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Understanding Fear

There’s an old superstition that if parents comforted their babies too much, they’d learn to cry for attention and become spoiled. Instead, parents were told to simply let their children cry it out. Unsurprisingly people apply this same old superstition to their dogs too. Dog’s who show signs of being scared or startled by things, we’re told to ignore or turn away from so we don’t encourage that behavior. As the fireworks season is still upon us (sorry doggios!), I think it’s important to look at what are doing to help our poor, terrified four legged friends cope with what I’m sure they think is the end of the world…

You can apply something a dog likes or enjoys to a behavior in order to increase the likelihood that behavior will happen in the future. In dog training lingo, this is called positive (because you added something) reinforcement (because you want to behavior to happen more frequently). Giving a dog a treat after a behavior is exactly how this training works. It’s not (as some believe) used as a bribe, which typically would be used before the dog performed the desired behavior. Instead it’s used after, as a payment for them doing what you asked.

This type of reinforcement works great for getting the dog to perform a trick or learn a new command. However what about when your dog is scared or frightened by something? Can your comfort make them more scared or more frightened the next time? The answer is kinda yes and kinda no.

The first big difference with a dog who is scared is that what they are experiencing is an emotion which shows itself in various behaviors. Your dog might slink down to the ground, have their tail tucked and have white “whale” eyes. These are all behaviors, many unconscious, the dog displays to show their emotion. These behaviors may be reinforced, but the fear itself cannot be.

A human example would be if I asked you to “be afraid.” You might open your eyes wide, open your mouth, you might add some kind of scream or sound to indicate you were startled – these bodily displays are all deliberately chosen based on what you think fear looks like. Now imagine if I snuck up behind you & lit off a firework. *BOOM*

What you experience in the second is involuntary. It’s natural. It’s instant. A high pitch scream, a jump, your heart will race, and a sense of panic fills you (plus a lot of distrust towards your new found dog trainer!). These reactions stem from the actual emotion you were feeling. They caused those bodily reactions.

Petting, feeding and/or talking softly to a dog who is scared helps the fearful feelings dissipate. The same way yours might when a friend or loved one gives you a hug or a pat on the back. Comforting this fear and helping them calm down after being startled or frightened is 100% the right thing to do. You’d do it for your human friend, so do it for your canine friend as well. Give them somewhere to hide at, talk soft, comforting words to them and make sure they feel secure in wherever they have taken refuge.

Now for the flipside. Behaviors on the other hand can be reinforced and repeated. A perfect example of this is a dog whining. The dog whines and it’s owners reach over to comfort the dog with some pets. The dog whines later while dinner is being made so the owner toss him a scrap to keep him out of your hair. Repeated over time, the dog learns that whining gets him or her attention and therefore will do so again, not to annoy you, but simply because it gets him what he or she wants.

Emotions are strong in animals, just like they are in humans. They feel a lot of the same feelings we do and we should do our best to make sure those feelings are good ones. Fireworks seasons is still active and booming away, so try to do all you can to make sure your pet feels safe and secure wherever they are. Esther enjoys taking refuge under the bed, so I make sure she has easily accessible water and food nearby so she doesn’t have to feel so exposed when the world is ending. These small adaptations you can make for your dog can help them through dealing with all the fearful emotions of fireworks season. Take comfort in knowing it will only be a few more days before its over! Stay safe and have a great week!

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Program Updates & Happy 4th of July!

Underdog’s Triumph will be switching it’s training articles to be the 1st and 3rd week of the month. We’re starting up some new educational programs with the local Boone Area Humane Society over this summer and we’re going to use the “time off” to work on developing out these programs. We hope to have these programs finalized soon so we can share them with all of you!

This week is also 4th of July – one of the worst times for lost and traumatized pets. Please especially ensure that during these coming weeks that your dog:

  • Is wearing identification on a collar or harness
    • This should include their name and your phone number at a minimum
  • Has a safe, quite, dim place that they can hide at during the fireworks
  • Are secure and supervised whenever they are outside
  • Keep ALL fireworks away from dogs:
    • This includes both discarded fireworks refuse as well as the lighters used to set them off.

Take a current photo of your pets in case they do get lost you have a recent photo that will look most like them.

I also highly recommend the Canine Lullabies music for dogs. For whimpering puppies, sick or injured dogs, or even just hyperactive pets, it is a life saver. For more information go to You can also stream these from Spotify using these links ( and ( for free with commercials or without commercials if you already pay for a Spotify account.

This has been used at our sister shelter the TLC Canine Center in Newell, IA and it works great! I have also used this the last few years and while it doesn’t cure their fear it does help dramatically during periods of high stress.

Stay Safe & Happy Holidays!

