How to take terrible holiday photos of your dog
This dog loves you, this Santa hat, snow, Christmas, and has a fairly romantic relationship with the camera, all things told. This is my holiday photo goal.

This dog loves you, this Santa hat, snow, Christmas, and has a fairly romantic relationship with the camera, all things told. This is my holiday photo goal.

Closed mouth, a bit of squint in the slightly hard eyes. Get ready for a lump of coal, kids. Santa ain’t happy.

Closed mouth, a bit of squint in the slightly hard eyes. Get ready for a lump of coal, kids. Santa ain’t happy.

Alright, we’ve all seen the holiday dog photos that make us cringe a bit. The dog might be wearing a Santa hat or one of those costumes that turns them into an elf, with those extra arms...the cute factor and hilarity factor are high, right? But although some of the photos bring smiles and honest joy...some? Some, not so much. And I am not talking about the lighting, although inside pictures are so tricky. And I am not talking about the framing (although why are Uncle Josh’s red longjohns hanging on the Christmas tree in the background? Please tell me there is not a ginch who stole Christmas theme going on here [oh my god I am so sorry I just wrote that I obviously need to ease up on the nog]). I’m talking about the dog.

The costume is pure cute and hilarious perfection.

Closed mouth, ears back, this dog seems to be saying “get it off me, Sheila”.

Closed mouth, ears back, this dog seems to be saying “get it off me, Sheila”.

The dog looks miserable.

You know what I’m talking about, right? The ears are down or back, or both. The mouth is closed, or open in that long-lipped way dogs use when they’re worried. Sometimes the tongue is visible, licking the nose in way ethologists call a “tongue flick” which can mean the dog is worried. The eyes (or the whole head) are staring away, glancing, awkward, or the dog may even be showing the whites of their eyes. The head may be a bit down, the body curved or hunkered, it’s all a bit—or a lot—hang-dog. This dog isn’t feeling particularly festive. The sense of “get it off me get it off me get it off me” is palpable.

This dog’s “long lip” tells me she has feels about the Mrs. Santa get up. .

This dog’s “long lip” tells me she has feels about the Mrs. Santa get up. .

So what happened? What happened to make this photo session so awkward and (from the dog’s perspective), so unpleasant? Generally, we’re looking at dogs who are uncomfortable with having stuff put on their bodies. Many dogs do indeed wear collars, harnesses, and even coats without issue. And some dogs wear costumes with absolute glee and enjoyment. But for some dogs, costumes—stuff on their heads, costumes with weird extensions, or even just anything on them other than their collar—causes discomfort or distress. And you don’t need to wait for the photos to develop to tell if your dog is in this category. When the costume comes out, do they put their ears back and head down? Do they back away? Do they paw the costume off frantically? There’s your answer.

Imagine if your roommate put something you didn’t like on your head. Maybe it smelled bad, maybe it pinched uncomfortably, or maybe you just weren’t in the mood. Then imagine they insisted you stand in their room in front of their gaming station and took a bunch of pictures. How happy would you look?

I’m perky! I’m also looking at your treats, mom.

I’m perky! I’m also looking at your treats, mom.

So taking terrible holiday photos is pretty easy. The real question is…how can we take those great holiday photos? The ones where your dog looks delighted? If your dog does love dressing up, then simply have at it. You can tell by their perky eyes and ears, loose and waggy bodies, and open-mouth glee. The wagging tails and the resulting tail blur in the photos...pure Christmassy joy.

n.b.: not every picture where the dog looks hang-dog means the dog was feeling unhappy. Photos can catch even joyful dogs looking alarmed or alarming. So take a bunch of pictures and delete the ones that didn’t capture the real mood.

If your dog is one of the types who just doesn’t like having stuff put on them, don’t worry. There’s help. Your holiday photos are not a lost cause. Here are some easy ideas. For each of these scenarios, if you want your dog to look happy and engaged, make sure the photography session includes things they love, like food treats, ball games, or belly rubs.

Lovely use of a holiday-themed background to make the picture beautiful and holiday-esque. The dog’s face is soft and if I had to guess, something she likes is being help up and to the left.

Lovely use of a holiday-themed background to make the picture beautiful and holiday-esque. The dog’s face is soft and if I had to guess, something she likes is being help up and to the left.

Smiling mouth, soft eyes, neutral ears… this dog enjoys dress-up. We should give our dogs ever more of what they enjoy, right?

Smiling mouth, soft eyes, neutral ears… this dog enjoys dress-up. We should give our dogs ever more of what they enjoy, right?

  1. Give your dog a holiday-themed toy. Then snap to your heart’s desire as they play. You can play tug with them for a while (some hilarious “giant nose” shots can come from tug games).

  2. Make a holiday themed spot and have your dog lay, ever-so-charmingly, in it. (Don’t know how to get your dog to lay in a spot? Try this course, which will get you there in very short order). Tartan throws, wrapped presents, a tree, Rudolph and the seven dwarves, a little red sled, let your imagination run wild.

  3. Bake some holiday-themed dog cookies, then snap some pictures of your dog doing a lovely “leave-it” (this is also quick to train!). Imagine the possibilities - the dog gazing hopefully upon the entire tray of cookies! Then the empty tray, your dog laying dozing and reposing and very pleased with himself beside it. Add in some crumbs for effect.

  4. Use an app to add a Santa hat and as many other seasonal accoutrements as you see fit. You can pick the best picture on your phone and simply dress it up.

  5. If they’re comfy in a coat but not in headgear, well, it may just be time to shop for some lovely holiday-themed clothing items. Or add a nice bow to their collar!

  6. You wear the costume. Dress up like an elf, or Santa, or...I mean, don’t let me constrain you. Then hang out with your dog! Ask a helper to take the pictures, and give them some dog treats or a dog toy to attract your dog’s attention towards them and the camera.

