Thresholds: When dogs reach their emotional edge

Until recently, I never thought I’d utter the phrase “Dog training is just like yoga.” However, in researching fear in dogs and the best practices for treating it, I’ve found a distinct parallel.

After countless yoga sessions of stretching and twisting, I’ve encountered the term “edge” quite frequently. In yoga, you are encouraged to work toward your physical edge in a pose – the moment when your muscles and joints tell you, “That’s it, this is as far as I’m going to go.” If you move into your edge too quickly, you’ll definitely experience discomfort. You might even experience injury in the form of a strained or pulled muscle, which will impede your overall progress. But if you acknowledge your edge, concentrate on it, and move into it gradually with proper breathing and alignment, you end up going deeper into a pose and opening tightened muscles.

Edges in yoga are similar to a concept in dog training known as the “threshold,” and you’ll encounter it often in training publications and this blog. When dealing with fearful and anxious dogs, the threshold is similar to the physical edge in yoga. Once a dog goes over his threshold, learning shuts down, the emotion takes over, and harm occurs. However, by knowing a dog’s threshold, working through it gradually, and ensuring a dog never crosses it, dogs overcome their fears and anxieties, much like conquering a difficult yoga posture.

To understand the concept of a threshold, it’s important to understand the science behind fear. Fear is a reflexive response, an automatic reaction to a stimulus. When a dog encounters a stimulus that signals danger, whether through a learned association or an innate one, two different systems in the dog’s brain enter the playing field. The autonomic nervous system sends information to that prompt physiological changes like increased heart rate and increased breathing rate, enabling the “fight or flight” capabilities in the dog’s body. In the second system, a fearful stimulus triggers the activation of the HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands), releasing cortisol and adrenaline that further assist the body during “fight or flight” situations. (Jordan, 2012).

Emotionally charged situations inhibit a dog’s normal learning processes because they cause the brain to focus solely on the arousing event. A fear-inducing stimulus overrides the brain’s GABA, a nerve-calming neurotransmitter, thus leading to emotional reactivity. (Bond, 2008). It also activates the HPA axis quite rapidly, nullifying any chance of in-the-moment counterconditioning. (Jordan, 2012). While frustrating in the moment, this makes sense from a biological standpoint; dangerous situations require immediate attention for survival.

With all of this activity, we can hardly expect a dog to focus on an obedience command or to “get over it.” It’s simply not in his biology. What’s more, stress hormones stay in the system long after the fearful stimulus is gone, resulting in long-term effects on training and learning.

When a dog crosses his threshold, the above biological processes in the body kick in. Each dog has a different threshold, and his threshold can vary depending on the stimulus. For example, one dog’s threshold for encountering strangers could be 10 yards, whereas another dog’s could be 3. These distances could be reversed if the dogs were presented with a different stimulus, such as an oncoming dog.

The effects of fear are cumulative. If a dog is presented with a fearful stimulus over time that is never addressed through proper training, or worse, has encountered aversive training methods in combination with the fearful stimulus, the dog may go from relatively little intensity to a full-on growl, lunge or bite. Why? Because aversive techniques that suppress the behaviors signifying fear do nothing to change a dog’s behavior and instead serve to reinforce a dog’s fear of the stimulus. By suppressing behaviors such as growling, snarling or barking, and without removal of the fearful stimulus, the dog is left with only the most intense and damaging option: biting.

As James O’Heare writes in Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, fear thresholds can be raised or lowered, but not done away with altogether. “Aggression, which is present in all individuals, is never cured. Rather, the important issue is what evokes aggressive behavior and whether active attempts are made to change the dog’s aggression thresholds” (98).

The best way to recognize your dog’s thresholds is through understanding his body language. Dogs who are under stress may show any combination of the following behaviors:

  • low appetite
  • shallow, rapid panting
  • low focus ability
  • sweaty  paws
  • yawning
  • vomiting or diarrhea
  • shaking
  • excessive thirst, grooming, or sleeping
  • compulsive behaviors
  • confusion
  • increased urination or defecation
  • whale eye (where you can see the whites of the eyes)
  • stiffness
  • reactivity
  • dilated pupils
  • self-mutilation

These behaviors are a signal to create distance between your dog and the fear-causing stimulus. View them as a message from your dog saying, “Hey, I’m really uncomfortable, help get me out of here!”

At some point, every dog is going to cross his threshold. It happens and isn’t a catastrophe if handled the right way. In the moment, take control of the situation by getting your dog away from the stimulus, luring with treats and praise. Once you’ve gotten your dog to a calm location, give him a chance to calm down. Remember, the biological processes mentioned above are still at work, and your dog’s body needs time to normalize. Try to remember exactly what happened so you can identify what caused your dog to go over his threshold, and work on a plan should you encounter that situation again.

Remember, fear generalizes and can bleed into other behavior areas. If you notice your dog going over threshold, it’s important to get in touch with a dog trainer to set your dog up for success and to prevent the fear from worsening.

High-value treats: What are they?

It starts like an old vaudeville joke. A dog walks into a bar, and his owner says, “Sit.” The dog, staring at his owner, replies, “Why should I?” Depending on your answer, the situation could also end like an old vaudeville joke.

If you’ve read any literature on positive reinforcement or reward-based training, you’ve likely come across the phrase “high-value treats.” But what exactly do trainers mean when they say this, and why is this phrase so important when it comes to training and communicating with your dog? The key to answering these questions is one word: motivation.

The answer to “Why?”

“Dogs do what work.” It’s a common phrase used among trainers. I learned it from animal behaviorist Jean Donaldson and have been using it nonstop since. Essentially, it means dogs perform behaviors based on the consequences of that particular behavior. While we would all love to think dogs are overjoyed to “behave” because of innate devotion to their owners, the fact is, praise and love often isn’t motivating enough.

