Category Archives: Rally Titles

Training Your Reactive Dog

We’ve discussed what reactivity is and how to manage your reactive dog. Now let’s get to the meat of the problem: what can be accomplished with training? Quite a bit, actually! Consider Layla, who used to lunge and bark at dogs, people, bikes, and even lawn ornaments. She recently earned her ARCHX title in rally obedience, which required her to walk past many unfamiliar dogs and people in a crowded, charged environment, then work off-leash and sometimes at a distance from me with focus and precision. She was able to ignore barking dogs, chattering people, and the judge following us around with a clipboard. Outside of obedience, Layla also works as a neutral dog for shelter dog evaluations and Growl classes.

This transformation didn’t take place overnight, and it required diligent training and management. However, the rewards of watching my formerly anxious and reactive dog handle situations that previously sent her into a frenzy with confidence and aplomb are well worth all the work. Learning to communicate with one another has deepened our relationship and turned our training from a dictatorship to a partnership.

Photo by Gus.

Photo by Gus.

Every reactive dog is different, but the general principles of working with a reactive dog are very similar. Here are some of the key aspects to keep in mind as you work with your dog:

1) Work with a professional. Okay, this may seem a little self-serving coming from a trainer who spends the majority of my time working with reactivity. But in all seriousness, you need to find a kind and experienced trainer who can either work with you in person or remotely (many trainers now offer Skype appointments or telephone consults). Not only will you benefit from having an extra pair of eyes devoted to your training, but working with someone who is not emotionally involved will keep you and your dog on track.

Still not convinced? Consider this: when one of my dogs started to display reactive behaviors, I hired another trainer to work with us even though this is my career. I could reel off the steps to solving a reactive behavior problem such as my dog was experiencing in my sleep, but I knew I was too close to the problem to be objective.

2) Manage stress carefully. Whether your dog becomes anxious or experiences “good stress” from over-the-top joy, stress hormones are hard on the body and may impact your dog’s ability to learn. If you know that chronic stress is influencing your dog’s behavior, consider taking a cortisol vacation.

3) Learn a new language. Dogs have a complex, nuanced vocabulary, but they don’t use verbal language like us.  The more we can learn about what their body language is saying, the less frustrated they’ll be and the easier it will become to prevent reactions. Do you know what a wagging tail, lip lick, or turn away mean?

4) Teach impulse control. Most reactive dogs have a very difficult time controlling themselves. Teaching your dog to control himself (as opposed to you physically controlling him) will give him the tools to turn his own emotional thermostat down if he starts running too hot. Games such as “it’s your choice,” off-switch games, doggy zen, and leave it are wonderful ways to increase your dog’s self control.

5) Make relaxation rewarding. Mat work, the Protocol for Relaxation, and bodywork (such as TTouch and other massage) are great for reactive dogs. Think of them as canine biofeedback. Many reactive dogs have a hard time relaxing, so help your dog learn to let go.

6) Change the association. In many cases, reactive dogs have been corrected or punished in some way for their behavior. Even if you haven’t ever scolded your dog for reactivity, this step never hurts. Changing the association deals with emotions by pairing pleasant things with the appearance of the trigger. Done correctly, this quickly results in a dog who turns and looks expectantly and happily at his handler upon spying the person or thing that used to provoke a reactive outburst. The Watch the World game is a great place to start with this.

7) Finally, teach your dog what to do instead. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don’t want your dog to react like he used to, make sure you teach him some alternate behaviors that he can use in those situations. Whether you use hand targeting, a Whiplash Turn, the Look at That game, Emergency U-Turns, or attentive heeling, having an easy behavior or two that your dog can perform to earn a reward can make the difference between success or failure in a tough situation.

If you live in Minnesota, consider contacting us for private training or signing up for an Agility Unleashed, Focus & Control, or Growl class to address your dog’s reactive behavior. Too far away to work with us? Look for a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in your area.

If you’ve worked with a reactive dog, which of these principles did you find the most helpful? Is there anything you think I’ve missed? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

Is it really disobedience?

It was our seventh rally run of the day. Layla and I waited patiently at the start line, her eyes bright as she gazed up at me. When the judge gave us the okay to start, we began the course, my dog’s tail keeping time with the beat of my feet.

Photo by Robin Sallie

Photo by Robin Sallie


When we hit the third sign, I asked Layla to stay in a sit as I left her, and she popped into a stand. I asked again, and she went into a down. We circled away from the sign, then came back and she held her sit-stay as I walked away.

I had already noticed that Layla was striding short in her right rear leg earlier in the day, especially when she first came out of her crate. I had a friend watch one of our runs, and she noticed the same thing. She also wondered whether Layla’s left hip could be sore.

