What makes your dog come running?


All I have to do is let a knife hit a cutting board. My dog Bodhi can be three rooms away or playing with our other dog, but if he hears the sound of a knife on a cutting board, he comes flying.

I have never fed him food from the cutting board, dropped what I am chopping or let him lick the cutting board.

His enthusiasm stems from what the sound of the knife on the cutting board predicts. The smell of dog treats, sure, but more importantly: action.

Action is the most important thing to Bodhi. It’s more important than food, toys or affection. And when I chop treats, it means there is going to be exciting stuff happening. A field trip to go see his dog buddy. A training session to learn a new trick. A new friend coming over. Chopping treats is very special because it always predicts excitement to follow. (It helps that I rarely chop anything else on the cutting board; he does not react this way when the cook in the family chops!)

I wouldn’t have noticed this association, except I started to feel like I was in a Warner Brothers cartoon. Chop, chop, zoom! And there was Bodhi, practically standing on my head.

The moral of this story is this: You may wish your dog would respond to your call with more gusto. Or perhaps you’ve said, as many have, “She knows her name, but get her in [kryptonite situation] and she just won’t listen.”

These so-so outcomes result when we try to apply a training plan that sounds good to us, but leaves the individual dog out of the equation. Have you ever really considered (and applied to a training challenge) what your dog thinks is the greatest thing ever?

Just for fun, think about it. On an average day, what gets him really excited? It might not involve you! It might be gross! It might be something you can’t hold in your hand! Try to drop your own ideas of what counts as a reward, and really ask what your dog likes best.

Next, can you give him that, a version of it, or at least mimic it? Then all you have to do is make your come-when-called word the magic sound, the tip-off, the predictor that his favorite thing is about to happen.

It takes some creativity, and, if you’re like me, you’ll make mistakes along the way. When Bodhi was young it took me a while to figure out that something as intangible as action was what he loves best. Once I let him show me, though, we were in pretty good shape. I made a list of his favorite high action games, and started calling his name only when I had a plan to provide one of them. Whamo, association made.

What does your dog love to do? How can you provide that after you’ve called? Even if you try it just for a week or two, I bet you’ll be amazed what a difference it makes. Happy training!



The Surprise Factor

Surprise your dog with rewards after he or she has done something you like. This video clip shows me calling my dog and then surprising him with a toy he’s never seen before. His speed and focus as he approaches show the results you can get by using surprises in your training. Powerful stuff!

To teach a great come when called, start with the Gotcha Game.

How can you incorporate the surprise factor into other behaviors you wish would become automatic for your dog?

Surprise! Enter code NEWYEAR30 and save 30% on Puppy Savvy and Happy Kids, Happy Dogs through December 31. (The coupon code is case sensitive.)

How to Catch a Dog With the Gotcha Game

LogoanRecallThe Gotcha Game is for you if you want your dog to come all the way to you when you call. If you’ve ever been frustrated that your dog heads towards you, but then stays just out of reach, playing this game correctly should solve that. And if you’d like to make sure your dog is comfortable having anyone grab him or her by the collar, start playing the Gotcha Game. Here it is in three quick steps to accompany the detailed instructions in Puppy Savvy. You’ll also find tips for Bold and Bashful puppies there. (Works for grown dogs, too!)

Notice how I touch the puppy underhand instead of reaching over hand or over his head. Most dogs do not enjoy patting on top of the head and may back away or avoid coming all the way to you. Notice also in Step III how I lavish praise on the pup for quite a long time for coming to me. Be generous and your puppy will want to come close and stick with you.

Many thanks to Sandi and the delightful Logan. (Don’t miss his adorable prairie dog impersonation in this clip.)

Reward Delivery for Rewarding Results

It can be very effective to train your dog using treats or toys, but only if you use them correctly.  If you deliver them without care, use them as bribes, or inadvertently reward the opposite of what you really want, you likely won’t get the results you were hoping for. A few tips can help you get the most out of your reward-based dog training sessions.

Reward delivery is the focus of this blog entry. Before you begin a training session, plan how you are going to deliver rewards. Think about what position you want the dog’s body to tend toward, and maximize reward delivery to that end. This will greatly increase your dog’s understanding and speed progress. Here are a few examples:

Coming when called

A dog who comes when called, but who doesn’t come close enough for you to touch, may be impossible to catch when it really counts. To teach your dog to come in all the way, always deliver the treats or toy very close to your body. It may help to anchor your hands on your knees or thighs so you won’t be tempted to reach out toward the dog, thereby inadvertently rewarding him at arm’s length.

While you are at it, occasionally grasp your dog’s collar while you are rewarding him with the other hand; that way he’ll feel quite happy to be grabbed by the collar.

