Originally posted May 2013

Controlling unwanted behaviours is something that drives a good number of my clients to see me and more and more I am seeing clients engaging in a tactic to try and control behaviours that they don’t like. The tactic is to turn your back on a dog who is misbehaving. I even had one client tell me that this is the tactic they use with children who are being naughty. The idea is that when the learner cannot see your face, he is upset that he is not getting attention while he is misbehaving. Nice in theory, but there are some problems with this idea.

The very first problem is the premise that dogs or children will do something they ought not do because it gets them attention and negative attention is better than no attention at all. This points to a whole raft of problems in how we apply behaviour modification, to dogs, to children and even to adults we interact with. If behaving in a desired way gets you nothing, why bother modulating your behaviour at all? Why shouldn’t the learner just behave the way that makes them happy? If there is no benefit to changing your behaviour, then why would you? The fact is that if you are not attending to the behaviours that you want, then behaviours that you don’t want will creep in.

Actually…you don’t have eyes on the back of your head.  All too often I see students in class turning their back on their dog when the dog does something he ought not do.  You cannot train a dog you cannot see!  Photo copyright Sue Alexander 2016

When the learner is clear about the consequences for undesired behaviours, and unclear about the consequences for desired behaviours, then believe it or not, the learner may sometimes decide that the known outcome is a safer and better bet than the unknown outcome. Certainty is much easier for some learners than uncertainty. This means that if you set out a consequence for an undesired behaviour, and the learner doesn’t find that consequence unpleasant, then there is no reason for the learner to not do the behaviour you don’t want. Let me get a bit more concrete here for a moment. If the dog likes jumping up on you and doesn’t mind your back being turned then turning your back isn’t going to stop the jumping. The dog jumps, you turn away and then the dog jumps again. Not a big deal from the dog’s perspective, so he can go on jumping up without any concerns. At least not for him.

Some dogs jump up because they want attention and when jumping up doesn’t work the first time because you have turned away, they can then grab clothing at will. Now we have a situation that is outright dangerous, and often people will attempt to counter cue at this point. So the dog jumps up, the person turns away, the dog grabs and the person says “off” or “leave it”. If the dog jumps off as eventually he must, then the owner may attend to the dog and create a string of behaviours that are reinforced. Now the dog is left thinking that the way we want him to interact is to go through this sequence of jumping up, turning away, cuing and then attending to the dog. Sometimes though, instead of this sequence what happens is that the dog jumps up, you turn, he grabs clothing and he gets a great game of tug going. Tug, tug, tug, rip! And now the owner is really upset, but the dog doesn’t know why.

Turning away from a naughty dog or child just makes it impossible to train because you cannot mark the behaviours you like. You cannot mark them because you cannot see them and if you cannot see them, then your marker is never going to come at the right time. And what is a marker? It is a signal to the dog of a consequence that is coming. If for instance my dog jumps up, I mark that behaviour with “that’s enough”, before his feet touch me. If he gets right off without touching me with his feet, then I will mark that by saying “thank you” and attend to him with attention, toys or treats. If he doesn’t, I give a second marker and say “too bad” and gently remove him to his crate.

In many families when mom turns her back, the children know that they can misbehave and then scape goat one of the weaker children in the group. Dogs do similar things; they take advantage of the turned back to get into things they know they ought not get into. Turning your back is at least going to provide your dog with the chance to make the wrong choice and at most put him in a position of learning that you cannot mark his behaviour and tell him what the outcome is going to be.

This past year, I met a dog who showed an extreme version of what happens when you turn your back on a dog who is jumping up. He had been thrown out of his doggy day care because he was running behind the staff, and jumping up and tearing off their shirts and then running around the day care playing tug with the employees clothing. With multiple dogs on site chaos predictably ensued. This behaviour became so dangerous that in the home the dog knocked over a child and ripped several items of clothing.  I have actually met several dogs who do this, and they have all had handlers turning their back when they jumped up.  Understanding how this developed, we were able to start interrupting the behaviours creatively and non confrontationally. The sad thing is that the dog now has a bite record and isn’t allowed to come back to day care.

When we are trying to resolve a behaviour problem there are a number of steps we need to take. First, we have to identify the problem behaviour. Let’s take jumping up as an example. We need to decide when the behaviour is a problem and when it stops and starts. The dog isn’t jumping up in his sleep, so it isn’t a problem then. You might be able to define the behaviour by saying that the dog approaches the person, and when he is just within arm’s reach, he raises his front feet off the floor and puts them on the person. Notice that there is a sequence to the behaviour; it isn’t a problem until he is close to the person he is going to jump on. This means that there is a window of opportunity to teach the dog to keep his paws to himself. The trainer has the chance to mark the approach either by saying thank your or yes or maybe by clicking and then by dropping a treat on the ground. Dropping treats is my best tactic for dogs who bounce up in your face because they cannot jump up and drop their head at the same time.

Turning your back is not always intentional. Any time we disengage from the dog, we can get side tracked and the dog can do as he wishes. This dog has been taught what to do when his person is busy, so that she can disengage and depend on him to mind his manners. One of the mistakes I often see beginners make is disengaging from their puppy before they have taught the puppy what to do. Many dogs learn that they can bark or jump up when you are on the computer or the phone because you cannot do anything to change the behaviour! Copyright: redav / 123RF Stock Photo

Maybe though, you are faced with a really quick dog who charges in and you cannot get that marker or treat out fast enough. Maybe the dog is all the way up before you are ready. Then you can use a marker that says there will be a different outcome. I say “too bad” and either I go into a bathroom, or I gently take the dog and put him in a different place where I am not. In both situations, I have to be able to see the dog in order to be able to mark when the behaviour is happening and when it is over.

If you are not able to tell when behaviours are happening, then you are not training. When the consequence of the behaviour is that the dog loses your presence altogether, either by you leaving or by him being confined, then there is a discrete predictable outcome. When you turn your back, the outcome is ambiguous and potentially dangerous. Don’t turn your back on a learner who is doing things that are dangerous. It isn’t safe for you and it often helps to develop much more dangerous behaviours in your dog.



Originally posted October 2011

I know a lady who got up at three o’clock every morning to walk her dog in the middle of the night because the dog was terrified of people.  She did this for eight years.  I know another lady who moved house, build a room in her home and kept her dog quietly at home because going out the front door was overwhelming to him.  Yet another person I know has spent thousands of dollars and countless hours on training, physio-therapy and medication to help her traumatized dog to recover from a car accident.

I am blessed to live in the company of people who care and care deeply about the dogs they live with.  To be fair, I chose a career that would throw me into their company, but I never imagined that I would meet the people I did along the way.  I have met dedicated, loyal, caring people who put their dogs ahead of many of their own needs.

What would you do to help your dog? If your dog were afraid of people in your neighborhood, would you walk in the middle of the night to keep your feeling safe? My clients do this sort of thing and more! They really are the greatest people on earth! Copyright: thomas261 / 123RF Stock Photo

I write a lot about things that I see that I would like to make right.  I would like the injustices in the world all go away, and I speak my mind passionately when I see something going badly wrong.  I am equally passionate about my students.  They are truly incredible people who I deeply admire.

The dogs we work with help us along in so many special ways, but they don’t come through my door all by themselves.  They come in the company of people.  Some of the people they come with are hard to get along with, but it is important to realize that these people have made sacrifices on behalf of their dogs and have brought them in for help.  Sometimes they come along in the company of charming and interesting people, who enrich me beyond dog training; this is just gravy on the potatoes.  Everyone who brings a dog to me for help is a special and wonderful person because they care beyond themselves and they take steps to make the lives of their dogs better.

In our field, we sometimes see bumper stickers belonging to trainers that read things like “I love your dog-you not so much”, and I feel sad for the trainers who miss looking at both ends of the leash.  I don’t love all dogs or all people, but I have incredible respect and caring for those who live with the dogs who need my help.  At the end of the day, the difficult dogs go home with people who have to walk them and feed them, who have to enrich their environments and keep them safe.  We have the luxury of liking these dogs because we don’t have to accommodate their foibles, and those who do live with these dogs need our care and support and respect.

I like people.  If I didn’t, I think that in the final analysis, I would be a crappy trainer and behaviour consultant.  I like dogs too, but it is important to remember that the dogs don’t come without their people.  So here is my salute to my clients.

Thank you for caring about your dogs enough to build ramps so your old dogs can get into the car, for caring enough to buy a manual can opener so that your dog isn’t stressed by the noise of the electric one you used to use, for picking up all the rawhides so that resource guarding doesn’t happen, for walking your dogs on muzzle so that they don’t eat dead things.  You go above and beyond what so many of us do, and you are my heros.



