This is my blog on the mystery, mastery and amazement of muzzles.  I love muzzles.  Each one of my dogs has always had their own muzzle and when we go to the vet, we almost always have our own muzzle with us.  In fact the last time I was at the emergency vet I didn’t have time to grab a muzzle and the vet was completely surprised.  Do my dogs NEED the muzzles?  To be completely honest, I don’t know.  I would never ask my vet to find out the hard way!  My veterinarian spent many years after high school amassing a huge amount of knowledge to be the best animal doctor he could be, and I don’t think it is the vet’s job to avoid being bitten; it is his job to give my dog the best medical care possible, and my part in the deal is to make his job as easy as possible.

This is one of my dogs, D’fer, having his foot looked at. He had a very deep laceration and the vet needed to have a look. You can tell that he is pretty stoic by the look on his face, but he was willing to co-operate. He was wearing his muzzle not because I thought that he would bite the vet, but because I don’t want to take the chance that this could happen.

A muzzle has even saved one of my dog’s lives once.  When Bear was about 14 he got sick; he was so sick that we booked an appointment to euthanize him.  We took him into the vet’s office and the vet needed to listen to his heart.  The key to getting a good listen to a dog’s heart is to prevent him from panting, and when dogs are distressed, they often pant heavily.  After about ten minutes of trying to hold Bear’s mouth shut, and he getting more and more wound up, the vet said “I am sorry, but I cannot hear your dog’s heart today but I don’t think we need to put him to sleep.  If only I could hear his heart, I could help him.  I asked why we didn’t just put a muzzle on him and the vet’s jaw dropped.  He thought that since I was a dog trainer, I would be very offended if he suggested that.  Just the opposite.  I pulled Bear’s muzzle out of my pocket and put it on.  He stopped panting and in fact relaxed a bit because we were doing something he was familiar with.  His heart was healthy and we were able to get a simple blood test that told us that he had Lyme disease.  With treatment, he lived another 18 months.

The fact is that although my dogs are all trained to accept all sorts of handling and frightening situations, if they are really truly and deeply afraid or in pain, they might bite.  Muzzles prevent bites, plain and simple.  My vet is an intelligent, well educated professional and his job is to help my dog to stay healthy, and to resolve health problems when my dog gets sick.  My vet’s job is not to put himself at risk of getting bitten.

I regularly work with dogs with serious behaviour problems including aggression.  I have had more than one student come to class with a dangerously aggressive dog who has already injured someone and be reluctant to muzzle their dog.  More than once a client has said to me “you are the dog trainer, don’t you know how to handle the dog without a muzzle?”  The expectation seems to be that I have some magic that will protect me when handling a dangerous dog.  I am good, but I am not magic! 

Close up of a dog muzzled
This is a groomer’s muzzle. They are inexpensive, easy to obtain, and easy to fit. When teaching a dog to wear a muzzle, this kind of a muzzle can really help your dog to learn that wearing a muzzle is fun because it is easy to give treats through it.

When I worked a service dog, I often had to travel.  When I was on an airplane or a train, I always carried a cloth groomer’s muzzle in my briefcase.  More than once my briefcase was searched and the agent would find the muzzle and ask me what it was for.  In the event of an accident where I needed to be evacuated, I wanted to be prepared that I could muzzle my dog if transport might be difficult.  I always try and plan for every contingency possible and one of those contingencies is that I might need to be carried out of an airplane on a stretcher, and my dog might need to be lifted up by someone he didn’t know.  A muzzle makes that much safer for the rescuer, which makes it much more likely that my dog would be saved in an emergency.

So how do I get my dogs accustomed to muzzles?  I start early for sure!  When my puppies are very young, I will sometimes feed them out of a coffee cup to teach them that they can take treats out of a confined space.  Then I move on to yoghurt containers as they grow, and smear peanut butter or some other soft gooey food item on the bottom.  When my dogs start seeing a yoghurt container as an opportunity to get their faces into something yummy, I cut a small hole in the bottom of the yoghurt container, and duct tape an elastic to make a head strap on the wide mouth.  I smear something in the bottom, and when the puppy is licking away, I slip the elastic strap over his head.  The elastic should be fairly loose to start with.  And then it is a quick step to shoving treats in the front of the muzzle.  Puppies think this sort of a handling game is lots of fun.  If the puppy fusses about the elastic or the yoghurt container, I just don’t pop the head strap over his head until the pup is really confident about the whole thing, and try again in a few days. 

Once the puppy, or sometimes the older dog, is happy about having the loose elastic strap around his head, and is not bothering the yoghurt container, then I switch to a regular muzzle.  My favourite brand of muzzle is still the jafco ( ), but I also use a groomer’s muzzle for training; they are easier to carry in my pocket and they are the type of muzzle that the veterinarian will likely have.  I put the muzzle on loosely, and feed through the front.  I keep doing this until the puppy or dog is happy about the procedure.  From there it is fairly easy to get a puppy to accept the head strap being tightened.  In my experience, dogs accept the jafco very easily, and once I can tighten the head strap, I make sure that my dog has lots of chances to engage in fun activities such as playing with friends while wearing his muzzle. 

Once my dogs understand how to wear a muzzle and once they are relaxed and happy about going for a walk while wearing one, the key is to keep that skill fluent.  You have to practice regularly.  In my house, we sometimes have happy muzzle day on Mondays.  Happy muzzle day is the day that you get to play muzzle games, or go for an off leash walk, or play with your friends while wearing your muzzle.

simple muzzle training
Here is my handout outlining how to get a dog started on muzzle training.

Muzzles are a little bit like shoes for babies.  Babies don’t like wearing shoes.  They don’t enjoy having their feet confined.  Dogs and puppies don’t like having their faces confined either!  If you take the time to properly train your dog to wear a muzzle, then your dog is not going to fuss when he needs to do so.  Additionally, puppies who are taught to wear a muzzle properly rarely mind wearing a head halter unless you put a lot of pressure on the leash when using the head halter.  That is a topic for a whole other blog though!



