Category Archives: Trainer Development

Why I’m Not a “Force Free” Trainer

Force free. It sounds great, doesn’t it? Of course dog training should be force free! Yet when a recent client asked if I was a force free trainer, I said I wasn’t. My client was taken aback, as many of my blog readers probably are. Let me explain.

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I have several issues with the idea of labeling the training that Paws Abilities offers as “force free.” My biggest problem with the label is that it says nothing about what we actually do. Focusing on negatives like this is one of the biggest advertising gimmicks of all time. “No corn, wheat, or soy!” the dog food package proclaims. Yet, reading the label shows that there’s enough barley, rice, and oatmeal in the food that dogs who have issues with carbs are still going to react negatively. “Sugar free – No Sugar Crash!” the 5-hour Energy drink shouts, saying nothing about how your body might react to the caffeine crash later in the day.

Focus on negatives like this is meant to make you think poorly of competitor’s products or services. When you see the label that says “no by-products” on the dog food package, you start thinking that maybe by-products are bad for your dog, and wondering why other dog food companies would use them. When you see “force free” on a dog trainer’s website, your mental image of a trainer shoving or jerking a dog around makes you feel relieved that at least this trainer doesn’t do that.

What the focus on negatives doesn’t tell you is what the trainer actually does. While I don’t use or recommend choke, prong, or electronic collars, that doesn’t tell you a single thing about what I will do to your dog. Can I solve the behavioral issues you’re experiencing with your pet? How quickly and effectively will I do so? These are probably the bigger questions on your mind, and knowing what tools I do or don’t use isn’t going to tell you a whole hell of a lot about how effective I am. There are good and bad trainers of all training methodologies, and more has to do with the trainer’s experience than with the methods they use.

Which brings me to the second reason I don’t consider myself or my other instructors force free. The dog decides what “force” means, and we can’t always know that until we try a given training intervention. Is it considered forceful to stand on a dog’s leash so that he has enough leash to comfortably sit, stand, or lie down, but not enough to jump up on a stranger? Is it forceful to use body blocks to keep my dog from lunging at a passing bike? Is it forceful to fit a dog with a Gentle Leader or front-attach harness so that when he pulls on his leash he ends up facing his handler? I can’t tell you, and neither can anyone else. Each of these training methods is one that I frequently use, and each of them produces different results for different dogs. For some dogs, these methods might be considered forceful. A soft dog who’s very sensitive to spacial pressure might be really uncomfortable when her handler body blocks her, for example. For that dog, we may have to adjust the handler’s technique (perhaps having her handler lean towards her instead of actually stepping in front of her, for example). But we can’t know until we look at the dog’s response.

I’ve watched as a friend’s dog was happily and quickly recalled using low-level shocks from an electronic collar. While the tool isn’t one I use or recommend, in this dog’s case I didn’t see any body language that told me that the dog was uncomfortable or stressed by the use of force. Rather, the dog understood what the sensation on his neck meant, knew how to turn it off, and had a great relationship with his handler. I didn’t consider the interaction forceful and was not uncomfortable with anything I observed, even though the training tool was not one that I typically like seeing used.

On the other hand, I’ve watched a trainer shape a dog to “bang” the teeter totter using a clicker and treats at a seminar and felt highly uncomfortable. The dog was on a leash but was not being physically guided in any way. Still, she couldn’t go more than 6′ away from the teeter totter, and was clearly uncomfortable with the amount of pressure placed on her by the trainer. The dog’s body was low and she was licking her lips and turning her head away from the trainer. Even though I often use clickers and treats to train dogs, I was very uncomfortable with the interaction and didn’t feel like the dog was enjoying the training or building a good relationship with the well-known presenter at all.

The force free training movement would have you believe that the first trainer is evil because of her use of an e-collar, while the second trainer is good because she was using a clicker and treats. However, I bet if we asked the two dogs which was happier with the training they were experiencing, we’d get very different answers. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to start using an e-collar anytime soon (I’m not), or that I don’t think clickers and treats are good training tools (I do). But we have to ask the dog, and the mark of a good trainer has a lot less to do about what tools are in their repertoire as it does with how they modify their techniques based on the animal in front of them. Dogs are individuals, and cookie-cutter techniques don’t work any better for them than they do for the owners at the other end of the leash. The more dogs a trainer has worked with, the better that trainer will be able to change his or her methods to suit the individual that they’re working with at the moment – and the happier and less stressed the dog will be with the training.

