Time To Walk the Dog!

waking the dogSpring is here in the beautiful Boston Mountains, and if you are anything like me, you are ready to get out and enjoy it! There isn’t much better than a relaxing hike with your best friend, but for so many, walking the dog is anything but relaxing!

I sometimes imagine that, if our dogs could change one thing about us, it would be the speed at which we move.  Our dog’s natural gait is typically much faster than ours, and varies in speed. It’s no wonder they often drag us out the door and down the road!

Training your dog to walk nicely on the leash can be great for both of you. He will get more exercise and stimulation, and you will be able to enjoy his company while getting exercise. While this exercise can take some time, it is really worth doing.

Here are some step by step tips to help you teach your dog to walk nicely on a leash.

1. CHOOSE THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT. All mammals have an involuntary dogHarnessLeadreflex that causes them to pull against anything that pulls on them. It’s called “opposition reflex”.  The more pressure your dog feels pulling him back, the more pressure he will apply to try and counter it. Switching to a piece of equipment that reduces the pressure on your dog when he pulls will actually reduce the force with which he pulls.  I recommend a harness for my clients. In addition, a harness is safer for your dog. The neck is a sensitive area, and damage to the trachea, esophagus, and thyroid are permanent.

2.  IF YOUR DOG IS PULLING, STOP IMMEDIATELY.  Any behavior we reward will be repeated, and if your dog is trying to get to a particular smell or location and he pulls you there he will receive his reward. This will teach him to pull on the leash to get where he wants to go. So the first thing you need to do is establish a new rule: He no longer gets to move when the leash is tight. When he tightens the leash, stop.  Try and get his attention thewoman walking dog first few times and see if he doesn’t reduce the tension on the lead himself. Once he does, proceed forward. If he stands (or sits) with the leash pulled tight, give him your verbal command for walking (I use “Let’s go!”) and turn and go the other way.

3. TEACH YOUR DOG WHERE TO WALK.  This doesn’t mean teach him where NOT to walk.  There are so many places you don’t want him to walk.  The best course of action is to teach him where you DO want him to walk.  Reward the position with treats, toys, and praise. Be consistent about where you want him to walk.  Practice sits in heel position, and take a few steps at a time, rewarding him as he stays in step with you.  If you focus on where NOT to walk your dog may get confused or even give up.  He may also develop leash frustration, which often turns into leash aggression. We want the walk to be fun for everyone, not torture for all.

Stick with it, keep practicing, and have fun!


Just QUIT!

Chloe sittingBy definition, positive reinforcement is rewarding a behavior to increase it’s frequency.  So how does a positive reinforcement trainer (R+) address unwanted behavior without resorting to punishment?  It’s easier than you think!

The first thing you have to do is find out what reward the dog is already getting from the unwanted behavior.  Dogs don’t have complicated agendas, so we can often figure this out fairly easily.  For example, if your dog is jumping up on you, it is simply his attempt to get your attention. Dogs, like children, will take negative attention if they can’t get positive attention, so any attention you show to your dog when he is jumping is rewarding the behavior.  Behaviors that are rewarded get stronger, so the behavior gets increasingly worse.

You may have heard other, more devious reasons, for the jumping behavior.  Let me assure you, your dog does not have an agenda, and is not trying to take over the world.  In fact, you (or whomever raised your dog as a pup) may have inadvertently trained your dog to perform this behavior by picking him up whenever he jumped on them.  I mean, who can resist that cute little round ball of clumsy puppy cuteness? He jumps on you, you pick him up and cuddle him.  And then he grows up to be 80 pounds, and the jumping isn’t so much fun anymore. So now how do we make it stop?

The first thing is to take the reward OFF of the unwanted behavior. If your dog jumps on you to get attention, then that is the last thing you want to give him.  Don’t look at him, talk to him, or acknowledge him in any way while his paws are on you. The behavior has just lost it’s reward.

Next (and this is where the positive reinforcement really shines) you teach your dog a new behavior to replace the one you don’t like, and you choose a behavior that is not compatible (cannot be done simultaneously) with the unwanted behavior. For jumping, I typically use sit. Your dog cannot jump and sit at the same time, so if the rewards happen with sit, but don’t happen with jumping, your dog will choose to sit.

