7 Effective Habits

As a professional dog trainer, I get to work with people from all walks of life and the dogs they love. Interestingly, no matter who they are, what they do for a living, or what kind of dog they have, their issues are similar: They call me because they want their dog to stop doing “X.” Usually, they say they have “tried everything, but the dog just won’t listen.”

I love the opportunities I have to work with so many amazing dogs. But a lot of what I do comes down to coaching the dog’s owners on how to look at things differently to obtain a new outcome.

1. Be proactive.

Much of the old-fashioned dog training we were exposed to growing up focused on waiting for the dog to make a mistake and then harshly correcting him. While most of us simply accepted this as “how you train a dog,” we were missing the bigger picture. This method never taught the dog what he was supposed to do in that situation the next time.

It doesn’t make sense to let an untrained dog loose in your house and then follow behind correcting him with “No! Don’t! Off! Stop! Get down! Quit that!” for every wrong decision he makes. It is much more effective and productive to take the time to teach this new family member how to act appropriately in your home.

In modern, science-based animal training we understand the importance of teaching the learner, in this case the dog, what to do by being proactive. To use the example above as what not to do when you bring your new dog or puppy home, start things off on the right foot by first showing your new family member where she is supposed to go potty – before you ever bring her indoors! Stay out there until she goes, and immediately reward her with treats and praise!

Allow her to relax in an area where it’s safe to explore without being able to make any major mistakes and where her water, food, toys, and beds/carates are located. Reward her for sitting politely as she meets each member of the family and each visitor to the home!

Dogs do what works for them and what’s safe for them. If you introduce behaviors that are safe for the dog and work for you both, your dog will begin to choose them naturally.

2. Begin with the end in mind.

To change an unwanted behavior, you first need to decide what you want your learner to do instead. It is very easy to say, “I want my dog to stop jumping” or “I don’t want my dog to bark at the mailman.” You need to turn that around and decide exactly what you’d rather have your dog do in those moments.

To modify the unwanted behavior, we must be able to picture the final goal. If your dog is jumping on guests, you would probably prefer that he sit politely instead. If your dog is barking, you may decide you want him to play with his toy or go to his bed while the mailman passes by. These are the finished behaviors you can have in mind so you know exactly what you’re going to teach your dog to do.

If you don’t have a goal in mind and you’re only focused on stopping a behavior, your dog will never learn what he’s supposed to do the next time a guest comes to visit or the mailman delivers a package. This will set up an endless cycle of wrong behavior, harsh correction, confused and scared dog, frustrated guardian. This cycle can be broken easily if you begin dealing with your dog with your end goal in mind.

3. Put first things first.

Prioritizing is a necessity in all aspects of our lives. Working with your dog is no exception. There will probably be several things you wish to change or work on with your dog, but certain ones should take precedent. Any behavior that is necessary to keep your dog and other family members safe should be a top priority. This could be teaching your dog to come when called because you live near a busy street. It may be working on creating positive associations for your dog with babies because you’re expecting. If you’ve recently brought home a new puppy, proper and humane socialization should be your number one priority due to the brief window of time puppies have to learn about their world and whether it’s safe.

Focus on teaching your dog whatever behaviors meet your immediate needs; usually, the rest can be handled with proper management such as baby gates, fences, a leash, stuffed food toys, etc. There is nothing wrong with using management to keep everyone safe and happy until you have a chance to work on that next issue with your dog.

4. Think win-win.

Always think in terms of mutual benefit when working with your dog. I doubt you added a dog to your family to spend the next 10 to 15 years in an adversarial relationship. Therefore, it’s not helpful to think in terms of dominating your dog or expecting your dog to spend his life trying to please you.

Instead, make the things you ask your dog to do just as beneficial for him as they are for you. Thankfully, this couldn’t be easier, since most dogs will gladly work for food, toys, praise, and/or petting.

Your relationship with your dog should be like any other in your family, built on mutual respect and love for one another. If you stop and consider how your dog must feel in a given situation – just as you would for your partner or child – you can then approach it in a way in which you both receive what you need in that moment: a win-win.

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Humans are quick to demand full and complete comprehension from our dogs. It’s surprising when you consider we expect this from an entirely different species – one that doesn’t speak our language! On the flip side, consider that dogs speak to us all day long with their ritualized body language. Sadly, the majority of humans have never learned this language.

We must remember that our dogs have their own thoughts and feelings and that the environment we subject them to affects both. If you cue your dog to sit or lie down while at the vet clinic or on a busy street corner and he doesn’t do it, it’s not because he is being stubborn. Your dog may be scared, anxious, or overwhelmed in this situation and feels that it would be unsafe or uncomfortable to sit or lie down. He is not defiantly disobeying your orders. He is responding to his instinct and emotions in the moment. Every one of us does this when we feel scared or threatened.

