Getting rubbed the wrong way

I rarely get involved into discussions but this morning I got “rubbed the wrong way”. Those are actually the words my counter part used in the conversation I had with her this morning.

Facebook and Dog Goups

This morning a post about a woman wanting to re-home her dog due to house training issues popped up in my newsfeed. There may have been more issues going on but it appeared in her first post that house training was definitely an issue. Many judgmental comments followed the post. Not many could validate her decision and indirectly accused her of being a not so good person. I’m pretty sure you have seen those posts as well. Feeling sorry and being in an ever helpful mode I offer my services for free. A phone conversation and setting up a training plan for house training is not going to kill me or my business. I was hoping to help. Maybe today was one of those days I could help make a difference in a person’s world.

Well Meant Advice

Another woman stepped up to offer her help as well. It seemed like the posts were getting more positive. What caught my eye was the information she was providing.  It started with “I have heard….  And Dogs are den animals and … when put in crates they generally adapt very well.” Providing advice about dog training is one of those often discussed topics we professional trainers have. Well meant advice can turn into situations that often cause the behavior to become worse. The individual went on offering behavioral advice saying she is not a “trained behaviorist” but felt she had an “innate guidance about doggies” since she was a little girl.

Animal Behaviorists

Animal behaviorists “study the way animals behave and try to determine what causes certain types of behavior and what factors can prompt behavior change. They usually specialize in certain types of animals, whether it’s fish, birds, large animals, wild animals, livestock or household pets. They also may focus on certain types of behavior, such as hunting, mating, or raising offspring.” Behaviorists are highly educated academic individuals who have spent years studying animal behavior. Behaviorists often stay in the academic setting to continue their research in animal behavior. Some work for businesses or veterinary clinics.

Not even I can call myself an animal or pet behaviorist as I do not have the academic background to call myself that. I am allowed to call myself a dog trainer and dog behavior consultant. Why? I have had years of formal training and hands on experience working with dogs on various levels. Still there are cases I will not take. I refer them to other professionals I feel are more capable of handling them due to their specialization or years of experience.

Back to Facebook and the re-homing thread. I respond on my iPad to the post. I caution the individual not to offer advice in a field she is not trained in no matter how well her intend is. My post was expectantly not taken well. Engaging her full defense mechanism she defended her statements and blamed me for being territorial, afraid of her trying to steal my business and degrading the profession of dog trainer by saying you need no certification to potty train a dog. She thanked me cynically for slapping her on her wrists. Although not intended I guess it was one. Not for the sake of business but for the sake of avoiding individuals providing professional advice on a questionable level.

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Gut instinct does not make you a dog professional no matter how comfortable and knowledgeable you feel. Even if in your heart you believe you are providing the best advice possible to the person seeking help think twice before providing it.

Dog training consists of the knowledge of how dogs learn. Do you know the two ways of how dogs learn? Do you know the stages of learning? Do you know when to apply operant or classical conditioning? What kind of operant conditioning? Should I reinforce or punish a behavior? Do I want the behavior to increase or decrease? When do I use rewards? How do I reinforce? What about timing issues? Am I going too fast or too slow in training? My dog is not responding to the training. Motivation problems? Rate problems? Are you prompting correctly?  If these questions seem like a foreign language to you then you should reconsider your dog training abilities because providing dog training advice means you should have some kind of knowledge of these terms. You can waive them off as dog training jargons, which they are, but they provide the professionals among us to do our jobs without using explanations. It is professional dog training language. Language we don’t use with clients but language that helps us do our job.

House Training Case

Back to our case: A three year old dog is not house trained and causing the family a lot of grief. They feel their only option is to re-home the dog into a home that has more time for this dog and the possibility to tackle the issue. Other issues are unknown at this time. The dog has not been crate trained. That is all the information we have. I would most likely ask her to see her vet first to exclude any medical issues. If those are excluded I would set up a training plan. We start with the wanted end behavior and build up a plan from there. What advice would you give in such a situation? Tell them that the dog is 3 years old and should be able to hold it at least 8 hours? Crate them all day? Any training comes with an incremental plan. A step by step guidance on what to do. What if you get stuck? What if the dog still eliminates even though you have stuck to the plan? What if the dog doesn’t respond well to the crate training? “What if …” A trainer provides you with an appropriate answer. Adjusting the plan, splitting the step where you got stuck and helping you to take your dog one step further into ensuring your dog becomes house trained.

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Good Advice or Bad Advice?

