Boarding Your Dog, Part 1: Choosing a Facility


It’s time for vacation! As you pack your bags and make your reservations, you may be wondering what to do with your pup while you’re gone. If you’re like me, you’ll want to be sure that your dog is going to be safe and have as much fun as you. When making a decision on where to board your dog, there are many things you’ll want to keep in mind. Luckily, our series on boarding your dog will point you in the right direction!

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Good Sits


Did you know that there is a simple, easy way to get your dog to be more calm and well-behaved? Teaching a default sit is the “magic wand” of dog training and is easy to work into your daily routine. Put some kibble in your pocket and reward periodically throughout the day. No lengthy training sessions or tools needed! It’s so easy that everyone in the house can participate – even toddlers!

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Boarding Your Dog, Part 2: Getting Ready


Awesome! So you’ve found a place to board your dog while you’re on vacay! (read my suggestions for choosing a facility in part 1 of this series here) So now what? What do you pack? What information should you provide? Oh, there are so many questions! Luckily, we have the answers!

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The Need to Gnaw: How to Prevent Puppy Chewing

Photo credit:  Christina Hart

Photo credit: Christina Hart

Choosing to chew?

What do pet stores sell? Toys for dogs to chew on. Bones for dogs to chew on. Treats for dogs to chew on. Are you seeing a theme yet? 

Dogs enjoy having things in their mouths; they like to chew! It makes them happy. It's fun. It relieves stress and boredom. Dogs explore their world with their nose and their mouth—it's just what they do.

So why is it baffling to people when their puppies chew up their shoes?

Some people feel that their dogs chew their shoes out of spite. "Fifi was mad at me because I went to work and left her home, so she chewed up my favorite shoes"! 

Although I am sure that Fifi is really smart, I doubt that she has the mental capacity to think, "I am mad at Mom because she left me here all day. I know that she loves those running shoes, so I am going to chew them up because I know that will make her mad. I'm going to show her!"


The more likely scenarios are:

Your puppy may be bored, and chewing relieves boredom.

Your puppy may be teething, and chewing relieves discomfort.

Your puppy is stressed. Shoes are loaded with our scent, and an owner’s scent is comforting to a dog. Chewing something laden with an owner’s scent makes a stressed dog feel better.

Puppies like to chew, and if there was no toy or bone handy there were shoes just lying there...

Your puppy needs more exercise.

Your puppy may have a nutritional deficiency or intestinal parasites. Talk to your vet and examine closely what you are feeding your dog.

Your puppy needs more attention. Some dogs will pick things up and run with them simply to get some attention.

Of course, there may be an entire list of other reasons that will only be discovered when we learn to speak with our dogs!

So what do we do when our dog is chewing on our stuff?

A dog can't chew it if he can't get to it 

Some people feel that a puppy "should know better," but puppies don't know better. Chewing is a normal stage of puppy development, just like the normal toddler stage of touching things and put things in their mouths. 

Parents know that toddlers go through a stage where sticking fingers in the light socket is great fun. Now, a parent could follow the child around smacking hands and yelling at the child. Or, a parent could purchase the little plastic childproofing pieces that can be inserted into the sockets, knowing that in a few months the child will pass through the stage and not be interested in the sockets. 

It is the same with puppies. It is much easier to put your shoes (and anything else chewable) away. The great thing about keeping your shoes out of sight is that your puppy will never learn that chewing shoes is enjoyable. Once your puppy passes through the chewing stage, you can leave shoes out without fear of destruction. So, if you can pick it up and put it away, do so! That way there will be no crying over lost shoes!

Abundant alternatives

Since dogs love to chew, they need something to satisfy that urge. Be sure to offer your pup lots of alternatives besides your shoes (they are stowed away in the closet, right?). Pet stores are overflowing with items that can be put in a dog’s mouth. Stock up and leave chew toys wherever your puppy will be—be generous! It’s smart to manage a stash of toys that can be rotated to keep play exciting!

