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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.