Don’t Touch That Turkey!


While most people teach their dogs to sit, down, stay and come, some may overlook two of the most important commands that assure a dog’s safety and well being: the “leave it” and “drop it” commands. Both of these gain particular importance during the holiday season, when we not only have all kinds of particularly yummy food out, but also guests who may take our attention away from more closely supervising our pooches.

Shadow is tempted

Seriously… don’t touch that turkey!

First, it’s important to note that Leave it and Drop it are different, not just in application, but in the way they are perceived by the dog. For this reason, I like to use different cues for them, and teach them somewhat differently.

Leave It: The dog has not yet taken possession of the item. This means that he is looking at something and thinking about approaching or taking it. “Leave it” means he should forget about it and look back to his owner. Note that Leave It may also be used to call a dog off of items that will not be taken by mouth, including other dogs, cats, and even people who may not want the dog to bother them.

Drop It: This is more difficult because the dog is to let go of something that is already in his mouth. This is often called “give”. The important thing about “drop it” is that the meaning for a dog is different: he ­already has possession so, in his mind, he already owns it. If you try to take it from him, he may growl, bite or run away to defend something that his instinct tells him is rightfully his. This makes “drop it” more complicated to teach, but just as important. What if he’s picked up something that is going to make him sick like that box of homemade fudge or walnut brownies?

When teaching the Drop it command, it is important NOT to force a dog to give something up (i.e. pry it from his jaws) as this could actually increase the likelihood of the dog “resource guarding” and becoming more unwilling to give the item up. (Of course, in an emergency, you may be tempted to force it, but bear in mind that you may be bitten!) Remember that resource guarding is not about rank or status, but about defending what they believe to be rightfully theirs – it is a basic survival instinct.

For dogs who already have resource guarding issues, I recommend taking it one step back, and teaching the word “drop it” without anything in the dog’s mouth. Simply say “drop it”, and then toss treats to the floor, pointing out the treats. Over time, you will work up to the dog having things in his mouth, starting with very low value items, and very gradually working up to higher value items. For a detailed demonstration of the process, described by noted trainer, Chirag Patel, check out this video:

With both Leave it and Drop it, it is important to reward the dog in order to make leaving or dropping an item worthwhile. Simply taking something from a dog or forcing him to leave it by pulling on a leash may work with low value items, or when he’s on a leash, but often not otherwise. By trading for yummier treats, in both cases, the dog will learn that it’s worth obeying the commands.

If you have any problems in teaching these commands, particularly if your dog is exhibiting any amount of aggression, contact a qualified dog behavior counselor for additional advice.

Have a safe and enjoyable holiday season with your pooches!

Time to Retire

Soul dogs – or “heart dogs” as many people call them – are few and far between, even among those of us who surround ourselves with dogs. I have been fortunate to have two of them, both working champions, best friends, constant companions…

Sebboh, my first heart-dog, was adopted when I graduated from college. A shepherd-lab mix with a touch of husky, she was my constant companion, traveling with me everywhere I went between my home in Santa Barbara and my friends and family, dispersed across California. She was the dog that led me to discover agility and flyball in 1992, and brought me into the world of professional dog training that same year. I even traveled with her to South America for a year, to live in Chile on a work assignment. Without her I’m certain that I would not have made all the wonderful friends I still have in Chile as well as throughout California. In addition to agility and flyball, Sebboh and I worked with an organization offering pet assisted therapy, and she enriched many more lives as we visited nursing homes and hospitals across Santa Barbara.

After I lost Sebboh at the ripe age of 12 years, I thought I’d never have another such dog and promised myself that I’d never love another dog as much. Boy was I mistaken! Along came Claire, a lovely blue merle border collie pup, in the year after losing Sebboh. Claire is very different from Sebboh, yet in many ways, much the same.  A much higher energy and faster dog, Claire forced me to actually learn how to handle a dog in agility! No longer would it suffice to just be the runner that I am to keep up with my dog along a course! I had to learn to front cross, rear cross, threadle… not to mention manage to do all of these things ON TIME! It was a challenge, but we managed it together.

Clearing a tire jump in agility

Claire was a fantastic flyball dog as well. Earning her FGDCh (Grand Champion) she anchored many teams and loved to run fast just for the sake of running. Many a time in her early career, she would re-run herself even if we didn’t have an early pass, just because she loved it so much. Over the years, she became more consistent and continued to love it.

Running over hurdles

Flyball fun

Like Sebboh, Claire is a fantastic running partner, too. I’ve been a runner since I was 12 years old, and have always loved running with my dogs.

Claire is nearly 13 years old now, so I understand that she is getting up there in age, but we have continued to practice flyball and agility, and only recently did I decide to start running her at lower jump heights in the preferred category in agility to make things easier for her. She was still enjoying all the sports.


At our first herding trial

Unfortunately, last week, as we were preparing for our morning run, I suddenly noticed that Claire was having a hard time standing and keeping her balance. An emergency veterinary visit resulted in a diagnosis of Geriatric Vestibular Syndrome. We are very fortunate that it’s an extremely mild case, manifesting as mild dizziness and ataxia. The prognosis is very good for a complete or mostly complete recovery. But it is doubtful that she will return to actually competing in sports. That is the most difficult part for me to come to terms with: losing what may be the best sports and working partner that I’ve ever had.