In North America, and likely in other parts of the developed world, we belong to the TV generation. If we don’t achieve a major milestone before the next commercial, then we don’t think we are successful, and we don’t think that we should continue along the route that we are already taking. In behaviour modification and training, slow and steady is almost always the key to success, and that doesn’t happen in the twelve and a half minutes that happen between network commercials. Perhaps if real dog training happened on network TV, people would have a better idea of what happens when you work on training with an animal. Wouldn’t that be a reality show? Four months of weekly installments on a puppy making great strides from time to time, interspersed with long periods of careful development of behaviours that form the foundation for more complex work.


If this is the attitude you bring to your training sessions, your dog won’t be very interersted in what you are doing. Dogs are very emotional creatures and they notice if we are not paying attention or engaging in the task at hand. Attitude in training is very much a case of you get what you give! Copyright: fserega / 123RF Stock Photo

I have a couple of students in class at the moment who tell me that their dogs are bored. Let’s look at what it means to be bored. According to Wikipedia “Boredom has been defined by C. D. Fisher, in terms of its central psychological processes: “an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity.” ( There is more to it than that, and the boredom article goes on to discuss types of boredom and how they impact learning. Often what I notice in training is that the dog, in theory the learner, is not bored, but the trainer may be bored. Sometimes the dogs who are described as bored are independent and don’t really have buy in to the trainer’s agenda. So what can be done to better engage the trainer and the learner in the process, so that neither one of them experiences this unpleasant, transient affective state?


To start with, define what you want. If you want your dog to be interested in what you want her to do, you have to know what it is you want. If you have a dog who is mostly interested in doing his own thing, happy to turn his back on you, and engage with the universe as it interests him, then you are going to need to consider if what you really want is a dog who will engage with you. If you don’t then training is going to be a lot more challenging, because you are going to be in a battling economy of what is more valuable; me and the training process or every other thing in the environment. Attempting to train by being more interesting than dirt is hard work. Engagement with you is going to be rewarding for both you and the dog if you do it right. Consider playing your dog’s game for a moment.


If your dog is standing on the end of the leash gazing longingly out at the wall opposite you, yearning for the opportunity to explore it, then DO THAT. If you want your dog to engage with you, then engage with her. If you are all about training on your terms only, then you can try something else, but if you want your dog to engage with you on your agenda then at some point you need to meet her half way. Once you start engaging with your dog on his or her own terms, it is much easier to start to get your dog to engage with you. Engaging with your dog can be as simple as opening a bag of dog treats and helping your dog to explore that. Open the bag as you might for a young child. Look in. Offer it to the dog to look in. Before he can shove his whole head in to take everything, pull it away, reach in and get a treat out to share with him. If you use a bag of cheezies, you can give him one and then have one yourself. Sharing is a big part of engaging with your dog.


Once you and your dog are engaged with one another, then teaching skills is much easier. If you want to teach your dog to walk on a leash without dragging you along, you can take your dog on leash to a location where you have control over the stuff she wants. Then wait. If you are engaged with your dog, you will notice subtle shifts and changes in how she experiences the world. If she is standing there longing for the wall, wait. Now it is your turn. If you disengage from attending to your dog, then you won’t catch that moment when she turns to you and asks you what you are doing. She is only going to ask once, so if you miss that chance to share your treats with your dog the moment that she tries to engage the tiniest bit with you, then that chance is gone and the next time she offers to attend to you, she is going to offer you less not more attention. If you catch her asking to join in your game you can offer her something that you both find interesting.


What I observe time and again is that trainers don’t remain engaged long enough to actually get the engagement they want from their dogs. Beginner trainers often stand with their backs to their dogs, looking around at anything other than the dog they have come to train. If you cannot attend to your dog long enough to catch her when she attends to you, then why would you think that your dog will have any more attention than you do? If you cannot give your dog more than thirty seconds to disengage from whatever has caught her eye, then why would your dog stay engaged in what interests you, especially if it is difficult or needs a lot of concentration, as leash walking does?


Training should be a two way street. This trainer is taking advantage of her pup’s interest in the toy to establish a relationship so that later on when she asks the pup to do something she wants to do, the puppy will be more likely to share her game! Copyright: toonartist / 123RF Stock Photo

Dogs are not automatons. They think, they breathe, they have interests of their own and they have their own agendas. We also have our own interests, drives and desires. Often, in order to have a dog, the dog ends up having to accommodate our interests more than we accommodate what they need. The dog’s priorities are her own, and if we are not going to share in what she is interested in, then why do we think she will share in what we are interested in? Most often we choose to get the dog, instead of the dog choosing to live with us, so if the dog is bored, especially in training class it is up to us to determine what she is interested in and use that as part of the training process.





Lately we have had a pile of puppy owners asking us how to prevent their pups from misbehaving. In exasperation, one day John replied “Don’t let him do that!” and the client looked at him completely baffled. One important part of our way of puppy raising is to let the puppies learn through experience what happens if they do certain things. In our house that means that puppies who pick up shoes get put in their crates. Puppies who jump up on me get put in their crates. Puppies who sit nicely get let out of their crates. Puppies who sit and stay get their dinner. Puppies who bark in their crates get to stay right where they are. Puppies who cry in the night get taken outside to pee. The list goes on and on and on as our puppies learn what happens when they do various things. There are some things however that our puppies don’t get the chance to do.


When clients ask us how to stop their pups from toileting in the house, we tell them, don’t let him do that! We don’t allow our puppies out of our sight in the house until they have shown us that they won’t toilet indoors over a long period of time. To start with, our puppies don’t get to explore the house unattended. We don’t let them toilet indoors by making sure that they have lots of chances to toilet outdoors, and we control when they eat so that we know when they will need to go. When they are outside of their crates, they are supervised, 100% of the time and if it looks like they need to go, we gently pick them up and take them out to toilet where we want them to go. We just don’t let them toilet indoors.


This puppy is doing a few things I would prefer he didn’t. If this was my puppy, and he was meeting this lady for the first time, I would not let him hold his leash or climb the lady and the lady wouldn’t be allowed to get this close until my pup was calmer and ready to behave the way I want him to when meeting a new person. In short I wouldn’t let him grab his leash or climb the lady! Copyright: dusanzidar / 123RF Stock Photo

When we are asked how to stop puppies from jumping up on guests, we don’t let them do that either; when guests come to the house, we prepare by having our pups in their crates as the guests arrive, and then we bring them to the guests on leash. We know that pups need to learn what to do when meeting a guest, so we don’t just let our pups meet guests and hope for the best; we don’t let them do that. For clarity, what we usually do is to allow the guest in, and then get them seated. Then we bring the puppy in on leash and we work with the puppy, clicking and treating behaviours that he already knows. When he is calm and engaged with someone he knows then we introduce him to the guest, again using the clicker to mark behaviours we like, such as sitting for attention. And we don’t let the guest do our training for us either! We don’t ask our guests to treat the puppy for good behaviour; we know what we want the pup to learn and we don’t leave that to chance.


Often people will ask what to do about pulling on leash and again, we point out that we don’t let puppies pull on leash. Sometimes in training we have to do what is called a work around. In the case of pulling on leash, the work around we use is called the magic collar system; we have one collar that is magic; we only use it for training loose leash behaviour. The rest of the time we use a different collar, harness or head halter to differentiate what we are working on and we teach the pup that the rules are looser in that situation. We work around puppies pulling by teaching that one collar is magic and allows pulling and the other collar is a different kind of magic and doesn’t allow pulling!


How about getting into the garbage? Again, we just don’t let puppies do that! We keep garbage behind gates and doors so that pups cannot get into things. The same is true for almost everything that we do. Getting in the front seat of a moving vehicle? Don’t let your puppy do that by putting him in a crate in the vehicle when travelling. Harassing the older dog in the home? Keep them separate except for training time. Chewing up personal items? Put things away pre-emptively. The key is to think ahead about what behaviours you want your puppy to engage in and what behaviours you don’t want your puppy to engage in, and then preventing your pup from having the chance to do things you don’t want him to do.


The thing to remember about young dogs is that they come without experience. If you are going to expect a young dog to interact with something new in his life, and you don’t structure that interaction to begin with, you are training him to guess and often, being a young animal with an exuberant temperament, he is going to make the wrong choice. When your pup makes the wrong choice, you can do one of any number of things. You can be harsh and punitive and unpleasant and hope he doesn’t repeat the error. Not a good idea but something to think about. You can be gentle but interrupt the puppy; a better alternative, but still not ideal. You can remove the pup and allow him to try again; still better than the last alternative, but still not the best kind of training you can do for a puppy. The gold standard in training is to set your pup up to succeed in the first place by preventing the undesired behaviour from happening.