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Adversive Effects of Adversive tools

Photo Credit:

At Underdog’s Triumph we believe in promoting (and using!) positive, force free dog training methods and tools. These tools are designed to help us work with our dogs and not against them. In the dog training lingo, we promote the use of LIMA – Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive approach to modifying dog behavior. We advocate for giving the dog a choice and guiding him or her to the desired behavior. However there are many organizations that still do not follow these principles.

The prevalence of a popular dog show, The Dog Whisperer, (which I have written about in the past here) has revitalized a generation of up and coming dog trainers to the belief that dominance, pack theory and other outdated-no-longer-relevant theories are truth. They watch this show, see the super quick change in behavior and, despite the warning at the beginning of the show, try it on their own dogs. Even worse are the trainers who determine, they are not only experts at training their own dogs, but other dogs as well.

In my interactions with the various trainers in the area, I have run into many dog trainers with zero actual experience other than “working” with dogs for X years. Working and training are two vastly different things. And teaching people those skills is an even greater skill gap! The issue is due to a lack of education and understanding, these people continue to spout off outdated and incorrect information which owners accept as truth given they are coming from the mouth of a “professional.” Such things I’ve heard and seen recently include:

  • Alpha rolls to show an aggressive dog who’s the pack leader
  • Pinning the dog to the floor and holding the dog there until he “relaxes”
  • Using shock collars/e-collars, prong collars, pinch collars, choke chains etc. to control their dominant dog. (Check out my post on what shock collars are here)

More and more countries are actually having to come out and ban these tools because of improper use by both professionals and the general public. Dog Training is (sadly) an unregulated industry which means anyone anywhere can call themselves a dog trainer without needing any training or certification. This also means that anyone can create any certification program and “certify” dog trainers without any regulatory process. So countries have had to step up to protect their animals. The following countries, as of this writing, have banned the use of e-collars/shock collars in dog training:

  • Austria,
  • Denmark,
  • Finland,
  • Germany,
  • Norway,
  • Slovenia,
  • Scotland,
  • Sweden,
  • Wales,
  • Australia (some parts)
  • England (working on legislation)

In a recent paper written by the European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology (found here and the summary of that paper by Companion Animal Psychology found here) they highlighted some of the risks and dangers associated with using shock collars on dogs. While the focus of their study was only on shock collars the same concerns they bring up in the article can be applied to any other positive punishment or in negative reinforcement situation. Keep in mind the “positive” and “negative” here do not equate to good or bad like people think but rather the “addition to” or “subtraction of” some stimulus. The second word punishment or reinforcement again doesn’t equate to good or bad, but rather the “decreasing” or “increasing”, respectively, the likelihood that behavior will happen in the future. For shock collars, positive punishment would be the shock being added after every incorrect behavior. Negative Reinforcement would be the shock being applied continuously until the dog performs the desired behavior and the shock is removed.

I encourage you to read both especially before selecting a trainer or following the advice of a trainer (read more about finding a good dog trainer here or here). But after listing off all the (unproven) pros and cons to using tools with positive punishment or negative reinforcement, they conclude with this:

In conclusion, e-collar training is associated with numerous well documented risks concerning dog health, behavior and welfare. Any existing behavior problem is likely to deteriorate or an additional problem is likely to emerge, when such a collar is used. This becomes an even greater risk when this aversive tool is used by an unqualified trainer [or owner!]

Additionally, the efficacy of these collars has not been proven to be more effective than other alternatives such a positive training. Hence, ESVCE encourages educational programs which employ positive reinforcement methods (while avoiding positive punishment and negative reinforcement) thereby promoting positive dog welfare and a humane, ethical and moral approach to dog training at all times.

So love your dog (and yourself) and choose a method that promotes a strong, healthy bond between you and your dog.

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Questions to Ask Your Dog Trainer

In the past I have written about how to find a good dog trainer (see my past post here). First off, I LOVE it when my prospective clients ask me questions about my methods and techniques BEFORE agreeing to see me in person. I also truth be told, I do the same thing to them. At Underdog’s Triumph we start off all new clients with a consultation visit. This 1 to 1.5 hour visit includes a pre-questionnaire detailing what the client and their furry friend are experiencing and goes briefly into what they want to get from the training. Then that first session is almost entirely a question/answer and discussion session.

So many people want to just jump right in. Start training on day one. But I firmly believe that every dog, must like every client, is different. It’s important to hear them out and make sure they are comfortable with the decisions you are making together for their family. While I have a boatload of questions I like to ask my prospective clients to learn all about their situation, experiences with dogs and training, there are also some great questions to ask me as your prospective trainer! You can read more about these questions and other questions from Victoria Stilwell’s article about “How to find a Good Dog Trainer” I picked out my top four favorites from the article to share my opinion on what would be a good response!

