Lessons from a senior dog

As many of you know, I adopted my current dog, Earl, as a senior from Muttville Senior Dog Resuce. He came into my life three years ago and has amazed me with his resiliency and journey from a fearful dog into loving, feisty, spirited companion. The lessons learned from Earl are endless, but one lesson in particular that’s come to the forefront is the importance of continued exercise, learning and enrichment throughout a dog’s lifespan.

About six months ago, I found myself in the downward spiral of, “We’re losing him.” I didn’t have concrete evidence he was dying. I focused on what I thought was evidence of cognitive decline (read: confusion, heightened anxiety in the evening) and physical decline (read: occasional muscle cramps and limping, in addition to stiffness in his back legs).

I am beyond fortunate that our veterinarian, Dr. Ilana Strubel at A Well Adjusted Pet, specializes in rehabilitation for senior and injured dogs. She did not find any evidence of a serious underlying medical condition. For Earl, his symptoms were a sign that I needed to focus on building his physical and mental resilience.

Just because I train dogs for a living doesn’t mean I avoid training ruts. I deeply empathize with my clients because I often struggle with the same questions they ask me: 1) What does my dog need? 2) What can I do better? and 3) What am I missing? When it’s one’s own dog, and one’s own busy life, it’s harder to think clearly and objectively. When I took a step back from my increasingly hectic work life, I found the answers to those questions and began a process that has influenced how I view life with senior dogs and how I approach behavior questions with other clients.

In Earl’s case, the answers to the aforementioned questions were:

  1. What does my dog need? Earl needed me to increase the time I spent providing him with mental and physical stimulation. Instead of merely upping the amount of exercise he received, I needed to change up his daily routine strategically. Through the guidance of Dr. Strubel, Earl and I began a cross training program that incorporates strength, flexibility, balance, body awareness and endurance through training games on FitPaws equipment. By strengthening his problem areas, he’s in less pain and is less prone to future injuries. Plus, the training program doubles as excellent mental enrichment, and often tires him out more, and is more enjoyable, than a long walk on leash.
  2. What can I do better?  I needed to be more proactive and less reactive. I touch on this more in my post on training mindfully. In short, I needed to figure out how to maintain and increase his cognitive abilities through training and puzzle games, and strengthen his limbs and joints instead of waiting for the inevitable trip to the vet for pain meds.
  3. What am I missing? Earl was, and is, growing older. Anytime a client notices something worrying in their dog, behaviorally or physically, a trip to the vet is warranted to rule out underlying medical conditions. I wasn’t missing the symptoms, but I was jumping to conclusions about the best way to help Earl. Sheltering him in a blanket and mourning his decline was what I felt like doing, but was not the most helpful thing for Earl. Although senior dogs are more fragile, may have more aches and pains, and may need a bit more patience when it comes to behavior, they still need to use their brains and bodies. They need enrichment via puzzle toys, games with their guardians and learning tricks. They need exercise that’s suitable for their physical condition. They need proactive care, just like puppies, adolescents and young adult dogs.

Currently, Earl is thriving. To say he loves his cross training is an understatement, and through the guidance of our vet, he’s experiencing less anxiety and markedly less stiffness and pain. We joke that he’s the Benjamin Button of dogs because he appears younger today than he did a year ago.

Negative Punishment: Make sure you’re using it effectively

In the world of force-free training, we have two options when installing new behaviors or modifying existing ones: We can reward desired behaviors and we can punish undesired ones. Punishment involves removing the “good stuff” when the dog does a behavior we want to decrease (known as negative punishment in operant conditioning terminology). The dog learns through repetition each time he does a certain behavior, the good stuff goes away, therefore reducing the dog’s motivation to maintain that particular behavior. (Good stuff refers to anything the dog desires when doing the unwanted behavior: social proximity; access to food, toys, or other resources; attention; environmental rewards like walks and playtime with other dogs.) During training consults, I often compare negative punishment to giving a dog a “time out” from the good stuff.

Negative punishment is a valuable tool in a dog owners’ repertoire, provided it is executed correctly. Unfortunately, poor execution often leads to inconsistent behavior and poor follow through on the part of the owners. The following is a guide to improve your technique.


Dogs live in the moment. Attempting to punish or reward a behavior minutes, even seconds, after it has occurred lessens the chances your dog will understand why a particular consequence occurred. A classic example of poor timing is an owner who punishes a dog for a housetraining accident hours after it occurred. The dog will not understand he is being punished for urinating on the carpet. Instead, the dog will associate the punishment with whatever behavior immediately preceded it.

Being an effective dog trainer means having impeccable timing. It also means you need to be prepared to execute a time out the instant an undesired behavior occurs. Impeccable timing is difficult in real life. Time outs take time to execute, and many things can happen between the behavior in question occurring and the time out actually taking place. To improve accuracy, I instruct clients to use a word to mark the instant the undesired behavior occurs (I say “too bad!”). This “no-reward marker” bridges the gap between the dog’s behavior and the time out, making it clear to your dog which behavior lead to the punishment.

With repetition, the dog learns the following contingency:

Behavior A –> “Too Bad!” –> Time Out
If Behavior A always results in removal of the good stuff, dogs will realize Behavior A is not profitable (and dogs are always seeking to do what’s most profitable).

Is it a time out?

