Category Archives: Dog Training

Make sure Halloween is all TREATS for your dog

If you are planning on taking your faithful companion trick or treating this year, make sure the experience is a treat rather than a trick for your dog!

According to the Ultimate Guide to Halloween Statistics people spent $310 million for pet Halloween costumes in 2011! Of course this is a very paltry number when compared to the $1 billion spent on children’s costumes and $1.21 billion spent for adult costumes, but still a not insignificant amount.

We obviously love taking our dogs everywhere and many dogs love going with us. But, Halloween can be very scary in a real sense for some children and dogs. We’ve all seen children screaming when coming face to face with a clown or some other scary object on Halloween. Your dog may not be screaming, but he still could be very nervous about the entire process.

Here are some tips for having a great Halloween for you and your four-legged friend.

#1 If your dog is nervous or already has issues meeting new people; Halloween is not a good time to be taking him for a walk. Just leave him at home in a quiet place and work on training him on other days so he gets used to meeting new people and going new places. That way he will be ready for next Halloween.

#2 Don’t buy a costume for your dog an hour before you plan to take him trick or treating. Get the costume as far in advance as possible and let your dog get used to wearing it. Have LOTS of tasty, high value treats on hand. You want your dog to think wearing the costume is fun. When taking it off and on make sure the dog gets lots of treats and GO SLOW. If your dog appears nervous about wearing a costume, just have him touch it or drape it over his back at first with lots of good rewards for tolerating it.  Once the dog is comfortably wearing the costume, let him walk around in it on leash for awhile so he gets used to how it feels.

#3 Think of less is more costumes, especially if your dog isn’t used to wearing clothes. Batman HATES wearing clothes. So, one year we went as Batman and Robin, only I dressed up. Batman had on a Batman plastic utility belt around his middle, and that was it. Another year Batman went as a seeing eye dog so I just had on his leash and I dressed as a blind person. On the other hand, Condor, who doesn’t care what happens as long as there is a chance to play ball, got dressed up as the Big Bad Wolf disguised as Grandma complete with wig while I dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood.

#4 Take lots of dog treats with you so your dog gets lots of positive reinforcement when meeting new people. Remember, even if your dog loves meeting people, he is going to be on a walk with people dressed in all kinds of weird costumes and doing all kinds of weird things such as lurching, talking funny, and just meeting people behaving in a manner the dog may not be used to.

#5 Watch for signs of stress. If your dog starts yawning, licking his lips a lot, staying at the end of his leash behind you, etc. he may be telling you he isn’t having a great time. Watch for your dog to turn his head away from something or someone. This could be his way of saying he wishes the thing in front of him would back up. Before you go trick or treating, make sure you know what your dog looks like relaxed. Watch him in the house and see where he carries his tail, where his ears are, what his forehead looks like, etc. If you know what he looks like relaxed, you will be able to spot times when he isn’t relaxed more easily. If you see your dog is getting stressed, STOP. Don’t force him to go on. You want the experience to be fun for the whole family. You wouldn’t force your 3 year old to continue if she turned out to be terrified so don’t force the dog. Remember, there is always next year and if we stop before we terrify the dog, we can work on it for next year and do some training. The biggest thing to remember is just because your dog’s tail is wagging it doesn’t mean he is having fun! Dogs wag their tails for lots of reasons, and not all of them mean he is happy.

#6 Be your dog’s advocate. Don’t let people just run up and pet him. Your dog relies on you to be his voice. Don’t be afraid to step in front of your dog or in some other way block him from rude people or rude dogs rushing into his space. Don’t get so caught up in the fun that you forget your dog is on the other end of the leash! I’ve seen people talking in groups who totally forgot their dog was there and then seen a small child approach the dog without the owner having a clue. Don’t let a growl or snap be your first indication that something is not going well. Do NOT take your dog trick or treating on a flexileash. You want him near you.

#7 If this is your dog’s first Halloween experience make plans to keep it short or at least have a backup plan in place in case your dog isn’t having fun.

Let’s not forget the dogs at home. Batman HATES people coming into our yard. If he is in the house and he sees lots of people in the street he starts barking and getting very agitated. On Halloween, Batman goes into a crate in the back of the house with a tasty big bone to chew on. Or, he goes out front with me and we do some obedience stuff as kids come up so Batman has a job to do and isn’t worried about why I am letting all these strangers onto our lawn.

If your dog barks at the pizza man, then he is going to bark at the kids and seeing a bunch of people in weird outfits at his front door is not going to make him happy. Let him relax far away from the action with his own version of a treat. If the doorbell sets your dog off, great your trick or treaters outside so they don’t have to ring the bell. There is nothing worse than your dog going ballistic every time someone rings the bell or knocks (however, you could train your dog to hear that sound and go lay down quietly on a mat).