Perhaps the most confusing to students but common situation is what to do on the street when the puppy meets new people. Our clients usually don’t want their young puppies to learn to jump up to greet, but they also don’t want to not introduce their new addition to the neighbourhood. In this case, we can prevent our dogs from doing things we don’t want by controlling distance. When you are approaching a friend, regardless of if they have another dog or not, there is going to be a point at which your dog begins to get excited. That point, or threshold, is where you need to stop approaching and take a break. Doing this teaches young dogs that they cannot bounce around and be silly when they are meeting and greeting people. By only moving forward when your pup is calm, he learns that self control gets him what he wants.


The biggest error we see at puppy school is the puppy owner who gets a young dog and then allows her to roam free through the house from the first day on. Often things go well at first; for the first few days, while the puppy is novel, family members attend to the puppy and notice when he is getting into things and they intervene. Over time however, the puppy begins to become familiar with the home, and wanders away from supervision. When this happens, you cannot prevent problems and then you have to solve them; not an ideal situation. Next, the family wants to take the puppy out in the neighbourhood, and they start to run into even bigger problems because they don’t have any plans to avoid problems. The puppy learns to pull on leash, jump on people and grab trash and dropped items to play with or eat. In medicine, it is common to say that prevention is the best cure, and this is true of training as well. We need to prevent these problems from starting and start by teaching our pups what we want them to do. The best way to do that involves planning and supervision. It really isn’t difficult but it does mean being aware of what you are doing.


When you teach your dog what to do and how to behave when he is a youngster, then when he grows up he will be the kind of dog you can trust to be kind to a child. This is what a mannerly dog looks like! Copyright: yuliang11 / 123RF Stock Photo

Good planning and supervision means that you know what you want your pup to learn and you set up situations where he can learn what we want him to learn, and then you supervise what is happening to make that happen. One of the best things you can do to make planning and supervision work for you is to join a good puppy class. In class you will likely get a list of behaviours to work on and that can serve as a good guideline to help you to determine what your pup should be doing and at what age. It also provides you with a support group to help you to make your plan work. We even take our own pups to puppy class!




I work with dogs with behaviour problems every day. Some of the dogs I work with have bitten people. Some of them have attacked other dogs. Some of them leap at passersby when walking on leash. I see dogs with separation anxiety, with inappropriate elimination issues, who chase lights and shadows and who snap at invisible flies. I see dogs who don’t sleep and who eat things they ought not, and who do a wide variety of very strange behaviours. Over the years I have seen dogs who charge and lunge, who bite, who target the other dogs in the house, who have lunged at me, who have knocked me over, who have targeted another dog in my classroom and who have lost control over their bladders when I have looked at them. There is a really important thing to know about my job. I know what misbehaviour looks like. I don’t need to see your dog show misbehaviour in order to help you. You may wonder why.

The coach probably won’t play this player until he is off crutches and completely healed. The same is true of a dog with a behaviour problem; we don’t want to re-injure your dog by triggering the problem over and over again. Copyright: ljupco / 123RF Stock Photo

The very first thing to know is that triggering the behaviour problem you are experiencing is not good for your dog. It is not in your dog’s best interest for me to see your dog misbehave. If your dog has a serious behaviour problem, every time he practices that behaviour, the behaviour becomes stronger, and that is not what I want when I am helping a family. There is a medical analogy that I like to use to help people to understand. Suppose that you had a broken leg. Every time you go to the doctor for a check up on your leg, would you expect your doctor to ask you to do something that would further injure your leg? Would you agree to jump up and down on your broken leg ten or eleven times to see how much it hurts? Would you expect your leg to ever actually heal properly if you keep re-injuring it?

Every time that you set your dog up to exhibit the undesired behaviour you have come to work on with me, you are re-injuring your dog. I don’t want your dog to get worse! I want your dog to get better. I look at resolving behaviour problems by starting from the point of doing no harm. I don’t want to make matters worse. If seeing your dog misbehaving were helpful, I would be in favour of allowing your dog make as many mistakes as possible but it doesn’t help. It really, really doesn’t help.

The next reason I don’t need to see your dog misbehave is that it often isn’t safe for me, for you, for your dog or for the dogs and people who are around you. If your dog is aggressive towards other dogs, it is really risky for other dogs for your dog to practice that behaviour. It is not safe for me if your dog is practicing being aggressive towards me! If your dog is aggressive towards me, and I have to do something to protect myself, your dog could be hurt. I don’t want to hurt your dog; that is not my job!

If your dog bites me during a consult, I cannot help him. I am not wearing a bite suit to protect myself and if he bites me, I might hurt him protecting myself. It can be dangerous for me to see the problem behaviour. Copyright: mosheruzh / 123RF Stock Photo

The final and perhaps the most important reason to avoid triggering a problem behaviour is that I likely already know what it looks like. I have seen some very wild and woolly behaviour. I have seen a dog with seizure induced aggression; I don’t need to ever see that again. It was extremely dangerous to me and I don’t think the dog was having much fun either. I have seen various types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and that is so hard for the dog to endure. I have seen in person more fear aggressive dogs, defensively aggressive dogs, and confidently aggressive dogs than I care to count. I have seen dog to dog aggression and twice, I have seen dog fights so severe that both dogs nearly died. I have seen play, I have seen affiliative behaviour, I have seen fearful urination and defecation, I have seen leash aggression and I have seen resource guarding. After twenty five years of working with dogs with behaviour problems I have seen more problem behaviour than most pet owners will see in a lifetime. I don’t need to see most of this again, but if there is some reason for me to see a problem behaviour, I want to see it on video, retrospectively. For the very most part I don’t want to see the problem behaviour if I can avoid it.

This probably leaves many readers wondering how I can help if I don’t see the problem behaviour. First off, I want to know what the problem behaviour is, so I ask lots and lots of questions about the problem behaviour. Most people can tell me what I need to know after I ask the right questions to frame the problem. Once I have an idea of what the problem is, I need to know more details to start to help solve the problem. How much does the dog sleep? What does he eat? Is there something that happens right before the problem appears? Has the dog caused any injuries? How much exercise does the dog get and what kind of exercise is it? Who does the dog live with? Who does the dog play with? How is the dog’s health? Does the dog have any pain related issues?   When I know about as many of the contributing factors as I can find, I can start to formulate a plan to help the dog and their family.

The first thing I will do after taking a history from family members is develop a management plan to avoid the problem. As with my example of a broken leg, for a period of time, I don’t want the dog to be re-injured by being triggered by the things that disturb him. I think of your dog having an episode of bad behaviour as being like re-injuring a broken bone. If you do it often enough, you are going to create a permanent and potentially worse problem. If nothing else, your relationship with your dog is not going to be as good as it could be.

Management in behavioural terms simply means setting up a successful environment. This can be very straightforward to do sometimes, but often it can be tricky. When you are talking about a dog who is afraid of men in hats, you can usually avoid men in hats for a period of time while you work on the problem. This is much trickier when you cannot tell what triggers the undesired behaviour, and that is where I am often really helpful to my clients. I have years of experience coming up with unique and creative ways to prevent exposing your dog to the things that set him off.

When we are talking about problems such as house soiling, I often have a few cards up my sleeve that you may not have thought of; it isn’t just common sense even though simple solutions are often what works. Often, coming in with experience and fresh eyes can help me to develop a plan to meet your dog’s needs even though you may have already thought up a number of solutions of your own and yet still, I don’t need to see your dog making the error to help.

The next thing I want to do is to determine what is driving or motivating the problem behaviour. If your dog is toileting in the house, but only does it on days when he or she is asked to stay home alone for ten hours at a time, then what is motivating him is a full bladder. If you get someone to come in and toilet your dog half way through the day, then he won’t have a full bladder and won’t soil in the house. That is a simple example of the kind of problem solving I help my clients with.

2309147_s This dog is showing us all his teeth and his tongue is retracted deep into his mouth. I know what this looks like! I even know what is most likely motivating him; he is guarding his stick. I don’t need to see your dog do the same thing in order to understand what resource guarding looks like or to help you help your dog! Copyright: cynoclub / 123RF Stock Photo

Some situations are more complex though. I have worked with dogs who are afraid of a myriad of things in their environments and the first step we have to take is to teach the dog that he is safe within his own environment. Once I have done that, we can start to expand his success puddle from within the house and yard to the street, the neighbourhood and then beyond. Sometimes the motivator behind the behaviour is medical; then I need to work with my client’s veterinarian to resolve the motivation. Sometimes it is hard to tell what the motivation is, and then I get to work like a detective solving a mystery to figure out how to help.

