Dealing with Human Anxiety

As you’re dealing with your dog’s aggression, anxiety, or over-submissiveness out in the world, our anxiety as humans can increase — especially if you know each dog-dog or dog-human interaction may not go perfectly! We remember what our dogs have done in the past, and those memories re-play themselves.

Dogs pick up on our stress and anxiety, and our stress and anxiety can even get in the way of our training. If it’s a miserable experience for you even when things go well, then it’s unlikely you’re going to continue training.

So how do we lessen the anxiety for people? I don’t know. I’d have to be a therapist! But these are things that work for me, and things that have worked for some of my clients.


I visualize things going well. But I also visualize things going horribly, and me somehow saving the day so it all ends well, anyway. This re-frames each experience so that, good or bad, I end feeling confident. Visualizing is one of the best things you can do to help yourself be able to stay calm in the actual moment. With very anxious clients, I suggest they visualize (and write it down if they’re amenable!) at least daily.


Sounds silly, I know, but I can’t tell you how many people forget to breathe when they’re thinking about what their dog may or may not do in the next twenty feet. On a physiological level, when you hold your breath your heartbeat picks up and your muscles have to work harder. It increases stress! (It also stresses out your dog.)

Furthermore, if you stop and tune in to taking deep, slow breaths, it fractures your hyper-focus on what might happen, because you’re also having to focus on breathing.


You can always stop. I can’t tell  you how empowering it is once you realize that, hey, you don’t have to keep walking forward! Any time I’m feeling a little unsure, uncertain, stressed, out of control (physically, emotionally, or mentally) I stop walking. I often even back out of the way of whatever is approaching, taking the dog with me. I take stock of what’s going on, what I might need to do to solve it, re-organize myself, and start again. Half the time, by the time I’ve done all this the problem has actually resolved itself.

Talk to my dog

Not to the person and other dog approaching. No, I talk to my dog. I say things like, “We can get through this,” and “hoo-whee, this is hard but we can do it!” Talking forces you to breathe, and gives you another focus. If my dog is anxious, then I’m going to talk as if everything is fun. My words might indicate my stress, but my tone is light.

And finally,

Focus on my dog

If I’m working with a dog who gets super submissive and rolls over to show her belly to another dog, then sometimes gets stressed and snappy when they take her up on her offer and sniff her too much, then I’m going to focus on talking to my dog, keeping my tone light and happy, taking her away when she starts to roll over — probably trotting backwards with her, then trotting forwards with her to see the strange dog again, on our feet instead of her back. But I’m going to focus on my dog, and her body language. Is her spine relaxed, indicating a positive mood? Is her tail tucking, indicating she’d like to leave now? Are the whites of her eyes showing, indicating she’s stressed and we should leave the situation? It doesn’t matter what my dog has done before. What matters is what my dog is doing this instant. To know that, I have to watch her body language. It’s the easiest way for them to communicate!

Other general ways to lessen human anxiety are things like meditation, relaxation, quiet time for yourself — the usual things you read about! And while you’re doing that, think about how awesome your dog is going to do at the next formerly-difficult situation. It helps.



Building Confidence Around People: Timid dogs 1

Dogs are like people: they’re born with a leaning towards confidence or timidity (or any number of other things), and then their experiences layer over the top of that to decide how they will be later in life.

Also, much like people, young dogs often go through a fearful phase. I’ve seen it hit most often between six and eight months, but can happen before or after that as well. How you deal with timidity, in either a young dog or a rescue, can make a big difference in how they feel about the world, about trusting you, and their confidence levels.

One of the scariest things is, to many owners’ surprise, strangers. Whether your dog is an adolescent going through a phase, or a rescue overcoming previous trauma (emotional or physical), there’s some basic things you can do to help them dramatically.

