Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Holiday Reading & Gift Ideas

Do you need to give a gift for an animal lover? Want to give something meaningful for the holidays? Here are some ideas and suggestions:

Here are some new books that came out in the last few months that make nice gifts or are good holiday reading:

Good Habits for Great Dogs by Paul Owens. This book covers positive approaches to solving problems for puppies and adult dogs. It tackles modifying dog behavior from the perspective of changing habits. This book also has a unique approach to dog training called “Take a Vacation from Canine Education.” Those of you who have taken my classes might recognize this approach as a comprehensive version of the “Magnet Game” we play in class. Not only is this approach easy to follow but it takes the stress and pressure out of dog training. Small brag: my Akita and Shiba Inu are in some of the pics.

Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor. This book explains why clickers are such an effective training tool. Karen Pryor is a former marine mammal trainer that popularized the use of clicker training with dogs. Her book has many entertaining anecdotes that demonstrate the theories involved with training animals whether it be a dog, a dolphin or even a hermit crab!

Donate to an Animal Rescue
During this time of year, animal rescues are in need. Consider donating money or even your time to an animal rescue. With the cold weather, many shelters and rescues need blankets and old towels to help keep the animals warm. If you are no longer using your dog’s crate, x-pen or leash, consider donating it to a rescue. Call first, to see if they have a need for your equipment.

Pet Portrait

There are many talented animal photographers in town who specialize in pet portraitures. An animal lover would love to have a professional portrait of their pet as a keepsake. A couple of people in town are:

http://www.pawprintspictures.com/about2.html - the photos on my website were taken by Erin Tomanek.

http://www.furryfotoes.com/home.html – I have used this company as well for pet portraits.

Gift Certificates

Many pet boutiques, pet stores, pet groomers and even dog trainers offer gift certificates you can give your friends.

Gift Baskets

Many companies can make dog-themed gift baskets. One company based in Santa Monica can build a gift basket with dog treats and bowls or any other toy or treat you may want to add to it:


City Dog Etiquette in an Urban Jungle

I recently had a conversation with a colleague of mine regarding the differences in lifestyles of urban dogs and rural dogs. Many rural dogs spend their time off leash and don’t have to deal with narrow sidewalks, busy streets and parks teeming with unfamiliar dogs. City dogs on the other hand have to learn to navigate their environment while connected to their owner on a leash.

Often when I go to pet stores, I see people so distracted by shopping and talking to other people that they do not pay attention to what their dog is doing. Take for example, the family that lets their two year old hold the flexi leash in the pet store while their dog takes full advantage of the 20 foot radius of freedom the child just gave him or the woman with the reactive terrier who obliviously stands in the middle of the aisle talking to a friend while her dog threatens every dog that tries to walk by. A dog on a leash should be viewed as an extension of yourself. For safety reasons, you should be aware of what your dog is doing at all times. Even if your dog is not normally reactive, your dog may encounter a reactive dog or your dog may become insecure and reactive in tight quarters.

An urban Akita surveys
the City of Santa Monica

Here are a couple of tips to safely navigate your dog in an urban environment:

Stay Away From Retractable Leashes (AKA Flexi Leash) – This is my least favorite piece of equipment. Retractable leashes are better used for field work and they are often misused in an urban setting. They are not designed to work well in tight quarters or narrow urban sidewalks, let alone trying to teach your dog to walk by your side with a slack or loose lead. It is too easy for the cartridge to slip from your hands or for your thumb to let go of the lever. Then, your dog has 20 feet of instant freedom. I have seen too many owners lose control of these devices only to have their dog get into an altercation with another dog. Another problem with this contraption is when an owner accidentally lets go of the cartridge, the leash begins to retract and their little Pomeranian is suddenly being “chased” by a brightly colored plastic object; a very scary experience for a small dog. You are better off with a 6 foot leather or nylon leash.

Be aware of what your dog is doing at all times - If you are getting into a conversation with someone, train your dog to sit calmly by your side. If your dog does not know how to do this or gets too distracted, consider enrolling your dog in an obedience class that teaches polite greetings and focus exercises. You do not want your dog to get into other peoples’ or dogs’ space.

Stand away from the middle of an aisle or sidewalk - Most dog altercations happen when dogs are forced to meet each other in narrow aisles or have to walk past each other in a constricted or confined area. So if you are speaking to someone, try to avoid standing in the middle of an aisle or sidewalk. Instead, try stand to the side of an aisle to allow other people and their dogs to walk by and minimize confrontation.

