As a positive reinforcement dog trainer I think a lot about how to teach people to better understand their dogs. When I arrive for a dog training session, the first thing I do is “read” the dog. If the dog is fearful or overly excited I will act differently than if it is eager to greet me. Is it approaching me or retreating? What would I do if the dog is barking or lunging at me? I will make different choices for a fearful dog than I would for a friendly dog. I will do things that will help the dog feel understood so I can then build a connection. In the first five minutes, I am gathering information that will help to shape my own behavior towards the dog.
What to do for a fearful dog? What if the dog is aggressive? I will not make direct eye contact, approach or reach for that dog. I will ignore them, connect with their family and wait until they come to sniff me (and even then I will do the same as above). If the dog is truly aggressive we would be discussing muzzle training before a physical interaction but that would involve much more than simply walking in the door and delivering treats. What if the dog is jumping on me or is overly excited? I will not engage, I will wait for them to calm down and silently reward them when they do.
I will eventually connect with the dog but not until the time is right. I may even reward the dog but again, not until it is appropriate and in line with a behavior I like. If I show up and start tossing treats randomly (which is what many people think positive reinforcement is) I could inadvertently reward behaviors that are unwanted. (Which is what is often accidentally happening in dog households everywhere).
People think their dog is behaving well for me because I have “treats”. While I do agree that sometimes the dog pays special attention to me because of this (and, if it’s too much attention the treats go back in my car) the way I use the treats - my timing and my rate of reinforcement (rewarding) is what the dog notices most. They begin to pay attention, feel understood, heard and are eager to communicate more. Training your dog is not about being alpha – that has long been debunked. If you want a good connection with your dog, try teaching them to make choices so they can succeed time and time again.
If we can all establish this type of rapport with our dogs, life will be much easier for all involved and our dogs would be happier, too!
I encourage you to start to think of your training from the dog’s point of view. What are they thinking? What motivates them and how can I use that to my advantage? This is the best way to train our dogs, as a partner in learning. When we take the time to learn about how our dog’s learn, what motivates them, calms them and makes them happy, we are on our way to better behavior and a much stronger connection with our dog.
Being a reactive dog is stressful and exhausting. Having a reactive dog can be the same, for the human. Dog reactivity is a complex issue but, with some patience, time and training, you can help your reactive dog become more calm, confident and happy. This will greatly reduce their reactions and give you more confidence to know how to handle your dog when they are reactive. Whether your dog is reactive on leash, towards people or to sounds or objects, check out my Relief for Reactivity Program for help with learning why your dog is reactive, how to help them and what to do before, during and after a reaction. If you are looking for ways to help your reactive dog I have filled the Relief for Reactivity program with everything I know about the behavior and the process.
Below are some great ways to support your reactive dog emotionally (these are great for all dogs but especially helpful for reactive dogs):
Sniff Walks – Sniff walks are a wonderful activity for ALL dogs but offer reactive dogs exceptional benefits. Find an local area (preferably a large grassy or open space area) that you know is the least likely to have dogs, bring a 15 ft long, light lead and let your dog sniff, walk and explore AS MUCH as they want. Follow them and see where they take you! The freedom, sniffing and exploring will relax your dog. It’s important to work with your dog FIRST on getting familiar with the long lead (so they don’t run and hit the end of it). Slowly let it in and out and practice getting used to it before giving your dog the entire line. NOTE: If you have a large dog that it’s trained to walk well on leash this activity could pose a danger to you – be sure you do some loose leash training first.
Mat/settle training – Training your dog to go to and settle on a mat is a wonderful way to reinforce calm. The more you do it, the more calm your dog will be in general. It’s also a great thing for traveling as it brings peace of mind to your dog when they have their “meditation” mat with them in a new place. Bring it to cafes, beaches and anywhere you’d like your dog to stay and relax.