Questions to Ask Your Prospective Trainer:


Note: ALWAYS be prepared to walk away from training if the trainer EVER suggests something you are uncomfortable with doing. Just because they are an “expert” doesn’t make them 100% right all the time. Suggesting things that hurt the dog or cause you to feel uncomfortable doing is a perfectly acceptable reason to stop immediately. Remember YOU are your dogs voice so use it for the both of you!


“How do you correct behavior?”

Ideal Response:

  • Avoids the use of any aversive techniques or tools – prong collar, shock collars, e-collars, choke chains, pops/jerks on leash, tapping or hitting the dog with a foot or hand, etc
  • Manages unwanted behavior to prevent it from continuing to happen.
  • Selects a new alternative (desired) behavior which will replace the unwanted one
  • Designs a training plan using reinforcement to increase the likelihood that the alternative behavior will be performed (and eventually replace the unwanted behavior).

More Info: Oddly enough a lot of people who are against using only force free or positive training methods seem to think that these types of trainers (of which I am one) are pushovers when trying to stop unwanted behavior. Since we can’t “correct” the dog with a harsh jerk or some other additive of pain, the dog jumps/walks all over us right? What they don’t understand is the dog doesn’t mean to do the wrong thing. To the dog, jumping all over guests isn’t wrong. It’s fun! They are excited to see a new person and jumping expresses this excitement and gets them closer to the visiting guests hands and face for pets/licks.


“Do you have liability insurance?”

Ideal Response: ABSOLUTELY! Ideally providing you proof this liability in the form of a card or written document.

More Info: A lot of trainers do not carry any kind of insurance and I don’t think that’s being responsible. For all the training and education we have, we’re still dealing with another living creature. We can do our best to predict what might happen in a training session, but we can’t predict everything and accidents can happen. Make sure your trainer has you both covered by having additional liability insurance to protect you both.


“Do you use rewards in training, and if so, what kind?”

Ideal Response: Yes! Absolutely!

More Info: A fantastic response should go on to talk about using different motivators inorder to find out what works for each dog. While almost all dogs are motivated by food (we all have to eat right?!) some also get a lot of enjoyment from toys or other creative things. My own dog, Luna for instance, LOVES blankets. Trainers should use these high value motivators and help you incorporate them into training. Life rewards are also great motivators – these are everyday things that dog enjoys. An example of a life reward might be having the dog sit by the door and after that sit, opening the door to let the dog out into the yard (aka granting access to a desired area). These types of rewards work great to incorporate into daily routines for daily activities.


“Can I speak to your past and current clients?”

Ideal Response: Of course! And provide a list of potential options.

More Info: I typically have ask past clients if they would be able to chat with new clients when requested. I like to pair past clients with potential clients based on the issue both dealt with. For example I did some new puppy socialization classes a while back, pairing up this client to a client with a fear aggressive dog would just be silly. The situations aren’t the same and the training for sure won’t be either. Apples to Apples works much better.


I strongly encourage you all to check out the article above (“How to find a Good Dog Trainer”) it has loads of great advice about finding the perfect fit trainer for you situation. And as always if you have questions, we’d love to hear from you 🙂

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Finding a Reputable Breeder

I have written in the past about where you should get your next furry family member from (see post about Puppies here) but I know that some folks still desire the “purebred” puppy route. While there are tons, and tons of puppies (and dogs!) available at your local shelter, you might need to be patient and search a larger area to find one that meets your lifestyle and desires for a companion. I will always say SAVE A LIFE and adopt your next family member.

There are so many terrible dog breeders out there that it’s difficult to determine even where to begin if you do decide to purchase a dog or puppy. Some reasons for doing so might be if you desire to show a dog or compete in certain dog competitions that require a “purebred” dog. I use “purebred” in quotes only because a lot of the so call purebred dog that are acquired from these unreputable breeders are anything but.

This facebook post had a great summary of thirteen things you should evaluate breeders of dogs on. I’ve highlighted the ones I especially like below (the ones I skipped don’t apply to the US).


  • Unethical breeders tend to sell via the internet. Facebook, Preloved, Gumtree and others are all places that they advertise. Google the person’s phone number, username or email address. See if you can find other ads posted by them.


Unethical breeders breed for profit. They mass produce dogs, sometimes on an infeasible scale and ship their puppies all over the country/world to make the quick buck. They don’t care about where their dogs end up, or if they live out a life in pampered comfort. They want the cash for their “crop”.


  • They don’t ask anything about you. Ethical breeders want to know everything about you, your family, your experience with dogs etc etc. They will insist that you visit the pups several times. If you are not questioned lots then you need to worry.


