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I was asked by someone the other day, "What kind of signals do you prefer when giving a command- verbal, or visual?"

It was a great question. The short answer is: both, but visual I think is easier for the dog. People are very verbal with their dogs. You hear it all the time- maybe with yourself. "Sit, Fido, Sit. Sit. Sit! Sit Down!" We're verbal with each other, as well- verbal communication makes up a large part of how we transfer information from one to another (the deaf population and the written word being two large and important exceptions).

Dogs, on the other hand, are very visual. Most of their communication is done through body language, which is visual in nature. That is why you can talk to your dog until you're blue in the face sometimes, but once you stand in a particular way, your dog starts listening to you! Chances are, if this is you, that your dog is looking to you for cues from your body language, not your words. Try this sometime: Videotape yourself and memorize your body language when you give a simple cue your dog knows and listens to- Sit or Down being likely candidates. Then, move in that same way, but tell your dog a nonsense word: "Oogabooga," for instance. Chances are your dog will respond as if you had given your actual command- as long as your body language is consistent enough for your dog to have picked up on it.

This is why many times when someone comes to me and their dog knows a command but is not following it, I look at their body language. If they can consistently give one body language signal for each command (and it could be subtle, if you want- show dogs are often trained with subtle signals), many times their dog starts obeying like magic (so long as there isn't a motivation issue). Body language also frees you up to communicate to other humans at the same time- such as if you are on the phone. Give a signal (often this is a hand signal) and pair it with the verbal signal until you can simply give the hand signal and your dog obeys. Or better yet, if you haven't yet trained the command, give the hand signal first or right with the verbal cue while introducing the command to your dog!

Be aware of your body language, and have fun speaking Dog!


Going Slow

I want to share a short story about a friend of mine. This family owns a wonderful dog who, like many other dogs, did not get out as much as he used to in the winter (and certainly not much on concrete). Since the weather turned so wonderfully nice lately, they decided to make up for lost time and one of the family members took the dog with her on a long walk. Afterwards, they noticed bloody spots on their flooring and upon further inspection it was clear that the dog had worn right through his paw pads on both of his back feet. That well-intentioned long walk was too much too quickly for the dog!

Similarly, I have clients occasionally who want quick changes in their dogs in short time periods. Oftentimes, the problem behavior is pullng or jumping up. Expecting the dog to go from puppyish, bad manners to a perfect dog who never makes a mistake in a couple weeks is simply expecting too much. The dog is not a robot- you can't simply reprogram him, just like the poor dog in the example above could not reprogram his feet to make them tougher. I usually find that the root cause for unwanted jumping and pulling, especially if the owner has previously tried (and failed) to correct it is poor impulse control. To build up impulse control is a slow and steady thing. By all means, expect to see results. But don't expect them to be all at once. By all means, take your pooch for a walk. But gradually increase the distance and time of the walk so you dont inadvertently hurt your dog. 

The parallels here were just too much to ignore. I hope it's a good reminder for you, as it is for me!



Many things can motivate us, and likewise, many things can motivate our pets. Both sides of the relationship are important in training. If the animal is not motivated, no behavior modification plan will be successful. If the owner is not motivated, the training will not stick- it will either be abandoned prematurely before the learning has a chance to take hold, or it will be forgotten after training is 'over' and the behavior will slowly revert back to its original state. This is why I place so much emphasis on the owner side of the relationship- not because I am dismissing the importance of the pet's motivation, but because if the training is going to last, the onus is on the owner.

Cats are widely considered to be untrainable. In fact, they are very easy to train. What is hard for many people is to find a way to motivate their cat. Your cat may not be motivated by food, or perhaps he is motivated by a different kind of food than what you are offering. My cat Friendly likes cheese best, while my cat Zuggy prefers cat treats (any flavor will do, as long as it is moist). Neither of my cats enjoys dry cat treats, so I simply do not offer them as a reward. And what about play? Many young cats love to play, and play can be offered as a reward for desired behavior just as it can in dogs. How about physical affection? Most cats enjoy the tops of their heads down to the base of their tails to be rubbed. This is where their scent glands are, and cats find great satisfaction in getting their scent all over you (and the rest of your home). However, very few cats enjoy harsh rubbing or patting- these things will likely serve only to motivate your cat to get out of there!

Dogs, likewise, will work for food, play, and physical affection. Different dogs desire differ kinds of food, play, and affection, however, so it is important to know your dog. Boo loves the old chest rub and rib slapping- it gears her up and makes her so goofy happy. Lenny hates that sort of thing. He prefers gentle stroking of his face and ears or scratching of his chest. You also want to pay attention to the behavior you want out of your dog. If I am praising Boo for remaining in a stay and do not want her to break that stay, by no means am I going to gear her up! That would only get her to break and would be unfair. Instead, soothing, gentle strokes and crooning low praise lets hr know that I am pleased with what she is doing, and helps her to continue that stay.

Dogs will of course also work to avoid physical discomfort or pain, but I am of the mind that you might as well try the above first if at all possible. But this last sort of motivation is the idea behind training collars, prongs, and e-collars. It is also the idea behind pressure- gentle, steady, consistent pressure will motivate the dog to move away from said pressure without causing pain or undue discomfort. It takes practice at first, but once the dog has been taught with pressure, you can use it to communicate with your dog without the senses of hearing or sight. Lenny was taught with pressure, and he will now down almost immediately with the lightest of pressure downward on his collar (just one finger will do nicely) or sit with light pressure upward on his collar. It is a very helpful tool to use to remind him of commands when he has lost his brain.

