You Are Not At War With Your Dog
If you’re Googling dog training, these are all words you may see. You might find advice that your dog is misbehaving because you aren’t the alpha, or that your dog is dominant and needs to be put in their place.
But here’s the truth: You are not at war with your dog.
In fact, you will rarely hear these words from most behavior experts. I can’t remember the last time I said “alpha” unless I was explaining to someone that, no, you don’t need to be your dog’s alpha. It’s not really a thing.
So where did these ideas come from? Why is there so much advice out there about dominating your dog or making sure they know you’re the boss?
It started decades ago with a study on captive wolves (a study that has since been disproven and denounced even by the initial scientist, just to be totally clear). That study observed wolves who were thrown together in random packs and the infighting that occurred. It wasn’t until later, when wolves were being analyzed in the wild, that scientists realized those theories on packs were all wrong – in the wild, wolf packs were families, lead by parents, and fighting for control was rare.
And the truth is, dogs aren’t wolves. We romanticize this idea of our canine companions as descendants of wolves, but they’ve been removed from their distant cousins for many thousands of years. A domesticated dog has a much looser interpretation of the idea of a pack than a wild or captive wolf. Otherwise, how would we be allowed into their families? And taking that further – dogs know that we aren’t dogs. So even if they did have a “pack” in the way many like to imagine, we wouldn’t be part of the traditional structure.
But the idea of dominant dogs and alphas was repopularized when TV personality Cesar Milan came on the scene. It was easy to believe that the serious behavior issues being “solved” in a TV segment were the result of some magical alpha pack theory thinking. What they really were was the result of learned helplessness from overwhelmed, often terrified dogs, and some very slick editing.
But what do I do instead? I get asked by many students. If I can’t “tsk” my dog into submission to get them to listen, how can I get a well-behaved dog?
There are a lot of options. None of the good ones involve hurting, scaring, or forcing your dog. Again: You are not at war with your dog. Your relationship does not need to be confrontational, or based on fear. If it is, you’re much more likely to have a dog who is scared or defensive, or a dog who bites.
So what words would I replace the list at the beginning of this blog post with?
Friend. Educator. Guardian.
Consistency. Love. Patience. Family.
These things are not only possible but absolutely vital to a happy, healthy, well-mannered dog.
How do you get there? Seek out a trainer who uses force-free, positive-reinforcement based methods. Ask questions. Do the research. Read books and blogs and watch videos by trainers who use these methods.
Training isn’t magic. It’s science. And it’s a science that blends beautifully with the incredible relationship we can build with our dogs—if we don’t try to take them to war over being well-behaved.
Can your dog really learn with the trainer on the other side of a screen?
Short answer: Yes!
In these times of social distancing, traditional dog training has been pretty much impossible. Luckily, technology has made virtual training not only easy, but just as effective, in most cases, as in-person training.
The advantages of online training include, but aren’t limited to:
-A wider ranges of times available – train in your pajamas if you want to! (I won’t judge.)
-The ability to customize the length of a lesson to a dog (or person)’s attention span – something that isn’t financially feasible when the trainer has to drive from house to house!
-Train from literally anywhere with a connection to the internet, with no travel fees even if you are out of your trainer’s normal service area.
-Access to the same trainer knowledge and skill you’d get in person, and the same real-time feedback as you work with your dog.
-Less distractions for you and your dog when learning new things.
-The whole family can still be included, even if they aren’t at home (they can join the call from another location!).
Here’s a breakdown of how an online lesson might work.
First, you and your trainer will agree to a time and lesson length and get it on the schedule.
Next, your trainer will send a Zoom link (if you are using Zoom) to access your lesson, or set up another way to get in touch at the appropriate time if you’re using a different platform, like FaceTime.
When you click the link or answer the phone call, the lesson starts!
If this is your first lesson, you and your trainer will spend some time talking about your dog, your goals, and your training plan. If this is not your first lesson, you will probably just do a check-in talk to see how your dog has been doing since the last meeting.
Your trainer will go over what they want you to try and might demo the behavior, describe what you are going to do, or send you a video to check out.
Once you’ve gotten your instructions, you’ll have have a chance to aim your camera at your dog and try it, with feedback from your trainer as you go to help you adjust and improve!
This may be repeated a few times, depending on the length of your session. For example, if you are doing a thirty minute session, you may only work on one or two exercises, but if you are doing an hour-long session, you might have time for three or four. Some of the exercises might be new cues and some might be building on or practicing cues you’ve already started.