Coming and going from elevators and or exits - Elevators are scary contraptions for some dogs. They are a confined space that moves, which can elevate the stress level for dogs. I know of several vet offices that are on a second floor and the elevator is one of the ways to get to the main floor. If you are waiting for an elevator, stand a few feet away with your dog sitting at your side. Wait for the door to open and allow the occupants to exit the elevator first. When exiting the elevator, check the surroundings first before exiting. If you have a reactive dog, wait for the next ride if you have to share the car with another dog. Teach your dog to “wait” so they do not dart out of the elevator before you do. The same rules apply to doorways and exits.

Polite Greetings – when encountering other people walking their dogs, try not to let your dog run ahead of you and “rush” at the other dog. Teach your dog to “sit” or “heel” and “wait” at a safe distance (greater than 6 feet) until you can say hello to the other person and ask them if their dog is friendly. Even if your dog is friendly, other people’s dogs may not do well with a strange dog rushing head on at them and they can become defensive and/or aggressive.

Reactive dogs – if you have a reactive dog, you will need to be more aware of your dog’s behavior and the triggers that make them react. If your dog cannot walk calmly in tight quarters with other dogs the pet store may not be the best place to take your dog. Toy dogs can be reactive too. Size is not an excuse to allow your dog to bark and lunge at another dog. The danger of having a small reactive dog is that a larger dog may not be tolerant of such behavior. Small dogs that are reactive need training just as much as a large breed. From the other dog’s perspective, the behavior can still be viewed as a threat even if it is coming from a smaller package. Reactive dogs need to learn to make positive associations with the sight of strange dogs and learn alternative behaviors to lunging and barking. Jerking the dog's collar and yelling at them will not make them feel better about the strange dog that is invading their space.

If you view your dog as an extension of yourself, it will help you navigate your dog in our often congested urban jungle.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Who’s the Boss? The Complexity of Relationships in Multi-dog Households.

Here is a scenario for you to ponder:

Three dogs live in a multi-dog household:

• Dog A is a 1.5 year old female
• Dog B is a 10 year old female
• Dog C is a 12 year old male

Each of the dogs exhibits the following behaviors.

Dog B – claims the sofa and that is where she sleeps. The other dogs never disturb her nor do they ever try to take her spot. She sometimes sleeps in the bedroom. Dog B usually sleeps at a higher elevation from the other dogs.

Dog C – claims the bedroom where the owner sleeps almost every night. Dog B will also sleep in the bedroom on occasion.

Dog A - sleeps in the kitchen most nights but will sometimes sleep in the bedroom if Dog C or Dog B do not get there first.

Dog A – usually tries to muscle her way out of doorways and hallways first. However, none of the dogs will attempt to walk over or around another dog if a dog is blocking a hallway or doorway.

Dog A will claim the chew toys such as deer antlers and nylabones. Sometimes Dog C will take it from her and successfully keep it away from Dog A. Dog B will not steal chew toys from Dog A. Dog A will take chew toys from Dog B.

Dog B can stare down Dog C, until he drops whatever food he has in his mouth. She will then take the food that was in his mouth.

Dog A will try to take toys from Dog B. Dog B will drop toys and allow Dog A to have them.

Dog A is the most likely to initiate physical skirmishes, Dog B rarely initiates physical fights. Dog C never initiates fights.

Dog B receives the most face-licking from the other dogs, followed by Dog A. Dog C initiates most face-licking and even licks the cat’s face. Dog B rarely licks the faces of the other dogs.

All dogs initiate play with each other. Dog A initiates the most rounds of play followed by Dog C.

Which dog do you think is the “alpha”?


The scenario above depicts the real-life group dynamics of my three dogs. Dog A is my 70 pound female Akita, Dog B is my 25 pound female Shiba Inu and Dog C is my 90 pound male Akita. Does knowing these size differences change your analysis of the scenario? Does it surprise you that a 25 pound shiba can stare down an 90 pound male Akita to the point where he will drop the food already in his mouth?

Dominance in the animal behavior world is typically defined as a relationship between individual animals to determine who has priority access to resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates. So the term applies to the dynamics between two animals rather than an attribute or trait of a single animal. And, these mostly ritualized interactions determine access to resources whether it be food, space or even proximity to the owner. Often, the relationship between two animals can vary depending on context and degree of motivation as seen in the scenario above. For example, a younger dog may be more motivated to possess toys than a senior dog. Moreover relationships between the dogs in the same household can sometimes be quite complex as context, age, size and gender can factor into how dogs interact with each other.

So where did all this alpha stuff come from?

The alpha dog concept has its roots in early captive wolf studies. These studies focused on the interactions of unrelated, captive wolf packs. From these studies developed the notion that since dogs were descended from wolves and that wolves had an alpha-male and alpha-female pack leaders, domesticated dogs operated the same way. Based on this theory of canine social dynamics developed training techniques such as the “alpha-roll,” pinning the dog on the ground, and scruff-shaking, which were supposed to mimic what a dominant wolf did to a subordinate wolf. Other notions such as walking ahead of your dog through doorways, not letting your dog on the bed and eating before your dog can be traced to early perceptions of how wolf packs operated. Recent studies have shown that the basis for adopting such practices is flawed and physical corrections such as scruff shaking and alpha rolls can have detrimental effects. See my previous post regarding the risks of punishment for reactive dogs.

