To leash or not to leash…

With experience comes caution…

When we first got dogs in the mid-80s, it never occurred to us to leash our dogs in the parks of Seattle. After all, our dogs needed exercise. Sascha and Klea (our golden and collie), were somehow naturally perfect trail dogs–Klea stayed close by on the trail, and Sascha, wild athlete that she was, would turn on a dime and race back to us when called. Sascha would even carry her own leash when she absolutely needed to be tethered, and would stay in heel position, her swagger reflecting her pride. It was just who she was–responsive and completely reliable.

Then came Tess and Lola. In spite of years of training, Tess, our second collie, was wild and independent, and Lola, six months younger, was insane on trails.  Hiking in the mountains with her was a liability because of her tendency to tear through the woods and to leap without anticipating the landing. I remember holding my breath while watching her leap and fly across the boulders of a landslide on the way to Lake Ann. So after that, we left her at home when we went to the mountains. Our reluctance to have the two girls with us at all times, however, was still driven by their behavior, not by potential conflicts with people and other dogs.

Vera goes swimming
We kept Vera and everyone else safe by choosing carefully when and where we walked her, and by keeping her on leash.

Then we adopted Vera (of Finding Vera), and for the first time realized that there really was the risk of encountering dangerous dogs out in the community. To protect herself, Vera would threaten to attack any dog who got close.  We didn’t see this side of her right away.  For weeks after her adoption, she was difficult, but seemed to do well both on leash, and off-leash on logging roads and off-leash trails. Then things went south. After she injured her favorite sister in a fight, we realized that her threats were not empty, and we never allowed her to run off leash again. We became skilled at intervening if an off-leash dog approached, but every loose-dog event risked injury to us, the other dog, and our beloved Vera. We replaced her off-leash romps with training and games, and she lived out her life content in spite of her restrictions.

Annie in her "kinky boot" after surgery.
Annie in her “kinky boot” before her surgery.

What now?

Now we have Annie, an eighteen-month-old collie, who has finally recovered from a surgically rebuilt joint (right hock). For the six years since Tess and Lola died, I have worried about this moment of decision–to keep her leashed, or to let her off. I now know there are dogs out there like Vera who have owners who are either naive, or in denial.  These are dogs who will attack another dog when they feel overwhelmed, and the infraction could be as small as a “look”, or simply existing on the same planet. On the other hand, I itch to let Annie run free; watching her run and play with other dogs makes me feel like I am flying.

In the past few weeks we made our decision. After months of practicing recalls and walking miles of trails with her on leash, we unclipped her.  We sent her to daycare to learn how to cope with groups of dogs, had friends’ trail-savvy dogs guide her on designated off-leash trails. We used high-value treats (chicken and steak) to reward her for recalls.  And then, with a leap of faith we set her free.

Finally allowed to run off leash!

Training Tips

  1. Practice, practice, practice recall with your dog before you take your dog off-leash. Take classes, work on recall in different environments, begin by calling your dog at a short distance, then gradually add distance on a long line. Don’t advance unless your dog is successful 80% of the time.
  2. Always carry high-value treats to reward your dog for coming back to you.
  3. If your dog is a rescue, don’t take him off-leash until you have a good, strong relationship. This will take at least a few months. Err on the side of caution.  A lost dog is a terrible thing.
  4. Once you are comfortable walking your dog off leash, adhere to the rules of the trail you are on.  Many people walk their dogs on on-leash trails because it’s their only choice. They simply can’t frequent dog parks or off-leash trails. Respect their limitations.  They are just trying to keep everyone safe.
  5. Don’t let your attention wander from your dog. No cell phones. Things can go wrong very quickly with dogs if you aren’t aware of their body language. Without knowing the dog who’s approaching, how do you know what’s about to happen if you aren’t reading their signals?
  6. Some people are fearful of dogs and deserve space.  They may have been bitten in the past.  I was bitten by a small dog a few years ago–at least 5 times in as many seconds. Now my ankles tingle whenever I’m approached by a small, barking, lunging, dog. And I am passionate about dogs. What about people who don’t even like dogs?
  7. Even if you are on an off-leash trail, leash your dog if you approach someone who looks uncomfortable, or notice that someone leashes their dog at a distance from you.
  8. If someone asks you to leash your dog, PLEASE don’t argue. Chances are, they are trying to protect your dog as much as theirs.  And they may know more than you do about what might be about to transpire.

