Older dogs: what to expect, how to deal

Lily will be 12 in February, and Cash 9 in August. My dogs are officially elderly (not that they’d believe you if you said it!). If you know your dog’s history, you’re probably going to have a decent idea of how they age. I may not know if Cash is going to get arthritis, but I do know he’s had a good diet with supplements and exercise all his life, which decreases the chances of aliments in general.

But what about those people who don’t know their dog’s history, or who maybe only learned later that diet and exercise can make a difference? What can you expect if you rescue an older dog?

Dog abilities change as they age; that’s no surprise. The behavior can change, too. Dogs are like people; some get less energetic, others retain their energy, some minds slow down, others don’t, some bodies break down, others stay healthy. We’re going to take a look at some of the things you can probably expect, and what to watch for.


Physically, dogs suffer from all the same ailments that people do. By the time a dog is 7, they’re considered a senior, equivalent from a biological perspective to a fifty-year-old human. (I know, we humans don’t feel senior at fifty! Dogs don’t feel senior at 7, either, but that’s when arthritis and the ilk set in.)

If you haven’t started supplements, now is the time. I recommend Dasuquin, for the way it removed Lily’s minor hip dysplasia (started when she was 9), and fish oil for the joint lubrication and mental sharpening facilities.

You might notice that whereas your dog could play fetch for four hours straight before, he can still play fetch for four hours straight… but now he’s stiff the next day. Watch for these types of things. Like us people, it might be fun to do something like that, but it’s not healthy. Unlike us people, dogs don’t stop and think of the consequences. Start cutting back on your dog’s behalf, if necessary. (Note: dogs can have one coated Aspirin every 24 hours. If you’re needing to give them more than once a month, though, take your dog to the vet and get some proper doggie pain meds.)

By the time most dogs are 9, age is noticeable. Cash, for instance, didn’t jump high enough to get into my van the other day. After that, he was hesitant to try again, and needed the confidence boost of a running start. He’s missed before (usually for reasons like not waiting until I moved something), but he’s never felt particularly hesitant afterward. This is my cue: his body isn’t working like he expects, and it’s startling to him. I’ve made a mental note, now, to keep an eye on how often I ask him to get in and out on a given work day. This is a consideration I already take for Lily (who can get in and out 3-5 times, depending on the day, but after that might need a hand).

Some time in here you’ll also often see fatty lumps on your dog. Have them checked out, but know that often they’re benign tumors. Warts appear as well, and have those checked out, too.

As your dog gets sore easier or surprises herself with NOT being able to get in the car, make sure you’re going for walks. Like people, dogs do better with steady, low-impact exercise. I’ve had to recently make it a point to take Cash and Lily for walks, instead of using work as their exercise, even though work is, in many ways, enough. They need help building muscle and keeping lean now, in a way they didn’t when they were younger.

Dogs are going to stay strong or deteriorate at their own rate. Our job is to keep watch, because they can’t tell us when something is wrong. Once a dog reaches 10, if you have no health issues, give yourself a pat on the back. Things are going remarkably well!


Mentally, it’s a different ballgame. As your dog ages, they’re most likely going to become less tolerant of whippersnappers (both human and canine). If you have a young creature in the house, protect the dog. They didn’t choose to have this critter join them, and grandparents shouldn’t have to babysit if they don’t want to!

If you haven’t taught your dog how to retreat when annoyed, now is the time. Set up a safe space for your older dog, where they can go and be left alone. When they retreat from annoyance, reward them. When they don’t, show them how. (You can tell if a dog is stressed because the ears pinch, the whites of the eyes show, and they pant heavily. For photos of this, check for stress in the body language tag. If your dog is showing any of these signs around a whippersnapper, remove your dog.)

As they become less steady or more arthritic, they may also become more defensive of their personal space. Often, the first inclination we have that our dogs are uncomfortable is when they get snappy in situations that they’d been fine in, before. (I jokingly refer to this as “cranky old dog syndrome.” “I don’t want to deal with whippersnappers, I’m sore and don’t want them near me, and they need to GET OFF MY LAWN!”) While supplements or pain killers might help, you want to make darn sure that you also keep your dog from being jumped on. Just because they don’t feel pain doesn’t mean it won’t damage them.