I still get it wrong sometimes. Everyone will. I yelp loudly when a puppy nips me, then watch as that puppy shrinks away and realize that I’ve been too forceful. Next time I’ll need to make less noise. I clap my hands and cheer, offering a tug toy as the dog I’m working with gets into heel position, then feel my heart sink as the dog lags behind me. Next time I’ll need to praise and pet quietly, handing the dog a small piece of hot dog. I back an excited adolescent dog away from the dog he’s lunging and barking at, and watch as he continues to carry on. Next time I’ll need to body block him with a quick verbal “I don’t THINK so,” and be ready to reward him when he quiets down. The important thing in each interaction is that I modify my response to the dog to better work for that individual animal.

I’m not force free. I make mistakes in how I handle dogs. But I strive to be fair, kind, and respectful. I’m not force free. But I am helpful, effective, and a trainer who prefers reward-based methods. And doesn’t that tell you a lot more than focusing on what I’m not?

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Weeks Two and Three

Last week, we covered formerly feral puppy Chowder’s first week in our home. By the end of the first week, Chowder was snuggling with us in the evening and enjoying regular play sessions with our dog Trout. He would still run away when approached and flinch if we reached towards him. His crate was his safe haven, and he ran to it whenever he needed a bit of space – a behavior that made it easy to move him from one location to another without having to handle him, as we could carry the crate with Chowder inside wherever we needed him to go. Chowder would still freeze if handled or held, but he was beginning to cautiously investigate his world.

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When Chowder first arrived at our home, we’d noticed some odd hairless spots on his legs and feet, and over the next few days these lesions began to crack and bleed. Soon new spots appeared, and a trip to the vet was in order. When I arrived at the vet clinic, the tech attempted to take Chowder into the back room. I firmly but politely refused, and instead stayed present for the entire skin scraping procedure, feeding Chowder bits of hot dog and cheese. He wasn’t able to eat while being restrained as he was too scared, but quickly returned to munching on bits of treat after the procedure was finished. We played some sniffing games where I scattered treats on his bedding for him to find, and these increased his comfort level and confidence noticeably.

This vet visit brought up an important point about fearful dogs. You are your dog’s advocate. It’s always okay to stand up for what’s best for your individual dog. I knew that had the vet tech taken Chowder to the back room, she would have reached into his crate to pull him out (gently, because she was a kind person who loved animals, but still in a way that would frighten Chowder). While he would comply with this, it would break the compact we’d formed with him where his crate was his safe, private place and no one would ever remove him from it. Since Chowder wasn’t likely to come out of his crate on his own and we needed to handle him, we instead took his plastic crate apart and removed the top half of the crate. While still stressful, this allowed Chowder to remain safely planted on his dog bed with four walls around him, and minimized the amount of handling he had to endure.

Chowder’s skin scraping was negative, so he returned to the vet clinic a few days later for a second visit so that he could be seen by a veterinarian. This time he remembered the sniffing games he had played before and cautiously came out of his crate on his own to search for treats which I scattered all over the floor. We repeated the skin scraping, which was again negative, and also ruled out most strains of ringworm by looking at his skin under a woods lamp. Since he wasn’t itchy but his lesions were getting worse, the vet decided to start him on an antibiotic to see whether the spots might be caused by a bacterial infection. Luckily, this turned out to be the case, and the swollen spots on Chowder’s legs and feet stopped bleeding and became less inflamed. By the time the course of antibiotics was over, Chowder was growing new fur over the spots and looked much better!

During the next couple weeks, Chowder continued to accompany me to training classes three times a week, where helpful students tossed him treats. My nose work students were especially kind, and a different student stayed after their own dog’s class each week to take Chowder through the last of the three nose work classes I taught on Friday evenings. Nose work is one of the best confidence builders for shy and fearful dogs. On the first week of his class, Chowder was reluctant to move more than a couple steps away from his safe spot near his crate and was too worried to put his head into a cardboard box in order to eat treats. We placed the boxes near his safe spot and put food on the outside of them, and Chowder sniffed his way over to eat the chunks of chicken and hot dog. By the second week, he was able to eat treats out of shallow boxes, and we started to see him perk up as soon as the boxes were in sight.