This doesn’t mean dogs don’t love us, and it definitely doesn’t mean love and praise are useless. On the contrary, love and praise are crucial to a strong human-animal bond, and praise used along with a treat is a powerful reward. But when it comes to training, let’s face it:  Most of what we ask dogs to do is boring and, as trainers like to say, expensive. In human terms, it’s like eating vegetables instead of ice cream, or doing chores instead of watching a movie. It takes us a sufficient amount of motivation to do these things. Some tasks, like cleaning the bathroom, take even more motivation. Wouldn’t you be more inclined do do your chores or eat your vegetables if you knew an irresistible reward followed?

The same goes for dogs.  Doing sits, downs and stays by themselves aren’t very exciting, but when paired with a compelling motivator, obedience commands become a bit more enticing. For dogs, one of the most compelling motivators we have available is food.

When you tell your dog, “Sit,” your dog wants to know, “Why should I?” Your vaudeville joke-preventing answer? High-value treats.

Typical motivators

Examples of irresistible treats (cut up into small pieces) include: Pecorino romano, diced chicken or turkey, cold cuts, freeze-dried liver, and baby food (turkey and gravy flavored).

Before choosing your treats, it’s important to check with your veterinarian about any special dietary concerns your dog might have.

Making your treats high-value

Perform an experiment with your dog. Take a handful of his typical kibble or dry biscuits and lure him into a down. Repeat this about 15 times, asking him to stand up before going down again. Now take a handful of something new, like diced roast chicken or pecorino romano cheese. Do another 15 repetitions. See any difference? Odds are, your dog will be much more attentive with the pecorino romano than his daily kibble. Imagine the difference if you repeated this experiment in a dog park when working on recall. With a myriad of competing distractions and the freedom of being off-leash, the pecorino romano would be a lifesaver.

Each dog is different

Let’s return to the chores example. For person A, cleaning the bathroom may require a minor reward, like the knowledge of having a clean bathroom. For person B, this reward may not be enough. Person B might need the motivation of a cup of tea and a bubble bath, or perhaps a long walk outside. We all vary in our motivation requirements for any given task.

Dogs are no different. In the above experiment, you may have found that your dog willingly worked for kibble and pecorino. Congratulations – you have one food-loving dog! Alternatively, you may have found that your dog paid no attention to you until you brought out the good stuff. Don’t worry – there’s nothing wrong with your dog! You just need to find the right motivator to make him click. Once you find it, you’re golden.

It’s not just the food

Once you have the food, you still need to do a few things to make it high-value:

  • Find out what makes your dog pay attention. For some, it’s ham. For others, it’s pecorino romano. For others, it’s freeze-dried liver. Experiment until you find a treat that makes your dog motivated.
  • Only use your chosen treats for training. This will help preserve their rare, high-value status.
  • Use food that can be broken up into small pieces – you’ll be dispensing them quite often during training!

A note about toy-loving dogs

Some dogs (think the “drivey” breeds like border collies) adore toys even more than food. You’ll know it if you have one. Chances are, you’ve just come back from yet another round of frisbee.

If your dog is in this category, toys can be used as a motivator in lieu of or in conjunction with food. The mechanics may be trickier, especially if you’re using a tuggie or squeaker toy, but your trainer can help you work through any tough spots. You can also bring out toys for the really expensive behaviors, like recall, and use the high-value treats for other less-expensive behaviors.

Understanding bite inhibition


It’s something every dog owner fears. It’s something every dog has the ability to do. It’s something that is misunderstood due to conflicting and inaccurate information. It’s also something that’s imperative for every dog owner to understand.

“I shall repeat over and over: teaching bite inhibition is the most important aspect of your puppy’s entire education.” – Ian Dunbar

Our species does not take well to sharp, bared teeth, and for good reason: It’s part of our evolutionary makeup. Bared teeth signal danger. Dogs, on the other hand, have evolved to bite in order to guard resources and defend themselves against potential threats. It’s rarely their first line of defense; biting is expensive behavior, more so than snarling, growling, and other behaviors in a dog’s ritualized threat sequence. But if provoked by pain, fear, or other type of threat, dogs can and will bite. It’s simply part of their behavioral repertoire.

Biting is also an important part of a puppy’s play repertoire, as evidenced by any puppy owner’s ripped clothing and battle scars from encounters with sharp little teeth.

A glaring myth about biting is that puppies should never do it, that a puppy who bites will morph into a dangerous adult dog. The truth is quite the opposite. Puppies *should* bite. If a client came to me with an adolescent dog who had no history of biting as a puppy, I would be incredibly concerned because that dog would not have developed bite inhibition during the critical socialization period.

Bite inhibition refers to a dog’s ability to bite at reduced pressure and frequency, and is learned through operant conditioning (consequences).

Puppies have little jaw strength and therefore cannot bite with maiming force. But they can still inflict pain (nature provided them with razor sharp teeth for a reason). They bite constantly, starting among their litter mates and then with their owners, inanimate objects, and, with proper socialization, other puppies.

If you’ve ever watched puppies at play, you’ve likely seen the following scenario: Puppy A bites Puppy B during play. Puppy B let’s out a yelp, and ends the play session. Puppy A plays with Puppy B again, and again bites Puppy B too hard. Puppy B yelps and ends play. Puppy A gradually realizes that in order to keep playing with Puppy B, he has to bite softer. Puppy A has learned, via operant conditioning, that hard bites lead to end of play, and soft bites mean play continues.

“Suppressing puppy biting too early means the puppy doesn’t get the repeated doses of feedback on his jaw strength; the puppy grows up with a hard mouth. Ironically, this is a serious squandering of a critical lines of defense against dog bites.” – Jean Donaldson, The Culture Clash

That puppies learn this behavior-consequence contingency is critical. The ones that do will use a soft mouth during play and face fewer chances of biting during future escape or avoidance situations.

Teaching puppies never to bite during play is not an effective endeavor. For one, biting is part of a dog’s behavior repertoire. No matter how much an owner attempts to teach a puppy never to bite under any circumstance, it does not take into account what will happen if that dog ever feels threatened.