  7. If your dog isn’t miserable but simply neutral, try treats. Lots of them. Pull out the costume and show it to your dog, then load them up with treats. Wait an hour. Then do it again. Tomorrow, try putting it on, and then giving your dog treats or even a short ball game. If this mini-protocol changes their mind, then presto! You have happy dog photos. Keep up with the treats throughout the session to keep them feeling the love—it will shine through the photos, I promise.

Tartan coat? Check. Christmas cheer? Check. Find things your dog already loves and dazzle them up.

Tartan coat? Check. Christmas cheer? Check. Find things your dog already loves and dazzle them up.

Thanks for photos: Jodi Beedell, Jackie Johnston, Emily Heitzmann, and Jean Donaldson.

Kristi BensonComment
The Spice of Life: a whole new language for dogs with attitude

There’s a little-known secret about dog trainers, and I’m about to spill it. A secret, I’ll have you know, that might make you feel a whole lot better about the furry tyke in your life.

Dog trainers…we like our dogs spicy.

Not only do we like our dogs spicy in general, we actively enjoy our dogs’ spicy antics. We take photos and share them amongst ourselves. We swap tales of spice. We marvel at our dogs’ communication styles and revel in our dogs’ hilarious and consuming self-involvement.

Well heck, you may be thinking. What is a spicy dog? Imagine for a moment the kind of dog you think a dog trainer would have. Is this imaginary dog laying obediently at the door? As still as a statue? Eyes constantly on the owner, awaiting our next uttered command with bated breath? Does this dog merge with the wallpaper when the owner is busy or bothered or beset with life’s annoyances? Does this dog walk past other dogs without a blink or a sniff, smile gently at guests but never pester or pal around?

Yeah, so…spicy is pretty much the opposite of all that. Spicy dogs feel free to use their natural dog communication skills to set boundaries with other dogs. A little snark there, a blustery bark there. Spicy dogs sometimes protect the goods in their possession. I mean, those goods are in their possession, after all. Spicy dogs push each other off the couch. Spicy dogs approach their human grand-mothers-in-law and ask for butt scratches…even though they rolled in something we’ll just call “fragrant” earlier in the day. Spicy dogs bark when they play, they hump teddy bears, they change their minds, and they eat the heads off their stuffed animals with gleeful (and I do mean gleeful) abandon. Spicy dogs feel comfortable saying no to stuff they’re uncomfortable about. Spicy dogs chase squirrels and spicy dogs dig burrows. Spicy dogs wait until they’re inside to shake off the muddy water, and really spicy dogs wait until they’re adjacent to a white wall to do it.

In short, when it comes to life from a dog’s perspective, spice is...nice. Dogs in spice-friendly homes are allowed to be dogs: as long as no-one (dog or human) is getting harmed or becoming scared, our dogs can simply be dogs.

Now, don’t take this to mean we’re living in mayhem or our dogs are running amok. Dog trainers are obsessed when it comes to making sure our dogs are exercised and enriched, so our dogs tend to do a lot of contented snoozing. We are scrupulous in ensuring that our dogs do not experience fear-evoking events, to the best of our ability. And our dogs aren’t untrained. In fact, they tend to get a lot of training. They get training because training is useful and enriching in itself, and they get training because training helps dogs experience the weird confines of life with humans with joy and ease. And of course, they get training because many spicy dogs need help overcoming fearfulness or with other behaviour issues. But just because our dogs can run to a mat and lay down on it nicely when asked, it doesn’t mean that we expect them to do it for hours on end, when their own interests and motivations say otherwise. And just because our dogs can walk politely past another dog on leash, it doesn’t mean that we don’t let them play hard and fast at other times.

So, you may be looking at your own spicy dog, unconvinced. You may still think that dog trainers’ dogs are much more nicey and much less spicy. I’ve asked some colleagues of mine to weigh in to show you that you don’t have to hide your chortling, gleeful enjoyment of your spicy dog any longer. These colleagues, made up of the cream of the crop of dedicated, brainy, and trainy types, have submitted their own examples of spicy canines to both show you how outrageously full of personality they are and to invite you to revel in the spice of your own dog. In the spirit of we rate dogs, every spicy dog will receive a chilli rating, as well. Click on each picture and hover over them to read more spice-tales than you can shake a jalapeno tree at.

Kristi Benson Comments
Yes, I'm Angry About That Training Advice

A while ago I saw a dog training guide that recommended that someone put a shock collar on their puppy and then hold down the shock button (that is, the button that causes a painful electric current to run through a dog’s neck), while simultaneously pushing on the puppy’s back end until the puppy sat. Once the puppy sat, the button on the shock collar should be released, according to this dog training guide, which was given to real actual people with a real actual puppy. This guide wasn’t from the Byzantine era, either, where toga-wearing and torture was de rigueur. It was from this year.

This is what a Mischa looks like when a Mischa sits.

This is what a Mischa looks like when a Mischa sits.

To train a dog to sit, I coach my clients thus. You hold a delectable morsel of food on your dog’s nose, something which your dog will love, something which will make your dog so happy and gleeful and delighted to be around you that their face will show the open-mouthed joy, the sparkling eyes, that very essence of happy dog. With this food, you lure your dog’s nose up and back in a bit of an arc. Most dogs will follow this arc, they’ll follow the morsel of food with their special doggie noses, and settle their back ends onto the ground. After a few repetitions, the lure is “faded”, although the reinforcement of the treat-after-sitting continues…and presto, you have a sitting dog.

Both ways of training use consequences, which is a useful bit of dog training jargon that means “something that comes after the dog behaves, and which influences their behaviour.” Consequences matter, as you’re always telling your eye-rolling teens. And you’re right: consequences matter, and for dog training too.