Canid researchers have debunked the alpha theory on several grounds. First, David Mech, a respected authority of wolf behavior, noted that the term “alpha” is outdated. Mech points out that the terminology is based on older studies of captive wolf populations. More recent studies have shown that wild wolf populations consist of family units with the parents acting as the breeding pair. (1) Thus, the “alpha pair” being the parents and the “subordinates” are the offspring.

Moreover, studies of feral dog populations suggest that dog pack dynamics are fluid and less rigid than wild wolf populations.(2) Scientists believe that dogs have been domesticated as long as 12,000 to 14,000 years based on fossil evidence(3) and perhaps as long as 100,000 years based on genetic comparisons between wolves and dogs.(4) Given that mammalian social structures can be strongly affected by the external environment, it is not surprising that the social dynamics of dogs have diverged from their wolf ancestors. Living with humans has had a profound influence on the evolution of canine social systems. Canine expert Raymond Coppinger theorizes that early dogs adapted to a scavenging lifestyle by living off the food scraps and waste left near human settlements. (5) The evolutionary pressure to be a large, highly organized group hunter became less significant and the two species diverged into two separate niches. The AVSAB position statement highlights other aspects of dominance theory which are not supported by observations of canine or wolf social dynamics. See AVSAB Statement.

For these reasons, characterizing an individual dog as an “alpha dog” is not scientifically accurate nor is it very productive. For example, in situations where dogs are fighting in a household, there is a line of thought that the owner should support the “alpha or “dominant” dog. However, in a multi-dog household, relationships between dogs are not always a simple, linear hierarchy. Such approaches can result in a misinterpretation of who is the dominant dog and inadvertently reward inappropriate behavior. For example, in the scenario above, supporting Dog A during skirmishes could easily result in an adolescent dog being rewarded for her bullying behavior which could translate to other undesirable behaviors outside of the home.

Therefore, when dealing with inter-dog dynamics within a household, caution should be exercised and owners should consult professional trainers who are well-versed in animal learning theory and behavior modification techniques relying mainly on reward-based approaches to animal training.



1) Mech, L.D. 2008. What every happened to the term alpha wolf? International Wolf.

2) Van Kerkhove, Wendy , A Fresh Look at the Wolf-Pack Theory of Companion-Animal Dog Social Behavior, JOURNAL OF APPLIED ANIMAL WELFARE SCIENCE, Volume 7, Issue 4 January 2004 , pages 279 – 285.

3) Lindsay, Steven, Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Volume 1, pgs. 4-5, Blackwell Publishing (2000).

4) Vila, Carles, Savolainen, Peter, Maldonado, Jesus E., Amorim, Isabel, Multiple and Ancient Origins of the Domestic Dog, SCIENCE, Vol. 276, No. 5319: 1687-1689 (13 June 1997).

5) Coppinger, Raymond and Coppiner, Lorna, Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. University of Chicago Press (2001) pgs. 58-67.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Have Crate will Travel

Ten years ago, I took my Shiba Inu, Mitsu (then a 6 month old puppy) up the coast of California to attend a friend’s wedding in San Francisco. At that time, pet-friendly accommodations were few and far between and many of the accommodations were motel chains such as Best Western, Howard Johnson’s or the Oxford Suites. I had a great time with my puppy running along the beaches in Big Sur and Cambria and walking the streets of Ojai. It was a great socialization opportunity for my dog and this out-of-town trip helped her become a resilient and adaptable dog. Over the years she and I went to the Sierras and even Las Vegas. The Vegas strip was her favorite, she is partial to bright lights and chaos.

Flash forward ten years and another puppy. I decided to take Kiku and Mitsu for an out of town trip. Kiku, my Akita, had never been out of town and I was not sure how she would react to being in a strange place. But being a young dog, I thought the exposure would be good for her. Fortunately, in the last few years, the number of accommodations accepting pets has expanded tremendously giving people many options. In addition to hotel and motel chains there are a number of Bed and Breakfasts and vacation home rentals that allow pets. I settled on a mountain cottage in Julian, California. The dogs loved the wilderness and they adapted well.

Picture of the cottage we rented

What saved me on this trip (and every trip that I have taken with my dogs) was crate-training. So, in addition to all the other benefits that crate-training provides (see my previous blog on crate training) , traveling with your pet is another one on the list. I was able to load the dogs in my truck in their crates providing for a more secure ride. They slept most of the way and were comfortable.

