If you train with play rewards, you’ll eventually run into this: sometimes you need the dog to tug, and sometimes you need the dog to take a cookie. Stationary behaviors are obviously best-trained with treats, and for us most very-new behaviors also work better that way.

The problem with this is that your dog will prefer one of these things to the other. Some people struggle more or less forever to get a dog who is happy to play as a reward. The minority of us have dogs who prefer play, especially in tough mental environments. For almost any dog, switching between these in the moment is HARD.

I’ve been working on retraining our fetch, because Silas has started to do the dreaded drive-by. Or, even worse if you do competitive obedience, the dreaded “I’m gonna stand here and chew on the toy for a minute before I come back.” As with all things, when you have a wickedly smart dog, this is totally my fault. His fetch got a lot worse when I started using tug to work on some body-handling issues, which were (in hindsight) more aversive for him than I realized. When the reward is not actually rewarding, your behavior will get sloppy.

Our sticky place in the retrieve is toy–>hand. So, last night I sat down in the floor for a little retraining of that. Which is when I realized anew that Silas is the perfect dog for training.

The *exact* details of what we were doing are ripped straight out of a Susan Garrett class, so I can’t post too much. But, I can still brag. Silas will put the toy in my hand, take a treat, and then immediately take the toy back. This is crazy hard.

So I decided to push the envelope. He was hungry, so I put a few kibbles on the floor. Would he take the thing I offered (the tug) or the thing he really wanted (the kibbles)?

Let’s just say we’re going to be working on this one a little longer, maybe when he’s not quite so hungry. The first time he did beautifully. The second time he skirted around my leg to steal the cookies, where I had moved them when he was too worked up to take the tug.

Still, it almost makes up for the full-on meltdown he had over a cat yowling in the middle of the night. This is good stuff.

The Mighty Hunter

Whatever mix of mutts Silas is, somewhere in there is a really good hunting dog. He doesn’t have the temperament for real-world hunting, but he definitely has the skills. He’s especially good at treeing squirrels and at finding things.

Alas, Silas lives with a pair of more-or-less vegetarians in a townhouse in a very large city. We do chase the odd squirrel at the park, but that’s as far as it goes.

There is one time, though, that Silas’s instincts as a mighty hunter get put to work.

Killing flies.

It goes like this: Silas leaps up, eyes fixed on something.

I look up, and see that there is a fly. I go to the laundry room, and get the fly swatter.

Silas, quivering with anticipation, tracks the fly through the house. He’ll do this for fifteen minutes if he has to. Truthfully, it wouldn’t take me so long if he helped just a little less.

Finally, I swat the fly and show him its little dead body.

He dances with joy.

When I say he’s very good at this, I am not joking. Last night, the fly made a futile attempt to hide from Silas under the bookcase, where it met its fate in a spiderweb. I lost track of the fly, so I asked Silas to find it. He immediately started pawing the ground in front of the bookcase. I didn’t believe him–what kind of fly goes under a bookcase?–but when I finally looked, there it was.

It’s too bad we only get one or two flies a month.

Sunny Side

Tuesday Silas had a rough day in the park. For whatever reason, he spent the entire trip looking like this:

ears back

If you have a tall-eared dog, you’ve seen these ears before and you know they’re not good. We call them “the anxiety ears.” The closer they are to touching in the back, the worse Silas is feeling.

Afterwards, I was pretty down about the whole thing. I couldn’t even get Silas to take a cookie. This was a familiar environment, on a lovely day, at a regular park-going time. He’d had his medication, eaten his meals, and even gotten in the car better than he has been lately. There were a few people around, but nothing that particularly upset Silas. It was just . . . a bad day for him. It’s been a while since we had a bad day at the park, and I wasn’t really prepared for it.

Many hours later, though, I realized the sunny side. Silas was basically one step from a meltdown, but he didn’t bark at one person. Not even the person who stopped in the trail to do stretches, or the person who got out of their car right as we walked up. This is huge, considering that there were a good many more people out than we usually see. Even better, before I realized quite how stressed he was, I cued him to walk beside me, and he was able to do it for a few steps at a time, with no reward of any kind. After a lot of hard work, that cue is getting close to having real-world value.

