Ruff Love Part 3: Are You Trustworthy, Or More Like Godzilla?

First, two quick announcements. Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Karen London, PhD, has just reviewed Puppy Savvy for The Bark magazine. And, as if that weren’t exciting enough, today’s blog post comes with mindblowingly life-like sketches by yours truly. 

No one wants to seem like Godzilla to a dog. I mean, the smell alone of that monster breath is hardly what a dog lover would aspire to replicate. And yet, even when we want to seem most trustworthy to a dog, we sometimes do a mean impersonation of that giant, havoc-wreaking creature. The previous Ruff Love segments advised how to interact with a dog using the new understanding of what dogs need in order to feel at ease with humans. To recap: it doesn’t matter if you love dogs or think all dogs love you. Showing respect and kindness means asking permission of the dog (not only his person) before making a physical connection. We talked about why sticking a hand out to sniff is not asking. (Here’s what to do instead.)

Now here’s the rub, and the focus of the final installment in this series. What if your job as a helper of dogs requires that you touch them? What if the dog is signaling, “No thank you, I would rather you not touch me,” when the dog’s person has hired you to groom them, recheck their ear infection, hold them still for an injection, train them, or take them to be kenneled? What if the dog is at the shelter or day care and needs to be walked or trained? One thing that these contexts have in common is that they are very busy places. There is not enough time, there are too many dogs, there are multiple demands on each staff member, and there is pressure to perform the service from both bosses and clients. While you may want to take the dog’s feelings into account, someone who has power over you may simply want you to get the job done. I know what you’re thinking, and I agree: “So far, this is a super uplifting blog post.”

How to seem like someone a dog could trust

As you know from experience, there are lots of ways to get the job done with a dog who is nervous about being handled, from forceful restraint to distracting a dog with food. After all, in the past your goal may have been to just get through the appointment. But is merely getting through it a good long-term solution? And, more importantly, do these methods take into account how the dog feels? The good news is that you can choose to behave in a manner that signals you are non-threatening. This choice can help you and the dog right then, and it also serves as an investment into future positive encounters.

Some perspective and some tips

First, some perspective. As someone who has helped a lot of people change their dogs’ emotional reactions to all kinds of challenges, I do not make the following statement lightly: the dog does not have to be perfectly relaxed for it to be a successful interaction. Think about how you feel at a doctor’s appointment or even getting your hair cut. You are placing yourself in the hands of a stranger, and you may be more nervous than usual. It is utterly reasonable to feel that way, and a little stress is not the end of the world. The trick is to think of it this way: a doctor who looks at you, listens, and tells you what they are going to do next probably makes you feel calmer than one who faces their laptop screen, is in too big of a hurry to listen, and who touches you without warning. As a caretaker, the choice is yours; you can decide to be the kind who signals to the dog your trustworthiness and good intentions.

And now, some tips. The key is the first impression. Let’s go back to the doctor analogy. When the doctor knocks, walks in, smiles and says they are glad to see you, that sets the tone for the whole appointment. If a doctor came on too strong with a lot of kissing and hugging, how at ease would you feel with being touched and tested later in the appointment? If the first impression they gave off was so wackadoodle, would they later be able to convince you they were trustworthy? Here are some subtle-yet-powerful ways to make a great first impression on a dog. No matter what the layout of your facility is or what you’ll be doing next, you can’t go wrong by inviting the dog in rather than mowing the dog down, whether physically or emotionally.

Quick Fix looming

  • Smile
  • Stand sideways
  • Look at the dog’s shoulder or ear (use peripheral vision or a quick glance to view the eyes)
  • Say hello to welcome the owner from afar, then walk away from the dog to go to the area where you’ll need to interact, not toward the dog to “meet” him. He has long since sized you up. Moving toward him is much more intimidating than moving away, which invites him into your space.
  • Ask the owner to follow you with the dog. (Think Aerosmith.)
  • Keep your hands hanging naturally at your sides (Velcro your hands to your pant legs if necessary. Read this if you’re in the old habit of holding out a hand for the dog to sniff.)
  • Stay standing up. This is a tough one, but it’s so important. And if it is a tiny dog, stand sideways before crouching sideways so you don’t end up looming over the little dude.
  • Don’t take the dog out of their person’s arms or take the leash of any size dog. Let the owner place a new leash on (if necessary), or ask them to transfer their leash to your hand as you all walk forward together. Pick tiny dogs up from the ground or have the owner hand you the dog, butt first.
  • standingsidewaysSay encouraging things like, “You’re looking great!” “What a beautiful collar you have!” or “What a brave girl you are!” Rather than “Oh Pookie, you’re shaking, it’s okay, don’t worry, are you okay?” This is not comforting or confidence building. To the dog, it sounds like you are losing it.
  • For dogs who need to be weighed, if the dog is already unsure, do it later. Think about it from the dog’s perspective; it’s pretty weird to walk straight into a wall onto a wiggly platform that is oozing with the scent of nervous dogs (their pads sweat from stress). Here’s one smooth way to take the weirdness out of it: you or the owner can step up onto the scale with the dog as if you were walking over a little bridge together. Reward the dog (praise is great), continuing to reward as you step off with the dog still on. With many dogs, just stepping up and over it with them (even without a food reward) makes a lot more sense and takes the strangeness out of it. Can you affix a little container of treats on the wall near the scale, to reach for after the dog is on the scale? Even better.
  • Do not coax, lure or bribe with a treat—it will likely backfire either then or at the next appointment, as the dog can readily see he’s being set up and may become even more nervous. Reward after the dog shows bravery, and you will witness more of that kind of behavior as well as a pleasant association being made between the treats and the scale.
  • After most humans have completed doggie restraint or some other interaction, I’ve noticed they pat the dog’s head or tousle his ears, or give him a good pat on the side. It’s almost as if the human is relieved it’s over and wants to reassure the dog (or convince themselves?) that they are still friends. However, the dog’s perspective is what counts. The way to seem trustworthy is to create space for the dog. Don’t earn the dog’s trust and then pull a Godzilla move on him (if I could insert the sound of Godzilla roaring, I would put it here).