The crate is also handy when you arrive to your destination. There is always a risk that a dog may forget housetraining in a strange place or that they may decide to gnaw on a piece of furniture. Having crate-trained dogs provides you with the peace-of-mind that you can leave your dogs unattended for short periods of time. It also provides them a secure, familiar place to sleep in when you are in a strange location. Moreover, owners of some establishments are more comfortable to rent a place to you if they know the dogs are crate-trained and therefore less likely to cause damage to their property.

Kiku and Mitsu await our arrival back at the cottage. Kiku has a water bottle attached to her crate and Mitsu has a water bowl.

In addition to bringing your dog’s crate here are some other tips to keep in mind:

1) Identification and Microchipping - Make sure your dog has a secure collar with I.D. Dogs can panic in unfamiliar locations and bolt. Microchipping is also critical if you frequently travel with your pet. Lost dogs can lose their collars and most shelters and veterinarians have scanning equipment.

2) Water bowls – dogs can get dehydrated during the car ride so stop every few hours to check on their water bowls. Better yet, teach your dog to drink from a water bottle (like the type rabbits drink out of) that hooks on to the crate. I taught my older dogs to drink out of a water bottle by putting peanut butter on the nozzle. My puppy did not need any prompting.

3) Vet information – Take the number of your veterinarian as well as the phone numbers of vets in the area where you will be staying.

4) Copies of shot records – sometimes you run into a situation where you cannot find pet friendly accommodations or hotels where you cannot leave your pet unattended. In such cases you may need to put your dog in daycare if you are going to a function or will need to leave your pet for an extended period of time. Day cares require shot records so it is helpful to have them handy in case you need to board your dog. Make sure your dog is current on vaccinations especially rabies if you are going to wilderness areas.

5) Cover for Crate – often I will bring extra blankets to cover the crates. Covering the crates can help quiet the dogs when they cannot settle down in a strange location. My dogs know that the blanket means they need to go to sleep.

6) Extra towels and brushes – in case your dog gets wet or dirty.

7) Flea, Tick and Heartworm Treatments– make sure your dogs are current with flea, tick and heartworm applications. Many mountainous areas and regions of the U.S. have ticks or mosquitoes that transmit heartworm. Do your research and protect your pet accordingly. Ask your veterinarian about the appropriate treatments to apply.

8) Finding Pet Friendly Accommodations – here are some of my favorite websites for finding pet-friendly accommodations:

http://www.bringfido.com/– nice search engine and photos of properties

http://www.dogfriendly.com/– this one has been around for a long time and has a good list of accommodations for hotels and restaurants.

http://www.vrbo.com/– provides list of vacation rentals if you would like to rent a home. Several dog friendly properties are available such as the one I rented in Julian.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Don’t sniff my butt- Reactive Dogs

Reactivity to other dogs is one of the more challenging behaviors to modify in dog training. It can be distressing and unnerving to have a dog that barks or lunges at other dogs. Dog-dog aggression is a common behavior, but how people deal with it can be drastically different.

Some owners fit their dogs with choke collars and try to “correct” reactive behaviors by yelling and/or jerking firmly on the leash. One owner that I encounter on my walks tries to suppress her dog’s reactivity by yelling at the dog (which can be heard a block away, by the way) and jerking on the dog’s choke collar. Several weeks later the dog still has a strong reaction to my dogs, even from across the street and the owner continues to scream in the dog’s face and jerk on the leash. One could imagine the stress this causes to the dog and it is hard to see how this actually changes the dog’s attitude towards other dogs.

Having Akitas and a Shiba Inu, I am all too familiar with owning breeds that have a tendency to be dog aggressive. My 12-year old rescue came to my home highly reactive to other dogs. Eventually, through training and gradual exposure to other dogs, he learned to become less reactive and walk calmly on a leash. My Akita puppy, now going through adolescence, is also being trained to react less to strange dogs. While she is friendly to dogs she knows and the dogs in her obedience classes, she shows anxiety when meeting strange dogs on the street. As part of her training, I am applying counter-conditioning techniques so that my dog will associate the presence of other dogs with positive experiences (play, verbal praise and/or treats). I know from experience that harsh physical corrections will not go very far with these independent, northern breeds. The process of counter-conditioning and desensitization can take time and requires a calm, cool demeanor, but studies have shown that this methodology is safer than dominance-based methods of dog training.

Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine found that aggressive dogs were more likely to respond aggressively when the training program involved “confrontational” techniques. Confrontational techniques included training methods such as the “alpha roll,” the “stare down,” grabbing the dog by the jowls, yelling and growling at the dog. The lead author of this article, Meghan Herron, noted, “this study highlights the risk of dominance-based training, which has been made popular by TV, books and punishment-based training advocates,” Herron cautions, “these techniques are fear-eliciting and may lead to owner-directed aggression.” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090217141540.htm. See also, Meghan E. Herron, Frances S. Shofera and Ilana R. Reisner, Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors, J. Applied Animal Behavior Science, Vol. 117, Pgs. 47-54 (Feb 2009).