“Sometimes, however, even the best efforts of the wisest dog owners can’t prevent a bite from happening. If and when it does, one hopes and prays that the dog has good bite inhibition,” writes Pat Miller in The Whole Dog Journal.

There are four critical pieces to teaching your puppy bite inhibition:
1) Gradually decreasing the pressure of the bites
2) Consistent consequences for the bites from all family members
3) Repetition of training
4) Socialization with other puppies

Let’s explore these points in more detail.

1) Gradually decrease bite pressure

It’s important to give your puppy time to decrease the pressure of his bites. Just as you can’t go from a three-second stay indoors to a five-minute stay at the dog park, training soft bites takes time and gradually set criteria. Taking bite inhibition training on a week-by-week basis, the process could look something like this:

Week 1: Time out all hard pressure bites (ones that break skin or make you think “ouch!”). Positively reinforce bites below this threshold.

Week 2: Time out all medium pressure bites. Positively reinforce bites below this threshold.

Week 3: Time out all soft pressure bites. At this stage, the puppy should be timed out for teeth touching skin or clothing.

It’s important for every member of the family (excepting young children) to practice this so the puppy generalizes that the rules apply to all humans, not just one person.

2) Consequences

Just as puppies provide consequences to their litter mates for hard bites, you must provide consistent consequences for bites based on the training criteria. This means that each pressure bite receives a consequence. The more consistency, the faster your puppy will learn. The following are two options for biting consequences:

– Place your finger in the puppy’s mouth and let him nibble. When you feel the pressure bite, yelp “ouch!” and, once the puppy softens his mouth and lets go, praise and continue giving him attention. (Don’t move your finger away, as this will encourage your puppy to bite more!)

– Sometimes, yelping “ouch!” can be fun for a puppy, rendering the time out moot. In this case, practice the bite inhibition exercises in a gated, puppy proof area of the house. When you feel the pressure bite, say “ouch!” and then walk out of the gate and stand with your back to your puppy for 10-15 seconds. With repetition, the puppy learns that pressure bites mean loss of playtime (quite a hefty fine!)

Remember to provide positive consequences (continued play, treats, verbal praise and attention) for bites that are below the pressure criteria you’re working on. So, if you’re timing out medium pressure bites, make sure to give positive feedback for all soft pressure bites.

As O’Heare writes in Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, “Rarely is merely teaching a dog what not to do effective on its own; he must simultaneously be taught what to do.”

3) Repetition

Dogs learn by repetition. Be consistent not only with your consequences, but with your training. Do these exercises every day, with every member of the household (except young children).

4) Socialization

I cannot overstate the importance of socializing your dog with other puppies at puppy socials, classes and play dates. Puppies need social feedback from other puppies. Your puppy will learn how to play and bite with a soft mouth, which will serve you and your dog well once he gets his adult teeth and jaw strength.

Training Mindfully

You’re walking your dog. You pass another person and a dog on the sidewalk. Upon seeing them approach, your dog barks, lunges, and pulls at the leash. Imagine this is a scene from a movie that you’re watching on TV and you press the “pause” button. What thoughts circulate your mind at this moment?

– “My dog is being dominant.” (He’s not.)

– “That other person thinks I’m a bad dog owner.” (They might.)

– “My dog wants to attack that other dog.” (Possible, but highly improbable.)

– “I have a bad dog.” (You don’t.)

– “I’m so embarrassed.” (Understandable.)

The point of this exercise is this: Our thoughts, perceptions and judgments are inextricably linked to our observations of our dogs’ behavior. It’s not wrong and it doesn’t make us terrible dog owners. But it does get in the way of our becoming effective trainers.

The more I work with dog owners and counsel them on how to train their dogs, and the more I train dogs myself, the more importance I see in training mindfully.

What is mindfulness?

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.”

This quote is from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The concept of mindfulness has gained traction in Western culture and medicine, yielding scientific research on its benefits and effectiveness .

The point of training the brain to pay attention is to preserve what Maria Konnikova, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia, terms our limited “neural real estate” on the task at hand, minimizing the noise and distractions of our minds and the outside environment.

Konnikova writes, “Mindfulness training has even been shown to affect the brain’s default network — the network of connections that remains active when we are in a so-called resting state — with regular meditators exhibiting increased resting-state functional connectivity and increased connectivity generally. After a dose of mindfulness, the default network has greater consistent access to information about our internal states and an enhanced ability to monitor the surrounding environment. These effects make sense: the core of mindfulness is the ability to pay attention.”

So what?

So, the science checks out. And science is something competent dog trainers must abide by. How does this apply to dog training?

Let’s return to Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s concept of paying attention on purpose and refraining from judgment.

Think of the ways we judge ourselves, and our dogs when they misbehave. We place pressure on ourselves to appear as responsible dog owners. We often expect our dogs to behave in ways that are contradictory to their nature (i.e., not barking at strangers, not growling at a scary stimulus, not scavenging for food on the street.) We focus on our interpretation of events, rather than the more scientifically sound observation of events (a major scientific faux pas).

Training Mindfully

When working with a dog on a behavior problem, it’s easy to react to the series of events using our own judgments and interpretations. But what if we were to train mindfully? What would that look like?

First, we would pay attention on purpose. We would pay attention to our observations of the behavior, the antecedents and consequences of the behavior, and the dog’s body language. This is the competent way to determine why a dog is behaving a certain way. It creates a roadmap of solutions for the behavior problem.

Returning to the leash reactive dog example, what would paying attention on purpose look like?

– The observations: The dog growled, barked and lunged on leash when approaching the other dog and woman head-on.

– The antecedents and consequences: The dog saw the dog and woman and, when 10 feet away, started the behavior. Following the behavior, the dog received a verbal reprimand from the owner and was placed into a sit with a tight leash.

– The body language: The whites of the dog’s eye were visible, the lips were contracted into a snarl, the ears were pinned back, and the dog’s hackles were visible.