When it comes to dog training and behavior ask a professional. One that has the qualification. Getting the advice of one that has not been educated in the matter will provide you questionable advice. It could be good or bad either way. Just because people have had dogs all their lives doesn’t make them knowledgeable in the field. They may have picked up things here and there, gone through some training and thus feeling content about dog behavior. How correct is their knowledge? Don’t wait to find out and possibly cause more damage to your dog. It is not worth it. If you do take the suggestions of unqualified individuals then be prepared to deal with the consequences. Dog Parks inhabit many so called “dog professionals” with all different answers to one question.

Which professional?

Stay away from professionals with no formal training. If you don’t see any accreditation or education in the “About” part of a business web site then rest assure it is a self-proclaimed dog professional. No education means they are basing their own experience, whatever they have picked up here and there and mingle it together into a whole new “dog training and behavior” guide. A vet is not a dog trainer nor is a Vet Tech unless they have gone through some specific training. They are qualified within their field of education even though they deal with dogs on a daily basis. I don’t do their job and they shouldn’t do mine. If they do ask them for the qualification in dog training and behavior.

What can Dog Connect do for me?

Dog Connect is a group of dog lovers. We have individuals in this group on every single level. From first time dog owner to highly educated professional. If you have a question please just ask. We may provide you with insight, helpful links or refer you to a professional in your area.

Nathalie Mosbach is the owner of Beyond Companions LLC. K9Consultant, The Dog Hikers and pawDOGraphy are a few of her successful businesses. 

Getting rubbed the wrong way

Training Troubleshooting Series, Part 1: Consistency

Saying that dog training is complex is like saying life is unpredictable. It’s a massive understatement that is of little use to anyone in the midst of teaching a dog a “sit” from a “down.” Training involves communicating with a different species that speaks a different language. Training involves teaching dogs how to behave – not always according to rules that make sense in our dogs’ minds, but according to rules that make sense in our minds. Often, despite research and consultation with others, training hits obstacles – and this is often when clients call my colleagues and I for help.

Although it can be incredibly frustrating when training techniques fail to change behavior, it doesn’t mean the training is a failure. Tweaks in timing, mechanics, and procedure are sometimes all that’s needed for a successful outcome.

Over the next several blog posts, I will focus on ways to make your training more effective and how to troubleshoot the difficult spots. This week’s post will focus on a topic that is critical to any type of behavior modification program: Consistency.

Pat Miller, a noted positive dog trainer, summarized the importance of consistency in the Whole Dog Journal, writing, “…consistent responses to a dog’s behaviors, both desirable and undesirable, are predictable for the dog, which helps him make sense of his world and feel safe. A dog whose world is orderly and safe is usually calmer, more relaxed, predictable, and better-behaved than one whose world is chaotic and intimidating. Dogs and owners who perceive each other as safe, predictable, and well-behaved, tend to enjoy a better mutual relationship.”

When teaching a dog any new behavior, be it a simple obedience command or reverting a deeply entrenched phobia, repetition and consistent communication are key. Continue reading “Training Troubleshooting Series, Part 1: Consistency”

Training Troubleshooting Series, Part 1: Consistency

At what point?

I recently had to euthanize my 5 and a half year old dog because I was no longer able to manage his aggression issues. I reached my breaking point when he attacked and almost killed our cat, a cat he had lived with for over 4 years. It was one of the most difficult and heart breaking decisions of my life. In between waves of grief, I find myself struggling to make some sense of it all and keep asking myself, “At what point should I have known I was incapable of “fixing” my dog?” Here is my story. I hope that by sharing it, it might help someone else.

Prior to adopting my dog, I had experienced the heart ache of having to euthanize 2 foster dogs because of aggression. I have to admit, I always suspected there was something in their pasts that made them aggressive. I didn’t believe every dog with issues was abused, but did believe they were under socialized, neglected or subjected to aversive methods of training. And, I held their previous owners responsible for either causing or at least, not having worked on, their dog’s issues. I was fairly certain, it was the aggression issues that must have driven them to surrender their dog to a shelter, not the excuses written on the surrender form (had to move, didn’t have time, etc.). I believe it was because of the pain I felt in euthanizing these dogs and my beliefs about aggression in dogs that made me so determined to keep my dog from this terrible fate.

I adopted my boy when he was 4 and ½ months old from a local shelter. He had shown severe food resource guarding in his behavioral exam at 3 months old when he was surrendered. He was responding to the “trade up/exchange” exercises, so the staff felt, that in experienced hands, he was adoptable. As a volunteer at the shelter, with a quiet adult home, I seemed like a good candidate. He was an extraordinarily smart little puppy, food motivated and eager to please. The 6 weeks in the shelter had limited his social development, but he seemed to have held up reasonably well, and I had worked with him at the shelter with good results, so my husband and I took him home.