The basic steps are these:

  1. Stop them from fleeing.
  2. Protect them from the “monster.”
  3. Gently reward bravery.

There’s two ways in which timidity shows itself: flight or fight. Now, I’m going to assume that you’re dealing with timidity/confidence with people issues, and not fear aggression. Regardless of whether your dog falls into the flight or fight category, the basic steps are the same. How much we correct and where, however, differs. So, two case studies! (You know how I love my case studies!) This week we’ll look at Max, a fleer, and next week we’ll look at Tildi, a fighter.

Max: Flight

Step one: stop him from fleeing. Max was timid of people, not because of any prior abuse, but simply because he’s a very timid creature without much inborn confidence. His “mother,” wisely, got on top of this as soon as she saw it might be a problem. The first thing we did was to put him on a leash, so he couldn’t run away completely. Some running is great; flight is always better than fight! But dogs are notorious for running from a problem and, therefore, never learning that it’s not a problem after all! We wanted to limit how far he could run, so we put him on a leash so he couldn’t leave the room.

Step two: protect him from the “monster.” While he might be on a leash, we don’t want him feeling cornered or pressured. If Max wants to run away to the end of his leash and hide from the stranger in the room, that’s completely fine. By simply being in the room and catching the stranger’s scent and seeing that the stranger isn’t eating him, he’s learning that there’s nothing to fear.

In fact, our job is to make sure no one touches, talks to, or otherwise pressures him! The more they pretend he’s not there, the more likely he is to feel safe enough to check them out. The more we keep him safe, the more chances he’ll take. As he sees that we protect him and never put him in a situation that ends badly, he’ll begin to believe he can trust us. If he trusts us and knows we’ll help him out and support his choice to escape, then he can take risks — like sniffing the monster or taking a treat — because he knows that if something happens, we’ll step in to help him. We need this basis of trust to build confidence from! (Note: if your dog ends up in a situation that ends badly, don’t panic! It’ll be a little setback, but just move on from it. Your dog will move on, too.)

Here is one of the places were many, many people go wrong: they try to encourage, and even push, a young or timid dog into a stranger’s hands to see that petting is nice. Oftentimes, even if your dog eventually sees it’s okay, the experience will still be tinged with stress and anxiety. They may remember the stress and anxiety, rather than the end result of petting! Thus, the following are reinforced in their mind: They cannot trust you, because you pushed them at the monster and they had no choice, and their fears were correct — it was difficult and frightening.

If, instead, we tell our dogs, “You don’t have to be petted or deal with this human; you just can’t run away entirely,” then they get the chance to see that nothing bad happens, they’re supported, and the stress levels stay low.

Step three: Gently reward bravery. We don’t want Max to feel pushed into engaging, so we give him time to decide on his own. Bravery is always measured against his standard. At first, it was simply going to the end of his leash and being calm enough to sit, instead of stand. We told him how wonderful and brave he was, and gave him treats. Then, it was sitting behind his mom instead of at the end of his leash. Again, we told him how brave he was. Soon he was sniffing peoples’ feet (head down = not sure they want to engage, so we told people not to touch him yet) and then taking treats from people (life started to get better!) and very quickly thereafter, petting. We did not encourage further bravery, just rewarded what he was willing to give us.

Now, in Max’s specific case, while he grew much better with people outside the house, there was one person inside the house that still frightened him. We invited that person in, and did a little extra with step two. After just letting them sit in the same room for a while, when Max relaxed we had his mom (holding his leash) sit beside the “monster,” bringing him closer as well. When he relaxed about that, we had his mom and the monster walk around, with Max trailing behind them. When he became comfortable doing that, the monster took the leash and, without looking or acknowledging Max, walked around trailing Max behind him. When Max finally relaxed again, the monster started giving him treats… and Max finally realized it wasn’t a monster after all! Sometimes, extra steps are necessary. Those steps can include the ones above, or a “monster” asking a dog to sit and rewarding with a treat (which gets the dog to engage in a more positive manner), or you making a happy fuss over the “monster” yourself, so your dog sees how much you like it and aren’t afraid of it, and many other techniques. You take it at the dog’s pace, and remember that it isn’t always linear progress!