Interesting options

There are many toys out there made for sticking yummy things inside.  Kongs are fantastic! Made of hard, durable rubber, they are hollow so that you can stuff them with peanut butter, canned dog food, cream cheese, or any other tasty treats that you can fit inside. Buster Cubes, Tricky Treat Balls, Tug-A-Jugs,  KONG Wobblers, and a whole slew of other toys are designed to hold kibble that will fall out piece by piece as your dog rolls the toy around to play. You could feed your dog's entire meal in one of these toys. Bonus: your dog gets mental exercise while he eats his breakfast! For more ideas like these, read my article Making the Most of Mealtime

Sterilized femur bones also make great chew toys for most dogs. Sterilized femur bones are the white bones you find at the pet store. I prefer these bones over the ones with the brown, yucky flesh still on them. The yucky ones can harbor salmonella and other bacteria. I don't recommend rawhide because it is processed with nasty chemicals (such as bleach, lime, and formaldehyde) and is very unhealthy for your dog. (I could write a whole other article on rawhides!) Of course, don't give your dog any cooked bones from your dinner. Cooked bones can splinter and pierce your dog's GI tract.

Supervision, supervision, supervision! 

If your dog is a little carpet shark chewing everything in sight, don't let him out of your sight! If you can't watch your puppy directly, confine him to a crate or x-pen. Each time your puppy gets to practice the behavior of chewing, that behavior becomes more ingrained and harder to change in the future. 

Make a trade

Nobody likes a thief. And if your dog has something and you walk up and take it away, that is what you become. These exchanges create a dog that, 1) runs and plays Catch Me if You Can!, or, 2) swallows things quickly as soon as he sees you coming. The former is annoying and the latter is dangerous. Having been a vet tech for several years, I can tell you that dogs can and will swallow some pretty amazing things—and not all of them come out okay in the end. Many owners have spent thousands of dollars removing various items from inside their dogs. Sadly, not every dog lives to chew another shoe. 

Next time you see your puppy chewing on your shoe or running off with your underwear, don't run and snatch it out of his mouth. Reach down and pick up one of the many toys that are now scattered around your house, and make a trade—toy for forbidden item. You will get your property back and the puppy learns what is acceptable to chew. 

There is another great side effect to trading with your dog. If you constantly trade treats or toys or forbidden objects, your dog will start to bring forbidden objects to you to see if you want to trade! Instead of running away from you with that tissue you dropped, your dog will be more likely to pick it up and bring it to you. 

To look at the trade option from a human perspective, think about this scenario. If I walked up to you and said, "Gimme $20 now," took your money, and walked away, you would not be happy. You would think I was a thief and a bully and would avoid me next time you had any money. But if I walked up and said, "Gimme $20 and I will give you this $50 bill," you would hand over the $20 cash really quick. Next time you had a $20, you might seek me out to see if I wanted to trade. You might even bring me $50 to see if I'd trade you for $100!

Teach the cue “drop it” 

“Drop it” is an essential cue for all dog owners, and it is really easy to teach. When your dog has something in his mouth, give the cue "drop it" and place a yummy treat at the end of his nose. Your dog will drop whatever is in his mouth in order to eat the treat. If he doesn't drop it, it means that the treat you are offering is not as rewarding as whatever he has in his mouth. Try again with something tastier. If your dog has something in his mouth that is his, give the cue, present the treat, and, when he is finished chewing, give him back his toy. Your dog learns that the cue “drop it” means good things may happen.

You can also use your handy, dandy clicker to teach “drop it.” Tug toys are fantastic for this exercise. 

Get your puppy engaged in playing with a tug toy. 

When your puppy has a good hold on the toy, stop moving the toy. Completely freeze. 

The moment your puppy gives up tugging and looks up to say, "What gives?" click, and then reward with a treat and/or resuming the game of tug. 

Once your puppy learns that spitting out the toy starts the game again, he will let go pretty quickly. That is the perfect time to add the cue! Say, "drop it," then freeze. 

Click and reward for letting go.

