Oh no! You’re leaving?

Does your dog panic when you leave him behind?

We love our dogs. This is why we take them hiking, hire dog walkers, take them to doggie day care, participate in dog sports and buy them gifts. Unfortunately, we can’t always take them along when we go out. While it can be tough to leave your dog behind, it’s important not to make a fuss about your arrivals and departures, as this can create problems for your pooch. And as the holiday season is upon us, this will be particularly important if we will be forced to leave our pups behind to go visit relatives or attend holiday parties.

Leaving pooch behind

Unfortunately, not everyone gets to take their dog to work.

When leaving for the day, many loving owners start to leave, turn back and see their dog watching them then return for “one last goodbye”. While I have to confess that I’ve been guilty of this with my niece and nephew when I visit, I make it a point not to do this with my dogs (or my kid), as it can cause anxiety and other problems.

While there are many causes, separation anxiety, may be exacerbated by lengthy goodbye’s and overly exuberant hello’s. When you leave for the day, the dog knows that you are going.  If you behave as if it’s not a big deal, the dog will be more likely to believe that all is well. If, however, you make a fuss, he’ll wonder why you are behaving in such a manner. Over time, this could lead to increased levels of anxiety every time that you leave without him. The same is true if you make a fuss when you return, as he’ll get excited at the prospect of your return, and in this excitement may become destructive or anxious.

It is important to note that not all destructiveness is separation anxiety; some dogs simply need more to do, so they destroy things out of sheer boredom when left alone. Typically, separation anxiety also involves stress-related behaviors such as hyper-salivation (you’ll notice wetness below the chin, and sometimes down the dog’s chest), inappropriate elimination (urination or defecation) typically near entryways, and much destruction around entry/exit points such as door jams and window sills. Some dogs will even end up injuring themselves in their desperation to find their people. I know of one dog that jumped through a second story window due to her anxiety when left alone.

Resting until Mom returns
Don’t worry about us – we’ll be fine!

 Assuming your dog doesn’t already exhibit separation anxiety, what is the best way to leave? Say goodbye in a cheerful voice and walk away. Resist the temptation to look back or to return for one last ear scratch goodbye. When returning home, give a quiet hello as you walk in; ask for a sit or down prior to petting. Save the exuberant greetings for when he does something really great, such as coming when called away from a major distraction.

If you have done all of these things and your dog still suffers from what you feel may be separation anxiety, or even just destructiveness when you are away, contact your local trainer for assistance.


Last week I gave you a short run-down of canine body language, and how to respond to certain canine cues and signals. But, why is it important to understand your dog, or other people’s dogs, for that matter?

Of course, safety is the number one reason, and for this reason, several organizations have cropped up to explain canine body language in order to reduce dog bites to people, and particularly to children. In addition to safety, there is also the responsibility to your own dog to keep him safe and comfortable – what I call “respecting your dog”. In other words, beyond simply training your dog to understand and respond to your cues, actually allowing your dog the opportunity to communicate back to you is also important.

Respecting your dog means remembering that, in many cases, behavior that many consider “stubborn” may actually be a true lack of understanding of the cue being given; behavior that may be considered “insolent” could actually be a result of fear or pain; behavior that some consider “naughty” may actually be an attempt to communicate discomfort.

Years ago, in the days when leaving a dog on a “down-stay” outside a store was perfectly safe, I used to walk with my German shepherd dog, Nick, to the grocery store on errands for my mother. One summer day, he decided to stop walking nicely and tried to pull me across the parking lot; I grew frustrated as he forged ahead, insisting that he heel next to me and wondering what was going on with him. Days later, I was headed back to the store with him, only this time, I was barefoot. I took one step onto that pavement and immediately understood what my poor dog had tried to communicate to me – it was BURNING HOT. I had ignored my dog previously when I should have “listened” to him, and I felt terrible in that realization.

I often see clients with nervous or fearful dogs who tell me that their dog won’t stay on the “correct” side of them in certain parts of a neighborhood, or that the dog will pull on leash to pass certain houses (with resident barking dogs.) Instead of allowing their dog to switch sides, or speeding up the pace to allow their dog to get past that scary barker, they insist that their dogs are just being difficult. I’ve also witnessed unwitting owners reprimanding their tiny, frightened dogs for growling at the huge dog who suddenly stuck his face into their space. Recognizing your dog’s challenges and working with them instead of against them, this is respect!