Originally published July 2013

At the end of June, I had the great opportunity to watch the SPARCS ( conference on the web, and heard some terrific speakers.  One of the speakers discussed the different perceptions from around the world about how people ought to live with dogs.  I want to start out by saying that I have a way I live with my dogs and it is likely different from the way that you live with your dogs and that is okay.  In fact, how I live with my dogs is actually different from the way that John, my husband lives with our dogs.  The fact is that every relationship is different and there are some great advantages to those differences.

The way that I live with my dogs is that they have time alone in their crates for eating and then they have time in their yard with each other and the rest of the time they spend with me.  If I am going out to do chores, I take a dog with me unless it would be dangerous to do so.  If I am going to have a nap, a dog accompanies me.  I use a service dog, so if I am going grocery shopping, my dog goes with me too.  In the car or the truck, my dogs are in crates for their safety.  Living on the farm, I don’t tend to walk my dogs as much as I used to, although I still do enjoy that if we have a chance to do that.  Mostly they get enough exercise accompanying me while I do things like feed the horses and check the fences and weed the garden.

Eco 062
When I go to the doctor’s office or wait at the dentist, or to a cafe D’fer waits with me. Here he is alerting to an oncoming medical event. This is how we live together, but it is not the same as how others live with their dogs. Photo: Anne Munsch

In order for my dogs to do what they do with me, they must have some skills.  This is part of what drew me to training in the first place.  When I am mixing gasoline to put in the tractor or the chain saw, I cannot be chasing a dog around if he is running too close to the road, nor can I have him sticking his nose into what I do.  I teach my dogs to come when called, to lie down and stay, to lie down at a distance, to bring things back and to follow when I walk away all in order to be able to do the stuff I want to do with them.

On the surveys that the scientist speaking at SPARCS was showing, there were some marked differences in attitudes about how dogs should live with us.  In the Caribbean for instance most people felt it was cruel for dogs to be kept indoors.  In North America, it was felt to be cruel for dogs to be left outside.  In some parts of the world, dogs are kept strictly for work.  In other places dogs are kept strictly as companions.  Some dogs live free much as raccoons and squirrels live.  Which is right?  To quote the inimitable Suzanne Clothier, ask the dog.  When you ask the dog, you do need to be ready to turn the world inside out.

14606078 - a loney dog looking at distant place on the beach
This dog is typical of the dogs you might see on vacation in the Caribbean. He is quite thin, but in good coat. He is not looking at the camera and is not attached to any one person, but likely makes his living by eating left overs at garbage sites, or at the back doors of the resorts or restaurants. If you asked him, he would likely say that his welfare is good. If he is owned by a particular person, the attitude in the Caribbean in general is that dogs should not be kept indoors. The values of the people there are different than the values of the people in much of North America. Image credit: hanhanpeggy / 123RF Stock Photo

I think that if you asked my dog D’fer, he would tell you that his life is pretty good.  Meals are predictable and he knows the ebb and flow of my schedule.  He is “helping” me to write now, by lying quietly by my chair and sleeping.  Sleeping is a good thing to do if you are a dog and nothing else of interest is happening.  He has had his breakfast, he has been out to pee after breakfast, he helped me to get my morning started and supervised me making coffee.  Until I get up and do something else, he is pretty much off duty and can do what he pleases and what pleases him seems to be sleeping next to me while I write.


What about the dogs who are kept strictly for work?  I am thinking here of herding dogs, some Search and Rescue Dogs, some Police and Military dogs; is it fair to them that they come out of a dog run and go to work for a period of time and then go back into their kennel?  My dog Eco would like that very much.  He is intense and he loves to work hard, but he also appreciates his unstructured down time.  He is quite happy to spend more time in the kennel or the yard than D’fer is.  He was bred from police and military lines of German Shepherds, so in a way you could say that his genetics fit that kind of a life; work hard, play hard, learn hard, and then rest hard.  He is not the kind of dog who would make a lot of people happy because of the level of intensity that he brings with him.  When he works he works hard.  When he is not working, he can be in the house with us happily, but I think he is equally happy with down time alone, provided he is getting enough work.  Enough work for Eco is about eight to ten hours a day.

6385977 - german sheepdog from rescue team
When a dog spends a good chunk of his day searching for lost people, or practicing searching for lost people, then spending a good chunk of his day resting and relaxing in a low stimulation environment is probably good for him. Instead of looking at a dog in a kennel and instantly feeling bad about the dog and how he is kept ask the dog; if he is relaxed and resting, he is probably in a good situation. If he is pacing, panting, or otherwise stressed, then that is not a good situation for him. Don’t assume that a dog in a kennel is automatically unhappy; many dogs are quite happy with kennel life. Image credit: Koljambus / 123RF Stock Photo

And how about the dogs in the Caribbean who live outside?  Is that fair to them?  The consensus was that people in that part of the world felt that it is not only fair but unfair to do otherwise to them.  They live in a hot climate, and that is an area of the world where dogs are not often used for things like herding sheep.  I imagine that if you asked them, the dog would be quite happy.  One of the really intriguing things about dogs is their level of flexibility.  They adapt to a very wide range of situations and they seem to succeed and thrive in these situations.  It does not mean that every individual will succeed in every environment, but when the environment matches the background of the dog, it can work very well.  In the Caribbean, one of the most common dogs you will see is the “Potcake” or village dog.  These dogs live on the beaches, they live in the yards of people and they scavenge for food.  When they are made into pets, they have the right kind of coat and structure to live outdoors and the perception locally is that this is the most appropriate place for them.  These dogs also have skills that allow them to be successful.  They stay close to particular parts of the community, but they don’t try and push themselves into the house.  They may attach themselves to particular people and follow them around, but they aren’t usually living within the house with people.

Then there are the truly feral dogs.  More and more often we are seeing advertisements for these dogs, rescued off the dumps in the far north, or off the streets of Asia or South America or India and transported here.  In Moscow, there is a well known population of dogs who are extremely successful at using the city to find food.  These dogs will even use the subway to get from one place to another.  This report from the Wall Street Journal shows healthy dogs in good coat who are of good weight or even slightly overweight.   Where you to ask these dogs if they were comfortable and confident about their existence, I be they would say yes, they have a good quality of life.  When we capture these dogs and take them into our homes, we often decrease their quality of life at least for a time because they don’t understand the environment that they are transported to.  The skills that are required to live on a dump or to live in the suburbs of Moscow and commute in during the day to beg food from Moscovites are not the same skills that are required to live in a home with humans in Toronto Ontario, or on a farm in the north of Scotland or a sheep station in the outback of Australia.