Play nice

Don't allow your puppy to learn to be destructive with his toys. I can't tell you how many people I have talked to who say their dogs will eviscerate any plush toy in about 3.5 seconds. If a dog decides to perform an operation on your couch, it won't be pretty. Instead, from the start teach your puppy how to play nicely with his toys. If you see him starting to rip something open, walk over calmly and make a trade with another toy. If he does not get to practice destroying things, he will not learn how fun it is!

Exercise your dog

A tired dog is a happy owner! Exercise can help relieve stress and boredom. If your dog is tired and content, he will be less likely to chew.

Exercise can be mental or physical. If it is rainy day or you are not physically able to walk your dog or play a game of fetch, exercise his mind instead of his body. Treat-dispensing toys and training sessions are fantastic ways to tire your pup mentally. 

Diet detail

Is your dog getting a balanced diet? Is your dog being fed enough? If your dog is not consuming his nutritional requirements, he may be trying to "supplement" his diet. Talk to your vet and/or go to for a closer look at what you are feeding your dog. You may be surprised at what gets put in a bag of kibble!

Scent your dog's toys

Dogs navigate the world with their nose. Place a tiny dab of vanilla extract on each of your dog's toys. Your dog will learn quickly that things that smell like vanilla are fair game. I recommend vanilla because most people have it in their kitchen, it will not harm your dog, and it is pleasant to smell.

Chew on this

Remember, your puppy is not chewing your shoes as part of an evil master plan to get back at you. Your puppy is simply being a dog! There are many ways to help you and your puppy survive the puppy chewing stage. Grit your own teeth, plan ahead, hide your shoes, stock up on toys and treats, use your clicker training skills, and wait out your baby’s developmental stage.


-Rebecca Lynch, KPA CTP

Making the Most of Mealtime

Rebecca uses food rewards while out for a walk with Story. 

Rebecca uses food rewards while out for a walk with Story. 



What is your dog’s favorite time of the day? For my dogs, it’s mealtime! If I had my dogs rank their favorite things on a scale of 1-10, I’m sure eating would be a 15. Nothing can make my dogs’ tails wag faster than seeing me reach for the kibble. In the past, the dogs would drool, jump up and down, bark, run in circles, run around the room, and create a general ruckus—all because they were excited to see their food bowls. 

Feeding from a bowl was a convenient routine for me, but after years of putting food in a bowl for my dogs to gulp down in less than a minute, I realized that I was wasting fantastic opportunities. If I made some changes, I could bond with my dogs, challenge them mentally, and extend their happiness past 60 seconds. There are so many ways to enrich a dog’s life during mealtime.


There are a variety of choices for dispensing food for your dog, all more exciting than placing a lump of food in a bowl. A number of these options are toys that can even be used while your dog is crated, to make crate time more enjoyable.   Buster Cubes, Tug-A-Jugs, Tricky Treat Balls, Kong Wobblers, and other toys are designed to hold varying amounts of dry food or treats. They dispense one or two pieces of food at a time as the dog plays with the toy. (If you feed canned or raw foods, try stuffing a KONG toy or a sterilized femur bone.) 

Treat-dispensing toys are fantastic both for releasing constructive energy in active dogs and for getting more sedentary dogs up and moving. They relieve boredom and offer an alternative behavior for dogs prone to inappropriate chewing. The toys can even relieve stress in some dogs by providing an outlet for nervous energy, giving the dog something else to focus on instead of the worry. Treat-dispensing toys also help dogs learn to think and problem-solve as they discover new ways to make the toys deliver food. They provide enrichment and nourishment all in one!

There is a full line of puzzle toys to challenge your pup. Dogs learn to pull levers, push blocks, rotate disks, and remove pieces to get to food. Many toys offer ways to increase the difficulty of obtaining food so that your dog continues to be challenged even after discovering how the toy works. Who needs a boring ol’ bowl of dog food when you can eat your food out of a Tornado, a Dog Casino, a Dog Turbo, or a Dog Magic?