So, while I’m still a little bummed that he had such a rough day (I’m blaming the wind. For real.), there’s a sunny side.

Dog Books

I recently fixed my blog’s backlog of “Uncategorized” posts (why does the categories thing have to be so out of the way, wordpress?), and it reminded me that I used to review a lot of books.

Honestly, I haven’t read a dog book in a very long time.

I don’t like stories about dogs, because the dog usually dies in the end. It is the most concrete end to a dog tale, I guess. But I can’t handle it. I see a dog in a movie, and I’m immediately clicking over to http://doesthedogdie.com. Yeah, I’m that girl. I’m already predisposed to sob copiously over books. The last thing I need is a reason.

Dog training books fascinated me for a while. Then I learned what kinds of things worked for my own dog. The increasing gap between what I was seeing on the page (clickers, cookies, structured repetitions) and the things that worked for me (limited clicker, fewer cookies, less structure, more games) started to bother me. The truth is, after a while you learn what makes your own dog tick and you stop needing to have your hand held.

More importantly, I think that for people with fearful or anxious dogs the linear dog training narrative can be terribly pernicious. None of them matched my actual experience, which was–and is–something more like a roller coaster.

That said, there are dog books that I really do still trust and use a good bit and recommend to people. In no particular order:

Everything by Patricia McConnell. If you can borrow a copy of her DVDs, they’re very useful, but I wouldn’t buy them unless you learn much better through visual presentations.

Nicole Wilde, Help for Your Fearful Dog. This is an enormous book, filled with the basics of dog psychology and counterconditioning plans for basically everything ever. Most books about dog fear are really about dog-dog reactivity, which wasn’t our problem, so this book was a nice change. There’s also a useful section on psychiatric treatments, both conventional and alternative.

Leslie McDevitt, Control Unleashed. This book is an organizational disaster, and a lot of the information is only good for a classroom. BUT, the stuff that is good is so, so good. If you have a “problem” dog, it’s worth it.

Pat Miller, The Power of Positive Dog Training. This is the classic clicker+cookie book, but Miller is a genius at breaking behaviors down into teachable steps. If you’re new to dogs or to positive training, you should buy this book, especially if you want to teach tricks.

Jane Killion, When Pigs Fly. Killion starts a step back from other training books. How do you teach a pig-headed dog to be teachable? So refreshing.

Ian Dunbar, After You Get Your Puppy. I hate this book, I love this book. The best resource I’ve seen on puppy socialization, but I wish someone would write a less ornery version. Dunbar feels like he needs to be contrarian to get his point across, which sometimes frightens people away from taking his EXTREMELY IMPORTANT advice.

Lew Olson, Raw and Natural Nutrition for Dogs. If you look back at my review, you’ll see some caveats about this book, but it’s the best book-resource I found for dog nutrition.

Susan Garrett’s Crate Games DVD is not a book, but it’s still a great resource. You’ll see some of her work+play methodology in action, which was a huge breakthrough for us. She has actual books, but I do not care for them and find them to be fairly non-representative of her teachings.

Suzanne Clothier, Bones Would Rain From the Sky. Clothier’s wonderful heart taught me more than I could even recognize at the time. Don’t look for concrete training advice, but a really poignant discussion of the bond we have, should have, or could have with our dogs. If you like my sappy posts, you should read this book.

Honorable mention: Grisha Stewart, Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Fear, Frustration, and Aggression in Dogs. BAT is one of the few “new” things I’ve seen in the fearful dog repertoire, and I think it is great. I’m putting the book down here only because (ahem) I haven’t actually read it. I’ve just absorbed the tactic from videos and elsewhere. Grisha Stewart is, from what I’ve seen, one of the most thoughtful, compassionate people in dog training right now.

Do you read dog books? Have a favorite that didn’t make my list? Let me know in the comments!

