Change in Focus: Back to Behavior Consulting

This is a post specifically for my clients- 

Dear Clients,

This month marks a major change in the shape of Dog Willing.  In the last three and a half years this company has grown in so many wonderful ways. In January 2014, I went from just private training to clients to offering classes at The Pet Republic and I've really enjoyed the expansion of the dog community that that entailed.  However, since then I've learned a lot about operating a business with employees, scheduling up to fourteen classes per week, being available to both my class and behavior clien ts, and juggling my home life to accommodate the needs of a growing family and business.  As much as I've enjoyed this and have valued what has developed, it has become more and more obvious to me over the last couple of months that I have hit the point where I need to focus my attentions on what interests me most and where I can best serve my clients.  This is through the behavior consulting.  

At this point, we've grown to the degree where I can't say with certainty that I would be able to continue to provide my behavior clients with the time and attention they need while also worrying about scheduling and teaching classes were I to continue on this track. It would not be fair to you to do either of those jobs with only half my attention so this month Dog Willing will be the last month that Dog Wiling offers classes.  Starting in September, our wonderful partners at Running the Pack will be taking over the class aspect of the business and offering the same service through the actual The Pet Republic name.  

Many of the excellent instructors you have enjoyed with Dog Willing will still be teaching in September and High Fidelity Dog Training (Kate Bigger's company) will still be offering the phenomenal Scentwork classes.  Be sure to check out the full offering of September classes at


I will still be offering behavior consulting and private lessons and working with all of my current clients individually. I will still be renting the space during the day.  I think this arrangement will allow me to offer the best service possible to my clients, and also allow me to spend time with my family. Scheduling is still available for all the private work through

Please let me know if you have any questions at all about the transition and know that you can still reach me at anytime going forward at  

I look forward to continuing to work with you and maybe even finding some time to take a class with my own dogs!

Happy Training!

What Is a Good Dog Walk?

Recently I’ve been doing some day training with a few different client dogs (I take them on training walks minus their owner). It’s gotten me thinking about what I look for, really, when I’m walking my own dogs or any dogs- what does a good walk feel like to me and how would I define it. There are a few behaviors I look for from my canine companion and they coalesce nicely into a few distinct training games that I like to play when walking a dog.

Loose Leash Walking
Nearly any basic manners class you enroll in (including ours) will focus a significant part of the curriculum on teaching your dog not to pull on leash: teaching the dog to keep the leash slack. This is a very important skill and one that I work on extensively with clients by treating the dog for staying at their side, but it also isn’t everything. I’ve walked dogs that haven’t pulled at all and yet I’ve still felt completely invisible and like my being there was really incidental to the walk.  This to me is not a good walk: loose leash walking isn’t enough, but it’s a good start.

Response to Name
The other skill that I frequently build into the beginning of walks, especially with a new dog, is a quick response to me saying their name.  If I need to get the dog’s attention, I want a quick “Fido!” to be enough to make them look around at me. The last thing I want is to be faced with something strange or unpredictable coming our way and me standing there saying “Fido Fido Fido Fido”, while Fido completely disregards my existence.  It’s annoying and it’s also dangerous. A quick round of “Fido!”, looks at me à click, treat solves this problem nicely and starts out our walk with a connection.

Turn Around when Pressure is Applied to the Leash
One of my biggest pet peeves is when I stop and the dog just keeps going.  It tends to be uncomfortable (if you have a large dog who pulls you over!) or at least indicates to me that while I might be walking with a dog, the dog is really just walking… I work almost immediately on stopping, waiting, and when the dog finally turns around to see what the heck is going on, clicking then treating.  It doesn’t take long for a little tension on the leash to cue a check-in.

Automatic Check-ins
I don’t actively cue the dogs to look up at me at intervals while walking, but I do like it. Just an acknowledgement that we’re both still together and that we’re “working” on a common goal: a good walk.  This usually arises through training the previous two behaviors.  As the dog starts to realize that I frequently reward for looking at me when cued (either by voice or leash tension), they start checking in on me if there is no cue.  At that point I’ll often offer them a cookie, or a little sweet talk, or an ear scratch- depending on the dog!

It really doesn’t matter much to me if a dog is a bit in front or a bit behind me.  I don’t mind if they stop and sniff and check out the world.  I just find it very difficult to walk with a dog that doesn’t seem to notice I’m on the other end of the leash.  These four behaviors have really emerged for me as the cornerstones of a good walk.  What about you? What behaviors do you like to get from your dog while walking? 

My Dog's Holiday Wish List - What Does Your Dog Want for Christmas?

Since I have three little kids at home and we celebrate Christmas, Santa has been a hot topic in our household.  My oldest wrote his first letter to Santa this year with his one great wish for Christmas (a guitar), but we've been brainstorming what other people and dogs in the house might want.  As such, I felt compelled to put myself in Beskow's shoes and think of what would make her wish list in 2014. Here is my best bet! 1. A permanently "on" Treat and Train. Have you seen these machines? They're magical.  According to Beskow they dispense treats for doing silly little things like running to her crate, staying quiet when the doorbell rings, or staying on her mat- all without a Human even having to be involved... (little does she know!)

2. A foobler that never ran out of new sections.  These sweet little toy has six sections that are timed to dispense every 15 minutes (or more) throughout the day.  Beskow thinks that it could be improved by having infinity sections, but she's not exactly an engineer. (We also carry these at The Pet Republic!)

3. Endless frozen kongs.  Just think of the frozen yogurt, pureed pumpkin, or chicken brother with it's bits and pieces of kibbles and cheez and treats- oh my!! Have you tried freezing your kongs? Here's a way I use mine. (These are also at our store- buy local!)

4. An unattended litterbox. Sigh. She IS a dog, after all. I just hope Santa denies her this one!

5. Pounds and pounds of Polkadog Cod Skins.  No explanation needed.  Here she is with our most recent box from our store:

6. A new kitten.  What can I say? She's a sap.  She has looooved the kittens we fostered and the one we adopted since getting her. So I would bet this would be on her list.


