Recall Games

I’m a huge believer in the work=play=work school of dog training. Which is why Silas thinks heeling is the wackiest game on the planet and pops from his down to his sit like a funny little rabbit.

Lately we’ve been doing one that works shockingly well. This is our recall game.

Silas burns most of his excess energy in these hot, park-less days by running around like a crazy upstairs with my husband. I try not to watch, honestly, because I’m pretty sure a lot of my personal dog-behavior rules get thrown completely out the window. Instead, I sit downstairs and listen. When it sounds like things are at their absolute craziest, I call Silas downstairs, give him a treat, and send him back upstairs.

There are three benefits. First, I interrupt playtime before it gets really out of hand. Secondly, I get to double-reward Silas for coming when he’s called. He knows that he can leave the thing that he really wants to do, get a treat, and the recall doesn’t end the fun. Third, this one of the most distracting situations I can possibly create to test his recall inside the house. The fact that he listens to me and leaves his favorite game is a big deal.

We do a version of the same thing at the park when we’re all out together with Silas on his long line. There, it’s kind of a triple fun, because he sprints back to me as fast as his little legs will carry him (running=fun), gets a toy or a treat (toy=fun), and then gets to run away again (running=fun).

It has an interesting side effect, too. Just now I tested it by calling him away from a squirrel outside. None of my neighbors are home during the day, so when he came to me, I gave him a cookie and sent him back to bark at the squirrel. Except, it wasn’t quite as fun. I called him back again, gave him another cookie, and sent him back a second time. Meh. After that, he trotted back into the house quite happy with himself. I was mostly using it as an opportunity to test his recall in a charged moment (my other criteria were very low–I was only four feet away, I wasn’t expecting the level of speed I usually do, and aside from the squirrel out patio is very boring), but it also completely diffused the situation.


Look at this:


Okay, so I used Flickr’s black and white filter to conceal that it’s a really bad photo, so you may not be able to tell what’s going on.

Let me narrate:

That is Silas, playing tug in the house. While he’s wearing his leash!

Last night I was planning to move to the quickly-clip-and-unclip-before-he-panics stage of training. So, we were playing the funnest game of all time, and I had his leash draped around my neck. I’ve been doing this a lot lately, to get him over “OMG, I see a leash!! What do I do?!” I clipped the leash on, less quickly and smoothly than I planned. And, nothing happened. He didn’t even flick an ear. So, I left it on, and we continued to play the funnest game of all time (which involves a Kong Wubba, tug, chase, and every obedience command he knows.) Today I tried it again, even though he feels pretty strongly that mornings are for napping, not playing. And he was fine.



Silas loves a good routine. He can usually figure these things out before I do, even–who gets up when, what time lunch is, when my husband comes home from work, what route we take through the park. Most dogs like routine, in fact, but it can be a bit of a double-edged sword.

We’ve been giving Silas a Kong around 5:30, when the neighborhood gets noisy. This is supposed to cut down on his barking. And it does, for the thirty minutes or so he has the Kong.

After four or five days, he came to expect the Kong.

After a week, he sits in his crate and cries if he doesn’t have it by 5:45.


The Gap

We’ve all read it a hundred times: just because your dog can “Sit” in your kitchen doesn’t mean you can expect him to do it in the park. Depending on how excitable your dog is, you may notice a slight dip in his speed or accuracy in performing cues.

Or, your dog may be perfect in the house, and then act like he’s never even seen you before when you leave home.

If you do your job in training, it is entirely possible to dramatically minimize the gap between “good” behavior in boring environments and “bad” behavior in distracting ones.

The trick to doing this is to gradually increase the level of distraction that your dog works around. Move to a different room in your house. Put a window slightly up. Have someone else bounce a ball. Open the door, if you have a fenced yard. Go work in the most boring section of your yard. When you find a level of distraction that gives your dog a little pause, stay there until it doesn’t, and then move on to something else.

I know how this works. Unfortunately, I’m pretty bad at doing it. Couple my fairly limited environment–this is not exactly a mansion with palatial grounds–with Silas’s random environmental issues, and we’ve tended to hit some hurdles.

At the same time that an uncertain or anxious dog has a different set of challenges in generalizing behavior, it’s also especially important. Anything I can do to convince Silas that the world works the same, no matter where we are, helps him. On the flip side, when your dog has a few . . . behavior quirks, a well-placed cue can be tremendously useful. If you can get the dog to listen.