In addition to being able to understand and respect your own dog, understanding canine body language can be tremendously beneficial in keeping you safe in encounters with strange dogs. Many a time I’ve had people tell me that they were frightened of dogs, and that all dogs hated them. I’m convinced that it’s not coincidental. When you take into account a fearful person’s response of eyes wide open and staring directly at the object of their fear, it is no wonder dogs respond poorly. In dog language, direct, face-on eye contact is usually considered a threat display, and many dogs will respond accordingly if a person looks at them this way. Dogs, on the other hand, turn their faces away from the thing they fear, while keeping their eyes on it sideways. This often results in the whites of the eyes showing, or what is known as “whale eye.”

Most of us want the best possible relationship with our dogs. Understanding our dogs’ body language and opening the door for two-way communication with them is a great first step toward taking our relationships to the next level.

Say What?

Among the many discussions that have been the buzz among dog trainers and behaviorists recently, a common theme is the topic of understanding dog body language. As professionals working with dogs, not understanding what a dog is trying to communicate to us can lead to serious injury, as we have recently seen happen to a popular television personality.

While many people understand the basic communications of dogs such as growling and happy tail wagging, there is so much more to dog communication. Although dogs do vocalize in a variety of ways to communicate, the majority of their communications are non-verbal. And just as tears and crying do not always signify sadness in humans, a wagging tail does not always mean a friendly or happy dog, and a growl does not always signal aggression. (There are “play growls” as well!)

How can you know just what a dog is trying to say to you? If you want the complete story, watch its entire body. Following are some basic tips for ‘reading’ a dog. By putting different cues together, you may get a better idea of what your dog (or your neighbor’s dog) is trying to tell you.

Ears – there are a variety of ear types and some are easier to read than others, but their general positions are similar. If the dog is communicating deference, the ears will typically be pulled back, or at half-mast in some dogs.  A curious dog will have its ears forward, possibly combined with a head-tilt. If the ears are far forward and the dog is standing tall and leaning forward, that could be a sign of a potentially aggressive attitude.

Eyes – Windows to the soul, this applies to dogs as well.  If you have an affectionate dog at home, you are, no doubt, familiar with the ‘soft eyes’ of the polite, loving dog.  ‘Hard eyes’ that stare directly can be a challenge, while averted eyes, often coupled with a head-turn, mean that the dog does not wish to interact.  This is averted head is commonly seen when a young, rambunctious dog approaches an older dog that does not want to play.

Lips/Mouth – Most people understand that raised lips in a snarl are an aggressive display. However, many dogs also raise their lips in a canine submissive grin. The difference is that the lips are pulled back for the grin instead of forward, and the eyes remain soft or sometimes even closed completely. Again, it’s important to see what the rest of the dog is doing to determine what is really being communicated.

Tail – The movement of the tail is less important than the position. Keeping in mind that some dogs have naturally high or naturally low tail carriages, a very high tail indicates more confidence, while a lowered tail indicates respect or nervousness. A truly happy dog will have its tail at a neutral level – straight out – and wagging widely. And most of us have seen the dogs whose entire bodies wag in the unmistakable sign of joy.Fearful Dog Body Language

When we put it all together, it’s most important to take things in context. Just as “your dog is the best” can be construed in many ways, depending on the person’s facial expression and which word is most emphasized, so is canine body language. One of the easiest ways to learn is to observe your own dog in situations with which you are familiar. Note the tail, ears, eyes, etc and remember what the overall dog is doing. Thus, when placed in an unfamiliar situation, it will be much easier to understand exactly what your dog is trying to communicate.

Watching other dogs play and interact can also be helpful. Once we understand our dogs’ signals and attempts to communicate, how then should we respond? Of course, the happy dog has an easy answer: pet him or play with him! With the fearful and angry dogs, things are not so simple.

While many people feel compelled to try to help a frightened animal “feel better” by talking in a soothing tone and continuing to approach, this could lead to serious injury for both of you! Frightened animals often lash out in attempts to defend themselves from perceived threats. If a dog appears afraid it is wise to keep your distance. If the dog is unfamiliar, consider calling in an expert such as an animal control officer to handle it. If you are stuck in a small space with such an animal, do not make direct eye contact. If it’s your own dog and he needs help (i.e. he’s injured), you might try covering him completely with a blanket, though he may still bite.

