The Missing Piece of Our Training

I never made September goals. Even if I don’t always post my monthly goals here, I’ve usually made them.

September has been a big blank, though.

It’s not that we aren’t doing anything. We’re working on Silas’s retrieveI’ve been doing some foot target shaping. We’ve been walking our tiny sidewalk walk.

Still, I want something else, and I’ve been struggling to articulate it.

I’ve been putting off making my goals, waiting for this missing piece to click in. For two weeks, my mind has been spinning and whirling, but not really getting anywhere.

Today I realized that I’m not dealing with an intellectual problem. It’s not that I can’t prioritize my training plan. It’s not that I need to review another book before I decide what to do, or ask more advice from my more experienced friends.

The missing piece?


We’ve gone from one issue to the next this summer. While we’re in a good place now, it’s been a slog from time to time. We had the car thing, and while I was distracted by that I let some of Silas’s old-reliable indoor behaviors go to pot, and then as I started to get those in order his stomach problems flared up. It’s easy to think about a dog like Silas as just a collection of problems to be solved, but that really destroys all of the good stuff in your life. You can’t have a great relationship with a collection of problems. You can only have a great relationship with an individual.

So, finally, my real goals: to have some fun with my dog, and to focus on the joy in our relationship. That may look like dog training–Silas loves dog training–but it may not, and either is great.

Find Your Joy

Product Review: Salty Dog Canvas Toys

I don’t review a lot of products here anymore. We have a pretty comprehensive collection of well-made, long-lasting toys. Silas doesn’t eat a lot of new foods. I try my best not to buy him things just to buy them.

At the beginning of August I ran across an entire new toy company, though, and I couldn’t resist.

Salty Dog Canvas is a small Canadian company. The owner learned industrial sewing making boat sails and awnings, then got sucked into the world of dog sports. Now she makes amazing dog toys, entirely from North American components.

I bought two of them:

Salty Dog Canvas toys

(Yes, my photo backdrop is covered in dog hair.)

I love these toys. Both of the ones I bought are a Planet Dog toy attached to a bungee handle. I am a big fan of Planet Dog. Alas, we play all of our fetch indoors, which means that rubber balls either bounce into or roll under something they shouldn’t. Attach that same ball to a bungee handle, though, and it can’t roll under the sofa.

The more tug we play, the more sold I am on the bungee tug. When you have a smaller dog and slippery floors, it’s easy for you to do all of the tugging work, while the dog just holds on and slides around. A tug toy with some stretch not only offers you some shock absorption, but it also guarantees that the dog does his share. You really want that pull back in order to get the strength and balance benefits of playing tug. If you have a larger dog, I suspect that the same dynamic works the opposite way. Unlike some wimpier toys we’ve tried, these have a good, strong stretch.

I should also mention that the nylon handles on these are much more comfortable to hold than our other toys. This is a high quality fabric, with none of those scratchy nylon edges.

I wouldn’t leave these around for the dog to access unsupervised. These particular Planet Dog toys are not rated for extensive chewing, although Salty Dog does use some of their stronger toys in other models, and any determined dog could cut through the nylon handle. I have to be particularly careful with the  raspberry model, because Silas thinks the berries would be a lot more awesome without the handle. That said, they’re showing zero wear so far from vigorous tug games.

For those crunchers out there, Salty Dog also makes great faux-fur pockets for water bottles on a similar stretch handle. In fact, no matter what your dog is obsessed with (tennis balls, squeakers, braided fleece), Salty Dog probably makes a toy they would like. For good or for ill, that includes a small number of real fur toys.

I bought our Raspberry and Orbee toys at a small retail store in Canada, but the website does ship to the US.

Bottom line: a big hit.


Dog training based in corrections uses a lot of punishment to stop “bad” behavior. You ask the dog to sit, and he doesn’t sit? Punishment time. The goal is to decrease the behavior of not sitting when asked. (Very old-fashioned training will also use the cessation of punishment as a reinforcement, like releasing an ear pinch when the dog does the desired behavior, but that’s beyond my scope here.)

We “positive” trainers think of ourselves as doing something else. We don’t issue leash corrections, we give cookies! We celebrate when the dog gets it right!

But, do we?

In my clicker-based obedience classes, all of the student questions were still quite negative. “How can I get my dog to stop counter surfing?” “I don’t want my dog to jump up. What do I do?” “I need my dog to stop pulling on the leash!”

Speaking from the behavioral science perspective, you cannot reward your way to stopping a behavior. A reward, by definition, increases behavior. Punishment is what decreases behavior.

As long as you think of your dog’s behaviors as something that need to be stopped, you are living in a punishment-based world. It’s possible that you can live in this world without actually using a lot of punishment. You can stop counter surfing with a baby gate. You can stop jumping by turning away from the dog. You can stop leash pulling with a front-clip harness. At the end of the day, though, you’re like a tourist getting by with gestures because you don’t speak the language. You might get the point across, but nobody is going to enjoy it. (Let’s be clear: sometimes management of a behavior is important for the dog’s safety, in which case, manage away.)