Happy Holidays from Dog Willing! What are you getting your lucky pup this year?!

Why Are Tricks Important for My Dog?

playful dog One of our newer offerings at Dog Willing has been our Tricks Class.  It's a more recent offering because it's harder to "sell" to people than our Basic Manners or Level 2 Manners classes.  Many people that get dogs now realize that they have to train their dog to have the companion that they envision and a roommate that they actually enjoy having around! However, what isn't immediately apparent to people is why those dogs should then move on to taking classes like agility, nose work, or tricks.  As an owner of two working breed dogs- I can attest both personally and professionally to the importance of these classes!

As city dwellers many of us have little time to take our dogs to a place where they can explore, sniff, and run around off of a leash.  Many of our clients don't have a yard for their dogs and many dogs don't enjoy the dog park.  Especially as the weather gets colder and the streets less walkable- what is your plan to keep your dog occupied and exercised? It's hard! Tricks (and the other higher level classes) are a great solution for this.  They work your dog's brain!

Think about it from your perspective- while many of us enjoy a day off, we also often spend it doing something that we find interesting- reading a book, rock climbing, hiking with friends, or going to the beach.  If you can't get out- do you get more fidgety if you just sit and at the wall or if you're actively engaging your mind in something? It's the same for our dogs- when their exercise regimens drop, their mental tasks need to increase to keep them happy and behaviorally sound.  Many dogs without this type of stimulation end up engaging in behaviors that we don't like such as barking, chewing, pacing, attention-getting behaviors, etc.  By taking a class and working on other skills, you can help avoid this boredom and these less desirable behaviors.

It also helps build your relationship. After basic manners is done, many people slide on their training, spend less time engaging with their dogs, and start to expect them to be more sedentary.  While this is all well and good, it also decreases the time we spend building our relationships with them- and isn't that why we got a dog? By teaching them tricks it engages us with them and also gives us a way to "show them off" to our friends and family - which always makes me proud of my dogs!!

So try it out! Chase away those winter blues- find a class (either with us or one of our other great local trainers on and engage your dog's mind! Trust me, it'll be fun!

Local super star puppy Shiba Inu Severus and his awesome tricks: Video Rooney the poodle doing some jumping in Agility: Video Coco the Dachsund, going shopping in Tricks Class with the cart: Video

Who’s the Client? Aren’t I a Dog Trainer?

Every week I meet new dogs.  Dogs come to me for the very basic reason that they are adjusting to a new home environment and need to learn some basic “living with humans” manners. Other dogs come to me because they have bitten people or are fighting with other dogs at home or on the street. Many, many dogs come to me because they are reactive on leash.  Each of these dogs is dealing with a stressor in their life and are behaving in the way that they have learned is most effective. Miranda.LeashBlog1

Every week I meet new people. People come to me because they are trying to figure out how to live with the new dog in their household who recently ate their iPhone, the universal remote, and three pairs of shoes before upending the trashcan all over the kitchen.  Or they are living with the stress of not knowing if the next time their dog bites someone they might get sued or (horrifyingly) they will have to make the call to euthanize their family dog.  Many, many people come to me because they are embarrassed and stressed out by their dog’s seemingly aggressive behavior on leash.

Obviously, I am a dog trainer, but let’s look at the breakdown.  If you come to me four times in eight weeks – one initial consult of 90 minutes, plus 3 follow-up one hour sessions – I will spend exactly 4.5 hours in the same room as your dog.  Much of this will be spent talking with you and figuring out an effective behavior plan.  I would guess that maybe 75% – so maybe 3.5 hours – will be spent with me and/or you engaging with your dog. How much time do you spend with your dog each week? Even if you work full-time, I would guess that you spend at least 2 hours around your dog in the morning, 4 hours with them each evening and let’s say 16 waking hours with them on the weekend: 46 hours. In one week.  Over 8 weeks, that’s 368 hours. Literally 100 times the number of hours I will spend with your dog in the same amount of time.

What would be the point of me spending our entire 4.5 hours training your dog? It wouldn’t transfer to the hours you spend with them.  Those 4.5 hours are my very small window, my time to train YOU to be a dog trainer.  You need to understand the principles of behavior that will most directly impact your training of your dog so you can make important decisions in the heat of the moment.  I need you to be coordinated in your dispensing of treats, your timing, and your leash handling.  And I need you to understand when management in terms of crates, muzzles, or leashes is necessary. In the end – I’m training you. I’m teaching you. I love your dog – I do! – but me working with them and leaving you with a vacuum of knowledge won’t serve you at all.  My job as a dog trainer and behavior analyst is to help you help your dog.

Why does this matter? Because at the end of a behavior consultation (or really, any training class) you should feel ready to go home and implement a behavior plan.  You should know why you’re doing what you’re doing; what the intended consequence is of your training; ad also what to look out for in terms of potential side effects. If you leave a session without this information, then your trainer or behavior consultant has not done their job.  So advocate for yourself and your dog- make sure you, as the client, have been served.

Because, in the end, you are the client.

Why Shouldn’t I Punish My Dog?

O and Beskow This is a question that many people ask – either of themselves or their trainer.  And it’s honestly a really good one.  Typically, when people approach me to help train their dog, they have already decided to try positive reinforcement for one reason or another.  Oftentimes someone recommended they try it; sometimes their vets suggest it; other times they’ve done some research themselves- but whatever the reason, they’ve often already chosen he type of training techniques they would be comfortable with using.  But what about the people that haven’t “decided”? They deserve a very clear answer on why trainers like me prefer to use positive reinforcement techniques when training dogs- especially when training aggressive, reactive, or strong dogs.

Terminology.  Terminology is boring.  It’s laden in jargon and tough to decipher.  That being said, it’s also important when deciding how to train your dog.  What is punishment? Punishment by definition means that if a behavior is followed by something aversive the likelihood of the same behavior occurring again is decreased.