Next week: Fight!


FAQ: Will my dog defend me if I teach it not to be aggressive? Or, How do I teach my dog to defend me?

I’ve written posts on how to teach your dog to defend itself against people and other dogs (tip: don’t), but since people often get dogs in part for safety, this becomes a legitimate question.

Here’s the thing: if I teach my dog not to defend itself against aggression, but instead to flee, that does NOT mean I’m teaching my dog not to defend me. The reason a dog is willing to flee aggression is because she knows that we’re there to help her out. The opposite is also true: if I’m being threatened, she’s willing to help out. If I flee, she’ll hopefully flee with me. But if I can’t, she’ll help me fight.

Let’s talk theory, and then we’ll discuss practicality.

How many of us have seen or heard a sentiment like this one?

if_your_dog_doesnt_like-375x375While funny on its own, it exposes a problem in our thinking. We assume that dogs have some sort of supernatural sense about people. To an extent, this is true. If someone smells of high stress, anger, or the terror if his victims, your dog will probably respond negatively. It’s highly unlikely you’re ever going to meet that person, though, and if you do meet someone under high stress, it’s likely because they have cancer and not because they’re psychotic.

Dogs do make their own judgements about people. And dogs, like people, will decide they do or don’t like someone based on all sorts of different things and personality conflicts. That doesn’t make those people bad people, though, and it doesn’t make our dog’s judgement any better than ours. In fact, most of the time, our dog’s judgement is ours. Someone approaches me having just finished a cigarette (which I’m really allergic to), and I instinctively take a step away. My scent changes, even if I smile, to something a little less pleased. I may not even be aware of these changes in myself, but my dog can sense them and thinks, “Aha! There’s something wrong with this person! I shall not like them.” Then I think, Wow, my dog doesn’t like this guy. There must be something wrong with him! Well… sort of.

Here’s the truth: if your dog doesn’t like someone, it could be something funny your dog is responding to. Or it could be something funny you’re responding to, and passing on to your dog. Trust yourself; if you don’t like someone, then walk away. But if it’s someone you actually do like, don’t assume your dog is telepathic: assume he smells funny, walks in a way that annoys your dog, has an air that your dog doesn’t appreciate, etc.

Now, what about when you do actually need your dog to protect you? There are training facilities you can go to that teach dogs how to be attack, guard, and security dogs. I would STRONGLY suggest letting a professional do it, as doing it wrong could result in some pretty awful things. I wouldn’t even try it with my dogs; it’s not the training I specialize in, and because something going wrong here results in harm to a living creature (be they dog or human), it’s not a chance worth taking.

On the other hand, if you don’t need your dog to attack on command but rather help you out if you’re in danger, good news! You don’t have to do much. The first important step is to make sure that your dog is tuned into you. You can do this through basic obedience, agility training, walking properly — anything where your dog has to pay attention. If you go outside and your dog stops listening, then that’s where you need to work! What you’re doing is just teaching your dog to check you out and see what you think about things.

Here’s where it gets fun: dogs are hardwired to protect their people (primarily) and properties (secondarily). If I get attacked, I can guarantee I’m going to go stiff and, if it gets that far, yell and fight. I don’t have to say anything to my dogs: the moment I’m uncomfortable in a situation, they will (and have) step forward to help. In fact, I have to be more careful to make sure they don’t help prematurely!

So there I am, walking down the dark street with Cash and Lily (the two friendliest dogs in the world, both trained to be submissive and never defend themselves) on either side. Up ahead, I see a cluster of young men I don’t recognize. I stiffen. Immediately, Cash and Lily sense my uncertainty and step forward, ready to help. Both of them stand tall, chests out, in a “challenge” posture.

Then I realize it’s just my neighbors, and I relax. I say the dogs’ names, they realize I’m good now, and they relax, too. I didn’t have to do anything: I just had to have dogs that pay attention.