A playful elderly dog will most likely shift to tug of war, or standing in one place wagging and occasionally snapping playfully while the younger dogs run around them. That’s fine! If they’re enjoying it, encourage it. The more active your older dog stays, the healthier they will stay as well.

You’ll see odd habit changes, too. Cash has decided he’d rather sleep in Lily’s smaller beds with the bumpers than his own large bed or on the floor. It’s entirely likely that his joints are getting achy on the floor, or he’s getting tired holding himself in a ball instead of letting the bumpers on the bed do it. (I bought two more beds so they can always have one.)

You might see your dog get needy. This can be a sign of discomfort somewhere, but it can also be a reaction to being unable to do the things they used to. Keep a schedule that your dog can keep up with (this might include daily walks that are shorter than they used to be), so that your dog knows the rules are still the same. Let your dog know that the rules are still the same! Maybe now we have stairs to get onto the bed, but they still have to ask before coming up, for instance. You might have to adjust the way you do things; if you normally bump your dog out of the way when they jump on you, you might need to shift to using a squirt bottle to keep from tweaking joints.

Finally, while some dogs slow down mentally, not all of them do. Bones, toys, puzzle bowls, kongs — all of these are things that will help keep a dog mentally sharp, even if they move a little more stiffly than they used to.

Watch for physical and behavioral changes, and find a way to work around them. If your dog suddenly has a major behavioral or physical change, call the vet and then, if needed, call a dog trainer. The biggest thing with age is to make sure it’s not a physical issue before working with the behavior!

As for when all of this happens, any of it can happen any time after 7. What order it happens in, or if it happens at all, depends on the dog, their history, and their genetics. The important part is to love your dog, and remember: they’ve earned their assisted living apartment!



Case file: Lexie, fear aggression

A few months back I had a dog with fairly severe fear aggression stay with me. I started out just taking videos for her mom, but decided they’d be good for the blog, too! Some of the narration starts out very quiet, as I was trying not to distract the dogs. Most of the time, I get louder. Sorry about that!

Lexie is a four-year-old yellow lab who was attacked by a jack Russel at about a year of age. Her fear aggression started after that, and got worse over time until her owner reached the point of crossing the street to avoid other dogs. Lexie would approach another dog submissively, and then when she got close, attack with panicked intent. While Lexie and her mom still have a lot of work to do, we’re making progress!

Lexie had stayed with me once before, last year, so she had some memory of Cash and Lily. However, I had Brady there as well, so she stayed in her crate the first night for about three hours. When she came out, I kept Brady on leash (to keep him away from Lexie), or kept Lexie on leash (to keep her near me). The first video picks up the next morning, after more leash and crate time to get used to each other.

If you just want to see a heart-warming change, watch the first and last videos. More dogs were added as the week went on; no dogs were harmed in the making of this film!



Narrator: Jenna
Lexie: lab, “fearful pup”
Cash: king shepherd, “dad”
Lily: pit bull, “grandma”
Brady: golden retriever, “happy brother”
Frances: Australian shepherd, “timid sister”
Obi: pit bull x boxer, “fearless bff”

Case file: dog victim of dog attack

I recently received this email from a friend, in regards to her intact male Great Dane. The following is my response!


I know you normally deal with very aggressive dogs but I have a question about the victims. For the last 6 months, B has become the target of aggression by many dogs. It got really bad about a month ago when a dog slipped its collar at the school while he was playing with some other dogs and singled him out of the group from 30 feet away and made a beeline for him, attacked him  and tried to kill him. I had to pull the dog off of him. B was not fighting back and actually was trying to move away to avoid being bitten but he tripped over some smaller dogs and fell and the attacking dog saw an opening and just clamped down on his neck. After I finally got the dog to let go of B they took it away and B was completely fine with everything. He wasn’t afraid and we went to the other side of the field and kept playing.