Dogs are flexible in both their ability to cope with a huge variety of environments, and often in their ability to cope with new environments.  Many dogs make the transition from one situation to another.  This is why when dogs are abducted off the streets of a city in India and transported to a suburban home in Canada, they often make the transition, even though they may have difficulty.  The dogs who are most successful at making transitions are the dogs who have two important things going for them.  The first is a genetic “recipe” for resilience.  If the dog is overly vigilant or nervous, then the dog is not going to be able to cope with the variance of environment that he will encounter.  These dogs work out in homes that are very consistent and very careful about what they expose these dogs to.  And the second thing that successful dogs have is a successful exposure to a wide variety of people, animals, vehicles and flooring during their critical socialization period in puppyhood.  As was pointed out in the SPARCS lectures, we are learning more and more all the time about when and how this developmental period occurs.  Those dogs who get a great role of the genetic dice and a good socialization period, are great not only with the skills they need in a given environment but also in new environments.

10603520 - stray dogs on street
These healthy dogs live on the street.  They look relaxed, in good body condition and good coat and they are minding their own business.  Do they need rescuing?  Is this a bad existence for a dog?  Or is this their natural environment?  If you asked the dog, would it be less stressful for him to be on the street, or to be captured, transported and then rehabbed to become a pet?  Dogs live in as many environments as we do, and thrive in those environments.  This environment is a normal environment for a dog.  Rabies vaccination campaigns and sterilization campaigns may do them good, but catching them and homing them may actually deteriorate their welfare instead of improve it.  Image credit: supereagle / 123RF Stock Photo

When we look at how a dog is living I think we need to really look carefully at the environment from the point of view of the dog.  Is the dog in the kennel actually unhappy?  How do you know?  Is he frantically trying to escape all the time?  Is he spending all day stress panting or pacing?  Is he relaxed and resting in his kennel?  How about the dog living on the 16th floor of an apartment building?  Is he happy or unhappy?  Is he relaxed for most of his time?  Is he licking his feet all day?  Or is spending all day resting or interacting appropriately with the people he lives with?  How about the feral dogs?  Are they of good weight and good coat?  Are they any less happy than the other wildlife they share the environment with?

When we look at the many environments that dogs have successfully lived within, we will find many individuals who are perfectly happy in the most unusual circumstances, and when we ask the dog, and we look at what they are doing and how they are doing it, we often find dogs who are perfectly happy living there.  When we are looking at how dogs are kept, we need to not think about how we like to live, or even how we like to live with our dogs.  We need to think about how the dog likes to live-is he happy and well adjusted in his environment, and keep him there.


Guest Blog-Good Dog Lola!

It has been a while since I have written a blog, and I am really missing doing them.  This time, we have a guest blog from Bojan and Amy who live with Lola.  Good Dogs are often difficult to live with not because they aren’t nice dogs, but because living with a Good Dog can present a number of challenges when it comes to navigating the universe.  Amy and Bojan work really hard with Lola to work through their challenges.  Here is there story in their own words, and hopefully that will inspire me to get back to some writing soon!  Thanks for the writing folks-it is an honour to work with you and Lola!


Lola is a shepherd-hound mutt, and is the first dog for both my husband and I. She used to be a street dog in Greece and was brought over to Canada by a rescue agency. When we adopted her, we had a soft spot for street dogs and had never heard of reactivity, instead imagining that all dogs loved everything! As it turns out, she loves us but loses her mind over everything else, including people waiting at transit stops, people who pick things up off the ground, people in general, other dogs who are on leash, small prey, bicyclists, skateboarders, streetcars, buses, trucks, and especially kids with sticky fingers or any fingers at all. Some of our friends have questioned how seriously we’re taking things with her and have asked us if it’s really “that bad.” We usually tell them that, if it happened to them, they wouldn’t like it very much.


We have a protocol for everything from how to get Lola out of our seventh-floor condo (hint: it doesn’t involve the elevator) to how to get her from each of her daycares to the car. Both of us walk her together so that one person can be on look-out duty for triggers and the other person can focus on her body language. To share with you what it’s actually like trying to keep her below threshold and not panicking (i.e. barking and lunging and terrorizing) in everyday situations, here’s a breakdown of one of our recent walks. We happened to be 15 minutes late and left our place at 6:15 a.m. instead of our usual before-6:00 a.m. departure.


Similar to superheroes, no reactive dog’s life is complete without an arch nemesis, so our walk began with Lola’s arch-nemesis-neighbour-dog barking at us from inside their unit as we were getting Lola into the stairwell. Lola heard it and froze but disengaged when Amy cued her onwards. Not waking up all of the neighbours on our floor = small victory!


As we exited the stairwell into the alleyway, there was a running truck at the other end that she fixated on, so I played Look At That twice before she would move on. A male in his 30s was waiting to cross the street about 20′ ahead of us and we waited for him to go ahead. In the next alleyway, we heard some noises which made her anxious and did our emergency Oh No Let’s Go U-turn twice just in case. Lola loves this cue and thinks it’s a fabulous game of chase so she completely forgot about the noises.


At the parkette, there was a person waiting for the streetcar that she started staring at and we played Look At That once. After that person got on a streetcar, another woman was walking on the sidewalk towards the streetcar stop about 30’ away. Lola had a hard time disengaging as this woman was looking at her and we played Look At That while backing up a few steps at a time and she finally broke her focus.

Teaching a dog to look at you can help them to learn to look at things away from them, and then return their attention to you. The goal should never be to create a dog who stares at you, but rather to teach your dog to look away from you and then return their attention to you. This allows Lola to spend time with Bojan and Amy out in the parks around their home.

We kept moving and got to the main park where a male jogger in his 40s passed by her field of vision about 15’ away. This was an “oh shit” moment because by the time we noticed, he was already too close, approaching her directly, and neither of us were in a position where we could easily block her without causing her to panic anyways. I tried to play Look At That but it turned out Lola could not care less as she was busy sniffing for the perfect spot to poop. With that done, we went into the baseball field to get some more space. A male construction worker walked through about 30′ away and I played Look At That until he was 50’ away. We saw a few off-leash dogs in the distance which she handled well with low arousal, although we still played Look At That since she wasn’t easily disengaging on her own.