Tips for success:
-Have everything ready to go when the time for the lesson comes. That may include your phone, tablet or computer (however you are connecting to the video chat); your dog; any needed equipment for your dog, such as a collar, harness or leash; treats for your dog; and, if you are using them, a treat bag and/or clicker.
-Have a way to prop up your phone to show you and your dog training, even if it is as simple as setting your cell phone in a cup with the camera over the top. Alternatively, you can have an extra person in the family hold the phone if available.
-If you are using headphones for sound, it can be helpful to have wireless headphones so you can move away from the phone as needed for video. An alternative option would be to unplug the headphones and switch to the audio on the device as needed.
-If we are going to be practicing a behavior like going for a walk or doing training outside, make sure your device will still be connected to the internet or data so we don’t lose our connection! You can check this in advance by walking around the area we might use and looking at the strength of your signal.
-As recommended for any lesson, make sure your dog has had a chance to meet their physical needs before the session, such as going for a walk or pottying. If your dog is not very food motivated, don’t feed them a big meal before training, but if they tend to be highly food motivated, it’s fine to feed them some before we train. And make sure that your treats are something they love and will be excited to work for, in small, bite-sized pieces.
Online lessons can be a lot of fun, and really effective. For most people, the most daunting part is learning the technology – but we’re all learning how to do lessons online together, so don’t be afraid to ask your trainer if something isn’t working for you or you don’t know how to set yourself up for an effective lesson. Ideally, ask them ahead of time so that you can and your dog can be set up for success when it’s time for your session.
If you’re ready to give online training a try, check out the options Bond Dog Training offers today no matter what your location!
For many of us, dogs are part of the family. We buy them gifts throughout the year, but the holidays are a great time to get something a little extra for your pup, or for a friend or family member with a dog of their own. If you haven't already picked up a holiday gift for the dog or dog lover in your life, here are a few ideas from a trainer's perspective!
There are a lot of excellent books out there on dog behavior and training, but for me, these three in particular are essential. "The Other End of the Leash" by Patricia McConnell, "Don't Shoot the Dog" by Karen Pryor and "The Culture Clash" by Jean Donaldson have opened the eyes of many a dog parent and helped them to better understand how to communicate with their canine friend. They are classics in the dog world and always worth a read. A few other great options: "The Power of Positive Dog Training" by Pat Miller, "Control Unleashed" by Leslie McDevitt, "Bones Would Rain from the Sky" by Suzanne Clothier, "Click to Calm" by Emma Parsons and "When Pigs Fly!: Training Success with Impossible Dogs" by Jane Killion.
There are a lot of toys out there, and not all of them are created equal. However, there are a few brands that have a reputation for putting out toys that are more durable than others while still being a lot of fun for the dogs who enjoy tugging, retrieving and chewing on them. While toy strength can vary within brands, I've found Tuffy and Kong in particular to have some good options for a wide variety of dogs. Check out a few of my favorites here:
Food Puzzle Toys
In addition to normal toys, interative food dispensers can be an awesome way to burn off some mental energy and keep your dog occupied with dinner for much longer (and wear them out a bit in the process). There are many great and creative options for this, including something as simple as sticking some kibble in an empty water bottle, but there are also some great products out there that most dogs will have a lot of fun knocking around. The Kong Wobbler is my personal favorite for ease of use and durability, but I also love some of the more complex toys (keep in mind that ones with smaller pieces may need supervision).
Treats and Chews
There are so many great treats and chews available that I couldn't begin to list them all. Bestbullysticks.com has some fantastic options and pricing on great items such as bully sticks, beef tracheas and other wonderful treats to keep your dog occupied and chewing. I don't recommend rawhide as it tends to be more likely to be swallowed in chunks that can get lodged in a dog's throat or cause blockages during digestion, but beef knuckle and shank bones and raw bones can be a great way for dogs to get out some chewing energy and clean their teeth a bit. And while I often buy things like cheese and hot dogs for treats, when I do buy store-bought treats there are a few that are stand-bys, shown here. Not picture but also great: Pet Botanics training treats, Natural Balance dog food roll (easily cut into bite-sized pieces), and freeze-dried liver or chicken, found in multiple brands. And don't forget to include a good treat pouch to keep those treats safe on walks!