Learning how your dog communicates with his body means you care about this family member with whom you share your life. It also shows your dog that he can trust you to help him out of overwhelming moments and you will understand what he needs. What an amazing gift to be able to offer him!

6. Synergize.

This means recognizing your own strengths and celebrating the strengths of those around you. You may have adopted a dog because you thought it would be nice to visit nursing homes and cheer up people with a sweet, fluffy therapy dog. However, the dog you end up with might be full of energy and better-suited for an agility field.

Instead of seeing this as a failure in your dog’s ability to be a therapy dog, consider the amazing possibilities you could have doing something more active together. Perhaps this unexpected development will open up a new world to you, with like-minded friends and fun travel. (And perhaps your dog will grow to share your interest in providing comfort to people later in his life!)

Just as you would with a child, try meeting your dog where he is, accepting him for who he is today. Be open to discovering the wonderful gifts he can bring to your life right now.

7. Sharpen the saw.

There isn’t an individual on this planet that ever stops learning. In fact, learning is always taking place, even when we don’t realize it.

If you think of training a dog as something you do haphazardly (when you find the time) for the first few weeks he’s in your home, you will not be happy with the results. Alternatively, if you weave training into your everyday life with your dog, thinking of each brief interaction as a teaching moment, you will be amazed by the outcome. Your dog will receive clear and consistent messages from you in all types of settings and situations. This will allow him to develop into a calm, confident dog who truly understands what is expected of him and which behaviors are appropriate to choose on his own.

It’s not uncommon for someone to ask me, “How long will it take before my dog is trained?” The truth is, there really isn’t an answer to this question because there should not be an “ed” on the end of the word train. As long as we are alive, learning is always happening and none of us is ever fully “trained.”

Instead of being disappointed by this and thinking that you will have to train your dog for the rest of his life, I encourage you to flip that narrative and become excited about the opportunity to share a mutual journey in learning alongside each other – a journey that builds a bond like no other.

Swimming With Dogs Can Be Fun If You’re Being Safe

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Both dogs and their owners may love to swim but how about swimming with dogs? This can be a fun way to exercise, cool off, and bond with your dog. Below we will share some important water safety and swimming tips that are critical to the safety of you and your dog.

 

Water Safety Tips

The water can be a fun place to go and exercise but it can also be associated with possible dangers. Hazards include drowning, near drowning, poor water quality, toxins in the water, infectious agents or parasites, exposure to other animals, and possible trauma from things in the water that may not be visible.

Some dogs are really great swimmers and comfortable in the water and others are not. Breeds known to be good swimmers include the standard poodle, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Newfoundlands, Portuguese Water Dogs, American Water Spaniels, Irish Water Spaniel, Newfoundland, English Setter, Irish setter, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and Spanish Water Dog. Lots of mixed-breed dogs are also good swimmers.

Any dog can be a good swimmer but some breeds that are not known for their swimming abilities including the Bulldog, Pug, French Bulldog, Shih Tzu, Basset Hound, Boxer, Corgi, Chow Chow, Maltese, Pomeranian, and Dachshund.

 

14 Swimming with Dogs Safety Tips

Some dog lovers jump into swimming pools, streams, rivers, oceans, ponds, and lakes to swim and this can be with their dogs. It can be fun. Some dogs love to fetch balls, Frisbees, or just float around.

Below are 14 tips to help keep you and your dog safe when you are swimming together.

Supervision. Ensure your dog is supervised while he or she is in the water.  Things can happen quickly. A dog can get caught on something in the water or caught in a current.

Life vest. Get a life vest or water safety jacket for your dog. Even dogs that are good swimmers can have problems.  If you are just floating in the water – it is a good idea to have a life vest on for you as well. Choose a style that is comfortable for your dog and has a handle over the back so you can lift him out of the water if needed.

Have an exit strategy. Ensure your dog has an exit ramp to get out of the water and knows how to use it. Show your dog how to get in and out of the water. Dogs can drown as they struggle to get out of pools or deep lakes without an accessible shoreline.

Restrict access. Prevent water access when you are not around. Dogs can fall in the pool or jump in because there is a duck in the water and drown.  Dogs can also run out on the ice and fall through.

Monitor water temperature. Ensure the water temperature is neither too hot nor too cold for your dog.

Monitor water quality. If you are swimming in a lake, pond or stream, it is important to be alert for signs of algae bloom.  Some forms of algae can be toxic to dogs and people. Additionally, if you have a pond on your property, consider having the water tested for bacteria or toxins.

Provide quality drinking water. Take plenty of fresh clean drinking water for both you and your dog when swimming together. This will help minimize your dog’s desire to drink from the pool, pond or ocean water. Some of the water can be unsafe to drink or can make your dog sick.  Additionally, it is important not to allow your dog to drink too much.