These observations provide a much clearer picture of the dog’s behavior, as well as how to proceed, than interpretations of so-called dominance, or statements like “the dog was trying to kill the other dog.”

This leads into the other part of training mindfully: avoiding judgment.

Training dogs can be emotional. It’s embarrassing when our dogs snarl and growl in public, even if they’re snarling and growling for a very good reason. It’s also easy to view our dogs’ behavior through the lens of human perception. Doing so leads to false statements like: Fido is stubborn, Fido is dominant, Fido needs a stronger leader, and so on. None of these statements would hold up in dog science court, but we make them all the same.

But if we were to train mindfully, to train without preconceived notions of how a dog should behave in public, to train without inserting our own thoughts and emotions into the dog’s behavior, we would better serve our dogs and solve behavior problems more effectively and efficiently.

It’s not easy. It takes training. But to be able to look at our dogs’ behavior objectively, as it happens in the present moment, helps us adhere to the principles of science and animal learning. The principles of competent training.

Making the most out of your dog training appointment

“How does this work?” It’s a common question I hear when speaking with new training clients, and refers to the entire training process and the unknowns that come with it:

– Does my dog need to be well-trained?
– Will you reject me and my dog?
– How will I know what to do?
– Can I ask you questions?
– What if I don’t understand?
– What if my dog doesn’t get it right?
– What do I do when a trainer comes to my home?

While some have experience with group classes, many people do not experience private training until they face a problem: house training woes, pulling on leash, barking, aggression. Mix the stress of a misbehaving dog with the uncertainty of how private training works and you have quite the anxiety-producing scenario. And that’s before picking up the phone and giving a trainer a call.

In the next few paragraphs I will address some ways you can make the most out of your dog training appointments, and how you can feel more at ease with the trainer you hire.

1) It’s ok if you’re not perfect

Remember why you hired a trainer: You need help with your dog’s behavior. A good trainer will realize you’re not reaching out because you have a perfect dog. In fact, a good trainer will be interested in your dog’s particular behaviors and will be excited to start working with you.

When speaking with your trainer about your dog’s behavior history, refrain from sugarcoating or omitting important events. Your trainer wants and needs this information to conduct a thorough assessment of your dog’s behavior history and to set appropriate training goals. If you omit an incident where your dog bit another dog or growled at a child, you may save yourself some initial discomfort but risk shortchanging your dog’s chances of success during training.

Good trainers never judge you for your dog’s behavior. If your trainer does this, look elsewhere.

2) Compliance and consistency

Trainers cannot be with your dog at all times. Even if you hire someone to do board-and-train or day training, you’re eventually going to take over the training reins. Because of this, you are crucial when it comes to meeting your dog’s training goals. It’s important to heed your trainer’s instructions regarding homework, managing your dog’s environment, and providing exercise and structure. Behavior modification is not easy. It’s impossible if the parameters are not put in place to facilitate success.

Consistency is also paramount. Just as cramming for an exam yields less than stellar results, training your dog sporadically will produce unreliable, flaky behavior change. If you put in the work a little bit each day and make time in your schedule, the payoffs will be immensely rewarding. You’ll also be much more likely to get your money’s worth out of the training because the your dog’s behavior will improve and stay that way long after the trainer is gone.

3) Ask questions

Find a trainer who welcomes questions. Dog behavior and animal learning are tricky subjects. Good trainers ask their colleagues and teachers questions about these topics all the time, so don’t feel intimidated if you are confused by or don’t understand something. You’ve hired your trainer to teach you how to work and communicate with your dog, not just to fix a behavior problem. A question can make a difference between a successful training session or an unsuccessful one, so be an active learner each step of the way.

4) Record video

One of my colleagues taught me the benefits of using recorded video with training clients. While description can be effective in troubleshooting a particular training plan or assessing a dog’s overall behavior, video can make the assessment much more nuanced. If your dog is behaving a certain way and you want your trainer’s input, take a quick video with your smartphone or camera. Videotape training sessions you have with your dog and share them at your next appointment. Your trainer will be able to provide helpful feedback on your technique and how to address specific behavior scenarios.

5) If you’re uncomfortable, say so

The dog training world is sadly unregulated. Anybody can call himself a dog trainer, despite having no formal training or credentials. Thankfully, there are incredible dog training schools throughout the world and just as many ethical, brilliant trainers. That being said, protect your dog from harmful and ineffective training techniques by researching and interviewing a trainer before hiring her. If you’re in a training session and feel uncomfortable about a technique or protocol that your trainer is asking you to do, say something. Ask what your trainer is doing, and assess whether your dog could be in any pain or fear. Training should be painless and should not elicit fear in a dog.

6) Have fun

Training is a beautiful thing. It creates a stronger bond between you and your dog. If done correctly, your dog enjoys the training sessions and receives great mental enrichment. If you find yourself feeling stressed during a session with your dog, take a breather. If you are so worried about making mistakes that you avoid training altogether, remember: your trainer is there to mentor you. The world doesn’t end if you make little mistakes here and there, so be kind to yourself and your dog.

Consequences and fear: Does the punishment fit the crime?

Last week, I discussed the role antecedents play in dog training, specifically when it comes to working with fearful dogs. The week before, I discussed the foundations of fear in dogs, and what happens to a dog when fear takes hold. Today, I’ll bring the topic full-circle by discussing what happens immediately after a behavior or event:  the consequence.

Technically speaking, the ABCs in dog training (antecedents-behaviors-consequences) are called the “three-term contigency.” In dog training terms, a consequence is an event that happens immediately after a specific behavior. We give our dogs consequences all the time, sometimes unintentionally. Common punishment consequences include time-outs, and withholding of treats or playtime until the dog performs a specific behavior. Common reward consequences include treats for sits, down-stays and tricks.

As discussed the first article in this series, dealing with emotions in dogs requires a different methodology than what we typically use in obedience training. When a dog experiences a powerful emotion like fear, everything else goes by the wayside. Nothing else matters. This doesn’t mean that consequences aren’t relevant. On the contrary, consequences are intricately linked to whether a dog’s fear strengthens over time.

