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Are Puppies Blank Slates?

As many of you already know, I currently have three rescued dogs, Luna, Esther and Prim. Despite having an already full household, with the addition of three cats (Cass, Inara and Selina), I still find myself browsing through petfinder at the hundreds of dogs (and cats) currently still looking for their forever home. It’s sad to think about the number of pets who sit her waiting for months and even years before finding a home and family to call their own. Even sadder are the pets who wait forever and never find their own family.

A lot of times the ones most often overlooked are the elderly or the sick. People want that cute little puppy. And I think a common misnomer to one of the reasons people are still hesitant to adopt is they’re worried about “adopting” someone else’s issues. A lot of people assume that dogs in shelters or foster homes have been given up because there is something wrong with them.

I think this fear of adopting a dog “with problems” from a shelter, leads a lot of potential families to looking at breeders. They want a puppy whom they can “raise right” and who comes to them as a “blank” slate. But is any of this true? Is getting a puppy from a breeder a better route than adopting another dog (of any age) from a shelter? There as an interesting dog study that was done that looked at this a similar question – which you can check out here.

To be honest, I’ve often wondered the same thing. As a dog trainer, I know a lot of the right ways to train a pup and I’ve seen a startling contrast between how I raised my first TLC dog Rufus and how I’ve raised my second TLC dog Esther. Rufus was adopted at age 7 and Esther was adopted at 6 months. Rufus was raised by a loving dog owner who had read some books and thought she knew things sometimes. Esther was raised by a certified dog trainer who knew all about the benefits of positive reinforcement and force free training. I’ve found myself wondering as of late, as puppies go through such critical stages of development between 8 and 16 weeks old, would getting my next dog at this young of age, produce a better household pet? At this young of age, they’re essentially blank slates right? Ready for you to imprint all your knowledge on to right?

Turns out what the study found was a kin to the whole nature vs nurture question. In this study they took two mom dogs each with a litter and switched the litters. One mom was extremely nervous and another mom was very friendly and confident. So switch their liters and the idea was these blank slate puppies would take on the traits their new mom showed them right? Turns out not so much. The puppies from the fearful mom, remained fearful even with their new momma showing them all the ropes about life and how exciting it could be. The puppies from the confident mom suddenly became fearful as well without the guidance of a confident mom to show them the ropes. Two moms of opposite ends of the spectrum, yet both ended up with puppies leaning towards the fearful side.

The authors proposed a kind of spectrum of fearfulness and how that potential was influenced both by environment and genetics. Take for instance this graph from the study above, about one of the fearful puppies who was given to the bold momma. Here were her end results.


Her genes from her fearful parents gave her a genetic potential leaning towards the fearful spectrum of thing but the influence of the bold mom (environment) placed her towards the bold end of her potential. Yet the end result was she still leaned towards being on the fearful side of things. While these traits are not set in stone and can fluctuate a bit throughout a dogs life, this dog will likely never be the kind of dog who runs up to a stranger and becomes instantly friends.

Thinking of these traits in my own dogs I can define see these influences taking hold. My old dog Rufus was a puppy mill rescue who spend the first five-ish years of his life in a cage without much people interaction. He likely came from parents who suffered the same fate. Coming from such a limited environment and additionally coming from stressed fearful parents, definitely played a part on his ability to think and learn in the future. After I had him for a few years, he was always eager to participate in activities, but never was the smartest bulb in the group. Despite me providing him with all the building blocks for learning, the genetic potential for learning new things was definitely limited. Was he smarter and happier after I adopted him? Absolutely! Would he ever go on to win smartest dog of the year….. Definitely not. 😉

In Esther, she came into the shelter at only 8 weeks old, and was immediately surrounded by various volunteers and dogs and experiences. When I adopted her a few months later, and began training her you could definitely see her potential blossom. Now it’s like having a conversation with an infant. “Can you please get down?” or “Hop on up” results in her actively doing those things instead of staring blankly with a wagging tail like Rufus 😉 However her limited exposure to men growing up in a predominately female run shelter has led her to be fearful of new guys from day one – something we are constantly working on improving even to this day (she’s 7 now).

