If you are reading this, it is more likely that you are a dog owner or trainer, than a professional soccer player.  You might be an athlete, but you are unlikely to be in the top 10% of physical fitness of all humans on the planet.  You might be, but it is unlikely.  I want you to just take a moment and evaluate your own level of fitness.  Are you a typical North American, fit enough to run for the bus, or run for mayor, but not really a marathon runner?  Are you a weekend warrior, who plays hard on the weekends, but sits at your desk all week long?  Are you a gym rat, making it out to the gym at least 3 days a week?  Or are you amongst the elite athletes who seriously exercise each and every day, come what may, even on vacation?  Unless you are an honest member of this last group, I am betting that dropping you into the middle of a professional soccer game, 90 minutes of aerobic intensity, would not be much fun!

50612731 - soccer players in action on the sunset stadium background panorama
Are you a soccer fan? Do you dream of getting on the field yourself? ARe you actually fit enough and skilled enough to really enjoy 90 minutes in the company of these guys? I think this is how many of our dogs feel when they are dumped into a play group where they cannot escape, and they may not be able to keep up. They may cope, but coping isn’t the same thing as having a great time. Copyright: tnn103eda / 123RF Stock Photo

Oh, the first few minutes might be a thrill, especially if you are a soccer fan.  But a whole game would likely be exhausting, overwhelming and possibly frightening.  Those guys run REALLY fast!  And if you run into one of them, you are likely going to be flattened.  And if you have a coach on the side lines encouraging you to play harder throughout the whole game, you are likely going to feel really pressured.

Maybe a soccer practice would be more fun for you.  But wait!  Being immersed in a group of highly fit, world class athletes who know their work can be pretty overwhelming too.  Especially if they are all familiar with one another, know what the other guy will do and already have all their social pecking orders worked out.

This I think is often what occurs to the dogs that get tossed into unstructured play groups, especially in confined areas as you might find in the typical daycare.  If you have ten dogs who are already involved with the group, and you add in number 11, the eleventh dog is not really likely to be successful.  Dog number 11 will have to be equally fit and socially savvy to make the cut right away.  If the eleventh dog is intolerant of other dogs being rude, he is going to pick fights.  If he is the kind of dog who harasses other dogs in an effort to get them to play his games, he is going to struggle.  If the eleventh dog is either more or less fit than the rest of the group he is either going to tire and get frustrated, or he is going to harass the other dogs in an effort to get them to play his games. 

Sometimes play groups have a human who can make matters either better or worse.  If the human is very savvy about play, they can intervene and pull out the trouble makers and help them to self modulate.  Sometimes interventions back fire though, especially if the human thinks they need to pin the dog to the ground to make the point.  Pulling a dog who is causing trouble out should be gentle and allow the dog to decrease his arousal and then re-integrate.  Pinning the dog may work, or it may create collar shyness in the dog, who then learns to dart away from the people running the group.  Other times, the humans can make matters worse by doing things like throwing objects and creating competition between members of the group, or encouraging shy dogs to get in over their heads. 

There is almost nothing I enjoy more than watching dogs play.  I love to see them cavort and interact, and large groups are much more fun than small ones, however, there are some caveats about this; firstly, I prefer to have mostly trained dogs that I can control with a solid off leash down, even when things get really active.  When we have this sort of a group, I like to hike with the dogs.  When dogs and people walk together, we see a lot more normal chasing and then running together sort of interactions.  We don’t see the puppy wrestling that people enjoy, but for the most part our dogs are not puppies either.  When a puppy is integrated into an established group of dogs who are hiking, it doesn’t matter so much if there are fitter or less fit individuals because the fitter dogs have space to run farther.  And the harassment we see in an unstructured group in a confined area doesn’t happen either, because the dogs can get away from that if they aren’t having fun.  If the overall arousal of the group gets too high, we can ask the trained dogs to lie down and that solves about 90% of the problems we see. 

You may be thinking to yourself “but what about daycare groups” or “but I want to send my dog to a crate free boarding facility”.  As with many things there are good alternatives and less good choices out there.  Before sending your dog to such an activity, spend a few hours there watching how the staff interact with the dogs.  Here are some of the issues we think you should consider:

Are dogs turned loose in an enclosure without supervision? 

If the group is a long term group of stable individuals, this may work out.  When we think long term, we think of groups that might live in a family.  When we had 5 or more dogs who lived with us for six months or more, they might get turned into the yard together alone, but only if they were really familiar with one another and polite together when we were supervising.  We didn’t just add a dog to our family and hope for the best.  The dogs had to show us first that they were safe to be together outside unattended.  When dogs are turned loose without supervision and the group changes every day or even every few hours, there is a high potential for things to turn out badly.  We don’t recommend sending your dog to a facility where the dogs are not supervised by people who know what they are doing.

67302236 - pack of fighting german shepherd dogs on the meadow
This interaction could end well, or it could end in a disaster. The chain collars that these dogs wear are easy for teeth to get caught in and then the friendly game of neck grabbing can go badly wrong. If there are no people there to help, this is a risky interaction that can go badly quickly. Copyright: madrabothair / 123RF Stock Photo

Is there only one person on site? 

This is one of the worse ideas we see on a regular basis.  When a facility is run by one individual, what is the plan for the dogs in the event of an emergency?  People often don’t think of the worst case scenario, and the fact is that something CAN and might go wrong.  Years ago, when we did board training, I was alone at home with our three dogs and a guest dog.  The guest dog had an anaphylactic reaction and stopped breathing.  Luckily, the three resident dogs could stay home loose together without an issue and I was able to carry the lifeless dog to the car and get him to the vet in time to save his life.  If I had had more dogs or dogs who could not be left home and loose together, the guest dog might have died. 

If you are paying to send your dog to a day care or other play group type of activity, you should be sure that there is more than one person on site, especially when there are many dogs who don’t know one another.  There is no hard and fast rule for how many dogs should be there for each staffer, but we know of facilities that have 25 or more dogs on site and only one staffer available.  This is dangerous for the staff and for your dog!

Does the facility have a plan for what to do if a dog fight breaks out?

