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.

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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!

 

 

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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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Off Leash Training

Dream of taking your dog on a long hike in the woods off leash or for a run on a beautiful beach? He stays close to you, comes when you call him right away, and you are both having a great time. Sounds fun right? Well for many dogs and their owners this could happen with training and a great relationship. However, here’s the real scoop on off leash control: not all dogs are appropriate to be trained and worked with off leash. Individual dog’s temperaments, training and maturity all play a role in a dog’s behavior.

To some extent, common sense is involved, dogs that have a history of exhibiting aggression to people or dogs really don’t belong off leash in areas that are not physically fenced in and they also don’t belong in dog parks or other similar uncontrolled settings. It’s not responsible to put other people and other dogs at risk and it’s a liability to boot.

Maturity plays a big role when it comes to off leash control. Because adolescent dog behavior is difficult to predict, most dogs between the ages of 6 months and 2 1/2 really cannot be trusted off leash – not even if you are a fabulous trainer.  I often have puppy owners tell me, hey my 8 week old puppy is wonderful off the leash. Well, yes, at 8 weeks even independent breeds like huskies tend to stay close. Don’t assume that your dog is going to behave the same way at 4 months, 5, months or age 1. Young puppy behavior and adolescent dog behavior are two completely different things!

Genetics plays a big role in off leash behavior as well. Sight hounds, terriers and nordic breeds may not always reliably come when called when there are distractions like deer, rabbits or other similar things. This does not mean you should not train your independent breed not to come when called, in fact the opposite is true. You will want to work on training your dog even more in case you accidentally dropped the leash or your dog managed to get out of your yard. All dogs should be trained to come when called, however, if you have a breed or individual dog who may not come when called don’t put your dog in an unsafe situation.

Now I can hear clients in my head “but I knew a Jack Russell Terrier that always came when called when off leash in the woods.” Yes there are exceptions to every generalization made about a breed. But the key word here is these individuals are the exceptions.

Even if your dog is a member of a breed that tends to stay close, that does not mean that your individual dog has the right temperament characteristics to safely hike in the woods off leash. There are a wide range of temperaments within each breed. Some individual dogs may be able to be worked with off leash safely with relatively little training while others may require years of ongoing training. The owner’s willingness to spend time training the dog, genetics, individual difference and the environment are all important factors in off leash control.

Some owners resort to harsh tools such as electronic collars. I routinely receive calls when dogs ignored the shock and chased the deer or dog anyway. I’ve even worked with members of “easy to train” breeds who ignored an electronic collar correction in the face of a very strong distraction. Additionally, there are behavioral risks to using shock collars and dogs that are appropriate to train for off leash control can be effectively trained to come when called via reward based methods without taking a behavioral risk.

Remember that your relationship with your dog is what is most important when it comes to off leash behavior. In fact, the dog I grew up with, Inky, was nearly always off leash and I did not formally train him. He had a naturally low-key temperament and was very closely bonded to our family. He did not actually come when called that well, but he never left far away from us either. His tendency to stay close to us was more a result of his genetics and our relationship, than it was a reflection of training per se.

Of course, do obey local leash laws. In most public places in Northern Virginia and the DC metro area dogs are not permitted to be off leash. Also choose your locations carefully, just because your friend’s farm is a great place for your dog to run off leash, if there is a lot of wildlife, it might just be too risky. No one has 100% control of their dog. Ultimately, as you think about working your dog off leash, keep in mind that your dog’s safety is what is most important, dogs can have lots of fun on a long leash and in fenced in areas too.

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Warm Weather Fun in NoVa

I’m always telling my clients that the more they find ways to include their dogs in their lives doing activities that both they and they dog would enjoy, the more likely that their training efforts will stick over time. All too often, people mention “the dog park” as the main place they go. There is a whole world outside of the dog park and as I’ve written before, the dog park is not the right fit for all dogs.

As you think of ways that you and your dog can both have fun, think about what really is fun for your dog. If your dog loves interacting with lots of unfamiliar people, urban activities, farmers markets and other crowded environments would be great for him. If your dog tends to be overwhelmed in crowds then hiking a quiet trail or visiting some gardens during a non-busy time may be more fun.

Here’s a short list of places to go and things to do that may be fun for some dogs and food for thought as you think of what you and your dog would like to do:

Parks – there are so many of them, look at the “off the beaten path” trails such as Scott’s Run Nature Preserve, Balls Bluff Regional Park and hey, if you are a Northern Virginia native, fess up, when’s the last time you went to the Bull Run Battlefield - it’s beautiful out there! If your dog does not like crowds, Mason Neck park  has quieter trails and beautiful water views. We love Great Falls National Park but it can get crowded, going really early or during the week is the best way to beat the crowds.

