Dogs and Gardens

Spring is finally here and what better way to spend time with your dog than taking up gardening. I find that gardening is a wonderful way not just to relax, but also to spend time with my dogs.

Woman in wheelchair with a smooth collie

Veronica and Sulu enjoy a spring day admiring the gardens at River farm.

How can dogs appreciate gardening? Well it’s simple, dogs love spending time outdoors without pressure, just sniffing, exploring, running and relaxing. So often when we are out with our dogs, we are thinking about “doing,” but it’s really important to spend time with your dog simply appreciating your dog for who he is and enjoying life together. Enjoy watching your dog chase a butterfly, notice an interesting scent, sunbathe or dig a hole. Enjoy admiring and engaging with nature yourself too.

If you have a black thumb, go hiking instead, explore a local vineyard or spend time outdoors reading a book in a park while your dog enjoys a long lasting chew with you. Relationship building is the most important part of dog ownership and all too often in our busy “doing” focused lives, we overlook this most important, critical piece.

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Rehabilitation and Responsibility

I was a teenager when I learned about the importance of safe management. My first dog, Cupid (hey I was 17 when I named him) did not like unfamiliar dogs. I spent almost every penny I earned through my part time job as a video store clerk on dog training lessons. I did many things wrong in those early days, but there was one thing I did right from the start and it was management.

It was tough to live with a dog like Cupid. Here in the DC metro area it can be impossible to avoid close proximity situations with unfamiliar dogs. I was always checking to make sure gates were latched and that my leashes were in good working order. When I first started working with him around dogs, I used a muzzle and I kept a wide distance away from other dogs. I also carried a dog spray deterrent – which I considered “last resort.” I never wanted my choice to keep a dog that had a potential for exhibiting aggressive behavior to result in a bad experience to someone else’s pet. I cared for all dogs, even those that were not my own. No dog deserved to be injured or scared even if the owner had done something silly like allowing their dog to rush up into my dog’s face.

Cupid ended up living for a little over 14 years. He never sent another dog to the vet and animal control never ended up on my doorstep. After years of ongoing training – yes it took years – he passed the AKC Canine Good Citizen and several different therapy dog tests including Delta Pet Partners. I learn a lot from each dog I have owned, but Cupid probably taught me the most. As hard as those life lessons were, I was lucky to have him.


Veronica (19-ish in this photo) and Cupid. Check out the pepper spray on her hip, it was a gift from the local mail carrier who wanted to help her stay safe as she worked with Cupid. Pepper spray is not legal everywhere now (in DC in particular), we suggest citronella spray instead to our clients.






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March Comes in Like a Lion

The coming weekend weather, Sunday, looks wonderful here in the DC metro area. It might just be that first warm weather weekend day of spring. I know I can count on one thing: Monday and Tuesday I and many of my colleagues will be fielding a lot of the same calls – “my dog got into a fight at a dog park.”

So I’m going to pro-actively post a PSA in the hope (perhaps wishful thinking) that it will get out there:

1. Skip the dog park Sunday. Please. Really it’s going to be packed in with a ton of dogs that have been cooped up all winter and newly adopted dogs that their owners know nothing about. If you absolutely must go to a dog park, go during the week during a non peak time or go Saturday when they are calling for rain.

2. Consider one of the other million wonderful things to do on Sunday with your dog that does not involve uncontrolled play with other dogs you know nothing about.

3. Be polite – no dog or person for that matter wants to be rushed up to by an unfamiliar dog. Don’t let your dog be a canine close talker.

Have fun and happy spring!

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Setting the Stage for a Happy and Well Behaved Dog

So often my clients tell me that their dog behaves much better at my home office than the dog does in their home. I would love to say that I have a special gift and all dogs within a quarter mile of me behave well, but it’s so much simpler than that. I simply set the stage for good behavior.