  approaching Make It Stick

  • Get the owner to do two extremely easy tricks the dog knows (“sit” twice in a row counts as two tricks) and reward with special treats (either or both of you can reward). This is not show-off time for anything fancy, rather this allows the dog some control to make a choice. It can reframe the whole appointment.
  • Next, do easy things like just being in the room getting treats from owner, then picking up dropped treats around the room. Being free to explore the room and get rewarded for it is a lot better first impression than being glued in the corner with a nervous owner. One veterinarian I know has the technicians advise owners to remove the leash right off the bat, even with dogs completely new to the practice, so the dog can check the room out as he wishes. The tech drops a few treats on the floor while taking history from the owner. Finally, she drops a handful of treats on the floor on the way out to get the doctor. By they time they come back in, the dog is at ease in the space and happy to see the tech reappear. There are risks involved in this approach, but talk about building a good first impression.
  • When preparing to touch the dog, approach from the side and slightly behind.
  • Use underhand motions, with a scooped arm, when preparing to restrain head, body or legs.
  • As much as possible, work from back to front.
  • With nervous dogs, rather than poisoning your first impression with invasive maneuvers like taking a rectal temperature or lifting onto a scale, save those for slightly later in the appointment.
  • When touching sensitive areas, work from further away to closer (for example, don’t just pick up a paw. Pet the dog’s back, then run your hand down the dog’s leg to lift the paw.)

  Walkingaway Extra Slick

  • Teach a nose touch and warm up with it at each appointment. Use it during the appointment to remind the dog he can make choices, you have a common language, and your hands predict good things. Cue a nose touch to objects like a brush, leash, empty syringe, ear scope…anything that may make the dog raise an eyebrow. Soon you’ll be able to use the nose touch to position the dog, move the dog, or get the dog to hold still, all without touching him. Less invasive = less stress. Correct use of a nose touch is one of the best kept secrets in dog training and dog handling. (For easy peasy instructions see Puppy Savvy.)NoseTouchCueNoseTouchtoHand
  • Give the dog’s human a simple protocol to follow at home to get the dog comfortable with touch. (Like the one in Puppy Savvy and in this how-to video. They can even adapt it for veterinary and grooming appointments, as in this video.)
  • Encourage clients to drop by your space during your least busy times to practice tricks for special treats for 5 minutes. (Heck, create a contest with a dollar donation for each 5 minute visit, and you will have client dogs who love to be touched, a fun promotional event, and a nice donation amount for the local shelter.)
  • Encourage clients to teach relaxation games at home and then practice them in your setting. In the shelter, 5 minutes of The Nothing Exercise can put dogs more at ease, which improves their quality of life and makes them more attractive to adopters.
  • Get a dog trainer or two in your community to offer a 90-minute workshop once a month: part one on teaching staff how to put dogs at ease, and part two on teaching owners to help their dogs to love being handled by the vet/groomer/trainer. Everyone should see the whole workshop so staff and clients can work as a team to create a great experience for all involved.
  • Be open to the suggestions and homework your clients bring from a qualified trainer or behaviorist. A team approach can mean dogs who improve with each visit, clients who have confidence in you, and referrals to friends and neighbors.

How to get started

If you think you couldn’t possibly implement these changes in your workplace, I offer you one last piece of ruff love. Just pick one of the Quick Fix suggestions and try it for two weeks. It won’t take any more time than usual to do your job. You might feel good having true conversations with dogs, even mini ones, that make your job better and improve the dogs’ experience. When you see improvement in the stress level in the dogs in your care (which you likely will), or if your work becomes more efficient, well, maybe try a second tip. I bet your clients will notice how at ease their dog is with you. If you think your clients will be puzzled by what you’re doing, use the opportunity to make this exceptional approach a selling point. Let your clients know you care, and tell them ahead of time what you’ll be doing differently and why. How many other grooming shops, veterinary clinics, training centers and doggie daycares truly put the dog’s feelings first? You’d certainly get my business with that message!

Once you get the ball rolling, you can use safer and more stress-free handling and restraint techniques like those taught here and here, and master simple techniques for defensive handling here. Wouldn’t it be great if your boss added these resources to your library at work? To learn more about all of this, and to brainstorm with your fellow professionals, check out the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians.

Every single time we show kindness and respect to others, it matters. It’s important. And it rubs off on those around us. You can choose to be trustworthy instead of reminding dogs of Godzilla. Why not give it a try?

Car Karma: Solutions for Dogs Who Go Barking Mad On Car Rides

A covered crate helped this puppy relax in the car rather than erupt in barking at the sight of pedestrians or dogs.
A covered crate helped this puppy relax in the car rather than bark at pedestrians or dogs.