Her favourite thing is to play chase, so we ran around with her and then did some obedience practice. We saw an off-leash dog about 30’ in the distance and started playing Look At That, during which she offered a down. We never cue the down so that she can choose to do it when she feels relaxed enough to and it gives us an indication of her stress levels. While we were focused on the dog, we didn’t notice an approaching construction worker who was about to pass us at about 15’ away. Both of us expected her to lunge and bark at him, but she stayed in her down. At one of the park entrances, we saw two familiar small black dogs coming in off-leash, wearing lights on their collars. These dogs have a habit of running up to everything while barking and Lola thinks that dogs who light up are aliens, so it was time for us to go.


We got up to leave, got to the sidewalk and saw a crowd of 3-4 construction workers who had just gotten out of a parked car on the other side of the street. She froze and I played Look At That, but a large dog on leash was approaching on the same sidewalk so we doubled back but were trapped by another on leash dog on the path behind us and a group of three people walking towards us on the sidewalk from the other direction. To add to that, a construction worker was walking towards us and cutting it too close for comfort. Lola was giving me a lot of eye contact so I was worried that she wouldn’t notice the person until they were too close and she wouldn’t have any other option but to freak out, so I played Oh No Let’s Go to get her to back up 5-10’ to a safer distance.


She handled all of this craziness like a champ and we tried to leave again once it cleared, but an off-leash dog that looked similar to her jogged towards Lola. Lola stopped on the sidewalk and perked up, wanting to greet, but the other owner called their dog back. She got to the end of her leash but wasn’t overly aroused, so I was careful to not put any extra tension on the leash. The other dog came back and they immediately started playing, as she doesn’t have any problems with dogs who are off-leash. The owner approached to leash their dog and ended up very close to Lola, who sniffed her from inches away. In this moment, I had to stifle my own panicked flight-or-fight response and just let things happen because any reaction from me would’ve made it much more likely for the whole thing to go south. The woman leashed her dog while completely ignoring Lola and walked away after Lola had a quick sniff. It was a huge success but my main feeling was definitely relief. I regained my thoughts enough to remember to give Lola a handful of cheese and lots of praise!


We had been trapped here long enough that the two small black barky dogs had completed a full circle around the park, and one of them approached Lola while barking, about 5’ away. Lola had voluntarily sat down since we weren’t moving and was unconcerned with the dog. My husband blocked the small dog from getting any closer and finally their owner was able to call it back. With nothing else scary remaining except for the group of construction workers at their car, Lola started to fixate on them and we played Look At That to get past them while on the other side of the street. In the home stretch, we also ran into an owner and an on-leash lab across the street, a 40sM walking towards us from 15’ away, and two people walking in front of the condo building, all of whom we were able to somehow avoid or manage. We got upstairs, closed our door behind us, and my husband and I looked at each other wondering what the #*@^$ just happened because in no way would we have guessed that she could handle even small pieces of that, nevermind all of it together.

Here is Lola relaxing in the snow, getting to do the things she likes to do. One of the things that really helps a dog like Lola is to have time just being a dog and not being triggered by all the things that make her morning walk a challenge.

Let me say that I did not think taking my dog for a morning walk would be the equivalent adrenaline rush of going to a shooting range on a daily basis. It’s extremely stressful for my husband and I, but things are slowly getting better and we can only imagine how difficult and scary it is for Lola in these situations when we have a hard time just observing and guiding her.


On many walks since this walk, there have been similar incidents that Lola was not able to handle. We used to torture ourselves with the “Why?” question more often, asking ourselves why she was able to do this one day but not the next, but we’ve now mostly come to accept that she’s a different dog on different days and, as Sue likes to say, “It depends.”




Guest Blog-Good Dog Lola!


Originally posted April 2013

Friday...Our Dragon Puppy.  She even had a dragon toy to keep her busy!
Friday…Our Dragon Puppy. She even had a dragon toy to keep her busy!

It would seem that we are the proud owners of our very own, nine week old dragon.  At least that is the joke in our house.  She is endearingly sweet, fluffy, and wickedly smart, but she is a dragon none the less.  She is particularly a dragon at 7 in the morning when I want to sleep and she wants to get up, go outside to the toilet and then come in and play.  Our dragon is Friday, our German Shepherd Puppy.

Friday was supposed to be my service dog when she outgrew being a young dragon.  D’fer, my ten year old Chesapeake Bay Retriever is getting close to retirement.  He has one bad hip and thousands of miles of travel taking me to conferences and school and meetings all over North America, and he is showing his age.  Friday the dragon is the result of several years of research and planning and more than one rejected opportunity.  Although we call her our dragon puppy it is a phase, not reality.  She won’t outgrow this behaviour without guidance and training, but like a little kid who doesn’t know what to do at a fancy party, she can wreck havoc without effort because she doesn’t yet understand the rules.

I reflect that for some of my students, they end up with dragons when they didn’t intend to.  Friday is a dragon because she makes dragon noises in the morning, she is quite sharky and bitey, and she surprises us with her tenacity and resourcefulness even at this young age.  We were quite aware that choosing a German Shepherd was going to mean that some of the time, she was going to behave in ways we didn’t like, but that in the end she has the potential to grow into a service dog, if we put the time and effort and training into her.

Similar to Hagrid in similar in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, many of my students choose dragons as pets, believing that cute trumps reality.  Many of these dogs just don’t belong in their lives.  Hagrid’s dragon in the story incubated in his fireplace in an iron pot and then hatched on his kitchen table and promptly set Hagrid’s beard on fire.  In the book the dragon caused all kinds of mischief for Hagrid, and with much regret he sent his dragon to live in Romania at a sanctuary.  The truth is that when we choose a puppy, we cannot chose based on what we hope or wish a dog will become but rather based on what the puppy has the potential to grow up to be and on how much work we are willing to put into that goal.

My clients sometimes choose dragon puppies because they just don’t know what to expect.  First time dog owners often choose dogs based on a single individual they have met, or on looks or colour.  Sometimes they choose a dragon because of a dream dog they wished they had as a child.  Sometimes they choose a dragon because a “bloke down at the pub traded him to me for a pint.”  And when they have a mismatch in their hands, it is much more difficult to get rid of the dragon than it was to get it.