Rescued! Bringing home your shelter dog.

Rescuing a dog

beagle-in shelter

Rescuing a dog is a wonderful thing. It fills us with hope and pride and a determination that we can give this dog a better life.  A good life. And we can. What we mustn’t lose sight of is that it’s not all about us.  It has to be about the dog and what the dog understands and needs, or our two-way relationship can break down.

When dogs are brought to a new home, they can be overwhelmed. Depending on the history of the dog (which is often unknown), they may never have been inside a house, never seen stairs, never lived with another dog–or never lived without a canine companion. They may have lived with a large family, or with a single person. They may have been a stray or abused, coddled or neglected.

running-dog-dogpark for blog

Whatever their situation, past and present, they need time to adjust and be introduced back into the world in increments. When we bring a dog home from a shelter or foster home, we want to share our new family member with our friends, show our dog his new freedom, our favorite places, take him to the dog park, introduce him to friends’ dogs, to our extended families. Right away. Before we even know our new dog.  Before we even speak their language. 

But dogs are complex creatures. They have a whole world that is theirs. They may be bold or sensitive. There are things they like and things they don’t like. Things that fill them with fear, with pleasure, with joy, with trepidation. They may not like to be touched except on the chest or the face–and only at certain times. They may be so stressed that they can’t eat. They may be overwhelmed by the size of the space they suddenly inhabit and have no idea how to interact with the furniture, the resident cat, or their new canine sibling. They may have never seen a child before, or a bicycle or a skateboard. And yet we expect them to be grateful and adaptable and to settle in as if they know they are home. For them, it may be just one more stop in their turbulent lives.

adorable animal ball beautiful
Photo by Joshua Ku00f6ller on

Training Tips:

  • Take it slowly.
  • Limit their space with baby gates initially so they have a small, safe area where they can feel comfortable and protected.
  • Wait till they are relaxed with family members before introducing them to your extended family and friends.
  • Introduce dogs carefully from the first meeting and separate your new dog from resident cats and dogs until they have had a time to adjust to the sounds and scents of their new siblings. Go SLOWLY.  It’s much harder to fix relationships than to start off on the right foot.
  • Praise and reward what they are doing RIGHT.  Don’t take anything for granted. Dogs don’t automatically know what they are doing well. For example, praise any good interactions between the dogs in your home, reward with a treat and praise for not lunging and barking at cars, for walking politely past strangers, for not getting on the furniture, for being calm, for not putting their paws on the counter, for taking treats gently–all things that we might have taken for granted with our last dog–you can’t take for granted with a new dog. If your dog does something inappropriate, redirect him with a cookie or a toy and engage him in appropriate behavior and praise.
  •  Don’t shout at him–ever. Be firm, kind, and patient.
  • Understand that every move your dog makes, every expression on his face, the tension in his body, the twitch of an ear, the position of his tail, is communication.  It is not random. It means something.
  • To begin to understand Canine Body Language, immediately print out a couple of copies of this poster on canine body language.  Place one on your fridge and one on your coffee table, maybe a third in your bathroom or bedroom. A marvelous book on Canine Body Language is Brenda Aloff’s book “Canine Body Language“.  It has literally hundreds of photographs of dogs with interpretations of what they are communicating. A wonderful website on Canine body language is  The thing is, as humans, we might understand gross canine posturing–hackles, growling, snapping, and play bow, but we misunderstand so much more–such as the tail wag, the value of the growl, variations in posture, the ear position etc.  Learn Canine Body Language and you’ll enrich your relationship with your dog a hundred fold.
  • Don’t let him off leash too soon. Wait until you have a solid recall and strong relationship with your dog. A timid dog may stick to you like glue, but he could just as easily panic and flee. A bold dog or a dog driven by his nose, may take the opportunity to explore, then panic and not find his way back to you. A lost dog is a terrible thing to experience for both you and your dog.
tan dog lying on green grass field
Photo by joenibraw on

Avoid the dog park. Read my blog on dog parks.  Finding Vera, my novel about our very difficult, but ultimately wonderful rescue, is packed with canine body language in action, issues that can arise from adopting a troubled rescue dog, and how we worked through them. The more issues you can prevent in a rescue dog, the better–the problem being that you’ll never know what you prevented with your careful observation and intervention.  Believe me, it’s worth the work!