About two weeks ago, I was at the field again and he was playing with two dogs that he has played with before. One of them is a golden retriever who is about a year old. Everything was going fine until the retriever was being pet by its owner and it laid on its back to have its belly rubbed. Just then, B went over to it and started sniffing at its belly and the retriever went nuts and started attacking B. Once again, he did not fight back and he did not act afraid but just moved out the way to avoid getting bitten. We had to physically restrain the retriever to make it stop.

Other times there is growling or hair up from the other dogs and once again, B is totally indifferent to them. He just stands there or he walks away from them. His posture to me does not look aggressive or challenging but apparently to the other dogs it is. Sometimes as he walks away, the other dog will follow him and try to get a reaction from him and he just ignores them and plays with his toys. It’s weird.

It seems to me that for some reason, B is failing to communicate to the other dog that he is not a threat and I am concerned that I have done something wrong to make him like this. Is there anything I can do to help him learn how to communicate with aggressive dogs better? Also, other than avoiding all other dogs completely or getting B fixed, do I have any other options?

My response:

From what you’re describing, B is communicating exactly as he should to tell other dogs he’s not a threat. He’s got three big things working against him: his size, his youth, and the fact that he’s intact.
Any smaller dog is going to go on the aggressive-defensive if it feels like B might be threatening. Not if the other dog feels B is aggressive, but if they feel like they might get stepped on, for instance. Because B is big, this is pretty much every dog at the park. So, the first thing to do is to call him off any dog that’s in a vulnerable position: lying down (belly up or back up; doesn’t matter), getting mobbed by several dogs, being chased by several dogs, and a dog that is playing hard and B goes to see what they’re up to. (If he trots up to two dogs playing hard with his head up, he’s saying, “Are you guys playing or fighting? Do you need help?” Those dogs may turn on him for trying to “help” or even join in, because playing hard gets the blood going and fighting hard is only a half step away. If he butts in where he’s not wanted, their frustration at that may easily turn to aggression.)
Now, his youth is an obvious thing: he’ll outgrow that in another year or two. In the meantime, young dogs are more exuberant and bouncy than older dogs; combined with his size, his bounciness may provoke defensiveness in another dog who is worried about getting bounced on. Young dogs are notorious for not realizing their size and strength, so older dogs will tell them to back off preemptively.
Finally, him being intact will make him a target. This isn’t a “get him neutered now!” problem, but more of a “be aware of dogs running at him” problem. A dog that has a tendency toward aggression will target him. The best thing you can do when you see a dog running toward him is call him to you, step between him and the other dog, and when the other dog is close enough charge it yourself and try to kick it in the abdomen. Don’t worry; despite my best attempts, it’s impossible to kick a dog in the abdomen. When you try, though, they tune in and leap out of the way. At worst, they’ll attempt to get around you and attack again, and at best they’ll hesitate and decide what to do, giving you or an owner a chance to grab the dog.
The good news: B is helping you out. Because he’s willing to run away from them, he’ll be far more willing for you to step between them and take care of the problem. If he ever does get the confidence to say, “I’ll help Mom get them!” chase him off (either then, or as soon as the danger is over) so he learns that’s not acceptable. It will only make the dog fight much, MUCH worse. After everything is over, praise him like crazy for running away or staying behind you. This does two things: reinforces that you don’t want him fighting, and bringing his mood up so the whole experience doesn’t become traumatic. He’ll walk away going, “Sure, there was a scary bit, but then we had fun!” That’s what you want.
Finally, if he gets snapped at or told to back off and he does, praise him again. A few seconds of praise and playing with his toys is perfect; we want bouncy, happy energy coming from you for a moment, so he knows for sure he did it right. (I often tell my dogs how proud of them I am, and scratch all along their sides to produce the wiggliness I’m looking for.)
I have all these same issues with Cash, but they’ve mellowed out as he’s mellowed out and learned to ignore dogs in vulnerable positions (or at least come away when I call). The target thing is still there, because he’s intact, but mostly dogs are okay with him. Hang in there, and start calling him away!

