment during real life. The function of punishment is to cause behavior to shrink, and in this case, that’s what we’re hoping will happen. When we train “leave it,” the idea behind the lesson is to get the dog’s inappropriate behaviors around stuff they shouldn’t have to shrink. There are two types of punishment. “Negative punishment” is when an animal can’t have something they want, and “positive punishment” is when something aversive such as pain, discomfort, fear is added immediately after a behavior. So “leave it” seems to be associated with negative punishment. But both types of punishment have problem side effects, because dogs can (and generally do) seek to avoid punishment through escape, avoidance, stealthiness, aggression. And if we aren’t there to say “leave it?” Goodbye cheese platter?

Saying “leave it,” points out reinforcement the dog can’t have. For many dogs, the cue just creates a “forbidden fruit” that they will take when you aren’t looking. It can stimulate anxiety and frustration that can actually prolong the growth of undesirable behaviors!

Instead, what if I teach my dogs to trust, and relax and know that I am always on their side. What if, instead of drawing attention to opportunities they can’t have, I can teach them to search for and focus on opportunities they CAN have?

I like it when my dogs alert me to “interesting things” in the environment. We train in tracking, and SAR games, we go on adventures. My dogs’ senses help alert me to things our environment. Their focus (just like our own) is driven by the CONTEXT of what we are doing. I don’t want to draw attention to things they’re “leaving”. It’s want them to focus on what they are being cued to DO.

M’Ocean’s first party (at Peggy Dwyer’s!) So much good stuff!

My dogs think I’m a billionaire. They get everything they need from me. Distractions cue my dogs to check in with me. I don’t need to say “leave it.” I really notice this out on the trails, where thanks to our regular deliveries of reinforcements around surprises (BEFORE my dogs make a mistake), now my young dog senses something unfamiliar and looks at me (alerts me) with a face that says “what prize might this environmental surprise earn me today?” I don’t need to say “leave” anything because the distraction IS the cue.

Susan Garrett’s “It’s Yer Choice” games are genius, you should google, learn that game and follow her. Learning in “layers” (as she terms it) means dogs learn to focus on searching for reinforcement through you. I think of it as like learning how to drive a car. They know how you operate. Increasingly, I am able to leave treats all over the place. I don’t need to guard the treats. My dogs will choose to “operate me” (ie: perform behaviors I like) because it’s easier and plenty fun to get what they want from me rather than from chasing squirrels. This morning I had a big bag of homemade dog treats, all morning on the counter, easily within reach. I didn’t need to prompt “leave it.” I have bags of fish skins. The dogs wait for me to invent a fun reason to give it to them.

Every once in a while, I’ll need to tell my dog to “drop it,” or “go lay down,” or “off.” Those are behaviors you can picture, right? You could draw a picture of a dog performing any one of those behaviors. But the phrase “leave it” is abstract. Try to draw a picture of that. What does “leave it” behavior look like in “real life?” Different every time? If the dog grabs the crust of bread off the table, and you cue “leave it,” doesn’t it seem like the “leave it” cue is delivered late, after the dog has already made a mistake? Or if you delivered it just before the dog takes the toast, isn’t it drawing attention to something that you’d rather the dog ignore?

That’s a cue I don’t need.

I changed my mind.

So I called my veterinarian this morning and said, “I changed my mind.” I’m not going to get M’Ocean neutered — not yet, anyway. Here’s my reasoning (and I maintain the right to change my mind AGAIN).

M’Ocean doesn’t go around marking or humping pillows or blankets. He does sometimes get overly excited around other dogs, where it seems like he would like to hump them. Recently when a sweet playful spayed german shepherd came running over to him and dived directly underneath him, he wrapped his arms around her and started humping. It wasn’t a dog fight, but she was pinned and it scared her. He let her go, he didn’t hurt her, but I guess that was the event that made me think, I want to make training easier.

And unfortunately, neutering might not make training easier. At least, not for my dog. I see plenty of neutered dogs who get very excited when they see other dogs. Learning how to play, especially when you’re the biggest strongest dog on the playground, takes time. He does best in a large group, and this pretty dog diving into his arms was a pretty big challenge! But M’Ocean is increasingly showing self control around distractions.

My guess is that testosterone levels will naturally decrease as he hits five years old and 6. Maybe we’ve already been through the worst of his hormones.

When M’Ocean was 11 months old, an older intact dog at a dog Canine Musical Freestyle event jumped over the ring gates, landed on M’Oceans neck, sent him flying and left him with a shoulder injury that took a few months and about $1000 to heal. Yeah, I still am upset about it, because the event organizers seemed to blame M’Ocean, as though it happened because he was intact. But the dog’s owner told me her dog is “an asshole,” and he had a history of repeated bad behavior. So, unprovoked attacks happen to neutered dogs too. And now M’Ocean is 3 and he is 90 lbs of confident, socially experienced, mature, ballsy dog. A dog, maybe even a coyote, would think carefully before jumping a dog that looks like M’Ocean does now.

So I’m thinking, if I’m going to have to keep on training him and being wary of coyotes ANYWAY, if neutering isn’t a guaranteed resolution of the typical behavior challenges I face in owning a large imposing looking working dog, then I might as well focus on training and see how far I can get with that. I will re-evaluate in the fall.

Keeping his natural hormones for just a few extra months, while he is still building muscle and bone in agility, that has some health advantages. It’s a lot of responsibility, but if I can handle and manage him safely, there are some real health benefits, protections for his bones, brains and muscle, associated with keeping him intact a bit longer. He is becoming more “conscious,” more of a real “thinking” dog every month. There are other options, such as chemical (temporary) castration, or a vasectomy. I have time to do some research. He’s a LARGE dog to be running in agility. He needs to be in peak physical condition. So, about that neutering? Not yet. I changed my mind.

Neutering my German Shepherd

I’m going to do it. Actually (remembering my childhood, where our family actually gelded our own pony, and it was common in those days to do that, maybe it still is, with elastic bands) I’m not going to do it, but my veterinarian is going to do it. She’s also going to do a gastropexy while she is at it, hopefully protecting him from torsion/bloat risk.

It’s hard to decide to neuter a dog. With Tigerlily, I waited til she was 3 years old. She was a rare breed (barbet) and in spite of how shy and prey driven she was, how she was really smaller than her siblings, I held onto that dumb desire to maybe breed her til she was three years old. She had a pretty miserable spaying procedure. Poor Tiger. I slept with her, holding a hot water bottle on her incision that night, and that helped. I wished I had spayed her earlier. Surgery doesn’t get easier as they get older.

M’Ocean is 3 years old too now. I am getting him neutered because I am realizing, I never want to breed him. I guess it takes me 3 years to realize that. Too many people use shock/prong/choke on these dogs and I don’t have a long list of people I would trust who want a GSD puppy. Also, a shock collar to teach him to avoid sexy coyotes seems like a worse training plan than neutering. As Denise Fenzi said, “If someone told me I could never eat another meal again, and there was a way to get rid of my craving for food, it seems like a no-brainer.”

M’Ocean is fully mature. 94 lbs. He’s basically a very confident assertive funny and friendly dog. I hate to do invasive things, but being a dog owner is invasive. Leash walking is invasive. The dog/human symbiotic relationship is as invasive as the hills. That dog has already left the doghouse. We’ve domesticated and changed dogs and we continue to do that.

It’s weird. Weird to have dogs who really feel like they are part of the family. My dogs feel like they are humans, kinda. They seem to believe I am their mom, or their Guru. They worship me, kinda. They aren’t looking to start another family. Well… my spayed older dog Bee is DEFINITELY not looking to start another family, but if I let M’Ocean spend a few days out in the woods this week, especially if I left bowls of food, probably he would go start another family, unless the male coyotes killed him first. But he’s living a good life amongst the humans, and in general he seems satisfied and well adapted to this domesticated dog arrangement.

I’ll let you know how it goes, and if neutering him changes anything in our lives, in good or bad ways. It’s going to cost me maybe $1000.00 which is just one more aspect of the ordeal. I really don’t like doing it, but after thinking it through, our risk versus benefit analysis, neutering him feels like the more responsible, safe, smart thing to do. And then next year, when we are hiking the Appalachian trail, I won’t have to worry quite so much about the dangerous ways sex hormones can influence coyote and dog behavior.

Why did you get a dog?

Lion with Matilda, a guest dog.

One day, I was upstairs writing and Dandylion was downstairs barking. I did NOT want to answer the door. I said “thank you!” several times, and finally, sighing, I went downstairs to see what the dog was barking at.

He was staring at the woodstove, barking his head off. The temperature gauge on the stovepipe was far above the dangerous red line. Chimney fire! Apparently a chimney fire makes noise! Who knew?!? I shut down the stove, gave Lion leftover chicken, called the fire department.

If Dandylion had been “obedient,” he would have shut up the first instant I said “thank you.” And the house might have burnt down, with me in it!

Canine eyes, ears, sense of smell are different than ours. Dogs can understand and do and know things that we can’t do or know. I like that. I want my dogs to trust me enough that they can disagree with me sometimes, and tell me what they know.

Once, we were fixing an old boat on a dock in Puerto Rico. It was nighttime, we were sleeping when Tigerlily started going nuts. I guessed feral cats, and told her “Thank you!” But she kept on barking, waking up the whole marina, racing up on deck, staring into the water, so I had no choice, I had get up. And oh look, there’s a teenager in snorkle gear getting ready to steal our dinghy! Good girl Tigerlily. Another time she woke us up barking because a junked ghost ship had broken off a mooring and was drifting up, about to smash into us. I learned to appreciate the value of seemingly “naughty” (confident, independent, communicative) behaviors.

Another time, I was renting out the house we’d built for extra summer income, and we were living in a nearby funky cabin. Our renter came to our gate needing some sort of assistance, and my dog Bee (this is well after Lion had passed away) went nuts, barking at the guy. How embarrassing! That’s my paying client! I’m afraid I spoke sharply to her. Stop that! Sit! So Bee gives me a look, but she is a good girl and she sits, I open the gate and the guy falls through, grabbing me on his way down, drunk as a skunk. Fortunately my husband was home and came out to see what the commotion was all about, but I apologized to Bee, and vowed never again to disrespect her when she was trying to tell me something.

Bee with my granddaughter.

Many many years before these dogs, I had a wonderful smooth coated St. Bernard, Sampson. I was working double shifts dispatching emergency services at a police department 4 pm til 8 am, and during the day me and Sampson would go to the local pond. I’d swim and sleep and he would just hang out, sleeping beside me, good as gold. One day I woke up and he was barking, I’ve never before or since heard barking like that, it was more like ROARING, circling around me.

I looked up to see three men headed towards me, with shovels on their shoulders. They were actually headed towards a little cranberry bog dike that was on the other side of me, to shovel it out. I tried to take Sampson’s collar, but he wouldn’t let me touch him. He just pranced in a circle around me, daring them to take one step closer. The workmen were forced to veer off, a big detour. My dog didn’t settle down til he saw them starting to shovel out the dike.

So, while I compete and train in obedience, I appreciate some “dis-obedience” in my dogs! Brains are good. I don’t want dogs to stop thinking. I try to help them develop their brains. I try to be more like their guru, and less like a prison guard.

If we are going to work or play together effectively, they need to trust and understand me. I need to understand them. So I’m not so much aiming to “command” them around , but we’re building skills so we can share a better life. I have dogs because there are things we can know and do with dogs that we could never do without dogs. Why do you have your dogs?

Whose fault is it? (dogs need space)

[I found this in my diary from several years ago.]

My 12 year old dog, Tigerlily, shocked me. We were coming in to port on our dinghy and I had two dogs on leashes, still wearing life jackets. I let both my dogs jump off the dinghy, and as I was still holding their leashes, this helps hold the dinghy to the dock, and gets the dogs out of my way, and helps me get up onto the dock as we tie the dinghy up  and disembark.