And above all: DO NOT give your dog Halloween candy. Don’t leave it on the counter or the table or anywhere he can get it. Make sure the kids don’t leave their candy out where the dog can get it.  It is going to smell delicious, but chocolate, especially lots of really dark chocolate can be bad for your dog. Things like gum, suckers, anything sticky can also cause serious issues. You don’t want to end your Halloween at the Emergency Vet.

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

Dogs sleeping on the bed — oh my

Almost every day a client gives me a sheepish smile and starts a sentence with, “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but my dog sleeps on the bed.” So, I want to share my own secrets –so do mine.  Not only do some of the dogs sleep on the bed, some of them get up on the couch too. Not to mention, if they are polite, I’ll throw them some scraps of food from my dinner plate. Oh, and Batman almost always goes through the doorways first. And you know what? I’m happy with this arrangement.

Batman and Bandit sleep on the bed. So far, I have not noticed any signs that either one of them is trying to dominate me. Even after three years, shy Bandit flinches if I even look at him while he is on the bed. Sometimes Batman wants to see if he can have the spot with the pillow, but all I have to do is say, “Bat, move” and he does (although sometimes he sighs).

And yet, thanks to popular television shows and several dog training books, there are lots of people out there who think it is wrong to have their dog sleep on the bed, walk ahead of them, or get a treat from their plate.  I attended a training class a few years ago in which the instructor said on the first day that anyone who was letting his or her dog sleep on the bed or get up on the furniture was never going to have a well-trained dog.

Here is what I say: If you are happy with your dog’s behavior, then be happy and don’t worry what someone else says is right or wrong.

OK, I’m going to throw out some caveats. If your dog sleeps on the bed and he growls when you try to get into bed, or if he snaps at you if you ask him to get off the bed, that’s a problem.  If your dog tries to put his face in your plate while you are eating or doing something else to bother you during meal times, that’s a problem (unless of course you don’t mind). But, if your dog is polite and you like the situation, then don’t stress it.

My rules are simple. If the dog isn’t bothering me and if he responds to the cues I give him, then I’m happy and he’s happy. Batman knows if he sits a foot away from me while I eat, the chances are good he will get something. If he bothers me while I’m eating, he is asked to get off the couch and he gets nothing. He also can’t growl at any other dogs or cats that might be near while I’m eating as that causes the food to go away completely. If I need more leg room in the bed, he can move or get on the floor.

When we go for a walk, if I ask Batman to “sit,” he will. If I need him to stop pulling me, I can ask him to “heel.” Otherwise, he can do whatever he wants at his end of the leash. I’m pretty sure instead of planning on how he will dominate the world; he is really just sniffing for squirrels.

So, have fun with your dog and don’t lose any more sleep. Believe me; your dog isn’t going to take over the world, at least not until he gets opposable thumbs.

Don’t ignore your dog’s early warning signals

When the “check engine” light comes on in our vehicle, most of us take notice and take the appropriate steps to have the vehicle serviced. We do this because the vehicle manual tells us that ignoring this light could mean serious damage to our vehicle down the road.

Unfortunately, with dogs we often ignore the many “check engine” signals the dog gives us until everything falls apart. Then we are left trying to decide what happened and can we fix it. If we can’t fix it, then it generally means euthanasia for the dog.

This week I got two phone calls that illustrate this point.

Call #1: A 2 year old cocker spaniel bit a neighbor’s child. The bite did not break skin, but left a bruise. The dog has been growling at non family members for most of the year that the family has owned the dog. But, the dog is great with the family. The bite happened on the family’s front porch as the neighbor child was being invited into the home. The dog charged out the door and when the little girl raised her arm up, the dog leaped up and grabbed it.

Call #2: A six month old mixed-breed puppy is growling and snapping at a 4 year old in the home. The family has had the puppy for four months. They called when the puppy grazed the 4-year-old’s cheek with a tooth and left a scratch. The puppy was fine with the 4 year old for the first month the family said, and then it just started growling “out of nowhere.” The family is afraid of the puppy and it is now living outside.

The woman who called with the cocker spaniel was crying the entire time she spoke with me. She LOVES this dog; however, her husband says the dog has to go. The woman in call number two wants the dog gone because the family thinks the puppy is dangerous.

Once a dog has a bite history, it is difficult to do anything. As a general rule, rescues won’t take dogs that have a bite history. Rehoming the dog could be difficult due to liability issues. And there just aren’t sanctuaries out there waiting to take in the beloved pet that now bites people.

