Using Your Dog’s Powers for Good (and maybe even something useful!)

One of my dogs, Vesper, is half German shepherd. One of the prominent breed characteristics of the German shepherd dog is “loyalty,” which most people assume means they’re obedient and trustworthy. My read of “loyalty” means German shepherd dogs always want their long snouts all up in your business, and they watch you like a hawk in case you’re about to do anything that might involve them–which is pretty much everything. This makes them pretty darn good candidates for service dogs of many types, and you’ll see quite a few GSD guide dogs, mobility dogs, and psych service dogs.

My German shepherd cross isn’t a service dog, but she really, really wants to help. Her other cross-breed is Australian kelpie, another working breed, and as a result she’s very smart, driven, and willing. The flip side of that? If I don’t give her something to do, she’ll figure something out on her own. When dogs get creative, people are very rarely pleased with the solutions!

While Vesper isn’t a service dog, I’ve accidentally taught her some tricks that are either extremely useful, or look like service dog tasks. Because she loves helping out, these tasks are highly rewarding to her. I rarely reward her for doing them with anything but praise and scratches on her chest, but she does the jobs with enthusiasm and speed. I didn’t expect any of these behaviors to come in handy, but taught them all as tricks; Vesper’s love of being useful simply shined through. They became some of her favorite things to do, and as a result I can ask for them pretty much any time I need them.

Go Find Your Kong: Vesper loves interactive food toys. When she was young she got all her kibble out of this or this. She figured out that if she picked up the food toy and threw it, the kibble came out faster. This was fine for the most part, but if there was one final piece of kibble in the toy that she couldn’t get she would throw that food toy for hours, determined to solve the puzzle. Eventually I taught her that if the food was hopelessly stuck or if her toy was empty, she could trade the empty toy for a treat, I would even open the toy up and give her what was stuck in there, too. Because Vesper is smart, she figured, hey, if this food toy is worth a cookie, then I bet all of them are, right? She began bringing me any food toy she could find, and after a while it became a ritual. I put a verbal cue on finding and bringing me her food toys, and she would search the house for them and bring what she found to me in the kitchen so I could clean it and put it away.

I don’t feed kibble anymore, but that just means we use Kongs and Toppls regularly. They get chased under furniture, left in crates or out on the deck… and since I fill them with fresh-made dog food or raw meat, they need to be cleaned after every use. But all I have to do is stand in the kitchen and ask Vesper to “find your Kong” and she’ll hunt until she’s positive they’re all picked up. Meanwhile I’m doing the dishes or making coffee.

How useful is that? I love how this came out of a negotiation between me and my overenthusiastic dog. Instead of taking away a toy that she was banging into furniture and walls, I asked her to trade with me. Because she’s smart and willing, it turned into an extremely useful behavior that I ask for at least once every day.

Can You Get That For Me?: Vesper was a little nuts when she was a puppy. Busy is a good word for it–she never stopped moving and never stopped thinking. I did a ton of tricks with her to keep her mind busy so that she wouldn’t eat my house or burst out of a plate-glass window. One of the things we worked on was learning how to pick up all sorts of different objects. Again, I shaped this just for fun, as something to keep my puppy’s brain busy. Dogs don’t naturally like to pick up just anything; they have preferences, and some objects are hard to pick up. We worked on all sorts of stuff, including delicate things that she needed not to damage and slippery things that she would have to try pretty hard not to drop. She liked this game a LOT and got quite good at it. As a result, Vesper is happy to pick up pretty much anything I ask.

And sometimes even if I don’t ask.

The first time I dropped my keys as we were getting ready to go to agility class and she picked them up and handed them to me, I was stunned. We had been working a lot on picking up small objects that week, so she just saw it as part of the game we had been playing anyway. But my hands were full and we were in a hurry and it was actually helpful to have my dog pick up my keys from the floor and hand them to me. Woah! And she was so pleased with herself!

Now she does it all the time. If I drop the cap to my water bottle, I don’t stop to bend over. “Vesper, can you get that?” She’s usually following me around the house anyway, so she’s happy to comply. She picks up dropped shopping lists and jumps into the bushes by the front door when I lose my clicker over the deck railing.