Sometimes, owners think they are executing a time out, when in actuality the dog is not receiving negative punishment. To repeat: Time outs equal the removal of the good stuff. If your dog is not experiencing removal of the good stuff, he is not receiving negative punishment.

Consider a gregarious puppy who consistently jumps on his owners. The owners, in an effort to decrease the behavior, always push the dog away and say “No! No! Off!” The puppy’s behavior continues because he is still receiving the good stuff: Social proximity and attention. To many puppies, verbal feedback, even the words “No” and “Bad dog,” and eye contact are reward enough to continue performing the behavior.

A better strategy for these owners would be to mark each time the dog jumps up with a “too bad,” and proceed to turn their backs or leave the room for 30 seconds, avoiding all further eye contact and verbal feedback. This protocol gives the dog clear feedback on what behavior results in the punishment, and also prevents the dog from receiving the social proximity and attention he desires when doing the behavior.

Remember: If your dog is still receiving the good stuff during a time out, it’s not effective. Make sure your time outs are boring, void of whatever your dog desires when he does the unwanted behavior. This means no eye contact, no verbal feedback, no attention, no access to desired resources, and no playtime.

Follow Through

Often, owners claim negative punishment is not effective, when in actuality they give up too soon. Dogs learn through repetition. Erasing bad habits is hard work, and even harder if the dog receives mixed feedback by sometimes being allowed to do a certain behavior and sometimes receiving punishment.

Follow through with a time out each instance the behavior occurs. Occasionally timing out a behavior, and occasionally letting the dog get away with it, will only serve to make the behavior stronger – the dog learns the behavior is profitable often enough to make it worthwhile. If you aren’t able to execute a time out, make sure you manage the dog’s environment to prevent rehearsal of the unwanted behavior. This will preserve your training and ensure more efficient results. (For example, if your dog consistently jumps up on guests, keep him on leash or behind a barrier during dinner parties to preserve your training.) Most importantly: Don’t give up!

Don’t Time Out Fear

Use protocols based on whether your dog is upset or not upset. If your dog is doing a behavior because he is afraid, a time out will not solve the problem. Learn to recognize when your dog is behaving out of fear.

Optimizing Success

Negative punishment is most effective when paired with positive reinforcement. When punishing a particular behavior, make sure to teach the dog an alternate, more desired behavior to do in its place. If your dog jumps on guests, teach him to sit for greetings. If your dog gets mouthy when playing with you, teach him to play without using his teeth on your skin. If your dog barks for his dinner, teach him to sit quietly to wait for his food.

Training mindfully: First, be aware

Awhile ago, I introduced the concept of training mindfully, of being acutely aware of what is happening with the dog and environment in the present moment and suspending all judgment and preconceived notions about what the dog should be doing or what we think the dog is thinking.

By paying attention on purpose, we tap into the fundamentals of good training: Timing, mechanics and learning theory.

When it comes to animal behavior modification, trainer and teacher extraordinaire Bob Bailey is well-known for saying “Think. Plan. Do.”

The “think” portion of this quote hints at the inner, quieter aspects of training. Typically, when discussing mechanics and technique, we think about the physical: Timing of rewards, position of reward delivery, maintaining a quiet body so as not to overshadow or block a dog’s learning.

Mechanics are critical to successful training, but not limited to the physical. Before timing of rewards and application of either operant or classical conditioning comes the awareness inside the trainer. In a word, mindfulness.

Sound too new-agey? Bear with me.

“Even scaffolding needs a foundation upon which to rest. It is not very wise to erect it on shifting sands, or on dirt or clay that could easily turn into mud,” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers of bringing mindfulness into the Western world an integrating it with Western medicine, in Coming to Our Senses. “The foundation for mindfulness practice, for all meditative inquiry, lies in ethics and morality, and above all, the motivation of non-harming.”

Myths and incomplete understanding about how dogs learn, a dog’s underlying motivations, and the desire to forcibly control a dog’s behavior place a trainer’s scaffolding on shifting sands.

A foundation of non-harming is critical to force-free training. After all, a trainer can have impeccable timing and mechanics, but use those skills to cause pain, shock, intimidation or injury to a dog. A trainer’s ethical code sets the stage for all training protocols. The science of animal learning and the principle of “do no harm” create a solid foundation for the nuts and bolts of training behaviors.

Through mindfulness, trainers can continually be aware of and reassess how their actions are influencing the behavior of the dogs they train.

The brilliant thing about mindfulness is that if we find ourselves slipping into various myths about dogs, or wandering in the wrong direction during a training protocol,  we can catch it sooner because we’re paying attention on purpose. We’re aware of the antecedents, behaviors and consequences that form the feedback loop between dog behavior, the trainer and the environment.

Mindfulness also fosters a force-free community that applies the “do no harm” mantra to humans as well as dogs. It gives people who have used aversive techniques in the past a way forward.

“This willingness to embrace what is and then work with it takes great courage, and presence of mind,” writes Zin. “So, in any moment, whatever is happening, we can always check and see for ourselves.”

In this context, “first, do no harm” really translates to “first, be aware.”

Cognitive decline and caring for your senior mutt

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a fantastic webinar hosted by Jean Donaldson for the Academy for Dog Trainers on senior dog wellness and canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. With special thanks to Jean for bringing attention to the topic, the following is a guide on how to care for your senior mutt, and what to do if you notice signs of cognitive declines.