Another time, someone walked into my yard uninvited. I heard Cash and Lily barking and, since they’re trained not to bark at squirrels, neighbors, other dogs, joggers, etc, I knew it must be something unusual. That said, I still assumed it wasn’t something they should be barking at! Hissing, I stepped out the door and saw a stranger in my yard, backed into a corner by Cash with Lily barking from slightly farther away. I stopped making the bad dog noise (which, under this level of alarm, the dogs had ignored anyway) and said Cash and Lily’s names. Lily, never a fighter, stopped barking and retreated to my side. Cash, far more protective, hovered between me and the man, tail and head high, ready to defend me. I said, “Good boy,” to let him know that even though I’d disapproved a minute ago, now that I saw what he was barking at I approved. Then I addressed the man. When I realized he was there under my then-landlord’s orders, I called Cash back.

I have never taught my dogs to be protective, but dogs are naturally protective. Now, here’s a caveat: dogs are more protective of people than places. Unless your dog is trained to do so, they’re less likely to fight off a robber when you aren’t home than a mugger. The very fact that you have a dog in the house or yard means that your stuff is probably safe, but don’t count on it 100%. And that’s a good thing: if a dog bites someone who is trying to rob your house, YOU could be sued.

The takeaway? Dogs are protective. No amount of training is going to take that away. Don’t worry; you’re a loved part of your dog’s pack, and the pack helps each other!


Dogs and food: feeding issues

Occasionally, someone will come to me concerned that their dog isn’t finishing their food. If your dog has suddenly stopped eating, that’s a major concern and a trip to the vet. But if your dog has never been much of an eater, there might be some things going on.

First off, check out your dog’s weight. Most dogs who aren’t eating do so because they’re self-regulating: if they’re chubby (even just a little chubby), they’ll often go off their food or eat listlessly because they simply don’t need it.

Of course, this means you have to tell if your dog is chubby! If you can see a dimple at the base of their tail (a large dimple), they’re probably at least a little chubby. It’s the fat deposits around that spot that create the dimple. Today, for instance, I saw a dog at a pretty good weight who was a smidgen chubby. Not enough that I felt the need to say, “Put this dog on a diet!” but just enough to see that dimple, and know that the fact that he wasn’t finishing his dinner probably had more to do with being a little overweight than a major problem.

So, how to tell your dog’s weight? First off, you should be able to see the shape of their ribcage. Second, if you pet firmly, you should be able to feel individual ribs. (Some breeds of dogs don’t really have waists — like corgis or bassets — but you should still be able to feel ribs.)

Here is a pretty little chart to help you out:

dog weight chartIf your dog is chubby and not eating well, don’t worry about it. If the feeding guide on the food package tells you your dog should be eating more, keeping in mind they’re averaging most (if not all) breeds, and they don’t know your dog’s metabolism and exercise level! (They’re also trying to sell food.)

Also, keep in mind dog treats. If you’re in a training class, you’re giving a lot of extra treats. If you have a small dog, the “few” treats you give might be the size of their head! Take a look at what your dog is eating in relation to their body, and think about it in relative proportion to your body. I couldn’t eat a meal the size of my head!

If you aren’t giving treats and you think, “My dog is chubby, but they seem hungry!” then you should know that dogs are capable of eating pounds of food at once. They scavenge and gorge when they’re able to find food in the wild, then go for days without eating. A sense of feeling full would be a hindrance in that! They also don’t necessarily feel hunger like we do, but they can keep eating, and just like us, they eat for taste. Trust me: your dog isn’t hungry.

Now, what if your dog isn’t overweight and is still a picky eater? First, double check with the vet. This is sign one of worms, and a sign of other problems. But if the vet says, “Nope, everything is fine!” and your dog is still a picky eater, there’s some things you can do.