You may be thinking to yourself “surely they would not accept an aggressive dog” however, a fight can break out with even the nicest, easiest going dogs.  I saw a fight break out one time in a dog park when one dog caught a tooth in the collar of another dog, and then both dogs panicked and started to scream.  A third dog jumped in when the screaming started.  The third dog was not caught on anything, but it was really difficult to get these three dogs separated because you could not tell exactly what was going on.  Two of the dogs had to get stitches, and one of those dogs ended up staying in the veterinary hospital for several days. 

Any place where dogs are being left loose together should at least have a can of compressed air or citronella to break up scuffles and they should also have break sticks and a catch pole available.  Staff should also be trained to use these tools. 

What does the facility look like?

Many years ago, a dog of mine was killed while in the care of a veterinarian when the tech opened a crate door and the dog got out of the clinic.  The clinic had a habit of leaving all the clinic doors open to air out the facility at the end of the day.  Every door between the kennel room and the street was wide open and my dog left and was struck in the road and killed.  As the owner of a dog training facility, my building is fitted with doors and gates and we include door safety training in our obedience program.  Too often I have seen images of day cares on the net where the dogs could easily get over a short flimsy gate, or where the gate doesn’t close completely.  If the gate cannot contain your dog, don’t leave your dog there!

This is a very nice looking facility but that is a lot of dogs in a pretty small enclosure. On the plus side, the footing looks safe, there is shade and the fence is high enough to contain the dogs. The dogs all look fairly relaxed, and they don’t seem to be targeting one another; likely because the person who is supervising is doing a good job. Copyright: jb325 / 123RF Stock Photo

How are groups separated and sorted?

Puppies are baby dogs!  Any dog under 16 weeks can probably be turned loose in a group of other puppies the same age with very little risk.  After 16 weeks though, there are definite age related issues that dogs face.  Adolescent dogs can be pushy and bully younger, smaller or weaker dogs; it is the nature of adolescents to do that.  Adolescents may also harass adults in the hope of getting them to play.  It is best if dogs are sorted behaviourally.  Puppies under 16 weeks can be left in fairly unstructured areas (you will see that they spend an awful lot of time sleeping if you do this though!).  Young adolescents should be sorted by speed, playfulness and tolerance into groups that allow them to enjoy one another.  There are definite play types; dogs who ramble and roam are not going to enjoy chasing one another much.  Dogs who race and chase don’t enjoy those who wrestle so much.  And adult dogs may not play so much as they did when they were puppies or adolescents.  Geriatric dogs should not be left in a group of young fast dogs either; it just isn’t fair!

You may be asking at this point if I think that there is any place for day cares.  I do, but you have to choose carefully.  Know the staff.  Know what their protocols are for trouble shooting.  Be aware of their plans.  Get to know the staff and the people you will be asking to care for your dog.  And don’t be afraid to just skip the daycare and go for a hike; consider what it might be like from your dog’s point of view to be in the set up you are considering.  It is very possible that it would be a lot like getting dropped into the middle of a pro soccer game and although you would come home tired, you likely would not come home very happy.




I think that starting with full disclosure is a really important thing for this blog.  Let me be clear; I don’t speak Turkish.  I have never taken a class in the Turkish language, and I have very few friends who come from Turkey.  Actually, I currently have no friends who come from Turkey.  If you were to ask me to pass the salt in Turkish, I would not have a clue.  If you are really curious about how to say “Please pass the salt” in Turkish, you can listen to that here .  Let’s be honest though, no matter how loud, or how slowly, or how clearly you say “Lütfen tuzu geç” to me, I am not likely to know that salt is what you want.

31211502 - cup of coffee with dry dates on metal oriental tray
I would love to have a meal in Turkey, with figs and dates and served on a lovely silver tea set, but I could not ask for the salt, because I don’t speak Turkish! Copyright: tashka2000 / 123RF Stock Photo

If we were in Turkey, and at dinner, and someone at the table said to me “Lütfen tuzu geç” and pointed at the salt, I would likely guess correctly that salt was what the other person wanted, but I still would not speak Turkish, and if the Turkish speaker asked me the same thing out of context, I would have no idea what they were talking about.  I think this is often what dogs go through when we talk to them.

Dogs are amazing at their ability to pick up information.  My dogs all know what I mean when I say “Dog in a box” (our cue for getting into their crates), or “hup” (our cue for getting in the car) or “two paws” (our cue for dogs coming onto our laps to cuddle), and I never really trained those things; they learned the cues in context and then over time generalized the behaviours to a bunch of new scenarios.  They picked up the lingo so to speak, just as I might if I spent enough time at Turkish dinner tables to hear “Lütfen tuzu geç” often enough that I could pick it out of conversation.

My dogs also know all the regular obedience cues such as sit, down, stay, here, heel, let’s go, over, tunnel and piddle; I taught my dogs those cues very carefully and they have long histories of being rewarded for the correct behaviour when they do as they are asked, and I have carefully taught them what the sound “sit” means so they know what I am talking about.

I see the Turkish language problem occurring when people have incompletely taught a behaviour and they assume that because their dogs understand what to do in one context that the dog will know what to do in every context.  Similar to my example of learning to pass the salt when asked at the table and then not recognizing the words when taken out of context, many dogs are simply confused when they are asked to do something that doesn’t fit with their experience.

59856127 - a naughty dog is pulling on his leash and almost falling into a lake
This young dog has no clue about what the owner wants him to do, even though the context should be apparent to him; he has probably been on a leash before and he is wearing a front attachment harness, so likely some training has already happened. Simply yelling heel or saying heeeeeel in a slow drawn out manner is not going to make matters clear to him. Slowing down and reviewing what the dog does know, and what he needs to learn helps a lot more! Copyright: loganban / 123RF Stock Photo

Perhaps the most common behaviour I see this with is the recall, or come when called behaviour.  When you call a dog to come, you likely have an internal picture of what you want.  You call out “Fido come” and you want Fido to drop whatever he is doing and come racing towards you.  Often when clients ask for help with the recall, they cannot tell me how they taught the dog to come when called in the first place.  If the training session was too dim for you to remember how you taught that behaviour, likely it was not a very meaningful experience for your dog either.  Think back to teaching your dog to come when called.  What steps did you take?  Where were you when to taught your dog to do this behaviour?  How rewarding was it for your dog to do the behaviour?  If you cannot remember, then maybe, you are speaking Turkish to your non Turkish speaking dog!