To be a really, truly, positive dog trainer, you have to think about things in positive ways. 

The statement cannot be “I don’t want this behavior”; it absolutely must be “I do want this behavior.”

Quite simply, reinforcement increases behavior. If you want to use reinforcement, you have to be focused on a behavior that needs to increase.

It’s all very easy and logical on paper. It’s harder to do in practice, when your dog is doing something that is driving you around the bend. Looking for what we do want also goes against the natural human tendency. As a species, we’re fantastic problem solvers, which means that we do tend to dwell on things that need to be “fixed.” Shifting your mindset will open up a million training possibilities, though, including solutions for all of those “bad” behaviors. It’s worth the work.

I used our first good car trip to go to the vet

In April Silas started refusing to get in the car. All summer, my husband and I have been working with him. We went on dozens of “happy” trips as a family, because Silas was more comfortable with both of us. A few weeks ago, I took him to the park solo, and it was just a little premature. He started off happy to go, then balked at the last minute and had to be really encouraged to get on in the car. So I haven’t taken him again. Instead, we’ve done a few more happy family trips.

At the same time, Silas’s stomach has been pretty bad for the last few weeks. He has a vaguely diagnosed underlying stomach problem, separate from his food allergies. His vet thinks it’s acid reflux, and she seems confident enough in this diagnosis that we’ve never done additional tests. He wakes up and doesn’t want to eat, then he feels bad because he didn’t eat. Some days, but not often, he’ll throw up.

It comes and goes in phases. For some reason, it seems to pick up whenever we’re doing more training. I don’t know if the connection is my imagination, if having too many rich training treats upsets his stomach, or if Silas is just naturally regulating his calorie intake and upsetting his stomach in the process.

When I looked back at my records this morning, I realized that he’s eaten breakfast two times in the last two weeks. He’s also been basically sleeping 23.5 hours a day. His Whistle reported 12 minutes of activity yesterday, and 15 the day before.

I’ve been really, really hesitant to take him to the vet, because I didn’t want to “ruin” the car. But, enough was enough, and he had to go.

He leapt into that car like he’s never even thought of being terrified by it. I, on the other hand, felt like the biggest jerk in the history of jerks.

It was a good vet visit. Silas was nervous, but all things considered he’s a champ at the vet. He walked into the exam room and tried to jump up on the table. Lots of stress signals during his exam (lip licking, ears down, panting), but he was a good patient. No barking or teeth showing or anything. Then he jumped all over the vet, licked her face, and tried to make her hold him. (Seriously? He doesn’t even try to make me hold him.)

He also ate his weight in hypoallergenic veterinary diet cookies. According to the vet, no dog has ever liked those cookies, and here’s my picky eater with the nausea problem chowing down. Oh, Silas.

The verdict is that his acid reflux is, indeed, all that’s wrong. He’s not losing weight, he’s very rarely throwing up, his teeth are “amazing,” and his physical exam didn’t seem off in any way.

We’re going to try to give his Pepcid last thing at night, since he won’t take it in the morning, and see if that gets him through the morning blerghs. I’m also going to change up his training cookies to something a little easier on his stomach.

And maybe, if I’m very lucky, he’ll get in the car with me again one day.

Advocating for your dog

Silas is a deceptive little creature. He’s generally interested in other people and dogs, but his reactions tend to change quickly once things get too close.

This means that strangers think he wants to be petted. Right up until he starts barking at them, that is, and they act like my dog is a hell creature.

The problem is that this belief is so strong that I have difficulty overriding it. We get a lot of scenarios like this:

Stranger: “Can I pet your dog?”

Me: “He’s really not good with new people.”

Stranger: “Oh, but dogs love me!”


Me: “He’s very shy.”

Stranger: “He doesn’t look shy to me!” (reaches down to pet Silas, gets barked at.)

It’s exhausting. Why can people not listen to me?!

Sleeping Silas

The problem with my statements in both of these cases is that the stranger thinks I’m asking for help. Their magical abilities with dogs will help Silas be less afraid of new people. Their petting will override his shyness. My dog has a behavioral problem that they think they can help me fix.

Once I realized this, I changed my tactics.

Me: “If you pet him, he will bark at you.”

Stranger: “Well, he sure is cute.” (Goes on about their business.)

It turns out, people are a lot less likely to ignore your objections when the consequences are clearly explained.

What Happens if the Dog Gets it Wrong?

I’ve been watching a lot of World Dog Training Motivation Transparency Challenge videos this morning. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s an idea from the very wise Jean Donaldson. Dog training has picked up so many coy terms for punishment that it can be hard to tell when a trainer is using even heavy-handed aversive methods. So, Jean Donaldson created this set of questions (roughly paraphrased here) that should be asked to clarify any trainer’s position:

1) What happens if the dog gets it right?
2) What happens if the dog gets it wrong?
3) Is there a less invasive way to proceed?

Professional and amateur dog trainers have been posting videos explaining their stance on these three questions and challenging each other to do the same.