I noticed that, while Chowder was making strides in bravery, he continued to have a very difficult time recovering after something startled him. This was a problem, because at this point in his limited experience with people, everything startled him. If someone reached towards him too quickly or a noise spooked him, Chowder often hid and remained jumpy for hours. He would stop taking treats and shut down.

I consulted with a veterinarian friend of mine, and she agreed that the potential risks of using anxiety medication for Chowder were much lower than the risks to his developing brain and body from such constant stress. She recommended that we try a very small dosage of a common anxiety medication, alprazolam, which I already had on hand for one of my own dogs and which has been safely used in human children.

The results were beyond our wildest dreams. While the drug didn’t make Chowder brave, it did help him recover quickly (within 2-5 minutes, instead of hours) from startling events. After making sure he reacted well to it at home in a quiet environment, we used two doses of the drug: once while he was in an ex-pen during a training class and once when I brought him to a friend’s home for game night. After just these two doses, I noticed that Chowder’s ability to recover from stressors even without the medication was greatly improved. Because he’d had success in these situations, he had learned that he could handle them. We discontinued the medication, and he has continued to make lovely progress without it. While my veterinarian friend was quick to point out that these results aren’t typical, she also theorized that perhaps because the medication was used so early in Chowder’s behavioral modification and before he’d had many scary experiences, it was much more successful than it may have been had we waited months or even years to try it, as many people do. Just as doctors often recommend taking pain meds at the first sign of discomfort after surgery in order to keep on top of the pain, getting on top of Chowder’s anxiety and offering him help right away made a big difference in preventing his fear and anxiety from spiraling.

Along with all of these successes out in the world, Chowder also had a very exciting thing happen at home: he finally got to meet Layla. Because Layla is dog aggressive, we waited for two weeks before the two dogs met without a baby gate between them. The meeting went well, and the two dogs were able to hang out in close proximity without fireworks. We didn’t yet allow them to interact beyond casual sniffs as they passed by each other and made sure that there weren’t any valuable resources (such as knuckle bones) that Layla might guard. Chowder’s body language with Layla was beautiful – respectful and friendly without being fearful. On the few occasions when Layla felt uncomfortable and snarked at him, Chowder responded appropriately by backing off but was not frightened. His dog skills really were suburb for a tiny puppy!

At the end of his third week with us, Chowder had developed the ability to calm down and recover quickly if something scared him. He continued to learn new things (“high five” was his favorite trick!) and explore his environment. He had also made several dog friends and eaten treats from over fifty people. He was learning that we would respect his choices and that he could investigate his world when he was ready to do so. Even more importantly, Chowder was learning that he had the power to influence the behavior of those around him. If he moved away, people would back off and give him space. If he sat, people would hand him treats. His confidence was growing every bit as fast as his body (which doubled in size in the space of three weeks, from seven to fifteen pounds).

Have you ever brought home a fearful puppy? What did you do to socialize your new charge and build his or her confidence? What would you do differently if you could do it all over again? Please comment with your tips, tricks, and stories!

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Week One

Last week, I covered fearful puppy Chowder’s first three days in our home. After three days, Chowder was reliably taking food from our hands, enjoying regular play sessions with our dog Trout, and beginning to play with us.

Chowder’s overall ability to cope with life in our home took a great turn for the better after the first 72 hours. He continued to be a champ at using his potty pads and settling in his crate, and we were able to use his crate to move him from one area to another. He would run into his crate as we approached, and we could then shut the crate door and move the crate wherever we needed him.

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Because of this, we were able to expand his world from our kitchen and bedroom to include my office downstairs. Our house has a relatively open floor plan, so we used an ex-pen to gate off the downstairs living room (which has white carpet) and a baby gate to close off access to the steps. Chowder could then run around my office and the adjoining room, which were both set up with water, toys, and potty pads.