Here’s a scenario:

A 6-month-old puppy jumps up on a person at the door.  The person says “NO!”.  The puppy jumps up five more times.

Question: Has that behavior been punished?

The answer is no.  It may not be something I would do, or would like to see other people do, but in reality, this is not “punishment training”.  The future frequency of the behavior did not decrease.  My guess is, the puppy didn’t care and may have even found the attention rewarding!


Here’s another scenario:

A 6-month-old puppy jumps up on a person at the door.  The person say “NO!” The puppy runs away and hides in the corner.

Question: Has that behavior been punished?

The answer is Yes.  The exact same scenario- but a different dog.  This dog found the “No!” to be aversive and the jumping behavior decreased.  This is the very definition of punishment.


Whether or not this is ethically correct or not is up to you.  From my perspective, given that there are ways to train a puppy not to jump without scaring them, I would classify it as unnecessary and therefore unethical.  Why scare a puppy?  At the same time, I do not think that the person who said no is a bad, dog-hating, person.  They just may not have the variety of training tools and knowledge to handle this behavior in a more elegant manner.  That’s what trainers are here for- to help you find better, more enjoyable ways to help your dog!

But, WHY? Isn’t saying “No!” and scaring the puppy effective? The answer is a definitive yes in the second scenario. I don't use aversives because I don't like scaring dogs, there are better ways, and there are very real side effects to punishment- not because it is ineffective. 

Punishment has several proven side effects.  I would argue that these side effects might very occasionally be worth it if we’re talking about a behavior that may kill a dog or make their life completely miserable, but for most dog behavior problems- up to and including dogs that bite people and other dogs- it is not the best, or even second best, option. Here are three of the main side effects:

Emotional and Aggressive Reactions:

Think of kids that tantrum when they’re told “no”; people that lash out when someone tries to pin them down; dogs that re-direct and bite their handler when they are poked or “corrected”.  This is the biggest reason I avoid punishment.  I don’t want a dog to aggress at their owner or someone in the vicinity due to a reaction to punishment. With a dog that gets yelled at every time someone walks through the door- how long until they decide that people walking through the door are scary and should be chased away?

Escape and Avoidance:

This is the puppy that ran away and hid in the corner.  What about the next time someone comes through door? Do you always want your dog to hide from newcomers? What about a dog that won’t return to their owner when called, because by the time they get there, the owner is always angry and annoyed.  Avoidance is real- and a really big problem with using these techniques.  I want my dogs to want to be near me- not fear that being near me might result in pain or distress.

Punishment reinforces the punisher

This is huge.  It’s also one of the reasons that it is so impressive when “traditional trainers” make the switch to training using more modern and less aversive techniques.  When you punish a behavior- the behavior decreases.  If your goal was to stop that puppy jumping- wow did it work!  Whether punishment works is NOT the question.  By it’s very definition it works.  The question is whether it’s the best way.  But we feel very powerful, very in control of the situation, and very clever when we manage to stop behaviors that we find annoying.  And if it worked in that situation, why not in another situation?  What if I say “No!” when my dog is barking? Is pulling on leash? Is aggressing?  When something effectively punishes the behavior of our dog, it is reinforcing to us.  This is so insidious and is exactly the reason why people that train with these techniques continue to do so.

Punishment is not right or wrong.  It is not good or bad.  It has no value judgment and it’s an important piece of learning.  We know to watch our feet when getting on an escalator because we tripped once and our inattention was punished.  We don’t pick glass bowls full of boiling water out of the microwave because we tried once and got burned.  Punishment is integral to learning in many, many ways.

Where I don’t believe it should be used (at least not without an extremely good reason, several concurring behaviorists, and a very solid plan) is in dog training.  Where it belongs the least is in basic manners courses or in dealing with fearful or aggressive dogs. Train people to be good, effective trainers, and they can enjoy their dogs and build that relationship instead of having to be in the situation of being their dog’s punisher.


Here are some good resources about punishment and why modern dog training has shifted away from punishment, dominance in training, and the use of aversives:

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's Position Statement on the Use of Punishment in Training

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals

Several blogs about punishment written by Patricia McConnell can be found here

Victoria Stillwell of It's Me or The Dog fame, weighs in here


New Baby in the Family


A couple of weeks ago we welcomed home our newest addition, Toby!  He's our third little boy and I'm sure will be all too quickly tailing his big brothers around the house.  Being a family with two cats, two dogs, a three-year-old boy, a two-year-old boy, and now a newborn definitely provides plenty of opportunities for my husband and I to practice our management skills!  As a family that has experienced bringing home newborns a couple of times in the last few years, made it a little different for us in terms of preparing our dogs for this latest change.  I now know that our dogs are fine with baby swings, baby chairs, diapers, music, white noise, crying infants, etc.  Most of the things that we worried about preparing them for in the first (and even to some degree with the second pregnancy) were not really concerns for us this time.  Some things, however don't change.

1. Furniture changes - even though Beskow and Kaylee have dealt with all of the infant furniture before, it was still a big change when we started bringing out the baby furniture and toys, so we made sure to do this well before the baby was due.  Our crib, changing table, and everything else were old news once again by the time Toby made his appearance.

2. Sleeping arrangements - as noted in my last post, the dogs (and cats) typically sleep on our bed.  With a newborn in the bedroom and us moving around at night, this was not an option anymore.  In the last couple of weeks before Toby was due, we started crating the dogs at night again.  This is something that they don't mind, but it was something they hadn't had to get used to since Felix was born two years ago.  The first couple of nights Kaylee whined a bit and when we got up during the night Beskow would perk up and decide she should wake up, too - but after that they settled right into the new routine. This meant that by the time the baby came, they were used to going up to bed in the crates and, just in case the crates were something they considered less desirable, they were in no way associated with the arrival of the baby.