And what if the dog that you are approaching growls? Growling is an often misunderstood signal. While many people view the aggression and feel the need to “prove” to the dog that they are not frightened, or feel that they must remain “dominant”, a growl is an important warning signal. For this reason, modern trainers with the top credentials now recommend never to punish your own dog for growling, and to heed the growl and back off.

I’ll stop here to elaborate on the growl. Consider two people with guns: the first yells at you as you approach, saying “I have a gun, please leave”, while the second person surprises you and shoots you unexpectedly. Which person would you prefer to face? I personally would prefer the person who warns me and gives me the opportunity to leave. This is the person who does not wish to shoot me, but fears that they may have to. So it is with a growl. But if a dog is repeatedly punished for growling, then his warning signal (“back off please”) is eliminated, and he will be forced to bite without warning when his threshold has been breached.

So, what should you do if your dog is growling? In such a case you will be better suited to determine his reasons for growling, and spend some time teaching him that growling it is not necessary. Of course, when in doubt, call in a professional to help you to resolve the issue, and make certain that the methods used do not escalate your dog’s issues.

With other people’s dogs, avoid confrontation in order to avoid injury; step slowly away, keeping your head turned so as not to make direct eye contact. If the dog is on a leash in the control of another person, do not approach that person as it could make it more difficult for them to control the dog.

If you have additional questions about canine body language or how to respond to dogs’ signals, I highly recommend the book, “Canine Body Language” by Brenda Aloff, as well as websites such as Dr. Sophia Yin’s website and other similar sites.

Resource Guarding – The Misunderstood Problem

What is wrong with my dog?

Recently, there has been much discussion about resource guarding, particularly since a certain famous self-proclaimed dog trainer incited a dog to bite him while guarding her food dish. There are many misconceptions about what dog experts call “resource guarding”, that is, the act of guarding something that a dog considers of value. This could include food, treats, toys and even people and other companion animals. The most common type of resource guarding, and the most misunderstood, is that involving food.

While there are various ideas among dog lovers as to why a dog might guard his food, the main reason is simply instinct. Guarding of resources is an innate survival impulse.  According to the natural law of animals, “what is in my mouth or between my paws is mine.” There is no disputing this. If you try to take something from the dog that he doesn’t wish to part with, he will often feel that it is his “right” to guard it. This has nothing to do with status seeking; instinct tells animals that if they don’t guard their food, they may starve to death. Can you imagine a non-resource guarding dog in the wild? It would not survive.

For a more human perspective, think about U.S. law: it states that a search without a warrant is unlawful. If the police show up without one and you lock your doors, you are not defying authority; you are exercising your rights under the law as you understand it. So it is with dogs. A dog that guards food or toys is not defying your authority. He is simply asserting his rights under his perception of the natural law.

This is MINE… stay away!

One of the reasons that many people have a hard time understanding this is that we have bred the resource guarding instinct out of a lot of dogs over the centuries, so they simply won’t do it. Think of the majority of Labradors and Golden Retrievers – not only have they lost their instinct to resource guard, but they and many other dogs actively seek to bring you things!

So, how do you teach your dog to give up a cherished resource?  If you are fortunate enough to begin with a puppy, teaching a “drop it” command is an easy first step. Start by giving the pup a toy that he considers low in value.  When it’s firmly in his mouth, tell him “drop it” as you wave a tasty treat in front of his nose. As soon as he lets go of the toy, give him the treat. Then return the toy to him.  By receiving the toy back, the pup will learn that responding to “drop it” is always worthwhile.  Otherwise, a smart pup may actually begin to weigh options: “do I prefer this or that?” As the “drop it” response improves, work with gradually higher value items, until you can tell him to drop a meaty bone, give him a treat, and return the bone to him.

With a puppy at the food bowl, walk nearby while he’s eating. As you go by, toss a yummier morsel into the bowl, such as a piece of hotdog or cheese.  As the pup becomes comfortable with your being closer, slowly work up to picking up the bowl, dropping in the treat, and setting it back down. This teaches the pup that good things come when someone takes your food bowl. Eventually, the pup will be happy to have you nearby when he’s eating.

Hand-feeding is also easy to incorporate into your puppy’s routine – there is no rule that meals must be served in a bowl. By hand-feeding your dog, you have the opportunity to further improve your relationship, remind him that you are the source of good things, and emphasize that having you around while he is eating is a positive thing. This is particularly beneficial with puppies, but can be incorporated with adult dogs as well.

