Training Interest

So, my current project is Champ. After the vet shenanigans three weeks ago, it took me a solid week just to get the bandages off his back legs. I continued to pair touching his legs with treats, though, and now he’s not bothered at all when I handle his back legs. We also went back to the vet’s waiting room, and hung out getting treats while I handled his legs.

As Champ has settled into my house, he’s discovered the yard. I think he’d be happy to spend all his time out there, and at first, I let him. As he’s spent more time out there, though, he’s become progressively less interested in me. I’d like to keep his sweet, adoring, cuddly nature, so it’s time to do something about that.

When you have a dog who isn’t overly interested in people, you have to create interest. Every time they tune in, they get rewarded. In Champ’s case, I’ve set up short training times during the day. He and I get together (I put any pushy dogs outside so we’re without distraction, though Cash and Lily stay inside for role models if needed) and we train.

It doesn’t really matter what we work on; what matters is that because I become a source of interaction, praise, pets, and food, I become much more interesting. We worked on sit (which he already knew), touching all four feet (which he’s now quite good at), looking at his teeth (which he shrugged off), and “down” — which confused him entirely. Poor kid really had no idea! At first I rewarded even a downward inclination, and when I started doing that, he got it after a few more minutes.

Often, I can create interest simply through talking to the dogs (a reward) or giving an occasional treat when they come. Champ, however, has massive emotional trauma, and was happy to ignore talking and even treats, if it meant he could entertain himself outside.

It’s really handy to have a dog who tunes in. If I’m at a dog park, I’ll reward my dogs whenever they tune in, whether it’s with a loving word, a pet, or a treat. If I’m walking, it’s the same thing — usually a smile and something like, “Hey, kid.” Just an acknowledgement that we’re in this together.

If my dog gets acknowledgement every time she tunes in, soon she’s tuning in often. Now when I need to catch her attention, we’re halfway there. If a fight breaks out at a dog park, and my dog is already in tune with me, I have a MUCH better chance of getting them away from the fight than if they’re thoroughly ignoring me. If a group of bicyclists goes racing past and my dog has been tuning in, it’s no problem to quietly tell them it’s all right and for them to hear me.

If my dog doesn’t get acknowledgement when she checks in, and she’s not bred to be a dog who checks in, what’s to keep her doing it without something nice? If she doesn’t do it when things are calm, she’s certainly not going to do it in any of the above scenarios!

It’s also handy to use when you’re losing your dog’s concentration frequently. The other day I was working with a client to teach her dog not to leave the yard. While there was a consequence for leaving the yard (a sharp tug on her rope — usually caused by her own speed), there was also a reward if she saw something interesting, and instead of investigating tuned back into her owner — whether or not we had to remind her (a noise or word was our reminder). It didn’t take long at all before she realized that tuning back in got a reward, and that was better than staring at whatever she was staring at. Soon, she was seeing something interesting, checking in for her reward, and then watching the interesting thing BUT remembering her manners (not to leave the yard) because she’d just checked in.

There’s so many things in this world that are fascinating to dogs, we have to make sure we’re more fascinating, that it’s worthwhile to engage with us. Rather like a relationship with another person, wouldn’t you say?



Coping with Failures and Setbacks

Everyone has those times when things go wrong, and your training is set way, way back. If you can think through those moments, you can often mitigate some of the trouble. The rest of it, we just work through. This is my set back story, so you can see where I messed up, what choices I made and why (for good or ill; in most cases only time will tell!), and how I mitigated it as much as possible.

I have a new foster. He’s a year and a half old pittie that I boarded this past spring for five days to try and fix some major behavioral problems. Those problems improved greatly, but in the end his owner realized that a small apartment and a 12-hour-a-day job wasn’t right for a young dog, and it would be better for Champ to be re-homed. (His owner had inherited Champ after a death in the family.)

