What is the best dog for my kids?


There is enough love to go around. (Photo by Jabrina Robinson.)

Have you decided to add a dog to your family? You may be wondering what the best way is to go about it. To be honest, there is no magic formula to ensure you will get the perfect dog. Much about the outcome is not under your control. Life is interesting that way! I think it’s important to acknowledge that in order to take some pressure off you, your dog, and your family. Having said that, I also think your wise efforts before, and after, you choose your dog can stack things in your favor for happy relationships and safety.

With that in mind, look for the following qualities when you visit with doggie candidates you are considering.


Why it’s so important:

  • A dog who prefers to be close to children is likeliest to be a safe, fun companion.
  • One who voluntarily wants to be in the kids’ space is less likely to take offense when one of them gets on her nerves.
  • You’re likelier to bond with a people-oriented dog and therefore help her with training challenges that crop up.
  • A dog who loves to connect with people will be a joy to include in family activities.

What does friendliness look like? If your doggie candidate enjoys toys, romps with another dog, or has an adorable appearance, it may look like friendliness because those things make us smile. However…

  • The key is to look for a dog who approaches your kids and maintains contact with them.
  • Look for loose, open body language and a tail held at spine level or lower.
  • Pet the dog and then stop, and have your child do the same. A friendly dog will ask for more by stepping closer.

No matter where you get your dog, friendliness should be the top priority.


Ideally your new family dog will be a young adult, about 1-2 years old (or older).

  • Parents with young kids usually find it stressful to housetrain a puppy, teach him or her to accept confinement, learn the right things to chew on, and how to sleep through the night.
  • It is challenging to teach children to interact gently and safely with a teething, energetic puppy.
  • By selecting a more mature dog, you’ll be able to see the dog’s grown-up personality when you meet, making a successful match that much likelier.

Settles down easily

Children have a lot of energy, come and go throughout the day, and have emotional ups and downs. When evaluating a dog, run around, play with a toy, or lavish the dog with excited attention for a couple of minutes. Choose a dog who simmers down when you become quiet.

Attentive to you outside

Interact with the dog outside. If the dog pulls moderately on the leash, training can turn that around. But if the dog fails to check in with you (without you coaxing), tunes you out when you try to get his attention, gets the leash twisted into a spiral, nearly drags you over, or leaps and mouths incessantly, he or she will likely be a challenge to integrate into your family.

Relaxed around other dogs

Picture your new dog walking beside your kids as they tell you about their school day, and imagine how stressful this will be if your dog habitually barks and lunges at other dogs. Arrange a mock leash walk with a helper who will walk one or two different leashed dogs past you to see how your candidate reacts. Whether the barking is out of aggression or frustration, helping a dog overcome this issue takes more time and training than most people wish to invest. Choose from candidates who are more blasé about canine cousins they see coming down the pike.

Not overly possessive of food or toys

Snacks and toys are a normal part of family life, so choose a dog who is not upset by a person approaching or reaching for valued items. While you will coach your child not to do this, it is impossible to always prevent your child and dog from being interested in the same items.

It is risky to assess a dog for possessiveness, since he may escalate quickly from keep-away to a frozen, hunkered body posture, growling, snapping or biting. It is best to get professional assistance with this, or follow the tips in the book Successful Dog Adoption.

Easygoing about everyday situations

An easy going dog will take in stride household routines, play dates and outings. Try to assess how calm or jumpy your candidate is.

  • Drop an item like some keys when the dog is looking away.
  • Have someone knock and enter wearing a hat or holding an open umbrella.
  • Sit quietly and simply hold the dog by the collar for one minute.

Choose a dog who remains nonplussed by these common events.

Consider your children, too.

Are they rough-and-tumble or quiet? Do they typically follow instructions or do they have trouble following through? Try to match the personality of the dog such that he can enjoy your kids. If they are well matched, your job will be so much easier, and their friendship will be much likelier to flourish.

After You Bring Your Dog Home…

No matter which dog you choose, be a kid-canine coach. Successful kid-canine coaching requires that you:

1) Guide your child to respectful, kind behavior. That means no approaching the dog when he’s resting or chewing, and no imposing on his space by following him, sitting on him, or hugging him. Dogs may tolerate hugging, but unlike human family members, they rarely like it. Coach your child to play games like fetch and tricks, to read to the dog, and to show affection (when the dog solicits it) by kissing their palm and petting the dog on the chest. (If you find your dog is great and “will let the kids do anything,” read this.)