In Luna, she came to me a feral who would literally scream if you startled her or tried to pet her those first few weeks. She’d panic if she saw a person walking 75 feet away. Now, nearly two years later, we can pass a person walking or running on the sidewalk from about 6 feet away. We can walk in a park and have dogs and people pass us. But it has taken us TWO years to get to this state. All because her environment and genetics predisposed her towards being fearful of new (and scary!) things. We’re working against that predisposition. Is it possible? Clearly yes. Is it easy? Definitely no.

The conclusion after looking both at my own dogs and reading the study above is that you’re never going to know with absolute certain what type of dog you’re going to get. The older dogs, even the 1-2 year olds, have a lot of their genetic traits out in the open. They’re going to present themselves as they are. Fearful dogs will be fearful and bolder dogs will be bolder. With puppies, who are still actively being influenced by their genes these traits are harder to determine and can often manifest as the puppy ages and matures.

To me, I firmly believe, you don’t always get the dog that you want, but you get a dog that will help you grow. Rufus, despite not being an A+ student, I learned all about unconditional love from a dog whose only request in life was to be WITH you. From Esther, I’ve learned to appreciate her endless enthusiasm for life and it’s experiences. From Prim, who’s deaf and blind, I’ve learned a great deal of patience and gentle ways to approach and interact with a critter who’s world consists only of touch and scent. From Luna, I’ve learned to appreciate the small steps of progress and forget about the “somedays” and “maybes” and focus on the now. All dogs change us, no matter where they come from. And all will present challenges and hurdles throughout their lives. Love them. Train them. And love them some more.

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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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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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The Art of Human Training

If you were to have talked to me five years ago and asked me what the hardest part about training dogs would be, I would have said the dog (of course!). In practice, my humble self has come to realize that 95% of dog training is actually people training.

I see my clients, on average, once every two weeks for about an hour. This concentrated time is when I talk to them about the techniques we’re going to try, try those techniques and have them practice doing them as well. Then I leave. Those other 336 hours before I see them again. Those are time for the owner to work with the dog. Turns out, I don’t actually do a lot of training at all. Instead I spend that hour teaching the human in the equation how to train their dog. In essence after all this dog training and study turns out I’ve actually become a human trainer.

In my prior education, I’ve read some “human training” books about how to work with all the various types of clients you might encounter in your day to day training life. These types of books tend to categorize people into “types” of people with personality traits that you will need to know how to react to.

The book I read for the CATCH Dog Training Academy was called: “It’s Not the Dogs, It’s the People! A Dog Trainer’s Guide to Training Humans” by Nicole Wilde and labeled people such things as “Argumentative Al,” “Bland Betty,” “Look-at-Me, Leah” and “Know-It-All Ned.” The book was pretty good. It went through and discussed techniques you could use to manage those types of personalities who oftentimes can be disruptive to classes.

Recently I entered into a situation where I would need to talk to (and hopefully convince) a client that the methods they were using were not only no longer considered modern day methods in the dog training community, but some might even go so far as to classify these methods as being cruel. Being the first time I had ever done this in a one-on-one setting, I reached out to the dog training community and asked for advice. And like most communities, they gave me gobs of it!

One of the books they recommended was called: “The Human Half of Dog Training: Collaborating with Clients to Get Results” by Risё Vanfleet. One thing you might notice right away was the difference in how the title is phrased. The first book “It’s the People” gives off a tone of frustration at having to deal with these types of people in class. It implies that dealing with these people is unpleasant and must be suffered through to help the dogs. The second book, whoever,  “Collaboration” and “Get Results” turns the focus on how to get through difficult times so you can all be winners.

And folks. Let me just tell you this “Human Half of Dog Training” book (even though I’m only half way through), has seriously changed my approach entirely to dealing with dogs and their people. It talks all about how cognitive dissonance (aka trying to hold or come to terms with two different contradictory beliefs/ideas) and understanding of basic psychology plays such a huge part in how successful you are with clients.

Let’s look at a (made up) example of how this book has changed my approach. This client, let’s call him Donald, comes to me with his dog tucked behind him with shock collar around the dog’s neck. “My dog never listens to me,” he says. “I can shock and shock and shock him and he just keeps going right on doing whatever he wants to. And if that wasn’t enough he always runs away whenever I call him. Playing keep-away in the backyard when I’m ready for bed!”

Internally, I think most of us would like to smack the man upside the head with a rolled up newspaper. Some might even like to take the shock collar off the dog and put it right back onto the human. I’d like to launch right in about how literally everything the man is doing to this shy dog is making the situation worse. The dog runs away from him because there is NO trust between dog and canine.

