The Case of the Disappearing Doughnut: What to do with a counter-surfing dog

Do you have a dog who waits until you’re gone and then raids your kitchen, immediately and systematically, in a series of counter-top skirmishes? Nothing on the counter is safe: utensils, dirty dishes, whole loaves of bread, that cheese platter Aunt Tara brought to your birthday, a dish of gummy bears, the chips...and, for the love of Mike the dip, too. When you get home from work, your counter is clean and the dog bed littered with detritus. Fido is snoozing, delighted with his efforts, powdered sugar on his snout.

If this sounds familiar...there is good news, and there is bad news.

The good news first. If your dog is a counter-surfer, it really, really doesn’t mean he’s anxious, dominant, or angry at you for leaving; it doesn’t mean that he’s under-exercised, or over-exercised, or has thyroid issues, or has some deep-seated behavioural problem. It means he’s a dog, and has learned a behaviour by being rewarded for it.

Which is the bad news.

OK, OK, hold on. Let me back up a bit. To understand counter-surfing, we have to understand how dogs learn basic behaviours, including obedience behaviours like sit and come. When we train a dog to sit, for example, we get the dog into a sitting position and then give him a treat. Then, every time he sits, we give him a treat. After a while, our dog is very eager to sit. We keep him at the ready to sit whenever we want by giving him reinforcement (like delicious treats), which works in the same way that a paycheque does: it pays the dog for doing the work of sitting.

So just like how dogs will learn that they get a treat for sitting, a dog who counter-surfs has gotten a treat—all that delicious and fun stuff on the counter—for hopping up on the counter. The behaviour “getting up on the counter” goes up in frequency, as do all reinforced behaviours.

So dogs who hop up on the counter are not being bad any more than a dog who sits to get a cookie is being bad. They have just learned to do a behaviour in order to get a reward. And that’s a bit sad, I guess, because reinforced behaviours are like strong habits: tough to break. But grasp firmly to your britches. That’s not even the really sad part. The really sad part, my chips-and-dipless friends, is the cue. Just as the cue for “sit now to get a treat” is the word sit, the cue for “surf the counter now to get a smorgasbord of goodness” is my owner is gone. Let me explain.

The cue is you leaving the room

Although your dog will sit all the time when you have just trained him to sit, in that ever-eager-and-hopeful way that dogs have, in time she’ll figure out when she seems to get a treat for sitting—usually this is when you say the word “sit”, as a cue. And she’ll figure out when she won’t get a treat for sitting, too, and she’ll gradually stop sitting in those contexts.

So although it feels like a dog is being a titch Machiavellian when he waits for you to leave before starting the counter-party, he’s just learned that there is a cue for Counter Party. And that cue is Owner Gone. This feels calculating, but it's not. No-one suggests that I am a bad person or an angry person when I walk to the fridge and open it and take out some food and eat it. My “walking to fridge” behaviour has been rewarded with food over and over and over. Dogs approaching, acquiring, and eating a food item isn’t anything different.

What can I do about my counter-surfing dog?

That’s all good and fine, you may say. Thanks for the lesson on learning theory. Now what can I do about it? The answer is both simple, and painfully annoying, I’m afraid. You’ll have to keep your counters clean. Forevermore. Now sure, it will help if you make sure your dog has enough cardio-type exercise, and if she has a lot of fun food toys to drain some of her pent-up desire to scavenge. But that probably won’t be the whole answer. I’m afraid you’ll just have to get into the habit of keeping your counters perfectly tidy of stuff that a dog might take to eat or chew.

Does this seem too taxing or downright silly? An analogy may help here. Imagine a friend who tells you “my dog sits whenever I say sit. I want him to stop sitting when I say sit, so I’m giving him a treat each time he sits when I say sit.” There is a logical flaw in this protocol, you say gently. Urgently.

But leaving food out on your counter and expecting your dog to stop counter-surfing is the exact same thing.

Here is what has worked for me (I have a professional counter surfer. Or two. Or ten.):

  1. I place any food up onto a shelf which has been designated for that purpose, and which isn’t reachable by dogs. We are in the habit of putting food on that shelf: hot food from the oven that needs to cool, a plate of cookies, you name it.
  2. We think ahead and thaw food in the fridge, not on the counter. Or if we don’t think ahead, thawing food goes on that special shelf.
  3. I buy about twenty wooden spoons and silicone stirrers/flippers at a time. These are expendable. That way when one gets chewed up (and we live in a ridiculously tiny farmhouse with ten large dogs, so I’ll be frank: this happens with some frequency) I don’t feel angry or upset, I just laugh a bit, toss it, and pull out a new one. It’s more fun when they’re different colours and shapes. “Something new and shiny for my kitchen!”
  4. I close off the kitchen when none of those options will work. We have a giant expandable baby gate thing and just shut the dogs out when we’re in the “just ate thanksgiving dinner and can’t move to clean up all the fooooooood” zone.