Just before our first herding trial

The Soul Dog’s Kiss

Retirement should be fun and happy, but for a working dog, this can be challenging. She will need things to do in order to remain sane, so I’ll bring her back to agility classes to keep her mind working. I also hope to be able to start running with her again at some point, but we’ll see how that goes. I will miss having her by my side as much as I do, but I will do all that I can to help her retirement be as enjoyable as it could possibly be. I think that my friend/student said it best in an email note:

“Her sporting legacy carries on in all the people & dogs she’s been a role model for in your classes!”

I continue to give thanks that her prognosis is good, and in spite of her forced retirement, I look forward to several more great and fun years with my “curly girl” Claire.

That Ever Elusive “Reliable Recall”

Does your dog ignore you when you call him to you? Or does he have selective hearing, only coming when he knows you have a cookie, or if there is nothing more interesting going on? A solid “recall”, or come on cue, is one of the most important things that your dog can know, both for safety and convenience. And yet, it seems to be one of the most challenging of the cues to really master.

To teach a reliable recall, the first thing to keep in mind is that dogs do what works for them. If a behavior results in something pleasant, they’ll repeat the action; if it results in something unpleasant or boring, they’re unlikely to repeat it. Thus, if you call your dog to reprimand him – regardless of what he did prior to your calling – he won’t want to come running the next time you call. By contrast, if you call and reward him with a treat, you’ll improve the likelihood of him come running the next time.

Calling Claire

The recall is a key element in many dog sports, including flyball.

The best way to teach a dog to come reliably is to practice often, beginning with very low levels of distractions. Start in your living room or backyard, with nothing else going on, and call your dog’s name. When he turns toward you, give him a delicious tidbit. As he becomes more consistent, gradually increase the distraction level, rewarding each time.

As the level of difficulty and distractions increases, you will need to increase your level of rewards. When working in your living room or backyard, for instance, without distractions, you may use kibble or simple dog biscuits; at a local park, your dog is unlikely to respond to anything less than cheese, cooked meat, or smelly soft treats. And when your dog manages a very challenging recall away from a high distraction, consider giving a “jackpot”: this is 5-10 small treats in a row, given one by one just like the coins from a casino jackpot.

Once your dog is becoming reliable around lower level distractions, practice calling him in a variety of tones of voice, similar to the different situations you may encounter in real life. Be sure to tell him how good he is as soon as he turns toward you, and then reward profusely as soon as he gets to you.

When practicing the recall, keep in mind the following rules:

  1. Always reward the dog when he comes when called, whether it’s with a yummy treat or a scratch behind the ear. The reward should increase with the level of difficulty. There are a variety of ways of increasing a reward for your dog, including offering a jackpot of treats, offering a better treat (i.e. hot dog instead of kibble) or offering the treat with more enthusiasm.
  2. Never call your dog from a situation that you know he won’t come away from if you are not able to enforce it. For example, if your dog has chased a squirrel up a tree and he’s off leash, it’s better to go get him than to try to call him in vain. Otherwise, he will learn that hearing his name does not have that much importance.
  3. Never reprimand your dog when he comes to you. Whether you called him or not, if he approaches you and you reprimand him, he may not want to approach you next time. So, if he is in trouble, go to him to reprimand – don’t call him. And actually, nothing bad should ever happen when you have called your dog to you and he has come. This includes such things as nail trimmings (which most dogs hate) and other such unpleasant things. And remember that leaving a park can also be considered “bad” if the dog was still having fun! So if you frequent dog parks or other types of parks, be sure to call your dog often to reward him, then call him and divert his attention with a play session prior to actually leaving the park.

Practicing often and rewarding a lot are the best ways to build a reliable recall in your dog.  Before you know it, you’ll be able to take him everywhere, confident that he’ll come when called instead of running off.

Exercising Your Dog

We all know that exercise is important for all dogs, regardless of breed or temperament. I’ve also explained that, for many dogs, mental stimulation is also necessary to prevent them from going “stir crazy” around the house.

A fun play session

Even with a large yard to run around, an intelligent dog may require more mental stimulation in order to calm down in the evening. While a simple walk may not do, a walk around the neighborhood, combined with obedience exercises, could calm such a dog both mentally and physically.

Highly active dogs such as the working breeds often require even more than this. There are many options available today to work out a dog, including dog sports such as agility, flyball, and disc dogs, as well as breed-specific sports, such as herding and hunting.  If you’re not sure which sport to choose for your particular dog, your dog trainer could offer some suggestions.

Of course, time can often be a limiting factor in the exercise that our dogs get.  If this is your situation, due to work, travel, illness, or whatever the reason, there are many services available to support you in your endeavor to have a healthy and fit dog that can settle down around the house.

Doggy day care is a modern service where you drop off your dog for a day and he is allowed to play with other dogs in a supervised environment. Dogs are tested in advance for temperament and must be fully vaccinated.

<a href=''>katemichaela / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Dog walkers often take groups of dogs out together

An alternative to day care is a dog walking service. Advantages to these services include controlled socialization to people and other dogs, better health, and the opportunity to take care of their “business” away from home, where the dog walker will dutifully scoop it up. Dog walkers can also offer basic obedience training to keep your dog sharp, as well as covering daily feedings and light medications if you are not able to be home during the day.

As the Romans said, “Mens sana in corpore sano”, that is “A healthy mind in a healthy body.” It applies to dogs as well as people!