The treat way? This way uses the release of the treat as the consequence, right into the dog’s smiling mouth. That treat is like the paycheque that keeps you heading back to the office, day after day. That treat is like the slice of pizza, that keeps you heading back to the refrigerator, for that one last slice (just one more) before bed. That treat means your dog is more likely to sit in the future. This bit o’ training is known as positive reinforcement, and is the go-to technique for modern dog trainers.

So, that other way? The way that those poor puppy owners were sold whole cloth (the guide included recalls too, trained with continuous electric shock, and who knows what else)? The way those poor puppy owners were sold as required to train their puppy to sit? In that way, the pup earns “relief from pain”. That puppy will learn that if he sits, the painful shock will end. At some point, the puppy will learn that he can avoid the shock by sitting when he hears the cue (until of course, the owner wants to train the dog to do something else).

However, just like the need for positive reinforcement continues forever (you don’t keep going in to the office after the company goes belly up and the paycheques stop, and dogs, using the very same logic, don’t keep doing the work of sitting unless there’s a reason), the need for electric shock or the looming threat of it continues forever, too. The “relief-from-pain” type of learning is known by the unfortunately obfuscating label of negative reinforcement, but don’t let the R word there fool you. The thing that motivates the dog is the painful experience.

So if credentialed dog trainers are good at using positive reinforcement, which we really, really are, and if positive reinforcement has a surfeit of evidence about its usefulness and safety, which it really, really does, then why would someone be getting the advice to continuously shock their puppy in order to train him to sit? And if credentialed dog trainers are good at using positive reinforcement, which we really, really are, and if shock collar training has a surfeit of evidence about its danger and negative, potentially life-long side-effects, which it really, really does, then why would someone be getting the advice to continuously shock their puppy in order to train him to sit?

This is why I’m angry today. If anyone, at any point, tells you that a shock collar is a required part of training, they’re trying to sell you a bill of goods. And if anyone told you before today that a shock collar is a required part of training, and they sold you that bill of goods, then you can get angry too. Some days, for some stuff, it’s the only way to feel.

Kristi Benson Comments
Take This Easy Quiz: Is That Retriever Puppy The Right Choice For You?

Let’s imagine a family who has made the call to bring a new puppy into their lives. Many people who are in the market for a puppy are drawn to the beautiful and lovely Labrador and Golden retrievers, and for good reason. They can be such great pets. Maybe Mom had a Lab when she was a kid, or their neighbour has a sweet Golden now. The dogs’ beauty, friendly nature, and chill personality make them a perfect fit for the family, they decide. (In fact, Labrador and Golden retrievers are number one and number three on the most popular dog list, according to the Canadian Kennel Club.) Once a decision is made, the family searches diligently for a breeder nearby, and (much to their delight) finds a couple of promising options within a day’s drive. A few calls later and presto—a litter of puppies is found, available in a few weeks! Out comes the chequebook and puppy is soon snuggling in the backseat with the family’s oldest daughter.

All is perfection, all is lovely, all is well.

Oh hold on. All is well... until a month or two later, when things start to change. When the puppy starts to show some alarming tendencies. There’s the energy. I mean, does this thing ever get tired? And the mouthing. Everyone in the family has bruises and the oldest daughter now refuses to interact or even allow the puppy in her room. The puppy has started to guard tennis balls...for real, with actual teeth involved. And he’s running around the kitchen ad naseum, and jumping up on everyone, and nipping clothes and nipping hands. Holy moly who is this beast? When will the neighbour’s lovely Golden show up? When will the perfect Lab of those rosy childhood memories appear? Call the dog trainer! What is wrong with this dog?

Diagnosis: This family may have unknowingly bought a field-line dog.

Field line, you ask, baffled. Field line? What does this mean? Our imaginary family may be surprised to find out that there is not just one type of Lab or Golden. Sure, some Labs and Goldens (from so-called “show lines”) are bred to be at least somewhat aligned with the perfect pet of their dreams, although all dogs are more effort than one would expect based on rosy and faded remembrances. But those particular Labs and Goldens bred for either hunting or dog sports, known as “field-line” dogs? Those dogs are a completely different dealio. They can have the energy of a caff’ed-up border collie with the patience of a toddler on sucrose, the brain of a Nobel prize winner with the personality of a complicated teen T-rex.

My spidey senses are tingling. Are yours?

My spidey senses are tingling. Are yours?

In other words, many are not good at being chill, low-key family pets. At all.

n.b.: this also applies to some spaniels and other sporting breeds, where there are different lines bred for vastly different purposes - in my area, the dividing lines are hunting dogs vs. pet dogs, so I'll write about that.

So, if you’re currently in the market for a new puppy and have decided on a Lab or a Golden, I’ve made an easy quiz to help you figure out if the litter down the lane might be a good pet candidate Lab or Golden, or a field-line dog (and yes, I recognize that not all dogs fit neatly into these categories, no matter their breeding. But it makes for a more fun quiz, doesn't it?). To take the quiz, grab a piece of paper and jot “FIELD” and “PET” at the top of two columns. Answer each question below, and then tally up your responses at the end.

Question One. When you met the breeder, what were they wearing?

IF they wore neutral clothes, such as jeans and a t-shirt, add no point to either column. Continue detecting.

IF there was any plaid or camo at all and/or a shotgun across the arm; and/or some squinting wisely into the sun as they talk about pointing, flushing, retrieving; or even a single down-filled vest, then add two points to the “FIELD” column on your page.

EXTRA SEVEN POINTS in the “FIELD” column if there was any chewing on a blade of grass.

IF there were polyester skirts and low heels, add 2.25 points to the “PET” column.

SUBTRACT TWELVE POINTS from both columns if they wore no clothes, and twelve more if you didn’t, either. What the hell is going on here?

Question Two. What is the name of the breeder’s kennel?

IF the name includes words like Championship Show Dogs, add 42 points to the PET column.