The first month was quite a shock. Prior to bringing our new puppy home, we had lost our 15 year old dog to illness. It had been a long time since we had a puppy and the energy level of our new guy was something we had never experienced before. Our best guess was that he was a mix of Border collie and field lab. If he could have reached the ceiling he would have been tap dancing on it. He was tap dancing on everything else. After a few weeks of multiple daily walks, training practice and play sessions, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with him so I enrolled him in a reputable daycare. This was in addition to formal training classes, daily walks, play sessions, and play dates with my daughter’s 3 year old dog.

The exercises from the “Mine” booklet were going well. I had also discovered that he had body handling issues with his feet, ears and mouth, so I was working on that, in addition to the resource guarding. I took him with me to pet store outings and everywhere dogs were welcome. Things seemed to be going well until about the age of 7 months when he lunged at a woman in a pet store as she walked by. I was stunned, but dismissed it. Then, it happened again in the lobby of the dog day care, then again while on a walk through our neighborhood and again, at the vet’s office when the receptionist made eye contact with him. It seemed random though because he was all wiggles and happy with most people and the daycare owners dismissed it too. I never identified a predictable pattern or cause.

At about the same time, he had started barking and urinating when people he didn’t know came into our house. I decided to bring in a professional at that point to work on what appeared to me to be fear aggression. I learned several new techniques utilizing desensitization, counter conditioning and incompatible behaviors. I was able to find an introduction process that worked well in the house, but it was the beginning of a life of management that became more and more limiting for all of us. He was kicked out of daycare when he was about a year old because he was “tipping” (his play was turning into fights) and he was showing a lot of barrier frustration at fence lines. He was also becoming very leash reactive on our walks.

After he was kicked out of daycare, I found myself needing to find new ways to meet my dog’s high energy needs. With his issues with strangers in our home, and the extreme leash reactivity, I tried to do it on my own, but became exhausted after a few months. I enrolled us in a reactive rover class. I was still taking other classes in dog sports and obedience, including tracking to work his mind as well as his body. We were never able to take the walls down in the reactive rover class, and I spent a lot of the other class time behind a barrier, but I did learn some techniques to better manage him. More importantly, I met a training assistant who lived in my neighborhood, who was willing to walk my dog at noon a few days a week, and pet sit for us so we could go on vacation. He continued to have regular play dates with his best friend, my daughter’s dog.

We had always had cats in the home and I was fostering kittens as well. The kittens were kept in separate rooms, but a foster failure joined our animal family when our dog was about a year and a half old. There were always other animals in the house; cats, foster dogs, my daughter’s dog. Our dog generally ignored the other animals, but every now and then our most social cat would approach him when he was eating or chewing on a nylon bone and he would curl his lip. I kept up with the resource guarding exercises, and he did not have issues with his food bowl, toys, beds, etc. with people, but he did go after the cat once when it approached him while he was eating. So, I started working on that too, but generally gave him space to eat and supervised time with his nylon chew bones. Over time, the cat could walk through the room while he ate and nylon bones could be left unattended on the floor. Beyond the one time he went after the cat, he had never shown aggression to our other animals.

And, so it went. I would take a class; engage a professional for help as new issues arose, including a specialist in dog aggression issues when our grandchildren entered the picture. Our dog would seem to get better about one issue or I would figure out how to manage it, but then a new issue would arise, like barking hysterically at animals on the TV, eventually even cartoon animals, or an old behavior would emerge, like lunging and barking at a random person walking down the street. He would get used to a dog and walk by peacefully, but then get hysterical at any new dog. I was never successful with counter conditioning/desensitization in a general way. To add to his fearful view of the world, he was attacked by loose dogs on a few occasions, which set us back for several months at a time. At about 3 years old, he turned the tables on these encounters and would grab the approaching dog by the top of the head and not release until the other dog was in the hands of his owner. I was concerned, but felt his behavior was reasonable as he had never injured the other dogs or redirected at me.

At some point, I just started walking him very early in the morning because it was less stressful. The protocol for introducing people who came to the home worked, but had to be repeated every visit unless it was a very frequent visitor and we invited fewer and fewer people into our house as the years went by. We kept windows shuttered closed so he wouldn’t bark at dogs and people walking by. We stopped watching TV shows with animals and kept the remote close so we could pause or fast forward in the event an animal appeared in a commercial. My husband and I would both jump when we went to the movies whenever there were animals on the screen; we had been so conditioned to our dog’s reactivity. Our lives kept getting more and more limited.