In talking with both people, it was clear to me the dogs in both cases gave lots of early warnings that they were scared and needed some help. Unfortunately, the owners didn’t have the resources they needed to understand the dogs needed help.

The time to reach out to a trainer or behaviorist is when the early warning light comes on. By the time the break down happens it can be much more difficult, if not impossible to help the dog.

Dogs communicate to us constantly. Unfortunately, they aren’t speaking English. They understand us much better than we understand them. Yet it really is fairly easy to begin to understand your dog. It just takes some observational skills. Yes, that means you have to actually LOOK at your dog and see what it is doing. If you learn nothing else, at least learn what your dog looks like when it is relaxed and happy. Where are its ears, its tail, how is it standing on his feet or how is it laying down, what does its face look like? Once you know what your dog looks like relaxed, it will be much easier to know what your dog looks like when he is not relaxed.

Left: This dog is happy. The photographer has been giving him treats. His face is relaxed, his tongue is out.

Let’s picture this. Say you know that when your dog is relaxed his tongue is hanging out, his face is relaxed and when he wags his tail his entire butt moves.  He will look something like the dog above. But when the 4 year old approaches the dog, it closes its mouth, turns its head or wags its tail without the entire butt involved. This is a change in behavior. The dog is no longer as relaxed as he was. The dog is saying “you make me nervous, please don’t come any closer.” If the 4 year old keeps coming, the dog may suddenly turn and sniff its butt, or point its ears back and have its weight distributed so it can flee away from the child. Again the dog is asking the child in the only language it has to stop approaching.

Right: The photographer got too close to the dog. Suddenly he became more nervous, closed his mouth and turned to look away from the photographer. He is saying, “too close, please back up.”

Luckily, most dogs tolerate rude behavior for a long time, but all dogs have a point in which they are just tired of the 4 year old in their face, or the neighbor kids constantly wanting to pet it or strangers coming in and saying “oh, you are so cute I just have to pet you.” To the dog, he has been communicating for a long time to please stop. So, when those early signals are ignored he brings out the growl, the lip curls or the bite.

I love dogs that growl. The growl is all of your car’s warning signal lights coming on at once. If that happened you would sit up and take notice. You wouldn’t just take out the fuses and hope the car keeps running fine. Yet, when a dog growls, most owners get really upset. They yell at the dog for growling. Growling is often the dog’s way of saying, “listen, you are obviously not the brightest dog in the pack, and you have ignored every other signal I’ve given you, so I am going to growl, so sit up and take notice.” If we punish the dog for growling and he needs to say something really important, all we’ve left him with is a bite. And then I get the call from the upset owner wondering why suddenly their loving family dog has bitten someone.

If you notice your dog seems unhappy around new people or nervous around the kids, call a trainer. Don’t wait. Get help before all the warning lights come on.


The problem with just “one more cookie”

Often when people see my German Shepherd, Condor, they ask me if he is ill. At first I was perplexed by this question, until I found out people thought he was ill because they thought he was too skinny. You can actually see Condor’s “waist” (called a “tuck” in dogs). You can also see the outline of his last rib. He isn’t sick; he is just the right weight.

So many of our companion dogs are overweight, that people often stop and take notice of a dog that is the correct weight and immediately think it is sick or someone is neglecting it.

In February the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) released a survey from veterinarians that said 53 percent of dogs and 55 percent of cats were overweight. WOW! That’s more than half of our pets.  The study also found that many people do not realize their pet is overweight and when asked said they thought their pet was at an ideal weight.

When I talk to people about their pet’s weight, most people smile sheepishly and say something like, “but he looks at me with sad eyes.” Believe me, I know that look. Batman gives me that look and I have to constantly battle his weight. Because he does so many demos with me and he is out in public so often, he gets more treats than he should.

According to APOP treats are a major problem in combatting pet obesity. “Treats continue to be a major contributor to weight gain in pets.  An online poll conducted in October 2011 by APOP of 210 pet owners found 93 percent of all dog and cat owners gave treats. 95 percent gave a commercial treat with 26 percent reporting they gave their pet treats three or more times a day. “Treats are the silent saboteur of slimming down.” Remarks APOP founder Dr. Ernie Ward. “Those tiny treats are often hiding a significant amount of calories.” Ward suggests offering single-ingredient rewards or fresh vegetables such as baby carrots, string beans, broccoli or other crunchy vegetables.”

