The only dog training emergency

Years ago, an experienced colleague used to point out that “there are no dog training emergencies.” She wanted younger trainers to feel able to resist the emotional pressure clients could impose when something was going wrong with their dog. Her point was that every situation had been building for a while, and could be dealt with methodically. Clearly some situations are more urgent than others, and we could argue about this, but generally, I agree with her.

Except for one situation. There is one situation I always treat as an emergency.  And that is when a client contacts me with concerns about a puppy under about 15 weeks of age. 

Like baby humans, baby dogs pass through a series of developmental stages as they grow and mature. The most critical one for our purposes is the socialization critical period, which starts at birth, really gets going around three weeks when the eyes and ears start working, and ends around 14-15 weeks. During this period, the puppy’s brain is primed to learn the most important lessons it will ever learn: who are members of its social group, the foundations of social behavior (including control over its mouth), and how to handle new things in its world.

Puppies who do not receive appropriate, comfortable exposure to plenty of dogs and people and plenty of varied new things will forever be disadvantaged. They will never be as comfortable around people, dogs and new things as they could have been. It is a matter of degree; puppies who get some socialization will do better than those who get none. Puppies who get pleasant, non-threatening exposures will do better than those who are overwhelmed and frightened by their exposures. And all sorts of factors affect the final temperament, including genetics and other experiences the puppy has from conception on. But all else being equal, socialization is a process over which we have a lot of control, and what we do in this period can make or break, or at least strengthen or weaken, the puppies we see brought into the world.

Very unfortunately, many breeders and veterinarians and others still tell puppy buyers “don’t take him out until he’s had all his shots.” “Had all his shots” translates to the last parvovirus vaccination at about 16 weeks… just after that window has finally slammed shut. It’s a truism… because it’s true. Way more dogs die each year of lack of socialization than from parvo. No matter how hard I try to convince clients of this, some still allow themselves to be scared by their veterinarian’s warnings. I have the greatest respect and sympathy for veterinary professionals, but sometimes I want to shake some of them and ask whether they know they are literally dooming a certain percentage of their puppy clients to death by scaring these dogs’ owners out of proper socialization.

Several years ago, a new client contacted me with a 14-week-old puppy who was showing significant aggression toward strange dogs and strange people. I met him and immediately arranged to have him and his owner seen by a veterinary behaviorist, who fit him in that week (instead of making them wait the usual 2 months). He was on medication by the end of that week and our training continued for months. I believe this fast action saved his life; he’s still alive and able to ignore scary strangers and I think he’d be dead without that response, or at least locked in the house forever, lonely and dangerous.

With my last puppy, I just put her on the ground and took her a lot of places starting at 7 weeks when she came home. We avoided very high-risk surfaces. But she’s a confident, socially appropriate, and generally fearless dog to this day. I would do it again.

Most of the time, when someone contacts me about a puppy, it’s because of an incipient behavior problem: Abnormal-seeming biting, growling, or fear. I always encourage them to make an appointment as soon as possible and when I get there, the first, third and fifth thing we talk about is socialization. I prescribe socialization activities appropriate to that puppy; if she’s scared, we talk about protected exposures at a safe distance. But when people want to know about teaching obedience skills, I tell them the truth. I can teach a 14 year old dog how sit, down, and stay on cue. Heck, I can housetrain a 5-year-old dog. But I can never, ever make up the behavioral and temperament deficits that will result if you don’t take this puppy out today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and let her see dogs and people of different sizes and shapes. We never get this time back. This is an emergency. I basically hijack their perceived agenda to make sure this happens.

I received one of these inquiries today, and it made me so anxious that I’m up at 1:00 in the morning writing this blog. I hope I hear back from the nice lady who so wants to do right by her 10 week old puppy.


In which I admit I am not too bright

(Note: I have added to this blog since it was originally posted, with some information that I forgot about the first time around.  The new material is mainly after the paragraphs about finding lost frisbees. It’s referred to in some of the discussion following as well.) 

I have written before about how I decided to stop doing nose work with Mellie. As I’ve moved on to working successfully with Big Barley (NW 1 under his belt, now trying to get into a NW 2 trial) and even starting Jad, I’ve had more time to process the long history of events in Mellie’s life which led to quitting. This makes a good cautionary tale, and I thought I’d share it because it might help other nose work handlers with dogs having “out of the box” difficulties (*snork*). It might help anyone having difficulties in any dog training process, because some of the take-home lessons generalize pretty big.

Mellie came out of the womb loving to tug. That’s one reason I chose her. She would, and still will, tug anything I tell her is a toy: a sock, a wristwatch strap, a wallet, a stick, a yogurt lid, a fork. And she likes to shred things that are easily shredded. To this day, she will shred open any plastic baggie that she finds, both because it might contain food (but honestly, I think she knows the empty ones are hopeless) and because they’re fun to dissect.  Early on, we liked to play “101 Things to Do With A Box.” Our version involved some shaping games, and one thing she learned was to bring me a large box, climb inside it, and close the flaps, ready to be mailed somewhere. She always loved to shred cardboard, as did Cedi, and I allowed it. It was a great outlet for Cedi (first title: Shredder Dog Excellent) and I had no problem with Mellie engaging in it too. The stuff was still recyclable, after all. Over time, she sometimes would seek out cardboard to shred – with vigor and abandon. She’d hold down the box and rip it madly with her teeth, having a grand time.