The final step in the work I do is to help you to teach your dogs the skills they need to succeed in their new reality. When we aren’t triggering the dog over and over again, and when we change what motivates the undesired behaviour, the next step is to examine what skills the dog needs to successfully navigate the situations that used to be a problem. Sometimes when I work with aggressive dogs the aggression is triggered by a specific triggers (such as men in hats) and it is motivated by fear (perhaps a man in a hat startled the dog when he was a puppy) and when we overcome those two components, we need to teach the dog what he should do instead of being aggressive.

By now you may be thinking “gee, your work sounds pretty straightforward” and to be completely honest you are not wrong, but I still hold the card of experience. I know how to evaluate the situation and what questions I need to ask to find out what the problem might be. I can recognize when the motivation that is driving the problem might be medical instead of behavioural. I know where to start when we attack the problem you have come to see me about. And I know what skills to teach your dog to give him tools to use in his tool box.   I also know that although it might be flashy, your dog’s life is not a TV show, so I don’t need to see him exhibit the undesired behaviour!



Originally posted November 2010

Dominance hierarchies are the popular culture explanation for almost every possible behaviour problem in dogs, yet few people understand what they are and how they are evaluated.  Putting aside that I think that it is pretty silly to try and describe the behaviour BETWEEN species with this construct, I think that there are other ways to look at relationships.

Dogs are a very social species, and although there is only one stick, the dogs are sharing it.  We can tell this is play because both dogs are standing with their feet off balance and their bodies are curved.  When balanced thus, the dogs cannot effectively fight because they are not oriented in a way to do so with intent.  Such playful interactions rarely result in a fight; sharing is another successful strategy that social species engage in.

Copyright: <a href=’’>jalephoto / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

So what is a dominance hierarchy?  Simply put, a dominance hierarchy is a way of describing the relationship between two or more members of the same species when they have limited resources.  A simple and somewhat simplistic way of thinking about this is “Two Dogs, One Bone” and determine which dog wins the bone.  Sounds simple doesn’t it?  In a dyad, or competition between two animals it is easy; two horses, one flake of hay and one horse eats while the other does not.  Two sharks, one anchovie, and one shark goes home hungry.  How about when there are three?  Then you have to pair them off, and figure out if A and B are paired which wins?  Let’s say it is A.  A is dominant over B in that scenario.  Then pair off B and C.  Lets say C wins that one, so C is dominant over B.  Then pair off A and C.  If C wins, then Cis dominant over A and A is dominant over B.  In a linear hierarchy, dominance really is that simple.  The problem comes when a hierarchy is non linear, which happens in many species including humans.

Let’s look at humans.  Consider going to your mother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.  Her house…her rules and don’t touch the brandy in the sideboard; that is for the Christmas pudding.  Perhaps at her house you are a relatively low ranking female, and you do the “left over work” that others don’t get to; you are served last, you set and clear the table and you put the garbage out at the end of the evening.  Except when your grandmother arrives who is more dominant in this situation than your mom.  In that case, as her special grand daughter, you are now more dominant; you get more “stuff”, you get served sooner, you get out of doing chores because Granny likes it that way.  Are you now more dominant than your mother?  Not likely.

Now consider when your mom comes to your home with her sister.  Her sister defers at mom’s house, but at your house the dynamic is different.  At your house, her sister is dominant over your mom, and you are dominant over both of them.  Suddenly dominance hierarchies look a whole lot more complicated and in reality dominance hierarchies are slippery and difficult to easily assess.  This is an example of how a hierarchy can shift and change depending on who is there, and where you are, and what circumstances you find yourself within.  At your mom’s house, Mom is dominant over her sister and you.  If Granny shows up, Granny is dominant over your mom and you, but you are dominant over mom’s sister because you get more “stuff” when she is around.  At your house, you control the resources so you are dominant over mom and her sister, but you defer to your grandmother if she shows up.  It is no longer as simple as A is dominant over C who is dominant over B.  Interesting stuff indeed.

Even more interesting I think is that a good many other interpretations for hierarchies exist, but in a battle driven construct they are much less talked about or even known.  How about subordinate hierarchies?  This is the kind of hierarchy where a lower ranking individual obtains resources for himself by waiting for opportunities to present themselves.  We see this in many, many species.  The first time I read about this, it was in Adrian Forsyth’s wonderful book “The Natural History of Sex”.  He talked about sunfish.  Sunfish have a very interesting mating system.  A big flashy male fish will find a nesting site and make a shallow depression and then hang out to attract a female.  When the female comes along, she lays her eggs and he covers them with his sperm.  Then he swims away.  Meanwhile, there is another male, less flashy and smaller who looks kind of like a female who swims in while the flashy male is out hunting or defending another nest site, and this male also covers the eggs with his sperm.  By being covert and careful and drab, he manages to fertilize many eggs without wasting time building or defending a nest.

People do this.  I well remember realizing that a roommate did this when I watched her cut pie.  My pie in fact.  “Can I cut you a slice of pie she would offer?”  Sure I would say.  She would cut one for me and a BIGGER one for herself.  By being polite, she was able to control how much I got and how much she got.  Watch for this in sibling children; it is rampant!

Not all of the pieces of the pie are the same size and the easiest way to get a bigger piece of the pie is to offer to cut and serve the dessert.  This is not a dominance tactic but rather a subordinate tactic and it is extremely effective! 

Copyright: <a href=’’>chuckplace / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

I have watched this in my dogs too.  Right now, my four year old male is dominant over the six month old male and the three month old female.  The six month old will sometimes come in when my four year old is chewing a bone and drop a toy in front of him.  If the older dog gets up, he darts in to grab what he wants, and usually the older dog will allow this to happen.

Subordinate hierarchies usually involve deference, social diffusion, and sometimes involve outright subterfuge.  Who hasn’t seen the lowest ranking employee somehow manage to swing an invite to the company’s stadium box seats?  Or end up with a big raise for no apparent reason?  This is subordinate behaviour doing what it does best; it gets the performer what he wants or needs at minimal risk to himself.

Dominance is a risky position to be in, because it only lasts as long as others on your hierarchy believe you can hold it up.  If you cannot withstand the pressure of being the leader, there are other ways to get your slice of pie, and often these other ways are safer and involve less energy than trying to lead a group.

So coming back to dog training, it is important to ask the age old question of do you want to be happy or do you want to be right?  Being right is a bit like dominance, it takes a lot of energy to maintain.  Being happy doesn’t though.  Being happy is more like subordinance; you just have to figure out what you want and how to get it with the least amount of effort and energy.  And it is plain old much more interesting than dominance.  So for my money, I would choose to make the bulk of my training on subordinate strategies instead of dominance based strategies.  They are generally less risky, more reliable and I get what I want in the end.



Originally posted in April 2011

Imagine for a moment that you were commissioning an architect to build you a house.  You want a very special house; one that will allow you to do some very special things.  Imagine for a moment all the things that YOU want for your house.  In my house, I would like a big woodstove, and a kitchen with great counter space, and new appliances, and an indoor/outdoor swimming pool within a greenhouse with big sliding windows so that in the summer we could have the air flow through but in the winter we could take advantage of passive solar.  I want a VERY fancy house.

Now, given what I want in my house, it is going to need electricity.  Imagine for a moment, that my architect, who has come highly recommended by all my friends, who has built lovely houses before, has decided that he will not work with electricians.  Or electrical engineers.  Or anyone in the electrical industry.  And he won’t read the legal code that electricians must adhere to when they do their work.  He has his own ideas about electricity and in his architectural drawings, he is going to lay out the electrical system HE wants, regardless of what might be accepted in the industry.  Now, granted he has added some improvements to the way things normally work, but in other buildings that he has been involved with, there have always been hang ups during construction while the building inspector goes through and makes all the changes to what this architect has indicated on the drawings-because the architect, while he may think his methods are better, is actually doing something that a lot of dog behaviour consultants, veterinarians and trainers do that we ought not do.  He is practicing outside of his area of competence.

Architects and electricians must work together and neither can do the job of the other.  I am not a vet or a vet tech, and the vet is not a behaviour consultant.  We each have our own jobs and we must work together to help our clients succeed!  Copyright: temis / 123RF Stock Photo
Architects and electricians must work together and neither can do the job of the other. I am not a vet or a vet tech, and the vet is not a behaviour consultant. We each have our own jobs and we must work together to help our clients succeed! Copyright: temis / 123RF Stock Photo

Architects need to know some things about electricity, electrical set ups, and the electrical code.  Architects have to follow guidelines when making building plans.  But architects are not electricians.  And here is a piece of news.  I am a dog behaviour consultant.  In fact, I am a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant.  I did not go to school to become a veterinarian.  Or even a vet tech.  I know enough about dog health to tell you when you need to go to the vet, and I know enough about dog biology and health to be able to carry on a very informed discussion with a veterinarian about a dog in our care.  Here is the thing: I need an invite from the client to do so.

