Friday, May 25, 2012

Are you Dog Savvy? Take the Bite Prevention Quiz

For the final installment of Dog Bite Prevention Week, I prepared a video presentation and quiz based on the previous 3 articles (click on the links below if you have not already read these articles): 
Ready?  Click on the link below to launch the presentation and quiz!

Los Angeles Dog Trainer:

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dog Bite Prevention: How to Greet a Dog

This week is Dog Bite Prevention Week and here are a few tips on greeting dogs.

Be on the Lookout for Stress Signals
In my last blog on Canine Body Language I went over some of the common postures and stress signals that dogs exhibit.  Here are a few signals to be on the look out for:
  • frequent yawning
  • licking lips
  • ears pulled back
  • pacing
  • panting.
 In a similar vein, learn a dog's aggressive stances.  This could include:
  • stiff body or very still body
  • ears forward
  • body leaning forward
  • hackles raised
  • tight/closed mouth
  • hard stare
  • Whites of eyes showing (also sign of stress)
  • curled lip
  • growling and snarling. 
Here is a video showing some common stress signals:

For Dog Owners:  If you have a dog that is shy, fearful or aggressive, here are a few tips to keep in mind if you see these signs in your dog:
  • Recognize and respect these signals and remove your dog from the situation that is causing stress by increasing the distance from the person or walking away.
  • Response to pushy strangers - Often you run into the person who tells you that they "know all about dogs," and try to approach your dog.  If your dog is known to be scared of stangers, tell the stranger that "my dog is in training and cannot be petted right now."   These are the type of people that will invade your dog's space and not respect the dog's signals. If they will not listen, walk away. Don't worry about offending a stranger. Your dog's well-being is more important. 
  • Give your dog a safe zone - if your dog is fearful in the home, it is important to tell guests to give your dog space, not to hover over the dog or stare at your dog.  If having guests over is too much, it is often better allow the dog to go his/her safe place, crate or behind a baby gate to minimize stress and the risk that a guest may disregard your instructions.
  • Guests in the home should not grab, hug, or forcibly try to move your dog off furniture.  Rubbing the belly can also trigger defensive behavior in a fearful dog who does not know or trust your visitor.  This is especially true for children who often like to try to hug unfamiliar dogs. If guests cannot follow these instructions, put your dog in another room or area.
  • Find a certified trainer - If your dog is frequently afraid of strangers, work with a dog trainer or behaviorist to develop a behavior modification program to help your dog feel more at ease around strangers.  It is important to choose a professional who focuses on positive reinforcement methods. 
For people greeting an unfamiliar dog:  if you meet someone else's dog exhibiting these signals when you approach them, stop and slowly back off to give the dog more space.  As a parent visiting someone's home, teach children not to grab or hug unfamiliar dogs.  If you see that the dog is showing stress in someone else's home, ask that the dog be placed in another room away from the children.

 Appropriate Greetings and Interactions
Besides being able to read a dog's body language or stress signals, another factor that can reduce the incidence of dog bites is knowing how to greet a dog in a manner that will put the dog at ease.  Here are a few tips:
1) Stop 5-6 feet in front of the dog and owner.  This is usually the distance that a dog is comfortable with and is also the length of most leashes if the dog is on a walk.
2)   Ask the owner if you can pet the dog.  If the owner hesitates or says the dog is not always friendly, move on.  If you are the owner and you notice that your dog is fearful or showing stress signals, ask the person to stop moving forward and refrain from reaching towards your dog.  For parents, stress this step to your children.  They should never pet a dog without asking permission.
3)  Turn your side to the dog  - dogs are often more comfortable when your side is facing them rather than facing them head on.   By turning your side to the dog, it makes them more comfortable to approach you.
4) Let the dog approach you - rather than going towards the dog and invading his/her space, let the dog choose to approach you and sniff the top of your closed hand.  If the dog does not want to approach you or shows you the stress signals mentioned above, then leave the dog be and do not try to pet the dog. 
5) Avoid Hovering and pet the side of the body or neck - avoid blind spots like the top of the head. Fearful/shy dogs do not like to be petted on top of the head and do not like people hovering directly over them.

