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

Kristi BensonComment
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:

Kristi BensonComment
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 I 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."

Kristi Benson Comments
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!

Kristi BensonComment
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.


Kristi BensonComment
Camera Shy to Camera Guy

Helping an anxious dog to overcome their fears

Every person has felt the unpleasant, sickly edge of fear at some point in their lives - and no one wants their dog to feel that way.  Unfortunately, a dog who is feeling mildly scared or anxious can look pretty innocuous.  He might pant even though it is not overly warm, flick his tongue or lick his nose, hunch over, or glance (or even move) away.  Have you seen your dog do this?  If so, read on.  You can help. 

Note: If your dog is really scared of something - hides, stops moving altogether, or acts aggressively - please contact a good, positive trainer, as the procedure described below is quite technical. In the case of moderate or serious fears, mistakes can make your dog's fear even worse. 

 Mischa (back, heading away) shows me how he feels about the camera by leaving during a recall.  Normally, he has the fastest recall of the crew.  Once I had figured out that it was the camera, I put it away until I could train him.

Mischa (back, heading away) shows me how he feels about the camera by leaving during a recall.  Normally, he has the fastest recall of the crew.  Once I had figured out that it was the camera, I put it away until I could train him.

Mischa is a sled dog who recently became scared of having his picture taken.  This could be a really easy fix, you might be saying.  Just put the camera away when he's around. Presto chango.  And you'd be right - locking away my camera forevermore would have kept him feeling safe.  But he is (like everyone's dog, I would argue) a perfect-looking creature who deserves to be the subject of numerous poorly-executed photographical attempts.  In sum: I really wanted to take his picture.  So I trained him to love the camera using the power of Pavlovian conditioning. 

How did you change a scared dog's mind?

You might remember Pavlov from any introduction to psychology in school. He was the scientist who found out that you could train a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell by consistently following the bell with food.  We're co-opting Pavlov's approach, but instead of the bell we'll aim to make Mischa salivate - in other words, anticipate hopefully - when he sees the camera.

First, I separated the camera into its constituent parts: lens cap, lens, and body. (Later, I would even separate out the sound of the shutter release).  I put the lens cap into my pocket along with a baggie of really good dog treats.  Then, I went into stealth mode. When Mischa was least expecting it, I showed him the lens cap, let him sniff for two or three seconds, and then rained down ten or twenty treats, one at a time. 

  • Important Part One: Mischa did not know it was coming.
  • Important Part Two: Mischa saw the camera lens first, for 2-3 seconds. I stood as still as a statue during this part.
  • Important Part Three: After he'd seen the camera lens, I then gave him food. Lots of food. Lots.
  • Important Part Four: He never saw the camera without then getting food.  No pictures, period.

To make sure I got Important Part One right (Mischa did not know it was coming), I also showed him random non-camera items in the same way - approaching, putting my hand in my pocket, and pulling it out.  I showed him a small metal owl statue.  I showed him a tape measure.  I showed him a spoon.  None of those resulted in treats.  I wanted it to be really clear in his mind:  the lens cap?  THAT meant treats.  Everything else, like me walking up to him with my hand in my pocket?  That was meaningless.

I think I can do this.  When do I move to the next step?

Once it was perfectly, patently obvious that Mischa loved the lens cap (he saw it and jumped up, wagging, drooling, searching for his food, eyes jumping from my face to my pocket), I moved on to the lens.  He caught on, and came to love the lens.  Then I tried the fully assembled camera itself.  This took much longer than I had expected - weeks of few-times-per-week training.  You can almost certainly guess why. Mischa had seen a camera before, and it worried him.  So we carried on slowly, and I was careful to never raise the camera to my eye or take a picture, not yet.  I just showed him the camera, let him sniff and investigate, then fed him.

How much do I feed him when I show him the item?

Lots.  Or as they say in Manitoba: Really Lots.

Note: Trying to move quickly when dealing with a fearful dog is never productive - two brash steps forward, five fearful steps back.  Going at the dog's pace, however tortoiselike, is paradoxically faster. A couple of times I tried to rabbit ahead, and Mischa told me so by turning tail and leaving.  I knew to drop back immediately to an easier step.