It had become apparent during the initial boarding phase that Champ had some congenital aggression issues. (Congenital aggression means the dog was born with it; there’s some funny hardwiring in the brain or body, much like people with personality and mood disorders. Much like people with disorders, what the dog goes through in life will partially determine in what way and how severely the disorder develops.) We’d implemented behavioral changes that helped quite a bit, but since I started fostering him (just two weeks ago) I thought blood work and medication might be a helpful route, as well.

Today, we needed to do blood work. As it happens Champ’s vet is the vet I use, and they already know many of his issues. (The vet, owner and I were all working together. I love having good working relationships with the vet!) I didn’t have to prep anyone, which was really nice. Champ and I were let into a room for a tech visit to draw blood, and I spent a few minutes practicing his handling skills; holding his head still, giving a treat. Holding his legs, giving a treat. I did as many of these types of things as I could think of.

When the tech, Amy, came in she had a muzzle with her. Champ is  muzzle trained due to vet issues in the past, and I was able to put it on him with not much fuss. Amy suggested we use a hind leg instead of a front leg, as it might be easier. I agreed.

Here’s where things went haywire. I held Champ in a big bear hug, head restrained and body snuggled up against mine. We needed two vials of blood, and the first one went pretty well. It was mostly full when he decided he was done, and kicked out.

In kicking out, the needle blew his vein. This isn’t anyone’s fault; this is animal medicine. When Amy tried to switch to his other back leg, things fell apart.

In most dogs with learned aggression, there are a few body-hold tricks you can usually do to make them submit and give up. I don’t like using these, although I will in a dire situation. This was a dire situation: it would take six months of training to MAYBE get Champ to let a stranger take blood from his back leg. We don’t have that kind of time; if we can figure out what’s wrong and treat it through supplements or pills, his whole life will get better and training will go much smoother immediately.

Back to Champ and our vet visit. He started thrashing, but wasn’t growling. I did a few restraining maneuvers while Amy tried to get blood, but each time he felt the needle Champ would thrash madly. He began growling. Knowing it might not work at all (but hoping), I decided one of those submissive-give-up holds might be kinder in the moment. If I could get him to give up, then we could get blood and be done. I could build back up trust later.

I tried a couple of different holds; Champ kept growling and fighting. One of the most common symptoms of congenital aggression is that dogs don’t give up. “Normal” dogs realize when they’re trapped and will not win, and go lax. They give up. Alternately, they realize when they’re out matched in a fight, and flee (or stop the behavior you’re trying to eliminate). This is where the idea of an “alpha roll” or pinning a dog down comes in. (For the record: I prefer to use many other methods.)

So, what did I say? Oh yeah. Common symptom: they never back down. Champ doesn’t have many of the common symptoms (and has many uncommon ones) of congenital aggression, so I was hoping a pin to make him give up would work. You can pin a dog in various ways, both to the floor and not. For a moment, I had him on the floor and I thought it was working. He took a breath, settled, and relaxed, belly-up. I cooed and rubbed with my fingers for a minute — and then he lost it again. When I couldn’t hold onto him, I knew that wasn’t going to work.

Eventually, I got his head restrained in such a way that he couldn’t toss us around anymore (me sitting on the floor, his shoulders against my chest, my arm wrapped around his head in a head lock — thank goodness pitty heads are so big!), but I didn’t have enough hands to keep his back leg still. Amy got another tech, and we finally got the blood.

The whole process took about 20 minutes. (Props to The Whole Pet Vet and their awesome techs, especially Amy, who didn’t give up on us and didn’t panic about the snarling, thrashing, 60-lbs pit bull in my arms!) Afterward, Amy and the tech (whose name I didn’t catch) left, giving me permission to use the room for as long as I needed.

To give you an idea of how much thrashing there was, my abdomen is scratched and was bleeding slightly through my shirt, I have bruises mottling one thigh despite jeans, more bruises across my arm, and I believe I either pulled or bruised my bicep and deltoid muscles. Because I was taking the battering rather than letting Champ hurt himself, he came out of it better than I did!

From a training perspective, what just happened? Well, I’m not ashamed to say it was a clusterfuck. While I know that getting blood to get him on meds was important for the long term, I also know that this is a major set back in the short term. For a dog who is already wary of strangers, he just had a horrible experience. Thanks to the staff, I was able to mitigate it as much as possible.