Put That Away, Please?: Vesper was obsessed with socks as a puppy. They smelled like feet! They were soft and chewy! You could shake them until they were dead! It was cute at first, but I knew that some sock-loving dogs ended up in surgery to remove socks that were blocking their intestines. I didn’t want to end up there.

So I taught V that socks paid good money. If she picked one up, I praised her and we ran to the cookie jar. She started hunting for socks to bring them to me so she could get paid. If I folded a basket of laundry and didn’t put it away, I would slowly stack each folded pair of socks next to the cookie jar as Vesper stole them from the basket to trade them in.

Eventually I got tired of moving socks from the kitchen to the hamper. If Vesper liked this game so much, let her do the work.

So when she brought me dirty socks, I would praise her, get out a cookie, and lead her to the hamper. At first she dropped the socks next to the hamper–hey, her aim was as good as my ex-husband’s! But after a while she figured out how to flip them up and into the hamper, and then she didn’t need me to lead her there anymore. She could bank socks in the laundry hamper and come to me for a biscuit.

Now at night I hand Vesper my socks and tell her to put them away for me. She takes them one at a time to the hamper, doing a slow wag the whole way there, and comes back to get her eyes and ears rubbed in thanks.

What I find interesting about all these behaviors is that they weren’t intentionally trained. They mostly started as ways to accommodate troublesome behaviors that Vesper already offered. She found the behaviors rewarding (or else she wouldn’t have done them!) so asking her to simply not do them would be hard for a young dog with impulse control issues. Instead we turned the impulse into something else, and the results were pretty excellent.

As caretakers of animals we tend to think about our dogs’ behaviors on our terms. Do I like this behavior? Is this annoying? Is this dangerous? I found success with Vesper because instead of shutting down the behavior, I found a way to negotiate with her.

It’s hard to train “no.” When you say “don’t do that,” the dog’s path is blocked. They look for another way forward–and often, their solutions aren’t what we expect or desire.

When we instead say, “hey, try this instead,” the dog is immediately offered a path forward that we’ve already planned and approved. And if the “instead” still includes some aspect of the behavior they enjoy, even better! They get to use their preferences for good instead of evil, and everyone wins.

Since Vesper loves helping out so much, I’ve started teaching her a few other useful tasks. She’s working on bringing me my slippers, opening and closing drawers, and putting recycling in the bin (it’s even got a foot-pedal she has to work). She treats these tricks like jobs, and seems so much more satisfied by them. Like I said, everyone wins!


He’s Not Stubborn, You’re Just Worthless

In a dog daycare setting, you see other people’s pets at their naughtiest. Mom and dad aren’t there to enforce the rules, and “everyone else is doing it” tends to apply; once one dog starts digging a hole, suddenly everyone is digging. One barking dog gets everyone barking. (Not that there’s much wrong with digging or barking–these are normal dog behaviors that I would redirect instead of outright squash.)

stubborn-beagle-stubborn-dog-featureBut a lot of these urban pets lack manners on top of that.

These dogs’ people have a lot of reasons for this. “She’s bossy,” or “he’s too excited all the time.” Or, the most common one: “He’s just really stubborn!”

Here’s a super amazing secret: this has nothing to do with the dog. Any one of those dogs could have excellent manners very easily, and it has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with them, at all.

You, their person, just aren’t worth very much.

Dogs are highly sensitive. They are bombarded by a million stimuli  that we do not notice. They can hear things and smell things from, literally in some cases, a mile away. They can hear what is happening underground and smell the frustration on your breath. There is so. Much. Happening. in their world.

So you bring your dog outside and she starts sniffing, because that’s how dogs do, and also down the street someone’s barking inside the house, and also on the next block someone is using a leaf blower, and there’s a soccer game at the school a half mile away. But you need to get your keys out, so you tell her to sit.

Does she ignore you?

Have you practiced sit inside with lots of rewards? With fewer rewards? With no rewards? Did you go back to using lots of rewards while you introduced mild distractions, like the presence of cookies loose on the countertop nearby? Did you fade out using lots of rewards in that circumstance? Did you work up to working with cookies on the floor? Tossing a ball while she’s in a sit? While your cat eats on the floor next to her? Did you then take that whole game outside and start from the beginning? Because that’s how you make that “sit” valuable and easily doable for your dog in lots of different environments.

