School Days: A fun-and-games extravaganza!

Week five is up already, and at last week’s class to celebrate all our dogs’ new-found skills, we had a “fun and games” night! Naturally, the purpose of fun-and-games night is not just for fun and games. It was also a great opportunity for dog-and-handler teams to practice their basic obedience skills in combination, and to work against the distraction of music, other dogs moving around, and obstacles.

We started with a simple team relay game, in which each dog/handler had to complete five timed tasks as quickly as possible — a loose leash walk between two points, a full-minute sit, a full-minute down, a 20-second play session with a toy, and then a 40 foot recall. As expected, Dude aced the first three points (the walk, the sit, and the down), did a passable but not impressive job with the toy play, and totally bombed the recall. Why, you might ask? It’s simple: we haven’t been practicing. Our training center teaches a recall using a dog’s favorite toy, and for most dogs it’s quite effective. For dogs who aren’t into toys, we recommend building toy drive first — and we’ve been working on this with the Dude, making very slow but steady progress over the past few weeks. While we’ve been working on toy drive though, we have neglected to practice his recall at all! So when we got to this portion of the exercise, we teased the Dude with this duck and sweet potato treats, ran across the field, and called him as excitedly as we could. And Doodlebug — in true Doodlebug form — casually sauntered in our direction, pausing several times to sniff the mulch, hunt for kibble in the grass, pee on a tuft of weeds, and investigate the other people standing around to see if they had any better treats. Eventually — we did not give up — he got back to me, and we had a big party. Better late than never, right?

Who, me?? Not perfect??

Next, we played musical chairs. We started with all dogs loose leash walking in a big circle around some plastic lawn chairs to some music (I believe the song was, aptly, Who Let the Dogs Out). Whenever the music stopped, everybody had to walk (on loose leash!) to the nearest chair, sit in it, and get their dog into a sit also. The last dog standing was out. We played and played until it was just Dude and one other dog still in the running — a beautiful white-and-black pit bull. Then the music stopped, we got seated first, and the Dude won — woohoo!

However, the Dude was not a total winner. In fact, last week’s class was the night that we pretty much skipped from phase 2 to phase 4 of Dude’s (relatively mild) reactivity. He had been polite around all the other dogs in the past, but during games night he decided that two of the other dogs in class were just too exciting, and a few times I caught him staring and then growl/woofing at them. After I regrouped from my initial embarrassment, I quickly realized that I had not been managing him correctly — I had been letting him stare quietly at other dogs for weeks. Staring is impolite and can sometimes lead to reactive behavior — behavior I may have avoided, in Dude, if I had taught him not to do it earlier on. On two or three occasions in class, Dude barked smack at another dog, and I died a little bit on the inside. At the end of class, even though Dude had won the musical chairs game, I was feeling pretty low.

Luckily our head trainer — who knows me well at this point — picked up on my frustration right away, and gave me a valuable pep talk. We regrouped, refocused, made a plan, and looked at the bright side. Then the next morning, we woke up and went on group hike with our trainer and a bunch of other dogs who are also working on themselves.

Homework was self-directed, based on each dog’s performance during games night. Ours was abundantly clear: start drilling come when called, continue working on toy play, and keep working on leash walking among distractions — like other dogs.

Stay tuned next week to hear about the Dude’s graduation week!

Meet Shasta. She is working on herself.

Last week, we had the pleasure of taking care of this darling girl for a few days:

Her name is Shasta, and she is working on herself.

When Shasta was dropped off at the shelter by her former owner, she was so frightened and worried that it took volunteers a while to figure out how to gain her trust. She was pulled by Austin Pets Alive, and over time she made a few friends — but only the most experienced, patient handlers were able to make a breakthrough.

Eventually, Shasta moved to a foster home, where she fell deeply in love with her foster mama and doggie sibling, and has been living happily ever since. But this is all part of the problem.

Shasta moves quickly from total “stranger danger” response to over-attachment, skipping that critical emotional state of relative indifference. Every new person is a potential threat, and every familiar person is a can’t-live-without-’em need to Shasta.

With this attitude, it was difficult for Shasta to go out into the world and meet potential adopters — or anybody new at all. So Shasta came in to the Canine Center (where I work) for an evaluation, and a plan was hatched.

