Monthly Archives: November 2012

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Ed Yourdon

It’s when you forget that training is a two-way conversation and you just start telling your dog he has to do something without listening to him in return, that you start to get frustrated    -Leslie McDevitt

Watch the World: Changing Fear or Reactivity

For some dogs, the world can be an overwhelming place. People, bikes, skateboards, other dogs… there’s a lot out there to take in. Whether your dog is frightened, worried, or just overly excited by these things, the Watch the World game is a wonderful way to help her deal with them.

Photo by Lori Greig

The Watch the World game teaches dogs to look at their owner when they see someone or something that would usually trigger them. This game is wonderful for any dog who is overly interested in novel stimuli, regardless of the reason for their interest.

In order to play this game, start with especially delectable treats. While I usually use the dog’s food to train him, this is a case where the “wow” value is important. Choose stinky, slimy treats such as roast beef, chicken, peanut butter, or blue cheese. If you use low-value treats for this game, it will take much longer to work or may not be effective at all.

Bring your dog to a quiet area where he will occasionally see the trigger. For example, a dog who is frightened or overly excited by strangers can be taken to a relatively low-traffic parking lot. The goal is for the dog to occasionally see the trigger with breaks in between.

Sit next to your dog in your car, with your dog crated or on a leash. Sit quietly and ignore him or her until your dog sees the trigger. As soon as your dog sees the person, skateboard, dog, etc, start feeding him treats regardless of what he does. Even if he barks or growls, it is important that the appearance of the trigger predicts good things. Continue feeding treats as quickly as your dog can eat them until the trigger is out of sight. Once the trigger is gone, put the treats away and go back to ignoring your dog.

Repeat this game once or twice a week. Within 2-4 weeks, you should see a remarkable shift in your dog’s body language. Instead of reacting negatively when he sees the trigger, he will begin to light up, turning to you for his reward. Now your dog is getting into the game! Once he starts “pointing out” triggers to earn his reward, you’ll know that he’s got it.

This game is so effective because it reframes the appearance of the trigger for the dog. Instead of predicting fear, excitement, or protectiveness, the trigger now predicts wonderful stuff from you. This is known as “classical conditioning” and is a very powerful means of permanently changing behavior.

Once your dog knows the game, begin gradually moving to busier areas. Eventually you can move out of your car with your dog on leash. When you do this, start back in a quieter area. If you move to a busier location and your dog regresses, you may have pushed the envelope too much: just move back to the last location where your dog was successful, and continue to build on that success.

Have you ever played the Watch the World game with your dog? What changes did you see? Did you encounter any problems? Please share your stories in the comments section!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Jason Morrison

“I’d rather have an inch of a dog than miles of pedigree.” Dana Burnet

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you but he will make a fool of himself too.”

–Samuel Butler

Letting Go: On Losing a Dog

One of the hardest aspects of our relationships with dogs is the great difference in our lifespans. When you open your heart to a dog, you do so knowing that you’re probably going to outlive him or her. The joy that dogs bring to our lives is worth the pain we feel at losing them, but oh, how awful that pain can be.

“If you have a dog, you will most likely outlive it; to get a dog is to open yourself to profound joy and, prospectively, to equally profound sadness.”

-Marjorie Garber

I think it’s worth it to acknowledge that losing a dog hurts. Whether your dog lived a long, happy life, was euthanized at a young age, or was lost tragically early due to an accident or illness, it hurts to let them go.

Sometimes we are given the enormous responsibility of making that difficult decision to euthanize. The empathy and selflessness required to say, “I understand that it hurts too much, and I love you enough to end that suffering” is enormous. Whether your dog’s suffering was physical or emotional, helping them to cross over when there’s no other option is never the wrong thing to do if it comes from a place of compassion.

Photo by Greg

Life without your canine companion is going to feel empty and raw for awhile. This is normal and healthy. Embrace the grief. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s hard to adjust to life without your dog when they’ve been a fixture in your life for any amount of time.

There are constant reminders that they’re no longer there, and it’s normal to keep poking at that raw and painful place that they used to fill up, the same way that your tongue keeps revisiting the socket where a tooth used to be. The empty dog bed, the silence when the mailman visits, waking up without the staccato accompaniment of that thumping tail… it will be difficult.

I came across a photograph of him not long ago… his black face, the long snout sniffing at something in the air, his tail straight and pointing, his eyes flashing in some momentary excitement. Looking at a faded photograph taken more than forty years before, even as a grown man, I would admit I still missed him.

– Willie Morris

Oftentimes the pain of grief can feel like a physical wound. Social distress (grieving) is processed in the same part of the brain as pain from injuries. Take care of yourself as if you just sustained a major injury or underwent surgery, because that’s what your body thinks just happened.