I’ll post the videos I watched this morning below, all of which are from trainers I respect:

First, Grisha Stewart. Her incredible sympathy for reactive/fearful dogs has been an inspiration for me, and her answer to the last question is really wonderful:


Second, Michael Baugh, whose video wins for beautiful production values + sound dog training:


Third, Thomas Mitchell, a great up-and-coming dog trainer from the UK. You may have heard of the Absolute Dogs Training Academy that he runs with Lauren Langman. Tom gets bonus points for fitting the Premack principle into his discussion of rewards (and for chopping off his head in the video, because I always do that, too.)


Finally, I also love Eileen’s video (from Eileen and Dogs), for general awesomeness and for acknowledging that we do stupid things and sometimes need professional help:


What I found most interesting in these videos was their answer to “What happens when the dog gets it wrong?” The answers vary slightly in their specificity, but the general theme is that if the dog makes a mistake it is your fault for asking too much, and we shouldn’t do this.

Let me just say: I agree with the first part of that. I’m not so sure about the second. In fairness, I absolutely believe these trainers would give more nuanced answers over a cup of coffee in a chat with an experienced dog person, and some of them do give more details. The whole point of the Dog Trainers’ Challenge is that it is intended for the general public. So, I’m using my luxury of space and audience here to ruminate.

Is constant success our goal?

If you really want a dog to be successful 100% of the time, you can arrange that. It’s absolutely important to remember both that we can help our dogs succeed and that we can inadvertently make them fail. The more carefully you think about the demands of your training environment, including things like distractions, the better off you’ll be.

But when was the last time you played a game you could always win? If you completed every level of Candy Crush on the first try, would you still be playing it? If every slot machine turned up a jackpot on every pull (and thus could only pay back exactly what you put in), would casinos even exist?

I’m not saying that you should constantly overwhelm your dog, but dog training with zero challenges is boring. Your dog is smarter than you think, and you’ll never know that if you’re obsessed with always setting the dog up to succeed.

As positive trainers, we can let failure be a big bogeyman. “I don’t know what to do if my dog makes a mistake! I can’t correct him?!” The key is to have a plan. Before you start training, ask yourself what you’re going to do if, within the context of this exact training moment, your dog makes the wrong choice. You’ll find that you have more options than you think.

Where We Are Now


(No, Silas is not at Niagara Falls. I was there briefly on one of my recent trips, and I hated to post three times in a row with no photos.)

I find the record-keeping aspect of this blog to be the most personally useful for me, even if it isn’t the most fascinating reading. So, excuse me while I ruminate on our current status.

The Big Picture
Silas is doing extremely well. He’s handling environmental stress (things like noise) much better. He seems happier and more relaxed most of the time, and small mistakes don’t have the enormous fallout they used to. For instance, the tree trimmer came while I was out of town in early August, and Silas was only extra-paranoid for a few days.

With that said, here are some individual updates:

Instead of barking twelve or fifteen times a day, he might bark at one thing every two or three days. He still reacts strongly to the doorbell (my fault for losing my Relaxation Protocol mojo), which has extended to include barking at the UPS truck idling outside. He barks at some dog noises from outside. He will alert to people noises outside, but he rarely barks at them. I expected a big uptick in barking once school started back, but I haven’t seen it so far.

He’s walking on the sidewalk almost every day now. This walk is still only 1-2 minutes long, because he always walks the same route. I’m trying creative ways to get him to go a little further. Last night we met my husband on his way home from a bike ride, which got Silas to 1) go back out our front gate once he was already inside and 2) go about five feet further than he usually goes. He was also a little happier. We may try that again. I made an ill-considered attempt to take him to the busier side of the park on Labor Day weekend. It was still way too much. We left quickly, but he didn’t ever panic.

His car riding is really much better. On Saturday he quite happily got in with me, even when he thought my husband wasn’t coming. That’s a step up from when I took him to the park last, which was a little touch and go. Once the weather cools off a bit I’m going to resume regular park trips with him, which will be our real test.

General training has totally gone to pot this summer. We made the rookie mistake of thinking of his training as “exercise.” You know what’s wrong with that? You exercise a dog until he’s tired and stops. The activity itself is gradually less fun, until the dog decides he’s done with it. Every day, you practice “this is boring and I’m done.” Our retrieve has gone from pretty good to “What? Bring the ball back? Nah.” Even Susan Garrett’s Recallers games, which Silas knows and generally loves, have been a huge bust lately. But we’re working on it.

A new cloud on my horizon is stranger reactivity. We’ve been very careful to walk Silas when there aren’t any people on the sidewalk, so that he doesn’t have any additional stress. (My neighborhood is very predictable.) Too careful. Silas has never liked people to be in unexpected places or to be doing things he doesn’t think of as “normal.” On the trail in the park, for instance, is okay, but if someone is standing off in the bushes they have to be barked at. So now he barks at every person we see on the sidewalk, unless they have a dog. People aren’t supposed to be on the sidewalk! This doesn’t seem to be generalizing to other environments–we even spoke to a lady at the park this weekend–but I need to watch out for it.