Consider these examples from the APOP article:

■A premium pig ear (231 kcals) fed to a 40-pound dog is the equivalent of an adult human drinking six 12-ounce Coke Classics™ (840 kcals).

■A typical dog biscuit (25 to 27 kcals) fed to a 20-pound dog is the equivalent of an average adult human eating two Keebler EL Fudge Double Stuffed Sandwich Cookies (180 kcals).

YIKES! Batman ate two pig ears the other day during a demo. No wonder I’m having trouble with his weight.

Now the big question: why should you care if your pet is overweight? You love him all rounded and happy right? Well, if you love him, you should care. Overweight pets face the same health problems as overweight people. And if you own a breed that is prone to hip and knee problems, then you should especially pay attention to weight. I try and keep Condor at or slightly even below an ideal weight because he is a German shepherd and they are prone to hip issues. Plus, Condor is a working dog. When he is out on a search, he has to do a lot of running, jumping, etc. He is an athlete and I have to keep his body in condition for an athlete.

Obesity also adds up at the veterinarian’s office. The August issue of Angie’s List newsletter is devoted to pet issues, including obesity. This is from the article on obesity, “Obesity-related conditions drive up vet costs, says Dr. Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services for Petplan, a highly rated pet insurance company that provides policies nationwide. Treatment for arthritis –a condition exacerbated by aging and extra weight pounding joins – increases vet bills by an average of $2,000 a year. Benson says surgery such as hip replacement that runs $3,000 to $6,000 per joint, drives costs higher still.”

Overweight pets also become diabetic; have high blood pressure, etc.

Another issue is that many pet owners feed their pets exactly what it says to feed on the side of the dog food bag. Dogs are individuals. A coach potato dog doesn’t need as much as a dog that plays catch all day.  I change how much my dogs eat daily. If Batman is looking chunky, he gets less. If too much of Condor’s back rib starts to show, he gets more. On days when I do a lot of demos with Batman, and he gets a lot of treats, he just doesn’t get a meal at all.

I will leave you with two more examples from the APOP website:

■According to Dr. Ernie Ward, a 95-pound male Golden retriever is comparable to a 5’4” human female weighing 184 pounds or a 5’9” male that weighs 214 pounds.

■A 10-pound Chihuahua is comparable to a 5’4” human female weighing 242 pounds or a 5’9” male that weighs 282 pounds.

So, if you love your pet, watch his weight and don’t let his sad eyes sway you.  Chances are he will live longer if he is at a healthy weight and you will enjoy those sad eyes for a few more years.


Going “off leash” isn’t the best goal for many dog owners

One of the things many of my clients ask for is a dog that is reliable off-leash.  It seems most of us have an idyllic vision of our dogs romping in the park, having fun, and then instantly returning to us when necessary.

Unfortunately, the reality of off-leash work rarely matches our vision. I’m not saying an off-leash recall is impossible, far from it. But, it takes a LOT of work. Even then, there is always the possibility that your dog will see or smell something that trumps coming back to you. In many locations it is actually illegal for your dog to be off leash, so be sure you know your state and local municipal codes.

The reason an off-leash recall can be so difficult is that our dogs love to run and chase things. Many of them are hard-wired to chase small animals or birds. Some dogs hit a scent and just have to follow it, no matter what we might be telling them. In order to combat this, you have to be more fun than a squirrel or a rabbit or the scent of a female dog in heat. You want your dog to know that coming back to you means LOTS of totally awesome cookies, or a big game of tug with a favorite toy. This doesn’t happen overnight. There are even great trainers who have dogs that even after years of work still don’t have a recall that is 100 percent reliable. My personal belief is that there is no recall that is 100 percent reliable. There is always going to be something, somewhere that makes your dog want to investigate or chase.

This is why I always have a talk with my clients who put down as a goal on the first day of class that they want to let their dog off leash in the park and have him or her come back to them.

Let me give you a few scenarios.