I began my search for Friday about eighteen months before she came home, contacting friends and colleagues and learning about upcoming breedings of Labrador Retrievers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and German Shepherds, with Shepherds being lowest on my list.  I didn’t find any chessie breedings I was interested in; I was looking for a very particular dog.  I have a hard time imagining myself working a German Shepherd in public; German Shepherds have always been my sports dogs; the dogs I goof around with and compete with, but not the dogs who have alerted me to oncoming anxiety.  When a German Shepherd litter was available to look at that I was interested in, I went to see, and found what I was looking for; a puppy who is willing to do things my way, who is interested in the world but not spending all of her time exploring it on her own, who is confident and outgoing, but not so over engaged with people that she cannot cope with being in public and not being able to greet everyone she meets.  The upside to what I found was that she fit the traits that I wanted.  The down side is that she also has some dragonish traits to work through.

As a professional trainer, I recognize her dragon traits and I am prepared to live with them and train through them.  I don’t expect her to outgrow her dragon traits; I expect to have to teach her and show her what it is that I want.  My clients often end up with dragon puppies and hope their dragons will outgrow this phase without any work from the family at all.  There is a great tag line that my friends at Urban Dog made into a poster that goes like this.  Dogs don’t grow out of behaviour problems, they grow into them.  Hagrid’s baby dragon set his beard on fire but as an adult, that dragon would have seriously hurt or killed someone.  Or from Hermione’s perspective, worse, he would have been expelled from school.

When you have a dragon, it is important that you are clear about what traits make him into a dragon and which of those traits you can live with, which ones you cannot and which ones of the ones you cannot you are able to change.  If I had not been so picky about the dog I chose when I chose Friday, I might have had a dragon with traits I would not want or could not live with.  By spending time and effort in making a good choice, I have a dragon I can live with.

I have a big advantage over many of my clients though.  When I think “DOG” I think about the many different dogs that I know, and I understand that they have a wide range of temperaments and innate traits.  Some of my clients have lived for many years with a dog who was very well loved, but extreme in some way or another.  These dogs are dogs who may be extremely confident, or they may be very nervous.  Perhaps they are impulsive, or have a behaviour quirk such as sensitive feet that make it difficult to cut their nails.  The dogs you know inform the picture you have of the dragon you see.  If you are accustomed to seeing dogs who spin and bark in their runs because all of the dogs you see are in an overcrowded shelter, then your expectation is that all dogs will behave this way.  The same is true if the only dogs you know are calm and easy to handle.

When clients bring me dogs who are dragons, they often identify problems that are different from what I see as the most important issue.  I have a client who has a lovely dog who has a very rough play style.  This dog is actually quite normal in his play; he is just fast and rough.  This client had shelties in her past, and was surprised when her retriever played in a way that she had not seen in her shelties.  On the other hand, she had not ever considered it a problem that her dog would not allow her near his food bowl; that was an acceptable behaviour to her because all of her previous dragons had also behaved this way.  The resource guarding was a much more serious behaviour problem that could get the dog in a lot more trouble, but in her experience, it was an acceptable and normal behaviour.

Many of my clients expect dogs to exhibit dragon behaviours.  This weekend I spoke with a lady and her daughter, who had been bitten by a family member’s dog.  Mom considered the bite justified because he was a very protective dog.  I think if we were to translate this into a people centric scenario, then we would have a different picture.  Imagine visiting a friend’s house and her teen aged son appeared out of the basement with a sword and began threatening you.  Would you be okay with that?  Would you excuse the behaviour as the son being protective of the house?  Would you be upset if he sliced open your daughter, or would you excuse his behaviour as protective?  Most of us would view the young man’s behaviour as outrageous and dangerous and if it happened too often, the police and child services would be called out and measures would be taken to prevent this behaviour from continuing.

Dogs and humans have lived together for over fourteen thousand years, and for perhaps as long as 30 thousand years.  In general, we have worked out ways to live with one another.  Village dogs, the true ancestor of the modern dog, hung out like squirrels do, in our yards.  They came close to us, but in general we didn’t touch them or handle them.  We still see them from time to time when they are rescued off beaches and resorts.  They often struggle as pets, not because they are dragons in their native habitat, but because our homes aren’t their native habitat.  If you want a dog who cuddles in bed with you, who will accept all new people, and who never resource guards, then it is quite likely that these dogs will turn out to be dragons in your home.  Yes, there are some who make stellar pets and some who compete in dog sports with great success, but there are more who live in people’s homes not meeting the needs of the family and not having their needs met.  It is not just the family that has difficulty when a dog is a dragon; often the dogs are not enjoying themselves either.

Being a normal dog in one scenario can translate into being a dragon in another.  Herding dogs can also be dragons.  I had an elderly client who was given a border collie puppy because she spoke so frequently of the border collies she had lived with as a girl on a farm in the UK.  As an apartment dweller, who loved to visit with friends and neighbours and who had a bad hip, she was not prepared to deal with the needs of an active young border collie.  This dog developed into a barking, whirling dragon who knocked people over; not at all the calm, well exercised working herding dogs of her youth.

Any dog can be a dragon.  Retrievers who fetch everything are often shoe dragons, and terriers who dig are garden dragons.  I have known mastiffs, Saint Bernards and Newfoundlanders who are slime dragons from all their drool.  German Shepherds and labs can be hair dragons.  There are down sides to every type of breed, and if you are willing to live with the dragon side of the dog you have, that is wonderful for both of you.  The important thing is to know what dragon traits your dog has, and work with those traits where possible.  Hagrid’s dragon ended up in a dragon sanctuary where he could “be with his own kind”.  The sad fact is that too many dog end up in shelters, rescues and yes, permanent sanctuaries because the family was unprepared to deal with the dragon traits that come with the particular dog they live with.  Before you get a dog, make sure you choose the right dragon.  And if like Hagrid, you live in a wooden hut (in the books at least!), perhaps a dragon is not the pet for you.