CDS: What is it?

CDS, or cognitive dysfunction syndrome, is progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects senior dogs (ages 7 and up). Researchers have found that the disorder, marked by Aβ protein deposits in the brain, is similar to the degeneration found in human brains affected by Alzheimer’s. Because of this, a significant amount of research is available.

According to Landsberg (2005), while CDS can affect dogs as young as 7 years of age, the disorder typically goes undetected until 11 years. He attributes this discrepancy to the fact that most owners do not suspect anything is amiss because they rely on more severe symptoms, such as house-soiling and disorientation, as opposed to tests of memory and learning.

A 2010 study published in The Veterinary Journal found that CDS affects 28 percent of 11-12 year-old dogs and 68 percent of 15-16 year-olds (Salvin, McGreevy, Sachdev, and Valenzuela). However, this same study also found that many dogs go undiagnosed. As with many progressive conditions, CDS prognosis is best if detected early.

The Symptoms

CDS has a specific clinical presentation, or criteria that must be met for a diagnosis. It is important to note that the disorder’s symptoms are not simply attributable to “old age” (again, this parallels cognitive decline diagnoses in humans), but are specifically linked to the disorder. The four main categories attributed to CDS are:

  • Disorientation: Dogs with this symptom get lost in familiar locations and often get “stuck” in narrow places of the house or yard. Their eyes may appear fixed on the horizon, and they may do things like go to the wrong side of the door or wander without an apparent purpose.
  • Disruption of sleep/wake cycles: Dogs with CDS often pace, walk or bark at night, and experience changes in sleeping time. They may show an altered daytime activity level due to nighttime restlessness.
  • Social interaction: The dog may have less frequent interactions with family members, or fail to recognize a family member. Greeting behavior decreases, as does responsiveness to stimuli (i.e., activity in the house, sounds, food).
  • Learning and house training: With the absence of an underlying medical condition, previously house trained dogs begin having accidents in the house. They may also appear unable to remember common obedience behaviors or tricks, referred to as learning and memory deficits.

Diane Frank, veterinary behaviorist at the University of Montreal, also lists the following symptoms that may occur in addition to the big four listed above: irritability, intolerance to exercise, increased vocalization, house destruction, increased attachment to owners, and the appearance of new fears or anxieties. 

As with any medical condition, it is important to thoroughly discuss your dog’s symptoms with a veterinarian before concluding that your dog has CDS. Senior dogs are susceptible to a variety of medical conditions that may show similar symptoms, therefore it is important to rule out any other causes of cognitive decline.

Your dog has CDS. What do you do?

If you research CDS on the web, you’ll discover a plethora of studies on the subject and an even wider swath of potential treatments. It can be overwhelming to say the least, especially when dealing with the emotional toll of caring for an aging dog. Before going overboard on supplements, new diets and homeopathic remedies, make sure you address three key health management areas. (I should add that these areas are beneficial to senior dogs regardless of a CDS diagnosis).

  • Maintain a healthy weight: How many times have you placed your dog on the vet’s scale and secretly hoped nobody would notice that your dog is leaning on the wall? I admit, I’m very guilty of this one! The fact is, being overweight puts immense stress on a dog, particular one of advancing age. The following is a chart taken from Jean’s webinar presentation that illustrates what a “healthy weight” looks like on a dog. For a bit of context, consider this fact: six pounds on a 45-pound dog is comparable to 20 pounds on a 150-pound dog. Just imagine the impact those six pounds have on a dog’s joints!
  • Keep those teeth clean: Brush your dog’s teeth daily. One of my colleagues at the Academy recently said that this is the number one routine that can maintain your dog’s health. If your dog is averse to having his mouth handled, check in with a trainer to receive advice on how to desensitize your dog to the process. Here are a few tips to get you started:
    • Go slowly, starting with introducing your dog to the tooth brush, working up toward touching your dog’s mouth and teeth with it.
    • Make sure to lavish lots of treats and praise every step of the way!
    • Once your dog is comfortable having his mouth handled and touched by the brush, gradually build up duration as well as comfort with light brushing motions.
    • If your dog shows any signs of discomfort, back up to the previous step. Never go quicker than your dog is comfortable.
  • Address orthopedic concerns: Make sure to talk to your vet about any pain your dog may be experiencing, as well as any assistance your dog might need navigating stairs or getting into the car.

Once you’ve covered these three areas, it’s time to make your home accessible for your dog’s aging body:

  • Place a mat over slippery surfaces to avoid injury from falls.
  • If your dog has difficulty with stairs, make sure to install ramps.
  • Provide your dog with ample bedding that will support aching joints – hard floors are not a senior dog’s friend!
  • Blocking off any narrow pathways in the house if your dog is getting “stuck” or disoriented.
  • A quiet space where your senior dog can retreat. This is especially important if you have children or younger dogs in the house.
  • Raise food and water bowls if your dog has difficulty bending over.
  • If your dog pulls on leash, make sure to fit him with a harness to protect the neck and trachea.
  • If your dog becomes disoriented easily, be careful when letting him off leash. Keep a watchful eye on him, or have him wear a 15-foot training lead in case he wanders.