With a little dog, you can add some excitement by occasionally tossing the reward between your legs and out behind you. This way he gets accustomed to flying right up to you, never knowing when you might let him chase down the treat. Little dogs are sometime uncomfortable getting right up close to us, so this delivery will reward them for zooming right in. Just be sure you play this game only some of the time, rewarding close to your body most of the time. (See more Coming When Called tips.)

Leash manners

Notice when your dog is walking right by your side, because that body position in relation to yours is what you should reward. Deliver the treat by reaching it down along the side of your leg, parallel to the seam of your pants, then place the treat on the ground near the heel of your shoe. This treat delivery method results in the dog sticking by your side and prevents him cutting in front of you, zig zagging back and forth, lagging behind or forging out ahead. When you reinforce the behavior of walking by your side, it will increase in frequency, duration and intensity.

This reward delivery also sets the dog up for a successful repeat performance; while he is nibbling the treat off the ground, you can move off, so that he has to catch up to you. When he reaches your side, presto, he is in position for another reward. This enables you to rehearse success over and over.

Placing the treat on the ground also decreases the likelihood of your dog jumping up at you while you walk, since when your dog is eating the treat he’s being rewarded for having all four feet on the ground.

As soon as your dog reliably positions himself along side you as you walk, increase and randomize the number of steps you take before rewarding.  Blend in real-life rewards for walking beside you, like a chance to sniff a tree or play with another dog, and within weeks you will no longer need to use treats as rewards.

Holding still

How can you get your dog to stay put once you’ve gotten her to sit or lie down? Sometimes people attempt to reward a dog for staying by releasing the dog to them and then feeding the treat. But that’s likely not rewarding the stay position; it’s rewarding the movement toward you, and may well erode your stay training. The same applies to sit as well as to down, or any other stationary position. Deliver the treat in a way that encourages the dog to maintain position and rewards that position.

To reward a down, deliver the treat between the front paws, close to the dog’s chest and slightly tucking her chin. That will help her weight shift back into a nice solid down, elbows on the floor.

To reward sit, deliver the treat slightly above nose level to keep the dog’s weight back in her haunches.

Think about other stationary positions or movement you’d like to reward, and how treat delivery can aid you in your training.

Want a Green Dog? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Recently I cleaned out a closet and afterwards had a nice pile of gently worn clothes to donate. But I also had a pile of old t-shirts and items that were too worn out or stained to pass on. Then I remembered that I had an extra dog bed cover, so I fluffed the old t-shirts a bit and stuffed them into the dog bed cover, zipped it up, and voila, instant dog bed. Unlike most commercially made dog beds, this one is fully washable, not just the cover. And if you make one like this, it has your scent built right in, which may comfort some dogs who would otherwise worry in your absence. If you have some old t-shirts or clean rags and want to make a dog bed like this, you can get covers through many online catalogs, including Greener Pup, LLC.

Another thing that you can save for your dogs are people food containers (first, rinse well) to use as toys. Dogs thrive on novelty and love to explore new smells and textures, so it can be a big treat for them to get something unusual to play with like:

  • Round lids (like from a buttery spread container) make good targets for training your dog to run away from the door when visitors enter. How-to: Teach him to nose touch the clean lid by holding it in your hand, then affix it somewhere away from the door at nose level. Stand near him and practice until he gets the hang of it (you may need to hold it in your hand first, then attach it to the wall or chair leg). When he is nose touching the lid with gusto on cue, increase your starting distance from it until he will charge over and bop it even if you are both standing near the door. Then add in the doorbell sound before you give your verbal cue, and your dog will hear the  bell, then run to the target instead of leaping on your guests.
  • It’s also great exercise to run back and forth to a target, so consider nailing a lid to a tree at nose-level, teach him to target that and call him back to you. When you call him back and reward, you are working on his come-when called cue as well.
  • Orange juice cartons, rinsed, dried and with a few small holes cut in the sides, make great low-cost food dispensers. Throw away the plastic cap and fill the container with your dog’s kibble. Your dog can enjoy his meal by tossing, nudging, and biting at the container. He may even rip it to shreds, which is what dogs were built to do, so let him have at it as long as he doesn’t ingest any of the pieces of the carton.
  • Plastic water bottles make great interactive toys. Fill one about a third full with water and put the cap back on, then put the whole bottle into a sock. Tie a tight knot in the sock and you’ve got a novel toy to keep a (up to 12-16 week old) puppy occupied. (Older dogs may puncture the bottle through the sock and then you’ll have a leaking toy, but you could use an empty bottle, several socks, and create a tug toy.) Freezing a plastic bottle of water can keep a puppy cool on very hot days, they like to lie right next to them.
  • Pizza pizza! If you have a high-energy dog who enjoys problem solving, offer him the empty, closed box after you’ve ordered a pizza (take out the paper that is sometimes in the bottom). As long as your dog is not the type to eat what he shreds, this is a safe, fun way to tire him mentally and physically under your supervision. And when he’s finished, what remains of the box will fit in the trash much easier (most places don’t allow recycling of pizza boxes). Toss a handful of dog treats into the box before you close it so he can hear and smell the goodies inside. The short video clip shows an older puppy’s first time with a pizza box: first I surprise him with it for coming when called, then he tears around with it, rips it, and makes the goodies come out and eats them. When I decide not to add more treats, he turns the box into a fetch toy, and then finishes by ripping it up some more. He is tired by the end.) Providing this kind of outlet for your dog’s normal mental and physical energy needs will help prevent him from wreaking havoc with your patience and possessions.