When Mellie was six months old, a friend and I joked about whose dog was smarter.  Farli was a very, very smart and well-trained adult dog with numerous performance titles and other achievements, so I was probably tempting fate with my humorous boasting.  However, in the moment, I started teaching her to find my keys.  She already had a cued retrieve of any object, so I had her retrieve my keys from a few feet away.  Then I put them further away in the same room; she brought them back and we played tug to reward her. (I have a little strap on my keys, which she could grip easily.)  Then I hid them in the same room, told her to find them and bring them; she did this; more tug. Then I had my friend restrain her while I hid them in another room, inside a dog crate.  She’d seen where I went, and when we released her to go find, she was back in about 15 seconds.  It was her first scent find, and her reward was to tug with me, using the keys.  We performed this parlor trick many times over the years, almost always ending up with a rousing game of tug-the-key-strap.

“Find it!” –> nose search –> retrieve source –> play tug!   

Mellie came out of the womb loving frisbees. Her breeder founded the Canadian Disc Dog Association and many of her relatives are disc champions of various types. She loved them from the start and was an adept catcher and fetcher within a few weeks as a roly-poly puppy. I bought a number of bite-resistant competition discs to use with her, as they lasted forever. They’re spendy, however, so I was careful not to let them get lost in the field by my house. This field was mown 2-3 times per summer, so the grass got deep between cuttings. The park dropped down a steep wooded bank to a creek, and Mellie would regularly run down there when she was thirsty for a drink. Because she has never concentrated urine well, she needed to drink often, and this meant that her Jawz discs ended up along the creek banks, functionally beyond my reach down the steep bank. So, I’d send her back.  “Go find it. Frisbee, go find it!”  And she did; we lost very few of those precious discs over the years. But at times, she didn’t want to run all the way back down into that ravine to find the disc. I don’t blame her; it wasn’t as fun as catching and fetching. She’d get frustrated, and her displacement  behavior was to start pulling grass. She’d put her head down and grab it and bite it and pull it. If I pressured her more, she’d pull more grass. I eventually worked out a way to finesse the situation, but meanwhile, I set her into a pattern, and the pattern was this:

“Find it!” —> frustration! —> displacement behavior of pulling grass frantically.  

Somewhere around this time, some brilliant trainers elsewhere were in the process of inventing Canine Nose Work. Of course, people and dogs have worked together with the power of the dog nose for probably millennia, but the nose work revolution has consisted of making it accessible for ordinary pet owners, outside of the competitive, purebred-focused rigors of obedience, tracking, or IPO. Eventually, inevitably, I got sucked in and I was sure that my brilliant, athletic, confident dog would love it.

And she did. The problem was the damned boxes. She would try to find the treats, and then the odor when we introduced it, and she would. But there were boxes.  Some boxes could be retrieved, and she automatically tried to retrieve those for a game of tug.  Also, boxes were fun to shred. I’d try to get her to refocus, not to retrieve, not to shred.  She would stop searching for odor, and she’d go into a frenzy of box destruction. It was often funny, and often frustrating for me.

OK, a lot of dogs have this issue.  A lot of dogs play with boxes, or stomp boxes, or at least just accidentally walk on the boxes which might annoy a judge or CO. And a lot of people saw my dog with boxes and decided she had one of these problems and wanted to help me fix it.

What they didn’t know, and I hadn’t fully realized, was that this wasn’t a problem of lack of odor obedience. Her odor obedience is great, always has been. I remember her searching odor at a flyball tournament and moving right past things like plastic bags containing food, the trash bag at our setup, treats loose in someone’s chair’s cupholder… only stopping when she found the birch. She could easily finish Elite level searches in mock trials. Her problem wasn’t odor obedience, or my body language, attitude, or handling skills (all can use work — none were the problem here).

It was that long ago, she’d learned that if I said “find it,” she could expect to play tug with that object.  And then she learned that when she couldn’t immediately find it, it helped her to start pulling grass frantically out of the ground. And if there wasn’t grass, but there was a box… well, she had lots of practice pulling on boxes, in exactly the same way. One paw to hold it down so she could get a really good mouthful and shred. Oh my girl. I did this to you, and I saw it so late. Even now, my eyes fill with tears when I write it down. Because of her huge heart, and her huge brain, she could stay on track if there was no obvious target for her frustration. But when there were boxes, that old pattern kicked in. And then she would be off and running with the glorious release of pulling and flinging and barking and biting! And yes, that did eclipse her odor obedience.

Understanding, finally, what happened, I’m taking her back to some occasional nose work classes, just for fun. I’ll just avoid containers. I have a dog to compete with.  Barley’s a much easier dog to handle (though a much harder dog to work in public, as he’s sensitive to strangers, dogs, and new places). It takes the pressure off Mellie, and she can enjoy just searching, doing something with me. She did two searches at the end of Jad’s class tonight and even that has helped her settle for a snooze on the sofa.

I’ve needed to apologize to every one of my dogs for something, usually more than one something, and this is near the top of the list of things I have to apologize to my beloved Mellie for.

If you’re looking for take-home lessons…


  1.  For the love of dog, don’t recycle cues you’ve used previously. I should have known better, but it just didn’t occur to me that this one had baggage. (Now that it is all written out, yes, I feel really, really stupid.) For nose work in general, if you use a day-to-day “find it” for picking up food off the kitchen floor, or even for fun find-mom games at home, I recommend that you use a brand-new cue when you start formal nose work training. It’s just safer. You can always combine them later if you’re sure it will work out. The same is probably true of recycling cues when starting any new sport. I’d err on the side of adding a new, precise, purposeful cue instead.
  2. Box problems in nose work are not always about boxes being fun. Always give some thought to whether you’re seeing a frustration/displacement behavior. Shredding stuff when frustrated is a time-honored, species-typical displacement behavior. If that’s what you’re getting, video a bunch and ask a good behavior person (not a nose work person) what they see.
  3. Even if your dog is a genius, you may still be making it too hard for them. I know I did this to Mellie at times during her life and I hope to spend the rest of her life with me making up to her for it.