IF the name include words such as “Working Dogs”, “Hunting Dogs”, “Not Really Pet Material Here”, “GunDog”, or similar, add 42.8 points to the “FIELD” column on your page.

NO POINTS to either column if any of the name invites you to think about the craggy coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Question Three: When you met the sire and dam, what were they like?

IF they were tired and muddy from a ten mile sprint next to the owner’s camo-coloured quad on forested back-country roads, their exquisitely muscled frames taller and more lithe than you expected, but they still managed to circle you, barking and excited and jumping, for at least 5 minutes...add 782 points to the FIELD column on your page.

My spidey senses are tingling again. Compact and well-muscled dogs are often sporty spices.

My spidey senses are tingling again. Compact and well-muscled dogs are often sporty spices.

IF they clomped up to you waggling happily and milled around, getting pats for a minute or two before going back to their obviously well-worn beds to loll about or chew contentedly on their stuffed toys, add 782.4 points to the PET column.

BONUS FIFTY POINTS to the PET column for each minute it took the breeder to get the dam and sire to wake up from the couch, yawning and stretching languorously, before they padded up to meet you.

Question Four: When you ask the seller “is this puppy bred for hunting or for a particular dog sport”, how do they answer?

IF they say yes, add two billionty points to the FIELD column on your page.

IF they say no, add two points and four smiley faces to the PET column.

Question Five: When you ask to meet the sire and dam, did the breeder prevaricate and say they weren’t available or you're not welcome to for reasons x, y, or z?

If yes, put this silly quiz aside and call another breeder. This is a dangerous sign that you’ve reached a puppy mill. Read this blog about how to identify puppy mill sellers, and beware: these people are very convincing. Good breeders of pet dogs will be in no hurry to sell a puppy, and will work to ensure that every dog they sell is going to a well-matched home.

Question Six: The wall of photographs the breeder has in their home, what does it contain?

IF there are oodles of pictures of their blocky-head dogs festooned with show ribbons, standing with exquisite coiffure—both human and dog—add two million points to the PET column on your page.

IF there is a single pheasant or any other bird from the subfamily Tetraoninae in any of the photos, add 24.6 x 52 +2 points to the FIELD column.

IF there are photos of the dogs, yellow eyes staring preternaturally bright, caught mid-jump in some odd dog sport you’ve never heard of (is it pronounced TRAY-ball? or TREE-ball?), add your birthyear in points to the FIELD column.

Now add things up now: how does your potential puppy look? Demon or delight?

OK, this looks promising!

OK, this looks promising!

Alright, the fun is over (at least until you pick up your puppy). I hope I have convinced you that retrievers from pet or show lines can be a very different beast than those bred to perform with a hunter or in field trials, and that despite how attractive it feels and sounds to say “I got a field line Lab”, the bloom is usually off that particular rose pretty quickly. Puppies will generally inherit a lot from their parents, at least in broad terms: size, energy level, looks, and behaviour. So please take some time to look at more than the beautiful puppy pictures on the breeder’s website, and get an idea of what you’re getting into before you sign on the dotted line. And ask questions, direct questions, like “how much cardio exercise a day will this dog need?” and “for what purpose did you breed these dogs?” If the breeder isn’t participating in either dog shows or sports/trials, you can usually get some sense of what the puppy will be like based on meeting the sire and dam. Are they the type of dogs you want as a pet?

If it’s a family pet you want, the kind who hangs on the couch, happily wags along on strolls in the park, enjoys dog classes and dog parks and dog walks with a steady smile, you may do best if you stay away from a field-line dog. If you can’t provide a few hours of cardio exercise and training a day, you may do best if you stay away from a field-line dog. It’s unfair to your family, absolutely, but let’s face the rather rotten truth: it can also be deeply unfair to the dog. They have a million volts of stored up gogojuice and nowhere to release it. It often leaks out anyways, via destructive and unwanted behaviour, further damaging these dogs' relationships with their human matter how well-meaning the bipeds are.

Side note: there’s no guarantee that even the chillest of show-line parents will produce a chill pup. Genetics just don’t work that way. So if you feel very strongly about having a particular kind of adult dog in your home, head to the local rescue or shelter and find a three-year old+ adult who fits the bill. Once dogs are about three years old, they mostly are who they are: they’re dog friendly or not, they’re kid-friendly or not, they’re energetic or not. It’s as close to a guarantee as you can reasonably get with a dog, in particular if you see them in a foster home. Still worried? Ask about foster-to-adopt and return policies.

Finally, if you have, and of course love, a dog you now realize is likely a field-line dog (or just acts like it), take heart. And take a deep breath. Get thee to a good dog class, join up with an agility club, hire a dog walker, pull out the tug toy and the tennis ball, and get ready for the ride. Your last New Year’s resolution list included dusting off the jogging shoes and there’s no time like the present. These dogs need a lot to do. A lot of exercise, and a lot of brain work, and a lot of training help for the issues that sometimes come along for the ride. They need a lot to do, and they need a lot of you: time, energy, and experience. You may as well dive in. And remind yourself over and over and over until it’s simply part of your story: they aren’t bad. They aren’t wrong. They’re just, due to their particular mash-up of genes and history, a rather...interesting fit with a modern family. They’re already working very, very hard to fit in with you, so you'll need to return the favour: you’ll have to make concessions, too.

Selecting a puppy or dog for your family is the start of a very long and hopefully wonderful relationship. It's your right and responsibility, as a family about to welcome a dog into your midst, to ask questions and find a good match...just as it's the right and responsibility of the breeder to do the same. Fingers crossed for lots of joyful moments in your future!