If I hired an architect to build a house for me, I would insist that the various professionals that I hired were able to work together.  The architect needs to be able to work with the engineers, the contractors, my lawyer, and my accountant.  The other professionals need to be able to work together too.  The day of the one stop jack of all trades professional is gone. The same is true of the people who help you with your dog’s behaviour; they need to get along in the sandbox with your vet, your daycare, you dog walker, your groomer and your breeder.  We don’t need to go out for dinner together, but we DO need to find a way to work with one another, recognizing one another’s strengths and specialties and consulting one another opening.  Your vet did not study behaviour in school and likely has not trained as many dogs as I have.  Your daycare is unlikely to have given very many dogs haircuts and your groomer should not be drawing blood and doing bloodwork on your dog.  We each know something about the work that the other does, and we can each contribute something to your dog’s wellbeing in the other places that your dog is going, but we each have a specialty and we need to respect one another’s specializations.

So when you are working with a professional for the improvement of your dog’s quality of life, put the professionals you use in touch with one another.  And beware that those who are not playing nice in the sandbox with one another may not be able to help you in every way possible.  The best outcomes for dogs happen when we are all on the same team.



Originally posted December 2010

Puppy Hardy learned at a very young age that just because something was offered, didn't mean he got to snatch it.  He also learned that he didn't have to hear "Leave it" to indicate it wasn't his to begin with.  He was about 3 months old in this picture.  Self control should start very early!
Puppy Hardy learned at a very young age that just because something was offered, didn’t mean he got to snatch it. He also learned that he didn’t have to hear “Leave it” to indicate it wasn’t his to begin with. He was about 3 months old in this picture. Self control should start very early!

Several years ago, on an email list, a woman mailed in talking about how her dog had nearly died because it had climbed up a five foot tall book case and stolen some pain meds and eaten them.  She was on a rant about how important it was to keep things under lock and key and how you just never knew what a dog might get into.  I was the lone voice saying that she had bigger problems than the immediate veterinary emergency.  Her problem, whether she recognizes it or not, is that her dogs lack impulse control.

About 60% of the dogs I see with behaviour problems have impulse control issues.  They steal things off of tables and counters, they eat the pockets out of clothing, they bolt out the door, they pull on the leash-generally, what they have learned in their lives is that if they want to have something, they ought to pull harder, jump higher, try harder, act faster and they can get what they want.

One of the problems is that dogs don’t have a good sense of safe and dangerous when it comes to the important things in modern life.  They don’t understand that pills could kill them, that certain mushrooms in the yard could be toxic, that chocolate at the least will cause gastric upset and at the worst will cause death.  They don’t know that jumping over the wall that prevents us from falling over the cliff could be a disaster, they don’t know that running into traffic is dangerous; they just don’t understand.

For this reason, it is important to teach your dog self control.  Self control means several things.  The first thing it means is “just because you can see it doesn’t mean it is yours”.  Think about taking a four year old to a buffet table.  Just because he can see that marvellous cake with all the sweet gooey icing doesn’t mean it is his.  If mom and dad are the kind of parents who want their kids to grow up to be an acceptable member of society, they help the kid to choose self control over self indulgence.  And this is what we are missing in our dogs.

Teaching your puppies to control themselves and not snatch food from your hand will pay big dividends later in life.
Teaching your puppies to control themselves and not snatch food from your hand will pay big dividends later in life.

Lately a lot of my novice students seem to feel that if there is something that the dog can see or sense that the dog wants, they are excused from insisting on good manners.  This is akin to allowing the four year old at the buffet table to reach out and stick his fingers in that tempting icing, lick them and then repeat.  Heck, the way some of my students approach this, they would be egging the child on.   Go ahead sweetie…one little lick won’t hurt anything!  Well it will.  It will hurt that child’s chances of landing a job when he grows up, it will hurt his chances of finding a mate, it will hurt his chances of living a normal life.

Most recently, I experienced this in the company of my service dog.  I had an appointment to be at a local business for a photo shoot, and there was a resident “puppy”.  This puppy was somewhere between 6 and nine months old.  My service dog does not love puppies, and when he is vested, his job is to take care of me, so we had arranged ahead of time to have the puppy off the premises.  Needless to say, this did not work out; the dog was onsite when I arrived.  I stood by the door looking through the window, and was waved in.  I watched to see that the dog was removed from the room before coming in.  Just as I got my coat off, the owner of the dog appeared with the dog in tow, vaguely guiding him by the collar.  “He just needs to say hi,” she said.  “NO!” I replied.  “My dog doesn’t like puppies.”  “It will just take a moment, he needs to say hello” she shot back.  “NO!”  I replied again; “this is a mistake.  You cannot greet this dog, he is a working service dog”, I repeated, and stepped between her dog and mine.  Still she persisted.  “This isn’t about YOUR dog, MY dog needs to just sniff noses.”  My dog was jacketed and I was in the middle of an anxiety attack to begin with, which didn’t help much, but honestly, why does she think that her dog MUST greet every dog he meets?  (incidentally, a GREAT article to read about this is Suzanne Clothier’s “He just wants to say hi”  )

This attitude of allowing our dogs everything they want, when they want it and how they want it creates more behaviour problems than you might at first imagine.  We don’t live in a canine utopia, where they can have every bone, chase every ball, greet every person and every dog they wish.  Teaching your dog the basics of self control can be a life saving move.  Teaching your dog to ask for things before grabbing them is the bare minimum for safety.  Consider for instance the dog who has learned to control his impulse to eat everything within his reach.  When your house guest arrives with a box of chocolates in her bag, your dog might sit and look longingly at the object of his desires, but he won’t tear apart the bag and the box, gorging himself on a sweet that might ultimately kill him.

The old saw “begin with the end in mind” is very true.  When dogs are young, if we allow them to pull on leash, we are teaching them that later on, they can pull with impunity, and that means that they will be at risk of pulling whoever is on the end of the leash into traffic.  It means that the dog will be at higher risk of neck, back and shoulder injuries.  It means that you also will be at higher risk of neck, back and shoulder injuries.  And it means that later on, you will have to retrain your dog to do something other than what you taught him to do as a youngster.  The easiest way to teach a dog to keep the leash loose is to never let him move forward when it is tight.  EVER.  This means that when he is young and you are in a rush to get from here to there, carry him.  This means that until he is really good at the exercise, don’t go more than a couple of hundred feet at a time on leash.  And this means making it in his best interest to keep that leash loose.  It also means that you need to know what a loose leash means.  A loose leash is a leash that makes a “J” shape between the dog and the person.  If it is straight, you are not giving the dog a chance to learn what a loose leash is.

Pulling is the tip of the iceberg though.  Just because you have a dog doesn’t mean you should not be able to put a sandwich on the table.  Far too often I see dogs who think that if they can reach it, it is theirs.  Someone once sent me an email called rules of ownership for toddlers; it went something like this.  If I have it, it’s mine.  If I had it before and now you have it, it’s still mine.  If I can see it, it’s mine.  If you have it and I want it, it’s mine.  And just like with toddlers, dogs often think this way.  If we encourage this thinking by supporting it by allowing the dog to learn that anything he can reach is his, then we are going to create an adult dog who will climb book cases to get stuff that is not theirs.  We are going to create a situation where the dog is difficult to live with, is pushy and obnoxious, and who will not leave things alone when he ought to.  One of my students recently told me that she would rather avoid having anything dangerous in her house than train her dog to automatically leave things that were not his.  This sounds good in theory, but on closer examination, we have a big problem.  The problem is that the dog doesn’t just live in a safe little box.  We take him out on the street where chocolates are dropped, and antifreeze is dripped and we have guests to our homes who leave avocado (toxic!) dip within reach, or drop raisins (also toxic) on the floor.

Teaching a dog to ask if he can have something is the easiest way to ensure that he doesn’t take things he shouldn’t.  If you take a treat in your hand and hold it out to the dog, and then close your hand if he takes it before he asks, and only open the hand up when he backs off the treat, you start to teach the dog that snatching doesn’t work.  If you make the dog wait for a moment or two, you start to teach him that good things come to those who wait.  Instead of thinking about teaching dogs to leave it, think about teaching dogs that if they back off the treat, they can get what they want when you tell them to “take it”.  Once you have this working nicely in your hand, you can then move on to getting your dog to sit before he gets the thing that he wants.  In small steps you can use this method to teach him first not to snatch things out of your hand, and then not to snatch things out of the hands of others and then not to take things off of chairs or the floor and then not to take things off of tables or plates.  In the end, you want the dog to not take anything that you have not indicated is his.  It takes about four months to achieve fluency, but this is an exercise that can and will save your dog’s life.  The day that I dropped ten migraine pills out of a bottle and onto the floor, my dog backed up two steps and made eye contact with me, was the day that I figured out that an automatic “leave it” wasn’t just a party trick, it was a life skill.

