Is Your Dog Ready to Hike Off-Leash?

A reader recently commented on the “Don’t Worry, He’s Friendly!”  blog entry. She is committed to training her dogs to be well-behaved in public, and asked that others be patient while she teaches her dogs off-leash manners. She rightly pointed out that a dog is not reliably trained overnight, and said she feels if she leashes her dogs as soon as she sees someone else on a trail (as I recommended), the dogs will “learn nothing.”

The key to solving the training aspect of this dilemma is to understand that dogs are always learning from the situations we put them in.

If dogs are allowed to gallivant off leash to a stranger (even if the dog is friendly, still in the process of being trained, or any other reason), then the dog will likely find that to be fun and interesting and therefore be inclined to repeat it. With many dogs, it takes only one or two rehearsals of the behavior for it to seem worth repeating.

If, however, they are prevented from running around in the presence of strangers by being called and leashed (which courtesy and common decency towards others requires of us), and immediately provided with something fun and interesting (like praise, treats, a tug toy, a chance to sniff something fascinating) then that is the habit the dog will enjoy. It is up to us to make the choice and do our best to instill good habits. Part of good training is refraining from putting our dogs in situations that set them up for failure (some old-time methods used to do this deliberately, but we now know better). Rather, we should set them up for success so they get to rehearse correct behavior over and over.

It does take time to train a dog to respond reliably when we call, and I admire dog owners who make the effort. The good news is that there is no reason the training must occur at the expense of strangers’ comfort (or that of their dog!). Any solid recall training program will introduce gradually the distraction of other people, dogs, and wildlife, with the proper prevention measures in place to avoid subjecting anyone to the behavior of an untrained dog.

For example, we can start off in a training class designed to teach these skills using tried and true methods, rather than simply doing our best and hoping things go well. As the dog reaches more advanced levels, we can set up situations in which the approaching “stranger” is actually a friend we’ve enlisted to help assess and strengthen the dog’s skills. Until you can reliably call your dog away from the most tempting distractions under controlled situations, it is not fair to others to attempt it in real-life circumstances where you could cause problems for people and dogs, however well-intentioned you may be.

So where does one find a solid training program, one that uses modern, reward-based methods to get a jaw-dropping reliable recall? The book Out and About with Your Dog: Dog to Dog Interactions On the Street, On the Trails and at the Dog Park by Sue Sternberg offers one such training program. Another solid approach is Leslie Nelson’s Really Reliable Recall DVD or Susan Garrett’s Five Minute Formula for a Brilliant Recall webinar. Nowadays most anyone has access to a professional trainer who can create a customized plan (try Association of Pet Dog Trainers and do a Trainer Search). You might also find it helpful to train towards Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) degrees, in which the dog must come instantly even when tempted by a stranger offering treats or with food and toys spread on the ground.

By the way, even if your dog is on leash, and especially if your dog is on a retractable leash, it is important to keep your dog by your side when passing others and not allow your dog to approach them (joggers, cyclists, people on horseback or with a stroller, people walking their dogs). Please put yourself in others’ shoes; while your dog may be lovely, young or just learning, their dog may be shy or unable to tolerate invasions of personal space. If you are interested in a doggie introduction, you must first ask, “Can they meet?” and wait for an answer before even considering letting your dog approach. This protects your dog, their dog, and shows respect for your fellow humans.

None of us is perfect, and we all make mistakes from time to time. Hopefully we all try to do our part on public trails by recognizing we each play a role in the continued availability of these spaces to people and dogs. Just as we avoid littering and leaving behind dog waste, let us to be courteous and not allow our dogs to intrude on the outdoor experience of others. Happy training!

Tricks Contest: How to Teach Your Trick with Luring, Shaping or Capturing

People have been teaching dogs tricks since they starting hanging out together, many moons ago. That is my guess, anyway. After all, we both like to play, we both have a sense of humor (some more than others, both species), and we both seem to find it entertaining. I can just picture the first time someone tossed a dog a scrap of meat, and the dog caught it in her mouth. “Cool trick,” the onlookers must have said (presumably in an early Homo sapiens dialect).

So now, here you are, looking at your dog. And your dog is looking back at you, maybe a little bored, or maybe even a little optimistic that you’ve got something interesting for him to do today.  Well, it’s his lucky day, because it’s time to learn a new trick.

Tricks can help a shy dog come out of her shell, can help a busy dog calm down and focus, and can wear out a young, energetic beast who needs something to wrap his mind around. Many a dog has gotten plenty of aerobic exercise, but still has too many ants in the pants from lack of mental stimulation. Tricks fit the bill. They can also relax your dog in the veterinary waiting room, help your dog warm up for a dog sport, or facilitate an interaction between with children or other people who may prefer to enjoy your dog at a slight distance. When you think about it, a lot of impressive dog training, like agility or competition obedience, is really many tricks strung together.