Learned behaviors are not unlearned overnight. And like a child who is used to getting his way and is suddenly told “No”, the behavior, like the demands of the child, will get more intense before it goes away.  Don’t give in.  Be consistent, and you will find that your dog walks up to you and sits in front of you, asking politely for your attention.

Wanted: Stupid Dogs

969295_10202087230557656_1881258849_nYeah, Baby Z thinks it sounds crazy, too.  But is it really?

Think about it.  Do you really want Lassie as a dog?  I would posit that many people do not – not really.  They do not want a dog that could make them breakfast and then wash the dishes afterwards, because that dog could also manage to accomplish an awful lot of things that didn’t make them happy.

Lassie was a problem solver.  She always knew what to do when Timmy fell down the well.  But take this into the real world.  A dog that smart that can solve problems may just become one himself to anyone who doesn’t really appreciate him for who he truly is:  a dog.

Too often I am called by well meaning individuals who want me to take the dog out of their dog.  They see dogs that are trained with certain methods that would never think of doing anything they are not specifically asked to do.  They very rarely do anything on their own.  They sit and wait for their handler’s commands.  They do not act like dogs act.  Not anymore.  They call this training.  I call it robotization without the robots.  It takes any free thought away from a dog.  The dog learns not to think for himself, and often becomes a dog that could not find its way out of a paper bag.  Stupid dog.

I think this is sad.  I like dogs that can be dogs.  Yes, I want them to have certain boundaries they live by, but I don’t make them so rigorous that they can no longer behave like a dog.  I don’t live with dogs because I want to live with a being that never thinks for itself.  I live with beings who are dogs, and act like dogs, and yes, occasionally get into trouble like dogs.  Because I love dogs.  I love being surrounded by dogs who think, dogs who love, dogs who occasionally learn how to do something I wish they couldn’t do.

Dogs play, dogs chew, dogs chase, dogs bark, dogs zoom!  I allow my dogs to do all of these things because it makes them happy.  And when they are happy, I am happy.  So if you want your dog to act like a robot, be seen and not heard, be a part of the furniture (or worse – a lawn ornament), well, you might want to find a trainer who doesn’t love dogs as much as I do, because that just isn’t who they are.  But if you want them to be well behaved but thinking dogs who are capable of solving problems and being the creative, loving, and fun creatures that they naturally are, I would love to meet you.  You are my kind of person.  I will not make your dog stupid.

Am I A Monster?

Dogs 004I want to make something crystal clear:  I do not hate anyone.  There are some methods I don’t like.  I don’t like seeing dogs in a pinch collar, a shock collar, or a choke collar. I believe these methods to be harmful to the dog, and to the dog owner relationship.  I never like to see a dog that was trained with fear and punishment.  That being said, the trainers that use these techniques are regular human beings, like you and I.  How do I know this?  I was once one of these trainers.

Those of you who have known me long enough know that the face pictured above is my beloved beagle, Molly, who was trained using a shock collar.  I have no bigger regret in life than I put my baby girl through such a thing, but I did so with the best of intentions.  I had always, and will always, believe that a strong recall can save a dog’s life.  And I thought back then I couldn’t get that without the use of force.  It’s what those who taught me to train told me, and they were taught by others.  We were all in the same boat of doing things we regarded as “right” for the dog according to what we had been taught and what was common practice, but we were wrong.  Not bad people, not sociopaths, not people who would ever tolerate animal abuse (as we defined it in our ignorance).  Just people who loved our dogs, and wanted what was best for them.

I won’t even tell you I didn’t see it.  There was a part of me that had to turn a blind eye to what it was doing to my girl.  I knew no other way, and I wanted my girl to be safe off lead, and so, even though there were times my stomach tightened when I had to use the equipment, I thought it was necessary.  And I convinced myself it wasn’t hurting her.  I convinced myself it was best for her.

It was not until I spent time with several wonderful trainers who used reward based training that I truly was able to acknowledge the damage I had done to my Molly girl.  They did not judge me.  They did not berate me.  They simply showed me ways I could do it in the future without the use of painful and stressful tools.