Many people understand the idea of teaching their dogs to sit before they give them a meal.  A good idea in theory-but I have seen this backfire.  When the dog is dependent upon the person to tell them to sit and to “stay…..staay…staaay….staaaaay”, and then the person says OKAY and the dog rushes the food bowl, what you are teaching is not self control, but to be impulsive on cue.  Not a particularly good idea.  You are in essence teaching the dog to have an explosive start, which would be great if you were doing agility, but not so good if you want your dog to learn to have good social manners in the house.  Instead, you can try a tactic of making your dog’s dinner and wait for him to sit.  When he sits, say take it and THEN put down the bowl.  Don’t prompt him, don’t cue him; teach him an automatic please.  Once you have a basic please, you can start working on duration between the food bowl going down and the release by starting to bend down to put the bowl down BEFORE you say take it.  If the dog gets up before you release, pick up the bowl and start over.  Work at it until making the meal becomes the cue to the dog to back off, and wait for as long as it takes for you to make the meal, dance the tango, make soup, and when your dog is relaxed, tell him to take his dinner.  This is a bit like going to a formal meal where grace is said-the guy who digs in before the blessing is seen to be a glutton and a boor.  If you teach your dog to wait till told, he will be practicing self control every day.  Just make sure that you don’t release your dog until you can see that he is relaxed, or you will create impulsivity on cue.

Tonight I had an interesting class with some beginner students.  Every time I went to help one particular student, her dog would disengage and pay more attention to me than to her.  Her explanation was interesting; she claimed that I was somehow magically more interesting to her dog than she was.  My efforts to explain that actually she had actually taught the dog that greeting on the dog’s terms was what was expected seemed to fall on deaf ears.  Like the dog in the shop, this handler believed that her dog should greet everyone; after all, isn’t that what we teach in puppy class?  That the dog should greet two to four hundred people in his first five months?  Sure!  Absolutely, your puppy should meet two to four hundred people in the first five months (or better yet, in the first four months), but we don’t mean to imply that the dog should be permitted to rush everyone he sees and interact at will.  Like a young child, being taught to greet politely will pay off later in big ways.  Imagine your teenager, applying for his first job, greeting his future boss with the kind of full body enthusiasm people seem to think is normal in dogs!

D’fer and Laurel show self control and loose leashes at the Royal Ontario Museum

Before your dog is 16 weeks old, socialization is the single most important priority in the dog’s life, but second to that, and for the rest of his life, impulse control is the next most important item on the agenda.  My service dog, who I spoke about earlier in this article, is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.  D’fer is a passionate, intense dog, who knows what he wants and is willing to work hard to get it.  These traits are important in a dog bred to fetch ducks in the Chesapeake Bay in November-he wouldn’t be much good as a retriever if he were to say “sorry, no, the water is too cold today” or even “I was going to come up the rocky bank, but that dense brush got in my way.”  D’fer, I am proud to say, has learned that he can have his heart’s desire-anything he wants, if he just asks nicely, by backing off what he wants, and looking at me, and sitting.  He has learned the most important lesson of all.  The dog controls the dog.  And I control everything else.



Originally posted in October 2010

About once a month, someone from outside of the training school calls me up asking how to become a professional dog trainer.  About twice a year, these folks are nice animal lovers who don’t own dogs!  In the spirit of helpfulness, I would like to talk about how to become a professional dog trainer.  It really isn’t any harder to become a professional dog trainer than it is to become a professional anything else.  You need a solid education in the field along with some experience, and where necessary, you need to write qualifying exams.  For example, if a doctor got the sort of call I get from a very nice person who wanted to become a doctor that I get, I imagine that the conversation might go something like this:

“Hello, this is Dr. Mike.”

“Hello Dr. Mike, this is Sally and I would like to be a doctor.  What can you suggest that I do to achieve this goal?”

“Well, let’s start with volunteer experience.  Have you volunteered at a hospital or in a doctor’s office?”

“No, I want to be a doctor now.  I don’t want to volunteer.”  Or alternatively, “Oh, I would love to volunteer in your office, doing examinations and surgery!”


If you want to be a professional dog trainer, likely an image such as this comes to mind; playing with a group of well behaved dogs all day long while you earn a living. That may happen, but that is only one tiny aspect of the dog industry. Most of us have to have impeccable people skills. Copyright: mezzotint123rf / 123RF Stock Photo
If you want to be a professional dog trainer, likely an image such as this comes to mind; playing with a group of well behaved dogs all day long while you earn a living. That may happen, but that is only one tiny aspect of the dog industry. Most of us have to have impeccable people skills. Copyright: mezzotint123rf / 123RF Stock Photo

This is the sort of conversation I have with people who want to be professional dog trainers.  They want to start where I finished up!  I have to admit that I started out as a dog training instructor the wrong way round, but back in the day, when I started teaching, there were few options other than the way that I started.  I started out by purchasing a dog and spending two years learning how to train her.  After that, I borrowed two dogs from a room mate and took them to classes.  I showed all three dogs in matches and trials.  A few years later, I got a second dog and trained him.  Then when my boyfriend at the time had a dog who was aggressive, I worked with that dog and started a little training club for me and my friends.  After a year of volunteer coordinating, I charged a small fee to join our classes.  I taught this way for the next seven or eight years and then I opened Dogs in the Park as a school.  By that time, I had read thousands of articles, participated on a wide variety of internet chats and BBS’s, and had read hundreds of books on the subject, as well as attending workshops and seminars to learn more of my craft.  Once the school was opened, I went back to university and took some upper year behaviour courses.  Then I wrote and passed the Certified Pet Dog Trainer exam (now the Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed exam, through the Counsel for the Certification of Professional Dog and was grandfathered into the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants as a clinical member.  This is not how I would recommend that you go about it now!

The first thing I would suggest that you do if you want to become a dog trainer is get a good feel for what the job is.  There are two basic types of dog trainers-those of us who take dogs in to board, known widely as pro-trainers, and those of us who are actually teaching people as training instructors.  Figure out which job interests you.  There are spaces available for each type of professional, but what you want to do is going to dictate how you go about developing your craft.  Pro-trainers tend to have a specialization such as working with gun dogs, or protection or detection dogs.  Instructors tend to have a solid base of pet owners to work with and then a few clients in the upper levels of a particular discipline.  A very small number of people train medical service dogs-the demand for these dogs is very high, and thus they are very, very expensive to purchase, but the overhead for the trainers is also very high and you will find that if you want to go into this field, you need to have a very extensive knowledge of disabilities and disability related issues on top of your training and teaching experience.  Explore the field carefully before you decide what you want to do, because if you do end up in this field, you will work long hours and many days without days off to make it work.

Next, train a dog through to a minimum standard.  I don’t mean teach a dog to sit after you have asked him three times, or after you have waved a steak under his nose or when you have physically forced him to do it.  Train a dog through a title, where a third party has looked at your dog, and has determined that your dog knows all the things he must know to pass a test.  If herding is your sport this means training a dog to the upper levels in that sport and passing at least a Herding Intermediate test, not passing the Herding Instinct Certificate.  The same is true of obedience (you should be able to train a dog through Companion Excellent at least!), retrieving (Master Hunter) and Agility (Agility Excellent).  If competitive sports just isn’t your thing, then train a Service Dog from puppyhood to placement, train a Search and Rescue Dog and work that dog.  If you haven’t done work with a dog to the extent that you have taught him to do tasks and done them with him, then you aren’t a dog trainer, plain and simple.  You should try and get out to three to five events per year where you can strut your stuff with your dog, and if you can get out once a month, so much the better.

This handler is competing with his border collie.  Sending a dog away from you is difficult to train and you can see the judge's clipboard on the right side of the picture!  The judge is marking the team on their work together.  Copyright: alfredhofer / 123RF Stock Photo
This handler is competing with his border collie. Sending a dog away from you is difficult to train and you can see the judge’s clipboard on the right side of the picture! The judge is marking the team on their work together. Copyright: alfredhofer / 123RF Stock Photo

At some point, you will need to start to get experience with a variety of dogs and in front of groups of classes.  If you are someone who describes yourself as someone who prefers the company of animals to that of people, you may want to rethink working as a professional in the field of dog training.  If you are intimidated by job interviews, then working as a pro-trainer for individual dog owners is not for you-because every dog you train comes with an owner who should and often will grill you about your credentials, the dogs you have trained and the titles those dogs have earned.  If you don’t love people to the core of your being and if you aren’t willing to bend and flex and change how you do things on a day to day basis, then training service dogs probably isn’t for you either-your clients in this case will need your very best efforts at understanding how they learn, and figuring out how to make things work for them.   Service dog training is the ultimate in customer service, and the stakes are high-do your job wrong or poorly and instead of contributing to someone’s quality of life, you will decrease it.  If standing in front of a group and explaining concepts and activities and making abstract ideas into the concrete doesn’t thrill you, then reconsider being a training instructor.  So with all those caveats, where can you start to get some experience?