Want to upgrade to a gift that's a little fancier? The Treat and Train is an excellent remote treat dispenser for anyone who needs help rewarding their dog from a distance. And there are many new products out there that allow you to watch, talk to and even reward your dog when you're away from home. (While I haven't tried out the second option personally, it seems like a pretty exciting tool for anyone who misses their dog when they're away from home.)
There are many options out there for personalizing a gift for a dog-loving friend (or just their dog). Getting their name stitched on a collar or a funny tag could be a great addition to any dog's wardrobe. A blanket or bed featuring the dog's name or breed are probably welcome, too. But my personal favorite is a custom cartoon portrait or breed poster by artist Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings. Her art is charming and beautiful, and ranges from her cool "Dogs of the World" posters to phone cases, pins, bags and more. And you can have her customize one of her breed drawings to a particular dog for a really special present.
Check out her website here or her Etsy store here.
One of the greatest gifts you can give a friend or family member with a dog? Training! If your gift recipient is located in the Austin area, contact me to find out more about getting a gift certificate for training sessions! The gift of a well-behaved dog is the best gift of all.
This post is really just a fraction of the great gifts out there for dogs and the people who love them. Comment with some of your favorites!
Does your dog bark when it sees another dog? Lunge when a bike goes by? Growl at the jogger coming toward them on the trail? Leash reactivity is one of the most common issues I’m contacted about as a trainer, and it can be difficult to fix. But there are a few simple options that can help you and your dog have less stressful and more successful walks.
There is a lot of confusion over the difference between “reactivity” and “aggression.” Some people just prefer the term “reactive” as it sounds less scary than “aggressive.” For the purpose of this blog post, I’m using the term how I would with my clients, with the main difference being that a dog who is being “reactive” is giving a warning or for another reason having an impulsive reaction when a trigger appears, where a dog who is being “aggressive” is acting with the intention to do harm.
This does not mean that a reactive dog won’t do harm – reactive behavior can very quickly escalate to aggressive behavior. But when I use either term, this is the general definition I’m applying. If your dog is acting in an aggressive way, I highly recommend contacting a qualified professional right away.
It can be helpful (though not always necessary) to know why your dog is reacting – some dogs react out of fear, some are following an instinct to chase or protect, and some are just frustrated that they are restricted by the leash. No matter what the reason behind your dog’s reactivity, it is important to set up a training plan that works for both of you and keep track of any reactions to help measure progress.
There are a lot of methods out there for dealing with reactivity, so while they are all based in the same general principles, if one doesn’t seem to be working after a decent period of time it can be a good idea to try out another one. If you are really struggling, the behavior is getting worse or even just not getting better, I strongly encourage you to hire a dog trainer with experience with reactivity or, in more extreme cases, to contact a vet behaviorist.
One of the more straightforward methods for dealing with reactivity is using counter-conditioning and desensitization. This basically involves changing your dog’s reaction to a trigger, such as another dog or a person, by giving them lots of things that create a positive association when the trigger appears. For example: your dog sees another dog, and you start giving them pieces of hot dog or chicken. You always want to work at a distance where your dog is unlikely to have a reaction and slowly build up to more difficult scenarios over time as your dog is improving. This website has more detail on this method and how to use it properly: http://careforreactivedogs.com/
Another method is teaching an alternative behavior. This is a great tool, and the one I use most often, but there are some things to keep in mind. You want to choose a behavior that is simple and reinforce it heavily in other situations first. You also do not want to choose a behavior that leaves the dog feeling trapped, as this can escalate the situation. I most commonly see this with “sit” – many people think of it as a calm behavior that can be a good alternative to lunging or barking, but when your take away your dog’s “flight” option by making them be still, it is more likely that they will choose “fight.” I prefer behaviors you can do as you continue to move, such as looking back at you or a hand touch.
Remember that it is really important to practice the alternative behavior you choose with a high rate of reinforcement (no store-bought treats – pull out the big guns here and give your dog something incredible they wouldn’t usually get, like meat or cheese). You also want to practice first in low distraction environments until you dog has it down. Think about it this way: You may know how to do basic math, but if someone asks you to add 3 and 5 while you’re being charged by a bear, answering that simple questions becomes significantly harder. So why would you ask your dog to do something they don’t know that well and aren’t excited about in a situation where they feel threatened or overwhelmed?