She’s still a genius, though.


Mellie on the way home, 7 weeks, Vancouver airport.

Retiring Mellie

Mellie is now my oldest dog.  She turned 12 in June 2017.  Her mama lived to be 16, and she’s still in pretty good shape, despite three knee surgeries and some peculiar health issues.  Her frustration tolerance is receding a bit – that’s always been hard for her.  In theory she is still capable of actively training and competing in a sport, perhaps Rally or Nosework.  But I think we are done with that.

Our last sport was NACSW nose work.  Mellie never earned a title.  I regret this.  We had this problem with boxes.  Now, a lot of dogs have problems with boxes, but Mellie’s was worse than most.  It didn’t take much for her to quit searching for odor and start destroying the boxes.  This wasn’t an “aggressive alert” problem or a “box stomping” problem or even your basic discrimination problem.  It went farther than that.  And at every single practice match, ORT and trial we attended, someone had to try to be helpful and tell me that I “really need to work on that,” or told me they knew how to fix it — without realizing that this was probably a bit different, and worse, than whatever box problems they’d dealt with before.  I became exhausted with constantly fending off these sallies, whether they were well-intended or catty.  Mellie was frustrated, but I was really hurting.

Being 12 now, Mellie was around  before NACSW was.  And, I didn’t leap into nose work right away.  She was a happy flyball dog, and we dabbled in other sports (rally, obedience, herding, agility, and tricks).  So Mellie had a lot of life experiences before coming to nose work.  Included in these life experiences were:

  • Learning to find my keys by scent when she was six months old, bring them to me, and play tug with them as a reward.  She learned this in four repetitions, which knocked my socks off, and has been doing this for fun and as a parlor trick ever since.
  • Learning from older sister Cedi what fun it is to shred cardboard.  Mellie is a tug monster, and cardboard will do.  There’s also the part about shredding.  Mellie is a very “high” dog, the kind who tended to want to jump up and bite your arm when you were running agility, who needed a much better handler than me to be fast and clear enough for her.
  • Learning to go find the disc she had carried down to the creek while we played.  It was hard for me to get down that slope, and those discs were expensive.  But if I pressured her too hard to get the disc (found by memory and scent, I assume, following the cues “find it” and “get it”), she started demonstrating displacement behavior — pulling grass vigorously, and eating some of it.
  • Learning flyball, where arousal could handily be dealt with by running really fast and tugging really hard.

As a result, in her mind, “find it” was to be followed by tugging.  And frustration in “finding it” could be dealt with my pulling grass.  And cardboard was for shredding.  So it’s not really a surprise that box searches, for this easily-frustrated dog, ended up being about displacing right over into a frenzy of shredding and throwing and very high arousal.  It’s not surprising that this topped odor obedience in magnetism for her.

If I’d really thought about it, I guess, I might have anticipated some of this and changed her search cue.  I think that would have helped.  But I didn’t, because nothing seemed more natural than using her already nicely honed “find” command for this new situation.  This was my fault — of course — but it ended up creating a very difficult situation.

So we quit.  It was a hard decision, but I realized that every nose work event we attended, and some classes, were excruciating.  I’d come home in tears, morose.  And while I think Mellie liked a lot of it, I don’t know that she loved it enough to justify putting me through the misery it had become.

A couple of days ago, I was working with a client dog who’s scared of things moving under her feet — the car is the worst.  I tried having her get a treat out from under the edge of a cardboard box lid, and she couldn’t — she was too frightened.  In fact she wouldn’t touch the cardboard at all.  So I got Mellie out of the car and brought her up onto the lawn and got her playing tug with the cardboard.  We played tug-shred-fetch-destroy with chunks of cardboard while my client dog chased a ball around, and gradually noticed that apparently cardboard was a lot of fun, and gradually switched to shredding her own piece of cardboard quite happily.

Mellie’s a really fine assistant, and it was wonderful to be able to use her powers for good.

So what is your Border Collie NOT good at ..


I work with many herding breed dogs, and, not too surprisingly, there’s a pattern to the types of issues which crop up with these dogs.  Border collies and Aussies are very popular in the Pacific Northwest and are justly appreciated for the intelligence, trainability, owner-focus, and athleticism.  That doesn’t mean they are easy!  I think this article does a wonderful job of explaining the dichotomy.
I received kind permission to reprint this article from the Border Collie Trust GB website (  Copyright Sue Kinchin.

So what is your Border Collie NOT good at ….

If you have a Border Collie you have a very special dog; a dog that is intelligent, sensitive, eager to please and very quick to learn. Sounds like the perfect pet? Yes, with our help they can make wonderful pets, but we need to remember that when we take one of these very special and complex dogs into our homes we have a responsibility to try to understand all the factors that make a Border Collie what it is. The more we can understand our Border Collies the less likely it is that we, and our collie, will encounter serious problems. Border Collies have been bred for generations in a very specific and restricted environment for a very specific task and, as a breed, are relative new-comers to life as pets. Some cope very well and others struggle. It is our duty to try to understand these beautiful, clever creatures and to help them to cope.
We can easily find books that tell us what Border Collies have been bred for. We will be warned about their sensitivity to movement and tendency to chase things and about the fact that they need to have their brains occupied, but what we are not generally asked to think about are those characteristics that are not necessary in a working sheepdog, but which make life easier for a pet dog.
Anyone who has owned Border Collies will be aware that they are generally cautious dogs. Without intensive and sensitive socialisation as puppies they are often wary of people, intolerant of unfamiliar dogs and anxious about anything new or changing. Even with intensive socialisation some retain these characteristics. Border Collies are prone to being affected by a single bad experience and have poor “bounce back” when something goes wrong for them.
They are very sensitive to reprimands, but equally crave guidance and instruction. Because they are very sensitive to movement, any fast movement that they cannot control can be very disturbing to them. No wonder so many Border Collies hate traffic. Remember though, it is this sensitivity and intelligence that we find so appealing.
So why are they like this? Why can life upset them so easily? To understand our collies fully we need not only to consider what they have been bred for,.but also what they have not been bred for.
When a shepherd is selecting dogs to breed from he is selecting for a specific task and characteristics that do not interfere with this task are likely to be ignored.
Over the generations your Collie has NOT been bred to:
Cope with noise… Collies need to have very acute hearing to hear and interpret a shepherd’s signals at a great distance, but sheep farms are generally quiet places and their sensitive hearing does not cause them problems. Urban and domestic life bombards our dogs with noise and this can cause them extreme stress. Be aware of this and if necessary protect your dog from excessive noise. Speak quietly to your Collie, he doesn’t need you to shout at him.
Cope with change… sheep farms tend to be relatively unchanging places, there are sheep, the shepherd and his family, the barn where the dog sleeps and an odd tractor or car. Sheep dogs don’t generally need to cope with change. Every time our urban collie leaves home the street outside will probably have changed (new vehicles, new people, rubbish skips etc.). Just going out for a walk, even if the dog looks forward to his walk, can generate stress and we need to be aware of this and help him cope.
Cope with the presence of strangers/visitors or groups of people… Sheep farms tend to be isolated places. It is not necessary to be at ease with people to be a good working sheep dog. In a pet home our dogs are surrounded by many strange people in the street and visitors to the home. If you get your Collie as a puppy make sure he is sensitively socialised to people at an early age. If he is older respect the fact that he may find meeting strange people stressful.
Cope with the presence of strange dogs…… apart from the familiar dogs with similar characteristics that live on the farm with them, working sheepdogs are unlikely to need to mix with other dogs. As pet owners we expect them to meet a lot of strange dogs, many with appalling “dog manners”, and often with our dog on a lead so that it does not have the option of running away. Even if your collie does not react aggressively in these situations he could well be very stressed.
Many sheepdogs will never leave their farms so traditionally they haven’t really needed to get on with other dogs or unfamiliar people. Sociability and resilience are not characteristics that have historically been important in the development of the Border Collie. Although your dog may not be directly from working stock he will still have many of the characteristics inherited from generations of working sheep dogs and equally he may not have inherited those characteristics that would make life in a pet home easier for him.
Shepherds are the experts with Border Collies and we can learn a lot from them. Yes, we’ve all heard of harsh and callous shepherds, but many value their dogs very highly, not just as working dogs, but also as members of their family. Watch a sheepdog working, it is referring back to the shepherd for guidance all the time. His impulses to chase and control movement are under very tight control. The shepherd is guiding the dog and the dog is exhibiting self-control. Ideally this is how we want our collie to be with us. If he is checking in with us to find out what do next not only is he under control and less likely to get himself into trouble, but he is also getting reassurance from us. He doesn’t have to worry; we will tell him what to do in any situation. Encourage your dog to look to you for guidance; it shouldn’t be too hard, it’s in his genesl
Watch the shepherd to, he has to keep very calm and guide his dog at all times. You just don’t see excitable shepherds, an excitable shepherd would mean an excited dog and scattered sheep! Be a calm owner. Think about this if you are considering Agility or Flyball with your Collie, a good working sheep dog is fast and has lightning reflexes, but is not in a state of over-excitement. Teach your dog calmly what you want him to do. If he understands and is enjoying what he is doing he will do his best; after all he has been bred from generations of dogs selected for their willingness to work as a team with their handler. There is no need for your dog to be roused to a hysterical state for it to perform well, and it is bad for its mental and physical health to be in such a state. If your dog shows signs of stress or gets over-excited ask yourself is this is really the best activity for him.
A final thought… when a working sheepdog is not working alongside the shepherd he is shut away in a quiet, non-stimulating place to rest and recover and to keep him out of mischief! Importantly, adrenalin levels that have probably been quite high while he is working now have a chance to return to normal. Your sensitive, alert pet Collie is being bombarded with information from his environment all the time; make sure he has plenty of opportunity to rest in a secure, non-stimulating place where he can relax.
Think Border Collies, think working sheepdogs… maximise their strengths,
understand and respect their weaknesses.

A hierarchy of needs

My clients are good dog owners.  Their older dog is delightful: Healthy, happy, friendly and easy going.  The dogs get walks every day, play in the house and in the yard, attention and affection, clear rules clearly enforced, a good diet, and good vet care.  But the younger dog is not so happy.  He’s inclined to charge the front door aggressively, reacts with agitation and barking to dogs he sees on walks, and has lunged and nipped at people who approached to greet him.  My clients note that while he seems excited to go for a walk, his tail is tucked for most of the walk and he has never, not once since they adopted him over a year ago, urinated while out on a walk.  When he gets home, he rushes into the backyard to relieve himself.  But, they have worked hard to socialize him by taking him out, hanging out at cafes, and taking him to dog parks (until he got too aggressive there).  What’s going on?

Those who have studied psychology will have bumped into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Here’s a link to the Wikipedia article:

Now, I have never formally studied psychology, so I’m simplifying here and trying to avoid a level of detail I am not really qualified to discuss!

Maslow proposed that all people have universal needs, and that these needs must be met for an individual to grow and develop and eventually reach a state he called “self-actualization.” (If that phrase sounds familiar, this is where it came from.)  The hierarchy is represented in pyramid form, with the most basic needs at the bottom.  Here is Wikipedia’s graphic (

First and most basic needs are physiological: Food, water, shelter.  If these needs are not met, the person is forced to disregard the “higher” needs to make sure these basic physiological needs are met.  Next: Safety.  If the person has enough food and water, then safety is next; avoiding steep cliffs, angry mobs, and saber-tooth cats all rise in importance. For modern humans, financial security and some kind of safety net against dire happenings are parts of this level.  A sense of love and social belonging is next.  This is a real human need, but a person cannot afford to attend to it unless safe and fed.  Above this are esteem — the need to be esteemed and respected both by self and others.  At the very top, self-actualization is the need to fulfill one’s potential.  A lot of people never have a chance to make this journey because their lives are consumed with meeting basic needs such as food, safety, or some degree of financial security.

The Maslow hierarchy is widely accepted and used as a model of understanding people and helping them improve their lives.

What I’ve noticed is that we can apply a similar concept to dogs, and a lot of the problems my clients have with their dogs is that they are focusing on the higher levels without taking care of more fundamental needs.  Now, it would probably be a strain to try to wedge dog needs and experiences into the human-termed Maslow hierarchy, but it’s pretty easy to see similarities, especially at the base the pyramid.

That’s one way of looking at what’s gone wrong with my clients’ dog.  They have done a great job of meeting many of his needs.  He has food, water, shelter, security in his living situation, and good physical health.  They love him, he receives affection and play, and he has a good dog friend as well.  But what he does not have is a basic sense of physical safety.

The tucked tail is familiar — it tells us he is afraid on those walks.  The inability to eliminate on walks tells the same story; he’s just too vulnerable out there to stop and let down his guard while he pees or poops.  The increasing pattern through adolescence of defensive aggression suggests he has not been able to escape intrusion on his space by dogs or people.  While no one is out there beating him with a 2×4 or holding a gun to his head in exchange for his wallet… he feels about that scared when he is out and about.

His people had the information in front of them, but they know themselves to be good dog owners, and they also believe they have been doing the right thing by getting him out and socializing him.  This belief has obscured clear vision.  Once we identified what is actually happening, they could see it.  This (really charming) dog is now feeling better with greatly reduced walks and some basic training in coping skills.

I see this a lot: The dog is super well taken care of, but is scared.  And failure to meet this one primal need, for basic physical safety, is blocking everything else.  The owner says “he knows how to sit! He knows watch me! But he won’t do it when there’s another dog across the street!”  That’s because a socially cooperative activity like following a command is always going to take second place to trying to ensure monsters don’t kill you and eat you.  (Yes, we know intellectually that the chihuahua behind the fence is not actually going to kill and eat our fearful 80 lb Shepherd mix, but our Shepherd mix may still feel that way.)  Until we meet that need for a feeling of safety, there will be no easy response to obedience cues.

This brings us to one of the major flaws of some of the popular “dog psychology” dogmas.  The most damaging is this:  “If my dog recognizes me as pack leader, everything else will fall into place.  He won’t disobey or misbehave, because he knows I’m in charge.”  Listen — a wolf attacked by a bear, or a human, is going to fight, regardless of whether he is or is not an alpha, or lives in a pack with an alpha wolf, or respects that alpha wolf or is in constant conflict with that alpha wolf.  Social structure is not going to prevent him from engaging a direct external threat to his bodily safety.  Likewise, no matter how much your dog respects and trusts you, if someone is hitting him with a baseball bat, he’s probably going to fight back at some point.  And from your dog’s point of view, if he is afraid of men in parkas, he’s going to try to threaten men in parkas to make them go away because that’s a simply more fundamental need, in that moment, than obeying you, his questionable “pack leader.”

And here’s another situation where a hierarchy of needs can get us into trouble.  Food!  The need for food is even more basic than the need for safety.  Thus, a dog will put herself into danger to get food.  If she’s starving, she’s going to try breaking into a yard with a nasty yard dog patrolling to see if she can steal some of its food.  But since dogs are scavengers, they act as if they are always pretty desperately hungry, and that means even a happily plump dog will creep up to a scary stranger for an offered treat.  The imperative to obtain food overcomes the requirement to stay out of reach of those scary hands.  This is why I never want a scared dog offered treats by strangers; the dog will probably take the treats, but it will still be scared, and if the slightest little thing goes wrong, the dog is now close enough to bite.  (Slightest little thing could be the person talking or standing up, or worse, reaching for the pup’s head to pet “because now we’re friends.”)  It’s much easier to understand how this happens so often if we refer to a hierarchy of needs.

One final example of how disregarding this type of hierarchy gets us in trouble.  It’s this:  “Fluffy is very scared in the shelter, but all she needs is some love and she will blossom.”  I will leave it to readers to work out the flaw.

In the past, I’ve seen a proposed hierarchy of needs for dogs.  I can’t find it right now.  It would take some study to validate one for dogs.  But, the Maslow hierarchy can still provide some insight into knotty behavior problems.  Hope it helps.


The Internal Locus of Control

A few months ago, I saw a client who had a shy agility dog.  The client was a little stuck on application of Control Unleashed principles and I helped her get unstuck.  She’s making progress.  It was not a particularly dramatic case.  But I’ll always remember that consultation for what *I* learned.

This client is a psychologist who works at a prison.  As we discussed the training of impulse control, I shared with her my mantra:  I want the dog to control the dog.  She then told me about working with prisoners who were preparing to be released.  Many of these men (in the prison where my client works) have been in prison for a lot of their lives, and do not know how to handle the less structured environments on the outside.  They have to figure out when, where, and what to eat; they must appear for official meetings on their own, with no one coming to collect them at the appointed time; they must find a job and show up on time, repeatedly, on their own.  Even those determined to stay out of trouble have difficulty with this.  These gentleman tend to perceive their problems as being caused by others and themselves as powerless to change their situations.  My client told me she is working to build an internal locus of control in these prisoners, rather than letting them rely on the external locus of control (authority, constant rule enforcement) in the prison environment. Returning soldiers often struggle with the same issues, making their reentry even more challenging.

Ka-ching!  This, I realized, was exactly what I have been trying to teach my clients to teach their dogs for years.  Now I had a handy new vocabulary to help the owners understand.

I teach almost every client how to teach their dog better impulse control.  We start with some simple Zen exercises.  In these exercises, we’re asking the dog to choose to sit still and look at the owner (or handler) to earn a treat, rather than staring at or licking a hand holding food.  The key here is to say nothing.  We make it easy for the dog to figure out the right answer, and reward him for each successful response.

Owners are often puzzled.  “My dog already knows Watch Me” they say.  “We learned Leave It” in class.  Why are we doing this?

The answer is the internal locus of control.  The dog has learned (to some degree) to follow a command.  Some dogs are very good at this, indeed, and it’s easy to see why the owner may be miffed at the insinuation that he’s failed to train the dog or that the dog is anything other than brilliant.  But — as I immediately explain — this isn’t a failure of previous training or learning ability.  It’s a whole new skill.

Yes, dogs need to learn how to follow at least a few critical commands.  Every dog should understand Come, Stay, and Leave It.  Those are lifesavers.  But there are many other behaviors I hope dogs learn to perform automatically.  Automatically means “cued by the environment or the context.”  If your leash is attached, that should be the cue to walk nearby and keep the leash loose without the owner having to command it.  If you are greeting a person, that should be a cue to sit and hold the sit for the duration of the greeting, without being told “off!” “down!” or even “sit.”  For behavior modification purposes, I’m often trying to teach a dog to look briefly at the trigger and then back at the handler… without being told.  The difference is the internal locus of control.  It gives the dog power to control his own agitated responses.  It gives the owner a break from having to helicopter around the dog and constantly cue the desired behavior.  It is peaceful and calming.

Some dogs do this on their own.  Some need help.  That is what I do.

Picking a dog

At last count, you could find 12,772,630 posts on the interwebs on how to pick a new dog.  There are posts and tools to help you choose a breed, a breeder, a rescue or shelter, and a new puppy.  Some of the information is good; some of it is idiotic.  Most of it is too long and involved, and allows people to get hung up on relatively unimportant details, missing the forest for the trees. I think about this topic a lot.  First, I’ve picked dogs of my own.  A couple just sort of landed on me, while the others I chose carefully. And I did a pretty darn good job with the last dog I chose deliberately.  I found a good breeder who worked well with me, and she helped me choose a great dog who suits me.  (This is Mellie, for those who follow along closely.) But more important, I offer my clients the service of helping to find a breeder, a litter, a breed, a puppy or adult dog, from various sources.  I’ve evaluated dogs in shelters; I’ve evaluated entire litters; I’ve interviewed breeders.  Breeds have varied.  Many of the clients seeking help are those who have recently experienced a traumatic loss of a behaviorally troubled dog and who don’t trust their own judgment any more, so I’m under great pressure to identify the best chances at a great temperament.  The stakes are high.  I’ve come up with some shortcuts that can really help with the search. Here they are:

  1. Carefully research and take seriously all the bad, unpleasant information you can find on a breed you are considering.  
  2. If you are getting a dog from a breeder, only buy from a breeder who promises in a written contract to take the dog back at any time in its life, for any reason.  
  3. If you are getting a dog from a shelter, rescue or private owner other than a breeder, hire a good behavior consultant to help you assess before you commit.  
  4. If you can meet the dog’s parents, choose a dog whose parents are warm, relaxed and friendly with strangers, including you, and including the dam while her litter is present.  

Of course there is no such thing as a short answer that is also complete.  (There’s no such thing as a long answer that is also complete, really.)  There are other questions one should ask; these may depend on the breed, your plans for your dogs, whether the dog is in rescue or with a breeder, the dog’s age, and so on.  But these steps will hugely reduce the number of bad matches, and they should happen very early in the process.  Here’s discussion:

Focus on the bad about the breed.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?  But the time to do this is before you actually choose a breed.  If you are trying to identify a breed, identify breeds that you are considering or attract you.  Then go read everything bad you can find online about that breed.  Specifically look at rescue sites.  Search google for “[breed name] problems.”  Talk to people who own dogs of that breed and ask them to tell you the two, three or four worst things about that breed.  Now, ask yourself if you could live with a dog who exhibited these problems.  There is one special caveat about this, which is at the end of this section.

I will admit that this is a little like reading all the warnings on any medication insert. It can be daunting. They pretty much all have the risk of death, coma, and seizures, if something goes wrong enough.  Likewise, any dog of any breed can become aggressive to dogs or people, develop severe separation anxiety, etc.  So we are looking for common themes; behavior problems that can be hard to avoid, or are at least not uncommon, especially with an inexperienced owner or in certain lines.

The worst fairly common problems with Border Collies are things like intense chasing of cars, bikes, kids, etc.; fearfulness and noise-phobias; dog is easily bored and may do awful things when bored, so lots of training time and mental stimulation is a must.  If you have a kid and live in a noisy neighborhood full of skateboarders, you’d want to be a very dedicated and experienced herding breed owner to take on these challenges.  Now, what about American Staffordshire Terriers? These dogs tend to be people friendly, bouncy and active when young, relatively easy to train and less likely to outsmart you, but there is a higher risk of severe aggression toward other dogs.  If you have other dogs in the house, or plan to do any kind of dog activity in close proximity with other dogs, or are frail and easily injured if you fall down, this may not be the right breed for you.

These are just examples.  You will see trends about the type and severity of problems that can occur, which differ from breed to breed.  This is important information. The main point is:  If you see the same information repeatedly on lists of problems with a breed, take it seriously!  Do not allow yourself to be convinced that it is all in how you raise them (it is not, and I would be thrilled never to hear these words again).  It is very easy to fall prey to confirmation bias when you are researching breeds.  You have a positive impression of the breed and will start to automatically tune out information that contradicts what you feel.  Resist this.  Pretend you’re a lawyer taking apart a witness on cross examination.  Think critically!

Here is the caveat:  Pit bulls.  It is nauseatingly easy to find information online insisting that pit bulls are killing machines who will eat your children for breakfast.  The truth is far more complicated.  There are millions of dogs referred to as “pit bulls” in this country.  Some are American Pit Bull Terriers (bred and registered).  Some are American Staffordshire Terriers (same).  Some are what I might call “street pits,” which have the look of, and similar ancestry to, APBTs or AmStaffs, but are not registered, do not have pedigrees, might be mixed with all sorts of other breeds, etc.  This makes for less predictability in looks and behavior; and a number of other “bully breeds” that are related to “real pit bulls” in various ways and in varying degrees.  These include American Bullies, American Bulldogs, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers.  These breeds and types do vary, from each other and within the type or breed.  None of them is bred for human directed aggression, but some of them are very poorly bred.  The motor pattern common to all these breeds is a very powerful grab/hold and/or grab/shake behavior which can be extremely damaging.  Thus, if your bully-type breed dog were to go after a person, either because of lousy training and treatment or because of genetic factors (or both, most likely), he may do a lot of damage.  Doing breed-specific research on these guys, especially “street pits,” is virtually useless.  My advice?  Try to pick a dog whose parents you can meet, and who are friendly and relaxed with you and other human strangers, or who is at least 2.5-3 years old, and who is friendly and relaxed with you and other human strangers.  And don’t be an idiot by assuming this dog is especially good with children. Use normal precautions.

Breeders who take dogs back

I figure this one will tend to select for, if not guarantee, breeders who are careful about the health of their breeding stock, the behavior, and the number of litters they produce.  If they know they will have to take some dogs back, they are not going to be as careless about producing really sick or miserable or dangerous dogs.  Sure, there are breeders whose contracts specify the dog must come back to them and then don’t honor it. Things can change, and some people lie.  There is no perfect system.  But investigating this will yield a whole lot of information about how seriously the breeder stands by her dogs, and therefore, how hard she is trying to create puppies who will be loved in their homes, not costing their owners an arm and a leg in medical bills, so that they will stay.

Here is what does not qualify:

  • An oral commitment to take the dog back.  It’s not that oral contracts are unenforceable, but they are much harder to enforce in court and it’s much easier for a party to weasel about the exact terms.
  • Any commitment to replace the dog with another puppy in lieu of taking the dog back.
  • Any commitment to pay you money in lieu of taking a dog back.  (Some breeders will take a dog back, or refund your purchase price, or pay for medical care of genetic issues, or provide another puppy, and this is fine, if you have the choice.

But only the commitment to actually take the dog back puts enough pressure on the breeder to breed very, very carefully.) Sticking to this rule also helps put a lot of market pressure on breeders who are making dumb genetic decisions and worsening the health of dogs overall.  It may never affect your puppy, but it will affect the larger population of dogs and their health.  It’s just a good idea overall.

Hire a behavior consultant to pick a dog other than from a breeder

This probably sounds like a “full employment for Greta” kind of recommendation.  But it’s not.  This one comes from long, hard experience.  Even people who are pretty good at picking puppies in low-stress environments (e.g. breeder’s home) make terrible decisions in shelters.

First, it’s hard not to be overcome by compassion and pity, and you may make an emotional decision.  This is often not a good decision.  It will be a better world when shelters and rescues can all do a really good job of assessing temperament and not offering for adoption dogs who are likely to be miserable, dangerous, unable to bond, and so on.  But so far, many shelters are rescues either do not know how or refuse to protect adopters from their own ignorance and emotional responses.

Second, shelters, even good ones, are extremely stressful environments for dogs.  You will see behavior in shelters that is not typical for dogs.  Now, everyone is aware that dogs who are doing a lot of jumping and barking may not be so highly aroused once settled into a home, and may be willing to give that dog a break.

But the other side of the coin has ambushed so many of my clients that I now thing everyone really should have an experienced second pair of eyes on any candidate for adoption.  This other side of the coin is “shelter shutdown.”  Some dogs who are more fearful will simply shut down in the shelter.  They don’t do much of anything.  They just sit there.  Our normal human interpretation of this is: “This dog is so calm.  She’s not reactive to people.  She’s not barking at other dogs. I’m sure she’d be just a darling enjoying some petting while we sit in the living room drinking tea.”  More often than not, though, these dogs are afraid and have gone into a “freeze” response to threat.  Once the threat predictably lifts, and they have been in a lovely home for a few weeks or a few months, though, you will see the rest of the dog.  You may see terror. You may see extreme predation.  You may see resource guarding, an ingrained tendency to chase, hatred of men with hats, and so on.  These problems can be severe, and they can be totally masked in the shelter.