Historical sites – Mt. Vernon is dog friendly. No you can’t go into the house but you can tour the grounds and gardens. Because you know your dog’s complete education is important to you, you and your pooch can learn about canine life at Mt. Vernon via a special tour for dog owners.   On beautiful weekends go really early to find parking.

Shopping – Many of shopping venues have dog friendly shops. You’ll often see a water bowl outside of a shop’s door as an indication that the store welcomes dogs. Old Town Alexandria is well known for having many pet friendly shops, but you will see dogs out and about in Reston Town Center and the Mosaic Development in Merrifield as well as many parts of Arlington. These areas are crowded so these can be fun for very social and confident dogs but are no place for retractable leashes, excitable dogs or for a dog that has fear or aggression issues with dogs or people.

Many restaurants have outdoor eating areas all over Arlington, Vienna Town Green and Church St., City of Fairfax and Clifton. Again these are for the confident dogs that love people and tolerate other dogs in close proximity.

Out of the box-what about fruit picking at Hollin Farms or a winery on a weekend? The National Arboretum is a gorgeous place to visit and I’m sure I’m not the only DC native who only recently realized it was there.

So much to do, so little time. Now of course, make sure your dog is super well behaved and you are equipped with water, and clean up supplies for your dog. We want to keep encouraging dog friendly venues and well-mannered pooches and considerate owners are a big part of making sure that happens!

Any other ideas? Please chime in, I’m always looking for fun stuff to do in the area with my own dogs and to recommend to my clients.

 

 

 

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The Power of Silly!

The coolest thing about my job as a dog trainer is that every dog is different. There are those dogs that the usual routine doesn’t work for. Then we have to get creative. Some of those challenging canine pupils have helped remind me that sometimes, you just have to get silly.

Most pet owners quickly realize that their emotions are contagious. This can make changing behavior and training challenging for a new dog owner who is confused about the technique – now both dog and owner are confused. Fortunately, once you become aware of this, the solution is simple, blow it off and act silly. Laugh, be happy, training a dog isn’t a chore. Change gears, make funny noises, sing a goofy song. I promise, your dog won’t think less of you.

Acting silly can be especially helpful for fearful dogs, or for convincing dogs that hey, this really is a fun thing to do. With puppies, acting silly is a great way to build confidence and get your puppy to follow you around. It’s easy, in an enclosed space, use a happy tone of voice and encourage your puppy to follow you around.

You do not have to be super loud, crazy or hectic to be silly. You just need to convey happiness, fun and joy to your dog. Your version of silly may not look the same as the other person’s and that’s ok. The important piece is whether you feel happy and your dog feels it too.

For some people acting silly can actually be hard. Set yourself up to be relaxed when you practice if this is the case. Realize you probably won’t master this in training class or a public venue so practice it at home. Think funny thoughts, do funny things and go with it. You really need to feel happy as you do it. May be using a fun dog toy will help you get into it. Dogs are masters at reading our emotions! I know this sounds goofy but this is an important skill. All the great dog trainers I know of are naturals at silliness and they can do it anytime, anywhere. You’ll see silly playful behavior at many competitive venues by top performers – often just a few minutes before they get in the ring and right after.

Now am I saying acting silly is all it takes to fix hard core issues, absolutely not, but it can make a big difference. Also all too often, silliness is completely forgotten about…and what’s the fun in working with your dog if you aren’t actually having fun!

 

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100% Reliable

Every so often I’ll have a new client request that they would like their dog to be trained so he listens to them “all of the time.” Usually they don’t really mean that literally, they mean they want their dog to respond more reliably. Often they have a teenage dog that is behaving in a bit of an annoying way and they would like their dog to improve. However, sometimes the owner really wants their dog to do something all of the time. For instance, come when called off leash 100% of the time. This is where my job becomes harder.

I’ve trained dogs to really, really high levels. I’ve trained service dogs for people with various types of disabilities, I currently compete with my dogs in rally obedience and I’ve competed in AKC obedience as well and scored very well (first place ribbons are pinned up around my office). I deeply love my dogs, and work with them nearly every day. They are super highly trained –but in spite of all this, I would not claim that they would respond 100% of the time to a particular cue. Why? Well, because they are dogs, not machines.

Here’s the reality, even highly trained dogs are not infallible. This is why there have been legal questions about the use of narcotic detection dogs, and even a few news stories about bomb sniffing dog errors and occasional false alarms. I am not saying that working dogs are not wonderful at these jobs, but just like people who may be wonderful at jobs they are trained to do, occasional mistakes can happen.

Does this mean that a pet dog cannot be trained to be amazingly obedient, of course not. Simply put, we need to be realistic. We can’t expect a dog to live up to a standard that we, ourselves, could not live up to.

Ultimately, while great training is impressive, developing a great relationship is even more impressive and it involves more than just training. A great relationship requires understanding and being empathetic to what your dog feels, needs and wants too.

 

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