Another problem that can occur with misunderstood cues is simply that you over structured the learning so that the dog learned the words, but only in the context of what you were doing.  So many of my students taught their dogs to stay and then to come out of the stay when called.  This is perhaps the most confusing way for a dog to learn the recall, and has nothing to do with leaving the rotting dead fish your dog wants to roll in in order to come racing towards you when you call; this is akin to teaching me to pass the salt by describing the chemical formula by which you would concoct salt in a laboratory.  Sodium Cloride is the chemical name for table salt and you can make it very simply by taking Sodium hydroxide and Hydrochloric acid and mixing them together as they do in this video: .  Knowing how to make table salt in the lab just isn’t useful when you are sitting at dinner and it really doesn’t help you to learn Turkish any faster!  Staying is a behaviour that requires the dog to inhibit his desire to move, and the recall is a behaviour that requires the dog activate his body and move towards you; these diametrically opposed behaviours can be very confusing when initially paired together, and just don’t have anything to do with leaving something the dog wants (an activation type activity) and coming towards you (another activation type activity that is the opposite of heading towards what the dog wants!).

When you are teaching your dog behaviours like the recall, it is important to help him out by making it as simple and clear as possible.  When teaching my dogs to come when called, I have someone hold my dog and I run away so that the dog wants to come towards me; I reward him for doing the right thing that he would likely have done anyhow.  This is much like holding up a shaker of salt and shaking some salt into my hand and offering that to you while saying “Tuz” two or three times.  I am making it really easy for you to understand that the word for salt in Turkish is Tuz.  Then when you encounter salt elsewhere, you have a chance of recognizing that object as “Tuz”.

When your dog is having trouble understanding what you are asking of him, ask yourself if you have made the meaning clear for your dog, or if you have assumed that he has just picked up the information from conversation.  If you are not sure, then go back and explain it again, simply, with rewards for the behaviour you are hoping for.  Don’t get louder, or repeat yourself, speak slowly, because it doesn’t matter how slowly or loudly you speak in Turkish, I still won’t understand what you are saying.




One plus one is 2, but two ones are 11.  I remember being fascinated by this fact when I was about six.  When I was in my early twenties and doing the family budgeting for myself and my first husband I learned that this mathematical truism has practical applications.  Each of us alone needed a certain amount of money to survive but together, somehow or another pooling our assets and renting only one apartment felt like it didn’t work out as a more frugal alternative.  There seemed to be so many things that we needed that I hadn’t felt the need for as a single person.  Even simple things that seemed like they would cost less if we were buying for two often resulted in buying two brands of the same product.  Two CAN live as cheaply as eleven.


Eco 005
Eco is the black German Shepherd and Yarrow is the White Standard Poodle. They were the very best of friends until they hit about 6 and seven months respectively. Here they are playing together when Eco was about 5 months and Yarrow was about six months.

The same is true of raising puppies.  Raising one puppy takes a certain amount of time, effort and cost.  It seems like you could only be doubling the effort if you get two dogs, right?  Plus they will keep one another occupied when you have other things to take your attention, like your children, your spouse, your home, your car or your job, right?  If only it were that simple.


I have lived in a multidog household for most of the past twenty years.  John and I usually each have one dog of our own, and sometimes one or the other of us will have a second dog who is significantly older or younger.  Realistically though, we try and space them out to a new dog every three to four years.  We are coming up to the time when we will be considering adding a new addition in the next year or so.  At various times for various reasons we have raised two dogs at the same time. 

When Eco was a puppy, we were raising a service dog candidate; a standard poodle.  They were merry friends who spent a lot of time bouncing around with one another.  The poodle was about a month older than Eco and for the first six months or so, he ran the roost.  He was faster, stronger and more developed.  And then Eco overtook his speed, strength and agility, not to mention that Eco cared a lot more about who got things first, who ran the fastest and who controlled access to resources such as me.

When the poodle puppy came home, we enrolled him in puppy classes (all of our pups go to puppy classes, both our own and those of other schools).  When Eco came home four weeks later, we enrolled him in different classes.  Why not put both pups in the same class you might think.  There are two reasons for not putting both pups in one class.  The first is that the older puppy needed to start sooner than Eco.  And the second is that jockeying for position that I mentioned above; in a class setting we might have had to restrain one pup while the other played in order to avoid the inevitable ganging up that can happen of these two closely aligned friends against all the other pups in the class!  So already, even though John and I were raising two pups and there were two of us, and we both went to both sets of classes, we didn’t double up on the enrolment and put both puppies in the same class.


Then there is the whole issue of equipment; surely with two pups, we could get by with a little less equipment, right?  Not so much.  Even with a month between the two puppies, we needed full sets of collars and harnesses, leashes, bowls, crates and beds to accommodate both puppies.  Furthermore, we had to pay for vet visits twice as often, and usually we find it is better to bring dogs separately to the vet; there is less confusion and we can focus with the vet on each dog as an individual.  That means that not only did we have to pay for two veterinary appointments, we chose to attend the vet together, with each puppy on a different day.  Considering that our vet is a fifteen-minute drive from home, that means that we had to allocate about an hour for each vet visit for each of us, and pay for an hour’s worth of gas in total to get both dogs to the vet.  In a busy family with a company, that was really quite tough! 

2 leashes. Two head halters. Two collars. And because each of these dogs was being trained for different work, each dog had to have a whole different set of equipment. Yarrow was destined to be a service dog so he had a series of packs that he needed to use in his work that Eco didn’t need. Eco on the other hand needed dumbbells, jumps and tugs related to protection work that just didn’t apply to Yarrow.