Although their activity level is lower, senior dogs still need lots of attention and stimulation. Here are a few ways to keep your dog’s brain active:

  • Puzzle toys are a great way to stave off boredom and keep your dog’s mind active (like Sudoku for humans).
  • Don’t hesitate to do some basic training or teach your dog a few new tricks- training is a great way to mentally stimulate your dog and provides a fun activity for you both.
  • Spending time with them and exposing them to interesting stimuli, even if it’s just sitting outside in the yard. (If your dog has trouble walking and is small enough, you can put him in a stroller to take him for walks.)

Finally, it’s important to assess and treat any new fears or anxieties your dog may be developing. A trainer can help you develop procedures to ease these fears using classical conditioning techniques. In the meantime, provide structure, stimulation and comfort to your dog’s days to keep him feeling comfortable and secure, and be sensitive to any changes in behavior or anxieties.

Dogs: The different species in your living room

When owning a dog, it almost goes without saying that he or she becomes part of the family unit. Dogs sleep in our beds, join us at the dining table (whether they’re supposed to or not), and accompany us on all variety of errands and outings. Sometimes this assimilation into our lives becomes so seamless that we forget we are sharing our home with an entirely different species from our own.

So much of dog training gets misconstrued as a battle of control. Phrases like the dog “should do this” and “should know this” permeate the language, as does hypothesizing about what a dog is thinking without any scientific basis. The fact is, dogs don’t know what we’re thinking and they certainly don’t inherently know all the rules and regulations that come with living in our homes. What we perceive as the meaning of dog behavior, and what dogs are really communicating to us, are two very different things.

Richard Yahner, a professor of wildlife conservation at Penn State, explains this concept in this book Wildlife and Conservation  writing, “As humans, we consistently judge the behavior of animals (e.g., that pet is cute) or fellow humans (e.g., that new neighbor is friendly, etc.) based on their appearance and how they act from our perspective. In other words, we seldom look at the ecology of a pet or human or, for that matter, of an animal in the wild” (1).

He goes on to list four questions that are integral to those studying wildlife behavior, writing, “…1) what are the mechanisms that cause a certain behavior? (e.g., hormonal, genetic, learning, etc.), 2) how does a given behavior develop? (e.g. ontogeny, cultural transmission, etc.) 3) what is the survival value of a given behavior? and 4) how does a given behavior evolve?” (4).

Although Yahner was discussing wildlife, his statements are incredibly relevant to dog training. If we ask these four questions when it comes to communicating with our own dogs, we will be well on the path to actually understanding them – not just understanding what we think their behavior means from our human perspective.

In this post, I will explore the first of the four questions: What mechanisms cause a certain behavior?

Each behavior your dog performs, whether it be an obedience command, snarling at another dog, or dissecting a stuffed toy, has an immediate causation, or trigger, and an adaptive significance. Animals make changes to their behavior on a real-time basis through learning. They also live, as James O’Heare writes in Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, “within the context and constraints of their biology” (67). In other words, evolutionary history and learning influence dog behavior. And, due to dogs’ extensive history of selective breeding, they differ as to what behaviors they retain from their evolutionary history and when they perform these behaviors.

Take, for example, a dog who rolls over for a treat. He does so because he learned this behavior, likely through operant conditioning techniques. He didn’t come into this world as a puppy knowing that rolling over leads to treats and praise from other humans. He learned through repetition that this behavior is hugely rewarding.

Contrast this with a dog who vigorously shakes and dissects a stuffed toy given to her by her owner, mimicking dissection behavior. Stuffed toy dissection, otherwise known as a fixed action pattern, requires no learning on the part of the dog. FAPs vary across each individual dog. For example, some dogs will retain the dissection FAP. Some won’t. Some will only perform the behavior on a particular stuffed toy, leaving the others intact.

At this point, you may be asking why evolutionary history and FAPs are relevant. The fact is, FAPs are at the root many “problem” behaviors in our dogs. Resource guarding, stalking, urination marking, watchdog barking, chasing and biting moving objects, fear of novel objects or people, and mounting are all examples. Does this mean these behaviors are unchangeable? Not at all, but we need to understand where the behaviors come from in order to effectively change them. FAPs provide a context through which these behaviors occur. (Note that this context is not one of dominance or subversion, but one of nature and evolution. What a relief to know that dogs aren’t plotting and scheming our demise from their beds, as some trainers would have us believe!)

As humans, we are responsible for bringing dogs into our homes with the knowledge that they are a different species from ourselves. It is our responsibility to teach our dogs how to live in our world harmoniously, through means our dogs understand. Even though it can be frustrating when our dogs behave contrary to how we think they should behave, we need to step back and view the situation through a compassionate lens. After all, dogs aren’t furry humans. They’re dogs. And I, for one, wouldn’t want it any other way.

The power of simplicity when training fearful dogs

“Why worry about basic obedience when my dog is so scared?” It’s a common and understandable question I get from new clients. When faced with a dog who is scared of people, new stimuli, and unable to settle in and out of doors, it’s natural to think of training goals in terms of big chunks. Clients may say, “I want my dog to enjoy her walks,” or “I want to be able to invite my relatives over to my house without them getting snarled at,” or, “I want my dog to stop being afraid of city noises.” When faced with these serious and overwhelming problems, basic behaviors like hand targeting, sit, “leave it,” and down might seem trivial. After all, the goal is to fix the fear, not teach the dog to do tricks, right?