OK.  He loves the camera. What next?

 Early pictures were not about focus,  framing or composition (to be frank, later shots weren't either.  I'm just better at Pavlovian conditioning).  They were about putting everything together - camera, pose, sound - for just a brief moment, and then giving Mischa food right afterwards.  His smiling, soft face indicates clearly that he's enjoying this process immensely. I'm not moving too fast here.

Early pictures were not about focus,  framing or composition (to be frank, later shots weren't either.  I'm just better at Pavlovian conditioning).  They were about putting everything together - camera, pose, sound - for just a brief moment, and then giving Mischa food right afterwards.  His smiling, soft face indicates clearly that he's enjoying this process immensely. I'm not moving too fast here.

Next came the sound of the shutter release.  When he was least expecting it, I pressed the shutter release on the camera, hidden artfully away from his sight.  I waited the requisite two seconds, and then poured out the food. I did this when I was working away at my desk, or chopping onions, or reading a book. The element of surprise is vital here.  Mischa needed to know the sound of the camera, and nothing else, predicted that food was coming. 

The sound of the shutter release? Why?

When we are helping dogs to overcome fears, it's wise to separate the scary thing into chunks the dog can handle - think lens cap, lens, camera body.  It's even better if the chunks can tickle only one sense at a time: the smell of a stranger.  The sight of a hot-air balloon.  The sound of a shutter release. Since I had found Mischa to be more fearful than I had originally guessed, I also separated out, and trained him to love, me crouching into the photographer's pose by following it with a snack.  I also pretended to take a picture, with no camera present. This predicted snacks, too.

Final step: Do the math

Once I had him loving everything separately, I started doing some math.  Add the camera pose to the camera.  Add the camera to the sound of the shutter release.  We stayed on each step until Mischa was obviously in love: looking from my face to my pockets, drooling with anticipation. Each step took days or weeks. 

Finally, I was able to start taking photographs - at first, just one every couple of days, then more often.  I continued, and continue to this day, to give him a treat every time. Cost: a small treat. Benefit: inoculation against the fear cropping up again.

I'm now free to snap as many pictures as I want. And with a face like that, well, that's Really Lots.

 Hopeful smile and perky ears tell you everything you need to know: Camera Guy.

Hopeful smile and perky ears tell you everything you need to know: Camera Guy.

Do no-pull harnesses work? Ask a sled dog or two.

Note: this blog is being published as part of the Harness The Love campaign.

I recommend front-clip harnesses all the time.  "These special harnesses cut pulling immediately, and most dogs find them extremely comfortable" I say sincerely.  Many dogs in my class do eventually show up in one of these harnesses.  Their owners look thankful and appear to be healing, at long last, from the repetitive stress injuries to their shoulders.  The dogs also seem well-socialized and exercised - all sniffled out.

Often, though, I see a raised eyebrow.  "You think that bit o' cloth will stop our dog from pulling?"  Why yes, yes I do.  But you don't have to believe me: let's ask a sled dog or two.

Really? Sled dogs?

Sled dogs have been bred to pull.  They love pulling.  They scream joyously from the rooftops when it's time to pull.  I run a micro-rescue which places competitive racing dogs in pet homes, so I'm lucky enough to meet quite a few of these special dogs.  And even though I am a professional dog trainer, I do not spend the sometimes-considerable time needed to train these dogs to walk on a loose leash or heel.  They're learning a suite of other skills which are much more important.  Our rescue simply asks our adopters to purchase a front-clip no-pull harness, and let the dogs have all the time they need on walks to just be a dog.  In almost every case, these harnesses work perfectly well to turn a slavering sleddie into a handle-able hound.  The proof really is in the pudding. 

How does it work?

