Tag Archives: dog obedience

Darkest before the Dawn

One of the trickiest issues in dog training is how to get rid of bad habits — behaviors the dog has been doing for a while.  Most of the time, it isn’t that difficult to isolate the problem or plan a strategy to deal with it.  That’s usually pretty simple.  Not EASY, but not complicated.  What makes the whole process more than a lot of owners can deal with is that dogs don’t give up on bad habits without a fight.

Say Butch is used to family members slipping him tidbits at the dinner table.  The family decides that he’s getting too fat and agree to stop “table treating.”  But Butch doesn’t get the memo.  So, he tries what’s always worked in the past.

He’s had the family well-trained and usually, the ole sad-puppy eyes does the trick.  The family holds out against this.  Rather than give up, Butch just moves to DEFCON 2 — nudging elbows.  Still the family, reminding each other, manage to ignore him.  By now, 5-10 minutes has gone by and Butch is going to pull out all the stops.  He barks, and paws at elbows.  The barks get louder and the pace of the pawing picks up!  It’s annoying and because they’re feeling guilty anyway, somebody gives in and slips him a goodie.  And in doing that, they’ve made sure that Butch will do more and for longer at the next meal.

What the family doesn’t realize is that the “ramping up” of Butch’s demands is a signal that he was close to giving up.  The psychological term is EXTINCTION BURST.  Things get worse before they get better; it’s always darkest before the dawn of new behavior.  This happens with humans, too.  The 2-year-old’s tantrum gets louder and louder and louder, but if he’s ignored, he’ll hit a wall where it’s just not worth the trouble and the tantrum will quickly taper off.

Unfortunately, “giving in” — a very natural thing to do as the Extinction Burst is never pleasant to endure — is the worst thing we can do.  In fact, it teaches the dog (or 2-year-old) that he just has to keep going LONGER and LOUDER to get what he wants.  If we aren’t 100% consistent with ignoring the bad behavior, we just reinforce it even more.

“Oh come on,” I hear you say, “Isn’t 95% good enough?”  Well, the way our brains work, no it isn’t!  Psychologists have done studies that prove INTERMITTENT reward is the strongest goad to continuing behavior.  Think of all those folks in casinos putting money into slot machines.  It’s not because they ALWAYS get a payback.  No, it’s BECAUSE the next time MIGHT be the time they hit the JACKPOT!

I’m not saying that ignoring is the solution for every behavior problem.  I’m not even saying that it will always work in my doggie and toddler examples above. There are a lot of other factors.  Is the extinction burst behavior dangerous to anyone?  Is the perp winding himself up into an emotional fugue where the behavior passes beyond his conscious control?  So, it’s best to consult a professional to help evaluate the situation and create a treatment plan.

My point is that dealing with established behaviors is going to involve an INCREASE in that behavior and only by steadfastly working through the darkness  — with no faltering — will we be able to bring better behavior to light.

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Alpha Rolls are for Omegas

It took more than 6 years before Kita would do a ROLL OVER for me.  Now, Kita is a very smart dog and very willing to work.  Show her a treat and offer her the chance to earn it and she’s ready to go — and she doesn’t get bored easily!  Even though I hadn’t learned some of the more efficient training methods I use now, I was still a pretty decent trainer.  Kita learned how to SIT in about 5 minutes and DOWN in just a couple of sessions.  She had no trouble with lots of other tricks, including DEAD DOG. So, why so much trouble with ROLL OVER?

When I adopted Kita, nearly 9 years ago, the shelter said her Black-Lab mama-dog had been turned into the shelter with her puppies.  But looking at Kita and her two brothers, everyone said “German Shepherd!” so daddy-dog must have been of that persuasion!  Kita’s double-coat, black-and-tan markings, size (50 pounds at 4 months), much of her conformation and almost all of her temperament said “German Shepherd,” so I decided to treat and train her as one.

A friend gave me a book about training GSDs, written by the monks of New Skete who raise and train them.  I was delighted!  This was before I started studying for my “doggie” career, and I wanted advice from the experts!  For the first time, I read about forcing a mis-behaving dog into what is commonly called an “Alpha roll.”  For anybody who is unfamiliar with this technique it involves rolling a dog over onto it’s back and holding it there until it “submits” to your authority.  The experts had spoken, so I forged full speed ahead.