Again, that buck is calling. They don’t worry about who you are or what you want to do with the dog. They won’t tell you about the breed your buying or ask if you’ve had these dogs in the past. A lot of folks have run into issues with that getting a breed they are totally unprepared for because a) they didn’t do their own homework first and b) the breeder sold a puppy to an unprepared family purely for profit. The so called “wolfdogs” are a great example of a breed that quickly gets people in over their heads. Turns out owning a wolf is 10,000% different than owning a dog.


  • Sheds… Don’t buy a puppy that has been reared in a shed at the end of the garden. That pup would have missed out on essential socialization and habitation.


Money. Money. Money. It costs to afford a fancy facility or to convert your own home into an area that can support, care and raise/socialize new puppies. Those who mass produce dogs or even who just do a few litters a year in their back yard or shed away from all the “normal” experiences a dog will encounter (children, adults, vacuums, laundry machines, tv, etc) stunt their puppies socialization period significantly. This stunted level of experience leaves you at a disadvantage and at risk of developing a reactive or fearful adult dog.


  • Meeting places. Unethical breeders and dog traders will sometimes offer to meet you somewhere to ‘save you the trip’. Always insist that you go to their home. Never buy a pup in a car park (parking lot).


ALWAYS ask to see where the puppy was raise. Check out the other liters (if present). See how the mothers and fathers are treated. So many breeders will offer to meet you elsewhere to avoid having you see the squalor your puppy was raised in and the hell the puppy’s parents are trapped in.


  • Ethical breeders will never ever sell a pup before it is 8 weeks. Check the puppy that you are buying to make sure that he or she is over 8 weeks.


Seriously. 8 weeks minimum. 12 weeks preferred. Good breeders know all about how important socialization is for their pups, and keeping them a bit longer with their parents gives the puppy a headstart on knowing how to be a dog. Plus good breeders have socialization programs in place to provide you with a puppy who has had a great, diverse positive experience in his or her life so far and is ready and prepared with the skills necessary to tackle the real world.


  • Worming and flea treatment should have been done. Ask for dates and products used.


Lack of shots or vaccine records is an indication of a breeder that is cutting costs to maximize profit. They don’t care about their wards and are only in it to make a quick buck. Ask for the parent records too. A few of the terrible breeders I know of in our area only vaccine the puppies and the parents are left to suffer from untreated flea/tick and worm infestations.


  • Ask to see photos of your pup from birth until now… puppy farmers and dealers won’t have those photos.


For those of you who currently have a beloved furry family member, I challenge you to open up your phone. How many dog/cat/pet pictures do you have? If you’re like me, I bet it’s a totally reasonable amount 😉 Puppies especially have tons of photos because they are so damn cute! Breeders who raise their puppies in sheds have their “for sale” photo and maybe a photo of their parents. And that’s it. The breeders weren’t present in their puppies’ lives and the lack of photos shows that.


  • Question at length…. and walk away if you are concerned about the answers, or lack of answers.


Seriously. Walk away. I know it’s hard. I know you want to “save” the sad little puppy in the window of a car or in the walmart parking lot. But do not. Your money goes right back into ensuring these breeders stay in business. That they create more puppies with more parents who suffer their entire lives trapped in a cage. Do not let the cycle continue.


  • Always see Mum- the actual Mum. The real Mum will have milk and will be interacting with her pups. Fake Mum wont. Ask to see photos of Mum over the years.


Mom and puppies should be together. Mom should be in good health and happy. She shouldn’t be bred ever cycle or trapped in a cage. Check out her behavior. Is she nervous or fearful, overexcited or panicked? These are all signs that she’s not been socialized and is definitely not a member of the family and lives her life trapped making puppies for her owner’s profit.


  • Genetic testing- ask what has been done and ask to see the results.


I cannot state this enough. The breeders I know that are terrible do NOT do genetic testing, as a result their puppies grow up to have terrible genetic diseases and disorders that end up costing you money or even your puppies life. The one breeder of Norwegian Elkhounds has a breeding line in which ALL of the adults have severe (and very painful) glaucoma. She was still breeding them despite the clear issue with the breeding line because “no one had ever complained.”


  • Reduced prices for the last pup in the litter.. it’s just a way to pull you in and make you feel sorry for the remaining pup. Ethical breeders do not reduce their prices and often have homes lined up for their pups before they are born!


This is sure sign that the breeder is trying to dump their stock to make room for more. They want this puppy out of their care so they stop losing money trying to keep it alive. They’re willing to take a slight loss in the sales price to make an empty space for the next puppy which they can sell at full. The “last pup” sales tactic works well too and tugs at the heartstrings of new pet owners who can’t bear to think of a lone sad puppy all by him or herself.