Front-clip harnesses change the point of leverage.  When the dog pulls, the harness simply turns the dog to the side.  Mushing harnesses, which are designed to get the most horsepower from a dog as is safely possible, have a close-fitting comfortable collar and an attachment on the back.  It follows that a leash attached to a collar or a harness with a back attachment actually invite pulling in many dogs.  Yes, that's right: back-clip harnesses can awaken the inner sled dog in even the most fine-boned Chihuahua.  Is that what you want?

The question do front-clip anti-pull harnesses actually work? can be answered by the brave dog owners who bring a sled dog into their homes.  According to new sled dog mom Emmy Neufeld (responsible for the wonderful picture of bandana-wearing Mr. Handsome Oyster, above right).

If it wasn't for the no-pull harness I would have had a really hard time, especially with my back.  There were days I could hardly walk ...but I have always been in control. Now we walk ...most days with a lot of slack in the leash.

Learn more about front-clip harnesses here, and please spread the word about these fantastic, safe, and sometimes even life-saving pieces of equipment!  Then pop a front-clip harness on your dog, grab a treat bag, and head out into your neighbourhood to enjoy a nice stroll.  An amble.  A saunter.  A breath of fresh air.

Kristi BensonComment
Correct without corrections

"Doesn't he need to know that it's wrong?"

A student in my dog classes recently asked me this, about a dog making a house-training error.  I commiserated and repeated the usual how-to, but it got me pondering the idea of corrections.  Generally, "corrections" in pet dog training involve telling the dog he got it wrong by using something like a collar jerk, a yell or stern word, or a button pressed on a shock collar remote. 

I used to think the same thing, by the way.  How can you train a dog what not to do, without correcting their obvious errors?  Showing them the right way would only go so far.  It made the idea of training solely with treats seem like a folly. 

Let's imagine...

Imagine you are going to visit a newly-found cousin back in the mother country - quaint farms on green hillsides, cobbled lanes, and delicious food.  You elect to stay in a small hotel near the town named for your great-great-grandma, but are alarmed - truly, alarmed - to discover there is a rather substantial difference in bathroom etiquette.  The porcelain bowl you have used your whole life is, in this country, habitat for expensive goldfish pets.  You learn from the wild gesticulations of your grey-haired host that you must use what rather strongly resemble lawnchairs.  Outside.  On the lawn.  

After holding on for far too long, you decide you simply must comply with local customs.  You head out the front door single-mindedly.  The host, recognizing you as a foreigner and having dealt with many others with similar reservations, appears after a delicately appropriate interval to thank you profusely.  He offers you a complimentary glass of wine from their cellar, and you start to feel that maybe, just maybe, you can handle this situation after all. 

A few days of this routine and you even start to question (as did many people when bathrooms moved inside) how hygienic it is to do those functions next door to both the kitchen and bedroom.   In addition, your host continues to have a small gift handy at just the right time - a coupon for the local spa, a discounted room upgrade.  You log on to your travel site and gratefully give the hotel a five-star rating. 

But alas, you flub.  Your cousin keeps you up late one night with photo albums and a bottle of a rather potent berry-flavoured liquor.  Without thinking, you make use of the goldfish bowl.  In the morning, your misstep is noted by the maid and the hotel owner hustles you to his office.  He's very sorry, but you will need to pay to replace the goldfish's preferred aquatic plants.  In fact, the relatively hefty fine has already been applied to your credit card.  (And let's be honest.  Despite the sternest of warnings you give yourself, there are three more charges over the time you are there.  You are only human.)

On the last day of your visit you realize, a bit to your surprise, that you now happily participate in a totally new normal.  You are completely trained.  Your behaviour has profoundly changed.  At no point did the hotel owner bully you, use harsh language, scare you, or strike you - in fact, some of those actions would give you cause to head to the local police station.  At the very least, they would have drastically changed what you said about the hotel in your review. 

This is how a dog's behaviour changes, too.  The rules change, and they adapt.  They are rewarded for new behaviours, and those behaviours happen more often.  Sometimes, they get dinged with a time-out (think credit card fine) if they flub.  With consistency, they easily learn how to be correct, without any of the standard corrections. 

And guess what?  You get to keep your five-star rating then, too.

Kristi BensonComment