The monks advocated judicious use of the Alpha Roll — not for mistakes or avoidance, but for deliberate disobedience.  Kita was rarely disobedient, except for chasing the cat.  So, whenever Kita ran after the kitty, I’d run after her, chase her down, and after much struggle, sweat and (sometimes) a little swearing, succeed in heaving her belly-up. Kita would stop struggling — after she was on her back — and her eyes would kind of glaze over. Since the book didn’t specify how to tell the dog had “submitted” I took that as good and let her up. Each time, it took more and more work to get her on her back and since it never seemed to have any effect on her cat-chasing, I eventually gave up on the technique.

Even back then, something about it just didn’t seem right to me. I didn’t like the look of “shutting down” that would come over Kita’s face. I didn’t like what seemed like frantic fear as she tried to avoid being rolled over in such a vulnerable position. Looking back, I’m not surprised that Kita refused to learn to roll over on cue. I am convinced that she knew what I wanted, but wouldn’t do it BECAUSE I HAD DESTROYED HER TRUST by wrestling her into an Alpha Roll.   She probably never connected her action of chasing the cat with my response. She probably had no idea why I would suddenly turn ballistic and chase her and throw her on the floor.  it was a mystery and frightening and I’m very lucky that it didn’t make her distrust me in other areas and/or turn aggressive.

I’ve since learned that those and similar techniques were developed through study of wolf packs. The theory was that the leaders, the Alpha wolves, throw the subordinate wolves on their backs to keep them in line. There’s two problems with that: 1) dogs aren’t wolves, and 2) even in wolf packs it’s the SUBORDINATE wolf that VOLUNTARILY puts itself in a submissive posture on its back.

It’s kind of a hold-over from puppy-hood where a puppy flips over on its back and probably wees a bit as a signal that its just a baby. I’ve seen lots of dogs give that signal to each other. I’ve had dogs voluntarily offer me their bellies. Some dogs do that a lot with people. Mostly folks think the dog is asking for a belly-rub (and most dogs will take a good belly-rub) but it’s really the dog’s way of saying, “You da boss!” occasionally, I’ve body-blocked a dog away from a resource-guarding situation and they’ve flipped over to tell me they give up. Sometimes, they don’t go all the way over, but just lean to the side with one front paw in the air.  Either way, it means, “You da boss!”

This is all good because it’s the DOG communicating compliance. The dog is using body language to tell another dog or a human that they consider themselves subordinate. In human-to-human interactions we call one person who forces physical compliance on another a BULLY, if not worse. And I felt like a bully as I was using the Alpha Roll on Kita. I will never use that technique again. As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t make the trainer a leader, but a loser. Not an Alpha, but an Omega.

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Federally Sanctioned Abandonment

In most communities in the United States, abandoning a dog — or any domestic animal –is a crime.  So is failing to provide proper veterinary care for any animal having been in your possession.  Animals are considered property by law, but acknowledged to be living beings in that the owner is penalized and prosecuted if proper care is not provided.  But when it comes to Military Working Dogs, this is not the case.

The 1949 Federal Property and Administrative Services Act classified military working dogs as “equipment to be discarded when worn out.”  In 1997, President Bill Clinton amended this act to permit federal dog handlers to adopt their dog retirees. But worn-out equipment is not entitled to be flown home or cared for during it’s remaining years of life. These dogs who undergo rigorous training, who are assigned tours of duty alongside our sons and daughters, who serve beside their handlers and fellow soldiers in the same conditions, who meet the same dangers as the humans in their outfit, may be as casually discarded as a flat tire. 

I knew that thousands of dogs had been left behind when we pulled out of Vietnam and was very saddened by what I thought was a dark period in our military history.  Only recently did I discover that in the 21st century, MWDs are still considered “equipment.”  This is not the fault of any soldier who has served with these dogs.  They know the value of a Military Working Dog!   Many of them owe their lives to the almost 3,000 dogs currently serving beside our troops.  All of them know a fellow soldier who DOES owe his life to one. Many knew a dog that gave his or her life in defense of the unit.