Dogs are excellent at telling time. Animal behaviorist Pamela J. Reid explains this topic brilliantly in her book Excel-erated Learning writing, “The delay between the response and the punisher greatly influences the degree of learning …The ‘wait until your father gets home’ approach to punishment is not effective.” In this example, Reid is referring to the delivery of punishers in obedience training. However, the same concept can be applied to treating fear in dogs. Think about how you felt as a child when you were afraid. Would someone saying, “Wait till your father comes home, and we’ll give you a hug” work? Probably not.

Similarly, comforting a dog minutes, even seconds after the onset of the fear stimulus (science-speak for the scary thing) is less effective. Why? Because the dog will not necessarily connect the consequence with the scary thing.  With poor timing, the dog will experience a scary thing and then experience a treat as separate events. What we want the dog to think is: A scary thing occurred but immediately led to a good thing, and over time, each time that I encounter that scary thing a good thing happens. If done correctly, the scary thing starts to feel less ominous for the dog.  

One critical element to keep in mind when dealing with fear is identifying its presence. In other words, we have to ask ourselves, “Does the punishment fit the crime?” Often, a scared dog appears to be “misbehaving.” (A trainer can help you determine whether your dog’s body language is communicating fear. For those who are really interested in dog communication, I suggest James O’Heare’s book Aggressive Behavior in Dogs. It gets a bit technical, but has a great section on what dogs are communicating with their various behaviors.)

If we think a dog is misbehaving and exercise a punishment, chances are the fear is going to continue and potentially increase, because the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. In the case of fear, a better question to ask ourselves is: “Does the consequence fit the emotion?”

To illustrate, take the example of a leash-reactive dog. Each time the dog encounters another dog on leash, he snarls, growls, lunges and barks. Here are two different scenarios that could occur:

Case 1: Owner sees dog displaying unwanted behavior, scolds dog with leash correction and shouting “No! Bad dog!” and keeps walking. Similar punishment occurs whenever dog displays leash reactivity.

Case 2: Owner realizes dog is afraid, brings tasty treats on walk, and each time dog notices another dog on leash, immediately marks behavior with a verbal cue or click from a clicker and supplies treat. In situations where dog is over threshold, owner happy talks/gives dog treats and walks to quieter side of street.

In case 1, the consequence doesn’t fit the emotion. Chances are, the dog’s leash reactivity will worsen. The owner is assuming that the lunging/barking/snarling behavior is the “crime,” and is implementing a form of punishment to eliminate the behavior.  From the dog’s perspective, the leash corrections and yelling actually reinforce the fear of meeting other dogs on leash. Each time the dog meets another fellow canine, he has to deal with the already-present fear plus a yelling owner. It couldn’t be clearer to the dog that meeting other dogs while on leash is not good!

In case 2, the owner realizes that the dog’s lunging/barking/snarling behavior isn’t a crime at all, but an emotion. The dog is reacting to his fear of seeing other dogs while on leash. By using good timing, the owner is slowly teaching the dog that encountering other dogs on leash leads to praise and treats. The clear link between the antecedent (encountering dogs on leash) and the consequence (praise and treats) will positively affect the dog’s behavior (snarling/barking/lunging). In situations where timing can’t be used with precision, the owner does a good job of “getting out of dodge” with the happy talk and treats so that the dog doesn’t remain in a scary situation.

Often, treating fear can appear counterintuitive. It can look like you’re rewarding an unwanted behavior. You may get some stares from your neighbors. This is ok. Just remember that you’re dealing with an emotion. For your dog, nothing else matters when he’s scared.

Treating fear in dogs is by no means easy, which is why even the most experienced trainers ask for support from their colleagues on fear-based cases. If you suspect your dog’s behavior at fear-based, don’t worry if you feel muddled and at a loss as to how to help. Get support in the form of a trainer, and start jotting down the antecedents, behaviors and consequences you see. By doing this, you’re already putting your dog on the path to success and giving yourself some peace of mind.

Leash reactivity: It’s trainable (but not how you might think)

You look at the clock. It’s time to walk your dog. As you grab the leash, the poop bags and your keys, you feel a familiar anxiety that occurs each time you step outside. You may fear that your neighbors will say, “Uh oh, there she comes with that crazy dog.” You may feel like your neighborhood has become one massive, unpredictable trigger for your dog.  Once put on leash, your typically calm and sociable dog begins barking, lunging, growling and whining at typical neighborhood noises and distractions.

Does this sound familiar? If so, take a deep breath and keep reading. Leash reactivity is a common and normal behavior for dogs. While cases vary in severity, and it is always advisable to consult a professional, force-free dog trainer if you have a leash reactive dog, rest assured that there are techniques you can use on your daily walks to manage and improve your dog’s leash manners (and your peace of mind).

What’s going to be surprising about the next few paragraphs is what the training entails. Why? Because it appears counterintuitive. As a society, we tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to “aggressive” behaviors in dogs. Many people wrongly think we need to punish their dogs for growling, lunging and baring their teeth. It’s not difficult to understand how this myth came to be, but in reality, you need to do the exact opposite.

When your dog is doing all those embarrassing, blustery behaviors on leash, it’s because she is upset. She is uncomfortable being constrained by a leash and encountering dogs, men, bicycles, etc. The blustery behaviors are the symptoms of the overarching problem. To solve leash reactivity, we need to change your dog’s emotion. Read on to learn how.


–  Keep your dog calm and focused on you throughout the walk

–  Create positive associations with your dog’s typical triggers (instead of “uh oh, here it comes,” we want “yippee! here it comes!”)

–  As much as possible, avoid situations that are likely to put your dog over his comfort threshold

Step 1: Identify your dog’s triggers

– What makes your dog lunge, bark, growl or whine on leash? Common triggers include: other dogs (sometimes specific dogs, other times all dogs), people, people wearing heavy coats/hats/hoodies, men, skateboards, bicycles, and children.

