Keeping your dog safe during the cold months

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The Baby in the Bath Water


If you’ve been around me you know that I bristle at the use of the term “dominance” when explaining a dog’s behavior.  Often I hear dog trainers say that dominance doesn’t exist.  This isn’t exactly accurate.  So why do so many trainers refuse to use the term?

There is a theory in some circles of the dog training world that dogs behave in certain ways because they are trying to be pack leader.  This results in dog handlers and trainers attempting to put a dog in his place by using firm tactics and often harsh treatment.  All is done with the welfare of the dog in mind.

The roots of these theories can be found in early studies of wild canids – specifically wolves.  But there were flaws in these studies, and in their application to dog training.  The wolves in the studies were not members of a pack.  They had no relationship to each other, and when put in a territory together much fighting ensued.  In addition, dogs are not wolves.  They are genetically related with an common ancestor, and it is possible for them to mate, but physiologically and behaviorally they are very different.

Dominance is a thing but maybe not the thing you think.  When it comes to behavioral psychology, dominance is by definition the relationship one has to the resources around you.  The problem with using this as a way to label a dog’s personality is that dominance is very fluid in dogs.  One dog may have all the toys, but defer to his housemate when it comes to attention from humans.  The dog who has the resource is usually the dog who is dominant over it. He has it, and he keeps it because his housemates leave him alone.  In dog culture, as in human, it’s rude to come up and snatch anything I have in my possession.  It’s rude behavior, not dominance, that starts most fights when it comes to resources.

Image you and a group of friends go out to a nice restaurant.  You order your favorite dish, and it arrives.  Maybe you get a bite or two in your mouth before one of your friends grabs your plate and starts eating your food.  If you have worked with me you know I’m frugal.  I rarely eat and restaurants, and it’s a huge treat to eat delicious food that has been cooked by a professional.  I’m likely to stab you with a fork for this behavior!  I certainly won’t be going out to dinner with you any time soon.  But my personality hasn’t changed nor is it defined by my reaction.  In fact, it’s incredibly out of character for me to so much as raise my voice at someone.  Would you eat with someone who grabbed food off your plate, or took your entire plate?  The next time you went out you would probably leave them off the invitation list.  It’s just rude.  Regardless of the species, it’s not socially acceptable and it’s understandable when our dogs don’t want to put up with it.

I’m going to get into trouble with some people for saying this, but dominance exists.  And positive punishment sometimes works.  But using either in your strategy to modify your dog’s behavior is asking for trouble.  You might get away with it.  You might find zero side effects, and go forward recommending these methods to others.  But many times you end up with issues, and sometimes serious issues.  They CAN work, but it doesn’t mean they are the best, most expedient, and most humane ways to bring about behavior changes.

Dominance is not a personality trait, and it’s not particularly useful in addressing a dog’s “dog-ness”.  I urge you to take the time to do it right, and to train your dog what you would like for them to do so they don’t choose behaviors that you don’t like.  Your dog is going to be a dog.  Your dog’s dog behavior is probably going to get under your skin sometimes because they are a totally different species with totally different values.  But with time and good training using positive reinforcement, you’ll find you have a happy, healthy companion.  Your dog should not just be a joy to deal with because he doesn’t misbehave, he/she should be full of joy.

Train your dog and don’t worry about dominance, because it’s not important.  If not with me, then go search for a trainer at,, or  Your dog will thank you with his tail.

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When the Cue Just Won’t Work

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It’s unfortunate, but sometimes we train a cue only to find that it later becomes useless. If you train enough, this may have happened to you. But why does it happen, and what can we do to fix it?

In dog training sometimes we forget that the immediate consequence of a behavior is what causes that behavior to occur more or less often. We can, by accident, teach a dog to ignore something we have previously taught by pairing the cue with something the dog doesn’t like, or by taking the rewards away too quickly. Once this happens we have work to do in order to fix the problem.

I think of an example with a relative where we trained a very strong recall (come when called). The dog would recall even when playing with other dogs from across a distance the length of a football field. Yay! We had trained the recall and it was working! One day I was visiting, and I called the dog from about 20 feet and she ran the other direction. She would not come to me. The handler told me that her recall had fallen apart in the past two weeks. It was heartbreaking, because the recall had been a thing of beauty.