Just after the dogs jumped onto the dock (still on leash) I saw an old man approaching, walking along the narrow dock. I was fairly discombobulated, hanging onto the leashes of my dogs (who were eager to get off the dock and go pee!) and balancing myself as I tried to get off the dinghy and onto the dock. I assumed the gentleman was going to give me a second to get all the way off the dinghy and untangle myself and my dogs, but he just kept walking, passing right over my two excited dogs. Tigerlily, who has lots and lots of training, many hours of experience providing pet assisted therapy to children, sick, and elderly, jumped as he passed, grabbed his pants leg and apparently also nipped at his hand. I saw the pants grab, not the hand nip, but the gentleman showed me blood.

It was a scratch not a puncture, but it was not okay. I apologized profusely, and the gentleman fortunately accepted my apologies. He said, “My brother was a dog trainer, and so I know, it’s not your fault. I’ll just put a bandaid on it.”

That was generous of him. He wasn’t looking to blame, not looking to be “right,” not looking to add insult to injury. It was kind, honest to admit that he shouldn’t have walked so fast and close to unfamiliar dogs who can’t get away from him on a rickety dock.

And I don’t want to apologize so much that the old guy decides now I owe him money, or that my dog deserved to be treated as a dangerous dog, but it was really my fault. There is liability and risk in connection with dog ownership. If gun owners were required to handle their dangerous weapons as responsibly as dog owners must handle our sometime lunkheaded dogs, guns would need to be a lot cuter.

When Tigerlily jumped up and nipped, she was less than three feet away from me, on a leash. Twenty five pounds. The dock itself is only four feet wide. Offloading in a place they had never been before, Tigerlily was getting old and blind and deaf. Me too. Probably the stranger, too. He appeared out of nowhere, rushing and stressing us in an already somewhat wobbly situation.  

He suddenly invaded the space of unfamiliar dogs and humans, but still  I could have looked up, said a loud clear, “STOP!”  And I should have scouted the docks more carefully before off-loading.

After the incident, I was anxious for the rest of the day, just waiting for that man to come to my boat, and label me and my old poodle. I was so upset and ashamed, I felt like such a failure, that I imagined saying, “Here. She’s your dog now. Here’s the list of words she understands. Here’s a bag of dog food. Just take her and do whatever you think is best!”

But in spite of how dog/human social interactions can be challenging, anxiety provoking, dangerous, we keep on keeping our dogs. Humans and dogs continue to make mistakes. I’ve had off-leash dogs charge and bark at me and my dogs, I’ve had a sweet old black lab on a beach bite me pretty badly when I tried to get back my $15 Planet dog ball.

What bothered me about the dock incident was that I was right there, I had my dogs ON leash, I imagined my dogs were safe, but an accident happened anyway.

The best way to prevent dog bites or nips, no matter how well trained the dog, is to keep plenty of safe space around our dogs. Practice saying, “Stop! My dog needs more space!” Say it with a smile! Or try “Stop! My dog doesn’t want to be so close.” Even if our dog MIGHT do perfectly great, there are risks. Maybe our dogs need more space, and also more TIME.

Can we recognize those dangerous moments where our dogs are being pressured by other dogs or people?

Most dog bites come as a big surprise! And whether it’s a bite or scratch, knocking someone over, muddying clothes or just creating a scare, it’s OUR fault. We chose this responsibility. It’s up to us to do everything we can to prevent accidents.

Dogs Learning. No rush.

Training social skills is a little bit different for every dog. My 94 lb German Shepherd Dog (working and tracking lines) M’Ocean just turned three years old, ready to compete and earn more ribbons in rally, and start entering agility and tracking events. With warm ups and slow introductions, he often, but not always, displays amazing social skills. He loves people, he’s lovey dovey with my grandchildren. He’s gentle with guest puppies and dogs, he plays nice in big dog groups, he herds my ducks without harming a feather, but sometimes, when he’s leashed in the park, especially if another dog is staring at him , he’ll bark intensely at the other dog.

And in general, no one wants to see your german shepherd tell another dog off. German shepherd dog barks sound like a five alarm fire drill, extremely threatening, loud and scary. And even when M’Ocean is desperate to be friendly, 94 lbs of friendly german shepherd is more friendly than many people or dogs want.

There are many things on my training plan, upocoming rally and agility events, tracking events, some freestyle tricks I want to train, titles I want to collect. But nothing is more important than having a dog that won’t embarrass me (or scare/hurt anyone else). This is also true for dog owners in general, amirite?

So here’s where I stand with my “social” training plan. At the park, where lots of dogs are popping out everywhere, some on leash, and some off leash, I’m going “back to kindergarten.” That means, I will make lessons easier, clearer, train closer to the car for a while. That way, if M’Ocean whines or makes a small mistake, I can deliver a friendly consequence, and pop him back in the car. I don’t want to get myself in a situation where I have to keep on giving him a lovely walk in spite of the fact he just yanked the leash or barked at the off-leash dog. I want to be prepared to show him very clearly which behaviors earn more “privileges” and which behaviors mean he’s going “back to the car.”

We can measure our training progress partly by what gear the dog requires, and which environments are more comfortable and easy for your dog to be successful. My GSD is 3 years old now, and still at kindergarten (head halter) training level in many environments. As my goal is to have my dog become comfortable and reliably responsive off-leash in almost any environment, I need to progress training, and start practicing flat collar in more environments. For clarity sake, as well as safety sake, when he’s on a flat collar, I need to stay near a car or crate, so that if he’s naughty, I can stop the game. When my dog is responding well on a head halter around the car, and not reacting there even when other dogs cross the parking lot, then I can practice a bit on his flat collar. If he makes mistakes, I can put him in the car (or we could bring crates), and put his head halter back on. When he’s not making mistakes on his flat collar, then I practice long line games, and build some distance control, practicing stationary behaviors, and sending him to the car, and adding duration and distractions. Reinforcing crate games in the park may provide more confidence and clarity than all the frustrating not-loose leash walks in the world. Do you see how this delivery of incremental freedom, in responses to self control, can progress to great off-leash skills?

Yes it takes time, but if you don’t want to train, why did you get a dog? With my old dog Tigerlily, who was a super shy, very prey driven reactive barbet, it took me SIX YEARS! Partly, my second dog Bee helped me supervise Tigerlily, but as she hit about 5 years old, though she liked kitties more than dogs as “friends,” her visible reactivity went completely away. I brought her everywhere. I flew several times with her, she provided pet assisted therapy at Spring Harbor Hospital in the pediatric psychiatric unit (often outside in the playground with kids). Tiger and Bee sailed thousands of miles with us, from Puerto Rico to Maine, Maine to the Bahamas and back, visiting many classrooms along the way. The two of them were amazing, fun and easy, off leash on the beach, even around chickens and lizards! Just because your dog isn’t there now, doesn’t mean he never will be. We grow these skills. Tigerlily died at 16. My dog Bee is 11 now. She rarely needs a leash. M’Ocean is 3. Just three. Of course, he’s still learning how to handle his 94 lbs of energy. It takes time, and planning, for dogs to really trust and understand your guidance.

Moving skills forward means remembering that when I go out in public, I am rewarding self control and responsiveness with privileges and freedom. And if he’s being a whiny prancing overly excited pain in the butt, he’s going back in the car.

I have an airbnb guest staying in our training suite, and last night, M’Ocean opened the door and walked in, visiting the guest and his dog. Fred was like, oh wow. Big dog! And his dog Molly was like oh wow! Sexy! But there was no barking or hysteria, it was super friendly and funny interaction, M’Ocean scouted the room, they sniffed and wagged, Mo grabbed Molly’s dog toy and left! It’s a “good sign” when we see calm friendly dog/dog interactions. I’ve got to give Molly and Fred credit for handling the surprise with aplomb! But they had seen each other previously, out in the yard, across the gate, and so now he was walking around treating her like a member of the family.

Slow social experiences are good. Like humans, dogs do best when they get to know dogs a little bit at a time. People often hate the slow growth, we all want quicker fixes, but quick fixes tend to come with side effects. If we can relax and accept where our dogs are TODAY, and not worry about the fact that they still need to get to tomorrow, maybe that can make the learning process feel less fraught. Oh I just thought of a good thing to put on our blackboard in front of the farm stand. “Dogs Learning. No rush.”

Why do people teach their dogs to pull on the leash?

There are some good reasons, but mostly, people train leash pulling by accident. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it often does, that leash pulling is not a “natural” behavior. It’s a learned behavior.

Okay, how do you teach a dog to pull on a leash? You see something that the dog wants to investigate or reach, put the dog on the leash and then hold some tension on the leash as the dog charges to the prize. Over time, each practice session you should hold more and more tension in the leash as the dog runs, now dragging you, to the prize! Well done! Dogs will learn to drag almost any amount of weight to get to a prize.

What’s the prize? Well, where does the dog “arrive” when he pulls you? Where’s he going? Often, my dog is in a hurry to poop. Or to smell where a dog or mouse or interesting event has occurred. Dogs are frequently attempt to drag their handler through the main gate, entering Whole Dog Camp.

If you actually DON’T want to train your dog to be a world class leash puller, practice loose leash walking indoors, grow your early “loose” leash walking skills in environments where most of the reinforcement is associated with YOU, around with lower intensity distractions. Train the head halter and loose leash walk on the head halter from one “pot o gold” (that YOU find and hand to the dog) to another. I leave high value kibble in tiny piles on window sills, up over the door frame or shelves etc. So I walk around holding my dog’s leash sort of like I’m dragging a beach towel in the sand on a lovely afternoon. No tension in the leash. And just wander around, giving your pup a prize, sort of plucking it out of the air! “Oh Barney! Look what I found!” Your dog will think you are amazing!

You’re relaxed, but make sure you are leading Barney and not the other way around. So, make it fun and interesting for Barney to keep his eyes on you, and see what you’re up to! You find treats in the darndest places! Make sure Barney thinks you’re a laugh riot and is having a good time on this head halter tour of the house.

Good at it? Sometimes, no offense, it takes some practice to learn to not be an asshole when holding a leash. Sometimes we all pull the leash, but far better to use our words, or give the dog a little poke if he gets distracted, “Hey, we’re going this way!” And then trot away! If your dog is disinterested in you, and disengaging to do his own thing, try moving a bit faster and making it more interesting. Just running with your dog, laughing and playing like a dog might play, delivering treat-surprises, can help your dog engage and discover, oh, we’re on a journey about finding treats.

Then take the gear off and rest. When you’re good at these indoor walks, practice the same walk around the outside of the house. Hide treats in the crotch of the trees, in the mailbox, on the car, etc. Lead your dog from one cool discovery, to the next.

The most common resource that reinforces dogs’ leash-pulling behaviors is the opportunity to sniff or visit. So instead of just mindlessly letting the dog sniff or visit in ways that reinforce the behavior of leash pulling, we can more consciously deliver “sniff” opportunities as a prize for displays of self control.

Every time we leash walk, I have a plan for how I will reinforce his “loose leash” behavior. At the park,, we practice loose leash walking all over the parking lot and if he isn’t doing a good job, I can put him back in the car. Dogs learn to earn that walk! Practice and reinforce highly, all around the parking lot, into and out of the car, and if they make a mistake, they go back in the car! But then when they are quiet in the car, they respond to a “sit,” well, come on out then! It’s a game.

If you’re trying to go somewhere, that’s fine, but that’s not a good time to train a dog to walk on a loose leash. Practice makes perfect and you don’t want to practice the wrong behavior. When you are training a dog to walk nicely on a leash — and you should, a little bit, every day– it’s about training, and you shouldn’t be actually trying to go anywhere.

Put some treats on top of your car, and walk around the car, around the parking lot. When your dog is focused on you and heeling perfectly, say, “lets go!” And run with your dog! That’s the best reward! And run back to the car and deliver a treat. And every 10 to 30 steps, have the dog sit as you position yourself close to a tree or a lightpole, or a well peed-on rock (you can food reinforce the sit if you like) and then say, “go sniff!”

Don’t walk further, nor let your dog drag you to a new location, but do give the full leash length, and a few minutes to get a really satisfying snoot-full of just that one location, and then call the dog to walk on.