We had to allocate time to train each dog separately and again, we tried to make sure that each of us got in a training session each day with each dog.  We also made time to walk each of the dogs separately each day.  That made for more time into this project.  John and I like to teach our dogs to trail walk, and for the most part we did that together, so we could cut down some of the doubling up on that front, but honestly we didn’t save much time, and the time that Eco (the BLACK German Shepherd) to Yarrow (the snow white Standard Poodle) swamp walking, we really wondered why we had any dogs at all!

Two baths.  Two grooms.  Two classes, two vet visits, two sets of everything.  And eleven times the mess!  We have found that when we compare raising one versus two puppies at a time, having pups one at a time allows us to get to know the puppies better and creates so much less chaos in our lives that when we can, we don’t try and raise 11 puppies at once!





30671328 - horses and jockeys leaving starting gate at york races
If your dog looks like one of these horses at the end of his down stay, you may want to think about what you are training and how you have achieved that. Many dogs we see think that lie down and stay means get ready to bolt at the end of that exercise. We want our dogs to see the down stay as an opportunity to relax.  30671328 – horses and jockeys leaving starting gate at york races


Can your dog lie down and relax when you ask him to?  I don’t mean does he lie down and relax of his own accord when you and he are just hanging out, but if you needed to pay at the veterinarian’s front desk, could you ask him to lie down and relax so that your hands were free to slide your card and enter your PIN?  You have likely taught your dog to lie down and stay, so why is it that so few dogs I see can do this without behaving like a racehorse in the starting gate?  You know what this looks like; the owner asks the dog to lie down and stay and he lies down, often on his chest with his haunches coiled underneath him ready to spring up and race off.  He may even be shivering in anticipation.

The down stay is perhaps the single behaviour I could absolutely not live without.  I can use a harness or head halter if I have to walk an unruly dog, so I don’t really need to teach my dogs to walk on a nice leash, and if they have a solid down stay that I can call upon from anywhere I can use that as brakes instead of a recall, but without the down stay I don’t think I could make it through my day.  I use my down stay ALL the time.  Let me give some examples!

We have horses.  When they lived on the farm with us, I would often take Eco out to feed and water the horses.  As a predator around prey species, it was easy for him to get them running when they first met him.  All he had to do was rush to the gate and slip into the paddock and the horses would bolt to the other side of the paddock.  This is a great way to teach a dog to chase horses because horses running away is fun for dogs.  This is also a great way to teach horses to stay away from me, as I am always accompanied by a dog.  But wait!  Eco had a stellar down stay.  We would leave the house and he would cavort around looking for a toy and when he realized we were heading to the horse paddock, he would start to race.  I would call out “down” and he would drop.  I would call out “stay” and he would stay, allowing me to get to the gate ahead of him.  Then I would call him closer and ask him to down and stay again, and do my chores.  In this way, he never learned to chase horses and the horses learned that he was safe.  Eventually we were able to walk amongst our tiny herd without the horses bolting and without Eco trying to get them to run.  Easy peasy!

Or consider this; when I am serving dinner to guests at the table, Friday thinks that helping would be a good idea.  She is curious and likes having guests over for dinner.  This past holiday season we had a dinner guest who brought her dog who ALSO likes to help serve dinner if you let him.  Now we have two friendly dogs in the house, who like to play with one another and who like to follow when you move from the kitchen to the dining room.  I asked both dogs to lie down and stay while I served dinner and then asked them to continue to stay while we ate.  Both dogs eventually fell asleep because both dogs understand that a down stay is not going to result in an opportunity to race out of the down stay and into play right away.

Eco and Friday do a down stay together here. We often use a down stay when we have two dogs in a tight space. In our bedroom there isn’t a lot of room for dogs and people to move around so this is a good way to keep the dogs out from underfoot when making the bed or tidying up. Notice that both dogs have their heads down because they are relaxed and resting.

So how do we achieve this?  Yes, I am a very good trainer, and so is John and so is our dinner guest, but this isn’t magic.  This is the result of understanding some of the mechanics of the target behaviour and then teaching those to the dog.  The first thing to understand is that with young dogs we never ever teach them that the down stay is going to result in a big explosive release.  I see this over and over again, especially in dogs who are competing in agility and obedience.  The handler asks for a down and stay and then at the end, they release the dog and the dog bounces up and the handler throws a party.  It doesn’t take long for that dog to start to anticipate that the return of the handler is going to result in a great big hurrah and bounce, and his body needs to get ready to do that.  Internally, this means that the dog learns to raise his heart rate and tense his muscles when he thinks that he is going to get up.  If instead we teach the dog that he is always going to do something calm and quiet after the down stay, the dog never learns to tense up and get his heart going when the down stay is over.  My goal is to teach all my dogs, and especially my young dogs to come out of their down stay calmly and quietly and in a relaxed manner.

The next aspect to understand is that when we teach the down stay, we should not teach the down stay incrementally.  Teaching the dog that if they do a one second down stay they will be released sets them up to be really excited about the release at the two second mark.  When I was learning to train dogs, this was how we did it.  We mastered one second and moved on to two seconds.  Then three, five, 7, 10, 15 and so on.  By the time we had reached the pinnacle of the three minute down stay that we needed for the novice obedience test we usually had a classroom full of lunatic dogs all waiting like horses in the starting gate to leap up and race forward and play.  When I think about training this way, compared to how I approach it now, I smile in recollection of the antics that often ensued and I cringe in remembrance of all the machinations we engaged in to enforce that three minute down stay.  The perception was that asking the dog to lie down and stay for three minutes was incredibly difficult!

Consider the physical demands of this behaviour.  I want the dog to lie down, and chill out.  Relax.  Not chew a bone, just wait patiently.  Perhaps the world we live in today discourages us from seeing this as the easiest thing in the world to do; waiting rooms have television sets and magazines to keep us amused.  And heaven forbid that we might have to wait without amusement for 20 seconds while in line at the store; there are screens and visual activities to keep us occupied there too.  At home, how many of us have a television or the radio turned on from the moment we wake till the instant we drop off to sleep?  How many of us have something happening in the room while we sleep?  And what do we do about these distractions and busy makers?  We pay to attend yoga classes or get a massage!  This past year, I spent two weeks out in the bush, alone.  When I came back, I visited the home a good friend who has two active kids.  The day after I came out of the bush was Canada day, and she had invited family over.  The house was super busy, so I decamped to the front porch to sit.  One of the kids came out eventually and asked what I was doing.  “Sitting” I replied.  “Sitting and doing what?” she asked.  “Just sitting.”  Over the months since I was in the bush, I have lost that simple act of sitting and just being, but it is there in me, ready to reactivate when I choose to take the time and slow down a bit.