The US House of Representatives passed H. 4103, the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act, which states that Military working dogs should be classified as “canine member of the armed forces.”  It also authorized for transportation back to the states to facilitate adoption and directs the Secretary of Defense to establish and maintain a system to provide for the lifetime care of retired dogs.

Then it went to the Senate where it was piggybacked on another bill and watered down.  Spearheaded by John McCain, the reclassification requirement was totally stripped.  The mandate to fly dogs home changed to they “MAY transfer the dog.”  The Secretary of Defense’s mandate was changed to “MAY establish and maintain a system…No funds may be privided by the Federal Government for this purpose.”  How nice; they have permission to care for the dogs, still classified as equipment, maybe even fly them home, but no funds to do so.  This is the Bill that President Obama has signed into law.

I do not blame the President.  I do blame Senator McCain.  I don’t know his reasons.  He declined to comment to the sources I checked.  I cannot imagine how treating military veterans, who have up to $75,000 worth of training, who have served their country, who have saved lives in their units and who because of that service protected us here in the United States can be LEGALLY treated with less compassion and care than any abandoned beast in our backyards.

 Read more here:


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Let the Dog Decide

Dogs are not machines.  Not even biological machines, though many scientists (without much in the way of scientific proof, mind you) claimed that was the case, right up until a couple of decades ago.  Current studies have proved that dogs have senses, emotions, memory and problem-solving abilities. They are living, feeling, thinking beings with wills of their own.  So, when we expect instant obedience in every and all situations we’re not going to get it! 

It might not even be defiance or deliberate disobedience!  My girl, Kita, gets so excited when treats (even boring stuff like bits of her kibble!) come out that she forgets to LISTEN!  She’ll start throwing behaviors at me, hoping to “hit the jackpot!”  I have to turn my back and ignore her for 10-15 seconds to put her in a frame of mind where she can pay attention to what I’m saying.  This is an excess of willingness to please, not a deficit.

Granted, it’s willingness to please because that will get her a reward, but dogs are practical creatures.  Just like humans, we work hardest for praise and tangible good things.   Dogs are even MORE practical than people in many ways.  They won’t waste much effort on a strategy that isn’t working.  (They WILL spend a lot on a strategy that worked in the past, but that’s another subject…)

As we have learned more about the inner life of dogs, so our training methods have changed.  Back in the days of dogs-as-machines, dog training was of the “yank and spank” variety — lots of yelling, and shoving into position, and quick punishment for every hesitation or mistake.  More modern methods use the carrot (or hot dog) rather than the stick:  positive reinforcement for getting it right!  Most dog trainers agree that this works at least as quickly and creates a much happier, better-bonding experience than punishment-based training.

I like to use positive reinforcement in all aspects of my life with a dog.  I teach the dog that I am the source of all good things, and they can earn them by doing what I ask.  Then, I let the dog decide.  She has a choice:  do what I ask and get the “reward” or decide NOT to and DON’T get the reward.  Rewards can be any resource the dog wants or needs:  food, treats, toys, going inside or outside, getting petted, any attention, lap-time, etc. 

The important thing to remember is that the dog has a CHOICE!  I don’t get upset if she chooses to NOT do what I ask.  I just withhold the resource.  Perhaps I’ll give the dog another chance a few minutes later.  Sometimes, the dog is out of luck for hours.  (Depending on if it’s something that can’t wait — like a trip outside to go potty — or something the dog can easily do without like petting.) 

Like I said, dogs are EXTREMELY practical creatures.  Once they learn that listening and doing some little thing like SITTING will earn them something good, they think that’s an easy choice!  There are times when she’ll get stubborn and not WANT to listen, but that’s OK!  It’s her choice and she can live with the consequences.  Let the dog decide!


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Trade Me!