I’m going to use the rest of my space here to brainstorm the next set of “distractions” for Silas, who is afraid of lots of things. We’re working on a heel/turn exercise that is designed to keep him out of trouble. Because this is expressly intended to be used in hard circumstances–a person who startles him, for instance, it needs to be solid. (He’s a little dog; I can physically remove him from situations. But that tends to add stress and negative associations, which will help intensify bad reactions.) My first challenge is that Silas completely shuts down if I try to use his leash indoors. You’ll see that there are some weird progressions here–for “average” dogs this list would look a lot different.

Walk With Me
–in house, no leash
–in house with me holding his leash
–increased distractions in house (work up to doing these while holding leash)
–toys on floor (move up from the boring toys)
–husband walking around
–food on floor
–husband bouncing ball
–add clip and unclip leash to previous order of distractions
–add clip/unclip AND hold leash to previous order of distractions
–garage, no leash
–front blinds open
–add dragging leash to previous indoor distractions (maybe look for a short tab leash.)
–Once I can hold the leash, add open front door
–Start working at the most boring part of the park
–Work in front yard
–Garage, leash
–More park
–Garage, leash, gradually work up to the door being open

Some of these will just be a quick check. Some of them will take serious work. I’m also working on the leash thing in other contexts, so hopefully that issue will fade soon. In the meantime, I’m also working on some of his “easy” behaviors, like a nose touch, to get him more used to listening to cues out in the world.

The World’s Worst Ice Tray

I bought Silas a freezer a few weeks ago. (This was before the behaviorist moved our appointment up by three weeks. Budgetary fail.) Turkey gets hard to find late in the summer, so I need room to carry a few more supplies. Right around Thanksgiving is the only time I can find organic turkey liver. Most importantly, I’d like to have room to freeze more than dog food and a lone pint of ice cream. I used to have room to keep practical things for the humans, like frozen pesto and extra pizza crusts and frozen seasonal produce.

Anyway, his freezer came with the dumbest ice tray ever. I think the ice tray in my kindergarten play kitchen was bigger.


My husband and I laughed and laughed. A whole deep freezer, and we get an ice tray that is maybe 2×8.

I put some yogurt in it on a whim. We don’t really need tiny ice.

And now I have the most awesome summer dog treats of all time.


That “terrible” tiny ice tray makes perfect 1″ cubes. Silas loves to eat ice, and he loves to eat yogurt. At that size, I don’t feel bad about giving him one or two a day, and it’s more interesting to him than just putting a spoon of yogurt in his dish.

I guess size isn’t everything.

Puzzle Toys and the Raw Diet

It’s pretty standard, although often ignored, advice to feed your dog from puzzle-type toys. Ian Dunbar is a big fan, and Silas’s behaviorist insisted on it. We need to use the parts of their brains that were built for foraging and for living in complex and changing environments. Personally, I’ve noticed that Silas does seem calmer on days when he’s done his Nina Ottoson Tornado Toy

or even just had a plain old Kong.

There are a lot of really great puzzle toys out there to this end. Unfortunately, many of them just don’t work if you can’t use kibble. I’m not sure that Silas’s Buster Cube (not to single them out; it’s a good toy) would have even held his old kibble, which was in pretty big pieces. His treats, which are all either big chunks or dry and powdery are out of the question, let alone his wet raw food.

I’m always on the lookout for a good solution. Here are some of the things I’ve come up with. Please feel free to recommend more!

1) Hide your dog’s food. If your dog is eating something that really just has to stay in a dish, hide the dish. Silas especially loves this one–“Where’s you’re [whatever]?” is one of his favorite phrases. Bonus points: this takes almost zero effort, which is why so far we’re mostly using it at breakfast.

2) Use a dehydrated food. I can get away with some of Silas’s puzzle toys if I crumble up freeze dried food. His big Kong Wobbler works this way, although it helps if I have something a little heavier to mix with it. The Wobbler has a quite large treat opening and is easy to take apart and wash. (I love Primal’s freeze dried food, because each cube is equivalent to one ounce. That makes it easy to substitute for a meal now and then, and Silas loves it.) You can also dehydrate plain meat or organs to use in a similar way; just keep track of the before/after weight so that you don’t overfeed. A pound of turkey hearts, for instance, dehydrates down to about four ounces.