Not quite. While the overarching goal in every fearful dogs’ training plan is to ease fear, there are, in my opinion, three critical “micro-goals” that must be conquered first.

1) The dog learns her behavior can make good things – really good things – happen in her environment.

Dogs are always gauging whether an environment or stimulus is safe or dangerous. They learn through consequences and associations. Since fear is so easy to install and so difficult to erode, they remember the events and antecedents that precede scary things happening to them. Fearful dogs think many things in their world are dangerous. They don’t necessarily trust that a person walking down the street is safe or that the noise of wind blowing through the trees won’t lead to danger. Because their brains are so occupied by this constant “safe or dangerous” calculation, we need to think in terms of patience and simplicity. Starting a training program with basic obedience behaviors teaches dogs that hand prompts, verbal cues and ultimately, their behavior, leads to safe and rewarding consequences.

In the following video, I teach fearful dog Omie to do a “down” during our first session. Because she had little prior experience with obedience, and was also nervous in her environment and with my presence, I needed to start with a behavior that would be simple enough for her to do. I needed to break that behavior down into small enough increments so she received rewards at a high rate. So, I adjusted my criteria so she was first rewarded simply for moving her head downward, and, though repetition, eventually a full down. In between repetitions, I also added in some easy behaviors that she already knew, like “find it” and hand targeting, to set her up for success and build her confidence.

With fearful dogs, it’s not about how fast you can get them to do a behavior. It’s about setting criteria easy enough so they build confidence and feel safer in a scary world.

2) The dog learns coping skills to help her deal with a potentially stressful or fear-inducing situation.

Often, fearful dogs are slow to recover from startling situations. They lack the coping skills that could help them when stress comes their way. What do I mean by coping skills? Anything that lowers a dog’s anxiety and keeps her under threshold. For some dogs, a coping skill could be making eye contact with their owner. For other dogs, it could be a hand target.

The key to teaching coping skills is to give the dogs a history of doing these behaviors in non-stressful environments and giving them impactful, high-value rewards for doing them. When gradually brought into a stressful context, this history of behavior and reinforcement lowers anxiety. Bit by bit, we can turn down the level of a dog’s fear. Fearful dogs don’t do these behaviors on their own to lower their anxiety. Either they haven’t learned them, or they are too upset to concentrate on anything besides their fear. If a dog learns a solid “watch” or a “touch” in a safe space, and realizes that this behavior has a strong reinforcement history, the behavior produces a positive emotional response in the dog. (Think Pavlov.)

By starting with the simplest of behaviors, we can gradually ask dogs to do them in more stressful environments, so that eventually, they are able to focus on a behavior, and receive the positive emotional side-effects, increasing their ability to cope with their world.

3) The dog sets the pace.

In a previous post, I discussed the importance of trust in a fearful dogs’ training plan. One of the most efficient ways to build trust with a fearful dogs is to teach them simple training games and behaviors, and to let them set the pace. Each time a dog gets the behavior right she gets praise and a reward. And because we’re keeping the behaviors simple, she will receive praise and rewards at a very high rate. From a dogs’ point of view, she is learning that you are the purveyor of good things. She also learns that your presence results in safe, positive consequences, not dangerous ones. She learns you will not push her past her comfort zone.

In the same session with Omie, I taught her to target her harness with her nose. She does not yet trust me enough to touch her or place her harness over her head. If I were to push her too fast, I would break our trust. I would not be as safe to her. By keeping things simple she set the pace and let me know when she was ready for a new challenge.

If you have a fearful dog, start small and simple. Don’t discredit the power of basic behaviors and games. Even though a hand target may seem simple to you, it’s a monumental accomplishment for a dog who finds her world a dangerous, unpredictable place.

A dog trainer’s guide to navigating the training wars

sun flare emerges within the dog training community. It’s bright, it attracts attention, causes some explosive interactions and, eventually, burns out. Flares are not necessarily bad. After all, had no flare-ups occurred in the past couple of decades, a majority of trainers might be continuing to use outdated methods. But flare-ups can also be rife with logical traps. The dangers are two-fold:

  • They interfere with our critical thinking skills
  • They have the potential to confuse and mislead dog guardians

While it’s good to question the status quo, many discussions easily dissolve into logical fallacies and poor science. Whether you’re a behavior change professional, a behavior geek, or someone who wants to provide the best life possible for your dog, here are a few pointers on how to solve (and resolve) flares when you see them occur within the dog training community:

Where’s the evidence? 

We owe our dogs real science. Real science is peer-reviewed and backed by evidence. Real science is not based on conjecture, opinion, or personal stories. Nullius in verba. Demand evidence.

Beware logical fallacies

We’re all susceptible to logical fallacies, whether making one of our own or believing someone else’s. If you’re aware of potential missteps ahead of time, you’ll be more likely to catch them in your own patterns of thinking or in someone else’s.

Begging the question: This is an argument that requires the reader to accept the conclusion without providing real evidence. In these cases, the argument’s premise states the same thing as the conclusion, or the argument fails to address critical gaps.

Example: Socializing puppies is the humane, ethical thing to do. Therefore, it’s humane and ethical to socialize puppies.

False dichotomy: An argument that incorrectly paints a situation as having only two choices. The argument then eliminates one of the choices, seemingly leaving the reader with only one remaining option.