Here is a video showing the steps:

It is also important for new puppy owners to make an effort to enroll their dogs in a puppy socialization class and socialize their dogs to as many different people as possible (gender, age, height etc). Through education of dog owners and dog greeters alike, hopefully we can help reduce the incidents of dog bites, interact with unfamiliar dogs appropriately and learn to recognize the signs of fear and discomfort in our dogs.

Los Angeles Dog Training:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Harnesses, Martingales, Gentle Leaders, Oh My!

As a dog trainer, I feel compelled to try all the various no pull harnesses and collars on the market so that I can give an educated or (at least a first-hand opinion about how they compare). Owning two Akitas, I am fortunate enough to have dogs that are powerful and have a natural tendency to pull so they have been my guinea pigs so to speak. Here is the rundown and review of what harnesses I have tried and my personal opinion on the pros and cons of each:

Freedom Harness by Wiggles, Wags and Whiskers

This harness may be my favorite. I was introduced to this harness by Fabienne Lawrence at Bam Bam and Friends who carries this harness (I have not seen it anywhere else in Los Angeles). It is also a front-clipping harness like the easy walk but slightly different construction.

Here is Kiku wearing the Freedom Harness. The leash that comes with the harness makes it a versatile piece of equipment.

Pros: Works well on most dogs and cuts down on pulling. Like the Easy Walk, there is no breaking in period because the dog is more likely to accept this harness. The body strap is made out of velvet and softer than the Easy Walk. It comes with a lead that has a double clip and it can clip to D-rings in the front and on the back. The lead is adjustable from a 3-foot traffic lead to a 6-foot lead. The chest strap fits better than the Easy Walk (at least on my dogs).

Cons: pricier than the Easy Walk. Hard to find at pet stores (in Culver City at Bam Bam & Friends or online at Wags, Wiggles & Whiskers ).

Easy Walk Harness

Tis harness ranks high on my list of no-pull equipment.

Pros: Works well on most dogs and cuts down on pulling. No breaking in period as most dogs take to them readily, easy to use and effective on most dogs. It is easy to find at most pet stores and not that expensive.

Like the Freedom Harness, I use Easy Walks on some of the rescues I work with because of the ease of use and acceptance by the dog.

Cons: the chest strap does not fit well on dogs that do not have broad or protruding chest. In such cases, I clip the front d-ring to the neck collar with a carabiner to keep the front strap from dropping too low. The Freedom Harness tends to be a better fit with most dogs especially ones with narrow chests.

Here is Kiku wearing an Easy Walk harness which is attached to the neck collar with a carabiner to help hold it up.

Sporn Halter (with sheepskin covers)

Pros: cuts down on pulling surprisingly well (at least with my dog), no break-in period.

Cons: cumbersome to put on and take off, too many clips and moving parts (not good for furry dogs because hair can get caught), sheepskin covers slip and move too easily. Less control for reactive dogs.

Here is Kiku sporting a Sporn harness on a hike at Will Rogers State Park.

Sporn Simple Control Harness

Pros: Easier to put and take off than the Sporn halter, no break-in period.

Cons: Experienced more pull than with other harnesses.

Sporn Mesh Control Harness

Pros: Seems easier to put on and take off than the Sporn Halter. Decent job at reducing pull. No break-in period.

Cons: the mesh panel in the front did not fit well (on my dogs).

Gentle Leader

Gentle Leaders are not my first “go to” piece of equipment. But there are times when it may work better on certain dogs and for certain owners. I recently recommended a Gentle Leader for a client that had limited mobility due to a recent knee surgery and who had a very large dog. In this case, I felt the better control the Gentle Leader provided was warranted given the size of the dog and recent surgery. Sometimes, I also use this harness on a more reactive dog.