In summary, the best way you can make sure you aren’t going to be supporting a terrible breeder and furthering the suffering of those puppy’s parents is to adopt. You’ll save a life and get an adorable fluffy as a bonus. Additionally, I challenge you to try and find a breeder who adheres to all of the above rules. It’s surprisingly difficult.

A person tale, to show that even with a strict vetting system you can still get into trouble buying from a breeder. My first ever family dog was a purebred sheltie name Kayla. I researched dozens of breeders in the area (and some that were 500+ miles away) with a very strict list of requirements. She was the only one who passed my inspector and we agreed to met her.

The one thing I had forgotten to ask her, as a child of only 15, was about the genetic testing of her line. Turns out her breeding line had a genetic marker for having severe drug sensitivities. These drug sensitivities result from a mutation in the multidrug resistance gene (MDR1 gene). As a result the heartgard medicine used monthly to prevent heartworm as recommended by our vet, killed her.

It still hurts to know that her death could have been prevent simply if the breeder had taken the time to test her own breeding stock. My mom had called her to tell her of Kayla’s death and she casually mentioned that a few of the other dogs in Kayla’s liter had also passed away from “unknown” causes. I would bet money that it was because of this genetic predisposition to drug sensitivities.

Kayla was only three years old at the time. One simple test could have saved her life, but to minimize expense this was skipped and we lost a beloved family member as a result. Adopt don’t shop people. Save yourself from the heartache.

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New Fad: Board & Train

There’s a new craze in dog training called board & train. Supposedly more convenient than the “old school” do-it-yourself dog training, board & train programs typically offer to take your dog for a certain number of weeks or months and train them for you. After a set upon time, you then pick up your newly trained, amazingly behaved dog and you’re set for life! Seems to good to be true, right?

The first issue I have with many of the standard board & train programs is, as I wrote about in my previous article (here), dog training is like 5% teaching the dog and 95% teaching the human. Board & Training programs do this in reverse. They teach your dog a specific set of skills in THEIR board & train facility then hand the reins back to a novice, untrained owner who takes the dog back into THEIR old house. If you recall, dogs are TERRIBLE at generalizing behaviors – one of the reasons you as their teacher have to proof their behaviors by training them in so many different environments and situations. Plus they go back to their old environment, so it’s so easy to fall back into old habits and routines.

There was actually an interesting trend (written about in Risë VanFleet in her book The Human Half of Dog Training) that dogs put into this situation typically get worse overtime. Humans too suffer from this same issue. The behaviors we didn’t want from our dogs (aka the reason we sent them to the board & train program in the first place) are improved, so we relax our rules. We start to let things slide. We fall back to our old routines, because they’re easy, familiar, and comfortable. We stop (or at least slack) some of the things the board & train trainer told us to always do. And shortly after we slack, our dogs fall back to what is familiar (and likely unwanted) behavior.

Secondly, you have 100% NO control over what methods the trainers use nor any control over which trainers do the training. Is the trainer a 20+ year old dog training “pro” who hasn’t read a modern dog training book in the last two decades? Or is it the kennel tech who’s fresh out of high school with aspiring dreams of being the next world famous dog trainer? I’m not saying you can’t have a good experience with either of these two hypotheticals, but the point of the matter is you simply don’t know who’s doing what.

Is your slightly timid or reactive dog having their symptoms masked using punishment instead of having the proper counter conditioning program setup and completed? Is an incorrect application of a punishment going to trigger a new fear in your dog? You won’t know because you aren’t there to be their voice!

Case in point, a recent news story about 41 dogs who were rescued from a kennel in Hancock, Iowa supposedly doing board & train for gun dogs. Three dogs were also found deceased with their owners having never been notified. Many others supposedly being trained at the facility shipped in from all areas of the country are still missing. There fate remains unknown. Of the dogs who were rescued, their kennels were completely lacking any food or water. The build up of feces in the kennels proved they’d been living in these poor conditions for some time.

You can read more about the developing Young Gunz Kennel story here:

On top of all these issues, these programs cost thousands of dollars. Even Young Gunz Kennel charges $550 per month for a facility that can’t even provide the basics of food, water and clean shelter to the dogs in their care.

Dog training should be a team effort between canine and human(s). It should build the trust and bond between the two species using safe, positive, force free, scientific methods. Having the training done by someone else without your consent or knowledge is a recipe for disaster.

Training is also a never ending process. We all grown, learn and expand our knowledge everyday and our dogs are the same way. Even my 11 year old dog enjoys a good game of hide-the-treat! Also much like kids you don’t just stop giving them advice or helping them out when they hit a certain age. To this day, my mom still reminds me to “buckle up” despite me being a religious seatbelt wearer 😉

Take the time. Make it fun. And enjoy the opportunity you have to bond with your canine friend!

