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.

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!


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

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

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

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

How to seem like someone a dog could trust

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

Some perspective and some tips

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

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

Quick Fix looming

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

  approaching Make It Stick

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

  Walkingaway Extra Slick

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

How to get started

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How old is your dog?”

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

“Where did you get that cool collar?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruff Love: How to Create a Canine Connection

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

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

How Your Puppy Is Just Like an Alligator (And I Don’t Mean Because of All the Biting)

alligatorPuppies and dogs drive us bonkers, what with all their leaping, biting, pulling and indoor peeing. It can be challenging to live with a dog, no doubt about it. Why is it sometimes so difficult?

Imagine that you and your family have decided to adopt a pet alligator. First you would find out a little about alligators, then you’d visit ReptileFinder online to look at photos and pick the cutest one, and finally you’d bring the little dickens home.

Soon the alligator would start exhibiting her normal behaviors. She would slip into the goldfish pond in your garden and wreak havoc (pretend you have a goldfish pond). She would hide under the couch to take a nap, ripping the underside of the upholstery with her pointy back. She would open her huge mouth, holding it wide in a toothy threat display because you approached her too fast. The sight of her gaping, massive jaws would probably scare the you-know-what out of you.

Obviously you would not say to yourself, “This is a naughty alligator! I need to learn how to discipline her!” You would think, “Well, duh. Alligators need to do alligator things. I had better get a kiddie pool, a raised platform underneath which she can nap, and, to put her at ease, I need to learn to move differently around her.”

But it is not so obvious with a dog who appears to be naughty. Why not? It is because, unlike with an alligator, or for that matter literally any other animal on earth, the natural histories of dogs and humans are specially intertwined. Some scientists would even say humans and dogs have co-evolved. We “get” each other in ways that no other human/non-human pair understands each other. We have emotions in common and enjoy many of the same things. Dogs can read our body language and facial expressions, and even anticipate and fulfill our needs. It’s not your imagination.

However, we tend not to return the favor by trying to understand what our dogs are feeling and what they’re trying to tell us. Why? Because we are in charge, so we don’t trouble ourselves with it. We generally consider dogs’ needs and opinions less valuable than ours. When you think about it, that is a pretty arrogant attitude (some would call it “speciesist”). That’s not the kind of person most of us want to be. Golden Rule and all, if you see what I mean.

Honestly, there is no harm in giving your puppy the same consideration you would an alligator. It might even teach you and your kids something about yourselves, and about how we treat those who are similar yet different from us.

Granted, it is not always easy to live with another species. I don’t blame you one bit if at times you get emotional with your puppy, or try to explain to her the rules in the way that makes sense only to a human, or feel like she should know better. We all get sucked into that, partly because of how much we have in common with dogs. The connection we have with dogs is downright amazing, but it is no wonder the lines get blurry about what we expect they should automatically know. We have given them the role of family member, fashion accessory, disposable project, worker, best friend, menu item, hero, and hat trim, just to name a few. It’s confusing, to be sure. They are so like us, and at the same time we could do a lot better job of understanding and respecting our differences.

Perhaps we could meet our dogs halfway. If we make even a tiny effort to see things from their point of view, to learn to read their body language and meet their needs, I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much more harmonious life can be. We may even learn a thing or two from them.

Oh and the alligator thing was just a made-up analogy. I really doubt it is a good idea (or, you know, legal) to live with one.

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!

Puppy Savvy Video Lesson: Body Handling Step III

Today I offer you the third of three videos on how to teach your pup to feel comfortable with being touched. Notice how much more at ease the puppy is with me grabbing his tail, ears and reaching over his head after simply completing Steps I and II

You’ll be ready to move on to Step III once your puppy is feeling relaxed about you touching her anywhere for 7-10 seconds. Step III is the bee’s knees, the cat’s meow, the step that puts the whole enchilada together. It helps your puppy feel great about being touched and restrained away from home, by your veterinarian or groomer, up high, and on a slippery surface. Those are some serious puppy skills that will serve your puppy his or her entire life.

Why go to this bit of trouble? If you were a little puppy, I bet you would prefer to feel great about touch, heights, surfaces and strangers reaching for you before you were required to experience those things in a strange place filled with unfamiliar people and other dogs. It could make a big difference in how you feel about your vet and grooming care, and even how trusting you feel toward your person.

If your puppy is Bold or Bashful, see Puppy Savvy for additional instructions, tips and troubleshooting ideas. (By the way, any of these tips are also ideal for dogs who are no longer puppies.)

Special thanks to Sandi and Logan the Adorable.

How to Let Your Dog Teach You Something

These dogs are (ahem) really digging this activity. What a great way for them to use their senses, their muscles, their minds, and just have a good ol’ time being themselves.

I often see people who are enjoying their dogs. All too often, though, as much as I hate to say it, the person is doing what they want and the dog is mostly just tolerating it. Whether it is a certain kind of touch, body language, training, or play, it often looks to me like people are doing things the way they’ve always done them, how they were once taught, or what their other dog used to enjoy.

Do you take your dog’s preferences and feelings into account during your interactions?

It is important to do so if you involve him in activities like therapy work, doggie sports, or outings your dog may be going along with, but not necessarily enjoying (dog park visits and day care are a very common examples).

It is just as important to learn what your dog likes in terms of normal, everyday routines. Have you ever checked in with your dog to see what he or she would really like? How would you ask?

Maybe you are wondering why we should get our dog’s opinion in the first place. It is my feeling that just because I pay for the dog food and am the big, powerful human doesn’t mean I can disregard my dog’s feelings. If anything, my position gives me the extra responsibility and opportunity to show respect and kindness to my dog. Besides, when I know more about what makes my dog tick, I am much less likely to get frustrated (hence our interactions are more fun). And last but not least, I find that flexing my empathy muscles at home with my dog makes them ready for action when I need them with others in the world.

Today let’s take play as an example. Play can be a wonderful way to bond with and get to know your puppy or dog. You can get the ball rolling, so to speak, with what I call Goodall Games. Jane Goodall made famous the idea of observing quietly and letting other animals show her what they do without trying to influence them. You can do this with your dog. Instead of always dictating the game, watch your dog and see what she or he shows you. Does he enjoy digging, finding hidden objects or smelly things, playing keep-away, rummaging in the bushes, chasing and tearing around, stalking prey? Just be silent and watch. (And obviously use common sense and keep safety in mind.) 

After just a few sessions of observing you may find you have not only greater appreciation of your dog as an individual, but also new ways to provide:

  • play and relaxation
  • exercise
  • mental stimulation
  • a chance to express normal doggie behaviors
  • rewards for training things like come when called
  • new games by combining a game you like with a game your dog shows you he likes (for example, maybe your dog will find toys more interesting if you wiggle them in the bushes or in the dirt, reminding him of the critters he likes to chase)

It can be very eye opening, respectful, and fun to let your dog teach you what he or she likes best. There are all sorts of ways to incorporate versions of your dog’s favorite activities into play with you. For example, sometimes when I call my dogs (you can see them digging in the video above) I reward them for dropping what they were doing and coming to me by letting them dig to their heart’s content. Give the Goodall Games approach a try and let me know what you discover! If you are intrigued but aren’t sure what to do with what you observe, let me know that, too, and we will brainstorm some ideas. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of learning from dogs, and your dog could teach me something, too.