5 Questions to Ask Before Dog Training Can Begin

I happen to be bringing most of my training team to the IAABC Conference in Anaheim this weekend. There are several tracks about training for aggression, reactivity and other behavior topics, even interspecies stuff with both dogs and cats. But the topics that really interest me the most are the two talks on client interaction, “Taking a Case History” and “Improving Client Compliance*”. That is where the focus of all our training programs should be.


I’ve had two clients recently that had a different plan for their dog training direction. One client we knew we shouldn’t work with. The other we didn’t know until they finished and didn’t creep so silently into the cold dark night. Finding out what a client’s expectations are and then using that information effectively is the crux move in a dog behavior and training program.

Of the two cases I mentioned above, the one we never started, at least had a happy ending, We told the client that we weren’t a good fit for their training needs, and they wouldn’t be fully satisfied if they did proceed with a training program. Their response was actually a lovely one and a blessing. They thanked me for listening, and for being so candid with my suggestions.

The other one had some murmurings of “This isn’t going to work!” “We can’t do that!” and “No we didn’t actually follow your suggestions.” The better job that we do of finding out what our clients want and working in tandem with them, the better our results will be.

There are 5 questions we need to ask in any training series.

  • What does the caregiver want to know?
  • What does the caregiver want the dog to know?
  • What does the trainer think the caregiver needs to know?
  • What does the dog need to know?

And even more importantly:

  • What does the puppy want to know?

It’s important we deliver the information in a way that works for everyone. Here is a detailed look at dog training from the different viewpoints:

What the caregiver wants to know?

  • How to get my puppy to stop biting?
  • When can I take my dog to play with other dogs?
  • When will he calm down?
  • When can he run free?
  • How long do I have to do this for?
  • What are the right things for care and diet?
  • How do I teach the puppy commands?
  • When can I stop using treats?
  • How do I get him to stop pulling?
  • How do I get him to stop chewing?
  • Why do they stop on walks?
  • Can I bring everyone in my family to class?

What caregiver wants the dog to know?

  • Manners around family and visitors
  • To potty outside or in the right place
  • Not to run out the door
  • To come
  • To stay
  • Not to bark or cry
  • Not get in trash
  • Be generally sociable

What does the trainer think the caregiver needs to know?

  • To watch and read the dog
  • To let the dog make choices
  • Principles of learning
  • Stimulate, and enrichment, to set up the environment
  • Allow rest time, not overwhelm
  • Timeline for socialization, health and development
  • To do right for the dog and not do damage it
  • How to start w/o mistakes
  • Why they can’t let them play on leash

What does the dog need to know?

  • The world is safe
  • Housebreaking
  • Good behavior and manners
  • How to live without: jumping, biting, being destructive
  • Coping skills
  • Socializing
  • Social skills with dogs
  • To be comfortable when alone
  • To be comfortable on a leash
  • Basic training- Impulse control, sit, down, wait, stay and come when called
  • Place or “Station”
  • Proper confinement behavior, crate pen, tether
  • Comfort during husbandry veterinary care and restraint
  • If I do something good I get reinforcement

IMG_0854What does dog want to know?

  • When do we eat?
  • What can I do?
  • What did I do wrong?
  • Where can I pee?
  • How do I avoid getting yelled at again? (Or avoid any punishment)
  • Why do you keep doing that?
  • Why do you keep saying that?
  • What are you trying to get me to do?
  • What do you want from me?
  • I don’t understand, can you make that more clear?
  • When can I play?

I actually prefer the term collaboration to client compliance, because we really are working in a team with them. When we look at each of these questions, we can make sure we have designed a dog training program that covers everyone’s needs. Because if you look at the answers to the questions, you will see that each point of view comes from a rather different perspective.

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Pit Bulls Pull 4-year Old Through Fence

Any dog can bite, don't blame the breed.

It’s not the breed it’s the teeth. 

How do we possibly place blame?

I just heard about a 4-year-old boy, pulled under a fence and mauled by 4 Pit Bull dogs. The way this happened was that the mother was walking on the sidewalk and the dogs were behind a closed gate in a fenced driveway. There was enough of a gap that the dogs were able to reach out and pull the boy into the yard and maul him severely. Ultimately, the police shot several of the dogs to free the child and then transported the boy to the hospital where he subsequently died.

I’m going to state the obvious, that any death is awful. And I mean both the child and the dogs. Though I work with aggressive dogs and dog bite cases often, I’m never comfortable hearing about the damage that can be done. This is an unexpected and unexplainable tragedy. Is there a message here and if so, is there anything we can take away that’s helpful?