87995033 - the girl is sitting with closed eyes on the mountainside
When I am out in the bush, I do a lot of sitting. Just sitting. I don’t have to eat, or drink or read or draw because I am relaxed and enjoying the environment I am in. I am just sitting. A long down stay teaches our dogs that they can “just sit”. They don’t need a bone or a kong, or an activity all the time; they can relax and enjoy the environment they are in.

Our dogs are generally much better at just sitting than we are.  As I write, Friday is lying on the floor in front of our wood stove.  Her head is up, and she sometimes orients on me or John, or on something she hears, but generally, she is just…sitting.  Incidentally, sitting doesn’t necessarily mean being in the sitting position, it means being relaxed and content with your thoughts.  I have just finished my deer hunt for the year, when I go out in the bush for days on end and sit and wait for the deer to come in.  This year the deer didn’t come, but I got to see many, many wild animals, just sitting.  A chipmunk came and sat on my boot for about ten minutes.  Just sitting and watching the world.  When I shifted he was able to just move off, but while I was still, he was still too.  I saw rabbits doing this and one spectacular afternoon a young bald eagle.  Just sitting is a very natural activity that most mammals engage in for a good chunk of their day.  Asking a dog to lie down and stay for three minutes should not be that difficult.

So what changed for my dogs?  Why can they do the three minute down stay without distress now, when so many dogs struggle with this?  Very simply because I START with a one hour down stay.  When an 8 week old pup comes into my home, he learns sit, down and the cued take it in the first week.  We work on meeting new people and other dogs, and handling and his name, but we don’t work on a lot else.  Then at between 9 and 10 weeks, my puppies do their very first one hour down stay.  Here is what it looks like.

We get up in the morning and I take the puppy outside to toilet.  Then we come into the kitchen and I get out the pup’s breakfast and pour myself a cup of coffee.  Then I sit down on the floor and ask the pup to lie down.  As long as the puppy stays lying down, I feed him his breakfast one kibble at a time.  If you feed a homemade diet, you would just feed a little bit of food at a time; with the rule being very, very simple.  If you are lying down, I will hand you food.  If you are standing up or sitting, you get nothing.  I don’t keep reminding the puppy; I just wait.  The first time we may not work for a whole 60 minutes; I have to judge things on if the pup needs to toilet again, but usually we work for between 45 and 60 minutes.  Puppy kibble is great for this because it is smaller so there are more bites which makes for more training.  After three or four days of this, my pups are pretty clear that lying down pays BIG, so they lie down a lot more often.

After a few weeks of this, I usually add a tether; I teach all my adolescent and adult dogs the same behaviour, but I use a tether for a couple of reasons.  The first reason is that an adult dog might choose to get up and leave and I want to limit his choices.  The second reason is that most dogs are going to have to be tethered at some point in their lives and I want to make sure that they can do this while relaxed.

Here a dog is learning to do an on tether down stay in class. Most dogs are going to find themselves tethered at some point and for an adult dog, it is easier to teach the down stay when they are on tether, so I make sure that my dogs understand how to be tethered safely.

Once the dog understands that lying down is going to keep me delivering treats, I start to move around; one step feed, two steps, feed and so on, until I can move out of sight.  Then I add more distractions; dropping napkin or tea towel for instance.  Then I make it more difficult; I want the dogs to look at distractions as a clue that they should settle in and relax for the duration, because you never know what Sue will present.  What you do know is that if you get up, the floor show will stop and so will the treats.

Over the course of my pup’s first year, they will do a daily down stay until I can do anything and they will remain in place.  Of course, along the way, I thin out the reinforcement, and with an adult dog who is very experienced, I will sometimes use activity as the reward for the down stay but ONLY if the dog is relaxed.  If the dog is at all tense or distressed, I make the game easier and feed more often but don’t stop training the behaviour.

The down stay is probably the most important activity that I have to teach my young dogs, and it is the most important behaviour I use day to day with my dogs.  Doing housework?  The dogs are in a down stay!  Watching a movie?  Down stay!  Dinner guests?  Down stay.  Bringing in the groceries?  Down stay.  Planting flowers in the garden?  Down stay.  Grooming the horses?  Down stay.  Playing frisbee?  You got it!  Down stay!  I use the down stay everywhere, every day.  And for my dogs it is the clue that they should settle in and relax because it is likely going to go on for at least twenty minutes.  When I only need a short down stay, they are relaxed because they don’t start out with the idea that they are going to get up at any moment and race around.  And when I do release my dogs from the down stay with nothing planned to do next, most of the time my dogs will take a big stretch as they would when waking form a nap and then they walk off.  Racing is for racehorses.  Down stay is for just sitting!

Friday “just sitting” by the woodstove while I write. We didn’t ask her to do this but because she has learned to do a one hour down stay, she will choose to just lie down and relax with us when we are working.


FIRST published April 2013

Imagine for a moment that a good friend has died.  Someone you love dearly and you are close to, someone you could call at two in the morning and they would come give you gas money to get home if your wallet was stolen.  Someone who has shared moments and hours and even days with you.  Someone you love.  In the days following your friend’s passing, you pull up pictures on your phone, and you fill the vase she gave you with flowers from your garden, and you grieve.  Sometimes, you cry.

How do you feel when you go to a funeral?  Do your emotions influence your behaviour?  Don’t you think that your dog’s emotions might influence his?  Copyright: <a href=’’>kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

A few days later, you go to the funeral home to say your public goodbyes.  There is a casket and dozens of baskets of flowers, and a picture of you and your friend, nestled in amongst so many other good warm memories shared by the community who shared your friend’s life.  You are sad and there is an empty part inside of you where you used to hold your friend, and it feels like the memories aren’t enough to fill that hole.  When your friend’s sister gets up to share the eulogy, she mentions you, and you start to cry.