Still sitting on the floor, I held onto Champ until he was no longer rigid. I didn’t want to let go of him until he was willing to be with me, relaxed. While we have a relationship, I had broken his trust, pinning him still while strangers did scary, painful things to him. I needed to make sure that he and I separated with him remembering that I also provided love and cuddles.

When I felt that he’d relaxed, I let him go. He retreated, and I reached out to take the muzzle off, but didn’t otherwise try to pet him. I pulled out my phone and played Candy Crush, giving him the time he needed.

A “normal” dog is going to snap back to love pretty quickly, but Champ isn’t that. If I press love onto a normal dog while they’re stressed and anxious, they will probably respond with relief and love. If I press an abnormal dog in the same situation, they’re not going to be able to think clearly, and may even react aggressively. So my next step was give him time to relax and calm down, so that his maladapted brain could function a bit better.

I let Champ set the pace. He laid in various spots in the room, sniffed the edges, munched some fallen treats, did a lot of panting. I kept an eye on him, and when he started relaxing still more, started calling his name. If he didn’t come, I went back to my game and gave him more time. But eventually, he started coming over to take a treat. At first he would immediately leave. The temptation is to catch a dog at this point and force pets on them, but I’d already broken his trust. I wanted him to come to me of his own free will.

Bit by bit, he started coming to me and staying long enough to get petted. By the time he was lying on the floor within the reach of my arm, about fifteen minutes had passed.

My next goal was to make sure I could touch his back legs without him freaking out. I wanted to do this now, before the idea that people touching his back legs was horrible became set in his mind. I worked carefully, with lots of treats and quiet persistence, until he was all right with it. (Initially, he chewed lightly but with frustration on my hand. I would blow on his ear to catch his attention, give him a treat when he looked up, and let go. My goal here was to reward him for being calm while his leg was being held. Note: I knew that he wasn’t aggravated enough to bite me more than a pinch, maybe a bruise if it got out of hand.) If I wasn’t holding onto him and he walked away, I let him go. This wasn’t the time to bring him back by his leash; I want him learning that he can always walk away, that walking away is more effective than aggression.

Finally, when we could manage all that, we left the room and sat in the waiting area. We did more foot-games. When someone went into the room we’d been in to clean up, we walked to the door and watched her. I gave her some treats to TOSS to Champ — between his general wariness of strangers, his new extra wariness of techs in scrubs, and his general agitation, I didn’t want him jumping at her if she tried to hand it to him and, in his unstable state, he thought she was attacking.

We went BACK to the main waiting area. We did more foot-games, and calmed down even more. I wanted his surety of the vet as The Place of Evil to be shaken, though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to undo it in one session. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t set in stone.

Goals: get him to be calm in the vet’s office, calm seeing the techs, and allow me to handle his feet again. Done.

As we were leaving, I messed up and had to adapt one more time. The vet’s office was actually closed and they were putting things away for the night, and they’d locked the doors and had to let me out. As we stood there, I asked the receptionist (in scrubs much like the tech’s) to give him a treat open palmed, without touching Champ. She said no problem! He took the treat, but then jumped at her, catching the edge of her sleeve in the process. She froze (appropriate) and I made him let go of the cloth.

I had thought he was calm enough to take a treat, but that’s the thing about congenital aggression: they don’t always signal when they’re in distress (he hadn’t), and it takes them hours to come out of distress, instead of the minutes it takes other dogs.

I baited him past her with a treat, then asked her to toss him some treats. Again, I wanted him to know that aggression wasn’t working (he had to go in and do it again, instead of leaving like he wanted, and he STILL had to walk past the receptionist again), but that vet people were awesome treat dispensers. I can always work on his trust with me, so I don’t mind being the “bad guy.” I want strangers to always be the awesome treat dispensers.