What if you have an adult dog that is already resource guarding? The process in this case must proceed much more slowly. You can start by simply teaching the dog that “drop it” means there are tidbits of food on the floor, as in the video by Domesticated Manners. Over time, you can eventually move to the point where the dog will actively drop items in his mouth when he hears the words “drop it.”

If your dog is a serious resource guarder, to the point of being dangerous, or if he displays resource guarding around people or companion animals, talk to a professional behavior counselor or trainer for assistance, and make sure they are using the most modern methods. Note the completely different techniques and vastly superior results in this video from my colleague, Lisa Mullinax, as she teaches a dog not to guard a food bowl.

Most importantly, remember the natural law and try not to break it outright. With patience and consistency, you can teach your dog that it is to his benefit to give up the things that you ask for and thus he won’t feel the need to guard them from you.

I’m OK. Are you OK?

The little dog, some kind of terrier mix, nervously paced back and forth in the shopping cart at the pet store where I was in between class sessions. I had been called up by the cashier to talk to them about their dog’s behavior problems at home, where he was destructive and had house soiling challenges, though he’d been previously housebroken. As I began to talk with the couple, I could already sense the hostility between them. Then, like a volcano, it erupted. At the tops of their voices, they shouted at one another. Shoppers heading to the cash registers turned 180 degrees to find other things to buy rather than continue to approach. I was stuck there, looking down at the now trembling little dog, desperately wishing to send him a telepathic apology, “I wish I could help you, but I can’t”. What this couple needed was a marriage therapist, not a dog trainer.

While this true account is an extreme example, the gist of the problem is not unique in the work of a dog trainer or dog behavior counselor. Periodically, I work with families trying to draw me into their disagreements, with comments such as “can you tell (a family member) that she has to (fill in the blank)”. On other occasions, I’ve arrived at sessions that were supposed to include all family members only to have someone blatantly missing from the meeting, or clearly annoyed by my presence. This is the least enjoyable part of my work, and at such times I wish I could just hand them the business card of a local Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist to contact instead.

Anthropologist, Brian Hare, recently demonstrated in studies that dogs are masters at reading human social cues. While many of us who grew up with dogs already knew this, it is nice when someone does a scientific study that validates what we know in our hearts. While there are many benefits of this, including the ease of training and the connections that this allows us to make with our canine companions, there are pitfalls as well. Specifically, dogs that have close connections with their humans will be affected by their emotions, whether positive or negative.

When I was in high school, my German Shepherd Dog, Nick, was particularly attuned to my ever-changing adolescent moods. One day, when I was sad about who knows what, I took him for a walk in the park. Once off-leash, he ran full speed toward a puddle of water. The puddle turned out to be deeper than he’d thought, resulting in his stumbling and getting his entire face wet. When I giggled lightly, he stopped, looked at me, and then proceeded to repeat this behavior several times until I was heartily laughing out loud. Laughing is good, sad is bad. Any dog with a close human relation understands this.

Smile and the world will smile with you...

This being the case, we have to consider that our dogs may be affected by our other emotions as well. My Border Collie, Claire, leaves the room whenever there is football on TV, because in her 12-1/2 years of life, my San Francisco 49ers have unfortunately had more bad years than good years. She doesn’t like it when I yell, even if it’s at the TV.

But what is there to do? We can’t change what we feel, or suppress our emotions just for the sake of our dogs, right? Of course not, but I do recommend doing what you can not to have loud screaming fights in the presence of your dog if you can avoid it. More importantly, try to be aware of how your behavior and routine affects that of your dog. A change as seemingly minor as a job change, which we may think is transparent to our dogs (we still get up, go to work, etc.) can actually affect our dogs if they sense that our mood has changed.

If you are having problems with your dog’s behavior and you think that it may be at least partly due to challenges you are facing yourself, consider the possibility that a personal counselor or a life coach may be as worthwhile an investment as a professional dog trainer. In less stressful times, try to remain diligent about continuing your dog’s physical and mental exercise routines to reduce his or her stress level. Playing games can be mutually beneficial, whether it is a nice game of ball retrieving, a hearty tug of war with a favorite toy, or your favorite dog sport.

I read a reminder recently that, in a plane going down, it’s important to first make sure that your own oxygen mask is securely in place before you can effectively assist others. Using the same principal with regard to your dog can go a long way to keeping everyone’s stress levels at bay. Do what you can to improve your mental and emotional stability, and your dog’s behavior should reflect this positive change.