Shasta needed to learn that any stranger was potentially a friend who could provide her everything she needs, and regular training and socialization just wasn’t teaching her this important lesson. So Shasta entered a special, three-week “socialization immersion” program to help her make the important connection.

Over the three weeks, Shasta would move between the homes of six trainers/handlers who would follow a strict set of rules and give Shasta everything she needs — food, shelter, toys, games, snuggles, and walks. Just when she started feeling at home and like her new person was her best friend, another new person would show up, ring the doorbell, take her leash, and off they’d go.

Ours was the fifth home she came to, and by the time she got to us, she settled in within a matter of a couple of hours (the first new homes had taken days). By the end of the first evening, we were best friends. I dressed her in a new Sirius Republic “Lily” collar that complements her dainty, sweet self.

Over those few days, Shasta showed me both her most timid and fearful side and her most darling side — the side that hops like a bunny rabbit after a toy, can jump six feet high in sheer jubilance, has perfect house manners, and loves snuggling up with a person more than anything in the world. And then, just like that — a new stranger showed up, took her leash, and off they went.

The purpose of this program is not to torture the poor little gal, but rather to teach her a lesson that regular training was not getting through: anybody can take care of you. Any new person might be your new best friend.

In a few days, we all convene in Shasta’s true foster home for a big party — Shasta, her foster, and everyone who participated in the immersion program. By this point, Shasta will hopefully have learned something new about accepting strangers into her home and in her life — and she’ll have six new friends!

Shasta is a two-year-old adoptable dog in Austin, Texas. To learn more about adopting Shasta, visit her adoption page here.

Five phases of reactive dog ownership

Raise your hand if you already knew that Chick is a recovering reactive dog. Good, that’s a lot of you. We have written about it openly in the past, in the hopes that we can help others stop feeling ashamed of their dog’s unsavory behaviors.

Ok, now raise your hand if you knew that Doodlebug is a reactive dog too. What’s that? None of you? Well, that probably makes sense, since until about a week ago, we were on your team too.

How can this snuggle-pile be full of reactive dogs?

We’ve done a lot of thinking and learning about reactivity over the past years, but a lot more over the past week or so since we’ve started to understand that we’re dealing with a bit of it in our Doodlebug. Just yesterday morning I was thinking about the phases of caring for a reactive dog — the long period of not understanding or not admitting it, then the scary journey toward facing our fears and moving forward, and finally that sense of accomplishment that comes with knowing that we have a plan for whatever situation we find ourselves in. Our journey with Chick’s reactivity has been lifelong, but we spent years in the pre-action phases and reinforced a lot of bad habits before we found the courage to move forward. With Dude, we figured out what was going on in a snap. It may still take months or years to get to our end point, but just knowing that a positive path exists and we’ve taken the first step is a huge sigh of relief.

Our five phases are based solely on our own experiences working with reactive dogs in our home — everybody’s phases might be different!

1. Realization. Maybe your new dog took a while to come out of her shell, and was perfectly polite and neutral toward dogs at first. Or maybe your puppy didn’t start showing signs in the first year of his life. Or maybe you built up a high wall around your dog so she never had a chance to express her reactivity before. There is a whole catalog of reasons that you may not realize you have a reactive dog on your hands — these are just three. With Chick, we were in this phase for a few months, and with Dude, we were there until last week.

2. Denial. Then something changes, and maybe you start to see hints of reactivity here and there. A surprising growl at a motorcycle whizzing by the house. Or a lunge and snap at a cute puppy on the trail. Or some extreme pulling, panting, and whimpering every time you pass a dog jogger in the neighborhood — suddenly more intense and focused than in the past. But obviously, these incidents are flukes — easily explained away . . . right? The motorcycle just startled him. He was just excited to play with the puppy. He is jealous of dog joggers and wants to join in. She can’t be reactive, she lives with other dogs and three kids! But, you’re in denial. Denial is one of the two dangerous phases of reactive dog ownership because during this stage, we’re constantly testing our dogs. We assume that the growl or lunge or bark or whine was just an isolated incident, and we keep putting her into situations where she should prove us right — after all, she is not a reactive dog! We keep running them through crowded areas or bringing them to the farmer’s market, and they keep proving to us that they’re not comfortable. We keep making excuses “She’s just nervous,” or “He’s not feeling well.” In the meantime, our dogs are getting more and more practiced in the art of growling, lunging, barking, staring, or — in rare cases — biting. We spent about a year in this phase with Chick, and only about a week with the Dude.

