Say YES! instead of NO!: thoughts on positive-reinforcement dog training.

I’ve been a professional dog trainer for 34 years, and dogs have been my passion for even longer. When I started training, we followed the corrective methods forged in the military: put a chain or prong collar on a dog and jerk to get the behavior we wanted. Sometimes, if our dogs did it right, we’d give them a cookie. Though our hearts often broke for our dogs, we trusted our teachers.

Using positive training methods allows dogs to be happy, creative, and eager to learn.

Thankfully, research has since shown that harsh training methods (angry, raised voices, often shouting “NO”, jerking and popping, using a prong or chain collar, hitting your dog, or using spray bottles–to name just a few) can not only injure your dog emotionally, but damage your relationship with your dog in much the same way that abusive behavior can damage human family relationships. Dogs can also be injured physically from some of these methods. For example, throughout her life, Vera, our German shepherd, had difficulty breathing when she drank due to a damaged trachea from a choke chain which was used on her in her first home. Even expert military trainers are now using positive methods. Why? Because dog and handler must trust each other implicitly and their partnership must be absolute.

Clearly this puppy is experiencing joy! His mouth is open and relaxed, tongue showing, eyes soft, and no wrinkles of anxiety around his mouth or on his forehead.

It is thought that dogs have emotions equivalent to a two and a half-year-old child. They can experience joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love, but not guilt. When they experience fear–and they do experience fear from punishment-style training (see Sophie Yin’s poster on “the body language of fear in dogs,” and then observe your dog’s reaction to corrections closely), they might respond in a number of ways such as: “shutting down” (emotionally withdrawing from the situation), handler-directed aggression, dog-dog aggression, or aggression toward strangers. They might also develop anxiety and ongoing anxiety-based behaviors such as self-inflicted sores or hot-spots, in-home destruction, relieving themselves inside the home, separation anxiety, or learning difficulties.

The trouble with punishment-style training is that it often works in the moment. It’s therefore very reinforcing to the handler because the dog will often stop what he’s doing out of fear and to avoid further punishment. This gives the handler a sense of gratification. Unfortunately, the dog doesn’t learn how to change his behavior. He just becomes more anxious, often increasing the unwanted behavior. A dog’s ability to learn diminishes as stress increases, just as it does in humans.

The other thing that makes punishment so rewarding to us is that as primates, we are hardwired to shout and use our hands to hit when we are frustrated or angry, so the very act of punishing our dogs can feel like the right thing to do and make us feel better about training our dogs.

What to do instead…

Transitioning to positive methods can be hard. I know, because I’ve done it. Positive methods feel permissive, like they don’t have “teeth.” However, by not reinforcing “bad” behaviors, and by rewarding the behaviors you are looking for with praise and/or treats, your dog will become enthusiastic about learning and working with you. Being consistent 100% of the time, and preventing unwanted behaviors by planning what you want him to do in advance, actually works!

Say, for example, you want your dog to stay off the couch. Rather than yelling at him to get off, you could block his access to it with baby gates, or put something such as books on the cushions to dissuade him from getting up in the first place. By NEVER allowing him to get on the couch, and by planning short training sessions where he’s rewarded for NOT getting onto the couch (you could toss treats on the floor next to the couch, or give him a special chew toy on his bed in the same room), he will learn to stay off the furniture without fear of being punished for making a mistake. Before long, he’ll stay on the floor and won’t attempt to get onto the couch.

This is a clicker from the Karen Pryor website.

Using a clicker or a marker word such as “YES” followed immediately by a treat, is a fun, positive, and very effective way to teach your dog skills without fear or intimidation. Due to the release of chemical mediators in the brain, anticipation of the treat is just as powerful a reward as the treat itself. The click or word “yes” actually marks the precise behavior you want to reinforce in your dog, and the treat follows within two seconds. Watch this short video of Vera (from Finding Vera) introducing clicker training.

A “reward” can be anything your dog likes. It can be food, praise, a toy, doing a favorite trick, or getting a chest scratch. The reward is given to your dog as payment AFTER he completes the behavior you request, or when he makes a good behavioral choice. Guiding one’s dog to make the correct choice is part of our job as trainers and dog parents, and it’s your dog’s right to be paid for a job done well.

If you’re interested in learning more about positive reinforcement training methods, contact a professional trainer through CPDT or KPA to help you make the transition. If you haven’t already tried positive reinforcement training, I’d recommend that you do so. Using positive methods is not only immensely rewarding to both you and your dog, but will strengthen your relationship in ways you might not have thought possible.

Puppies during the Pandemic

In the last few months there has been an explosion of puppy adoptions–not only on my block, but nationwide. Since a significant part of the workforce is working from home, people are using the opportunity to add a new companion to their family. There are lots of advantages to this: the whole family is at home so the puppy won’t be left alone for long periods of time, house training should be easier if everyone is able to pitch in and take the puppy out frequently, and training your puppy basic skills might be more fun and more consistent if everyone does it together.

But, there are also some disadvantages. The most critical disadvantage of having a puppy during this pandemic is the lack of ability to socialize your puppy. Socializing puppies in the first 12-16 weeks of life is essential for a well-balanced temperament. It’s very difficult for dogs to catch up later on in life, and serious behavior issues can evolve if puppies don’t get the right kind of socialization during this window period. My husband and I spent twelve years trying to rehabilitate Vera, our rescued reactive German shepherd. She was plagued by a fear of strangers and dogs which manifested in aggression throughout her life, in large part due to lack of socialization as a puppy and young dog–not an easy fix. You can read the details of this difficult undertaking in my novel, “Finding Vera”.

Vera, although a wonderful companion who strove to do everything “right”, was always fearful of and aggressive to other dogs and strangers, largely due to her lack of socialization in puppyhood.

Another disadvantage to having a puppy during the pandemic is that classes for puppies may not be up and running in your area due to COVID-19, especially with the current surge in cases. So having your puppy exposed to and interacting with small groups of puppies will be more difficult than usual, and getting expert advice on how to manage and train puppies in a class setting might be risky or impossible. If you’ve never had a puppy before, you might feel overwhelmed.