Imagine that you’re driving down the road with your best four-legged buddy. Sporadically you see him in the rearview mirror as he watches the world go by. All is well, that is until you pull up to a stop light. A pedestrian comes into view, perhaps walking a dog. Your stomach clenches; you know the jig is up. Fido goes berserk, barking, lunging, and covering the back window with slime. Your peaceful outing just became a hair-raising, aggravating and potentially very distracting driving experience. Your dog probably doesn’t feel all that great either.

It turns out that being confined sometimes makes otherwise easy-going dogs feel vulnerable, so they get their britches in a bunch when they see people or dogs outside the car and drama ensues. The object of their annoyance goes away when the pedestrian moves on or the light turns green and your car moves on, coincidences that potentially reinforce your dog’s overreaction (as though overreacting was what made the person go away) and make it likelier that a pattern is born.

If you have kids in the backseat, your dog may unwittingly smush or scrape them in his uproar. He may even be one who, frustrated and unable to reach his intended object, seeks an alternative onto which to redirect his emotional outburst, resulting in a bite to your child or another dog traveling with you.

Fortunately, you don’t have to live like this any longer. If you put just a little good energy into it, you will reap the karmic reward of a zen-like driving experience with your dog.

The following tips are designed for dogs who engage in this behavior only in the car, not when they actually meet people in real life (which calls for in-person professional assistance). Readers of Puppy Savvy will recognize the range of training options to choose from: Quick Fix, Make it Stick, or Extra Slick. As always, each previous level builds on the last, but you can choose any level you wish and stay there depending on how much time and energy you have.

Quick Fix

Drape a lightweight sheet over your dog’s crate so he can’t see things that upset him (this is a fine time to start crating your dog in the car if you don’t already, after introducing it indoors first). If needed, arrange a folded blanket underneath the crate to create stability. Boom. Done.

Make It Stick

Let your dog enjoy a stuffed Kong on each car trip. This will help replace his old habit of patrolling out the window to a new habit of relaxing while lying down. The long-lasting goodies will likely create a pleasant association with the car, and give your dog an outlet for any nervous energy he may have in the car. (He should be crated and covered as above.) Why not stuff and freeze the number of Kongs you’ll need at the beginning of the week? Then you can just grab-and-go.

Fifteen minutes before you leave the house, spray the bedding in your dog’s car crate with Adaptil spray. This can have a calming effect on dogs , especially those who react to challenging situations by barking. Or just use the Adaptil leave-on collar. (It’s thin, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive.) It can make a dramatic difference for some dogs.

If for some reason your dog cannot be crated, accustom him to wearing a calming cap (which reduces vision) during mealtimes at home, then transfer its use gradually to the car.

Extra Slick

Teach your dog to go to his spot on cue. This trick has so many uses around the house, once you teach it you’ll wonder how you lived without it. If your dog can relax on a dog bed or mat at home, and stay there for the time of an average car trip…you guessed it! He can stay on the mat in the car. Some dogs relish a job to concentrate on. This job will replace the old, upsetting habit of barking at passersby. As an added bonus, Go to Your Spot promotes relaxation and prohibits your pooch from gawking out the window.

To transfer it to the car, use the same mat you used indoors, at first rewarding him as usual with the car parked. Here’s the nifty part: to reward your dog with the car in motion, you’ll need a method that is both safe (since you’re driving and not training your dog at the same time) and efficient (since a sheet is covering the crate, it won’t be possible to toss a treat to him. And the thrown treat would likely bounce away if your luck is anything like mine). What is called for here is the world’s gentlest pea-shooter. Measure the length from the console between the front seats and slightly into your dog’s crate. Have a home improvement store cut a length of skinny PVC pipe, with a wide enough diameter for you to get a scrumptious-yet-dry treat like a Buddy Biscuit soft treat to roll down through the pipe. Make a cut in the crate sheet to pass the pipe into the crate, affix with a clothespins or twist ties, and angle it such that you can easily pop a treat in at your end and have it roll out for your dog on his end (I first heard this clever idea from agility trainer Melanie Miller). Then you can transfer your normal reward process into your travel set-up by stashing a cup of treats in the car’s cup holder. Use your normal reward word and pop a treat into the pea-shooter!

Somewhat more fancy training with professional help would involve teaching relaxation exercises and a Look At That game to your dog, which you then transfer to the car. But you may be pleasantly surprised at how well the above tips work.

Using any of these options, your dog may graduate to uncovered car rides, but it’s perfectly okay to use the Quick Fix as your sole method, indefinitely. Better that your dog should enjoy fun outings with you than be left at home because you feel the Extra Slick training is required. I hereby absolve you of that burden.

I’ll be interested to hear what success you’ve had with other gentle methods that curb this vexing issue. Happy training!

Puppy Savvy Holiday Happenings

ScooterSled copy

This is the time of year a lot of people bring dogs and puppies into their lives. If you know of someone who might appreciate a little help with the transition, Puppy Savvy may be just the thing to surprise them with. is offering it 30% off plus free shipping through December 15 when you use the coupon codes from the snowy photo above at checkout. This is a banana-town discount that will leave you with plenty of moola left over for dog treats…

…dog treats that you can buy, freshly baked and in the form of cookies, cupcakes and even cakes, at Oliver’s Collar Treat Bakery and Boutique on Saturday, December 14th! I’ll be there from 11-1 giving out advice on new dogs and puppies and signing books. Mostly Puppy Savvy, but hey, if you’ve got the autobiography of James Madison and really want it signed, I will do my best to do an authentic-looking forgery. And if that’s not entertaining enough, Santa and a professional pet photographer will be at your service as well. I hope to see you there!