3) Look for toys that don’t require your dog to knock treats out. The ones designed to be batted around are often harder to wash and usually rely on a tiny dispenser. His Tornado toy, in the video, is a series of little trays. They’ll hold Honest Kitchen food (which rehydrates to be like a thin canned food), anything ground or in reasonably small chunks, and even chunky treats that are too hard to break up. A lot of Nina Ottosson’s other toys are built on the same shape of compartment, so they should also work. Although, my husband washes all the dishes, and he was not pleased by this workaround. Make sure your toy isn’t too hard to wash before you fill it with raw meat.

4) Accept your limitations, and go for time rather than difficulty. Ground food or veggie mix packed into a Kong and frozen isn’t much of a brain teaser, but it does take your dog time and energy to eat. We’re also loving the Bionic’s take on the simple stuffable.

5) Do a different kind of puzzle. There are lots of hide-a-toy options on the market now. I’m especially fond of ones that aren’t stuffed, although toys like Hide-A-Squirrel are classics.

Kyjen Cagey Cube

This Kyjen Cagey Cube has been a big hit. Only the one hole is big enough for the tennis ball. The material is along the same lines as the JW Pets Holey Roller ball:

Holey Roller

which we’re about to break out for a similar purpose. These stretchy rubber shapes can be used to hide treats of any size (and now I’m having a vision of putting a turkey neck in one, LOL), but Silas is also quite happy to figure out how to remove a smaller toy from inside.

6) Create your own puzzles. One of our favorites is to rummage the “good stuff” out of the recycling bin. Hide treats, toys, or even your dog’s dinner among your boxes and clean plastic containers, then send the dog to “go find” them.

Does your dog like puzzles? What are your favorites?

Body Blocks and The Anxious Dog

I’m a little surprised at what seems to be the handiest thing the behaviorist taught us: the body block.

I’d read all about these, of course. They’re one of Patricia McConnell’s big things, and I love all of her work. But I’d never really used them. Here’s the gist of it:

Dogs control movement in their environment by managing space. Think about a herding dog–they very rarely touch the livestock. Instead, they walk around saying, with their body, “My space. Move along. My space.” A good herding dog can project and control a huge bubble of personal space. And, of course, she knows how to get the message across to a sheep who doesn’t get it. You also see this with “fun police” dogs at the dog park, who will wedge between other dogs to break up rowdy play.

McConnell is a huge fan of using the body block to teach stay. Silas already has a really good stay, though. (I’m linking to her videos about this at the bottom, because it’s very hard to explain the body block in words.)

At the behaviorist, and we learned two more really important applications of this.

First, you can use the body block to keep your dog out of your personal space. Pushy dog who wants to sit under your arm while you eat dinner? Keeps poking you with a toy? Tries to play tug while standing on your leg? Use the body block to get a little elbow room.

More importantly, you can use body blocking to keep your dog away from something. We did a lot of practice with me keeping Silas away from a huge lifelike stuffed dog. With practice and some quickness, you can become, in effect, a wall between your dog and anything that he shouldn’t be interacting with–a person he’s barking at, a dog you’d rather not meet, something out the window that he’s obsessing with, a suspicious item on the ground at the park.

What you’re actually doing in these cases is taking the space before your dog can. Imagine that there is something behind you that the dog shouldn’t have. The dog is facing you, and he really wants it. He steps forward to go around you. You step forward into that space. The dog backs off, and you do the same. Ideally, the dog will stay put, and you can praise/treat. If you have a dog like Silas, he will try to go around on the other side. You step to that side. And so on.

(Some caveats: space is an important resource to your dog. Don’t be a bully and keep putting pressure on. Use the tiniest movement that gets the reaction you need. For a sensitive dog, that might just be rocking slightly forward. Keep this interaction completely calm, quiet, and neutral. No hands, no feet. Also, use your good judgment about what your dog can handle emotionally before you try this, because dogs can read it as aggression.)

The thing that amazes me about this exercise is how fast it works. Because this is a dog thing, rather than a human-invented cue, they get it, on an instinctual level. This morning, Silas was having a fit over something out the patio door, probably a squirrel. I got between him and the door and stepped a little toward him. He backed up and tried to go around the side. I stepped to the side. He backed up, tried one more time, got blocked one more time. Then he walked away from the door and calmed down. He’s been known to grumble and obsess over things out the door for anything from five minutes to half an hour.