Finally, you can make a terrific, low-cost tug toy from a pair of old jeans. Just cut the legs off and knot them every 8 inches or so. Or you can cut the legs into strips and braid the strips, with knots on each end, for a super tough, long-lasting toy. I found a pair of high-waisted jeans (I swear I haven’t worn them in years!) in that closet I cleaned out, and they are now destined to become tug toys.

If you are not a person who likes to make things (or clean out her closet!), not to worry. Green doggie items are now all the rage; you can find eco beds made from recycled soda bottles and leashes, head collars and toys all made from recycled materials. Some of the proceeds from sales of these products go toward helping homeless dogs, so consider having a green dog!

The Straight Poop

Coprophagia is the fancy word for poop eating. Another word for it is “yuck,” and when dog owners tell me they have this problem they also mention the words “disgusting” and “unacceptable.” A dog may eat his own feces or that of other dogs, cats, or other creatures. It may start when a dog is a puppy or when he’s much older. In young dogs, the habit is often outgrown; if it comes on suddenly, particularly in an older dog, consult your veterinarian. There is a slight chance it could be related to a nutritional deficiency, parasite problem, or other condition, in which case there are usually other signs present (such as diarrhea). You’ll want to be extra sure your dog is vaccinated against canine viruses and does not suffer from intestinal parasites if he eats the poop of other dogs or animals. This will also help protect you and your kids from contracting any zoonotic diseases (those that can be transmitted from non-human animals to humans).

Veterinarians and behaviorists do not know why some dogs engage in coprophagia. But it’s neither a surprising nor uncommon behavior, given dogs’ history as scavengers. Maybe it just tastes good to some dogs (when you think about it, dogs do plenty of normal things we humans find gross). And some dogs may thrive on the attention the behavior gets them from their owners.

Regardless of the reasons, if you have this problem, you’ll want to intervene promptly since it’s a rewarding behavior to the dog. And the more a behavior is rewarded, the more it will increase in frequency and intensity.

Taste deterrents such as Forbid or Deter seem to have a limited success rate. I’ve never heard of them working, but perhaps that’s because I only get calls about the dogs for whom the products didn’t have any effect.

The first step is to clean up your yard. If there are just a few piles, a pooper scooper will do, as will the ol’ plastic bag used like a glove trick. If you have quite a bit of dog feces in your yard, you may want to consider hiring a professional company to clean things up so you can start fresh. (One company called Doo No More claims to be “#1 in the #2 business.”)

The next step is to escort your dog, on leash, outside to do her business when it is time for her to poop. If you’re not sure when that time is, keep a written log for a few days so you can see trends in what her bowel habits are. If her schedule is very haphazard, it likely means she is fed on too flexible a schedule. Feed your dog, pick up the bowl or food puzzle after 10 minutes, and don’t offer another meal until the next scheduled meal time. This will help your dog eat regularly, and therefore eliminate more regularly.

After your dog poops, the very moment she’s finished (don’t wait for her to turn her head toward her rear end or toward the pile), say “yes!” and offer her a delicious treat that you’ve had ready in your hand. Take a couple of steps away from the pile, rewarding her with another treat or two. Then, keeping the leash short to prevent her diving for the poop, clean it up and dispose of it. Then do a little bit more training with treats, maybe a down or a few tricks. That way, after she poops, her focus will be on you, the training, and the tasty morsels you have. You’ll be substituting a new habit for the old one. It will also give her something mentally stimulating to do (some dogs may eat feces out of boredom). After about 2 weeks, your dog should regularly turn her attention to you after defecating and you won’t need to keep her on the leash each time. Use the treats and occupy her mind for another couple of weeks. Continue indefinitely to clean up after your dog eliminates and keep your yard free of feces.