Step 2: Motivation

–  To keep your dog’s attention, you’ll need some highly tasty, highly valuable treats. Test out various options to find which ones your dog loves the most. Reserve the most valuable treats to use only on walks – this will make them more salient. Also try mixing up the types of treats you use during the walk to keep things interesting.

–  Some dogs love tug toys just as much or more than treats. If you have a dog that is toy motivated, you can also use this in addition to food.

Step 3: Equipment

–  Make sure your dog is fitted with a no-pull harness (and has been trained to wear one).

–  If your dog has a history of aggression toward dogs and strangers, be sure to train your dog to wear a basket muzzle for safety purposes.

– Don’t forget a treat pouch! You’ll need a way to easily access and deliver treats on the walk.

– Use a regular nylon or cotton leash (no flexi-leads). As much as possible, try to keep the leash loose, as a tight leash can cause an increase in reactivity in dogs.

The Plan

– While walking your dog, keep a keen eye on the environment. Scan the sidewalk and surrounding area for potential triggers. Avoid areas where your dog could get “cornered” with an oncoming trigger.

– Once your dog notices a trigger (a dog in a yard, a stranger across the street, etc.), immediately start “happy talking” to your dog and delivering treats. Make sure the treats come after your dog notices the trigger. We want the trigger to predict the treats, so that your dog learns that the things he fears actually lead to good things.

– If your dog is too upset to take treats (i.e., if the trigger is too strong or too close), commence the happy talking and turn to create some distance between you and the trigger. Once your dog has some distance, proceed with the treats.

– If you notice a situation nearby that your dog will not handle well, turn and go the other way. The goal of the walk is to keep your dog as calm as possible. One of the best tools you have in addition to supplying treats is increasing distance between your dog and the things that upset him.

– Reinforce calm behavior! If you see your dog do typical walking behaviors (sniffing, loose and relaxed body language, “shaking it off” after stressful situations, or making eye contact with you), immediately reward him. To maintain calm, periodically ask your dog to do a simple behavior like “sit” or “touch,” and follow up with a treat. This helps your dog stay focused on you, and the reward for the behavior builds positive associations with the walk and surrounding environment.

– Do not punish the reactive behavior (barking, lunging, growling, etc). Your dog is doing these behaviors because he is uncomfortable and upset. If you punish these behaviors, we’re only working on the symptoms of leash reactivity. The root of the problem is the emotion. By supplying happy talk and treats when your dog encounters things that are scary to him, you are gradually changing the emotion. You will not increase the barking, growling and lunging by doing this. Why? Because once your dog no longer fears his triggers, he will no longer do the reactive behaviors. Remember: You cannot reward fear.

Making force-free training the norm

Lately, when in conversation with friends and colleagues about dog training, I find myself trying to answer the same question: Why do we face such an uphill battle to make every dog a force-free dog? Whether it’s banning breed-specific legislation (BSL), encouraging the ban on shock, choke and prong collars, or convincing people that popular dog training television programs are promoting abusive, inhumane and unscientific training techniques, it often feels like an endless hike through an unscientific, myth-infested muck.

But … why? Why must it be so difficult to encourage people not to abuse their dogs? Why does someone with no scientific background in animal behavior create a dog training television empire based on faulty methods? Surely, common sense should prevail. And yet it doesn’t. Although the force-free community is making great strides, every day dogs suffer from the fallout and shrapnel of improper training and misguided laws.

There are, of course, many reasons as to why we don’t live in a force-free world. In fact, it could provide the curriculum to an entire college course. However, thanks to an article in The New Yorker, I came across one answer that could have much impact on how we train dogs in the future.

In the article, titled “Slow Ideas,” author Atul Gawande explores the reasons why important, even life-saving ideas that could provide massive benefits to society take a long time gaining momentum. The answer, according to Gawande, lies in how we communicate these ideas to society, as well as the extra work these ideas impose on the individual.

Expensive Ideas

“This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas,” Gawande writes. “They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful.”

Although Gawande was discussing health care in his article, the dog training community faces a similar conundrum. In this scenario, the stalled ideas are not about germ-reducing procedures in hospitals or eliminating pain during surgery, but about the use of scientific and pain-free methods to train dogs.

To a dog trainer, the concept that training force-free  produces more effective, long-lasting behavior change and also eliminates the risk of more behavior problems down the road seems simple. But to another person dealing with a leash reactive dog, this might not be the case. Say this person meets with a force-free trainer and learns that, among other things, she has to carry treats and a clicker on her person, stick to a training plan, practice and rehearse the training procedures with the dog, and maintain these behaviors for a lifetime. Sure, the phrase “It’s science!” is nice, but this is very expensive (read: time- and energy-consuming) behavior.

Say this same person decides to place a prong collar on the dog. Each time the dog growls and lunges on leash, she pops the collar. As an immediate reaction, the dog may stop growling. And, the owner thinks that as long as the collar is on the dog, she can use it at any time to stop unwanted behaviors. Of course, as a force-free trainer this situation would make me cringe, but I recognize its allure. To some, it certainly seems so much easier to put a prong collar on a dog because of its immediate benefits and the relief of not having to do all the expensive behavior mentioned earlier. Not to mention the fact that many compulsion trainers unethically promise guarantees and immediate results – again, very alluring to the harried dog owner.

Of course, what this person may not predict is that by using the prong collar as a quick-fix solution, the dog will not overcome the leash reactive behavior, and is likely to develop even more aggressive behaviors down the road. In fact, this dog may end up biting another dog or person because the behavior was never actually addressed. But this may happen years later – long after the owners had met with the force-free trainer -similar to the “big, but to most people, invisible” problems Gawande discussed in his article.

