Monthly Archives: December 2012

What’s Important to You?

For a professional dog trainer, my dogs are not very “well trained.” They wear Freedom harnesses on walks to keep them from pulling. They get excited when visitors come over. They bark when people come to the door.

purplepenRecently, I posted a picture on Facebook of my youngest dog, Mischief, with purple ink on her paws from a pen she had just destroyed. A good friend of mine was very concerned, and contacted me privately. Perhaps I might be hurting my business, she worried. Wouldn’t people be less likely to hire me if they saw that my puppy was destructive? What kind of dog trainer would let her dog do something so blatantly naughty?

Well, I would, for one. I love bragging about the amazing things my dogs can do, but I’m also not afraid to share their less impressive moments with the world. I thought Mischief’s pen murder was cute and funny. The pen had fallen from my desk and she did what any curious young dog would: she picked it up and chewed on it to see what it was. She doesn’t chew on other things that she finds on the floor such as my shoes, dirty clothes, or furniture, because I’ve taught her that these are not appropriate things to put in her mouth. If I wanted to teach her not to touch pens on the floor, it would be easy to do, but since pens rarely wind up on the ground it’s not something I worry about.

Here’s the thing: we each train what’s important to us. What I find important with my pets and what you feel are a priority may be very different, and that’s okay. Our pets become part of our family, and every family has its own unique rules and priorities. As long as your dog fits well in your family, it doesn’t matter what skills she knows or doesn’t know.

It’s important to me that my dogs travel well, and indeed they all ride quietly in the car, usually sleeping for most of the trip. They don’t bark out the car windows or pace restlessly. It’s important to me that they have rock-solid leave its, so most of my training sessions involve toys or treats on the ground, which my dogs ignore unless I give them permission to grab them. If we walk past roadkill or animal feces, my dogs respond quickly and happily when I tell them it’s not theirs.

As a family, we have certain rules that I expect my dogs to follow. It’s important that they enjoy their crates, and all three dogs are happy to hang out in their kennels whether I’m home or away. With my odd work hours it’s vital that my dogs not wake me up when I’m asleep unless it’s an emergency. When I’m sleeping, all three dogs curl up and sleep too, whether it’s 2am or 2pm. They never pester me for meals or wake me up, even if I want to sleep in.

Loose leash walking? Well, sometimes.

Loose leash walking? Well, sometimes.

Your priorities are probably very different, and there’s nothing wrong with that! If you want your dogs to walk on a loose leash, you can have a dog who walks politely by your side on nothing but a flat collar. Maybe having the leash yanked on or using a harness bothers you, and if that’s the case we should fix that issue. It doesn’t bother me if my dogs walk ahead of me, so I let them. We all enjoy our walks, so there’s no reason to change their behavior.

Similarly, maybe you want your dog to behave impeccably when visitors come over. Fine! Teach him how to do so. I rarely have visitors, much less those who aren’t “dog people,” so it’s not a priority for me. I actually prefer to have dogs who bark when people come to the door because I don’t live in a great neighborhood and this makes me feel safer. If you want your dog to be quiet when people ring the bell, you can teach him that.

When I work with clients on a one-on-one basis, I ask that they fill out a behavior questionnaire before our first appointment. Besides collecting information on their dog’s day-to-day life, this questionnaire asks what their training goals are. It also asks whether that client is considering rehoming their dog if they cannot fix the problem behavior as well as whether they’re considering euthanasia.

These last two questions are some of the very most important, because they help me figure out what that person’s priorities are. Some people are at their wit’s end when they can’t housetrain their puppy and are ready to rehome him if they can’t solve the issue immediately. Others are horrified that I ask these questions and wouldn’t dream of rehoming or euthanizing their dog, even though he has a multiple-bite history and has been declared a dangerous dog by the city. While it might be easy for us to pass judgment on the former owner for “giving up” on their dog over such a “minor” issue, for that person the issue might not be minor at all.

I once worked with someone whose dog was highly aggressive towards people. This person lived in the country and didn’t care about her dog’s aggressive behavior at all: it was easily managed by crating the dog when she had the occasional visitor and by muzzling her during yearly vet visits. So why did she hire me? Her dog had killed one of her chickens, and that was unacceptable to her. We taught her dog to leave the chickens alone without ever addressing her aggressive behavior towards people, and my client was thrilled with the training.

As easy as it may be to pass judgment on other people who do not share the same priorities as you, it’s neither kind nor fair. If your dog is not fitting into your family, work to change that by teaching them how to succeed in your household. If you don’t care whether your dog holds a perfect sit-stay while you open the door, don’t let anyone else bully you into obsessing over it.