It was clear that Layla wanted to keep working. We had two runs left, both in our favorite class, Level 3. Not knowing whether she was sore from an old neck injury or something new, I decided to scratch those runs.

Because of our history and relationship, it was very clear to me that my dog wasn’t disobeying in the ring, but rather communicating. Sadly, this is not always the case, and I see many dogs who are corrected for “disobedience” when they are really trying to tell something to their people.

Remember, your dog cannot tell you where or why it hurts. He can’t choose which sports or activities he participates in. That’s on you, and it’s on you to make sure that your dog both enjoys and can physically do anything you ask of him.

If you use any compulsive training, you need to ask yourself very seriously whether pain or discomfort could be contributing to your dog’s behavior before you correct him. If you use motivational training, you better be damn sure that your dog isn’t hurting himself in his efforts to earn whatever reward he loves so much. Much like Layla will push through pain for the joy of working with me in rally obedience (and for the lamb lung she gets to eat after she’s done!), many dogs will ignore their physical discomfort in order to get a treat, toy, play session, or other valued reward.

Physical limitations can cause a whole host of problems that masquerade as behavior or training issues. Two of my rally students have discovered that their large dogs had hip issues after I pressed them to see their vet. One of these dogs would sit more slowly and reluctantly the longer he worked, and the other tended to “puppy sit” to one side rather than sitting straight. Had we approached either of these issues as a training problem and started drilling sits, we would have been causing unnecessary pain to these lovely, willing dogs. Putting these wonderful dogs into conflict by asking them to do something that was uncomfortable over and over would have been cruel, but knowing that they could have pain issues allows us to focus on working with them in such a way that we build their muscles and make the tasks we wish them to complete doable for their physical limitations.

Outside of the sports community, many behavior problems are caused by pain. Recently, I worked with clients whose elderly dog had begun growling at their toddler. The dog was clearly in conflict, eager to interact with the child but concerned about being hurt. The child would crawl on the dog, and he would turn away, lick his lips, and eventually growl. Once the parents took their dog to the vet for pain medication and started providing him with a safe place to get away from the toddler when he was sore, he stopped growling. He wasn’t aggressive, just arthritic. Growling was the only way he could communicate how very much it hurt him when the toddler climbed onto his inflamed joints.

When I consult with pet or performance dog owners, I frequently ask that they see their vet before further appointments. A cracked tooth, thyroid disorder, ear infection, or back pain can and will cause changes to behavior, and all the training in the world will do nothing if the physical problem isn’t addressed. I see a much greater number of allergies or GI issues with my anxious and reactive dog clients than with the dogs I see in regular training classes (and if you’re a researcher who could help quantify this, please contact me – I’d love to work with you!). Physical stress causes behavior changes: just think of the last time you were sick or hurt.

We need to be our dogs’ advocates. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt. Dogs are rarely lazy or disobedient or stubborn, but are frequently unmotivated, unable, or unsure about the task in front of them. Don’t be afraid to seek a second or even third opinion, either. Many of my own and clients’ dogs have been diagnosed only after seeing a specialist or sports vet who had more experience with the problem. Vets are only human, and no vet will get every diagnosis right every time. If you think something’s going on with your dog, keep pushing until you get an answer. You’d want those you love to do the same for you.

Have you ever had a physical problem masquerade as a behavior or training issue? How did you discover what was truly driving your dog’s “problem” behavior? Please share your stories in the comments below!

Relationship Q’s: Listening to Your Dog

Recently, several Paws Abilities instructors and students attended an APDT Rally Trial. During this successful weekend, we had many brags. However, not every moment has to do with ribbons and awards. I’d like to write about one of these today.

I’ve written about Dobby on this blog before. Dobby is an adolescent mixed breed (I call him a “Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog”). He came to me as a very fearful dog, pancaking his belly to the floor and peeing all over himself if he was so much as looked at. Dobby’s come a long way, and I’m incredibly proud of his progress. True to his nature, he was both earnest and enthusiastic during his time in the rally ring last weekend, trying his hardest to do as I asked. While I certainly have some further training to do with him in order to solidify his understanding of the rally game, he scored well in his first run, earning 209 out of a possible 210 points.

See for yourself here:

If there’s one characteristic that defines Dobby, it’s how very hard he tries to be right. This is a dog who desperately wants to do well, a trait that can be both a blessing and an enormous responsibility. Because of the relationship we’ve formed through training, Dobby will try with all his might to work through some pretty intense fear or stress if I ask him to.