Have you done that work?


Then whose fault is it that she doesn’t immediately sit? I don’t think it’s because she’s stubborn.

I think it’s because listening to you is a job that’s too hard on a way-too-low pay grade. You haven’t made that sit–and working with you–valuable enough to your dog.

This sounds like a lot of work, but it isn’t. All of those steps above, in bold? You can go through those in a few weeks to a few months, in five-minute increments, depending on you and your dog.

Beyond the Backyard by Denise Fenzi is a great place to start. I’m going to be teaching a class on this curriculum at Four Paw Sports this summer, so stay tuned.

What is Dog Parkour Good For?

When I started doing Dog Parkour I thought of it as a second-rate fill-in for the agility it was replacing in my reactive kelpie mix’s life. I was hurt and depressed by her early retirement, and anxious that my dog’s aggression would severely limit her opportunities to explore the world. We needed something physically demanding to train for to keep her fit.

I honestly didn’t think that we would enjoy Parkour very much.

But something happened. Practicing Parkour–a sport that requires you to use your environment interactively–meant me and my dog-aggressive, reactive girl were leaving the house together for long stretches of time and working in public places, where other people and even dogs were moving through the environment. And instead of this overwhelming my dog and turning her into a lunging, barking mess, it focused her. Jumping, balancing, turning and watching my cues gave her something else to do instead of worry about where the other dogs were. She was focused on me and her job in a way she never was when I asked her to sit or down or watch me in the presence of another dog.

I found that I really enjoyed the clarity of criteria, despite how diverse Parkour obstacles necessarily are. Teaching a verbal discrimination for a 2-on versus a 4-on was a shaping session that my dog and I both enjoyed more than I thought we would. My girl loves moving her body, so learning to go under an obstacle–a big physical movement–was a joy to her. And teaching her to wait on obstacles was incredibly valuable in general. Now when we go hiking, she often offers to wait as I climb down a steep part of the trail, and when I’m down the difficult stretch I can release her from the wait or show her the easiest path down. That’s not something I trained intentionally, but it’s a great and useful skill to have if you spend a lot of time in the woods with your dogs!

Reactive dogs are often limited in where they’re taken and what they’re asked to do. Their handlers are afraid their dogs will get upset, freak out, scream and melt down and become unmanageable, or maybe even try to bite someone. So we fall into a routine that’s safe, and we don’t challenge our dogs or push them to grow out of their reactivity. As a result the reactivity only gets worse.

This is a rule: reactivity never gets better on its own. Never, ever.

Even though my dog’s recent turn towards aggression made me never want to take her near another dog again, here we were out in the world doing high 4-ons and wall walks and rebounds. She was happy in the presence of her triggers, and I was learning to trust her again after the trauma of a serious dog fight.

Agility never relaxed my dog. If anything, the presence of agility equipment pushed her over the top and made her more unpredictable.

But after working together in a Parkour outing–and we really do work together far better at this than we ever did in agility, as I’m spotting her, helping her find the obstacles and get down from high places and she’s learned to wait for my feedback–she is physically and mentally tired, her body language is loose and calm, she’s alert and happy, and she and I can sit out in public watching the world go by. She lays by my feet, observing but with none of her normal need to control or interrogate or do something busy with her mouth or feet or nose. She is, unbelievably, relaxed in public.

That is what Parkour has given me. My hyperaware, sensitive, controlling, reactive, dog-aggressive girl, laying at my feet in public, completely relaxed and happy.

If you’re interested in learning more about Dog Parkour, I’m helping bring the founders of the International Dog Parkour Association to Lynnwood, WA June 2-4 for an introductory working Dog Parkour seminar. Pricing is really reasonable!

Why I Have No Dominant Dogs

I’ll start this off by saying I don’t have a lot of use for “pack theory” or the TV-popularized dominance-based training. Sure, it may seem to work–on some dogs, I’m sure it does produce a desired result. But here are two indisputable facts:

1: Pack theory/dominance-based dog training methods are based on scientific studies of captive wolfpacks that have since been proven to be bad models of how wolves actually live in the wild. At the time the studies were done, there were no wild wolfpacks in the US. We have wild wolfpacks now. They don’t behave in this rigid, Alpha-Omega, conflict-based structure. So the science behind the theory is bad.