  • My dog Batman has several obedience titles. He is 8 years old and we do a lot of work together. About 80 percent of the time I am comfortable with him off-leash coming back to me. But, I have seen him run across a road right in front of an oncoming car. It happened when I let him out of my van in my own driveway. Usually Batman gets out of the van and runs to the front-door of the house, but on this day, there was a rabbit in our yard that I did not see. Batman took off after that rabbit faster than I could have imagined and no amount of me asking him to come back to me was getting through to him. He dashed across the road and barely missed getting hit by a car. I almost fainted I was so stressed and the driver of the car was so shook up he had to stop.
  • Sparkles was a dog I had before Batman. I often took her to my parent’s house when I went to visit and she and I would go hiking in the woods. But, Sparkles had some kind of sight hound in her. When she saw a deer she would just take off, no matter what I said or did. Usually she came back after she couldn’t see the deer anymore. One day she didn’t come back. I think she probably scared up another deer and then another and kept chasing them farther and farther away. For three days I looked for her. I went to all the neighbors; I drove in ever-widening circles stopping to call her name. Every morning I got up hoping she would be on the front steps. Every evening I went out one last time calling her name. On the fourth day she came back, but she was in bad shape. Some other animal, most likely a coyote had been after her. My veterinarian thought by the bite wounds that Sparkles must have gotten under a log that gave her some protection as only her lips and face had bite marks.  After a few weeks of antibiotics she was fine.
  • One of our adopters came in today to let us know that the dog he adopted was doing great, but he said she had been hit by a car last month. She was off leash and suddenly darted into traffic. The man said that always before the dog had come back when they called her, but this one time she didn’t. The dog is going to be ok, but she required some extensive medical attention.

I’m sure you’ve all seen a dog dead by the side of the road. That could have been any of the dogs I’ve written about here, it is just in these cases the dogs were lucky.

If you are still determined to play with your dog off leash, take some precautions. Make sure your dog is microchipped and is wearing a collar with ID tags. Start with very easy recalls in an enclosed area and then add distractions such as someone throwing a ball, riding a bicycle or walking a dog by. You want to add these distractions while you are still in a safe environment before you take your dog to the park. Have something your dog REALLY wants and when he or she comes back to you, give lots of praise and give them the treat or toy. Consider having your dog drag a 30 foot long line. If the dog is dragging a long leash, your chances of catching up to it are greatly improved. Watch your area for distractions that might tempt your dog and start asking your dog to come back to you before he or she sees that distraction.

Also, make sure your dog has something other than a recall that he or she is good at. I have been saved many times because Batman has a very good Down. I can yell down and he will no matter what (as long as it isn’t a rabbit or a squirrel). Some dogs will come back if you ignore them and walk away from them.

The number one thing to remember is that if your dog gets loose and you do get it back, have a HUGE party. Lots of praise, treats, tug, whatever the dog wants. No matter how mad you are at the dog, never, ever punish it for returning to you. It will just make the dog decide that coming back to you wasn’t such a good idea in the first place.

As long as you are playing with your dog, having fun and loving him, he won’t mind if he is never off-leash romping in the park. Being safe is much better than a dead dog by the side of the road.

Sifting through the ever-changing world of dog trainers

One of my clients called yesterday to tell me that she was getting conflicting advice from another dog trainer. My client’s veterinarian had suggested she see a person the veterinarian called a specialist and the specialist told my client she was a behaviorist, which does sound important. But, when the specialist started giving my client advice that conflicted with what I was telling her, my client was understandably confused.

I feel bad for my client. There is so much conflicting information in the world of dog training. One old adage is that the only thing two dog trainers will agree on is what the third trainer is doing wrong. Sadly, I think that is more often true than not.

So, what is a person with a dog to do? How do you sift through all this confusion?

While this short post is overly simplistic, I hope it will help. First, let’s break the dog training world into two big groups.

1: The group that thinks dogs need a forceful hand that will dominate them and show them their place in the pack. This group may often use a punisher as a means to get the dog to comply. This group often uses words such as “dominance,” “alpha,” “leader of the pack.”

2: The group that uses a positive reward system and does not use punishment as a means to teach a dog something. This group talks about learning to read a dog’s body language, using the dog’s favorite food or toy to get the dog to work and many members of this group are quickly distancing themselves from anything that has the word “alpha” in it.

Each group has dozens (if not hundreds) of sub groups. I have belonged to both groups. Like many trainers I started off in Group 1 years ago. I believed the dog trainer who told me the choke chain was not really hurting my dog; I believed the trainer who told me the electric collar was not shocking my dog the same way it would shock me because my dog had fur around his neck; I believed the trainer who said the prong collar was humane.

Then one day I looked at my dog. He was shivering, drooling and miserable. I was trying to make him do something he didn’t want to do. The trainers around me wanted me to keep pushing the dog and MAKE him obey. My dog was terrified. Suddenly, I thought, “this is my friend, this dog loves me and has given me years of fun and yet I’m making him miserable.” Was it the task I was asking my dog to do that making him miserable or the way I was teaching him the task? I came to the conclusion that it was the way I was teaching him. As I stood on that training field, I realized I felt as miserable as my dog. As a matter of fact, I was crying.  I was hurting him, if not physically, then mentally. In that moment, I changed to Group 2. It wasn’t actually overnight, but it was on that night that the change began. I stopped charging the electric collar, I kept “forgetting” to bring my prong collar and I started going to seminars on dog behavior and training. I became a seminar junkie.