In a study released last May, the researchers from the University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences reached similar conclusions. In this study, researchers concluded that there was little empirical evidence of wolf-like dominance hierarchies in dogs. One of the authors of the study noted, “the blanket assumption that every dog is motivated by some innate desire to control people and other dogs is frankly ridiculous. It hugely underestimates the complex communicative and learning abilities of dogs. It also leads to the use of coercive training techniques, which compromise welfare, and actually cause problem behaviours.” See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090521112711.htm. See also, John W. S. Bradshaw, Emily J. Blackwell, Rachel A. Casey, Dominance in domestic dogs—useful construct or bad habit?, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Vol. 4, Issue 3: 135-144 (May 2009).

The conclusions reached by these studies are not unique. In 2008, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) issued a position statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals. In this statement, the AVSAB similarly cautioned about risks involved with the application of dominance theory to address behavioral problems. Rather, the AVSAB recommends that veterinarians refer cases to trainers who advocate positive reinforcement, counter-conditioning, desensitization and other science-based methods.
See http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/images/stories/Position_Statements/dominance%20statement.pdf.

The AVSAB also issued a position statement on the use of punishment in dog training. In this document, the AVSAB warns that punishment “should not be used as a first-line approach or early use treatment for behavioral problems.” Examples of punishment include choke collars, pinch/prong collars, electronic/shock collars, jerking on the leash and alpha rolls. The AVSAB cautions that the use of physical punishment or aversive methods can lead to adverse consequences such as owner-directed aggression and increasing fear responses in an already fearful animal. The AVSAB points out that while punishment may suppress the behavior, it does not address the underlying cause of the behavior. See http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/images/stories/Position_Statements/Combined_Punishment_Statements.pdf.

In the case of reactive dogs, physical corrections and/or harsh reprimands do not address the underlying cause of the behavior (i.e. fear, anxiety or aggression towards other dogs). The goal of training should be to address the underlying behavior. If your dog is exhibiting aggressive or reactive behavior towards other dogs, avoid applying physically coercive or punitive methods to subdue your dog. Contact a trainer or veterinary behaviorist to work with you and your dog to modify the dog’s behavior. Choose a person who is experienced and familiar with positive methods of dog training.

Los Angeles Dog Trainer


Mitsu hates having her butt sniffed by unfamiliar dogs but she has learned to tolerate dogs being in close proximity.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

4th of July Safety Tips for your Dog

With 4th of July just around the corner, it is important to keep your pet safe and secure.   Many dogs are afraid of fireworks.  Here are some things to keep in mind to keep your pet safe this holiday:

* Avoid keeping your pet in the yard.  Fearful dogs will try to dig, jump or climb their way out of the yard to escape the noise.  Many dogs get lost and end up in the shelter this way. 

*Make sure that your pet has proper ID in the event that he/she gets lost. Consider microchipping your dog.

*Avoid the temptation to take your dog to fireworks shows or outdoors. A fearful dog could bolt and get lost. Fearful dogs can also get reactive and may react to people and other dogs around them. Play it safe, keep them at home.

*Keep your pets indoors and provide a secure place for your pet stay in.  This can be a crate or a quiet, pet-proofed room in your home that does not receive as much outside noise. Dogs can try to chew their way out of an area when scared so make sure it is a secure area.  Close your windows and front door to shut out outside noises.

*What if you have a new dog or puppy and this is their first 4th of July? Make it a fun time. During those hours when fireworks happen (usually 9 p.m. to midnight here in Los Angeles), play games with your dog. Play fetch or tug of war. Give your dog an interactive toy to play with or work on a Nina Ottoson interactive puzzle with your dog. Click here for examples. This will keep your dog's mind off the noises outside and on the games you are playing.  Here is an example of my dog working on a Tug-A-Jug, she is so preoccupied with working on this toy, outside noises are unlikely to distract her:

*Consider playing music or keep the T.V. on as background noise. There are music CDs that have been created specifically to calm dogs.  The following website, "Through a Dog's Ear" is an example.  Here is a link with some music samples: http://www.throughadogsear.com/samples.htm

*Alternative remedies:  For mild cases, some dogs respond well to flower essences and homeopathic remedies. Bach's Rescue Remedy for pets is one of the older brands out there and can be found in natural pet stores: http://www.rescueremedy.com/pets/ .  For homeopathic remedies you can consult with a homeopathic veterinarian for suggestions and dosage instructions.