One of Aesop’s fables tells of a dog with a big bone who sees his reflection in a pond.  He thinks it’s another dog and growls to keep the other dog away from his bone.  Then he noticess that other dog has a bone, too and it looks bigger!  The dog opens his mouth to try to get it — of course dropping the bone he has, losing it in the water.  I can’t remember what the moral of the fable was, but it’s plain that Aesop knew dogs.

He knew that a dog’s first inclination is to hold on to what she has, and try to warn others away so they don’t try to take it.  He also knew that dogs are often easily distracted. (As the very funny Golden Retriever in UP! says — “Squirrel!” — forgetting everything else.)  We can use the second quirk to help us deal with the first, which can become a problem.

I don’t care how sweet your dog is, it’s never a good idea to try to take something out of her mouth.  It’s just not worth the risk. I’ve seen the most happy-go-lucky spaniel-mix stiffen and raise lip at me over a piece of something dead found next to a road.  This from a dog so submissive that you have to keep your hands in your pockets at all times around him to keep from being constantly licked! 

The point is, any dog can decide to guard a ball, a frisbee, or some food, and you don’t want your hands close to those teeth!  A dog might bite.  Even if the dog shifts her grip on the item to hold on to it, your hand can still come away bloodied.

Instead, I take advantage of a dog’s “distractablility” and play the TRADE ME game.  This works to keep a dog from turning a game of FETCH into that all-time doggie fave, KEEP-AWAY.  It keeps your hands well away from the toothy danger zone.  It also makes a dog think it’s getting something good instead of being deprived of something else.

The trick is to find something that the dog likes BETTER or at least AS WELL as the item she holds.  My spaniel-friend doggie kept his illicit goodie because I didn’t have some yummy treats in my pocket at the time, only dry biscuit. Boring!  (But it’s so hard to keep chicken in my pocket all the time…)

For FETCH, usually another throw toy — ball, frisbee, whatever — suffices.  As the dog is returning the first toy, brandish the second one making chirpy sounds and pretending to throw it.  Most dogs will drop the toy in their mouths in anticipation of the second toy being thrown, and their eagerness to chase it. 

For a verboten or dangerous item (like a chicken bone), pull out a piece of cheese or meat.  If your dog isn’t food motivated, a squeaky toy often works.  Let the dog see it — which means she’ll be able to smell it, too.  Wave it around and say, “wanna treat?”  Ask for a sit or the dog’s favorite trick (like give-a-paw).  Most dogs will drop what they have with all this distraction.  Retrieve the verboten item and give the dog the new treat/item. 

This works much better than yelling and/or commanding the dog to “Drop it!”  It keeps everything up-beat and happy!  It’s a win-win.  I think it also builds trust because my dog doesn’t see me as a party-pooper, trying to take her fun away.  Unlike Aesop’s dog, my dog isn’t left with an empty mouth, but is rewarded for listening to me! 


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When We’re Gone

I always cry when reading stories about dogs guarding their deceased master’s graves, or lying hear their caskets at the funeral and refusing to budge,  or like the Akita, Hachiko, waiting at the train station for his master to come home for 11 years.  (His master had a heart attack at work and died.)  The story I just saw posted on FB about Tommy, a GSD who kept returning to the church where he followed his owner’s casket at her funeral, probably wouldn’t have made such a big impact on me, if I hadn’t just returned home after an absence of nearly 4 hours to be met by my own GSD mix, Kita. 

My girl, Kita, has a true case of separation anxiety.  This isn’t the usual looking-out-the-window-occassionally-with-whines-and-a-couple-of-sighsbehavior that all dogs do when they miss their owners.  Kita has full-blown panic attacks caused by any barrier between her and me.  Those panic attacks escalate into destructive behavior like eating through walls, chewing through plexiglass, gnawing on window jams and trying to dig through concrete. 

Though she was always a little “clingy” — GSD dogs are notorious for being “velcro” dogs– Kita was able to be left alone for many years with or without another dog or person.  Then, my job changed from a job at an office with fairly regular hours to a stay-at-home job where my absences were much fewer and far less predicatable.  On Easter Sunday a few years ago, I drove up to the house thinking, “That looks like blood on the windows.”  It was. 

