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


Nothing to Fear?

Modern dog trainers have an agenda. We are almost always on the look-out, like treat-carrying heat-seeking bombs, hoping to find and eradicate anything and everything that might scare dogs.

I recently had some fear, up close and personal. A man driving behind me didn't like having to wait in line. He went from oddly belligerent to abusive. He stalked my car, yelling and outrageous, then stopped in the middle of an intersection to block traffic. Most chillingly, he circled the block and watched me fuel up before driving off in a puff of rubber. I waved an apology to the people behind me but was rattled. A few hours later and hundreds of kilometers closer to home, I stayed put in my locked car when another man, middle-aged and holding tight to his son's hand, walked by. Same thing for some laughing and joyous teens, pants slouched and shoes bright red and unlaced. I wasn't myself for a good few hours - and unlike many women faced with possibly violent men, I walked away without physical injury. But actual injury doesn't matter when it comes to fear: a switch in my brain had been flipped. Being scared sucks. And it matters. And it lasts.

If you have a dog that finds certain situations or people scary, you are their advocate. You are their emotional bubble wrap. Being scared is a welfare concern for the fearful dog, to say nothing of the safety issue if the dog expresses their fear with a bite.

Take the dog trainer's oath: nothing scary on your watch

Fear can be hard to spot. Look for cowering, glancing or moving away, a tucked tail,  ears down and back, trembling, a closed mouth, random panting, aggressive behaviour like growling or biting, and even dogs who lick their lips or nose. (Please watch the body language videos here with your kids). If you see these signs, catalogue and act.

Catalogue. What is your dog scared of? A person? A situation? A sound? Keep a running list.

Act. If your dog is mildly anxious, you can simply keep them a bit further away from the thing they're scared of in the future. Cross the street, leave the park, or put Fido in the house. Distance is the easiest way to grant relief. However, if your dog is anything more than mildly anxious, do your best to keep them wholly safe from their fears. Check your catalogue - is your dog scared of your kid's dress-the-dog-up game? Find another fun activity that both your kids and dog will love. Is your dog worried about dinner parties? Head out for supper on the town, or give them relief in the back room with a Kong, away from your mildly bacchanalian guests.

Consider also contacting a dog trainer who uses modern and safe techniques (Pavlovian conditioning should be at the top of the list). Many fears can be ameliorated through sound technique and trainers are adept at helping a dog's family come up with ways to keep everyone feeling safe.

Finally, run long and far if a trainer suggests using special collars or techniques that might hurt (and therefore further scare) your dog. Modern training methods allow us to put those tools in the museum where they belong.


Learn more about helping dogs with fear here and here, and about aggression here.


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

Why take a dog class? Well that’s as easy as one, two, three

Recently, I was out skijoring – a fantastic winter sport where a skier is attached by a bungee line to her dogs, who are harnessed and allowed to pull to their heart’s content. It was a beautiful winter's day, and I was enjoying the exercise and a spy thriller on audio-book, one of my secret vices. You would think that I’d be out skijoring every day all winter, right?


Pretty much the only reason I bothered to put on my rather constrictive ski boots (they’re like zippered up concrete), find all the lines and gear and put on the skijor belt (which looks very slightly like a baby’s diaper, to be honest) was because I joined something. I joined a fun race online – and what’s more, I paid to participate. And as much as I’ve enjoyed every single ski this winter, adding those meager kilometers to my score card is an embarrassingly important reason I’ve been out so much. Anyone who signs up -  and then attends -  an exercise class while blithely ignoring that dusty stationary bike will understand this phenomenon very well. So...

Modern classes focus on skills you need at home, like a polite "leave-it".

Modern classes focus on skills you need at home, like a polite "leave-it".

1. Join a class because you will actually train your dog

Unless you are a dog training fanatic, it’s hard to set aside the time to train your dog. Just as weightlifters need reps to build their lifting muscles; dogs need reps to build their "behavioural muscle". In class, you will spend a good solid hour training your dog, and in a very hard and distracting environment to boot.

2. Join a class if you have a puppy

If you have a puppy under the age of about 16-20 weeks, get thee to a well-run, safe puppy class today. Puppy classes may provide some basic obedience, but that’s always an extra. Puppy classes will help your puppy to be the safest, happiest, soundest adult dog they can be. This means socialization opportunities with the humans in class, meeting safe puppy play-mates, and more. You don’t need to believe me on this one: see the statement on puppy socialization from the dog behaviour gurus at American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. Read more about socialization here, here, and here.

3. Dog training has changed dramatically

You took a dog class in 1994 with your dog Salt-n-Pepa… how much could things have changed?

Modern classes are full of smiling dogs.

Modern classes are full of smiling dogs.