Let me tell you: that is a lot of set backs for one day. It’s a lot of set backs that are going to take time to overcome. I’m lucky: I have a fabulous vet and staff who are willing to work with me, and Champ is incredibly intelligent. We’ll get through these.

Some time in the next six months, he’s going to become an amazing dog. He’s already loyal and protective, happy to cuddle, pretty good at walking, great with other dogs, and allows all sorts of indignities such as being laid on and having his ears and tail tugged. (I did check!) The rest of this, it’s trauma and biology. That can be overcome.

As for me, I’m covered in bruises. But hey, given the responses from the vet staff (some of whom I hadn’t met yet) I think my reputation as a badass is firmly lodged. *laughs!*



Doc: Dealing with a Rescue

Cash and Lily are getting older and are about ready to retire, so I decided it was time to get a new dog. Since I’d rather deal with anything instead of a puppy, I walked to the Martinez Animal Shelter (just a couple of blocks from my house) and asked them for the dogs they couldn’t adopt out. From the short list of dogs I could take, I chose a blue nose pit bull they thought was about 15 months old. (I now believe he’s younger than that, given some behavioral traits, but we’ll never know for sure.) Known problems were escape artistry (he’d been picked up as a stray three times, and adopted out twice), and — the big flag — leash reactivity/frustration that led to him twisting around when unable to get to a dog, and instead putting his teeth on a human. (He didn’t bite down, but it’s still a big flag.)

These were problems I could deal with! Heck, I deal with these problems all the time!

I walked him home and put him in my car while I put all my other dogs in the back yard. Then I walked him into the house and put him in an x-pen. He refused to go in a crate, and an x-pen doesn’t have a top, so since I didn’t know how aggressive he might be to the other dogs (and if he’d just leap the x-pen), I enlisted my neighbor’s aid. She let dogs in one at a time, starting with the calm Lily, while I held Doc’s leash and a squirt bottle, inside the x-pen with him.

As it turned out, a squirt from the squirt bottle pretty much stopped the aggression. Within half an hour he was settled in the x-pen, relatively calm, the dogs were inside, and I was on the couch (where I could squirt him as needed!).

All of this is actually not what I want to talk about.

When you rescue a dog you don’t really know what problems they’re going to have. Doc, as it turned out, had wonderful off-leash social skills and, compared to what I normally deal with, mild to medium leash reactivity.

You get a better idea of what you’re dealing with when you get a dog from a rescue where they do fostering, but even then you’re not going to get a great idea. A foster probably has multiple dogs, which will change the way your new adoptee behaves. (In one notable case, a client of mine adopted a dog that had been fostered with a bunch of other dogs. Within a few weeks of bringing him home, he was so dog aggressive that he couldn’t get within a block of a dog without becoming incredibly violent. Things can be that different.)

Within the first few days of adopting Doc it became clear that the biggest problem wasn’t leash reactivity, but separation anxiety. This isn’t something the shelter could have seen. I started working on getting him crate trained by feeding him in an open crate — he has crate trauma, and didn’t trust it at all at first — and in the meantime, took him with me everywhere. When left on his own, he destroyed things or escaped the house. (My neighbor caught him, thankfully!) We are in our sixth week now, and he can be crated for 5 hours at a time while I’m off running errands or working. After that, my assistant comes and gets him out for a few hours.

Other instant problems were problems I consider a lack of manners: he jumped on furniture, people, had no sense of personal space (a problem mostly when I’m eating), chewed up things that weren’t dog toys. All of these I’d kind of expected, and for the most part I took a squirt bottle to him if he broke one of these rules. I also used positive reinforcement: he might get a knee in the chest for trying to jump on me, but then I’d ask him to sit and reward him when he did. When I pushed him away because I was eating and he stayed away (this usually takes 4-8 pushes), I told him he was very good and gave him extra pets. When I saw him consider the counter and decide not to jump up, I told him what a smart dog he was and gave him more pets!