Many clients come to me with dogs who are very similar to Dobby. These dogs are sensitive to the environment, to people, to other dogs. They worry, and they feel the need to be watchful in new situations. If the pressure becomes too much, they react by withdrawing into their shell or by exploding into an impressive series of barks and growls while lunging at the end of their leash. Some dogs, Dobby included, may bite if they feel sufficiently terrified and trapped. These dogs require their owners to support them, to protect them, and to communicate with them. Most importantly, though, these dogs require their owners to listen to them.

Working with a fearful dog, especially one with whom you have a strong relationship based on trust such as Dobby’s and mine, is an enormous responsibility. While we may understand that the things our dog finds frightening are harmless, our dog doesn’t feel that way. Forcing them to face their fears head-on because we feel those fears are silly damages our relationship and doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Fears and phobias are sticky things, as anyone who’s ever felt afraid yourself understands. If you’re terrified of spiders, you’re not going to be okay with me placing a tarantula on your lap, even if I laugh at you and tell you that the tarantula can’t hurt you.

Our first responsibility when working with a fearful dog is always to that dog himself. Silly as his fears may seem to us, they are very real to him. When Dobby entered the rally ring later in the day, I could immediately tell that he was more concerned than before. Why he was concerned is immaterial, and I honestly couldn’t say. We had the same judge, and while we had changed rings we were in the same building. The area was no busier than the one we had been in before. While I may not know his reasons, Dobby told me by his reactions that he was uncomfortable.

Check out his body language in this second video:

In this later run, Dobby felt the need to look around much more than before. He was sometimes slow to respond to cues, even needing a second cue to sit at one point because he was so busy looking for danger. He was conflicted, unable to devote as much attention to his performance because he felt compelled to keep an eye on the judge, the exhibitors, and everything else that was going on.

Many people would consider Dobby’s performance in this later run to be a training issue. I disagree. A fearful dog such as this loses focus, not because he doesn’t understand how to focus on his handler, but because his fear is forcing him to watch for danger. The lack of focus is a symptom, and the best way to treat it is to treat the underlying cause. Just as a cough suppressant doesn’t cure pneumonia, training the dog to watch you more closely in scary settings doesn’t cure the underlying fear issue, only masking it for a short while and setting the dog up to feel more pressured and conflicted. Dobby’s lack of focus here was not a training issue, but rather a confidence one. Because he didn’t feel safe and comfortable, he couldn’t give the performance he would otherwise be capable of.

So, what’s the best way to work with a dog like this? In Dobby’s case, I ended our run early. His performance wasn’t awful, and we certainly would have earned a qualifying score, probably in the lower 190’s. Because of his training and relationship with me, Dobby would have continued trying to do as I asked in the ring. However, asking him to remain in that situation where he was clearly uncomfortable would not have been fair to him. Many people were surprised when I walked out halfway through the course, since Dobby wasn’t doing as poorly as some of the other dogs who had already gone. This was immaterial.

The bottom line is that rally obedience (and every other dog sport out there) is a game that we play with our dogs. Our dogs don’t care about the ribbons, the titles, or the bragging rights. They care about doing something with their person. If my dog is not having as much or more fun than I am, I owe it to him to listen to what he’s saying. In Dobby’s case, he was telling me that he wanted to leave. Treats and praise were less important to him than getting away from the uncomfortable situation.

Working with a fearful dog is an enormous responsibility. By putting Dobby into a situation where he felt concerned, I was stepping onto dangerous ground. Trust is a precious and fragile thing, and each time we overface our dogs, we begin to erode that trust. By listening to what my dog was telling me and aborting our run, I was protecting that oh-so-sacred responsibility that my dog has granted me. I was showing him that he could depend on me to listen to him and to put his feelings first.

After we left the ring, I took Dobby for a long walk outside, where he decompressed by sniffing around, rolling on his back in the grass, and playing with a couple dog friends. We ended our day on this positive note, with Dobby feeling comfortable and content. I couldn’t be more proud of his ability to communicate with me and to bounce back from situations that formerly would have left him pancaked in fear.

After Dobby’s last run, a student asked me whether I felt her dog was too stressed in the ring. My answer to her was that I couldn’t answer that question. Every dog is different, and a more confident dog may do absolutely fine with the level of stress that Dobby exhibited. Furthermore, a year ago I wouldn’t have gone into the ring with Dobby if he showed some of the displacement signals apparent on the video, because he was much more fragile then. Only you can examine the relationship you have with your dog, and only you can determine what is best for that individual dog in that moment of time.

Regardless of which sport we choose to play in with our dogs (or whether we decide to do any sports at all), listening is the most vital skill we can bring into the ring. This applies to everyday life just as much as to any sport: vet visits, walks in the park, and trips into the pet store all provide us with the opportunity to support and communicate with our dog. Know your dog. Stop demanding, and start listening. You may be surprised by what you hear back in return.