2) Monitor your dog’s signs of relaxation and tension. Loose, open body language, a partly open mouth, and choosing to be close to your child are good signs. Stiff body language, a tense mouth, or turning away from your child are signs you should separate them. This is Ruff Love. Otherwise your child may learn it’s okay to touch someone who is saying “no.” Your dog may defend himself when his pleas for space go unheeded.

3) Use a Safety Zone when it’s not a good time to coach their interactions.

Choose your dog wisely and be a kid-canine coach, and the friendship between your child and your new family member will be off to a dreamy start.

To blend a dog of any age into your family, see Puppy Savvy: The Pocket Guide to Raising Your Dog Without Going Bonkers. If it’s not yet time to get a dog, have fun with Don’t Lick the Dog in the meantime!


In good hands. (Photo by Celeste Huntington.)

The Best Dogs for Kids: Myths and Facts

Myth: It’s better to get a puppy.
Fact: You cannot raise a puppy to have a certain personality. Puppies are no more blank slates when they are born than people are.

Myth: Some dogs are hypoallergenic.
Fact: There is no such thing as a dog who poses no allergy risk. All dogs shed hair and dander, so talk with your doctor before getting a dog.

Myth: Certain breeds are better with kids.
Fact: You can’t judge a book by its cover. Certain personalities are better with kids. Get a friendly dog and teach your child the dos and don’ts.

Myth: Shelter dogs have too much baggage.
Fact: It is possible to get a really great or a really difficult dog or puppy from any source. Carefully assess any dog or puppy you’re considering, no matter the source.

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 Lulu.com. 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?

Puppy Savvy Video Lesson: The Animal Game

This game teaches impressive self-control for both dogs and kids, conditions the dog to calmly enjoy the erratic movements and surprise sounds that kids make, and it’s just plain fun!

The goal of the Animal Game is to have the dog feel confident and nonchalant about sounds and behaviors generated by kids. The kids learn that in general they should behave quietly around the dog, unless it’s time for the Animal Game. The coach can even teach the kids to respond to the cue, “Animals, stop!” if the children are starting to get wild (during the game or otherwise).

To play this game, the child acts out an animal and the kid-canine coach rewards the dog for maintaining a sit. The coach should also reward ear flicks and head turns toward the child. Those mean the dog is noticing the child’s activity; when kid activity becomes a tip-off for treat delivery, you have created a positive emotional association between noticing the kids and feeling calm and happy. (You’ll notice the dog in the video automatically turns back to the adult when he notices the kids doing something, that is how automatic the association has become for him.) Start indoors and on-leash to stack things in everyone’s favor.

The kids should choose from low-key animals at first, like a beetle or a turtle. They can work up to more movement or sounds by choosing from animals like butterflies or monkeys. At first the coach should cue the animal helper to act sleepy or purr softly, but they can work up to cuing the child to roar and leap. Start with kids standing virtually still, then moving nearby, then moving around the dog. By increasing the challenge gradually, you help the dog stay calm and help the kids focus on their task and not be too obsessed with the dog.

Should the dog get up from the sit position without being released by you, it just means he needs more practice with a slightly easier challenge. So ask the “animals” to stop. Then ask the dog to sit again (no treat). Cue the kid(s) to act out an easier version (further away, less movement, and/or quieter voices) of what they had just been doing and reward the dog heartily for staying still and relaxed. Keep sessions under 5 minutes and take little breaks throughout.

Work up to playing in locations where jumping up has been a challenge for the dog, such as where kids enter the house or yard. In the Advanced version shown in the video, you will see a couple of ideas for helping the dog feel at ease with kids running up from behind or running all around him. Notice the kid-canine coach sets them all up for success by setting boundaries for the kids, such as using a stick as a  landmark to run to, or creating a circle to stay outside of.

What do you see in the video would be challenging for your dog or child? What kinds of movements or sounds would bother your dog enough for him or her to pop up out of the sit position? How else might your dog let you know something was too difficult or stressful for him?

Many thanks to beautiful Xander, whose heart is as ginormous as he is, and to his wonderful people and their friends for taking his feelings into account when training. This was a field test for the instructions they read for the Animal Game in Puppy Savvy; they had no instruction from me before we filmed and I think they all did a fantastic job!

Gettin’ Schooled on Freaky Friday

Time for a Freaky Friday multiple choice quiz! Freaky Friday is the day we see the world from the dog’s perspective (just like Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan did when they switched bodies in the movie).