The other instant problem was housebreaking. He’d spent most of his life in a kennel in the shelter, on his own, or probably in a yard (which he escaped from!). Each time I caught him peeing in the house, I chased him outside while scolding him. Each time I took him out and he peed outside, I rewarded him. It took him a few weeks to get this, especially since my bigger priority was everything else. You can only ask a dog to learn so many things at once! I knew I could get him housebroken, and just needed to keep an eye on him to avoid as many accidents inside as possible.

All of this I learned in the first few days, and spent the next several weeks working on these issues. (Some of it we’re still working on; jumping on guests, for instance, and the separation anxiety will take months. He also still has some limited leash reactivity, but it’s very minor and only occasional.)

But here’s the thing: when you adopt a new dog, you have a 4-6 week honeymoon period. During that time, they’re on their best behavior. All of this was stuff Doc either just didn’t know, but learned quickly, or behavior that was really a problem. The faster you start work on these behaviors, the more likely they’ll change during that honeymoon period.

The other thing is that as you leave the honeymoon period, other, less ingrained behaviors crop up. Usually they start small and, if you don’t do something, grow. The same thing happened with Doc.

At about week three, he started resource guarding. Not just any resource, oh no. I was the resource he wanted to guard. It was very small; he and I were cuddling, Cash came and snuffled him around his neck, and he lifted his lip and gave a small snap.

It was small enough that I could have ignored it. But here’s the thing: old bad habits (and new bad habits) start small, and then grow if left unchecked. So instead of ignoring it I shoved him off the couch with a firm, “No!” I allowed him back up immediately, petted Cash, and petted Doc when Doc tolerated Cash. After that, I became very aware of petting them both and rewarding Doc for tolerance when Cash came to say hi while we were cuddling. (Cash isn’t a cuddler; he gets too hot!)

That wasn’t the end of it, though. Twice more the next day he tried it. Once I did as above, and the second time I also put him in his crate for a twenty-minute time out. (Five minutes will do, but I was too lazy to get up again right away. After five minutes your dog has forgotten why they’re in there. If you leave them in there they aren’t learning anything, so he spent 15 minutes just chilling in his crate, chewing on his bones. Since he does, in fact, need to learn to rest in his crate, he actually was learning something constructive!) That was a week ago; he’s had a couple of lip-curls since then trying to guard me, which I respond to with a shove away but not much more (the annoying punishment equaling an annoying crime), and I’ve been very aware of setting him up to tolerate the other dogs, and then loving on him for doing so. The problem seems to be getting better.

Now we’re at the six week mark, and today for the first time he tried to resource guard his food bowl. This resulted in me pushing his face away with the flat of my hand (NOT a technique I recommend for many, many reasons, but my hand was the only thing I had available. I couldn’t bump into him with my body, because the other dog was between us. I pushed his head quickly but gently, to get his attention and stop his lunging at the other dog) and then shoving him away from his bowl, out the back door (which was also handy). I picked up his food, let him back in, and set his food back down while the other dog was still standing there. I kept the other dog from sniffing his bowl, and praised Doc for being tolerant, then took the other dog away. A few minutes later I watched first Lily and then Cash sniff around the base of his bowl while he ate. He watched them both with one eye (white of the eye showing, much stress!) but didn’t react, and I praised him like crazy before calling them away. I want to apply a little pressure so he has to choose what to do, but then allay the pressure when he does the right thing. (This is actually negative reinforcement; removing something = negative, to increase a behavior = reinforce. The behavior I’m increasing here is tolerance, and the thing I’m removing to increase his tolerance is the annoyance of the dogs. The removal of the dogs is actually a reward.)

Do I think we’re done finding new things he’s going to be weird about? Not at all! In fact, I’ve been watching him play and he has this habit of grabbing other dogs by the scruff while they’re wrestling. I think I’m going to have to step in and tell him to stop; it’s too rough for most dogs to enjoy.

So, what’s the point of this post? What you see and what you’re told isn’t always what you get. When adopting a dog, watch the behaviors for weeks afterward. When they’re comfortable with you and finally settling in is when most people stop looking for hiccups, but that’s really the time to start. When you’re extra vigilant is when you end up with a rescue that’s a beautiful companion you can take anywhere!