Sometimes I pull along a drag toy, or I have a couple of popped soccer balls and kick them to keep my dog focused on me. I give him carrot to crunch when a dog is walking by, but I definitely can’t forget to deliver lots of “go sniff!” cues. On a thirty minute walk when my dog is a beginner, I will easily deliver “go sniff” as a cue 30 times. I mean, that’s what a walk is all about, right? But I don’t deliver it for nothing. On a long line walk, I can cue a hand target, a recall, or a sit and then “go sniff!” in a moving “sniff!” As the dogs learn to trust that you really aren’t a big meannie, with-holding the sniff opportunities, but that instead you are delivering them, at a satisfying rate, then they relax more on leash. They trust you and your awesome itinerary. It might be the most challenging thing we train, but also the best rewards!

How Animal Trainers Make Big Problems Littler

In 2016/2017 my husband and I sailed to the Bahamas and back with 2 dogs aboard. Along the way, we visited many elementary schools where I would play my guitar and have the dogs do some tricks and explain how a little bit about the amazing field of behavior science.

I called my program “How Animal Trainers Make Big Problems Littler,” and I got my husband to participate. It was a wonderful adventure, and my husband just published a story about the trip on one of our favorite little sailing magazines. They put me and my dogs on the cover! It was a great adventure and I’m so grateful that we got to do it. Here’s the link: http://www.pointseast.com/our-current-issue/


Canine Body Language (and why context matters)

by Jenny Ruth Yasi, CPDT-KA

Canine body language reading has become a “fad.” People look at a picture of a dog, describe the lift of the ear, the flick of the tail, the curl of the lip, the stance etc and then “read” the body language. I’m sure you’ve seen trainers observe dogs and state with certainty that the dog is “fearful” or whatever. I do it too, telling people, “your dog needs to poop” or “he’s asking for water” and when that appears true, they look at me like I’m a pet psychic.

But I’m not.

Think about how this works with people. Look at this image, for example. Great people at a dog event. What can you read from the body language? Honestly, not much, but knowing the context is a big help! People waiting. Focused on a speaker. You start guessing. But human body languages, like canine, are built over habits and many emotions going on at the same time, and we can’t read anyone’s mind from looking at a photograph. Amirite?

Oh how about look at this video, it’s got some great examples of canine body language. First please listen to it with the sound off and see if you can guess what’s going on here.

It’s actually a pretty interesting example of lots of classic, “easy” pieces of canine body language for you to read, and there is even some context shown, to be fair. Now listen to it again with the sound up. How did you do? Were you close? I’ll give you a little more context. The dude with the box is Charlie and he was nearly dead of starvation, a feral dog, when we brought him home from Puerto Rico a few years before this video was made. So he was well recovered, and he’s eaten many boxes I’m sure in his lifetime, so I always let him shred and eat a little bit of boxes if he wanted. It helped him handle the frustration of waiting for breakfast. The poodly girl was about 8 years old, I had her from 8 weeks, so she was my “old pro,” at waiting for breakfast and the yawning hound had been rescued almost one year previously, so she was the most recent addition to the pack, and still learning what she needed to do to get breakfast delivered. And she was best friends with Charlie.

Yes, sure, great that you noticed the yawn! Yawns are great little stress relievers, and we humans ywn too. But she wasn’t “terribly” stressed. One of the problems of this fad of canine body language reading is that people exaggerate what they see. OMG the dog YAWNED! That’s like, OMG the kid twirled her hair with her fingers!! We are always expressing little bits of tension and anxiety, little splashes of excitement and frustration, nervousness and boredom. We are full of all sorts of thoughts, emotions, feelings and we express them. They are fluid and changeable.

Of course it’s important to see how a dog is RESPONDING to various situations. “Response” is all about looking at body language in context. And so you’re maybe seeing how Charlie expressed some impatience (I want breakfast!), and the other dogs were in agreement. I don’t know but it seems as if Charlie was the spokesperson and Bee was the diplomat. Tiger was just staying out of trouble, confident that she didn’t need to say anything. Then you see how they react to what I said, and the only reason they react that way is because they’ve heard those words before. Notice how my poodly girl looks completely relaxed, laying on the couch. That doesn’t mean she isn’t every bit as anxious, excited, “stressed” as the other dogs. It means, she is choosing a behavior that has been highly rewarded in the past. She is performing learned behavior.

I’m not keen on pet psychics. We can’t “read” body language in ANY animal like we “read” a book. For example, what is this guy thinking?

Out of context, it looks like he’s waiting for a bus. But what Bernie said is that he was pretty much overcome with emotion, watching the inauguration. He was reflecting.I bet he was thinking about his own journey. He was not cold. And doesn’t Bernie usually look like that?

I’m not saying body language doesn’t matter. It’s very helpful to observe your dog’s body language and see how she acts in different contexts. Watch her body language when you serve dinner, when you get out the nail clippers, when she sees another dog, when she a friend knocks on the door versus a stranger. You get so you can tell, “oh, that body language means daddy, and this other body language means the UPS guy.” Watch her body language in the veterinarian waiting room (see the dander poof out of her coat?). And then you see the dander poof out in another situation and realize, oh, she might be nervous. How does YOUR dog express that she needs to pee? How does she ask for water? How does your dog show you that she doesn’t feel well? But can you tell if your dog has a toothache? Probably not from a photo, and maybe not even from a video.

Many dogs have quirky body language. Their friendly “grin” looks like a snarl, or they freeze and slink around, but they are just being polite and careful. No one can see a photo or a brief out-of-context video clip of a “wall eye” or a pricked ear, and read the dog’s mind. Just like humans, body language is about itches, arthritis, learned behaviors, indigestion, and not just about emotions. Body language can be intentionally deceptive. Much like humans, dog can bluff and act confident, when actually they are afraid.

My poodle girl used to sometimes appear like she was on her best behavior, when she was actually plotting to blast off after a squirrel. Actually her behavior in this video is a great example of how she looks when she is “plotting.” Resting, relaxed and calm, but maybe plotting to get that box when Charlie wasn’t looking.

“Analyzing body language,” can be helpful, entertaining fun and there is surely a grain of truth to it. But don’t fall for the “pet psychic” extremes of this fad. We can’t “read” canine body language any easier than we can “read” human body language. Can anyone read your body language like a book? They can certainly try, but they might be mistaken.


My 3 year old german shepherd dog is intact. This was on the recommendation of my veterinarian, who suggested if I am not having a problem with my dog’s behaviors, his reproductive hormones actually come with a host of benefits. I’ll let you google all that, but recently I noticed a potential downside.

We were out walking in the woods, and he began sniffing around in a manner that I’ve never noticed before. It wasn’t the way he sniffs when he is checking our a squirrel or deer poop. And a thought flicked through my mind. “I wonder if a coyote in heat might leave scent that is fascinating to a dog.”

Kind of a scary thought. I definitely don’t want my dog to discover that he could take off on me to find a coyote or wolf in heat.

So I did some research and it turns out that wolves and coyotes typically go into heat January through March. It’s near the end of January now.

Fortunately M’Ocean has been really good at sticking with me, and when I see him start to sniff around and drift in his thoughts, I clip a long line to him. The issue I get is when I start heading home, and he doesn’t want the walk to end. So I’ve added a new trick, which is leaving a raw beef bone in a container just inside my gate when we head off into the woods. He seems to remember that I left it there, and it has a different impact than the treats I carry, that poor sad unguarded bone, hanging out all by itself. This seems to make him more interested in getting home, less interested in diversions that might prolong his walk.

Dog training isn’t rocket science

I hear myself saying that a lot lately, and by that I mean, you need to use the parts of your brain that are about empathy, not “objectivity.” A dog is not an “object.” You are not an “object.”

I’m a firm believer in behavior science. So we do need to “count things” in behavior science. Maybe we can count how many barks, bites, successful retrieves, how many repetitions of undesirable behaviors. Count how many nuggets of meat, how many seconds, minutes duration, latency. How many weeks, months, years of sustained performance.

That’s the science. That’s the way we collect data and evidence, that’s the way we assess success or failure, but that’s not the way we APPLY behavior science.

We apply behavior science via lifestyle. That’s where we see behavior play out. Sure, exercises are good, but we can’t just take one behavior we observe at toilet time and deal with that separate from the whole picture of an organism’s life and environment. One behavior is connected to the next. The whole picture, as I see behavior science, is about understanding the importance of “lifestyle.”

So, more on that later, but with rocket science, we also aren’t sharing breakfast with the rocket. We don’t need to empathize with a rocket. But we do need to understand how rockets work. Rockets have rocket fuel. Dogs and people have reinforcement. Reinforcement is a lot more complicated than rocket fuel.

And it’s “all relative!” What’s reinforcement? I can promise you it isn’t always “petting,” and not always “roast beef” either (though I’ll take the roast beef when I’m training my dog). Dog’s won’t always take food. An icy orange popsicle is only appealing certain moments, but at that moment!! There’s nothing better! Understanding reinforcement isn’t rocket science. Not at all. It’s much more complex.

And when does reinforcement begin? Did it begin before you even give your dog a cue? When you stick your hand in your pocket to get the treat? Or maybe when you were chopping it up on the counter? Maybe the reinforcement began when you said, “sit!” And definitely when you put the food in the dog’s mouth, UNLESS you have a handful of treats, and you put one treat in the dog’s mouth, and you take six treats away (from the dog’s perspective).

Oh yeah, there are things to count, in the warp and weft of behavior and environment. Yes we can numerically influence behaviors by making specific changes to the environment. Well okay. I guess that is kinda like rocket science.

Resource Guarding versus

Trust me

Some say, “I don’t care WHY the dog does this, I just want him to stop!” And if you don’t care why dogs resource guard, read something else. But I find helpful to wonder why. When I think about it, “resource guarding” might be a somewhat “normal,” or understandable, defensive response.

Picture your reaction if someone tried to steal a bite off your plate . That happened to me once, and I almost snapped! Imagine if someone borrowed your bed, car, boyfriend or job without getting your permission first! It may be somewhat “instinctual” for us to guard, hide and protect our stuff,  but aggressive behavior around resources is expressed where resources feel threatened, or where there’s a sense of competition over a limited resource. Imagine if you felt there was only so much water to go around. Maybe you’d fight for your share?

Some dogs learn that dramatic noises or behaviors chase away “threats.” And oh, the feeling of power when another dog runs away squealing! Apparently it’s a bit intoxicating, and unfortunately, that powerful feeling can become a form of entertainment for many a bored dog.

As always, first, rule out any physical issues with your veterinarian. Tick-born diseases, thyroid disease, pain, dementia, seizures, rabies, toothache etc can all contribute to aggression arising in dogs. Veterinarians can also prescribe anti-anxiety medications which can make conditioning more relaxed behaviors easier.

Next, make an inventory of everything that seems like a problem. Write in a journal all the details that surround everything that goes wrong in your relationship with your dog.  Where do problem behaviors take place? What time of day? What’s the weather or other circumstances? Is someone cooking or cleaning or visiting? Is it noisy or quiet, hot or cold, bright lights or dark? Is the dog tired? Hungry? Are YOU tired hungry? Recently immunized? What is going on? Is the dog frightened? Excited? Bored? Is the dog hunting? Is the dog frustrated? What is the dog frustrated about or stimulated by?

Some dogs have been previously punished for growling, so they don’t warn you about their feelings. Instead of growling when they feel pressured, they go straight to a bite. So…don’t punish growling, and don’t punish dogs who take stuff. Say “thank you for letting me know!” to a dog that growls, and deliver yummy food rewards to dogs when you need to take something away from them.

A client dog, Barney, loved to aggressively guard almost anything. If a dog regurgitated on the ground and I cleaned it up, two days later Barney would be laying on the spot of scent, ready to startle any dog who dared approach. For Barney, resource guarding was pure entertainment. More addictive than facebook!  As soon as you see resource guarding, enlist your entire household to change the game into one that makes everyone, not just the dog, happy.  

Some recommend that you pick up and keep all resources away from the dog. That doesn’t work very well, as it is makes each resource even MORE valuable, and you can’t possibly pick up and put away every stinky spot on the rug. And what if the thing they are fighting over is you?