*Another calming product is Dog Appeasing Pheromone that can be sprayed on your dog's bedding or as a room atomizer.  It is usually sold in pet stores under the brand name "Comfort Zone." 

*Body Wraps:  some people have reported success with body wraps which in effect "swaddle" your dog.  In her book, "Help for Your Fearful Dog,"  Nicole Wilde discusses a variety of methods of doing this and the proper way of introducing your dog to a wrap.  In addition, there is a product called an "Anxiety Wrap" that is a body vest designed to achieve the same result.  However, you would need to first acclimate your dog to the vest before a storm or fireworks so your dog does not react negatively to wearing the vest.  So, this may be an option to consider if other methods do not work and you have time before next year's holiday to work with your dog on wearing this item.


*For severe cases talk to your vet:  For severe cases of anxiety or if your dog is at risk of injuring himself/herself, prescription medication may be necessary to keep your dog calm and safe during this holiday. In such cases,  it is best consult with your veterinarian before the holiday.

My akita has mild to moderate anxiety to fireworks. I make sure that he is in a pet-proofed room with the T.V. on and the windows closed. Sometimes I will distract my pet with toys and games he likes to play.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Applying Positive Training Techniques to Humans

Most of my private consultations involve dogs living in homes with children. After going over the benefits of reward-based training and how responsive dogs are to positive reinforcement, I get one of two responses from parents: “does this apply to children too?” or “you mean like how we raise our kids?”

A recently published article described how positive, reward-based training, which traditionally had been applied to marine mammals, could be applied in schools. One elementary school attempted to apply this program to see if it could reduce behavioral problems and fighting. By implementing this program, desired behavior was rewarded or encouraged while undesired behavior was ignored or redirected. The school reported a dramatic drop in the number of suspensions and fighting.

This is not the first article to address how marine mammal training can be applied to humans. Several years ago a humorous, yet instructive article came out in the New York Times which chronicled one woman’s experience applying exotic animal training to her marriage in an attempt to modify her husband’s less desirable habits. The husband in question left clothes on the floor and other undesirable habits. The author found, that the more she nagged, the more resentful her husband got. When she rewarded her husband (by showing affection or praise) whenever he put the clothes in the hamper, she found that he was more willing to keep the house clean.

While these articles address how positive training can be applied to humans, a more important question is: should our canine family members be treated differently than our human family members? While positive training is commonly used with exotic animals, physical punishment or coercion is still commonly used with canines, the species that has had a close relationship with humans for thousands of years. This begs the question: if you would not discipline your child using harsh methods, why should you treat your pet dog any differently?

Monday, June 1, 2009

New Group Dog Training Classes in June

Basic Obedience

We are happy to announce that we are now offering basic obedience training at Bam Bam & Friends Pet Boutique on 4311 Overland Ave in Culver City. We offer smaller class sizes and cover: sit, stay, down, come, go to your bed, wait, leave it and more. Classes are ongoing. Contact us for current schedule.

Click here for more details.

Puppy Socialization

Now offering informal group classes where puppies receive some basic training and lots of socialization with strangers and other puppies in a supervised setting during your puppy’s critical socialization period. Contact us for current schedule and registration.

Click here for more details.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Poisonous plants - what to do

For pet lovers, a site that must be bookmarked: ASPCA's Poison Control Center. If you have ever wondered whether your pet ate something poisonous or noxious, this website contains a list of plants and substances to stay away from. It also contains helpful tips on what to do if you suspect that your animal has been poisoned.



Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Now Offering Group Classes!

In addition to our private classes, we are now offering group classes at Bam Bam & Friends in Culver City. Bam Bam & Friends is a great pet boutique offering natural pet foods and treats as well as pet accessories.

If you are interested, in group training, feel free to contact me at info@pawsitivefeedback.com.

Happy Training!


Friday, April 17, 2009

To Crate or Not to Crate

Last week I attended a talk at a pet store to hear another trainer speak. One of the attendees was having problems with house training as well as some other behavioral issues and the speaker asked her whether the dog was crate-trained. The pet owner reacted very strongly to the thought of crate-training her dog. She felt that it was cruel to put her dog in a cage. This is not an unusual reaction as many people are not familiar with crate training.

Crate training can accomplish a number of goals. It is a great house training tool especially for puppies. It is a place for your dog to sleep in and to find respite when things are a little too hectic for them. For puppies and adolescent dogs, it is a management tool to keep them confined for short periods of time if you are not available to keep an eye over them.

Dogs should not be crated for more than 3-4 hours during the day while you are gone. If you must leave a dog for more that amount of time and the dog is still learning his/her house manners or still in that chewing phase, consider gating off your kitchen or washroom with a baby-gate and leave the crate in this area with the door open so the dog can freely go in and out of the crate. Crating the dog during bedtime is fine because it corresponds to the dog's normal sleeping cycle. For young puppies that are still being house trained, you will need to check on them during the night to make sure they do not need to go to the bathroom.