Pros: significantly cuts down on pulling, good control over the dog’s movements, a good option for reactive dogs or for people who are not that strong.

Cons: requires an adjustment period for many dogs, many dogs do not like the sensation of something over their mouth. People think the dog is wearing a muzzle and their fear of the dog will be expressed through body language and facial expressions.

However, one of the reasons, that I do not use the Gentle Leader very often, which is leading me to the “oh my” part of this piece is that, despite the fact that this product has been on the market for nearly two decades, people still mistake the nose loop for a muzzle. This causes people to recoil from the dog (especially when the dog is a large breed dog that has prick ears and looks like a wolf). When you see a golden retriever wearing a gentle leader that is one thing, but an Akita wearing a Gentle Leader causes people to side-step the poor dog and treat the dog like a pariah. For a young dog that needs to be socialized, this is not the reaction you want the dog to get from people the dog is trying to be friendly with. When my white Akita is wearing her Freedom harness, she receives smiles and requests from people to pet her. When she is wearing a GL, she receives sideways glances and people trying to avoid her. Because of this reaction, she rarely wears a GL because socialization is a high priority for this breed. So, there is a trade-off between control and managing reactivity and socialization with strangers.

Martingale collar

This is a nylon collar with a limited constriction on the neck. My Shiba Inu, who is an escape artist wears one. She does not pull so there is little pressure applied to her neck and I never jerk on her collar. This collar is better than a choke collar because the amount the collar tightens is limited and does not choke the dog if fitted properly. It is also good for dogs that have narrow heads like greyhounds or whippets.

Pros: prevents accidental slippage for dogs with narrow heads or who are escape artists.

Cons: does not necessarily cut down on pulling.

Choke chains/training collars/prong collars

Although I have used choke collars many years ago on dogs that have long since passed on, I don’t use them currently. Most people do not know how to use them properly and because of this, the risk of injury on the dog is too great. Moreover, dogs tend to pull more when pressure is applied to the neck, so I find the no-pull harnesses to be a safer and more effective way to discourage pulling. More importantly, why train dogs by putting pressure on their necks or choking them when you can use positive methods to teach them to walk on a leash. For these reasons, many trainers, including me, discourage the use of choke chains. See APDT UK's Brochure on choke collars here.

Los Angeles Dog Training


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Potential Gentle Leader Defect

For those of you who purchased a Gentle Leader between August 2011 and May 2012, Premier has announced that there is a potential defect in the neck clasp.  Here is what has been announced on their website:

Announcement about Gentle Leaders

It has come to our attention that specific Gentle Leader® Headcollars, sold from August 2011 – May 10, 2012, may have a defect in the quick release neck strap buckle, which causes an unintended release. The issue has been corrected. We recommend that all Gentle Leader Headcollars purchased during and prior to this period be inspected. We will replace any that contain the defect. We take this matter seriously and apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and appreciate your cooperation. Click on the appropriate link for a list of affected product, instructions on how to check your MCP/ICP labels if you are a wholesale customer, and defect testing instructions - images and video are both available. If you have any questions or need to exchange a defective Gentle Leader Headcollar, please email us at or follow one of the options below:

If you are a wholesale customer, call 800-933-5595 and press 1 for Sales.
If you are an end consumer, call 800-933-5595 and press 2 for Customer Care.

Announcement and details can be found at:

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Respect the Growl - what to do when your dog (or parrot) growls at you

Sometimes my parrot growls at me. Yes, I said “parrot” and “growl” in the same sentence.  Parrots do growl and this one was not imitating a dog.  She was playing with a toy and when I reached out to pet her, she gave a distinct growl and flashed her pupils at me.  This dilation and constriction of the pupils is called “eye pinning” or “eye flashing” and it can mean excitement, curiosity or aggression in parrot body language, which is not very helpful by itself unless you look at the context of this behavior and other visual signs such as raised feathers, stiff body etc. 