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3. Refreshing training - there are some behaviors that I don't mind (my dogs jumping on me when I come home being one of them...) that aren't okay when we're carrying and caring for a newborn.  So in the last two months of my pregnancy, we refocused on the jumping on me at the door.  They're now past it (at least for now!) and I feel confident they will keep their feet on the floor when I'm coming in and out of the front door carrying or wearing a newborn. We also reviewed their drop its, leave its, go to bed, and "off" of the couch.  Since they have had good training in the past, this was pretty straight forward but a few treats thrown at behaviors tends to make them stronger again!

4. Lastly, space management.  Now, more than ever, we have to know where the dogs are all the time.  Our older two are not old enough to be trusted alone with them and our youngest can't be left out of sight with them. Our house has gates at the top and bottom of the stairs, crates in our bedroom (which has a door the kids can't quite open yet), and cribs for the kids.  There's a fair amount of coordination required, but we very much define our parenting of kids and dogs at this point by the Family Paws concept of Success Stations.  When the older kids are home the dogs are frequently gated upstairs or downstairs away from them.   This still leaves them lots of time with me during the day since I'm on maternity leave, and time with us in the evening after the kids are in bed, but during "flash points" in the day- breakfast, dinner, bedtime- we can keep everyone safe, happy, and in an environment that is as minimally stressful to them as possible.

My priority at this point is in preserving everyone's relationships until my boys are old enough to truly engage successfully with the dogs.  I love all five of them (and the two cats!) but at this point, so much of our life revolves around managing the dogs and kids successfully so that they can't accidentally hurt each other or make each others' lives more stressful.  Introducing another new baby adds an extra challenge, but also reminds me of how truly awesome my dogs are and how happy I am that my kids will have their early learning experiences in canine companionship with these two pups!

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Gratuitous baby picture.  Welcome, Toby!


Should I Let My Dog Sleep In My Bed?


Two nights ago, the dogs got banned from the bed.  It was through no fault of their own, nor from a misperception of some non-existent underlying hierarchy… it was for the simple reason that I don’t want them there anymore.  I’m five months pregnant and I wasn’t comfortable trying to squeeze around them.  This happened the last two times I had kids, too, and honestly, it’s never been a real issue.  So why the post?  Because consistently in sessions with new dog-parents, I get the question about whether their dog “can” or “should” sleep on their bed.  I tell them quite honestly that it is completely up to them.  If they like the doggy snuggles, then go for it; if it’s uncomfortable, then don’t.  But there are some things you can do to make bed sharing a little more manageable:

  1. Start AFTER your puppy is house trained.  An un-housetrained puppy should be contained in some way- a crate, an exercise pen, or a tether- at night to help them understand about “holding it”.
  2. Know that this is something you have control over.  If your dog is snarling at you for approaching your own bed; snapping when you ask them to get down; or in some other way making you feel threatened, then STOP. They don’t have to sleep on your bed- it should be a nice thing for everyone involved, not just your dog.
  3. Work on an “off” cue, so you can ask them to get down when need be and there’s no need to use physical force to move them.

Other than that, I pretty much leave it up to the owner.


That being said, once you’ve allowed (ahem.. in my case, encouraged… ) your dog to sleep on your bed for five years, know that asking them to sleep elsewhere may take a little convincing.  Wouldn’t it take some convincing for you to stop sleeping in your own bed? So what did I do?  Not that these are rules, but maybe you’ll find them handy.

  1. I decided on the day and I stuck with the plan.  The first night, Kaylee paced around the bed for about 15 minutes waiting to see if she would get invited up.  My husband and I ignored her.  Completely.  No attention for whining, no apologizing, no giving in.  Just like any other behavior change plan, consistency is king.
  2. CIMG3275I bought her a new bed… Yes, I’m a bit of a softie, but honestly, if I’m going to kick her out of “her” bed, then I better provide her with a good option. It just didn’t seem fair otherwise.  She took the bait.  After realizing there was no invite to our bed forthcoming, she headed over to her Snoozer Cozy Cave, crawled inside, and went to sleep.
  3. Remembering to kick her out at 2 am.  The first night went great, she didn’t even try to get back into our bed.  But the last couple of nights, she’s snuck back in around 2 am.  Even though it would be easy to just let her stay, we’ve been working on staying consistent about kicking her back out as soon as we realize she’s there.

Just because you decide to let your dog sleep in your bed, it doesn’t mean it’s forever.  Decide what YOU want- what works best for your family, and go from there.  For me, 90% of the time, it works to have my dogs in my bed, when it doesn’t we change it.  You can do the same! So, I guess my answer to Should I Let My Dogs Sleep In My Bed? is... Why not?

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Coming When Called: Tips for Training a Good Recall

One of the most common problems I get called in for is a dog not returning to their owner when called.  This problem can be anything from annoying, like when a dog won’t come in from the yard; to life-threatening, like when a dog slips out the front door.  This is probably the most important skill your dog can learn and one that is straight-forward to train, but also easy to mess up through inconsistency or inattention. Tip #1: Take a Basic Manners Class.


If you’ve never been to a class with your dog, this might be the time to try it.  Learning basic communication skills through training will help your dog in all areas of life and make your relationship with them more fulfilling.  It’s definitely a good place to start if you want to do any training, including a recall (another word for Coming When Called).

Tip #2: Feed the Crap Out of Your Dog.

Seriously.  This is not the time to be stingy.  It’s not the time to train with kibble.  Go to the store, buy weird, freeze-dried dead animal parts, cheese, hotdogs, and delicious sandwich meat and give it to your dog when they come to you- every time.  Think about what you’re up against- your dog might be choosing between you and a squirrel- do you really think they’re going to choose kibble?  This is exactly the behavior that it’s worth investing calories in, and at least initially, feed them every single time you call them when you’re outside.

Tip #3: Stay at the Park.