Reactive dogs and Neighbors

Trouble with the neighbors

We live in a planned community where there are strict dog-leash rules…except for those who don’t believe it applies to them. Fences are also an issue here–one needs authorization to build them, so for the past twenty-six years, we have walked our dogs on the curving, twisting, wooded roads of this community. Unless one lives with a dog-reactive dog, or is terrified of dogs, or has an old or infirm dog or fearful dog, the off-leash issue isn’t a problem (except for the loose dogs themselves who get hit by cars, get into garbage, slug bait, and other toxins). But having lived with a fearful, dog-reactive dog for the past twelve years, who over the past year became old and infirm at the age of thirteen, we have many, many stories to tell.

I have come to the conclusion that most people don’t believe in aggression in dogs.  They don’t believe that a dog’s natural weapon, jaws with teeth, can actually be functional. That they can bite six times per second, puncture, and much worse. For years I talked to neighbors until I was blue in the face, politely explaining Vera’s shortcomings, pleading with them to at least call and hold onto their dog while we passed.  We walked her on two points of contact–a head collar and front-attachment harness.  We did u-turns to avoid dogs, hid up driveways behind cars, took alternate routes, split between her and any potential threat. But time and time again, I would find myself wedged between two raging dogs, Vera straining to attack a dog who was circling to get her. She was easy prey to them–insecure, threatened, rude, and bound to two points of contact and a controlling handler. When this happened, the owners would shout at the dog to come back, suddenly aware that their dog could get hurt.  The dog might return to them, but often would not.

Loose, friendly dogs running toward you leads to instant panic!

As we slunk through the safest parts of the neighborhood (we knew where every dog lived, the hours they were out, the risks we took by walking V in that direction), we have been jeered at for being cowards, and physically threatened for asking (maybe at this point, demanding) for the hundredth time that one man put his dog on leash. Testosterone-fueled aggression in male humans is rampant when his dog’s leash status is questioned, and one man actually sat in the middle of the road, holding his dog by the collar, effectively blocking our passage by his house when asked to put his dog on leash. As we edged past, blocking Vera with our bodies and feeding her a river of treats, the man actually said “Bite me!”. This man knew about Vera, had owned a reactive dog, had hired me as a reactive-dog trainer, was soft-spoken and articulate, and still could not say “Sorry, I didn’t see you coming–I’m on it!” and leash his dog.

I don’t know what the answer is. My husband learned to be calm and polite no matter how verbally abusive people were.  I tended to be silent, and focused on Vera which was perceived as being rude.  We stayed away from everyone–the pariahs of the neighborhood. I’m not sure how many people realized on a real level that we were just protecting a very fearful dog who saved herself in a very scary way. That we were protecting their dogs from an emotional assault and possible puncture wounds. Until one lives with a reactive dog, I don’t think it’s possible for others to understand the reactive-dog owner’s plight–the isolation, the dedication it takes to give a reactive dog a rich and rewarding life, the love it takes to share one’s life with such a dog. I’ve tried to give this perspective in Finding Vera, and I hope that it educates at least a few people on reactive dogs, and ultimately works towards earning reactive-dog owners the respect they deserve.