2: Behavioral theory shows us how all creatures pattern and learn, and while fear and pain (which dominance-based dog training methods rely upon) do teach living beings very quickly, there are far more humane ways that are just as effective and don’t have the same negative behavioral side effects.

Why rely on bad science and bad feelings? TV and some experts will tell you it works, but here is a third fact:

3: Anyone can claim they are a dog trainer as there is no governing organization, although there are

This dog is learning so much.

This dog is learning so much.

voluntary certification boards. And there are far more bad-to-mediocre dog trainers out there than good ones. That guy on TV isn’t certified or governed by anyone but his ratings.

So anyway, this is all to say that I don’t think about pack hierarchy at all at home.

I don’t demand my dogs’ respect. I plan to earn it through building a history of reinforcement–showing the dog that I am consistent in my requests and offering rewards for certain behaviors. I show dogs that I’m a behavior puzzle that doles out cookies, snuggles and games, and if they give me the right behaviors I’m full of unending fun and love. My dogs defer to me entirely because of this: Momma knows what’s going on, she’s got the cookie pocket, she knows the best games, so we’re gonna come when she calls and hold a down-stay at the door when the pizza guy shows up.

I’m not the Alpha. I’ve never thought about myself as a pack leader. Wild wolfpacks are made up of related dogs, led by a mother and father. I’m not the gang leader, I’m the parent. I’m here to guide, not push people around.

You may think, well, maybe you ended up with really soft dogs, so this was easy. They were looking for someone else to be in charge and you fit the bill. It would be different if you had a really hard-headed dog.

That is absolutely not the case with Vesper.

Vesper loves people, but she loves everything. She is enthusiastic about the world to a level that has caused us a lot of trouble. She’s reactive, dog-aggressive, and has an incredible prey drive and the physical prowess to catch and harm pretty much anything smaller than her. When I met her in rescue, the woman who’d taken her out of a Yakima shelter told me I would need a prong collar and probably an e-collar (a shock collar) to keep her under control. I’d need to show her her place in the world, which was below me, in deference.

I nodded and smiled and the moment I got that dog in the car the prong collar came off. I threw it out. From that moment Vesper was on a program of relationship-building with me: Momma is more interesting and more fun than anything else in the world. It’s been a ton of work, but we have an amazing connection. She has a great deal of impulse control for a dog who started with none at all, and her trust in me is absolute. She’s a remarkable dog.

And the puppy?

Reckless is worse. He tests limits. If you give him an inch, he’s immediately a mile away. He’s pushy! He’s the sort of dog that would get physically corrected by a dominance trainer again and again–but the thing is, Reckless is very sensitive. If you manhandle him, you lose his trust. If he ended up with dominance trainers, Reck would be terrified of them.

The relationship would be one of fear and compulsion, heartbreak and confusion. I love you, this otherwise-endlessly cheerful puppy would say, I don’t want you to hurt or scare me. But I’m not sure what you want!

As for pack hierarchy within my dogs, well, two dogs is hardly a pack, so there’s no real structure there. Dogs do figure out who’s in charge if there are enough of them around, and defer to the stronger personalities in the group, but it’s a fluid structure that changes circumstantially. This is true of people, too.

I’d assumed that Vesper would need a soft personality to cohabit with peacefully, but she loves her pushy little brother. They’re never in conflict, as resources are pretty thick on the ground in our house, and so it doesn’t matter who’s Alpha or Beta or Delta or whatever. They’re just siblings. They don’t really care. They jaw-wrestle and curl up together when it’s cold, and occasionally get jealous of my attention or the raw bone the other dog has and grumble at each other. And then they work it out quickly and move on.

A dominance theory-based trainer might have looked at either of my dogs and said, oh, that dog thinks they’re the leader of the pack. I counter that: those dogs were idiots. They didn’t know who they were yet. They needed parenting, basically. It’s the difference between raising someone in a military academy and in a loving, consistent home. Who’s going to have the better balance? Who’s going to have more confidence, a better sense of themselves, a deeper bond with those around them?