APDT Rally Trial Brags

Congratulations to every one of the Paws Abilities teams who competed in APDT rally this weekend! We had a great weekend for titles and awards, but more importantly, I was so proud of how supportive and helpful everyone was with one another. Experienced competitors were so helpful with mentoring new participants in the sport, from walking courses together to videotaping runs to answering questions. Each of the Paws Abilities family cheered on and encouraged one another, and I couldn’t be happier to be part of such a great group.

Below are some of the accomplishments from this weekend:

  • Mitchell, a mixed breed, earned his Level 1 title under Amy’s guidance. This was their first rally trial ever.
  • Evan had two picture-perfect runs in the Junior class with his two mixed breeds, Charlotte and Jordi. All of the adult handlers could learn something from watching his kind and patient handling style, and it was clear that both of the dogs absolutely adore him.
  • Shelly earned two legs in Level 1 with both Charlotte and Jordi. Charlotte also earned High Scoring Mixed Breed under her guidance as well as the Sophie Award, which is given to the Level 1A team exhibiting the best positive working relationship built on trust and respect.
  • Tank the Schnauzer mix earned his Level 1 title with Linda.
  • Willow the Australian Shepherd earned multiple legs in Level 1B, and is halfway to earning her Level 1 excellent title. She also had her very first experience in Level 2, and her focus on Carrie was amazing.
  • LeRoy, a mixed breed, earned multiple legs towards his Level 1 excellent title with Julia.
  • Ruler the Basenji earned his second Level 2 leg with Laura.
  • Laura also helped her Chihuahua cross, Cruiser, earn his second Level 1 leg. This may very well have been the cutest rally run ever.
  • Jade the Australian Shepherd earned her Level 1 title with Denise in an incredibly flashy performance.
  • Dalton the mixed breed earned his first Level 1 leg with Sarala and enjoyed every minute of it.
  • Mischief the 6-month-old puppy earned her Puppy Title with an Award of Excellence and also completed her first leg towards her puppy excellent title. She earned first place in every one of her classes. Sara entered Mischief in the trial as a “North American Yodelhound” since her actual breed mix is unknown.
  • Dobby the Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog earned two legs towards his Level 1 excellent title with Sara.
  • Layla the Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog completed her Level 2 Excellent title and also earned a leg towards her Level 3 excellent title. She was the High Scoring MMBC Member Dog.

What the Dog Heard

“He’s so stubborn. He knows how to sit; he just won’t do it unless I show him a treat.” My client glares at his bulldog puppy. The puppy gazes back at him softly, waiting for him to produce a treat. The second the owner pulls out a cookie, the puppy plops into a sit, grinning and wiggling.

Keeping my amusement to myself (what a clever pup!), I demonstrate to his owner how to reverse expectations. Showing the puppy a piece of chicken, I ask him to sit.He immediately plops down and I praise him exuberantly, but withhold the treat. Very ostentatiously, I set the chicken chunk on a nearby counter, then ask the puppy once again to sit. He stares at me, at the chicken, back at me. He remains standing. “Told you so!” the owner crows. “Bulldogs just aren’t very smart.” Ten long seconds later, the puppy’s rear end starts to lower. Before he’s fully in a sit, I click his downward movement and hand him the chicken, telling him what an intelligent pup he is. After a couple of minutes the puppy is slamming his rear enthusiastically on the ground on either a hand signal or verbal cue with no food lure. Stubborn? No, just confused about the rules.

I can understand my client’s need to label his puppy as stubborn and stupid. Last winter, I adopted a broken dog. I had been looking for a dog for a while. However, I hadn’t been looking for this particular dog.

Dobby started off as one of a long line of foster dogs. A neophobic mixed breed from the local pound, he was adorable but was most certainly not the future competition prospect I had in mind. He was hand shy, terrified of doorways, and so overwhelmed with his change in circumstances that he skipped every other meal. Trying to use a food lure or hand target resulted in him hitting the ground and trying to become one with the floor. Guests to my home caused him to growl and back up quickly, eyes wide and tail glued to his belly button.

My other dog, Layla, had different ideas about him. She fell in love, sleeping curled up around this dog and spontaneously inviting him to play on a daily basis. Since she’s typically highly dog-selective and only tolerates fosters, this was so out of character that I sat up and took notice. After two months of her embarrassing love affair, I gave in. The adoption paperwork was signed, and I found myself the proud owner of a dog who flattened to the floor and peed all over himself if I so much as looked at him cross-eyed.