First, try mixing a little canned food or pumpkin with your dog’s food. (Pumpkin is an intestinal regulator: if your dog’s stool is loose it’ll firm it up, and if it’s too firm it’ll soften it. But better, it’s sweet!) You can also try adding some chicken broth or canned meat of any kind. Obviously, if you do this and your dog doesn’t eat it, throw it out!

Another trick, if you have access to other dogs, is to feed them around dogs. Seeing other dogs eat (or being threatened by having another dog steal their food) will often trigger an eating response. As well, feed your dog when you’re eating, and let them eat near you: dogs eat together, and sometimes that will trigger an eating response, too.

While you’re tempting your dog, there’s a behavioral trick you can use. Give your pup five minutes to eat, and then pick the food up. Don’t feed her again until the next meal, then do the same thing. Most dogs who are uninterested in food can go for about twenty-four hours just nibbling at their food; I’ve seen them go as long as forty-eight before they start actually eating the food when you put it down. (Don’t give them treats; they need to be hungry!)

What’s happening is that you’re creating a scarcity complex. People react to this, too: If someone tells you, “buy this, there are only five left!” your desire to buy it increases. The same thing happens with dogs: if you say, “You only get this for a limited time!” the dogs go, “Holy crap! Better eat it now!” You have to wait for the dogs to get hungry enough to care, but it’ll happen — and then your problem will be resolved. At that point, you can start cutting back on the extra treats in the food to tempt them to eat, and they should keep eating.

Finally, Lily was one of these types of dogs. Now, it didn’t bother me because she self-regulated, but then I switched her to raw food. She LOVED it, and ate rapidly for taste. When I switched her back to kibble after about a year (because she, unlike some, needed the grain and because kibble was easier), she continued to snarf her food. Now, after about five years, she’s slowing down again… but she’s still eating fast enough!

Try these, and I think things will start to improve!


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.

FAQ: How do I get my dog to sit outside while I go into _____?

There are some people who say you should NEVER leave your dog tied outside while you go in somewhere (to a coffee house, grocery shopping, etc). The argument here is that if you aren’t there to watch over and protect your dog, someone else’s dog could snap at them, creating a dog fight. Someone could steal your dog, or tease your dog, provoking a fear or aggression response. Someone could zip by your dog on a scooter, and your dog could think it’s prey or a game and snap. There’s all sorts of reasons never to leave your dog tied up somewhere, and before you do, you need to consider these, consider your dog, and consider how much activity is going on and, if you think your dog can handle it, where it’s safest to do so.

Note: If your dog has shown any inclination to snap, whether in play or aggression, DO NOT leave them tied up alone somewhere.

Now, all this said, I’m of the human philosophy: humans screw up. Humans are not perfect. Humans often will do what they want to do regardless of whether it’s the best thing, because sometimes it’s a more fun thing, or an easier thing. I’m guilty of this myself. So, if you have a non-aggressive dog and you want to teach them to sit outside because you already know in your heart of hearts that you’re going to leave them outside so you can:

  • Grab a Starbucks
  • Drop something at the post office
  • Walk with them to the corner market and then go inside without them
  • Buy groceries after realizing it’s too hot in the car to leave them

Or any of a hundred other reasons you might leave your dog outside, then read on.

I’m going to assume your dog is no longer a puppy, and not leaping and chewing on people anymore. I’m also going to assume your dog doesn’t have aggression issues. (If your dog is a puppy, start working on “stay” in calm, controlled areas. You’ll need that before you can continue. If your dog has aggression issues, DO NOT LEAVE THEM TIED OUTSIDE.)

First, find a quiet, calm spot to tie your dog. Then tie them. Tell them to “sit” and “stay” (or whatever you’d like your command to be). I actually give my dogs a “down” and “stay” command, because it’s their cue that they’re going to be there a while, and they might as well get comfortable. (If your dog doesn’t know “sit” or “down,” start working on it at home.) Now, once they’re down and staying, walk away. If they hop up, go back and — without saying anything — put them where they belong. Then walk away again. If they hop up, repeat. If they hop up a third time, I make my bad dog noise and put them back where they belong. I also know that if I’ve failed a third time, I’m asking too much of them. I’m going to shorten the distance or time that I’m gone so that I can praise them before they get up.