Borrow dogs.  There are loads of dogs in your life who would benefit from training and at this stage you don’t need to take them to classes.  Keep training notes and get commitment from the owners to allow you to work for a specified period of time.  At this point in the process, there is little to be gained from fixing behaviour problems.  Learn to teach skills before tackling behaviour modification, which is a whole field unto itself.  If you are so inclined, work with shelter dogs-but beware that you will be limited in what you can teach them due to time constraints and the limitations that shelters put on volunteers who are learning to train.  You cannot learn to teach a dog to come from two hundred metres if you are not allowed to take the dog off leash, or to leave the facility.  Some rescues may allow you to do this, but they are not all that common.  The time to work with dogs in rescue and shelters is when you know enough to be effective quickly.  It is important to respect the dogs in rescue and not use them as guinea pigs for your learning.  When I hear about people using shelter dogs to practice basic training skills when they don’t have any background, I think that we are chipping coins into a pot of disrespect and disposal-this dog is a throw away item, and can be assigned to whatever person who comes along.  Go and spend time with these dogs by all means-but don’t learn your trade on the backs of the disadvantaged.

Dogs in rescue or shelters need help, and this may seem like a great place to start practicing your training skills, but if you make a mistake and teach a dog something unsafe such as jumping up, bolting or pulling on leash, you decrease the dog's chances of being successfully placed.  Once you have some good skills, volunteering at a shelter may help you to publicize your skills, but leave shelter training until you have the skills to really help.   Some newer shelters have train the trainer programs and these can be really great if you can get into one, but good programs can be hard to find.  Copyright: adogslifephoto / 123RF Stock Photo
Dogs in rescue or shelters need help, and this may seem like a great place to start practicing your training skills, but if you make a mistake and teach a dog something unsafe such as jumping up, bolting or pulling on leash, you decrease the dog’s chances of being successfully placed. Once you have some good skills, volunteering at a shelter may help you to publicize your skills, but leave shelter training until you have the skills to really help. Some newer shelters have train the trainer programs and these can be really great if you can get into one, but good programs can be hard to find. Copyright: adogslifephoto / 123RF Stock Photo

If you have come this far with your own education, it is time to invest (yes, that means spending money!) on some more formal education.  All the way along, you need to participate in on line discussion groups, read blogs like this one, and borrow or buy books, but at this point you need to get serious.  You need to spend the money to go to seminars, to get books and training equipment and sometimes to take university or college courses.  The investment in time and effort and money will only pay dividends, even if you walk away from the seminar thinking “well, there is something I won’t do”.  When attending seminars, I strongly urge students to NOT take their dogs at least at first.  Go to the seminars, listen, take notes, record if you are allowed to do so, but leave Fido at home.  Why you might ask?  Simply because Fido is not there to learn; you are, and he is not likely trained to spend eight hours in a day hanging out at a seminar.  From the standpoint of a dog, these activities are BORING!  If you really want to give it a shot, book a private session (yes, more investment!) with the speaker after the event.  Clicker Expo is on my list of must see events for all trainers at least once, and preferably twice.  Beyond twice, I don’t think there is much to be gained.  Suzanne Clothier seminars are good too, and so is her book.  Ian Dunbar is entertaining and worth the price of admission at least once.  Beyond these three, there is such an incredible amount of information out there that it is worth researching other speakers and considering them.  You should plan on attending three to five weekend seminars a year for the first five years of your career.  Minimum.  If you can get to one a month, that is even better.

If you are starting to think that this sounds like about as much work as a university degree, you are right.  It is about the same amount of time, effort and money to do a three year degree program as it is to learn to be a professional dog trainer.  And at this point in the process I am describing you haven’t made a nickel to show for your efforts!  You should however have a broad network of professionals who have helped you, who are willing to continue to help you and who can give you suggestions about where you might like to end up.  This is the time to use that network to find a placement for your “co-op” so to speak.  You need to find someone who is willing to mentor you through assisting in classes or assisting in protraining dogs in a given discipline. THIS is the part that I missed, and it is really the most important thing you can do.  When my students had problems that I didn’t know how to solve, I didn’t have a mentor to turn to (I do now, by the way!).   You may be fortunate enough to have two or more mentors or a school you have attended to help you get even more exposure and experience.  By this time you should probably also be looking at your second dog; and you should be very picky about what you are looking for in that dog.  That dog should be your business card and your thesis paper all rolled up in one.  That particular dog should help you to move from the point of being a student to the point of being a professional.  Look for characteristics that will help you, not challenge you; because you want to be able to train that dog to the extent that you can bring him to a job interview and count on him to show off what you can do. (tip; keep notes and video of everything you do in choosing, training and developing this dog!  You never know when you may be asked if this is REALLY your work!)

You should plan on being an assistant for one to three years depending upon how much time you have to do this, on how good you are, on how much education you have and on the mentor you have.  Your goal should be to be doing elements of the end job as you gain competency.  Some people will get to that point quickly and some people will take longer.  You need a mentor who is willing to coach you and give you challenging things to do and teach and you need to devote the time to making that worth your mentor’s time.  If retrieving is your discipline, that means volunteering to chuck ducks in the cold and mud for hours at a time, in odd hours and in your spare time.  If you are hoping to become a training instructor, expect to sweep the training hall, hold leashes and check off enrolment forms.  If you are hoping to become a service dog trainer, expect to spend a lot of your time cleaning kennels, walking dogs and helping set up training scenarios.  This phase involves a lot of grunt work and some of it unpleasant but in my opinion it is an important phase of development.  I learned more about horses from the time I spent cleaning stables than I ever did during my riding lessons, and the same is true of dogs and the dog industry.

At the University of You, you get to choose what you study, who you work with, and when you are finished.  When you are done though, you can have confidence in the validity of your education because you chose what went into it!  Copyright: mdorottya / 123RF Stock Photo
At the University of You, you get to choose what you study, who you work with, and when you are finished. When you are done though, you can have confidence in the validity of your education because you chose what went into it! Copyright: mdorottya / 123RF Stock Photo

Around about this time, you need to start considering what sort of certification is going to be most helpful to you as a trainer.  The Certificate of Professional Dog Training ( is a really good bet; it has the advantage of being administered like a board examination, and there is no single course or career path to take to get there.  The path described above will help you a lot, with the caveat that you will need to get actual teaching time on the ground under your belt if you want to take that.  Different disciplines may have other opportunities too.  Because you will be attending the University of You-you get to figure out what is going to benefit you the most.  Follow this path, and in three to five years, you too can become a professional dog trainer.



Originally posted in December 2010

Most of the dogs I work with live with serious anxiety and or aggression issues.  Interestingly, I also live with a serious anxiety disorder.  My anxiety manifests as panic, and I have a list of triggers as long as my arm.  I am afraid of driving as a passenger in a car.  I am afraid of teenaged girls.  I am afraid of high schools.  I am afraid of phoning people I don’t know.  I am afraid of some crowds.  I am afraid of going to Downtown Toronto.  Conversely, I am NOT afraid of public speaking, sharing my vulnerabilities, taking an unpopular stand, standing up for the rights of the weak, intervening in a fist fight, or aggressive dogs.  But when my anxiety is high, I reach for my old familiar strategy of panic.  Like many of the dogs I work with, I have things I am anxious about and things I am not, but also like the dogs I work with, I am a one trick pony when I get triggered.

If a pony has only one trick, then that is the trick the pony will do when the situation warrants.  Copyright: ellende / 123RF Stock Photo
If a pony has only one trick, then that is the trick the pony will do when the situation warrants. Copyright: ellende / 123RF Stock Photo

One of the things that I have had to learn to do in order to cope with my mental health issues is to find new ways of behaving in the face of my triggers.  One thing I do is to use a service dog to provide me with more space.  Sometimes I hold internal discussions with myself to calm myself, or I can take medication, and sometimes I call a friend to talk me down.  The thing is, when I first started experiencing anxiety, I only had one trick; stand there and go through a panic attack with its dizziness, the increased heart rate and the shortness of breath.

This is similar to the situation for many of the dogs I see.  When faced with their trigger, they only have one trick; it might be barking and lunging, or growling or showing snarl face or something else, but essentially, it is their one trick.  When the trick they have for dealing with an issue is to charge and bite, this can be a very dangerous situation, and the key then is to teach the dog more “tricks”.