Training Tips

  1. Talk to new neighbors about your reactive dog and his/her limitations.
  2. Let neighbors know all that you are doing to keep your dog safe.
  3. Be assertive, but always polite.
  4. Avoid areas where you know neighbors let their dogs off leash.  Vera’s “safe” area became smaller and smaller over the years.
  5. Don’t call out to people to put their dogs on leash if they are a distance away–in my experience, the humans won’t hear you, but the dogs will, and they will charge over to you to investigate. It was always better to just change direction.
  6. Teach your dog an emergency “sit behind” and practice it over and over. If, as in Vera’s case, your dog is too large and reactive to stay behind you, you will need to face your dog, keep him on a short leash, and pivot between your dog and the loose dog. There is the risk of being bitten with this maneuver, though it never happened to me. Once dogs are fighting, the risk of getting a redirected bite from one of the dogs is much greater.
  7. Carry an air horn in case a dog starts to charge up to you from a distance away. The neighbors won’t like it, and it will scare some dogs, but the vast majority of dogs will stop, think about it, and choose to return to their owners or proceed very cautiously, giving you the chance to escape. Follow the air horn link to read more about it.

Denial and reactive dogs

My dog’s not aggressive!  (Though he is clearly reactive.)

Denial is pandemic when one first realizes that aggression might be an issue with one’s dog.  And what is aggression, anyway?  The definitions are pulled and twisted and analyzed by the experts.  To me, as a past reactive-dog trainer, aggression is any behavior that is meant to threaten or intimidate another creature.  It is also any defensive behavior that injures another dog intentionally.  Well-socialized dogs will posture and correct as part of a canine interaction.  They are controlled and bite-inhibited. They are not acting out of fear or intimidation.

barking dog 2

 When a dog acts in an aggressive manner out of fear (95% of aggression is due to fear), it is an uncontrolled response, thought processes are restricted, and they make bad decisions. It is up to the guardian to learn the dog’s limitations and not push him, to keep him feeling safe, and the world around him safe–and, with time, love, confidence building, and work to desensitize him to his triggers, he will improve.A

But time and time again I see just the opposite–blatant denial in the human partner of the team.  I have been there too.  The desperate hope that THIS time, my dog will be calm, listen to me, stay by my side, and leave the person, dog, deer, squirrel, bird alone.  The stress kept me awake at night, and finally I decided to act. To take control.

Based on experience and hundreds of hours of study, I will say that dogs will not change without work.  Not quickly, not spontaneously. Letting a reactive dog who has confrontations off leash, will not make the dog safe to others. Allowing a scared dog who expresses his fear through reactivity or aggression, or a dog who has a strong prey drive to the point of bite/kill to run free, will risk a lost dog, an injured opponent, or a dead deer, squirrel, rabbit, or smaller dog.

barking dog for blog

In the past few days I have seen a German shepherd with a known bite history running off leash with his human. I dealt with a loose dog who lunged, barked circled and snapped at my collie while she looked on in confusion while the owner muttered platitudes under his breath.  In another incident, my husband intervened as a terrier, who lives down the street, charged our collie–a terrier who had almost lost his life doing the same to a Rottweiler a few years ago when the rottie retaliated.

Denial is a potent coping device, but it doesn’t save us.  It just allows the situation to progress, to worsen in front of us while we sit back and hope.

Training Tips: If you have a reactive dog:

  1. You are not alone.
  2. Read about it: Books that might help you: The Midnight Dog Walkers by Annie Phenix, The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell.
  3. Find a trainer who specializes in aggression work.
  4. Medications may help. Talk to your vet.
  5. Finding Vera by Kerry Claire (me) is not instructional, but is filled with canine perspective and behavior and shows how one family coped with a reactive German shepherd in a novel format. It is both educational and supportive to those making their way through the maze of reactivity.

Protecting Vera: A reactive German shepherd

Protecting Vera

In the very beginning, Vera pulled.  She pulled on the leash so hard that she could drag a person into the ditch, and did so with volunteers at the shelter.  She pulled because she needed to be first, because she was scared, or because she wanted to run.  She pulled because she wanted to see another dog or because she needed to keep him away.  Her legs were sturdy and powerful, well-muscled, her body whip-like and athletic. And she was single-minded. And strong. Incredibly strong. 

Vera was polite and smart by nature…

Because she was so polite and smart, she soon learned to walk on a loose leash—even on a flat collar—without tension. Unless there was a squirrel or a cat or a deer or a dog.  Then her reactions were dramatic, her bark frantic and cannon-loud, her body tense as steel, her eyes wild. 