Boat access. If you are swimming with dogs off a boat, make sure that you have a dog-safe ramp to help your dog get out of the water if he jumps in and swims or falls in. Learn more about How to Ensure Safety When Boating With Dogs.

Monitor for signs of heatstroke. Many dogs LOVE the water and what is better than being with you in the water. However, some dogs will overdo it especially if they are working hard swimming in the direct sun. Take frequent breaks and ensure your dog has plenty of water to drink. Signs of heat exhaustion can be excessive panting, fatigue, and/or lethargy. This can quickly advance to signs of heatstroke such as collapse, weakness, vomiting, bleeding, and death. Learn more about Heatstroke in Dogs.

Prevent fishing hook hazards. Keep your dog away from fishing bait and poles. Some dogs will step on or even try to eat the bait and swallow the hook which can be a huge problem.

Monitor the water exits for hazards. Just as it is important to ensure your dog can get out of the water, it is important to understand that there are hazards lurking along the edges. Glass and metal can wash up on beaches and shores, debris can be in the water that can cut the paws of dogs.

Post swim bath. Just as we often like to shower after swimming, dogs can benefit from an after-swimming bath. This helps rid them of pool chemicals such as chlorine, algaecides and baking soda you place in your pool as well as parasites, bacteria, and algae that can be on your dog’s fur from lakes, or the ocean.

Dry out. Dry your dog’s ears after swimming to prevent infections.  Some of the adorable floppy-eared dogs have ears that never dry out if they get water in them, making them prone to infections.

Animals and parasites. Depending on where you are swimming, in addition to water dangers, there are other dangers. The ocean can have sea lice and jellyfish that can bother dogs. Sea lice are microscopic organisms that can cause severe itching. Jellyfish can sting dogs causing swelling and pain. Other dangers can be snakes, cockatiels, and alligators depending on your location. Please see your veterinarian if you have any concerns that your dog might have been bitten or infected.

If you don’t have time to go swimming with dogs, one thing you can do is create a doggy pool at your home.

I hope these tips help you know more about swimming with dogs.

Are Dogs More Fearful Than They Used to Be?

Dogs who are fearful are becoming increasingly common. Learn how to prevent your dog from developing chronic fear — or, if it’s too late, how to improve his security and happiness.

 

An increasing percentage of clients are bringing dogs to me for help with fear-related behaviors. Many of my fellow behavior professionals agree: They, too, are seeing more fearful dogs than they used to.

The increase in clients seeking help could be because more people are realizing that it might be possible to modify their dogs’ fearful behaviors.

However, it might also be because more shelters and rescue groups are  re-homing fearful dogs who, in the past, would have been euthanized as “not adoptable.”

Many of us trainers also have been called upon to help owners with extremely under-socialized and fearful dogs imported from elsewhere, such as the Chinese and Korean meat-market dogs and “street dogs” brought here from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and elsewhere.

Whatever the reason for the seeming increase in the population of fearful dogs, good behavior professionals will do their best to help these dogs (and their humans) have a better quality of life – and there definitely are things that can help.

Differentiating Between Fear, Phobia, and Anxiety

In order to successfully modify fear-related behaviors, it’s important to understand the difference among the closely related behaviors of fear, phobia, and anxiety.

fearful dog

Fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat. Most of us who have had dogs with fear issues (or are fearful ourselves) can agree, especially with the “unpleasant emotion” part. We tend to think of fear as a bad thing, but fear is also a life-preserving response to physical and emotional danger. If we didn’t feel fear, we would likely fail to protect ourselves from certain threats.

Phobia is an exaggerated, persistent, excessive fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation. Common canine phobias include loud noises (thunder, gunshots, fireworks, household sounds), intense fear of humans, and riding in cars.

Anxiety is the anticipation of future dangers from unknown or imagined origins that result in normal body reactions (known as physiologic reactions) associated with fear. Fears and phobias occur in the presence of the emotion-causing stimuli, but dogs who are anxious present emotional and physiological fear responses even in the absence of the stimulus.

Of the three “shades” of fearful behaviors, the best prognosis is for dogs dealing with fear. At least we’re working with something real and present, rather than something exaggerated or imagined! A fearful dog may have significant behavioral responses, including a lowered body posture, trembling, salivating, hiding, fleeing, growling, snapping, biting, shutting down, and more.

Phobias and anxieties can also manifest in these behaviors, but also may include more extreme panicked responses such as jumping through windows, chewing through walls, urinating, defecating, and worse. Dogs with true phobias and anxieties often require pharmaceutical intervention before any modification efforts can even begin to be successful. (See “What About Drugs?” below.)