Once Chowder could hang out with me while I worked, I began doing hourly training sessions with him. The clicker was an important tool in shaping his brave behaviors. Each hour, I would spend sixty seconds clicking and treating for brave behaviors. Whenever he took a step towards me, I clicked and tossed a treat away. This provided him with double rewards: not only did he get a treat, but he also got to move further away from me, which made him feel more comfortable. I wanted to be sure not to put too much social pressure on him, and this game allowed him to approach to a distance that felt comfortable without the conflict of moving into my space to eat.

Over the next week, Chowder learned the hand target game and quickly came to enjoy following my hand all over to earn clicks and treats. On his fourth evening with us, we discovered that he really liked popcorn. He began offering sits, which I clicked and rewarded with a small piece of popcorn. Within a couple minutes, he was offering to sit on a verbal cue with confidence.

One interesting behavior pattern that we noticed with Chowder was his differing level of confidence throughout the day. He was consistently timid and fearful in the mornings, and grew in confidence as the day progressed. By evening, he was much more likely to approach us and allow us to touch him, but would then regress overnight. We took advantage of his bravery in the evening by letting him snuggle in bed with us each night before he went into his crate to sleep. We set his crate up on the bed with the door open, and let him choose to come to us. Popcorn and cuddles became nightly themes, and by the fifth night in our house he actually fell asleep on our bed in between us.

We began having Chowder wear a body harness, which we put on each morning with lots of patience and food. Handling was still difficult and putting the harness on frightened Chowder, but he recovered quickly and we felt that the benefits of the harness outweighed the potential damage done to our relationship in putting it on. Had Chowder been too scared to eat while having the harness put on, we wouldn’t have done this. We attached a dragline to this harness and began allowing Chowder to spend short periods of time loose in the house when we knew he was empty (having just used a potty pad). Layla was confined when Chowder was loose, since the two dogs were still not ready to be loose together. Chowder loved these periods of freedom to run around with Trout and cautiously explore the house.

During this first week, I began bringing Chowder to the classes I was teaching. I set him up in an ex-pen in a corner with access to his crate and potty pads. A sign on the ex-pen told students, “Hi! My name is Chowder and I’m shy. Please don’t try to pet me, but you can feed me treats. Thanks for helping!” My students were wonderful at tossing treats into Chowder’s area when they were nearby, and he would cautiously come out of his crate after they moved away to eat. He watched the other dogs in class avidly, wagging his tail whenever he saw a new dog.

By the end of his first week with us, Chowder had made some remarkable progress from the near-feral puppy we initially brought home. He’d fallen asleep in bed, was accepting gentle petting in the evenings, and knew a couple trained behaviors which he could use to interact with people in positive ways. He was still quite timid and would run away if approached or if we reached for him, but he was on his way!

Next week, I’ll talk about Chowder’s second and third weeks in our home. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever brought a fearful animal home? How did you go about socializing him or her?

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: the First Three Days

My current foster puppy, Chowder, was found living in a culvert with his mom and three brothers as an eight-week-old puppy. This is his story.

My first view of Chowder and his siblings told me a lot about their socialization history. Huddled against one another at the back of their crate, they attempted to block out the rest of the world during their intake at the rescue’s headquarters. When lifted out of the crate for vetting and photos, the puppies froze still with fear. As is typical of young puppies, who tend to freeze rather than resorting to fight or flight when they’re incredibly overwhelmed, all four pups were compliant for vetting but uninterested in treats or in interaction with the kind rescuers who were caring for them. When back in the crate, two of the puppies started to take offered treats. Chowder and his brother Flapjack continued to refuse, huddled behind their braver siblings.

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The first 72 hours with a fearful dog or puppy can make or break that animal’s relationship with his human caretakers, and I kept that fact in mind as I brought little Chowder home. I wanted to make his first impressions of our home and of his new foster family as positive as possible. It takes an average of three days for cortisol levels (a common stress hormone) to return to baseline after a stressful event, and I knew that Chowder’s transport from Oklahoma to Minnesota, as well as his subsequent separation from his mom and brothers, hadn’t been easy on him.