Open Hearted

When Silas was a puppy, I was determined that he should be a model dog. I started teaching him “sit” and “down” when he was six weeks old. Not long after that, I printed out the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen requirements. I read all the books. I made all the spreadsheets. We went to all the classes. We were going to be a beacon of good dog-ness. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was going to be better than all those other dog owners.

It took me a long time to realize that Silas wasn’t a high-functioning, naturally social dog. It took me even longer to realize that, while we could work on his coping skills, I couldn’t really, truly change his basic personality. Not only that, but because of the particular ways and means of his dysfunction, I couldn’t even try again with another dog. Resentful brain said, “I’m stuck with this neurotic dog who can’t even go for a walk for the next fifteen years. I wanted a dog who could do things.”

What can I say? I love rules. I love following rules. I love for other people to follow the rules. Silas doesn’t work that way. Learning to accept that has been really, really hard for me. As is true for most people who love rules and have had fairly successful lives, making allowances for others, even dogs, doesn’t come easily to me.

Over time, I’ve let go of it being all about me. (Mostly.) Sometimes I look at Silas, panicking over something that doesn’t exist, and I am broken hearted for him. I’m reminded of how brave he has to be just to live his very narrow little life. The world is so hard for him.

I don’t see myself, anymore, as a vehicle for teaching him THE RULES. We aren’t paragons. I don’t get to flaunt how I’m better than other dog owners. My role in his life is to intercede between him and the world. To do what needs to be done, whether that’s giving up on walks, hiding from strangers at the park, never EVER having people over, or letting go of that Good Citizen award. He’s not a lump of clay that I can shape however I want; he is a creature who desperately needs my care. I won’t lie and say that it’s always easy, or that some days I don’t still resent it. Learning important lessons is hard and gross and progress is uneven.

I love my little broken, high-strung dog more than I ever thought possible. I don’t want to reduce him to something that he has taught me. But he is certainly teaching it.


Dear Blog Readers:

I have some things I need to get off my chest.

1) I told you that I would come back and review Merle’s Door. I lied. I read a little over half of it, and then suddenly I was filled with a deep and powerful rage/nausea. I returned it to the library and I try not to think about it.

2) I told my husband that I would make all of Silas’s dog treats to help offset the cost of his behaviorist expenses. There are four kinds of store-bought treats on my refrigerator right now.

3) Even though I’m unemployed, I find it impossible to stay on schedule with my blog reader and do anything during the day except sit in front of my computer. I love you all a lot. I’m still reading your blogs. I’m trying a new commenting schedule, so let’s hope it works.

4) I worry that you all only read the first and maybe last paragraph of my blog posts. I talk a lot.

5) I will never be a famous blogger, because I am EARNEST and SINCERE. But also, see #3, #4, and the fact that I published two posts last week with crazy italics formatting.

6) I signed up for an account at Petsmove.org, and I’m so bad at taking Silas for walks that I actually forgot the name of the website.

7) In my defense, Silas won’t walk from home, and these days it takes a solid ten minutes of terrified trembling before he’ll get in the car. (If you have deep insights into dog psychology, please share. He’s perfectly fine as soon as he gets in.) So do the math: at least ten minutes to get ready. Ten minutes to soothe Silas’s feelings and get him in the car. Ten to fifteen minutes to drive to the closest decent park. Silas prefers his walks in the half-hour range. Then ten to fifteen minutes driving back home. If he’s happy with fetch on the stairs for his everyday exercise, so am I.

8) I donated two leashes, a collar, and two harnesses to a local charity this week. They all violently clash with each other and are mostly made for different sized dogs.

9) My kitchen smells like canned tripe.

10) I’ve never really really LOVED this blog design, and I’m becoming convinced that the type is too small. Is it too small? Or is my laptop too small?

Anything you need to confess?

Know When To Walk Away

Silas’s favorite park in the UNIVERSE!! is actually a terrible park for dogs.

The paths are narrow, and there is either heavy underbrush or water on both sides of the trail.


For example.