Affection and dogs

A week rarely goes by without someone telling me, shamefaced, that they let their dog sleep on the bed or a couch, or give their dog love just for the sake of giving them love. I know that this stems from a training theory I’ve heard from others: that giving dogs too much affection can cause problems. Some theories say that it makes the dog believe you’re not the alpha dog. Some theories simply say that it creates spoiled behavior. Other theories say that if we are to use affection as a reward, it must then be limited to your dog doing something. I say, phooey.

First of all, if we stop and analyze these theories there’s not much evidence for them.

“It makes the dog believe you’re not the alpha dog.” Aside from the fact that the status of “alpha dog” is highly debated among trainers and those who study dogs alike, this is simply untrue. In groups of dogs it was found that any dog higher in the pack hierarchy was perfectly willing to console another dog. (Often after a scuffle, the winner would go console the loser.) Of my two dogs, Lily is definitely higher than Cash, yet she consoles him when he’s upset, gives him attention even when he’s not, and generally rains affection on him. Clearly, it’s not affecting whether or not he thinks she’s top dog; he still treats her with deference, and I don’t enforce that. This pattern is repeated over and over, with clients who tell me, “Fido beats up on Fifi all the time, but then turns around and is so sweet. It makes no sense!” Alpha or not, dogs give affection to each other.

“It creates spoiled behavior.” I snuggle with Lily when I’m sick or when her special red blanket is on the couch. Lily has four different sweaters, one of them hand-tailored for her. She puts her head on my knee and demands attention when I’m writing, and I usually give it to her. Cash likes to put all 110-pounds of himself in my lap. He breathes in my face when I’m writing, hoping I’ll give him attention (and oftentimes I do). They both get pets and love just for looking at me in the middle of the night when I’m having insomnia. They both also get treats for doing tricks, but sometimes they just get treats because I feel like it.

Are they spoiled? Absolutely! But they’re not spoiled rotten. If Cash is breathing in my face and I tell him, “Not now, go lay down,” he does (or at least wanders off to find a toy!). If Lily is cuddling with me and I need her to move, she does. If I tell Cash to get off my lap — yeah, you’re getting it. So, has this become a problem? No. If I don’t mind, then it doesn’t really matter. You can’t call a dog spoiled when the owner is enjoying the behavior.

Finally, “[I]f we are to use affection as a reward, it must then be limited to your dog doing something.” This might be true. Maybe affection is more powerful if you limit it. But here’s the thing: have you ever had a friend, a boss, a coworker, or a family member who didn’t offer praise and affection? Have you had one that did? Quin, my beau, is one of the most loving and affectionate people I’ve ever met. I’m the lucky beneficiary of this affection most of the time. I could get affection from her* for doing nothing, but I find that the affection makes me more likely to do things that will make her happy. I’ve also worked and been friends with people who weren’t affectionate. When they did give me affection or praise for a job well done, it was far less motivating than it was with friends or bosses who were more praise-giving. I didn’t know when it was going to come again, and in general I just wasn’t as interested in pleasing them (because they were difficult to wring praise from), so I didn’t bother.

I’m anthropomorphising, here, but maybe dogs are the same way. I’ve never had a well-loved dog turn down yet MORE love for performing something. I’ve seen plenty of non-adored dogs refuse to try, or refuse to keep trying even after praise was given.

Now, a caveat to all this: if you give a dog affection when they’re being rude, demanding, or needy, it will make them more rude, demanding, or needy. But if your dog was being a sweetheart, hanging out, doing not much at all, and you want to love on him? Love on him! You don’t have to make him work for that. Love is unconditional, and the more you love, the more your dogs will work for you.

As for being on the furniture… sure, why not? Packs of dogs all sleep together. There’s no alpha-rule about that, even among studies that do find alpha behaviors. If you enjoy it, do it. And while you’re at it, give your dog a nice belly-rub. It’s good for both of you.


*Quin is in the midst of transitioning, so you may start hearing me refer to him instead of her. Don’t worry! We didn’t break up, we’re still getting married. It’s just a pronoun, and I couldn’t be prouder of her/him for being true to her/himself!

FAQ: How do I teach my dog to defend itself against another dog?

One of the most common searches that get people here is, “How do I teach my dog to defend itself?” There’s already a post on how to teach your dog to defend itself against people, but I have people ask me, frequently, how to teach their dogs to defend themselves against other dogs. Time to talk about that!