Where to start? The first thing to know is, you can’t botch it up. If it doesn’t work out, so what? Start over fresh, or teach a different trick. It is pressure-free training at its finest. A good way to try out some tricks training is to experiment with the three main ways to teach a trick (there are other ways, but we’ll stick with these three for now). Before you start you should plan on what you are going to call your trick (this is the “cue”).  But (and this is a big but) for the last two methods listed here you will not use a verbal cue until the trick is completely taught (dogs don’t speak English anyway, so it doesn’t help them to chant the word over and over).  I recommend putting only finished tricks on cue, as otherwise your cue will only get you a so-so response. Save the cue for the action you want to show off as the final product.

Helpful Hints

  • Use tiny, pea-sized, very special rewards.
  • Keep training segments super short (1-3 minutes). Your entire session can be longer if you break the segments up with play or down-time. (Dogs who understand shaping–see below–are often highly motivated to train for longer sessions.)
  • Use the cue word only once you have the polished behavior.

Remember to enter the Big Tricks Contest. No experience necessary, any level difficulty trick is eligible. You can post here for troubleshooting help between now and February 15th. Someone has to win, right? It could be you!

Here are the three methods with which to experiment:


This means the dog already does the trick, you just have to put a name to it. It’s something she already does in her daily life, like stretch when she wakes up from a nap (call it Take a Bow!) or shake her whole body from nose to tail when she is wet or has just gotten up form rolling on the ground (call it Dry Off!). The difference is that you will teach the dog that if she hears the cue for the action, then she should offer it on purpose.

That’s what makes it a trick; you cue it, she does it, there is applause.

On the video in the last blog entry, you’ll see the dog is cued with the word “Hungy?” and she licks her lips. I did not teach her to lick her lips; she already did that on her own. I waited for her to lick them, and the moment before she did so, I said, “Hungry?” and rewarded her.  After doing that nine million times (actually, it was really more like ten times), I could say, “Hungry?” when she wasn’t even expecting it, and she would lick her lips. Ta da!

To use capturing, pick the action your dog does that is predictable. For two or three days, keep an eye out for when he is about to do the action you want to capture. Within 2 seconds of him doing the behavior, before he does it, say the cue word in a calm, neutral voice. When the behavior has ended, say “yes!” and reward him with a treat. Don’t want to carry treats around? When you think about how fast you’ll have a pretty complicated, completed trick, it doesn‘t seem like such a big deal to carry a pocketful of treats around for a couple of days. Besides, I bet you can come pretty close to predicting exactly when your dog is about to offer the action you are hoping to capture.

Just a word of caution. Capturing is a good idea for actions your dog does that you like and that you won’t mind seeing more of. You may have read in a dog training book that it’s easy enough to capture a behavior you don’t like by putting it on cue, so that the dog won’t do it at all unless you ask. (Barking and pawing are examples you’ll come across. “Just teach him to bark on cue and then he won’t do it in the absence of the cue,” the books will claim.) However, I don’t recommend trying that for behaviors you don’t like. Most people are not obsessive enough about training to put a behavior under perfect stimulus control (meaning the dog does it only when cued), and they can end up with a dog who offers the annoying behavior more than he did before you started cueing and rewarding it. Just thought I would give you the heads up.


This means you take something your dog will follow with his head, like a food treat or a toy, and you hold it close to the dog’s nose. You will pretend the desired item has a magnet in it, and that the opposite pole magnet is in your dog’s nose. Therefore, anywhere you move the lure, your dog’s head will follow. Neat! (If your dog won’t follow the lure, he is telling you he doesn’t care about it. Pick something yummier.)

If you took your dog to a basic obedience or manners class, you probably lured your dog into a sit: head following the treat goes up, butt goes down. Ideally you would have said, “Yes!” to mark the moment the hiney hit the floor, and then popped the lure into your dog’s mouth as a reward. This is a wonderful method to use if you need to make the action happen right then and there (class time is limited after all), or if you would like a hand motion or hand signal to be part of the dog’s trick.

Suppose you want to teach your dog to “spin,” meaning he should pivot to his right in a tight circle. You would offer the thing he likes right in front of his face so he can lick at the treat or follow the toy with his eyes. Ever so slowly, you will lure your dog around to his right. When he completes the circle, you say “yes!” and release the reward item to him. If making the entire circle is too much, teach half a circle and build from there. (Hint: start with the dog in a standing position; if he’s sitting, he can’t pivot too well. Back up and make a kissy noise and he’ll stand up to come toward you.)