TIPS and resources for Parenting and socializing Puppies

Milo at 6 months socializing with Annie (18 months) before COVID-19.
  • Since there is a small risk that COVID-19 could be spread to pets from sick humans, the CDC currently recommends keeping dogs six feet away from strangers. There is, however, “no evidence that the virus can spread to people from the skin, fur, or hair of pets,” according to the CDC.
    • Based on this information and depending on your risk factors for COVID-19 (such as age and underlying health conditions), while wearing a mask you might choose to socialize your dog with other puppies, friendly dogs, and people at the end of a six-foot (or slightly longer) leash. (You would need to ask permission first.)
    • Always allow your puppy to approach the person, child, or dog, (not vice versa), especially if he is shy . It’s important to strive for your puppy to have only positive interactions with strangers and the environment.
    • Don’t force your puppy to approach anyone or anything he’s afraid of. Give him time and encouragement to investigate on his own, then if he’s still reticent, allow him a break before going back to try again. Trying to force him to interact with something he’s afraid of will only undermine his confidence. This includes swimming.
    • Think about scheduling outdoor play sessions with friends’ puppies and well-socialized dogs in a safe setting while still socially distancing from other pet owners, wearing masks, and having hand sanitizer available.
  • There is also a middle ground depending on where your comfort level and risk factors for COVID-19 lie.
    • If you are uncomfortable being six to ten feet away from other humans, by praising and treating your dog whenever he looks at a dog, child, adult, cat, horse etc, you can build your puppy’s confidence. By giving him a strong positive association with other people and creatures at a distance, he will stay positive and interested in them, even though he won’t be interacting directly.
Certified professional dog trainer and puppy specialist, Siw Lea, takes a moment with Annie at 16 weeks.
  • Consider hiring a certified dog trainer for private lessons outside the house rather than inside. The investment of time and money will be well worth it, and with a mask and social distancing, you should be safe from COVID-19. Working with a trainer, you’ll learn more about how to train your puppy, socialize him, what his behavior means, and how to manage him than you can possibly imagine.
  • I recommend the following two books by Ian Dunbar “Before you get your puppy” and “After you get your puppy“. Both are downloadable from these links. They will give you excellent advice on errorless house training, socialization (which will need to be modified as I described above), how to set up your house to manage your puppy more effectively, and much, much more.
Annie resting in her long-term confinement area as recommended by Ian Dunbar in “After you get your puppy”.
  • Be cautious which type of training you choose for your puppy. Over the last twenty years, science has shown that positive-rewards training (reinforcing the behaviors you want your puppy to do with treats and praise (rather than correcting him for what he does wrong), is much more effective. Training by rewarding your puppy for doing the right thing and redirecting or preventing unwanted behaviors is not permissive, but strengthens the life-long bond you will have with your puppy. Watch for my next blog explaining this type of training in more detail.
  • Safe and effective ways to keep puppies from biting” is an excellent article on teaching bite inhibition (how puppies learn to control their bite).
  • Other puppy resources you will find helpful:
  • Remember that puppyhood, while challenging, lasts a relatively short period of time. Puppies need lots of attention, guidance, and training for the first two years of their lives, but if you put in the time and effort, you’ll have a wonderful, well-behaved companion. While dogs often need gentle reminders of our expectations throughout their lives, they will do very well after the first two years.
  • Enjoy your puppy!
  • I’ll republish two short stories I wrote a couple of years ago about our first experience with puppies, long before I was a dog trainer. These crazy puppies are long gone now, but they taught me a lot and spurred me on to become a dog trainer. They were well-loved until they died of old age many years ago.

Back to work? What about my dog?

Over the past several weeks, many of us have been staying at home with our dogs, and if we’re lucky, taking our wonderful companions for walks, playing enrichment games throughout the day, training, and generally bonding in a way we didn’t think possible.

Now, as COVID-19 cases and deaths start to decline in some areas, there are plans to open up parts of the economy. Even if you don’t think your job will restart any time soon, there are several things you can do to prepare your dog for your absence.

If you think about it, when you were working in the past, your dog probably had an adjustment period following your days off. He might have been more excited than usual when you got home from work. He might have emptied the garbage while you were gone, or shown more interest in his toys, or heaven forbid, shown more interest in your toys (the remote control, a book from the bookshelf, a pair of sunglasses you left on the coffee table). He might have even peed on the floor. These are all signs of separation anxiety, which means that your dog missed you when you were gone–a lot.

After having us at home 24/7, being alone for 8-10 hrs at a time will be a shock.

His reaction to your absence could be greatly enhanced after been spending 24/7 together. Dogs are social animals and very bonded to their families. Even dogs who have not had separation issues in the past will miss their people more than usual after spending so much time together.

For those of you who have adopted new dogs in the last two months, your dog’s reaction to being home alone might be even more acute. If your dog has never been away from you and is suddenly stranded for eight to ten hours a day, think how scary, lonely and boring it could be for him. Some dogs will adjust without any difficulty no matter what, but anxious or scared dogs will most likely have a harder time.

Things you can do to prepare your dog

  • Don’t spend every minute of every day with your dog(s). Having a second dog may not alleviate their reaction to your absence.
    • Start gradually. Close the door when you go into another room such as the bedroom or bathroom, and don’t allow him access. When your dog is quiet, walk nonchalantly back into the room and go about your business, ignoring your dog until he settles. Once he has settled, greet him calmly.
    • This way, you’ll be leaving your dog for seconds to minutes several times a day and he will learn that your comings and goings occur as a regular part of his routine.
    • He’ll learn that you always come back.
Annie waits inside while we work in the garden.
  • Don’t interact with your dog constantly during the day, but make sure he has toys that he can use to entertain himself.
    • Get used to doing things that don’t involve your dog such as reading, working on the computer, using your phone.
    • If he demands your attention, ignore him, and if he doesn’t stop bothering you, walk into another room and close the door.
    • When he is quiet, calmly return to where you were before he interrupted you, and continue as if nothing has happened.
    • When he settles, you can give him calm, verbal praise and continue what you were doing.
    • This does not mean that you should ignore him for the entire day. Take regular breaks to take him out for walks or play with him, but gradually spread breaks further apart than what you’ve been doing.