However, launching into a lecture about how everything the person is doing is wrong, makes Donald throw up all the barriers. He goes on the defensive. Then we’d go into how positive, force free training works better than that terrible and painful shock collar he’s been using. Now Donald is fighting multiple issues. He’s being told an entirely new way of doing things (and folks change is scary). He’s going to have to learn a new thing (and what if he can’t do it?). He’s being talked down too and scolded like a child (so why should he listen anyways). He’s always trained dogs like this in the past (so why should he have to change now).

Instead, “Human Half of Dog Training” says, we can and should work with Donald (because remember, he did come freely to us for help). We can empathize how frustrating it can be when a dog doesn’t listen to you. We can share a similar story of a dog we’ve owned or worked with. We can introduce new concepts slowly bridging off of things he already knows. We can talk about our least favorite high school teacher who caused us to live in fear of being called on because we’d always get nervous and make a mistake and the teacher would call us out in front of the whole class. We hated and resented that teacher didn’t we? Did we work hard for that teacher? Did we dread their class? Instead we can ask Donald, What type of teacher did he like growing up? What made that teacher awesome?

“Human Half of Dog Training” doesn’t lump folks into categories. Instead it talks about how typical people react to situations of conflict. They can push back, they can resist, they can even lash out or shutdown entirely. In reading it, it reminded me too a lot of dog training. We don’t lump dogs into categories of “dominant” or “shy” or “hyper” and use only methods suited to that one type of dog. Instead we study and learn about dogs as a whole. About their body language. Their movements. Their emotions and desires.

So shouldn’t we do the same thing for us humans too?

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What is an Aversive?

There seems to be no small amount of cute kids/babies and dog videos circling around on the internet. If you’d have asked me a few years ago how cute those were, I would have oooh’d and aaah’d like the rest of the world. However it paints a different picture if you ignore the cuteness of the kid and just focus on the body language of the dog. This got me thinking a lot about what our pets consider to be aversive as well as what aversive actually means.

Here’s the link to the kid/dog video, check it out and see what body language signals you can pick up:

Want to see how you did? Scroll to the bottom and check out the signals I saw when I watched the video.

By definition, an aversive is something that we tend to try to avoid. This something could be situation, a behavior or an actual object. In dog training some dog trainers use objects that cause unpleasantness when the dog does an unwanted behavior in order (they hope) to decrease the likelihood the dog will repeat this undesired behavior. Some tools that would be considered aversive by all modern, educated trainers would be prong or shock collars.

There’s some contention in the educated dog training community about using tools like the Easy Walk harness or a Head Halter while teaching the dog to walk on a loose leash. Some folks in the community claim these tools are aversive as they change the natural way a dog walks. Others, myself included, see these as tools that can be used to help owners manage larger dogs safely and responsibility. In my mind the dog has to be on a leash so whether you use a normal harness, flat collar or a leash at all you will be restricting the movement of the dog in some way.

When we label things/tools as being aversive we do need to take into account the dog we are working with as well as the fact that tolerance does not equal enjoyment. For example, Esther, my own dog, doesn’t like sudden loud noises. To her me banging the pots and pans while doing dishes would be considered aversive. She will always slink off into the living room whenever I start getting ready to do them. Other dogs might not care at all and sleep by your feet while you clean. To that dog doing dishes isn’t aversive, just another random thing humans do.

That brings me around to an important thing to consider when using a new tool. The tool isn’t training. It’s management. It’s using something to get the outcome (oftentimes only initially) that you want. Is it less likely for a dog to pull in a head harness? Yes. Is it impossible? No. If you don’t couple a management solution to a training solution the dog learns nothing and will quickly go back to their old ways – an in my opinion make that management tool become aversive. A head halter on a pulling dog can ride up and rub on the dog’s muzzle.

That’s often why we see folks who only use punishment based methods having to continually increase the severity of the punishment in order to continue to get their desired outcome. The issue is they’re only managing the solution (temporarily) and not providing the dog any other guidance or motivation to change. So the dog reverts back to his old way.