“Find it” in grass – Playing find it in the grass is relaxing for your dog because sniffing and exploring is a natural way to promote calm and relaxation. You can just say “Find It!” and toss a handful of treats and/or kibble in the grass. If your dog isn’t engaged, start small and work up – they WILL figure it out but some dogs need practice at first. Next thing you know, they will be begging to play. For high energy dogs, I recommend doing this with their mealtime kibble, too.
Hiking - Anytime you can find a nice quiet hiking spot it will be relaxing for you and your dog. I understand it may be tricky to find a place where there are NO dogs but, if you have a small dog you can always pick them up and quickly pass other dogs if they come upon you. If you are lucky enough to live near a quiet hiking trail without dogs, be sure to bring your long lead and watch your dog explore and relax! (Worst case, go for a walk in a quiet neighborhood with minimal traffic and dogs).
Water Play – If your dog loves water, you can purchase a small, blue plastic kiddie pool for summer and toss waterproof toys in it. This is such a fun, confidence building exercise for pups that like water! If your dog is hesitant, start with a dry pool, add the toys and some treats. Let your dog get used to the pool without water, then just add splash of water in the pool (even ¼” will do) and slowly add more as they adjust and play. This can be done over time, not all in one session. (You can also use ball pit balls instead of water if your dog dislikes water).
Digging box – Does your dog enjoy digging? It’s a very relaxing activity for those that enjoy it. You can make your own digging box by using the blue plastic pool (above), fill with sand and bury some toys and Milk Bones. (If your dog is destroying your yard, simply move them to the digging box if you catch them digging). Be sure you bury things to get them going and to keep them motivated. If you have an area in your yard that you can designate as a “digging zone” that works, too.
Hide and Seek (indoors and outdoors). This will also help to reinforce your recall. To play, simply hide from your dog, call their name and heavily reward them for coming. You can even say “You found me!” and make it very exciting. They will want to play MORE. If you need time to hide, drop a few treats to keep them busy long enough for you to escape and hide. Have fun and be energetic for this game!
Scent Work – Start small here. To play, use highly scented (moist) treats or tiny bits of cheese. Put your dog in another room, leave the treat/cheese in plain sight so it’s easy to find and go get your dog. Tell them “search!” and wait for them to find the treat. Continue by adding a few more bits next time and then, slowly “hiding” them in easy spots. Build up to more challenging searches. Repeat outside in the yard for a wonderful challenge. Remember, it’s important to do this gradually so your dog doesn’t give up too easily.
Massage – A nice gentle massage is sure to calm most any dog. Find a quiet area in your home, bring your dog’s bed and put on some quiet music. You know what to do from here!
Licky Mats – Licky mats are a great activity for all dogs and will provide some mental stimulation for reactive dogs. You could even try incorporating it into your training on the go! I use peanut butter and wet dog food on licky mats. Greek yogurt is good too!
Snuffle Mats – Another really fun activity that provides mental stimulation (which is relaxing for your dog). They are available on Amazon and also handmade (shop small!) on Etsy. Place treats or kibble in the appropriate places and let your dog find them. You can even use them for meal times. So simply but very powerful!
The benefits of using positive reinforcement training with dogs (and all animals) has long been studied and proven to be the most effective and kind way to change behaviors. I'm a firm believer in science over shock, praise over punishment and compassion over correction. When we punish dogs using physical force (shock collars, choke chains, striking, etc.), we are taking away their choices and dogs are highly capable of making good choices, when we set them up to do so.
Positive reinforcement dog training must be done correctly or you will hear "it didn't work". Timing and knowledge go a long way but, when done correctly it is the greatest force on earth.
That being said, do you find yourself saying yes or no to your dog more often? Saying Yes! (or good dog) to your dog on a regular basis has many benefits.
Some of them include:
Letting our dogs know when they’ve done something right boosts their confidence, makes them happy and can change unwanted behaviors. For example if your dog is always jumping on people and you find yourself yelling no, try saying yes, before they jump. Better yet, pair it with a treat in the beginning so the word yes has a lot more power.