Ruff Love (Part II): Meeting Dogs Who are Bashful or Bold

This dog is approaching with soft eyes, a relaxed mouth, floppy ears, and a tail held below spine level. Let's connect!
This dog is approaching with soft eyes, a relaxed mouth, floppy ears, and a tail held below spine level. Let’s connect!

We recently talked about why it is important to let a dog approach you to initiate interactions rather than sticking out your hand. But what if the dog doesn’t approach you? Since we are all grown-ups here, I know you will accept in mature fashion the answer to that question: Tough noogies.

By not approaching you, the dog is saying, “No thank you, I don’t want to get closer to you right now.” As a true dog lover, a person who takes the feelings of others into account, and an all-around sophisticated type with the latest information on dogs, you will no doubt find it easy to respect what the dog is saying. If you think the dog is “fine,” click here to learn many of the signs a dog is uncomfortable with you in their space. If you are very interested in the dog, or if it feels socially awkward not to touch the dog, just talk to the person about the dog instead. Like so:

“How old is your dog?”

“What do you like to do for fun together?”

“Where did you get that cool collar?”

“Oh my goodness, your dog is so adorable!” That’s handy for little dogs being held and therefore unable to make the choice. Obviously the person will say, “Go ahead, you can pet him! Pet him!!!” This means they love their dog, but they are not yet hip to the scene. You can say you’d prefer to pet him when he’s on the ground so he can choose to approach you. 

“Wow, your dog is really beautiful. He reminds me of a dog I once had.” That works nicely for dogs being asked by their person to hold a stay position, or being held back by the collar.

The surprise twist to this is that, when you choose not to encroach on the dog’s space, he or she is likelier to approach you. I have lost count of the times someone has said to me, “Wow! My dog never gets near anyone, he must really like you!” I explain I did not sprinkle magic dog trainer dust on him. I just didn’t mow him down physically and emotionally. It is truly funny to see the look of surprise and curiosity on some dogs’ faces when they encounter their first polite human.

What if your dog never seems to want to approach anyone?DSC_0244

Most dogs are not even given a chance to make the choice. When someone asks permission to pet my dog I like to say, “That is so nice of you to ask! I really appreciate it,” which is true, and also buys my dog time to get comfortable with the person. Then I say, “The best thing to do is to stand where you are, with your hands at your sides, just like you’re doing. Bazooka prefers that. If she wants to be touched, she’ll come to you on her own. Then you can pet her, under her chin, like this.” And I demonstrate.

If at any point the person disregards your advice, just call your dog to you cheerfully, or step away with her a step or two, cue a nose touch to your hand, or, in very close quarters, face the person and step smoothly and suavely between your dog and the person. I do this with a huge smile on my face as I say, “My dog needs much more space than this. Thank you so much, we’re just going to go over here.” If you have a dog who is truly easy-going, consider swooping in and popping a treat in her mouth in the middle of the interaction, so she’ll have an extra pleasant association with the experiencing a close-talker. (It’s a  good insurance policy for future encounters, even if she seems ok in the moment.) Otherwise, skip the treat and create space.

It helps to practice your spiel before you need it in real life, with a friend or in group training class. Have fun with it. Try out different personas and different exit strategies. When practicing the ABC’s of Dog Safety and Respect, with kids or adults, sometimes the dog’s owner or the dog should say “no” so the humans learn accept not being able to pet the dog without any hard feelings.

If your dog is bashful, or worried about being touched, choose from these strategies:

  • A nose touch to your hand. It provides fun, focus and good feelings in the presence of the stranger.
  • A nose touch with the other person, then call your dog to you. First practice with family and friends your dog loves.
  • Favorite tricks (like spin or sit pretty). This keeps your pooch happy and the person is likely to be delighted and keep their hands to themselves.
  • Relax on a mat (using very high value rewards) so that pose becomes a position of safety and security when you need to chat with someone. Be prepared to step between your dog and an incoming Ms. Grabby McGrabbenheimer.
  • Work on body handling exercises with you, friends, and then less familiar people so your dog gains confidence with people’s hands coming at him or her.
  • Watch for common signs of stress (looking away, lip licking, yawning, still or stiff body, closed mouth, furtive glancing) and call your dog to you when you see them building. 
  • You needn’t coax, reassure or apologize for your dog, or tell him or her, “Go say hi, you silly thing.” There is no need to feel embarrassed or try to convince your dog to go up to someone, either with the leash or a bribe (like getting the stranger to hold out a treat, which I do not recommend). Just work on a training plan, ideally with a skilled trainer so it’s customized, and proceed at your dog’s pace.

Why is a sit-stay for petting not a good idea?