A lot. There has been a sea change in dog training – the science of animal learning has flourished, and dog’s cognitive abilities are much better understood. Classes today are faster, much more fun, and much safer. New dog training techniques put your dog’s welfare at the forefront. We get better results than the ol’ jerk-your-dog-around-on-a-collar classes did, and we use techniques that make your dog an eager, delighted participant. (To find a dog trainer who uses modern and positive techniques, check out this blog).

It's as easy as one, two three

Your life, and your dog’s life, will be better when he’s trained. A well-trained dog is welcome around your guests and in your car for running errands. He can come on hikes and run beside bikes and generally co-exist with you contentedly. And isn't furry but enjoyable companionship why you got a dog in the first place?


In the Manitoba/Saskatchewan Parkland and looking for classes? Check here for our next series of classes:

Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing.

An easy New Year's Resolution

Here is the easiest New Year's Resolution ever (I promise). We can do it together. Let's stop letting the phrase "Oh, but that's a working dog" go by in conversation, politely uncontested.

But wait. Some dogs do have jobs.

Give the dog the accoutrements of pet-hood for three or four months, long enough to overcome their initial fearfulness. And then simply give them the option to go back. The vast majority will readily choose comfort, safety, and companionship.

This is absolutely true. And many, many dogs would lead more enriched, healthy, and happy lives if they had a job. It's also perfectly reasonable and smart to say, with some alarm in your tone, "but that's a working dog" when a neighbour or family member tells you they are considering getting a field line Labrador Retriever or Golden Retriever, or a Border Collie of any stripe. Those dogs need an almost impossible amount of exercise to stay healthy and happy as a member of an urban family. Your neighbour (to say nothing of their future dog) would almost certainly be happier with a beautiful custom-made from the pound.

Working dogs: They still get a spot on the couch.

Some dogs are capable of and even enjoy demanding and rigorous physical work, and some are bred to find people scary enough to behave aggressively (that is, "guard"). So, what's the problem? The problem is when this capacity is used as an excuse for poor husbandry, and further, poor breeding choices. The problem is what's implied with that one word: "but".

These so-called working dogs are pets too. There is no such thing as a non-pet dog. All dogs are the same species, selectively bred by humans for thousands of years to live in close proximity to us. We created them, and it's our duty to take care of them to the best of our ability. The fact that a dog happens to chase sheep or cattle in a particularly useful fashion, or happens to pull strongly when harnessed, or happens to bark and lunge at the salesman at the garage door out of fear...these are not reasons to deny a dog a fulfilled, comfortable life.

What do "working dogs" put up with, then?

Let's not be quaint about it: the working dogs I'm talking about here live outside or in a garage, they are kept penned outside when not hunting, they live with uncomfortable, matted fur, they fight wild canines to the point of injury, they live chained up and are rarely, if ever, walked or trained. They have a bowl full of kibble but hunger for the human contact they have been bred for thousands of years to need and enjoy. Because their owners - that is, us - profit from their labour, we have learned to set aside their discomforts by creating easy, regal lies. These half-truths often have words like "loyal", "his flock", "instinct", "drive", "protective", and very often include "not a pet" in a tone that suggests that no way, no how would this dog choose to live the life of a pet.

This last bit can be pretty easily disproved, by the way. Give the dog the accoutrements of pet-hood for three or four months, long enough to overcome their initial fearfulness. And then simply give them the option to go back. Most will readily choose comfort, safety, and companionship. I know this because I have have been "into" sled dogs for more than a decade. I first met sled dogs when lived in the Arctic, which is where I learned the "but they're working dogs" rule. I managed to box them up in my brain, until (in relatively short order) they chewed holes in their boxes and made their way to a spot on my couch. Every sled dog I have met has prospered as a pet, and can still function perfectly well when harnessed up in the snow.

Sled dogs are on-the-bed dogs. Cat optional.

Sled dogs are on-the-bed dogs. Cat optional.

So let's shine a light on these easy lies and see if more dogs who are bred to work can have both a job and a bed by the hearth. The next time you hear "but he's a working dog" about a dog who lives in conditions you wouldn't accept for your own dog, feel free to bring up sled dogs.  The comfiest way is to first ally yourself "I used to think that way too" and then follow this up with new information, "but recently I read an article about sled dogs. I was surprised to learn that even dogs with jobs can and should be cared for like a pet - they can still function in their working capacity". Once you put that out there (no matter how gently you say it, them's fighting words), move on quickly in the conversation. The weather is always worth discussing.  "And talking about sled dogs, it's been the perfect winter for them!"

Just plant that seed.

Top photo: Vgm© Dreamstime Stock Photos. Title is from a quote credited to Martina Navratilova: "Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people."