Being proactive and communicating with our dogs helps them learn better behaviors and it boosts their confidence. Saying no to them does the opposite. When we say no to a dog we take away all of their choices and we expect them to simply stop what they were doing. But let’s say they were jumping on someone because they were really happy to see them. If we just say no, what is the alternative behavior we want? Sitting? Lying on a mat? Standing? We need to train something else because saying no isn’t an effective training solution. Say yes every time your dog is doing something you want them to do (or before they do something you don’t necessarily like). Say yes when the don’t jump, pull on leash or bark. Teach them other behaviors to do instead of the ones you don’t like and catch them being good. This is what training is all about. Rewarding our dogs when they are good, teaching them alternate behaviors and giving them the chance to make their own choice.
This is how positive reinforcement dog training works. We reinforce (reward) the good behaviors which causes the dog to do more and we handle the negative behaviors by developing a plan to change them into something the dog can do instead. It's about always setting our dogs up for success and building them up.
With vaccinations rolling out by the millions many of us may start leaving the house for longer periods of time or, even planning a wonderful vacation (can you imagine?). However, this brings up a serious subject - Separation Anxiety in dogs! While am delighted that so many people have brought new dogs into their homes during the pandemic, I also understand that some of these dogs haven't really had to be alone much. This may come as a BIG surprise to all when the time comes. Helping your dog with separation anxiety before it starts is the best approach. Or, if you have a dog with separation anxiety, here are some tips to help.
Before you leave your dog consider:
1. Crate/Pen training: If your dog is young or untrustworthy when left unattended (not fully house trained, destructive, anxious) you should consider implementing a crate or pen training program for them. Crate training is a great way to keep your puppy or adult safe from harm. Crate training can also help with the potty training process BUT they need to be conditioned to stay in a crate (or pen) first in order to avoid or treat Separation Anxiety. I have provided two crate training links below to give you some ideas on how to start and complete the process of crate training.
NOTE: Separation Anxiety can be complex and the term is general - if your dog already has it, please seek the help of a Positive Reinforcement or Force Free trainer before attempting crate training. Confinement training is not for every dog and it's important to understand (and honor) those dogs that do not fair well in confinement.
2. Desensitize your dog to "triggers". Your dog will find that the tasks of you putting on your shoes or jacket or grabbing your keys or purse signals you are leaving the house. Over time, these tasks could become "triggers" to your dog. For some dogs these triggers don't mean much but to others it could begin a stressful sequence. I recommend you take a few moments each day to practice these tasks without actually leaving the house. Next, leave and come back quickly (grab your keys or purse to take out the trash for example). Find ways to practice desensitizing your dog to the tasks that normally mean you are leaving the house for some time. (This will not necessarily solve a true separation anxiety problem, but there is certainly benefits to being proactive). Any time we can take a few moments to work on something before it's an issue is time well spent.
3. Music/Television. If you do need to leave, start putting on some music or television for your dog (again, try not to turn this into a "trigger" by also doing these things when you aren't leaving or a few minutes before you actually leave). Sound helps to break up the silence of your absence.
4. Keep your comings and goings boring. It's fine to say goodbye to your dog but don't make a big deal of it. When you come back home, keep it BORING. Keep your excitement inside and greet your dog casually. We want our dogs to feel safe and calm when we come and go, they are already excited so it's best not to add to it.
4. Puzzle feeder/Kong. It's often advised to leave your dog with a food feeder to keep them busy when you leave. This may work well for some dogs and that is great, but, for others it can begin to represent time alone and they may not touch it. Start offering your dog such things now, have them enjoy it in your presence and try leaving the room momentarily to see if they continue eating or stop to look for you. This can be a subtle indicator of trouble to come (but don't panic, it doesn't mean you will have a big problem). Although there are some dogs that simply don't eat unless their human is around but they don't have separation anxiety so it's best to be understand and be aware of our own dog's preferences.
