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?



Building Confidence Around People: timid dogs 2

Last week I started with this:

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.

It’s now “next week” and time to look at how to work with a fighter!

Tildi: Fight

There’s a big difference between fear aggression and timidity. Fear aggression has already escalated to a dog that’s lunging forward with clear threat; timidity-fight is going to be a dog that barks from a distance, or is just starting to try and scare a monster away with little pushes or hops forward.

Tildi is only six months old, and she’s in this latter category. If she were with a big group of dogs and she barked at something in alarm, they would first check out what she was barking at. If they saw it was nothing dangerous and she, upon seeing their disinterest, stopped barking, they would reward her with grooming and play. If she ignored their disinterest and continued barking, they would often either move on and abandon her (at least until she decided to catch up!), or they would nip at her until she was quiet, and then reward her. In this way, young dogs can learn what they should and should not be alarmed about.

There are — well, many — theories about what to do in Tildi’s situation (barking from a distance), but one major one. The major one says you should do the same thing you’d do in a flight case, but start from a greater distance and move closer slowly. I think this is great in theory, but in practicality it’s almost impossible. You can’t control if people on your walk are moving toward you, and it’s very difficult to set up enough strangers coming to your house and staying for a long enough time to train in this manner. So, this is what I do instead.

Step one: stop them from fleeing. This really isn’t much different; we put Tildi on a leash to keep her from running away and avoiding the problem.

Step two: protect them from the “monster.” In Tildi’s case, she was protecting herself from the monster by barking at them and trying to scare them away. (This can rapidly become fear aggression, especially if it works.) So first we had to tell her that she’s no longer allowed to try and scare them away. If she starts barking at someone, we can pull her away on her leash, squirt her with a squirt bottle, or bump her away with our knee/shin/side-of-our-foot. In Tildi’s case, bumping worked best. We had to face her and bump her about twenty feet back initially, but as she started to “get it” that became dramatically less. (Once dogs realize you’re more persistent than they are, they start giving up quicker. Usually you can do this in one fifteen minute session with someone acting as the provocateur.) If you use a leash to pull your dog away, remember you must loosen the leash for them to learn anything. If they’re still pulling on the leash to get closer, they haven’t learned to stop barking/hopping/intimidating!

Once we can get a dog to stop barking, then we can protect them from the monster. In Tildi’s case, this meant giving her treats when she hung back quietly, and praising her when she decided to leave when she was frightened rather than barking when she was frightened.

The downside of this step (and the reason many people don’t like it), is that while we’ve eradicated the bad behavior (barking/hopping/etc), we haven’t created a single lick of confidence, and your dog might be slightly more fearful because they now associate people with getting squirted/bumped/etc. Now, however, we can start protecting. Now Tildi’s owner can say, “Yes, Jenna, come in! No, you may NOT touch Tildi.” From here, we can build the trust that Tildi’s mom will protect her, and from there, we build up Tildi’s confidence just as we did with “flight” dogs. (See last week.) In my experience, the downside isn’t enough to prolong the timidity around people. In fact, because dogs who are willing to try and chase off a monster usually have more confidence than dogs who aren’t, these dogs still seem to come around very rapidly, much faster than “flight” dogs.

Step three: gently reward bravery. In a fight dog, this starts with, “You didn’t bark this time! So wonderful and brave!” and then continues to, “you stayed closer!” “You tried to sniff!” “You took a treat!” and so on. From here, it’s once again the same as a “flight” dog!

There is a final step you can take, if your dog is pretty good around people, but you’d like them to be better. I mentioned it briefly, but it deserves it’s own note. Once your dog is willing to take treats and sometimes be petted, you can have strangers ask your dog to sit, shake, high five, or anything else you like. (Anything that involves laying down is hard for these dogs, as it puts them in an even more vulnerable position. Hard things should be avoided, as they create more stress.) This gets your dog happily engaging with strangers, thinking about something other than whether or not the stranger is a monster, and doing fun bonding stuff.