Finally, consider teaching your dog a cue to “leave it.” If you work up to a high degree of responsiveness to this cue, you can even apply it to food on the coffee table or floor, or to a pile of poop on the ground (works nicely for other icky things found on walks like gum, fast food wrappers, or smelly things your dog may want to roll in or consume). “Leave it” (or excellent responsiveness to being called to you) is a must if your dog eats feces she encounters when off-leash, such as on a walk, hike or visit to a dog park. Until she is very good at that, if you really want her to stop eating stool, you’ll need to keep her on a line when walking, or condition her to being happy about wearing a basket-style muzzle so she won’t inadvertently reward herself.

Breath mint, anyone?

Top Notch Dog is for the birds

Ah, springtime, the time of year when a young dog’s fancy turns to thoughts of…hunting down wildlife in the yard. 

If you have a dog who is prone to pester or harm wildlife, I can empathize. I am pretty sure one of my dogs, who came to us when she was 18 months old and whose background is a mystery, is the doggie version of Jason Bourne: normally placid, fierce-looking, sociable, a quick study, a good sense of humor. And who, in a former life, was a trained assassin.939

Today I was putting up some lightweight temporary fencing around a group of trees that are the home of a Northern cardinal family. There are three babies in the nest (eyes still closed), which I saw the day the aforementioned assassin pointed them out to me. So here I am, merrily erecting the barrier to give them a buffer zone in which to raise their young with a bit less stress, when I hear frantic barking about 100 feet away. It was my little hunter, making an unusual-sounding bark that was something between “I am really fired up and ticked off!” and “I am not sure what to do about it!!” I glanced over and saw her circling a particular spot. Uh-oh. Dogs in a predatory mode are typically silent. After all, hunters are more successful if they don’t advertise their intentions to their prey (there are exceptions, like some types of dogs bred to corner their prey for people). So the fact that there was a whole lot of yelling going on could only mean one thing…a confrontation, a stand- off. A snake.

I left my well-intentioned project without delay and arrived at the scene to find a black racer, tightly coiled, likely feeling quite scared and annoyed (they are known for being aggressive when trapped), all the while keeping a close eye out on little Jason Bourne as she circled him madly, barking in his face. When I called my dog from three feet away (I was afraid if I got closer I would startle the snake into doing something rash) she not only failed to come to me, but she gave me a quick look that seemed to say, “Hello, we have a situation here that I am trying to deal with could-you-please-get-up-to-speed?!?”

Now, despite her apparent former CIA activities I have managed to teach her to come when called, even in the presence of a squirrel, bird or a mole. In this case she clearly thought I was nuts, and was not about to leave that snake to his own devices. But I knew better. Black racers are not venomous, but a bite can become infected and is no doubt painful. The same goes for a dog bite to a snake. Oh, and did I mention that the dog in question weighs less than 10 pounds? 

So I just reached in and scooped her up (the dog, not the snake), and took her inside. When I got back outside to see if the snake might still be there, he was about 15 feet off to the side, up against the house where the gutter downspout is. I snapped a photo just before he thrashed and disappeared into, well, I don’t know where, but that was that.snakewallsnaketail I bet he is keeping our crawlspace free of rodents and thinking twice about where he should sunbathe next time. (Most snakes are helpful and just want to be left alone; see the NC Extension Service for  information about North Carolina Snakes.)snakeburrowing


As much as some people might say, “Well, it’s natural for dogs to chase critters, and besides, it’s my yard,” it wouldn’t be hard to argue that, while it’s normal for dogs to show predatory tendencies, it doesn’t make much biological sense for domestic dogs to kill and eat wild animals (and most don’t). After all, they are not using those calories (in most cases) to create offspring of their own. And as to the “it’s my yard” point of view, I am pretty sure the critters might well argue that we’ve built our houses in their yards.

Wildlife experts would list a host of reasons why dogs (and cats) should be kept from killing or disturbing wildlife, including protecting endangered and threatened species, of which there are several in our state. I have seen signs out west pleading with dog owners to keep their dogs on leash during hikes. One sign pointed out that a leashed dog can even enhance the humans’ enjoyment of wildlife by alerting them to it (such as when a dog raises his head and ears, letting the human know there is something worth seeing in the brush). cardinaldad

It seems that the neighborly thing to do is to strike a compromise. Here in suburbia, that is easily accomplished. If there is a nest of birds raising young, keep your dog or cat indoors while the fledglings learn to fly (little birds hopping around on the ground should not be bothered by well-meaning humans either; their parents are nearby, checking on them and feeding them periodically when no one is staring at them). Take walks instead of playing fetch that week. If you encounter wildlife you believe may need your help, before you do anything call (919) 572-WILD or visit the website of the Piedmont Wildlife Center. Get advice before you act to avoid unintentionally kidnapping babies from their parents or harming them. 

As for our doggie Jason Bourne, she won’t be getting anywhere near the cardinal nest (or the snake if I can help it). But what that black racer has in store for the birds or their next batch of eggs is out of my hands…