Upon discussion, I found out that the recall was only being used for one purpose: to call the dog from her romp through a twenty acre area of woods full of deer and squirrels and rabbits, and then to put the dog in her crate, usually when her human was going to leave the house for a few hours. This dog loved to run, did not like the crate much, and she really hated being left behind. So the cue came to mean that she would lose her freedom and her companion.

Had the handler used the cue a majority of the time for reasons the dog enjoyed rather than saving it solely for something the dog considered very unpleasant, we would have been ok. But now we are faced with a poisoned cue. And not coming when called is a huge deal, especially when you live where the dog can get very far from home and still be on the property.

Losing a cue does not mean we have lost the underlying behavior. A behavior taught with positive reinforcement will not just disappear, but we may have to go back and do some remedial work with our dogs. The second time around, we need to be very careful what the resulting reward or punishment is for the dog. Remember: we don’t get to define this. Our dog does. Some dogs like their crates. The dog in the example above did not particularly like it, and she really didn’t like being alone. So she was being punished for coming. Now we need to retrain her and avoid this scenario.

The first thing I’m going to do here is completely abandon using the cue that’s been poisoned. Unfortunately it was her name. I will talk to her and use her name when I praise her and love on her, but I will not use it for recall.

Next, I’m going to start from the beginning and retrain the behavior using a different cue. My choice here is actually a whistle because it’s loud and very different from the original cue. Because she knows the behavior, it’s going to progress faster than the initial training. I’m going to be sure to repeat the behavior several times a day with a really awesome reward and a big party every time she comes. This “practice” is not going to end once the behavior has been trained. We want to be sure that positive association sticks with her all her life.

There will be times we will need to call her for things she doesn’t like. That’s okay. Ideally, we will call her, give her lots of reinforcement for coming, and after about five or ten minutes, put her in her crate. The separation of the recall from the ultimate goal (for us) of having her safely in her crate must be enough that she doesn’t relate the two. If my relative is running late somewhere every once in a while and violates this rule it’s not going to set us back too much, but we need to be sure that the good results far outweigh the bad ones.

Another way we can practice a behavior when it’s in a situation where our dog isn’t going to want to listen is to reward them with the freedom to go back to whatever fantastic activity they were enjoying. For example, those times at the park we must always take care to call her from time to time, reward her, and then send her right back to her play. That way recall doesn’t mean the fun is over. At least not every time.

Recall is an easy cue to poison because we are trying to manage our dogs and get them under control, and they may not want that. But other cues can be poisoned as well. The best way to avoid it is to be sure that a cue that has been well trained is rewarded (results in something the dog likes) far more often than it is punished (results in something the dog finds unpleasant), and that it is never punished with something that results in pain or fear (physical punishment, shock, yelling at the dog, etc). If a cue hasn’t been well trained then nothing unpleasant should ever be the result of performing the behavior. Remember: reinforcement (good stuff) builds behavior, and punishment breaks it (and generally confuses the dog). In the scope of this post I am talking about behaviors that have already been trained.

Another example from my training past is a client who, against my recommendation but with complete compassion and understanding on my part for her desire to let her dog run, decided to have an invisible fence installed because a physical fence was impossible. Several behaviors we had taught began falling apart. I wasn’t sure what was going on until I showed up early one day and found the fence trainer* there working with the dog. I watched as the trainer used cues we had taught to lure the dog towards the fence (“let’s go” for leash work, “come” for recall, with a sit or two thrown in). The dog was finding the entire experience completely unpleasant because he was receiving shock from the collar. Our cues had disappeared because they had been associated with the impending shock from the fence. We had to go back and do some remedial work, but within a few sessions we had changed our cues, I had had a discussion with the fence trainer about his choice of words, and the dog was doing well, other than he didn’t enjoy being outside as much as he had when I first met him.

The bottom line is we need to be very cognitive of the consequences our dog faces for doing the things we have trained him/her to do. If the consequences are negative, the dog is going to “stop listening” to us. If the results are almost entirely positive the dog will continue to perform. And finally, if we screw it up, and we all make mistakes from time to time, we can and should go back and fix it so that we can enjoy our dogs more!