Next step: when you and your dog succeed (you stay away for a moment), start praising. Go over and give them a pet and a treat, or toss a treat. Then repeat. If you start praising and your dog gets up, stop praising, put them back where they belong, then praise again.

Most dogs get this initial idea within a few minutes, and you can extend the distance to 5-10 feet within the first session. What we’re really doing here is practicing a down-stay while you walk away, so that your dog stays put. When he can do this, increase the distance.

If you practice daily, it will probably take a week for you to be able to wander around the room or a quiet park without your dog getting up. Practice the same thing at a park with people walking around. Note: your dog will magically forget all his commands as soon as you’re somewhere distracting. That’s normal! Don’t panic, just start over and he’ll get it quickly.

Once your dog is pretty good at staying put while people are walking around (another few days), it’s time to practice going in somewhere. When I started doing this with my dogs, I picked coffee shops or post offices where I could see my dog through the window. I knew that at that point my dogs were really good at listening, and I could gesture a “down” if they forgot. (I did this by pairing a gesture with the word every time I said it.) Then I walked inside.

Almost as soon as the doors closed behind me, my dogs hopped up. I went back, made my bad dog noise, and gestured a down. If they laid down, I told them, “Good dogs,” and went back inside. If they didn’t, I made my bad dog noise, went over, and put them back where they belonged. We repeated this for what seems like forever.

At this point, there are two ways to continue.

1. Continue as above, gradually increasing time, distance, and distraction. Your dogs will be AWESOME. More awesome than mine, because I did it the slap-dash way. It will take a month of regular practice.

2. The slap-dash way.

At some point I said, “Forget it! I’m not losing my place in line again!” If your dogs will respond to a gesture through the window, hooray! If they won’t, don’t fight them standing. Take a breath and ignore the bad behavior. (If my dogs aren’t looking at me, they won’t respond. I have been known to rap on a window to get their attention, and then gesture.)

Now, when you come out of the coffee shop/post office/etc, stop as soon as your dogs can see you and gesture a down. When they lay down, say, “Good dog!” and start walking toward them. If they stand up stop walking, and gesture again. It’s a waiting game: wait until they lay down. Then praise, and start toward them again. It always helps if you have treats when you get to them, and can reward a down-stay with food.

This is the slap-dash way because it’s not perfect. You didn’t just teach your dogs to be perfect no matter what. You taught them to be pretty good, but that if they break it’s not the end of the world as long as they go back to their spot. My dogs know the slap-dash way. If someone walks by to pet them, they stand up to get petted. Once that person leaves, they lay back down because they know I’m not coming back until they lay down. Occasionally Cash will stand to try and spot me, and stay standing until I’m in view. Then he lays down again. It’s not perfect; if I want perfect, I need to do the first way outlined, and build up their time and stamina for holding a perfect stay under distraction. I tend to err on the side of movement; working with a lot of dogs who have fear aggression has taught me that I want my dogs to know they can escape if they need to. That means they can’t feel stuck. That means… my slap-dash method works just fine for my dogs!

If your dog is super friendly to every human and dog who passes, even the ones who aren’t friendly, then you’re better off with the first way and teaching them a perfect down-stay. You don’t want them frightening a little kid, or getting in an aggressive dog’s face on accident. You are not, after all, there to protect them.


FAQ: What can you tell me about dog food and feeding my dog?

There are all sorts of very strongly held opinions and theories on feeding dogs, and not a lot of evidence.