Ready to practice my lunging and barking.

3. Panic. After sufficient testing in which the dog proves that she does not, in fact, know what is expected, most of us with reactive dogs get to this phase. And it’s not a fun one. Only the experienced dog handler — or the person who came into the situation understanding that she is dealing with a reactive dog — can skip over this stage altogether. The panic phase is characterized by the kind of handling that actually exacerbates the dog’s reactivity rather than helping the dog make better choices. Every time we seize up on that leash or yell at a dog who is barking and lunging, we are sending a message: “There is indeed something to be worried about. I am worried too.” For sensible and experienced dog handlers, this phase is short-lived. You realize that you don’t know what to do and your dog certainly doesn’t know what to do, and you call in professional help. For others of us — especially novices like I was when I adopted Chick — the panic phase can last months or years. During this time we can accidentally be training our dog to be aggressive, by sending the exact wrong signals during moments of stress. We sometimes joke that you have to first train a dog to be aggressive before you can become a good dog trainer — and at the center where we train, it’s true of almost all of the staff. The panic phase is a dangerous one, so it’s best to take a deep breath, have a stiff cocktail, and regroup as soon as you’re able. You can work through it! We panicked for a year and a half with Chick before we sought help; with the Dude we were in this phase for two days — from last Sunday until this past Tuesday.

4. Progress. Eventually, you might realize that you don’t want to live in fear, looking over your shoulder the whole time you’re walking your dog. You want to be able to proudly take your dog in public and understand what to do in a variety of scenarios. So you seek help. The bravest of us pick up a good book — like Patricia McConnell’s “Feisty Fido,” and go it alone. Others will look for an experienced private trainer. Still others will join a group class — whether a simple obedience class or a specialty class for reactive or fearful dogs. We reach out to friends and colleagues for advice, and we start to take baby steps. Eventually the baby steps add up, and we start to see a positive change. We gain confidence and keep moving forward. Sometimes we take a deep breath and congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments.

5. Management. I’m so lucky in my new line of business that I get to be exposed to dogs in all stages of the reactivity. The most inspirational — obviously — are the ones who started out totally wild when exposed to their triggers, and have gone through all five phases and learned so much in the process that they can now comfortably go anywhere and do anything. This is where we all hope to end up. But management is a broad spectrum — some dogs are cured, so to speak, of their reactivity, while others still need to be worked, reminded, and handled skillfully in challenging scenarios. Chick falls into the latter camp. If we let our guard down completely and let him be in charge of his interactions, he might get into trouble now and again. But as long as we keep him focused and working in tough situations (like when walking or hiking around off-leash dogs), he can really shine.  For Doodlebug, we’ve set our sights even higher. Follow along on our journey as we help him work on himself!

If you’re a dog owner caught in the denial or panic phases right now, please seek help. There’s no shame in reaching out for assistance. Reactivity is rooted in a million different causes — fear, frustration, playfulness, panic, medical issues, and others — but the common elements are usually  (1) a dog not understanding what is expected; and (2) well-practiced inappropriate reactions. Both of these elements can be countered, and the sooner you start working on it, the sooner you will succeed!

School Days: down/stay, impulse control, and leash walking continues!

Week four flew by before we knew it and just like that, class five of six is upon us! Dude has been on a quest to be basically obedient for the past four weeks, and we have been chronicling his progress each week — you can catch up with the first three sessions here, here, and here.