*I put this asterisk here because these folks are very well meaning, but their job is to install fences and teach dogs where they are, and they really don’t have an intimate knowledge of behavior. The gentleman I was dealing with was very nice and absolutely loved dogs, but had no idea why using our cues was a problem until I explained it to him.

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May I Pet Your Dog?

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Interview with Dawn Sims: Dachshunds

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But he already knows this!


Every dog trainer hears this.  The frustrated exclamation of a client whose dog isn’t doing as they are told.  About 95% of our clients assert a dog’s knowledge of a cue that he just won’t follow.  They can be both correct and incorrect.  The dog may not understand the cue.  Or the dog may have learned the cue but has at some point learned to ignore it.  Or, in some cases, the dog has a pretty good understanding of what you want, but the cue has been poisoned.

So, what’s going on when a dog doesn’t listen?

They don’t really understand what you want.

Sometimes the dog really hasn’t learned what you think he’s learned.  It’s possible that your dog’s success was just a matter of a few well-timed guesses (or accidents).  In our enthusiasm, we can believe that our dog has learned the cue when they really haven’t.  This is an easy one to fix if it’s just started.  Just take a step back, and practice the cue some more until the dog knows it.

Your dog may also not understand what a cue means if you change some variable.  He may have learned that when she makes the “sit” noise when I’m in the living room I am supposed to sit on this rug”.  We may have thought they understood that we wanted the bottom down on the floor regardless of where we were or who was around, but the dog has really only learned a behavior in a particular context.  The answer?  When you switch a variable, go back to the beginning as if the dog never learned the cue, and work up.  After working through a few variables your dog will start to realize that sit means sit no matter where he is.

Changing a variable can be as small as not holding your hand in the same way as you usually do.  If you make the same gesture with your hand every time you ask the dog to sit and one day begin leaving the gesture out, your training is very likely to fall apart.  Decide what your cue is going to be, decide what the result you are looking for is going to be, and stick with it.

They have decided that your cue is irrelevant.

If the result of a specific cue is not reliable your dog will learn to ignore it.  This is the “boy who cried wolf” problem.  Imagine a parent who has become accustomed to a child running around yelling “Mommy!  Mommy!  Mommy!” without actually needing the attention of his mother.  The mother is likely going to learn to tune the child out and go on about her day.  The cue becomes irrelevant.  During training, your dog is trying to figure out what parts of the noises you make are meaningful, and what parts are not meaningful.  Sometimes they make the wrong choice.  This happens a lot when we try to go too fast in training and the dog isn’t successful.  We repeat the cue over and over again while the dog fails to perform the behavior.  Eventually, the dog decides that the cue is not relevant and begins to ignore it.  This is different than deliberate defiance.  The dog just doesn’t understand what is expected of him.

The cue has been poisoned.

Sometimes a cue has been taught, but we have inadvertently created a situation where the dog does not enjoy performing the behavior because the cue has been associated with something the dog doesn’t like.  This often results from using mixed messages in training.  Sometimes we ask for something and the dog does it, and she gets a reward.  Yay!  Bingo!  Enough repetitions and we have got a solid behavior. But sometimes if the dog doesn’t perform quickly enough, or is not perfect in her response we react with frustration and even punishment.  The dog is asked to sit, and when it doesn’t happen instantly gets a leash jerk.  Enough repetitions of this and the cue is poisoned.  The dog has created a negative association with the cue and does not want to perform it.

In our next blog post, we’ll look at ways we can deal with the poisoned cue…

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Cooperation Versus Coercion — Wilde About Dogs

I’d like you to imagine that you are a young, not-yet-verbal child who is entering a foster home. Naturally, you are a nervous about meeting your new foster parents, and wonder what life will be like. You don’t yet know what will be expected of you or how you will be treated. And since you’re […]

via Cooperation Versus Coercion — Wilde About Dogs

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Enjoying a Relaxing Independence Day, or From the Dog’s Perspective: Surviving the Apocalypse


July 4th was always one of my favorite holidays growing up. Where we lived, it was legal to fire off fireworks, and my favorite were the Roman Candles. Independence Day always ended with the customary light show lasting late into the night. I do not remember ever thinking about the impact the holiday had on our Pekapoo. I don’t remember it being an issue, but looking back I suspect the issue was that we couldn’t see what our dog was going through.