Actually, there’s virtually no evidence. What evidence is there is anecdotal, vets watching trends appear one case at a time. It’s very frustrating if, like me, you want the best for your dogs, and want your dogs to live long, healthy lives. Here is the sad truth: no one has done studies on any of it. Believe me, I’ve looked. I’m hoping that will chance in the near future, but so far… nope. (If I’m wrong and someone else has found a study, please send it along!)

So while you’re reading, keep in mind that despite how strongly someone believes something, none of this has been proven. Someone might well present something as fact, but the trick is to keep the knowledge in the back of your mind that no one really knows. People come up with a theory, it works for them and their dog, and then they present it as fact. That person telling you about dog nutrition probably really has done their homework and really does believe what they’re saying, because they haven’t stopped to realize that the people THEY trust haven’t done studies (long-term or otherwise) either. And hey, the theory makes sense and is sound. It’s up to time to see if it’s right. Keeping that in mind, let’s talk about ways to feed your dog, the theories behind it, strengths and weaknesses of these theories, and what the vets are saying.

All that said, please keep in mind I’m a dog trainer and not a vet. If your vet has a better recommendation, give them a much stronger voice than me. I’ve done research and I have a much larger pool of dogs to notice results from than most, but new information is always coming up, and a vet is in a better position to find that than I am.

Grain free diets

The theory behind grain free diets is this: wolves don’t eat grain, and our dogs haven’t had time to evolve away from wolves, therefore they shouldn’t eat grain, either.

Strengths of this theory:  Huskies and wolf hybrids are definitely more closely related to wolves, and they tend to do very well on grain-free diets in general. Dogs are descended from wolves.

Weaknesses: Dogs have had time to evolve into dramatically different sizes and temperaments. Dogs’ brains have changed: their social structure is different than wolf packs. With all these evolutionary changes, I imagine their guts have evolved, too. In addition, both dogs and wolves eat the grain out of their prey before they eat anything else, though it can be argued that they can only digest partially-digested grain. Finally, in the wild dogs are more scavengers than hunters, and have been for thousands of years. This means they’ve been eating what we eat — and we eat grain.

The theory behind this really doesn’t work out. That said, I’ve seen plenty of dogs who function much better on a grain-free diet. In the words of my vet, “You have to look at the dog and see what works best for them. Do that.” Cash did okay but not great on a grain-free diet. Lily became ravenous and starting eating every plant she could find. I put them back on a diet with grain, and Lily stopped being ravenous and Cash got more energy. On the other hand, my friend’s huskies do dramatically better on a grain-free diet. Regardless, I personally think that for safety’s sake it’s probably best if the grains in the diet have been broken down before your dog eats them.  Finally, a fair number of vets are noting that some dogs on grain-free diets are coming in with liver and kidney damage from years spent working too hard.

Grain free versus grain? Well, depends on the dog.

Raw diets

Theory: dogs wouldn’t cook their food in the wild. When you cook vegetables and meat, it kills the enzymes that dogs can’t make that would normally help with digesting. It also breaks down the nutrients and vitamins they need.

Strengths: From the research I’ve done, this is all true. Plenty of dog food companies are now making raw dog foods that come pre-packaged and (hopefully) free of nastiness, too. Raw food diets tend to keep dogs’ teeth much cleaner, too.

Weaknesses: Weak dogs, young dogs, and old dogs are all more likely to get salmonella if you aren’t careful of the food source.

Raw diets actually make a lot of health sense to me. From a practical standpoint, they’re expensive and/or messy. Personally, given the size of my dogs and the frequency with which we travel, it’s not a workable solution. To combat the cost a lot of people will make the food themselves. If you’re of such a mind, here’s some tips: The concern on salmonella can be mostly solved with blanching whatever meat you’re using, while leaving the inside mostly raw. (The majority of bacteria are on the outside of the meat.) I do hear people being concerned about their dogs choking on bones, but uncooked bones are soft enough to swallow. Most often, I see dogs choke on kibble, so I don’t worry about the bones. If you want to be extra careful you can get a meat grinder that will turn the bones to powder. Now your dog doesn’t have the chance to strengthen his jaws or clean his teeth, but he definitely won’t choke, either. The big thing about making it yourself is doing the research so you include all the vitamins and minerals your dog needs, and in the correct quantities. Make sure you do the research.  Finally, as above, a fair number of vets are noting that some dogs on grain-free/raw diets are coming in with liver and kidney damage from years spent working too hard. Add in veggies and maybe grain so your dog isn’t eating only protein.