I never used aversive methods or equipment. I kept up on his training and I literally *never* went a day without taking him for a long walk and play session, even when I was sick. I took every precaution I could think of to protect him from negative experiences and to protect others from him. He had taken more training classes than any dog we had ever had. He lived and slept in our house with us and was never unsupervised outdoors. He was never left alone for more than a 6 or 7 hour stretch, and that was rare. He was a beautiful, smart, devoted dog and all I could see when I looked at him was that adorable puppy face. I made regular mental lists of all his good qualities and convinced myself he was getting better despite the growing list of limitations. It was devastating and traumatic the evening I turned around to see him growling and snarling like a wild animal with our beloved cat’s head in his mouth. I am happy to say our cat survived but he suffered serious injuries including deep puncture wounds near his eyes that almost blinded him.

I don’t know if someone else could have achieved a better result with my dog. I just knew as I looked into my cat’s and dog’s faces, I wasn’t capable of doing more than I had done and it still wasn’t enough. I don’t know if dogs suffer from mental illnesses or genetic defects that drive them to behave in unpredictable ways or at least, in ways that are incompatible with a household like ours. I am not trying to offer excuses to people who aren’t willing to try to work through issues with their companion animals. There are techniques that work. But, like me, as a society we are quick to judge people who have dogs with aggression issues and blame them.

I am not trying to indict the shelter, the trainers, the consultants or anyone else who tried to help me. I blame myself for not protecting my cat. I am not suggesting that shelter or rescue dogs are any more likely to have issues than dogs from breeders. I do wonder if some of us who are involved in rescue work don’t become blind to systemic limitations either in the dog or the people trying to help the dog. I don’t have an answer, because as I look back, I still can’t answer the question for myself; at what point should I have known I was over my head, faced the reality of who my dog was and acknowledged that he was a ticking time bomb in my home.

I offer my story in the hopes that it will result in more compassion for the people who find themselves in a situation like mine and compassion for the animals that can’t help how they see the world. I offer it to people who work at shelters, rescue groups, trainers and breeders, and ask that they try to be objective and honest at the most difficult times. In a strange way, I consider myself lucky. My cat survived and I was able to be there, with love, and hold my dog in his last moments. It could have been much worse.


Written by our guest blogger Cynthia Hiatt. Longtime shelter volunteer, foster and animal rescuer who has worked on the rehabilitation of many dogs, including her own dogs.

At what point?

Consequences: Does the punishment fit the crime?

Originally posted on

Photo provided by cdk under Flickr commons license.

Photo provided by cdk under Flickr creative commons license.

Last week, I discussed the role antecedents play in dog training, specifically when it comes to working with fearful dogs. The week before, I discussed the foundations of fear in dogs, and what happens to a dog when fear takes hold. Today, I’ll bring the topic full-circle by discussing what happens immediately after a behavior or event:  the consequence.

Technically speaking, the ABCs in dog training (antecedents-behaviors-consequences) are called the “three-term contigency.” In dog training terms, a consequence is an event that happens immediately after a specific behavior. We give our dogs consequences all the time, sometimes unintentionally. Common punishment consequences include time-outs, and withholding of treats or playtime until the dog performs a specific behavior. Common reward consequences include treats for sits, down-stays and tricks.

As discussed the first article in this series, dealing with emotions in dogs requires a different methodology than what we typically use in obedience training. When a dog experiences a powerful emotion like fear, everything else goes by the wayside. Nothing else matters. This doesn’t mean that consequences aren’t relevant. On the contrary, consequences are intricately linked to whether a dog’s fear strengthens over time.

Dogs are excellent at telling time. Animal behaviorist Pamela J. Reid explains this topic brilliantly in her book Excel-erated Learning writing, “The delay between the response and the punisher greatly influences the degree of learning …The ‘wait until your father gets home’ approach to punishment is not effective.” In this example, Reid is referring to the delivery of punishers in obedience training. However, the same concept can be applied to treating fear in dogs. Think about how you felt as a child when you were afraid. Would someone saying, “Wait till your father comes home, and we’ll give you a hug” work? Probably not.

Similarly, comforting a dog minutes, even seconds after the onset of the fear stimulus (science-speak for the scary thing) is less effective. Why? Because the dog will not necessarily connect the consequence with the scary thing.  With poor timing, the dog will experience a scary thing and then experience a treat as separate events. What we want the dog to think is: A scary thing occurred but immediately led to a good thing, and over time, each time that I encounter that scary thing a good thing happens. If done correctly, the scary thing starts to feel less ominous for the dog.   Continue reading “Consequences: Does the punishment fit the crime?”