  • Be honest with your dog. Don’t pretend you’re not going out, but rather build a positive association with your exit.
    • Tell your dog you are leaving. Our phrase leaving our girls has always been: “We’re going out and you get to stay here.”
      • When Annie hears this, she lies down in front of the door and waits for the scattering of treats we toss on the floor before we leave.
      • Vera, who had separation anxiety, would not eat treats, but would lie down on the carpet, serious and concerned, and watch us go. I still prepared her a kong which she ate as soon as we returned.
      • Tessie and Lola would crowd into the mudroom waiting for their kibble-dispensing toys, hardly able to contain their excitement.
      • When Tessie and Lola were older puppies (past the age of consuming paper), I would hide stuffed bones and kongs and small paper bags with a few treats in them all over the house. They would be confined while I hid the treats and released when I walked out the door. They would spend the next 30 minutes scavenging. There was no resource guarding or jealousy between them. (I don’t recommend this for dogs you don’t know extremely well and trust implicitly, and who aren’t 100% compatible, especially around food.)
      • In every case, our dogs had a routine and knew exactly what was going to happen. They knew we were going to return home.
  • When your dog is relaxing, play soothing music such as classical music, folk music, or easy jazz. Music that is loud and complicated can cause anxiety. You want him to associate the music with a sense of calm and well-being, so you can leave it playing for him when you are out.
  • Practice leaving him at home when you go grocery shopping, go outside to garden, or go for a short walk. If you have a new dog, these outings should be very short at first and gradually increase in five-minute increments.
    • Before you leave the house, be calm and quiet. You want your dog’s emotions to be settled and balanced when you leave, not over-stimulated and anxious. You also want your dog to notice little variation in household energy between when you are present and when you are gone. For example, don’t have a rousing game of fetch or chase, or an intense training session right before you walk out the door. Have at least a ten minute quiet-time of not interacting with your dog before you leave, so that the transition is smoother for him.
    • When you return home, the same principle applies. Greet your dog quietly, then go about your business of removing your mask, washing your hands, putting away your groceries, your coat etc. Once your dog settles down, give him a proper greeting. Again, you want to minimize the contrast between the hours when you were gone and the minutes after you return.
  • If you have a new dog in the house, consider separating the dogs with a baby gate or ex-pen when you are gone for any period of time to make sure they are safe from each other, especially if there is any tension between them. With the increased anxiety caused by your absence, scuffles, or worse, can erupt.
  • If you have just one dog who is new to your household, I would recommend confining him to an area where he is most comfortable so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the emptiness of the house. Be sure he has water, toys, his bed, and a crate if he is crate trained.
Annie relaxing upside down in her ex-pen when we had Vera. We kept them separated when we were out.
  • Other things you can do: observe your dog’s behavior patterns after you leave by hooking up indoor security cameras. This can be reassuring since most dogs sleep most of the time you are gone.
  • Invest in interactive toys (click on link to see Whole Dog Journal’s picks) such as kongs, kibble-dispensing toys, electronic kibble-dispensing toys, and snuffle mats that will keep your dog entertained for the first few minutes you are gone (or longer) and smooth out that critical transition time. Every dog is different, however, and you need to choose toys carefully to be sure they are safe to leave with your dog(s).

Feature image courtesy of Motoko Lewis (photo of Master Cedric Meerkat and Mischa).

COVID-19 and working from home–with a dog

COVID-19 has filled our lives with challenges that we haven’t seen in our lifetime. But one of the silver linings of being quarantined at home, as most of us are at this particular time in history, is that for better or for worse, we get to stay home with our dogs. This could be a good thing–or it could be overwhelming. Every dog is different. For my husband and myself, staying home with Annie, Tess, or Lola–three well-socialized, well trained dogs we were lucky enough to share our lives with–would be far different than dealing with our rescue, Vera–the wild, untrained, anxious, reactive German Shepherd described in my novel, “Finding Vera“–twenty-four hours a day.

When I first decided to write a blog post about COVID-19, I decided to write about how the virus interacts with dogs. But since new information is coming out daily about the virus, I will instead include this link to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Social Tools resource on that subject.

When you stay home with your dog:

Realize, right from the start, that there are two beings (at least) involved in the changes that occur when you stay home from work:

  • First and foremost, your dog(s), who has had an entire apartment or house to himself five days a week for as long as he can remember, where he can snooze undisturbed for up to ten hours a day, chew on toys, and look out the window or play with his sibling(s).
  • Secondly, you (and everyone else who is staying home), who are most likely in a state of stress. Your dog can not only read the level of stress that you’re under by observing your body language and the pitch of your voice, but by using his exquisite sense of smell. Your house will also be louder with kids running amok, conversations, telephone calls, laughter, computers, television, and games etc.

Things to think about:

  • Start to integrate structure into your routine right away. This is will tell your dog right from the start what your intentions are so he can go about his day accordingly. By knowing what you will be doing in advance, he won’t be plagued by the anxiety of wondering what his new role is. Dogs love routine and structure in their lives, and setting things up in a way that will work for you both right from the start will benefit everyone. Expect an adjustment period at the beginning while you both adapt to your new lifestyle.
  • The old adage “A tired dog is a good dog” rings true. Plan to spend time walking your dog before you start your day. When my husband and I had three dogs, that meant getting up early–at 4:30 AM–to be sure the dogs were tired and exercised before work. Working from home without a commute will give you more time, so get up early and take your dog for a socially-distanced walk before you buckle down in front of your computer. Adjust this walk to the age, energy level, and interests of your dog, being sure it is quality time for each of you. You’ll be more clear-headed and productive after some time outside, and your dog will be more relaxed and ready for a nap.
  • Decide where you want your dog to be while you work, and what you want him to be doing. Even if you aren’t actually moving your job home, you might have projects you’re focused on, or creative endeavors that require concentration such as playing an instrument, writing, painting etc. If your dog is mature, he might just need some loving and a chew toy to settle down. However, if you have a puppy or a demanding adolescent, or if your work or project is making him anxious, you might need to set up a quiet, comfortable enclosed area with water, his favorite bed, chew toys, and a stuffed Kong or two.
  • Decide how often you will take breaks with your dog. It isn’t fair to expect your dog to be a perfect dog for 8 hours in a row with his favorite companion at home. Nor is it reasonable for you to work for 8 hours without a break. You might decide that you will take a break every two hours. Set your alarm.
  • Think about how you’d like to spend break times with your dog. Would another short walk together help to relax you and your dog? Would a wild game of fetch distract you, and help you and your dog laugh together? Would snuggling on the couch or playing “find it” with a few low-fat treats give you the contact you both need to mellow things out after a bathroom/ potty break?
  • Dogs who are exercised a lot tend to become more and more fit, requiring more and more exercise to tire them out. However, exercising their brains tires them out in an entirely different way. Ten minutes of training your dog (I call it playing with my dogs), by teaching them a new skill or trick, having them find an object with their noses, or teaching them to be creative, can leave them content and ready to pass more time on their own, plus it relieves you of the guilt you might otherwise feel if you were to ignore your dog.
  • Be consistent with your dog. This means that if your dog is being demanding of your attention by nudging your hand or elbow, barking at you, asking to go outside, then asking to come in again repeatedly etc, respond in the same way each time. You know your dog, and can most likely predict what his attention-seeking behaviors will be. Decide how you will respond to them ahead of time and respond exactly the same way the first time every time. Behaviors that are intermittently reinforced will be strengthened and be harder to break. The best way to deal with unwanted behavior is to ignore it. Shouting at or hitting your dog not only gives him attention, but will damage the bond you have build together. For instance, if your dog bumps your elbow for attention don’t ignore it the first four times, then absent-mindedly start petting him the fifth time he does it. You have to stay the course since unwanted behaviors will often get worse before they improve. If you do respond to him, he will be much more likely to continue trying to get you to respond to his nudge one more time.
  • Be patient with yourself and your dog. He/she knows it is a difficult time for you and so her behavior could well be more clingy, barky, or unpredictable than usual. Spend short periods of quality time with her through the day, and it will pay off by building an even stronger bond between you.