As soon as your dog has the hang of it, meaning he goes right around as soon as he sees the lure moving, you should begin phasing out the lure (or he will become dependent on it to do the trick). Hide the reward in your opposite hand. Hold an invisible lure in the hand you’ve been using all along. “Lure” your dog around in the tiny circle with your invisible lure (this will ensure all your body, eye and hand cues all still look the same). When your dog completes the circle, say, “Yes!” and reward from the hidden treat in your opposite hand. This is how you explain to the dog that he doesn’t need to see the reward in order to perform, but that it’s the hand motions that counts. Eventually you will hide the reward in your pocket, then on a counter top, then hidden somewhere in the room, until you don’t need it at all. When he’s really good at it, say “spin” a split second *before* you move your arm and he’ll learn the word for the trick. If you want to eliminate the hand signal, you can “fade” it out of the trick by making your arm movement slightly less dramatic each time you cue the trick, until it disappears altogether. Fancy!

In the video, the dog is cued to lie down with the word “down,” but I used luring to teach the trick. First I used the treat to get her in a down position. Once she was doing the motion reliably, I stopped holding a food treat but did the same hand motion. Then I added the word “down” before my hand motion. Finally, by making my hand motion just a teeny tiny bit less obvious each time, the dog learned that just the word “down” meant to lie down, no hand motion needed.


Now more than ever, this method is all the rage in the dog training world.  Although I would not say it is better than the other two methods, like the other two, it has its advantages. There is no lure to fade out of the trick. There is also no arm or hand motion to fade out. The dog may have a stronger understanding of the trick because he has to figure it out by trying different things, rather than being shown the finished product from the beginning. And you can get your dog to offer all sorts of actions that would be pretty darned hard, if not impossible, to lure or capture.

They key here is to make sure you have first taught the dog that the word “Yes” is the sound that means he has just earned a treat. You will use this sound to communicate with him every step of the way. Some people use a device called a clicker, because it is a unique, neutral sound that the dog can readily key in on as having the meaning “you just earned a treat!” “Good dog” won’t really cut it for this, because it’s used in too many ways and not always followed by a special treat. To load the word “yes” with meaning, just say, “Yes!” pause a beat, then feed the treat. After about ten repetitions your dog will have it, especially if you use bits of cheese.

The trick “Potluck” from the video was taught using shaping. This means at our first training session I said, “Yes!” and rewarded the dog for any, even tiny, remotely bowl-related behavior she offered. At first she may have only glanced at the bowl, which I marked with the word “yes” and rewarded. Then I said “yes” for her sniffing it, followed by nudging it or walking near it. As the session evolved, she tried hard to make me say the word, “Yes!” by offering new things. As soon as she started engaging with the bowl deliberately and actively, I started getting pickier about what I would say “Yes” for. Soon I was saying “Yes” for any feet in the bowl, then only for all four feet in the bowl, then only for all four feet in the bowl plus staying in it. Then I finished the trick by saying, “Potluck!” just as she was hopping in the bowl.

So first teach your dog the magic word (Yes=treat). Then start rewarding for any movement, then for movement more related to the finished product (however remotely), and then gradually get pickier. You should be saying “Yes” and rewarding a lot because your dog has no clue what the desired action is and you’ve got to keep her in the game until her guesses start looking like what you want. Your goal is to gradually and purposefully shape the final behavior by rewarding tiny, incremental steps toward it.

Dogs on the Furniture, Oh Dear!

If you have a dog, you have probably had a furniture issue at some point. Maybe you’ve had trouble keeping your dog off the furniture when you’re using it, keeping him off it when you’re not at home to supervise, teaching him to use only a particular piece of furniture, trying to get him out from under the furniture, or keeping the furniture free of hair, not to mention free of teeth. We like our dogs, we like our furniture, and sometimes these two things together create problems.

In terms of teaching your dog rules about getting on the furniture, you have many choices. I provide a few options below, plus their effects on your furniture. Whichever way you decide to go, your dog will be neither deprived nor ruined. Just be consistent. Regular readers will recognize the recurring theme of preventing dog behavior you don’t want and rewarding behavior you do want:

Allowing your dog access to any piece of furniture, anytime

Training difficulty: Pretty easy to teach once they figure out how comfy it is up there. And no, allowing your dog on the furdogpileniture will not make him dominant, homicidal, or spoiled. But if you have a new dog or puppy, I do not recommend starting with this. That’s simply because you don’t know each other yet and you haven’t had the chance to establish any boundaries and rules. To help your dog develop into a polite family member, it is best to make sure your dog listens well, understands boundaries, and has the training and self-control skills that are important to you. Once that’s established, you’ll be able to make more places and activities available. I also recommend teaching a simple cue to get your dog off the furniture in case your Aunt Betty would like to have a seat. To teach that, say your cue word like “off,” then pat your leg to encourage your dog down. If he’s reluctant, say the cue then bowl a dog biscuit away from the couch. He’ll soon respond to the cue and hand motion that went with bowling the treat.