As always, we opened the class with some tiedown approaches (teaching the dogs to relax for attention) and loose leash walking. Then, we quickly moved on to teaching a “down” command. This can be taught in about a zillion different ways, but for Dude the simple lure approach worked — luring him into a sit with a treat, and then gradually bringing the treat down between his paws until he touches the ground, marking the moment that his chest touches the ground with a verbal “DOWN” cue. We practiced downs and releases, and the Doodlebug was much more advanced than some of his colleagues — probably because he had already worked on this one at home with his mama. For the overachievers like Dude, we added a “stay” component, just like we had done with the “sit” command a while back. We got our dogs into a “down” position, and offered praise and treats every 5 seconds for a full minute, then released the dogs and let them take a walking break for two minutes. Then, back to the down and treat every 5 seconds. Once this became easy, we went to a treat every 10 seconds for a minute, then every 15 seconds, etc. The goal is for the dog to be able to hold a “down” for a full minute without treats. The Dude isn’t quite there, but he’s getting pretty close! We also learned a neat trick: a lot of dogs tend to pop right up after they get that first treat. For those dogs, it’s good to hold the treat all the way down on the ground between their elbows instead of at eye level or above their heads. If they learn that down on the ground between their paws is where they will reliably receive treats, they will be more focused on staying down than on popping up to where the treats originate (our hands). Neat, huh?

Next, we worked on an impulse control game that we call “Take it / Too bad.” For this game, we put a treat or some kibble in our hand, and hold it about 6-8 inches in front of the dog’s face. If the dog moves forward, we close and lift our hand, and say (in a happy voice) — “Too bad!” right as the dog backs his face away. We open our hand and bring the treat back, and then lift it and close, saying “Too bad!” as the dog moves away from it. After a few times, the dog understands that grabbing the treat out of the hand won’t do the trick, so the dog will stop going for it — at this point, we put the treat in the dog’s mouth and say “Take!” We do this a few times in a row, a few times per day. It doesn’t have to be high-value treats; kibble works just fine. This not only teaches the dog that a phrase of our choice (in our case, “Too bad!”) means that they have just broken a rule and lost a privilege (we use the same phrase for time-outs), but also teaches the dog not to grab things out of human hands — very useful! Dude aced this one as well, since he had a head start — we have been using this game with Chick for years now to remind him to be gentle with hands.

Finally, we talked about house rules, and how to enforce them. We posted about this a few weeks ago when we wrote about time-outs, and this is the essence of what we discussed in class. The Dude started working on his barking at dogs on the street and the mailman approaching the house, and he’s almost cured of both bad habits. Now we’re working on not getting up on any of the furniture without permission!

Wait . . . the blanket means I have *blanket* permission to get up, right?

Our homework was to continue practicing leash walking, downs, and sits, and to keep working on our dogs’ play drive. The next session — session five — is a game night, in which the dogs compete on teams in a relay-style race incorporating all of the skills we’ve learned so far. It’s going to be a blast, and let Dude’s team the best team win!


Dude learning to have a ball

Now that Doodlebug’s leash has been cut loose and he’s allowed to run and play, we just have to teach him. Apparently, playing doesn’t quite come naturally to him, but he’s starting to get the hang of it.

What he likes most is tennis balls (especially the Kong squeaky ones), so we started there. Whenever we sense that he’s feeling a little energetic (which is not too often), we go and grab the ball, get him excited about it, and toss it a short distance or just offer it to him. If he puts it in his mouth, we praise, praise, praise and pet him until he drops it. The second it falls out of his mouth, we stand up and walk away, taking the toy with us. A couple of minutes later, we do it again. If he takes the ball, he gets lots of praise and petting. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. It’s been slow going, but we are noticing some little changes — he will now hold the ball in his mouth for a full 30 seconds or so on occasion, and often brings it back over to us after retrieving it (instead of running off to his own corner to chew on it). Far from perfect, but he obviously is starting to understand the fun that a ball can be!

School Days: Recall, sit/stay, and hand targeting

Gosh, week three of the Dude’s quest to become basically obedient is done — we’re halfway there! We covered a lot of ground in weeks one and two, and week three was no exception.

The poor little Bug was feeling a bit under-the-weather because we (stupidly?) stopped at the vet’s office on the way to the training center, and Dude has his booster shots, which made him a little drowsy, achy, and grumpy. Getting his attention was easy as always, but getting him excited to play with a toy — one of the fundamental pieces to our facility’s method for teaching a recall — was pretty much impossible. What can we say: sometimes the boy just doesn’t wanna party.

Sometimes I just don't wanna.