Those narrow trails make it really hard to meet people or dogs. They come around blind corners, and you have no choice (unless you get lucky and are in a rare clearing) but to meet them head on. This is setting dogs, especially, up for disaster. Let two dogs, even dogs who are decent with other dogs, walk directly toward each other in a confined environment, and somebody is likely to react.

It took me a long time to learn to trust my instincts and to not worry about other people’s feelings in situations like this. If I’m meeting your dog head on, and he’s not 100% friendly (by my judgment, not yours), I’m going to do what I think is necessary. Silas is on the skittish-but-okay side with other dogs, and I’d like him to not collect evidence that other dogs are terrible.

Tuesday we met a little Schnauzer. When we were still quite a distance away little Schnauzer let out a little bark. Just one. And I instantly turned around and walked as fast as my legs would carry me back to the last trail junction, where Silas and I could wait for them to pass. (Bless Silas’s heart, he was so good. He walked right away, stayed with me without stopping, and then stood with me on the “scary” trail.)

It probably hurt Schnauzer “mom’s” feelings or embarrassed her. I know how women are. But I didn’t have time to explain, to blame the design of the park. I didn’t think her dog was going to attack Silas. We weren’t afraid of him. But you have to do what you have to do, and sometimes avoidance is really the best thing.


I’m going to jump right in and make some waves today.

I don’t like front clip harnesses.

To backpedal, slightly, I’ll say that I think they’re much better than any other mechanical means of teaching good leash behavior. Even if you’re a fan of prong or slip collars (which I am not) you have to admit that almost everyone who uses one is using it wrong. I mean, I saw a dog on a prong collar and a flexi-lead last weekend. Huh?

My problems are three-fold. First, I think they’re naturally a bad harness design. We’ve had two models, and on both of them you have to be ridiculously attentive to keep the leash out from under the dog’s legs. Maybe with taller dogs that’s less true. Second, on every one I’ve seen (and trust me, I’ve looked at a lot of them) the belly strap sits right behind the dog’s front legs. If you have a short-haired dog, your dog is going to experience a lot of friction on the tender skin under his front legs. And, while we’re at it, that harness construction is very easy for a dog to back out of, especially if the leash is clipped to the front. If you have your dog in a front-clip harness because he tends to panic, you’d better be using a backup connector of some kind.

I also don’t think they work all that much better at teaching good leash behavior than any other method. We used one with Silas when he was a puppy, and it taught him to walk exactly at the end of his leash. This put us in a bad training situation. He technically wasn’t pulling, but he was obviously not doing what we really wanted, either. Obeying the letter of the law, if you will. To get right down to it, no training aid is a substitute for actual training. Loose leash walking is a sign of a human and a dog who are on the same page, and you can’t fake it. If that’s what you want, you’re going to have to work for it.

Now, to really scandalize all of the positive-only trainers out there who promote front clip harnesses. I think front clip harnesses are more aversive than people realize. They’re no prong collar, and they’re better than letting a dog choke and gag pulling against a collar. Still, they aren’t comfortable. They chafe your dog’s underarms. Some models buckle very low in the front, which can inhibit your dog’s natural gait. And, what was really the last straw for me the last time I used ours, the heavy leash clip slaps against your dog’s chest every time he takes a step. Unless he’s pulling the leash tight, that is, which is a conflicting training message if I’ve ever seen one. Not to over-anthropomorphize, but how crazy would that make you? Have you ever backpacked with a poorly-fitted pack, or hiked in pants that rubbed? Did you have a good time?

I’m not saying that they’re wrong for every dog in every case. Some of the problems Silas has with his harness wouldn’t even be noticed by a dog with thicker hair, which is almost every dog. Small women who walk large or strong dogs may really need the extra leverage you get with a front-clip. It takes monumental patience to teach a dog wearing a back-clip harness not to pull. I know. I did it, and I had many an internal temper-tantrum doing it. There are many poorly designed back-clip harnesses out there, too. I’m really uncomfortable with front-clips becoming the “no brainer” default recommendation, though.