Now, I am not dogmatic about crate training. I have had (and still have) dogs that were never crate-trained. However, these dogs had several things in common: they tended to be older rescues, were already potty-trained, had excellent house manners and were beyond the chewing stage. So, these were dogs that did not need supervision and management. In such cases, baby gates are an option for confinement, if necessary. In addition, crating is not a panacea for dogs with severe separation anxiety or fearfulness. For such dogs, you should consult a professional for help.

Nonetheless, I feel that if you are getting a puppy, you might as well start off with crate-training because helps with house training and the puppy can always get more freedom as she/he gets older. You will often find as crate-trained puppies become adults, they will voluntarily go into their crate when they are tired, not feeling well or need some space. My 15 month old dog just recently earned her big girl privileges and has been allowed to periodically sleep in the living room overnight with the crate door open. Often when I wake up in the morning, I find that she has gone right back into her crate to sleep. To her, it is a place of refuge, her den. Here is a picture of her sleeping in her crate, even when the door is wide open.

I don't think Kiku thinks her crate is such a bad place, do you?

So, the poll for this week is: Is your dog crate-trained? Answer the poll on the right-hand side of this page.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Using Life Rewards To Reduce Reliance on Food Rewards

You reach that stage in training your dog when you have been using food treats to teach a dog a new behavior and it is time to fade out the reliance on food treats. Your dog knows the behavior, knows the word that goes along with the behavior (i.e. the cue or command) and performs the behavior reliably. So, how do you fade out reliance on treats? One way is to become a human slot machine and make it unpredictable as to when the dog gets a food reward and when the dog receives praise and petting. We all know how motivating slot machines can be. I always make sure that the times my dog does not receive a food reward for performing the behavior correctly, that I reinforce the behavior with effusive petting and praise. During this process, I stop using bait bags or fanny packs because dogs at this point already associate the bait bag with training sessions and essentially view the bait bag as a doggie vending machine. Instead, I will hide treats in my pockets or put them in various locations in the house where the dog can’t reach. In other words, I make it unpredictable as to when and where a food treat will come from.

There is another method of weaning dogs off food rewards that many people don’t take advantage of and it is a very powerful method of training dogs without treats. It is using life rewards as the motivator. Life rewards are activities that the dog naturally likes to do. A life reward can be going out for a walk, going outside in the back yard to look for squirrels, meeting another dog, or playing a game like fetch.

For example, before you take your dog out for a walk (life reward), ask your dog to sit or lie down before putting on the leash. My dogs have learned that sitting quickly will get them out the door that much faster. When you want to play fetch or tug, ask the dog to perform a trick like “go to your bed” or “sit.” Some dogs are very toy motivated and this is a great way to reinforce behaviors. All of these activities can be motivating for a dog and your dog will perform the requested behavior to get the life reward. Every dog has a different motivator or life reward and your job is to figure out what that is.

Sometimes, even your laughter and effusive praise alone are motivating for a dog especially when it is coupled with a natural behavior or tendency. There is one trick that I have taught my dogs without the use of food and that is to shake hands. I own akitas and a shiba which are part of the so-called Northern breed group (Akitas, Shibas, Huskies, Malamutes etc). One of the characteristics of this group is that they use their paws a lot. So, capitalizing on the breed’s natural tendencies, I attached a verbal cue (the word “shake”) to the pawing behavior and rewarded my dogs with verbal praise by being very enthusiastic whenever they offered their paw to me.

Recently, I taught my Akita puppy to run through my legs and sit underneath me whenever I said the phrase, “Where’s Kiku.” I used a treat as a lure to guide her through my legs and then asked her to sit to teach her entire chain of behaviors. Pretty soon, I noticed that she was performing the behavior with unusual speed and reliability, even from long distances. In fact, she performed this trick with even more speed and reliability than for just sitting directly in front of me or in the heel position. When you think about it, it is pretty unnatural for a dog to go through your legs and sit directly underneath you. I realized that because this trick was so cute, she would get a huge reaction when she performed it correctly. After all, sitting is so boring but when your dog runs between your legs from 10 feet away and sits, now that is exciting. Every time she did it correctly, I would start cracking up and hugging her. When she performed this trick in group classes or in front of an audience, people would start clapping and laughing. Kiku’s response demonstrates the importance of verbal praise and petting. For many dogs, this is a life reward. Kiku, in particular, is very responsive to human laughter and gets very excited when people laugh or giggle.

Here is a picture of Kiku performing the trick and you can see from the look on her face that she is reacting to the laughter from the photographer who thought this was the cutest thing ever.