Nevertheless, Doodlebug performed well in class. We opened the session with our usual tiedown approach exercise (reinforcing the concept of relaxing for attention), and some basic leash walking. Once the dogs were focused and in “work” mode,  we moved on a few new skills.

First up was the basics of a good recall. We had previously noted that toy play was a building block for some other important behaviors — the recall is one of the biggest. While many training classes teach a recall with food, our center choses to use toys instead. The thinking is that any dog –except maybe a Lab– has the potential to get much more worked up and excited about a favorite toy than about even the most delicious treat. If we can build a positive association between the word “Come!” or “Here!” and a super fun, big party with an interactive toy game, we can develop a good recall that will call a dog off even a stinky squirrel carcass or a fun game of chase (the kind of activities that make a cube of cheese seem boring by comparison). The two-person exercise involved one person getting the dog into a great game of tug, keep-away, squeak the squeaker, or whatever gets the dog’s butt wagging, and the other person then dragging the dog away by a long line. Once the second person had gotten an appropriate distance away, person 1 (with the toys) was to call the dog (“Doodlebug, come!!”) and start waving around the toy and praising the dog excitedly. Although getting the Dude excited to play when he was feeling icky was a challenge, he did manage to run to the right person each time. Way to go, Dude!

Next, we worked on a sit/stay. This involves counting out treats, asking the dog for a sit, then praising and offering a treat every few seconds while he holds the sit, continuing for a full minute. As it becomes easier for the dog to hold the sit between treats, the amount of time between treats is doubled (so the number of treats is halved). In between the “sit” minutes, the dogs were walked around for two minutes to give them a break. Dude did well with this, but because he’s not super foodie, our progression from treats every 5 seconds to treats only after a minute has been slow — we only made it to 20 seconds over the course of the week.

Finally, we worked on hand targeting — the skill where the dog bumps the back of the person’s hand with his nose, and receives a treat or piece of kibble in return. The hand target is useful for moving a dog around (for example, from one side to another during leash walking), or for teaching advanced behaviors like dancing, turning lights on/off, etc. It’s also helpful for nervous or reactive dogs, as a reminder to them to keep moving or turn their face away when they’re not sure what to do. The Dude was a total pro at this, since we had been practicing at home.

Homework was as follows:

1. Practice the recall using toys and a second handler, increasing distance as the current distance becomes easy. To be honest about our failure, we pretty much skipped this one. Because of the Duder’s heartworms and his general allergy-related lethargy (more on this another day), his play drive has not been in full-gear, so we thought we’d give him a pass until he’s on the up-and-up — hopefully soon!

2. Sit/stay: Practice the sit/stay using the method described above, doubling the time between treats as it becomes easy. The goal is to get to a full minute sit between treats. We did well with this one, though we’re not at a full minute yet — we got to about 20 seconds without any trouble, and we’re continuing to work. Our trainer calls this the “lazy-man’s dog training,” so we’re naturals!

3. Practice hand-targeting, first throughout the house, then in increasingly challenging locations — in the back yard, the front yard, on walks, etc. We’ve been having fun with this one, and have been using it on walks when there are small distractions present, to draw Dude’s attention away. Far from perfect, but we’re doing pretty well!

4. Walking: loose leash walking continues to be a project. Early in the week, I realized that while Dude was able to stick by me for the most part, he wasn’t really *with* me — he was never checking in and quick to wander off in a different direction. Leash-walking would ideally be taught using only emotion and fun (and not food), but some dogs just need a little more. So I started bringing a treat pouch full of kibble for our practice sessions, and offering him a piece whenever he looked up at me. Magically, he started to check in more and more. Toward the end of the week, we felt like we were really getting somewhere. Distractions are still a problem, but we are confident that with time, Dude will be able to walk right past a person and dog without getting so very excited — or at least, we hope so!

Our homework kept us busy, busy, busy this week, which is a good thing– most evenings, we had a very snoozy little Dude!

Sometimes training makes me so tired I have to tuck myself in.


Chix-a-Lot Friday: Goodwill to good fun

That mama of mine, she sure is clever. Even though she’s always telling me and my Dude what clever boys we are, I have always suspected that she might be smarter than me. Or then again, maybe it’s just that she has supposable thumbs, which allow her to do things like drive a car and buy green blankets at a place called the Goodwills. And she always says that her Big Ideas are not really hers, but rather other people’s ideas that she is just Carrying Out. Like this one.