Example: Puppy parents have the option to socialize their puppies or avoid socialization altogether. Since puppy socialization can be done incorrectly, puppy parents must avoid socializing their puppies altogether.

Appeal to ignorance: Claiming that due to inconclusive evidence, readers should accept an argument’s conclusion on an issue.

Example: Because the research on puppy socialization is inconclusive and divided, people should accept my conclusion.

Slippery slope: The arguer claims that a chain reaction will take place, often leading to a bad ending, despite a lack of evidence supporting this claim.

Example: If we allow all puppies to continue being socialized, dog owners will continue to socialize their puppies improperly. We will end up with generation upon generation of dogs with behavior problems. To prevent this from happening, we must avoid all puppy socialization.

Beware cherry-picking and single-case studies

Articles that cite studies that support the author’s argument can be misleading. After all, the author’s statements are backed up by citations, so those statements must be correct, right? Wrong. It’s important to consider several factors when reading articles that cite other sources in support of an argument:

  • Are the citations valid?
  • Does the author take a comprehensive look at the literature available, or does the author only focus on citations that support his or her argument?
  • Is the author accurately interpreting the research?

It’s also important to look at single-case studies with a critical eye. While they can be helpful in understanding the context of behavior, beware articles that base arguments solely on personal experience, or one or two ad hoc experiences with dogs.

Remember: While important, personal experience is vastly different from research that has been vetted via the scientific process.

Avoid sweeping generalizations

It’s important to stay informed of the latest research on dog behavior, but it’s equally important to avoid training “trends.” Trends are typically based on popular opinion at the time, and aren’t based on true, hard science. Training trends gain popularity because they “sound good,” are a quick fix, or appeal to a person’s own biases. Trends also put the dog behavior community at risk of making sweeping generalizations about a particular topic.

Whenever you notice a trend emerging in the training community, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where’s the evidence?
  • Is the evidence valid?
  • How are my own biases affecting my interpretation of this trend?

Final note: As trainers, it’s important to realize that how we communicate the latest trends within the behavior community has a vast impact on dogs and their guardians, particularly if others see us as experts in the field. This doesn’t mean we can’t have biases – that’s not reasonable. But it does mean we need to be particularly careful when communicating information about behavior and training. And it also means empowering our own clients with critical thinking skills.

Rolling with resistance

As trainers, we often ask our clients to change their behavior in multiple ways. We tell them to carry a bait bag with them at all times. We ask them to attend to their dog’s body language and respond with precise timing to mark good behavior. We ask them to drop bad habits such as yelling at their dog and yanking on the leash. These are by no means easy tasks, particularly when combined with the stress and emotions that come with owning a dog with a behavior problem.

I am troubled when I hear stories of people who say they entered the dog business because they were tired of working with people. Much of what dog trainers do involves asking people to change their behavior and motivating them to train their dogs. One common theme I hear from training clients after the initial consultation is relief. Relief at not feeling judged, relief at not being criticized for owning a dog with a behavior problem, and relief at not being blamed for their dog’s behavior.

Coming from a counseling background, my heart breaks when I hear clients tell stories of feeling judged and being afraid to contact a trainer. The fact is, confrontation and judgment yields less successful training outcomes and poorer prognoses for dogs with common behavior problems. The good news is, thanks to research in counseling psychology, trainers have a pool of evidence-based techniques they can use to get the most out of consultations with their clients, as well as to facilitate the behavior change necessary for a client to meet her training goals.


An effective way of helping a client express her feelings and let her know she is being understood is to use reflective responses. It is also a good way to ensure you are understanding the client correctly. To use this technique, reflect back to the client what you believe she has said, ask for verification, and encourage the client to elaborate on the topic.


Client:  We take Fido to the dog park, but everyone stares at us when he starts to bark and jump on other people. We get incredibly frustrated and sometimes yell at him when he continues to misbehave. 

Trainer: You encounter a lot of stress at the dog park, and it’s overwhelming.

Client: Yes, we really want some relief and we know Fido needs exercise. 

Trainer: You want to be able to take Fido to the dog park and have it be enjoyable for him and for you. 

Note in this example that the trainer didn’t latch on to the client’s statement that she yells at her dog when he gets overexcited. Doing so would have put the client on the defensive, and would have missed the overall theme: The client is incredibly overwhelmed and doesn’t know what to do about her dog. Reflecting this sentiment back to the client helped her elaborate more, and feel understood in the process.

Open-Ended Questions: 

Questions form the basis of a trainer’s initial consultation with  a client. They allow the trainer to understand the dog’s behavior and determine the client’s training goals. There are two different types of questions: closed and open. Closed questions are ones that clients can easily answer with “yes,” “no,” or other short responses. They typically do not move the interview along, and do not encourage a client to elaborate or give specific examples. Open-ended questions do the opposite – they require examples, keep the consultation process moving forward, and help the trainer identify a client’s needs and goals. Typical starter phrases for open ended questions include: “How,” “Tell me about…”  and “What does it look like when…”

Closed-question example:

Trainer: Does your dog urinate in the house?

Client: Yes. 

Trainer: How often?

Client: Two or three times a day. 

Trainer: Do you see him have accidents?

Client: Sometimes. 