So when you look for a trainer, my advice is this: avoid anyone who uses the phrases “balance training,” “pack leader,” “alpha,” or refers excessively to pack behavior or talks a lot about dominance. It’s almost never the real issue between people and dogs (which, if you’d like reading on that, I can supply), it’s based on bad science, and it’s just plain unkind.

You’re a kind and scientific-minded person. You can do better.

Rewarding Your Dog for Nothing

One of the first things you’ll be taught in most puppy or dog training classes is the philosophy that Nothing In Life Is Free. This is a simple distillation of one of the most basic rules of behavioral theory: behavior that’s rewarded is likely to increase, and behavior that’s not rewarded is likely to go away. You need to use all the things your dog or puppy wants–food, attention, a game of fetch–to as rewards to help them understand what YOU want. It’s pretty simple. Most people seem to try to follow the rule, even if it’s just asking Boomer to sit for her bowl of kibble.

It’s well established in my house that my dogs have to ask politely for everything, from affection to another throw of the ball. I thought this was good dog training, helping two high-drive working dogs learn self control and passable manners.

So it was surprising that one of the biggest breakthroughs in my own skill as a trainer was when I learned to reward my dog for nothing.

Vesper is a kinetic dog. She is either a body or mind in motion (sometimes both, though not always) until she is sleeping, and even then she’s back in a snap if you need her. Slow and careful have never been big in her repertoire–she’d much rather throw herself at a problem until she’s smashed it to bits.

Because of this, I’ve had a difficult time teaching her behaviors that require holding still. She can learn all kinds of complicated stuff as long as it involves moving as fast as she can, but if I ask her to go a mark and stop there, or to just sit and look at me, her mind starts going: “…what? This? This is all you want? You probably want me to do something more than this. Let me try something else. How about this paw? Do you want this paw? Do you want me to pick them both up at once? How about a back paw? Bow? Sit up? No? What do you want? Barking? How about I bark at you for a while OKAY BARKING NOW.”

I’ve recently decided to learn some formal obedience, since I don’t have much experience in it. I’ve said loudly before that Vesper will never be an obedience dog. She’s the opposite of an obedience dog. I’d recommend you do obedience with a partially-trained velociraptor first, actually. So of course I thought it would be a fun challenge to enroll V in an online obedience class–and not a cheap one, either.

At the same time, our veterinary behaviorist suggested I try teaching one of Dr. Karen Overall’s behavioral protocols to Vesper. It’s deceptively simple–you just watch your dog, and when you see their nostril flaring, indicating that they’re breathing in deeply, you click and give them a treat. The idea is the dog will eventually learn to start taking more longer, deeper breaths, and naturally become more physically relaxed. You’re learning how to reward your dog for slowing down, for a bodily function, for NOT doing something: basically, for doing nothing at all.

Hey, it works for me in yoga, I thought. Why not.

The first couple of times I tried, there was a lot of barking. There was crazy-eyed staring and offering of paws and performing of unasked-for tricks. But eventually I got a click in when I saw her draw a big breath (in between bouts of barking), and with a little patience I got another one in, and after about the third, she stared at me and took a another big breath right away.

It wasn’t all that easy. We moved forward and backward, but something about that concept, that she could be rewarded for just taking a breath, really blew my dog’s mind. She didn’t always have to be doing something. Sometimes she could just breathe.

And something about the process of waiting for it, breathing deeply myself, waiting for her to fill her lungs, gave me peace and patience to wait out all her frantic behavior. We got to a place where we could sit with a clicker and breathe together, no shrieking, no smashing things, no punching. This is woo-woo hippie nonsense at its absolute finest.

I found that, immediately, all of the demanding, precise obedience work that I thought Vesper could never do? Suddenly she could do it. She could hold a dumbbell in her mouth for seconds and stare at me in the eyes without chomping it, throwing it into the next room, dropping it into my toes (all things we’ve suffered through together, my poor patient toes). She could watch me for longer and longer without marching in place like she was about to shoot out of heel position and into the stratosphere. We’ve finished learning tricks we started literally years ago, but got stuck on, because I didn’t have the skill and she didn’t have the patience or precision to do the last little bit that would make them perfect.

And all from learning to reward my dog for doing nothing.