Counter-surfing is annoying and frustrating, but it’s not diabolical or indicative of stress. It’s just a behaviour that dogs do; a behaviour that they’ve learned to do. So don’t fret, just make a plan. And there is a tiny silver lining here, my counter-surfed comrades: it’s actually kind of nice having tidy counters! Just don't forget to wipe up those little footprints. You missed one, there, out of hot sauce. Or is that jam. Cranberry sauce? Beet pickle juice. 

Photo: Chalabala | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Bonding with a Problem Dog

Of course I love my easy dogs. They are bright, fun to train, and sociable. They don’t make me sad, they don’t make me mad, they snuggle in when I’m watching a movie and they seem to have an inborn understanding of how to look cute for the camera. They’re just plum dreamy.

But I love my problem dogs, too. It’s not quite the same as with my easy’s certainly not better or stronger, but it is not worse or lesser, either. After working with a number of problem dogs on my own and with my dog training clients, I’ve come to understand that working through some problems with a problem dog can cement a wonderful, unique relationship that is every bit as worthwhile.

Over the years, my own problem dogs have been fearful of strangers, tricky to housetrain (a falsely tidy statement if there ever was one), and scrappy as heck. And my clients' dogs have been every imaginable combination of fighty, bitey, scared, or out of control. In almost every case, though, we’ve worked through a plan, moderated our expectations, trained like crazy, and come out on the other side. My own Timber can now pass Datson in the doorway without immediately brawling. Sitka regularly uses the great big toilet outdoors. Datson doesn’t jump up and bite our friends’ backs; Mischa doesn’t chase the cat; Sugar…ok, Sugar still buries mittens under my pillow but come on that’s just plain cute. My clients’ dogs can sit on the couch and enjoy being patted, they can meet strangers without cowering or snarling, they can be approached when they have a bone, and, well, I don’t want to brag but there are fewer Grandmas being jumped on in a one hundred mile radius than there was five years ago.

For some of my clients with problem dogs, it was not immediately clear that a bond would, or even could, form. In some cases the problem dog arrived as a beautiful bouncy puppy, and it is almost impossible not to love a puppy. But when adult behaviour pops up, and adult behaviour sometimes includes aggression or fearfulness, there can be a sense of loss (where did my beautiful puppy go?) on top everything else (I'm not sure I like this dog. I might even be a bit scared of him).

But despite all this—despite the snarling, the messes, the apologies to friends and Grandmas alike—after the training starts, a bond usually forms. It’s not immediate. It is forged, bit by bit, by stuffing Kongs and training “sit” even in really hard places and tracking successes on a scrap piece of paper and watching carefully for a thump-thump-thumping tail and putting up baby gates and setting up careful introductions and all this stuff we do to train problem dogs. The bond grows slowly like a stalagmite but in the end, when you look at your dog happily approaching previously-feared guests or showing off a trick for a previously-feared youngster or bounding towards you instead of scrapping at the dog park, you realize, much to your surprise, that it’s stalagmite strong.

It’s not always true that you “get the dog you need”. I didn’t need a scrapper, and my clients certainly don’t need or deserve dogs who are aggressive or fearful. But we do have the dog in front of us. And most of the time, with some elbow grease and time, a special bond can grow. It’s not better that the bond you’ll have with your easy dogs, it’s not worse, but it is a beautiful thing.

Eat, Play, Love

Many dogs love to play, and it's glorious to let them bound around with playmates of their own choosing. Considering that they're a social species, it is unsurprising that most dogs play just fine with each other. They wrestle, chase, bow, and bounce, with what looks like abandon but is actually a well-choreographed dance governed by intricate dog-dog communication.

"Does not play well with others"

Walter played just fine with some dogs. Others? Not so much.

Walter played just fine with some dogs. Others? Not so much.

So. I did say most dogs play just fine. As any dog trainer will tell you, some dogs who enjoy play also seem to be...well, kind of bad at it. They may sometimes play well (much to their owner's joy and relief). But at other times, or with other dogs, they seem to go into hyperdrive, or head off to la-la-land: they can't seem to pick up on signals from their playmates that things are too rough, they frequently end up in a snark-off or real squabble, and (alarmingly, from the human perspective) they just don't seem to learn any lessons from the other dogs who try, with varying levels of ferocity, to tell them to back off, pleaseandthankyou.

If this sounds like your dog, don't despair. (And don't sequester them away, woeful that you will never see a play-bow again). Push up your sleeves, call in a great dog trainer, and help your dog to find their inner play expert. It works, I promise: I have proof.

Datson held the unfortunate position of being Walter's favourite target to pester. Maybe Walter was jealous of Datson's beautiful and soulful eyes? 

Datson held the unfortunate position of being Walter's favourite target to pester. Maybe Walter was jealous of Datson's beautiful and soulful eyes? 