One last note: if you’re apparently afraid to touch a stranger, why should your dog feel safe getting petted? Start shaking hands and, where appropriate, giving hugs. You can model brave behavior for your dog, and that will help, too!


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!


The workaround

Sometimes you’ll find you need to create a behavior, but for some reason it’s impossible or near impossible. This is where a workaround can help.

Recently, I had to take Cash to the vet for a burst and abscessed cyst. It was just on the side of his ribcage, and when we got there there was no way — no way –– he was going to lay down and let us look at it. It was too sore, and he doesn’t like showing his belly to strangers at the best of times. Thankfully, I realized this in the waiting area when one of the receptionists asked to see it, and he wouldn’t lay down and roll over for me.

For the next ten minutes we worked on this “trick,” using treats the vet keeps on the counter. I quickly realized, however, that no matter how tempting the treats or how insistent I was, he was not going to roll and show us that wound. He would, however, roll to his other side.

Ah ha! Here was my workaround. We practiced rolling to the wrong side over and over, until he was happy to roll over and show people that part of his belly. Then we practiced rolling a bit farther each time, until he was rolling full on his back instead of just on his side. Now we could get to that other side and the wound! When the time came, he wasn’t willing to roll fully onto his back for the vet, realizing that something new was happening, but he was willing to roll far enough so she could see. Workaround complete!

Here’s another one. One of my clients has a little boxer named Sachi. She was mentioning that she couldn’t get Sachi to lay down on command, no matter what she did. I boarded Sachi for a weekend, and tried myself. None of the usual tricks worked. I was stumped; I couldn’t get her to lay down, either! Since it wasn’t a high priority, it was more of a funny quirk than anything we were worried about. Then one day I was watching her at my client’s house, and saw her lay down chest-first.

“Huh,” I thought. She had laid down the normal way as well, but a glimmer of an idea started to bubble. “Sachi,” I said, “come over here a second.” (I often talk to dogs like they’re people, but note that this is an optional command. I didn’t give her an order to obey, I just caught her attention and asked her if she’d like to come over.) When Sachi came over I grabbed one of her favorite treats and put it in my fist on the floor. Like usual, she bent her head and nuzzled at my hand. Then, instead of any of the other dozen tricks I’d tried before, I pressed gently down and back on her shoulders. Sure enough, her chest went to the floor. Treat.

We did it again, and again her chest went to the floor. This time, though, I slid my hand down her back and encouraged her butt down as well. Down it went! Treat.

Within thirty seconds she was laying down on command — chest first. Another workaround!

It takes a little bit of creative thinking, and sometimes some internet searching for ideas, but often if you have a behavior a dog doesn’t find comfortable or doesn’t want to do, there’s a workaround for it. You’ve just got to think outside the box!


Driving Miss Daisy

If you’re anything like me, you drive with your dog in the car. A lot. So, let’s assume that your dog doesn’t have any major issue, and drives with you. Let’s talk safety.

There are a few things to consider when dealing with car safety. The first is airbags. Dogs, like children, can be killed by an airbag. Unless you’re in training (in which case, drive carefully) and it’s temporary, your dog should be in the back.

The next safety issue is movement. If you’re checking out what the heck your dogs are doing back there, you’re not driving safely. (Check out this video to get an idea of how fast things can happen.)



Your dogs should not be up and wandering around.

There’s another safety issue about being up and wandering around, too; if your dog is on her feet when you get into an accident, the likelihood of severe injury or death for her is much higher. A dog laying down has the lowest center of gravity.

Story time!

I had Cash and Lily in the car, heading from one job to the next, both laying down, when someone peeled out onto the road ahead of me. It was a two-lane road with a speed limit of 45; I was going 50. I slammed on my brakes. My tires squealed. The guy ahead of me swerved and floored it. In the meantime, though, I nearly came to a stop — from 50mph. My seatbelt locked. Both dogs went flying forward.