After you call your dog and feed the crap out of them, let them go play again!  Many people have wrecked a perfectly well trained recall by using it to remove their dog from the park.  It doesn’t take very long for a dog to realize that coming to you means the end of playtime.  Call them lots, feed them lots, and then let them go play some more.  When it’s time to go, go get your dog and put them on leash.  Don’t ruin all your hard work.

Tip #4: Distance, Duration, and Distraction

Be aware of your training environment.  There are times when even the best-trained dog will fail to recall due to legitimate challenges in their environment.  When starting this with your dog, a short distance in a non-distracting environment will serve you best.  Gradually work up to being outside (on a long leash), in a fenced area, and eventually at the park or in the woods.  Just don’t expect your dog to be able to come away from the middle of a rambunctious play session the day after you start training.  It takes time to build up to that- in the meantime work where you know your dog can be successful.

Tip #5: Refresh and Rebuild.

Sometimes when we have lived with a dog for a while, it’s easy to stop carrying food, stop reinforcing these good behaviors, and just start expecting them to do what we want because they “know”.  I’ve been guilty of this and I bet most trainers have.  The fact is, that even if a dog has learned a behavior in the past, if you stop reinforcing it, and the squirrels keep running away- the dog is going to start choosing the squirrels.  So when you feel your recall slipping, go back to basics and Feed the Crap Out of Your Dog.  Many training centers (including Dog Willing) offer Reliable Recall clinics- just a class or two to focus on this particular aspect of training- to brush up on it and rebuild that training relationship with your dog.


A good recall isn’t rocket science, but like any good training it takes time and commitment.  Good luck and Happy Training! (Now go buy some freeze-dried liver for that lucky dog of yours…)


The Best Feeling in the World is having two dogs turn on a dime in the woods to race back to you.

Dog Training Done Right: When Owners Should Be the Ones Getting the Treats

In this post, I just want to share a fabulous story about some clients who showed absolute commitment to helping their dog.  Although I give my clients guidance and suggestions, it is up to them to do the work to help their dogs, day in and day out.  Clients like the ones in this story show just how much that commitment can pay off.  

The Beastie Herself!

Three weeks ago, I walked into a house to find a crated dog in the bedroom, screaming its head off because I dared to pass through the front door. A stranger!  Danger! Danger!  As stressed as the dog was, I was pleased that the client apparently understood that having the dog out of the crate at that moment would be dangerous- both to me and to the dog’s mental health!

After I was seated on the couch, treat pouch at the ready, the client put the dog on leash and brought her into the living room, keeping her at a safe distance.  As the dog barked, lunged, and generally carried on, I started tossing treats in her direction.  As it turned out, the dog was exactly as food-motivated as I had been promised, and her attention was quickly diverted.  Within minutes, I could start tossing the treats to her for looking at me without barking.  Shortly thereafter, I transitioned the treating responsibilities to Mom, to take any pressure off the dog to interact with me.

The session was not easy and not quiet.  The dog did settle down and work for Mom and dealt with me being there, but it was an uneasy truce. As long as I stayed still, all was well.  As soon as I moved, the dog got very concerned and we returned to working with her on tolerating my movements.  Every time I moved, she got a click for noticing me, and a treat tossed in the opposite direction.  Every time.  For the whole two hours.  And she was still annoyed with me at the end!  However, we did manage her reactions well enough that we had enough time to clarify the owners’ goals and set up a plan to get visitors safely into their house. Today, I got to go back for my second visit.  And holy cow! What a change!! The owners had clearly worked extensively with the door.  When I arrived, the dog was able to meet me at the door, as treats fell around her and were tossed away from the door, and only one muffled bark made it through her lips the whole time.  At the previous visit, every piece of the “door opening” scenario was a trigger- the door knob turning, the door opening a crack, a person being on the other side, a foot coming through the entryway- you name it and it was a trigger.  This time, everyone involved was cool as a cucumber.

As I entered the house and moved around, treats rained down out of Mom’s hands.  The dog checked in on me a couple of times, but always with polite interest, and each time turned back to Mom to look for treats.  We got right to work.

At the previous visit, I had suggested a Treat and Train (an automatic, remote-controlled treat dispenser) for this dog. They had purchased one, found batteries, and had it ready to go.  We could move right into working with it and focusing on how it could be used to help the dog settle when people were in the house.

We had started “go to your bed” training, and the dog could already target the spread-out towel we were using and lie right down, so we were able to move on to the next step of building a duration of staying on the bed and then combine this with the Treat and Train.

Due to a mild (but persistent) bite history, we had discussed muzzle training.  The owners had purchased a correctly-sized muzzle and had worked on presenting it to the dog along with food, so the dog had a positive association with it.  We could move onto having her put her nose inside for a click/treat.

Every little thing we had covered three weeks earlier, the owners had trained reliably.  Every tool I had suggested to make this progress faster, to approach their goal of having visitors for the holidays, they had purchased.  Consequently, during this second lesson, I could work with their dog, move freely around the room, help them extend their training to the next level, and truly help them meet the goals that were important to them.

The biggest change of all was in the dog.  In the first session, she was extremely stressed and on high alert the entire time I was there.  This time, she was relaxed- loose body, offering downs, mouth open in a happy grin- the whole package.  She was a happy, happy dog.

It was an amazing session, and I feel lucky to work with clients like this.  These clients understand what it really takes to make behavior change happen.  Can I help you with your “crazy” dog? The answer is always, “It depends.”  Do you have the time, energy, and commitment to make that change happen?  It isn’t always easy, but if you really want to make that change, the science of behavior will be there for you.


I love my job and it is the many, many people I work with who are so committed to their dogs that make it worthwhile. Many, many click/treats to these owners for doing what needed to be done to make an important change in one dog’s life!

Tortoises, Polar Bears, Seals, and Gorillas!