Quiet Please!

Many people live with and around dogs that bark too much. If you have a high drive dog, then barking could be particularly challenging. Barking can be a nuisance.  And if a neighbor complains it can also become a legal issue. But before your dog’s – or your neighbor’s dog’s – barking issues can be addressed, it helps to understand why he or she is barking. Dogs bark for a variety of reasons. Following is a list of possible triggers, and how they might be handled:

Barking for attention

A bored dog may not have anything more interesting to do than to bark.  Yelling at him to be quiet will typically only make matters worse, as he’ll consider this attention, and thus rewarding. Just like children, bad attention is better than no attention at all. If your dog is bored, he needs an outlet for his energy. Consider getting up earlier to walk or play ball with him, and give him more mental exercise. Additionally, giving him toys or chew treats may keep him occupied while you’re away.

Barking at prey animals

If a dog is prey driven – as so many are – he may not be able to resist chasing critters that run by. In this case, teaching the dog to re-direct attention to a toy or game is helpful when you are around to reinforce the new behavior. When you are away, keep the dog separated from areas where squirrels play. As an alternative, a motion detector sprinkler can be a great way to keep small animals away from the yard.

Barking at perceived intruders

Known as alarm barking, most people want their dogs to bark at intruders this way. It’s their job!  However, excessive barking can be a problem. Here again, yelling at the dog to be quiet seldom works.  Instead, first acknowledge the “intruder” by looking directly at him/her/it and then praising the dog. (“Good watch dog.”)  Next, tell the dog “quiet now” and lure him away with a treat. Tell him to sit, down or some other trick and give him the treat. If he attempts to go back to barking at the “intruder”, call him away with an “ah-ah” and ask for additional tricks in exchange for treats.  Over time, the long process won’t be necessary and a simple “Good watch dog, quiet now” will suffice to quiet him down. If your dog is a persistent barker, you may add a “time out” – 30 seconds to 2 minutes of isolation – whenever he goes back to bark at something after you have praised him and called him away the first time.

Barking when left alone

Some dogs bark when left alone for extended periods of time. If your dog does this, it could be due to boredom or it could potentially be separation anxiety. If your dog is bored, then increasing his mental stimulation, as described under “attention barking” above, could help to alleviate this. However, if your dog has separation anxiety, then it is important to treat this very challenging condition with the help of a professional behavior counselor and/or veterinary behaviorist. Some helpful management tactics include doggy day care, or getting a sitter to spend time with your dog during the day. Please note that separation anxiety is also best diagnosed by a professional, so when in doubt, consider calling one.

If you have a serious barking dog challenge, contact your local dog trainer. He or she can help you to teach your dog to be more polite. Telling your neighbors that you are working with the trainer for the barking can also go a long way to build rapport and keep them from taking legal action against you.

Crate Rest and the High Drive Dog

Some years ago, Claire, my Border collie, was injured and required to “crate rest” for 10 days. As I was leaving the vet office, I told my vet that she was a working dog, to which he answered “it’s time for a vacation.” Clearly, he didn’t understand about working dogs!

If you have a high drive dog, and find yourself in this unenviable position of having to keep her quiet due to some sort of injury or illness, you know how challenging it can be. Following are some options for keeping your pooch mentally stimulated while limiting physical activity. In this manner, your dog may be (at least somewhat) less restless during convalescence.

Poor poor Buzz hurt his foot

NOTE: Not all of these exercises may be suitable for all dogs. Please consult with your veterinarian to determine which exercises would be best suited for working around your dog’s specific malady.

Find it: Start with teaching a simple “find it” by tossing kibble or treats to the ground where your dog can easily see them land then move to eat them. As she starts to understand, proceed to dropping a treat while she’s looking in another direction, and then tell her to find it. Once she is proficient at doing this, then you can take the treats and roll them into folds of a towel or old blanket. Put the blanket into your dog’s crate and encourage her to “find it” using her nose and digging into the blanket.

A related game is to hide the treats under cups.  Set out three cups, with a treat under one of them. Ask your dog to “find it”, and see how long it takes her to choose the correct cup. When she finds it, give her a jackpot of additional treats. As she gets better at choosing the appropriate cup, start to reward her extra only when she chooses the correct cup on the second try or better, then eventually only give her extra treats when she chooses the correct cup on the first try.