The Long and Short of Retractable Leashes

Annie hikes on a deserted trail on her Flexi

There has been a lot written about retractable leashes. However, after a neighbor’s small dog rushed across the road, barking and growling and snapping at my ankles, I decided to write about them too. You see, the dog wasn’t loose, but was on a flexi leash with the owner firmly attached to the other end.

I used to use Flexi leashes almost exclusively when I first had dogs, but over the years I’ve learned the hard way. Retractible leashes are seductive because we all want the best lives possible for our dogs, and allowing them more freedom feels like the best possible answer. The first time I realized they were potentially dangerous was when Tessie, my drama queen of a collie, lunged at a car. For some reason, the lock on the handle of the Flexi didn’t work, and if her lunge hadn’t been so fast and hard that it jammed the mechanism, she would have been lost under the wheels of the car.

Why not use Extendable leashes?

There are many reasons not to use extendable leashes. I will list some of them here:

  • Dogs can’t learn how to walk on a loose leash when walking on a retractible leash for the following reasons:
    • the length of the leash is always variable, so they have no idea what distance they should be from their handler.
    • there is constant pressure on the leash due to the nature of the spring mechanism, so your dog gets accustomed to the sensation of pulling.
    • if your dog pulls harder, the leash extends which encourages your dog to pull.
  • Retractible leashes can cause friction burns and amputations to both dogs and humans. I still have a burn scar on my hand from the time a Flexi cord wrapped around my little finger. I was trying to walk our head-strong, powerful golden retriever down a trail when she decided to go after a deer. Somehow, the cord got wrapped around my little finger, and I was lucky not to sustain an amputation. If the leash gets wrapped around a paw and your dog panics and bolts, it can cut off the circulation and cause, if not an amputation, then permanent damage. Even the tape-type extendable leashes can cause injuries.
  • It is impossible to control your dog on a retractable leash. One doesn’t have the dexterity, strength, and manoeuverability to effectively work with a dog on an extendable leash. Consider this when walking in situations where your dog is around traffic, other dogs or animals, people–particularly children. A friend of mine got into a difficult situation when his dog-reactive dog sprinted out from his side before he could engage the lock and wrapped another walker with his retractable leash. The man was hobbled by the leash, fell to the ground, and was bitten by one of the dogs in the ensuing chaos.
  • Keeping your dog safe is impossible if your dog is 26 feet from you. Reeling in a dog on a retractable leash from a distance away from you is cumbersome and takes time. Dogs have been hit by cars on retractable leashes when they arced into the road. If your dog is walking 20 feet ahead of you, and the road is 5 feet to your right, it only takes seconds for your dog to dash in front of a car in pursuit of a squirrel. I had another friend whose dog was attacked by a deer when walking on a retractable leash. Luckily, the little dog was not badly injured.
It’s easy for dogs to wander into trouble using extendable leashes if you aren’t aware of your environment.
  • Allowing your 15-26 foot leash to extend based on your dog’s whim can end badly. Not all dogs enjoy meeting other dogs, and many people are either neutral to dogs or afraid of them. This was a recurrent problem when we had Vera, our reactive German shepherd. She was always under strict control, and as vigilant handlers, we kept her at least forty feet from other dogs at all times. Imagine our horror when a strange dog, walking on leash at his handler’s side, ran toward Vera, unfurling his Flexi behind him. This situation happened many times and never ended well. Vera was always fearful and angry when a dog entered her bubble. She would lunge and bark like a maniac as we dragged her further away, while the the owner on the other end of the leash looked on, baffled. I have heard many owners of reactive and fearful dogs comment over the years on how much they detest retractable leashes because of this type of scenario. We finally learned to avoid any dog on a retractable because their handlers were often distracted and oblivious.
Annie and Chi chi greeting on Flexi leashes. It is easy for dogs to get tangled in this scenario so it’s best to avoid meet and greets with retractable leashes.
  • Dogs who greet other dogs on Flexi’s are potentially at risk. If your dog is friendly and you allow him to greet other dogs while on leash, think about the number of times you need to thread and weave apart the leashes, sometimes dropping them so the dogs don’t get tangled. You can’t do this nearly as easily with extendable leashes, and if the dogs do get tangled, things can escalate very quickly, leading to panic and fights, and serious injuries to both dogs and humans.
  • Large, powerful dogs can actually break the leash or snap the cord, especially when they build up speed before they hit the end of the leash. Unless the dog has a good recall and is being walked in a safe place, he could get into all kinds of trouble. In addition, the broken cord can whip backward injuring the handler.
  • Shoulders and fingers have been dislocated and broken when a charging dog hits the end of the leash. If the handler hangs on and is jerked off his/her feet, falls can cause sprains, fractures, and/or abrasions. Dogs can be injured by the force exerted on the neck, trachea, or shoulders, depending on what the leash is clipped to–collar or harness. Retractable leashes should NEVER be attached to a head collar as they can easily cause severe neck injuries.
  • If the leash is jerked from the handler’s hand, the dog can panic and run from the noisy, bouncing plastic handle gaining speed behind him, forcing him into traffic or other dangerous places. This traumatic experience of being chased by the handle could also impact the dog emotionally and leave him with a permanent fear of the leash–or something else in his immediate environment that he associates with the event.

OK, so when do you use them?

As I said at the beginning of this post, I have used retractable leashes in the past. To me there is no greater joy than watching my dogs have a good time, and retractable leashes make this more likely than a restrictive 6-foot leash. There are a few situations where the risk of using a retractable leash are minimized.

  • We would sometimes attach a Flexi to the back of Vera’s harness and allow her to wade on deserted beaches, always careful to keep the leash free of the water so it wouldn’t get tangled in her legs, logs, or seaweed. This, of course, wouldn’t have worked for her when she was young and wild.
Vera enjoys watching an Orca on a deserted beach using her Flexi
  • Training for recall: When you are teaching your dog to come to you. This can be done more effectively on a longline (a long, light nylon leash) where the slack can be gathered up so your dog isn’t feeling the type of pressure on the harness that I mentioned earlier. Your dog should be well trained and relatively calm if you use a retractable leash for this–not jumping, wild, and pulling constantly.
  • Walking a well-trained dog in an area where there are few people and you can see who’s coming at a distance such as fields or parks. Since our girl, Vera, was never able to walk off leash, we used a Flexi when we walked her as a well-trained middle-aged and older dog at the local cemetery and at a few selected parks where there were strictly enforced leash laws. We always carried a 6-foot leash with us in case we saw a loose dog in the distance. This way she was able to wander and sniff and enjoy some independence in relative safety.
  • Playing ball with your dog on a retractable leash is another option if you don’t have a fenced yard, or if you are in a wide- open area and don’t want your dog to run free. Again, you’d need to be aware of your environment to keep your dog safe.