I have now been training dogs for over a decade, and I am painfully aware of the effect fireworks have on man’s best friend. There is simply no way for a dog to understand what the sudden loud noises are, where they are coming from, and if it is safe to come out from under the couch.


There are a few things you can do to help your dog through this time.

  • Ask neighbors if they would consider not shooting fireworks. If they aren’t willing to give them up, ask them what time they plan on starting so you can make a plan for your dog.
  • Download an amazon audio file of the sound of fireworks. Play it very quietly in the background for the next few weeks during your dog’s meal and playtimes. Start the soundtrack quietly just before the fun starts. Over the next few weeks, gradually increase the volume, but never enough to alarm your pet.
  • When the day comes, place your pet in an interior room with classical piano music playing. Check out the music and corresponding study in “Through a Dog’s Ear”. This type of music was found to be the most calming. Give your pet something super-awesome to focus on, like a nice raw meaty bone! If your dog has problems being confined like this sit with him. If you absolutely cannot sit with him do some practice runs starting with just a few minutes (or even seconds). Put him in the room, give him something really awesome, let him be – time yourself! Don’t be gone long enough to upset him! Return to your dog, take his stuff, and let him out. Gradually work up time. Better yet, just change your plans and sit with your dog!
  • Do not under any circumstances leave your dog outdoors! July 5th is the single busiest day for shelters across the US. Dogs are picked up as strays after escaping their yards in a panic. Leaving your dog in the yard could end in a lost dog, or in him being killed. It’s not worth the risk.

I want to strongly urge you to plan to spend this holiday home with your pets. It’s the safest and least frightening thing for them. Break out the grill and have a day of it, but when the time comes for the fireworks to start go inside and create a safe space for your dog.

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A Wolf at Your Door?

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silhouette dog on landscape against romantic sky at sunset

There are a number of ideas about dogs that have originated in their genetic connection to wolves and our understanding of wolf packs.  Most of these ideas are wrong.

We’ve made great strides in the past two decades in our studies of our closest animal friends.  Only relatively recently has research been done exploring the way our dogs think.  The way we look at wolves has also evolved since some of these theories about dog behavior came about.  Science has shown us an entirely new understanding of dog behavior, yet society still operates under the myths that science has overcome.

the study of wolves has come a long way.  There was a time when, in order to look at a species, we took all our data from observing captive species in zoos and the like.  The creation of technologies such as wildlife cameras and GPS trackers have revolutionized our ability to study these creatures.  What we have found is that animals behave very differently when placed in captivity.  There are a few reasons for this:

  • When wolves were captured and confined the entire pack was not taken.  Generally lone wolves or wolves that had strayed from the pack were captured.  So the groups that ended up in enclosures were unrelated and had no existing social hierarchies to fall back on.  We were no seeing the behavior of wolf packs.  We were seeing the behavior of unrelated groups of wolves thrown together.  They didn’t know each other or how to react to one another because their social group was gone.

nature animal playing wilderness

  • In the wild, the best bet for survival is escape.  It doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective to fight.  One might be injured or killed.  There are no veterinarians to patch up wounds, and infections can be deadly.  In order to survive it is best to avoid any interaction that might result in an injury.  When there is a fence there is no escape.  One must find alternative ways of coping with potentially deadly interactions.  While these will be based in existing patterns of behavior, they take on entirely new meaning in an artificial situation.  Behaviors that were once reserved to be used to show affiliation between group members morphed into what were interpreted as submissive behaviors used by one wolf to convince another not to attack.

Wolf packs are now known to be family groups that rarely have any sort of aggression between family members.  The “alpha” pair is the breeding pair, and the rest of the pack is almost always made up of their offspring.  So called submissive behaviors are performed to greet each other and show affiliation and are not about submission to any sort of social dominance.

How long young wolves stay with their parents varies depending on environmental factors.  Pack size is directly linked to what sort of food source is around.  The larger the prey animal the more wolves need to be involved in killing and eating the prey.  In this situation it is advantageous for offspring to stay on until they are mature enough to safely survive on their own, and sometimes even longer.  With smaller, less dangerous prey, the pack needs fewer wolves to be successful.  Offspring are more likely to venture out and find a mate and begin their own pack.