Keep in mind: If your dog growls or otherwise threatens people when he’s on the couch or bed, he is not a good candidate for this option. He is likely guarding the bed or anticipating being touched. Get professional help with any underlying pain or anxiety.

Furniture consequences: Hair, drool, claw marks, hair, odor, hair. Use a throw blanket that you can launder and easily remove when you have guests.

Keeping your dog off your furniture, all the time

Training difficulty: This is the second easiest option to teach, because it is one of the least confusing (“never” is pretty straight-forward!). If you have a dog with back pain or who is recovering from surgery, your veterinarian may tell you furniture is off-limits to your dog.

The idea here is to a) prevent furniture climbing and b) reward lying elsewhere (like the floor or a dog bed). It is incredibly useful to have an exercise pen handy for this. I find it speeds the transition for a new puppy or dog tremendously. Even if you don’t have an x-pen (as they are called for short), make sure your pooch has a chewy down on the floor before he is tempted to get on the couch. If he likes to lie down on a very soft surface, provideLyingbesideCouch him a cushy dog bed so the couch won’t tempt him as much. Initially you can tether him to a heavy piece of furniture within range of the dog bed (provided you’ll be present). If you do this whenever you are seated on the sofa, at the computer, or at the table, you will condition him to occupy himself quietly at those times. If you are consistent, it will become a habit for him.

To prevent him from leaping onto the sofa when you first enter the room, have him drag a lightweight line or light leash for a week or so. Be ready to step on the line to prevent him bolting for the couch, and then direct him to his bed or place near the couch he can work on his chew toy.

If you are already seated and he enters the living room, be ready; don’t wait to see what he’s going to do next. Call him to you with a treat held down near the floor. You can also teach him to nose touch—-ask him to do that before he has a chance to consider the couch. Try having your dog do a couple of sits and downs to help him get the ants out of his pants before encouraging him onto his dog bed and tethering with a chewy. You can also imagine you are a soccer goalie, and physically block the couch with your body. Slide or move left and right if your dog tries to get by you (no need to say anything, it will just distract him). Many dogs get the message after a few attempts and decide it’s less trouble just to lie beside the couch.

During the training process, which depending on the dog might be a couple of weeks or less, prevent access to the furniture when you can’t supervise. Crate your dog, close the living room door, or use baby gates to prevent access.

Furniture consequences: Your guests will hardly know you have a dog.IMG_1359

Allowing your dog one piece of furniture

Training difficulty:  This is the trickiest option to teach. Follow the guidelines for never being allowed on the furniture, but with the following exception: Teach your dog to ask for permission to get up on the allowed piece of furniture. Have him sit, and release with “Ok!” as you pat the sofa. Just to keep things clear (which always smoothes the training process) make sure he never gets on the designated couch or chair without permission at first. Self-control and manners first, then furniture time.

Furniture consequences: Most of your furniture will be hairless, except of course for the chair he’s allowed up on. Consider using metal cookie trays spread out on the off-limits pieces in your absence (store them under the cushions) until he’s in the habit of using only the chair you’ve selected.

I don’t recommend booby-trapping furniture. I know of dogs who have become wary of the entire living room as a result, or fearful of whomever was standing nearby when they were spooked, which are much bigger problems than a little dog hair. Just use a throw blanket and call it a day.

Housetraining Hint #1

Teaching your dog to eliminate only outside, especially if he’s a new puppy, is usually a labor intensive process. You’ll need to take him outside frequently, know how to respond if he does pee indoors, know the right way to supervise so he does not pee indoors in the first place, and have a plan for increasing his freedom in the house. In addition to this primer on how to house train a puppy, I thought I would offer a series of weekly hints to help those of you who are in the midst of this process. These are tips that are commonly needed by my dog training clients and that have made a big difference in their progress. Some of these hints maypuppypeeing not apply to you. If not, just wait a few days! Puppies have a way of throwing a curve ball at you just when things are going smoothly. Not to worry, that’s normal; my hope is that having the tip ahead of time will help ease the house training for both of you. So here we go, here is tip #1:

Do not praise your puppy or new dog while he is eliminating. Timing is everything. If you begin praising your pooch as soon as he has squatted, you risk distracting him or interrupting him altogether. This can translate into more frequent potty opportunities needed, or the “he pees in the house as soon as we’ve walked back in the door” syndrome. Let him empty that little bladder all the way. The moment he finishes is the time to turn on the enthusiastic praise.

Happy 10th Anniversary, Top Notch Dog!

We are celebrating our 10th anniversary with a dog training giveaway. Naturally it involves a bone, the funny bone to be exact: whoever comes up with the funniest caption for the Top Notch Dog anniversary photo will receive one hour of dog training instruction at Top Notch Dog, a $100.00 value.  See the previous post to get the scoop on the contest and how to enter (hint: you enter by posting your caption idea and full name as a comment to this post, please read below for details). Here is the photo:threedogspicsm1