The Walter Chronicles

Walter is a stunning sled dog, dark chocolate brown with perfect sleddie eyebrows. Like most sled dogs, he enjoys the company of other dogs, especially the doe-eyed Datson. However (up until a few months ago, at least), his version of "enjoy" meant much-too-rough body slamming, drive-by hazings, and play-biting of the unilateral onslaught variety. Unlike normal play, during which both dogs consent, Walter seemed to get a kick out of rough, glassy-eyed interactions that Datson clearly did not like. One doesn't have to be a canine mind-reader to see that Walter's "play mate" of choice wasn't having fun, either. Datson (and Walter's other targets) snarled at him, actively avoided him, and sometimes even bickered.

This may seem like a conundrum to a dog lover like me. I want Walter to have experiences he enjoys, and I recognize the value of play as a great source of exercise and enrichment. But I definitely do not want other dogs to be hazed, uncomfortable, and constantly having to snark to keep their (clearly annoying) younger brother in check. Furthermore, my large crew of dogs get daily loose hikes as their main source of exercise, so I couldn't simply leash him up and pretend nothing was amiss. What's a dog trainer to do?

There is a Way

Luckily, this is one of those scenarios well-covered by the old maxim of "when there's a will, there's a way." Since Datson's snarks were obviously not castigating enough to reduce Walter's undogsmanlike play, I knew I had to step in. Every time he went overboard, I gave him fair warning and then leashed him up, briefly turning a freedom-filled hike into a more constrained affair. In addition, when Walter pulled out his more sociable self, I reinforced this with a nice food treat. It's true that consenting play itself is reinforcing, but why not stack the deck?

Walter's play style 2.0: fun for everyone.

Walter's play style 2.0: fun for everyone.

Soon enough, the drive-by harassment decreased, and then halted almost completely. Much to his own apparent delight, Walter found that social interactions with Datson such as mutually consenting play and co-sniffling were just as much fun as hazing, and (huge bonus perk, to his mind) didn't result in temporary loss of freedom. This technique is a bit tricky to implement well so is best carried out under the supervision of a trainer, but it works wonders.

How did I know there was a straightforward way to get from Harassment Lane to Playful Park? The science of animal behaviour change provided the map, of course. Just as it did with Datson.

Wait, Datson? Yes, you read that right: Datson, the doe-eyed, long-suffering, and beguiling target of Walter's unappealing affection was himself a rowdy pest when he was young. He learned to be a rowdy non-pest through the exact same protocol, and has had years of joyful play as a result.

Walter and Datson hike together every day.

Walter and Datson hike together every day.


As dog owners, we always want to do the best for our dogs. We want them to be safe, we want them to be happy, we want them to live an enriched life, and we want them to be healthy. Although we may not actively think about it, we end up having to make a lot of trade-offs when we choose what we allow (or not) our dogs to do. I think it's a worthwhile bit of personal exploration to consider these trade-offs every so often, to make sure that we aren't doing our dogs a disservice out of any unacknowledged influences. These typically include imagined danger, a random but salient single event in the past, urban legends, and pop literature about dogs. I find that the more I learn about dogs—we're lucky to live in times where the science of dog behaviour is such a hot topic, aren't we?—the further I refine my position on these, and the better, and more enriched, my dogs' lives become (I hope).

I'll spill the beans: in general, the more safety we provide our dogs, the less enriched their lives are.

I'm going to go out on a limb and indicate about where I fall on these continua for my own crew of dogs. Of course, there are certainly things we do for our dogs that are uniformly good (like training, provision of comfortable beds, etc.) and don't really involve trade-offs. I am hopeful, however, that as dog owners and dog lovers, we acknowledge that there are cases where we can't have it both ways. And in some cases, we might be making a call and falling strongly to one side or the other, without considering what we're giving up.

Chew toys and puzzle toys

I (sadly) fall closer to the "no chew toys" end of things. My dogs scrap and squabble over chew toys left out and are known "ingestors" of fabric and rope, so a rather low-value collection is all they see. To make up for it, I regularly give them consumable chewies that they can eat, and ensure they have a very enriched life otherwise.

Trade off Chewie.JPG

No Chew Toys?

PRO: Having no chew toys around means no fights over them, no broken teeth, no intestinal complete "safety".

CON: It also means a dog with no means to chew, an activity with key health and welfare benefits. These dogs may simply find something else to chew, which you yourself do not feel is technically a "chew toy", or may misbehave in other, even less desirable, ways.

MITIGATE lack of chew toys by providing a lot of other enrichment like training, play, dog-dog experiences, fetch, and ball. Consider inching yourself towards allowing chews by asking your vet what's appropriate for your dog.

Hundreds of Chew Toys?

PRO: Having lots of chew toys around means a dog with a lot of choice in how they meet their chewing needs. They can pick their favourite, and switch things up.

CON: Some chew toys may break up and form intestinal blockages, which can also be caused by fabric/rope. Some may break teeth. Some dogs squabble over chew toys. Some dogs also guard chew toys from dogs and people. 