Communicating Expensive Ideas

So, if making the argument that force-free training is a “slow” idea, does that mean the situation is hopeless? Far from it. In fact, Gawande argues that honest, compassionate communication does wonders. He presents three different types of communicating great (but slow) ideas to an unconvinced public:

  1. Public service campaigns or, as he terms it, “Please do X.”
  2. Punishment or, as he terms it, “You must do X.”
  3. Offering incentives to soften the punishment of “You must do X.”

The problem with these options? According to Gawande,“neither penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day and and day out, even when no one is watching. ‘You must‘ rewards mere compliance. Getting to ‘X is what we do‘ means establishing X as the norm.”

And, as far as the force-free community goes, we want to get to “force-free is what we do,” too.

I agree with Gawande’s argument that forcing compliance or pleading for compliance aren’t viable long-term solutions. After all, force-free dog trainers realize that pure punishment does not create effective behavior change, nor does pleading with a dog. What does work? Motivating the dog and showing the dog what behaviors lead to desired outcomes. We need to do the same with dog owners: Motivate them to train force-free, motivate them to change their training behavior patterns, and show them how using science-based training methods provides better, long-lasting results for their dogs.

Unlike forcing compliance and pleading, motivation gets to the root of behavior change. Instead of finding mistakes, which will only put dog owners on the defensive, we need to give them good, solid reasons for adopting non-traditional training techniques. These reasons need to be more enticing and more powerful than the potential drawbacks (time, money, carrying treats around, changing routines for the dog, letting go of previous habits and beliefs).

We also need to communicate at an individual level because each person’s source of motivation will be different. “To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms,” writes Gawande. “You have to understand what’s getting in their way.”

Here are two examples of how trainers can create new norms for dog training clients:

  • A client uses a prong collar for her rambunctious pit bull. She is also dealing with pressure from friends and family to train with traditional methods and “get control” of her dog, and is hesitant to be criticized or ostracized. This person needs encouragement to communicate why she is training force-free, and also needs the confidence that these force-free methods will produce the behavior change her family and friends are looking for.
  • A client has an aggressive dog and he is afraid that without a shock collar, his dog may run away and get hurt or killed. If this person realizes that he can build a much more solid recall through force-free training, he will be much more motivated to drop the shock collar.

We have a long ways to go before we realize the goal of a force-free training society. But as the history of slow ideas has shown us, with the right communication and motivation, it’s possible. And that’s quite motivating.

Filling the behavioral void: Training your highly energetic dog

Lately, I’ve encountered a series of training cases involving highly energetic dogs with low to negligible impulse control. These dogs are beautifully socialized. They have no signs of fear or aggression. They’re “only” highly excitable and lack the ability to control behavioral impulses. Yet, the stress and anxiety these behaviors place on the dogs’ owners is palpable – just as palpable as those who own highly aggressive and reactive dogs.

If you’re reading this article, you may recognize the type of dog I’m talking about. Any attention – a pat on the head, an excited voice – unleashes a torrent of jumping, barking, and uncontrollable excitement. The delivery of treats, sometimes even the scent of high-value food, elicits a flurry of the same excited – but unwanted – behaviors.

It’s easy to fall into a cycle of ineffective punishment with this type of dog. As dog owners, we don’t want our dogs to jump, demand bark, mouth feet and limbs, and body slam other people or dogs at the park. It’s annoying, embarrassing and potentially harmful depending on the size and bite inhibition of the dog. We try to time out or ignore these behaviors. But the hyperactivity remains. As a trainer, I often hear the phrase “I did so many time outs, and it didn’t work. What am I doing wrong?”

Relate to this scenario? Keep reading.

Let’s discuss punishment for a moment. By definition, punishment decreases the occurrence of a behavior. In force-free dog training, we use something called “negative punishment,” which means we remove a reinforcer (like food, access to humans, access to play and other dogs) immediately after an unwanted behavior occurs. The goal is for the dog to realize that the unwanted behavior results in the removal of highly coveted things, rendering the behavior irrelevant. Despite the negative connotations many humans associate with the word, punishment (the force-free kind) is a valid and necessary component to dog training.

Here’s a typical scenario that responds to negative punishment: A dog jumps on people in order to seek attention. To implement a negative punishment protocol, you could place the dog in the bathroom for two minutes immediately following each occurrence of the behavior. Over time, the dog learns that jumping on people gets him exactly what he doesn’t want – alone time.

“But wait,” you might be thinking right now. “I’ve done this consistently and my dog still can’t handle greeting people coming over to the house.”

And you’re right. For hyperactive dogs with low impulse control (and for that matter most dogs), punishment alone will not solve the problem. Dogs need something to do with their time. Dogs like structure. They like predictability. They like knowing what they’re supposed to do, and what gets them the good stuff (food, toys, playtime, access to humans).

If we only focus on telling a dog what “not” to do, we leave a massive void. The dog knows not to jump, but what does he do instead? For dogs that have high energy and low ability to control impulsive behaviors, we need to help them fill the void. We must teach them replacement, desirable behaviors to do in place of the unwanted ones we’ve them not to do.

Let’s return to the jumping example. A stronger way to address the problem would be to teach the dog to do a sit-stay when people enter the house, in conjunction with timing out any jumping or attention seeking behaviors. This way, the dog learns not to jump on guests, but also learns what to do instead: sit and stay.

The other important benefit of filling the void? You’ll find yourself rewarding your dog more often and breaking free from the cycle of punishment. Which is not only rewarding for your dog, but also for you!

Motivated to start filling the void with your dog? Here’s how to get started.

First, identify behaviors you want your dog to stop. Be specific, including where your dog does them, what he does, and his motivation for doing them. Develop an effective time out procedure based on this information, and remember to initiate a time out each time your dog does the behavior.

Next, think about a replacement behavior you want your dog to do instead. For example, if your dog runs up to the door, jumps and barks each time the doorbell rings, teach your dog to go to his bed and do a sit-stay.

You now have a powerful training combination up and running: You’re rewarding a behavior you want your dog to do more often, and rendering the unwanted behavior inefficient and ineffective.