Since dogs love to seek out food, a game of hide and seek can be the perfect way to eat a meal. Hide little piles food in various locations around your house. On the bottom shelf of the bookcase, behind the chair, under the coffee table, and beside the couch are all good places to start. Lead your dog into the room and tell him to “go find.” You may have to point out the first hiding places, but soon your dog will learn to use his keen canine nose to find the others. As your dog learns how to play the game, gradually increase the difficulty by hiding treats in higher or harder-to-reach places.


We would all love to have more time to train our pets, but sometimes it’s tough to fit training time into a busy day. The solution is to turn mealtime into a training session. When you feed your dog each day, an extra five minutes for training time is easy to work into your schedule, and we clicker trainers know that you can accomplish a lot in a five-minute session! 

Does your dog know some fun tricks or behaviors? Have him show off for you. Ask him for sit, down, or shake. Reward each behavior with a few pieces of kibble or, if you feed raw or canned food, present the food in a food tube or on a spoon. Does your dog need help with leash-walking skills? Teach him that hanging out on your left side is a fun place to be by feeding his meal from there. Walk around your house and hand out kibble by your left leg—soon your pup will be glued to your side! 

Why stop at old tricks? Imagine how many new things you could teach your dog if you worked with him at every meal. Sometimes I have something particular in mind that I want to train my dogs to do; other times I will just sit down and see what they offer. Be creative! A head dip can become “shame,” looking up can become “where are the airplanes?” My dog Karma knows that she should look snooty (by looking over her shoulder) when I ask, “Are you a snob?” These three new tricks are easy to capture with just a head movement. After that, the possibilities are endless! Two five-minute sessions a day can produce a lot of tricks! 

If you are looking for a less structured way to have fun feeding your dog, and if you like the idea of capturing new behaviors with a click, try the “show me something else” game. This game is easy to play and is a wonderful mental challenge for a dog. The goal of the game is for your dog to show you a different behavior in order to earn a click and some food. Once a behavior has been shown, it cannot be repeated to earn a reward. 

The “show me” game is a fantastic way to encourage your dog to offer new behaviors. When I play with my dog Karma, she offers me many behaviors, including sit, down, turn around, spin, play dead, roll over, paw raise, head dip, look up, cross paws, and lay with her head between her paws. Sometimes she even combines behaviors to make new ones! I’ll never forget the time she put front paw raise, back up, and look up all together. She looked like she was skipping backward! 

Another fun variation of the “show me” game is to add a prop and reward your dog for creating new ways to interact with the prop. When I introduced a road cone to my dog Abbi during this game, Abbi touched it with her nose and both paws, knocked it over, stood on it, jumped over it, picked it up, pushed it, stuck her nose in it, sat beside it, and even took a bow next to it! I doubt that I could have come up with that many things to do with a cone!


For fun in the sun, there are ways to feed your dog outside. In the warmer months, cool your dog off with a treat-dispensing “pupsicle!” Fill a small plastic bucket with water and throw in bits of meat, treats, KONGS stuffed with peanut butter, or canned or raw food. Freeze until solid, pop the frozen block out of the container, and place it outside on a cookie sheet. Your dog will enjoy chewing and licking the ice, discovering tasty treats and toys as the ice melts. Depending on the size of the ice block and the heat of the day, this treat can provide hours of fun for your pup!

If your dog enjoys treat-dispensing toys inside, he will love them outside as well. Many toys are durable enough for outdoor play. Grass, trees, rocks, and other elements of nature can provide a more challenging surface to play on than your carpet or wood floors. 

Another great way to feed your dog outside is to tap into his wild side. Dogs are a predator species, and predators spend time in the wild hunting for food. Dogs instinctively enjoy seeking food, one of the reasons why dogs respond so well to clicker training. They have found a way to seek food from humans. While a backyard can be a boring place, you can easily organize a treasure hunt! Scatter your dog’s entire meal across the yard (kibble works best, of course). Your dog will spend hours looking for every morsel. Food tossing is a great way to give a dog an alternative to barking, fence running, digging, and chewing your lawn furniture.