With such distractions and Vera in a flat collar, we, as her handlers, were doomed. I was dragged; Joel was tripped by the whip and spin of her body. And if we had Tessie or Lola, they would join in with dedicated excitement.

I was overpowered, her attention swallowed by her victim, such that even cheese and steak couldn’t distract her. She would choke, and with her trachea damaged from the chain that bound her in her first year and a half of life, we moved to the gentle leader where we could at least turn her head away from the distraction and maintain some control.  

Two points of contact
Kane working on two points of contact with Vera

After working with a reactive dog trainer, we changed to two points of contactwonder walker harness coupled with the head collar to take pressure off her muzzle and transfer it to the harness. Each end of the leash was clipped to one piece of equipment. For a long time, V shied away from the harness. The one she’d worn at the shelter had been too small, and rubbed behind her front legs, causing a raw, painful sore. Not realizing it was there, we had continued to walk her with it. It took years for her to get past this.

She was easier to handle with two points of contact. Sometimes we walked her on the narrow, winding roads of Sudden Valley.  At 100 feet from a dog she would tense, alert, her eyes riveted, tail high over her back. We would treat her with cheese, hot dogs, do “look at that”, and walk her away. But still, she would look back, scared, tense, and ready to take on the world. 

Two dogs bark at us from a deck high above.  A crash, and in slow motion, the barrier shifts, gives way, smashes onto the steps below.  The dogs leap the rubble, the drum of their paws thunderous on the wooden steps, their barks insane. I am quick, but V is quicker.  She lunges, barks, her voice frantic, teeth exposed. I turn and run, my throat closed in panic. But V is like an anchor and in seconds the dogs are upon us. 

“V, behind!” I shout. It is more of a scream. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.  The road rises steeply above us, drops off below us, the hillside a 45 degree slope.

But V is intent on facing them off. She stands her ground in front of me. And attacks. 

They fall back, their faces shocked, and in that moment, I swing my body between them. I face Vera. She is too strong to hold behind me. I pivot between Vera and the dogs, blocking their access to each other. If they connect, there will be blood and punctures, possibly slashes and tears. I can’t bear for Vera to be hurt. I can’t bear for her to injure another dog. I pivot between them and shout for help while the dogs bark and snarl and lunge around me. I am wearing shorts and my legs bleed and throb from Vera’s claws. The moments stretch, and I feel I have been there for eternity. 

There is a honk, people shouting. The loose dogs falter, whirl, and they are gone, loping up the road away from us. The people in the car shout curses up at the house on the hill above me. And we leave. 

Vera is unruffled. She struts beside me, calm, her mouth open, back straight, her eyes soft.  There are no wrinkles on her head, and her ears are neutral. I have protected her. But I am fried. My body trembles like I’ve survived a battle. Every muscle aches, and I am chilled to the core in spite of the warm day. 

Back home, we sit in the garden on the bench next to her digger-dog hole. She hops up beside me, allows my arm to circle her shoulders, allows my hand to caress her face, to rub her chest.  She is not a demonstrative dog, and sitting there beside her, peaceful and safe, I am honored. I sink into her courage, am lost in her grace. 

Training Tips

  • Loving and living with a reactive dog takes on a whole new meaning if you are only used to lovely, sweet, good natured dogs.
  • Your goal is always to keep your dog safe.  For me it was at any cost and for years, blocking Vera from loose dogs with my body was my last-ditch diversion. Ironically, I  was never bitten by V or by any of the loose dogs who tried to approach her.  But I was lucky.
  • Watch for open garages, invisible fences that dogs can blow through, insecure fences and barriers.
  • Turn away from approaching dog walkers, always keeping in mind an escape route.
  • Carry high value treats.  Dogs cannot respond to you when stressed in the same way they would  when they are relaxed. But sometimes they will follow the odor of food.
  • As V aged, we learned that a small air horn, blasted at an approaching dog, even from 50-100 feet away, would keep approaching dogs at bay. They never seemed frightened, just confused and not interested in approaching–much better than having a human rage at them to stay away thus triggering a fear of humans.
  • You do need to desensitize your dog to the sound of the horn–best done by having someone help you. When you blast the horn, move your dog behind you.
    • To desensitize: Give a short blast a distance from your dog (up to 100 feet depending on your dog’s sensitivity) with the sound focused in the opposite direction from your dog. Play with or feed your dog after the blast.  Repeat twice more.  If your dog is afraid after the first blast, stop play with your dog. A few days later increase your dog’s distance by at least 50 feet  from the horn and increase the reinforcement after the blast. Play with your dog.