MITIGATE the risks by supervising your dog when they are chewing (especially the first few times with any new item), providing toys which are tough enough for your dog's established chew level but not hard enough to break teeth, and if necessary, removing the toy when your dog is done with it. Separate dogs for chew hour in multi-dog homes if they do scrap over chews. If your dog guards chewies from you; give them their favourite chew in their crate and if you'd like them to refrain from guarding, hire a trainer. It's a very workable issue.

Off leash walks

My dogs are lucky enough to get off-leash walks every day, as I can wander around my farm with them. I have put a lot of training effort into training recalls (coming-when-called). They are at risk of running away, encountering wildlife, among other dangers.

Never unleashed?

PRO: Dogs are at essentially zero risk of being lost or encountering wildlife, of getting in scraps with other dogs, random injury from topography, and so on.

CON: For many dogs, leash walks are simply not sufficient exercise. Sometimes, a leashed-only existence can prompt leash reactivity and aggression, as the dog is frustrated from lack of access: leash walks do not offer the same opportunity for dogs to sniff and experience their worlds.

MITIGATE a lack of off-leash time through finding venues where they can be off-leash, like a tennis court or dog park. Set up play dates with dog friends in a yard. Head to a park and then switch your dog's regular leash for a long one (try 10 or 15 feet). Play fetch and tug. Enrich the dog's life otherwise, using chew toys, training, and so on. Consider hiring a trainer to train your dog to recall, so you can go on off-leash walks. If my sled dogs can do it, it's very likely that your dog can, too.

Lots of off-leash walks?

PRO: Excellent exercise, excellent enrichment.

CON: There may be dangers depending on your area. Mine include encountering wildlife, running too far and getting lost, injury, and going out on the road and getting hit by a car.

MITIGATE the dangers by training a good recall and continuing to reinforce it forever. Choose areas and times with less traffic or head away from roads. Research the wildlife in your area and make reasonable decisions about the time of day and time of year you should and should not hike. Use a GPS tracker on your dog's collar, and reflective materials on their collars/harnesses as well.

Dog play

My dogs play to their heart's content, as long as everyone consents (read more about consenting play here). Sometimes, they squabble if things get too heated, although for my crew, squabbles are no problem (read more about when squabbling is safe here). This section assumes that your adult dog is not fearful of all other dogs and does not have an injurious fight style.

No play?

PRO: your dog never has access to the (extremely rare, granted) dog who has an injurious fight style, in the rather unlikely event of a scrap during play. If your dog is fearful or anxious, they avoid fear-evoking events like bullying, as well.

CON: preventing a social species like dogs from playing is, for individuals who like play, a welfare concern. Their play skills will possibly degrade, making scraps more likely if they do finally get access to other dogs. Social dogs who never get play are at risk for leash reactivity and aggression due to a lack of access to normal greeting , as well.

MITIGATE a lack of play by making a plan to get your dog playing. Hire a trainer to attend a play session with you to provide comfort and to separate any scraps that might initially happen. Select dogs with known good play histories as play-mates. A trainer can reduce unwanted play-associated behaviour like hazing and bullying, as well, so that safe, normal play can proliferate. If your dog is one of the few who injures other dogs (i.e. the other dog needs stitches), then they may only have access to other dogs when muzzled. If your dog is fearful of or dislikes some dogs, set up play dates with dog friends they do like. If play is simply not possible, enrich your dogs life in other ways: fetch and tug, walks, games, puzzle toys, and training.

Lots of play?

PRO: Play is excellent exercise, and great enrichment for dogs. It is an easy way to boost your dog's welfare and tire them out, mentally and physically.

CON: Play sometimes results in scraps. Most scraps are non-injurious and non-fear-evoking, but in some cases a dog may end up scared (rare), injured (rare) or even dead (very rare). Sometimes anxious dogs may become scared during normal play, as well.

MITIGATE the dangers of play by supervising, learning how to safely separate scraps, interrupting dangerous play moments like two-on-one chase games or very small dogs and very large dogs playing, and allowing or prompting your dog to distance themselves from particular dogs they find anxiety-provoking. For anxious dogs, select appropriate play mates.

Other trade-offs?

There are literally hundreds of other trade-offs we make every day. Bringing a dog in the car to run errands means a fun excursion, and maybe even a special treat from the drive-through. But it exposes them to the possibility of vehicular accidents and heat stress. Walking your dog in the deep freeze of winter gives them exercise and enrichment, but they may get cold or even frostbite.

Not all enriching activities are unsafe, and not all unsafe activities are enriching, obviously. No trainer would suggest you allow your dog to play in traffic, chase tigers, chew on metal posts or swim in riptides. But not allowing them to run free, play with dogs, or gnaw on a good chewie does involve trade-offs. The more cognizant we are of these trade-offs and how our own decision-making processes influence our dog's lives, the better we can meet our own particular dog's needs, no matter where we fall on any continuum.


The easiest tests are multiple choice

Why oh why is my dog doing x, y, z? 