If you think your dog’s emotional responses go beyond fear into phobia or anxiety territory, please seek the help of a qualified behavior professional and a behavior-savvy veterinarian.

What About Drugs?

As a non-veterinary behavior professional, it is inappropriate for me to suggest specific behavior modification drugs to my clients or to our WDJ readers. Medication can and does have a vital role in behavior modification, however, and I have – on many occasions – suggested that my clients discuss behavior medications with their veterinarians. Here’s the rub: Most veterinary schools don’t require their students to take a single course in behavior, and the field of behavioral medicine is a complex one that most vets know very little about.

Here’s the solution. There are now about 70 veterinary behaviorists in the U.S., and many of them will generously do phone consults with general practitioners to help guide appropriate selection and dosage of behavior medications. Some offer this service to other veterinarians for free, others charge a reasonable fee for their time.

In any case, when I do ask my clients to discuss medications with their vets, I urge them to ask their veterinarian to take advantage of this service in order to ensure they are getting the best advice regarding pharmaceuticals. This helps to avoid the bad experiences some clients have (“the drug turned my dog into a zombie, or made her worse”) when well-meaning but uninformed veterinarians select an inappropriate medication or an improper dosage.

A complete list of board-certified veterinary behaviorists can be found here. If medication is in the cards for your fearful dog, urge your veterinarian to make use of this resource.

Preventing Fear in Dogs

My students have all heard me say this before: “We’re always better off preventing unwanted behaviors than we are trying to fix them.” Here’s another of my favorites: “Behavior is always a combination of genetics and environment.” A good fear-prevention program recognizes both – hence the importance of breeding behaviorally solid dogs as well as proper puppy socialisation. Of course, you will also need to diligently protect your dog from traumatic events throughout her life.

If you raise two puppies – one genetically confident, one genetically fearful – in the exact same environment, giving them equal socialization, the odds are very good that the genetically solid pup will turn out just fine, while the one that came from a line of fearful dogs will likely be fearful.

Since many puppies come from shelters and rescue groups with little or no information about their genetic background, and because even good breeders sometimes receive unexpected rolls of the genetic dice, the best approach is to socialize every puppy properly, extensively, and thoroughly. Poorly socialized fearful dogs can be helped and their behavior improved upon, but will probably never be the dogs they could have been if they’d had a better start in life.

fearful dog

The puppy’s environment – even in utero – has as large an influence on him as his genetics. We now know that puppies born to mothers who were significantly stressed during pregnancy are likely to suffer from fear and stress-related behaviors throughout their lives, due to the flood of cortisol they were subjected to while still in the womb.

Note to shelters and rescue groups: This means you need to work very hard to place your pregnant dogs in appropriate foster homes, rather than subjecting them to the stress of a shelter or kennel, to give those pups the best chance for a long and happy fear-free life.

Puppies observe and learn from their mothers, so if their mother is fearful, they learn this from her as well. It’s no wonder that recent studies suggest that puppy-mill puppies have significantly more and greater behavioral issues throughout their lives than dogs born in more suitable environments.

Significant life events can create fear in an otherwise confident adult dog, even one who is genetically sound and well-socialized. These events may have the biggest impact during puppyhood and adolescence, but can also cause fear later in life. A car accident can cause a previously car-loving dog to become fearful of cars. A single significant attack by another dog can turn a canine-loving hound into one who is fearful and defensively aggressive toward other dogs. And inappropriate actions by other humans toward your dog can convince her that people should be feared.

So the better you are at protecting your dog throughout her life from events that cause her to become significantly afraid, the less likely you will need to manage and/or modify her fear behaviors at some point. And, with a “get back on the horse” recommendation, science suggests that the sooner you work to modify a negative association (fear) due to a traumatic event, the more successful the modification efforts are likely to be.

Managing Your Dog’s Fear

I’m sorry if this sounds daunting, but in order to successfully modify fear-based behavior, you must painstakingly manage your dogs exposure to the fear-causing stimulus.

Every time your dog has an over-threshold (fear-causing) exposure it can sensitize her further, making it even harder to convince her that she doesn’t need to be afraid. Barking, lunging, hiding, running away: whatever her avoidance strategies may be, each time she employs them she will become even more convinced that the strategies are effective, because she didn’t get injured or killed. Those behaviors are negatively reinforced (her behavior made a bad thing go away), and behaviors that are reinforced persist and increase.

If you want her to get more confident and less fearful, you must control your dog’s environment to protect her from the things that frighten her. Be your dog’s invincible advocate. If your dog is afraid of strangers, you must vehemently prohibit strangers from approaching her, even the sweet little lady who insists, “It’s okay, dogs love me!”