There are two things we’ll look at here: 1. Dogs defending themselves from annoying dogs at dog parks, and 2. Dogs defending themselves in dog fights.

1. Dogs defending themselves from annoying dogs at dog parks (etc)

I was at the dog park not too long ago, and someone’s perfectly friendly dog was trying to get another dog to play. We’ll call the friendly dog Friendly and the other dog Worried.

Friendly’s owner wasn’t calling him off because he was, clearly, friendly. Worried’s owner wasn’t doing anything, either because he didn’t know that there was a problem, or because he wanted his dog to defend itself. After circling away, rolling over, and trying to escape, Worried finally turned around and snapped at Friendly. Worried’s owner said, “That’s right, just tell him to back off,” and Friendly’s owner said, “Sorry about that,” but glared at Worried and his owner while taking her dog away.

What did the dogs just learn from this? Did Friendly learn to leave dogs alone when they look frightened? Did Worried learn that he can stand his ground, gain confidence, and get another dog to stop being a bully? No.

Friendly learned that this one dog is unpredictable and nasty. At best, Friendly is now going to be rude to some other dogs who might tolerate it, might be traumatized by it and never tell him to back off, might encourage it, or might attack him. There are enough dogs who will tolerate it or encourage it that he’s not going to learn to stop his behavior; he’s only going to learn that some dogs are unpredictable. At worst, Friendly learned that some dogs are unpredictable, he’s now going to be nervous which is going to bring out the other bullies and he’ll either be bullied and traumatized himself, or he’ll turn aggressive to keep the bullies at bay.

Meanwhile, Worried learned that meeting other dogs is scary and that he cannot trust his pack — his human — to help him. Dog packs work together and protect each other. When your dog is being bullied and you don’t step in, they learn that you either will abandon them to monsters and they can’t trust you (worst case), or that you’re useless, and they can’t trust you (best case). Worried also learned that attacking dogs will work. Next time a dog comes up to him he’s more likely to snap sooner and with more violence to get the dog to leave him alone. The next time it happens, he’ll up the ante again. Soon he’s dog aggressive.

This is the method most people use to teach their dogs to “defend themselves.” Now let me show you how dogs actually work.

One of my clients was having a problem with his young dog, A, mounting and playing too rough with more submissive dogs. We brought him to my house along with a submissive dog, Ike. Now, A is like Friendly, above: very friendly, very playful, but just getting full of himself. He could become a bully if we let him. I’ve spent a lot of time working with Cash and Lily so that they have excellent socialization skills, and neither overcorrect nor undercorrect a young dog. They each have different ways of dealing with a bully (Lily leaves the area and ignores them, while Cash plays “dad” and corrects them), but they are both appropriate.

We let A and Ike together. A started harassing Ike, playing too rough and trying to mount him. Ike did all the appropriate things; he tried to duck away when A was too rough, he tried to leave, he tried to lay down and request gentler play. A, being young, was oblivious.

Then we brought Cash in. Cash stood up tall (to say, “I’m not playing, here”) and went trotting after A as A went running after Ike. When A and Ike collided, Cash stood and watched for a moment. When it became clear that Ike wasn’t enjoying himself, Cash made a loud, open-mouthed noise and shouldered A away. He then proceeded to sniff A all over, essentially saying, “stay here and behave yourself.” After a minute, A eased himself away and went for Ike again.

Once again, Cash shouldered him away with a loud noise and they repeated the sniffing/licking/grooming ritual, with it increasing in time as Cash settled into his father role, and A settled into being a younger dog. When A eased away, he went more carefully to Ike. After a minute, he started getting pushy again; once again, Cash stepped in. This went on for about forty minutes before A got the idea and started playing nicely with Ike (who, realizing he was protected by Cash, agreed to play instead of running away), and rougher with Cash (who doesn’t mind playing rough).

What just happened in our pseudo-dog pack? Rather than teaching Ike to defend himself, Cash taught A to have good manners. Ike grew in confidence seeing that he was protected, and came out to play, meeting A halfway.