In summary, when you want to change a dog’s behavior, you’ll want to combine a management solution and a training solution together for best results. Management gives you instant relief from the issue and stops the dog from rehearsing the bad behavior (aka making it a habit). Training teaches your dog a more rewarding replacement behavior to do instead. Regardless of what tools you use, you always want to use the least aversive tool out there for the dog you’re working with. Happy training!


Dog & Kid Body Language Signals (Spoiler!)

0:01 – 0:07 – Disengage, looks away from baby, ignoring

0:08 – Baby slaps dog, dog shows a stress signal – licks lips

0:10 – Stress yawn, licks lips

0:13 – Looks away from baby again, disengages, long slow blinks

0:17 – Baby grabs ears. Dog shakes off (stress)

0:19 – Dog rolls over onto back, stress licking

0:20 – Dog licking baby

0:23 – Baby presses down on dogs throat. Dog licks baby more frequently and quickly

0:25 – Baby grabs huge pile of fur, stress lick and disengage (looks away),

0:28 – Dog puts his mouth around baby’s arm

0:34 – Dog looks away, stress licks, continues to mouth the baby

0:40 – Continually licking baby’s face.

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The Power of Choice

Never underestimate the power that comes from the ability to make a choice. I think sometimes it’s easy for us, as humans, to forget how much choice we have. We make thousands of choices each day – what to eat, what do to, where to go, etc. All of these choices lead to more choices, for better or worse. Having these choices is empowering. Making them is rewarding. As a society we even use the removal of choice to act as a punishment. Locking up people in prison or house arrest removes a number of choices including the freedom to move when, where and how they’d like to.

So how does choice related to dog training? Turns out giving your dog the choice of a behavior and letting them choose is incredibly rewarding to them. Controlling these what choices are rewarding can not only help you get the outcome you want, but you won’t ever have to force your dog to do whatever you’d like them to, instead they willing choose to do the right thing because THEY want to. Let’s look at an example of how powerful those choices can be.

Calming Protocol:

I use this a lot to each a dog to be calm, but to do so it does require some patience on our part though, as we have to wait and respect the dogs choice, even if it’s the one we didn’t want. For this one I’ll sit or stand near my dog and think of what behavior I want them to do. For this exercise, laying down would be ideal as it’s a nice calm behavior for the dog to be doing to keep him or her out of trouble while being nice and relaxed. Your job, as the trainer, is to only reward the choices the dogs make that get him or her closer to the desired behavior.

The dog can choose to leap around and act all silly. That’s fine. Nothing bad happens. Nothing good either though. It’s a neutral reward. The dog starts to lay down and suddenly a piece of chicken or kibble falls in front of his or her face. Wow! That was pretty awesome! In the dogs mind, why would he choose to jump around when laying down is way more rewarding. Over time you’ll see the dog begin to select the “calm” option over others because in his or her eyes that choice is clearly the more awesome one!

You didn’t have force him or her into a down. Yell “stay” over and over. Actually you didn’t really have to say anything. You let the dog have the choice in the activity and through that choice you solidified and even strong resulting behavior because choice was involved.

I use the power of choice almost every evening to prevent begging for their dinner. The dogs would start to get excited for food right around six or so, more attentive and more conscious of every move I make knowing dinner is coming soon. But every night I wait until they’re all laying down. Then dinner happens. A few weeks of this, and suddenly everyone starts to get tired around six. They’re all laying down, yawning and acting calm because that choice is what makes the food happen.

I think sometimes we’re too quick to step in and restrict the dog’s choice. We limit them to only one option or forcing them to do something they don’t want to and the dog resists. So we drag them away from another dog. Or we scold them for barking at the cat or the neighbor or another dog.

One final example of this is (an AWESOME!) infographic about how your choice effects the choices your dog has available to him or her.

by Lili Chin at



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Special Needs Dog – Part 2

A few weeks ago, my friends made the correct decision to try and find a new home for their dog blind & deaf dog Prim. She was getting worse with the baby becoming more activate and soon to be mobile. She was doing panic barking for most of the evening. She was stressed. They were stressed and it just wasn’t working.

So instead of this being a super sad story about an old dog ending back up in the shelter, she ended up with a lovable sucker name Ellen 😉

I’d kinda fallen in love with this snoring, fluffy oaf. Although a brief miscommunication with the groomer left her a little short on top all over, it will grow back (SORRY PRIM!).

Here’s what we’ve been working on this past weekend: Getting Prim able to go up and down stairs on her own! Enjoy!