Perhaps your dog goes hoppin’ wild when he meets people, either out of happiness or out of nervous energy (very common and often misinterpreted as happy). Someone might have advised you to make the dog hold a stay while people pet him. After all, it’s no good for people to be knocked down or to feel unnerved by a rambunctious pooch. But we need a better solution than taking away the dog’s ability to communicate with his body language. To recap the last blog entry, a dog is not a coffee table. The dog should have a say in who touches him or her. Besides, if your dog is feeling hyped up, making him hold a stay likely adds to his stress. Why do that to him when there are alternatives?  Some ideas:

  • Teach your dog to calmly sit while the humans are chatting, and then be calmly released on cue like “say hello” to approach the person.
  • Teach her to do a nose-touch with strangers’ hands or shoes and then call your pooch back to you before she gets wound up.
  • Sprinkle treats on the ground for your dog to hoover up while you chat with someone.
  • For dogs who truly love to be touched all the live-long day, teach them to stand with all four paws on the ground so at least they can step away or back up if the tides change and they need to create space for themselves.
  • Teach your dog to relax on a mat even under very exciting circumstances, so he or she can hang out while you talk with someone.

There is a lot of stuff in Puppy Savvy about how to do this, including detailed training instructions for a nose touch, calm greetings, sit stays and other games for any age dog who is bold or bashful. Watch this nine second video showing baby Logan in training. You can see him about to launch himself at the person, but when offered a chance to nose touch the person’s hand, he chooses that instead.

What skills do you train to let your dog know he or she can approach without jumping? What maneuvers or phrases do you use to allow your dog space or protection from incoming hands or bodies? What have you discovered doing the five-dog challenge? (All the cool kids are doing it: The next five times you see a dog you’d like to touch, try just standing still, and see if the dog comes up to you.)

Tune in for the final installment of the Ruff Love series in which we address the question, “My job requires I touch dogs whether they approach or not, because I am a veterinary professional/animal control officer/groomer/shelter worker. What am I supposed to do then, Miss Smartypants Very Fetching lady?”

Ruff Love: How to Create a Canine Connection

Ruby is approaching with her ears loosely back, soft eyes, and low, wide-sweeping tail. "Let's connect!"
Ruby is approaching with her ears loosely back, soft eyes, and low, wide-sweeping tail. “Let’s connect!”

Alrighty, before I start today’s topic I have got to tell you about a ginormous, bonus offering on dog training books. (Just skip this sentence if you are eager to get to the blog post. I mean, who has time for chit chat in this zany, fast-paced world?) Until midnight tonight, Monday, November 4th, you can get 40% off Puppy Savvy and Happy Kids, Happy Dogs (and all other books) at Just enter coupon code FALLSALE40 at checkout.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I was recently asked how a person, especially a child, should approach a dog. Naturally that is a trick question. Anyone who wants to interact with a dog should be waiting for the dog to approach them. This begs the following six questions:

1. What the heck are you talking about?
2. What if the dog doesn’t approach me?
3. What if the dog is prevented from approaching me because the owner has asked the dog to hold a position like a sit-stay, or is holding the dog by the collar or in their arms?
4. What if my dog goes bananas around people and therefore I purposefully prevent the dog from approaching others by having the dog hold a stay?
5. What if I have a dog who never voluntarily approaches people?
6. What if people don’t give my dog a chance to approach before reaching toward him or her?

I think it might be fun and useful to take on each of these questions in a blog series. What better timing than right before the holidays, when people and dogs are packed so tightly in each other’s space they might as well be stuffed into one of those little clown cars.

Let’s jump right in and start with the first question…

What the heck are you talking about?

As you can tell by my ABC’s of Dog Safety and Respect I am not only an advocate (as are other modern dog trainers) of asking the dog’s person whether it is okay to touch their dog, but I’m also an advocate of asking the dog. If you see a dog you’d like to greet, here is the way to do it: 

Ask permission of the person.

Be a tree in order to ask permission of the dog: With hands at your side, stand and wait for the dog to approach you.

Chin or chest is where you should pet.

Fight the urge to stick out your hand (presumably in an effort to allow the dog to sniff you). That is outdated advice. As in, using-leeches-to-treat-a-fever outdated. The dog has already smelled you. He or she can smell you from Coney Island, trust me. When you stick out your hand, you are making a rude gesture to the dog. “Rude in what way?” you may be thinking.

Rude like so: Imagine I just introduced you to a pal of mine, and she said hi and then went right in toward your neck with both hands and straightened out your crumpled collar. “Whoa! Easy there, well-meaning new friend!” you’d be thinking. On one hand, she has kind intentions, but on the other hand, she doesn’t pause to imagine how you would feel about her actions. Think how differently you would feel if she said, “It’s so nice to meet you. I notice your collar is rumpled; would you like me to fix it?” She has just invited you to be an active participant in the interaction. If you want to make a connection with her that is more on the intimate side, you might well take her up on it. If you’d rather wait to get to know her a bit before having her adjust your clothes, you will appreciate how thoughtful she is and just fix it yourself. By asking you first, she may well have earned your trust right off the bat, instead of alienating you by coming on too strong. Maybe, just maybe, she will become one of those rare you’ve-got-parsely-stuck-between-your-teeth friends.

If you’ve always extended your hand toward dogs and swear you’ve made zillions of dog buddies this way, please consider this: When you choose to reach toward the dog’s nose you are proving that there is a gap between you wide enough to allow a reach. That means the dog has not come up to you voluntarily. What might the dog be saying by hanging back a bit? (Dramatic pause for reflection.) Are you willing to listen?