Bottom/cover photo: By from Tiverton, UK (Coming 5th at first dog show) [CC BY-SA 2.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons

Cover photo also includes: Fertographer, Temele, and VGM, all © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images



Kristi Benson Comment
Cause or Symptom? How Dog Trainers Choose a Treatment Plan

I was recently at a seminar with vet behaviourist Daniel Mills, who said something poignant: to help dogs, “we need to recognize the difference between symptomatic treatment and causal treatment”. Symptoms that cause dog owners to call in a trainer include barking and biting; marking and mouthing; jumping, guarding, growling, fighting, chewing, and of course, using the new white living room carpet as a...waste receptacle, instead of the great outdoors. The causes for these behaviours are a bit trickier to identify, because unlike behavioural symptoms, causes aren’t visible right before our eyes. But to the best of our knowledge, many dog “issues” are caused by two things: by dogs just acting like dogs on the one hand, and by fearfulness on the other. Sometimes we can treat the symptoms, like taking a cough suppressant while you wait for your immune system to tackle the virus on its own time. But sometimes we really must push up our sleeves and look past the symptoms, to the root cause.

Symptomatic Treatment: Fine for lots of dog stuff

In many cases when someone calls a dog trainer with a problem dog, we can simply treat the symptoms. If a dog is jumping up because they’re social, dog-ish, and friendly...we can simply train a dog to do something else, instead. We can train a sit-stay, for example. We don’t need to treat the cause of the behaviour, which is “normal, social, energetic dog”. I shudder to imagine how we’d treat that cause, anyways… who wants a non-social, unfriendly dog?  

And after a veterinary check for any medical issues, we can usually treat pottying inside as a symptom, too. Dog owners often feel like their dogs are urinating on the carpet out of some complex motivation, like jealousy. So they’re usually relieved (the owners, that is...the dogs are already good at relieving themselves) to learn that we can simply re-train the dog to empty outside instead. Voila: symptom treated. No need to delve deep, no need for a 30-page questionnaire, no need for hand-wringing and psycho-analytic analysis of what is essentially normal urinary habits.

The In-Between

Of course dogs are complex biological machines, so it's not always black and white. Sometimes, dogs who are destructive or more active than the owner wishes—so have the symptoms of destructive chewing and so on—can be treated by a simple increase in their exercise and enrichment regimens. We're treating the symptom of chewing and the cause of doggy boredom and over-zealousness. If they’re tired from working on a good food toy, and snoozy after some cardio-pumping exercise, they aren’t destructive anymore. (Note: For some dogs, alone-time destructiveness is a symptom of a panic attack, and that needs to be treated differently.)

Causal Treatment: Better when dealing with fear

Sometimes, though, we can’t treat the symptoms quite so neatly. If a dog barks ferociously and bites guests, we need to dig a bit deeper. Training a sit-stay at the door, which works so nicely for the friendly jumping greeter, probably won’t work. We need to pay attention to the cause here, don’t we? Generally, these dogs are feeling threatened and fearful. If we treat the fearfulness by keeping the dog safely away from strangers to start, and then creating positive and lovely associations between the strangers and something the dog enjoys like good food, then we’ll start to chip away at the underlying cause of the behaviour. The barking and biting are symptoms, and the cause is the underlying emotional state: threatened and fearful.

A dog who breaks into the basement during a thunderstorm similarly won’t be helped by an increase in exercise and enrichment. A solid training plan that teaches her to go upstairs instead of into the basement won’t help either. The symptom of breaking into the basement isn’t very treatable, on its own. Instead, this is another time when we have to tunnel down to the cause: this dog is scared of the thunderstorm. We need to treat the fear to the best of our ability, usually with a combination of training, provision of a safe space, and medication. Once the fearfulness abates, the symptom of breaking into the basement will go away by itself, as the dog just isn’t motivated to escape anymore.

How to Tell Which is Which

If you’re struggling with your dog right now and can’t figure out how to change, there are a few things you can do. The easiest and the quickest is to hire a good trainer. A good trainer can quickly identify the best treatment plan and have you skipping merrily on your way to resolution. You can also ask yourself: is my dog’s body language telling me she’s feeling threatened or scared (see body language help here)? If so, then protect your dog from whatever it is that scares her and get help. If your dog is joyful, silly, or wholly dog but his behaviour is at odds with what you’d like to live with, then knuckle down and do some training. Check out my online course to help with jumping and pestering, head to your local dog class for help, or for those with broader goals, this online class is fantastic. And if your training plan isn’t helping, your dog has multiple issues, or your dog is fearful beyond just a mild anxiety, talk to your vet. They can help, too.


Photos:  Andronov | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images and Saspartout | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Kristi BensonComment
10 Things To Do Instead of Patting That Service Dog

You know exactly what I'm talking about. There's a dog. Right there, right in front of you. On the bus. Or in a restaurant. Looking dashing and adorable in their service dog vest. The urge is there, you feel it. I feel it. We all feel it.

We want to pat that dog.

And not just pat him, either. A good belly rub or an ear tussle or mind meld of some sort. We want to talk to the human half of the team. We want in.

But we just can't, can we? Service dogs get their patting and love and playing and mind melding at other times and in other places. And their human team members almost certainly do not want us to interact with their dog, and may not even want to chat. So what's a dog-loving person to do, knowing that we simply can't reach out and snuggle? Here's a nice list, so go ahead and distract yourself.

One: Shop for your dog.

Open up your favourite shopping site and buy something for your own dog, stat. A new puzzle toy that they can work on (instead of getting boring old kibble in a bowl)? That sounds good. Or how about a tug toy, a stuffed animal, whatever your particular brand of dog prefers.

Two: Donate to your fave dog rescue.

Rescues always need funds, so pop a twenty dollar donation towards the rescue that strums your heartstrings. Most rescues can take donations online, so you don't even have to get out of your seat. Charity is delicious: you'll feel so good you'll forget all about those tussle-able ears.

Three: Start a Limerick Battle with your friends.