Moving beyond the bowl and finding new ways to feed your dog produces many benefits. Boredom and destructive behaviors decrease while creativity and constructive activity increases. If your dog eats very quickly, taking away the bowl and feeding via a puzzle toy, treat dispenser, or by hand in a training session will slow down your dog and decrease the likelihood of bloat, poor digestion, and other problems associated with fast ingestion. 

Best of all, when you feed your dog in a training session, you’re not only training your dog, but building a stronger bond. Your dog loves to eat, loves to find ways to find food. When you hand-feed your dog during his meal, you become the source of that coveted meal. Your dog will enjoy spending this quality time with you and, chances are, you will enjoy spending the extra special time with him! 


Rebecca Lynch is a graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy of Training and Behavior. With 15yrs experience as a positive reinforcement dog trainer and veterinary technician, she provides loving care for dogs boarding and training in her home. 

To Kill or Not To Kill...

photo credit:  Ted McGrath

photo credit: Ted McGrath

A friend of mine had a birthday recently. I asked how she was going to celebrate, and she said she wanted to make a donation to a local animal shelter. When I asked why she chose that one, since there was another shelter closer to where she lived, she said the shelter she was donating to was a no-kill shelter. She didn't want to give money to people who kill animals. 

It was at this time that I could feel my feet automatically climbing onto my soapbox. Having been a part of the shelter and rescue world for the last 15yrs, I have had plenty of time to form a stance on this topic. 

No-kill shelters kill

It's true. There is no shelter that is 100% zero kill. Dogs and cats can become very ill or a serious aggression problem may rear it's head that was previously unknown. We want shelters to have an option to humanely euthanize animals who have an untreatable illness or are a danger to society.

There is another layer to the argument, though. What happens to the animals who are not accepted into the no-kill shelter?

No-kill shelters are not all-inclusive

Every shelter must place limits on the number of animals it can take in and care for at any given time. A facility can only house just so many animals. No-kill shelters house row upon row of adoptable animals. When the shelter is full, no more animals can be accepted until some have been adopted to make room for them. Although adoptions happen, they rarely happen as frequently as adoptable animals are relinquished. This means adoptable animals may be turned away.

No-kill shelters only accept adoptable pets. This means that pets with untreatable health problems, behavior problems and other criteria are turned away as un-adoptable. Further, each shelter has their own criteria about what they feel is adoptable. Older pets may not qualify. Certain breeds may be turned down.  Some shelters only take in puppies and kittens. 

When adoptable and un-adoptable pets are turned away, what happens to them?

If an animal is turned away from a shelter, the owner generally still has to find a place for the pet to go. They don't just change their mind about giving up their pet, take it home, and love it for the rest of it's life. Unfortunately, many dogs and cats are dumped on the way home when no one is looking, and left abandoned. I have seen dogs tied to vet clinics, shelter doorsteps, fire hydrants, fences and more. I have seen cats left in boxes on doorsteps and by the side of the road - often without even air holes to breathe from.

Some people list pets for free on Craigslist or other websites. Many times these animals are picked up by people who wish to do harm to them, whether by using them as bait dogs, or just plain mistreating them.  Some take them home and chain them out for a lifetime of neglect.

The flip-side of the coin

Yes, kill shelters kill. But they also rarely, if ever, turn away any pet in need of a place to go. They don't decide to not accept a dog that is shy or fearful or black or just not as cute. They take them all in. 

As the pets enter the shelter, they are examined for any untreatable health problems and major behavior problems. Adoptable animals are placed for adoption if there is room. If there isn't room, room will be made. Shelter staff has the hard task of deciding who stays and who goes. They look at many factors, including age, health, temperament, length of time at the shelter, and breed to make their decision. It is not an easy decision.

Which is more humane?

A shelter who cherry-picks the best to place for adoption or the shelter who takes in any pet and attempts to place as many adoptable pets as they can?

Both serve a purpose. Both help animals. I am not opposed to no-kill shelters. I'm opposed to people thinking no-kill shelters are better than kill-shelters. By all means, donate. Donate to whichever group you'd like. Just know that both kill and no-kill are working hard to help pets.