If your dog is fearful of visitors, put her in a safe place before anyone arrives – shut in a back bedroom, or even at a friend or family member’s house so she’s far away from the action, not trapped in a crate in the corner of the living room where guests can frighten her even more. Avoid taking her places where fear-causing sights or sounds might occur, and use appropriate medications to help her deal with scary situations that you cannot avoid, like trips to the veterinary clinic.

Modifying Your Dog’s Fear

So, how do you help your fearful dog get brave? My favorite approach is tried-and-true counter conditioning and desensitisation  giving your dog a new, happier association with the scary stimulus. CC&D is simple and straightforward, and after a training/coaching session, my clients are usually able to practice successfully on their own, without me holding their hand every step of the way.

training dog to target

There are even more simple exercises you can use to help your dog maintain her equilibrium while you are working with your preferred behavior modification protocol. Many of these involve “priming” – putting your dog’s brain in a happy place by asking her to do something she loves so she can more easily cope with the stress of the fear-causing stimulus. Here are some examples:

Targeting

It may sound like a marketing technique, but it simply means teaching your dog to touch a designated body part to a designated target. That description doesn’t do it justice – targeting is tons of fun! Nose-targeting draws your dog’s eye-contact and attention from a worrisome stimulus to a pleasant one and can be very useful for timid dogs.

To teach it, hold your open palm in front of your dog, nose level or below. When she sniffs it (because she’s curious!), say Yesss and feed a treat (or use a verbal marker – a mouth click, or a word). Remove your hand, then offer it again.

Each time she sniffs, click and treat. If she stops sniffing (“Boring! I’ve already sniffed that!) rub a little tasty treat smell on the palm of your hand and try again. When she deliberately bumps her nose into your hand, add the “Touch!” cue as you offer your hand. Encourage her with praise and high-value treats. Make it a game, so her eyes light up when you say “Touch.”

When she loves the targeting game, try playing when your dog is a little nervous about something. Scary man passing by on the sidewalk? Hold out your hand and say “Touch!” Your dog takes her eyes – and brain – away from the scary thing and happily bonks her nose into your hand. Click and treat!

She can’t be afraid of the man and happy about touching your hand at the same time. And she can’t look at your target hand and stare at the scary man at the same time. By changing your dog’s behavior – having her do something she loves – you can manage a scary encounter and eventually change her association with something previously scary to her.

playing games with a dog

Find It

Like targeting, “find It” is a behavior many dogs love and another game you can play to change behavior in the presence of a fear-causing stimulus.

With your dog in front of you, say “Find it!” in a cheerful tone of voice and toss a treat at your feet. When your dog finds the treat, click just before she eats it. Then say “Find it!” again and toss another at your feet. Click – and she eats the treat. Do this until your dog’s eyes light up and she looks toward your feet as soon as she hears the “Find it” cue.

Now when a scary skateboarder appears, say “Find It!” and toss treats at your feet. Your dog will take her eyes off the scary thing and switch into happy-treat mode. You’ve changed her emotion by changing her behavior.

These games can also work to walk your timid dog past a scary, stationary object, like a manhole cover, or a noisy air conditioning unit. Touch-and-treat as you walk past, or toss Find It treats on the ground ahead of you and slightly away from the scary thing, to keep her moving happily forward.

playing games with a dog

Play

You can use any behavior your dog already loves – a trick, toy, or game – to convince her that good things happen in the presence of something scary. If she loves to roll over, ask her to do that. If she delights in snagging tossed treats out of the air, do that. High five? Crawl? Spin and twirl? Do those.

The key to making any of these games work is to be sure you stay far enough away from the scary thing that your dog’s brain is able to click into “play” mode. You’ll be more successful if you start the games when you see low levels of stress, rather than waiting until she’s in full meltdown. If she’s too fearful, she won’t be able to play. If she’ll play games with you while the scary thing is at a distance, you’ll be able to move closer. If she stops playing and shuts down, you’ve come too close.

Be Patient and Kind to Fearful Dogs

Whatever protocol you use, always err on the side of caution, and remember that your canine pal is not being a “bad dog” – she is truly terrified. It should go without saying that any application of force, coercion, or punishment will only make things worse in the long run, even if it succeeds in shutting down behavior in the short term. With empathy, patience, and appropriate management and modification, you can help make your dog’s world a happier, safer place.

How to Keep Your Dog From Stealing Unattended Food and Other Edible Items

Counter Productive:

How to Keep Your Dog From Stealing Unattended Food and Other Edible Items

Prevent your dog from helping himself to any unattended food or food-like items he finds on kitchen counters, dining room tables, and other accessible locations

Some counter-surfing dogs are after the one human-food item that they find irresistible – and reliably stocked in the same place on the counter at all times, like bread or butter near the toaster. Other dogs will settle for any molecules of edible items they can find. If this describes your dog, be extra careful, because dogs like this are prone to overdosing on medication, sugar-free gum or hard candies (xylitol is deadly for dogs), or other dangerous food-like substances.