The more I learned about dog behavior the more I moved into the Group 2 camp. Here was a form of training that would never hurt my dog. My spirits lifted. My dog and I began exploring clicker training, which is in Group 2. According to the website, “Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it. Desirable behavior is usually marked by using a “clicker,” a mechanical device that makes a short, distinct “click” sound which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.”

My dog, Batman, could not be happier. In the years since I switched to clicker training, the bond between Batman and I has strengthened tremendously. My younger dog, Condor, only knew a few months of any kind of training from Group 1 and he just certified as a Human Remains Detection Dog.

There are many people in Group 1 who say that clickers are ok for tricks or clickers can’t be used to teach a dog everything. As a matter of fact an instructor at the Human Remains Detection seminar I was at told me Condor actually “hated” the sound of the clicker. He told me “real” working dogs had to be taught using other methods. I ignored him and kept my clicker on. Later that afternoon I sat in the shade and taught Condor to “shake” with both paws with my clicker, and all the while Condor had a big, sloppy grin on his face. The way he kept working and looking at my treat bag did not seem to be the face of a dog who “hated” the sound of a clicker.

My best advice to anyone confused by all the types of training is to do research. Find a trainer who is certified through some type of organization. Then look up that organization to see what they stand for. Some groups allow a trainer to put initials after their name for just the price of an annual fee; other groups actually have classwork and hold their members to standards. For example, I graduated from the Karen Pryor Academy, which is a six month course that requires its students to have a score of 90 or higher in order to pass and become certified.

Talk to any trainer you wish to hire. If you like the trainer, chances are you will like the training. Ask to meet the trainer’s dog and see a demo. I can tell a lot by a person by their dog and I’m sure you can too. Ask the trainer why he or she choose the type of training they believe in and what their training background includes.  Sit in on a class before you sign up with a trainer; make sure you like how he or she teaches. Look at the dogs in the class. Are they happy and working or shut down and terrified?

Above all, don’t get suckered in by words that sound impressive, but don’t mean much. For example, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has this to say about the word “behaviorist.” – “Behaviorist: This term is not attached to any specific qualification or level of schooling unless preceded by “veterinary” or “applied animal.” This term is not attached to any specific qualification or level of schooling. It can be used by anyone including someone with no formal education in companion animal behavior.”

 Whatever you do, don’t despair. Training your dog is important and it is worth finding the right person, even if the search can get confusing.

Condor certified as a human remains detection dog

Two years of training paid off this weekend when I certified my dog Condor as a Human Remains Detection dog. Condor and I are members of a volunteer search unit called Midwest Search Dogs. Events such as 9-11 and the Oklahoma City bombing made people much more aware of search dogs than they were in the past, but search and recovery is nothing new. In World War I, the Germans trained some dogs to go out and indicate whether a person lying in a battlefield was alive or dead so medical personnel would not have to risk their lives evacuating a dead soldier.

Most search units are volunteer organizations. The dog handler has to bear all of the expense of owning the dog, training it and all the travel expense of going to any area he or she is called out to search. Training a search dog is not for the faint of heart. On average it generally takes two years to get a dog to the point where he or she is ready to certify. Most units train twice a week, plus if your unit gets called out, you may have to leave work on a moment’s notice. Lots of people like the idea of being in a search unit, but few people join units once they find out how much work is involved.

Some people do join with thoughts of glory. But the reality of many search units is that you will spend your days searching, but never finding. I have been on two official searches as what is called a “ground pounder.” My job was to walk an area and help the dog handlers and to be another pair of eyes looking for a lost person. On one search it was in the mid-80s and humid and I hiked in rough terrain for hours, getting eaten up by bugs, covered in ticks and finding nothing but a snake and two turtles. In the other search the weather was in the 20s, the terrain was again rough and I fell down a hill, sliding on my butt the entire way down.  

Searching and not finding is still extremely important as you help eliminate areas, but the only glory at the end of the day is your own satisfaction of knowing you did a good job.

On the plus side, you meet some extraordinary people and you form a bond with your dog that is like no other. If you are working a dog that is searching for something, you have to know that dog. You have to know what it means if he turns his head, slows down, speeds up, changes the way he breaths, moves his tail, etc.