Friday is no longer a dragon...most of the time!  As one of the stars of our demo team, she did jump into the audience to visit a friend though!  Slightly dragonish behaviour!
Friday is no longer a dragon…most of the time! As one of the stars of our demo team, she did jump into the audience to visit a friend though! Slightly dragonish behaviour!

Our dragon, Friday, learned alternatives to most of her dragon behaviours.  She no longer makes dragon noises at seven in the morning.  She is well exercised, goes to training classes several times a week and has lots of human and doggy friends.  She is excelling at rally, obedience, Treibball and as John’s hiking companion.  Friday is a competent service dog, but she doesn’t love the work the way D’fer did, so we are once again, looking for another service dog for me.  Sometimes, the intended plan for a dragon doesn’t correspond to the traits they bring along with them, so having a fall back plan is always a good idea.  You cannot ship every dog to a sanctuary in Romania where he will be happy with his own kind.



Originally published August 2013

As dog trainers, we have both hopes and expectations for our dogs when we train them.  The problem I am seeing is that people are satisfied if Fido is willing to sit after several prompts, a treat on the nose and the cue repeated fifteen times in a row.  This is not training, this is nagging.  Just because training is done with treats involved doesn’t mean that the training is pleasant or humane; it just means that there are treats involved.  I recently had a client demonstrate to me his dog’s skills after a week of practicing what they had done in their previous classes at an another skill.  Sit took six verbal cues, pulling up on the leash, stamping his foot and then finally pushing down on the dog’s hind end.  I wish this were an isolated case, but I see at least one of these dogs each and every week.  My client may want advanced standing in a class because they have already trained their dog to do things either at home or at a different school,  but when the time comes to demonstrate what their dog will do it is a series of prompts, cues, commands, hand clapping, finger snapping, food waving and leash popping with a reluctant dog on the end of the leash.

So just what do I mean by a well trained dog?  What would that look like from the perspective of a dog trainer?  Dr. Ian Dunbar devised a sit test some years back.  What it looked like was the dog on a leash and the handler standing in the vicinity of the dog and asking him one time to sit, with one cue.  If the dog sat successfully, then the dog and handler could go to the next test.  The next test involved the handler sitting on a chair, and asking the dog with one cue to sit.  If the dog sat they could go on to a more difficult test, with the handler doing something else.  The point of the exercise is to determine if the dog actually understands the cue to sit, without a whole lot of prompting and cuing and showing the treat and jumping up and down and hiring a brass band and elephants just to get the dog to sit.  You can (and should!) try this with your own dog.  Will your dog sit on one cue, without a treat being waved in his face, when you are: standing in front of him?  Standing beside him? Sitting in a chair? Standing on a stool? Waving your arms like a chicken? Holding a bag?  Holding a toy?  Climbing a ladder?  Lying on the couch? Sitting on the floor? Lying on the floor?  Standing with your back to your dog?  Once you have a dog who will sit through all of these machinations, can you repeat the performance out of doors?  At training class?  In a busy park?  In the presence of loose dogs?  Beside a fountain?  On a ski hill?  At a coffee shop?  Beside a busy road?  When a fire truck goes by?  Is there anywhere where your dog won’t sit if you ask politely?

This test is an interesting measure of the trainer’s ability to help their dog to learn effectively.  Continuous prompting is actually a form of negative reinforcement because you stop nagging your dog when he finally gets the right answer.  Negative reinforcement followed by positive reinforcement is one of the most powerful methods of training going, but when you are doing this with care it should be an elegant dance not a blunt force instrument of annoyance to you, your dog and the people around you.  It is not fun to have a person who repeats themselves in your ear over and over again in an attempt to get the attention of a child or a dog.  It is frustrating!

What we need to do with our dogs is raise the bar in both our training and our expectations.  Consider for a moment when a toddler learns the first letter of his or her name; mommy and daddy exclaim over their brilliant little scholar and make a big fuss.  The first letter IS a big deal!  When that toddler is 21 and graduating from college, then knowing the first letter of his name should not elicit the attention of his parents in the same way.  Far too often this is what I see with dogs after training.  The family comes to training to learn about behaviours from their dogs, and at the end of the class, the dog has learned to sit when a treat is presented or they may even follow a treat into the desired position.  Two years later, if you are still treating each and every sit, you are doing just what the parents of the toddler who congratulate their college grad on knowing his letters did.

I am partnered with a service dog.  Right now, I am in the middle of changing over from my old service dog D’fer, to my new service dog, Friday.   D’fer has passed the sit test, every day, every where, for the past eight years. Friday isn’t as experienced as Deef, and thus doesn’t have the number of always behaviours that he does, and couldn’t pass the sit test in as many different places.  Can he do it on an airplane?  Yup.  On a train? Yes.  How about on a merry-go-round, moving slowly?  Yes he can.  How about if I am on a hospital bed?  Yes again.  And how often do I reward him for sitting?  From time to time.  I don’t keep track.  If he wants to have something and we are out and about, he may sit out of context to get my attention and ask.  Once we were walking through a show ground, and there was a bitch in heat.  I stopped to look at something, and he sat and stared at her.  As I started to move away, he held his sit to get my attention.  When he got my attention, I looked down at his longing face and told him “sorry Dude, not this time.”  Not only did he not get a reward for sitting, I in fact penalized him for offering the behaviour I had taught him to do to get my attention.  Why then would he keep sitting when asked?  This doesn’t seem like it should fit in with Learning Theory.

So how do you get from the point of using positive reinforcement to teach a particular behaviour, to the point that a service dog is at where they will do the desired behaviour anytime, anywhere and will in fact offer the behaviour you want even when it costs them to do so?  Quite simply, you raise the bar.  There are several stages in learning and the key to success is to neither stay in one stage too long nor to expect the dog to be able to do behaviours that are above his skill level, but to keep raising that bar!

I like the model of awareness, acquisition, application and always to describe where a dog is when they are learning a behaviour.  If the dog has no idea what will result in a reinforcer, then you have to start by making them aware of what behaviour specifically will earn a reinforcer.  It doesn’t matter if the trainer is using shaping or luring or prompting or modelling, if the dog doesn’t know what gets the reinforcer then you will not be able to be successful until your learner is aware of what the target behaviour is.  In some respects we could say this is the second stage in that the trainer has to also have an awareness of what you are trying to teach to begin with.  Once the learner and the trainer are both aware of what the target behaviour is, then the learner can move towards acquisition.  There is no clear line between awareness and acquisition; they are part of a learning continuum.  The learner has passed through awareness and into acquisition when the behaviour is being repeated, but it may not be an accurate iteration of the behaviour and it may not be a fast or flashy or finished iteration, but you can see the structure underneath the behaviour when the learner is in the acquisition phase, which you probably couldn’t while the learner was in the awareness stage.