So, go forth and watch these two videos (the most relevant discussion of the body block happens at about the 3-5 minute mark in each, after a good intro in the first video).

Video 1

Video 2

I don’t believe those straight to video links are working; if not, go here and scroll down to “Teaching Stay.”

Happy to Oblige


I think one of the best reasons to go to training classes and such is that you get some outside perspective on your own dog. Especially if you don’t know a lot of dog people, it’s easy to miss things.

When Silas was a puppy, we went through obedience class. He was a nightmare. He spent the entire class straining at the end of his leash, with me desperately trying to get his attention. Smart, but too distracted to work, was the universal verdict. Which was the same verdict from obedience class, round two.

It’s a label that stuck with him, even in my own mind. I kept on training him at home. We went through Susan Garrett’s Recallers class. “This is fun, but he’ll never do any of this stuff in the real world,” I kept thinking. “He’s just so distracted.” I thought this even though I was, in actuality, starting to get great results with him. He will sit-stay for a frisbee, even at the park that scared him out of his little skin six months ago.

One of the things that came up in his behaviorist’s report, and that was clearly demonstrated in her office, is that he is, in fact, very happy to work. And you know, he really is. This afternoon I was training him to walk with me through the house, and he was just happy. So glad to have something in particular to do, even if it was something pretty boring. (I am forever grateful to Susan Garrett for this–her “balance break” style training has, I think, really made the most of his natural tendency.)

All the poor guy wants is a job. And I’ve spent most of his life thinking that there wasn’t any reason to give him one, because I assumed he wouldn’t be able to do it. Excuse me while I re-conceive everything we do together.


I went out last week and . . .

bought a bag of kibble.

My head almost exploded. Our last kibble was probably in April or May of 2012. Silas’s stomach was terrible. I was standing on my head trying to get him to eat. About that time the Stella and Chewy’s rep came through town. Their freeze-dried food was the first thing Silas had been excited to eat in more or less his entire life. That triggered our move to raw. When we figured out the food allergies, that made kibble off-limits. There was nothing on the market that Silas could eat, even if he would. (This has changed significantly in the last year. I think I could pick between three or four now.)

A few months back, Fromm put out their Pork and Peas kibble.

We live in a hurricane zone. Non-refrigerated food is essential to our emergency bag. Plus, Silas is really cut off from most food-dispensing toys, because the holes are kibble sized.

Final feelings about the Fromm are, unfortunately, a little mixed. I love the size. It’s the size I wish basically all training treats were. It will go into and out of even Silas’s small-sized Buster cube.

Fromm Pork and Peas

For treats, it is ridiculously economical. I’ve paid as much for four ounces of treats as I pay for four pounds of Pork and Peas. Since Silas thinks it is delicious (and this is a dog who hated kibble), it works great.

The down side is that Silas doesn’t digest it very well. I’m a little puzzled about why. A lot of dogs don’t do very well on pork, but Silas eats pork four or five meals a week. It could be one of the fruit or veggie ingredients, or it could be that Silas is just used to very, very simple bland food.

Either way, it’s handy to have around and I’m thrilled that it’s on the market.


When you live with a dog like Silas, there are a lot of things you give up. I used to go camping. I used to travel. We used to take fun weekend trips, or do crazy things like drive five hours to our favorite lunch place. I used to vacuum twice a week. (Oh, no, that one I never did.) I could go to the park anytime I wanted to. I didn’t even have to check the summer children’s camp schedule. The words “I wanna pet the doggie!” did not send a chill down my spine.

Back then, I fantasized about doing all of that stuff with a dog. How cute would it be, to take our dog camping? To sit on the patio of our favorite restaurant, with an adoring dog under the table. To go hiking, with my off-leash dog hanging out just ahead, or biking with my dog in one of those cute little trailers.

Needless to say, I didn’t get that dog.

But, you know what?

That dog is boring. The things I love the most about Silas are entirely and totally bound up in the things that make him a terrible lifestyle choice. He is hyper-vigilant and intense and whip-smart and needy and sweet and worried. None of those things are good, and none of those things are bad. They’re all both. You can’t have just the good side without the bad.

He is a lot of work. It’s good work, though. Life may be smaller in anxious-dog land, but it’s better than those free-wheeling days.