Most units in the Midwest have dogs that track or trail, air scent or find human remains. Tracking dogs follow a scent until they find the person the scent belongs to or until they lose the scent. Air scenting dogs are sent out into an area and asked to locate any human scent other than the scent of the people who are walking with the dog. Human remains dogs are asked to go out in an area and see if they can locate a body. Certain geographical areas such as mountains require specialized search dogs such as those than can do wilderness or avalanches. Some dogs and handlers specialize in working rubble, such as what would be left behind in a disaster. Areas with lots of water require a dog that can find a body under water.

While many dogs on search units are purebred dogs bred for their abilities to search, there are a significant number of rescued dogs. And one common theme you will find in the rescued dogs is that they were almost always dogs that were on euthanasia lists, or dogs that had been returned to a shelter numerous times. That’s because the dogs that excel at SAR want to be busy and have a job, meaning they are not the kind of dog that just wants to sit at home and lay on the couch with you. One of the dogs I met this weekend was from a shelter. Her handler was her fifth owner and the shelter had said that if it didn’t work out this time, she would be euthanized. When I met her she was a very happy dog and she certified as a tracking dog this weekend. One of my teammates has one of the most amazing dogs I’ve ever seen and it had been traded around several times before she got the dog because the dog was considered a “bad” dog. I met several people this past week who had both German shepherds and Belgian Malinois that were from rescues.

If you are looking for a dog to do some serious work with such as competitive obedience, agility, SAR, etc. look for the dogs in the shelter that volunteers are having problems with. Or ask the shelter staff if there are any dogs that love to play so much that no one wants to take them out because all the dog wants to do is play tug or fetch. Those are the dogs you would want if you want to be competitive or serious about what you are doing. You want to find a dog that is smart and has something he loves so much that he will work for it. For Condor that is a tennis ball. He will search as long as it takes in order to win the reward of me throwing his tennis ball for him. For other dogs it is a flying disc or a tasty morsel of food.

If you decide you want to explore search and rescue, do a Google search for units in your area. Look for a unit that requires its members to certify through a nationally accredited organization and a unit that believes in positive training methods. The people in the unit will be people you will be spending a huge amount of time with, so it is also important to find a group in which you fit in personality wise. There are a number of Yahoo groups that discuss SAR.


Oh, Those Pesky Puppies

Everyone loves puppies (and if you don’t love puppies, you probably are not reading this blog). They’re cute, they have puppy breath, they follow you everywhere you go and they depend on you for everything – at least for a month or so.

Then everything changes.

Suddenly, that cute bundle of fluff that still hasn’t learned to potty outside (and his messes are getting bigger) has decided your couch is the best thing in the world to chew on. Unless of course your favorite pair of shoes are within reach. Other favorite chewing options may include your arms, legs, clothing, kids’ hair, family cat, other dogs, garden hose, the cable to the laptop and your cellphone.

Your puppy also has  become more independent. He wants to go exploring. He wants to learn the rules and, if he can’t find any, he will be happy to make up his own. He will race through the house jumping on things, testing his strength and generally just keep growing up.

At this point, you might begin to wonder what happened to that sweet little thing you adopted. You wonder if somehow you got a “bad” puppy. Instead of causing joy, the puppy begins to cause tears and serious bouts of frustration.

The good news is, you are NOT alone and that puppy isn’t a bad puppy. Just about all puppy owners feel the same way you do. And puppies grow up. If you give them love, structure, training and socialization, they will become awesome family pets that you will be proud to call yours. The bad news is, they won’t become that awesome family pet without your help. Puppies need training and socialization.

You can’t expect your puppy to know not to chew on your shoes, bite the kids, potty outside, or bring you the paper each morning unless you train him.Taking your puppy to a puppy class is an important first step. It will help you see you’re not alone as you share your scratched up arms with other puppy owners. Your puppy will learn how to interact with other puppies and both of you will learn how to interact together as a team. Nothing strengthens the human-animal bond like a good training program.

Let’s look at some common problems:

Housebreaking: It’s all about patience and consistency.

You can’t scold your puppy for an accident that happened when you weren’t watching him. The puppy will never understand that he is being scolded for something that happened in the past, even if it is a very recent past. Ignore accidents and clean them up thoroughly with a cleaner designed for pet accidents. Take your puppy out on a regular schedule and keep his food and water on a regular schedule during the housebreaking phase. Make sure he can predict when he will be let out for the last time at night and when he will get out first thing in the morning.

Never let your puppy out of sight, even for a second. If you can’t watch him, teach the puppy to hang out in his crate. When the puppy does potty outside,  be lavish in your praise and give him a treat. Don’t just let your puppy outside and hope he goes. Go out with him and keep him on a leash until he potties. If he won’t potty, take him back inside, put him back in his crate and take him back out in 5 or 10 minutes.  Then let him off leash to romp and play. Otherwise the puppy may get so distracted at playing that he forgets to potty until he is back inside. Watch for your puppy to begin sniffing near the door or on the floor. When you see this, immediately take him outside.