Training your dog to be a front door charmer

The doorbell rings. Immediately, your dog unleashes a torrent of barking and jumping. Maybe, if you’re lucky, your dog also slams her body against the door or paws at the glass. Inviting friends for dinner is incredibly stressful. Signing for a delivery from the post? Forget it. And don’t even think about opening the door for Girl Scout cookies.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. One constant I see with a majority of my training clients is the “front door monster,” the dog that cannot control herself in the situations mentioned above. From a dog’s perspective, it makes sense why the front door becomes such a charged, anxiety-producing event. After all, it produces strangers, family members, and noises on a daily basis.

The following is a guide to help you change your front door monster into a professional front door charmer. The keys to success are repetition, patience and consistency. 

Note: If your dog has fear or aggression issues, or if at any time you notice your dog becoming upset during the training process, consult with a professional trainer.

Make a plan

What do you want your dog to do when someone comes to the front door? Be specific and write it down. If you don’t know what you want your dog to do, and under what conditions, you and your dog will be mired in confusion.

Most of my clients want their dogs to go to a mat placed away from the door area and wait quietly for a treat. This bides them time to answer the door and let people in the house, and gives the dog something to do in the meantime.

Break it down

If you were to ask your dog to go to a mat, sit, stay, and refrain from barking when the post arrives today, chances are you’re not going to be very successful. It’s too much too quickly, and doesn’t give your dog enough opportunity to learn what she is supposed to do and when she is supposed to do it. The above training plan requires several different behaviors that must be trained and rehearsed separately before putting the chain together and using it in real life.

Desensitization to the doorbell:

The doorbell is a highly charged tip-off for your dog. Whenever it rings, front door activity commences. Chances are, your dog has been rehearsing her behavior to the sound of the doorbell for quite some time, so it’s going to take consistent, steady practice to change it. 

Practice ringing the doorbell at random times throughout the day, and follow up immediately with treats on a bed placed in an area slightly away from the door. It’s ok if your dog barks at first; keep at it. By doing this, you are communicating to your dog that the doorbell leads to treats on her mat. Always follow up the doorbell with treats on the mat – make it a 1:1 ratio. Eventually, your dog will do the behavior immediately after hearing the bell, needing less and less prompting from you. Change up your location in the house when the doorbell rings, so that your dog has practice going to her mat from the kitchen, the bedroom, etc.

Go to mat:

Even though you are building a “go to mat” command by feeding your dog treats on a mat after the doorbell rings, you’ll want to strengthen this behavior before rehearsing front door entrances. To do so, use the following steps, pushing to the next difficult step when your dog gets five out of five trials correct. Remember to reward heavily with treats each time she gets the behavior correct.

1) Lure your dog into a “down” position on the mat with a treat.
2) Prompt your dog into a “down” position on the mat using a broad hand gesture. If you get stuck here, you can always bury the treat further into your hand before advancing to a hand gesture.
3) Prompt your dog into a “down” position on the mat using a small hand gesture.
4) Put the behavior on cue. Choose something like “mat,” and use the same cue every time. When introducing the verbal cue, always present the verbal cue first, then the hand gesture – this ensures your dog begins to discriminate the meaning of the word.


Now that your dog is going to her mat on cue, practice having her stay as you walk toward the door. Once you’re able to get to the door without her breaking her stay, add in more difficult distractions, such as jiggling the door knob, opening the front door, etc. If she breaks her stay, say “too bad!” and don’t give her a treat. Provide ample treats and praise each time she gets it right. Make sure to take your time and get a solid stay installed before moving on to more difficult distractions. You need a strong foundation before training more advanced behaviors.


At this point, your dog has learned to anticipate treats on her mat whenever the doorbell rings, learned to go to her mat and lie down, and learned to stay on her mat as you walk toward the door. Now, it’s time to rehearse and put it all together, starting out easy and gradually building up difficulty. I cannot stress enough the importance of repetition and patience at this phase of the training. Just as you wouldn’t be able to perform Rachmaninoff after your first or second piano lesson, your dog won’t be able to go to her mat and stay the first time the post arrives at the door. The point of rehearsal is to strengthen the behavior and build up the level of difficulty gradually so that your dog is successful at each stage of the process.

Here are five easy stages of rehearsals you can do with your dog before trying her new behavior in a real-life scenario. Don’t move to the next stage until she has mastered the previous one, and if at any point she has difficulty, don’t hesitate to drop back down to an easier stage; ebbs and flows are part of the learning process. Remember to do rehearsals at random times, and give your dog practice doing the behavior without any warm-ups. In real life, your dog has to do the behavior cold, so it’s important to get her used to this during the training process.

1) Ring the doorbell, prompt the mat command, and open the door. At this stage, nobody is outside.
2) Do a meet and greet with a familiar friend or family member. Let your dog reach the point of boredom with this person. Then, have this same person go outside and ring the doorbell. Prompt the mat command and open the door.
3) Proceed the same as step 2, except this time, skip the meet and greet. It’s little more difficult for your dog.
4) Repeat steps 2 and 3 with five different family members or friends.
5) Repeat steps 2 and 3, this time with five different strangers.

Protect your training

Don’t ask your dog to do her newly trained behavior in real life until you are confident she can do it successfully. If someone comes to the door and you ask her to go to her mat and stay before she is ready, you will weaken the training. Because front door activity will happen regardless of your training progress, develop a management plan to prevent your dog from rehearsing unwanted behavior. A common plan I give to my clients is the following:

– Store a treat bag and leash near the front door for easy access.
– Whenever the doorbell rings, toss treats away from the door, leash up your dog, and guide her to another room in the house.
– Avoid giving your dog commands or repeatedly saying “No.” Happy talk, dish out the treats and focus on getting her away from the front door.
– If possible, leave a note outside asking people to refrain from ringing the doorbell.
When friends or family visit, instruct them to call you beforehand so you can let them in with minimal fanfare and noise.