Imagine now, that the person who is sitting beside you in the funeral home looks at you and says “Just stop it.  I HATE crying.  Don’t.”  How does that make you feel?  Sit on this reflection for a moment.  How does that make you feel?  Do you feel good about the person sitting beside you?  Do you want to share tea and sandwiches after the service with this person?  Do you want to trust your memories of your friend with this person?

Let’s rewind one paragraph now and imagine that the person beside you quietly and calmly reaches into their bag and pulls out a hankie and gently gives it to you.  You reach for the hankie, and he offers you his hand to hold.  With one hand, you wipe your eyes and with the other you hold hands with your friend.  Deeply sad, you lean in and your seat mate puts his arm around you and holds you close.  Assuming this is someone who knows you well enough for physical contact to be appropriate, how do you feel now?

I have seen hundreds of dogs in our training hall.  Many of these dogs are happy, but there are a ton of dogs who come through our doors who are traumatized and fearful, and who are expressing their feelings with growls, snaps, snarls, whining and recently one poor dog who shivered and shook for an entire hour while I took a history.  The thing that amazes me, day in and day out, is that these dogs keep hoping that the people they live with will see that they need help, and offer them the equivalent of a hankie and a hug.

It is well known in behaviour consulting circles that owners take a long time to seek help for their dogs.  One of the biggest reasons for this is that if the behaviour problem isn’t a problem for the owner, there isn’t a lot of impetus to get help.  The dog cannot dial the phone and call for help, and neither can he send me an email to describe his problems.  Often the dog has been doing everything short of biting in order to get attention, but they aren’t being heard.

When people come into my training hall, they often tell me how difficult it is to live with a dog who is barking, lunging, growling, snarling, pulling, and chasing.  I am often told about methods that have been tried to stop the undesired behaviour.  These people really care about their dogs, but they often don’t understand that the behaviour the dogs are exhibiting means.  The fact is that dogs don’t act randomly.  Behaviour is always functional on some level.  Consider what it might be like to behave truly randomly.  If you were to randomly stop reading this paragraph, and get up out of your chair and twirl around the room and go outside and come back in and jump as high in the air as you are able and roll on the ground and pick up a pen and turn on and off your computer, how would that feel?

Random behaviour is rare.  When people behave truly randomly, it is usually an indication of something being wrong with them.  When I took animal behaviour in university, the professor talked about an animated Bugs Bunny toy he did an experiment with.  He set the toy off a thousand times, and recorded the “behaviour” of the toy.  He found that 30% of the time, the toy gave a predictable “What’s up Doc”, and then there were nine other phrases that he uttered on a variable schedule.  It turned out that the chip that ran this toy was set on pretty tight parameters, which gave a specific number of repetitions within a thousand repetitions.  Ironically, we know that there are two things about this toy that keep kids playing with it and drive parents nuts.  From the kid’s perspective, they keep triggering the toy to get the rare and uncommon response.  From the parent’s perspective they have to put up with ‘What’s up Doc” 300 out of every thousand repetitions.  This random behaviour is annoying and frustrating beyond the interest of animal behaviour professors who want to figure out how often a behaviour happens, and the kid who really wants to hear Bugs say something truly novel.

The other thing about random behaviour is that it is out of context; like the Bugs toy, the last response doesn’t predict the next response.  Living with someone who is truly random would be really annoying.  Living with a dog who is truly random would also be really annoying.  Most of the dogs we meet and live with are actually very predictable.  There is an easy little experiment that helps us to understand this.  Spend a half an hour watching your dog.  Watching Eco right now now, sleeping on the floor beside me, I can sample every minute and say what he is doing and what he is going to do.  When I get up out of my chair, he will lift his head and if I leave the room he will wake up completely and follow me.  When I sit back down at my computer, he will wander around the room and check out the water bowl, the toy box and the window in the door and then he will lie down again and go back to sleep.  He is very predictable and that is part of what allows me to change his behaviour.  His behaviour is not random and it never happens in isolation from his environment.

Knowing this, and understanding that dogs are deeply emotional animals, allows us to modify problem behaviours quite easily, but there is one more piece to the puzzle.  Skills are under the direct control of the outcomes.  Eco standing up and following me happens because he likes the outcome of being with me.  Eco barking at the door happens when he is startled and alarmed.  The barking doesn’t happen because of the outcome but rather because of the input, and the input is emotional.  Could I change the barking behaviour through the application of pain?  Sure.  But it wouldn’t change how Eco felt about people coming to the door, so treating this as a skill might be more like being at a funeral and being told sternly to stop crying.  I could also change the behaviour by getting him below threshold and pairing the situation with something pleasant.  The difference being how well I understand what is going into the behaviour to begin with.

14899949 - young couple training dog in the park happy teaching pet
Giving treats to your dog can sometimes serve to increase behaviours, but often it can serve a different purpose. When your dog is concerned about something, you can give him a bunch of freebies, and he will relax and feel good about the thing he was worried about. This dog may be learning that having his picture taken is a safe and fun activity to do. The sit may be happening incidentally; the important part to know is that he will be relaxed and happy about having his picture taken. Copyright: limonzest / 123RF Stock Photo

A question that is often asked is if feeding the bark will make more barking.  Let’s go back to the funeral example.  Which would make you cry more; someone who was supportive and brought you a cup of tea and sandwiches, or someone who told you to quit it?  When barking is emotionally based (which is more often than not), then removing and feeding is going to help the dog to regain his composure and improve his behaviour.  When you do this often enough, you develop in the dog a pattern of barking and then seeking you out.  When this happens, the dog is moving out of the emotional state and into the operant state, or the state where he can control his behaviour.  Much like at a funeral, if I can get the person who is crying to have a cup of tea, they are often able to calm down and reflect more effectively, and then they can chat comfortably, often about the very thing they may be upset about.

