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Reactivity in Dogs

This past week we had three new arrivals to the Underdog’s Triumph family. We welcome the little standing husky, our politely sitting boston and our happy-go-lucky terrier. Why would a training center need some fake stuff dogs you might ask? Reactivity – that’s why!

Reactivity is a term I use for dogs who are experience some intense emotion that causes them to react in what we would call an inappropriate manner. A reactive dog might lunge or bark, sometime they might nip or bite, some if pushed to far can even kill. Dogs who are reactive, lack the skills of knowing alternative behaviors when they get into this emotional state – which is typically cause by fear and sometime over excitement.

The interesting thing is that dogs typically don’t start out reactive, they start with smaller, oftentimes overlooked behaviors like avoidance or lip licking (stress signals) and progress upward to these overt displays of behavior which are quickly noticed by other dogs, their owners and other people. And as I’ve written about before, dogs do what works. They don’t know right or wrong, they just repeat what was successful in the past or they try something new.  If overt displays of a crazy dog at the end of the leash work to get what they want (most often the other dog/person to go away), then they’ll continue to do that next time.

Quick note, if you have a reactive dog, I’d recommend getting professional help from an educated dog trainer. You can check out my blog posts here and here on how to find a good one. Reactivity training requires a keen sense of dog body language and observation on the owner’s part and is greatly aided by a force free professional helping them spot what their dog is trying to tell them.

For dog to dog reactivity training, we would aim to teach the other dog an alternative behavior and then reward that alternative behavior more than what the dog would have gotten simply by lunging or barking at the other dog. But for those of you who have reactive dogs, have you ever tried to ask your dog to do any command while they are flipping out and bouncing all over at the end of the leash? It just doesn’t work. When the dogs get into that reactive state of mine, I always like to say their ears go closed and their brain turns off. They are in such an emotional state that they can’t even process that you’re trying to get them to do something else.

So what’s the trick? The trick is to start working at a great enough distance before they get into the crazy flipping out stage. The part when they first notice the other dog or person and yet the dog/person is far enough away they don’t feel threatened. Then we have to practice those new techniques. Practice not only helps the human learn skills like how to hold a leash correctly, or how to recognize when their dog is in the beginning stages of becoming reactive, but it helps the dog as well.

Using these fake stuffed dogs as practice offers the owners and their dogs the easiest possible scenario. These fake dogs don’t move, they don’t bark, they come free of an owner and yet they still look like a dog. With a stationary “dog” the owners and their dogs can practice different styles of scenarios, like walking up to a dog, walking around another dog, walking away from the dog, all the while knowing that if their dog were to get loose no one would be harm, and knowing the fake dog will always stay right where we left them.

My own adopted dog Luna came as a feral dog (meaning she had never really been around other people). She started with a 75 foot required distance from the another person or she would flail and panic at the far end of the leash trying to get away from them. Yesterday, almost two years after I adopted her, she passed by a jogger with only a five foot distance between us and him.

Reactivity training takes time, effort and consistency for the dog to begin to learn a new behavior when meeting a dog. It also takes a lot of patient and practice on the owners part as well. Overtime the dog (and the human) will start naturally falling back to these new behaviors and you’ll be able to get closer and closer to the other dog or person without having them react.

If you need help with reactivity, feel free to reach out, we can help you work with your dog on reactivity training or we can help you find someone in your area qualified to do the same. Trust me though, these three little amigos are up to the challenge and look forward to helping many other dogs and their humans in the future!

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Adversive Effects of Adversive tools

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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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How do I find a good trainer?

There is a lot of jargon with it comes to dog training. We’ve already talked about some of terms like “lip lick”, “calming signals,” “markers” and more. Coming from outside this crazy (and excitingly awesome) dog filled world it can be sometimes a bit difficult to navigate. Let’s say you’re in the situation where you have a dog with some behavioral issues you would like to work through with a trainer. But how do you go about even finding a “good” trainer? Heck, what even makes a “good” trainer and how do you sift through all the “bad” ones to find a good one? Let’s take a look at some key things you should look for in a trainer.