One of the reasons people are pushing grain-free and raw diets so much is because of the number of dogs cropping up with allergies. Wheat and corn are the most common allergens in dog foods, so I try to avoid those. I’ve read in multiple places that dogs can’t absorb protein from plant sources, and wheat and soy are common plant sources used to up the protein levels in dog food, so I avoid soy as well.

Other than that, a dog can be allergic to almost anything (I know a dog allergic to chicken), so you have to take into account your personal dog. Most dogs, though, do just fine on most things.

So… what do you feed your dogs and why?

If I was going to look for the perfect dog food I would look for one where the first two ingredients listed were animal meat, where there was no soy, corn, or wheat, a food that had been cooked on a low temperature or freeze-dried or had vitamins sprayed on after the cooking process, and had a variety of recognizable ingredients. Shall I break that down? Okay!

the first two ingredients listed were animal meat

A brief note on by-products: sometimes they mean meat, organs, and bone, all of which are good for dogs in small quantities. Sometimes it means feet and feathers, which dogs can’t digest. Because it’s impossible to know which, I avoid them. If something says “meal” it typically also contain organs.

Because the ingredients list puts the greatest quantity first, I now have some assurance that there’s a fair amount of animal protein in it. Alternately, I might like for the first three out of five ingredients to be animal meat. I’m also going to keep an eye for something like, “Wheat,” and later, “gluten” and later, “wheat meal.” If I see something appear several times in different forms, there might just be too much of it.

where there was no soy, corn, or wheat

Soy and corn are also nutritionally worthless, corn moreso than soy. Dogs can’t digest corn. Heck, lots of animals can’t digest corn. They might do okay if it’s all ground up for them, but most “good” dog foods just avoid it altogether, so if it’s there, there’s probably a problem. Corn is a cheap, sweet, tasty filler.

Soy started getting used as a (useless) protein source when soy got so popular, so you will find it in “good” dog foods. Now that people are realizing it’s not so great, it’s becoming less prevalent. Given the links between breast cancer and soy… I’d rather avoid it entirely.

a food that had been cooked on a low temperature or freeze-dried or had vitamins sprayed on after the cooking process

All of these go back to the raw-food argument. If a food is cooked at low heat it doesn’t break down the vitamins and enzymes. In theory, same if it’s freeze-dried. If they spray the vitamins and enzymes on afterward, then they haven’t been broken down!

and had a variety of recognizable ingredients.

Because if I can recognize it, I can say, “Yes, that’s good!” and if there’s a variety, then there’s more vitamins and minerals. This is just my personal theory, but I like it! If I can’t recognize what’s in it that’s not always bad (sometimes companies will use the chemical names of vitamins, and I don’t know all of those), but I’d prefer to keep it to a minimum.

So… what DO you feed your dogs?

I feed them Kirkland brand dog food (yup, CostCo!). It gets very good ratings and fills almost all my requirements. It is cooked on high eat, and I don’t know if they spray it with vitamins and enzymes afterward, so I also buy a product called “AddLife” and sprinkle a little on top, to add back in the enzymes. I don’t worry about the vitamins as long as my dogs are healthy: give them too many, and you have liver and kidney problems again, so… I try not to go crazy, and hope I’m finding the right balance!

But on this my dogs have shiny, non-oily coats, bright eyes, energy, and they seem to be quite happy. Since that’s really the best measure I can get, I’ll take it!

If you want more information, I recommend the following dog food review/information sites:

Have fun!