Instead try teaching the “trust me” game.  Many trainers call this game “trade ya,” and it should be a regular part of life with any dog. The idea is to show your dog that whenever you (or another dog) takes anything away from your dog, your dog gets “paid”  with something even better. Start the game by giving him something low value – maybe a cardboard box to play with, and then trade it with a piece raw beef. After he’s eaten the beef, give him back the cardboard box. That was easy!

You can also do this with dog/dog trades. If you see one dog steal a toy from another dog? Give the dog who lost the toy an even BIGGER prize. Reward your dog when the other dog takes his stuff.

Practice trades dozens of times a week. Practice saying “trust me!” as you take away the popped tennis ball and give him a hunk of chicken. When the chicken is gone, give him back an even better tennis ball! You want the trade to turn out better than the dog expected. Who wouldn’t love that? “Trust me” as you take away your broken eyeglasses (oops, hate it when that happens), and reward him with a piece of flavored rawhide. “Trust me” when the sibling dog takes away his favorite toy, give the sibling dog a milk bone and give the stolen toy back to the dog who loves it. If YOU are protecting your dog’s “special stuff,” your dog doesn’t need to protect it.

We aren’t rewarding the dog for stealing eyeglasses, we’re rewarding him for giving them back. After all, how can s/he  know which items are his/hers and which are not?  My three year old dog had one toy that he REALLY loved (till it was destroyed) and I gave it back to him every time his sibling dog took it. The next thing I knew, the two dogs were playing with the toy together! His confidence that it was “his” toy, that he didn’t need to guard it (because I kept giving it back to him) had increased to the point that he wanted to share it!

Our goal is to see tails wagging and happy eager ears whenever someone intervenes in whatever the dog is doing. Over time, dogs learn to “trust” that you kicked them off the bed … because you wanted to show them the raw chicken wing you “found” in the crate! They learn to “trust” that if another dog steals their ball, you give them a hotdog or another ball (or their special thing). They “trust” that there is PLENTY of good stuff for all! Over time they learn which items are available for chewing and which are not.

 Safety gear — leashes, gates, crate training, muzzle training—are essential, especially if you have kids or other animals, or your dog is displaying dangerous behaviors. But often, the biggest success comes with cultivating your dog’s sense of resource abundance and security.

 I cultivate resource security partly by flooding the environment with resources. You want identical resources. If I have six dogs, I dump out a bag of 24 brand new tennis balls. If one dog gets a dog bone, they ALL get dog bones and there are lots of extra bones too.

When dogs behave aggressively around food treats, if you can, practice with the dogs on opposite sides of a safe fence or gate. If this is too much, you could hang a piece of fabric over the fence to reduce the visual stimulation. Throwing handfuls of identical low value food (many tiny pieces, such as Cheerios, or pieces of bread, or “Charlie Bears.” ). You’ll have the dogs grazing on both sides of the fence. Throw the food far, abundantly, by the handfuls so dogs and treats are spread out, and the dogs sniffing around at a comfortable distance from each other. You can also try giving each dog long lasting chews on both sides of the fence, to help dogs habituate to seeing/smelling/hearing each other dogs eating, while safely separated, without experiencing any threat. Allow dogs to have the space and privacy they need.

Skills to learn:

Playing jump up and off is fun. Ask the dog to jump up, and then get off the bed, because you found some chicken over here!  Practice jump up and get off for a treat.

If you need/want to practice taking an item away from a dog, first play with a tug toy. Drop the toy and with one hand gently take the dog’s collar. Don’t touch the item in your dog’s mouth. Have an excellent food treat in your hand other hand. As soon as the dog drops the toy, yay, praise and give him the treat as you release the collar. Then, give him back the toy again, playing a little game of tug. Take the dog’s collar as before, while dropping, not touching, the toy. Wait and when the dog drops the toy, say “drop it!” This time give the dog a raw beef bone or something chewy and long lasting as you deliver praise. Pick up the toy and put it away. My goal is to teach dogs to “trust me” when I ask them to get off the bed or take the toy (or bone or dead mouse), and reward them highly!

Evaluate:  Are you reinforcing your dog(s) enough for sharing? Is there plenty of “good stuff” to go around, or is your dog being asked to share too much? Do you reward him EVERY time you take a toy or other item from your dog? Go over your inventory. What the dog is experiencing? When? Where? How can you make the learning process more fun for you and your dog? If s/he “trusts” you, she will want you to be in charge of guarding the resources!

Everything you always wanted to know about head halters, but were afraid to ask about in class.

Learning to become a better animal trainer is a life long process. And it’s pretty “normal” for trainers to disagree about all sorts of things. When I take dog classes, I might disagree with my instructors, but I try to keep my mouth shut for the most part. One common disagreement is about gear. In AKC clubs, I’ve seen people with choke or prong collars on their dogs, and I’ve been told head halters aren’t allowed! What?

So disagreements are to be expected, but it drives me crazy when I hear people saying that head halters are dangerous, they can cause neck injuries, interfere with a dog’s ability to smell, or just “dogs hate them.” So when I was in a dog class where the teacher said students should take their dogs to see a chiropractor if they’re using a head halter, you can imagine how hard it was for me to say nothing! (here’s a link to my head halter training playlist on youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jjw98m9J9YQ&list=PL1E6379E57F518AF0 )

But after a few gasps of protest, I clamped my hand over my mouth and focused on observing the dogs. And at the very moment two unruly young dogs in body harnesses were causing some commotion, barking and lunging while the teacher made a pretty good display of not being bothered the slightest by barking and bouncing dogs. “That’s not predatory aggression,” she said, and remarked what she could tell from his body language. “He just wants to play.”

It sounded like famous last words to me. Canine body language can surprise us. The only certainty in my mind was that the dog was excited, aroused, barking, and pulling with all his might at the end of a leash attached to a woman who didn’t know what to do. If the handler lost her grip on the leash, the dog would blast off and my young German Shepherd’s relaxed down-stay on his mat would be tested.

Head halter handling is much like holding the hand of a toddler. Most of the time you have a light touch, but you might give a little squeeze when you’re crossing the road. Head halter training helps us to avoid “opposition reflex,” as illustrated in the above photos. The opposition reflex leads your little buddy to naturally pull away from restraint. In agility, we use that reflex to build speed into a “blast off!” So when untrained handlers pull or balance themselves by hanging onto the dog’s leash, it naturally stimulates dogs to pull in opposition. Restrictive body harnesses work mechanically, by restricting shoulders, and preventing the dog from shifting weight back onto their hips, but they can also stimulate opposition reflex. Muscles regularly restricted and inhibited in this way can slowly deform and disable growing bodies, just like keeping your toddler in a straight jacket. But because it can be challenging to put on and off the dog’s harness, many handlers keep dogs in body harnesses all the time, even when the dogs are off leash!

In any case, body harnesses are essential when you want your dog to pull, as they help distribute weight over the dog’s body. I use body harnesses to cue my dogs that yes, now it’s okay to pull.

A head halter is not good for tracking, or pulling. And it’s not like prong, choke or shock. Head halters can’t be just slapped on and go. Much like driving a stick shift, handlers and dogs need to learn how to drive, or walk nicely, on a leash with a head halter. Used properly, head halters should not be aversive, and they can be far less aversive than body harnesses.

ANY training tool handled improperly, can be aversive.

Internet head halter propaganda shows an anatomical sketch of a dog’s head laced with bundles of nerves and veins and this caption, “this is why I don’t use a head halter.” Did they forget that veins and nerves are all over the dog’s body? And anytime ANY gear cuts off circulation, it’s being used improperly.

Head halter trainers do not “pop” or “correct” dogs on a head halter. The head halter leash needs to be held lightly, loosely, like the reins of a horse. What changes is WHERE you are holding the leash (up near the dog’s head when the dog needs more guidance). Trainers try to never pull on the leash. Just as horses can develop a “hard mouth” from trainers who pull on the reins, dogs develop “hard necks” when handlers habitually have a tight leash.

There are different types of head halters, just as there are different types of body harnesses, and I prefer head halters with cheek straps and a safety clip to the flat collar (like the”Walk n Train”). ” Cheek straps make it easier to keep the nose loop loose without falling off, and that loose/tight contrast is essential for communicating clearly with your dog. When the nose loop is usually loose, dogs can notice when it tightens even a little bit.

As trainers, we need to help handlers prevent injuries in themselves, as well as their dogs, and handler injuries are far too common. Handlers get hurt when dogs yank. And I’ve also seen dogs with collapsed tracheas from flat collars. No matter what gear we are using we should ask ourselves, our veterinarians as well as our trainers, “is this safe?” I ask my veterinarians, “Are you seeing head halter injuries?” and they invariably say, “maybe I saw some fur rubbed off once?” but, no, they’ve never seen a neck injury due to a head halter. Ask your veterinarian if you get a chance and report back what s/he says in the comments! And it’s not that dogs don’t pressure test head halters.

Body harnesses are often cueing my dogs that now it’s okay to PULL.

Lisa told me she had her dog on leash with head halter. She was holding the leash sitting the back of their station wagon when the dog suddenly surprised her, lunging out after another dog. They both got yanked, but neither was seriously injured. If that had happened on a flat collar, or a body harness, would the results have been better, worse or the same? I don’t know, but when you hear that a handler has been injured, or if you see or hear of a dog altercation, I do ask about and observe what type of gear the animals are wearing.

Without training, dogs can wipe a head halter right off their face. So head halter training requires pet owners to learn about operant and classical conditioning, reinforcement, and choice based learning. When we hold up a head halter, head halter trained dogs come running to put it on. Handlers handle their leash gently, like the rein of a horse, to avoid stimulating the opposition reflex. Handlers have practiced putting the head halter on and off, until it is easy, so that later they can carry the head halter in a pocket, pop it on if a dog seems overly excited, and take it off when the dog has calmed himself. A head halter teaches handlers to pay attention to their dogs, and to progress training so that a dog isn’t stuck forever in a restrictive harness. Head halter trained dogs graduate from head halter, to flat collar, to off-leash freedom in more and more environments.

So if you hear a trainer saying that head halters can damage necks, take a careful look around your training classroom. Which dogs seem to be straining their necks? It’s probably not the dogs who have learned to relax and accept hand holding with a head halter. But the big bouncing barking dog, with a handler hanging on dear life?! I would definitely call the chiropractor for that!!

Off Leash Freedom!

How do you wind up with an adult dog who comes when called? There are lot of pieces to that puzzle. A lot of it is practice, practice, practice! But some of the pieces might be genetic. Some dogs have a natural urge to hunt, which can be a tremendous asset, as long as they are hunting for the things you want them to hunt for! But what if they take off after deer or chase cars or squirrels?

It’s important to prevent dogs from rehearsing behaviors that you don’t like. Some trainers use shock collars to stop dogs from chasing the wrong thing. I resist doing that, most especially with young dogs, because shock experiences can undermine a dog’s confidence and drive. It can leave them second guessing themselves and reluctant to experiment — an essential part of successful problem-solving. I don’t want my dogs to be afraid of trying something new.

The head halter to off leash progression in this video, (“Increments of Freedom” with Whole Dog Camp lead trainer Jenny Ruth Yasi) https://youtu.be/SU1XjbmgccI should be just one small part of your larger games-based recall training plans. This isn’t about coming when called, but it’s about understanding and using your leash and training gear as conditioned reinforcers, as well as cues. The head halter to off leash progression rewards dogs with one little increment of freedom at a time, around gradually increasing distractions! Dogs can understand that they aren’t just working for cookies, but they are working for something MUCH more interesting: freedom! Head halters and long lines set dogs up to succeed in trading responsiveness for privileges.

Rewarding with privileges — rather than giving privileges before the dog is ready and then punishment because the dogs makes mistakes — is a more fair way of working with your dog. It’s not fair to expect dogs to perform successfully off-leash if they can’t even perform successfully ON leash. I hope we all can become more awareness of when we are giving a dog a privilege and when we are taking a privilege away, and how that may influence behavior. When dogs understand that they aren’t just working for hot dog, but they are working for what they REALLY want, this leads to happier, less frustrated and more robustly confident dogs. Thanks for leaving me any questions or comments, here or on youtube!