When a client brings their dog into my home, we typically start by making sure the dog has relieved himself outdoors. Then we tether the dog and provide a long lasting chew and begin rewarding desired, calm behavior with petting and treats.  For short coated dogs, I provide a comfortable blanket or bed. In the appointment we mix things up. We work with the dog, we play a game and take breaks as needed. If the dog is really stressed, we might use a doggie relaxer like a body wrap or calming odor like lavender or DAP. In short, we set the dog up for success.

It really is not that hard to create a home environment that is conducive to appropriate dog behavior in most cases. Most dogs do well with:

1. Structure and organization

2. Routines that are predictable

3. Opportunities for both bursts of activity as well as quiet rest throughout the day

4. Access to outdoor, natural environments

I can already hear apartment dwellers and parents say, there is no way I can provide this for my dog. Truth is, it may require a little bit of creativity but most people can find ways to provide this for their dogs. It may simply be a matter of relocating a crate to a quieter location in the home, purchasing an extra hamper for that teenager that loves to leave socks everywhere he goes, or contacting a friend who has a fenced backyard they would be happy to let your dog play in in exchange for some help with gardening.

All too often when we think of our dog’s training issues, we really are not thinking about the fact that they are totally reliant on us. They do not have a choice for where they live and how they spend their time. Many behavior problems and challenges are really just the result of the dog being stressed, frustrated or being placed in a situation where almost any dog would be triggered to behave badly. We owe it to our dogs to set the stage in our homes to bring out the best in our wonderful canine super stars.

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From Visitation to Crisis Response – The Growing Role of Therapy Dogs

People often ask me if I think that their dog would be a good therapy dog. More and more I find myself following it up with, “well, what do you want your dog to do?” Therapy dogs are working in increasingly diverse ways and the demands on the dog and on the owner also vary greatly. Consider the following therapy work roles:

1. Visiting a nursing home for an hour or two every other week.

2. Being read to by children in a library once a week for 20 min.

3. Being petted by travelers in a busy airport once a week for an hour.

4. Travelling to another location where there has been a crisis (such as a crime or natural disaster) to provide comfort to those affected.

5. Working with a healthcare provider in a hospital or mental health setting to help patients achieve therapeutic or rehabilitation goals.

6. Working with a victim advocate in a courtroom to support crime victims.

7. Visiting a college during exam week and being petted by university students.

While all therapy dogs need to be friendly and confident in different situations, the expectations and standards of behavior are very different for these different types of dogs. The training and behavior demands on the dogs are as varied as the roles of these dogs – not to mention the demands on the handlers/owners. For instance, the dogs in roles 4, 5 and 6, may be expected to work long hours in stressful situations, and the training demands can be as rigorous as those of a service dog trained to help a person with a disability in places of public accommodation. On the other end of the spectrum, a dog visiting college students may simply be a friendly, well behaved pet.

Just as for a service dog, selection of the right dog is absolutely critical. If a dog is fearful, easily stressed or shows aggression when anxious, trying to train that dog to do therapy work is likely to exacerbate existing behavior problems. Some dogs mature into being great therapy dogs, after they get their adolescent silliness out of their system.

Ultimately just as with any other canine activity, the first question is, “is this what your dog would enjoy doing?” It is important, for your dog’s sake, to answer this question honestly. If the answer to that question is no, that does not mean that you cannot volunteer – you can make a huge difference yourself. In fact, many therapy dog programs have a wealth of canine volunteers and not enough people willing to do the less glorious but absolutely necessary behind the scenes work that allows the program to exist.

If your goal in doing therapy work was to do something with your dog, be aware that there are many, many other activities you can do with your dog that both of you would enjoy. Not sure if therapy work would be your dog’s cup of tea or not? Contact a trainer who has experience training and working with therapy dogs to find out! 

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DIY Service Dogs Take 2

When is the last time a product that had the label “As Seen on TV!” worked in the real world exactly like it did on TV? Let’s keep this in mind the next time you see a service dog related story on TV. I’m not saying that service dogs are not amaaaazing, they really are, but they can’t slice and dice and they don’t come with a set of Ginsu knives when you call 1-800-Amazing-Service-Dog within the next 10 min.