I thought I’d try out a twist to the format (thanks to your feedback). Below the photo I will point out some body language the dog is displaying that gives clues into how he or she is feeling. Since this Friday’s photo is from a classroom, I thought I’d offer a multiple choice quiz, too (see below). Please let me know what you think, about the clues, the quiz and about the dog’s perspective.

This dog may love children. His person is generously sharing him with the kids. All good, in theory. But what is the dog’s perspective, at least in this moment (copied with permission with the N&O)? What do you notice about his ears, eyes, mouth, body position/direction/movement?


Ears: stiff and rotated half-back
Eyes: wide, pupils very dilated (a bit hard to see in the copy of the print)
Mouth: shallow panting, corners of mouth drawn far back
Body: head turned away from kids, moving away (biggest and clearest clue)

Quiz time! Choose one based on what the dog is trying to tell us with his body language:

a) This dog would probably like it if the humans kept doing what they are doing.

b) This dog is feeling very relaxed.

c) This dog is trying to create space for himself because he is not feeling comfortable.

Extra credit: If you were the dog’s handler, how would you rearrange the space and positioning of yourself, your dog, and the kids? What instructions would you have given the kids in advance? What would you do/say to the kids right this minute if you noticed all these signs of stress in your dog?

Study aids:

Madeline Gabriel’s new blog post on what to do when other kids are around your dog: Dogs and Babies Learning
Wendy Wahmann’s (funny and wise) book on the right way for kids to make friends with dogs: Don’t Lick the Dog (book trailer)
K9Kindness for new doggie educational programs in the classroom: K9Kindness

I look forward to your questions and comments. No grades, but you get points for trying to imagine how this dog feels!

Fresh Start for the New Year: Fun Fixes for Annoying, Rude or Embarrassing Dog Behavior

The other day I noticed one of my dogs has not learned the concept of a Zen “leave it” the way I meant him to. The Zen leave it means, if you notice something tempting, automatically (without prompting from me) leave it alone unless you’re given permission to investigate, grab or eat it. This goes for food belonging to people eating at the table, sitting on the couch, or putting a plate of food put down on the coffee table. It goes for food accidentally dropped on the floor, and for snacks clenched in the tiny fists of toddlers ambling around. In other words: dog, that food is none of your beeswax. Even if I leave the room. The cue to leave it alone is not a threat or even a pleasant verbal cue like “leave it.” Rather, the very presence of the food is the signal to avoid grabbing it. (That’s the Zen part.)

Fancy as it sounds, most dogs pick up on this very quickly, and they don’t need reminding, reprimanding or bribing to maintain the behavior. (Generally speaking, behaviors trained using reward-based methods become rewarding in themselves to perform, so gradually you don’t need any external rewards once the dog has the hang of it.) With my other dogs, I have left the room with a snack out in plain view, intending to use the restroom but getting sidetracked with email, and then returned to find my snack intact.

It all starts with teaching the concept of “leaving the food alone is the surest way to score something you like; trying to eat the food makes it disappear.” Once those concepts are established, it is not hard to move to more advanced versions of it. You can teach your dog if the tiny kid has a snack that temps you, that is your cue to leave it alone (to get started, see the how-to teach leave it video.)

Back to the dog in question. I have trained him not to take food from someone’s hand, their plate, or the coffee table. But I’ve noticed that he will hover within literally a half-inch of said tasty morsels. Technically he is correct. “See, I didn’t touch it, momma!” he must be thinking. And yet, his adorable whiskered lips, his gigantic head, and the enthusiasm for the game oozing out of his very being are not what I want in a dining experience. In fairness, the reason he has learned to hover over the food is that I have not put in the effort to help him choose as his default behavior “leave other people’s food alone with room to spare.”

So I decided that, when I enter the room with food on a plate, sit on the couch with food, or place food on the coffee table I want those actions to be his cue not just to leave the food alone, but to go to lie down. Believe it or not, you probably already know how to teach a dog to do that.

If you have ever taken a dog training class, you know that luring a dog into a sit position ends up giving you a hand signal to indicate you want the dog to sit. The hand motion associated with luring with the food becomes the salient cue for the dog. Meaning that, even without food, when you sweep your hand upward the dog reads that as a signal to sit. But you may want to switch to a new cue, like the word “sit” (with no arm motion). The tried and true method is to use the new cue (“sit”), pause a beat (important), then use the old cue (arm motion). A few pairings later, the dog figures out that the new cue predicts the familiar cue, and the behavior you want him to do.