Open-ended question example:

Trainer: You said over the phone that Fido has housetraining problems. Could you explain to me what those problems look like?

Client: Well, he urinates in the house several times per day, mostly when we’re not watching him. He will go outside when we take him for walks, so it’s not that he never gets it right. But we can take him inside after a long walk and within 30 minutes, he’ll have had an accident. 

By asking one open-ended question, the trainer gets a much clearer picture of the dog’s behavior, and also has more angles to pursue. The trainer could then ask about whether the dog is being amply rewarded for his successful trips outside, as well as how much the client monitors the dog once he’s back in the house.

Pointing out discrepancies: 

Confrontation is uncomfortable. Often, direct confrontation does not yield an effective response from clients. It shuts down communication, puts up barriers, and puts people on the defensive. A much better approach is to point out discrepancies between what the client is saying and doing, and the client’s goals. Trainers cannot make clients change their behavior. By helping a client understand the gap between where they are and where they want to be, the trainer motivates the client and facilitates behavior change.


Client: I’m so frustrated with Fido. He chews everything in the house, and I know he’s doing it to get back at me for being at work all day. I don’t have time or want to exercise him, and I feel he’s going to wreck my house one day at a time. 

Trainer: I hear how frustrated you are with Fido’s chewing – coming back to a chewed up house must be so frustrating. But I also hear that you’re not exercising him very much. As we talked about last week, exercise and enrichment are going to be critical to managing Fido’s chewing. 

Client: That’s true, I guess I’m just so overwhelmed I don’t know where to start. 

Trainer: Let’s figure out a way to get Fido the exercise he needs. 

The trainer could have criticized the client for failing to follow through on the exercise homework. If the client is already overwhelmed, this likely would have exacerbated the problem. By pointing out discrepancies, the trainer opened up a pathway for more communication, and avoided the discomfort of directly criticizing the client.

Roll with resistance: 

Resistance is a normal, understandable behavior when people are faced with behavior change. Much of what dog trainers do is ask people to change their behavior and their schedule in order to train their dogs. Just as in dogs, human behavior change is not easy. Clients are likely going to protest, make excuses, and resist what we’re asking them to do. If we accept it, identify it, and change our approach, we have a chance of helping these clients come up with their own solutions and invite them to explore different ways of behaving in a non-confrontational manner. Lecturing, imposing rules, and telling clients what they “should” do creates resistance. Acknolwedging, emphasizing personal choice and letting the client feel in control will minimize it. If you encounter resistance, try a different approach. No amount of huffing and puffing with force a person to change.

Examples of how to roll with resistance:

How do you want to proceed?
Where should we go from here?
It’s OK if you don’t feel ready to commit to the training at this time. 


When a client feels understood, she is more likely to be open to suggestions, change her behavior, and communicate more openly. Trainers must see situations from the eyes of their clients, and let their clients know they understand. Alternatively, judgment will only increase resistance and decrease motivation.

You and Your Rescue: Navigating the first weeks after adopting a dog

Imagine living for days, weeks, months in a shelter. Your home is a kennel, surrounded by lots of other kennels and unfamiliar barking dogs. You may have come from another shelter or been given up by your previous family. You may have been living as a stray. You may have been with an abusive owner. You may have bounced from various foster homes. Your environment is stressful, to say the least.

One day, your routine changes. A new person takes you from the shelter and brings you into a new home. All the surroundings, all the people inside the home, are new. You have no knowledge of your new home’s rules or schedule. You aren’t even sure if you will stay in this new place.

This situation would be traumatic for any person, and would arguably require the support of a myriad of social services to help that person cope. And yet, this is a common situation for many dogs who are adopted from shelters. Although a dog may have come from the best possible shelter and is entering a loving home, the change in environment will undoubtedly cause stress. Most dogs don’t have a support team to see them through the storm, but they do have you, and are depending on you to guide them through this transition period.

The time following any adoption is critical – not simply because you and your dog are getting to know each other, but because you are laying the foundation for your dog’s new life. While the transition from a shelter to a new home will always be a considerable change for a dog, there are ways to make the journey more comfortable and soothing. So how to take care of adopted dog,  the following is a guide to help you prepare for your adoption and lay the foundation for a successful transition for your dog.

Plan Ahead

– The day you bring home your adopted dog is a big one, as both you and your dog will be under an adjustment period. By planning ahead and readying your home, you will ease the transition. Make sure you have the essential equipment and supplies for your dog’s first week:

– Soft, comfortable bedding is essential for senior dogs, and giving your dog several places in the house to snooze will help him relax. If your dog isn’t a senior, he will still appreciate some designated cozy spots!

– Set aside a place for water and food bowls.

– Check with your shelter regarding what food your dog has been eating, and whether he has any allergies. If you want to change his food, be sure to do so gradually so as not distress his digestive system. And don’t forget to stock up on treats to use for training and rewards!

– Get a properly fitting harness (such as the EasyWalk), as well as a sturdy five- to six- foot leash. To ensure your pet’s safety, purchase tags to place on his collar and consider whether you want to use a microchip.

– Install gates and barriers to keep your dog out of hazardous areas of the home.

– Stock a pet first aid kit and first aid guide in case of emergencies, as well as phone numbers for your vet and local pet hospital.

– Depending on your dog’s age and temperament, toys are a great way to provide stimulation and comfort. Plush toys, Kongs and puzzle games are great options.