One of the hardest canine behaviors for some dog owners to understand (or forgive) is counter-surfing – when your dog helps himself to some edible item that you or another household human left unattended. The behavior isn’t just limited to counters; some dogs help themselves to any food left on tables, desks, coffee tables, or any other unguarded surface. Some dogs specialize in finding any food you have hidden in your car!

COUNTER SURVEILLANCE

Smart dog owners understand that canids are naturally “opportunistic eaters” – they are genetically programmed to eat food when they see or find it. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should just let them help themselves to anything in the house that they can find! Dogs are genetically programmed to do a lot of things we don’t just let them do.

However, it does mean that we have to scrupulously manage our dog’s environment, in hopes that they never learn the joy of counter-surfing in the first place, but also so that if they already have, we can reprogram the learning (i.e., modify the behavior).

Management is pretty simple. It just means never leaving unattended food anywhere your dog can get it. Alternatively, you can restrain or put your dog away (closed in another room, behind a baby gate, tethered, or crated) if you must leave food out.

If you do this starting from puppyhood, so your dog never gets an opportunity to abscond with the deli tray or butter dish on the counter, there’s a good chance he won’t decide to leap onto counters when he reaches adulthood.

Still, it’s not a good idea to take good behavior for granted, or frequently present your dog with unnecessarily hard-to-ignore temptations.

Our two dogs have never counter-surfed; they are both small (under 35 pounds) and have reasonably good house manners, so we trust that our food is safe on the kitchen counter or dining room table (even though they are both quite capable of jumping that high, if they wanted to). I wouldn’t dream, however, of leaving food on our coffee table and walking out of the room; there’s no point in tempting fate!

If you choose to manage your dog, rather than keeping the counters reliably free of food, make good use of our usual list of management tools to prevent your dog from having access to food on counters and tables: Doors, baby gates, crates, exercise pens, leashes, tethers, and (last but least, as it has the best chance of failure due to human error) direct supervision.

Not Guilty

Some dogs seem incorrigible about helping themselves to any food they can find in the house – and some humans get hopping mad about it. “I’ve punished him many times for this,” they say. “He knows he’s not supposed to do it. He only does it when I’m not in the room, and he always looks guilty afterward. So clearly he knows better!”

The thing is, he really doesn’t know better. What he does know is that bad things happen (you get angry, or perhaps even a little violent) if he takes food off the counter when you are there. However, nothing bad happens if he takes yummy stuff off the counter when you aren’t there, so it’s okay – and safe – to do it then.

Generally, by the time you discover his latest transgression and punish him for it (we don’t recommend this), the punishment is too far removed from his action; he won’t associate the punishment with his taking the food. All he really knows is that sometimes you are grumpy when you enter the kitchen (or wherever the food had been).

So what about those guilty looks? If your dog doesn’t know he did a bad thing, why does he look guilty?

In 2009, dog cognition scientist Alexandra Horowitz, Ph.D., author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (Scribner, 2009) and Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell (Scribner, 2016), tried to answer that question with a study, “Disambiguating the ‘Guilty Look.’”

Horowitz set up a situation where the owner would put a treat where their dog could reach it, tell the dog to leave it alone, and leave the room. When the owner returned, Horowitz sometimes reported to the owner that the dog had eaten the treat even if he hadn’t (the researchers removed the food from the plate). In these instances, the owners most frequently described their dogs as looking guilty, even though, unbeknownst to them, the dog had not taken the treat. Additionally, if the owners scolded the dogs, the dogs frequently looked “guilty” – whether they had eaten the treat or not. In fact, Horowitz also found that when scolded, the most exaggerated guilty looks were frequently offered by the dogs who had not eaten the treat!

The behavior and expression that owners often think is an indication of guilt – a hunched, lowered posture, ears back, eyes averted, sometimes accompanied by a submissive grin – is actually appeasement behavior; it indicates that the dog is fearful. It means he has read your body language, understands that you are upset, and is trying to appease you so you don’t take it out on him.

If your dog’s counter-surfing and your anger about it is separated in time by more than several seconds, he has no idea why you are angry, but he doesn’t want your wrath descending on him. Even if you aren’t overtly angry, he can tell when you are upset about something, so he offers body language intended to deflect your emotions.

Note: While the dog’s behavior in the counter-surfing scenarios described here are not an indication of guilt, that does not mean dogs cannot feel guilt. We don’t know that yet. It’s possible that they can. But this isn’t it.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE:  MODIFICATION

My own unproven and untested theory, based on anecdotal evidence alone, is that the truly dedicated counter-surfers tend to be smart, confident dogs with resilient personalities. Some are truly masters of the art of taking food – practically from under your very nose, without you ever noticing. You have to admire ninja skills like that! You might even be in the kitchen with your dog and you think you’re doing a good job of managing, but you turn your back for a second and oops! The holiday ham has been swiped from the counter.