For more house training tips, visit the ASPCA’s Virtual Behaviorist for some great tips.

Biting: Puppies need to find out how their teeth work and they do this by biting anything they can find, including you. Puppy teeth hurt!

One of the best ways for puppies to learn bite inhibition is for them to play with other puppies or tolerant adult dogs. The puppies and adults will tell the puppy if it bites too hard. Sometimes humans can use the same approach. Try making a high-pitched “yelp” if your puppy bites you. This works for some puppies. But a word of warning: this doesn’t work for all puppies and some puppies learn that it’s a fun game to make you yelp. Telling your puppy “no” or “no bite” doesn’t work. Remember, he doesn’t speak English. For all he knows you are telling him how much fun you are having with him.

If your puppy is biting you, get up and walk away from him, ignoring him completely. If he begins to follow you and isn’t biting, tell him what a good puppy he is and then find him an appropriate chew toy. And, make it a fun toy then praise the pup for playing with the toy. Provide the puppy with LOTS of things to chew on. Don’t just say, “Well he has lots of toys” because the toys have to be things he wants to chew on, not things you think are fun. Elk antlers and Kongs filled with treats make good chew toys. Also, don’t keep all of your puppies’ toys out all of the time. Puppies are like children and they can get bored easily so be sure to rotate them. Don’t hesitate to put your puppy in his crate if he is driving you nuts. The crate can be a fun place to relax and chew on a favorite item. Put the puppy in the crate with a treat and some toys, but never as a form of punishment. This should be more of a place for him to chill out while you catch up on work, exercise or watch TV.

If your puppy is biting at you when you or your kids walk through the house, take a toy and put it on the end of a rope or leash and drag that beside you. The puppy will decide that the toy is much more fun than your leg and start to chase what you’re dragging. This can also be a fun and safe way for your children to interact with the puppy.

Above all, keep your cool. Yelling at the puppy won’t help. Don’t close his mouth if he is biting you, push him, spank him, spray him with water, or do anything else that might harm or scare the puppy. You want him to love you, not be afraid of you.

My number one tip: Ignore bad behavior, reward good behavior. If the puppy is just on your last nerve, put him in his crate with a Kong and then sit down with your favorite beverage and relax.

Living up to Lassie’s Legacy

Oh, Lassie, what have you done? You set the bar so high and the dogs of the world just can’t reach your hallowed heights.

If you grew up watching Lassie, as I did, or saw any of the movies, you know just what I mean. Lassie was perfect. Lassie didn’t shed, didn’t tear up the furniture, didn’t pee in the house, didn’t chew up Timmy’s shoes, didn’t fight with other dogs (unless someone was in danger) and she immediately understood everything people said to her. She even knew more than the humans around her most of the time.

So, is it any wonder people come into a shelter to choose an animal and the first thing they say is “sit?” Unfortunately, most of the time the dog on the other end of the leash does anything but sit. Thankfully everyone seems to realize that the dog isn’t immediately going to go out and save someone from a well. But, for some reason, people think any dog they meet immediately understands simple commands such as “sit.” I hear it as I walk the halls of IndyHumane all of the time. I see it when I walk the Monon and watch people try and get their dogs to sit beside the trail. And, I see it in stores that allow pets. (Picture an owner trying to juggle a dog bouncing everywhere while trying to pay for their purchases and keep their cool while repeating “sit” over and over.)

As we dog trainers like to say, “Dogs don’t come trained.” It takes some  time and a little effort. As a matter of fact, Pal, the collie who portrayed that first Lassie was brought to trainer Rudd Weatherwax because the dog  barked constantly and chased motorcycles. According to Wikipedia, Weatherwax couldn’t get Pal to stop chasing motorcycles and the dog’s owner gave Pal to Weatherwax in exchange for the money owed for training. And the rest as they say is history.

While training your dog might not turn it into a film star, a little training will go a long way to helping you have a wonderful family pet. Training helps strengthen the bond you will be creating with your dog and it is fun for both of you. Seeing a dog and its owner complete a training exercise with the owner smiling and the dog all wiggly is one of the greatest joys of my life.

Dog training doesn’t have to be time consuming or difficult. In this blog we will explore dog behavior, communication and training, as well as just have some fun along the way.

So, get some popcorn, rent a Lassie movie and instead of saying, “I wish my dog could do that,” think, “wow, it would be fun to train my dog to do that.”