Socializing your dog from a (coronavirus)safe distance

Use it or lose it applies to social skills. Especially for younger dogs, under 3 or 4 years old, there is nothing better for their social skills than the experience of regularly having to use them.

So now what? How can we safely keep our dogs socialized through this period of “distancing?”

If you have your own little pack of dogs, you can help them practice self control, practice sharing and taking turns. There’s a lot to that, as dogs have an acute sense of what is fair and what is not. You have to be able to read your dogs. Rather than going into lengthy details on that, I’ll share a little video of me practicing a two toy game with my puppy, and the rest of the pack watching. I make sure everyone gets a turn (not all in this video) and when I give one dog a piece of rawhide, I make sure they ALL get a piece of rawhide.

If you have an “only” dog, rest assured that effective dog socialization can take place from a distance. When dogs can see, hear, and smell other dogs without having to worry about getting pounced on, they learn to relax. Distance helps dogs relax around unfamiliar dogs.

A well-socialized dog is rather like a well-socialized human being. They can play nicely with others when the situation calls for this, and mind their own business when the situation calls for that.

In the wild, the most frequent cause of death for wolves is other wolves. I’ve observed feral dogs maintain safe “getting to know you” distances from other dogs. At first they give wide berth. Over a period of days, they gradually dare to move closer, and even more slowly the attempt to share food. The “slowly getting to know you” period promotes peaceful pack behaviors. “Physical distancing” now is our perfect excuse to lengthen the “getting to know you” experience for community dogs.

It’s not our excuse to stay home, but to seek spacious outdoor environments with new dogs in the distance. Regularly seeing, hearing and smelling other dogs from a distance can benefit canine social awareness and skills more than wild paws-on play. We don’t give children the the keys to the car before they’ve graduated from drivers ed. Why should we give dogs off-leash close-ups before they’ve fully master social skills (and emotional self-control) from a distance?

Take advantage of this “distancing” time to re-fresh your training plan with your dog, and commit to educating rather than just trying to “wear out” your dog. Simple training plans can be very fulfilling and enriching. Load up on hotdogs, put him on a long line, and practice calling him to your for a treat. Having more distance between your dog and other people and dogs should make it easier for your dog to practice success! After your dogs understands the game, only food reward the prompt responses, and the dog will learn to respond faster!

Get outside in the fresh air, where you have plenty of space. It’s not a bad idea to wear a bandana as a face mask, and protective eye glasses, and have wipes convenient to wipe your hands. By now you likely know the hygiene rules. You’ll want to bring and use your own gear and treats, carry your own poop pick up bags. Don’t pet each other’s dogs. We can do it! During this period, if we play it right, our dogs will be learning to ignore each other. That’s not a bad thing!

Why I don’t knee a dog in the chest, yank the leash or otherwise be a “jerk”.


Here’s my shortest explanations of why “jerks” in dog training are wrong, and  “kindness” is more effective .

  1. Someone told you to knee the dog in the chest?  Dogs do this as play. The more you land a knee to their chest, the more aggressively physical the dogs think you play! If you’re thinking, in that case, knee REALLY HARD in the chest?   Unfriending a dog with violence never makes teaching a dog easier.
  2. Someone told you to jerk on a dog’s neck? Don’t do it. Also, don’t let a dog drag you down the street. If  you constantly are keeping the leash tight (getting dragged) while walking, or while “correcting” or just while oblivious, your dog will  just figure that’s the way leash walking goes. Dogs develop a “tough” insensitive neck, where they’ve accepted the status quo, and can’t discriminate softer other leash guidance , much like horses with tough mouths can’t  feel the rein .
  3. Tempted to yell at your dog? Then how will your dog know if it’s a REAL emergency?  Save it.
  4. And I don’t shock, prong, choke because it damages dogs, just like it would damage you if you were taught that way.  Aversive related anxiety may show up where you don’t expect it, in reactive barking, aggression, destructive behaviors, or in dogs who shut down. Aversives cause anxiety, and anxiety gets in the way of thinking.
  5. So, don’t hurt your dog, and don’t hurt yourself. Training mistakes are opportunities to grow.  The best thing you can do is record your training, you learn so much. Below is Tiger when she was about 4 years old. She is  15 years now, and I look back on things I tried with her, how I pushed her, and I think, what was I thinking?!  I’ve grown as a trainer.  Give yourself room to grow. There’s no shame in making mistakes, the shame is in making the same mistake over and over and over!  Everyday,  make a new entry in your training journal. If you make small goals, and achieve them with kindness, you can’t go wrong. Kindness to your dog and also,  kindness to yourself.
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Things your trainer might not tell you

IMG_2522I had a student once who exclaimed, “I don’t care why the dog does this, I just want him to stop!”

Clients like this are the bane of dog trainers, not because we don’t enjoy a challenge, but because our goal is to make you happy. If you don’t want to know why a dog does something, we’re not going to force the information on you.

Most pet owners, like trainers, do care about why dogs behave the way they do. But many are afraid to know whatever it is we don’t want to know, and frequently we don’t want to know how our behavior is driving the dog’s behavior.

Dog training can feel more embarrassing  than a nude dance class.  Your dog reveals all your flaws.  To spare your ego,  your trainer might let you blame your dog for whatever your dog is doing.  Do you need to step up your training , improve the value of your reinforcement, train your dog to wear a head halter? Your trainer might tell you once, but don’t expect him or her to tell you twice, twist your arm, or the leash connected to it. After all, the dog isn’t paying for these training classes!

Am I right?

56F486B5-24A5-4AF4-B26B-70F3E28C8BEBSo here’s your warning:  your teacher will grow to  tell you what you want to hear, because if she is telling you stuff you don’t want to hear, you will find another trainer.

I just realized recently that my doctor never told me when I was getting a bit overweight. My weight was “average” for a woman my age, but not really my healthiest weight. After I lost twenty pounds I started to wonder why he never mentioned that really, I had technically become almost obese. I’m a healthier weight now and so it’s easier for me to see where I was going wrong before.   And I realized,  my doctor didn’t blurt out “you’re getting fat!”  for the same reasons it is often hard to tell dog-clients, no matter how carefully, anything that sorta means, “you’re not doing it right!”

To advance and grow as dog trainers, we have to believe that we can do better. It’s nice to believe you’re doing great, until it means you aren’t growing as a trainer . Don’t worry,  your dog training instructor isn’t going to give you a “C-” !  You’ll just never know what you don’t know. These classes are electives. You really need to go after your education, challenge yourself (that’s why competitions are so helpful) if you want to grow.

Is dog training an adventure for you, or a chore? Cross species communication, reinforcement schedules, behavior science, cognition:  dog training is a delightfully enlightening hobby, that helps us make more sense of the world.  And since you have a dog anyway… grow with it! And when you can handle knowing more, your teachers will show you more! 0D331F6E-B6ED-4A41-B82C-0C29AB773C78


Am I your teacher?

It does no good if you can’t or won’t do the things a leader suggests to you.

You won’t learn if your focus is on the dog, and changing his or her behavior. To be a successful animal trainer, the focus has to be on changing our own behavior, because that’s how we can best shape the behaviors in our environment(s).

So, if you know right from the start that you don’t want to crate train, or if you are sure that the problem is something wrong with your dog that has nothing to do with you, then maybe I’m not your teacher! If you think that animal training is a sort of magic that is completely different from the ways we educate and socialize our human children, then maybe I’m not your teacher.

Animal training, in my experience, is about building a relationship based on trust with the animal. It’s about learning where reinforcers and punishers exist in the environment, and learning how to control consequences to help our animals adapt to our environments and understand our rules and games. It takes time. And just like humans, animals can unlearn things as fast as we learn them. Animal training requires a consciousness of YOUR responsibility for the state of your dog’s behaviors.

Mo at 10.5 weeks

We control our dog’s environment in order to control available reinforcers. For many dogs, but not for tiny ones, a head halter gives you great control over a dog’s environment. Crates, gates, mats, doorways, fenced in yards, rooms in the house, hallway, in and out of the car: each one of these environments can be very carefully controlled to help condition a dog’s responses to distractions and exciting transitions.

But if we can’t control our own behavior, our dog’s behaviors won’t change.

So, that’s the challenge in animal training: we have to be fine with the idea that behavior modification is about us, too. I make mistakes every day, and everyone does! I open the door and the dog goes out. “Oops.” It really doesn’t destroy my training plan, it’s just our quirky imperfect style. Perfection isn’t perfect! If you don’t value mistakes as a natural part of the learning process — and powerful opportunities for growth – then maybe I’m not your teacher.

But if you want to create a plan to feel better and have more fun with your dog; if you aren’t afraid to use real “choice” (rather than force) to motivate your dog; if you expect dog training to be a lifelong activity that you do with your dog, and not just a temporary thing that you can do and it’s “done,” then  I would love to share what I know with you!


Stay with us

Want to go on an affordable “get-away” weekend with your dog(s)? Come stay with us! You’ll have a dog friendly bedroom that opens into your own private entry and dog yard, with your own private bathroom.

You are welcome to stay and train independently (you must follow our humane protocol, no shock/prong/choke or abuse), or I can help you evaluate where you are and help you kick off a more effective training plan.

Our goal is to integrate physical fitness with behavioral fitness. So of course, we pick fresh food from the organic gardens! We sing around the campfire, run barefoot through the fields, and play in the snow! Come prepared to live a casual outdoor lifestyle. All animals behave best, when we feel best! Yes, we’ll show you how we observe behaviors, keep training charts and respect science, but if animal training isn’t fun, we change up the music! Our motto is “Dancing IS training!” We want you to have fun with your dogs.

We’re offering a special one week as we kick off this residential dog training program! $795 per couple or only $595 for a single person with one dog! Bring additional dog(s) $150 for the week.

Our dog friendly environment can give you a new perspective on how environmental cues build or harm your dog’s responsiveness. We are getting older now, and we’ve found it valuable to use our dogs to build our own fitness. We specialize in hosting barefoot field games (you might want to wear “barefoot” or very low structure sneakers that allow you to feel the ground. Ask us and we can recommend some brands). When you are here you can train to music, explore our gardens, or hike through the woods to the S. Freeport Village and Marina. The Portland Maine waterfront is 20 minute drive away. Bicycles and joggers are flying by here regularly. We’re happy to watch your dogs while you go out to play.

And you can go home with a training plan and new insights into your relationship with your dog(s).

Need a second room? A second bedroom room is available, comfortable for a couple, beside the bedroom and bathroom with your dogs.

Don’t have a week? If your booking is for 2018, family rate for both rooms for 2 nights/3 day weekend is $395 for your whole family, all your dogs. It includes up to four private dog training lessons. Go home with a better understanding of your dog and a plan to grow the behaviors you want to see. We can customize your experience. Tell us what you need.

We are LGBTQ and all kinds of other friendly! If you love behavior science, humane training, dogs, organic gardening, and blueberry pancakes, if you enjoy awkward scientist-organic gardener types, you’ll enjoy a learning vacation here in our home.

Control or cooperation

I like the idea of reinforcement based training, that’s how I see my approach, but part of reinforcement based training involves understanding the function of punishment, and noticing where it is, what it does. Maybe the best way to describe a training method grounded in behavior science is to observe how trainers control both reinforcement and punishment.

Understandably, it’s harder to observe behaviors shrinking and disappearing, than to notice and observe growing behaviors. Punishment is the function that shrinks behaviors. And most often, punishment is unintentionally shrinking behaviors the trainer WANTS.

Punishment can interfere with creativity, make an animal nervous, avoidant, less interested in the game. It can demotivate dogs. Very often, I notice people are “flattening out” their dog. They want him to behave so badly, they’re like back seat drivers, turning the dog into a passive puppet on strings. To achieve all that is possible with a dog, I think I need to encourage my dogs to think, not just “obey.” That means I have to let the dog make mistakes, have choices, learn from their own decisions, help me solve problems. Seeking “obedience” in dog training might lead towards more authoritarian body language and unintentional punishment, than training aimed more at enrichment, education, cooperation, and games of choice.