Now this sounds simple and it is, but there is a catch.  When your arousal is high, and you are disoriented, you are always going to go back to the default behaviour that has either worked best or worked most frequently.  If what has worked best or most frequently is dangerous, then as trainers we have to teach the dog to find alternate answers.  This is where environmental enrichment and trick  training become essential for working with difficult dogs.  When we do effective environmental enrichment, and we teach a wide variety of behaviours, what we are really doing is teaching  the dog to come up with new answers to old problems.

Environmental enrichment is the practice of increasing the diversity of the environment that an animal lives within.  The goal is to improve the dog’s quality of life, but at the same time, we can also use environmental enrichment to help teach the dog to solve problems in different ways.  Simple strategies such as putting your dog’s dinner in a paper bag and teaching your dog to find different ways to open the bag to get his dinner can help the dog to learn new ways of thinking, and new ways of thinking are what solving behaviour problems are all about.  Once you have moved away from free food in a food bowl to paper bags, changing the picture again is important; we don’t want to teach the dog ONE new strategy-we want to teach the dog to problem solve.

Staying with the mealtime strategies, you can then move to a rolling tricky treat ball- ( -which requires the dog to figure out how to roll an item to get the treats to fall out.  Once he has mastered this type of toy, there are new alternatives; Kong ( makes one that wobbles, but doesn’t roll, requiring the dog to learn to persist in trying new strategies.  Hollow rubber toys that hold biscuits but allow them to roll to the bottom help dogs to learn completely new strategies for getting food, and once your dog has mastered these, you dog is no longer a one trick food pony.

Learning to consider more than one solution to a problem can also be addressed operantly through training.  Dogs who are anxious can be difficult to train, because the training process itself involves elements of failure, and failure contributes to confusion and anxiety.  Confidence develops when the learner is allowed to have as many successful experiences after expressing some form of effort.  Building successes can be a bit of a trick, and part of being successful as a trainer is allowing the dog many, many opportunities to guess right, when the stakes aren’t high and the arousal isn’t high either.  Errorless learning happens when the dog is able to be reinforced for almost everything he does, because the scenario is set up so that he doesn’t make mistakes.  There is a trick to making this work though; you must avoid just randomly reinforcing everything the dog does.  You still only reinforce the thing that you are training.  Errorless training can be as simple as hiding a toy in the same place every day, and then progressively moving the toy step by step away from where it was originally; you set the dog up to learn to go to that place and begin to look for the toy.  For this to be errorless, you need to begin by showing the dog that you are placing the toy, and then place the toy in the same place later when the dog is not engaging in the toy.  Over time you control two variables to teach the dog to look for the toy; if he is watching you place it, and how far from the original place the toy is left.

As the dog becomes more confident about his looking, you can go to reward based training to help him to understand that risks are safe to take.  This is where clicker training really can help a dog; the process of free shaping is invaluable to teach the dog to try new things.  Games like 101 things to do with a box can help dogs to develop the skill of being creative; essentially, you click for any interaction with a specific object, and then you progress to clicking for variations on that original interaction.  If your dog chooses to sniff the box for instance, you could click that.  Then you could click for two sniffs.  Then you can click for three sniffs, and then for a touch, and then two touches and so on.  Each time, you offer the dog the opportunity to decide for himself, what his next behaviour will be.  You don’t name the behaviour because there is really no end for an anxious dog; you want him to keep trying new things.

It is important to understand that free for all reinforcement will make anxiety worse.  Many people have noticed that parental and teacher approval often backfires, and approval in the form of rewarding behaviour can backfire in dogs too.  When support for the looser in a contest in the form of approval is offered, it can create conflict in the child.  The child knows he has lost the game and hears from the teacher or parent that he has done a great job.  Confidence is dependent upon success, but only on actual success.  The power of success can be boosted by recognition, but approval for errors is very damaging.  So if a dog is anxious, cuing and prompting and then rewarding behaviours can create a similar sort of conflict within the dog.  He may be doing the actions you ask for, but his emotional state is still anxious.  This is where classical conditioning can come in handy.

If you know what your dog’s triggers are, you can start to tease apart the criteria that he can and cannot cope with.  If your dog is anxious about other dogs for instance, the first thing to do is to figure out how far away from the other dogs your dog has to be in order to be calm.  Don’t mistake the absence of behaviour found in the shut down dog for calmness.  Being shut down is the result of being overwhelmed, and being overwhelmed is unfair to a stressed animal.  It is what I go through when I have to drive in a car with a reckless driver; I may not look stressed, but I certainly am.  To get an idea of what it is like to be completely shut down think about what it might be like to be in a bank during a robbery.  When a gunman shows up and threatens you, you don’t show your stress; the obvious person will be the target.  When you are overwhelmed, you will behave as normally as you possibly can, and hope not to be noticed.  When a dog is overwhelmed, he may appear normal but in fact be very upset.  You have to look for the subtle signs, the sweaty paws, the rapid eye blink rate, the jerky movements, to tell you that your dog is over his ability to cope well.  A very effective way to determine if your dog is close to or above threshold is to offer him treats. If he takes treats normally, ask if he can do a simple behaviour he knows well; if he can, he is not yet at threshold.   If he takes treats roughly, he is really close to his threshold for tolerance.  If he refuses the treats, he is likely over threshold.  And if you find that he has an upset stomach or diarrhoea, you can be certain that he was far over threshold even if he wasn’t showing you other signs


You can also figure out other aspects of your dog’s triggers.  If dogs seem to trigger your dog, is it all dogs? Is it only black or white dogs?  Is it only small or large dogs?  And if you can eliminate the dogs from your dog’s life that concern him, you can begin to present the dogs who are a problem at a low enough threshold that he can begin to integrate those dogs into his repertoire.  The mechanics of classical conditioning are very simple-you present the stimulus (in this case a triggering dog) at a low enough intensity (either far enough away, or not moving or otherwise not triggering for your dog) and you pair that with the opportunity to do something he really, really likes.  Most often food is used for classical conditioning because you don’t have to take it away from the dog, you don’t have to worry about it going missing, and you do have to feed your dog anyhow.  If you have two dogs who live in the same house who don’t like one another, you can feed them separated by a barrier where they can see one another, but cannot interact.  If the dogs begin to snarl or growl at each other, you are working too closely, and classical conditioning can only happen when the stimulus is presented at a low enough threshold that the dog isn’t already triggered.

If you live with a dog who is reactive to other dogs, which of these dogs would set him off?  Do you notice that the small dog in front has a lifted paw?  This may be a sign that he finds being in that group of dogs stressful and overwhelming!  Copyright: eriklam / 123RF Stock Photo
If you live with a dog who is reactive to other dogs, which of these dogs would set him off? Do you notice that the small dog in front has a lifted paw? This may be a sign that he finds being in that group of dogs stressful and overwhelming! Copyright: eriklam / 123RF Stock Photo

I am often asked if comforting an anxious dog will make them more anxious.  It won’t.  Consider going to a funeral; mostly likely you were upset and possibly crying.  Alleviating a bad emotion comes by decreasing stressors, by having support from loved ones and by being in an environment where you can express your emotions in safety.  You won’t feel any better if the funeral director told you to hold it together, and act happy.  There is no reason to believe that this is any different for dogs.  If you have a dog who is anxious and upset by something, and seeks support and calm by getting into your lap, then let him.  If he finds comfort by leaving, then allow him to go. Do what you can to alleviate anxiety in the short term, and you will teach your dog that you are trustworthy and that you will help him to determine the best and safest thing to do in a crunch.

I often see new trainers create conflict in their dogs by setting the dog up to fail, and then rewarding the dog’s effort.  Some students are so keen to have their dog succeed that they reward EVERY behaviour that the dog offers.  Rewarding every behaviour can be a good first step in a dog who is really shut down, when we want to teach the dog that offering behaviours is acceptable, but when you want to teach the dog a particular behaviour, waffling between reinforcing variety and reinforcing a particular behaviour, you end up confusing the dog, and this means that although you are “rewarding” the dog, you are creating confusion instead of success and that is the sort of thing that makes a one trick pony dog more uncertain and less successful.  Another way that my students set their dogs up to fail is to recognize that the dog is over threshold and take him far into the territory of fear and anxiety.  Or some of the time, they recognize that the dog is in distress and make the dog face his fears anyways.  None of these tactics sets the dog up to learn more than their one trick in the face of danger.  As trainers what we need to learn is to set our dog up to learn new tactics, using what we know about triggers, thresholds, operant and classical conditioning, and remembering what it feels like when we ourselves experience anxiety.