We can do our part, too! Talk your neighbor out of having a litter of puppies just so their children can see the "miracle of birth". Talk your friend into putting an adoption fee on her Craigslist ad. Tell your co-worker who found the stray dog on the way home that someone may be desperately looking for that dog and to please try to find the owner. Don't just assume it's been dumped. Spay your pets. Microchip your pets. Train your pets. Love your pets. 

-Rebecca Lynch, KPA CTP

Introducing Dogs

photo credit:  Kim Benson

photo credit: Kim Benson

How to safely introduce your new dog to your furry pal. 

Introducing your new dog to your current dogs can be a worrisome experience. Will the get along? Will there be a fight? Will they be best friends? How you introduce your new dog now can greatly influence how your dogs interact in the future. 

Setting the stage.

When introducing dogs, its best to start on neutral territory. Your current dog may be more prone to act defensively if the introduction is in his own home. 

Begin outside with both dogs on leash. Keep the leashes nice and loose as tension on the leash causes tension in your dog. Try to remain relaxed, as your dog will pick up on the change in your body language and react differently. Often, when people introduce dogs, they are tense - breathing differently, have stiff movements, have a change in the tone of their voice.  All of these changes influence how the dogs will respond to each other. 

The nose knows.

Unlike humans who rely first on their vision, a dog’s most important sense is smell. A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than our own. Dogs experience the world first with their nose, then their eyes or ears. This is why dogs usually first interact by sniffing each other’s genitals and rears. They obtain lots of important information such as the other dog’s sex, reproductive status, emotional state, diet and more.  

A way to speed up this process is to apply the dogs’ scent to each other. Take a cloth and gently wipe the genitals of one of the dogs. Wipe the cloth with the scent across the face and back of the other dog. Repeat with the second dog so that the dogs have scent applied to each other. When introductions are finally made, the dogs will smell their own scent on the other dog and feel more comfortable, as if they already have met. 

Out for a walk.

Start by calmly walking the dogs parallel to each other at a distance where they are not actively trying to get to each other. An average distance is 15-20’. Walk the same path back and forth until the dogs are relaxed, allowing the dogs to sniff the ground and investigate things. After several passes, swap paths so that the each dog is walking in the other’s trail.
By walking dogs parallel to each other, then crossing paths, you give the dogs time to get accustomed with each other’s scent. This helps the dogs become familiar with each other before they are physically interacting.

While you are parallel walking, the walkers should reward their dog with tiny, bite-sized treats, for calmly looking at the other dog without showing any negative behaviors. This will help build a positive association between the dogs. 
When your dogs are relaxed and calm at a distance from each other, begin gradually decreasing the distance between the dogs without allowing them to greet. If at any time one or both of the dogs begin displaying agitation, increase the distance between the dogs until they are comfortable again.

The meet and greet.

Once your dogs are comfortable being near each other, its time to let them greet. It is very important not to allow the dogs to greet nose-to-nose while on-lead. Face-to-face greetings are confrontational in the dog world. Instead, dogs prefer to greet nose-to-tail. This is far more polite for dogs - a dog handshake.  As mentioned above, dogs receive a lot of information from sniffing each other’s rears. 

Its best to first allow dogs to greet off-lead in a neutral area. If a neutral area is not available, a fenced-in yard is the next best thing. 

If using your yard, allow your new dog to visit the yard first without your other dog present. Investigating will give him another opportunity to get used to the current dog’s scent. Swap dogs and let your old dog explore the area. 

Bring both dogs into the yard on-lead. Once both dogs are comfortable, release the dogs to visit each other. It is best to remove leashes, as leashes can cause tension with dogs. If you’re concerned there may be a fight, you can drop the leashes so that they can be picked up to move the dogs away from each other. 

If there is a fight off-lead, do not try to break up the fight by grabbing collars. People are often bitten when trying to break up fights by reaching near the dogs’ heads. Instead, lift both dogs’ hind legs off the ground. This will often be enough to diffuse a fight. 