So in our dog park scenario above, someone should have come to Worried’s rescue, and taught Friendly firmly and persistently that he couldn’t play rough. Simply pushing him gently away from Worried would suffice.

Note also that if your dog is confident and knows that aggression isn’t okay, but they can’t get away from the annoying dog, they’re going to correct another dog appropriately. With a little noise, a shoulder away, and maybe a bark to say, “Hey! Enough!” They’re going to be Cash.

2. Dogs defending themselves in dog fights.

“Okay,” I hear you cry, “that’s all well and fine for dogs who are friendly but rude. What about a dog fight?”

Okay! Here we go.

Lily was doing zoomies around a ranch one day, when the ranch dog, who had some aggression issues, decided she’d had enough. She came charging over to Lily and attacked. I was much too far away to do anything, though I started running over. This was before I started using Lily for aggressive dogs, back when she’d been willing to fight other dogs, which was something we’d been working on. As I ran I yelled, “Lily! Down!”

Lily dropped under the much larger akita like a sack of bricks. The akita continued to stand over her, jaws clamped around Lily’s throat, snarling. When I got there, I grabbed it by the scruff until it let go, then I pulled it off and freed Lily. No one was injured.

If Lily had fought back against that dog, it would have escalated the situation. The dog weighed twice what Lily did, and had a thick coat to protect her from bites. Lily would have been injured, possibly both dogs would have been injured, and since Lily is a pit it’s possible the owner could have claimed that Lily started it. Lily, given society’s current feeling about pits, could have paid a very high price. Should she have defended herself at the risk of her life? No.

Here’s another scenario. I had Cash at a dog park, and a smaller dog started attacking him. Cash yelped repeatedly and ran to me while I was running to him. I grabbed Cash’s collar and pushed the other dog away, continuing to push him away. When the owner reached me, she scolded me for not letting Cash defend himself. Here’s the thing: that dog weighed maybe 40 pounds. Cash weighed 110. If Cash had defended himself against the smaller dog, he could have badly hurt the smaller dog without even meaning to. Cash would have ended up paying that price, too, at best being banned from dog parks and forced to wear a muzzle outdoors (at worst being put down). I’d have been liable to pay that dog’s vet bills and would have a dog on the federal “dangerous dog” list (which means an official sign, increased renter’s insurance or unable to get renter’s insurance at all), all because my dog defended himself. Instead, Cash learned that I will protect him, and when it happened again he was more willing to tolerate the bad behavior, less frightened by it, and grew in confidence. Now, that sort of minor aggression doesn’t both him; he swings out of the range of teeth and avoids it. (For major aggression, he’s still smart enough to run!)

It takes two dogs to be in a dog fight. If one of them refuses to fight, the likelihood of an injury drops significantly.

So… how do you teach your dog to defend itself against another dog? Don’t protect it. Consequently, you will:

1. Have a dog who doesn’t trust you
2. Run a far greater risk of injury to your dog and others’ dogs
3. Run a far greater risk of dog fights ending in having to give your dog up or put them down
4. Run a far greater risk of being unable to get or pay for insurance
5. Go against a dog’s nature, which is to work as a team and be protected

Given all this, why would you teach your dog to defend itself? If you want a confident, safe dog, teach them to ignore or walk away from aggression and dog fights, and that you’ll protect them so they feel safe enough to try new things, try playing with new dogs, and tolerate worse behavior than they might otherwise — because they know you’ll have their back.



*Edit: This post has created a surprising, to me, amount of controversy. People with opposing opinions are welcome to express them politely; anyone name calling will have their comment deleted.

Generalizing good behavior

One of the things that trips people up in dog training is this concept of generalization. If I, as a human, learn that I should look at someone when they’re speaking, then I know that that rule is likely to be true whether I’m home, at the grocery store, at a park, with my friends, or in another state. The idea that I need to generalize knowledge doesn’t even enter our consciousness, because in many (if not most) cases we do it automatically.