Trainers need to be aware of any punishment or reinforcement in the environment, and how it may be influencing our dog’s behaviors. Often, we need to condition our dogs to reduce the impacts of a sometimes punishing environment. That’s the core of communication. We control reinforcements and punishments to reduce suffering and strengthen cooperation.

Understanding behavior science is like understanding gravity, or even more, it’s like understanding chemistry. Understanding all the environmental elements of reinforcement and punishment, how they go together to impact behaviors, we can begin to recognize what shapes our own behaviors, not just our pet’s behaviors! This is one of the fun rewards of training with your dog!

Use Your Words!

In dog training, you’ll often be told to say nothing. And I don’t mind that. People talk too much, I know that, I definitely talk too much, and our mindless babble can easily confuse, distract or distress a dog who is trying to THINK!

But then we might also get told to manipulate the dog with the leash, to tug him this way or that, to give him a pop if he starts heading in the wrong direction. And that’s not saying nothing! It’s better to use your words.

One reason people tell you to “say nothing” is because otherwise we might say words that are not conditioned cues, that are not providing clear information, that distract the dog. All good points, but don’t think that physical force has greater clarity, because it doesn’t.

I’ve trained verbal directional cues for two decades, mostly with my water dog Tigerlily. Once, we dropped her off the boat into moving water to retrieve a sinking much-loved baseball cap. We were cheered as she responded to my verbal cues, which were probably something like this: “Oopsie! Uh oh! Turn! Yay! Circle circle circle! Good girl! Get it! Yay!! Yay!” and she dove and saved it just as it started to sink.

When dogs know what they are doing, of course we want to say little and stay out of their way.

But when we can give the dog useful information (I knew where the cap was sinking), it’s nice to be able to tell her. Also  in the clip above, if I said nothing my dog would be wolfing down the rotten grass compost my husband helpfully spread yesterday.

When we positively condition response and meaning to each one of these words, I can use verbal cues, not manhandling, to motivate my dog.

All animals seek information. Verbal cues can be like little hotdogs of information. Not that way, but this way? Yes? This way! Yay! Yay! Yay! I’ve got it!!!” Responding even to the “no reward marks” are associated with a big win!

Videotape trials and examine body language and words. What  untrained or confusing signals do we see?  Does the dog cringe or deflate, or hit their stride with greater confidence? Verbal cues can be used to increase drive and joy, as well as potential for success, in both handler and dog.

Socializing your puppy

2C108FD7-E1F0-4124-9F25-659BBC5CC775You don’t have to be sniffing butts to be socializing. Socialization, for us as well as for our puppies, involves  success in a wide range of environmental challenges. Socialization is about building confidence, a history of good experiences,that helps your dog set his/her expectations in a positive way.

I adopted an eight week old german shepherd puppy 4 weeks ago, and as we are hoping to join a Search and Rescue dog team,  great socialization is essential. He needs to be able to respond to people, other animals, environments  with calm confidence.0D331F6E-B6ED-4A41-B82C-0C29AB773C78

My puppy’s breeder gave M’Ocean a jump start by exposing him to a variety of environments, horses, chickens, cats, adult dogs, kids. And since I brought him home at 5 weeks ago, we’ve gone to puppy classes each week in at several different locations, we’ve been to adult dog seminars, scent work classes, we’ve met  people on ferry boat rides, in the ferry terminal, at the YMCA, in a horse barn, friend’s homes, sheep and cow barn. We’ve visited country parks and city parking garages. He’s been in elevators and  visited cats, ducks, chickens, goose. Mo has played on beaches, in pack walks, at parties, around bonfires, on docks. I keep a journal recording each new place we go, and we’ve been doing something quite interesting every single day. Sometimes social events are short,  but always sweet!

56F486B5-24A5-4AF4-B26B-70F3E28C8BEBSocialization is about learning to cope with many different environments. It’s about being comfortable while alone as well as in a crowd. Think about how we socialize as humans. We don’t  entertain every stranger we meet nor shake hands with every person we see as we cross a sidewalk. We learn  to maintain a socially appropriate distance, and not touch or interrupt !  And that’s what we need to teach our puppies as well. Puppy playgroups that include free-for-all puppy romping might be unintentionally teaching your puppy the wrong lesson entirely.


Good socialization does not require physical romping, but it does require you take along your puppy to many different activities. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Socialize your dog with friendly nicely mannered adult dogs. Adult dogs with good manners won’t jump all over your puppy, but they can be very helpful in helping your own dog develop nice manners.   I’ve been bringing my puppy to agility classes, taking a noseworks class and tricks classes. Even though my puppy is too young to go over jumps, he learns a lot by relaxing as he watches other dogs working.
  2. Keep your dog safe and just say no. We wouldn’t let a stranger knock over your child or even pat your child on the head, right? Just say “no” to fly-bys and treat any  interaction with a stranger the same way for your dog as you would for your kids.IMG_6280 Example: Recently I was at the ferry terminal, and a young woman had a large young dog who was staring and pulling towards my puppy. My pup started to bark. The woman said, “Is it okay if I let them meet?” I said, “not while my puppy is acting like this!” My puppy settled down and then he visibly sighed with relief as they headed off in another direction. When  your dog knows that you are not going to force him to put up with unwanted advances of pushy strangers, your dog is going to relax a lot more. He’ll learn to trust your judgement.
  3. Greetings should take place when everyone is relaxed. I can’t tell you how many times people with dogs dragging them down the street have said to me, “My dog is much better once they sniff! Can they sniff?” That’s kind of like saying, “My kid stops screaming once I give him the icecream.” Sometimes it reminds me of a drunken uncle charging towards a child, “let me pick you up!” Eek! I only let my dogs physically connect with others when when all the dogs are responding to their handler and behaving politely.  I’ve gotten very good at saying no, and my dogs really appreciate that.534d3199-201f-48bb-8a6f-582c4c48c138.jpeg
  4. Don’t try to use dog parks or dog daycare to “wear out” your dog. Dogs that are being “worn out” by other dogs may develop an undesirable emotional reaction to other dogs.

Socialization is not about wearing out your dog. It’s about exposing your dog to many safe environments, and many variations in those environments: alone, and in groups, day, night, sunshine, rain, snow, city, country.

Today my puppy experienced his first elevators, and also his first parking garage! Tonight we are going to a nose works class. Socialization is a lifelong process, not just for puppies, but forever! What good places do you go to socialize your dog?


Your cues are showing!

What are cues? Cues are your dog’s language. You will want your dog to respond to your cues from a distance, in many different settings. If you train in many dog activities/sports as I do, you won’t want the cue you use in rally or freestyle to conflict with the cues you use in agility or in the kitchen or on the trail.

What is a cue? Obviously words can be (and should be) trained as cues. But also your leash is a cue, your targets are cues, your body language is a cue. Your door, crate, environment is a cue. We often talk about “fading” the cue, which in agility might mean getting rid of a target, and in real life it means getting rid of a leash. While at first you might need to use a verbal cue to have your dog sit at the door, eventually that cue is faded and simply being near a doorway is a cue for your dog to sit.

https://youtu.be/JboZy9YD-fE  76B8DCC1-3A1C-40DE-9AAA-6C50ABA57624.jpeg

Most of the mistakes I see in teaching cues happen when trainers don’t really understand how a cue is added or changed. They just lure their dog and they think they are teaching the dog. When the food or imaginary food in the luring hand goes away, the dog is clueless. I try not to laugh when I see a handler butt up, hand down, trying to cue their dog to lay down. If you are still luring your dog into a down, I am sure you can’t do that from a distance.

Another big mistake I am seeing is with people who are teaching directionals, or handling skills to their dog. The example that immediately comes to mind is when people teach dogs to turn around by using a lure and circling their hand over the dog’s head. Of course you can’t do that from a distance, but even worse, you often can’t do it from right beside your dog! If your dog is heeling beside you on the right, and you use your right hand to try to lure the dog to peel away from your body, first off your dog might not be able to even see your entire gesture, but secondly, you are sending a very mixed message: cueing the dog to heel at the very same moment you are cuing your dog to peel away from your body.

Eventually, many smart dogs learn to interpret our mixed messages.  You teach your dog to follow your body language, and he learns that he needs to ignore your body language sometimes, just as sometimes dogs learn to ignore our words because we cue our words wrong, and they follow our body language instead! But we get a much better more consistent response when we know really how and when to add or change a cue, and how to be consistent with our cuing across all of our training platforms.

That’s one reason I don’t like luring, and I avoid it in favor of operant conditioning.  Are you teaching the dog to ignore the food distractions or to focus on the food? That inconsistency takes a bite out of your dog’s performance!


Bite-y Puppy!

89DD90BC-F756-4A56-9A27-ED41D982B3A1There is nothing like having a german shepherd puppy to develop more empathy for clients who complain about biting puppies.

My now 11 week old puppy hasn’t drawn blood yet, but like many puppies, he explores the world with a mouth filled with razor sharp teeth. The other day I was trying to put on my socks and boots to keep him from biting my feet but he was biting my socks and pulling them off faster than I could put them on! Someday, this might be a useful trick, but for now, it’s like having a pet shark!

Many of my clients tell me they try to turn their back on their bitey puppies, and then they show me the scars to prove it.  Don’t stand there and let your dog bite you! If your dog is biting, kindly separate him from you, with a gate. You want your dog to find out that when he starts biting, the party with you is over.  And here are some other tricks to dealing with this.

  1. Tired puppies are bitier puppies. This is REALLY important and very true.  My pup has a nap schedule and when he starts to get tired he gets definitely like “let me bite your arm! your face! your hair!”  When I’ve had enough, he has also had enough. I put him down for a nap with a good chewy thing in his crate, and he wakes up much more gentle and calm. At 11 weeks, he seems to be sleeping two hours, then awake two hours all day long, but then he sleeps 10 hours through the night. Puppies, especially large breed pups, need a lot of sleep.
  2. Give him something else to bite. Sometimes, I stick his own paw in his mouth, or his tail and that seems to be very helpful in helping puppies learn not to bite so hard. It’s convenient too!  I keep other toys conveniently located too (tied to my belt), ready to redirect and engage his play in a positive way. People worry about rawhide, but I use small pieces of rawhide (just one “rawhide chip” a day) and my pup chews and chews and chews and turns it into gum. That seems much safer to me than the raw beef bones which he turns into shards of glass. Carrots are good. Half a pig ear is good. Dogs need to chew, rip, bite. Provide them kongs and bones and paper bags.
  3. Collar grab/ drop it games. I practice toy games so that he learns “drop it.” If he won’t drop my pants leg, sleeve, or toy, I gently hold the collar and wait, being as still and boring as I can be so that now his “toy” is inactive.  The instant he drops whatever he’s grabbed, I release the collar and reward (often with a game of tug)! If he re-grabs my pantleg, I re-grab his collar. I aim to be gentle and just hold the collar, freeze, while he figures out that dropping his mouthful means I drop his collar. If I don’t feel like more games of tug, I reward the drop by feeding.
  4. While sometimes I can’t help but shriek “ouch!” and sometimes shrieking might let provide good information for a puppy, other times it might be more rewarding to bite you if you shriek! Puppies don’t understand that they are not supposed to make us shriek. So I try to set myself up to be “bite proof.” My boots mean he can’t herd me if he bites my ankles. Gloves mean I have the upper hand. Sleeves mean he can’t bite my arm and I still am going to pick him up. My goal is to teach him that his bites do not influence my behavior. I’m in charge, bitey puppy or not.
  5. Use lots of food and chew toys to keep his teeth where they belong while you are socializing your puppy. Give him big soft toys to chew, and these will give him something to do with his mouth while the kids are patting the puppy. Warn people, kids especially, not to yank hands away. Keep very close tabs on when you socialize your pup (NOT when he’s tired!), and separate him with a gate if he is in a bitey mood.
  6.  Condition your puppy to love a head halter and crate. That means, a crate is not just a place to lock your dog up at night, but we use it as a training tool, and it’s associated with lots of reinforcing opportunities. We always give a chew when the dog goes in the crate, even if I’m putting him in the crate because he’s being bitey. If he is biting a lot, playing intensely as a pup, you know you have a good dog with a lot of drive and you’re going to need him to love that gear when he is a teenager. Train train train.Self control is a learned skill, it’s not something any dog is born with.
  7.  Teach a hand target, and only mark and reward when he targets your hand with his nose, don’t reward when you feel a tooth.
  8. Deliver food rewards to the tongue, not the tooth. How to practice: Put peanut butter in the palm of your hand, and present your closed fist to your pup.  When you feel his tongue “click” and open your hand for the puppy to lick the peanut butter, but if you feel a tooth, take away access to the peanut butter.
  9. I play with my puppy in all the ways you should never greet a strange dog. I stick my fingers in his mouth  and stick my face in his face (while carefully guiding his mouth safely away from my face. I  try to get him used to biting gently. In some situations, if he is being too intense biting on my hand, it works to stick my hand a little bit further into his mouth, rather than yank my hand away. When you yank your hand away, that can unfortunately reward the dog for biting and also rip open your hand. Instead, if you go in the opposite direction and move into his bite, he probably will back right off.
  10. I change my expectations. Puppies explore the world with their mouth. I don’t expect my puppies to never bite, but I know that they will. I help them find out what kind of biting is part of our games,  and what kind of biting ends our fun games.A1DA808C-4437-4478-898B-E5170196F048

Mo’s training Plan

Mo at 10.5 weeks

His name is Mocean, or Mo for short. I’ve had him 2.5 weeks. I have a training plan that I keep taped on the fridge, I fill it out in pen as the day goes on, then at the end of the week, I enter that as a simple training record on an Excel file. At the end of each week I modify that file by adding in a few new exercises fields, and then monthly I’ll start with a whole new training plan.