  • I don’t blame the dog’s owners; they had their dogs securely locked in their yard.
  • I’m don’t blame the mother for walking close to the fence, how could she possible know.
  • I’m not blaming Pit Bulls as any breed can do damage to a small child.

Of course if the owners had better trained the dogs or had a better fence or if the mother walked somewhere else it might not have happened. But maybe the blame should fall on the animal care and control department in Detroit. As it turns out, the dogs have gotten out of their yard before and there have been prior complaints. As a professional dog trainer for nearly 30 years, I have worked tirelessly to help owners and dogs have a good life and become welcome members of our community. As a certified dog behavior consultant, I have helped countless owners solve aggression and other problematic dog behavior. As a dog bite expert witness I work with the courts and animal control to sort out the aftermath of dangerous dog cases.

At the end of the day, animal regulatory agencies need to do a better job. That is where we need to put our efforts of education. They need to do better protecting the public from dangerous dogs, and they need to do more to help more people adopt the good ones. At the end of the day, that is the take away here.


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What APDT Means to Me

I started training dogs because I was good at it and enjoyed working with animals and helping both dogs and people have a better life. I have built my career doing what was right even in the face of opposition. When I began my first training class, I was told to alpha roll my dog and use a rattle can. I didn’t do it and searched to find better ways for the last 30 years. I did what I thought was right. Then I had the opportunity to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

I hoped I could make a difference to how dog training was presented on a national scale. Two things were evident to me: that the public needed a chance to learn about kinder more modern training philosophies and that the APDT was the preeminent organization offering educational opportunities nationwide.

I am really more pained by the wasted effort so many other people have put into helping APDT grow to prominence then are watching it decline and being unable to stop the landslide.

Prior concerned members can’t seem to help.

It didn’t go well and if you follow the APDT closely, you know that I resigned from the Board of Trustees because I couldn’t support the decisions of my fellow board members, nor could I continue to cosign the way they made decisions and presented information to the general members. The board fired the most effective staff and management team that we had in our history because they wouldn’t work past a personality conflict. They rushed the transition to a management company that had no institutional knowledge and without any reasonable ramp up time.

I don’t think the general membership really has a chance to know the problems with the “New APDT”. The board and the association management haven’t answered requests for information about the decline in educational offerings and conference registrations. Even after concerned prior leadership made suggestions and inquiries, nothing was answered. In fact, even in light of the need for transparency and effective leadership with open communication, the in-person board meeting in Lexington in June was only in session for a little over one hour, and there was neither old business nor new business discussed. Six months into a major change warrants a formal agenda item to assess current status. What they did do was compartmentalize the flow of information so that no one interested would see it. They have shut down most of the message boards including the well-read Yahoo group. All that is left is the “Official Community” and dissent (otherwise termed “suggestions”) has been relegated to a forum with only 30 odd participants.

The net result is that the general membership doesn’t know that the individuals who brought the association to the public have also resigned from their positions. Not only did I resign, but neither Katenna Jones, the Education Director nor Adrienne Hovey, the Chronicle of the Dog Editor, have chosen to stay with the organization. The candidates for the September Board of Trustees election haven’t been announced, and I believe there aren’t even enough candidates to fill the open spots on the board. I am disappointed in the current actions of the leaders of what I used to consider “Our Association”, but I am really more pained by the effort so many other people have put into helping APDT grow to the prominence and then are watching it decline and being unable to stop the landslide.

I just thought you should know.


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Preventable Causes of Dog Bites

How Dog Trainers can Work with Veterinarians

As a dog bite expert witness, I see my share of aggressive biting dog cases. As a dog trainer working on puppy biting and socializing I see plenty as well. In my experience less than 5% of the problem biting dogs are really serious or difficult to deal with. The best part is that the other 95% are really preventable. There are two significant causes of aggressive behavior in dogs and with a little cooperation between breeders, veterinarians and dog trainers they could be prevented. If we could do a better job of safe puppy socializing and eliminate aversive training techniques, we would prevent most of the problems from ever starting in the first place.

We don’t breed pets to be nasty; we breed them to be companions. Nature and nurture are common and perhaps overused phrases, but behavior either comes from what you are born with or what you learn. Every dog is born with whatever its temperament will be, and you can’t change that. But we can change how they are raised, their environment and what they learn. The first advice puppy owners usually get is from their vet or their breeder who are notoriously behind the times on current training and socializing protocols, but everyone assumes they are right because they are respected professionals.