So, like any good animal trainer, I stopped what I was doing, waited for the bird to fold down her feathers and relax.  Then once she was relaxed, I slowly withdrew my hand and analyzed the situation.  Had I proceeded, I would have likely gotten a bite on the finger or at minimum an attempt on her part to strike out at me with an open beak as a further warning to back off. 
The bird’s display conveyed a very important message.  The growl meant “back off, you are making me uncomfortable.”  I noticed that anytime her mouth was occupied with something, whether it was a toy, a stick or food, she did not want to be touched.  This was important information.  Was the parrot trying to “dominate me”?   I doubt it.   Was she trying to guard her toy?  Unlikely, since I can take toys and food away from her at other times.   Does this mean that the parrot is not fully hand-tamed and may not be comfortable being touched when that very important beak is otherwise occupied? This is a more likely and plausible explanation.  Will I respect the growl?  Absolutely.

This incident made me wonder why is it that when a parrot or cat makes a warning display like a growl or a hiss, we humans immediately respect the warning and don’t press forward or punish the animal.  Most people would not assume that the cat or bird was trying to dominate them and would not take it that personally.  After all, they are just being a bird or a cat.  Why is it that we take it so personally when a dog growls and feel compelled to punish the growl?  Is it because we expect them to be our “best friend” rather than just like any other animal that has the potential to be scared or threatened? 
Should we scold or reprimand a dog for growling?  There are several reasons for not punishing an animal when he/she is exhibiting a warning signal.

Suppressing a warning signal leads to escalation.  First, and perhaps most importantly, when we try to suppress a low level warning signal such as a growl or lip curl, the animal learns that this initial warning is ineffective and is being ignored.  When this initial warning goes unheeded, the animal may bypass this step in future encounters and go straight to DEFCON 1, the Bite.  Warning signals such as growls, hissing, and lip curling are valuable pieces of information.  It is the animal’s way of telling us, “I am really uncomfortable with what you are doing right now and please stop before I have to escalate.”  By trying to suppress this behavior, we are actually encouraging the dog to exhibit more aggressive forms of behavior.

Punishment reinforces fear and defensive behavior.  Second, punishing an animal for exhibiting a warning signal reinforces the animal’s perception that there is indeed something to be threatened about.  The animal is trying to communicate, “back off’ and if the intended recipient of that signal does not back off and instead retaliates the animal will in turn escalate the encounter by biting.  Tactics such as yelling, pinning a dog to the ground, staring down a dog or grabbing them by the scruff are actually counter-productive and can increase aggression in an animal.  For studies that support this contention see my article on the risks of using aversives in training. 

Punishment may create unintended consequences.  Third, you may be unintentionally creating a negative association with whatever the dog is growling at or threatened by.  For example, if the dog growls at a certain person who enters the room and you punish the dog whenever this happens, this can reinforce the dog’s perception that when that person is in the room, bad things happen.
Punishment erodes trust.  Fourth, punishment makes the animal more defensive in your presence and this erodes the bond of trust that should exist between you.  For example, if I punished the bird for growling at me whenever there was a toy in her mouth, then the bird would be very distrustful of my presence anytime she wanted to pick up a toy to play with.  For an animal that is not fully tamed, this would severely set back any trust-building that we had previously developed.

So, what should you do if your pet growls at you? 

1)   Stop & Withdraw.  Immediately stop what you are doing.  Do not move forward so the behavior does not escalate.  If you are fairly far away or if the growl is clearly a warning, wait for your pet to relax.  Once your pet relaxes, carefully, withdraw your hand or move back.  If the growl appears intense, you are very close to the dog or a bite seems imminent, play it safe and stop what you are doing and withdraw.

2)   Identify the triggers.  Once you withdraw, analyze the situation.  What was the animal doing before the growl?  Was the animal trying to protect or guard something like food or a toy?  Was the animal fearful or threatened by you, another person or animal nearby? Was the animal fearful of something you were carrying or holding?  Was there a body part he/she did not like having touched or handled?  Is your pet stressed about something new in the environment?