Limerick is the pinnacle of poetry, of course, so this edifying activity will pass the time and make you popular and brainy. Bonus points for limericks with puns.

Four: Sign up for a new dog training course.

There's nothing like taking a fun training course with your dog, so now is the time to dive in. If there's a good trainer in your area, check out their offerings. Take a tricks class, or basic obedience, or scent games...the sky is the limit. If your dog barks and explodes on leash, check out their Reactive Rover-type offerings. If you don't have access to a good trainer or your dog isn't suitable, online learning is a great option. Check out the wonderful Great Courses offering from Jean Donaldson, and the growing catalogue from my colleague Lori Nanan (including one that I teach!). There are even courses that can help your dog be retaurant-patio-ready...and when she's on the patio with you, you can certainly tussle her ears.

Five: Get your craft on.

If you're on a your bus route amenable to a stop at your local craft/fabric shop? If so, start things in motion for a craft night. Pick something entirely brainless on your streaming service and plan to make a snuffle mat for your dog. These mats are great fun for dogs to eat their kibble from, as they have to hunt through a tiny but dense fleece forest to find each morsel. The cutting and tying takes a while, so get ready to binge.

n.b.: a bottle of nice vino would be a suitable companion to craft night.

Six: Head to the library and get yourself to a book. About dogs.

If you need a good dog book recommendation, check out this book club and see what piques your interest. Then head to your library—in person or open the app—and see what's on offer. Stick a couple in your wish list just to be safe.

Seven: The sounds of science.

Did you know science is the best way to approach dog training? Understanding science will help you understand your dog, and help you deconstruct all the stuff that the internet throws at you about dogs. Open your podcast app and search for "scientific method", "evolution", "ethology", and "critical thinking".

Eight: Start a Sonnet Battle with your friends.

Sonnets are the pinnacle of poetry, of course, so this edifying activity will pass the time and make you popular and brainy. Points will be subtracted for sonnets with puns.

Nine: Pick a new treat recipe to try.

We need to motivate our dogs to change their behaviour, of course, and the easiest way to do this is with food. Baking treats can be a lovely and inexpensive way to get delicious treats with full control over ingredients, a bonus for dogs with allergies or who are picky. Check out my recipes page or open a search engine and see what suits your fancy. Use these treats when you bring your newly-patio-friendly dog to a dog-friendly restaurant.

Ten: Reinforce yourself.

Do you remember how you taught your dog to resist temptation, back in the mists of time in that obedience class you took...? It was with reinforcement. Maybe you taught her to "leave it", or you taught him to sit instead of jumping up. Or maybe you can ask your dog to wait at the door before dashing out. These behaviours were taught using reinforced your dog for not acting upon their impulses! And since you yourself didn't act upon your impulse to just-one-scritchy-scratch-she's-so-cute that service dog, it's time for a back pat. Good job, dog lover. Good job.


Cover photo: The Found Animals Foundation,; treats photo: Christik | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images; rope toy photo: Astrocady | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images


Kristi BensonComment
Hello Dog Trainer? My Dog Bites Me When I Pat Him. Help!

As a dog pro, I worry that a lot of information out there about dog bites is pretty… fuzzy. Like, how many are there? How bad are they? What breeds tend to bite more? It’s fuzzy or simply unknowable, and one reason for that is that so many—the vast majority, likely—are simply not worthy of report. They fly under the radar. I don’t go to the hospital every time I stub my toe, nor do I make a report to the Department of Health detailing the minor discomfort that might result. Would a researcher or journalist be able to easily find good, solid, accurate toe-stubbing information in any database? Where and how could anyone learn more about the scourge of toe-stubbing?!

Most dogs bite with inhibited force, and do not inflict the damage that they could, given their powerful jaws and impressive enamel hardware. So like stubbed toes, most dog bites go, quite reasonably, unreported. A dog’s ability to bite with inhibited force is both typical of social carnivores and one of the ways in which dogs are safe to welcome into our homes.

Dog bites are remarkably uncommon and generally minor, considering the number of dogs kept as pets, and especially considering the opportunities we regularly give them: we touch their food and their stuff, we push them around physically like they’re our inanimate playthings, we allow children to innocently but unpleasantly prod and poke them, we misinterpret their fear as misbehaviour, and some people even scare and harm dogs on purpose in the name of training, with punitive and painful collars. But even though most dog bites are the equivalent of toe-stubs, dog bites are indeed important. Dog bites are important because they’re scary, especially to kids, because they can mean a dog will be relinquished or euthanised, and because some dog bites do cause injury. In addition, a biting dog is almost certainly unhappy, which we don’t want. We want fearless and happy dogs. For all these reasons, we should do what we reasonably can to reduce dog bites.

My own dog Mischa, who would take all the pats you could possibly give him, and more.

My own dog Mischa, who would take all the pats you could possibly give him, and more.

We are all familiar with dogs who bite strangers (fearful types or “guard” dogs, who are aggressively scared of people they don’t know), and of dogs who bite when they are guarding their stuff, like food, bones, or their bed. But here is a surprising bit of news: a recent survey of dog bites suggested that a surprising number happen in contexts where a dog is uncomfortable being touched. “The most common context of a dog bite is related to interacting or attempting to interact with the dog (e.g., stroking, playing, handling, and restraining)”¹. Although many of these bites may be misinterpreted and the dog was actually guarding or fearful, it still comes as a surprise that patting can be… well, bite-worthy! It’s particularly surprising if you’ve only known cuddlebugs. Maybe you’re snuggled up right now to a dog who demonstrates very clearly that they love patting, hugging, and snuggling, through both body language (wagging, body relaxed, with an open-mouth smile and soft eyes) and behaviour (dog approaches, leans, sits in lap, puts head directly under hand, and so on and so on and so on and so forth.). But it’s true. Many dogs simply tolerate patting but don’t enjoy it, and many dogs find human touch to be scary or awful. And when something is scary or awful, the polite canine way for a dog to make this clear to the world is by a growl, a snarl, a snap, or an inhibited bite.