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Training vs Behavioral Adjustment

When I first started Underdog’s Triumph, I used two have two different services, one was for people who were dealing with training issues like sit, come, stay, etc and another, more expensive service, for those dealing with serious behavioral issues like fear or reactivity to dogs or people. After just a few clients, I quickly realized that the average person doesn’t understand the difference between those two types of issues. Your typical dog owner sees things more along the line of “My dog does X and I want them to Y.”

Let’s talk a bit about while these two situations are similar, they are also very different. Let’s start with the easier of the two: training. Training is teaching the dog a new behavior and pairing this new behavior with a word or hand signal so you can cue it on demand. You might want to have your dog learn how to sit, or stand, or hold his paw out so you can trim his nail. These are all behaviors we can easily get your dog to perform.

What makes it a behavioral issue is when your dog has some strong emotion tied to the behavior you are trying to change. Aka the dog jumps on people because they are extreme scared of them not because he likes jumping. With behavioral issues, common training behaviors become symptoms of an underlying emotional cause. When the human component fails to realize this, it’s easy to try and treat just the symptoms, train alternative behaviors. Aka teach the dog to keep four paws on the floor. However, the emotions behind why the dog was jumping are still there. S/he is still feeling scared and unsure they just can’t jump to express those emotions any more.

This leads me to a reminder about corrective or punishment based training tools like prong, choke or shock. These tools work by punishing the unwanted behavior. They do nothing to teach the dog what to do only what not to do (and trust me the “not to do” list is wayyyyy longer). When you use corrective tools studies have shown (see last weeks article) the dog tends to learn slower and require more repeated punishments or increase in the strength of those punishments to be effective. Dogs who have been training using these methods have a higher amount of stress hormones and show more stress signals during training sessions and when these devices are used.

Interestingly, there was a study done that showed these devices can leave a lasting impact on the dog. A dog was trained using punishment based tools in a specific room. Then three months later brought back to that room. Upon entering, they saw an immediate increase in those same stress hormones despite no punishment being used. Three months later and the dog still remembers that fear and stress.

In training issues, when you use punishment you will start to see a dog that shutsdown. Because you punish a majority of their actions, these dogs become less sure & less willing to act for fear of being punished. Dogs trained using these methods are more likely to develop behavioral issues, especially when used by inexperienced clients, due to poor timing, unclear criteria for what gets punished, and the use of too many or too harsh of punishments. And it’s not just the dog who suffers from these methods. The human component easily gets frustrated by the lack of progress and it creates an adversarial relationship between human and canine.

With behavioral issues when you use punishment, you see all the above plus the original unwanted behavior tends to get worse or the dog develops another unwanted behavior to deal with the emotions s/he are feeling. You might be able to prevent some of the unwanted symptoms but you’ve add something more negative & unpleasant to the issue. A great example of how this works is when you punish a dog for growling. Commonly, these growls are punished by owners who what this symptom to stop. The dog, who was already unsure/fearful, now has two things to worry about, you (giving him the punishment) and whatever they were unsure/fearful of in the first place. Additionally you’ve made it harder for people to know when a dog is afraid of something. Before, you had an early warning bite detection system (the growl) and now you’ve disabled that and created a dog that “bites out of nowhere.”

Punishment based “training” has no place in addressing either training or behavioral issues. They tend to make issues worse (especially in the hands of novice trainers) and damage the relationship between you and your dog. I want a happy, fear free dog who’s eager to please and who works with me everyday. Force free, positive training methods get me there!

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Choosing a Dog Training Method

Today we’re going to look into one of the hardest aspects of being a dog trainer, convincing the human component of dog training to rely on and use the humane based methods.You’d think this would be pretty easy, but turns out it’s a lot more complicated then you’d think. People come from all sorts of prior experiences and all stages of knowing how to train dogs. And, turns out, a lot of them come into a training session with some incorrect ideas of how to address the issues they’re dealing with.

This conflict was one of the core reasons behind Underdog’s Triumph existence. Behavioral problems are the leading cause of death to dogs under 3 years of age and there is a strong correlation to between the life expectancy of a dog and how “well behaved” their owners think they are. Recently there was an article published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior called “Barriers to the adoption of humane dog training methods” by Zazie Todd which looked at some of these core issues.

(Please note: if you’re interested in reading this paper for yourself you can get a free copy of it until June 9th here – Journal of Veterinary Behavior and a summary of that paper for those visiting after this date can be found here – Companion Animal Psychology).