A common tactic when dealing with dogs who are emotional is to give them something else to do.  If a dog reacts to something in his environment, then in theory, if he is busy, he won’t be worried about that thing.  There are two problems with this tactic.  The first of them is that if the dog is upset enough, then he is not going to be terribly compliant.  In these situations people start to get pushy and demanding about their dog’s behaviour and it is for exactly this reason that many people turn to aversives in their training; they are asking more than the dog is ready to give them in a given circumstance.  For instance, making a dog look you in the eyes so that he stops looking for the frightening things that can creep up on him will only make things worse; he may stop looking but he won’t stop worrying.  In this particular case, you rob the dog of the ability to try behaviours other than the undesired one because he is glued on the new behaviour of looking at you, and while he is looking at you, there is always the risk that his trigger will surprise him out of the corner of his eye.  This is the second issue with this tactic; you may have compliance, but the dog is still worrying about what might come out and surprise him.

When I was out and about this weekend, I met a woman who told me that her friend had been to every other trainer in town.  She told me that this woman was ruining her dog by feeding it when the dog is clearly misbehaving.  The popular thought is that if we use food, we can only use it as a reinforcer to get more of a particular behaviour.  When you put this into the context of a funeral, and what you would do if someone was upset, it becomes really clear that much behaviour is motivated by emotion and that being clear with your learner does not only mean reinforcing, or punishing behaviours or putting them on extinction.  Sometimes, perhaps even often, it means addressing the underlying emotions before even thinking about the behaviours at all.



Originally published April 2013

Author’s note:  I wrote this blog to highlight the issues I see facing rescues who place behaviourally compromised dogs.  I did receive one note from a colleague who objected to the term lesbian.  Please understand that I have chosen to use this word to indicate a female couple and I do not intend to offend anyone for any reason.  I and by extension, my company Dogs in the Park, support inclusivity and acceptance of the broad diversity that makes Canadian society such a wonderful place to be.


I often get calls about dogs who need new homes.  Do I know of anyone who would like a dog who has killed the family cat?  Would I like to take on a dog who has chronic stress colitis and is afraid of all humans except for one, all dogs, cats, cars, bicycles and who has bad hips to boot?  Is there perhaps a farm that will take on the dog who has killed seven skunks over the past year, and is now moving onto larger prey?  Is there anyone out there who would like the dog who has been designated a dangerous dog by the authorities because he ran down a cyclist and mauled his leg?

Every time I read an ad or get a call looking for a rehome of these dogs, I think of the title of this blog.  Peruse the files on Petfinder, and you can get a sense of the dogs that are available and considered potential family pets.  What exactly does “Fluffy would be best suited to a family without children or other pets” mean?  Without any further information about this dog, do you want to live next door to Fluffy?  Would your opinion change about living next door to Fluffy if you had a small mixed breed dog?  Would your opinion change if you had two young children?

I have seen ads for dogs that blow my mind.  “Needs space to run.”  “Prefer a single woman owner.”  “Must not live with cats.”  “Suitable for a home with children over the age of 12.”  When you deconstruct what these statements mean, you paint a very different picture.  Like the real estate ads, “handy man’s dream” doesn’t usually translate into “home workshop in the garage outfitted with your dream tools”.  A handy man’s dream usually means that significant renovations are in order and you can expect to spend every waking moment repairing plumbing, wiring, the roof, the railing on the stairs, repainting, installing drywall and so on.


These dogs may be feral, or they may be highly trained pets, or they may belong to the owner of the “handyman’s dream” in the background.  We just don’t know!  When a dog is being placed, it is essential that it is placed appropriately, and sadly, it is not enough to love the dog you are placing.  You have to place the dog in the right place and only take on a dog you have the experience and background to support.  Copyright: <a href=’’>casinozack / 123RF Stock Photo</a>


So let’s deconstruct some of the more common statements.  “Needs space to run.”  What does that really mean?  In my experience it can mean one of two things.  Either the dog is a high energy animal who needs two off leash, one hour walks each day along with structure and training or the dog has really poor impulse control and whose anxiety manifests as whirling in circles.

How about “best suited to a home with a single woman”?  Again, in my experience that means that the dog is not good with men or children.  Do you know of anyone who lives in a world without men or children?  Let’s say we find a woman willing to take this dog.  What should she do if her father wants to visit?  Do we expect that she will never have a relationship with a man?  What should she do about the fact that her neighbours have children?

One of my favourites is “Suitable for a home with children over the age of 12”.  I think this age number is somewhat arbitrary, as I have seen ages from three to 12 in the advertisements, but it does beg the question of why these ages have been selected.  Is it because the dog bit an eleven year old?  Is the dog predatory to toddlers?  Is it just that the dog is huge?  Does the advertizer think that the dog should never be exposed to children under this age?  Has the advertizer thought through what it means for a dog like this to live in a suburban neighbourhood?  If the home has children over the age of twelve, what might happen if they bring home a younger child as a guest?  What will happen if mom has a baby?

The final category that baffles me is “I want to find a nice farm that would like to take on my problem dog.”  People don’t seem to realize that farming is a business.  If I raise crops, I don’t want that dog to be racing through the fields and messing up the growth of my grains.  If I raise chickens, I don’t want a predatory dog who might kill the chickens.  If I am raising pigs or milking cows, I cannot have a dog in the barns, so where is that dog going to be while I am working in the barn?  I think people have a largely detached view of what it means to be a farmer in today’s world.  Farming is a world of heavy machinery, of powerful tools like chain saws and post holers.  In the egg, pork and milk industry, strict biohazard controls are implemented to keep pathogens out of the barns where the animals are housed and handled.  Farmers have no more time, and possibly less time than someone running a machine shop to deal with a problem dog.