These two methods are usually where I start in most cases. They are simple, and they tend to be effective. If you find yourself in a situation that is too much for your dog to handle, and suspect they may be about to react (or they do react), the best option is to get out of there ASAP. Walk away, cross the street or even run away if you need to! (I make it a game with my dog – WOOO, RUNNING AWAY IS AWESOME!) It is key to not let your dog practice reacting, so try to set him or her up for success when you are taking them out and don’t put them in a situation that is too much for them to handle.
The methods I’ve listed here are by no means the only options to deal with reactivity. BAT, CAT, Look at That, Click to Calm – there are a number of interesting and potentially useful methods out there. However, the two methods I mentioned are a great place to start, and some of the simplest options to try. The last thing you want to do is punish your dog when they react, especially when they are reacting out of fear – you are just creating more negative associations with the trigger if you pop their leash or yell, and while it may stop them in the moment they are more likely to have a stronger response in the future. Instead of punishing your dog for reacting to something, set them up for success and give them the tools to be calmer, better behaved and less stressed.
Percy is hypervigilant as we walk though the park. His eyes move from the trees to our left to the field to our right, scanning for dogs, people, cats—anything that might be scary or interesting. We walk by a bench, and I tell him, “Up!” With an almost audible sigh of relief, he leaps onto the seat, his body relaxing as he views the park from a higher vantage point.
The “up” cue is a big confidence builder for Percy. It’s also a cue that he chose himself. He is a dog that becomes anxious when faced with the possibility of strange dogs walking through the same park as he is, and being able to get on a higher level seems to make him feel braver and safer. On our walk one day, I noticed that every time we walked by a raised surface, he seemed to want to climb it. So I encouraged him by a big rock, allowing him to get up on his own. After seeing the immediate change in his body language, I decided to put this natural behavior on cue.
Choice is a powerful thing. In this case, I let Percy choose the next cue that he was going to learn, but I also let him show me what he found reinforcing. As a result, I ended up with a cue that was easy to teach, that he finds naturally rewarding (meaning I don’t need to use many other rewards to maintain it), and that he finds confidence-building.
Think about what your dog chooses to do if you allow them a little freedom on a walk. Does he or she run to sniff every tree they can reach? Play in the leaves? Pick up sticks off the ground? Spend a lot of time sniffing in the grass?
These are natural behaviors for many dogs, but each individual will find certain things more reinforcing than others. You can use these inclinations to pick a new cue to work on with your dog, or to give them more variety in their rewards. For example, if you dog enjoys picking up sticks and carrying them, they might enjoy learning to retrieve. If they love to sniff, you can use that as a strong reinforcer on walks—if do a nice heel or offer eye contact in the face of distractions, give them permission to go sniff before moving on.
Because our dogs don’t speak our language, it’s easy to think that we can’t know what they want. We may never know everything that drives them. But we can take the time to make some simple observations that can build our relationship, their confidence, and make training easier and more rewarding for both of us.
When a 12-week-old puppy is nipping your ankles or gnawing on your fingers with little razor teeth, most of us understand that these are behaviors that are undesirable but normal for a dog so young. Puppies use their mouths as they explore the world and learn how to interact with humans, other dogs and everything they might encounter in their lives.
Some puppies will outgrow nipping with consistent training. Others carry mouthing issues into adolescence and even adulthood. One intense form of this is what is often called “arousal biting,” and it is a challenging and sometimes dangerous behavior.
“Arousal” in this context simply means that the dog is in a heightened state – for example, he might be excited, anxious, hyper or stressed. When a dog has reached this point, they are often no longer in their “thinking” brain or considering what they are doing. Instead, they are just reacting to their environment in a way that feels natural to them but can be harmful to any people who might be within their reach.
When I adopted my dog, Percy, I expected some nipping. He was an adolescent herding dog, after all, and that seemed perfectly normal. But I realized that Percy’s nipping became more intense and frantic when he was in any kind of heightened state, and he definitely wasn’t outgrowing it.
For Percy, a few things got him into this state – being able to run free off-leash, chasing a ball, getting overtired, seeing another dog. I first noticed it when we were out on walks and he would start to jump around, occasionally directing his body toward me and his mouth onto my arm. At the park, he would race around in large circles, coming back toward me and leaping through the air to make contact. While he never broke skin or drew blood, and he was never intentionally acting with aggression, these nips were hard and painful, and in no way appropriate.