Let’s take a look at why some people might believe or hold (tightly) onto incorrect information about training dogs. Now, I’m not going to delve too far into the specific quadrants of operant conditioning, although those are applicable here, because I think it turns a lot of people away from understanding the core reason behind a certain exercise/training method. People don’t want to learn in depth about all the scientific reasons for WHY we do the methods we do (that’s our job as trainers), instead they just want a high level overview and a method that WORKS with their dog. But for definition purposes, humane, force-free, reward-based or positive focused trainers, use two main methods. We either reward the dog when they perform the correct/desired behavior or we withhold a reward. It’s pretty much that simple (positive reinforcement and negative punishment for those nerds out there).

The pros of using these force-free methods are many. Studies (many cited in the above two article links) have showed that using these methods is not only more humane but has been shown to get desired results faster than other methods. From my own experience, I have found that the bond between person/dog is far stronger when force-free methods are used and that the dog responses faster, with more enthusiasm and excitement to requests made by their person. This tends to be because these methods work with the dog and focus between person/dog is on achieving a common goal together. Teamwork it turns out is great motivation.

A lot of folks (and sadly even some dog professionals) state that a “balanced” approach is better. Their arguments typically revolves around statements like “We should use all four quadrants of operant conditioning” or “We need to use all tools available to us and not just limit ourselves to one technique.” I think it’s important for us to understand why people feel this way to better help them understand why humane training methods are better in the long run. Using “balanced” methods (according to the studies listed in the papers above) such as corrections with a choke/prong collar, e-collars, sprays, etc even in conjunction with treats have shown to cause an increase in aggression, stress and to cause and/or exacerbate other undesired behavior problems. Additionally these methods have been shown to increase fear, which correlates to a decrease in learning/retention which repeats the cycle with further punishments/corrections

Additionally all the skills required to perform positive/force-free reward based training are still required to perform corrective or punitive based training effectively as well. The issue is that most novice (and even some skilled) people have issues with this initially. This leaves a period of time (which will hopefully improve) in which the dog is having overly harsh, repeated corrections and the issue the person is trying to address is continuing to worsen.

Some of this stems from the long debunked idea that we need to dominate our dogs to get them to respect us. This idea creates a “conflict” style relationship between human/canine and encourages humans to increase the severity of style/type of punishment. It’s human nature. No one wants to be “dominated” by an dog. People incorrectly equate the dog’s failure to perform as their own, and they take their frustrations out on their dogs.

Sadly this original idea was based on a now invalidated study, but is still passed around as being factual. Dogs and wolf “packs” do maintain a structure but it is one of a family structure of cooperation, kindness, and leadership NOT one of dominance, fear and aggression. Wolf packs are typically led by an “alpha” male and female pair, but this “alpha” term doesn’t equate to how most people belief it does in terms of a “dominance”. Instead this alpha pair gained their status by being the eldest mom/dad of the pack and the rest of the pack consists of relatives, in some manner, who help care for and tend to the packs needs. There is a respect between those who are “under” the alpha but that stems from more benevolent leadership than any fear/aggression/dominance stance.

Another reasons folks fall back on these outdated, unscientific methods is because they have become popular on certain television shows (Cesar Millan I’m looking right at you) and other media outlets. These celebrity dog trainers train are in it for the show/entertainment of training, and not for actually helping these dogs. If you look online you can see numerous examples of dogs who have gone through this type of “showmanship” training and have come out worse for it. With humane methods, I would NEVER force a dog into reacting or worse yet biting someone or another dog. There is NO need. Dogs bite out of fear so why would I ever put a dog in a situation where he or she feels like biting is the ONLY option for ensuring their safety.

That stems from the overarching issue where no education or credentials of ANY kind are required to become a dog trainer. Schools pop up all over teaching outdated methods and incorrect science (and charge an outrageous amount of money for it to the tune of 5 – 7 THOUSAND dollars an online-only no-hands-on-dog-experience certification). That coupled with the fact that most people don’t know what to even look for in a dog trainer leads people to selecting the wrong choice (if you’re curious you can check out my post on that very topic here). In a survey done, most dog owners list “self” as the top resource for training dogs. They further define that as online or book knowledge (of which a lot is incorrect) or relying on instinct.

Finally there’s an issue where some people, including professionals such as veterinarians, still feel these aversive methods should be used in the “most extreme” of cases further legitimizing those methods use as being effective. Luckily there is a swing in thoughts guiding some of the larger professionals organizations to only preach positive/humane methods as the only way to go about teaching dogs –

    • Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT – of which I am a member),
    • Pet Professional Guild (PPG),
    • American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior (AVSAB),
    • European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology (ESCVE),
    • International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC),
    • And more, including many rescues/shelters!