So, among the things I’m doing daily, is desentizing the puppy to various training tools, ie: crate, dremel, brushes, blower, pen, leash,booties,harness and chief among them is head halter. Every day I practice feeding him through his head halter and taking it off. At this point now I am clipping it on him completely, with no leash but that clip attached to his collar and heeling around the living room. I like this type of head halter to start, as it isn’t so easy to wipe off with a paw, but we will eventually graduate to the simpler “Gentle Leader.” I want him to be super comfortable and relaxed with his head halter, because he is going to be a big dog. Head halters are valuable learning tools, and once the dog is demonstrating learning and understanding, then it’s easy to fade and eliminate the head halter (and then fade and eliminate the leash). Here’s a video I did that demonstrates how we ultimately fade the head halter. Head halter 

But how do you fade a prong, or a body restraining harness? Beats me. So I train to a head halter, and also to a non-restrictive harness. I would never want to use a no-pull harness because when my dog is on a harness (for skijoring or tracking), I want him to pull! The body harnesses we use are unrestrictive as possible, and I allow pulling and sniffing when on harness.   Sled dog type cross back harnesses can help me cue  my dog to track, scent, or pull ahead of me.

But when I want a dog to “walk nicely?”  Head halters help dogs learn that trick much faster than any other system.  I think of it as being very similar to handling the reins of a horse: f you are a gentle responsive handler, you can teach your puppy to be respond very well to gentle handling. There’s no need to jerk/choke/shock or yank on a leash.

I did a pet behavior survey where I asked pet owners what type of gear they used, and whether they were successful in teaching loose leash walking. Some pet owners tried 6 different types of collars and harnesses, and still struggled in vain to teach their dogs to walk nicely. Head halter trainers stood out as the group that seemed to have the least difficulty not just with leash walking but with their dogs in general. When dogs aren’t simply “managed,” but when they actually “learn,” then they have the opportunity to earn more freedom. That means, they don’t get utter freedom as puppies and then grow up to be a dog in a straight jacket, but we dole out freedom incrementally, and they earn ever more freedom as they  grow.

Teaching an alert, or “Show Me.”

There are a few different kind of alerts that you might want to teach your dog. The natural alerts, ie: “someone is in the driveway!” Or maybe the not so natural alerts, as when you train a dog in hearing service behaviors ( “there’s a weird noise coming out of this machine!”) or Search and Rescue,  where a dog might notify you, “I found the missing person!” 27140714_10214692136127914_666002942_o

Regardless of the sorts of alerts you are thinking about training, there are a few that you already might know how to train, and these are good behaviors to think about for examples in how you are already training alerts.

For example, does your dog tell you he needs to go outside to go to the bathroom? Maybe you’ve taught him that you will open the door when he bashes a bell, or maybe he whines at the door, or maybe he comes and says “woof” and you know to follow him back to the door. You’re rewarding his alert (whatever it is) with following him to a “reinforcement zone,” or “reinforcement machine.” You operate that machine by letting him out to do his business.

At the simplest level, this behavior equation is:  Dog offers behavior,  you reward it by following him to a “reinforcement machine” that you know how to operate.  We can change the conditions in the formula.   What do we want the dog to do to alert us to act? How can we help the dog discover how this “reinforcement machine” is operated?

To help me think through what sorts of alerts I want  with my new puppy, I’m experimenting with training several different “alert” alternatives  in my older dogs. I’m re-training really, as they have previously learned other alert behaviors, and so of course they begin with offering those old behaviors (Bee steps on my feet to alert me to a sound machine, or they bark me to come), but they are quick to understand a few simple new rules to our old games.

Today I began with anew alert, but previously conditioned RZ.  Individually, training one dog at a time, I click and treat the dog to “nuzzle” my toy,  I have two  balls on a rope that we haven’t played with  before. Click and reward that behavior, then “yay! Okay! Show me! Mat” And  back on the mat we have the big reinforcement party.  In these games, Bee to learn that the nuzzle is what gets me on my way to the RZ,  I fade the old cues to go to the mat, but she heads to the mat anyway for a treat after nuzzling the toy. From here, all I need to do is elaborate on the conditions in which I am willing to play the game.

With hearing alerts, it’s too easy to ignore  sounds that you can hear, but if you want your dog to alert to things you can’t hear, you’ve got to reinforce many times when you didn’t really need your dog’s hearing assistance. I want the dog to think, “oh maybe that’s one of those sound game things! I’ll show Mum! She rewards me when I let her know.” It’s really very similar to what happens when the dog thinks, “oh there’s that “I need to pee” sensation ! I’ll alert Mum because she rewards me when I let her know.”

The hard part about training any alert is that if you ignore the alerts, then alerting behavior is not reinforced and it goes away. The good news is  if you don’t open the door when the dog scratches at it, he’ll stop scratching at it. But he still might pee on the floor. So what alert behavior do you want  to reinforce? Ultimately, we want the natural dog’s sensory awareness (I need to pee! Or, I hear a funny noise! Or, I smell something!) to cue an alert behavior and set off your reinforcement machine. Subtle body language might be all you need to understand that he is alerting you to his need to go outside, but if you want him to alert with bigger behavior, you need to condition bigger alerts. If he pulls at your sleeve, or nudges your toy, click and treat that behavior and then further reinforce it by bringing him to a RZ .  Never ignore that special nuzzle. The alert becomes the dog’s way of cueing you into a RZ operation!


Getting ready for (another) pup!

I found my puppy! I believe he meets all of the criteria of my search ( see https://wholedogcamp.com/2017/05/13/is-this-my-puppy/ ) except he will be bigger than I thought. Since I don’t REALLY want even a 50 lb dog landing on my back, or catching too often in my arms, probably a 95 lb dog has other advantages, such as leaving me feeling safe to walk in the woods where we have coyotoes and who knows what else.

I’ll call him Mo, short for M’Ocean, and someone will call him a Mofo or Mr. Mojo, Mopey mope, Mosey Mo, Moshe, Mosheski M’cean motion,   I haven’t even met him in puppy yet and I’m in love. Quest M’Ocean Von Kleinenhain.

27140714_10214692136127914_666002942_oThe breeder sends me new pictures and video every other day, and we plan to do a facetime! I found this breeder through a fellow trainer, who met this competitor who has german shepherds and competes in the same venues (agility and rally) and she knows the dogs and knew there was a litter of dogs on the ground whose parents all have SAR credentials. The breeder had three males, 4 weeks old, all the dogs in the line health tested and trialed and she was considering which one she might keep. I told her my training plans, we facebook messenged like mad, and she sold me this puppy I’ve been calling Mo.

Albert just gave me a birthday card (I’m now 59!!!) with Mo’s picture on it! Happy birthday to me! He will fly in from Kentucky when he’s 8 weeks of age (in about 2 weeks)! Here’s  my training plan for introducing Quest M’Ocean to my 13 year old dog, my 8 year old dog, and our world. We’ll find out how many times I have to change my plan as we go! But my hopes are as follows:

  1. I’ll walk in the door with Moses in my arms. My dogs will come around and I well explain. “No Tigerlily, this is for Bee.” I’ll gate Tigerlily off separately. “Bee, is this your baby! Yay! Are you ready? Bee! Yay!  puppy!!  Sorry Tigerlily, no no, this is for Bee.” I’ll have Albert videotape this.
  2. I’ll do the above for about 2 minutes, and then take the puppy outside, and then crate in the room with me and my other dogs. In an out of the crate and other pens and yard, under constant close supervision.
  3. Today. I am already setting up crates and gates. When I don’t have the puppy in my arms, I’ll have him in the thick of things, but contained in some variation of crate/x-pen or smaller gaited room, never walking around the house unattended until he’s fully housebroken, beginning around one year of age.
  4. Already, I’m pestering and questioning and driving my breeder nuts to hear about all the things she is doing that will influence what work is ahead of me at the start of the monumental journey of conditioning Mo’s association to people, toys, mat, dremel and blowdryer, crate, head halter, birds, sheep, cows horse cats kids wheelbarrows, bicycles, brooms, hats, police men, nighttime, etc. . The whelping pen has a big influence on puppy temperament. I feel lucky that my breeder is experienced and a trainer as well as a breeder.
  5. To the best of my ability, my plan is to condition Bee and Tigerlily to view Mo as a prize, a reward, a special and limited opportunity, a new toy. Or at least, like the halter, something tolerable and they can control with good behavior and never need to resort to obnoxious behavior to discipline the puppy. So Mo himself will be hopefully conditioned as a reward , in limited doses as reward for cued/planned behavior. Then put him away when the reinforcement period is over! Short doses are easier to digest!
  6. Planned trips: first, when he is 8.5 weeks, we will expand his sense of his place in our tribe by hanging out with our children/grandchildren and their small dog. I’ll carry him around  to visit our immediate neighbors. Veterinarian.  Then at 9.5 weeks, I’ll  carry him back and forth on the CBL Ferry boats, twice that week, hoping for nice exposure to school kids, dogs, passengers etc on the boat ride.  Sit on a bench and listen to kids in a playground, 20 minutes each day possible? Find friends with cats. Visit Cathy and her alpacas! Walk in island neighborhoods, where there are feral cats, visit horses, visit fire department?
  7.  10.5 weeks, shots fully kick in and we can hang out around LLBeans where people often train dogs, go to Wolf’s Neck Farm on family day and smell some new smells, see some new sites, such as back bay Portland (East end beach dog park hours? Maybe?), start to introduce him to waterfront boats, docks, beaches,
  8. I think I’ll call some of the local daycares or schools and see if they would enjoy a visit from a puppy, and learn about how we teach dogs with a clicker! And demonstrate how puppies learn, and how we can condition dogs to relax and settle down on cue, by taking special attention to the puppy and rewarding calm behaviors.
  9. We will have at least 2 sessions per week of each: exposure and response to moving wheelbarrows, bicycles, brooms, rakes, vaccuum cleaners. Evaluate all the above and write next plan.
  10. At 12 weeks, the waterfront park, training in front of LLBeans, have first visits in classes in various training facilities, foundations training begins in earnest.

Teaching Emotions

I just viewed a valuable training mentoring video from my training Guru, Susan Garrett, in which she explained that you can’t train emotional reactions, and of course she’s right.

We can understand dog emotions simply by understanding our own emotions. When I’m crying, don’t ask me to do anything! If I’m pissed, which of course only happens to other people, or  anxious, which I’ve been constantly since about 2016, it has various degrees of influence on all my behaviors, requiring different life strategies for myself.