This weekend I am at the Applied Behavior Analysis International conference in Minneapolis.  It's an enormous gathering of about 5,000 behavior analysts from all over the country and the world.  Besides allowing us to all geek out over behavior analysis, it also is a great opportunity to expand our knowledge and remember principles and concepts we haven't thought about since grad school.  The highlight of this conference for me (so far, and I don't really see how it could be trumped) was a visit to Como Zoo in St. Paul.  Our group of ten or so was lead by Christy Alligood from Animal Kingdom at Disney and Allison Jungheim the Senior Keeper/Training Coordinator at Como Zoo.  It was fabulous!! We had a private harbor seal show, got to see them training the polar bears (wow they are ENORMOUS up close!), tortoises targeting a ball and being weighed, and the gorillas' new enclosure and training session. Some things I learned:

  • Polar Bears love eating seal meat but will train for lard sticks as a substitute.  They also apparently go bananas for twinkies so these are used very rarely as jackpots for recalls.  They can also fake being knocked out by a tranquilizer dart- so be very, very careful.  Smart bears.
  • Tortoises can learn to target a stick and follow it around their enclosure.  At least some of them really enjoy rub downs.  Seriously.  Their shells have nerve endings and when the zoo keeper rubbed the shell of one of them, she stopped eating, and raised up as high as she could to get pets under her belly and neck as well. To me, it looked just like a cat arching it's back when being scratched.
  • That gorillas will knock on the glass of their enclosure for the reaction and that the males can get pretty beat up by the dominant male gorillas even when they're still young. :/. On the other hand he was totally digging checking us out as much as we were enjoying seeing him. Very cool stuff.
  • That seals and sea lions are called pinnipeds - so I don't have to keep on remembering if they are harbor seals on sea lions and embarrassing myself by getting it wrong... Also, they are one of the few animals at the zoo that the zoo keepers can train without a barrier.

All-in-all, it was a truly fabulous day.  When I get hoe I will post some videos and photos of the animals- I hope you enjoy them! I certainly did.


Living - and Moving - with a Reactive Dog

Beskow with KongOne of the benefits to me as a trainer, that helps me really empathize with many of my clients, is that have an insane dog.  She’s completely and utterly bonkers, but also loving, cuddly, and smart as a whip. Along with her general anxiety about everything the world has to offer, Beskow is especially concerned about other dogs.  Big dogs, little dogs, black dogs, white dogs, barky dogs, quiet dogs, staring dogs, ignoring-her-dogs… it really doesn’t matter.  If it’s a dog, it needs to be told to take a hike. Four years ago, about six months after I rescued her, we got to the point where the jingle of a collar around a corner, 50 feet away was enough to set off a complete fit of lunging, barking, screaming, hackling, etc… The sight of a dog 100 yards in the distance had the same effect.  Getting to where we are now- where she can walk down the streets with me, with a child on my back, another in a stroller, and two dogs on leash in one hand, has been quite a training challenge, but it has worked.  Most people don’t realize how crazy she is, which is a point of pride for me, but I still know that even though we have changed her behaviors, she’s still my little “crazy-on-the-inside” dog. Why do I bring this up now?  Because we’re moving.  Suddenly, all kinds of behaviors I haven’t seen in ages are really starting to crop up.  This week we moved out of our apartment for a week so it could be shown and are living in my parent’s apartment on Beacon Hill.  On the fifth floor.  Of a dog-friendly building.  This is not a good situation for poor old Beskow.

On top of the fact that dogs are EVERYWHERE on Beacon Hill and we don’t have comfortable walking routes, her whole world has been turned upside down.  She has to pee and poop in a new place with new smells and new sounds.  Her crate is the same but in a new place.  She has to ride an elevator (if I don’t feel like braving the stairs), and there are all these new people that want to meet her.  While she has never had an issue with elevators, people, or being in her crate, all of this newness has built up a level of anxiety in her that has made the dog issue really resurface for the first time in years.


While I sit here thinking about it, I guess we have only had a few full-on reactions in the last few days, but given the absence of them for the last couple of years they have really sent me for a loop.  Like many of you who I work with to help your reactive dogs, every instance is embarrassing, heart breaking, and makes it feel like I have wasted my time on training her.  Yes, even I, who teach all this information and training, love it to bits, and have seen first hand over and over how successful it is… even I get filled with all the same doubts and heartache now as I did four years ago when Beskow and I were first starting our journey.

Four days in, we’re doing much better.  After the first day, I knocked some sense into myself and started being diligent with my clicker – to help Beskow deal with this new and very stressful situation.  And today, when the pack of six dogs with a dog walker jingled up the street earlier and starting barking at her, Beskow did a fabulous job looking at them and working with me without anything more than a whine.  It was really good to see it.  Setbacks happen, but training works.  Recognizing this as an issue with generalizing her behavior to this new setting helped me understand how to help her and that’s what this type of training is all about.  It’s understanding your dog and knowing how to work with them when things do slip up.  We’re now eight hours into today, two long walks in, and no reaction.  It’s been a good day; I think we both get a smiley face on the chart, so far.  And sometimes, that’s what I have to refocus on when my little “crazy-on-the-inside” dog decides to let some of it show again.


TagTeaching: Yes, I Do Train My Son. And, ClickerExpo.

BlogPost23.TagTeaching.RollerBoard.KayleeSettled Last week I went to ClickerExpo in Stamford, Connecticut.  It was amazing- 450 dog trainers, horse trainers, exotic animal trainers, teachers, and pet owners- all so invested in positive training techniques that they wanted to spend three days locked up in a Connecticut hotel together.  Kaylee came with me and far surpassed my expectations in terms of behavior.  She settled beautifully during the lectures, enjoyed the labs (until she was too tired on day three and decided to nap instead), and played with her friend Esme in our hotel room.  She walked past full tables loaded with the lunch buffet, and on the last day even joined our table at lunch and stayed wonderfully settled on her mat.  She was friendly, but didn’t jump on people walking past, and was really just perfectly awesome.  Having a fully grown trained dog is such a treat!