Object discrimination: This is learning to distinguish between the names of different objects, usually toys. Start with a single toy, and ask your dog to take it, i.e. “take the ball”. Proceed to hand her the toy. If your dog doesn’t like to take things in her mouth, you can simply accept a nose touch to the item. Reward with a treat, and repeat. When she is readily taking the ball on cue, switch to another toy, i.e. “take the bone”. (Be sure the words you use are sufficiently different! Note that words like Phone and Bone may not be distinguishable to some dogs.) Use only the bone for a few days. Once your dog is proficient at taking the bone, try with both items – one in each hand – and tell her to take one specifically. At first, say the cue then move the correct item toward her a little bit to give her the hint. Be sure to move the item AFTER saying the cue so she doesn’t ignore the verbal cue and just take what you hand to her. Soon, you may stop moving and let her choose the toy. If she chooses correctly, she either gets the toy to play, or a treat. If she chooses incorrectly, take both toys away and just say “oops”. If she is incorrect, return to giving her the hint by moving the correct item toward her after giving the cue.

Puzzle Toys: Interactive puzzle toys are a great way to mentally stimulate your dog without quite so much work, for those days when additional training time is just not part of your schedule. These work by allowing your dog to use her brain to solve puzzles in order to find the food and/or treats hidden within. Most of these do require a bit of training at first to help the dog determine what is to be done, but once they learn the process, then they will go on to puzzle solving on their own, and you can take the puzzles to a higher level of difficulty. Find many puzzle toys at the Clicker Training Store online.

Tricks: There are a wide variety of stationary tricks that may be taught to a crate-resting dog. Here are just a few.

Left and Right turns – useful in a variety of sports, left and right turns are also a very easy, in-position trick to teach a dog.  Start by facing toward your dog, remembering that your right is her left and vice versa. Practice left and right turns separately (i.e. left turns in one session, right turns in another session) by tossing treats for your dog to see. Ask for a “watch me” and then release the dog with a “right” or “left” cue followed by your release or “take it” cue. As the dog starts to understand the directions, begin dropping the treat while the dog is looking in another direction, then release with the directional cue.  Remember to only practice one direction in any given practice session for at least the first several days, until the dog is consistently turning in the correct direction.

If your dog is severely restricted in terms of movement, this exercise can be practiced in place, with the dog lying down, and setting the treats to the side of the dog instead of tossing them. NOTE: the left and right turns are simply head turns of approximately 90 degrees. Once the dog understands turns, then her body will naturally follow where her head is looking once she is in motion.

Left paw / right paw – This is simply a paw shake with either paw. Many people call this “Paw” and “Other Paw”. If your dog already knows it, it can be practiced from lying down as simply a forward extension of her paw. At first, make it easy by putting your hand near the paw that you are requesting. Over time, ask for the paw without the physical cue, but give her the hint if she don’t get it on the verbal cue.

Shake head yes/no – Easily lured (side-to-side or up-and-down) these can also be shaped using clicker training. The cues could be “say yes” and “say no”, or you could choose clever questions to which your dog could respond, such as “do you want a cookie” (nod yes) and “how about a bath” (nod no).

Touch body parts – if your dog is able to move physically, but just not allowed to jump and play, then this could be another good option.  If you have clicker trained your dog, you can free-shape this with simple head turns. If not, you can lure her to touch certain body parts with her nose. For example, to touch her tail, lure her nose to her tail, then mark and reward. When she is readily moving her nose to her tail, you can start to put the cue of “tail” (or “find your tail”) before guiding her to touching her tail. Once she is proficient at this trick, you can add more body parts that are easily accessible to your dog’s nose, such as her hips, front and rear feet, etc.

Crate rest is no fun

Like people, most dogs need mental as well as physical exercise on a regular basis to remain well-adjusted and content. High energy, intelligent dogs, can become particularly distressed when they are not able to work at all. Giving them at least some mental exercise on a daily basis may substantially reduce their stress, and thus improve the healing process.

Stubborn or insufficiently motivated?

Or is your dog actually uncomfortable?

In my work with high-energy dogs, I teach a lot of dog sports, with a strong emphasis in focus work. I stress the importance of teaching dogs to focus on their owners instead of the exciting world around them. Yet many people misunderstand what is focus, and more importantly, what is motivation.