I applied that same principle to to this issue around food. My dog already has a cue to go lie down, which is “place.” So I cut up some treats, put them on a little plate, walked into the room & sat down (new cue), paused a beat, then said “place.” When he lied down at his place I rewarded him by tossing a treat to him. I released with “ok” and did that a few more times. Then I walked into the room & sat down (new cue) and paused. And paused some more. And the wheels in that magnificent head sprang into motion, and he went to his place and lied down. I tossed a treat to him for that. Then I generalized it to me sitting on different pieces of furniture. I’d come in with food, sit down, and he would go lie down at his place. I started doing it at human mealtimes with a real plate of food (dog treats in my pockets to use as rewards).

I think he is getting the hang of it better than I’d realized, because we had dinner guests the other night who did something more challenging than I’d yet practiced. Someone walked into the room with the appetizer, put it on the coffee table, and guess who trotted right on past it, right to his place, and lied down? (My jaw was on the floor, but I tried to play it cool.)

The moral of the story is you don’t have to live with behavior you consider obnoxious, pushy, loud, aggravating or rude. And you don’t have to nag, punish, bribe or distract your dog from doing it every time the same situation comes up. Why not teach the dog that the very thing that used to prompt the reaction you don’t like is actually a cue to do something you do like? Pretty soon a simple “good boy” will be all you need to help him keep it up (just like you probably no longer give your dog a treat for sitting every time).

If you are like most of us, your dog engages in a behavior or two that bothers you. What would you rather your dog do instead? If your hand on the door predicts attempted bolting, then maybe teach him that hand motion is a cue for backing up. If a stranger approaching predicts jumping, try teaching that is actually  cue to sit. You may need to be creative, breaking the training into tiny steps, and many times you have to be very patient if the temptation is very great, or the dog has been practicing the annoying behavior for a long time. But it works, and it’s amazing to see the dog’s wonderful brain engage as he learns the association with the new cue.

Your dog is doing the best he can with what you’ve taught him. Start the new year with a plan to replace dog behavior you don’t like with dog behavior you like a lot. Happy new year, and happy training!

“What if a dog pees on you?”

“What if a dog pees on you?” that is one of the questions an audience member posed to me during the Q&A portion of a presentation I gave yesterday.IMG_1660 In fact, all of the audience members, the first graders at Rashkis Elementary School, were attentive and asked me a lot of great questions. I was part of a speaker series featuring community helpers. I described my job by saying that dogs have feelings and thoughts, but they don’t have words; my job is to help people teach dogs some words, and to help people understand better what dogs are trying to say to us. I told them how important it is to be gentle and safe with dogs. For example, they should never touch a dog who is eating out of a bowl, who is lying down, or who has something in his or her mouth. What if the dog has your homework in his mouth? “Ask a grown-up for help.”

We talked about our dogs at home, at our friend’s house, and in our neighborhood, and how to be respectful of dogs so they don’t become frightened or upset, which can lead to a bite. We covered the ABC’s of Dog Safety, and Buddy the Dog helped demonstrate the right way to pet a dog. Several of the children had been previously taught to extend a hand for a dog to sniff.I explained that this is outdated, old-timey advice. And that’s ok, we learn new and better ways to do things all the time. I asked the children if it’s ok to cough into our hands. (You would have thought I had asked them whether it was ok to start a forest fire!) “No!” they exclaimed, and showed me how to cough into my elbow. So I compared that old advice about preventing the spread of germs to the old advice about sticking our IMG_1651hands in a dog’s face. Now we know better; the dog can already smell us, it is better to just stand still, and if the dog approaches us, pet him under the chin or on the chest. If he doesn’t approach, don’t touch.

One little boy asked me, “How do you train a dog?” (Some of the teachers really perked up for that one.) I told him we make a list of all the things the dog really likes. Then we show the dog what we want him to do. When he does what we want, he gets surprised with something he really likes, so that he will soon do the thing we want any time we ask. Buddy demonstrated (sort of, he’s not very bendy) how we would train a dog to sit by rewarding him with a treat. I then asked the little boy what his favorite thing was. “Pepperoni!” was the reply. And then he agreed he would be happy to clean his room if he got pepperoni as a reward for doing so. I can’t help wondering what his parents must have thought when he reported about his day: “The community helper said if I clean my room you will give me pepperoni.” Of course I would not want to bribe a dog to train him; rewards are what effective dog training is all about. But I may have to wait for the kids to hit second grade before I explain the difference.