We set Chowder up behind a baby gate in our kitchen, with his crate, potty pads, water, and toys. I spent the first evening with him sitting on the floor, reading a book and ignoring him. He huddled in the safety of his crate, watching everything with wide eyes. The only time he became more comfortable was when he spied either of our two dogs, Trout and Layla. Upon seeing another dog, his tail came out from between his legs and wagged slightly, and he would come out of his crate briefly to sniff noses through the gate. He felt safer in the presence of dogs than people.

Chowder ran into his crate every time he saw a person, but soon became comfortable enough to venture out of his crate when we weren’t around. He quickly caught on to using his potty pads. He also loved the toys we left out for him, and would bring them back into his crate. He amassed quite a hoard of toys in the first couple days, preferring soft stuffed animals that he could cuddle with.

All of his meals came from our hands. He became comfortable with my boyfriend, Matt, before he became comfortable with me. He would tentatively approach us as we sat with our backs to him, nibbling on food and treats that we held flat on our palms. If we reached towards him, he still darted away into the safety of his crate, but he was fast becoming comfortable with the idea that people provided food and other good stuff to eat.

Knowing that other dogs helped Chowder to feel more comfortable, we began allowing him to have playdates with our younger dog, Trout. Chowder loved Trout, who tolerated his rough puppy play and biting with mostly good grace. The two dogs enjoyed wrestling. Chowder also seemed more comfortable with Matt and me when Trout was around, and was more likely to allow us to gently scratch his itchy skin in the middle of a play session. We continued to keep Chowder separate from our older dog, Layla, who required longer introductions as she could be aggressive towards unfamiliar dogs. Layla and Chowder were both given treats for polite, social behavior towards one another on opposite sides of the baby gate, and Layla quickly began to offer sniffing noses with the puppy to earn a food reward.

On the second evening at our house, we plugged in a DAP diffuser for Chowder. The results on both his and Layla’s behavior were noticeable. While not as remarkable as drug therapy, Chowder’s recover from stressful events became much faster under the influence of DAP. Instead of taking an hour for him to recover from hearing a loud noise or from a sudden movement near him, it took mere minutes for him to choose to venture forth from the safety of his crate.

Making sure that Chowder felt safe and that he was given opportunities to choose rather than being forced into interactions were the most important themes of his first three days (and indeed, these themes have continued throughout our foster time with him). By allowing him choice, Chowder learned that he could be brave and that retreat when he became overwhelmed was always an option. He started to play with us – little tug and pounce games at first from within the safety of his crate. By day three, he was willing to come out of his crate briefly to grab a rabbit-fur tug toy, which he would pull back into his crate and tug on as we held onto the other end. He also enjoyed a grabbing and shredding game that he and Matt invented with pieces of toilet paper. His confidence increased, and he started to move more like a puppy and less like a wild animal. We still had a long way to go, but by the end of the first three days Chowder was showing some promising progress.

Next week, we’ll discuss what we did with Chowder in his first week at our home. This special little guy is still looking for a forever home of his own and is available for adoption! For now, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever brought home a fearful animal? What did you do during that animal’s first few days to help him or her feel safe?

At what cost?

As a professional trainer, I hear a lot of disturbing stories. One local trainer routinely advises owners of reactive dogs to briefly hang their dogs from prong collars when the dogs lunge and bark. The same facility told one of my clients to pull her nervous dog’s ear or pinch his flank if he stopped paying attention. Another recent client was advised by one of her friends on Facebook to step in front of her aggressive dog whenever the dog began growling at anyone and then to stare the dog down (which, not surprisingly, resulted in a pretty severe bite to her leg).

Photo by Marie Carter

Photo by Marie Carter

With all of these disturbing stories, a common thread runs through. The owners really love their dogs, and were simply following the advice that had been given to them. In many cases, these people were desperate to fix a serious problem. These weren’t acts of abuse – they were honest attempts to fix a problem by people who cared enough about their dogs to try something instead of just getting rid of their pet.

The world is rife with dog training advice. Everybody’s an expert! When an old acquaintance of mine asked her Facebook friends how to solve puppy nipping, she received lots of replies almost instantly. Flick the puppy’s nose. Use Tabasco sauce. Use a squirt bottle. Hold the puppy’s mouth shut if she nips. The more I read, the more I cringed. It’s really true that you get what you pay for, and free advice from your friends, coworkers, and neighbors could do more harm than good.