If they had been sitting or standing, both dogs would have hit the back of the driver and passenger seats, most likely face-first, snapping muzzles or necks. Instead, they were both laying down. Both of them still flew forward, hitting the base of the seats with their full bodies and sliding into the foot well area. While it’s likely there might have been bruises under the fur, I didn’t even hear a yelp, and neither showed signs of injury later.

Aside from a near-heart attack on my part, we were all safe.

I’d like to say that in the eight years I’ve had Cash and Lily, this has only happened once. Sadly, it’s happened more times than that, with varying degrees of severity.

Of course, the real trick is to get your dogs to lay down. Here we go!

First, having a solid “lay down” or “down” command will make your life much easier. Start practicing it at a distance if you don’t already. (Start with “lay down” right in front of you, use whatever method you like, then start putting them in a sit, taking a step or two away, and ask them to lay down. If they move forward before laying down, put them back and ask again. Increase the distance as they improve.)

If your dogs are car-wanderers, put them in the front seat beside you (it’s a temporary training thing!), and tie their leash to the headrest. DO NOT get in an accident while you do this; practice on quiet streets in the neighborhood. When your dog stands up you can reach across and grab the leash — because it’s tied, so you know right where it is! — tell them to sit, and pull up gently until they do so. Praise and keep driving. You can do this whole thing without taking your eyes off the road.

Once your dog is pretty good about sitting when asked, put them in the back seat. Still tie them in so that if they get any ideas, they’ll be confounded right away. (At this point, though, you can tie them in with a seat belt or harness. More on seat belts in a moment.)

Now, start driving. If your dog didn’t have room in the front seat to practice laying down, they should now. When you put them in, ask them to lay down. (Give them a good bone or something to keep them occupied for the drive.) Get in. Before you start, ask them to lay down again. (It’s guaranteed they’ll have sat up, at least!) When they do, start driving.

At first, it’s best if you can stop the car every time they sit up/stand up and tell them to sit down/lay down again. (Laying down being the next step; you may have to back up to just sitting at first!) Once you get tired of stopping all the time and they’re getting better at sitting/laying down when asked, tell them to sit down/lay down and if they don’t, tap your breaks. The goal is to knock them off balance. If they stand up, stop, and tell them to lay down. Always praise when they do what you ask!

Obviously, you have to be careful of traffic, what’s around you, whether they’re tied on a collar or harness, etc. Please keep that in mind!

It’s amazing how quickly dogs get it, once they’ve had the front-seat primer. They already know what to do; they just need to know you can and will enforce it on the road.

A note on dog seat belts: most dog seat belts are designed to keep the dogs in one place, NOT to help during an accident. Subaru ran crash test doggies through various seat belts a while back, and found that only this brand, the Sleepypot Clickit Utility Harness, actually helped in an accident. Otherwise, your dog is as safe laying down as in a seatbelt!


Human training for anxiety

Dog training isn’t all about training dogs. Quite often, it’s about training people as well.

Here’s the situation: your dog has attacked other dogs/people/pulled you over/yanked on you/etc. Now, whenever you see a situation in which your dog might react, you get stressed. You have anxiety over your dog’s behavior, and consequently, your dog is more likely to react because they can see you’re anxious about something, and they’re going to help! Nice of them, isn’t it?

These are the anti-stress/relaxation techniques that I use, and tell my clients to use, whenever we’re working with an especially difficult case of anxiety.

Daily activities (to be done every day):

1. Visualize. We know for sure it works in building muscle and playing sports, and most people believe it helps in everything else, too. When I’m dealing with something anxiety provoking, I visualize it going well. I also visualize it going poorly, and the way in which I would awesomely and miraculously re-gain control and end everything right. There are a whole lot of guides on how to visualize, so I’ll leave you to follow one of those links.
A warning: one study found that visualizing brought the same emotional satisfaction as actually DOING it, and therefore people were less likely to act. Act!