There is certainly value in modifying counter-surfing behavior, especially if you have one of those expert surfers, or if management won’t be consistent in your household; perhaps you care for an elderly parent with dementia, or have distracted, spontaneous children roaming your home. When scrupulous management isn’t possible, by all means, use behavior modification!

Here are some useful training tools you can teach your counter-surfing canine:

* Mat training. Teach your dog that her place in the kitchen is on her mat, conveniently placed in the corner. Cue her to go to her mat as needed, and then watch for her to start going to her mat on her own, without a cue. When this happens, be sure to reinforce her happily and generously! (For more detail about teaching this behavior, see “Useful Matters,” WDJ January 2020.)

Work to increase the duration of time that you want her to stay on the mat, until she will stay there happily for long periods, with long pauses between reinforcers. Continue to reinforce her on her mat in the kitchen (or wherever food is present) to keep the behavior strong.

* Leave It. A well-trained, well-timed, cheerful “Leave it!” cue can work wonders, especially if it’s delivered right at the moment when you see your dog eyeing the turkey sandwich that one of the kids left on the coffee table.

I teach that “Leave it” means “forever,” so if you do have to leave the kitchen for a brief moment, your “Leave it” cue can help ensure the safety of any unattended food – but don’t count on it for more than a few seconds!

Start by saying “Leave it!” and putting a treat under your foot, then waiting for your dog to stop trying to get it out from under your shoe. The instant she stops, “mark” the moment with a signal, such as the click of a clicker or the word “Yes!” and give her a treat. Continue using the marker (click or “Yes!”) and giving her a treat every few seconds, in random durations (but not too long), as long as she doesn’t go back to the shoe. If she does try to get the treat again, just wait until she stops, then mark/treat again.

It’s a fun behavior to teach! You are setting up your dog to make the right choice, then reinforcing her when she does. It’s one of those rewarding-for-the-human positive-training moments where you get to see the light bulb come on, when your dog looks at the treat and then deliberately looks away. (For more instruction on teaching this behavior, see “Leaving for Good,” June 2018.)

*Walk Away. The “Leave it” cue tells your dog not to eat whatever she is coveting; in contrast, the “Walk Away” moves her promptly away from the food that she’s eyeing on the counter or table. In many cases, this is more effective, because it tells your dog what to do (and reinforces her for doing it) instead of just telling her what not to do.

Being able to teach your dog to move away from something when asked is an invaluable tool, both for your dog’s safety and for your sanity. It has become one of my favorite behaviors to teach and use.

We start teaching this behavior by tossing treats for our dog to chase and eat. When he thoroughly understands the “game” of watching to see where you toss the treats so he can pursue and eat them, you present him with a novel but neutral (uninteresting) item that may draw his attention for a moment. When he moves toward the item to investigate it with a sniff, you cue “Walk Away!” and run away, tossing treats behind him, so he whips a U-turn and pursues the treats.

There are more steps and more practice required for a reliable “Walk Away!” behavior, but you get the idea. For detailed instructions on teaching this behavior to your dog, see “Walk Away!” in the September 2018 issue.

BEWARE THE GREMLIN:  INTERMITTENT REINFORCEMENT

Note: The leash here looks a little tight. Don’t pull the dog away from the novel item. After a couple iterations, when he hears the cue, he should be anticipating the treats and start turning and running away from the item with you.

In behavior science terms, you “extinguish” your dog’s counter-surfing behavior by not leaving any food on the counter for him to find – ever – thus removing all possible reinforcement. Behaviors that aren’t reinforced in some way eventually go away. But if your dog happens to score a sandwich or a savory pie while you are trying to extinguish the food-seeking behavior – even just once! – the behavior will be so strongly reinforced that it will be difficult to extinguish again.

So, if you really want to extinguish your dog’s counter-surfing behavior, your management has to be flawless. If your dog has access to a goodie on the counter every now and then, she will continue to search for random prizes that she can snatch when no one is looking. And each time she does, she’ll become even more convinced that the counter will eventually pay off. The behavior will become even more durable, and she will keep scouting the surface of the counter even longer.

Think about this: Let’s say you’re walking to work and you happen to glance at some pretty marigolds in a street-side planter. To your surprise and delight, you find a $100 bill tucked under the leaves of the plant. Want to bet you’ll check the planter again the next day? And the next?