3)   Come up with a game plan.  Once you isolate the trigger(s), first try to determine if these are situations that can be managed.  For example, telling strangers not to hover over your dog or to give your dog more space, or provide your dog a “safe zone” such as a gated area or room when guests come over. Then determine if you can work with your animal to change his/her perception of these triggers.   For example, if your dog does not like strangers reaching out their hands, ask strangers to stand at a distance your dog can handle and toss treats to the dog so that the dog learns that strangers are not so scary.   If your dog has a sensitive body part, determine if there is a physical injury or if your dog is ticklish.  Then try to teach your dog that brushing or handling is a positive experience.  See my videos on body handling.  If your pet seems to be guarding resources such as food bowls, people, sleeping places, toys or other objects, it is best to contact a certified trainer or behaviorist to work on a training plan with you as these behaviors can sometimes be tricky to deal with. 

4)   Become familiar with your pet’s body language.  Often there are signals that precede the growl.  For example, in dogs, the dog might suddenly go stiff or get very still.  You may notice your dog staring at you in a very direct manner. Identifying precursors to the growl may help you head off the behavior earlier in time. In addition, identifying early stress signals can help identify situations that make your dog uncomfortable.   See my article for a discussion on canine body language.  In addition, Here is a video of some common canine stress signals:

5)   Seek Professional Help.  If you are in doubt about what is triggering the behavior, if the behavior seems unpredictable or if you are unsure of how to handle your pet’s behavior, contact a certified trainer or behaviorist to help you develop a behavior modification program.  In some cases, severe aggression or guarding behavior is best handled with the help of a professional.  Make sure you choose someone who advocates methods based on positive reinforcement.  See my article on finding a  qualified dog trainer.

This dog is guarding an avocado
from one of the other dogs.

So, how did I resolve my parrot’s behavior?  I identified the trigger (does not like petting when things are in her mouth) and approached the issue as follows:

1)    Assess the behavior and my need to touch the bird in that context.  I made the assessment that I really do not need to pet her when she is busy doing something else like eating or fiddling with a toy. Would you like someone pawing at you when you are eating or concentrating on something else?  Instead, I reserved petting sessions for when she was relaxed and not occupied with something.

2)   Build a better bond through clicker training.  I worked on taming her further and building up more trust between us.  She was not fully hand-tamed so I worked on body handling and teaching her that I was not a threat.  I also did simple clicker-training tricks so that she would enjoy working with me.  Targeting my fingers was also a way of teaching her to interact with my fingers by tapping them (rather than nibbling).

3)   Teach an alternative behavior.  I taught her to drop objects (you can do this with a dog too).  So in the event I need to retrieve something out of her mouth, she will let go of it voluntarily.  See video of her retrieving and dropping an object.

4)   Set up a petting protocol.  I set up a petting protocol.  Parrots are not like dogs.  They are not really domesticated and they are prey animals so they are naturally skittish.  Before petting her, I would say, “can I pet you? and put my thumb and forefinger together much like I did with the targeting exercises in the vidoe.  If her pupils flashed or if she raised her feathers, I would leave her be.  If she was still relaxed, she got a pet and a treat.  This protocol achieved two objectives, it gave her a heads up that I am coming to pet her and it also set up a positive association with the words, “can I pet you” and the actions that followed (a head scratch which parrots love and a treat). Eventually the treat was faded out because the head scratch was nirvana for her. She got to the point that when I asked if I could pet her, she would bend her head over to receive a head scratch.  So she gave me an obvious signal that she wanted to be petted.  We essentially established a way of communicating so she would not be caught off guard and she received pets when she was ready and willing to receive them.
So, if you find yourself in a situation where your pet growls at you or somebody else, respect the growl and figure out how you can work with your pet in a productive manner.  We are not being permissive but acknowledging that there is a behavior that needs to be addressed.  It is better to address the behavior and its underlying cause in a proactive manner through behavior modification rather than try to put a band-aid on it and merely suppress its outward expression.

Respect my growl

Los Angeles Dog Training