But also, I used to be terrified of deep water. That happened because my mother’s friend wanted to teach me how to swim. I must have been 6 years old. She carted me out to water where the waves washed over my mouth and I felt like I was drowning.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“You’re shivering,” I remember her saying. “Are you cold? If you’re cold I’ll bring you in but Im not bringing you in just because you’re scared.”

“I’m FREEZING!” And that’s when I learned how to lie, because she promptly brought me back to shore.

And that was the beginning of years of me being terrified of any kind of water activity. My mother finally brought me to New England Divers for special remedial classes for kids who feared the water. A pretty curly haired young woman who in my memory looks so much like I did myself at that age, she taught me not to worry about the water. I could hold onto the edge, I could do whatever I wanted to do to feel safe. I didn’t go anywhere I didn’t want to go. I could do what I wanted, and she was just there to help me and to show me stuff.

Now at 58 years, swimming has been a HUGE part of the big joy of my life, swimming across Casco Bay in Maine, off the many islands, snorkling through the thousands of miles my husband and I have sailed, thru the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, the East Coast, Cape Cod! What a world flows through my arms when I swim, which I do strictly for meditative purposes at a rate of three miles a week at the Y.

So my emotions have changed completely regarding the water. Yes, of course emotional learning can happen. If only I knew the name of the New England Divers teacher who helped me recover from my fear, I’d love to let her know how she is a heroine of my life.  I think of her so often, with amazement at how her few lessons in a swimming pool truly changed the entire course of my life. Of course,  all my companion swimmers also, so many who’ve contributed to my emotional  courage  that makes possible all the amazing swimming adventures of my life.

Emotions can change! But you really can’t learn when you are upset, overly excited, scared or not feeling well.

Dogs are not so good at abstract reasoning. Their brains work a bit differently than ours do, but emotionally, they are very similar! They can feel upset, or confused or frustrated. They can be over the top excited.

A dog doesn’t have to be displaying big emotions to be experiencing them. Dogs often hide their injuries, they act “stoic,”  maybe because displaying weaknesses is  not a  survival skill. Because somewhere along the way, some dogs, learn to lie. So we know some dogs that show emotion by shrinking very slightly.  Instead of barking, yapping in reactivity, their reactions look like they just freeze up a bit.  The dog becomes still, withdrawn, maybe depressed looking, sad, freezing or shrinking slightly or entirely away, often in a sort of slow motion. I know some people who can react that way too.

Thanks for posting any comments here on my blog rather than on FB where your comments get lost! Don’t make me cry! But we need each other’s help to heal our emotions, it’s very hard to do that by yourself.   I used to have really terrible stage fright. I cried on stage in 6th grade, when I was put in “over my head” on stage! So don’t put your dog or yourself in “over your head.” And thanks to many teachers I don’t have stage fright anymore.



What is an animal behaviorist?

I just participated in an interesting facebook discussion regarding what IS an animal behaviorist, and who has the right to put that “title” after their name, or even to use that phrase as a descriptive phrase when describing yourself as a dog trainer.

Legally speaking, you can give yourself any title you want, as long as laws do not require special certification or licensing for your title. As far as I understand currently, the term “dog trainer,” just like the term “animal behaviorist” is unlicensed, unregulated descriptive phrase and anyone can described as a dog trainer or animal behaviorist just as we can describe ourselves as herbalists, artists, left or rightists. Anyone can call themselves a “love nugget,” or “doctor of procrastination.”




A title is a little bit different. A title becomes part of the way a person is addressed on letterhead, or on a sign by the door.  For example, Joe Schmoe, Animal Behaviorist. Or Jane Smooth, Ph.D.  Or Donald Trump, President. When someone uses a phrase as a title,  we all expect some sort of justification for the title. Maybe an employer or University has awarded the title. There’s been an election. But also a title can also be self-awarded. Think Joe Schmoe, Herbalist, or Mary Contrary, Doctor of Unintended Spider Bites, Betsey Boop, Pet Psychic.

So, titles are a marketing tool. If you aren’t trying to sell something, rule over or influence someone, you don’t need a title.

For human beings, reputations and titles function strongly as reinforcements and punishments. Dogs don’t work hard simply because they want to be called, “Sampson, King of the Yard,” but humans do. I had a friend years ago who had a triangular sign on his front lawn over his name and the word “author.” So there are whole industries  built on the incredible value of  credentials.  There are many that are available.  Some of these programs are really great, some aren’t.  But you don’t need a credential to be many things, and the endless list of of what you could be without a license includes author, artist, cook, animal trainer and animal behaviorist.

A Veterinarian Behaviorist on the other hand is a licensed professional title for a Veterinarian who is versed in prescribing behavioral medications and treatment plans for stressed animals. They will have DVM after their name. That stands for Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and you have to be licensed and graduate with a degree in Veterinary medicine to use that title or to describe yourself as a veterinary behaviorist.

In my business, I title myself “Head Trainer” because I want guests to know that the buck stops with me here.  I also describe myself as an herbalist,  animal behaviorist, performing artist. I have a bachelors degree from a self designed study in Animal Behavior and character development that I completed at Vermont College, but they gave me the initials B.L.A. and I think B.S. is what it should really be called so I don’t bother putting the initials after my name!

Animal behaviorists may be lay or professional practitioners of behaviorism. What’s the difference between an animal behaviorist and the many other sorts of dog or other animal trainers?

Behaviorists use terminology,research and concepts from the field of behavior science as it goes back to Pavlov, B.F.Skinner, Watson and other behaviorists. Here is a brief overview: https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/Cognitive-Development-in-Children-from-Watson-to-Kohlberg

You know you are working with a behaviorist where  instead of “training commands,” you learn how to  “condition a cue.” Instead of discussing your “energy” or “dominance,” or “pack behaviors” or “pack rank,” behaviorists talk about “stimulus and response,” “operant and classical conditioning,” “reinforcements” and “marker signals.”  Instead of “showing the dog who’s boss” by entering a door or eating a meal before a dog,  behaviorists show how the behavior of passing through a doorway is functioning as a reinforcement or punishment of desirable or undesirable doorway behaviors.

Terminology such as reinforcement and punishment are scientific terms. The biggest difference between what I will call “traditional” or “program” pet dog trainers and those who refer to themselves as animal behaviorists SHOULD be (if I was Queen for a day) that animal behaviorists use behavior science terminology correctly. Just as herbalists should be able to identify many different plants, animal behaviorists should be able to identify positive and negative reinforcements or punishments, cues, stimuli, etc.

Behaviorists, like behaviorism, focus on visible behavior and avoid straying into  Freudian or Jungian style analysis regarding sad childhoods or abused puppyhoods. Behaviorism is about  behavior as it is happening in the present moment. Behaviorists have learned to “see” emotions more as physical behaviors, maybe appearing as a surge of activity, or a depressed affect, or trembling and whining.  Behaviorists focus on behaviors that are  visible and avoid attributing emotions such as jealousy, anger, protectiveness, pride, shame laziness etc on behaviors. But people describe themselves all sorts of ways, and  there is no guarantee that any self-described “dog trainer,”  “pet psychic,” “behaviorist” or “whisperer” is describing their abilities accurately or simply marketing themselves.

As in any field of study,some “behaviorists” might also be economists, pharmacists, ethologists, or have credentials in a related or unrelated field. Some animal behaviorists are specialists in a particular type of behavior (flock, herd, human, pack, economic). But all behaviorists are interested in behavior science, and believe that behavior science has the best data, and researched strategies for understanding and shaping the behavior of any animal.   So, in addition to dog training, animal behaviorists might also be able to help you with your cat, bunny, birds, goats, horse cow and snake (But if it was me, I’d tell you to get rid of the snake!). IMG_6280

Dear fellow dog trainers who are frustrated by those who give themselves some misleading titles, I hear you. I have an issue with people describing themselves Pet Psychics or Dog Psychologists, but even they have the right to do that and you have the right to market your services however you see fit as well. If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to read crack open the goldmine that is behaviorism. Get in the game with reinforcement marker signals,  operant and classical conditioning and matching theory. Empower yourself. Avail yourself of the science. Take classes, learn from the best. Continue to grow. And feel free to describe what you are doing in the most accurate language you’ve got.


When you choose your puppy, you are choosing a training plan.  Is your puppy big, small, herding instinct, hunting instinct, shy, assertive? The puppy you pick: that’s where you make a decision about your lifestyle with your dog. Picking the puppy can be so much fun, but it’s also where I see people making mistakes. I actually made my own “mistakes” in choosing puppies over the years (I’ve personally owned 8 of my own) too, so I know that we can live and learn, and my shy “mistake” puppy taught me so much about animal behavior and training!

We can grow through small mistakes when choosing a pup, but unfortunately sometimes people really get saddled with situations that ultimately result in having to rehome a dog, or just having training problems that would not have been training problems if the dog had been matched correctly with the home habitat.

I can help you pick out the perfect puppy. Join our group class with other families, and talk “puppies!” Maybe you don’t even really need a little puppy, but maybe an older dog? Are you thinking about a service dog? Jenny has special experience in training hearing service, alert and retrieve and delivery behaviors. She can help you pick out, train and license your pet dog, or your hearing and senior service puppy. Contact Whole Dog Camp for more information.




Resource Guarding, part one

Picture the behavior you want to see.

“Resource guarding” is aggression that occurs around a dog’s possessions. The possession might be a food dish, dog bone, a soft space on the couch, or it could even be YOU. I once had a guest dog who would find a recently cleaned spot on the rug, and he would resource guard THAT!  It’s the opposite of what we want, which is  a relaxed attitude, a dog who isn’t worried about anything.

IMG_0124IMG_0192Resource guarding is the dog saying “Stay away!” It might mean stay away from my bone, my pups, my corner of the room, my human. It’s one of the most common behavioral problems I see, but fortunately one that is highly responsive to training.

First off: Why do dogs do this? Like almost all aggression, resource guarding typically starts as insecurity, and a lack of confidence, a dog who can’t predict what’s going to happen with a resource. Over time the dog can come up with his own plan for controlling resources, and this can develop into increasing aggression. Some dogs might be genetically more prone to this. I saw a puppy once that was scary aggressive, resource guarding at 16 weeks, and I was told euthanized by 6 months. Something was wrong with that pup.  But that is very rare. Far more typically, resource guarding is triggered by the environment, regardless of genetics.  Resource guarding is almost always a learned behavior. The dog has learned to act aggressively, because it allows them to control access to limited valuable resources.

IMG_0251This is why trying to pick up and control all potential triggers often fails.  You can’t eliminate every possible resource in the environment. When you limit some resources, you’re making every other resource in the environment seem more important,   MORE valuable, and this has potential to escalate things a  dog may choose to guard. We will never be “done” with our mission to  prevent development of resource guarding in all of our dogs. Behavioral health requires a  sense of  resource security throughout the lifespan.

When you’ve  flooded your environment with other resources,  the stinky spot on the rug doesn’t stand out so much. So that’s one way of approaching the problem. Rather than handing out one ball in a group of 6 dogs, dump out 24 balls. Begin with balls just laying there, don’t throw them right off the bat! If it looks like one dog is experiencing a ball shortage, dump out MORE balls. The idea is to have so many balls, no dog needs to worry about balls.  Ignore the balls, don’t touch the balls,  let the dogs do what they want. Add more balls as necessary.  Do the same if you pass out dog bones or treats. I remember spending $30 on 12 dog bones once, but it was super worthwhile!

I’ve seen dogs learn how to relax, again and again, in resource flooded environments. The resource guarder will likely collect  items: maybe six tennis balls, plus two bones and a rag, but then they start to  settle down and feel foolish because none of the other dogs cares a bit about what they’ve got. All the other dogs have what they need and they aren’t bothering the resource guarder. What does this tell you about the world?! I don’t know, but maybe something!

These ideas are not necessarily a prescription, but  reflective of experiences I’ve had with dogs who stay with me. As an old friend used to say to me when talking about beekeeping, “you need to think like a bee!” The same thing is true regarding resource guarding in dogs. We have to think of how we would feel if someone came and took our iphone out of our hands! Fortunately, dogs don’t care about iphones! IMG_9288