5. Video. Setting up a video (or old phone) can help you to see how your dog feels when you leave. Do they pace? whine? stare out the window? scratch at the door? It's a good idea to find out how your dog feels when you leave. A video camera will help you to check to see how long the reactions are so you can work backwards from the time they remained comfortable. I like this one from Amazon. It's affordable, has two way audio and you can rotate it from your phone to see where your dog is in the room! Video camera for pets:
Here are some FREE crate (or confinement) training videos and tips to help you transition your dog to spending time alone. You can apply the same methods to leaving your dog in a room, a pen or in general, alone in the house.
Video One (first steps): https://vimeo.com/466376781/132b8363c9
Video Two (extended crate time): https://vimeo.com/466376720/7b5f074444
It's important to learn how your dog feels about you leaving - even if it's just the room. If their reaction is subtle, practice leaving in very short bursts of time, only building up when your dog is comfortable. If it's extreme start proactive training now!
I meet a lot of people that say “my dog will only come or stay if I have a treat”. My answer to that is: “You may be using the treats incorrectly!”. For the most part, when you’re training come and stay, the treat should not be present. Treats should be in a pouch, in a closed fist and/or behind your back. It should be about the BEHAVIOR of the dog, not the reward. The reward comes later, as a reinforcer. The only time a treat should be visually present is when you are luring (see notes below for definition of lure) a dog into their first sits, downs and during leash training for heel work. For the sit and down, the treat should be replaced by a hand signal ASAP. Other than that, the dog shouldn’t see your treats on a regular basis. Obviously they know you have them but, if you’re using the treat to get your dog to come or stay, I urge you to change that by surprising them instead. For come you have to ask yourself “What can I do to get my dog to come to me?” This means: Am I EXCITING enough, positive and fun? Or am I simply standing still and saying their name? That’s not very enticing. Move your body, say their name in a happy voice and make coming to you FUN. Mix up your rewards between food, toys, praise and petting (surprise your dog with ALL once in a while).
Because food is a Primary Reinforcer for dogs training your dog using treats is a very effective way to change behaviors. Some dogs will even train with their dry food (kibble) which can be a great way to utilize their mealtimes for training. You can also try mixing their kibble half-and-half with treats. If you aren't using your dog's meal for training, be sure you deduct the same amount from their next meal so they don't become overweight.
Here are some ways treats are used in training:
With all of this being said, it’s important to be aware of WHERE the treat is during the training. If you aren’t using it as a lure (see #1 above), it shouldn’t be in plain sight.
If you'd like to see the video that goes with this post, you can do so here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ti6ASuZvjTA
I strongly believe in TRAINING a dog to stop pulling on leash rather than relying on a device; be it a collar, harness or other equipment. I do not recommend prong or choke collars, they take away from our connection with our dogs and I believe that training is all about connection. I would also like to add that it’s important to separate training from walking. If you plan to do an “exercise” walk while training, please don’t. Training shouldn't have any expectations of distance, this will only create frustration for you and your dog.
There are several methods you can use to teach your dog to stop pulling on leash. I will cover three here. Personally, I just like a nice, loose leash but some want their dog beside them at times so if that’s you, #3 will be your best choice. I encourage you to try everything and decide what you like.
Before you begin remember:
To start leash training. Have some of your dog’s favorite treats ready but please note: Let’s make the reward the WALK, not the treats. We will use the treats to reinforce the dog’s position but they should see or work to the food. Keep them out of sight in a pouch or pocket and only use them as recommended below.
When I say “reward” I mean verbal praise AND treats. This is called “pairing”. The goal is to say the praise while offering the treat so we “load” the praise. This way, we can taper out the treats and the word still has good meaning to the dog going forward.
I use three methods for teaching loose leash walking - I suggest you try all three and choose one to use consistently.
1. Turn around. When your dog pulls on leash say “uh oh’ and turn around. Take a few steps and say “good dog” the MOMENT they are beside you (they will naturally have to get beside you because you just turned around). Reward them with a treat when you say good dog. Repeat, repeat, repeat. If you are turning around constantly try to walk faster and be SURE you are catching all of the moments your dog is in the right place. You cannot over reward your dog being next to you, let them know how much you like it and they will do more!