Which Retractable leashes should you use?

  • Avoid inexpensive retractable leashes. You want to be sure that the mechanism inside is of good quality, because if it fails, you have no way to effectively get your dog back to you without grabbing the cord or tape, and this can lead to significant injuries.
  • Avoid cord-type or wire extendable leashes. They can cause very severe injuries and cords can snap if a powerful dog hits the end of the leash at high speed.

Dogs and Christmas…keep Fido happy and safe

Christmas is a time of family get togethers, good cheer, and high energy. We love to celebrate, to drink, to eat, to grieve our losses–and we often include our dogs in whatever we might choose to do at any given moment.

Extended families and long-lost friends might descend on you over the holidays, some of whom may think they are god’s gift to dogdom, while others might be terrified of dogs, even small ones. They might bring Fido, their fluffy white dog, who “usually” gets along with dogs, but appears like Cujo in the making.

And then there are the dog costumes at stores and online, encouraged and modeled by friends and family, even trainers. There are a gazillion choices for treats and all manner of toys. There are human tidbits, leftovers, and new children’s toys to contend with. Whether you have one dog or multiple dogs, this season can be overwhelming for both you and your dogs.

Annie and her presents.

a few things to think about:

  • Take a deep breath and realize that Christmas is for us, not for our dogs. In fact, holiday times can be very stressful for your dog(s), particularly if they are anxious, reactive, or fearful. Even Annie, who is a well-grounded dog who had every advantage as a puppy, has an uptick in her anxiety level with multiple visitors. And if visitor dogs are added to the puzzle, she is over-the-top with excitement and anxiety.
  • Plan what your dog will do and where he’s going to spend time during get-togethers and parties. When we had Vera, our human and dog-reactive German Shepherd, we chose not to have more than one or two visitors to the house at a time and we always introduced her to them in a consistent manner. We also monitored her closely for the duration of the visit.
  • Even if your dog does love people, he may enjoy them for 15 minutes, then need some time away from the noise and bustle to decompress. He may love to be around adults, but be somewhat uncomfortable around children. (Being “OK” with children is not the same as loving kids.)
  • Think carefully about whether to invite canine visitors into your home. Does your dog enjoy having other dogs in his house? Even if he does enjoy doggie friends, in a high-stimulus environment, it’s not unusual for dogs to get over-aroused and erupt into squabbles.
  • Even well-behaved dogs can get over-stimulated and eat, spill, or break things they normally wouldn’t.
A quiet, peaceful room for Tessie away from the chaos.
  • Set up a safe, quiet, comfortable area for your dog to spend time away from the chaos. Supply his space with some of his favorite, indestructible toys, his bed, and a bowl of fresh water. Visit him several times during the day or evening, take him outside and play with him frequently, and allow him to visit with company only as much as you think he enjoys.
  • Try to keep this season as routine as possible for your dog, and maintain his daily exercise and playtime routines. Feed him his regular diet, and keep new treats and chews to a minimum.
  • Be careful to choose gifts for your dog that are safe. A toy that is safe for one dog might not be safe for another depending on the strength of his jaws and his behavior. Some dogs like to destroy or dissect toys, some just like to spend time with them.
  • When dispensing gifts in multi-dog households, put your dogs in different parts of the room–or even separate rooms–to avoid resource guarding of the treasured items. Even if your dogs don’t fight, one dog will often be forced to give up the valuable toy by a more dominant dog.
  • Know where to call and who to contact if your dog ingests something unauthorized.
  • Review a list of potential poisons for your dog at Christmas.
Annie works hard to resist the forbidden cookies…but if I wasn’t there, who knows?
  • Be careful not to leave human food lying around–desserts, candies, turkey bones (can be fatal), bread, cheese, chips, etc. Even well-behaved dogs can lose their manners when things are left at nose level, and a poor decision could put him in the hospital. Placing your dog in his safe place might be a good idea during times when humans are eating.
  • Marijuana baked goods can be very toxic to your dog and result in hospitalization. Some dogs like alcohol, which is also extremely toxic to dogs–they can lap it directly from a glass or from the floor if a drink spills. Even alcohol-infused desserts can be dangerous.
  • Before you purchase or dig out your dog costumes for Christmas, think for a minute. As Suzanne Clothier points out in her book “Bones Would Rain From the Sky“, it is wise to ask your dog, “how is this for you?”. If your dog shakes off, licks his lips, yawns, puts back his ears, tucks his tail, or tries to escape when you approach him with his lovely annual reindeer costume, put it back in the box. On the whole, dogs don’t like to be dressed up, and even new harnesses and head collars need a desensitization period.
Annie refused to let even a Christmas hat near her unless she was allowed to play tug, so I asked
Bruno, our faux dog, to help out.
  • Because the Christmas season is a stressful time for our dogs, it is important to understand that your dog is more likely to be reactive, anxious, and more prone to make mistakes such as messing in the house, or snapping at or biting humans (think about the unsupervised child who chases your dog, or the uncle who LOVES dogs and insists on hugging your dog while Fido’s eating dinner).
  • It’s also more likely that fights will break out between canine siblings or canine visitors to the house due to high stress and arousal levels.
  • If you are sad or depressed at Christmas (many of us have lost loved ones at this time of year and the season might trigger a grief reaction), take time to play with and walk your dog. It will not only be reassuring for your dog, but will make you feel better too.
  • By being vigilant and careful and by looking out for your dogs’ needs, you can make the season a positive experience for all of your family.

Leaving your dog? Things to consider…

In bygone days, my husband and I would pay a college student or ask friends or my parents to care for our dogs when we went on vacation. This was when we had sound, healthy, well-socialized dogs with a good recall. But even when they stayed with my parents there were problems, such as when my mother allowed our smart, savvy golden retriever to carry her own leash across a heavily trafficked bridge (no dog should be trusted in that situation, no matter how responsible they are). Another time, when our girls were left with a friend, we returned home to find that our wonderful, mature, fastidious golden had pooped in the house. Sascha would never have done this except when under extreme stress, or from simply not being taken outside to do her business often enough.

Vera, with her challenges, changed everything when it came to leaving town.
Vera does some whale-watching while on vacation with us.