Mind your Ps and Cues

Teaching "life cues" to your dog

I recently visited an acquaintance who has three friendly and lovely dogs.  Most friendly dogs will run up to say hi when a person appears - they love to meet and greet.  I was told before I arrived, however, that in the apparently unlikely event that the dogs left the porch I was to stop the car, only proceeding forward when they returned to the porch.  "We get some people who drive quickly through our farmyard" I was told. "This keeps the dogs safe."

Well, paint me purple and call me Penny - what a crafty bit of dog training that is! The owner had, by chance or design, set up the arrival of a car as the cue to return to and stay on the porch.  The paycheque for this (rather onerous, at least from the dog's perspective) behaviour is simple and easy: if they stay on the porch, they're allowed to greet the humans, a reward for which friendly dogs are often willing to work.

My dogs come running when we hear a car in the distance.

My dogs come running when we hear a car in the distance.

Hold on a second.  The car is a cue? 

Usually, we think of cues as the verbal commands in old-time drudgery-laden obedience training.  Sit! Down! Heel! Unlike the hand gestures and food lures we use to get a dog into position when we're first training, cues are stylized, random (according to the dog - sit has no more meaning than pineapple or 你好), and need to be specifically taught for the dog to perform to them. Many dog owners want their dogs to sit when they say sit, and to lie down when they say down. Importantly, almost all dog owners want their dogs to come running fast and furious when they yell come. For this reason, most dog classes include a quick how-to on teaching a dog to perform on a verbal cue.  But understanding how to really use and teach cues allows you, delighted dog owner, to use them when they'll make your life easier and in cases where they can help keep your dog safe.

When to train non-standard cues.

I have trained my loose-running dogs to come to me on walks when we hear a car, since we venture close to a rural farm road.  The sound of the car is the cue to recall (this car cue keeps my dogs safe, too). However, the sky is the limit on training useful cues. See if any of these fit your needs and let your imagination run wild.

  1. The sound of the car is a cue for a car-chasing dog to come inside. Reinforcement: tug game.
  2. The sight of a person walking by outside the window is the cue to come to the couch instead of barking. Reinforcement: cookie and patting.
  3. The appearance of the leash is the cue to come near the door and sit to have a front-clip no-pull harness put on. Reinforcement: walk time.
  4. Returning with a ball is the cue to drop the ball. Reinforcement: ball toss.
  5. The sight of another person on a walk is the cue to heel for a few steps in order to pass them politely. Reinforcement: cookie.
  6. The appearance of the owner's current crush is the cue to sit and wave. Reinforcement: cookie.
  7. The sound of the garage door opening is the cue to get off the couch, run to the dog bed, and look innocent. Reinforcement: pig's ear.
  8. The question "what's that ...odor?" is the cue for your dog to nose-prod your guest. Reinforcement: praise, laughter, and patting.
  9. The sound of your phone ringing is the cue to find your phone and bark at it until you find it, too.  Reinforcement: cookie.

I assume your dog already knows how to do the behaviour in question - if not, get thee to a good dog class (or get a great book) and get training! Now, you just need some help transferring the existing cue - a verbal cue or hand signal - to the new cue and context.  

New Before Old.

A good mnemonic for how to teach your dog to respond to new cues is New Before Old, He'll Do As He's Told (this really, really, really isn't to say we should be telling our dogs what to do - we must train them with skill and love, and motivate them with food. It just rhymes, and I want you to remember it.) This means the dog must perceive the new "cue" before you dish out the known, old cue. For example, when I was training my dogs to recall when we heard a car, I would wait until I could hear the car in the distance...the "new cue".  I knew my dogs, with their superior hearing, would have already heard it, too.  I then simply called them to me - a behaviour they are all quite good at.  And I reinforced. Over time - this can take quite a few repetitions, depending on the behaviour, the context, and the dog - the dogs started to recall even before I called them.  In some cases, even before I'd heard the car (I keep reinforcing the recalls to keep them strong, of course).

The formula:

New cue + [wait a second or two] + Old cue = Behaviour + reinforcement

We wait a second or two after the new cue to allow the dog time to perform the behaviour, before we help with the old cue.  Over time, the dog learns that the new cue predicts the old cue, and will do the behaviour without that extra bit of help.  Keep supplying the old cue until the dog will perform the behaviour for the new cue, at least ten times in a row.

Here's another example.  I want one of my dogs to sit when I let other dogs in and out of the door. I open the door and let dogs in/out (new cue), wait a second, then say "sit", and then reinforce him when he sits.  I've l̶a̶z̶i̶l̶y̶  brilliantly left a bucket of biscuits at the door so I am always ready to reinforce. Now, when the scrum starts, he sits - and looks expectantly towards the cookie jar. It's a quirk of dog behaviour that if I had cued a sit first and then let the dogs in and out, he simply wouldn't learn to sit at the scrum. The new cue must predict - that is, come before - the old cue.

Good luck and happy tails!

Do dogs get hangry too?