2. Back step. When your dog pulls on leash or get further ahead then you want take two to three steps backward (but don’t turn around). Watch your footing, you will be facing forward but moving backwards. Keep the leash anchored and steady against your body so you aren’t using it to pull your dog back. Anchoring it makes the dog have to follow you. When they arrive at you, proceed forward again. Here the walk is the reward. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Reward your dog for all of the steps you take WITHOUT them pulling or being ahead of you.
3. Bring back: When your dog pulls on leash say their name and start walking backwards. Bend over slightly to “lure” them towards you. (You will now be face to face). Once they come all the way to you, turn your body around clockwise (RIGHT) and they will end up in the perfect heel position on your left. Don’t turn RIGHT until they have connected with your (I prefer eye contact but that might be too much for your dog – try it and see). Next, take a step and reward them QUICKLY by saying “good heel” and treat (taper treat later). Feel free to continue feeding treats to keep them there, for several steps for the first week or two. Try holding a treat by your side and “luring” them for a while too (keep them interested but don’t give it to them for several steps). If they go ahead or pull repeat, repeat, repeat. This means you may have to walk backwards for several steps so be sure you have clearance behind you. Every time you turn around, your dog will be in heel position and the more you reward that, the longer they will stay there.
Having trouble? Work on building eye contact and name response with your dog, this will come in handy during leash training. If they pull, say “watch me” (once trained) or their name to get their attention and to stop pulling.
Have fun and use loads of happy, verbal praise and delicious treats at first. Walks should be fun for both of you. This training will be worth it, stick to it and watch your dog start to naturally get into place and try to please you.
It’s normal and necessary for puppies to bite. Sometimes, they bite anything and everything. Teething is serious business and biting feels SO GOOD to a puppy. It’s important that we address biting properly so that your puppy won’t cause harm and also ensure that their need to bite is addressed and satisfied. Many people wonder what to do when a puppy bites. Here are some pointers.
Tips and tricks for biting puppies:
Satisfying items for teething puppies:
My preferred toys for teething puppies are small rope toys tied on each end – they are also available in fleece varieties. You can even store them in the freezer which will feel so good for a teething puppy. Plush toys are great for chewing (be sure they don’t eat any pieces. A Kong stuffed with goodies can be frozen as well. Other teething type toys for puppies are available at pet stores and many of them can also be frozen. Having a great VARIETY of toys will always help when you are trying to take the interest away from your puppy biting you and on to a toy instead. You might consider rotating toys or hiding special ones for times when your puppy is really biting. This way the toy is “new” and more interesting and likely to be chosen over an arm or shoe. Please be a partner to your puppy and work to figure our solutions rather than punishing them for normal behavior that they are doing to fill their needs.
Deciding what to do about puppy biting is important for many reasons. How we handing puppy biting can shape the way they react to us in the future. If your puppy bites, be sure to handle it with patience and love so you don't make it worse.
**ALWAYS SUPERVISE YOUR PUPPY WHEN THEY ARE CHEWING ON ANYTHING!**
Keep your dog busy (and out of trouble) this Summer with these great tips:
#1 - Purchase small "kiddie" pool. Fill it with water for the dogs that like it, sand for the those that prefer to dig.
For WATER (skip if your dog loves water and hops right in):
For SAND (skip step one if your dog already loves sand):
#2 - Frozen treats.
#3 - Flirt pole - Flirt poles are a fun way to keep puppies busy. You can use one to tire them out a little before a training session, send the kids outside to play with them and to teach "drop it".
#4 - Mental Stimulation - too hot for a walk? Try using mental games to wear your dog out.
Written by Christine Durrant, Professional Dog Trainer and Pet Care Consultant
I understand that leash pulling is one of the most frustrating challenges many of you face. I happen to LOVE teaching it so I am going to try to explain it from my point of view.
It's important to think about WHY you dog is pulling. This can vary many times during a walk. Is it to sniff a bush, get to another dog or to move faster? Once you define the reason, it's easier to figure out the solution.