Is Your Dog Going To Explode?

622638cf8fbd02fea6b5f64f1c1c0c1fOlder puppies–and a lot of adult dogs, too–have so much energy sometimes it seems like they might burst. It’s hard to imagine they’ll ever fit in with a world that asks them to behave with quiet dignity, especially if you want to preserve their joyful attitude. Good news—it can be done! With some patience, the right mindset and some useful games, you and your crazy pup can work together instead of against each other.


My class at Four Paw Sports teaches impulse control games, recalls, and how to engage your dog. Ever heard “your dog needs a job?” Don’t despair–you don’t need to go out and buy a herd of sheep! We’ll come up with jobs your dog can do in the real world, like tricks and urban agility. This class will also give you plenty of ideas to keep your dog busy on those rainy days when you think you’ll both go a little crazy.


This class is appropriate for exuberant puppies over six months and any dog-and-person combo that need help figuring out what to do with excess enthusiasm. Scroll to the bottom of this page and click on Wild Thing! or email me at for more info!

The Difference Between Dog Trainers and Everyone Else

There’s one big difference I’ve noticed between “pet folks” and people who are serious about dog training.

No, it’s not that our dogs are well behaved. Dog trainers, pro and hobby both, struggle with the same behavioral problems everyone else does. (And sometimes we get all new ones–my 35lb puppy, for example, is completely convinced the coffee table is his personal napping platform and that he should be allowed to climb wherever our cats climb.)

The difference is in how we set goals.

When I talk to people about their pets’ behavior and what they want to work on, I usually get a list of a some big items and a few smaller frustrations sprinkled in, with something like “I want him to be less crazy in the house” or “I wish he wouldn’t act like such a jerk on our walks.”

Those could be goals, yes, but they’re vague ones. What does “less crazy” look like? What do non-jerk dogs do on their walks?

Dog trainers almost always have a specific goal; more often, they have a series of interconnected goals on the path to something else. It’s not only that we are always always working on something with our dogs. It’s that we lay out a path out toward where we want to go. And if we don’t know the next step–and I’ve been here with my reactive dog many times!–we ask for guidance as to where to head next.

Behavior is never static. You teach your dog a sit, and it’s perfect. Your dog has the best sit on the block! So you don’t bother to practice for a while, and then you ask your dog to sit… and he’s forgotten what that means.

Dog trainers set goals because we know this. If you’re not moving forward, you’re slowly losing all that good work you’ve done to forgetfulness, lack of practice, and bad manners that creep in when we aren’t paying attention to what we’re reinforcing for our dogs.

So how do you, as someone with a dog in your home but no aspirations towards obedience ribbons or national titles, keep from sliding into the vague goal of “I just want a good dog”?

Well, what does a good dog look like, in your book? Everyone has different criteria, so what’s yours? Does a Good Dog bring you your slippers in the morning, or is it just that she doesn’t growl at the pizza delivery guy?

If you end up with a “good dog” that only DOESN’T do things–doesn’t get into the trash, doesn’t bark at visitors, doesn’t beg at dinner–you need to do some switching in your brain. Instead of saying “I don’t want her to bark at guests,” think of what you want instead: “I want her to lay on her dog bed when we have visitors.” And then you break that behavior down: how do you teach her to love her bed so much she’ll go lay there when there are strangers in the house? Does she know how to go lay down on her bed and relax when you ask her to? Is her bed located in the right place for your dog–say, somewhere out of the way but still in sight if she barks because she’s nervous, or in the middle of the living room where you sit with your guests to watch the game if she barks because she loves visitors? Have you slowly increased her ability to go to her bed in more and more exciting circumstances? Have you made it worth her while to play this game with you, whenever you ask her to?

Try it: set one small, specific goal for your dog this month. Maybe “I want Chief to leave everyone’s appetizer plates alone at our New Year’s party,” or “I want Boomer to be relaxed around my niece and nephew over the holidays.” Break it down into what the end behavior looks like, and baby steps you might be able to take toward that end behavior.

Once you start thinking like a dog trainer, that “good dog” end goal goes from being something vague and maybe even impossible to a series of steps toward a goal. And that feels a lot more reasonable, doesn’t it?