I took many, many ideas from ClickerExpo and I’m am excited to spend the next couple of months exploring them on this blog; but for today I’m going to deviate from my typical “dog training” topic into the realm of “child training” or “teaching” as it is typically referred to!  In my previous life (really, up until December) I taught children with dyslexia how to read and write using the Orton-Gillingham method.  As I moved through my Masters program in Applied Behavior Analysis I came to realize that the reason that method is so successful is that it really is based on sound behavioral methodology.  During that time I also learned about TagTeaching- essentially, using applied behavior analysis in the form of clicker training to teach people.  I applied some TagTeaching to my work with students but never really had an opportunity to explore where it could go in optimizing my tutoring sessions.  However, now I also have my own children and am constantly considering the principles and methods of behaviorism when raising them. ClickerExpo reinvigorated my interest in TagTeaching and then today I had the perfect opportunity to apply it.

My 2-year-old son, Oliver, is a very cautious toddler.  He explores new experiences but doesn’t like to take risks.  Recently I’ve been trying to get him to use the “roller board” on the back of the stroller so that he can mostly walk, but hop on and take a ride if he gets tired.  He wasn’t having any of it. So, today, after a whole weekend of thinking like a trainer, I decided that it made the most sense to “shape” the behavior of riding on the roller board.  Shaping is a way of teaching where you reinforce closer and closer approximations to the sought-after behavior.


In this case, the terminal behavior was stepping onto the roller board, holding onto the stroller, and staying on for a reasonable duration of time.  (Reasonable is a bit undefined, but it changes depending on where we are going.) I used freeze-dried blueberries as the reinforcer as they are currently a hot favorite in our house.  I didn't use a clicker in this instance, but he received a verbal marker (good job! or other variations) and a blueberry while still in position immediately after performing to criteria.  This is what I reinforced:

  1. Putting one foot on the stationary board. (His dad modeled this twice and was given a blueberry each time, that was the last piece that was modeled.)
  2. Putting two feet on the stationary board.
  3. Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the stationary board for 5 seconds.
  4. Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the board while moving for 5 seconds.
  5. Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the board while moving for 10 seconds.
  6. Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the board while moving for 15 seconds.
  7. Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the board while moving for one entire city block.

And it worked!  With no more than 1 or maybe 2 blueberries at each stage and with never having to “put” Oliver on the board (he kept asking to get back up when he finished his blueberries), we successfully shaped the behavior.  We finished steps 1-7 by the time we got to Starbucks (10 minutes away), and he rode all the way home on the board afterwards.  In the interest of full disclosure, he did get a lollipop from the barber that he sucked on all the way home, which may have also helped keep him there. But, isn’t shaping fabulous?


Many people are uncomfortable with reinforcing their children with food, but really- what were my alternatives here? As I see it, I could have done these:

  1. Held him on the board until he “got used to it”
  2. Waited six months until he understood the “rule” about standing on the board.
  3. Given up.

Wasn’t shaping it using a handful of dried fruit a better option?  My relationship with my son is healthy and happy; Oliver played a fun game and got to eat something he loves (and is even healthy!); and rather than six months of pushing around an extra stroller seat, we now have a functional option to walking.  Hurray!

So no, this is not a parenting blog or a teaching blog- but it is a blog about behavior and that extends well beyond dogs.  It impacts every relationship in our lives and everything we want to teach to any organism- be it child, dog, or goldfish.  As such, I just wanted to share how I use applied behavior analysis in my day-to-day life to make it easier, less confrontational, and more positive.


How Do You Knock Your Dog's Socks Off?

IMG_2778 What does your dog want to do?  What makes him or her happy? What makes them dangle their tongue out in joyful, doggy bliss?

Not every dog is born to enjoy the same textbook puppy pleasures. For some dogs, a romp at the dog park is the best thing ever; for others, a stroll around the block really does knock their socks off; and for many, many puppies out there, destroying all the material goods their owner values most is what they love best.  However, for other dogs, a romp at the dog park is terrifying and unsettling, a stroll around the block wouldn’t do a thing for them, and they think that anything without food inside isn’t worth the time it would take to gnaw on. It sometimes takes time to get to know your dog and what they really enjoy.  When you do figure it out, it might not be your first choice, but occasionally going the extra mile for them can be very fulfilling.

This could be a blog about how to reinforce your dog based on what you know about his or her favorite activities.  That’s a tremendously important topic, but not exactly what I want to talk about.  It could also be about how to reduce puppy chewing behaviors, but that’s also not what I wanted to write about.  What I really wanted to blog about was- what do you do, that may not be your first choice, just because it makes your dog so insanely happy?

Here are four activities I find myself engaged in, that so frequently make me ask why, why am I doing this for that lazy, drool-y bag of bones that sleeps in the middle of my bed and leaves dog hair all over the couch?


  1. Going out to the woods at 6am on Saturdays in either cold or rainy weather.  Yup.  My dogs LOVE the woods, but one of them cannot be trusted off leash around other dogs.  So we go at exactly the time no one else will be there, which just happens to be a time I would much rather be in my nice, warm bed.
  2. Stuffing Kongs.  Cramming little rubber toys full of slimy, greasy, stinky mess is just not my cup of tea.  Once they are frozen though, they buy me such calm and happy dogs that it is totally worth it. A little slice of doggy heaven.
  3. Touching the weirdest, freeze-dried parts of animals.  Bully sticks, cow trachea, turkey hearts, you name it.  If you wouldn’t touch it un-freeze-dried, and would probably never eat it- I get to handle it and give it to my dogs.  Marrow bones would also fall into this category.  Chicken breast is good, but it is just way to normal to really wow my four-legged friends.
  4. Buying squeaky toys for the sole purpose of allowing my dog to pop the squeaker and remove the fluff within five minutes of walking in the door. Seriously.  This is what she loves most about toys. So rather than get upset at the destruction of expensive toys, I buy her the squeaky toys that are on sale after the holidays.  At $1 a pop, it’s easy to stock up on them and be able to offer my pup many moments of blissful destruction.