Let's say there’s a dog across the way and your dog is pulling to meet them. In this case, no matter what your dog is wearing (any type of collar or harness) they will probably STILL PULL. Greeting or reacting to other dogs is one of the main reasons a dog will pull hard on leash. The solution? Teach a really solid "Leave It". This will solve the problem and knowing leave it is an excellent skill for any dog regardless.
Let's say your dog is pulling to sniff a bush - you could use leave it OR, as I would recommend, use it as a reward. So, if I am walking a dog and they start to pull towards something like a bush or plant I will say "let's go", turn around and then make a conscious effort to get the dog back to the bush with a loose leash (even if I have to pick up my pace for a moment) as the reward. If you are consistent with this method your dog will learn that they never get what they want when the pull but they do get it when the leash is loose.
Sometimes, dogs simply have a faster pace than we do. In this case you can teach "easy" by saying it and rewarding the dog when they slow down and "hurry" by teaching them to step up their pace on command (maybe I should do a video on this!). This way you teach the dog when and where it's necessary for them to slow down but you also speed up for them as a reward too.
If your dog pulls on leash simply to forge ahead, that is simple to teach – stop following them. Stop, wait for them to stop pulling into the leash and only move forward when they take the pressure off. If they pull again, turn around, reward the moment they catch up to your side and continue. The first few walks will be frustrating – if you let them be. Otherwise, breathe and laugh thinking “Oh ya! you are just being a happy dog”. Remember, your dog isn’t pulling to make you mad. They are pulling because they have places to be, people to see and lots of things to sniff (so use all of those things as the reward).
You can also teach heel and release the dog with an “ok” when they can sniff. I prefer loose leash walking personally but some would rather have their dog closer in. I am happy as long as I’m not being pulled so I reward the times the dog is not pulling, stop or turn around when they are and it ALWAYS resolves. Each dog is different so it may take a couple of walks or a few weeks, depending on the rate at which the dog learns, my commitment to the training and the time we put in.
I believe every interaction with a dog should be in the best interest of all involved. I always think about the reasons the dog is "misbehaving" (although to the dog it's not so) and work with that in a way that solves the problem and also supports the dog's well-being.
The one thing you will need most of all for this training is patience but once you get the hang of it, you will find it rewarding and fun for both of you. My leash training videos are packed full of tips and tricks to help you and your dog get out and enjoy some great walks together.
Written by Christine Durrant, Professional Dog Trainer and Pet Care Consultant
Teaching a dog to come when called requires a good connection between the dog and the human. If your dog is not trained to sit, lay down or stay, I highly recommend you start on those first. Come is more advanced and works best if you have formed a bond through positive reinforcement training ahead of time.
NEVER say the word “come” unless you are 100% sure your dog will succeed. You must train them in a controlled environment, building up to distractions and relishing in all success. If you find yourself saying the command regularly and your dog ignores you, you have basically “ruined” the word and should start with a new one (we recommend “Here”). During training, do not use the word until you have your dog’s attention and are working on it.
For the purpose of this blog, I will assume you have not ruined the command and use “Come”.
GAME: Here’s a fun game to play with your dog to reinforce Come. Gather a handful of your dog’s regular kibble. Also gather a small handful of cooked chicken, hot dog or cheese (tiny pieces). Have them together in a bowl. Toss a piece of kibble for your dog. As soon as they return to you give them a piece of the higher value (chicken, hot dog, cheese). This will teach your dog that coming to you is WAY better than leaving. This is a fun game you can play anytime. As your dog is more reliable you can add in the words “good Come!” while they are running back to you. This will help them understand what “Come” means.
Being positive and having exceptional rewards will help your dog to learn and understand that coming to you is wonderful! You want your dog to always feel great about coming when called.
NEVER punish your dog after calling them to come to you, even if you are mad. This will damage the command and the last thing you want is a dog that refuses to come when called because they are afraid of the consequence.
Christine Durrant, CPDT-KA Professional Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant