Listen to your dog!

There are so many different ways to listen to your dog: barking, vocalizations, body language, and facial expressions. Yet how good are we at understanding what they are saying? We think we can tell when our dogs are happy because they wag their tails–but this is only partially true. The position, rate, and pattern of tail wagging changes depending on what they are trying to communicate. We label them quickly when we think they are being naughty or stubborn because they don’t do what they’re told. Yet dogs always have a good reason for not doing what we ask of them and try to communicate that to us–though we might not understand or agree. When they tremble and whine, we might think they are scared. Maybe, but these signals could also indicate excitement or pain.

For example, in the Featured Image above, Vera is telling me she is not enjoying the hug I’m giving her. Her mouth is closed, her face tense, and she is looking as far away from me as as she possibly can. I’m enjoying it, but she is NOT!

Dogs are much more complex than we give them credit for. They have an entire language with which they can communicate excitement, arousal, contentment, affection, stress, fear, anger, joy, disgust, shyness, and suspicion according to Dr. Stanley Coren. (They do not feel the more complex emotions of guilt, shame, pride and contempt.) They also have opinions, preferences, and motivations. They are thinking, emotional creatures with brains similar to ours, and they communicate with us all the time. Since we have invited them into our homes, it is not only polite and respectful to learn their language, but we owe it to them to do so. After all, we expect them to know ours–whether we teach it to them or not!

I recently watched a webinar by Julie Shaw VTS-Behavior, addressing the question of stubbornness in dogs. She reflected my own experience with dogs: if dogs don’t want to do something, there’s a good reason for it. Either they don’t have a clue what you want them to do (they haven’t been adequately trained and don’t understand the words or signals being used to direct them), they know something you don’t (as with Annie when she refused to go down a path–we found coyote tracks in the snow twenty feet further down the trail), they are in pain (as in a friend’s dog who refused to get into the car), they’re scared (a shelter dog refusing to go through a doorway into the unknown), or they know they will dislike what will happen to them if they do what’s being asked (a dog who is expected walk politely over to the tap for a bath). Dogs don’t tend to do things randomly any more than we do. There is always a reason, and if we stop to think about what they’re telling us, we can often figure it out and modify our expectations. But we need to have the patience to do this.

How to listen to your dog

  • Watch your dog more closely than you have in the past. Even those of us who have studied canine body language for years can benefit from doing this. We become complacent over time and start to miss cues.
  • Purchase a good book on canine body language if you don’t have one. I recommend Brenda Aloff’s book, Canine Body Language, a photographic guide, but there are many other books out there. My novel, Finding Vera, is full of canine body language used by the dogs in the story to navigate their lives. In part, I wrote it as a way to educate readers on canine behavior and the language of dogs, while enjoying a good read.
  • Download a free poster on The Body Language of Fear by Sophia Yin.
  • Watch some canine body language videos, or look at photos of dogs’ facial expressions on the Eileen and dogs website to get a better understanding of your dog’s emotional state in different situations.
  • Watch your dog closely when you take her on walks. It’s always interesting to see where dogs sniff. Unfortunately, we tend to discredit their sniffing behavior because we don’t smell or see what they are sniffing. It is thought that they can smell in layers–a complex tapestry of input to them, like us looking at a multilayered sunset or view. By seeing how they react to certain scents, we can learn a lot from them. For instance, I’m now able to determine from Annie, our three-year-old collie, whether the dog who just passed by is new to the neighborhood (increased excitement and persistence in sniffing the air flow behind the dog), whether a neighbor just got a new dog (she’ll stop and air sniff while pointing directly at the dog’s house until I respond), or a coyote (she’ll sniff every inch of the ground and vegetation deliberately, then curtail her walk). If it’s a dog she’s familiar with, she’ll sniff, then move on.
  • Observe if there are places your dog likes to go, and places she doesn’t.
    • For instance, some surfaces might be harsh on a dog’s paws, for instance gravel paths, or sand–especially on a long walk. Your dog might hang back, ask to go on a different trail by pointing her body in that direction, or turn around and ask to go back to the car. It’s hard to know how sensitive dog’s paws are on rough surfaces. Some don’t seem to mind, others do.
    • Wild animals such as coyotes or cougars might frequent the area and your dog might make the very smart decision to return to the parking lot, even though you are oblivious to the danger.
    • Your dog might be fearful of a dog who barks at her from behind a fence and hang back, shake off, scratch, or try to turn back the way she came. Her communication shouldn’t be ignored. You could turn back and go a different way, arc around the barking dog, or put your dog on the side of you away from the scary dog, feeding her treats as you pass.
    • Your dog might be hesitant to go to the dog park because even though she’s well socialized, she doesn’t like interacting with a group of wild adolescent strangers. Don’t force her to do this. She knows better than you how well she can handle the situation.
  • See if there are places she likes to be touched and places she doesn’t.
    • Often the first indications of emotional or physical discomfort will be licking her lips, turning her head away, or yawning. If you don’t listen to these signals, she might escalate her communication to moving away from you, staring at your hand, or even mouthing your hand.
    • Her sensitivity could be due to an injury, a sore muscle, or past association, but a visit to the vet might be in order if this is a new behavior.
    • She might not enjoy being touched as much as you think. Many dogs love our companionship, but only enjoy being touched in certain ways at certain times. Even Annie, our well-socialized, happy collie only likes to be touched when she asks for it by coming over to us, weaving between our legs, or barking and stretching and acting silly on the couch. We make a point of stopping our snuggles before she moves away.
  • When you’re training your dog, watch closely to see if you’re communicating well with her. If you are, she should be paying attention and engaged in learning. If she starts to become confused or overwhelmed, you might see her licking her lips, turning her head away, scratching, yawning, or trying other behaviors. Our golden, Lola, used to lie down and refuse to move when she was confused. Tess would nip at me and bark. Annie will try different behaviors, and eventually get silly. The other day in her Treiball class, she ran around the room visiting the other dogs and their people when my expectations were too high.
  • Listen to your dog’s bark. Dogs have different barks and vocalizations for different things. Remember, barking is an excellent form of communication as is growling (an important warning that they’ve been pushed far enough.) A dog should NEVER be punished for a growl since the signs of low and moderate stress levels could escalate directly to a snap or bite if the growl has been suppressed. Turid Rugaas’s book, Barking, the Sound of a Language, is an excellent resource on barking.

Learning to understand and communicate with your dog is extremely rewarding. As you become familiar with her language over time, more and more subtleties will become apparent to you, and the bonding you experience over the years will be worth the effort.

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.

How to keep your only dog happy…

So you’ve decided to live with a single dog. As I said in my blog, “Should I get a second dog?” there are lots of reasons to have just one dog. But having made that decision, how do you keep him socially stimulated and content?

Vera was very content as an only dog. Adding a puppy, Annie, to our family when Vera was 13 years old was successful, but it did require a significant amount of planning.

First of all, it’s important to accept that not all dogs crave social interaction or even want it. There are dogs who would prefer to be the only dog in a household, and helping them feel comfortable around other dogs can take some work. These dogs may benefit from parallel leash walks (at a distance they can handle) with other calm dogs who don’t want to crowd or interact with them. There can be a quiet camaraderie in these relationships, where they eventually choose to sniff the ground together, mirror each other’s movements, and generally feel companionable. For these dogs, taking them to a dog park would be way too much, day care would be overwhelming, and getting a second dog might be challenging, though if handled correctly could work well for both dogs.

Tips for single dogs, including non-social dogs.

  • Daily walks are essential (to areas where there are few dogs if your dog is not well socialized, and where those who are present are leashed so that a comfortable distance can be maintained).
  • Ideally, play, games, and training should be part of each day, along with interactive toys such as stuffed, frozen Kongs and puzzles. Any training or mental stimulation will help to tire your dog and help him to feel more content.
Vera dancing
  • Treiball (your dog learns to herd large, colorful balls back to you) is a fabulous sport for herding dogs, but can be fun and challenging for any dog. You can purchase books and videos on how to get involved in this sport, and work on it at home if there are no classes nearby.
  • Kibble-dispensing toys can offer mental stimulation to your dog.
  • Snuffle Mats can be mentally stimulating, calming, and entertaining all at the same time!
  • To gauge how well your dog is tolerating your absence, you can observe your dog on your phone or computer by using reasonably priced remote cameras.
Annie and her snuffle mat
  • Chew toys can occupy your dog’s time and help to decrease stress. However, talk to your vet first. Finding a safe chew toy for your pet can be very challenging depending on the bite strength of your dog.
  • Calm music can help your dog to relax, and some dogs love to watch animals on television .
  • If your dog is not doing well with your absence, you could hire a neighbor or dog walker to walk your dog at midday.
  • Many dogs do well once they understand your routine– as long as they are exercised before you leave home and when you return, and have things to occupy them. Most dogs will sleep during the day while you’re at work.
  • I used to hide treats in hollow toys throughout the house before I’d go to work. My dog couldn’t wait for me to leave! Searching for the treats helped with her transition from companionship to being alone.

tips for Single dogs who are social butterflies

  • Be friendly with other dog-people on trails, and share contact information when your dog meets a friend he really enjoys.
  • Take your dog to class–agility, obedience, free-style, tricks etc.–to get your dog working around other well-socialized dogs. Again, share contact information and make playdates with compatible dogs.
Annie (left) walks with her good friend, Uki (right), and a new acquaintance, Bella. All are being trained while off leash.
  • Offer to petsit for friends who have dogs your dog likes.
  • Make regular playdates for your dog at your home, at off-leash parks, or on trails. There are lots of single, well-socialized dogs around who need playmates.
  • Take your dog to daycare, but be sure it’s a place with a structured schedule, clear expectations, and constant supervision by staff who are savvy with canine body language. Dogs should be screened carefully before attending and should not be resource guarders.
  • Walk on off-leash friendly trails so your dog can meet and play with new dogs. For safety, leash your dog if approaching dogs who are leashed, even in off-leash areas.
  • Before considering dog parks, read my blog “Dog Parks–Why not?”

She looks just like my last dog, but she doesn’t retrieve…

When we acquire a new dog, whether it’s a rescued mixed-breed beauty, or a carefully chosen pure-bred pup, we humans have the tendency to compare our dogs to those we’ve had in the past. And the more similar they look, the more likely it is that we uphold our expectations of similar behaviors.

As humans, visual cues are what drive us, so when we lose a dog we adore, we are drawn to dogs that look similar. In case my readers haven’t noticed, Don and I are drawn to collies and goldens…and since Vera, German shepherds. But not just any German shepherd–German shepherds with a straight (not sloped) back and a fine, plush coat. And were we to find and have the stamina to adopt such a dog, we would want her to be just like V–except, of course, without the anxiety and aggression. My collies have to be long coated (in spite of the grooming issue) and sable. And the goldens…broad-headed, pale gold, and heavy-boned as Lola was, OR light weight, airborne, and burnished red as was Sascha.

Once, an older gentleman at the shelter where I volunteer asked me if we had any black dogs with one pale blue eye and a white tip on his tail. He wanted a dog just like his last one–he had been the best dog the man had ever known and he wanted one just like him. It’s hard to remember that although dogs of the same breed share certain traits, just because a dog looks like a dog we’ve known in the past, the new dog will most likely be very different in temperament. Even clones have different personalities and temperaments from each other. The gentleman looking for the black dog would have been much better off looking for a dog with a temperament like his last dog, not one with the same unique physical features.

Every puppy within a litter will be very different. Even clones will have different markings and temperaments.

But visual cues are powerful to us. Don and I ache for a shepherd even though we know the risk of reactivity. Shepherds are strong, cautious, intelligent, high-energy dogs prone to anxiety–more than we want to deal with at this point in our lives.

Don teaches Vera how to play the guitar. You can see why we would do almost anything to live with another Vera–without the aggression and anxiety. It takes firm resolve to stick to our decision.

We adopted Annie based on her delightful temperament, her amazing ability to learn and apply concepts (being a trainer I love to work with my dogs just for fun), and her outgoing, social temperament (oh, and by the way, she’s a rough collie). It is only by sheer willpower and remembering Vera’s difficulties that we are not looking for a German-shepherd mix to rescue.

Tips to help you accept a new dog for who he is:

  • Remind yourself that your new dog will likely be quite different from your last dog, no matter how similar they appear. He is his own person, and even though he may look very much like your last dog, he must be treated as an individual.
  • Do not expect certain behaviors to define your dog. It is easy to resent a new dog because he doesn’t have the right traits. e.g. a lab who doesn’t like to swim, a golden RETRIEVER who doesn’t like to retrieve. e.g. Our first golden, Sascha, wouldn’t be caught dead without a ball in her mouth. Our second golden, Lola, didn’t like to retrieve at all. Go figure! It drove me crazy at first. Poor Lola!
  • If you haven’t chosen your next dog yet, remember to look for traits that you like in your dog. For instance, Tessie, our last collie, was more like a golden retriever, than our golden, Lola, in some ways. Tessie loved to swim and retrieve whereas Lola was completely indifferent to those sports.
  • Don’t automatically expect the same types of behaviors and trust from your second dog. E.g. Sascha, our first golden, could be trusted to carry her own leash in a responsible manner no matter where we were (we didn’t allow her to carry it on busy streets, but I’m sure she would have been fine). We weren’t great trainers. It was just who Sascha was. In spite of being a good trainer now, after thirty years of experience, I have never had another dog who I could trust in this way. I have seen people expect their new dog to walk off leash in busy areas because their last dog could do it. But attempting this without months or maybe even years of training specific skills on a daily basis, most dogs will never have the attention, discipline, or skills to do this safely. The fallout can be lethal for the dog and traumatic for passing drivers.
  • Allow your second dog to be themselves–to play their own games, find their own favorite places, and seek their own level of socialization. Every dog is an individual.

Is My Dog sick?

There are many veterinarian-authored articles that articulate the precise symptoms to watch for to decide whether or not your dog is ill. In this blog, however, I’m going to talk about the more subtle signs to watch for in your dog.  It’s not always easy to tell if your dog is just tired or really not feeling well–if you should jump to attention and rush to the emergency vet, or let time pass and observe him.  These are some things I’ve learned after 35 years of living with dogs. 

Tips for understanding your dog

Dogs communicate with their bodies. The tension and lines in their faces, the position of their ears and the wrinkles on their brows communicate only part of how they are feeling. The arc of their backs, the position of their tails,  and their level of energy, whether panting and pacing, leaping and barking, or curling into a lethargic ball all give us clues. Sometimes dogs who don’t feel well will cling to us, sometimes they will keep their distance and refuse to be touched. Every dog is different, and that makes it difficult to decipher their signals until you know your dog well. 

Lola would curl into a ball and sleep when she was in discomfort or didn’t feel well. Since she was a couch potato at home, this was easy to miss.
  • Get into the habit of observing your dog carefully. Your dog is constantly communicating with you, the other pets in your house and the world around him.
  • Get a good book on canine body language such as Brenda Aloff’s “Canine Body Language” to help you interpret his normal signs of communication.  
  • Watch for changes in energy patterns…is your dog panting and pacing more than usual? Is he suddenly more energetic or frantic– more outgoing or crazy than normal? Is he sleeping more than usual? Not as interested in being near you? Is he clinging to you?  Is his back arched? These behaviors paired with a decrease in appetite, diarrhea stool or blood in the stool, vomiting, limping etc, could tip you off that he is experiencing more than just an isolated symptom, and that your dog is feeling ill or is in pain.  In other words, you should contact your vet ASAP.  
  • An arched back along with panting and pacing could be associated with abdominal pain, and a call or trip to the emergency vet is definitely advised as this could be very serious. 
  • Lola would shut down when she wasn’t feeling well, but Vera would pant and pace, or leap and spin and bark, unable to settle. Her behavior could be mistaken for a sudden surge of playfulness, where in actual fact, paired with a decreased appetite, we would finally figure out that she was in pain.
Annie did not want to be touched one minute, and the next minute would be asking for attention when she was feeling ill earlier this week. Here she is moving away from me as I try to play with her.
  • Annie, who recently had blood in her stool, let us know how dreadful she felt by avoiding physical contact one moment, then appearing by my side and asking for reassurance the next. She refused breakfast and treats, but then ate a small amount in the afternoon. Rather than settling for a nap after her snack, she became frantic to get outside and walked quickly ahead of me at the end of the leash, her head down, the sides of her mouth pulled back in stress, tail tucked, and was not at all interested in the smells that usually capture her interest.  At that point, we took her to the vet.  
  • Lip licking, yawning, and turning away from you are other signs of stress and though dogs use these signals constantly to negotiate space, they can be used more frequently in conjunction with other body language if they are not feeling well. 
  • Looking directly at your hand, and tensing or flinching or moving away when you touch certain parts of their bodies–legs, paws, back or abdomen, could alert you that the area is painful.
  • Take some time to get to know your vet before you actually need to visit him/her. Having a trusting relationship with your vet is as important as trusting your own doctor. 
  • Have emergency phone numbers in your phone. Animal Poison Control hotline has poison expert veterinarians available online 24/7, and the Pet Poison Helpline offers help 24/7 to both vets and owners at 800-213-6680.

“Finding Vera”–The perfect Christmas Gift !

“Finding Vera is the best dog-related novel I’ve ever read, and I also learned more from it than any other.” lsgraham

Finding Vera might be the perfect gift for your dog-loving friends and family! Written by a certified dog trainer and based on true events, it is filled with sadness, joy, and laughter. At its heart, Finding Vera is a love story that combines a fast-paced novel with canine behavior, body language, and the heartache and fulfillment that comes from living with a special needs German shepherd. 

Finding Vera is available at Village Books in Fairhaven, Bellingham, and on Amazon.

Experienced and inexperienced dog guardians alike will be impressed by the writer’s depth of knowledge and understanding of dogs’ relationships with other dogs and with humans. It’s a deeply felt and emotionally compelling story based on the author’s life with three very different dogs. Even though it’s obvious the author was more experienced than most dog lovers and dog trainers when she adopted Vera, she articulately conveys how much she learned from the drama-filled years she had with these three amazing beings.”

“I laughed, I cried…I felt strong emotions throughout the entire book. I’m recommending it to everyone who loves dogs, to those who would simply like to know more about them, and especially to folks who have ever struggled with a dog whose challenges changed their entire world. People with reactive dogs, in particular, will find invaluable support and insight within these pages. But regardless of your background or experience, it’s a riveting story you won’t be able to put down.”

Help! My dog barks at everything!

In my last post, “My dog is driving me crazy!” I talked a little about barking, what might cause dogs to bark, and things you could do to stop them. In this post, I’m going to focus on dogs who bark inside the house.

Ceddie barks to encourage play in the house. Courtesy of Motoko Lewis

Turid Rugaas lists six different types of bark that are recognized, in her book “Barking, the Sound of a Language“: excitement, warning, fear, guarding, frustration, and learned, also known as demand barking. I would like to add that dogs and their people can share a very quiet personalized communication system of polite barking or soft “woofs” if you take the time to listen and respond to your dog’s polite requests.  If these requests are ignored, frustration may escalate into a full-blown barking frenzy. For instance, Annie will “woof” if she needs help finishing her kong, getting a cookie out from under the fridge, or needs one of us to let her inside from the deck or to take her outside to do her business.  Her “woof” always means something specific and important, so we pay attention and it has never escalated into a full-fledged bark.

Remember, first of all, that dogs communicate through body language AND barking. Therefore, if our dog is barking, we need to take the time to figure out why they are barking and what they are trying to communicate.  As with humans, dogs can get frustrated when we don’t respond, and bark louder. Gadgets such as the citronella bark collar (according to studies cited by John Bradshaw in “Dog Sense”), only work for a period of about a week.  Dogs quickly become habituated to the odor, and revert back to their old barking pattern if nothing else changes. They may also become habituated to shock bark collars and endure a higher and higher level of harmful shocks as their owners desperately try to quiet them.

Examples and training tips of how to handle routine barking inside the house:

  •  If your dog hears a dog barking down the road and responds in kind, you can acknowledge his barking with a “thank you!” (for alerting you) and “done” (for “you’re finished now”). 
  •  Distract him from the sound with a toy or a treat, but have him do a trick or two before you give it to him, otherwise he may think you are rewarding his barking.
  •  If he listens to the sound quietly, however, reward him with several treats one at a time while he listens, praising him for being quiet.  If he goes right back to barking, calmly put him in his crate, close the windows, turn on music, or move him to a different room where the sound is softer for ten minutes maximum to help him to calm down and allow his adrenalin levels to return to normal.   This is not a punishment.
  •  If your dog sees a deer, cat, dog or human through the window and barks:
  •  You could look at the individual with him, thank him for telling you about it, then lead him away with a treat placed in front of his nose.
  •  Ask him for a sit, down, or trick then reward him. If he wants to watch the individual, try to catch him BEFORE he barks, and treat him again and again while he is QUIET.
  •  Keep the blinds closed unless you are working with him.
  •  Shouting at our dogs to be quiet only adds fuel to their frenzy and proves to them that there is something worth barking at, since their person is joining in too.
  •  Ignoring them for doing their job of alerting us to a potential threat is disrespectful.
  •  Remain calm, firm, and unfrazzled.
Annie watches a deer with interest after Don reinforces her with several treats and praises her for being quiet.

Fear barking

There are also dogs who bark at sounds because they are afraid. Dogs’ ears are remarkably sensitive, and they can hear high frequencies that even those of us with the most acute hearing aren’t aware of. For an anxious dog, the world of technology inside the house and the ambient sound of traffic, construction, air traffic etc. from outside can be overwhelming. The more your dog is triggered by these noises, the more likely he’ll be to bark at things that scare him. Dogs who alert fearfully to all these sounds can drive us to distraction.

Training Tips for fear barking

Ceddie and Motoko work on their dance routine. This gives Ceddie mental stimulation, exercise, increases strength, balance, and coordination and increases his bond with Motoko. Photo courtesy of Eric Lewis.
  • Be sure your dog gets plenty of exercise and mental stimulation.
  • Analyze your environment for sounds that may bother him: the sound of the radio or television, the alert sounds of your smart phone, the beeps or noise of the dishwasher, dryer, or washing machine. Think about your heat pump and furnace fan, your computers, your iPad etc.  Think about how you can modify these sounds for him.
  • Have a safe place for him to retreat to–a cozy crate or quiet room where he can feel safe.
  • Monitor the sound of human voices in your home.  Keep children quiet while inside, and watch how your dog responds when you get into animated conversations with your partner. You may have to moderate your tone of voice while your dog builds confidence.
  • Play calming, classical music, or “Through a Dog’s Ear” to help to mask upsetting sounds and relax your dog.
  • Consider use of a ThunderShirt. Studies and surveys have shown it to be effective in decreasing anxiety in dogs when applied correctly.
  • Find a trainer who can help you to work with your dog, and to identify the triggers. A trainer can help to formulate a plan to desensitize him to the things that scare him.
  • Visit a veterinarian or holistic vet who can evaluate your dog for medication, or point you in the direction of calming supplements. Vera, our reactive German shepherd, was scared to death of garbage trucks on Friday mornings, and when her fear generalized to every morning of the week, only a combination of Prozac and Adaptil (a pheromone collar) helped to relieve her anxiety. 
  • If your dog is afraid of fireworks check out Victoria Stilwell’s post on fireworks.

Special thanks to Ceddie, Annie, Motoko and Don for being such wonderful models.  Ceddie is a true clown and actor. I considered him “almost unadoptable” as “Banjo” when working with him at WHS, but my friends, Motoko and Eric, have turned him into a delightful, clever, happy, dapper almost-gentleman.

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!