Harried dog owners feel that if they can decode why their dog is doing something, they will be able to stop it from happening.  Often, they assume a human motivation (guilt, seething manipulative rage, revenge after the fact...)  Luckily for dog trainers, dogs' motivations are much more transparent. Oh, if only that were the case with our co-workers, spouses, and children!

But that doesn't mean that the "why" question isn't an interesting one. I'll spill the beans: for the vast majority of stuff dogs do, it's pretty much the easiest question on a multiple choice quiz. The answer is either A. It just feels good or right or B. Reinforcement history. Don't get me wrong: dogs, like all animals, have complex cognitive abilities and tools for interpreting and moving through their worlds. But if your dog is doing something you'd like him to stop, it's almost certainly A, B, or a bit of both. Let's break it down.

A. It just feels good.

Evolution has gifted all of us with some behaviours that just feel good because they helped our ancestors to ... erm, how to put this delicately.  Grow forth and prosper.

Some examples: Humans enjoy calorie-laden snacks. And we enjoy the feeling of holding and caring for our kids. A person who, at our last evolutionary bottleneck, enjoyed eating low-cal or forgot their kids at Dairy Queen (I'm looking at you, dad #neverforget) is somewhat less likely to have a whole baseball team of offspring, if you follow my meaning.

It's easy to see the evolutionary importance of eating high-calorie food and caring for our kids. But if anything naturally feels good, the likelihood is that it helped our ancestors to survive, or thrive.

Since dogs like all these things (and other stuff, too) they can be used to reward behaviours that you like.  Ain't life grand?

Since dogs like all these things (and other stuff, too) they can be used to reward behaviours that you like.  Ain't life grand?

Dogs are no different. Take chasing tires—dogs enjoy chasing things that remind them of prey. It's hunting behaviour, and it feels right and good. "But I feed him kibble" you might moan. And I ate breakfast just an hour ago, but has that stopped me from consuming a large slice of cheesecake as I write this? Nay. That's right: just because the behaviour functioned well in the past doesn't mean it's a great fit for the modern context. It still just feels good, though.

B. Reinforcement history.

So, some stuff just feels good. Other stuff? We have to learn to do it, and there has to be a reason we keep doing it.  Why do I go to work in the morning? It's reinforced by a paycheque, which I use to buy cheesecake. Dogs are no different—if they are doing something that isn't naturally pleasurable, there is likely a paycheque involved. Why do they perch, ever hopeful, near the dining room table? It's reinforced by an occasional gobble of dropped food. Why do they release the ball (very counter-intuitive, if you think of it) when you're playing fetch? It's reinforced by another toss of the ball.

Punishment also changes behaviour, but we'll s̶t̶i̶c̶k̶  stay with the carrot as that's the best way to train dogs. However, if a dog regularly receives punishment (swats, stern voice, special "training" collar) then their behaviour will be changed by both the desire to avoid punishment and the fearfulness which often comes along for the ride.

If your dog is doing something they naturally enjoy, think about acceptable and humane alternatives: a comfy bed elsewhere, a digging pit, a chew-toy instead of the furniture. If your dog is doing something because it has been reinforced, well, put an end to the reinforcement and try training something else.

In any case, a good, positive trainer or dog class is a godsend here. Put down the cheesecake and pick up the phone. Soon. Real soon. Just one more bite.

An Open Letter to my Clients with Aggressive Dogs

Owning a dog who behaves aggressively towards people is stressful, draining, and heart-wrenching. It can also be, maybe surprisingly, a story with a happy ending. I would like all my clients with aggressive dogs to know that I understand and can help, even if that seems impossible. If I could somehow impart all this with a magic pill, I would. But as dog trainers certainly know, magic pills are only available in fairy land. So I've written a letter, instead.

Dear client,

You have an aggressive dog. Your dog snarls, growls, and even bites. Your dog makes you cringe, or cry; he makes you angry, flustered, and frustrated. Your dog makes your friends and family scoff or judge you, and you feel cleaved in two. You love your family. But you love your dog, too.

I would like for you to know that I hear you clearly when you say he's slow, he's bad, he's not listening, he's rude, he's mean, he's manipulative, he's dominant, he's protective, he's anything at all. It is my job to listen and empathize, and I take that very seriously.

But it's also my job to help. To help you, and to help your dog. So here are my promises.

I promise that as often as you need to hear it, in as many ways as you need to hear it, and until it becomes a part of your thinking, I will repeat that he's scared. He's terrified. He needs protection from whatever it is that frightens him. We can offer him that, and it will be a great relief to both him and you.

I promise that I will never judge you for your secret negative feelings about him. I have those, too. We're all, every one of us, human.

I promise that as long as you're willing to work with him, I'll stand beside you. I'll write letters to your vet. I'll give you talking points for your family. I'll answer your questions in plain English — no jargon, no fanciful talk — and I'll pull you up when you feel like you've fallen into a rut. I'll create a plan to help him overcome his fears, as much as is reasonably possible.

I promise that if you miss a step and something happens, I won't be angry or patronizing. I make mistakes too. Instead, I'll sit down with you and we can figure out together how to make mistake less likely in the future.