Then we had Vera, our reactive German Shepherd. Before we realized the extent of her issues, we had a college student stay with her. A neighbor reported that among other things, Vera had jumped out a window and roamed the neighborhood–twice–while we were gone. This was not reported to us by the young woman taking care of her. (This is described in detail in my novel, “Finding Vera”.) Another time, we had a vet-tech, dog-trainer friend stay with her. I think things went all right, but in spite of begging the dog sitter to email us daily with a short report on this very difficult and troubled dog, the woman didn’t contact us until we had another friend ask her to send us an email. Our final attempt to leave Vera was to have a college-graduate, dog-savvy woman care for her when we went to the California Redwoods. The woman reported that Vera had diarrhea, climbed up to the window behind our bathtub on the second floor, and knocked over plants and vases due to her extreme stress. It took weeks for Vera to recover from our absence. After that, we didn’t travel for years unless we took her with us.

Annie and Uki have been walking together weekly for over a year. Both are well trained and well behaved.

Now that we have Annie, our well-socialized, happy, sweet collie, we thought it would be easy to leave her. But from our past experience, we realized the seriousness of finding the right situation for her. When we head off to southern Utah in a few weeks, a good friend and dog trainer and her lovely dog, Uki, will be looking after Annie. But even though we’ve walked the dogs together at least once a week for over a year, even though we are both dog trainers and behavior-savvy, and even though these girls have stayed together twice before, these well-trained, well-socialized dog friends still have their challenges. Thankfully, I trust my friend to know exactly what to do to prevent conflicts from arising.

In short, in our thirty-plus years of dog parenting, Don and I have rarely found an ideal situation in which to leave our dogs when we are on vacation. Leaving our companions is a serious business, and one that requires thought and research well in advance of one’s trip.

TIPs to think about:

  • Plan ahead. I would go so far as to say that you should find a safe, supportive place to leave your dog before you plan a trip.
  • There are many options as to where you can leave your dog, such as with friends, family, dog sitters, doggie hotels, or kennels.
  • Think about what your dog needs when trying to narrow down options. Does he have lots of energy and need exercise to feel comfortable? Does he like to socialize with people? With other dogs? Or does he just tolerate them? Is he older and therefore requires lots of down time and a quiet environment? Does he have separation anxiety?
  • An active dog might do well staying with a friend who has a compatible dog his own age to play and hike with, while a quiet, lower-energy dog might do fine having a pet sitter or friend come by three to four times a day to snuggle, walk, and play with him.
  • If your dog is worried about children or puppies, don’t leave your dog with a friend or family member who has kids or young dogs. He could be terrorized and make a mistake such as biting a child. It happens. Dogs who are not completely comfortable with children should not be around them.
  • If your dog is worried about dogs, don’t leave him with someone who has dogs unless the dogs know each other well and are comfortable together.
  • Ask for recommendations about safe, low stress facilities or excellent pet sitters from friends and family.
  • Check references carefully. Don’t minimize the importance of this step.
  • If you choose to leave your dog in a kennel or doggie hotel, tour the facility first. Make sure the kennels are clean and well maintained. Interview the staff, ask detailed questions about socialization time for to the dogs, and if siblings can be kenneled together. Ask about staff training, how they choose play groups, and if there is snuggle time each day. Ask if the dogs will be sheltered from rain and sunlight, and if there’s heating and/or air conditioning. Is calming music played (reduces anxiety in dogs), and what is done if the dog needs a vet? Don’t assume anything.
  • If choosing a petsitter, ask for references and check them out. Interview the pet sitter regarding their past experience with dogs similar to your dog in size, age, and temperament. Ask about their knowledge of canine body language (will they know how to read your dog?), their philosophy on dog handling (do they use verbal and physical corrections?) and do they have any experience with behavior issues. Observe them interacting with your dog. Do they like your dog? Do they interact with him appropriately? Does your dog like them?
  • Leave detailed advice for a pet sitter, friend, family member, or kennel staff, outlining diet, feeding schedule, daily schedule of activities, health issues and what signs to be alert for. Be clear about the freedoms your dog can be allowed such as leash restrictions (can your dog be off leash?) and being left out in the yard. Outline any behavioral idiosyncrasies.
  • Try out whatever situation you choose before you go on your trip while there is still time to change your mind–starting with an afternoon or evening in the care of your chosen option, and if that goes well, an overnight stay. You can see how your dog fares, and also, your dog will know that you’ll be coming back.
  • Leave items with your dog that he is familiar with (your dog’s bed, his bowl, his toys etc.), and something that is steeped in your scent such as a piece of your unlaundered clothing.
  • Leaving our dogs is sometimes necessary, but it shouldn’t be taken lightly. If done with thought and care, you can minimize the stress your trip will cause both you and your dog.

Dinner Etiquette and Dogs

There are as many different ways to eat dinner with dogs as there are people and dogs, and the routines we establish are not written in stone. Is there a right or wrong way for you to interact with your dog when you are eating? As a dog trainer, my answer to that question is: no, as long as your dog is being polite. That means: not stealing food or threatening to steal food; not putting pressure on you to feed him, such as swatting, whining, barking, or growling; and not climbing up on you, nudging you, or poking you. Beyond that, it is up to you as human parents to decide what is permitted at mealtimes and what is not.

Permutations of dog habits at dinner…

When my husband and I first had dogs in the mid-eighties, we completely ignored our dogs during mealtimes except to watch their playful antics while we ate (they were puppies). For their entire lives (a full twelve years), they never received food from the table and they never asked for it. However, twenty years and four dogs later, Lola, our wonderful golden, trained me to give her food bits while she lay with her head in my lap at our coffee table. She never drooled, stared at me, or whined. Over time, this morphed into not only Lola, but Tess and Vera (of “Finding Vera“) lying under the coffee table while we ate our dinner, in their designated spots, heads resting on their paws. None of them looked at me, and none of them drooled. I would occasionally hand them each a dog treat for their good behavior. Meal time had become family time and we enjoyed it as much as they did.

When Annie was a puppy, she stayed in her X-pen or crate while we ate. We draped her crate with a towel.

Fast forward to Annie, our two-year-old collie. Annie entered our lives when we still had our reactive German shepherd, Vera (Tess and Lola were no longer with us). By that time, Vera had turned the whole dinner-time ritual into a game by lying somewhere in the living room with her back to us, and waiting to see where the treats (strategically tossed between her paws) would fall. We still ate at the coffee table watching the news (or Big Bang Theory), and little Annie stayed in her towel-draped crate or X-pen and chewed on her stuffed, frozen Kong in another part of the room.