Consequences: Does the punishment fit the crime?

Fear: When nothing else matters

worried earl
Fear is a powerful emotion in dogs, and is at the root of a variety of behavior problems.

I have a keen interest in fear and anxiety. Working in the mental health field prior to becoming a dog trainer, I saw and experienced firsthand how paralyzing the symptoms of these conditions can be. Most recently, I have adopted a senior dog from Muttville Senior Dog Rescue who suffers from separation anxiety, so I see how his intense fear of being left alone renders him unable to cope with even the shortest of absences.

When dealing with a dog that is afraid, it’s easy to feel lost as to how to help. After all, we can’t give psychotherapy to our dogs, and the behaviors dogs exhibit when they are afraid can make them behave differently than we are accustomed to seeing. Although medication can assist fear-based behaviors, it is unlikely to fix the problem if not accompanied by behavioral intervention.

A favorite quote of mine regarding fear and dog training is from animal behaviorist Jean Donaldson. In her curriculum for her dog training students, she emphasizes, “When a dog is afraid, nothing else matters.” A powerful and radical statement, to be sure. Often, dog training becomes so focused on obedience and statements that start with “He should do this” or “He should know better,” that a dog’s emotional state gets overlooked.

So what’s the “nothing else” Jean is talking about? Often, dogs who are experiencing fear don’t want food. They could care less about their owner telling them to sit, go down or stay. They may start to display aggressive behaviors that aren’t present at other times. They are unable to cope and paralyzed by one thing: fear.  Continue reading “Fear: When nothing else matters”

Fear: When nothing else matters

High-Value Treats: What does this mean?

Maureen’s foster, Earl, is a great treat connoisseur.

Originally posted at Mutt About Town

It starts like an old vaudeville joke. A dog walks into a bar, and his owner says, “Sit.” The dog, staring at his owner, replies, “Why should I?” Depending on your answer, the situation could also end like an old vaudeville joke.

If you’ve read any literature on positive reinforcement or reward-based training, you’ve likely come across the phrase “high-value treats.” But what exactly do trainers mean when they say this, and why is this phrase so important when it comes to training and communicating with your dog? The key to answering these questions is one word: motivation.

The answer to “Why?”

“Dogs do what work.” It’s a common phrase used among trainers. I learned it from animal behaviorist Jean Donaldson and have been using it nonstop since. Essentially, it means dogs perform behaviors based on the consequences of that particular behavior. While we would all love to think dogs are overjoyed to “behave” because of innate devotion to their owners, the fact is, praise and love often isn’t motivating enough. Continue reading “High-Value Treats: What does this mean?”

High-Value Treats: What does this mean?

Help pets affected by Hurricane Sandy

Photo courtesy Will Marlow, under creative commons license

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, I’ve compiled the following resources for those who want to help in the rescue of pets affected by the storm. If I’ve failed to include a resource, please add it in the comments section or on our Facebook group.

*As an aside, I realize that not everyone will agree with the policies of some of the organizations listed below. However, in the spirit of saving animals’ lives, I’ve decided to put policies and politics aside in order to help as many affected pets as possible.

UPDATE: A list of local emergency pet shelters in affected states. 

– The American Kennel Club and AKC Companion Animal Recovery operates a call center that reunites owners with their lost pets during natural disasters. You can make a donation specifically for those affected by Hurricane Sandy here. You can also report a lost pet by calling their hotline at 1-800-252-7894.

– The Humane Society operates a disaster relief fund and is currently on the ground assisting in the relief efforts on the East Coast. You can donate directly here. Workers are chronicling their efforts on the organization’s website. You can also text ANIMALS to 20222 to donate $10 to the HUSUS Disaster Relief Fund.

– Use the hashtag #sandypets when tweeting anything pet-related about Hurricane Sandy.

– PetSmart Charities is dispatching water rescue teams, including six emergency relief vehicles, across the East Coast to distribute supplies like food, leashes and toys. You can make a donation online or by calling 1-800-423-PETS.

– The ASPCA is accepting donations to assist animals and shelters affected by the storm. You can donate online and learn more about their efforts here. They also accept donations by phone at 1-800-628-0028.

– This helpful article lists all pet-friendly evacuation centers in affected states.

– Red Rover, an organization that delivers care to animals in crisis, has set up a disaster relief fund. You can donate online, as well as locate pet-friendly hotels and other accommodations for evacuees and displaced families, here.

– The North Shore Animal League is operating a large rescue effort. You can read more and find out how to help here.

I will continue to update this post as more information comes in.

– Maureen Backman

Help pets affected by Hurricane Sandy