Mr. Sulu and his Ginsu knives

Mr. Sulu, service dog in training extraordinaire. He’s wonderful, but of course he can’t slice and dice and he did not come with Ginsu knives.

Myth: Service dogs are proven to help people with (fill in the blank with medical condition of your choice).

Fact: We personally believe that service dogs can be very helpful but actually, there is very little controlled scientific research that is specific to service dogs and medical conditions. A lot of what people say about service dogs is based on anecdotal information. Yeah, I know, we are totally bursting a big bubble here on this one. Check it out for yourself – search for assistance dog research and you will find only a few small studies – you can Google or even look through the National Library of Medicine – no Ginsu knives here.

Myth: People who just developed a disability should get a service dog right away to help them.

Fact: It takes time to learn adapt to a major life change, most people do not know what they will and will not need when they only recently developed a disability. Personal experience living with a disability has helped me confirm that all important truths can be learned from Star Trek. Just like the Borg, one can adapt to living with a disability, but even the Borg needed a little time. In most cases, a person who has just developed a disability is really stressed and trying to regroup. Getting a dog, while a happy experience, can also actually be stressful – yes even a service dog. So unlike a getting an adaptive device, medical treatment or therapy, it is usually better to wait before deciding to get a service dog.

Myth: The public and businesses are very welcoming to people with disabilities who use service animals.

Fact: Everyone is different and not all businesses or individuals are informed on service dogs. Even in areas where the public is educated, many people stare at a person with a disability who has a service dog with them and members of the public will often approach and ask questions about the service dog or the person’s disability. Yep, just because that’s a bit rude does not mean it won’t happen. If interaction with the public is very anxiety provoking, a service dog may not be the best choice to mitigate a disability.

Myth: If you tell a business your dog is a service dog and buy it a cape, no one can stop you from taking your dog everywhere.

Fact: Service dog fraud has become well-known. In fact CCI started a campaign to stop service dog fraud. Businesses are become more aware of their rights as well. The news coverage on this issue has increased over the years and it may lead to more restrictive legislation down the road.

Myth: There are no real standards when it comes to service dogs.

Fact: There are training standards that have been set by several large organizations such as Assistance Dogs International, the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners and also the Delta Society.

Myth: Service dog trainers and programs are regulated by the government.

Fact: Most states have no regulation of trainers and providers of service dogs at all. It’s the wild west and the demand for service dogs is over the top so while there are many scrupulous businesses and programs, there are also unscrupulous people taking advantage of the high demand. Whether you go to a non-profit program or a for profit business, be very, very careful choosing a trainer or program for a service dog. Be especially wary of guarantees and anything that is “not typical.” If you have almost never seen “x” breed being used for service work there is probably a good reason.

Myth: My service dog is the cutest service dog in the entire world.

Fact: Mine is. Just kidding, yours is pretty cute too. Stay warm and cozy all!

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DIY Service Dogs

In the mid 1990’s I had been working as a pet dog trainer and a kind gentleman with Parkinsons approached me to help him train his labrador to help him with some simple behaviors at his home. Sadly, he passed away before we were able to fully complete the training, but when his family shared with me how much the experience of training had meant to him, it really opened my eyes to how the training process itself can be helpful to people with disabilities.


Happy New Year from Mr. Sulu, service dog in training.


Ironically, not long after this experience I was diagnosed with a condition similar to Parkinsons myself. I ended up jumping into the world of service animals for a very personal reason. I consulted with colleagues in the industry and trained my own rough collie to help me as a service dog. This led to my volunteering with a non-profit service dog organization and with the IAABC in developing the Working Animal Division.

Over the years I’ve seen increasing growth and interest in people wanting to train their own dogs to help them. I’ve also seen a number of misunderstandings and misconceptions. So here are a few myths and facts based on the questions we receive:

Myth: A person with a disability cannot train a dog.