After Vera died, however, we changed our eating habits. We now eat at the dining-room table, and, reluctant to give up our routine of sharing dinnertime with our beloved girls, we now allow Annie to lie beside us at the table. She’s permitted to place her chin on our chairs which is very cute, and will occasionally get a treat which I keep with me for that purpose. She tried swatting my husband once, and was immediately placed in her crate for the duration of the meal. She never swatted either of us again.

Tips for changing habits

  • Remember that food is a valued resource, so if your dog bullies or pressures you for food (swatting, whining, barking, growling, climbing up on you or poking you etc), he should be calmly removed from the immediate area and placed in a comfortable crate or room, given something to entertain him (such as a stuffed Kong) and ignored–or verbally reinforced for good behavior–until you’ve finished eating. Once your dog has matured, or no longer associates human mealtimes with automatic handouts, he can be invited back, and teaching him acceptable behaviors can begin.
Ceddie demands food from his Dad–climbing up on him, and making direct eye contact. Very cute, but very pushy. Photo Courtesy of Motoko Lewis.
  • Acknowledge that your food is of value to your dog. He will most likely be interested in it and will want to watch you indulge. Many of us spend a lot of time and effort training our dogs to watch us, so it will take time and patience to teach a dog to be neutral around food.
  • Decide what you are going to expect of your dog. Do you just want him present, but invisible in the room? Do you want to include him as part of your family’s culture by having him participate in some way? Do you want him to be on his bed beside you enjoying a parallel treat? Do you want to give him occasional healthy treats while you eat? Do you want him to be across the room, lying at your feet, or curled up on a chair beside you?
  • If you don’t want your dog staring at you while you eat, reward him verbally or with a treat ONLY when his head is on his paws or when he’s looking elsewhere in the room–don’t make eye contact or feed him when he is staring at you (the opposite of how we train our dogs to make eye contact). Remember, negative attention such as “no” or “uh-uh” is still attention and can therefore be reinforcing to your dog.
  • If you want him lying at your feet, tell him what you want him to do, then reinforce that behavior with calm verbal praise, a pat, and/or a small dog treat–or valued chew toy–when he is in position. You will need to reinforce him consistently at first, then randomly, then gradually fade out the treats altogether once he is staying by you. By placing a towel or dog bed beside you for him to lie on, it will be easier to teach him where you want him to stay.
  • If you want him to lie on his dog bed across the room while you eat, the same principles apply. You would toss him treats to reinforce his behavior only when his head is down or he is looking away from you.
  • You need to be absolutely consistent. A dog who occasionally gets a treat or attention (eye contact included) from the table will be much more difficult to train NOT to beg than a dog who gets treats consistently from the table. It’s just the way the brain works.

If your dog is driving you crazy:

  • Stop any behavior you don’t want by making it impossible for your dog to practice that behavior. For example, if you don’t want your dog to be a part of mealtimes, place him in a covered crate with a special long-lasting treat such as a chew toy, a snuffle mat, or a stuffed Kong, either in another room, or gated in a different part of the room from where you are eating. Praise him for quiet behavior. When you are finished eating, clear the table and invite him out nonchalantly.
  • Ignore all behavior that could be construed as begging (drooling, staring at you). This will end any begging behavior though it will most likely get worse before it improves. Ignoring him means not looking at your dog, not talking to him, and NEVER giving him treats when you are at the table eating. If the behavior escalates into pushy behavior such at barking, pawing etc., remove him from the area as described above.
  • Dogs learn that being persistent will get them what they want. They can be much more patient and much better trainers than we are.
  • Here are some training video links of Vera demonstrating how to learn three helpful skills:
  • Take it/Leave it
  • Impulse control exercise
  • Go to your mat or “place”.

Summer heat and hot dogs: tips to keep them safe…

Summer is here–in some places with a vengeance! And as much as we love to enjoy outdoor activities with our pets now that we have been delivered from the icy clutches of winter, with the increase in global temperatures and the ensuing unpredictable weather, we should anticipate the possibility of higher temperatures and humidity.

Exercise older dogs with caution in hot weather.

Compared to humans, our dogs are at increased risk of overheating. They don’t sweat except on the pads of their feet and noses, and must cool themselves mainly by panting. Because of their poor cooling systems, they are at risk of dehydration and succumbing to heat stroke, particularly dogs with short muzzles (pugs, boxers, and shih tzus for example), overweight, older, and poorly conditioned dogs. Our dogs must depend on us for their safety, so it is up to us to keep them cool through these risky months.

Signs of heat stroke: According to The Humane Society of the US, the signs of heat stroke are: “heavy panting, glazed eyes, a rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, excessive thirst, lethargy, fever, dizziness, lack of coordination, profuse salivation, vomiting, a deep red or purple tongue, seizure and unconsciousness.” Heat stroke can result in organ failure and death.

What to do if your dog gets over-heated: The Humane Society of the US suggests: “Move your pet into the shade or an air-conditioned area. Apply ice packs or cold towels to their head, neck and chest or run cool (not cold) water over them. Let them drink small amounts of cool water or lick ice cubes. Take them directly to a veterinarian.” Even if your dog seems to recover, organ failure can be a complication of heat stroke.

How Do I keep my dog safe?

Never leave dogs alone in parked cars…

Parked cars:

  • Never leave your dog alone in a parked car–even for a minute. A minute can easily turn into fifteen or third minutes, shade can shift, and car temperatures can soar, even with the windows open. I know this is asking a lot, but even in shade, with the windows open, temperatures can warm quickly. Leaving the windows partially open does not substantially reduce the heat in parked cars.
  • Crates will block air circulation even more and trap heat around your dog, and if windows are open wide enough to allow substantial air movement, you risk your dog being stolen–apparently not an uncommon event in some areas.
  • Shade blankets: Some people leave their dogs unattended for hours in direct sunlight with a shade blanket over their car. Although the best shade blankets will reduce the temperature inside the car, there is absolutely no guarantee that the interior of the car will remain cool enough for your dog to be safe, leave alone comfortable. So much is dependent on how much shade will pass over the car, the cloud cover, the presence of a breeze, the amount of heat radiating off the surface on which the car is parked, the humidity, and the heat tolerance of your dog.
  • Fans are not nearly as effective for dogs as they are for humans.
  • Don’t risk it! Remember–dogs age, gain weight, and acquire health problems, all of which will affect their ability to tolerate heat.
Shade blankets can reduce the car temperature, but several factors play into how safe it will be for your dog. Don’t depend on them.

What to do if you see a pet in a parked car in the heat?: Check out the HSUS PDF.