Yes, you read that right. In the dog world, the polite way to express discomfort includes a wary exit, a growl, a snap, or an inhibited bite. These dogs aren’t being bad, or dominant, or grouchy. They’re asking nicely (in dog language, that is) for us to stop handling them in a way that they find uncomfortable, unpleasant, or downright scary.

My dog Timber. You may pet his head and neck. This is all.

My dog Timber. You may pet his head and neck. This is all.

Help to be had?

Just like a dog who bites out of fear of strangers, and just like a dog who bites to protect their food or bones, a dog who dislikes being handled can be trained so they no longer bite. And just like how we train a stranger-fearful dog to enjoy strangers (which makes the biting stop) and we train a food-bowl-guarding dog to enjoy having people approach their food (which makes the biting stop), we can train dogs to enjoy being handled. Which...guess what? Makes the biting stop.

Usually, a dog trainer will start out by asking you to refrain from touching the dog at all. This prevents the dog from feeling, and acting, threatened. Then we’ll recommend a training protocol that will change your dog’s underlying emotional state, from a feeling of this is wrong and awful to this is pleasant and predicts treats. Often, to start, a dog will be taught to pat themselves on a steady, out-held hand. This takes many many repetitions and a good plan, but in the end, the dog happily and readily pats themselves to get the treat, all the while learning that hey, this patting thing is actually pretty awesome.

Dog trainers also set our clients up for success using Pavlovian conditioning. Just as Pavlov’s dog learned to happily anticipate food upon hearing a bell, we can teach our dogs to happily anticipate treats when we give them a stroke down their backs, or give them a belly rub.

Over time, our goal is that you’ll reach a pleasant middle ground with your dog. Your dog will have learned that being touched by humans is pleasant—he’ll have changed his mind! You’ll be able to handle your dog for important veterinary procedures, toothbrushing, and grooming. But you’ll also have changed. You’ll have learned that even though your dog uses dog language to say “I’m uncomfortable”, it doesn’t mean that he loves you any less. And you’ll come to appreciate the special new relationship you have with your dog, where you are as circumspect as he needs you to be about his comfort and autonomy.


This post is a part of the "Train For Rewards Blog Party 2018", with Companion Animal Psychology.


1. Oxley, James Andrew et al. Contexts and consequences of dog bite incidents. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 23 , 33 – 39.

Having a Tough Dog Makes You a Better Trainer

When I was in dog trainer school, I worked diligently on my own dogs and foster dogs. My dogs are racing sled dogs, and come in a broad variety of shapes and sizes: some are short-haired, some have thicker coats, some are lanky and lean, others stocky and squat. I trained them to do basic obedience behaviours, then more complex stays, and some loose-leash walking (yes, a couple of my sled dogs, born and bred to pull, made it through that plan). I trained a retrieve with a clicker, and worked through stranger fearfulness, scrapping, and pestering (you know, the usual stuff when you live with ten or more high-energy dogs). I went on to do some fun tricks and some behaviours useful for sled dogs, like “line out” where the dog runs forward until the line is taut, and waits. It was fun and although I certainly had all the same groaning/growing pains of any new trainer, I didn’t think much of it. It was only when I had graduated and started taking paying clients that I realized that my sled dogs are, well...on the scale of how easy dogs are to train…I mean, I love them all to pieces, OK? But they are on the tougher-to-train end of the scale. They’re physical powerhouses. They’re personality powerhouses. They're charm powerhouses. They’re not...mental powerhouses.

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Each of my first ten clients were, without a doubt, the smartest ten dogs I had ever trained. I remember telling an early client that their dog should absolutely go in for some competitive obedience titles, he was just that quick. "Quick like a bunny", I marvelled, much to their delight. “Can we get that in writing?” my client asked, as she’d been struggling mightily with her young Golden retriever. Unlike my sled dogs, this dog would work for tiny tidbits of food and never seemed to get full. And the standard training plans I had in my hand? He worked through them easily, unlike my own dogs who needed things broken down into smaller and smaller steps. And this dog worked for any kind of food. I thought back to the tinned cat food I needed to use to train one of my dogs. Cat food from a tin is not the nicest substance in the world, is it? I got a glob of it stuck in my hair. The things we do for dogs.

After a while it occurred to me that, statistically speaking, it was unlikely that I had actually scored such a string of smartie-pants clients all in a row. So what was going on? Were all these dogs really super-uber-bright? Or…could the answer lay in my early experiences instead? I recalled some polite but now suspect praise from my training mentors. This behaviour is very tough for your dog, Kristi! But you stuck it out. You really stuck it out. Great work.


Hundreds of dogs in, I now know it to be the bald truth: my dogs are a bit slow. I mean, no! They’re zippy as heck when they’re in front of a sled. They zoom when they’re pulling a bike or a skier. But in the domain of “learning basic obedience behaviours”, they’re not the gold medallists, shall we say. They move fast. But they don’t learn fast.

And I’m the luckiest trainer in the world to have had them as my tutors.

Tough dogs require a trainer to hone their skills in ways that easily motivated/smart dogs simply don’t demand. Tough dogs require all the standard training skills including good timing, good “mechanics” (how the trainer moves her hands with a lure and so on), and adherence to training protocols. But there’s more. Tough dogs often require three other skills: the trainer must understand and plan ahead for motivation; the trainer must train fast; and finally the trainer must be proficient at training in tiny increments. If you have a tough or elderly dog and you’re struggling, you may need to spend more time brushing up these skills than your neighbour across the way, who owns some variation of a herding dog. Your Herder Dog Owning Neighbour can (forgive me, but I’m just going to say it) get away with a bit more flexibility in their technique.