Fact: People with disabilities vary greatly in what their limitations are. Additionally dog training is much more of a “thinking” activity than a physical one. Certainly there are some things that can be extra difficult or impossible for a person with a disability. However, there are many different training tools and strategies that can make the training process less physically demanding. Working around a limitation may require a bit more creativity, but other factors such as the person’s relationship with their dog, how much time the person practices, and how skillful the person is in communicating with their dog has a much more significant impact on dog training outcomes than the owner’s physical abilities.

Myth: With the right training, any dog can become a service dog.

Fact: Very few dogs are suited to work as service dogs in places pets are not permitted. Service dogs are special because a lot has to come together: the right temperament (which genetics has a huge role in), great health (umm…genetics again), great training and in the case of the person training the dog themselves – the owner needs to be willing to put a lot of time, energy and practice into the training process.

Myth: I can just hire any pet dog trainer to help me train my service dog.

Fact: Just like any other type of specialization, not all trainers can help you train your dog as a service dog. Would you hire a trainer with no agility competition experience to help you train a dog to compete in agility? Or search and rescue? If you want to hire someone to help you train your dog for something, hopefully the person you are hiring has direct experience in that specialty – whatever it might be. Ask a lot of questions. Be aware, training dogs for other jobs such as law enforcement or therapy work is not the same as training a dog to help a person with a disability as a service dog. Also, raising a puppy for a service dog program does not mean that the person has experience training a service dog complex tasks and for full public access.

Myth: Dogs that are trained by service dog programs are much better than the dogs that are trained by private individuals.

Fact: I’ve seen well behaved program dogs and very badly behaved ones, just as dogs trained by individuals. There are advantages and disadvantages to both programs and diy-ers. If it is done well, an individual who is training their own dog to assist them will be well-positioned to maintain their dog’s training and expand on it over time. Of course, they also assume all the risks and there is a huge time investment as well. I think the best “diy” service dog person is someone who will truly enjoy the training process itself.

Myth: All people with disabilities would benefit from a service dog.

Fact: People with disabilities are each unique and what works for one person, doesn’t help another. Service dogs can make activities of daily living much easier and can provide invaluable support to people with disabilities, however, dogs are living beings and they require a lot of work to care for. People with disabilities that are not obvious will be publicly identifying themselves as having a disability when they use a service dog and that may trigger members of the public to ask unpleasant personal questions. Parents with children with disabilities may find that they are already overwhelmed and stretched for time, adding a dog does mean adding another significant time commitment.

Do you have other questions about service dogs? Please feel free to ask!



Posted in Dog Training, Human-Animal Bond, Service Dog Training | Tagged | 8 Comments

It’s the Most Bitey-est Time of the Year!

I’m letting you in on a little dog training and behavior industry secret – the time period between Thanksgiving and New Years is my busiest season for aggressive behavior calls! If you think about it, it really isn’t that much of a surprise. Lots of food everywhere, schedule changes, visitors and vacations are a recipe for canine stress. Fortunately, with just a little advanced planning, you and your canine pal can have a happy and peaceful holiday season.

1. If your dog is a little shy or uncomfortable with visitors, then your dog really does not want to hang out with all of your family and friends during holiday activities. Make arrangements for your dog’s care in a dog daycare, kennel, or just confine your dog to a quiet part of your home away from visitors during holiday events.

2. Watch your dog and give him breaks in a quiet area. Even the canine social butterflies can get overwhelmed.

3. Be aware of triggering guarding behavior. Dogs that may growl when given a bone or other item, have easy access to food during the holiday season. Be aware that even if your dog does not guard from you, he may guard from a visitor who tries to remove something from the dog’s mouth. If there is any possibility that your dog would resource guard, the middle of a holiday party is not the right time to try to modify the behavior. Instead put your dog away.

4. Don’t put your dog in situations he can’t handle. Large family gatherings are not a good environment to try to address dog behavior challenges. If your dog doesn’t like other dogs, it’s ok to say no to canine visitors.