If, four days later, you happen to find another $100 bill, you’re for sure going to keep checking the planter every time you go by, for a long time. Finding another bill in 20 or 30 days will only convince you to keep looking, even if there are very long gaps between finding one $100 bill and the next. In fact, you’d probably keep looking even if you “just” found a $20 bill!

COUNTER CLAIM:  ALL FIXED?

Some dogs are more strongly motivated by the prospect of finding unattended food than others. You may never be able to turn your back on these dogs and expect to see snacks where you left them – so don’t leave snacks unattended! Management is that simple.

You’ve invested extensive time and energy into managing and modifying your dog’s behavior. He no longer snags food off the kitchen counter when you turn your back. In fact, he’s very good about relaxing on his mat in the corner when you are in the kitchen preparing food, and you’re very good about continuing to reinforce him for that. Congrats!

Can we say he’s “fixed” now? Is it okay to let your guard down and leave food on the counter even when you’re not there?

With some dogs, perhaps; but for most, probably not.

Some dogs have very strong food-seeking behaviors. For example, as most animal-care professionals are aware (and most owners realized early in their Labrador experience), Labrador Retrievers are notorious chow-hounds. It’s actually suspected of being a genetically inherited trait! In 2016, researchers found a gene believed to be responsible for the Labrador’s well-known magnetic attraction to food.

Your counter-surfing Lab – or any other dog with strong food-accessing behaviors – is likely to need management for the rest of his life, even after an excellent modification program.

Think back to that planter with the marigolds and the occasional $100 bills. If you went months without finding any more money, you’d probably stop checking every day – but you might still take a peek under the flowers every once in a while. And if at some point you found more money – even just a $5 bill – you’d likely go back to checking that planter regularly again, right?

When we modify behavior, the old behavioral response (neuron pathway) doesn’t go away; it just gets overlaid by the new behavioral response. If something happens to trigger the old response, the behavior can (and often does) quickly pop back up (this is called a spontaneous recovery).

EVEN TRAINERS’ DOGS STRUGGLE WITH THIS

In my Academy, we sometimes conduct a “Leave It Test” with trainers and their relatively well-trained dogs. The trainers place a bowl of food on the floor and tell their dogs to “Leave it!” Often, as long as the trainer faces her dog and watches, most of the dogs are very reliable about abstaining from eating the food.

Amusingly, however, if the trainers cover their eyes, turn their backs to their dogs, or step behind a barrier, more than 90% of the dogs will help themselves to the food within 10 minutes. Most eat the food within 60 seconds or less!

If your dog has a history of getting reinforcement for counter-surfing, and you’ve put effort into modifying his behavior so he’s far less likely to help himself to available food, keep up reasonable management protocols as well. Don’t waste all that effort by tempting him into transgression – just don’t. If you do – and he fails, it’s your fault, not his.

Understanding Your Dog’s Vocalizations

barking together

Barks, growls, howls, whines, and whimpers-your dog is talking to you, and he’s got a lot to say!

Barking

Dogs bark for many reasons, including alert (there’s something out there!), alarm (there’s something bad out there) boredom, demand, fear, suspicion, distress, and pleasure (play).

The bark of a distressed dog, such as a dog who suffers from isolation or separation distress or anxiety, is high-pitched and repetitive; getting higher in pitch as the dog becomes more upset. Boredom barking tends to be more of a repetitive monotone. Alert bark is likely to be a sharp, staccato sound; alarm barking adds a note of intensity to the alert.

Demand barks are sharp and persistent, and directed at the human who could/should ostensibly provide whatever the dog demands. At least, the dog thinks so. Suspicious barks are usually low in tone, and slow, while fearful
barking is often low but faster. Play barking just sounds . . . playful. If you have any doubt – look to see what the dog is doing. If he’s playing, it’s probably play barking.

Baying

Baying is deep-throated, prolonged barking, most often heard when a dog is in pursuit of prey, but also sometimes offered by a dog who is challenging an intruder. The scent hounds are notorious for their melodic baying voices.

Growling

Growls are most often a warning that serious aggression may ensue if you persist in whatever you’re doing, or what-ever is going on around him. Rather than taking offense at your dog’s growl, heed his warning, and figure out how to make him more comfortable with the situation. Dogs also growl in play. It’s common for a dog to growl while playing tug – and that’s perfectly appropriate as long as the rest of his body language says he’s playing. If there’s any doubt in your mind, take a break from play to let him calm down. Some dogs also growl in pleasure. Rottweilers are notorious for “grumbling” when being petted and playing, and absent any signs of stress, this is interpreted as a “feels good” happy sound.

Howling

Howling is often triggered by a high-pitched sound; many dogs howl at the sound of fire and police sirens. Some dog owners have taught their dogs to howl on cue, such as the owner howling.

Some dogs howl when they are significantly distressed – again, a common symptom of isolation and separation distress.