There are some simple steps you can take to improve arousal biting. Generally, this is not an issue that disappears right away, as the biting is self-reinforcing for a lot of dogs. But it is not a hopeless problem.
First, reward calm. This sounds simple, and it is. Whenever your dog is calmly laying by your feet, walking by your side, or sitting next to you in a situation where he might get wound up, reinforce that calm with a treat, petting, praise, or whatever your dog finds rewarding. Be careful not to use rewards that will get your dog too excited so you don’t break their calm. I recommend Dr. Karen Overall’s relaxation protocol to help your dog learn to relax if they find it tough to offer calm on their own. (I plan on discussing this protocol in greater detail in a later post, but you can also find a lot of information on it online.)
Second, protect yourself. If your dog nips hard when you are playing outside, throw the ball from behind a gate or fence, or stand near a door so you can escape quickly if needed. Removing yourself from the situation can also be an effective consequence for many dogs – you nip me, I stop playing and leave.
Third, stay calm. For many dogs with this issue, the more frustrated, upset or frantic you get, the more wound up they become. Standing still and staying quiet is going to be far safer and more effective then waving your arms around or shouting at your dog.
Fourth, work on impulse control. Teaching your dog to exercise restraint when they want something is vital, especially to situations like this. In my situation, to play ball, Percy is now required to sit until I tell him “free,” and he has to drop the ball at my feet to have it thrown again. If he doesn’t sit, the ball stays in my hand. If he gets too jumpy or mouthy, playtime ends for a few minutes. If he gets more intense, I leave the yard until he calms down and then we try again. But if he can demonstrate enough control to hold still while I am holding one of his favorite things, I’ll let him go crazy for a moment chasing it.
Fifth, make sure your dog’s needs are being met. Is he getting enough appropriate exercise, both physical and mental? Are you putting enough time and effort into training? Is he bored? I love teaching behaviors and tricks that require calm and a closed mouth to dogs who try to overuse theirs – hand touches and chin rests are both fabulous options. You can also try wearing your dog out with calmer games like nosework, which tends to be tiring and doesn't amp them up in the way that exercise like running or playing ball might. For dogs with arousal biting issues, more intense exercise can be a trigger, so calmer games and training are great options.
Using these techniques and ongoing training, Percy has made a lot of progress. He still occasionally forgets himself, especially when gets tired, but his level of restraint and calm has improved drastically. Maturity has certainly helped, but without the work we put into the issue he most likely would still be leaping at me as we walked, frantically trying to grab onto my arm. If your dog’s issue seems more severe or dangerous, please contact a qualified trainer to get help. But for many dogs, a bit of extra patience and training can make a world of difference.
So you have a new puppy. You’ve bought him (or her) toys, a crate, a dog bed, food, treats, set up your first vet appointments and thought up a cute name. You may have even thought about calling a trainer. But you may have already missed the most important step in your puppy’s development: socialization.
Most people have heard of socialization, but it is widely misunderstood. Many new puppy owners think they are supposed to wait until their puppy’s shots are complete and then start taking them everywhere, exposing them to as many dogs and people as possible.
While there is a kernel of truth in this idea, it is flawed. There is definitely a right way and a wrong way to socialize your puppy. In this post, I’ll list some dos and don’ts to help you get your puppy off on the right foot, and link some awesome resources.
DO start immediately. The prime socialization period for most puppies is from about 4 weeks to 12 weeks old. This may vary slightly from breed to breed, but not by more than a few weeks. Many people don’t even get their puppy until they are 8 weeks or even 10-12 weeks old, which gives you basically no time to start socializing. This is an incredibly critical period in your puppy’s development – the longer you wait, the less the socialization you do will have an impact on your puppy.
DO vaccinate your puppy and consider where you are taking them. Many vets warn against taking your puppy out too early because of the risk of contagious diseases like parvo and distemper – these are very scary diseases and you should vaccinate against them as early as your vet recommends to give your puppy more chances to get out and socialize. After the first couple of sets of shots, your puppy has a very high level of protection, so even if you have not done your final shots your puppy is more protected. However, your vet is not being cautious for nothing – DON’T take your puppy places like dog parks, where many dogs pass through at a high rate and you are at a much higher risk. Those places can wait until your puppy has all of their vaccinations (and has had some socialization in less overwhelming areas). Instead, take your puppy places with dogs you know are friendly and vaccinated, or where other dogs don’t go.