Dogs, however, do not. If I teach my dog “sit” while we’re at home, he’s not going to also assume that “sit” means the same thing when we’re at the park, visiting friends, having guests over, etc. As far as dogs are concerned, the rules change every time the situation changes. If you want your dog to do the same thing in different situations, you have to practice in different situations. (This is why I’m always going on about, “Now practice recall out front, out back, at the park, down the street…”)

Take Cash. Over the last month I decided I was going to try out a new theory. This theory says that, according to research, dogs in the wild don’t behave like wolves.* One of the notable differences is that when they go hunting, the alpha dogs don’t walk in front: the social dogs do. So I thought, “Huh. I’ll try it out; I’ll let my dogs walk ahead of me and see if anything happens.” (I have a whole post in my head on theories and research about dog behavior, so I won’t get into the details now about walking ahead vs walking beside and why I think it makes such a difference, but it does.)

After a few weeks, when Cash had gotten pretty good at walking ahead of me and I decided I didn’t like it anymore, I had to reverse the problem I’d created. I also decided to try the sitting technique, and see if that taught him faster than other techniques I’ve tried.** Every time Cash started to pull ahead of me, I stopped walking. He would sit down, but he’d sit down a foot in front of me: when we started walking again, he was already ahead. So I modified it: every time he got ahead of me, I not only stopped walking but backed up, bringing him back with me and realigning him. I then gave him a verbal cue. (Since I’d told him he didn’t have to listen to my body language by allowing him to walk ahead, I now needed something more obvious. Also, I kind of like the thought that I can SOMETIMES let him wander ahead on-leash, but that means I need verbal cues.) I said, “Heel.”

At first, I was stopping every few feet. Because Cash already knows how to walk beside me, though, it didn’t take him long to realize that we were back to that old thing. Within about three days, our walks looked like this:

We’d leave the house. I’d make him sit. I’d say, “Heel,” and he would. I’d have to stop 2-4 times, depending on how distracted he was, by the third house we passed. After that he got in the groove. I might have to stop another 1-2 times to remind him over the span of a 20 minute walk if I wanted him to be perfectly head to hip (and not drift a few inches here or there).***

I was happy with that.

Yesterday, we went to run some errands. First, we dropped the car off at the mechanic for a tune-up. From there, we walked to the bank, the clothing store, the pet store, and finally Starbucks. I was telling Cash to stop and sit every few feet for three blocks before he started to get it.**** Why? Generalizing.

He’d learned that at home in our neighborhood, he had to walk nicely beside me. That doesn’t, in his mind, mean he has to do that when we’re downtown. On top of that, he has motivation to ignore me downtown: people petting him, new things to sniff, cars, dogs, pedestrians, lights, shops, blasts of A/C from shop doors, the caw of crows, alleyways, trash cans, benches, a LOT of other dog pee — overload! It took me far longer to get him to focus than it does in our neighborhood because there was SO MUCH going on. Once he did focus, he got it faster than he did at home because we were doing something he knew. So, let’s look at timing:

At home, it took me the first five minutes of our walk to get him to focus when he was first learning this. After that he still messed up — a lot — but he was at least paying attention.

Downtown, it took twenty minutes to get him to focus and even think about paying attention, even though he wasn’t learning anything new.

At home, it took several walks before he really understood what I wanted, and got it right most of the time with just a few reminders when we started out.

Downtown, once he started focusing, he understood right away, and still needed a few reminders (distractions!) but was really very good.

The frustrating thing is that first twenty minutes of him being completely unfocused and brain dead. Even though I know what’s going on, it’s still frustrating. The thing to remember is that once they do get it, they get it fast: they’re not learning something new, they’re learning that what they already know applies here, as well!

For the record, even I lost my patience. I’d back up and say, “What is the MATTER with you?” even though I knew what was the matter with him. Then I’d take a breath, remind myself he wasn’t doing it on purpose or trying to be bad, and start again. (It’s always easier to be completely calm with other peoples’ dogs than with your own!)

So the next time you have friends over and you want to show them your dog’s awesome trick… remember that you might have to re-train the trick first, because your dog probably hasn’t generalized to “guests!”



*Insomuch as we have any idea of how wolves behave. That’s a much murkier topic than you’d think, given the way people talk about it.