Exercise:

  • Exercise in the coolest part of the day.
  • Consider the humidity as well as the temperature. The more humid it is, the less able your dog is to reduce his temperature through panting.
  • Short-muzzled dogs, elderly dogs, overweight dogs and those with medical conditions should be exercised with extreme care in hot temperatures.
  • Carry water and a bowl for your dog when going for walks or hikes.
  • Avoid hot asphalt–your dog can burn his paws.
  • Walks that give your dog access to water for play and swimming are ideal, but remember that creeks dry up in early summer, and not all water is safe for dogs to drink. Giardia is increasingly common.
  • Consider boots for your dog when hiking on hot surfaces.
  • Consider how low your dog is to the ground. Dogs with short legs will be more at risk for overheating from heat radiating from the earth.
  • A warm-weather safety chart put together by Proplan is helpful to gauge how hot is too hot for the activity of small, medium, and large dogs.

Muzzles:

  • Never use muzzles in the heat unless your dog can pant and drink in the muzzle he is wearing.
  • Baskerville muzzles are a comfortable, airy muzzle that will allow your dog to pant, drink and eat treats. We used this type of muzzle with Vera for years.
Some dogs obviously love to sunbathe, but monitor them closely. Uki, Ellie, and Annie enjoy the deck.

Long-haired and double-coated dogs:

  • Double-coated dogs have protection from the direct sun and intense direct heat because of the structure of their coats. Annie, our rough collie, will sometimes sunbathe on our hot, hot deck. Often we need to chase her inside after a few minutes so she doesn’t overheat.
  • It unwise to shave these fluffy dogs. That said, dogs also produce their own heat, and double-coated dogs will retain heat more efficiently than their short-coated cousins. Don’t shave your long-haired or double-coated dogs, but clipping their tummies should allow them to cool down faster once in a cooler environment.
  • Regular brushing will not only remove dead hair and undercoat, but will also keep your dog’s coat light and air-filled–therefore a better insulator against the direct environmental heat as well as allowing body heat to escape more easily.

Short haired dogs:

  • Black dogs will absorb the heat faster, but white dogs are more susceptible to sunburn.
  • There are sunscreens specifically formulated for dogs–their noses and ears are particularly susceptible to sunburn.
  • Zinc oxide is toxic for dogs, and can cause severe health problems, so use sunscreens specifically formulated for dogs. Keep exposure to the direct sun to a minimum.

Inside vs Outside:

  • Make sure your dog has access to deep shade and fresh water when outside.
  • Tarps can provide deep shade.
  • Dog houses will heat up, and if in the direct sun, will become hotter than the outside environment. Also, your dog’s body heat will contribute to the heat in the enclosed space.
  • Providing a cooling mat, sprinkler or paddle pool can help to keep your dog cool when outside. If it is over 85 degrees, keep him inside with his cooling mat, fans, ice cubes to lick, and water sprinkled on his coat.
  • If you have air conditioning, your dog is in luck! Keep him inside with the air conditioning turned on. Provide fans, a cooling mat, fresh, cool water, and have cool tile, hardwood, or linoleum floors available to him.
  • If your dog needs to be crated, be sure the crate has plenty of ventilation (wire crates are perfect). If you have open windows, be sure to use screens as some dogs will jump out (Vera did this once when we were out of town).

Gardening with Dogs

Annie learns to cross our stream on the little bridge we made for her. She kept knocking down the cobble on the edges of the stream bed and crushing the plants. Now she uses her path and bridge.

THE DOG’S POINT OF VIEW:  Some dogs love to dig. It’s in their genes (some more than others) and in their hearts. Imagine, for a moment, the feel of the earth between your pads as it yields to the strength of your shoulders and the scrape of your nails…the feel of the dirt flying and thumping behind you, the all-consuming smell of the fresh soil, the clay, the roots as you dig deeper. Perhaps you even feel a sense of gratification as the hole widens or disappears into the depths. In the summer, the hole is cool and possibly damp. It wraps your body in comfort, protects you from the heat. In cooler days, it may just be a place to play and pass the time.

Most dogs don’t have a sense of where the garden begins and ends. They don’t know that the lawn is all theirs, and the flower or vegetable beds are out of bounds, or that the decorative water feature you.’ve spent hours rejuvenating after winter is absolutely verboten. They just play or wander happily within the boundaries of their space.

THE HUMAN’S POINT OF VIEW: We love to gaze upon the green sweep of lawn yielding to masses of flowers and shrubs. We have spent hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars on our gardens, countless hours, weeks, years accomplishing this remarkable feat. We are sometimes passionate about the outcome, but sometimes, like our dogs, we just love the feel of the soil on our skin and beneath our fingernails. Whatever our motivation in creating our personal landscaping and gardening fantasy, most of us don’t like dogs digging in our sacred place, or even wandering through our flowerbeds. 

Tips:

  • Realize that your dog has no intention of ruining your garden. He is simply out there following his genetic impulses (terriers, for example, dig to reach their prey) or because he finds great pleasure in the work of it. If you can look at this objectively, it will help you to solve the problem.
  • Be sure your garden is fully fenced before you let your dog run free.  Being outside with your dog does not prevent him from chasing a deer, cat, raccoon, or squirrel across the road in front of a car. I’ve had several clients over the years who have had dogs injured or killed due to the misconception that they could control their off-leash dog in an unfenced yard while they were distracted by gardening. 
  • Dogs mimic our behaviors. As much as you love to have your dog’s company while you dig and plant, having him with you will encourage him to dig too. Leave him inside the house or on the deck while you work.
A low fence can help to guide your dog to use the pathways you create.

  • Provide pathways and unobtrusive fences to keep your dog out of areas you want to protect. Introduce him to the fence when he is leashed, and reward him with praise and small treats for staying on the correct side of the fence. Don’t allow him in the yard unattended until he is fully trained. Otherwise, he will practice the behavior you want him to avoid..
  • Provide chew toys and play toys to entertain your dog when you are outside with him. Show him what he’s ALLOWED to do.
  • Provide shade and water.
Annie in her digger-dog hole
  • Give your dog a place to dig. He may have indicated where he wants to excavate, and if you can integrate this into your garden, do it!  We were lucky in that three generations of our dogs have been digging under a rhododendron in our back garden. Each generation has taught the next where to dig.  We have a 27 year old digger-dog hole there now. Vera especially loved her digger-dog hole.
  • Encourage your dog to dig in the spot you have chosen: bury treats, bones, toys–things your dog loves–in the spot. Make a game of it. Cheer him on, praise him, get excited for him as he spreads his claws, sets his shoulders, and gets into it. 
  • Don’t leave your dog outside unattended–even if you’re home. Dogs have to be taught what is sanctioned by their people and what isn’t. They need to be praised for behaviors we want and directed away from behaviors we don’t like.