It is polite, respectful, safer, and compassionate to wait for the dog to approach you, and here’s why (here comes the rough love portion of the post). Wanting to show your affection for dogs is a wonderful, wonderful thing. You may want to touch a dog because that makes you happy. Or maybe you are taken with a particular pooch. Or you want your child to feel comfortable with animals, or your child is desperate to touch the dog in front of you. These reasons are all perfectly understandable. However, and this may be difficult to acknowledge at first, none of those reasons is more important than the dog’s feelings. Remember, the dog has few options due to being on a leash, tethered, in a small space, or otherwise confined. If you fail to ask the dog, but instead just move in using old timey moves like sticking out your hand or patting the dog on the top of the head, you are invading the dog’s space and starting off your encounter with a fairly rude (and also potentially unsafe) maneuver.

Ask yourself: Would you want someone touching you (or your child) just because they feel like it, or because your child is (or you are) super cute? How about if you were saying, “No, I need my space,” loud and clear to the grabby person, and they touched you anyway? Even worse! And then there’s the awful ripple effect you could create: Do you want your child to learn that “I wanna!” is a good enough reason to touch others who are saying “no?” That thought should give you the heebie jeebies. No person should get to touch someone just because they really, really want to.

Dogs have their reasons for sometimes not wanting us to get close and touch them. And that should count. We should listen. And we should show our love in ways that take the other’s feelings into account. We should also teach kids to listen and to care about how others feel. We are all connected, and the more we practice paying attention to that, the better off we will be. This “ask and listen” practice may seem like no big deal at first glance, yet thinking of others this way is so powerful that it can change our world.

What do you think about doing an experiment the next five times you see a dog you’d like to touch? Would you be willing to try just standing still, and seeing if the dog comes up to you? If you’re even the least bit curious, give it a try! I would love to hear what you experience.

Tune in next time when we see grown adults have massive meltdowns on the sidewalk, trying to cope when dogs do not approach them, and we answer the question, “What if the dog doesn’t approach me?

Doggie Habits Annoying You? This Trick Is Spot On

Imagine how useful it would be if your puppy or dog knew that when you say, “Spot,” he should lie down and relax on his mat.

Teaching “Spot” means you won’t have to deal with your dog doing any of the following:

  • Going berserk when someone rings the doorbell
  • Sampling snacks off your coffee table
  • Hanging around the dinner table or under your baby’s high chair
  • Putting paws on the counter while you prepare a meal
  • Bothering your kids or guests while they are seated or standing
  • Pestering other pets in your household
  • Dropping toys in your lap while you try to relax after a hard day of earning money to buy dog treats
  • Jumping up on people you meet on the street
  • Straining and whining at other dogs or people in the veterinarian’s waiting room or in puppy class

None of those aggravating things can happen if your dog is lying quietly on a mat, so teaching this one skill will be of benefit to you in many ways. Your dog will benefit because he will earn plenty of rewards in the form of praise, petting, treats, a stuffed Kong, being included in more activities and having a chance to chill out.

Believe it or not, this is not advanced training. It’s the kind of basic skill (like sit or come) that any dog can learn.

You’ll need a bath mat to start (later you can transfer the skill to a mat as tiny as a washcloth, and just carry it with you!), soft yet non-crumbly treats in a contrasting color to the mat, and an indoor location free of distractions. Some practice teaching “down” is a bonus that will speed the process. Use a leash or train in a powder room if you think your pup may wander off.

Here’s how to teach it. For more details and troubleshooting tips see Puppy Savvy, and ask questions in the comments section below.

Session One

Have a few treats ready in your pocket. Be prepared to say “yes” and bowl the treat onto the mat as soon as your puppy looks at the mat. Why will he bother to look at it? Because you will start by spreading out the mat, standing two feet away and looking at it yourself. He will look, and you will reward immediately by saying “yes!” and tossing the treat onto the mat. When he is finished eating his tidbit, encourage him off the mat by patting your leg and saying “ok” (in the video I say “free,” which happens to be Ruby’s release word). Repeat 2-3 times.

The hardest part of this training is resisting the urge to convince your dog to look at the mat by pointing, leaning, or outright bribing with food. If you do this, the training will take ninety-two times longer, and his skills will never be as strong as they could have been. Just stand there and look at the mat. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Session Two

Warm up with a few reps of the above exercise. Then allow your pup to look at the mat, but don’t say a word. Just wait. His wheels will turn and he will walk over to the mat (because that’s where his reward has been magically appearing). When even one of his paws touches it, say “yes!” and feed him a treat. On each subsequent repetition, withhold your reward until another paw touches the mat (such that by the fourth repetition, he is leaving you, walking up to the mat, then putting all four paws on it).

Session Three

Start right where you left off. Spread out the mat and wait. Your pup will look at it, walk to it, and stand on it. Reward as usual. On the next repetition, count to one or two and then reward. Woo hoo! He went to his mat and stayed for two seconds. Now anything is possible! Repeat a few times, encouraging him off the mat in between repetitions.

Take a short break and play with a toy, or just run around the room and act silly together.

Back to training. Go near the mat. Wait. After he is standing on it, wait some more. Don’t say anything. He will likely plop his butt into a sit, because by now he’s figured out from your other training that sitting pays the big bucks, and that staying on the mat is also highly rewarding. Say “yes” and feed him several treats like it’s a big deal (which it is!).