This dog and trainer are in the awareness phase of training the sit.  The trainer knows what she wants, and the dog is getting the idea.  Image Credit:  Sue Alexander

It is during acquisition that I see people start to abuse the trust of their learner.  Let’s go back to sit as an example.  If the dog has figured out that sitting gets the reinforcer, and then the trainer and learner have practiced this in two places with no other dogs, then if the trainer asks for the sit in the dog park with thirty other dogs around, it doesn’t matter how good the treat is, the likelihood is that the dog won’t be able to give you the behaviour you want, quickly and efficiently.  At about this point, the novice trainer comes to me and says “with our last dog, we would have used her prong collar to make her sit, because she obviously knows what the command is, and she is being disobedient.”  I would argue that this is putting the dog in a completely unfair situation.  Think back to when you were learning to do fractions in grade school.  Can you imagine what it might have been like to be asked to do fractions on the playground, at recess when all your friends were playing on the swings?  THAT is what it is like for a dog who has just learned sit in the living room to be asked to sit in the middle of the dog park.  Add a painful consequence to that mix and pretty soon you are going to have a dog who just doesn’t want to participate any more.  At this point the trainer gets frustrated because the dog stops sitting altogether and the trainer thinks that the dog knew the behaviour.

The other end of this spectrum is the trainer who over does the “proofing” level of the training.  They teach the dog that treats come for sitting at home, at the training hall, on the driveway, on the front lawn, on the back deck, in the lobby of the apartment building, in the presence of a known dog, in the presence of an unknown dog, at the park, at the vet’s, at the kennel and so on and on and on and on.  These trainers pay for each and every sit, each and every time and wait for the behaviour forever and ever and ever.  Eventually for these dogs, the sit decays too, but for a different reason.  In this case it is a bit like ordering in a restaurant.  The dog surveys what the reinforcer of the day is, and if it isn’t something that he wants, then he doesn’t sit.  Sit for kibble?  Thanks, no.  How about sit for a bit of dried liver?  Not today.  Sit for dried salmon?  Nope.  Sit for garlic toast?  Oh…okay.

The key to moving from acquisition to the next stage of application is to take into account a number of factors, and then train for those factors.  The first thing is to make sure that the dog has actually acquired the behaviour in the context of a number of different scenarios.  Different people in different locations for different reinforcers should be part of the program.  Once the dog is offering the target behaviour reliably for a variety of people in a variety of places for a variety of reinforcers, then I would start putting the behaviour into chains.  Your dog has to have more than one behaviour on cue for this to work and at the beginning this means that there will be several behaviours in the acquisition phase in the chain but this will still work nicely.  Let’s say that you have sit, down and touch all on cue for three different people in four different places using kibble, a Frisbee, a ball and liver bits.  Then I would start on chains of two behaviours.  Since I use a marker to train, it might look like this:  Sit, touch, click, liver bit.  Touch, down, click, throw a ball.  Down, sit, click, kibble.  I would practice at two behaviours for a while until the dog was reliably following my cues, in a variety of places.  I have a plan for when we get stuck; let’s say that the dog stopped following the sit cue for instance.  I would manipulate the chains so that the sit became the terminal behaviour, meaning that is always followed by a click and a treat of some sort.  Then it might look like this:  Touch, sit, click, liver.  Down, sit, click, Frisbee.  With only three behaviours it becomes a little bit tricky for the trainer to not become predictable, but at first this is how I start to make a weak behaviour stronger.

In the application stage of learning, the dog learns that she can sit anywhere, anytime for a variety of reinforcers.  This dog is on the crest of being in the always stage of the sit because she will sit out of doors, on a ledge, beside a fountain, with traffic moving around, for a variety of handlers and a variety of reinforcers.  Image Credit:  Sue Alexander

As the dog is able to integrate a behaviour into a chain of two behaviours, with it not necessarily being the terminal behaviour, I move to three behaviours for one click and treat.  Once we can do three I start playing a game called three hundred chickens where I ask for increasing numbers of behaviours, increasing by one behaviour for each iteration, for each click and treat.  It might look like this:  Sit, click, liver bit.  Down, touch, click, Frisbee.  Touch, down, sit, click, throw ball.  Sit, down, sit, touch, click, liver bit.  Down, touch, touch, down, touch, click, kibble.  The goal of course is to get to three hundred behaviours per click/treat.  If we get stuck, we go back to a significantly lower number of behaviours.  If for instance we were at 32 behaviours and the dog refuses a cue, I would prevent the dog from leaving and doing his own thing until he did that final behaviour, and then start at one behaviour, then 5, 10 and so on until I approached where I was when we hit failure.  In doing this, I create a variable schedule of reinforcement that is in line with the learner’s experience.  This stage of application where the learner is building repetitions into his repertoire, in a variety of places, in chains of behaviours, with different handlers and for different reinforcers is what gets you from the training stage of learning to the stage that a service dog works at.  This is the neglected stage and this is where many trainers just stop training and either settle for behaviours that only occur when a threat is imminent or when a valuable enough reward is available.

Once the dog has learned that he can integrate a new target behaviour into his repertoire in a variety of places, he is ready for the always stage.  In the always stage of a behaviour, it just always happens when it should.  It probably gets reinforced from time to time, but often that is incidental; it often doesn’t get reinforced with any sort of a plan.  Very few behaviours get to the always stage for most dogs.  Taking Eco, my German Shepherd, as an example, he has relatively few always behaviours.  He is extensively trained, and mostly through the use of R+, however he has a degenerative back disease of unknown origin that prevents him from travelling by car or doing training often.  His “always” behaviours are the ones that we use all the time.  He stops at open doors and won’t go through them unless told.  He waits to take his food at mealtimes.  He goes into his crate when he is asked.  He reliably comes when called.  He accepts any handling I have to do.  He takes his pills every day.  Apart from that, he is pretty rusty on things like heeling, sit stays (probably hard on his back, so we don’t really ask for a whole lot of sits from him unless related to medical treatments), long down stays (he probably gets uncomfortable in any event!), fetching, going around things, pushing a door or a ball and other tricks or obedience trial behaviours.