The other day, mama came home with a case of potato and duck food cans that she opens with some kind of magical contraption and then puts the potatoes and ducks inside hollow bones and makes us wait and wait and wait to eat them until they have been sitting in the cold place at the bottom of the fridge for a really long time. She also came home with a new red harness for the Dude, and this here big green fleece blanket from the Goodwills:

And here is my proof that mama is maybe a tiny little bit smarter than us: mama took that green blanket — which we thought was great just the way it was — and did something magical with it! She turned it into all these funs:

She got her sewing box and took out the scissors (Not recommended for dogs. Supposable thumbs necessary), then she went snip snip snip until half of the big green blanket was six long green strips! Then she got busy doing something crazy with the strips and her hands until — ta-da — it was two long, long rope toys. She even magicianed some tennis balls into either end of one of the long rope toys, because she knows how us boys love tennis balls. Pretty neat, huh?

Mama says it was important that she make the toys very long, because sometimes I’m not very good at sharing toys. She knows claims that my Biggest Goal in Life is just to collect all the toys in a big pile and then sit on them so nobody else can touch them — she says that wouldn’t be any fun at all, but I think it would be most definitely fun. Can you imagine me sitting on a giant toy mountain, giving the stink-eye to anybody who approaches? Fantastic!

Anyhow, she says that long, long rope toys are better at getting dogs to play together instead of me just trying to domino the Dude into giving me the toy so I can have it to myself. And you know what? So far so good! I did want that toy very much, but it actually was kind of fun playing together. And the Duder was so far away from me even though we were playing with the same toy that I didn’t need to be giving him the stink-eye the whole time, and when we got tired we could both lay down and nibble on our end without being in each other’s Personal Space.

She only let us play for a couple of minutes because the Dudester is still not done killing all his heartworms and we don’t want them to kill him, but the excitement of it was enough to make us want to take a big-ol’ nap. And we did!

House rules and time-outs

Last week on our Facebook page, we mentioned that we were about to start the time-outs regimen with Mr. Doodlebug for house rule infractions — in that specific instance, it was barking through the window at people walking by our house. We got a few cries of “tell us more!” and we promised . . . so now we deliver.

Although we use positive reinforcement for most of our training, we also think there’s a place for negative consequence for bad behavior. Not old-school punishment or intimidation (yelling, jerking, squirting with water, hitting), but just consequence — removal of the positive. Time-outs for house rules do just that. We learned about this from our trainer Lee Mannix years ago, and have been reminded of it lately by his successor — and my boss — Shari at the Canine Center in Austin.

In our home, the dog rules that have needed teaching — Chick a few years ago and Dude now — are (1) no jumping on the furniture without permission (Chick and Dude); (2) no jumping up on company when they come over (Chick); (3) no barking out the windows at everyday things (Dude); and (4) no stealing human food off tables or counters (Chick and Dude).

Here’s how we do it. We clip a long, thin line (this can be nylon cord or rope or a very thin leash — NOT the regular walking leash) on to the Dude’s collar, and let him drag it around the house whenever we’re home. When he breaks a rule, we grab the tail end of the cord and start walking toward a designated “time out” spot — in our case, the bathroom. As soon as there is tension on the line, we say our “time-out” words in a cheerful voice — never angry. This can be whatever word you choose to designate to mean “you just broke a rule, too bad for you.” We walk the dog in to time out (never talking to the dog or touching him, just walking him in), shut the door, and leave him in there for 20 minutes (though if a dog barks or whines — neither of ours does this — the 20 min starts from when silence begins). At the end of 20 min, the dog is released and ignored for a few minutes, then normal life resumes. If he goes right back to the naughty activity, another time out.

The Dude and his time-out line

We’ve heard and read that dogs learn in repetitions of 4 or 6, and we’ve found this to be true. If we are consistent and catch a dog in the act 4-6 times in a row, he will stop breaking that rule. However, dogs don’t generalize well, so you may teach your dog not to bark out the living room window, but then he thinks it’s still ok to bark out the kitchen window or the screen door. A lot of dogs need the full 4-6 reps at each spot before they understand the rule applies to that specific circumstance too.