5. Pro-actively address your dog’s behavior concerns with a professional trainer. Ideally you contacted a qualified professional as soon as you noticed that your dog was exhibiting some fearful, anxious or aggressive behavior. Realize that behavior problems like aggression take time to address, so do go ahead and call a qualified behavior consultant or trainer now but realize that no, the aggressive behavior will probably not be addressed in time to include your dog in your aunt’s huge family Christmas party.

Use common sense, be pro-active and realistic, and think about what your dog needs so both you and your dog can enjoy the holiday season! Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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Your First Walks with Your New Puppy

New puppies are so much fun. Owners are often excited about having a new puppy and have had dreams about taking them out for long walks in exciting places like Old Town, Great Falls or other DC area parks. Many puppy owners are aware of the importance of early socialization and they start walking their puppies in new places right away. They quickly find this is not so easy. The puppy may pull in random directions or sit down and refuse to move entirely.

While exploring new environments is an important aspect of puppy socialization, walking on a leash in a suburban or urban area is hard for a puppy! Sounds of traffic, unfamiliar objects and other dogs can overexcite or frighten a puppy and instead of socializing and exercising, the walk in a new place can terrify or overwhelm the puppy.

Start by building a great relationship with your puppy in a quiet, calm environment. Encourage your puppy to follow you without the leash inside your home or in a securely fenced yard. Try running and then kneeling and rewarding with whatever rocks your puppy’s world – praise, toys, petting or kibble. Use funny voices, act silly and play with your pup when your pup catches up with you.

Most puppies need time to get used to wearing a leash and collar in a boring setting, such as indoors inside a home or in a fenced in enclosure. If you have a fenced yard, that is a great first environment for your puppy to learn to relax with a leash on. Then you can play the fun “follow me” game while your pup is dragging the leash. After you have tried that a few times, you may be able to try a short walk in an easy location. Easy locations for most puppies is a quiet outdoor natural environment like a grassy field or park.

9 week old smooth collie puppy learns to get used to the feel of a leash in a quiet outdoor setting.

9 week old smooth collie puppy learns to get used to the feel of a leash in a quiet outdoor setting.

Ok, so I can hear my clients who live in busy urban areas saying, this is not realistic for me. Nope it’s not, and if you live in a condo or apartment, you will need to get creative. More than likely just taking your puppy downstairs in your building is going to be a lot for your puppy. Try to make these experiences as low key as possible, have great treats, favorite toys, bring a towel that smells like your pup’s mom with you. Be ready to stop and allow your pup to explore and build confidence at his own pace. If possible borrow a friend’s backyard to let your pup explore or take your pup to a quiet grassy area or park near you.

Avoid pulling, dragging or otherwise forcing your pup to move. Puppies that are stopping and sitting or lying down on walks are almost always doing this because they are afraid. Instead, act cheerful, happy, confident and wait your puppy out. Many times doing nothing allows your pup to relax and start to explore at their own pace. Bringing some yummy treats can often help as well as fun toys and, most importantly, a relaxed and happy attitude yourself. Relax the tension on the leash, puppies tend to fight leash tension and many pups will take a step forward towards you when they feel the tension relax. Look where you want your puppy to go instead of turning and facing your puppy and pat your leg to encourage your pup to come along with you. You can also try kneeling and seeing if your puppy will come towards you.

Sulu, a smooth collie puppy takes it all in at a local garden center. It is important to allow pups to build confidence and explore new environments at their own pace.

Sulu, a smooth collie puppy takes it all in at a local garden center. It is important to allow pups time to build confidence and explore new environments at their own pace.

If you have a friend with a confident, healthy (currently vaccinated), friendly adult dog try to set up some play dates. Then you can ask your friend to walk your pup’s new confident canine friend while you and your puppy follow. This strategy can be especially helpful in very challenging urban areas.

Some puppies seem totally fearless. While these pups may not need slow confidence building in new settings, these puppies often benefit from a little work on self control. So rather than letting your fearless party puppy jump on every person and dog that passes by, work on some manners right away. Step on your pup’s leash so your pup can comfortably stand but cannot jump up. Reward the puppy for checking in with you before letting the puppy greet another dog – and of course make sure that the other dog is friendly with puppies before letting your social butterfly say hello. Remember seeing a lot of movement in your puppy means your puppy is excited but it does not necessarily mean your puppy is “having fun.”