  1. Promotes Positive Training Methods.
    I will say that “positive” training is (and should be) all the rage. However it’s a more difficult to understand than just shocking a dog or jerking the collar to punish the dog does something wrong. That’s because positive training methods are based solidly on the science of how dogs learn and general learning theory. Sadly this popularity means that lot of dog trainers say they are positive, then have you forcing your dog to do things the dog clearly doesn’t want to do. Or worse these trainers have you doing things to your that you don’t think you should be doing. Positive trainers should NEVER use fear, pain, or intimidation to get a dog to do something. Instead they should rely on something pleasant (positive) like food/praise/toy/petting/etc to increase the likelihood that the wanted behavior will happen again (reinforcement). Your trainer should NEVER asked you to do something that you do not feel comfortable in doing. And finally you should avoid any trainer that uses terms like “pack theory” or “dominance” or “alpha rolls” in their training methods – all of these have been disproved by science.
  2. Digesting the Alphabet Soup of Dog Training Certifications
    In my opinion the worst thing about the dog training world is that it is unregulated. That means that there is no centralized governing body that determines what someone has to do in order to become a “dog trainer.” If I wanted to make a “Ellen’s Best World Dog Trainer” program I could, and people who graduated from it could be called “Professional Dog Trainers” – even if they had never actually worked with or touched a dog. O.o This to me is a huge disservice both to those wanting to become masters in their fields and those seeking a well educated professional for training purposes. A lot of trainers will belong to or have graduated from certain dog training programs. I myself will soon be a graduate of the CATCH dog training academy. It’s important to research these programs to understand the background of your trainer. A lot of these programs, for instance the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizen Evaluator simply requires an attestation that you have worked with dogs for 2+ years and you pay a fee – that’s it. There are plenty other programs that will simply take money in exchange for a certificate or title. Others never require you to ever touch or interact with a dog to be certified. They key takeaway from this is that fancy letters after a dog trainer’s name does not always equate to actual knowledge or experience in working with dogs.
  3. Check Out Reviews & Online Presence
    While I know not all trainers are as tech savvy as I am, a lot of trainers now have youtube channels or websites where you can go read about and watch the prospective trainer in action. One of my favorite youtube folks, Zac George, has weekly videos showing him working with dogs. This is perfect for being able to see your dog trainer actually work with dogs. You can take a look for things like: are both the dog/trainer comfortable? Are both having fun? Does the trainer’s actions support their descriptions of how they train? Other trainers have online reviews posted that you can read about other’s experiences with that trainer. If you can’t see them digitally, ask if you can sit in on a class to see what it’s like. Most trainers should let you audit a class (without your dog) to see if their methods are a good match for you. Other important things to look for is the communication style. Is the trainer able to break training theory/tasks down into small manageable steps? Are they able to explain things when you have questions? Effective communication between someone who lives and breaths a subject and someone who is just starting out is very key to having a successful experience.

Now that you know three things to look for (or look out for) in your prospective trainer, let’s talk about how to find a good, positive, experienced trainer.

  1. Check the APDT Trainer Listing
    The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) has a search feature for those trainers who have joined them. This, while being another title which requires only a brief application and fee, is a very well known throughout the dog training world as being one that works hard to promote dog training methods based soundly on science. I myself am a member and I have also used its search capabilities to locate a trainer for a consultation of one of my own dogs. That’s RIGHT. I asked for a second opinion on one of my own dogs. Dog trainers can’t know everything. Some trainers will have small niches of things they excel or super enjoy training and they’ll have others which they aren’t so good at. Good trainers know their strengths and know when they are out of their areas of expertise, and will be upfront with you about it. If they tell you they need to refer you to another trainer/professional/vet trust they are doing this for the dog. I ended up finding a wonderful local woman to watch me work with my feral rescue who I had, then, only had for 3 weeks, to ensure I wasn’t pushing too hard or causing more stress as I helped Luna adjust to the world around her. She gave me some tips and exercises I hadn’t already thought of, and reconfirmed that sometimes two brains are better than one! 🙂
  2. Ask Your Friends, Neighbors, or Coworkers
    Almost 50% of folks in the U.S. have dogs. And I can guarantee almost all of these dogs have something they are currently working on for a behavioral improvement. A lot of these dogs’ parents have participated in some form of dog training. Ask them for information about who they used and what their opinion of the place/trainer was. You could also try checking out places like dog parks or local agility/trial clubs to see if they have recommendations for trainers too. Then research those suggestions to find the match that’s right for you.
  3. Appreciate the Art Form of Dog Training
    This is very key when you first start working with a trainer or evaluating one. Dogs, much like people, have different learning styles, different motivators and different ways of solving problems. A good trainer will know this, but for newbie trainers or newbie owners it’s easy to overlook. Dog training never has a one-size-fits-all solution. If a trainer comes in with a plan before they have even met you or have diagnosed the dog with an issue before they have even seen the dog, steer clear. Dogs speak from head to tail using their entire body and voice to communicate. If a trainer doesn’t take the time to read these “words” then you probably won’t have a good experience and neither will your dog. You also need to be conscious of this fact. After a dog trainer evaluates your dog, you will both come up with one or more plans for adjusting the behavior. These plans might not work out. This doesn’t mean you or your trainer is wrong, only that it might need some adjustment to match your dogs learning style and personality. 🙂

Overall when seeking out a trainer for anything related, you need to be patient and thorough in order to find one that is experienced, professional, and fits both your needs and your dogs. In the case of a behavioral issue or even just basic obedience, it is never a decision in which you should take lightly or just flip through the phone book to find. You (and your trainer) want the absolute best for your dog – so take the time (and have the patience) to find one that’s the perfect fit for you!