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Walking your dog; Sometimes it is Good to be a Tree

OK, this is not what you are thinking. One common problem may dog owners have, especially with larger breeds, is pulling on the leash during walks. As with many other behaviors, owners have to deal with, pulling against a restraint is a natural instinct for many dogs. The original positive use of this behavior was pulling a sled or cart, however, few of us ask our furry companions to do this.

The important thing to remember when dealing with pulling on a lead is successful pulling encourages more pulling! The key to inhibiting pulling is to make it fruitless. The dog is pulling for a reason, such as to get to a squirrel, go swimming, follow a scent or greet another animal.

Have you ever noticed that a dog tied out in from of a store typically does not pull against its lead to greet you? By the way I don’t encourage doing that, however it is a good illustration. The dog has learned that it is ineffective to pull, the pipe he is tied to won’t move and has “trained” him not to pull.

You can do the same thing. As soon as your dog starts to pull and the lead becomes taught, just stop and “Be a Tree”, don’t let the dog make any progress and in the beginning, don’t even say anything to the dog. Just be patient, very patient. Eventually, the dog will slacken the lead and probably look back at you and think “hey dummy what’s the problem.” If you are really prepared, you have some small high-value treats right at hand and you can throw one right near, but not ahead of the dog, once the lead slackens, to reinforce the positive behavior of not pulling. You can now start to walk again. As soon as the leash tightens, you’re a tree again. During this training phase you probably will not get very far quickly, but remember the result will be a lifetime of pleasant walks.

This technique can be very effective, however the trainer (owner) has to be very consistent and very patient. Successful pulling episodes, from the dog’s perspective, can undo many “Be a Tree” conditionings.

It is also useful to recognize there are some situations where as the trainer and leader, it is best for you to pick up the pace to prevent pulling. For instance, you put a lot of time and effort into house training your dog and chances are he really needs to go and wants to quickly get to his favorite spot at the beginning of a walk.


My dog, who sleeps on the bed, gets the growlies at my husband when he comes to bed.

Letting a dog sleep on the bed can result in relinquishing the leader position in the “Leader / Follower” relationship. Canines are wired by nature to defer to the pack leader. Privileges of the leader are to eat first, best spot to sleep and mating rights. Subordinate dogs always seek higher office.

When you allow bed privileges you elevate him to a leader position, above the husband in this situation and the dog’s growling is an attempt to defend his new improved position. In this situation, never attempt to remove the doggie from the bed by your hands, bites can happen.

The solution is to attach a short (3-5 foot) “lead line” to the dog’s collar before he gets upon the bed. Have the husband approach the bed with some “high value” treats (small chicken , liver or hot dog pieces). Offer the treats, but only provide them when all four paws are on the floor. If needed use light tugs on the lead line. Do not pull the dog or drag him off the bed and provide the treats when dog is on the floor. Both members of the couple need to do this training to teach the dog that he/she sleeps on the floor or in a crate with manna from heaven (treats) making this condition “doggie heaven”. Everyone, especially the wife, in this situation must not provide any positive reinforcement, food, petting, verbal, toys or other stuff, if the dog is on the bed.

Dog’s Don’t Understand Human Language


I can’t tell you how many times in my behaviorist career I have watched a client (human) shout “sit”, or “down” or “come” at their dog and the dog just stares at them. The client tells me the dog is stupid or un-trainable. I then take hold of the lead do some basic training and in a few minutes the dog’s butt reliably hits the ground each time I say “sit”. Do I have a special power? No. What I know is that dog’s don’t understand English, Spanish, Russian or any other human language. I don’t care if the dog is the smartest Boarder Collie, Rotti, Poodle, you pick your favorite brainy canine breed, they don’t understand. Dogs can associate a consistent sound as a cue to execute a specific behavior.

Many people believe dogs, especially their dog learn and understand language like children do. They believe if they keep saying something the dog will eventually understand it and do what is asked. No way! Think how you would feel if I kept shouting “Gremple” at you in an increasingly angry and irritated tone. You would feel anxious and frustrated. That is what your dog feels too and will do something to relieve the resulting stress. You can only expect your dog to perform a behavior by voice command once they have associated the sound of the command with the physical action. In another blog I will talk about how the chasm between verbal command and behavior is crossed. The thing to understand is dogs don’t understand language, they associate sound or visual signal with an action to get a reward. You can teach a dog all the behaviors you want with a whistle, clicker or anything that makes sound. Actually, you don’t even need sound, it can be done with visual signals, again content for another blog.