I'll remind you that your progress, slow as it seems to you, is wonderfully, crystal-clear to me. I'll remind you, too, that fearfulness is the slowest thing to change in dogs. I'll regale you with stories about other anonymous dogs who took even longer, if you need to hear it.

I promise too that I care as much about your happiness as that of your dog. When we sit down at your kitchen table and talk, I will almost certainly be able to figure out new, lower-stress ways for you to live together. It's my job to find solutions, and it is what I'm trained to do.

I promise that I will be honest and open about training options and safety for you, your dog, and the public, and support any hard decisions you end up having to make.

I will assure you, as often as you need to hear it, that it's almost certainly not your fault. It doesn't matter how many items there are on your list of "this happened, could this have caused it?" It likely wasn't the thing at the groomers or the thing at the dog park or your father-in-law or corn in his diet or anything. And if you were dished up inadequate or false dog training information in the past and that has in fact contributed, then the fault lay at my feet, as a dog training professional. Pass that burden over. I promise I can shoulder it.

Finally, I promise you that I will use rigorous science and the most effective, efficient, and gentle techniques that I can: I will never hurt or scare your dog as a way to train him.

Everything Gets Boring If You Do It Right

Apricat jumped up from my lap, eyes wide and back arched. A loud bang from another room had startled him awake, interrupting his purring snooze. He settled back into position after half a minute or so, apparently convinced the danger had passed. It hadn’t, though: another bang followed, and another, and another, each about five minutes apart. His reaction to the second bang was equal to the first, but over the stretch of the whole afternoon, something interesting happened. His reactions grew less intense, and the time he took to curl back into nap mode shortened considerably. By the end of the afternoon, he wasn’t paying attention to the construction sounds at all. Not even a whisker’s twitch.

If you have a cat or dog, this story probably sounds familiar. In fact, it probably matches your own experiences in a busy, loud world. Do you live close to a bus or ambulance route? Or perhaps there’s a loud, ticking clock in your living room, or a heater or fan that comes on automatically. During the first few days you lived with those sounds—regular but not particularly meaningful or scary—they may have been annoying, but soon enough, you stopped paying attention. I lived on a busy downtown thoroughfare once, and had the rather surreal experience of someone asking me “is that an ambulance?” when we were on the phone. I tuned in, and indeed an ambulance was passing right below my window, sirens blaring. Much to my surprise.

This fascinating ability we have—all of us, including cats and dogs (and snails, for that matter)—to get used to stuff around us is absolutely vital to functioning in the real world. Imagine if your reaction to the sound of fridge’s compressor turning on was the same as when someone sneaks up behind you and yells “BOO!” You'd constantly be in such a state of shock and surprise that you wouldn’t be able to eat, sleep, drink, or make merry. (In the “you can habituate to almost anything” file: I have habituated to ticks, living in Swampatoba. Ticks crawling on me; ticks biting me. I don’t even look up from my book as I ...discard of them.)

The ability to just get used to stuff—habituation, as the psychologists call it—can be handy for dog training. For example, if your dog startles a bit at a non-scary sound or sight like Apricat did, you can just let habituation take its course. Caveat: sometimes, the startle will get worse all by itself, known as sensitization. If that's the case, keep your dog away from the thing that’s startling them and call in a trainer, stat.

Another time when habituation is really useful is with dogs who are a bit too interested in other animals: cats, wildlife, or livestock. For dogs who chase or pester, but do not harm; habituation is a good option or a good addition to a more comprehensive behaviour change plan. The aim is to have your dog essentially get bored of the animal.

Habituation is most likely to happen if conditions are right:

  • Your dog can perceive (see, hear, smell) the animal.
  • Your dog isn’t alarmed or reacting to the animal at the distance you are at.
  • Your dog receives regular exposure.
  • Your dog receives long-duration exposure.
  • There is a reasonable amount of time between exposures (~hours).

Does this sound like it could never work for your dog? I have a houseful of dogs just ready to yell it from the treetops: habituation works, it's just a looooooooong game. A few years ago, these sled dogs would have chased, pestered, nipped, cornered, and in general been unmanageable, around cows. Now, we walk relatively calmly right through cowlandia. And habituation wasn’t just at work for the dogs: during our bovines are boring time, the cows were also habituating... to dogs! A few years ago they would have been much more likely to startle and flee. It’s not fair to the cattle for them to feel startled and scared whenever me and the crew walk among them (and a startled, running cow is much more attractive to a sled dog), so I will chalk this up as a very hearty win-win.

Everything gets boring if you do it right.

This blog is a part of Companion Animal Psychology's Train 4 Rewards Blog Party.