Less commonly, in shelter, dogs who have zero real social interest in humans can also appear very calm, and these dogs are not good pets.  Whether they are perfectly happy to aggress to get their away or handle threat, or are just completely detached, they do not have the ability to become loving companions.  And how awful to be in the position, six months later, of euthanizing a dog who is not dangerous, but has no use for you and no relationship with you?  This doesn’t seem to be common, but it’s a risk and these dogs tend to show as “calm” in the shelter.

Not uncommonly, dogs who seem very friendly and affiliative in the shelter are very affiliative… and also have separation anxiety.  There is some data suggesting that separation anxiety is overrepresented in the shelter environment.  Whether this is a cause or effect (or both) is not really known, but in any case, a dog who is wiggling all over you in the shelter may be a dog who will destroy your oak front door in two days of being left in the house, once he’s settled in. Unfortunately, these are very hard for even a good behavior consultant to spot, but there can be clues you would miss and your helpful consultant will notice.  I think this risk is generally lower in dogs who are fostered (shelter or rescue) since the SA will show up if the dog is fostered for any length of time.  Even then, however, there are a few dogs who are OK if there’s another dog in the house (as in virtually every foster home), but not if left totally alone, and they can slip through the cracks.

Finally, although I hope that the breeder you associate with is great at matching, you might want to hire a behavior consultant to help you pick a puppy or assess the litter.  Most breeders are quite happy to accommodate this, in my experience, and if they’re not, I’d consider it a red flag.  This is important if you have very specific needs (sports competitor, service dog candidate, etc.), since a lot of specific traits are needed, specific problems must be avoided, and the signs can be more subtle.  Someone just looking for a nice family dog may be able to weed out the shyest and the most overactive on their own.

Friendly parents

We don’t always have the opportunity to meet a dog or puppy’s parents, mostly if we are adopting an adult dog — especially one of unknown parentage.  But if you have that opportunity, take it.  It’s good to meet dad.  Dad provides 50% of the genes.  You’d like to see a healthy dad, and preferably one who’s had the requisite health tests for the breed and so on.  You’d like to see a dog who’s friendly and relaxed with strangers.

If it’s an “aloof” breed, make sure what you are seeing is “aloof,” not actually fearful or aggressive.  Don’t let a breeder tell you that a growl, spooky barking, or cringing and hiding qualify as aloof.  Aloofness means not rushing to greet, and calmly sizing someone up for a few minutes before greeting politely.  More important is the temperament of your potential dog’s mother. Not only does she also contribute half the genes, but her behavior around her baby puppies tells and teaches the puppy a great deal about the world.  If she is afraid or defensive when people come to see her babies, her babies are learning that people are scary and threatening — while they are at their very most impressionable, from the most important being in their world.  Same if they react badly to dogs approaching. If the breeder says she doesn’t want you to meet the dam, that is a huge red flag.  If the litter is in rescue, the same rules apply.

Unfortunately, a lot of litters in rescue come from less than optimal circumstances, and some of those mothers are feral or nearly so; terrified of people, defensive, and also chronically stressed.  The pups may be undernourished and they have certainly already learned the world is a scary place. These puppies have so many strikes against them that I could not in good conscience recommend adopting one.  However, if the mom is friendly and welcoming to all and seems healthy and nourished, things can still work out all right.

It’s often impossible to bring a strange dog in to meet a litter, but sometimes it can happen. The last time I assessed a litter, after checking with the breeder, I let my dog out of the car and allowed her to run right up to the pups’ kennel.  The mom calmly acknowledged my dog.  The pups ran over to sniff her nose.  No one was alarmed, upset, or afraid. That’s what I want to see!  This breeder had done a good job (and the pup I picked for my traumatized clients is doing wonderfully, and is quite bulletproof).

I know some rescue/shelter activists will be angered by my cautionary comments over adopting a puppy from rescue.  Many of them are unaware of the severe disadvantage these pups are at.  But puppies are not blank slates, and there are numerous factors (genetics, prenatal environment including nutrition and stress hormones, postnatal nutrition and stress hormones via milk, behavior of dam, treatment by other dogs and people, and so on) which can set the stage very, very early.  This is another blog post, but for purposes of picking a puppy, I would think long and hard before adopting a puppy from a stressed, undernourished, and/or unsocial/fearful/aggressive dam.  Cute does not cut it.  Love does not fix it. So there you are, the short version and the long explanations.

You’ll notice a bunch of stuff I didn’t put on my list and you may be confused or outraged.  Some of it (health testing, early puppy socialization, etc.) will tend to be covered by some of my broader recommendations.  Plus, if you get a puppy at 8 weeks, you have another 6-8 weeks to do proper socialization, so a breeder’s or foster’s failure to do what I would do is not a deal killer.  I specifically will always leave out the following:

  • Puppy is a purebred. Nothing about pure breeding guarantees health or good temperament or good breeding practices.  Judge those on their own merits, without trying to use “purebred” as a proxy.”
  • Puppy is AKC registered.  See above.  This gets you nothing except the ability to show in AKC conformation or certain other events.  If you care about those, you can still use information in this article.  Most people don’t care and shouldn’t care.  Unless you are playing squash on an indoor floor, you do not need crosstraining shoes with nonmarking soles.  This is the equivalent.  You really only need AKC registration if you have a specific need for it, and if you do, you already know that.  Otherwise it’s worthless.
  • Breed/conformation champion parents or grandparents.  This can feel glamorous, but it tells you little to nothing about your future dog’s health, behavior, or aptitudes.  This is another huge discussion, but for all practical purposes, it is irrelevant for the vast majority of dog owners.
  • Other stuff I’m sure people will attempt to call me on and will be outraged by the omission of from my list.  I’ll try to respond individually to respectful posts.  I will respond once the first time an issue is raised, and then I’ll be done, so if you don’t get a response to your question, please read the comments.

Thanks for reading.