One day I saw an advertisement for a workshop with Gail Fisher.  I admit I had no idea who she was, but my friend and mentor Maggie told me to go to the workshop.  I was a little horrified when I walked in and realized it was a clicker training workshop.  I had not anticipated that.  But Gail was fantastic, and she showed how, with good timing and lots of positive reinforcement, you could train a dog to do just about anything.  I left a convert.  I have never looked back.

But I always look forward.  I look for new information, new science, and new techniques everywhere I turn.  I have even learned from some trainers that I don’t agree with, and been able to modify their techniques to fit my own convictions.  I firmly believe you never need to cause fear or pain to a dog in order to train it.  I didn’t always believe that.  I wish I had started with Gail.  But even she used punishment and fear at one point in her career.  She is very open about it.  And I want to be very open about it.

I know trainers that use aversive techniques can be terrific people who love dogs.  And, for their sake, and for the sake of the dogs that they work with, I hope they love to learn, and will be open to new ideas.  And when they see that dogs can be trained without fear, pain, and intimidation, I hope that they will give up the traditional training methods and opt for methods that are fun and rewarding to the dog.  Positive reward training works, but it doesn’t make me a better person than someone who uses punishment.  It just means I have seen the power of positive reinforcement, and the damage that can be done when fear is used to motivate.  I know because I have been there.  I wish I hadn’t damaged my Molly in my learning process.  But she, being a beagle, has forgiven me, and loves me with all her heart.




The biggest mistake I see people make when greeting a dog is to rush in and touch the dog before the dog has a moment to figure out who they are or what their intentions are. This can be extremely dangerous when dealing with an unknown dog.

When approaching an unknown dog you should ALWAYS check with the person on the end of the leash.  Make sure the dog is receptive, and DO NOT TAKE IT PERSONALLY if the handler tells you the dog is not.  Just say thank you, and walk away.  You never know what the dog’s history is.  The dog may have been poorly socialized and fearful of people.  The dog may have pain issues.  The dog may have been rescued from a life of abuse.  You just can’t know.

Not all wagging tails mean receptive dogs.  Dogs wag for a multitude of reasons, not all of which are good.  Do not take for granted that the dog is wagging because he is friendly.

Avoid staring at a dog that you do not know.  This can be very threatening to a dog, and may make an otherwise receptive dog wary of you.  If you want to be friendly, talk to the owner for a minute and give the dog a chance to become comfortable with your presence.

It’s never a bad idea to allow the dog to sniff you before you make any attempt to reach for him.  This will help him feel secure that he has some information about the stranger who is about to touch him.  Would you want a stranger to walk up to you and touch you without greeting you first?  I wouldn’t.  Sniffing is a greeting for dogs, so let him sniff you first.

Do not reach over a dog when you first meet it.  Even if the owner gives their okay.  The dog will appreciate your courtesy if you reach under his chin to scratch, and work up to the scratch on top of the head.  Having anyone you don’t know who outweighs you tower over you can be intimidating.  Be respectful.

I cannot stress enough how much scent means to dogs.  As much as we rely on our eyes to maneuver and interpret the world in which we live, dogs use their noses to navigate their world.  Imagine being blindfolded and asked to meet a room full of strangers.  Don’t deprive the dog his most important sense.  Let him sniff you!

Do not anthropomorphise the situation.  The dog is a dog, and you are a human, and you have different cultural norms and ways of thinking and behaving. Contrary to popular thought, just because a dog isn’t comfortable with you does not make you a bad person.  It also doesn’t make the dog a bad dog.  There could be something about your body language, your scent, your haircut, hat, or what you are wearing that the dog doesn’t understand as friendly.  It’s nothing personal, and you aren’t going to change it in a five minute interraction.  Think of it this way: Human children have been known to be fearful of Santa, clowns, the Easter Bunny at the mall.  It doesn’t mean that Santa isn’t a wonderful person.  It just means that the child, using his strongest sense (sight), has found someone who looks very different then he is used to, and is scared of the unknown.  And we don’t takefear personally, because it cannot be controlled by the fearful.