The Terrifying Joy of Letting Your Dog Decide

There is a lot of stuff that my dogs love doing that I don't let them do. I don't let them harass the cattle. That's not fair to the cattle. I don't let them eat fifty million pounds of cat food every day. That's not fair to their future health, or the air quality in our home. I don't let them wander unsupervised outside our fenced yard, because they might meet a skunk (which they also like, to be frank) or get hit by a car. I love giving my dogs stuff they love, so these restrictions sometimes rankle. But luckily, my dogs get lots of goodies. They're trained, they're well-fed, they get daily walks, they have a ridiculous multitude of beds, and the best part ever: when it comes to dog play, as long as all parties are consenting, I let my dogs decide how much, where, when, and how long. (Consent is easy to determine, by the way. Call off both dogs, and see if they both return to play with each other. They'll let you know.)

Researchers who study animals' quality of life are pretty quick to suggest that play can be used as a welfare indicator. Most of the time, a playful animal is signalling that she is both healthy and free from worry. To top it off, play is one of those behaviours (like eating and sex) that are just straight-up pleasurable. In research-speak, the behaviour is self-reinforcing: "the reward to the animal is in the expression of the behaviour itself".ⁱ

So if play is plainly reinforcing, to say nothing of enriching and tiring (oh, to have a tired dog! What joy!), why is there so much chatter about it among us humans? We endlessly diagnose, constrict, restrict, define, prevent, and worry. That dog has semi-inherited domineering playitis. This dog shows clear serenity signals at the sight of a Samoyed. And the human tendency is, unfortunately, to restrict play. We want to pick who our dogs play with, and how they do it; if we even let them play at all. Run-of-the-mill dog play seems to terrify us. In a bit of breathtaking narcissism, we feel like we have a better handle on what makes dog play good than do actual, real... you know. Dogs.

Imagine if your own parents had so much control over your adult activities. "Well Steven, I have decided that racquetball is simply too stressful for you. I've set up a table here with some alphabet blocks and a nice Ovaltine." It's a bit dreary, isn't it?

If you have a playful dog who is not becoming fearful or causing fear but you restrict their play anyways, please consider a firm press of the reset button in your mind. Allow your dog to choose both how they want to play, and who they play with. Quell the "but, but, but" crew by bypassing popular literature and heading right to the research: there is not a body of research to suggest that species-typical play is bad. Dogs run, slam, bow, bite, bark, hump, chase and loll. They express their joy exactly as they should, as energetic, magical, social carnivores.

We deny our dogs oodles of fun experiences for everyone's health and safety. So go aheadopen your heart to the terrifying euphoria of dog play. Even if it makes you uncomfortable to start. Even if there are a couple of squabbles. Even if you need to pull out the doggie shampoo afterwards. Even if. Even if.

We bring dogs into our lives for the joy they give us, right? Play, and better yet, play on our dog's own terms, is one extraordinary way we can return the favour.

i. Held, Suzanne DE, and Marek Špinka. "Animal play and animal welfare." Animal Behaviour 81.5 (2011): 891-899.

Just Walk Beside Me and Be My Friend

You know that person? They’re the Friend Of A Friend, and they just don’t seem to have anything nice to say. When you post a picture of something you made, the F.O.A.F. will find the one crooked stitch. If you proclaim To Boldly Go with a slightly embarrassing picture, they’ll ‘helpfully’ note that Sister Spittlewhistle said to not split infinitives ;). That paint job you just finished? Well, the F.O.A.F. asks innocently if you knew to roll the paint into “W” shapes for even coverage? Oh, how different they are from the more pleasant types, who support your decorating efforts with a thumbs up and a “can’t wait to see it!”, click like on your goofy pictures, and stay gently and genteelly (if noticeably) mum when they disapprove.

Let’s face it: those negative comments really feel punishing, don’t they? And no one likes to be punished. Here’s something we don’t always think about, though: this “no one” includes dogs.

Modern dog trainers make liberal use of treats, games, and other things dogs like. We use these things to reinforce dog behaviours we want to see more of, like sitting when greeting guests, performing some acrobatic trick, or coming to us when we call “come!”

We don’t just limit our reinforcement to obedience behaviours, though. For example, I keep an eye on my dogs (constantly, if a bit lackadaisically). If they happen to do something I like, such as laying quietly on a dog bed, waiting at the door instead of barging, not chasing the cat, looking cute, you name it...I will reinforce it. I use food, ear scratches, door-opening services; whatever I have that they want. Net effect? I live in a small farmhouse filled with large, active, and scrappy dogs, and it’s surprisingly smooth sailing.

Dogs are our friends

In the past, dog trainers used a lot more punishment. We used painful collars, jerking on leashes, and yelling or a stern word. These techniques did work: they stopped dogs from doing what we didn’t like, by hurting or frightening them. And it wasn’t just in the obedience ring, either. Dogs were regularly punished in this way at home, for a multitude of what we now see as standard-issue canine behaviours. This is the very same technique used by the dreaded F.O.A.F., if you think about it. The F.O.A.F. is always on the lookout for what they feel is wrong, and they’re ready to punish it as soon as humanly possible.