PS for more updates on Doc and what we’re doing, as well as photos and shenanigans, you can head on over to our Facebook page!

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!



If you’ve ever moved with a dog, you might relate to Hyperbole and a Half just a wee bit. (It makes me laugh every time.) As I write this — this post is pre-written — I’m preparing to move. In another week I’ll start packing boxes in and around dogs, then load them into a U-Haul and move into a proper house with a giant yard. I know that, eventually, the dogs will be ecstatic.

Eventually being the key word there.

I’m lucky (or rather, my dogs are REALLY used to my crazy life), in that my dogs have gone on vacations with me, are used to staying in strange places, and generally bounce back from new things pretty well. I also know that packing boxes is going to freak Lily out completely.

As a dog trainer, I know the following about any major life changes (including temporary ones, like vacations):

1. It helps greatly if the dogs are worn out; regular walks or runs are the best thing ever.
2. It helps greatly if I stay calm.
3. It helps greatly if we stick to their routine, both before and after the move, as much as possible.

I also know myself well enough to know that packing up my house, arranging the U-Haul, and moving is going to be VERY stressful on me. Add to that the fact that Quin’s chest reconstruction surgery is the day after I move, and, well… I’m not going to have time to take the dogs walking, and I may or may not be successful at staying calm.

Before I even start packing, I need a plan. My plan is formed from the knowledge about what helps in general, and me and my dogs in particular. Here we go.

1. I’m going to buy extra bones. I know that when Lily gets stressed, her first method of coping is to chew things like crazy. I can support her in this coping mechanism by buying her things to chew that will help her burn off her anxiety. In her case, that’s bones.

2. If I am feeling extra stressed, I’m going to give the dogs some Rescue Remedy. When I get stressed, we all go downhill. I might as well prepare for that, just in case.

3. I know that I may or may not have time to take the dogs walking or running. I know that it’s better for all of us if I do — it lowers my stress levels as well as theirs — but if I’m low on time, I’ll pack my  bike last. I can at least take the dogs for a quick bike ride to burn off energy, even if we don’t have time for long walks.

4. If possible, I’ll take my dogs with me to visit the new house before we move. If I am able to do this, I’ll let them run around and play just as if we were visiting a client or a friend, while I do what needs to be done. That way when we move, they’ll be familiar with the house, and it’ll have good feelings associated with it. If I don’t have time to do this, then when we first arrive I’ll put them on leashes and walk them around the house before we unpack, staking out our territory together and setting some quick rules (don’t go out the gate, for instance) before I release them to explore. I don’t know why I think one method will work better than the other in these situations, but my subconscious tells me it will. I’ve learned to listen to my subconscious; I usually realize why after the fact.

5. Once we’ve moved, I’ll set up their stuff ASAP so Lily has her safe-space crate, they know where their bowls are, and feeding schedules can be put to rights immediately. This will also mimic when we’ve vacationed elsewhere.

6. We’ll start walks or bike rides that night, and continue them. While I usually only walk the dogs 4-5 days a week, we’ll try for twice a day rides while in the moving process to burn off extra energy.

7. Lily will stay stressed the longest; I know this. I’ll keep her supplied with bones, make sure the rules and boundaries remain the same (not give her leeway like us humans are inclined to do: that only creates inconsistency and yet more change), and tell her to keep behaving. This will settle her down as fast as possible. (That’s true for all dogs.) I might also keep her on Rescue Remedy for a few days as she settles in.

That’s my plan. It’s good to have a plan before you set out on something big, so that you know what you need to do before anything happens, and so you don’t find yourself halfway through a problem with no easy way to solve it. For instance: if I thought, “I will take my dogs walking,” and didn’t also think, “I’ll be busy and stressed, I may not want to walk, what’s an alternative?” then I wouldn’t think to pack my bike last. Then I might get halfway through packing, be too tired to walk with no bike, and things will rapidly go downhill from there.