House set-up

– Think about your home’s floor-plan and where your dog will live. Will he be allowed in all rooms? Will he sleep in his own bed or under the covers of yours? Where will your dog stay when left alone? Making these decisions ahead of time not only helps you determine where to place beds and gates, but also reduces anxiety for you and your dog on the big day.

– Give your dog some “safe spaces” in the home. Provide treats, puzzle toys and bedding, and reward him whenever he goes to these areas. This will help your dog settle in and feel more comfortable in his new environment.

Set aside time

– Your dog will undergo a significant adjustment when you bring him home. If he is coming from a shelter, he has been under environmental and emotional stress, and will need time to adjust to new people and surroundings.

– Keep your schedule free for several days after your adoption, and avoid inviting lots of people over to your house. Even though everyone will be excited to meet the new family member, your dog needs time and a calm environment to adjust to his new home.

House training

– Your dog may or may not be house trained. If the shelter says he is not, refer to this basic house training plan and get in touch with a trainer if you have questions:. (This plan can be helpful even if your dog has been previously house trained because it establishes a routine and addresses any potential training gaps.)

– If your dog is house trained, be prepared for some accidents. Stress, change in environment and anxiety can all lead to house training lapses.

– Set your dog up for success by heavily rewarding (praise and tasty treats) each time he eliminates outside. If you catch your dog in the act, don’t punish, but simply pick him up and immediately take him outside to finish. Reward if he finishes outside. If your dog has an accident and you don’t catch him in the act, don’t punish after the fact; your dog will not remember the accident and will not understand why he is being punished.

– If your dog continues having accidents, check with your vet for any underlying medical conditions that could be causing incontinence. This is especially important if you have adopted a senior dog.

Absences and anxiety

– Chances are, your dog will be experiencing some anxiety after the adoption. One common behavioral challenge adopters run into is separation anxiety. This is no surprise, since changes to the environment, the addition of new people or dogs into the home, and past trauma are all triggers for this behavior.

– Practice brief absences during the initial settling-in period. As part of this practice, go through your ritual before leaving the house. Dogs quickly learn that the tip-offs that an absence is coming.

– If you have taken some days off work, be sure to leave your dog at random periods throughout the day, starting with short increments and mixing in some longer ones of 5-10 minutes. Don’t make your dog’s first absence be an 8-hour workday, as that will be quite stressful for him!

– When introducing the absences, keep your dog occupied with toys and treats. Kongs stuffed with peanut butter and then placed in the freezer make great long-lasting treats, as do puzzle toys filled with irresistible treats like freeze-dried liver or chicken.

– Keep good-byes and greetings low key to help manage your dog’s anxiety.

– Many dogs will show some symptoms of discomfort at being left alone immediately following the adoption, including whining, some barking, and waiting at the door. Some of these dogs will overcome this initial anxiety as they settle into their new environment, whereas other dogs will not. If your dog’s symptoms persist or worsen, get in touch with a trainer or your shelter to get further support. Rest assured, separation anxiety is by no means insurmountable, but like any other fear-based behavior, needs extra attention.

Communication and Structure

– Dogs don’t know inherently how we want them to behave. In fact, many behaviors we identify as “problems” are quite simply dogs acting like dogs. (Think resource guarding, chewing, and marking.) It is our responsibility to teach dogs how we want them to behave, and to teach them in ways they understand. Animal behaviorist Jean Donaldson’s book “Culture Clash” is a terrific resource for learning how to communicate with dogs and understanding why they behave the way they do, and is an immensely valuable read for any dog owner.

– If your dog does something you love, and you want him to continue doing in the future, reward him! Lavishing with praise and treats immediately after the desired behavior communicates to your dog that he should do this behavior again!

– If your dog does something you don’t want him to repeat, give him a replacement behavior to do instead. For example, if your dog jumps on you when you come home, teach him to sit as a replacement for jumping. If your dog loves chewing on your shoes, give him a toy or bone to chew on instead. A trainer can help you with this, as well as teach you about positive reinforcement training techniques. Never use pain, fear or force to modify your dog’s behavior.

– Learn to recognize when your dog is afraid. When your dog is afraid, nothing else matters to him. Because fear is such a powerful emotion, he could care less about previously learned obedience behaviors or any commands you may give him. Comforting your dog when he is afraid will not reinforce his fear. On the contrary, when dealing with any type of fear-based behavior, it is paramount to address the fear first.


– It can take a shelter dog 6-8 weeks or more to fully adjust to his new home. Don’t worry if his behavior doesn’t fall into place after the first week, or if it takes awhile for him to feel like your dog.

– Listen to your dog. He will let you know if he’s uncomfortable or if he needs his space. Tell friends and family to let your dog approach them on his own time, and reward him with treats when he does. The same goes for other dogs in the neighborhood. As much as you might want him to develop a host of new friends right away, he needs time to feel at ease.

– Make it your goal to help your dog form positive associations to everything in his new environment. Have treats and praise at the ready. If you’re taking out the vacuum cleaner for the first time, dole out treats. If the noisy garbage truck drives by, praise and treat. If a kid crosses the street on a skateboard, praise and treat. And so forth. Even if your dog isn’t a puppy, these socialization techniques can help ease anxiety.

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.