We bring dogs into our families as friends, companions, and playmates. Enjoy your dogs for who they are, and for who they have become with your guidance and support. Enjoy their individual personalities and the special, unique bond that you have with them. Your relationship with your dog is one-of-a-kind. Cherish it, and never let someone else tell you that there’s anything wrong with it just because their priorities are different.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

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“To foster is to cut out a piece of your heart, hand it to strangers, and beg them to be gentle with it.”

– Laura McKinney, Rollin’ With Rubi

My Favorite Things

[To be sung to the tune of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music]

Photo by Parl

Photo by Parl

Raindrops on garbage and chasing fast kittens
Stealing and chewing up my master’s mittens
Empty McDonalds bags tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

Rolling in cow pies and stinky dead rabbits
Tug toys and rawhides and crotch-sniffing habits
Hearing the sirens so that I can sing
These are a few of my favori… SQUIRREL?!!

Big muddy pawprints on girls in white dresses
Hot dogs and hydrants and making big messes
The excitement I feel when the doorbell it rings
These are a few of my favorite things

When the flea bites, when the shot stings
When my mommy’s mad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad

Eating the cat food and scooping the litter
Bugging my owner when he’s trying to twitter
New squeaky toys that my owner will fling
These are a few of my favorite things

Peeing on lampposts and humping the poodle
Wild crazy playtime with six labradoodles
Shocking my owner with my static cling
These are a few of my favorite things

Running around with the kid’s dirty diaper
Right before bedtime when I get real hyper
Good countersurfing that gets me some wings
These are a few of my favorite things

When the flea bites, when the shot stings
When my mommy’s mad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad!

This was cowritten with the talented Mel Bussey Silverman of Training Tracks in Ohio.

Missing Layla: the dangers of xylitol poisoning

Even with Dobby and Mischief asleep next to me, my house feels empty today. It’s easy to take what you have for granted until it’s not there, and today I’m missing Layla like crazy. I’m lucky that this isn’t a permanent loss, but only a temporary one. Layla is spending the weekend at the emergency vet clinic, and the house is empty without her.

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Layla was lucky. Last night, she got into a pack of gum containing xylitol, an artificial sweetener. Had I not caught her eating the pack and recognized the danger, things may have turned out very differently. My house might have been empty forever. Just the thought of losing her feels like a physical blow.

Xylitol is an artifical sweetener frequently used in sugarfree gum, candies, and baked goods. It has some oral health benefits for people and is frequently used as a sugar substitute for people who cannot have real sugar. It’s also highly toxic to dogs.

Even a small bit of xylitol can cause dangerous drops in blood sugar. The first symptoms of xylitol poisoning are oftentimes vomiting, glazed eyes, weakness, lethargy or depression, and ataxia (balance issues). These can be followed by seizures and coma. Larger doses can lead to hypokalemia (decreased potassium) and liver failure.

As soon as I found Layla eating the gum, I gave her hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting. While my other two dogs both threw up, Layla didn’t, and was rushed to the e-vet where they were finally able to get her to vomit about 45 minutes after she ate the gum. By that time she was feeling poorly enough to be cooperative with several strangers handling her, inserting a catheter and taking blood.

As of this afternoon, Layla’s prognosis is good. Her glucose and liver values are great, and she’s being kept on fluids and continually monitored. If she continues to do well, she can come home Sunday evening or Monday morning.

Layla was lucky. She was lucky that I recognized the danger soon enough to get her treated before she began showing serious symptoms. She was lucky to have a great veterinary team ready to help her. She was lucky that I have enough in savings to cover her treatment and hospitalization so that she could get the care she needs. She was lucky that she’s otherwise strong and healthy.

Not every dog is as lucky as Layla.The number of cases of xylitol toxicity continues to climb each year as this ingredient becomes more common as a sugar substitute. Many dogs don’t make it. Poisoning from other common human foods, including chocolate, grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, and onions are also sadly too common.

It’s empty in my house today, but it won’t be forever. Layla was lucky, and she will be coming home. Please make sure to keep toxic substances out of reach of your pets so that you, too, can continue to enjoy the company of your best friend for many years to come.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Elle Rowbottom

Photo by Elle Rowbottom

“But the life of a dog is not much of a mystery, really. With few exceptions, he will be who he has always been. His routine will be unvarying and his pleasures will be predictable– a pond, a squirrel, a bone, a nap in the sun. It sounds so boring, and yet it is one of the things that make dogs so important to people. In a world that seems so uncertain, in lives that seem sometimes to ricochet from challenge to upheaval and back again, a dog can be counted on in a way that’s true of little else.” — Anna Quindlen, Good Dog. Stay.