DON’T ignore non-dog-and-people socialization. Most people assume exposing their dog to lots of dogs and people is what socialization is; actually, it’s getting your dog used to the world in general, and everything being normal and not scary. They need to be socialized to things like cars driving by, opening umbrellas, different floor surfaces… anything they might encounter in everyday life, you want them to get used to NOW. Think of your puppy like a little sponge – everything they encounter, they absorb for future reference.
DO make sure your dog remains comfortable and not scared. It is normal for a puppy to not understand something new, but you don’t want to flood them with new experiences or force them to be around “scary” things. You want all of their experiences during this time to be positive. Pair everything that they see with happy associations – an upbeat voice, play, food, toys, etc.
DON’T underestimate the importance of this process, or think that because your puppy seems okay now, they don’t need to socialize immediately. The behavior problems that come from a lack of socialization during this vital period generally don’t show up until adolescence. So your puppy may seem completely well-adjusted now, but when they hit 7 or 8 months you may start to see signs of anxiety, reactivity or even aggression (all serious issues that can stem from a lack of good socialization).
DO enlist the help of a trainer if you are unsure of any part of this process.
There are a couple of great free resources for socialization free on the internet. Dr. Sophia Yin has a fantastic socialization checklist that has a long list of socialization ideas and a chart to keep track of progress.
Dr. Ian Dunbar also offers free books for before and after you get your puppy on his website, Dog Star Daily.
Another great resource for information is Operation Socialization.
If you have adopted an older dog who is lacking in socialization, it’s a good idea to follow a similar protocol to what we would do with a new puppy. However, a dog who misses the puppy socialization period generally will never be as well-socialized as a dog who went through the process during that vital age window. This does not mean you should lose hope – you can still make a lot of progress with an older dog if you proceed in the right way. Again, this might be a good place to enlist the help of a professional to get you and your dog headed in the right direction. Just remember – go at your dog’s pace, and keep it positive!
Dogs communicate in a number of ways. Body language is their number one way of “talking,” but vocalizations are also important. They bark, they howl, they whine… and they growl.
It’s the last one that gets us, as humans, the most riled up. When I do evaluations for dogs who have shown aggressive behavior, one of the most common questions I get is, “What do I do when they growl?”
This is a loaded question. Here’s the thing: growling is communication. It is your dog’s simplest and least dangerous way to let you know that they are not okay with something. So while many people feel like they should punish growling because they see it as aggressive behavior, the absolute last thing you want to do is punish a growling dog.
It’s natural for us to be upset when our dog growls. For many people, the growl in itself is an aggressive behavior. I see it as a warning, and an appropriate social skill. Your dog is letting you know that they are not okay – maybe they are scared, maybe they feel threatened, maybe they are in pain, or just frustrated or annoyed. But something is not right, and they are approaching a point where they could go over threshold and bite.
I love this quote from trainer Yamei Ross - "Punishing a dog for growling is like taking the batteries out of your smoke detector. You don't want to hear the noise, but the danger is still there." Essentially, if you get rid of growling by punishing your dog for it, you are teaching them to skip their safe, socially acceptable (in the doggie world) warning and go straight to the next step – for many dogs, this could be a bite.
What we really want to do is address the REASON your dog is growling. Long term, that is going to give you the most success in having a good relationship with your dog and preventing the growling from happening. But what do you do in the moment, when your dog is growling?
First, stop and assess the situation. Stay calm and go slowly. Does your dog have a resource like a bone or food they may be protecting? Is something making them fearful or uncomfortable? If I am approaching the dog, at this point I would make sure to not move any closer until I have a better idea of what is happening.
Second, and probably the most important piece of this puzzle, DO NOT ESCALATE THE SITUATION. (I had to yell that bit because it is so important and this is where most people go wrong in bite situations.) It is not necessary to “tell your dog who’s boss” or “not let them win” in this scenario. There is NO winning when a dog bites – you lose, they lose, everyone loses.
Third, figure out a way to safely proceed or retreat. If your dog is scared and you can safely remove them from the space, go ahead and do so. Find a quiet area like a crate or empty room for them to calm down. Remember that scary situations release stress hormones in your dog’s body and they may not immediately be okay when the stressful thing is removed, even if they seem more relaxed. If your dog is guarding something like a bone, see if you can call them away from the object or trade them for something better. Again, only try this if you feel like you safely can without escalating the situation. This may mean you “lose” this time, but it keeps everyone safe and gives you information you can use.