The Loss of a dog

V-dog dec 08 jpg
Beautiful V

Losing Vera

I need to take a break from puppies for a few weeks to talk about our beautiful German shepherd, Vera. We lost Vera a few weeks ago, and those of you who have read my novel, Finding Vera, will understand the depth of our loss. She was three weeks from her fourteenth birthday and had only one day of real discomfort. That was a blessing.

Vera was an exceptional dog. She was poised, polite, and intelligent.  She had the body of an athlete and a soul as delicate as crystal. She could be sweet, gentle, even affectionate on her own terms, but she had a fuse that could send her into a fierce and protective explosion if she were challenged. She protected herself mostly, but sometimes she protected us.

3 girls
Vera, Tess, and Lola (clockwise)

I wrote about Vera for four years, imagined every moment of every day from her point of view, strained my brain to see the world through her eyes and the eyes of her sisters, Tess and Lola. We watched her grow from a rowdy, confused youngster into a strong and confident matriarch, helped her navigate and fashion her world until she was the queen of what she knew.

And then, finally, we were with her when she left, wherever she went–hopefully to join her sisters, Tess and Lola in some sunlit field by a river.

Vera and her new sister, Annie

Losing a pet is losing a family member. There is no doubt about that. The grief is deep and real. We grieve in a way that is unique to us. We grieve for days, weeks, years. I still grieve for Sascha from twenty years ago and will grieve for Vera for the rest of my life. They are closer than parents, distant siblings, lost lovers. They share each day, our beds, our hearts and minds and souls.  They know us better than just about anyone and so when they go, they take part of us with them.

Baby Jaws, the biting puppy



The unfortunate thing is that although most puppies are sold at eight weeks of age, it’s one of the worst times to introduce puppies to new things.  We know now that at eight weeks, puppies are going through a fear period: they may suddenly be scared of things that have never bothered them before, and it’s possible that these experiences may imprint them for life. In other words, they may hold onto that fear of the scary man or child or loud noise—forever. So going for their first car ride, meeting new dogs, new people, or being introduced to a new environment, to say nothing of being removed from their pack of siblings for the first time in their lives to spend their first night alone in a new setting, can be very traumatic. Seven or nine weeks of age is a better time to take puppies home—when they are more confident and not as easily influenced by fear. 

My eyes felt bleary when I finally found the appropriate “What to do when your puppy bites” chapter in response to my scratched, bleeding arms.

golden ret pup

“The book says to grab her muzzle, look directly into her eyes, and say ‘no bite’ in a stern tone,” I read aloud. “If she bites again, do it harder. Ow!” I dropped the book on the table and reached down to swipe Sascha away from where she was attached to my jeans. “Sascha, stop it!” I dropped to my knees and grabbed her small, snarling muzzle in my hand, but she whipped away from me and made another playful lunge. She was all baby growls and needle teeth and when she made contact with my skin, it hurt. “Shit! No bite!” My voice was very stern and very loud this time, and when I made a grab for her, Sascha danced away and flattened herself on the floor four feet from me, not sure whether to be scared or to join in the devilish game. She chose the latter, sprinted back to me, grabbed my slipper in her teeth, and tugged as hard as she could. This time I nailed her muzzle with a firm hand and shouted “No bite!” while glaring into her eyes. She cowered, ears flattened to her skull. With her tiny tail curled up on her belly, she crawled under the couch and all we could see were her big, brown eyes peeking out. 

“Well done!” Joel’s voice was thick with sarcasm.

Tears burned my eyes, and an ache in my chest threatened to derail me. “I did what it said!”