Eco used to do a lot of training and he knows a lot of behaviours, but they are not always behaviours because of his back injury.  We cannot practice often enough to get past the stage of application because he would get hurt.  Image Credit:  Melanie Wooley.

D’fer, my 10 year old Chesapeake is a little different.  After eight years making his living as a service dog he has rock solid leash manners, a rock solid sit, a rock solid down stay, and he is always willing to alert to an oncoming medical event.  He will retrieve pretty much anything I ask, anytime, anywhere and he will take things to other people for me.  He has a lot of always behaviours.  So how do you get from application, where the dog learns to apply the behaviours across a wide variety of conditions on a variable schedule or reinforcement, to always, where you can ask for an expect the behaviour 95% of the time or more often than that?

Picking up his leash and handing it to me is an “always” behaviour for D’fer.  I don’t have to reinforce it very often because we have taught it carefully and systematically.  Often, D’fer will pass my leash right before we do things he likes doing, so co operating with me will result in activities he likes, reinforcing D’fer’s co operation with my request.

Once again, the boundary between application, where the dog will give the behaviour in a wide variety of environments, for a wide variety of handlers, for a very thin and variable schedule of reinforcements, then you are ready to transition into the always stage.  In the always stage, I will insist.  You don’t have to be heavy handed to insist.  It is a little bit like asking a guest to do something your way.  You have to be polite, but some things are not negotiable.  If you visit my barn, I insist that you don’t smoke in the barn.  I am polite, but I insist that if you are going to smoke, you take that outside.  If you have the nerve to break that rule, I will ask you once and then I will take your cigarette out of your hand and put it outside.  Smoking in my barn is dangerous to me and my horses and I will insist on you doing that out of doors only.

There are too many risks of fire to allow smoking in my barn.  If you come to my farm, and you pull out a smoke in my barn, I will ask you politely to take it outside.  If you don’t I will insist.  If you still don’t then I will eventually be quite insistent and I might even escort you out of the barn.  In general, if you know how to get out of my barn, and you understand that smoking in a barn could result in a fire, you will leave if reminded.  If you don’t understand the reasons that I ask you to take it out of the barn, you might protest, but when I lay it out, most people are willing to leave the barn.  The same is true of our dogs who really understand the behaviours you are training.  Once the dog understands what you want and has practiced the behaviour in a variety of contexts, then you can insist on the behaviours when you need them.  Image credit: iofoto / 123RF Stock Photo

Let’s consider the sit behaviour again.  If I have been working with a dog daily for 8 weeks, as sometimes happens when we board and train dogs, they will have passed through the awareness, acquisition and application stages of sitting.  And then one day, out of the blue, I will ask for a sit that is perhaps inconvenient or out of context for the dog.  The dog may look at me as though I am out of my mind.  He may just stand there.  If he tries to wait me out, after about a minute, I will take a step away and call him in and ask him a second time.  If he sits, then on we go with whatever we were working on.  At the point of always, I only reinforce the perfect sits, and only occasionally, but never ever when I have had to ask twice.  What I do at this point is switch from positive reinforcement to negative reinforcement.  If you don’t do as I ask the first time, I am going to change the picture, and ask again, so you may as well get on with it.  Like asking a guest to take their smoke out of my barn, the first time I ask, and the second time I insist, and I keep insisting until the outcome is what I want.  Dogs who have a solid foundation on the previous three stages understand the deal.  They get reinforcers through the day, for things that are difficult or things that are new or things that are stellar.  They get positively reinforced for things they know well once in a while, but for things that my dogs really understand, they don’t get positively reinforced, because they know it well.

Negatively reinforcing behaviours yields very strong and resilient results because learners know that they can avoid annoyance by doing what is asked of them.  Also, when “always” behaviours have strong positive reinforcement histories, the behaviours themselves become reinforcing.  And finally, always behaviours pop up in places that lead to other behaviours in chains that lead to reinforcement.  If I am waiting in line in a coffee shop and I ask D’fer to sit, then after I order my coffee, we will often go for a walk so that D’fer can toilet.  Sitting leads to doing something he wants to do for its own sake.  This is how I get most of my always behaviours.

The key to being successful with “always” behaviours is to ensure that you don’t ask for them before the dog is ready for them, but that once the dog knows the behaviour, you don’t stay in the acquisition or application stage beyond the time when you should.  A word about punishment here.  Punishment is anything that is done to DECREASE the frequency of a behaviour.  Many of my clients want to reach for punishment when the dog doesn’t comply to a behaviour that they consider to be an “always” behaviour, as in “if he doesn’t do as I ask, there is an unpleasant consequence to that choice”.  The problem with this is that the target behaviour is still the target behaviour, and if you use an aversive in this case, then you aren’t punishing non compliance.  You are punishing whatever the dog was doing in the moment that you used the aversive.  Let’s say that you have asked the dog to sit, and the dog doesn’t comply.  What he DOES do though is to look longingly and adoringly in your eyes.  You pull out a water pistol and you spray him in the face, because he didn’t sit when you asked.  What behaviour are you decreasing in this case?  If you said “looking longingly and adoringly in your eyes” you would be correct.  If you said “not sitting” you would not be correct because you didn’t decrease the not sitting behaviour; you decreased something other than not sitting.  When you are talking about an always behaviour, resetting the picture and asking again until you get the behaviour you want is going to yield a much stronger result.

The true value of building “always” behaviours is a deep partnership between you and your dog.  You can depend on your dog’s behaviour and your dog can depend on you.  Image credit: chalabala / 123RF Stock Photo

At the end of the day, when you have “always” behaviours you have a dog who is your partner.  You can rely on your dog to do his always behaviours when you ask them, and your dog can rely on you to not ask for those behaviours just to show off or to prove that you can make your dog do what you ask.  Always behaviours are behaviours that you have built together with your dog and that deepen your relationship with one another.  Always behaviours are the result of careful raising of the bar.