Bathing Your Dog

Having worked as a groomer for three years, I notice dirty dogs. Dogs who smell, dogs whose fur feels gritty or oily, and dogs with matted hair all bother me. However, working as a trainer, I also understand how difficult it can be for some people to bathe their dogs, as well as the reluctance people may have to bring their dog to a professional groomer. Here’s how to make bathtime easier on everyone.


Most dogs should be bathed regularly to keep their skin and coat in good shape. If your dog lives indoors, it’s also important to keep him or her relatively clean for sanitary reasons. How often you bathe your dog depends on many factors. In general, dogs should be bathed at least once a year, and no more frequently than once a week. Corded or hairless breeds may have different needs, so if you have one of these breeds make sure to talk to your breeder. I bathe my own dogs every 6-8 weeks (or more frequently if they roll in something icky).

If your dog isn’t a big fan of bathtime, do some prep work to make your job easier. Feed your dog in the bathtub (or wherever you plan to bathe him) to create positive associations with the area. Make sure that you use a non-slip mat or other grippy material if the surface your dog will stand on becomes slippery when wet. If you need to leash your dog during bathtime, use a martingale-type leash. If you must use a slip leash, never tie it to anything.

For long-coated dogs, make sure you can get a comb through your dog’s fur before you bathe him. Washing a matted dog causes the mats to tighten up painfully. If your dog is matted, shave the mats prior to bathing him. Never try to clip a mat out with scissors, as tight mats can pull at the skin and you may cut your dog.

Choose a quality dog shampoo. I use Cloud Star’s Buddy Wash or the Furminator Shampoo for my dogs, as these do not cause any allergic reactions with Layla. Use a tearless shampoo for your dog’s face and head. Dilute the shampoo (about 1 part shampoo to 10 parts water) before using it, regardless of what the label says: diluted shampoo penetrates through the coat better and is easier to rinse off, not to mention being more cost effective. If your dog has an especially greasy coat or has anything messy stuck in their fur, a small amount of plain Dawn dishwashing detergent can be added to the shampoo to cut through the oil. Note that this may dry your dog’s skin out, so don’t overuse the dishwashing liquid!

I smear peanut butter or cheese whiz on the side of the bathtub to keep my dogs still and content during bathtime. They stand quietly and lick at their special treat while I’m washing them. Wet your dog down thoroughly, then apply the diluted shampoo, starting with their head and working backwards down the body. Rinse in the same direction. If the dog is especially stinky or dirty, wash them twice.

Following the shampoo with a conditioning rinse will keep your dog’s skin and coat healthier, make long-coated dogs less prone to matting, and may reduce shedding in some dogs. I use the same brands of conditioner as I do shampoo (Cloud Star’s Buddy Rinse or the Furminator Deshedding Solution). Work the conditioner into the coat, spending extra time working it into any problem areas (such as behind the ears, where longer fur is likely to tangle), then let it sit for a short while before rinsing it thoroughly.

Towel or blow dry your dog, then let them enjoy the post-bath zoomies!

Does your dog enjoy baths? What products have you found helpful, and do you have any other bathing tips to share? Please comment below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Matt

Photo by Matt

“No matter how naughty your dog, and regardless of behaviours that you are struggling with, you need to create a minimum of ten moments a day where you can truly praise your dog with pride. It is up to you to create these moments – do not wait for your dog to give them to you.”  -Unknown

“It’s all in how they’re raised.”

“All puppies are blank slates.” “If you do everything right with your puppy, you’ll have a great adult dog.” “If dogs have behavioral issues, we should blame the handle end of the leash.”

These are common misconceptions I hear as a trainer, and they make me so very sad. Behavior is a combination of nature and nurture, and if we could just take a moment to look logically at these myths, we would see just how silly they are.

Photo by Tavallai

Photo by Tavallai

Genetics influence behavior. This is part of the reason we have breeds: if you want a dog to work your sheep, you’re going to choose a Border Collie, not a Brittany Spaniel. Even though the two dogs have the same basic size and shape, one is more likely to have the instinctive motor patterns to do the work than the other. Getting a Border Collie whose parents successfully work sheep further increases the likelihood of your dog having the necessary genetic ability to be a great sheepherder.