Allow the dogs short visits with each other. If there is signs of tension - hackles raised, stiff posturing, growling, snapping - calmly call the dogs away from each other to give them a break. It is completely normal for dogs to display these behaviors - dogs are allowed to say, “back off” - but it is best to diffuse the situation before it escalates. 

When you call the dogs away, be sure to do so in a happy, calm voice. If you are demanding, you will add additional stress to the situation and may actually cause aggression. Punishing the dogs for growling or snapping will also add to the tension and could trigger a fight. 

Introducing in the home.

If you don’t have access to a neutral area or a backyard, choose the largest area of your home for greeting.  Be sure that any resources are picked up and removed from the area - bones, rawhides, favorite toys, and anything else that the dogs may feel the need to guard. 

Place your current dog in another area and let your new dog explore the room. While he is exploring, he will be leaving his scent in the house. If you have an item of the new dog’s, you can leave it with your dog for scent familiarity. Swap dogs to allow your dog to smell the new dog’s scent in the room. 

Just as with the yard greeting, begin with them on-lead on opposite sides of the room. Reward each dog for looking at the other dog without reacting. Once they are comfortable, release the dogs. 

Allow short visits, calmly interrupting any tense posturing, growling or snapping. As the dogs become familiar with each other, you can allow them longer visits. 

Maintaining the peace.

Now that introductions have been made, its important to keep the peace. Keep the dogs separate when you are away from the home. Feed them separately to avoid resource guarding. Your old dog has seniority in the home. Teach the dogs that the old dog will receive things first - attention, getting to go out of doorways, food, treats, etc. By attending to your old dog first, you create predictably and order. The dogs will learn to wait for their turn, rather than jockeying for position.

A happy coexistence

First impressions do matter. Its worth taking the time to introduce your dogs in a calm, controlled manner to set stage for future happy coexistence. Safety first! If you are introducing dogs with a history of dog aggression, or if you are worried there may be a fight, it is best to seek the help of a qualified trainer or behaviorist when making first introductions. 

Rebecca Lynch is a graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy of Training and Behavior. With 15yrs experience as a positive reinforcement dog trainer and veterinary technician, she provides loving care for dogs boarding and training in her home.

Poisoned Cues: The Case of the Stubborn Dog

Photo credit:  Alex Matravers

Photo credit: Alex Matravers

When I arrived at my client’s house last week, she was very excited to show me how well her dog Missy was doing with hand targeting. “Watch this!” Megan said as she gathered her clicker and treats. Missy was at full attention in front of her. Megan gave the cue, “touch,” and presented her hand. Missy took one look at her hand, ducked her head, and sat down to scratch. Megan tried again. Missy began sniffing the ground. Megan’s face dropped. “We’ve been practicing all week for you. Missy knows how to touch. Why is she being so stubborn?”

Was Missy being stubborn? 

She had been excited to participate in the training up until the moment she heard the cue. She was fully focused on Megan and anxiously awaiting the opportunity to perform. But the moment she was given the cue, she changed her mind. And although scratching and sniffing seemed to Megan an act of defiance, I knew that Missy was actually giving stress signals. Missy was worried about touching Megan’s hand. Why was Missy worried? Just the week before, Missy was running from across the room to place her nose in Megan’s hand. What had happened? 

I decided to watch Megan and Missy work together. Megan called Missy to her and asked her to sit. Missy happily placed her rear on the floor. Megan clicked, praised her dog with a pat on the head, and then gave her a treat. I had my answer. What we had was a case of a poisoned cue. 

What are poisoned cues?

A cue is the “green light” that tells the dog it’s time to do a behavior. A cue can be anything that the animal can perceive: verbal, visual, environmental, a scent, a sound, or a touch. A cue can be trained—the word “sit” is a common verbal cue that means “put your rear on the ground.” Or, a cue can simply be learned from association—when I scrape the bottom of my ice cream bowl, my dogs perceive that as the cue to get up and make sad, starving, dog faces so I will let them lick the bowl. 