So what does this have to do with our four legged friends?  Not much.  The wolves we have long studied are the American timber wolves.  Dogs do not share DNA with these wolves, but rather share a common ancestor with European gray wolves.  In addition, dogs are separated from wolves by thousands of years of evolution.  There is no evidence that the common ancestor they share bears any resemblance to the modern day wolf.  According to renowned veterinary behaviorist Ian Dunbar, “Learning from wolves to interact with pet dogs makes about as much sense as, ‘I want to improve my parenting – let’s see how the chimps do it!'”

Not a wolf….

Ru089     Not a wolf…Auburn





Still not a wolf…



Seriously.  Not a wolf.


Okay… that last one is a wolf.

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Just a Spoonful of Cat Food

Some of you have met my little Killian in past blog entries or on his Facebook page. One thing I don’t talk a lot about with Killian is how incredibly difficult he can be to medicate.  Now, I am not new to medicating dogs. I have even been hired by clients to come over and give medication to difficult dogs.  But Killian is a master at avoiding his pills.

Killian in his wheels

When I first got Killian I actually took him to the vet every day so they could give him his meds.  Killian is not just paraplegic. He also suffers from epilepsy and chronic hepatitis. He takes a lot of medication to keep him going.

Killian is a small dog, so one would expect that, at the very least, I could force the pills down him. And I have. But Killian has learned how to cheek them or keep them just in the top of his throat where I cannot see them.  As soon as I turn my back on him, ptooey! And he has some range – on occasion over six feet. The pill ends up across the room, and I am on my knees trying to locate it. Because not only are his pills varied for each condition, some of them are also extremely expensive.

So I feel your pain if you have a dog that is difficult to pill. Here are the options I have used over the years.  Not all work with all dogs, but I find that usually one of them does work.

  1. Wrapping the pill in something yummy is usually sufficient for most dogs. American cheese works well if you don’t want to purchase pill pockets. Or a small piece of bread can work in a pinch.
  2. Peanut butter is an experience all its’ own when pilling dogs.  Some dogs it works well.  They cannot help but smack their lips and lick and swallow the delicious gooey mess.
  3. Force is my least favorite way to pill a dog, but in life or death situations it may be necessary. I always feel terrible opening a dogs mouth by force.  But if you need to do it, the easiest way is to place your hand over your dog’s muzzle with the thumb on one side and your index finger on the other.  Find the gap in the teeth (about half way back) and press in. You will find you can gently pull the mouth open. Place the pill as far back in the mouth as you can and close the dog’s mouth, holding the head in a normal position (parallel to the ground). Sometimes rubbing the throat will help the dog swallow. Gently hold the muzzle closed long enough that the dog swallows the pill.

Yeah, I know.  If you are reading this you have probably tried all of this.  I certainly tried and failed with all of these methods with Killian. A few tweaks can turn these failures into success. Here are the tweaks!

  1. Try the “Meatball Game”:  Get three pieces of whatever you are wrapping your dog’s pill in.  Roll two into balls, and put the pill in the third one.  One at a time, toss each “meatball” to your dog. Save the pill for last. Usually by the time your dog gets to the third one he’s gobbling them up.
  2. Use something that is doughy to wrap the pills. Lunch meat may be delicious to your dog,    but it doesn’t always stay on the pill well. Use something that will squish around the pill and completely encase it. You might even look online for recipes for homemade pill pockets.
  3. Use a chaser: Get something your dog can’t resist eating and feed it to her immediately after putting the pill in her mouth. I’ve used broth in a syringe, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a liquid as long as it goes down easily.
  4. These methods have worked for me in every case that didn’t involve disease induced anorexia. If the dog isn’t eating you’re going to have to resort to putting the pill in your dogs throat. If this is the case, look for a piller for your dog. This is a syringe type tool that will get the pill to the back of the throat without risking that your dog will bite down on your hand in an attempt to keep you from forcing the pill down. It also keeps your hand drool free.

Hopefully this gives you some new tools to help get medicine down your dog.  Making this as easy as possible for your dog will make it easier for you, and will make it easier to pill her in the future.

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