The core issue I have, besides the pain aspect of using corrective punishments, is that when teaching these skills to novice trainers, there is little room for incorrect timing, over harsh corrections, and frustration. These all damage the relationship between person and dog, and greatly increase the chance of the dog developing more severe behavioral issues. Of all the behavior cases I have had since I started Underdog’s Triumph 2 years years ago. ALL have been using aversive methods to try and solve their issues and upon removing of these aversives saw an immediate improvement of behavior and bond between canine and human.

Let me know what your thoughts are. Do you think a “balanced” approach is better or one being force-free in nature? Regardless of your position, I’d love to know why you feel the way you do!

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Puppies Galore!

Summer is one of the most popular times to (ADOPT!) a new member of your family. So many folks believe that adopting a puppy is the better route because they are a “blank” slate which you can (and should) train. Many folks believe that puppies won’t have any behavioral issues or training issues built in because they’ve not had any time to learn any bad habits from previous owners or situations. However that sadly isn’t the case.

A lot of folks go out to buy a puppy from someone online, or someone they know. The issue here is that a majority of these sellers know absolutely bupkis about how to raise a puppy. Iowa’s lack of animal regulatory laws don’t help much either. We have no requirement for folks selling a small amount of dogs and worse yet no laws that prohibit when these puppies can be sold. And as we all know, the smaller a puppy is the cuter they are. So puppies go young. Super young.

One of my clients, who was working with me on a behavioral issue with their adolescent dog, told me they go their puppy at 4 weeks old. FOUR WEEKS folks. That’s insane to me. They told me they had to bottle feed the puppy after he started losing weight and refused to eat puppy food. Puppies aren’t fully weaned until between 6-8 weeks old. Additionally you have to worry about the lack of socialization these young dogs will have.

See puppies go through what’s known as a fear imprint period between 8 and 11 weeks (and again between 6 and 14 months) during this period of time things that are startle or scare the puppy can have a lasting imprint in their minds as being things they should be fearful of. When do most folks sell their puppy – eight weeks. Right when that fear imprint period starts. Then the puppy is taken away from their family, given new food with new people in a new home. In my mind that’s just setting the puppy up for failure.

Ideally sixteen weeks would be the best time for puppies to find their new home. At this age they have learned a lot of the body language social cues they need to be able to survive in the world. They know how to tell another dog that they want to play. They know how to tell another dog they do or do not like what they are doing. All using their own language through how they hold and carry their bodies. They learn all this magical communication from their siblings and moms and it’s incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to teach a dog how to speak “dog” as a human.

Additionally dogs learn one of the most important skills a dog can ever have. They learn about bite inhibition. This is when a puppy learns how hard they can bite down before it cause pain to whatever they are biting. It is amazingly important for a dog to know this skill. Imagine a situation when you accidentally step on Fido’s tail in the kitchen. It hurts. You startle him. He snaps. I’d 100% LOVE if he just mouthed me instead of biting down hard enough to break the skin. Puppies learn this skill through play with their siblings. Bite down too hard and your brother/sister doesn’t like that. They’ll yelp and stop playing with you. As a puppy, you have to learn how to play with your mouth and not cause pain so you can keep playing.

Socialization is extremely key too. Dogs go through a key socialization period up until 16 weeks / 4 months. During this time, you need to and should expose them to all sorts of random people, things and other critters. People wearing hats. People holding umbrellas. Tall people. Short people. Kids. Elderly. And more. But exposure can’t be the only thing you do. The exposure has to be a positive one. The puppy needs to see the novel thing and walk away thinking “MAN was that thing great!” Puppies are going through that fear imprint period too so interactions with novel things must be positive ones.

In theory, RESPONSIBLE breeder should know all about fear imprint stages, and how key socialization is to their wards. But in practice, this knowledge seems few and far between. In my opinion, adopting a slightly older dog 16 weeks / 4 months or greater from a shelter ensures you with the best outcome. These dogs are in facilities that KNOW about puppy development and have access to resources to get the puppy extra help if they need it. These puppies will have tons of exposure to different types of people (volunteers) and different sights/sounds. Plus you get to tell these breeders than you want a puppy raised right, in a home, surrounded by people and kids, not a puppy raised in a barn or garage and sold to make a quick buck.

AND if none of that has convinced you yet – you get to save a life. And that is probably one of the best gifts you could ever get you or your family.

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It’s Dog Bite Awareness Week!

This week is dog bite awareness week. To celebrate Underdog’s Triumph focused each day on bringing awareness to this common issue. Biting for dogs, even if justified, can easily mean a death sentence for dogs. Luckily, dogs never bite “out of nowhere” – Check out our Facebook posts this week to learn a bit more about dog body language and recognizing the signs a dog is stressed and about to bite!

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