**I can’t say that it worked faster, but it did so with him staying calm instead of getting stressed. He has a low stress threshold when it comes to training, so I already knew that would be the case! He does best with positive reinforcement… but I never remember his treats.

***Hello, my name is Jenna, and I’m a perfectionist. I have to remind myself that just because he’s drifted a few inches doesn’t mean I need to consider it “wrong.” It’s a few inches. Get a grip, Jenna. On the other hand, I consider it progress that I can at least recognize that. I also recognize that if I saw another dog walking as well as Cash walks, I would think, “Wow, they did their work. Nicely done!” In turn, that reminds me that those few inches are not the end of the world. Once I realize that, I can usually apply it to myself and Cash. Being a recovering perfectionist is seriously hard work!

****I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped for several seconds every time you take 3-4 steps, but it makes things verrrrrry slow going and kind of annoying.


PS the holidays are coming! Now might be a good time to check out how to prepare your dog for the holidays by clicking on the holiday training posts!

Fear behavior and training

More videos today! A picture says a thousand words, and a video… well, it says a lot more.

Riley is a lab mix with a lot of fear behaviors. She’s a little timid in the first place, so her owner (Doris) and I do a lot to make sure her confidence stays high, and she meets new (scary) things in positive situations. I first introduced Riley to her new backpack a couple of days before this video was taken. It took about 20 minutes to get her calm around it, to see that it was no big deal. I did all of the same things you’ll see in the video, just at tinier increments. (So instead of flopping it on her shoulder, I started flopping it on the floor, then her leg, then up her body to her shoulder.)

This is the second time Riley has had her backpack on, and I videoed it for Doris so she could see what I’d done. Doris is kind enough to let me show the video to everyone!

A few things to note: in the first video, her body language is anxious. She’s willing to try, but she’s very nervous. You can see this in the way her tail and lower back are pinched (spine is stiff = negative emotional state). I move forward anyway. If she’s willing to try, then I know that it’s just a matter of time before she’s comfortable. I move forward, because if I introduce a slightly harder thing, then that anxiety-provoking thing of a moment before becomes easy. If a dog starts retreating, you know you pushed too fast, and you just back off to where they’re comfortable again and give them more time. Dogs are excellent communicators: they’ll tell you when it’s too much!

Around the 2:30 mark, I say, “I’m pulling it off in the most obnoxious way possible.” This goes back to the idea that I don’t want to be careful about anything, because the backpack isn’t going to be careful about not catching on stuff or, if a strap breaks, falling off. So I want the most obnoxious thing possible to happen in a controlled setting so she sees it’s not scary.

At the 2:44 mark she puts herself in her crate, and I talk about this a little bit. I wait for her to come to me again because she’s been willing to try. If she were to say she’s going to put herself in her crate and not try at all, I would bring her (i.e., drag her if I had to) slightly closer, and then praise her for it. If she’s willing to try, I’m willing to give her space. If she’s not willing to try, I’m going to tell her she has to try just one step, and then praise. That way, she’ll figure out that bravery is rewarded.

At the 3:50 mark you’ll notice I can’t get the backpack hooked before she walks away. I stop trying, because restraining her is more stressful than the backpack falling. Why? Well, we’ve worked on the backpack falling! That’s not scary anymore, and I want her to know she can retreat if she needs to.

Got all that? Great! Onto the video!

Now, when we came back from our walk we did a minor version, for reasons I explain in this second video. I also did it in a different way: I stood up. Note that her tail and lower back are no longer pinched: after a 50 minute walk, all that worry about new stuff was gone. She’d had time to get accustomed to it!

(As an aside: I do not recommend prong collars for most dogs with fear and anxiety issues. Riley has one because she learned to walk perfectly without it so we don’t need to use it often, and it therefore doesn’t increase her anxiety. Believe me, we’ve kept a very close eye on how she’s reacting in general, and how she’s reacting to that! The prong collar is used specifically to help her petite mother keep her from jumping on people, which is the current issue we’re working on.)

There you go! Riley’s mom says: “Every time I go touch her backpack, she gets all excited.” Hooray!