The Whys and Wherefores

Tough dogs often need careful attention paid to motivation. Unlike the dog in the care of your Herder Dog Owning Neighbour, tough dogs often need the human in the equation to pay attention to the dog’s state of hunger and the deliciousness of the treat. I train right before breakfast or right before supper, when my dogs are at their most eager. It matters. It really, really matters. And I can’t get away with training with cheerios, training with peas, training with kibble; none of that. My dogs are mostly in the “won’t get out of bed for less than 10,000 dollars a day” type. It’s my job as the adult biped in the situation to figure out what they will work for, and reserve it for training.

My dogs also won't work for praise or ear scratches (I laugh as I even wrote that), nor will they work for tug games or a ball toss. They look at the ball and amble away. Try harder, human they are likely thinking.

Train Fast Or Not At All

Training tough dogs means the trainer needs to pay attention to speed. I train fast, fast, fast. I zoom. I don’t stop to ponder the state of the economy. I don’t file my nails. I crank out repetition after repetition. After repetition. Then another one and another one andanotheroneandanotherone.

If I train slowly with down time between repetitions, my dogs say “you’re boring, human.” And they leave. And since it’s my job as the adult biped in the room to get the training job done, I do what I have to do: I train fast.

Breaking It Down

Finally, I’ve gotten very good at breaking things down. Another dog might jump from step one to step two in a training plan without hiccups. But sometimes with my dogs I need to be able to think of step 1.5 on the fly. And occasionally, step 1.75. Sometimes even step 1.8, 1.82, and 1.83… Working with tough dogs keeps you fluid and creative. It’s a skill just like driving a manual transmission vehicle. In the beginning, there were a lot of stalls and some red-faced embarrassment. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s smooth sailing. And at certain intersections, it’s quite zippy.

The End of the Rainbow

Having a tough dog doesn’t mean that you can’t train them to do all the standard dog stuff. And it doesn’t mean they’re stubborn, or you’re clumsy. It means only that you’ll have to buckle down a bit more than your Herder Dog Owning Neighbour, and up your training game a bit. Head to a positive-reinforcement dog training class taught by a credentialled trainer, or get some great dog-training resources like this fantastic do-it-yourself course. Now, you don’t need to tell your neighbour they have it easy, of course. Keep the neighbourly peace and all that. But if you have a tough dog and you get things done, it’s perfectly fine to feel pretty darn good about yourself. A bit chuffed up. I know I do.

Sled dogs in their glory.

Sled dogs in their glory.

Train Your Dog to Resist Temptation in Four Easy Steps

Dogs are like turkeys in one important way: they love to gobble.

They gobble up stuff that they find on walks. They gobble up stuff that they thieve from the cupboard. And we all end up dropping stuff that our dogs consider imprudently gobble-worthy, too. Sometimes the things we drop are dangerous, like medication. Sometimes, we drop (and they gobble) something they have a criminal history with, like sunglasses, a remote control, dirty laundry... You know what I'm talking about. In the face of dogs' superior speed and imperviousness to unpalatability, it makes sense to train a dog to "leave it."

Imagine this: you'll simply say "leave it!" when you accidentally drop something forbidden. Your dog, to the surprised oohs and aahs of your family and friends, will pause and look at you (often adoringly) instead of charging over to eat, steal, shake, bury, play keep-away, or otherwise act, well, like a dog. What a useful trick, and so deliciously easy to train over just a few days.

Here's how...

Step One: Put a really good treat in a tightly closed fist and hold it out to your dog. He will likely chew, paw, and lick your hand—just ignore him. Stay as still as a statue until your dog backs off or looks away for just a single tiny split second. As soon as that happens, say "take it" and open your hand, allowing him to eat the food. Do this ten or twenty times, then move on.

Step Two: It's time to up the ante. Get ready to move fast—your dog will, and you can't let him win. Ask your dog to "Leave it!", and offer your dog a treat on an open, flat palm, about a foot from his nose. The instant he starts to move towards your hand, smoothly and quickly close your hand and lift it up and away. Your dog will see that heading towards the treat causes it to run away. Try again, and be ready to snatch it away again. After five or ten times, your dog will likely give you something new: a brief pause. (It's as though they are saying: "this isn't working. What else can I try?") As soon as you see that pause, say "take it!", and give him the treat. Repeat until your dog won't go for the treat at all. Then, hold the treat out for three seconds before he is allowed to "take it."


Step Three: We're starting to get closer to real life scenarios now. Cue "Leave It," and then place the treat on the floor about a foot from the dog. Cover it briskly as soon as he starts to come towards it, and then try again. After a few attempts, he'll likely go back to pausing. Reward this with a treat, now from your pocket rather than the goodie on the floor. When he's done five in a row without going for the treat, leave it down for three seconds, and then five seconds.

Step Four: Stand near your dog, and gently drop a treat. The same rules apply: be ready to cover the treat if your dog makes a break for it! Your dog is likely wise to the game now, though, and after a few thwarted attempts to zoom in he should be back to pausing politely. Reward the pause from your pocket (in fact, you'll need to continue to reward this behavior frequently. This is work, and work earns a paycheque. If you stop paying, your dog will—quite reasonably—stop working.) Once your dog has paused politely five times in a row, try dropping a couple of treats. Then more interesting forbidden stuff, like leftovers (but note that every time you up the ante, you'll need to be ready to both cover the forbidden goods and reinforce the desired behaviour. At this point, most dogs don't need more set-ups. They are ready for the real world. Have some treats with you as you head out on walks, so when you ask your dog to "leave it!" and they do, you can reinforce their politeness and keep this behaviour strong.

Final note: If you get bogged down, take a positive dog class that includes Leave It on the curriculum. Practicing all alone is no one's strong suit and the repetition and coaching in class will be a godsend. Best of luck taming your grabby gobbler!

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Kristi BensonComment