For this to work, the house rules have to be clear and agreed-upon by all members of the household, and everybody must participate. You also have to be able to interrupt the behavior every time it happens — so if you want to teach your dog not to bark at the window, you have to keep your dog away from the window when you’re not in the house to supervise. A crate, a bedroom in the back of the house, or even some physical barriers (sticky paper or window shades) can help. Same with counter-surfing — if you want to teach your dog not to steal things off the counter, don’t leave things on the counter when you’re not there to catch her in the act. Sending an inconsistent message –sometimes stealing will land you in jail, and sometimes nothing will happen and you’ll get to eat a box of donuts — will only confuse your dog and teach her to be quicker and stealthier in her pursuits.

Naturally, this method isn’t a substitute for good old-fashioned obedience training and relationship-building, which should be the foundation of any dog’s good behavior program. If you have a dog who’s just unruly and wild, doesn’t know any rules and doesn’t seem to listen — or a dog who doesn’t much care whether he’s where you are or not, it’s best to do some good training before or during this process. If you’ve tried obedience training — and done all your homework — and you haven’t made the progress you’d like, it may be time to find a different trainer or training center.

Timeout can be anywhere that the fun is not.

And finally — this is really important — time-outs should be used only for bad habits, and NOT for behavioral issues related to fear or anxiety. Fear and anxiety are deep-rooted issues that should be resolved slowly and delicately with an experienced trainer’s help. Putting a dog in time-out for panic-induced chewing or fear-induced growling can only exacerbate the problem by teaching the dog that there really IS a good reason to be scared or anxious.

We first learned about the use of time-outs when we were training Chick years ago at the training center where I now am an intern/apprentice. They worked like a charm. Within a few days, he was a changed dog, and to this day he remembers the meaning of our time-out word. We haven’t used them for most of our fosters, but now that we have a window-and-doorbell-barker, we’re back at it again. Has anybody implemented a time-out system for house rules? How has it worked for you?

School Days: Leash walking and toy play

Last week we reported on the Dude’s first night of a six-week class which will (hopefully) teach him to be basically obedient. We’re now finishing up week two, and headed to the third class tonight!

Dude’s second session focused on proper leash walking, as well as the importance of toy play. Duderino was already good and exhausted relaxed from having spent all day at the training center with mama, who was working all afternoon. So he was nice and calm by the time class started in the evening.

We started the session with some tiedown approaches (where we clip his leash in to a carabiner and walk away, waiting for him to sit and relax before coming back to pet on him and praise him). Only a few of the dogs in class struggled with this exercise, but the Dude really blew the others all away — in fact, he was laying down in frogdog pose within seconds of being clipped in! We often start class with this exercise because it’s so helpful in focusing and chilling out the dogs.

Next, we were introduced to loose leash walking, with a strong focus on using the handler’s voice and emotion to help the dog remain engaged. When a dog feels the leash pressure on his neck, it’s easy for him to just walk on without worrying about whether we’re coming or not– he knows we are there. But if he is taught to walk on a loose leash, he has to be focused on where his walking companion is! A loose leash walk is much more work for the dog — mentally — than a pully one, and this is one of the goals of walking — an exhausted dog.

We also got to play with different walking equipment, to see what worked best for our dogs. The Dude is not a reactive dog, so a simple martingdale (no-slip) collar works just fine for him. But we also tried a step-in harness, which is attached via two points of contact and a double-ended leash (one clip to the dog’s back and one to the dog’s chest). The Dude seemed to respond well to this one too, and we’re adding it to our collection to use in more challenging walking situations. We refrained from trying any head-collars, which work nicely for more reactive dogs, especially when paired with a harness or martingdale and — again — a double-ended leash. More on these various equipment another time!

Finally, we worked on toy play. I know what you’re thinking — what does playing with toys have to do with basic obedience? Turns out it has a lot to do with it! Teaching a dog to love toys not only makes for a far more reliable recall than food does, but also builds a stronger relationship between the dog and the person — and if your dog thinks you’re fun, then your dog is going to be much more likely to do what you ask.