Owners need to stay motivated themselves during the training process. That is why in some cases I will recommend keeping a log so that you can see gradual progress in your dog's behavior. This is why I spend a lot of time and energy making sure my clients are comfortable with the training and feel like they can handle it. This is also why all of my clients have unlimited access to me for questions via phone or email while in training and afterward. Having a lifeline (in this case me) and social support can often help motivate people through tough times in training, and these tough times will come up now and again! With tough or embarrassing behavior problems, owner motivation becomes critical, and thus motivation and support are central to my Feisty Fido classes. Knowledge is a great motivator, I have found, and so I find myself an educator to my clients. When I leave, I want you to feel comfortable that you can follow your training plan just as I would, and therefore receive the same results.

Keep an eye on motivation in your home for the next week or so: things that motivate you and things that motivate other members of your household. You may be surprised at what you discover! 


Thinking Dog

Sometimes, even I forget that my dogs are dogs. I'm human after all. I make mistakes. Yesterday, Boo reminded me of this fact.
I had just gotten home with my infant, who was sleeping. It was his first real nap all day, and he desperately needed it. Boo was whining, which wasn't surprising since she has separation anxiety, and in fact her whining wasn't all that bad. I settled my infant in his swing so I could monitor him, and then let the dogs out of confinement. They are generally confined in the basement when the family is away, more out of habit than anything else. They raced out of the basement with all the enthusiasm of a dog reuniting with a pack member after an absence. After all, they are dogs!

I told them to Settle, but they were extremely excited, and the stress in my voice only made them want to appease me- and therefore, go through more elaborate greeting rituals! All in all, as I'm sure you can guess, they woke up my infant. I'm ashamed to say that I, being stressed out, compounded my mistake by scolding them. My poor dogs were very confused! They slunk into the office behind me, keeping their distance from me, as I was confusing them and was obviously mad at them. I gave myself a chance to cool off, and then realized my mistakes.

1) Not letting them outside right away to burn off their excitement, and greeting them out there.
2) Doing some calming petting away from my baby, satisfying their greeting ritual and also communicating what I wanted in a way that they could understand more than just the Settle command- that is, helping them to perform the command.
3) Keeping myself calm and unstressed- the very fact that I was stressed out that the dogs would wake up the baby in fact caused the dogs to behave in such a way that they inadvertently woke up the baby.
4) Scolding the dogs for simply doing what I had set them up to do- fail.

Well, once I realized my mistake, about ten minutes later, boy was I embarrassed and ashamed of myself! So I and the dogs made up, which decreased their social stress and made everything right in their world. Dogs are pack animals. They are not "programmed" for us to leave them as much as we do, and when a pack comes back together, you see lots of greeting rituals that serve to strengthen the bond between pack members. Dogs cannot think human and therefore change their behavior to fit our social structure of their own accord. So we need to begin thinking dog. It's very important that when you and your dog are at odds, that you make up to your dog afterward. Lots of calming petting and soothing words from you will help strengthen the bond between you two, and put the world to right for your dog. If you have a chance to observe packs of dogs, you will see that when two dogs have a disagreement, there is an appeasement ritual that repairs their bond. You need to let your dog go through this with you, because they won't understand why you won't let them make up. If we are indeed the smarter organisms, we should begin acting like it and using some of our brain power to Think Dog. 



Happy National Train Your Dog Month!

January is the APDT's National Train Your Dog Month. It's a great idea- a push to motivate people to train their dogs. Inlcuded in their website are some good tips as well as ideas to promote training. I maintain that a well-trained dog has many more opportunities to enjoy the world with their owners than a dog who is not well trained. There is no need to "break your dog's spirit", and in fact you shouldn't! But fear of breaking your dog's spirit is no reason to fail to train your dog. Training should be enjoyable for both the dog and the owner. It's meant to increase communication and trust. In the best of cases and especially for working dogs, it should build a bond of cooperation.

My Boo is more than simply my dog. She's one of my closest friends. She makes me laugh, she snuggles with me when I feel down, she works hard for me, and she plays hard with me. She is my partner in Paw In Hand. I joke that we girls have to stick together, as there are only two of us in a household of 6 males. There are a lot of things I couldn't teach as effectively without her help. She is the dog I always wanted as a child- a dog that would transcend pet status to true friendship. I work hard to repay her for her love and help and partnership.

And yet, I tell people regularly that Boo is not special, except to her family (she is more precious than gold to us). She has humble beginnings- she was just an unwanted farm puppy when we picked her up. She was second to last of her litter- everyone else except her and one other were taken when we came. She has no prestigious breeding or involved puppy raising- simply an unplanned litter on a farm where her mom's owners did their best to keep the puppies from getting into a farm-related accident. She wasn't even pick of the litter! She was a free, dirty farm puppy who needed all her shots and all her training and who threw up everywhere on the ride home, and then spent the next couple days whining incessantly. I have enjoyed training her immensely, and she loves it too. Learning something new is one of her favorite things in the world. This is why I tell people that any dog can be a Boo, with a little training and a lot of love and companionship. By this I mean to say that while no dog will ever be precisely like Boo, any dog can learn to do the things she does and be as valued members of the family as she is. Can you believe I have been offered thousands of dollars for this mutt? (She is not for sale at any price, by the way.)

I hope you take Boo's story as inspiration. Get out there and connect with your dog. Train them, love on them, and teach them the skills they need to be the companion of your dreams, your dream dog. They will love it!

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