Let me conclude this blog with an example story. I went to a client’s home for a consult. The man said his dog would not learn commands. After a bit of small talk I asked him to show me what he does to get the dog to do something. He went to the sliding glass door and shouted “come” to the dog in the backyard. The dog started to excitedly run around the yard. The man yelled “come, come, come”, again and again louder and louder. He said “see what I mean.” The man then went out the door and chased the dog. Finally he dragged the dog in and said, “see my dog is stupid.” I told him I disagree and the dog is a genius and learned “come” perfectly. It’s just that “come” means play the game chase me around the yard. In just a few minutes I showed the owner how to get the dog to come to him on command. Since the dog already associated “come” with play, we used a different command.

Food, its Mine, Mine, Mine

A common issue I have been asked to help dog owners with is a dog growling and or snaping at them or other human family members if they go near the dog’s food bowl when it is eating

Aggression like this is known as “resource guarding”, typically associated with toys and food. The solution to this problem is to establish the leader / follower relationship between the person and their dog.

How can this be done safely? I recommend the following:

  1. Tie a long string around the bowl and extended the string across the room.
  2. Fill the bowl normally and let the dog start eating
  3. Walk across the room
  4. Pull the string so the bowl moves 6-8 inches toward you
  5. Throw a bunch of “high value” treats (small chicken, liver, hot dogs pieces…) near the dog and in a high pitch voice say “Good dog”. The dog will stop eating from the bowl and eat the treats.
  6. Repeat steps 1 through 5 every time you feed the dog, however each time increase the amount you pull the bowl toward you by 6 to 8 inches, so on feeding #2 it is 12 to 16 inches, feeding #3 it is 18 to 24 inches, each time including the “rain of treats”
  7. Continue this process until the bowl is at your feet without any aggression during feeding.
  8. If the dog shows any signs of aggression go back to the distance where there is no aggression for a few feedings and then try bringing the bowl closer.
  9. Once the dog is eating at your feet throw some treats about 4 to 6 feet away and when the dog leaves the bowl with food to get the treats, pick up the bowl. When the dog comes back to resume eating from the bowl, put it down and let him/her resume eating.
  10. Work to the point that you can do the treat-throw, pick up bowl and give the bowl back several times during the feeding.
  11. The final stage is to walk up to the dog while feeding and pick up the bowl without aggression.

Congratulate yourself for using Progressive Successive Approximation behavior shaping. If you use this process, decrease the amount of food in the bowl to accommodate the extra treats as not to overfeed the dog.

Voice, Leash, and Hands

Over the many years that I have been doing training and behavior work with dogs and their owner/trainers, I have developed a central tenant that I describe in my introduction lecture for classes and at the initial behavior consult. Proper and efficient training and behavior work require Voice, Leash and Hands. These three resources used consistently, in the correct order, with accurate timing is essential to getting the desired results.

Voice includes any auditory signal such as words or patterns of whistles or clicks. The key is they need to be one for each behavior, no variation and be easily differentiated. For example, most English speaking people use “sit” for hindquarters on the ground with forelimbs shoulders and head up. However, Hupp, Setzen or one short even whistle blast are also common. In terms of no variation, don’t use “Sit” sometimes and “Hupp” other times or “please sit.” Try to use the same tone and cadence, don’t let a command become a growl when you get frustrated or short and repetitive (sit, sit, sit) when you get impatient.

Leash means having an appropriate physical connection between dog and trainer. Many people believe that any leash for training is ok, but I disagree. The leash needs to be of fixed length (typical 6’ – no retractable) and leather of appropriate width (weight). Six feet allows for chose work (six to eight inches) when starting training of a command and a reasonable distance to work before going to off lead. Also, it is a manageable length to gather up in one hand without having “floppy bits” that can produce unwanted visual or physical cues as Barbara Woodhouse (famous UK trainer) would say. The key is having the connection to the dog to give gentle cues, keep the dog in proximity when needed, reel the dog in for a “come and call”, etc. Why do I require a leather leash for my clients? First of all, a good well-oiled leash will not burn or cut the hand if pulled through. Also leather has a firmness that gathers well in the hand and again reduces floppiness.

Associated with the leash is the collar. Here again, the right one is critical. For my clients, I require an adjustable sliding ring collar. Non-adjustable sliding ring collars usually are too large with too much “play” between loose and contact cue around the whole neck as well as it is possible for it to easily come off when a dog backs up.

Finally, regarding hands, there are two issues. First, the position of the hands during training. I have observed over the many years the tendency of trainers to raise their hands above the waist causing the dog to jump up, break a stay, wait, sit, down or other command. Also, remember that touch is a reward for most dogs. Don’t forget to hug, pat rub or otherwise “love up” your dog when they do well.