Only do a few of those because the goal is for him to lie down, right?

Session Four

Repeat the last exercise, but this time wait for a down position (this will go quicker if you’ve already started teaching “down” separately). Instead of staring into the pup’s eyes, look at the spot you want his elbows to land. When he goes even partway into the down position, lavish him with praise and treats fed low between his front legs. Remember to release with “ok” before he has a chance to hop up.

Final Sessions

Now we make it look like real life. For the next few sessions, practice in several different places in the room. Then try your body in several different positions (sitting in a chair or lying on the couch—good practice for when you have the flu and don’t want your dog disturbing you). Work up to different rooms in the house and you standing at varying distances from the mat. Use awesome treats. If you get stuck at any point, try again, but do make it a wee bit easier if you get two failed attempts. 

When to say “Spot!”

When you can roll out the mat, in any room of your house, with you sitting or standing, from any distance you like, and your pup trots right on over to the mat and lies down, waiting for your release before he gets up (after a few seconds), then you are ready to add the magic word to cue him to go there. Just say, “Spot!” right as he’s about to do it and he’ll start to associate the word with the action he already knows.

You can add to the length of time he is able to stay there by counting more seconds before you feed his treat in the down position.

Soon he’ll be lying there for 30 minutes at a pop, perhaps enjoying a chewy while you have cocktails with your friends. It might even make you nostalgic for the days when he was so young and naïve, all cute and eager to learn this handy, new trick.

Shark Attack! How to Use A Toy to Prevent Puppy Biting

If you have a new puppy, you probably have pulled up your sleeves to show your veterinarian teeth marks covering your forearms. Puppy bites are painful. And most people are shocked to discover the degree to which their puppy bites them.

For a puppy under the age of 5 months old, most biting is perfectly normal. Puppies need to bite to explore the world and to learn about social interactions with humans. A puppy who did not attempt to bite would be like a toddler who did not attempt to put things in her mouth. Just as the toddler is not being bad and in need of reprimand, your puppy is doing only what comes naturally as a part of his normal development. 

But do not despair! The incredible thing is that you can meet your puppy’s normal behavioral need to bite while instilling in him the ability to make alternative choices to biting you. That’s kind of amazing when you think about it.

As you’ve discovered, puppy biting most commonly occurs when you attempt simply to pet your puppy. (There is also leash biting, biting at your clothing, biting your shoes and feet, biting at kids when they’re running or just sitting in a chair, and more—phew!—solutions to all of which you can find in Puppy Savvy.)

If your puppy bites your hands when you pet him, get relief starting today by assuming this will happen and proactively changing your interactions to the following:

  • Attempt snuggle time only when your pup is very relaxed or even drowsy. Anything else will invite a bite fest.
  • Before you settle in to snuggle, hold a plush toy twice the size of your puppy’s mouth. The pup will bite the toy while you pet him or her. Should the pup miss the toy and bite your hand, yelp once, quietly stand up and silently leave the room with the toy. Return after 15 seconds and try again (this usually works after three days of being consistent, and sometimes after just a few repetitions).
  • Play with a toy attached to a line that you flick along the ground to keep teeth at a distance. Keep the toy touching the ground to prevent your pup injuring himself by leaping and landing awkwardly.
  • Interact in constructive ways that bypass biting; teach the puppy fetch, find it, nose touch and come-when-called games.

If the puppy bites when you wrestle with him, pet his face, tussle his ears, or pat him on the head:

  • Don’t touch him like that. I hate to say it, but that kind of touch explicitly invites biting; puppies get other puppies to bite and play with them by grabbing each other’s faces and ears. Instead, pet your puppy gently on the chest. Show others how to do this, and feed your pup a few treats to keep his mouth occupied while they pet him (that’s a great way to prevent leaping during greetings, too).
  • Meantime, teach him to be relaxed about being touched on the head and face because, let’s face it, it’s going to happen when humans want to show affection or when your pup needs to be examined. Just do the super quick and easy body handling exercises in Puppy Savvy. Here is a one-minute video that shows how.
  • No wrestling. Wrestling will sabotage a lot of important skills the puppy needs to get along well in the world, like accepting being touched, restrained, reached for, caught and calmly patted. Instead, get physcial by playing chase, tug, or and hide and seek games (the pup chases the person, never the other way around).

Notice which times of day your puppy is wired so that before the shark attack begins, you can initiate constructive activities or confine him with a chew toy. This simple but powerful change in your routine rewards the pup for behavior you like. Otherwise you risk not only his rehearsal of biting (ouch!), but also him being rewarded if you have been handing him a toy after he bites (gack!).

If you are consistent, you should be bite-free in about a week. Personally I think you should treat yourself to a reward for all that work…perhaps a new, short-sleeved top to show off those teethmark-free arms!

Double the Fun: Thoughts on Training Two Dogs at Once

I’ve been thinking lately about my two dogs, and how fun (and funny) it is to live with them both. Their personalities could not be more different, yet they are amazingly compatible. As you can see from the video Ruby (the tiny one) is the Queen and Bodhi (the black and white one) is the Court Jester.

For training purposes, there are a few things that make having two dogs more interesting. Here are a few tips I have found work well when both dogs need training:

First Things First

For an issue in which both dogs need much improved skills, like leash manners or responsiveness to their names, start by teaching each dog individually. This is super efficient, because you can devote your attention to one dog and visa versa. Trying to train them at the same moment may create unnecessary pandemonium and confusion. Get the skill looking sharp and then put both dogs together, first for a simple challenge (walking up the driveway and back), gradually working your way to trickier situations (going on your full walk together).

