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!



Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

“Home” Acrylic on canvas by Barbara Shumannfang

We humans are always trying to get our dogs to do something. Or to stop them from doing something. Or teaching them to do something fun, or practical, or something that’s good for them. There’s a lot of doing.

Where’s the being?

Is it possible to relax with a dog? Or even because of a dog?

When my youngest dog was about 5 months old, he did something he’d never done before. He voluntarily laid down outside of his crate for the first time. That is what a busy little guy he was, always on the go, always in search of excitement. When he plopped down that first time without being cued or crated, I could hardly believe my eyes.

I learned to really cherish the not doing with him. Watching him sleep became one of the most relaxing things for me. To this day, when I see him curled up on his bed, perfectly still, breathing in and out, my own breathing slows down, too.

I think even (or perhaps especially) the busiest dogs have something to teach us about being still and relaxing. Be sure to give your dog, no matter their age or activity level, time to just be. Maybe you will even want to join in, if only for a few breaths.


Can You Trick Your Dog Into Holding Still?


I am holding verrrry still.

The answer is: yes! Which is oh-so-useful and kind when your dog needs veterinary treatments.

Doesn’t it seem like dog training is on one end of the fun spectrum (tricks like sit pretty, come, don’t jump up) while veterinary needs (hold still for eye medicine, don’t move for having blood drawn) are way on the other end of the spectrum?

I thought about this when my veterinarian advised soaking my dog’s paw twice a day for five minutes. You know how it goes: before you know it, you are soaking wet or have eye medicine up your nose, and your dog is desperately trying to get away from you.

However, if you teach your dog to love learning new tricks, veterinary treatments can be fun. Holding still is a trick (otherwise known as “stay”). Holding still while someone does things to your ear or paw is a slightly fancier trick (otherwise known as “stay with distractions”).

Dogs are pretty good with abstract concepts like “try something” or “don’t move.” So once you’ve taught a couple of easy tricks, the concepts transfer amazingly well to all kinds of scenarios. I love this approach for the way it takes out the fear and puts in the joy.

For foot soaking, I got out an empty bucket and waited for my dog to do something bucket related. (That’s how we start nearly all our tricks. It is called shaping. No coercion, just cooperation. Anyone can do it!) I gave him a treat every time his front foot accidentally moved (but not when he did other buckety things), and soon he was touching the bucket with his foot, then holding it inside the bucket, and then he stood in it. It seems fast, which is just because he is used to the concept of learning a new trick. Your dog can do it, too!

This is one weird trick, lady.

I asked him to stay, which he already knew from his “stay” trick, and quickly took a photo. Next session I added enough water for soaking before beginning. I will soak his foot near his favorite window so he can enjoy looking out for the five minutes (less fidgeting!), and of course he’ll get treats for holding still.

How can you apply tricks training to treatments you or your veterinarian need to administer? I welcome your questions and would be glad to offer tips in the comments section!


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.)

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.

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)!

How to Keep an Active Dog Quiet and Calm

My heart goes out to those of you who are surviving the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I hope this information might help in some small way.

I am picturing that, on top of everything else, you cannot walk your dog or let him run around. Maybe you are even in an emergency shelter with him or her.

There are things you can do to provide your dog outlets for his energy. And it might help you, too, as extended crate rest or downtime is stressful for the people as well (not to mention the mile-long waits for gasoline you may be experiencing.)

This is similar to advice I give folks whose dogs have just had surgery or who need to stay calm during heartworm treatment. I know what it’s like to hear the dreaded words from the veterinarian: “Keep her quiet for the next three weeks. Short on-leash potty trips to the yard and back only, no walks, running or jumping on furniture.” I have heard those words and then stood there in that surreal space thinking something between, “Uh, that’s impossible,” and “Bwahh-haaaa-haaa!”

Then I snap out of it, because I know one of the best kept secrets of dog training: mental exercise can be just as, if not more, energy-expending than physical exercise. Choose from any or all of these:

  1. Instead of using a bowl for meals, feed your dog her regular rations out of a food-dispensing toy (like Kong or Busy Buddy). Mix in a dab of peanut butter so it takes 15 minutes or more for her to work and strategize to forage for her dinner. Dogs were made for this! (Read how to stuff a Kong.) No Kong? No problem! Use a large, empty water bottle and cut some holes into it (please supervise to prevent ingesting plastic). To prevent the toy from bouncing around like gangbusters, tie it to the crate or the leg of your cot. Rotate the toys every few days so they retain their novelty.
  2. Teach and play “find it” games (just hide the food or play the shell game) with meals or treats. Need instructions? Just ask in the comment section below and I will post them!
  3. If you have access to long-lasting chew toys like marrow bones, bully sticks, or dehydrated sweet potatoes (Sam’s Yams are one brand), make those part of your dog’s routine while you are filling out paperwork, contacting loved ones, dealing with insurance companies or catching up on sleep.
  4. Teach your dog to relax on cue. You can use a dog bed, a blanket or even a washcloth as your dog’s spot. This is a great skill in the midst of a chaotic environment and is very practical to use once you get home. Need instructions? Let me know!
  5. This sounds silly, but it’s seriously important: teach your dog tricks. This is a great way to get immersed in the moment with your dog, appreciate her, let her make you laugh, and provide a crucial outlet for her brains and body. I am talking shake, crawl, high five, roll over, back up, take a bow, walk through my legs as I walk, sit pretty, balance dog biscuit on your nose, walk under a chair or between the rungs of a ladder placed on the ground. Depending on your situation (or whether your dog is post-surgery) teach her to help with household chores (like turn off lights, pick up the paper and bring it in, get the laundry out of the dryer, shut cabinet doors). If you’re at a shelter, teach her to hand you her dish or food puzzle when she’s finished eating or hand you your socks at the end of the day. Maybe there will be some wagging and smiling.
  6. Doggie massage is a great way to relieve stress and connect with your dog. It should be very light. Follow these tips or try T-touch.
  7. If you have access to a Thundershirt or CEVA brand Adaptil Collar, those can be a great help. You can get a similar effect by wrapping your dog in a tight t-shirt or ace bandage. There is often a calming effect from such swaddling.