“You didn’t have to do it that hard!” 

I tried to pull Sascha out from under the couch, but she stayed just out of reach. Would she ever recover?  I was sure she wouldn’t. 

Moments later, Sascha fell asleep—a ball of golden fur all alone under the couch—but when she awoke, she seemed to have forgotten.  She bounced into the kitchen, gobbled down the kibble I offered her, peed again on the carpet before we could entice her outside, then grabbed a shoe from the mat by the front door and charged around the house, full of glee. The extent of her joy was contagious, and we laughed, mirth rising from our bellies until tears ran down our cheeks. Finally, we managed to herd her outside to our fenced yard, she did her business, then settled down to chew on a stick. We heaved a sigh of relief and dubbed her “Baby Jaws”. 

Somehow, we managed to survive the rest of the day.  We barricaded off the kitchen, found some tennis balls, and Joel drove to the grocery store and returned with a couple of stuffed toys, a rubber hamburger with a squeaker (which she demolished instantly), and a Nyla bone that she set to work on with those killer teeth. We played tug with an old sock (unwittingly reinforcing her delight in these readily accessible toys), and tossed the ball for her, the tennis ball enormous in her little jaws. We discovered that she was a natural retriever.

Annie and Kong
Annie and her Kong

* * *


What would we have done to prepare for that day now, in 2018?  

  • We would have waited until Sascha was nine weeks old before bringing her home; we would have taken time to get to know her and visited her at least three times during the week that we waited, leaving something that smelled like us (an old T-shirt, for instance) for her to chew on, sleep with, and eat her meals on. By the time she came home, she would have known our faces, our scent, our touch. 
  • We would have worked on crate training her during those visits so that she had a familiar, safe place to be–both in the car on the way home, and to retreat to once she was in her new house. In the years to come, unfortunately she never did have a crate, but would wedge herself into the space beneath the lowest laundry shelf in our bedroom for comfort.
  • We would have had a familiar-smelling blanket from her litter mates and mother in her crate, and a variety of chews, balls, tug toys and stuffed toys to offer her when she got mouthy.
  • And thanks to Ian Dunbar, we would have had long and short-term confinement areas set up for her to explore—puppy-safe, reassuringly confining, and mentally enriching—with water, toys, a few stuffed Kongs, a potty area, and a bed snugged into a crate.

short term confinement
Annie in her short-term confinement area.  Surrounding her crate is an ExPen, giving her an area of 8 feet by 5 feet for her long-term confinement space.  She has water and toys available. At six months old, she is house trained, so she doesn’t have a potty area. A canvas drop cloth protects the carpet.


  • Kong recipes: Kong recipes can be simple or complicated.  I have found over the years that simple works best for me–I still make several Kongs a day for my year-old-puppy, Annie, and fourteen-year-old matriarch, Vera. There are many reasons to give dogs Kongs. Read more about it on WebMD
  • To start, I have available dry kibble, soaked kibble, and at least one high-value food to layer with the soaked kibble—peanut butter, banana, (if your dog likes banana—Sascha did!), small chunks or grated apple, canned tuna, canned dog food, or Fresh Pet (available in the refrigerated section of pet supplies in some grocery stores), but you can use whatever your dog likes. Remember to limit foods high in fat to thin layers in the Kong.  Never stuff a Kong solely with peanut butter or cheese, for instance–it can give older pets pancreatitis, or younger dogs diarrhea and vomiting.
  • I start by putting a few dry kibbles in the bottom of the Kong to make it easier to clean when your dog is finished with it, then I start layering the ingredients. As I fill the Kong, I pack it in with a dowel (or with my finger), so that it’s solid.  I finish with one of the high-value ingredients, and top it with a treat.
  • For dogs who are adept at emptying Kongs, you can freeze them, and it will take the dogs  longer to empty them. However, if your dog has never seen Kongs before, especially if they are rescues and stressed, pack it loosely and show them how to empty it. Roll it, drop it from a few inches off the ground, and praise them when they clean up the treats that fall from it.  Once they are adept at it, try freezing it for them.