Spot On Training

Teach both dogs how to lie on a mat or dog bed on cue, and stay on their spot until you release them. That way you can train them individually, yet both in the same training session. While you work with one dog (around one or two minutes is plenty), the second dog can be chilling out on her dog bed. When you are all finished with the first dog’s session, cue him to go lie on his bed, then release the other dog for a short session. Repeat having them take turns until you are finished training. (For instructions on how to teach a dog to go to her spot and stay, see Puppy Savvy.)

I Am Free and You’re Okay

Give each dog his or her own release cue. Bodhi is released from whatever I have cued him to do with the word “okay.” Ruby’s release word is “free.” Those two words sound nothing like each other, so I am able to release one from their dog bed without the other hopping up, I can release one to race out the door to the yard without trampling the other, and I can do fancy training things like having them stay side-by-side but calling them separately (that’s fancy because it is harder to stay when your buddy takes off full-tilt, and because they run faster when they are trying to beat the other to get to me, which improves their come-when-called performance). 

Double Dog Dare

Here is a challenge for you that I just started with my dogs. (You can do it even if you aren’t yet ready to train both dogs in the same session.) I picked a trick that neither of them knows, stepping through my legs from behind and placing a paw on each of my feet, both of us facing the same direction. The interesting part is that normally in any given week I am teaching them different things, but this time I am teaching the same trick to both them. It is raising my awareness of different habits I have with each dog, revealing fascinating differences in how they learn, highlighting choices I need to make as I roll out their learning plan, and helping me appreciate the quirky and hilarious things they do. (I can only imagine what they are saying about me when they compare notes!) For example, Ruby is much likelier to offer me novel moves that I can quickly capture, whereas Bodhi is likelier to offer me a slew of things he already knows. We’ll see what happens as we progress!

What do you learn about yourself and your dogs as you try this? You can also pair up with a friend or neighbor and each teach the same trick. How do you do things differently? What do the dogs pick up on similarly or differently? As always, I welcome your questions and comments. Happy training (for two)!

Housetraining Solutions That Can Save a Life (and Your Sanity)

puppypeeingWhen I was a new (and still naïve) shelter volunteer I arrived one day before the shelter had opened. There was a woman standing outside with her dog. Despite her family’s efforts, her dog was still eliminating indoors, so she was waiting to surrender him to the shelter.

You may find that shocking, or maybe you have been at the end of your rope and can identify with the woman’s desperation. Since then I’ve met people of all ages and walks of life who have done the same, or who have been close to severing their ties with their dog due to this problem.

How do things spiral so out of control? The answer lies in the accidental misuse of rewards. If you are frustrated in your housetraining efforts, consider that you may be inadvertently rewarding undesirable puppy behaviors such as:

 –Finding a remote room or hallway in which to eliminate

–Eliminating in the crate

–Holding it outdoors and eliminating as soon as you come back in

–Taking what seems like forever to eliminate outdoors

–Avoiding outdoor elimination when it is wet or cold outdoors

You may be thinking, “But I am not giving my dog a treat for doing any of these things. How are these behaviors being rewarded?”

Fortunately this is not Downton Abbey so I can just come right out and say it: peeing feels good. Each time your dog eliminates, it is internally and powerfully rewarding. If you’ve ever been on a long car trip and then finally reached a rest area, if you’re anything like me I’ll bet you are practically skipping through the tulips after you’ve used the facilities. Eliminating feels good to your puppy, so he or she will learn whatever behavior patterns precede the potty opportunity.


–If your pup pees indoors (in the crate or the hallway), that will feel good and he’ll be more likely to do that again.

Instead: Take your pup out every 30-45 minutes, on leash, silently, and reward right then and there with a treat, some playtime and/or a walk. (Clean up indoor messes with an enzymatic cleaner.) Supervise like a hawk between potty times. Use the magic chart.

–If your pup goofs around off-leash outdoors and then pees indoors when you get back inside, that will feel good and he’ll be more likely to do that again.

Instead: Using the leash, pace in a 10-foot area, and if no results after a few minutes come back inside (for confinement or tethering, not for play). Try again in 5 minutes, then play with him after he goes as a reward. Your pup will learn that the sooner he does his business outside, the sooner the fun begins.

–If your pup pees in front of you indoors, and you ignore the behavior and wait for him to finish (some trainers recommend this), you are teaching him that peeing indoors is rewarding (remember, it feels good).

Instead: Interrupt him. Don’t freak out, frighten or scold him; if you scare him he might not eliminate in front of you outdoors (gack!), plus he’s just answering nature’s call—he’s not being “bad.” Just gasp or clap once and then whisk him outside. Reward as usual.

Peeing is rewarding, so try to make sure it happens only outdoors. Treats, running, exploring, playtime with you, a walk, freedom from confinement…all of these are rewarding, too. Make sure they follow only outdoor elimination, and you will be on your way to training a lifesaving habit.

Still stuck? I welcome your questions below. Try the Puppy Savvy Housetraining Chart. For simple and effective housetraining advice, the correct way to put elimination on cue, troubleshooting and FAQ’s see Puppy Savvy.