Please get in touch here at the blog, Facebook or Twitter if you need further suggestions or are facing challenges this week that might have a training solution. I will do my best to help.

Shelter Dogs and All Their Baggage

A potential adopter recently asked me a question that I’ve been asked by countless folks over the years who are considering getting a shelter or rescue dog: “Is it risky to adopt a shelter dog since we don’t know his or her background?”

In other words, don’t those dogs have a lot of baggage?

The notion that shelter dogs come with a lot of baggage may originate, in part, from some of the very people who are working so hard to help them. Think about the shelter dogs you see depicted on TV or in a donation letter. Given the pitiful photos of fearful, trembling, sick and abused animals portrayed in fundraising efforts, it might seem like shelter dogs are a mess. I suppose the shelter might be trying to tug at your heartstrings, and maybe that brings in donation dollars (which are much-needed), but does it help present shelter dogs as a good bet for a family dog?

The average person, who wants a stable, healthy, friendly dog, could get the impression that a homeless dog has not been adequately socialized or provided essential veterinary care.

There are other reasons I can think of as to why this stereotype has evolved. But to cut to the chase, my answer to the adopter’s question was this:

Dogs have baggage, just like we all do, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the individual. This goes for puppies from a breeder, a box of puppies found on the side of the road, or a dog who has been given a break by a shelter or rescue group and is hoping to find a home. Puppies are not blank slates; they have personalities and life experiences that might have already made a big impression on them. (Dog people, especially those who have experience with buying and raising puppies, say to each other knowingly, “Puppies are a crapshoot.”)

It is possible to get a really great or a really problematic dog from any source. “Great” or “problematic” are defined by the people with whom the dog lives and on whom he depends. One person’s baggage is another person’s charming quirk.

Homeless dogs are not necessarily emotionally or physically scarred. Maybe they are just between homes.

My advice is not to adopt a dog out of pity, but rather because you and a dog who happens to be homeless are right for each other. That means doing what you can to assess a dog’s personality and behavioral tendencies, check out their physical health, and make sure they meet everyone else in the family first (as you should do before getting any dog). You probably don’t have a crystal ball, so it will be impossible to tell how it turns out. That’s part of the magic! (And true for any dog, from any source.)

Would you consider getting your next dog from a shelter?

Regardless of where you get your dog, do you know how to make a good outcome likelier?

If you volunteer with a rescue group or shelter, what kinds of things are you doing to highlight the benefits of adoption?

What do you think needs to happen to change the perception that shelter dogs have baggage?

I’ve got lots of other topics in mind for October’s National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. Let me know what you’d like to talk about. I am all ears!

What to do with a Kong

(This puppy is licking goodies out of her Kong instead of fussing during down-time at puppy class.)

If you have a new dog, especially a puppy or teenage dog, I bet everyone is telling you to get a Kong. Dog trainers are wild about Kongs, your veterinarian may even sell them in the waiting room, and every pet store stocks them in all sizes.

But let’s be honest, you have looked at a Kong and wondered what the big deal is. Maybe you even purchased one and brought it home. You put it in front of your pooch expecting a small miracle to occur. But your dog just sniffed it and walked away. You can’t help thinking, “Now what? Why all the hype?”

The truth is, the Kong is just a hunk of hollow rubber, unless you start thinking like a dog. Dogs like games and puzzles that engage their amazing brains. They need to use their powerful sniffers, their paws, and their jaws to scavenge and extract food from tricky places. The Kong is designed to make all of this physical and mental challenge happen in a way that does not involve your furniture, rugs, shoes, undies or other potential objects of fascination.

If your dog could talk, he or she would ask you to please stuff the Kong parfait-style: some smelly, gooey stuff in the tip (like cheese or peanut butter), layered with some kibble, then something globby like part of a banana, layered with a few dog biscuits or leftovers from last night’s supper (veggies are great, no cooked bones or toxic stuff, please), topped off with something easy to get started, like more peanut butter.

Now you’re on to something!

That should keep your dog quiet in the crate, or occupied while you prepare dinner or watch Dancing With the Stars (in which case you obviously cannot lower your eyes from the TV, even for a moment). You also get Good Dog Owner points for providing an outlet for your dog’s daily behavioral needs.

Fancy versions of this (because I know your dog is above-average smart):

  • Jam everything in as tight as possible by using the back of a knife
  • Prepare the Kong, then freeze it
  • Prepare the Kong, then nuke it for 15 seconds or so
  • Feed all regular meals as stuffed Kongs (use just a dab of PB mixed in to hold everything together)
  • Make multiple Kongs ahead of time (refrigerate) and hide them around the room/house before you leave

Yes, it’s gross, but your dog really will get every last morsel out (if not, adjust the difficulty by stuffing looser and using less goo). I put mine in the top rack of my dishwasher and, voila, they are sterilized and ready for another round. And I’ve had the same bloomin’ Kongs for 15 years.

If your dog has mack daddy chewing power, get the black Kong. If your dog is a girl, or boy, and color-coding is important to you, get the pink or blue Kong. But please, get a Kong. Your dog will love you for it. While your dog is munching away, please share your recipes, success stories and questions and comments below. There is likely another dog owner out there who would learn from your experience.