A poisoned cue occurs when a dog associates unpleasant things with a cue. Because of these unpleasant associations, the dog will either hesitate to perform the behavior or not do it at all. We humans think of unpleasant as a reprimand or scolding, or painful, like a jerk on a prong collar. But what we think is unpleasant and what the dog thinks is unpleasant are often different. A slight tug on the leash, pulling on our dog’s collar, leaning over the dog, or, in Missy’s case, a pat on the head, can all be unpleasant. 

People pat their dogs on the head every day. How can this possibly be unpleasant?

Take a moment and look around the room. Are you all alone? If you are, or if nobody’s looking, pat yourself on the forehead just above your eyes, as if you were patting a dog. Now imagine if it were somebody else’s hand. Here are these big fingers heading straight for your eyeballs and then moving around! The pat itself doesn’t feel very good, either! How would you feel if your boss patted you on the forehead every time you did something right at work? Would you start to avoid your boss? Avoid doing good things at work? Avoid work?

Once Missy realized that her owner was going to follow the nose touch with a pat on the head, Missy decided to avoid the pat by avoiding the nose touch. She was not being stubborn; she just didn’t want to be touched in that way. Poor Megan loves her dog and thought she was rewarding her dog. It was just a simple case of miscommunication.      

When cues go wrong

Poisoned cues are more common than you think and are often the culprit when a dog is thought to be stubborn. One of the most common cues to be poisoned is “come.” We frequently call our dogs, and then do unpleasant things to them. We call them and give them a bath. We call them and put them in their crates. We call them when they are studying the various aromas of the Great Outdoors and then make them come in where it is boring. Dogs are very smart and live their lives by the mantra “What’s in it for me?” They quickly learn that “come” equals unpleasant things. If coming to you is not more rewarding than the cool stuff outside, many dogs are going to run the other way.

Poisoned cues can be very subtle, too. Do you punctuate the cue “sit” with a light tug on the leash?  Do you say your dog’s name when you are upset with him? I once had a client who frequently scolded her puppy, Sammy, using his name. She had not yet learned how to teach alternative behaviors or supervise her puppy, and was a frustrated new puppy owner. When we began training, I wanted to teach Sammy to make eye contact with his owner when she said his name. We started by clicking and rewarding when Sammy offered eye contact. Sammy was enjoying the training and doing very well at making eye contact. Then we added the cue: his name. The moment Sammy heard his name, he ran and hid under the couch. Poor Sammy thought he was in trouble every time he heard his name because of the many times he had heard, “Sammy, NO!”

When shopping for trainers, be sure to inquire about their methods of training before you sign on for classes. There are many trainers who will train a dog using positive methods, but feel that once the dog “knows” the behavior it is fine to punish the dog for not performing the behavior. Unfortunately, each of the cues taught this way will be poisoned. Not only will your dog not want to respond to the cues, but the training will become a vicious cycle—cue, no behavior, punishment, cue, no behavior, more punishment.

What to do with a poisoned cue

Now that you are looking for poisoned cues around every corner, here is some good news. Poisoned cues are fairly easy to fix. All you have to do is re-teach the behavior and add a new cue. It is very important to re-teach the behavior, as you cannot just transfer a poisoned cue to a new cue. Don’t worry—your dog will remember the behavior, so re-teaching will most likely happen pretty fast. Add that new cue and know that you have put your dog at ease by throwing out the poisoned cue. Be careful not to poison the new one!

Take some time to observe your dog in different circumstances. What is its body language like when relaxed, playing with you, playing with another dog, barking at the postman, walking through the park, getting a pat on the head, etc? What body language does your dog offer that can clue you in to its emotional state during these interactions? How high is the tail? Is it wagging slowly? Fast? How is your dog holding its ears? Is the dog licking its lips? Yawning?

As for Missy, Megan re-shaped the nose touch and taught Missy the cue “nose.” Megan’s bond with her dog is even stronger than before now that she is no longer patting her dog on the head. She has learned to watch Missy’s body language. Missy is once again happily touching Megan’s hand from across the room and enjoying every part of her training. 

-Rebecca Lynch, KPA CTP