Do choose locations for your first walks very carefully. Dog parks, crowded pet stores, locations frequented by dogs of unknown vaccination status and situations likes fairs, the school bus stop (or any location where your pup will be mobbed by a group of excited children), firework shows, Halloween festivities are not appropriate for young puppies. Imagine if you were the same size as your pup and someone put you in the same situation. If it would scare or overwhelm you, it probably would do the same to your puppy. Sometimes just changing the time of day can make a big difference. For instance, a short visit outside of a shopping center on a Tuesday morning before 8 am may be perfect while the same location on Saturday at noon can be too much.

Don’t freak out. The vast majority of clients that I see who are worried about their puppy’s behavior on walks have nothing to worry about. A pup that is cautious one day may very well be exuberant and sassy the next. Dogs are not trained to walk nicely on leash overnight. Training a dog to walk beautifully on leash often takes months of ongoing training and practice – especially in a complex environment with a lot of distractions like the DC metro area.

Remember that the world is brand new to a young puppy. Consider what human beings are doing at the same comparative age. Do not expect leash walks with a young puppy to look graceful, but do work towards having them be fun for you and your puppy. This is the age when your puppy is learning how he feels about you. If your walks with your puppy are turning into battles, you are risking damaging your relationship with your pup. Back up, make things easier, revisit your location and time of day.  Bring your cell phone and take lots of cute pictures. One day your pup will be all grown up and leash walking like a champ and you will miss the time when you had to stop your walk every two feet because your pup was fascinated by a bumblebee.


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Getting out of your breed (or mixed breed) box

It is not unusual for me to hear, “I’m a (fill in the blank with random breed) person.” Many times owners have chosen a breed that is a good fit. However, I also do see owners who choose a breed that they have fallen in love with that in reality does not actually fit their lifestyle. They may have grown up with that particular breed, or they love the way the dog looks, or simply out of habit they keep getting the same breed over and over.

I used to say to people “I’m a husky person” because I loved – and still do love – the way Siberian huskies look. I had two huskies, one a purebred and the other a mix and loved them both. However, the truth is, that is not a good fit for me. Siberian huskies, like most nordic breeds are very independent. I love dogs that can perform well in activities like rally and obedience. While certainly huskies can be trained, they tend to be easily distracted and it can be difficult to obtain reliable performance. A husky is a great breed for someone who appreciates their independent spirit, it is not as great a breed choice for a control freak like myself.  It took me a couple of huskies and a lot of time to step out of my Nordic breed box and collies have been a perfect fit for me.

I sometimes see people who are stuck in their breed box and the results are frustrating for both the dog and the owner. The hard reality is that some breeds are just flat out not good matches for seniors or people with health problems. Active, energetic, powerful dogs require athletic, active owners. I have not met a pet owner who changed their lifestyle and started jogging daily just because they got an active dog – but I have met pet owners who spent a lot of money in dog daycare and dog walkers in an attempt to meet their active dog’s needs. Similarly, if it is important to you to have a dog that can peacefully go to the dog park on a regular basis, a terrier or a guard breed is probably not a good bet (though yes there are exceptions – but again the key word being exceptions).  More often than not, the breed someone has in their 20’s and loved, is not the right fit for the same person in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

This goes for mixed breed dog owners as well. Because temperament and behavior are strongly influenced by genetics, it is hard to predict how a mixed bred puppy will mature. Some owners don’t mind because they do not have specific goals for their future dog, however, if an owner really wants to stack the odds in their favor of ending up with say, a therapy dog candidate for example, then a purebred dog from a breeder with a long history of breeding successful therapy dogs is a safer bet.

If you are in the process of thinking about your next dog and you have always had a particular breed or mix, take an objective step back and look at your choices. Was your choice the best fit or do you need to look outside your box?




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