Noted competition dog trainer, Denise Fenzi teaches courses specifically on the topic of training dogs to have high motivation for sports and work. She understands what drives dogs, and how to get them to focus. And she also notes that in many situations where a dog is not focused on his handler, there are often good reasons.

When anyone tells me that they have a “stubborn” dog, I am quick to say that their dog is probably just “insufficiently motivated”. This is really what is at the root of many training challenges, regardless of the methods that are being employed. It may be that the dog is more interested in something other than the handler, it could be that he is nervous or distracted due to an overly stimulating or new environment, or there could be other, more serious reasons such as fear, discomfort, or even pain, that may cause a dog not to respond to a handler’s cues.

Ready for the next cue!

In the most extreme example, I had a student with a lovely German Shepherd mix that bit a veterinarian who pushed down his behind for refusing to sit on cue because, she said, he was just being stubborn. After a switch to a different veterinarian, the owners learned that he had severe hip dysplasia. Thus, he was not being stubborn when refusing to sit on cue, but he was refusing because it actually hurt to sit!

With my own dogs, I keep a close eye on their comfort levels when we are training, or even just out and about. If, for example, I have asked one of them to“heel” and she spontaneously switches sides on me, rather than reprimanding and forcing her to go back to my left side, I instead look to my left and invariably find the object of her discomfort – often a large barking dog or frighteningly loud garbage truck or some such thing. By allowing my dog to switch sides, I am not only respecting her feelings (i.e. fear) but also giving her the option to take refuge behind me.

Respect for your dog is about recognizing that, often, a misbehaving dog is doing so due to misunderstanding or even discomfort rather than actual stubbornness. As world renowned trainer, Kay Laurence, insists, even jumping up on you could be a call for help or approval, and not just a rude plea for attention. My own dogs know not to jump up on me uninvited, yet I  will not reprimand them for jumping up on me when I recognize signs of stress..

So the next time your dog refuses to respond to your cue, rather than assuming him to be stubborn, consider what else may be going on. Then change your tactic; increase your motivator, change your cue, or give your dog a break if he needs it.

Has your dog taken over the house?

Incorporating a “Nothing In Life for Free” way of life

While the nature of most dogs is to please, I often hear of dogs who seem to do whatever they want, whenever they want. They respond perfectly to sit, down and come when treats are present, yet they appear to completely forget all of their training when there is no food or treats present. These dogs often demand attention and get it whenever they want. They get to go for walks when they ask, get to play tug or fetch whenever they ask, and easily get ear scratches just by setting their heads on someone’s lap. What does this all mean?

Where is my cookie?

First, it’s important to remember that dogs have evolved with us over centuries – some say thousands of years – working cooperatively with us. In the past, dogs served humans by helping to hunt, herd, fetch, and warn of danger. While there are service and assistance dogs in action today, most family dogs don’t have “jobs” in the traditional sense. As a result, they are often left without direction, and with very little respect for leadership. This can lead to problems, particularly in high energy and intelligent dogs.

Fortunately, the solution to these pushy and disobedient dogs is not difficult – in fact, even a schoolchild can do it! (Supervised of course!) The best way to convince a dog that you are worth respecting and obeying is to employ a program that is commonly called “Nothing In Life For Free” or NILFF. Much like the rules that we set for children – such as no video games until your homework is finished, or no TV until you’ve taken out the trash – the demanding pooch must do for us before we do for him. Does he want his ear scratched? He must first sit, then down, then sit – OK, now pet him! Does he want to go outside for a walk? First he must sit and shake a paw – now we’ll go outside. And don’t forget to make him work for his meals as well as any petting or affection. Additionally, if you regularly play games such as tug or fetch with your dog, use these as opportunities to train as well. In between throws of a ball or Frisbee, ask for a sit/down/sit, or a spin or some other trick then throw again. If you play tug, intersperse the game with drop it cues and ask for sits or other behaviors before resuming the game.

In addition to adding more interest and mental stimulation to everyday games and tasks, incorporating NILFF with your pooch will reinforce in him the habit of responding to your cues. Then, when a command is of particular importance, such as a recall near a busy street, you’ll be much more likely to gain compliance. And when you are trying to relax and watch a movie or get some work done, he can learn to be less pushy and demanding of your attention.

Now, if the problems with your pup are related to aggression or anxiety, of course you should contact a professional trainer or behavior counselor. However, if it’s just about better obedience, think about incorporating NILFF into your routine. Although it may seem like a lot of work, you’ll find that it easily fits into your schedule. And remember that it’s not about the commands specifically, but about teaching the dog that he’s not the one calling all the shots – you are!