The difference between aggression and predation

I recently received a distressed phone call from the owner a young Labrador retriever.  The dog was guarding bones and had snapped at a family member who tried (unwisely) to take a bone away.  The owner asked very earnestly if this was just the beginning.  Would, she wondered, the dog kill the other dog next?

According to the Oxford dictionary:

Hangry (ADJECTIVE, informal)  Bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger

I occasionally get a bit edgy if I haven't grazed in a while. Who doesn't?  This word conflates two states: one physical (hunger) and one emotional (anger). It almost sounds the way it feels.  Someone might reasonably wonder "do dogs get hangry?" when they see a dog guard a bone, chase a bunny, or growl menacingly at a person in a strange hat. Could hangry be what was going on with the bone-guarding Labrador?

Get away from me!

Dogs use their powerful jaws and impressive dentition to two ends. The first is to protect themselves and their stuff.  When you see a dog who does any of the following:

Dogs guarding food or bones will hunker down, growl, snarl, and otherwise tell you very clearly: Get Away From Me Now.

Dogs guarding food or bones will hunker down, growl, snarl, and otherwise tell you very clearly: Get Away From Me Now.

  1. stays hunkered over a food dish growling if you approach
  2. picks up a bone and walks away if you approach
  3. snarls and snaps at another dog to prevent them from getting onto a favourite bed

You are seeing a dog who is protecting his stuff.  This can certainly come off as rude, or "bad", but in fact the dog is best characterized as worried and upset. The dog has a bit of his wolfy ancestor coming out - and his wolfy ancestor would have died of starvation if he didn't keep everyone (yes even his family members) away from his food.  Imagine losing your house in a weird mortgage rule change, leaving you broke and homeless. Losing the things you need to survive is scary stuff.

Even more alarming is when a dog uses their enamel weaponry to protect themselves.  A dog who is terrified of strangers (and this is the state that a "guard dog" is in, by the way) might growl, bark, snarl, snap at, and even bite a person who comes too close.  This dog is deeply scared, and needs the help of a professional trainer to overcome their fears. Dogs behaving aggressively towards strangers deserve all our collective efforts to increase their comfort and welfare, to say nothing of keeping the public safe.

For both guarding and fear of strangers, if the dogs are forced by circumstance to bite or fight, they usually do so without grievous damage.  They are giving warnings. The warnings might be painful or scary...that's the point.  But the dog is not trying to eat the other dog, or the the hapless bone-stealing family member, or the stranger.  They just want them gone, and gone now.

Get in my belly.

Dogs hunting critters (or things that remind them of critters, like balls and Frisbees) have a totally different approach.  Get In My Belly.

Dogs hunting critters (or things that remind them of critters, like balls and Frisbees) have a totally different approach.  Get In My Belly.

The second way that dogs use their chompers is to eat. We grow crops or harvest pizza pockets from the primeval forest to get enough to eat. Dogs, being carnivores, occasionally run down small animals (or things that remind them of small animals, like balls, Frisbees, moving bike tires, and blowing plastic bags).  Sometimes, when dogs catch small animals, they will kill and consume them.  Whether or not they follow through on the killing and/or eating parts depends again on how much of the ol' wolf is showing up in their repertoire.  All wolves will kill and eat prey.  Wolves who politely refrain from getting food to eat don't pass along any of their non-death-machine genes to their pups, because they are dead. 

Two very different motivations.

A dog who has guarded bones from people is likely to guard more bones from more people (or from dogs... or from cats they have befriended).  A dog who is so scared of a stranger that they behave aggressively is likely to be equally scared of a similar stranger.  In both cases, the dog is saying just one thing:  Go.  Get away from me.  Give me space.

A dog who has chased down small animals is likely to do so again, given the opportunity.  In this case, the dog is saying just one thing:  Come. Get in my belly. Pass the salt; pull out the best china; it's time to dine. 

So although a scared, aggressive dog and a hungry, predatory dog are both using their teeth, their behaviour is due to very different motivations.  And while a particular dog might be both aggressive towards strangers and also predatory towards small animals, these behaviours and emotions don't overlap.  They don't predict each other, any more than me feeling hungry predicts me being scared of my tarragon braised cabbage (it was bland, not fearsome). And me feeling scared of the momma grizzly I met once while hiking doesn't predict me biting gloriously into said grizzly after rubbing her with a mango-chipotle spice mix.

It's frightening and upsetting to us humans when dogs use their teeth, no matter if they're scared or hungry.  Luckily, qualified dog trainers can help in both scenarios, so there is no need for either you or your dog to suffer.  Grab a pizza pocket off your pizza pocket tree, find a good trainer, and get to work.


For more information on working with scared dogs, see my previous blog posts here and here. For more thoughts on natural dog behaviours that are hold-overs from their wolfy ancestors, see this blog post.