The steps above are generally pretty good steps for most dogs. Obviously, they’re centered specifically on my dogs, and your dog might have a different solution. (Visiting a known and loved petsitter while you move, for instance!) But before you do something big… plan for it!

By the time you read this, I’ll have moved and settled in. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section, and I’ll let you know how it went!


Dogs and respect

One of the very common themes I hear among laypeople and dog trainers alike concerns respect.

“Your dog should respect you,” or “I want my dog to respect me” are common statements.

I like to think my dogs respect me. However, consider this. I’m standing in a burning building. A local teacher, S, whom I greatly respect, is saying, “Jenna! Jump through these flames! It’ll be all right!” I think to myself, Have you lost your mind, S? It won’t be all right! In that moment, I don’t need respect. I need trust.

When someone says to me, “I want my dog to obey me,” that really has nothing to do with respect. Respect is a sense of admiration for someone. Am I going to obey someone I admire? Welllll… maybe. It depends, doesn’t it?

So what do people really want when they say, “I want my dog to respect me”? They’re saying, “I want my dog to listen to me and obey.” That’s a much different ballgame. And hey, I understand it. I feel the same way. If I’m in a burning building, I want my dogs to do what I tell them when I say, “Jump through these flames to safety,” even though they can’t fully understand what I’m saying.

The question really becomes: how do I get my dog to listen and obey?

Well, obeying is easy. Enforce what you say, and reward when they comply. This really depends on the person (not the dog), and how consistent they are. Essentially, we’re teaching our dogs human language. They only learn things if those things mean the same thing every time. If I say, “Lily, get off the couch,” and then I grab her collar, make her get off the couch, then praise her for getting off the couch, she knows what I meant. If I say the same thing, but then decide, “Eh, too much effort,” and walk away, she has no idea what those words were that I said. So, first big step to a dog who listens? Command, enforce, praise, consistency. Do it in a lot of different situations. Don’t give up just because your friends are visiting. (Then your dog just learns that with people around, that same phrase means something else.)

Next: trust. If I want my dog to leap through flames, it’s not respect I need. It’s the consistency of listening to me in all situations and trust. Trust is a tricky subject, and goes back to respect. But not in the way we’re used to thinking.

Today I was working with a sweetheart of a dog, Hannah. Hannah is afraid of people. When she was willing to walk through crowds confidently, we upped her work to taking treats from humans. When the first human tried to pet her and she said no, what did we do? We agreed. We supported her decision to say she wasn’t ready for that. We said, “no problem, honey. We’ll back you up here, and we won’t let that person touch you.” In short, we respected Hannah’s decision. Eventually we might say, “hey, really now, let’s try something new,” but for now? For now she said, “This TERRIFIES me!” and we said, “Then don’t do it. That’s fine.” We’re building trust. We’re respecting her, and she’s learning that we won’t ask her for what she can’t handle. If we’d forced her to be petted, she’d have been terrified. It would have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. She thinks it’ll be terrible, she’s so scared when we force her into it that it is terrible, she’s proven right, and we can’t be trusted. Instead, we respect her, and she can trust us: when we do say, “hey, you’re pretty calm around people. Just let this one touch your chin. It’s not so bad.” Then she can start to say, “Hey, that’s not so bad. You let me escape when I needed to. I got a treat. It was only a brief touch and I can handle that. I guess you’re right.”

Now, back to the fire. “Cash!” I say. “Come!” Through flames and to me. He would probably whine. I would say it again. This is the command we’ve worked on in every scenario I can find, so he knows what it means. More importantly, though, he knows that I’ve never asked of him something he can’t do. He trusts me, because I respected what he was telling me.

He leaps, and we escape the burning building. Was it because he respected me? Heavens no! It was because I’d respected him, and I’d taken the time to build trust.

The next time you’re thinking you want your dog to respect you, stop and think. Do you really want them to look at you with admiration? Or do you want them to listen, obey, and trust you? If it’s the latter, start working on that. You have to give them a reason to trust you. The best reason to trust you is the knowledge that you respect them and their limits.

Go for it guys! Go build some mutual respect.


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.