But what do you do if your trainer tells you to do something that doesn’t feel right? How can you decide which advice to follow and which could do more harm than good?

On the first week of any Beginning training class I teach, I tell my students two things. They are the experts on their dogs. And their dogs are counting on them to protect them.

Remember this. You are the expert on your dog. Not your trainer, or your vet, or your groomer. Not me. You. And your dog is counting on you to look out for him.

If someone tells you to do something to your dog that makes you uncomfortable, you are always within your rights to say no. I love it when my students tell me that they’d like to modify an exercise! It lets me know that the student is committed to doing what’s right for the dog in front of them at that moment, and that’s a beautiful thing.

When determining what’s right for your dog, a little critical reasoning can go a long way. If the trainer at your dog’s daycare tells you to use a shaker can (a soda can full of pennies) anytime your dog lunges or barks on leash, don’t just accept that advice on blind faith. Instead, think through the behavioral contingencies. In the best case scenario, what will my dog learn (that lunging and barking makes something unpleasant happen so she should be quiet instead)? In the worst case scenario, what will my dog learn (that the appearance of triggers which already make her upset cause her owner to do something very unpleasant – thus making her more sensitive to the appearance of those triggers in the future)? Ask yourself whether you’re comfortable with the risks posed by the training advice. If your dog becomes more frantic and reactive at the appearance of triggers after you use the shaker can, are you prepared to put in the extra time solving the problem you made worse? If you’re not willing to accept the worse-case scenario, is there a different training option you might try instead?

The bottom line is that the world is full of people who will give you free advice on how to live with, handle, manage, and train your dog. Just remember that you get what you pay for. There are lots of people out there who do truly horrible things to dogs in the name of training, and because dogs largely put up with it these methods are touted as effective without thought to the potential fallout, including physical damage and the very real strain that aversive techniques put on your relationship with your dog. Sure, free advice might solve your dog’s behavioral problem. But at what cost?

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

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My message would be simple: training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care. Everyone who has a pet should understand that basic fact. Training is a way to enhance the quality of life for our pets. It is far more than just teaching a dog to do a cute trick. Training is about teaching a dog (or any animal) how to live in our world safely. -Ken Ramirez

The Dangers of Playing with Laser Lights

Howie* was an adorable little teddy bear of a dog. He wiggled as I sunk my hand into his plush, soft, curly fur. A delightful Cavachon, Howie adored people and loved to meet new friends. He sat beside me on the sofa, leaning into my touch. The room was dark other than a single lamp, the curtains not just drawn but clipped shut. Howie’s foster caregivers told me about his obsessions as we sat in the dim room, being careful not to move and throw shadows on the floor. I took notes, pausing occasionally to pet the little dog.

Howie was surrendered to the rescue when his self-injurious behavior became too much for his owners to handle. He was housetrained, friendly to people, and a delight with children. When he arrived at his foster caregiver’s home, he sported an oozing, open wound on his muzzle and nose. Howie was obsessed with lights, and would do anything to try to catch one… including harming himself.

Photo by Chris Dixon

Photo by Chris Dixon

Howie’s obsession started out, as most do, innocently enough. As a young dog with lots of energy, Howie’s owners found that he enjoyed chasing a laser light. They used the light to exercise him at least twice a day and he chased after it delightedly, racing throughout their living room. They sent him up and down stairs after the elusive light, onto the sofa and under the table, around and around until he was tired out. It seemed like the perfect exercise solution on cold Minnesota days when none of them wanted to go outside.

Howie soon began to play the light game even when his owners weren’t using the laser. He stalked shadows and light patterns on the floor, staring intently as he crept forward until he was close enough to pounce. He loved the reflections off his owner’s watch crystals and from the prism in the window. Outside, he was entranced by the movement of the shadows from sunlight shining through the leaves of a tree or birds flying overhead. He no longer sniffed on walks, but instead searched constantly for the next light.

During laser play sessions, Howie’s intensity began to concern his owners. He bit at the carpet where the laser had been and slammed into walls. They threw away the laser and attempted to dissuade him from these dangerous behaviors by putting him in his crate whenever he did them. He persisted, chasing lights and shadows in their home. Soon, Howie was spending the majority of his time in his crate, with a blanket thrown over the top to block out any light.