I think little kids ask the most profound questions. It was so much fun to spend time with all of them, to see their art work on the walls, to hear about their dogs at home, and to think back to how much I enjoyed learning as a kid, and still do every day. I swear I have the best job in the world.

Oh, and if a dog pees on you, you will need a new pair of shoes.IMG_1664

ABCs of Dog Safety at Fox 50 Family Fest

What a fun crowd! Dozens and dozens of kids and their parents visited the Durham Regional Hospital booth, where Buddy the Dog and I taught them the right way to meet a dog. Each time a child was able to state the ABCs of Dog Safety and role playIMG_1632 them with me and Buddy, they earned a sticker, a hand stamp, or a toy for their dog at home. And I got to hear stories from kids about how they had been bitten by dogs, about their favorite dogs, and about their dog friends at home, like China the red nosed pitbull and the blue heeler rescued from the shelter. I even learned how to ask, “May I pet your dog?”  in Chinese. One of the babies pictured in Happy Kids, Happy Dogs visited the booth with his parents and younger brother; how time flies. Older kids and their parents got a kick out of reading Don’t Lick the Dog, and soon I will contact the winner of the raffle of Happy Kids, Happy Dogs.

If you didn’t have a chance to stop by the booth, here are the ABCs of Dog Safety:

Ask permission.

Ask, “May I pet your dog?” before you touch a dog. Always ask, even if you know the dog and even if you think the dog looks friendly.

Be a tree.IMG_1635

Stand still with arms at your side. If the dog does not come closer, do not touch. If the dog comes close to you, then the safest place to pet is the chin or chest.

Chin or chest is where you should pet.

Do not hug or kiss a dog or hold your hand out toward his nose (the dog can already smell you). Those motions can scare a dog and lead to a bite. If the dog comes close to you, stroke under the chin or on the chest. If he doesn’t come close, count his spots or admire his collar, but don’t touch.

It was an all-around great day. Next year I hope to make it over to the face painting booth…

Love It or Leave It

“Leave it” is a handy cue to communicate to your dog “it is none of your beeswax, leave it alone, period.” While it is pretty common for people to command, “leave it” at their dog in a threatening tone to get the dog to back off of something he wants, I would venture that those dogs are reacting to the tone of voice and don’t understand the words (try growling “rutabaga” in the same tone next time, and see what happens…).

Does it matter whether the dog understands the concept of leaving something alone on cue, as opposed to being scared into backing off? Maybe, maybe not. You’ll have to assess that for yourself, but here is some food for thought. There are times it is particularly important to get your dog to “leave it” without sounding threatening. For example, if your dog is approaching your baby, or thinking of going up to another dog, you probably wouldn’t want your dog to feel threatened or worried in either of those situations. You’d probably want him feeling relaxed, responsive, and capable of moving away on one, neutral, unemotional cue from you. Or on a “leave it” cue given by anyone in your family, even a child. Furthermore, you may prefer to tell your dog to “leave it” without having to keep after him. Ideally “leave it,” means to leave it alone, period, so that you can turn your back or leave the room, and your dog is not busy sorting out, “Is it safe or dangerous to go for it?” They are just happy to “leave it” without you repeating yourself or trying to catch them at something. That’s a much more reliable, practical state of affairs in my experience. And it means your dog can hang around you when you have guests over, appetizers at nose-level, because just the presence of something tempting can become part of the cue. It is very handy when “leave it” becomes the dog’s default behavior.

There are four steps to teaching “leave it.” This video shows the first two steps (the other two are putting the desirable item in more challenging places like the floor or a coffee table, and, finally, putting the behavior on verbal cue before working up to real-life scenarios). Things to know before you start:

  • In Step I you will present your dog with the temptation of treats held in your fist. The dog will try nudging, licking, pawing, and nibbling to get at the goodies. The object is to pay close attention so you will notice the instant your dog’s nose moves away from the temptation. And his nose will move away, if only an inch, if only for an instant. It is that voluntary withdrawal from the temptation that you will reward by saying ‘yes’ and feeding a treat from the opposite hand. What could be better than your dog volunteering to ignore items of great interest?
  • It goes very quickly. Even if you drop a treat or say ‘yes’ at the wrong time (I do each of those once in the video), it doesn’t matter, just keep going. Your dog will pick this up very fast, so be ready!
  • Use ho-hum treats in your “leave it” hand and super duper, really good treats in your reward hand. (In the video, my right “leave it” hand holds dog biscuits and my left hand holds tiny bits of meat as rewards.)
  • For Step II, you will hold a treat in your open palm, which your dog will go for (be ready!). When he does, say nothing. Do not withdraw your hand, but rather snap it shut like a clam.
  • Do not utter the words “leave it” for these first two steps. (You will not hear me say “leave it” in the video.) You would not want to pair the dog going for the food with the words “leave it,” right? Only when the dog understands that avoiding the desired item brings him rewards should you add the cue.
  • As a bonus, if you can keep the dog from sitting or lying down, that is optimal. In real life, the dog is usually up on all fours, moving about when we need a “leave it” cue. Possible scenarios might be on a walk and there’s something disgusting on the sidewalk, in the kitchen and you’ve just dropped a hunk of chocolate, or in the family room and your toddler is ambling by with a snack in hand. So if the dog sits during your “leave it” training, reward close to your body so he has to get up to get the reward. Or just back up and pat your leg before the next repetition. (In the video, the dog is sitting and even lying down at one point, partly because with such a tight camera angle I would have been out of sight had I backed up.)

That should be what you need to get started. Happy training!

Backyard Blues

It is awfully convenient to be able to open the backdoor and let your dog out. Maybe you are even able leave him there for extended periods. Particularly if he can easily reach water and shelter in your absence, this may work out just fine for you, depending on the type of neighborhood in which you live. And then there are those dogs who sing the backyard blues. Dogs are smart, social creatures. Therefore, leaving them unattended in the yard can cause trouble that outweighs the convenience of having them spend their days outside. If your dog is bored, under exercised, or agitated by being isolated from you, you may find yourself with problems such as:


Barking or howling

Fence-fighting with neighbor dogs

Barking at passing dogs, kids or other pedestrians

Fence jumping (which means not only could your dog be hit by a car, but you will also be in violation of city ordinances; your dog may be picked up by animal control for being “at large” or disturbing people or their property)

Being let out of the yard by a worker, solicitor, or neighborhood child

Coprophagia (eating feces)

Ingesting toxic plants, mushrooms

Pawing or tearing at the screen or back door

Chewing on your belongings or deck

Being frightened by thunder or unruly kids (which can lead to a fear of going into the yard, or aggression toward strangers or children)

Being vulnerable to theft, abuse, or predators (such as hawks and coyotes)

Being in violation of noise ordinances (for incessant, early-morning or late-night barking)

That list covers just about every issue I’ve gotten a phone call about from clients who thought they were doing their dog or themselves a favor by leaving him in the yard, and found themselves with problems down the line.

For most people, the backyard is best used as a place to enjoy the dog by engaging him in fetch, playing or training, or just relaxing and having the dog keep them company while they garden. If you’d like to be able to use your yard to temporarily confine your dog, unattended, here are a few tips to help it turn out well:

  • Provide your dog with interesting things to do in the yard so he won’t develop bad habits or anxiety barking. Keep him occupied with: a stuffed Kong tied to a tree, a sandy area in which you bury dog treats, his meal flung out into the grass for him to scavenge, or a Kool Dogs Ice Treat Maker.
  • Make sure your dog is housetrained before using the yard this way. Otherwise you may be surprised to learn that your dog does not really understand the concept of “holding it” until given a yard opportunity, since he’ll be in the habit of just eliminating whenever he feels the need.
  • Provide adequate exercise for your dog. Your dog will likely just lay around in the yard, or maybe chase a squirrel or two. So you’ll still need to provide exercise in the form of fetch or walks for his mental and physical well being.
  • Use a fence tall enough that your dog can’t jump it.
  • Be courteous to your neighbors. It is not ok to allow your dog to bark incessantly. Not only does that indicate that he may be stressed, but also that he may be causing your neighbors stress. Noise ordinances prohibit this in many towns.
  • Keep your yard free of feces so that you can both enjoy the yard (and cut down on the spread of parasites).
  • If your dog is not used to being unsupervised outdoors, start out leaving your dog for short spurts, like five or ten minutes, and build from there. This will give you a chance to monitor whether or not this is a good idea for your dog.

Finally, be aware of why you want your dog in the backyard. If you are avoiding a training challenge, it might be best to get help with the problem that is resulting in him being placed in the backyard in the first place. Perhaps you just need a place to put him so he won’t be underfoot, or so your dog and kids can have a break from each other (in which case I would recommend an indoor Safety Zone). With a little forethought, you can keep your dog from singing the backyard blues.