When people have misguided instruction the results can be unfortunate. Too many dogs bite and misbehave because they are afraid of getting in trouble. Dogs act out to defend themselves when they don’t want to be punished. I get lots of calls from clients who say their dog growls when they “correct” it. We all know of dogs that run off and hide in “guilt” from misbehaving. We certainly see lots of under-socialized dogs that are fearful of a wide variety of things and growl, lunge and retreat to feel safe. These are all avoidable behaviors especially with a little bit of well-placed education.

A ten-minute talk at a veterinarian’s office goes a long way in helping prevent these problems. Its tempting to blame vets for preventing owners from socializing for instance, but I show them how we can all work together because safe early socializing will make their client’s pets easier to manage. I give them peer-reviewed articles from other vets on the benefits and safety of proper socializing including for example, the AVSAB Puppy Socialization Position Statement.

I still hear a lot of vets and breeders teaching methods like holding a puppy’s mouth shut for biting and worse. I give a couple non-aversive or reward-based training examples of how you can eliminate puppy biting by teaching impulse control exercises or by using removal of affection as a powerful technique when a dog is misbehaving. I eliminate the notion of catching your dog in the act, and replace it with methods like using a short-term confinement area combined with puppy proofing.

When we approach and work together with veterinarians and breeders, we can eliminate a lot of preventable problems. What can you do to be part of the solution? Call your vet today and make an appointment to bring a box of cookies and make a presentation in the afternoon staff meeting. They will remember and thank you.

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Dealing with Dog’s Fears – How to Start

Establish and Measure the Fear
If you want to develop a protocol to help a dog overcome fear, you need a plan. In order to do that and before you can develop a protocol to overcome a fear issue, it needs to be properly assessed and measured. First establish what the dog is actually afraid of and second, measure the severity.

Define the Fearful Stimuli
When you try to assess what the dog is actually afraid of, look at all the dog’s senses. For example, if your dog gets scared when there are thunderstorms, it is natural to assume that the dog is afraid of the noise or the shaking, but it could be the smell of the ozone or the touch of the static electricity for example. They might even think it is the house that is the problem because it is actually the thing they perceive as the origin. When you actually start training, if you aren’t counter conditioning for the right thing, the treatment plan won’t work.

Dogs Prioritize Differently – Include All 5 Senses

Help your dog get through fear with a well thought out behavior training plan.

Help your dog get through fear with a well thought out behavior training plan.

What order does your stimuli arrive from the dog’s viewpoint?
Smell       Hearing       Touch       Sight       Taste
Humans tend to think of sight first, dogs are more likely to think of scents, sounds and feeling first. So remember that they prioritize differently and another sense might be the first one they think of, or that they strongly associate with the fear. Fireworks for instance have not only light and sound, but pressure change and at least four different chemical smells associated with them.

Levels of Severity
How difficult will it be for the dog. If it isn’t that bad, then your dog can get over it easier. Give yourself a framework and make a concrete measurement about the dogs reaction. The greater the level of the fear, the slower the treatment plan will be.

• Level 1 – Startle reaction with quick recovery
• Level 2 – Startle response with a slightly longer recovery
• Level 3 – Freeze, Tremble, Pant, Vocalize, Eyes Dilated, etc.
• Level 4 – Flight and Hide for Perceived Safety (Still with conscious thought)
• Level 5 – Terrified Panic Response (Non-thinking unconscious reaction)

Implement Counter Conditioning
If the fear is not too severe like Level 3 or below and there is no distress associated with it, habituation would probably be sufficient. Repeated exposure will give the dog a chance to learn that he can deal with it without consequences. Typically you can habituate to level 1-2 fears.

Systematic Desensitization
If the fear is greater, the dog needs greater help so you would need to desensitize to level 3-5 fears. It would be very easy to over do it and flood the dog, causing irreparable damage, so go slowly and start well below the dog’s reaction threshold. Accustom a dog to a Level 3 or greater fearful stimulus or situation by using systematic desensitization.

Once you have really dissected what your are trying to achieve, it will be a lot easier to design a treatment plan. Remember to go slowly and don’t skip steps. If you go too fast, it’s harder to fix than doing a step too slowly.

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    • Trained nearly 10,000 dogs
    • Over 20 years consultation and testimony experience in administrative, criminal and civil cases
    • Voted Best Dog Trainer in Los Angeles 2009-2014 CityVoter and MyFox LA Hotlist


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