The science of animal learning has given us the means to change our dog’s behaviour to a simply astonishing degree using only the things that dogs like (think of tigers in the zoo, placing a paw on a table to have their nails trimmed for a food reward. Or the dog who used to bite men out of fear, now happily greeting guests. If they can do it, so can your dog!). This modernization of dog training has two wonderful side-effects:

  1. Our dogs avoid the well-documented aggressive and fearful fallout of using training techniques that are painful or scary. This protects our human families, too.
  2. Our dogs instead get a positive feeling about training, and guests, and their dog beds, and waiting at the door, and coming when called, and…

If you aren’t familiar with the new direction that dog training has taken in recent decades, please pack Fido into the Fiat and roll on over to the closest positive dog training classes you can find. It’s simply never too late to retire the F.O.A.F. approach. Leash up your dog and walk beside them down a whole new path.

Title from a quotation with uncertain origins, "Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend."

Dogs are Animals and Animals Fight.

And most of the time, it's actually alright.

A while ago, my friend had a tiff with her spouse. There was an uncapped tube of toothpaste implicated. They settled things in a species-normal fashion, with some pointed looks, a few huffy words, and a bit of the ol' silent treatment. Eventually, they forgot all about it. No one was harmed, threatened, or scared, and when she told me about it afterwards, we laughed.  Ah, love.

A while ago, my dog had a tiff with another dog. There was a choice spot on the couch implicated. They settled things in a species-normal fashion, by barking and snarling, then scrapping -  there were some inhibited, non-injurious open-mouth blows to each other while they stood on hind legs, after which they both settled down comfortably in different beds. No one was harmed or scared. When I told my friend about it later, she suggested keeping the dogs apart forever or maybe putting one or both down or re-homing or something really must be done.

Hold on.


Dog fights seem exceptionally scary to humans, my poor friend included. There are teeth - lots of teeth. And the teeth are large. And white. And there is noise - lots of noise. And it's intense. We humans are only a few hundred years removed from Little Red Riding Hood, when you think about it. Large, wolf-like predators using their teeth - that's just scary to humans.

So was my friend right? Should dogs who have tiffs with other dogs be separated, re-homed, or worse? If a dog fight makes our human hearts race, our blood run cold, and our stress hormones spike, well it simply must be stopped, right?

As you've probably guessed from my introduction, dogs who have occasional, non-injurious fights do not need to be euthanized, re-homed, or even separated. They don't necessarily even need (heavens be) to be trained. The Toothpaste Cap Incident isn't on a slippery slope leading to divorce, mayhem, and acrimony. Similarly, dogs are allowed to have normal conflict over normal, conflict-inducing things, in a species-appropriate way. It is not a slippery slope leading to bloodshed, mayhem, and death.

There are a few exceptions, of course. Talk to a modern, reinforcement-only trainer if any of these apply to your dogs.

Exception 1. The fights are actually injurious

If there are anything more than minor wounds on the face and legs, talk to a trainer. That is, if a dog is causing the type of injury that needs shaving, suturing, drains, or antibiotics at the vet, then the dog who has the damaging bite must be kept apart from other dogs except when muzzled. They are not bad dogs or evil dogs or anything other than great dogs... but we just can't have even one more bite. There is no known way of reducing the damage of a dog's bite in these scenarios, so don't be fooled by snake-oil salesmen offering relief for a fee. 

Exception 2. One of the dogs is getting scared

Most fights are not scary to dogs, just like most toothpaste wars are not scary to humans. But sometimes, one of the pair starts to become afraid. Call in a trainer A.S.A.P., and keep whatever they're fighting over locked away until your trainer can work with you to make a plan. The plan might include changing the dog's mind about sharing, or simply updating how the dogs are organised at home.

Exception 3. Bystanders

If you have kids in your home, or others who might get injured inadvertently from a dog fight, it's time to call the trainer in. 

Obviously, if there are simple ways of reducing fights (feeding in separate rooms, switching to consumable-type chewies, buying extra beds), then as pet parents we should do so. And if you like training, you can almost certainly reduce the number of fights with some pro help. But if your dogs are generally friendly and occasionally scrap, you have the glorious option of just not worrying about it. This feels heretical or ghastly because of the human factor: we find dog fights scary. But it's a worthwhile exercise to reel ourselves back in. Just because we find it scary doesn't mean it actually is. Just because we find it scary doesn't mean we have the right to cordon our dogs off and keep them away from each other. Just because we find it scary doesn't mean we should kill our dogs. Imagine if I told my friend she needed to build separate bathrooms because the toothpaste thing. Or get a divorce. Or plot... well, never mind.

One of reasons we bring dogs into our lives is to enjoy their furry high jinks. Dog conflict is just part of that parcel, for better or worse. So while it's true that we might have to deal with some scrapping, let's look on the bright side: it's pretty rare that they leave the cap off the toothpaste tube.  


For information on how to separate dog fights, check back next month. This blog is our contribution to iSpeakDog week.


Little Red Riding Hood image Walter Crane [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Dog photo by Friday | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images