When he was loose, Howie damaged his owner’s home. He tore chunks out of the carpet and bit at the walls. He broke a front tooth attacking the wall and chipped several others. Soon, he had an open wound on his muzzle that wouldn’t heal from slamming himself into the floor, walls, and furniture in his attempt to catch the lights and shadows that taunted him. Howie’s owners had a new baby, and they were concerned that his behavior put their child at risk. They surrendered him to rescue.

While extreme, Howie’s story isn’t unusual. Light and shadow chasing are some of the most common obsessions found in dogs. All breeds can develop these issues, but those who were bred for strong gazes, such as herding breeds and Pointers, seem to be especially at risk.

Light obsession most frequently develops after owners use a laser pointer to exercise their dog. Unlike toys or treats, lights cannot be caught. This is incredibly frustrating for many dogs, who never “win” the game. Even after you put the light away, many dogs continue to search for the elusive light. Shadow and light chasing behavior can develop soon afterwards.

For this reason, I highly recommend against using a laser light to exercise any dog. It’s impossible to know which dogs will develop issues until they happen, and it’s just not worth the risk. If you do decide to persist in using a laser for exercise, consider having the laser eventually lead your dog to a small pile of treats as you end the game so that he “wins” something. However, complete avoidance of the game is preferable.

If your dog begins to show light or shadow chasing behavior, know that the sooner you intervene, the better the prognosis becomes. Howie’s case was extreme in large part because it had been going on for so long: nearly five years by the time he was surrendered to rescue. Early intervention greatly increases the likelihood that you can help your dog.

If your dog begins chasing lights and shadows, the first thing to do is to increase his physical and mental exercise. Oftentimes this intervention alone can be enough in the early stages. My dog Trout showed this behavior as a young dog, and will occasionally still stare at the wall near lamps if she hasn’t received enough exercise. Whenever your dog begins to obsess, redirect him to an appropriate activity. Trout is usually redirected by physically getting in between her and the wall, then calmly moving her away from the area. Avoid making a big deal over the behavior – both reinforcement in the form of treats or excessive attention, or punishment in the form of any aversive can make this behavior worse. In fact, stress can be a huge factor in many obsessive behaviors, so any intervention that includes aversive consequences for obsessing (such as using an electronic collar or swatting your dog) can greatly increase the chances that your dog will obsess.

If your dog’s obsession has been going on for a long period of time or is so severe that you’re unable to easily interrupt it, it’s worthwhile to discuss medication options with your veterinarian.

Howie’s foster family did just that, starting him on fluoxetine (the generic for Prozac) at the advice of the rescue’s veterinarian. They also began a steady behavioral modification regimen of appropriate exercise, training, and management. Howie wore a Calming Cap when he went on walks to block his ability to search for lights, and was rewarded handsomely for learning several new tricks. His foster family was gradually able to open the curtains, first on cloudy days, then at night, and finally on sunny days. They worked hard with him for months and months, helping him to cope with his former obsession.

Sadly, Howie’s story does not end well. After months of hard and loving work by his foster family, the injury on his muzzle had healed over. He was taken into the vet clinic for dental surgery to repair his damaged front teeth, and stopped breathing during the operation. The veterinarian was unable to revive him.

While Howie’s story was sad, there is a silver lining. He had several months of peace with his foster family, finally free of the light-chasing obsession that had so overpowered his life for so many years. He discovered the joys of using his nose and began to love the sport of nose work. He snuggled and got brushed, and got a chance to wriggle around in the grass and sleep in a bed. He was loved.

If you currently use a laser light to exercise your dog, I urge you to reconsider. While Howie’s story was extreme, it’s not uncommon. I work with obsessive dogs much like Howie regularly. Most of these cases could have been avoided with some minor changes to the dog’s routine. There are better ways to exercise and stimulate your dog. Save your laser light for powerpoint presentations, and you could save your dog from a lifetime of obsession. It’s a fair trade, and Howie would approve.

*Howie’s name and identifying details were changed at the request of his foster family.