The moral of this story is to use life rewards to reinforce the tricks you have taught your pet whenever possible and as another method of diminishing the use of food treats. Don’t underestimate the value of the human laughter, verbal praise and petting as a life reward for your pet. For many dogs this can be motivating. Sometimes we get so engrossed in the mechanics of training and how our dog is performing that we are too stingy with our verbal praise and petting.

Here is my question to you: what life rewards does your dog find motivating and how do you use these motivators to train your dog?

Happy training and remember to give your dog pawsitive feedback!

Los Angeles Dog Trainer:  www.pawsitivefeedback.com

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Kong, an indispensable dog toy

One of the most versatile and useful toys in my dog trainer toolbox is the Kong®. Kongs are those snowman shaped toys with a small hole on one end and a large hole in the other. Although the Kong company sells treats that you can stuff in the Kong., you can use your own treats, kibble and/or dog food and seal the large hole with cheese, canned food or peanut butter. Hidden in the Kong website is a section of favorite homemade recipes that you can make on your own without spending a lot of money. The following website also has these same recipes and a great diagram showing a well-stuffed Kong (http://www.labmed.org/catalog/kong2.html).

Kongs are useful for the following reasons:

1) Fetch toy – my dogs love to play fetch with the Kong (after they have excavated the contents). The erratic and random way the Kong bounces really excites dogs.

2) Self-entertainment – my dogs will often throw the Kong around the room and play with the Kong by themselves. My one puppy flings her stuffed Kong around to see if treats will drop out.

3) Alleviates Boredom – a well-stuffed Kong can keep a dog occupied for as long as two hours (I timed my puppy a few weeks ago). The Kong is a good way to occupy a dog’s time while you are away from the house. But remember to give your dog stuffed Kongs during times you are at home too so that your dog won’t associate the Kong with you leaving for work.

4) Slow down fast eaters – for dogs that “wolf” down their food, you can stuff half their meal in the Kong (sealing the hole with cheese or peanut butter). Place the remainder of the dog’s meal in their bowl and place the stuffed Kong in the middle of the food bowl. The dog will have to eat around the Kong to get at the food in the bowl and then have to excavate the Kong to get the remainder of the meal. A meal that might have taken 20 seconds to eat now takes several minutes.

5) Pacifier – sometimes there are times when you need your dog to be occupied with other activities. A stuffed Kong can keep your dog distracted and busy when you have the repairman over or guests.

Kong Dispensers - Kongtime has developed an automatic dispenser that can deposit Kong toys throughout the day. I have not used it because I have a multi-dog household, but I would leave it on a high counter rather than the floor to avoid having the dog chew on the dispenser. This device is best for single-dog households where you don’t have to worry about dogs competing for the Kong or guarding the Kong dispenser. Go to http://www.kongtime.com/index.html for more info.

Does your dog play or use a Kong?  What is your experience?

Los Angeles Dog Trainer:  www.pawsitivefeedback.com

Friday, January 30, 2009

January Dog Shelter Prevention Month

From DogStar Daily (http://www.dogstardaily.com/training/after-you-get-your-puppy):

Dog Star Daily Declares January Shelter Dog Prevention Month
Dr. Ian Dunbar's AFTER You Get Your Puppy should be required reading for anyone who is thinking of raising a puppy. That's why we are offering it here for a limited time as a free download during "Puppy Season" – the month of January.
Most shelter dogs were once perfectly normal puppies exhibiting typical, though often undesirable, puppy behavior.House soiling, nipping, growling, resource guarding, destructive chewing, excessive barking, hyperactivity, jumping- up, leash-pulling and general unruliness are reported as primary reasons why people surrender their dogs to shelters or let them stray (to be captured and taken to shelters).
The presence of these same behaviors is also a major reason why people do not want to adopt shelter dogs. Yet these typical puppy behaviors are so easy to channel or eliminate with the right tools and information.
AFTER You Get Your Puppy covers the last three developmental deadlines that your puppy needs to meet before he is six months old. Skills that will keep dogs out of shelters and in their original homes:
The most urgent priority — Socializing Your Puppy to PeopleThe most important priority — Teaching Bite InhibitionThe most enjoyable priority —Continuing Socialization in The World at Large
Simply click on the link below (under Attachments) and the file should begin downloading.
This book is available as a PDF file. You will need Acrobat Reader to open it. AFTER You Get Your Puppy is also available as an MP3 audio file and as a hard copy printed book, if you'd prefer to purchase it in one of those formats instead.
AFTER You Get Your Puppy.pdf
4.69 MB

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Welcome to Pawsitive Feedback Training's Dog Blog. We will be posting blogs to update you on what is happening at Pawsitive Feedback Training, discuss training methods and to highlight cool pet products and books.