I joked with my friends that I was just attracted to “broken” dogs. My other dogs have also been less-than-perfect when they came to live with me. I tried not to feel resentful that my plans for a competitive sports dog were being pushed back several years. It was worth it to see Layla so blissfully happy.

That’s when it hit me. I may not be calling my new dog stubborn or stupid, but labeling him as a “broken” dog was just as damning.

Words have power. It’s easy to forget this. In fact, our culture refutes this truth on a daily basis. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a lie that we tell ourselves from the time we’re little. It feels good to think that we’re immune to the power of suggestion. We’re stronger than that. We know how to look at facts and think rationally. How well we fool ourselves.

The real truth is that labels are incredibly powerful. One need look no further than the “Pit Bull problem” to see how this plays out. Two similar bite incidents happen on the same day. Both involve damage to a young child’s face by the resident dog. One involves a Labrador Retriever, one an American Pit Bull Terrier. The incident with the Lab is reported in two local papers. The incident with the Pit Bull is picked up by the Associated Press and winds up sparking debate on multiple national news shows about the need for Breed Specific Legislation. Label the biting dog with a different breed, and the headlines become so much less sexy. Pit Bulls are not Labradors, and Labs are not Pits. However, the “Pit Bull” label has come to mean something entirely different to the general public and the media than it does to those of us who work with these dogs on a regular basis. Dogs are profiled based on the size of their head and the mass of their muscles rather than being approached as individuals.

By calling my dog broken, even jokingly, I was damaging our prospects before we even started. Any time we label something, we create mental associations. When I think of the word broken, I think of having to repair something, of possibly not being able to fix it. Word associations pop up in my mind: discarded, unusable, neglected, thrown out, useless. These mental images were being attached, however unconsciously, to my new dog.

Realizing this, I decided to try an experiment. I had already begun a desensitization and counter-conditioning program with Dobby, taking him to quiet places and rewarding him lavishly for brave behavior. I was working within his comfort zone and patiently encouraging him to explore the world. I changed absolutely nothing about this training plan. The only detail I altered was how I described him. Instead of speaking about Dobby as broken, rescued, neophobic, or terrified, I invented new labels. Clicking and feeding him a food reward for walking through a doorway without crouching, I cooed to him about what a “big, brave boy” he was. When he finally started to offer sits, I praised him as “SUCH a clever boy!” Over and over, the little dog heard, “Dobby’s clever.” “Dobby’s brave.” “Dobby’s a good dog.”

I expected results. I’d been seeing progress already, and I figured this small change could only improve things. After four months, if my little dog was still so terrified that it impacted his quality of life, I would talk to my veterinarian about a referral to a board certified veterinary behaviorist to get him further help.

This proved unnecessary. Suddenly, my “neophobic pound puppy” was playing tug like a Schutzhund dog and jumping up on strangers in friendly greeting. He would go into the backyard with a ball in his mouth to run and run, tail up and eyes sparkling. He bounced around me as I worked in the garden, and pranced past the bikes, joggers, and baseball players in the park as if they were only so much scenery. He passed the “appearance and grooming” test in the Canine Good Citizen exam, sitting calmly by my side as a complete stranger handled his ears and paws, then ran a brush down his back.

Each day he became braver, and suddenly I had my competition prospect. Here was a dog with a great work ethic, drive to spare, and the intense desire to work cooperatively with me. Here was a dog who, while still unsure about new things, was willing to trust that I would keep him safe and to try his very best each time I asked it. The only difference? A few small words. The power of suggestion.

It’s true that dogs couldn’t care less about words. Words are as foreign a concept to your dog as scent is to you. However, dogs live in a human world. In our world, words have incredible power. Mental imagery allows us to practice dealing successfully (or not!) with a given situation repeatedly before that situation ever arises. Labels create subconscious associations that influence our behavior, which in turn shapes our dogs’ behavior.

Simple changes can produce big results. My new dog is brave, clever, and willing. He’s even earned his very first APDT Rally Obedience title and was able to walk through the busy trial site, with crowds of unfamiliar people and dogs, with his ears and tail up. My client’s Bulldog puppy is stubborn no more. On graduation night of Beginning Obedience class, he proudly showed off his dog’s new trick repertoire: shake, wave, high five, and yes, sit on cue with no cookie in sight. As his classmates applauded, a fellow student expressed doubt that her dog would ever become so well behaved. My client’s answer? “My dog made it easy: he’s really smart.”

Dogs are incredibly gifted at reading intent in our tone, posture, and movement. Just because they don’t know the literal meaning of each word doesn’t mean they aren’t influenced by language. Stop for a minute and consider this: what have you been saying to yourself… and what has your dog heard?