Do what helps: I find it’s helpful to write about my loss, but others find it more helpful to talk or to do volunteer work. Surround yourself with understanding and empathetic people. Make a memorial for your dog, if you wish. Plant a tree, sponsor a homeless dog at your local shelter, or bring freshly baked cookies to an adoption event for the volunteers.

At some point, grief does fade, although it never truly leaves us. You’ll find yourself smiling and laughing at memories of your dog instead of crying. Reminders of your dog’s happy moments will make you joyful instead of remorseful. Perhaps a new relationship will blossom with another dog, never replacing that which you had with your previous companion, but richer for the lessons that your old friend taught you. Each new dog benefits from the teachings of the ones who came before, and opening your heart to a new dog when the time feels right can be a beautiful tribute to the dog you lost.

There’s a stone I had made for Luke at the top of the hill road, where the pasture opens wide and the setting sun highlights the words carved into its face. “That’ll do, Luke, that’ll do.” The words are said to working dogs all over the world when the chores are done and the flock is settled: “That’ll do dog, come home now, your work is done.” Luke’s work is done too. He took my heart and ran with it, and he’s running still, fast and strong, a piece of my heart bound up with his, forever.

– Patricia McConnell
For the Love of a Dog

My heart goes out to my friends who have said goodbye to wonderful dogs recently. If you have lost a friend, what helped you get through the grief? What lessons did your special dog teach during their time with you? Please share your memorials in the comments below.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Ed Yourdon

“Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.”  Temple Grandin

A Better World… Which Training Method Works Best?

Last month, I attended the Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference in Cincinnati, OH. This five-day conference had over 700 attendees and 23 amazing speakers. Learning from the best (not to mention meeting so many old and new friends from all over the world) is always energizing and exciting.


Dog trainers and dog lovers are at a unique tipping point right now. In spite of setbacks caused by some pervasive myths and less-than-accurate reality shows on television, gentle, reward-based training continues to gain in popularity. Many people have discovered its power to change their dogs’ behavior for the better, and are eager to share this information with others. This movement encompasses many facets of the animal world beyond pet dog training, including exotic animal husbandry and training, service dog work, dog sports of all types, and police or military dog training.

As exciting as this movement is, it has not yet become completely embedded in our culture. Sadly, tribalism is still an issue in dog training as in so very many other facets of human culture, and different dog training “camps” continue to snap at one another’s heels.

New trainers with little experience are often quick to judge others who do things differently from them, and even experienced trainers may find themselves falling victim to this trap. I know that I’m certainly not immune to this issue. It’s very difficult for me to watch dogs being corrected on metal or electronic collars, and I frequently find myself making hasty and incorrect character judgments about people who are training using such methods. When I actually get to know these same trainers, I often find that they are pleasant, caring individuals who want the same things that most reward-based trainers do: well behaved dogs who share wonderful relationships with them.

It’s important for us to remember that all training methods work. If they did not work, they would not still be around. No one is going to write books or teach classes about methods that aren’t effective or that harm dogs, and we need to acknowledge that there are many ways to teach every behavior. Just because a method is different from what you currently use or what you would choose does not mean that the method (or the person using it) is evil. I’ve seen very happy, relaxed dogs wearing corrective collars and very stressed dogs being trained off-leash using a clicker and treats. These dogs’ emotions had much more to do with the skill and abilities of their trainers than the methods being used. Every dog and every trainer is an individual, and when we begin to make all or nothing statements we do damage.

This doesn’t mean that we cannot have strong opinions about the best way to train a dog. I strongly believe that dogs can be trained more quickly and effectively without the use of force. I believe that it’s important to engage dogs in training and to give them choices. I want my dogs to be active rather than passive partners in the training process. I also believe that as a professional, it’s my responsibility to use the same techniques with my clients’ dogs that I do with my own, and to avoid techniques that I believe have the possibility of causing harm.

In order to promote change, we must first create a dialogue. By belittling or criticizing other trainers, we build walls and prevent conversation. There is a lot that reward-based trainers can learn from traditional or remote collar trainers, and vice versa. I encourage any other trainer to audit my classes at no cost, and would urge my colleagues to do likewise. Furthermore, I regularly invite other local trainers (of all methodologies) to join myself and my fellow instructors for continuing education get-togethers. We can learn so much from one another when we are respectful and open-minded.

Find joy with your dog! Photo by SC Studios.

I’m often asked how to encourage change in training clubs and organizations, and my best advice is to stop preaching. In order to promote positive changes in the way our friends, relatives, and training buddies treat their dogs, we must first show what is possible. Nobody wants to shock, pinch, hit, kick, or jerk their best friend. Prove that your methods are better by doing what you as a trainer or dog lover do best. Find joy with your dog. Train your dog well. Show that special bond you have built up with your dog as an engaged partner. Answer questions openly and without judgment. And above all, be kind. We all want the best for the animals we love.

Let’s all work together to create a better world for our dogs.