(1) practice loose leash walking in the back yard, setting up some cone-substitutes to do figure eights and weaves, turning frequently if the dog is tempted to pull. Once this is easy, start walking in front of the house — first just 40 feet, out and back. Once this is easy, double the distance. Once that’s easy, double again.

(2) Practice toy holding and play, by only petting the dog when he’s holding a toy in his mouth — all week! Put all the toys away, and only produce one when you decide it’s playtime. When the game is over — again — you decide — the toy goes away again. For the toy holding practice, if Dude approaches seeking attention, offer a toy. If he takes it, pet, praise, hug, whatever. The second he drops it, turn off all attention. This is a hard one, but a building block for future activities!

(3) Continue sit/release exercise, tiedown approaches, and sitting for food bowl from week 1.

So how’d we do? The leash walking was slow going, but we made some progress. By the fourth day, we were able to get down the front walk, down the driveway, and two houses away from ours on a loose leash. Then on Monday we tried out a new harness, and were able to make a lot more progress. We’re now juggling back and forth between the two, and hope to become proficient in each. The toy holding went well — when we remembered to do it. We often found ourselves petting or scratching the Doodlebug with no toys in sight, just out of habit — oops! But when we did offer a toy, he got better and better throughout the week at holding it while receiving his massage. This is a big deal for the Dude, who was most decidedly NOT a toy fanatic a couple of weeks ago. Score!

An update on Week 3 to come next week!

School Days: Doodlebug’s quest to be basically obedient

Last Tuesday, the Dude began his quest to become basically obedient — that is, he had the first session of his six-week basic obedience class.

Although I might have been able to teach the Dude most of the skills covered in a formal class, I knew it would be good for him to learn in a more formal environment and practice being calm around other dogs — a bit of a challenge for the Dude, who gets excited at the sight of another four-legger. Plus, taking two dogs through the basic obedience class is part of my trainer’s training requirement, so the Dude’s participation is a natural fit.

So we headed over to the Center with low expectations — the Doctor’s orders are for the Dude to refrain from participating in any exciting activities for another three weeks due to his heartworm treatment. So we were fully expecting to be parked far from the other seven dogs, in a quiet corner of the field where he would be far from all the excitement. Per our head trainer’s suggestion, we prepared him a kong stuffed with kibble, peanut butter, and cheese to keep him busy and calm during the first half of class, which would be mostly conversation and little activity.

But we shouldn’t have worried. The Dude did a little bit of quiet whimpering as we approached the broad agility field where class would be held, but quickly plopped himself down in the mulch to relax and observe the goings-on, as though he were just lounging on the bed at home. He was a perfect gentleman the rest of the evening, and we were his proud, beaming parents.

The first lesson covered some fundamentals that the Dude was better than the other dogs at had already been practicing at home, like sitting for food and sitting & relaxing for attention. The latter is especially critical, and we feel so lucky that we made it second-nature years ago with Chick — it seems to not come easily to so many families with dogs. The basic principle is this: we should be giving our dogs attention for displaying behaviors we like (sitting quietly and calmly, for example), and ignoring the behaviors we don’t like (jumping and barking, for example). It’s easy to be tempted to push a dog away when he jumps, or say “Doodlebug, NO!” or “quiet!” when he barks for attention. But in doing this, we’re actually giving the dog exactly what he wants. To a dog — especially a pushy one — attention means being looked at, talked to, or touched — doesn’t matter if it’s positive or negative in our eyes. If we are consistent, a dog can quickly learn that barking will not earn him that treat, and jumping will not get the visitor to look at him. The behavior will eventually extinguish. For dogs whose unsavory habits are long-ingrained, it can take some time. For dogs who are just learning the rules from scratch, change happens pretty quickly.

The Dude was lucky to learn this from scratch in our home. It’s our hypothesis that he had never been trained at all before living with us, so in his mind, there were no rules. Lucky us: within three days of coming into our home, Dude was consistently planting his butt firmly on the ground and looking at us with those giant doe eyes of his when he wanted a pet or a scratch, not punching us with his paws or face or barking obnoxiously.

The first week’s homework? Practicing sits and releases in progressively more challenging locations in / around the house, sitting for the food bowl, and tiedown approaches. The Dude aced ’em all.

Stay tuned next week for an update on tonight’s session two!

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