Kita had had a melt-down and if I hadn’t just replaced the windows she’d probably have broken out and been severely injured  doing so.  Instead, she’d broken off all her canine teeth trying to chew through the windows and  jams.   She’d bloodied her paws tried to dig her way out near the door, and shredding the doormat and carpet down to the cement in the mud room.  The aluminum frame around the window in the mudroom door still bears the indentations from her jaws.

We’ve worked long and hard to get her to accept my absence for a four-hour absence, even with another well-known human like my mom staying with her,  Just getting Kita to be calm while I’m in the bathroom or taking out the trash has taken a lot of ingenuity, training, and patience.  So, to come home to a dog that clearly missed me, but wasn’t salivating and panting heavily, whose pupils weren’t blown wide open from a panic-adrenaline rush, and who’d done nothing more than look out the window a lot during my absence made me feel really good.

I don’t know if Kita would follow my casket or sit by my grave or wait on a train platform for years for me.  I don’t know that it would make me feel happy knowing she would.  It DEFINITELY makes me happy when Kita asks to go outside and spends 15 minutes in the backyard on her own.  I am delighted when she chooses to leave my side as I’m at the computer and go lie down on the living room couch.  Seeing her remain calm  when I take out the garbage or go downstairs to put in a load of laundry means Kita is feeling confident to face life on her own, at least in a small way.  And that means the world to me.  

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Don’t Play That Game

If you could poll dogs on this, I think the number one, favorite game of all time for all breeds, and the vast majority of individual dogs would be — KEEP AWAY!  It’s a great game!    A dog can play it with one, or multiple playmates.  It can be played inside or outside; with or without a toy.  And even HUMANS play it — all the time!

Of course, when we’re “playing” we’re not always having as much fun as our dogs!  It usually goes something like this:  Fido proudly gallops out into the middle of your party dragging a bra, or loudly-colored pair of dirty briefs.  You are understandably embarrassed and your one thought is to get that item away from Fido ASAP!  So, you order him to “Drop it!”  Fido is delighted!  He’s gotten your attention, and drops into a play-bow in return, perhaps growling a bit, certainly wagging his tail.  You move towards him speaking sternly.  “Oh joy!” thinks Fido, “She’s getting into the game,” and he takes off.  After much chasing around furniture and all around the house, you decide that you’ve embarrassed yourself enough and let Fido have his prize.  Fido is beside himself with glee!  He’s gotten a rousing session of is favorite game — and gets to chew on his prize!  What more could any dog ask?

Whether it’s this scenario or what you intended to be a game of FETCH or trying to put the dog’s leash on, dogs love to play KEEP AWAY and will seize any opportunity to turn any situation to into that game.  A dog will do this for two reasons, 1) it’s his favorite! and 2) he can!  We’re letting the dogs dictate the game we play — or even IF we’re playing!  

It’s fairly simple — notice I dont’ say EASY — to prevent this.  We just have to remove the “fun-factor!”  If he’s not having a good time, a dog won’t continue wasting the effort.  In almost all situations, the prescription is simply — DON’T ENGAGE IN THE CHASE!   

In the scenario above, once Fido has trotted out the embarrassing item, your face is red, so just turn your back on the dog and walk away.  99% of the time, the dog will follow.  Still IGNORE him.  If you don’t really care about the item and don’t mind if it’s chewed, that’s all you have to do — and get your guests to do the same!  (If you won’t play, Fido will try everyone else!)  If that’s your brand-new silk bra, then turn the game into TRADE ME?

The TRADE ME? game involves just getting something else the dog really values.  For some dogs it’s a treat for others a squeaky toy.  Hold it up enticingly.  99% of the time, the dog will drop the verboten item in anticipation of getting the new one.  I always ask for a SIT or some other command before treating so the dog doesn’t get the idea that he can blackmail you for treats by draggin’ out underwear.  And I make sure that the verboten item is in MY hand before the dog gets the treat!

It really is simple.  What is difficult is not letting our “chase” buttons get pushed!  That is really the hard part because dogs are experts at pushing those buttons.  After all, this is their favorite game and they are the experts at strategy!

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