Fourth, make a training plan. This would be a good time to call a professional trainer or behavior consultant if you are not already working with one. Someone who has experience with these issues can help you identify the root of the problem and how to make your dog better moving forward. This will probably involve a combination of management to prevent the issue and training to teach them better responses or to change a negative association to a positive one.
If you are ever uncertain about what to do in the moment, just remember: never escalate the situation, and don’t be afraid to get help. Growling is communication, and it should always be listened to and taken seriously. Ignoring a growl could lead to a bite, and that is never good news for the dog or person involved.
We all want the best for our dogs. But we also want them to be their best for us. This is usually where I come in as a trainer – my job is to help you and your dog communicate more clearly and live in harmony.
That said, there are several common mistakes that I see pet owners make on a regular basis that set both the person and dog up for frustration and can damage your relationship (and make my job harder). These are some of the most critical ones.
1. Not Being Consistent
This is a big one. If you are not consistent, your dog is not going to understand what you want. This means your rules cannot change day to day and everyone in the house needs to be on the same page – if one day you are allowing them on the couch and the next day you are punishing them for it, your dog is going to be confused and there is no way for them to succeed. If you are constantly changing the words or hand signals you use to ask for a behavior, your dog won’t know what you want. Remember, your dog doesn’t speak English, and training is simply our way of communicating to them what we want. If our communication isn’t clear and consistent, it’s not going to work.
2. Not Setting Your Dog Up for Success
Supervision and management. These are two terms I repeat over and over again. If you are leaving steak on the counter and not supervising your dog in the kitchen, they are going to eat the steak. If you are letting a dog who is not house trained have complete freedom in the house when you can’t watch them, they are going to pee on the floor. Until your dog has learned what you want, you need to help them be successful, instead of setting them up to practice behaviors you don’t want. You want your dog to do the right behaviors so you have the opportunity to let them know you like those behaviors, instead of confusing them by getting upset when they do things that are totally natural to them and they have had the opportunity to do before.
3. Having Unrealistic Expectations
Your dog is not a person. Your dog is not going to be Lassie – Lassie is a TV character. Even the most well-trained dogs make mistakes or have off days. I frequently hear things like, “This dog is so much worse than my last dog/my neighbor’s dog!” Don’t compare your dogs to other dogs, even your own. Frequently this happens when a family has a new puppy or adolescent and is comparing them to the memory of a previous dog who was older or who had a lot more training and maturity during the good times they’re remembering. Appreciate your dog for their unique quirks and personality and adjust the way you approach and interact with them based on what they actually need, not on what you think they should be.
4. Looking for “Quick Fixes”
But really – there are NO QUICK FIXES in dog training. This is where many people go wrong. Training takes time and patience. Anything that is advertised as a quick fix is likely to be a scam or something that looks good immediately but has consequences long-term. Many harsh punishment methods are like this – they look like they work immediately, because they shut down the behavior in the moment, but they do more harm than good in the long run and can create anxious or even aggressive dogs. What you often see with these methods is what is called “learned helplessness” – the dog learns to just give up at the first sign of trouble. This may look like compliance to the untrained eye, but really what you have is a dog that lives a life of fear and stress and will shut down rather than offer any kind of useful or good behavior. This would be comparable in teaching a human to screaming profanities and insults at someone who is learning math every time they get a problem wrong, instead of teaching them how to do it correctly. They will learn what they shouldn’t do, but they won’t learn what they should do, and they probably aren’t going to like math very much. Have patience and put in the work, and not only will your training benefit, you’ll have a better relationship with your dog and they will want to work with you instead of constantly being afraid of making a mistake.
5. Not Communicating With Your Trainer
This is a huge one. If you are working with a trainer, let them know when things aren’t working or if changes happen! I can’t tell you how often people wait too long to tell me this and it makes it so much harder for them to be successful and for me to help their dog (also, it will cost you more in the long run if you have to keep buying lessons). Most trainers have pretty specific methods and training plans (because most of the time, they work), but every dog is different, and sometimes adjustments need to be made for a dog to learn. Don’t decide that a certain way of training doesn’t work for you because you tried it for a few days and nothing happened. It’s possible that your plan just needs a slight adjustment, or you misunderstood some of the instructions, or your mechanics are a little off. If you let your trainer know, they can help you figure out the root of the issue and set you down the right path. If you just give up or assume it’s the trainer or dog’s fault, you’ll never make any progress. That said, if you are really uncomfortable with something a trainer ask you to do, that is also a time to let them know that you don’t want to use that method and see if they are willing to have a discussion and either adjust or adequately explain why they won’t. If you can’t come to an agreement, it may be time to find a new trainer. Never do something with your dog that you aren’t comfortable doing.