More Fun and Games: Dog Sports

Very often, I am called to work with dogs who are “destructive” – rummaging through trash cans, pulling toilet paper off rolls, chewing favorite shoes and household items, damaging furniture and destroying gardens.  As with children, boredom can often lead to problems in dogs, and idle minds are, indeed, the devil’s workshops. And if you happen to have a high drive dog, then mental stimulation is even more important.

Evidence of a bored high drive dog (from client files)

While doggy day care, running and fetch games can offer great physical exercise, many dogs, particularly highly active working breeds, require more than just physical work outs. They also need regular mental stimulation in order to remain well-adjusted and happy.

As I’ve previously written, there are a variety of fun games that you can play with your dog at home to stimulate both mind and body. But if you are looking for something more interesting, there are also a growing number of dog sports available today to suit most every personality – human and canine. The idea is to give your dog’s brain a workout as well as the body.

Among the most popular and perhaps best known of dog sports today is Canine Agility. This involves a variety of obstacles, including jumps, tunnels, contact equipment such as a teeter-totter and A-Frame, and even poles through which the dog can weave. Competitors try to finish courses in the shortest time and with the fewest mistakes. Agility can be truly competitive or simply an amusing pastime with your dog, but it is always a great way to build a stronger and more enjoyable relationship for both of you.

Claire and Cecilia run a course together

Another fast growing and exciting sport is Flyball, a high-speed four-dog relay race. Each dog runs over a series hurdles, hits a spring-loaded box which pops out a tennis ball, and then returns over the line with the tennis ball in his mouth. The team with the fastest time to have all four dogs finish running without mistakes, such as dropping the tennis ball or going around instead of over the hurdles, wins.

For those who like music and choreographed performances, there is a sport known as Canine Freestyle. Commonly known as “dancing with your dog”, competitors here are judged on style rather than precision and creativity is encouraged for both dog and human. Competitors from every walk of life choreograph elaborate routines and compete to all kinds of music, from classical to country to the most modern.

Novice Freestylers: The Tail Tappin’ Dancers

My all-time favorite freestyle performance, Carolyn Scott and Rookie

Also fun is the sport of Rally Obedience. This is like traditional Obedience set to a sort of par course. Competitors heel the dog from station to station and perform the exercises listed on each sign along the course. One of the biggest differences between this and traditional obedience is that competitors are allowed to interact more with their dogs, giving verbal praise and encouragement as needed.

One of the fastest growing new sports on the scene is Canine Scent Work, also known as “Nose Work”. This sport is based on the scent work that is performed by the narcotics and bomb detection dogs, but it does not require the use of illicit drugs or explosives. The dogs are taught to “detect” and find essential oils of birch, cloves and anise, and compete in tests across the country. This is another great sport that can be practiced by virtually any dog with a nose!

Flash Finds the Hidden Scent

Another new sport is Treibball. Based on herding, Treibball involves pushing large balls around a course. The advantage over herding is that no livestock is needed, and virtually any breed can play, making it far more accessible than traditional herding.

Disc dogs, popularly known as Frisbee, actually has various different divisions in which people can compete: Toss and Fetch and Freestyle are the most common, and some others fall within these categories. Freestyle is the most popular to watch, involving sometimes elaborate choreography to music, along with fancy tosses and jumps to retrieve a multitude of Frisbee discs.

Herding, while originally an actual “job”, is now a popular dog sport as well. Competitors herd livestock through a variety of obstacles on a course, competing for time and precision.

Claire drives the sheep

And there are a wide variety of additional dog sports including Cart Pulling, Sledding, Hunting, Tracking, Lure Coursing and traditional Obedience, any of which can also keep your pooch mentally and physically stimulated.

Today, there are increasing numbers of local competitions, trials and tournaments in all of these sports. If you are interested  in trying a dog sport, but don’t know which one, check out the comprehensive sports listing at the High Drive Dogs resources page. If you’re not certain whether your dog is ready for a sport and you are in the South Bay Area, consider trying my Obedience for Dog Sports class, designed to teach you and your dog how to work through the high levels of distraction often experienced at dog sports events. And if you are not local to the Silicon Valley, you can look for a Control Unleashed course near you.

Do you have a favorite dog sport? Which one and why is it your favorite? Let me know!