Oftentimes, living with a different species can be frustrating. Even more frequently, it can be very, very rewarding.  But I think people often expect their dog to be a “typical dog” that most wants to play fetch, go to the dog park, and sit on the couch watching TV while politely chewing on a Nylabone.  And while those may be things your dog does enjoy- they are also things that we want them to enjoy.

What do you do that is just for your dog?  Just to make their particular little heads explode a bit in joy? And how good do you feel after you have made them so happy?


The Kong: Your Dog Toy Gateway to Holiday Happiness

The mighty Kong is a dog toy that is nearly as ubiquitous as dog leashes- they seem to be in every pet store I've ever been into- and for good reason!  This red (usually), hollow, rubber dog toy is a dog-owner's best friend. I use Kongs frequently with my own dogs and recommend them to all my clients.  I'm not affiliated with them, nor have I been paid anything to write this, but I believe the Kong is something that every dog owner should own.  The Kong is a valuable distraction, brain-drain, and toy for your dog; but it is also the easiest way to reinforce your dog for quiet good behavior.  As they lie in their crates or on their dog beds lick-lick-licking away at this doggy-popsicle, they are learning that lying quietly on their bed gives them access to all the goodness that you stuffed inside their Kong.  Talk about the ultimate lazy dog trainer's tool!  Stuff a Kong, freeze it, crate your dog, and voilà- your dog is training themselves to be well-behaved! There are many other self-feeding toys (like this) on the market and I encourage you to find the one that works best for you and your dog, but this does tend to be a good bet and you can buy them anywhere. The Kong website has loads of information about what you can stuff in a Kong.  I don't really care for their branded Kong filling (neither do my dogs) and many of the recipes seem a bit complicated, but there are some really good ones on there.

In general, my favorite easy recipe is: dog kibble + plain non-fat yogurt + a few liver treats.  Mix it all together and dump in a Kong!  My dogs LOVE this one.  I'll also mix kibble in with a can of pureed pumpkin (zero calories!) or just mush it up with some water or wet dog food.  If I'm feeling lazy, they still sometimes get just canned dog food or some peanut butter; and occasionally to challenge them I'll stick a whole carrot through the hole before freezing.  I find that it's best not to overcomplicate things (because that way you have the materials on hand), and to use this in place of meals so that your dog doesn't get too many calories.  I typically freeze all of our Kongs to make them harder for the dogs to empty, but if your dog is new to Kongs be sure to start them out with something nice and easy- peanut butter, canned cat food, cream cheese- and don't freeze it.  Once they're Kong-addicts, you can start stuffing them full and freezing them.

I know that part of my preparations for the holiday is a freezer full of frozen Kongs and it definitely makes our time with lots of visitors that much merrier! How do you prepare?

Running with Dogs

Last year, after my first son was born, I was looking for some way to get back in shape and picked up running for the first time in my life.  I had recently found barefoot shoes and they made it possible for me to jog without shin pain.  This was the best thing ever.  Not only did it get me back in shape, it also gave me half an hour three mornings per week exercising with my dogs. I was doing the Couch to 5K, and only made it to week 7 before giving up because I was pregnant with my second son, born this April.  But, when he was 3 months old, I picked it up again and have managed to keep going!

So now, I’ve done it- I’ve completed my first 5K and am signed up for my second one (the Yulefest 5K in Cambridge) and couldn’t be happier about feeling so fit.  But really, what has kept me going is how good I feel when my dogs have been exercised properly! Living in a small apartment in the city with two kids under two years old and two dogs leaves us with a huge need to exercise them or face the consequences.  There’s no yard and Beskow can’t go to the dog park or be off leash when there may be other dogs around and just walks weren’t cutting it for her exercise needs.  Now she runs about 20-30 kilometers per week between me, my husband, and my sister running with her.  This has been a huge benefit to her mental well-being.

My other dog, Kaylee, tends to pudge up a bit when I’m pregnant.  I don’t know whether it’s the beagle part of her, but even on a relatively small amount of food, if she doesn’t get enough exercise, she manages to pack on the pounds.  Since we started running, she has dropped 5 lbs – going from 32 to 27--- that’s 15% of her body weight.  Not too shabby!  This has been such a huge health benefit for her and her speed on the agility course has improved, too.

Besides the mental and physical benefits, I think there’s just something to be said for spending time with my dogs- enjoying their physical prowess, their ability to run next to me, and the pride I feel when I’m running through busy Cambridge with my two dogs ignoring pedestrians, traffic, bikes, and waiting patiently at traffic lights.  It really is quite the experience, and is now, quite definitely, my favorite form of exercise!

When it comes to fitting dog training into your life, this may not be the easy way to go- your dog already needs to know how to heel if they are going to run with you safely- however, in terms of fitting your dog's physical needs into the day, it does seem to be a really good use of time.  It means that your work out and your dog's exercise all take up the same time block.  Especially as a mom to small kids, I love that- I can get it all done before my husband leaves for work so no babysitting necessary. I would recommend:

1. Starting slowly.  Your dog needs to learn how to jog, too! Starting a dog that has never run on leash at your pace before requires some thoughtfulness; probably don't run 5K the very first time you go out.

2. Bring treats. Even with my dogs, I'll give them a treat every so often for maintaining a heel at jogging pace.  My beagle-mix, Kaylee, did not generalize her heeling skills to jogging very well and took a little extra training.

3. Plan on a variable pace.  Your dog may still have to pee or poop.  They may still need a sniff break at a really good tree.  Remember that you can pause Endomondo (or not), and that your record times probably won't happen when you have your dogs with you.  That's okay! It's not about just you, it's about them, too.

4. Teach your dog "right" and "left".  This is a very handy skill to have when running so that you can turn more easily at street corners without losing your pace by tripping over your dog...

I'm sure there are lots of people out there with many more tips, but I think that's probably what I have to share at the moment.  Have fun, keep fit, and enjoy your time with your pooches!