These are just a few of the common mistakes that I see. Most of the time, just a little bit of work and communication can get these issues back on track. While I generally like to focus on the positive, it’s good to recognize the issues we may be having to help our training stay on track and to help everyone be successful and happy.
Many people don’t really know what positive reinforcement training actually looks like. They have an image of someone dangling a treat to get a dog to sit, or a soft-hearted person giving their dog goodies for looking cute. While these scenarios can certainly happen, they are not what positive reinforcement actually means.
What is positive reinforcement, really? When you break it down in scientific terms, “positive” means adding something and “reinforcement” means the behavior is increasing. So it means, simply, that you add something to the situation that makes the behavior happen more often.
Positive reinforcement is NOT bribery. When done correctly, your treat (or any other reinforcer) should be like a paycheck for a job well done.
There are a few training techniques that utilize positive reinforcement effectively for teaching pretty much any behavior. You can use one of these or a combination of any of them during a training session – some dogs or some behaviors may respond better to one than another, so it’s good to have all of them as part of your toolkit.
Luring – This is a pretty straightforward and quick way of teaching behavior. Luring basically means your dog is following something – a treat, your hand, a toy – until they do the behavior you want. This is most commonly used with behaviors like “sit” – for example, you hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose and slowly pull it back over their head so their nose follows the smell of the treat up and they lean back into a sit. When they are in the sit, they get the treat. Luring can be very effective in teaching new behavior, but it does hold the danger of teaching the dog to wait to see the treat. To avoid this, you need to fade out the visible reward as early in the process as possible.
Capturing/Catching – Capturing or catching a behavior means you wait for a behavior to happen on it’s own and then mark and reward it. (When I say “mark,” I mean a reward marker such as a clicker or “yes” that tells the dog they did the right thing and reinforcement is coming.) If you were using this method to teach sit, you would wait until the dog offered a sit on their own, then mark and reward. This can be very effective, but it does take patience and it can take several repetitions in some cases for the dog to figure out why they are being rewarded.
Shaping – Shaping means rewarding any movement toward the final behavior. Think of it like the “hot and cold” game. If the dog is getting “warmer,” they get marked and rewarded. If they are getting “colder,” nothing happens. This can be a really fun process for the trainer and dog, and is fantastic for teaching more complex behaviors in particular. It does require a bit more attention, practice and skill to do properly. But one of the benefits of using positive reinforcement is even when your timing isn’t perfect, the worst thing you’re doing is accidentally teaching them the wrong behavior – usually pretty easy to fix. This method can also take a bit more patience but is great for building confidence and teaching your dog to offer behaviors. For dogs who have been punished for offering behavior in the past in particular, this method can sometimes be tough at first as they are often worried about trying anything new. If you were using this to teach the sit in the other examples, you would mark and reward any physical movement that looks like they are leaning back first, then wait until they leaned back further to mark, and eventually wait until their rear end was touching the ground. Once they are doing well at one level, you look for a higher set of criteria (closer to the completed behavior) before rewarding again.
Targeting – Targeting means that your dog has learned to touch a target generally with their nose, and you can use this to direct them into the behavior you want. You first teach the dog to touch the target with their nose (generally a “target stick”, a rod with a ball or square target on the end, or sometimes the palm of your hand), and then use that behavior to direct them into what you want. If you wanted to use this for sit, you might hold the target a little over their head so they reach their nose up to touch it, just far enough back to get their body leaning back into a sit. This method tends to be most helpful for behaviors that involve the dog moving to a certain spot or position – for example, “place” or going into a “heel” position.
There are a lot of great options for training with positive reinforcement. The methods listed above can be used for a huge variety of behaviors – any trainer or dog owner can benefit from trying them all and knowing how they work. Pick a behavior and try a few of them out to see which method seems to be the most effective for you and your dog!
Sarah is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge and Skills Assessed. She lives in the Texas Hill Country near Austin with her two dogs, Percy, a cattle dog mix, and Clara, a lab/German Shepherd.