In the 1970’s, Murphree and colleagues began to study the difference between normal and fearful lines of Pointers. In cross-fostering experiments, puppies from fearful parents were raised by normal mothers. These puppies still turned out fearful, in spite of proper socialization and a confident role model.

Interestingly, puppies from normal parents who were raised by fearful mothers also turned out fearful. Environment also influences behavior, and the best genetics in the world can’t create the perfect dog without a supportive upbringing.

If we believe that the way a dog is raised is solely responsible for his adult behavior, how can the tremendous success of the Pit Bulls from Michael Vick’s kennel and many other fighting operations be explained? With their neglectful and abusive upbringing, we would expect these dogs to be vicious and unsalvageable. Yet many of them have gone on to become wonderful pets. Some compete in agility or work as certified therapy dogs. Many Pit Bull enthusiasts are adamant that it’s all in how the dogs are raised, yet the success of many former fighting dogs tells us that it’s more than just that. These amazing, resilient dogs also have to have a sound genetic basis to explain their ability to overcome adversity.

On the other end of the spectrum, many of my clients have done everything right, yet continue to struggle with anxiety or aggression issues in their dogs. Certain lines of Golden Retrievers are known for severe resource guarding issues that often show up even in tiny puppies. Most of my German Shepherd behavioral consults occur when these dogs hit 12-18 months and growl at or bite a stranger. Miniature Australian Shepherds are likely to come to me due to extreme fear issues at 6-10 months of age. Terrier owners often call me when their dog hits social maturity and begins fighting with housemate dogs. While these traits may be common in my area, trainers in other areas of the country report completely different issues in the same breeds due to different lines of dogs with different genetic potentials living and being bred near them. I also see hundreds of friendly, stable, solid Goldens, German Shepherds, mini Aussies, and terriers in our Beginning Obedience and Puppy Kindergarten classes.

The truth is that dogs are born with a certain genetic potential that will influence which behavioral traits they display. This could include a dog’s sociability towards people, dogs, or other animals; their level of boldness or fearfulness; their likelihood to display anxious or compulsive behaviors; whether they are calm and confident or nervous and neurotic; and many other behavioral factors.

Let’s look at one trait to make this more clear. We know that dogs born from fearful parents are more likely to be fearful and that dogs with bold parents are more likely to be bold. There is a behavioral continuum, with boldness on one end and fearfulness on the other. Here’s what that spectrum would look like. A dog on the left end of the spectrum would be incredibly fearful, while a dog on the right end would be exceedingly confident. Most dogs wind up somewhere in the middle, and dogs on both ends of the spectrum present challenges for their owners.


A dog with bold parents is born with the potential to be quite bold. He is physically capable of bold behavior. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will become a bold dog. If his experiences as a puppy and young adult are very limited or if he has negative, scary experiences, he may develop into a fearful adult due to environmental influence. His genetic potential gave him the ability to be bold, but his environment did not nurture that ability.


On the other hand, consider a dog who is born from fearful parents. This dog does not have the genetic potential to be bold. Even given an incredibly supportive and nurturing environment as a puppy and young adult, this dog will always be somewhat fearful because the physical ability to be bold is just not there.


These dogs may present identically when we look at their behavior, in spite of the very different levels of dedication their owners had to socializing and supporting their puppies. However, the genetically bold dog may make a lot of progress with appropriate behavioral interventions, while the genetically fearful dog makes little or none. This has nothing to do with the skill level of each dog’s owner, but rather with the raw material each dog started with. (This is also, by the way, why ethical trainers do not make guarantees: without knowing what genetic package a dog starts with, there’s no way to know how much progress that dog can make until we try.)

Do you see how very unfair statements about how “it’s all in how they’re raised” are to committed, wonderful dog owners who have dogs with more difficult baselines? Just because your dog flew through a behavior mod program doesn’t mean every dog can or will, and assuming that it’s all because of the owner is unrealistic and downright cruel. I regularly work with wonderful people who do the best they can with difficult dogs, and that adage about walking a mile in someone’s shoes is applicable to their situation. As if living with and training a more difficult dog weren’t enough, these people are often subjected to comments and insinuations that if they were just a better handler, a better trainer, or a better leader, their dog would be perfectly fine. This is untrue and incredibly hurtful, and it needs to stop.

Do you know anything about your dog’s parents? What environmental and genetic factors do you think contributed to your dog’s behavior? Please share your stories in the comment section below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Karen

“I wonder if other dogs think poodles are members of a weird religious cult.”              — Rita Rudner