2. Police and replace negative thought patterns. If you find yourself thinking, “My dog will NEVER be able to walk nicely past another dog like that!” stop and think of three positive things about your dog. “My dog is doing better today than yesterday,” “There was that one time last week when my dog walked nicely past another dog,” “My dog can walk nicely past other dogs across the street,” “I’m trying new things, and me and my dog are improving.” Even, “My dog is ADORABLE.” Focus on the good, and start trying to weed out the bad. While there isn’t any scientific bases for this, I do find that if people start focusing on what’s going right, they’re more able to relax and more hopeful. If I constantly correct my dogs, I end up in a bad mood. If I correct while also praising for good behavior, then I feel like my dogs are pretty awesome!

Occasional activities (choose one each day):

1. Tense/relax. This is actually a relaxation technique taught to me by a physical therapist years ago. We tend to carry some tension in our muscles (shoulders, neck, lower back) when we’re, well, tense. It becomes so common that we don’t even notice we’re tense! So, purposefully tense a muscle group. Let’s say calves. Purposefully tense your calves, count to ten, and then relax them. The contract between tensing and relaxing gives your body a chance to see what relaxed actually feels like, and then to relax! Not only does it help you start to physically relax, but it feels pretty good, too. I do it all the time; when I’m driving, when I’m seated, when I’m watching a movie. If I notice I’m rolling my head or doing other tight-muscle behaviors, I’ll tense that muscle group and let it relax again. Now, say it with me: Ahhhh!

2. Breathe deeply (and tense/relax). We all know this, right? Breathe in slowly through the nose, and out through the mouth. The goal is to release tension (again) and lower your heart rate and blood pressure. You can do this in conjunction with tensing/relaxing, too. See something that will trigger your dog? Take a deep breath in and breathe out slowly, relaxing as you do so. If your dog is paying attention, they’ll do better at staying relaxed, too. If they aren’t paying attention and you have to correct, you’re far more likely to keep your calm — which will keep from feeding their energetic state!

3. Meditate or do yoga. I hate both of these. Slow down? Stop thinking? PISH! But I can’t deny that when I do it, I stay calmer and more centered overall. If you have a dog that’s really trying your patience, maybe it’s time for some you-care. The kind you don’t necessarily like, but is awfully good for you.

The lazy, impatient person’s guide to meditation: Set your alarm clock 5 minutes earlier. When it goes off, hit snooze. Grumble. Sit up. Curse a little. Take a breath. Imagine the air molecule you just inhaled whizzing around your lungs. Remember all the crap you have to do today. Wish you had some coffee. Bring your mind back tot he molecule, and exhale. Imagine it whooshing out. Did you turn off the oven? Well, it was last on days ago, so if you didn’t you’re dead, anyway. Inhale and think of air molecule. Exhale and imagine it zipping around. You’re bored of the air molecule. Your foot itches. Inhale and imagine it getting SUCKED into your blood stream. Exhale and follow the molecule’s progress to your heard. Is that your dog whining? Surely not. Think about the air molecule. The alarm goes off! Huzzah, you’re done!

Or, The lazy, impatient person’s guide to yoga: Find a spot where your feet will not slip. Get your iPad, laptop, or notebook out. Search “Sun salutation” on youtube (or click here). Sit and drink your coffee while watching it with one eye. Finally decide you should probably do this, too. Click on this person so you can do it without stopping constantly. Wish you were that flexible. Wonder where they find all these tiny, tiny yoga people. Do it six times. Smile at the way your dog wags when you go into downward dog. Decide you want someone with a different voice — okay, now you have to search for it yourself. 😉

Things like yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises and the like may not seem like they’re help you when you hit your dog’s trigger, but in fact they will. Overall lower your body’s stress levels, teaching your brain how to react in an emergency (visualization), and re-coding calming behaviors into your neurons means that when a bad moment arises, it won’t be as bad as it was before. It’ll especially be better if you remember your deep breathing exercises in the middle of it!

Now go, and be calm!


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!