34495910 - two worker with pallet transporter in factory
I have a very hard time seeing where we would fit a dog into this picture, and have the dog be safe and supported.  Likewise, very few farms are set up to take on a dog with a behaviour problem! Copyright: <a href=’’>arnoaltix / 123RF Stock Photo</a>


While I am attracted to the idea that there is a home for every dog, you just have to find it, I see the evidence on a day to day basis that this may not be true.  How many childless, lesbian couples who live far enough away from civilization that a dog placed with these kind ladies would never again meet their problems do you know?  I have to say that I don’t know any.  In some cases, there just isn’t a place for these dogs, which brings me to the point of what I want to say.  If you cannot live with your problem dog, can you ethically send that dog along to someone else?  The humane society is not a magic place where magic people live who magically want to take your problem dog and fix him.  Rescues are often started by people who are trying to address this issue of making better matches for dogs, but they also not equipped with any sort of magical population of people well prepared to meet the needs of the dogs with problems.  There are a few trainers I know who take on these problem dogs, but they are limited in the number of dogs they can take; they often have ten to twelve dogs already, so they may not be able to take your dog on.  There are sanctuaries; places where dogs are housed for the duration of their lives.  Some sanctuaries are better than others, and some of them are much worse.

Many behaviour problems can be helped.  We have loads of tools now to help dogs with a wide variety of problems.  I would like to stop dogs from being surrendered to shelters and rescues.  I would like people to start looking at the problem dogs that live with them and help them in their first homes.  There will never be a day when there aren’t dogs who are in need, but many, many of these dogs could be best helped in the homes they start with.



At Dogs in the Park, we encourage everyone to use the local trail systems to responsibly exercise their dogs OFF LEASH.  Why you might ask?  For a whole pile of reasons!  To begin with, off leash exercise is much more effective at burning off energy for dogs as it allows them to move in ways that are normal and natural; fast at first, and then slow; suddenly stopping to sniff and taking off again in a hurry, on no one’s agenda other than their own.  And what about the opportunity to play?  Play cannot happen when you are constrained by a line that limits where you can go and what you can do!  Off leash exercise, in a trained dog is a joy to behold and energizing to experience, but you do have a responsibility to be aware of the risks before you start.


Walking with my dogs on the trail is a special thing that I get to do on a regular basis with dogs.  In order to do so successfully, I have to take a number of factors into account.


The first risk to consider of course is the environment.  Is it a safe environment for your dog to be in?  When trail walking you should know your terrain and you should avoid areas that may be difficult for your dog.  Some of these things include (but are not limited to!) cliffs (yes, I have watched a dog run right over a cliff and although he was not injured, he could well have been), water (heavily coated breeds are especially at risk of drowning if they are waterlogged), heat, cold and toxic plants are all things to consider when choosing where you walk your dog.

Next, you should consider your dog’s age and training.  Young dogs, under 16 weeks rarely stray; they are busy staying with the group and keeping up.  This is the very best time to train your dog to come when called and to follow where you lead; in fact I wrote a whole blog on that at  Older dogs need to prove to me that they will come when called, and that only happens when I have trained the dogs to do that. 

Thirdly, you need to consider the traffic risks that you will encounter.  No one would intentionally allow their dogs to rush into the road and get hit by a moving vehicle, but there are other sorts of traffic to consider; you need to think about off road traffic such as snow mobiles and ATVs.  Often, these vehicles are the ones that break the trails we use when we are walking our dogs.  This means that we need to keep in mind the risks we face when we are out on the trails, especially when there are corners and intersections.  I never recommend wearing ear phones when out on the trails because you never know when you might be faced with an oncoming moving vehicle.

Wildlife often follow regular travel lines, much as motor vehicles do, and you should get to know the habits of the animals that you may encounter.  Locally, I am aware of the game trails left by deer, coyotes and raccoons; the three species of wildlife I would prefer my dogs did not interact with.  All three of these animals leave clear marks on the ground where they have been.  It makes my walk much more interesting to keep an eye out for new trails and see how often established trails are being used.  When I know that wildlife is especially abundant, I may chose that location to leash up and do some on leash training in the middle of my walk; this makes the wildlife itself the cue to the dog that some training fun is about to happen, and that can lead to a dog who comes to me instead of chases after a scent when they encounter a wild animal.  THAT is worth its weight in gold!


23017242 - whitetail deer spike buck standing on the edge of a nature trail.
Paying attention to the wildlife around you can lead to magic moments where you get to see animals that you might not if you are wool gathering!  It also provides an opportunity to choose a regular place to put your dog on leash and just practice some training exercises.


Perhaps the final thing I want to consider when I am choosing a trail is the other trail users on that particular trail.  Often I will explore a trail without my dog before walking with him.  This gives me a chance to find out what the culture is of a particular trail.  Is it inhabited mostly by serious hikers wearing packs and carrying binoculars?  Are they birders?  Then I won’t bring my dogs along and interrupt their fun!  Is it mostly full of families with toddlers?  Again, then it is not my first choice for walking.  Is there a known aggressive dog who regularly walks there?  If I hear about this, then I will avoid the area.  

My ideal walking trail is one where dog walkers are common, and there is little to no poison ivy (few people realize that the oil on poison ivy can transfer to them via their dog’s coats).  It will have polite walkers who pick up after their dogs, and who don’t litter.  I like trails with some variety in terrain, and that have some water for the dogs to use to cool off.  I like trails that have a parking area away from the main road, but not too far away as those often have poor driveways with lots of potholes.

As a final word, I would like to mention what I keep an eye out for when I see other dog walkers.  If the other walkers leash up their dogs, I leash up mine.  There is nothing worse than having a dog who needs to be on leash harassed by someone’s off leash dog who “just wants to say hi”.  It is a small thing, but if you encounter an on leash dog, either down your dog or dogs, so that they can pass by, or leash up and avoid any issues.  If the other dogs are off leash, I will determine if their dogs are friendly by observing their behaviour.  Friendly dogs approach in a loose arc or S pattern, and they are frisking along moving sort of like a Rocking Horse, with their front end up and then their back end up.  Unfriendly dogs often move in straight flat lines, often very quickly.  Sometimes it is too late to do anything by the time that I recognize that the other dogs are on their way, but often I can intervene by getting my dogs to lie down and stay and then stepping in between the oncoming dog and passively splitting the interaction.  If that is not safe, I will try tricks such as throwing food at the oncoming dog, and calling to their owner for help.  In a pinch, throwing my car keys down between the unknown dogs and my dogs can interrupt a dog rushing in.  Always though, I want to make sure that my dogs are in a down position where I know that I can take steps to protect their best interests.